My Pop Life #209 : Classical Symphony in D – Sergei Prokofiev

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Classical Symphony – Sergei Prokofiev

I should be on my way to Russia right now.  Quick stopover in Moscow then on to Ekaterinberg, the furthest east of all the World Cup 2018 venues.  That was the plan.  Targeting the game there on Friday – Egypt v Uruguay.  After the season that Mo Salah has had I’d like to see him at a World Cup.  Will he be fit ?  Hmmm

However here I am at home in Brooklyn having spent the afternoon on a reconnaissance trip to Brighton Beach.  Little Odessa, not Hove, actually.  Looking for World Cup vibes because we’re spending this World Cup in New York City.   We’ll be seeking out neighbourhood cafes and restaurants showing games, in particular representing the teams which are playing.  So, on Friday we’ll be heading to Bijans,  an Iranian restaurant in Boerum Hill, just down the road, for the must-win game for both Morocco and Iran since the other two teams in that group are mighty Portugal and Spain.

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Jenny and I in Soweto, World Cup 2010

But why aren’t we going to Russia then?  Jenny and I have been to the last six World Cups – in Los Angeles ’94, France ’98, Japan/Korea ’02, Germany ’06, South Africa ’10 and Brazil ’14.  Amazing times.  Truly.  But Jenny decided about a year ago that she didn’t fancy the Russia World Cup because of the continued racism at games in that country.  We met some Russians in Rio in 2014 on their way to the Maracaña to see Russia play Belgium.  I asked them where they were from and they, all fresh-faced and covered in flags, said “Irkutsk”.  Wow, I thought, remembering the Risk board from my teens, Siberia !!  They’ve come a long way.  And they seemed so sweet and naive and I remember thinking – the World Cup in Russia will be cool.  I still hold to that.  But Jenny has been in England for 4 months doing a play at the Donmar and only just got back, I don’t really want to fly off to Russia on my own, leaving Jenny behind,  in the hope of hooking up with our old football buddy Billy The Bee who has a slightly more England-centred agenda than me.  I did want to, but I didn’t.  I wouldn’t.  I haven’t.

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Me, Melissa (her 1st game!!) & Bella Bee at Griffin Park after 2-1 win v QPR

When I travelled to London in April to see Jenny in the play ‘The Way of The World‘  by William Congreve, I decided to see Billy to break the news to him that I wouldn’t be accompanying him to Russia.  I went west on the Piccadilly Line from Covent Garden to Northfields and walked down to The Globe, where I have been many times before for Brighton & Hove Albion away matches v Brentford, for Billy the Bee is, yes you guessed it, a Brentford fan, and today they were at home to West London Rivals Queens Park Rangers.  (Brentford won 2-1). As the afternoon and beers progressed, a number of Billy’s mates, including dear David Lane who I know, came up to Billy and expressed worry on his behalf in Russia.  None of them were going.  I added my forthcoming absence to his day.

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Billy the Bee in Johannesburg, World Cup 2010

Jenny and I met Billy on a train from Paris to Toulouse during France ’98. We watched the England v Romania game together on a pavement TV after failing to score tickets for the match, and found each other at every World Cup since then.  We were in Jo’burg together in a large house, went to Soweto pretty much every day.  You can find these stories on my other blog.  Rather weirdly they read from the bottom up.  Gonna see if I can fix that.

Anyway.

Russia.  I wish I was going.  But I’m not.  The country, the nation, its politics and culture has had a huge part in my life since I was small.  Always held up as the reason why people weren’t communist, or the reason why they were.  The 20 million war dead who stopped Hitler alongside the British and the Americans always turn up in arguments, rightly so.  I read Marx at school (he was German I know but his writing had a profound effect on Russia) and wondered why his teachings, which resembled those of Jesus in the New Testament, were so reviled in my own country.  I pieced it together fairly quickly, indeed to the extent that I chose to go to University at the LSE rather than Cambridge, and studied Lenin and the revolution.  There in the late 70s I did a course entitled “Soviet & Yugoslav Legal Systems” which made up 25% of my 3rd year, and was taught by Law Professor Ivo Lapenna who was a Slav.  Four or five times a class he would utter the famous formulation “according to Marxism…” and this almost made the three years of law worthwhile, indeed privileged was I to spend part of my youth sitting in educational establishments learning these things.  Ten years later in 1989 I read Mikhail Gorbachev‘s book Perestroika and was there in Berlin when the wall came down at the end of that momentous year (see My Pop Life #166).  There was a shrinkage of the Soviet state down to its essence, Russia, and the gangsters took over.

