My Pop Life #187 : Groovy Little Thing – Beres Hammond

Groovy Little Thing   –   Beres Hammond

*

It was around 4am on a Sunday morning at Club 61 and we were close to running out of vodka.  Paulette had been making caipirinha for the drinking of the 5000 since 8pm : crushed ice, lime, sugar and vodka instead of cachaça – the London way, the Club 61 way.  People were dancing, smooching, smoking, DJing, talking shit, talking love, arguing, sharing.  Beverley was there, Jenny was there, Elaine the sweet, David the intellectual, Eugene the cynic, Sharon the comic, Debbie & Jacqui & Attlee the cousins,  many others.  I was drunk, stoned, happy.  The Fatback Band were playing I Feel Lovin’ : hands and voices were raised, the heart and soul of the party, the centre of the sacred ritual.  But the loving was always short-lived because surely Louis Prima would be next with I Ain’t Got Nobody, which would be celebrated with even more gusto, just as a wake is more drunken and raucous than a wedding.

Miss P

The party breathes, the tide goes out, the phases of the moon.  In the next lull, Paulette and I are in the kitchen talking family.  She confides that her mum has taken a bad turn in Jamaica where she lives and probably won’t make it to Christmas.  We hug.  A proper squeeze.   The plan is to go out to Jamaica to bury her, when the moment comes.  I promise to go with her and Beverley when that moment arises.

London 2005

About a fortnight later we touch down in Montego Bay and get a taxi across the island to Treasure Beach on the southern coast.  Paulette and Beverley, with cousins Debbie, Jaqui & Attlee, and me.   I think I was sharing a room with Bev & P, and the other three were in a next room but I cannot remember.  We certainly all spent any hotel time in that one room, drinking rum & coca cola, rum & ginger, rum & orange or rum & sprite.

St Elizabeths parish, SW Jamaica

The days go like this : Jason the driver turns up after breakfast and we pile into the transport and drive off to see an auntie – either Magdelen, who lives halfway up the hill, Vadne who lives at the top of the hill or Vera who was on the family land.  Or Merline, or Loretta.  Aunties for days.  Greetings, hugs, an offering of drinks, some food perhaps.  Cigarette smoking outside on the porch.   Funeral arrangements being made – not by me (ever) but by the sisters from England and the aunties from Jamaica.  Family politics.  Where is the goat coming from? Who is carrying the coffin?  Who is singing?  After a while we drive off again, get some more food in a bar, watch the green sweep of the rural landscape as it tumbles over red earth down to the Caribbean sea.  A stunningly beautiful island, poverty everywhere.

Jason played the same tape in his transport pretty much every day.  It started with Beres HammondGroovy Little Thing‘ which is why this song reminds me so heavily of this trip.  We would be on the rum all day pretty much.  Driving around.  Kids would crowd round whenever we went to Miss Edna’s house – Paulette & Beverley’s mum lived in a two-room wooden house on some land near Pedro Plains, green green grass, red red earth, chickens, kids, people waving, coming to meet us, we were the English relations.  The size of the small house was important, as I will relate later.

This picture reminds me of Miss Edna’s house in Jamaica, but it may have been smaller than this

Enough room for a bed, some chest of drawers and a wardrobe, a table, a chair.  Outside the kids are amazing as kids always are… “him have coolie hair” is their greeting for me… “wass your name?“.  Not at any stage in Jamaica am I described or treated like a white person. There are plenty of white Jamaicans of course but the kids pick up on my Indian not-curly hair which was more interesting than my pale skin.  We meet a white Jamaican called Mas Ralph who insists that my actual name is Rolph. There is a photo of us somewhere, an actual photo, wherever photos live these days.

Lovers Leap

In fact there are plenty of actual photos of this trip, from before I had a digital camera.  I’m writing this in Charleston, South Carolina and all my pictures are in a box in the attic in Brighton, England.  I’ll do me best !  It is a very visual two weeks, faces mainly but we also do some stuff – go to Lover’s Leap on the coast – a huge clifftop walk, and same day inland to YS Falls where I jump into the waterfall off a rope swing and sit on a rock, both in St Bess parish where we are based.

