Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie 1947 - 2016

David Bowie died yesterday. These are words many people my age, and older, never thought that they would write, or see written. He was ageless. An icon. A hero, and not just for one day.

As with most music, I picked up on Bowie late; I do believe that his was the first single that I ever bought - it was either The Jean Genie  in the summer of  1972, or Life On Mars in 1973. I bought it at the record shop in Sidcup, on my way home from school one afternoon. I had seen him on Top of the Pops well before then, but as with many people, despite liking the Starman and his music, was confused by his looks.  Once glam-rock took hold, at least we could pigeon-hole him a little (but not for long). I never bought a Bowie album, just those few singles.

I never met him, or went to see him play live, So my memories of Bowie tend to be personal, about times of my life when he influenced things around me.

One such time was when Bowie announced he would be playing a series of gigs at Milton Keynes Bowl in 1983. I was working on NME at the time, and used to manage the classified ads production on press days at the printer or typesetter (we actually moved from our Kettering printer to the Goswell Road typesetter that spring). The important thing about the classified ads was that they had to be in alphabetical order, under their different section headings (For Sale, Records For Sale, Personal, Tickets Wanted, etc etc). Bowie announced about six dates, and soon there was a massive uptake in new lineage ads either wanting to sell the tickets, or to buy, or exchange for different dates. We seemed to regularly get about 200 or so different ads per week for the For Sale section that all started with the words BOWIE, and then usually gave a date, a price, contact details, etc. This boosted out normal page and a bit Classified section to over two pages on occasion, the busiest I ever saw it in my 14 years at NME.  Being a bit anal about these things, I insisted that the ads had to be carried in exact alpha order, so the first advert that started BOWIE had to have the next part in alpha order - Bowie A would precede Bowie B, which would precede Bowie C, etc. Putting a couple of hundred of these ads in order very week was a big task, and it was too big for the computer system that typeset them (that could only cope with the Bowie bit, and not much more). So me and my colleagues Barry and Lee (whichever one of us had the classified bit of our job to do that week...) had to sort out the slips that the ads were submitted on into the exact right order, find the typeset ad on the proof page, read and correct it, then mark it with a number to show the running order in that section. Once corrected and re-proofed, we had to stand with the comp who had to cut up all 200 plus ads that started with BOWIE individually and then add each one to the classified page as we made it up - using the number order we had written on the proof - in exact alpha-order. Very time-consuming! I was actually glad when he finally played those gigs, so that the classified page could return to normality (which is more than Bowie ever did!).

It is hard to define Bowie's best period; obviously people remember the great Ziggy Stardust years, but I have a fond liking of his white-soul hits Golden Years and Fame (The Thin White Duke persona). Others I knew loved his return to these shores with Let's Dance, Modern Love, etc. Lots of songs got mentioned on the 10pm BBC news yesterday (which, give them credit,  ran a lengthy piece), but that just reminded me of so many more that he worked on (even if he did not necessarily perform or write) - Suffragette City, All the Young Dudes, China Girl - the list could be endless!

For the Man Who Fell to Earth, it was time to return whence he came, Ashes to Ashes, Rebel Rebel, he will be Waiting in the Sky. Farewell David Bowie.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Cowboys and Indians

My lovely wife Rachel and I went on holiday in October - another driving jaunt around the south west of the USA. This time, we flew in to Phoenix, and drove across Arizona, eastwards across New Mexico, down into Texas, and then back up for a more northern return route across NM and AZ to Phoenix.

We went to some fascinating places en route, many of them were to do with native Americans, non native Indians, and/or cowboys, hence the title of this piece. We also took in plenty of natural wonders, and a few techie bits and pieces which made for a nice change.

