Show where you stand by sporting this lapel badge (one inch colour button badge). This is a non-profit sale and the price of £2.50 includes UK postage. Click here – you don’t need a Paypal account, just use your credit or debit card if you don’t have Paypal. Please tell any of your friends that they can order here too. Best to send them the direct link to here as it might be difficult to find otherwise. Thanks!
Why I Am A European
My father was a linguist and used his skills in the Intelligence Corps during the war to help defeat the Nazis. I was born in 1948 and from quite a young age, I always remember meeting people from other European countries. My mother had taken in Polish refugees in Scotland during the war and I remember a particular friend of my parents called Oki, who owned a Polish restaurant in London where we would occasionally go. He gifted me a set of Russian dolls which I found completely fascinating.
When we moved to the Cotswolds when I was four, various neighbours had au pairs from Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany. We couldn’t afford au pairs but somehow they gravitated to our house, possibly because Father could speak to them in their languages. This meant that my parents made many much-loved friends in Europe, even though they didn’t travel much themselves, and these lovely people would always visit us when passing and send us Christmas gifts.
When I started secondary school, I was mediocre in most subjects but immediately took to languages. I have a very strong memory of my French teacher, whose nickname was Prune. He would write declensions and conjugations on the blackboard at extraordinary speed and it was noticeable that I enjoyed copying then down and learning them while most of my classmates didn’t. As soon as it was possible to take up a second language, I opted for German and immediately realised that I would be destined to do something with this language in my adult life. There was something so orderly, respectable and logical about the language and I loved it even when I had to move to a different teacher, a tiny gentleman call Willie Waters who shared Prune’s lightning blackboard skills but had a short temper. I just found it easy and very satisfying to make progress, even through the A-levels which entailed painstaking word-by-word analysis of extremely tedious works by Goethe and Schiller.
In my mid-teens, Father took me to France with the intention of encouraging my linguistic tendencies. We stayed in a small hotel in a town called Mantes-La-Jolie outside Paris, where I was supposed to make friends with the proprietor’s son. I actually didn’t get on particularly well with him but was completely entranced by the other-worldliness of this country with its different architecture, customs and cuisine. Later on, I was sent on a summer course in Tours in the Loire valley, where I got my first minor taste of an adult experience, meeting people from a range of different countries. I stayed with a sweet family who were incredibly kind and generous to me in every way. This was where I learnt to be consistently outward-looking throughout my entire adult life. Although I happen by chance to have been born British, I have never had nationalistic feelings at all. Having been privileged to travel so much, I just adore the various cultures.
The following summer brought a completely life-changing exchange visit to a small town called Schöningen, right on the East German border. I was able to see the armed DDR guards and the border wall at close hand and form the clear opinion that cutting oneself off from other countries for ideological reasons was a terrible, inhuman thing to do. The way I was welcomed in Schöningen was absolutely wonderful. Everybody was bursting with hospitality and friendliness and I made numerous lifelong friendships with people like Detlev, Brigitte, Christa and Knut. Of course I ended up studying languages at university, where many of the lecturers were from France or Germany. The course was actually called European studies, a very early example of such a concept, and more and more I came to feel more European than British. This was solidified during the most fantastic ‘year abroad’ in the Baltic sea port of Kiel, where I made yet more lifetime friends like Jochen, Ilse and Albrecht. I loved it so much that I went there for another year after completing my degree.
I very much wanted to stay on but this was in pre-EU days and my qualifications wouldn’t have been recognised. Therefore I returned to the UK to do a PGCE teaching certificate and, as soon as that was completed, hightailed it back to Germany, where I was privileged to teach English for three years in a state grammar school. Once again, the way I was received was full of warmth and hospitality. I have to say I loved every minute of it and have remained close friends with colleagues and ex-pupils – in fact so close that I ended up marrying one particular ex-pupil nearly forty years ago. During this period, a colleague and I spent each holiday hitch-hiking round Europe, visiting a total of nine countries and marvelling at our freedom to do so without hindrance. The only exception was Berlin, where my (now) wife and I had to split up and use different ways into the East, because she was German and I was English. Never in a million years would we have dreamt that, forty years later, an extremist regime would once again inflict this indignity on us, and that that regime would be a British one.
I was now intending to make my life and career in this very orderly and friendly society, but at the end of the three years, a political situation grew up and, even though by then we had entered the EU, it was possible for the authorities to terminate my contract and hand it to a German national. Not even thousands of people protesting on the streets were able to change this, and a return to the UK was the only option.
Back in the UK, I landed on my feet in a major way by ending up in a school whose head teacher was a linguist who was utterly committed to the European ideal. Languages were a very important part of the curriculum and for over twenty years I taught in that comprehensive school where all the pupils were very open-minded and there was never the slightest trace of any anti-European feelings. Part of my duties entailed taking annual exchange visits to Germany, and to this day I regularly get ex-pupils telling me that it was one of the most important events of their young lives. We even took a large group to Paris each year and their wide eyes and smiles showed how much they enjoyed and appreciated being exposed to a new culture. I was able to spend a blissful term teaching in a secondary school in France on an EU-organised teacher exchange programme. There I had the same experience as when I taught in Germany: well-behaved, polite and enthusiastic pupils, unhindered by things such as ridiculous uniforms and an excellent social mix, because private, fee-paying schools are almost unknown. There was a great international mix, too, with a good proportion of Portuguese and North African pupils, all speaking perfect French.
Eventually, I quit teaching because my little publishing company had become quite successful. Every single aspect of that company was European, creating reading, listening and speaking resources that enabled so many ex-pupils again to tell me, when I met them in the street, how they were able to communicate on holiday and how much they adored visiting various European countries and being part of them, because of course by then the UK was a full member of the EU. Naturally, both our children are bilingual and massive fans of everything European, particularly their German family and French food!
