Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 24 – On the road with Harper

On the road with Harper

As the 70s exerted its unpleasant grasp like a dead man’s clammy fingers around your throat I was in a world of my own. I was hanging on to the dream of the past, reluctant to face the truth and let it slip away.

We convinced ourselves that this was all a blip. Out of the ashes the phoenix would rise. There was evidence for this: Beefheart’s wondrous 1973 Rainbow concert, Lennon’s great two solo albums, Floyd’s flashes of creativity, Syd Barrett’s two albums. They shone amid the overblown hype of Yes, Genesis and ELP with their extended and exceedingly boring opuses, or the Pop of Glam Rock with TRex, Bowie and Glitter. We Freaks looked down on the commercial junk of the charts or pretentious crap. We wanted something that reflected the socio-political view of alternative, underground life. Glam and Prog didn’t cut it! It was chart orientated Pop!

I was somewhat sated by my progressing relationship with Roy Harper. Regardless of what was happening to the scene around him he remained unaltered and true to himself, his ideals and the spirit of the times. He told it as it was without a thought to how it might affect his career.

 Opher with Roy in the Baltic 2010

I’d been going to at least one or two Roy gigs a week so I was getting quite au fait with his songs, thoughts and persona. I was meeting him regularly for long stoned talks and social time in Kilburn. I was still making those lengthy phone calls. I guess I was the complete pest. But I do suffer with these obsessions and Roy was consistently talking and performing the stuff that made me think, that grabbed my imagination so that I wanted more. He was one of the few elements that hadn’t let me down. There was a great intellect, imagination, poet and musician at work and I had the chance to see it first hand who could resist?

His gigs had gone from small numbers to queues around the block. I’d been to the St Pancras gig which was pivotal. It was like the last gig for the original faithful before he headed off to bigger things. It was not only a milestone but the most incredible gig. It had that real homely feel and personal touch. It was a shame that Jackson C Frank had failed to show. He was a good friend of Roy’s and it would have been special.

Roy always tried to treat his gigs as if he was playing to friends in his front room. He hated the idea of performance and being paid to perform. He hated barriers. The St Pancras gig achieved the impossible.

From there on in it was bigger venues and larger audiences. It looked as if Roy was going to make it huge. But then there was Roy busy sabotaging himself at every turn.

I’d gone through the experience of Roy’s first real epic song with ‘McGoohan’s Blues’. At the time there were only two things worth watching on the box. One was Marty Feldman and the other was ‘The Prisoner’ featuring Patrick McGoohan. The Prisoner was set in the Dali-esque Portmeirion. It was a surreal series concerned with allegorical tales of society and reality that played with your head. Roy did this epic song about it. I’d heard Roy play it in the very beginning and it had blown me away. It seemed to hold in it all of the views of the exploitative capitalist society, with all its arrogance and greed, that I detested. He summed it up so well it sent chills through me. We were all playing the game.

I’d seen the way it was recorded on Liberty. They’d wanted a hit album and brought in Mickey Most to produce it. That must have been fun. I’m not sure what Mickey made of Roy’s twenty five minute burst of vitriol. I doubt if he saw it as a potential hit single! In fact he probably scoured the rest of the material and came up short when it got to potential radio play.

I think it is fair to say that Mickey and Roy did not quite see eye to eye. The album was made in a series of rushed first takes and Roy was out of there. He even had a row over the cover. Roy wanted it as a diamond. The company printed it as a standard square. Roy argued and they compromised with an off-centre diamond that pleased nobody.

The result was highly disappointing if you seen Roy at the time. Songs like ‘McGoohan’s blues’ and ‘She’s the one’ were tours de force live but were highly flawed on the record. I never really found a version of ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ that lived up to the intensity of Roy’s live singing back then.

Liberty and Roy parted company.

Roy signed to the prestigious Harvest label and the more conducive Pete Jenner as producer. They hit it off. The label provided him with unlimited time in Abbey Road studio and for the first time Roy had the technical back-up to make a decent album that would do justice to his incredible songs.

Roy invited me down to the studios to see the recording. It was to be the focus of my life. I was still catching Harper gigs as well as attending sessions. I was to go on through ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’, ‘Stormcock’, ‘Lifemask’ and ‘HQ’ until I moved up North to Hull in 1975 and that put an end to it. It did mean that I was privy to the recording of four of Roy’s most brilliant albums.

The strange thing about Abbey Road studio was the incredible low key security. I used to park my good old 350 AJS outside and saunter in. Nobody ever challenged me. Lennon was recording there. Wings were recording there and I suppose a number of others but there was no great shakes. I wandered in and down the corridor to where Roy was recording and walked into the control room. I suppose I could have popped down and said hello to Paul or John but it did not occur to me. We were much to cool for that. You didn’t do that sort of thing.

In the control room you’d meet all sorts. At one time I was sitting there with Dave Gilmour, Keith Moon and Bonzo when Jimmy Page and entourage walked in. Page was with this petite girl with incredibly long hair that was well past her bum. Page’s friend asked me what I did and I was a bit thrown. What was I doing here? I came up with something lame like ‘I’m just watching.’ It was quite intimidating to be in a control room with the elite of Rock Music. I met everyone from Ronnie Lane, John Paul Jones to Robert Plant, the Nice and Tony Visconti. There were times when me and Roy were the only non-millionaires in the place. Roy certainly had the support and backing of all the best musicians. They appreciated the quality of his stuff and it had a great influence on their own music.

