My Pop Life #235 : You’ve Got A Friend – James Taylor

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You’ve Got A Friend   –   Carole King

close your eyes and think of me

*

I wrote this diary excerpt when I was hitch-hiking around North America with my friend Simon (referenced in My Pop Life #130).   We celebrated my 19th birthday in Santa Fe with tequila shots, salt & lime til dawn, a reasonably appropriate celebration I think, then hitch-hiked for a couple of days through Navajo Nation and the stunning red rock towers of Monument Valley eventually getting to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where we pitched our tent.  Then a wonderful moment happened.  The VW camper van next door had two lovely American fellas our age.  Darrell & Sam struck up conversation.   They were going to Las Vegas too – but via Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon.  Four wonderful days and nights, backgammon and weed and music as I recall.   Across the desert.  Then we finally got to Las Vegas.  No indication of the drama which was to unfold.  Now read on dot dot dot

*

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Thursday July 2nd 1976 9pm

So here we are at last – in the gambling capital of the world. Everything is open 25 hours a day, and there’s only one thing to do – spend money.  Characteristically, Simon and I decide to avoid doing that, and manage fairly well.  We arrive in Las Vegas mid-afternoon and check into a hotel on the Strip which offers us “casino packages“.  You can find these deals all over the city and for 100 miles outside – free meal tickets, free drinks, free chips and nickels and free souvenirs – like miniature one-armed bandits (I shamelessly acquire one).

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After a magnificent cold shower, we brave the heat – 110 in the shade – and armed with hundreds of “good deals” we move out.  Fourteen hours later, we stare blankly at one another from our beds, shattered and amazed.  Now I really know what it’s like to have a night on the town, and watch the orangey-pink dawn at 5.30 in the morning over Sunrise Mountain.  I know what the town is too.  The whole of our stay here is like a dream – Vegas is a very unreal and surreal place, a neon city which becomes very beautiful at night.  The Stardust, Caesar’s Palace, Sahara and The Dunes have the most spectacular 100-foot neon displays on the boulevard advertising their casinos.  And inside, the sight that hits you between the eyes is also out of a dream.  In the large casinos there are literally acres of fruit machines, rows of blackjack tables, roulette, craps and baccarat.  Watching it all go on is an entertainment in itself – the people here are incredible, ranging from very rich, slick tuxedos and evening dresses through middle-aged T-shirts and fat women mindlessly feeding machines, to scruffy jeans and sneakers.  They’re all here to feed Vegas in one form or another with their money.  The fruit machines which surround everything and populate every bar gobble up nickels, dimes, quarters & silver dollars, and occasionally, with a loud noise, spit some back.  It is noticeable that the machines are very noisy when they pay out, and very quiet when they’re emptying your pockets – thus if a casino has enough machines, somebody somewhere will be winning noisily giving the impression that the machines are constantly paying out.

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The noise inside a casino is unbelievable – there are six or seven different layers -soft music, bells, chinking coins, rattles, dealer’s calls, very loud weird noises and the constant sound of money.  Money is the only criteria here – the only one. You are either rich, or poor and that is it – you are not good-looking, nice, friendly, nasty or affected – just rich or poor.  We are poor.  But we have a great time.  Although it is an entertainment watching the types of people and the neon and the roulette, you can only watch for two minutes then it sucks you in and you are not in control.  Luckily we have enough free nickels & tokens to play with and we spend very little of our own money.  And in fact, we do very well, walking into a casino, getting a bunch of free tokens, winning, and then walking out two bucks up, resisting the urge to gamble with it.

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We get a free stew and endless beers at Mr Sy’s, a hot dog and coffee at Foxy’s, nickels at The Sahara, nothing at Honest John’s, champagne and tokens at El Morocco, and nickels and endless champagne at King 8 which is connected to our hotel and thus gives us Good Deals.  The casinos own smaller casinos, hotels & snack bars and also have deals going with gas stations so that the whole city is a web which catches you wherever you happen to be in it. But I love it and I am definitely coming back here with some money.  [And I did – see My Pop Life #230 deja vu country songs in Vegas].  What better way to lose money – it is basically worthless stuff anyway – and the attitude of play the game easy come easy go is a healthy one – it is how money should be treated.  What a place !

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By midnight we are totally blammed on champagne from King 8, where we have been insanely giggling for two hours, imagining going back to the hotel for our traveller’s cheques and gambling everything, being in the limelight at the centre of the game at Caesar’s Palace for half and hour, then thumbing back to DC to stay at the Furth’s while we wait for September 19th, broke.  We imagined the story :

Well, we got as far as Las Vegas…

And believe me, it would be so easy to do. We are tottering along the Strip towards Caesar’s harbouring the sexy rich lady fantasy when we are picked up by two girls in a jeep, unattractive and poor [who need us with our fake IDs to go and buy whisky for them the legal age being 21].  By now however, we are helpless and “nobody knows” – that is to say the conversations are

“Where do you want to go?”       ” don’t know”

“What do you want to do?”        “don’t know”

“What’s your name?”             “don’t know, etc”

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We smoke some grass and find ourselves in a kiddies playground on slides and climbing bars.  The stars are stupendous.  We decide to go for a swim, yet upon reaching a pool everyone denies that they agreed.  We head once again for Caesar’s Palace.  It is enormous inside, very plush and attractive and fairly crowded even though it is by now about 2.30am.  We then go to The MGM another enormous casino with fountains and mirrors in the ceilings and tuxedoed croupiers.  Trying to park, we crash into a brand new Porsche and subsequently spend the next hour in the MGM car park arguing with a reactionary bastard from Denver, waiting for the police, and pouring whisky onto each other’s heads. [None of the drivers present were sober it has to be recorded].

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We eventually get into The MGM at 4am and walk about zombie-like, staring with blank faces at the glitter and cash around us. We go all the way to the back of the casino and there is a huge shopping mall with very expensive diamonds, minks of orange hue, fox-furs and absurd paintings.  These shops are where you spend your winnings, all owned by the casino, so naturally they get all your money back.

Of course!

After an hour or so of total surreal weirdness (we are here, now, doing this…) we become aware of a sensation within each one of us that we identify as hunger. Breakfast!

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We stagger into yet another casino as the dawn spreads over the pinkish sky above Sunrise Mountains, and the neon sign outside The Dunes is switched off until the next sunset.  A 77 c breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon and coffee is eaten in total darkness because the electrical operators are going slow – giving the casinos half hour blackouts every now and then : naturally we have arrived in that half hour.  I am at the stage where I could believe anything, and frequently do.  Still mindlessly tipping whisky down our throats we decide again to go for a swim, so everyone changes and meets at the pool in the girl’s hotel.

The night ends badly though as one of the girls falls off the diving board onto the concrete and is badly bruised, and I come as close to death as I have ever been, or will ever be likely to without actually dying.  In 9 feet of water I suddenly lose confidence and my muscles refuse to work.  I sink like a stone, don’t touch the bottom and come up, gasping for breath and immediately sink again, swallowing water.  With horror I realise that I am now drowning and there is nothing I can do about it.  Some distant memory of “when you go down the third time you don’t come up“.  I come up for the second time and Simon recognises that I am in big trouble.  [Later he tells me that he forgot the diving girl’s name and rather than shout “OI” which he felt was rude, he dived in to get me himself].  I see him swimming towards me through mouthfuls of water and gulps of air as my arms and legs are thrashing about – I don’t want to drown, I really don’t.  It seems to take Simon hours to reach me and then I immediately grab him somewhere, anywhere and we both go down, me for the third time, him for the first.  For one horrible moment I am so close to dying that I can feel it, a cold presence, a ghastly sensation.  I see angels I see a coffin flying back to England on a plane,  a school assembly where my name is read out, a funeral But this is not my time and we both come up, and somehow Simon takes me to the edge.  I cling gratefully to the side, gasping painfully and fast, but alive.  We are both in a bad state of shock, and the girls drive us back to our room, once we have partially recovered.  We eventually sleep at 11am, through til 7 in the evening when we get up, go and eat, and return.  It is now 10pm in the evening – we plan on leaving very early tomorrow to avoid the ridiculously hot weather, thumbing to Los Angeles.

