red-headed stranger

You may well (indeed almost certainly) have noticed that the titles of these blogs often coincide with the titles of some well known songs. On occasion there is some diversion into music discussion within the blog with an often at best tenuous link to that song. Yes, I freely admit to being one of those terrible I-think-I–know-it-all people like Mark Ellen or David Hepworth. That’s why we have magazines like The Word and Mojo and television programmes like ‘Later with Jools Holland’. It’s for people like me who publicly scoff at people like them but are much more like them than we would care to admit. I am so bad that Ani insisted on one of our wedding vows being that I could only bore her with little known but useless facts about the wonderful world of popular music once a day, a vow that I now publicly confess to breaking, yes, you’ve guessed, on a daily basis.

So, to ‘Red Headed Stranger’, the title of this latest blog (though I do think that ‘blag’, or even ‘blah’ is probably a more accurate description of these rants). A Willie Nelson tune. So, are we headed for a digression into country music once more? Are we going to off on a tangent to discuss the outlaws of country music, those maverick souls who bent the boundaries of the rollin’ redneck prairies? No. Will we wander into the fabulous world of those red-headed strangers who have brought beauty and mystery into our lives, the Rita Hayworth’s, the Dylan Thomas’s, the Ben Sheridan’s…?
Well, sort of.

Close your eyes tightly, click your heels together three times and repeat over and over in a very loud voice ‘there’s no place like Phnom Penh, there’s no place like Phnom Penh…’ and we will travel back in time to last Saturday in Phnom Penh, when the little O and I were in the house together whilst mummy Ani was out visiting her Thai friends in street 240 who give her a ‘glamorous Hollywood starlet of the 1950’s’ wash and blow dry on a regular basis (and give me an ‘0h God what can we do with this but pretend to snip a little and push those wispy bits around to cover the wide open spaces’ haircut on a slightly less regular basis). We were getting ready to go out and I had showered as Otis played in the bedroom, making contented little ‘broom-broom’ noises and seemingly quite absorbed in whatever new skill he had developed in the last few moments. As previously mentioned I am now severely follicly challenged, but that did not prevent me from picking up mummy A’s hairbrush and running it jauntily through the few remaining strands whilst slipping into a nostalgic reverie for the days when I would have given Rick Wakeman a run for the money in the ‘that man is wearing Harmony hairspray – no he isn’t. Yes, he is!’ beautiful blonde tresses stakes. Snapping out of that bit of foolish reminiscence (but pausing to remind you that one of the truly great organ solos of all time can be heard on ‘Roundabout’ by Yes, played by that very same blonde bombshell. Rick Wakeman, that is. Not me. Obviously. I can’t play organ, but boy can I bore with useless information…) I scooped the O up, tucked him under one arm and carried him down the stairs. He giggled as we went, looking up at me with a naughty boy grin spread across his cherubic features. At the foot of the stairs we paused, ostensibly to play peek- a – boo with his reflection in the large mirror at the bottom of the staircase, but really so I could have one last check of my rapidly fading grandeur before heading out into the unforgiving blazing sunshine.

Jebus! I nearly dropped the by now hysterically chortling O as I gazed at the red headed stranger who faced me in the mirror. No…not even red. What little of my former tonsorial glory that remained was now crimson. Crimson and erect, like a pathetic middle aged attempt at a mangy Mohican, a Kings Road original gone to seed that not even a hopelessly myopic Japanese tourist would bother to photograph…I am so sorry God, please forgive me for criticising the UK Subs in that last blog, I didn’t mean it, I take it back, please restore what little dignity I have, please…please…

Thankfully it was not a punishment for excessive sarcasm handed down by God. It was a punishment for not paying attention, handed down by little O assisted by Max Factor. As I was trilling tuneless versions of various 70’s hits from KC and the Sunshine Band through the Sex Pistols and even some Fox (remember them?) and swallowing mouthfuls of soapy water in the process, little O had been smearing mummy’s lipstick liberally over the hairbrush in preparation for the grand humiliation of daddy that would surely result. I had to wash my remaining hair a total of 6 times to remove all trace of the caked on crimson, although my scalp remained tinged with red for several days after…

I am writing this in the cool (ha ha) of a winters evening in England, as we have flown back to the Yoo-Kay for the festive season. Our flight was a little fraught, as the young master decided that if he was to be put out by overnight travel on a jumbo jet, then everyone else in economy class should suffer also. That meant incessant high pitched screaming coupled with frequent attempts to crawl over under sideways down into every nook and cranny on the plane. Nappy changing during turbulence is also not recommended, although he seemed to enjoy the many push that-pull this-turn that-press this delights of an aircraft toilet cubicle more than most of the toys we have bought him in these last few months. Efforts to calm him by feeding proved mostly ineffectual. One cabin staff member, a very smiley Thai woman, seemed to completely fail to understand my accent as on each occasion that I asked for ‘some baby milk, please’ or ‘some breakfast cereal, please’, or ‘a sandwich, please’ she shook her head affirmatively then offered me some Singha beer. Maybe she just expects every middle-aged man who wanders up to the galley at three in the morning to be looking for beer… anyway, the flight was hell but we are here now and girding our loins for the coming Christmas extravaganza. We went into Basingstoke briefly this afternoon, but everywhere was monumentally busy with incredible queues, and everyone just looked so wholeheartedly miserable that the experience was probably marginally worse than being tied into one’s seat for every date of the Black Lace reunion tour then made to buy the T-shirt afterwards. And wear it.

