INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
Looking through the window of the bus from Manchester Piccadilly to Heywood, smiling at the August rain which always fell here, I thought about all the times Mum and I had travelled on this route when I was a kid. She’d often take me to Manchester for the day to shop, and we’d always have lunch in the Kardomah café, the most exotic place I’d seen in my young life.
I used to love following Mum into the packed room, full of chatter and the delicious smell of fresh coffee, as she was shown to our table by the smiling, smartly-dressed manager. I’d admire the starched white tablecloth and beautifully sculpted cotton napkins, and the waitresses who always looked gleamingly clean in their brown and white outfits as they served us creamed mushrooms on toast and a pot of tea. At each corner of the large room stood an enormous wooden elephant, and I’d imagine they were guarding over us all as we tucked into our meals. It was the first time I recognised style, and always felt at home there.
Getting off the bus in Heywood all those years later, it certainly didn’t feel like home anymore. It was more like looking at an updated movie of my past. I walked by the beautifully-kept Victorian gardens where I used to sit with Mum on the one of green metal benches and admire the white stone War Memorial, a bowing angel, surrounded by freshly-planted geraniums. I’d run my fingers through its engraved lettering of the names of local men who’d died in both wars and wait for Mum to tell me about her uncles who’d died in the 1914-1918 conflict, before she’d even been born. Multi-coloured geraniums still bloomed there, and while 1950s summer dresses had been replaced by T-shirts and jeans, it still looked the same.
I looked down the busy High Street, and thought of the time Mum and I would wander into the bread shop, where she’d buy me a mini-Hovis loaf so I could make myself tiny sandwiches for supper. The florist’s where we used to buy carnations twice a week was surprisingly still there, and I recalled its heady bouquets from multi-coloured flower arrangements, as I wandered through the magic-garden foliage which seemed tree-high to me.
Sadly, the celery-scented greengrocer’s was now a Spa shop. I used to love holding our carrier-bag open so the shopkeeper could empty a pound of potatoes into it with a great thumping sound. He’d always give me an apple, telling me it would stop my teeth from falling out,
“Like mine!” he’d laugh, showing me his mouthful of gums.
It used to scare me a little and make me giggle at the same time.
I walked across the road, through the still well-kept grounds of the Anglican church where my paternal Gran used to take me to “show you a different kind of religion” from the Roman Catholic tradition Mum and her aunts practised. And there was the sweet shop, looking just as it had when I used to run in to buy an ice lolly on our way to Queen’s Park. Mum, my sister and I would walk down the hill to meet up with aunts and uncles and sit on the slightly prickly grass with our picnic of egg and cress sandwiches. While the brass band played their hearts out on the nearby bandstand, Aunty Peg would tell my mum what a bonnie lad I was and give me wink. I knew a sixpence for an ice cream at the Mock Tudor tea rooms was in the offing after our snack.
“Don’t tell your Aunty Chris,” Peg would whisper, kissing my cheek and pushing the little silver coin into my hand, “she’ll get jealous!”
It seemed odd now, standing outside the sweet shop, knowing that Mum was lying in the room just above it. Neither of us would have dreamed of that outcome all those years ago.
“Hello, son,” Dad said coming out to meet me. He hugged me clumsily, an odd mixture of shaking my hand and pulling me towards him. He’d never done that before, and I wondered whether he’d planned it or if it had been an impromptu show of affection. He seemed very small and much thinner than when I’d last seen him, just a couple of months earlier. “I’m glad you’re here. Come through.”
The shop looked just as I remembered it, there were the glass display cases with penny trays and other sugary delights, and a line of various jars of sweets on shelves behind the counter. I used to love watching the lady open each jar and use the metal scoop to pour a few of each into a white paper bag which she’d put on the scales, adding or removing one or two sweets to get it to the right weight for ‘threepence worth’. There was also still that distinctive smell of boiled sweets which must have permeated the walls over the years.
Dad led me through to the sitting-room at the back of the shop, and told me to sit down on a settee I didn’t recognise. He went into the dimly-lit galley kitchen to make me a cup of tea, asking about what kind of journey I’d had and how everything was going in London. I looked around and thought ‘what a bland unloved room.’ It felt more like a waiting room, which was what it was, of course. Bringing the tea through, he sat next to me and slowly gave me the heads-up:
“Your mum fell ill on the day of the move. She couldn’t get out of bed. I had to carry her out of the house and leave the removal men to it. I drove us to the shop and carried her in, thank goodness this settee was here.”
I imagined him laying Mum down on it.
“Once the removal guys arrived they were great, they moved everything in very quickly, until finally I could take her upstairs to the flat and put her to bed. She’s been there ever since. She’s very weak.”
“What did the doctor say?”
Dad made a resigned expression:
“Well, you know…”
I knew this day was coming since mum’s cancer diagnosis almost two years earlier, even though she’d seemed to rally amazingly after her operation. Indeed, over the next twelve months, she’d taken on a new lease of life. She’d looked absolutely great when my parents had visited me in April to celebrate my 21st birthday, and they’d even managed a two-week trip to Newquay in June.
Her prognosis by the doctor in the Autumn of 1972, after Dad had found her in a coma when he’d taken in her morning cup of tea, had been eighteen months at most, so the fact she’d lasted this long was itself a testament to her strength of will and inherent refusal to give in.
However, when I’d visited them in June, just a few days after their holiday, Mum had told me that she now covered herself up with a towel before getting into a bath:
“I can’t look. I have a wound, around my colostomy bag, which isn’t healing. It looks like a squeezed orange. I haven’t told your dad. I make sure I’ve got my nightie on whenever he’s in the bedroom.”
Mum used to confide in me about things she would never dream of discussing with Dad. She also often had me as her sounding-board, before she told him something which was worrying her. On one of my hospital visits, she’d just been told she had to have a hysterectomy and a colostomy bag fitted:
“What am I going to tell your dad?” she asked me, tears welling up in her eyes. “It will change everything…you know. What’s he going to think?”
