My Pop Life #146 I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times  –   The Beach Boys

…they say I got brains, but they ain’t doin’ me no good.  I wish they could…

Late August 2003.   On the set of Red Light Runners, Harvey Keitel kneels by the altar. Mike Madsen walks slowly up the aisle and kneels next to him.  Keitel is first to speak.

Have you come to kill me dyood ?   he says

That’s how he says it.  Dyood.  The word I wrote is dude.   It’s my screenplay and we are in The Church Of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Exmouth St, Clerkenwell.  I cannot believe my ears.  The scene continues and finishes with Madsen walking back out.  The line-up is finished and the actors go back to their trailers while the lights are assembled and the camera positions established.  Nick Egan the director and I have a quick conflab.  Did you hear what he said ?  Dyood ??   What is going on ?  Nick decides that as the writer, I will go back to Harvey’s trailer and ‘discuss his problems with him’.  So a message is sent via a runner, and five minute later I’m knocking on Keitel’s wagon.

the church interior in Exmouth St

His PA invites me in.  Within a minute it is very clear that Harvey has not read the script. He thinks he is playing an Englishman, and he thinks we talk funny.  We clear that up.  It’s dude.  DUDE.  He asks me about another line.  I explain that his character, Sandy, an ex-CIA priest with a Fagin-esque gang of street kids at his beck and call, is gay.  He is horrified.  It gets weird.  I decide to leave and get myself some breakfast.

Director Nick Egan

I report back to Nick and Michael Wearing and we at least have Mike Madsen on our side. Eventually we get a decent scene, after much huffing and puffing.  I don’t think we turned over until just before lunch though.  By now Harvey is looking over at me after they cut each take and asking “was that OK?“.  It is all quite surreal.   But Red Light Runners was a very strange experience.  See earlier blogs My Pop Life #144 and My Pop Life #145 for the early part of the story.  Nick Egan was very cool and allowed me to sit by the monitors with headphones on, despite the producer Nigel whispering in his ear “Why are you letting Ralph sit there?  It looks weak”.  Nick told him to fuck off.  The central creative team, me, Nick and Michael Wearing were tight, and we weren’t about to be split up.  Various weird things were happening, some of which I knew about and some I didn’t.  But day by day, we were making a film.  It was thrilling.  Jenny was cast.  I was staying in Nick Egan’s flat a couple of days each week rather than slog down to Brighton every day.

           

 Mike Madsen   &   Harvey Keitel

The following day we had to shoot a later scene – Madsen killing Keitel by shooting him through the confession box grille.  It was now clear that one of Harvey’s techniques was to extend the rehearsal part of the day for as long as physically possible, for literally hours at a time, so that we would go over schedule and he would get an extra day’s wages.  It’s an old shitty trick and he was running with it.  So tedious.  Madsen was getting irritable too, but he held it down.  The other issue was very simple : Harvey didn’t want to die onscreen.  He was trying to talk his way out of it at one point and we had to stand firm on the script – we’re shooting this scene, now.  Oh yes we are !  It was truly mental.  Eventually we got it in the can, a day later than scheduled.  Later, much later when Harvey had wrapped and fucked off to Italy while the hotel bill for Claridges was run up – he’d left all his stuff in there – we were shooting another scene in a hotel when Madsen talks to Harvey on the phone.  On one take Madsen lost it and said something along the lines of “I’m glad you’ve wrapped Harvey because you’re a fucking pain in the ass, not only that but I killed you and everybody is gonna know that I killed you, so fuck you.”

There is a Hollywood actor pecking-order of those who have killed, and those who have been killed.  And by whom.  Think about it.

the green dome of the British Museum from Centrepoint roof

Earlier Mike Madsen and I had shot a scene on the balcony at the top of Centrepoint at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road overlooking the British Museum, where we’d planned a major heist  (I was also in the cast).  We’d done car chases through central London, down the Embankment, Blackfriars all the way to the Millenium Dome, then an unused leftover from the celebrations.  We’d flown helicopters over the gherkin building and the river.  We’d shot the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton at a swanky art opening with the cognoscenti, a Turkish arms dealer off Green Lanes in Haringey, and a council block in Southwark with yardie gangs.  I’d had a long chat with Tricky on the top of a London bus (see My Pop Life #61) discussing Chuck D, Public Enemy and Elvis Presley (Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me) before I offered him my headphones and played him Todd Rundgren‘s  Just Another Onionhead from A Wizard, A True Star one of my top ten LPs.  I told you Red Light Runners was strange.

