My Pop Life #140 : The Right Thing To Do – Carly Simon

The Right Thing To Do   –   Carly Simon

And it used to be for a while
That the river flowed right to my door
Making me just a little too free
But now the river doesn’t seem to stop here anymore

Spring 1977.  I’m nearing the end of my first year at LSE.  I’ve got a decision to make, because during the long summer break I won’t be able to stay in my lodgings, the Maple Street flats on the corner of Fitzroy St, London W1, because they are owned and run by the LSE and in the summer we can’t stay there.  Most of my gang are going home to Glasgow, Sussex,  Barnsley, or Bedfordshire.  I actually hadn’t worked anything out, but going back to Hailsham and that sin city council estate wasn’t even an option.  But I was no longer going out with Miriam, so the Ryles wasn’t an option, Simon Korner was going abroad and going back to Lewes somehow didn’t seem right anyway.   Then I spotted a notice on the college noticeboard :

ACTORS WANTED FOR NEW PLAY GOING TO EDINBURGH FESTIVAL
JUNE – AUGUST
AUDITIONS BLAH BLAH BLAH

I scribbled the phone number down and called it up and booked an audition.  I cannot remember a single detail of the audition, either where it was, what I had to do, anything. But I got it, and made immediate plans to stay in London for the rehearsals.

Only one pupil from Lewes Priory had gone to Drama School (Drama Centre I think?) – Helen Lane, who was in the year above me.  I knew her because I’d done a few plays at school – rehearsing after school usually with kids older than me.  So many stories there – but – I enjoyed it.  I knew I’d enjoy Edinburgh – although I’d never even heard of the Festival before.  During my first year studying law down on the Aldwych there were a few competing social activities – and after some thought I’d decided to play football on Wednesday afternoons.  It clashed with Drama which was also on offer.  But I’d played football for Lewes every Saturday morning for years, and subsequently played centre-half for the LSE.  The home games were in New Malden so some commitment was required !  But the point was, that I treated playing football and drama as the same kind of thing.  Like playing pool.  Things that you did for fun, in the evening and at weekends.  So a whole summer of that was cool by me.

Anyway, I told Helen about Edinburgh and she was very supportive and offered her floor for me to sleep on for rehearsals.  I think she lived in Camden Town or maybe Kentish Town.  Rehearsals were near Russell Square somewhere in Bloomsbury which was my route to college anyway, familiar.  Weird this – by now I was going steady with Mumtaz, and she was running the student accommodations so why didn’t I stay with her ?  The memory is no help once again.

Carly Simon, London 1972

Now it’s all going to go vague. I think a fella called Murray directed the play.  we did weird stretches and warm-ups in the mornings and played some drama games which I would remember for my National Youth Theatre Days a decade later (see My Pop Life #7).  I was playing a recruiting Lieutenant for the US Army.  The play was called The Death Of Private Kowalski.  The National Student Theatre Company, run by Mr Clive Wolfe was producing it at their inaugural season at Edinburgh.  We were in a theatre or perhaps it was a Church Hall in Broughton St ? York Place ? in Edinburgh.  Near Leith Walk ?  I think we shared it with a deaf theatre company.   I remember an altercation one night, just the silent fury of sign language.  I think an American actor called Tom played Private Kowalski.  I remember little very clearly.  But I’m absolutely certain that every single one of the cast EXCEPT FOR ME was at Drama School – either Rada, Drama Centre, Ealing, Mountview or the Old Vic.  I was an object of curiosity.

“What are you going to do when you leave college?”

I’m going to be a barrister.

“Oh.  Really?”

Yes.  Really.  Why, what are you going to do?

“What do you think?  I’m going to be an actor of course.”

> THUNDERSTRUCK <

Edinburgh 77

A trickle of an idea started to form in my left ear.  I didn’t dare speak it aloud, so daring , so brave and foolish it was.  One other student from LSE was in the Company, Nick Broadhurst who was studying Sociology.  I was quite impressed that he’d managed to snaggle the beautiful Tibetan student Kalsang as his girlfriend, but he listened to weird music like Elevator Coming Over The Hill.  He was helping Clive behind the scenes and secretly plotting a brave and dangerous idea of his own.   The other administrator was Jane who had curly brown hair and John Lennon granny glasses.  I think my digs were unremarkable, and all I remember of Edinburgh is the constant smell of sweetness in the air coming from the breweries.  Known as “Auld Reekie” Edinburgh was a cornucopia of delights, from the Castle to the Fringe club, to the streets full of actors and clowns and buskers all competing for audience.  This was 1977 remember, way before the comedians took over, and way before it became the commercial event it is today.  It was a theatre festival, and I remember seeing groups from Russia and New Zealand that year.

