My Pop Life #180 : Boya Ye – M’bilia Bel

Boya Ye   –   M’bilia Bel

liputa nyonso epasuki eeh

I bought this beauty as a 12″ single in 1986 at Stern’s African Music Shop in Whitfield St W1, just north of Fitzroy Square, and just below Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop on the corner of Warren St.  Opposite Stern’s was the Diwan-E-Khas restaurant which served the finest North Indian food in London back in the 80s, alongside their sister restaurant the Diwan-E-Am in Drummond Street, behind Euston about half a mile away.  (see My Pop Life #136 )
The counter at Sterns Records in the mid-80s
You can just about see a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on that picture in the corner (top left).  They also stocked zouk and calypso from the Caribbean and other bits and pieces.  The shop had opened in 1983 with a little ceremony on the pavement involving drums and blessings.  The vibe in the shop was outstanding, and so was the selection of music.  The first time -or apparently the 2nd (Fela Kuti !) –  I went in there was to find the Franco & TPOK Jazz LP ’20eme Anniversaire’ which I’d heard whilst buying weed in Islington one night and had my little musical ears blown off  (See My Pop Life #38 )  Since that auspicious purchase I had returned for further Congolese magic : Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Tout Choc, Zaiko Langa Langa, more Franco, always more Franco, Papa Wemba, a wonderful Gabonese singer called Regine Feline and this wonderful single from M’bilia Bel fronting Franco’s rival camp of Tabu Ley.  The now-familiar cascade of overlapping guitar cadences and rumba polyrhythms led by a simply joyous lead vocalist who had been discovered singing with Sam Mangwana by bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, who along with Franco was one of the giants of Congolese music.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
He’d written a song for her Eswi Yo Wapi, recorded it with his mighty band Orchestre Afrisa International, it became a smash hit, they’d got married and her next dozen singles dominated the musical and dance landscape not just of the Congo, but the whole of Africa for the next 10+ years, and loosened Franco’s grip on the musical landscape.  She was hugely popular.
This album – released on the Sterns label – documents these years superbly : they are all classic african pop/dance tunes that the rest of Africa calls “DRC Music” – dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Which is almost funny because Congo hasn’t been democratic since Patrice Lumumba the first president after independence was arrested, tortured and killed by a combination of familiar forces (MI6, CIA, Belgian troops) in 1961.    Without going into detail, the history of Congo since then has been one of corruption and arms-length control by foreign companies who have stripped the nation of its huge mineral wealth – particularly the southern state of Katanga which produces cobalt, tin, copper, uranium and diamonds, and where Lumumba was executed after 84 days in office.   Torn apart by war and conflict, other states have become involved especially in the eastern provinces alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with different forces representing somewhat shadowy interests fighting the Congolese Army and each other, including smaller private groups such as The Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda all crossing the border with impunity, terrorising the locals and raping the women as a weapon and tactic of war.
The prize is coltan, from which is extracted tantalum, used in most electronic components and devices including mobile phones.  During the war with Rwanda in the 1990s, Rwanda became a leading exporter of coltan, stolen from mines in Eastern Congo.  Competing militias funded their operations with this prized mineral, and who knows who took what percentage to turn a blind eye to the rape both of the land and the people.
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Ruined in 2010
In 2009 Jenny was offered the lead in a play set in this part of the world : Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined, at the Almeida Theatre.  The play is set in a brothel in the war-zone near Goma, in the Eastern Congo.  This establishment is run by Mama Nadi, a fierce madam who takes in “ruined” local women to service the various militias who come through the territory. It is an extraordinary play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn just before rehearsal started.
Indhu Rubasingham in rehearsal for Ruined at The Almeida
The director was Indhu Rubasingham who had already directed Jenny in Lynn’s earlier work Fabulation at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2005/6.  So the team were reunited and set to work on this dynamic story, by turns dramatic, raw, amusing, tragic and inspiring.  It bears witness to some of the worst crimes in modern history and a series of stories buried, where women’s bodies mirror the nation they stand in, ravaged, fought over, ruined.   Mama Nadi was an extraordinary part for Jenny and she ate it up with great relish, much pain, and real commitment.  At some point before they started I remembered M’bilia Bel the great Kinshasa diva and dug out the 12″ single to play for Jenny.
By now we we on The Internet and there was footage of the singer we could watch – brilliant footage of her dressed to kill, dancing to seduce and singing to raise a revolution.   Jenny didn’t base her performance on the singer by any means but it was a window into a Congolese world of women and a certain tough independent proud defiance came through very strongly.    I made a CD of Congolese music for Indhu too – Franco & Tabu Ley of course, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba and Werrason bringing us up to date, a wonderful sweep of sounds from Kinshasa.
The night before first preview in Islington the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which had been simmering since late 2009 suddenly erupted with a vengeance and left a gigantic ash cloud sitting over the Atlantic Ocean & Europe, grounding thousands of planes and preventing Lynn’s husband Tony from flying in for the show.  The cloud hung for about a week and prevented Lynn from going home to New York a few days later.  It was all rather dramatic.
Jenny didn’t tell me anything about the play because she wanted me to experience it live on the night when I saw it for the first time.  This is usually the case when I see her productions.  I end up seeing them multiple times – between 5 & 10 normally, so the effect only works once.   It’s worth it though.  The 15th April 2010 was the first preview and when I entered the auditorium was thrilled to find it converted into an equatorial rainforest with a wooden-slatted speakeasy on a revolve nestled at it’s heart, presided over by an immensely powerful performance by Jenny as Mama Nadi, nurturing her girls, workers, prostitutes who’d been abused and raped and could no longer find a man to accept them;  serving soldiers who would sweep in and dominate the space, but need drink and music and dance in this unstable & constantly shifting war-zone.
Mama Nadi
An outstanding piece of writing, inspired somewhat by Mother Courage, but shining light on a hidden part of the world which we use- at arm’s length – without thought.  Brilliant and moving performances from Michelle Asante, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Kehinde Fadipe as the ruined girls living a nightmare as survivors gave voice to Lynn Nottage’s rarely-heard-from female characters, while Steve Toussaint, Lucien Msamati, David Ajala and Silas Carson portrayed the soldiers, the travelling merchant and the gem-smuggler.  The music  was played by Joseph Roberts and Akintaye Akinbode and written by Dominic Kanza and it provided a stripped-down yet infectious rumba soundtrack for the girls to dance to, either with a soldier who has been forced to leave his gun at the door, or with each other.
The title was explained early on : when a girl is raped with a bayonet, she is no longer capable of giving birth, and thus is “ruined”.
By the end of the show and Jenny’s last moments with Lucien I was in bits and had to leave the theatre and weep quietly on my own for fifteen minutes before re-entering the bar and the space and find familiar friends to congratulate and hug.  I was actually devastated.
It was a huge, magnificent performance and it changed both of our lives.  Some months later, Jenny won the Critic’s Circle Award as best actress, voted on by the nations theatre critics  – a massive acknowledgement of her achievement.  David Suchet won best actor and they were pictured together – we’d all worked together on NCS Manhunt in 2001.   A year later Jenny was cast to play Mama Nadi again, this time at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.  We later learned that Lynn had suggested Jenny for the lead.    Again it was a stunning production.
Now we live in Brooklyn where I eventually met Lynn’s husband Tony Gerber – a director – at dinner one night and we have become fast friends here.   Tony has been back to the Congo recently to make another documentary about the militias and although things have calmed down considerably it is still an unstable area.    And Lynn went back too.  After researching the play there she returned to see a five-hour production of Ruined in Kinshasa in 2011 which tested her artistic generosity since they had added great chunks of dialogue along with the inevitable 10-minute musical interludes.
I’ve still never been there, and it is a huge longing of mine, mainly for the music, but also for the great River Congo.   Franco died long ago, Tabu Ley in 2013 but M’bilia Bel is still going, although is based, like many successful African musicians, in Paris.  The younger generation are now sampling the golden age of soukous for hip hop tracks, rapping in the local language Lingala.  Despite a few attempts online I still cannot understand it so I can’t tell you what Boya Ye is about I’m afraid.
A few short weeks after Ruined closed (in triumph!) in London, Jenny and I flew down to South Africa for the first World Cup to take place on that continent.   One of my early memories of Cape Town was sitting in a taxi listening to some music pumping out of the speakers and asking the driver who was playing.  “DRC Music” he’d said.  On my birthday in Greenpoint Stadium England were once again a huge disappointment of course drawing 0-0 with Algeria.  We went on to Fatboy Slim’s party in town and celebrated just being there with Billy The Bee and others, but the World Cup isn’t about England.   It was moving and instructive to see how as the African teams got knocked out one by one – the host nation first ! until only Ghana were left, the fans coalesced around the Ghanaians, the whole continent willing them on to the infamous quarter final game in Soweto.   A sense of unity, unforced, non-tribal, celebratory.   The reason why we’d come.

