INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘Save The Days’
A week before the recording sessions for my debut album were due to begin at Abbey Road, in early April 1974, I moved out of my Kilburn flat, which had now become an unbearable place to live. Three of my previous flatmates had, by the beginning of 1974, left and been replaced by four noisy male students. Their idea of fun was packing every chair in the place into the small kitchen, making it impossible to get in and out of there. They’d then nominate one of them to crawl over and under the stacked chairs so as to reach the fridge for the beers they filled it with every week. As the nominee crawled and manoeuvred his way back, beers in hand, his mates would stand outside in the doorway yelling their approval at the tops of their voices. This jape used to take place at about midnight, almost every night, when they’d got back legless from the pub. It would go on for about an hour, until they finally fell into a heap somewhere in the flat, passed out on too much booze, before retching up the takeaway they’d scoffed on their way home.
At the age of twenty, I felt extremely old as my protestations at being kept awake “yet again!”, and having to remove several chairs from the kitchen to make my breakfast, were met with polite woozy stares and grimaces. The boys always very sweetly made promises to behave, then more of the same would occur the following night. Brian, our former-pop-star landlord, seemed oblivious to it all. Once our previous flatmates had gone, he had more or less cut himself off from the new occupants and taken to staying in his room singing himself to sleep with his headphones on. The nightly cat-on-heat noise of his out of tune whining to Led Zeppelin records, and the drunken laddie games going on outside my door, meant it was time to leave.
Patsy and I went to a flat-letting agent in Kilburn High Road, where the extremely camp, greasy-haired, long-dirty-nailed manager listened disinterestedly as Patsy explained I needed somewhere “in a better area than Kilburn.”
He’d puckered his large lips at this, taken a long drag on his cigarette, and run his filthy fingernails down numerous thumb-marked pages of available dwellings. Finally, tapping the ash off his cigarette into a half-empty coffee cup, he said,
“Hm, this one might do,” and showed us a photo of a 1930s block of flats in St John’s Wood. “It’s a studio flat on the top floor, what were the maid’s quarters in days gone by, owned by the lady who lives in the apartment next to it. Mrs Skowalski is her name. Here’s her address.” He handed us a slip of paper. “I’ll call her to let her know you’ll be viewing it today. OK?”
It wasn’t an enquiry, merely a raise of too-bushy eyebrows for confirmation that what he had suggested would happen.
Happily, the building, in Hall Road, welcomed us in with its sense of art deco history as we walked into the foyer, where a – now unused – concierge desk swept grandly around the marble walls to a large but long since deserted reception area. One of those old detective movies-type concertina-doored lifts had clattered to a stop, the gate had whooshed open and an elderly, but sprightly and well-dressed man, had stepped out, bidding us ‘Good morning!’ with a tip of his hat.
“Oh, this is perfect for you, John,” Patsy had said as we’d stepped into the lift, closed the gate, pressed the brass button marked 2nd floor and clattered up there.
It was a lovely flat, comprising a large light-filled room with a huge window overlooking very pleasant gardens and a good view of the whole surrounding area. There was a Belling two-hob cooker in the bed-sitting room, which was enough for me as I rarely cooked for myself anymore, eating either at Stuart and Patsy’s or out for dinner with them in the West End. Two ancient but recently re-covered armchairs faced the view, and a tiny wooden coffee table displayed a few old copies of Vogue. The room led to a small but well-lit spotlessly clean bathroom.
The rent was £14 a week, Mrs Skowalski told me, plus an extra 70p for the use of her cleaning lady, who would, she informed me, Hoover and polish my flat and clean my bathroom every Thursday.
“I’ll take it!” I told her.
She clapped her hands and, holding them together as if in prayer, said,
“So good to have a young gentlemen as a tenant! I never have young girls, they are so untidy!”
“Knickers and bras everywhere?” Patsy enquired conspiratorially.
Mrs Skowalski blushed at such words being said in front of a young gentleman, but nodded at Patsy and giggled with her girlishly.
Stuart had come along a couple of days later with Patsy and I to pay the one-month’s upfront rent plus a month’s deposit. He grandly signed the cheque as he told a breathlessly fascinated Mrs Skowalski that I had “just recorded a song for the new Peter Fonda movie. And John is shortly to begin recording an album at Abbey Road Studios for CBS Records.”
