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.


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Live Free And/Or Die

 

We went to New Hampshire for a couple of days. I’ve never been to New Hampshire before and going there explained a lot about why that is. I usually get to go to places because someone wants me to play there but I can’t imagine there’s much of an audience for someone like me in New Hampshire, and so far no one’s invited me and given me the opportunity to find out. I imagine folk singers would do well here, and lounge music might be as far as it goes in a jazz direction. I don’t think I heard music being played in any form in the whole time we were there.


We drove past a sign - Welcome to New Hampshire - with the New Hampshire strap line, slogan or motto Live Free Or Die underneath, and as if to underline the point an un-helmeted motorcyclist hurtled by, long hair blowing in the wind.

No one wore a mask. It seems they don’t consider it necessary because the incidence of Covid-19 has been very low in New Hampshire. i wonder if this is because New Hampshire is a very un-garrulous sort of place - people don’t bray at each other in New Hampshire so they aren’t spraying each other with spit-born droplets of deadly virus. I don’t think they even go out. There was nothing much to do in our little corner of New Hampshire except walk by the ocean and try to figure out a way to get to the beach by clambering across a thousand mossy rocks.


I quickly gave up on the quest for a decent cup of coffee on the first morning. We went to the nearest big town, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I didn’t hold out much hope and the coffee place I had pegged as the good one was closed for the day due to, according to the sign on the door, exceptional circumstances. We went to a cafe that was pretending to be German where I settled for a cup of sour black liquid and a catalogue danish pastry from the freezer to table range. The breakfast of depressives.


It was strange spending a night away from home after all this time. Neither of us could sleep, even though New Hampshire was considerably cooler than the unbearably overheated upstate New York. It was nice to be in a room without a window-mounted air conditioner thrumming through the night. Instead there was an energy efficient heating and cooling unit high up on the wall, but although it was practically silent it had a huge illuminated temperature display that lit up the room with an eerie green glow and informed us that the temperature was still seventy-two degrees. After half an hour of trying to switch off the display we unplugged the unit and opened a window instead. Similarly the wall mounted TV had a red light that might have warned passing ships of the dangers of bedroom furniture. And in the kitchenette area a microwave with a digital clock display flashed on and off until I thought i might have an epileptic fit and got up to unplug the thing. It was a busy night.


It’s all good practice for going on tour. In the past few years I’ve wondered if each tour I was about to embark on might be my last. And suddenly there was no touring. I did one final show, in an ex-freight depot in Cambridge, New York. Two days later I felt - if not unwell - decidedly not myself. I called the covid helpline where they told me I didn’t have Covid because my symptoms didn’t fall into line with the official Covid symptoms as they were then. They told me I’d probably got a cold but I didn’t believe them so I quarantined anyway.

I felt better, and then I felt bad again, and this time I was able to go for a test. Two days later I was an official Covid victim. I felt exactly the same as I had the first time around, only this time the official symptoms had been brought into line with how I was feeling. I quarantined again. I felt better again, and then i felt worse - worse in fact than I’ve ever felt in my life - and one day after a few days of feeling utterly weird, and not being able to walk round the block without collapsing, my arms. legs and head were suddenly detached from whatever was left of me and making their own peculiar and fuzzy nonsense. I was riding along with Amy in her car at the time. She took me to the emergency room where they confirmed what Amy thought and I refused to believe - I was having a heart attack.


So now the lung damage that caused the deoxygenated blood to clog up and damage my heart (40% blocked on one side, 100% on the other) is all repaired - I’ve made a full recovery. My cholesterol level is exactly where it should be, my blood pressure and heart rate are perfect and I’m fit and healthy and ready to tour my ass off. I still feel breathless, I still get unreasonably tired, I have a loose and intermittent cough, and need eight hours sleep where five used to be plenty, and all this has been attributed to Long Haul Covid which I’m not going to argue with as it seems there’s no other explanation, especially as I’m now off most of the post heart attack medication.