I’d held her hand and said,
“Dad will love you whatever, Mum. He adores you. He’ll understand.”
She’d smiled, squeezed my hand and told me I always lifted her spirits,
“You make everything seem alright again,” she’d said.
Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts:
“Do you want to go up and see her?” he was saying. “She was so pleased when I told her you were coming. But – be prepared, son.”
“Our bedroom’s on the left at the top of the stairs. You can put your bag in the other bedroom on the right. It’s not much but -”
I put my hand on his shoulder and went up the steep flight of stairs, gently dropping my bag outside the door. When I walked into their bedroom, Mum was asleep. I was struck by what a featureless room it was. It seemed so sad that she should die surrounded by these drab cream walls, no pictures around her, no reflection of the personality of the woman now occupying it. If she’d been up to it, she would have given it her own special touches of TLC in no time. As it was, her last resting place had all the welcoming atmosphere of a run-down hospital room. As I sat on the edge of the bed, her eyes opened:
“Hello, son,” she said weakly. “How are you?”
I held her hand:
“Fine, Mum. You feeling a bit tired?”
She tried to shift herself to sit up but even that seemed beyond her. I slowly helped her up and packed the pillows behind her so she could get comfortable. Mum was always thin but I was shocked at how skin-and-bone she felt:
“I’m just a bit below par,” she said as brightly as she could. “But I’ll be fine soon, then I can get down to the shop and get stuck in.” She smiled at me. “I’m really looking forward to that.”
“Don’t worry, Mum, there’s no rush. Dad’s got leave from work and he’s coping okay, and Sue’s helping when she can.”
“Oh, I’ll be down there soon. Just got to shake off this –“ she pointed at herself, waving her hand up and down her body dismissively, “- this.”
For the next half an hour, she listened happily as I chatted to her about what was happening with my career, about the recording sessions, and I saw her visibly seem a little stronger, especially when she asked me,
“Has Dad told you about our battle with the council?”
“No, what’s that about?”
It was great to see her sit up a bit more and prepare herself for some gossip:
“Oh! Well! Listen to this!”
She told me with great relish about how Dad had had to fight with the council to get an extra dustbin in their backyard:
“He went down there and told them this is a shop, not a house, and we have a lot of boxes and stuff we have to throw out. The bloke at council sounds like a right git.”
‘Git’ was the strongest ‘swear word’ Mum ever uttered, but she always said it with such venom it sounded for all the world like ‘fucking bastard’.
“Did you get your extra dustbin?” I asked, allowing myself a smile.
“Of course!” she said proudly, giving me a wink. “You don’t mess with The Jones’s!”
Finally, she began to fade. I settled her pillows back down and she snuggled into the bedclothes, smiling dreamily at me:
“Thank you, my honey.”
“Sleep well, Mum,” I replied, but she was already asleep.
I could only stay for a couple of days, and I spent them mainly sitting with Mum, while Dad and Sue dealt with customers downstairs. Sometimes she’d chat away, about Sue’s three young daughters, about her next planned visit to see me in London, and, surprisingly, about her desire to go to America with Dad and see his musician friend, Johnny, who’d moved there with his young wife in the ‘50s.
“Your dad was always close to him,” she told me. “They were like brothers. He still misses him.”
Other times she just slept while I read, and she’d occasionally wake up, smile at me, tell me she loved me, then go straight back to sleep.
On the afternoon I was due to leave, just as I was preparing to go upstairs and say goodbye to her, Mum appeared at the bottom of the stairs, looking dishevelled and confused. She stared round the room crossly and demanded that she be given the accounts to look at:
“I’ve had enough of lying up there worrying,” she said. “I need to check everything’s okay.” She ran her hand over her hair as though preparing for an important job. “Where are they?”
Dad, who seemed thrilled simply to see her out of bed, went to the sideboard and took out a red exercise book and a tin box rattling with cash. I helped Mum to the table and sat her down. She moaned a little as I put a cushion behind her, but she was determined she would do what she’d come down for. Pulling her dressing gown round her and taking the box from Dad, she opened it and emptied the money onto the table. Then she opened the exercise book and began looking down the columns of takings Dad had entered over the previous few days in his usual neat hand.
“Now let’s see, shall we?” she muttered to herself, purposefully adjusting her glasses.
I turned to Dad:
“I’ve really got to go.”
“Go where?” Mum asked, not looking up.
“Back to London, Mum. I told you this morning. I have to go today. I’ve got things I have to be back f -”
“I’m sure you do,” she said, interrupting me. “’Bye then.”
She continued running her finger down the takings columns. Dad nodded at me and made a ‘Come on then, let’s make a move’ gesture.
“Okay Mum,” I said, going to kiss her goodbye, but as I bent down to her, she stared up at me angrily and pushed me away:
“Are you not combing your hair?”
“I combed it this morning, Mum.”
“Then you need to comb it again!” she demanded.
“I’m fine, Mum, I don’t have time now. I have to go and get my bus, or I’ll miss my train.”
She sat as upright as she could and glared at me:
“And you’re going to travel on the bus looking like that?!”
“Oh, leave him alone, Bren,” Dad said, “he looks fine.”
“Well!” Mum said looking from her husband to me and back again to Dad. “Then he can’t leave by the front door.” She looked me up and down with disgust. “I’m not having the neighbours seeing what a tramp my son is.” She pointed towards the back door. “Go out through the backyard where the dustbins are. That’s all you’re fit for!”
Dad looked over at me and shook his head:
“Come on, son, or you’ll miss your bus.”
“Oh, you’ve always been soft, Bert,” Mum said angrily. “I know when my son looks a mess!” She looked at me disdainfully, tutted and sighed. “Well, if you want to walk about looking like a tramp, go on! See if I care!”
With that she looked back down at her accounts columns and began very carefully putting the coins in little piles.
