My Pop Life #118 : Glass Onion – The Beatles

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Being For The Benefit of the 3rd in an Occasional Series of Intellectual, Geographical and Lyrical Journeys Through the Cruciate and Baroque Interior of A Selective Selection of Several of The Splendid Songs of My Life.

See The Art Teacher 

and Where Are We Now?

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Glass Onion   –   The Beatles

I told you ’bout strawberry fields You know the place where nothing is real

Well, here’s another place you can go Where everything flows

Looking through the bent backed tulips To see how the other half live

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the walrus and me, man You know that we’re as close as can be, man

Well, here’s another clue for you all The walrus was Paul

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the fool on the hill I tell you man he living there still

Well, here’s another place you can be Listen to me

Fixing a hole in the ocean Trying to make a dovetail joint, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Which four places in Liverpool are mentioned in Beatles’ lyrics ?  Penny Lane yeah, Strawberry Field (no S) yeah.  Yeah.  And  ??  Clue  :  It’s on the last LP Let It Be.  Playing the songs they played as kids in 251 Menlove Avenue – Aunt Mimi’s house where John lived for 20 years, old rock’nroll covers and R’n’B songs, or more commonly at Paul’s parents’ house in 20 Forthlin Road.   “oh Dirty Maggie May they have taken her away and she never walks down Lime Street anymore…”   That’s three.   And number four is – and only locals and Beatle nuts know this – The Cast Iron Shore.   A real but mythical place in Liverpool.    Apparently south of Albert Dock, near Dingle, the whole area used to be dockyards but the heyday of the Liverpool Docks at that end of town – South Liverpool – was 100 years ago.   So-called because the rusting metals in the dock cranes and buildings and man-made waterways turned the river water metallic orange.  I went to look for it today, to stand there, as John Lennon talks about in the song Glass Onion, which appears on side one of The White Album.

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Strawberry Field, 2015

It’s a song that appears to tilt at the windmills of their own mythology as Beatles.  The opening line “I told you bout Strawberry Fields,  you know the place where nothing is real” sets the self-referential tone, but Strawberry Field, as I’m sure you know, is very real, and John could see it from a tree in Aunt Mimi’s garden…  “no one I think is in my tree…

It was an orphanage, and the locals kids used to break into the grounds sometimes to play football on the green.  But John Lennon and his pals Paul, George and Ringo now know “how the other half live” because they made it as Beatles.  When they were kids would they be “standing on the bent-back tulips to see how the other half live” in someone’s garden peering through Georgian windows at their future in “the other half”  ??

Looking through a glass onion.  Like a crystal ball, but looking back, and forward at the same time.

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inside the White Album ‘The Beatles’ 1968 were four pictures

John teases the fans who were reading cryptic messages into all Beatles lyrics by 1968, referencing the death of Paul in a famous example, a rumour that refused to be stifled but that was clearly bonkers.  DOA on his Sgt Pepper jacket. And so on.  Lennon skewers it all.  On the Anthology off-cut version he even shouts “Help!

Well here’s another clue for you all : the Walrus was Paul”

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Still from I Am The Walrus film 1967

Maybe, in this picture, he was.  In the next verse John’s told us about “the fool on the hill”, the 3rd song from Magical Mystery Tour that’s he’s referenced.   Each of these moments also has a musical echo of the song – here are the flutes from Fool On The Hill.  You can have fun finding them for yourself.  The other two of the five Beatles songs inside the skin of Glass Onion are even more recent, a 1968 single : Lady Madonnatrying to make ends meet, yeah” and from 1967 and Sgt Pepper :  “Fixing A Hole in the ocean…

I went looking for the Cast Iron Shore today, driving around the east side of the River Mersey where it’s all been re-built, cleaned up, nice waterfront developments, marinas, business parks.  Asked a few locals where it was.  They’d all heard of it: “The Cazzie, yeah” but no one was quite sure exactly which bit it was.   The first place I found had holes in the ocean as you can see