We head back to Sunset Resort on Great Bay loaded up with snacks and drinks and download the day.  Sometimes we go out in the evening – one bar deep in the bush was memorable for the DJ dropping dancehall tunes and the varied clientele including ladies of the night, children, mums and grandads all gently moving to the reggae beat.  I loved it.

And as time slips by towards the Nine Night, family tensions surface as they do, and dip over my head, or round my backside, since they don’t involve me but only concern what is expected of people and what is delivered. And each night was counting towards Nine.

Treasure Beach is where it says Calabash Bay on the map

Miss Edna’s good friend is called Guilty and he lives not far from Treasure Beach, in Great Bay.  Paulette Bev and I ended up at his house one night.  The sun had set.  Cicadas.  A pale blue light on the porch as he rolled a giant cone of weed.  Guilty is a rastafarian.  He cooks us ital food – clean, vegetarian, naturality, Vital without the V, the I & I denoting I-man’s connection to the universe.  Ital = no salt, no chemicals, no flesh, no blood,  no alcohol, no cigarettes and no drugs (herbs are not considered drugs).
We smoked.  Even Bev and P smoked. The only time I have ever seen it.  There was rum too, but Guilty did not he drink it.  But another cone was smoked – and Bev and P decline this time around, because they are higher than the moon already, which is pretty high and casting a pale light across Guilty’s strange garden.  The music is fantastic  – a modest sound system, nothing fancy but the sounds are profound. Righteous.  I am baked.  I mean, frankly I am close to panic, the rising feeling inside my chest not to be suppressed, allowing it to flow, allowing yourself to know, allowing it to go up up and away as high as you can pray and trust.  You will not fall away.  I have never ever been so stoned in all my born days.  It feels appropriate.  Beyond high.  Brave.  To boldly go.  Posing the question : how long can you keep hold of the rope ?  And so on.  We walked back a couple of miles to the hotel, blissful and baked to a T.

The Nine Night is upon us.  It was up on the property on the red earth.  The sun has set.  Paulette and Beverley are inside the house for much of the time, with the aunties, and that means it is pretty crowded already.  I say hello to each auntie and back out into the night again where there are now hundreds of people under the starlight eating curry goat – the same goat I had not witnessed being bought – callaloo, breadfruit and plantain, rice and peas of course, red stripe beer, a sound system playing tunes further down the hill, older folk sitting under an awning with bibles, reading psalms and singing hymns as they are fed rum, a frenzy of eating, drinking and religion : it is quite extraordinary.

Paulette & Bev at Sharon’s wedding in 2005

A group of younger people have come from over the mountain – Ginger Hill – where Miss Edna spent some time earlier in her life and they remember her.  Dirt poor. They’ve made the journey.  They don’t know anyone here.  Neither do I.  Doesn’t matter.  Feels like I talk to everyone.  Sing a hymn.  Drink rum. Smoke weed.  Sway.  Feel sad, feel open.  Fight gently through the people trying to get into the house, impossible, but get in somehow, see Paulette and Bev again, surrounded by women, weeping together, we hug, we kiss.  Go outside again and find Jaqui & Debbie sat down on the porch, in awe at this community that I find myself among.   Then suddenly a drum-beat starts up, a shuffle and a chant.  It becomes louder and louder, and clearer.  It is coming from the Ginger Hill mob.  About thirty of them, drumming on trash cans, pieces of wood, buckets and drums they have brought with them, and they chant :

“…cyaan get inna Miss Edna house, cyaan get inna Miss Edna house…”

It is eerie and powerful and honest.  The house is too small and they’ve been politely turned away.  A shiver goes  down my spine and I force force my way back inside again to see Bev and P : “you’ve got to come out and see this” and so they do.

