My Pop Life #188 : Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum

Spirit In The Sky   –   Norman Greenbaum

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

*

It is January 28th 1994.  Jenny and I are sitting in the front row of the back section of the Empire Leicester Square, reserved for the red carpet people for this Premiere of the film Wayne’s World 2.   All our guests are sitting in the front section.

I had shot the movie a few months earlier in Los Angeles.  At one point I’d been walking back to my trailer in full make-up and rig – quite a few hundred yards across the Festival site – and the producer, Lorne Michaels was walking toward me.  We both stopped to say hi, and after exchanging niceties I asked him if my name could be on the poster, since I’d never had my name on a poster before.  He agreed that it could.  Just like that.  And it was, which later annoyed Julie Burchill so much that she mentioned it in fury in one of her rants.  Haha.  It was exciting for me for the film to open so quickly, but my split life in California and London meant that I had no strategy to deal with the opening except to just turn up and enjoy it.  Looking back it now appears that this was a golden springboard that could (should?) have launched me onto another level, but I think that a) I thought that I was already on that level and b) I didn’t really strategise my work in those days.  I’ve never enjoyed publicity, PR, Q&A, EPK, red carpet, all that.  It’s like a completely different job to the one I do, and frankly I’m just not very good at it.  I should just try acting (dear blanche) probably.  But oftentimes I am number five or six on the cast list, which is just below where the important people are, and being overlooked has become part of my brief when films are publicised.  Which funnily enough I got used to.  Below the radar.  Not recognised when out and about.  And so on, and so forth.  But we’d had a little red carpet stuff, not much because there was Mike Myers, Jerry Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones and people like that at the Premiere and that’s how it always goes. So Jenny and I went into the foyer and were ushered into a wee room where we could sup champagne briefly before being taken in to our seats.  It was a huge thrill to be sure. The lights started to dim – or did they?  That moment in the cinema where you feel the light fading, and it doesn’t.  My agent Michael Foster was sitting in front of us and he turned around and his eyebrows were working overtime because..

Then Paul & Linda McCartney walked in and the whole place went apeshit.  People stood, cheered and whooped, rushed them, got held back by security.  Paul and Linda were shown to their seats NEXT TO US, and Paul turned to security and indicated that he would sign autographs for a few minutes, a kind of “let them through” moment.  And through they came, shaking hands, whooping, crying… and Linda started whooping herself, joining in, so did Paul “WOOOO” they said enjoying the fuss and attention, apparently.  People shook their hands, had things signed, took pictures (with real cameras – it’s 1994), and eventually security put an end to all the activities and got everyone back to their seats.  At which point Paul turned to us and they introduced himself : “Hi I’m Paul, this is Linda“.  No shit sherlock I thought but said: “Hi Paul, I’m Ralph this is Jenny“.   All done, now the lights went down for real and the film started.  Jenny and Linda shared popcorn.  It was one of those nights.

Wow right.  This was the man I had idolised since I was a boy.  I was now 37 years old.  I couldn’t quite take it all in but didn’t have to because now there was a film to watch.  Watching myself acting has become harder and harder for me over the years – and recently next-to-impossible.  I can’t explain it fully, except to say that I feel increasingly vulnerable, increasingly exposed & revealed as the years go by.  But in 1994 I didn’t have much of a problem with it to be honest.  Also – the character I was playing in Wayne’s World 2 – roadie Del Preston – was such a world away from me that I didn’t feel that exposed.  I think I became an actor to escape myself, and these kinds of parts have always been my favourite as a result.  The character was firmly based on Danny The Dealer from Withnail and I, shot almost ten years earlier in England and written about in My Pop Life #128 .   Long hair, tattoos, a slurred, brain-bombed voice, spouting curious drug-addled philosophy based on years of experience “on the road” with various “bands” so that the character had become a virtual stereotype of the vintage rock’n’roll hippy roadie.  It was a gift of a role, and in retrospect (always 20/20 hindsight) should have put me into some kind of opportunistic position.  In fact, I didn’t work much in 1994.  Odd.