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And of course I’ve had to parse the media throughout my life regarding stories and attitudes to The USSR as it was known until I turned 33.  United Soviet Socialist Republic. Stories are inevitably negative until you read The Morning Star, or go to the source material, the history, the books that Marx or Gorbachev or Solzhenitsyn actually wrote.  They’re very good by the way.  The current Western bad guy is once again the Russian Bear, personified, as these short-hand attitudes always have to be, by a figure, in this case, Mr Vladimir PutinRandy Newman had a song called Putin on his last album which contained the opening line

Putin puttin’ his pants on

which is both hilarious and childish.  But now we’re supposed to be interested in these cartoon personalities and their egos.   Forgive me if I don’t get into politics, right now.

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And in parallel to these political revolutions and counter-revolutionary upheavals, I was reading Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn as a teenager.  Crime & Punishment, The Idiot,  One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, and Cancer Ward.  I actually wrote a short story whilst at school entitled One Day In The Life of Ivan ‘eadache Mum, which was a kind of parody of me being late for school as I recall.

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 I read Turgenev and the amazing Nikolai Gogol as a student, surrealist and hilarious material in the case of the latter, and my first Leo Tolstoy novel Boyhood.

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I finally read Tolstoy and Pushkin as an adult.  Of these, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is my favourite, I relished it, every word.  I will read it again if I live long enough.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes so well about people and I’ve always felt that The Brothers Karamazov perfectly described my two brothers and I.  But I was a teenager when I felt that and it may not stand up to detailed scrutiny to be fair.   The Idiot is quite superb.   The Peter Sellers film Being There is based on it.    I’m saving Anna Karenina for a rainy day, but remember clearly my first girlfriend Miriam Ryle reading it when she was 16.  I never got on with The Master & Margerita I must confess, but I’m prepared to have another go, neither have I got around to Nabakov yet.  Plenty of time for that I hope, and I have been told how great he is.

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I haven’t seen the Bolshoi Ballet, but I have seen a Russian ballet company from St Petersburg during the Brighton Festival with my friend Millie (who loves ballet) performing Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite & Swan Lake.  It was a classic performance which for me meant it was a bit of a museum piece but it was breathtakingly beautiful.

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One of my top five films is Russian – I refer to Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev, made in black & white in 1965.  It is a three-hour meditation on the life of the medieval icon painter Rublev, but that doesn’t even begin to touch at the remarkable achievement of this film. Seek it out and enjoy if you haven’t seen it.  I know it doesn’t sound like a film that you want to see, and there’s nothing much I can say to change that, except that it is absolutely breathtakingly brilliant.  All of Tarkovsky’s films are extraordinary in different ways – I name-checked his sci-fi masterpiece Solaris in My Pop Life #121.  The final film, made in Sweden is called The Sacrifice and again it is quite an astonishing piece of work.

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Original poster for Battleship Potemkin, 1925

Other Russian films I have marvelled at include Elem Klimov‘s ‘Come and See‘ about the effect of war on a young man, some of the images from that screening sometime in the early 1980s are seared onto my brain.  And of course Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky are both essential viewing for film buffs as is Bondarchuk‘s War & Peace.  And just last year I was sent a BAFTA dvd for the film Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev which was quite superb.

I have managed to avoid Dr Zhivago both in print and on screen.

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Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov of course was a genius, if there is such a thing, and his plays have thrilled me.  From The Seagull which I saw with with John Hurt to Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya -they are all exceptional, exquisite. My friend Simon Korner was pleading with me to read Chekhov’s short stories when we were both 18, and I finally read them in my 40s.  They are indeed quite the finest short stories I think I have ever read, although James Baldwin still takes some beating.

