My Pop Life #143 : Step – Vampire Weekend

Step   –   Vampire Weekend

The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out, what you on about?

I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones

Change.  Everything is moving.   Movement.   Gravity holds us down but we’re spinning on our axis once every 24 hours and circling the sun once a year, and we’re growing older every week.

We give birth astride a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it’s night once more

Samuel Beckett : Waiting For Godot

Not that I want to worry you or anything, but it flashes by doesn’t it?   Kids shoot up and start breeding, the World Cup in Germany was 10 years ago, I was 23 a few hours ago.

I always used to say “I’m in the middle of my life – c’mon!”to justify a holiday after a gig, to spend the money immediately by jetting off to the Caribbean – again.  But looking back – I was – we were – in the middle of our lives.  So this blog is partly an awareness of that, of time and people slipping away, of wanting to say the things I want to say to the people I want to hear it.  Not waiting until somebody passes for a ‘tribute’ – to Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Glen Frey, Paul Kantner, Frank Finlay et al.  Let’s do a little tribute while we’re still alive, so we can hear it.  My tributes are to friends and family, and my musical turning points.  And here’s another.

Jenny Jules as Cassius in Julius Caesar, 2013

October 2013 Jenny my wife had been given an apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the duration of a Donmar all-female production of Julius Caesar which had transferred to St Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO on the waterfront.  Down Under Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass.  An industrial area of warehouses and cobbled streets which has been gentrified up the wazoo and is now an expensive part of New York to live i.e. like everywhere else.  Brooklyn Heights is a fifteen minute walk south and up the slope, or you can connect via the waterfront of the East River.

Brookyn Heights promenade looking West at Manhattan

The views of downtown Manhattan from the elevated railings of Columbia Heights is second-to-none, and better than anything on Manhattan itself.  We were on Willow Street, one block east, opposite Truman Capote‘s old place.  Leafy, quiet, easy-going and maybe 200 years old or so, we fell in love.  We swooned.  We could live here, we said excitedly to each other, collecting garments from the Chinese dry cleaners on Henry Street, sitting in Montague Street Bagels, lunching in Dumbo Kitchen before a matinee.

Willow Street, Brooklyn

 Living on one floor of a classic New York brownstone townhouse with wood floors, tiled deco bathroom and giant fridge.  We recalled the early ’90s in King’s Road, West Hollywood.  America America !  the skies all seemed to say.  Once again. (see My Pop Life #130)

Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend 2013

I was doing self-tapes and meetings when I visited Jenny, and now New York suddenly seemed easy and attainable and exciting for both of us.   Lots of blue sky and Vampire Weekend on the stereo.   Their new LP was a masterpiece in my ears, taking all the lovely work from the first two albums and shaping something really outward-looking, really confident and solid, really rather brilliant.

2013 was a great year for music.  Kanye West came out with Yeezus which was the record of the year because parts of it sounded so unlike anything else, ever.  His raps were patchy though.  Yasmine Hamdan had a solo record which was terrific.  Sky Ferreira.  Savages.  Disclosure.  John Grant.  Chance The Rapper.  Rudimental.  Sigur Ros.  Queens Of The Stone Age.  Electric Soft Parade.  Run The Jewels.  Beyonce.  Drake.  Justin Timberlake.  J.Cole.  Haim.  Janelle Monae.   Take your pick.  Pretty astoundingly good amount of greatness, unusual.  I picked Vampire Weekend which still is my favourite record of 2013.

Vampire Weekend – 2008

Vampire Weekend were formed by Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson over a shared love of punk and hip hop while at ivy league Colombia University on New York’s Upper West Side, one of the very first educational establishments in America.  Later joined by bassist Chris Baio and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij.  They started out as a college-rock art-school boys doing guitar-based African pop inspired rock – Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, A-Punk, Oxford Comma are all bouncy upbeat unpretentious treats.  The 2nd album Contra (2010) was more of the same but the palette was broader and tinged with some melancholy – Cousins, Horchata.  By now the backlash had started – they were rich white kids appropriating African music.  This is so dull I won’t refute it in detail except to say that a) they’re not white – they’re Persian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Italian;  b)  on scholarships and bank loans;  And that, c) furthermore, anyone can play whatever they like.  They are the freshest buds on a family tree that stretches back through New York time to Dirty Projectors, and before them to the mighty Talking Heads (see My Pop Life #92)