And we laugh.  Hug again and laugh.  Amid the hymns, the crying aunties, the freeloading anybodys, the foreign relatives, the kids, the gravediggers, casket carriers and Guilty the sweet rastafarian philosopher, it seems as fitting a tribute to Miss Edna as you could get.  For philosophically speaking, none of us could get into Miss Edna’s house anymore.

The next day is the service at the Christadelphian Meeting Hall in Round Hill, St Elizabeth parish.  It is hot hot. Everyone is now dressed proper, shirt, suit, tie, shoes. Hats.  Fans gently beating across aunty’s faces.  The pallbearers are six nephews – Clive, Neville and Nesbert Powell and George, Kenneth and Vernan Legister.  They carry her in and lay her down in front of us.  It is November 10th 2002, but the Order of Service programmes has the date September 11th, misprinted (rather spookily) by Mr Bolt the funeral director.

Paulette and Beverley both speak about their mum in the service.  They are brave. Cashell and Crystal are trying to speak, two little girls, but they are crying too much and abandon the attempt, have us all in floods.  The casket is hoisted onto the six nephews shoulders again and we travel back down the hill to the property where the night before such scenes had unfurled.  The kids keep us all real – Full Mouth who had a great deal of teeth, and unrepentant farter Force Ripe.  I suppose their name for me is Coolie Hair.

A cousin named Bones has dug the grave deep into the red earth, and we gather around the grave to sing once more and pray together.  More tears now, less restraint.  More Jamaica, less England.  People shouting goodbye as the coffin is lowered on ropes into the deep hole, men pass the shovel around and cover the coffin with earth, I join in, grateful for the physical effort to channel my quivering energy.  Did the sisters also shovel some earth into the grave ?  I may be confusing that detail from their father’s funeral which was a year or so earlier in London.  I become transfixed with the colour of the dirt and sequester a small black plastic bag full which I transport back to Brighton with me.  I’m not sure though that I have ever planted anything in it.  What a strange man I am.

Guilty painted the tomb for Miss Edna and subsequently disappeared, we don’t know where he is now.  Miss Vadne still lives up the hill in Southfield.  I haven’t been back to Jamaica but I will go one day.  It was my tenth Caribbean island trip.  They’re all quite different in many ways.  Cuba is extraordinary – I wrote about it in My Pop Life #173 –  and Trinidad & Tobago was an amazing trip in 1993 – My Pop Life #184.  I haven’t written about St Lucia yet – where Jenny’s parents come from, and we’ve visited three times together.  On one visit we took a boat to Martinique. We’ve also holidayed at different times in Barbados, St. Kitts & Nevis, Antigua and the Dominican Republic when my brother Paul was living in Santo Domingo.  It’s an incredible part of the world.  But Jamaica is the island where I felt most at home. Perhaps the intensity of the trip opened me up in a different way – or perhaps it just has a special kind of atmosphere which I picked up on.  I was in the bush – the countryside – and was with people whose relatives live there.  The same is true of St Lucia, and Trinidad of course.  I don’t know.       I just know that Jamaica cast a spell over me.

Beres Hammond is amazing by the way – this is an early cut from the 2nd LP –  a soulful purveyor of Lovers Rock through to more conscious styles on albums such as Music Is Life in 2001 which Jenny and I waxed and rinsed when it came out.  We saw him at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park in 2003 on a reggae extravaganza night – a beautiful open air amphitheatre, we walked from our apartment on Live Oak Drive on a balmy July night, perched above Los Feliz, and there was Beres Hammond live onstage, what joy – supporting the legendary I-Three Marcia Griffith and the Marley boys Stephen, Kymani and Damian Marley – Junior Gong – who was showcasing his new album Welcome To Jamrock.  Quite a night.

I appreciate and give thanks for all my blessings, all my friends, all my musical experiences, for my life has been rich and full of joy.  Even the tragedy and sorrow of the death of my beautiful friends Paulette and Beverley’s mother turned somehow into a thing of such great beauty.   We are separate but always connected.