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‘Day of the Artist’ by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall is Russian isn’t he ?  Belorussian.  I love his work.  And the propagandists of the revolution created some incredible stuff.   And Kandinsky.  I’ll only get into trouble if I start rabbiting on about Constantin Stanislavski and the method school of acting.  I read his book as a young man – of course I did, having not trained as an actor it was the least I could do.  I’ve never really got past the “if you’re acting it you have to experience it” thing though, having played a number of killers myself over the years and never actually killed someone to see what it feels like.

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Sergei Prokofiev

And so to the music.  I should have listened to Peter & The Wolf as a child but I have no memory of it.  Sergei Prokofiev wrote it in 1936 when he was 45 years old, and had finally settled in Moscow after leaving Russia in 1918, although he was never an exile from the Revolution as I understand it.   I suspect Tchaikovsky was the first Russian music I listened to – Swan Lake no doubt which I even suspect we may have owned on 78 rpm and played on our portable wind-up gramophone (see My Pop Life #43).  Once you’ve heard of someone, you keep hearing it of course.  Everyone’s a Fruit & Nut Case was a commercial on British TV (Cadbury’s chocolate) to the tune of Sugar Plum Fairies.  Then it was probably the 1812 Overture  with its cannon gimmick, then he gets a mention in Harold Pinter’s  The Caretaker which I did for A-level English Literature, then the Ken Russell film The Music Lovers.  Of course I must mention Mussorgsky because in 1971 I bought the Emerson Lake & Palmer LP Pictures at an Exhibition which introduced me to public humiliation being a prog-rock canter through his song suite of the same name and deeply uncool. Its still brilliant, and it was when I was 14.

Sergei Rachmaninov crept in at some point in my 20s – particularly the 2nd Piano Concerto which Eric Carmen borrowed for the pop song “All By Myself“.  Later I would buy an album called Rachmaninov Plays Rachmaninov which I recommend very highly indeed.  He had very large hands and could play a natural 12th on the piano with ease.   Anyway, I never really considered Prokofiev or Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky to be Russian.  They were “Classical” composers who became international and of no nation almost because of the music.  I’m still learning though, because classical music went through a very nationalistic phase 100 years ago when each nation’s composers started to celebrate their own folk music and turn it into high art, and the Russians participated in this too.  Did Borodin try it ?  Not sure.

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Scheherezade – painting by Léon Bakst

My current swoon is Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Sheherezade which is a suite based on the Arabian Nights and is stunning.  I listen to it once a week, it is quite tremendous.   I didn’t start checking out Dimitri Shostakovitch or Igor Stravinksy until later – but in-between these musical giants  I fell in love with the genius of Sergei Prokofiev.

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I think I bought the Classical Symphony when we were living in Los Angeles in 1992-5.  Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard was a giant Emporium of music – I remember bumping into Meera Syal & her then husband Shekhar Bhatia in there one afternoon, a basketful of CDs in the crook of my arm.  I think they were on holiday, but perhaps Meera was auditioning for things.  Bless her.  Perhaps Prokofiev was in there.  It is his 1st symphony, written in Russia in the summer of 1917, weeks before the October Revolution. He called it the Classical Symphony himself, because he felt that one of his heroes Franz Josef Haydn (see My Pop Life #134) would have written in that style were he alive.  Indeed, all of Haydn’s 106 symphonies are very short and the form then got heavily stretched by Mozart,  Beethoven and later Mahler so that you might be sitting for 95 minutes watching and listening to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  In contrast, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is very short – in my version by Leonard Bernstein & the NY Philharmonic it comes in at under 14 glorious minutes.  It is a sprightly, melodic, wonderfully-arranged piece with massive dynamics which still thrill me today when I listen to it.  It has both old-fashioned and very modern elements which the ear picks up on immediately.  It does its thing & gets out, rather like Haydn did with his 12-minute symphonies in the 1790/1800s and is similarly instantly accessible and hugely enjoyable.

Prokofiev didn’t stick with the short format for his symphonies, indeed his 5th Symphony which appeared on the same CD is 40 minutes long and very different musically, though similarly popular.  Other works of his which I like very much include the 3rd Piano Concerto, often paired with Ravel‘s 1st Piano Concerto and one of the finest works of the 20th century to my sweet-toothed ear.  His other best-known piece perhaps is the troika from Lieutenant Kije which actually sounds like a three galloping horses pulling a carriage across a white winter landscape.  The Brighton Beach Boys played it at our Christmas gigs and I was charged with playing the melody on my alto in a duet with the French horn.  Greg Lake including the melody in his miserable Christmas hit I Believe In Father Christmas at the suggestion, apparently of Keith Emerson.  It’s the best part of the song.

