Monday, 28 November 2022

Wilko Johnson

I’m very sad for the passing of Wilko Johnson. I flew to England and got the news when I arrived. I’m glad to be in England at the moment, it seems appropriate - Wilko may have been playing American music but he remains an absolutely English phenomenon.

As soon as I heard Doctor Feelgood I was a fan. I bought their first album as soon as it came out in 1975. Down By The Jetty was not like other albums or LPs of the time. It was in mono and the cover was black and white. It didn’t present the value-for-money facade of the lurid, multi-coloured, Roger Dean gatefold designs and the all-across-the-fireplace stereo spread of other albums, even though it had more tunes on it than seemed possible in the mid-seventies - it contained thirteen tracks, and that was one more than the Rolling Stones first album released only eleven years earlier. I went to the record shop, bought a copy and it changed my life.

There were no wailing guitar solos, no wall-to-wall carpet of deluxe and luscious harmony vocals, and there appeared to be not a single drum fill.  And there were lyrics - direct, poetic and deranged like a gonzo comic strip come to life.

The cars are moving sideways and the traffic lights change to blue
I’m walking twenty yards behind her ‘cause I’m frightened of the damage she’ll do

Dr Feelgood wore suits and ties. They were photographed by a sea wall with a grimy cargo ship parked casually behind them, or outside an old-fashioned barber’s shop where they’d evidently just had their hair cut. They didn’t look like other bands in band photos. They looked like they didn’t give a fuck. And if they suddenly did give a fuck, and if the singer woke up from the daze he appeared to be in, you’d probably be in trouble.

Streets are full of signs, arrows pointing everywhere

Parks are full of people trying to get a breath of air

Listen to the weatherman praying for a drop of rain

Look into the sky, the sky is full of aeroplanes

I imagined I could smell the oil refineries as I stood with Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure watching the oil flames burning bright in the full light of day, the sky full of aeroplanes jetting off to some Spanish paradise, their passengers as unaware, as I had been, of Canvey Island, this wonderful and magnificent hell on earth. 

I could hardly believe a person could exist with a name like Wilko Johnson. He was a complete original. He looked like a budget version of Keith Richards, pudding basin haircut, black suit, black shirt buttoned to the neck with no tie - the look was out of time, untenable in the mid-seventies. He was Barbie’s Ken gone loco, a guitar slinging Action Man with eyes like blazing headlights. 

Wilko’s guitar playing is one of the wonders of this world. Left hand almost completely still or moving very slowly, right hand a blur. He played without a pick. I’d never seen or heard anyone play like that. A hacking of chords with wailing notes bending and bursting out of them, neither lead nor rhythm and unlike any other guitarist. Brittle and violent like glass - HH solid state amplifier, no distortion, clean, angular - modern yet deeply unfashionable. And so right.

I saw Wilko with Doctor Feelgood many times, from the early days to the meltdowns and walk-offs at the Hammersmith Odeon and Palais. I saw his subsequent bands, the Solid Senders, the short-lived Wilko Johnson and Lew Lewis amalgamation, and later on I opened for him a good few times. But I never actually met him until the early 2000s. 

The truth is I was terrified of him. He cut such an unreal figure that it was different to see him as  a mere mortal, a human being, one of us. He was the epitome of dark and brooding - he had his demons - he wasn’t always the warm, outgoing and at times hilarious man he was in later life. My perception of him may of course have been coloured by hero worship. 

Not that long after Ian Dury died I was opened for the Blockheads in London at the Jazz Cafe. After my set Wilko burst into the backstage. He came straight up to me. “That was a great set” he said - “You played some things on the guitar that I wish I could do.” I manage to stay cool, accept the compliment, but I was astonished. He made my day, my year, my life. 

Of course, by this time the unthinkable had happened happened - Wilko had lost his hair. He seemed to carry this off with effortless aplomb  - he went from loco black-haired Ken to slack-jawed punch drunk boxer almost overnight. He carried it off because no matter what he did he exuded Wilko-ness. 

A few years ago - about seventeen few years ago in fact - he toured in a package with John Otway and the Hamster who were basically a blues rock cover band with an inexplicably huge UK following. The Hamsters topped the bill, Wilko went on in the middle. At the end of his set he announced: “What follows will be truly bizarre.” And it was. At one point Wilko joined the Hamster onstage for a rendition of Born To Be Wild. He confided in me before the show : “We’ve been studying them - we think they don’t like each other - you’ll never see all three of them at the same time except on stage, and they clearly avoid being in rooms together…” 

Wilko was a poet, a storyteller, highly literate and steeped in the imagery and vernacular of the blues. The most mundane account could turn into an epic tale with wild gesticulations. His big hands would reach up and place the moon in the sky for you - there always seemed to be a stars and a big silver moon in Wilko’s stories - he was a keen astronomer. 

I was booked to open for him at two shows in March 2023. I was looking forward to it immensely. I hadn’t seen him in a long time - I’m an expert at losing touch. I somehow assume people I know will be around forever, but this is clearly not so. I’m going to miss Wilko - the world just lost a true original.

with Wilko at the Jazz Cafe - photo by Karen Hall

Friday, 18 November 2022

Battalions Of Better Bass Players

I have a gig this coming weekend playing with my wife, Amy Rigby. I’m principally the bass player in her band though I also play guitar on a couple of tunes on an electronic instrument called an  Omnichord which has been rechristened by Amy as the Omacron. I also sing harmony or back-up vocals.

