Two excerpts from “Right Notes, Wrong order”, my book about what music means to me.
Excerpt one is from the first chapter, a little taste of what it is like playing in a bottom feeding band in California, and how the love of playing helps one rise above all the problems such an endeavor entails.
Excerpt two is from Chapter 3, and tells the tale of Cousin Nigel who was integral to my early listening habits.
Chapter One – “Hello Everyone. We are The Stepsons…But Nobody is Perfect!”
“Without music, life would be a mistake!” – Friedrich Nietzsche
It was August 2012. It was over eight years since I had first made that move from Finchley, North. London to Porterville, California. A lot had changed since that day around 1960 when I had watched Hank Marvin of the Shadows on TV and realized that I wanted to do what he was doing, play one of those lovely wooden things in the way that he did. Over 50 years had passed by since then and yet I was still aware that music was the best. The Stepsons, my blues rock band, had a gig in Fresno, some 75 miles outside of town. For us this was just what you had to do, how far you needed to travel in order to get a gig. Back home in England this would virtually qualify as a tour! We were not a known band. We were not up-and-coming group, nor did we have a string of hits in our past to trade on in the present. We were just one of the ever dwindling number of acts out there attempting to earn, or at least supplement a living by doing something we loved and that we were reasonably good at. There had become fewer and fewer venues for band like hours to play. After all, karaoke, a DJ, a jukebox, or just nothing at all were cheaper alternatives to paying some bunch of guys to maybe bring in enough extra customers with a big enough thirst to justify the fee for hiring them in the first place.
That night we were playing the Full Circle Brewery. We knew that we would probably just about make enough from the gate receipts to cover the cost of fuel to get back home, maybe enough on top of that to cover a fast food meal as well if we were lucky. We were not in this for the money. We used to say that we were sometimes, money, or the lack of it was important to us, but deep down other forces were at play. We used to come to play at Full Circle because we liked the atmosphere there, and we liked the guys that ran it. They were all unreconstructed hippies who looked and dressed as if they were moonshine running cousins of uncle Jesse from the “Dukes of Hazard”. The venue, actually a microbrewery, was housed in what appeared to be a former firehouse in Fresno’s murky downtown area. There was a tented village a little way down the road, a reminder that there were always people worse off than yourself. It was a bad neighborhood, not a place for walking at night, but if you parked close to the door there was good street lighting and a reasonable chance that your ride would still be there when you are ready to leave. As you entered the building it resembled a neighborhood bar, and that was pretty much what it was. Get past that however and you would be confronted with what was really quite a nice sized performance venue., Old bicycles, neon signs and funky knickknacks adorned the walls and ceilings. For the kind of places where we played it was rare in that it actually had a stage with its own PA and monitors. Another reason we liked playing there, we could actually generate a good sound onstage.
I had traveled from Porterville with Bob Bartlett and his wife Gail. Bob was the Stepson’s bass player and had been playing with me since I started performing publicly again some six years before. Karmen, my wife, was working that night and as I was the only adult male in the whole of California who didn’t actually drive, I had hitched a ride. This was the second band that Bob and I had had in that time. We both shared a love of a blues-based framework with plenty of room to improvise. In California they call such a setup a jam band. The two of us had our moments, but mostly it had been a very supportive alliance, a friendship based on a love of music and the need after all those years to still beat the odds every week and go out and perform. As we arrived at the gig, Jason, our drummer, had already set up his kit on the stand and was just dealing with his Hi- Hat setup. Prado, the second guitarist, had also setup and was was sitting at the bar enjoying a “Clusterfuggle”, one of the house brews. I hoped that we would do a little bit better this time out. We had set the cover price at six dollars. The deal was that the band kept five dollars of that with one dollar going to the house for Joy, the burlesque dancer who this evening was taking the admission fees and who had the highly important task of paying us at the end of the night.
