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Biography (part 23)


JULY 2019 TO DECEMBER 2019
On the 8th July my brother, Lawrie, rolled into London’s Trafalgar Square with his unofficial exhibition highlighting the plight of the homeless. Entitled ‘England’s Glory’ the display included a brilliant scaled up recreation of the iconic matchbox of the same name in which the sailing ship had been replaced by an image of a homeless person on the street. Surrounded by huge mock ups of spent matches it was eye-catching enough to attract a lot of attention from passers by. As a direct result of this Liverpool Art Gallery invited him to display on their premises and subsequently offered him their workshop to develop further ideas. The exhibition was witty, thought provoking and relevant - good one Lawrie!
The seventh anniversary of my liver transplant - the 12th of July - coincided with a celebration hosted by The Royal Free Hospital, of their 2000th transplant in the huge hospitality suites of Arsenal football ground. Melody and I attended and it was inspiring to listen to a couple of speakers who were celebrating two and three decades of life with their replacement livers. A buffet lunch was included and we got chatting to a hilarious Italian bongo player who was lucky enough to get a transplant twenty months ago. Looking around at the hundreds of happy celebrants there I turned to Melody and said, “Thirty years ago we’d all be dead.” Oh - I’m full of cheery thoughts.
Meanwhile Mike Pelanconi (aka Prince Fatty) had drafted me in as arranger on a session with the Jamaican singer and songwriter, Brushy One String, so called because he accompanies himself on a one string guitar. So on Tuesday 16th July I turned up at Fishmarket Studios in Dollis Hill not really knowing what to expect. Brushy arrived looking resplendent in a red suit and hat, followed by Mike’s regular rhythm section: Horseman (percussion and drums) and Judah (bass). I had already suggested we encourage Brushy to retune his guitar so that we were working in more than one key but his guitar was so clapped out that it resisted tuning entirely and resolutely remained in a key somewhere between D and C sharp. However he recorded six songs solo before he had to go for a BBC session and we chose appropriate grooves for each. However I understood that Brushy’s management hadn’t been clear to Brushy as to the purpose of the session (a new album) so the project had to be shelved for now. “These things happen, Man,” said Mike philosophically, “It wasn’t meant to be. But you’ll still be paid for your time.” Yes - disappointing. But fantastic to meet Brushy and, when he hits his stride in the studio and on stage he is a veritable one-man party!
I hadn’t been sleeping well for a good week or so as Thursday 18th July dawned. This was it: the day of the ‘Triple Header’ at The Kino in St. Leonards. Three solo pianists on one bill: Mick Bolton (Mott the Hoople; Dexy’s Midnight Runners), Mike Hatchard (Herbie Flowers) and me. Aargh! Incredibly nerve racking - discussing who should go on and in what order was like discussing a lottery to the scaffold. I suggested we all play together to start and then do the gig relay style by playing along with the previous performer before our each individual performance. I started my set with ‘James Booker’s Ghost’ which is one of my more complex and difficult pieces in the hope that that would break the ice for me. To a certain extent it worked though - in my second set - I did crumble half way through a performance of ‘Les Cloches de Paris’ but I could at least explain this away by likening it to the disaster that befell Notre Dame earlier in the year. The evening climaxed with all three of us playing ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ which sounded massive. All in all a challenging and enjoyable evening. You have to say yes to these things. I stayed the night with Russel Baker, the Kino’s owner and someone I have known since we both attended Castle Secondary School in Lancaster in the 1970’s. I was able to enjoy his collection of Russian Realist painters from the old Soviet Union which he collected on his journeys there before the collapse of Communism. Both of us reflected that our lives have been entirely unexpected given that our Secondary School was a place in which people struggled to get anywhere in life - it was the type of Comprehensive in which any type of aspiration in life was countered by career advisors saying ‘have you considered working in the Linoleum Industry?’ In the morning we drove back to the Kino to have breakfast with Simon Charterton (drummer extraordinaire and fellow U.E.A. reprobate) during which both Russel and Simon encouraged me to develop my raconteur/piano player act which is something they thought worked during my performance. Certainly food for thought. On my return to London I found the gate to my basement area broken into and my bicycle gone. Fuck! The bastards! Things like this are terribly depressing and the police clearly have far more important priorities to pursue so I just had to dust myself off and get on with it.