Yes, I’m ready to tour my ass off - but that’s just bravado. The truth is I’ve never felt less ready or able, and the Delta Variant threat is adding an extra twist of hilarity. I’ve been trying to get in training for it. but as the weather has either been either excruciatingly hot or impossibly wet, walking or cycling hasn’t been an option so I’ve been going to the gym and clocking up miles on the treadmills. The gym really isn’t too bad - there never seem to be many people there. Older woman saunter on treadmills as they catch up with gossip, men of my age (and probably younger) put in time on the cross trainers wearing expressions of fearful determination because they’ve either been told they’ll have a heart attack if they don’t do something about it or they’ve already had one. And then there are the body builders and the body-beautiful people doing clever and esoteric stuff with the aid of benches and dumb bells. I wear headphones and zone out. I switch the TVs off, not just the one pertaining to my treadmill but the ones either side because I don’t want a home improvement show or Fox News flickering away in my peripheral vision. Sometimes, depending on what I’m listening to, I feel like I might be dancing on the treadmill but not when it’s Soft Machine Third.

For the rest of it I’ve been trying to figure out how my songs go. It’s amazing what an eighteen month lay off will do. Amy told me muscle memory would kick in but it hardly ever does. I get the first line and hit a void. I don’t think this is an effect of Long Covid, I think it’s just a standard feature of being me. I’ve had to re-learn everything. A strange process, elating and depressing by turns. One day I’ll be thinking that some of this stuff is pretty good, and other days I’ll be thoroughly dismayed and downhearted at how lame it all is. The other day it occurred to me that these songs are my life’s work, and then I started to think about all the great things other people have done during the pandemic. To be honest I’ve found some of them quite annoying in their relentless pursuit of creativity - writing a song or a sonnet every day, posting a track a week on Bandcamp - you know the kind of thing - it’s very laudable but it’s all in the shop window. There’s sometimes a depth to a certain amount of privacy. 


On a bad day it seems to me that all I’ve achieved during the pandemic is to forget my life’s work. That and figure out how, with a couple of deft snips, a Sweetwater sticker can be turned into one that says twat.


I easily forget that I've recorded countless tracks - songs, instrumentals, weird electronic doodles and so on - some of which might even see the light of day on a new album; and that I’ve recorded an album with our friend the poet, Karen Schoemer; and even recorded enough basic tracks with Amy to make up half an album. Apart from that I’ve been slacking off, daydreaming and forgetting stuff. I spent an inordinate amount of time packing up posters and sending them out to promoters though that of appears to have been a waste of time because half of them are undelivered, lost in the wreckage of the post-Trump US Mail Service.


I've also been called out for daring to suggest in one way or another that a certain aniti-vaxxing rock icon of the sixties and seventies would be a worthy recipient of the truncated Sweetwater sticker. I was told that I shouldn’t be in a creative industry.


think it’s time I got on with some work.


Friday, 27 August 2021

Charlie Watts 1941-2021

To begin with I took him for granted. The Rolling Stones made great records - that is their records got better and better - from Come On to I Wanna Be Your Man to Not Fade Away to It's All Over Now - better and better. I knew they had a drummer, you couldn’t miss him, the one sitting down at the back, sulky expression, hair not quite so à la mode as the others - but it took time to realise just how good he was. I was just getting started with music, I was nine years old when their first record came out.

Pop groups were a new thing. There wasn’t anything much to measure anything against. They always had a drummer - The Beatles had Ringo Starr, The Kinks had Mick Avory, the Who had Keith Moon, The Small Faces had Kenny Jones, The Yardbirds had Jim McCarty… they were all good but I didn’t know that yet.


Get Off My Cloud, Paint It Black, Have You Seen Your Mother?, Satisfaction


As the sixties progressed I was enamoured along with hundreds of others with the hyperactivity and dazzling dexterity of countless busy drummers. The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience exploded, Cream simultaneously impressed and bored the shit out of me, Bands skittered and skidded around, and frequently flew off the track, but through it all the Rolling Stones sat four square on the road, a big and powerful motor car rolling steadily through the night.


