My Pop Life #221 : Let’s Dance – David Bowie

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Let’s Dance – David Bowie

For fear your grace should fall
(Let’s dance)
For fear tonight is all
(Let’s sway)
You could look into my eyes
(Let’s sway)
Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight

Early 1983.  I am living in Finsbury Park with dear Mumtaz, under the eaves of the top floor on Blackstock Road.  Downstairs is Laurie Jones, a lifelong communist who supports Tottenham Hotspur, but also has a season ticket for Arsenal.  He watches football every Saturday as a result.  I will write a piece on Laurie.  Below him is Shirley, a Jamaican gentleman who tends the blues club in the basement.  Up in the top room, a bedsit which is the length of the house, Taj is doing legal exams, I am starting out on an acting career, and I’ve just finished a production of John Godber‘s expressionist adaptation of A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road with various Yorkshire ActorsPaul Rider, Peter Geeves, Andy Winters.  Two years earlier in 1981 I’d done an adaptation of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari with these fellas which toured the UK and ended up at The Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road as part of Bill Nelson’s Invisibility Exhibition.  Both productions were non-naturalistic, and partly took their inspiration from Jerzy Grotowski and Steven Berkoff.

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I think this was 1982

I’ve snaffled an agent from A Clockwork Orange having written to every single agent in the book with my photo and CV like you had to in those days.  David Preston had come to see the show and signed me up.  I was young, green and full of beans and this was my first agent so I was grateful.  David Preston had an office in Dean Street, a walk-up to a camp crimson velvet-curtained den where he presided over his boys.  I walked up to see him one day because I still got a weekly digest called PCR – the Professional Casting Report – and I’d read that my hero Steven Berkoff was auditioning for his new play, West.

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Steven Berkoff

Yes my hero.  When I decided to act for a living (detailed in My Pop Life #140)  – I’d seen one of his shows – East.  It blew me away.  Expressionist yobby Cockney Shakespeare like nothing else on the English Stage.  The language, the committed performances, the extraordinarily huge and expressive performances.  Hooked, I sought him out and in the subsequent years saw The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the Cottesloe and his one-man show A Tell-Tale Heart and Dog.  I think I’m right.  I’d seen three shows before I went for the West audition.

Back in the velvet cave I demanded that David Preston got me in there.  It was compulsory !  And to be fair he did get me an audition.  I can’t remember where it was but perhaps at The Donmar Warehouse.  We were seen in groups of four at a time which was odd to start with.  There he was, larger than life, a dark buzzcut cockney educated jewish voice explaining that we had all witnessed a terrible but exciting & bloody fight, and all we had to do was describe it in our own words to the gang when he pointed at us.  Bang.  Naturalism was out. Having seen the work I kind of felt that it was impossible for me to go over the top. Full cockerknee and ultraviolence courtesy of Clockwork Orange.  Male testosterone with thuggish eloquence.

I got it.  I cannot recall the phone call, or the recall, or whatever the details were, but I was cast in West.  Some time in early 1983 I found myself in a Kentish Town rehearsal room with the others : Rory Edwards playing the lead, Mike, Sue Kyd playing his girl, Sylv, John Joyce playing dad and Stella Tanner playing mum.  And three other fellas. Bruce Payne, Ken Sharrock and Steve Dixon. We were “everyone else”.  Which meant…?

Right lads.  Any part that isn’t Mike, you read those lines.  Just jump in when you feel like it OK?  Let’s go.

Bruce jumped right in and read the first TWO PAGES before I managed to elbow him aside as he drew breath, intervene and read a portion myself, then Ken jumped in, then Steve.  And so it went on, Bruce with the loudest mouth and most focussed ego, and me with the next and so on.  It was fucking exhausting.  Like a trial by combat, with words.  We got to lunch and we’d read the whole play.  It was a fantastic piece.

Well done everyone. Take an hour for lunch.  Lads, whatever lines you just read – they are your lines. OK thanks.”

WHAT???