I was thinking about the difference between preparing for one of Amy’s shows and one of my own. Preparing for my own shows is a quietly fraught affair - I’m filled with fear and self doubt. Getting ready for a show with Amy there’s a marked absence of all this, apart, that is, from my normal low-level insecurity wherein battalions of better bass players agree amongst themselves that they could do a far superior job, muttering about how I only got the job because I’m married to the artist. Normal stuff as I said. 

I can usually keep these fears at bay because I’ve begun to better understand the chemistry between band members, and that the job of being a band member involves so much more than mere mastery of a musical instrument. This isn’t to say I’m a crap bass player because I’m not - I’m actually pretty good. I have other skills too - I can drive, repair equipment, string guitars so they stay in tune, fit more equipment into a vehicle than anyone would have thought possible… Where bands are concerned I’m a pretty good catch.

I still get twinges of He Only Got The Job Because He’s Married To Her, but never mind, I can push that aside.

Amy and I worked together as a unit for ten years and three albums. We stopped doing it when we realised we could make more money, something like a living wage, if we worked separately. But for ten years we were a two piece rock and roll group - not a duo, we preferred two piece rock and roll group. During that time we developed some kind of telepathic communication. We hardly ever looked at each other while we were playing - we didn’t want to be giving each other gooey and sentimental looks - there was an element of steel to it. We found a way to harmonise - to begin with my voice was twice as loud as Amy’s but she got stronger and I got my voice under control. She started playing the piano, I started playing the bass - not that we were beginners in that - I started out on the bass and subsequently played tthe instrument on a lot of my own records - Amy had been lucky enough to have had piano lessons as a kid. As soon as I found she could play the piano I insisted she did and was always quite envious that she got to sit down for part of the set. Together we’re confident in ourselves and each other, exacting, but tolerant and non-judgemental - we’re facing in the same direction, looking for the same outcome. You might say we have each other’s backs.

Amy’s band is a three piece. She doesn’t play the piano onstage, just guitars. She has three of them: a Telecaster, a 12 string Dan Electro, and a Gibson J45 acoustic. She uses a 1972 Fender Deluxe - originally it was mine but it seems to have been co-opted or annexed which is okay because Amy gets a great sound out of it and I actually get a better guitar sound for me out of a reissue Deluxe. I use a big Traynor tube amplifier and a 1x12 cabinet for the bass. Doug Wygal plays the drums and we’re lucky to have him. He lives down the road in Kingston, and before each run of shows we get together to run through the tunes and indulge in a bit of local gossip.

We’re a tight unit. We know what’s right - what to wear and how to be. We don’t grin. I can’t personally abide bands members that grin. That was an early lesson through the great and sadly late Ian Dury - the audience laughed, the band remained stoic, things would get uneasy... I think he got it from in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest - you’re laughing at Jack Nicholson’s character when you realise there’s blood seeping under the door because Billy has just slashed his wrists and bled to death, but you can’t stop laughing. I don't know if that makes sense but perhaps you get the idea.

We have a good time together. When we travel to shows we can rely on Doug for a tale or two - the Soft Machine opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, early Bob Seger shows, even the Amboy Dukes (who were great even though it later transpired that their guitar player was an asshole called Ted Nugent). How do you reconcile these things? Is it still okay to thrill to their version of Baby Please Don’t Go

Last night at our rehearsal we discussed the Standells and Steppenwolf. We told Doug about seeing Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets and how great they were, and Doug recalled how his first band bought an album by Chocolate Watch Band in order to learn their songs only to find the record inside had been substituted for the Pink Floyd’s first album. They quickly realised this stuff was way more psychedelic than Sitting Here Standing by the Chocolate Watch Band, so they learned Interstellar Overdrive instead and never looked back.

Before the show tomorrow evening Amy will probably be a bit tense and nervous, and we’ll try to give her the space she needs to get ready. I’ll probably break out the lens wipes and Doug and I will clean our glasses before we go on. In my mind I’ll be doing my best impersonation of my alter-ego, the great Bryce McCafferty. Bryce is a classic British bass player. He truly doesn’t give a fuck. He shows no interest in the set list which he shrugs off with a tacit You Tell Me What You Want Me To Play And I’ll Play It. The world of Bryce McCafferty is divided into two kinds of people: drinking buddies, and people who don’t interest him. He gets work because his bass playing is, quite surprisingly, effortlessly astounding. I’m actually nothing like Bryce McCafferty.

Amy Rigby
8pm @ The Spotty Dog
Warren Street
Hudson NY

Sunday, 23 October 2022


I used to take it all in my stride but getting ready to go and do shows was always a quietly fraught business for me. Sporadic shows are the worst because during the time at home the equipment gets disassembled for recording purposes, guitar cases end up in corners of the basement, batteries go flat and I lose track of which lead gets used for what. 

It’s important to have a system - people might think I’m being fussy or OCD, but I’ve been going out playing shows for a very long time now, most of the time totally unaided, so I know how things can go wrong. I look after whatever is controllable - it’s advance damage limitation, but during the sporadic periods as I might call them the system quietly unravels

And I unravel too. I definitely don’t feel great these days and there seems to be no explanation for it that my GP can find. We think it’s this thing called Long Covid. It’s either that or something sinister. When I toured last year I set off a bit earlier than I normally would every day and spent an hour or two sleeping in the car in rest stops along the way.

When I played in London last July my left hand cramped up so badly that I didn’t know how I was going to finish the show. The lights were ridiculously hot and I think I was dehydrating. People were talking loudly at the back - the seven piece support who were so honoured to play on a bill with me, together with their massive entourage (they wanted thirty people on the guest list even though the show was a benefit) yack yack yacking all the way through my set.

