My Pop Life #188 : Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum

Spirit In The Sky   –   Norman Greenbaum

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

*

It is January 28th 1994.  Jenny and I are sitting in the front row of the back section of the Empire Leicester Square, reserved for the red carpet people for this Premiere of the film Wayne’s World 2.   All our guests are sitting in the front section.

I had shot the movie a few months earlier in Los Angeles.  At one point I’d been walking back to my trailer in full make-up and rig – quite a few hundred yards across the Festival site – and the producer, Lorne Michaels was walking toward me.  We both stopped to say hi, and after exchanging niceties I asked him if my name could be on the poster, since I’d never had my name on a poster before.  He agreed that it could.  Just like that.  And it was, which later annoyed Julie Burchill so much that she mentioned it in fury in one of her rants.  Haha.  It was exciting for me for the film to open so quickly, but my split life in California and London meant that I had no strategy to deal with the opening except to just turn up and enjoy it.  Looking back it now appears that this was a golden springboard that could (should?) have launched me onto another level, but I think that a) I thought that I was already on that level and b) I didn’t really strategise my work in those days.  I’ve never enjoyed publicity, PR, Q&A, EPK, red carpet, all that.  It’s like a completely different job to the one I do, and frankly I’m just not very good at it.  I should just try acting (dear blanche) probably.  But oftentimes I am number five or six on the cast list, which is just below where the important people are, and being overlooked has become part of my brief when films are publicised.  Which funnily enough I got used to.  Below the radar.  Not recognised when out and about.  And so on, and so forth.  But we’d had a little red carpet stuff, not much because there was Mike Myers, Jerry Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones and people like that at the Premiere and that’s how it always goes. So Jenny and I went into the foyer and were ushered into a wee room where we could sup champagne briefly before being taken in to our seats.  It was a huge thrill to be sure. The lights started to dim – or did they?  That moment in the cinema where you feel the light fading, and it doesn’t.  My agent Michael Foster was sitting in front of us and he turned around and his eyebrows were working overtime because..

Then Paul & Linda McCartney walked in and the whole place went apeshit.  People stood, cheered and whooped, rushed them, got held back by security.  Paul and Linda were shown to their seats NEXT TO US, and Paul turned to security and indicated that he would sign autographs for a few minutes, a kind of “let them through” moment.  And through they came, shaking hands, whooping, crying… and Linda started whooping herself, joining in, so did Paul “WOOOO” they said enjoying the fuss and attention, apparently.  People shook their hands, had things signed, took pictures (with real cameras – it’s 1994), and eventually security put an end to all the activities and got everyone back to their seats.  At which point Paul turned to us and they introduced himself : “Hi I’m Paul, this is Linda“.  No shit sherlock I thought but said: “Hi Paul, I’m Ralph this is Jenny“.   All done, now the lights went down for real and the film started.  Jenny and Linda shared popcorn.  It was one of those nights.

Wow right.  This was the man I had idolised since I was a boy.  I was now 37 years old.  I couldn’t quite take it all in but didn’t have to because now there was a film to watch.  Watching myself acting has become harder and harder for me over the years – and recently next-to-impossible.  I can’t explain it fully, except to say that I feel increasingly vulnerable, increasingly exposed & revealed as the years go by.  But in 1994 I didn’t have much of a problem with it to be honest.  Also – the character I was playing in Wayne’s World 2 – roadie Del Preston – was such a world away from me that I didn’t feel that exposed.  I think I became an actor to escape myself, and these kinds of parts have always been my favourite as a result.  The character was firmly based on Danny The Dealer from Withnail and I, shot almost ten years earlier in England and written about in My Pop Life #128 .   Long hair, tattoos, a slurred, brain-bombed voice, spouting curious drug-addled philosophy based on years of experience “on the road” with various “bands” so that the character had become a virtual stereotype of the vintage rock’n’roll hippy roadie.  It was a gift of a role, and in retrospect (always 20/20 hindsight) should have put me into some kind of opportunistic position.  In fact, I didn’t work much in 1994.  Odd.

The weird naked Indian

I enjoyed the film.  It was funny.  Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (who wasn’t at the London Premiere sadly) had a great onscreen schtick which had carried over from Saturday Night Live sketches – they knew these characters and what they could get away with, what their timing should be.  Against them were the beautiful Tia Carrere and Kim Basinger as the unattainable girlfriends who – against all odds – fall for our heroes, and Christopher Walken as the evil biz manager who wants to steal Wayne’s girl.  And me.  Del Preston – the old London roadie who can help Wayne and Garth put on ‘Waynestock‘, a pop festival in their home town of Aurora, Illinois.   And a plethora, a gamut, a menagerie, a rogue’s gallery indeed of characters, comedians, jokers, ne-er-do-wells and faces who have either disappeared entirely or become legend : Bob Odenkirk, James Hong, Lee Tergusen, Chris Farley, Charlton Heston, Harry Shearer, Jay Leno, Drew Barrymore.  It was good company to be in for sure.  We laughed a lot.  Gags. Jokes. Laffs. Foolishness.  I’ll blog the shooting of Waynestock later.  For this post, I’m watching…

Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen 

Then suddenly, the scene where I have to train Wayne and Garth and their buddies (including Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen) How To Be Roadies.  A series of faintly comic sketches pumping tennis balls at a stage while yanking over a microphone stand, an eve-of-battle talk for morale.  And over this sequence, the director Steve Surjik and producer Lorne Michaels had put this song : Spirit In The Sky by Norman Greenbaum.  A classic.  An evocative, original one-off, a truly great song.

Norman Greenbaum is Jewish and wrote this song – his only hit – presumably under the influence of mind-altering substances, given that it is a Christian gospel glam-rock anthem with a stunningly phased lead guitar, recorded, amazingly in 1969.  Some claim it as the record that started glam rock, which was a British scene in the early 1970s and included working class geezers in lipstick and make-up stomping around on stack heels to a solid 4/4 backbeat, often with hand-claps : bands such as The Sweet, Wizzard, Slade, Mud, Suzi Quattro, Gary Glitter and David Bowie himself trod this glorious path, but some years after this single was number one pretty much everywhere.  Or maybe I made that bit up.

Either way, there it was soundtracking my moment in the film.  I felt strangely moved at this point.  Like this really was a personal soundtrack for that character, and that situation.  I wonder now what other songs they tried out for that bit?

Tia Carrere & Christopher Walken

After the film Paul & Linda were hustled away as the credits rolled, and the rest of us had cars to take us to the Hard Rock Cafe on Hyde Park Corner, straight down Piccadilly.  Somehow we got squeezed into a vehicle with a tall Texan model who used to go out with Bryan Ferry before she ditched him for Mick Jagger.  Let’s Stick Together indeed.

At the Hard Rock we were inside the roped VIP section (was there another section in fact?) and we had sixteen guests with us – I’d asked for a generous handful of tickets for the film and the party and got them.  Who was there with us that night ?  I remember Paul and Colin Chapman, Jo Martin and Michael Rose. Roger Griffith and Jo Melville. Beverley and Paulette Randall.  Danny Webb & Leila Bertrand.  Eamonn Walker & Sandra Kane.  Mandy and Lucy Jules, Jenny’s sisters.  And Michael Buffong.  A good gang.  We spread out and hunted food and drink in packs.  I’d like to say that all the food was vegetarian, at the request of Linda McCartney and Paul, but I can’t actually remember that detail.  We sat with them and they were lovely – Mike Myers and miserable unfriendly Paul Merton also joined.  Linda was very sweet and kind and very strongly vegetarian, very important to her indeed.  Macca was light and funny and generous.  The reason for them being there was this : Myers had designated the chosen charity of the Premiere to be Paul’s newly opened Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts or LIPA, on the site of his old school near the Cathedral off Hope Street in Liverpool.  I offered to do some free workshops there, but when I contacted them later that month the first question was “Please send us your C.V.”  I did but nothing.