Mrs Skowalski purred as she took the cheque and, beaming at me, said,
“What a clever boy!”
“You have, as your tenant, a future star, my dear!” Stuart continued, winking at me. Patsy blinked, the landlady purred again, and I looked suitably shy and rather pleased with myself.
The day after I moved into the flat, my parents travelled down to London for my 21st birthday. I met them at St John’s Wood tube station in the afternoon so I could show off my new home. I’d pointed out Abbey Road Studios to them, the three of us staring from the footpath at the famous white building, as I explained that it was where I would begin recording my album in a few days.
“This is the same zebra crossing The Beatles are walking across on the Abbey Road LP sleeve,” I told them, as four giggling tourists posed a la Fabs for their friend with the camera. Mum and Dad did their best to look impressed but instead seemed rather puzzled.
“Oh, Bert!” Mum declared when she walked into the foyer of the apartment building, “It’s like something from the movies!”
Dad smiled at her, and opened the lift door for us:
“Reminds me of the lifts in London department stores, when we had our honeymoon down here, Bren.”
“Oh, yes, it does!” Mum said, laughing at the memories they shared of their first London visit in 1948.
Her face lit up even more when I let them into the flat,
“It’s so London, Howard!” she cried. “And that view! Oh, it’s lovely, son!”
I settled them into the two chairs and made them a cup of tea on the Belling hob. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I opened the present they’d brought me, a set of bottle green towels and matching flannel.
“John Lewis no less!” I said, rubbing the soft towel against my face.
“It’s your 21st! We wanted to get you something special, something that will last. A bit of quality. And now with your new flat…” she looked admiringly round the room, “we thought you’d need those.” I got up and kissed her on the cheek:
“They’re perfect, Mum.”
She looked well, considering she had been so poorly eighteen months earlier. She still was in fact, regardless of how she appeared. I was aware her time with us was limited. However, to look at her as she beamed over at me, you would never know she had less than six months to live.
I rather bizarrely then turned on Capital Radio on my transistor for them, I have no idea to this day why. I guess I wanted to show them what a London life meant, even having one’s own Sound Of The City on the radio.
“Oh, it’s very good,” Mum said, unconvincingly, as Kenny Everett rabbited on about the new Chris Rainbow single and Solid State Brain wafted around the room.
“Very interesting chords,” Dad said approvingly. He always judged a record by its technical prowess, or lack of it. He hated Roy Orbison because he “breaks all the rules”, which surprised me as Dad was a jazz musician, which I thought was all about breaking with tradition. Of course, as soon as he’d said that in 1964, when we’d watched Roy performing It’s Over on Top Of The Pops, I fell in love with The Big O immediately.
I told them that we would be going out for dinner that evening to La Dolce Vita, a restaurant Stuart and Patsy often took me to in Frith Street. The plan was that the three of us would have dinner there and then Stuart and Patsy would join us later for a drink. My parents had not yet met them and I could tell they were a little nervous.
“You’ll really like them,” I told Mum, but she still looked unsurely over to her husband, who just smiled encouragingly back at her.
After we’d had our tea and a chat about how things were going – “You’ve done very well for yourself, son”; “Oh, you have, Howard!” – they trotted off back to their hotel in Lancaster Gate to have a rest and get ready for our evening. I ran a bath and laid out my present over the original 1930s heated towel rail. Soaking in the fact I was now twenty-one and would soon be starting work on my first album, life felt okay. As the Liberty Bath Salts, which I’d treated myself to a few days earlier, permeated their perfumed sense of wellbeing around me, I sang Chris Rainbow’s great new song to myself, “Somebody gave me the sun in my hands and the clouds in the sky for my bed”. I imagined myself, as I had so many times growing up with a teenager’s burning ambition, standing at the microphone in Abbey Road Studios giving it my all. Now though, it was no longer an ambition, in just a few days I would be there, the dream had come true…as Chris sang, “I close my eyes am I dreaming, but somebody’s screaming it’s me!”.
Mum and Dad were waiting for me outside the restaurant when I arrived. She was prettily made-up, enhancing her still porcelain complexion, which my dad had fallen in love with twenty-seven years earlier. Wearing a rather lovely dark red trouser suit I’d not seen before and a mauve silk scarf, she’d most likely bought them specially for the trip.