“Okay,” I said, moving towards the door, “I’ll be off then.”
She waved her hand dismissively at me, still not looking up, her task too important to be interrupted. Dad walked me out.
“Don’t take it bad, son,” he said, opening the shop door for me. “She doesn’t mean it. It’s the morphine and, well, everything. You know she loves you.”
“I know, Dad. I’ll ring you tomorrow morning.”
It was the last time I saw or spoke to Mum. For the next three weeks, the last in her short life, she was always in bed asleep when I rang.
At eight o’clock that evening, I walked back into my flat, feeling exhausted after a long, hot train journey with several delays. It had been such a relief when I’d reached Euston. I suddenly felt at home. Heywood was, in fact, full of nothing more than memories, along with a present reality I found painful, to say the least. I was still thinking about the bizarre conversation with Mum a few hours earlier when I realised that there was still no sign of Ray.
‘Good,’ I thought, kicking off my shoes.
I’d got to the point where I’d had enough. Of him. Of his lies (I was now sure that all his excuses and stories were just that), and I’d finally decided I was better off without him. I made myself a drink and put on my recently-bought copy of Bryan Ferry’s ‘Another Time, Another Place’. As I sat back and closed my eyes to the soothing strains of Ferry’s sophisticated warble, I reflected on how I’d moved out of my lovely St John’s Wood flat at Ray’s request so we could “be together”, with his promise that he would “never disappear like that again.” I got increasingly angry as I realised what an idiot I’d been, and wished I’d involved Stuart and Patsy in my decision-making. In fact, I felt quite pathetic and, even more pathetically, began to weep. The mixture of frustration about Ray and my utter devastation at Mum’s shockingly deteriorated condition, became too much. I cried buckets, all over the record sleeve. As my tears flowed onto Bryan’s dapper white-tuxedo, he crooned consolingly:
“Now laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes”
At the end of August, Stuart, Patsy and I were due to travel down to Bournemouth for the annual CBS sales conference. A few days before we left, Biddu and his wife, Sue, asked me to join Stuart and Patsy for dinner at their apartment in West London. It was to celebrate Bid’s first hit record. Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting, which Biddu had produced, had just entered the UK Top Thirty and looked set to hit the Top Ten very soon (it did, the following week). I was most fascinated when Bid told us that Kung Fu Fighting had been planned as the ‘B’ side of the single, which Carl had written as a quick throwaway novelty thing. It wasn’t until the track was recorded that everyone, including Pye Records, realised it was the stronger side. Although Biddu had written the original ‘A’ side, Gamblin’ Man, he seemed very happy that Carl’s composition had hit paydirt. Bid had the publishing on both songs and with them the potential of his first real earnings from one of his productions. As we sat in their cosy basement apartment, I surmised that, before very long, Sue and her husband would be entertaining friends in a much more spacious pad.
After a lovely evening, Stuart dropped me back at my flat at about eleven o’clock. As I waved goodnight to him and Patsy, I noticed the light in my sitting-room was on and the curtains were drawn. My heart sank. When I opened the door, Ray was draped on the sofa, eyes swimming, bumptious expression on his face, obviously waiting to see my reaction to yet another of his unexpected returns from God knows where.
“Hello,” I said as casually as I could, my heart thumping in my chest.
“Alright?” he asked, his mouth curling into a combative grin.
“Fine, thanks.” I walked through to the bedroom and over my shoulder said, “How long do you intend to be back this time?”
I heard him stir. The smell of booze on his breath wafted behind me:
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he yelled.
I turned round and yelled back:
“What I mean, Ray, is what the hell are you playing at?”
He swayed unsteadily towards me:
“I’ve come back!” he shouted. “Ain’t that enough?”
With that, my lips unleashed a torrent of anger and frustration:
“No it fucking isn’t! How dare you swan in and out of my life like this? Who the hell do you think you are? I can tell you now, this is going to stop! You are not going to ruin my life. You are not!!”
That was it. Ray’s eyes seared into me, he lunged forward and thumped my arm. I was surprised at how much it hurt.
“Ruin your life?! Ruin your fucking life?!!” he shouted, grabbing hold of me by my collar.
With a strength which surprised me, he threw me out of the room into the corridor, then proceeded to kick me along it, as I tried desperately to stay on my feet. All the while he yelled at me, most of it I can’t recall now, but it was the usual ‘Woe is me, I’m the injured party, you’re supposed to understand’ baloney which he spat out as I tumbled into the kitchen and ran for the back door. I managed to get out into the courtyard but he was right behind me, and kicked me in the small of my back which sent me reeling to the concrete floor. My glasses flew off my nose and clattered somewhere to my left. As Ray pummelled and punched me I instinctively adopted the foetal position.
“I’ve loved you more than anybody else in my life!” he sobbed down at me. “But I knew you despised me! Just like everybody else! You’re the same stuck-up pile of swanky shit I’ve had looking down on me, all my life!”
He grabbed my thin cotton jacket and dragged me round the courtyard, ripping my sleeve and collar, and scraping my arm on the rough ground. All I remember thinking was ‘Where are my glasses?’. Without them, I was virtually blind. I could see this blurred seething, swaying mass of man above me, shouting, thumping and crying. Lying there, curled into a ball, I hoped it would end soon.
Finally, a sash window slid open in the flat above us, and a man leaned out and shouted,
“Keep the fucking noise down! Fucking yobs!” and slammed the window down again.
Thankfully, it stopped Ray in his tracks. I felt his boozy breath on my face as he moaned pathetically – and rather ironically – like a wounded animal.
“I fucking did love you,” he half whispered.
