My Pop Life #208 : I Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

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Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

9th June 2018

We went to see Ry Cooder last night in the Town Hall a wonderful old venue with a really intimate feel on 43rd St, built in 1921 by suffragette supporters.  Jenny knew the venue from an event a couple of years ago directed by her godfather Nicolas Kent – it was a staging of the transcripts of Trump’s picks for Attorney General I think.  The beer is served in plastic cups with logos which cost $5 thus the first round was $28.  She did warn me to be fair, and they only charge you for the cup once.  What a world.

Ry Cooder opened with an old song called Nobody’s Fault But Mine which was written by Blind Willie Johnson then covered by everyone including Led Zeppelin.  He sat centre stage with a battered old acoustic guitar, his white hair covered with a blue wool bobble hat (without the bobble) and there was a young man playing a treated saxophone at the side.  Treated electronically, acoustically, sonically who knows it was haunting all night.  Cooder delivered the song with the authority of a delta bluesman, picking notes, sliding his bottleneck up and down the strings which twanged and shuddered and whispered under his touch.  He was so connected to this song, with the changes and the lyrics, it was evident in every note.

I was introduced to Ry Cooder by Sir Nick Partridge.  He wasn’t Sir Nick in those days, he was Nick P., a fresh-faced and pleasant young man who lived in the flat on West End Lane that Pete and Sali owned and that I lived in too.  He was my flatmate. Known Pete since schooldays.  I’d just finished my degree in Law at the LSE and Nick had graduated from Keele University doing International Relations.  We were all post-graduates suddenly.  I was saving money for a further “year off” as we called them back then.  This was 1979 and the future lay ahead of us. Education and academia was, it seemed, finally behind us.  We used to go record shopping together because there was so much to discover !  There still is some 40 years later !!!

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Nick Partridge and Ralph Brown in a North London record shop, 1979.  Picture taken by Pete Thomas.

I was painting and decorating that summer in Pinner, and later moved onto a house in St John’s Wood, definitely worthy of its own post.  My previous mentions of this vivid era of my young adult life were in posts about Talking Heads (My Pop Life #92 ) John Martyn (My Pop Life #153) and The Specials (My Pop Life #178) and Nick features in all of them.  We were a little musical commune up there between the railways of the Jubilee Line to the south and the Thameslink line to Hertfordshire to the north PLUS the North London Line which carried nuclear waste past our building overnight while we listened to Ry Cooder and The Gladiators.  My girlfriend Mumtaz was in Mecklenburgh Square and would come and squat cross-legged on the floor with us as we passed the bliss.

In the evenings and at weekends we were all obsessed with listening to music and going to gigs.  Pete was very much a reggae aficionado but also fond of the quirky post-punk world emerging from the rubble of 1977, a plethora of independent labels issuing interesting stuff of all kinds like Wah! Heat, SpizzEnergi, Flying Lizards, or The Auteurs all with picture sleeves and original music.   In my capricious memory Sal was more into rock and I was a student new wave ex-punk who listened to soul, but Nick was always different.  Later he would live on a houseboat in Amsterdam doing a blues radio show but that’s another story, if you’re lucky.

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It was Nick who had Boomer’s Story and Paradise & Lunch and in the stoned democratic disc jockey world of West End Lane between the rails, when he got his turn for an LP side, it would often be one of these Ry Cooder records which were kind of country kind of bluesy kind of funky, but often with an added flavour from somewhere else.  Americana it would be called now.

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Then in 1979 he brought home an LP that looked like a new wave record, bright pink with a guitar player who looked a bit Nick Lowe but no.  It was the new Ry Cooder album called, unfeasibly, “Bop Til You Drop” and now we would all choose this record when our DJ turn came around.  Opening with a cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister but thereafter delving into obscure 60s R’n’B – Go Home Girl, Don’t You Mess Up A Good Thing, Trouble You Can’t Fool Me, Look At Granny Run Run – and a brilliant original song called Down In Hollywood (‘better hope that you don’t run out of gas…’), the album had a fantastic production quality on the guitar and backing vocals particularly.  In fact Bop Til You Drop was the first album ever recorded digitally.  Cooder is a magnificently rootsy guitarist, not a show-off in any way, but just tries to get the soul out of the instrument, and the backing vocals on the album were by Terry Evans & Bobby King who would later record their own record with Ry Cooder producing and playing on every track.  What I didn’t know until last night (too stoned to read the liner notes or maybe just not that nerdy after all) was that Chaka Khan sings on Down In Hollywood and Good Thing.   He had roughly the same line up last night – although not the same players.  Jenny turned to me at one point – probably during The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor) and said “What would you call this music?”  I said “country soul?”.  She could hear mariachi.  It’s funky.  It’s hawaiian.  It’s blues.   It’s music.

