INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
“Just Waiting Here For You”
“I like people like you.”
‘Sugar’ Ray smiled at me over his third pint of beer I’d bought him, looked me up and down and winked a slow, enticingly tipsy wink. His eyes were the lightest ice-blue I’d seen, and seemed to stare into your deepest self. It was an oddly disconcerting feeling, but also rather thrilling. He possessed a gently mocking persona and had seemed amused as I’d wittered away, completely foolishly, that I’d recently been paid £500 for writing a song for the new Peter Fonda movie, and was currently recording my first album at Abbey Road studios, for which I’d received an advance of £10,000. His widening eyes and slight tip of the head should have set alarm bells ringing, but, like the naïve fool I was back then, I inwardly preened.
“People like me?” I asked disingenuously. I sipped my vodka and lime and stared coquettishly back at him.
“Successful people,” he said, nudging my knee. “Like you. I like success. The sweet smell and all that.”
I breathed in the aroma of Pino Sylvestre which wafted round me, having virtually bathed in it before I’d left the flat that evening. I’m not sure if was the vodka or my cologne, but, without much forethought, I said,
“What are you doing later?”. It elicited a broad smile from my East End trick.
“Don’t waste time do you?”
“When I see what I want, I usually go for it.” (‘Who is this talking?’ a voice inside me said. I ignored it and felt myself smiling provocatively).
“Coming home with you, I hope!” he replied, finishing his beer with a huge thirsty swill.
My heart actually fluttered. I’d only read about fluttering hearts in Victorian romance novels, now I knew what it felt like. Legs a little shaky, and again ignoring the inner warning voice, I stood and said,
“Let’s go then.”
On the tube to St John’s Wood, Ray continued to banter away with me, chuckling gorgeously whenever I said anything mildly amusing.
“You got a nice flat in St John’s Wood then?” he asked, as the train flew through the tunnel from Baker Street.
“I like it, it’s small but perfectly formed.”
Another chuckle as we reached our stop. I felt his hand rubbing my back as the doors swished open. It was my turn to chuckle.
On the short walk to Hall Road, we were chatting away easily when Ray took something from his pocket and casually threw it in a garden. I heard it fall with a clatter onto the path and slide away.
“What was that?” I asked him, and he shrugged.
“A knife,” he said matter of factly.
“Why did you throw it away?”
“’Cause I won’t be using it on you.”
I stopped in my tracks. He stood very still next to me as I shivered slightly, unsure whether to speak or run. I heard him take a deep breath before he walked in front of me, dipped his face into mine, forcing me to look at him, and said,
“Okay. Truth time. When I picked you up, it was part of a scam I have with one of the barmen. He scans the room for young, rich-looking, well-dressed guys, a bit, well, camp like you, gives me the nod, I approach them, give ‘em the blah-blah sugar charm and get invited back to their flat.”
“Yeah well, it worked on you didn’t it?”
Point made, he continued:
“Once in there, having a quick snog, I whip out the knife, threaten to cut their throat if they don’t give me their cash, wallet, jewellery and what-not, and basically frighten the living daylights out of them. Having got all their valuables, which they can’t unload quick enough, I scarper. I lie low for a week or so then go back to the pub, give the barman his half-share of the booty and sit and wait for the next pick-up.”
As calmly as I could, but shaking inside, I said,
“Does it always work?”
“We do alright. Never had any problems yet.”
“You never get any return visits to the pub, with a policeman in tow?”
“Do they never report it?”
“Young toffs steer clear of Lily Law. Too embarrassing, and mummy and daddy might stop their allowance. They’re just relieved they’re still in one piece, learnt their lesson and stay away from rough joints like The Queen’s Head. I never actually hurt them, just make ‘em think I will. And anyway, rich boys don’t miss a few quid.”
“So – why not me?”
“Honestly? I like you.” I gave him a ‘puh-lease!’ look and he laughed. “I do! You’re different. You’re not stuck-up posh like the other guys I’ve picked up, all hoity-toity nose in the air, looking for a bit of rough.” He moved closer to me, his expression the one we usually adopt when gently letting someone down. “I also realised early on you’re not actually rich.”
“Oh?” I felt slightly insulted.
“You went on a bit too much about the money you’d made from your music. It was obviously new to you to earn so much.”
He waited a few seconds while I digested it all, then put his hand on my shoulder,
“I’d like to see you again. Or have I scared you off? What are you – twenty, twenty-one…?”
“Yeah. Well, you probably wouldn’t want to get involved with a thirty-five year old loser like me.”
He leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the lips. I could smell his leather jacket and the booze on his breath.
“So. Up to you,” he said. “Do you want me to go or…shall we, you know…?”
In the early hours of the morning, I lay in his arms as he absent-mindedly curled my hair round his fingers. I kissed his arm and said,
“I’d like to see you again too.”
I woke up as the dawn chorus was singing its heart out by the window. I never drew my curtains, I loved daylight creeping in as the morning rose outside. It looked like it was going to be another lovely early summer’s day. I could hear Ray humming to himself in the bathroom, and found him soaking in a steaming bath, covered in lather. He looked like a soaped-up teddy bear. He carried on singing and smiled like an angel at me:
“Good morning, gorgeous.”
