Thursday, 28 November 2019

Driving To Chicago (with detours)


The weather in Memphis was unseasonably cold. It had rained all through the previous day and the temperature was set to drop to catastrophically below freezing. I hardly left the house where I was staying and had spent the whole day shivering and trying to get warm. Wet weather gets in my bones, the only way I can counteract it is with hot, dry heat, warm clothing and a lot of exercise. 

I put this down to growing up in a house without adequate heating, just tepid radiators and an open fire which shot flames up the chimney and heated up the heavens, or settled into a disgruntled glow so that you had to practically climb into the grate to feel any benefit whatsoever. The floors of our chilly family bungalow were solid concrete, topped with thin  Marley tiles, except for in the living room and hallway where they were high polished parquet glued to the concrete. There were two small, handmade rugs, pegged by my dad when he was in hospital, one in front of the fireplace, another running the length of the sideboard in a desperate attempt at cosyness. The ceilings were just compressed cardboard sheeting, about half an inch thick and joined where they met with some sort of vaguely decorative strip. There was no insulation, just a big space between the ceiling and the roof tiles, the loft, which housed the water tank, and the folding Christmas tree and decorations that came out once a year for two weeks in the season of jollity.

I think my life began about twenty years ago when I moved into an apartment with a fully functioning central heating system. Before that I just shivered and waited for summer.

It was twenty degrees Fahrenheit in Memphis. The door handles were frozen. It’s a 1997 Buick Le Sabre, 64,000 miles on the clock. It came from Florida so it’s not used to this sort of thing. It has green tinted windows to protect against the glare of the Florida sun. In this ghoulish light I feel as though I’m in a David Lynch movie, about to check in to a dubious motel to perpetrate some unpleasant and antisocial act. 

I I had to tap and massage and coax the doors open, and then they wouldn’t stay shut until I’d run the engine for a while to warm things up. I finally left Memphis with the aid and hindrance of the GPS which couldn’t decide which way was up. I crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas, headed out onto the open road and settled in to the seven or eight hour drive, which actually means nine or ten hours including stops and hold ups.

About and hour and a half out of Memphis I had to stop for gas. I chose a gas station as carefully as I could - there were a whole lot of Citgo gas stations along the way but I don’t like to stop at those because at Citgo gas stations I’m always approached by dubious characters who ask me for money and rides. It’s a complication I can do without, though I suppose it may be like attracting like - I’ve been told I look pretty dubious myself, and it’s true that after several days of touring middle-class, white Americans tend to edge away from me. Though I never ask them for money except if they’re the promoter.

I’ve also heard that Citgo petrol is inferior stuff that rots the engine and leads to all kinds of problems later in the life of the car, though I don’t know if this is true. I saw a Shell station - old school, reputable - you can’t go far wrong with Shell: Keep going well, keep going Shell, you can be sure of Shell, Shell, Shell... that particular advert jingle is at least fifty years out of date now but the indoctrination of my youth lives on so I swung off the highway and pulled up to a pump.

It was damned cold out there in the middle of Arkansas, so I thought I might have a look in the shop to see if I could find a pair of gloves. It was a truck stop, one of those places where truck drivers can buy extra air horns and manly gadgets for winching down loads or whatever it is they do, and mesh-backed trucker caps with sports team insignia emblazoned across their padded polyester fronts, and belt buckles that say Big Boy and Arkansas, and even a small dreamcatcher - they always sell dreamcatchers - it seems every redneck truck driver needs a dreamcatcher to set off his dream machine. 

Not that I’ve ever seen a truck driver buying any of this crap. But then I’ve never seen a Gideon placing a bible either though they must keep doing it because I regularly have to throw them in the trash or out of the window. The other night in Indianapolis I personally placed both the Book of Morman and the Gideons Bible in the freezer compartment of a large fridge that happened to be cluttering up my hotel room. Creative thinking at its absolute finest - the bin was already full of the Proudly Brewed by Starbucks paraphanalia, the window wouldn’t open wide enough, and besides I was concerned that the dropping of two bibles from the eighth floor might kill a passerby. Not that anyone had any business passing by at two o’clock in the morning, but I’m a responsible adult, not just a mere creative, so into the freezer compartment they went.

I found some gloves next to a rack of key fobs with christian names, and a selection of bumper stickers: The Welfare State Is Not  A Career... Daddy’s Girl... Uncle Sam Wants You To Speak English... American Born & Raised... Work Harder - Sixty Million Welfare Claimants Need Your Support... I looked across to the counter where a young black girl was hard at work. I wondered if she was even making minimum wage, how many hours and how many other jobs she had, and if she had healthcare. I left without buying any gloves.

The interstate was lined with dumb signs: When You Die You Will Meet God... I Could Hear Mommy’s Voice When I Was In Her Tummy... Call 1-800 TRUTH... Nursing Home Injury?... a picture of a pig with a quiff alongside the letters: T•R•U•M•P - and underneath the simple legend Keep America Great.