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Cooder plays without any ego at all, and often uses the concert (and indeed many of his record releases) to showcase other people and give them a turn in the spotlight.  Last night it was his wonderfully relaxed backing singers The Hamiltones who played a couple of numbers while he left the stage, then joined them on guitar for another.  Earlier it had been his son Joachim who opened proceedings with his own music.  Ry Cooder it was who travelled to Havana in the 1990s breaking the Cuban boycott and encouraging the old stars of the 1950s to team up and record again, the resulting film and album opening up Cuba to the world once again and introducing me to Ruben Gonzales, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo playing together as the incomparable Buena Vista Social Club.

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He has recorded with the great Malian blues guitarist Ali Farke Toure on Talking Timbuktu, with Captain Beefheart on Safe As Milk (see My Pop Life #205) with Taj Mahal in the band Rising Sons, with Randy Newman on 12 Songs, the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed & Sticky Fingers, on Lowell George‘s original version of Willin’.  All playing slide guitar or bottleneck.  In 1984 he composed the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas which starred Natassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton and following that became a sought-after soundtrack composer using his signature slide guitar.  He’s made albums with the latino community of Los Angeles such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti (Chavez Ravine) and if left to his own devices appears to be following in the footsteps of his hero 1940s political folkie Woody Guthrie.  Or one of his heroes.

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Woody Guthrie 1943

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In a new song last night he sang of a meeting between Jesus & Woody in heaven, looking down on what is happening now, from the vantage point of the 1950s when we had beaten the fascists and the world stretched out before us.

Jesus & Woody

Well bring your old guitar and sit here by me
Round the heavenly throne
Drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on

And I don’t mean a war for oil, or gold, or trivial things of that kind
But I heard the news, the vigilante man is on the move this time

So sing me a song ’bout this land is your land
And fascists bound to lose
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate
It requires effort and strain
Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice which leads to destruction and pain
Some say I was a friend to sinners
But by now you know it’s true
Guess I like sinners better than fascists
And I guess that makes me a dreamer too

It was a chilling song but it wasn’t the only time that the name of Jesus was called.  One of Cooder’s biggest hits was gospel standard Jesus On The Mainline,  and with The Hamiltones‘ soulful harmonies it was a standout moment at the gig.  And it became clear to Jenny and I that we were really at a gospel show.  In the sense that the black church in America has long been a vehicle for resistance to oppression, using the biblical metaphors and stories to illustrate the struggle and gospel music to inspire and strengthen courage.  Cooder never went preachy, but he was very clear where he stood.  He mentioned Trayvon Martin before playing a song called The Vigilante.  It was the lack of ego that was most striking in the end.  Playing the guitar to try and find the most expressive notes, not to show-off or strike poses.

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Ry Cooder With Taj Mahal, 1968

And indeed, it seems to me this morning thinking back on Sir Nick as a young man in West Hampstead, smoking dope with a generous smile and a ready laugh that he had no ego then or indeed now.  He always had an easy manner where embarrassment was never far from the surface, mixed with laughter and great empathy.  I went to Hampstead Magistrates with him one day and watched him with his gentle phrasing and easy manner talk his middle-class way out of a conviction and get a finger-wagging in its place.

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Sir Nick with Kirsten O’Brien

Shortly after the Amsterdam year he joined The AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1985 becoming Chief Executive in 1991 and finally moving on in 2013 after 28 years of service and a knighthood which followed his OBE.   We formed a close bond in those 1979-1980 days and nights and beyond into the frisbee-playing, gay nightclubbing, political 1980s, stayed in touch right up until today.  I had no idea that he was gay back then but he’s never made a big deal out of it or changed his basic persona of decency, sincerity and jokes.

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Sir Nick talks with brother Andrew, Whitstable Bay.  My dad can be seen with check shirt on the pebbles between them

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Paul Brown is 50 in his beach hut and quite a tremendous shirt

The first time any of us saw Nick after he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours was at my brother Paul’s 50th birthday celebration which he held in Whitstable, Kent.  It was a wonderful weekend of family – Dad & Beryl came down from Yorkshire, Becky was back in Sussex by then and Jenny and I had summer son Jordan in tow – Dee’s youngest who had a key period of spending the summer with us in Brighton.  Sir Nick was there in the beach-hut, Paul was back from Shanghai mixing cocktails in a straw hat, Richard Davies (Lady G) was probably DJing and drinking at the same time and a splendid time was guaranteed and enjoyed by all.