“Tea?” I asked, half hoping he’d ask me to join him. But:
“Great!” he replied brightly. “Then I have to go. Work calls!”
I suddenly realised that I hadn’t enquired what he did for a living. I’d assumed he earned enough money to live on from his pick-up scams – although as he’d promised me during the night that that side of his life was now over…:
“Where is work?”
“The bookies. William Hill’s.”
“In the West End?”
“Nah. My stomping ground, Mile End Road. It pays the bills. Not far from my flat either. I can pop in and change before I go there.”
I also hadn’t asked him where he lived. The fact is, back then, in my world of one-night stands, you didn’t give out too much personal information (unless you were a chatterbox preener like me). It was usually a casual no-questions-asked thing, certainly on the first date anyway, a mutual, unspoken understanding of ‘That was nice, ‘bye now, see you around sometime’. One learnt the rules of the single urban gay man very quickly – a hint of a desired attachment, voiced too soon, was a definite no-no. Exchanging phone numbers was sometimes delicately raised over a morning cuppa, if only –if you’d been so lucky – to arrange a repeat performance of the fantastic sex you’d just had. But it was the most upfront you could be without scaring off the pick-up for good. But to be brutally honest, you were usually glad to see the back of them.
Tea quickly knocked back, Ray gave me a peck on the cheek and went to the front door. I saw that he’d left his leather jacket perched on the back of one of the chairs and was about to get it for him when he said not to worry, it was going to be a hot day so he wouldn’t need it. With another longer peck on my cheek and a delightful wink, he closed the door, saying “See you about seven tonight!”, just before it clicked shut.
I rang Stuart at ten o’clock to see if he wanted me in that day. Most afternoons, I went into his office to work on new songs on the old upright piano. Today though, I just fancied a long soak, a snack at one of the salad bars in St John’s Wood High Street, and a good sleep – I hadn’t had much of that the previous night. I was very relieved then when Stuart said,
“If you don’t want to come in today, John, don’t worry. I’m going to be having a few meetings here with overseas publishers most of the afternoon, so you won’t be able to do much playing anyway. I’ll need the larger piano room as it has the tape machine – and I’ll be playing them some of your songs! Probably not good for you to be here while they listen, could make them a little uncomfortable… though I’m sure they’ll love what you do.”
Although we had the recording deal, Stuart was still ‘working’ my songs, trying to get some covers by other artists, or potentially interesting a publisher abroad, enough to want to do a sub-publishing deal for their territory and work the songs there. While I languished in my hot foam bath, I imagined one of Stuart’s contacts raving about Goodbye Suzie or Gone Away, saying how it would be perfect for a French chanteuse who he knew was looking for a hit. Such things my dreams were made of back then.
After a delightfully laid-back day, a light lunch and a wander round the shops in the High Street, I got back to my flat, lay on the bed and fell fast asleep. My last thought before dropping off was ‘I’ll get up at about five, have a quick bath and make a snack for Ray before he gets here.’
As I came to, I realised that night had fallen, the full moon casting spider-web shadows from the trees outside across the bed. I looked at the clock. It was nine o’clock! I jumped up in a daze, still not properly awake, turned on the light and wondered if I’d slept through Ray pressing the intercom buzzer at the main entrance. I imagined him standing downstairs, cursing me not answering. But that was unlikely, the buzzer was extremely loud. It had once shocked me out of a very heavy sleep when Patsy had popped round on the off-chance, to see if I fancied joining her for lunch at Fortnum & Mason. I’d been having a crafty post-late-breakfast rest and had had to feign hunger as she chatted away over our smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.
I paced the room for a few minutes, wondering what to do, and decided to make myself a cup of tea. By ten o’clock, I was sitting in the armchair, empty mug on my knee, staring out of the window at the dark blue sky tinted with the distant yellow miles of street lights. I glanced over at Ray’s leather jacket slung over the dining chair, thought about it for a few minutes then went over and checked the pockets, there may have been a telephone number somewhere. But there was nothing, just a chewing gum wrapper and a screwed-up bus ticket. Wishing I’d insisted on giving him my phone number, I recalled him laughing when I’d offered it:
“Why do I need that? I’m coming back here later – aren’t I?”
By midnight, I gave up waiting and went to bed. During the night, I had one of those dreams-while-awake – I was staring into the darkness of the room when Ray walked in and stood over the bed. He hovered over me for a few seconds, smiled, then turned and left the room again. When I actually woke up as the sun was coming through, my first thought was that he’d been killed and had ‘come back’ to me for one last time during the night. Telling myself to stop being so melodramatic, I got up and ran a bath.
Stuart rang at eleven, and told me he’d had a great reaction from one of the French publishers – maybe my daydream about the chanteuse covering one of my songs hadn’t been so world-of-my-own after all. Visions of trips to Paris came into my head and brightened me a little, as he suggested we meet for lunch at Kettner’s:
“It’s time we had a catch-up. Haven’t talked properly for ages.”
