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My Unplanned Obsolescence. By Thom Topham. Chapter 12.

22 Oct

Farewell To NYC; Fear And Loathing In Florida – then Back Home To Rancho Deluxe.

 

 

Rockerfeller Plaza.

Rockerfeller Plaza.

 

When I got back to the hotel, I was elated and excited and gushed-out the unbelievably good news to Leonardo; but he seemed oddly unmoved, as if I’d made it all up.  After all, wasn’t I just a struggling artist who lived in one room in a semi-derelict basement in Notting Hill, who was lucky enough to enjoy ‘his lordship’s’ gracious patronage? Undaunted, although somewhat non-plussed, I asked him where we might celebrate my  sudden change of fortune – and he suggested, almost reluctantly, that we could eat at the NYC branch of Fred Dexter, one of my favourite London restaurants (where Jeremy Organ, Christa’s ex-husband, had always spoiled us with endless, free bottles of Rioja Siglo when he’d been Maitre’D) and then we could go to one of NYC’s hottest clubs, the Paradise Garage.

Then he was on the phone again, ordering more cocaine and rent boys, and soon went out, leaving me to my own devices. I was immediately on the phone myself, excitedly telling Christa and my mother the amazing news that I’d landed a major record deal in NYC within THREE days!  They were, naturally, thrilled.

I had no reason to believe that it wasn’t all for real. And I was correct. That didn’t mean that it was all going to be hunky dory in the long-term.

Then I remembered an offer of anther kind that had been made by Cody Cadillac, a good-looking, white, thirty five-year old, erstwhile radio DJ from Miami, after we’d spent a wild weekend fucking and taking cocaine (which he’d willingly paid for) at my dingy basement in Notting Hill, in the spring of ‘79.  He’d said that if ever I was in the US, that I had to come and visit him in Miami – and that he’d happily pick-up the tab for a cheap, standby flight (you could get them easily in those days – how retro-civilised). So I called him.  He seemed surprised, yet pleased to hear from me, especially when I told him the good news about my record deal with Inco. He immediately steamed-in with:  ‘Hey man, I can be one of the first people to play your album in the US! Can you arrange an exclusive?’

‘Well, I haven’t even started to make the album yet, Cody,’ I dead-panned, ‘But I’m sure that will be possible.  I’ll give you a call in a couple of days to let you know when I’m coming, so that you can arrange a standby ticket for me to collect at JFK.  I may well have just been offered a record deal  – but I’m stony broke!’

There was a tangible pause, then he said:  ‘Well…I did, er, offer to pay for your flight… so no problemo dude – I’ll see ya in a few days!’

My first, tropical adventure!  Images of the 60s TV show ‘Flipper’ flashed through my mind, along with the recalcitrant (for their time) cultural legacies of Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway… and my own lustful thoughts of beautiful, coffee-coloured, Cuban men.

Flipper

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

I floated-off on a cloud of joy for a celebratory saunter down Broadway – which seemed somehow appropriate – then wove my way through the leafy streets of The West Village, looking at (and trying to peek inside) the fabulous houses and apartments, and fantasising about which one I might one day live in.  My mind was buzzing with plans and possibilities.  I felt like I was walking on air and was suddenly aware that I was probably grinning like an idiot. All my wildest dreams had suddenly, potentially fallen into place: Torn Genes, my second album, was definitely going to be recorded AND I was going to be managed by Phil Oldbelly, the manager of The Why.  Wow!  I wondered who might produce my album – perhaps the American mega-producer Vinnie James? Then, might I come and live in New York?  I was already in love with this exciting, over-the-top, fascinating and teeming metropolis: such a beautiful city in its own uniquely edgy, urban way.

That evening, a strangely subdued Leonardo took me to Fred Dexter, which looked exactly like the London branch – all exposed bricks, red-checked tablecloths and theatre posters.  And the waiters (mostly gay) were just as rude as those in London.  The menu was pretty much the same as well: basically (white) soul food from the American South. They even stocked my favourite Rioja Siglo, in its signature, hessian-covered bottle, although this time it wasn’t free.  Well, not to the Count, at least. He’d indicated that a certain black and famously outrageous female superstar might be joining us, but she never showed-up.  Leonardo had, at least ‘introduced’ me to her on the phone before we left, presumably to impress me – and possibly her. ‘This is Thom Topham and he has just got a record deal with Inco: Thom: meet Joan Grayson!’ He’d passed me the phone. She purred  – or was it slurred? – ‘Heeelloo Thom!’ in my ear.

Rioja Siglo

I did actually meet her many years later at a club night called The Pleasure Garden at The Oven, in Brixton in London… but that’s another story – and almost a chapter in itself. Suffice to say that it involved me and her and her entourage of jealous and suspicious (of me) queens driving around South London in a mini-cab in an unsuccessful search for cocaine, whilst she flirted with me in an overtly sexual fashion. Eventually, after an unsuccessful quest, as we neared my home near Elephant And Castle, I made my excuses (what – you couldn’t find cocaine for Joan Grayson, dammit!?) and went home, with my tail, to a degree, between my legs. But then again… even superstars can’t get drugs willy-nilly –  it’s not like going to a late-night supermarket – and nor can they ‘convert’ gay men… unless said gays are hustlers, out for what they might get.

Having paid the bill, Leonardo had suggested that we ‘freshen up’ before heading for The Paradise Garage.  That meant snorting a big line of coke off the mahogany shelf on top of a cistern in the cubicles in ‘the men’s room’ at Fred Dexter, and popping a ‘lude’ (qualude) each.

The Paradise Garage Building By Day,

The Paradise Garage Building By Day

We headed for Hudson Square and found a sizeable crowd hanging outside what was a former, two story, art-deco parking garage. The dress code – if there was one – seemed far less flamboyant than at Studio 54 – more funky-bohemian – and the people waiting to get in were a polysexual (as we’d say these days) mix of black/white/latino/gay/straight/male/female – and the vibe was buzzin’  – and so where the people… literally.

