30.4.20

A VAGUE HAZE OF DELIRIUM CREEPS UP ON ME – My Passage To Melody Maker, Part 2




Over the years I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked how I got my job on Melody Maker. The simple answer is that I answered an ad in the back of the paper and went for an interview but there was much more to it than that, a culmination of events and circumstances rather than some long-held ambition of mine to join the staff of a music paper. Nevertheless, before I switched to MM, at the height of Beatlemania I can recall buying New Musical Express to read about The Beatles and thinking that their reporter, Chris Hutchins, must have a great life, but it didn’t occur to me to try to follow in his footsteps, not yet at least.
         These events and circumstances began slowly during 1968 but accelerated rapidly during the second half of 1969 and into 1970. Some came about through coincidence, some through my own actions and some through the actions of others, but I’m getting ahead of myself here and before recalling the decisive step I made in early 1969 I need to mention a chance encounter with the real music world that occurred during the late summer of the previous year.
         Towards the end of August I took my fortnight’s holiday from the Bradford newspaper to spend one week in London, then drive down to Devon for a second week, staying near Salcombe where the friend who accompanied me knew someone with access to boats. Before we went chasing mackerel in the Kingsbridge Estuary, however, we had an errand to run in London, to observe a group rehearsing and report back to a Yorkshireman who’d invested in them. John Roberts, who lived in Settle, north of Skipton, was a wealthy paper manufacturer considerably older than us who took a keen interest in jazz and rock. He’d invested £500 – about £9,000 in today’s money – in a group formed by Jon Anderson who before he travelled south had sang with The Warriors, a band from Accrington that John Roberts had befriended.
         The group, of course, was Yes. My friend and I watched them rehearse in a basement beneath the Lucky Horseshoe restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue where, as friends of their investor, Jon welcomed us and introduced us to the other members. The music we heard was a far cry than what I was used to playing in my covers bands in Yorkshire, very complex and skilful, and the songs seemed to go on for far longer than I’d encountered before, but it was all very professional and when we returned to Yorkshire we were able to report back to John Roberts that his money was probably safe.

Yes in 1968; photo by Barrie Wentzell, whom I would encounter on MM
         
         In London we stayed in a B&B on Sussex Gardens and used John Roberts’ introduction to gain entry to La Chasse Club on Wardour Street, a watering hole for the music industry. We were, of course, on the prowl for girls but our attempts at chatting up fell on stony ground with young women who preferred the company of long haired musicians to country bumpkins like us. Still, this was all very exciting, my first brush with the pop world, a far cry from magistrates courts and councils, and it made an indelible impression on me.
         I went back to Yorkshire, wrote more for The Swing Section in the T&A and was even persuaded by the editor to go undercover to report, not particularly successfully, on the use of illegal drugs in Bradford’s pubs and clubs. Then, early in 1969 the younger members of the staff on the paper were informed that its owner, Westminster Press, was launching a new evening newspaper in Slough and that anyone who wanted to work on it would be given relocation expenses and a pay rise. The first edition would be published on May 1.

My shock horror expose of drug use in Bradford

         Three of us from the T&A took up the offer, on my part because I fancied living away from home though I didn’t necessarily want to move away from my parents. There was no one incident that heralded a dramatic departure but I was feeling stifled and needed a change, and Slough was close to London where live music was plentiful. My mum didn’t want me to go and on the day I left, a sunny Easter Sunday, she became teary, as did I. But I was 22, old enough to make a break.
         For a month I lived above a pub on Eton High Street, watching the snotty schoolboys in their drape jackets and starched white collars who in a better world wouldn’t rule over us when they came of age. Then I found a flat in Slough above a hairdressing salon on Farnham Road, sharing with two girls, one a reporter from the paper, the other our lovely editorial secretary whose ambition was to become one. As soon as I was settled I drove up Yorkshire to retrieve my records and brown Dansette auto-change.

The first edition of the Slough Evening Mail 

         The work was much the same as it was in Bradford, courts, councils and committees, but there were two established weekly newspapers covering the same beat, the Slough Observer and Windsor & Eton Express, and their reporters didn’t appreciate us muscling in on their territory. There wasn’t any overt unpleasantness, just a sense that we weren’t really welcome. Also, aside from a massive upturn in my sex life – I was soon sharing my bed with the editorial secretary, whom I’ll refer to as JJ – I didn’t much like Slough. The circulation area took in Windsor and Maidenhead, both lovely Thameside towns, but Slough itself was a dump, epitomised by the Trading Estate across the road from our flat. Also, there wasn’t much opportunity for writing about music and no one on the paper’s hierarchy seemed inclined to remedy this.
         One weekend that summer I took my new girlfriend JJ up to Yorkshire and showed her the Dales. My mum was in hospital at the time with a recurrent back problem but JJ met my dad and Skipton friends of mine whose beer consumption noticeably alarmed her. Born and bred a southerner, JJ was a bit of a fish out of water in Skipton, admired for her looks but still an offcumden, as many of my pals called anyone born south of Sheffield. I don’t think she enjoyed the experience.
         Meanwhile, although I’d always been a Beatles and Stones man, another group was creeping up on me and in May they gave us Tommy. I’d admired The Who since I first saw them in 1965 on Ready Steady Go! and I’d already bought a few of their singles and the LPs Sell Out and Direct Hits, but this new LP, with its gatefold sleeve and dreamlike artwork, was something else again. To JJ’s mortification I played it endlessly on the Dansette. Among other things, Tommy told me I needed a proper stereo.
         After the first flush of romance with JJ, the honeymoon period, I began to realise I’d leapt into a comfy domestic situation without really thinking, from one extreme to the other after the relative celibacy of living at home. JJ didn’t share my enthusiasm for rock music and I was quietly relieved when she was offered a job in journalism on a paper in Harrow, which enabled us to drift gently apart. I left the place we’d shared and went to live at Englefield Green, near Egham, in a mansion in its own grounds that had been converted into funky flats. Here I shared space with a photographer, a draughtsman who worked on a Taylor Woodrow building site and a Jack-The-Lad travelling salesman who played the drums and somehow juggled two girlfriends, each ignorant of the other.


