The17
TOURS / COAST-TO-COAST / LIVERPOOL England & NEW YORK USA / New York

Tonight You Are Mine Completely

6 April 2011

The ten-year, one-month, one-week and three-day old me had no idea of what New York was or looked like, let alone what it represented in our collective psyche.  I had not seen West Side Storyor On the Town.  It would be some years before Midnight Cowboywas made.  Even more years before Taxi Driver. And Woody Allen was still having to wait for me to appreciate his work. What I did know was that New York had the tallest building in the world and it was called the Empire State Building. This was back in early June 1963, and back then I did not even know what hamburgers, hotdogs, popcorn or Coca-Cola were either. I had seen cowboy films, I knew who Elvis was and I had heard of Marilyn Monroe and I knew they had big cars, but I knew little else about the land that I was just about to experience.

Right there and then, on that early June day back in 1963, I was a third class passenger on a transatlantic steamer along with the rest of my family (only film stars flew in those days) .  We had spent the previous five days sailing across the Atlantic and we were now entering the Hudson River. On our starboard side we had just passed the Statue of Liberty.  Up in front we were steaming straight for what I was later to learn was called the Manhattan skyline.  But it wasn’t the skyline that was holding my ten-year-old imagination in shocked fascination.  What was doing this was floating on the dark water that I was staring down into over the side of the ship.  There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, all floating seemingly innocently on the water, all a few feet apart, but as far as the eye could see. What these things were, were what I then knew as French Letters or FLs for short.  A few years later I would be calling them Rubber Johnnies and even later, only after AIDS had kicked in, by their proper name - condoms.

But back to 1963 and the ten year old me and all these used French Letters floating on the dark water below. I was horrified.  What kind of Sodom and Gomorrah were we sailing into?  I only hoped that my mother did not see them.

As we berthed up alongside one of the many wooden piers that then fringed Manhattan, I had this vision, that at night these wooden piers, would all be a shuddering with thousands of depraved people copulating and then throwing their used FLs into the dark water.  Was this the sort of place a good God-loving (note: not fearing) Presbyterian family from rural Scotland should be coming to?

I will not go into what we, the Drummond family, were doing sailing to America.  It is enough for me to let you know the above was my first impression of the New World. But it might help you to place this historically by saying JFK was yet to be shot and we got there before The Beatles.

As the decades started to slip by, many other real and imagined impressions of New York presented themselves and fuelled my imagination.  Many I would share with you and millions like us.  Not only the films mentioned above but Andy Warhol, tic-a-tape parades, Wall Street, Studio 54, Cocaine, Taxi Driver, Central Park, Friends, New York Yankees baseball caps, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, Sex & the City and on and on they go, year in and year out all the way up to the mother of them all - 9/11. No image could be more complete than the planes going into the Twin Towers. No other city ever stood a chance with coming up with something so iconic. From that precise moment on it was so obviously pathetic when artists tried to create work that would attempt to shock its way into our imaginations via the medias attention. What was the point when al-Qaeda could do it so much better?

Maybe no other city in the world can be held responsible for stoking our fantasies with as many of these iconic images of modern times. Hollywood might make the films, but it is New York that delivers the raw materials. 

This morning I’m sitting writing this in a diner on the corner of 23rd and 8th. It is everything that a New York diner should be. You will have seen the likes in a thousand scenes on TV or films. In front of me I have a plate stacked with pancakes, several rashers of crispy bacon and smothered with a generous helping of maple syrup.  The other customers are all having something similar and they all look like extras from the above-imagined scenes on TV or film.

I’ve just spent a night in the Chelsea Hotel. It is right around the corner from this diner. What the Chelsea Hotel might represent to you in your imagination or in the history books of 20th century bohemian culture has little to do with this story. Although it has to be said I was tempted to write a whole story about how I was murdered there last night by my good friend and colleague Tracey Moberly, who so happens to be also staying in the Chelsea Hotel. It became obvious to me, at some point last night, that if I were to be murdered in my room, my infamy would be ceiled for at least the next 40 years. There might even be a biopic in it and who knows what could happen after that?. The only problem was, I could not work out what method of murder should be employed to guarantee this instant and world wide infamy.

But it is not the Chelsea Hotel or even my death that is to be the central subject of this story, but the Brill Building up on Broadway, just north of Times Square.  The Brill Building holds a huge place in my internal landscape.  Dominating the Empire State, the Twin Towers, Andy Warhol’s Factory, the Knitting Factory, even CBGBs.