After an initial night in Phoenix, we drove down to Tucson, stopping at Casa Grande - a large ancestral puebloan structure in the middle of the desert that nobody really knows what it was built for. We then drove on to Biosphere2, which is a large glass structure sitting just below the base of Mount Lemmon. Biosphere2 was a fascinating place, and the scene of a very interesting experiment, whereby 8 volunteers were locked inside the building for two years, with only what they had inside at that time to live on - including oxygen and water. As such, they had their own world to live in, but had to regenerate water and air for their use. They had an ocean (measuring about 30 yards by 15 yards, and a rain forest (of a similar size), and two giant lungs which pumped the air around, to help them. They made it through unscathed, albeit with some mental scars, and now the buildings house further experiments and are run by the local University. No longer contained (we saw holes in the windows, and birds roosting inside!), it is a fascinating example of mans experiments on man.

Basing ourselves in Tucson for the first few days (staying in a lovely B&B), we were able to visit PIMA - an aircraft museum and visit from here the AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) nearby on the Davis-Monthan Air Force base. This is also known as the Aircraft Boneyard, as it houses thousands (about 4,400!) planes of various types that have mainly been de-commissioned. It is an amazing site seeing what looks like hundreds of huge C-130 transport planes, or B52 bombers, all lined up, some with engines, some without. They had lots of other aircraft there too, and we really enjoyed the tour of the base.

We drove up to the top of Mount Lemmon (via the Catalina Scenic Byway) after our PIMA visit, and the views from the top are very good. We did get waved down by a state trooper for going a little too fast near the top but at least there was no ticket! It wouldn't be our only skirmish with authority on the trip!

We also took a day out at Kartchner Caverns, about 60 miles south of Tucson.  These caves were simply wonderful, and have not been open to the public for that many years (just over ten). They are a bit of a gem, as few people visit, and no cameras are allowed inside so spreading the word via images doesn't happen like with many other places. Security is very tight, and you have to go inside with no bags, phones, or photographic equipment of any type, in order that the environment is not damaged in any way. All I have is wonderful memories about the caverns, and the way that nearly everything in there was untouched and therefore undamaged.

On our way back to Tucson, we drove through our first border patrol immigration checkpoint. These are scattered around the south of the USA and try to deter any immigrants entering the States, as the Mexican border is so close and difficult to patrol. As we drove up, the soldier looked in and waved us through without stopping, probably thinking that we both looked like American citizens. We did have passports in hand, but didn't get to show them on this occasion.

Tucson itself was a little disappointing, and we struggled to find anywhere decent to eat, despite being near 4th Street, a hub for students with plenty of cafes and bars.

From Tucson, we drove down through Arizona's southern desert to Tombstone, the site of the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. We first stopped at Boot Hill, cemetery to those that died with their boots on, whether that was shot, stabbed, hung, trampled by stampede, found in an abandoned mine, killed by Indians (stoned, arrows, and/or shot!) and the like! It's also where the three guys that died in the OK Corral gunfight are buried. Tombstone was very touristy, but I liked it. Much of the sense of history remained, and you can visualize that the town itself was much the same 130 years ago, when Wyatt Earp and his brothers were in charge of law and order.

Leaving Tombstone, we stayed overnight in another old Western town called Bisbee, where there is a huge copper mine, or actually a huge hole, that was once a copper mine.

We had a long drive on leaving Bisbee, and after breakfast near the Mexican border in Douglas, got a little lost and had to ask a passing border patrol man in his car how to get back on route.  He was nice, but he must have wondered who were were when we flagged him down!

We stopped at the memorial to the site of Geronimo's surrender to the US Army - he was the last native American (Apache) to bear arms against the state. He had tried to surrender his people at an earlier stage, but had heard rumours that they would all be massacred once disarmed so went on the run again. A great warrior, it was sad how his life was dictated to him over the next 30 years or so, until he died a natural death.

