My Unplanned Obsolescence. Chapter 11. By Thom Topham.

23 Aug

Torn Genes.

NYC skyline 1979

NYC skyline 1979

My bag (a cheap, khaki, sports-hold-all-wheelie-bag from Sainsbury’s) is packed. I reluctantly lock the cottage and rattle (wheelie-bags are the new noise pollution, especially on cobblestones) along the Cleave, then up the hill toward the bus stop, dropping the cottage keys off – ready for the next tenant – in the shop on the way.

My timing is impeccable.  The double-decker arrives within four minutes and I’m heading for Raleigh – and home.

The bus lurches through the lanes, with tree-branches often crashing against its upper parts, until we reach the barren, windswept cliff top of Whitespur Bay. Here, I feel as if the bus could be blown over the cliffs at any given point – which gives me jelly legs. There are also hundreds of – dare I say, shacks? – nestling in inclines with their spectacular views to the famous Addlestone lighthouse, miles out in the English Channel. As a diversion, once we enter the dull suburbs of Raleigh and go ‘all around the houses’(and because I’m already riveted); I open the notebook where I left off in the early autumn of ‘79.

All of a sudden, there was evidently much self-initiated activity and a subsequent dramatic change in my everyday life.  The prose-written diary entries were, for a change, hardly in evidence, having been supplanted by page after page of song lyrics and chords, budgets for studios and various career game-plans and notes – leading up to the long-anticipated demo sessions with the real musicians; which were indeed (it says here) eventually recorded in Egg Box -a proper recording studio in Covent Garden – on the tenth of September 1979, with two of the best members of both The Eaglekings and Eaglestorm: Eddie Prince and Garth Gower-Jones, on drums and guitar respectively – along with Pete Knacker, from The Counter Geigers, on bass.  I could see by reading my diary that I was well aware that Winston Wallbanger, the Eaglekings’ bass player, was a bit pissed-off that I hadn’t asked him to play on my demos, as was the drummer Grahame Radcliffe; but – sorry guys – this was going to be a Thom Topham album (hopefully), as opposed to just another version of The Eaglekings, or, indeed Eaglestorm, their previous incarnation. That was the main reason, although, frankly, I’d never really rated Grahame’s drumming in comparison to the great Eddie Prince. The demos, thankfully, turned-out to be uniformly excellent – the songs, the musicians, my singing and my production – and I was beyond happy with the results.

The notebook then lists all the various options that were open to me based on my various contacts: potential managers, record labels, producers and people that I knew in the media and the public eye; all of whom might have proved useful in helping me to get a record deal. Christabel Galway was now running the office of Traniform, the management company that handled the hugely successful English rock group The Why, along with lesser acts, who, strangely, never seemed to ‘make it’. Christabel and I had already hatched a simple, but cunning game plan that would hopefully open doors for me in NYC, should I get to go there, as The Count had already insinuated.

Financial matters had also suddenly improved as I’d been paid £1000 to play all the keyboards on an album by a French singer-songwriter who was suffering under the delusion that he was the Gallic version of Bruce Springsteen. This, with hindsight, was to prove strangely prescient regarding my heady career trajectory later that year.

The erstwhile French-Springsteen album was recorded at Up The Creek, the appositely-named studio Near Fowey in Cornwall, which was only accessible by boat. One of the most attractive plus-points of working at this cool, funky and spacious complex (apart from its idyllic setting and atmospheric recording ambience) was being literally ‘spoilt’ by the fabulous, gourmet, home-cooked meals prepared by skilled, local chefs, served, in the evening, with fine wines in the capacious open-plan kitchen dinner, with its views over the creek and the estuary beyond.  This was pure class…in a wonderfully creative and inspiring environment, although, there were some technical issues in the studio itself. Was this due to a lack of regular maintenance due to the epicurean, laid-back ambience of the complex, perchance?

This was later to be my choice of studio to record ‘Torn Genes’, my second album (which would later come to be regarded as a classic – it was remastered and reissued last year on Grapes Of Wrath records, along with my first album Mediums), but at that time, I had no idea what strange twists of fate  – as opposed to my j**rney (the dreaded J-word) were in store to take me towards that cherished goal.

The title song was now demo’d and in the bag, and I was evidently beginning to feel like I had a credible album concept to sell. The fact that it was something of a groundbreaking chronicle of gay street cruising in the late seventies gave me curious confidence that it would find its niche all by itself, which, indeed it did eventually, but not due to any help from the record label, management, or the publisher.  I can only assume that it was due to the genuine, artistic qualities of the so-called ‘product’.

Torn Genes

You wake up of an afternoon, and wonder where you are.

You’re tangled up in some stranger’s sheets

and a record  is on repeat

across the street… in an empty bar.

You put your clothes on, find the door and then it starts to rain.

You pull your hood above your head,

and you wonder what was said,

that led to bed… and back again.

Torn genes, from the leather queens, to the cowboys and the clones.

Torn genes, from some magazines, not just words, but sticks and stones.