Del Preston

As for the party.  It’s all a little blurry now.  It probably was then too.  Those were the days of smoking indoors.  My highlight reel would have to include the following clip :  after Paul and Linda moved on to another table of their friends, Naomi Campbell slid in beside me (I was bleached blond that night, and she’d recently shown a preference for that look and had an affair with the U2 bass player,) and we chatted for a while, someone took a photograph which is framed and in storage, so sorry not for the blog today, and then Jo Martin the flame-breathing goddess of Hackney introduced herself to Naomi with “Hello, I’m Jo, a friend of Ralph’s WIFE“.  Not before I’d given NC my phone number, but alas it never rang.  In the photo of Naomi and I you can see Jo and Leila behind us looking daggers…

Chrissie Hynde (for yes, it was she…) winking at me as I walked downstairs looking for the toilets.  Good friends of Linda.

Michael Rose (who then played in a great band called The April Place) saying “Ralph, c’mon, I have to speak to Paul NOW!”   So we joined his table and Paul and Michael and I chatted about Fool On The Hill & Pet Sounds and Paul passed me a spliff he was smoking and I inhaled and Everything Was Fine With The Earth And All That Was On It.  And kind of has been ever since to be honest.   A moment.  Childish but true.  Later the party started to wind down – at which point I noticed that Jaye Davidson was there – friends with Naomi – who I’d worked with a few years earlier on The Crying Game.  He was drunk.  So was I.

There’s another fabulous picture of Macca and I talking to each other as the party starts to move out (it’s in storage).  TRAMP was the word being passed around.  A nightclub on St James St.  “We used to go there in the old days, me and the boys,”  said Paul confidentially to me “after a show or whatever, to pick up birds“.  He winked.  “Mind you, see her over there?” he nodded toward Linda who was talking to someone else, “She gave me the glad eye earlier.  Think I might be in there.”  He enjoyed this joke very much, one he must have told a hundred times in similar circumstances, surrounded by adoring fans and ‘birds’ and seeking out the eyes of his beloved.

I asked him how – after years of this public adoration that we’d seen a glimpse of inside the cinema – the screaming fans, the crowds, the adulation – how he’d handled it all this time, and how gracious they’d both been about it.  He looked around and whispered “In the car on the way up from Sussex : we get really stoned.”  Of course.  “You coming to Tramp then?

Drunken moments – watching Roger grabbing Naomi’s leather-clad buttock in one hand as we walked out.  The gang were getting taxis down Piccadilly to the club.  I think everyone decided to Carry on Partying.

At Tramp, a desk, a maitre-D, a penguin looks at the large group of black people at the entrance to his club.  “Can I help you?” he says, his eyes giving the opposite meaning.  Yes I say, we’re with Paul & Linda and Naomi from Hard Rock, Wayne’s World blah blah fucking blah.  His face is the picture of England that we know and love, drenched in miserable boarding school rainy afternoons, ranked prefects and results, furtive secret sex, jealous unattainable class status and a wilted disdain for anything foreign.  He asked for my name.  “Just a moment please“.  He disappears downstairs to check my story.  The gang behind Jenny and I are happy, glowing, full of joy, but clearly expecting the worst.  Which then duly appears with Penguin and a faintly obsequious smile, pastel-coloured with supercilious hauteur : “I can let the two of you downstairs, but sorry, not the others…”  

Bless the gang, they insisted to a woman that Jenny and I go into Tramp and Carry on Partying with the glamour pop model people.  We didn’t.  We were moving as a pack in those days.  You turn my people away, we aren’t coming in.  Any of us.  Goodnight.  All back to ours !!   About ten years later, maybe twenty ? we did go into Tramp with Rula Lenska who is possibly a contemporary of Paul McCartney, and I stole an ashtray.

A series of taxis took us back to Archway Road N6 where we lived.  And we laughed and drank and smoked some more.  Celebrated properly together.  Who were we again ?  Well to honour the few :  Jenny and I, newlyweds in 94.  Paulette & Beverley who have appeared in My Pop Life #60 and My Pop Life #187 (among many others) and who are two of my very special friends.  My brother Paul, and his man at that time Colin Chapman – who had moved down from Durham a few years earlier and who is still in our lives to this day.  Indeed recently Colin it was who told me where to go to find a nice leather jacket in New York = Cast on the Lower East Side.  Colin knows these things.  He now does a fashion blog and is here regularly, but lives in Shoreditch with his man Dunk.

Jo Martin

Roger Griffith

 

Danny Webb

Michael Rose

Michael Buffong

Sandra Kane

 

Josephine Melville

Eamonn Walker

Paulette & Beverley Randall

Paul, Ralph & Colin Chapman in 2013

Jo Martin (who saved Naomi Campbell from a date with me) had worked with Jenny in a play at the Tricycle Theatre called Pecong – an updating of Medea to Trinidad, directed by Paulette.   Eamonn was also in this production playing Jenny’s brother (My Pop Life #104).   His partner Sandra now runs the cafe in Roundhill Park; when we met her she’d just come back from living in Japan.   Jo Martin was going out with Michael Rose at that point, a foxy eastender who played a mean guitar and could sing too.  They lived down the road from us in Holloway so time was spent there, smoking weed mainly, listening to reggae, Lenny Kravitz’ first LP, hanging out with her friend Tracey, or with Roger and Jo Melville.  Roger Griffith is a wonderful actor – I had cast him as my lead in The House That Crack Built in a BBC funded workshop, the rap opera/play that was never performed, and his to-be wife Jo Melville was one of the female Possee known as The Bibi Crew.  They are no longer together.  Roger and Michael Buffong were both in The Possee, which I mentioned in My Pop Life #184, a big part of that early 90s London landscape.  As were Danny Webb and Leila Bertrand – Danny was in Alien 3 with me in 1991 (see my Pop Life #  ) and his wife Leila is a casting director : they lived downstairs from my therapist for a while (probably around this time?) in Maida Vale, and all I remember from that shoulder-rub was Leila meeting her on the stairs one afternoon after some complaints and nonsense with “Heal thyself physician!“.   Funny.  They have two beautiful daughters Lily & Bellaray who came to see us in Brooklyn in late 2015 with their mum, we went to Sunny’s bar in Red Hook for a bit of live bluegrass.

Jenny, Leila & Johanna at Sunny’s in Red Hook 2015

And Mandy and Lucy, ever-present sisters, confidantes and ladies-in-waiting, keepers of the secrets, queens, princesses and gold medal winners of life, love and art.   They are, naturally very dear to Jenny’s heart, and mine.

Me, Mandy, Lucy

It was a great kitchen party.  We smoked.  We drank.  We played records.  Til dawn ? Dunno.   Did we play Spirit In The Sky ?  Maybe we did.   Probably not.

Well, it is my pop life after all.