Having hot-footed across New Mexico, we arrived at White Sands National Park.  This place was famous for a couple of things - one, that the park area is full of gypsum sand dunes that go on for miles and miles, and secondly that the air force missile range that surrounds the park is where the first atomic bomb was tested (at the Trinity site). We had great fun running up and down the dunes in the late afternoon sun, and then we joined a ranger-led full-moon hike in the dunes which we had booked up well in advance (as there are only six such events per year!). We had a lovely time along with 30-40 others amongst the dunes being told about them by the ranger, all the while as the sun set wonderfully. The full moon rising was fantastic too, and we even saw a couple of horned eagle owls sitting in a lonely tree!

We had another long drive the next day down into Texas; for the second consecutive day, as we were near to the Mexican border, we passed through a border post, and both of these times we were asked if we were "citizens" and when we said no, had to hand over our passports for inspection. With our entry stamps being somewhat hidden amongst the many other stamps in our passports, the guys took plenty of time checking us out. We mis-timed our fuel stops on this day and as we went further south into Texas, got lower and lower on fuel.  The roads were so straight, that it was difficult to get your bearings most of the time; you would drive over a ridge expecting to see a town (and hopefully gas station) but they just never seemed to arrive.  The atmosphere in our car was pretty hot and the fuel tank very empty by the time we eventually got to a pump and re-fuelled. It had been about 420 miles since we had last filled up with fuel, so there couldn't have been much left in it! We agreed vows on never to drive with less than half-a-tank of fuel after that, which has actually always been one of our previous (un-written) rules of the road when abroad!

Our Texas destination was the ghost town of Terlingua, which is just outside the fantastic Big Bend National Park.  Big Bend is one of the least visited national parks, as it is so far away from anything else really! Driving along, there really weren't that many people around, but the scenery was stunning.  We drove to Santa Elena Canyon, but sadly we were unable to take the hike into the canyon as Terlingua Creek (which runs into the Rio Grande at that point) was flooded and we couldn't cross without getting very wet. We drove across the park and up into the Chisos Mountains, and had some wonderful views from up there.  We didn't have time to do any hikes at the top, but vowed to return one day and make time to seek out the bears and mountain lions that live in relative peace overlooking the northern tip of Mexico. Driving further east, we came to the other end of the park, and Boquillas Canyon. Rachel needed some space, so I ventured into the canyon on my own, keeping a watchful eye out for rattlesnakes! At a couple of places, I saw jars on the ground with notes asking for money, and across the river (in Mexico) a guy would start to sing for a dollar. I declined to give, noting the row boat tied up on the far bank that the guys would have used to retrieve their gains. It was really that easy to get into the US!

We both loved Big Bend, and took a couple of hours more the next day to leave the park, on what was another fairly long drive back into New Mexico. We soon came to another border immigration post, and with no other cars around, drove up to it slowly. I had the passports ready, and we both had the windows down, but as we got to the soldiers, Rachel thought that they were waving us through (as had happened on the first occasion we came across a border station) and did not stop at the stop sign. Cue much shouting and hollering from the guards "Stop! STOP! STOPPPP!". A startled Rachel actually took a little while to find the brake pedal, and the guards were soon at our windows looking mighty unhappy. I made sure my hands were visible, and apologised immediately, saying we misunderstood their hand signals. They were not amused and gave both if us a stern lecture about stop meaning stop! After five minutes or so of fumbling through the passports looking for the entry stamp, reminding us to always do as they instructed, they let us go with another admonishment ringing in our ears.

By mid-afternoon, we had arrived at our next stop, Carlsbad Caverns, but not without more road trouble.  The route up from Big Bend took us through Fort Stockton and Pecos - oil country, with hundreds of oil derricks bobbing up and down as far as the eye could see! - on Route 285.  This two-lane road, due to the local oil industry, was heavy with oil tanker lorries, some going north (as we were), and some going south, but all pretty much doing the speed limit of 75mph! Somewhere between Pecos and a small town called Orla, a lorry to our left kicked up a stone which rocketed into our windshield like a bullet. The crack was bullet shaped too, but luckily it was below Rachel's line of sight, right behind the steering wheel. We drove on, thankful that we hadn't lost the whole screen.

