My Pop Life #192 : Hang On In There Baby – Johnny Bristol

Hang On In There Baby – Johnny Bristol

Now that we’ve caressed,
a kiss so warm and tender,
I can’t wait ’til we’ve reached
that sweet moment of surrender.
We’ll hear the thunder roll,
feel the lightning strike,
At a point we both decided to meet,
the same time tonight…
*

 

It’s a classic of course.  Great early 70s orchestral soul, one of my favourite genres – Love Train by the O’Jays, If You Don’t Know Me By Now by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Never Ever Gonna Give You Up by Barry White, People Make The World Go Round by the Stylistics.  This one by Johnny Bristol who worked at Motown in the 60s and wrote Someday We’ll Be Together for Diana Ross always reminds me of Jo McInnes, dear dear Jo and she always reminds me of Lee Ross her man.  They go together like bread and cheese, like G7th and C major, like Adam and Eve.  Jo and Lee.  We never say Lee and Jo.   Just how it is.  Met them in Brighton in the late 90s/early 2000s – the noughties or naughties if you prefer.  I couldn’t care less.  Both great actors, but both with other gas in the tank – Lee is a wonderful songwriter and Jo is a fantastic director.  They quickly became part of our Sunday bohemia sessions which had been in Amanda Ooms‘ flat in Hove (see My Pop Life #14 ) up until May 2004 when she moved back to Sweden.  We – the gang – tried to pick up the baton and run with it.  We met in each other’s houses to drink and eat, and sometimes the preferred venue to eat was a pub – the traditional pub roast on a Sunday goes on all day, but inside information is required as to where, and when, and who does the best mixed veg/nut roast/yorkshire puds. Ah Brighton….

Reasons why Brighton was a terrible place to live in 2005 :

Lucy Jules, Ralph Brown, Daisy Nell Robertson

Jo & Lee both have a passionate intensity mixed with genuine love of the work that we do, conjoined always with proper laughing.  They like to laugh.  Others in bohemia should be named and shamed I guess : Paul Gunter, percussionist and Stomper and can-do man who had separated months earlier from  Amanda. Will Matthews and Catherine Walker – he a musician from the band Lowfinger who had just split up and who was moving into teaching music, and she a vibrant Irish actress moved over from Dublin.  Sadly a marriage not destined to stay the course.   Jo Thornhill, can-do-woman and producer, moved down from Manchester with her husband Andy Baybutt, cameraman, director and producer.  They would separate some years later.   Jimmy Lance and Daisy Nell Robertson, actor and giant hair model going out with producer and Enid Blyton glamourpuss.  They would split about a year later.  And Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules, singer, actress, songwriter, with her boyfriend Robbie Webster-Reed, sound technician to the stars, also destined to separate as the years passed by.   And in July of 2004, just after Amanda left town, our nephew Thomas Jules had moved in with us, down from Harlow.  He had just finished with 3rd Edge, a pop band who’d charted a few times in the early noughties and was now writing, singing back-up, DJing, living life.  And I must also mention Mr Tim Lewis who had come down for Jo Thornhill’s birthday party in May 04 and fallen in love with our dirty mad compassionate drunken tolerant fancy-dress gay town.  He’d be moving down one day if he could just escape from Lewisham and the T-shirt factory…   The gang.  Bohemia we called it pretentiously, proudly.  We cooked we smoked we drank we danced.   What a fucking fantastic group of people.  I still love them all, each and every one.

Tim Lewis, Catherine Walker, Jo McInnes 2005

Shortly thereafter Lee and Paul and Will, who were playing together on some songs, asked me if I wanted to join and jam.  Paul had a stand-up piano in his house in Kemp Town so we convened there.  I brought along the song I’d been learning that week : Dan Penn & Chips Moman’s Do Right Woman, Do Right Man which was originally and outstandingly sung by Aretha Franklin.  Great song.  Aretha had just signed for Atlantic Records in 1965 and Jerry Wexler sent her down to Muscle Shoals, Northern Alabama to record with the session guys down there to capture that smokey raw southern soul sound that was coming from Memphis via Stax Studios, and Muscle Shoals. Aretha ended up recording only one song there (I’ll Never Love A Man, to be blogged at some later date for it is a fantastic story!) and this song was started but never finished so got cut back in New York City along with the rest of the LP.  Why am I telling you all this when Lee pronounced fairly quickly after I’d played it through one time that “we weren’t doing any covers”, whilst agreeing with Will in new-age manful ways that Do Right Woman was a perfect tune for this band.    Since I played in a pure covers band called The Brighton Beach Boys with Paul at this point I felt slightly judged and yet it was Lee’s band clearly and he could draw whatever lines in the sand he wanted to, and we could take it or leave it, same as any band.  I took it.  Do Right Woman remained as a chord chart and we all got a paper copy of Insurmountable Loving to learn instead.

Lee Ross, Andy Baybutt, Dublin 2005

Like all of Lee’s songs it was quite stunningly great and we set about learning them one by one, rehearsing to within an inch of our jeans, over and over, vocal harmonies, licks, cadences, chord changes.  We called ourselves Butterfly McQueen after the other black actress in Gone With The Wind, the one who played Prissy (Hattie McDaniel won the best supporting actress Oscar in 1939 for playing Mammy, the first black actor to win a statuette).  The other fellas in the band were actor Jason Hughes on guitar and assistant director Simon Hedges on bass – we all sang backing vocals to Lee, although Will sang a few of his songs too.  We loved rehearsing originally – the songs were amazing, actually brilliant songwriting, lyrically, dynamically, melodically, everything. We looked forward to rehearsing.  We drilled those fucking songs until we could sing them with one arm behind our backs and blindfold.  We had a date in the diary – Paul’s 40th birthday, the following August. But first we had Jenny’s birthday in December.

Lucy Jules, Daisy Robertson, Andy Baybutt, Jo McInnes, mementos of France ’98  and loads of vintage peeling wallpaper, 12.12.2004

Jo Thornhill & Catherine Walker 12.12.04

We’re in 2004 and our parties were quite superb in those days.  Not bragging, they just were.   But this was to be the last one.  The wallpaper hadn’t been fixed since we moved in, and layers could be seen dating back to – when ?  1930s at least.  We’d quite enjoyed the effect but it was time to fix up.  I don’t think we discussed it together as a final party, but Jen put the word out to bring your party drugs (we didn’t participate obviously(><) and the final revellers left at 5am.  The hours up until then had been a whirl of drink and dancing mainly with Jenny and I sharing DJ duties most of the night, and although others may need a shout I cannot for reasons of inebriation remember who they were.  The pictures tell their own story.   Joy.

Sharon Henry & Ralph Brown 12.12.04

Will Matthews 12.12.04

When Hang On In There Baby was selected by Jenny I suspect she knew the effect it would have on Jo, Little Jo as we called her to separate her from Jo Thornhill.  A yell of delight, a punching of the air, a spin, a shimmy, an invitation for us all to join her.  We did.  One of those moments that lifted us together into a delirious lubricious rhythmic pulse, locked in, celebratory, sharing, an ensemble of love.