The last 30 hours are a blur, a dream, an unreality lit by neon and flashing lights, a whirl of chinking coins, rolling dice, aces, jacks and queens, oranges and plums, tuxedos diamonds champagne and a brush with death.

*

Simon saved my life I have no doubt about that.  Rather odd that I didn’t write that phrase into the diary at the time.  Shock.  Even two days later, writing about the day – I reckon this was written once we’d arrived in Los Angeles at Nick Carr’s parent’s place in Monterey Park.  The part I missed is the part I almost always missed in the diary of that road trip – the sexual exploits.  Once we’d got back to the hotel it was decided that Simon and Diving Girl would take the room, and Ralph and short-haired girl would wait in the Jeep. I think we kissed for a bit but that was it, we didn’t really fancy each other.  After two hours I got to crash out when Diving Girl came out and the girls drove off waving.   We never saw them again. 

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I’m writing this on Monday 20th April 2020 in Brooklyn, the epicentre of the coronavirus covid 19 pandemic with death all around us, hundreds of people every day pass over, old people, young people, nurses, cooks, cleaners, bus drivers, policemen and women, grandparents, asthmatics, care-home workers, immigrants, musicians, retired insurance brokers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, physios. 

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Jenny my wife is asthmatic and doesn’t go out at all.  She isn’t taking any risks.  I do the shopping and the bins, the prescriptions, the bread, the cheese the oranges.  We have both become obsessed with oranges.  I have disposable gloves and a mask which purports to be N95 but actually isn’t I don’t think.  I can smell weed when I cycle past the youth.  We line up outside Trader Joe six feet apart and go into a quiet supermarket walking gently around sourcing our priority produce, then pack out bags ourselves and walk the Citibike back home with the absurdly heavy shopping, remove shoes before entering, unpeel vinyl gloves into the trash, wash hands thoroughly, take bleach wipes and disinfect every single item as it comes out of the shopping bag, disinfect the handles, the taps, the phone, the glasses, the mask, my eyeballs.

We’ve been back to Las Vegas numerous times since then, but I never seriously took up gambling as a past-time.  See My Pop Life #230.  I still live a charmed life, and have at least one other serious near-death experience to relate.  South Africa 2010.  I’ll do it next. 

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The LP Tapestry by songwriting genius Carole King (Natural Woman, It Might As Well Rain Until September, The Locomotion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Up On The Roof, Will You Love Me Tomorrow) is one of the greatest ever made, and this – You’ve Got A Friend – is the stand-out song for me.  Many have covered it – notably Donny Hathaway & James Taylor, and I have chosen Mr Taylor’s sweet cover since that was the song Simon and I would have listened to in 1974-5.   It helps I guess that when I met Jenny and we started dating, one of the things that made me fall in love with her was that she could sign the lyrics to this song, and still can.  But today this song is for Simon, my closest friend, my dearest companion, my life-saver, my brother.

My Pop Life #232 : C’mon – Man

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C’mon   –   Man

it’s better than doin’ nothing
it’s better than sittin’ round thinking of yourself
Get up !  c’mon
Get up…c’mon 

*

The summer of 1973.  I’m thinking right now it was the most carefree moment of my entire life.  Just turned 16.  Just finished my ‘O’ Levels.  Hardest exams ever, but they were done.  Free.  In a band.  Happy.  Just happy to smoke dope, drink beer, listen to music, chat to friends.  My family was Ok, by which I mean no crisis for the moment, but I didn’t spend much time there anymore.  My friends and family were in Lewes, 25 miles away.  Sixth form coming up – a long way off, with no exams for two whole years.  A-levels were the distant horizon.  Let’s face it, my recollections are fuzzy, and so are the photographs….

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No information about this – maybe 16, maybe 17 in Hailsham, East Sussex. Youth.

Then it was summer holidays.  I had tickets to Reading Festival, as advertised in Melody Maker with some of my favourite groups –  Rod Stewart & The Faces (who I’d seen the year before My Pop Life #128), The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Status Quo among others.

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Before that treat were lazy hazy days in East Sussex and a holiday up in Scotland with Simon Korner’s family.  They’d rented a cottage on The Isle of Arran…in a little village called Lochranza on the north coast.   Simon and I decided to hitch-hike up from Lewes.  Would we make the last ferry from Ardrossan in Ayrshire?  Would we even get there?

Simon had emerged as a close friend earlier that year when I’d stayed with his family in St Henry’s Road while Mum was in hospital.  Nerves they called it.  I wrote a little bit about it in My Pop Life #64 ‘Fresh Garbage’.

I think it was 1973 when Simon became my best friend.  We both had other friends of course.  He had Mathew Ford, Chris Clark and Patrick Freyne, one of the year above boys.  I had Conrad Ryle and Martin Cooper in particular, and soon, Andy Holmes.  But I think Simon and I liked each other kind of unreservedly already.

Simon and I hitched up in late July and got to the ferry terminal in Ardrossan at about 10pm.  The ferry was not there, but the gangplank was, so we unrolled out sleeping bags and slept on it.  Woken at dawn by seagulls and the sun, and caught the ferry across to the island. Arran.  It’s one of those places that looks spectacular from every angle.

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The crossing of the Firth of Clyde was an hour, and breakfast was available on board.  We were scruffy and unwashed of course, but that was the fashion in 1973 for teenage boys.  Maybe it still is.  The town of Brodick welcomed us and upon perusing our handy map (no phones then kids) found the road out north to Lochranza and stuck out our thumbs.  A yellow ex-GPO transit van pulled over after about 30 minutes, they were going our way, perfect.

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Two fellas up front, Simon and I were in the back of the van with our rucksacks amid a heap of random rubbish, a mattress, papers, and a football which I sat on against the side of the van.  It was an hour’s journey more or less.  As we started a long gentle downhill road from Sannox to Lochranza they sped up somewhat – they could see nothing ahead for a mile – and then, remembering that we couldn’t see out of the windows really, apart from glimpses through the front window – something extraordinary happened.

I felt the side of the van disappear behind me as the doors I was leaning on opened and I started to fall, ever so slowly backwards out of the van and into the air towards the road.  I distinctly remember thinking, because I had the time to do so, that it felt like I was doing some kind of James Bond stunt in slow motion and perhaps if

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I hit the ground with a thump and instantaneously went into fast forward backward somersaults once twice thrice four times before the absurd circus act stopped abruptly and all was still.  I was on my back at the side of the road, head facing downhill legs up.  I dare not move in case of pain. I would lie there for a while until I felt braver.  There was grass on my right, road on my left where my hand was.  I moved my fingers one at a time, then my wrist, my arm, twitched my shoulder. The right hand and arm.  The feet, one at a time.  Nothing was broken.

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I could hear a voice behind me shouting my name.  I didn’t move yet.  Simon got there first and then the two ashen-faced scotsmen.  They helped me stand up, checked that all was in working order.  My trousers were ripped right across my arse.  That was about it.  Everyone was shaken, disbelieving.  It was a kind of miracle that I didn’t land on my head because to quote Johnny Moped “Crack afore the skull, blow the skull open, OK?” * The van reversed back up the hill and I got into the front seat.  By the time we got to Lochranza I felt lucky, indestructible, magic.  The fellas dropped us off and – according to Simon because I do not recall this – we both ran up the fell opposite the house because we were the first there.

