My Pop Life #148 : Lost Highway – Hank Williams

Lost Highway   –   Hank Williams

I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
For a life of sin I have paid the cost
When I pass by all the people say
Just another guy on the lost highway

Late ’88 I’m driving down Highway 20 towards El Paso, Texas.  Apart from ordering food and gas I haven’t spoken to anyone for over three days,  I’m almost out of money, my credit card has started bouncing and it’ll be Christmas in 4 days.  I think it’s possibly the most all alone and lost I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m kind of happy in a self-pityingly dramatic kind of way.  O Me Misererum.  One of life’s natural wallowers in misery, (wallow, not wallflower) I was pretty vacant, alone, solo, half-empty and broke.  Mile after mile after mile of desert scrub, punctuated by dull dipping oil derricks and the odd bridge.  The lost highway.  Abilene.  I knew that from a Nanci Griffith song. Lone Star State of Mind, deep in the fart of Texas.   There was a kind of masochistic pointlessness to the drive which suited me perfectly.

I’d gone into Auto Driveaway in Washington D.C. on December 16th and got a car to deliver.  You give them a deposit of $200 and get five days to drive to say, Dallas.  If you drive like a wanker, which is not allowed but who’s checking, you can spend a day somewhere along the route and still deliver on time.  I drove like a wanker through Virginia and West Virginia and crashed out in a motel in Bristol, Eastern Tennessee on day 1, got to Nashville on Day 2 (noted previously in My Pop Life #83) spent all of Day 3 in Nashville bopping around, drove to Memphis on Day 4 and mooched around Graceland and Beale St, got ripped off by the Mack man to the tune of $350 which is most of what I had on me, then delivered the car to an address in Dallas on Day 5 after driving through Arkansas.  

Oh you want more on the Mack man?  The phrase has now gone out of use thanks to the computer age, but you might have heard of the Mack Daddy, also going out of use.  We heard about him the following spring when I returned to D.C. with my new girlfriend Jenny for an awards ceremony.  A barbecue at a Hubert’s yard, one fella had delighted us in spinning his rap on The MackMan.  He’s the man who you can’t trust.  He’s a good talker.  He’s on your side.  He can help you get what you want, what you need.  He’s your buddy.  Oh yeah, he’s good, real good.  Then he fucks off with your money.  That’s who the mac man is.  He’s a pimp.  He’s a hustler.  The Mack Man can spot a fool from 40 paces, and wandering on Beale St, Memphis, birth of the fucking blues, he’d seen me.  Would you walk away from a Fool and His Money ?   So that was that, on the road again, Memphis had come and gone and been really great by the way, love that city, and when I’d delivered the car, the grateful owner did the decent thing and driven me to the Autodriveaway office in downtown Dallas – thence to choose a new car.  I chose the red open top 2-seater Mercedes from 1967. Can’t remember why. Where’s that car going?  I asked. It doesn’t work like that she said, where are you going?  I looked at her, short and frumpy and bad-tempered.  Not a very American attitude. They are usually so friendly and generous and willing.  She was a cow.   I’m not going anywhere I said.   No plans.  No destination.  She looked at me like I’d tricked her.  I was supposed to have a destination. I just genuinely didn’t have one.   I’d lost my UK girlfriend Rita earlier in 1988, and although I was seeing someone in England it didn’t feel official at all.   I’d had a relationship in Washington D.C., which lasted until I left town at the beginning of rehearsals and mongrel shagger Paul had stepped into my shoes and my girlfriend’s bed.  So now I was licking wounds and driving WEST WHEREVER.  I was as alone and lost as I’ll ever be in all likelihood.  I didn’t say all that.  But I wasn’t lying.  No destination, no expectations.  So she gave me the Mercedes.  It was going to Phoenix, Arizona. Another five-day ride.

I figured Texas would be boring but I was still stultified and unprepared for just how   b  o  r  i  n  g Highway 20 was. I drove into El Paso on the afternoon of Day 3, found a hotel and then drove into Juarez across the bridge over the Rio Grande.  It was Mexico.  First time I’d been there since 1980 (see My Pop Life #31).  