We were swished through the ubiquitous velvet ropes and walked up the long, concrete ramp which led into the club, which was flanked by walls filled with thousands of plain, white lightbulbs – which was a bit startling – then straight into a huge, rectangular dance floor about the same size and shape as a British football pitch.  Arranged at regular intervals all around the perimeter were huge stacks of white, floor-to-ceiling speakers which were pumping out the most exhilarating and soulful grooves – what was soon to be known as ‘New York garage music’ – with a heaving crowd making shapes with genuinely happy faces and much warmth and good energy. The atmosphere was totally electric and uplifting, and I’d never heard such a powerful sound system – the bass almost knocked you off your feet.

Paradise crowd dancing

There was no alcohol – just various fresh juices, sodas and waters.  The walls were black and unadorned, apart from some huge projections at one end of the dance floor.  The bar itself was like a giant, raised refectory table – and this was in a large, separate room which also featured a cinema, which had simple, wooden ‘bleachers’ (like you’d see at American collegiate sports fields) and was showing cool, underground films, without sound.  There were large bowls of fruit punch – which was free – served in Styrofoam cups.  This was, of course, rumoured to be laced with something-or-other.  I had no reason not to believe it, as I was already dancing on the ceiling, at least metaphorically speaking.

There was no V.I.P area per se, apart perhaps from the DJ booth, which was a large, wooden room with unglazed windows overlooking the heaving throng, reached by stairs to one side of the centre of the dance floor.

PG Flyer by Keith Haring

PG Flyer by Keith Haring

Even Leonardo’s apparent celebrity couldn’t get us past the forbidding-looking security guards who controlled access to the legendary DJ Danny Divano, who played (allegedly drug-fuelled) four or five-hour sets of monstrously good music.

Many years later, in the early autumn of 1992, I was at a record company party at London’s  later answer to The Paradise Garage – The Department Of Dance in Elephant and Castle – and I was getting a (free) beer at the long, concrete bar, when Jonathan Goldberg, one of the co-founders of the club, sauntered over with a handsome, black man who appeared to be in his late thirties, wearing a red plaid shirt and jeans, sporting a crew-cut and a neatly-trimmed, goatee beard. ‘Hi Thom,’ said JG, as he was known, ‘I’d like you to meet Danny… Danny Divano.’ Then he promptly disappeared, leaving the DJ legend and I locked in to… what felt to me… to us… like love at first sight. Our eyes were immediately looking deep into each of our souls as we talked… and talked… and talked; as if we’d known each other all our lives.  This was interrupted only by visits to the gents (or men’s room, if you prefer) to partake of the excellent coke which he kindly shared with me.

Six hours later, after we’d spent a wonderful night talking, bonding and falling in love, he had to leave, to catch a flight to France.  This was after we’d exchanged numbers and agreed to work together in the recording studio in East London that I was handling PR for, at the time.  I walked with him to the exit with my arms around his muscular shoulders and we hugged and looked each other in the eyes. Then he walked backwards down the ramp – sporting a huge smile – and shouted repeatedly ‘Somebody understands me! Yeah! Somebody finally fuckin’ understands me!’

His arms were outstretched and sending me  a whole lotta love, as he disappeared into the cold, grey light of a London dawn.

I had heard that he was rumoured to be a heroin addict – but saw no evidence of that on that unforgettable night when we met.

Danny died of a heart attack in November of that year, in New York.

Back at The Paradise Garage in 1979, after an exhilarating night, the crowd was finally thinning out and the lights were coming on – I think it was about 5am. Much to my surprise, Leonardo suggested that we go to another club, which was downtown in Wall Street (of all the unlikely places), and was called AM/PM, as it was an after-hours club which opened at 5am and closed at 5pm.  Yes, really!  The club was spread over five floors and was like an ice-palace, as everything was white – all the staff were dressed in white as well.  Apart from the ground-level dance floor, each floor above was a V.I.P-only space and, as you went up, eventually to the fifth floor, each space became more exclusive and difficult to get into.  This is a faintly ludicrous tower of elitism, I remember thinking, as we were swished through the (white) velvet ropes into the penthouse  – where huge amounts of cocaine where freely available on the white marble ledge surrounding a tinkling ice-fountain. And the only drink that was available  – at huge cost – was vintage champagne. This was excess at its most outrageous.  The atmosphere, as a result, was cold and slightly twisted, and the people were wired and aloof – in stark contrast to the warm vibes of the incomparable Paradise Garage.  We soon knocked back our champagne and returned to the hotel to sleep for a few hours, before I was due to attend my second meeting at Inco Records, which was, thankfully, scheduled for the civilised hour of 5pm.

Phil Oldbelly had left a message saying that he’d call at 3.30pm.  So I was showered and dressed and drinking a cappuccino (I’d soon given up trying to get a decent cup of tea), when the phone rang.  Phil explained that Inco had faxed-over a ‘Heads Of Agreement’ to him, which was a preliminary ‘letter of intent’, prior to a full-blown contract, and that his lawyer had okayed it for me to sign when I went to the meeting later. He explained that there was to be an advance of £35,000 for the first album, which was to be released worldwide in 1980, and then the record company would pay an advance of £45,000 for a second album, should they decide to take up the option to renew my contract.

This was a lot of money in 1979, especially for a unknown artist like me. That was £80K… at least on paper.  What he neglected to point out was that the advances also had to pay for the recording costs.

The meeting was with Vince Verrucio, Inco’s head of A&R (an acronym for the quaintly old-fashioned  – even in 1979 – ‘Artist and Repertoire’) in an office only marginally less plush than that of the label’s president, whom, he explained, ‘was doing business in LA’. Meaningless niceties were exchanged ‘Great to have ya on board Thom, everybody thinks that you’re gonna be a huge rock star man!’ Etc etc… blah blah, before the letter was produced with a flourish, for me to sign, as all the staff trooped-in, led by Morris’s  secretary Claudia, wheeling a black and chrome drinks trolley full of jangling champagne bottles and silver flutes (of the drinking variety). Much gushing from the assembled staff ensued as I basked in the attention, at least in theory. I think I was more embarrassed than enamoured by this group of corporate zombies who had sprung from the US record industry’s central casting agency – all homilies and fakery and teeth and smiles.

