My Pop Life #208 : I Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

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Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

9th June 2018

We went to see Ry Cooder last night in the Town Hall a wonderful old venue with a really intimate feel on 43rd St, built in 1921 by suffragette supporters.  Jenny knew the venue from an event a couple of years ago directed by her godfather Nicolas Kent – it was a staging of the transcripts of Trump’s picks for Attorney General I think.  The beer is served in plastic cups with logos which cost $5 thus the first round was $28.  She did warn me to be fair, and they only charge you for the cup once.  What a world.

Ry Cooder opened with an old song called Nobody’s Fault But Mine which was written by Blind Willie Johnson then covered by everyone including Led Zeppelin.  He sat centre stage with a battered old acoustic guitar, his white hair covered with a blue wool bobble hat (without the bobble) and there was a young man playing a treated saxophone at the side.  Treated electronically, acoustically, sonically who knows it was haunting all night.  Cooder delivered the song with the authority of a delta bluesman, picking notes, sliding his bottleneck up and down the strings which twanged and shuddered and whispered under his touch.  He was so connected to this song, with the changes and the lyrics, it was evident in every note.

I was introduced to Ry Cooder by Sir Nick Partridge.  He wasn’t Sir Nick in those days, he was Nick P., a fresh-faced and pleasant young man who lived in the flat on West End Lane that Pete and Sali owned and that I lived in too.  He was my flatmate. Known Pete since schooldays.  I’d just finished my degree in Law at the LSE and Nick had graduated from Keele University doing International Relations.  We were all post-graduates suddenly.  I was saving money for a further “year off” as we called them back then.  This was 1979 and the future lay ahead of us. Education and academia was, it seemed, finally behind us.  We used to go record shopping together because there was so much to discover !  There still is some 40 years later !!!

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Nick Partridge and Ralph Brown in a North London record shop, 1979.  Picture taken by Pete Thomas.

I was painting and decorating that summer in Pinner, and later moved onto a house in St John’s Wood, definitely worthy of its own post.  My previous mentions of this vivid era of my young adult life were in posts about Talking Heads (My Pop Life #92 ) John Martyn (My Pop Life #153) and The Specials (My Pop Life #178) and Nick features in all of them.  We were a little musical commune up there between the railways of the Jubilee Line to the south and the Thameslink line to Hertfordshire to the north PLUS the North London Line which carried nuclear waste past our building overnight while we listened to Ry Cooder and The Gladiators.  My girlfriend Mumtaz was in Mecklenburgh Square and would come and squat cross-legged on the floor with us as we passed the bliss.

In the evenings and at weekends we were all obsessed with listening to music and going to gigs.  Pete was very much a reggae aficionado but also fond of the quirky post-punk world emerging from the rubble of 1977, a plethora of independent labels issuing interesting stuff of all kinds like Wah! Heat, SpizzEnergi, Flying Lizards, or The Auteurs all with picture sleeves and original music.   In my capricious memory Sal was more into rock and I was a student new wave ex-punk who listened to soul, but Nick was always different.  Later he would live on a houseboat in Amsterdam doing a blues radio show but that’s another story, if you’re lucky.

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It was Nick who had Boomer’s Story and Paradise & Lunch and in the stoned democratic disc jockey world of West End Lane between the rails, when he got his turn for an LP side, it would often be one of these Ry Cooder records which were kind of country kind of bluesy kind of funky, but often with an added flavour from somewhere else.  Americana it would be called now.

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Then in 1979 he brought home an LP that looked like a new wave record, bright pink with a guitar player who looked a bit Nick Lowe but no.  It was the new Ry Cooder album called, unfeasibly, “Bop Til You Drop” and now we would all choose this record when our DJ turn came around.  Opening with a cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister but thereafter delving into obscure 60s R’n’B – Go Home Girl, Don’t You Mess Up A Good Thing, Trouble You Can’t Fool Me, Look At Granny Run Run – and a brilliant original song called Down In Hollywood (‘better hope that you don’t run out of gas…’), the album had a fantastic production quality on the guitar and backing vocals particularly.  In fact Bop Til You Drop was the first album ever recorded digitally.  Cooder is a magnificently rootsy guitarist, not a show-off in any way, but just tries to get the soul out of the instrument, and the backing vocals on the album were by Terry Evans & Bobby King who would later record their own record with Ry Cooder producing and playing on every track.  What I didn’t know until last night (too stoned to read the liner notes or maybe just not that nerdy after all) was that Chaka Khan sings on Down In Hollywood and Good Thing.   He had roughly the same line up last night – although not the same players.  Jenny turned to me at one point – probably during The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor) and said “What would you call this music?”  I said “country soul?”.  She could hear mariachi.  It’s funky.  It’s hawaiian.  It’s blues.   It’s music.

