My Pop Life #223 : Overjoyed – Stevie Wonder

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Overjoyed – Stevie Wonder

And though you don’t believe that they do
They do come true
For did my dreams
Come true when I looked at you
And maybe too, if you would believe
You too might be
Overjoyed, over loved, over me

*

In the summer of 2008 the Olympic Games were held in China.  We had booked a holiday to start soon after that to visit to my brother Paul who was working in Nanjing.  He’d been in China for five years at that point, working in education, and it was time to see him there.  HE had made the intrepid move east after living in the Dominican Republic for five years, and a few months back in the UK had confirmed that he couldn’t live in England.  He’s now been in China some 16 years.  We flew to Shanghai and caught the bullet train in to our hotel in the French Concession area of the city.  We felt some initial trepidation that China might be a little racist, but the sensational performance of Usain Bolt in those Olympics, winning three gold medals and breaking the World Record each time meant that Jenny was greeted with joy everywhere we went.  In fact people asked if they could take photos with her.  You could of course argue that this is still racist, but I know which I prefer. We spent a couple of days with Paul who had come to Shanghai to greet us, doing the Art Museum, the old town, the finest restaurants and so on.

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We would be seeing this scenery for real shortly

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Then we travelled south, by plane, to Guilin.  There were Moon Cakes that night, and the following morning we embarked onto a riverboat for the four-hour journey downstream on the River Li to Yangshuo.  It remains one of the most astounding journeys of my life, through the karst limestone willow-pattern hills which were eye-poppingly wonderful in every direction.

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We disembarked past the cormorant fishermen, now a tourist staple of an older way of life and caught a taxi to The Giggling Tree, a converted farm which Paul’s ex-boyfriend Colin had recommended.  Surrounded by paddy fields and those spectacular hills, we relaxed and explored.  Took little wooden craft out on the river reminiscent of the gondola or the punt.  One night we went to a theatrical performance literally on the river with hundreds of performers, part dance, part music, choreographed and directed brilliantly by Zhang Yimou, the same Zhang Yimou who had just directed the Olympic Opening Ceremony in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing (and was also responsible for many of the finest Chinese films of the last 20 years such as Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern).

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The rumours doing the rounds then regarded the performers at that Opening Ceremony having to wear nappies because Zhang didn’t approve of tea breaks, or sitting inside an upside down cup for eight hours on the day waiting for their moment.

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The Giggling Tree, Yangshuo

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with a British Olympian by the paddy fields

  One visitor to the hotel was a British woman wearing an Olympic shirt and we found our that she had represented the UK in the rowing competition. Some of the team had stayed on to explore.  One day Jenny and I hired bikes and cycled to the Assembling Dragon Cave there along the river, over bridges and along the paths.  It was the first time Jenny had cycled for a very long time, and the very first time we’d cycled together.  On the way back we stopped by a rustic bridge.  It was a warm day and I decided to remove my shirt and sneakers and jump into the river.  It was exquisite.

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We decided not to take a balloon ride, but enjoyed Yangshuo and the countryside for a few days before flying back north, this time to Nanjing, the old capital of China.  Nanjing lies on the great Yangtze River which flows 3,900 miles across China to the sea, the third longest river in the world.

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Paul was living on the 15th floor of a medium high rise dwelling and from his balcony we could see about three blocks before the smog obliterated the view.  The wind blew from the West, the same direction as the river flowed and it was full of industrial muck and eroded soil and sand.

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We visited his place of work, a college where Paul was headmaster and met some of his colleagues.

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On our last day in Nanjing I suddenly got very ill.  Sweating, fever, aching kidneys, diarrhea, vomiting. I stayed in bed that night as Jenny and Paul went out to the neon lights of the city, and the following morning Paul put us on the train to Shanghai, worried about my health.  I was weak and wobbly but we made it to the hotel and decided not to see a Chinese doctor but just get home and sort it out from there.  Which is what we did.

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Nanjing

The doctor in Brighton decided to X-ray my lungs which had a shadow on them, and conduct a series of blood tests.  Blood tests are a ‘yes or no‘ answer, you can’t just ask ‘what is wrong with this person?‘, you have to ask : ‘is it pneumonia?‘ and when the test says ‘no‘ then you have to ask the next question.  We went through nine of these tests with a negative answer each time.  So I was laid up in bed, weak as a kitten, wheezing a little, losing weight, and reading the entire Harry Potter series from beginning to end.

Meanwhile we had two tickets to see Stevie Wonder at the O2, a week after we’d landed.   Jenny worried that she would have to go with someone else, but I was determined not to miss my hero – only the second time I would see him live in concert.  We had a car, but Jenny didn’t think I should drive for some reason.  So I asked my friend Rory Cameron, one of the Brighton Beach Boys, if he would chauffeur us to the gig in my car for a small fee.  He agreed, bless him and off we went.

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We had pretty good seats – about the 12th row. Stevie was walked out onstage by his daughter Aisha (Isn’t She Lovely!), and rather remarkably opened with a harmonica take on All Blues the first track on Miles Davis‘ classic album A Kind Of Blue.

There were other surprises too among the classics. We’d come on a great night, entirely by chance, because on October 1st 2008 Stevie Wonder played the song  People Make The World Go Round !!! originally by The Stylistics which is one of my favourite songs of all time (see My Pop Life #193).   He also played Chick Corea’s Spain later in the set.  The band were just outstanding.  A quick word here for Nathan Watts the legendary bass player who has been with Stevie since 1974 and is now his musical director.

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Nathan Watts, Detroit’s finest

They played a decent chunk of songs from Hotter Than July (the stunning Lately,  plus As If You Read My Mind, Did I Hear You Say You Love Me and Masterblaster) and Innervisions (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, Higher Ground, Visions, Living For The City, Golden Lady) and a nice selection from Songs In The Key Of Life (see My Pop Life #39) including As, Knocks Me Off My Feet, Sir Duke and Isn’t She Lovely.

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Couldn’t have been happier.  Too ill to stand up, but luckily most folk decided to sit and enjoy the music.  Beautiful beautiful music.  Then he played a song that I didn’t know called Overjoyed.  A tune. It is on one of the 1980s LPs which musical snobbery long ago decided weren’t up to scratch after the power and soul of Hotter Than July, which came out in 1980.  It immediately struck me as a completely astounding song and in the ensuing weeks I bought all of Stevie Wonder’s catalogue which I didn’t already own, then decided to chase down all the songs he’d written for other people.  How could I have missed that ?!? Overjoyed is a song he wrote for the double LP Secret Life Of Plants (1979) but was not included on it.  That album was also critically derided but bears repeated listening.  So many ideas there, so much beauty.  The drops of water which form part of the rhythm of this song, the gentle pulse, the melody are all astoundingly good.   Jenny knew it.

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In Square Circle LP released in 1985 also includes Part Time Lover

What else did he play that night?  Wait…OK.  Look.  If you’re a born-again muso nerd like me it is possible nowadays to check on a gig you went to which despite being extremely memorable and seared into your brain for evermore still has huge holes in it for the brain cannot in general retrieve all of the information which is stored inside it.  That is now what the internet is for. And there is a site called setlist.fm which contains much information of this kind.  There are holes in that too, but slowly they are being filled by punters, by muso nerds and pop fans.  Have you forgotten that memory?  Well here it is.  (Of course the gig I went to remains a hole on that website !!  I’ll have to search my memory even deeper…) But yes, Superstition.

