My Pop Life #146 I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times  –   The Beach Boys

…they say I got brains, but they ain’t doin’ me no good.  I wish they could…

Late August 2003.   On the set of Red Light Runners, Harvey Keitel kneels by the altar. Mike Madsen walks slowly up the aisle and kneels next to him.  Keitel is first to speak.

Have you come to kill me dyood ?   he says

That’s how he says it.  Dyood.  The word I wrote is dude.   It’s my screenplay and we are in The Church Of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Exmouth St, Clerkenwell.  I cannot believe my ears.  The scene continues and finishes with Madsen walking back out.  The line-up is finished and the actors go back to their trailers while the lights are assembled and the camera positions established.  Nick Egan the director and I have a quick conflab.  Did you hear what he said ?  Dyood ??   What is going on ?  Nick decides that as the writer, I will go back to Harvey’s trailer and ‘discuss his problems with him’.  So a message is sent via a runner, and five minute later I’m knocking on Keitel’s wagon.

the church interior in Exmouth St

His PA invites me in.  Within a minute it is very clear that Harvey has not read the script. He thinks he is playing an Englishman, and he thinks we talk funny.  We clear that up.  It’s dude.  DUDE.  He asks me about another line.  I explain that his character, Sandy, an ex-CIA priest with a Fagin-esque gang of street kids at his beck and call, is gay.  He is horrified.  It gets weird.  I decide to leave and get myself some breakfast.

Director Nick Egan

I report back to Nick and Michael Wearing and we at least have Mike Madsen on our side. Eventually we get a decent scene, after much huffing and puffing.  I don’t think we turned over until just before lunch though.  By now Harvey is looking over at me after they cut each take and asking “was that OK?“.  It is all quite surreal.   But Red Light Runners was a very strange experience.  See earlier blogs My Pop Life #144 and My Pop Life #145 for the early part of the story.  Nick Egan was very cool and allowed me to sit by the monitors with headphones on, despite the producer Nigel whispering in his ear “Why are you letting Ralph sit there?  It looks weak”.  Nick told him to fuck off.  The central creative team, me, Nick and Michael Wearing were tight, and we weren’t about to be split up.  Various weird things were happening, some of which I knew about and some I didn’t.  But day by day, we were making a film.  It was thrilling.  Jenny was cast.  I was staying in Nick Egan’s flat a couple of days each week rather than slog down to Brighton every day.

           

 Mike Madsen   &   Harvey Keitel

The following day we had to shoot a later scene – Madsen killing Keitel by shooting him through the confession box grille.  It was now clear that one of Harvey’s techniques was to extend the rehearsal part of the day for as long as physically possible, for literally hours at a time, so that we would go over schedule and he would get an extra day’s wages.  It’s an old shitty trick and he was running with it.  So tedious.  Madsen was getting irritable too, but he held it down.  The other issue was very simple : Harvey didn’t want to die onscreen.  He was trying to talk his way out of it at one point and we had to stand firm on the script – we’re shooting this scene, now.  Oh yes we are !  It was truly mental.  Eventually we got it in the can, a day later than scheduled.  Later, much later when Harvey had wrapped and fucked off to Italy while the hotel bill for Claridges was run up – he’d left all his stuff in there – we were shooting another scene in a hotel when Madsen talks to Harvey on the phone.  On one take Madsen lost it and said something along the lines of “I’m glad you’ve wrapped Harvey because you’re a fucking pain in the ass, not only that but I killed you and everybody is gonna know that I killed you, so fuck you.”

There is a Hollywood actor pecking-order of those who have killed, and those who have been killed.  And by whom.  Think about it.

the green dome of the British Museum from Centrepoint roof

Earlier Mike Madsen and I had shot a scene on the balcony at the top of Centrepoint at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road overlooking the British Museum, where we’d planned a major heist  (I was also in the cast).  We’d done car chases through central London, down the Embankment, Blackfriars all the way to the Millenium Dome, then an unused leftover from the celebrations.  We’d flown helicopters over the gherkin building and the river.  We’d shot the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton at a swanky art opening with the cognoscenti, a Turkish arms dealer off Green Lanes in Haringey, and a council block in Southwark with yardie gangs.  I’d had a long chat with Tricky on the top of a London bus (see My Pop Life #61) discussing Chuck D, Public Enemy and Elvis Presley (Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me) before I offered him my headphones and played him Todd Rundgren‘s  Just Another Onionhead from A Wizard, A True Star one of my top ten LPs.  I told you Red Light Runners was strange.