It was a privilege to see people of the quality of Moon, Page and Gilmour perform live in the studio. I’d be sitting there, trying to melt into the walls, and Page would be laughing around and then he’d pick up a guitar and instantly transform into a professional guitarist. When he played he performed in the control room it was as if he was on stage. He’d strum and pick and you’d sit mesmerised watching the intensity and hearing the crispness of the chords and notes. I wish I’d taken a camera.

I was there in the studio when Roy recorded ‘East of the sun’. He was having a great deal of difficulty with the harmonica. It kept playing up. He eventually got it down and then smashed it in the door. The annoying American girl I’d brought along, to give Liz a bit of peace and quiet, gathered the bent instrument up. She left it with me when she finally went home but I’ve no idea what happened to it.

I was there when Roy in the course of his frustration and high jinks managed to tip the vandal-proof drinks vending machine over. Quite a feat!

I was there when he recorded ‘Hell’s Angels’ with the Nice. EMI had wanted a single and Roy was never keen on singles. They smacked of sell-out and commercial sell-out to him. So he wrote ‘Hell’s Angels’ knowing they could never play it on the radio. It was done in one take and at one point Binky Jackson loses the rhythm and Roy comes in to talk him through it. They dropped the backing out and left it like that for the recording. It seemed to work.

There were the magic times with Moon laying down the drums on ‘Male Chauvinist Pig Blues’, or Page rockin’ back and forth as he played along to his own guitar on the fabulous ‘Lord’s prayer’.

I was in heaven.

I sometimes went along with Liz and on one occasion Dave Gilmore offered us a lift in his taxi. We declined out of politeness but he was very pleasant and friendly. We should have accepted.

In 69, when Dylan was performing on the Isle of Wight, I was sitting in the basement at Les Cousins watching Roy record ‘I hate the Whiteman’. He was aware of what had happened to his previous ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ epic and did not want the same disaster to occur with this masterpiece. He’d decided it would best be served live. That was a great recording session in a real intimate setting, in the place where Roy had first started out. I remember him putting so much into it that he broke a string. It later came out as a CD that I wrote the liner notes for.

Other notable Harper concerts that I remember in those halcyon days were Roy’s Royal Albert Hall appearance where he played a storming version of ‘Male Chauvinist Pig Blues’ and ‘One man Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’.

At the fabled Rainbow concert I got along to see the rehearsal as well as the show and met Keith Moon, Ronnie Lane, Bonzo and Jimmy Page. There was a great atmosphere, much clowning about and a brilliant gig.

Then there was the Hyde Park concert where Roy was supposed to be headlining but left that to Roger McGuinn. Roy had this amazing band with Dave Gilmour on guitar, Steve Broughton on drums and John Paul Jones on bass. They blew McGuinn off the stage. I wish I had a recording of it. The guitar was brilliant.

 Roy & Nick at the Royal Festival Hall 2011

When Roy formed the band Trigger with Chris Spedding, Bill Bruford and Dave Cochran they hit their peak as a Rock Band. Spedding’s guitar was extraordinary. He later went on to play the guitar stuff on some of the Sex Pistols stuff. I hitched over to York uni to see them play and they were superb. That album ‘HQ’ is one of the best.

Likewise with the bands Chips and Black Sheep that Roy put together with Andy Roberts, Dave Lawson, Henry McCullough, John Halsey and Dave Cochran. They were a great band and produced two great albums – ‘Bullinamingvase’ and ‘Commercial Breaks’. I hitch-hiked round a bit to see them as well. They were superb.

In 1982 I met up with Roy on his ‘Born in Captivity’ tour and suggested to Roy that we should get together to write his biography. He thought he could trust me and agreed. After a number of sessions he decided that it could end up upsetting too many people. We changed the concept to a book about his lyrics. I spent twenty years working on it then Roy pulled the plug on it. I am left with thirty hours of tapes and a book in four volumes that is ready to go. Ho hum. Some things work out and some things don’t.

Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 23 – A house of memories

A house of memories

After leaving college and heading off on our world tour I ended up back at the same college working as a laboratory technician and doing research. It kept me in the thick of things. The place was full of Freaks and there was music everywhere. I had my hair and lifestyle pretty much intact.

I got put in charge of the animal house which suited me down to the ground. I had four days of work. Two days were cleaning out the rabbits, rats, mice, guinea pigs and cats, sterilising and scrubbing. I was used to doing all that from my childhood and I could play music while I did it. That was OK! I loved animals. On the other two days it was a case of topping up the food and water and then getting my feet up and reading. I read a lot of books.

It also meant I could pop in at weekends and top up the water and food and get two half days of overtime for a couple of hours work.

But then I started getting into a bit of conflict. I didn’t like the way the animals were cooped up. It felt wrong. They were all fat and bored to tears. So I built a large run outside on a bit of waste grassland at the side of the animal house. I put the rabbits and guinea pigs out there.

I remember the big old rabbits sitting there blinking in the sun not quite sure what was going on. Then they started moving about. Before long they were bounding about kicking the air for joy, nibbling the grass and madly bonking each other. It was liberation.

I started drawing up plans for a big rat enclosure with runs and ladders. That was a bit more challenging.