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Cooder plays without any ego at all, and often uses the concert (and indeed many of his record releases) to showcase other people and give them a turn in the spotlight.  Last night it was his wonderfully relaxed backing singers The Hamiltones who played a couple of numbers while he left the stage, then joined them on guitar for another.  Earlier it had been his son Joachim who opened proceedings with his own music.  Ry Cooder it was who travelled to Havana in the 1990s breaking the Cuban boycott and encouraging the old stars of the 1950s to team up and record again, the resulting film and album opening up Cuba to the world once again and introducing me to Ruben Gonzales, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo playing together as the incomparable Buena Vista Social Club.

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He has recorded with the great Malian blues guitarist Ali Farke Toure on Talking Timbuktu, with Captain Beefheart on Safe As Milk (see My Pop Life #205) with Taj Mahal in the band Rising Sons, with Randy Newman on 12 Songs, the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed & Sticky Fingers, on Lowell George‘s original version of Willin’.  All playing slide guitar or bottleneck.  In 1984 he composed the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas which starred Natassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton and following that became a sought-after soundtrack composer using his signature slide guitar.  He’s made albums with the latino community of Los Angeles such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti (Chavez Ravine) and if left to his own devices appears to be following in the footsteps of his hero 1940s political folkie Woody Guthrie.  Or one of his heroes.

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Woody Guthrie 1943

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In a new song last night he sang of a meeting between Jesus & Woody in heaven, looking down on what is happening now, from the vantage point of the 1950s when we had beaten the fascists and the world stretched out before us.

Jesus & Woody

Well bring your old guitar and sit here by me
Round the heavenly throne
Drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on

And I don’t mean a war for oil, or gold, or trivial things of that kind
But I heard the news, the vigilante man is on the move this time

So sing me a song ’bout this land is your land
And fascists bound to lose
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate
It requires effort and strain
Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice which leads to destruction and pain
Some say I was a friend to sinners
But by now you know it’s true
Guess I like sinners better than fascists
And I guess that makes me a dreamer too

It was a chilling song but it wasn’t the only time that the name of Jesus was called.  One of Cooder’s biggest hits was gospel standard Jesus On The Mainline,  and with The Hamiltones‘ soulful harmonies it was a standout moment at the gig.  And it became clear to Jenny and I that we were really at a gospel show.  In the sense that the black church in America has long been a vehicle for resistance to oppression, using the biblical metaphors and stories to illustrate the struggle and gospel music to inspire and strengthen courage.  Cooder never went preachy, but he was very clear where he stood.  He mentioned Trayvon Martin before playing a song called The Vigilante.  It was the lack of ego that was most striking in the end.  Playing the guitar to try and find the most expressive notes, not to show-off or strike poses.

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Ry Cooder With Taj Mahal, 1968

And indeed, it seems to me this morning thinking back on Sir Nick as a young man in West Hampstead, smoking dope with a generous smile and a ready laugh that he had no ego then or indeed now.  He always had an easy manner where embarrassment was never far from the surface, mixed with laughter and great empathy.  I went to Hampstead Magistrates with him one day and watched him with his gentle phrasing and easy manner talk his middle-class way out of a conviction and get a finger-wagging in its place.

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Sir Nick with Kirsten O’Brien

Shortly after the Amsterdam year he joined The AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1985 becoming Chief Executive in 1991 and finally moving on in 2013 after 28 years of service and a knighthood which followed his OBE.   We formed a close bond in those 1979-1980 days and nights and beyond into the frisbee-playing, gay nightclubbing, political 1980s, stayed in touch right up until today.  I had no idea that he was gay back then but he’s never made a big deal out of it or changed his basic persona of decency, sincerity and jokes.