I’m really not sure that i should continue with the car metaphor, but if i did then Charlie Watts would have to be the engine. Or possibly the driver.

Let’s lose the car metaphor.


Records by the Rolling Stones were fundamentally more propulsive than records by other groups. Perhaps Creedence Clearwater Revival came close, and later Canvey island’s very own Dr Feelgood, but no other band possessed a drummer of such elegance, grace, sophistication and outright drive.

“Charlie’s good tonight,” Mick famously remarked on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!. The Stones were not always good but I don’t think they were ever let down by the drummer. I don’t know, but I can imagine that Charlie was good every night.


In his wonderful book, Life, Keith Richards recalled following the cables and locating Charlie ensconced behind his kit in a far-flung cellar under the chateau where they were recording Exile On Main Street. Charlie Watts, suit and tie, the day’s newspaper spread across the kit, kettle coming to the boil on a Primus stove by his side. On time and ready to keep time. No need for a conversation, Charlie would, I imagine, know exactly what to do and what not to do.


When the Rolling Stones celebrated an unprecedented twenty-five years Charlie summed it up as twenty years of waiting and five years of playing.

I often think of Charlie Watts making a drawing of the bed in his hotel room before he got into it to go to sleep.


In 1966 or ’67 he moved to Lewes in East Sussex, where I was currently suffering through school. Mick and Keith had been incarcerated in jail in Lewes pending sentencing following the 1967 drug bust. From the school playing fields you could just see the jail up there on the hill. I remember looking up at the prison in awe and disbelief. They were only there for two days but I think the local youth felt a special connection to the Stones, especially with the drummer living amongst us.


Charlie Watts house was a charming cottage on the end of Southover High Street. The cottage fronted the road and the front door opened directly onto the pavement. There was a bus stop just along the road. As a teenager I caught the bus a couple of stops along from his house and took a seat on the top deck with the express intention of looking down into the windows of his house.

Years later I became friends with Ian Dury. Ian was friends with Charlie’s wife, Shirley. They’d attended the Royal College Of Art together. Ian told me he used to visit them in Lewes. He talked about the bus stop, and how the bus would slow down outside the living room window and all these teenage boys would be looking down at them from the top deck. I shamefully admitted to having once been one of them, which Ian found highly amusing.


I wasn’t going to put that bit in but I was…you know, a fan. I still am, I love them. Occasionally I loathe them, I get exasperated by them, and then I fall in love with them all over again… because although they don’t know it, and it probably wouldn’t make a drop of difference to them if they did, they’re family - they’ve been in my life since I was a nine year old and they’re family.

I don’t know how you grieve for someone you’ve never met, and if it’s even appropriate. Charlie’s gone. The Stones will probably carry on until there are no Stones left. And then it’ll be the end of an era. I’m glad to have been around for it. Thank you Charlie - sorry about the bus stop thing. 