Rory was waiting for us outside and I’m sure we burbled at him all the way home to Brighton, but I must confess it was a relief not to be driving for now I was both elated and shrivelling gently.  Further blood tests produced no results, and a 2nd X-ray showed that the shadow had gone on my lungs. Within a few weeks I was up and about and I’d finished the entire Harry Potter series.

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In a tributary of the River Li catching Chinese pneumonia, probably

Jenny and I talked about what that illness was, and how I’d caught it.  We decided that it was a river-borne virus because that was pretty much the only thing which we hadn’t done together – a process of elimination I’d used in Mexico back in 1980 when I caught Hepatitus B and Paul hadn’t (see My Pop Life #72) and we established that I’d had sex with Xochitl in Pie De La Cuesta and he had not. When we caught up with her later in Mexico City she was also jaundiced like me.   But this time we just didn’t know what it was.  Maybe the Chines doctors would have identified it immediately but then maybe I wouldn’t have been allowed to fly with Asian flu – a similar scenario again to the Mexico trip.

The other post-script worth mentioning is that a few weeks after we’d returned from China, news came in on October 10th that one of the hot-air balloons in Yangshuo had crashed – plummetted to the earth, killing 4 Dutch tourists and injuring the other three people on board.

So the moral of the story is this – if you get a chance to go to Yangshuo – take it. Truly breathtaking place. Don’t be tempted by the hot air balloon ride.  And – if you get the chance to see Stevie Wonder – go. We all need to feel joy.  Seek him out.  He is a mighty force for good in a dangerous scary world.  He is a legend and a half.  My favourite songwriter, my favourite singer.

Overjoyed live at the O2 Sept 12th 2008

 

The LP track with water droplets as beats :

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My Pop Life #217 : Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

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Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

*

as long as you keep your head to the sky

*

I owe everything to my wife in the end.  Almost everything positive in my life has come from her incredible energy, her spirit, her capacity for love above all else.   This is her song.

I write from my dressing room on Broadway.

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dressing room, Jacobs Theatre, 45th & 8th

Last August 2018 it was – I was in Malibu with my friend Stephen Kalinich (see My Pop Life #169 : The Magic Hand) when Jenny messaged me – could I make a meeting at 4pm the following afternoon in Los Angeles – with her Agency?  She’d spoken to the boss – Scott Manners – and he’d decided to relax his rule about not representing married couples.  They had an office in New York, and one in Los Angeles.  The next day I am seated at a desk as seven agents, (including Glenn Salners & Michael Chance), ask me questions.  They all love Jenny, but what is my raison d’irt track ?  They’d seen the showreel and liked it.  Good range.  Well, I say, I like to do accents, characters, but I don’t do theatre.  It was a line I’d been using for thirty years.  Ever since playing Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman in fact, (see My Pop Life #108) although I had done one more play since then at the RSC in 1989, and one at The Bush in 2009.  I do camera.  TV, film. I’m not sure how to do theatre acting.  It seems to require lying on a large scale, expanding the performance to reach the back row, projecting, pretending TOO MUCH.  My wife Jenny Jules is very good at it, in fact she is excellent.  Quite superb.  Better than me by quite a way.  She does the stage stuff, I do the camera stuff, largely.  It’s an amicable if archetypal arrangement.

But that is the story.  They nod, we chat, it feels good.

About a month later, I meet the New York office, including Scott.  He says he is worried by some things I said at the LA meeting.  Specifically the part about Not Doing Theatre.  Well, I said, following my own pre-recorded script, the story I’d been telling myself for the last 30 years : that “I don’t do theatre”.  I was a camera actor, a minimalist whose talent was for microscopic changes of mood and thought that needed a camera close-up into my boat-race. The Agency listened, nodded and Scott said “Ralph, that’s going to be a problem for us.  We use the theatre to build careers.”

OK then”  I said,  “I’ll do some theatre“.

It was time.

They signed me up.  Two months later, Scott sends me the script and one particular scene from The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth.  I’d seen it in London with Paulette Randall earlier that year.    My audition, just before Christmas, was with director Sam Mendes who’d asked me why I was going back onstage.  I told him that my wife had scored a great gig (couldn’t say what!) which meant that I really didn’t need to work in 2019, so the shackles were off and maybe I felt it was time to get scared again after only one stage performance in the last 30 years.  He reckoned they could provide that.  I’d practised a Derry accent over the weekend listening to Martin McGuinness on Youtube, and learned the lines.  It felt good.  I was offered the part the following lunchtime.

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My shadow falls across Broadway, January 2019

 

Jenny is the theatre actor, she plugs in on stage and burns incandescent like the sun.  Anyone who has seen her, in Ruined, Sweat, The Homecoming, Wine In The Wilderness, The Crucible, Julius Caesar, Her Portmanteau, Two Trains Running, Gem of the Ocean, Pecong,  The Colour of Justice, The Vagina Monologues, Fabulation, Born Bad, Big White Fog, Death & The King’s Horseman, A Raisin In The Sun, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl or Father Comes Home From The Wars knows what I mean.  She is luminescent.   She makes my eyes water, always does.  So proud and moved, so thrilled to see her every time.  I usually go six or seven times to a show she is doing.  I make the money, she does the art.  What’s the story again ? – I subsidised the theatre via TV shows & movies.  Yaawn.  I think we’d both been telling this story to be honest, we’d just got used to it.   The story was tired and had become bollocks.

On day one of rehearsal Tim Hoare introduced himself to me as the director.  Sam wasn’t going to be around.  I told Tim “my story” and how intrepid and scared I felt going back into the theatre.  He told me how Paddy Considine had never done a play when he started in The Ferryman in London.   Tim then nursed me through the rehearsal process with ease, fairness, compassion and great emotional literacy.  I was back in my twenties, in a rehearsal room with a new family, working on a piece of literature that we would stand on its feet together.  Back when I fell in love with the idea of being an actor.

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The Ferryman

There are twenty-one actors in the cast plus a baby & the animals, it is a monster three-hour banquet of a play set in South Armagh & Derry in the North of Ireland in 1981 during the Hunger Strike.   I play IRA Commander Jimmy Muldoon. Most of the cast were new, and most of them were American.  Charles Dale, Fionnula Flanagan, Glenn Speers and the children (Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy Michael McCarthy & Matilda Lawler) were staying on from the Broadway cast.  Charles is Welsh, Fionnula and Glenn are southern & northern Irish.  The kids are all Americans doing a Northern Irish accent (very well).  The new company included the lovely Brian D’Arcy James as Quinn, Holley Fain as Caitlin and Emily Bergl as Mary, Fred Applegate as Uncle Pat and Annie McDonough as Aunt Pat, Graham Winton as Magennis the IRA man with the Prod surname, and Shuler Hensley as Tom Kettle the Englishman in Crossmaglen.  Sean Maloney and Terence Keeney came over from the West End company and the Guinness started to flow, Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Jersey boy!), Ethan Dubin (Brooklyn boy!!), Julia Nightingale (starlet) and Jack diFalco (doing the accent all day and all night) joined us in the various Irish bars of Hell’s Kitchen.  The belly started to grow.  Stories, politics, Ireland, the Troubles. We drank.  We bonded.