For my Summer holiday I had decided to eschew aeroplanes and booked a return ticket to Avignon on Eurostar where I planned to stay a week and - from there - take further trains to The Pyrenees where I had been invited to spend some days with friends at their converted mill there. I hadn’t visited Avignon since my attempt as a schoolboy of 17 to cycle to Morocco for a £10.00 bet. ( I got as far as Portbou in Spain before running out of money, lost the bet but - wow - what an experience.) Looking at the famous Pont d’Avignon the memories flooded back. That too was a baking hot Summer and I wondered a) How on earth did I do it? and b) was I entirely mad? My Air BnB flat was just behind the Place des Papes in the centre of this walled town and I spent a wonderful week sketching, visiting galleries, eating delicious food and meeting people who lived and worked there. Then it was to Perpignan where I was picked up by my friends and whisked straight to a Rodin exhibition before being taken into the mountains to spend a few days at their place. The experience of travelling so far by train felt like a return to simpler times. The experience of flying has become a bit of an ordeal whereas the train was so relaxing, the views spectacular and the journey back to London from Figueras took just thirteen hours with a two hour break in Avignon to take lunch at what had become my favourite restaurant there. I don’t want to preach but the journey should be regarded as part of a holiday and with global warming now undeniable it is a means of getting to places that I heartily recommend - in Europe anyway.


Then I took a trip to Suffolk to visit Cindy Engel in Fressingfield who has been helping me with my memoir, ‘Blue Goodnights’. The day I arrived we had dinner with Baz and Ruth (more U.E.A. connections) and the following morning we decided to cycle across the beautiful Suffolk countryside to a pub that advertised breakfasts. Unfortunately when we got there we found that they only served cake so we had to be happy with that; ten miles in the saddle on a slice of carrot cake but the consistently fabulous views kept us going. Back in Fressingfield I visited the local church whilst Cindy did some workshops where the warden talked volubly of Cromwell’s ‘vandals’ who had damaged much of the statutory and woodwork. Then with a resigned raising of the eyes to the rafters above he extended the scope of his complaints to the bats who get in via the belfry: “We are forever having to clean up their droppings,” he said with some irritation. Unable to resist the impulse to be slightly irritating I gave him a condoling stare full of brotherly love and sympathy and said in reverential tones, “All God’s creatures . . .” What fun!

Later that afternoon we drove to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast to visit a clients family who have a house there and who invited me to stay over if I was in the area. Both Cindy and I were quite overcome by the beauty of the place: a large house whose garden gate gave onto the beach that was filled with space, artworks and the most extraordinary views. I said my goodbyes to Cindy and was treated to a fish and chip supper and watched - with the children - a Children’s Film Foundation film shot in 1972 in Camden which was fascinating. Camden and the Regents Canal a litter strewn mess full of derelict buildings and waste ground which made for a perfect location in which slightly scruffy children thwarted villains on their Chopper bikes (remember those - I never actually got one!). In the morning I had tea on the deserted beach still in dressing gown and pyjamas with my hostess, Elinor. Absolutely breathtaking views and a great way to start any day. Elinor told me about Maggie Hambling, the local artist who created the controversial Shell sculpture on the beach there. At the annual fair in which there is a float competition Maggie and her rebellious artist friends generally get one together at the last minute which flouts all the local mores. Cross dressing, smoking and drinking and baleful stares at the conservative local populace is the sum total of their display which generally succeeds in stirring up a little quiet outrage amongst the ‘upright citizens of Aldeburgh’. After lunch, Alex, my host gleefully drove me to the nearest railway station, Saxmundham, in his Mercedes convertible for the journey back to London. All in all a great Summer break.
The following day, the first day of September, I was invited to The Grafton Arms in Kentish Town to help celebrate the birthday of one of my first teaching clients, Diana Baynes whose son and daughter, Joe and Daniella, I taught and whose husband Jeff encouraged me to write - and then directed - ‘The Beginners Guide to Boogie and Blues Piano’. I had the pleasure of telling Daniella’s daughter, aged 4. that I taught her mum when she was the same age. Wow! That is a bit of a reality check.
The following weekend Steve Hackett came over from France for Maria Tuck’s sixtieth birthday celebrations and rented out Jody’s place in Brighton as a base. Jody rang me from Devon where she was having a quick break and suggested we surprise them so I whizzed down there and met them all there, in Brighton and went for a meal. I stayed the night and returned for the party the following day. The party was held at The Coal Shed in Manor House which is situated on a promontory between two reservoirs - a stretch of pure nature amongst the tower blocks that are visible in the distance on all sides. Again it was lovely to see so many of ‘our gang’ from U.E.A. Mary Sparrow told me that - had her twins been boys - she would have named them Louis and Jim after me and Jim Reilly, fellow founder of Hackney Five-0 and it is difficult to conceive of anything more flattering (however the twins were girls!). Jem (Bass player of Serious Drinking) sympathised with me on the loss of my bicycle telling me the same thing had happened to him, “. . . so I bought a shit one so that nobody would want it”; “Did you buy a shit mobile as well?”; he flashed a very shit mobile at me triumphantly and continued, “I also shat my pants so that no-one would want them either”; ‘Well - I vomited on my shirt . . .” And so on!