Edinburgh Festival 1977

Then, one afternoon, after the show (once a day at 3pm I believe) I was downstairs in the toilet having a slash.  Innocent, unformed and alive, I was about to experience what I would later understand was akin to a Damascene conversion.  In an Ediburgh toilet. Beside me a large man who asked me, in a strong Texan accent

“Where are you from in America son?”

Is it strange that I had my cock in my hand at this revelation, as the stars changed course and the earth swallowed my life up and spat me back out ?

I’m from England

I replied, shaking drips and re-corking the underpants.  “Well,” said the Texan,

“Fooled me.  Great Job !”

Thank you I said, covering my earthquake and zipping up the trouser.  It was a bolt of lightning which went to my very core and rewired my entire life.  At that point I realised that I could be like those other kids.  I could be an actor.

*

Why Carly Simon ?  Really ?  Well, it was ubiquitous that summer.  No idea why – it had been out for years by then.  But music lasted in those days.  This LP, No Secrets by Carly Simon, was an ever-present that summer.  I think Helen had it in her flat in Kentish Town.  Jane definitely had it.  I kept seeing girls carrying it.  It was a girls record.  All the girls I knew LOVED IT.  And I became exposed to it, there was a record player somewhere and on it went.  It is an amazing LP.  Of course I already knew You’re So Vain from Pan’s People dancing to it on Top Of The Pops and finding clouds in their coffee.  No Secrets was her 3rd LP on Elektra Records, making number one in the billboard charts for 5 straight weeks in 1972.  I love every song on this record.  Lovely chord changes on The Carter Family and When You Close Your Eyes and emotional bombs going off all over the place.  The Right Thing To Do is the opening song and has a lazy 70s feel that takes me right back to the joints smoked, the relaxed vibes, the flares, the girls.

Trident Studio (as was), St Ann’s Court

Later I would discover that No Secrets was recorded at Trident Studios in St Ann’s Court in Soho, now a Film Production house where I’ve done numerous voice recordings, ADR sessions and so on.  Transformer, Space Oddity and many other great albums were recorded there in the 60s and 70s.  The studio musician credits on No Secrets now reads like a who’s who of the London Sessions, about which I almost made a documentary a few years back.  Another story.  Andy Newmark on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, Jimmy Ryan on guitars.  With contributions from my old friend Ray Cooper (from Handmade Films) on percussion (listen for the ripple of the congas after the first line of The Right Thing To Do), Jim Keltner, Paul Buckmaster, Paul & Linda McCartney, Mick Jagger, Lowell George, Bonnie Bramlett, James Taylor, Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins, Doris Troy with Liza Strike and Vicki Brown doing the bvs for this song.  Richard Perry produced. Everything clearly just fell into place. There is an ease and a freshness to these songs, both in the writing and the recording.

*

I’ve often wondered in subsequent years, perhaps on a daily basis whether a career in acting was The Right Thing To Do.  I went back to LSE that autumn a changed man, but I completed the final two years of the law degree and I am indeed LLB or Batchelor of Law. So I have a complex relationship with my ghost career as a barrister, and often peek over to see how he’s doing.  How’m I doing ?  Possibly my least favourite question.  Gemini. Always needs an option.   I sadly discovered while writing this blurry memory that Clive Wolfe passed away last year.  RIP.  He was at  least partly responsible for where I am today.

Live !!

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My Pop Life #128 : A Whiter Shade Of Pale : King Curtis

A Whiter Shade Of Pale   –   King Curtis

1987 Wardour Street W1.  A basement screening room in Soho, Central London, which serves as the centre of the British Film Industry – in other words : A small group of overwhelmingly decent men and women in smallish offices talking on the telephone, often to each other.  Of course we have Pinewood and Shepperton Studios out on the M25, but this is our Hollywood:

De Lane Lea on Dean St.  Palace Pictures used to be in Wardour Mews off D’Arblay Street, near Fish where I used to get my haricut.  Working Title.   Mike Leigh’s office is in Greek Street.  The Groucho Club.  Soho House.  Century.  Blacks.  The Sound Studios.  The Edit Suites.  The Distributor’s offices.  Old Compton Street.  Marshall Street.   Meard Street.  Frith Street.  Lexington Street.  Berwick Street.  Soho Square.   The Dog and Duck.   The Coach and Horses.  The French House.  Kettners.  Ronnie Scott’s.  Bar Italia.   Oxford Circus tube.  Shaftesbury Avenue.  Lunch in Chinatown if you fancy.  A small tight and dedicated community squashed into the narrow lanes next to prostitutes walk-ups, strip clubs, pubs, bars and gin joints.   And more recently : chichi hotels and Japanese restaurants as the seedy down-at-heel glamour of the area turns into another monied area of the capital of the world’s capital.  Oh well.  Everything changes right ?