The caverns at Carlsbad are amazing - much, much bigger than Kartchner, but visited for a hundred years or so on a regular basis has left many of the delicate structures (stalagmites, stalactites, popcorn, soda straws, curtains - we learnt so many new names of things!) damaged in some way. The caves are 750 feet below ground, so we got the lift down to them that afternoon and did a self guided tour of the Big Room (which is huge, and I mean HUGE!!!), but next morning, we walked down into the caverns through the natural entrance. With the electric lighting inside, it was easy to see the massive area and structures, but we could imagine what it was like for the first explorers who only had simple lanterns. We then joined a ranger led tour of a closed off area called the Kings Palace, and experienced a total blackout there which was fun.

Then it was back on the road, but, sadly our windscreen had deteriorated overnight (it got down near to freezing, and the crack tripled in size up across the screen), and we spent ages in Carlsbad contacting the rental car company (Dollar) asking what we should do. Eventually, we agreed with them to get a police report and swap the car for another in Albuquerque the next day. We drove to the police station in Carlsbad and spoke to a couple of officers, and were then shown inside to an interview room. I was getting spooked again - I watch too much US crime TV! Eventually, after we had told them what happened a couple of times, we were told it was nothing to do with them, and we should seek out the local Sheriff, to get the report we needed for the rental company. I still don't really understand the difference between the police, Sheriff's office, state troopers etc - maybe someone can explain to me one day? So we drove back south for ten miles trying to find the Sheriff's office which was hidden at the back of some industrial estate on the edge of town and there we explain the situation again. Officer Cruz was very nice and said our report would be ready in a week or so.  We tell him we just need his badge number, which he gives us and off we go again. Did he ever write up the report? I doubt it...

The delay in Carlsbad meant we had little time to spend in UFO-crazy Roswell, and we only got to the UFO Museum 15 minute before closing. We then had another 60-odd miles to go to our overnight stop in Lincoln, which was where Billy the Kid broke out of jail and shot his guards. The Worsley Hotel in Lincoln was lovely (it's where Billy had his breakfasts while handcuffed...), but we were the only guests, and the owner/manager did not live on site, so we were the only ones there that night, which was fun. Next morning, with our planned day of following the Billy the Kid scenic byway out of the window due to having to return the car to ABQ, we wandered around this small town that was the scene of a terrible local war (without which, we would probably never have heard of Billy...) back in the 1880's. It was lovely, but nearly everywhere was up for sale, and you could see that life was a struggle half-way up a mountain in the middle of nowhere.

We drove down more straight road and made it to the rental company in ABQ, and thankfully, swapping the car was a fairly simple affair. Off the planned route, we took a punt on trying out the Sandia Peak Skyway cable car which goes up the 10,000 foot mountain north of ABQ and had lunch at the top. Luckily, we had plenty of warm clothing to ward off the cold wind, but the blue skies and snowy ground offered great photo opps with ABQ far below us.

We made it back onto our planned route that night, and were lucky to be able to listen to a three-piece band play spooky songs (i.e. anything with ghosts, werewolfs, scary, or spooky in the title...) in the local Socorro brew pub on Halloween night.

We were both pretty tired of straight roads by now; although you can go quite fast, they do eventually get a bit boring and, when every small hillock looks just like the last one you went over five minutes ago, very monotonous. Of course, if a roadrunner, or cow, or stag, or dog, or deer (delete as applicable depending what day it was) decides to jump out in front of you and flirt with death, then all the better I say. Today's boring straight road took us the VLA - the Very Large Array. Here, in the middle of the desert (so there is little electrical interference), are 28 radio telescopes all parked in a Y-shape. Some days (like when we arrived) they are all close together, and some days they can stretch out for 13 miles in all of three directions. Lots of movies and videos have been filmed here, the most famous being bits of Jodi Foster's film Contact.

