41. Only Joking

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S.Rhatigan/J.F Morrison © 1995

Anybody out there?

Guess what…

I have been invited to play harmonica at the National concert hall with the I Heart David Bowie band who are playing the David Bowie/ Space Oddity album at a tribute concert in aid of the Laura Lynn children’s hospice next Monday, tomorrow in fact.

Yikes

The 2nd track on the Space Oddity album is Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed featuring a four and some minute blues harmonica solo and it is quite a challenge!  Don’t get me wrong I’m delighted to be asked and very excited but, oh FUCK!

My love affair with the harmonica began with Larry Adler. He would pop up regularly on our 70’s and 80’s telly playing the most beautiful classical melodies.  I loved Stevie Wonder’s harmonica lines too. He effortlessly picks up the melodies and weaves them in and out of his songs with such skill it is awe inspiring.   

As a child I wanted to play an instrument but several attempts came to nothing and I just gave up. It was much later, when I finally learned to play the guitar and piano and drums a bit I thought why not harmonica.

So taking my cues from the Neil Young, Bob Dylan school of playing which seemed kind of random and straight forward enough I bought myself a brace and a couple of blues harps. Turns out it’s not quite as easy as it seems. 

I was already challenged enough playing guitar and singing so throwing the harmonica in on top lead to some lairy gigs.  Nevertheless undeterred by failure I would slap on the effects pedals to try to fill the holes with feedback and shout into the harmonica to produce any kind of sound.  Sometimes it worked often it didn’t.  Happily on the recording of Only Joking it did.

Fast forward 20 odd years and many hours noodling around on the guitar and harmonica between cooking and cleaning and school runs and and and… I finally felt the sound coming together and I realised the simple unavoidable truth.  If you practice enough you will get better if you don’t you won’t.

Only Joking is sore.  

I was an angry child caught in the gravity of a deeply unhappy marriage.  My father and mother and sister and I orbited around each other in our nice suburban home pretending to the world that it was all ok but it was far from ok. My sister and I were unwitting allies in a cold war.  For most of the time we were the only company we had.

Photo Montage Sara Light

Eventually as we got older, my sister started hanging out with her friends more and more and I was left behind. She was my best friend. I was jealous and lonely. I lashed out at her. I would lure her into play fights persuading her, since she was so much taller than me that she should stay on her knees, which seriously impinged on her ability to defend herself. Then I would explode in violent fury, reigning down on her with punches and kicks until her cries eventually brought one of our parents. I would defend myself with force insisting that she was lying and we were messing, or I was only joking.

Of course eventually my sister copped on that she had a considerable advantage over me if she stayed on her feet.  Her favourite defence was to maul me into the corner by the door jamb and crush me till I couldn’t breathe.  I changed tactics then and adopted more subtle strategies like stealing her vinyl and clothes and makeup and humiliating her in front of boyfriends, that kind of thing.  Not very nice, but I was only joking!   

So, where are we now, going forward as it were?

Well my sister is still my best friend, I don’t assault her anymore btw.  I try to limit as much as I can the legacy of our formative years from infecting the present and my own family. Family and relationships are still informing my songs, even more now I suppose which is ok. At least I can get the stuff off my chest.

Lots of exciting things to come this year. A long over-due visit to New York and I have my new record tantalisingly close to being finished. I will definitely release some music soon and get out and play and let people hear it.  Sure what harm.

Meanwhile back on my head.

PS: Not all the stories in Only Joking are entirely true however… I did kill the canary, but it was an accident. Really.  I arrived home from school and I was alone. Sweetie the 3rd was standing on the floor of the cage propping up his head with his beak, his beady black eyes rolling.  We had lost several birds this way because, due to his tampering with the gas tap, to prevent us from turning the fire up to full, my father had caused the tap to leak and as a result the canaries were dropping like flies.  Anyway I thought I would try to revive the bird so I ran the cold tap over him.  Mistake.  He went into a kind of seizure and was shaking in the sink, so I did what I thought was the right thing and got the hairdryer at him.  Well that did for him. In the end he had a massive heart attack and died in my hands. It was awful.    

PPS: Happy New Year!