I forget what keys the songs are in, the instrumental stuff gets sonically magnified in my imagination and falls short of anything I could ever hope to achieve. I feel clumsy and gauche, a cack-handed version of the fabricated me I’ve built up in my mind since the last outing. I had it down back then…

There’s an overwhelming amount of preparation involved in these one-off dates but in the practising and so on I discover new levels of balance and control. I hope it won’t all go out of the window the moment I go onstage - tense, over-amped, digging in too hard and losing the lightness of the quiet bits that give the loud bits at least an illusion of power. If I get anxious the dynamics go to pot.

The idea of an outing always seems attractive. I always imagine there’ll be interesting snacks and I’ll need my trusty pocket knife, but somehow I never do. I make elaborate listening plans - I’m going to listen to the entire works of David Bowie…that kind of thing. It doesn’t happen, I end up driving in silence lost in a dream of all the things I could be doing if I wasn’t doing this. Because somehow it doesn’t matter what I’m doing and how much I want to do it, when I’m doing it I often wish I was doing something else. It’s a tendency I try to guard against. Things go so much better when I live in the moment and just enjoy it. There’s even a risk that I might have fun.

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Brake Failure

When the brakes failed at seventy miles an hour in rush hour on the M25 I didn’t panic, I calmly said the word 'no' as if in response to an incorrectly answered question. I used the gears to slow the car down and worked my way over to the inside lane, and then to the hard shoulder. I almost made it to a standstill but I ran out of road where the hard shoulder gave way to an exit. I had no choice but to take the exit, and ended up driving into the delightless Surrey town of Caterham.

I'm sure someone's going to put me right here - tell me how convenient Caterham is - just twenty minutes from all the top West End shows, the galleries, the museums - you're a mere thirty-seven minutes from the O2 Arena and there's a flower basket hanging off every lamp post - we've even got a Waitrose. But there’s a drabness and desperation to the place it’s as though most of the population are fully aware that they wouldn’t live anywhere near this place if it weren’t for its proximity to gainful employment in Central London. 

I pulled up alongside a row of terraced houses on the main road heading in to Caterham. I’d actually done a tour of the town - I found that by pumping the brakes I could bring them back to some semblence of functionality - apart from one heart-stopping moment when my foot hit the floor and the traffic ahead started getting alarmingly close because I’d forgotten to pump, the car seemed to be back to normal. I didn’t mean to do a tour of the town but I figured I needed to find somewhere safe to park for a couple of hours, somewhere accessible to an AA man in a tow truck. 

I saw the sign for Waitrose and naively assumed that a supermarket of that size and noteriety would have a car park (ok, I’ll admit it, I’ve been Americanised). It didn’t, so I followed signs for town centre parking and found myself driving into a multi-storey. A multi-storey car park isn’t much fun when you’re not sure of your braking power. I didn’t want to park in there because it turned out to be attached to a Morrison’s supermarket and it closed when the supermarket closed. I didn’t know how long I was likely to be there, I was facing an uncertain future.

I ended up facing the other way on the road I’d come in on, in a line of small parked cars outside a line of small terraced houses. Next to me, just the width of a Fiat Punto door away, traffic hurtled by. I studied the houses. I wondered who lived in them. I was acutely aware that even though I wasn’t in a resident parking space I was probably taking someone’s assumed space, and when they came home from work they’d have to park up the hill in a side street and unpleasantness might ensue. Parking wars. But parking wars assume a sense of community, or community spirit, and I don’t think there is any in this place. People move in, the renters, the buyers, they exist for a while, then they move out and exist somewhere else. If they were ever noticed they’re soon forgotten.

A very pregnant woman in a business suit walked past my car. She was talking on a phone. She put the key in the door of a house further up and let herself in. The neatly trimmed hedge gave this house an owner-occupied air. The one next door, the one I was parked outside looked rented - the flowerpot by the door containing a long dead plant, the discarded engine treatment oil container - they give some sort of clue. There’s a pride, or even a sense of duty that goes along with home ownership. The curtains of this one, the rented one, are drawn even though it’s only five thirty in the afternoon. Perhaps the occupant is a shift worker, maybe they’ve gone away on holiday, or left in the morning before it got light. Or the place is empty, waiting to be re-rented, to play host to some fresh misery. 

These places would have been built for workmen and their families in the nineteenth century. Front room or parlour for best, dining room, small kitchen. Upstairs two bedrooms and a box room off the back. Outhouse in the back yard. Front garden for flowers, back garden for vegetables. Humble places, all a workman needed. There have been a few upgrades but has anything really changed?

We generate a lot more rubbish these days. The front gardens once so charming are filled with colour-coded wheelie bins - a brown one for garden waste, blue for recycling, black for rubbish. There was even a small green one for food waste. When I was a kid we had a round galvanised dustbin which was emptied once a week even if it wasn’t full. Newspapers were used to light the fire, bottles were refundable, food scraps were thrown into the stove that heated the house and provided hot water. There was never much cardboard becuse we never bought anything. I’m not saying it was better - our lives were austere, the house was cold, I was forever hungry and I felt guilty for eating. But there was less trash, rubbish, garbage or detritus.

I wondered what the woman up the street, the pregnant woman, was doing. I imagined  she’d put her feet up - have to take it easy at that stage in a pregnancy. Perhaps they’d knocked the front room and the dining room through into one airy living space and extended the kitchen. There’s a lot you can do with a long galley kitchen ending in French doors opening onto a small patio, and a small patio would be all that remains of the back garden since the extension. She’s sitting on a white bar stool at the breakfast counter drinking herbal tea, dealing with a few emails. She’s divorced. She’s going it alone. She’s happily married to another solicitor - they’re both solicitors, and when the baby arrives there’ll be changes. By the time the time the child goes to school they’ll have relocated to Lewes.