We’d had a Red Light Runners heist meeting in Centrepoint too, on the day when the bond company sent a man onto the set.  An interesting mix of actors : me, Madsen, Cillian Murphy, Kate Ashfield, Tricky,  Joe Van MoylandHeathcote Williams.  The DP Nick Knowland was great but (like Brian Wilson) deaf in one ear.  The Bond man was obsessed with the two Nicks not apparently communicating properly and demanded that one of them had to go.  We carried on and went to another bond company.  All films need a bond company to insure against loss, otherwise…well.  Let’s say it was a warning.

Chiswick – the CIA headquarters.  My friend Doreene Blackstock did a set visit.  Jonathan Ross and Film 2003 were there, filming interviews with the main cast and director.  Wossy was a big supporter of the project, and there was a buzz around the film by now.  We’d been filming for four weeks with two units: the main unit, and the car and stunt unit.  We had eight weeks of stuff in the can.  Roy Scheider was in town playing the CIA chief and lending an air of gravitas and utter professionalism to a scene with Madsen, Crispin Glover and Rich Hall in the HQ.

Roy Scheider, Rich Hall, Crispin Glover – the CIA

Crispin had his raw foods thanks to a lady from Birmingham we’d found specially.   But the producer Michael Casey wasn’t happy.  Stuff was going on behind the scenes, some kind of power struggle.  We still weren’t bonded.  Casey and his wife decided that day that they were personally taking over the funding of the film, and sacked all the co-producers.  They started talking about actors using the tube to get to work, sacking all the drivers, cutting corners.  Meanwhile none of us had been paid yet.  Normally on a movie the principles – the director, designer, writer, producers – get paid their fee in full on the first day of principal photography.  That day had come and gone.  It was four weeks ago in fact.  And Chris the designer decided that he wasn’t coming in on Monday unless he was paid.  It became clear that the caterer had been feeding the unit with his own money.  The word went round the set – we wouldn’t be shooting on Monday, but on Wednesday.  The schedule meant that Monday was in Salisbury, blowing up a church in the Iowa cornfields, the opening sequence and Jenny’s scenes.   Jenny had cancelled her last week on the Vagina Monologues in order to be in Red Light Runners.  We also had Peter O’Toole lined up for Salisbury Cathedral.  Now it wobbled.

Tuesday another phone call came – we wouldn’t shoot on Wednesday but the following Monday.  Then another call.  Then another.  Then another.  After two months of this Nick Egan flew back to Los Angeles, leaving his suits and luggage in the rented flat where he’d been staying and which was now locked by the landlords because they hadn’t been paid either.

Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself and what goes wrong ?

O cuando sere? Un dia sere” (“When will I be? One day I will be”)

Sometimes I feel very sad…

Originally I chose 2+2=5 for this story, because that was the feeling, and it was a 2003 song.  But it’s a Thom Yorke song about society, about passivity and 1984 so it was rejected for an ironic Hey Ya by Outkast, also a 2003 hit.  But it wasn’t right either.  Next up was Bowie’s Quicksand because that line

Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief…

was my primary feeling to emerge from this fiasco.  But that song doesn’t line up either and deserves better than this story.  I didn’t want to write another film, or a play, or anything.  My friends in StompLuke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas actually did commission a script in November from me, like a soft landing, that’s for another story, and after that another half-hearted film which flickered briefly and fell.  But my heart wasn’t in it, and in many ways still isn’t.  How easily discouraged I am.  How fragile the ego.  Where’s the resilience, the iron will, the inner strength.  No idea.  I squashed it I think.  I felt weak, I felt destroyed to be honest.  Devastated.

In the end I’ve gone for a Pet Sounds song from 1966, a very personal brave lyric from Tony Asher and Brian Wilson about Brian feeling that he was too advanced musically for his band The Beach Boys and that he was literally living in the wrong era.  It doesn’t fit either, but many of the lines kill me to this day, and the feeling is right.   It’s a mournful, rich, delicate ethereal song that is somehow true.   By then the Brighton Beach Boys, my beautiful tribute band were learning this number and preparing to unleash it with string quartet and horns and full harmonies.  It’s a tricky beast to learn but when we committed to it, it was and is glorious.  A mighty tune about disappointment, with oneself, with life, and everything.

Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into…

I had the golden ticket but it was fake.  No film.  No money.  No explanation.

The American actors got paid – Mike Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider, Crispin Glover. The Screen Actors Guild deal protects actors from this kind of thing, which isn’t actually that rare sadly.  Equity, the British equivalent of SAG, is hopeless.  Since living in the USA I have found that the Unions here have far more power than their British counterparts.

Michael Wearing

I was told by Michael Wearing later as the phone calls became fewer that Casey and his wife had decided to take over, sack the entire crew and re-employ them on worse rates.  As a hotel builder,  which is what he did before becoming a “Film Producer”- sorry a little bit of sick just came into my mouth – this was his mode-d’emploi – sack the workforce and undercut their wages.  It might work in the building trade in Portugal but it wasn’t going to wash in the film industry.  Then they started hawking the film around to other co-producers but if you collapse a film half-way through without paying key personnel, you essentially own a debt.  Who wants to buy that ?  It was over and the hope dwindled week by week, like water wearing down a stone.  It was a tunnel with no light at the end.

But things could always be worse.  The designer, Chris, clearly had other issues.  He was involved in a messy divorce apparently, and within weeks of the film closing down he had set light to a set building in our base at Three Mill Island, fire brigade were called but it was destroyed.  He then shot and killed his son, and himself.  Tragic.

The rest of us just carried on living, a little more cynical, a little more beaten down, a little more angry inside, but we carried on.  Anyone working in the film industry – this business we call ‘show’ – has dozens of stories like this.  I have at least a dozen.  This one perhaps the worst.  I still feel bitter about it.   But it’s just a film after all.   And I’m still here.

London now from the top of Centrepoint

And somehow matching this beautiful sad song with this moment of devastation makes me feel a little more healed.  This is the power of music.  If anyone knows and practises the healing power of music it is the fragile genius of Brian Wilson.  This may be his best piece of work.   In 2011, Brian said: “It was like saying: ‘Either I’m too far ahead of my time’ or ‘I’m not up to my time.’ … [The feeling has] stayed the same … a little bit, in some ways not … [but now] I do feel I was made for these times.

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My Pop Life #144 : Flowers In The Window – Travis

Flowers In The Window   –   Travis

It’s yet another song with seagull noises in it.  I’m collecting them.  One of the great things about living in Brighton is the quality of live music there.  The Brighton Beach Boys were formed after many a joyful Monday night in The Dragon in St George’s Road watching Stephen Wrigley and Adrian Marshall play 90 minutes of pop music, inviting punters to come to the mic and sing.  Drink + music = joy.  Once the band was up and running, gigging, rehearsing regularly I had the impertinent hubris to feel as if I could play in the pub too.

So I got a regular, or perhaps irregular Monday night gig in The Robin Hood on the border of Hove, a charity pub (Britain’s first!) with a benign and knowledgeable landlord in the form of Neil Hayward, brother to Paul, sports writer and Albion fan.  The BBBs had the residency and we took it in turns to play two-handers.  I played with Adrian Marshall himself on the bass and bvs, and when we went to look at a set-list there were a list of my favourite things I could already play :  Golden Lady, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, Julia, Sunny Afternoon and then a bunch of newer songs – it’s good to stay contemporary in the pub rock game.  So we chose this song by Travis, and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful because I wanted to appear open-minded (and because I secretly loved it) and some Ben Folds and Todd Rundgren too.  In the end you’re just plonking away while people drink and chat, the living background music, but it is an honourable profession and I felt like I needed to do it for some inner compulsive reason.  I took to it pretty well, the amp broke down on the first gig and Ade took about 20 minutes fixing it.  I had no sustain pedal, and David Keys (thanks David) mentioned that it might be a good idea to get one.  Despite these handicaps I still enjoyed the gig in a nerve-wracked kind of way.   Flowers in the Window stayed in the set and we played it every gig, people loved it.  It was from the third LP by Travis, effortless pop brilliance from a Scottish four-piece gathered about the person of Fran Healy, songwriter and lead vocalist.