The Brill Building was the heart of the Tin Pan Alley era of the music publishing business in New York.  From the 1930s through to some point in the 60s, it was the home to hundreds of music publishing companies.  These companies signed aspirant songwriters by the shipload.  The songwriters were then put to work in small cubicle offices in the building. Each office furnished with little more than a piano and a couple of stools.  Most of the songwriters worked in pairs churning out songs, day in and day out.  These songs were taken by the publishers around the record companies, in the hope that they may catch the fancy of an A&R man or record producer and then to be sung by a pop star of the day.

The Brill Building was a sausage factory. The hundreds of journeymen songwriters, churning these songs out, were not attempting anything profound or different. None of their songs strayed too far from boy meets girl, boy loses girl, plus a cute middle eight.  It was what the public wanted. So it is what the public got.

But once the Beatles arrived in New York (eight months after I did). And mop-top mania swept all before it, things changed.  Instead of record companies, signing up young good-looking men and women to sing songs written by those in the Brill Building, they were looking for bands and artists who wrote their own songs.  Every record company wanted their own Beatles. The public taste had moved on.  The new generation of record buyers wanted bands and artists to sing songs they had written themselves and these songs were to be about events and emotions that they had genuinely experienced.

From the moment the Beatles exploded, the songs being churned out of the Brill Building seemed cynical at worst and naïve at best. I first became exposed to pop music in the late fifties and early sixties, at a time when the songs coming out of the Brill Building were at their zenith.  But it wasn’t until 1970 or ’71 that I started to become aware of them as a genre – songs that had a style of their own.  A format.  A formula. 

I was at art school in Northampton for two years from September 1970 to July ’72. Next to the Derngate Bus station, where I would catch the bus back to Corby, was a second-hand record shop. If I had a few minutes before my bus was to leave, I would drop in to flick through the thousands of second-hand seven inch 45s they had for sale. They didn’t sell albums and as I had already arrived at a place in my head, where I thought the album was the worst thing that had ever happened to popular music.  This was my dream sort of record shop. They also didn’t sell chart shit. DJs from all over the Midlands would come here to track down rare vinyl that would get the floor dancing. I loved the smell of the place.

From there I bought dozens of second hand singles.  These records fitted into two categories. Soul and R&B records, these were mainly on brightly coloured labels that I had never heard of before. It was only years later I learned these were small independent labels from across the States and could have been produced in any of the previous dozen years.  Much of it was what was soon to be defined as the genre Northern Soul.

The other type of record I could not get enough of was pre-Beatle era pop music. These were the type of records that I would have heard being played over the speakers at the fairground in Scotland when I was a kid. I guess the most famous of these were the Phil Spector produced classics – The Crystals, Darlene Love, The Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers that sort of thing.  After I had got all the Spector ones that I could get my hands on, I started to buy other records that had the same writer’s credits on them that were on the Spector records. My favourites of these were written by Lieber & Stoller and Goffin & King. But there were more – Pomus & Shuman, Bacharach & David, Barry & Greenwich, Mann & Weil and of course the singular Shadow Morton.

There being no Google back then so it was pretty hard to find out who these songwriters were, where they came from or even what their first names were. The music papers had no interest in these people; there was no section of the local bookshop dedicated to the history of popular music. There seemed to be no way of finding out any more information than the minimal information that was already there on the record labels.  

All of these songs, and there were hundreds of them, were written and recorded in the late 50s and early 60s.  After the above-mentioned shift in the way the music business was constructed post-Beatles, these types of songs almost dried up completely. By 1966 it was the last dying breath of the genre.

Sometime in 1971, when my collection of these second-hand 45s was expanding out of control, an album called Tapestryby a singer songwriter called Carole King was released. I was aware that a number of the post-hippy sensitive types at my art school were into this record. Without hearing it, I knew it was something that I wanted to stay clear of. Thus it was a huge shock to discover that this Carole King was the same King in Goffin & King who had co-written so many of the songs that I deemed to have been handed down from heaven.

Bit by bit over the years I learned more about these songwriters, the system they worked in, the mercenary and cynical nature of it all.  There was definitely no room for art for art’s sake.  No room for genuine self-expression on the part of these hack songwriters.  But the more I learned the more I admired them.  It wasn’t just an objective admiration for their craft.  These songs went straight to my heart. I also learned they all practised their art in the same building – the Brill Building

August 1973, I found myself on the roof of a different type of building, in Piraeus, the port for Athens (Greece, not Georgia).  There were about fifty Pakistani seamen, a runaway Irish priest, a Sri Lankan hippy and me.  It was a seaman’s hostel and we were all to be sleeping on its roof, out under the Aegean stars like the heroes of Greek myth had done thousands of years before us. 