Will the AA ever arrive?

There’s an app, an AA app, but it doesn’t work on my phone because I’m old so my phone is four years old which means it’s obsolete even though it’s a perfectly good phone and I see no reason to replace it. The AA was keeping me abreast of developments with regard to my breakdown case via regular texts which let me know every twenty minutes or so that due to the high volume of breakdowns in my area - hey, I’m your man on the ground here, I can very well understand how there could be a high volume of breakdowns around here - my recovery is going to be delayed by another ten or fifteen minutes (sad face emoticon).

The ten or fifteen minute delays were adding up, I had time to kill which is why I’d been making a detailed study of the houses and speculating on the occupants. I walked down the road to Waitrose in search of food and drink. As I was paying two young women popped their heads around the corner of the perspex screen meant to protect the cashier from the general public:

‘Do you sell party balloons?’ 

The woman was inches from my face. 

‘Back the fuck off’ said the nice if slightly odd older gentleman. 

I should become a psychopath. Perhaps I already am one.

I went in Nero’s. I think I went in there because it was open and everything else seemed to be closing. I ordered a cup of tea which came in a large mug and tasted vaguely of paprika. A long, skinny, suntanned man in a polo shirt was explaining the (apparently much misunderstood) Russian position in Ukraine to a short, rotund older man who was hanging on his every word and bemoaning the passing of Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t want to get involved, I didn’t feel anger or indignation, just mild irritation. I wished they’d shut the fuck up.

On my way back up the hill, I looked through the windows of a a ground floor flat in a brand new block. Great Opportunity! Hurry! Hurry! Last Few Remaining! The kitchen / living room / dining area looked out onto an eye-level flower bed strewn with weeds and litter, and beyond it the road, filled with angry, hurtling traffic. They’ll struggle to sell this one, but then again there’s always someone who’s desperate.

The AA van pulled up and a cheerful young man jumped out.

I couldn't help it: ‘You’ve got to get me out of this dump’ I said.

He laughed and told me he came from round here. I started to apologise but he said there was no need, he completely understood. I told him what had happened and he gave the car a thorough inspection. He couldn’t find anything wrong with it - he even asked me if I was sure I hadn’t mistakenly put my foot on the clutch instead of the brake. I tried not to be insulted - perhaps it was payback for calling his hometown a dump.

I got him to drive the car. We took it for a spin around deserted residential streets. He performed several violent emergency stops, wrangling and wrestling the steering wheel in an attempt to trick the brakes into another malfunction, but to no avail, the car behaved perfectly. In the end he told me he didn’t think it was going to happen again and advised me to either wait three hours for a tow truck or, if I was comfortable with it, to drive slowly home testing the brakes at regular intervals.

‘So what you’re saying is there’s a choice - I can either die of boredom here in Caterham or I can go out in a blaze of glory somewhere on the M25 - which will of course be your fault almost entirely.’

For a moment he looked quite shocked. 

’That’s a bit harsh’ he said and we both laughed. 

I drove home. The brakes were absolutely fine. I took it to the local garage, they couldn’t find anything wrong either.

I had a strange and spooky idea about this: I'd been down in Shoreham-by-Sea adressing the problem of a storage space which has been full of my late mother’s effects since before the pandemic and has been costing me a fortune. She had a lot of Ercol and G-Plan furniture of which she was very proud. When I was emptying the house I couldn’t quite bring myself to donate it all, so it went into a large and costly storage unit while we look around for buyers. The sale of the furniture would easily offset the cost of the storage unit, of course it would… And then the pandemic came along. The other day I drove down to Shoreham, called a man and van number, and in a mere forty minutes the furniture was being lovingly dusted down ready for sale at the local Emmaus and I was heading back to Norfolk. 

I sort of wondered if the brake failure was my mother expressing her displeasure at the disposal of her furniture. She was never mechanically minded so it’d be like her to go too far and nearly kill me on the M25. It’s a fanciful idea, I know. She’s probably off in some ever-blossoming orchard out in the celestial heavens, dancing eternity away with my dad, and never a cross word. She doesn’t need the furniture, she’d be pleased to see it helping people who need a fresh start.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Up The Bunting

I had a run-in with a gun person who attempted to explain to me how it all works:

Someone points a gun at you, he’s the bad guy, I’m pointing a gun at him, I’m the good guy - see how it works?

I didn’t see how it worked then and I still don’t. I offended him deeply when I suggested that if he shot someone in a scenario such as this, then far from being the big hero he’d probably shit his pants. He was very upset, I think I touched a nerve.

That was five or more years ago. Things have only got worse.

After every school shooting some moron always says that this just wouldn’t have happened if everyone was armed, and sure enough after this latest atrocity they said exactly that. I find the idea of a teacher of young children packing a gun deeply disturbing, and at the least, highly inappropriate. To me the inference here is that it would be okay for a child to see their teacher gunning someone down in their defence.

I don’t think any of this is at all okay.

Twitter and Instagram were suddenly beset with photos of bloated, blow-waved, beefcake couples reclining on trashy kingsize beds, surrounded by their obscenely impressive collections of firearms. Apparently they need automatic weapons to ward off feral hogs who can, and will, invade your home any minute now. I’ve never encountered a feral hog myself, but I’ve seen plenty of people around the neighborhood giving what I imagine is a more than passable imitation of one.

Guns, guns, guns - who woulda thunk it? - seems they’re America’s national obsession.