But it was true.  The trial by dialogue had become Steven’s lazy way of dividing the lines between us.  Bruce had 50%, I had 30%, Ken and Steve had 10% each.  To our credit we all accepted it immediately, bonded as a gang, and got down to putting the play on its feet.  Bruce Payne was a smooth handsome blond from London with expressive hands, a student of Berkoff’s style and mannerisms.  Fancied himself.  Ken Sharrock was a scouser with a barrel chest and a deep growl which he started to convert into East End cockney.  Steve Dixon was smaller, chirpy & quick but with a vicious edge when he wanted.

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Rory Edwards was a tall, dark and yes handsome martial-arts specialist who rode a motorbike and black leathers.  I would work with him some 12 years later in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for the BBC where we would play brothers – me as Prince John and him as Richard the Lionheart, the Crusader.  He was born to play these kinds of heroic parts.  Berkoff used him a lot in the 1980s, I remember seeing him as Jokanaan in Salomé, at the National Theatre with a long beard and matted hair.  Great actor.

Susan Kyd was a shapely red-head with excellent cheekbones and a beehive hairdo.  She gave as good as she got, and she got it between the eyes from Berkoff, who is not known for his kind, gentle manner.  He would berate her in the rehearsal room and she would snap something straight back whereupon he’d look at us and sneer “Mouthy Cow“.  Sue would snort in derision. She was pretty impressive.

The parents were both really sweet.  Stella Tanner, playing Mum, was a face, from Dixon of Dock Green, Corrie, and countless other TV shows.  She took Sue under her wing off-stage and was quite devastatingly hilarious because of her understanding of character.  She had some fantastic lines.  John Joyce had been with the Ken Campbell 24-hour play The Illuminatus which also spawned Bill Drummond of The KLF (My Pop Life #220). John was a gentle vague but kind soul who liked a puff, and was also hilarious, though not always when he chose to be.

So there we all were.  I cannot fully recall the absolute thrill of working with Steven Berkoff on his own play, of speaking his words, raising my game to unheard of levels where I felt positively uncomfortable, and still trusting the result.  A whole different kind of acting.  I wanted Berkoff’s approval and did my utmost to get it with my acting decisions.  I think we all felt the same.  Act Two opened with a kind of song by The Lads – Bruce, me, Ken and Steve – who played the Hoxton Mob as well as the Stamford Hill Gang.  Ken was the Hoxton Mob leader.  We were so keen that we would get into the rehearsal room an hour early at 9.00am to rehearse this scene without Steven Berkoff present, eventually revealing to him the “thing” that we had made.  A kind of flailing cockney machine of oiks, arms, elbows and arses thrusting with fuck gutteral Gertcha engine noises and “you what – you what?“.  Steven was delighted and said “keep working on it boys“.

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How The Hoxton Mob appeared in the C4 version of “West” with prosthetic make-up and Ray Burdis

The wardrobe fitting was a visit to an East End tailors in Bethnal Green called Cooper & Stiles, 390a Hackney Road ‘since 1954’. We were in the finest light 1960s-styled tailoring with snazzy shoes and thin ties.  I thought I’d landed.  I think I probably had to be fair. We looked like the dog’s bollocks.

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When we got to the Donmar for technical rehearsal we realised that we would be working on a seriously raked stage – one platform at the back with ten chairs facing out in a line, then a vicious sloped stage that everyone had to stand in action poses on to remain upright.  When our scenes onstage finished we would walk back to the chairs and sit facing the audience like statues.  Very Expressionist.  Berkoff had studied with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, who taught physical theatre and mime, Ariane Mnouchkine & Simon McBurney are among the alumni.  I’d seen the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor at the Riverside Studios in 1981 doing his astonishing show Weilopole Weilopole, which was a stunning piece of imaginative physical theatre – and I’d become exposed to the theories of Jerzy Grotowski another Pole who wrote the influential book Towards A Poor Theatre in 1968.  This argued that theatre shouldn’t compete with film but concentrate on what was unique to the form – actors playing live in front of an audience.  What emerged was total theatre, using your body alone to suggest doors, cups, weapons or motorbikes. The power of the imagination.  Writer and director John Godber was one of the English practitioners of this kind of theatre back then including his production of A Clockwork Orange.   So were his protégées The Yorkshire Actors.  Devotees of Berkoff, naturally.  We were in that tradition in West.  A Black Box, actors and words and audience.  I fucking loved it.  A live musical and percussive accompaniment.   It was my full professional debut onstage – which is to say I was actually getting paid full whack to act in a play, written and directed by my hero.