The weird naked Indian

I enjoyed the film.  It was funny.  Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (who wasn’t at the London Premiere sadly) had a great onscreen schtick which had carried over from Saturday Night Live sketches – they knew these characters and what they could get away with, what their timing should be.  Against them were the beautiful Tia Carrere and Kim Basinger as the unattainable girlfriends who – against all odds – fall for our heroes, and Christopher Walken as the evil biz manager who wants to steal Wayne’s girl.  And me.  Del Preston – the old London roadie who can help Wayne and Garth put on ‘Waynestock‘, a pop festival in their home town of Aurora, Illinois.   And a plethora, a gamut, a menagerie, a rogue’s gallery indeed of characters, comedians, jokers, ne-er-do-wells and faces who have either disappeared entirely or become legend : Bob Odenkirk, James Hong, Lee Tergusen, Chris Farley, Charlton Heston, Harry Shearer, Jay Leno, Drew Barrymore.  It was good company to be in for sure.  We laughed a lot.  Gags. Jokes. Laffs. Foolishness.  I’ll blog the shooting of Waynestock later.  For this post, I’m watching…

Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen 

Then suddenly, the scene where I have to train Wayne and Garth and their buddies (including Chris Farley & Lee Tergusen) How To Be Roadies.  A series of faintly comic sketches pumping tennis balls at a stage while yanking over a microphone stand, an eve-of-battle talk for morale.  And over this sequence, the director Steve Surjik and producer Lorne Michaels had put this song : Spirit In The Sky by Norman Greenbaum.  A classic.  An evocative, original one-off, a truly great song.

Norman Greenbaum is Jewish and wrote this song – his only hit – presumably under the influence of mind-altering substances, given that it is a Christian gospel glam-rock anthem with a stunningly phased lead guitar, recorded, amazingly in 1969.  Some claim it as the record that started glam rock, which was a British scene in the early 1970s and included working class geezers in lipstick and make-up stomping around on stack heels to a solid 4/4 backbeat, often with hand-claps : bands such as The Sweet, Wizzard, Slade, Mud, Suzi Quattro, Gary Glitter and David Bowie himself trod this glorious path, but some years after this single was number one pretty much everywhere.  Or maybe I made that bit up.

Either way, there it was soundtracking my moment in the film.  I felt strangely moved at this point.  Like this really was a personal soundtrack for that character, and that situation.  I wonder now what other songs they tried out for that bit?

Tia Carrere & Christopher Walken

After the film Paul & Linda were hustled away as the credits rolled, and the rest of us had cars to take us to the Hard Rock Cafe on Hyde Park Corner, straight down Piccadilly.  Somehow we got squeezed into a vehicle with a tall Texan model who used to go out with Bryan Ferry before she ditched him for Mick Jagger.  Let’s Stick Together indeed.

At the Hard Rock we were inside the roped VIP section (was there another section in fact?) and we had sixteen guests with us – I’d asked for a generous handful of tickets for the film and the party and got them.  Who was there with us that night ?  I remember Paul and Colin Chapman, Jo Martin and Michael Rose. Roger Griffith and Jo Melville. Beverley and Paulette Randall.  Danny Webb & Leila Bertrand.  Eamonn Walker & Sandra Kane.  Mandy and Lucy Jules, Jenny’s sisters.  And Michael Buffong.  A good gang.  We spread out and hunted food and drink in packs.  I’d like to say that all the food was vegetarian, at the request of Linda McCartney and Paul, but I can’t actually remember that detail.  We sat with them and they were lovely – Mike Myers and miserable unfriendly Paul Merton also joined.  Linda was very sweet and kind and very strongly vegetarian, very important to her indeed.  Macca was light and funny and generous.  The reason for them being there was this : Myers had designated the chosen charity of the Premiere to be Paul’s newly opened Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts or LIPA, on the site of his old school near the Cathedral off Hope Street in Liverpool.  I offered to do some free workshops there, but when I contacted them later that month the first question was “Please send us your C.V.”  I did but nothing.