I'm wondering what’s to keep here. What’s so great? Record numbers of people die in mass shootings every year, a quarter of a billion people don’t have health insurance, and all I’m seeing as I travel though this great land land is ignorance, hatred and dilapidation. And endless shopping malls that all look the same where people can buy badly made crap they don’t really need, and eat their way to diabetes. Out here in the heartland of America I’m not seeing much evidence of the opulence, the benefits of a trillion dollars subsidies funding tax cuts for the mega rich, but I’m seeing plenty of support for the administration that put it in place. And I can here them right now: if you don’t like it buddy you could leave... 

Yes, I could leave - I’m just a humble immigrant after all - a green card holder, an official US  resident, with no voting rights, even though I own a house here, I’m married to an American and I pay US taxes. In the past I’ve raised the issue of taxation without representation, which I’m given to understand is unconstitutional, and the response has been - you knew what you were signing up for with a tacit suck it up stuck on the end. The very phrase suck it up sounds to me like an admission from the people who use it that conditions here are no more than a pool of cold vomit.

So I spend plenty of time wondering why I do stay here as I hurtle up and down various interstates. I got acceptance and recognition as a musician here in America in a way I never did when I lived in Europe, and this has probably given me a musical confidence that has in turn helped me along to wider acceptance and respect in the UK. And I’ve done my best recording work while I’ve been living in the US - A Working Museum together with Amy, ‘amERICa’, Construction Time & Demolition, Transience, plus a whole load of production including Amy’s album The Old Guys.

We arrived in America in September 2011 with a dwindling bank account and a couple of over-filled suitcases. Everything we owned was coming in a shipping container. We needed to tour to earn some money, and in order to tour we needed an album, so while we were waiting for the shipping container to arrive I bought some cheap tools, blocked up an archway to the dining room and built a stud wall to separate the open plan living room from what became the hallway. The newly created room became the studio, I’ve been recording in there ever since. 

I’m planning to move the studio into the basement which we’ve just had made watertight. I’m hoping I can get the vibe of that wonderful room down the stairs and into a bigger space. But that’s a matter for another time. What I wanted to say is that even though the country is in a terrible way I had a great time doing the shows on this tour and seeing so many old friends. I experienced nothing but kindness from friends, promoters, promoters who are friends, and even sound engineers; and if there’s one thing I’m thankful for now that Thanksgiving is upon us again it’s kindness. I wouldn’t personally be anywhere without it. The world needs more kindness.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Me. And Elton John


I’m mentioned in Elton John’s book:

One day I’d be perfectly happy at home, telling anyone who’d listen about how wonderful it was not being shackled to the old cycle of touring, delighting in the free time that allowed me to concentrate on being chairman of Watford FC. The next, I’d be on the phone to Stiff Records, a small independent label that was home to Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, offering my services on their upcoming package, tour, which they accepted. My sudden urge to get in front of an audience again was bolstered by the fact that I had a crush on one of their artists, Wreckless Eric - sadly, he was nowhere near wreckless enough to get involved with someone like me.

I don’t think I’ve ever publicly told the story of my brief liaison with Elton John though it’s a memory that remains dear to my heart. I’d always been a fan, and even though it might piss a few people off to hear me say it, I still am. I don’t like absolutely every record he's ever made in a fifty year career, and I wish he didn’t have a knighthood (though that’s really not my business and I have no idea what pressures or incentives were bought to bear). But I don’t care if he has millions, or that he likes shopping, or that he apparently owns a diamond encrusted cock ring, it's okay by me, and I’m sure that he’s done a lot of good stuff that no one ever gets to hear about. So before you start please shut the fuck up.

At this point I'm put in mind of a gnarly old English punk who said I'll never forgive you, you cunt - you made me like a Tom Petty song after Amy and I recorded his song Walls on out second album together.

I’d been an Elton devotee since I saw him doing Take Me To The Pilot on some TV show in 1970. That wonderful, blocky piano, and his voice like a big open landscape - soulful and unexpected, with an edge of loneliness and desperation. 

Take Me To The Pilot, Burn Down The Mission, Country Comfort, Your Song, Crocodile Rock, Honky Cat, Madman Across The Water, Candle In The Wind, Funeral For A Friend, Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man, Benny & The Jets, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, Philadelphia Freedom, Sad Songs (Say So Much)... 

Come on now  - how could you not dig it?

One week in August 1977 Elton John reviewed the new singles for Record Mirror. He didn’t like any of them except mine: (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World. He loved it, said I sounded like The Troggs. I was thrilled to bits even through the numbness that was beginning to overtake me in the wake of sudden and unexpected success.

I went on tour, made an album, went on tour again and started planning a second album, though planning might be too grandiose a word for writing a few songs in between getting blind drunk and wondering who the fuck I was and what I was doing. 