I’d bought the 2nd album The Man Who in 1999 with its gracious songwriting and harmonised easy pop  – Driftwood, Turn and the inescapable Why Does It Always Rain On Me?  There is a sweet jangly flow to their songs which sounds easy, but is rare in music, because it’s not as easy to write as it is to listen to.

The third album The Invisible Band came out in late 2001, with lead single Sing, but Flowers In The Window was in the charts as a single in April 2002.  I was playing it in the pub late in 2002 into early 2003.

Around this time we had a place in Los Feliz in LA, and went back and forth.    We’d found it through a contact of Gwen Wynne‘s.  It was the top floor of a rambling mansion at the bottom of beautiful Griffith Park, right on the corner of Western Avenue and Los Feliz Boulevard.  We were in the treetops, with squirrels, birds and magnificent butterflies as company.  Old school Los Angeles, wooden floors, tiled bathrooms, overgrown back garden that stretched back up the hill.  We could walk to the shops but we never did.  Our landlords, a lovely old Hollywood couple called Patrick and Alma Sexton, lived below us.  Patrick had Parkinsons Disease which caused mini-earthquakes to his left arm from time to time.  He also had a thin Clark Gable-esque white moustache on his top lip and a twinkle in his eye. He was the most charming cultured man.  Alma his wife was a naturalised Mexican, but you’d never know from superficial contact, only after she’d told us their story, and she was just a dear. We would walk down the stairs and hang out and talk with them from time to time, go out for meals now and again.  They would leave us a bottle of wine if we’d been away for a few weeks.  It was a dream house, expensive yes, but beautiful.  We had close friends Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading just down the road from us.  Convivial.  At that point we were essentially commuting between Brighton and LA.

Then early in 2003 Catherine Wearing‘s dad Michael asked me if I wanted to take a look at a rewrite on a project he was involved with producing.  Catherine was our friend from London days – us in Archway Rd, she in Finsbury Park and we stayed in touch regularly – she would come down to our Brighton parties, we would go up to hers for screenings of things she was producing for the BBC.  Michael Wearing had been a top producer at the Beeb since the late 70s and made his name with Edge Of Darkness and Boys From The Blackstuff, and carried on as Head of Series at the Beeb and Our Friends In The North.   He needed a writer, and bless her cotton socks, Catherine had suggested me.  I wasn’t brand new (don’t forget) – this was two years after New Year’s Day (see My Pop Life #75) was finally released (and seven years after it was written) and I’d also just finished writing a commissioned film about Howard Marks called High Times which despite being the finest screenplay I’ve ever created remains unmade.  And unpaid.  Another story.  So.  Michael and I had a meeting in London and he handed me a mess of a screenplay entitled Red Light Runners.  At its core was a brilliant film idea – but the script delivered nowt but cliches, risible dialogue and non-sequiturs.  I said I’d take a look.

The Groucho Club, 45 Dean St, London

A few weeks later I was sitting in a room at The Groucho Club pitching my version of the story to the producers: Michael, Nigel Warren-Green, Marcus Vinton and Mark O’Sullivan, and the director Nick Egan.  I was confident and, in retrospect, at 46 years old, at the top of my game.  Flowers In The Window.  I think it may have been peak Brown to be honest.  April 2003.  I had been a member of Groucho since 1989.  I’d just done a film in Morocco and Rome with Paul Schrader, my own band were learning Pet Sounds after being inspired by the Brian Wilson resurgence, my nephew Thomas Jules had just been in the charts with his pop band 3rd Edge.  Supergrass and Cate Blanchett lived down the road.   The music of 2002 had been all positive (no it wasn’t said Skippy) – Groove Armada, Justin Timberlake, Queens Of The Stone Age, Norah Jones, Flaming Lips, Electric Soft Parade, Common, N.E.R.D.   Live LPs from Ben Folds and Brian Wilson, the latter almost a miracle moment.  And I’d done my first TV show in Los Angeles in 2002 – The Agency for CBS, only one episode, but I felt that I existed on many planes of existence and that all was well.   Not all – that’s impossible, because I have bipolar disturbance which means that anxiety goes up and down, anger rages around then turns to depression, regardless of pubs and other distractions.  But if I’m working, I don’t usually have time to be depressed.  Futile perhaps, but not usually the full darkness.  This was as good as it gets.