I felt a juddering sensation under me, and there was a strange jangling sound as I looked-up from the front seat on the empty, upper deck of the bus to Raleigh, which seemed to have transmogrified into a boat. We were crossing the estuary, close by all the naval docks and hangars.  I blinked, then realised, of course, that the bus had driven on to the front of the ‘floating bridge’ vehicle ferry and that the loud jangling was the sound of the huge chains which were being pulled through capstans to get us to the other side. I looked out to sea for the last time with a  nostalgic sigh, as we headed through Raleigh’s dreary, pebble-dashed suburbs towards the station.

Top Point Ferry

I flicked through my ‘79 notebook, but there was no mention of my leaving NYC, the standby ticket that Cody Cadillac had arranged for me to pick-up at JFK and the adventures and nightmare scenarios that were later to follow in Florida.

I remember that the flight to Miami was on some obscure South American Airline – I think it was, somewhat latterly appropriately, Columbian – and that this ancient plane actually had rust on the wings, the seats were full of holes which had been patched-up with gaffer tape and the plane shuddered violently as it took-off.  This was something of a white-knuckle ride, which was mercifully, relatively short.  I recall imagining that the jet was probably held together with elastic bands.

When the automatic, glass doors slid open as I exited Miami’s air-conditioned airport, the heat hit me like a fireball. This was, after all, my first visit to a tropical destination. Cody waved to me from his huge, two-tone, cream-and-white, Sixties Cadillac convertible-with-its-top-down, which was parked nearby. I threw my bags into the back and jumped into the white-leather passenger seat as we greeted each other with a hug.  He immediately flipped-open the over-sized glove box in front of me with a broad grin.  This revealed two huge lines of coke and a massive joint:  ‘Grade A, 99% pure Columbian and a joint of pure Hawaiian buds,’ he drawled, handing me a rolled-up fifty-dollar note, ‘welcome to Miami!’

Then he took me on a tour of this rather beautiful  – at least in parts – city.  In my suddenly-mega-stoned state, I was particularly taken with all the run-down, art deco hotels and apartment blocks which flanked Miami Beach and asked him why they hadn’t been redeveloped (ever-prescient, me).  He replied that this was where the poorer, Jewish people came to die and that people of class were only interested in brand-new condos and the newly-created, man-made islands featuring clusters of rather vulgar, Spanish-colonial-style mansions which were materialising in the shallow waters around the city.

Miami Beach

Miami Beach

Cody then took me for a late lunch in a waterside restaurant, where he insisted that I try one of the local delicacies, Clam Chowder, which I loved, and Key Lime Pie, which I thought was sickly-sweet and disgusting.

Then we headed for Miami’s inner suburbs, through endlessly cloned, palm-fringed streets of little white, Spanish-style houses with white picket fences and neatly trimmed front lawns. Suddenly I was in every American horror film I’d ever seen; but I wasn’t getting paranoid… just yet.

His house was larger-than-usual, white, modernist and vaguely Spanish-influenced, with what looked like a sizable garden full of fruit trees.  As he unlocked the tall, wooden front door, we entered a cool, double-height, living space with a vaulted ceiling where everything was white, apart from a latino youth who looked really young, who was sprawled on one of two huge white sofas watching  – was it ‘Peyton Place’ with Spanish overdubs? – on an enormous TV.

‘Hey Henrique, this is Thom , my rock star friend from London, he just got a record deal in New York! In three days!’ Gushed Cody, kicking the boys legs. The boy looked-up blankly and said ‘Hi.’ Then returned to the TV.

‘Henrique hangs out here.’ Said Cody, by way of vague explanation. ‘His parents are illegal Cuban immigrants.’

Charming, I thought, by now getting the first hint that all was not what it might have seemed. Henrique looked about sixteen at the most.

Cody showed me around the spacious house, which had three bedrooms, and then the garden, proudly inviting me to pick avocados, peaches, oranges and lemons off the trees. I was impressed on a horticultural level, but couldn’t avoid the nagging thoughts – not paranoia, just instincts – which were invading my consciousness.

He’d already offered me two more huge lines of Coke, which I’d declined (he’d looked offended).  I’d tried to explain that I didn’t need to do lines of coke every fifteen minutes, no matter how good it was (and indeed it was).

It suddenly seemed like I’d jumped from Leonardo’s frying pan into Cody’s fire. And he made it clear that he wanted sex. With me and Henrique.  I was not interested, and feigned tiredness, asking if I might take a nap. Then the phone rang. He spoke in Spanish; then after telling Henrique to go home, he informed me that some very important guys were coming around in a few minutes, and could I keep them talking about my rock-star credentials, whilst he dealt with ‘some business’ in the back?  I reluctantly agreed.

Cody disappeared into his bedroom and there was soon a knock at the door and I opened it to find three huge, muscular, tattooed Cuban guys with their tops off, with guns… yes GUNS… in holsters in the belts of their jeans.

Cody rushed out from whatever ‘business’ he was attending to and hurriedly and enthusiastically introduced me:  ‘This is my hombre Thom Topham from London, England, he’s just signed a major record deal with Inco Records in New York and is staying with me to sort out a live performance and an exclusive, first airing of his album on my radio show on Hex247.FM!  His manager looks after The Why as well! I’m just sorting out your merchandise!’ He then scurried back into his bedroom, leaving me to sweet-talk these fearsome-looking gangsters – the reality now suddenly dawning on me that he was probably ‘cutting’ industrial quantities of cocaine to sell to them.

I had no choice but to deliver an Oscar-winning performance. The Why were massive in America, especially after they’d starred in the seminal rock/festival film ‘Hipstock’ over a decade before – and the Cuban gangsters seemed to be immediately impressed with my connections and credentials.

