My Pop Life #190 : There You Are – Millie Jackson

There You Are – Millie Jackson

Shucks, I thought this party was gonna be really hitting on something
Ain’t nothing around here but a bunch of women, nobody to dance with
Every man that looks like anything already been taken
Sho’ can’t trust nobody to tell you where to go these days
Uh oh…..

…hmm Lord, have mercy…

I was 20 years old when I discovered Millie Jackson. And she blew my tiny white boy mind.  No, I didn’t meet her, could’ve been fatal.  I bought an LP entitled Caught Up – I cannot remember why or how I came to know about it.  I was in my soul music educational phase playing catch-up on a lifetime’s diet of Pop Music with the occasional prog rock interlude (Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf) mixed with some Pure Prairie League and Joe Walsh and Spirit with a smattering of Roxy Music, Carly Simon and Joan Armatrading.  You could drive a truck through the gaps – jazz, soul, reggae, classical, african, indian, country, blues, the works really.  I was at least aware of my limited palette and spent all of my spare pocket money on records.  LPs and 45s.  I was living in London with Norman Wilson, Lewis MacLeod and Derek Sherwin and we were all at LSE in the Aldwych so opportunities were many, a stroll down to Berwick Street or D’Arblay St in Soho would leave me flicking through endless LPs I’d never heard of, desperate to spend my student grant.  One of the winners was Millie Jackson.

This LP, as I say, blew me away.  On the cover, Millie Jackson caught in a spider’s web, with a man, and another woman.  The music was soul music with spoken interludes, told from the viewpoint of the mistress and the spoken word sections – notably The Rap which is track two, right after the classic If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Wanna Be Right) – are quite extraordinary.  Tired Of Hiding is also on side one – what a song that is.  Her personality comes breaking out of the speakers, larger than life, mouthy, opinionated, funny, dirty, defiant, honest, truthful. Magnificent.  There’s a section in The Rap, and you have to hear it really because it’s the way she delivers it that kills me, in a sassy Georgia accent via Brooklyn and Jersey :

You know, I don’t wanna leave you with a one-sided conception over this thing.
Anyone out there in my shoes this evening, I want you to know what I’m talking about.
I want you know there’s two sides to this thing.
There’s a good side to being in love with a married man and I like it.
‘Cause you see, when you’re going with a married man, he can come over two or three times a week and give you a little bit.
That means you’re two up on the wife already, ’cause once you’ve married one, you don’t get it but once a week.
Another sweet thing is on pay day, he can come over and give you a little bread and I like that.
But the sweetest thing about the whole situation is the fact that when you go to the Laundromat, you don’t have to wash nobody’s funky drawers but your own and I like it like that

Call me sheltered but it was just something I’d never encountered before.  Growing up in leafy East Sussex I wasn’t aware that I’d met a single black person until I got to the LSE.  A couple of Mauritian nurses at Laughton Lodge, a Brazilian kid at school, Ugandan asians billeted in Lewes, but that was about it.  It was like a doorway into a world I knew nothing about.  It got under my skin clearly.   But it wouldn’t be until 1984 and Panic! at the Royal Court with Danny Boyle and Paulette Randall that I would have a genuine close friend who was black.

The album finishes with a cover of the timeless Bobby Goldsboro ballad Summer (The First Time) with that sexy piano riff and a whispery sexy lead vocal about Millie losing her virginity on the last day of June.  Genuinely Hot Stuff !

The follow-up LP was called Still Caught Up – the cover has a soulful portrait of Millie wearing a 1970s hippy hat.  This follow-up is mainly from the point of view of the wife, with the same scintillating soul-bearing honesty, more like a bulletin from the front line of the sex wars than a soul LP.  Again, spoken word over the orchestrated lush soul section dominates the experience, vengeful, furious, telling it like it is.   Recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama like its predecessor, these two records are classic soul moments which take no prisoners, raunch-rap long before Mary J. Blige or Salt’n’Pepa.  She is a little like a female Barry White or Isaac Hayes but Millie is actually way more original and unique than either of these fellas.  A storyteller.   Still Caught Up finishes with the married woman alone – she’s lost her husband to the other woman on I Still Love You (You Still Love Me) – and it’s a heartfelt tearful slow ballad which finishes in a mental hospital, I kid you not.  No prisoners are taken.  I was hooked by this woman, and bought three more albums before being led astray by other music – 1979’s A Moment’s Pleasure with the opening track Never Change Lovers In The Middle OF The Night and a big dirty live LP called Live and Uncensored which is a record of Millie Jackson’s massive presence in a live arena, something which I regret to never having experienced.