After a few weeks the authorities came along and told me that they were lab animals under Home Office regulations and they had to be caged appropriately.

Then I turned my attention to the wild animals being used for dissection. We would get consignments of grass snakes and salamanders live caught on the continent and frogs from Ireland. They’d come in boxes, packed with moss, by train.

My job, as animal house tech, was to unpack them. Put them in aquaria and dole them out when needed. I was appalled that they were still using live caught animals particularly as salamanders were on the protected species list! Not only that, but over half the animals arriving in this way turned up dead! I ended up with a great pile of dead bodies when I’d unpacked. I started taking photos with a view to putting a case to the hierarchy. Seemingly photos were a major no-no. That came to a head when I went in and took photos of the cats that were being used in the psychology department. The cats were beautiful and tame and were used for vivisection. They drugged them, opened up their cranium and cut bits of the brain out to demonstrate the effects to groups of students. I was sure we had the technology to film this and so not have to kill all those cats. So I took a photo or two.

I was then visited by the College Principal and two Home Office men who informed me that under the Official Secrets act any disclosure of information concerning animals used in research projects, i.e. photographs of living cats with their skulls cut open, would result in prosecution and a likely lengthy prison sentence.

So I restricted my displeasure to naming the animals (I was well ahead of Dylan here!). When a technician came to get a couple of guinea pigs or a cat I gave them ‘Matilda’, ‘Emily’ and ‘Harry’. I was amazed at the huge effect this simple practice had. It reduced many of the technicians to tears. It made them think of the animals as having personalities. Before long I got another visit and a severe reprimand. Ho hum.

At the time I was living in this amazing house. We had a little flat, consisting of two rooms and a corridor kitchen, on the fourth floor. The place was a mass of small flats and bed-sits occupied by a spectrum of society.

On the ground floor there were two girls who were on the game. The landlord had the whole of the next floor. He was eighty four and absolutely brilliant but couldn’t work out why the two girls were so popular. He told me about their string of boyfriends. He thought they were very popular.

On the next floor was John in a bed-sit and the McDeed family who had come down from Scotland. John had a first-class degree and PhD in Literature from Cambridge. He was heavily into dope and seemed to spend all his time smoking dope and reading. He was a bit eccentric. He had a big square oak table and had put the roaches of all his joints on it. By this time there was big conical mountain of thousands of roaches. The McDeeds had moved in by stealth in stages. First Mr McDeed had moved in and then introduced his wife. Then the kids (all teenagers) started to arrive one by one. They had taken over two little flats and there were about six of them. Mt McDeed spent his days sitting on a park bench sipping whiskey out of a bottle in a brown paper bag. Every phone box for miles around was out of action because Mr McDeed would jemmy them open to steal the change to pay for his whiskey faster than they could be mended. It did not make him popular but he did not seem to care. The McDeeds were reputedly running from the Glasgow underworld. They were gangsters. Coinciding with their arrival all the giro cheques arriving for the unemployed regularly went missing. If you did not intercept the postman you did not get your cheque. Then the dry cleaners got raided. Somebody broke in and stole all the clothes as well as the money from the till. Incompetently someone had dropped a letter with the McDeeds address. They got raided and the clothes retrieved along with knives and guns that were hidden under a mattress. The McDeeds disappeared very quickly.

The garden was a revelation. Mr Rose, who was 84 years old, had created a masterpiece of psychedelic grandeur. It was a mass of bright paint, lights, tacky ornaments and vines, with swing boats, ponds and crazy designs. It was a place to come to trip to and we often found strange Freaks roaming around enunciating profound evocations of wonder such as: ‘Wow!!’

Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 22 – Jimi’s Spanish Castles crashing

Jimi’s Spanish Castles crashing

Jimi epitomised the whole 60s thing. He burst upon the scene in 1966 with ‘Hey Joe’ propelling the British Psychedelic scene into a new dimension.

I remember I was with my best mate Oz when I first heard it. You did a double take because it was a new sound. Your ears hadn’t heard anything like it before. It sent shivers through me. That guitar was out of this world.

It had a similar affect on everyone else, particularly musicians. I have read extensively about the effect it had on the British guitarists of the time – Clapton, Beck and Entwhistle. It hit them harder than it did me. They got to see him close up right from the start! At least I got to hear a few singles and a couple of albums first!

Jimi brought all the showmanship of the black R&B scene along with a prowess on the guitar that hasn’t been matched before or since. He was a revelation.

 Opher – still working on that same complicated chord impersonating Jimi

Following ‘Hey Joe’ was a string of equally astounding stuff. There was ‘Purple Haze’, ‘The Wind cries Mary’ and ‘the burning of the midnight lamp’. There were the first two albums – ‘Are you experienced?’ and ‘Axis bold as love’.

Hendrix was the hottest act round. Not only was the music so different, explosive and amazing but the act was as well. He played the guitar behind his head, with his teeth, elbow and backside. He created all this feedback that he harnessed and played. He smashed his guitar, burn it, sacrificed it and made love to it. He salaciously rubbed his guitar up against the speaker stacks with his hips while it shrieked and wailed.

Has anything ever been so exciting? I’d never seen it if it has!

I caught him in a small club in full swing. I caught him in Woburn abbey in full flow and I caught him at the Royal Albert Hall looking a bit jaded.