Del Preston

As for the party.  It’s all a little blurry now.  It probably was then too.  Those were the days of smoking indoors.  My highlight reel would have to include the following clip :  after Paul and Linda moved on to another table of their friends, Naomi Campbell slid in beside me (I was bleached blond that night, and she’d recently shown a preference for that look and had an affair with the U2 bass player,) and we chatted for a while, someone took a photograph which is framed and in storage, so sorry not for the blog today, and then Jo Martin the flame-breathing goddess of Hackney introduced herself to Naomi with “Hello, I’m Jo, a friend of Ralph’s WIFE“.  Not before I’d given NC my phone number, but alas it never rang.  In the photo of Naomi and I you can see Jo and Leila behind us looking daggers…

Chrissie Hynde (for yes, it was she…) winking at me as I walked downstairs looking for the toilets.  Good friends of Linda.

Michael Rose (who then played in a great band called The April Place) saying “Ralph, c’mon, I have to speak to Paul NOW!”   So we joined his table and Paul and Michael and I chatted about Fool On The Hill & Pet Sounds and Paul passed me a spliff he was smoking and I inhaled and Everything Was Fine With The Earth And All That Was On It.  And kind of has been ever since to be honest.   A moment.  Childish but true.  Later the party started to wind down – at which point I noticed that Jaye Davidson was there – friends with Naomi – who I’d worked with a few years earlier on The Crying Game.  He was drunk.  So was I.

There’s another fabulous picture of Macca and I talking to each other as the party starts to move out (it’s in storage).  TRAMP was the word being passed around.  A nightclub on St James St.  “We used to go there in the old days, me and the boys,”  said Paul confidentially to me “after a show or whatever, to pick up birds“.  He winked.  “Mind you, see her over there?” he nodded toward Linda who was talking to someone else, “She gave me the glad eye earlier.  Think I might be in there.”  He enjoyed this joke very much, one he must have told a hundred times in similar circumstances, surrounded by adoring fans and ‘birds’ and seeking out the eyes of his beloved.

I asked him how – after years of this public adoration that we’d seen a glimpse of inside the cinema – the screaming fans, the crowds, the adulation – how he’d handled it all this time, and how gracious they’d both been about it.  He looked around and whispered “In the car on the way up from Sussex : we get really stoned.”  Of course.  “You coming to Tramp then?

Drunken moments – watching Roger grabbing Naomi’s leather-clad buttock in one hand as we walked out.  The gang were getting taxis down Piccadilly to the club.  I think everyone decided to Carry on Partying.

At Tramp, a desk, a maitre-D, a penguin looks at the large group of black people at the entrance to his club.  “Can I help you?” he says, his eyes giving the opposite meaning.  Yes I say, we’re with Paul & Linda and Naomi from Hard Rock, Wayne’s World blah blah fucking blah.  His face is the picture of England that we know and love, drenched in miserable boarding school rainy afternoons, ranked prefects and results, furtive secret sex, jealous unattainable class status and a wilted disdain for anything foreign.  He asked for my name.  “Just a moment please“.  He disappears downstairs to check my story.  The gang behind Jenny and I are happy, glowing, full of joy, but clearly expecting the worst.  Which then duly appears with Penguin and a faintly obsequious smile, pastel-coloured with supercilious hauteur : “I can let the two of you downstairs, but sorry, not the others…”  

Bless the gang, they insisted to a woman that Jenny and I go into Tramp and Carry on Partying with the glamour pop model people.  We didn’t.  We were moving as a pack in those days.  You turn my people away, we aren’t coming in.  Any of us.  Goodnight.  All back to ours !!   About ten years later, maybe twenty ? we did go into Tramp with Rula Lenska who is possibly a contemporary of Paul McCartney, and I stole an ashtray.