Suzanne Rhatigan: Vocal guitar harmonica

John F Morrison: Bass

Bryn Burrows: Drums

Only Joking is song 02 on the Late Developer album available on Bandcamp

40. Rent a Wreck

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S.Rhatigan/J.F Morrison © 1998

Brought my girl to La La Land at the weekend.  I love musicals.  Our record collection growing up at home, before my sister started buying Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, mainly consisted of original cast recordings of classic musicals: Oklahoma, South Pacific, Hello Dolly, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and on and on.  I knew every song and staged them in the sitting room most miserable Sunday afternoons between mass and lunch and the Riordans. Over and over I washed that man right out of my hair.

I dreamed of being a superstar like Barbara Streisand.  I remember hearing about Barbara’s troubled love life and thinking to myself that I too would make whatever sacrifice was necessary to achieve my dream even if it meant a life of loneliness and heartbreak.  I had the feeling that it would be unlikely you could have the good fortune to be talented and successful and also happy.  So I would forgo happiness if that’s what it took. I set about pursuing my dreams with gusto. I had few inhibitions and even fewer scruples. When I fell on my ass, which I did, repeatedly, I would retreat to my dreams regroup and start again.  Nothing much has changed.

City of stars

In the course of my search for the Holy Grail I was naturally drawn to LA and like so many wannabes before me and since, I had a stab at making the crucial connections in Hollywood.  I had meetings with agents and music supervisors, songwriters and producers.  One memorable lunch at Chateau Marmont with legendary arranger and producer Jack Nitzsche, became quite surreal when I realised he had no interest in working with me. He had only come to lunch to vent his anger and heartbreak following the demise of his relationship with Buffy Saint Marie who was a friend of my A&R person Kate Hyman.

Another memorable meeting I had with Kate in LA was with Don Was.  Kate had worked with Was Not Was back in the day and he was top of my producer wish list, since before I had even met Kate. He had heard the demos and he was interested.  We had our meeting at his house on Mulholland Drive, if I’m not mistaken he lived next door to Jack Nicholson.  Anyhow superstar names like that were being dropped all the time, you became quite blasé about it after a while.  I played Don a few songs on the piano and we had the chats. I told him how I had dreamed of making my album for years and how it sounded in my head, earthy and dark, shot through with light and humour. There was a definite chemistry. I felt it. I’m quite sure Don’s wife felt it too when she arrived home. Suffice to say I didn’t feel the love from her as much!  We parted that day with hugs and kisses and Don saying “I’m going to make this record”.  I remember Kate and I driving into the LA sunset with me screaming at the top of my voice… “Did you hear that Kate?  Did you hear what he said?”  “Yes” she said “He’s going to make your record”.

And I believed 100% that that would happen even as the weeks passed and Kate’s calls were unanswered I still believed it was destined to be.  But in LA dreams are made and unmade over and over.  I think the energy of all those dreams combusting is what powers the place.  Eventually we heard from Don’s management. Don was committed to other bigger projects, ones much more likely to succeed, or words to that effect and that was the end of that.

On another occasion while on holiday with my then boyfriend, we hired a car to do the famous drive from Malibu to Laurel Canyon.  As we were cruising through the canyons top down, Soul to Soul’s big hit of the day, ‘Keep On Moving’ on the radio, a spliff on the go, we realised we were running low on gas.  I think it was me who had the bright idea that to conserve fuel we should cut the engine and freewheel down the hill.  I closed my eyes blissed out from the weed and the music and the warm sun on my face when suddenly the engine roared into life, the brakes screeched and we came to a halt.  When I opened my eyes I could only see space in front of the car, no road no barrier nothing.  I looked at Craig. He was ashen faced. He had done as I suggested and turned off the ignition, only to discover he couldn’t steer or stop the car. We were a split second from rolling over the edge of the canyon to certain death.

And so a number of years later I wrote the story down in a song ‘Rent A Wreck’.  It captures the dystopia my life was back then, dark rumbling bass and soporific vocals. I guess it’s a kind of lo-fi example of that sound I had tried to describe to Don Was.  A sound I’m still dreaming of today.

