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

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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

My Pop Life #114 : There’s Nothing Better Than Love – Luther Vandross

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There’s Nothing Better Than Love   –   Luther Vandross

…what in the world could you ever be thinking of ??…

This song makes me melt, because of the music, the words, the rhythm, the notes, and where it takes me – to 1989 and falling in love with Jenny.   We had started dating in the summer of ’88 and following a mad American road trip at the end of that year I had finally almost accepted that she WAS the ONE.  1989 we were together.  We were in Portsmouth where I proposed, in New York City and Washington D.C., but mainly we were in London, in Highgate N6, on the middle section of the Archway Road.

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Jenny had introduced me to Luther Vandross in the shape of two LPs : Give Me The Reason and Any Love.  Probably three actually because I remember Never Too Much from this era too.  Luther was new to me, although I’d unknowingly heard him before singing background vocals on David Bowie’s Young Americans in 1974 and co-writing the song Fascination.  He also sang on the LP Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, one of the greatest soul albums of all time, released in 1972, which includes the first incarnation of Where Is The Love.  He also sang backing for Diana Ross, Chic, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Carly Simon among others.  I found all this out later.

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One Thursday evening in late January we lay in bed together and I summoned the courage to tell Jenny that it was all over, that I didn’t think it would be a good idea if we carried on seeing each other.  “Why not?” said Jen, who was lying on my shoulder, my right arm around her.  “Well,” I said, “Because I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”  Luther Vandross was on the stereo singing this song !  “I’m already in love with you…” she answered.  The answer that stopped my breathing, and halted the celestial cycle and melted my heart, and softened my very bones.  I pulled her toward me in an embrace.  We have been together since that moment.

My courting of Jenny had reached the point of going to meet the parents, so one Sunday I was formally introduced to Esther & Thomas Jules a handsome and loving St Lucian couple who had produced a houseful of gorgeous girls and one son.  They were very kind and served me a classic West Indian Sunday roast : chicken, plantain, yam, corn, greens, roast potatoes, dashin and gravy.  Delicious.  Mr Jules insisted that I drink a whisky or a rum with him.  I complied happily.  Jenny had two older sisters : Dee and Mollie, and two younger : Natasha and Lucy.  Jon the brother was slightly older than Jenny.  They were all very warm and friendly toward me because they all loved Jenny very much and didn’t want to upset their sister.  But also because they have all been brought up with love, and have it in abundance to spare.  It was just the family I needed and wanted to become a part of.  Solid, secure, easy, supportive and loving.   I’d already proposed to Jenny in February ’89 but hadn’t asked her father yet – but that is for another song and another story.

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Luther Vandross is the soundtrack to those young lovers though.   At the time he was an unfeasibly smooth, handsome and sultry soul singer with a very modern sound – his music is forever attached to the 1980s.   Those LPs were played a lot in Archway Road.  Beautifully produced – but what a voice.   One of the great singers of my lifetime, so expressive, so pure, gentle, and sensitive.  In a line of greatness back to Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, the record you play after you’ve gone to bed.  Love music.  Of course women also sing this music – Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Sade, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton, Roberta Flack and on and on.   Is anyone still doing it you ask ?  Oh yes – Usher, Ciara, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, Lianne La Havas, and on and on.    It will always be made of course.

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My soul development went something like this :  60s – Motown on the radio, 70s – Al Green on TOTP, discovery of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stax & Atlantic then through Philly, back to Sam Cooke and Jacky Wilson, Barry White & Teddy Pendergrass, Earth Wind & Fire into DISCO, Donna Summer and all that somehow emerging into the 80s with Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, Electro LPs and Prince.  So I had completely missed the soul continuum that Luther Vandross represents.   Jenny introduced him to me, and soon I loved him too.

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March ’89, Wembley

He was playing at Wembley Arena in March 1989 and Jenny’s sister Dee asked if we wanted to go, so together with Mick her boyfriend, we did.  It was a sold-out ten-night run in the Arena, which is massive – and Luther was the first artist to sell that many tickets, he was huge in England in the late 80s.  Rightly so.  We sat to his left, he wore silver and black, we swooned and went home happy and high.  The concert was released on video/DVD sometime later in 1991 but we’ve never seen it.   This song was on the brilliant LP Give Me The Reason in 1986, and is a duet with Gregory Hines.   I think it’s time to have a look at that night in March 1989.  Because – you know – and I know – there is nothing better than love.

My Pop Life #101 : Tired Of Being Alone – Al Green

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This painting is called ‘Lichtenstein in the Sky With Diamonds’

and it is by Andrew McAttee

with kind permission

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Tired Of Being Alone   –   Al Green

…tired of on my own…

1971.  The year of sentience.  The year of awakening.  When every sweet note, every bass line, every guitar lick, every vocal harmony, every crunchy cymbal and every sweeping organ chord-change melted into my ear for all eternity.   Burned, forged onto my very soul.  Every time I would hear these songs as I grew older, they would leap out of the speakers and caress my heart.   Sometimes I would remember the moment, the feeling, the teenage yearning, but often I would just be inside the music.   I know every small hesitation of these songs because I was fully available to them as they appeared in 1971.  They are magic incarnate and will always be so.  They are inside me.