The trouble was that it was all too intense!

He’d started off really enjoying the act but after a hundred times of doing the greatest hits with all the histrionics it had all become tiresome. There were only so many times you could churn out even a track as good as ‘Foxy Lady’ without it becoming tiresome. It ceased to be fun and became a chore. There was a big difference between playing the guitar with your teeth for a laugh and doing it for the umpteenth time because it was expected of you. You could see he’d got tired of it.

I don’t think it was so much that he’d grown out of the Experience as he needed a break from it and needed some new stimulation and direction. He could have done with a long holiday.

Then there were the wrangles with Chas Chandler which ended with a parting of the ways. Jimi did his next album ‘Electric Ladyland’ with a wider set of musicians, longer, more fully realised tracks and a sprawling double album release.

It was panned at the time. Everyone thought it was too long, needed editing down, and would be better as shorter more punchy songs like on ‘Axis bold as love’. Even Hendrix responded by saying he should have worked on it longer and it wasn’t complete.

It was only later when you go back to it with fresh ears that you see what a work of genius it was. It just takes a while to tune your ear into its greater sophistication.

Following all the pressures – there were rumours of racism, antagonism with Noel, the mafia and pressure from the Black Panther movement – there was the disaster of the split of the Experience.

Jimi got together with some black musicians and produced the funkier ‘Band of Gypsies’. They were slated. Everyone wanted the exciting, dynamic Experience back. They wanted the wild showman and raucous rockin’ Jimi. They got a more thoughtful, subdued and sophisticated funky Jimi who was focussed on producing a mellower jazzy sound.

He played the Isle of Wight and then was gone. He suffocated on his own vomit.

It was not only tragic but was surrounded with rumour. There’d been wine and sleeping pills? Jimi had been left for hours while they cleaned up the flat and got rid of the dope because the police would bust them? His girlfriend panicked and didn’t call an ambulance? It all sounded a mess. Seemingly Jimi arrived, after a botched ambulance fiasco, at hospital barely alive and they couldn’t revive him. Who knows the truth?

It summarised the whole 60s. There was excitement and huge promise, followed by decay, disillusionment that descended into despair and apathy; then a break up and the culmination into death.

You can substitute Koss, Barrett, Lennon, Morrison, Joplin, Brian Jones and a host of others.

Jimi was probably the greatest loss of all. The stuff he was working on at the time of his death was incredible. You could hear what he was capable of. There is no telling what direction he would have headed out into. I can’t imagine him decaying into a trite cabaret act like Clapton. He had balls, imagination and desire to back up his immense prowess.

At the time of his death he had released three studio albums, a live Band of Gypsies album and ‘Smash Hits’. It was not a huge amount.

Since his death the releases have continued to come and come. I have numerous ten CD boxes, 6 CD boxes and 4 CD boxes. There are a huge number of studio outtakes, live performances and radio/TV shows. I don’t know how many hundreds of hours of music I have. I only know it is not enough! I stood outside Electric Ladyland studio’s in New York and wondered.

Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 21 – A slow motion crash

A slow motion crash

The 1960s came to an end like a slow motion crash. I imagine it as a huge ocean liner serenely piling into an iceberg. Like in some cartoon the front end just crumples up as it sails into the immovable berg and it just keeps going getting shorter and shorter. It left all us 60s freaks floundering around in the icy waters of the second-rate 70s.

We never thought it would and didn’t really believe it had when it did. It took me years to finally accept. All those dreams, alternative societies, camaraderie and ideals seemed to decay into fluff and get blown away.

All around me was death, sell-out and casualties.

Jimi choked on his own vomit in strange circumstances, Jim Morrison mysteriously died in his bath in Paris, and Janis O.D’Ed in her hotel room, Brian Jones was found suspiciously floated face down in his pool. Even Bob Dylan’s motorbike accident a few years earlier was weird. He’d come back as an impostor! If I had a suspicious mind I might have thought someone had organised all this.

Then there were the walking wounded, the acid casualties like Syd Barrett and Peter Green, the heroin victims like Clapton and a whole series of others.

On the personal front one of my good friends, Jeff Evans, had got really fucked up on Hollis Brown cough medicine and then acid and dope. He developed extreme paranoia and ended up jumping off a bridge into an express train.

The last time I saw him was in the so called summer of 1970 when I was working as a road sweeper. Unbeknown to me I was busy sweeping down his road. He had popped out of his flat and bumped into me. It had been a really warm greeting. I hadn’t seen him for a good year or so. We chatted for a couple of minutes. His eyes looked strangely blown and vacuous but he sounded fine. Then Jeff said that he was going to get a newspaper and I’d have to pop up for a coffee. That sounded good to me. I worked my way up the street and noticed Jeff coming back. He was hiding behind trees and peeping round at me and scuttled into his house. It was weird. I figured I wasn’t going to get that coffee after all.

That night I met up with a few friends and mentioned it. They said that he’d been getting all these flash-backs and paranoid stuff. Rooms melted and there were machines in the walls. He thought people were robots sent to spy on him.

A few weeks later he killed himself.

Lanky was another friend who got into heroin. He just dropped out of sight and mouldered.

It was a pattern I’d see on many occasions. Once into the abyss they’d rarely make it back, at least not as the same people.