My Pop Life #179 : One Drop – Bob Marley & The Wailers

One Drop   –   Bob Marley & The Wailers

“What’s your favourite Bob Marley song?”  asked Chris.

It is a legitimate question I think.  It was the early afternoon of a North London autumn day in 1997.   Paulette & Beverley Randall had accompanied Jenny and myself to visit a new baby in NW6 : Jemima, first daughter of :  Chris Skala and Emma who had met at Paulette’s legendary Club 61 event which convened regularly for vodka, music and slow dancing (see My Pop Life #60) and they had danced together, chatted, kissed, wooed and then <swoon> married in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park in the summer of 1993.   Chris – who it should be noted is an American (guvner) – had invited me to his stag night earlier in ’93.  Where it was and what we did I simply cannot recall due to the excessive intake of alcoholic beverages and marijuana.

Beverley, Paulette & Jenny 1997

But here we were in his flat where the new baby was being oohed and aahed over but where Chris was diligently aware of his DJ-ing duties.

“C’mon Ralphie.  Favourite Bob Marley song?”

I flicked mentally through my Bob Marley albums.  I think there were three :  Exodus, Live ! (at the Lyceum in 1975: which all white people owned – it was a law) and Legend – aka The Greatest Hits, which Jenny had brought with her when she moved into Archway Road five years earlier.  We may have had another one – Kaya perhaps or Catch A Fire, but there were less than five.  In other words, not really enough to make an informed choice.  It struck me as a moment of weakness – which isn’t really fair, but that’s how it struck me anyway – like someone asking what my favourite Beatles song is and only having twenty songs in my head, all from the Red or Blue albums.   I think I said “Jamming” at the time, which was the truth – probably the best Bob Marley song.  The best meaning, as always, my favourite, at the time, because THE BEST doesn’t actually exist, it can only ever mean MY FAVOURITE.  But when you are young you always say THE BEST.  Because it goes without saying that your favourite is the best.

To be fair, I wasn’t a huge Bob Marley fan at that point in my life, but because I was with Paulette & Bev, whose parents were Jamaican, and who clearly represented, in my mind at least, and possibly my ears, the Jamaican Music Police I couldn’t possibly say that.  I just couldn’t because I sensed that my not being a huge Bob Marley fan was based on ignorance rather than on massive exposure and discerning judgement.  It is a feature of my intellectual and possibly over-educated friends (AND I INCLUDE MYSELF IN THIS GENERALISATION) that we will make strange musical and cultural judgements which are not based on knowledge but on some other odd refraction of the universe which manifests itself as a kind of pyramid of taste which we then climb.  Indeed, many of these cultural discernments are passed around the cognoscenti, whether educated or not, as a kind of badge of knowledge.  If you state, for example, that you prefer Motown to Stax, you will lose points.  If you prefer pop music to New Orleans R’n’B you will lose points.  If you prefer The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (My Pop Life #157) to Mahler’s 8th Symphony you will lose points.   Lou Reed beats Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Charlie Parker beats Stan Getz.  And Burning Spear beats Bob Marley.

I think it is an invisible race to an invisible point.  A refined narrowing of the portal of acceptance where popularity somehow disqualifies the artist from the ultimate pinnacle of art.  For only the cognoscenti can see, or hear, the genius that is true art.  Not all the masses who buy the song because it’s catchy – what do they know for fuck’s sake?  No, the best kind of music is always a little bit secret, a little bit of an acquired taste, only for the in-crowd, the connoisseur, the adept.   And really only for the young.  As I have aged I have ditched this poverty disguised as philosophy and gone back to Strauss, Stan Getz and Marley, loved Motown all over again, and been proud to acknowledge that yes, I am and have always been, a pop tart.  No such thing as Guilty Pleasures. Just pleasures.