The bridge was the border, but not really.   I had some proper Mexican food and crossed back into the USA and slept.   The following day I drove out towards New Mexico and crossed the actual border about 5 miles outside El Paso on Highway 10.   Passport, everything. The little red Merc was driving well, guzzling gas, and I had to choose gas stations where they didn’t have the new-fangled credit card machines that were electronically connected to the bank and the rest of the world.  I sought out the ones with a piece of grey tracing paper that got rubbed over your card leaving a blackish imprint which you had to sign. Then I could fill up, and make sure I bought provisions too.  The electronic machines refused the Access Card – I was over my limit. Oh well. Made me feel more like an outlaw.

The reality was dull and lonely of course.  The lonely road.  Actually the road in New Mexico is pretty special, one of the great drives I’ve been on.  Red baked earth, blue sky, adobe dwellings and building, grey tarmac.  Country music on the radio mainly.  Washington D.C. And the theatre company who’d stabbed me in the back dwindled further and further into the distance.   Ahead of me was nothing.  It was a strange glorious empty sad feeling.  The white lines, the rolling tyres, the sun treading across the sky, the minutes ticking past, the gas tank slowly emptying, the feelings of sorrow and freedom, the man alone driving into the future, the rolling stone, all alone and lost, as night falls once more, a few more miles, a few more and there’s a cheap motel, there’s a place to crash, a parking lot, a giant empty sky. But, being a romantic, I stubbed my eyes upon the wheeling spokeshave of the stars.

Alun Lewis wrote that last line – one of my Dad’s favourites. Nicked it for the first play I ever wrote “Drive Away The Darkness” which itself is a quote from a Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise‘. Irony as one imagines his wandering fingers brought a fair bit of Darkness into young girl’s lives over the years.

Tombstone, Arizona

On Day 5 I rolled into Phoenix after a brief look round Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard, resting place of the Clanton brothers, murdered by Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, Warren and Morgan and Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.  The so-called gunfight lasted around 20 seconds and established the Earp family as ascendant in this part of the West. They became the law, literally, which is to say that Wyatt Earp became sheriff.   Much of the history of the U.S.A. has this violent gangster-ised quality (as does the history of man in general I hasten to add) where the winners write the history and the “good guys” always win.  I had always wanted to write the true history of Tombstone, a kind of anti-history where the Clantons are the heroes who get murdered.  But that’s the kind of warped twerp I am – always running against the wind, swimming against the tide.  

Well, now the tide had dumped me in Phoenix, where the Reverend Diane had said I would have my turning point when I spoke with her in D.C.   And you know, when people predict things, sometimes they do come true.   Maybe particularly if you want them to.   I delivered the car and back at the office was told that I couldn’t take the next car to Los Angeles.  Why ?  Because it was Christmas Eve today, LA was only a one-day delivery, and the office was closed on Christmas Day. They couldn’t give me the car for an extra day !!   No no.  No. So where was I going ?   The same old question.  What you got?  I asked.  They had Portland, Oregon.  That was like driving into winter, but it was further West.  And way further North.  I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that car.  And this Brown Oldsmobile is going to Dallas, Texas.  Where I’d been five days earlier.  Turning point ?  Rising from the ashes ?  The definition of futility ?  Time to stop all of these rolling stone fantasies and go back home ?  Not quite.

Hank Williams was a major influence on country music in America despite dying at the young age of 29. Born with spina bifida, he used pain killers and alcohol all his life especially after an accident led to further pain. From Montgomery, Alabama, Hank (christened Hiram) learned guitar chords and turnarounds from black blues singer Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, a fact he acknowledged years later. He recorded his first hit Move It On Over in 1947 after slogging around the circuit for years, spending the war shipbuilding in Mobile, Alabama and singing for the sailors in the evenings.  The spinal injury and another fall had excused him from service but he was already an alcoholic. Roy Acuff, country music pioneer told him “You have a million-dollar talent son, but a ten cent brain.”  Move It On Over was a huge hit, and Hank Williams spent the next six years playing live and recording his 31 singles before dying on a car journey between gigs in 1952. 

Lost Highway was written by Leon Payne, a blind country singer, and its combination of doomed romantic drifter schtick and self-mythologising misogyny was perfect for Williams.  It was also perfect for my self-pitying road trip, a man searching for his soul, for himself, a man who had never been single in his adult life but was trying it on for size and frankly, hating it.  Little did I know (or did I?) that the most important relationship of my entire life was literally days away.  

Hank Williams Sr sings to Hank Williams Jr

Lost Highway was a minor hit for Williams but remains a major song.   Dylan and Joan Baez sing it in Don’t Look Back the famous Pennebaker documentary from 1965.  It remains the anthem for the single man.  