Jenny Jules and Catherine Walker, 12.12.04

Lucy Jules and Robbie Webster-Reed, 12.12.04 

A year earlier Jo and Lee had been the only visitors to our treetop eyrie in Griffith Park, Los Feliz while we renewed our Green Cards.  They were on tour with Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, an intense show they’d done at the Royal Court.  Jo McInnes is one of those dear people that you understand within seconds of meeting her, she is there, with you, for you, while you share a few moments of time together.  It’s remarkable how rare that is in retrospect.  Jo is an extraordinarily good director – and the first time I trod the boards since 1990 was in a show called Christmas by Simon Stephens that she directed at the Bush Theatre in 2004.  I had a walk-on part which involved doing a magic trick at the bar of a pub, ie drinking a pint of lager.  Tough gig.  My online moniker of choice “magicman” came from this moment – I think 2004 was the early innocent days of the internet and I was well in there, especially on the Readers Recommend page….and MySpace, naturally.  Arranging LP covers in a mosaic of MY TASTE IN MUSIC.  Plus ca change !

Jimmy Lance, Andy Baybutt, Paul Gunter, spring 2005

So the world turned, 2005 came and we drank on. We smoked on.   Butterfly McQueen rehearsed diligently.  The gang had a semi-legendary trip to Dublin to see Catherine Walker onstage.  (She was nominated later, and won.)  Drugs were taken I suspect.  Jenny and I went to Japan on a trip, to see the opening night of “New Year’s Day” a play based on my film of the same name which had opened there in 2001 and been a big hit.  They’re into teenage suicide, the Japanese.  We looked round Tokyo with wide eyes then took the bullet train past Mt Fuji down to Kyoto, spending a few nights in a real ryokan or traditional Japanese inn, complete with tatami mats and sliding doors and onsen, hot mineral baths.   Kyoto has over 40 temples and we visited a handful of them including the Silver Pavilion Ginkaku-ji.  Lucky us.  We absolutely loved it there and vowed to return and spend more time in Japan.  In fact we’ve been back once since then for another production of the same play in Tokyo.

Tokyo wedding spring 2005

More parties – Jo Cresswell’s sister Lesline moved down and held a house-warming in Hanover.  Laurie Booth and Jeanne Spaziani hosted another fabulous bash at their house in Queen’s Park and on the wee-small-hours walk home Jenny and I saw a badger on our street, snuffling around in each garden quite methodically, claws click clacking on the pavement.

Yup

2005 also marks the first time my other band, The Brighton Beach Boys, played Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper together, as a kind of prize-fight, one Sunday afternoon in the Robin Hood pub after the landlord Neil Hayward had suggested the idea and called our bluff.  We struggled through both albums in a pleasantly ramshackle kind of way.   Since then we’ve played the 2 LPs back-to-back every year, but I think this was the year that we played Pet Sounds for the 2nd time – and my brother Andrew came to see us at the Komedia in Gardner St in May.

As for work (thought you’d never ask), deep breath :  I was asked to Star Wars Celebration 3 in Indianapolis for a small fee, and I swallowed my pride and went, meeting some actors from the film I hadn’t been in (SW2), in particular two Mauri actors from the stunning NZ film Once Were Warriors, Rena Owen and Temuara Morrison.

Indianapolis : us with Rena Owen and others I simply cannot remember

I was the baddie in Rich Hall’s Cattle Drive, a western set in Wales.  I also snaffled a part in Julia Davis‘ marvellous warped sitcom Nighty Night as the pervy sex therapist hippie guru Jacques, alongside Ruth Jones, Angus Deayton, Rebecca Front, Mark Gatiss and Miranda Hart.  Wonder what they’re all doing now ?   I also took three episodes of Coronation Street as Status Quo’s roadie for their 45th anniversary.  Corrie’s, not Quo !  (See My Pop Life #172 ).  Looking back, it was an amazing time in my life, but at the time I took it all in my stride, and yet – of course – I thought that I should have been doing better.  This is the human condition.   I have since learned – I hope – to be grateful for my life, grateful for each day and any serendipitous moments, offers, meetings, jobs, and simply for being alive at this point in time.  Looking back at these events as I have been for over 190 blog posts, together making up a kind of musical autobiography, has certainly helped in that respect.

Georgie Glen, Ruth Jones, Ralph Brown, Julia Davis, Miranda Hart, 2005

Big album of the spring for me was Ben Folds’ Songs For Silverman, a fantastic collection.  Later in the year Richard Hawley would release Coles Corner which placed him firmly on the UK music map (it was his 4th LP) and which always makes me think of Lee Ross’s songs whenever I hear it.  I don’t have any Butterfly McQueen songs on mp3, vinyl or tape, so if you want to know what we sounded like, I think Lee will forgive me 75% if I suggest that you put on Richard Hawley and have a listen.

Finally August 9th rolled around.  Paul’s 40th birthday.  Jenny had an operation booked for that date in Guildford, so Paul held his birthday party the night before on August 8th.  We were in Manchester Street, downstairs at The Komedia, later renamed The Latest Bar : it has had a few names over the years.  Everyone was there it felt like – all of Stomp: Luke, Jo, Loretta, Steve, Fraser et al.  Bohemia : Butterfly McQueen, Tim, two Jos, Jason’s wife Natasha, Andy Baybutt, Jimmy and Daisy (were they still together?), Lucy, Robbie (umm, were they on tour though?).  Evidence that Paul had hooked up with Katrina by then. It was also Maggie Flynn’s birthday and her husband actor Rob Pugh and daughter Scarlett were there.  She met our nephew and housemate Thomas at the party.   They eventually decided in the ensuing months that they liked each other quite a lot, and before long they were both living with us.  They now have two daughters, and live in that same house.  Solo dios sabe mi destino.  Even if the gig had been pants, this was a result !

Butterfly McQueen Aug 8th 05 : Jason, Paul, Lee, Simon, Will, Ralph

But the gig was also an unalloyed triumph.  We were so tight, so rehearsed, so ready.  We delivered the songs as they deserved, with sweetness and harmony and soul. Beautiful Jo Thornhill said it was the best debut gig by a band she had ever seen. We were so proud.   Lee was beaming.  Jo McInnes – little Jo – was very proud of us.

Little Jo, Paul and the back of Katrina 08.08.04

In retrospect it was peak Butterfly McQueen.  We did more gigs after that, notably at the Concorde supporting Mark Eitzel and American Music Club, with Robbie doing our sound.  But Lee was getting antsy – first with Paul, then with me, perhaps with himself.  At some point in 2006 it stopped being something to look forward to and was something to bear, then something to try and enjoy despite the vibe, then something to move away from.  It’s how bands tend to work in my limited experience.  Often.  Lee went on to work on Planet of the Apes movies with his mate Andy Serkis, and good plays in London and various TV shows.  Joanne has directed stuff at the Royal Court and together they created a show called Marine Parade with the Brighton theatre company they ran with Jimmy Lance.  Then their beautiful daughter Kiki arrived and they moved away from Brighton to raise her in the countryside in Forest Row, Ashdown Forest, one of my favourite places.   I haven’t even been out there to see them, but when there’s an event or a marriage (Jimmy and Katie 2016) or a birthday (my 60th 2017) we see each other again and catch up.   I rambled and roved around, wandered and wondered and talked about myself quite a bit but this was Jo McInnes’ blog.  Hers and Lee’s. Inseparable as ever.

Insurmountable Loving.  Love you Lee.  Love you Jo.  Hang on in there baby X

 

My Pop Life #190 : There You Are – Millie Jackson

There You Are – Millie Jackson

Shucks, I thought this party was gonna be really hitting on something
Ain’t nothing around here but a bunch of women, nobody to dance with
Every man that looks like anything already been taken
Sho’ can’t trust nobody to tell you where to go these days
Uh oh…..