Our straight road carried us ever westwards, and we made it to Petrified Forest National Park fairly late in the afternoon. The ranger advised us what to do as we only had an hour or so until the park closed, and we took a couple of short hikes amongst the rocks (for that is what the forest of trees has now become). The tale goes that if you remove any of the petrified wood from the park, then bad luck will befall you.  There was loads on sale outside the park, and much of it was very nice too. In fact, if we could have got a large chunk of it home then it would have looked fabulous in our garden, but sadly it would weigh too much to put in a suitcase or even post home separately...

This was a fun place, and our fun continued as we stayed at the Wigwam Motel that night, bunking down in a (concrete) teepee. The room had all you could want - even hiding the shower area behind the bathroom door (which confused Rachel a little, and then some!). Sadly, as with our accommodation in Tucson, all we could hear most of the night was trains sounding their blaring horns several times as they neared level crossings...(the record was 14, and yes, I was counting!). 

We took breakfast in Winslow, Arizona (made famous by the Eagles song "Taking it Easy") and drove onwards to the Barringer Meteor Crater, a big hole in the ground made some 50,000 years ago! Before turning south toward Sedona, we took a quick hike around the Sunset Crater Volcano, scrunching up cinder pathways to a windy viewpoint. 

Although we had been to Sedona about ten years beforehand, neither of us really remembered it that well, and we certainly didn't recall the long winding road that led down from Flagstaff to the red rocks area. We stayed in a lovely Inn right beside the Creek, and finally found a restaurant serving decent evening food - sadly they shut at 8.30 so it wasn't that good a place! We still had beer in the car so partook of that back in our cozy room, which had a lovely gas (fake) log fire, while watching one of the Bourne films on borrowed DVD. 

After a lazy get up, we took the decision to drive up to the Grand Canyon for the day.  We always planned to do this, but with the long hours on the road starting to take their toll, we had pretty much decided not to go out in the car that day. A storm was brewing though, and we had a lovely rainbow in our view most of the way north. Arriving at The Desert Watchtower, perched on the edge of the canyon itself, the rain was pelting down, and view of the canyon far below was severely restricted most of the time. Was it as bad as the previous time I got Rachel to the south rim? Possibly, but at least it wasn't snowing this time! There was simply no point in hanging around and/or going to other viewpoints due to the poor weather, so we headed back south again, stopping off for pictures at the Little Colorado viewpoint which at least gave us a dry look at the deep canyon below. The storm coming in chased us all the way back to Sedona, and we later heard that there was six inches of snow in Flagstaff that night!

Our last full day saw us take a 3-hour trip on the Verde Canyon Railroad, into the mountains alongside the Verde River.  This was fun, and we enjoyed the first-class hospitality on board (free finger food and drinks!) while poodling along up the river and further into the canyon. The open air observation deck was OK, but it was cold out there, and we did have plenty of showers along the way too (and pretty much all the way back). It was a good day though, and we took loads of photos as the train turned this way and that.

With a late flight out of the US, we had all day to do the 150 miles that it was from Sedona to Phoenix. On advice from the lovely Kyarna from our Inn, we drove to Montezuma Castle (an ancient puebloan cliff dwelling), and then via Prescott, the old capital of Arizona. She suggested a couple of places to try for lunch and one of them, Murphy's, was very nice. From Prescott, we drove over the mountains and on to Phoenix via Wickenburg.

In total, we drove 3,130 miles, so it was a long trip, but a good one!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

25 Years Ago Today...

Nick Hornby famously wrote in his first novel High Fidelity that his number 1 dream job would have been -

“NME Journalist, 1976-1979. Get to meet the Clash, Sex Pistols, Chrissie Hynde, Danny Baker, etc. Get loads of free records — good ones, too. Go on to host my own quiz show or something.”

I have never been a journalist, but I did work at New Musical Express at that time, and twenty-five years ago to this very day, 10th October 1990, I left my job on NME. 