Torn genes, like those darker dreams, that can chill you to the bone.

Torn genes, like a silent scream, then you’re walking home alone… with your torn genes.

You wake up of an afternoon, and wonder where you are.

You’re tangled up in some stranger’s sheets

and a record  is on repeat

across the street… in an empty bar.

Torn genes, from the leather queens, to the cowboys and the clones.

Torn genes, from some magazines, not just words, but sticks and stones.

Torn genes, like those darker dreams, that can chill you to the bone.

Torn genes, like a silent scream, then you’re walking home alone… with your torn genes…

 

Words and music by Thom Topham © Copyright Control.

My notebook suddenly delivered a surprise, which is perhaps based on the lack of ‘diary’ entries prior to it.

“New York. 14.10. 79”

Then, about four weeks later…

“Now I owe Leonardo a whole lot more, at least in theory, as The Count has perhaps unwittingly provided me with the springboard I needed. He took me to New York (my first time) out of the blue a nearly a month ago and I landed a record deal worth £80,000 (on paper) within three days!”

Wowza! You couldn’t really make that up! Talk about fabulous – especially after years of struggle and hardship.   Suddenly, all my dreams seemed to have come true – but I wasn’t so naive to assume that it was a done deal, and that everything was on some illusory Cloud 9, or a fabled stairway to creative-and-career-heaven.  Caution was always a byword.  I simply didn’t trust these smooth-tongued purveyors of snake juice in NYC.

It seemed to me that they spoke with forked tongues.

Let me explain my… no, NOT journey… can we settle for ‘story’ instead?

Leonardo had suddenly suggested that we go to New York in late September. I’d never been to the US. My passport was out of date and he’d immediately paid for a fast-track upgrade as a result.

Back in ’79 you could get seriously cheap ‘Standby’ airline tickets to all the major destinations – a precurser of last-minute-dot-com, as it were; before the world-at-large even had an inkling of the upcoming ‘industrial revolution’ that was eventually to become known as The Internet (and guess who ended-up writing the internet column for 24/7 magazine for nearly five years in the late 90s under the name Webfoot?).

So, there I was on a plane heading for America – as the vague protégé of a rich Italian Count, who was sitting beside me on a deliciously inappropriate Aeroflot flight. We both took tamazapan (I got it on prescription) and slept all the way, once we’d had some appalling ‘food’… and excellent vodka!

 *Nostalgic magical, memory moment alert*

As we’d hit 30,000 feet, the lights saying ‘You May Now Smoke’ lit-up, with a aural ping, in the panels above our heads.  Delicious.  Even better than a post-prandial or post-coital cigarette (or roll-up, in my case).  Maybe it was the combination of air-travelling, transatlantic glamour and the oxygen. With a vodka and tonic (or three… echo…echo), to accompany it – and, of course, my excitement at going to the US.

I used to love smoking.  Then, for my sins, as you may recall, I was summarily punished with chronic emphysema, (or COPD as it’s more commonly known these days), after I was diagnosed in 2005, soon after my wonderful/eventful/dramatic New York Halloween week staying with my much-missed, ex-BBF Tommy in his apartment in Soho, close to the trendy Soho Grand Hotel. He’d insisted that my terrible rasping cough (and what were later confirmed to be panic attacks) were very likely to suggest chronic emphysema… and he was right.

As it happens, smoking DOES seem to help you concentrate and focus, especially creatively.  Unfortunately, it also tends to kill you.  Not a whiff of nicotine has passed my lips since I gave-up the cancer sticks, which was, literally, immediately after my diagnosis, with the help of nicotine patches and gum, and Christabel’s excellent reassurance that ‘the craving only lasts three minutes’, having recently given-up smoking herself. Best advice ever – over and above all the commercial ‘nicoquit’ hard-sell.

Giving up smoking is ultimately down to you.  You just have to stop. Then deal with it.  The worst possible thing you could do would be to smoke a UK-style joint containing tobacco. WRONG BELLS RINGING. You’d be back on the fags before you knew it. However, a nice friendly herbal cigarette from the health shop was fine. I’m still on my self-invented, two-step programme: just one spliff after dinner – of the finest Skunk – scattered, like some exotic, eastern spice over my herbal nico.

The Count and I arrived at around noon at JFK Airport.  I was amazed to find that you could actually hire a limousine, as if it were a cab – and negotiate the price into Manhattan (I seem to recall that $20 was the agreed fee), where Leonardo had booked a relatively modest hotel – barely 4-Star – but on Lexington Avenue in mid-town, very handy for all the major record companies, which were clustered around 53d street and The Rockerfeller Plaza (I’d done my research in advance). He was, as you may recall, renting out his palatial, 5000-sqaure-foot loft apartment in the soon-to-become fashionable East Village.

