My Pop Life #156 : Paid In Full – Eric B & Rakim

Paid In Full   –   Eric B & Rakim

Thinking of a master plan, this ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand, so I dig into my pocket all my money’s spent, dig deeper, I’m still comin’ up with lint

rapper Rakim with his DJ Eric B in 1988

It’s late ’87 and I am flying, and occasionally happy.  My hip-hop musical Sanctuary, a Joint Stock Production directed by dearest friend Paulette Randall has opened in Salisbury to good reviews and relief all round.  My girlfriend Rita Wolf is in the cast, along with Gaylie Runciman, Carl Procter, Kwabena Manso, Pamela Nomvete and David Keys.  It’s been the main purveyor of energy all year – the pitch, the workshop, the writing, the rehearsing.  It has been truly immersive and stretched me magnificently into being a writer.  Not a great one, or even a good one.   But OK.

I wrote about the play in more detail in My Pop Life #86 but I’m sure the subject isn’t exhausted.  By the end of October though as the tour came in to London I needed to get away from it all, and accepted an offer to play Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in a film called Buster starring Phil Collins as Buster Edwards.  Looking at photographs from the early 60s I suppose I did resemble a young Biggs somewhat.  My diary from 1987 records that I wasn’t sure about accepting it at all – it seems that I was pretty fussy in those days.  Probably thought that it would all add up to a narrative of some sort and make sense.  Hahaha.  Now all we have is this random meandering blog with 20-20 hindsight.

In any event I couldn’t prepare for the role very easily since Ronnie was rather famously living it up in Rio, recording songs with the Sex Pistols and generally being an embarrassment to the establishment some 24 years after the robbery which had taken place in August 1963.  Almost all of the gang, including the mastermind Bruce Reynolds (played by Larry Lamb) had served considerable jail terms – double the normal sentences because of the high profile of the case.  Biggs wasn’t a key player in the robbery, but had fame and notoriety because he’d escaped ‘justice’.   Norma Heyman, the producer, arranged for me to have lunch with Reynolds so that I could discuss Ronnie Biggs, and gave me Bruce Reynold’s phone number.  When I called him later that day and explained what the score was, I asked Bruce where he’d like to have lunch.  Bruce’s immediate reaction was “ Who’s paying ?

The Train Robbers : Bruce Reynolds is 4th from the left

I replied that the film company were paying.  “Then we’ll eat at Manzi off Leicester Square” he said, and that’s where we met a few days later.  A tall, bespectacled charming and erudite older man greeted me, and I liked him almost immediately.  Bruce Reynolds was a major criminal, and for five years from 1963-68 was Public Enemy Number One.  He had planned the Train Robbery from start to finish and got the main characters together to pull it off:  Gordon Goody, Roy James, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy White, Tommy Wisbey, Bob Welch and others, including Ronnie Biggs who was an old friend, and roped in because he knew a train driver.

The robbery itself involved switching the signals on the Glasgow to Euston Mail Train in the wee small hours of a dark night, stopping the train, uncoupling the engine and the carriage with the mailbags from the rest of the train, then driving to a Bridge where the gang- all dressed in army fatigues in case they were spotted – would simply roll the cash down the embankment into waiting Land Rovers .  They stole £2.6 million pounds, the equivalent of £50 million in today’s money, the largest haul to that date in Britain.  The robbery had been carried off according to plan, but the establishment had thrown everything into the chase and investigation.  Bruce had evaded capture and eventually gone to Mexico and lived high on the hog for years with his wife and son before a strange scorpion spiral movement found him back in England via Canada and the South Of France and back doing little jobs again before eventually being arrested by Flying Squad chief dog Tommy Butler (“Hello Bruce…   “Cést la vie Tommy”).  Bruce was given 25 years, of which he served 10, in Wandsworth, Durham, and the Isle Of Wight mainly.

Oddly, when I met Bruce Reynolds he was 55 years old, younger than I am now.  I don’t know why this feels odd to me.   Probably because I haven’t been in prison.  We talked about Ronnie Biggs, the robbery, films, books and prison life, and he was charming, well-read and funny.  Manzi was an expensive fish restaurant opposite the Swiss Centre behind Leicester Square and one of the poshest places I’d ever been to in my young life.  We had a slap-up meal with wine on someone else’s tab.  But then Bruce had spent his entire life on someone else’s tab.  My friend Jan lent me his autobiography last time I was in England, and I finished it today.  A scallywag’s journey through burglaries, safe-breaking, fast cars, hanging off gutters and crawling across flat roofs, running through the streets pursued by plod, drinking in bars and clubs with off-duty plod, swanning around Cannes with women, fast cars and the odd robbery accompanied occasionally by his wife and son Nick and then inevitably serving the odd bit of monotonous, violent, and dull time in prison.  Visits to the South Of France, wearing Turnbull & Asser shirts, drinking Dom Perignon, always the best suits and shoes, cars and watches.  He’d made it sound exciting, daring, nail-biting and terribly sad depending on which page you were turning.  I knew nothing of this in 1986 – just a young actor meeting an old master criminal who was happy to eat at one of his favourite restaurants and now pay the bill, and he said marvellous twinkly things like – “Bread before morals, Ralph –  Goethe“.    He didn’t mention me in his book so I clearly didn’t make much of an impression on him. lol

