My Pop Life #46 : Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) – Dolly Parton

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Deportee  (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)   –   Dolly Parton

The airplane caught fire over los gatos canyon
A fireball of lightning that shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio said they were just deportees

A song that was passed to me by fellow actor Kenneth Cranham when we were working together on the 1st of three shows we would make together in the space of two years in the late 80s.  He’d caught me listening to a cassette which came free with the NME that week containing what it called “New Country” – k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, Nanci Griffith.   Ken is a huge country fan, in fact he’s a huge music fan and we exchanged tapes for a while, although I had to work hard to find a song that he didn’t already know about (I eventually did ; Oleta Adams version of Everything Must Change – My Pop Life #20).  But mainly it was one-way traffic from the older guy to the younger fella – Elvis tapes, country, and more recently a songwriter’s selection from Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael – brilliant).

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Kenneth Cranham

The first C90 Ken gave me was called simply “Country”.  I was living in Archway Road with my girlfriend Rita Wolf at that point in late 1987.  I’d just shot “The Black & Blue Lamp” at the BBC, a satirical and savage lampoon of TV policemen which took particular aim at Dixon of Dock Green and was written by the slightly touched and rather brilliant Arthur Ellis, who was to crop up again later in my career.  Karl Johnson and Kenneth Cranham took me up to the BBC Canteen at North Acton where we bumped into Patrick Malahide, of their generation, a legend to me for his appearances in Minder as DS Chisholm.  “Hello Patrick” said Ken, “what are you doing here?”  Patrick looked morose : “Oh, just some television” he said without enthusiasm.  It was an early taste of cynicism for me, still young and fresh, in in my first decade in the business, still thrilled to be in the BBC Canteen and actually acting for a living.

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Deportee was written by Woody Guthrie in 1948 detailing the true story of a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, Fresno County California, which resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 28 of whom were Mexican migrant workers being taken back to Mexico.  The music was scored some ten years later by Martin Hoffman.  The song is a lament for the shoddy racist treatment of the foreigners, the deportees treated as outlaws and thieves by the American Press and public, named in the song as Juan, Rosalita, Jesus and Maria.

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Dolly Parton was born into a large family in Tennessee whom she describes as ‘dirt poor’, moved to Nashville the day after she graduated aged 18 and rose to become the most-decorated female country singer of all time.  She has always presented a healthy sense of self-parody (eg 2008 LP Backwoods Barbie) alongside her own songwriting talent.

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Elvis Presley wanted to sing her song “I Will Always Love You” but insisted on half of the publishing, as he (and manager Tom Parker) did with every song he covered.   Dolly refused and some years later Whitney Houston famously took the song to the top of the charts and into the film “The Bodyguard”.    Dolly Parton’s best selling pop-country single was, in fact, “9 to 5” which she wrote, followed by 1983’s duet with Kenny RogersIslands In The Stream” which was written by The Bee Gees.    The fact that she was at the peak of her popularity when she recorded “Deportee” in 1980 is a tribute to her humanity and her well-documented philanthropical side.   It appears on the soundtrack LP for the film ‘9 To 5′ which she also starred in with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and also on Dolly’s 1981 LP “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs“.

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Although the song has been covered by many artists, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Christy Moore and Bruce Springsteen, this is my favourite version – the haunting piano phrases, the emotional singing from Dolly herself, and the production, all make this a classic protest song, a classic country song,  quite simply a classic song.

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I’ll dedicate the song today to all those poor souls drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after attempting the crossing from North Africa to Italy.   Dangerous overcrowded boats run by people-traffickers take hundreds of people every single day, and thousands have drowned.    The news reports refer to them as refugees.  Migrants.  Child migrants.  Or, as I prefer to call them, people.

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My Pop Life #31 : No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) – Donna Summer & Barbra Streisand

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No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)   –   Donna Summer & Barbara Streisand

…it’s raining it’s pouring my love life is boring me to tears…after all these years…

After six months of painting and decorating (that’s another tale) from a base in West End Lane NW6, selling and taking speed in increasingly large amounts,  I escaped to Latin America in the spring of 1980, with the assistance of my brother Paul.  The plan was simple.  Hitch-hike the gringo trail, from Mexico City all the way down to Tierra Del Fuego in Chile.  We had a year.   We had $10 per day.   We had a small red book where we’d write down how much we spent each day and whether it was over (bad) or under (good) $10.   That way we could build up a surplus for expensive items like bus or train journeys…

This plan had taken us, via Acapulco (another story) to Taxco, south of Mexico City in the state of Guerrero.  A silver-mining town sitting on a mountainside, the white-washed walls and red-tiled rooves which reminded us of Southern Europe.