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Ken, Bruce, Rory, Steve, Ralph – the Stamford Hill gang

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Two dressing rooms – boys, and girls.  It was terribly exciting.  We opened to great fanfare and burned it up.  Great reviews, suddenly we were the hot ticket in town, and we settled in for a five month run at The Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End.  It’s a tiny theatre and tickets were snapped up.  Word would trickle round – “Elvis Costello is in” , “Danny Boyle“, “Madness“.   David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was the song of the year, a thumping bouncy riff-tastic disco bop which started like The Isley Brothers’ Twist & Shout as played by The Beatles and finished like the Nile Rogers funk stomp which it actually was.  A Monster Tune.

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Then the curdle began.  The show was too long so Steven decides to make cuts.  My solo moment, doing the Berkoff walk on the spot, suit jacket on one finger over the shoulder : “walking home alone beneath the stars, through Stamford Hill down Amherst Road to Finsbury Park…” suddenly has a sharpened guillotine hanging over it.  “Please don’t cut that speech” I plead with Berkoff, “I live in Finsbury Park…”  He relents and the speech stays in.   A victory.  Other stuff got trimmed.  Every night before we went on Bruce would recite his entire part aloud until we kicked him out of the dressing room and he did it in a downstairs corridor.  Then Bruce started to manspread in his chair at the back when Mum & Dad were on, his knee and elbow forcing my body into contortions to avoid pain.  One night I resist with a stage whisper Fuck Off Bruce! and push back and he jumps two seats down and freezes.  A couple of scenes later we’re doing the gang scene in the toilets having a slash, backs to the audience, miming giant python knobs a la Berkoff and “who’s got a tanner for the jukebox?” as I dig deep and flick the imaginary coin across the heads of the gang who watch it arc across the stage to Bruce who catches it and pumps it into the slot. Not tonight. He pulled the coin out of his own pocket in a strange revenge moment and my flicked mimed coin lands “on the floor”. A chill went down my spine.  It sounds like a cliché but that is exactly what it felt like.  I realised that I could not trust Bruce onstage anymore.   The spell was broken and it became more tense, less magic.  But the play always takes over.  And what a play.  What words.  John Joyce would have a huge spliff before the Wednesday matinee every week then walk the plank live onstage getting fluffs and laughs in equal measure.  He would then spend the rest of the week trying to recapture the elusive laughs to little avail.

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Bruce Payne, Steve Dixon, Ralph Brown, Ken Sharrock @ Limehouse

Offstage I was going to Pineapple Dance Studios a couple of times a week and doing routines in that hotbox of spangle and leg-warmers.  What a blur it all is now. Walking around Covent Garden, Earlham Street, Neal Street then going into work for a testosterone-fuelled assault on the audience, a totally non-naturalistic Shakespeare-laced East-End tragedy of rage and tenderness and violence.  Steven was a difficult guy to get to know, but he pulled one of the great performances of my life out of me.  I wanted to please him, I needed his approval. I admired his work so much, his challenge to the audience, to the theatre establishment, to the actor.  He is the real deal.

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casual photobomb by Director John Frankau 

The show got picked up for the brand new Channel Four, and filmed at Limehouse Studios on the Isle of Dogs after we’d closed.  John Frankau directed.  It wasn’t as good as the play since it was trimmed quite a lot but it was a good craic.  We were measured for new 60s suits and I still have mine.

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Then, like in all shows, we scattered to the four winds.  Bruce and I’s relationship never recovered fully from that day, but he had immense early success as an actor and we ended up meeting again in Beverley Hills in the 90s, and Ouarzazate in the 00s.  Rory Edwards came in and out of my life like people do, a man of mystery and romance.  We met him at Heathrow on his way to St Lucia with his wife Julia Ormond one day.  I have no idea where he is now.  Ken Sharrock and I worked at the Royal Court the following summer in an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown, directed by Danny Boyle.  We played brothers, and Ken’s father died during the run. I remember him weeping backstage before we went on and I hugged him as he whispered “Use it, use it” as his cue approached.  For another post.