On the press night of Sanctuary at the Drill Hall I was filming the train robbery on a night shoot in Leicestershire with Phil Collins, Larry Lamb (playing Bruce), Michael Atwell (who would later be cast in New Year’s Day), Chris Ellison and John Barrard, all together we were The Firm re-making the biggest robbery in Britain in the 20th Century.  The main prop was a 1960 Diesel train in full working order.  I still have a black and white picture of Phil, Larry, me and Mike in front of the train on the wall in Brighton.  I’ll see if I can find it online.  (I can’t)

Me as Ronnie with Larry Lamb as Bruce in “Buster”

 Collins was reasonably friendly without being warm, I think he thought I was a bit of a cock, and I probably was.  Playing the most famous train robber was also definitely A Thing, and the following year when Terry Wogan had Phil Collins on his show as a guest, one of the Wogan questions was “So, Phil….who’s playing Ronnie Biggs in the movie then ?”  Collins was ready for this curve-ball attempt to take the shine of his moment and answered “Oh some new young actor, can’t remember his name…”

Larry, me, Mike

Back at the Drill Hall where Sanctuary, my hip-hop musical about homeless teenagers was playing, I was making mental notes of other knives hovering over my back – how the business of Show really works, no honour among thieves like in Bruce’s gang, just sharks, peacocks and jealous judgy cats, or even worse I now discovered, people simply not coming.  To see the play.  Not bothering.  Absense.  I found the power of absence to be quite profound, and remembered every person who didn’t come.  Yes, that petty I’m afraid.   But it is a real thing.  And I was absent on Press Night myself, absent from my company, my director, my company manager and the audience.  I called Rita at 2am from a field and she told me it had gone well.  The punters seemed to like it.  Another day of life.

I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid, so I think of all the devious things I did                           I used to roll up, this is a hold-up, ain’t nuttin’  funny, stop smilin’  and still don’t nothing move but the money…

Rakim, Eric B in 1987

It seems incredible to me now, but Sanctuary had been researched, written and presented before Public Enemy‘s 2nd LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back  had been released.  An album I place in the highest esteem.   Fuck knows what I was on.  But I was certainly on Run DMC, Roxanne Shante, KRS-One, Salt ‘n’Pepa, Schoolly D, Big Daddy Kane and Sweet Tee with Jazzy Joyce aswell as the mighty Rakim rapping with Eric B,  Eric B & Rakim, fellow New Yorkers on the first wave of hip hop.  This was the title track off their first album.  A landmark moment.  A lazy, loping sample from Dennis Edwards‘ great 1984 tune Don’t Look Any Further featuring Siedah Garrett.  A list of the managers, agents, record company and A&R people involved with Paid In Full.  This is a manifesto.  This is how you get Paid In Full.  You go into the system. Get representation.  Inside the wheels of production.  Here’s our list.  “Who we rolling with then?”  “Rush”  “That’s right Rush Management…”   Then the verse –

Thinkin’ of a master plan, this ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand…

 just one verse, and they’re out.  This classic was remixed somewhat controversially six months later by production crew ColdCut as Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness) and featured Ofra Haza‘s hit Im Nin Alu and plentiful spoken word jokes “This is a journey into sound” and Pump Up The Volume with “I think you’d better speak to my mother”  and so on and so forth.  It was early days of hip hop, and I was up to my neck in it.  The following year I would win an award for Sanctuary then take the show to Washington D.C. to become Sanctuary D.C. (see My Pop Life #136) and soon after that write a new hip-hop play for the BBC (set in D.C.) which remains un-performed to this day.  Definitely not paid in full.  Who we rollin’with  ??

MTV Raps (what’s the haps on the craps)

Coldcut Remix Seven Minutes Of Madness

 

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My Pop Life #118 : Glass Onion – The Beatles

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

See The Art Teacher 

and Where Are We Now?

*

Glass Onion   –   The Beatles

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

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

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

Looking through a glass onion

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

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

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

Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Looking through a glass onion

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

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

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

Looking through a glass onion

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

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Strawberry Field, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Still from I Am The Walrus film 1967

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

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

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Holes in the ocean at the Cast Iron Shore, yeah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paul, Tim, Ralph

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

My Pop Life #86 : I Know You Got Soul – Eric B & Rakim

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I Know You Got Soul   –   Eric B & Rakim

…I got soul – that’s why I came, to teach those who can’t say my name

first of all I’m the soloist the soul controller Rakim get stronger as I get older…

The first rap I could recite all the way through, so hooked was I on its combination of beats rhymes and lyrical wisdom.  Rakim remains my favourite rapper as a technician and for his flow – second to none.  I’m very fond of Chuck D and Busta Rhymes and Eminem, people keep telling me about Big Pun but Rakim is the man in the end.  For me.   He almost always raps about one fairly narrow topic : ie what a great rapper he is : “Ego to M.C. is my theme”.  He manages to explore this potentially barren subject matter in ways that indicate major creative talent.  The subject of how great he is at rapping appears to be an inexhaustible source of words and rhymes, quite extraordinary.   In another song he states “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, flip it, now it’s a daily word.”   

