Lesley Gore: The Party’s Over

The first time Lesley Gore, who has died at the age of 68,  heard her biggest hit, “It’s My Party”, on the radio, so the story goes, she was in the car driving herself to school. So sixties, so America, so nicely movie-moment predictable.

One of the great selling points of Gore’s early career as a singer was that she was ‘normal’; dressed normal (those clothes!), looked normal (those hairdos), sounded  normal: just an every day American girl channelling the angst of her teenage peers. Except, of course, she wasn’t what the majority of the people who bought her records in vast numbers would have been considered ‘normal’ in those days. She was gay.

No fuss, no headlines, no large-scale trauma – at least, not publicly – no shocking revelations. Ah, no social media.

Where Dusty Springfield, for instance, found keeping her sexuality under wraps problematic and almost certainly personally damaging, Lesley Gore somehow managed to just get on with it. One is tempted, in the mores of the time, to say get away with it. Perhaps she had inner strengths that Dusty sadly seemed to lack.

“You Don’t Own Me”,  one of Gore’s hits from 1963, was recorded by Dusty in the following year, and – despite the fact that it was written for Gore by two male songwriters, Dave White and John Madara – became something of a feminist anthem, featured as such in the movie, The First Wives’ Club, and recorded by Joan Jett and Amy Winehouse. Here she is singing it, first in 1964, and then – pretty gloriously – in Melbourne in 1989

As the hits faded, Gore went to college, carried on making occasional appearances and making records, if for smaller and smaller labels; she appeared in movies and on television – rather deliciously as Pussycat, Catwoman’s assistant. In 2004, she became a presenter of a Public Broadcasting Service programme devoted to LGBT issues called In the Life.

At her early best, she could put over a song with a kind of heartfelt quality that was moving in its simplicity. No tricks, just sing the words and let them do their work.

Writing No End

I took the early morning train up to Nottingham last week for a session with students on the University’s Creative Writing MA programme taught by Matthew Welton. As I had at Goldsmiths a couple of weeks before, I talked about the whys and wherefores of earning a living as a writer over a period of some 40 years, the ducking and diving necessary, the fun, the compromise – the semi-colons; Matthew had chosen two of my poems for us to read together – “Saturday” & “Mutton” – and suggested the students look at the 11th of the Resnick novels, Cold in Hand.

All was going well: the students seemed interested, the book jackets – the old pulp ones especially – looked good on the screen, and who doesn’t like the chance to rabbit on about their own writing?

Then came the question. “How do you know,” the student asked, “when something is finished?”

I fumbled, stumbled, mumbled something about getting to the end of the story you’d set out to tell, finally suggested that only once my editor had read the manuscript and I’d made the revisions asked for, did I consider the job was done.

Towards the end of the session I read the chapter from Cold in Hand in which Resnick goes to the funeral of Lynn Kellogg, his long-time colleague and latterly his lover. After the funeral Resnick returns to the empty house they’d shared, and the chapter ends thus …

The house struck cold when he entered; the sound, as the door closed behind him, unnaturally loud. There was perhaps a third remaining of the Springbank Millington had brought, and Resnick poured himself a healthy shot then carried both bottle and glass into the front room, set them down and crossed to the stereo.
“What Shall I Say?”: Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra with vocal refrain by Billie Holiday. He had fought shy of playing this before, but now thought he could.
The song starts with a flourish of saxophone, after which a muted trumpet plays the tune, Roy Eldridge at his most restrained; tenor saxophone takes the middle eight, and then it’s Eldridge again, Teddy Wilson’s piano bridging the space jauntily before Billie’s entry, her voice slightly piping, resigned, full of false bravado. The ordinariness, the banality of the words only serving to increase the hurt. The clarinet noodling prettily, emptily behind.
As the music ended, tears stinging his eyes, Resnick hurled his whisky glass against the facing wall, threw back his head and  howled her name.

I’d read the passage through on the train and now, reading it again, aloud, I realised there was something about I was less than happy with – the final sentence. It struck me as over-dramatic and, given what I knew of Resnick’s character, unikely. “Howled”, especially. What was I thinking of? “Howled”. Did I think I was rewriting Lear? (Perhaps I did.)

How much better, I suggested, to have closed the chapter with the description of that song, that piece of music – the detailed, pedestrian description itself, of course, serving to hold the emotion at bay; the idea that words are insufficient, inadequate to explain the depth of the hurt Resnick, at that moment, is feeling. Better than the following sentence in which I try, and now, to my eyes, fail.

Some of the students agreed; others demurred, considered it fine as it was. And I’d be interested to know what others think.

One thing, though, is certain, to me at least – the answer to the student’s question should have been, probably never.