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Ken came to see me playing Macbeth at The Everyman in Liverpool (see My Pop Life #108) and gave me an hour of much-needed insight and support as I fought my way through that production, that life-changing experience that put me off the stage for 20 years and more.  He passed away in 2005.  Steve Dixon gave up acting a few years later.  (The internet tells me he is a professor and President of LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore!)  John Joyce passed away in 2009. Where is Stella?  I think she passed in 2012. But I’m still happily in touch with Sue Kyd, who joyfully came to my 60th with legend Doña Croll and I spent a lovely evening with her last year when I went back to London to see Jenny in Congreve’s The Way Of The World at – The Donmar in 2018.  It was great to see Sue and hang out at her wonderfully located Covent Garden pad within touching distance of the theatrical & historical London she loves so much.

And Steven Berkoff.  We’ve stayed in touch through the years since then.  First the cast had been to his Limehouse pad on the river and met Clara his lovely partner, had drinks, talked shit.   The usual.  Later I got a phone call from my agent about 18 months after West had closed.  Steven was doing a new play of his called Sink The Belgrano at the Half Moon Theatre and would I audition for it?  I called Steven immediately.  “Hello Ralph” he rasped in his educated London growl, “How are you?“.  I told him I’d been asked to audition for his play that week – he said – “Ralph obviously it goes with saying that I know you and your work, and you don’t need to come in for that.”  I said thanks and hows your father, and I did not go to the audition which was the following day.  And I Never heard anything about the show since.  Haha.  Always go to the audition folks!

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A short time after that he called me to come and see a rehearsal of his one-man show Harry’s Christmas which is a sad tale of an old cantankerous git “celebrating” Christmas alone.  It was very bleak yet funny.  I gave him some thoughts.  He just needed an eye on it, and I was honoured to be asked, but my fantasy of getting a directing credit, and shepherding it to an opening was dashed into mirthless smithereens on my ego floor.

I’d see him in Brighton from time to time as he has a flat on the seafront and he’d spend weekends there with Clara.  We memorably had dinner with David Bowie one night when Steven & Bruce were performing Greek in St Martin’s Lane – scrawled into this blog at My Pop Life #54.  I saw Decadence with Steven & Linda MarloweMetamorphosis at The National with Tim Roth as Gregor.  And then he did a touring show at the Dome in Brighton in 2007, the Tell-Tale Heart, Dog, The Actor.  Jenny and I went backstage afterwards and he was all smiles and champagne and grace.

Then finally, in spring 2018, Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s opera “Greek“, with a libretto taken from Berkoff’s play, was at BAM, just down the road from where we live in Brooklyn. I bought a ticket and emailed Steven to see if he was coming.  He hadn’t decided.  In the end I watched it alone, and marvelled.  Steven didn’t come. Well he is now 82 years old.  I was proud for him all over again.   I’d love to have worked with him again, but it hasn’t happened.  That how it is right.  It’s life.  People come into your space and make their mark, have their moment, and leave you changed forever.

 

Steven Berkoff as I knew him in 1984 after we’d filmed West for C4:

Steven performs his monologue “Actor”:

Let’s Dance the original video filmed in Australia :

The most recent thing I could find :

 

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My Pop Life #124 : Beyond Belief – Elvis Costello

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Beyond Belief   –   Elvis Costello

…so in this almost-empty gin palace

through a two-way looking-glass, you see your Alice..

you know she has no sins for all your jeaousies

in a sense she still smiles, very sweetly…

I have been writing this musical patchwork quilt of a memoir for over a year now and somehow not mentioned Elvis Costello.  I hold his work in the very highest esteem, and have loyally bought his LPs as they are released, with The Attractions, or other collaborations :  singing country, classical, pop, jazz-stylings, americana or urbana, rock or baroque, rockabilly or punk, crooning or spitting.  His output is fecund, his quality high.  I really like most of it, dislike very little and absolutely love a great deal of his work.  I have seen him live at least thirteen times over the years, in Brighton, London, Santa Barbara and New York.  When I was younger and living in North London, my brother Andrew was at Middlesex College and going out with Debbie whom he’d known since school and who was at least as big an Elvis Costello fan as I – in fact we went to a few gigs together.  Debbie would always appear in the street afterwards, joining me having a fag, clutching a set-list which she’d snaffled for herself or from a kindly roadie.  I wonder if these treasures are stored somewhere?