There were rumblings in the Stiff Records office - Elton John was interested in producing me. He wanted to meet me for dinner. The general feeling was that I wouldn’t be able to handle a meeting in the sort of restaurant that someone like Elton John might frequent - there were suggestions that various members of the Stiff Records staff (groupies to a man) should accompany me to make sure that I didn’t fuck it up. I took the view that it was my business who I chose to dine with, but suggested that if Elton was serious about producing me he should come to my flat to discuss it in a place where there were musical instruments and a record player. I was told not to be ridiculous - someone like Elton John wouldn’t want to come round to my place, it just didn’t work like that.

I didn’t hear anything more and pretty much forgot about it. The whole idea seemed completely unreal to me anyway - after all Elton John was a huge pop star and I was just me, confused, vaguely terrified and doing the best I could.

I made another album, my second, with a less than sympathetic and not exactly ideal producer in an upmarket studio owned by the Pink Floyd. I didn’t enjoy the experience. I had to go on a tour with other Stiff Records artists, all of whom had albums released on the same day as mine. It was a package tour, the one that Elton talks about. I don’t remember him applying for a job as a keyboard player - maybe he did and they just didn’t tell anyone, on the basis that guarding rather than sharing information equals power, or some such bullshit.

There were something like thirty five dates on that tour. I had my own band, two guitars, bass and drums. Everyone else had a band too, so there were a lot of musicians cluttering the place up. One night we were at the Hemel Hempstead Pavilion. I was sitting in a corner of a large dressing room full of bands, trying not to let everything get on my nerves, when a woman I knew walked in. I knew her because she’d done some PR work for Stiff Records at some point and we’d got on well. She came straight over to me, said hello and addressed me in hushed voice:

‘I’m here with Elton John, he’s out in the corridor - he’d really like to meet you.’

I used to make a point of not being impressed by anything - some sort of self preservation thing I suppose, - I was in the middle of what was undoubtedly the most highly publicised tour of the year, I’d just been on the cover of the Observer Colour Supplement, I seemed to be in the NME every week, I was all over the radio and I got recognized everywhere I went. I’d been famous for little over a year and the only way I could handle it was by pretending to be very down to earth.

‘What’s he doing out there? Bring him in here!’

‘No’ she whispered, ‘there’s absolutely no way he’ll come in here, he’s really shy. You’ll have to come out there - I’ll introduce you.’

My bravado fell away and I suddenly felt very shy and nervous. This was all a bit real - I’d never met anyone really famous - spectacularly famous - before, and not only that, he was one of my heroes.

He was in a corner of the corridor looking as though he was trying to melt into the wall. There must have been other people around but I didn’t see them, just him, alone and exuding vulnerability. His face lit up when he saw me. He seemed at once other worldly and completely normal. He was wearing a black 1920s flapper suit and a floppy herringbone tweed cap. 

We said hello, and our awkwardness hung in the air between us. His eyes were soft and grey, and very kind. He had an Edwardian shirt buttoned to the neck with some sort of Art Deco, bakelite bow tie.

‘Um, er... does that light up?’

He laughed: ‘No, I’m off duty.’

I asked him what he was doing here - something dumb like that. He told me he’d come to see me play - he was looking forward to it. I don’t remember most of our conversation- I was practically levitating at this point. It wasn’t the famousness of it all, it was him. I don’t know how to explain it - he was lovely. Gorgeous - other-worldly and normal all at the same time. I remember asking him if he was still doing music - there was some doubt at the time, announcement of retirement and so on.

‘It was all getting a bit dizzy so I’m having a break. I’m managing Watford Football Club - it’s much more down to earth.’

It was time to get ready to go on so I excused myself and went back into the dressing room in a state of shock. I’d just met Elton John, we’d had a conversation and he’d actually wanted to meet me.

His PA burst through the door.

‘Well, that went well! You know he’d love to come up and play the piano with you.’

‘Great, yeah, there’s a piano onstage, tell him to get on there.’

‘Er..no, that won’t work - you have to go and ask him.’

‘What?!! I can’t ask him to play with us!’

‘You have to, he’d really love to play but he won’t unless you ask him. Now, come with me.’

We went back into the corridor where Elton was still busy melting into the wall. He lit up again and I started my pitch:

‘Ahh, er...I was um..., yeah, look, I was...’

He looked very eager, almost willing me to say the words. I stammered and stuttered, standing on one leg and vaguely miming playing the piano.

‘There’s er.... there’s a piano....’

‘Yes? Yes?!!?

‘And I was ahh.. wondering if, if....’ 

Deep breath: 

‘WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY THE PIANO WITH US?’

‘Could I? Can I really??!!

I thought one of us might burst with excitement and relief.

We discussed the details - he was going to play on Whole Wide World. I went back into the dressing room to prime the band. His PA came in again:

‘Well done! He’s thrilled to bits, he really is - he’s been practicing all day!’