Wednesday, 4 August 2021

NYS Inspection - Good To Go

The truck needed an inspection. I took it along to the usual place where they were nice and a Hispanic American man used to take care of things. He isn’t there anymore. The whole cast of characters appears to have slowly changed along with the vibe. They have a reception now where once they had a grubby corner of the workshop. The reception is manned by a vicious-looking woman who has spent the pandemic wearing a mask under her bulbous nose. I think her sister, another bulbous under the nose mask women, works as the reception desk manner at the Family Health Clinic in Catskill where she has a Make America Great Again sticker cleverly concealed where you almost just can’t see it on the side of her filing cabinet.
There was a line of cars waiting to drive in for oil changes and to have tyres or bits of exhaust systems replaced. For New York State Inspections you used to have to leave the vehicle with them and come back later to get the good or bad news. I couldn’t get around them so I joined the line of cars and as the line wasn’t moving I got out of the truck and headed for the office where I told the the vicious woman I’d come for an inspection. She told me I had to join the line and there would be a three quarter hour wait. I asked if I could leave the truck with them. She looked at me as though I was crazy and said no.
When I got back to the truck a bossy young man with a clipboard was yelling at Amy (who had come in her car to give me a ride home). He was telling her I couldn’t leave a vehicle unattended. Nothing had moved while I was away so I don’t know what he was getting upset about. I told him I’d come for the inspection and that I usually just left it with them.
’Not anymore buddy. We can’t risk having people park their vehicles here. You’ll just have to wait. It’ll be about an hour.’
We left.
I looked for another inspection place. There was Mavis where they’re very nice, very professional, and when you come in for an oil change there’s always something they need to show you, and you leave three hours later in a daze having paid seven hundred dollars for something that it later transpires didn’t need doing after all. There was one other place, tucked away between a gas station and the freight line. i gave them a call.
The voice that answered didn’t seem to know what was what but somehow we established that they did New York State Inspections and the voice told me to come in at eight o’clock on Monday morning and tell them I’d called on Friday afternoon. No details were requested.
Monday morning rolled around and I rolled out of bed into my clothes and into the truck and drove it around to the garage. It was an old freight depot. It looked like a bit of a dump, but unless they’re part of a corporate chain with enough melamine and plastic to disguise the crappiness, these places often do. I walked into a large entrance hall - greasy wood, pegboard, grimy linoleum, with a counter to one side. There was no one there. I waited. A man burst through a door clutching some papers, walked purposefully across the entrance hall and disappeared through another door completely ignoring me. I waited a while longer and another man appeared from some gloomy recess. He busied himself behind the counter stapling papers together and consulting a screen. Gnarly, unshaven, thick lenses in silver aviator frames. A sign pinned to the tongue and groove behind him said Blessed Be The Name Of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
‘Wadda you want?’
I told him I’d come to get my truck inspected.
‘Keys?’
He walked outside with an angry ape-like walk and scampered around the truck, looking at it. I asked permission to come back later. When I returned after an hour or so the truck was parked in exactly the same place as before sporting a new inspection certificate - good for a whole year.
It took a while to pay because the card reader was on the same line as the phone and calls kept coming in.
He sighed, almost apologetic - ‘I have to get this.’
I’m good at joining in these situations - ‘I bet it never stops’ I said.
He laughed a frothy, unmasked laugh as though I’d said something hilarious.
‘You got that right boy!’

Friday, 9 July 2021

Yesterday Has Gone

 














Sixty-seven came as a shock. I used to be able to ignore my age, act like I was forty or possibly only thirty-seven, but since my heart attack I have to take medication morning and night - a twice daily reminder of the tenuous nature of my continuing existence. I wonder if I’m being had - am I a Big Pharma puppet? Three or four years ago, back when I was young, I didn’t even know what Big Pharma was. I’d quite possibly not even heard of it. I’m still not sure I know what it is, but it makes me think I sound as though I know what I’m talking about and that’s what us old folks do: we throw in the occasional word like Google or Interweb in the hope that we’ll delude ourselves into sounding like we haven’t completely lost touch.


And we’re hip to some pretty far out sounds too, like Radiohead and Dark Side Of The Moon. And sometimes we get a lucky break, a chance to impress a young hipster with our knowledge of The Yes Album or some other such nonsense.


I should be clear at this point - I was never much into Radiohead - some bands wear their cleverness like a badge of honour and I don’t like that. I prefer something more rabid, more visceral. I prefer the Troggs to Talking Heads. And I don’t go for too many words -  I’m more Donald Judd than I am Willem de Kooning. I’ll take a five minute opus and turn it into a one minute and twenty seven second perfect pop experience, but I’ll make one chord last for seven minutes.