This song comes from Free And In Love, released in 1976.  Not considered in the high echelons like the previous two albums (or the three that preceded them in the early 1970s) it nevertheless contains one of my favourite songs of all time : There You Are.  Again Millie tells us a story, about being at a club, with no decent-looking men available when – uh-oh….

……There You Are…..

Looking like a king and everything…

So in my and Jenny’s favourite section, she turns to Helen for a sister’s help…

Hey, Helen, the fella standing over there on the corner
Do you know his name? Oh, you do… Jimmy?
Would you introduce me to him?
…See, that’s why I don’t like to go nowhere with you
What kind of friend are you?
That’s alright, wait ’til the next time you want somebody to hang out with you
You’re gonna hang out by yourself, ’cause I’m gonna be with Jimmy


So she introduces herself to Jimmy, and the rest is history and herstory. One of her greatest vocal performances, not cynical and whip-smart like much of Caught Up, just open-heart surgery soul music.

We introduced our friend Jimmy Lance to this tune back in the day when we all lived in Brighton.  Oh how we laughed.

Eight years after I first heard Millie Jackson and carried her around in my secret heart like an unspoken, unthought-of sexual fantasy, I was working at The Tricycle Theatre on Kilburn High Road on a show called Return To The Forbidden Planet, by Bob Carlton.  It was a rock’n’roll version of The Tempest set in outer space, loosely based on the 1956 sci-fi B-movie.  All the actors had to sing and play something, and they needed a saxophone.  I auditioned for Hereward Kaye, the MD, and Glen Walford the director (who would a short year later put me off live theatre for 20 years when I played Macbeth in Liverpool Everyman (see My Pop Life #108)).  I did OK.  I got cast as the bo’sun.  We rehearsed and I learned Good Vibrations from Herry, keys and backing vocals, played bass on another song, drums on another song, it was one of those shows where we swapped instruments for effect.  We opened sometime in the spring of 1985.  Mumtaz and I were on our last legs in the Finsbury Park flat (even though tragically she was back in Karachi buying me two wedding shalwar-kamiz behind her parent’s backs) and I was driving to work across the top of Hampstead Heath in my Hillman Minx.   At some point in this process I started rehearsing for the Joint Stock show Deadlines in the daytime hours (see My Pop Life #185) then travelled to the Trike to do the show in the evenings – pretty full on – and I had to stop drinking even a half-pint of beer because it made me feel that my Hepatitus was on the rise again, contracted in Mexico in 1981. I was stretched to the physical limit in other words and my body was letting me know.

When it came to opening night of Planet at the Trike, the actors were told that we had to circulate in the bar with the audience, offering them travel-sickness pills (sweets) and generally hyping up the spacecraft they were about to board (the auditorium, the show).  So we did.  I have no pictures from this part of my life but I guess I was about 28 years old and still had most of my hair.  I walked around the bar slightly reluctantly engaging with the punters – I am incredibly shy.  In fact, I’m not a natural cabaret-type person like the lead actors Mathew Devitt and Nicky .  What this means is that when something goes wrong, they step in and acknowledge the moment, sharing with the audience the unfortunate events and telling off-colour jokes to fill the space.  In fact I could swear that Mathew found these “live” moments his favourite parts of the show.  It’s light entertainment I suppose – or cabaret.  Or stand-up, which hadn’t quite taken off in London at this point but was hovering in the wings waiting to take over.  I was never any good at any of it until I had to be.

So I struggled nightly with these pre-show chores, engaging with the audience as an actor, in character, speaking in an american accent I think.  As I heard the final announcement to “get on board” I swept the final punters out like a good sheepdog then left the bar and rounded the corner into the foyer and

>>>**BAM**<<<

There she was.  Lookin’ like a queen and everything.  There you were.

My future wife.  Looking like Millie Jackson.  Just a little bit.  An usherette.  Tearing tickets.  I just stopped.  A vision.  Of loveliness.  Of love.

We just looked at each other, maybe said “hi” and then I went in, and walked upstairs, for I had a show to do and my entrance was climbing down from the balcony onto the stage.  I didn’t know what had just happened, but it was

a moment.