I know a certain amount about the culture of most European countries but I know most about Germany. What sets that country apart from the UK is that it’s an almost entirely egalitarian society, structured so that few people earn vastly more than others, and there’s a very strong sense of social responsibility in matters such as the environment and education. The gigantic social gaps that are found in this country don’t exist in the same way, and there’s very little in the way of what we know as our class system. No wonder, then, that I am attracted to that kind of society and repelled by the kind of government this country currently has in place, presiding internally over obscene inequality and externally over policies of isolationism and xenophobia.
At the moment, of course, people are naturally concerned about the effects of Brexit on the level of the economy and their personal day-to-day well-being, worried about food shortages, increased bureaucracy, transport issues, pet passports and goodness knows what else. Of course I am worried about these things too, but I hope I have shown above that the most hateful aspect of Brexit is the arrogance and snobbishness that looks down its nose at foreigners. If any Brexiteer tells you “I’m not a racist”, it’s almost certain that he or she is lying or self-delusional. Go on any forum and ask them to explain what advantages will be gained from Brexit and they are completely incapable of coming up with any, other than meaningless platitudes about “sovereignty”, which they can’t explain. It’s nationalism, plain and simple. They are perfectly happy to be ruled over by unelected bureaucrats, as long as they are British unelected bureaucrats. They have no problem at all with the House Of Lords and the Monarchy so yes, they are racist, even though they may not recognise it in themselves. So, for me, it’s all on a personal level rather than a macro-level, and I was casting around to find some sentences to express my feelings when I came across a comment on a Facebook forum that did it for me. I have copied it and reproduce it here now:
“It’s so sad that Brexiteers never saw that the EU was about people, to give them as many freedoms and rights as possible, to live, work and love freely in any EU nation. The EU is far more than just trade. It’s about its people’s lives, and how they want to live. Brexit has taken away all this from us, and given us absolutely nothing in return”.
And this is it for me. It’s about people, human interactions and civilized, open-minded behaviour. People who go on about nebulous concepts such as sovereignty are comparable in my mind to religious fanatics, in that they are committed to believing in something that doesn’t actually exist.
One thing I struggle with is that I believe in tolerance and understanding and reaching out to others. This was a hallmark of my Sixties generation, so it’s particularly horrifying to note that people of my generation, whose parents, like my father, fought for the chance to remove animosity from Europe, now display exactly such animosity. Logically, my policy of tolerance should make me feel warm towards Brexit supporters and forgive them for what they have done. This is where I realize that I am a much harder person then I thought I was. These people have deliberately inflicted pain, inconvenience and cruelty on other human beings for no logical reason, and for that I will never forgive them.
They’re coming your way, so you’d better get ready. I’m talking about a new band from Southampton, UK called the Delays. Melodic pop-rock from a band with perfect hairstyles is always in with a chance of crossing over, and the Delays have a better chance than most. But what is most shocking about them is that they cite their main musical influence as the Hollies.
It’s fair enough. Like the Hollies did when they started out (and much like recent Amplifier cover stars the Cooper Temple Clause), the Delays pay massive attention to their hair and how it looks. Most importantly, though, they specialise in harmonies and high-pitched lead vocals from singer Greg Gilbert. Not Muse-style falsetto, but a Graham Nash high harmony. They sound lovely.
The Hollies are out on a fortieth anniversary tour right now. It takes them all over the world, including the US where, lest we forget, they once enjoyed a number one chart hit with “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”. Graham Nash, no longer with them but stull on great terms, has a travelling exhibition of his brilliant black and white photos doing the rounds, very well worth a visit if you get a chance. Nash and his various projects have always been considered cool, but the Hollies never achieved this cachet. If it’s okay for the Thrills to be proud of sounding like the Beach Boys, then well done to the Delays for rehabilitating the Hollies. And congratulations to Amplifier for never having been afraid to include the Hollies in their musical orbit.
Well, the other day, I got to meet one of my childhood heroes, namely Bobby Elliott, the Hollies drummer. Bobby it was who was indirectly responsible for my receiving a beating from my Latin teacher, who cought me thwacking out the drum part to “Stay” with my fingers on the school desk. Bobby had heard about this injustice and wanted to make it up to me. It was amazing how many of my friends were insanley jealous, I guess because Bobby is quietly acknowledged as one of the great rock drummers, certainly head and shoulders above most Sixties tub-thumpers. But what they all wanted to know above all was “Is he really bald?”
Listen, of course Bobby Elliott is bald. He was bald from the very beginning, which was always a problem for Hollies photo sessions. Currently, he sports a baseball cap, but previous attempts at disguise have included a straw hat, a fedora and, during the seventies, a very obvious blonde wig. Nowadays, with image at a premium, it would present an even bigger problem, Could you see the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand or the Delays with a bald member? I don’t think so.
The Hollies put on a tremendous show, featuring brain-scrambling psychedelic back-projections, a slight anomaly from this most undruggy of bands. The music is intact but nowadays increasingly incongruous. Last year, singer Allan Clarke retired to nurse his ill wife (retirement from a band being another previously unknown concept) and was replaced by Carl Wayne from The Move. Despite his excruciating cabaret patter, he does provide the opportunity for a selection of Move songs, reminding us what a fine band they were. Unfortunately, the bassist from Mud is also present, and we don’t really need a selection from them as well.
With the obvious exception of Bobby, hairstyles, playing skills and above all, the harmonies, are reassuringly intact. Not many of us will be around to see it, but here’s hoping the Delays will make it to their 40th anniversary tour. And that none of them will be bald.