The Silencerz (often ‘featuring Lee Thompson ‘) had asked me to deputise on keyboards for a gig at Islington Assembly Rooms on the 11th September so after finishing teaching I dashed there on my (new) bike with a pair of very good new locks! The event was organised by Islington Council; their ‘Worker of the Year’ Awards and you can bet that the nominees didn’t include any dustbin men (or am I being too cynical?). The gig was good and it was an early one so I was back home by ten o clock. Driven increasingly mad by the lies perpetrated by our ruling class I painted a picture of a London double decker bus with the slogan ‘Give the billions wasted on Brexit to the NHS’ on its side. This I posted to Facebook. We all have to do our bit!
On Saturday 12th October I cycled down to The Cinema Museum in Kennington - which was formally the workhouse that Charlie Chaplin knew as home - to utilise my ‘Blinking Buzzard’ membership (The Buster Keaton fan club). We watched one of his masterpieces, ‘Steamboat Bill’ in the tiny, packed screening room which I sketched before the film started. I heartily recommend this place crammed to the rafters as it is with movie memorabilia; it is struggling to survive as well so any reader out there who has a bit of cash they have no idea what to do with could do worse than make a donation. When I returned I played a birthday party for my neighbour, Alan McCulloch who joined me on congas which was great fun. However as I left a young man said, “Oh the music was quite good actually,” as if that was the last thing you would expect from the look of me (I assume). Hoy, Son! Where were you in ’77? (mutter mutter).
The end of the month found me floored at The Festival Hall by a performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto at the frantic hands of Alexai Volodin. He was pouring with sweat from about ten minutes in and it was edge of the seat stuff watching him juggle his handkerchief with rapid chromatic runs and arpeggios and even finding precious seconds to wipe the keys dry at one point. A glorious piece of music and one that lives up to its reputation as a fearsome challenge to any piano virtuoso. Afterwards I went to stay at my Mum’s in Covent Garden. Her cat, Kotchka, die d that morning and she was understandably upset so I thought she could do with the company for the night.
I received an email on the 1st November from someone who seemed to be congratulating me on a photograph of me which he said was on display at The Photographer’s Gallery. I wondered if this was a spam email but thought I had better check it out all the same. And there it was. Even though I am saying so myself it is an incredible photo of me at The Colony Rooms in 2000 taken by Clancy Gebler Davies. The exhibition and accompanying book is titled ‘Shot in Soho - Love and Lawlessness in the Heart of London’. I am not sure if I represent the former or the latter (or both), but it was slightly disconcerting and just a little thrilling to see how comfortably I fitted in amongst the gangsters and ‘Ladies of the Night’ on display. The staff there were thrilled and gave me a 10% discount on the book ‘as you’ve paid to get in’. The exhibition runs until February if you fancy having a look.
The following week I took Melody to The Curzon in Soho to see Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ and I recommend seeing this in a cinema. It is a masterpiece - not so much a film as a life experience and a kind of elegy for everyone involved. A friend of mine, Benedicte Larrere had invited me to The French House around the corner to celebrate her birthday so I went straight there, pushing through the red-nosed Soho-ites in the main bar (it is one of the last outposts of the Soho of legend) to a private room upstairs. Benedicte, looking very French (well she is), greeted me warmly and I should have anticipated the arrival of R n B guitarist Daniel Jeanrenaud who turned up to play a few songs. I have played with Daniel many times and it was good to see his rakish grin and hear his bon mots which - this time - mourned the fact that “with people like me women seem to want to save me from myself and when they succeed they don’t like the results. This is the story of my life,” and all with a classic Gaelic shrug.
It is a tragedy that Maida Vale Studios are slated for being closed down because the sound in those rooms is nothing short of superb being primarily designed as recording studios. I went there on Friday 13th November to hear a performance of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony which I love. His orchestrations are sublime and I found myself gagging with emotion as it reached its climax. One of the great bonuses of living in London is the opportunity to apply for free tickets to these events - long live the BBC.