5.Cold in Hand

Clark Terry – Mortal No More

One of the best known recording sessions the trumpeter Clark Terry participated in during his long career took place on Wednesday, 24th April, 1957, the fourth of five days the Duke Ellington orchestra spent laying down the tracks for Such Sweet Thunder, the Duke’s take on various and sundry Shakespearean characters. First up that day was “Up and Down, Up and Down (I Will Lead Them Up and Down)”, in which Terry was called upon to personify the elusive Puck, leading mere mortals a merry dance through the forest, and to “speak” through his horn the famous line, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

Unknown

Now Terry, immortal no longer, has died at the age of 94.
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It was reading of his death in the Guardian obituary that sent me foraging through my CDs yesterday, picking out both Such Sweet Thunder and In Orbit, the album Terry made in May, 1958 with Thelonious Monk at the piano, Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on the drums.

The In Orbit sessions – May 7th & 12th – are interesting not just because Terry plays the mellower, somewhat deeper sounding fluglehorn as opposed to trumpet, but for the fact that this was one of a relatively small number of times, thus far into his career, that Monk deigned to be a sideman on somebody else’s record. Not only that, Monk plays in a more straightforward manner than usual – propelled to a large extent by Philly Joe Jones’ drumming – the only time the two recorded together, I think – his solos more exuberant and straight ahead than quirky and introspective.

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We were listening to both CDs yesterday evening, initially before and during dinner, and then, having turned on the television at the appropriate time to watch Barcelona against Manchester City, we kept the volume muted, much preferring the likes of Clark Terry’s “One Foot in the Gutter” (based on the chords of Monk’s favourite hymn, “We’ll Understand It Better, Bye and Bye”) and Duke’s “Sonnet to Hank Cinq” to the clichés of soccer commentary.

And although the synchronisation never fully worked, listening to Terry’s joyous, bubbling Puck while watching Lionel Messi was close to a marriage made in some latter-day Shakespearean Ducal heaven.

Sidewinder Strikes Again!

Okay, I said I’d return to this coming Friday’s Jazz & Poetry gig at Enfield’s Dugdale Centre and here it is: hosted by Allen Ashley & Sarah Doyle, and with live jazz from four excellent musicians – Louis Cennamo, Graham Pike, Barry Parfitt and Tim Stephens – the redoubtable Nancy Mattson and myself will be taking it in turns to step up and read with the band, something we’re both looking forward to a great deal.

Having mainly read with same guys over the past years – and very much enjoyed doing so – it’s been interesting in recent months to work with different groups of musicians, John Lake’s band on the South Coast, John Lucas’ band recently in Nottingham, and now the quartet led by Louis Cennamo. Allen and Sarah, who put these Enfield sessions together, were keen for me to try some different material, setting up a four-hour rehearsal with the band to make this possible. So it is that on Friday, along with some of the more usual pieces about Art Pepper, Lester Young and Thelonious Monk, I’ll be delving into the collected poems in Out of Silence for “Blue Settee”, “Saturday” and “Temps Greatest Hits, Vol II”- the latter closing the set accompanied by what promises to be a blistering version of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”.

If this sounds tempting – and if you’re reading this, it should – the venue’s just a half-hour train journey from Liverpool Street or Highbury & Islington.

See you there!

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Boho Bar Time

Happy to report that my first visit to Nottingham’s Guitar Bar was, in my terms at least, a success. Located within the interestingly named Hotel Deux, and close to the Forest Recreation Ground, site of the annual Goose Fair, and the Polish Club, fictional haunt of one Charlie Resnick, the bar is a relaxed and relaxing boho haunt (or was that just because this was poetry & jazz?) outfitted with ageing but comfortable settees and armchairs, and well-suited to smallish gigs such as this.

John Lucas led his fine little four piece, Four in the Bar (Tony Elwell, clarinet; Ian Wheatley, guitar; Ken Eatch, bass) through a number of jazz standards, accompanying Lydia Towsey through a good and often amusing set, before performing the same task when I took over the mike towards the end of the evening. Considering our only ‘rehearsal’ had been a ten minute telephone conversation the week before, it all went surprisingly well, not even the band setting off on a jaunty version of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ a poem too early – ‘Chet Baker’ instead of ‘Oklahoma Territory’ – proving in the least off-putting.

Like most visits to Nottingham, the evening afforded the chance to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen in too long a time – renowned video and cameraman, and now hypnotherapist, Roger Knott-Fayle amongst them. One surprise treat of the evening was being presented (thank you, Shaun!) with a vinyl copy of Lee Wiley’s 1940s recordings of songs by Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen – this occasioned by the mention of Wiley in the poem, ‘Evenings on Seventy Third Street’, which I included in my last post. The other – and what an act of optimism this was – was being asked to dance to one of the band’s more uptempo numbers. Pleased as I was at the invitation, I thanked the lady in question profusely, indicating an arthritic hip as explanation.