Then we moved to the theatre on 45th St.  The show was still on in the evening, so we worked from 12-4pm on the stage.  Shared dressing rooms with the company and had to clear out every day.  The day approached.  For my Broadway debut.  At the age of 61 and a half.  What blessings are these.

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Broadway virgins no more : Julia, Sean, Terry, me, Ethan and Annie

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Me and Brian D’Arcy James on opening night

What is inescapably extraordinary is this simple fact : the play is set in South Armagh in August 1981.  If you look back at an early entry in my story (My Pop Life #13 : The Green Fields of France) it is the story of a younger version of me in South Armagh, August 1981.  Crossmaglen.  The Troops Out Movement, protected by the IRA through the countryside on a delegation to the British Army barracks there.  A quite extraordinary circle back through my own history, which I discussed in rehearsals.  How could I not ?  Being told by Jean in West Belfast not to go down the shop in Ballymurphy for cigarettes on my own because I’ll get popped once they hear my accent.  Seeing The Undertones in Finsbury Park and other gigs with Fergal Sharkey stripping down one song at a time from a parka to bare chest as he warbled through their pop-punk repertoire.  Seeing Bobby Sands murals on the Falls Road the size of a house.  Being in a war-zone.  The violence of those years in England – Brixton going up in flames, the Falklands War, the NF, the miner’s strike, IRA bombs in Brighton (see My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars).

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The Ferryman cast & crew in rehearsal, Feb 2019

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The infamous IRA scene at the top of Act 3 in rehearsal : Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Sean Delaney, Terry Keeley, Michael McCarthy, Jack diFalco

But beyond all of that, my own blood rushing through my veins every day as I boarded the Q train over the bridge to Manhattan with all the straphangers at 9.00am, finally feeling like a New Yorker.  I revisited my own love affair with acting, where I started, in the theatre.  Throughout my 20s I had done plays, above pubs, at the Edinburgh Festival, at the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Tricycle, the RSC.  I’d even written a couple.  Then after a terrible experience at Liverpool Everyman, revealed in My Pop Life #108 : Sumer Is Icumen In, I quit the stage and concentrated on TV and film acting.  Luckily Withnail & I  happened around the same time, and although it would take a few years to permeate the cultural landscape, my future was, unbeknown to me, already assured.  Lucky doesn’t cover it.  I am simply born protected & blessed and always have been.  I am forever grateful.  There was a moment of course in the joy of rehearsal when I thought – wow!  I should’ve gone back to the theatre YEARS AGO, but hey.  At least I got there.  I absolutely feel at home again.  Born again happy.

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Ben, associate director, and Tim Hoare at work

And as Tim said to me on the day of the Dress Rehearsal – “you are a stage animal“.  Such a terrific endorsement at a critical time.  I had the Juice.  I didn’t know that at the start of rehearsal but now I could feel it.  I was using an old muscle and it still worked.  This in itself has been a huge thrill.

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The Ferryman – the prologue : Glenn, Charlie, me, Graham

And all the while, there was Jenny alongside me as ever, nurturing and supporting, loving and healing, and holding her own secret, and rehearsing her own mighty show, for she had been cast back in September 2018 and signed an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) to not release the information to anyone.  We lived in a state of heightened purse-lipped security for three months.  Not even the word “Broadway” was to be uttered to any friends or relations of rabbit. The best gig she’d ever scored and she couldn’t tell anyone.  Until the day my deal was done, just before Christmas, and then there was the Press Release.

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Jenny Jules as Hermione Granger

Jenny was going into another hit Broadway show :  Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, replacing our friend Noma Dumesweni as Hermione Granger.  For a year.  At least.  This was the secret we had held for three months.  Mmmmmmnnnnn.  Biting the soles of our feet.  Such a Great Part.  Such a great show.  I’d seen it with Cush Jumbo & Sean Griffin and Rose Leslie in 2018.  Noma was in the cast.  So thrilling, such a wonderful piece of theatre, full of real magic.  So suddenly we were both Broadway Babes, inheriting parts in shows which were already hits, had already been reviewed and were running on with new companies.  Both produced by Sonia Friedman.  We were local hire in the two West End hit transfers.  Perhaps not that surprising, thinking about it.  It had taken us five years.  We were on Cloud Nine.

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Cloud Nine – kind of

Jenny started rehearsing long before I did, and didn’t open until a month after we’d opened – a fifteen-week rehearsal period all in all.  The Cursed Child show is in two parts, two complete plays, and they perform each one four times a week, eight show a week in all, the same as The Ferryman.

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Ron, Harry, Hermione – Broadway 2019

The Cursed Child is considerably more technical than our traditional play which obeys the unities of place and time, set inside a farmhouse in Armagh.  The Cursed Child has magic for a start.  To say more would be to spoil the surprises for those who haven’t seen it yet.  But they needed their fifteen weeks.  Jenny opened last night in Part One, and tonight in Part Two.  Her sister Mandy (Natasha, Reginelle, Bad) came over for the opening and is sitting there tonight.  She’ll come to see The Ferryman tomorrow night.  What a star.

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Max & his dad Sean

Yesterday dear friends Cush and Sean came to the Ferryman matinee.  They loved it.  They’d seen it twice before, and told me this was their favourite.  That was a secret of course.  This isn’t :  Jenny and I are Oddparents to their son Maximilian who is almost one beautiful year old.  After eating and walking up to the flower shop with them for Jenny’s first night bouquet, I split and bought a bottle of Yoichi Japanese whisky to take up to the lads’ dressing room after the evening show.  They hold an impromptu whiskey bar upstairs every night and it was time for me to contribute.  I deliberately use both spellings as we drink both whiskies.  We finished it in 40 minutes between the seven of us, then walked two blocks to Bar Centrale to meet Jenny, her sister Mandy, her room-mate Diane Davis (Ginny) and Charles Randolph-Wright our friend.  Sean and Terry came with me.  We had a few drinks and some toasty cheese and jumped in a taxi home.  Just a few mates from two shows.  It was a perfect end to a perfect day.  No need for Lou Reed after all.

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And it was Jenny who’d done it.  Who’d spoken to her agent and wondered if he would represent me.  Who’d sent the showreel. I’d been without an agent all year, since sacking Oriana Elia in January 2018.  Another tedious story.  I have a manager, Michael Lazo at Untitled in LA.  And I’d done a movie early in the year that he had organised as a straight offer – Gemini Man with Will Smith, directed by Ang Lee.  Nice gig.  But I hadn’t acted since.  I’d written a movie and co-written a 4-part TV show so I hadn’t exactly been idle.  But she’d moved some earth and sorted me out.  She didn’t want me idle when she opened on Broadway.  Something to worry about.  And now here we were both on Broadway, at the same time.  I will forever be grateful to her, for her optimism and faith and love.  For her fierce heart.  For her fire and her ice.  And for just being her beautiful self.  Did I mention I was lucky ?

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This tune literally lifts her heart.  From 1991, when we were courting, it is a gospel groove from Sounds of Blackness, a large soul/jazz/gospel ensemble out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Run by Gary Hines and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.  Jam/Lewis formed a band called Flyte Time with Alexander O’Neal in the 1980s who then supported Prince on tour (but now called The Time and with Morris Day on lead vocals).  They then went on to produce Just Be Good To Me for The SOS Band and Janet Jackson’s hit albums Control & Velvet Rope.