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I was at middle school, Lewes Priory.   Mountfield Road.   I distinctly remember the Chapel  – it was actually a church in between Middle and Upper School.  With an organ, pews, altar, the works.   It was used for music and worship.   I didn’t like “music” at school because Mr Richards had metaphorically pissed all over the record I brought into his lesson one day – and that’s for another post I think.   It was also 1971 though.   I liked pop radio and Top Of The Pops.   It’s difficult to overstate the huge impression TOTP made on all of our lives, accompanied by the possibly more important Pick Of The Pops chart rundown from 5 to 7pm every Sunday evening, a non-religious gathering of the family around the radio to hear Alan Freeman tell us whether our favourites had gone up or down the charts.   Critical, basic, essential moments.

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The first time I saw Al Green on Top Of The Pops he was singing Tired Of Being Alone.  Just him, no band.  It was completely astonishing.  He was wearing some stretch top and had a small afro haircut.   And he sang this song as if his entire life depended upon it.   I didn’t know it at the time, but I would now mark this moment as my introduction to soul music.   Yes I’d seen The Temptations,  Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Diana Ross & The Supremes on the TV, but I can’t remember Otis Redding at all, or Jackie Wilson, or Sam Cooke, or James Brown.   I remember them on the radio – but not TV.  Having seen them since then I’m pretty sure I would have remembered them ?

Why did it have this effect on me ?  Well, I think the vast percentage of the reason must reside inside Al Green himself.   As a performer he really is second to none, and always has been.  This cannot and will not be the only Al Green post I write because I simply have too many stories spread over almost all of my life in relation to Al Green – The Reverend Al Green as he became known.  I have seen him live at least ten times, visited his church in Memphis and own all of his LPs.   I followed him through the gospel phase and then back to pop again.  He is technically a supreme singer. But the technique is the least of it.   His voice is powerful and delicate, male and female, hugely expressive, a thing of rare beauty and subtlety.   A gift.   All of which is present on this first single.  Watching him sing it – (live ?) – on TOTP was like a revelation, like a vision of something.

After one minute 44 seconds we’ve had the song, two choruses with their syncopated horn stabs, and then he starts to break it down, the music starts to vamp, Al starts to improvise, to express himself, to wonder…   I don’t think I’d ever seen that in a pop performance before, that whole section where he folds his arms and goes mmmmmm, it was simply remarkable.    It was an education.   It was soul music.

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The other thing that struck me from that seminal TOTP moment was how delicate he looked – small, wiry, dynamic, he reminded me of Desmond Dekker both physically and how he moved his mouth around the words as if they were alive.   Which they were.

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And maybe the song just expresses a huge simple human truth.  Aren’t we all tired of being alone ?  Maybe parents surrounded by children dream of being alone, but what for ?  Peace and quiet is over-rated.  I’ve been sitting here in Prague now for two months working on Legends, and it is simply the most unsocial group of people I have ever worked with, all for different reasons, some have their families here, Sean Bean stays in mainly, the others have their own runnings.   It’s just how it goes sometimes in the wacky world of showbiz.   I cherish time alone, and read a lot, write this, and so on and so forth, but underneath all that, yes, I am tired of being alone.   Luckily Jenny is coming out in two weeks.   And Paul after that sometime.    I’m quite a social animal au fin du jour.   Which is why I have ended up hanging out with The Musketeers – here for seven months on series three for the BBC – and we all meet in the James Joyce pub, two blocks away from the InterContinental, if we want some social time.  Guinness on tap.   Food.   Convivial.   Bit of Al Green on the jukebox.

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When this song was released in August 1971 I already knew what loneliness was all about.  As I wrote in My Pop Life 84 All Along The Watchtower and My Pop Life #56Morning Has Broken, we had been split up, separated as a family for nine long months while we waited for someone, somewhere to house us.   Eventually a council house on a new-build estate in Hailsham was offered and we moved in together in the late spring of 1971.   Our lives together in Hailsham were, in my memory, almost utter turmoil, with frequent visits from doctors, a cupboard full of pills for depression and Paul and I becoming more ungovernable as we hit puberty and grew physically larger, causing the weapons used to beat us with to get larger in response.  But of course there were moments of repose, of laughter, of peace, of conviviality too.  I’ve blotted most of this section of my life out.  My memories are very very selective.  But I clearly remember seeing Al Green on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  And that is a good thing.

Check out his microphone technique on this wonderful archive footage from 1972:

the original single, with backing vocals :

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