Youtube doesn’t have the roadie training section which features this song, so you’ll have to make do with this clip : Del Preston outlines his plans for the gig…

My Pop Life #183 : Rocket Man – Elton John

Rocket Man   –   Elton John

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

*

You’re not supposed to post the lyrics of a song in their entirety on the internet because copyright but if that’s the case why are there all those lyrics sites, all with the same mistake ?  As I gently age, with spurts of buckling and recovery, I find my mind grows dim, for things seem more mysterious to me now than they were forty five years ago when I was fourteen years old and grooving to Elton John in my bedroom, in particular this classic and the B-side which was, brilliantly enough, two songs :  Goodbye, and Holiday Inn.  Swoon.  The magic year of 1971, when my ears suddenly opened further, deeper, stronger and every tune held different mysterious beauty, had just passed and now we were in the spring of 1972 and I was on a musical jam roll.

We were in Hailsham.  I had a record player in my bedroom.  It was a luxury, like the view over the fields, and the broom-handle thumps on the kitchen ceiling reminded me of this privilege from time to time.  Rocket Man of course was a masterpiece, a song so perfect that I couldn’t stop burbling about it to my Nan, up visiting from Portsmouth, playing it to her downstairs on the record player while she looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.  She’d looked at me before like that, an old-fashioned look perhaps it’s called, but this time I noticed and felt my power.  I was fourteen after all, bursting out all over the place.

“Listen to this bit Nan –

‘ and all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week…’

and of course by then I had done two and a half years of fucking science at school and found it baffling, like the smoke signal from the Vatican.  Talk about mysterious.  Perhaps it was the teachers, but perhaps MORE it was me.  Science ?  Nah.

Not for me.  Not my bag.  Not clever enough to understand it and perhaps it was never explained to me properly.  It is the basis of our civilisation after all – engineers and builders, along with medicine and war.    And in the song, when he sings all this science I don’t understand, the music goes all weird and synthesised and jagged suddenly with a staccato chord on the piano to punctuate the oddness.  Like science that you don’t understand, I explained to my Nan.  She looked at me.

Now I understand that it’s the producer’s job to do that sort of thing.  Like the two lines before that :

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,

in fact it’s cold as hell” 

when the song empties out (like Mars, he added unnecessarily) and it’s just Elton and the piano – no drums  – then one slide guitar note on cold as hell to emphasise the emptiness.  It’s completely brilliant, very simple, like brushstrokes on canvas, the effect is concise and emotional.  Modern art is thus made.  And Gus Dudgeon, who produced this song was a genius in the studio, whatever he touched turned to gold around this time : Osibisa’s ‘Woyaya‘, John Kongos’  Tokoloshe Man, Audience’s House On The Hill, much of the Bonzos output, but he was known best for his work with Elton John.

And on the B-side was this stunning song Goodbye which haunted me then and still haunts me now.   Elton of course is a genius, his singing voice is quite superb and his music is exquisite, especially in the 1970s.   I’ve always loved piano pop more than any other kind of music, so Elton is on the high end of a list which includes Fats Domino, Ben Folds, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Marvin Gaye, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Dr John, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Fats Waller, Little Richard, Randy Newman, Georgie Fame, Alan Price, Harry Nillsson, Rufus Wainwright and so on and so forth.  But it’s the lyrics on this one folks.  I’m not a big on lyrics kind of guy.  Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  I’m a music kind of guy.  Chord changes and harmonies.  Some people are both, I know.  Maybe I am both, but I’m mainly musical, not lyrical.

But Bernie Taupin though.  What a lyricist.  Check this –

And if you want a drink, just squeeze my hand and wine will flow into my land and feed my lambs

He’s gone all William Blake there.  He’s young, they both are, they’re trying stuff. What’s he on about ?  Post-nuclear holocaust ?  Jesus Christ on the cross ?

And now it’s all over the birds can nest again

But by the end of the song, a mere one minute 40 seconds after it started, Elton’s singing I’ll Waste Away over and over again.  Meaning ?  Who knows ?  Allow it to be mysterious.  Not everything is to be named numbered and explained. Categorized. Collected.  Scored.  Understood. Filed, Forgotten.  I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme.

Sorry I took your time.

The innate drama of the lyrics appealed to me greatly as a 14-year old glam-rock softy.  Sometime I wish I was back in 1972 with my poor Mum banging around the house either with or without her 2nd husband John Daignault, listening to records up in my bedroom. (My and Paul’s bedroom I should say.  We would turn out the light and talk for about an hour every night, both lying down talking at the ceiling.  About everything.  Precious moments.  Healing hours.)  We’d play football outside, watch TinTin and Blue Peter, Crackerjack and Morecambe and Wise.  Top of The Pops.  Match of the Day.  The Big Match on Sundays with Brian Moore.  Chart countdown  with Alan Freeman at 4pm.  Took the bus to Polegate every morning, then the train to Lewes for school.  No important exams.  Just lessons, football, girls, friends. Simple.

Oh well.

