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

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Smokestack Lightning   –   Howlin’ Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Adrien Brody

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

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

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a magnificent live version from 1964 :

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My Pop Life #61 : Fight The Power – Public Enemy

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Fight The Power   –   Public Enemy

…Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…

After another election night betrayal, another public display of democracy that makes you want to vomit, all we have left is “each other” people.  We have to fight the powers that be.  England will kick off this summer, once again, the familiar ritual of burning and brick throwing.  Once again Labour has failed to appeal to its core constituency and some of them have voted Green, others UKIP, still others Conservative. Many others didn’t vote at all.

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…What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless, you say what is this ?   My beloved lets get down to business, Mental self defence and fitness…

The greatest band to come out of the 1980s was Public Enemy.  PE burn with righteous fire against injustice, racism, the media, corruption, laziness, selfishness, privilege, ignorance.   They were one of the reasons that I became a writer in 1987.

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 When I heard their  first LP “Yo Bum Rush The Show” I was excited by power and truth combining with beats and rhyme, it was exciting and inspiring – but could not prepare me for the monster work of their 2nd LP “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” in 1988.  It was a tidal wave of sound and righteous fury and I couldn’t get enough of it.  I saw them twice live in London that year – or maybe two years running.  Brixton Academy ’87 – ’88.

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I went with Miss P who was directing my first as-yet-unwritten play and the cast of same as-yet-untitled play:  Rita Wolf (my girlfriend), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Gaylie Runciman, Pamela Nomvete and Carl Procter.  We were all researching a play about homelessness, to be expressed at least partly through hip hop.  That’s how it was pitched to the Joint Stock Steering Committee “led by” Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford-Clark.   The resultant play was called “Sanctuary“, directed by Paulette Randall and designed by Jenny Tiramani, and it won me the Samuel Beckett Award 1987 for best first play.

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Leader, writer and inspiration behind Public Enemy Chuck D is now an elder in the rap world.  In 1987 he was a revelation.  His lyrics, his delivery, his fury, his tone are all second to none.  I don’t think technically he is the best rapper – that honour goes to Rakim for me – but Rakim pretty much sticks to one subject ie: what a great rapper Rakim is.  Chuck D and PE cover the waterfront.   DJ Terminator X was also scratching records in ways unheard of at that point, not just samples, but noise pure and simple, and the production team of Hank & Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler “The Bomb Squad” invented a whole new vocabulary of sound : screeching, chopped up quotes from many sources, layered, punchy, visceral and powerful.  The genius addition of Flavor Flav, the joker in the pack, wearing a huge clock “so you know what time it is” and chirruping support from the sidelines (“yeeeah boyeee“) made the package complete – a black gang to take on the white establishment and kick it in its holy nuts.

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Hence the Elvis/John Wayne quote above.   Deliberately provocative, it comes from a lifetime of being a second-class citizen in a first-world nation.   The pure anger in their work becomes a creative force in itself, and the potency of Fight The Power, (taken from album number three Fear Of A Black Planet which should have been released in 1989 but eventually appeared in 1990) has not been matched by any protest song or rallying cry ever recorded.  It is a seriously pumped-up rhythm, sampling James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Syl Johnson and 16 other tracks in a huge sound which was ubiquitous that summer of 1989 when it soundtracked Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and the hot summer in Brooklyn kicking off.

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In 1989 I was still in full B-Boy mode.  I’d adopted the hip-hop look in 1987 when the sounds and culture of rap bowled me over.   I had written an American version of Sanctuary that summer called Sanctuary D.C., researched and set in Washington DC.   And I had the genesis of a new piece forming, all in verse, commissioned by the BBC.   George Faber it was who asked me in early 1990 to write something in rap from that culture, I was the white emissary from the front line.   I came up with a rhyme play called The House That Crack Built, set in Washington DC and based on the street life I had experienced there in the summer of 1989, the summer of Do The Right Thing.  I nearly got stabbed in D.C. outside a downtown men’s shelter when my bicycle was surrounded by homeless guys who wanted to know what I was doing.  “you’re a european” one of them accused.  “How did you know?” I answered with naive foolishness “I’m English“.  He meant I was white.  There were 20 of them around me, one guy circling the outside giving me glimpses of a large knife inside his coat.  He looked insane.  I spoke sincerely about my desire for a colour-blind future and they probably pitied my twattishness and let me cycle off.  My general foolhardy youthful naivitée probably saved me a few times that summer, researching the American version of my English hit play.  Chatting to crack dealers on the wrong corner.  At night.  But somehow I got away with it.