Forest Court, the converted mansion where I lived in Englefield Green. 
This photo was taken by me in 2018.

         The biggest story I covered on the Slough Evening Mail was when a gang of Hells Angels and their women occupied an empty mansion at Bray, close to the M4 near Maidenhead. Neighbours alerted the police after partying had gone on for a couple of days and there was a stand-off between the bikers and the cops that went badly, the issue resolved only after reinforcements were called. The Angels ended up in court at Maidenhead where their mates filled the public gallery after a parade around the town’s one-way system on their choppers, dozens of them, a real show of force, the whole pageant observed by a large crowd of nervous onlookers. I reported on it all and thought it was great fun, not an opinion shared by the magistrates who sentenced the ringleaders to jail terms. Much to my surprise, I discovered that Eton, of all places, was a hotbed of Angel activity.
         When I wasn’t working, usually covering much the same stories and events as I’d done for five years now, I was playing records and scheming. I went into London and bought myself a new guitar, a Gretsch, and a Dynatron stereo, two speakers at last. Each week I read Melody Maker. I befriended a guy who turned me on to Led Zeppelin and The Doors. I smoked my first joint. I went to a party in London where The Beatles’ White Album was playing and was given some acid, not realising until too late. I still don’t know how I drove home.
         Gradually, the vague haze of delirium was creeping up on me.


29.4.20

A VAGUE HAZE OF DELIRIUM CREEPS UP ON ME – My Passage To Melody Maker, Part 1

CC as DJ at Anderton's Bar in Skipton, sometime in 1968

According to the well-known cliché, today is the first day of the rest of your life. For most of us it’s not that different from yesterday or tomorrow and in the present Covid-19 lockdown not that different from the past few weeks or what May and June might bring, but 50 years ago this week there really was a day that profoundly signposted the rest of my life.
         I’ve always loved newspapers. Back in my hometown of Skipton when I was young my mum read the Daily Mirror and my dad the Yorkshire Post, and in the evenings the Telegraph & Argus, published in Bradford. I loved the Andy Capp cartoons in the Mirror and a writer who went by the pen name of Cassandra whose columns could be witty yet at the same time expose injustice and hypocrisy. Even today, three weeks shy of my 73rd birthday, I feel somehow deprived if I don’t spend an hour a day with my Guardian.
         It was my mum who encouraged me to read, drawing my attention to the columns by Cassandra when I was old enough to understand them. By the age of 12 I’d devoured Sherlock Holmes and moved on to her historical romances by Anya Seton, the Hilary Mantel of her day. Mum was a member of the Brontë Society and she took me to Haworth, the home of sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and out onto the moors where Heathcliff courted Cathy. On my bookshelves are mum’s pre-war editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, tiny hardbacks bound in red cloth and printed on paper flimsier than tissue, and a few others from the period, Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson, dated 1926 in her handwriting, and a collection of poems by Rupert Brooke, printed in 1917.


         
At boarding school the only subject in which I progressed was English and by the time I was 16 - the year my dad took me to see The Beatles in Bradford - I’d decided I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I left there a year later, pushed out by a headmaster who thought that playing the guitar and listening to The Beatles and Rolling Stones marked me down as disruptive and unlikely to pass any A-levels. He may have been right. I applied for a job on the local weekly paper, Skipton’s Craven Herald & Pioneer, went for an interview and started work there in September, 1964. It probably helped that my dad knew the editor but I don’t think I’d have got the job if he didn’t think I was up to it.
         I spent the next three and a half years as a reporter on the CH&P, an immensely happy period of my life. I played guitar in a local group, cover songs from the Beat Boom, and made many friends, some of them still friends today. Until I discovered the pleasures of the pub, I sat in a coffee bar and played the jukebox. I snogged girls and realised some were not averse to exploratory index fingers. I did a stint as a DJ at a local bar. I lived at home, walked to work at the CH&P offices every morning, and most days mum made me lunch at home. On Fridays I went on a day-release course at Bradford Tech to learn the tradecraft of journalism, how to subedit copy quickly, how to reduce 300 words of copy to 200 and not lose the meaning, how to interview, how to enliven dull press releases, how copyright, criminal courts and town councils worked. I learned to proof read, write shorthand and type, and there was an English course that took me to A-level standard, the set text Catcher In The Rye, so I absorbed alienation and anguish. It was drilled into me that the pinnacle of journalism was to work on Fleet Street in London.
         I reported from Skipton’s magistrates’ court where miscreants were fined for shoplifting, fighting or driving carelessly, and I made passing acquaintances with the town’s ne’er-do-wells and the lawyers who defended them. I visited the police station each morning and took down details of crimes committed in the last 24 hours, thefts of cars, break-ins and sheep rustling. I reported on council meetings where decisions were made to grant planning permissions, repair roads or relocate bus stops. I reported on the diamond wedding celebrations of elderly couples who were photographed holding their telegrams from the Queen. Little knowing what the future held, I reported on a concert in nearby Ilkley by the classical guitarist John Williams, my first ever music review.

The CH&P offices in Skipton High Street. 
There was a stationary shop on the ground floor, with reporters' offices above. 

