My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

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Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

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My Pop Life #41 : Poor People – Alan Price

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Poor People   –   Alan Price

It’s no use mumbling.
It’s no use grumbling.
Life just isn’t fair-
There’s no easy days
There’s no easy ways
Just get out there and do it!

So smile while you’re makin’ it-
Laugh while you’re takin’ it-
Even though you’re fakin’ it-
Nobody’s gonna know.
Nobody’s gonna know.

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I was 16 when Lindsay Anderson‘s film O Lucky Man was released onto an unsuspecting general public.  Five years earlier he’d directed the anarchic anti-public-school revolutionary film “If…” also starring a young Malcolm McDowell and in many ways, O Lucky Man is a sequel, a kaleidoscopic canter through Great Britain with all its class, corruption, sycophancy, greed and – yes – fun, seen through the eyes of an eternally hopeful everyman (Travis) who only sees good in people, and is thus used, abused, beaten up, arrested and generally crucified.   McDowell was everyone’s favourite actor in 1973 – because of “If…” and  “A Clockwork Orange”, and in this film you can see why…

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Eternally appealing, he is used by Anderson to wander through this green and pleasant land and lift the lid on the truth.   At every turn our hero meets corruption, cheating, bending the rules, selfishness and dishonesty.  It’s rather like as told from a left-wing point of view.   It’s a top five film of mine not least because the soundtrack – all by Alan Price and his band – is perfect, and each song is treated like an interlude;  thus when a song starts to play in the film, we dissolve to the studio and watch Alan Price playing the song before picking up the story again as it finishes.   I’ve never seen this done before or since and it’s brilliant.   As is the music.

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Price is from County Durham, and went to school in Jarrow, south of the city of Newcastle in North-East England.   A piano and organ player, he formed blues pop band The Animals in 1962 (House Of The Rising Sun, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood), then left in 1965 to form the Alan Price Set (House That Jack Built, Don’t Stop The Carnival) before turning his hand to a TV show with Georgie Fame (Fame and Price together!) and introducing Britain to the music of the great songwriter Randy Newman (rather like Harry Nilsson did in the US – but Nilsson would be Alan’s US equivalent though, not Newman).  There was a stage musical in the late 70s : Andy Capp – which I saw purely due to Price’s involvement – on the Aldwych.  Tom Courtenay playing the lead as a cuddly giggly sexist git – it didn’t work.   But before that he had written the songs and played himself in this dark political comedy of manners – which for me at 16 was a blueprint for understanding the world.  I already knew the world was corrupt.  I knew we were being shafted.  I knew everyone was lying.   And I knew that essentially I was on my own.   I loved this film and this music – I bought the vinyl LP shortly after seeing it for the second time.  Here was a director, an actor and a musician speaking for me.

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Christine Noonan, Anna Dawson, Malcolm McDowell, Arthur Lowe

Not to mention that many of the finest and my personal favourite actors are involved – many of them playing more than one role, which also lends the story-telling a theatrical arc, a surreal edge as Travis (McDowell) thinks he recognises people – and sometimes has.  From the great Arthur Lowe playing a northern mayor who demands a “chocolate sandwich” at a live backstage sex-show, an African dictator from an un-named country buying “honey” to decimate his own population with, to Rachel Roberts, Geoffrey Palmer, Graham Crowden, Helen Mirren, Philip Stone, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne, Peter Jeffrey, Warren Clarke, Brian Glover and Ralph Richardson among many others.  A feast of acting chops all at their peak.  So many exquisite moments – but I must mention Richardson near the end : “Hold this.  Wait here.”

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At one point Travis escapes from a weird frightening hospital and hitch-hikes to get away – and who should pull over to pick him up but Alan Price and his band.  The music is uniformly excellent and provides an extra wry commentary on the lessons we – and Travis – are being shown.  I’ve chosen Poor People because I think it’s the best song on the LP, and it’s a beautiful moment in the film as Rachel Roberts invites Travis to sample the coffee…

My Pop Life #24 : Requiem (Sanctus) – Gabriel Fauré

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Requiem  (Sanctus)  –   Gabriel Fauré

I stopped going to Sunday school when I was 11, after I’d passed the eleven-plus and was readying myself for the bus journey to Lewes Grammar from my tiny Selmeston village home.   Now I had the perfect excuse to cut that out of my schedule.   “Homework”.  The bible stories were all over-familiar and draped in languid irreproachable moral conclusions, I was tired of their parables and lessons, my brain knew there was something else out there.   I was already an atheist at 11 years old.   No offence to any religious readers of course – my wife is a practicing Catholic.   But I’m still an atheist.   I remember my dad describing himself around this time as an agnostic.   Sounded cool.   But it meant “don’t know”.   ‘Not sure.’   I wasn’t an agnostic.   I was sure that God, as taught me in Sunday school and other places, Didn’t Exist.   And I’m still sure about that, which is why I define myself as an atheist.   My wife, in contrast, has faith.   Fair enough.