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Holes in the ocean at the Cast Iron Shore, yeah

because it was low tide.   But many believe that both Fixing a Hole, which is a McCartney song,  and this song reference heroin which John Lennon was sampling in the year 1968.  Two years later he would be screaming Cold Turkey into a microphone as he came off the drug.   The softer drug marijuana is also alluded to.   I tried “to make a dovetail joint” in woodwork class once at Lewes Priory school and it wasn’t great, but I suspect that I will be forever remembered for the Camberwell Carrot, a Dovetail Joint that I smoked in the film Withnail and I.  My character, Danny the drug dealer explains that the Camberwell Carrot “can utilise at least twelve skins…”

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Annie McGann, me, Paul McGann, Hope St Hotel, September 2015

It felt appropriate to have a puff on the cast iron shore today and contemplate The Beatles and Liverpool and my love of them and the city.  Last night (and the night before) I’d been out with Paul McGann and his wife Annie, up in town for a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail, and happily staying in the same hotel as I.   We ate, we drank, we met Austin and Yvonne, we met Tim Roth and Sandra Butterworth with whom I am currently working on Jimmy McGovern and Bob Pugh‘s screenplay “REG” for the BBC and LA Productions.  We watched England lose to Wales at Twickenham in a disco pumping out house tunes and hosting the totteridge and whetstone of Liverpool L1.  We’d signed autographs with fans and taken pictures after the screening.  We’d drank more drink.  Lovely weekend, making a circle of reference.  I’ve known Paul since we made Withnail and I in 1985, when we were babies.  Such a charming, gentle, gracious, intelligent, well-read man who is hugely relaxed about life and who appears to have no grey hair.

Featured imageThis is an outrage as I am both bald and grey at this point.  Tim Roth at least has the decency to be grey.  I’ve known Tim since the days of going out with Rita Wolf – mid 80s too, and Tim and Paul were both on the ‘Brit Pack” cover of The Face in 1985 – with some other creatures great and small.  But Tim and I have deeper roots since he went to Dick Shepherd School in Brixton with my friends Paulette and Beverley Randall, Eugene McCaffrey and David Lawrence.  So the circles carry on.  I’m now staying on Hope Street again, just along the road from The Everyman Theatre where I performed Macbeth and which put me off theatre for life in 1987 (see My Pop Life #108)

Tomorrow I’ll try and find Ringo’s house at #9 Madryn Road, and George’s at 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree because Jenny and I visited John’s and Paul’s family homes – mentioned above – in 2008 when we had a holiday in Liverpool.  I know !  But we did, and we loved it.  Year of Culture, all that.  For another post.  But both Lennon and MCcartney’s properties are now run, brilliantly, by The National Trust, which is also rather spookily mentioned in a song from the White Album “Happiness Is A Warm Gun“, to continue the circle of myth.   I totally recommend that tour, probably the single best thing to do as a tourist in Liverpool.

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251 Menlove Avenue where John was brought up by his Aunt Mimi

REG” is about Reg Keys whose son Tom died in Iraq in 2003 along with five other military policemen.  When the no WMD declaration was made, Reg Keys decided to stand for Parliament in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 2005 as an independent candidate fully against Blair’s Iraq war policy.  Tim Roth is playing Reg, Anna Maxwell-Martin his wife and I’m playing his election agent, ex-MP Bob Clay.  It is an honour to represent this true story to the nation.  The 90-minute film will be released at the same time as The Chilcott Report apparently – the official Enquiry into the debacle and falsehoods behind the decision to go to war.  Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour Party leader as I speak, (elected by a greater majority than Tony Blair had when he was elected leader), will this week apologise on behalf of the party for the Iraq War.  This is a big deal.   It’s one of the those jobs that I’ve been lucky enough to get where I feel like I’m inside current history.  An earlier experience – for another post naturally – was the Joint Stock workshop for the play Deadlines, when Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton the day after the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel, watching Thatcher, who’d so very nearly died in the explosion, speak to the Hall.  Powerful stuff.