From Amplifer magazine
There are three things I’d expected never to do in 2003. Number One was to experience Richard Thompson playing “Shoot Out The Lights” in full majestic electric flight. Number two was to experience Yes playing “Seen All Good People” live on a Sunday afternoon. And Number Three was to hear The Damned playing “Neat Neat Neat” in a full-on adrenaline rush at midnight. And guess what, I did all three within twenty-four hours at this year’s Glastonbury Festival.
I’ll be frank. I wasnt really looking forward to the 2003 event, mainly because all the headliners had already played Glastonbury in recent years, some several times: David Gray, Manic Street Preachers, REM, Doves, etc., etc. It seems that the organisers, in the knowledge that they sell all 120,000 tickets within hours anyway, have become complacent about their booking policy. Either that or there aren’t any superstars around any more. What? Radiohead? Yes, they were there too, but I don’t go to festivals to get depressed.
So strolling round the smaller stages was a deliberate policy this year, and how rewarding it turned out to be. On Sunday, the Acoustic Stage saw not only the return of Cerys Matthews, but also the birth of a new one in the form of Welsh chanteuse Amy Wadge. Neither of them are a patch on the the old Catatonia, unfortunately. Brilliant New York ex-punk Jesse Malin rocked himself a UK profile in the “New Tent” with a wild and wonderful performance which included a real Glastonbury Moment in the form of “What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”. I nearly cried. On the “Other Stage”, The excellently funky The Rapture were joined onstage by the Happy Mondays’ Bez, looking disturbingly like Roger Daltrey. Shortly before, Arthur Lee with Love, all looking suitably baffled, had played the whole of “Forever Changes”. Chuck Prophet, on the “One World” stage, wowed his devotees in the pouring rain, while remaining sprightly and dapper in a dogtooth jacket. He splattered mean and dirty guitar lines around like shrapnel and climaxed with a singalong version of the Clash’s “Bank Robber”. This was just one of hundreds of Strummer tributes which movingly punctuated the weekend, this having been Joe’s favourite stamping ground. The New Stage also featured a real tip for big future things in the form of intelligent Mancunian Gallagher lookalikes I Am Kloot. Up at the Acoustic Stage, I finally got the reason why Kathleen Edwards has so impressed North America. First, it’s the upfront sexual chemistry between her and guitarist boyfriend Colin Cripps, and second, everyone likes a nice spot of Neil Young.
Meanwhile, on the bigger stages, we found all those American bands which play a variation on prog-rock with high-pitched vocals, multiple time signature changes, sumptuous keyboards and soaring melodies. Well, that’s Yes, isnt it? It’s also the Polyphonic Spree (whose impact was diminished in direct relation to their desire to please), the Flaming Lips (who grabbed all this year’s festival headlines on account of being themselves, but now more people have belatedly discovered their beauty and charm) and, of course, California’s Grandaddy. This last band, having so comprehensively failed at SxSW, had pulled themselves together to the extent that their performance was rated by them, and the audience, as their best ever. Emotion hung heavily in the air as even that awkward old sod Jason Lytle allowed himself a few smiles. And Christ, were they loud. To think that this band used to be famous for their quietness. Main stage next year, beyond a doubt, and deservedly so.
REM were REM, David Gray was David Gray and Radiohead (so I understand) were Radiohead.
Really bad things: Do you know, there weren’t any really bad things about Glastonbury 2003. Apart from Alison Moyet, who has completely lost it.
Really good things: The charming inability of any Americans to pronounce “Glastonbury”. To a person (Wayne Coyne, Michael Stipe, even Macy Gray), they invented a new form of fruit called a “Glastonberry”; Mogwai, genuinely playing “Happy Songs For Happy People” – who would have thought that?; David Gray’s magnificent observation that, “It doesn’t matter where you are, it always makes you feel better if you say Fuck Tony Blair”; Captain Sensible’s equally magnificent observation: “Fuck Radiohead”; The Waterboys‘ “Whole Of The Moon”, live in all its glory on a sunny afternoon; and the fact that, when Yes’s bassist John Squire brought out his triple-headed guitar, the entire audience, instead of whispering “far out, man”, simply screamed with laughter.
See you next year, 6 pm at the Cider Bus.
From Amplifier magazine
I started sxsw 2016 with a nasty throat infection, which I blamed on the vicious ventilation on the plane. Was that why I found the music less interesting this year? I don’t think so, because it’s a brilliant event and I had a huge amount of fun, but somehow things didn’t click for me musically as much as usual.
First, all the good stuff. There were a couple of unique events that I’ll never forget. One was a “Song And Tell” session with Mercury Rev at the Ginger Man Pub. This took the form of Jonathan Donahue interviewing Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde and the band performing – sublimely – three songs: Holes, All Is Dream and Opus 40. It’s hard to describe how exciting it was to be close up with a band that more usually has to be approached through a mass of smoke and strobes. Indeed, that was the case just 24 hours later, as they performed a panoramic 90 minute greatest hits set at the Hotel San Jose. The bass was so loud that the ground quaked beneath us, which must have frightened off the assembled Texans, because at the end, I turned round to see that two thirds of the audience had left. Lightweights.
The other extraordinary experience came courtesy of Timmy Thomas. At the age of seventy, and having spent the last 20 years teaching music, Timmy’s career has experienced a sudden revival on account of “Why Can’t We Live Together” being sampled by Drake. Things got off to a strange start at Austin’s iconic Saxon Pub with Timmy lecturing us about world peace for ten minutes, not realising his mic hadn’t been switched on. But before long, his sublime band kicked in and hit a groove that had the place in ecstasy for an hour. It was such a privilege to be there.