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In 1991 they nurtured their neighbours Sounds of Blackness, through their 2nd LP The Evolution of Gospel.  This – Optimistic – was the lead single.  It is pure UP music, and Very Jenny.  Very Infectious.  I swear she could heal the world on her own if she had time.  Their 3rd LP Africa to America : The Sound of the Drum is even better and I commend it also to thy ears.  Communal groove music.

Thank you my darling.  You are my world.

Never say die

 

 

My Pop Life #214 : Belle – Al Green

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Belle   –   Al Green

Belle….it’s you that I want, but it’s him that I need

A song which turns the history of African American music on its head, the rhythm & blues universe being filled with gospel singers who turned to secular music, including Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Sam & Dave and James Ingram – to name but a few – here however, a soul man from Memphis has found Jesus and started to sing gospel music.  I say ‘started’ because although he grew up in the gospel tradition, and had a group called the Greene Brothers in the late 50s with his brothers, he was kicked out of the band by his father when he was caught listening to Jackie Wilson.  The big sinner.  He wouldn’t sing gospel again for 20 years.  Belle is  lodged into my cortex as the great turning point in Al Green’s life when he renounced pop music and went back to God, as suggested in the line quoted above, but lodged in  my heart perhaps as something else.  Maybe I seek God in my life but, I’ve never been a religious man and this morning I felt it more likely that this refers to my need for a father figure?  Let’s explore that possibility for a minute.

Indeed it may in fact roll out to be the same thing.  Safety.  Arm around the shoulder.  Protection.  He knows best.  I must have felt some degree of this from my father for the first seven years of my life.  There he was, getting up, going to work, getting some bread in Portsmouth once he’d finished his English Degree at Cambridge.

where’s dad ?  Gone to work, get some bread

This was actually my first sentence, circa late 1958, according to mum.  He told us stories at bedtime, often made them up on the spot.  We had no idea – we being Paul and I who shared a bedroom.  Various creatures inhabited these stories – The Grimp and The Cahoodler spring out immediately although their shapes have always been blurry and indistinct.  They were cartoon animals though in my unformed mind.  We used to go on long walks together, always, and that continues to this very day when we see each other.  Nature, fresh air, leaves, butterflies, the sky, farms – all part of our shared experience.  Musically Dad never liked Pop Music so never joined in Mum’s and our dances in the kitchen or singing harmonies in the chorus in the living room.  If he was in a bad mood he’d walk in and turn it off and we’d all be sat on the settee and told to listen to Mozart or Beethoven and Paul would giggle first then Mum and we’d be ordered out, banished.  Banish. Ed.  I have some pictures of this era which was I guess 1957-1965.

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Cambridge 1958, Mum, Dad, me

When I look back on it all now, how lucky I am to be able to do this, my parents seem so ridiculously young.  How did they do it?  Three kids in the first six years of marriage.  It broke.  He strayed.  He moved out. I’ve told this story before.  But the thing is, emotionally, Dad became missing.  Never hugely physically affectionate in my memory at least, now he was out of the house, almost out of my life, and I missed him.  I’ve missed him ever since.

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But.  I’ve never really had a true father figure in my life since then.  Dad is still there, up in West Yorkshire with Beryl, and he and I have a good relationship, we speak fairly often.  So I don’t know if that is why I love this song.  It may seem like a long shot in the end, because there’s a lot deep yearning in there.  It doesn’t belong in Al Green’s gospel catalogue though, because it is still a sexual love song sung by a soul man.  The chords, the changes are fantastic.  Smoky, sultry, sexy even though he’s ultimately struggling with it.  Maybe that’s the twist for me – the magnetic attachment I have to the song, ie  maybe I’m gay !   Haha all theories welcome.

a)  I’m actually deeply religious just haven’t acknowledged it yet

b)  I’m gay, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

c)  I always needed a father figure, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

d)  It’s a sexy song, and I like sex, just haven’t acknowledged etc

e)  It’s a spiritual song, and it feeds my soul, just haven’t blah blah

f)  it’s a fine tune !!

g)  it is actually Al Green’s best performance on record

 

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                    Belle – The Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time…              Belle – leaving him has never ever really crossed my mind

 

The Belle Album was released in 1977 just as punk was sweeping the UK and I was busy joining in (like a good law student).  I think I bought it after the gig though.  I was going steady with Mumtaz, and we were both fans of Al Green.  I wrote about the Damascene conversion I had in 1971 in My Pop Life #101.   By then my father had been gone for six years and was about to remarry and move to Yorkshire.   I was going to see Al Green with my girlfriend.  The gig was in The Venue, Victoria Street  and it was 1978.  It was a little like The Forum/Town & Country in Kentish Town, but we were sat at little tables which were spread around the downstairs – cabaret seating with waitresses and food.  Slightly raked seating?   It was actually a tremendous place to see someone live, but it didn’t last that long as a venue.  I did see Todd Rundgren there four nights running in 1978, which is pretty fanboy-esque, a series of gigs that became a live album called Back To The Bars.

I scarcely remember the Al Green gig except that it was exquisite. He had a kind of jumpsuit on as I recall, a cravat, and cuban heels. He sang all the greats, the  highlights were Love & Happiness, Tired Of Being Alone, Can’t Get Next To You, and this song Belle.  When he sang Let’s Stay Together he came down into the tables and chairs and distributed stem roses to us, holding the mic and singing to each table.  It was my first time seeing Al Green and it was extraordinary, but every time I’ve seen him since (about eight times) he always does this – walks down, touches people, sings to them, a ripple of excitement goes through the audience every time.  But in the end it’s the singing with Al.  The voice of course is extraordinary but it’s what he does with it, the turns of phrase, the whoops, the ad-libs, the phrasing, the grace notes, the pure inhabiting of every note in every song.  It all comes from within the great man’s soul.

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The song Belle is extraordinary.  You think it is finished as the music fades but he has a whole other level to go to, and he goes there.  He is testifying to us and his woman that he wants her more than she can imagine, but he needs The Lord even more than that.  And at that point in his life, he meant it.  Four years earlier, and for reasons that I have not fully understood, but reported to be his refusal to marry her (she was already married with children), his girlfriend Mary Woodson White had cooked a pan of grits (like semolina) and thrown them over him causing severe burns on his back and arms before shooting herself dead with his pistol.  A note in her purse gave the reasons.  After this a shocked and changed Al Green became ordained as a pastor and even as his record sales were falling was moving away from sexual music towards holy music, and a holy life.  Just after we saw him at The Venue he fell off a stage in early 1979 and took it as a sign that he had to change direction finally and forever. I was lucky to see him on the point of renouncing sinful music…

In the song we hear Al Green struggling with his love for a woman and sings at one point, about Jesus :

he’s my bright morning star

The Morning Star is of course the planet Venus, generally associated with the sacred feminine.  The other line that always pings out for me is :

“I know that you can understand a little country boy”

Al was born on a farm in Dansby, Arkansas in 1946 to a sharecroppers family.  I spent ten years in a small village called Selmeston in East Sussex, opposite a farm.  We used to help with the harvest in August.