Rocket Man though jeez what a song.  It’s the twin brother of Space Oddity of course with the lead astronaut figure singing the song, both songs about loneliness in the end and space, too much space.   Both songs produced by Gus Dudgeon, a few years apart .  Fantastic melody, and fade out :
And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Many many years later – let’s say 2009 when I was living off Mulholland Drive with my brer Eamonn Walker, a stupid big view of Warner Brothers, Universal and Studio City and the San Fernando Valley (The Valley) stretching down to the ocean beyond.  A local member of the wide Beach Boys family circle aka Adam Marsland announced that he was hosting an Elton John night on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice Beach with his band.  Did anyone want to sing a song?I jumped down his throat and picked Rocket Man and was lucky enough to get the nod.  I sang it at home a couple of times then drove down there.  No rehearsal as I recall or maybe there was a run-through?  The rather fantastic Evie Sands was in the band on guitar.    Other mates turned up : Stevie Kalinich (see My Pop Life 169), Alan Boyd,  Tracy Landecker and some people I recognised a bit.  I delivered the song as straight as I could, just down the line, no interpretation, as Elton as possible.  People clapped.  It was an honour.
Then in 2005 Jenny had been performing in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in the West End and on tour with Sharon Osbourne & Lisa Riley.  She had a laugh with them, and Sharon liked her and thus we got invited to the Osbourne’s Christmas Party that year, somewhere behind Harrods.  Ozzie was shuffling around being rude to people and at one point I passed Elton John on the staircase.   I was so utterly nervous/selfconscious and tongue-tied that I completely ignored him, and as I walked up I could hear him going “Well, Really !” as if he was used to people going ahhhh I love you.  Which is pretty much what I should have done. <sigh>  Later on, upstairs I hooked up with David Walliams again (see My Pop Life #7) after many years, but never got to speak with Elton John.  My loss.  Jenny had met him earlier that evening before I arrived and had a nice chat…
Elton at Hove Cricket Ground
We saw him live a couple of times – Wembley in the 90s and Hove Cricket Ground in the noughties.  Brilliant both times.  The real deal.  Such a roster of great great songs.  He wheels them out time after time, knowing that we want to hear Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Bennie & The Jets.  I often think about success and what it means.  For an actor it means no privacy in public, but plenty of choices in work, new stuff all the time.  For a musician there is also no privacy but the work is essentially playing those 20 songs every night, with a few new ones.  When we saw Elton in Hove after about an hour he announced that he was playing a handful of new songs and that to pre-empt the inevitable rush for the toilets he actually suggested that we could all get up and go to the toilet or get a drink – and literally hundreds of people did just that.  “Sorry” said Elton, “We have to play some new stuff otherwise we’d all go completely mad“.   He had two of The Family Stone (as in Sly & The) as his backing singers – Lisa and Rose Stone.  They covered the high notes on the rearranged hits.  It was a fantastic show.
Late September 2012 a small crew – me, Jono Smith (who shot Sus) and Chris Williams with Diane Frangi on stills are shooting a promo for my documentary idea ‘Unsung Heroes’ about the session musicians of the UK Hit Factory 1963 – 1975, inspired by the film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  Probably emotionally echoing my own feelings as a character actor, out of the limelight, yet integral to the production I felt like I wanted to lift some of these musicians into a visible place, if only for 90 minutes.  One of the characters I’d lined up was Ray Cooper, legendary percussionist with Elton and others, and one of the producers on Withnail & I at Handmade Films. Spoken to Ray on the phone about it – he was out of the country for the promo dates.  Anyway.  By the time we’d shot five or six days worth of stuff the film was called Red Light Fever, after the nerves which afflicted those musicians who couldn’t take the stress of studio work, being handed sheet music and told to play a solo over bar 36 and so on.  None of the living legends of the studio I interviewed – drummer Clem Cattini, bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Chris Spedding, guitarist Alan Parker, singer and arranger Barbara Moore – suffered from Red Light Fever, but it was still a good title.  I wanted to get these interviews before they all died – James Jamerson the Motown bass player is not in the Motown film for example.
Barbara Moore in 2012
Barbara Moore lives in Bognor Regis, just down the road from us in Brighton and we ended up filming her twice because the fellas fell in love with her.  She’ll appear in another post but for now, the story she tells me that first afternoon in her beautiful conservatory is of meeting Elton John in Olympic Studios in Barnes in the late 1960s.  She’d walked past an open door and heard this beautiful piano and vocal coming out – and there was this scruffy fella playing something.  She popped her head in the door and said “That sounds nice” or something similar.  Reg said thanks (for it was he) and said that he was going in to try and sell some of his songs to a producer and get a deal.  “Good luck”  she said. At lunchtime that day in the local pub she asked him how it had gone – he wasn’t too confident, but she then asked if he could join her choir for the afternoon because she was a voice short, someone had let her down.  He said OK, because that’s how he was earning money in those days.
1972
 It was probably two years later that her phone rang.  “Is this Barbara?” said the voice.  “I need some help with a song, would you come down to the studio tomorrow?”   She agreed, and then arranged and led the choir on Border Song which appeared on Elton John’s 2nd LP, entitled simply ‘Elton John‘.  A standout track which Aretha Franklin covered – adding (Holy Moses) to the title – to greater success than the original, although it is now seen as an Elton classic.  The backing singers were Madeline Bell, Tony Burrows and Roger Cook, all of whom were slated to be interviewed for Red Light Fever  – Jenny and I met Madeline Bell for lunch the following Christmas in London (she lives in Spain).  She had been co-lead singer with Roger Cook of Blue Mink, a band created by session musicians including Alan PArker and Herbie Flowers ! with hit singles – Melting Pot, Banner Man, Good Morning Freedom.  Roger Cook was the songwriter behind I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing and many others – some of which Tony Burrows sang on – the session voice of Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, The Pipkins, The Flowerpot Men and The Ivy League and who infamously got banned from Top Of The Pops for appearing three times in one show with three different bands.  “People will think it’s a fix” said the BBC.  But he was the singer on all three songs!  As you can see already, it was a very tight, very small world, and a film exploring it all would be such fun.
Addison Cresswell
What eventually happened after editing the footage forever on my laptop was that Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison Cresswell took my five minute promo, (paid for by Latest TV, a new venture in Brighton run by Bill Smith) and made various people in TV Land watch it.  Addison I knew through Luke and we’d met a number of times, in pubs, at Luke & Jo’s Boxing Day parties, New Year’s Eve parties and he’d invited me to his office one day for a meeting to discuss this doc.  Addison had immense power in UK TV world because he managed all of the main comedians in the UK, including Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre, Jonathan Ross and Kevin Bridges and had the ear of all the producers.  His style was all swagger and front, larger than life, a Rocket Man indeed and he was very good at his job.  Only BBC4 came back with an offer of £10k, all in for the show once it was complete – they’d buy it, but they wouldn’t fund it.  I couldn’t possibly make it for no money, so we waited for other responses over Christmas 2013, still planning and lining up interviews such as Madeline Bell and Ray Cooper.   Then Addison died at home of a heart attack on December 23rd, a death which shocked me to my bones, causing devastation to his family and shock throughout Brighton, his friends and colleagues, his clients and the TV industry as a whole.  He was 53 years old.   So so sad.  The Boxing Day social was cancelled and a giant hole filled the landscape where Addison had stood.  He was an extremely warm and generous man underneath his bark and laddish flex.  Something that perhaps I appreciate having had a few laddish years myself in my youth.  Addison’s love of his brother Luke, my friend, was also visible and echoed my own feelings for Paul and was the reason why he gave me so much of his time.  He is hugely missed.

And now that it’s all over
The birds can nest again
I’ll only snow when the sun comes out
I’ll shine only when it starts to rain

And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I’ll be your silver spoon

I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away

 
B-side : Goodbye

My Pop Life #169 : The Magic Hand – Stephen J. Kalinich

The Magic Hand   –   Stephen J. Kalinich

I met Stevie in the summer of 2006 in Brighton.  The band were rehearsing in Scream, just off the Lewes Road for a series of summer gigs we were booked for, including headlining Herne Bay in Kent at their summer festival.  Paul Adsett, a local Beach Boys aficionado, promoter and regular at our gigs around town, suddenly turned up with a gentle affirmative presence whom he introduced as Stevie, a performance poet and lyricist who had written lyrics for two Dennis Wilson songs in 1968, Little Bird and Be Still, both of which turned up on the Friends LP.  We were blessed with his presence and he was, of course treated like royalty, (at least in our poor imaginations!) but all he wanted to do was sit and listen to a few numbers.  We played Friends (My Pop Life #5) and Heroes & Villains (My Pop Life #111) and Little Bird, which we’d just learned.  No pressure !

Little Bird is a really interesting song.  Stevie and Dennis Wilson were siting around in the sunshine when the song appeared as a meditation on the simple wisdom of nature and eternity (how it began…), and the bliss of a sunny California afternoon.  The arrangement, by Brian Wilson, is one of the Beach Boys’ finest moments in my view.   Trumpets, cello and the always-interesting backing vocals make the song a jewel and a favourite of fans.  We didn’t do it full justice but it didn’t matter.  Stevie was thrilled to hear it.   A few days later a small cavalcade of vehicles left Brighton to drive to Herne Bay, and Stevie travelled with me in the Jeep, up the M23, right onto the M25 and along the M20 to the North Kent coast.  He told me of his early life in Binghampton, upstate New York before he’d moved to California in the mid-sixties and fallen in with the hippy crowd in Los Angeles, and particularly The Beach Boys circle.  He spoke with love of Dennis and Brian, well, all of them to be honest, (and he still does) and of his other friends Alan Boyd, Tracy Landecker, Carol, actors Stacy Keach and Rod Steiger, who’d died in 2002.  Stevie was honest, gracious, funny and warm, and I responded with a few racy anecdotes of my own.  You know, the one about Sigourney Weaver, that kind of stuff.

Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen Wrigley, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus

In Herne Bay we set up and sound-checked and awaited our gig time.  A picture records the moment just before Stevie passed me his mobile saying “Ralph – a call for you“.  I took the phone and said hello.  “This is Brian Wilson” said an unmistakable voice “How are you?”  Stunned, I looked at Stevie who was smiling at me.  “I’m great Brian” I said, “I’m just about to go onstage and sing loads of your songs!”   I couldn’t believe it.  “Well don’t forget to play California Girls !” he said, “that’s the best one!“.  “We’re playing it first “I replied before saying goodbye and handing the phone back to Stevie.  This moment has naturally gone down in my personal history as A MOMENT.  It was magic, simple, loving.

The gig was fine, and Stevie joined us onstage to sing Little Bird.  Did he do a poem as well?  I cannot recall.  He will remember.  His memory is excellent.  I have to write things down otherwise they’re gone.  Marijuana apparently.  Anyway, I still have the setlist.  We didn’t open with Cali Girls…

Aug 26th Herne Bay

1st half

You’re Welcome                                                        Db

Heroes and Villains                                              Db

I Can Hear Music                                                   D

Catch A Wave                                                                     Eb

Surfer Girl                                                                           D

All Summer Long                                                  B

You Still Believe In Me                             B

Waiting For The Day                     E

Here Today                                         A

God Only Knows                                                    A

Pet Sounds                                                                           Bb

Caroline, No                                                                                    G

Friends                                                                                             D

And Your Dream Comes True                                          C

Then I Kissed Her                                                  C

Little Bird                                                Gm/F

In My Room                                                                                    B

Don’t Worry Baby                                                                                E

Long Promised Road                                                                C

Surf’s Up                                                                              

**interval**

Stevie at Carol’s place in Malibu, 2011

Aug 26th Herne Bay   2nd half

Sloop John B                                                              Ab

Sail On Sailor                                                                      G

Our Sweet Love                                                                          G/E

The Little Girl I Once Knew                                                           B/F#

Break Away                                                                         C

You’re So Good To Me                                          F

Shut Down                                                    C

Little Deuce Coupe                                                     G

Little Honda                                                                                 C

Surfin’ Safari                                                                                             A

I Get Around                                                                                       G

Dance Dance Dance                                                            A

Surfin USA                                                                D

California Girls                                                                  B

Wouldn’t It Be Nice                                                                      E

Do It Again                                                                                                D

Darlin’                                                                                              A

Help Me Rhonda                                                            C

Good Vibrations                                                  

*

Fun Fun Fun                                                                        D

Barbara Ann           ?                                                          ?                     

Love and Mercy                                                    

I cannot believe we actually played that many songs.  We didn’t do Barbara Ann I don’t think because we all dislike it quite a lot, which is unfair, but there you are.   But vocally we were on point I seem to remember 😉 and the audience were enthusiastic, sang along and danced.   The next day we’d made the front page of the Herne Bay Observer.

The following day Stevie came round to our house to meet Jenny.  As Jenny came down the staircase to say hi, I may have said something foolish like : “This is Stevie, he’s a poet.”  This was the open sesame to the world of Stevie.  My friend Eamonn has seen him in action, and so have I, and he is a force of nature when he performs one of his poems.  Stevie opened his arms and there and then began The Magic Hand :

Poems can never make adequate explanations

For man and his many hesitations, and his constant deviation from what is real…

They love me through wooden eyes, the tree of love in one heart lies,

The bough brushes gently along the ground, for waiting souls long to touch it

We sat on the stairs and watched and listened.  I guess The Magic Hand is god, or love.   The poems moves through death, growth, evolution, love.  When Stevie finished Jenny had tears in her eyes.  It was outstanding.  We all had a cup of tea and everything was all right.

We have The Hand of Fatima in our kitchen for protection, an old mid-eastern tradition.   Later Stevie and I watched my film New Year’s Day and he cried sitting on my sofa.  Bonded in saltwater, we have been firm friends ever since.  I guess we just passed our tenth anniversary.  I have seen Stevie many times since that  August, he came back to Brighton the following year and performed in Brighton Festival with ace guitarist Richard Durrant with The Galactic Symphonies before touring the UK, a spoken-word installation with film, slides, music and poetry.  Whenever I’m in California I look him up and we take tea.

We go straight to the point whenever we see each other.  No small talk.  It’s like an affliction, a lack of social nicety that we both suffer from (such that when people have forgotten my name, their first guess is usually Frank !) but which works when we are together.  We solve the problems of the universe.  Stevie is the best company in the world.

He talks of Dennis, who died in 1983,  often and with great feeling.  When Dennis’ fantastic solo LP Pacific Ocean Blue (1977) was finally released on CD in 2008 it contained – along with Stevie’s song Rainbows – the unreleased and oft-bootlegged LP Bambu as an extra which has another Kalinich/Wilson collaboration on it :  Love Remember Me.   Dennis voice is full of soul on these records.  What a talent.  In 2008 The Galactic Symphonies was also released containing The Magic Hand (with music by Durrant), and other works such as Bring In All The Poets and The Tale Of Man.

2011 came with another new album for Stevie called California Feeling and many of the Brighton Beach Boys played and collaborated on this record – Glen Richardson, Charlotte Glasson and Stephen Wrigley are all present, along with other dear members of the Beach Boys extended family such as Carnie and Wendy Wilson (from Wilson Phillips) singing Little Bird and The Honeys singing the title track.  By now Stevie had signed a new deal with archival boutique record label Light In The Attic who re-released the legendary album which Stevie made in 1968 with Brian Wilson, a spoken word with accompaniment dreamscape called A World Of Peace Must Come.   The first manifestation of The Magic Hand comes from this beautiful record a real slice of late 1960s spiritual hope.

So yes, Stevie is the original beat poet.  Consistent, spiritual, artistic and clear, with a vision which has remained at the forefront of his negotiations with the world, a sensitive puzzled curiosity which sees through the bullshit and the commerce and what is cool and goes always to the heart of the matter.  It draws people in wherever he goes, and I feel constantly proud to know him.  He affects people.  He can be naive and annoying sure, but so can I.  So can you.   So many stories.  He knows everyone in Los Angeles.  Not all for this post.  This is like an introduction.  For example,  Stevie is now a part of the Brighton music scene, having written and recorded songs with both Paul Steel (My Pop Life #1) and Cold Crow’s Dead.   But meanwhile he is still friends with Brian Wilson, they meet and walk on the beach occasionally.  Stevie has repeated the phone trick to me on various occasions when we’re together.  The conversation is always pleasingly random and surreal.

Stevie wrote a song with Brian called A Friend Like You which is on 2004 LP Gettin’ In Over My Head, and features Paul McCartney  After The Beach Boys Stevie was a writer with Jobete Music during the 80s, working with Randy Crawford, Odyssey and Mary Wilson, and his most recent collaborations have been with Nashville producer and player Jon Tiven. Recently he’s taken up painting and one of his works will grace the cover of the new album.