My Pop Life #179 : One Drop – Bob Marley & The Wailers

One Drop   –   Bob Marley & The Wailers

“What’s your favourite Bob Marley song?”  asked Chris.

It is a legitimate question I think.  It was the early afternoon of a North London autumn day in 1997.   Paulette & Beverley Randall had accompanied Jenny and myself to visit a new baby in NW6 : Jemima, first daughter of :  Chris Skala and Emma who had met at Paulette’s legendary Club 61 event which convened regularly for vodka, music and slow dancing (see My Pop Life #60) and they had danced together, chatted, kissed, wooed and then <swoon> married in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park in the summer of 1993.   Chris – who it should be noted is an American (guvner) – had invited me to his stag night earlier in ’93.  Where it was and what we did I simply cannot recall due to the excessive intake of alcoholic beverages and marijuana.

Beverley, Paulette & Jenny 1997

But here we were in his flat where the new baby was being oohed and aahed over but where Chris was diligently aware of his DJ-ing duties.

“C’mon Ralphie.  Favourite Bob Marley song?”

I flicked mentally through my Bob Marley albums.  I think there were three :  Exodus, Live ! (at the Lyceum in 1975: which all white people owned – it was a law) and Legend – aka The Greatest Hits, which Jenny had brought with her when she moved into Archway Road five years earlier.  We may have had another one – Kaya perhaps or Catch A Fire, but there were less than five.  In other words, not really enough to make an informed choice.  It struck me as a moment of weakness – which isn’t really fair, but that’s how it struck me anyway – like someone asking what my favourite Beatles song is and only having twenty songs in my head, all from the Red or Blue albums.   I think I said “Jamming” at the time, which was the truth – probably the best Bob Marley song.  The best meaning, as always, my favourite, at the time, because THE BEST doesn’t actually exist, it can only ever mean MY FAVOURITE.  But when you are young you always say THE BEST.  Because it goes without saying that your favourite is the best.

To be fair, I wasn’t a huge Bob Marley fan at that point in my life, but because I was with Paulette & Bev, whose parents were Jamaican, and who clearly represented, in my mind at least, and possibly my ears, the Jamaican Music Police I couldn’t possibly say that.  I just couldn’t because I sensed that my not being a huge Bob Marley fan was based on ignorance rather than on massive exposure and discerning judgement.  It is a feature of my intellectual and possibly over-educated friends (AND I INCLUDE MYSELF IN THIS GENERALISATION) that we will make strange musical and cultural judgements which are not based on knowledge but on some other odd refraction of the universe which manifests itself as a kind of pyramid of taste which we then climb.  Indeed, many of these cultural discernments are passed around the cognoscenti, whether educated or not, as a kind of badge of knowledge.  If you state, for example, that you prefer Motown to Stax, you will lose points.  If you prefer pop music to New Orleans R’n’B you will lose points.  If you prefer The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (My Pop Life #157) to Mahler’s 8th Symphony you will lose points.   Lou Reed beats Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Charlie Parker beats Stan Getz.  And Burning Spear beats Bob Marley.