…hmm Lord, have mercy…

I was 20 years old when I discovered Millie Jackson. And she blew my tiny white boy mind.  No, I didn’t meet her, could’ve been fatal.  I bought an LP entitled Caught Up – I cannot remember why or how I came to know about it.  I was in my soul music educational phase playing catch-up on a lifetime’s diet of Pop Music with the occasional prog rock interlude (Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf) mixed with some Pure Prairie League and Joe Walsh and Spirit with a smattering of Roxy Music, Carly Simon and Joan Armatrading.  You could drive a truck through the gaps – jazz, soul, reggae, classical, african, indian, country, blues, the works really.  I was at least aware of my limited palette and spent all of my spare pocket money on records.  LPs and 45s.  I was living in London with Norman Wilson, Lewis MacLeod and Derek Sherwin and we were all at LSE in the Aldwych so opportunities were many, a stroll down to Berwick Street or D’Arblay St in Soho would leave me flicking through endless LPs I’d never heard of, desperate to spend my student grant.  One of the winners was Millie Jackson.

This LP, as I say, blew me away.  On the cover, Millie Jackson caught in a spider’s web, with a man, and another woman.  The music was soul music with spoken interludes, told from the viewpoint of the mistress and the spoken word sections – notably The Rap which is track two, right after the classic If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Wanna Be Right) – are quite extraordinary.  Tired Of Hiding is also on side one – what a song that is.  Her personality comes breaking out of the speakers, larger than life, mouthy, opinionated, funny, dirty, defiant, honest, truthful. Magnificent.  There’s a section in The Rap, and you have to hear it really because it’s the way she delivers it that kills me, in a sassy Georgia accent via Brooklyn and Jersey :

You know, I don’t wanna leave you with a one-sided conception over this thing.
Anyone out there in my shoes this evening, I want you to know what I’m talking about.
I want you know there’s two sides to this thing.
There’s a good side to being in love with a married man and I like it.
‘Cause you see, when you’re going with a married man, he can come over two or three times a week and give you a little bit.
That means you’re two up on the wife already, ’cause once you’ve married one, you don’t get it but once a week.
Another sweet thing is on pay day, he can come over and give you a little bread and I like that.
But the sweetest thing about the whole situation is the fact that when you go to the Laundromat, you don’t have to wash nobody’s funky drawers but your own and I like it like that

Call me sheltered but it was just something I’d never encountered before.  Growing up in leafy East Sussex I wasn’t aware that I’d met a single black person until I got to the LSE.  A couple of Mauritian nurses at Laughton Lodge, a Brazilian kid at school, Ugandan asians billeted in Lewes, but that was about it.  It was like a doorway into a world I knew nothing about.  It got under my skin clearly.   But it wouldn’t be until 1984 and Panic! at the Royal Court with Danny Boyle and Paulette Randall that I would have a genuine close friend who was black.

The album finishes with a cover of the timeless Bobby Goldsboro ballad Summer (The First Time) with that sexy piano riff and a whispery sexy lead vocal about Millie losing her virginity on the last day of June.  Genuinely Hot Stuff !

The follow-up LP was called Still Caught Up – the cover has a soulful portrait of Millie wearing a 1970s hippy hat.  This follow-up is mainly from the point of view of the wife, with the same scintillating soul-bearing honesty, more like a bulletin from the front line of the sex wars than a soul LP.  Again, spoken word over the orchestrated lush soul section dominates the experience, vengeful, furious, telling it like it is.   Recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama like its predecessor, these two records are classic soul moments which take no prisoners, raunch-rap long before Mary J. Blige or Salt’n’Pepa.  She is a little like a female Barry White or Isaac Hayes but Millie is actually way more original and unique than either of these fellas.  A storyteller.   Still Caught Up finishes with the married woman alone – she’s lost her husband to the other woman on I Still Love You (You Still Love Me) – and it’s a heartfelt tearful slow ballad which finishes in a mental hospital, I kid you not.  No prisoners are taken.  I was hooked by this woman, and bought three more albums before being led astray by other music – 1979’s A Moment’s Pleasure with the opening track Never Change Lovers In The Middle OF The Night and a big dirty live LP called Live and Uncensored which is a record of Millie Jackson’s massive presence in a live arena, something which I regret to never having experienced.

This song comes from Free And In Love, released in 1976.  Not considered in the high echelons like the previous two albums (or the three that preceded them in the early 1970s) it nevertheless contains one of my favourite songs of all time : There You Are.  Again Millie tells us a story, about being at a club, with no decent-looking men available when – uh-oh….

……There You Are…..

Looking like a king and everything…

So in my and Jenny’s favourite section, she turns to Helen for a sister’s help…

Hey, Helen, the fella standing over there on the corner
Do you know his name? Oh, you do… Jimmy?
Would you introduce me to him?
…See, that’s why I don’t like to go nowhere with you
What kind of friend are you?
That’s alright, wait ’til the next time you want somebody to hang out with you
You’re gonna hang out by yourself, ’cause I’m gonna be with Jimmy


So she introduces herself to Jimmy, and the rest is history and herstory. One of her greatest vocal performances, not cynical and whip-smart like much of Caught Up, just open-heart surgery soul music.

We introduced our friend Jimmy Lance to this tune back in the day when we all lived in Brighton.  Oh how we laughed.

Eight years after I first heard Millie Jackson and carried her around in my secret heart like an unspoken, unthought-of sexual fantasy, I was working at The Tricycle Theatre on Kilburn High Road on a show called Return To The Forbidden Planet, by Bob Carlton.  It was a rock’n’roll version of The Tempest set in outer space, loosely based on the 1956 sci-fi B-movie.  All the actors had to sing and play something, and they needed a saxophone.  I auditioned for Hereward Kaye, the MD, and Glen Walford the director (who would a short year later put me off live theatre for 20 years when I played Macbeth in Liverpool Everyman (see My Pop Life #108)).  I did OK.  I got cast as the bo’sun.  We rehearsed and I learned Good Vibrations from Herry, keys and backing vocals, played bass on another song, drums on another song, it was one of those shows where we swapped instruments for effect.  We opened sometime in the spring of 1985.  Mumtaz and I were on our last legs in the Finsbury Park flat (even though tragically she was back in Karachi buying me two wedding shalwar-kamiz behind her parent’s backs) and I was driving to work across the top of Hampstead Heath in my Hillman Minx.   At some point in this process I started rehearsing for the Joint Stock show Deadlines in the daytime hours (see My Pop Life #185) then travelled to the Trike to do the show in the evenings – pretty full on – and I had to stop drinking even a half-pint of beer because it made me feel that my Hepatitus was on the rise again, contracted in Mexico in 1981. I was stretched to the physical limit in other words and my body was letting me know.

When it came to opening night of Planet at the Trike, the actors were told that we had to circulate in the bar with the audience, offering them travel-sickness pills (sweets) and generally hyping up the spacecraft they were about to board (the auditorium, the show).  So we did.  I have no pictures from this part of my life but I guess I was about 28 years old and still had most of my hair.  I walked around the bar slightly reluctantly engaging with the punters – I am incredibly shy.  In fact, I’m not a natural cabaret-type person like the lead actors Mathew Devitt and Nicky .  What this means is that when something goes wrong, they step in and acknowledge the moment, sharing with the audience the unfortunate events and telling off-colour jokes to fill the space.  In fact I could swear that Mathew found these “live” moments his favourite parts of the show.  It’s light entertainment I suppose – or cabaret.  Or stand-up, which hadn’t quite taken off in London at this point but was hovering in the wings waiting to take over.  I was never any good at any of it until I had to be.