A silver Cadillac, stretch limo swished us into Manhattan via the dreary-looking suburb of Queens, with its pastel-painted, wood-clad, little doll’s houses. Ugly, metal air-con units were propped on most window ledges.  The traffic was ridiculously busy on the eight-lane (or was it ten?) highway.  We passed Shea Stadium.  Thoughts of The Beatles conquering America filled my head as Manhattan suddenly hove into view… phew… just like every movie you’ve ever seen. Then the famous  NYC buzz hit me like I’d just had a big, fat line of cocaine.  Stevie Wonder’s immortal line ‘skyscrapers and everythaang!’  Reverberated through my head as I soon observed that Manhattan’s tall buildings were actually in clusters, rather than pervading the whole of the island’s skyline, as in popular, visual myth.

I was in New York for the first time!  And the visuals and that famous ZING-factor were rocking! Yay!

We nosedived into a tunnel (I can’t remember which one) and emerged into narrow, leafy streets full of tall, elegant houses, with many architectural quirks and delights to please the eye and the asthetic senses – some modern, many early 20th century, but most from the 19th.

I was already sold – or should I say high? – on NYC. The city seemed to be bathed in an evocative, mellow, autumnal – Okay, ‘fall’ – glow, which, however, was rather spoilt by the cacophony of honking horns in the gridlocked side streets. At every turn there were amazing visuals on which to feast the eyes.  There were giant, chunky, articulated trucks everywhere, which were mostly retro-sixties:  a symphony of chrome, fog lights and mirrors, like a giant, Mad Max version of an English Mod’s scooter.  The street furniture was surprisingly eye candy-esque too – much evidence of art deco, art nouveau and earlier.  And, the buildings were so ‘statement’ – not only the famous skyscrapers (I was particularly beguiled by the Chrysler Building and the white one with the wedge on top which was designed by Mies Van Der Rohe), but also those at street level.  The only scars were the ubiquitous air-con units protruding out of the lower-rent windows and the circular water towers on top of the apartment and smaller office blocks – curiously old fashioned and thereby evocative, especially at night.  You half-expected to see Superman soaring around one of them at any given moment; trailing a tail of angel dust.

I was vaguely surprised to find that Leonardo had booked us into a twin room in our slightly dreary, but perfectly acceptable, hotel – I couldn’t help wondering how much more fun the infamous Chelsea Hotel might have been – but I was hardly complaining. Having dumped our bags and freshened-up, he suggested that we head to The Russian Tea Room (which was apparently, ‘THE place to be seen’ – as if I would care for such frivolous frippery) for a late lunch. That didn’t, however, detract from the innate, observational fascination.  I was already mutating into being Truman Capote (minus the campy voice… and just about everything else).

NYC 1979

NYC 1979

Leonardo hailed a cab (I was reassured to note that they were all indeed yellow) and the driver, who was maybe Polish, immediately got lost.  We all love a filmic cliche, but how can you get lost in Manhattan – unless numbers mean nothing to you?  Mind you The Village does have street names – I recall that it reminded me of Notting Hill in the late 70s too – that posh-meets-rough vibe which is somehow edgy and beguiling, if a little high-maintenance.

The Russian Tea Room turned out to be a very kitsch, ex-ballroom, in all its fin de siecle, red-plush glory. Quite vile, to be honest – and I wasn’t feeling any ironic intentions at all. It was full of that somewhat unique NYC demographic – the legendary ‘(old) Ladies Who Lunch’. The Count insisted that I had Borscht soup, and blinis with smoked salmon and caviar, which was a delightful culture-clash for my first time in this immediately captivating and exciting metropolis. Delicious too – despite the cringe-making décor.  After the disgusting food on our Aeroflot flight (I thought I was coming to the US, dammit!), this ‘Russian cuisine’ was delicious. I was loving the double irony.

Leonardo hired a little Fiat and kindly drove me all around lower and mid-town Manhattan, pointing out all the landmarks and lesser-known gay and/or underground hotspots: CBGBs, Danceteria,  Area, Save The Robots, The Mudd Club, AM-PM, Wally Android’s famous ‘The Warehouse’, Studio 54 (where Leonardo claimed to have designed one of the bars), The Paradise Garage, Christopher Street (the gay village) and its infamous Stonewall Bar, The Piers (where men cruised at night), the gay bathhouses in the West and East Village; Chinatown, Little Italy, Broadway, Times Square, Fifth Avenue, Grand Central Station, Brooklyn Bridge, the funky-chic vibe of Chelsea, the cutting-edge East Village, the rawness of the meat-packing district, the museums (including my favourite The Guggenheim)  galleries and the department stores.  Oh, and the Empire State Building, of course – oh my god (or OMG! these days) how stupidly TALL it was! And all the time, the car radio – Kiss FM – was playing ‘Off The Wall’ by Michael Jackson… wall-to-wall and back–to-back

It was the perfect soundtrack for this sensual and visual feast called Manhattan, where everything seemed to be turbo-charged: people speed-walking (Walk! Don’t Walk!) and bustling, hustling and muscling as they went earnestly about their business on the crowded sidewalks.