‘Did you ever meet Wally Planet, their drummer who died from an OD last year?’ Asked one, in a heavy Cuban accent. Luckily, I could add veracity to my reply, as indeed I had met him backstage at a huge outdoor gig at West Ham FC’s Upton Park Stadium in 1976, where Christa had introduced us.

I tried to suppress horny thoughts of the hunky, mix-race, West Ham apprentice whom I’d met outside the phone box in Notting Hill a few months before – when we’d had delicious, sunny afternoon sex.  Whatever happened to him?

Si senor, I did meet Wally.’  I told him.  ‘My friend Christa invited me to their gig in a football stadium in East London, and all the V.I.Ps were in a the stand behind the stage, so we were able to observe his antics at close quarters…’

The three gangsters nodded their approval at each other.  Evidently, it was quite unusual for them to meet someone so apparently close to British rock royalty.

‘His drum roadie brought him a pint glass of clear liquid – my friend Chrysta, who now works for their management company – told me that it was an extremely large gin and tonic.’

The gangsters laughed approvingly.

‘It was during a musical breakdown.  He took a gulp then threw it all over his roadie, after the guy had enthusiastically banged the massive gong behind his drum kit for him, then he continued to play his drums in typically manic fashion.’

Now the gangsters were slapping me on the shoulders – so it looked like Cody and I weren’t about to get shot – and another one asked me if I’d ever met Eric Clapton.  Again, veracity added integrity to my anecdote.

I told them how I’d been recording in Island Studios in Notting Hill in 1975 – for my proposed second album with a major label – and how I’d heard this fantastic reggae backing track coming out of the open door of the smaller studio downstairs (I was recording in the main studio upstairs) when I’d gone down to get a sandwich from the café and had poked my head around the door to say hi – and had been handed a huge joint by a guy with dreadlocks who’d said: “Hi – my name’s Bob… Bob Marley.”

Now the Cubans were applauding every sentence and apparently eating out of my hands, much to my relief. I remember hoping that Cody wasn’t cutting the coke too much and thereby potentially incurring their wrath… and why hadn’t he actually mentioned that he was coke dealer, before continuing with my recollections.

“Then this guy walked into the studio with a guitar case and Bob Marley said: ‘Thom, I’d like you to meet Eric, he’s gonna play some lead guitar on our track ‘Jammin’”

‘Wowza!’  Exlaimed the Cubans, in unison.

‘Then, later that evening, I ended-up playing table football with Clapton, Marley and his bass-player Peter Tosh.’  I added with an anecdotal flourish (all true), as Cody returned with what appeared to be several ounces of the white stuff.  The Cubans sampled it and left, apparently satisfied, after handing-over several thousand dollars.

Cody, the newly-revealed-major-coke-dealer, thanked me for being ‘a genuine English rock dude’ and suggested that we go out to dinner in ‘a really cool, Cuban place, where he knew everyone.’

We jumped into the Cadillac on a typically sultry Miami night and he stopped-off to show me Coconut Grove, which appeared to be Miami’s equally vulgar and ostentatious answer to Rodeo Drive in LA, then drove us to a Cuban neighbourhood, which appeared to be quite edgy, in a filmic kind of fashion. We pulled up in the parking lot of a seedy-looking motel – there was mucho technicolour neon – and walked through swing doors into a huge diner, which featured several rectangular bars-in-a-row – like horizontal, architectural castellations – where around 20 people ate at each one, sitting on stools, served by waiters from within. Cody’s rictus, coke-induced grin never left his face as one of these serving stations immediately cleared as we walked in – rather like when the piano player stops playing and everyone stares when dodgy strangers walk into a wild-west saloon.

‘Hey, that’s cool, mi amigos are making sure we get a seat,’ he insisted, in a totally delusional fashion, ‘Everybody loves my radio show in Miami!’

You could have cut the air with a knife.  It was obvious that us gringos were not at all welcome in this Hispanic eatery, but he was oblivious.  He ordered us Mojitos and was suggesting that we eat Ropa Vieja, which he explained was the Cuban national dish.  I made an excuse that I wasn’t hungry, and I gulped down my drink and managed to get us out of there… hopefully before his car got trashed or stolen outside.  Mind you, I guessed that these Cubans weren’t really interested in vintage cars – surely, they had enough of those back home in Havana – albeit far from as pristine as Cody Cadillac’s 60s Cadillac.

I finally gave-in to having a line of coke from the proverbial glove box, before he took me on tour of some amazing gay clubs, which were all in an industrial zone not far from the centre.  They were situated in anonymous-looking, converted factories and featured large, outdoor terraces or gardens, which were invisible behind high walls and… the music. Wow! This was an incredible blend of latin and soul, which was uplifting, vibrant and eminently danceable. This was, of course, later to become known as The Miami Sound. I seem to remember having a quickie with a beautiful Cuban guy in a toilet cubicle. Me bad. Hey – it was time to at least enjoy the high… after the low of realising that I was not with one of the good guys. Cody was evidently a jerk.

When we got back to his place in the early hours, he wanted to have sex, but I wasn’t interested, as now I’d discovered the real him.  He insisted on sucking my cock for hours, even whilst I was asleep, which was extremely irritating. Eventually, I escaped to the guest bedroom in the eaves – which, unfortunately, didn’t have one of those ubiquitous, metal air-conditioning units on the window ledge.  Somehow, despite the heat, I managed to sleep for a few hours, before he woke me up by sucking my cock obsessively and offering me cocaine, which I refused.

Now I was beginning to feel trapped. I had no money… at all.  I couldn’t escape, not without a cheap standby flight back to the UK.

In his inimitable and irritable coked-out manner, Cody suddenly offered me two options.  Would I prefer to visit Disneyland, or The Florida Keys?  The latter, I said immediately. Perhaps I might meet someone civilised who could help me escape from this maniac?  I’d heard that Key West was already a major, gay ‘destination’ and was intrigued, regardless of my host’s moronic nature, thinking of drinking-in the cultural history of the island as well, ‘Flipper’ notwithstanding. Perhaps he might find someone else to have sex with, and leave me to my own devices?