         I also reported on potholing tragedies in which young men died underground when unexpected rainfall flooded the caverns they were exploring. These headline-grabbing stories attracted the attention of the national press which brought me into contact with reporters from national daily newspapers, usually from offices in Manchester, who arrived in the Dales wearing suits and ties and shiny shoes most unsuitable for trudging over the moors where the Cave Rescue Organisation, among them friends of mine, did their work. In my wellies and anorak, I sniggered at these daily reporters. It was my first inclination that I didn’t want to join them.
         Like just about everyone else on the course, I sailed through my journalism exams – I think there was a 90% pass rate so if you failed you were in the wrong job – and graduated to the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, commuting daily from Skipton by car. This was a big step up, a far more serious platform for my calling. The reporters’ room reeked of cigarette smoke, cheap perfume and deadline anxiety. At its centre was a large table at which we sat facing one another, like in a restaurant except that instead of place mats and cutlery there were manual typewriters, piles of blank copy paper, carbon paper and overflowing ashtrays. Alongside one wall were booths with phones to make calls away from the noise of the typewriters or people yelling. Downstairs in the basement huge printing presses started rumbling around noon and continued until late afternoon. It was exciting, at first anyway, a living thing, even if today’s paper wrapped tomorrow’s fish and chips.
         I worked shifts, sometimes quite late, calling the police, fire and ambulance on the hour until 2am and, when necessary, heading out into the night with a photographer to cover an accident or a fire. Once I had to knock on a door and request a photograph of a crash victim from a grieving family; perhaps in shock, perhaps needing company, they welcomed me into their home and spoke at length about the teenage son who lay in a mortuary.
         All the while, humming away in the background, my first love was pop music, by 1968 morphing into rock. Not many of my T&A colleagues shared this and I didn’t talk about it much at work, but through a chance conversation I discovered that the chief sub, Leon Hickman, was a music lover too. Together we approached the editor of the paper and suggested that the T&A might attract younger readers if half a page a week was devoted to a pop column, perhaps a review of a Bradford concert by a noted group, maybe some record reviews, or news of some local band’s tilt at success. To our delight he agreed. We called it The Swing Section and I began to write about music regularly for the first time.
         I wrote off to record companies in London requesting review copies of records but the response was patchy. The first LP I ever reviewed was Shine On Brightly by Procol Harum. I reviewed local shows by Marmalade Joe Cocker and The Move, speaking briefly to Roy Wood. On the phone from one of those booths in the reporters’ room I interviewed Jimmy Page who told me about the new group he’d formed called Led Zeppelin, and John Paul Jones came on the line too. I interviewed – and was besotted by – Sandie Shaw when she visited Bradford’s Grattan warehouse to promote a clothing line designed by her husband Jeff Banks. I wrote about how big groups often ignored Bradford when they toured the UK. I organised a beat group contest at a local disco and the winners were given an audition by Polydor Records. It wasn’t much but it was a start.
Sandie visits Bradford and my story about 'top groups' bypassing the city. 

25.4.20

RICHARD BRANSON AND THE BLACK SEA RESORT

In 1986, on behalf of Omnibus Press, I commissioned Artemy Troitsky, Russia’s best known rock critic, to write Back In The USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, an account of the history and development of rock music over the past 25 years in what was then the Soviet Union.
         After unravelling a great deal of red tape, the following year I was able to bring Artemy to the UK to promote the book, his first ever trip outside the USSR. Before he arrived, however, he asked me to arrange meetings with some of the UK’s most prominent rock figures, among them Richard Branson, then best known for Virgin Records, along with McCartney, U2, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno. As it happened, I was fairly well connected in those days and able to do this. Fortunately, they were all eager to meet Artemy, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps to learn something, perhaps to see a way to further their interests behind the Iron Curtain.
         Branson’s people arranged for Artemy and I to meet him an art gallery in Mount Street in Mayfair which had stayed open late specifically so he could shop there. When we arrived I noticed a chauffeur driven car waiting outside. The driver told me that his boss was inside the gallery but that we were expected and that if I rang the bell we would be admitted. This I did, and we were ushered inside and down a flight of stairs and into a dark and heavily fortified vault where Branson was gazing intently at a bejewelled figure of Buddha, very fat and about three feet high, illuminated with spots and perched on a pedestal. Hovering nearby was a man in a suit that I assumed was the gallery’s proprietor.
         Even though we hadn’t seen one another for years, Branson greeted me like a favourite uncle. I introduced him to Artemy. “I’m thinking of buying this Buddha,” he said. “What do you think?”
         The question was evidently directed at me. “How much is it?” I asked.
         “Three hundred and fifty thousand pounds.”
         “Well,” I said after a moment’s thought. “If I had three hundred and fifty thousand pounds to spare I certainly wouldn’t spend it on that.”
         Branson considered my response then, to my surprise, heeded my advice. Turning to the proprietor, he said: “My friend is right. I don’t think I’ll buy it.”
         The proprietor looked as if he wanted to kill me, but he didn’t, and we all trooped upstairs. Branson, Artemy and I found ourselves on the street. I proposed we go for a drink in a pub about 50 yards away and Branson agreed. The chauffeur followed us slowly in the car as we walked along the pavement.
         Once inside the pub I bought us all a beer and we settled down in a quiet corner. I opted to say nothing while Artemy and Branson chatted about the music scene in Russia, pretty inconsequential stuff I thought.
         The conversation took on a different hue, however, when Branson asked Artemy about the facilities at a particular resort on the Black Sea.
         Artemy smiled knowingly. “Ha ha ha. Do not go there,” he responded in his less than fluent English. “It’s very bad. Not much beach, bad hotels, smells from oil refinery. It is horrible place.”
         I sensed that Branson had been making inquiries about business opportunities in the leisure sector at Black Sea resorts and that this particular coastal town had been recommended to him by someone from the Kremlin. So the real reason he wanted to meet Artemy was to get some objective advice on this issue. “The man from the Kremlin told me it was lovely there,” he said.
         “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” said Artemy, echoing the delightful Mandy Rice-Davies. “He’s just trying to fool you. You will lose your money there.”
         “What should I do?”
         Artemy then told Branson about another, far better, Black Sea coastal area. “That’s where all the government and apparatchiks go with their wives,” he said. “It’s lovely there. No factories for miles. Very nice place. Tell your man at the Kremlin you want to go there.”
         “Thank you very much.”
         The conversation petered out after that and we went on our separate ways, but not before Branson had told Artemy that whenever he was next in London he could stay at any of the several houses he owned, largely in the Holland Park area. As far as I am aware Artemy never took him up on the offer. Either that or Branson forgot about it.