Hurts so good just wouldn’t start to cover it.  It was electricity.  It’s a reasonably long story in the end.  We saw each other – in the corridor – a few times after that, but people in the theatre warned her off me and it wasn’t to be, it was too complicated all round.  It wouldn’t actually be until 1988 that we finally had a date together, just across the road from the Tricycle in a restaurant called Le Cloche.  That’s for another post I guess.

And… here we are.

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My Pop Life 108 : Sumer Is Icumen In

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Sumer is Icumen in   (Summer Is A Coming In)  –  traditional

sumer is icumen in ludu sing cucu

bloweth sed and groweth med and springst the wood anew

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summer is a coming in, loudly sing ‘cuckoo’

Seeds blow, meadows grow, the trees are sprouting anew..

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Old old song.   It appears in one of the world’s most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978.   Written in 13th-century England, (c1275), probably by the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question also contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map, medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs.   

But the key text is this one :  the Featured imageMiddle English rota “Sumer Is Icumen In“, a composition for six voices to be sung in the round, written in square notation on a five-line red stave.

The manuscript is the oldest known musical round (rota) with English words.  Singers, however, can choose between the Middle English lyrics in black ink which celebrate the arrival of spring and the rising of the sap, or the lyrics in Latin (Perspice Christicola) written in red ink which are religious.  The tune remains the same.  This double version was not unusual in those days.  A straight holy song and an earthy secular song using the same tune.  Which came first ? We shall probably never know.

I first heard this song in a rehearsal room in Liverpool in 1986.   I’d finished Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre (written by Bob Carlton, started life at Liverpool Everyman)  in the spring of 1985, and then talked the director Glen Walford into casting me as the lead in Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman the following year.   I walked up the stairs to her Old Compton St flat in Soho and said I wanted to play the tragic Scottish king.    It was a fateful move.    Little did I know that the entire experience would put me off doing theatre forever.

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After Macbeth, which is one of the nightmare memories of my life as an actor, I did one more play at the RSC in London, then there is a gap of nearly 20 years before I decided to do Mike Packer‘s brilliant punk comedy The Dysfunkshonalz at The Bush Theatre in 2009.  And I don’t see myself treading the boards again anytime soon.  No, the very woman who had seen something in me to allow me to play the lead in Macbeth with no previous experience of playing Shakespeare, was the same woman who would drive me out of the theatre with her ugly working methods and foul personality.   She wouldn’t allow any of the actors to hold the script during rehearsal – she would read the lines out loud and we had to copy her.   Loudly.  It was murder.  When I asked her at what point do Lady Macbeth and her husband decide to kill King Duncan? she answered “Don’t keep bothering me with all that psychological bollocks“.    I felt isolated from the rest of the cast who were almost all acolytes of hers, although they bore me no ill-will, I moved out of my digs into the Adelphi Hotel and spent the entire rehearsal period trying to learn the lines in my hotel room, and making a scrapbook for Rita Wolf my girlfriend.   I did actually call my agent Michael Foster during rehearsal and said perhaps I should drop out of the production.  I was hating everything.   He advised me not to, so I just buckled down and got on with it.

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Once we’d opened I took back the performance line by line, night by night.  Walford would give us all notes in the afternoons, but I stopped listening and ploughed my own lonely furrow.  It was already a high enough peak to climb and somehow I’d doubled it by falling out with the director, and isolating myself from most of the cast.   Much joy was had when one of the weird sisters fell ill and couldn’t go on, so Glen the director had to appear in costume and make-up as a witch.   The fear in her eyes when she spoke to me onstage was like sweet nectar from heaven.

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Many Liverpool actors came to see the performance and hated it, and me.    Ken Sharrock, a scouser and one of my mates from Berkoff’s “West” also came and told me that he couldn’t see what I was doing.   Until I came to the front.  “She’s done you Ralph, she’s taken your confidence” he said.   I carried on improving.   My feelings for Liverpool were not affected – I love the city, my favourite in the UK.    And it didn’t affect my feelings for the play either – my favourite Shakespeare.   It just all should have been better.   My father came across from Huddersfield towards the end of the run when I’d pretty much reclaimed the role for myself in its entirety and he enjoyed my performance and was proud of me.   That’s all I needed to make it all feel worthwhile.   At the last-night party the director got drunk enough to tell me that “people come here to see my productions, not to watch some Joint Stock actor wanking about onstage“.    But strangely this particular post is a happy memory of that time, perhaps because it is a musical one.