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Sir Nick talks with brother Andrew, Whitstable Bay.  My dad can be seen with check shirt on the pebbles between them

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Paul Brown is 50 in his beach hut and quite a tremendous shirt

The first time any of us saw Nick after he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours was at my brother Paul’s 50th birthday celebration which he held in Whitstable, Kent.  It was a wonderful weekend of family – Dad & Beryl came down from Yorkshire, Becky was back in Sussex by then and Jenny and I had summer son Jordan in tow – Dee’s youngest who had a key period of spending the summer with us in Brighton.  Sir Nick was there in the beach-hut, Paul was back from Shanghai mixing cocktails in a straw hat, Richard Davies (Lady G) was probably DJing and drinking at the same time and a splendid time was guaranteed and enjoyed by all.

Nick and his husband Simon have been to New York since we moved here – I remember him asking me what he should see on Broadway – it was 2016.  I had a one-word answer : Hamilton.  He bought tickets online, then I had to go to work when he was here so I missed him, but he saw the show and, of course, loved it.

 

Paulette & Beverley Randall, Paul Brown & Sir Nick Partridge, London 2015

I did see him the year before when Paul was in London for his birthday a couple of years ago – 2015 I guess.  And then he came to send me off on my 60th birthday last summer when I hardly spoke to anyone, but hugged everyone.   I am extremely fond of him and will always be grateful for his friendship and for bringing Bop Til You Drop (and Memphis Slim…) into my life.

The last song on the album is called I Can’t Win and it is a haunting and soulful three-part harmony, simply a beautiful song about being in love with someone who isn’t responding.  We’ve all been there, but I haven’t made a habit of it thank god.  When the gig finished last night the entire band went off for about 90 cursory seconds then returned immediately as we all stood and clapped for the encore.  And they sang I Can’t Win with piercing harmonies that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  It was the pinnacle on a great night.  And it’s already up on Youtube.

Live at Town Hall June 8th 2018:

Album Version :

 

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My Pop Life #97 : Where Are We Now? – David Bowie

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Where Are We Now?   –   David Bowie

Sitting in the Dschungel….on Nürnbergerstrasse…

a man lost in time…near KaDeWe..

just walking the dead…

It was pure chance that I stumbled on the key to unlock this song.   It becomes the second in an occasional and hopefully enjoyable series of  “inside the song” – the first one was Rufus Wainwright’s The Art Teacher (see My Pop Life #16) and a trip round the Metropolitan Museum.    This time we’re inside David Bowie’s Berlin some 38 years ago, via a song that was released in 2013.

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Where Are We Now?  was dropped without fanfare or PR by David Bowie (after a ten-year absence with no new music) on the occasion of his 66th birthday on 8th January 2013.     All the musicians (mainly Bowie regulars like Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard) were sworn to secrecy, and the rest of us marvelled that soon we would have an entirely new David Bowie LP – The Next Day – to pore over, one month later.   But this song just blew me away.  Vintage Bowie, but more than that, essential Bowie, a piece of the introspective jigsaw puzzle, a lament for a younger artist, a divided city, a deeply sad reflection on ageing, consumerism, freedom, what lasts and what doesn’t.  What remains after all these years of glory ?  The new LP cover deliberately spelled out what was going on – the cover of 1977’s “Heroes” with a blank white space covering its centre.

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So what exactly is going on here?   Going where Ashes To Ashes had previously explored, (referencing a previous Bowie incarnation Major Tom), this is still daring, exposed and naked, and is for me one of the greatest songs in Bowie’s career, and would indeed be a compulsory question in the David Bowie A-level.  Why ?   It’s all about Berlin –  where he made arguably his three greatest albums from 1976-78 : Low, Heroes and Lodger (a period  I discussed with some embarrassment in My Pop Life #54),  and also a place where he actually lived for a long period.   An interesting, important place.   It’s also a song about David Bowie, the man.   The human.   Much of this song is mysterious, some of it is right on the nose.   Let’s break it down.   First see the lyric quote above… One of the strange words is :

KaDeWe

a word that all Berliners will instantly understand but which I stumbled over on my unplanned free day in Berlin.  I’d just bought a pair of Pumas in the sale (€30!) because my fabulous Czech Botas had turned out to be made of pain and after six days I couldn’t take it any more.  The large mixed-race German man in the Puma shop told me I could buy leather stretcher for them, but I explained that they were vegan shoes – no leather.  “Ah” he said, “then that is concomitant.  Is that a word?”  His English was better than mine.  “It means for example that I eat meat and I wear leather shoes.  If you kill an animal it’s better to use everything and not waste it“.   He was incredibly clear.   I was feeling foolish but he was kind.  “Will you keep the Czech shoes?” he asked.  “I will wear the new ones out of the store”  I replied, “I cannot walk another second in the Botas.  They look great, they’re killing me.”  I carried the Botas out in the Puma carrier bag.  It was red and comforting.