So I struggled nightly with these pre-show chores, engaging with the audience as an actor, in character, speaking in an american accent I think.  As I heard the final announcement to “get on board” I swept the final punters out like a good sheepdog then left the bar and rounded the corner into the foyer and

>>>**BAM**<<<

There she was.  Lookin’ like a queen and everything.  There you were.

My future wife.  Looking like Millie Jackson.  Just a little bit.  An usherette.  Tearing tickets.  I just stopped.  A vision.  Of loveliness.  Of love.

We just looked at each other, maybe said “hi” and then I went in, and walked upstairs, for I had a show to do and my entrance was climbing down from the balcony onto the stage.  I didn’t know what had just happened, but it was

a moment.

Hurts so good just wouldn’t start to cover it.  It was electricity.  It’s a reasonably long story in the end.  We saw each other – in the corridor – a few times after that, but people in the theatre warned her off me and it wasn’t to be, it was too complicated all round.  It wouldn’t actually be until 1988 that we finally had a date together, just across the road from the Tricycle in a restaurant called Le Cloche.  That’s for another post I guess.

And… here we are.

My Pop Life #152 : The Morning Papers – Prince

The Morning Papers   –   Prince

If he poured his heart into a cup and offered it like wine

She could drink it and be back in time for the morning papers

The third time I saw Prince live was with The New Power Generation at Glam Slam, his nightclub in downtown Los Angeles.  Spring 1994.  Jenny and I are renting a lovely old tiled and wood-floored 1940s ground floor apartment on King’s Road in West Hollywood, just south of Beverley Boulevard.  It has a piano!  The World Cup is approaching, but only the immigrants – the latinos, africans and europeans – are interested.  Jenny spends a lot of time in London filming with John Thaw on Kavanagh QC playing a lawyer.  For some childish reason I always call it Cavendish PC.  There weren’t that many parts for black actors on British TV in those days.  How times have changed…

We used to walk a couple of blocks west from King’s Road to Jans – an old time diner with booths and an endless menu which included The Monte Cristo – french toast with cheese, turkey and ham, my particular preference.  With french fries. And ketchup, or catsup as it used to be known. And coffee. And the Morning Papers.  Always the LA Times, which is thin fare, but that’s where we were.  At least it had a decent Arts section, and film reviews were pored over.  The LA Weekly (a kind of Village voice for Southern California) was a weekly staple and gave us film reviews and concert listings.  We could actually walk to the Beverley Center – cinema, restaurants, shops etc, but we usually drove.  Almost opposite us was the King’s Road Cafe, a hipster joint before the word was coined. It was self-consciously groovy and slightly twee and we preferred Jans, where the waitresses were all middle-aged ladies, often latinas,  the owner was an ancient Greek and the customers were old jewish people and cops.  Classic old-school American diner.

Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) was staying with us in LA on an extended break from London.  She’d just graduated from the Brit School in Croydon, and sung at our wedding and she wanted to check out La La Land while we were there – the centre of the music industry as well as the film industry.  We were in Los Angeles for close to three years straight in the early 90s, and I could count the number of visitors we had from London on one hand.  I know it’s a long way and an expensive flight, but there was free accommodation at the other end if you asked nicely !!    Anyway, Lucy’s favourite artist is Prince.

Prince Rogers Nelson.  Who died today Thursday April 21st 2016 aged 57 in Minneapolis.  The shock will take a while to sink in.  I’m still trying to deal with David Bowie passing not to mention Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman and Ronnie Corbett.  This year the long scythe of death is cutting down many of our brightest and best and most loved creatives.  We are all in shock at how fragile life is, at how young many of our heroes are dying.  And it’s still only April.

About 22 years ago Lucy and I drove downtown in my stupid show-off car which I dearly loved, a 2-door gas guzzling white pimpmobile or Lincoln Continental.  I couldn’t drink and drive of course, but there are no handy subway stations in Los Angeles.  Everyone drives.  I had seen Prince twice before : first in 1988 when he played Wembley Arena on the Lovesexy Tour, entering the stage on a Ford Thunderbird from the ceiling, Sheila E. on drums.  A tremendous gig.  Second time with my new girlfriend Jenny Jules a year later on the Nude tour, again at Wembley arena, again outstanding.  This time it’s a darkened nightclub with a mixed crowd (hold the front page LA) and huge excitement in the air.  The most recent Prince LP is LoveSymbol, the unpronounceable shape which signifies Prince at this time.

He would change his name later that year. The symbol apparently combines the male and female and led to Prince being known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”.    When he changed his name back to Prince some wisecrackers referred to him as “The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”.  And so on and so forth.

While I had five or six Prince LPs (CDs in fact) at this point, I wouldn’t have described myself as a huge fan.   But I know a good number of people who completely adore him :  Lucy J, our good friend Loretta Sacco, Jen’s oldest friend Pippa Randall, Tim Lewis, Tom Jules and my friend Lewis MacLeod who came to Wembley with me in ’88.  They are all devastated today.  I’m just sad, upset, shocked.  So is Jenny.  Her favourite Prince song is Scandalous from the Batman soundtrack and it was favoured at many of our Brighton houseparties.  As for me – well, I really like lots of Sign ‘O’ The Times (Slow Love is the best song probably because to me it sounds like an old-school soul record) and most of Lovesexy.  Diamonds & Pearls is probably my peak Prince LP, the first album he recorded with The New Power Generation.  Yes yes of course Purple Rain and 1999 but they’re like event songs.  I’m just being honest here.

The LoveSymbol LP had a handful of absolute crackers – My Name Is Prince, Love 2 The 9s (Lucy’s favourite), 7, Sexy M.F. and this tune The Morning Papers, my favourite Prince song.  Why ?  I’m not sure that I could really analyse that, but I like the melody mainly, but also the sheer poppiness of it I think, I like the lyrics and the horns and I like the guitar solo.  The song is inspired by and describes Prince’s early relationship with Mayte Garcia one of his back-up singers whom he married in 1996 two years later.  She was 15 years younger than him.

He realised that she was new to love naive in every way

Every schoolboy’s fantasy of love that’s why he had to wait

They were divorced in 1999 after losing two children.   There is a lovely story of his first meeting with Warner Brothers (I think) in a big office which had various instruments hanging on the walls.  When Prince felt that the meeting wasn’t going the way he wanted he offered: “I can play any instrument in the world after studying it for five minutes by the way”.  I think he knew he could, and he needed to be signed.  The suit pointed to a French Horn and said Ok – play that.  Five minutes later Prince played him the melody of the song they’d just been listening to and he was signed.  He fought against this contract all his life – the Symbol name-change was his way of re-negotiating his deal, and he appeared in 1993 with the word SLAVE written across his cheek.  There are no Prince videos on Youtube.  None.  There may be tomorrow.  He sanctioned his autobiography two days ago.    He really was a phenomena.  His passing has left a huge whole in the musical firmament and in millions of lives.  It feels very strange for me to be going out to a concert tonight (Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso) and I expect he will be remembered.  I will remember him for sure, but I guess we all have to live on.

Right ?

Now I’m home.  The concert was superb, classy, wonderful.  When Babs and I came out of BAM there was a huge crowd of people, police cars blocking the street, TV crews and loud music on South Elliott and Lafayette – a couple of thousand at least outside Spike Lee’s office.  They’re playing Purple Rain and people are swaying, holding their phones aloft.  It’s a love vibe.  I love how New York mourns and celebrates and marks a major death like this.  Spike did a similar thing for Michael Jackson, and of course John Lennon’s death was mourned across the city.