Travis

I felt the meeting had gone well.  I’d come up with a decent new plot involving an ex-CIA gay Fagin-esque priest in London, a manhunt, and yardie gangs all circulating what was essentially a heist in the British Museum.  A phone call from Michael confirmed I was to rewrite the screenplay.  We agreed a fee and I was flown down to Cannes that May to meet Michael Madsen complete with black cowboy boots and cultivated ‘cousin-of-elvis’ image.  He was already cast as Killian.  And Michael Casey – the money.  The hype had started.  Talk of sponsors, money, meals, champagne, everything was free.  To those who can afford it of course.

Michael, Nick and I sat down and thrashed out some wrinkles together in Cannes and in London, and then it was down to me to produce something.

Looking down Western Avenue from Los Feliz Boulevard

Later that May Jenny and I flew to Los Angeles and I sat down in the Los Feliz treetops at the desk we had just bought and I wrote my version of Red Light Runners.  This often meant lighting up a spliff at 8 in the morning with my coffee – because I write best in the morning.  And in those days, I wrote best on spliff.  The spliff undoes knots in the plot, speeds things up a bit.  Unblocks the stupid fucking brain.  There was usually a sag, a dip, a plunge, a decline in the mid-afternoon, which is organic and natural, so we’d go out shopping or something, or sit on the sun terrace in the treetops then I’d get back on it at 6pm through to sundown or later.  On a fucking roll.  Such a great feeling when the top of your head becomes a huge funnel into which the universe is pouring itself, everything now and ever is grist to your particular subjective all-encompassing mill.  I’ve felt it about a dozen times in my life so far, and it is thrilling, fulfilling and magical.  WRITING.  I don’t actually know why I’ve carried on acting when the writing is so Right, but perhaps it will become clear.   At some point we had dinner on Sunset Strip with Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais the British writing team who created The Likely Lads and Porridge among other gems.  They were introduced to us by Neil Morrissey who was in LA with his new girlfriend Emma Killick, talking to Dick and Ian about writing a film called Baker Street.   Dick Clement in particular was charming and twinkly, and shared this nugget with me, and he was serious : “Never tell the producers how long it takes you to rewrite a scene“.  I agreed with him.  We remembered (although neither of us were there) the old writing rooms in the Hollywood Studios in the 1940s when the writers had to sit at their desks from 9-5 every day churning it out.  So I won’t tell you how long it took me to write Red Light Runners.  And I won’t tell you how much I got as an advance either.  But I delivered the screenplay later that spring.  And it was, within months, greenlit. We were up and running.

And although my special talent in life is to find the worst in any situation, to be in-un-endingly half-empty, to seek out the meaningless darkness behind a beautiful sunset, I will resist that instinct for once and allow that moment to be perfect.   I think Flowers In The Window is probably the happiest song I know.   It’s so hard to be happy isn’t it ?

My Pop Life #119 : Evidently Chickentown – John Cooper Clarke

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The Pest   –   John Cooper Clarke

The bloody scene is bloody sad
The bloody news is bloody bad
The bloody weed is bloody turf
The bloody speed is bloody surf
The bloody folks are bloody daft
Don’t make me bloody laugh
It bloody hurts to look around
Everywhere in chicken town
The bloody train is bloody late
You bloody wait you bloody wait
You’re bloody lost and bloody found
Stuck in fucking chicken town

*

Convivia

Dinner with Godber, lunch with Bob Pugh

Feed me a diet of Good Men and True

Late in the evening, drinking my wedge

Slurping the Guinness smoking Benson & Hedge

Spotting a hero, meeting a Ledge

*

John Godber I’ve known since 1978 and the Edinburgh Festival 2nd attempt

18-stone Yorkshireman beef on his plate, and pen in his hand, hair slightly unkempt

Fast forward nigh on 40 years or so we’re now both nearly 60 with buzzcuts and show

Sharing stories of Corbyn & Allam & dough, over breakfast at Hope Street with daughter in tow

In the corner hunched over his mushrooms on toast a poet of England (I don’t like to boast)

Dr John Cooper Clarke and his man Johnny Green, I decide not to bother them, exit the scene.