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The next time Al Green  came to London it was with a gospel set and a huge choir, and none of his soul material got an airing, not even Belle.  This happened fairly regularly through the 80s, usually at Hammersmith Odeon.  The Reverend would always sing Let’s Stay Together (Jesus) though, often coming down into the crowd for that song, walking among us as it were, sometimes handing out roses.  I saw a fair number of these shows as an avowed atheist simply because he was my favourite singer in the world.  I once saw Kevin Rowland in the audience,  paying homage.  No one can touch Al frankly, not even Smokey Robinson, my other favourite, Otis Redding, or Queen Aretha may her soul rest in peace.  Al for me tops all of these.  Maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would eventually nestle on the pinnacle, technique and passion to burn, but come on – I’d always choose Al Green to be honest.

It was in the late-eighties I guess (?) when Rita and I went to see him at Festival Hall – and he’d started putting some of the old soul classics back into the show after ten years and ten gospel albums. He sang Otis Redding‘s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and Sam & Dave‘s Hold On I’m Coming (I think?) and one of his ? but I can’t remember which one, maybe the mighty Love & Happiness.  Over the next ten years he slowly left gospel music behind and started producing pure soul music again in 1995 with the album Your Heart’s In Good Hands which is magnificent, like a sigh of relief almost. On the track Love Is A Beautiful Thing  Al sings the words let’s stay together, cos I’m still in love with you, call me, for the good times, tired of being alone, here i am…  a veritable litany of the titles of his old soul hits which are clearly coming back through his nerve endings into his pores into his heart and out of his mouth.  The great return was a celebration – he is still a Reverend, but now he was back and singing everything.  Our friends Lynn and Tony saw him in Central Park in this period when the concert was almost rained off, then the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine struck Al Green directly centre stage and he announced he was going to sing Love and Happiness for the first time for years. Magical.

In 1988 I went on a long road trip across the USA from D.C. to Phoenix Arizona, written about in My Pop Life #148 .  On the way out west I stopped in Memphis for a day and hit up the various landmarks of that fine city : Graceland of course, the Lorraine Motel where a homeless lady gave me a history lesson, Beale Street where I got suckered, then the next morning driving down to Hale Road in South Memphis to find Al Green’s church, the one he bought as he was recovering from the burns.

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He wasn’t there, but I’d needed to set eyes upon the place which was his physical and spiritual base, especially since I’d just lost the bulk of my cash and was about to embark on a strange week of driving without money.

With Jenny in 1999 we would see Al Green at The Royal Albert Hall when Lucy was singing with support act Beverly Knight, then later that year we travelled down to Glastonbury (our only visit) and saw him there too.  Quite a contrast, or not.  Two great English cathedrals of music. Magnifique, as ever.   I think my favourite Al Green album (the one that gets the most plays = the favourite doesn’t it?) is Al Green Explores Your Mind from 1974.  It is perfect.  Has the songs Take Me To The River,  The City and Sha-La-La.  But he hasn’t made a duff album.

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I always call it “Al Green Explodes Your Mind”.   Which is a more accurate title.

The next record was in 2002 – I Can’t Stop which was when he came back to the UK again and we saw him live, once again, singing soul music.  The voice hadn’t gone anywhere and was still extraordinary.

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He’s still handing out roses!

Watching Al Green live I would look forward to his favourite moment, my favourite piece of the ceremony  : you know when singers go high and they move the microphone away from their mouths?  Al does that until his arm is completely straight and he can’t get the mic any further away – so he will just put it down at his feet and sing without amplification.  The audience hush and he draws us in. It is an immaculate moment. He gets the spirit like this at absolutely every gig and it is always the highlight.

 

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Top Al Green tunes that never make it onto Greatest Hits albums you ask?  I can help you there.  Old Time Lovin from 1971’s Let’s Stay Together is as good as anything he’s done. Guitar-based song, which is unusual for Al.  His long-time friend and producer Willie Mitchell played keyboards, often the bubbling Hammond organ on many of Al Green’s songs and it became a signature sound on the Hi record label, all recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, along with folk like Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright.  I should note here that Willie was the first person to visit Green in hospital after his second & third degree burns were skin grafted, they made 11 amazing albums together, but the year before Belle was released they’d parted company because Willie wasn’t interested in producing gospel music.  Al Green produced The Belle Album himself.

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Another great song is Home Again on the wonderful album Living For You (1973).  Strings and organ dominate the groove, with tasteful horn flourishes and pads.  His singing is exquisite. Willie Mitchell and Al Green in sync.

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My favourite is I’m Glad You’re Mine on the LP I’m Still In Love With You (with its stunning title track !) from 1972. Incredible drumming from Al Clark of Booker T & the MGs across town at Stax Records, who co-wrote many of the early songs with Al Green & Willie Mitchell, and played on most of them. And finally I’d recommend the last track on the masterpiece LP Call Me (1973) which is called simply Jesus Is Waiting.  Enjoy.

Rare live performance of Belle on my birthday 1978 in Japan :

Playlist of all the tunes mentioned above :

My Pop Life #195 : Do What You Gotta Do – Nina Simone

Do What You Gotta Do – Nina Simone

Man I can understand how it might be
Kinda hard to love a girl like me
I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free
I just wanted you to know
I’ve loved you better that your own kin did
From the very start it’s my own fault
What happens to my heart
You see I’ve always known you’d go…

I have avoided writing about Nina for almost 200 entries now.  Daunting, difficult, mysterious and magnificent, she defies easy category or glib biography, but she has touched me over and over since 1976 when I first heard her.  But now in October 2017 I feel compelled to attempt at least an introduction to the most haunted, most incredible, most heart-breaking performer I ever saw live – on three occasions during the 1980s.

The first occasion I was with my girlfriend Mumtaz Keshani at the Barbican Centre in London.  We’d come to pay homage to the great jazz and blues singer in one of the great halls of England.  It was 1982.  Nina was guided out onto the stage by a male assistant/stage manager/manager/husband?  She settled at the piano and scowled at us.  She wasn’t in the mood.    Over the years I’ve come to realise that she rarely was.  Funnily enough her LP Live In Concert 1964 has one song ‘Go Limp’ when she is clearly enjoying herself.  But this is unusual.  Nina didn’t really specialise in happy songs, or indeed in happiness.  She famously hated My Baby Just Cares For Me which is by some measure her most positive track, mainly because it never earned her any money.   The bouncy jazz standard was written by Donaldson & Kahn and recorded by Simone on her first album in 1958, but languished in obscurity until it was used for a Chanel Number 5 commercial in the mid-1980s and the LP was subsequently re-released by Charly Records, and the single was a hit.  It became a dance-floor favourite, and still is.  (It closed my sister’s 40th birthday party celebration for example, a fact which my brother Paul enjoyed immensely).  But when Nina played it live she usually passed some caustic remark “here’s the song you wanna hear…”