Anyway, the whole point of sxsw is to check out new music and up and coming bands, so that is what I decided to do. It turned out to be less rewarding than I’d hoped, and I came home wondering whether music is in need of another punk-style shake-up. First, some official showcases. The much touted Hinds were a bit of a laugh, a cross between the Bangles and the Slits but without the chops of either. Talk about ephemeral. On electronica, Poliça was a bit pompous and Chvrches had better jokes than music. It was time to go off-piste.
First I went to Maria’s Taco Express, where the margaritas are cold and the salsa is red hot. Like other such venues in Austin, sxsw is used as an opportunity for band after band to play 30 minute sets with cursory sound checks. Performing here was Brian Whelan from LA, playing very infectious bar room rock, greatly entertaining but not really going anywhere. Following on from him was veteran Canadian Corb Lund and his band. Again, the sardonic country songs were enjoyable but generic and you had the feeling of having heard it all before. Is it unreasonable to want to be thrilled and amazed?
The search continued by way of two sessions at the Ginger Man Pub in central Austin. This is a great venue but it’s marred by a silly layout of extremely hard benches that run at right angles to the band, a sure recipe for a stiff neck. Here also, the format is an endless succession of bands that tune up, smash out six or seven three-minute guitar songs and disappear again. You only actually remember trivial things about them, such as that Blackfoot Gypsies had filthy trousers, Yoko And The Oh-Nos were a cross between ZZ Top and Boy George and that Soul Asylum should not try to perform their stadium anthems with acoustic guitars. You’d never consider buying a record by any of them and you wonder what exactly the point of them is. One band that stuck in the mind were called Dash Rip Rock. They came from Alabama and their songs included “Let’s Go Fuck In My Truck” and “Spank Your Panties”. It was alarming to be told that these weren’t ironic titles. The Bluebonnets stood out on account of being women, but that was really the only difference.
Please don’t get me wrong. None of these bands were bad as such. In fact, they could all play, they could all sing and rock out and they all had catchy songs and riffs. I went so far as to seek out the manager of the Ginger Man and congratulate him on the organisation. We didn’t see a single bad band there, but of real spark, innovation and brilliance there was little sign. A vicious thunderstorm that closed down many outdoor venues didn’t bother the Ginger Man, as, after a brief pause, they simply played on with yet another set of musos, this time some blisteringly loud, middle-aged rockers called The Sidewinders, who had forgotten they weren’t punks any more. I couldn’t bear to stay for the Waco Brothers, for fear it might be more of the same.
A lovely Saturday tradition is the Brooklyn Country Cantina, which showcases at least thirty roots / “Americana” bands over two stages. This is usually a great place to trawl for new talents, but not this year. David Wax Museum presented us with mock Mariachi, The Wild Reeds specialised in Coldplay-style soaring climaxes, Christian Lee Hutson was trying to be Andrew Combs and failing, Banditos were more banjo-thrashing and throaty vocals and as for Sam Outlaw, oh dear. Bland, good-looking young country singers, I’m so fed up with them. Whatever else this may be (and it may be commercially successful), it isn’t “outlaw country”. That I could handle. Things were redeemed a little by Daddy Long Legs and Daniel Romano, but they had both played the year before and so weren’t really “new”.
Well, okay, as I said, I started sxsw with flu but I don’t believe it tainted my experience and turned me into a grump. There definitely were positives to be found in the form of ubiquitous New Zealander Marlon Williams, whose songs actually sounded – phew – “different” and Canada’s Strumbellas, and “unique” is certainly a term you could apply to the brilliant BP Fallon, whose band currently includes Joe King Carrasco. The band to watch out of all this is Saskatchewan’s Kacy And Clayton, whose Fairport fixation permits them to write beautiful tunes, and Kacy Anderson had the voice of the week. In amongst all the rasping growls and yells of the other bands, her sweet, innocent tones stood out a mile.
Corey Zander, born Alexander Cruz, was the only son of Pino Cruz and his wife Aileen, delivered in their small house in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in January 1958. Corey’s great grandfather was a Choctaw Indian who had arrived in Oklahoma on the Trail Of Tears, the popular term for the forced relocation of Native American nations from the south east of the US in accordance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The expression “Trail Of Tears” refers to the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831 from their native homelands in Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. Many of the relocated Native Americans, including Cherokee, Choctaw and Muskogee, died of starvation, exposure or disease on the cold and chaotic trail to Oklahoma. The Choctaw were the first to be removed and seventeen thousand families made the move to Oklahoma, originally called Indian Territory. Having effectively been ethnically cleansed, they eventually became known as the Choctaw Nation Of Oklahoma.
By the time Pino Cruz was born in 1938, the dustbowl existence of his family had become bearable, if hard. Pino himself was able, as an adult, to earn a tolerable living as a general handyman in and around Tahlequah, while Aileen looked after young Alexander. It was when Alexander was seven that Pino was accused of stealing from one of his clients. As it happened, it was a bottle of bourbon that went missing from a house where he was repairing the roof while the owner was out. He couldn’t deny it, as the bottle, now a couple of fingers lighter, was found at the bottom of his tool bag the next day, when the angry homeowner called in the police. Dissatisfied with the quality of Pino’s work, and probably looking for an excuse not to pay, the owner pressed charges on what was, on the face of it, a trivial case, and Pino was fined, but what was worse, disgraced within the local community, where the word spread that anyone who employed him was likely to get burgled.
