My Pop Life #188 : Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum

Spirit In The Sky   –   Norman Greenbaum

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

*

It is January 28th 1994.  Jenny and I are sitting in the front row of the back section of the Empire Leicester Square, reserved for the red carpet people for this Premiere of the film Wayne’s World 2.   All our guests are sitting in the front section.

I had shot the movie a few months earlier in Los Angeles.  At one point I’d been walking back to my trailer in full make-up and rig – quite a few hundred yards across the Festival site – and the producer, Lorne Michaels was walking toward me.  We both stopped to say hi, and after exchanging niceties I asked him if my name could be on the poster, since I’d never had my name on a poster before.  He agreed that it could.  Just like that.  And it was, which later annoyed Julie Burchill so much that she mentioned it in fury in one of her rants.  Haha.  It was exciting for me for the film to open so quickly, but my split life in California and London meant that I had no strategy to deal with the opening except to just turn up and enjoy it.  Looking back it now appears that this was a golden springboard that could (should?) have launched me onto another level, but I think that a) I thought that I was already on that level and b) I didn’t really strategise my work in those days.  I’ve never enjoyed publicity, PR, Q&A, EPK, red carpet, all that.  It’s like a completely different job to the one I do, and frankly I’m just not very good at it.  I should just try acting (dear blanche) probably.  But oftentimes I am number five or six on the cast list, which is just below where the important people are, and being overlooked has become part of my brief when films are publicised.  Which funnily enough I got used to.  Below the radar.  Not recognised when out and about.  And so on, and so forth.  But we’d had a little red carpet stuff, not much because there was Mike Myers, Jerry Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones and people like that at the Premiere and that’s how it always goes. So Jenny and I went into the foyer and were ushered into a wee room where we could sup champagne briefly before being taken in to our seats.  It was a huge thrill to be sure. The lights started to dim – or did they?  That moment in the cinema where you feel the light fading, and it doesn’t.  My agent Michael Foster was sitting in front of us and he turned around and his eyebrows were working overtime because..

Then Paul & Linda McCartney walked in and the whole place went apeshit.  People stood, cheered and whooped, rushed them, got held back by security.  Paul and Linda were shown to their seats NEXT TO US, and Paul turned to security and indicated that he would sign autographs for a few minutes, a kind of “let them through” moment.  And through they came, shaking hands, whooping, crying… and Linda started whooping herself, joining in, so did Paul “WOOOO” they said enjoying the fuss and attention, apparently.  People shook their hands, had things signed, took pictures (with real cameras – it’s 1994), and eventually security put an end to all the activities and got everyone back to their seats.  At which point Paul turned to us and they introduced himself : “Hi I’m Paul, this is Linda“.  No shit sherlock I thought but said: “Hi Paul, I’m Ralph this is Jenny“.   All done, now the lights went down for real and the film started.  Jenny and Linda shared popcorn.  It was one of those nights.

Wow right.  This was the man I had idolised since I was a boy.  I was now 37 years old.  I couldn’t quite take it all in but didn’t have to because now there was a film to watch.  Watching myself acting has become harder and harder for me over the years – and recently next-to-impossible.  I can’t explain it fully, except to say that I feel increasingly vulnerable, increasingly exposed & revealed as the years go by.  But in 1994 I didn’t have much of a problem with it to be honest.  Also – the character I was playing in Wayne’s World 2 – roadie Del Preston – was such a world away from me that I didn’t feel that exposed.  I think I became an actor to escape myself, and these kinds of parts have always been my favourite as a result.  The character was firmly based on Danny The Dealer from Withnail and I, shot almost ten years earlier in England and written about in My Pop Life #128 .   Long hair, tattoos, a slurred, brain-bombed voice, spouting curious drug-addled philosophy based on years of experience “on the road” with various “bands” so that the character had become a virtual stereotype of the vintage rock’n’roll hippy roadie.  It was a gift of a role, and in retrospect (always 20/20 hindsight) should have put me into some kind of opportunistic position.  In fact, I didn’t work much in 1994.  Odd.