And while I’m on the subject: the Pink Floyd left me behind with the album with the cow on the front cover - Atom Heart Mother - though I do like Fat Old Sun. The first thing the Floyd did that really disappointed me was The Nile Song. I’d loved them for sounding completely unlike anyone else, but suddenly they sounded utterly normal. This was around the time a friend of mine reported seeing them in the bar at the Brighton Dome where they were hanging out before a show drinking beer and talking about football. At the impressionable age of sixteen I found this deeply disconcerting - I wanted them to be above such things.


I feel I’m finally allowed to say these things, not that I didn’t say them before - I was a willful and contrary young man. I’ve skipped over adult maturity and gone straight from adolescence to elderhood and now I can say what the fuck I like. As I said before, the onset of old or older age has come as a shock, but I’m determined to make the most of it. I’ve been studying the bastards and I think I’ve got it down:

They say OOH when they get out of a chair and AAH when they sit back down again. They indicate the seat as they exit a vehicle, casually remarking: don’t worry about that, it’ll soon dry off. And on entering a vehicle they place a newspaper on the seat with the observation: I see you’ve had Mr Braithwaite in the car again.


They call it gallows humour but I’m not going to call it that, possibly for the same reason that I sometimes feel like kicking someone in the nuts for saying the word Tetris when I’m loading my car after a gig. It’s a cliche, a laziness - it’s not some mind boggling feat of utter genius to fit everything into the trunk or boot of a car when you’ve just done it for twenty-seven consecutive nights, anymore than I’m about to march up the steps to the gallows. I’m actually staring down a long shady road and at a distant destination. So that should be final destination humour and common sense. Though we could also lose the word humour here because the fun drops out of any situation once that word gets used.


I don’t know where I’m going with this but I think I’m done with the business of getting old - I’ve done it to death, so perhaps it’s time to move on.

I’m left thinking about The Long & Winding Road by the Beatles - one of those records that puts me in mind of wet Monday mornings. Before anyone accuses me of dissing the Beatles I should say it's mostly the fault of the schmaltzy Spectorian production. There’s nothing like an early morning orchestra to induce queasiness. The Long & Winding Road came out in 1970 and Tony Blackburn played it to death on his early morning show on Wonderful Radio One. I was sixteen at the time and the only reasons I could think of for going to school on those mornings was that there’d be girls there. And it might be better than spending a day at home in Peacehaven.

Because I’m all for rethinking my position these days I decided to watch Let It Be again. The accepted shorthand is that it’s a depressing end to a glittering career, a gloomy and largely unnecessary document of a bitter break up. I watched it while Amy was away. It was almost a guilty pleasure. Amy’s daughter, Hazel, who was staying with us at the time opted for staying in her room and watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So for an evening the house was full of grim and tacit disapproval tempered with gudging tolerence and a spirit of live and let live.

I really, really enjoyed Let It Be. I recognised the tedium of long recording sessions, the boredom, the waiting while someone thrashes out some musical technicality, the anxieties over direction and content, the edginess that creeps in before someone suggests taking a break and getting something to eat. And I saw four young men who knew each other well enough to not always treat each other gently. And the rooftop gig, a sonic harbinger of or precursor to shabby chic, was glorious and made me feel quite emotional.

I’m going to do some shows. I’ve been practising and preparing and I’m quite alarmed at how much I appear to have forgotten in the last year and a half. Not because of creeping dementia or something sinister of that nature - the truth is the only information I’ve ever been able to retain in my head is useless stuff about obscure bands and pop records of the sixties and seventies. I could tell you all about Yesterday Has Gone by Cupid’s Inspiration on the NEMS label with featured vocalist Terry Rice-Milton, or that the b side of Baby Come Back by the Equals is Hold Me Closer and how there was a newspaper article about them back in the day where they said that Baby Come Back was done in one take and they didn’t even know the tape was rolling….I can’t remember what newspaper that was in but you get the idea. It could be my specialist subject if ever I was stupid enough to go on Mastermind. But for anything more up to date and topical like what did I do last week? or what the fuck did I just walk into this room for? my mind is a blank. I could read the same book or watch the same film over and over and it would still only invoke a frisson of some book or film that I can’t quite bring to mind.