I think the person I am most pleased to have met via Stevie is his friend Alan Boyd.  My friend Alan Boyd I should say.  Mentioned at small length in My Pop Life #111.   Producer of California Feeling, Beach Boys & Brother Records archivist, film-maker, engineer, singer and compiler of many recent out-take LPs such as Hawthorne, CA and famously, finally after a wait of some 35 years, SMILE for which he and engineer Mark Linett won well-deserved Grammies in 2011.  I think Alan and I are quite similar – we like cats, Stevie, Harry Nilsson, Laurel & Hardy and 1920s pop music.  The steps used in the 1928 short The Music Box are just around the corner from Alan’s place in Silverlake.

‘The Music Box’ Laurel & Hardy  1932   Silverlake, Los Angeles

And Alan is a great musician in his own right, having released a harmonic pop album called Channel Surfing in 2004.  Most of my Los Angeles memories of the last ten years involve Eamonn Walker of course (see My Pop Life #104 ) and time spent hanging out with Stevie, Alan and Tracy, who is a writer, singer in the band Walker Brigade and authority on the legendary 60s girl group The Shangri Las.  Good people.  No, Suzy and Tony and Gwen, I’m not forgetting you !!

Most recently Alan wrote to me to ask if I wanted to contribute a track to the newest Kalinich album “Be Still : The Works Of Stephen J. Kalinich” with the corollary that it had to be delivered within seven days because the producer Al Gomes wanted to enter the resulting LP into the spoken word category of The Grammys this year.   Of course I said yes, and so did Jenny.  A few days later we were in my buddy Tony Gerber‘s office in Gowanus, a heavy curtain draped across the room to dampen the sound, speaking our chosen poems into a high-def microphone.  I did two takes of Bring In All The Poets and ran to the dentists and Jenny did The Tale Of Man three times.     The sound files were delivered, polished and produced and a CD was delivered to me here in Brooklyn this week – what a thrill. Stacy Keach has three pieces, Rose Weaver has two and Alan Boyd with Tracy Landecker, Lisa Haley, James Michael Tyler (another friend), Samaire Armstong and Al Gomes with Connie Watrous all have one each.  As do I and Jenny.  And Stevie contributes his signature piece The Magic Hand (not the version below) and an unheard out-take from A World Of Peace Must Come with Brian Wilson of ‘Be Still‘ itself.  What a thrill.  I listened to it.  Each song, each poem, is a work of art in its own right, except that mine, well.  I immediately wished I’d had the chance to do another take.  Always.  This is the artist’s way.  No, it’s all true.  As Leonardo Da Vinci once said – a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.  It sounds abandoned to me, but who am I to judge?  What do I know?  Less and less and less I’m sure.  My brain is shrinking.  Dwindling.  This is a good thing.  It was way too big.  Big brains don’t make happiness or peace, quite the opposite. Our big brains are stopping us from empathising with each other, with animals, with ourselves.   So what do I know?  Right now, from my friend Stevie, and from my wife Jenny, I know that all that matters is kindness.  I want it to be how I live from this point onward.  The rest is sound and fury, money and doubt, self-esteem and anxiety.  Kindness.  Love.  Kindness.

Be still and know you are.

from A World Of Peace Must Come :  The Magic Hand

My Pop Life #167 : Thinkin Bout You – Frank Ocean

Thinkin Bout You   –   Frank Ocean

or do you not think so far ahead ?  Cos I been thinkin’ bout forever…

Moments of bliss.  The moments we think we live for, the ones we’ve earned.  Are they holidays ?  Sometimes.  Are they music ?  Sometimes.  Happiness is fleeting of course, it’s there for a second crest the green horizon and see the feminine green curves of the hills before you  >freedom<  >bliss<   then next second it’s gone as you look down to avoid flints and cowpats.   The brain isn’t wired for bliss really.  That’s why getting stoned is so great – so you can hold onto those moments for just a little longer.  I’m sitting here thinking about the glorious summer of 2012 in England when suddenly everything was right – in my world.

What was it about summer 2012 ?  Well the London Olympics for a start.  Marvellous.  And my dear friend Paulette Randall was helping Danny Boyle direct the Opening Ceremony.  I’ll write about that another time, but it was cool, and Jenny and I drove to The Mermaid Inn in Rye to watch it and celebrate our wedding anniversary.  2012 was the year I realised that the Paralympics were better than the Olympics, and got tickets for two separate days in the Stadium to watch it.  I saw my dad singing in the Proms for the Desert Island Discs Prom with Huddersfield Choral, and attended with Paulette, Simon and brother Andrew.  Again for another blog, but happiness.  But what else was it ?

We had bought Roxy in the previous winter and she was now a full member of the household, much to Mimi’s evident displeasure.  Both Cornish Rex females. Not ideal, but no missing fur.  And then there were the bike rides….

I’d bought the bike in Kentish Town in the mid 90s, had drop handlebars put (upside-down!)  onto a mountain bike so we could walk past it in the Archway Road hallway.  When we moved to Brighton I replaced the handlebars with BMX ones and took it out the back door up onto the Downs at the back of our house, up Walpole Road past the primary school up past the allotments to the old iron-age fort and down to the racecourse, round the inside rail of the racetrack on open ground, across the road, and then take the back way across the top of Woodingdean to Falmer Road.

Cross that road and you’re on your way to Kingston Ridge, or the secret valley, or the South Downs Way which crosses the A27 to your left down a steep chalk path alongside carpets of poppies, barley and wild flowers full of butterflies.  Or sometimes I cycled from the house straight up to the railway station, up Dyke Road to Devil’s Dyke, then went along the South Downs Way to the River Adur, down to Shoreham Harbour and back along the seafront.  Or the other way around.  With a right turn when I felt like it.  There are endless variations on all of these routes across the South Downs National Park as it now thankfully is.  I took one of my OS maps andmarked all the routes I’d done in yellow highlighter.  Can’t help it.  Essential packing – water bottle, map, camera/phone, cigarettes.  Most journeys : about two hours.  Seek your bliss.

It is stunning : a beautiful acreage of man-managed yet natural beauty, occasionally farmed and grazed. Per square metre this is the most diverse and fecund ecosystem in the UK.  You just need to get really close to see all the variation in those ground-hugging plants :  horseshoe vetch, cowslips, primula, birds-foot trefoil, salad burnet, mouse-ear hawkweed, stemless thistles, wild marjoram, worts, rampions and many orchids, all supporting a healthy population of moths and butterflies and dragonflies and other life.  There are lost glades of Silver-Washed Fritillaries and White Admirals if you know where to find them.    Yes you see, this is holy ground.  This is bliss, for me.

Frank Ocean released Channel ORANGE in July 2012 and it hooked me from first listen.  Proper soul music, lovely chords, influences from the 1970s Elton, Stevie, Sly and others but new music, wonderful new music.  What a beautiful record.  This song, the opener is a stunning piece of work, so simple, so heartfelt.  What a lift I get from really loving  brand new piece of music, the kids are all right, it’s all still good.

Yes, of course
I remember, how could I forget 
How you feel ?
You know you were my first time 
A new feel
It won’t ever get old, not in my soul,
Not in my spirit, keep it alive 
We’ll go down this road
‘Til it turns from colour to black and white

The talk around the album – talk offered by Frank Ocean himself – was that some of the songs, including Thinkin Bout You were about an (unrequited?) gay affair Frank had when he was 19.   He was now 25, and although this was his first studio-produced album, the previous year he’d released a mixtape called Nostalgia, Ultra which again was a fantastic new look at soul music for the 21st Century, and before that there were a whole bunch of songs to hunt down, later released as The Lonny Breaux Collection for completists.  Originally from New Orleans, Ocean moved to LA in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina drowned his recording space, and he stayed on the West Coast.  