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The others arrived – Shirley, Joe, Jess and Shirley’s friend Noreen Ford and it was decided to call a nurse the next day because there appeared to be some of the road left in my buttocks.   She was a cheery young woman who cleaned it up and put a dressing on the rather sore area.  I should note that I didn’t fancy her.  She came every day for about four days as I recall.  She would arrive in uniform then briskly announce her task “Good morning Ralph, I’ve come to change the dressing on your bem”  You have to read it in a Scottish Accent!  At some point around here Martin Cooper arrived.  He was a proper carrot-top redhead with pale skin and blue eyes.  We’d become friends via the school football team, and subsequent visits to The Goldstone Ground in Brighton to see The Albion.  Martin wasn’t like the rest of my friends – he didn’t take drugs, or grow his hair, or play records.  He and I would become political allies in the 6th form when we became Head and Deputy Head Boy.   I wrote about him a bit in My Pop Life #70 : The Stylistics.  Simon had long fair hair and brown eyes, I was bushy-haired with grey/green/blue eyes and slightly darker skinned than both which is odd, perhaps.  Simon tells me that he felt slightly challenged by Coops’ presence now, as if competing for my brotherly love.

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Goat Fell in the mist and the ferry to Claonaig leaving Lochranza

Coops and I it was who made the journey to Goat Fell, hitching back up that same road to Brodick Castle then walking through the grounds and up the rocky path.  It was a stiff climb but stunning at the top.  Highest point of the island, which is all peaks.  We shared a mighty joke at the top when we noticed a man walking up the path, no sweat, perfect clothes, not a hair out of place. When he reached the summit – we were on the east side by now looking at southern Scotland – he stopped and gazed at the horizon with strange purpose then pfffft opened a can of Tizer as if he was in some cheesy advert.  Fuck me it was hilarious.  We had to duck behind a boulder to laugh hysterically.

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Lochranza, Isle of Arran

Other days we went onto the beach.  Clear water, so much clearer than the English Channel in Sussex.  We took the ferry north to Claonaig one day on the Mull of Kintyre then took it back to Lochranza.  I suspect we smoked some dope and read books too.  Simon was reading Sons and Lovers by D.H Lawrence.  I cannot remember what I was reading but I was into Dostoyevsky at the time.  It was all bliss.  We talked about the incident, and Simon felt that the van had been going about 50 mph, which would account for my absurd rolling backwards down the hill.  I don’t remember any aches or bruises – apart from the obvious – but maybe time heals.  Ot maybe I just bounced.  The trousers – kind of blue flares with a black stripe pattern – were ruined and binned.  I must have had a pair of jeans with me. Or borrowed some?

Scotland is so beautiful.  It was my first time back since I was one year old.

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Dad and me, 1958.  Scotland

And I have been back many times since, especially to the West Coast, which is where I suspect I am in the photo above.  My Dad had just finished at Cambridge University and we went on holiday with his friend Tony Inglis and his wife.  I don’t remember it obviously but it is nice to have this picture of us enjoying ourselves.   Jenny and I have been to Iona & Mull, the Kintyre peninsula, Fort William, Arisaig and Skye together on three separate occasions, (twice with cats!).  I’ve been to Edinburgh many times (3 – Ed.) as a fledgling actor (see My Pop Life #140 Carly Simon), visited Shetland when Mark Williams did a gig up there, worked in Glasgow a few times on TV shows, went to Aviemore and Inverness one year.  It is a beautiful part of the world.  I’ve always fancied the Hebrides, especially since my university buddy Lewis actually came from Lewis.  Not Lewes.  Another story.

Bright clear air, bleak moorland, heather everywhere, wild flowers, rocky outcrops, sheep, water close by, streams and rivers. Mist.  Nurses who dress your bem.  It’s all good. But all good things must come to pass and thus the day came to say farewell to Korners Coopers and Fords and hitch-hike south to Reading and the Festival.  I cannot remember this journey at all.  It is quite possible that Martin Cooper hitched south with me, because I have a vague memory of us camping together in Newbury on the side of the road near a nuclear power plant?  Perhaps we even went to Reading together?  All assistance gratefully received, and apologies to Martin if indeed it was he, for it would have been a dry run for aour giant intrepid hitchhiking escapade behind the Iron Curtain to years later to Budapest (see My Pop Life #70 The Stylistics)

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I’d been to Reading the previous year which was something of a vintage line-up (see My Pop Life #103) and particularly dug the Welsh band Man who’d played Saturday afternoon.  Lovely groovy guitar work, intermeshing riffs with a tone a little like Joe Walsh my guitar hero, but a vibe all their own.  I’d come back from Reading 72 and bought the LP Be Good To Yourself At Least Once A Day the following spring.  Rumours that it referred to wanking, which was big news in 1973 (he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor – Bowie’s Time) could not be verified.  The 1st track on side two Bananas was certainly about dope though :

I like to eat bananas cos they got no bones I like marijuana cos it gets me stoned

The LP had a quite splendid gatefold-out map of Wales as a cartoon to enjoy while listening and smoking :

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I can’t remember who else liked this record but I’ll plump for Tat, who played guitar in Rough Justice, the band I was playing in.  It has a certain sound which takes me right back to those carefree days of 1972/3 – it’s certainly of its time in that respect.  They have riffage in abundance and twin lead attack like Wishbone Ash or Blue Öyster Cult, they have a terrific organist on top like Osibisa or Greenslade (my discovery of Reading 73), a warmth to the vibe like Jo Walsh or Spirit, a sense of humour like Gentle Giant or Status Quo.  They weren’t trying to be American blues or country.  Just a good band.

reading-73-rod-2Reading 73 wasn’t as good as 72 but had its highlights.  Rod Stewart & The Faces were going through the motions a bit.  Ronnie Lane had left and we had Tetsu on bass like the year before… thus I’ve never seen Ronnie Lane with the Faces.  What was good about early Reading Festivals was the open-minded spirit that meant you could see The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and French bands like Magma or Italian bands alongside folk, rock or even >gasp< R’n’B or jazz – George Melly’s Feetwarmers or Johnny Otis.  And even country which would become the sound of the early seventies. The Eagles didn’t play Reading but they were huge.  We watched the mighty Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen with hoedown fiddles and harmonica and accordion along with the slide guitars and speeded up bluegrass country rock.  Quite tremendous.  Then there was the beer-can throwing vibe in 1973, a practice which I believe has continued to this day.  Some slightly heavy scenes too.  But we – whoever we were – just got stoned & enjoyed the music .  It was the year of feeling carefree and not worrying, of being giggly and stoned and untouchable, miraculously unbreakable, free.

Rory Gallagher was amazing by contrast playing the Irish blues.  He could play.  *Reading-1973-Rory-Gallagher-1swas

The police walked around a bit busting people for dope.  Pretty shit really but you could see them coming for miles off because they weren’t blending in very well.

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Sunday afternoon was a treat – in retrospect at least because I hadn’t heard of these people – because we got Tim Hardin (If I Was A Carpenter, Reason To Believe), Lesley Duncan and…

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John Martyn with Danny Thompson, soon to be a hero on the University and drink circuit (see My Pop Life #153 Small Hours).    And of course we had Genesis again.  They did more or less the same set as the previous summer, ie Supper’s Ready, The Knife, Hogweed, Musical Box – but with different sets and costumes.  Peter Gabriel had gone full theatrical.  In fact I recall that the set opened with him suspended from a rig 25 feet above the stage inside a pyramid with his head poking out the top.  Having just written and remembered that I cannot find any evidence of it on the internet.  But I saw it readers.

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Gabriel at Reading 1973

I found their songs kind of indigestible though frankly and although I enjoyed the costumes and the undoubted musicianship of Tony Banks, Steve Hackett and Phil Collins the only song of theirs which I almost liked is called Firth of Fifth from the LP Selling England By The Pound which they’d recorded a few days earlier, but revealed none of in the live set.  It was released in October with a single I Know What I Like In Your Wardrobe.  Whatever…

Look at these guys*Geordies-campfire-R73-800reading-73-blanket-guyReading-1973-Audience-1swas

 

That was me that was.  Reading Festival, August 1973. 16 years old. Stoned, drunk, skinny and couldn’t care less.  Precious moments.