Nick and his husband Simon have been to New York since we moved here – I remember him asking me what he should see on Broadway – it was 2016.  I had a one-word answer : Hamilton.  He bought tickets online, then I had to go to work when he was here so I missed him, but he saw the show and, of course, loved it.

 

Paulette & Beverley Randall, Paul Brown & Sir Nick Partridge, London 2015

I did see him the year before when Paul was in London for his birthday a couple of years ago – 2015 I guess.  And then he came to send me off on my 60th birthday last summer when I hardly spoke to anyone, but hugged everyone.   I am extremely fond of him and will always be grateful for his friendship and for bringing Bop Til You Drop (and Memphis Slim…) into my life.

The last song on the album is called I Can’t Win and it is a haunting and soulful three-part harmony, simply a beautiful song about being in love with someone who isn’t responding.  We’ve all been there, but I haven’t made a habit of it thank god.  When the gig finished last night the entire band went off for about 90 cursory seconds then returned immediately as we all stood and clapped for the encore.  And they sang I Can’t Win with piercing harmonies that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  It was the pinnacle on a great night.  And it’s already up on Youtube.

Live at Town Hall June 8th 2018:

Album Version :

 

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My Pop Life #72 : La Vie En Rose – Grace Jones

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La Vie En Rose   –   Grace Jones

Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
je vois la vie en rose
Il me dit des mon amour
des mots de tous le jours
Et ca me fait quelques choses…

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When he takes me in his arms
and speaks softly to me 
 life is a bed of roses…

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Lyrics were written by Edith Piaf in French, covered by many many singers.  An early English translation didn’t attempt to find an apt phrase for “La Vie En Rose” – literally Life In Pink.  My own attempt is above – life as a bed of roses.  I see life as rosy ?  Rose-tinted spectacles?  We don’t have an idiom which translates.   Here’s the English-language version – by Louis Armstrong for example, not translating the untranslatable :

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose.

Featured imageGrace Jones sang it in French on her first LP Portfolio in 1977.   The 12″ 7-minute single version was released in October and became her first international hit.   It has a short english verse in the middle : la vie en rose becomes “everything is lovely“.   I’ll always associate this song with the 80s though, with my brother Paul and the London gay scene.  In fact it was re-released about four times until it finally became a big hit in the UK as a double-A side in 1985 with “Pull Up To The Bumper”.

Paul and I got separated in Mexico in 1980 when I contracted Hepatitus B and after week of terrible kidney pain, sweats, vomiting and fever I went jaundice-yellow and weak as a kitten.  All the kids in that Mexico city flat had to be isolated and inoculated and Paul was hunting for a flight home for me – BA said Heathrow doctors wouldn’t take me back, so I flew KLM to Amsterdam and flew a short flight back.  Straight to the doctors, who put me straight into Coppett’s Wood Hospital for Infectious Diseases near Muswell Hill.  I had my own room, and nurses would come in with masks and gloves and trays of food.  I was there for weeks.  One day a letter appeared from Mexico from Paul.  I was very happy to receive it as our glamourous trip down the gringo trail to Argentina was now well and truly off, but he was still going on, alone.  The letter was astounding, wonderful, life-changing.  It said that having reached San Cristobal Las Casas  Paul had met an American man called Jim and after a long night and day climbing the hills alone Paul had walked into town, met Jim, got together and they were now lovers.  Paul was in love, for the first time, with a man.

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Wow.  I often wondered after that whether that would have happened if I’d stayed in Mexico and not caught Hep B.  Whether Paul would have met Jim, have fallen in love.  Before that point, Paul was not acknowledging himself as gay.   So neither was anyone else.  Since that moment, he has.   And the family acknowledged it in their own time.  Another story.   It was a true turning point.  Jim and Paul travelled further south to Guatemala and Belize, then went back to Jim’s apartment in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan until the spring of 1981 when they had a big fight and Paul flew back to London.  I hadn’t seen him for almost a year.  We ended up squatting together in a council flat just off the Holloway Road with boarded up windows and no heating (see My Pop Life #120 ).  We got burgled too while there.  Then I moved back in with Mumtaz in Finsbury Park and he found a place further down Blackstock Road.  At that point Paul was going out with Michael.  Sweet curly-haired working class guy from Essex.  Then there was Pedro – still my friend – from Kilburn with Dominican mum, and then Colin from Durham, again still mine and Jenny’s (and Paul’s!) good friend.  Big relationships which sustained and still do.   The gay scene is very supportive and constructive in that way.

