Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books,
and Songbooks by clicking here, or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
 

Letter from Lotusland

March 2015

 

       PARTIES AND THINGS.

      

       In 1955, the year I entered Bryanston School, there started in London a fantastical light musical, sweetly English, called “Salad Days”. There was nothing slick, clangy, slangy or American about it; Timothy and Jane, just down from university, meet and decide that no matter how much fun they had at college, “We said we wouldn’t look back”. Of course I’ve spent my life looking back and living there. I didn’t go along with the sentiment of the song. At any rate, Timothy asks what Jane has been up to. She replies breezily, “I’ve been awfully busy for parties and things”.

       What the “things” were I’ve no idea--possibly riding horses or trying out recipes—but the party world of gregarious gatherings was one I hadn’t yet entered. My older sister had, though. She was popular and in a flared skirt used to visit West End nightclubs, suitably escorted, where dance bands full of saxophones offered the rumba and cha cha and apple cheeked young men in cavalry twill jackets and Ascots bought their girls champagne perrys and petite smoked salmon sandwiches. My sister would come back with stories of the gay old times they’d had and I hoped that when I’d matured I’d be invited to nightclubs and dinner parties.

       I’d had an unfortunate start in society.

       My mother had planned a birthday party for my seventh birthday, in our flat at Wildcroft Manor, Putney Heath, London. Up till now I had been a happy and balanced enough child, polite and with a slight stammer when perturbed or suspected of lying. My younger brother Robin had had his party in January, greeting his best pals by wrestling them to the carpet as they entered the flat. Now it was a close summer day and maybe we should have been out on the common playing cowboy games, re-enacting a Hopalong Cassidy film. But we were indoors eating cakes and sandwiches and I don’t know what came over me--I suddenly wanted to be alone. I hated everybody. I went to my room, slammed the door and proceeded to smash all my presents followed by my favorite toys. After that I emerged looking calm and collected and returned to the party where I sang the latest hits to an appreciative audience .I felt relieved. But I knew I was a rank outsider, a member of no group or gang.

       Seven years later, growing up, almost mature, I was part of a dance party at a country club waiting for the arrival, fresh off the boat, of the sheet music to “My fair lady”. We were all frightfully excited to hear the songs from this Broadway smash. The band played and we foxtrotted. It was here I tried my first alcoholic drink- a Pimm’s cup—and my head whirligigged. I was in a strange but lovely new world.

       Every teen has to go through a bolshie stage and mine was most annoying. It took shape as arrogance and hypersensitivity.

The people from upstairs were down for drinks; one of the daughters was telling about her recent holiday in South Africa and how jolly and pretty it all was. I expressed deep shock and blurted out that no one should visit such a benighted country where blacks were oppressed. I achieved silence. My mother broke the ice by asking whether anybody would like more crisps or nuts or the other half of their drink. Later she reminded me that her father often holidayed in Cape Town and loved drinking the tart fresh air as it made him feel like a young man again. I was full of regrets over my outburst. Too much time with my bleeding heart school friends.

       This same grandfather, whom I admired very much for his humor and knowledge of old music hall songs, often took our family to dinner at a smart restaurant in Hammersmith called The Clarendon.I was 20 and still bolshie when, as pudding was being served, I observed that John Kennedy came from one of the richest families in America. My grandfather said I was talking bosh. I retorted contumaciously that he was dead wrong. Another awful silence, broken by my father leaving the table and my uncle telling me I could no longer holiday at the family caravan at the seaside that summer. However I made it up with my grandfather in the car going home to Wildcroft Manor and he wished me well as he downed his goodnight tumbler of Scotch.

       Four years later, after I had hit bulls eye with  “You Turn Me On’’ and was flush with cash, I treated him to lunch at an expensive seaside hotel in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. As I pulled out pound notes my grandfather proudly announced to the prune-faced woman at the front desk, “ This was all earned by my grandson”. She remained dried- up, unimpressed. He repeated his grand statement for all to hear, especially a group of jolly golfers in tasseled club caps. Then he added as an addendum, “cash up, no tick”. You must understand that “tick’ was a Victorian term meaning a tab or credit. Realizing he was not making progress he leaned close and said clearly,”cash up, no tick-- C-U-N-T to you”. At last she gave voice. “The idea!” The golfers moved off howling.

