Tuesday, 24 November 2015

CYNTHIA ROBINSON: THE ROCK OF THE FAMILY STONE

Cynthia Robinson has died of cancer, aged 69. When I was a kid I was mesmerized by her, with the Angela Davis afro and dashiki, playing the trumpet and screaming 'get on up...and dance to the music!'

When she answered the immortal line 'Cynthia and Jerry got a message they're sayin'' with another screaming 'all the squares...fall out!' I would feel like I ought to leave the room. Not that you had to: Sly were multi-racial, blended styles of music together, everything from soul to protest, and Cynthia was like a tower of strength in the background. Who was I to argue with her?

Sly and the Family Stone were previewing the entire decade of the 70s, only this was 1968. It wasn't just the sound: though Larry Graham's slap bass was imitated in funk everywhere, and it's hard to think of Issac Hayes without hearing Freddie Stone's guitar. It was the way they looked: Sly costumed them in the same way Village People would be costumed: remember Graham's three-musketeer hat? or Vet Stone's silver wig? But he claimed the flashiest pioneering pimp rig, the one that would become de rigeur for the entire funky 70s, for himself. Don't you think George Clinton picked up a bit of inspiration here?

Of course Sly pioneered the destruction via drugs of the 70s too: he moved to LA and the band went down the pipe. Cynthia was part of what always held the various splinter and spin-off versions together, and she never had bad words about Sly, who fathered one of her children. She was some kind of powerful, and some kind of wonderful. RIP.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

PETER DIMMOCK: AN APPRECIATION

The Guardian obituary of Peter Dimmock, presenter, producer, and executive for the BBC, the man in charge of the broadcast of the Coronation in 1953, and my boss for a time at ABC Sports, is up at the Guardian online now (link to it here); it should be in the paper paper tomorrow. The obit is followed by an appreciation I wrote a few years ago to supplement the piece they already had in stock.

I was looking for a job in the US (I interviewed at the new ESPN and the short-lived Satellite News Channel) but word got out I was job-hunting and after Peter got in touch I wound up moving not back to America, but about four blocks up the street, from ITN on Riding House Street to ABC on Great Portland and Carburton Streets.

Before long I was reporting directly to New York, not to Peter, but he was still in the next (bigger) office to keep an eye on me, and advise me how to deal with broadcasters, event organisers, EBU bureaucrats, and especially my colleagues in Paris and New York. Most especially. As I wrote, it was an education, and I honestly can't recall any awkwardness or arguments between us. Peter knew his way around everything and everyone; the big world was a small circle to him, and I was lucky enough to be tagging along. And I can recall a long list of lunches at the Rugby Club, in Hallam Street, run by Jeff Butterfield, with Peter, and Cliff Morgan, and any number of figures from British sport and broadcasting. It wasn't just an education; it was also the most fun I've ever had working. There are a few stories I won't repeat here, but I'm smiling at them right now. RIP Peter

Monday, 16 November 2015

THE CRIME VAULT LIVE: EPISODE 3, IAN RANKIN

The third episode of The Crime Vault Live podcast is now available for downloading: here's a link via The Crime Vault website, it's also available on ITunes, Soundcloud, and many other reputable sources for downloads off the interweb.

Mark Billingham and I are joined by the great Scottish writer (and former music journo) Ian Rankin, who jumps right in on our discussion of TV adaptations of detectives--off the news of a new series of adaptation of Mark's books, though NOT starring Thorne--and we talk about both versions of Rebus as well as the travails of transferring characters you create from page to screen.

Also reviews of new books by, uh, Ian Rankin, Stephen King, Tess Gerritsen, and Jo Nesbo; the audio book of JK, whoops, Robert Galbraith's Career Of Evil, and discussion of new detective shows on TV, including River and From Darkness, and the influence of Scandi Crime on those and other series. Along with Ian's brilliant analysis of the Scandinavian crime marketing technique which no one in Britain can match.

And if you imagine there was a pint or two (or maybe a whiskey too) don't let the picture fool you....before the pub we didn't look like an oldies band about to play a community centre near you...