It occurs to me that if I had the chance to write a musical about LA it would be a much darker affair than LA LA Land, which I absolutely loved btw.  I especially loved the bitter-sweet ending and the perfectly nuanced performances from both lead characters.  They fulfilled their dreams, but at a cost…

‘Oh to have come so far just to die in a rented car’

PS: Spot the deliberate mistake in the lyric.  All mistakes are deliberate right?

Suzanne Rhatigan: Vocals, guitar, piano, drums
John F Morrison: Bass

39. Julianne

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39. Julianne…
S.Rhatigan/J.F Morrison © 1996

Where did that go? Last post… No 38, November 2015… I believe I signed off saying, I’ll fill you in on the finale soon, but unfortunately promises like ‘soon’ and ‘I must do that’ are symptomatic of a chronic condition that I’m currently battling.

M.A.D (Middle Age Disease) (def) A progressive malaise leading to worrisome creeping indifference, reduced sensation of urgency and complete loss of sense of time. Days become decades, decades, days. Not confined to the actual middle aged, it can afflict anyone at any time. Worryingly it is quite infectious, though perhaps unsurprisingly, M.A.D is not transmitted sexually. Treatment: Frequent kicks up the arse, if you can be arsed.

Now where was I…

Finale no 1

In fairness Chris and Bryce stayed till the end of our disastrous gig and tried to put a positive spin on it but over the following days and weeks enthusiasm was waning, calls not readily returned, meetings cancelled. Then suddenly a meeting hastily convened on a Friday evening. Bryn, John and I headed off with our hopes high, we thought we were going to go through figures and deal options etc etc but it became sickeningly apparent from the joyless greeting in the pub “no rounds, have to head off soon”, that this was not going the way of celebration!

They didn’t waste time and I guess they tried to soften it a bit with the ‘it’s not you it’s us’ line. Courtyard were renegotiating their own deal with Parlaphone and that was dragging on and they didn’t want to hold us back etc etc. I probably didn’t quite get what they were saying, it didn’t sink in “Well we can keep working on our new material sharpen up our live set, sure no problem” I suggested. Then it was a little more like, ‘actually it is kind of you, and not us’

Our lack of consistency. BOOM. Flashes of brilliance obscured by frequent and random collapses of form. BOOM. Refusal/inability to adapt to commercial requirements and standards of production and performance…. SPLAT. “Ah now hang on” I said “if we had the funds, technical assistance, a guiding hand, all that could be sorted out surely”. I didn’t give up, I refused/was unable to adapt to our new status, till in the end I think it was left at, ‘we can still be friends’, which as we all know means nothing.

We were reeling, the Courtyard deal was gone and the industry interest generated by their interest had evaporated. Months passed. We kept our 12 Bar nights going and we wrote fury infused self loathing pop and tortured ballads of loss and loss, most of which are probably best never heard, when out of the blue the phone rang.

Finale no 2

Would we like to open for Radiohead in Dublin a secret warm up gig for their OK Computer tour? Like to? Er yes! So we scrambled our dole money together to pay for the flights and we borrowed some gear from friends in Dublin and we headed off. This could be our
chance to turn things around.
live-waterrats-96x300pxl

“You’ve got 30 minutes, you go over we pull the plug”, the stage manager informed us and a moment later I was standing at last, centre stage at the Olympia, a life long dream. The heaving throng of Radioheads stared up expectantly.

Julianne’, probably the pinnacle of my self disgust distilled into 3 minutes of punk pop. Score. Genuine spontaneous audience buzz. Quick guitar change to retune and on with borrowed second guitar.

No time to fart around, into the 2nd song only…. guitar dead. Fiddle with leads, nothing, check pedals nothing. Minutes pass. The audience buzz is more impatient now. I call out to my friend Tom who was helping out with roadie stuff, to get back with my guitar. No response. “Tom” I call again trying to make light of it, “TOM” I roar more urgently. “Jaysis Tom, pull the finger out” a radiohead heckles from the stalls.