Soon into the show at the Barbican we realised that this was going to be a very particular kind of concert.  Her performance perfectly matched her mood and thus was extremely honest, but her mood was quixotic and combative.  She didn’t appear to be capable of pretending or indeed of singing anything unless she really wanted to.  We got renditions of some of her angry songs – mainly from the 1960s when she was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement – Mississippi Goddam (“this is a show tune….the show hasn’t been written for it yet”), See-Line Woman (join in – you can do better than that!)  and the Brecht/Weill Pirate Jenny which was terrifying and magnificent.  The audience cheered and the ghost of a smile troubled her heavy features.  But actually she then stood up to take the applause and proceeded to walk slowly back offstage with some assistance.  The band gamefully struck up a jazz  shuffle but the gaping hole on the stage was undisguised.  Would she come back?  When Nina appeared a few minutes later I swear I could see a slight stain on her blue full-length dress, like water (she took pills) or vodka (she took vodka).   This time she stared at us for a longer period of time and decided we needed a good talking to.  I cannot remember what she said but it was painful and bruised and brooding.  She appeared to resent being there.  Forced to sing songs for money.  She started to play the opening cadences of Randy Newman’s Baltimore from the 1978 LP of the same name –

a fantastic record which includes Everything Must Change, Balm In Gilead, and the hugely affecting Judy Collins song My Father.  Baltimore is one of Newman’s best songs and opens with a simple piano phrase and a sad lonely image, perfect for Nina  :

beat-up little seagull on a marble stair

tryin’ to find the ocean, lookin’ everywhere

when she suddenly stopped dead and announced that she wasn’t playing that song, it was written by a white man.  The atmosphere changed.  It was uneasy, it was thrilling, it was a tightrope walk and we didn’t know if she, or we, would fall.  A few people left which made the rest of us dig in and wait for the undoubted moment or two of illumination which would surely come.  And sure enough among the huge wobbles and disappointing shrugs Nina Simone became more magisterial with each passing minute, one moment surveying us like insects, the next singing her sobbing bluesy delivery with real pain.

My fantasy had been, of course, that she would be the singer-songwriter/interpreter of the classics that I had discovered on the LP Little Girl Blue.  Recorded in 1958 on Bethlehem Records it contains that song My Baby Just Cares For Me, plus Love Me or Leave Me, Little Girl Blue, I Loves You Porgy, You’ll Never Walk Alone.  It’s the classic introduction to the artist.  When she made it she was 26 years old and living in New York.  We’d fallen in love with the record and played it A LOT.  It was much later that I discovered that Nina had been bought out of her royalties for $3000 – about 25 thousand in today’s money – and her decision I understand.  She moved to Colpix Records immediately after this, but when My Baby Just Cares For Me eventually became a huge hit in the 80s she didn’t get a cent.

Back at The Barbican Nina was delivering a sulky version of something I didn’t know, turning in a perfunctory rendition of something I did, and causing quite a number of the audience to leave.  By the time we were half-empty it felt like a defiant decision to stay – those of us who did stay witnessed that rare thing – an artist delivering a perfectly honest live performance, a performance that was a mirror of exactly where she was at in her life – and it wasn’t a good place.  Tired of hiding.  Tired of being managed.  Tired of singing for money.   Towards the end she cheered up and had us clapping and singing along, and she bowed in faux elegance, strangely dainty but unsteady, proud and deeply vulnerable, bloody-minded and unrepentant.

We were on our feet clapping and whistling.  She didn’t come back for an encore.  We knew she wouldn’t.  I can’t remember the rest of the setlist, but she didn’t sing I Loves You Porgy, or Little Girl Blue or Love Me or Leave Me or my very first love : Do What You Gotta Do.

I bought the single from a Soho record shop in my first year at LSE – late 76/early 77 – when I was educating myself in soul music and english law.   The song was the B-side to Ain’t Got No, I Got Life which a mash-up of two songs from the musical Hair and had become a hit single (#2 in the UK) in 1968.  Her performance is extraordinary.  The song was written by the inimitable Jimmy Webb (Galveston, Wichita Lineman) for Johnny Rivers in 1967 and Nina covered it a year later with the same arrangement but with a considerably heavier delivery.  The words are dredged out from her very soul of her bones as she delivers the frankly pathetic final line of the chorus :

Come on back and see me when you can

and she changes the nature of the song from a paean dedicated to a wild sweet firehorse of a free-spirited girl, to a tragic hymn for a weepy slumped & broken woman waving her philandering man off the premises, heartbroken.  It is an extraordinary performance and it has haunted me from the very first time I heard it, and throughout the years since.

It is also, strangely, Nina Simone’s only “soul” record really, based on the arrangement.  She was a jazz singer, a blues singer, a folk singer, a show-tunes singer, a ballad singer, just a singer – and she preferred to be known as a “Freedom Singer”.    I’m fairly sure I put this song on many soul compilation tapes – c90s – and almost certainly on the soul tape I made for Jenny not long after we started ‘dating’.  God knows why – it is utterly inappropriate.

For the young, the young-at-heart and those interested in 21st century pop,  Do What You Gotta Do was sampled heavily on Kanye West’s song Famous in 2016, appearing on his LP The Life of Pablo, although I should note that it isn’t the Nina Simone version, it sounds rather like someone has re-recorded it.

Over the years, as I collected her LPs from the simple beauty of Nina & Piano in 1969 to the majesty of the arrangements on 1965’s I Put A Spell On You (which includes Feeling Good and Ne Me Quitte Pas) I realised that whatever the song, whatever the genre, the same bruised quality is there – the voice wavers, worries, and hangs in the air like a teardrop about to fall from a melancholy eye.  Ne Me Quitte Pas is the Jacques Brel song which is one of her signature performances and which dear Maureen Hibbert sang for me at my 60th birthday party.  In French.  Quite magnificently !

What we are listening to here, every time, is disappointment.  The disappointment of not getting into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, her dream, because she was black, and forging a career as a cocktail lounge singer instead in Atlantic City, playing blues, jazz, classical, calling herself Nina rather than use her real name Eunice Waymons and risk her mother finding out that she had fallen so low.  She carried this disappointment all her life and, along with the anger that flowed deep beneath, it imbues every song she sang.   But there is something else.   She had awful luck with partners, both business and romantic.  The royalties she never earned, the sometime abusive marriage to Andrew Stroud who became her manager.  But again her wounds seem deeper than this too.  There are terrible stories of her walking naked through hotel corridors holding a knife, stories of despair so deep, and sadness so enveloping that her very survival seems to be a triumph.  Watching her walk this line onstage, so vulnerable, so defiant, so talented and yet so churlish was always an extremely moving experience.  She demanded worship, but we applauded her bravery.

I saw her twice more after that show and the same feelings were repeated : awe, concern, amazement and yes, disappointment.  She could share that all right.  The second time was at The Dominion Theatre in London’s Tottenham Court Road with Rita Wolf in 1986 when she stood at the front of the stage and shouted at us all with her hands on her hips, the Priestess of Soul, the Queen of Disdain commanding us to kneel and pray.  She was immense.  She was so much better, physically, mentally, spiritually than she’d been in 1982.  Spellbinding is how I remember it.

The final time I saw her was at Ronnie Scott’s in 1987, again with the small band, drums, bass and Nina on piano.  It was intimate and all the more excruciating for it.  She was extremely perfunctory and tired, complaining about the heat, the theft of her music royalties and other betrayals, her hands playing those heavy chords which so often supported her weary aching voice.  It was like witnessing something private and painful, but was of course, public and captured for all eternity on the LP Live At Ronnie Scotts released that same year.