Battersea Park, 1977

I have also realised that it is all right to say “I don’t know” when asked a question of any kind.  When I was 30-something it was simply illegal to say I don’t know at any point, because of course all young people know everything, and to acknowledge that one of you perhaps has a gap somewhere or simply hasn’t acquired that piece of knowledge yet is tantamount to social suicide, from which there is no recovery, or at least, let’s face it, an extremely long road uphill.  It’s too humiliating.  And maybe this is only true of men, those of us who use a specialised area of knowledge as our castle, our control-space where most people will defer to us because they haven’t put the hours in and built the encyclopedic walls.  And to have a Bob Marley-sized hole in the battlements is a weakness, as I originally experienced it.  Of course you can always say “I don’t care” but a) that is a lie, and b) that is even weaker in most cases.  Unless you have no desire to specialise, no desire to have any power or control over anything, in which case you are not being entirely honest with us are you?

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer early 1970s

My usual journey into an artist is via a song – probably the big hit, then the greatest hits, then dive in deep if you really like them.  If they don’t really have hits (like Spirit or Burning Spear or Little Feat) then your first listen may be in someone’s bedroom passing a joint around, maybe at a Festival somewhere passing a joint around, or maybe you were just curious and you bought an LP in a crate somewhere like a car boot sale or a vinyl junkie shop.  But if the artist is popular – pop tarts beware – then all kinds of other criteria pollute your experience.  Build ’em up, knock ’em down for example (Boy George, Amy Winehouse etc).  People whose identity you don’t share, or don’t feel that you do, suddenly declaring a love for your favourite artist because they saw them on TV (but they’re mine!).  Familiarity breeds contempt.  Your favourite artist becomes so famous that they are interviewed and they say something stupid or controversial.  You defend them.  Or you quietly go off them.  Or you read some piece of chattering-class space-fillage about the phenomenon of David Bowie‘s white soul period or The Ramones being middle-class or – yes – Bob Marley having Catch A Fire produced for the white market and his sound being tailored to break through – which it then did – and you kind of think – well, I prefer the rootsy rasta sounds of Burning Spear and Prince Far-I, Culture and Lee Perry, to the cleaned-up Americanised version of reggae that Chris Blackwell and Island Records sold to us with Catch A Fire in 1973.

But that isn’t fair, is it ?  It’s blown out of all proportion.  Musical snobbery indeed. Because Robert Nesta Marley had been singing and writing and playing music since 1963 with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, playing mento and bluebeat and ska, making records with Lee Perry and Leslie Kong, touring with Johnny Nash and others before evolving the sound in the late 60s – actually around 1970 – with Carlton Barrett on the drums and his brother Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett on the bass forming the bedrock of the roots reggae sound that would go around the world and back and eventually signing with Island Records.  This consequently precipitated a change of line-up since Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh didn’t want to tour ‘freak clubs’ due to their rastafari faith, and didn’t like Blackwell (Chris Whiteworst was his nickname).  They presumably didn’t like that Wayne Perkins, a Muscle Shoals session guitarist, was overdubbed onto Concrete Jungle by Blackwell, to sweeten the flavour for white listeners.   They certainly didn’t like that the band was now known as Bob Marley & The Wailers, rather than The Wailers.  And this backstory, given the success of the LP, was the sub-plot to the take-off of the world’s first genuine 3rd World Superstar.  (Yes, I know, Developing World <sigh>).  In other words, once an act becomes successful, editors demand more copy, the story has been told, now come on give us another fold in the narrative, find another level of knowledge that people will consume, let’s have more fodder, more writing, more product.  And once something becomes hugely successful, the story becomes warped with their success, and the fans simple love of the music is tainted by all this extra information.  Certainly the original cognoscenti move along to the next secret discovery, always having to be there first, and not wanting to be a small part of a large crowd.  This way we miss out on much pleasure.