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Paul, Tim, Ralph

And fitting that I would feel those prickly feelings again in Liverpool, a city which I have great affection for, and which is probably the most political city in the UK.  Hmm Ok well there may be other contenders – I’m thinking of Belfast (see My Pop Life #13) but Liverpool has a deeply and profoundly anti-establishment tradition.  They don’t buy The Sun here, thanks to that rag’s coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy.   Maybe I’m romanticising.   But c’mon !  There’s a Slavery Museum here!   And, And… It is a city of music, like New Orleans, a great port city which connected it to the outside world.  The whole world.  The very reason why The Beatles came out of Liverpool rather than Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham is the docks.  Those great ships would come in from New York in the 1950s, and on board along with passengers, imports like cotton and sugar and manufactured goods would be secret stashes of cool shirts, loafers, slacks and RECORDS.  45rpm singles.  They heard Elvis Presley here in Liverpool before anywhere else in the UK.  And no, I don’t know what a glass onion is.  Maybe if I’d taken heroin I would.  But if you peel away the layers, expecting to find the answers inside (like people were doing with Beatles lyrics, and what I am clearly doing now) you’ll see that in the end, it was transparent all along.

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My Pop Life #84 : All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix

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All Along The Watchtower   –   The Jimi Hendrix Experience

“…No reason to get excited

The thief he kindly spoke

There are many here among us

Who feel that life is but a joke…”

I felt that life was but a joke in September 1970.  I was thirteen and staying in Lewes with one of my surrogate familes, foster-mum Sheila Smurthwaite.   But first quick – a little re-wind selector…backstory…

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The second time our family was split up, I was 11.   I’d just got to Lewes Grammar School For Boys by passing the 11-plus.  Three of us from the little village school in Selmeston had done it : Me, Cedric the postman’s son Graham Sutton and David Bristow, much to the delight of Miss Lamb, the headmistress who used to bring goose-eggs to school as prizes, and who taught us how to make porridge, play Men of Harlech on the recorder, and probably what a slide rule is for.   It was daunting, travelling into Lewes on the bus wearing the uniform with cap, being in this giant school full of big hairy boys, playing rugby and being bullied by prefects.  I think Pete Smurthwaite and I probably shared a detention together for being scruffy.  No cap on.  That kind of thing.  He was in my class, 1R.   Anyway.   Mum had to go into hospital again so me and my two brothers went to three different houses – Andrew to Portsmouth and Aunty Val (he was about five years old), Paul down the road to Gilda and Jack (he was still at Selmeston school being 2 years younger than me) and I went to stay with Pete Smurthwaite and his mum in Ringmer, which was near Lewes, but not near Selmeston.   Really.   When I go back there now, through the green fields of East Sussex, Glyndebourne, the Downs, Firle Beacon, it’s all deliciously close together, but aged 11 it felt like a foreign country.  To be fair, Ringmer actually is a foreign country, despite being a mere 4 miles from bohemian, pope-burning, witchy, cobbled Lewes.  But Sheila Smurthwaite made up for Ringmer’s lack of charm with her own hippy spirit and welcoming vibes.  Jimi Hendrix posters. Gaugin’s Tahitian women.   Guernica.

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Two years later, and a different crisis – we were evicted from our tied feudal cottage for not paying rent – and we were all split up again.   By now Mum had re-married, to John Daignault.   He was a chef, but then worked at Caffyns on Lewes High St, then lost his job.   I’ve got a feeling that we all went to the same places we’d been 2 years earlier, and I definitely stayed with Sheila and Pete again – only now they were actually in groovy Lewes where they belonged, Pete had a baby brother called Jake (whose dad Nick was Sheila’s 19-year-old lover) and Jimi Hendrix was all over the walls and loudspeakers.  There was a board-game inventor down the road and Pete and I got to go round there and try them out – war-games and one evolution game shaped like a tree.  We all ended up as sharks every time we played it.