Back in London 1990, George Faber didn’t get the play I’d delivered at all.  He asked me to produce a week’s workshop and show him a handful of scenes.  I’d anticipated this, and hired a handful of actors who had to prove they could rap in a brief audition.  My lead was the amazing Roger Griffith, one of my favourite actors.  His buddy was played by Michael Buffong, now a first-rate prize-winning director at The National theater, Royal Exchange and Talawa.  Mum was ‘Dame’ Dona Croll of course, whose five-year old daughter had just arrived from Jamaica – so cute – with best friend Jo Martin, the bad guy was Calvin Simpson, who tragically died shortly after the workshop, a lorry knocking him off his bicycle on Waterloo roundabout.  That was a terribly sad funeral.   We filed past the open casket in church, and he was so dead.    I remember him as a great actor and a man who insisted on wearing odd socks.  Years ahead of his time.   Chris Tummings and Jenny Jules completed the cast, but Jenny got a bad asthma attack and was hospitalised and had to be recast at the last minute.  Did Pamela Nomvete fill the breach?  Ashamed to say I can’t remember….but I think so….anyway we worked hard all week, bringing a few scenes to life, learning how to rap in dialogue.   It worked really well, rap is naturally really dramatic and perfect for stage or dramatic work – it’s not unlike Shakespeare or Greek drama.  But Faber and his small BBC gang who came to watch on the Friday afternoon (including his secretary – his barometer) didn’t get it.  He had a meeting with me the week after and said “why is it set in America?“,  I said “Because there’s no crack scene in the UK“.   He said “well change the drug then“.  The casual lazy sweeping generalisation.  Crack was different to every drug I’d ever come across.   Totally.  His well-meaning liberal racism was shocking in the end.  “We brush past these people in the street every day – what do they feel?“.    So depressing.   The piece wasn’t taken forward, and has never been produced anywhere.   If it was mounted now it would be proper old skool rap history, all about Bush and Amerikkka.

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Years later in 2003 I was on the set of another aborted project which I’d written – a film called Red Light Runners.  Bits of it are online somewhere.  Long bitter story – for another post.  That was the experience that stopped me writing.  Bookend contribution.  I was talking to Tricky, who was in our cast, about Fight The Power since he had covered the Public Enemy track Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos on his first album rather brilliantly with Martina Topley-Bird sing-songing the rap lyrics.   We were sitting on the top deck of a bus waiting for something or other to happen.  Probably filming at Centrepoint ?  Anyway, I asked him about the exact quote at the top of the page about Elvis Presley, and we went on to talk about how brilliant Elvis was, especially in the early days.  Elvis was a hero to me, but so were Public Enemy.  I didn’t have a problem with that but I couldn’t quite articulate why.   But I trust Chuck D.  We agreed he was a provocateur and stirring the shitpot.  There’s always been debate about the good ole boy Elvis and how he treated black people, but you’ll need to listen to the ’68 comeback tapes to get the rest of that story.  Racist – in the sense that any kid from Memphis was racist in 1954 – probably.  But Racist with a capital R – no, don’t believe it.  He melded black and white music together.  He listened to gospel music on the radio and loved it, mixed it with hillbilly music.  Elvis = no racist.  But the racial divisions of America are so deep and so scarred that you can see them from the moon, and Chuck D and PE needed to hold up white icons in order to shoot them down.   It’s a polemic.   It’s a position.

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Chuck has since blurred the quote : on the LP it’s scarcely audible.   You can hear it on the original single, and the film soundtrack clear as a bell however.  Its impact was huge.   They always flirted with controversy, particularly in the shape of Minister of Information Professor Griff, who left PE after an unfortunate quote about Jewish people, but at their heart they are fundamentally about telling the truth to power.

We all have to carry on, despite defeats, setback and disappointments.  What choice do we have?  In the late 80s, Public Enemy were the soundtrack to change.  They still are.  Live – I’ve seen them five times – they are astonishing, nowadays using a live band and covering songs like Edwin Starr’s “War”.   The retain all their power and urgency.  For what, if anything, has changed ?

clip from Do The Right Thing :