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.
…you know you’re gonna lose more than you found…
Mid-May 1975, the green fields of East Sussex. I am three weeks away from my A-level exams at Lewes Priory School, some 25 miles away, which I have spent two years studying for. My choices are English Literature, Geography and Economics. Geography is my favourite subject, so much so that I have taken an extra O-Level in the Lower Sixth in Geology and passed with grade 1.
There is a possibility of taking a Geography Degree somewhere or other – or even a Geology Degree. But the prospect, once I’d had a little think about prospects, of a lifetime working for the oil and gas industry did sway me away from that wonderful subject. I love maps very much, especially the ones that go underground and show the rock layers. Fascinating. But that would be where it stopped.
English Literature was an easy choice and kind of non-negotiable–I’d enjoyed books since I could read and devoured them voraciously. At this point I was well past A Clockwork Orange, 1984 and Brave New World and onto reading Dostoyevsky and Mervyn Peake. The set texts were, if I can remember them: Anthony & Cleopatra (“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall…“), Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale which is brilliant, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (swoon), Dubliners by James Joyce, Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw (?) hmmmm and some poetry. Yeats? Eliot? Cannae remember captain.
My third A-Level was economics. Weird choice? I’d been told that if I wanted to study Law at the LSE (and I did) that I would have to take economics A-Level. Seemed fair enough. We had one good teacher on macro economics called Mr Dennis, which was all about GDP, interest rates, unemployment and monetary policy, Keynes etc. And we had one bad teacher whose name strangely escapes me on microeconomics (supply and demand, pricing, business) who ran a VG shop in Chailey and constantly referred to it to illustrate what he was talking about in a particularly tedious way. He also prefaced most of his sentences with the non-word “Em”. “Em, just open your books on, em, page 43…” Andy Holmes and I became needlessly obsessed with this vocal tic and started to log the regularity of its use. To enumerate its tally. Em. We would place a small mark in a rough book with each spasm. One, two three, four, then a line across for five. Then you could see at a glance how many Ems there had been in a double period economics lesson. Sometimes they would come in a flurry and we could scarcely keep up. It was proper work. What this meant though, was that we didn’t really hear any of the words in-between each Em and the next. And fun though it had been, suddenly there we were in May 1975 and a few short weeks away from the examination which would determine whether we would be champs or chumps in life.
It’s called revision. It means going over your notes from the previous two years and making sure you remember pertinent details, concepts, definitions. My notes were a series of totals. 38 Ems. 54 Ems. And yes, 71 Ems. I badly needed to read an economics textbook, so I found one in the library and started to read–and take notes. Not so much revision as simply panic-cramming two years of Em economics into two months of seriously undiluted brain workout. No music, no gigs, no getting stoned or drunk. EXAMS. Like entering a tunnel where the parallel lines converge to a point on a dark horizon.
Of course the radio was always on downstairs and always tuned to Radio One. Tony Blackburn, Paul Burnett, Johnnie Walker. And creeping up the charts was a strange beguiling song called The Night by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons which starts with a sinister bassline, is joined by a thin organ & tambourine combo, the drums kick in and a very odd semi-whispered vocal warns,
Beware of his promise. Believe what I say…
at which point the song actually starts with a rush of vocal harmony and tuba/baritone sax…
..Before I go forever..be sure of what you say…
And then we’re off! What an amazing single this is. Adopted by the Northern Soul posse for its dancefloor pulse and sensational vocal shapes, it was released on Jobete, the Motown label, for whom it was recorded in 1972, then withdrawn after a handful of promo copies were handed out. Some of these found their way to England and the underground soul scene. (For a previous example of the high-tempo rhythm and passionate vocals of Northern Soul see My Pop Life #17.)
The Four Seasons had been hugely successful since the early 60s, the first white act to sign with the Vee-Jay label with hits like Walk Like A Man, Rag Doll and Sherry, and the originals of Bye Bye Baby (see My Pop Life #11), and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, covered memorably by the great Andy Williams.