We’d had a Red Light Runners heist meeting in Centrepoint too, on the day when the bond company sent a man onto the set.  An interesting mix of actors : me, Madsen, Cillian Murphy, Kate Ashfield, Tricky,  Joe Van MoylandHeathcote Williams.  The DP Nick Knowland was great but (like Brian Wilson) deaf in one ear.  The Bond man was obsessed with the two Nicks not apparently communicating properly and demanded that one of them had to go.  We carried on and went to another bond company.  All films need a bond company to insure against loss, otherwise…well.  Let’s say it was a warning.

Chiswick – the CIA headquarters.  My friend Doreene Blackstock did a set visit.  Jonathan Ross and Film 2003 were there, filming interviews with the main cast and director.  Wossy was a big supporter of the project, and there was a buzz around the film by now.  We’d been filming for four weeks with two units: the main unit, and the car and stunt unit.  We had eight weeks of stuff in the can.  Roy Scheider was in town playing the CIA chief and lending an air of gravitas and utter professionalism to a scene with Madsen, Crispin Glover and Rich Hall in the HQ.

Roy Scheider, Rich Hall, Crispin Glover – the CIA

Crispin had his raw foods thanks to a lady from Birmingham we’d found specially.   But the producer Michael Casey wasn’t happy.  Stuff was going on behind the scenes, some kind of power struggle.  We still weren’t bonded.  Casey and his wife decided that day that they were personally taking over the funding of the film, and sacked all the co-producers.  They started talking about actors using the tube to get to work, sacking all the drivers, cutting corners.  Meanwhile none of us had been paid yet.  Normally on a movie the principles – the director, designer, writer, producers – get paid their fee in full on the first day of principal photography.  That day had come and gone.  It was four weeks ago in fact.  And Chris the designer decided that he wasn’t coming in on Monday unless he was paid.  It became clear that the caterer had been feeding the unit with his own money.  The word went round the set – we wouldn’t be shooting on Monday, but on Wednesday.  The schedule meant that Monday was in Salisbury, blowing up a church in the Iowa cornfields, the opening sequence and Jenny’s scenes.   Jenny had cancelled her last week on the Vagina Monologues in order to be in Red Light Runners.  We also had Peter O’Toole lined up for Salisbury Cathedral.  Now it wobbled.

Tuesday another phone call came – we wouldn’t shoot on Wednesday but the following Monday.  Then another call.  Then another.  Then another.  After two months of this Nick Egan flew back to Los Angeles, leaving his suits and luggage in the rented flat where he’d been staying and which was now locked by the landlords because they hadn’t been paid either.

Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself and what goes wrong ?

O cuando sere? Un dia sere” (“When will I be? One day I will be”)

Sometimes I feel very sad…

Originally I chose 2+2=5 for this story, because that was the feeling, and it was a 2003 song.  But it’s a Thom Yorke song about society, about passivity and 1984 so it was rejected for an ironic Hey Ya by Outkast, also a 2003 hit.  But it wasn’t right either.  Next up was Bowie’s Quicksand because that line

Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief…

was my primary feeling to emerge from this fiasco.  But that song doesn’t line up either and deserves better than this story.  I didn’t want to write another film, or a play, or anything.  My friends in StompLuke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas actually did commission a script in November from me, like a soft landing, that’s for another story, and after that another half-hearted film which flickered briefly and fell.  But my heart wasn’t in it, and in many ways still isn’t.  How easily discouraged I am.  How fragile the ego.  Where’s the resilience, the iron will, the inner strength.  No idea.  I squashed it I think.  I felt weak, I felt destroyed to be honest.  Devastated.