We are thrilled when our heroes and heroines put their souls on the line, bare all for their art, sob into the microphone or disintegrate onstage before our very eyes.  All for the price of a ticket.  But is it an act ?  Or a craft ?   Nobody can fall apart every night on cue can they ?

Well yes they can – ask my wife Jenny Jules who I’ve seen do it night after night.  It breaks my heart.  Jenny saw Nina towards the end of her life at the Festival Hall when she lit a cigarette onstage and nobody dared ask her to put it out.   Nina Simone had the craft as a singer, a songwriter, an interpreter, a performer – but she couldn’t hide her pain when it was real.  And when it wasn’t there, she didn’t act it – perhaps she couldn’t at this late stage.  Her renditions were often perfunctory and irritable.  Nevertheless, we still lined up to pay to see her.  She took medication for depression for most of her life and appeared, from the outside at least, to stagger from disaster to despair and back.  She lived in Barbados, Liberia, Holland, France and Switzerland after quitting the USA.  She counted Lorraine Hansbury, Miriam Makeba and Martin Luther King among her friends.  She used to threaten people with a shotgun and once fired it at a neighbour’s pool, hitting a teenage boy.   I think on reflection she was disappointed primarily with herself, like we all are, and couldn’t quite pretend not to be.

I have more to write about Nina Simone, but it’ll have to wait for now.  While searching for the pictures to accompany this blog I found this jewel of Nina enjoying her breakfast in bed somewhere in the world, and smiling.  I’m glad she had some genuine moments of joy as well.

My Pop Life #193 : People Make The World Go Round – The Stylistics

People Make The World Go Round – The Stylistics

But that’s what makes the world go ’round
The up and downs, a carousel
Changing people’s heads around
Go underground young man…

Every Thursday morning I get woken by the trash collectors outside the front yard. Making slow progress up Carlton Avenue, throwing black bin liners full of crap into the back of the truck, chatting, making scraping sounds, thuds, following the slowly moving truck up the street.  There’s something calming about how this happens with clockwork regularity, and this morning I woke after a marvellous night’s sleep – the best for some weeks indeed – and retired to the back room where the sunlight hadn’t quite reached thanks to the giant church edifice at the bottom of the garden.  Cats came to join me in contemplation as I felt gratitude for the simple regular domestic details of life without fear, without stress (pretending!) without debt (hmmm).   My brain was calm, wandering through the concept of exotics pets (wow I hate this trend SO MUCH, please leave them where they are);  the human appetite which must be tempered at every turn – no sugar, no meat, no fat, no smoking, no adultery, no gambling, no fighting, no envy, no stealing the same old story told and retold generation after generation in every culture every religion every century as the world turns and the trash man collects every Thursday.

Russell Thompkins Jr in the early 70s

This song begins with the line “Trash man didn’t get the trash today…. and why because they want more pay”.  The rhythm of life has been disturbed.  But the rhythm of the song has already been established as a 4/4 interrupted by a 2/4 every now and again (I haven’t counted it out).  A beautiful arrangement reminiscent of Bacharach, but emanating from the minds of Thom Bell and Linda Creed in early 1970s Philadelphia.  The song opens with the wind blowing through wind chimes as the bass and the keys gives out an urgent pulse, the strings and drums arrive together with the off-beat marimba and vibraphone as the exquisite voice of Russell Thompkins Jr tells us the tale of urban life – pollution, strikes, shares tumbling, long hair gets a mention, rich v poor, it’s a classic social snapshot which was in vogue at this time – think Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Wake Up Everybody, What’s Going On and so on.  Black music had worn a social conscience on its sleeve since the riots of the late 60s, the murder of Martin Luther King, the fact that many artists had fulfilled their contracts and demanded more control (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder), and were writing about what they saw around them – Marvin Gaye’s brother had come back from Vietnam and they’d spent days talking together before he wrote his magnum opus.

Thom Bell

It’s easier to define things (incorrectly) in decade generalisations – 60s soul vs 70s soul but actually the break comes in 1968 with James Brown’s I’m Black & I’m Proud. Soul music had started to introduce the orchestra in the late 1960s at Motown with Diana Ross’ Someday We’ll Be Together and Reach Out And Touch, Isaac Hayes had broken it all down with the LP Hot Buttered Soul in 1969, drenched in orchestration and stretched out to glory on every song and opening the door of soul music to anyone who had bigger ideas for the sound.  Cellos !  Violas !  Orchestration became the name of the game and over the next five years and large number of extremely good soul records were produced – largely, I have to admit, in Philadelphia PA.  A studio run by Thom Bell alongside Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff who created the Philly Sound – Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes with the outstanding vocals of Mr Teddy Pendergrass who would go on to be the soundtrack for a million conceptions, The O-Jays in their Love Train, still playing today (I saw them in Brooklyn a couple of years ago with Rita Wolf my ex-girlfriend from the 80s), Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, The Intruders, MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) the houseband with their huge orchestrated instrumental hit TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia), McFadden & Whitehead and of course The Stylistics – who were actually on another Philly label Avco Records.  

Leon Huff, Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble – TSOP

Later we would get the great Barry White from Los Angeles, Wattstax where Isaac Hayes ruled, The Three Degrees, The Detroit Emeralds, The Jacksons, all utilising the full orchestra for their sound, all fantastic.  I’m working off the top of my head here because the internet is down, but I think that the first soul hit to use strings in such a featured way is The Delfonics’ La La Means I Love You, again from 1968 (the watershed year when the world turned a little more sharply: Street Fighting Man. Vietnam. And so on and so forth.)  But the first ?? No this must be mistaken.  It was however and anyway one of the first productions from Thom Bell for the Philly Groove label (previously Cameo/Parkway) in Philadelphia, and set the template for The Stylistics and The Spinners, and indeed Philadelphia International.  Massively influential, it all led, of course, to disco, which dominated the music scene at the close of the decade.

The Delfonics with Thom Bell in 1970

The Stylistics had an incredibly lush sound and their first LP – called, with predictable and satisfyingly clockwork regularity – “The Stylistics”,  yielded an embarrassment of riches – every song is superb, and five or six of them were hit singles : Stop Look Listen To Your Heart, Betcha By Golly Wow, You Are Everything (also a hit for Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross), You’re A Big Girl Now and People Make The World Go Round.   All but one written by Creed and Bell it was a perfect marriage of melody, voice, arrangement and soul.  Their second LP a year later was equally fecund – Stone In Love With You, Break Up To Make Up, Peek-A-Boo, You’ll Never Get To Heaven – all with the same signature slow groove lush orchestration and extraordinary voice of Thompkins.  The 3rd LP gives us Rockin’ Roll Baby the title track and the magnificent You Make Me Feel Brand New.  Then Thom Bell moved on and they floundered somewhat. On their 4th record they harnessed the power of Van McCoy to create Can’t Give You Anything, a song which hit the charts in England in 1975 and which I wrote about in My Pop Life #70 .   It’s a magnificent run of music.

