Tribute to a Paisley Troubadour and Other Biographical essays for Helium
“Tribute to a Paisley Troubadour and Other Biographical Essays (for Helium)”, were all written especially for the Helium.com website of which I'm a Charter Member in early 2011, while being subject to some modification in the June of the following year.
1. Born in a Cabin in Cuyahoga County
James Abram Garfield may be less spoken of today in comparison to many of those who have held the office of President of the United States, but the 20th man to do so led an extraordinary and brilliant life despite the most humble beginnings.
Indeed, he was born in a log cabin in Cuyahoga County, Ohio on the 19th of November 1831 into a family affiliated to the Disciples of Christ denomination, also known as the Christian Church. His father, Abram Garfield, died when he was less than two years old and he was subsequently raised by his French-American mother Eliza Ballou. As well as French, he was of Welsh ancestry, and English by dint of being a descendant of Mayflower passenger and convicted murderer John Billington.
Aged 16, he worked for six weeks as a canal driver near the big city of Cleveland, before illness forced him home where, at the Geauga Academy, he discovered a taste for academia, which led to his being offered a teaching post in 1849, which he accepted. A year later, he returned to churchgoing, which he had neglected for some years, and he was subsequently baptised.
From 1851 to '54, he was a student at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute - now known as Hiram College - founded by the Disciples of Christ in Hiram, Ohio, where he developed a special interest in Greek and Latin, and ended up teaching there, while serving as a preacher in local churches, then at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1856. But he decided against preaching as a vocation, returning instead to the Eclectic Institute, where he taught Classical languages. Then, while still only in his mid-twenties, he was elected principal in 1857, a position he held until 1860.
By this time, he'd been married for a short time to Lucretia Rudolph, one of his more brilliant Greek pupils, who went on to bear him seven children, and had begun the study of Law, being admitted to the Ohio bar in 1860. This took place soon after he'd entered politics for the first time, becoming elected an Ohio state senator in 1859, and serving as such for two years.
When the Civil War began in April 1861, he was still under thirty years old, despite an already incredibly full professional life. He subsequently joined the Union Army, and was given command of the 42cnd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. On January 11th 1862, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier, and in that same year was elected by the Republicans to the United States House of Representatives. By the time he resigned his commission to take his seat in congress, he'd been promoted to major general.
He was elected the 20th president of the United States in March 1881, an office he held for only a matter of months before being shot by a one-time lawyer and political office seeker by the name of Charles J. Guiteau.
Garfield survived the attempt on his life, and was bedridden for several weeks in the White House, before being moved to the Atlantic Coast of New Jersey in September in the hope that the fresh air might provoke a recovery, but this was not to be and he died on the 19th of that month from what may have been a heart attack exacerbated by blood poisoning and bronchial pneumonia.
It could be said that James A. Garfield lacks the legendary status of a Lincoln or a Kennedy, but by any standards known to man, he was remarkable in achievement and courage. Born in a log cabin, he rose to the highest political office in the world, becoming the only serving church minister to do so. As well as a preacher, he was a fighter for justice, and vocal opponent of slavery. And he was still only 49 when he died, with so much potential yet unfulfilled.
2. Tribute to a Paisley Troubadour
The deeply talented Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty (1947-2011) remains best known for his signature tune "Baker Street" (1978), as well as a series of hits he enjoyed as one half, along with Joe Egan, of the duo Stealer's Wheel, the most famous of which was "Stuck in the Middle" from 1972.
He was born the son of a coal miner and truck driver of Irish extraction, and a Scottish mother, in Paisley on the Lowlands of Scotland on the 16th of April 1947. In 1963, he left school whereupon he is believed to have worked first in a butcher's shop, and then as a clerical worker, while in the midst of the most mythologized decade of recent times he'd play in a Rock band called the Mavericks with former schoolfriend Joe Egan.
At some point, evidently inspired by both the Irish and Scottish folk songs he heard as a boy, and the iconic music of sixties legends the Beatles and Bob Dylan, he began writing his own songs.
In '66, at a time Pop was mutating into Rock, Rafferty was a member of the band The Fifth Column, again with Egan, releasing a single which failed to set the Pop charts on fire. Three years later, he hooked up with future comedy legend and actor Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey in a folk band called the Humblebums, recording two well received albums with Connolly alone for Transatlantic Records, but they split in 1970.
Rafferty then went on to the first phase of his solo career. While enjoying critical acclaim with the first album released under his own name, "Can I Have My Money back" in 1971, commercial success continued to elude him. That is until 1972, when he joined up with his old friend Joe Egan in Stealer's Wheel, who had a hit on both sides of the Atlantic - number 8 in the UK and 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 - with "Stuck in the Middle" featuring a lead vocal by Egan that seemed to fuse the talents of both Bob Dylan and John Lennon; while Rafferty supplied the harmony.