As we went on he caught my eye from the side of the stage and assured me he’d be ready to come on. When it came to it I didn’t know how to introduce him because we hadn’t discussed that. I felt that something along the lines of Ladies and gentlemen Mr Elton John would have been preposterous coming from me so I said:

And now we’ve got a special guest - nothing to get too excited about, it’s just some bloke called Reg from the football club that asked if he could get up and play the piano.

Nothing happened so we just started the song. I was worried that he’d baled on us but a sudden and pregnant piano chord hung in the air and the crowd started cheering. We hit the chorus and all hell broke loose. With Elton’s piano in the mix we were the biggest thing in the world. He even sang a harmony with me. The applause just didn’t stop. We came off stage and Elton grabbed me and kissed me on the cheek.

‘Listen to that! You have to get back out there and do an encore!’

I tried to explain that we weren’t allowed to play encores but he wasn’t having it. ‘Rubbish! Get back out there right now!’

He grabbed hold of me and pulled me back onto the stage. We played a Mac Rebenack song called Lights Out. We played it twice, and so fast that it still came in at just over two minutes. Elton was with us all the way - I’d never played with anyone that good. I scurried off the stage preparing for the bollocking I was going to get for the forbidden encore. Elton was still out there, centre stage, making a speech.

The crowd were roaring. I’d seen quite a lot by now but nothing like this. I’d never seen anyone work a crowd like he did. He marched over to the side of the stage, picked me up and half dragged, half carried me across the stage. I was resistant because the tour was like a minor mobile police state - I had actually been forbidden to speak to a drummer from one of the other bands because we’d been overheard talking in negative terms about the tour by the assistant tour manager who had been eavesdropping from behind some large potted ferns in a hotel bar. There wasn’t much they could do to punish me but the drummer was under threat of dismissal. So I was pretty nervous about the encore transgression.

Then he was at the piano, playing and singing some weird slow blues that turned out to be a half speed version of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. We were playing along and it was getting intense, and then there was one of those massive piano fills that goes from one end of the keyboard to the other, and we were up to full speed and rocking. The guitars were shrieking and I turned round in time to see Elton kick back the piano stool, take a backward run, then head forward like a raging bull and leap off the stool and on to the top of the piano where he stood for an instant like the rock god he most undoubtedly was. Then he jumped off the piano into the centre of the stage and cut the entire band with one gesture.

He stood in the spotlight and just for an instant the world stopped turning. He raised his arms above his head and started to clap his hands. The energy that was coming off him was almost physical. I’ve never again experienced such a thing. At that moment I fully understood why he was such a huge star.

I don’t remember quite what happened afterwards. Elton wanted me to come back to his place in Windsor but the tour bus was leaving and we all had to be on it. I don’t know how I felt about the invitation. I know at the time I was quietly questioning my sexual orientation but there was no way I was going to enter into a high profile experiment in that direction, even though I thought he was fabulous. And anyway, my long term girlfriend was the tour merchandising manager. I was bustled aboard the tour bus where everything was very laddish and much piss-taking ensued.

Elton left in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. I’ve never seen him again.


*





Friday, 11 October 2019

A One Way Ticket To Amy Rigby













A couple of months ago, with too much to do and too little time to do it in, Amy dumped a large box of cassettes into the middle of the studio floor and asked me to go through them with her to see if we could find maybe ten or so tunes that we could make into a giveaway CD to go with pre-orders of her memoir, Girl To City.

They were four track Portastudio demos, hundreds of them it seemed. One of her brothers had been in the merchant navy, and sometime in the early eighties he found himself on shore leave in Japan where he bought a Tascam Portastudio, the very latest model of this new-tangled device, and sent it to Amy and her brother Michael to help them along with their new group, Last Roundup. For a decade or so it shuttled back and forth between their two apartments in the East Village and eventually found a permanent home in Amy’s flat in Brooklyn’s decidedly un-hip Greenpoint. And during this time she made literally hundreds of demos of songs she’d written.

The original Tascam had long ceased to function so I blew the dust off a lumpy beige Tascam 424 that I’d come by and stashed away wondering why I really needed to hang on to it. I patched the four channels through to the studio computer and set to work, wondering what I might find.

The recordings may have been rough but the execution and the sound, the atmosphere, was magical. She’d perhaps record an acoustic guitar on one track, a vocal on another, and fill the remaining two tracks with a vocal harmony and an electric guitar. Or it might have been all electric guitars and sometimes a complicated vocal harmony arrangement recorded complete with echo which apparently came from a cheap and long-lost delay pedal.

Every song was a gem - even ones that were quite blatantly aimed at the middle-of-the-road Nashville country market. I was transported into Amy’s life from long before I met her: the everyday noises of her various apartments, her daughter Hazel playing in the background and occasionally coming to the fore:

‘Mommy!’