We saw Prince again in 1994 but I cannot remember where (Staples Centre?) or whether it was before or after Glam Slam. That night he and the band played for three hours straight and did a half-hour encore.  Maybe more.  Pure sweaty funk, with some pop and rock and soul poured liberally over the top.  Most of Diamonds and Pearls, loads of Symbol and Sign O’ The Times, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, Nothing Compares To You, 1999, Raspberry Beret, and on and on.  It was, of course, fantastic.  He was the ultimate showman in his cuban heels and cheeky smile, his absolute mastery of the guitar, his posing, his musicianship.  His energy was infectious.   He will be hugely missed.  Prince Rogers Nelson R.I.P.

Live on Arsenio Hall :

http://www.ultimedia.com/swf/iframe_pub.php?width=480&height=385&id=sursr&url_artist=http://www.jukebo.com/prince/music-clip,the-morning-papers-live,sursr.html&autoplay=0&mdtk=04516441&site=.fr

My Pop Life #139 : The Way We Were /Try To Remember – Gladys Knight

The Way We Were /Try To Remember   –   Gladys Knight

What a strange blog this is.  Or perhaps what a strange day I’m having today.  For each day carries its own colours, moods, feelings and impressions.  I’m grateful for this, for often a day can be quietly unbearable, and I long for the pall of night to cloak me so that I can start again, refreshed, renewed, by sleep…

the innocent sleep,
  Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
  The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
  Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
 Chief nourisher in life’s feast—

And thence to think on the next entry in this wandering musical through my half-forgotten life.  Many is the day when I start to write a piece and realise that I am not one, but two or three years out with my memory.  Or, perhaps worse, I can remember a snapshot, a few colours and no more.  No details, no essence.  I know I saw Prince at Wembley Arena in the late 80s.  I had to email a half-dozen likely contenders and ask them if they were with me “that night” and on the 6th attempt I got a YES, from Lewis MacLeod, who even remembered the hat I was wearing.   So – hey – drop me a line if you accompanied me to any of these gigs !! :

The Who – Rainbow

Parliament/Funkadelic   –   Hammersmith Odeon

Black Uhuru   –   Rainbow

Aswad   –   anywhere (saw them loads)

The Specials   –   Hammersmith Palais

Madness   –   also Hammersmith Palais I think

The B52s  –  probably supporting :

Talking Heads – at Hammersmith Palais

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles  –  Hammersmith Odeon

Elton John  –  Wembley Arena

This is just a small selection of the puzzle, strewn across the floor of my mind, incomplete, disappearing.  One of the main reasons I’m writing the blog is so that I can get some of it down before it all disappears.  Not because I think it’s important, but because it actually happened, and other people are involved.  Sadly I can’t remember who they are half the time.  Does it matter ?  Maybe not.  Best not to spend too much time thinking about the past, or planning the future.  I know.  But sometimes the present is just too dull to be indulged, and at these points I sit down and write, dig it all up, try and recall a moment, a feeling, a turning point, a reveal.  Just to pin some of it down.

It’s either missing a part, or it’s endless.  This is number 138 and I can’t see me finishing anytime before 500, using the template I’ve now established.  That’s kind of ridiculous.  So now, like Rakim (see My Pop Life #86)

When I’m writing I’m trapped inbetween the lines, I escape when I finish the rhyme

But.  One of the delights of the process is the email traffic between me and people I haven’t spoken to for ages about a specific time.  Or people I do speak to regularly trying to help with memory holes.  This part is fun.  I don’t think I suddenly remember stuff though.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  My friend Simon K has a brilliant memory and has tapped it regularly for his novels and short stories.  He has the ability to open a wormhole in his mind and follow the traces back back way back to a day, an afternoon, a movement of someone’s arm.  It is uncanny and very affecting.  He claims to have trained himself to do this just using concentration.  This may well be true, but I don’t have that kind of mind.  I’m a butterfly-type person, born under the twins, restless, flighty, settling for brief periods before taking off again.  I’ve always been like that.  So many of the memories are these brief glimpses, flickering shadows, inchoate, yearning.  It’s the best I can do.

Memories may be beautiful and yet

what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget

Thinking about these things this song felt perfect.  I think I discovered it with Lewis MacLeod in those late 1970s when we went on a self-imposed pilgrimage of discovery into the music called soul.  We found a book called, yes, The Soul Book, which outlined the various centres of excellence – Detroit and Motown, Philadelphia and the Philly label, Memphis and Stax, Hi Records and others, the Atlantic label in New York which reached out to embrace the whole community, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and many others.  This book no longer appears to exist, even on Google, but I have it in a box in the attic in another country.  Oh yes.

And at the back of the book the contributors – there were about ten of them – had listed their ten favourite soul records.  This was terrifically useful for two 20-year old chaps as a kind of road map.  Some songs – these would be solid-gold certainties – appeared on two lists.  Kind of a guarantee of excellence we thought.  You could tell the ones who wanted to list ten obscure songs that no one else had chosen or perhaps even heard, and we worked our way through these lists by searching the shops of Soho and Camden Town.  Lee Dorsey, Millie Jackson, Lorraine Ellison, Garnet Mimms, The Delfonics, Betty Wright, and yes Gladys Knight and others all endorsed in print.  This is how you did things pre-internet by the way.  Research.  Expeditions. Treasure.

Gladys Knight has already appeared in this blog (My Pop Life #29) as a Motown artist in the 1960s, then she moved to Buddah Records for Midnight Train To Georgia and You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me…and I’m wondering if this song was on that famous lost memory mixtape too.  It never fails to make me cry when I hear this line –

Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time re-written every line ?

The song was the theme from a massive hit movie The Way We Were, starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in 1974, perhaps the biggest song of 1974, sung by Streisand herself.

Written by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (words) it is quite simply one of those extraordinary pieces of work that touches me very deeply, and though Barbra Streisand sings it beautifully, magnificently, I’m afraid Gladys absolutely lifts it into eternity.   As Gladys Knight explains below in the 2009 live version, (a concert Jenny and I were lucky enough to attend) – she never wanted to record it in the studio, but she would sing it every night with “Try To Remember”as a little spoken entrée.   Her management recorded it live one night then presented it to her afterwards, and now we all have it.  It’s one of the most treasured records in my collection.

and if we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we ?  Could we ?

Live in Chile in 1979 this is outstanding and very close to the ‘record’:

the ‘record’ from 1974 :

the live version from 2009 :

My Pop Life #135 : I Can’t Hear You – Betty Everett

I Can’t Hear You   –   Betty Everett

you walked out on me once too often now

and I can’t take no more of your jive and that’s the truth

I ain’t about to let you run me into the ground

this girl ain’t throwing away her youth

Betty Everett 1963

The sub-heading of this blog is ‘My Life In The Gush Of Boasts’.  Stand by.  This is a strange, convoluted, small-world-but-wouldn’t-want-to-paint-it story.  I guess the reason why we live in New York now is down to Jenny Jules my talented and beautiful wife, who played the part of Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined at the Almeida in 2010.   Exactly one year later, Lynn asked Charles Randolph Wright to cast Jenny again in the production he was directing at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.  Charles and Jenny spoke on Skype and the matter was sealed.  After one breakfast with Charles in Washington one morning I knew he would be a friend for life.   It started to feel as if maybe we might end up living on the east coast of America, rather than the west coast where we have spent so much time over the last 25 years.  But we did nothing about it until 3 years later when Phyllida Lloyd‘s all-female production of Julius Caesar in which Jenny was playing the redoubtable Cassius transferred from the Donmar Warehouse in London to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in the autumn of 2014.  Jenny was housed in a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the run, and we stepped outside one bright blue morning and swooned. “We could live here” we said, not realising that we were in the equivalent of Hampstead, and couldn’t ever afford it.    Almost on whim, three months later we were here with two suitcases and a cat each.  The Green Cards we already had from the LA years.  All we needed was work and friends.