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Outside, new shoes – Fashion – turn to the right – I drifted along the street and saw a man being interviewed by a reporter as a crowd gawped outside what I thought was a hotel.   I  checked the hotel name.   KaDeWe.  Just walking the dead.   My spine shivered gently.  Where Are We Now ?  It was a shop.   But KaDeWe is more than just “a shop”.  I could see Gucci, Dior, Bulgari.   It feels like Harrods or Selfridges.    Clothes, yes.   Electronics.   Jewellry.   Perfume.   Food and drink :  A wooden map of where your malt whisky comes from.   Pastries.  Organic meat and cheese.  Newspapers from all corners of the world.  Rich.  Red Money.  Things you couldn’t buy in East Berlin in 1977.    I took escalators up, up, up to the 6th floor and the Konditorei.  Found a table and ordered Kaffee mit Shokolade und Schlagsahne and rice pudding with cinnamon (!) slightly warm.  It felt like a German choice of essen.    From the window seat I could see the broken spire of Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche,  the symbol of post-war Berlin, and the Mercedes HQ, symbol of the people who shop at KaDeWe.

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I sang the song gently to myself and sipped my coffee.   Sitting in the Dschungel…   Right.    I would do the song today.   I would trace David Bowie’s Berlin footsteps via this song.   And I would do it without wifi since Berlin is bad at wifi and my phone wasn’t having it either.   Old school.    Maps plus intuition.   What could possibly go wrong?

Outside I found a free wifi portal – hold the front page – with a dirty unbreakable smeared screen made of perspex that I had to stab repeatedly with my finger.  OCD wouldn’t have made it past this obstacle.  I found a reference to the Dschungel which looked like a club of some kind, on Nürnbergerstrasse.   This would be my next stop.   I studied the map and failed to find it.   No information booths anywhere.   My finger was tired of stabbing the perspex so I hailed a cab.   “Nürnbergerstrasse bitte“.  He swung the car round.  “Welcher nummer?”   Shit I hadn’t retained that piece of information.    We drove one whole block back and onto Nürnbergerstrasse.   He dropped me one block down.   A journey of two whole minutes.   No Dschungel.    I turned around and walked back up the street to the ZoologischeGarten.   No Dschungel.   Balls.   I would have to walk back to the free robot wifi.

Featured imageFound it, stabbed it again.    My page was still up.   Nummer 53.   Drei und funfzig.    I walked back round to Nürnbergerstrasse.  In the centre of the strasse was a huge art deco building called The Ellington Hotel.

It straddled what would have been #53.   I entered into a strange, tiled, otherworldly, almost sanatorium-esque atmosphere where the white-clad employees smiled and everything was lovely.  “Excuse me – did there used to be a club called Dschungel here?“.   “Yes“.   Bingo.   She explained that Duke Ellington himself and other jazz greats used to frequent the cellar bar Badewane back in the late 40s, before it became the Dschungel, a place where Frank ZappaPrince and Bowie and Iggy Pop would host parties, rivalling Studio 54 for glamour in the late 70s.
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…a man lost in time…

David’s recollection of it all is melancholic, a man trying to enjoy himself in the midst of dislocation.  But he thrived on dislocation, and he knew it.  Through the 1970s he would lay down a new style, a new look, a new sound then quickly change shape and reappear just as the mice in their million hordes were forming groups to follow his “latest” thing.   Lennon’s on sale again.   He had to keep moving to create, and he knew it.   So many  of his songs are about “tomorrow” – sci-fi dystopias, from Oh You Pretty Things to Drive-In Saturday, Diamond Dogs to Moonage Daydream and Starman.   The other favourite theme is the surreal Postcard from the Edge of somewhere else, somewhere new.    Autobiographical, confessional, compulsive, mythological, introspective – Ziggy Stardust,  Ashes To Ashes,  Jean Genie, Station To Station,  Always Crashing In The Same Car,  The Bewlay Brothers,  Afraid, in fact it could be argued that as he progressed Bowie’s songs have become more and more personal.