Lost Highway is also a fantastic book by that greatest of music writers Peter Guralnick, author of Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love the two-part Elvis Presley biography, as well as books about soul music, blues, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. Lost Highway is a personal review of the history of American music, featuring Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef.   It’s absolutely brilliant.  

I started driving back to Dallas on Christmas Day 1988.

 

 

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My Pop Life #137 : The Word/Sardines – Junkyard Band

The Word/Sardines   –   Junkyard Band

My mother went down to the foodstamp line…

1988 Washington D.C.    I was undecided.  Thinking about work-shopping my play Sanctuary for a new city, a new country, new circumstances.  Sanctuary had been produced the previous year by Joint Stock Theatre Group and toured the UK from Salisbury to Newcastle.  I wrote about it in My Pop Life #86.   Sanctuary was a rap musical about homeless teenagers and based around London’s Centrepoint Shelter and the cardboard city at Waterloo, as well as the bed-and-breakfast policies of most of the London boroughs in the mid-80s.  An American Theatre Company called The No-Neck Monsters had seen the show at The Drill Hall and asked me if I’d like to re-stage it in Washington D.C.  I said “No” of course, but later wondered whether I should investigate when they said they would fly me to D.C. to meet them and look around the city.    I arrived in Washington in late June ’88 and was met at the airport by Gwendoline Wynne and Helen Patton who ran the theatre company.  We drank, chatted, ate and I crashed.  Later I met D.C. actor Eric Dellums who was in Spike Lee’s School Daze and bought a $40 selection of go-go records, the local funk music.  I should note in passing that there was also a thriving punk scene in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, producing local groups like Fugazi and their predecessors Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Embrace.  Henry Rollins  is from D.C. (years before Black Flag and LA).  But I didn’t know about that then.  Shame – it would have been an interesting element for the play.

Chapter III nightclub, 1988

Next we spent night after night trying to get into go-go clubs to check the pulse of the scene.  Washington D.C. is called Chocolate City because the population is 80% black and often we are the only white people in evidence when we do get allowed in – I keep failing the no-sneakers rule.  Chapter III in SW Washington let us in eventually and the manager Adolphe took a shine to us and showed me the DJ booth where we watched some scratching and I was taught “The Butt“, a local dance, by a fat boy – the current hit single by E.U. or Experience Unlimited, also featured in the School Daze film.

Junkyard Band 1986

We carried on walking around the streets talking to homeless kids about their experiences.  Often they would be busking, we met one group on Capitol Hill on July 4th who ranged from 10-13 years old playing upside down buckets and jam-jars with a go-go beat.  They called themselves ‘High Profit’ and their heroes were The Junkyard Band.  The following day another young group at Dupont Circle were playing the buckets and cans, watched over by their mum.  They were called Backyard and clearly hoping for a hit record like their heroes Junkyard who’d been signed to Def Jam.  The fact that E.U. had a track in a Spike Lee joint had the go-go scene buzzing, and a few days later we went to an outside event at Brandywine, Maryland for a go-go spectacular to see local heroes JunkyardLittle Benny & The Masters, Hot Cold Sweat, Rare Essence and Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers.   This was a roll-call of the top go-go scene bands.  Temperatures were mid-80s and upwards.  Once again, Helen and I were pretty much the only white people there.

Bowie T-shirt !

Cycle shorts, hi-top sneakers and gold chains were the order of the day.  People posed for photographs in front of painted backdrops of Cadillacs, thrones and jewellry for $5 a picture.  The best one was Fred Flintstone with gold chains, diamond rings and Adidas sneakers with a speech bubble : “How Ya Like Me Now?”   Two dimensional images of wealth and status for the black American dreamers.  Another guy was selling T-shirts with crack slang:  ‘Beam Me Up Scotty‘ and on the back ‘Don’t Let Scotty Get Your Body‘.   I bought one, and for the rest of the summer people in D.C. asked me where I’d got it from.  The huge difference between Sanctuary UK and Sanctuary DC was crack cocaine.  We were surrounded by it here.  Teenagers openly flashing rolls of $100 bills.  Crack is the short cut to status and money and is inextricably linked to the murder rate.  Adolphe told me he wouldn’t allow go-go nights in Chapter III anymore after shooting incidents.  Ironically the go-go scene itself is anti-crack – a new supergroup had just released a 12″ single called D.C. Don’t Stand For Dodge City.  But it was entirely clear to me that if I decided to come back here and re-write my play,  crack would have to be part of the storyline.