Homeless people, winos, hookers and junkies seemed to mingle seamlessly with immaculately-dressed professionals and business people.  I could see that the sartorial legacy of Jackie O and JFK evidently lingered on, along with the avowed scruffiness of the artsy types who swarmed around The Village and Chelsea (Soho and Noho hadn’t even been ‘branded’ at the time. Hell’s Kitchen and Alphabet City were also virtual no-go areas due to drug-related crime).

The late-70s uniform of Lacoste polo shirts, or white vests-under red plaid shirts, teamed with chinos or faded Levi 501s, was the look of the badge-wearing gay men, which was curiously close to that New Jersey working-class ‘look’, as sported by Bruce Springsteen. Funny, that.

Amongst all this sashaying, the ghetto-fabulous people ‘represented’ ‘super-street’ – with soul – which was evidenly absorbed into the clubbing mainstream. They and their contemporaries who’d been to university – school, if you wish –  were also now climbing the ladder towards the ever-burgeoning, ethnic middle and, indeed, upper class of the 80s, 90s and beyond (let me float Jay-Z, Obama, Kanye West, P-Diddy and Russell Simmons of Def Jam, for starters.).

Everyone seemed determined and busy – on a mission – as if there were some unwritten rule that underwrote all aspects of the city’s happening, cultural zeitgeist.  Work it baby!

NYC was on fire in 1979.

The Count and I had a ‘Disco Nap’ after we’d taken a Lude (Qualude) each, after we’d returned to The Drear Hotel (as I’d dubbed it), at around 5.30.  Ludes were multi-functional. If you wanted to sleep, you could sleep.  If you wanted to party – you could party! Everyone ‘who parties’, he’d explained, sleeps twice in this City: 6pm-9pm. Then shower, change and dinner; before heading out to the bars and clubs…. then home to sleep from 5am – 9am. ‘Hey’, I shrugged, ‘that adds-up to seven hours – which is cool by me.  Work it baby! Let’s PARTY!’

On that first night, we had an alfresco dinner on the terrace of a nicely boho restaurant at the top of Christopher Street, at its intersection with Sixth Avenue (therefore Christopher and Sixth). I don’t recall its name, but the food was really good (not expensive at all) and I soon noted  how New Yorkers – or perhaps most Americans – are really adept at ‘service’ – even though it might well have been through gritted teeth.  ‘Have a nice day (or night)’ indeed! And, indeed, we did. You seemed to get for a dollar what you’d get for a pound back home – a dollar cost around 50 pence, as I recall.  So everything was stupidly cheap. My first purchase was a classic pair of genuine Levi’s 501s for about $16.

Initially, when people had said ‘have a nice day!’ I’d responded like some kind of pre-Hugh Grant character in a crap film, bumbling like an idiot: ‘Oh-oh-um, thank you – you too,’ before soon realizing (after about 24 hours) that this response tended to freak them out – no-one in NYC actually replied to such meaningless homilies – but then I was freaked out myself when they instead asked: are you from ENGLAND? I LOVE your accent – it’s so CUTE!  Do you know The Beatles or The Queen?

What could you do but smile sweetly and explain that England wasn’t that small and that the Queen and The Beatles were quite difficult to hang out with… although I couldn’t resist occasionally throwing-in the true story of my teenaged invasion of Apple Corps, The Beatles’ headquarters in Saville Row, in 1968 (when I was just 16), jamming with Bad Finger in the studio downstairs and being allowed to play John Lennon’s white, upright piano in the lobby. How the fuck did that happen? I guess I must have charmed them all.  Never met ‘the guys’ though… just George, a few years later in Bristol (after an excellent gig with Delaney And Bonnie in The Colston Hall) in the back seat of a tour bus – sitting with Eric Clapton. They both shook my hand… then I fled, perhaps mortified by the high level of fame and influence – or my own effrontery.

My first night in NYC became a blur of bars and clubs in that night’s corrupted, memory-bank file. I vaguely remember The Cock Ring in the meat-packing district (how appropriate) being utterly decadent and depraved, which was fun, if a little old-school-gay in terms of its dress code:  leather and denim (some things never change in gayville).

I was also pleased to note that NYC’s gay, ethnic mix was far more variegated than in London – where it was wall-to-wall white men (until I opened my first ground-breaking club three years later).  New York and London’s gay ‘villages’ were also totally male-dominated. Lesbians had virtually no presence on ‘the scene’ back in 1979… but that’s a whole different story, and, frankly, one about which I’m ill-qualified to discuss, as only a few lesbians have crossed my friendship trajectory. Is this because they hate men?  Even gay MEN?  Oh, grow-up girls! How can you hate men, if you try – in the case of you butch dykes – to BE men? PC be damned, lets talk truth! I’m not beholden to a charity or a political party, so tell me your thoughts if you wish. Uh oh, now I’m on dangerous ground. Bring it on.  In my experience, Dykes-who-hate-men really like their gay men to be compliant little queens – they can’t seem to get their heads around the concept of genuinely cool, masculine men who happen to be gay.  Like me.  So there… I said it.