It is now possible to access one’s live music memories via a website : setlist.org.  They don’t have the hand-scrawled mementos though.  I have quite a few set-lists myself from different eras, in particular the Brian Wilson band era of the early 21st century.  And then sometimes I lose interest in ephemera and just want the musical memories.  Unfortunately this approach has the downfall of being as ambiguous as your own memory.  Will you remember every song that you saw live?  Of course you bloody won’t !

It’s a damn shame, but I have had to face my fading life-story as I write it down, trying to pin wraiths up in a smoky room, nailing down wisps of certainty amidst clouds of doubt.  Others have helped – remembering things that have long gone, gigs, bands I’ve played in, moments, triumphs, disasters.  I try to treat these two imposters both the same of course, but I prefer the triumphs.  Just a little secret.  But in writing this series of blogs the disasters have often been better pieces of writing.  Perhaps each entry should contain healthy selections of both.

Last night I went to see Elvis Costello again, but this time he was in conversation with old friend Roseanne Cash, talking about his newly-published autobiography Unfaithful Music  & Disappearing Ink at BAM in Brooklyn.   His pop life in fact.  I’m half-way through reading the 700 pages as I write and it is a hugely enjoyable journey through his life and work, non-linear also, joining different moments together from different times, using music to trigger images, constantly relating asides about singers, songs, lyrics, musical pick-n-mix reminiscenses about listening to the radio, meeting your idols, playing Top of the Pops or playing a gig to three people and a dog.  His father is prominent, so is Liverpool, and there is a fine sense of musical history running throughout the narrative.  Costello comes across as an uber-fan as much as anything, his encyclopaedic knowledge of other people’s work is infectious and inspiring.  You can hear his appreciation in his songs, almost thirty years of quoting others among his own razor-sharp and original lyrics.

As a lyricist I don’t think Costello can be surpassed.  I would actually place him above Bob Dylan in that respect.  I remember when I was playing in Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in London over the summer of 1983, we would get rumours of “who was in tonight” trickling back to the dressing room.  One night fellow thespian Bruce Payne came into the brightly-lit mirrored space and slyly remarked that ‘the greatest living poet was in the audience tonight’.   My agent was a strange creature, and I was young and green, because I never did the requisite moving and shaking during this summer to increase my career prospects.  We had all kinds of people watching the show, I guess we were the hot ticket, but for me that was enough.  I’m not a natural hustler.  I just like doing the work.  Hustlers always do better, get further, climb higher.  It’s a natural fact of life.  It doesn’t mean that they’re less talented, although if you have small talent you clearly need to hustle, no, it just means they have that aspect of their personality to the front and centre.

I got to the theatre last-minute as ever.  It had been raining all day, and my friend Johanna and I had been out driving around looking at thrift shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we must have walked into at least ten that afternoon, and come home with two inappropriate tables, no teapots and a rather beautiful black piano in my sights.   Johanna reminded me to take my book as she dropped me home.  It was still raining as I stepped into the theater (sp) and bought a ticket.  No book thanks.  Got one.  And into the auditorium.

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BAM is a series of performance spaces including a cinema and a beautiful old opera house. We’d seen Youssou N’Dour there last year with the entire Senegalese population of New York City.  A film was playing as I walked in, a film of Allen Toussaint playing the piano, and Elvis Costello singing “The Greatest Love“.  One day earlier, Toussaint had died in Madrid aged just 77 as he toured Europe with his quintet.  A giant of New Orleans music as a session player, songwriter (Coalmine, Ride Your Pony, Fortune Teller, Southern Nights) and producer (The Meters, Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, Dr John etc) he and Elvis Costello collaborated on an LP together after playing benefit concerts for the Katrina tragedy which almost finished New Orleans.