That incredible first Stylistics album : “The Stylistics

When I was driving bandmates Glen Richardson and Tom White up to Liverpool last month (a prestigious gig for us, performing the Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums for their 50th anniversary at the wonderful Philharmonic Hall) we chatted music most of the way up – it was a pre-Bank Holiday Friday and the journey took 10 monster hours, frying our brains.  But we had a half-decent soundtrack so everything was all right.  Glen asked at one point “in a perfect world, which tribute band would you want to play in?”  Tom, being a young 30-something fella (previously produced 4 LPs with his brother Alex as Electric Soft Parade, a couple with British Sea Power members as Brakes, many solo LPs now with The Fiction Aisle) chose American indie band Guided By Voices.  Although I’d heard of them I couldn’t name you a single song, and neither could Glen.  Such are generation gaps.  I cannot for the life of me remember what Glen chose (how odd), but I said ‘orchestral soul from the early 1970s‘ – at which point the iPod, which had been listening closely to this verbal duel, proceeded to play a number of these  songs such as If You Don’t Know Me By Now and Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, including this one from those Stylistics, plus Love TKO from Teddy Pendergrass and we wondered whether Me & Mrs Jones was about adultery or cocaine, and how iPods can do this kind of thing.

The song worked its magic again last week, driving around Guadeloupe with Adjoa Andoh, Roz Eleazar and her sister Sai not even two weeks ago.  We needed some healing and escape for on the previous Saturday Roz, her boyfriend Gabe and sister Sai, Larrington Walker and I had gone to the beach down in Malendure to explore the Jaques Cousteau Reserve.  We’d got separated (2 persons per kayak) and my boat had inexplicably swerved off to the Jardin Japonais an underwater coral reserve which was stupendously beautiful, but not Pigeon Island where the others had gone.  I lost my friends, swam with the turtles for a bit and then upon returning to the hotel found out that Larrington had died face down snorkelling off Pigeon Island.  I’d seen the ambulances and Gendarmerie Plongeuse but hadn’t asked what was up.  The girls were calm that evening, relating how they’d seen Larrington lying on the beach as if asleep.  Someone else had pulled him out of the water.  They’d given statements to the police, and traded versions over the whisky and beer.  The rest of the cast and crew – guest suspect (like Roz, Adjoa and I) Osy Ikhile, Marc Elson boom, director Sarah were in shock too.  It is a notoriously difficult place to shoot – the heat, the humidity, the mosquitos, but this was another level.  Death in Paradise.  He was 70 years old, but Jo Martin told me on the Sunday that he was fit and swam a kilometre every day.  That’s like an hour of swimming.  We vowed not to speak to the press if somehow it leaked out and they wanted a story for their headline.  We drank ourselves into a stupor that night.  The following day was numb.  We stayed in the hotel, perched on the side of the mountain, a decision was made not to shoot on the Monday out of respect.  So we had a weird day off and by now Adjoa had arrived to the news that her colleague had passed on.  Monday came and I rented a car after breakfast and set up the ipod with a recently created playlist called simply PHILLY.  It played us all the way around to Port Louis and back – two 90-minute drives to a small community on the low-lying sister island Grand Terre and a ghost town with but one restaurant open – Dominican – with tremendous fish (and lentil stew for the vegans) and an almost-deserted beach just past the old cemetery with pure white golden sand and trees right down to the water line.

Adjoa, Roz, Sai in Port Louis, Guadeloupe

We swim in the warm Caribbean water and Adjoa and I both step on sea urchins, receiving a little parting gift in the soles of our feet which the intrepid Saireeta pulls out the following day with tweezer and unerring eye.  It is on the way home that The Stylistics record comes on People Make The World Go Round, and Adjoa swoons and sings along – it reminds her of her youth in the 1970s – we immediately chop it back and play it twice.  And although Roz and Sai are both way younger than us and not fully indulging in the nostalgia-fest of Philly, like we are in the front seats, nevertheless they are enjoying the sweet soul sounds of the seventies and healing along with us for we are in mourning after all.   And by the time we return people are preparing for Hurricane Irma which MAY OR MAY NOT make landfall on Guadeloupe on Wednesday morning.  Someone asks me if I’ve ever worked on a show before where someone has died, and although my memory is unreliable I think in fact that I have not.   And clearly I wasn’t supposed to experience this death fully either, for despite spending breakfast with Larrington and meeting him on the beach, I was swerved away by the captain of my boat (speaking French not English) and thus was not a material witness either to the police or to Larrington’s son Alandro who arrived later that same day.  I did in fact speak to Alandro briefly and gave him the photograph below which was the last picture of Larrington, sitting in the kayak paddling toward his ultimate destiny.

Larrington Walker, rest in peace

But People do actually make the world go round don’t they?  The news will always be full of despair.  Now and again the trash man will not collect the trash.  But world will not crumble (Gibraltar may crumble the Rockies may tumble – they’re only made of clay..) because people will continue to make the world go round, and my love is here to stay.  This morning I rediscovered the simple joy of doing nothing as the sun cracked through the window and lit a splinter of floor which Roxy examined and found to be good. BoyBoy was on my lap looking at me with such love in his eyes as I stroked his tummy.  I could hear the odd car horn from the street outside, but they disturbed me not for I had found my life.    These moments of peace have a variety of names – smell the roses, breathe, gratitude, but how wonderful that they tend to arrive in moments of pressure to remind me that stuff happens and life goes on.

I always loved this song.  It’s on The Stylistics Greatest Hits which I had at college on vinyl.  I’ve never seen them live, and now there are two versions doing the rounds (there’s only one with Russell Thompkins Jr though called The New Stylistics).  But then we went to see Stevie Wonder in 2008 at the O2 in London, just after we’d come back from our intrepid China trip, seeing my brother Paul in Shanghai and catching some asian flu bug in a river near Yangshuo (not Jenny, just me since she didn’t jump into the river.  It looked nice.  To me).  I was knocked out.  Various blood tests were coming back negative – you can only ask a yes/no question to a blood test : Is It Pneumonia ?  NO.  We eventually asked nine questions and they were all no.  By then the shadow on my lungs had gone.  But for Stevie Wonder it was touch and go.  I’d been bedridden since getting back, weak as a kitten.  Had to see Stevie though. Non-negotiable lifetime moment.  So I asked dear Rory Cameron, guitarist with the Brighton Beach Boys if he would be chauffeur for the night for a fee and drive my car up to Greenwich for the gig.  Rory’s tale is still a fresh scar on the band since he is no longer with us and lives in Bury St Edmunds.  I may get around to telling it one day.  In 2008 all was well and there was nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.  Inside the arena we found we were in the 12th row, which is pretty damn good.  Stevie had no support and opened with Miles Davis All Blues from A Kind Of Blue.  It was going to be a slightly different kind of gig !  He also played some Herbie Hancock, some Michael Jackson and this song by The Stylistics, in among his own treasures – and he could’ve played for 25 hours only singing his own songs…and so it only remains for me to note that the song has also been covered by a young Michael Jackson in 1972 (with different lyrics!) on his marvellous 2nd album ‘Ben’.

I just said to Jenny – if that day comes when I cannot move my hands and my voice is gone and you can only rely on guesswork to establish what it is I need.  You know.  That day.  (No. Never that day will come ! )  C’mon now people.  We all gonna die.  Some will fade away others will Snap !  done.  Anywaze – I said to Jenny, said I to her : When That Day Comes, then Just Know that Chocolate Raisins and The Stylistics will always be the correct choice.

 

 

 

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.

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