‘Wait!’ [Curt interjection from Amy]

‘Do you want to here Holiday For Strings?’ 

A toy keyboard starts up and is immediately obliterated by the guitar intro of the next song.
When it rains you can hear it splattering in the courtyard at the back of the building through the open window. The window was evidently always open, and you can hear the shouts of neighbours and kids at play, distant traffic, car horns and police sirens. At one point a pause in the middle of a song is augmented by a loud power tool in the building next door. It sounds like a sheet of plywood being sawn in half.

Sometimes what was on the four tracks didn’t immediately make sense. Amy worked for a while at Sony and acquired a lot of tapes that had already been recorded on. Portastudios run at double speed so there might be sudden backward snatches of The Very Best Of Christopher Cross or some such nonsense, roaring in at high speed and an octave higher than it normally would be. And then a song, started, abandoned and superseded by another song which finds its way to fruition accompanied by gorgeous harmonies on another of the four tracks shared with high speed blasts of a rough mix from Diary Of A Mod Housewife.

I wanted to do as little as possible but I was very much aware that if these recordings were to be heard and appreciated they needed a certain amount of help in order to turn them into a fully listenable experience - raw is great - but unlistenable is pointless.

There were pops and bumps and rumblings - no one tells anyone how to avoid these things happening in the macho world of recording - so every time Amy sang a word beginning with P or B there would be a massive explosion into the vocal mic, and words with the letter S in the middle of them could be especially sibilant. I spent a long time at the computer taming these down. There was evidently a faulty microphone cable too - in fact I think there may have been two mic cables, one of which was good, and it was a gamble as to which one would get used, so there was often a loud buzz or hum on some of the tracks. I did what I could to reduce these things without compromising the integrity, atmosphere and intent of the original recordings.

The nineteen tracks on this album are just the tip of the iceberg, all we had time to put together with a looming deadline. There be another volume or two coming soon. In the meantime I think anyone who fancies themselves as a songwriter should listen to this collection - you might find it, as I did, a humbling experience.

Order a copy along with her new memoir Girl To City from her website: amyrigby.com


And while you're there check her tour dates!

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Larry Wallis, May 1949 - September 2019, A Complex Man


As a young art student I was a fan of the Pink Fairies. I owned (and still own) a copy of their Kings Of Oblivion album. It was an important part of the soundtrack of my art college years. I listened to it a lot, and anytime I hear it now I’m instantly transported back to dark nights in coal fire heated rooms in the early seventies. The simultaneous glory and desolation in that record still rings in my head.

I moved to London with a girlfriend. We rented a big flat and it was grim. Spacious but grim. We had no money to decorate the place so we stuck everything we could find that was nice to look at on the walls, and then it was cheery and hippy and bohemian, and when we burned the furniture it was even warm in there for a while. 

The flat was on the ground floor and the toilet was the old outhouse outside the back door off the kitchen. It had been made into an inside toilet by means of having a glass conservatory built on which was just big enough to house the refrigerator, and this was just as well because there wasn’t room in the kitchen because the kitchen had been divided in two and the other half was now the bathroom - sliding door, pedestal wash basin, bath tub, ancient yellow gloss paint…

The old outhouse toilet was freezing, but quite jolly with all the stuff on the walls, and in pride of place was the three section insert from Kings Of Oblivion: Russell Hunter, green faced and ghoulish hooked up to a Gordon’s Gin intravenous drip; a stoned looking Duncan Sanderson reclining on an ornate bar top; and the star of the show, Larry Wallis, sprawled on a craps table - hair, aviator shades, leather jacket - a picture of decadence.


I got a deal with Stiff Records and recorded a tune I’d written called ‘Whole Wide World’. I met Ian Dury and he and his girlfriend, Denise Roudette, used to come round to my house to play the drums and bass respectively. We recorded another of my tunes, ‘Semaphore Signals’, and that became the B side to ‘Whole Wide World’, and that was a bit of a hit and suddenly we were going on a package tour.

I was sitting in the pub next to the Stiff Records office with Ian one evening talking about this tour we were supposed to be doing.

‘Don’t look now,’ Ian murmured, ‘but there’s that bloke from the poster on your toilet wall.’

A six foot brick shithouse in a Lewis leather jacket, mirrored shades framed by more frizzy black hair than I had ever seen coming out of a man’s head in my life. A larger than life-size living monument, the Furry Freak Brothers all rolled into one, and twice as scary.

‘Fuck! He’s coming over here’ I whispered.

A small and quite high voice emitted from the face somewhere in the hair:

‘Are you Eric? Hi man, I’m Larry Wallis.’

Within ten minutes I was in love. Larry had that effect on people.

The Pink Fairies had made a single for Stiff, 'Between The Lines', and now Larry had a solo record, 'I’m A Police Car', coming out to coincide with the package tour which he was going to be on as well.