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The River In Reverse is a wonderful record which was released in 2006 and is a fine chapter in both musician’s output.

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Declan McManus with a photo of his father, Ross McManus

Then Elvis and Roseanne Cash came onstage and spoke for about two hours about the autobiography which Elvis read some passages from, notably about – his own father’s death, seeing Desmond Dekker onstage miming his hit Israelites in 1975 (see My Pop Life #102 ) working with Allen Toussaint, songwriting, showbusiness and family, but mainly and always about music music music about which Elvis is an unending stream of knowledge and enthusiasm.  By way of illustration of his songwriting technique he picked up an acoustic guitar and gave us a rendition of Shipbuilding which he tied into a story about the evacuation of children to Canada during the 2nd World War, a ship leaving Liverpool without his mother on board which was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic, most of the children dying of hypothermia in the lifeboats after they had been picked up.  Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls.   Then he played a brittle precise acoustic arrangement of one of the most exciting songs in his back catalogue, the song I’ve chosen to select from his vast library of evocations : Beyond Belief.

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Lyrically astounding and musically powerful, it opens the bejewelled and baroque collection of songs he entitled Imperial Bedroom.  The mighty fifth album.

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My previous favourite EC record – 1980’s ‘Get Happy‘ – was a stunning collection of songs all played in the style of Stax house band Booker T & the MGs with a bit of Muscle Shoals and Willie Mitchell thrown in for good measure – it was a mod album, white boys playing post-punk soul shapes with bitter intelligent lyrics.  Imperial Bedroom though was pure pop, horn sectioned, string-arranged, harmony-vocalised pop music and a mightily rich and ornate musical statement as you could find in 1982.  When it came out I was touring England in a Ford Transit van with socialist/feminist theatre group Moving Parts, acting and playing music in self-written pieces ‘with a discussion afterwards‘, changing the world one unemployment drop-in centre at a time.  We were in Scunthorpe, Nottingham, South Yorkshire, Leicester, Newcastle, London, up and down the M1.   We played songs in the style of Adam and The Ants & Madness, The Undertones & Dexys (see My Pop Life #25) while snotty-nosed kids threw polo mints at us because we’d shut down the pool table and assembled a wonky wooden set with crap PA and toy drum kit in the centre.  There was racism, threats and boredom, but there was also much fantastic connection, and every day was actually a thrill.

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top-right: Costello, clockwise : Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas, Steve Nieve

When this LP Imperial Bedroom came out I think I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever heard.  The band were outstandingly good – Pete Thomas on the drum-kit had gone to my school but been slightly older and cooler than I, and has remained out of reach for the remainder of my life.  Bruce Thomas was on bass guitar with his high-fret jumping lines which elevate each turnaround, and Steve Nieve (a punk affectation but no more than “Elvis Costello“!!) played all the keyboards and arranged the orchestral parts – his contribution doing the most to place the LP in the category of adorned pop masterpieces where it happily sits to this day.

When you hear the songs that they recorded and rejected for the final cut – stuff like the brilliant ‘Heathen Town‘ and the title track – it is no surprise that there isn’t a bad track on the record.   “Just like the canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef, I come to you beyond belief”.  

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Elvis Costello & Roseane Cash: 10th November 2015