 

*all photographs taken by kind permissions – credit to Vin Miles, Steve Austin, Stan Was, Gareth Tynan, Peter Kelly from the website http://ukrockfestivals.com/reading-73.html

 

My Pop Life #168 : Pleasant Valley Sunday – The Monkees

Pleasant Valley Sunday   –   The Monkees

The local rock group down the street is trying hard to play their song…. 

to serenade the weekend squire who’s just come out to mow his lawn

We are into the territory of pure joy here.  Memories of watching The Monkees TV show which was on ITV (?) between 1966 and 1968 – clearly a manufactured band, created to match or at least run in the slipstream of The Beatles, who were dominating culture all over the world at this point.

I was nine years old when I heard Theme To (Hey Hey We’re) The Monkees, Last Train To Clarksville and Daydream Believer.  We loved the show.  Speeded up film, wacky sight gags, slapstick, pulling faces, always a song, four charming, mop-topped cheeky chappies.  Strangely familiar but American.  Davy Jones was the charming Macca-esque Manc Brit, Peter Tork the lugubrious butt-of-jokes Ringo, Mike Nesmith the quiet musical one while Mickey Dolenz was the unpredictable sarcastic Lennon figure.  He was my favourite, (you had to have a favourite!) he played the drums and he sings Pleasant Valley Sunday (1967), written by the great Gerry Goffin and Carole King (see My Pop Life #135 ) a sweet social commentary-type pop tune that the late 60s had coming out of its ears.  Guitar intro of wonder, lead vocal, lyrics, melody, harmonies, wispy weird middle eight, it’s the perfect pop single.

Peter Tork with Bob Rafelson 1968

The Monkees were formed as a TV show (!) by Producer/Director Bob Rafelson in LA who pitched the idea with his partner Bert Schneider to NBC.  Bob later went on to direct the Monkees in the psychedelic oddity Head (1968), then went on to make Five Easy Pieces (1971) starring Jack Nicholson and other movies such as Mountains Of The Moon which in a strange twist of fate I was employed to help him cast in June 1988, working alongside casting director Celestia Fox.  They saw two actors per day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, for the two lead parts, Burton & Speke, and I would work with the actor for three hours at a time under Bob’s direction.   Many of my mates came in: Adrian Dunbar, Bruce Payne, Gabriel Byrne, then others : Tom Conti (he was really good), Patrick Bergin (he got Burton) and Iain Glen (he got Speke).  When Bob asked me what part I should play I said Speke but they disagreed and offered me a smaller one – so being a twat I turned it down and old friend Chris Fulford got a trip to Kenya instead;  just as well, I’d have probably caught AIDS.  In those days I thought if I did too many supporting parts it would lessen my cracks at playing a lead.  It did, eventually.  So I didn’t work with him on a movie, which was a shame, but of course, I did too.

Bob Rafelson

{I later fell out with Bruce, did two movies with Gabriel (I, Anna & Diamond Skulls), became neighbours in Brighton with Patrick and in 2009 I went to Galway to work with Iain and old buddy Stuart Orme.}

Anyway,  The Monkees couldn’t put a foot wrong for this ten-year old boy, yet to worry about small parts and auditions (although that was the year of the Selmeston primary school nativity play in which I played cuckold Joseph), yet to discover that they weren’t in fact cool, because they were manufactured and didn’t write their own songs, yet to discover that despite all that they were still brilliant.   The TV show was great, the songs, often written by Boyce/Hart were classic pop music.   When I moved to Brighton in the late 90s and found Stephen Wrigley, Dave Barnard & Adrian Marshall playing live in my local pub The Dragon I used to look forward to going down there on a Monday night when Caribbean food was served.   They would open up the mic in the second set, and had a large book of lyrics on the pub table for hopefuls to peruse.  My kind of heaven !  One night we sang Pleasant Valley Sunday to assorted random locals.  It climaxes with a tremendous verse where the lyrics are all ba-ba-baa ba-baa bababa in three-part harmony. We were about as slightly drunk as we should be and ended up over the road in the jazz club, drinking further until we’d formed a Beach Boys tribute band in our heads.  Which became The Brighton Beach Boys.

*

In 1976 aged 19, Simon Korner and I were hitch-hiking our way across the USA and we’d reached Los Angeles (see My Pop Life #130 and My Pop Life #30).  On July 4th it was Independence Day – in fact it was the Bi-Centennial of the United States’ independence from Great Britain – and they were celebrating 200 years of Freedom from the monarchy and the old colonial power.  We chose to visit Disneyland down in Orange County.   What a remarkable place.  Totally surreal, especially on this particular day, and being a little stoned as we were.  Not that we needed to be.  Walking in was like inhaling non-reality.  Like a whole town with different neighbourhoods – Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Bear Country, Snow White’s house, Cinderella’s palace, cascading waterfalls, Mississippi river steamers, large blue grinning cats playing the guitar, jazz, R’n’B and disco bands playing at every corner and a huge Uncle Sam float with the Statue of Liberty prancing weirdly beneath an eagle (and a giant US flag) as crowds lining the streets stand and cheer.  America On Parade.

Disneyland: ‘America On Parade’, July 4th 1976

We choose to take another ride – on The Matterhorn, an enormous rollercoaster, and as we round another hairpin bend hear the strains of “I’m a Believer”  floating through the brightly-colored air.   We climb off the ride and walk over to a nearby stage to find, rather astonishingly, The Monkees playing live – at that point comprising Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz  from the original band playing with their songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.

I guess legal reasons stopped them using the word Monkees

I mentioned this moment to Micky Dolenz when I met him in Liverpool a few weeks ago.  Funny old thing life.  The Monkees issued a new album in 2016 which got amazingly good reviews, but he was here for the same reason as me.  The Brighton Beach Boys had been invited to play “Pet Sounds”at Beatlesweek, which is a week-long celebration held every summer in that fair city.  We drove up from Brighton, checked in and scouted the locations – The Royal Court Theatre for the first set, and The Cavern for the 2nd set.  The atmosphere was bank holiday, sunny, the streets were heaving, music pouring out of every venue, everyone was drunk.  Reminded me of New Orleans – the crossroads historic coastal city drenched in music.

the great 1st album

We walked around the corner from The Cavern and went into The Hard Day’s Night Hotel which annoyed some of the entourage (we don’t belong in here).  But we had a drink and when Micky Dolenz turned up I chatted to him at the bar even though he appeared to be more interested in two youngish ladies to his right.  He remembered Disneyland.  They giggled.  “I think you’re in there” I remarked.  He smiled. Sensing my moment I pounced.  “Mind if the band have a picture with you?”

Later that afternoon he drove past us on Duke Street in a taxi with the same two girls and a glazed grin on his face.   He was on the same bill as us the following day, although we were on at 2pm and he was in the evening.  Legend.

So this manufactured pop has woven a golden thread running through my life from the moment it came out right up the present day.    I didn’t know what half the words were in 1967.  “Another pleasant valley Sunday, here in saddasimba land”.  But the thrill of the intro, the voices and the harmonies still work their same magic almost fifty years later, here in status symbol land.

My Pop Life #158 : Tipitina – Professor Longhair

Tipitina   –   Professor Longhair

Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla 
Tra ma tra la la

Tipitina’s nightclub in New Orleans

It’s the sound of New Orleans.  That cuban rhumba habañera boogie-woogie plinky plonky syncopated piano rhythm that lurches from his fingers into your bones.  His voice is twisted, looping, gutteral, lyrical nonsense emanating therefrom.   It is unique, too unique to be popular, although others found a way to play his style commercially.  It is a lonely twisted tree growing out of the mangrove swamp, steamy and heavy, gnarled and semi-tropical, earthy and wet.