But the other huge issue was race.  Fear.  Oppression.  Hate.  Only 20 years previously there had been Jim Crow laws in Washington : whites-only drinking fountains, rest-rooms, cinemas and lunch bars.  You could still feel it around the city.  I was cycling around like a naive white liberal poking my nose into communities who were selling drugs to survive, and it was killing them, literally.

One day I cycled down to a homeless shelter south of the Capitol building, and went in to meet the people who ran it.  On my way out I was surrounded by a group of angry and curious black men who wanted to know what I was doing there.  I explained that I was researching for a play about homelessness.  “You is European” one of them said, as an accusation.  Yes, I replied, I am English.  He didn’t mean that.  He meant I was white.  One scary-looking dude prowled around the edge of the circle of men like a caged tiger, a challenging look in his eye, flashing his coat open now and again to show me a 12-inch blade.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t racist – that I saw a colour-blind future.  Why the hell did I say that ?  I probably did feel that way in 1988.  I don’t anymore.  At all.  That will never happen.  I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between The World & Me and here my current racial politics lies.  Resistance.  By all means necessary.  Non-violence ?  The establishment doesn’t respect it.  So why keep showing these 1960s civil rights scenes of black people being beaten?  No.  We’re entering a new paradigm I believe.  Or going back to an old one. Malcolm X.  The Panthers.  Enough is enough.

For some reason in downtown D.C. in 1988 this group of angry homeless black men heard some degree of non-hate in my voice and parted to allow me to cycle away.   Perhaps I had acknowledged their pain and circumstance, and they’d recognised that.  Or perhaps they’d meant no harm in the first place.

1988 was the final year of Reaganomics – the famous trickle-down bullshit – referenced by the Valentine Brothers on their seminal single Money’s Too Tight To Mention.  The Junkyard Band reference Reagan on The Word

Reagan gave The Pentagon the foodstamp money

and waiting in the wings was George Bush Sr, about to defeat Dukakis in the presidential election by calling him a liberal, as if it was a curse word.

Go-Go was born in Washington D.C. and can be traced right back to the 1960s – the word was originally a name for a club, as in Smokey Robinson’s Going To A Go-Go (1965) – and it developed as a live call-and-response form of funk music, hugely influenced by James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Grover Washington, among others, and using cowbell, congas and other percussion instruments to create a more latin or african groove.  The music has brass and the word “boogie” seemingly permanently in evidence, other dance tunes are often quoted, and it is best experienced live, since there was rarely a break between songs, any talking was done while the band played.

Chuck Brown has been credited with being the Godfather of Go-Go – perhaps he made the nation aware of it with his huge hit Bustin’ Loose in 1978, but he’d been around since the mid-60s.   Other exponents Trouble Funk and Rare Essence built the go-go house on solid ground alongside E.U. and others during the golden years of the 1980s.   Come to think of it the previous piece of music I’ve written about from Washington D.C. has some of this feel – Julia & Company’s Breaking Down (Sugar Samba) (see My Pop Life #50) has a great deal of cowbell !

Junkyard Band

Junkyard Band started out in 1980 with members as young as nine playing on buckets and cans and bottles and traffic cones and they would add an instrument when they could afford it. By 1985 they were honed into a funky percussion ensemble that rapped more than the other acts, had less horns and had a defining street-edge.  Def Jam Records signed them and in 1986 Rick Rubin produced the double A-side  The Word, flipside Sardines, now their signature tune.

They are still playing together in Washington and elsewhere.

My Pop Life #83 : Country Boy – Ricky Skaggs

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Country Boy   –   Ricky Skaggs

I may look like a city slicker

shinin’ up through the shoes

underneath I’m just a cotton picker

pickin’ out a mess of blues

show me where I start

find a horse and cart

I’m just a country boy, country boy at heart…

I didn’t know what was going on.  Late ’88.  I seemed to have stopped being an actor for a while and become a writer – again.  My play Sanctuary had won the Samuel Beckett Award and been picked up by an American theatre company from Washington D.C. called The No-Neck Monsters.  I’d re-written it for the nation’s capital after a short but intense workshop period (My Pop Life #137) and a six-week writing period when I lived in Adams Morgan next door to a beautiful black/cherokee mix woman called Debbie who worked at the Pentagon.  A gang of us went to a Baltimore Orioles game, and Debbie and I started to have an affair.  I noticed that one of my actors – Paul – got annoyed about this – but – hey – that’s life.   But once I’d delivered the play to director Gwen Wynne it was time to go back to England, London, and my single man status – although I was seeing someone there too…