I’m pleased to spend time in Britain where the national obsession is football. I have no interest in football myself - it’s just not my thing - but I love the passion it invokes. And if I’m honest I’d love to attend a football match in a big stadium. My football prejudice stems from being ordered to go outside and play it in the rain and cold when I didn’t even know what it was. I was eight years old and I’d never heard of football so it came as a shock.

A gentle shock compared with the realisation that so many Americans have been quietly spending their hard earned pay on building a home arsenal.

We’re heading home for Catskill, New York tomorrow. I’m sorry to be leaving but happy to miss the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Seventy years on the throne - my my - are you going to be much longer in there Ma’am?

I don’t understand seventy - it seems to me they’ve got marriage and sovereignty rather conveniently confused. Seventy years of marriage would be a platinum jubilee but jubilees of the Queen’s reign have been celebrated so far in twenty five year increments. We - that is they - celebrated twenty five years, the silver jubilee, in 1977, then the golden jubilee twenty five years later in 2002, so shouldn’t the next one be twenty five years on from that in 2027?

I would have thought seventy five years would be a more celebration-worthy length of time, but let’s face it, she’s not likely to last another five years, and we need something to celebrate after all this pandemic nonsense etc etc…

My daughter put it very well the other day: why do we have to celebrate her? Couldn’t she celebrate us for a change? And who’s going to pay for it all. It’s more than the cost of a bit of bunting, and I’m pretty sure it’s not coming out of the royal coffers.

I had an idea that would be bound to win popular support and increase the waning popularity of the British monarchy - how about if the Queen donated an amount equivalent to the income tax she would have paid if the Royal Family had paid income tax from the beginning of her reign? 

She could donate it to a fund to help people who are suffering hardship due to the current economic crisis.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Quincy, Recording, A Wedding Anniversary & A Run In With The Law

I keep writing stuff and not posting any of it - the world lurches from crisis to crisis and what I write quickly becomes irrelevant, inappropriate at at the very least just plain glib. I won’t write stuff about what’s wrong with the human race, and tell everyone how to put the planet to rights because it’s really not my place to do so, and most of the people who read what I occasionally write would probably agree with me on everything I’d have to say, so there’s really very little point.

And there are the others, the ones who disagree. I get so jangled by internet confrontations. I used to be stronger than I am now, but since having Covid and a heart attack in quick succession, and dealing with this thing called Long Covid, I’m not tough enough to take up the fight. Though I handled it coolly, a Facebook dust up with the daughter of a friend who told me my post was a fucking disgrace and I shouldn’t be in a creative industry left me depleted for the better part of a week. 

It was a joke concerning Eric Clapton in the wake of his anti-vaccine proclamations. I said that after careful consideration I was banning him from attending any of the shows on my US tour last October. It gave rise to a lot of anti-Clapton vitriol. I didn’t join in but as far as this person was concerned I was to blame and had relinquished any right to be in a creative industry.


Whatever the word in means in this context, and whatever industry it is that I’m supposed to be in that might be at all creative. 

The tremors, the palpitations, the extreme anxiety and upset that this sort of thing incurs just aren’t worth it. So from that point of view I’ve decided to be a human cabbage. 

I’ve been recording , and I’ve been recording, and I’ve been recording. I just finished mixing a song I recorded together with Amy for a forthcoming compilation album, a tribute to Badfinger. I’m never sure about these kinds of projects but I can never resist an invitation to participate. I had to work hard at it because I wasn’t sure the song had much going for it.

We started out with a random bass synthesiser loop, Amy played the Wurlitzer electric piano while I played an electric guitar with a load of delay and reverb on it.  We strummed a couple of acoustic guitars together around one mic and then overdubbed a couple more. We recorded a track of brushed cymbals and started on the vocals.

We sang in harmony - I sang it, then Amy sang with my vocal, then I replaced my vocal. The lyrics meant nothing to either of us. The track sounded great but the vocals were prosaic and lacklustre. At various points I wanted to give up on it but we kept going. I sent my vocal out through a Boss vocoder pedal and into my wonderful Moog Opus which Amy played. The result was other worldly and decidedly creepy. We put some oscillator noises on it and a casual bass guitar here and there and it suddenly came together. 

I wish I could do that with some of my own tracks. I spent bits of yesterday wrangling a track into shape in between celebrating out fourteenth wedding anniversary. It was a great day. In the morning we somehow got onto the subject of Quincy, played by Jack Klugman. I can’t imagine how we got there but Amy asked me if I’d ever watched the show. 

I was a huge fan, possibly for a lot of the wrong reasons, but I’ll readily admit to it. I watched it for the outfits - you never knew what he was going to be wearing next: loud checkered sports jackets with huge lapels; chunky V necked pullovers; windcheaters with elaborate collars and complicated arrangements of buttons or press studs. Every scene was a fashion shocker. Re-runs of Quincy were required late night viewing through the nineteen eighties.

We watched most of an episode involving the illegal dumping of toxic waste, featuring Quincy in a succession of golfing jackets and a big suede affair with sheepskin collar and cuffs, and patch pockets. Amy said she can see where I get my fashion sense. I hadn’t realised how much Quincy had rubbed off on me. I’d like to think that if he really existed we could be friends, maybe go thrift store shopping together.

It felt very decadent to be watching Quincy at ten o’clock in the morning, but it was our wedding anniversary after all.