Thursday, 12 November 2015

FAST EDDIE HOH: A REMEMBRANCE

Back in the day, whenever people asked about my favourite rock drummer (apart from the ones who also sang, Levon Helm, Buddy Miles or George Grantham) I always answered 'Fast' Eddie Hoh. Eddie was the drummer on Super Session, Al Kooper with Michael Bloomfield in some sweet R&B on one side, and with Steve Stills in some countryish rock on the other. That's Eddie on the upper right side of the Super Session album's back cover. Although I like the first side better, the cut that shows off Eddie's drumming best is the uptempo Kooper/Stills version of Dylan's 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry', where Harvey Brooks is pounding out the bass and Eddie is backbeating the sucker to death.

Super Session alone would do, but Eddie Hoh also drums on a couple of my other favourite records: Harvey Mandel's Cristo Redentor and Barry Goldberg's Two Jews Blues, also with Bloomfield. He drummed on Donovan's Sunshine Superman, which means he did Season Of The Witch with Donovan and then with Kooper and Stills. He played on some other good ones by fellow Chicago guys Mandel, Goldberg, and Charlie Musselwhite, and on Tim Buckley's Goodbye And Hello, which makes sense because I learned from the obits that Eddie came up with the Modern Folk Quartet, and connections with them would link many parts of his career. I hadn't known that the MFQ (as a Quintet) recorded with Phil Spector (see photo left), and that with Jack Nitzsche producing made a single called 'Night Time Girl', written by Kooper and Irwin Levine (the pair wrote This Diamond Ring for Gary Lewis and the Playboys). Small world.

He toured and recorded with the Mamas and Papas. There's a YouTube video of his performing with them and he stands out, not least for failing to be a victim of fashion. Hoh was the second stand-in drummer (after Hal Blaine) on Monkees records, he drummed on their hit with John Stewart's Daydream Believer. He and Goldberg also tried to form a band with Gram Parsons (now there's another set of tapes I'd love to hear), later Parsons brought him in as the original drummer in the Flying Burrito Brothers; he drummed on their demos and Sin City, but was fired when he showed up too wasted to work, something that must have taken some doing in those circles.
 
And, as I just re-discovered reading his obits, he recorded with Lee Michaels, which I'd forgotten as I was never really a Michaels fan; he and Michaels had both played with Joel Scott Hill. Hoh drummed in a nascent version of Poco that included Michaels, before George Grantham, and played briefly with Gene Clark (along with Clarence White and John York) in what must have been a hell of band; only Clark lost interest when their audiences only wanted to hear Byrds hits (ironically enough Parsons and York would go on to join the Byrds).

After leaving the Burritos Eddie Hoh basically dropped off the recording map. His last credit was Mandel's Games Guitars Play (1970). There was one rumour he was dead, another that he'd wigged out and was living on the street or in an asylum in Chicago.  He resurfaced or was rediscovered via the internet, and had a short time in which his achievements were recognised again, before dying in a rest home outside Chicago, of natural causes.

And still today, when people ask me who my favourite rock drummer was, I say Fast Eddie Hoh. RIP

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

DAVID HALBERSTAM'S OCTOBER 1964

While I watched bits of the World Series, getting into November, which had a great ending as Kansas City beat the Mets, I was also reading a World Series book, David Halberstam's account of the Series in 1964. It was the end of the New York Yankee dynasty: the St Louis Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games, the Yankees fired manager Yogi Berra (you can link to my obituary of Yogi here) and hired the Cardinals' Johnny Keane and began a tailspin that lasted until George Steinbrenner in the 70s created the Bronx Zoo teams and instituted a policy of buying the best players from the teams that beat New York.

While Halberstam's book, which was published in 1994, gives a good account of the surprising regular season (in which both teams could've been counted out, and don't forget the Phillies' remarkable collapse) as well as the Series (remember, these were the glorious days before interminable wild cards and playoff series); he has wider concerns. He opens with a quote from George Romney (Mitt's father) speaking about the fate of General Motors: "There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success." The Yankees, of course, were the General Motors of baseball, the Cardinals had once been Ford to their GM, before New York's three teams took over domination of baseball just after WWII. He contrasts the teams nicely: the Cards a team with young talent brought along by Keane's teaching hand, the Yankees a team of fading and aging superstars, held together by Yogi's confidence in his former teammates and easy-rider approach to clutch games.

The Cardinals were also a team benefiting from black stars: Bob Gibson just reaching his peak as a dominant pitcher; Lou Brock, set free by Keane to play his kind of game; Curt Flood covering acres in center field, Bill White a steady rock of a leader at first base. The Yankees, in contrast, had catcher Elston Howard. The National League had got the jump on the American in racial terms, and it was starting to show. Moreover, these players were part of a a new wave of black stars: college-educated, unwilling to sit in the back of the bus, demanding to be respected as men as well as players.

