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.
And it used to be for a while
That the river flowed right to my door
Making me just a little too free
But now the river doesn’t seem to stop here anymore
Spring 1977. I’m nearing the end of my first year at LSE. I’ve got a decision to make, because during the long summer break I won’t be able to stay in my lodgings, the Maple Street flats on the corner of Fitzroy St, London W1, because they are owned and run by the LSE and in the summer we can’t stay there. Most of my gang are going home to Glasgow, Sussex, Barnsley, or Bedfordshire. I actually hadn’t worked anything out, but going back to Hailsham and that sin city council estate wasn’t even an option. Simon Korner was going abroad and going back to Lewes somehow didn’t seem right anyway. Then I spotted a notice on the college noticeboard :
ACTORS WANTED FOR NEW PLAY GOING TO EDINBURGH FESTIVAL
JUNE – AUGUST
AUDITIONS BLAH BLAH BLAH
I scribbled the phone number down and called it up and booked an audition. I cannot remember a single detail of the audition, either where it was, what I had to do, anything. But I got the gig, and made immediate plans to stay in London for the rehearsals.
Only one pupil from Lewes Priory had gone to Drama School – Helen Lane, who was in the year above me. I knew her because I’d done a few plays at school – rehearsing after school usually with kids older than me. I knew I’d enjoy Edinburgh – although I’d never even heard of the Festival before. During my first year studying law down on the Aldwych there were a few competing social activities – and after some thought I’d decided to play football on Wednesday afternoons. It clashed with Drama which was also on offer. I’d played football for Lewes Priory every Saturday morning for years, and subsequently played centre-half for the LSE. The home games were in New Malden way out in the south-west London suburbs so some commitment was required! But the point was, that I treated playing football and drama as the same kind of thing. Like playing pool. Things that you did for fun, in the evening and at weekends. So a whole summer of that was cool by me.
Anyway, I told Helen about Edinburgh and she was very supportive and offered her floor for me to sleep on for rehearsals. I think she lived in Camden Town. Rehearsals were near Russell Square somewhere in Bloomsbury which was my route to college anyway, familiar. Weird this – by now I was going steady with Mumtaz, and she was running the student accommodations so why didn’t I stay with her? The memory is no help once again.
A fella called Murray directed the play. We did weird stretches and warm-ups in the mornings and played some drama games which I would remember for my National Youth Theatre Days a decade later. The play was called The Death of Private Kowalski. The National Student Theatre Company, run by Mr Clive Wolfe was producing it at their inaugural season at Edinburgh. We were in a theatre or perhaps it was a Church Hall in Broughton St. We shared it with a deaf theatre company. I remember an altercation one night, just the silent fury of sign language. An American actor called Tom played Private Kowalski, I was playing a recruiting Lieutenant for the US Army. I remember little very clearly. But I’m absolutely certain that every single one of the cast EXCEPT FOR ME was at Drama School – either RADA, Drama Centre, Ealing, Mountview or the Old Vic. I was an object of curiosity.
“What are you going to do when you leave college?”
I’m going to be a barrister.
Yes. Really. Why, what are you going to do?
“What do you think? I’m going to be an actor of course.”
Edinburgh Festival ’77
A trickle of an idea started to form in my left ear. I didn’t dare speak it aloud, so daring , so brave and foolish it was. One other student from LSE was in the Company, Nick Broadhurst who was studying Sociology. I was quite impressed that he’d managed to snaggle the beautiful Tibetan student Kalsang as his girlfriend, but he listened to weird music like Elevator Coming Over The Hill. He was helping Clive behind the scenes and secretly plotting a brave and dangerous idea of his own. The other administrator was Jane who had curly brown hair and John Lennon granny glasses. We all slept in a disused church on Leith Walk, and all I remember of Edinburgh is the constant smell of sweetness in the air coming from the breweries. Known as “Auld Reekie” Edinburgh was a cornucopia of delights, from the spectacular Castle to the compulsory in-crowd of theFringe Club which never seemed to close, to the streets full of actors and clowns and buskers all competing for audience. This was 1977 remember, way before the comedians took over, and way before it became the huge corporate and commercial event it is today. It was a theatre festival, and I remember seeing groups from Russia and New Zealand that year.
Then, one afternoon, after the show (once a day at 3pm), I was downstairs in the toilet having a slash. A wazz. Urinating in a urinal. Hence the name. Innocent, unformed and alive, I was about to experience what I would later understand was akin to a Damascene conversion. In an Edinburgh toilet. Beside me was a large man who asked me, in a strong Texan accent
“Where are you from in America son?”
Is it strange that I had my cock in my hand at this revelation, as the stars changed course and the earth swallowed my life up and spat me back out? My head span an invisible orbit of itself and landed safely back behind my eyes.
Oh I’m from England actually
I replied, shaking drips and re-corking the underpants.”Well,” said the Texan,
“Fooled me. Great job !”
Thank you I said, covering my earthquake and zipping up the trouser. It was a bolt of lightning which went to my very core and rewired my entire life. At that point I realised that I could be like those other kids. I could be an actor.
Why Carly Simon? Well, she seemed ubiquitous that summer. No idea why – it had been out for years by then. But music lasted in those days. This LP, No Secrets by Carly Simon, was an ever-present. I think Helen had it in her flat in Kentish Town. Jane definitely had it. I kept seeing girls carrying it. It was a girl’s record. All the girls I knew LOVED IT. As I became exposed to it, there was always a record player somewhere and on it went, it got under my skin through my blood vessels directly to my heart. It is an amazing LP. I already knew You’re So Vain from sexy Pan’s People dancing to it on Top Of The Pops and finding clouds in their coffee. No Secrets was Carly Simon’s 3rd LP on Elektra Records, making number one in the billboard charts for 5 straight weeks in 1972. I love every song on this record. Lovely chord changes on The Carter Family and When You Close Your Eyes and emotional bombs going off all over the place. The Right Thing To Do is the opening song and has a lazy 70s feel that takes me right back to the joints smoked, the relaxed vibes, the flared trousers, the girls.
Later I would discover that No Secrets was recorded at Trident Studios in St Ann’s Court in Soho, now a Film Production house where I’ve done numerous voice recordings, ADR sessions and so on. Transformer, Space Oddity and many other great albums were recorded there in the 60s and 70s. The studio musician credits on No Secrets now reads like a who’s who of the London Sessions, about which I almost made a documentary a few years back, before my Executive Producer suddenly tragically died. Andy Newmark on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, Jimmy Ryan on guitars. With contributions from my old friend Ray Cooper (from Handmade Films) on percussion (listen for the ripple of the congas after the first line of The Right Thing To Do on the studio version), Jim Keltner, Paul Buckmaster, Paul & Linda McCartney, Mick Jagger, Lowell George, Bonnie Bramlett, James Taylor, Bobby Keys, and Nicky Hopkins. Doris Troy with Liza Strike and Vicki Brown doing the backing vocals. Richard Perry produced. Everything clearly just fell into place. There is an ease and a freshness to these songs, both in the writing and the recording.
I went back to LSE that autumn a changed man, but I completed the final two years of my degree and became a Batchelor of Law.
I’ve often wondered in subsequent years whether a career in acting was The Right Thing To Do. I have a complex relationship with my ghost career as a barrister, and often peek over to see how he’s doing.
How am I doing? Possibly my least favourite question. I’m OK thanks.
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.