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Taxco, Guerrero

{ I was going to say it reminded me of Positano (see mypoplife #28) but I hadn’t been there yet, or seen a picture of it.}   Tourists came through in buses,  spent money in the silver shops and the stalls around the zocalo where the church stood and moved on.  We liked it and decided to find cheaper lodgings than our hotel.    A mysterious local with a huge sombrero whom we designated Don Juan took us under his battered wing and promised to find us a place to live.    We walked around that town all day – with our backpacks.   It was hot.   But eventually, somewhere to the south-west of town, a family said that we could rent a room in their house for $2 per week.   Lots of bonus points.   The deal was though – we’d have to stay for four weeks minimum.   We said yes.   One of the men then carried our packs upstairs, took out the hammocks we’d bought on the beach at Pie De La Cuesta and hammered them into the walls of our room with 8-inch spikes.   Extreme hospitalidad!

The family looked after us, as did the neighbours.   What a wonderful community.    Mama was the matriarch, cooked us a feast one day with the whole family and we tasted mole – the amazing Mexican chocolate spiced sauce that they eat with turkey, and which contains 100 spices…but everyday they went out for fresh corn tortillas – and let me tell you, there is nothing in the USA or anywhere else I’d wager that tastes likes tortillas in Mexico.   Damn the food was amazing.   Re-fried beans !!

We were very happy in Taxco, Paul and I.   We discovered little bottles of mescal for 17p.    We discovered that the word “mañana” doesn’t actually mean “tomorrow”.   We discovered a brilliant little pool hall, the surrounding Indian villages, the Caves of Cacahuamilpa, the volcanoes of Cuernavaca, and Easter Week.   We stayed there for six weeks in the end, because everyone told us that Holy Week – Semana Santa – in Taxco was not to be missed – and they were right.

In the days leading up to Good Friday, the town’s activity noticeably increased.  There was a fiesta set up in the park, and then the processions started : all through the streets, the townspeople were taking part in these processions, not just watching them.   Women with candles, women dragging chains, people in hoods carrying crosses, or bundles of thorns strapped to their bodies, Los Flagellantes who would stop every few hundred yards and thrash themselves with leather whips and other implements of pain.   Drawing blood.   We couldn’t believe our eyes.   These extraordinary processions wound their way around the whole town, for mile after mile, hour after hour into the night.   Late on the Holy Thursday Paul and I were drinking above the zocalo looking down onto the church all lit up and a man was being helped painfully up the steep hill by his wife.  He was clearly one of Los Flagellantes.    Later we asked our family why people did it.   They said it was a great honour and that there was a huge waiting list in the town to be a Flagellante, or a Cross Carrier, or a Woman In Chains.

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Self-inflicted wounds and crowns of thorns

It may have been later that night when we went to the fiesta.   We’d been to a few of these already, taking a rickety bus (or more likely a pick-up truck and hang on for dear life) round the mountain roads, to a small community always with a church but with a very local version of catholicism because most of the mountain villages were populated by Indians.   They drank pulque which is a slimy green/yellow beer made from the cactus.   We drank it out of politeness – we were always the centre of attention in these places because of our foreign-ness, and then more so when we explained that we were English (ie not gringos).   I always expected the English to be unpopular abroad thanks to 100s of years of colonialism, slavery, murder and exploitation, but it seems not, until recent incarnations of the islamic fundamentalist.   These fiestas are great – like a village fete or the funfair setting up on the town square, with associated candy-floss, rides, refrescos, mariachis, the odd firework and a big wheel.  Paul and I, clearly having spent more than 17p on mescal, decided to get on board.   The fun fair music was a marvellous mix of disco, salsa and Los Tigres Del Norte, Mariachi bands and pop music and it was pumping loud as we rose our circular ascent into the night sky in our creaky little carousel.   As we reached the apex of the giant circular piece of wood (gulp) the song changed and the Big Wheel stopped.   No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) pumped out of the speakers and Donna Summer filled the night air, competing with fireworks,  catherine wheels, rockets and bangers.   Odd wooden structures like scaffolding made from wood held yet more fireworks, lit with abandon, the air was full of gunpowder, bangs and smoke, and the pumping beat of DISCO courtesy of our Donna in perfect duet harmony with our Babs, Barbra Streisand.   What a tune.   Luckily we enjoyed this moment because the Big Wheel didn’t move for at least 15 minutes, by which time the Long Version of this song had played out.    One of my enduring memories.   There’s loads of hidden sub-text to this story, but I’ll have to come back to Mexico, and Paul, on another occasion.   On this night we were young, we were free, we were drunk, and we were happy.