Awe blateth after lomb louth after calue cu

The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf

The musical director for ‘Macbeth‘ was Paddy Cunneen, a tall straggly bespectacled enthusiast who whipped our unruly gang of actors into musical shape.   His girlfriend Andrea Gibb (now a successful writer) was one of the weird sisters.   And one of the things Paddy did was teach us this song, using the Middle English as written above. We sang it every day.

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It’s a merry little tune and the words are faintly rude –  Sumer Is Icumen In is an important historical song but it is also famous for being the first written recorded example of the word fart in the English language.  In Olde Wessex English it is “averteth“.   Apparently  :

Bulluc sterteth buc averteth ludu sing cucu

Bullock prances, billy-goat farts, loudly sing cuckoo !

Actors love a dirty joke so once this had been translated we were all onside.   We sang it as a round every morning.  This is normal for companies in rehearsal – there are various warm-up techniques, bonding exercises and vocal flexes, and singing a round achieves all three at the same time.  Previous songs I’d sung in rehearsal room rounds were London’s Burning and Rose Rose Red.  Readers may remember Frére Jaques (one syllable per word in French but always pronounced Frerer Jaquer in English…) from primary school.

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I don’t actually have this song in my musical collection, but online trawling has given me a number of interpretations.  The Hilliard Ensemble sang it as a standard round and I’ll post it to illustrate the effect of singing it in the round, but it is very strangely sprightly, polite and bourgeouis.  I rather suspect ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson has much the better spirit when he sings it on his live LP 1000 Years Of Popular Music – track one, naturally.   A strange modern translation was provided by playwright Anton Shaffer in his screenplay for The Wicker Man (1973) and sung by the islanders as they burn Edward Woodward at the film’s pagan climax.  It’s a powerful cinematic moment.

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I find it rather fantastic that people are still singing a song which is probably 1000 years old.  It was a religious tune, a celebration of summer, and possibly a sexual innuendo (cuckoo being a multi-layered word in English).   It reflects a dark period in my life, but I take heart that even in these darkest hours, some light can shine.

The Hilliard Ensemble :

Richard Thompson :

The Wicker Man :

My Pop Life #65 : Wake Up Alone – Amy Winehouse

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Wake Up Alone   –   Amy Winehouse

He’s fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts
He floods me with dread
Soaked in soul
He swims in my eyes by the bed
Pour myself over him
Moon spilling in
And I wake up alone

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This is an incredible song from a deeply talented songwriter and singer who sadly left us at way too young an age.   She has many imitators, but none who can match her artistry.   I was working on a film called Tower Block on the day she died – 23rd July 2011 – with an accomplished gang which included Russell Tovey, Jack O’Connell, Julie Graham, Nabil Elouahabi, Kano, Montserrat Lombard, Jill Baker and Sheridan Smith.  Towards the end of the shoot I was suddenly aware that Sheridan was in floods of tears so I went over and asked her what was wrong.  “Amy” she said, “she’s gone“.  It was a terrible moment, and without further explanation I knew that she was dead.  Sheridan was one of her friends.  What an utter and tragic waste, that we all saw enacted in front of our eyes.

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In 1984 I did a play at the Tricycle Theatre in north London called Return To The Forbidden Planet.  I played the saxophone.  The MD was Hereward Kaye.

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In 2012 I was playing saxophone in The Amy Winehouse Experience at a music festival, with Hereward Kaye’s sons Joe and Rory Kaye, and my wife’s childhood friend Pippa.   Wait.  I’ll explain.