22.4.20

MY STINT AS MELODY MAKER’S MAN IN AMERICA, PART 17 – New York, December 1973-October 1974

By the middle of March I had been in America for over six months, working pretty much all the time without a break. There is a school of thought that might consider my ‘work’ as a form of leisure insofar as interviewing rock stars and watching them perform isn’t the most taxing of occupations and, indeed, for someone as partial to his rock and pop as I was, much of it was a pleasure. I will always consider myself tremendously lucky to have been on the staff of Melody Maker, let alone this position as US editor, and as a result never gave in to the temptation to become lazy. It would have been all too easy to do so when you’re left to your own initiative as I was in this role.
         When I applied for my American visa at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square in London last August I was given an ‘I’ visa, stamped ‘Multiple. Indefinite’, which meant I could enter and leave the US as many times as I wanted for as long as I wanted, or at least until my passport expired. It was the same as would have been issued to all foreign media whose publications paid for their expenses on American soil, like the BBC’s White House correspondent or New York correspondents for the UK’s national dailies.
         I was introduced to a few of these journalists at record company receptions but like most Fleet Street types in those days they were only interested in rock performers they classed as ‘celebrities’, like Beatles and Stones, and primarily with what might be termed scandals, usually involving drugs or abandoned wives. Once upon a time, before I arrived on MM, I had been taught that ‘Fleet Street’ was the pinnacle of this profession, the writing game, and I aspired to join them but now, older and a tiny bit wiser, that was no longer the case. I think I made the right decision.
         The only other British music writer who lived permanently in New York that I got on with was Ian Dove, who worked as a pop critic for the New York Times and as NY editor for music trade magazines like Billboard and Cash Box. Ian was a jazz fan really but he knew the New York music world as well as anyone I knew. Although he was one of nature’s born cynics I enjoyed his company and his advice. Another face I saw everywhere was Fred Kirby who wrote about rock and pop for Variety, the entertainments business trade paper that covered movies primarily but made room for music too. Fred, white haired and well fed, was a jolly old soul, a generation or two above me, and though his style of writing was strictly geared towards the dollars and cents end of the business he recognised a promising band when he saw one.
         But after six months it was time to take stock. To recap, in that time in America I had interviewed and/or reviewed and/or written about Jackson Browne, Dave Mason, The Carpenters, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Elton John, Tim Buckley, Ray Manzarek, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins, Richard Harris, Mott The Hoople, Sly Stone, Procol Harum, Jan & Dean, Nazareth, Van Morrison, Michael Ochs, Grand Funk Railroad, Glen Campbell, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Santana, Joe Walsh, The Who, The Faces, John Lennon, Iggy Pop, J Geils Band, Slade, The Beach Boys, ELP, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, ELO, Liza Minelli, Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Marshall Tucker Band, Maggie Bell, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, John McLaughlin, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Oak Arkansas, New York Dolls, Stephen Stills, Lou Reed, Yes, Brownsville Station and before the end of the month I would add Dr Hook and Rick Derringer to my tally. That’s over 50 acts. I certainly wasn’t being lazy.
         By now I had made myself thoroughly at home in the flat on 78th Street. It was effectively MM’s office in New York for up in Apartment 3D I tirelessly bashed out many thousands of words – interviews, reviews, news columns – every week on my small Olivetti portable typewriter. In one corner of the living room was a growing pile of Melody Makers; in another corner a stack of albums – by now I’d bought a stereo system, on expenses – hundreds of them; and stuck to the wall opposite my desk was a big blue quilt on which I pinned buttons and badges, backstage passes, invitations, concert tickets (rarely less than three shows a week) and bits of paper with phone numbers and scribbled notes reminding me of appointments. If I’d been out of town for a day or two the telephone answering service relayed messages galore when I returned.
The rate at which LPs now arrived soon eclipsed anything I could ever have dreamed about as a pop mad teenager back in North Yorkshire. As well as the teach yourself a foreign language LPs, Columbia’s five-star mailing list entitled me to 6-LP box sets of works by Beethoven and Mozart, dull as dishwater country records from Nashville, marching bands and Greek balalaika music, you name it, in addition to all the rock and pop from every other label, big and small. Also, I got duplicates of the good stuff, one LP from the record company, another from the act’s PR and sometimes even one from the management company if I happened to know someone who worked there. Soon the postman complained so I had to get myself a PO box at the nearest post office and go there once a week to pick them all up, then bring home all these packages in a cab as there were far too many to carry. Back at MM’s office in London, of course, all these LPs would have been shared out amongst the staff for review but in NY there was no one else to share them with so I got the lot – and I didn’t even have to review them. Another writer put me in touch with a shop in Brooklyn and once every two months or so a girl arrived at my apartment, looked through what I didn’t want and gave me a wad of $20 bills from a stash she kept in her cowboy boot. I usually spent the money she gave me on clothes or grass.
Over a late breakfast – freshly squeezed orange juice, home fries and scrambled egg on toast, and coffee – in the Greek coffee shop, I read whatever two-day-old English newspaper I could find at the newsagents on the other side of Madison. Then it was back to the flat to write or make phone calls. After that no day was ever the same, weekdays blurring into the weekend as rock’n’roll never stops.
My deadline was always Thursday afternoon, 3pm, when I delivered my weekly parcel to London to IPC’s office on 42nd Street, a packet of 20 or more sheets of A4 paper and usually some photos, often taken by my pal Bob Gruen. Also in the package were reports of shows sent in to me by a network of correspondents I had established in cities across the US. Each week they would call me about which shows they wanted to cover and I had to make sure we didn’t get two or more reviews of the same touring act.
The weekly parcel also contained a New York news column, always the last thing I wrote on Thursday mornings, compiled from press releases, anything I could crib from the Village Voice or other NY culture mags and my own wanderings around the city’s music spots. A good example of this was bumping into David Bowie at an after-show party following Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Carnegie Hall on February 19. I managed a quick word with David, whom I’d met once or twice in London, and my report of this sighting was typical of the items in my weekly New York news column. “Looking casual in blue denims he drank champagne with his companion Ava Cherry and fled when the flashbulbs began to irritate,” I wrote. Bob Gruen was on hand to photograph me sat at a table chatting with David.