I think it is an invisible race to an invisible point.  A refined narrowing of the portal of acceptance where popularity somehow disqualifies the artist from the ultimate pinnacle of art.  For only the cognoscenti can see, or hear, the genius that is true art.  Not all the masses who buy the song because it’s catchy – what do they know for fuck’s sake?  No, the best kind of music is always a little bit secret, a little bit of an acquired taste, only for the in-crowd, the connoisseur, the adept.   And really only for the young.  As I have aged I have ditched this poverty disguised as philosophy and gone back to Strauss, Stan Getz and Marley, loved Motown all over again, and been proud to acknowledge that yes, I am and have always been, a pop tart.  No such thing as Guilty Pleasures. Just pleasures.

Battersea Park, 1977

I have also realised that it is all right to say “I don’t know” when asked a question of any kind.  When I was 30-something it was simply illegal to say I don’t know at any point, because of course all young people know everything, and to acknowledge that one of you perhaps has a gap somewhere or simply hasn’t acquired that piece of knowledge yet is tantamount to social suicide, from which there is no recovery, or at least, let’s face it, an extremely long road uphill.  It’s too humiliating.  And maybe this is only true of men, those of us who use a specialised area of knowledge as our castle, our control-space where most people will defer to us because they haven’t put the hours in and built the encyclopedic walls.  And to have a Bob Marley-sized hole in the battlements is a weakness, as I originally experienced it.  Of course you can always say “I don’t care” but a) that is a lie, and b) that is even weaker in most cases.  Unless you have no desire to specialise, no desire to have any power or control over anything, in which case you are not being entirely honest with us are you?

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer early 1970s

My usual journey into an artist is via a song – probably the big hit, then the greatest hits, then dive in deep if you really like them.  If they don’t really have hits (like Spirit or Burning Spear or Little Feat) then your first listen may be in someone’s bedroom passing a joint around, maybe at a Festival somewhere passing a joint around, or maybe you were just curious and you bought an LP in a crate somewhere like a car boot sale or a vinyl junkie shop.  But if the artist is popular – pop tarts beware – then all kinds of other criteria pollute your experience.  Build ’em up, knock ’em down for example (Boy George, Amy Winehouse etc).  People whose identity you don’t share, or don’t feel that you do, suddenly declaring a love for your favourite artist because they saw them on TV (but they’re mine!).  Familiarity breeds contempt.  Your favourite artist becomes so famous that they are interviewed and they say something stupid or controversial.  You defend them.  Or you quietly go off them.  Or you read some piece of chattering-class space-fillage about the phenomenon of David Bowie‘s white soul period or The Ramones being middle-class or – yes – Bob Marley having Catch A Fire produced for the white market and his sound being tailored to break through – which it then did – and you kind of think – well, I prefer the rootsy rasta sounds of Burning Spear and Prince Far-I, Culture and Lee Perry, to the cleaned-up Americanised version of reggae that Chris Blackwell and Island Records sold to us with Catch A Fire in 1973.

But that isn’t fair, is it ?  It’s blown out of all proportion.  Musical snobbery indeed. Because Robert Nesta Marley had been singing and writing and playing music since 1963 with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, playing mento and bluebeat and ska, making records with Lee Perry and Leslie Kong, touring with Johnny Nash and others before evolving the sound in the late 60s – actually around 1970 – with Carlton Barrett on the drums and his brother Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett on the bass forming the bedrock of the roots reggae sound that would go around the world and back and eventually signing with Island Records.  This consequently precipitated a change of line-up since Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh didn’t want to tour ‘freak clubs’ due to their rastafari faith, and didn’t like Blackwell (Chris Whiteworst was his nickname).  They presumably didn’t like that Wayne Perkins, a Muscle Shoals session guitarist, was overdubbed onto Concrete Jungle by Blackwell, to sweeten the flavour for white listeners.   They certainly didn’t like that the band was now known as Bob Marley & The Wailers, rather than The Wailers.  And this backstory, given the success of the LP, was the sub-plot to the take-off of the world’s first genuine 3rd World Superstar.  (Yes, I know, Developing World <sigh>).  In other words, once an act becomes successful, editors demand more copy, the story has been told, now come on give us another fold in the narrative, find another level of knowledge that people will consume, let’s have more fodder, more writing, more product.  And once something becomes hugely successful, the story becomes warped with their success, and the fans simple love of the music is tainted by all this extra information.  Certainly the original cognoscenti move along to the next secret discovery, always having to be there first, and not wanting to be a small part of a large crowd.  This way we miss out on much pleasure.

Aston Barrett, Peter Tosh, Carlton Barrett, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer 1970

And so there I was, catching up with Bob Marley over the next 20 years with the help and assistance and encouragement of my beautiful wife Jenny Jules, who has always been a Bob Marley fan.  There have been films to help me out – documentaries such as Marley (2012) which was to have been directed by Scorsese, then Demme, eventually MacDonald.  And then the novel by Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings which I bought but haven’t read yet is a fictional account of Bob Marley’s life which won the Booker prize in 2016.  Meanwhile back to the LPs and the songs – it’s all about the songs, and Pimper’s Paradise stood out (from Uprising 1980),

every need got an eagle to feed

as did Satisfy My Soul (from Kaya 1978) – the brass is amazing –

every little action, there’s a reaction

and Waiting In Vain (Exodus 1977).

ooh girl ooh girl is it feasible -for I to knock some more?

and Is This Love (also from Kaya – my favourite Marley album)

we’ll share the same room…Jah provide the bread…

But wait – Marley was not the world’s first 3rd-World Superstar.  He wasn’t even the first Jamaican superstar to break America.  No, that honour belongs to the great Harry Belafonte with Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) and Island In The Sun one year later in 1957 (the year of my birth).  Belafonte went on to become a movie star and musical giant of the 20th century, creating a huge anthology of black folk music, inviting musical refugees from apartheid South Africa Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to the United States to make records and tour, and continued to be an advocate for civil rights while making records and movies.  A giant of a man and a great musician and singer.