Halberstam is concerned with race here, and because his stories are almost always built around people, his picture of the way changing racial mores reached baseball and reflected changes in America is brilliant. Likewise he recognises that the times were changing on a generational basis too: younger players with different attitudes were reaching the big leagues, players with more options, like the Yankees' Jim Bouton or Pete Mikkelsen, or the Cards' Ray Sadecki. They clashed with managers or veteran players simply because they began to question the entrenched hierarchies of how things were done.

The teams were different too in the way they were built. The Yankees were used to having a mighty farm system, always developing new stars, and players they could trade away for veteran role players. But owners Dan Topping and Del Webb (who oddly barely gets a mention) were looking to sell the team, and cutting their losses (they would sell to CBS after the season) so the farm system was run down. How cheap were they? With the Yankees down three games to two in St Louis, management had the players check out of the hotel and bring their bags to the ballpark before Game Six, even though a Yankee win would mean a game seven the next day. The Yanks dutifully won anyway.

The Cardinals had once been run by a cheapskate of Olympian proportions themselves, Branch Rickey, who crafted the farm-system blueprint, and they were still producing talent, but this team was built on astute deals by current GM Bing Devine-- bringing in Dick Groat, Curt Simmons, and most importantly Brock (for Ernie Broglio)-- but Devine clashed with team owner Gussie Busch (of the Budweiser fortune) and Busch brought back Rickey, numbering Devine's days.

Baseball was changing, though Topping and Webb had bought the Yankees from Jake Ruppert, another beer baron, the days of owners who made their livings off their baseball clubs, and tended to either know the game well or know that they didn't and left the club to those who did, were ending. Busch was the epitome of the modern owner, who treated the team as his plaything, and the players and staff as his indentured serfs. Soon Curt Flood would mount the first assault on baseball's reserve clause, which bound a player to his team by a series of automatically renewable one-year contracts, the infamous 'reserve clause'. As baseball's owners changed in nature, so did the players, and eventually, bankrolled by TV, our modern free-agency era would begin, though not with huge unrest.

We know some of the stories well: most notably Mickey Mantle, the Yankee superstar brought low by injury: I had forgotten that in this series Mantle was moved to right field and Roger Maris played center field (Maris would soon wind up in St Louis, out of the New York spotlight he hated). Whitey Ford, their ace pitcher, was also on his last arms, and was not a factor after the series' first game. Halberstam tells those stories, but he actually spends more time on the Cardinals, whose tale transcends baseball to society better, and also is the one we don't know that one so well. And because he writes so brilliantly, (The Teammates is one of favourite baseball  books) it works wonderfully.

A couple of sidebars: Oddly, in Halberstam's previous baseball book, the Summer Of '49, I was puzzled by one thing he wrote, that the Red Sox had moved Johnny Pesky from shortstop to third base because he was quicker and had more range than Junior Stephens. No one gets moved from short to third because they have more range, at least they didn't until the Yankees moved Alex Rodriquez to keep Derek Jeter at short. Stephens was a Cal Ripken-like big shortstop whose strong arm allowed him to play deep and gave him more range. There's always something that makes you wonder how accurate the things you don't know about are. In his book on Bill Belichick Halberstam credited Belichick (as captain) and new coach Terry Jackson for turning around Wesleyan's lacrosse programme; but having been there and played the year before Terry took over, I could tell you a large part of the turnaround came when Wesleyan stopped playing bigger Division One programs like Yale, Brown, UMass, Washington & Lee, UConn or New Hampshire.

Anyway, in this book Halberstam mentions Frankie Frisch (the Fordham Flash) and calls him a 'former New York Giant great'. Which was true in the 20s, but Frisch, who fell out mightily with Giants' manager John McGraw, was traded to St Louis for Rogers Hornsby and had a a second great career as player-manager and leader of the 'Gas-House Gang', the great Cardinal teams in the 30s. In a book about the Cardinals that description would seem more relevant.

As I said I was watching the Series while I read this book, and I was thinking what a mistake-prone series it was: sloppy fielding and bad execution of basic baseball. But reading Halberstam's account, I was reminded of how many bad plays characterized this series as well: Phil Linz, the Yankee reserve infielder forced to play short by Tony Kubek's injury, but also Mantle's struggles throwing and numerous other errors, many forced by the faster game the Cardinals, led by Brock and Flood, played.