He has a very refreshing take on everything – for example “his” track American Wedding on Nostalgia, Ultra which is essentially the whole of the title track of The Eagles’ Hotel California with Frank singing different lyrics over the top.  Don Henley hates him.  It’s brilliant.  I was already used to Hotel California being a black man’s favourite track since my brother from another mother Eamonn Walker confessed to me earlier the same year (2012) when I was living in his Los Angeles pad high in the hills.  Moments of bliss there too.  Channel ORANGE was bliss from start to finish, from Sweet Life written with Pharrell : “Who needs the world when you got the beach?” to Super Rich Kids channelling Bennie & The Jets with an Earl Sweatshirt rap (Frank’s buddy from the LA Odd Future Collective) to the monster 9-minute syth-sweaty funk of Pyramids – an Egyptian myth re-told in a Las Vegas strip club – all produced by Frank aka Christopher Breaux and his old spar Malay aka James Ryan Ho – it is a soul record of the very highest quality.   Now for the next one…

the only version on the internet with the glorious string intro :

My Pop Life #117 : Mdlwembe : Zola

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Mdlwembe   :   Zola

February 2006 I made my first trip to Cape Town, South Africa having been cast by old buddy and casting director Jeremy Zimmerman in “The Flood” a massive ITV mini-series about the Thames Barrier being unable to hold back a tidal surge which swamps central London.  Almost all of the show was shot in Cape Town (for London) with only the final week in Greenwich, looking down onto Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval College from the hilltop.  It was the end of a long journey.

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Mount Nelson Hotel, 2006 – me and Eamonn Walker

I was placed in the Mount Nelson Hotel on Orange Street under Table Mountain  (even if I keep on running I’ll never get to Orange St).  It was rather grand and disgustingly white supremacist even in 2006.  The only black guest there was my brother-from-another-mother  Eamonn Walker, (see My Pop Life #104) doing a US TV medical show,  can’t remember which one.  It was a lovely co-incidence and we hung out, ate food, and I got to meet his producers.  Eamonn had already spent previous time in Cape Town making a cheetah film and he knew the ropes.  The number of times black staff with white gloves had approached him with a quizzical “can I help you?” and received a pretty curt “No” in response.  The old black and white photographs on the wall, the air of rotten filthy greedy entitled robbery hanging around the whole place.  Outside at the open air pool an old white man shouted at a black pool attendant : “Nurse!  Towel!”.  I wanted to kick his face in.  Meanwhile on set, Cape Town was pretty funky, lovely architecture around Long St and environs, and even some black people on the crew.  This was a mere 12 years after the first democratic elections in South Africa by the way.  I had some days off coming up – I asked one of the younger fellas what I should do. “Go round the Cape, see the baboons” he suggested.

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The next day I hired a car and Eamonn and I drove south, saw penguins, baboons, zebra and spectacular geographical sights.  The view from the top of Table Mountain is second-to-none.  I spent some time with my screen daughter Jade Davidson and her mum in the Botanical Gardens.  And yet I needed more.  More than the tourist destinations.  The proper South Africa.  I’d been in the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London for years, I didn’t want to fuck about in some cobwebbed timewarp of colonial bigotry in the heart of Cape Town.   I wanted to go to the township – visible from the airport road, a huge sprawling city of tin and wire called Khayelitsha.  When I mentioned this to the same young white fella at work next day his answer shocked me.  “Those people in the townships man – they’re rich. they organise bus tours, they’re making money off their poverty”.  He was 19 years old.  His parents were clearly Boers, Afrikaaners from the country drenched in racism, struggling with the new reality.  The medic, Kerryn Pitt, got wind of my desires, and offered to drive me out there on Sunday – a mutual day off.

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Kerryn picked me up from the hotel and we drove for 45 minutes and on the way out of the city she gave me the background.  She was running a school in Khayelitsha and many of the kids who attended were orphans, specifically AIDS orphans.   Kerryn encourage the locals (who had nothing as I would shortly see) to take these kids in and offer them shelter, and the school would give them 3 meals a day and wash their clothes.

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The highway was now an asphalt corridor between two cities – corrugated iron shacks linked by endless wiring to the odd lamp-post.  Dirt poor.  We turned off and drove into the township.  Everything was one-storey, made of wood, tin, corrugated iron, bits and pieces.  All of the inhabitants were black.  There were shops, hairdressers, cafes, bars, stalls, no road markings, lorries and some buses which were minivans full of people.  Kids with bare feet staring at us.  Nothing I had been told about this type of settlement could prepare me for being there.  It is quite simply overwhelming.  First – it is huge.   Over a million people living in shacks.   Most with no running water, no flushing toilet, no sink or shower.  No electricity.  We finally reached the project and parked, then walked past some rudimental dwellings to the project.  It was one building, like a school, with some washing machines and a kitchen.  Pretty basic, but it was a local hub of care for the kids who were everywhere.  I was introduced to the staff and shown around.  Kerryn explained that they were trying to persuade an old chap to move so that they could build a hospital on his land – an AIDS hospital that would also teach and practice Bush Medicine, using the knowledge of the sangoma (a healer, always a woman), and pass on her methods to the next generation.

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Kerryn had originally chosen to start this project because her grandmother had asked her to – Kerryn is white, but her grandmother was black.  Maybe she was her old nanny?  (“Nurse!”)   Feeling slightly out of my depth but impressed with the energy of the place we travelled back to the white privileged world of the Mount Nelson.  Just a few doors down was a cinema.  They were showing a new South African film called Tsotsi, so I decided to go and see it that evening, despite warnings “not to go out after dark in case of crime”…

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scene from Tsotsi (SA 2006)

Tsotsi opens in a township just like the one I had been in.  Soweto.  (SOuth WEst TOwnship just outside Johannesburg).  The young boy is at the window and he turns round.  His face is a scowl, dark and angry, and the beat of Mdlwembe starts to pump and the lyrics to snarl.  The song that opens the film is by a young township musician called Zola – real name Bonginkosi Dlamini, from the part of Soweto known as Zola.  Despite the temptations of drink and drugs, crime and simply struggling to earn a living, Zola became a beacon of hope for the new country, expressing the rage felt by the still-ignored township-dwellers years after apartheid was abolished.  The film Tsotsi is hugely powerful and won an Oscar the following year for best foreign film – the storyline from an Athol Fugard novel, the acting, including Zola as a’bad guy’, the directing by Gavin Hood and the soundtrack featuring the finest kwaito tunes of the new century are all first class.

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Zola himself read Steve Biko and his ideas of Black Consciousness when he was growing up, and placed those thoughts into his music.  Sadly I can’t find any translations of the lyrics to Mdlwembe online, except that the word itself translates as delinquent, so if anyone out there knows what this song is saying I’d be grateful.  But when you listen to it, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to understand where this song comes from and what it is expressing.   South African music is exciting rhythmically, always has been, and here the influence of hip-hop on the home-grown kwaito beat is truly thriling.  Zola eventually got his own TV show on Channel 5 in South Africa and released a new LP last year, 2014, called Intakathusa.