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Rewind to north west London and two young girls : one with St Lucian parents, one jewish, doing dance routines for their own imaginary TV show.  My wife Jenny was the black girl, her best friend was Philippa Randall.  They danced together, sang into hairbrushes, choreographed steps and roped in siblings to ‘assist’.   As the years went by they stayed in touch, Jenny became an actor, Pippa a nail technician.  When Jenny got married, all of Pippa’s family came, when Pippa got married to Tony, Jenny and I went.   When Jenny and Pippy’s Nanny Flo died, we all went to the funeral.   Then Philippa’s wonderful parents Roy and Robbie decided to move to Spain for their retirement.  Pippa and her Prince-lookalike husband Tony joined them.  We missed Pippa when she was in Spain but she seemed to like it there and flourished.  Her marriage wasn’t working though, despite two beautiful girls Tia Bliss and Lucy Bear.   After the inevitable split with Tony, Phillippa came back to the UK with her parents and 2 girls and her new man Joe Kaye, whom she’d met in southern Spain, and whose own parents were also very special, Hereward and Pat.   Yes, the same Hereward who’d been my musical director at the Trike.   The extended family moved back from the Costa Brava to Linfield, (just outside Haywards Heath a few miles north of Brighton) and Herry & Pat opened a Rock School nearby with Joe, who is  a very good guitarist and musician in his own right.

Now : Philippa just happens to be a spitting image of Amy Winehouse, a terrific singer, and being a North London jewess I guess all the pieces were in place.  The whole family had come to see The Brighton Beach Boys one night playing our big concert – Sgt Pepper v Pet Sounds and absolutely loved it.  Herry’s other son Rory is also a guitarist and now has his own band playing rock.  Joe and Philippa asked me to step in on sax for some gigs.  I was a huge fan of Amy, so I agreed.

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Then I had to learn the songs!  I had both LPs, “Frank” was a breath of fresh air in 2003 with it’s jazzy vibe, but certainly didn’t prepare us for Back To Black in 2006 which is quite simply a modern masterpiece.  Produced by Mark Ronson, with the analogue old-school New York soul band The Dap-Kings providing almost all the session musicians, as well as being her touring band in 2006, it was a perfect confluence of elements.  Every track is special.  And having had to learn them all for the horn parts, I can tell you that they have very unusual and intriguing chord sequences.  Take “Wake Up Alone” which is the best song on the album for me :

verse :       A     A    G#    G#    C#m   C#m    C     C

Emaj7   Emaj7    C#m   C#m   C    C    F#m   F  

bridge :         Dsus4      D     G     E7b9   x3

chorus :          C     Bm    E7b9

See what I mean ?   I’m joking – that’s for the musos reading.    But take my word for it – that’s a wonderful series of chords.  The lyrics are even better…

…That silent sense of content that everyone gets

Just disappears as soon as the sun sets…

It is a song of deep longing, unfulfilled.  Plenty of water references – he swims in my eyes by the bed is an incredible line,  Pour myself over him….  This is soul music,  as good as it gets.   I never did see Amy live, and I wish I had.   I know many who saw the slurring, shaky performances of those last few years.  Terribly terribly sad.  I prefer to remember her with the swaggering yet vulnerable poise of that incredible show from 2006 in Ireland, at the St James’ Church in Dingle on Dec 3rd, or the Shepherd’s Bush concert from the same year.   But I got great pleasure in playing her songs with a lovely tight band based around my friends, old and new and my wife’s  friend Pippa, giving her own trembling chutzpah and antsy tottering to the Winehouse legend, tattoos carefully drawn on, beehive in place, that dark trembling voice just about intact.

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A remarkable circle of life – Herry and I had played Good Vibrations on stage every night at the Tricycle, the show there, written by Bob Carlton, being a rock’n’roll musical of the sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which itself is a re-imaging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.   The notable thing about the Tricycle’s production of this show, (which originated at Bubble Theatre and went on to grace the West End), was that it introduced the novel idea of having black actors in the cast – the inhabitants of the magical island – this being part of the theatre’s brief, and their local audience.   Ram John Holder played Prospero, and found me a place to live since I was once again homeless as that show ended its run.  In a further spiral to this circle, my wife Jenny was schooled at the Tricycle Youth Theatre during the 80s, and is now on the Board of that great venue.   Jenny has also performed Amy – at a special celebration fundraiser for Nicholas Kent, who was artistic director of the Tricycle for many years – singing Love Is A Losing Game with Graham Kearns accompanying.  I’d love to have seen that, but I saw Jenny rehearsing it many times !

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 I only played a handful of gigs with the Amy Winehouse Experience, but it was worth it for the opportunity to get inside these tremendous songs.    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, in various incarnations – Amy Winehouse.

track 8 from Back To Black :

incredible live performance at Shepherd’s Bush :

The Amy Winehouse Experience live, 2012 :

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Amy-Winehouse-Experience/390986427614883