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I smoked my first joint in that house, and helped local legend Noddy Norris roll a two-foot long joint by sticking forty or fifty cigarette papers together, along with a bunch of mates (Pete, Conrad, Spark, Fore, Martin Elkins, Dougie Sanders, Tat?).   My mum smoked roll-ups, so I was au-fait with the apparatus.   The Camberwell Carrot had nothing on this monster.   At least two feet long.   But thinking back now, what was an 18-year-old ex-con doing hanging out with a bunch of 13-14 year olds?   That was Lewes though.   Hendrix and The Doors and The Beatles were always playing.   Soft Machine.  Cream.  Santana.  Dirty hippy music.  Always the older kids were groovier than us, had longer hair, better afghan coats and boots, had groovier record sleeves tucked under their arms, could actually play the guitar and drums.   I had my first wank in that house, in the bath.   It was completely alarming, but tremendous and I never looked back.   Smiley face.   And then Jimi died.

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The house went into shock.   I remember composing a giant memoriam on my blue school rough book which said Jimi Hendrix RIP Sept 18th 1970.  We listened to four LPs and a handful of singles – Are You Experienced?, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland (number one LP for me and All Along The Watchtower is on this album) and Hendrix In The West with the amazing version of Little Wing.   Simon Korner later bought Cry Of Love the scribble-cover LP but I never listened to it because it was released after he died and so I suspected it of being inferior and somehow not meant to be.   In fact it was a rush-released version of the 4th Jimi Hendrix LP which never got finished.  In 1997 a more carefully crafted version of this record called New Rays Of The Rising Sun was released, and it is as near as we’ll ever get to that follow-up to Electric Ladyland.  It’s fantastic.   We could not believed Jimi had gone.  He was so young, so full of fire and love.  He was the future of music, we knew it, you could hear it in the way he played and sang in perfect sync with himself.  He was an incredible poet, musician and person.   We mourned.   We were stunned.   We played the records again.   And then in the weeks that followed, or possibly in the weeks preceding this calamitous death, I’d gone to see my Mum in Eastbourne.  She looked terrible.  She had a large black shape on her cheek vaguely covered with make-up.  She told me it was barbiturate poison because she’d taken an overdose.  She’d been living in a caravan in Pevensey Bay with John Daignault and they’d fought and scratched and punched each other to a standstill.  My mind was reeling – not by the fighting – that was happening in Selmeston before we’d all moved out.   In one comic interlude Mum had thrown eggs at JD (as he then became known) and one of them had landed and broken in his hair.  He’d walked up to the police station in the village up on the A27 to file a complaint.  With an egg on his head.  No – it was the overdose that was frightening.

Then weeks after this meeting I received a letter in New Road Lewes from Mum.  It explained that we’d have to wait another nine months before we got housed.   Nine months !   I crumpled in a heap on my bed and wept like a baby.   What could I do?  Bear it.  Get on with life.  I bought Hendrix 45s which became god-like items, played them over and over again.  Gypsy Eyes.  Long Hot Summer Night.  Stone Free.  All Along The Watchtower – like a hurricane blowing through my body every time I heard it.  A song of devastation.  A testimony of chaos.

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“There must be some kind of way out of here, Said the joker to the thief,  

There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief….”

I had no idea that Bob Dylan wrote it.  It was Hendrix through and through, round and round.  It was a terrifying record, an exhilarating record, it was everything I ever hoped to be, everything I feared, a prophet crying in the wilderness.   A distillation of pain and despair.   I completely misheard many of the lyrics.

  “Mr Splendid – drink my wine….ploughman take my urn…

no one will level out of mind, nobody else in this world”

And despite now knowing the actual words now : “Business men, they drink my wine, Plowman dig my earth, None were level on the mind, Nobody up at his word“.  Really ??  No I prefer mine and I still sing Mr Splendid drink my wine.  

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The song perfectly expresses the joke of my life in 1970.  It is still burned into my heart.   Jimi Hendrix RIP  September 18th 1970.