“How long have you been here?” I asked, knowing I was early.
“Not long, love,” Mum said, kissing me on the cheek.
“About twenty minutes,” Dad muttered.
I smiled at Mum who laughed back,
“Well, I didn’t want to be late!”
“Why didn’t you go inside?” My parents looked puzzled. “You should have gone inside and told them we had a table booked.”
“Oh! I wouldn’t want to…well, you know…”
“We’re novices at this London way, lad,” Dad said, coming to his wife’s rescue.
I sighed and realised how my parents had become in some ways like children to me. I remembered Mum once telling me that, on their honeymoon, they’d taken a stroll down Piccadilly and discovered The Ritz. They’d looked uncertainly through the doorway and hovered for a few minutes as people strode in and out past them, before deciding “it was far too posh for us” and walked on. They instead found a café up a side street and had “ a very nice cup of tea and a bun.”
With my parents following close behind, I walked into La Dolce Vita and was greeted warmly by the Maitre D’, Francesco, who rushed up to us with a huge smile on his face:
“Signor Howard!” he cried, throwing his arms up in the air, “How very good to see you again.” He looked round me expectantly, “No Mr and Mrs Reid this evening?”
“They’re coming later,” I said, and standing to one side, “This is my mother and father, Francesco. They’re here to celebrate my birthday.”
Francesco gave a delightful little bow, kissed my mum’s hand and shook my dad’s. Mum did a little coo and went red.
“Birthday boy!” Francesco cried, and winked at my mum. “And I can see now where Signor Howard gets his good looks!”. His banter continued, both embarrassing and thrilling Mum. Her face was quickly beginning to team with her trouser suit very nicely.
Francesco showed us to our table, pulling Mum’s chair back a little to allow her to sit down, which got a thrilled “Ooh, thank you!”. She looked at Dad like a girl on her first date, as she settled herself. He was obviously loving every minute of his Bren being treated so royally.
“Now! What can I get you to drink?” Francesco boomed extravagantly. “On the house! For your son’s birthday! A treat from Francesco!” He did his little bow again and my mum giggled.
“How nice!” she said, nodding at my Dad, who tilted his head approvingly at the table.
“Mum? Dad?” I prompted them. “Would you like an aperitif?”
They both threw a look at each other:
“Ee, Bren!” Dad said, “Our little lad, asking us if we want an aperitif!”
“I know!” She looked proudly over at me, “You’ve come a long way, son!”
I had forgotten what life had been like before I came to London. I’d had dreams for years neither of my parents ever fully understood or probably believed would come true. While I had imagined one day living this metropolitan life, which I was now doing to the full, they had existed in another world, full of self-effacement and ‘knowing your place’. I’d never ‘known my place’, always felt that the place I was in was not mine and I would have to leave it. I had finally taken the plunge and left all that behind eight months earlier, fitting into my new life straight away. But I suddenly realised now, as I watched them trying to feel at ease and failing, that it was totally out of my parents’ orbit. The thought of simply walking into an eaterie in the West End of London and feeling immediately comfortable and at one with it, was completely foreign to them. I think it actually frightened them. Even more saddening, I could see them looking at me now as something slightly alien, changed, I was no longer their ‘little lad’.
Just as we were finishing our desserts, the door opened and Stuart and Patsy walked in. Stuart smiled at us and I waved them over, but they were stopped in their tracks by a delighted Francesco. Stuart pointed over at us, whispering something in his ear.
“Let me introduce you to my mum and dad,” I said, standing to kiss Patsy on both cheeks and shake Stuart’s hand.
My dad did a little half-stand and shook their hands rather awkwardly. Stuart beamed at my mum who was looking up at everyone expectantly:
“I can see the resemblance to John, Mrs Jones!” he said, grabbing her hand in both of his.
Mum laughed and looked pleased:
“Oh, I’ve never heard Howard being called John before!”
Patsy laughed and sat next to her on the chair Francesco brought over for her:
“Of course, Mrs Jones, he’s Howard to you, isn’t he? Do you mind?”
Mum looked confused.
“It must be strange for you, us calling your son, ‘John’,” Stuart stepped in. “Do you mind it?”
“Not at all!” Mum said, “It just sounds odd, to us anyway. Doesn’t it, Bert?”