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Bowie’s move to West Berlin came after the cocaine-addicted Los Angeles period of Station To Station, an LP which also lays claim to being his best, but which was produced under extreme conditions of drug-fuelled stress.    West Berlin was in 1976 an artistic, capitalist, symbolic western enclave surrounded by a Communist state – the DDR or Deutsche Demokratische Republik.   East Germany.    Created by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin after WW2, the city of West Berlin was surrounded by a Wall, with various armed crossing points complete with barbed wire, no-man’s land and soldiers.   The famous one was called Checkpoint Charlie (referenced in Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army) which Jenny and I had crossed in late December 1989 just as the Wall was being chipped away at and broken down from both sides.  We still had to show passports, get a short visa and return within six hours.  Berlin was divided but not for long.  On New Year’s Eve we stood on the Wall with millions of tourists who’d had the same idea as us and felt the weight of history.  Just for one day.   I’ll blog that trip properly another day though.

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Hansa Studios and The Wall, 1970s

David Bowie recorded at Hansa Studios, where he could see the Wall.   Traces of the Wall still remain, now protected by city ordinance, a tourist attraction, but most of it has been flattened and redeveloped.

Had to take the train from Potsdamer platz….you never knew that 

…that I could do that

just walking the dead…

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Die Mauer

So my next target was Potsdamer Platz.   Again no wifi, the map defeated me – but there was Potsdam at the end of the S7 line I’d already used from Alexanderplatz.  So I jumped on board and took the S7 to Potsdam which took about 35 minutes.  Maybe more.  It’s to the southwest of Berlin, like Richmond.  It immediately didn’t feel like a place that David Bowie would get on a train, but who knows right?  I got off and went to INFO where I was told to go back and get on an S1.

Featured imageOn the way back the map confirmed that a schoolboy error had occurred.  Potsdamer Platz is just to the south of Brandenburg Tor, and just to the north of Hansa Studios, right in the centre of town.    Of Course.   I disembark finally at Potsdamer Platz and there is an ugly piece of the wall remaining just outside the station, covered in chewing gum, which is even worse than those padlocks you find on bridges all over Europe.  Graffitti yes.  But chewing gum?  Draw the blinds on yesterday and its all so much scarier.   I walked to Brandenburg Gate (which is splendid and dull) and back through Tiergarten (frisbees and statues) to Potsdamer Platz where there are three stations – Deutsche-Bahn, U-bahn and S-bahn.  Which one did David use ?   And why was it such a big deal for him – to mention it in a song?   Maybe he was off to Paris to see a girlfriend.   Maybe he never took trains, ever.   Taxi man.   Of course in those days you couldn’t get a train across the city, from Potsdamer Platz you could only go one way – west.

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I gave my Puma box containing Czech Botas to a drunken beggar woman sitting at the top of the subway steps.   She seemed interested as I turned away and walked down underground to the U train east back to Alexanderplatz happy that I’d been there at least, and then took a tram back to the hotel ackselhaus.    I was staying in Prenzlauer Berg for the weekend – a visitor from Prague where I am working all summer.   Prenzlauer Berg is a newly gentrified quarter of old East Berlin, lovely old buildings, tramlines, cafes, pubs, near my friend Maria von Heland whom I’d met in Sweden at Amanda Ooms’ 50th birthday (see My Pop Life #14).   Amanda was in Berlin with her boyfriend Joakim Thåström, Swedish rock star and reconnected childhood sweetheart, he’d had a gig with his band the night before at Postbahnhof in the middle of a 40-degree heatwave which became a huge thunderstorm as he played.

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I had a quick beer, then went round the corner to a local pub Metzer Ebb which Maria had told me hasFeatured image remained unchanged since the days of the DDR.    I ordered Knackwurst und Kartoffelnsalate mit senf and drank a giant beer, was told I could take pictures but not with people in.   They were ladies in their 50s, friendly but not overly so.   They would have been 25 when the wall came down and Germany was re-unified.   The pub wall was covered in old black and white pictures, the wood was dark stained oak, the fittings and cigarette machines from a bygone era.    I loved it of course.    The knackwurst mit senf (mustard) was perfect and the potato salad had paprika and gherkin mixed into it.   Where Are We Now?

Amanda and Maria still hadn’t called me (I later discovered that iMessages don’t reach your phone unless you’re on wifi) so I had two dinners and put on the headphones to listen to David’s Berlin memories, and bask in the glory of my day and the song.