Brooklyn

The work came slowly at first then more steadily.  Jenny has already been in a new play by Suzan-Lori Parks called Father Comes Home From The Wars parts 1,2 & 3, and next year she will be on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s  The Crucible.  Phyllida’s 2nd all-female Shakespeare, Henry IV parts one and two combined just finished at the new St Ann’s and Jenny played Worcester and Peto, the high and the low.  My work has been mainly on American TV with parts in Elementary, Agent Carter, Turn, The Blacklist and Legends.   Occasionally I go back to Europe to do some work there.  Work has been fine.

Friends – now making friends is harder, especially perhaps as one gets older and doesn’t socialise quite as much.  I need to find another band to play with, because I miss my old gang.  Our friends here are a tight bunch based mainly on Jenny’s theatrical adventures – thus writer Lynn Nottage and her husband Tony Gerber are our bedrock, with their two children Ruby and Melkamu.   Actors Segun Akande, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Babs Olusanmokun from the Ruined D.C. cast all live here, and we see them for movies, theatre-readings, and now, weddings !  Segun is marrying Lucy in January 2016.   Things to look forward to!

Jenny Jules & Charles Randolph Wright 2014

Charles  lives in the Village and after directing Ruined in D.C. spent the next two years putting together the mighty musical MOTOWN with Berry Gordy (!) which is Berry’s life story and the history of that great record label Tamla Motown which changed all of our lives.  It opened on Broadway in 2013 (we snaffled a ticket and I will blog it on another occasion) and it is now touring the world – it opens in London in spring 2016.   After we moved to New York in early 2014, Charles introduced us to his lovely friends Vicki Wickham and Nona Hendryx, who came down to Washington and saw Jenny in 2011, and loved her.

Nona Hendryx & Vicki Wickham

So.

We are seeing Charles, Nona, and Vicki  tonight for New Year’s Eve, a small but delightful group, avoiding Times Square and other large drunken gatherings.  Yesterday Vicki sent me a recording of a radio show which she had made earlier in 2015 in London for the BBC.  It was a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of a show called The Sound Of Motown which was produced by Vicki 50 years ago !  Can you hear the soup thickening?

Vicki was then the producer on Ready, Steady, Go! which was the first pop TV show in the UK and was massively influential pre-Top Of The Pops.  The proof was  The Sound Of Motown in 1965 when Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and The Supremes all made their first appearances on UK television, in the same show, with Dusty Springfield – they were all close-to-unknown acts in the UK at the time.  This is despite The Beatles having three Motown songs on their first LP – the public first saw all these acts together on their black and white TV sets in April 1965 on Rediffusion.

The Motown Revue at Marble Arch, London in 1965

It was Vicki’s enthusiasm and drive and Dusty’s stardom which made it happen – they’d seen Little Stevie Wonder in Paris doing his hit Fingertips and were bowled over.  Astonishingly in retrospect, the TV company only agreed to host Motown if Dusty Springfield was involved.  She was only too happy to join in and sang various duets – including this song – with Martha Reeves.

Martha Reeves,the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield

So I’m sitting listening to this radio show with Paul Gambaccini, that motormouth media man interviewing Vicki and alongside her the great Berry Gordy, (now in his 80s !) founder of Motown, writer of ‘Money‘ and best friend of Smokey Robinson (see My Pop Life #3) and there the BBC are trying to recreate some of the songs that featured on that night in 1965 with modern artists.   Thus we get Lamar singing My Girl for instance.  And I’m thinking – all these connections – Charles and Vicki – and suddenly Gambaccini announces I Can’t Hear You No More  “and here to sing it for us is Lucy Jules !

the great Lucy Jules

Could have knocked me down wiv a fevver guv.  Lucy of course is Jenny’s sister, my sister.  She is a professional singer.  She’s a brilliant singer, always has been.  She is very dear to me, naturally, I’ve watched her sing over the years, I’ve accompanied her, she has sung with my band and there she is on the radio doing connections singing !  She kills the song, so do the house band.  But it lights a living echo within.   The amount of coincidences and small-world shrinkage shuffles is starting to ‘do my head in‘ as they say in London,  but hear this : the song Lucy Jules is singing is one which I owned back in my 20s, back in my soul-music-odyssey days, a tremendous song called I Can’t Hear You, or sometimes called Can’t Hear You No More, depending on who is singing it.   And I haven’t heard it for 30 flipping years.  I had it on a 45rpm 7-inch vinyl single by the great Betty Everett.   It was her follow-up to the huge Shoop Shoop Song which I also had on 7-inch :

“if you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss : that’s where it is !”

I think the reason why I had some singles by her was down to Elvis Costello covering her 1965 hit Getting Mighty Crowded in 1980 as an out-take of the personal favourite Get Happy LP – which appeared on Taking Liberties, an album of out-takes and B-sides.  For a musical archeologist like me there were plenty of clues there, back to the time when soul music was made out of soul.   I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down (original by Sam & Dave) was one of the singles from that tremendous LP.

Betty Everett in 1963

Betty Everett was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago in her early 20s, signing a deal with Calvin Carter and Vee Jay records (the first US label to sign The Beatles).  Her second single “You’re No Good” is also a tremendous blues/pop song and was a hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1975.  But this one was always my favourite.  So to suddenly hear it on the radio, sung by MY SISTER was ridiculous.  As I say, I hadn’t heard it since 1985 when I finally at the 3rd attempt left my girlfriend Mumtaz and made the mistake of leaving my record collection behind.  I never saw any of those records again.   All the punk singles in picture sleeves, LPs from my teenage years, soul 45s, african records, everything.   It hurt, but I guess Mumtaz hurt more – she thought we were to be married.  But we weren’t to be married.  And so I started again, aged 29, both in Love and with a Record Collection.   But I forgot many of the records which I used to own.  Bound to happen.  And so now and again I get the joy of rediscovery, a tingle of recognition, and in this case a full circle of musical joy through Motown, Ready Steady Go!, my family and our new friends.

I looked the song up and found that Helen Reddy had a big disco-esque easy-listening hit with it in the 1970s, Lulu covered it, Alan Price and of course, so did Dusty Springfield, calling it I Can’t Hear You No More and singing slightly behind the beat, but still sounding like a black soul singer like she always did.   I guess it was her choice to sing it on the Motown Revue show – but it never was a Motown song.  Except that night when she duetted on it with Martha Reeves.

I think the Betty Everett song was picked up by the Northern Soul DJs in the early 70s and gathered a whole new set of fans – it had that fast beat and passionate vocal that they liked.  The classic pop feel comes from the writers Gerry Goffin & Carole King, she wrote the music, he wrote the lyrics.   Interesting when you know their story :

“This girl ain’t throwing away her youth”

Carole King & Jerry Goffin

Jewish New Yorkers, they married when she was 17 and pregnant and he was 20, and during a reportedly turbulent ten-year relationship they created many top hits for different artists : Take Good Care Of My Baby, (Please) Don’t Ever Change, Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow, One Fine Day, The Loco-motion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Oh No Not My Baby, Up On The Roof, Natural Woman and many many more.