There was another unfortunate result of his foolishness, as those few slugs of deadly liquid re-awoke an interest in liquor which had long lain dormant. Financial necessity and the strong disapproval of his wife, who was frightened of the effect of whisky on Pino’s temperament, had ensured many years of sobriety up to that point. It wasn’t quite on the level of Shakespearian tragedy, perhaps, but that light-fingered moment represented a significant turning point in Pino’s life. If he’d rationalized it, which he surely didn’t, he’d have said something like “What the hell, if I work hard and a small transgression can pretty much ruin my life, what exactly is the point?” Unable to find work, and finding the stress of responsibility for a young son tough to cope with, Pino took to thieving on a regular basis, using the proceeds to fund visits of varying success to a nearby Indian Casino. When he won, he would celebrate with whiskey. To his credit, he purposely didn’t drink in front of Alexander, keeping his binges until after the lad was in bed. It did mean that he was normally ill-tempered in the morning, but he wasn’t the kind of drunk who’d lay his hands on his wife or son. He just felt unhappy most of the time, and the atmosphere would surely have been bad enough to encourage Aileen to leave, if she’d had the choice. But she had nowhere to go.
It would have been advantageous from the point of view of creating a myth about the upbringing of the future rock star Alexander if his father Pino had died a violent death in a car crash or a bar fight, but the reality was more mundane. In 1968, when Alexander was just 10, Pino’s liver gave out and Aileen was left alone to look after the boy. By that time, the family had long since been forced to leave their small house in Tahlequah and now resided in a quite scruffy trailer in the woods near the Illinois River, just off Highway 62. But, as so often seems to be the case, the cliché applied that they were poor, but they were happy.
Aileen, who worked as many hours as she could get in a hair salon in Wagoner, not far from Tahlequah, had long harboured a wish to be a teacher. This was a wish that could never officially be fulfilled because of the lack of requisite qualifications, but it did come in useful when, almost inevitably, the teenage Alexander began to be an unreliable attender at school. It was a pain to get there, especially in winter, when a lengthy walk to the nearest road to pick up the school bus could be an unwelcome prospect in the early mornings. Aileen certainly didn’t sanction these absences, which were followed up half-heartedly by the school authorities, but she did believe Alexander’s pleas that he often felt unwell, with stomach pains and headaches. Please could he stay at home, just for today? Okay, just this once, dear, she would accept, realizing she would have to beg for extra shifts if she was to purchase more heating oil for the mobile home, which was isolated and could be bone-crackingly cold.
It was many years before the concept of home schooling became commonplace and monitored by education authorities, but in a way, Aileen and Alexander were pioneers in the field. Mathematics and particularly, literature were on the agenda, as Aileen made sure that the many absences from school were not to hinder Alexander’s education. He never told her, but in later life he realized that the stomach cramps were most probably caused by the sneering comments of his classmates about his poor home and his ostracized father. Yes, his therapist in the eighties would confirm, you were suffering from stress.
This was the pattern for much of Alexander’s teens. Most afternoons, Aileen would be collected by a work colleague for shifts at the salon, which would be the opportunity for her son to pick away at the various decrepit musical instruments his dad had left behind. Pino had claimed there was a rich musical tradition in his Native American background, but had shown little skill himself. Occasionally, as the alcholism took hold, he had deluded himself with the hope that he might be able to make some cash by performing in the bars of north east Oklahoma, but the bitter reality was that he could hardly play and he certainly couldn’t sing. Listening to Alexander, Aileen was surprised and gratified that maybe there was indeed a talent there, and that it had simply skipped a generation. It certainly wasn’t from her side of the family – white middle class with no musical instruments anywhere near their home – and Aileen was pleased to give Alexander every encouragement.
The teenaged Alexander tried out the banjo but found it displeasingly harsh and unyielding, at least in his hands. But armed with his dad’s ancient acoustic guitar and a harmonica in a holster he crafted himself from an old metal coat hanger, he could really fancy himself as a Bob Dylan figure, as he droned out folksy classics like “Down By The Riverside”, “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Oh Susanna”. He struggled with finger picking, so his style ended up pretty much as the kind of strumming beyond which most people’s guitar skills don’t develop. He even tried his hand at writing a few songs of his own, using his limited arsenal of chords, but really, he didn’t have much in the way of subject matter to work with. Aileen was impressed by these works of art and proud of her boy when he would play them to her on her return from work.
It was inevitable that Aileen would eventually meet a new man, and it brought a welcome change in circumstances to the small family. Lance Wilson was a friend of Aileen’s boss and ran a small diner in the centre of Tahlequah, aimed at the motorists and tourists plying the historic road Route 66, which ran right through the town. Lance, not long divorced, was an astute businessman and all-round good guy, and before long, life in the apartment above the restaurant was a good deal more comfortable and convenient than it had been in the trailer in the woods. The trailer was sold to a dodgy-looking couple who would doubtless use it as a drug den, but then that wasn’t the Cruz’s problem any more.
Aileen was now in a position to do more shifts and Alexander, recently turned sixteen, was able to earn some cash as well, by means of the traditional rite-of-passage of burger-flipping. He was no longer required to attend high school but he had survived that long on account of being unobtrusive and co-operative on the occasions he’d been there. He certainly never caused any trouble and in the main, teachers had been impressed by how he had dealt with his unconventional upbringing. Half-hearted attempts to persuade him to stay on for further education after high school failed, because, having moved into town, Alex (as he was now, more coolly, known) was in the process of developing a social life.
Alex hadn’t exactly been a loner, but living in the woods had made it hard to get out and about. Two other friends who had quit school at the same time as Alex were Jesse Allen and Mark Houghton. With a mutual interest in music, it was inevitable that they would form their first band together. Mark played fiddle, while both the others fancied themselves as guitarists. In the end, Alex conceded the more prominent rôle and agreed to teach himself double bass, on an ancient instrument that Lance Wilson bought for him from a second hand music shop in Tulsa.