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Of course the early 80s was when AIDS struck and devastated everyone, Section 28 – (eventually passed in 1988 and repealed in 2003) stated that “a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.   My friend Nick Partridge (from Tower Mansions, West End Lane)  came back from living on a houseboat in Amsterdam and joined the Terrence Higgins Trust, later to become the Director, be knighted and generally join the anti-establishment establishment.    Paul’s gang of gay friends became solid and established, and become the legendary Get You Crew which survives to this day – Lady G, or Richard Davies, Max, Hugh & Ben, Ray & Tim, Colin, Michael, and many others – and sometimes I would join them on a night out, or round The Fallen Angel in Islington.   (Later Jenny would be found in The Fallen Angel when she worked at Theatre Centre with all the lesbians).

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I went to Heaven a few times with the gang underneath the arches of Charing Cross Station.   I’ve been to Heaven with Jenny too, in the 90s and it’s always a good night.  Other definitely gay places I’d been in with Paul and others in those 1980s would be The Vauxhall Tavern,  and of course The London Apprentice in Hoxton filming on The Crying Game with every transvestite in the South East of England.   Can’t remember if Paul came down for any of that.  I’m thinking Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville, George O’ Dowd, Stephen Wakelam, Ian McKellen, the Scala All-Nighter and the ridiculous slightly baggy yet tapered clothes I started to adopt in the mid-eighties not to mention the haircuts, the shoes.  Chinese kung-fu slippers I recall.  I was never gay though.  I kissed Richard one night at some houseparty in Belsize Park, but that was fun, a tease and that was it.   Gay people like getting off with straight people though.  They like a challenge.

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But the thing is with Paul, you’d never know he was gay unless you knew.  So we’d just as often go to The Flask or The French House or Camden Lock, Dingwalls, the Princess Louise, The Lamb.  Paul never wore the badge of gay, or particularly enjoyed the scene – it has its own pressures.   But things were different then.  It was fifteen or so years since Stonewall, but there was always a sense of resilience, of defiance even, going out as a gang in the 80s, part of being young probably.  But also part of being a community under threat, both legally and actually, the possibility of aggression at street level always present, living in Thatcher’s Britain we were in opposition and everything was a battle, sometimes literally.   The Miner’s Strike, Anti-Apartheid, the poll-tax, section 28, Greenham Common, the Women’s Movement, Chile, Ireland, Gay Liberation, CND – these were all part of the same battle to change the world.   Some of those battles we won – South Africa, Gay Lib, Ireland? – some we lost – the miners, CND, Greenham.    I think it was Jesse Jackson who I heard talking about a rainbow coalition, co-opting the gay emblem – every colour of the rainbow except pink!    I guess drugs were taken, but I was generally on the weed, speed or booze.  Never really liked cocaine, or the effect it has on some of the people I’m with.  Or poppers.   Not really a pillhead after Mexico. E was great.  But a glass of bubbly and a cigarette and I’m delirious, usually.

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This song was a floor-filler.  An anthem.  It always has been, since Edith Piaf sang it in Paris in 1946, the lyrics a defiant triumphant claiming of the power of love, a beating heart, being in the pink, the rosy life, none of the translations work do they ?   There was a Pink Paper.  A pink pound.  Pink triangle from the nazi camps wasn’t it?  Another sign co-opted.   At house-parties or nightclubbing the hands would rise, the room would spin, the euphoria would go up several notches, we were alive.    This song is marvellous, so French, so black, so disco, so bossa nova, so gay, so theatrical, so triumphant, so universal.  Mon couer qui bat……

(Look it up !)

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At the end of the decade July 1989 I was in Paris, filming a Chopin film called “Impromptu” with Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin  and others, and a splendid time was guaranteed for all.  (see the Chopin post My Pop Life #9)   Hugh and I waltzed around the brasseries, the train appeared to carry some gravy.   One night Julian Sands and I went to a club – or was it a party ? – and met Grace Jones and some other glamourous Parisiens.  We drank champagne, I smoked cigarettes. Possibly even French ones.

 La Vie En Rose indeed.