Credit where credit is due.

Happy New Year everyone, thanks for reading.

Ralph Brown 2015

My Pop Life #128 : A Whiter Shade Of Pale : King Curtis

A Whiter Shade Of Pale   –   King Curtis

1987 Wardour Street W1.  A basement screening room in Soho, Central London, which serves as the centre of the British Film Industry – in other words : A small group of overwhelmingly decent men and women in smallish offices talking on the telephone, often to each other.  Of course we have Pinewood and Shepperton Studios out on the M25, but this is our Hollywood:

De Lane Lea on Dean St.  Palace Pictures used to be in Wardour Mews off D’Arblay Street, near Fish where I used to get my haricut.  Working Title.   Mike Leigh’s office is in Greek Street.  The Groucho Club.  Soho House.  Century.  Blacks.  The Sound Studios.  The Edit Suites.  The Distributor’s offices.  Old Compton Street.  Marshall Street.   Meard Street.  Frith Street.  Lexington Street.  Berwick Street.  Soho Square.   The Dog and Duck.   The Coach and Horses.  The French House.  Kettners.  Ronnie Scott’s.  Bar Italia.   Oxford Circus tube.  Shaftesbury Avenue.  Lunch in Chinatown if you fancy.  A small tight and dedicated community squashed into the narrow lanes next to prostitutes walk-ups, strip clubs, pubs, bars and gin joints.   And more recently : chichi hotels and Japanese restaurants as the seedy down-at-heel glamour of the area turns into another monied area of the capital of the world’s capital.  Oh well.  Everything changes right ?

The British Film Industry has been described as a cottage industry, as a few people on the phone, as punching above its weight, as a contradiction in terms.  I’ve worked with many of these dedicated and frankly faintly insane people over the years.  It’s been my honour to have done so.  To make a film in the United Kingdom you need to be more than a little mad.  It takes years of hopeless and often unrewarded effort to get the money, the group of people, the script, the whole thing to work, and often the  punishment is a sniffy review by a critic who prefers the latest Hollywood offering to your carefully nurtured baby, your precious flower on which you have spent weeks, months, years, lunches, breakfasts, dinners, blood, sweat, tears, rages and sleepless nights to bring to the general public.   Only to have it shat on.  And for you to come back for more.  It’s like a drug and we can’t get enough.

 

On this particular day, this auspicious day, one of the better days, it was exciting to be rolling up at 2pm to an underground screening room in a hallowed Soho with a handful of actors : Richard Griffiths, Richard E. Grant, and Paul McGann and a director, Bruce Robinson, a producer Paul Heller, a composer David Dundas and one or two other faces for the first showing of Withnail and I, a film we’d all worked on 18 months earlier in 1985.   I was excited, nervous, worried, hopeful and frankly thrilled to bits.  I hadn’t done that many films at that point.   In fact aside from The Hit, in which I scarcely spoke, this was my first film.  I was almost 30 years old, done a bit of TV and walked off The Bill because I wanted to do films.  This had been the first one that turned up.  It had been a blast to make  but that’s for another story.  Here I am now sat next to lovely Richard Griffiths in the second row of the tiny theatre and the lights go down.  Only friends in here.

The first image on the screen is Paul McGann looking utterly wasted, fading drugs seeping through his pores as he smokes a roll-up. He wears John Lennon glasses and his hair is wavy.   A kind of pained exhausted beauty.  And as he sits and smokes we hear King Curtis playing that saxophone cover version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the huge Procol Harum hit single from 1967.  I’d never heard it before.  The saxophone seemed to be be sweating and feeling queasy and unsteady on its feet and then it found its purpose again and magnificently reaffirmed its point before spinning into a personal journey of emptiness and beauty that was so clearly a live version played by a person who was solid gone.  I mean crazy.

I enjoyed the film.  I though Paul and Richard were fantastic.  I laughed.  I loved them.  Then I came on, wearing shades and holding a fucking saveloy.  I was speaking    s  o      s  l  o  w  l  y     that I cringed inside with embarrassment.  All that lovely vibe that Richard and Paul had built up to that point had been thrown away – I was so totally off the pace it was like I was in a different film altogether.  Excruciating.  Rich Griffiths next to me patted my leg with enthusiasm :  “Marvellous dear boy, marvellous“he whispered.  I looked at him quickly in alarm.  “I’m talking too fucking slowly” I hissed at him.  “Nonsense dear boy, wonderful” he replied and we shut up to concentrate on the next scene.

Richard Griffiths in Withnail 

There were other musical highlights that day, but all involving songs I already knew really well.  I loved the movie.  It was the one I had read in my flat in the Archway Road a couple of years earlier.  Funny, well-written, and sad.  I though everyone was great except me.  It was a reaction that would come back to haunt me on a regular basis every few years, most recently in Bristol in early 2014 when Paul and I attended a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail and were interviewed on the stage afterwards by Phil Jupitus.  I made the mistake of watching the film again, and once again fell into the pit of finding myself wanting.  I have enjoyed my own performance on one or two occasions, and I still enjoy doing ‘the voice’, although I have rationed its professional use.  But I will never watch it again I suspect.

We retired to a bar afterwards and I found that Richard Grant’s reaction had been even stronger than mine – I believe he vomited and subsequently vowed to never watch one of his own performances ever again.  We enjoyed each other’s acting however and Bruce was happy and the mood was bright and happy so we drank some drinks and cheers’d ourselves and clinked and drank some more and went home glowing and happy.

The rest was a slow burn to infamy.

King Curtis had the kind of career as a saxophone player that I could only dream of.  When, at the age of 27, I was considering whether to be a professional saxophone player or an actor, I tried to imagine what a successful horn player’s life would be like.  At best I could imagine being a good session player, doing a solo on a Pink Floyd LP or Listen To What The Man Said, maybe being in a pop band for a few years like Madness or UB40, shagging loads of birds, taking drugs, becoming unpleasant and sad by the time I was 40 or disappearing into the jazz world and becoming a brilliant elusive junkie.  Curtis was the king of the instrument all right, starting as a jazzman with Lionel Hampton and others before making his mark in the pop world from The Coaster’s Yakety Yak, to John Lennon’s It’s So Hard,   LaVern Baker’s I Cried A Tear, Clyde McPhatter’s A Lover’s Question and co-writing Reminiscing with Buddy Holly.

King Curtis, Percy Sledge, unknown, Jimi Hendrix

In the mid-sixties he played in a soul band with Jimi Hendrix on guitar backing Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and  Cornell Dupree.  He also had his own band The Kingpins who opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and cut sides for Atlantic Records including the hits Memphis Soul Stew, Games People Play and Ode To Billy Joe before opening for and arranging  Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West which became two live albums (one by Aretha, one by King Curtis) and from which A Whiter Shade Of Pale is taken.  Much loved by the Rock Establishment – Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Lennon and others, he was murdered in an altercation with junkies outside his apartment in New York five months after this concert.

On the DVD for Withnail & I (which Paul McGann and I did a commentary on for the special edition) I make a spurious claim, now crystallised for all eternity, that Curtis died on the night of the Fillmore West gig, just after recording the emotional genius of Whiter Shade Of Pale.  I can be wrong tha knows…

In the end the art of film-making hopes for a similar end result to the musician – to affect the audience.  To move you in mysterious or obvious ways.  Language is often a blunt tool, but in this opening sequence to the film that changed my life, there are no words, either on screen or in the sobbing song which accompanies it.  A man of quintessential loquacious eloquence like writer and director Bruce Robinson knew when to let the music and the actor do the work.