There is a fine line in all risks, explorations and quests. A life without risk is an empty life but taking risks without engaging the brain is just plain stupidity.

The optimism of the 60s was fractured. The Beatles split, as did the Doors, Country Joe & the Fish, Love, Cream, Jimmy Hendrix Experience, Taste, Free, Fleetwood Mac, Velvet Underground and numerous others. It was carnage.

There was the bad vibes of Altamont and the decay of San Francisco.

Those bands that were left were lacklustre and becoming boring.

At first we were lulled. Out of the ashes there were some notable tours de force. Lennon’s first two albums were vitriolic and brilliant. George Harrison released a great triple album. Even Bad Company did a couple of great tracks, but in general it was over.

Everyone woke up to the fact that all the sharing and idealism was a lot of lip service to most of the two faced bastards. There were all our heroes jet-setting around the globes with huge mansions and limousines, flying hairdressers in to do their hair before a gig, while preaching equality and sharing. At least the Beatles tried a more egalitarian approach with Apple and got their fingers burnt for all their trouble.

I was a little shielded from it. I had my hero Roy Harper to buoy me up.  Strangely as the scene disintegrated he was reaching his apotheosis with one startling creation after another and I was part of it.

 Opher & Liz – our wedding invite!

In 1971 Liz and I got married. We had a great time. We started off with a Buddhist ceremony, in which Liz and I were regaled in our red and orange gear, and to which we invited all the bemused relatives to. They were subjected to a long session of chanting from twelve Thai monks, witness to ceremonial lighting of candles and incense, signifying some drawing nearer to the truth, and then sprayed with water imbued with love and kindness. I’m sure they enjoyed it all. I certainly did.

 Opher & Liz – Buddhist ceremony 1971

The following week, to appease Liz’s estranged parents (who just because they had read her diary had taken a sceptical view of me and banned her from consorting with me) we had a brief registrar office wedding (to which we were half hour late – that being two whole weddings!). We were late because we could not get the car started. We were trying to bump start it in our red and orange wedding gear! Fortunately a guy said he’d fix it for five quid and he did (£5 was a lot to us then!). On the way round the North Circular I got cut up by a lunatic (there’s a lot of them on the North Circular) and had to brake hard which sent the diced cheese and butter that we had in bowls on the back seat, flying through the air. We spent a while picking lumps of butter out of our golden locks and had our first big row. Liz seemed to think I could have avoided braking so hard. I took a different view. Fortunately when we finally arrived, with Liz’s Dad gleefully thinking we’d pulled out (Liz’s Mum refused to come), we were able to fit in a slot because an ex-girlfriend of mine by the name of Cas had forgotten to pick up her wedding banns and so couldn’t get married. It was all a bit hap-hazard back then!

Opher Liz & friends ceremony in the woods 1971

In the afternoon we had a ceremony in the woods. All our friends were invited and asked to bring food, drink and a performance. It was May the first. We wanted a maypole but nobody would let us have one. We wanted it in the park but nobody would let us do that either. So we settled for the woods. Someone set up a sound system, there was dancing, music, poems and sunshine. It worked like magic!

Following that we went to the States as the start of our world tour. We worked in Boston selling underground magazines, working as a waitress and dishwasher. Then we hitched and greyhounded our way round to San Francisco and LA and met loads of great people. San Francisco was in decay. The place was full of junkies. Fillmore West had a big sign up advertising the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane but it was historic and they no longer performed there. The scene may have decayed but we were experiencing an Indian summer. The dregs were good enough to hang on to and we did not notice.

Opher at Haight Asbury 1971

Memorably we hitch-hiked with our friend Jack to Pfeiffer State Beach at Big Sur. This was a mythical place where the legendary Henry Miller had set up home. We ambled two miles down the steep dirt road to the beach and arrived as the sun was getting low. There was a line of Freaks on the beach passing jays, strumming guitars and watching the sun slide down as the waves crashed through the big hole in the large rock in the middle of the bay. It was idyllic.

The sea turned orange, crimson, and then a deep mauve with turquoise foam on the waves.

After the sun had set we all got a big campfire lit and sat around eating, drinking, passing jays and strumming.

Then we got bust.

Opher at Big Sur 1971

The cops rolled up and rounded us all up. They frisked us down and informed us that it was illegal to camp on the beach. They threatened Liz and me with deportation. However they didn’t find any dope and decided to take us back up the road and dump us at the side of the highway.

We ended up getting our sleeping bags out and sleeping at the side of the road. It was a magical night up there in the Sierras. A huge wind got up and threatened to blow us away. Then it went completely calm and the sky was so clear the Milky Way was like a band of thick smoke and the heavens were a mass of stars. There were no spaces between them. I’d never seen anything like it. We lay on our back and stared up into the cosmos and talked while the mountain lions roared in the hills around us. We talked about life, infinity and the universe and it all seemed so incredibly near as if we were connected to it all like some great mystical dream.

Our world tour petered out into reality.

We came back penniless having literally spent our last dollar in getting a tiny present, a wind up plastic frog for the bath, in Macy’s, for my baby sister.

College was over. The 60s were over. I had to get a job.

I got a temporary job as a lab tech at my old college. It was a sort of halfway house. I could pretend I was still living the dream but I’d really sold my soul to mammon. We had to pay the rent. This was confirmed in 1973 when we had our first baby. The carefree hitch-hiking, sleeping on floors and partying all night, the mad rapping and idealistic dreams were replaced by a tempered realism.

Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 20 – The flat where it happened

The flat where it happened

Pete and I shared a tiny room in the flat where it all happened. In the flat above lived Tony Merrington and Geraldine. She was the black haired girl who was the subject of Donovan’s song ‘Geraldine’.

We shared our flat with Tony Merry and Hans. Hans was Dutch and had a snore like a ripsaw. It actually shook the partition wall between us.

There was just enough room in our tiny cubical to fit two single beds. We had French Windows at the end and the place was freezing. In order to deal with this we blocked up every crevice of the badly fitting French Windows with newspaper and had a paraffin stove for warmth. It was a wonder we didn’t asphyxiate ourselves. Even though we kept it on all day and night the place was still freezing and we piled all our clothes on top of the bed to keep warm. Some days it was too cold to get up. The paraffin stove also acted as heater for the kettle. We found that if we filled the kettle with water and left it on the stove overnight there would be enough water left to make two cups of cocoa in the morning. We could reach out and pour our cocoa without having to get up. That was our breakfast.

 Lipher the pet rat who roamed our room

We shared our room with Lipher the pet rat. She lived in a bird cage with the door open and roamed the room hunting for soap which she gleefully ate with great relish. She was exceedingly friendly and adorable.

At one end of the room Pete had stacked three harmoniums which he had managed to purchase for next to nothing. He had a guitar and some mando-yukes that he had made himself and later a violin. The place was full of instruments. It was a wonder we fitted in at all.

It was here that Pete taught me how to play guitar. He showed me the three cheat chords to play ‘Light my fire’. I practised religiously – at least I shouted out ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ quite a lot. It was then that I discovered that having a great interest and love of music did not necessarily equip you to become a musician. Firstly my ear did not seem able to detect whether a sound was higher or lower and so I couldn’t actually tune anything. Then my fingers had obviously evolved more for counting than manipulating. While I had very good control over my index finger and thumb (which I still use for all my typing) the rest do not seem to be under the control of my cerebellum. Their only function is to make up the numbers. This phenomenon manifested itself when I tried to force them to assume the shapes necessary to make chords.

Opher holding down an incredibly complicated chord 1976

Pete enthusiastically encouraged me to persevere. It would all come right with practice. I watched the effortless way he played the real chords complete with twiddley bits and finger-picking and realised I was destined to be a fan and not a practitioner.

In the flat where it all happened we entertained, read sci-fi, headed off to gigs, talked through the night like maniacs, played arrows with the guys next door, and played lots of music. We stuck homemade posters on the walls and Pete made his weird light-shows out of polarised sheets.

We had one meal a day which might be a huge heap of cheese potato (we cadged cheese scraps from the local supermarket – they took pity on us because we were so obviously starving) or lambs head stew (we bought a sheep’s head from the butchers for one shilling and six pence – when boiled up with a range of vegetables scrounged from the greengrocers it would last for a week of meals for all four of us) or brawn (that entailed boiling a pigs head (also one and sixpence) with vegetables). We got sick of brawn though – it set into a gelatinous jelly that was not greatly appetising even when curried.

The worst meal of all was when we’d run out of money. It was Pete’s turn to cook and the cupboard was bare. I was presented with a plate of what looked like fried spinach. I tucked in but it was so gritty and bland it was almost inedible despite the malnutrition. It turned out that Pete had gone into the garden to find something edible and had ended up frying up grass. It is a meal I will remember for ever.

Food was not our priority. Gigs and albums were my priority. Pete bought instruments.

Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 19 – Further losses were sustained

Further losses were sustained

On going to college and becoming old, wise and mature as I surely was at the distinguished age of eighteen, not only had my tastes become more refined but the current Underground scene was also a tad different to what it had been when I was a tender fresh-faced lad. Alright, I’ll admit to never being fresh-faced! What was hip in the playground at fourteen did not look quite so cool four years later.

This necessitated a certain refinement of the collection. The last thing I wanted was to have a cultured friend rifle through my treasured records and produce a frown on the discovery of my Billy J and Freddie and the Dreamers albums. They would probably have had a field day with the rest of my Merseybeat collection, not to mention Cliff, the Shadows and Adam Faith as well.

 Opher & Liz 1968 – complete with patches & Kaftan

What was needed was a culling.

I went through and selected the stuff I was currently into and stashed the rest up in the loft.

This meant that my Folk, Blues, Acid Rock and Progressive/Psychedelic stuff all accompanied me to my digs while the bulk of my Rock ‘n’ Roll, Mersey and Beat stuff kept the spiders company.

Life was too full to dwell on things much. It was only much later when I had got over the pretentiousness of being hip that I decided to dig them all out. That was when it became apparent that things were not right.

To start with my Mum had done a Spring-clean of my old bedroom and chucked all my old magazines and stuff away. These included all the Beatles magazines that I had collected as well as my autographed Them postcard.

When I went to retrieve the albums from the loft there were hardly any there. One of our neighbour’s sons had liked Rock ‘n’ Roll so she’d given him a heap on the basis that I was no longer interested in them. Another load had gone to the jumble sale to clear a bit of space in the loft. This apparently included all my first edition Merseybeat stuff including my two Oriole ‘This is Merseybeat’ albums, my Kinks, Who, Yardbirds and others. She’d dumped a good couple of hundred priceless albums! It was a catastrophe!

Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 18 – Lost in the smoke of ages

Lost in the smoke of ages

It’s probably true what they say about the 60s. I was there and there is so little that I remember clearly. What I have is the tip of the iceberg.

I am so envious of all those organised dudes who wrote things down. When I see stuff like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and read the incredible detail and recollections I am humbled. I used to have a good memory. When I was in primary school we had to memorise a poem each week. If you failed to learn it you were made to sit out the PE session and relearn it. Now PE in my crap school mainly involved standing in a circle and throwing a beach-ball around or doing those silly athletic exercises that were so popular in the Second World War – hands on shoulders, reach up, shoulders, down, star-jumps etc. But even so that was heaps better than sitting in doors and learning bloody Wordsworth (It took me the discovery of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ to get me back into poetry after school had successfully destroyed it for me). However, despite this draconian punishment I rarely found time in my crowded life to actually learn the buggering poetry. The teacher called us out to recite the next few lines and somehow my quick glance before the session was usually sufficient to get me through. Later, in secondary school, I rarely did any revision for tests or exams but got through because I could remember the lessons. Seemingly my brain has shed a few brain cells and my sixty four year old cortex is not as biochemically nimble as it once was – probably clogged up with plaques and various residues.

However, thanks to the joy of the internet I have been over the various festivals and marvelled at the incredible line-ups I enjoyed so much. It is a shame I can’t remember a damn bit of it! I know I was there but not a single recollection comes to the surface. This is strange as some of the bands and sets are still as clear as if it were last week (though, as I’ve learnt with Captain Beefheart, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was accurate).

Some of the performances remain as faint memories – I do get a tantalising whiff of Quintessence, for instance – but other, really great stuff is lost forever – no longer does it spin round in my neuronal circuits! It has gone ahead into the great void!

At that amazing gig where me Hat and Booker got into the Press enclosure to see Cream there was also John Mayall, Chicken Shack, and Fleetwood Mac making their debut. I saw them all. I know I saw them all. I can remember the excitement of it but unlike the clarity of Cream all I get is vague hazy memories! I guess I was so high on anticipation that it pushed the other memories out!

There was a cartoon I saw of Homer Simpson where he was trying to remember something by pushing it into one ear and displacing another fact from the other ear. My head’s like that! I’ve only so much room! I need an upgrade!

The other weird thing is one of perspective! I can remember Cream quite clearly. I remember Clapton with his long curly hair standing right in front of me. I can see Ginger, open mouthed, close eyed, playing those drums like a crazy man and Jack plucking his bass, eyes tightly shut and singing his heart out. It was brilliant! Except it is as if I am looking down at it from above! It is as if my sixty four year old self is looking down at my eighteen year old self nodding and jigging away with face aglow and wide eyes gazing up as Clapton and co. stormed away. My big grinning face was in heaven. It looks to me as if it was pretty far out!

The memory of this must have filled up my memory stick or reformatted the rest of my cortex so that the other bands performances were wiped out of existence.

Sadly this is not the only instance. In concert after concert, festival after festival, there are the stand out gigs that are remembered as clear as daylight and the rest that are vague memories at best.

Perhaps there is a drug they will develop that will make all those forgotten memories crystal clear. Wouldn’t that be something? This book would be a thousand times as big!

Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 17 – Times is hard when you’s down and out

Times is hard when you’s down and out

Back in 1969 I went back to college but could not find any digs. Pete and I went into the Student Union to get some help. There wasn’t enough accommodation. People were kipping in telephone boxes. They gave us an address of a squat to try. It was on Ilford High Road.

We were told that it was a disused shop on the High Street. We were to go round the back and do this elaborate knock on the side door then ask for the Colonel. It was like something out of the Goons.

So we went and performed our intricate battering. There was all this rattling and clanging the other side that went on for a minute or two. The door opened a slit and an eye scrutinised us.

‘We were told to ask for the Colonel,’ I ventured.

‘Oh aye?’ A voice with a strong Scottish brogue said suspiciously.

‘The Student Union sent us,’ Pete explained.

The door reluctantly edged open, we’d passed the test and we were allowed in. The mystery of the clanging became apparent. Half a ton of scrap metal was precariously balanced above the door. Anyone forcing their way in was likely to find themselves squashed.

The Colonel introduced himself. Seemingly he was a real Colonel from the Scottish Highlanders who had fallen on hard times. The reasons for his hard times were shortly to become apparent.

 Opher 1970 – At least we had a roof over our heads

We were shown up to our room. It was a large empty room with an exceedingly dirty floor. Seemingly somebody had kindly reconnected the water so the loo flushed and had rigged the electric so we had light but nobody had bothered to clean the place. Pete and I placed all our worldly possessions on the floor (I’d left my record collection and sound system back at home until I got settled somewhere). This consisted of a bag each and a sleeping bag. The floor was hard so I put my new long sheepskin coat under my sleeping bag to cushion it. My coat got so filthy I never got it properly clean again.