The British Film Industry has been described as a cottage industry, as a few people on the phone, as punching above its weight, as a contradiction in terms.  I’ve worked with many of these dedicated and frankly faintly insane people over the years.  It’s been my honour to have done so.  To make a film in the United Kingdom you need to be more than a little mad.  It takes years of hopeless and often unrewarded effort to get the money, the group of people, the script, the whole thing to work, and often the  punishment is a sniffy review by a critic who prefers the latest Hollywood offering to your carefully nurtured baby, your precious flower on which you have spent weeks, months, years, lunches, breakfasts, dinners, blood, sweat, tears, rages and sleepless nights to bring to the general public.   Only to have it shat on.  And for you to come back for more.  It’s like a drug and we can’t get enough.

 

On this particular day, this auspicious day, one of the better days, it was exciting to be rolling up at 2pm to an underground screening room in a hallowed Soho with a handful of actors : Richard Griffiths, Richard E. Grant, and Paul McGann and a director, Bruce Robinson, a producer Paul Heller, a composer David Dundas and one or two other faces for the first showing of Withnail and I, a film we’d all worked on 18 months earlier in 1985.   I was excited, nervous, worried, hopeful and frankly thrilled to bits.  I hadn’t done that many films at that point.   In fact aside from The Hit, in which I scarcely spoke, this was my first film.  I was almost 30 years old, done a bit of TV and walked off The Bill because I wanted to do films.  This had been the first one that turned up.  It had been a blast to make  but that’s for another story.  Here I am now sat next to lovely Richard Griffiths in the second row of the tiny theatre and the lights go down.  Only friends in here.

The first image on the screen is Paul McGann looking utterly wasted, fading drugs seeping through his pores as he smokes a roll-up. He wears John Lennon glasses and his hair is wavy.   A kind of pained exhausted beauty.  And as he sits and smokes we hear King Curtis playing that saxophone cover version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the huge Procol Harum hit single from 1967.  I’d never heard it before.  The saxophone seemed to be be sweating and feeling queasy and unsteady on its feet and then it found its purpose again and magnificently reaffirmed its point before spinning into a personal journey of emptiness and beauty that was so clearly a live version played by a person who was solid gone.  I mean crazy.

I enjoyed the film.  I though Paul and Richard were fantastic.  I laughed.  I loved them.  Then I came on, wearing shades and holding a fucking saveloy.  I was speaking    s  o      s  l  o  w  l  y     that I cringed inside with embarrassment.  All that lovely vibe that Richard and Paul had built up to that point had been thrown away – I was so totally off the pace it was like I was in a different film altogether.  Excruciating.  Rich Griffiths next to me patted my leg with enthusiasm :  “Marvellous dear boy, marvellous“he whispered.  I looked at him quickly in alarm.  “I’m talking too fucking slowly” I hissed at him.  “Nonsense dear boy, wonderful” he replied and we shut up to concentrate on the next scene.

Richard Griffiths in Withnail 

There were other musical highlights that day, but all involving songs I already knew really well.  I loved the movie.  It was the one I had read in my flat in the Archway Road a couple of years earlier.  Funny, well-written, and sad.  I though everyone was great except me.  It was a reaction that would come back to haunt me on a regular basis every few years, most recently in Bristol in early 2014 when Paul and I attended a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail and were interviewed on the stage afterwards by Phil Jupitus.  I made the mistake of watching the film again, and once again fell into the pit of finding myself wanting.  I have enjoyed my own performance on one or two occasions, and I still enjoy doing ‘the voice’, although I have rationed its professional use.  But I will never watch it again I suspect.

We retired to a bar afterwards and I found that Richard Grant’s reaction had been even stronger than mine – I believe he vomited and subsequently vowed to never watch one of his own performances ever again.  We enjoyed each other’s acting however and Bruce was happy and the mood was bright and happy so we drank some drinks and cheers’d ourselves and clinked and drank some more and went home glowing and happy.