In the end I’ve gone for a Pet Sounds song from 1966, a very personal brave lyric from Tony Asher and Brian Wilson about Brian feeling that he was too advanced musically for his band The Beach Boys and that he was literally living in the wrong era.  It doesn’t fit either, but many of the lines kill me to this day, and the feeling is right.   It’s a mournful, rich, delicate ethereal song that is somehow true.   By then the Brighton Beach Boys, my beautiful tribute band were learning this number and preparing to unleash it with string quartet and horns and full harmonies.  It’s a tricky beast to learn but when we committed to it, it was and is glorious.  A mighty tune about disappointment, with oneself, with life, and everything.

Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into…

I had the golden ticket but it was fake.  No film.  No money.  No explanation.

The American actors got paid – Mike Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider, Crispin Glover. The Screen Actors Guild deal protects actors from this kind of thing, which isn’t actually that rare sadly.  Equity, the British equivalent of SAG, is hopeless.  Since living in the USA I have found that the Unions here have far more power than their British counterparts.

Michael Wearing

I was told by Michael Wearing later as the phone calls became fewer that Casey and his wife had decided to take over, sack the entire crew and re-employ them on worse rates.  As a hotel builder,  which is what he did before becoming a “Film Producer”- sorry a little bit of sick just came into my mouth – this was his mode-d’emploi – sack the workforce and undercut their wages.  It might work in the building trade in Portugal but it wasn’t going to wash in the film industry.  Then they started hawking the film around to other co-producers but if you collapse a film half-way through without paying key personnel, you essentially own a debt.  Who wants to buy that ?  It was over and the hope dwindled week by week, like water wearing down a stone.  It was a tunnel with no light at the end.

But things could always be worse.  The designer, Chris, clearly had other issues.  He was involved in a messy divorce apparently, and within weeks of the film closing down he had set light to a set building in our base at Three Mill Island, fire brigade were called but it was destroyed.  He then shot and killed his son, and himself.  Tragic.

The rest of us just carried on living, a little more cynical, a little more beaten down, a little more angry inside, but we carried on.  Anyone working in the film industry – this business we call ‘show’ – has dozens of stories like this.  I have at least a dozen.  This one perhaps the worst.  I still feel bitter about it.   But it’s just a film after all.   And I’m still here.

London now from the top of Centrepoint

And somehow matching this beautiful sad song with this moment of devastation makes me feel a little more healed.  This is the power of music.  If anyone knows and practises the healing power of music it is the fragile genius of Brian Wilson.  This may be his best piece of work.   In 2011, Brian said: “It was like saying: ‘Either I’m too far ahead of my time’ or ‘I’m not up to my time.’ … [The feeling has] stayed the same … a little bit, in some ways not … [but now] I do feel I was made for these times.

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My Pop Life #145 : Crazy In Love – Beyoncé

Crazy In Love   –   Beyoncé

May 2003.  I’m back from the Cannes Film Festival hobnobbing and bullshitting in a villa with the producers of Red Light Runners.  Director Nick Egan, Producer Michael Wearing and I fly back to London and have 3 more days talking in Claridges to thrash out some plot issues in the treatment I’ve successfully pitched.  We receive the important information that the money available for this project will not be there for long.    In other words, I have to write fast.  Jenny and I fy to LA and set up a writing room in our apartment, overlooking our landlord’s back garden one floor below.  In a reasonably concentrated mode I produce a screenplay and deliver it.  (see My Pop Life #144). Within days, it is greenlit and we are go.  It will shoot later in the summer – in a minute in other words !

Now the hustle begins.  Director Nick lives up the road in Beechwood Canyon, a few blocks from us in Los Feliz.  We have a couple of meetings, and a few drinks before he heads back to England for pre-production.  The first deal I secure is like a bonus :  Jenny and I are both cast, me playing Hancock, a Welsh forensics expert and Red Light Runner team member, Jenny playing Sharyce who opens the story and unwittingly becomes the first muslim suicide bomber on US soil since 9/11.