I was brought up as a Christian.   Bible stories.   Moses.   Adam and Eve.   Abraham.  Those three in particular I find frankly laughable now.   Less than worthless.   Dangerous nonsense.   The New Testament was always different.   It had revolutionary zeal, disobedience, miracles, betrayal, a hero who died and was reborn.  I treat this is a true story which has been shaped by men.   Since growing up I’ve discovered the Gnostic Gospels with more lines for Mary Magdalene and other women, and come to see St Paul as a problematic figure who rewrote sections of the Bible and divided men by nationality.

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I’ve studied all the main religions over time with the help of Joseph Campbell and his books such as Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Power Of Myth  and other examinations of comparative religion – they are brilliant works of scholarship and imagination, showing how each culture creates a religious story out of the same basic elements, a tale with choices, wonderful happenings, a hero’s journey, a chosen people and death.  Most religious books also have an “end times” climax right at the end = the Christian one is called Revelations.   It describes the the end of the world   “…people will be gambling, selling and buying each other, cheating, lying and stealing, killing and despoiling the earth.  Then the end will come.”   This is clever because of course it describes the earth exactly as we know it, thus leading to the inevitable conclusion – we’re doomed, we may as well pray for our souls.   It has worked for centuries.   Interesting to note that since the rise of science and in particular Darwin over 150 years ago, other myths have taken over the “end times” scenario – notably ourselves – homosapiens – in the form of war, climaxing in the atom bomb which loomed over my childhood rather like Revelations must have loomed over my ancestors.   Since 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union we have grown to fear first ‘the greenhouse effect’ and now ‘climate change’.   The “We’re Doomed” lobby will always have a scenario, and an audience.

All of which is to say that Sunday for me, as an atheist, is still special.   It used to be a vacant empty day – no shops, no work, a day for “family” and so on & so forth.  But since capitalism needs to survive and we all need to keep buying more shit to keep the charade going, Sunday became just another shopping day, and large temples to spending grew up on our ring roads where people flocked on Sunday to worship their Stuff, to buy it and hoard it.   But for me Sunday morning is for classical music.

I can’t remember when this started but as far away as university I’ve put on a classical record first thing on a Sunday morning.     The record won’t necessarily be religious, although many of my favourite classical pieces are.   Well the church was the main source of income for musicians for hundreds of years, so most of Bach, Vivaldi,  Haydn and lots of early music emanate from God and his works.  I’ve never had a problem with this.  Why would I ??   I think the finest piece of music ever written is probably the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach.   If you don’t know it, you’re in for a treat, it’s immense, pure, and beautiful.  If you know it, you know exactly what I mean.

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I’ve been listening to Fauré’s Requiem since the 80s – I couldn’t put a date on it, or a reason why I bought it, or who introduced me to it, or any interesting biographical moments or details.   But if I had a magic counter on my musical choices (which I used to fantasise about as a teenager – my own pop charts!) then this piece of music would be in the top 3 Sunday morning selections, I’m very sure about that.    It’s really short, and absolutely stunning, especially, for me,  the Sanctus.   I have been known to chop it back, rewind selector, the same short piece which is just so mysterious and perfect that I can scarcely believe it.   Like that moment in “If…” the Lindsay Anderson film where Malcolm McDowell is listening to Peter Kamau’s African Sanctus and continually lifts the needle back to the haunting infinite opening chords.  Except Fauré is better.

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Gabriel Fauré was a 19th century French impressionist composer (my definition) – the Requiem dates from 1890, was revised and finished in 1900 and is composed of seven short pieces (the Sanctus is 3 minutes long).   It’s largely a vocal piece and most of the great singers have tackled its refined and subtle beauty.   I don’t have a particular favourite version, but I’m listening to it soothe me (baby) right now.     Long live Sunday mornings.