So where was I? You thought I’d lost the thread didn’t you? But I haven’t, I’ve just forgotten how the songs go. I’m spending hours trying to work out lost chords and second guessing myself, and being alternately amazed by my utter brilliance and dumbfounded and downcast by my complete lack of any obvious talent or ability.


It’s a rollercoaster, it really is. I’ve taken to writing the songs down in a large notebook with the chords pencilled in on top. Just in case, because I can’t keep going through this every time there’s a pandemic. Or a hiatus. I could type and tap them out on the computer but that wouldn’t help me to learn them the way that drawing each word with an implement does.


The first lesson on my first day at an Art College was called Making Marks. That’s all there was to it, making marks - we’ve been doing that since the first human creature scratched a line on the wall of a cave. You can make a mark with a rock or a pencil, a stick or an aerosol can - you can maybe even make your mark with a computer, but I don’t think it’ll be memorable in the way it is when you scribble and scrawl and etch it out with an implement.

Computerising the lyrics to my songs would be a step along the way to printing them all out and putting them all in a ring file binder and placing them on a music stand…I can’t allow that to happen. Don’t get me started on the music stand brigade.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Lew Lewis 1953 - 2021


The following piece isn't meant as an obituary or a tribute, it’s a piece about Lew Lewis, about my intersection with Lew, and about the times in general.


I first met Lew Lewis in 1976. I knew about him - he played the harmonica with Eddie & The Hot Rods, except when I saw them in Hull in February 1976 there were only four of them and none of them was Lew.

I met Lew in the bar of the Victoria Theatre in London at a Graham Parker & The Rumour show. I’d just recorded Whole Wide World for Stiff Records. I'd just met Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood and that was a big deal - Lee had funded Stiff Records start-up with £400 and a camera so he was obviously interested in what what was going on. He walked up to me, said: ‘Hello Eric, my name’s Lee Brilleaux, I’ve heard a lot of good things about you and I’m very pleased to meet you.’ He was forthright and gentlemanly. I nearly fell through the floor because I’d been a fan since the day their first album came out - Dr Feelgood were gods to me. 


Lew was Lee’s designated driver for the evening. He’d made a record for Stiff too - Boogie On The Street / Caravan Man. It was already out and I’d been playing it to death for weeks. It was apparently recorded straight to two track on a Revox tape machine in the Feelgoods headquarters and rehearsal place. Boogie On The Street sounded like Canned Heat reinvented as a garage band. I’ve always been puzzled as to why it was the A side because the B side, Caravan Man is utterly groovy and there’s enough of it for Caravan Man Parts 1 & 2. It’s a crazy record - frenetic and vaguely formless, r n b meets uptown dub in a downtown Canvey Island setting with one ranted verse that I’ve never even begun to decipher in forty four years.


Lew was scary (at least to me he was, but I was scared of everyone back then). He was wiry, tense and twitchy and spoke in frenetic and violent bursts that echoed his harmonica playing. He vibrated with an unseen electrical energy, looking this way and that in all directions at once. There was a suggestion of flick knives, knuckle dusters, the seemy side of the race track, and dodgy deals done late at night at all-night card games. A dark and frightening but tantalizing world that I was not privy too. And yet he was an absolute gentleman and we somehow hit it off.

I asked him why he was no longer a member of Eddie & The Hot Rods. He stopped vibrating for a moment, snarled, said: ‘Barrie Masters can’t do this’ and proceeded to backflip his way down the length of the bar and back.


I didn’t see Lew again for a while - things got busy and he didn’t last long on Stiff Records. When Jake Riviera left Stiff Records it ceased to be the renegade label of old even though it traded on that reputation for quite a while. But the truth is the new semi-corporate Stiff didn’t like artists that were a problem, and Lew was definitely one of those.

At some point I heard he was back at his old job working as a roofer.