Roseanne and Elvis did a number together which I didn’t know called April 5th co-written by Kris Kristofferson, then it was over.  My hardback copy of the book was heavy in my black crombie pocket as I established that there would be no book signing in the foyer that night – all the onsale copies were already signed – but mine wasn’t so I sought out the Stage Door.  It was still raining and I went the long way around.  Eventually I was told to wait, and sure enough there was Caroline Clipboard from Artist’s Services asking for my name after I’d let her know that I wasn’t on the list.  I told her it.  Perhaps he’d know who I was.  Other guests were listed and went in.  A handful of hopefuls waited as people came and went.  Some gave up.  Caroline Clipboard kept appearing and she got progressively ruder each time she came down.  “He’s not doing any signings tonight” she said at one point, giving me what she thought was a withering look after I’d been waiting 25 minutes and the security guard had waved me away from the covered vestibule into the rain because I was smoking a cigarette.  Eventually everyone gave up and went into the rain.  I stayed.  Walking home would’ve felt bad at this point.  Miserable book-clutching rain-soaked twat approached in my imagination.  I felt like Billy Stage-Door, the middle-aged loser who wants a quick word with the object of his fandom.  And indeed I decided to inhabit this person.  It was just true.  I would just wait, and sooner or later he’d come out.  It was risky because he might’ve been even ruder than Clipboard Cow, and withered me with a proper withering look, and then I’d have been forced to hate him forever.  Yes, it was risky.  But I knew he wouldn’t.  And I knew he’d come out.

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And he did.  I said “Elvis,” and he turned and looked at me – a man who looked a little like him with the same jaunty hat and black-frame glasses approaching 60, and he said “Yes?“.  I said “They wouldn’t let me upstairs, so I waited down here.” He asked me who I was and I told him my name and said I was an actor.  He said “I’m sorry they didn’t let you upstairs” and I said that they were just doing their job.  I said I just wanted to say Thank You For The Music but I didn’t mention Abba.  He was charming and sweet.  We briefly discussed Withnail, The Crying Game and The Boat That Rocked (“there’s a better film to be made of that story“) then he signed my book, we shook hands and we parted company.  “See you further down the line” he said.  Funny that.  It’s something I say.  Still a hero.  Phew.

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I worked out that he’d probably seen me, on stage and in films, about the same number of times that I’d seen him over the 35 years or so of our careers.  About 13.  Doesn’t really matter.   I’d like to think though, that given time and space we’d get on.  We have mutual friends and acquaintances.  Alan Bleasdale.  Andrew Ranken.  Bound to be others.   But.  He hasn’t listened to any of my albums though.  I don’t have any albums.

My Pop Life #54 : Art Decade – David Bowie

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Art Decade   –   David Bowie

The first time I met David Bowie I made the mistake of telling him that Low was my favourite LP of his.  Well to be honest I think I may have actually said that I held Low and Heroes and Lodger, all three with Brian Eno collaborating, in very high regard, but that Low was, for me, the best.   Christ I actually said that like a pompous little twerp.  He was gracious and smiled, said thank you, but scarcely bothered with me for the rest of the evening.   Sigh.

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How to pick a favourite David Bowie LP ?  Many people go Hunky Dory and have done with it.  Many others, and I’m tempted here, go Aladdin Sane.  It’s fantastic, but includes a cover of Let’s Spend The Night Together and I wish it didn’t.  Station To Station is perfection, but so is Low in my book.  Heroes is amazing.  Ziggy Stardust is teenage genius music.  And I have a huge soft spot for Space Oddity.  Scary Monsters is outstanding. Many plump for the blue-eyed soul of Young Americans. As for the rest, well they’re simply brilliant, rather than out-of-this-world hyperbole.

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My first real memory of DB was – like most people’s – Starman on TOTP, draping his arm languidly around Mick Ronson and singing the chorus with ineffable cool.  I followed his every move from that point on, though oddly didn’t go to see the Ziggy Stardust show at The Dome in Brighton when I could have – I’m sure I had some fucked-up teenage justification at the time.  Twat.

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By the time I met him, in 1991, I’d seen him three times, all at Earl’s Court on the Stage tour in 1978, which was a marvellous band with Adrian Belew, Roger Powell and Simon House joining Bowie’s rhythm section guitarist Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis on drums and George Murray on bass.   The show featured the Low and Heroes songs, with stuff from Ziggy and the mighty song Station To Station for a punchline.  He couldn’t have got any higher in my estimation at each stage of his career, from 1972 through to Let’s Dance.  Then he took a few years off from being David Bowie and joined a band called Tin Machine which I wasn’t too fond of, but his legacy was already untouchable, untouched by any other artist I was aware of.