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I also have David Bowie narrating Peter & The Wolf, where each character in the story is played by a different instrument.  I’m sure you know it.  I have the first 2 Violin Concertos.  There is plenty of his work I have yet to hear, and I can’t claim to be any kind of authority on him.  I just love this piece of music.

So I’m indebted to the Russians for much of my cultural and political nourishment.  Russia is a major slice of me as I hope I’ve illustrated above.  I hope they put on a good World Cup and enjoy it, particularly the non-racist fans.  I hope those visitors from all over the world have a splendid time there over the next four weeks.  I’ll be watching from my sofa and in the various Egyptian, Colombian, German, English, Senegalese, Iranian, Spanish, Nigerian, French, English and Brazilian restaurants of New York City.   I think Brazil will lift the trophy,  who knows.  But deep down, I wish I was there too.

Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1968

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My Pop Life #121 : Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long – Roberta Flack

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Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long   –   Roberta Flack 

First you’re here, then you’re gone,
It’s that same old heartbreak story;
Thought that you’d be in my life
For more than just one night.
But you say you got to leave,
It destroys me, boy, it hurts me;
Tell me what did I do wrong
For you to leave me all alone?

1981 was a very strange year for me.  I have virtually no clear memories of it, only strange images and moments, meetings, fleeting whispers.  I was 24 and still hadn’t “become an actor”.  I had a degree in Law from the London School of Economics.  Whoopee.  I was living in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, whom I’d left in spring 1980 to take a year off on the Gringo Trail with my brother Paul through Latin America, then been forced to come home prematurely five months later after contracting Hepatitus B, jaundiced and weak.  Mumtaz and I had reunited but I was scratchy.  Any discussions we had about the relationship were along the lines of “are you staying or going?” and then debate was shut down.  I was working in an office above the ICA in The Mall for a group called SIAD.

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More about that later.  Finally in the spring of ’81, Paul had returned from New York City where he’d been living with Jim (whom he had met in San Cristóbal Las Casas in Mexico) and needed a place to live in London.  After making a few enquiries at a squatting collective in Hornsey, we identified an empty ground floor flat in a council block called McCall House on Tufnell Park Road, just down from the old Holloway Odeon and broke in.  Changed the lock.  Cut another set of keys.  Soon after this I left Mumtaz for the second time, found a mattress from somewhere and moved in with Paul.

We knew other squatters – The Huntley St squat down in Tottenham Court Road where Colin and Mary lived and where we’d lifted a small but incredibly heavy piano up six flights of stairs one day. Never again!  But we knew the squatting drill.  And London at this point felt a little like a battleground.  Thatcher was in power.  Ghost Train by The Specials was waiting in the wings, as were the Brixton Riots – and Toxteth, Wood Green and other areas.  It was nervy, aggressive and rough.  Normal enough, but heavy.

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There must have been running water and electricity.  We made rudimentary curtains in a hippie punk style and set up a small record player.  Photos from Mexico, Sussex and London were blue-tacked to the wall above the fireplace, which didn’t have a fire.  We added to these pictures on a daily basis.  Then a young gay guy from Mexico turned up and he stayed there for a while, kind of uninvited.  Maybe I moved out for a bit.  Really can’t remember.  Then a Kiwi girl Paul had met in Mexico called Eppy turned up and stayed too.  How did she find us?  No mobile phones or internet in those days.  Almost beyond understanding.  Eppy then invited some fucking heroin dealer round who boasted of his connections with Clappo – Eric Clapton – and the following day while we were out the flat was broken into and cleaned out.   Eppy was told to fuck off.  Soon after that we both fucked off too – Paul to a friends and me, tail between my legs for a second time, back to Mumtaz.  Before we left though, two main memories surface from those strange days in that flat…

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The Scala Cinema, Tottenham St W1, 1979-81

First – speed.  Amphetamine sulphate.  I’d been dealing it and taking it before Mexico andhad come close to becoming hooked.  It does bad things to your teeth, not to mention your brains, but the buzz was excellent.  There was clearly still some knocking around and one bleak Sunday we swallowed a couple of blues each and walked down to The Scala Cinema in Tottenham St W1, where I worked on Saturday nights at the famous all-nighter (see My Pop Life 23).  Lee Drysdale, who used to work there with me, still remembers me coming back from Mexico (once I was out of hospital) and turning up at the Scala orange-skinned and yellow-eyed with Hepatitus B.  It’s not infectious once you go orange, but I guess I looked pretty alarming.  No more so than the usual punters probably.