Frankie Valli the Italian boy from the Jersey ‘hood has had an astonishing career lasting over 60 years and counting. As did his band mate Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote this song. They were the East Coast Beach Boys, best-selling pop vocal harmony sweetness incarnate–brilliantly celebrated and exposed in the hit show Jersey Boys, now a film. That’s all for another post. Suffice to say that the Four Seasons’ years at Motown (from 1970-74) were a commercial disaster zone for the band, and this single was only re-released due to pressure from Northern Soul DJs in the 70s, according to legend. Or perhaps because they’d had a pop-disco resurgence on Warners with Oh What A Night I and Who Loves You. The Night reached number 7 in the UK charts in May 1975.
It was around this time that my mother started to slide. Again. She had been unstable since the first breakdown in 1964 in Selmeston. Diagnosed by a variety of doctors and psychiatrists as schizophrenic, manic depressive, paranoid or just mentally ill, she was regularly suffering from nervous breakdowns or affective disorders, and treated either in or out of hospital with every drug ever invented, many of which were tested on young female patients such as my mum. She had begun to self-diagnose by this point and pick her tablets from the giant selection in the kitchen cupboard with care. It made her unreasonable, violent, depressed, miserable, lonely, vulnerable and a terrible bully all at once. We didn’t tiptoe around her either, we took her on and dealt with each day as it came along. It was a volatile household. Whose isn’t?? It was a challenge that I became increasingly good at handling. But at some cost, as I would discover much later in life. During these years–the 1970s–the visits to hospital weren’t so long and devastating. The hospital was called Amberstone and it had a slightly more relaxed regime, no ECT for example, and every so often there would be a crisis at home and Mum would be admitted, or admit herself.
We were old enough to hold the fort, or at least I certainly was. A 17-year-old young adult, I would make sure that there was food, that the milkman was paid and we had enough coal to heat the place. But by 1975 I had a younger sister from Mum’s second marriage to John Daignault, which had since collapsed. Rebecca was born in April 1973 and was thus just 2 years old when Mum announced one morning while I was revising economics upstairs in my bedroom (Paul and Andrew were at school) that she was going into hospital. An ambulance was called. My brother’s girlfriend Janice came round to take Rebecca. I packed a small bag for Mum with a nightie, underwear, slippers, tobacco, papers, matches, and some clothes, toothbrush and deodorant. A small towel. A flannel. She didn’t look so good. I was pretty numb. Then the doorbell rang and there was the ambulance. We hugged and she left with her bag. I went back upstairs and was gripped suddenly by a huge and excruciating pain spasm inside the middle of my body. I lay down. It got worse. Like a vice grip around my core, being held by a giant iron hand that wouldn’t let go. I had never felt anything like it before, it was so intense that all I could do was curl up on the bed and moan gently. The parallel lines heading directly into the dark tunnel. Listen for the break at 2.35 in The Night for a musical evocation of this moment. It would not relent and I could not move. I had no idea what to do and I was frozen in agony. Some four hours later it finally started to abate and I could unwind and stretch gingerly out. At some point after that Paul and Andrew came home and I told them that Mum had gone to Amberstone for a bit. We all knew the drill by then. No tears, no drama. We just got on with it. Thank god for Janice! And thinking about it since, that must have been some kind of cramp that gripped me that afternoon. An immediate psychic emotional reaction by my muscles. All I could think about was WHY NOW? I’ve got exams coming up!! I can’t afford to fuck them up. I think I then immediately boxed my heart away and tightened the great padlock over my chest so that I couldn’t feel anything that would undermine or dissolve me and went back to the economics book.
Two weeks later I started the A-Level exam run. Six exams in all I seem to recall. Mum came out of Amberstone after about a month. Later that summer I found out (in Budapest: see My Pop Life #70) that I’d scored an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics. I had my place at the LSE.
But the night begins to turn your head around…
I wouldn’t begin to unlock the cage and truly unbox my heart for almost another forty years. I’m still doing it.
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.