They are gorgeous memories anyway, and there are few writers who can bring them alive, and give them such depth and humanity, as Halberstam. I met him once, when we were both covering the Chicago Bulls in Paris (I was writing for USA Today; he was researching his book on Michael Jordan). We went to dinner, and he was not only the most interesting man at the table, he was the most interested: you could see just why his interviews gave him so much material. The blessing is how deftly he used it.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

COLIN WELLAND, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, AND ME

When I heard Colin Welland had died, I remembered leaving the Odeon Swiss Cottage, having just watched Chariots Of Fire, and saying to Theresa, 'I guarantee that film will win the Oscar, if it gets released in America'. I haven't felt such certainty often; The King's Speech was another one. I recall Colin Welland's 'The British are coming' shout as he received his Oscar; of course the British were already there, and had been, but it turned out he was right, and American movies and TV are littered with Brits in ways he probably couldn't have imagined. I remember he got his Oscar from Jerzy Kosinski, who'd played Zinoviev in Reds, the film tipped to take the Oscars. I used to see Kosinski around Wesleyan's Center for Advanced Studies when I was a student.

A few years later, sometime in the mid to late Eighties, I was at the Rugby League Challenge Cup final, representing ABC Sports. It might have been the year after ABC stopped covering the games; they used to send American football players over to provide colour commentary, without having ever done TV or seen rugby league before; they thought that worked well. One year it was Giants' punter Dave Jennings with Frank Gifford (Jennings took eight takes to get his scene-set lines right; as soon as he did, Giff flubbed his finish, which I've always thought was deliberate) the next it was Cris Collingsworth with Jim Lampley (when a player was bleeding profusely from a clash of heads, the rugby league medic sponged off his forehead and threw the sponge back in his water bucket. Another player picked up the sponge and squeezed the bloody water into his mouth. 'Did he just do what I think he did?' asked Lamps. With no hesitation, Cris said 'these guys are so tough they drink blood!'.

The RL invited me to lunch before the match, and I was seated at a table with Colin Welland, Michael Parkinson, and Fred Trueman. On the surface, this should have been paradise for me: the screenwriter of one of the best sports movies; Britain's leading interviewer; and, since I was a big cricket fan at the time, a cricketing great who provided acerbic and sometimes begrudgingly gracious commentary on Test Match Special. Unfortunately, it turned into a rugby league contest to determine exactly who was the most northern of the trio (I was a non-starter in this race, obviously). For the life of me, by the time the coffee came I was thinking of the Monty Python 'Four Yorkshiremen' sketch: 'oh, we used to dream of living in a corridor!' I enjoyed it mightily! If I'd brought a camera, I'd love to see that photo of it today.

Years afterwards, I wrote a piece about the ways Welland had changed history for Chariots of Fire, though oddly enough I can't find it now. But the changes were instructive, for they way they built the dramatic storyline. NBC Sports do similar things with live Olympic events today.

The movie compares two stories at the 1924 Olympics in Paris: Harold Abrahams' quest to overcome anti-Semitic prejudice and his drive to win at 'all costs' is contrasted with the Christian missionary Eric Liddell's decision not to run in the 100m because the heats fell on a Sunday. Liddell's decision, while controversial, was actually made long before the Olympics, not on the spot as depicted; and he wasn't given 'Lord Lindsay's' place in the final, he'd long before been entered in it.

Liddell did win the 400m, but he also got the bronze medal at 200m, behind the Americans Jackson Scholz and Charlie Paddock, who finished second and third to Abrahams in the 100m. Abrahams finished last in that final; it was the only time he and Liddell ever raced. In the movie, we see Abrahams beaten in the 200, but it comes before the 100m race not after as it actually was; this gives him a chance in the film to overcome adversity and win with the chips down.

'Lord Lindsay', of course, wasn't a real character; but he was based on the hurdler David Cecil, Lord Burghley, who became the first non-American to win the Olympic 400m hurdles. Only he did that in 1928, in Amsterdam! In 1924 he failed to even reach the final of the 110m hurdles; and never even was entered in the 400m flat race, so he could not have given his place up to Liddell anyway.