We arrived at the recently-opened St Mark’s Baths at around 3am. Leonardo bumped into a ‘friend’ and, a few lines of coke later, I was horny as hell in this huge, extraordinarily decadent, yet pleasingly funky, air-conditioned and stylish complex – the look was NYC warehouse loft – for cruising – and having sex in little private cabins, or, if you preferred, something a little more orgiastic (not ‘me’ at all – I always preferred one-to-one) in the saunas, steam rooms, pool and chill-zones and ‘role-playing’ rooms such as faux prison cells (which I found, frankly, rather pathetic). Dressed only in white towels around their waists, guys would cruise around looking for their prey. I just went with the flow, utterly fascinated and totally beguiled by the beautiful men swirling around my consciousness like guests at my ultimate birthday party.

A beautiful mixed-race guy (he turned out to be Puerto Rican), who was around the same age as me, was lying on a bed-cum-bench in a private room with the door partially open, playing with his impressive dick, before he languidly turned onto his belly and showed-off his magnificent, muscled, round, lightly hairy butt.  I ‘hung’ on the wall opposite, and started to play with my hard-on under my towel. The guy turned and grinned at me, sniffed some poppers and invited me in. Wowee!

Skyscrapers and EVERYTHANG!

I awoke the next day at around noon to find Leonardo on the phone; apparently negotiating some kind of deal.  After an invigorating shower (America gives good shower), I came back into the room to find him still on the phone.  After I’d got dressed, he hung-up (no comment!) and suggested that we head for brunch in the local diner in a converted, fifties, aluminium (aloominum) railway carriage, with red plastic booths and chrome and yellow, formica tables.

Now I was in filmic, counter-culture retro-heaven! Buxom blondes in yellow and brown, 50s-style uniforms really DID ask how you wanted your eggs, just like in the movies: ‘Sunny side up, or eggs over easy sir?’ Cue much batting of false eyelashes. Totally delicious.

Later, whilst Leonardo took a shower, I made some phone calls to music-biz contacts and managed to make a couple of appointments. Then I called the Traniform office in London, knowing that Christabel would answer the phone and put me straight through to The Why’s manager Phil Oldbelly, as per our game-plan. ‘Good luck darling,’ she whispered conspiratorially, ‘and have a faaabulous time in the Big Apple!’

‘Believe me,’ I enthusiastically replied, ‘I already am…big time!

We both knew that Phil would agree to speak to me on hearing about me being in NYC with some fantastic new demos.

He’d been brought-up in the mean streets of Holloway, in Norf Laandan and had apparently spent several years in prison, for a crime that, naturally, he hadn’t committed.

‘So, Thom, I hear that you’re in New York with some hot demo tapes.’ Said Bill, sounding genuinely intrigued.  He was aware that I’d been in the Eaglekings, which looked  good in ‘the biog’.

‘Indeed I am, Phil, ‘I said, trying not to sound too hyped-up: ’It’s my first time and I’m loving it. The demos are fantastic and I’ve got an idea that I could make an album called Torn Genes – with genes spelt G-E-N-E-S – which is one of the stronger tracks…’

‘Torn Genes – I like that – clever play-on-words.  So how can I help?’

‘Well, I’d like you to open some doors for me, if you don’t mind.’

‘No problem,’ replied Phil, ‘but if you get a deal, we’ll get first refusal on managing you, Okay?’

‘Of course…absolutely.’ I agreed, trying not show my delight at such a positive outcome.

‘I’ll make a few calls to some bigwigs and Christabel will fax you with some names and numbers. Good luck!’

The fax arrived within the hour.  One of the names was Morris Douglas, who was apparently the President of Inco Records – not a mere A&R man – and the company was part of the hugely successful Warmer Music conglomerate. I immediately called the number and got straight through to his secretary, having mentioned the seemingly magical name Phil Oldbelly. The doors were evidently already opening, after just one day in The Big Apple. ‘Morris can see you at 3pm tomorrow, how does that sound?’

Wow! I thought, then said coolly ‘That sounds fine.  I look forward to seeing you then.’

‘Have a nice day.’

On the hotel roof.

On the hotel roof.

When he returned soon after, Leonardo asked if I wouldn’t mind doing some exploring on my own (mind? Pope – Catholic?  Bears – woods?) as he had some business to attend to.  I later discovered that this turned-out to be spending quality time with two hustlers (rent boys) and paying them for their services with several grams of coke.  Sleazy? Yeah – but pleasingly film-noir. I didn’t, however, feel the need to get dragged into the Count’s vortex, despite their hunky good looks, as I discovered when I came back later.

I had now been on my own magic carpet ride in solo NYC heaven as I headed off to discover the pleasures and treasures of The Village, Chelsea and wherever took my fancy. I was immediately walking on air (NYC, like London, is great city to walk for miles in) and feeling that I’d lived in this vibrant, atmospheric and visually stimulating city in a past life – perhaps in the 20s or 30s. I know; this was perhaps a clichéd caprice, but it was one that made me smile.