Using the hours when the restaurant was closed, the trio christened themselves the Woodsmen in honour of Alex’s old home and rehearsed enough folk songs to be able to get some (unpaid) gigs in a couple of the local bars. Using their dubious carpentry skills, they even constructed a makeshift stage in Lance’s restaurant (which he predictably called Sir Lance-A Lot). They built up quite a following as passing truckers and local drinkers chomped their Lanceburgers and swigged their Route 66 beer.
And then … punk. Well, it happened to many bands around 1978. Not only were the Woodsmen planning to “go electric” and add drums, they were about to turn into a kind of band for which their particular corner of Oklahoma was unprepared. The way it came about was pretty fateful. A regular customer at Sir Lance-A-Lot, and indeed an occasional solo player there, was David Blue, drummer of a respected local soft-rock band called Bliss. It was David who told Alex about a show that Bliss had been booked for at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, opening for an English touring band. Would he like to come along for the ride? It promised to be something really special.
Alex was doubtful. Cain’s Ballrom, while a legendary venue, was known for Western Swing, a type of music that the Woodsmen were trying to get away from. But the idea of being an honorary roadie for the night, carrying in David’s drums and helping to set them up, was tempting. The date was January 11th 1978, the admission fee (from which Alex was excused on account of being “crew”) was three dollars fifty, and the headlining band, “all the way from London, England” was the Sex Pistols. The following night, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was to be the Pistols’ last-ever gig, but no one knew that at the time.
Presumably, some of the people in attendance had known roughly what awaited them. Certainly, Alex and the band were well aware of punk. He’d read interviews with the Ramones in Rolling Stone and had already booked tickets to see them, due to play at Cain’s a month later. The cool, high-energy rush of bands like the Ramones and the New York Dolls was appealing to the teenage Woodsmen, feeling pretty isolated in their geographical and cultural backwater. Without the offer of a lift and a free ticket, Alex probably wouldn’t have bothered with the Sex Pistols, as their reputation for chaotic live shows didn’t appeal to the musician in him, even though this was their first (and, as it turned out, only) American tour.
The band’s reputation had preceded them, and outside the quaint ballroom, quite a large crowd of banner-waving, bible-punching protesters had gathered in the road. Rural Oklahoma was a conservative and deeply Christian environment. One of the banners read, “Life is ‘Rotten’ Without God’s Only Begotten Jesus.”
The audience was an uneasy mix of punk followers, the normal Cain’s audience and the merely curious, some seeking trouble. There were also a number of journalists from national music magazines, and a smattering of undercover police, on the alert for any potentially lewd behaviour onstage. Alex was unaware of any of this, armed with a backstage pass and dutifully carrying in the drums in the freezing conditions; Bliss had barely made it to Tulsa though the snow.
The Pistols had arrived early. They’d driven overnight from Dallas, partly to combat the bad weather and partly because Johnny Rotten had allegedly smashed a Texan reporter’s camera and they were concerned about his wrath and the police’s. Bliss weren’t granted access to the Pistols’ dressing room, but they could hear them living up to their reputation, swearing and being contemptuous of any questions they were asked. Bliss performed a short and largely ignored set, and Alex was out front when the Pistols came onstage and blasted into their show. It was loud, it was rough and ready, but it certainly wasn’t chaotic in any unintended way. Like millions of other youths the world over, Alex had his life changed that evening, as Johnny Rotten leered into the microphone, Sid Vicious snarled and sneered, and Steve Jones studiously ignored an entire pitcher of beer that was thrown over him. This wasn’t just hype, it was pure excitement.
Afterwards, Alex witnessed Vicious and Rotten stubbing out cigarettes on their arms as their fee was counted out to them by venue manager Scott Munz, who was later quoted in the local press as considering them “blasphemous, provocative and irreverent”. These were all attributes which appealed to young Alex, and when he described his evening out to the other Woodsmen, the band’s change of direction became a matter of course. Within weeks, Alex had switched to electric bass, amps had been bought (Mark built his own cabinet), a drummer had been recruited, Jesse had switched from fiddle to electric guitar and the band name had been changed.
Was it arrogance, provocation or youthful idiocy which led them to christen themselves The Chocs? Jesse, too had a Choctaw family background and the name sounded to them both snappy and memorable. From a publicity point of view in the era of punk, they couldn’t have done better, but as soon as the first gig posters appeared (their slogan was “Chocs Away!”), there was outrage in the community. The Oklahoma Choctaw Historical Society declared it a slur on their traditions, while the Tahlequah Daily Press called for the group to be banned. In music business terms, it was a PR triumph: scandal and notoriety before the first gig had been played.
Checking out a rehearsal, in which he discovered that the cheery folk tunes had been replaced by aggressive, three-minute shoutalongs, Lance politely made clear that his restaurant would not be a suitable place for them to make their début. Business was tough at the best of times, and he certainly couldn’t afford a potential boycott. Although keen to support her son’s efforts, Aileen agreed, so the Chocs’ first gig took place at a local college (where the principal insisted they were billed merely as “special guests”, to avoid the posters causing further offence). Apart from a few scuffles and some derogatory comments from some of the male students, who didn’t like their girlfriends checking out the guys’ newly-purchased skinny jeans, it went well enough to generate the beginnings of a following. There was certainly no competition in the way of other punk bands in town.