And in the film, Abrahams is shown beating Lindsay while completing the 'Great Court Run' at Cambridge, which never happened. It was Burghley who did beat the clock on that run, but not until 1927. There are a few non-sporting liberties with timelines too.And look at that picture of Ben Cross, with the karate-chop hands, which all actors seem to use now when they run , but it wasn't something actual runners were doing in the Twenties.

I didn't bring any of these sporting points up with Welland, but we did talk a bit about the way both Burghley and Abrahams stayed in athletics, and, somewhat ironically in Abrahams' case, given the controversy over his use of a professional coach,  both were presidents of the Amateur Athletic Association. Abrahams became a journalist and radio commentator; Burghley became an IOC member and, as Lord Exeter, was president of the IAAF, the international track federation. We talked about the days when Brits in blazers ran international sport; and I recall him saying soon only Rugby League would be left, but the Aussies would beat us anyways.

It was one of the best lunches I've ever spent. RIP Colin Welland.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

THE MANSION IN FORT LEE: AUGUST KLEINZAHLER & ALBERT ANASTASIA

I was sent an interesting article today, by my friend August Kleinzahler, San Francisco's finest poet, maybe America's. A mansion is for sale in Fort Lee, New Jersey, right by the house in which August grew up. He's written about this before, about when he was a kid, playing with Gloriana, the little girl his age who lived there, while her bodyguard looked on. Bodyguard because Gloriana's surname was Anastasia, and her father was Albert Anastasia, the founder of Murder Incorporated.

Albert Anastasia, of course, was shot down in a Manhattan barber shop in October 1957. The Anastasias moved away, and the house was bought by Buddy Hackett, the zany borderline Tourettes comic, with the help of Del Webb, who part-owned the New York Yankees, and was a developer in the Southwest and a casino owner. The history of Del Webb and Dan Topping, the Yankee owners who bought the team from the beer magnate Jacob Ruppert, is a fascinating one in itself; they sold the team to CBS after the 1964 World Series.

If you haven't read August's 2005 memoir, Cutty, One Rock, you really ought to. In the the meantime, here's a link to the New York Times' article about the house, in which August is interviewed...


Monday, 2 November 2015

THE QUIET DEATH OF NORMAN MORRISON: THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY


It was late yesterday, and I was trying to find some lines to help fix up a series of old poems I've been working on. By chance, I'd taken a few old notebooks out of a box a few days before, and I took one from 1985, which was about the same time-frame as the other poems, and opened it to a page of notes about Norman Morrison, on the twentieth anniversary of his death. I cursed myself silently, for in the wake of certain turmoils in the past few months, I had forgotten the 50th anniversary, which I'd been reminding myself about for years, hoping to write a story for a paper or magazine remembering it. Call it chance, or fate, or synchronicity, but whatever drew me to that little notebook, and that page, filled me with a certain sombre joy, that I had not in the end been allowed to forget, and this is what I wrote:

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Norman Morrison, a Quaker who, at the age of 31, handed his 15-month old daughter Emily to someone, and at the Potomac River entrance to the Pentagon, under Robert McNamara's office, "quietly sat down, doused himself with kerosene, and set himself on fire'. He was the first of six Americans to die by self-immolation in protest of the Vietnam war. I think of him every time I see a red poppy on someone's lapel in the weeks leading up to Armistice Day. I used to wonder why he brought his daughter with him, but I read once that his widow Anne thought he might have needed her there for comfort. And Emily herself felt she was there to be "a symbol of truth and hope, treasure and horror altogether. And I am fine with my role in it." I felt he needed her there to remind him of the future, and the people, for whom he was making his sacrifice. He had been struggling with himself for weeks, but that morning something had spoken to him.

I resisted the draft in 1972 with the help of the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee. When I was writing my statement out for the draft board, it was Norman Morrison I was thinking about, and I quoted him more than once. I was also thinking of leaving the country, and I thought about how hard it must have been for his family, after he'd gone. Ironically, I won my fight, if only on a technicality, but I left the country anyway a couple of years later.

Norman Morrison's sacrifice didn't hasten the end of the Vietnam War. He is basically forgotten now; the only mainstream report I saw today was primarily about the pain his family suffered. I was a serious Christian in those days, but the example of a Quaker who appeared to take the gospels far more seriously than most Christians was something that began to propel me away from my religious idealism. His sacrifice deserves to be remembered. RIP