A Chequered musical quilt of an autobiography, in song-shaped episodes. My Pop Life takes one moment in my life and looks at it through a piece of music. Sometimes the piece of music fits that moment really well, other times not. It is not a list of my favourite songs. It is my look back at an eventful, dysfunctional, random musical life. It is therapeutic and hopefully without regret. There is no plan. Here is one entry.
I felt that life was but a joke in September 1970. I was thirteen and staying in Lewes with one of my surrogate familes, foster-mum Sheila Smurthwaite. But first – a little re-wind selector… the backstory…
The second time our family was split up, I was 11. I’d just got to Lewes Grammar School For Boys. Three of us from the little village school in Selmeston had done it: Me, Cedric-the-postman’s son Graham Sutton and David Bristow, much to the delight of Miss Lamb, the headmistress who used to bring goose-eggs to school as prizes, and who taught us how to make porridge, play Men of Harlech on the recorder, and probably what a slide rule is for. That final term of primary school she installed a television and we watched Wimbledon together.
That September it was daunting, travelling on the long bus journey into Lewes wearing the uniform, walking to this giant school full of big hairy boys, playing rugby and being bullied by prefects, particularly Sutherland. Pete Smurthwaite and I shared a detention class together for being scruffy (no cap). He was in my class, 1R. Anyway, Mum had to go into hospital again so my brothers and I went to three different houses – Andrew to Portsmouth and Aunty Val (he was about five years old), Paul down the village to Gilda and Jack and I went to stay with Pete Smurthwaite and his mum in Ringmer. Aged 11 it felt like a foreign country. To be fair, Ringmer actually is a foreign country, despite being a mere 4 miles from bohemian, pope-burning, cobbled witchy Lewes. But Sheila Smurthwaite made up for Ringmer’s lack of charm with her own hippy spirit and welcoming vibes. Jimi Hendrix posters. Gaugin’s Tahitian women. Guernica.
Two years later now, a different crisis. I’m 13 and Mum has re-married, to John Daignault. A chef by trade, he worked at Caffyns Garage in Lewes, then lost his job. After months of skipping rent we were finally evicted by our horsey toff landlords from the feudal cottage with debt forgiven.
And we all split up again. For months this time. I stayed with Sheila & Pete again – only now they were actually in groovy Lewes where they belonged, Pete had a baby brother called Jake (whose dad Nick was Sheila’s 19-year-old lover) and Jimi Hendrix was still all over the walls and loudspeakers. There was a board-game inventor down the road and Pete and I got to go round there and try them out – war-games and one evolution game shaped like a tree. We all ended up as sharks every time we played it.
I smoked my first joint in that house, and helped local legend Noddy Norris roll a two-foot long joint by sticking forty or fifty cigarette papers together, along with a bunch of mates (Pete, Conrad, Spark, Fore, Martin Elkins, Dougie Sanders, John Mote). My mum smoked roll-ups, so I was au-fait with the apparatus. The Camberwell Carrot had nothing on this monster. At least two feet long. But thinking back now, what was an 18-year-old ex-con doing hanging out with a bunch of 13-15 year olds? That was Lewes though. Hendrix and The Doors and The Beatles were always playing. Soft Machine. Cream. Santana. Dirty hippy music. Always the older kids were groovier than us, had longer hair, better afghan coats and boots, had groovier record sleeves tucked under their arms, could actually play the guitar and drums. I had my first wank in that house, in the bath. It was completely alarming, but tremendous and I never looked back. Smiley face. And then Jimi died.
The house went into shock. I remember composing a giant memoriam on my blue school rough book which said Jimi Hendrix RIP Sept 18th 1970. Evidence revealed that it was the 3rd anniversary of his death still being felt. We listened to the four LPs – Are You Experienced?, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland and live album Hendrix In The West. Simon Korner later bought Cry Of Love the scribble-cover LP but I never listened to it because it was released after Hendrix died and so I wrongly suspected it of being inferior and somehow not meant to be.
We could not believe Jimi had gone. He was so young, so full of fire and love. He was the future of music, we knew it, you could hear it in the way he played and sang in perfect sync with himself. He was an incredible poet, musician and person. We mourned. We were stunned. We played the records again. And then in the days that followed, I’d gone to see my Mum in Eastbourne. She looked terrible. She had a large black shape on her cheek vaguely covered with make-up. She told me it was barbiturate poison because she’d taken an overdose. She’d been living in a caravan in Pevensey Bay with John Daignault and they’d fought and scratched and punched each other to a standstill.
My mind was reeling – not by the fighting – that was happening in Selmeston before we’d all moved out. In one comic interlude Mum had thrown eggs at JD and one of them had broken into his hair. He’d walked up to the police station to file a complaint. With an egg on his head. No – it was the overdose that was frightening.
1970 was the first year I went to Lewes Bonfire with Pete, walking through the processions and fires and chaos of the town holding flaming torches we’d picked up from the road, down the High Street across the river and up to the Cliffe chalk pit where a giant fire burned in the natural arena and men dressed as priests read a declaration of No Popery as the crowd threw lit bangers at them while two Hell’s Angels pissed on a third man lying on the grass in front of the makeshift stage in some warped cult membership ritual. It’s been tidied up somewhat now, but November 5th is still the best night of the year in Lewes.
“There must be some kind of way out of here, Said the joker to the thief,
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief….”
I had no idea that Bob Dylan wrote it. It was Hendrix through and through, round and round. It was a terrifying record, an exhilarating record, it was everything I ever hoped to be, everything I feared, a prophet crying in the wilderness. A distillation of pain and despair. I completely misheard many of the lyrics.
“Mr Splendid – drink my wine….ploughman take my urn…
no one will level out of mind, nobody else in this world”
And despite now knowing the actual words I still prefer Mr Splendid to those businessmen.
The song perfectly expresses the joke of my life in 1970. It is still burned into my heart. Jimi Hendrix RIP September 18th 1970.
Ralph Brown is an actor, writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked in the West End, Broadway and Hollywood and his writing has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.