"Stuck in the Middle" was followed by two further hits in the shape of "Everyone Agreed That Everything Will Turn Out Fine" (1973), and the gorgeously melodic "Star" (1974), featuring stunning harmony work by Rafferty and Egan. But for all their success, they disbanded in 1975, after having only recorded three albums, "Stealer's Wheel" from 1972, "Ferguslie Park" from '74 and "Right or Wrong" from '75. They reformed without Rafferty or Egan in 2008.
Three years later, Rafferty enjoyed his biggest ever hit with the autobiographical "Baker Street", widely considered to be a masterpiece and for good reasons, not least the memorable sax solo - written by Rafferty himself - by Raphael Ravenscroft, and Rafferty's own sweetly mournful vocal, to say nothing of touching lyrics evoking both restlessness and hope. It was a massive worldwide success, reaching number 3 on the UK charts, and number 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
The album from which it was taken, "City to City" sold over 5.5 million copies, ousting the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever" from the American top spot on the 8th of July 1978, and turning Rafferty into a major in the process.
Further hits from the album followed in the shape of "Home and Dry" and "Right Down the Line", which reached no. 28 and 12 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1979.
Despite his purported discomfort with his new found star status, Rafferty enjoyed further success with the album "Night Owl" (1979) which yielded several hit singles in both the UK and US, although subsequent albums were less successful, a situation which may have been exacerbated by Rafferty's alleged dislike of performing live. His final album "Life Goes On" was released in 2009.
He was married to Carla Ventilla between 1970 and 1990, while his later years were marked by a fierce struggle with depression and alcoholism. In late 2008, he checked himself into St Thomas' Hospital, London, suffering from a chronic liver condition; and some two years later, was admitted to the Royal Bournemouth Hospital, passing away at home on the 4th of January 2011 of liver failure. He is survived by his brother Jim, daughter Martha, and granddaughter Celia. A tragic end; but as in the cases of all gifted artists of renown, his work lives on.
Speaking as a former problem drinker myself who has nonetheless barely touched a drop of alcohol since 1993, the year I came to saving faith in Jesus Christ, I feel a very special compassion towards those, such as Gerry Rafferty, who've not so fortunate as I in terms of conquering a dependence on a drug which is still widely seen as the most dangerous of all.
3. Pinteresque (A Controversial Artistic Legacy)
Harold Pinter is a serious candidate for the greatest British playwright of the last two centuries. And that he was also a proficient poet, composer of short stories, screen writer director and actor can only serve to enhance his already magnificent reputation.
He even lent his name to an adjective, Pinter-esque...implying typical of his style, which while heavily indebted to several traditions existent within the Modernist avant-garde prior to his initial success, yet remains impossible to successfully explain.
And among those traditions one might include the Dadaist, Surrealist and Absurdist schools. But these were preceded by a kind of snickering nihilistic humour that thrived in Parisian avant garde circles towards the end of the 19th Century, and which has been termed "l'esprit fumiste".
Although even this spirit was not without precedents...having been arguably evident, for example, in the bourgeois-baiting attitudes of the young Gautier when he was the leader of a band of extreme Romantics in 1830s Paris. Just as Gautier passed the baton to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Jarry, Artaud and so on.
So, what does Pinter-esque - a term Pinter himself found altogether “meaningless” - actually signify?
In providing a response to this question, mention could be made of the almost high poetic inventiveness and verbal virtuosity lurking beneath a veneer of banality. As well as the rich dark surreal wit laced with a constant sense of impending violence characteristic of his earliest plays of the so-called “Comedy of Menace”. But doing so does little to elucidate precisely what it is that makes his work so unique. So perhaps a return to his early years might be in order.
He was born - in October 1930 - in Hackney, East London, to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, and first attempted to make his way in life on the stage, learning his trade both at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts, and the Central School of Speech and Drama...and as a jobbing actor in the early to mid 1950s.
But an early step towards success as a dramatist came in 1957 when his first play, “The Room” was performed at Bristol University in the south west of England under the directorship of his close childhood friend Henry Woolf.
By this time he’d been married for a year to the young Yorkshire-born actress Vivien Merchant (1929-1982), who would go on to illumine some of his most famous productions for television with a uniquely attractive screen presence.
The following year, their son Daniel was born. While his second play “The Birthday Party” was produced at the Lyric Studio in the West London district of Hammersmith, and was both a critical and financial failure, closing after only a handful of performances.