I can’t remember my way into the music of New Orleans, but it was late 80s sometime, either a Dr John concert or a book I found, possibly a compilation album, a documentary on the TV ?  Simon Korner had Dr John – The Night Tripper’s – 1st LP Gris Gris when I met him aged 14, but it didn’t really hook me.  The salty funk of the delta took another 15 years to seep into my pores.  Once it does, it takes hold, like voodoo smoke, never to be fully exhaled.  I think the first New Orleans album I bought was Smiley LewisGreatest Hits – another piano player from that city of pianos, which included the songs I Hear You Knocking and Blue Monday, both more successfully covered by Fats Domino (see My Pop Life #126).   But I’m starting to suspect that the LP pictured above was next – Professor Longhair : New Orleans Piano.  The New Orleans R’n’B sound was forged by Dave Bartholomew and others, (including Longhair) and has a Cuban influence you can hear in the rhythm mainly – that “rock’n’roll” riff from Country Boy, Bartholomew’s 1949 single, would be repeated endlessly throughout the 1950s on Shake Rattle & Roll, Rock Around The Clock and hundreds of other songs.  Musical historians reckon that Cuban/Mexican bandleader Perez Prado was influential, he who popularized the mambo.  Without going into the mathematics and bar-lines of all the different shuffles, the geographical alignment of New Orleans and Havana, and the twice-daily steamboat that traversed the Caribbean from the 1850s onwards, meant that musical cross-fertilization was inevitable, and fecund.  Ragtime, jazz and boogie-woogie all originated in the Crescent City, and it was called Music City until someone decided that Nashville could steal that title, if not the soul of the place.  Not even Hurricane Katrina could do that.

In early 1992 Jenny and I were in Los Angeles for the premiere of Alien 3, directed by David Fincher.  The following day I had a meeting with director Herb Ross for his next feature Undercover Blues.  Perhaps the fluff & fizz around Alien convinced him, but I was offered the role of Leamington, number 2 bad guy to Fiona Shaw‘s evil villain.  It was a comedy, and it was to shoot mainly in New Orleans.    I had a date that I wasn’t available on – my wedding day, July 25th.   Rather incredibly (in hindsight) the band we got together to play the wedding party in the evening, consisting of people I’d gone to school with, played pretty much an hour of New Orleans R’n’B.  This wasn’t my choice (I’d asked for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Tamla) but Andrew Ranken‘s, who was our singer.  Fair enough,  we enjoyed the gig and the rehearsals (see My Pop Life #126) and then a few days later we’d flown out to New Orleans itself for our honeymoon, and a few days work on an MGM movie.  Serendipity chance and luck.

New Orleans is made of music and food and drink.  Our hotel room at Wyndham’s (or Westin?) had a lovely bowl of fruit, a bottle of champagne in an ice-bucket and a card from production congratulating us on our marriage and welcoming us to Louisiana.   We were yards from Bourbon St and the French Quarter, but not quite in it.  It stays up late.  The next few weeks were a rather wonderful blur of eating, drinking and live music, mixed in with a little work now and again.  Herb Ross turned out to be a bit of an arse, (shouting at high volume to me and the whole crew : “Ralph !  Ralph, you’re doing exactly what I asked you NOT TO DO!!!”) as did Dennis Quaid, but Kathleen Turner was great, and so was Fifi Shaw and they would come out dancing with the crew in the evenings, and take the piss out of the director in the daytime.

Professor Longhair

It’s a fantastic city.  Famous restaurants have lines outside to eat the food – no thanks, we’re not in prison.  We ate with Fiona Shaw, but mainly with each other.  We visited the Preservation Hall which presents a musical history of New Orleans jazz, we walked through the muggy streets, perspiring gently, we rode the St Charles Streetcar named Desire up to the Garden District and saw the mansions and spanish moss of the light-skinned creoles and white bourgeousie.   We saw the legendary marching bands, a funeral parade, we saw live jazz most nights, soul music, honky tonk and country on other nights.   And, eventually, we visited the legendary nightclub Tipitina’s on Napoleon St, out near Metairie Cemetery where the dead are buried above ground to protect them from the high water table.   That Tipitina’s, referenced by Professor Longhair in this song. Hot, vibrant, steamy, pulsing with tourists and locals alike eating beignets, jambalaya, crawfish pie, filet gumbo… 

Professor Longhair was born Roy Byrd in 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana.  He learned to play on a piano missing quite a few keys, possibly contributing to his unique style, and formed a band called The Shuffling Hungarians in 1949.  You love him already don’t you?   He wrote and recorded his two major signature tunes in this period – Tipitina and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  He would re-record them both in 1974 after spending ten years as a janitor during the 1960s and gambling himself into poverty.  He also recorded the standards Mess Around, Jambalaya and Rockin’ Pneumonia, and the songs Cry To Me and Junco Partner which we’d played at our wedding.   He had a huge influence on the N’Awlins boogie-woogie piano style, happily admitted to by Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and others.   He passed away in 1980.

Professor Longhair’s image dominates the stage at Tipitina’s

I guess it’s the crossroads thing – between north america and the caribbean, between France and America, between black and white, between Africa and Europe, but New Orleans has an atmosphere that you can’t find anywhere else in North America, or indeed anywhere else that we’ve been.   One of my favourite moments was paying for some vinyl in a record shop on Canal Street, being asked where we were from and asking the same question of the shopkeeper.  He was from New Jersey, but said he chose to live in New Orleans because it was the capital of music in North America, perhaps the world.  He added for context that had he lived a century earlier he might have chosen to live in Vienna (see My Pop Life #157).  The mix, the gumbo, the racial blurring – the character of the place is live and let live.  And the music which has come out of the place – from Huey ‘Piano’ Smith to the Neville Brothers, Little Richard to Lloyd Price, Allen Toussaint to Lee Dorsey and all the cajun twisters Queen Ida, Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin’Dopsie, back to jazz greats Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, has been the funky nutrient-rich sound has that fed american popular music for over 100 years.  If you haven’t been there yet, make a date.

Original from 1953 :

from 1974 :

Fess explains his lineage and plays Tipitina for us:

sadly this film was taken down by someone who wants to own things rather than share them

 

My Pop Life #133 : Sun King – The Beatles

Sun King   – The Beatles

Questo obrigado tanto mucho cake and eat it carousel

After 18 long and eventful months after being asked by John Lennon to imagine there’s no heaven I dropped my first acid trip.  It was the beginning of summer 1973.   School had almost broken up and the fifth form was abuzz with the plans.  We’d all completed our O Level examinations at Lewes Priory and there was a sense of freedom in the air.  Most of us would stay on for the sixth form, not all.    Before the summer holidays started, Tat’s girlfriend, the mysterious gypsy-eyed Elvira, invited what felt like the entire school to her house in Ashdown Forest for a midsummer night’s dream.  We travelled by bus then walked.  It was balmy and dry.  We were stoned and happy.   I travelled with Simon Korner I think.  Also present were Conrad Ryle, Pete Smurthwaite, Patrick Freyne, Chris Clarke, Martin Elkins, John Foreman, Adrian Birch, Andy Holmes and some older kids.  We lay around on the vast lawn of Elvira’s parents’ house.  Presumably they were away, but they may not have been.  A large set of speakers on the terrace blasted out The Beatles’ final album Abbey Road.  It was everyone’s favourite LP.  It seemed like an impossible piece of confectionary that went on forever and had the most satisfying last piece.  It still feels like that to me.  It has been varnished by time into a shiny antique pop marvel, but at the age of sixteen it was just 4 years old, and already a classic, an album for the ages. It was perfectly natural to be selected to play as the sun went down over a raggle-taggle gang of groovy student wannabees smoking dope and nodding wisely at each other’s amusing observations.  It was uncontroversial and universally admired by the cognoscenti.

The Beatles : Abbey Road

Elvira and Tat were like the alternative hippy royal couple that summer.  They both had curtains of long hair, flared jeans and embroidered tops.  They should have been on an album cover.  Elvira wore dark kohl eye make-up and flowing beaded skirts and she looked at everyone with witchy suspicion and a twinkle.  Her party was guaranteed to be a hit.  Tat – or Andrew Taylor – played guitar in the band Rough Justice (see My Pop Life #80) and wrote songs, had a sweet easy-going nature, a dry and pleasantly absurdist sense of humour, laughed easily and was slow to anger.  He’d become a closer friend of mine when he introduced me to his favourite band Gentle Giant, (for another post naturally).   He lived with his parents on South Street in Lewes, under the chalk drop of The Cliffe and the Golf Course which would be the location for our second acid trip.  Elvira was mysterious to me yet friendly, I can’t remember having a conversation much longer than a minute with her.  Who were her parents?   We didn’t talk to each other’s girlfriends much to be honest.  She was Tat’s girl.