Now the double-decker bus was pulling into Raleigh train station and I clambered out with my bags, noting that I had at least half an hour before my train was due to arrive.  I was trying to recall: how the hell did I extricate myself from the evil clutches of the Miami moron? I found an empty bench to sit on and flicked through to the end of my ’79 notebook, looking for clues.  Again, there was nothing relating to Miami or The Florida Keys. Although I was distracted by an entry which read:

“Break The Chain… 10.12 ’79.

Move into 25 Eavesham Road in Holland Park.  RENT FREE!”

Evidently, I was finally to escape from the grungy basement flat in Notting Hill, it would seem, soon after my evidently successful escape, well, return, from the US.  This was a beautiful, spacious, one-bedroomed garden flat in Holland Park (yes, really), a Victorian terrace that was ‘owned’ (it later turned out that it was actually a squat) by a female friend of Pete Knacker, who’d played bass on my ‘Torn Genes’ demos and was later to play on the eponymous album early in 1980.  Perhaps inspired by my recent adventures in NYC and Florida, I later turned this unexpected dream-home into a completely, all white-space.  The diary then records how the bass-player’s friend then suddenly demanded £21 a week for me to live there, once she’d discovered that I had a record deal worth £80K.  Never trust a hippy, as Johnny Rotten had once snarled.

Then my Miami memory banks kicked-in once more, like overloaded, external hard drives (not that anyone could have imagined what those were in the late seventies – that would have been the stuff of science fiction).

Cody had suggested that we pack small bags with enough clothes for a few days. There was no need for a passport. We threw them into the trunk (aka boot) and set off for the Florida Keys at around 6 O’clock in the evening.  ‘On the way, we’ll stop off for dinner at an exclusive restaurant where everyone knows me – we’ll get one of the best tables!’ He’d stated bombastically, his all-ready coke-induced, over-inflated ego on overdrive, ‘then it’s just a couple of hour’s drive to Key West.’

Part of me was loving this sultry, tropical faux-romance of living life on the edge in an enormous 60s Cadillac convertible – although I’d have preferred it to be without him – and I was almost morbidly attracted by the evident danger of various ‘On The Road’ fantasies.  But my antennae were waving around frantically on top of my head on red alert, like an imaginary moose’s antlers, totally unaware of where I might be heading, being driven on a twisted road to nowhere by a drug-fucked lunatic. .

After we’d passed through the first of the Florida Keys (islands) – which was fairly unspectacular, just shopping malls, motels and gas stations – and crossed a longish bridge, he drove through some huge, ornate, wrought-iron gates and pulled into the parking lot of what looked like a Spanish-style, Hollywood mansion. ‘Welcome to Casa  Fantastico, the most exclusive restaurant in Key Largo!’ He trumpeted, as we screeched to a halt right outside the front entrance, before he threw his car keys to a ‘valet parker’, wrapped in a fifty-dollar bill.  Images of Humphrey Bogart crept into my mind.

He ushered me into the lobby, which looked like something from a Joan Crawford movie – but without any apparent irony. A female receptionist, who was dressed like Mildred Pearce (was there a theme here?) asked curtly if we had a reservation. My dubious host replied:  ‘We don’t need a reservation, I’m Cody Cadillac of Hex247.FM – I’ve been coming here for years!’

The receptionist looked down her nose at him and replied: ‘I wasn’t aware that the station was back on air…’

Cody gulped momentarily and stammered: ‘Oh, it’s just a temporary aberration my dear… a misunderstanding over taxes… now will you please let us in? I’m Cody Cadillac!’

Part of me was enjoying his humiliation, another part was hungry and another thought… let’s get the fuck out of here.

‘I’m sorry Mr Cadillac, but you don’t have a booking.’

I grabbed his arm and said: ‘Obviously there’s been some mistake, I think we should go.’

The receptionist raised her plucked eyebrows at me, as if to say… yes, I think you should.

‘I’m sure there are other fabulous restaurants on the Florida Keys where  we can dine with impunity.’ I stated firmly, grabbing him by the arm and marching him out of the building.

The parking valet looked a little surprised, as we’d returned so swiftly, but brought the car back regardless. He didn’t get a tip this time.

After we’d driven a few hundred yards, Cody – now palpably angry –  pulled up on the edge of the road, took a swig from a bottle of tequila (50% proof), passed it to me, and chopped us out two huge lines of coke and suggested that we drop another ‘lude’ each to help get us to our destination – Key West, about a hundred miles away. I complied, if only to help make sure that we got there in one piece. I was evidently on a road trip with a psycho – this was turning into fear and loathing…in Florida.

THE HIGHWAY THAT GOES TO SEA CONNECTS KEY WEST TO THE MAINLAND OF FLORIDA

The road, it’s called Highway 1, to Key West from Miami is a very unusual thing in the US – it only has (or ‘had’ – maybe it’s been upgraded since) two lanes  – yes, two lanes – once it enters The Florida Keys, as it was built over the tracks of the old Florida Coast East Railway line, much of which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1936. There are several bridges linking the Keys, one of which is seven miles long.  With two lanes… and only one thin ‘hard shoulder’.

There is a drop of scores of feet to the dark waters of the Gulf of Mexico to your right, and to the Atlantic to your left.

We’d stopped off for a coffee and a burger at some tacky diner on the way, where an obese couple wearing matching Hawaiian shirts at the next table had commented on my ‘cute accent’ and had asked whether ‘I knew The Beatles’. I seem  to recall merely replying ‘No.’ And then ignoring them. The initially amusingly ironic quirk of ignorant Americans-without-passports-or-any-knowledge-about-foreigners had soon worn thin.

Cody foolishly necked another lude with his coffee before we headed back to the car, with him on suddenly, unsteady feet. Now I was literally holding him up.