So to work, up in Crosby where down on the shore, there’s Anthony Gormley‘s ghost figures & more

looking out to the line where the sea meets the sky a salute to infinity stretching my eye

meanwhile back in my rabbit hutch, one third of space,  I climb into costume, rearrange my face

suddenly I become – from ungrateful fat wretch : an old school left winger (not much of a stretch)

Transformed I eat lunch with the writer Bob Pugh (co-writer with Jimmy McGovern it’s true)

He is one of the family since 2005 when Thomas met Scarlett and the love became live

Fast forward nine years and Skye has been born, a blessing on all of us now a new dawn

A new day a new life a young baby so precious to Bob and to me – both grandparents bless us

So onto the set and the hustle the story, representing the soldiers who died in Iraq

Tim Roth plays Reg Keys in his humble true glory standing up to the Blair the scumbag the Tory

The election in 2005 is the story and the names of the fellas who never came back.

The day is a good one we all say goodnight and I’m taken to Hope Street and to my delight

The old Philharmonic is hosting a crowd of interesting types in the gathering shade

I walk past the stalkers & ask who is playing it’s John Cooper Clarke and it’s Squeeze – I’m up-made

I snaffle a ticket returned by a punter and walk straight inside to Clarkey’s Manc chunter

Delight is immediate, happy Ralph Brown and he closes with Evidently Chickentown

I jump back to Hope St and up in my room a puff on the pipe in the darkening gloom

Downstairs in the hotel the great intersection

Cillian Murphy arrives yet another connection

(we made Red Light Runners or rather – we didn’t;  the plug was pulled on it

– so fuck it – good riddance)

and Cillian knew Tim from way back when so a quick Guinness later I’m back in the pen

Glen Tillbrook, Chris Difford the magic of Squeeze, the hits and the new songs are written to please

an old pop tart like me who cannot resist the rise of a third the fall of a fifth

(and it goes like this the fourth the fifth the minor fall and the major lift)

and Tillbrook is drenched in classic vignette : sweet chords that you hum, lyrics never forget

by the way he can’t half play the bloody guitar he’s a musical genius bona fide star

I’m so happy to see them, I’d missed them before with Jools on the Piano three quid on the door:

Is That Love ’81 to Annie Get Your Gun, then Labelled With Love stands the hairs on their feet

And Tempted we stand clap along to the beat

A lump in my throat as my heart starts to function & there’s Clapham Common 

& there’s Up the Junction

Then quickly in line shake the hands of the band & it’s thanks very much there’s nothing to sign

Back in the hotel glowing and shiny there’s John Cooper Clarke again smoky and winey

I walk over say hi sit down and we chat have a fag and a laugh so how about that?

A day sent from heaven not burdened with trivia

A day of good people fine wines and convivia

A poem that contains a few words I made up

And if you don’t like reading it, make your own up

Written out in the spirit of John Cooper Clarke

A wordsmith, gentleman, doctor and lark

This morning at breakfast I met Johnny Green

His gentleman traveller, know what I mean ?

He managed The Clash and made the odd million

We reminisced about Hastings Pier Pavilion,

He then worked in Texas with Townes Van Zandt

Guy Clark, Willie Nelson – we had a good rant

and now I am back up ensconced in my room

Feeling lucky and happy and thankful to whom

I’ll just say in conclusion,  that John Cooper Clarke

Was played to me last week by colleague and spark

young Elliott Tittsenor rolling a cone

A fine young actor whose cover now blown,

Can bill me a spliff whenever he pleases

(I hope when he reads this he knows who Squeeze is)

The coincidental tight circles we move in

the shrinking world the connection degrees

Talk to young people as you age to keep grooving

And life will still feel like bloody good wheeze

So I’ve written some doggerel scribbled some shite, the kids’ll be happy the kids are all right

Dinner with Godber, lunch with Bob Pugh

Feed me a diet of Good Men and True

then late in the evening, drinking my wedge

Slurping the Guinness smoking Benson & Hedge

Spotting a hero, meeting a Ledge

Dr John Cooper Clarke – and thank you to REG

*

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Bob Pugh, standing and director David Blair, no relation

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Anthony Gormley figures, Crosby Beach, 5th Sept 2015

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Bob Clay (me) and Richard Keys (Elliott Tittsenor) working on REG

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convivia with John Cooper Clarke outside the Hope St Hotel

My Pop Life #61 : Fight The Power – Public Enemy

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Fight The Power   –   Public Enemy

…Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…

After another election night betrayal, another public display of democracy that makes you want to vomit, all we have left is “each other” people.  We have to fight the powers that be.  England will kick off this summer, once again, the familiar ritual of burning and brick throwing.  Once again Labour has failed to appeal to its core constituency and some of them have voted Green, others UKIP, still others Conservative. Many others didn’t vote at all.