A few weeks of rehearsal passed to which I was not invited (!) – and I came back for the thrilling opening night of Sanctuary D.C. as the play was now called – it was still a rap musical with beats, but now some of them had music too thanks to brilliant MD Scott Richards – and the final song had me in floods of tears.  It was a spectacular experience watching the play again, and a kick in the teeth and guts to find that Debbie and Paul had become an item in my absence.   Not only that but half the company had turned on me too, no doubt to bolster Paul’s righteous behaviour. Shocked, I slept with her one last time in my fury then cut and run for it.   I went west.   In a car.

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Auto-Driveaway is a company which delivers cars for people, all over the US and Canada.  They need drivers.  I went to the office in D.C., showed my licence, gave them a $200 deposit and took a car for delivery.  There was a vast choice – I chose Dallas, Texas.  I had five days to get there and a full tank.  After that ran out it was up to me, and I could deliver it empty.  I quickly calcuated that if I drove like the clappers (what are they?) on the first two days, then I could stay in Nashville, Tennessee for two nights and one whole day.  I should give this trip a name because it became epic and legendary for all the wrong reasons – but not this section.  Driving over the Appalachians through West Virginia then looking down at the map to see your progress makes you realise how vast America is.  I went to Dollywood – a brief detour (see My Pop Life #46) but it was closed.  Back in the car and carry on.  Radio stations come and go as you pass through towns on the Interstate Highway.  No hitch-hikers anywhere, unlike 23 years earlier when Simon Korner and I had gone coast to coast and beyond with the mighty thumbs of yore.  (See My Pop Life #30 for the early part of this trip on the same road).  Just me and the road, hour after hour after hour.   On the outskirts of Nashville I pick up a gospel radio station.  Then a country station.  Then there’s an ad (a commercial spot in the local vernacular) for The Grand Ole Opry.  I immediately drive there and buy a ticket for that very night, check into my motel 6 and put on my best cowboy boots.

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Grand Ole Opry is a nightly live radio show that goes out across the Nashville area, and beyond thanks to the internet.  It takes place in a large auditorium which showcases country music, bluegrass, folk and has it’s own hall of fame.  It started in 1928 as a barn dance and it is the longest-running radio show in America.  Elvis Presley (My Pop Life #80) only played here once in 1954 and was told to go back to driving trucks.  The Byrds played in 1968 when Gram Parsons was producing Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and got cat-called by the conservative redneck audience as “longhairs”.   It’s an American Institution.  The night I went (December 17th 1988) I was lucky enough to see the great bluegrass legend Bill Monroe hosting a segment of the 9.30pm show which also included country hall-of-fame members Porter Wagoner, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Charlie Louvin and Ricky Skaggs.   I was in country heaven.

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Is it weird that at the same exact time that I was buying all the hip hop singles and LPs that were released, I was also busy discovering and digging on country music? Thanks to new releases by k.d.lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum and Patty Loveless.  Kenneth Cranham had fed my country fever with a C90, I was buying Dolly & Willie, NWA & Public Enemy, Hank and Reba.  I was a schizo muso mentalist.  Down to the record store, come home with EPMD and Nanci Griffith, Big Daddy Kane and The Judds (see My Pop Life #6).   I didn’t see any contradiction there at all.

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I didn’t care about Ricky’s image, he’s a genius

Ricky Skaggs blew my mind that night, among all those legendary performers, names who had been playing for decades – he was one of the youngest performers there.   He played a song called Country Boy which still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – his band nailing an impossibly fast bluegrass instrumental section that is quite literally Instru-Mental.   When I listen to the song I inevitably think that the drummer must be playing too fast.  He appears to be hurrying them along – the effect is quite odd.  Very exciting music.  Skaggs was at the forefront of a generation of younger musicians at the time who were taking music back to its roots, away from pop-country and the Nashville mainstream.    Bluegrass was born in the United States from musical folk roots in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, with jazz influences from the South.  Ricky Skaggs is a master of the genre.  He has won multiple Grammys and is a demon on the mandolin and guitar.  Featured image

Featured imageI went out to Ernest Tubbs Music Store in Nashville the next morning and bought the seven-inch single of Country Boy.    A treasured possession.    I am a country boy after all, Cambridge -born and Sussex bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head, despite my education, I am pretty thick in the head.   A young soul, picking things up along the way – oh ! is that how it works?  Right…. very little natural wisdom.   Almost a naïf at times.   I love the country, the seasons changing, the leaves, the insects, particularly the butterflies, the birds, the streams, the mud, the flowers, the hedgerows, the farms, the wind, the sky.   It’s my natural habitat.   I am a country boy at heart!    Take it away Ricky.