I had never met anyone with such a voracious appetite for alcohol and drugs. Larry was a fellow Taurean and we soon became fast friends. He was complex. From a distance he exuded confidence, he had swagger and style. He took his jacket off, put the guitar on, then put the jacket back on over the guitar strap. He was funny and moody, gentle and affectionate with an occasional cruel streak. He lived in two separate South London residences: a three story flat on the Walworth Road which he shared with his girlfriend, and in part of an old church hall around the corner which he shared with his other girlfriend, and where his living room was the stage.

‘That’s right Eric - I actually live on a stage.’
After we'd survived the tour - the drugs, the drunkenness and the occasional outbreaks of violence - it was decided that I should make an album. I needed a producer and the obvious choice was Larry whose only instruction was to empty my head. So we went into a demo studio and recorded enough tunes to convince Stiff Records that it might fly, and to book us into Pathway Studio for an unspecified amount of time.

The sessions invariably started with lunch in the pub where our idea of a balanced meal was a large Bloody Mary and a packet of peanuts. We were fairly drunk most of the time but we still managed to work hard. Larry was very conscientious but I never once felt like he was telling me what to do, he just helped me to do it. I’d assumed that you needed to use a big amplifier to get a good guitar sound in the studio but I felt I got a better sound out of a small amp like a Fender Champ or a Princeton, so that’s what I used. Larry showed me how a five watt Pignose amp, a practice amp, could sound like a Marshall stack. Recording was all an illusion he told me. He explained the magic of David Bowie’s post Diamond Dogs recordings, the strange placings of things in the mix. 

I had an old Broadway guitar, a chunk of mahogany that could have been hewn from the fittings of an old Southern Region railway carriage. Larry said that it could only be improved by the addition of a rev counter. I actually ended up using my Rickenbacker 330, and the only addition to that was some sort of 3D plastic sticker of a diver that Larry had found somewhere.

We worked late into the night, until long after London’s public transport had shut down. Not that it really mattered because Larry only travelled by taxi and taught me to do the same, and to always get a receipt in case you could charge it to somebody else. It wasn’t cool to be seen on the tube. It also wasn’t practical because we were both quite famous and fairly instantly recognisable. Our appearance was a stumbling block - taxi drivers were apt to turn off their yellow For Hire signs when they saw us on a street corner.

‘There goes the final taxi,’ I said as another yellow light flickered out at three o’clock one morning.

‘Eric man!! That’s a song title!’

It was, and I eventually wrote it.

He was unexpected - he once told me his favourite piece of music was ‘Love Is Blue’. We stood round a microphone late one night in Pathway Studio, myself, Barry Payne and his older brother Davey. Larry towered over us, all hair and leather.

‘It needs to be more... more... Walt Disney! That’s it - Bambi - it should sound like Bambi...’ 

He threw back is head, closed his eyes and emitted gentle oohs and aahs. We followed his lead and created constellations on a black velvet sky.

We took time off from Pathway and my album to mix some tracks for the Stiffs Live Stiffs album over at the more salubrious Rak Studios owned by the pop producer Mickie Most, the force behind Rak Records which was home to Suzi Quatro, Hot Chocolate, Smokie, Racey, Herman’s Hermits, Mud... good clean wholesome commercial pop written by Chapman & Chinn. I couldn’t imagine what a couple of deadbeats like us were doing in a place like this.

My big favourite record at that time was Althea & Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. Larry liked it too and that surprised me, him being the fearsome metal guitar slinging animal and all.

Someone had given us a red plastic bus with a battery powered electric motor. It whirred and trundled around in a circle, a small annoying bell tinging intermittently. We were obsessed with unlocking the rhythmic intracacies of this thing. It needed a big space to do a perfect circle, and a smooth hard surface. The marble entrance hall at Rak Studios was perfect and the acoustics made the bus sound good. It trundled around, clunking and tinging and Larry led us in syncopated finger clicking. We had quite a groove going when Mickie Most, the pop swengali himself, breezed through the door and almost trod on the bus. He didn’t say anything but his appalled and bemused expression caused much hilarity. This wasn’t the sort of thing that happened in the world of Rak Records. I still laugh about it.

Larry fell in love with a song I wrote for the album called ‘There Isn’t Anything Else’. Though he didn’t have to he just about begged me to let him put a guitar solo on it and worked up the idea during a day off. 

‘Oh man! Have I got a guitar solo for you!’

He certainly had. He plugged his red Strat into an overdrive pedal and directly into the desk. I didn’t know you could do this, I thought you had to use an amplifier with a microphone in front of it. I found out in years to come that plugging directly in was considered to be one of the mortal sins of recording, though that’s exactly what Prince did a few years later. Larry was ahead of the game. 

His solo, two guitars in harmony, sounded fabulous. Before I went out on tour he made me come over to his house so he could teach me how to play it. I never quite got the hang of it. Some years later he asked me to come to a rehearsal for a recording session he was doing with Pete Thomas on drums and Big George Webley on bass. I played the song with them and for them but as far as I know they never recorded it. I would love to have heard Larry singing ‘There Isn’t Anything Else’ on a record.

