The Singer, August/September 2009
Jodie's tight little face said it all really. Poured into a near-as-dammit Crimplene Uneasy Jet outfit, signature orange and gravestone grey, at a tender twenty-two was probably never on her teenage wish-list. My head is banging. It's my own doing, as my mother said until I was eighteen and out of sight at University, doing my own, out of sight things. On the road with the redoubtable singer, Sarah Jane Morris in Italy, has graced me with the usual feast of all things Italianate. Very good wine from the Puglia slopes being paramount. Jodie can't fetch me a glass of water to take two aspirins because THE WATER IS BOTTLED AND CATERING FORGOT TO PUT IT ON AT FIUMINCINO. These words, whined through the small hole that is my favourite air hostesses mouth cuts swathes through the gathering storm that is my nauseous hangover. "Can I offer you a coke or a pomegranate and guava juice Sir?"(Four pounds fifty.) The "Sir" comes out sounding just like "fat old git" and my serenity curdles within me. "No Jodie dear" (I don't think I have ever said "dear" to anyone. It really isn't groovy.) " I will SUMMON UP SPIT".
I deserve now to be flung into that inferno where so many "old gits"from my younger years were hurled. Rancid and cruel sports teachers, pompous tutors at my fusty old music department at King's College, ratty landlords… and the bald guy in the Lambeth Road newsagents this morning who was giving Katya the worst dressing down over the non existence of non-lick stamps since King Canute's henchman advised him that, not only would the salty waves destroy the legs of the throne, but they'd play holy havoc with his gout.
I pad quietly to the plane loo to take my aspirins and wonder what Simon Gray would have done in this less than edifying situation. In "The Smoking Diaries",the iconic English playwright's final musings on a life so divided by the constant and nagging quest for dramatic perfection versus the downright comfort that buying fags and envelopes and specifying, in his regular Holland Avenue cafe, that his double espresso should be topped up with hot water, had recently had a profound effect on my general ennui.
Exactly how grumpy, and old, does one have to be to qualify as a "Grumpy Old Man"? Having just been touring in a sort of revue called "Variety Lives"alongside the decidedly ungrumpy and oddly handsome Arthur Smith from Off The Telly, I have decided that as a part-time stand-up, well… "Sit Down"(as a finely tuned piano has been provided at most of the shows, should my ramblings become, well, unfunny) the art of true grumpiness is fairly difficult to share with a well mannered Bath audience who just want to love you and take you home. My real frazzlements and annoyances are rooted in such obscurity, they ring pointless and uninteresting. Ricky Gervais is JUST NOT FUNNY ENOUGH, that bottled water is fundamentally wrong, that Michael Nyman shouldn't compose, that middle class teenagers are nuking our beautiful language with their hideous insertion of "like" betwixt all they say and an Atlantic drawl so abhorrent, that any valiant attempts to correct these delightful young things is met with gamma rays of suspicion. This tells me, that like my elders, I am at last joining them on the stalked shores of middle age madness.
There is a jazz singer called Mark Murphy. Ella loved him. When I first came to London to study at the afore-mentioned King's College, my free afternoons were spent trawling the streets of the capital in search of… some kind of freedom, a holy grail that should, if I desired, tear me away from Study Choir, Shostakovich and cold coffee and whispers in the common room. Everything was brown in 1980. The carpets, the books, the cardigans of the cellist, the cars, the food, the drinks. I needed to seek out other colours. I found a jazz record shop in Soho. Boxes and boxes of Miles, Mcoy and an album called "Rah". The cover had a picture of a young Mark Murphy in Raybans and slacks, holding a placard bearing the title of the album. I rushed it home to my tiny Bloomsbury student bedroom. Rainbow colours danced around my room. "Spring Can Really Hang you Up The most". "Detour Ahead". Beautiful, precise piano playing (Bill Evans) and the voice that has been the soundtrack to my entire life, a rich baritone croon, mixed with a falsetto so playful it felt like another way of singing. I was to meet Murph at the 606 club in Chelsea years later and we became best friends. We toured in a jazz opera in Europe together. He showed me his beloved New York. He sent lilies to my hotel room and turned up in the sweltering Manhattan summer of 2003 to duet with me on an old Bobby Bland tune. I took him to a few wild parties. He showed me a film script he'd written. Liza Minnelli said that there was a party going on in Mark's head and she'd love to go. Late last summer Murph played Ronnie's. He was a little vague on stage and he was rambling. The years of missed planes, crap hotels, lost lovers and too many whiskies were beginning to show. He sang "I'm Through With Love". The audience stopped breathing. I haven't seen him since then although we talk on the 'phone. He moves into sheltered housing in New Jersey soon. He tells me he reads about me online and is thrilled that I'm "doing okay". I miss him.
To use a word that, like many other wonderful words, has been reclaimed and dusted down from its lofty quasi churchiness; "blessed"… I do feel "blessed" with the area of music I apparently do okay in. Every now and then a project will appear, only to nourish and fulfill me like nothing else on earth. I must confess that jazz singing is mostly a walk in the park for me, so when the chance to coach or teach comes along, I naturally recoil and declaim that it's just not my thing. So it was with much trepidation that I went along to the Festival Hall's Pulse Project to work with five excellent young women singers. Here we go again. All they want is to be Billie Holiday or Eva Cassidy. And all I want is to go home.
Oh joy. How wrong could I be! Ruby, Ria, Suzanne, Sara and Di had never really met. The gloriously unruffled Mary King (Operatunity and Musicality) had worked them into a general shape, and it was up to me to help prepare an hour of singing for a collective lunchtime show at the Festival Hall. Six intensive days of working on harmony, stagecraft and arranging morphed into a highly moving and hugely exciting display of contemporary singing. All potential grumpiness at the inevitable pedestrian result just fell away as new ways and means of singing, and singing good unfolded like spun gold.
I suppose that we become so insular, so focused on our various art forms that when we step outside to feel the force that is someone else's fire of enthusiasm, someone else's cache of natural born talent, all negative thoughts are subsumed in the process. These mini connections are more and more important in my life, working and otherwise, and it is only under this familiar and hopeful roof of common delights and urges (in this case, a simple love of damn good music making) that happy human contact can be made. Why is it then, when these commonalities are not sparklingly apparent, do we resort to petty suppositions and the constant urge to humiliate, maim anddeface?
Come on Jodie, give us a song, as you swish and glide up and down those aisles, topping up the fat, caffeine and sugar urges of the great airborne unwashed. Unbutton that nasty blouse. Kick off those stubby shoes, let your beautiful hair down. Look I'm a nice guy really. I'm just like the rest of them. Come on Jodie. Steal some chocolate. Sing with me. Anything. Britney, Adele. Duffy.
You could come and sing with my girls. They'd love you.