A series of taxis took us back to Archway Road N6 where we lived.  And we laughed and drank and smoked some more.  Celebrated properly together.  Who were we again ?  Well to honour the few :  Jenny and I, newlyweds in 94.  Paulette & Beverley who have appeared in My Pop Life #60 and My Pop Life #187 (among many others) and who are two of my very special friends.  My brother Paul, and his man at that time Colin Chapman – who had moved down from Durham a few years earlier and who is still in our lives to this day.  Indeed recently Colin it was who told me where to go to find a nice leather jacket in New York = Cast on the Lower East Side.  Colin knows these things.  He now does a fashion blog and is here regularly, but lives in Shoreditch with his man Dunk.

Jo Martin

Roger Griffith

 

Danny Webb

Michael Rose

Michael Buffong

Sandra Kane

 

Josephine Melville

Eamonn Walker

Paulette & Beverley Randall

Paul, Ralph & Colin Chapman in 2013

Jo Martin (who saved Naomi Campbell from a date with me) had worked with Jenny in a play at the Tricycle Theatre called Pecong – an updating of Medea to Trinidad, directed by Paulette.   Eamonn was also in this production playing Jenny’s brother (My Pop Life #104).   His partner Sandra now runs the cafe in Roundhill Park; when we met her she’d just come back from living in Japan.   Jo Martin was going out with Michael Rose at that point, a foxy eastender who played a mean guitar and could sing too.  They lived down the road from us in Holloway so time was spent there, smoking weed mainly, listening to reggae, Lenny Kravitz’ first LP, hanging out with her friend Tracey, or with Roger and Jo Melville.  Roger Griffith is a wonderful actor – I had cast him as my lead in The House That Crack Built in a BBC funded workshop, the rap opera/play that was never performed, and his to-be wife Jo Melville was one of the female Possee known as The Bibi Crew.  They are no longer together.  Roger and Michael Buffong were both in The Possee, which I mentioned in My Pop Life #184, a big part of that early 90s London landscape.  As were Danny Webb and Leila Bertrand – Danny was in Alien 3 with me in 1991 (see my Pop Life #  ) and his wife Leila is a casting director : they lived downstairs from my therapist for a while (probably around this time?) in Maida Vale, and all I remember from that shoulder-rub was Leila meeting her on the stairs one afternoon after some complaints and nonsense with “Heal thyself physician!“.   Funny.  They have two beautiful daughters Lily & Bellaray who came to see us in Brooklyn in late 2015 with their mum, we went to Sunny’s bar in Red Hook for a bit of live bluegrass.

Jenny, Leila & Johanna at Sunny’s in Red Hook 2015

And Mandy and Lucy, ever-present sisters, confidantes and ladies-in-waiting, keepers of the secrets, queens, princesses and gold medal winners of life, love and art.   They are, naturally very dear to Jenny’s heart, and mine.

Me, Mandy, Lucy

It was a great kitchen party.  We smoked.  We drank.  We played records.  Til dawn ? Dunno.   Did we play Spirit In The Sky ?  Maybe we did.   Probably not.

Well, it is my pop life after all.

Youtube doesn’t have the roadie training section which features this song, so you’ll have to make do with this clip : Del Preston outlines his plans for the gig…

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My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

***

Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

My Pop Life #172 : In My Chair – Status Quo

In My Chair   –   Status Quo

I saw her talking, now
My ears were burning
Her feet started walking, now
They started turning
My eyes were half open
But she didn’t see me there
We ran along, walking ‘cross the roof-tops
In my chair

I was working in Bude, Cornwall on Julia Davis’ series Nighty Night when I got the offer. Did I want to play Status Quo‘s road manager Barney in 3 episodes of Coronation Street to mark the 45th anniversary of Britain’s longest-running soap ?   Who’s gonna say no to that??   These are the moments in an actor’s life which really lift the spirit.  Straight offer.  No audition.  Working with a band I’d loved since I was knee-high to a wotsit.   Iconic.