Pete and I met the other ‘guests’. There was a traumatised young couple with a baby in the other room. A few days before they had been squatting in another house but that had gone pear-shaped. It seems that he’d lost his job and they couldn’t pay the rent so despite having a baby they’d been kicked out on the street. They’d ended up in a squat while he tried to get another job so that they could get a flat. Ilford council had a new policy for dealing with squatters. They employed a guy called Peter Rackman. He was a developer. He had a deal where he could purchase the properties and do them up to sell or rent out at exorbitant rates to immigrant families. Rackman was a nasty piece of work. He was after making a fortune and didn’t care how he did it. All he had to do was entice the squatters and established tenants to leave so he could ship his other tenants in and charge more. I think the council denied using Rackman to do their dirty work. Whatever – it was a time when fascists walked the street.

The young couple had all their possessions in a room in the squat. According to them the guy had been out looking for a job when a bunch of Rackman’s heavies arrived. They’d waded in threatening everyone, shouting in their faces and waving clubs. They’d smashed all the windows out and chucked everything out of the window, including the baby’s cot, clothes and things. She’d been terrified. They then brought sledge-hammers and smashed the stairs to matchwood. Then they left after making it quite plain that if they came back and found any of them still here there would be some medicine dished out.

In desperation the couple had come here. It was basic but it was safer than anywhere else. They’d salvaged what they could but most of it had been smashed or ripped to pieces, including the baby’s things.

The Colonel received an army pension. On pension day he would, like an alchemist of old in reverse, transform the gold into alcohol. He happily returned to the squat with a carrier bag of scotch whiskey. He then dressed up in his kilt, drank the whiskey from an enamel mug and serenaded us with songs like ‘Wunderbar’. He had quite a talent. He managed to add a ne sound to the end of every single word. Wunderbar went like this:

Wunderbarne minene prettyne wunderbarne.

It was amazing to behold.

On Saturday mornings a very drunk Colonel would clamber out on to the top of the bay overlooking the High Street and serenade the shoppers below. A week or two after we left he got arrested for doing just that. Seemingly he was still wearing his kilt. The shoppers below got a good view and the Colonel got done for indecent exposure.

We’d been there a week when we got rudely awakened on Saturday morning with a great rumpus outside our shop. We peered out of the window to find we were the focus of a demonstration by the National Front. Seemingly they did not approve of squatters. There was a huge mob of them all shouting and waving fists at us. The only thing separating them from us was a small number of cops.

It was very scary. There looked to be hundreds of them with their skinhead bullet heads and bother boots. They looked as if they meant business and didn’t seem too keen on a couple of squatting hippies!

We did our best to defuse the situation by sitting on the window ledge and jeering at them. Strangely it did not seem to calm them down! Eventually they went away but it did somewhat justify the heavy metal booby trap over the door.

After a few weeks of squatting we found a flat and moved out.

Featured Book – In Search Of Captain Beefheart Pt. 16 – A Jaunt In the Park (Hyde Park Rolling Stones 1969)

A jaunt in the park

I had mixed feelings about the Stones in the Park in 1969. It was like they were taking it away from us. We’d grown used to the small crowds of regulars coming along to frolic in the everlasting sunshine, listening to Roy Harper and outing the odd demon or two. The Hyde Park Free concerts were suddenly becoming mass events and that is not really what they were about. It was nowhere near as much fun being part of such a huge crowd. Those small crowds had felt like family.

We got their early and had a paddle in a boat on the serpentine before making our way into the hollow that formed the natural amphitheatre. It was already packed.

 Opher in the Serpentine at the Stones in the Park

We got in as close as we could but were still a little way back to the right of the stage. We had a good view but I really liked being right at the front.

The concert was OK. I thought Alexis Korner was OK but nothing outstanding. Roy Harper did a good set. The Battered Ornaments lacked Pete Brown. Barking College. King Crimson did a great 20th Century Schizoid Man and a good set. Family were fabulous. But everyone was there for the Stones!

It was a strange one. Brian Jones had been kicked out of the band and replaced by Mick Taylor. Then Brian had been found dead in his swimming pool. There have been all sorts of conspiracy theories going round about that one!

The Stones came on and loads of butterflies were released from cardboard boxes. They seemed reluctant to go and the boxes were shaken and banged. A few fluttered up but it was hardly the spectacle hoped for. Most of them seemed dead.

The band came on and looked a bit nervous with Mick in his white frock. They started off with Mick reading a Shelley poem in memory of Brian and then they kicked in. They sounded a bit ragged to me and the texture was not great. It all sounded a bit thin. I liked Mick’s guitar and really like Honky Tonk Women. I also thought the African drummer was looking and sounding the part.

All told it was a bit disappointing though I’ve heard the soundtrack and that sounded OK. Perhaps it was that the equipment back then was rarely adequate for a big outdoor event. Or perhaps it was that the Stones were under rehearsed and hadn’t quite gelled together yet. Or were they just nervous and defensive following what had happened to Brian. Whatever – it was a start! Their time with Mick Taylor was arguably the best and most creative of their whole career.

Every time the film comes on the telly I look for us. I can see where we were but I can’t find us. It would be quite a shock to see us at that time in all our glory. I was so full of life, optimism and energy. I’d love to go back for a day or two just to feel what it was like to be so naïve and happy.

At the end of the gig we were all told that anyone who picked up two bags of litter would get a free Honky Tonk Women single. Liz and I picked up two bags of said litter and duly presented it to the caravan. A grumpy guy told us there were no more singles. I protested and he went off and got me one from somewhere.

I still have it!