Ach Mein Gott !   Hang on to yourself !   There was a whole other verse I’d forgotten :

…20,000 people… cross Bösebrücke…

Fingers are crossed, just in case…

..walking the dead…

It was 9pm.   I had to get to Bösebrücke !!     Time – he’s waiting in the wings.   Hotel room.    Wifi – although not on the iphone- so still no messages from Maria and Amanda.  (I’d finally get 20 messages from them the following morning).   Map.    It wasn’t too far.   Still old East Berlin, a bridge to the old West.    I dashed back out, jumped onto a tram, then onto another tram.    I asked a man if he knew the way.   He was Sri Lankan.   He took me one stop on the U-train, then I started walking.    It was almost dark so I hailed a cab.    He knew exactly where it was and five minutes later there it was.

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Bösebrücke.   A memorial plaque and some giant photographs marked the spot where 20,000 people crossed from East Berlin into West Berlin on the 8th and 9th of November 1989, a month before Jenny and I got there, the start of the mass civil disobedience that saw the end of the East German state.  Heroes just for one day.

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 The bridge glowed with yellow lights in the deep blue dusk.   My heart filled with feeling.   So David’s song took Berlin as a starting point to measure this world of ours, his own ch-ch-changes, the passing of time, and ask what it all meant.   Others have said that “Where are we now?” actually means “Where am I now?” but I disagree – Bowie is never shy to put himself at the centre of his songs, using “…I could do that” for example, in the first verse here.    No, he means – where are we now ?   Not just Berliners, not just him, but all of us.

Featured imageOn the morning that I made this pilgrimage through Bowie’s Berlin the newspapers all had the same headline :  “Griechen sagen Nein“.  The bailout terms from the European Central Bank – more austerity, further cuts to pensions, wages and public institutions – had been rejected by the Greek people by 61%- 38%.   News had just come over – we had five years left to cry in…  Europe has unified since 1978, when David Bowie sang

I, I can remember.. standing…by the Wall,

with the guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as if nothing could fall…

and the shame was on the other side…oh we can beat them for ever and ever…

(Incidentally the German-language version of “Heroes” “Helden” is magnificent, and probably more passionate than the cooler English-language song.   It is also worth pointing out that “Heroes” always has quote marks around it, giving us instant irony).

By 2013 previous communist regimes had fallen and joined the EU, including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, East Germany and West Germany had become Germany and the Euro had become the currency ideal of those who believed in the United States of Europe – a dream of trade co-operation, one currency, no borders, movement of workers and capital across the continent, a rival to the USA, to China, a bastion of democracy and liberal capitalism.    Hmmm.   Instead we now have a two or three-tier system, southern Europe has a very different economic outlook than the north (or maybe there will be a domino effect…) – not just Greece, but Italy, Spain and Portugal have economies and national debts which challenge the democratic fantasies of the most ardent Europhile.   And it seemed to me reading those headlines yesterday that while some things had “changed”, really : where are we now?    Retired schoolteachers in Athens – people who served and taught schoolchildren all their lives – are begging on the streets, alongside whole families.

…the moment you know, you know you know…

These are the 2008 Crash chickens coming home to roost, and it is divide and rule – we bailed out the banks to the tune of billions, we bailed out Germany’s war debts in the 1950s, but we can’t bail out Greek pensioners and families begging on street corners.   This is the sharp end of capitalism in 2015 and it is an ugly sight.   Think of us as fatherless scum and it won’t be forgotten...   Looking out from Berlin as David’s late-period masterpiece still hangs in the air, it seems to me that Greece is the new DDR.   We have to look down our snouts at somebody.   Capitalism doesn’t appear to work without someone losing out – which means haves and have-nots, economic migrants, austerity packages while those who run our lives get increasingly large bonuses.

…It’s the theatre of financiers
Count them, fifty ’round a table
White and dressed to kill…

A large dose of reality.   But as David can make you feel bleak, he can reaffirm life too, and this is a song that does both…

…as long as there’s sun….as long as there’s sun

…as long as there’s rain…as long as there’s rain

…as long as there’s fire….as long as there’s fire…

…as long as there’s me….as long as there’s you…

We’ll be all right.   Won’t we ?

Right at the end of the video we see David Bowie approaching his 66th birthday wearing a T-shirt that says m/s Song Of Norway.   Actually a cruise ship T-shirt, it is also the name of a film made in 1970 that his girlfriend – Hermione Farthingale – left him to be involved with.   Apparently David never got over it.   Here is a man who spent his entire artistic life being a spaceman, a starman, a thin white duke, aladdin sane, a fervent embracer of the future looking back at his life as a human.  It is a beautiful piece of work.