One of the Pakistanis was singing Urdu songs. He was a young lad, no more than 14, with a beautiful voice. I had never heard this sort of singing before. He stood there stock still in his flowing white kurta, while the rest of us sat cross-legged on the roof.  One of the older Pakistani sailors had tears running down his cheek. The runaway priest suggested that he and I should sing a version of Wild Mountain Thyme.We did. After this the Sri Lankan hippy, who happened to have spent the last few years living in Paris, picked up an acoustic guitar, strummed a few basic chords and then started to sing in English Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?  A song I already knew having bought a copy of it in the record shop near the bus station in Northampton a couple of years earlier. It was by a girl group called The Shirelles and had been a hit for them back in 1961. But by the Shirelles it was this upbeat sing-a-long song that made no acknowledgement of the sense of depth and despair that the song actually contained.

But when this Sri Lankan Parisian hippy bloke started to sing it, even though the language was not his first or even second, he opened up all the sadness and desperation that was contained in its lyrics:

 

Tonight you are mine completely

You give your love so sweetly

Tonight the look of love is

In your eyes

But will you still love me tomorrow?

 

You know, that she knows, that she is going to allow this n’er-do-well to shag her as soon as the song has been sung.  And you know, as she knows in her heart, that come the morning sun, he will be gone and he does not really give a shit.

And that night on that rooftop, under those stars with those Pakistani sailors who did not understand a word of the song, I don’t think a song has ever been more potent, more real, more moving to my ears. And the thing is, I cannot even identify with the girl who is singing the song.  If anything, I would be the bloke, off before the sun has risen.

The next morning we went our separate ways.  The sailors to their ship, the runaway priest kept running and I went off to Crete. As for the Sri Lankan hippy, he already disappeared before the sun had risen.  But his performance of that particular song has stayed with me over the decades.  And in that time I’ve heard it performed by dozens of singers, including Carole King’s own version, but nothing has bettered the version I heard that night under those Aegean stars.

Although I had been playing guitar since the late sixties, it was not until forming the band Big in Japan in 1977 in Liverpool, that I started to try and write songs.  We were some sort of proto-New Wave band.  My band mates Holly Johnson and Jayne Casey were very much in the thrall of everything Andy Warhol – it was his 60s Factory New York scene that informed what they wrote.  All that then he was a shestuff. What I wrote borrowed wholesale from what I had been learning via osmosis from the hundreds of Brill Building songs I knew.  The two songs that I made up on my own for the band were called Looking For A Boyfriendand Cindy & The Barbie Dolls.  Lyrically they may have been somewhat new wave but chord structure and melody wise they were totally 1961.

If you had asked me back in 1977, if I could have been involved in music in any capacity, in any era, what would it have been?  The answer would be simple: a Brill Building songwriter in the late 50s/early 60s.  Sadly, even with the help of my Tardis, it is yet to happen.

By the early 1980s, in my capacity as manager of Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, we had to make regular trips to New York.  As much as I would tag along with the others to pay homage to the haunts frequented by the Velvet Underground, The Ramones, Television and Talking Heads it was to the Brill Building that I would return to on my own, each time I visited the city.  I would just stand there in wonder, staring up at the building, imagining all those rooms with all those songs of teenage angst, being lovingly crafted. Each and every one of them, coming in at no more than two minutes thirty seconds.

It was on one of these visits that I took to singing these songs to myself unaccompanied, stripped right down, drawing every last nuance of pathos from them, as I stood there looking up at the building.  My version of Lieber & Stoller’s Save the Last For Me, as made famous by the Drifters, surpassed the original in every way possible. And I sang it with only the rumble of the subway coming up and the constant wail of a distant police sirens, as the backing.

The Brill Building had taken on a persona that I had projected onto it. The Brill Building was the unfeeling male, using all his ploys to seduce the girl

protagonist in the song Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.And of course, I was the girl. The Brill Building also represented the entire music business that had seduced me in all of its many ways.  And the thing is I knew all along I was going to be fucked, and the business did not give a sod about me as long as I kept delivering the goods in whatever way I could.