Offers are being made to actors.  Mike Madsen is already attached as Killian.   Harvey Keitel is offered MacNeill one of the CIA double-act but his people insist that he play the role of Sandy, the gay Fagin-esque priest (ex CIA).  I’d really seen Greg Kinnear in that role.   We’re shuffling now, Jina Jay is on board as casting director, it’s money v taste.  For once I’m behind the curtain looking out.  Sometimes in life things just fall into place. Yes !

Summer 2003 was Beyoncé’s.  The mighty single Crazy In Love was everywhere with it’s bouncy beyoncé pumping brass riff, salsa congas, uh-oh uh-oh uh-oh you know hook and ridiculous video showcasing Beyoncé’s dancing.  It was the first single off of her first solo LP and was widely anticipated since Destiny’s Child had been a huge hit in our house, and we’d followed them through various incarnations from Destiny’s Child (1998) through Writing On The Wall (1999) to Survivor (2001).  They were the biggest girl group since The Supremes, and Beyoncé was destined, as destiny’s actual child, for stardom.  The complete package – voice, face, eyes, body, moves.  Managed by her father Mathew Knowles for years her rise from Houston child star to global superstar has seemed inevitable, effortless and meant to be.  Inevitably, of course, things are never that simple. I wish.  But surely this was my time too at last ?

Beyoncé wrote Crazy In Love with Rich Harrison, who’d been saving up the cracking horn sample from The Chi-Lites 1970 song Are You My Woman (Tell Me So).  She was the first artist to respond to the blast of French Horn which creates that giant fanfare sound, and while she listened in her apartment, looking at her untidy hair and unmatched clothes in the mirror, singing I’m looking so crazy right now, they stumbled on the lyrics.  Beyoncé though, was actually crazy in love for real with her new boyfriend Jay-Z.  I know, none of us could believe it either.  But this was the moment when she and her new love were hot on fire and it was pouring out of her, a pure juice chilli shake, an eruption of love, and the result was as intoxicating as being a teenager again.  Yes !

Beyoncé and Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) in 2003

It’s hard to describe the feeling of that summer.  How quickly I got used to talking about other actor’s careers in a judgemental way, seeing them or not seeing them in certain parts.  My only IN to the process was via Nick and Michael since it was deemed from the other producers that I was not to be consulted.  But I was in there all right.  It felt like a rollercoaster ride, strapped in and ready to go, who will be the passengers?  Thrilling mainly.  For all the disappointments of my acting career (notably Seven and Speed), my first feature New Year’s Day, my 2nd screenplay High Times, my 2nd stage play The House That Crack built, now suddenly it had all seemed to come together, all the experience added up to being in the right place at the right time with the right people. There was vindication, excitement but lots of relief, because it appeared that I actually WAS who I thought I was.  The evidence had appeared scattered up to that point.

 The part of Spitzbergen, chief of the CIA, required an actor with cynical gravitas and an ability to be a switching predator.  We were thrilled to bits when the Chief of Police of Amity Island (the mythical beach town in Jaws) Roy Scheider accepted an offer. Crispin Glover, perhaps best known for his work on Back To The Future and River’s Edge is cast as Hammett and his side kick MacNeill goes to Rich Hall, an American comedian based in London.  The gallery was looking exciting.  Next to sign up were Cillian Murphy a young Irishman tipped for greatness, and Kate Ashfield a young brit ditto.  Then the casting started to get decidedly fizzy.  I’d come across fizzy casting when my film New Year’s Day was being made in 1999.  Fizzy casting is like pop stars, presenters, people with a different “audience”.  Can they act ?  Does it matter ?  Will the fizz last longer than an average glass of Coke ? Nobody worries about these questions.  The casting directors, who spend their spare time watching TV and going to the theatre now suddenly have to keep an eye on the charts and daytime TV.  Or Youtube ratings.  Whatever my private feelings about this as an actor, I had to acknowledge that we scored a good one with the casting of Tricky, erstwhile Bristol triphopper, as the getaway driver.  Names being bandied around included Vinnie Jones (who I’d already worked with in 2000 on Mean Machine), Gary Kemp (also an old buddy), Mickey Rourke (who wanted a brand new Land Rover among other things), Eddy Izzard, Chris Penn, Dennis Hopper.  It’s like top trumps actors all day long.