And yet, once it had done so, it received a review in the Sunday Times by drama critic Harold Hobson, who described Pinter as possessing “the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London,” which all but salvaged his career.
He followed “The Birthday Party” with “The Hothouse”, which would not be seen on the London stage until 1980, and “The Dumb Waiter” which was produced as part of a double bill with “The Room”. But it would take “The Caretaker” to make Pinter’s name in Britain on the eve of the most feted decade since the twenties, during which he became increasingly involved with television and the cinema. While “The Collection” followed a year later.
And the first of his works to be broadcast on TV was the one-act play “A Night Out”, featuring himself and his wife Vivien, to be followed by “Night School”, while “A Slight Ache” and “The Dwarfs” also date from this period, although neither were televised. Unlike “The Lover”, which was broadcast in March 1963, the totemic year the Beatles ascended to fame in the UK, and in which the ‘60s could truly be said to have begun in a cultural sense.
It featured Alan Badel and Vivien Merchant as a suburban couple seeking to spice up a stale marriage with role-playing games. And although it was tame by contemporary standards, it chimed perfectly with the times, and thence could be said to be part of the first stirrings of the Swinging Sixties social revolution, together with the Pop explosion spearheaded by the Beatles, the first Bond movies, and such trendily sophisticated TV series’ as “The Avengers”.
In that same year, Pinter wrote the screenplay for the film version of Robin Maugham’s “The Servant”, which kick-started a lasting artistic relationship with director Joseph Losey.
Starring matinee idol Dirk Bogarde in the titular role, its themes of darkness and decadence, which were becoming increasingly prevalent in the cinema at the time, still have the power to astound and disturb today.
Also in this year of Beatlemania and the onset of London as the world’s cultural epicentre, a celluloid version of “The Caretaker” was produced under the direction of Clive Donner, and starring Alan Bates, Donald Pleasance and Robert Shaw.
A year later, in ’64, the year of the Beatles’ invasion of America, Pinter provided a screenplay for another seminal sixties movie, the last of these being “The Quiller Memorandum”, directed by Michael Anderson in 1965, with George Segal in the title role. While “The Pumpkin Eater”, directed by Jack Clayton from the novel by Penelope Mortimer, starred Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft.
At the same time, Pop was starting to mutate piecemeal into the far darker and harder music of Rock, and so it could be said that the more innocent phase of the ‘60s came to a close…an event reflected not just by its music, but its cinema.
And it was in the totemic year of ’65 that “Tea Party”, based on one of Pinter’s short stories, was broadcast on TV under the direction of Charles Jarrott, and again featuring his wife Vivien in the lead female role.
While Vivien also featured in “Accident”, whose screenplay was the second Pinter wrote for Joseph Losey, this time from the novel by Nicholas Mosley, and again starring Dirk Bogarde. And in that same year of ’67, Peter Hall’s production of “The Collection” reached Broadway, winning four Tony awards in the process, and turning Pinter into an international celebrity.
Also in ’67, “The Basement” had its première on BBC TV, again directed by Jarrott; and the following year, American director William Friedkin made a film version of “The Birthday Party” featuring Robert Shaw in the lead role of the beleaguered Stanley.
While Pinter himself moved beyond the Comedy of Menace to the so-called Memory Plays of 1968-1982, which went on to include “Landscape” (1968), “Silence” (1969), “Night” (1969), “Old Times” (1971), “No Man's Land” (1975), “The Proust Screenplay” (1977), “Betrayal” (1977), “Family Voices” (1981), “Victoria Station” (1982) and “A Kind of Alaska” (1982).
1970 saw Pinter produce a screenplay for yet another classic British movie in the shape of “The Go-Between”. Based on the novel by L.P Hartley, and starring sixties beautiful people Julie Christie and Alan Bates, as well as a youthful Dominic Guard in the title role, it was the last of his fruitful three-picture collaboration with Joseph Losey.
And further into the decade, Peter Hall directed a film version of “The Homecoming”, again featuring his wife Vivien, as well as Ian Holm, Paul Rogers and Cyril Cusack.
While in ’76, a second Scott Fitzgerald novel was made into a movie, this time with a screenplay by Pinter. Yet while “The Great Gatsby” was a box office success despite receiving merely average reviews, Elia Kazan’s “Tycoon” was a commercial failure, despite being considered an artistic triumph by some critics.
A year later, with Punk Rock raging through Britain, another television version of “The Lover” appeared as a visitor from an earlier more innocent age with Patrick Allen replacing Alan Badel as the Lover; while Vivien Merchant reprised her original role as the Mistress.