In 1986, when I recorded The Man album, as my attempted farewell to the music business, the one song I sang that was not written by me was Goffin & King’s Going Back.  I did it in the aforementioned stripped down way, but did use some minimal backing. Although the lyrics of Goin’ Backdid not deal with unrequited love, or post break-up trauma, it did deal with the loss of innocence and that urge to recapture it in another way.

But back to the here and now and me sitting in this New York diner with my now diminished stack of pancakes. Well actually not quite the here and now, more like just after midnight last night. What I was doing then was standing on a manhole cover on the sidewalk of Broadway looking up at the Brill Building. This time I was not only singing Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, but performing Score 1: IMAGINE. In December 2009, while on my way to Haiti via New York, I had done exactly the same thing, but after that performance I knew I had to come back again and do it properly. I had to somehow reach deeper down into myself.

After I had performed it last night, I also knew I wanted to go back to Liverpool and re-do the performance that I had done of Score 1: IMAGINE there. The one performed while standing on top of the manhole cover at the bottom of Mathew Street. Not only should I re-do it but the performance should happen in the early hours of the 29 April 2013. It will be the last performance by The17 that I will ever do, since that will be the day that I turn 60. The song that I sing before doing Score 1, will be the full version of Big In Japan by Big In Japan, but with only me singing the song to myself. I will leave the why and wherefores until then.

That’s if Tracey does not murder me back at the Chelsea Hotel, now that I have to go back there and bang on her door telling her it’s time to get up and for me to go and do the graffiti on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

The Egret

6 April 2011  

When it comes to choosing a bridge in New York to graffiti, there is no choice at all. It has to be the Brooklyn Bridge. We have grown up, or even grown old with countless images of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline beyond it. Maybe even more than the Empire State Building, it is the icon of New York. There are all those films, dozens of them, from the one where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are sitting on the bench together in front of it, to the one with Spiderman fighting it out with the Green Goblin to save Mary Jane from falling to certain death.

Back in the ‘60s there was a band called The Brooklyn Bridge who had a smash with one of Jimmy Webb’s classic songs called The Worst That Could Happen. There was even an American TV series called Brooklyn Bridgein the early 90s.

But when people started asking me what I was going to be doing in New York and I told them about the graffiti and the Brooklyn Bridge, I seemed to get the same response from them all, especially from the Americans. It was always a version of “you must be mad”. This would be followed by something about the Brooklyn Bridge being al-Qaeda target number one and thus the most highly guarded bridge in the world. That there was no way I was going to get anywhere near it.  No sooner would the lid be off my paint pot, than I would be arrested. But the more I was told stuff like this, the more I was certain that it was the one and only bridge that I should be doing. That was until this morning.

After writing the Tonight Your Mine Completelystory in the cafe around the corner from Chelsea Hotel, and Tracey was up and good to go, we got a cab over to the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. But as soon as we were dropped off and were looking back towards Manhattan from the underside of the Bridge, I knew it to be completely wrong. It just looked so hackneyed, so over done. And it was all prim and neutered for tourists. It had none of the grit that I associate with New York. But mind you that seems to be the case with so much of what I used to know of New York. Tracey and I retired to an ice cream parlour to re-think our plans.

A couple of days earlier, when I was up in Boston giving my talk at the museum there, I met a couple of Italian artists called Franco & Eva Mattes. They are in their early thirties and have been working together since their late teens. They were ‘one’ of the other guest artists giving a presentation. I got on with them and I liked their work. Now is not the time and place to go into what that work is, but I guess it is all over the internet, thus easy enough for you to find out as much as you need. Their significance to this story, is that they told me they were currently living in Brooklyn and that if I needed any help in doing the graffiti, they would be up for it.

So I gave them a call on the mobile. Eva answered and told us to jump in a cab and get over to their address. Getting the cab took longer than we hoped. None of the cabs that bothered to stop for us wanted to go in that direction. How come each new wave of New York taxi drivers learn it is part of their job not to give a shit and be as rude to the customer as possible? Is it not part of the human condition to want to be friendly? Or am I missing the point?

Franco and Eva had a place on the gloriously named Knickerbocker Avenue. When I say place, they were renting a room in an old warehouse. All very functional and what you would expect happening young artists to be living in in Brooklyn (circa 2011). I was jealous.