For Marley, Catch A Fire was a door opening.  Although Neville Livingstone, aka Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh both stayed in the band for one final album Burnin’ the writing was on the wall.   The album contained two giant hits Get Up Stand Up and I Shot The Sheriff, while the next LP Natty Dread in 1974 included both Lively Up Yourself and No Woman, No Cry, which was Marley’s first real international hit single.   The other profound manifestation on Natty Dread was the new band line-up, with the Barretts plus four new musicians, and the introduction of the I-Threes on backing vocals – Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, and Bob’s wife Rita Marley.  

Natty Dread is a fantastic LP, with a different sound to Catch A Fire and Burnin’.   Next came the Live ! album from the Lyceum Ballroom in London, capturing the excitement of the band’s show, followed by Rastaman Vibration with its rock guitars and synthesizers which became the first album to enter the US charts.  In contrast the Bunny Wailer LP Blackheart Man and the Peter Tosh album Legalize It, both from the same year of 1976 and offered a far more rootsy sound and rasta philosophy.

But Marley was taking the rasta sound and philosophy out to the world.  The arrangements on his albums from this point on – Exodus, Kaya, Survival and Uprising – while indebted to reggae and the Jamaican rhythms are astoundingly original in what is left out of each phrase, what is played and what is not.   My own favourite track is One Drop which celebrates the reggae rhythm (no drumbeat on the one beat) while chanting down Babylon in a rastafarian prayer.  There is no other reggae music that sounds like Marley.  He was now in 1976 bigger and more influential than any Jamaican politician, so after a thankfully botched assassination attempt when Marley and Rita were shot and wounded in an incident at his house, he decamped to England in 1977 for two years.

Bob Marley & The Wailers in London 1977

Bob lived in Chelsea mainly, played football, fathered more children and made his astoundingly successful albums Exodus & Kaya.  He returned to Jamaica in late 1978 for the final two albums Survival and Uprising.

Bob Marley died in 1980 of cancer in Miami as he flew back to Jamaica from a clinic in Germany.  His legacy was an astonishing run of albums. His final words, to his son Ziggy, were  “Money can’t buy life”.

I have educated myself since that day in 1997 and listened to all of the Marley records going back to the 1960s and forward to Confrontation, the final posthumous LP released in 1983.  He rewards constant re-visiting and I hear new stuff every time.

For the record, Paulette’s favourite song was One Drop as far as I recall, which has now become My Favourite Bob Marley Song.  Bev hovered between Get Up Stand Up and War, but now claims Concrete Jungle as her favourite  Jenny’s favourite is Waiting In Vain.  Chris – in my dim memory – chose Lively Up Yourself, and Emma One Love.

And then we all lived happily ever after

Happy postscript :  Just after posting this on Feb 6th 2017 I was in correspondence again with Emma, now living in Willesden with Christopher and all-grown-up Jemima now at University (and writing a music blog!)   Feb 6th was her second daughter Lottie’s 17th birthday, and also the birthday of Bob Marley.  Coincidence ??   I think not…

My Pop Life #178 : It’s Up To You – The Specials

It’s Up To You   –   The Specials

What you gonna do, when morons come for you?
They won’t go away, they want the whole world painted grey…

The classic version of this song was recorded at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead on May 2nd 1979, the eve of the United Kingdom General Election which was won by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.   It opens with lead singer Terry Hall saying :

“I haven’t got much to say. It’s the eve of the election.  It’s up to you”  

That gig appeared on a bootleg which did the rounds. The Specials first album proper, produced by Elvis Costello on Two-Tone Records was released in October of that year a few months later.   I remember it all so vividly.   Life in England had felt like a fight for some time.  In the spring of 1978 a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney was organised by Rock Against Racism, culminating in a concert where The Clash, Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69, reggae band Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex among others played to a huge crowd of punks, skinheads, rastas and rude boys.  It was in response to a rising tide of racist attacks and a poisonous atmosphere of hate which had been building for some time in the 70s.  It was about taking sides.  Black/White, Unite/Fight.  

The Specials embodied that attitude – a gang of kids from Coventry led by songwriter Jerry Dammers, singer Terry Hall and toaster Neville Staple, guitarist Lynval Golding and bass player Horace Panter, graced by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez on their first single A Message To You Rudy, a cover of the Dandy Livingstone ska classic.  Indeed their sound was a punky update on classic Jamaican ska and two-tone rude boy music from the 1960s and that first album had a number of covers of Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals, Lloyd Charmers and The Skatalites.  The energy and politics were as one, and their live performances were a joyous combination of dancing and fury like most gigs in the late 70s, fuelled by lager and little blue pills.  There was usually a frisson of violence too because skinheads would turn up and bounce around at the front looking for a fight.  If it got too out of hand the band would stop playing and start lecturing them.  With humour of course.

Margaret Thatcher and her mates, 1979

It was the start of four consecutive Conservative election victories and a massive swing to the right in Britain.  Thatcher took on the unions, the Irish republicans, the Argentinians, the gas board, train services, water and electricity and appealed to naked nationalism and people’s innate selfishness.  “There is no such thing as society” was her mantra, Reaganomics was her doctrine.  Trickle-down.  An arrogant, cruel sneering at the poor marked out the so-called national mood as people slept in doorways, lost their rights, signed on for work at lower pay.  Compassion was deemed sentimental.  Sentiment was deemed weakness.  And strength was a lack of care as people fell by the wayside and through the safety nets built up by decades of the welfare state.

The Specials live in 1979

It always felt normal to me to be in opposition.  It still does.  Once again we are faced with a period of bare-faced nastiness, appealing to people’s basest primal fears, blind nationalism, pitting people against each other while the rich cream off the cream, hoping that we’re all looking the other way.  History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.