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…What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless, you say what is this ?   My beloved lets get down to business, Mental self defence and fitness…

The greatest band to come out of the 1980s was Public Enemy.  PE burn with righteous fire against injustice, racism, the media, corruption, laziness, selfishness, privilege, ignorance.   They were one of the reasons that I became a writer in 1987.

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 When I heard their  first LP “Yo Bum Rush The Show” I was excited by power and truth combining with beats and rhyme, it was exciting and inspiring – but could not prepare me for the monster work of their 2nd LP “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” in 1988.  It was a tidal wave of sound and righteous fury and I couldn’t get enough of it.  I saw them twice live in London that year – or maybe two years running.  Brixton Academy ’87 – ’88.

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I went with Miss P who was directing my first as-yet-unwritten play and the cast of same as-yet-untitled play:  Rita Wolf (my girlfriend), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Gaylie Runciman, Pamela Nomvete and Carl Procter.  We were all researching a play about homelessness, to be expressed at least partly through hip hop.  That’s how it was pitched to the Joint Stock Steering Committee “led by” Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford-Clark.   The resultant play was called “Sanctuary“, directed by Paulette Randall and designed by Jenny Tiramani, and it won me the Samuel Beckett Award 1987 for best first play.

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Leader, writer and inspiration behind Public Enemy Chuck D is now an elder in the rap world.  In 1987 he was a revelation.  His lyrics, his delivery, his fury, his tone are all second to none.  I don’t think technically he is the best rapper – that honour goes to Rakim for me – but Rakim pretty much sticks to one subject ie: what a great rapper Rakim is.  Chuck D and PE cover the waterfront.   DJ Terminator X was also scratching records in ways unheard of at that point, not just samples, but noise pure and simple, and the production team of Hank & Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler “The Bomb Squad” invented a whole new vocabulary of sound : screeching, chopped up quotes from many sources, layered, punchy, visceral and powerful.  The genius addition of Flavor Flav, the joker in the pack, wearing a huge clock “so you know what time it is” and chirruping support from the sidelines (“yeeeah boyeee“) made the package complete – a black gang to take on the white establishment and kick it in its holy nuts.

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Hence the Elvis/John Wayne quote above.   Deliberately provocative, it comes from a lifetime of being a second-class citizen in a first-world nation.   The pure anger in their work becomes a creative force in itself, and the potency of Fight The Power, (taken from album number three Fear Of A Black Planet which should have been released in 1989 but eventually appeared in 1990) has not been matched by any protest song or rallying cry ever recorded.  It is a seriously pumped-up rhythm, sampling James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Syl Johnson and 16 other tracks in a huge sound which was ubiquitous that summer of 1989 when it soundtracked Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and the hot summer in Brooklyn kicking off.

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In 1989 I was still in full B-Boy mode.  I’d adopted the hip-hop look in 1987 when the sounds and culture of rap bowled me over.   I had written an American version of Sanctuary that summer called Sanctuary D.C., researched and set in Washington DC.   And I had the genesis of a new piece forming, all in verse, commissioned by the BBC.   George Faber it was who asked me in early 1990 to write something in rap from that culture, I was the white emissary from the front line.   I came up with a rhyme play called The House That Crack Built, set in Washington DC and based on the street life I had experienced there in the summer of 1989, the summer of Do The Right Thing.  I nearly got stabbed in D.C. outside a downtown men’s shelter when my bicycle was surrounded by homeless guys who wanted to know what I was doing.  “you’re a european” one of them accused.  “How did you know?” I answered with naive foolishness “I’m English“.  He meant I was white.  There were 20 of them around me, one guy circling the outside giving me glimpses of a large knife inside his coat.  He looked insane.  I spoke sincerely about my desire for a colour-blind future and they probably pitied my twattishness and let me cycle off.  My general foolhardy youthful naivitée probably saved me a few times that summer, researching the American version of my English hit play.  Chatting to crack dealers on the wrong corner.  At night.  But somehow I got away with it.