Later on we decided to go for dinner and chose a restaurant down in Rhinebeck that looked suitably upscale and disgustingly expensive. We set off in my old Mercury Cougar talking enthusiastically about the writing of books, the making of records, and, of course, our rediscovered hero, Quincy. Amy usually keeps a check on my speed but she was having a night off. It was a country road that I’ve driven on many times. The speed limit changes every couple of miles. The Cougar was running perfectly and we were bowling along when I saw red and blue lights in the rearview mirror. I slowed down and prepared to pull in so he could pass me. Only he didn’t, he pulled in behind.

‘Have you any idea why I stopped you sir?’

‘I think it might be because I was going a little too fast…’

‘You were doing seventy-seven miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone.’

‘Oh wow! The car really is running well tonight…’

He asked where we were going and we told him. Amy took the opportunity to mention that it was our wedding anniversary. He asked how long we’d been married. I stuttered a bit over the answer to that, as you do, but I think it gave me a bit of guys together credibility

All this time we’d been trying to find the registration but for some reason it wasn’t in the car. I was having visions of celebrating our anniversary alone in a jail cell. He took my licence and headed off for his patrol car. He came back a couple of minutes later, handed back the licence with a smile, wished us a happy wedding anniversary, and told me to watch my speed.

I thought how different this encounter might have been had we been young and black instead of old, white, and heading for the stodgy town of Rhinebeck.

I don't usually drive so fast in thirty-five mile an hour zones but this one wasn’t exactly populated and I didn't see the sign. I’m usually more mindful. I don’t drive through neighbourhoods at breakneck speed.

Dinner was no great shakes but we enjoyed it anyway. There were an inordinate amount of waiting staff including a young man who kept coming around with a bottle of tap water. He topped us up and said Enjoy. He did this three times. The main or most prevalent waitress put me in mind of a shark with a ponytail. Vicious in her determination to do the absolute minimum.

It made us happy to be up here in Catskill. We’re lucky.

We came home and watched the last episode of the Warhol Diaries. Amy promised she wouldn’t cry but I think she did anyway. It was a happy sad ending.

I lay exhausted on the sofa. Amy googled Jack Klugman and we listened to him talking about the beginnings of Quincy. No one thought it would last more than four episodes, least of all Jack Klugman. But his cynicism turned to belief and it endured for eight seasons between 1977 and 1983.

Amy wondered why Quincy was such a success. 

The answer came to me in a flash from somewhere in the mists between awake and sleeping: those moist and soulful eyes, almost unable to bear the latest injustice, this week’s wrong which must be put right. Quincy is a good guy, the kindest, most tenacious, and fair-minded man that never existed. He lives on a boat with a vast collection of sports jackets and windcheaters. He’s a latter day male version of a fairy godmother. The world needs someone like Quincy. How could he not prevail?

Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Hey Hey They're The Monkees!

The Monkees TV show was first shown in England in September 1966. I was twelve at the time so it was ok to like it. I was instantly a fan. I liked the clothes they wore, I liked how Peter Tork held a bass guitar, loved the big tambourine wielded by Davy, the English Monkee who came from Manchester like my family did, and had the added attraction of not being very tall just like me. They were a perfect pop group for a twelve year old - they got involved in all sorts of mad capers and looked good with guitars. And one of them wore a woolly bobble hat just like the kid down the road. That kid’s hat went from being a thing of ridicule to being decidedly cool almost overnight - suddenly I wanted one and got my grandmother to start knitting.

I watched the show every Saturday. I looked forward to it. Debate raged all around, mostly amongst older people - who did they think they were these Monkees? Were they as good as the Beatles? I didn’t care, I just sang along - take the last train to Clarksville and I’ll meet you at the station - I had no idea where Clarksville was but I’d be there if only I could. Hey hey We’re The Monkees, I’m A Believer… 

I guess I should have stayed in bed my pillow wrapped around my head… 

I could relate to that - my life was a living teenage hell - I had a bad time at school and things weren’t much better at home. I wished I could live in the Monkees’ wild western world of pop, and wear clothes with fringes or double rows of buttons.

By the time the series ended in 1968 I was into the Jimi Hendrix Experience and early Pink Floyd. I started listening to John Peel’s radio show, Top Gear, and though I could never rebel completely against the top thirty singles chart, I was beginning to understand that some groups just weren’t cool, and that included the Monkees. The Monkees were a teenybopper group, as in not heavy, or even unlistenable. If the British gutter press was to be believed, they didn’t play on their own records, and word had it that they couldn’t even play their instruments. Definitely not cool.

Fortunately my pursuit of lofty and difficult listening didn’t last long, I learned to differentiate between great pop music and middle-of-the-road schlock and expanded my musical horizons to encompass anything from bubblegum to free jazz. 

I became an art student, first in Bristol and then in Hull where I was enrolled on the fine art (painting and sculpture) diploma or degree course. That was a wild time. There were parties where the only records that were played were by Bo Diddley, the Velvet Underground and the Monkees. We loved the Monkees. We formed a group, Addis & The Flip Tops, named after the Addis Flip Top kitchen rubbish bin that was the drum kit at our first rehearsal. To begin with we were called Johnny Part Time & The Ready-Mades, but that was changed to the Home Mades  because we’d concocted (I won’t say composed) a Monkees pastiche - Hey Hey We’re The Home Mades. That was as close as we ever got to playing a Monkees song, not that it was ever actually played - I don’t think it went further than being a scrawl on the back of a beermat. Which was probably just as well. We played Bo Diddley in the style of the Velvet Underground at art school dances. We would have liked to have been the Monkees complete with harmonies, outfits and madcap capers, but we were dirty, dissolute and unlistenable, and songs like theirs were musically beyond us.