Beyoncé in 2003

The highlight for me was getting interest from Peter O’Toole to play the role of Baptiste, a mysterious highly moral character who meets Killian outside Salisbury Cathedral to discuss the Shroud of Turin.  We’re never sure who Baptiste works for, but he is both religious and a scientist.  One scene.  One conversation.  O’Toole wanted to talk rewrites on what he had read – so I had a call one morning from Mexico.  It was Peter.  He was concerned with the reality of his character’s words first, then with believability.  He was straight to the point.  It’s a complex scene and the plot changes as a result, one of those scenes that spins the film around, but he liked it and after 40 minutes on the phone with Lawrence Of Arabia, I hung up and crossed my fingers.  And then I went back to the computer.  The only time I’d seen him in the flesh was an infamous production of Macbeth at the Old Vic with Brian Blessed as Banquo, the worst reviews ever written and it sold out in minutes.   Later that day a rewritten scene was pinged off to Michael Wearing, the artistic producer, and thence to O’Toole’s agent.  A few days later Peter O’Toole was on board.  Yes !

I think we skipped around a bit that night.

Further rewrites came and went.  We went to see Tori Amos live at The Greek Theatre, a marvellous open-air venue in Griffith Park.  I think we walked there from our treetops apartment.  Ben Folds was in support.  Jenny’s sister Mandy came over for a holiday and stayed with us.  It was a glorious summer, sunbathing on the roof terrace with swallowtail butterflies flitting about, and others that resembled the Camberwell Beauty.

We did the touristy stuff, Venice, Malibu, Melrose and Santa Monica and went for a meal in Topanga Canyon at The Inn Of The Seventh Ray, sitting outside in the balmy California night air. We also did that great drive up Highway One from LA to San Fransisco, through Santa Barbara, The mental Madonna Inn, Carmel, Monterey, California at its finest… 

Madonna Inn, San Luis Obispo, California  

And we made plans to fly back to England for the shoot of Red Light Runners.  Jenny was offered a short series of The Vagina Monologues in the West End. She would take the last week off now that we had a schedule – her character worked in week five in Wiltshire and now everything was in place, the designer, the director of photography and his team, the editor, the costume designer, make up, locations were scouted, and the money and the cars and the P&A provided by Audi.  We had a ten million pound budget.  Huge for a British film.  We were shooting in London and Salisbury Plain (for the Iowa cornfields).  It was exciting yes, OF COURSE IT WAS EXCITING but I also felt ready.  Happy.  Yes.

Play That Tune !   Crazy right now.

My Pop Life #80 : Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

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Heartbreak Hotel   –   Elvis Presley

the bell-hop’s tears keep flowing and the desk clerk’s dressed in black

They been so long on lonely street they never can go back

and they’ve been, they been so lonely baby, they been so lonely

they been so lonely they could die…

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By the time I was 16 I had learnt the rudimentals of the saxophone, I could play a tune, I could ‘tongue’ the notes, bend the notes and more or less join in with a jam.  I could only play in a handful of keys though.  And better jokes were to come.  When I joined school band Rough Justice – my friend’s band which starred Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, Andy Shand and Tigger on the drums – it was as a saxophone player.   I arrived at Waterlilies in Kingston village, sax in hand, having hitch-hiked from Hailsham, sat down, had a cup of tea, perhaps a joint was smoked,  knelt down and opened my sax case, red-velvet-lined, the horn came in various parts which had to be slotted together, then a reed selected and placed onto the mouthpiece (Selmer C) and tightened, a sling around my neck and we were off.  Give us an E said Tat.  I blew a nice clear bell-like E.   Wow that’s high.  All the guitarists tightened their strings to the right pitch.  Saxophones cannot be tuned (much*) so the more flexible instruments – the guitars, including the bass, must be.   I can’t remember how many rehearsals this went on for, but at every rehearsal someone – often two people – broke strings.   Then one day, weeks later, possibly months later, someone – who knows – maybe it was me, perhaps Andy played an E on the piano out of curiosity.  Clearly none of us had perfect pitch !     It was lower than my E.  Way lower.  It was my C# in fact.  I consulted my book “How To Play The Saxophone”.    I had an Eb Boosey & Hawkes alto.   I don’t actually know what this means even today, but I think it means that it is pitched 3 semitones above middle C – ie Eb.   What this meant for my bandmate’s guitar strings, not to mention their fingers, was that when they asked me for an E, I was giving them a G !!!  No wonder strings broke – three semitones higher than concert pitch, I got blisters on ma fingers !   I felt stupid, humiliated even, but they were all relieved.   Next time someone asked me for an E, I blew a C# and we were all sweet. *