Aston Barrett, Peter Tosh, Carlton Barrett, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer 1970

And so there I was, catching up with Bob Marley over the next 20 years with the help and assistance and encouragement of my beautiful wife Jenny Jules, who has always been a Bob Marley fan.  There have been films to help me out – documentaries such as Marley (2012) which was to have been directed by Scorsese, then Demme, eventually MacDonald.  And then the novel by Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings which I bought but haven’t read yet is a fictional account of Bob Marley’s life which won the Booker prize in 2016.  Meanwhile back to the LPs and the songs – it’s all about the songs, and Pimper’s Paradise stood out (from Uprising 1980),

every need got an eagle to feed

as did Satisfy My Soul (from Kaya 1978) – the brass is amazing –

every little action, there’s a reaction

and Waiting In Vain (Exodus 1977).

ooh girl ooh girl is it feasible -for I to knock some more?

and Is This Love (also from Kaya – my favourite Marley album)

we’ll share the same room…Jah provide the bread…

But wait – Marley was not the world’s first 3rd-World Superstar.  He wasn’t even the first Jamaican superstar to break America.  No, that honour belongs to the great Harry Belafonte with Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) and Island In The Sun one year later in 1957 (the year of my birth).  Belafonte went on to become a movie star and musical giant of the 20th century, creating a huge anthology of black folk music, inviting musical refugees from apartheid South Africa Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela to the United States to make records and tour, and continued to be an advocate for civil rights while making records and movies.  A giant of a man and a great musician and singer.

For Marley, Catch A Fire was a door opening.  Although Neville Livingstone, aka Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh both stayed in the band for one final album Burnin’ the writing was on the wall.   The album contained two giant hits Get Up Stand Up and I Shot The Sheriff, while the next LP Natty Dread in 1974 included both Lively Up Yourself and No Woman, No Cry, which was Marley’s first real international hit single.   The other profound manifestation on Natty Dread was the new band line-up, with the Barretts plus four new musicians, and the introduction of the I-Threes on backing vocals – Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt, and Bob’s wife Rita Marley.  

Natty Dread is a fantastic LP, with a different sound to Catch A Fire and Burnin’.   Next came the Live ! album from the Lyceum Ballroom in London, capturing the excitement of the band’s show, followed by Rastaman Vibration with its rock guitars and synthesizers which became the first album to enter the US charts.  In contrast the Bunny Wailer LP Blackheart Man and the Peter Tosh album Legalize It, both from the same year of 1976 and offered a far more rootsy sound and rasta philosophy.

But Marley was taking the rasta sound and philosophy out to the world.  The arrangements on his albums from this point on – Exodus, Kaya, Survival and Uprising – while indebted to reggae and the Jamaican rhythms are astoundingly original in what is left out of each phrase, what is played and what is not.   My own favourite track is One Drop which celebrates the reggae rhythm (no drumbeat on the one beat) while chanting down Babylon in a rastafarian prayer.  There is no other reggae music that sounds like Marley.  He was now in 1976 bigger and more influential than any Jamaican politician, so after a thankfully botched assassination attempt when Marley and Rita were shot and wounded in an incident at his house, he decamped to England in 1977 for two years.

Bob Marley & The Wailers in London 1977

Bob lived in Chelsea mainly, played football, fathered more children and made his astoundingly successful albums Exodus & Kaya.  He returned to Jamaica in late 1978 for the final two albums Survival and Uprising.

Bob Marley died in 1980 of cancer in Miami as he flew back to Jamaica from a clinic in Germany.  His legacy was an astonishing run of albums. His final words, to his son Ziggy, were  “Money can’t buy life”.

I have educated myself since that day in 1997 and listened to all of the Marley records going back to the 1960s and forward to Confrontation, the final posthumous LP released in 1983.  He rewards constant re-visiting and I hear new stuff every time.

For the record, Paulette’s favourite song was One Drop as far as I recall, which has now become My Favourite Bob Marley Song.  Bev hovered between Get Up Stand Up and War, but now claims Concrete Jungle as her favourite  Jenny’s favourite is Waiting In Vain.  Chris – in my dim memory – chose Lively Up Yourself, and Emma One Love.