‘Cody,’ I urged, wondering if I should slap him (not just a wake-up call, but also because I was furious with him), isn’t there a motel where we can stay round here? You can’t drive in this state, and you know I don’t drive…’

‘Listen dude…’ he drawled, as we got back into the car, ‘we’ll just have some more coke, that’ll keep me awake and alert – there’s not far to go, we’ll be in Key West before you know it!’

He handed me another lude (which I pretended to take, then put in my pocket), before chopping us-out two more enormous lines.  This time, I had to take it, so that we’d have marginally less chance of dying whilst driving to America’s southernmost point.  Coke does at least keep you awake and relatively alert, whilst, particularly if you’re an asshole, you think that you’re the king of the road… and the world. I was a little more pragmatic (it’s called staying alive), as we headed for the next bridge.

‘Hey maaan!’ Shouted Cody, the sudden sea breeze blowing his hair into his eyes, ‘We’re now on one of the longest bridges in the whole goddam WORLD!  This is SEVEN MILE BRIDGE DUDE!’ Then accelerated violently.  Luckily, the bridge was relatively traffic free. Cackling like a maniac, he drove onto the wrong side of the road, and nearly brushed the low crash barrier that stood between us and the dark, swirling Gulf of Mexico, far below. My heart was beginning to palpitate, but I somehow managed to stay calm and in control. Now his head was starting to loll.

‘Cody!’ I shouted, grabbing his arm, trying to sound calm – rather than the reality, which was totally panicked… ‘Slow down man… you’re off your head Cody, you’ll kill us both if you don’t slow down.’  I could see the far-off  lights of an approaching car.

Cody suddenly blinked, shook his head, blinked, and mercifully stepped off the gas.  Then I grabbed the wheel and manoeuvred us back into the right-hand lane.

‘Look Cody, I said quietly, confidently and urgently, still holding onto the wheel, as we veered slightly to the left, ’we have to get over Seven Mile Bridge, then you can have a big line on the other side, wake-up a little and get us safely to Key West. OK?’

As soon as we’d miraculously reached the safety of the other side, he pulled into a parking lot and chopped us out two huge lines.  It was at this point that I slugged down the hidden lude with a large gulp of tequila.  I was exhausted after my terrifying ordeal and decided to take a risk and get in the back seat, stretch out and try and relax. Seemingly refreshed by the coke, Cody drove on and I promptly fell asleep.

I woke-up as we were driving through streets lined by beautiful, 19th century, French-colonial style houses and tall palms – like you see in movies set in New Orleans. But I was surprised to see that there was someone else in the passenger seat.

Key West nightUnknown

‘Where are we?’ I mumbled, asking Cody to pass me the bottle of tequila to slake my dry throat. A large, rather unattractive black man turned around and grinned at me with gap-teeth and slurred ‘Hi  – my name’s Guerilla.’

The next thing I knew was that were pulling into the forecourt of some garish sort of guesthouse.  It was constructed of wood, painted an unpleasant shade of apple green, and looked like it had been built in the 50s, perhaps as the set for a B-horror movie.

We grabbed our bags and headed inside, along with Guerilla, then found ourselves in a sparsely furnished ‘triple room’.  There was one double and one single bed, both covered in gruesome, green and purple, floral-patterned nylon ‘comforters’.  I just wanted to go to sleep, but no, Cody had decided that we were going to have a threesome with Guerilla. I’d already tried to crash out when I found a huge, black dick nudging against my mouth. I reluctantly opened my eyes and noticed that it was completely bent – at right angles, like an L-shaped, 12–inch nightmare.

Then, mercifully, I passed out.

Bright sunlight filtered through the orange, rayon curtains as I heard Cody organising coffees for us on the phone.  The display on the cheap, pink plastic bedside radio-alarm showed 3pm.

‘Where’s Guerilla, I asked, stumbling into the mould-infested shower-room to get a glass of water.

‘He had business to attend to.’ said Cody soberly.

I went to get my bag.  I’d put it in the bedside cupboard before I’d passed out.

‘Cody, what did you do with my bag?’

‘What are you talking about?’ he replied irritably, like all people who need a line of coke with their morning coffee.

The bag was gone, obviously stolen by Guerilla and his L-shaped dick. There went my brand new Levi 501s, several T-shirts, swimming shorts, pants and socks, but not, thankfully, my passport or my treasured, black-leather biker jacket, which I’d left at Cody’s hacienda.

Cody was somewhat contrite and took me shopping for replacements after we’d had brunch on the terrace of a beautiful, funky, bohemian restaurant on the beach.  Then we headed to a idyllic beach  – white sand and palm trees, natch – which was full of seriously beautiful men, and sunbathed on the pier, which stretched into the bay. I went swimming from there in the limpid, blue water, and was hauling myself out of the sea when I clearly remember a huge stingray swimming directly beneath me.  Argghhh!

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Then I met some guys who invited me to go out on their Hobie Cat – one of those smallish, one-sailed catamarans with canvas slung between the floats. There were three of us, dressed in shorts… and it was an exhilarating and exciting experience.  The wind out at sea was quite strong and you had to hang off the edge of the floats to stop the boat capsizing.  It was brilliant, an experience I’ll never forget, rather like the dreaded crossing of Seven Mile Bridge, but perhaps marginally less life-threatening.

We stayed at the ghastly, green guesthouse for a couple of days, and, somehow, Cody calmed down, as if he’d developed a kind of reluctant respect for me and my lack of need, or reliance, for coke.  I loved wandering around the island, drinking in the ghost of Hemingway (who’d penned the immortal line: ‘write drunk, edit sober’) and wondering if Tennessee Williams still lived there.  Apparently not.

Of course, as you may recall, I was to meet TW a few years later with Christa, at The Phoenix Theatre in London, for the performance of ‘The Red Devil Battery Sign’,  which was, sadly, to prove to be his final play.Red Devil

Everywhere you looked there were beautiful, masculine ‘out’ gay men.  But they were all white (apart from their suntans); there was not a gay Cuban or black man in sight, apart from those collecting glasses in the bars, emptying garbage or performing various other menial roles.