The weird naked Indian

I enjoyed the film.  It was funny.  Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (who wasn’t at the London Premiere sadly) had a great onscreen schtick which had carried over from Saturday Night Live sketches – they knew these characters and what they could get away with, what their timing should be.  Against them were the beautiful Tia Carrere and Kim Basinger as the unattainable girlfriends who – against all odds – fall for our heroes, and Christopher Walken as the evil biz manager who wants to steal Wayne’s girl.  And me.  Del Preston – the old London roadie who can help Wayne and Garth put on ‘Waynestock‘, a pop festival in their home town of Aurora, Illinois.   And a plethora, a gamut, a menagerie, a rogue’s gallery indeed of characters, comedians, jokers, ne-er-do-wells and faces who have either disappeared entirely or become legend : Bob Odenkirk, James Hong, Lee Tergusen, Chris Farley, Charlton Heston, Harry Shearer, Jay Leno, Drew Barrymore.  It was good company to be in for sure.  We laughed a lot.  Gags. Jokes. Laffs. Foolishness.  I’ll blog the shooting of Waynestock later.  For this post, I’m watching…

Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen 

Then suddenly, the scene where I have to train Wayne and Garth and their buddies (including Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen) How To Be Roadies.  A series of faintly comic sketches pumping tennis balls at a stage while yanking over a microphone stand, an eve-of-battle talk for morale.  And over this sequence, the director Steve Surjik and producer Lorne Michaels had put this song : Spirit In The Sky by Norman Greenbaum.  A classic.  An evocative, original one-off, a truly great song.

Norman Greenbaum is Jewish and wrote this song – his only hit – presumably under the influence of mind-altering substances, given that it is a Christian gospel glam-rock anthem with a stunningly phased lead guitar, recorded, amazingly in 1969.  Some claim it as the record that started glam rock, which was a British scene in the early 1970s and included working class geezers in lipstick and make-up stomping around on stack heels to a solid 4/4 backbeat, often with hand-claps : bands such as The Sweet, Wizzard, Slade, Mud, Suzi Quattro, Gary Glitter and David Bowie himself trod this glorious path, but some years after this single was number one pretty much everywhere.  Or maybe I made that bit up.

Either way, there it was soundtracking my moment in the film.  I felt strangely moved at this point.  Like this really was a personal soundtrack for that character, and that situation.  I wonder now what other songs they tried out for that bit?

Tia Carrere & Christopher Walken

After the film Paul & Linda were hustled away as the credits rolled, and the rest of us had cars to take us to the Hard Rock Cafe on Hyde Park Corner, straight down Piccadilly.  Somehow we got squeezed into a vehicle with a tall Texan model who used to go out with Bryan Ferry before she ditched him for Mick Jagger.  Let’s Stick Together indeed.

At the Hard Rock we were inside the roped VIP section (was there another section in fact?) and we had sixteen guests with us – I’d asked for a generous handful of tickets for the film and the party and got them.  Who was there with us that night ?  I remember Paul and Colin Chapman, Jo Martin and Michael Rose. Roger Griffith and Jo Melville. Beverley and Paulette Randall.  Danny Webb & Leila Bertrand.  Eamonn Walker & Sandra Kane.  Mandy and Lucy Jules, Jenny’s sisters.  And Michael Buffong.  A good gang.  We spread out and hunted food and drink in packs.  I’d like to say that all the food was vegetarian, at the request of Linda McCartney and Paul, but I can’t actually remember that detail.  We sat with them and they were lovely – Mike Myers and miserable unfriendly Paul Merton also joined.  Linda was very sweet and kind and very strongly vegetarian, very important to her indeed.  Macca was light and funny and generous.  The reason for them being there was this : Myers had designated the chosen charity of the Premiere to be Paul’s newly opened Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts or LIPA, on the site of his old school near the Cathedral off Hope Street in Liverpool.  I offered to do some free workshops there, but when I contacted them later that month the first question was “Please send us your C.V.”  I did but nothing.

Del Preston

As for the party.  It’s all a little blurry now.  It probably was then too.  Those were the days of smoking indoors.  My highlight reel would have to include the following clip :  after Paul and Linda moved on to another table of their friends, Naomi Campbell slid in beside me (I was bleached blond that night, and she’d recently shown a preference for that look and had an affair with the U2 bass player,) and we chatted for a while, someone took a photograph which is framed and in storage, so sorry not for the blog today, and then Jo Martin the flame-breathing goddess of Hackney introduced herself to Naomi with “Hello, I’m Jo, a friend of Ralph’s WIFE“.  Not before I’d given NC my phone number, but alas it never rang.  In the photo of Naomi and I you can see Jo and Leila behind us looking daggers…

Chrissie Hynde (for yes, it was she…) winking at me as I walked downstairs looking for the toilets.  Good friends of Linda.