He panted above me for a few seconds, and I was waiting for more punches, but instead, I heard him walk away. I glanced up and saw him going back into the house. He shut the door and locked it. I lay on the concrete for a few seconds more, to make sure he wasn’t coming back, then crawled to where I thought I could see my gold-rimmed spectacles glinting. I grabbed hold of them and put them back on. They were a bit bent but the lenses, thank goodness, weren’t broken. I got to my feet, realised I was bleeding from my ear, and my arm was cut. The torn jacket sleeve hung limply like a broken limb, but I was surprisingly okay. I walked quickly to the wooden back gate and tried it. It was locked, as I knew it would be, and the key was inside the house. I stared up at its seven-foot height and, as unbelievable as I still find it, I climbed up it like a toddler in a play-park, balancing myself on the handle and using it as a springboard to the top. I sat there for a few seconds, a little shocked at my own agility, and then jumped down into the alleyway. From there I sprinted past dustbins and abandoned bicycles into the High Street and ran down to the tube station. Thank goodness I still had my wallet in my back pocket. I bought a ticket to Willesden Green and boarded the last train which was arriving as I reached the platform.
Sitting in the thankfully empty carriage, still in shock at what had just happened, I glanced up and saw my reflection in the opposite window. I looked an absolute state. I went closer to the window, and with my nose almost touching it, checked out where I was cut – face, forehead and left ear as far as I could see – and quickly washed them in my own spittle. Both my hands were badly grazed and my left arm was bleeding slightly. I wiped them as best I could with a tissue and then settled back in my seat, just relieved to still be in one piece. I rolled up the torn sleeve and did the same with the other one. Even in adversity, vanity prevailed.
Willesden Green was only a few stops along and once there I found a phone box just outside the station and called Stuart. As soon as he heard my voice he said,
Trying to hold back tears, I replied,
“Come on, come home. We’ll be waiting for you.”
They left me in bed that morning, and I didn’t wake up until two in the afternoon. As I studied myself in the wardrobe mirror, my cuts didn’t look too bad now. Patsy had washed and disinfected them for me as I’d sat in their kitchen, drinking the honeyed tea Stuart had made for me, and told them the whole sorry tale of the last few weeks.
For about half an hour I just lay there, going over what had happened. At that moment, it all seemed rather unreal. I felt slightly sick, but more with the gut-wrenching knowledge of what a bloody fool I’d been. I thanked God for Stuart and Patsy as I got up and had a long bath. They had been the first people I’d thought of when I needed help. I realised, extremely belatedly, what great friends they were.
All the disagreements and feelings of conflict between us over the previous few weeks, starting with their dislike of Tony Meehan’s production of my album, my dislike of Stuart’s quaint concept for my album cover, and more recently their horror at my moving in with Ray, all that evaporated into the pine-scented steam of their bathroom. For me, they were now Number One. Always would be. Staunch friends. And, as I dried myself off, I resolved that I would repay their loyalty and friendship with my own.
That evening, Stuart rang my landlady, Mrs Rawindi, and explained that I had vacated the flat and that he would go over there to collect the month’s deposit of sixty pounds which I had paid. Unfortunately, she replied that it was Mr Robinson who had paid her the money, and to whom she had given the receipt (which I had never seen). Stuart tried to gently tell her that Mr Robinson was a scoundrel, had never contributed a penny in rent, and would more than likely be leaving her flat himself quite soon, once any money he had was spent. She was adamant, however, and refused to pay anything to anybody until she had spoken to Mr Robinson.
The following morning, as Stuart was getting ready to go to the office and I was helping Patsy prepare brunch, the phone rang.
“Hello, Mrs Rawindi,” I heard him saying from the hall.
A few minutes later, he came into the kitchen and, with a wry smile, told us that Mrs Rawindi had gone round to the flat that morning to speak to Ray, and found not only him gone, but also some of the flat’s contents – cutlery, crockery, even some bedding.
“I hope you don’t mind, John, but I told her she should keep hold of the sixty pounds which should cover her losses. We don’t need the hassle. She said we could come and get your belongings anytime, as long as she was there to oversee it. Of course, I agreed, the poor lady’s distraught.”
As Stuart was leaving the house, the phone rang again. Patsy answered it, but called Stuart back in. He took the phone from her:
“Yes? Mr Reid here…Oh, hello!…That’s right, I am the guarantor for Mr Howard…”. Long pause. “Oh! I see. Well, thank you very much for letting us know…Yes, I’ll tell John, and he will be in later today to collect it. Goodbye, and thanks again.”
Stuart was no longer smiling as he told us that it was the bank manager on the phone. As it had been Stuart who had set up an account for me at his branch a few months earlier, it was his number they had on file:
“Apparently, someone tried to cash one of your cheques yesterday afternoon, John. Luckily, the teller remembered you and realised it wasn’t you at the counter. When she asked the chap for identification, he got verbally aggressive, so she called security. Ray – I assume it must have been Ray – then did a runner out the door and scarpered. They’ve cancelled your chequebook, and would like you to go and collect a new one.”
“We’ll go along later to do that, John,” Patsy said, putting her arm on my shoulder.
“I left my chequebook in my bedside drawer!” I said, suddenly feeling sick.
“We’ll go straight to the flat after we’ve been to the bank and collect your stuff, John,” Patsy said.
“Can we?” I asked, feeling completely winded.
“John,” Stuart said, sitting down next to me at the breakfast table, “this has been a lesson for you, I’m sure, but it’s over now. He’s gone for good. You won’t see him again. You’re no longer of any use to him. Now, get on with your life and enjoy the fantastic career which I know is ahead of you. In a couple of days’ time we will be at the CBS conference, where you will be treated as you should be, like a star, and all this will feel like a bad dream. Let it go. Let him well and truly go from your mind, your heart, your life.”
In fact, only my mind still held Ray, and I was never more keen to blank him out of there.