I managed to briefly escape from Cody  – he’d found himself some new young boy to corrupt – to go and hang out at one of the most amazing gay clubs I’d ever been to. It was called The Monster.  It was mostly outdoors and had obviously been inspired by the 1950s movie The Swiss Family Robinson, which, by some delicious coincidence, was the first film that I’d ever seen, aged about five.

monster-fl-keywest-outside-sign

It featured a series of  palm-thatched, wooden tree houses and terraces arranged over several floors, with a main dance floor surrounding a swimming pool on the ground level. Everywhere there were giant candles in antique lanterns and strings of coloured lights.  The atmosphere was completely chilled-yet-vibrant, with funky (as opposed to faggy) music to match – with large speakers hanging from the bridges connecting the various levels.  I seem to recall that I flirted with several men, but nothing happened, and it didn’t matter, I was in some kind of tropical, gay heaven where the guys were not all swishy queens – most of them seemed to be cool dudes, which made a change from the more conventional strictures of ‘the gay scene’ in London in 1979, which was mostly lost in the past and apparently going nowhere.

Luckily, Cody had run-out of drugs, and there seemed to be little available on the island apart from some excellent grass (yay!).  So, after a couple of days we headed back to Miami without mishap, but with me increasingly wondering how the hell I was going to get back to London. When I asked him about my standby ticket when we returned, Cody kept avoiding the subject and kept offering me more coke, which I increasingly refused.

I realised that he was on a reverse-psychological power trip, having effectively been rejected by me.

I just had to sit tight, but uptight would have described it better.

Eventually, after two or three days, he apparently came to his senses, realising that kidnapping a would-be English rock star was perhaps not a good idea, and drove me to the airport. Our farewells were terse.  I was just relieved to get the fuck out of his mad-zone.  It was only when I got on the plane that I realized that, in my rush to leave, I’d left behind my treasured black, leather biker jacket, which pissed me off no end.

A few months later, after I’d successfully finished recording and remixing my Torn Genes album, Christa and her then boyfriend Robert Burton, who was by now making a name for himself as an art director on major pop videos (thanks almost entirely to her), told me that they were going to Miami for a working holiday. So the ‘Contessa’ and I hatched a cunning plan. They would call Cody and go and hang-out with him – albeit briefly – as he would definitely be impressed by their celebrity credentials; then they would get loads of free coke, retrieve my leather jacket and fuck off on holiday.  Which is precisely what happened. Many happy karmic returns!

Once safely home, back in my dingy basement, I continued to plan for the recording of the album.  Now, apart from my scuzzy living environment, THIS was a reality I could handle.  All sorts of famous producers were offering their services, albeit, as I later found out, at a price. One day in early December I was in my management company’s office and Billie Oldbelly, Phil’s wife and erstwhile business partner, grinned and handed me a post-it note on which a famous rock star’s PA had scrawled: ‘Brody Davidoff loves Thom’s demos and would like to produce his Torn Genes album’.

This was beyond amazing.  Brody (as he was universally known) was one of my heroes; a left-field, charismatic artist who was truly mould-breaking, a terrific songwriter and singer who was in the habit of adopting different personas and identities and who was already a massive star. But, it later transpired, after I ended-up producing the album myself at Up The Creek Studios in Cornwall in early 1980, that Brody, then in his somewhat, visually cadaverous ‘Snow King’ persona, had been beyond strung-out on cocaine and various chemicals.  Shame.  Imagine what might have happened?  Many years later, in the late 90s, he sent me a fax, saying ‘The album still sounds great’, which I framed, and still hangs on the wall of the studio at Rancho Deluxe

At the time, when I’d enquired as to how negotiations with Brody’s people were progressing, Billie Oldbelly had said dismissively: ‘Oh we really think that your egos might rub-up a little, so we don’t think it’s a good idea.’  I remember retorting honestly (somewhat miffed, to say the least): ‘No way  – I’ll do anything that Brody tells me to do!’

The rest, as they say, wasn’t history.

An announcement came over the tannoy: the next train arriving at platform one will be the sixteen hundred train to London Maddington, stopping at….

My head was full of memories (The Paradise Garage, my all-white garden flat, the horror of Seven-Mile bridge, Up The Creek Studios) as I gathered my possessions, put my ’79 notebook into my bag and positioned myself on the platform where I thought I might be close to Coach C (I’m that sort of person – I love a mildly O.C.D challenge), where my booked seat was to be found.

The train drew in, smelling as ever of diesel and overflowing toilets, and my Coach C guess wasn’t too bad – I was positioned right by the end of Coach D.

I hauled my luggage into the corridor, stowed the big bag in the racks at the end of the carriage and headed for my seat, only to find that I was going to be squeezed into a window seat at a table with a harassed-looking mother and her two young kids. I reluctantly took-up my seat, as the children shrieked and jumped around, the one next to me hitting me in the ribs whilst having a tantrum, then spilling juice on my trousers.

After my blissful-yet-monastic week of self-induced rehab (a glass of wine or three echo… echo) I wasn’t in the mood to hang with the kids, and after about five minutes I decided to upgrade to First Class, as this was a Saturday and thankfully financially do-able. Yes, it was extravagant at £20 (inc’ free tea and biscuits, woo hoo!), but, I felt that I deserved it.  Also, there would be plug sockets, so that I could check all my emails and go on People Pages, without worrying about the battery running out, assuming that is, that my famously malfunctioning mobile broadband dongle might splutter, at least metaphorically, back into life – apart from when the train was going through tunnels.

I found myself in the peaceful zone of a totally empty, first-class compartment. This was  beyond perfect. I plugged in the power and fired-up the laptop, then was pleased, no, thrilled, to see that my airport was showing five bars of reception.

I immediately downloaded all my emails (408) and went straight onto PP, where everyone was concerned that they hadn’t heard from me whilst I was in Cornwall.