This is how I first experienced ‘Country Boy’ – live :

My Pop Life #50 : Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) – Julia & Company

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Breakin’ Down  (Sugar Samba)   –   Julia & Company

…I’m telling you this, you can’t resist you gotta get up and dance, breakin’ it down…

It’s hard to remember just how dominant dance music was in 1984 – punk and new wave had been and gone, leaving Elvis Costello and Paul Weller to re-invent themselves with each LP (they both did dance LPs around this time) 2-tone had sealed the deal, and the disco underground of the 1970s was now mainstream chart music.  Bestriding the world like a colossus was Michael Jackson, who was burned filming a Pepsi Commercial in January just before the release of his ground-breaking and game-changing video film for Thriller, the final single from that record-breaking album.   Number one in Britain for weeks were Frankie Goes To Hollywood with “Relax“, a genuine british dance hit record which the BBC refused to play presumably because it references orgasm.   Their 2nd single Two Tribes would also reach number 1 in April.  In the previous year, when I’d been at the Donmar Warehouse for five months (!) in Steven Berkoff’s WEST, even David Bowie had gone disco with Nile Rogers and Let’s Dance.

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And this surge of popularity gave many smaller acts their chance in the spotlight: Sharon Redd, The Pointer Sisters, and Washington D.C. resident Julia Nixon who produced a stunning 45rpm 7-inch single called Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) first on a local label District of Columbia then later on London Records – the one which I bought in a picture sleeve.  It is a major groove and will, under almost any conditions, make people dance…

  Featured image  Knowing nothing about this group until recently when I learned that Julia Nixon had replaced Jennifer Holiday in Dreamgirls on Broadway, and that after this cracking single in 1984 and the follow-up I’m So Happy, she finally released her first solo LP in 2007 some 23 years later.

Now, I’ve been an actor for some 33 years myself, and I consider myself lucky to have lived for the bulk of my working life doing what I am capable of, and what I enjoy.  To be precise : what I enjoy is the actual act of acting.  The business of show less so, because of revelations like this : a clearly great singer (listen to the song) with a hit single who has had to wait for over 30 years to get one miserable solo LP released.  She is clearly a better singer than the majority of chart acts, but pop music is merciless with talent, as is the TV and Film industry.  I’ve thought about this many times, why does person a) get work and person b) doesn’t ?

I’m not pretending to know the answers to this but certain things are clear.  Talent isn’t enough to succeed.  There are other elements at work :  luck, connections, and the greasing of the wheels.  Whether someone wants to have sex with you or not.  Whether they think that you’ll make them some money.   In the acting industry the disappointment of rejection becomes your regular companion;  if you took every defeat on the chin you’d never get up.  Some don’t.  In the music industry again the rejections may or may not fuel the fires of creativity, or someone younger and sexier might just jump into the gap.  Good actors often decide that the lack of control they feel doing screen work can only be balanced by regular stage work, where the actor is king.  Screen work generally is paid 10 times stage work.  Good musicians will often be happier with regular paid session work, playing on other people’s hit songs, or writing other people’s hit songs (secret corn!) than sitting at home trying to plot an assault on the charts under their own name.   And in both industries there are filters at work;  gatekeepers, paid to streamline the flow of artists into the hallowed name positions.

Julia Nixon has carried on acting and singing, and still earns her living from doing it.  She was recently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award in ‘Caroline, or Change’ in Washington D.C.

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I was at the beginning of my working life when I heard this song, which I still love today, if I ever DJ for a brief nostalgic hour at a party or some such this record is Always In The Box along with Kid Creole & The Coconuts and TLC.   I didn’t really have a plan in 1984, no strategy, no idea what I was doing frankly.   Following my nose.  No one ever sat me down and explained the industry to me.   People just don’t do that.   I wouldn’t have listened anyway.   Young people don’t listen – they surge, they feel, they deal with it.   The endless thought process dealing with “how it all works” is like trying to understand the dawn of time, or how dogs can smell cancer, or the endless mystery of why people are racist.   Why does the river flow into the sea?  Why is the sky blue ? (oxygen molecules)  Why can’t I bend my left leg in the same way as my right?  Does it matter?

