Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Spain, First Time

The thing with Gerry was, he was a property guy. Started off investing in some land on the Costa; when that went well, he took a stake in one of the golf course developments; then a small-scale timeshare, then a bigger one, and then another, moving along the coast, away from the Sixties high rises, inland from Fuengirola or Benalmadena.

He helped build the rookeries of retired Brits, salting away their money in the Spanish sun for the grandchildren, or so they thought. This was 1995: long before the property market tanked.

“I only go down to the Costa for business, these days,” he said, when we first met. “Totally overdeveloped, now.”

Apart from having no obvious sense of irony, he seemed a nice guy, and the best looking at that party by a country mile. A big, bluff bloke you really would buy a timeshare from.

“I have to go back there on Tuesday,” he said, looking out at the sleet trying to turn into snow. “You could come out with me, and see what it's like – no obligation, of course.”

The party was in a big flat in the New Town. Inside, the air was heavy with women's perfume and low quality weed. Outside, the rain was beginning to pick up.

“Are you trying to sell me a holiday villa, or yourself?” I said. “Either way, you're a little fast.”

That seemed to amuse him. “You decide, when you've seen the whole package,” he said. “Either way, you get the tour for free.”
I told him I was an old fashioned girl, but I let him take me home in his hired 4 x 4. "We'll see," was what I left him with that night.

We flew to Malaga after all on the Tuesday, and he installed me in one of his newest, finest, apartments. There was a pool, a mini-mart beside the faux-Moorish arch, and cranes just beyond it, building the next phase. Blue sky and sun loungers at the poolside; dust and grinding cement when you took a left turn. And lots and lots of old people. I mean, I was 45 then, but I was still bringing down the average age a long way.

“They migrate here for the winter,” he said. “Like the starlings.” Ornithology wasn't his strongest suit either; but he was kind, and took his time with me. I was feeling fragile that year: I felt like I needed looked after.

Gerry's own house was up in one of the pueblos blancos, the white villages up in the hills. It had me digging out my old sketch pad and doing some drawings, that place: the tiny lizards splayed like missing jigsaw pieces on the whitewashed walls, the mosaic of clay-tiled roofs, stretching away below the balcony.

By the end of my third week there, I'd moved in. I phoned Farrago Man, back in Edinburgh, and told him to look after the Dormobile.

“How long for?” he said.

“I don't know,” I said. “We'll see.”

It was too soon. Gerry was away a lot, working. Besides, he was the lord of the manor, in the village. Half of the locals worked for him – something he was proud of. He'd even started buying up any of the old properties that came up, to house his workers. "Keep the tourists at bay," he said, his eyes twinkling.

It was different for me, though. If I went down to the local bar and asked to play a few songs, I felt like the boss's wife. And when I was done, some kid of a flamenco guitarist would appear out of the woodwork and start tearing the place up, and the clapping and stamping of feet would start.

It wasn't that the people weren't friendly. It was the language barrier, mainly: I tried to learn Spanish, but the local accent kept confounding me, the way the ends of words would be chopped off, the letter 's' disappearing like it was some special treasure they couldn't share.

So most days I slept late, pottered about, painted a little, played guitar on the verandah. I wrote songs, some of which have stood the test of time.

I didn't write All I Can Think Of Is You until much later, long after I got that letter, and took Gerry's car to Malaga airport.

I did come back to Spain, not long after, but not to the Costa del Sol. Fifteen months I was with him, almost, but I still didn't look back once, gunning the Alfa along that little dirt track running east.

The letter was from Sumner, of course. No idea how he found out where I was. Farrago Man, I suppose: I guess he must have tracked him down first. Come to think of it, maybe Sumner had kept the Polaroid of the shop all these years. Maybe that's what happened to it. I never asked.

So I sat there, reading the letter, while the sun shone off the sea, like the song says. It was fiesta day, one of those celebrations they have in Andalucia where they stage mock battles to commemorate Spain being liberated from the Moors. It's all very Spanish, and they have a big barbecue in the town square. I could smell the meat cooking through the open window.

I don't know how long Gerry and me would've lasted if that letter hadn't come. Another thing I'll never know.

The Chicano Moratorium

The guy looked like a fish out of water. Literally. He was drenched from head to foot. He'd walked up into the Canyons from West Hollywood in the rain.

"You gotta come to this, really," he said. Water dripped off his Zapata moustache onto the rug. "This is gonna be huge. The biggest anti-Vietnam march in L.A., period. Entiendes?"

Sumner looked amused. "Really?"

I said, "Why don't you sit down…Bobby, was it you said?"

So Bobby Guttierez sat down, and leaked rainwater on the battered old sofa while he talked to us about the Chicano Moratorium.

"It's the Mexican-American movement for social justice, man. Social justice here, not war in Vietnam, man. I'm surprised you haven't heard about it."

"Yeah, sure, we have," Sumner said, vaguely. "How about a drink? Linda?"

He meant me. I was still Linda Carmichael then. My first album's release was still a month off, and the protest organiser was here to see Sumner.

Bobby smoothed his trousers down, passing his brown beret through his hands. He smelt of rain, of olive oil, and garlic. He smelt exotic, to me.