The Moonlight Club, 100 West End Lane NW6

I moved into 134 West End Lane, yards from The Moonlight Club in the summer of 1979 as I graduated from the London School of Economics with a 2:2 in Law, scarcely deserved, but a qualification to match my three splendid years in WC2 as a student punk.  I had no intention of ever using the degree or continuing in the Law.  I knew that I was going to be an actor – just not quite yet.   I moved in with other graduates Pete and Sali and their friend Nick Partridge who’d just completed a degree at Keele University.  Thus started a wonderful period of rolling joints, listening to reggae and post-punk picture-sleeve singles, dropping blues or amphetamine sulphate and painting and decorating to save money for a trip to Latin America with my brother Paul.  We started learning Spanish at an evening class in Swiss Cottage.  And we played frisbee and watched Brighton & Hove Albion finally playing in Division One, went to gigs at The Hammersmith Palais, the Music Machine in Camden (later called Camden Palace) the Rainbow in Finsbury Park and yes, The Moonlight Club down the street.   I touched upon this fondly-recalled era in My Pop Life #92.

A band called Spizz Energi released a fabulously mental single called “Where’s Captain Kirk” and played the Moonlight one night, then changed their name the following month to Athletico Spizz 80.  Pete would come home clutching singles by bands such as Wavis O’Shave, Shoes For Industry or Wah! Heat while I would enthuse about The Flying Lizards, The Undertones or the Gang Of Four and Nick would offer Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop while Sali championed The Pretenders.

It’s hard to describe just how out-of-fashion ska music was until The Specials revived it.  They spearheaded a movement which included Madness, The Selector and The Beat but it is a little like some kids today suddenly playing dancehall and it almost overnight becoming the most popular music on the radio.  Such an inspiring moment.

Years later – in 2009 – I shot the lowest-budget film of my entire career, based on Barrie Keeffe‘s searingly brilliant play ‘Sus‘ which is set on the eve of the 1979 election and based on a true story he heard in the pub one night in South London.  A black man is arrested after his wife is found dead and grilled by two policemen who are convinced that he has murdered her.  As the election results trickle in the boys in blue look forward to a new dawn where they will be able to flex their muscles with much more sympathy from the powers that be.  Just two years later in 1981, Brixton, Toxteth and other inner-city areas of the UK would erupt in flames as a furious reaction to this newly-confident police aggression.

Writer Barrie Keeffe (The Long Good Friday, Sus, Barbarians, Abide With Me)

Actor and buddy Clint Dyer – whom I’d met on the TV version of Lock, Stock in 1999 -had been doing the play Sus on stage and tried to talk me into playing the character of Karn the previous year at the Young Vic.  I was honoured, but had to explain to Clint that I wasn’t keen on being onstage in anything.  I just didn’t enjoy stage acting that much.  Months later Clint had raised the money for a film version of the play with Barrie’s blessing, executive produced by Claire Castera and he’d recruited Rafe Spall as the other police officer when he came back to me with the offer to play Karn onscreen.   What a part.  A solid Thatcherite racist policeman, beautifully written by Keeffe, a man who spends the night grilling Leroy the innocent suspect with increasing violence and disdain.  We had two weeks and a fifty thousand pound budget to make this happen, absurdly low.  But where there is a will : a skeleton crew led by line producer Oliver Ledwith, and helmed by the wonderful Jono Smith as director of Photography and first AD’d by Tom White.  Costumes by Linda Haysman, Make-up by Alison Hanken, 3rd AD was Keiron Mahon.  All legends.  Clint’s friend Rob Heath directed us on a set built at Elstree by Mark Sutherland, a single cell in a police station off the Old Kent Road.  And Rob it was who chose this song – It’s Up To You (live at the Moonlight) to accompany the film’s opening credits, which I’ve linked to below, helped by archive footage courtesy of Don Letts.  It is the most perfect distillation of music, time and place that I can think of.  And the end result is a film that I am hugely proud of.  Clint is quite devastating in the lead role. Rafe Spall is a marvellous twerp-like bully.  It looks great.  And I can actually watch myself – very rare indeed.  Which makes it my favourite piece of work out of everything that I have done over the years.  Funny how this particular character, so diametrically opposed to me , should fit me like a glove.  There’s mystery !

And so now here we are, in early 2017, facing another period of opposition, another moment of decision, another call for solidarity.  To be honest I’ve never felt that any government has represented me, or my politics.  They’ve all been corrupt, all sold us down the river (still some quiver when I deliver).  I am permanently in opposition, it kind of defines who I am.  I am against stuff.  Maybe I’ll mellow out as I get older.  Doesn’t seem very likely somehow.  But you never know.  It’s up to me.

Eve of the election :