My Pop Life #121 : Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long – Roberta Flack

Featured image

Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long   –   Roberta Flack 

First you’re here, then you’re gone,
It’s that same old heartbreak story;
Thought that you’d be in my life
For more than just one night.
But you say you got to leave,
It destroys me, boy, it hurts me;
Tell me what did I do wrong
For you to leave me all alone?

1981 was a very strange year for me.  I have virtually no clear memories of it, only strange images and moments, meetings, fleeting whispers.  I was 24 and still hadn’t “become an actor”.  I had a degree in Law from the London School of Economics.  Whoopee.  I was living in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, whom I’d left in spring 1980 to take a year off on the Gringo Trail with my brother Paul through Latin America, then been forced to come home prematurely five months later after contracting Hepatitus B, jaundiced and weak.  Mumtaz and I had reunited but I was scratchy.  Any discussions we had about the relationship were along the lines of “are you staying or going?” and then debate was shut down.  I was working in an office above the ICA in The Mall for a group called SIAD.

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More about that later.  Finally in the spring of ’81, Paul had returned from New York City where he’d been living with Jim (whom he had met in San Cristóbal Las Casas in Mexico) and needed a place to live in London.  After making a few enquiries at a squatting collective in Hornsey, we identified an empty ground floor flat in a council block called McCall House on Tufnell Park Road, just down from the old Holloway Odeon and broke in.  Changed the lock.  Cut another set of keys.  Soon after this I left Mumtaz for the second time, found a mattress from somewhere and moved in with Paul.

We knew other squatters – The Huntley St squat down in Tottenham Court Road where Colin and Mary lived and where we’d lifted a small but incredibly heavy piano up six flights of stairs one day. Never again!  But we knew the squatting drill.  And London at this point felt a little like a battleground.  Thatcher was in power.  Ghost Train by The Specials was waiting in the wings, as were the Brixton Riots – and Toxteth, Wood Green and other areas.  It was nervy, aggressive and rough.  Normal enough, but heavy.

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There must have been running water and electricity.  We made rudimentary curtains in a hippie punk style and set up a small record player.  Photos from Mexico, Sussex and London were blue-tacked to the wall above the fireplace, which didn’t have a fire.  We added to these pictures on a daily basis.  Then a young gay guy from Mexico turned up and he stayed there for a while, kind of uninvited.  Maybe I moved out for a bit.  Really can’t remember.  Then a Kiwi girl Paul had met in Mexico called Eppy turned up and stayed too.  How did she find us?  No mobile phones or internet in those days.  Almost beyond understanding.  Eppy then invited some fucking heroin dealer round who boasted of his connections with Clappo – Eric Clapton – and the following day while we were out the flat was broken into and cleaned out.   Eppy was told to fuck off.  Soon after that we both fucked off too – Paul to a friends and me, tail between my legs for a second time, back to Mumtaz.  Before we left though, two main memories surface from those strange days in that flat…

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The Scala Cinema, Tottenham St W1, 1979-81

First – speed.  Amphetamine sulphate.  I’d been dealing it and taking it before Mexico andhad come close to becoming hooked.  It does bad things to your teeth, not to mention your brains, but the buzz was excellent.  There was clearly still some knocking around and one bleak Sunday we swallowed a couple of blues each and walked down to The Scala Cinema in Tottenham St W1, where I worked on Saturday nights at the famous all-nighter (see My Pop Life 23).  Lee Drysdale, who used to work there with me, still remembers me coming back from Mexico (once I was out of hospital) and turning up at the Scala orange-skinned and yellow-eyed with Hepatitus B.  It’s not infectious once you go orange, but I guess I looked pretty alarming.  No more so than the usual punters probably.

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So I must have worked there on the Saturday night, all night, noticed there was a film on Sunday night I wanted to see, crawled home at dawn, slept, got up, popped some blues and walked down Camden Road to Fitzrovia with Paul.  The film was Tarkovsky‘s sci-fi epic Solaris which had come out in 1972 and which I’d managed to miss at every opportunity.  It’s a stunning strange hypnotic empty film, and coming down from amphetamines, in-un-endingly desolate and grim.  Brilliant, beautiful but, well, apt somehow.  Soon after this The Scala moved to King’s Cross, Steve Woolley started Palace Pictures (with whom I would do a few films later) and I didn’t move over to Kings Cross with it.  I started another chapter.  Acting.

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My second memory of the squat though is one of the greatest LPs ever made.   It was one of Paul’s and we played it a lot while living there.  Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway is a short, 35-minute, seven song masterpiece of soul disco released in late 1979.  Originally planned as a second duets LP between the two friends and singers, Donny Hathaway only sings on two of the tracks “Back Together Again“and “You Are My Heaven“.  Roberta finished the album on her own after Donny ‘apparently’ jumped out of his apartment window on 15th St after suffering from paranoid delusions early in 1979.

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Donny Hathaway

They had originally met at Howard University in Washington D.C. studying music in the 1960s, had success individually, then recorded a hugely successful LP together in 1972 called simply Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.  It includes the songs You’ve Got A Friend and Where Is The Love.  Donny’s condition led to a breakdown in the relationship with Roberta through the 1970s, but they did record The Closer I Get To You on Roberta’s Blue Lights In The Basement LP in 1978, then decided to record a second LP together.  Sadly Roberta had to finish it on her own.  The result however is stunningly beautiful.  Every single song is a stand-out.  Stevie Wonder co-wrote You Are My Heaven with producer Eric Mercury then gave Roberta one of his greatest songs “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long“, which is the song which leapt out at me in that Holloway squat.

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The immense bass-line is one of those disco show-off lines which compel you to dance, and is played, as are all the instruments on this song, by Stevie Wonder himself apparently –  or is it?  Surely it’s more likely that Stevie’s longstanding bass player Nathan Watts is the uncredited player.  It is similar in style and flexibility to Stevie’s Do I Do, which was recorded around the same time.   Luther Vandross sings backing vocals along with Gwen Guthrie, Stevie, and possibly Jocelyn Brown.  It has been a favourite song of mine since 1981, and I have often played it at houseparties where I may have been DJ-ing.  One notable memory was in Upper Abbey in Brighton when we had a houseful of playmates, and this song got dropped.  Jenny and two of her sisters immediately went into full disco mode and mayhem ensued.

Roberta Flack is still very much alive and I’m lucky enough to have seen her live a couple of times in recent years.  She doesn’t play this song, but still plays Back Together and Where Is The Love live along with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, the song which rocketed her to stardom back in 1969.  She is a classically-trained musician who enjoys covering other writers work, particularly Lennon/McCartney/Harrison and Marvin Gaye. She is also a superb singer.  Her back catalogue has considerable pedigree, from the dark soul of Reverend Lee to the frothy disco of Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes).  

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I knew there was another reason why I loved Roberta

I don’t think I can imagine a song which less suits the bleak spring of 1981.  There we were in that druggy council squat that had all its windows smashed by some junkie scum and forced us back onto the street, and back into a relationship I’d finished twice already.  But life isn’t always neat and tidy like that.  And memory plays tricks.  This is one of them.

I have to thank my brother, currently living in Shanghai, for major assistance with remembering this episode in our lives.  His recall, though also blurry, is considerably better than mine.  Thanks Paul x

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