*Muso’s note – to tune a saxophone you must move the mouthpiece up & down the cork.

– After a few more rehearsals it became evident that no one wanted to sing.   No one.   So guess who volunteered.   I’ll give it a go.   Someone who would become an actor one day.  Now, this meant learning the words to the songs which Tat and Conrad – or Crod as we all called him in those days – had written, among which were Tat’s song Muster Muster Monsters which required a kind of Vincent Price delivery, and Crod’s song about Mevagissey in Cornwall where he’d been on holiday camping with Spark and Fore and possibly Martin Elkins (“wake up with the sun run down to the sea…”), which was a basic pop vocal.  More tricky though were the choice of covers – basic 12-bar rock songs which the nascent guitar players could play with confidence – and which included THREE Status Quo songs and THREE Elvis Presley songs and Birthday by the Beatles from the White Album.  I’ll discuss the Quo in greater depth another time, for I ended up meeting them years later, (see My Pop Life #172) but this seems like a great opportunity to put Elvis into my pop life.  Aged 16/17 I sang 3 Elvis songs, kind of unaware of his legendary status, he was just a good rockin’ boy to us East Sussex lads.   I wasn’t overawed like I would be now if I sang an Elvis song.   It was just rock’n’roll.   But the songs were 15 years old even then in 1973.

Most of the Rough Justice set were rockers, so true to form I’ve picked the ballad to represent.  It was the hardest song to sing with the exception of “Birthday” which is a scream-fest.  Two of us sang that I think.  We would perform at Kingston Village Hall, Grange Gardens for some private party, Lewes Priory school dance, not that many actual gigs.  The gigs were good, but my main memory is Crod’s bedroom, amps and speakers, fags, instruments including Crod’s homemade lemon-yellow electric guitar, carved from some tree and wired up by hand.  In my recall it went out of tune on a regular basis, but Crod didn’t seem to mind.  In fact Conrad didn’t seem to mind about much it seemed to me.  He had a gentle giant atmosphere around him, smiled a lot, was very forgiving and understanding, had a good left foot on the football pitch, came to the Albion with his brother Martin or with us, enjoyed a pint of cider and a smoke of weed, is a committed socialist even now and still lives in Lewes with his wife Gaynor Hartnell.  Lovely people whom I see all too infrequently.  Along with Simon Korner I would say he was my best friend at Lewes, since I had spent so much time with both of those families as my own family slowly disintegrated amid dysfunction and doctors and drugs.  They’d both reached out a hand and invited me into their homes.  They’d saved my sanity and my future probably.  I cannot really measure it, but I will always acknowledge it.

We had fun with Crod one day – me, Spark, Fore, Martin, Tat.  Crod fell asleep early one night.  Too early.  Wankered on cider.  Someone wondered aloud whether we should lift his entire bed with him in it outside and place it carefully in the garden, without waking him up.  Much laughter.  I think we tried it.   Of course the bed wouldn’t fit through the door.  So we settled for completely re-arranging his bedroom, moved the bed to the opposite wall, moved the bookcase and wardrobe and amps and speakers.  Then we fell asleep too.   Hadn’t worked that out – that we’d have to stay awake all night to get the juicy climax to our prank.  Then someone woke Crod up to get the joke.  He looked blearily around, said “oh you’ve moved the room around” then fell asleep again.