But then to make all of these outstanding albums, then take a sabbatical and come back with Hours, Reality, Heathen and recently The Next Day speaks to a genius at work, a man who can’t help but keep twisting and turning, creating new, interesting, artful work.  And yes Bowie fans, I have’t mentioned Earthling, Diamond Dogs, Tonight etc.  It’s been a long beautiful career.   He’s truly in a class of his own.

In 1988 I’d been cast in Scandal which Stephen Woolley was producing, I had about five days work that summer with John Hurt, Roland Gift, Arkie Whiteley and Joanne Whalley before she met Kilmer.  July 20th of that blessed year I embark on a day the like of which I would not revisit, but which seemed at the time both sweet and natural.  Visiting Bruce Robinson and Richard E. Grant on the set of How To Get Ahead In Advertising at Shepperton Studios, hanging with old mates from the Withnail shoot before I drove back to Soho to the Scandal location, Bridget Fonda said hi from Lee Drysdale an old Scala mate (see My Pop Life #23) and Stephen and I left to find Forest Whitaker at The George public house, corner of Wardour St and D’Arblay St, with Stephen’s American co-producer Kerry.

I had organised tickets to see Steven Berkoff’s Greek at Wyndhams Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, so Stephen Woolley, Forest Whitaker Kerry and myself walked down there to watch Bruce Payne and Steven tearing it up onstage.   I’d worked with both these fellows in Berkoff’s West at the Donmar some years earlier, and this was the best play of Steven’s I’d seen.  Afterwards we went backstage to Bruce’s dressing room to congratulate and pass love.  Some crowd in there !  There was David Bowie.  “Ralph, this is David;  David, Ralph”  said Bruce, as casually as he could, which was pretty casual I’ll give him that.  Stephen and Forest had decided to chip because they were both working early the next morning…I stuck around as a veritable cornucopia of glitterati filled the dressing room with glamour, some kissing and leaving, others hanging around.  After some time dinner was suggested at Cafe Pelican, a French-style brasserie just across the street and my favourite hangout in the West End.

We sat down at the furthest table from the door and DB sat with his back to the room.  I was opposite him and looked around the table.  Iman.  Steven Berkoff.  Clara Fisher, musician, Steven’s partner.  Bruce.  Me.  Gary Oldman.  Ann Mitchell.  Lesley Manville.  David Bowie.  We ordered, we drank wine, we chatted, we laughed, it was relaxed, charming, easy.   I think we were eating when Gary brought up Nick Roeg, film director that he’d just shot Track 29 with, who’d also worked with David on Man Who Fell To Earth.  Common ground.  And that was when chippy me chipped in with my cultured assessment of Low.   Sorry but I flipping love that album.  It sounds like proper science fiction pop music.   I mean, Brian Eno was another hero of mine since the days of Roxy, I’d bought all his solo stuff, now he was collaborating with Bowie??   Anyway back to Le Cafe Pelican ’89.  Ah well.  David had been friendly and interested up to that point with me, now there was a slight but noticeable withdrawal.  I became fanboy.  It was the most glamourous evening I’d ever had, and possibly will ever have and despite my faux pas, I was glowing and happy.

Next time I saw Stephen I told him what had happened.  He’d worked with Bruce and David Bowie on Absolute Beginners, where they’d all met, and he gave me some words of advice.  Good words.  “When you meet people like Bowie, don’t talk to them about their work, it makes them uncomfortable.  Talk about other people’s work – Brando, Lennon, Picasso.  Anyone but him.”  So wise.   But hey.  I’m a young soul on this earth, and I sometimes behave like one.

So.  What is my favourite David Bowie LP ?  Christ knows.  Who cares, right ?  Now, once again, it’s Low, recorded with Brian Eno, produced by the great Tony Visconti, partly inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth (sci-fi pop!) partly a response to Berlin, Bowie’s new career in a new town, and his coming off and down from a cocaine addiction sustained at least since Diamond Dogs.  This is one of the lesser-celebrated tracks, but my favourite from the windswept moonscapes of side two:  Art Decade.  But the album is, essentially, perfect.