There must have been food at the party but I can’t remember it.  Perhaps a barbecue.  The sun was starting to set.  We drank cider and lager.  Wine. Then the acid was handed out.  Tiny black microdots of  LSD.  We all took one and swallowed.  “It will last twelve hours” someone said.   Perhaps Space Oddity was playing…Memory Of A Free Festival

“the sun machine is going down and we’re gonna have a party…”

Before the light disappeared completely we all walked into the forest.  About a 20-minute walk ?  I do remember that Patrick still hadn’t arrived and we wondered how he would find us.   He did.  We found a small clearing, a small stream, a few rocks amid the trees and made a base camp.  Something weird was happening.  I felt nervous.  I looked around.  Someone winked.   Someone laughed.  It echoed with a ghoulish chuckle.   Shit – what?    A host of golden daffodils were flowering inside my stomach up through my veins through my fingertips, an unmistakeable rush of gold surged through my nerves, my skin, my eyes, like a huge chord with an impossibly large number of notes swelling lifting quivering getting louder and louder like a motorbike coming straight towards me.  Rather like falling off the top of a fairground ride with no brakes or a bunjee jump, except going upwards.  Can be fun.

here comes the sun king?

It’s entirely possible that not everyone was tripping, that we had a guide vocal, but I can’t remember who it was, even if I knew at the time.  Later on, in subsequent acid adventures we always used to have a guide on hand to hold our hand in case things went weird.  When things went weird.

because,

well,

they always did.

But not this time.  This being my first trip I didn’t know what to expect but I wanted hallucinations mainly.   I remember laying down on the rock in the stream to get a stereo effect of running water.  I remember looking at the trees dancing at dawn for about an hour, their branches wavering together in choreographed vibrations.  I remember staring at my hand for about an hour.  My eyes couldn’t focus properly for hours.

everybody’s laughing

       I remember laughing a lot with Conrad, Pete, John, Simon and Patrick.

everybody’s happy

It felt safe.   We smoked and drank.

Here comes the Sun King

There was undoubtedly speed in the acid which kept us keen.

Quando paramucho mi amore de felice corazón

It wasn’t cold, and we had sleeping bags and coats.   I can’t remember any music, amazingly.

Mundo papparazzi mi amore chicka ferdy parasol

Just the wind in the trees, the stream, the birds, the snatches of conversation.

Questo obrigado tanta mucho cake and eat it carousel*

 It didn’t change my life.  But I would do it again, and I did.

Sun King, like most of Abbey Road, is inspired by the music of the late 60s.  The Beatles had their ears open for the people around them, and this song is inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross with its heavy dreamy guitars.  Lennon put the chords together and he and McCartney added the nonsense lyrics at the end.  It is the second song on the medley which completes side 2 of the band’s last LP.  The story goes that Paul McCartney, keen to leave the legacy on a high, spent hours in Abbey Road studios with producer George Martin polishing and reworking the “Huge Medley”as it was known on the tapes and later bootlegs.  But the studio out-takes, some of which are available on Youtube, show a band working together to learn each other’s songs, as they had been doing for years. Both versions are probably true.  The Huge Medley,  almost all ‘Paul songs’, opens with You Never Give Me Your Money the song about the break-up of the band, and what Ian MacDonald (in the magisterial Revolution In The Head) called “the beginning of McCartney’s solo career”. It contains the immortal harmony and lyric

Oh that magic feeling : nowhere to go

and the song finishes with a spiralling guitar lift into

one sweet dream

and the three chords:   C   G/B   A  which will return at the end of the Huge Medley for the finale, but this time we have a whispered

one two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven

and a bluesy guitar solo fades slowly into the faint sounds of an organ and bells, gongs and cicadas, a lush exotic other-worldly sound which ushers in the lazy guitar shape inspired by Peter Green and Albatross and played by George Harrison.  Sun King is a minor John Lennon song which can’t be imagined outside of the context of the Huge Medley, but which is quite magical inside it, especially the G 11th chord which bridges the E major section and the C major section – very lush, very Beach Boys.

The song ends abruptly and punches into Mean Mr Mustard, another Lennon snippet which wouldn’t stand on its own as a single or album track, but which gives the Huge Medley its charm and delight and keeps us interested and entertained.

When The Brighton Beach Boys chose to perform Abbey Road live at the Brighton Festival in 2011, Sun King presented a variety of tricky problems and we spent a fair amount of time on the 2 minutes and 26 seconds of this song, not least the vocal harmonies, particularly that G 11th chord on 52 seconds.  I actually bought a small gong which played a shimmering E from the percussion shop Adaptatrap on Trafalgar Street where I used to get the kazoos for Lovely Rita and bought the tambourine for Polythene Pam.  Good shop.  Since The Beatles are largely unrepresented in their original form on youtube I will post a version of  by the Fab Faux who are the best Beatles tribute band out there I believe, having not just the accurate notes and tempos but the feel too.  Tribute bands, so low in status, will be the classical music players of late-20th century pop in the future.  We always played in black suits for that reason.

It wasn’t the most difficult song on the album, but it was close.  But for me it’s less about the song, more about the feeling and the memory.  I can’t remember how we got home from Ashdown Forest that midsummer night’s morning, but Andy Holmes remembers a group singalong of Here Comes The Sun at 5am.   I suspect I caught a bus in Uckfield and ended up in Kingston with Conrad Ryle and his family.  Buzzing faintly, getting shivery electric echoes of the vision interference.  Strange taste in my mouth.  Slept all day Sunday.   Was this the same Uckfield bus trip that Simon Korner and Patrick Freyne took, or were they on the bus in front ?  They were threatened by a man with a large head, a kind of combine harvester of a neanderthal, who, taking exception to their stoned and strung out giggling, told them that: “If you don’t shut up, You’re Gonna Die.  BY ME.

The following acid trips wouldn’t be quite so simple.

Questo obrigado tanta mucho cake and eat it carousel*

*lyrics websites hilariously have this as “Que Canite” rather than “cake and eat it”…

My Pop Life #130 : America – Simon & Garfunkel

America   –   Simon & Garfunkel

Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together

I’ve got some real estate here in my bag

So we bought a pack of cigarettes

and Mrs Wagner pies

and walked off to look for America…

It was some time in early 2015 when I became aware of the two Swedish sisters Johanna & Klara Söderberg who call themselves First Aid Kit covering this evergreen classic.  Clear, bright, bel canto voices with a precise harmonic shiver  : the song lived again in their youthful rendition.   It marked our first year living in New York City, two English actors who’d packed two suitcases and one cat each and upped and flown to the Big Apple on a whim in February 2014.   My wife Jenny and I had moved six times by the time I heard this cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s song, from Harlem in the snow, to the top floor of a brownstone in Washington Avenue in Brooklyn in the deeper snow (and an encounter with fairy godmother Johanna), across the street to a sublet in an apartment block, to the Village in Manhattan, then Air Bob in Bed-Stuy, to Hall St in Clinton Hill, now next door in Fort Greene.  It was our third major stint looking for America.  First – 1992 Los Angeles for three years, Venice, West Hollywood and Green Cards.  Next – 2002 Los Angeles for another two years – Los Feliz.  Now New York.  Coming up for two years as I write this.

My first experience of America was in 1976 when my best friend Simon Korner and I hitch-hiked from New York to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Cape Cod.  It was our gap year – though it was called “a year off” back then.  We’d done our A-levels, got our University places sorted – him at Cambridge, me at LSE.  I’d then left home and gone to work in Laughton Lodge as a Nursing Assistant, a period I outlined briefly in My Pop Life #58.