How different everything felt just a few days later, as I sat in the large dining room at The Imperial Hotel, listening to Leonard Cohen’s astonishingly beautiful set come to an end with one of my favourite songs of his, Sisters of Mercy. There’d been an extra frisson of thrill from the mainly male audience of CBS sales reps, departmental bosses and head honchos from both the UK and America, when Cohen had premiered a new song from his latest album ‘New Skin For The Old Ceremony’:
“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were talking so brave and so sweet
Giving me head on an unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street”
I imagined several knowing glances going round the dinner tables from married men away from home, imagining their own unmade beds in their rooms down the hall.
There was another interesting episode during Cohen’s thirty-minute set, which was both encouraging and disturbing at the same time. By the fourth number, the audience was becoming restive. Songs like The Partisan, Seems So Long Ago, Nancy, and Last Year’s Man, not amongst what you could call his ‘greatest hits’, were reaching increasingly less highs with people who were more used to hollering at the latest smash by The Three Degrees or whooping along to All The Young Dudes. The quiet sound of mumbling turned quickly into louder conversation, even from some tables into raucous laughter. Finally, as the company’s legendary star ploughed on alone in the spotlight, the noise in the room got so loud that it became difficult to actually hear Cohen, who was seemingly undaunted by this appalling lack of respect. Unlike Dick Asher, CBS’s Managing Director. He was sitting at the end of my table and, as the noise from his gathered executives rose to a din, Dick slowly rose from his chair, stood with his hands on his hips, Mussolini style, and did a one-hundred-and-eighty degree stare round the room. One by one, his employees became horribly aware of their prize-fighter-shaped boss glaring at them. Slowly but surely, the hubbub of fun-packed chat turned back into a mumble, until silence, except for the beautiful music Cohen was still making on stage, reigned once more. You could almost hear the executives’ simultaneous thoughts in the darkness – “Oh shit, I’m in big trouble now” – as Dick sat back down with a final stare round the room. At the end of the number which Cohen had been singing, Asher stood and clapped loudly, again looking round at his now terrified minions, who all responded with ridiculously enthusiastic applause. There were even some cheers from those who were particularly afraid of losing their house.
I looked around the long top table where I was seated, to see how others were reacting to this show of power, and yes, Dick’s patent support of and respect for his label’s artists. I’d been placed next to David Essex, Michael Levy, Peter Shelley, Alvin Stardust and Ian Hunter. They were all smiling amiably, stars in their own firmament, at peace with their world of success.
When Cohen ended his set, bowing to the room’s applause, Dick once again stood and ensured it would last for some minutes. Cohen waved his trilby hat at us all and was gone. Just five years earlier, I had lain on my bed in Lancashire listening to his sultry dark voice floating from my record player. He was a hero to my generation. We adored his songs of exotic pain, love, lust and loss, in settings we could only imagine, glamorously bohemian, full of cigarette smoke and the sounds of a busy sidewalk café below. He told us of his life and we lived it with him. He was perfect for a teenager’s dreams, creating worlds beyond what he or she would probably ever witness or experience. Cohen was the poet of our generation, but gilt-edged by the fact that he was also a folk music star who sold thousands of albums.
And here I was, watching this handsome brilliant man, alone on his tiny stage just a few feet away, having enthralled me with his quiet grace and a single guitar. I was still soaking in the magic of what I’d seen when Dick, with a wave of his huge arms, called for quiet:
“I now want to introduce you folks to some truly astonishing talent we have with us tonight, sitting at this very table.” He looked paternally down at us all. “Firstly, let me introduce you to the magnificently talented and hugely successful David Essex.”
David, dressed in a beautifully-tailored white suit, with a red rose in his lapel, and that goofy adorable smile which had melted millions of fans for the past twelve months, stood and waved to the applause from the people whose mortgages he had helped pay.
“David’s new single,” Dick went on, “will, I guarantee it, be No.1, very soon, and his latest movie, ‘Stardust’, which we will show you tomorrow, is, well, wow! It’s just fantastic!”
More applause which David acknowledged with a wave and another gorgeous smile.
I was still clapping heartily when, through the dying applause, I heard my name:
“…John Howard, one of the most exciting singer-songwriters I have heard in a long time. John’s new album is simply fantastic! We’ll be playing you one of the tracks – a smash hit, folks – tomorrow. You’ll be knocked out! Ladies and Gents, say hello to John Howard!”
I stood rather awkwardly as one does when sitting at a dining table (‘how does David make it look so graceful?’ I thought) and, the edge of the table digging into my knees, waved into the darkness. David caught my eye and grinned at me, a look on his face of ‘I don’t know this guy, must investigate’.
I lay in bed that night, feeling a myriad of emotions. I was thrilled at Dick’s enthusiastic introduction, but still confused about the negative reaction to our beautiful photographs and a nagging feeling that the company was underwhelmed by my album, regardless of what Dick had said that evening. I dreamt that night that I was performing on stage to a huge audience. As I was singing, the words to my song, which sat in front of me on the piano, started to float away. I tried to catch them, knocked the mike stand over and found myself lying on the floor with a bunch of people standing over me, kicking me and shouting abuse.
The next morning, I showered and went down for breakfast where Stuart and Patsy were already halfway through theirs. A few people looked up as I went past them, one or two muttering, “That’s John Howard.” I grew a few more inches and, greeting the Reids, sat down.
“We’ve got the playthrough of CBS’s latest releases at eleven o’clock, John,” Stuart said. “Your album is one of the ‘star features’, so I’m told.”
Just then, a voice above me said,
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“Of course not, Paul,” Patsy said. “Would you like some coffee?”
Paul Phillips, who I’d first met all those months ago at Small’s Restaurant in Knightsbridge, where I’d done my intimate little show for him and his boss Dan Loggins, sat down opposite me:
“No thanks, Patsy. I’m fine. Good morning, John.”
In the morning light, which streamed through several floor-length windows all round us, I noticed how fair-skinned Paul was. He was wearing glasses which had sellotape holding on one of the arms and must have seen me notice it:
“Forgive this!” he said, laughing and playing with the tape, “I dropped them in the shower this morning. I don’t always look like this!”