Before getting ready to go out, I put on the new Alan Price album I’d bought a few days earlier, ‘Between Today and Yesterday’. I’d got it on the strength of his brilliant new single, Jarrow Song, which was constantly on the radio and climbing the Top Ten. The album didn’t disappoint either, with its mix of piano-led wistful songs, Nina Simone-like blues, and McCartney-ish pop, it was just what I needed that morning.
Sitting on the tube to Leicester Square, and mulling over the mixing sessions which were due to start in a couple of weeks, I had a surge of panic…would Ray have come back by then?…how would I concentrate on the mixing if he was still missing?…should I go to the police?…no, not a good idea, given Ray’s rather shady background…should I tell Stuart?
I felt completely dislocated. Unusually for me, my concentration was poor. I wasn’t able to think things through. I tried to read the Time Out I’d bought at St John’s Wood station, but realised I’d read the same paragraph several times of a review of the new Neil Sedaka album, ‘Laughter In The Rain’. With the side-thought that I’d read it properly later, and probably buy the album while I was near HMV later that afternoon, my mind went back to Ray. Maybe I should discuss his disappearance with Stuart. Talking things through often helped clear the mind. But then I decided that he would probably wave away my concerns as rather silly:
“You only met him last night, John,” Stuart would say. “What’s the fuss? So, he’s gone. So what? Plenty more fish in the sea.”
Yes, I told myself, I was just worrying about nothing.
“You always make mountains out of molehills,” my mum used to tell me.
She was right. Simple answer was he’d decided one night was enough and gone back to his ‘former life’. But then, why leave his jacket behind? Maybe I should take it back to the pub where we’d met. I had an image of me striding up to the bar, handing Ray’s jacket to the barman and shouting grandly,
“Give this to Ray Robinson when you see him next. You know, the petty thief.”
But what if he was there, in the middle of one of his pick-up scams? Then what? Another image came to me, flouncing over to him, throwing his jacket in his face and telling the queen he was chatting up that the hunk he was making goo-goo eyes at was a crook.
“Got yourself a new knife, Ray?” I’d say cattily. Then to the queen, “Watch yourself, love. He might use it.”
I smiled at the silly daydreams of a dumped fool. I actually had no desire to darken that particular pub’s doorstep ever again.
The train was coming into my station, and, as I stood amidst the tourist melée waiting for the doors to open, the thought floated by that it was just a short walk from there to the pub where I’d met Ray. ‘No,’ I insisted to the niggling other voice in my head, ‘don’t be so stupid.’
As I stepped onto the platform, a very handsome Italian-looking chap waiting to get on gave me the eye. I returned his gaze but, carried along by the surge of disembarking passengers, was swept towards the exit. When I managed to glance round, I caught his resigned shrug through the carriage window as the train set off and sped away through the tunnel. Yes, I told myself, definitely more fish in the sea.
I wandered into Kettner’s, past the white grand piano where a tuxedoed chap was playing Gershwin’s Summertime. Walking into the huge dining-room, I saw someone put his jacket over the back of a chair, and the unwelcome image of Ray’s, lying forlornly on mine, made my stomach sink. Stuart’s welcome smile was beaming at me from one of the window tables. I pasted on a smile and went to greet him.
“John!” he cried “How are you?” He grabbed my hand and squeezed it in both of his.
“Really good, Stuart,” I lied.
“Honestly?” He studied me. “You look a bit tired actually, John. You sure you’re ok?”
I sat down, picked up my napkin and smiled:
“I’m fine! Didn’t sleep too well last night.”
“You been out on the town again, you rascal?”
I laughed, it felt empty but I hoped it sounded throwaway.
“If only, Stuart!” I replied, nodding to the waiter who offered me some water from the iced jug on the table. “Great news about the publisher!” I said, changing the subject.
“He really loved Gone Away and Missing Key.”
“That’s fantastic! Do you think he’ll get a cover?”
“Who knows? But at least he’ll be trying to.”
The waiter arrived to take our order. I glanced at the menu.
“And the mixing sessions are not far off now!” I chatted away as brightly as I could, feigning reading but knowing what I wanted.
“Nearly there, John! Nearly there. It’s going to be so great, I know it is. Now, what do you fancy – egg and chips?”
He’d read my mind. Kettner’s boasted the most expensive egg and chips on the planet, but it was exactly what I needed right then. Comfort food.
On the day the mixing sessions began, it was almost two weeks since Ray had gone out, saying he’d be back that evening. The pang of not knowing what became of him after that had started to fade, but, regardless of all the voices in my head telling me to just forget it, move on, he’s gone, I was still concerned about him. It had gone beyond missing him to ‘what the hell has happened to him?’. I had a couple of hours in the morning before the sessions started, so I decided to ring Directory Enquiries for the telephone number of William Hill Bookmakers in Mile End Road. Half-expecting there to be no such branch, I was oddly relieved when the operator gave me the number. They answered the phone very quickly,
“Hello? William Hill. How can I help you?” an efficient-sounding lady chirruped. Startled into action, I was already wishing I hadn’t called.