SUS – the opening credits

SUS – The Trailer

My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

***

Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

My Pop Life #173 : Como Fue – Benny Moré

Como Fue   –   Benny Moré

Fueron tus manos o tu boca
fueron tus ojos o tu voz
o a lo mejor la impaciencia
de tanto esperar tu llegada
Mas no sé
no sé decirte como fue
no sé explicarme que pasó
pero de ti me enamoré
*
Was it your hands or your lips,
Was it your eyes or your voice,
maybe it was impatience
after waiting so long
for you to arrive.
I don’t know anymore,
I can’t tell you how it was,
I can’t explain what happened,
but I fell in love with you.
Cuba, 1953.   Benny Moré is singing with Ernesto Duarte Brito‘s Orchestre for Radio Progreso in Havana, eager to capitlise on the new batanga craze in the nightclubs and on the radio.  Benny is to sing the lead vocal on a new bolero entitled Como Fue (how it was).   In his heart he is longing to have his own band, his own orchestre, hiring the musicians, the backing singers, choosing the material and recording his own arrangements.  The following year all that would happen.  But he is already a star in Cuba.   Benny, born Bartolo, was the oldest of 18 children from Santa Isabel de las Lajas, in Pueblo Nuevo province;  his parents moved and he was raised in Camaguey and learned to play guitar and tres while working in his mother’s laundry.  Eventually he arrived in Havana, by now singing second vocal in small busking bands.  The great Cuban bandleader and songwriter Miguel Matamoros heard him singing and in 1945 he was asked to join the famous Trio Matamoros group, who’d been making hits since 1928.   Like many before him he trod the familiar path of success to Mexico where he was convinced to change his name to Benny (Bartolo is a donkey’s name in Mexico). Benny meets the great Perez Prado, el Rey de Mambo another Cuban playing in Mexico and recording for RCA Victor.  They cut a number of classic sides together before Benny Moré, now known as El Bararo del Ritmo, returned to Havana, homesick, in 1950.
And he continues to cut hit after hit after hit, all in different styles – cha-cha-cha, bolero, son, mambo, guaracha, batanga, rhumba.  His voice is sweet and masculine, expressive and lyrical.  The music is wonderful, and now he writes his own songs too.  In the 1950s Cuba was in the midst of a civil war, Fidel Castro had returned from exile in Mexico with Che Guevara alongside him and together they led a revolution which led to Fidel being named El Presidente in 1959.  He was still El Presidente when Jenny and I visited Cuba in late 1999/2000 for the new year holiday some 40 years later.  We were tired of the eternal build-up to The Millenium, and thought we’d escape the hype for a few weeks.
I’d been working for Channel 4 on a 6-episode series spin-off from the movie called Lock Stock and… playing an East End wide boy gangster called Miami Vice with shaved head and Bow Bells accent.  This was only a handful of years since I’d worked with the late great Warren Clarke in A Respectable Trade (see my Pop Life #122 ) and he’d advised me how to negotiate a deal (the only actor to ever share this kind of information with me).   I auditioned for the fabulous Sheree Folkson, got an offer and asked the agent (lovely Fiona M at ICM) for double what they’d offered.  She scoffed in disbelief at my chutzpah : “Well you’ll never get that Ralph“.  I responded with the best possible response :  “I won’t be doing the show then, no skin off my nose.”  She was furious, but a week later I got what I was asking for.  You have to know your worth, and god bless him, Warren Clarke taught me that.
Benny Moré
So we could afford to fly to Havana.  We flew Air France, and I Will Never Fly With Air France Again.  EVER.  We flew to Paris and missed the connection to Havana because they didn’t announce it in the lounge.  We were put up in a hotel at Orly airport, flown to Madrid the following day and put up again at an airport hotel.  Now given money to buy underwear and other essentials we eventually arrived in Havana three days after leaving the UK, and with all our bags having been lost en route.  It meant we had to take a taxi to the airport EVERY DAY to see if our bags had turned up.  One by one they came in, but one bag never did appear.  Things.  Just stuff right.  But wait.
We hook up with Carlos y Manolo, a gay couple who worked in the theatre and travelled internationally with their productions, representing the art of Cuba abroad, all sanctioned and paid for by the government.  They’d met Miriam Ryle my long-time ex-girlfriend from the 70s and she’d passed us their number.
They were kind of bourgeois for Cuba but they had no money. None.  But Manolo still bought us a bottle of rum very early on which cost him a week’s wages, and then took us shopping to buy some clothes since ours hadn’t arrived yet. We spent most of the holiday in their company, drinking with their friends, eating at their Auntie’s paladar (house restaurant) on New Year’s Eve with John Singleton and his partner, who were also staying at the hotel Isabel in the old town.   He said that Jenny looked like his Aunty Jessie.  We took that as a compliment.  It was that kind of night : but that night is for another post, because it went on all night, dancing to Celia Cruz and Whitney Houston.
Havana, Cuba
This blog is about how it was.  Como fue.   We moved out of the hotel into a room in Manolo’s uncle’s apartment in a different neighbourhood where there were no tourists. We fancied the experience of living with Cubans.  What an amazing city Havana is.  Like an old lady who was stunningly beautiful when she was young, there is a kind of eternal charm and grandeur about the architecture and wide boulevards, the 1950s taxis, the sexy locals, the mix, the music, the Caribbean, the parties.
We met Amanda Oom‘s friend Gregor who had a photographic exhibition in Havana and whom we’ve since met many times in England and in Stockholm.  He is now partnered up with lovely Petronella from Norway.   I wrote about the magic effect of Ooms in My Pop Life #14   .
But look – we’re talking about a city which has Che Guevara as an official heroic figure. The ironies are profound.  Havana has two distinct economies – local, and tourist.  At one ice-cream shop I was charged the local price – about 2p – for two ice-creams, because they thought that Jenny was cubana and that I had bought her.  Christ that was revealing and horrifying.  But there was more to come.
Havana streets
At some point in the first week of 2000AD we had a phone call from Jen’s sister Lucy to call her back.  She was looking after our house in Brighton.  We’d been burgled.  Someone had broken in and stolen loads of our stuff.   She was shocked, and so were we.   Jenny wanted to go back immediately, break the holiday – we were due to travel south to Santiago and other parts of the country – I wanted to finish the holiday.  We hadn’t been to The Tropicana yet to see the big band.  Jenny explained that Lucy needed to see us and be relieved of her horror, and insurance had to be dealt with and all that.  Stuff was missing : stereos, TV, carpets, hundreds of CDs, jewellery from upstairs.   We changed our return flight with wonderful Air France and on our last full day in Havana decided to visit the church Our Lady Of Regla which was a ferry ride across the harbour.
On the ferry, which was rickety and ‘full of character’  we noticed a woman standing by the side of the moving boat muttering as if in prayer.  She looked pretty intense but in her own world, then she started to break up pieces of coconut and drop them into the water.  Jenny whispered to me : “She is blessing our crossing“.
Regla, a mainly poor and black neighbourhood.  No tourists here.  Although it was in the book, so now I imagine it’s swamped.  But that afternoon it was just us at the old 17th century church with a black madonna and child above the altar.   And a history of santeria, the religion of the Yoruba transferred to the Caribbean and merged with Catholicism.   The black Madonna itself has a curious and fascinating history.
St Augustine of Hippo & his mother St Monica on a stained-glass window in Washington D.C.
Saint Augustine is said to have had a vision instructing him to erect a statue of a black virgin Mary, and he did so in Hippo, (present-day Annaba in Algeria) in 415AD.  When Vandals attacked Hippo 30 years after Augustine’s death, monks lifted the statue and fled. The black Madonna appears most famously in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, and in Monserrat near Barcelona, but interestingly she also occurs in Poland, France, Germany, Romania, Kosovo, Serbia and Russia, and in Orthodox Churches as well as Catholic;  in Prague, in Brazil, in Chile and in Havana.
the black madonna of Czestochowska, Poland
They mainly date from the Byzantine era (say 14th century), but not exclusively.  What they represent, apart from the obvious, is unknown, thus a pile of speculative and conjectural literature has emerged to further enlighten us.  We just sat there in the front pew and soaked it all in.  The holiday was over.  We’d been robbed.  We were still rich tourists in an incredible communist nation which had first-class healthcare, but no freedom to travel.  Our friends hated Castro but were proud of being Cuban.  And we’d had an amazing time.
Our Lady Of Regla
And then the woman from the ferry came up the aisle of the church and kneeled just in front of us to pray at the altar, to the black virgin.  That was when we noticed her shoes –  because she was kneeling we could see the bottom of her shoes.   And carved into the soles of her shoes were words in English.  They said :
TO HAVE, OR NOT TO HAVE
I kid you not.  It was for us, clearly.  We looked at each other and squeezed hands.  The universe works in mysterious ways.  The intellectual part of my brain immediately connected this with the Ernest Hemingway book To Have Or Have Not written in 1937 which concerns a contraband smuggler working between Key West and Havana,  later filmed with Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall and set in Martinique.  The non-intellectual part of my brain could only wonder what on earth was going on, because a profoundly strange thing had just occurred.   To have, or not to have.  Right there in front of us, in English, carved into the rubber soles of her shoes.  I can’t remember if I took a photograph or not.  We were stunned.
I asked the woman if she knew that she had English on her shoes but she didn’t speak English and didn’t want to discuss it at all.
We got back onto the ferry and crossed the harbour.  Went to the centre of Havana and found a music shop,  asking in halting Spanish for the best Cuban music, please.  The man produces a CD for me called 20 Boleros De Oro by Beny Moré.  20 Golden Greats.  Benny only has one N in Cuba.  This is the best he confirms.  I buy it, along with some other vintage music from Trio Matamoros and Arsenio Rodriguez, and some more up-to-date stuff by Los Van Van.
The following day we say our goodbyes to Carlos and Manolo and vow to return, which we never have.  We’ve seen them in the UK since then, and handed their number out to all of our friends who’ve visited Havana.  This year relations with the USA thawed mightily and tourism was pumped up.  People can visit their families in Florida.  Castro is no longer El Presidente but his revolution is still alive, just.
Benny Moré died in 1963, singing to the last, coughing blood but determined to fulfill his obligations.  He was 44 years old.  He left behind an incredible body of work which has massively dominated Cuban music in all its complexity and richness.  See Buena Vista Social Club, and watch Ibrahim Ferrer singing Como Fué  below.  He was a huge natural talent, and his music reaches across the language barrier, the cultural divide, the intellectual codification.  You could do worse than seek it out for yourself.
We flew back to Heathrow from Paris, and Air France once again lose one of our bags.  We arrive back to a house which has been emptied of it’s STUFF, but it is still our house.  I cannot explain fully, how it was.
 como fue, no se dicerte, como fue
the song :
Benny Moré sings Como Fue live : 
Ibrahim Ferrer singing Como Fué with Ruben Gonzalez on piano :
rare footage of Benny Moré conducting his band 1950s, Havana :