Michael Rose (who then played in a great band called The April Place) saying “Ralph, c’mon, I have to speak to Paul NOW!”   So we joined his table and Paul and Michael and I chatted about Fool On The Hill & Pet Sounds and Paul passed me a spliff he was smoking and I inhaled and Everything Was Fine With The Earth And All That Was On It.  And kind of has been ever since to be honest.   A moment.  Childish but true.  Later the party started to wind down – at which point I noticed that Jaye Davidson was there – friends with Naomi – who I’d worked with a few years earlier on The Crying Game.  He was drunk.  So was I.

There’s another fabulous picture of Macca and I talking to each other as the party starts to move out (it’s in storage).  TRAMP was the word being passed around.  A nightclub on St James St.  “We used to go there in the old days, me and the boys,”  said Paul confidentially to me “after a show or whatever, to pick up birds“.  He winked.  “Mind you, see her over there?” he nodded toward Linda who was talking to someone else, “She gave me the glad eye earlier.  Think I might be in there.”  He enjoyed this joke very much, one he must have told a hundred times in similar circumstances, surrounded by adoring fans and ‘birds’ and seeking out the eyes of his beloved.

I asked him how – after years of this public adoration that we’d seen a glimpse of inside the cinema – the screaming fans, the crowds, the adulation – how he’d handled it all this time, and how gracious they’d both been about it.  He looked around and whispered “In the car on the way up from Sussex : we get really stoned.”  Of course.  “You coming to Tramp then?

Drunken moments – watching Roger grabbing Naomi’s leather-clad buttock in one hand as we walked out.  The gang were getting taxis down Piccadilly to the club.  I think everyone decided to Carry on Partying.

At Tramp, a desk, a maitre-D, a penguin looks at the large group of black people at the entrance to his club.  “Can I help you?” he says, his eyes giving the opposite meaning.  Yes I say, we’re with Paul & Linda and Naomi from Hard Rock, Wayne’s World blah blah fucking blah.  His face is the picture of England that we know and love, drenched in miserable boarding school rainy afternoons, ranked prefects and results, furtive secret sex, jealous unattainable class status and a wilted disdain for anything foreign.  He asked for my name.  “Just a moment please“.  He disappears downstairs to check my story.  The gang behind Jenny and I are happy, glowing, full of joy, but clearly expecting the worst.  Which then duly appears with Penguin and a faintly obsequious smile, pastel-coloured with supercilious hauteur : “I can let the two of you downstairs, but sorry, not the others…”  

Bless the gang, they insisted to a woman that Jenny and I go into Tramp and Carry on Partying with the glamour pop model people.  We didn’t.  We were moving as a pack in those days.  You turn my people away, we aren’t coming in.  Any of us.  Goodnight.  All back to ours !!   About ten years later, maybe twenty ? we did go into Tramp with Rula Lenska who is possibly a contemporary of Paul McCartney, and I stole an ashtray.

A series of taxis took us back to Archway Road N6 where we lived.  And we laughed and drank and smoked some more.  Celebrated properly together.  Who were we again ?  Well to honour the few :  Jenny and I, newlyweds in 94.  Paulette & Beverley who have appeared in My Pop Life #60 and My Pop Life #187 (among many others) and who are two of my very special friends.  My brother Paul, and his man at that time Colin Chapman – who had moved down from Durham a few years earlier and who is still in our lives to this day.  Indeed recently Colin it was who told me where to go to find a nice leather jacket in New York = Cast on the Lower East Side.  Colin knows these things.  He now does a fashion blog and is here regularly, but lives in Shoreditch with his man Dunk.