It was time for me to take a two-week break, flying back to London in the last week of March. I asked my friend Steven Gaines, who wrote for Circus magazine, to take over as MM’s man in New York for the duration, writing a news column and sending reviews of shows back to London for me. He proved a good choice and for the next couple of years deputised for me as required.
         I found somewhere to stay in London for a few days, turned up at the MM office like the Prodigal Son, then went up to Yorkshire to see my dad and sister. Ten days later I flew back to the US and on to New Orleans for a few more day’s holiday, picking up my girlfriend Debbie in St Louis along the way. We stayed in the French Quarter, drank mint juleps and listened to jazz and R&B in bars and clubs along Bourbon Street. My best memory of that short break was surprising Debbie by speaking French to a maître d’ in a French restaurant.
         Then it was back to New York and 78th Street but I’ll take a break from these memoirs for now while I assemble my thoughts on the rest of the year.
        

21.4.20

MY STINT AS MELODY MAKER’S MAN IN AMERICA, PART 16 – New York, December 1973-October 1974

“Why would I want to see Bob Dylan? I know what he looks like and he’s too short to see anyway?”
         I thought it was a reasonable question, Bob being the talk of the town after his Madison Square Garden shows. Lou Reed thought otherwise. I had been warned that he could be contrary. Observing the instructions that Gina had conveyed to me from Mr Coleman, I had set up an interview with Mr Reed that took place in late February. Although I knew all about the rise and fall of the Velvets and had made the acquaintance of John Cale – not something I mentioned by the way, perhaps wisely – I wasn’t really prepared for the taciturn ill will with which Lou approached the interview.
         Lou faced me from the far end of a long table on the 37th floor of a Park Avenue office block facing north that commanded an expansive view of Central Park with Harlem way out in the distance. It was a cold day with snow on the ground, as it often is at this time of the year in New York, and Lou was as cold as the weather. He sat in a director’s swivel chair and looked uncomfortable. I had been told that sometimes he brought a friend along to interviews to smooth out the atmosphere and encourage conversation but when we met no such friend was available and he seemed a little lost for words, and rather than say something he didn’t want to say, he simply didn’t say anything at all. As the years rolled by he became more and more famous for his aloof behaviour towards journalists sent to interview him and, the difficult Dylan question aside, I think I got off quite lightly in the end.
         ‘His appearance has changed yet again,’ I wrote. ‘Today, and for at least the next few weeks, he has very short hair, almost a crew-cut, dyed black, and without any growth at all descending below the height of his ears. Last week he had Iron Crosses dyed into the back, but they’ve gone today. He looks, in fact, rather like a convict or a soldier. He is very thin. His blue denim jacket tends to drop off his shoulders and his jeans would be tight on others if not on him. He talks very quietly. Also very little.’
         On his appearance, Reed said he altered it continually through boredom. “I found I couldn’t really solve the boredom by changing my appearance but at least I could stop some of the hassle. I don’t have to comb my hair now because there isn’t enough of it.”
We talked about his current band, a recent live album and where his career was headed. I mentioned David Bowie. “He’s very clever,” Lou admitted. “We found we had a lot of things in common.”
I suggested his career took an uplift as a result of his flirtation with Bowie. “David learned how to be hip,” he replied with a glint in his eye. He wasn’t about to admit that Bowie’s patronage had in any way contributed to his career upswing. “Associating with me brought his name out to a lot more people, too. He’s very good in the studio. In a manner of speaking he produced an album for me.”
He was disparaging about other artists, mentioning that when he played London’s Rainbow on his last UK tour he kept thinking about how Frank Zappa was pushed into the orchestra pit, an incident I happened to witness. I mentioned to Lou that I’d actually seen the fan barge into Zappa and push him over. Lou thought for a moment. “I hate Frank Zappa,” he said. “It made me so happy to think about that.”
For no apparent reason, Reed next launched into a seething criticism of Jefferson Airplane, expressing the view that they represented the worst in everything, both musically and ideally. “I hate everything about them, the way they dress, the way they look, the way they play, the cute name. I despise every San Francisco group except Moby Grape and they broke up.”
It was then that I asked him whether he’d been to see Bob Dylan on his recent tour. “Are you kidding?” he replied, evidently shocked that I had the insolence to ask such a question. “Why would I want to see Bob Dylan. I know what Bob Dylan looks like and he’s too short to see anyway. I saw the back of his head once. I didn’t want to go to see him, especially if he is giving his money to Israel. If he gave some to Israel and some to the Arabs it would be different.”
We moved on to the New York Dolls, the sort of group I imagined he would like. “You know, I tried so hard to like the Dolls but I couldn’t. I like the titles of their songs. It’s such a shame. They’re just another glitter trash band.” Then, inexplicably, he launched into a tribute to Fats Domino. “I’m still mad that Fats never made it properly. He could have been a blues artist in the tradition of Bessie Smith.”
And with that last comment, Reed offered a limp handshake and disappeared into the afternoon.
In time I my relationship with Lou, at least when I wasn’t interviewing him, became less frosty and a couple of years down the line he gave me two television sets, but that’s another story.

In March Yes came town, bringing with them Harvey Goldsmith, London’s top rock promoter whom I knew well. I was invited to a get-together at their hotel where Harvey collared me and asked which American acts he should bring to London this year. “Bruce Springsteen,” I replied without hesitation.
         Later in the year, in July, Harvey would return to New York and I would take him to see Bruce at the Bottom Line, courtesy of my friend Peter Philbin, my man at Columbia International. It would be another year before Bruce made his celebrated London debut at the Hammersmith Odeon, a show promoted by Harvey. I wasn’t there, of course, but I sometimes think about the small part I played in bringing Bruce to the UK.
         The get-together in Yes’ hotel suite was notable for one further incident. Rick Wakeman, then the bad boy in Yes if such a thing can be imagined, took it on himself to run a cold bath and somehow dump Harvey in it. He wasn’t best pleased.
         Thanks mainly to the patronage of my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch, there was a close relationship between Yes and MM, and their two shows at Madison Square Garden were co-promoted by the paper, an unusual state of affairs which in the more enlightened 21st century might raise matters of conflict of interest. At 46 years remove I’m hard pressed to recall the details of our promotion but I suspect some money changed hands for MM’s logo to appear on the tickets and posters advertising the event.