       I was honored to write the peroration for his funeral. My uncle read it out, breaking down at the end.

       In 1960s America I found a satisfying freedom from the social prison of England. I looked for the figures I had gloated over in comic books and action movies, big bold men in snappy uniforms with pneumatic blondes marching with them in a cloud of effulgence. Indeed, in post-war England, I had glimpsed some of my super models from afar.  The very word “American’ sounded bursting with magic and promise of violent thrills especially when you rolled the ”R’’.

       In America people seemed taken by my accent and more-or am I being disingenuous? Anyway, sex, which had hitherto played no part in my life, except in mind and eye, finally became a reality. I was entertaining at a coffee house in Seattle. One summer night, my 23rd birthday, a dark beauty approached and slipped me a calling card that read “your greenhouse or mine?” As I had no house or lair I accepted her offer. In her bohemian room we dallied till she told me, “Your accent is really turning me on”. This was a new image for me. You turn on a tap or a gramophone but never a person. We carried on in an exciting daze and later she assisted me into my first real sex adventure. It was all over so soon. But you’ll get better “in time”, she said comfortingly. But no good.  In one careless act I had left my old life behind, wrecked and gone forever with cowboy comics, cap guns and Mars bars after lunch in the dormitory rest period .I’d never be the same. Would she have a baby, oh horror of horrors? I sought advice from some Catholic friends and asked about joining their church. But as time went by and she didn’t become pregnant I bought tighter jeans and looked forward to repeating this tingly blood-surging experience.

        There were plenty of opportunities once I landed in Hollywood as a teen heartthrob in the summer of 1965. I found it bewildering and exciting because at school I had had a reputation as a cheerful fatty excluded from the glowing company of those well built, good- looking athletes admired by other boys and certain masters. I had longed to be attractive, if only to win the attention of other masters. And now here I was, a little late in that game, getting longing stares from teen go-go-dancers on my first TV shows. There was the luscious and nicely hipped Dale Vann, 17, on “Hollywood A Go-Go”. We had eyed each other and it was good. Our lovemaking lasted a year until she got drawn into a drug life and acted strange, telling me I was Eloi, an alien from a distant planet. Odd marks and weals were showing up on her face. I kept away from her for safety’s sake.

  In 1966, just as drugs and other nonsense were crouching ready to take over, I found my calling in old songs and ragtime. I was invited to invade a stage that had hitherto been a bastion of folk music—The Troubadour in West Hollywood. The owner, Doug Weston, warned that I might have trouble from enraged folkies seeing as how I was notorious for a suggestive rock song. But I had no trouble at all, indeed stoned customers returned again and again to enter my Alleyland where dwelt Robinson Crusoe, Lucky Jim, and assorted dogs.

       Doug invited me to a party one night after the evening show. He had a small house off Fountain Avenue near the club and all I had to bring was myself. The ‘things’ happened quite fast it seems to me in retrospect but they probably happened over hours and I had no sense of time. I was in a blur, a purple haze. Were there canapés and were cocktails offered?  I remember Doug’s black handyman was present, as well as his tall assistant lady, plus a girl who seemed free in every sense. I wished Dale had been there. Or my uncle.

       I listened to wise saws from Roger Miller, the hit country singer/songwriter. He quoted the last words of Wiley Post to Will Rogers on their fatal plane trip up North: “ Well Will, looks like we’ve got a purty day ahead of us…”

       The rest of the party is tenebrous. Was I an instigator or was I a willing object? Somehow I slipped from pleasantries into a writhing mass on a bed of sorts where hands were exploring everywhere. Could this be Doug Weston snorting and giggling close by? Perhaps he’d book me again soon at his club.  The free girl is without knickers but has a firm muscular body. I am in another world outside of this devilish melee, floating in a field above bales of hay, looking forward to high tea and toasted cheese and a walk with my dead dog Panda . I wake in stinging sunlight, wishing I was between crisp sheets in my Nichols Canyon house, the haunted one I share with my English friend David. Wish I had pajamas and toothbrush.

        The black man’s inviting me to pancakes and orange juice, out in the backyard where languish Roger Miller and the free girl, all laid right back as if normal. There they are in the 1966 snapshot. It really happened. Yes, parties and things--- but a million miles from the warm and decent milk of “Salad Days”.

      

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books,
and Songbooks by clicking here, or by going to ianwhitcomb.com