Larry may have exuded confidence but a chance remark or action could sour his mood or turn him into a cringing wimp. He flirted with flick knives and kept a python as a pet, and yet he had a phobia about anything that was pointed - he couldn’t walk past a set of railings with spikes, and once when someone who didn’t know used the expression it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick he almost fell to the floor and had a fit in the middle of a crowded pub

‘Don’t say that!’ he wailed.

He was prone to depression - a day could start out very jolly and suddenly turn dark. I can always hear an underlying sadness in the music he made, even in its fullest glory. A mutual friend told me that he once said of me: ‘Eric is fiercely intelligent, blindingly insightful, and his own worst enemy.’ I’ll take it, all of it, though I think he could as well have been describing himself.

He’s one of the most talented and surely the most underrated musician I’ve ever worked with. His guitar arrangements are practically symphonic. He had a unique sense of melody and his guitar playing was always full of unexpected twists and turns. He borrowed my guitar at a festival once to play with the Screaming Blue Messiahs. A solid batwing Epiphone with one single coil pickup. It was a very weedy guitar. He walked on, plugged it straight into a Fender Twin, turned everything on the channel up full and shredded through the set with taste, control, elegance and style. I still can’t understand how he got that sound out of that guitar.

I have a fond memory of him coming to see me play at the Marquee Club in London at a point where I’d done a lot of touring, curbed my worst excesses and got it together. We were halfway through the set and it was going well, I turned around and saw Larry watching us from behind the amplifiers, a huge grin on his face. So pleased, kind, generous and warm-hearted ... and that’s how I’ll always remember him.


Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Retirement


Amy arrived on the stage, a vision of loveliness in the light of a sixty five candle birthday cake which had been placed on my piano. She was wheeling a pink and beige Honda C50 moped with a big pink bow tied around it. A rubberized gaberdine coat was folded across the seat with a large pair of gauntlets 

I stood there on the stage, drinking in the applause for a broken old man who once wanted to be a glam rocker, a tired old relic, struggling gamely on with scarcely the will to continue. 

Ian, my accompanist, helped Amy to fasten me into the rubberized gaberdine. They sat me on the moped and put the white, peaked helmet on my ancient and befuddled head.

‘Happy birthday Eric’ she whispered. ‘Now, don’t worry, I can finish the set for you.’

She kicked the moped into life, and gauntleted and goggled I headed off the stage down a ramp, through the crowd of well wishers all wishing me well - wishes for a long and happy retirement that I could hardly hear through cracked white leather neck guard, and above the noise of the 50cc motor. I put-putted out into the street and headed east towards the edge of town.

‘Okay Ian, do you know this one...?’

I was never seen again, and pretty soon I was entirely forgotten.


NPR just reviewed my latest album. It’s looking like I’m a long way from the retirement home which is just as well because I don’t have the luxury of any form of pension. Better get home and hit the gym - I’ve got some US shows coming up:

June
28 KINGSTON NY Rocket #9
29 NEW HAVEN CT Cafe Nine
30 BROOKLYN NY Union Pool
July
03 CATSKILL NY The HiLo

You can buy the new album here...