         I went to both shows and in a lengthy report that included an interview with Wakeman, concluded that Monday’s show – the first – was far better than the one two nights later. Chris Squire offered an explanation: “We lost our rhythm through having a day off between shows. When we play night after night it comes natural. But we had a day away one another shopping in New York and I think that affected us.”
         The concerts showcased the group’s Tales From Topographic Oceans album, right down to the way in which the stage depicted a fairy-tale landscape, but it had been roundly criticised as the epitome of their self-indulgent tendencies, and Rick seemed aware of this when we talked in his hotel. “A band of our standing reaches a dangerous position when it can put out records that will sell no matter how good they are,” he told me. “We have realised we did make some mistakes but I think these problems have been ironed out now.”

The nearest America had to a Slade in those days was a group called Brownsville Station, led by bespectacled Cub Koda, who had a hit around this time with ‘Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room’. Prefaced by a monologue that promoted similar views to Alice Cooper’s ‘Schools’ Out’, it was one of those cheerful, rowdy and effortlessly catchy songs, and about as far removed from the rigours of Yes’ contemplative offerings as Koda was from Lou Reed.
         He turned out to be a likeable chap, though, a former DJ and record archivist, one of those guys who’ll rhapsodise lyrically about an obscure B-side by a garage band lost to all but Lenny Kaye and the band themselves. “We don’t play the blues because we ain’t got the blues,” he told me.
         ‘He’s a bizarre guitarist with a rasping voice and huge round black spectacles,’ I wrote. ‘He has longish, jet-black hair and always wears white pants and a vertical black and white striped jersey, rather like New Castle’s United’s football strip. The eccentric dress is heightened by his Gibson guitar, again painted in black and  white stripes. It contributes to an odd, op-arty effect.’
         His favourite English band, he told me, was the Troggs. “I’m sure people don’t want all this culture bullshit being pushed down them.”
         ‘Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room’ was huge hit but it turned out to be a one-hit wonder. I doubt Kub minded that much.

20.4.20

MY STINT AS MELODY MAKER’S MAN IN AMERICA, PART 15 – New York, December 1973-October 1974


Section A, Row 1, Seat 8. I didn't normally hang on to tickets but I did this one.  
Looking back on it now, that month, January 1974, was one of the most musically eventful of my life: based in New York and visiting Chicago, St Louis, Philadelphia, Macon and Nashville, with the trip to Virginia to see Bruce an added bonus. And it wasn’t over yet for, on January 30, the icing on the cake was seeing Bob Dylan for the first time. What’s more, I was sat in the front row of Madison Square Garden, Dylan a few feet away.
         My friend Mike from Columbia, the same Mike who’d introduced me to Bruce, excelled himself again, somehow managing to get hold of four front row centre tickets, the best seats in the house, for this opening show of a three-night run with The Band. He distributed them to four of us individually before we arrived.
         As it happened I arrived first, just as the lights were dimming and the crowd was roaring in anticipation, and it took me some time to push through to the front, the security all assuming – until they saw my ticket – that I was a frenzied fan intent on getting as close to the stage as possible. When I reached the front row there were four empty seats and so, cheekily, I draped myself across all of them, lounging as if on a sofa. Those around me must have wondered who the hell I was, someone who could obtain four front row centre seats for himself, just so he could stretch out lethargically as he might in his living room, right there in front of Bob Dylan.
         Talking of whom, the man himself had launched into his opening song, ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’ by the time I took my seat(s), and he peered down quizzically at me, no doubt also wondering just who the hell was this bloke who seemingly had four seats to himself, right slap bang in the middle of the front row. I think I put him off his stride for a moment or two, and he was well into the second song of the night, ‘Lay Lady Lay’, by the time the other three ticket holders arrived and order was restored.
         That night Dylan played many of the songs I wanted to hear and he was effortlessly supported by The Band, then at the peak of their game. Their fluent musicianship, the result of hundreds of hours of ensemble playing during ten years together, made for a terrific contrast with Dylan’s more casual, impromptu style, each supplying the other with exactly what was needed to serve up a perfect feast.
         There was an acoustic set within the main set, featuring Dylan alone, during which a roadie nipped down to ask one of our party to stop taking photographs as it was putting him off. When he put his camera away, Dylan looked down and nodded, acknowledging the gesture. My only complaint was that he failed to sing ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, my favourite Dylan song, but he did do ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, my second favourite, which closed the show. For a final encore he sang ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, by which time the house lights were on and the audience jammed up at the front all around me. Truly a great night. 
I reviewed the show for MM, dated February 9. ‘They cheered and clapped and waved for 15 minutes even though the house lights were up and ‘Greensleeves’ was playing through the PA system and Bob Dylan had already played a couple of encores,’ I wrote. ‘[Promoter and tour manager] Bill Graham, at the rear of the stage, looked perplexed and wondered when in hell the 20,000 Madison Square Garden crowd was ever going to leave. Then Bob returned on his own and looked slightly sheepish. He’d discarded his black suit and was wearing a blue sweater with a white maple leaf on the front. The cheering reached greater heights as he walked towards the microphone and looked as if he was going to say something. Then he changed his mind and walked across the stage, smiling and holding his arms aloft like a prize fighter who’d just knocked out the champ. Then he went back to the mike. “Thank you. See you next year,” he said. Then everyone knew it was all over.’
In fact, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ had closed the concert proper and when the house lights were raised, while Bob and The Band went off for a breather, the crowd rushed to the front. I was caught up in the melee, standing a few feet from him during two further songs, ‘Forever Young’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.
I would get closer to Bob on one more occasion, backstage at a Rolling Stones show at the Garden in 1975, but I would never get to interview him. And it was two years before I next saw him, on stage, on the Rolling Thunder Review up in New England, but that’s another story.

