When I was in my 3rd Year at Royal Holloway College, I lived in a Hall of Residence that was 5 storeys high. I had a room on the top floor. Directly below me was a guy who I am going to call Trevor although that’s not his real name. It was Trevor who brought the Pearls Before Swine record back from Staines for me. It was Trevor whose friendship I stopped rather abruptly 20 years later. Anyway, Trevor lived directly below me. Directly below Trevor was a mature student who liked to be called Mac. He seemed very old to us at the time but he was probably in his early 30s. He liked a drink and so, behind his back, we called him Pissed Mac. Directly below Pissed Mac was a Chinese student whose surname was Cheung. One day, Trevor came into my room and asked me to listen to a recording he had made on his tape recorder. He had a microphone, which was a bit of a luxury, and he had dangled it out of his window late on the previous night and let it hover near Pissed Mac’s window directly below him. He had recorded Pissed Mac coming into his room just before midnight. On this tape, I could quite clearly hear Pissed Mac shouting “Wake up Mr Cheung!”, followed by some loud banging which we assumed was Pissed Mac jumping up and down on his floor. Over the ensuing week, I ventured into Trevor’s room a few times and we could hear Pissed Mac repeating this behaviour.
Obviously, the right thing to do would be to talk to Mr. Cheung and offer him our support. Or may be we could have reported his behaviour to the warden. Possibly we could have spoken to Pissed Mac and told him that his behaviour wasn’t very nice. But no, we did none of those things. Instead we made up a fantasy whereby Pissed Mac took his terrorising of Mr. Cheung to new and ludicrous heights. Or depths. We invented some stories whereby Pissed Mac took Mr. Cheung hostage and shouted at him or threatened to shoot him or any other way that would make his life a misery. We did this by using Trevor’s microphone and recording several small radio plays. I played Pissed Mac and Trevor played Mr. Cheung. We needed a title for these plays and obviously we decided on “Herge’s Adventures Of Pissed Mac” (named after “Herge’s Adventures Of Tin Tin”). We then progressed to sneaking into our mutual friend Paul’s room when he wasn’t there and “borrowing” one of his tapes. We would wind to the end where there was normally a few minutes of silence because a C90 tape had 45 minutes on each side and most records that he had recorded were less than 40 minutes. We would then record one of our brilliantly funny and inventive episodes of “Herge’s Adventures Of Pissed Mac” onto the end of one of Paul’s tapes and then sneak the tape back into his room. It was a long waiting game because it might be a week or more before a furious Paul would come bursting into one of our rooms complaining that he had spent a wonderfully romantic evening in his room with his latest beautiful girlfriend listening to John Martyn before one of our hilarious plays started playing and ruined the mood. This made all the effort worthwhile, mainly because we were jealous of Paul’s ability to have girlfriends. Trevor and I didn’t have a girlfriend. I wonder why?
The key feature of our plays was the introductory music. For reasons that were obvious to us then, although possibly not now, we chose “Chicken Reel” by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It’s less than a minute long. It features a fiddle and someone impersonating a chicken. It’s what you could only call Country And Western so in a typically absurd way, it fitted in perfectly with the idea of an alcoholic British Man terrorising a Chinese student.
My musical guru, Peter (who assumes I’m being ironic when I give him this appellation but I’m not, as these blogs will confirm) had shown me his copies of the magazine “Zigzag” and in the early 70s, they were brilliant. They featured very long transcripts of interviews with some excellent musicians like John Stewart, Brinsley Schwarz, Man, Help Yourself, Commander Cody etc. They also featured Pete Frame’s Family Trees which were endlessly fascinating. If you took out a subscription in 1970, you were sent a free copy of “Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy” by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I did exactly that and fell in love with it’s variety, musicianship and humour.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released 23 records between 1967 and 2009 along with 2 live records. They also released 3 marvellous albums (in 1972, 1989 and 2002), each called “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” which featured them collaborating with some of the most well regarded and well known country artists, e.g. Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, John Denver, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Roger McGuinn, Bruce Hornsby, Randy Scruggs, Iris DeMent, Dwight Yoakam, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss. Amongst others!
The title of the record comes from a recording from 1963 with a relative one of the members of the band who gets his dog Teddy to howl along with his harmonica. This leads into “Mr Bojangles” which got to number 9 in the USA charts. It’s a very cheery tune but tells the story about a homeless man that Jerry Jeff Walker (not a member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) had met while in jail for public intoxication in 1965. He called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police. He had been arrested as part of a police sweep of indigent people that was carried out following a high-profile murder. The two men and others in the cell chatted about all manner of things, but when Mr. Bojangles told a story about his dog, the mood in the room turned heavy. Someone else in the cell asked for something to lighten the mood, and Mr. Bojangles obliged with a tap dance. “He’s danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs throughout the South. He spoke with tears of fifteen years. How his dog and him, they traveled about. His dog up and died. He up and died. After twenty years he still grieves”
There are 21 songs on this album and it lasts for 45 minutes. Some are instrumentals and they are great. Apart from the aforementioned “Chicken Reel”, there’s “Randy Lynn Rag” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep” which feature amazing guitar, banjo and fiddle. There are also some brilliant songs, none of which I knew beforehand. “Some Of Shelley’s Blues” and “Propinquity” are written by Michael Nesmith (of The Monkees) and they are much better than his versions. The latter of these is particularly poignant. “I’ve known for a long time the kind of girl you are. Of a smile that covers tear drops the way your head yields to your heart. Of things you’ve kept inside that most girls couldn’t bear. I’ve known you for a long time but I’ve just begun to care.” Listening again to “Some Of Shelley’s Blues”, it’s also fantastic. Uptempo, featuring a lot of harmonica with some equally interesting lyrics. “Tell me just one more time the reasons why you must leave. Tell me once more why you’re sure you don’t need me. Tell me again but don’t think that you’ll convince me.”
There’s also “House At Pooh Corner” which was later a hit for its writer, Kenny Loggins, along with Jim Messina. It’s a charming song and Wikipedia reports that “it is told from the perspective of both Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin, and serves as an allegory for loss of innocence and nostalgia for childhood.” There are so many great songs on this record. There’s a version of “Rave On” as recorded by Buddy Holly, a Randy Newman song (“Livin’ Without You”).
It’s also got a brilliant cover which opens up. Presumably, that’s Uncle Charlie on the front and the back. The listing of the songs on the back is not in the correct order, which was irritating at the time but now, for some reason, I like. The album design is by Dean Torrence (of Jan and Dean).
Shamefully, and I’m not proud of this in any way, when we had to enter a 5-a-side football competition at Royal Holloway, Trevor, Paul, two others and me decided to call ourselves “The Yellow Perils”. Arguably, this was to show solidarity with Mr. Cheung but, looking back 45 years, I’m not so sure.