We all laughed, relaxing into the bonhomie of the moment, and I sipped my coffee as Paul said,
“I just want to tell you, John, how much I love your music. And I mean I really love it.”
“Thank you, Paul,” I said.
“Oh, how lovely!” Patsy added.
“He’s fantastic, isn’t he, Paul?” Stuart joined in.
“Really. And I also like your album, John.” I heard the ‘but’ before he’d said it. “But, I would like to have a go at redoing a couple of the tracks.”
He checked my reaction. I just nodded. He sat forward and went on,
“Basically, I’d like to record Family Man and Kid In A Big World again.”
Without hesitation Patsy looked at me and said,
“Oh, that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, John?”
I wasn’t so sure:
“What is it you don’t like about Tony’s versions?” I asked.
Paul held up his hands:
“What Tony has done isn’t terrible, or even bad. But, for me, those songs should be done so that they’re, well, closer to your original demos – which are what I fell in love with. Tony has effectively – for me anyway – turned them into different songs. They’re such great songs already, I don’t see why he’s done that.”
Paul smiled affectionately at me across the table. I could see how much my music meant to him, it was written all over his face:
“Okay, let’s give it a go,” I said.
“Sure?” Paul asked.
“Great!” He started playing with the croquet set on the table. There was more. “I’d also -” he smiled at me nervously, “I’d also like to remix Goodbye Suzie.”
He again waited to see my reaction. I just raised my eyebrows slightly:
“Tony’s production is good,” Paul went on, “but I’d like to give it a slightly more commercial sound. It’s a potential hit record, John, it just needs a tweak to get it there.”
He sat even closer in:
“What I would like to continue is Tony’s great idea of recording you at a studio associated with The Beatles. So we’ll be doing the tracks at Apple Studios.”
Now I was enthusiastic. He immediately saw that:
“And I’m going to book Phil McDonald to engineer the tracks.”
Phil’s name was known to me from the sleeve credits on John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ album and he’d also had a ‘Thank you’ credit on ‘Abbey Road’. I mentioned that to Paul:
“He also did some of the engineering on ‘The White Album’,” Paul said. “And Lennon’s Instant Karma. It all keeps that Beatles-related theme going on your album.”
He was smiling almost coquettishly at me. I felt as though I was being wooed by a charming suitor. Of course, he could tell I was hooked.
“That is so exciting!” Patsy declared.
“Good! Excellent!” Paul said and stood up. “I’ll let you know the dates in a couple of days. Really looking forward to finally working with you, John. I’ve been wanting to record you since the first time I heard your songs.”
Stuart stood and shook Paul’s hand.
“Lovely, Paul. Speak to you soon.”
Paul smiled down at me and, looking like a man who had been told he could have my hand in marriage, wandered out of the dining room.
Although I had an inner glow of excitement, a tricky thought came into my mind:
“Shouldn’t we tell Tony?” I asked Stuart, who looked puzzled:
“Why? He’s done his job, he’s been paid. This is – as I keep telling you, John – your album, not his.”
It was almost a sonic reversal of what Tony had said to me months earlier, when he’d complained about Stuart’s too-close involvement in the sessions at Abbey Road.
But, the excitement I felt – and admittedly, the attention Paul was giving me – persuaded me that Stuart was right. It was simply an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
At eleven, Paul joined us as we walked into a large function room with several other CBS people already seated, who greeted me with a wave as I arrived. We were led to our front row seats, and I noticed directly across the aisle David Essex and his team of people were chatting easily to each other. David turned round as we settled ourselves and smiled at me. Ian Hunter, sitting directly behind him, seemed coolly uninterested in anything going on in front of his large sunglasses.
Once everybody was seated, Dick Asher stood out front and welcomed us all, telling us we were in for “a real treat”.
The lights dimmed and Dick gave someone behind us a signal. From the back of the hall, Radio One DJ Paul Burnett’s instantly recognisable voice cheerfully rang round the room, as photos of the label’s best-known artists faded in and out on the huge screen before us:
“David Essex, Mott The Hoople, The Three Degrees, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, Andy Williams, Charlie Rich, Barbra Streisand, The Isley Brothers, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon,” Burnett intoned confidently. “Just some of the great artists on CBS Records. We are very proud to be unveiling to you today some of our fantastic new releases, which we believe will become globally some of the most important, and most successful records of our time.”
Mott The Hoople’s All The Way From Memphis suddenly blasted around us.
“Remember this great hit from 1973? And this?”
Roll Away The Stone, one of my favourite Mott records still sounded amazing.
The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll had Patsy bobbing her head around.
“This Autumn, Mott release their first ever live album…”
Burnett gave us release details of the album as the sleeve floated across the screen and a surprisingly polished version of All The Young Dudes, with the Bowie chorus vocals impressively replaced by female singers, blasted out. I looked across the aisle. Ian Hunter still sat unmoved by it all, his ’66 Dylan-esque pose perfectly achieved.
The Three Degrees’ Dirty Old Man then turned up the heat as Burnett sounded excited:
“Three smash hits in 1974…!”
Year Of Decision, followed by TSOP sounded as sassy as ever:
“The girls’ fabulous eponymous album has already sold millions in The States, and we believe it will be an equally big-selling release in the UK, including as it does this massive No.1 hit!”.
When Will I See You Again melted all our hearts once more, I even heard a few sibilant singalongs on the line “When will we share precious moments?”.
Then without warning or introduction, some of my Hyde Park photos floated by us. Burnett allowed each startling image to appear in silence before he announced:
“John Howard! He’s the man with a great look and a fantastic sound!”
Goodbye Suzie played as Paul nudged me from my left while Stuart did the same to my right. More images faded in. Enlarged for the screen before us, the Les Ambassadeurs shots looked truly gorgeous.
“This Autumn will see the release of John’s first single, followed by his remarkable debut album in the Spring.”
