My Pop Life #32 : Everything I Own – Johnny Nash

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Everything I Own   –   Johnny Nash

…you sheltered me from harm…kept me warm, kept me warm…

October 1974 in East Sussex.   I’m in the final year at Lewes Priory, doing A-levels in English, Geography and Economics, we’d successfully abolished school uniform in the Upper School (5th and 6th forms), I was playing in a school band called Rough Justice with kids from my year – Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, and Andy Shand – and Tigger on drums, (who I only saw at band practice and knew nothing about.)   I was going out with Conrad’s sister Miriam and spending most of my time in their house Waterlilies just below Kingston Ridge where the band practiced.  Home though, was 25 miles away in Hailsham where my mum was struggling to raise 3 teenage boys and a young daughter of two (my sister Rebecca) on her own.  The threat of a nervous breakdown always hovered over her, and us, the cupboard of tablets above my chair in the kitchen, always at arm’s length;   I knew what they all were, but never ever took one even for curiosity.   I was taking my own drugs, notably cider, LSD and red Leb or Afghani black, and I wasn’t going to dabble in hers.   There would be a crisis from time to time and Mum would disappear for two weeks into Amberstone Hospital and we would run the house ourselves – at 17 I didn’t need to be farmed out to the Ryles, or the Korners, or the Smurthwaites, or the Lesters – all schoolmate’s homes where I’d found shelter over the previous 6 years.   Maybe that’s why this song pinged so hard that autumn.   Maybe it was my love song for Miriam and her family, the Ryles, who had been hugely generous to me and given me a safe haven and even come to visit Mum on one occasion since dad Tony Ryle was a psychiatrist working at Sussex University.   Or maybe, just maybe Everything I Own was just the perfect pop song.

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It’s certainly that.  It’s a lover’s rock cover of a song by David Gates of US band Bread that doesn’t bother with the 2nd verse and repeats the delicious middle eight twice (“If there’s one thing you know…”) over a light reggae backing and a simple vocal harmony.   But there is something eternal about it, perhaps bottled in my teenage memory as a moment of safety and warmth among the strange inchoate horrors of growing up, perhaps in fact I was a happy teenager, not carrying a cross at all until later when I looked back at those supposedly dysfunctional years.   I really can’t remember, but I know Mum wanted me home more than I was, and that there was a sense of Paul and Andrew, my brothers, having “their turn” at dealing with the doctors and the tablets.

On the radio :  David Essex, Barry White, Mud, ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’.  On my stereo in the bedroom :  Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, Spirit, Roxy Music, David Bowie and The Beatles.  But Jamaican music was always in the charts in those days, from My Boy Lollipop and Israelites through to Double Barrel and Young, Gifted and Black.   But we didn’t really consider them reggae to be honest.   They were pop music.

Featured imageCapstan Full-Strength, 10 Number 6, Sunday paper round, Reading Festival, hitch-hiking to Brighton and Virgin Records, playing football Saturday mornings for the school, half an ounce of Golden Virginia and a packet of green papers for Mum.   The seventies.   Dad a train journey away in Eastbourne, just married again.   Mum was already divorced again.

These were the days of “Ralph, Paul…………..and Andrew”  the legendary firm of local solicitors where the junior partner had his own bedroom and would always play in goal in the large field outside the back door, where Paul and Ralph would fire the ball at him from long distance and point-blank range.   The days when a package would be delivered by Postman Pat, an advert answered from the back pages of Melody Maker, a pair of loons with a note signed “Peace…Jud”.   The days when all holes in jeans were to be welcomed as the basis for a new patch, sewn on by Mum of course, where shirts were tear-dropped and shoes were stacked, but where tops were tie-dyed or embroidered,  and patchouli oil and hemp became normal smells, although Miriam wore Diorella and I was probably toying with Old Spice.

We liked this song in 532 Salternes Drive (33 Newton Park) on the Sin City estate in Hailsham because – like Days by the Kinks or Cottonfields by the Beach Boys or You Are Everything by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross, we could sing in harmony together.   The simple pleasures.

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My Pop Life #10 : Slavery Days – Burning Spear

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Slavery Days   –  Burning Spear

…do you remember the days of slavery?…

Andy Cornwell was a tall, white, loon-trousered, cooler-than-thou dude with an blond afro and teardrop glasses who ran the London School Of Economics ENTS group in the late 70s.  I was studying Law in between going to gigs, smoking dope and listening to music.  We all lived up by the Post Office Tower in Fitzroy Street in halls of residence and while we listened to DJ John Peel religiously and the punk wave that was sweeping through England, we also found reggae was just as likely to be on the turntable.

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Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey was the big record, and the dubplate version Garvey’s Ghost was even better;  The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, Augustus Pablo, Marley, Dennis Brown, we couldn’t get enough.  And the local scene was strong too – partly thanks to the championing by John Peel – Steel Pulse, Black Slate and Aswad were all setting the place alight.  There was revolution in the air from all sides, and the musicians tapped into it and magnified it.  So there we were, Andy and I, 2 of the twelve white people in the building, walking down the stalls of The Rainbow, Finsbury Park, clutching our tickets for our hero.  We were in J11 and 12.  There was a man sitting in J12.  We showed him our tickets.  He didn’t even look at them.  A white security guard noticed there was an issue and asked to see our tickets. We showed him. He shone his torch at the black dude in J12.  “OK, wait there, I’ll get Spear’s security”  Off he goes. The place is filling up now. Aswad – our reggae band (they’ve already played LSE twice or three times in my first year) – have played the support slot and gone down very well.  Now the place is expectant and charged for the real thing – the Jamaican reggae – the roots rastafarian from St Annes parish – and here’s two white students standing up – IN THE WAY.  A large muscled rasta with a beard and radio shines his torch down. “Lemme see your tickets please”. He tries to take them but some primal instinct kicks in and we keep hold.  “When you buy these tickets?”  Can’t remember what we said.  “These tickets upsteers, we sold out and sold dem all again”.  No, I said, we’re not moving upstairs, we’re sitting here.  The man in J12 sits facing forward unblinking. He somehow isn’t asked for his ticket.  Then further down the row, Spear’s security turns his attention to – another white couple, sitting down  “You two – you got to move upsteers”.  They spurn this offer and people behind us start to shout “SIDDOWN MAN” as the lights go down and the electrically charged atmosphere starts to prickle and crackle and the noise becomes a tidal wave.  Andy crouches improbably down in front of the me as half of my arse twists onto the seat and onto the stage comes dreadlocked Winston Rodney, Burning Spear himself and the place erupts.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the great great gigs of my life, spiced with that build up and introduction – but wait – Spear’s band : the drummer, the bass player, the guitarist, the backing vocals, the keys – were ASWAD !!  This was so ridiculously impressive that they could play the support slot then, having presumably learned all of Burning Spear’s songs that week, actually play his music as he prowls around the stage, a magnetic righteous figure in red gold and green.

When he growled the words “Do You Remember The Days Of Slavery?” the crowd leaped to their feet and punched the air.  It was the first time in my life that I felt like a white man.  Clearly I’d led a privileged existence up to that point, but in a sea of angry black fists at least we were standing up, and stayed that way for the rest of the show.  J12 man stood too.  Weird thinking about it now, but I guess Spear was his hero too and he wanted to be down the front.  I will never forget that gig, and Burning Spear remains in my top five LP choices anytime someone asks for them.  Garvey’s Ghost since you ask. Why ?  Because it is actually perfect.

the dub from Garvey’s Ghost :  I and I Survive