Essentially I was required to keep an eye on a ward-full of 30 men of differing shapes and sizes, but all classified in 1975 as ‘Mentally Subnormal’.  Some of them were dangerous.  Some were catatonic.  Now they would be called clients with a learning difficulty.  All this for a later blog, but I mention it in passing.  I worked there from October through to April 1975, saving money to fly to New York with Simon, to go and look for America.

It was terribly exciting, we were 18 going on 19 and from a small Sussex town called Lewes.  Seeing the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Smithsonian, the wide open prairies of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains, Monument Valley and the Arizona desert was an unparalleled experience for two young men, and it changed and bonded us both.    Paul Simon did a similar trip with Kathy Chitty in 1964.   I kept a diary of the trip and at one point in New Mexico wrote a kind of Ode :

America ! America ! The skies all seem to say !

Or are they saying something else, like : “Let’s be on our way” ?

 It’s rather hard to tell because it’s cloudy out today

But Ralph and Sigh don’t mind because they’re IN THE USA !!

Fairly safe to say there wasn’t a budding Paul Simon hiding within at that point.   It’s more of a Soviet Farm Song satire.

Perhaps not surprisingly this song always makes me feel emotional for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  The ultimate line : “…counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America…” is so simple and ordinary yet it has a poetic magic that lifts the song into a mythical hymn for the soul.  Of all those people searching for their best life on this vast continent.  Plenty wrong with the USA of course which I won’t rehearse here.  this is about the other side of the coin.   The optimism of America, constantly encouraging, constantly asking you to make the very best of yourself.  The reason why we keep coming back.    The hope.  The interior yearning made physical reality.

We had Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in our house all through childhood, Mum must have bought it.  This song didn’t stand out to me at the age of ten or eleven, I was hooked on Sound Of Silence, Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme, Homeward Bound.  But it must have crept under my skin because it has become one of my favourite songs of all time.  Again, I’m not sure why, but it has a strange ineffable power : unusually there is no rhyme at all in the lyrics, and the chorus is just one line, slightly altered each time “…look for America”.    Paul Simon evidently knows that from the specific and the individual experience comes the universal : the details of the Greyhound Bus trip from Pittsburgh which had started as a hitch-hiking journey from Saginaw, Michigan, the cigarettes, the jokes, the youthful joy which turns to melancholy in the last verse :

Kathy I’m lost” I said, though I knew she was sleeping..I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

the reference to smoking pot “some real estate here in my bag” and the the space between the two voices above all lend this three-minute masterpiece a unique power.  In particular the middle verse :

So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine and the moon rose over an open field..”

has no equal in pop writing for me.  There is just so much space in the song, and the listener fills it with their own fantasies, desires and feelings.  But mainly with their own bruised optimism.

graffitti on an abandoned building in Saginaw

I thought I would post the First Aid Kit version because I became rather obsessed with it, but after a few months of listening to hip hop and electronica I went back to it.  It still sounds bright and beautiful, but it is in the end a cover of a classic.  There are technical issues – chopped bar lines and other things I won’t bore you with, Paul Simon’s song is best served in the end by Art Garfunkel and himself, some acoustic guitars, a wandering soprano saxophone and a melodic bassline.  Larry Knechtel on Hammond organ and Hal Blaine on the drums join them on this recording, but essentially the space created between all of these elements is where the song’s beauty lies, which the Swedish sisters have understood so well.  David Bowie made a similar empty echoing version immediately after 9/11 which I post below.

My other memory of this song is the film Almost Famous of course, a film about music with one of the finer soundtracks I can remember.  The closing credits roll over The Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows“the closing song on their 1971 LP Surf’s Up and well outside the 20 Golden Greats arena.   Simon & Garfunkel’s song accompanies the young hero leaving home, looking for America.  One of those cliches that always lands.

Simon & Garfunkel 1966

Paul Simon is of course one of the finest songwriters of any era.  I sang his solo praises in My Pop Life #89 .  The combination he had with Art Garfunkel was immaculate though and unlikely to be bettered as a vehicle for his amazing songs.  I think they fell out probably – and unspoken issues kept them apart aside from one remarkable song My Little Town and a concert in Central Park in 1981 when they tried to heal the rift to no avail.

Carousel Singers at the Unitarian Church Brighton 2013

Towards the end of my Brighton period, around 2013 I suppose, I joined a group run by Julia Roberts called The Carousel Singers.  I was suggested by ace percussionist Paul Gunter who played for a while with The Brighton Beach Boys and is a senior graduate of Stomp – because Carousel – or rather Julia – were looking for a pianist who could accompany a choir of learning-disabled adults.  My year with Carousel was extraordinary, funny, moving and occasionally sad.  We’d meet every Wednesday evening in the Unitarian Church on New Road in the centre of Brighton.  Julia, Paul, another musician Gabrielle, graduate Karis and me.  My instinct was always to push the singers further, assume that they could do things that perhaps they hadn’t been asked to do before, stretch them out a bit.  And we used to write songs together, as a group.  In particular the choir members would come up with the lyrics, and I would supply some kind of tune and chords to go with them.  The first time we did this, for a song we called Song For Iain,  I used a simple descending F to C bassline which pleases the ear and sounds very POP, but for the second song I just couldn’t get ‘America’ out of my brain, and blatantly lifted chunks of melody for the choir to sing.  Fran in particular got it, and always remembered the tune from one week to the next.  Others joined her.  Others again could scarcely talk let alone sing, but it was a group which looked out for each other and didn’t judge, but always supported each other.  I learned a huge amount from working with these people, who just 40 years earlier would have been on a locked ward in a Mental Hospital being dosed-up with various drugs.   The Carousel Singers all have a level of independence, and a huge reservoir of compassion combined with a lack of judgement of other people’s ability and capability.  It was extraordinarily moving.  I do believe that we could learn a great deal from adults and children with learning difficulties.

Meanwhile I’m still looking for America.  Wish me luck.

Simon & Garfunkel :

First Aid Kit get an ovation from Paul Simon :

the David Bowie video isn’t the 9/11 one but hey !

My Pop Life #126 : Blue Monday – Fats Domino

Saturday mornin’, oh saturday mornin’ all my tiredness has gone away

got my money and my honey & we’re out on the stand to play…

 When Jenny and I finally got married on July 25th 1992 we did it in style.  We did it in the way we wanted to.  We’d postponed the original date (see My Pop Life #20) and waited a year or two then walked up the aisle eventually in 1992.   Our perfect wedding consisted of : a gold wedding dress for Jenny;  a bootlace tie for me;  a choir composed of our friends to sing things to us (see My Pop Life 56);  a wedding reception where someone played Chopin and where we both made speeches;   a party in the evening where we could invite EVERYONE;  a wedding band which played at the party that we could both play in.  For starters.  We planned every detail.  Some people don’t do this obviously – some people run away to Las Vegas, or in Dee’s case, Grenada.   Yes, Jenny’s oldest sister Dee flew to New York and thence to Grenada to marry Mick Stock (Jamie and Jordan’s dad) and made Jenny’s mum Esther furious for denying her a wedding.  We included Esther in our wedding – it was about 18 months of serious hard-nosed negotiation, mainly by Jenny.   OK, all by Jenny.

              

         Stephen Warbeck                                     Joe Korner

      

                       Simon Korner                                     Andrew Ranken

The wedding band was made of people I’d gone to school with and played in bands with, almost exclusively.  Andrew Taylor “Tat”on guitar, from school band Rough Justice (see My Pop Life #80);   Joe Korner on keyboards/piano from art-rock band Birds Of Tin (haven’t written about them yet);    Patrick Freyne on drums also from an early incarnation of Birds Of Tin;   Simon Korner my oldest and best friend on bass guitar – rather remarkably I’d never played in a band with him before so we were making up for lost time;   Andrew Ranken on vocals who had gone out with Simon’s sister Deborah Korner for years through school and beyond before Deborah had a baby boy and then tragically and awfully died shortly afterwards of an aneurysm in 1991.   The shadow of that death was still cast over our wedding quite naturally.  Andrew and Patrick had both been excellent drummers at Priory School in Lewes, (as had Pete Thomas) and they had performed a memorable drum battle on the school playing fields one summers day in 1974.   Pete Thomas went on to join The Attractions in 1977 and has been playing with Elvis Costello ever since off and on, while Andrew  joined The Pogues in 1983 and had recorded five LPs with them by the time of our wedding.  I’d seen them live many times with Simon and Joe.  He brought multi-instrumentalist and good bloke Jem Finer, co-writer of Fairytale in New York with him into the wedding band on saxophone alongside myself.