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But this tune, from his debut album Umdlwembe in 2000, is quite simply a peak moment in music for me.  A cry of rage, full of potency, lyrics of fury directed at the new black Government, to wake up and heed the needs of the people.   It’s brilliantly produced but still sounds rough round the edges, there’s piano, guitar, a shuffle, a surging feel to the music, and the spitting Zola achieves is magnificent even without knowing what he’s saying.  There was an election while I was in Cape Town, the ANC were out in force, no longer a banned terrorist organisation, but now The Government, defending their record in an election campaign.  Cape Town, not an ANC stronghold, was still covered in their black green and gold posters, as well as those of the opposition.  The Government won, again.

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My Pop Life #104 : Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf

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Smokestack Lightning   –   Howlin’ Wolf

tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?

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My dear friend Dona Croll posted a video of Howlin’ Wolf onto my Facebook page this morning and there was no turning back.  I have known Dona since the 1980s, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, but from where and when we met I cannot say.  Perhaps she was in the cast for the London’s Burning pilot when I met actor Gary MacDonald.  I was playing a policeman.  Most of the cast were black, but not all.  We decided to have a kickabout one lunchtime.  Of course, being in uniform meant I got kicked about all over the park.  Fair enough.

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But in the small bubble of British acting Dona and I would cross paths regularly at Tricycle Theatre first nights, anything that Paulette Randall was doing, maybe at auditions.   When I wrote The House That Crack Built for the BBC in 1989 (see My Pop Life #61), Dona was my first choice for the rapping crack-addicted Mom and she was brilliant.    I know she reads this blog so this one is partly for you dear Dona, and partly for my brer Eamonn Walker, Eamonn Roderique, E.   When I saw the clip of Wolf I immediately thought of Eamonn, because a) they favour and b) Eamonn played Howlin Wolf in a film called Cadillac Records in 2008.

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Cadillac Records was the story of Chess Records lightly disguised.   It’s a good film but while being not entirely satisfying like most biopics and most music films, it nevertheless has a clutch of wonderful performances both of the thespian and musical variety, and Eamonn is quite sensational.   He inhabited that role like he does all his roles.   Wolf was a big growler who played a mean blues harp, so E had to learn the instrument before the shoot.   Adrien Brody played Polish immigrant Leonard Chess who started Chess Records by selling blues and ‘race’ records out of the back of his Cadillac with his brother Phil in 1950 on the South Side of Chicago.  It grew to become the most important record label in the history of the blues, releasing crucial work from Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def in the film, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Colombus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) among many others.

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But Wait – Eamonn worked with Beyoncé !!!   She was very good as Etta James I thought, but I am unashamedly biased.  I love Beyoncé.  A lot.   Anyway, moving back to Howlin’ Wolf.

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Chester Burnett was a giant of a man from Mississippi who physically dominated any room he was in at 6’3”, and who adopted his name Howlin Wolf from his grandfather.   He learned guitar from Charley Patton during the 1930s, harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1940s, and songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Son House.   He moved steadily north, first to Arkansas, then later to Memphis where he recorded some sides for Sam Phillips and finally, unusually, driving his own car and with $4000 in his pocket, he went to Chicago.  Somehow avoiding all the classic blues temptations that he was singing about – liquor, gambling, loose women of a variety of types, he hired a regular band to accompany him, including Hubert Sumlin who moved up from Memphis.  Unusually for a bandleader, Burnett paid his musicians on time, and also offered benefits such as health insurance, he therefore had the pick of the best in Chicago for years.  Featured imageSmokestack Lightning was released in March 1956 and made the Billboard R&B charts, it is now considered a classic.  Howlin Wolf had learned it back in the 30s as a variation on a train blues played by Charlie Patton and others, sitting at dawn watching the trains sparking through their chimneys at night “Shinin’, just like gold”.   It is a massively evocative three minutes of the blues with growls, yodels, harmonica wails and a wonderful circular bluesy guitar riff from Mr Sumlin which stays on E (appropriately enough) – just one chord for the whole song.  “Girl don’t you hear me cryin?”    Eamonn plays and sings it on the Soundtrack to Cadillac Records.  I couldn’t be more proud.

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Eamonn Walker is my brother from another mother.  It was gradual, and yet somehow immediate like all the best friendships.   We met when he played opposite my soon-to-be wife Jenny Jules in Pecong at the Trike in 1991, Paulette’s Randall‘s production of Steve Carter‘s Caribbean update of Medea, which Jenny won an award for because she was extraordinary.  The battling men – Victor Romero-Evans and Eamonn Walker do so in rhyme.   American actress Pat Bowie played Granny Root, massively talented Jo Martin and Cecilia Noble the other women, Beejaye Joseph and Jax Williams the eye-candy dancers.   It was a great great production.   Eamonn used to come and see Jenny and I on Sundays after seeing his twins Deke & Jahdine who were in Enfield with their mum Chris.  We were in Archway Road and thus on the way home to Sandra Kane his partner, and young boy Kane Walker (now in his 20s).    We became close family and have remained so ever since.   We played football together for the Hoxton Pirates for a few seasons on Hackney Marshes and all over South London on Sunday mornings until I broke my nose during a game – a loud crack, a violent searing pain and suddenly I was lying in a large pool of blood.    E was one of the first people in England to have a mobile phone – he’s a techno geek – and he had it behind him in a pouch at the back of the goal – he was the Pirates goalie, and he called the ambulance.    Eamonn was plucked from the ranks by Lynda LaPlante and seeded in New York were he sprouted the leaves and branches of prison drama Oz followed by much much more besides, films, TV series, he has had a really strong profile in America for years, a profile that he simply, oddly does not have in the UK.   So many black British actors have made the same journey over the last 20 years and had success, some of them becoming English stars too like Idris Elba.   Others, like Eamonn, (ranked number 11 in a US poll of “favourite British actors”)  are never even mentioned in UK media articles about black actor’s success in Hollywood.   Like a massive blind spot in the media, and partly in the UK business.   We carry on.

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In 2011 through 2012 we lived together in Hollywood,  just off Mulholland Drive in the hills above Universal with a balcony view that stretched from the Woodland Hills to the Hollywood sign and beyond.  It was good to spend time.   I would walk Runyon Canyon every day, from the top down and back up.   From that base camp E scored another Dick Wolf project: NBC’s Chicago Fire which is now in its fifth series and has him living in Chicago 10 months of every year but scoring his pension.  He deserves every cent.    Eamonn, Dona : this is for you, I love you both.

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Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody

This could be the longest thread ever because of links that go in every direction – into the movie The Boat That Rocked, the band Birds Of Tin, my friendship with Simon Korner, Andy Oliver, all of Eamonn’s family, Jenny’s Mum and Dad and on and on.

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But perhaps I will mention that when we adopted the beautiful Devon Rex boycat from Jason & Tash in February 2008 (just after my god-daughter Delilah Rose was born) we decided to call him Chester, after Howlin Wolf.   This beautiful animal was very special, very wise, very funny, very cuddly.  We later bought Chester a companion, a Cornish Rex and named her Mimi.  Chester had a heart condition which we discovered when he was two, an a-rhythmical heartbeat.   He would live only another two years and passed away aged four while I was working in Tennessee on a film in the fall of 2011.  RIP Chester.  The greatest cat.

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a magnificent live version from 1964 :