Back in London 1990, George Faber didn’t get the play I’d delivered at all.  He asked me to produce a week’s workshop and show him a handful of scenes.  I’d anticipated this, and hired a handful of actors who had to prove they could rap in a brief audition.  My lead was the amazing Roger Griffith, one of my favourite actors.  His buddy was played by Michael Buffong, now a first-rate prize-winning director at The National theater, Royal Exchange and Talawa.  Mum was ‘Dame’ Dona Croll of course, whose five-year old daughter had just arrived from Jamaica – so cute – with best friend Jo Martin, the bad guy was Calvin Simpson, who tragically died shortly after the workshop, a lorry knocking him off his bicycle on Waterloo roundabout.  That was a terribly sad funeral.   We filed past the open casket in church, and he was so dead.    I remember him as a great actor and a man who insisted on wearing odd socks.  Years ahead of his time.   Chris Tummings and Jenny Jules completed the cast, but Jenny got a bad asthma attack and was hospitalised and had to be recast at the last minute.  Did Pamela Nomvete fill the breach?  Ashamed to say I can’t remember….but I think so….anyway we worked hard all week, bringing a few scenes to life, learning how to rap in dialogue.   It worked really well, rap is naturally really dramatic and perfect for stage or dramatic work – it’s not unlike Shakespeare or Greek drama.  But Faber and his small BBC gang who came to watch on the Friday afternoon (including his secretary – his barometer) didn’t get it.  He had a meeting with me the week after and said “why is it set in America?“,  I said “Because there’s no crack scene in the UK“.   He said “well change the drug then“.  The casual lazy sweeping generalisation.  Crack was different to every drug I’d ever come across.   Totally.  His well-meaning liberal racism was shocking in the end.  “We brush past these people in the street every day – what do they feel?“.    So depressing.   The piece wasn’t taken forward, and has never been produced anywhere.   If it was mounted now it would be proper old skool rap history, all about Bush and Amerikkka.

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Years later in 2003 I was on the set of another aborted project which I’d written – a film called Red Light Runners.  Bits of it are online somewhere.  Long bitter story – for another post.  That was the experience that stopped me writing.  Bookend contribution.  I was talking to Tricky, who was in our cast, about Fight The Power since he had covered the Public Enemy track Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos on his first album rather brilliantly with Martina Topley-Bird sing-songing the rap lyrics.   We were sitting on the top deck of a bus waiting for something or other to happen.  Probably filming at Centrepoint ?  Anyway, I asked him about the exact quote at the top of the page about Elvis Presley, and we went on to talk about how brilliant Elvis was, especially in the early days.  Elvis was a hero to me, but so were Public Enemy.  I didn’t have a problem with that but I couldn’t quite articulate why.   But I trust Chuck D.  We agreed he was a provocateur and stirring the shitpot.  There’s always been debate about the good ole boy Elvis and how he treated black people, but you’ll need to listen to the ’68 comeback tapes to get the rest of that story.  Racist – in the sense that any kid from Memphis was racist in 1954 – probably.  But Racist with a capital R – no, don’t believe it.  He melded black and white music together.  He listened to gospel music on the radio and loved it, mixed it with hillbilly music.  Elvis = no racist.  But the racial divisions of America are so deep and so scarred that you can see them from the moon, and Chuck D and PE needed to hold up white icons in order to shoot them down.   It’s a polemic.   It’s a position.

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Chuck has since blurred the quote : on the LP it’s scarcely audible.   You can hear it on the original single, and the film soundtrack clear as a bell however.  Its impact was huge.   They always flirted with controversy, particularly in the shape of Minister of Information Professor Griff, who left PE after an unfortunate quote about Jewish people, but at their heart they are fundamentally about telling the truth to power.

We all have to carry on, despite defeats, setback and disappointments.  What choice do we have?  In the late 80s, Public Enemy were the soundtrack to change.  They still are.  Live – I’ve seen them five times – they are astonishing, nowadays using a live band and covering songs like Edwin Starr’s “War”.   The retain all their power and urgency.  For what, if anything, has changed ?

clip from Do The Right Thing :