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So I must have worked there on the Saturday night, all night, noticed there was a film on Sunday night I wanted to see, crawled home at dawn, slept, got up, popped some blues and walked down Camden Road to Fitzrovia with Paul.  The film was Tarkovsky‘s sci-fi epic Solaris which had come out in 1972 and which I’d managed to miss at every opportunity.  It’s a stunning strange hypnotic empty film, and coming down from amphetamines, in-un-endingly desolate and grim.  Brilliant, beautiful but, well, apt somehow.  Soon after this The Scala moved to King’s Cross, Steve Woolley started Palace Pictures (with whom I would do a few films later) and I didn’t move over to Kings Cross with it.  I started another chapter.  Acting.

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My second memory of the squat though is one of the greatest LPs ever made.   It was one of Paul’s and we played it a lot while living there.  Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway is a short, 35-minute, seven song masterpiece of soul disco released in late 1979.  Originally planned as a second duets LP between the two friends and singers, Donny Hathaway only sings on two of the tracks “Back Together Again“and “You Are My Heaven“.  Roberta finished the album on her own after Donny ‘apparently’ jumped out of his apartment window on 15th St after suffering from paranoid delusions early in 1979.

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Donny Hathaway

They had originally met at Howard University in Washington D.C. studying music in the 1960s, had success individually, then recorded a hugely successful LP together in 1972 called simply Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.  It includes the songs You’ve Got A Friend and Where Is The Love.  Donny’s condition led to a breakdown in the relationship with Roberta through the 1970s, but they did record The Closer I Get To You on Roberta’s Blue Lights In The Basement LP in 1978, then decided to record a second LP together.  Sadly Roberta had to finish it on her own.  The result however is stunningly beautiful.  Every single song is a stand-out.  Stevie Wonder co-wrote You Are My Heaven with producer Eric Mercury then gave Roberta one of his greatest songs “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long“, which is the song which leapt out at me in that Holloway squat.

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The immense bass-line is one of those disco show-off lines which compel you to dance, and is played, as are all the instruments on this song, by Stevie Wonder himself apparently –  or is it?  Surely it’s more likely that Stevie’s longstanding bass player Nathan Watts is the uncredited player.  It is similar in style and flexibility to Stevie’s Do I Do, which was recorded around the same time.   Luther Vandross sings backing vocals along with Gwen Guthrie, Stevie, and possibly Jocelyn Brown.  It has been a favourite song of mine since 1981, and I have often played it at houseparties where I may have been DJ-ing.  One notable memory was in Upper Abbey in Brighton when we had a houseful of playmates, and this song got dropped.  Jenny and two of her sisters immediately went into full disco mode and mayhem ensued.

Roberta Flack is still very much alive and I’m lucky enough to have seen her live a couple of times in recent years.  She doesn’t play this song, but still plays Back Together and Where Is The Love live along with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, the song which rocketed her to stardom back in 1969.  She is a classically-trained musician who enjoys covering other writers work, particularly Lennon/McCartney/Harrison and Marvin Gaye. She is also a superb singer.  Her back catalogue has considerable pedigree, from the dark soul of Reverend Lee to the frothy disco of Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes).  

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I knew there was another reason why I loved Roberta

I don’t think I can imagine a song which less suits the bleak spring of 1981.  There we were in that druggy council squat that had all its windows smashed by some junkie scum and forced us back onto the street, and back into a relationship I’d finished twice already.  But life isn’t always neat and tidy like that.  And memory plays tricks.  This is one of them.

I have to thank my brother, currently living in Shanghai, for major assistance with remembering this episode in our lives.  His recall, though also blurry, is considerably better than mine.  Thanks Paul x