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.