Then there was the Lew Lewis Reformer. They made an album and were back on Stiff: Save The Wail - raw and exciting, everything that most Stiff Records weren’t by that time. Lew used the advance money to buy a long wheel base Transit van which he fitted out for touring. It had luxury seats and a special bracket above the windscreen to hold the biggest boombox I’d ever seen. They’d come by the Stiff office sometimes - zip in and out in Harrington jackets, Sta-Prest trousers and monkey boots, on their way to a gig in Harlow or Exeter or somewhere, always on the move, Caravan Man. The Lew Lewis Reformer appeared to have complete autonomy and I envied them that, but the sad truth is I don’t think anyone at the label really cared. 


Early in 1980 I did a show in France with the Lew Lewis Reformer, a TV special filmed at Olympia in Paris. It was a strange bill - Don Cherry was the headliner, I was in the middle and the Reformer opened the show. We flew in and our flight was delayed. Lew and his gang got there before us and hijacked my limousine - I was at the flashpoint of my brief pop star career at the time but I had to get a taxi from the airport. The Reformer had apparently flown from Southend in a privately owned plane. I was already completely outclassed.

Later we were in the backstage getting ready while Lew was on. There was a TV monitor and I was keeping one eye on the show. Lew stood at the microphone between songs: ‘This one’s called Do Just What You Want.’ He disappeared and his feet sailed across the screen. He arrived back in the shot blowing up a storm on the harmonica and I knew we lost the night before we’d even started. They were on that night and we weren’t - we’d had a week off so we were out of practice. Lew’s set was astonishing as it so often was. After the show he disappeared into the night. He arrived  back at the hotel at breakfast time, bedraggled, having slept under the Eiffel Tower after a night of unimaginable capers in the City Of Lights. 


We played another time in Paris with Lew, at a big festival somewhere in the suburbs - ZZ Top, Madness, Lene Lovich... I took a lower billing rather than follow him, and it seemed for a moment that I’d shot myself in the foot - they seemed tired and road weary. It just didn’t seem to be happening until Lee Brilleaux joined them for a monumental dual harmonica breakdown. That gave them the kick they needed - they were unbeatable and I knew I’d made the right decision.


Lew dropped out of sight and I heard he was back in the roofing game. His guitar player, Rick Taylor, asked me if I needed a band. If I’m honest I needed a band like I needed a hole in the head at the time - I had no record deal and the prospects weren’t looking good. But it was fun hanging out with Rick and then Lew's drummer, Buzz Barwell, came around and I had a bass player, and suddenly we were a band and we rehearsed and then we were out playing every night on a seemingly endless round of scuzzy gigs for diminishing returns - on the road to absolutely nowhere with no record deal and a suited idiot for a manager.

We were unstoppable of course but I couldn’t help sometimes thinking they’d be better with Lew at the front rather than me. We all had horrific and hilarious tales of life on the road. I loved hearing Rick and Buzz talking about life with Lew. It sounded like a waking nightmare but they only ever spoke of him with deep and abiding affection.

And then we dropped out of sight, and I dropped out of sight and the bottom dropped out of it all and I became a sound engineer and then I decided to give up the music business for good as we all do from time to time (that lasted for five minutes). And sometime in the middle of all that Lew had joined forces with Wilko Johnson. I saw them at Maidstone Technical College and it was like watching a pop-up lunatic asylum. When they started the audience - a collection of post-adolescent moustache growers - took a step back and stood transfixed. They were one of the most menacing outfits I’ve ever seen.

Time went on and Lew wasn’t playing with Wilko anymore which didn’t surprise me - backstage at Maidstone Technical College had been almost as entertaining as the show itself. The dressing room was a large empty classroom with chairs and benches lining the walls, and a vast expanse of parquet floor. The bass player lay sleeping on a bench in one corner, the drummer in the opposite corner. I sat with Lew in the third corner, with Wilko diagonally opposite. Wilko was at his most scary - it’s hard to align the funny, charming and garrulous Game Of Thrones Wilko of today with the Wilko from back then, imperious, unpredictable, eyes blazing… I was terrified of him.