Press play

And on a TV show with it’s sensational trumpet theme tune which had been with us all the way – a host of characters who were real – Ena Sharples, Hilda Ogden, Albert Tatlock, Elsie Tanner, Rita Fairclough, Ken and Dierdre, Vera Duckworth, played by actors who were even more real.  Reminding all of us soft southerners that this country of ours had a north, who spoke differently.  Working class people on TV.  And it was comedy too, unlike Eastenders the slit-your-wrists southern soap.  The combination of Status Quo and Coronation Street was earthy and righteous.   I said yes there and then, and a few days later the scripts arrived.  One of the things people always ask me when I get a job and I’m shooting some programme or film is this : “When is it coming out ?

Which is one thing I never ever know.  Some time next year, when it’s all edited and got a soundtrack and some PR behind it and blah blah blah.  But this was the one exception.  Coronation Street scripts come with the TX, or transmission date printed in capitals at the top of page one.  When’s it coming out ?  September 21st 2005.

I’d had hair extensions added for Nighty Night because I was playing a new-age sex therapist who was a bit of a twat (enjoyed that role very much and both Julia Davis and Rebecca Front (and the rest of the cast – truly blessed we were) are genius but that’s for another post) – so I kept the long hair for Corrie since I felt in my bone of bones that the old fella Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I would get another outing.  Withnail was shot in 1985 – then in the mid 90s I’d filmed Wayne’s World 2 and played another rock’n’roll character called Del Preston (for another post too!) and he had spoken with the rhotic ‘R’ sound & stoned delivery of Danny from Withnail, after I’d called writer and director of Withnail Bruce Robinson and asked him if he thought it was OK (it’s your character Ralph, do as you feel).   I felt that I would wheel him out once more, perhaps for the final time – indeed I haven’t played that character since then, but hey never say never.  There are people who wonder why I didn’t make a career out of that geezer, (I did : Ed) but I’ve always felt rather protective of him and kept his powder dry.    Coronation St with the Quo though felt completely right, so it was dangly ear-rings, maroon waistcoat, jeans, cowboy boots, a floppy yellow hat and permanently stoned gaze.

EXT. The Rover’s Return – day

My first scene was in The Rover’s Return, the legendary pub on the Corrie set, which nestles in the centre of Granada TV in the heart of Manchester.  Of course the exterior is in The Street while the interior set in inside a studio.  Obvious but there you go.   I’d met the band briefly before we went on set, invited to their dressing rooms (one each for Rick and Francis) and said hi – they were both very easy-going and normal and friendly -unsurprisingly because their image was of down-to-earth-fellas, because that is who they are.  Like me I hope.  And then we were in the pub – initially me at the bar and them in a booth.  Next to me at the bar was Jack Duckworth.

Julie Goodyear (Bet Lynch), Liz Dawn (Vera Duckworth) and Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth) in the pub in Coronation Street

If you’ve never seen the show it’s not easy to explain who this person is.  He’d been an extra on the show for ten years, playing darts in the background of The Rovers before becoming a regular character in the early 80s some 25 years earlier.  He was, in short, a fixture on the show, and on that particular set.  He spoke with a viscous throaty Manc growl, full of beer and fags and character, a kind of gloomy town crier that you used to be able to find at the bar in every pub in England.  In the scene he had to ask Barney who those geezers in the corner were, and I had to sing a section of Rockin’ All Over The World which he wouldn’t recognise, at which point I say “The Quo man?  Status Quo”  and carry the beers back to the lads.  It was fun.

Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi : the stars of Status Quo

After four or five takes they stopped to fiddle with a lamp and Bill Tarmey – or Jack – turned to me and said, with all sincerity :

“Ralph lad, you’re doing very well. Very well.  I’ve had top actors in here, A-listers stand at this bar and I’m telling you lad, their knees have gone”

Christ it was funny.  I wondered who he was talking about – Ian McKellen? Ben Kingsley? – and carried the beers back to Francis and Rick, and we had a sup and they called cut.  Rick Parfitt and I lit up a Benson & Hedges each.  A runner ranneth over, doing his job (running).  “Sorry you can’t smoke on set gentlemen you’ll have to go outside“.  We looked over at Jack Duckworth who was perched, nay, carved into the bar with an Old Holborn roll-up permanently tucked and smouldering inside his hand.  “Jack’s smoking” I said.  The runner assumed an air of private suffering.  “That’s Jack though”  he smiled weakly.  Rick and I looked at each other, made a decision to say nothing and walked outside for a quick puff.

Francis Rossi had formed a band with Alan Lancaster at Catford High School in 1962 who evolved into Status Quo, adding Rick Parfitt in 1967,  Andy Bown in 1977, and John Rhino Edwards who replaced Alan Lancaster on bass in 1985, all of whom are in the current line-up and present on set in Manchester.    Quo have had over 60 chart hits in the UK and specialised, since 1969, in denim-clad 12-bar boogie.

Status Quo in 1970 when they released ‘In My Chair’ as a single

Their peak era was the mid 1970s, with a run of hits including Softer Ride and Down Down just as I and my friends from school Conrad, Tat, Andy Shand and Tigger were forming our own band called Rough Justice based in Kingston nr Lewes.   We wrote our own material, but also played a nice wedge of covers – two by The Beatles (Birthday and Get Back), two by Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock – see My Pop Life #80) and THREE by Status Quo :  Paper Plane, Caroline and this song In My Chair.   In My Chair is a very low-temperature boogie with delightfully surreal lyrics and a terrific old school guitar solo, and if it got any slower it would slowly slide off the sofa and fall asleep on the floor, yes, but it’s also a tune.  My favourite Quo song along with Gerdundula, which was actually the B-side on Pye Records.  (Francis Rossi had later told me that Gerdundula was written for a German couple they knew in the late 60s called Gerd und Ula.  So now you know 😉   Rough Justice loved the Quo, but we also found these songs relatively easy to play – 12-bar songs with a rhythm guitar part (Conrad playing Parfitt) and a lead part (Tat playing Rossi).   I would then sing the relatively undemanding nasal lead vocal (Ralph singing Rossi).   Although as I recall I played bass on Caroline (three whole notes!!) and Andy Shand sang the lead vocal.  People could dance to them too.  Of course I told the Quo all this, and they were pleased.   They were pleased to be in Coronation Street, with lines, acting, thrilled to bits to be honest.  Which was very sweet.  I asked them who they liked and they said Jeff Lynne of ELO and Hank Marvin, guitarist with The Shadows.  Rick had sat next to Hank at some variety TV show where the audience is filled with celebrities, and told us that he’d spent some of the time looking down at Hank Marvin’s  right hand, thinking – that hand played those licks!  They were lovely fellas all right and they made me feel very welcome.

I appear to be happier than The Quo

Later that night Rick and I had a few too many in the hotel bar and Rick actually fell into a glass table covered in drinks, causing mayhem, spillage and jokes.   Kind of gratifying.   We ran along walking across the rooftops in my chair.   Three weeks later we would return to Manchester for the following episode.  Now read on dot dot dot.

Jack Duckworth, the character, passed away in 2010 asleep in his chair.  Millions mourned. He was the 2nd-longest serving male character on the show – over 30 years.  Two years and one day later Bill Tarmey the actor passed away in Tenerife at the age of 71, of a heart attack.  We mourned all over again.  Here’s to you Bill.

Late note : as I was writing this blog, Rick Parfitt was suffering a massive heart attack. Thankfully he lived and is now in recovery, on the mend.  My thoughts are with him.

In My Chair from 1971 :

clearer visuals :

the B-side Gerdundula played live in 2004