Modelling themselves vaguely on the Ramones, the Chocs died their hair black and, doing their own bookings, played anywhere they could in the area. Playing various local roadhouses, they were generally received with hostility, but this merely helped to enhance their anti-establishment reputation). There were a few higher-profile gigs in places like Eureka Springs, over the border in Arkansas, and the Crystal Pistol, the newly-established punk venue in Tulsa. They even pitched for the Patti Smith Band support slot back at Cain’s Ballroom, but it was already taken. It was at one of their Crystal Pistol shows that they met Larry Goldberg, who was to become their manager and sign them to his Stud record label.
Larry fancied himself as in the same mould as Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records. Respected for his maverick personality and ability to find quirky and original new wave acts, Stein had built up a successful empire and Larry Goldberg planned to emulate him. He was actually a New Yorker but was visiting friends in Tulsa that night, and had read a news item in the local paper about the Chocs being pulled over on the highway on suspicion of dope possession. Nothing had been found, but the cops had allegedly pushed them around a bit and spoken to them demeaningly. Alex’s mum Aileen, by now becoming quite enthused about the following the Chocs were building, had written to a journalist under a pseudonym, complaining of victimization. This led to a nice piece of publicity for the band.
The police were probably a bit out of date in what they were searching for. Most of the hippie groups they were used to would undoubtedly have had a stash of weed somewhere in their van, but the Chocs were a high-energy band and needed to do a lot of late-night driving, so speed was their chosen stimulant. There were almost certainly some little pills flicked out of the window onto the grass verge as they were being pulled over. No matter, they got their piece in the paper and Larry Goldberg came to their gig.
It wasn’t particularly Larry’s style of music, but he was an astute impresario and could see which way the wind was blowing musically. The Chocs fitted the mould nicely and the next morning, over coffee in Lance’s bar, he offered the band a deal.
“Listen, boys, I can take you out of here and make you into stars.”
It was such a cliché that it was almost laughable, but the Chocs were willing, and – let’s face it – naïve victims.
“You mean we’ll be able to travel all over the world?”
“Sure thing. You guys are the future of the music business.”
A few days later, the contract arrived in the post. Cautiously, Aileen asked a lawyer friend to look it over. The friend was actually a real estate expert and found it hard to work his way through the dense music business legal terminology such as “points” and “redeemable but not recoupable”, but nevertheless declared that it seemed “all right”. All the song publishing was assigned to Larry. With local friends as witnesses, all four members signed the contract. Cue joy. It hardly seemed possible.
Larry had a record producer friend who had a studio in Oklahoma City, and, after a few weeks working on arrangements and rehearsing, the Chocs came up with ten songs which they considered representative, almost all of them three-minute rants with few chords, and therefore relatively easy to record. The line-up was now the classic rock group configuration: Two guitars, bass and drums. For the album title, “Rock With The Chocs” was rejected by consensus as naff and replaced by the hardly less naff “Don’t Knock The Chocs” – seen as having echoes of “Never Mind The Bollocks”. The song chosen for a single was the one which least represented their style – a stadium-style rock anthem called “Mad And Bad”, written by Alex, with a singalong chorus inaccurately plagiarized from John Lydon. The day after Alex had seen the Sex Pistols, they had played their last ever show, in San Francisco. Johnny Rotten famously signed off with the question, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” In Alex’s song, it came out like this:
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been had? Baby baby, I’m mad and I’m bad.”
No one had jobs they were committed to, so when Larry recommended relocating en masse to New York, the Chocs were up for it in a big way. The loft apartment they were installed in seemed to be mysteriously rent-free. It was a long time before they realized that this was just one of the many items being put down by Larry as recoupable expenses, but for the time being, life was sweet. Larry’s contacts book was strong enough to secure them a residency at the legendary CBGBs and regular shows at other significant New York venues. When he sent them on a coast-to-coast tour, all meals and motels were paid for even though the fees at the murky fleapit venues they played were tiny. The euphoria when “Mad And Bad”, on the Stud label, peaked at number 42 in the Billboard charts on the back of an interview in Rolling Stone and a healthy amount of radio airplay, was enough to make the Chocs feel they had truly arrived. Back in Tahlequah, the Daily Press suddenly had a new attitude to them: “Chocs Away! Local band storms US charts.”
Alex expressed quiet satisfaction to his mother.
“I thought I could write songs, Mom, and now I’ve proved it.”
Although he normally co-wrote the band’s songs with Jesse, “Mad And Bad” had been a solo effort, a throw-away idea, really. Alex was confident that the songwriting royalties would soon start to flow.
“I’ll share it with the other guys, Larry, they deserve a cut too.”
“Yep, it won’t be long before the cheques will start to arrive.”
In the meantime, however, all four Chocs were busy being very stupid and above all, in the tradition of young, naive rock groups, boringly predictable. Cocaine was de rigeur for almost all rock bands at the time, but not everyone went further. Alex was foolish, but, in his defence, many young musicians of that era really had no idea what they were getting themselves into. He first tried freebasing crack in the Château Marmont Hotel in LA after a gig at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. The singer of the headline band told him he just had to give it a go, and wouldn’t believe the high that could be achieved. Everybody was doing it, even venerable elder statesmen of rock like David Crosby, so it didn’t seem much more significant than slamming down a Tequila. The band members’ consequent mood swings and volatile behaviour (all the Chocs indulged to varying degrees apart from Mark, and even he developed an alcohol problem) meant that further fame or fortune were doomed never to materialize. Their live performances became unreliable, their second single made no ripples and “Don’t Knock the Chocs” was a sitting duck for the barbed-pen music critics, who gave it a royal trouncing as naïve and derivative.