I was window-shopping and exploring those ubiquitous thrift shops (the original vintage chic), checking out left-field art galleries, reading The Village Voice in funky, boho cafes and floating on a funky wave of cultural stimulation.  The Village was just a giant cruise-fest! ‘This is what I CALL a holiday!’ I enthused to myself as I drank-in the cappuccino pleasures of downtown Manhattan like a dog on heat – with a parallel lust for art, counter-culture and street life. Woof!

Later that night, after our newly customary ‘disco nap’ The Count said that I would meet a friend of his – we were going to have dinner together – explaining that he didn’t want to reveal anything until we got to his home to pick him up, before going out to eat.

We arrived at the Chelsea Hotel – my first visit.  I was intrigued. A grand and lofty, neo gothic façade – about fifteen stories, by the look, and with a whole catalogue of lurid beatnik, hippy and punk stories within. The smallish-yet-atmospheric lobby was stuffed with artworks and over-stuffed, mis-matched (ah – so that’s where the Groucho Club in London got the idea a few years later?) sofas and armchairs.  The receptionist eyed us with practiced insouciance, whilst eating a Chinese takeway from a box with chopsticks, and enquired languidly:  ‘Yes? You have a booking?’

This was irrelevant. It turned-out that The Count’s friend lived and worked in what was the former ballroom of the Chelsea Hotel – just to the left of the reception desk – and literally painted all the covers of Zeitgeist, which was the hugely successful magazine owned by the highly successful, commercially-adroit artist Wally Android. The magazine was living-up to its cutting-edge-yet-totally-celeb-orientated content, in terms of its sudden success, perhaps on the back of Studio 54 and the slew of NYC hangouts where the louche got douched before they went… along with their ruched collars and rather indiscreet little bottles of cocaine worn as pendants beneath their shirts.

The artist – whose name I forget – ushered us into his huge, live-work space whilst sniffing loudly.  Let’s just say, it certainly wasn’t as a result of a cold. Three fat lines of optimum Columbian marching powder were laid out on a huge, orange sixties fiberglass table, with a lime green marble top.

By now, after just one day in NYC, I’d realized that The Count was hopelessly strung-out on coke.  It wasn’t difficult. After waking-up and ordering a double-espresso each for us from the local deli,  he would make huge double lines of coke – and offer me one too.  I always declined.  A line of coke for breakfast was just a debauchery-too-far for me. I needed several cups of tea! And the Americans had no idea how to make it: warm water in a coffee cup with a Liptons tea-bag on a string?  Soooo wrong. Then he would carry on making huge lines around every fifteen minutes throughout the day. What a mess. But he did seem to maintain some decorum – perhaps it was down to his ‘blue’ Italian blood.

Having expressed my lack of interest in snorting high-grade cocaine regularly throughout the day (although I can think of several former partners in crime who would jump at the chance) – I confess, however, that I certainly didn’t mind the odd line after dinner (Leonardo was soon to take me and the Zeitgeist artist to eat at my first-ever visit to a Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side – Sushi being the ideal food to eat on coke, being mostly protein). Thereafter, I was spirited into a deliciously intense night of fleeting visits (this being my second night) to gay bars and clubs, then on to the ultimate destination in downtown Manhattan in 1979… but not before some interesting interludes.

Having tooted the fat lines and admired the painter’s (I’ll call him Rudy) portraits which were stacked around the floor of his studio like two-dimensional, celebrity trophies (Bianca, Mick, Bowie, Vanderbilt etc), Leonardo told me, over dinner in the Japanese restaurant, that he was going to drive us to Alphabet City, the darker, dangerous underbelly of the lower East Side – although this was more based on him and ‘Rudy’ ‘looking for a booking’ with the twin, low-life thrills of rent boys-and-coke-dealer combined; as I was soon to discover.

Suddenly, as Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ pumped through the Fiat’s speakers, we were driving through a would-be film set that again evoked Mad Max, one the big movie hits of that year, starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner.

The streets of Alphabet City were strewn with rubbish and detritus – mostly burnable stuff – perfect for the hobos, junkies, hustlers, hookers, winos and no-hopers to ignite in disused oil cans on the street corners.  As we stopped at a red light (I was hoping we might have jumped it), several rather menacing-looking, zombiesque characters approached the car wielding pieces of wood. It could well have been the prequel to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, not that we’d have known it at the time, as the album wasn’t released ubntil 1982. They had just started rocking the little Fiat as the lights changed and we swiftly headed to some seedy rendezvous that The Count had pre-arranged in a seriously low-rent tenement block on Avenue B.

Four floors up an outdoor, stone stairwell and we were in a tiny apartment with, perhaps conveniently, three rather handsome guys – two white/Latino and one black (mine? I wondered) reposing on grubby mattresses on the floor, smoking dope and chopping-out massive lines of coke on a large, empty upturned aquarium, which seemed to serve as a ‘coffee table’.