Matthew Wimbourne would turn up to Rough Justice rehearsals too.   He was younger than us and smaller too.   Wispy beard-hairs and glasses, hippy scarves.   Carried a set of bongos.  Sat on the floor and played along without ever really being heard.   I hope he had fun.   Tigger the drummer didn’t go to our school.  He looked a bit like a kid from fame, mullet and all.   We made a logo for his bass drum.  It said Rough Justice round the rim and had a hangman’s noose in the centre.  We wore whatever we wanted on stage which was mainly denim, although Crod had some interesting shapeless clothes, and I had my Mum’s pink blouse (glamrock!!) and a pair of stripéd pants (see MacArthur’s Park! My Pop Life #216) that were red, blue and yellow and a pair of wedge-sole AND wedge-heel shoes.  I thought I was in The Sweet !!  Singing Elvis and Quo !!!  hahahahahahahaaaaaaa…

Featured imageAs for Heartbreak Hotel, it’s quite a song.  I think people used to dance even when we played it.   It was Elvis Presley‘s first million-selling single.   Not the first thing he recorded, by any means – he walked into Sun Records in Memphis aged 18 and recorded That’s All Right Mama for producer Sam Phillips which is totally fantastic, as are all the sides he cut for Sun Records.  But once he got signed by RCA Records who bought out his Sun contract thanks to new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, the sky was the limit.  In essence they tried to bottle the lightning of those first magical two years.  And, sadly, they did.  Bottled it, labelled it, mass-produced it, gave it a haircut and sent it to the army.  They couldn’t quite smooth out all of the rough edges but near as dammit that’s exactly what happened to Elvis.  The famous episodes of him being shot on TV only from the waist up were a real threat, not a joke – a white man dancing and singing like a negro, mixing black and white music with ease, conquering both with charm, rockabilly and sex.

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He was a powerful dangerous young man in the mid-fifties, and those first two years at Sun Records are the best of Elvis.  Not to say that the other stuff is bad – hardly that – and I have favourite Elvis songs from every period of his life.  In The Ghetto.  Are You Lonesome Tonight?   I Just Can’t Help Believin’.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy from the comeback gig.  There are two wonderful books that have all the details, all the gossip and all of the stuff you need.  Peter Guralnick wrote both – Last Train To Memphis goes up to the army, Careless Love takes it from there.  Highly recommended.

I visited Graceland in Memphis in 1989 on my way out to Dallas delivering a car for Auto-Driveaway.  Really that’s for another post, but Graceland is everything you want it to be.

In other news Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #6 and My Pop Life #46) or Uncle Ken had thrust a pair of C90s into my grubby little paws one night entirely made up of original material covered by Elvis, followed by Elvis’ version.  In pretty much every respect the Elvis versions are better.  And of course they were huge hits too.  Parker and Elvis demanded half of the publishing for any song they covered, and most writers (though not Dolly Parton) agreed.

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I knew very very little of this in 1974.   Just as well I think.   I was an innocent singing rock songs for kids to dance to.    I didn’t want to be stepping into a legend’s shoes.

Featured imageAnd yes, the legend of Elvis would flourish and bloom in later years and become a kind of religious touchstone and a musical crossroads too.    There’s so much myth and bullshit written and spoken about Elvis.   I’ve heard tons of it.   Make up your own mind.   Did you know, for instance, that Elvis used to wear eye make-up in the early 50s?   There’s some amazing photos of him back then, on the cusp of his power, under arrest for an assault.   He was a tornado.    I’ve spoken about my conversation with Bristol trip-hop pioneer Tricky (My Pop Life #61) regarding the Public Enemy “Elvis was a hero to most…” lines on Fight The Power.   But whatever, he was one of the original rebels.   A white working class kid in Memphis singing black music in 1953.   He was it.    There’s two clips below, the original single from 1956, the young man aged 21 making his first million dollars, below that the ’68 comeback gig in Las Vegas where he appears to be taking the mickey out of himself and his schtick.  He was a complex man in some ways, a very simple man in others.  I’ve got a lot of time for Elvis.

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and live at the comeback gig in Vegas ’68 :

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 :