The rest was a slow burn to infamy.

King Curtis had the kind of career as a saxophone player that I could only dream of.  When, at the age of 27, I was considering whether to be a professional saxophone player or an actor, I tried to imagine what a successful horn player’s life would be like.  At best I could imagine being a good session player, doing a solo on a Pink Floyd LP or Listen To What The Man Said, maybe being in a pop band for a few years like Madness or UB40, shagging loads of birds, taking drugs, becoming unpleasant and sad by the time I was 40 or disappearing into the jazz world and becoming a brilliant elusive junkie.  Curtis was the king of the instrument all right, starting as a jazzman with Lionel Hampton and others before making his mark in the pop world from The Coaster’s Yakety Yak, to John Lennon’s It’s So Hard,   LaVern Baker’s I Cried A Tear, Clyde McPhatter’s A Lover’s Question and co-writing Reminiscing with Buddy Holly.

King Curtis, Percy Sledge, unknown, Jimi Hendrix

In the mid-sixties he played in a soul band with Jimi Hendrix on guitar backing Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and  Cornell Dupree.  He also had his own band The Kingpins who opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and cut sides for Atlantic Records including the hits Memphis Soul Stew, Games People Play and Ode To Billy Joe before opening for and arranging  Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West which became two live albums (one by Aretha, one by King Curtis) and from which A Whiter Shade Of Pale is taken.  Much loved by the Rock Establishment – Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Lennon and others, he was murdered in an altercation with junkies outside his apartment in New York five months after this concert.

On the DVD for Withnail & I (which Paul McGann and I did a commentary on for the special edition) I make a spurious claim, now crystallised for all eternity, that Curtis died on the night of the Fillmore West gig, just after recording the emotional genius of Whiter Shade Of Pale.  I can be wrong tha knows…

In the end the art of film-making hopes for a similar end result to the musician – to affect the audience.  To move you in mysterious or obvious ways.  Language is often a blunt tool, but in this opening sequence to the film that changed my life, there are no words, either on screen or in the sobbing song which accompanies it.  A man of quintessential loquacious eloquence like writer and director Bruce Robinson knew when to let the music and the actor do the work.

My Pop Life #123 : Philosophy – Ben Folds Five

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Philosophy   –   Ben Folds Five

..I see that there is evil and I know that there is good

But the in-between I’ve never understood…

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Ben Folds Five

It was on the radio in August 1995 that I first heard Ben Folds Five.  They were amazing.  The music sounded hand-crafted specially for me – pure major-chord bright-eyed sophisticated pop music fronted by a piano; witty songs, arrangements and lyrics and brilliant music with no guitars.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the guitar to be honest – so of course here follows a list of exceptions <sigh>  :  Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, Blue Oyster Cult, QOTSA, Sex Pistols, George Harrison, Elmore James, Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Guy Clark, Franco & TPOK Jazz, The Ramones etc etc

But the piano.  Come on.  The finest musical instrument.  An orchestra in two hands.  Bach. Chopin.  Erik Satie.  Debussy.  Scott Joplin.   James P. Johnson.   Rachmaninov.  Ellington.  Fats Waller.  Teddy Wilson.  Art Tatum.  Count Basie.  Fats Domino.  Ray Charles.  Randy Newman.  Alan Price.  Ian McLagan.  Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Kate Bush.  Ben Folds.

Hey – whose Pop Life is it anyway ?

Ben Folds was the pianist.  Darren Jessee was the drummer.  Robert Sledge played bass.

Just three of them, and they called the band Ben Folds Five.  Sounded better I suppose.

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The first single was called “Underground” and it sounded amazing on the radio.  Amazing enough for me to go out and find the CD somewhere.  Called “Ben Folds Five“, it had a picture of a piano on the front cover.   It was excellent.   Packed chock-full of ideas, the songs were about college, leaving college, being a young adult, looking back, growing up.   Many styles.   Some were like Elton John, some were rock music, some were like music hall/ragtime, others like prog.   And they could play.   Folds himself is clearly classically trained, returned to pop.  The fuzz bass is a huge part of the sound.  And the backing vocals.  My favourite track on that first LP is called Philosophy and it is a little impenetrable lyrically – theories abound that it is about an architect, the Statue of Liberty, Ben’s cock.  Seriously.  (He made a joke about it once and everyone remembered it).   But I think it’s about having your own self-image, your own take on life and your path through it.  Your own philosophy that “keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you walking when you fall down”.    Without that you’re a cypher.