“Hello,” I said as confidently as I could. “I wonder if you can…”.
“I’ll do my best sir!” the lady breezed away, laughing when she dropped her pen. “Ooh! Clumsy me! Now! What can I do for you?”
‘Breathe,’ I told myself. ‘Calm.’:
“I’m trying to contact a Ray Robinson, who I believe works at your branch. He’s left something of his at my flat and I want to let him know.”
“Oh! Well, hmm, I don’t believe we have anyone of that name working at this branch, sir.”
She must have heard the disappointment in my reaction:
“Tell you what,” she said, lowering her voice a little, “he may have moved to another branch, people do, for various reasons. Let me put you through to our Head Office. They can check the list of employees at all our London premises.”
Thanking her gratefully, I heard a light click, silence, then a ringing tone. After waiting for about a minute with no reply, I was just about to give up and put the phone down when a gruff-voiced chap came on the line:
I explained who I was trying to contact, ignoring his rather bored cough as I twittered away. Finally, as he cleared his throat yet again, I shut up.
“Robinson you say?”
“That’s right. Ray Robinson.”
“Is he a member of your family or…?”
“A friend. Just a friend. But I’m actually a little worried about him, he seems to have, well, vanished.”
That elicited a kind of puzzled grunt:
“If your friend has, as you say, vanished, sir, then you should really call the police, report a Missing Person.”
“I know. I will, but first I wanted to check with you, just to make sure whether he’s been into work since I last saw him…”
“And that was?”
“Oh, a week or so ago.” It was only a tiny white lie.
“Well, sir, while we’ve been talking, I’ve been looking through the R’s on our employees listing for London, and I’m afraid there aren’t any Robinsons working for us. There’s a Robertson, a Joyce Robertson, so, clearly, that’s not your friend, but, no, definitely no Robinson here.” He hummed to himself then, “No. No-one called Robinson on my list.”
I thanked him for his time, and put the phone down. My mouth was dry as parchment.
“Lying little toe-rag!”, I said to the kettle as I made myself a cup of tea. Settling with my Darjeeling into the armchair by the window, and glancing over at the deserted leather jacket, I felt utterly foolish. “Sod him!” I said out loud.
‘Band On The Run’, McCartney’s best album since The Beatles had split up, was my choice of getting-ready music. It was Paul’s first truly great post-Fabs album. He’d had a patchy three years. While George and John had come up with the nearly-amazing ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Imagine’, Paul had been messing about with nursery rhymes and oddly ragged L.Ps. Now, with his former muckers’ stars decidedly on the wane, McCartney had finally given himself a good talking-to and delivered the album we all knew he was capable of. It was like having all of Macca’s best tracks from The White Album on one L.P. ‘Band On The Run’ was that good.
I smiled at the title track’s rather unfortunate lyric, “Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever, never seeing no-one nice again like you.” I sang along, but changed the words to ‘Man On The Run’, and decided once and for all to put the last couple of weeks down to experience. Ray had been good company, lovely to be with, and he’d made me laugh. But that would have to be that. Move on. Next. ‘Hello. What’s your name?’. Smile. Look alluring.
But, truth be told, the ‘once-only-and-goodbye’ thing was becoming a little tiresome. I was beginning to want more, and I’d hoped that he might be The One. He had the looks, personality, under-the-sheets talent, and that frisson of Bad Boy which suited me down to the ground. He was in many ways the character I had written about for years in some of my more colourful songs. My Genet-esque Great Dark Man. With a glance at the dust-gathering jacket over my chair, and a vow to take it to the charity shop in Maida Vale as soon as I could, I put McCartney’s masterpiece back in its sleeve, checked myself in the mirror by the door, locked the door and went for the lift.
It was still a thrill being just a short walk from Abbey Road, I never got bored of enjoying that, and, as I walked up the steps to the studio’s front door, full of anticipation for what the next few days would bring, I hoped that the mixing sessions would be the distraction I needed. Sadly, however, what I hadn’t expected was how boring I found the whole mixing process. Back then, long before I’d started producing my own recordings, the technical side was way over my head, and the endless what-seemed-hours of sitting around while the producer and engineer listened ad nauseum to a bass drum drove me crazy. With a sinking heart, I watched Peter fiddling with the knobs on his mixing desk, playing it through, unplugging leads and re-plugging them into various other inputs, and playing it through again. Tony would bend an ear to check it until it had enough oomph or whatever, thumbs-up, move onto the snare drum. It all left me losing the will to live, hour after hour, doing the same thing with every instrument, every piece of percussion and every vocal, over and over again until, after the umpteenth “more top…no a little less, that’s it…more middle…down a bit, yep, good, ok, hi-hat now…yep…”, I gave up. With a quick “ok” nod from Tony, and Peter smiling understandingly at me, I left them to it and popped down to Studio 2, sat at the grand piano and began working on some new song ideas I’d had. I sighed with pleasure as the keys moved smoothly beneath my hands. The chords rang out through this cathedral of pop history. This was where I wanted to be. This I understood.