Still, mustn’t grumble. ‘Strictly Come Dancing – the Final!’ is on telly tomorrow. It’s so good to be back in a country whose cultural heritage has inspired the world…

As this is probably the last blog I will write before Christmas strikes (I’m not sure if that is really the appropriate terminology to use, but what is appropriate about Christmas anyway? Baby Jebus hardly gets a look in on his birthday these days…), may this eternal Ebenezer Scrooge wish all his readers a big ‘bah, humbug!’ and truly a very Merry Christmas and if I don’t blog before then, a very Happy New Year 2008 to you all.

‘I mean it, ma-a-a-n!’

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Hey Porter!

So, Porter Waggoner has died. He is credited (mostly by himself, it has to be said) as being the man who brought Dolly Parton to prominence. Prominence and Dolly Parton… what thoughts pass fleetingly through the mind, dear reader… send them away, they have little place in this particular missive. His rhinestone-encrusted besuited frame topped by the strange inverted triangle of his head and his extremely large ears (hang on… isn’t it strange that many male country singers – and Bryan Ferry – have larger than average ears…) are etched in my memory through the courtesy of RCA Camden and their range of budget LP’s, as sold in Woolies and as bought in large quantities by my Mum and Dad. We had several of their duet LP’s, and the material on those was pretty much your average (!) tearjerking country balladry, songs of orphans freezing to death in the snow, life’s great tragedies and of decent god-fearin’ folks snatched from the warm bosom of life way before their time. Classic stuff. Hallmark was another great label for country vinyl. Patsy Cline was a favourite in our house. My sister Pam can do an uncanny Patsy Cline impression. I really, really liked Patsy (and the Hank’s – Williams, Snow and Locklin. I found Red Sovine just a little too much to take, Jim Reeves – mmm, good singer but too much of a smoothie, although Bimbo’s a great tune… mind you, so is ‘This world is not my home’… time for a re-appraisal, I think…). I loved Marty Robbins, particularly ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’, home to the wondrous ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’, and anything by Johnny Cash (both CBS orange label – a tad more expensive!) and though I would never admit this to my Dad, I really liked his other main man, United Artist’s very own Slim Whitman. I think it was the fact that so many of his recordings sounded really spooky to me, like spirit messages filtered through a medium locked in an echo chamber with a steel guitar, and he looked amazing, really plastic and always soft focus, like an early version of Max Headroom. Boy, did I have an active imagination as a kid.

My introduction to country music came courtesy of my parents, when as a young child (maybe four or five years old) I received a red vinyl 78 of Roy Rogers singing ‘Red River Valley’, backed with ‘The Old Chisum Trail’ (my middle name is Chisholm, and my dear Nana’s family were Chisholm’s who had many émigrés in their history, so this set off fanciful flights of imagining about their role in the Wild West which I have recently found are much more accurate than I could have ever dreamed.). It was encased in an incredible picture sleeve, with Roy mounted on Trigger, his trusty steed (many years before he would literally mount Trigger – titter ye not, I mean upon a wooden plinth, stuffed and on display at his ranch) on the front. If Otis is the whitest baby in the world, then there is no doubt that Trigger was the whitest horse in the world. Even whiter than the White Horse whiskey horse, or the White Horses from the eponymous 1960’s children’s TV serial. Sorry, I’m diverging and digressing again. Lets get back on track… Roy Rogers… I really liked both songs, and at that time my heroes were pretty much either cowboys or spacemen, or my Dad, who I kind of imagined was Michael Rennie playing the role of a cowboy spaceman… which I suppose he did in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ … now there’s an obscure reference to something coming up in this blog very shortly…

TV was full of cowboys, and my favourite was Ty Hardin from Wells Fargo. Ty didn’t go much for shootin’, oh no, he favoured pistol-whipping the bad guys, and usually being pistol-whipped in return. This was very unfortunate for my younger sister Vanda, who found herself the recipient of a particularly vicious pistol-whipping from her beloved big brother, copying old Ty. I don’t recall the exact details, but my mother remembers my disbelief that poor Vanda didn’t just get up right away, rub her head and clamber back into the saddle and ride off into the sunset, as Ty was wont to do, but had to suffer mild concussion courtesy of the Milky Bar Kid (me).