Why hadn’t they put a light inside it and lined it with various-coloured gels?  Hey – I guess that was just me – always and forever a chief inspector in the Interior Design Police! And I had to reluctantly remind myself that these were hustlers and dealers. Are all these people inherently bad? I asked myself, whilst enjoying another fat line of coke and flirting with the handsome black guy… how dare I make judgements about people whom, I can only assume, are merely trying to survive in this teeming metropolis. They seemed nice enough and even delivered intellectual ripostes to my cheekily subversive mental red herrings. What was not to like – apart from the décor?

Leonardo appeared to be not best pleased when the handsome black man ushered me through a velvet curtain into a small alcove containing a mattress covered (thankfully) with a clean-looking, fifties ‘comforter’ (quilt or duvet to us Europeans). He looked at me with a lovely, white-toothed smile and gave me a big hug. Damn! What else could I do but kiss him?  I knew that no money was going to change hands between us.  I figured that the other four were no doubt happily thrashing around in their throes of highness. It’s nice to be naughty in NYC, I thought, but I almost fell for my beautiful hustler/dealer and he for me… before we metaphorically realized that there was no hope. But it was a beautiful, poignant moment, as he looked me in the eyes, hugged me manfully and said. Next time Mr… just you and me in reality.

After a couple of hours, the three of us were heading uptown.  Leonardo wanted to surprise me, he said. We parked in a nondescript street, which contained mostly warehouses. As we walked towards what appeared to be an old theatre, a huge crowd of people – all dressed (outrageously) to impress – were spilling across the street and waving and shouting at a tall, black man dressed as a circus ringmaster, holding a clipboard, surrounded by enormous security guards, all dressed in black suits, and gathered behind a red velvet rope on silver stanchions.

Welcome to Studio 54, said the ‘door whore’  with a rictus grin, as we were fast-tracked through the baying mob and into the newly infamous club.  It was cool (thanks to effective air-con) and relatively empty – as it was only midnight. The décor of the bar and lounge areas of this lofty, softly-lit, black and silver space was minimalist but plush – there were huge flower arrangements everywhere– and all the waiters and bartenders looked like models, or porn stars. The men were dressed in black Levis, with no tops on, and the women in black mini-skirts and white blouses, unbuttoned and knotted around their waists. The music was pumping disco, of course (the flashing DJ box was right in the middle of the stage), but this was a very streety, funky version (soon to be dubbed ‘New York Garage’), and the dance floor was already jumping. The balcony was still raked, but the seats had all been removed and replaced with large, rectangular, stepped boxes, which were covered with grey carpet and multi-coloured cushions, where people could lounge, drink and smoke and watch the heaving dance floor below.

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I watched from this vantage point as the place filled-up with a fantastic, colourful mix of people. Above the stage, and stretching for its full width, there was a kind of bridge, and suddenly, that too filled with exotically-dressed, half-naked dancers all punching the air and whooping and hollering as, much to my surprise, the ‘bridge’ suddenly, slowly started moving and came right over the top of the dancefloor and seemed to hover like some kind of spaceship, with banks of multi-coloured lights flashing, whilst expelling great clouds of dry ice and smoke.

Leonardo came to find me and said that it would be fun to meet the manager, who was British. We were ushered through another, velvet rope, up several flights of nondescript, concrete stairs and then found ourselves in the famous office – the ultimate VIP destination in NYC – and were soon drinking champagne and snorting huge lines of coke with the manager (whose name, perhaps not surprisingly, I forget) and his cohorts and celebrity guests.

After a while Leonardo said that we should go downstairs, but instead of heading for the dance floor, we went down into the dimly-lit bowels of the building, where, much to my amazement, a huge orgy – mostly gay – was taking place. My jaw dropped, and I could see that the count and the painter were obviously game for these shenanigans, but I wasn’t. In my opinion, having experienced some group sex in the early 70s, orgies were just an excuse for ugly people to get a piece of the action, albeit vicariously.

‘Have you ever seen such divine decadence?’ Whispered ‘Rudy’ in my ear. I just shrugged,

And in all the acres of print that have been written about Studio 54, I’ve never come across a mention of that infamous basement.  Perhaps it was a closely guarded secret – unlike the super-VIP office.

The next afternoon, I was able to easily walk to Inco records and set off with my tapes, after a long, restorative shower, then brunch in one of the local ‘delis’, with my heart gently pounding with excitement.  I was even more fired-up when I realized that the office was on the 28th floor of one of that clutch of skyscrapers that surround Rockerfeller Plaza and its famous ice rink. This was Gotham City man!

The high-speed lift opened into a capacious, plush, mirrored lobby featuring giant white leather sofas, huge palm trees and a massive, curved, red lacquered desk, behind which sat a power-dressed, elegantly coiffed young woman, whom, I was delighted to observe, was doing her nails whilst talking into a red phone which was cradled on her shoulder (thanks for the deliciously clichéd cinematic vignette, honey).  She smiled, and waved for me to sit down – a security guy in the ground floor lobby having already announced my imminent arrival. There’s no way that I’d have reached the 28th floor without those proverbial doors being opened by Phil Oldbelly. My heart was in my mouth as she announced – rather like the receptionist in ‘The Apprentice’ – that ‘Mister Douglas will see you now, his secretary is here to take you though.’