Jo Martin

Roger Griffith

 

Danny Webb

Michael Rose

Michael Buffong

Sandra Kane

 

Josephine Melville

Eamonn Walker

Paulette & Beverley Randall

Paul, Ralph & Colin Chapman in 2013

Jo Martin (who saved Naomi Campbell from a date with me) had worked with Jenny in a play at the Tricycle Theatre called Pecong – an updating of Medea to Trinidad, directed by Paulette.   Eamonn was also in this production playing Jenny’s brother (My Pop Life #104).   His partner Sandra now runs the cafe in Roundhill Park; when we met her she’d just come back from living in Japan.   Jo Martin was going out with Michael Rose at that point, a foxy eastender who played a mean guitar and could sing too.  They lived down the road from us in Holloway so time was spent there, smoking weed mainly, listening to reggae, Lenny Kravitz’ first LP, hanging out with her friend Tracey, or with Roger and Jo Melville.  Roger Griffith is a wonderful actor – I had cast him as my lead in The House That Crack Built in a BBC funded workshop, the rap opera/play that was never performed, and his to-be wife Jo Melville was one of the female Possee known as The Bibi Crew.  They are no longer together.  Roger and Michael Buffong were both in The Possee, which I mentioned in My Pop Life #184, a big part of that early 90s London landscape.  As were Danny Webb and Leila Bertrand – Danny was in Alien 3 with me in 1991 (see my Pop Life #  ) and his wife Leila is a casting director : they lived downstairs from my therapist for a while (probably around this time?) in Maida Vale, and all I remember from that shoulder-rub was Leila meeting her on the stairs one afternoon after some complaints and nonsense with “Heal thyself physician!“.   Funny.  They have two beautiful daughters Lily & Bellaray who came to see us in Brooklyn in late 2015 with their mum, we went to Sunny’s bar in Red Hook for a bit of live bluegrass.

Jenny, Leila & Johanna at Sunny’s in Red Hook 2015

And Mandy and Lucy, ever-present sisters, confidantes and ladies-in-waiting, keepers of the secrets, queens, princesses and gold medal winners of life, love and art.   They are, naturally very dear to Jenny’s heart, and mine.

Me, Mandy, Lucy

It was a great kitchen party.  We smoked.  We drank.  We played records.  Til dawn ? Dunno.   Did we play Spirit In The Sky ?  Maybe we did.   Probably not.

Well, it is my pop life after all.

Youtube doesn’t have the roadie training section which features this song, so you’ll have to make do with this clip : Del Preston outlines his plans for the gig…

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My Pop Life #104 : Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf

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Smokestack Lightning   –   Howlin’ Wolf

tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?

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My dear friend Dona Croll posted a video of Howlin’ Wolf onto my Facebook page this morning and there was no turning back.  I have known Dona since the 1980s, I’m sure she won’t mind me telling you, but from where and when we met I cannot say.  Perhaps she was in the cast for the London’s Burning pilot when I met actor Gary MacDonald.  I was playing a policeman.  Most of the cast were black, but not all.  We decided to have a kickabout one lunchtime.  Of course, being in uniform meant I got kicked about all over the park.  Fair enough.

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But in the small bubble of British acting Dona and I would cross paths regularly at Tricycle Theatre first nights, anything that Paulette Randall was doing, maybe at auditions.   When I wrote The House That Crack Built for the BBC in 1989 (see My Pop Life #61), Dona was my first choice for the rapping crack-addicted Mom and she was brilliant.    I know she reads this blog so this one is partly for you dear Dona, and partly for my brer Eamonn Walker, Eamonn Roderique, E.   When I saw the clip of Wolf I immediately thought of Eamonn, because a) they favour and b) Eamonn played Howlin Wolf in a film called Cadillac Records in 2008.

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Cadillac Records was the story of Chess Records lightly disguised.   It’s a good film but while being not entirely satisfying like most biopics and most music films, it nevertheless has a clutch of wonderful performances both of the thespian and musical variety, and Eamonn is quite sensational.   He inhabited that role like he does all his roles.   Wolf was a big growler who played a mean blues harp, so E had to learn the instrument before the shoot.   Adrien Brody played Polish immigrant Leonard Chess who started Chess Records by selling blues and ‘race’ records out of the back of his Cadillac with his brother Phil in 1950 on the South Side of Chicago.  It grew to become the most important record label in the history of the blues, releasing crucial work from Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def in the film, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Colombus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) among many others.

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But Wait – Eamonn worked with Beyoncé !!!   She was very good as Etta James I thought, but I am unashamedly biased.  I love Beyoncé.  A lot.   Anyway, moving back to Howlin’ Wolf.