Laughter resolves to loud talking as I plead with the Radiohead crew standing in the wings for help, to no avail. At last Tom emerges, red faced and breathless. Turned out he had been refused permission to retune in the wings and had climbed 2 or 3 flights of stairs to the dressing room thinking he had a couple of songs to sort it out. Bottom line, 15 of our 30 minutes and that beautiful fleeting moment of triumph had been stolen from right under our noses.

We had time for one more song, which we executed proficiently and in a timely fashion. We climbed the stairs to our dressing room and sat in heavy silence, drinking our ‘rider’ (1/2 dozen warm beers), when a slightly down cast Bryce stuck his head around the door. “Well another typical Rhatigan gig” he said without irony. “Thanks for asking us anyway” I managed. He shrugged, “Don’t thank me, it was Thom’s idea”.

Finale no 3

A year or so later I found myself hob knobbing at some industry awards function or other in some Mayfair hotel or other when I bumped into Chris Hufford and entourage. He greeted me with open arms “Suzanne, how are you?” “Yeah great” I proffered, upon which he turned to his party and introduced me with the exuberance of a man plainly under the influence. ”Everyone this is Suzanne Rhatigan” a clumsy arm flung around my shoulders. “Suzanne is one of the most talented people I know. She should be a big star, but…” he said wistfully, “if it wasn’t for her”… He’s wagging a finger at me now… “she would be a huge star”.

I laughed it off and tried to wriggle free from his embrace. “Yeah” he repeated, “if it wasn’t for her…” his grip tightened, “see it’s in her eyes”, his eyes swam into mine, “it’s in your eyes”, he half whispered. “No problem” I said “I’ll close my eyes”. Which I did. “It’s no good, it’s no good,” he wailed. “It’s in your eyebrows”.

Well really, what the fuck can you do with that? I smiled, sort of, and prised myself away, comforted somewhat when I realised most of the others, who were at least as jarred as him, had resumed their conversations barely having noticed or heard.

But I heard.

I know I’m not alone among my human cousins when I focus on my failings and failures in life. I either don’t hear or see the compliments and small victories or I take too little joy in them, preferring to indulge in self-scorn. Proving to my self that I’m not the loser, I’m so ready to think I am, has been grist to my mill for too long. Hell even this blog moniker ’50 Greatest Misses’ is testament to that.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that surviving a career comprising one set back after another calamitous mistake should be celebrated. I find the situation funny, most of the time. I hold no bitterness toward the many people, professionals and friends who’ve played a part in some of these blogs, quite the contrary. Even the most humiliating and regretful moments in my life I treasure. They’re my stories and good or bad, I do love to tell a story.

Suzanne Rhatigan Vocals, Guitar…
John Morrison Bass…
Bryn Burrows Drums…

PS: ‘Julianne’ is on the ‘Big stick’ mini album, which is available for download on Bandcamp

PPS: Our valiant friend Tom Greenwood (of pull the finger out) died a few months after the gig. He was a lovely and talented man. Gone but not forgotten.

PPPS: I am currently in remission from M.A.D and hard at work in my studio on a new record. No really!

You don’t believe me? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjaYCIq5z3A

38. Coming To Get You (Elephant Song)

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38. Coming To Get You (Elephant Song)

S.Rhatigan/J.F Morrison © 1999

Tonight was perfection. Everything slotted effortlessly into place. A lock through a bolt a foot in a sock a spontaneous symbiotic moment in time. And yet… I’d planned it all my life…

Do things just happen or do we make things happen?

coming-to-get-you_1983_300pxl

Coming to get you 1983 Photographer Gerry Boyd

For years I’ve tried to make things happen with my music: I’ve hung out, I’ve schmoozed I’ve stuck my neck out, sucked my stomach in, played the game! In the mid eighties when I moved to London age 21 I was totally fearless, armed with my demo tape I literally banged on doors. I was like a hunter, ready to seize my moment at every opportunity. I would turn up at recording studios and eye up my prey…

The Receptionist. The most important person in the building. I’d ask her to listen to my demo. I knew even then how important the follow up is and it held no fear for me. I would call by regularly, hopefully during a quiet moment, get to chatting, leave another demo, eventually the phone would ring. I was in. Some of my most lucrative jobs as a session singer came directly through my relationship with the studio receptionist…

It’s simple really, in this business you need an advocate, that person who says to the others… ‘you should listen to this’. It’s very hard to be heard above the clamour of ‘wanna be’ when it’s just you saying you’re great… I’ve been very fortunate at times in my career to have just such people on my side. Many doors opened, many opportunities gifted. Yet as you might expect, plenty of opportunities missed due to bad luck or bad judgement!