While in ’78, a television version of the original Old Vic production of “No Man’s Land”, directed by Sir Peter Hall and featuring theatrical giants Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson was broadcast by the BBC.
In 1980, Pinter married his second wife, the historian and novelist Lady Antonia Fraser, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his life.
And a year later, he produced what was perhaps his most famous ever screenplay for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, directed by Karel Reisz from the novel by John Fowles, and featuring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep in star-making performances.
In 1983, another Pinter screenplay was made into a major motion picture, which was the critically acclaimed “Betrayal”, based on his own play under the directorship of David Hugh Jones, and starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge.
By this time, Pinter was moving into the final phase of his writing career, during which his plays would become more flagrantly critical of injustice and repression. While this period would be preceded by the revival of “The Hothouse” in 1980, once allegedly shelved for being too political, its first full fruit was “One for the Road”, which premiered at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith in 1984 under the directorship of Pinter himself.
It would be succeeded by “Mountain Language” (1988), “Party Time” (1991), “Moonlight” (1993), “Ashes to Ashes” (1993), and his final play, “Celebration” from the first year of the new millennium.
At the same time, his screenwriting life proceeded apace, and he’d continue producing notable work for the cinema, such as his 1990 screenplays for “The Handmaid’s Tale”, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and “The Comfort of Strangers”, directed by Paul Schrader, both dark and disturbing pieces based on highly acclaimed contemporary novels, by Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan respectively.
While his final contribution to the cinema came in 2007, when the celebrated British actor Jude Law commissioned him to write a screenplay for a second movie version of Anthony Scaeffer’s “Sleuth” to be directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Law and Michael Caine. By which time Pinter had been increasingly involved in political issues for almost two decades, having been opposed to the Gulf War of 1991, the Kosovo Conflict of 1998-‘99, the 2001 War in Afghanistan, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
By the time he died in December 2008, Harold Pinter had left a quite phenomenal - if controversial - artistic legacy, which saw him being garlanded with multiple awards, including the CBE in 1966, and the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1995, although he refused a knighthood in 1996.
And enthusiasm for his work show no signs of abating, despite the fact that it could be seen as very much of its time by virtue of its admirable lack of shock tactics, in comparison, that is, to so much of the theatre that came in its wake. And it’ll be a long time before Britain produces a playwright of the stature of Harold Pinter…a very long time.
Afterword: Descent into the Hothouse
In September 1994, I successfully auditioned for a newly formed fringe theatre group called Grip based at the Rose and Crown pub in Kingston for the role of Roote in Harold Pinter's then relatively unknown play, "The Hothouse".
Written in 1958, it wasn't performed until 1980, when it was directed by Pinter himself for London’s Hampstead and Ambassador Theatres.
From the auditions onwards, I gelled with the director because while most of the auditions I'd attended up to this point had hinged on the time-honoured method of the actor performing a piece from memory before a panel of interviewers, he had us reading from the play in small groups, which enabled us to attain a basic feel for the character and so feel like we were actually acting rather than coldly reciting. For me, this is the only way to audition.
Once he'd told me the part of Roote was mine, I devoted myself to his vision of Roote, the pompous yet deranged director of an unnamed English psychiatric hospital: the Hothouse of the title. He demanded of me an interpretation of Roote which was deeply at odds with my usual highly Method-oriented, subtle, intense, introspective and yet somehow also emotionally vehement approach to acting, but his directorial instincts were spot-on, as his production went on to receive spectacular reviews not just in the local press, but in the international listings magazine Time Out. An amazing triumph for a humble fringe show.
I'd become a Christian the previous January, so struggled a little with the play's darker aspects, despite the fact that by contemporary standards, it’s mild indeed.
Yet in later years there was nothing even remotely mild about Pinter in terms of his political beliefs, which were marked by an intensity of conviction which stood in marked contrast to the restraint he manifested through most of his art.
And I’ve no desire to discuss the source of this intensity, nor whether I believe it to have been justified or otherwise. But what I will say is that as a Christian, I believe the only true lasting solution to the evils of the world lies not in art or philosophy, science or politics, or whatever other field of human endeavour one might care to consider, but a change of heart, or repentance, born of faith in Christ, and faith in Christ alone.
And until such a change occurs, the world may seem a place of total absurdity to those whose extreme intellectual brilliance draws them inexorably towards examining it with a laser-like eye, an eye which can produce such magnificent works of art as Camus’ “L’Etranger”, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, and the earliest plays of Harold Pinter...all unassailable masterpieces of Absurdism...and yet all ultimately so tragic as such. At least how I see it.
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