Bob and I brought in our equipment and started to get ready for the show. It was already 7:30 and we were supposed to start at 8 PM. After years spent in my youth waiting for bands to ever start on time, and then a spell in the 80s as a musician working in small scale touring theater, I was acutely aware of the importance of starting your performance when you were supposed to. As I brought a guitar amplifier in, I saw Jason’s Dad, Jerry, arriving with his wife. I blew him off a bit. I was angry with Jason over some internal band thing and that spilled over a little. There are one million and one silly disputes in any band and ours was no exception. I have to admit that I was probably at the heart of at least 1 million of them. However, I regained my composure and perspective and had a little chat with Jerry. Then, once my cheap yet shiny and much loved black Stratocaster was set in place and my amp warmed up, we got to the sound check. We all led pretty busy lives to differing degrees, and it was hard to fit rehearsals in. We had a couple of self promoted shows coming up in September and we needed to rehearse for those, but for a bread-and-butter gig like this one we usually didn’t. Jason, the youngest of us at 28, had been on the road as a full-time musician and had worked as a session player in LA. He would do that again, but at present he was balancing sessions and gigging with us with a full-time business involving citrus inspection. Prado, in his mid-40s, and with a 16-month-old baby at home, was to time management what The Who were to instrument conservation in the 60s. He was working full-time teaching at the local Tule reservation, he played with a country band at one of the few remaining California honky-tonks when not playing with us, and what with all of that plus a strange hobby involving fantasy gaming cards and occasionally squeezing in time to see his family, his days were pretty full. They played with my band because they loved playing, pure and simple. So, no rehearsals for us for the show. However, I had put two songs on the set list that we had never played together before. The first was a fairly straight take on the Eric Clapton version of “Crossroads Blues”, the seminal Robert Johnson song. The second was something of a departure for us. “Monkey Man”, by Toots & The Maytals, a wonderful slice of early reggae. Most of our audience had arrived as the sound check/rehearsal began. It was not a full house. There was comfortable room for around 100 -150 people yet there were only 14 paying customers that night. We left with a total of $70, it certainly doesn’t do to be in this for the money.
I told the band that Crossroads was in “A”, played a few bars to establish feel and tempo, and then we were off. There are only so many basic structures in the blues, it is not rocket science, and the band were all used to how it worked, how I work. I picked the set lists, decided in the main what numbers we would play. What I didn’t do was to lay down exactly how we played them, I relied on the guys to bring what they had to the party, for the numbers to evolve organically. We could all play. Some of us might have been a little past our prime, while others were still striving for it. When we hit things right though, a certain kind of magic was generated. That is how it seemed to me anyway. Bob too I think.. Something with a fair amount of improvisation can sound as if it was planned, thought-out and practiced, yet it is the spontaneity that can really make the number. We were not a great band but we were a good one and for the few people that did turn out to see us they could occasionally feel the magic I felt. As we ran through the song, I looked out at who was out front. We did have diehard fans, not very many, admittedly, but enough to make it worth doing from a personal standpoint at least. There was Ken Myers, a grizzled 60 something, there today with his son, daughter and daughters boyfriend. Ken was a big reason why I was still doing this. In the preceding year I had struggled with heart trouble and other medical problems but while someone like Ken was prepared to travel to see us, I was prepared to keep on playing. Ken and his wife Angela live about 130 miles away from Porterville, right on the edge of the Mojave Desert, yet he would regularly come to see us play, wherever we played, be it locally, Visalia, Fresno, or deep into Sequoia country, high up in the mountains. We once went and played at his 60th birthday party in the parking lot adjacent to his house. He loved it so much that when we finished a grueling four sets in oppressive heat, he paid for us to continue on and play what for us was a record-breaking fifth set. Ken liked to drink and have a relaxing smoke but most of all he appeared to like us! At the end of our show that night he would grab the microphone and tell those left in the audience that he loved us I asked him after-wards why wife Angela was not with him on this trip. He was a little the worse for wear when he told me that she would be off hiking and climbing a mountain that weekend. When I asked why he wasn’t going with her he said, “Too fuckin’ healthy for me. Besides, I love you guys!”
Apart from Ken, there were other regulars such as Tammy and her husband Terry. Tammy is known as the “Cat Lady” in Fresno, she helps to run the “Cat House on the Hill” which is much better than it sounds. It is a cat rescue center and Tammy has a heart of gold. They had first come to see us some three years before and had seen us play eight or nine shows since then. Tammy was at a meeting just out of town before the gig, but had emailed me to let me know they would try to be there and true to her word they walked in as we were trying out “Crossroads” in the sound check. She was an Eric Clapton fan and that was one of the reasons why I was throwing “Crossroads” in that night.
We didn’t draw great audience numbers in Fresno, we were out-of-towners, and there was a pecking order that we were at the bottom of. Having said that, even blues bands at the top of that order usually failed to get big audiences. Live music, at this level, was dieing out in the Central Valley. We were better known in our hometown but there were no paying venues there that liked our brand of music. Therefore, hometown appearances were restricted to free and local festival gigs. Apart from an annual appearance of the Porterville fair, none of those gigs paid. A party booking was the only other way we would get paid in our home town. Therefore, we had to travel to neighboring towns such as Bakersfield, Visalia and Fresno in order to get the less than big bucks.