Most of the connections I’ve made through the years have been engineered to one degree or another; a favour pulled for a chance to be seen or heard, a good support slot, a demo passed along etc etc. But by the mid nineties having done all the big record deal, big flop stuff with Imago, I was starting to feel like I was running out of second chances. It was getting harder to connect to new people who could respond to the music without knowing the history! Putting in those follow up calls was getting harder and harder too, but with the Late Developer album we really believed we had something special. There was nothing for it, we would have to go hunting or at least make the follow up call!

Case Study….

Coming To Get You 1999 Photographer Gina Birch

Late Developer had been released in early ’96 on Org Records and despite an initial buzz around the record by summer it started to fall away. We lacked resources for the kind of promotion and support we really needed. We needed an advocate, a manager. I remember John and I sitting in my flat trying to figure a way forward… lets think of one manager we would really love to have. We thought of bands at the top of their game and one immediately sprung to mind. Radiohead. So we decided to approach Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge of Courtyard Productions who looked after Radiohead and Supergrass at the time, aim high eh! We popped a copy of the album in the post.

That was as far as it went and like so many demos and flyers we had sent around previously we might never have followed up. However this was part of our strategy. We decided, that fateful Monday, that unlike all those other occasions, this time we would follow up. So a week later we sat together and I made the call.

Much to my surprise Chris answered the phone. I nervously explained who I was. “Sorry to hassle you”, I said “but I just want to know if you got the CD we sent? The bands name is Rhatigan, the album is Late Developer.” I said nothing else. There was a brief silence and he said “yes, I think I saw that lying around here somewhere”. “Good” I said, “that’s all I wanted to know. I hope you get a chance to listen to it, I won’t be calling back. Thanks, bye.” I hung up. I don’t think I threw up at that point but it was damn close. We switched off the phone and got on with recording or something when an hour or so later the answerphone clicked in and we heard Chris leaving a message. Following my bizarre phone call, they decided to dig out the album and put it on and yep, they liked it. They liked it a lot actually.

Things moved along quite smartly, we met up, they came to a few gigs, gave us time in their studio to demo some new material. Everything was going swimmingly. They talked about signing us to their production company and releasing us through Parlaphone just one last piece of the puzzle, we were to set up a gig, to which they would bring the relevant players and bish bosh bang… Deal!

Now ‘Rhatigan’ was ready for this, buoyed in our confidence with our new found advocates and having gigged regularly and practiced our asses off, we were tight as the proverbial knot… so when an opportunity to step into a cancellation slot at the Monarch in Camden came up, we didn’t hesitate to grab it. We rustled up an audience at short notice and a couple of days later our game changing gig was upon us.

That morning I awoke excited and confident until I noticed a soreness on the side of my nose, a pimple but not a pimple, nothing a bit of make up wouldn’t cover. I headed off for a swim. I was determined today was going to be perfect. By midmorning the pimple was more like an open sore and a bit, weepy, I was starting to feel a wee bit anxious….

When you look back over events and the way things pan out you see more clearly the opportunities you had along the way to alter the course you were on, but of course you don’t see those opportunities at the time. So when Bryce called me that afternoon with the guest list and asked me how I was, I jokingly described my disintegrating nose, to which he immediately suggested canceling and I said…“Cancel, that’s a bit extreme. Nah we’ll go for it, a bit more makeup it’ll be grand”.

By five o clock the seeping sore had spread in a crescent shape around my right nostril and formed a thick scab. Despite my efforts with makeup the best look I could achieve was a bulbous crusty protrusion a blind man on a galloping horse couldn’t miss. My nerves were gone. My judgement was clearly impaired. I decided, in my hysterical state, that the best option was to surgically remove the scab with my trusty Stanley knife, then quickly douse the open wound with powder and slap some makeup on, which I did, ignoring the searing pain, so determined I was, to make this gig work. But even before I left the house 10 minutes later the prosthetic had slid off and new yellow and green septic puss was crystallizing around my nose, growing exponentially! So, ever the pro, I brought the blade with me and performed the procedure again in the toilets at the pub minutes before I went on stage…

No matter how well prepared you are, shit just happens.