The first one, which I already had most of the lyrics for, was Just Waiting Here For You, written just a few days earlier. The inspiration for the song is obvious:
“The clock ticks on
That makes the day so long
If only you had called
If only you had phoned
Just waiting here for you
Just waiting here for you
You could’ve called
These four walls look the same
No matter how many times
I change the chairs around”
Writing songs on that wonderful piano seemed to give my songs a much more panoramic feel. The gorgeously resounding bass notes vibrated through my hands and truly inspired me. What a difference from my parents’ old upright on which I’d written many of the songs I’d recorded with Tony. It had most of its bass strings missing, destroyed by mice which lived inside it. This was, literally, chalk and cheese!
Another lyric I had sketched out a few days earlier was Hall of Mirrors, again reflecting my sense of detachment at that time, an odd feeling of empty abandonment I hadn’t experienced before. It was my lullaby to loneliness.:
“Loneliness has never been
A very faithful lover
Darkness has never been
Very much of a mother
She leaves her kids crying every night
With a goodnight kiss
You cry for more
Like moths to light”
I was dying to play the new songs to Tony, and was just about to go up and ask him to come and have a listen when the studio monitor boomed out:
“John? Want to come and have a listen? We have our first mix!”
As Goodbye Suzie rang round the control room, I suddenly I realised how all of Tony’s and Peter’s endeavours and efforts, getting everything on the track just right sonically, had paid off. It sounded huge, with its own space, and the vastness of the whole thing sent shivers down my spine.
“Gone Away is next, John,” Tony explained. “I’ll live with the mixes we do for a couple of days then Peter and I will tweak where we need to, to get the final mixes complete. Happy so far?”
“Over the moon,” I replied. “It sounds amazing.”
“I know it’s tedious to watch and listen to if you’re not involved in the process,” he said, which elicited a crafty wink from Peter at me, “but it really is worth the time and effort.”
“I can see that now. I just wish I understood more of what you’re doing.”
“Then stay and watch the next mix, I’ll explain as we go along.”
Over the next few days, standing behind Peter as he patiently worked at getting what Tony was asking for, I began to understand what he was doing. He stopped occasionally and told me which knob did what, and why such-and-such a channel needed less bass or more middle, or more presence. As the track built with each twiddle and listen, Peter fading channels up and down until he got the nod from Tony, I could see how it was like a collage developing, a collage of sound and atmosphere. Just a minor turn of a knob or lift of a fader a fraction of an inch, gave, say, the piano extra body, more depth, and sitting in the track just where it should be. What had initially bored me stiff became increasingly fascinating. I was actually seeing how all those weeks of recording with a great engineer like Peter at the helm had paid off. With neither fanfare nor ostentatiousness, he calmly got each track to sound exactly as Tony wanted it. They were a great team, and it was intriguing to watch their partnership turn my initial piano/voice songs into big-sounding productions. I’d never seen the process up so close and in such detail like that before. I stayed around for each mix from then on.
There was still time occasionally to wander down to Studio 2 and try out some new song ideas, usually at Tony’s suggestion when mixing a track was getting tricky or required some time-consuming patchwork, so I did write three or four more, such as Lonely Woman, Blink In The Darkness, Oh Dad and Take Up Your Partners during those times. I also managed to complete a song I’d been working on for a while, Technicolour Biography, its rather dark and surreal lyric fitting my mood:
“It was midday
By the flushed face
Of the hunter with the slim waist
Was a painter of Golden Age puns
Runs on the shore
Praising the sun for being a whore
And the bar boy toyed with words
He served them all as decoys
To the poet Robespierre
Who once climbed into his mind
And from the shadows
The songs were sung very low
And the sky became yellow
The ground like a pillow beneath them
And the waves wound round their naked toes
And the days seemed so endless
But oh, how time flows!
And the wine bottles strewn upon the shore were empty
They were empty
And it was midnight
By the stark light
Of the actor with the dark eyes
Drank with all the stars
Slept in disused cars
And the bruises he got from the boozers
They left no scars
And the saga that he starred in
Was running in the back street cinemas
And his leading lady
Watched all her re-runs in the stalls
And from the shadows
The songs were sung very low
And the sky became yellow
The ground like a pillow beneath them
And the waves wound round their naked toes
And the days seemed so endless
But oh, how time flows!
And the wine bottles strewn upon the shore were empty
They were empty
And the bar boy toyed with no words
He’d served them all
By the poet Robespierre
With mixing completed by the middle of July, next came the sequencing of the tracks into a Side One and Side Two. I met up with Tony in one of the small ante-rooms at Abbey Road, where we listened to the ten tracks and he made notes where he thought they would fit into the tracklisting. He was keen that the album should open “with a bang”, and wrote down Spellbound as Track One. He played it again to me, saying,
“Imagine you’ve taken the LP out of its inner sleeve, put it onto the record player and dropped the stylus on the first track, then this – Bang! – comes in.”