February was only marginally less busy for me than January. I never kept a diary but back issues of MM reveal that I interviewed John McLaughlin, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Oak Arkansas, had a sneak preview of a new album by Maggie Bell, and reviewed The New York Dolls, supported by Elliott Murphy, at the Academy of Music on East 14th Street, and Stephen Stills at Carnegie Hall.
         I would come to know the Academy well, seeing upwards of 30 shows there in the coming three years, and I soon became on nodding terms with Howard Stein, New York’s leading rock promoter, who put on most of the shows there, and a few elsewhere too. The number two promoter was Ron Delsener who in time would topple Stein.
         In fact the Academy was a rather tacky old theatre, once an opera house, that in 1976 would change its name to the Palladium. Either way it reminded me a bit of the Rainbow in London, except that at the rear of the stalls was a big standing area, its floor littered with paper cups and trash. It always stank of grass, marijuana that is, and loose joints could be bought for $1 a pop from dealers who operated outside, tending to the needs of those queueing to get in.
         This was the second time I’d seen the Dolls – the first was at the Whiskey in LA – and in my review I remarked on an improvement in their show. Roy Hollingworth before me had introduced MM’s readers to the Dolls in a series of flattering reviews, and I would see them perhaps half a dozen more times over the next couple of years, a period that saw their fortunes slipping and sliding alas. At the Academy, however, they were still on a pedestal, their set preceded by a short film that had been made by Bob Gruen, New York’s busiest rock photographer whom I would soon come to know well.
         Nevertheless, I felt bound to point out the similarity between the Dolls and the Rolling Stones. ‘There isn’t a shred of originality about their entire performance,’ I wrote. ‘[It is] based so obviously on the Rolling Stones that one tends to think that maybe it’s some kind of Mike Yarwood of rock and roll out there on the stage. The early half of their set was surprisingly tight. They’ve obviously been rehearsing recently and taken various instant courses on how to play guitars. The latter half, however, descended into a deafening musical abyss, all stemming from David Johansen’s vocal work which gradually lost its pitch amidst his enthusiasm. By the end he was yelling his head off. But the Dolls are the Dolls and in New York before their own audience it doesn’t really matter how well – or how badly – they play.’
         I was far more complimentary about Stephen Stills at the Carnegie, New York’s premier classical music venue that made the Academy look like a pigsty. I noted that he played six different guitars, opening with ‘Love The One You’re With’ and moved through an electric set, then acoustic, before winding up on electric again, and offered songs from all the phases of his career. I was particularly impressed when he dismissed his band and played solo. ‘Though his voice sounded a little croaky, his guitar style – so deceptively simple but hugely fluent – was a joy to hear. He gave us ‘Change Partners’, ‘Crossroads’, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ and ‘4 + 20’, a huge favourite of mine.
         ‘It’s not until you see Stills performing on his own,’ I continued, ‘that you realise how talented he really. He’s casual in the extreme, lighting cigarettes during numbers and tapping his foot to keep the time signature, and he creates an aura of respectful silence from his audience. Unquestionably one of the best guitar players rock has produced, he’s equally at home on either the acoustic or electric instrument. The mood was married only by the inevitable yelling for requests between songs but Stills gritted his teeth and played only what he wanted to play.’
         In New York Stills stayed at the Carlyle, a classy hotel on Madison Avenue not far from my apartment, and I was introduced to him there the following day. I liked him a lot, and he took to calling me ‘English’, a nickname that stuck on those occasions when I bumped into him over the next year or three.

19.4.20

MY STINT AS MELODY MAKER’S MAN IN AMERICA, PART 14 – New York, December 1973-October 1974

 



Newly installed in my apartment on E 78th Street, the first thing I did was to buy a stereo on which to play the LPs that kept arriving. I was still using the Olivetti portable typewriter I’d brought back from LA, the one that Christine had borrowed, and it worked just fine on the chunky farmhouse-style wooden table. No sooner had I finished writing up my story about Greg Allman and the trip to Macon on it than I was invited to Nashville, another first, to attend Columbia Records’ annual sales convention. I flew down with Mike O’Mahoney, the company’s PR whom I knew because he used to work for CBS – as Columbia was known in the UK – in London.
         We stayed at Roger Miller’s ‘King Of The Road’ Motor Inn, named after his 1965 hit song, and it was crammed with country music cowboys. What I remember most about the hotel was its weird system of room service whereby a dozen or more large tubes extended from the basement right up to the top floor, running through the rooms, on which orders were delivered. You placed your order and 15 minutes’ later it appeared on this cockeyed dumb-waiter system. I later learned that it fell down when guests realised they could help themselves to food and drink on its way to floors above them and no one could figure out who’d put the snatch on it.
Mike Mahoney was blessed with the traditional Irish gift of eloquence and in the evening I found myself dining with Goddard Lieberson, the President of Columbia, and other executives, in a private dining room. At the other end of the table was David Essex, newly signed to the label, who spoke with an exaggerated Cockney accent that I thought was wildly affected and made him sound like a prize prat. Offered the opportunity to interview Essex, I declined. I hadn’t come to America to write about second division British pop singers like him.
A far better prospect reared its head the next day when, much to my surprise, Mike somehow wangled it that we could borrow Columbia’s executive jet for a few hours, an even better plane than the one I flew in two weeks ago with Black Sabbath from Chicago to St Louis. So here I was, with just Mike for company, in this aircraft that seemed to me a bit like a spaceship. Up we went and headed east, flying to the nearby state of Virginia to see two shows by an act for whom the label had very high hopes, another in the parade of ‘New Dylans’ as it happened. The pilot dropped us off in Richmond and headed straight back to Nashville. Only the top brass could tell him to wait.
The Mosque, in Richmond, and the Chrysler Theater in Norfolk, where we went the next day, were small old-fashioned venues and both are still operating today, though The Mosque is now called The Landmark. I don’t think either was sold out on January 25 and 26, 1974, when I was there for the first and only time.
 “He stands there looking like a cross between Elvis Presley and a reject from Sha Na Na with faint Dylanesque overtones,” I wrote in MM after seeing the shows. “A battered Fender Telecaster hangs low enough for him to qualify for a place in The Ventures. His hair is short and curly and there’s a wispy beard that never seems to grow any longer. On his nose rests a pair of square shades which stay in place all the time during his shows, which make him look more like Dylan of 1965 than Dylan of 1974. He wears jeans and a red vest and maybe a denim jacket, all of which make him look a bit like James Dean too, only smaller, skinnier and more vulnerable.
         “And he clicks his fingers now and then like Presley’s supposed to do and like Tom Jones does. He shakes his Fender back and forth and twists his hips around, looking as if he means business. He conducts the band with his fretboard, sometimes grinning and sometimes looking perplexed, like he’s not quite sure what’s happening next. And then he’ll surprise you by discarding the guitar and playing a tender love song at the piano. He dismisses the group, who return later with a change of instruments and take up a stance at the front with the regular bassist playing a tuba and the keyboard man strapped behind an accordion. The tuba makes a strange deep noise that reminded me of a colliery silver band from South Yorkshire.
         “After all that seriousness he’ll start rocking again, the big black cat on the saxophone coming on as a bass vocalist for an old rock and roll number. If you’re lucky he’ll finish his set with a rendering of ‘Twist And Shout’ complete with the ascending build up between verses that sounds just like John Lennon was standing beside him, crouched over a Rickenbacker and yelling his loudest to drown out the screams.”
It was, of course, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, whom I was seeing for the first, but certainly not the last, time. Bruce had already attracted the attention of Melody Maker, my colleague Michael Watts having written about him extensively. I took pleasure in relieving him of the baton.