I immediately set about learning it on the piano.  It is a beautiful thing.   But very soon I was off to Australia on a gig, and by the time I came back we were completing on a house purchase in Brighton.

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Mollie Jules-Crompton

Cut to November 1996, one year later and Jenny and I are babysitting for Mollie’s girls Dominique, Kimberley and Courtnie (who was only one year old!) in Ruislip for a week.   Mollie – Jenny’s older (but not oldest) sister, married to Pete a year before us – was in hospital under observation because she was pregnant again, and she’d already lost two previous pregnancies desperately trying for a boy.   Mollie & Pete had three very beautiful and fabulous girls – still do – but they both wanted a boy, even at some risk to Mollie’s health.  It was a worrying time for us all.  Mollie was also showing signs of auto-immune disease Lupus once again to complicate things.   At this point at the end of November she was six months pregnant and there had been some alarm so Jen and I stepped in and said we could stay overnight there for a few nights.   Pete was working nights at that point.

Anyway, come November 26th we got Jenny’s two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy to stand in for us as babysitters because we had two tickets to see Ben Folds Five at the Astoria in London’s Charing Cross Road.  Over a year after the album was released this was their first tour of the UK.

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The Astoria, Charing Cross Road, London

The Astoria was one of those great London venues which has now been destroyed to make way for Crossrail, the project that allows bankers to whizz into the City from Heathrow in half an hour.   It is responsible for the current destruction of Soho as a unique bohemian corner of London.   I didn’t see that many shows there, but David Bowie in 2001, and this from Ben Folds Five are up there with the best moments.

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Ben Folds Five live

They played the whole album and some interesting covers – Ray Charles You Don’t Know Me and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – and absolutely smashed Philosophy and Underground with Ben jumping onto the piano and playing it with his fists and feet at one point.  Good show.  We came out and Jenny immediately called her sisters to find out if all was well.  We’d driven in from Ruislip – I think I had a Jag at that point – some gas guzzling blue monster that I loved driving – and Jenny suddenly burst into tears on the street as we walked round to Soho Square.  “Mollie’s had a baby boy” she said through sobs…”he’s in an incubator”.

We drove to the hospital and found Mollie, exhausted but happy, wth Pete, and Jenny’s Mum & Dad, and there was a tiny little precious baby boy in a transparent incubator, tubes going into his nostrils as his tiny hands tried to pull them out – it was a good sign.  He was three months premature.  He weighed less than a bag of sugar – 2lbs.  In those early days there was much worry about brain damage and stunted growth and all kinds of things, but those early struggles to remove his nose tubes were a sign of strength through adversity and slowly but surely he was removed from the incubator and grew into the healthy young nephew that Jenny and her sisters called ‘Boy’ after the youngest, Cookie had named him.

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Robert, Jordan and Cookie in 2006

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Robert – June 17th 2007 when he was 11

Robert is now 18 years old and a more throughly great young man I couldn’t wish to know.  Thoughtful, funny, gentle but nobody’s fool.

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Robert Jules-Crompton and I in 2013

 I’m not sure he even knows this story about his nativity – from our side anyway.  I doubt he’s heard this song.   But I know he has his own philosophy which keeps his feet on the ground.  Jenny and I took him to see Tottenham v Chelsea one day for a birthday present a few years ago.  All Jenny’s family are Tottenham Hotspur fans.  Oh well.

It’s now November 2015, some 20 years after that first Ben Folds Five LP was released, and two days ago Robert’s nan Bet, Pete’s Mum, passed away in Yarmouth.  Cycles of birth and death.  She will live on inside us all, inside all who knew her.  But death is a loss, and it has been a sad week. Rest in Peace Nanny Bet.

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Pete, Kimberley, Bet, Dominique in 2013

*

Ben Folds Five did two more LPs : Whatever & Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – both outstanding;  an LP of B-sides, and then split.  Ben Folds did some cracking solo LPs himself – notably Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, and Ben Folds Five reformed for one last LP The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind in 2012.

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Robert with his nephew Kian, Dominique’s son in 2012

Philosophy, the song, has a moment towards the end when everything goes mental and Ben’s pounded piano solo turns into a quotation from Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, that mighty work from 1924 which has come to symbolise New York, via Woody Allen’s Manhattan and various other cultural markers.  Soon I will get the famous cadence – the theme from Rhapsody in Blue – tattooed onto my left arm. Sometime this November.

LP track

Live from Jools in 1996

Reformed band in 2010