My Pop Life #172 : In My Chair – Status Quo

In My Chair   –   Status Quo

I saw her talking, now
My ears were burning
Her feet started walking, now
They started turning
My eyes were half open
But she didn’t see me there
We ran along, walking ‘cross the roof-tops
In my chair

I was working in Bude, Cornwall on Julia Davis’ series Nighty Night when I got the offer. Did I want to play Status Quo‘s road manager Barney in 3 episodes of Coronation Street to mark the 45th anniversary of Britain’s longest-running soap ?   Who’s gonna say no to that??   These are the moments in an actor’s life which really lift the spirit.  Straight offer.  No audition.  Working with a band I’d loved since I was knee-high to a wotsit.   Iconic.

Press play

And on a TV show with it’s sensational trumpet theme tune which had been with us all the way – a host of characters who were real – Ena Sharples, Hilda Ogden, Albert Tatlock, Elsie Tanner, Rita Fairclough, Ken and Dierdre, Vera Duckworth, played by actors who were even more real.  Reminding all of us soft southerners that this country of ours had a north, who spoke differently.  Working class people on TV.  And it was comedy too, unlike Eastenders the slit-your-wrists southern soap.  The combination of Status Quo and Coronation Street was earthy and righteous.   I said yes there and then, and a few days later the scripts arrived.  One of the things people always ask me when I get a job and I’m shooting some programme or film is this : “When is it coming out ?

Which is one thing I never ever know.  Some time next year, when it’s all edited and got a soundtrack and some PR behind it and blah blah blah.  But this was the one exception.  Coronation Street scripts come with the TX, or transmission date printed in capitals at the top of page one.  When’s it coming out ?  September 21st 2005.

I’d had hair extensions added for Nighty Night because I was playing a new-age sex therapist who was a bit of a twat (enjoyed that role very much and both Julia Davis and Rebecca Front (and the rest of the cast – truly blessed we were) are genius but that’s for another post) – so I kept the long hair for Corrie since I felt in my bone of bones that the old fella Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I would get another outing.  Withnail was shot in 1985 – then in the mid 90s I’d filmed Wayne’s World 2 and played another rock’n’roll character called Del Preston (for another post too!) and he had spoken with the rhotic ‘R’ sound & stoned delivery of Danny from Withnail, after I’d called writer and director of Withnail Bruce Robinson and asked him if he thought it was OK (it’s your character Ralph, do as you feel).   I felt that I would wheel him out once more, perhaps for the final time – indeed I haven’t played that character since then, but hey never say never.  There are people who wonder why I didn’t make a career out of that geezer, (I did : Ed) but I’ve always felt rather protective of him and kept his powder dry.    Coronation St with the Quo though felt completely right, so it was dangly ear-rings, maroon waistcoat, jeans, cowboy boots, a floppy yellow hat and permanently stoned gaze.