Ain’t there one damn song that can make me
Break down and cry?

My Pop Life #9 : Ballade #1 in G minor – Frederick Chopin, played by Artur Rubinstein

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Ballade #1 in G minor  –  Frederick Chopin, played by Artur Rubinstein

1989 Paris.   Hugh Grant and I are sitting in La Coupole on Montparnasse, yards from our hotel, eating oysters, drinking bubbly. And why not? We’ve been given great wads of ‘monopoly money’ (or French francs)  as per diems, expected to feed ourselves with it since we’ve been cast in a film called Impromptu, written by Sarah Kernochan, directed by her husband James Lapine and filming in Angers and Paris for seven weeks.  Hugh and I decide there and then to sample all the great brasseries of Paris over the ensuing weeks, with all their proudly preserved Art Nouveau splendour, piles of ice and shellfish, tart tatin and cheese to savour, a white-aproned garçon and maitre-d to patronise us, and quite frankly, the finest wines available to humanity to evaluate at our leisure.

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Blimey, I thought, I’m on the gravy train.  Who wouldn’t ?  I wasn’t, as it turned out, but just for a few weeks there, I so was.  The film – Impromptu – concerned the affair between Polish genius Frederick Chopin (Hugh) and French novelist Georges Sand (Judy Davis) in the 1830s (the Ballade #1 dates from 1831) and particularly an enjoyable weekend with their friends Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), Eugene Delacroix (me!) and Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) at a pretentious nouveau-riche chateau and their hosts (Emma Thompson and Anton Rodgers).

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Bernadette Peters and Georges Corraface completed the cast as spurned lovers.  It was a gas.  Too much to relate in a pop music blog to be honest, but as Hugh and I weaved our wicked way through the highways and often the byways of Paree, he often had to take time off to learn how to play the piano like Chopin.  Had a little keyboard in his hotel room to practice on.  I’d never really been exposed to this music before and it was simply overwhelmingly beautiful stuff.  Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano, (four piano concertos notwithstanding) : waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, scherzos, ballades.  They are to my ears – and indeed to Georges Sands’ and even Liszt’s – the pinnacle of all music.  I bought a CD of Artur Rubinstein playing the Greatest Hits – and trust me there’s not a duffer on that LP.   I’m only partly joking.   I used to play it over and over.  I still do – although since then I’ve bought the giant box set of Rubinstein playing everything Chopin wrote.  I’ve heard many many other people playing these pieces – Pollini, Kissin, Horowitz, Ashkenazy are all great, but I always come back to Rubinstein. Maybe it’s because he’s Polish as well, who knows, maybe it’s because he doesn’t stick to the beat, there is a delicious hesitation before he lands on certain phrases.  It is all exquisite.  But most likely because that’s what I heard first.

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Hugh hated doing the Polish accent and vowed never to change his voice again for a movie.  Four Weddings & A Funeral was in the can and he had high hopes for it.   He could do all the accents on earth, a lot of people don’t get that he is a mercurial actor but chooses not to be.  We ate at Bofinger, Lipp, Brasserie Flo, Au Pied De Cochon, La Coupole and Terminus Du Nord.   And others.   Richard E Grant joined us one night because he was filming across town.   Liz Hurley turned up (I’d worked with her earlier in a Dennis Potter film Christabel) and then we moved to Angers  (Loire Valley white wines are the finest known to humanity:  Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Muscadet, Vouvray, Savennieres)  where Kenneth Branagh arrives and Ken, Hugh and myself play a round of (very poor) golf one afternoon.   Ken very sweetly asked me to join his company but I declined, favouring the wide open unknown spaces of my uncertain future (was I on the gravy train?)…  It was in Angers that I played my sex scene with Emma – the Duchess.  She was a model of professionalism, funny, warm and very kind.  One night after work driving back to the hotel from the chateau our driver ran over a rabbit and he braked hard, jumped out and disappeared.  “Has he gone to see if it’s all right?” asked Em.  We heard the boot open then close with a small thud. “No I think that one’s for the pot” I replied.  She wasn’t happy.

24 years later I’m working in Vilnius, Lithuania on a TV show (The Assets) and sitting in a trendy coffeeshop with book-lined walls,  a dog and a piano.  A young man walked in, sat down and proceeded to play Ballade number 1 in G minor on that piano while people ordered coffee and surfed the internet, came and went. I filmed him on my phone. He made a couple of mistakes.  It was kind of perfect.