Another immaculately-dressed (Chanel?) and coiffed woman swung through the double doors and greeted me effusively:  how is Phil, we haven’t seen him for a month or so, but we know he has a very good ear for talent – so Morris…Mister Douglas is looking forward to hearing your demos.’

She ushered me into a huge office, the black leather walls of which were covered in gold, silver and platinum albums.  Morris Douglas was – rather theatrically, I thought – admiring the incredible view of Manhattan from behind his desk and swung around in an over-sized, black leather chair as Claudia, his secretary (always get their names – they hold the power of access), introduced me.  He stood up and came around the massive art deco desk to shake my hand enthusiastically, asking how I knew Phil.  He motioned me to sit, returning to his seat as I explained that I was close friends with Christabel, who ran Phil’s office. ‘Of course I know Christabel,’ enthused Morris, ‘Phil would be lost without her undoubted administrative and political skills.’ Then added, ‘so you were with The Eaglekings – why did you leave?’

I briefly explained why: then… the moment had come. He asked for a cassette, and I handed it over the desk and he slotted it into a towering stereo system, with huge speakers suspended in the four corners of his office, closed his eyes and swung around in his chair as the first track ‘Twisted Sister’, with its punchy, dirty synth riff, pumped out at high volume. After a minute or so, he swung back around grinning, giving me the thumbs-up, then carried on listening, jigging around in his chair and tapping his feet to the hypnotic rhythm and sneery-but-cool vocals.  Then he listened to the more downtempo and contemplative ‘Torn Jeans’ and turned again and shouted ‘This is terrific man!’

I took a deep breath, so as not to hyperventilate, thinking: is this really happening? He listened to all five tracks on the tape. Then he jumped-up and put his phone on speaker-mode and barked:  Claudia, honey, you’ve gotta get the A&R guys in here right now!  This English guy just walks-in off the street and he’s the goddam NEW SPRINGSTEEN!’

Walked-in off the street my ass! I thought to myself, with a wonderful warm feeling flowing through me like fine wine, as his entire A&R team of five guys  – sporting lurid satin tour jackets and pot-bellies – soon sauntered in to hear the music and beamed and shook my hand vigorously, as if to say, ‘Hey, if The President likes this shit, it’s gotta be HOT!’

The guys all shouted their approval after each track and Morris Douglas grinned, as if he’d personally discovered ‘The New Springsteen.’

Well, I guess I do sound quite like him, with a bit of Bowie and Otis Redding (I wish) thrown in for good luck… I mused to myself.

All the A&R guys clapped and whooped as the last track played and again shook my hand and slapped my shoulders enthusiastically.

‘Right guys, whadda ya say I offer this guy Thom Topham – that’s a GOOD name – a deal right here, right now?’

The A&R team all whooped and hollered – like trained seals.

My inwardly-focussed eyes were metaphorically popping out as I tried to maintain my composure. ‘Listen Thom,’ Morris said emphatically, ‘I’m gonna call Phil in London and I’ll get back to you tomorrow… with a deal on the table.’

The receptionist smiled indulgently as she said goodbye (she’d evidently already heard my good news about ‘this British guy who was the new Springsteen’ on the internal, jungle drums), as I left; and I couldn’t resist punching the air and doing a mildly triumphant victory dance across the glamourous lobby and into the lift – sorry, elevator – then back down into the teeming streets of my newly favourite city in the whole world.

 

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4 Responses to “My Unplanned Obsolescence. Chapter 11. By Thom Topham.”

  1. Audrey Swindells August 23, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    Even though it’s a world I have only been on the fringe of – in other words never an involved participant – I nevertheless found it interesting to read about because Thom is such a good and very descriptive writer. He also makes you screamingly aware of the seductive and highly dangerous nature of the world he, on occasions, inhabited. Although no doubt many can say: “I was there and I was partially aware and I survived”.

  2. mittych1 August 23, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    Hi there,

    Well I’ve read it. Wonderful descriptions and very atmospheric. Presumably, despite your dance of joy in the lobby on the way out, that was the last you heard from Morris. What was he doing, just pleasing Bill Oldbelly or what?

    I wrote a comment, to which I gave a lot of thought, and up came a note “Are you Audrey Swindells MBE?” then saying my comment required modification. I replied that I didn’t wish to modify it but got nowhere, so I gave up.

    I will now send your pal Steve Chapter 3 from Mitty in India.

    Love Aud. xxx

    • Thom Topham September 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

      You’ll have to wait until CH 12 (which is well underway) to see if the dance of joy was justified! Your interesting comments have been posted! Many thanks. Thom x

  3. mittych1 May 30, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    Hey,

    Just look at that stuff I’ve just found, I guess that’s what you’re looking for! Check it out http://begin.tazqa.com

    Regards, AUDREY SWINDELLS

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