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Air B n B


I used to be a fan of Air B n B but I’m rapidly going off the whole idea. I wasn’t too keen to begin with - Amy got into it and my first experience was in Pasarobles, California. It was before we discovered the ‘entire place’ option so it was a room in a lady’s house. We were obliged to interact. I got into conversation with the lady about the how difficult it can be to do all the things you want to do in life, something like that.
‘The trouble is’ I found myself saying, ‘that there’s never enough time.’
‘I don’t find that’ she said, ‘you see, I have all eternity.’
In the morning Amy got up early and blundered out onto a sun terrace where she found our host in full on communication with Our Heavenly Father.
I have no problem with people holding beliefs, I just don’t necessarily want to become involved in them.
My second Air B n B experience was a caravan in the grounds of a house in North Hollywood. It was cheap and it was wacky, just our sort of thing. We’d been playing in San Diego and had to be in Los Angeles early the following day, so we arrived at this place at five in the morning. Birds were trilling the dawn chorus and there was nobody around, just us and the garbage truck. It took ages to find The Gate In The Long Fence, and when we did it was almost impossible to open the lockbox and then to unlock the gate. We stumbled down some steps through a rockery with our luggage and there was the caravan - originally cream and orange, but faded and covered in an accumulation of moss and whatever debris had fallen onto it from the trees that surrounded it.
Bijou.
Inside it smelled of gas and microwaved pies. I opened a window and a dilapidated fly screen fell out. We tried to put a brave face on it - it was half past five in the morning by this time and we were exhausted. I pointed out to Amy, by way of being positive, that you could open the bathroom door and flush the toilet without leaving the bed. We were considering toughing it out for the sake of a few hours sleep but we found leeches in the sink so we booked into the downtown Best Western and stayed there for three nights. It cost a fortune but it was like paradise after the caravan.
I have had some good Air B n B experiences. Last June Amy and I stayed in a two storey shack in Mendocino. It was very small - the ground floor contained a sofa, a coffee table and a sink unit. Upstairs was a bedroom with a bed in it and not much else. The whole place wobbled as you climbed the stairs. The bathroom was in its own separate shack next door, connected by a short, secluded path illuminated by fairy lights. To get to the place you had to walk past the remains of a lot of scrapped and rusting cars and into some woodland. It should have been a disaster but it was quite wonderful.
We stayed in a converted breeze block garage in the back garden of a house in Nashville and that’s where I figured something out: in the good old days, before the Air B n B craze, short term rentals were traditionally filled with collections of mismatched furniture and knick-knacks - unwanted gifts, flower vases, decorative plates, hideous table lamps and so on. The modern way is to take all this crap and donate it to the Goodwill, get a tax receipt and spend the equivalent money furnishing the place with brand new crap from TK or TJ Maxx and Target, and that’s why the places where they’ve made A REAL EFFORT are full of overstuffed chairs that look like rotund aunties and aren’t comfortable to sit in, and oblong blocks that say COFFEE on each face. And why they invariably have a large number of decorative cushions on the bed varying in size from large to quite small, one of which will be heart-shaped. There might be a sign that says: Two Lovers Built This Nest, and in the kitchen there may well be another sign that says: Instant Human - Just  Add Coffee.
I find the concept of two lovers converting the garage into a nest by lining it with plasterboard, installing a Pergo floor and filling it with tacky crap from Target, Pier 21, Bed Bath & Beyond ridiculous, cloying and quite unbelievable.
Some Air B n B hosts get it right. We stayed in two different places on the south coast of England that were just great, and I stayed alone in another that had a wonderful sea view but was filled with furniture and had walls covered in inconsequential pictures - framed photos of not very interesting exhibitions from 1998 and 2011, that sort of thing. There were something in the region of five chests of drawers, there were window treatments, a foldaway bed, a million kitchen utensils, cabinets of trinketry, books that no one wants to read, shelves of CDs: The Best Of R.E.M., The Very Best Of Chris de Burgh, Graceland, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon... I couldn’t hear myself think for the encroachment of someone else’s life. I had to gaze out at the sea across the promenade in order to hold on to my fragile sanity.
I endured one in West Hollywood, a tiny Spanish bungalow from the 1930s, that had almost nothing in it except a bed, a chair and a large wall-mounted TV. It had a beautiful all-original kitchenette but the charm was lost to an over-large, and very loud refrigerator, a Keurig coffee maker and a bulky black microwave that filled the fold-out kitchen table so there was really nowhere for me to sit and write my novel. I spent my time in there spreadeagled across the bed trying to summon the will to get up and turn off the light.
I stayed in a charming duplex in Echo Park, Los Angeles, except that once I’d been there for a few hours I realized it wasn’t at all charming, it was indefinably grubby, with a spongy bit in the middle of the vinyl wood-finish Pergo floor where the underfloor had been joined between the floor joists and had given way.
My stay coincided with an unseasonably cold spell and the only heating came from a dusty oil-filled radiator and a ceramic wall-mounted heater with a big crack across the middle of it. This place had a separate kitchen, a ghetto beyond the bedroom with a one wall painted with blackboard paint and covered with tributes from former guests, who I can only imagine must have been drunk for the duration of their stay to have scrawled such sentimental gibberish with the chalks provided:
We had an AWESOME time! …We Love You! …your place is an oasis of peacefulness and beauty in an otherwise grey worldwe’ll be back for more wine and walks and good food and hugs… I even saw a tribute from someone I knew.
Everything in the kitchen was covered in a thin film of grease, embedded with dust. I didn’t want to imagine how much bacon had been fried up in that place. There was a shelf stacked up with the stuff that people had bought over the years to cook esoteric dishes and live temporary existences involving the imbibing of herbal teas. There was paprika, basmati rice, salt, pepper, curry powder, sachets of saffron, stale coffee, sweet and sour sauce, soy sauce, demerara sugar, ketchup, tabasco, plastic bear honey, organic tea bags… and everything on the shelf was stuck to it and the whole installation was greasy and very unappetising, but with a thin veneer of generosity. The stove was old and clunky, and superficially clean, and you had to keep checking that the pilot light was still lit.
The good thing about that place was that it had a piano. I worked up two songs for my new album while I was there: The Half Of It in its entirety and California/Handyman which I’d started to write by a dilapidated swimming pool at a motel near San Diego. You can pre-order the album as a download on Bandcamp and get The Half Of It and two other tracks to be going on with right now. I hope you’re going to love it.