Eric Barrier and William Griffin are from Long Island, New York City.  They came together in the mid-80s and hooked up with Marley Marl who they paid to produce their first single Eric B Is President.  In 1987 they recorded their first LP “Paid In Full” also with Marley Marl and MC Shan.  Reportedly, Rakim was writing the rhymes on pieces of paper in the studio and then reading them in the booth when he was recording.  The result was dynamite and possibly the greatest hip-hop album ever made, certainly one of the most influential.  “I Know You Got Soul” samples Bobby Byrd, James Brown and Original P on a dry tough rhythm bed laid down by Eric B.  Rakim’s delivery of the lyrics remains unmatched in hip hop history except perhaps by himself on “Follow The Leader” – there’s no shouting, no threats, no guns, no wasted energy, just a beautiful display of lyrical talent and finesse.

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I was obsessed with this song and this LP in 1987 when it was released.  Along with Raisin’ Hell by Run DMC and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy it remains one of the three cornerstones of the golden age of hip hop.  The sides of the pyramid are filled with great singles by KRS-One, EPMD, Kool Moe Dee, Salt-n-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane and Roxanne Shanté.

These songs became the essential research materials for the play I was writing for Joint Stock Theatre Company, which was to be a rap musical.  I’d pitched it to the Joint Stock steering committee with Paulette Randall my friend and director and after Caryl Churchill had asked me “wasn’t I nervous about writing my first play?” and I’d answered “not really, I just want to do it…” they’d given us the thumbs up.   This meant we had a three week workshop to research the play, I had a ten-week gap to write it, we then had a six-week rehearsal period to mount the finished product.  It remains for me the best way to create new work which is based around a community, which the community then hopefully get to come and see.  In this case the community was homeless teenagers around London and the South West, including the hippie convoy people who became the 1990s squatting movement.  We cast my girlfriend Rita Wolf (she was the best candidate frankly), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Carl Procter, Gaylie Runciman & Pamela Nomvete.  Jenny Tiramani was our designer and joined Paulette and I on the workshop.  The rehearsal/workshop room in Bethnal Green had a permanent hot-seat at the end of the room where people would sit and testify, about who they’d met and talked to (real people living rough, in bed and breakfast, cardboard city etc) and about their own experience of housing, and often we all had homeless moments (particularly Paulette and I).  I was busy at the other end of the room writing furious notes on these encounters, research for the play I was about to produce.  And then we went en masse to see Run DMC, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys in Brixton, and I saw LL Cool J & Eric B & Rakim (and someone else?) in Hammersmith.  Marvellous times.

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Paulette Randall

I was convinced that rap was inherently dramatic as a form, and totally suited to drama and plays.  We called the result “Sanctuary” and it was a kind of rap musical, with raps instead of songs.  We didn’t have the money for a DJ or to sample tunes, but the crowds came, it was deemed a hit, we toured the UK, and the following year the play won the Samuel Beckett Award for best first play.  I should publicly thank Karen Mistry for that, Joint Stock administrator at the time, since she insisted on sending in the manuscript to the judges (C4, Royal Court, Faber & Faber).  I had lunch with a C4 who asked me what I wanted to do.  I said “direct a film”, and she snorted in derision.  The Royal Court shunned me completely, and Faber & Faber didn’t publish the play.

Very little rap drama was forthcoming after Sanctuary.  I did the play in Washington D.C., and wrote a new one which was all verse, like a rap opera, but the BBC rejected that and it has never been performed.  There have been the odd moments – Ragamuffin in London, but little else until “Hamilton” which Jenny and I saw this year at The Public Theatre, NYC.  It was a bio-play about Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father of the USA, written entirely in verse and rapped and spat by a multi-ethnic company where George Washington was played by a black man and the lead was a Puerto Rican American Manuel Lin Miranda who also wrote the play and the music.   It’s opening on Broadway in July.  I was smiling all the way through it.  I was right.  Rap is inherently dramatic.  Only took everyone 25 years to work that out.

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you

Without a strong rhyme to step to

Think of how many weak shows you slept through ?

Time’s up – sorry I kept you

Thinking of this you keep repeating your miss

The rhymes from the microphone soloist

So you sit by the radio hand on the dial soon – as you hear it

Pump up the volume…

Sampled of course by M/A/R/R/S for their number one hit single of the same name.  I Know You Got Soul is a massive massive tune which I could never do justice to in a single 1000-word blog.  It’s still my all-time favourite hip-hop tune.  Thanks for reading.