As the track faded out, I was aware of the sound of banging behind me. I turned round to see a burly, American-looking man with an enormous unlit cigar in his mouth thumping the arm of his chair and, with his other hand, giving me a meaty thumbs-up. Gradually, the room filled with applause and cheers. I almost stood and bowed but decided to stay put. As the noise faded, I heard Dick murmuring, “Great song!” and my brief moment was over.
What should have been a magical moment was rather overshadowed by my puzzlement at CBS executives loudly applauding Tony’s rejected mix of Goodbye Suzie, and the cheer that rang round the room at the photos which had been so disdainfully dismissed by my press officer.
I heard Patsy saying to Stuart,
“I thought they didn’t like these pictures?”
Stuart just shrugged.
A huge photo of David Essex appeared on the screen. His first hit, the brilliant Rock On played as Burnett said,
“David Essex, CBS’s brightest and most successful British pop star today. Millions of records sold, a box office smash with the movie ‘That’ll Be The Day’, and now, not only a new album due this Autumn, but also David’s fantastic follow-up film, ‘Stardust’.”
The film’s title track burst out of the speakers, its stunningly odd stop-start arrangement and punchy production, which had been one of the striking features of David’s first couple of singles, engaging us all immediately.
“And to trailer the album and film is this great track, David’s new single, which I guarantee will be one of the biggest-selling records this Autumn.”
As the strains of Gonna Make You A Star blasted out, I looked across at David who was beaming at a room full of loud applause.
“Great record,” Paul murmured into my ear, and I nodded back. It sure was.
What turned out to be CBS’s biggest-selling British single that year faded out, Burnett thanked us all for being there, more light applause for a job well done, the lights went up, and Dick bounced back into view:
“OK, people, there’s a buffet lunch just outside in the foyer area, and then we’ll reconvene at two o’clock for a screening of David’s new movie.” He glanced down fondly at his most successful artist that year. David responded with a thumbs-up back. “I can tell you all now, ‘Stardust’ is going to blow your minds!”
As I stood munching delicately on a small cold collation, people buzzing around me, queuing at the buffet spread or just looking for someone to chat to, a voice behind me said,
I turned round and a very pleasant-looking, rather slight chap was smiling at me. His overweight comb-over companion sweated profusely in the thick tweed suit he must have regretted putting on that morning.
“My name’s Joe,” the pleasant-looking man said in a velvety American accent, “I work in the classical department.”
I shook his hand.
“And this is Terry. He’s one of our sales reps. I thought he should have a chat with you.”
I shook Terry’s clammy hand and waited for Joe to explain why. He duly did, lowering his voice a little:
“Terry is thinking of coming out, and I suggested he talk to you.”
I couldn’t resist it:
“Coming out of where?”
Joe giggled girlishly, and grabbed his imaginary pearls:
“Oh! The closet, of course! He’s married, well, separated now, and…” he prodded my arm campily, and smiled encouragingly at Terry, who continued to sweat buckets and look nervous, “…well, John, you’re someone who I thought could, you know, give him a few pointers?”
“Haven’t you done that already?” I asked, eliciting an oddly disturbing rapid flutter of Joe’s eyelashes.
“Well, yes,” he chuckled like a first date, “but, I’m not Out, am I?”
‘Oh I think you are!’ I thought, but instead, as kindly as I could, and trying not sound too Marge Proops, said,
“You have to simply do what feels right for you, Terry. Take it step by step. We’re all different, and want different things.”
Joe was meanwhile standing on his toes and looking round the room, mouthing ‘Hi!’ and waving celeb-like at various people:
“So!” he said, preparing to dash off somewhere much more interesting, “could I leave you two to chat?”
‘Oh no you don’t, bitch!’ I thought, but said,
“I’m sorry, Joe, but my manager’s beckoning me over.”
I pointed flamboyantly at Stuart, who was chatting with Dick Asher and Dan Loggins by the window. Thankfully – and I could have hugged him – he waved back at me to join him.
Shaking Terry’s drenched hand, I took my leave, but not before muttering into Joe’s ear,
“It’s you he’s after, darling, not me.”
As I made my way towards Stuart, I glanced back at a crestfallen Joe, now stuck with his sweaty friend who’d obviously collared him earlier.
“John!” Dick declared, shaking his head in apparent disbelief. “Goodbye Suzie! A smash hit!”
Dan shook my hand – and I took great pleasure watching him flinch under my new vice-like grip.
“Great song!” he concurred, grinning and nodding at us both.
I was about to discuss with them how we’d be remixing it in a few days, when a rather willowy, slightly unkempt man walked over and joined us:
“Hi John!” he said, staring at me intensely and shaking my hand, “I’m Maurice. Maurice Oberstein. Deputy MD.”
His sing-song Bronx voice, which went up and down in almost perfect octaves every couple of syllables, was truly fascinating. He wore a red baseball cap with ‘Mott’ emblazoned across it, a black T-shirt displaying ‘The Hoople’ in white letters, and a badge which read, “I’m A Dude.” It was all teamed with an old pair of jeans and ancient–looking sneakers.
“Hi Maurice!” I smiled back.
“Call me Obie!” he said confidentially, as though it were a secret moniker.
“And here’s God!” Dick shouted, stretching out his arms in a prepared embrace. A large, elderly bespectacled man joined us. “Goddard Leibersohn in the flesh!” Dick muttered into Goddard’s shoulder as they bear-hugged manfully.
As Leibersohn greeted Obie with a polite shake of the hand, I was struck by how out of place the company’s Deputy Managing Director appeared, surrounded by these huge Armani-suited, big chested, big voiced guys. But his steely stare never wavered under their indomitable male bonhomie.
Extending an enormous fleshy hand, Goddard grabbed mine and gripped my bony shoulder with his other hand:
“John! Love your music!” he said.
“Thank you, er, God.”
Dick chuckled, Dan laughed out loud, Obie just smiled.
