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 #135 : I Can’t Hear You – Betty Everett

I Can’t Hear You   –   Betty Everett

you walked out on me once too often now

and I can’t take no more of your jive and that’s the truth

I ain’t about to let you run me into the ground

this girl ain’t throwing away her youth

Betty Everett 1963

The sub-heading of this blog is ‘My Life In The Gush Of Boasts’.  Stand by.  This is a strange, convoluted, small-world-but-wouldn’t-want-to-paint-it story.  I guess the reason why we live in New York now is down to Jenny Jules my talented and beautiful wife, who played the part of Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined at the Almeida in 2010.   Exactly one year later, Lynn asked Charles Randolph Wright to cast Jenny again in the production he was directing at Arena Stage in Washington D.C.  Charles and Jenny spoke on Skype and the matter was sealed.  After one breakfast with Charles in Washington one morning I knew he would be a friend for life.   It started to feel as if maybe we might end up living on the east coast of America, rather than the west coast where we have spent so much time over the last 25 years.  But we did nothing about it until 3 years later when Phyllida Lloyd‘s all-female production of Julius Caesar in which Jenny was playing the redoubtable Cassius transferred from the Donmar Warehouse in London to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in the autumn of 2014.  Jenny was housed in a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the run, and we stepped outside one bright blue morning and swooned. “We could live here” we said, not realising that we were in the equivalent of Hampstead, and couldn’t ever afford it.    Almost on whim, three months later we were here with two suitcases and a cat each.  The Green Cards we already had from the LA years.  All we needed was work and friends.

Brooklyn

The work came slowly at first then more steadily.  Jenny has already been in a new play by Suzan-Lori Parks called Father Comes Home From The Wars parts 1,2 & 3, and next year she will be on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s  The Crucible.  Phyllida’s 2nd all-female Shakespeare, Henry IV parts one and two combined just finished at the new St Ann’s and Jenny played Worcester and Peto, the high and the low.  My work has been mainly on American TV with parts in Elementary, Agent Carter, Turn, The Blacklist and Legends.   Occasionally I go back to Europe to do some work there.  Work has been fine.

Friends – now making friends is harder, especially perhaps as one gets older and doesn’t socialise quite as much.  I need to find another band to play with, because I miss my old gang.  Our friends here are a tight bunch based mainly on Jenny’s theatrical adventures – thus writer Lynn Nottage and her husband Tony Gerber are our bedrock, with their two children Ruby and Melkamu.   Actors Segun Akande, Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Babs Olusanmokun from the Ruined D.C. cast all live here, and we see them for movies, theatre-readings, and now, weddings !  Segun is marrying Lucy in January 2016.   Things to look forward to!

Jenny Jules & Charles Randolph Wright 2014

Charles  lives in the Village and after directing Ruined in D.C. spent the next two years putting together the mighty musical MOTOWN with Berry Gordy (!) which is Berry’s life story and the history of that great record label Tamla Motown which changed all of our lives.  It opened on Broadway in 2013 (we snaffled a ticket and I will blog it on another occasion) and it is now touring the world – it opens in London in spring 2016.   After we moved to New York in early 2014, Charles introduced us to his lovely friends Vicki Wickham and Nona Hendryx, who came down to Washington and saw Jenny in 2011, and loved her.

Nona Hendryx & Vicki Wickham

So.

We are seeing Charles, Nona, and Vicki  tonight for New Year’s Eve, a small but delightful group, avoiding Times Square and other large drunken gatherings.  Yesterday Vicki sent me a recording of a radio show which she had made earlier in 2015 in London for the BBC.  It was a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of a show called The Sound Of Motown which was produced by Vicki 50 years ago !  Can you hear the soup thickening?

Vicki was then the producer on Ready, Steady, Go! which was the first pop TV show in the UK and was massively influential pre-Top Of The Pops.  The proof was  The Sound Of Motown in 1965 when Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and The Supremes all made their first appearances on UK television, in the same show, with Dusty Springfield – they were all close-to-unknown acts in the UK at the time.  This is despite The Beatles having three Motown songs on their first LP – the public first saw all these acts together on their black and white TV sets in April 1965 on Rediffusion.

The Motown Revue at Marble Arch, London in 1965

It was Vicki’s enthusiasm and drive and Dusty’s stardom which made it happen – they’d seen Little Stevie Wonder in Paris doing his hit Fingertips and were bowled over.  Astonishingly in retrospect, the TV company only agreed to host Motown if Dusty Springfield was involved.  She was only too happy to join in and sang various duets – including this song – with Martha Reeves.