James Fearnley,  Jem Finer,  Andrew Ranken,  Spider Stacey,            Shane McGowan, Cait O’Riordan early 1980s

Stephen Wood, close friend of Andrew who also went to Priory played accordion and went on to change his name to ‘Oscar-winning composer ‘ Stephen Warbeck (for Shakespeare In Love).   On the night of the wedding a third sax player called Chris turned up and played tenor.  He was good, but he needed to be because he hadn’t been to any rehearsals.   Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules was on backing vocals with Jenny herself alongside our good friend Maureen Hibbert.  They looked like The Supremes or The Emotions ie : great.  And they could all sing.  It was a good wee band.

The Mysterious Wheels

Andrew, Simon and Joe are still playing together in that band, now called Andrew Ranken & The Mysterious Wheels.  Catch them live in London!

We rehearsed in IGA Studios as I recall, close to Mount Pleasant Post Office in WC2.   The early discussions about a setlist were interesting since they mainly consisted of Andrew casting a veto over any song which he didn’t fancy singing – which was most of the songs that we wanted at our wedding.  Oh well.  The only exception was Try A Little Tenderness which we had lined up for Lucy, who has an exceptional voice, but that’s for another post.  In the end our setlist was based on Andrew’s tried and tested setlist emanating from the great city of New Orleans and primarily songs written or performed by the great Smiley Lewis:  One Night, I Hear You Knocking, Dirty People and Blue Monday.   I knew Smiley Lewis – I’d bought the above-pictured CD in the mid-80s, it is Fantastic.  One of the inventors of rock and roll or R’n’B as we knew it.  (They’re very close.)  All songs made famous by other players – One Night by Elvis, I Hear You Knocking by Fats Domino and Dave Edmunds, Dirty People by Omar & The Howlers.  Who?   I also owned Fats Domino’s greatest hits from way back in the late 70s and considered him to be a genius.   Fats covered all these songs.  We also threw in Robert Parker’s Barefootin’, Chuck Berry’s Nadine, Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, Dr John’s version of Junco Partner,  and Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and Lawdy Miss Clawdy (I think!).

Andrew had played in Lewes band The Grobs when Simon and I, Tat and Joe and Patrick and Stephen were at Priory School.  He’d always been cooler than us.  One year older is a long time when you’re sixteen.  I’m not sure when he settled on New Orleans as the source of his live act, but it is definitely a sign of muso grooviness, like a faintly secret musical society.  Everyone knows Motown, most people know Philly, some know Stax but who knows Imperial Records or Specialty  Records from Louisiana ?  The sound of New Orleans is different from everywhere else in the States in that most songs will be piano-based rather than guitar.  This rolling style exemplified by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr John gives all these records their own unique flavour, my own personal favourite style of boogie-woogie rhythm and blues.  Andrew Ranken, in short, was right.  Perhaps The Pogues, a punk-flavoured London Irish band led by the inimitable Shane McGowan had formed an attachment to the city when they’d passed through.  Original member Spider Stacey now lives there with his wife, having worked on a couple of episodes of that great TV showcase for the city Treme.

Fats Domino 1956

Almost all of these chosen wedding night songs were born in New Orleans.  Days after the wedding night, in a completely star-crossed, fortuitous and magical co-incidence,  Jenny and I were drinking our way around the Crescent City on our first honeymoon, courtesy of MGM Studios who had employed me to act in their film Undercover Blues alongside Fiona Shaw, Dennis Quaid, Kathleen Turner and Stanley Tucci.   For another post !

New Orleans is where jazz was born in those days before recording was invented.  Instruments abandoned by the marching bands of the Confederate army after the Civil War ended in 1965 were currency in New Orleans where whites and blacks mixed more than they did elsewhere in the segregated south, giving rise to a creole property-owning middle class in the late 1890s when the riverboats would steam up the Mississippi and gamblers, hucksters and nascent capitalists rubbed shoulders in the gin-joints and speakeasys of The French Quarter where Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton could be found forging the music of the 20th century.   It became known as Music City long before Nashville stole that crown.  There are blues joints and hops all over town, some of them such as Tipitina’s legendary.   By the mid-forties the blues had acquired a bit of bounce and this is where Smiley Lewis comes in.   A rural Louisianan who hopped a tramcar to N’Awlins after his mother died, he hooked up with bandleader and key figure Dave Bartholomew, and cut Dave’s song Blue Monday.

It’s a Monday to Friday song,  some of my favourite songs have this structure : Friday On My Mind by The Easybeats, Diary of Horace Wimp by ELO.  Solomon Grundy springs to mind :

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday,

That was the end, of Solomon Grundy

A nursery rhyme ‘collected’ in the 1840s.   Bartholomew’s song was re-recorded by Fats Domino two years later and became a huge hit in 1956, the year that I was conceived.  Smiley Lewis’ biggest hit was I Hear You Knocking but again Fats’ version of that also outsold it by hundreds of thousands.  Smiley Lewis didn’t have no luck.

Our version of Blue Monday featured a crappish saxophone solo by me and a wonderful chorus of the girls singing “Saturday morning oooh Saturday morning…” as they swayed in the breeze at the microphone.  I remember watching our friends Conrad and Gaynor dancing, and others too.  Jenny’s primary memory of the gig is Stephen Wood’s leather sandal beating time into a puddle of beer as he squeezed that accordion.

The wedding party itself was at The Diorama near Regent’s Park, and was brilliantly stage-managed by blessed Neil Cooper may his soul rest in peace.  We had an open parachute suspended from the ceiling above the dance floor.  Flowers everywhere.  The band went on at around ten-thirty I think.  It was nerve-wracking, but no more so than standing in a church in front of everyone and saying your vows.  I tried to enjoy it, and some of the time I did.  I’m really really glad we did it.  I remember standing round in the Diorama earlier in the evening in my brand new blue suit from Paul Smith gnashing my teeth at the non-arrival of Jenny’s brother Jon who was doing the DJ-ing at the party (he never did show up) and playing Songs In The Key Of Life as people arrived and overhearing two people standing in front of me – the light was low and there were hundreds of people there – discussing the event… “I heard The Pogues are playing later…”  “No…!

The Pogues

Well two of them were.  My main confession concerns the song itself.  I always thought that the Sunday section was “Sunday morning my head is bare, but it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had” but apparently that’s a mis-hearing.  I’m imagining Fats Domino or Smiley Lewis in church on Sunday morning with bare head.  But apparently all the lyric sites quote “Sunday morning my head is bad…”  Make up your own mind dear reader.

Fats Domino himself is simply a legend.  One of the primary forces behind the birth of rock’n’roll he is remarkably still alive, as are Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard from that era.  Three of the group are pianists.  Fats still lives in the 9th Ward in New Orleans and he went missing after deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as did many people including Allen Toussaint.  But he surfaced a few days later.  One of my favourite Fats Domino stories involves boogie-woogie ivory basher Jools Holland who was making a documentary and was visiting his house.  “Good morning“said Jools in his scrawny Lewisham gobshite accent, “We’re here from the BBC making a documentary about pianists and we’re very pleased to include your good self“.  Fats blinked and stared.  “What’d he say?” Fats eventually asked.  Jools repeated his sentence probably slightly slower to no effect.  They all stood there looking at each other.  Eventually Jools sat down at the grand piano and played the intro to Blue Monday.  Fats broke out in a big grin and shook his hand : “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but if you can play that tune, you can stay

Blue Monday was my favourite of the wedding band songs I think.  It’s a great great song.  Still in the Ralph & Jenny playlist.  Enjoy.

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