We didn’t go flat-out during the run through of “Crossroads”, and the pace was a little slower than it would be later on in the evening. Even so, our diehard fans and friends in front of the stage plus the nonpaying regulars up at the bar seemed to like it well enough and cheered accordingly. When we played it for real in the second set we blew the first version out of the water. As the show proper began I addressed the audience, “Hello everyone. We are The Stepsons, but nobody’s perfect!”. At that time I had no idea that this lineup of the band would fall apart after only another three gigs. At this level people do tend to leave bands with an alarming frequency. However much you would like it to be, the band can’t be your first priority and other things come up. In the months to come, Jason would be replaced in the band by another drummer, Matt South. Prado would also leave the band, to be replaced by a jazz sax player, Rick Bentz. A mere five months later and Bob would leave the band and the name “The Stepsons” will be retired in his honor. Another band would spring up in its place, “Blues Central.” Life among the bottom feeders goes on, just as it does for everyone else!
Playing three sets is hard, I am 56 and not in good shape. Even if I was in my mid-20s and in shape for the Olympics, three sets would still be hard to play. I have arthritis in my fingers and arms, I am overweight and so out of condition that I can’t remember what condition was. I am thousands of miles away from the home, streets and venues I am most comfortable in. Thing is though, as long as the Ken Myers of this world drive stupid distances to see me play, while I can still get a reasonable noise out my aging stage gear, and while I don’t die on stage, I will keep on playing. I love music you see, playing it listening to it feeling touching and tasting it. It is a love that goes back a long way…
3. I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea
“Music is there essentially to give you something to face the world with!”– Bruce Springsteen
When I was little, Sundays could be difficult. We often used to go over and see my Dad’s Mum across London in Barclay Road, Fulham, just round the corner from Chelsea football club. Although it was only 14 miles away from home, it was 14 London miles and the journey seemed to take an age by bus. We would get the number 260 from Whetstone or Finchley to Golders Green where we would pick up a 28 for the rest of the journey. It could easily take two hours this way. In 1964 my Dad got our first car, a 1948 Ford Anglia, followed a couple of years later by a 1959 Ford Prefect. I liked the Prefect better, there was a radio on it and we could have the good light program shows on as we traveled.
My Nanna Grant was already approaching 80 as the 1960s dawned, and she had endured a hard life to be sure. She had lived in East Jarrow, the most economically depressed part of England in the first third of the 20th century. Her husband George had returned from WW1 injured, and had found difficulty adjusting to civilian life and the shipbuilding town with no ships to build in peacetime. In 1921 he died in circumstances I have never fully understood but can only guess about. My Nan had lost five children in either childbirth or while they were young and only two boys survived, my dad Robert and his younger brother Wilf. She struggled to bring them up, making ends meet by running two small shops. Perhaps she supplemented her income in other less legal ways as well. The writer Catherine Cookson hailed from the same street as my Dad’s family and her descriptions of the hard life experienced in Jarrow were considered sadly accurate by my father.
All of this might help to explain the hard streak that I saw in my Nan. My Mum’s mother, Nanna Blake, was all sweetness and light and one of the loveliest people I have ever met. My memories of her are completely warm and affectionate. I cannot say the same for Nanna Grant. She was a thin austere woman wearing drab dark clothes and chain-smoking players number six as if the world supply was about to run out. She had a cruel side of her nature, something I regretfully identify in myself to this day. When playing a game with me for instance, she would let me win as most grandmothers would do, but she would then tell me to my face that she had let me win so that I had no opportunity to feel good about the victory. She could seem mean and spiteful at times and I think I was a little bit scared of her and of visiting the dark damp apartment she lived in, housed on the top floor of a Victorian semi-detached house. She lived with her widowed niece, Annie and Annie’s son Nigel who was in his early 20s. Annie was a small nervous woman, a little hunched, and she used to puff away at cigarettes with the same ferocity as my Nan. Annie and Nan doted on Nigel, spoiling him in a not very healthy way. At least that is how I see it now looking back. They acted as rivals for his affection and I think it is no surprise that he finally ran off the rails, as I now suspect he must of. He was usually out when we arrived, as we climbed the unlit stair case and past the geriatric hand mangle that they still used on laundry day. Janice and I longed for his return so we could escape into his room and the magical world of rock ‘n roll.