All this reminiscing is getting me misty-eyed with nostalgia, so while we’re on a roll, let’s carry on. Dan Dare, Yuri Gagarin (I far preferred the Russian cosmonauts to their American counterparts – Gagarin seemed such a cheeky and likeable chappie – and Russian spacecraft were way more interesting, almost Heath-Robinson-ish in appearance. Remember Lunakhod, the Russian Moon-rover? I swear that was a bathtub with wheels on it…), Quickdraw McGraw, Robert McGregor from across the road and his huge collection of glossy music magazines, so many, many formative influences… but let us fast forward to the point where my burgeoning obsession with rock music collided with the realization that country music was a very real part of the whole kaleidoscopic jigsaw… step up and take a bow Mr. Alan J ‘Perce’ McPherson, the man who introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Perce was a little older than my friends and I, and he had a record collection full of many strange and wondrous things, but none more wondrous than his Creedence albums. He also became the drummer in our first band, Paranoya.

We started as a ‘front-room’ band in my friend Michael’s house, before graduating to ‘garage band’ when we began to get a little too loud. I suppose we were a very early example of art-rock as we used found or everyday objects as part of our equipment. Michael’s mum’s big radio was our PA system; his front room lamp stand became the microphone stand. Guitar amplifiers were built from mail-order electronic kits (Kids! Why grow giant mushrooms in your basement when you can build your very own ‘Eagle’ crackling high voltage electric shock dispenser that also functions as a signal amplifier for only £8-3/4d!!), speakers resembling inverted Kleenex dispensers were constructed from Planika. Our bass player’s mum and dad obviously had more faith in him as they bought him a guitar, amplifier (15 watts! Yay!) and a strap, bag and cable (ironically he went on to be the bassist in a real country band…) I didn’t have a guitar at that point, or indeed a purpose to my life, so I drew the short straw of vocalist, which was a bit strange as I was at that time chronically shy. (Which is not to say that I am not still chronically shy, because I am, albeit in a slightly more extrovert way.) One of our original two guitarists who had previously shown little interest in music didn’t like the idea of being left out of this latest digression so he toddled off down to the Music Shop, bought a guitar and a copy of Bert Weedon’s legendary ‘Play In A Day’ and stayed up all night, effectively learning to play in half-a-day, returning the next day to stun us with his new-found expertise. As I recall, the first song we practiced (nobody ‘rehearsed’ in those far-off days) was a song by the Kinks called ‘Took my baby home’, which I believe none of us had actually heard at that time, we learned it straight from a songbook. Some years later I did get round to hearing the original, and our version was pretty close.

Well, reasonably close…

I wish I could find a set list, as my memory of those days is pretty hazy now, but I’m pretty sure we did more than a few Creedence numbers – ‘Don’t look now’ for certain, maybe ‘Effigy’… ‘Travelin’ Band’, ‘Lodi’, perhaps ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (also known as Bare Moon Horizon… does that mean anything to anyone out there reading this??). I think Michael may have made some reel-to-reel recordings of the garage sessions, but he may well be sitting on these (if they still exist) in the unlikely event of any of that little group of people becoming famous for whatever reason… (News just in – Thurso man blown up in Cambodian minefield – Legendary Garage Sessions tape to be released!) .
Jebus, I’ve been rambling a bit, haven’t I? I’ve completely lost track, so let me finish with a recommendation. Buy ‘Revival’.

Must admit, first time I heard the single (well, actually saw the video for it– I do hope John is being ironic, though I would kill for the painted western acoustic one of the kids is playing… ), I wasn’t sure… Now I am. Absolutely. The real John C Fogerty is back with a vengeance. It’s simple and direct, maudlin in parts (like the best country music), and it rocks like an unhinged mountain man high on moonshine driving his truck at 110 the wrong way down the interstate highway in others… and dammit, yes, it really sounds like Creedence. The last time Mr. Fogerty released anything this consistently great was around the time my Dad died, so the memories that flood through me when I listen to this incredible album are tinged with a little bit of that ole country sadness. Like we all do with the people who matter and who have gone from our lives, I really wish my Dad was still around. I would love to tell him honestly how much I really secretly liked his music, and the incredible effect it would go on to have on my life, but I do have some amazing memories.

We once went to see Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley play… I’ll never forget looking around during Bo’s set to see my Dad grinning from ear to ear and almost bopping around with the sheer joy of the music. Music is all about moments, and in that moment on the stage it was country meeting it’s best buddy, rock and roll, and up in the stalls my dad and I realizing that we weren’t really as different as we thought we were after all…

…so this one’s for you, Dad

Keep on chooglin’…