That night in Maidstone could have served as a masterclass in why being in a band is not always a good idea, and what sometimes makes bands so great: Four people who can barely tolerate being in each other’s presence, some with fairly substantial personal issues and habits, forced to share the confines of a fast moving Transit van for hours at a stretch, shovelled into mundane and often squalid backstage rooms and overnight accommodations, and then, for an hour or so every night let loose onstage to do the business. The results are often spectacular but the cost can be very high indeed.


Lew fell off the map - or at least he fell off the map that I was busy falling off myself. I heard tales that may have been embellished as these things so often are: Lew burning the furniture to keep his family warm…answering the door to his piano player to find he was visiting in his official capacity as a VAT inspector…

The slope is slippery and once you’re on it there’s no telling how far you’re going fall or where you’re going to land. In my own case I was lucky enough to land on a ledge, and once rescue arrived the recovery was slow but fairly successful. I don’t really want to go into what happened to Lew because it’s not the way he should be remembered. He was driven to a most desperate edge and I think the system failed him. He needed help, he needed compassion. The system didn’t give him either.

To his enduring credit he came back from it. The last time I met Lew he was quieter - not subdued - but older and wiser with a gentleness that had never been immediately apparent. He got himself together - he even went and played in Japan (which is something I’ve never managed). I’m sad to see him gone but I’m glad that he made it through. I hope he found some inner peace.

Monday, 12 April 2021

A Right Royal Occasion

I imagine that my mother, wherever she is, will be very pleased. In the last year or so of her life, in the grip of dementia, she and Prince Philip became great friends. It started with a phone call from an aide at Buckingham Palace - he asked how she was and after an exchange of pleasantries he said the Queen would like to speak to her and would that be alright. My mother said ‘yes, that’d be fine, put her on’. The aide passed the phone to the Queen, she and my mother had a chat, and the Queen promised to keep in touch.

The Queen proved to be a bit flaky in that regard but Prince Philip, the Duke Of Edinburgh, was, in my mother’s words, an absolute brick - he called her regularly and they had great chats.
‘He’s not at all like you’d imagine’ she explained, ‘he calls me love…

I never met the Duke of Edinburgh myself, but he did once visit my school. I think he was coming to present a Duke Of Edinburgh Award or some such nonsense. I was sixteen at the time and full of a newly discovered and seething hatred for the establishment.

The Duke would be arriving by helicoptor and touching down on the rugby pitch. It was May and the weather had been intermittently sunny and wet so the grass on the rugby pitch was thick and luxurient. The groundsman, a simple and justifiably belligerant man who we called Happy Harry, was detailed off to mow the grass and paint a large H in a circle in the middle of of the pitch so the helicoptor pilot would know where to land.

There was huge excitement amongst the staff at the newly formed Priory Comprehensive School. The school was an amalgamation of the County Grammar School for Boys, the County Grammar School for Girls, and the Secondary Modern School, where the girls and boys who were not considered bright enough to merit an academic education had enjoyed being girls and boys together, along with woodwork classes, cookery classes, and plenty of evenings with no homework in which to watch Top Of The Pops.

The grammar school residue among the staff were particularly excited - they’d always tried to run things on the lines of a public school (as in Eton or Harrow), so a visit from a major league royal was something of a feather in the cap. The headmaster, the deputy head, heads of departments and the entire teaching staff along with a host of local dignitaries, the Lord and Lady Mayor, the local member of Parliament (the Right Honorable Tufton Beamish, Conservative) lined up along the edge of the rugby ready to greet the Prince as he walked from the helicoptor.

The helicoptor circled around high in the sky, positioned itself over the rugby field and swooped into its final descent. It landed fair and square on the temporary H in the circle. The rotor blades whipped up the wet grass clippings and sent them splattering into the faces of all and sundry.

It was one of the best days of my entire school life.