In the meantime I had a surprise call from Clive Langer, the man behind the desk for so many classic albums and tracks by, amongst many others, Madness, Dexy’s, and David Bowie not to mention his co-write of ‘Shipbuilding’ with Elvis Costello which, for my money, is one of the great political songs of our era. He asked me if I would be interested in helping him M.D. a cabaret performance at The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) later in the month. Of course I said yes . . . and then wondered what I was in for. The date - the 27th November - was looming fast and I had a couple of get togethers with Clive at my house where I mapped out chord charts for songs such as ‘Cabaret’, ‘Falling in Love Again’, ‘Alabama Song’ and ‘Mein Herr’. Clive admitted he was out of his depth (‘I’m a pop man’) so I was handed the responsibility of directing the whole thing which in itself was daunting. But when you added to this the list of performers who would be involved, including Suggs, Bettie Bright, Siobhan Fahey (Twisted Sister), Rhoda Dakar, Mark Bedford (Madness’s bass player) and Max Ripple (Deaf School) besides Clive himself the prospect was more than daunting. We had a run through at Sugg’s house which was fun, if a little chaotic, and then one rehearsal at The Premises the day before the gig. I had spent a sleepless week writing string parts, distributing chord charts and all the other things you have to do to be as prepared as possible. At the rehearsal we were watched by Rob from RIBA who had commissioned Clive to supply the Cabaret and who was a self confessed perfectionist. Talk about pressure! I sat at the grand piano for four hours straight at the rehearsal only realising afterwards that, such had been my preoccupation, I hadn’t even had a glass of water. The idea was that we recreate the kind of cabaret popular in 1920’s Berlin during the Weimar Republic as RIBA had invited a speaker who was a world expert in Weimar Architecture to speak; in short it was to be a themed evening. The gig took place at RIBA’s impressive building on Portland Place and the activity backstage resembled one of those frantic ‘Let’s put a show on’ musicals that Hollywood produced in the 1930’s and 40’s. One of the singers had had flu and I needed to drop the key of one of the songs by a semi-tone whilst trying to put white face clown make up on. I kind of knew it was going to be alright when Rhoda - in full character and top hat and tails tottered down the central aisle of the auditorium to the stage as I played an extended intro. to ‘Wilkommen’. Yes - we were off! It turned out to be an extraordinary performance. Given how little we had had the opportunity to rehearse it was never going to be flawless but the sheer amount of talent onstage coupled with the amount of adrenaline flying around made it, by all accounts, a very authentic and enjoyable experience. And we, the performers, were as high as kites by the time we played ‘What a Way to End it All’ by Deaf School which seemed to fit in perfectly with the decadent theme of the night. Rob - our commissioner - said afterwards “Because I’m a perfectionist I was saying to myself “No - that’s not right, that’s not right, but it didn’t matter! It was all fantastic!” I got a taxi home and apologised to the driver for still having my make-up on. He looked at me morosely and said “It makes my life more interesting,” without cracking even the ghost of a smile and that was the sum of our conversation all the way home. Clive was good enough to say “You’ve saved my life!” (though I think he was a little drunk at the time) and generously gave me his fee for all the work I’d done. Thank you Clive. And thank you for the opportunity!
The following morning I managed a quick swim before dashing down to Brixton for a rehearsal with Rhoda Dakar in preparation for the weekends House of Fun gig in Minehead. Great to see Paul Tadman on bass duties who had flown over from his (relatively) new home in France especially for the gig. Still in Musical Director mode I had written a horn line for the new song ‘Mansplaining’ for Terry Edwards to play - it was now ready to debut at the gig. On Saturday morning I was the first to be picked up by Bill Lewington who was on drivers duty. This meant that by the time we had picked everyone up and actually headed for the outskirts of London I had already been in the van for three hours. I will repeat once again - ‘Oh - the glamour’. We arrived at Butlins around four hours later as dusk descended and found - to our great delight - that we had been given two houses (!) to stay in: top of the range for Butlins with en-suite bathrooms, a large living room with wide screen television and a terrace/balcony giving out onto a duck pond. So without any irony whatsoever: oh - the glamour! Before the Madness gig - their second of the weekend - we had time for dinner. Although there were jewels in Madness’s set I was told that the brilliance of the previous night’s performance may have exhausted them a bit. To me they sounded a little tired and ‘ploddy’. But, as I know very well, you can’t win them all. I then dashed off to the Centre Stage to see The Undertones who I last saw in 1978 at a tiny Norwich nightclub called ‘Peoples’. They were utterly brilliant - the best band I have seen in years! The following morning seeing Damien O’Neill at breakfast I complimented him and told him my theory that The Undertones and Buzzcocks wrote the best pure pop of the punk era; Buzzcocks were tight and punchy whilst The Undertones had more swagger. “And all your chord sequences” I raved, “like Ab to C to Db.” He grinned and said, “Oh I wouldn’t know about all that - chords and stuff.” I stood there: open mouthed. I went for a walk across the bay to Minehead harbour and painted a boat there taking a little shelter from the freezing wind between the harbour walls. I returned via the ‘Christmas Fair’ in the one main street of Minehead itself. Summed up by a rake-thin Santa with a megaphone, soliciting business for a D.I.Y. store and a Ghost Train that had just one customer this was a very english delight. The customer on the ghost train was a little toddler who was led out of it weeping with fright. “Oh Bless’” said a lady standing next to me, “Mind you - that’s what ghost trains are for. It’s certainly done its job there.” We were on stage at 7.00 pm and the set was great in front of an appreciative but exhausted-by-the-entire-weekend crowd. Then the long, long drive back. I finally crawled gratefully into bed at five in the morning.