Mike, Bruce and CC, Norfolk,Va, January 26, 1974

Mike and I stayed in the same hotel as the band and I remember chatting with Bruce in the coffee shop on the morning after the first show. He was eating a burger and fries washed down with coke, and wasn’t very talkative, shy almost, maybe a bit tongue-tied. He was thin then, quite unlike the muscular hunk he is today, with that wispy beard, and intense, like he had a lot on his mind. I didn’t press him, just told him how much I’d enjoyed the show the night before, and he was grateful for the compliment. He was humble, courteous, like I imagine the young Elvis would have been in his Sun Records days.
         As it happened, Norfolk, Virginia, had a particular resonance for me. During the Second World War my dad served as a gunner on troop and supply ships criss-crossing the Atlantic between British ports and the American naval base here.
         Dad once told me that off duty one summer’s afternoon in 1940, he decided to take a bus to the beach, and an elderly black lady carrying several parcels of shopping got onto his bus and remained standing. A good-hearted Yorkshireman brought up to mind his manners where ladies were concerned, dad offered her his seat. The lady explained that because of the colour of her skin she was not permitted to sit on his seat, only at the back of the bus where all the seats were occupied. My dad, utterly ignorant of local custom, was appalled, so he made a point of standing for the remainder of his journey even though the seat on which he had been sitting remained vacant, and when the lady got off the bus he helped her with her packages. “May I help you madam,” he said to the astonished lady before getting back on the bus himself. “Thank you, kind sir,” she replied, so dad recalled. “I will remember this for a long time.”
  When Dad reached the beach, he wrote a postcard home to my mum, whom he had married – in uniform – earlier that same year. So it was that on my visit to Norfolk to see Bruce Springsteen for the first time I did exactly the same thing. I did some exploring and from a distance saw the naval base, then I bought a postcard and went to the beach where I wrote on it something like, “Dear dad, following in your footsteps 35 years later,” and mailed it off to the old home in Yorkshire that same day.

The naval base

The two Bruce Springsteen concerts blur together a bit 46 years later so I can’t actually remember which one it was (and it might have been both) where Bruce and his band played ‘Pretty Flamingo’, Manfred Mann’s greatest song and a 1966 UK chart topper, but what I remember as clear as day was Bruce’s long, witty and gloriously uplifting monologue that prefaced it. As it was my introduction to Bruce live, his monologues were quite new to me, surprising, captivating and unique.
The ‘Pretty Flamingo’ story began with Bruce telling us how he once lived on a street in Jersey down which a beautiful girl would walk every day after work at five o’clock, so he and his buddies from the block would gather there at a quarter to five every day just to watch her stroll by. While the band ticked over in the background, idling like a car in neutral, Bruce conjured up in a few pithy sentences the image of a shapely heartbreaker that he and his buddies, and by inference they included some of the band, were too afraid to approach. They were desperate to know her name but too shy to ask, even some crazy guy in Bruce’s gang who often did really brave stuff because he was far too crazy to care about the consequences. 
         And so it went on, with the girl walking by for weeks, maybe months, and Bruce and his buddies still watching her every day, and no-one knew what she was called. By this time we in the audience were all hopelessly in love with her too, just as Bruce and his pals obviously were, and they’d coined a nickname for her. “And then… like I moved away,” said Bruce, disappointment clouding his face. “We never found out what her name was. We used to call her something. What was it that we called her Clarence? Can you remember? What did we call her Steve? I remember. Should I tell ‘em?”
         Then, louder, repeated, his right arm raised. “Should I tell ‘em?”
         “Yeah,” called Steve and Clarence in unison. “Tell ‘em Bruce.”
         “Should I tell ‘em?” He was screaming now.
         “Yeah!”
         Bruce brought his arm down. A chord.
         “On our block all of the guys called her Flamingo.”
         Guitars and drums exploded. Perfect. Just fucking perfect. The incredible tension of the build-up was finally released and like a great tidal wave crashing through the theatre Bruce and his band launched deliriously into this great song. The crowd went nuts. But he wasn’t finished with us. Two, maybe three, minutes in, just after the first verse, after Flamingo had brightened up the neighbourhood like she just could, he brought the band down again, let them tick over again, and he had us captive again.
        “What can I do Clarence?” he asked, even more passionate than before. “I gotta find that girl. I’m gonna hire a detective, someone good, like Charlie Chan.”
He was laughing now, full of fun, and we were holding on to his every word. “And when I get her I know what I’m gonna tell her. I know what I’m gonna tell her. I’m gonna tell her I’m in a band. I’m in a band!
         And off they went again, careering downhill like men possessed.
         “Some sweet day, I’ll make her mine, Pretty Flamingo.”
         That night I saw the rock star we all of us wanted to be in our dreams.