And then we all lived happily ever after

Happy postscript :  Just after posting this on Feb 6th 2017 I was in correspondence again with Emma, now living in Willesden with Christopher and all-grown-up Jemima now at University (and writing a music blog!)   Feb 6th was her second daughter Lottie’s 17th birthday, and also the birthday of Bob Marley.  Coincidence ??   I think not…

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 #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

 

My Pop Life #137 : The Word/Sardines – Junkyard Band

The Word/Sardines   –   Junkyard Band

My mother went down to the foodstamp line…

1988 Washington D.C.    I was undecided.  Thinking about work-shopping my play Sanctuary for a new city, a new country, new circumstances.  Sanctuary had been produced the previous year by Joint Stock Theatre Group and toured the UK from Salisbury to Newcastle.  I wrote about it in My Pop Life #86.   Sanctuary was a rap musical about homeless teenagers and based around London’s Centrepoint Shelter and the cardboard city at Waterloo, as well as the bed-and-breakfast policies of most of the London boroughs in the mid-80s.  An American Theatre Company called The No-Neck Monsters had seen the show at The Drill Hall and asked me if I’d like to re-stage it in Washington D.C.  I said “No” of course, but later wondered whether I should investigate when they said they would fly me to D.C. to meet them and look around the city.    I arrived in Washington in late June ’88 and was met at the airport by Gwendoline Wynne and Helen Patton who ran the theatre company.  We drank, chatted, ate and I crashed.  Later I met D.C. actor Eric Dellums who was in Spike Lee’s School Daze and bought a $40 selection of go-go records, the local funk music.  I should note in passing that there was also a thriving punk scene in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, producing local groups like Fugazi and their predecessors Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Embrace.  Henry Rollins  is from D.C. (years before Black Flag and LA).  But I didn’t know about that then.  Shame – it would have been an interesting element for the play.

Chapter III nightclub, 1988

Next we spent night after night trying to get into go-go clubs to check the pulse of the scene.  Washington D.C. is called Chocolate City because the population is 80% black and often we are the only white people in evidence when we do get allowed in – I keep failing the no-sneakers rule.  Chapter III in SW Washington let us in eventually and the manager Adolphe took a shine to us and showed me the DJ booth where we watched some scratching and I was taught “The Butt“, a local dance, by a fat boy – the current hit single by E.U. or Experience Unlimited, also featured in the School Daze film.

Junkyard Band 1986

We carried on walking around the streets talking to homeless kids about their experiences.  Often they would be busking, we met one group on Capitol Hill on July 4th who ranged from 10-13 years old playing upside down buckets and jam-jars with a go-go beat.  They called themselves ‘High Profit’ and their heroes were The Junkyard Band.  The following day another young group at Dupont Circle were playing the buckets and cans, watched over by their mum.  They were called Backyard and clearly hoping for a hit record like their heroes Junkyard who’d been signed to Def Jam.  The fact that E.U. had a track in a Spike Lee joint had the go-go scene buzzing, and a few days later we went to an outside event at Brandywine, Maryland for a go-go spectacular to see local heroes JunkyardLittle Benny & The Masters, Hot Cold Sweat, Rare Essence and Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers.   This was a roll-call of the top go-go scene bands.  Temperatures were mid-80s and upwards.  Once again, Helen and I were pretty much the only white people there.

Bowie T-shirt !

Cycle shorts, hi-top sneakers and gold chains were the order of the day.  People posed for photographs in front of painted backdrops of Cadillacs, thrones and jewellry for $5 a picture.  The best one was Fred Flintstone with gold chains, diamond rings and Adidas sneakers with a speech bubble : “How Ya Like Me Now?”   Two dimensional images of wealth and status for the black American dreamers.  Another guy was selling T-shirts with crack slang:  ‘Beam Me Up Scotty‘ and on the back ‘Don’t Let Scotty Get Your Body‘.   I bought one, and for the rest of the summer people in D.C. asked me where I’d got it from.  The huge difference between Sanctuary UK and Sanctuary DC was crack cocaine.  We were surrounded by it here.  Teenagers openly flashing rolls of $100 bills.  Crack is the short cut to status and money and is inextricably linked to the murder rate.  Adolphe told me he wouldn’t allow go-go nights in Chapter III anymore after shooting incidents.  Ironically the go-go scene itself is anti-crack – a new supergroup had just released a 12″ single called D.C. Don’t Stand For Dodge City.  But it was entirely clear to me that if I decided to come back here and re-write my play,  crack would have to be part of the storyline.