2013

The third LP – Modern Vampires of The City – was a major development of their palette while staying recognisably a Vampire Weekend LP :  world-music rhythms played as 21st century pop music from a city which is the crossroads of the world.  It sounds fresh, playful, clever, funny, melodic, rhythmically interesting and new.  Hybrid music.  The band have grown up lyrically.  There is some darkness creeping in.   Ariel Rechtsaid was brought in to co-produce with Rostam Batmanglij and sonically there are many innovations, pitch-shifting and other unusual ways of recording vocals and drums. It rewards repeated plays. It gets deeper and more interesting.

Step appears to be about girlfriend trouble and opens with the coda

“Everytime I see you in the world you always step to my girl”

which is a quote from a single by Souls Of Mischief called Step To My Girl (1992) which also opens with the line

“Back, back way back…”

and which is about girl trouble by a rap group from Oakland in California.

Actually Oakland and not Alameda

Vampire Weekend’s re-think of the song is a little trickier though, and many commentators have suggested that the girl in the song is actually their music, that people are possessive about their music, the music of their era, or that they write in the same way that people are possessive over lovers.   Ezra Koenig the lead vocalist and key songwriter and lyricist in the band has suggested that the song itself has a family tree, layers of versions of samples of references.

I won’t dissect the whole thing here, because I am unreasonably obsessed with this song, and there’s no need to inflict it on you, but there are some fun links :  Souls Of Mischief sampled YZ’s Who’s That Girl and Grover Washington Jr‘s cover of Aubrey by Bread.  If we’re slicing songs from David Gates (who is credited as a co-writer) and this song is about music, then….

Ancestors told me that their girl was better
She’s richer than Croesus, she’s tougher than leather 

I just ignore all the tales of her past life
Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife

Tougher Than Leather is an LP by Run DMC (1988).   And so on.  There are quotes from Talking Heads in there, references to growing old, to dying, to buying a house, wisdom teeth, truth, Anchorage, Mechanicsburg and Dar Es Salaam.  Oh and Angkor Watt.

It’s beautifully mysterious all the way through and I’ve had a lot of fun trying to unpick it, but perhaps it’s best left as a mystery anyway.   The video is a homage to New York City in black and white, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.  In 2013 it was like the pied piper calling me across the Atlantic, a beckoning finger, here, this is the place, right here.

Keyboard player and producer on all three of their LPs Rostam Batmanglij has just last week announced that he is leaving the band but would continue to work with them on forthcoming projects.  He also works with Carly Rae Jepsen, Kid Cudi and Charlie XCX among others.  It’s the end of an era.

Tonight marks exactly two years since Jenny and I moved to New York in February 2014, the day after Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in his apartment in the West Village.   I worked with Phil in 2008 on a film called The Boat That Rocks.   Jenny and I flew over to New York with 2 suitcases and a cat each and after two nights in Harlem, moved down to Fort Greene in Brooklyn, the area where we still live today.

It was almost exactly three months after having a conversation together in Brooklyn Heights about starting over.

A new chapter, a fresh start.  We really didn’t take much convincing.

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

I Can’t Hear You   –   Betty Everett

you walked out on me once too often now

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

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

this girl ain’t throwing away her youth

Betty Everett 1963

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

Brooklyn

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

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

Jenny Jules & Charles Randolph Wright 2014

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

Nona Hendryx & Vicki Wickham

So.

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

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

The Motown Revue at Marble Arch, London in 1965

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

Martha Reeves,the Vandellas, Dusty Springfield

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

the great Lucy Jules

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

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

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

Betty Everett in 1963

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

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

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

“This girl ain’t throwing away her youth”

Carole King & Jerry Goffin

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

Credit where credit is due.

Happy New Year everyone, thanks for reading.

Ralph Brown 2015