Martha Reeves,the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield

So I’m sitting listening to this radio show with Paul Gambaccini, that motormouth media man interviewing Vicki and alongside her the great Berry Gordy, (now in his 80s !) founder of Motown, writer of ‘Money‘ and best friend of Smokey Robinson (see My Pop Life #3) and there the BBC are trying to recreate some of the songs that featured on that night in 1965 with modern artists.   Thus we get Lamar singing My Girl for instance.  And I’m thinking – all these connections – Charles and Vicki – and suddenly Gambaccini announces I Can’t Hear You No More  “and here to sing it for us is Lucy Jules !

the great Lucy Jules

Could have knocked me down wiv a fevver guv.  Lucy of course is Jenny’s sister, my sister.  She is a professional singer.  She’s a brilliant singer, always has been.  She is very dear to me, naturally, I’ve watched her sing over the years, I’ve accompanied her, she has sung with my band and there she is on the radio doing connections singing !  She kills the song, so do the house band.  But it lights a living echo within.   The amount of coincidences and small-world shrinkage shuffles is starting to ‘do my head in‘ as they say in London,  but hear this : the song Lucy Jules is singing is one which I owned back in my 20s, back in my soul-music-odyssey days, a tremendous song called I Can’t Hear You, or sometimes called Can’t Hear You No More, depending on who is singing it.   And I haven’t heard it for 30 flipping years.  I had it on a 45rpm 7-inch vinyl single by the great Betty Everett.   It was her follow-up to the huge Shoop Shoop Song which I also had on 7-inch :

“if you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss : that’s where it is !”

I think the reason why I had some singles by her was down to Elvis Costello covering her 1965 hit Getting Mighty Crowded in 1980 as an out-take of the personal favourite Get Happy LP – which appeared on Taking Liberties, an album of out-takes and B-sides.  For a musical archeologist like me there were plenty of clues there, back to the time when soul music was made out of soul.   I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down (original by Sam & Dave) was one of the singles from that tremendous LP.

Betty Everett in 1963

Betty Everett was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago in her early 20s, signing a deal with Calvin Carter and Vee Jay records (the first US label to sign The Beatles).  Her second single “You’re No Good” is also a tremendous blues/pop song and was a hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1975.  But this one was always my favourite.  So to suddenly hear it on the radio, sung by MY SISTER was ridiculous.  As I say, I hadn’t heard it since 1985 when I finally at the 3rd attempt left my girlfriend Mumtaz and made the mistake of leaving my record collection behind.  I never saw any of those records again.   All the punk singles in picture sleeves, LPs from my teenage years, soul 45s, african records, everything.   It hurt, but I guess Mumtaz hurt more – she thought we were to be married.  But we weren’t to be married.  And so I started again, aged 29, both in Love and with a Record Collection.   But I forgot many of the records which I used to own.  Bound to happen.  And so now and again I get the joy of rediscovery, a tingle of recognition, and in this case a full circle of musical joy through Motown, Ready Steady Go!, my family and our new friends.

I looked the song up and found that Helen Reddy had a big disco-esque easy-listening hit with it in the 1970s, Lulu covered it, Alan Price and of course, so did Dusty Springfield, calling it I Can’t Hear You No More and singing slightly behind the beat, but still sounding like a black soul singer like she always did.   I guess it was her choice to sing it on the Motown Revue show – but it never was a Motown song.  Except that night when she duetted on it with Martha Reeves.

I think the Betty Everett song was picked up by the Northern Soul DJs in the early 70s and gathered a whole new set of fans – it had that fast beat and passionate vocal that they liked.  The classic pop feel comes from the writers Gerry Goffin & Carole King, she wrote the music, he wrote the lyrics.   Interesting when you know their story :

“This girl ain’t throwing away her youth”

Carole King & Jerry Goffin

Jewish New Yorkers, they married when she was 17 and pregnant and he was 20, and during a reportedly turbulent ten-year relationship they created many top hits for different artists : Take Good Care Of My Baby, (Please) Don’t Ever Change, Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow, One Fine Day, The Loco-motion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Oh No Not My Baby, Up On The Roof, Natural Woman and many many more.

Credit where credit is due.

Happy New Year everyone, thanks for reading.

Ralph Brown 2015

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.