The General Election on Friday 13th December proved to be a landslide victory for the Conservative Party. Apart from remaining unaccountable for an Austerity policy that has rendered this Government morally bankrupt, it will result in a Brexit that - far from ‘liberating’ us - will curtail our freedom to live and work in Europe which is a completely unnecessary by-product of Conservative in fighting. This is particularly bad for us - Musicians. In my opinion we needed Europe to protect us from our own politicians of the ever more powerful right wing persuasion. Look at ‘workers rights’ for instance which Boris Johnson has already shelved for ‘later’. What I would like from all our politicians in the new decade is a bit of honesty. ‘Populism’ seems to equate with lying and ‘fake news’ and I, for one, am sick of it.
Looking for screws for Melody’s new wardrobe my local hardware store referred me to ‘Clerkenwell Screws’. The assistant looked me earnestly in the eyes and said “An incredible place.” I said “Really?” and he nodded reverently. Clearly this was the Xanadu of screw shops. On arriving there it didn’t look anything particularly special. It was a screw shop in Clerkenwell. On entering I noticed a be-suited fellow customer who smiled at me and indicated that I should be served first. I was impressed at the speed with which the assistant found the size and colour (black) of the screws I needed. My fellow customer said, “And this is just the beginning.” He nodded in the direction of two dark doorways at the back of the shop: “It’s a labyrinth back there. I’ve been coming here for twenty years and they’ve never let me down.” He had the same passionate religious fervour in his expression that my local shop assistant had displayed. So, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: ‘Clerkenwell Screws’.
Chrissy Boy Foreman rang me that same afternoon and invited me to see Madness at The Roundhouse that evening. We hadn’t seen each other for ages and we agreed it would be good to catch up at the after show party. At the venue the queue stretched down the road as far as the market and there was an air of Christmas celebration about the whole event. Madness ‘supported’ themselves, just six of them playing front of stage in a set of songs that they would have played in 1978 at - say - The Dublin Castle. Then after a short interval they emerged with horn section and percussionist (our Mez) and all the razzmatazz that they can now muster to play a wide ranging selection of their back catalogue from the last forty years. A fantastic show - this band do mean a lot to me as they do to so many others. Great to see Paul Annan, Mark Bedford, and Spider afterwards as well as - of course - Chris. I pointed out to him that he had been doing the school run now for fifty years: “Yeah, tell me about it,” he said, “Mathew [Chris’s eldest] is now forty one and his kid has had a kid.” Which makes Chrissy Boy Foreman a Great Grandfather. He still has the demeanour of a naughty schoolboy however (which is no bad thing).
Melody’s birthday meal was at ‘Benares’ in Berkeley Square (our favourite, Mere, was fully booked this year). Again here were tastes that were completely new to both of us. The ‘posh’ meal, like our Christmas trip to Paris has become our little tradition. Speaking of which we were on Eurostar en route to Paris two days later. Again we got a lovely Air BnB in Montmartre. However we found ourselves doing a lot a walking because of the continuing strikes in France; the Metro for instance was hardly open at all. The side effect of this was that our usual haunts, like Chez Prune on Canal St-Martin were beautifully tranquil.
And on New Years Eve, back home in my flat, I decided to try something different for the dawning of a new decade: complete silence; no television or radio. As the clock struck midnight some fireworks went off at the end of the street, followed by the sound of a dog barking in some distant garden. Then silence once more. So welcome . . . The Roaring Twenties?


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