We all get our moment in the sun.  This is a superb song.  Smooth, funky, sexy.  I give you the seven-inch :

London Records re-mixed the 12-inch version :

the original District Of Columbia 12-inch single :

My Pop Life #33 : We Got Our Own Thang – Heavy D & The Boyz

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We Got Our Own Thang   –   Heavy D & The Boyz

…you’re a chicken mcnugget and I’m a Big Mac…

This is the end of a long story, and the beginning of an even longer one.   From way back “when I was a writer”… I’d been invited over to Washington D.C. by the No-Neck Monsters Theatre Company who’d happened to see my play Sanctuary performed by Joint Stock at the Drill Hall in 1987, and wanted me to write an american version of it.  At first I said no, then they said they would re-write it, then I said NO even more, then I decided to go over and plunge in.

Featured imageThat’s for another story;  the workshop on the streets of Washington (the play is about homeless teens) and so is the writing period, up in Mount Pleasant having an affair with the woman next door who worked at The Pentagon, and yet another tale is show opening in the Unitarian Church in Adams Morgan in late ’88 and the epic empty road trip that followed.

But now, here, I’m flying back to America with my brand new girlfriend one Jenny Jules because my play has been nominated for best musical in the Helen Hayes Awards, and actress Deidra Johnson has a best supporting actress nod too.   We fly to New York and stay in Jim’s mini walk-through apartment in the Lower East Side at 7th St and Avenue A – Alphabet City.  This part of Manhattan is scuzzy, broken down, graffiti’d and druggy and has a very definite edge.  You gotta remember this is 1989 and there are homeless people with mounds of belongings in tow, dealers hustling in Tompkins Square Park, squeegee merchants at every corner squirting grey water onto your windscreen if you’re unlucky enough to be driving in the Lower East Side and get caught on a red light.  There’s a racial whiff in the air too and it’s unpleasant.  Jenny is my first black girlfriend, and here we are getting chups and spat at on the sidewalk by angry black men, the Nation Of Islam in Times Square berating Jenny for selling out to the devil and miscegenating with the white man (all this from the lips of a mixed race brother).  And then the Central Park rape case exploded.

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 In this atmosphere we took the Amtrak train 4 hours south to the nation’s capital and a nice hotel in leafy Georgetown.    I had to show Jenny around since I’d spent four months in D.C. the previous year – we went to the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, up to Dupont Circle which figured in the play, the Adams Morgan district, walked along the Potomac River, explored the Smithsonian Institute and we met Herbert again, a social worker who’d been a great resource while I was re-writing the piece.  Herbert invited us a to a barbecue in his yard where everyone sang the Temptations “My Girl” and told us about The Mack Man, Herbert later escorted us down to Anacostia Park in South East D.C. to an almost 100% black event at which Jesse Jackson spoke thrillingly, and we heard the famous I Am (“I Am”) *pause* Somebody (“Somebody”) speech.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that as well as appropriating a black woman, I had also appropriated black culture and written a hip-hop musical, called Sanctuary D.C.  I’d been wrestling with this particular dilemma since the first incarnation of the show in London and found most of the barriers to be inside my own head.   But here in Washington D.C. which is 80% black, where people work side by side all day but then socialise in distinct racial groups in the evenings, where there are white areas, and black areas, and somehow we were in a mixed gang forging a middle path and to be honest, I was on a pretty steep learning curve regarding black culture, particularly black american culture.   But it’s a curve I am still happy to be on.

It was good to see director Gwen again, and the cast who’d worked so hard but with whom I’d largely fallen out (another story).   We all got dolled up to the nines in black tie and ear-rings and attended the Helen Hayes Awards in the Kennedy Centre.  What a lovely glamourous evening.  We didn’t win, and Gwen invited us all back to her apartment in Georgetown afterwards and we drank and laughed.