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Chester Burnett was a giant of a man from Mississippi who physically dominated any room he was in at 6’3”, and who adopted his name Howlin Wolf from his grandfather.   He learned guitar from Charley Patton during the 1930s, harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II in the 1940s, and songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Son House.   He moved steadily north, first to Arkansas, then later to Memphis where he recorded some sides for Sam Phillips and finally, unusually, driving his own car and with $4000 in his pocket, he went to Chicago.  Somehow avoiding all the classic blues temptations that he was singing about – liquor, gambling, loose women of a variety of types, he hired a regular band to accompany him, including Hubert Sumlin who moved up from Memphis.  Unusually for a bandleader, Burnett paid his musicians on time, and also offered benefits such as health insurance, he therefore had the pick of the best in Chicago for years.  Featured imageSmokestack Lightning was released in March 1956 and made the Billboard R&B charts, it is now considered a classic.  Howlin Wolf had learned it back in the 30s as a variation on a train blues played by Charlie Patton and others, sitting at dawn watching the trains sparking through their chimneys at night “Shinin’, just like gold”.   It is a massively evocative three minutes of the blues with growls, yodels, harmonica wails and a wonderful circular bluesy guitar riff from Mr Sumlin which stays on E (appropriately enough) – just one chord for the whole song.  “Girl don’t you hear me cryin?”    Eamonn plays and sings it on the Soundtrack to Cadillac Records.  I couldn’t be more proud.

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Eamonn Walker is my brother from another mother.  It was gradual, and yet somehow immediate like all the best friendships.   We met when he played opposite my soon-to-be wife Jenny Jules in Pecong at the Trike in 1991, Paulette’s Randall‘s production of Steve Carter‘s Caribbean update of Medea, which Jenny won an award for because she was extraordinary.  The battling men – Victor Romero-Evans and Eamonn Walker do so in rhyme.   American actress Pat Bowie played Granny Root, massively talented Jo Martin and Cecilia Noble the other women, Beejaye Joseph and Jax Williams the eye-candy dancers.   It was a great great production.   Eamonn used to come and see Jenny and I on Sundays after seeing his twins Deke & Jahdine who were in Enfield with their mum Chris.  We were in Archway Road and thus on the way home to Sandra Kane his partner, and young boy Kane Walker (now in his 20s).    We became close family and have remained so ever since.   We played football together for the Hoxton Pirates for a few seasons on Hackney Marshes and all over South London on Sunday mornings until I broke my nose during a game – a loud crack, a violent searing pain and suddenly I was lying in a large pool of blood.    E was one of the first people in England to have a mobile phone – he’s a techno geek – and he had it behind him in a pouch at the back of the goal – he was the Pirates goalie, and he called the ambulance.    Eamonn was plucked from the ranks by Lynda LaPlante and seeded in New York were he sprouted the leaves and branches of prison drama Oz followed by much much more besides, films, TV series, he has had a really strong profile in America for years, a profile that he simply, oddly does not have in the UK.   So many black British actors have made the same journey over the last 20 years and had success, some of them becoming English stars too like Idris Elba.   Others, like Eamonn, (ranked number 11 in a US poll of “favourite British actors”)  are never even mentioned in UK media articles about black actor’s success in Hollywood.   Like a massive blind spot in the media, and partly in the UK business.   We carry on.

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In 2011 through 2012 we lived together in Hollywood,  just off Mulholland Drive in the hills above Universal with a balcony view that stretched from the Woodland Hills to the Hollywood sign and beyond.  It was good to spend time.   I would walk Runyon Canyon every day, from the top down and back up.   From that base camp E scored another Dick Wolf project: NBC’s Chicago Fire which is now in its fifth series and has him living in Chicago 10 months of every year but scoring his pension.  He deserves every cent.    Eamonn, Dona : this is for you, I love you both.

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Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody

This could be the longest thread ever because of links that go in every direction – into the movie The Boat That Rocked, the band Birds Of Tin, my friendship with Simon Korner, Andy Oliver, all of Eamonn’s family, Jenny’s Mum and Dad and on and on.

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But perhaps I will mention that when we adopted the beautiful Devon Rex boycat from Jason & Tash in February 2008 (just after my god-daughter Delilah Rose was born) we decided to call him Chester, after Howlin Wolf.   This beautiful animal was very special, very wise, very funny, very cuddly.  We later bought Chester a companion, a Cornish Rex and named her Mimi.  Chester had a heart condition which we discovered when he was two, an a-rhythmical heartbeat.   He would live only another two years and passed away aged four while I was working in Tennessee on a film in the fall of 2011.  RIP Chester.  The greatest cat.

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a magnificent live version from 1964 :