"No, gracias," he said. "Got to keep moving. But you'll come, yeah? I love your records, man. It would mean a lot to have you there."

"Count us in," Sumner said, as the guy got up to go. As I showed Bobby to the door, I wondered if he could read Sumner's body language.

"We need you guys to support us, man," he said. I told him I knew and gave him vague directions to Joni Mitchell's place. When I went back through to the living room, Sumner was staring at the damp patch on the sofa.

"I just don't know it's our kind of thing, Linda," he said, as if he knew what I was going to ask. "I mean, I'm against the war, and everything, but these guys…they're just so…"

"Mexican?" I said.

"No, it's not that. You know it's not that."

It was our first argument about politics. Sumner was pretty lazy, politically, but I harped on about how important it was to get involved that he agreed just to shut me up.

That first March we went to, some time in Spring, 1971. There was a cold clear light to the day, bouncing off the helmets and visors of the National Guardsmen. We marched under some sort of banner: I think it said something like 'Artists against the Draft.' Just me holding one end of it, Sumner at the other, and a raggle taggle of session men and hangers on in between.

The year before, not long after Julie and I arrived, there had been what turned out to be the biggest of the Chicano demonstrations, and the cops had opened fire. So we were a jittery bunch, that day, marching beside our Mexican-American brothers, Sumner in his army surplus shirt. This was in East L.A., with the housing projects stretching away up the hill ahead of us.

Then something happened. I don't know what the flashpoint was, but up ahead the tear gas canisters started going off, the Brown Berets in front of us began to tunr and scatter, and the other half of the banner went slack. I turned, and Sumner had disappeared in the wheeling, panicking mob of protesters and cops. I didn't know if he had been hit, or just cut and run.

I ran, like everyone else, of course. Didn't want a National Guardsman breaking my arm with a baton any more than the rest of them. The confusion wasn't helped by the joint I'd had before we came out: I remember shouting Sumner's name, main streets turning into side streets, crowds thinning to ones and twos, the adrenalin gradually ebbing away. Eventually there was just me and a couple of locals, who took pity on me and called their brother in law who ran a taxi firm, making me coffee in their ground floor apartment that smelt of bitter oranges.

I found out later that Sumner had experienced a different kind of hospitality with a Cuban girl called Rosa, who turned up at the house two nights later, looking for him.

That kind of killed the Chicano Moratorium for me, although it petered out by itself later that year, if I remember right. I never saw Bobby Guttierez again. Sumner said he'd heard he was a CIA plant, an agent provocateur trying to discredit the organisation. But then, Sumner said a lot of things.

It was a year or so later that picture came out, the one of the girl in a Vietnamese village after a napalm attack. I reckon that picture, going into millions of homes on the front of a newspaper, did just as much as all the rallies and marches ever did.

They say a picture's worth a thousand words. Well, in my case, it was worth three verses, chorus and a bridge.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Waking Up to Dylan

Bob Dylan at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, it must have been 1966. Julie and I were 16, for goodness' sake. We'd made it down from Arbroath, don't know how. I think we told our folks we were staying with Julie's sister in Edinburgh or something, but instead we blew everything we'd been saving for a year, and got the train to Manchester. It was the first time either of us had been away from home.

First half of the concert was the Sermon on the Mount for us. Just Dylan, his guitar, and a concert hall full of his charisma. I remember him playing 'Visions of Johanna,' and it was like nothing we'd ever heard before. The chords looked simple enough, but the lyrics! How on earth could I remember them? In the interval, I tried writing some of them down on the back of my ticket, with a pencil I'd liberated from school. The ticket wasn't big enough, of course...

Backstage, in the interval, he murdered the corduroy-capped hobo. Then a street punk came out of the chrysalis, toting a Telecaster, making the folkies in the audience howl. It was loud, though! First crack of the snare drum like a gunshot, an assassination of Archduke Ferdinand for the hard core fans, people older than us who'd been brought up on English folk music, all that hey nonny nonny stuff. Julie and I didn't know enough to not love electric Dylan, the wall of noise he was making with these leather-clad dudes.

Then came the clapping, the chanting. It was like this enormous static charge, building and building. Most people around us were against the electric stuff. I remember this big Yorkshire guy next to us, bearded, shouting, 'Get shot of the band,' over and over.

Every Dylan fan knows about the 'Judas' moment, when a fan accused him of selling out. But the song that stuck in my mind most wasn't the final 'Like A Rolling Stone,' it was the one before the Judas shout, 'Ballad of a Thin Man.' It was this funereal bluesy stomp, with Dylan up front, snarling about sword-swallowers and one-eyed midgets. Anyone that didn't get his circus show, he was saying, could go straight to hell as far as he was concerned.

Afterwards, on the long walk to the train station, shivering in the May dawn, waiting for the train, it was that chorus that went through my head: 'You know something's happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones?' And later, when I got home to all the recriminations, that song kept me warm long after. Arbroath in the 60s was full of people related to Mr Jones.

Mind you, when I moved to L.A. I found he had family there, too.