Sanctuary D.C. was a rap musical and was largely inspired by a handful of old-skool rappers, notably Run DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Kool Moe Dee, Roxanne Shanté, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and KRS One (Boogie Down Productions).    All started (for me) by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.  By 1989 we’d heard from NWA, Ice T and the stirrings of Gangsta rap which would put me off following hip hop in the same way that I had in the 80s.   In the late 80s I bought everything that came out from a vinyl shop in Soho on 12″ – EPMD, Stezo, 7A3, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Schoolly D, Biz Markie, and I still have all those singles, and albums.  I couldn’t sustain that level of purchasing, the huge volume of bands that suddenly appeared, the genres went in all directions at once and it became impossible – and expensive – to follow.  Although I wrote a second rap musical, based on my Washington D.C. experiences, it has never been produced.   Hip Hop was splintering into factions, East Coast and West Coast, conscious rap and gangsta rap, and yet ! here was Heavy D with his own Thang.

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Heavy D

Mixed by Teddy Riley this was New Jack Swing with a rap and it was a great funky bouncy pop soul mix.   It reminded me of the joy of rap, the delivery of the words being their own reward, the syncopation of those tumbling syllables on the beat giving such major satisfaction.   There is some creative disrespecting inside this song.   This is the jam.

“It started with a POW and I’m a end it with a BANG”

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And 20 years later Jenny Jules returned to Washington D.C. and the Helen Hayes Awards with a production of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”, and won “best production”.  Happy endings.

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…Be your own guy, follow your own movement…

My Pop Life #30 : Two Lane Highway – Pure Prairie League

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Two Lane Highway   –   Pure Prairie League

…I guess this time I’m really gone

but it don’t seem right I been up all night…

After I finished my A-levels at Lewes Priory my best friend Simon Korner and I had a year off before our University chapter began.    We didn’t have money to flit about for a whole year, so I went to work in Laughton Lodge, a local asylum/psychiatric hospital until I’d saved the money for our trip to the USA.   It took about eight months and in May 1976 we flew to New York with our back-packs, list of mainly East-coast addresses and a few dollars per day.   We would hitch-hike to the West Coast.   Or something.   The first three cities – New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. – seem in retrospect an oasis of calm middle-class comforts to acclimatise us to the drama ahead.   Everyone kept saying “wait til you head out West…”  although one guy decided to offer up “Life is a shit sandwich – you eat it or you starve.”   Even at eighteen years old I thought that was a trifle extreme.

A bright spring morning and we are dropped off south of D.C. by Julie Furth’s brother.  Arlington Virginia.  Officially ‘The South’.  It takes us all day to get as far as Charlottesville on route 60, just outside Shenandoah National Park and those rather wonderful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.    Dusk was falling.    We had a tent but no plans to erect it at the side of the road.    We hit on a new plan – one person hide while the other thumbed it.    After 20 minutes of this a small car pulls over – packed to the gills with stuff, no room for one person, let alone two.  But Randy, the driver, rearranges his shit into further squashy piles, bungs a bag in the trunk and we squidge into a) the back seat and b) the front seat.  “So where you guys going?”  he asks.  “West” said Simon, “- that direction.”  “Well, I’m going to Chicago” offers Randy.   Basically, WOW.   That’s through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana to Illinois.   That is a major ride.   An 800-mile lift.   What’s the catch ?

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I’m pretty sure Randy didn’t take that route above on the map but I can’t swear to it.   Within minutes of getting in he asked Simon to roll a joint, which he of course did.    This may have been, in retrospect, the reason to have a hitchhiker in the passenger seat – to keep Randy supplied with Jays.   Anyway.   We all smoked it and he told us that he had just deserted from Norfolk Navy Base on the coast of Virginia, and was driving home to Chicago.   Furthermore, he was tripping.   He’d taken an LSD tab as he’d left the Base.    By now it was dark, we were in deepest West Virginia which is a little bit hillbilly (no offence) and our options were limited to say the least.   I think we rolled another joint.   Then he put on this tape by Pure Prairie League :  “Two Lane Highway”.  We’d never heard it before but it became imprinted on my soul forever after that night.    I think we heard it eight times in a row.    Classic american country-rock with pedal steel guitars and harmony vocals – the kind of stuff we were listening to at school in the mid-70s, but we’d never even heard of them.   Ace LP.   Luckily.   Did we take it in turns to sleep in the tiny squashed back seat?  Did we eat breakfast in Kentucky?   I believe so.   Randy may well have taken the southern route through Kentucky because track 2 on the LP is called Kentucky Moonshine.    It’s sweeter than the sweetest wine don’t you know.    Did we arrive in Chicago Youth Hostel, somewhere on the south side at around 5pm the following day?   I reckon so.   We never saw Randy again – in those days strangers tended to pass like ships in the night.    I hope things worked out for him.