A few years later, sometime in 1979 or 80, I was in the Stiff Records office when a tall, lean and vaguely familiar looking man walked in. He approached the receptionist and said he had an appointment. ‘My name’s Micky Dolenz,’ he said in that slightly high but unassuming voice. So he really existed! I didn’t get up and say hello or anything, that would have been too weird, and fraught with potential embarrassment. I just tried to act cool like it was the most normal thing ever for a childhood hero to suddenly materialise as a slightly older real human being. But I was shocked, shocked and stunned. Very stunned in fact.

A few years further on than that it was 1987, My life was impossibly dark and I had decided that for the good of all concerned I must never play music again because me playing music had brought nothing but misery to myself and anyone who had ever come in contact with it. I was having a nervous breakdown at the time but hadn’t quite realised it yet. 

At some point in the darkness I had a phone conversation with John Tobler who was a journalist at Music Week, the British music industry magazine. He said he’d been thinking about me because he’d just received a review copy of the Monkees comeback album and it had one of my songs on it. It seemed the Monkees had recorded a version of my song Whole Wide World. John gave me a number for the record label in Los Angeles, California, and instructed me to call and speak to Harold Bronsen, the director of Rhino Records. Harold was very pleased to hear from me and confirmed that the Monkees had indeed recorded Whole Wide World - Micky had sung it. Everybody loved the song. Me, I’d almost forgotten the song even existed.

They promised to send me a copy of the album. I was walking on air - making lists in my head: Last Train To Clarksville, I’m A Believer, Whole Wide World… They always had the best songwriters working for them: Goffin & King, Neil Diamond, Boyce & Hart, Me

A week later an LP sized package arrived in the post. I tore it open with great excitement. My excitement was tempered by the front cover. The album was called Pool It! and there was a photo of three - not four - guys in a swimming pool. Everything seemed to be shades of bright blue and bright yellow - eighties garishness at its most er… eighties.

There was a track listing - yes, and there was my track (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World with my name in brackets next to it - track number two on the first side, so that was good. And there was an inner sleeve with a list of musicians credits. Michael Nesmith wasn’t on it and that was a minor disappointment because I was a fan of the First National Band - and wasn’t he the one of the four who could really play? But the producer was Roger Bechirian and I really liked him - he did The Jesus Of Cool and Nick The Knife with Nick Lowe, and Jumpin’ In The Night by the Flamin’ Groovies, and got that big drum sound - so this was very good sign indeed. I noticed that one of the songs was written by the songwriting team Fairweather Page with whom I had briefly come into collision when Stiff Records decided that as I had no talent or ability for writing tunes they were putting that chore in the hands of industry professionals. It hadn’t gone well. So that wobbled me a bit.

I put the record on and it was ok. It was great in fact, hearing the unmistakeable voice of Micky Dolenz singing my words, my tune, with that great big beat behind it. I was almost lifted out of the swampy waters of depression in which I was slowly drowning. 

The album wasn’t particularly well received - it wasn’t one of their best - but I seem to remember they came over and played at Wembley Stadium. I didn’t go, I cracked up instead and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.

People told me that it was really good for my career that the Monkees had covered one of my songs but I never capitalised on it. By the time I was out of hospital and in what you might call circulation again, any heat that may have been generated had died down. I wouldn’t have known how to capitalise anyway, but I’ve always been immensely proud that the Monkees have recorded one of my songs. 

We saw that the surviving Monkees, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith, were doing a farewell tour. We’d been alerted to it by a Facebook post from their manager, Andrew Sandoval (who Amy knows), refuting some garbage claims that Michael Nesmith was a rock n roll slave, beset with dementia and being used to promote a tour of which he had no understanding or wish to participate in. We were quietly incensed by the idiocy of these claims and decided to see the tour for ourselves, so we got tickets for a show at the Tarrytown Music Hall.

Amy and I have always liked the Tarrytown Music Hall. We first went there to see Ian Hunter. I thought the place was called Terry Town and was quietly charmed by this, but disappointed when we got there to find it was just plain old Tarrytown. Tarrytown, New York. that was where we first met Ian Hunter, and subsequently saw Kris Kristofferson and later Steve Earle. 

Tarrytown Music Hall was my introduction to the crampiness of ageing American audiences - the barked order from behind when the act comes back on for an encore following a standing ovation - Sit Back Down! The dads who bring disinterested ten year old sons to concerts in order to expose them to good music, and to instruct them in the ways of rock: ‘Now, that guy carrying the guitar, he’s a roadie…’

Steve Earle launched into a speech concerning abortion rights. It went on for some considerable time and the atmosphere was…a little less than comfortable. You could hear the buzz and hum of amplifiers. Dissenting groans echoed around the hall, a commanding and flatly measured voice came from the back: 'JUST PLAY THE MUSIC' 

But much to my admiration he carried on...

An old guy in a mint green polo shirt, beige chinos with turn-ups, and large white trainers waddled down the aisle. In my imagination he looks more and more like an aged Homer Simpson. He waggled  a finger at the stage, yelled ‘You’re dead to me!’ and waddled out into the night.

The audience for the Monkees were a lot less uptight. I don’t think there was anyone in there under the age of fifty and everyone was wearing a mask.

The stage set up looked very promising - everything packed in close and businesslike - no giant video screens and no room for choreographed dancing, unicycles, giant balloons…

The lights went down and an announcement cam over the PA: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Monkees present the Mike and Micky Show’. Musician’s in silhouette clambered into position and two figures appeared in a spotlight to the side of the stage. 