But the other huge issue was race.  Fear.  Oppression.  Hate.  Only 20 years previously there had been Jim Crow laws in Washington : whites-only drinking fountains, rest-rooms, cinemas and lunch bars.  You could still feel it around the city.  I was cycling around like a naive white liberal poking my nose into communities who were selling drugs to survive, and it was killing them, literally.

One day I cycled down to a homeless shelter south of the Capitol building, and went in to meet the people who ran it.  On my way out I was surrounded by a group of angry and curious black men who wanted to know what I was doing there.  I explained that I was researching for a play about homelessness.  “You is European” one of them said, as an accusation.  Yes, I replied, I am English.  He didn’t mean that.  He meant I was white.  One scary-looking dude prowled around the edge of the circle of men like a caged tiger, a challenging look in his eye, flashing his coat open now and again to show me a 12-inch blade.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t racist – that I saw a colour-blind future.  Why the hell did I say that ?  I probably did feel that way in 1988.  I don’t anymore.  At all.  That will never happen.  I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between The World & Me and here my current racial politics lies.  Resistance.  By all means necessary.  Non-violence ?  The establishment doesn’t respect it.  So why keep showing these 1960s civil rights scenes of black people being beaten?  No.  We’re entering a new paradigm I believe.  Or going back to an old one. Malcolm X.  The Panthers.  Enough is enough.

For some reason in downtown D.C. in 1988 this group of angry homeless black men heard some degree of non-hate in my voice and parted to allow me to cycle away.   Perhaps I had acknowledged their pain and circumstance, and they’d recognised that.  Or perhaps they’d meant no harm in the first place.

1988 was the final year of Reaganomics – the famous trickle-down bullshit – referenced by the Valentine Brothers on their seminal single Money’s Too Tight To Mention.  The Junkyard Band reference Reagan on The Word

Reagan gave The Pentagon the foodstamp money

and waiting in the wings was George Bush Sr, about to defeat Dukakis in the presidential election by calling him a liberal, as if it was a curse word.

Go-Go was born in Washington D.C. and can be traced right back to the 1960s – the word was originally a name for a club, as in Smokey Robinson’s Going To A Go-Go (1965) – and it developed as a live call-and-response form of funk music, hugely influenced by James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Grover Washington, among others, and using cowbell, congas and other percussion instruments to create a more latin or african groove.  The music has brass and the word “boogie” seemingly permanently in evidence, other dance tunes are often quoted, and it is best experienced live, since there was rarely a break between songs, any talking was done while the band played.

Chuck Brown has been credited with being the Godfather of Go-Go – perhaps he made the nation aware of it with his huge hit Bustin’ Loose in 1978, but he’d been around since the mid-60s.   Other exponents Trouble Funk and Rare Essence built the go-go house on solid ground alongside E.U. and others during the golden years of the 1980s.   Come to think of it the previous piece of music I’ve written about from Washington D.C. has some of this feel – Julia & Company’s Breaking Down (Sugar Samba) (see My Pop Life #50) has a great deal of cowbell !

Junkyard Band

Junkyard Band started out in 1980 with members as young as nine playing on buckets and cans and bottles and traffic cones and they would add an instrument when they could afford it. By 1985 they were honed into a funky percussion ensemble that rapped more than the other acts, had less horns and had a defining street-edge.  Def Jam Records signed them and in 1986 Rick Rubin produced the double A-side  The Word, flipside Sardines, now their signature tune.

They are still playing together in Washington and elsewhere.

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 :

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.

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