EXT. The Rover’s Return – day

My first scene was in The Rover’s Return, the legendary pub on the Corrie set, which nestles in the centre of Granada TV in the heart of Manchester.  Of course the exterior is in The Street while the interior set in inside a studio.  Obvious but there you go.   I’d met the band briefly before we went on set, invited to their dressing rooms (one each for Rick and Francis) and said hi – they were both very easy-going and normal and friendly -unsurprisingly because their image was of down-to-earth-fellas, because that is who they are.  Like me I hope.  And then we were in the pub – initially me at the bar and them in a booth.  Next to me at the bar was Jack Duckworth.

Julie Goodyear (Bet Lynch), Liz Dawn (Vera Duckworth) and Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth) in the pub in Coronation Street

If you’ve never seen the show it’s not easy to explain who this person is.  He’d been an extra on the show for ten years, playing darts in the background of The Rovers before becoming a regular character in the early 80s some 25 years earlier.  He was, in short, a fixture on the show, and on that particular set.  He spoke with a viscous throaty Manc growl, full of beer and fags and character, a kind of gloomy town crier that you used to be able to find at the bar in every pub in England.  In the scene he had to ask Barney who those geezers in the corner were, and I had to sing a section of Rockin’ All Over The World which he wouldn’t recognise, at which point I say “The Quo man?  Status Quo”  and carry the beers back to the lads.  It was fun.

Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi : the stars of Status Quo

After four or five takes they stopped to fiddle with a lamp and Bill Tarmey – or Jack – turned to me and said, with all sincerity :

“Ralph lad, you’re doing very well. Very well.  I’ve had top actors in here, A-listers stand at this bar and I’m telling you lad, their knees have gone”

Christ it was funny.  I wondered who he was talking about – Ian McKellen? Ben Kingsley? – and carried the beers back to Francis and Rick, and we had a sup and they called cut.  Rick Parfitt and I lit up a Benson & Hedges each.  A runner ranneth over, doing his job (running).  “Sorry you can’t smoke on set gentlemen you’ll have to go outside“.  We looked over at Jack Duckworth who was perched, nay, carved into the bar with an Old Holborn roll-up permanently tucked and smouldering inside his hand.  “Jack’s smoking” I said.  The runner assumed an air of private suffering.  “That’s Jack though”  he smiled weakly.  Rick and I looked at each other, made a decision to say nothing and walked outside for a quick puff.

Francis Rossi had formed a band with Alan Lancaster at Catford High School in 1962 who evolved into Status Quo, adding Rick Parfitt in 1967,  Andy Bown in 1977, and John Rhino Edwards who replaced Alan Lancaster on bass in 1985, all of whom are in the current line-up and present on set in Manchester.    Quo have had over 60 chart hits in the UK and specialised, since 1969, in denim-clad 12-bar boogie.

Status Quo in 1970 when they released ‘In My Chair’ as a single

Their peak era was the mid 1970s, with a run of hits including Softer Ride and Down Down just as I and my friends from school Conrad, Tat, Andy Shand and Tigger were forming our own band called Rough Justice based in Kingston nr Lewes.   We wrote our own material, but also played a nice wedge of covers – two by The Beatles (Birthday and Get Back), two by Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock – see My Pop Life #80) and THREE by Status Quo :  Paper Plane, Caroline and this song In My Chair.   In My Chair is a very low-temperature boogie with delightfully surreal lyrics and a terrific old school guitar solo, and if it got any slower it would slowly slide off the sofa and fall asleep on the floor, yes, but it’s also a tune.  My favourite Quo song along with Gerdundula, which was actually the B-side on Pye Records.  (Francis Rossi had later told me that Gerdundula was written for a German couple they knew in the late 60s called Gerd und Ula.  So now you know 😉   Rough Justice loved the Quo, but we also found these songs relatively easy to play – 12-bar songs with a rhythm guitar part (Conrad playing Parfitt) and a lead part (Tat playing Rossi).   I would then sing the relatively undemanding nasal lead vocal (Ralph singing Rossi).   Although as I recall I played bass on Caroline (three whole notes!!) and Andy Shand sang the lead vocal.  People could dance to them too.  Of course I told the Quo all this, and they were pleased.   They were pleased to be in Coronation Street, with lines, acting, thrilled to bits to be honest.  Which was very sweet.  I asked them who they liked and they said Jeff Lynne of ELO and Hank Marvin, guitarist with The Shadows.  Rick had sat next to Hank at some variety TV show where the audience is filled with celebrities, and told us that he’d spent some of the time looking down at Hank Marvin’s  right hand, thinking – that hand played those licks!  They were lovely fellas all right and they made me feel very welcome.

I appear to be happier than The Quo

Later that night Rick and I had a few too many in the hotel bar and Rick actually fell into a glass table covered in drinks, causing mayhem, spillage and jokes.   Kind of gratifying.   We ran along walking across the rooftops in my chair.   Three weeks later we would return to Manchester for the following episode.  Now read on dot dot dot.

Jack Duckworth, the character, passed away in 2010 asleep in his chair.  Millions mourned. He was the 2nd-longest serving male character on the show – over 30 years.  Two years and one day later Bill Tarmey the actor passed away in Tenerife at the age of 71, of a heart attack.  We mourned all over again.  Here’s to you Bill.

Late note : as I was writing this blog, Rick Parfitt was suffering a massive heart attack. Thankfully he lived and is now in recovery, on the mend.  My thoughts are with him.

In My Chair from 1971 :

clearer visuals :

the B-side Gerdundula played live in 2004

My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.


Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

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