Despite my best efforts to ensure the best possible outcome for this make or break performance, self mutilation being just one, I had also, last minute, decided to change the strings on my guitar, to try and at least reduce the chance of string breakage, a regular occurrence due to the ferocity with which I assaulted the guitar. In fact we were constantly beset by technical mishaps at gigs and I wanted to do the best I could to avoid the gremlins tonight. However, I hadn’t allowed enough time for the new strings to settle…

I’m on stage, I’m not feeling great, there’s no turning back. I peek out from behind my hair, long enough back then thankfully, to partially cover the horrific car crash that is my nose, and I can see the room filling. Some familiar faces near the front and the silhouette of industry turn out shuffling around the other half of the room eying each other up. The tension is palpable there’s a lot at stake…

It’s the moment of truth, nerves shattered, festering sore to the fore, I launch myself at the opening chords of the 1st song… but far from the solid confident guitar intro we had rehearsed endlessly, a discordant clang, rings around the room. I look and sound like a demented zombie as I grapple to get my guitar in tune, half blinded by my hair, which by now is stuck to the septic oozing on my nose. John and Bryn play on heroically as I randomly squawk and screech my way through the first 2 tunes. It’s all over the place, a complete mess.

Our loyal rent a crowd cheer furiously, urging us on, their enthusiasm simply not commensurate with the appalling shambles they’re listening to. Then half way through the 3rd song something clicks… Fuck it… The rest of the set we’re on fire, but it’s too late. In that same moment I see the back of the room dissolve. The guest list has heard enough. They don’t wait for the moment when the challenger gets up from the floor and wins the championship fight with a knockout blow. It’s over. Our one shot… in the foot.

I’d like to comfort you and myself by telling you that particular debacle was a one off in my show case/gig history, but alas it’s not, there were more, many more, not quite so gruesome perhaps, but none the less disastrous! I won’t lie and tell you I bounced back from those setbacks even more determined and thick skinned. No. But, bounce back we did. We were bowed but not broken on that occasion for sure, but much more music was to come from Rhatigan as the band changed and expanded over the following few years. Fact is in life sometimes, you stick your neck out you get your face slapped, it’s how you come back that matters.

Coming to get you 2015 Photo Cait Fahey

Coming to get you 2015 Photo Cait Fahey

Still, the compulsion to sing and write and make music and to try to find an audience for that music pushes me out the door and into the bars and barber shops of Dublin on piss awful winter/summer days and nights to play. It’s a win win situation really. First, it makes me feel good, (I can’t stress the importance of this enough). Second I get to play my music and hear other music, and maybe one time, one person might hear something they like and that person might make a difference!

We wrote Coming To Get You aka (Elephant song) a few years after ‘nosegate’ by then Paul had replaced Bryn on drums and an ever evolving horn and string section were occasionally thrown head long into the fray. I love Paul’s shuffling drums, John’s brilliantly simple bass from which the song was written, and Jacqui’s Elephant trombone. This was one of those recordings I’ve always felt slightly frustrated by though. Like most of our output it was recorded on 8 track in Cushy Studios, my basement flat in London, and it felt to me like the track was constrained too much by the confines and of my living room, surrounded as we were by irate neighbours… So I recently updated the original recording with some more horns, guitars, BV’s and drums, and I’m quite pleased with the results, yeah quite pleased. I definitely sound like I’m up for the hunt, maybe be it’s time to go a hunting again!

Suzanne Rhatigan vocals guitar keyboards
John Morrison Bass
Paul Murphy drums
Jacqui Grace Trombone

PS: That wasn’t quite the end of the story with Courtyard, I’ll fill you in on the ‘finale’ soon!

PPS:  I get to try it all again on Friday night November 27th when I play an opening set for the wonderful Dr Millar upstairs at Whelans in Dublin onstage 8:45pm X