Neither of them was surprised by my reaction to the Brooklyn Bridge. I asked them about other bridges in Brooklyn. Railway bridges? Subway bridges? Any sort? Franco got onto Google Maps of the area. I noticed this small bridge not far from where they lived. It was a rail bridge over a creek or docks called Newtown Creek. We then stuck Newtown Creek into Wikipedia and discovered it to be one of the most polluted industrial sites in the USA. It contains years of discarded toxins and I quote:

Its outgoing flow of 14,000 million gallons per year consists of combined sewer overflow, urban runoff, raw domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater. Being estuarine, the creek is largely stagnant. Since there is no current in the creek, sludge has congealed into a 15-foot-thick (4.6 m) layer of “black mayonnaise” on the creek bed.

This sounded like my sort of place. As I may have written before, I love industrial rivers.  In the UK most of them have been cleaned up, which of course is great for the wild life and most other things, but something in the poetry is lost. I guess in the USA, where the pressure is on for smaller government, the cleaning up of waterways is way down on the list of vote winning priorities.

Franco and I jump on a pair of bikes they have and cycle toward where we think we can find the bridge. The area is mainly Hispanic. I wonder what dreams they had about the life they would have when they got to the USA. Had they seen the movies and were expecting it to be like that? Some places in the USA feel more like a third world country than the richest country in the world. The bike had drop handlebars and was way too small for me; I was hardly in control of the thing.

We had to get off the bikes to walk along a disused single-track rail line, between run down warehouses and factories. We got to the bridge. It had no sides. The stench from the water below was intense. There were a couple homeless types, sitting outside a shelter they had made from pallets and blue tarpaulins. The walls of the surrounding factories were already covered in old graffiti. This was all perfection. But what took it beyond perfection was in the distance you could just see the top of the Empire State Building glinting in the sunshine. Just to stand on that bridge and look around you, letting it all soak into your mind, was better than any artwork in any gallery or museum in New York could ever be. The 360°view almost said everything that needed to be said. Even though I have not got a clue what it is that needs to be said.

And the bridge itself, a bridge that seemed to go from nowhere to nowhere and have no purpose was sublime. There was an obvious downside to it though, and that was there is no obvious place for my graffiti. And if I did one nobody would ever see it. And there is no way any photograph could contain and communicate all that I was experiencing there and then. But still this was where it had to be done. This was to be my very own Brooklyn Bridge.

An hour or so later, I was back with supplies of white paint and brushes. Eva and Franco had lent me a white boiler suit to wear. But they warned me that it was slightly radioactive as it was what they had worn at Chernobyl when they were there last year dismantling a fair ground ride. And if you want to know why, you should ask them.

Tracey turned up with her camera, as did another artist who has the space next to Eva and Franco in the warehouse. He is a tall French man. He wanted to know if I needed a hand.

It was suggested that it might be a good idea that I have a harness around me and that the harness has a rope tied around it and the other end of the rope is tied to the railway line. The reason for this suggestion, is that iif I were to fall, while doing my graffiti, it would be into the aforementioned 15 feet of toxic sludge and there would be no way that I would be able to get out. I declined their offer.

The French artist introduced himself as Zevs and he wanted to talk about what I was doing and why. I did not have any ready answers for him. It turned out he was the graffiti artist in Exit Through The Gift Shopthat painted around the shadows cast by street lamps in Paris. They were my favourite graffiti in the film. The ones that contained the most poetry. But maybe I would think that, because I find it difficult not to take photos on my mobile phone of shadows cast by street lamps, as I wander around on my own at night.

I didn’t fall in the sludge. By the time Tracey got to take her photo, the tide was in, thus covering the sludge, the sunlight was no longer glinting off the Empire State Building, in fact the Empire State is only a pinprick on the horizon in the photo. What you can see is one of the down and outs sitting outside his shack made from pallets and blue tarpaulins.  That said, it is a great photograph.

What you do not see in the photo was what might have been the highlight of this whole experience. An Egret arrived and perched himself on a leafless tree and watched what I was doing. Well I suppose he was not watching me. But I was watching him. An Egret, if you do not know, is a large white and very elegant bird. He is in the Heron family. They feed on fish. Fish live in clean water. They do not live here. So why was he here? What drew him to this spot where there will have been nothing living in this water for decades? Was the Egret just coming for the view? To drink the poetry? I certainly do not have the answer to this. But somehow the appearance of this bird in this location, provided me with one of those sublime moments in life that cannot and never should be recaptured.

Maybe I should delete all the photographs I have ever taken of shadows.

Maybe I should go a year without photographing any shadows whatsoever.

Time to go.