The next day found my hurtling down to London on a relatively early train and hurrying up to the outer reaches of north-east London for a lengthy rehearsal with another excellent four piece band – this the one led by bassist Louis Cinnamo – which plays and provides musical backing at the Rhyme & Rhythm Jazz Poetry Club that meets at the Dugdale Centre in Enfield. By the end of four enjoyable, if taxing, hours, we had worked out a routine for nine poems, some of which I’ve read to music before, others which I’ll be reading to jazz for the first time.

The event is on Friday, 27th February, details here, and doubtless I’ll have more to say about it again.

Down at the Guitar Bar

I’ve a couple of Poetry & Jazz events coming up this month, the first of them this Wednesday, 11th, at the Guitar Bar in Nottingham.

Dave Belbin has been organising things here for a while now, all evenings featuring the hot little four-piece band led by trumpeter John Lucas – yes, that’s the same John Lucas who runs Shoestring Press and is an estimable poet himself. The usual procedure is to feature two guest poets, the first up on this occasion being the formidable Lydia Towsey.

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That’s Lydia on the right …

Not sure if Lydia’s is going to read with the band – apparently some poets do, others prefer to go it alone – but I’m hoping they will join me for at least half of my set (or should that be, I’ll be joining them?) and after some discussion this weekend, John and I have sorted out the three poems that seem most suitable, all three, not surprisingly, in one way or another about jazz. Oklahoma Territory is a longish piece about  the big bands that criss-crossed the American heartland in the 30s and early 40s, Oklahoma Territory; Ghost of a Chance is a snapshot of tenor player Lester Young towards the end of his career; while Evenings on Seventy-Third Street, a poem I’ve rarely, if ever, read in public, and certainly not with accompaniment, extols the virtues of dill pickles, fried chicken and the wonderfully precise vocals of Lee Wiley. Here it is …

Evenings on Seventy-Third Street

Soft rock of traffic steadying down,
four pieces of chicken, fried potato chips,
dill pickles – ridged and thick as fingers –
coleslaw. Coke. Despite our best efforts
by the time we walk it home, circles
of grease, dark through the paper sack,
have stained your clothes and mine,
a smear across the silk blouse you bought
for best, below the spots where coffee
dribbled from your mug two nights before,
watching the news on tv.

While you snap the lock shut, slide
the bolt across, I am sharing food
onto paper plates; your book open,
face down where you left it,
pad on which I’m writing
is on the floor by my chair.
The radio, which we left playing,
chances its arm at a contemporary
string quartet and I sense you will
rise soon, licking your fingers
free from chicken, wiping them
to be certain, down your skirt,
before lifting Lee Wiley from the record rack –
the Liberty Music Shop recordings 39-49 –
singing songs of love, but not for me.

An hour now since either of us has spoken,
felt the need to speak.

 

Serving Two Masters

I was back at Goldsmiths College in New Cross on Wednesday evening, there to talk some of the students enrolled on the current Creative Writing MA programme, taught by Maura Dooley and Blake Morrison. Under the banner, My Life as a Jobbing Writer, I glossed through my forty years as a professional author, from my chancy beginnings as Thom Ryder, fictional chronicler of Britain’s Hells Angels, through almost 50 westerns and on, via some classy dramatic adaptations for radio and television, to my latter life as crime writer and sometime poet. It was fun to do – I think, of interest – and I tell you what – doesn’t that old pulp artwork look good blown up on the big screen!

A number of the questions revolved around the twin poles of artistic integrity and commercial imperatives, and I only wish I’d had the following, from Colm Toibin’s essay on Henry James, The Lessons of the Master, on hand to help with my answer.

All of his life as a writer James worried about both the purity of his work and the making of money. It was as though he himself were a married couple. One part of him cared for the fullness of art and the other part for the fullness of the cupboard.

 

February Reading

  • Death of a Red Heroine : Qui Xiaolong
  • A Loyal Character Dancer : Qui Xiaolong
  • When Red is Black : Qui Xiaolong
  • An English Affair: Sex, Class & Power in the Age of Profumo : Richard Davenport-Hines
  • Duane’s Depressed : Larry McMurtry

plus I’m still reading Circular Breathing – The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain : George McKay and, inevitably, yet more of David Kynaston’s Family Britain.

Intimations of Mortality

1.  An email this morning from a reader, saying that learning of Ruth Rendell’s serious illness had made her regret the fact that although she’d always meant to write and tell her how much she had enjoyed reading her work she had never done so and now it was, in all probability, too late. With this in mind, she continued, she wanted to tell me, while it was still possible, how much she had enjoyed my work over the years also.

2.  At last night’s poetry reading at Lauderdale House, I was delighted to remind Jeremy Robson of the Poetry & Jazz concert I’d been to at the Royal Festival Hall in 1969, in which he’d taken part, and to ask him to sign the programme I’d preserved inside the box set of recordings from the event. When we looked at the list of poets who had appeared – Dannie Abse, Thomas Blackburn, Douglas Hill, Laurie  Lee, Spike Milligan, Vernon Scannell and John Smith – we realised that Jeremy was the only one still alive.