It was them! Micky Dolenz in a long western coat, black hat, white shirt, Michael Nesmith looking almost scruffy by comparison in a brown velvet jacket with t shirt and black jeans, grey hair slicked back - a little frail but obviously pleased to be there.

They kicked off with Good Clean Fun and were soon into Last Train To Clarksville. The band were noticeably cool and very groovy. A relief because there’s so often an element of wrong in these things:

Steve Miller with a rhythm section who sounded like they’d never actually heard him before they got job, and possibly only got the job because for some reason nobody else wanted it.

Ricki Lee Jones with a technical metal guitar player.

Ari Up with a man on the bass who looked like he’d come round to put up a shelf and been co-opted into the band - 'Well. I can turn my hand to most things…’

Tommy James with a random collection of Shondells including a drummer who sounded as though he was building a shed, and a faux hawk sporting guitar player who looked as though he would have preferred to be home in his garage working on a custom car, and punctuated each song with a blistering and entirely inappropriate guitar solo.

The Mike & Micky Show didn’t have one of these. 

Two guitar players, one of whom always seem to be playing a twelve string, an understatedly brilliant bassist, a pedal steel player doubling on acoustic guitar, a keyboard player, drummer, and a magnificent woman who played percussion and sang vocal harmonies along with one of the guitarists and the keyboardist.

I was immediately struck by Micky’s casual tambourine playing. It seemed to me that the tambourine is the key to the man - he is effortlessly rhythmic in everything he does - in his singing, even in the way he moves across the stage there’s grace and rhythm. With a maraca in each hand I felt that he made them sing. When the band was introduced the fabulous percussionist and harmony vocalist turned out to be his sister, Coco Dolenz. 

It must be a family thing.

They performed hit after hit - songs I knew so well, others I’d forgotten but which were so familiar - and just as I thought they surely must have run out of hits they busted out another one. I had forgotten all about the Peter Tork song For Pete’s Sake and maybe never knew it by that title - in this generation, in this loving time we will make this world shine… it was the play-out music on the second series of the Monkees TV show. We were born to love one another and that’s something we all need…it wasn’t a hit single, but somehow it’s always there, in the ether.

At some point during the show Mike Nesmith made the point that the songwriters they were using , who were some of the very best America had to offer, were saying things in songs that were important and quite profound. He talked about how they were invited by their producers to participate, to share their ideas, but when Nesmith bought in songs he’d written they told him they didn’t need them - they’d already got that covered. One of these songs was Different Drum - he gave that one to Linda Ronstadt’s band, the Stone Poneys who had a huge hit with it. Suddenly they wanted his songs.

Micky talked about Nesmith encouraging the others to write songs because that’s where the money is. A timpani was bought on stage and Micky recalled being in London, England, and meeting the royal family.

Nesmith began to list them - ‘Arthur, Janice, Pat…’

‘No,’ said Micky, ‘the other royal family - the Beatles.’

The Beatles threw a party for the Monkees where Micky enjoyed himself a little too much and behaved badly. He went back to his hotel and wrote Randy Scouse Git / Alternate Title. He sang, played the timpani part, Mike did a wacky dance - perfect.

I could go on and on about the show but I feel I’m beginning to sound like a review in a regional newspaper, so I think I’ll stop. You get the idea anyway, and maybe you should go see them yourself if you can.

The Monkees are still often criticised or sidelined for not always playing the instruments on their records. As I understand it they had very little input on their first album and practically none on the second, but on their third album, Headquarters, from 1967, they played on all the tracks and had substantial songwriting credits. From then onwards they had artistic control. The Headquarters liner note begins with a statement: We aren’t the only musicians on this album, but the occasional extra bass or horn player played under our direction, so that this is all ours.

The Beach Boys never had to do this.

The Monkees crime against pop was that of being a manufactured group, and having a TV show. These things stygmatised them. But aren’t all groups manufactured in some way and to some extent? Double standards have prevailed - the Beatles have never had to seek forgiveness for that technicolour turd of a movie Help! - the Beach Boys have never had to justify the use of session men even though their main guy stayed at home and made the records while the band went on tour.

The Monkees quietly married pop to country with an unassuming psychedelic edge. They're a huge part of the fabric of popular music. And yet they haven’t even been inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame - arguably a dubious honour, but one which should be theirs. The Beatles are in it in spite of Help! and so are the Beach Boys even though they didn’t play on their own records to a much greater degree than the Monkees. 

While we were having dinner in a restaurant over the road before the show Amy was busy texting with her friend the manager/tour manager about the possibilities of meeting after the show. I was doubtful that this would happen given the circumstances and especially since the backstage at Tarrytown Music Hall is cramped at the best of times. I was utterly thrilled to bits when a text came through with a message from Micky about Whole Wide World: Tell Eric it’s a great, great song

After the show we met Micky Dolenz in the parking lot by the tour buses and had a masked conversation. He couldn’t have been more charming - he asked where we lived and where I came from, and waxed lyrical about Brighton where, he told us, he had directed his first documentary. He told me again how great Whole Wide World was and I thanked him for recording it and told him it means a lot to me that they did. He asked me what I thought of the show: ‘I absolutely loved it, I said, and then found myself saying ‘I was particularly struck by your tambourine playing.’ He looked crestfallen for a moment but he laughed and said he just taps the thing and tries to keep up. I said there was a whole lot more to it than that. I hope he understood the sincerity of the compliment. He fist bumped me three times.

I met Micky Dolenz. The twelve year old me is very impressed. The sixty-seven year old me is also quietly thrilled. I’m so happy that the two remaining Monkees are making such a good showing but I’m sad that it’s their farewell tour - I want to see them again. And again.