My Pop Life #25 : There There My Dear – Dexys Midnight Runners

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There There My Dear   –   Dexys Midnight Runners

…you know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things…

In the summer of 1980 I had what remained of my tail firmly between my legs and I was licking my wounds.  The trip to Latin America with brother Paul had foundered in Mexico where I’d contracted hepatitus B and been rushed back to Coppett’s Wood tropical diseases hospital for a couple of weeks.  I was weak as a kitten, couldn’t drink for a year, and had to start thinking about getting a job (over and above my Saturday all-nighter at the Scala coffeebar).  Mumtaz, whom I had left to go on a hitch-hiking year off with Paul, had gracefully welcomed me back into her attic flat in Finsbury Park. I was 23 years old.

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“Seen quite a bit in my 23 years” sings Kevin Rowland on track 2 of Dexys first LP “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels”, a record which blasted into my ears that summer and blew (almost) everything else out of the water.   It had bags of attitude and swagger, it had a manifesto, but most of all it had soul.   English white kids from Birmingham playing soul.   Legend has it that Kevin Rowland walked into the first rehearsal of Dexys with a box of Stax singles and announced “We’re doing music like this”.   But listening to that 1st LP there’s loads more than Stax influences – there’s Jackie Wilson, Motown, the Bar-Kays, Northern Soul.   Since I’d spent the previous three years cramming a PhD in soul music (to make up for my teenage pop youth) I was ready to play my part as a disciple of Dexys and spread the word – not that they needed me – the NME and the nation were already enamoured.   I’d bought the first single Dance Stance the year before, and helped Geno to get to number one in the spring (B-side: Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache a cover of Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon !!).   I think my first Dexys gig was in the National Ballroom in Kilburn, appropriate for their Irish/Celtic roots.   But did I see them support The Specials?  Is that where I discovered them in fact??  Sometimes I simply cannot remember critical details of these formative years.

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They were absolutely brilliant live, real power and passion.   Of course I loved the horn section and spent hours playing along with the album on my ancient alto sax.   I’d always wanted to be in a horn section – playing chords, harmonies with other brass players.   I was particularly fond of “Keep It”.   They actually did manage to do that Stax sound – Booker T & the MGs with the Memphis Horns.    I’m less convinced that Kevin had the vocal chops of the soul greats, but he certainly committed to it heart and soul, and more importantly he sounded like he meant it.

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It’s hard to remember now, how much that mattered in those days, as punk morphed into Two-Tone and battles with the NF, Rock against Racism, and “whose side you were on” felt like your daily bread – those early Thatcher years were full of aggro and passion, maybe it was just me but the times were intense.   Live and onstage Kevin demanded attention and respect.   Watching him sing “Respect” live was an exercise in faith, he would end up writhing on the floor whooping and squealing and I would feel equal amounts of embarrassment and admiration.    He would continue to make a career out of this strange dialectic, even today he stretches what is acceptable in a musical context beyond what is simply cool, out to the edge of reason.    But these were early days when he wanted to be a soul singer.   And he was a white boy, my age.   Christ I wanted to be in that band.   Lyrical interlude : “Holed up in white Harlem, your conscience and you…”   Those early gigs were a riot.   Wilfully antagonistic toward the audience, we were used to it old punks that we were, there was an atmosphere of danger, aggression, risk in the air.  But most gigs in those days felt like that.   The band were tight as anyone I’ve ever seen.    Pete Williams, Al Archer, Big Jimmy Patterson on the trombone.  The Teams That Meet In Caffs.   They were formed with gang membership in mind, a ready-made pop subculture.    That’s just how it used to be.    They would go on to have different line-ups, different instruments and their biggest hit as a bunch of raggle-taggle pseudo- Irish punks with ‘Come On Eileen’ and weddings thereafter would never be the same, but for me the first LP is still an astonishing listen.    Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision.

As a footnote I have to mention that Kevin Rowland moved to Brighton around the same time as us in the late 90s and we spoke on a number of occasions at parties and so on.  He was a gentleman and a scholar, softly-spoken and funny.  He moved to Shoreditch around 2005 “because Brighton was getting too cool”.