I had started work at NME on 2nd January 1977, working in the advert production department, and it was a pretty good fourteen years I had there if I am honest, only damaged by the last 12 months or so when office politics got in the way.  In Hornby terms, my job was a dream job - I did get to hang around doorways and corridors and meet with various members of famous punk and new wave bands; I worked and played football with the Baker-boy; I got a few free records but more importantly (to me) free entry into numerous live gigs (thanks John Curd!); and I even used to host our inter-departmental Question of Sport quiz sessions; but mostly I just loved my job – what more could you ask for?

I had some absolutely fantastic times at NME, working with and meeting some amazing people, many of whom I am still in contact with.  Hopefully most of those I can still regard as friends (even if it’s just on Facebook!), but I will never forget those that I have simply lost touch with, or those who are no longer on this earth.

When I started at NME, Mike and Penny Proctor were there, along with the dearly departed Frank Lamb, and the infamous Brian B (also no longer with us). I met Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill on their first working day (Patti Smith gig at Hammersmith Odeon), and got to catch the train from St Pancras to Kettering printers every Tuesday with Monty Smith, Phil McNeil, Jack Scott, Nick Logan, Charlie Murray (AKA Blast Furnace), and many others. The turnover of staff in the advert department was quite high I think, and many came along, sometimes left a massive impression (on me, at least), and left. I fell in (mostly unrequited) love with many of the women who worked upstairs at Kings Reach Tower or around the corner in Commonwealth House – Wendy, Maz and Sunie, Tracy Bennett, Jilly Horne and Claire Davies, Alex K-W, Carolyn Hine, Julie Snow  and Barbara Daisy - an almost endless list! My drinking buddy for many years was Tony O, and I made friends with others who worked in the Carnaby Street editorial offices – Fiona Foulger and Steven (Seething) Wells (both now sadly deceased), Julia Murphy, Gary Crowley, and The Redskins Chris Dean (AKA X Moore) – and I even helped a couple of colleagues - Kate Hooper, and Karla Faerber - get jobs in the editorial department.

The Christmas parties were legendary, from Dingwalls to the Astoria, via Heaven. Rubbing shoulders with your music and comedy heroes and drinking for free! One year Robbie Coltrane stepped on my toe, and another year I witnessed Mick Hucknall being thrown out for being a naughty boy in the toilets. One summer, we had a celebratory afternoon boat cruise along the Thames after a particularly good set of sales figures were announced, and James Brown and  others took turns to play Dare by swinging from the boat rails with feet dangling in the river just below. That was a week before the Marchioness disaster! The things people would do when they had a belly full of free booze!

 We even made a Christmas single one year (left), recording it at the Stiff Records studios in North London.  Of course it was never officially released (though it does remain in the Stiff catalogue), but still it is the only official recording I have ever made.

We played a bit of football at NME too – games against The Jam, Hawkwind, Madness, and The Style Council, and had many decent matches versus various record labels.  We entered a five-a-side football league and won it for two consecutive years until organizers Sparta Florida changed the rules, made it six-a-side and refused to play us! I do still have the title winning trophies and also very happy memories of fouling Andrew Ridgley!

I also ran an annual NME pool tournament for a few years, and organized the games at the Dog & Trumpet, a local pub at one end of Carnaby Street.

When it was time to leave NME – and it was the right time to say goodbye to the job I had loved – myself and co-worker Barry Cooper had a terrific leaving do in the Doggets, Coat and Badge pub on Blackfriars Bridge. We booked out the top bar, issued the maximum number of tickets we were allowed, and bought in a couple of hundred quids worth of Becks beer and white wine to get the party started. We were blessed with some lovely sunny autumn weather. One of the guys who had taken over some of our work against our wishes arrived uninvited, and Barry and I turfed him and his wife out unceremoniously, with him swearing profusely at us. Served him right! We then went on to have a great nights drinking, and left close to midnight, with many a tearful goodbye.

I have never been back to the NME offices, but it is a period of my life that I will never forget.

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