Dad nodded in agreement.
Very quickly, pulling up his chair, Stuart engaged my dad in amiable chat about their trip down, their hotel, if they’d been to London before, while Patsy did the same with Mum, both of them trying to put my parents at ease.
“You must be very proud of your son, Mrs Jones,” Stuart said, grabbing my arm affectionately.
“Oh, please call me Brenda,” Mum said.
“And yes, please call me Bert,” Dad added, enjoying his wife knocking down a barrier.
“Thank you,” Patsy said. “We are very fond of your son, Brenda.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Mum said, “and, yes, we are proud of How-er-John. Aren’t we, Bert?”
Dad winked at me:
“I never thought I’d see this lad looking so fine, and happy, living this life so well. You’ve surprised us, son.”
“He’s fitted in like a glove, hasn’t he, Patsy?” Stuart said.
“Like a man born to it,” his wife added, and blinked at Mum.
At that point, Francesco appeared with a bottle of champagne, showed it to Stuart who studied it and nodded.
“I wanted to celebrate, John,” he said, “not only your reaching twenty-one today, but also, with your parents, we’d like to congratulate you on the new album you will soon be recording. It’s a cause for celebration that we are all here together, to toast your success and your continued success.” Francesco poured the champagne into our glasses. “To John! Or, if you prefer, Brenda, to Howard!”
“To John!” Mum said happily and supped her drink daintily. “Ooh! That’s rather nice!” and she took another longer sip.
Glasses were clinked, and I watched Brenda Jones having the time of her life, even letting Stuart refill her glass. I felt grateful that at least she’d lived long enough to see for herself how good things were for me. She could now relax.
“I believe you’re also a musician, Bert?” Stuart asked Dad, as always so good at bringing people out of themselves.
“Yes, I’m a pianist, like –er – John here.”
“Do you play the same sort of music?” Patsy asked.
“Oh no, I’m in a little jazz combo, we play a couple of times a week. Nothing special but I enjoy it.”
“He’s very good,” Mum put in.
“I’m sure he is, Brenda,” Stuart said, giving my dad a huge smile. “It’s in the genes, then, where John gets his talent.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Dad said. “Brenda doesn’t sing, and I’ve never written a song in my life, so I don’t know where he gets that from.”
A childhood memory popped into my mind:
“I used to listen to you play when I was a kid, Dad, and it made me want to play as well as you. But you’re much better technically than me.” Dad shuffled in his seat but looked pleased. Mum nudged me:
“You wrote a tune when you were about twelve, do you remember? Your dad transcribed it onto some manuscript for you, didn’t you, Bert?”
“I’d forgotten that!” I said, laughing.
“You played it for all the ladies at my Tupperware party!” Mum said proudly.
“I’d forgotten that too!”
Patsy looked delighted:
“Do you remember what it was called, John?”
I couldn’t, but Mum did:
“It was called, They Say, very pretty it was too. I’ve still got the manuscript somewhere.”
Stuart and Patsy stayed a little while longer then left the three of us to finish our drinks before I walked my parents to the tube. I called Francesco over to settle the bill, only to be told that “Mr Reid has sorted it, Mr Howard!”.
“How kind,” Mum said. “Wasn’t that kind, Bert?”
Dad nodded at the chair nearest to him.
Our coats brought to us by a smiling waiter, Francesco shook our hands warmly, and we were in the cool Spring Soho air, through which I walked my parents to Piccadilly Station.
“It’s very lively, isn’t it?” Mum said, eyeing the strip and girlie bars.
“It is that,” Dad said, trying not to eye them.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” I asked them both once we’d reached the tube station.
“Oh, it was lovely, Howard!” Mum said, her face a little flushed from her two glasses of champagne. “And they are really nice people, aren’t they, Bert?”
Dad smiled at me and said,
“We can go home tomorrow knowing you’ll be alright, son.”
After a hug and a kiss for Mum and a surprising hug from Dad, I watched them going down the steps to the underground, hand in hand. Waving at them, as they glanced back over their shoulders before they were surrounded by the melée of people rushing by them, I could see them still looking a bit non-plussed by it all. Mum pointed at what she thought was the right way, and they were gone. It was the last time I would see her looking so well.
Copyright John Howard 2016