Bob Henrit’s brilliant drum roll opening and the rather jazzy anticipated beat on ‘You!’ convinced me.
He followed this with a ballad, The Flame, then the Swing-style Harry Gold-arranged Maybe Someday In Miami. Missing Key followed that, and Side One ended with Family Man.
“Now,” Tony said, sipping his umpteenth coffee, “Side Two has to come in with, again, something different, so I suggest Kid In A Big World. All the time we’re surprising people, just as they think they know where you’re coming from, we switch gear and style. It’s what The Beatles did on ‘Revolver’, ‘Pepper’ and ‘The White Album’. Never allow your audience to completely know what’s next.”
He followed that with Deadly Nightshade, then Goodbye Suzie, penultimate track was Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – at that point the album’s title track – and finished Side Two, and the album, with Gone Away:
“Leave them wanting more – literally, John. Fantastic track to finish things. You’ve gone away – for now, until the next album.”
“I’ve written some new songs for that.”
“Yep. I wanted to play them to you at the studio during the mixing sessions but we didn’t really have time.”
“Sorry about that. We’ll put some time aside soon, but for now…”
He chuckled as he looked at his tracklisting and handed it to me:
“What do you think?”
I suddenly felt excited. I hadn’t really stopped to take in what was about to happen, until that moment. The previous few weeks had been a case of ‘job to do, get on with it’. Each day of the sessions over the previous three months had meant getting the tracks recorded, with no real sense that these would all form part of an album. Just making sure they were all as good as we could get them was all that mattered. But now, with the album finished and the final tracklisting in my hand, all the hopes, all the possibilities, which I’d carried with me over the years since my teens, when I’d decided that I wanted to be a recording artist, they suddenly seemed tangible. Real. This was my album! We’d done it!
“Fabulous!” I said. “Really great, Tony.”
“Excellent. I’ll pop this down the corridor to Peter and he can make the album master and a copy for Stuart.”
Sipping the dregs of his coffee he rushed out saying,
“Now let’s see what they all make of it!”
I went over to the kettle and, as I stood waiting for it to boil, wondered which track CBS would pick as the first single. My bet was on Deadly Nightshade, but Tony thought they may go for a ballad to emphasise the singer-songwriter aspect. I was pouring the hot water onto an Earl Grey teabag, mulling it over, when the phone rang.
“Mr Reid for you, Mr Howard,” the receptionist said.
“How’s it going, John?” Stuart’s bright voice chirruped in.
“Really well, Stuart. We’ve just finished the tracklisting. Peter’s doing the copy master for you now.”
“Fabulous! Bring it in and we’ll listen to it together. How about joining me and Patsy for lunch tomorrow, get here about 12.30?”
“Lovely, thanks, Stuart.”
I was about to bid farewell when…:
“Now! John. I’ve been having a few ideas about the album sleeve…”
I hadn’t expected that to be up to Stuart, more something CBS would arrange, but just then Tony walked back in and I mouthed to him who was on the phone. Meanwhile, Stuart breezed on:
“The album’s going to be called ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’. I think we’re all agreed on that. So! Why not create a little mystery within that title?”
I could hear him getting really excited as he spoke more quickly. “This is my idea for the cover…I see an invitation card on a desk, with just the title of the album in beautiful handwriting. Your red fedora hat and a silver walking cane are lying beside it – very classy, John – and, here’s the bit I love, we won’t put your name on there!”
My silence must have spoken reams:
“Let me explain, John,” Stuart continued. “Here’s my thinking…when people see your album, they should be intrigued. ‘Who is this?’. They get your album home, put it on and it’s, ‘he sounds wonderful, but what’s his name?’. ‘What does he look like?’. It’ll create a real sense of mystery. Everyone will be asking about you. Then, when the media is begging to meet you, we reveal you to the world with a fantastic show and a press conference. Can you imagine it, John? You’ll blow their minds! I have to say, it’s a great concept.”
I usually found his enthusiasm catching, but this time I wasn’t convinced. I wasn’t actually sure how to react. Obviously sensing that, he said,
“Look. Don’t worry about it now, we’ll discuss it over lunch tomorrow. But I’ve run it past Patsy and she thinks it’s a great idea!”
“Have you run it by CBS?”
“Not yet, I’ll do that when I take the tapes into them. Leave it to me, John, if I’m nothing else I’m a great salesman!”
As I put down the phone, Tony could see my concern:
“What?” he asked.
I started to explain Stuart’s idea to him, but, even before I’d got to the bit about not featuring my name on the sleeve, he had buried his head in his hands:
“Christ Almighty!” he shouted through his fingers. “What is this guy doing? Does he want to fuck your career up before you’ve even got to first base?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was still in shock at not having my name on the album. Tony stood up and began pacing the room:
“Paul McCartney, right?”
“He is probably the most famous guy on the planet, everybody knows what Paul McCartney looks like. Yeah?”
I nodded again.
“But what does he put on his album sleeves?”
I shook my head.
