Y’know… there really is a sense of magic – albeit an indefinable one – the moment one’s brogues touch down on Broadway.
I can recall the first time like it was yesterday; and, while the last time was just a few months ago, it’s still etch-a-sketched down memory lane just as vividly as if it was yesterday.
Those were the days when Pan Am flew from Heathrow; in fact this was to be my very first Transatlantic crossing and all of it was spent squished into a middle seat in between La Faithfull and her (then) husband, Ben E Ficial – more properly christened Ben Brierly.
Those were the days when food at 36,000 feet up was served on proper plates with real cutlery – not the abominable plastic, bendy-breaky-bollox knives and forks one is forced to employ today. You also got more than one bread roll.
Days too, when one’s pre-luncheon snifter (make mine a pretty sizeable Bloody Mary with extra Worcestershire Sauce please) was accompanied by a gasper or twain. We all smoked – heck, half the flight did in those days; walking back down the aisle from the lavatory was like strolling through an early 60’s London smog. No wonder they banned it – the air conditioning system that could have coped with that amount of fumes hadn’t been invented.
La F was off to do a week of promo for the Broken Biscuits (English) record… that’d later nail her a Grammy nomination; Ben was there ‘cos he was her fella… and me? Well, I was the bloke from Island and it was my job to ensure that everything ran tickety-boo.
Pretty obviously, it didn’t – and much of that was down to entirely unexpectedly bumping in to La Pallenberg in a hotel lift. This little reunion of kindred spirits and shared pasts distracted my charge somewhat.
Employing her deep dulcet Germanic tones that reverberated upward from her not inconsiderable bosom, La P beckoned toward the lift (elevator), saying (well, more commanding actually)… Ahhh, Marianne… so good to see you…come up to my room, I have a little something for you…’ Now, I reckoned I was relatively wise to the ways of… but… this was on an entirely different scale altogether; a small mountain of Peruvian marching powder was upended on the table and… basically… they weren’t going to stop until…
A lot of other mad stuff happened on that trip… but… trooper that MF is, the work did all get done.
Years later, she toured the 20th Century Blues record… taking in such exotic locales as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as more conventional gigs in the more obvious places. And, for sizeable chunks, I was on hand too – more or less in the same capacity. About three-quarters of the way through the show each night, there’d be a bit of a break in proceedings (Paul the pianist would nip off to have a wee) which gave La Faithfull – who is a raconteur of astonishing prowess – the opportunity to regale the audience with tales of derring-do.
Most usually, this involved a lengthy narrative that involved serious narcotics shared with the late, great Harry Nillson, his untimely death, the manner in which it occurred, an earthquake and a strange burial. And always, but always, she prefaced the whole with the opening lines of… ‘Now, you… lovely audience that you are… need to understand that those were the days when we did proper drugs – not this nimby-pamby stuff you get handed nowadays’.
Anyway… I digress. So, after what seems an eternity mid-air, we land and my first encounter with US Customs and Immigration – I’m travelling with a former drug addict who just happens to be the head Rolling Stones’ ex and a punk who also goes by the name of Ben Dover. Needless to say, our time in Immigration was somewhat extended before, ultimately, passports were stamped and we were allowed outside… and squashed into a cab – no one thought to come and meet us – and hi-tailing it into central Manhattan.
It was like entering a picture postcard or… even better, a film-set. For some reason lost to the mists of time, we were in different hotels… so, after being deposited at the gates of the Essex House (on the 20-something’th floor of which CB kept an apartment at the time), I shuffled out, onto Central Park South and walked over to… Broadway.
At that junction and looking south toward the bottom end of Manhattan, the street sort of curves slightly right-handed down toward Times Square. It’s only a few blocks… and yet, as you trudge down toward all that the neon flashing in the distance, its like walking into the set of (say) Blade Runner. OK, so that film was still a couple years away but, you get the idea.
The next again morning, I woke unfeasibly early… one’s body-clock is absolutely fucked by this international travel malarkey and so, at about 4am I’m wide awake. What to do? There’s only one person in Manhattan I know and, I can’t call him just yet… Oh, I know… I’ll switch on the tv. Whatever the programme was, it goes straight in to an ad break. And, the very first bit of American TV I saw was… an ad for… Preparation H… hemorrhoid cream. Smashing.
Since MF hasn't got anything to do ‘til the afternoon, that means I’ve a free morning and, by now fed up with watching adverts for intimate ailments, I head off for a walk in the general direction of the Upper East Side 'cos that's the locale of the only person I know in this strange metrop I've tipped up in.
I’m not entirely sure where his lair is, of course, but guided by the sun I figure it has to be... that-a-way.
Skyscrapers… concrete canyons… hustle… bustle… the bums on the sidewalks… the drunks with their brown paper-bag covered liquor bottles… and the bag-ladies pushing their trollies… the air bisected by the billowing steam rising from the pavement grills like so much fog… the suits and briefcases scurrying, coffee in hand... the punks... the tourists like me (pretending to be anything other). Everyone talking loudly. I’m lost but at home.
Intent on calling the only person I know in New York, I find a pay ‘phone – don’t forget, this was aeons before everyone walked around with a cell ‘phone clamped to his or her ear… and long before the side-stepping of people texting while walking became an Olympic sport.
I push my coins in… and, after a few moments, the Singer of Songs answers. He sounds perplexed; ‘Crikey… what on earth are you doing here..? I explain. ‘Splendid’ says he, ‘Are you nearby? Can you come over for coffee? He gives me directions but, basically, that’s pretty hopeless ‘cos, within minutes, I’m lost… I’m a stranger in a strange land and a cab further uptown has to be the best solution.
We spend the morning together, drinking a lot of coffee… and he plays me a few tunes he’s working on with another chap called Pete. His deal with Island is over but, even so, he’s been writing… looks fitter than fit and slimmer than slim from daily runs around Central Park – and the songs sound really good. They’re thinking of maybe making a record… perhaps shopping it round a bit.
Fast forward a good few months and a new record pops up on the release schedule. It’s by The Rivits – the Singer of Songs did make the record he said he was planning to.
And, the final track on side one is something I’d heard months back as a rough sketch; it tells the tale of Connie and Clem The Clean and extols the dreams of the ghosts whose own shoes… some frayed, some torn, some perfectly polished… trod those self-same sidewalks that I’d walked.