Nan and Annie still had strong Geordie accents even though they had been living in Fulham since before the start of WW2. I actually found it hard to understand what Nan was saying sometimes. Even when I was six or seven she referred to me as the “Wee Bairn”, or little baby. She would want me not to step in “the Nards” if I went outside to play. The first time I came back inside with dog shit on my shoes I learned to my cost what nards were. One thing that really got me on Sunday afternoon visits was she had this cat called Bobby who delighted in coming into the living room and leaving bits of his latest kill distributed around the area where I was trying to sit. Another thing which got to me on those visits was the stench of stale cigarette smoke that permeated the atmosphere. It was really not pleasant. My mum and dad had smoked, but as soon as there were the first news reports of a link between tobacco and cancer, they had stopped almost immediately. The only thing that would have stopped Nan from smoking was a proven link between that activity and the BBC. She hated the BBC with a passion and would only watch ITV, a fact she would gladly tell us every week. In fact, the dial on her rental TV had actually rusted through lack of use so that it was actually stuck on ITV. We couldn’t change the channel even if she had let us. The single TV station selection had its good points though, and the more we watched the box the less we had to have strained conversations with Nan and Annie. They seemed to prefer it that way to. My dad and I could see the football highlights and later in the afternoon there was “Thank Your Lucky Stars”, the show where pop groups mimed to their latest hits. Before “Top of the Pops” debuted on the BBC on New Year’s Day 1964, this was pretty much all we had in terms of dedicated pop music television programming. The most memorable host was the enduring Brian Matthew. I do remember another presenter too, Keith Fordyce. He had a very curious haircut that left him looking like he had a dead squirrel on top of his head. There was a segment of the show where a panel of teenagers used to review new single releases. One of the reviewers, a teenager by the name of Janice Nichols, had an overpoweringly strong West Midlands accent. She rated most songs with her catchphrase “I’ll give it five”, pronounced by her as “Oil give it foive!” Janice and I used to impersonate her a lot and giggle, much to Annie and Nan’s annoyance.
The best part of the show of course were the appearances by the groups. One of those appearances was a life-changing moment for me, the kind of moment only something music related could spark. It was late 1962 and a group from Liverpool called the Beatles were lip-synching their way to glory with “Love Me Do.” I was transfixed. I had fallen in love with shadowy clips of Hank Marvin and Buddy Holly before but this was something else entirely. I wanted to be John, I was going to be John. Almost immediately I was up on my feet by the TV moving like he was, imitating him as best as I could by doing what he was doing. “Why is that boy biting his nails” cried an appalled Auntie A! “I think he’s supposed to be playing the harmonica” replied my dad. From that day on, in my mind at least, I was the fifth Beatle. I knew it.
Despite the relief of the telly or playing outside or, if we had a rare visit on Saturday, a visit to nearby Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea reserves play, there was one terror we always had to cope with on visits to Barclay Road. Tea time. My Nan and Annie were so addicted to nicotine that they couldn’t bear to put their cigarettes down even during food preparation. The most upsetting side effect of this was that otherwise almost edible potato pancakes often had flecks of cigarette ash on or even in them. There were sandwiches which always featured some weird kind of paste and the bread was upturned at the edges as if it wanted to escape as much as we did. If we had the temerity to refuse any of this fair Annie would come right up close to us waiving said food item in her hand, saying “What’s wrong with it then?” Cousin Nigel wisely tried to avoid mealtimes and would tend to arrive just as the debris was being cleared away. He would pop his head round the door of the living room, shaggy headed, nicotine stained fingered rocker that he was, all disheveled Levi jacket and jeans. He would nod towards my sister and I saying “Would you two like to pop next-door?” We knew what this meant and would always say yes and follow him as quickly as we could into his bedroom, knowing exactly what was in store.
Nigel, Nige as he liked to be called , used to empty jukeboxes for a living, that is what he told us anyhow. He had loads of singles, some going back to the late 50s right up to things that were still in the charts today. Most of them had the middle bit popped out so they could be used in jukeboxes and he had loads of those little plastic doowads you could put in the hole so that the records could be stacked on the auto-changer. His record player was bigger than ours, and sometimes he could put on nine or 10 records at a time. Sometimes he put on too many and they would drop two or three at a time and zip around under the one that was supposed to be playing. Mostly though, the player worked wonderfully well. It had a knob for tone as well as one for volume and he used to play it loud for us, louder than we could ever have gotten away with at home. We would pick records from the piles of them that he had to play. Janice would read the labels selecting the one she would like to hear. I would pretend to do that as well but firstly I would be choosing according to how colorful the label was. One such label was red with yellow bits on. I soon learned that most records with that label were by the Everly Brothers, so I tended to pick them a lot. I really loved one of their records called “Cathy’s Clown.” The MGM label was bright yellow so used to pick that one a lot to. I remember “Stupid Cupid’ by Connie Francis was one of the discs with that label on. That one was ok, but not as good as The Everleys.