“He fucking plasters them with photos of himself, every fucking where! Front sleeve, back sleeve, inner sleeve, lyric sheet, Paul’s face is on each and every fucking one of them!!” He laughed out loud, but in exasperation. “Stuart has spent the last six months – and God knows how much money – creating your look, buying you fantastic outfits, sending you to the best hairdresser’s, make-up artists, getting photos of you done by Dezo Fucking Hoffman! And now…Now! He doesn’t want anyone to fucking see you! Is he nuts?!”
“Well, in fairness, he doesn’t want me to be seen on the sleeve, then, after the album’s released, he -”
“It’s a crazy idea, John! It simply won’t work. Trust me. I gather from what you were saying that he hasn’t told CBS about this?”
“Well, if they’ve any sense, please God!” – he prayed to the ceiling – “they’ll screw it up in a very tight ball and throw it through the fucking window. For Pete’s sake, one of the reasons they’re so excited about you is because of how you look! I don’t understand, John. I really don’t understand.”
“He also -”
“Oh God, what else?”
I took a deep breath:
“He doesn’t want my name on the sleeve either – he wants to create – ”
“What??!!” I thought Tony was going to explode.
“ – a sense of mystery.” I heard my voice wither away.
“A sense of mystery??!” He buried his face in his hands again and swayed from side to side. “Oh my God! What the fuck is he doing?”
I sat in silence as he continued to sway and moan into his hands. When he finally lifted his head, his face was red and I could see his eyes had watered up. He drew himself up, sat down very close to me, leaned forward and, grabbing me with his eyes, said,
“What do you think of Stuart’s idea?”
I felt disloyal but couldn’t lie:
“I don’t think it’ll work. I don’t like it. It’s – old-fashioned.”
“Old fashioned isn’t in it. Anyone seeing that cover will think it’s a fucking Ray Conniff album. ‘Singalong With John’. Sometimes I – well, frankly I despair.”
He seemed to make a decision:
“Okay. I wasn’t going to get involved in the sleeve, it’s not my call, I’m not your manager and I’m not CBS, I’m just the producer, and my job is done. But! We’ve got to stop Stuart killing your album, because that’s what his idea will do. And all our hard work will have been for nothing. Do you want that?”
“Okay. So, look. Forget what Stuart says. His idea ain’t gonna happen. I’ll make sure of that. We’re going to have your face – and your name! – on this album, if it kills me. Fuck his bloody invitation card and silver cane crap. Who does he think you are, Maurice sodding Chevalier?! Right. Here’s what I see. This should be the sleeve.”
As he spoke, he painted a picture with his hands, bringing his vision to life:
“It should have you, beautifully, really tastefully made-up, with a white face, dark lips, dark nails, and wearing one of your fantastic suits, and that great white fedora of yours tipped over one eye. I see you standing in a really dark gothic interior, like you live in this off-the-wall, out-of-the-way place. A hermit genius living in some exotic mansion.”
I smiled as his eyes widened, like a magician creating the sleeve for me out of thin air.
“Remember how great-looking Bowie was as Ziggy?”
“Bowie lived that image, he became Ziggy Stardust, his fans actually believed he was from outer space.”
I laughed as I remembered almost believing that myself when I fell in love with Ziggy in ’72. I knew he wasn’t an alien, obviously, but I wanted him to be. I fully understood what Tony was saying – with a clever image, fully realised, you can excite pop music buyers. It certainly excited me. Then I thought of my little fourteen-pounds-a–week bedsit and my weekly allowance of thirty pounds from Stuart, hardly glamorous iconic genius. Tony must have seen the doubt crossing my face:
“I’m serious, John. You have to live this, be this. It’s a big ask, I know, but it’s the only way to really make it big. Twiggy was a fashion icon and always looked amazing, she lived what people imagined her to be. Bowie was a pop and fashion icon, and he lived it, he became Ziggy. To their fans they were untouchable, like Gods from another world. You can be that too. Really. Christ, why not?”
It was a lot to take in but I was really excited. Tony had this way of making you believe the impossible. He’d certainly stretched me during the recording sessions, shown me a different way of playing and interpreting my own songs, so why not now with my image?
Inside me, the little lad from Ramsbottom was shouting ‘Don’t be so daft!’; but the singer-songwriter with a CBS record deal was shouting back, ‘You can do this!’.
“I love it, Tony!” I said.
“Good! So, this is how we play it…first of all, don’t tell Stuart it’s my idea, that’ll put him off straight away!” He laughed. “Explain it to him like it’s an image you’ve been thinking about and have come up with this great concept. Really sell it to Stuart as all your own idea. I’m not looking for any credit, I just want this album to be a fucking hit! I’m on a three per cent royalty on sales for God’s sake!” He laughed loudly now, and so did I. “No. We have to go for broke. There’s only one mystery we want to create, that’s how all your talent comes in such an amazing-looking package. It’s called marketing. Jeez. I wish I was your manager.”
Happily, as I carefully explained ‘my’ idea over lunch, Stuart really loved it:
“You’ve been thinking long and hard about this, John.”
“Absolutely,” I lied through my teeth.