“No, John, thank you,” God said, “for coming to our label! It’s an honour!”
“Praise indeed, John!” Stuart said. “Goddard is God at CBS!”
“Stuart!” God cried, as if he’d just seen him. “You look fantastic!”
It was all very American macho, and I tried not to be too gushy in its midst, but inside I was quite shaky and thrilled. You could smell the success, the wealth of these guys, they oozed the testosterone of being top of their game.
God then turned to Obie and asked him something about “Our market share”. Obie moved closer in and replied something about “ship-outs”, Dick was slowly nodding his head while Dan jumped in with something about “campaign spend”.
Realising it was time to move on, Stuart took me by the arm, waved at the hunkered execs, and led me away from the melée:
“Let’s leave them to it, shall we? Fancy a drink, John?”
We went over to the copiously stocked drinks table, where a handsome white-jacketed barman fixed me a very large vodka and lime with lots of greenery, and Stuart was given his usual Pernod with crushed ice.
“Enjoying yourself, John?” he asked, as we found a little corner away from the crowds.
“It’s all a bit of a whirl, Stuart.”
“Get used to it. These guys are convinced you are their next star.”
With perfect timing, I turned round to see their current star radiating his divinely goofy grin at me.
“Hi John!” he said.
I realised how small but rather beautiful David Essex was in the flesh.
“Love that song of yours, John. Goodbye Suzie. What a hook!”
“Thank you! Love your new one too.”
“So,” David laughed easily, “glad that’s settled. We love each other!” He made the peace sign. “All you need is love!”
“Looking forward to your movie,” Stuart said, obviously thrilled that CBS’s Number One star was chatting so amiably to me.
“Yeah,” he said, suddenly shy and shrugging his shoulders. “It’s ok. It’s good.”
As if on cue, lifting his head towards the throng, Dick shouted at everyone:
“Ladies and Gents, follow me, and we’ll take our seats for your exclusive preview of David Essex’s new hit movie, ‘Stardust’!”
Once we’d all taken our seats, a chubby, shiny-faced man in his forties appeared out front. He wore a T-shirt with the words ‘CBS – The Family Of Music’ on it, and seemed rather nervous, a little uneasy:
“People!” he said very gently, as though not wanting to upset anyone, and clapping his hands with a reluctant gusto, “Family! Welcome!” His hands joined and cupped his chin. “Enjoy! Thank you.”
He sat back down again, the lights dimmed and, just before the film began, Stuart whispered in my ear,
“That’s Derek Witt, Artists Liaison Manager. Known as Woof.”
David’s movie was indeed excellent, though much less Mop Top-inspired than ‘That’ll Be The Day’. Its timeline had moved on from Telstar-playing fairgrounds and rock’n’roll, into a much darker, more recent period, as it followed Jim McClaine’s ascent to global stardom followed by his steady spiral down into drugs, depression, isolation, and finally death. As the heartbeat-rhythm of the title track played over the credits, I wondered what David’s millions of teenage fans would make of it. It was heralded by the CBS press release, which we were all given a copy of as we entered the screening room, as, “Movie-wise, David’s Sgt Pepper”. I thought, however, it may be a little too soon for that. He was, for me, still at the I Want To Hold Your Hand stage of his pop career. Certainly the catchy new hook-laden single seemed to reflect that.
As Stuart, Patsy and I wandered along the corridor back to our rooms, chatting about the movie, I saw Derek Witt walking the other way towards us.
“Stuart!” he said, coming over and shaking his hand. “Woof!”
“Hi Derek! How are you?”
Derek looked a little distracted, keeping an eye on people wandering by, studying them briefly, then looking back at us:
“Oh, coping, you know. Busy busy. Has everything been okay?”
“Yes, great thanks. You know my wife, Patsy.”
“Woof!” Derek said and shook her hand gingerly.
“Derek,” Patsy said a little witheringly.
“And my artist, John Howard,” Stuart continued.
“Woof woof!” Derek said much more enthusiastically, squeezing my hand and holding onto it. “Very good to meet you, John. Welcome to The Family Of Music!”
“Thank you, Derek.”
“Please! Call me Woof! All my friends do. Oh, where are they going?”
A group of people wandered past us, and, hurrying towards them, he said over his shoulder,
“Must dash! Drop by the office anytime, John!”
As we carried on to our rooms, Patsy snarled,
“I do wish he wouldn’t do all that Woof stuff!”
“He’s harmless,” Stuart said, “and very good at his job, darling. Artists love him.”
“Does he actually expect us to Woof back?” Patsy continued unmoved.
“I think he’d be more than happy if John woofed back!” Stuart said, winking at me.
“Hm! I think John has had quite enough of odd men for the time being!” Patsy huffed on.
Just then, the smiling, burly man, who’d banged his chair during Goodbye Suzie that morning, still with a huge unlit cigar hanging from his mouth, marched up to us and buried my hand in both of his. He beamed at me and took the cigar out of his mouth:
“John Howard!” he declared. “Can I tell you something?”
He stepped back to give himself an eager audience of three:
“You’re gonna make it, John! You’re gonna make it big! And you know why?”
“’Cause you got class!”. He put his cigar back into his mouth, nodded his head at me and winked. “Real class! That’s why!”
“Now, isn’t that great, John?” Patsy said, looking much happier.
As I walked into my room and saw my reflection in the dressing-table mirror, the image of me being kicked and dragged around a courtyard in Harlesden jumped into my head. I wryly wondered if our friend would have been declaring that I had “Real class!” if he’d witnessed that just a few days earlier. The bare truth was that I currently had no home of my own, a disastrous love-life, and a career which, to date, I’d found occasionally exciting, but mostly confusing. I should have felt wonderful after the couple of days I’d just had. A year earlier I certainly would have done. Suddenly, however, at the age of twenty-one, I felt rather old.
The names of some of the people in this chapter have been changed
Copyright John Howard 2017