My favorite record of all the ones Nigel played was one of the older records, “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. I think this was the first song where I noticed that the music sounded better the louder it was played. It was as if it had been designed that way. Another one that sounded like that was “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Cannon. Nige had lots of Cliff Richard and the Shadows records as well as the singles featuring just the Shadows. I have to say I preferred the latter. The earlier ones were on the green Columbia label although the latest ones Nigel had were on a black Columbia label. I still loved Hank Marvin and his shiny Stratocaster even though the Beatles were winning my heart. Nigel also had a bunch of records on the Stateside label that were unlike anything I had ever heard in my life. Artists like the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, Junior Walker and the All-Stars and so on. Stateside was the record label that put out Motown records in Britain before Motown established itself in its own right there. As a five or six-year-old, I couldn’t work out what was different about those discs, only that I liked them and they made me feel something more than a Cliff Richard record did somehow. It was a little like I felt when Nigel played me Chuck Berry or Little Richard. At an early age I was edging towards the music that would one day become my love, blues music, although of course I didn’t know that at the time. I was just a kid learning to swim in a sea of sound. Even then that those records on Stateside made me feel like dancing and I almost never felt like doing that! To this day, it is only strong drink or The Special AKA playing “Free Nelson Mandela” that can compel me to get up and dance!
After an hour so my mum or dad would come in to tell us it was time to go and that we must give Nana and Annie a kiss goodbye. Now and then, if the conversations amongst the adults had been especially difficult, my mum or dad or both of them would come in early to listen to some records as well. It was just before leaving time that we got to my favorite bit. Nigel would let us choose some records to take back home with us. He would wrap them up in a brown paper bag which I would clutch jealously until we were safely within reach of Janice’s player. One time, Nigel’s girlfriend, Rina, was there. Rina was a mod and when I try to recall her now the only picture I can conjure is of Sandy Shaw, so I imagine she must have looked a little like her. She had a copy of the new single by the Four Seasons with “Rag Doll” on one side and “Silence is Golden” on the other. I knew this particular record was not from the jukebox as it still had its middle intact, and it wasn’t a bit scratched up, but she gave it to Janice anyway. Those times were so special to me, I believe that Nigel taught me how wonderful sharing was as part of one’s musical experience. He was patient with us despite being older and and in our eyes cooler. Those hours spent listening to records were more than just an escape from a difficult family encounter, it truly was a window to another world when music was capable of at best best transporting you to a magical kingdom or at least, as Springsteen said, giving you something to face the world with. I will never forget Nigel for that.
Nigel and Rina married and had a child. We went and had Sunday lunch one week in the high-rise apartment where they lived, quite far away from Fulham, but Nige didn’t seem the same somehow. I do remember they had groovy white round plastic chairs with cushions in, the like of which I had only seen on “The Avengers” and TV shows like that. I liked that, but the atmosphere was nervous somehow, some adult thing was going on that I was not privy to. There were no records to take home that day. We never saw Rina again and I would only see Nigel one more time, a few years later. It was around 1971 and I was beginning to really form my own musical tastes which leaned towards rock at that stage. We were living in a house by then in Finchley Central. Nigel came round to see my dad. I saw him arriving through the living room window and he looked rough and tired with long greasy hair. I was excited to see him and made sure I stayed in the living room where he and my dad were about to talk. We had a little banter about music. Nigel said that George Harrison was the best guitarist in the world, while I maintained that it was Eric Clapton. (I knew nothing in those days!) Then he and dad started talking in hushed tones that I could hardly make out. I think they were talking about money but I don’t know that for sure. My dad gently hinted to me that my mum needed help in the kitchen and so I reluctantly left the room. Almost as soon as he arrived, Nigel was leaving the living room, muttering a hasty goodbye to my mom and I, before exiting the house, my street and our lives. I opened the door and saw him shuffling up the road in a dejected manner. I would never see him again.
Copyright Pete Grant 2014