I had been kidnapped by drug smugglers and sold to Somalian pirates, I quipped.

The train drew into Exeter and a slightly disheveled-yet-strangely-groomed, gangly guy with what looked like a carefully quaffed, blond hairdo and an elegantly wasted, almost styled sartorial demeanor got on. As he passed my seat and nodded hello, I typed into my PP status update: OMG! You’ll never guess who just got on the train! He’s one of my heroes! Lemme give you a clue (NO not THAT Lemmy!), Nuclear…

Meanwhile, Stephan Lincoln, the lead singer of Nuclear TV – one of the biggest rock bands in the world – settled into a single seat diagonally opposite from me and pulled out an iPhone and a MACBOOK Pro (we evidently had plenty in common) from his expensive-looking, brown-leather hold-all and put them on the table in front of him, along with a can of Carlsberg (oh dear, a bit of lapse of taste there then) and what appeared to be a takeaway salad (it later transpired that it was a vegan one from Anthony Carluccio), which he proceeded to eat, whilst sipping from the can of beer and presumably, checking his emails, or whatever.

I, meanwhile, opened a new tab to check out the Nuclear TV website, whilst staying in touch with everyone on PP, of course.  It was obviously him, but I just wanted to double check. After all, maybe my brain was reverse-fried after all that abstinence, sunshine and immersement in negative ions.

He glanced at me and I smiled a ‘We’re both on MAC’ (and seriously talented and poetic songwriters) kind-of enigmatic smile, then decided spontaneously not to let-on that I knew who he was.  He wouldn’t be used to that eh?  Plus it would be interesting and amusing for me psychologically, and deliciously humbling, for him… at least on paper.

I noticed that he had several backstage, security wristbands on his left arm, along with his watch, which looked like a chunky, expensive Swiss diver’s type. I pointed at his left arm, he looked at me quizzically, then pointed at his watch in a questioning manner.

‘No, no, not the time – I have that here, you fellow Mac-head,’ I said, grinning and waving my hand towards my iPhone and MACBOOK Pro on the table in front of me, ‘no I was wondering what the armbands are… are you a musician?’

A monetarily non-plussed look crossed his face like a fluffy cloud, then he said ‘Well, kind-of…’

‘Oh – so you’re more of a singer then?’

‘Yeah – you could say that, ‘ he replied, smiling and visibly relaxing, although his eyes were exhibiting something possibly called ‘lack-of-rock-star-recognition’ syndrome.

I was quite enjoying myself.  ‘Yeah, it’s definitely him’, I typed into my ongoing status thread on PP, which was by now attracting quite a few comments from my increasingly intrigued friends.  It wasn’t that I was being mean or trying to put him down, it was just my way of saying ‘hi’ – with a twist. After all, we were just two, Mac-head, singer-songwriting strangers in first class on a train heading towards London (the difference being that he was hugely successful and worth mega-bucks), although I’d already guessed that he’d be getting off at Reading, in order to change for somewhere in Berkshire, where the band were based.

‘So…?’ I wondered aloud, pointing at his wristbands, ‘these must be backstage passes to festivals?’

‘Indeed they are,’ he replied, with an enigmatic grin, reeling-off several festivals that I’d never heard of, before saying: ‘and this one is Somersby, although I never went anywhere near the main stage!’

This made me chuckle inwardly – Nuclear TV had headlined Somersby, the UK’s biggest and most successful festival, the year before – and I was now viewing his own page on the band’s website, where I could see that he was extolling the virtues of being in the farthest-flung field at ‘Somebo’. It just so happened that, simultaneously, a friend on PP wrote that Lincoln had performed a spontaneous, solo set in said far-flung-field at the festival, and I was therefore subsequently impressed by his modesty in the face of my alleged ignorance. Still, he looked just ever-so-slightly bemused, as, I guess he was so used to people asking to have their photo taken with him and all the no-doubt tiresome trappings of being a major (albeit ‘alternative’), international, rock star.

I guess that I wanted to know what his mindset was, and where he was coming from. I was also a serious fan of his work, particularly his songwriting – all those finely-woven, intricate melodies and cryptic, poetic lyrics.

People on PP were by now beginning to correctly guess who he was, but kind-of applauding my alleged ignorance.

‘So what were you doing in Devon, if you don’t me asking?’ I asked him.

Stephan looked slightly embarrassed, but in an ironic way (only what I would have hoped for) and replied: ’Hmmm, well, you know, slightly bonkers, feral, male-bonding stuff in the woods…’

‘Oh, saunas in yurts and all that?’

‘Yersh, that kind of thing,’ he said taking a swig of his beer, ‘anyway, I’ve got to get on with some work…’ he said, pointing at his laptop.

Some kind of remix, I imagined, then smiled and airily waved my hand to suggest that he carry on (arrogant, moi?), whilst inwardly chuckling some more.  What an excellent end to my monastic and contemplative week, I mused, as I continued to chat to people on PP, and wondering if I might allow myself drink (a glass or three of red wine, echo… echo) with my dinner – probably a take-away, when I got home. After all, didn’t I deserve it after my privations?

Then we were nearing Reading.  He finished his Carlsberg and scrunched-up the can on the table and started to put his stuff back into his bag.

As we approached the station, I said drily:  Hey, it’s been a pleasure to meet you Mr Lincoln…’

He turned to face me with the broadest (and slightly taken-aback) grin.

‘I’m a singer-songwriter as well – here’s my card – and I’m a huge fan of Nuclear TV, but particularly of your songwriting.  You’re the finest that England has to offer – a genius in a sea of mediocrity.’

The train was now drawing into the station at Reading. He walked backwards towards the nearest door with his arms outstretched (thereby ringing a delightfully Danny Divano bell, minus the mutual, sexual attraction), grinned broadly again, looked me directly in the eye and then shouted amiably: ‘It’s all about the songs Thom, it’s… ALL about the songs (echo…echo…echo)!’

© Thom Topham.  2010. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

180px-Studio_54_logo

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.