“Okay. I’ll book the photo session, call the photographer and get a good make-up artist. Well done, John!”
Patsy hadn’t said much, but seemed intrigued at least. I got an uncomfortable impression that she didn’t believe it was my idea, but if that was true, she kept her counsel.
Once back from lunch, Stuart made a couple of calls and told me the session was booked for the middle of August:
“There’s a young American guy who’s been recommended to me, Mike Nicholson’s his name. He loved your concept, John. He’s going to call me later to discuss where we do the photos.”
As Stuart was patting me on the back, Patsy looked at me rather oddly and said,
“Yes. Well done, John.”
I thanked her, but still wasn’t sure whether her congratulation was for ‘my’ concept, or the fact I’d successfully convinced Stuart it was my concept. I couldn’t be sure. And I wasn’t about to ask.
Whisky-on-the-rocks poured for me, red wine for Patsy and a pernod and ice for Stuart, the three of us sat and listened to the album together. Neither of them said anything during the playback, and, when Side One was finished, Stuart just got up, put on Reel Two and sat down again next to me. I could hear the ice in his pernod chinking in his glass, its strong aroma wafting over as the tracks played. With Gone Away’s ending motif, Stuart got up and took the tape off and looked over at Patsy:
“It’s an excellent album, John,” he said. “Very good indeed. I’m still not keen on a couple of the tracks…,” another glance at his wife…“but overall I think CBS will love it.” Patsy blinked in agreement at me across the room.
“Well done, John,” she said, and this time it was definitely meant for me.
“OK!” Stuart said, putting the tape in its box. “I’ll take the master tapes over to CBS now!”
I heard him crooning the opening lines of Kid In A Big World as he went down the stairs.
A few days later, he still hadn’t heard back from A & R Director, Dan Loggins, or indeed anyone from the label. The silence was killing me, but Stuart seemed quite sanguine.
“Give it time, John,” he said. “They’re a big company. This is a big album for them. They’ll have to speak to the States before they come back to us. They’ll call.”
Finally, they did. About a week later, Stuart and I were in his office chatting about the upcoming photo session, when Paul Russell, then Head of Business Affairs at CBS, rang. The two men talked for about ten minutes, with me earwigging what bits I could make out. There were several “Great!”s, a considered “Understood”, quite a few “Mmmm”’s and a final “I’ll speak to John”. When Stuart finally put down the phone I was gagging to hear what Paul had to say.
“OK,” Stuart said, coming to sit next to me. “Paul thinks the album is really good.”
‘Really good’ didn’t sound as wholly enthusiastic as I’d hoped. I was partially right:
“He said there had been some very positive comments about it from the whole company. Different people like different tracks. Dick Asher, of course, loves Goodbye Suzie.”
The company’s managing director had been very keen on ‘Suzie’ as soon as he’d heard my demo, apparently. Stuart had told me that, for him, it had sealed the deal. He went on:
“Paul especially likes The Flame and Spellbound. But – like me – he’s not keen on Kid In A Big World, Family Man or Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. He loves the songs, just not Tony’s production on those, he called them ‘over-produced’. But, he stressed that these are his own personal opinions. Overall, he – and the label – think it’s a very good album.”
Seeing the relief on my face, he nudged me:
“And – this should prove to you how good he and the rest of the company thinks it is – he also wants to invite us – you, me and Patsy – to join CBS at their annual conference in Torquay at the end of August. Your album will be presented to the sales and marketing teams from across the world. And we will be there!”
“Wow!” I shouted, “now that’s great!”
He took a sip of his pernod and nodded:
“Yes, John. It is. But – and I’ve told Paul I need to speak to you first -”. My heart began to sink. What now? “They want to change the title of the album.”
I actually sighed with relief,
“Not my name this time?” I said wryly, referring to a few months previously when the label had said they wanted me to become Christopher Howard, which we’d rejected out of hand.
“No. But they think ‘Kid In A Big World’ is a more fitting title, to get across your youth to people when they see the album in the shops. He also feels it will be a better hook for the marketing people to plan a campaign.”
I had no objection to the title change, but wondered if ‘my’ concept of the white-faced oddity in his gothic mansion, ‘coming to dinner’, was now right for such a youthful, ingénue-esque title. I voiced my concern and Stuart slapped me on the back,
“No! Don’t worry about that. It’s still a great idea. The photo session is on. Everything is coming together, John!”
I got back to my flat, put George McCrae’s wonderful Rock Your Baby on the record player and, screeching along to the high falsetto bits, ran a bath. I fixed myself a vodka and lime, cheered my reflection and wandered through to the lavender-scented steam-filled bathroom. Already imagining the heaven of languishing in the hot, scented water, I got undressed and was just about to lower myself in when there was a knock at the door.
Reluctantly, I threw on a dressing-gown and turned down the music, hoping my landlady wasn’t in the mood for a chat:
“Hello Mrs Skowalski!” I said, opening the door. “I was -”
But it wasn’t my landlady.
It was Ray.
Some people’s names in this chapter have been changed
Copyright John Howard 2017