An inability to deal with drugs wasn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll feature of Alex’s personality. He indulged enthusiastically in the delights of the flesh too. The groupie scene offered itself to him and he certainly wasn’t going to decline. But sometimes, he would take liberties which went beyond casual sex. On one occasion, in Detroit, he had to get out of town fast when a furious father with a gun was after him for allegedly going too far with an under-age girl who had resisted his advances. He’d misunderstood her flirtatious behaviour as being an invitation for sex, and didn’t like it when she was reluctant. “I thought she was asking for it,” he told the other Chocs.
The cool intelligentsia of the New York music scene had no place for these literal hicks from the sticks, so it wasn’t really a surprise when, in March 1981, they were called to Larry Goldberg’s Manhattan office.
That was the day when the Chocs realized that they really should have looked into their contract in more detail. The second album which they had been looking forward to recording turned out merely to be an “option”, that Larry could have taken up if he’d wanted to. The publishing rights for their songs rested with Larry too, with only a tiny percentage due to the writers, and in any case, any royalties due from record sales or publishing had long since been eaten up by their day-to-day expenses.
“Boys, you have no idea how much I’ve invested in this project.”
“But we’re the ones who’ve done all the work.”
“Without me, you’d never have had the work in the first place. You’ve had a great time, you’ve travelled all over the States, you’ve been on the radio, you’ve even had a hit record. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be doing dead-end jobs in Tahlequah. But the time has come where I’ve got to cut my losses. I’m sorry, boys.”
The way Larry presented it, he’d been doing the band a massive favour by enabling them to pursue their brief career.
For the three other Chocs, it was the end of an adventure they’d never really planned in the first place. Mark, Jesse and drummer Brian returned to their families in Oklahoma, got jobs and continued to play local venues in amateur bands. Alex however, decided to stay in New York.
It had been while attending an acoustic show in the Bottom Line Club in Greenwich Village that Alex had got chatting with the girl doing the door. Molly was a pretty art student and also a part-time musician who was aware that Alex had been a member of a “signed” band. Before long, they were partners in life (Alex moved into Molly’s tiny apartment in the Bowery), in music (they started writing and performing together) and yes, in crime (they bonded over a shared interest in hard drugs, specifically heroin, onto which Alex had moved in the wake of the band’s split-up.). The couple eked out an existence doing poorly paid support slots as an acoustic duo, but that wasn’t enough to live on. Their reputation around town became that of a surrogate Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, as they eventually ended up emulating the likes of Peter Perrett and Johnny Thunders in a sordid lifestyle funded by their own dealing. That old cliché about how you have to hit rock bottom before starting to climb back held true for the pair, who were struggling to cope when their baby daughter, Lucy, was born in October 1983.
Keen to meet her granddaughter, and unaware of the lifestyle change that had affected her son, Aileen drove all the way to New York to bring the young family home to Tahlequah for Christmas. That something was wrong soon became obvious. Unmistakable clues were a lethargic baby, a mother who kept dozing off, and a father who had to make regular trips to visit unidentified “friends”, usually late at night. All those fears about what might befall her son in the Big City seemed to have been justified.
Things had been looking up for Aileen and Lance. They’d gone into business together and their Sir Lance-A-Lot brand had expanded into a small chain of outlets; the concept of burgers and live music had caught on. Shocked and ashamed at what had befallen Alex, Lance was at least in a financial position to offer his adopted son and his new family a spell in a local rehab facility. Feeling less anxious back in his childhood environment, Alex was in a good position to summon up the willpower required, but Molly’s attempts at withdrawal soon petered out. The lure of heroin was so strong that, after a few weeks, she opted to return to New York and the oblivion it offered.
Against all advice, and contrary to Alex’s wishes, Molly took the infant Lucy with her, but it wasn’t long before Lance again had to head up to the Big Apple to retrieve the child. After a couple of months, poor Molly was dead, found slumped in the rest-room of the Max’s Kansas City after taking an overdose. Nobody knew whether it was intentional or not.
With Alex away in rehab, Aileen unexpectedly found herself being a mother again – this time to her granddaughter. Little Lucy, often parked in a buggy in the office from where Aileen administered the Lance-A-Lot empire, gradually regained health. Alex took months to get over the death of Molly, but in a way the pointlessness of it galvanized him, until he was eventually able to resume fatherly duties and effectively start his “solo career”, touring the Lance-A-Lot chain with an acoustic guitar, doing a set of originals and a few covers by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. The climax of each show was, inevitably, a singalong version of “Mad And Bad”, the nearest thing Oklahoma had to a state anthem until, many years later, the Flaming Lips released “Do You Realize?” Predictably, the lyrical preoccupations of Alex’s songs tended to centre around the torment of withdrawal, the cruel vagaries of the music business, the agony of lost love and the joys of fatherhood.
A second try at stardom wasn’t on the agenda at all until Green On Red hit Oklahoma City in mid-1985. Country rock and its indie branch-offs had attracted Alex’s interest and his set already contained Byrds and REM covers, so he drove over to see the pioneering Los Angeles band, unattractively classified by the press as “cowpunk”, or more coolly as the “Paisley Underground”, having been joined in 1985 by Chuck Prophet for the “Gas Food Lodging” album. In a corridor after the gig, Alex bumped into Green On Red’s front man Dan Stuart and their brief conversation about music was enough to convince Alex that his next step would be to form a psychedelic country rock band back in Tahlequah.
From the original Chocs, both Jesse and Mark were interested. Alex purchased a 12-string Rickenbacker and switched from bass to lead guitar. A drummer called Will Sharp was recruited via a notice in the local music store, and once again, the search was on for a name. This time, it was easier and less controversial. Gram Parsons was the acknowledged king of country rock and “gram” was a drug measurement, so The Grams was a cool name with all the requisite rock and roll connotations.
Things moved fast. The country rock that the Grams were playing chimed exactly with what the music industry required at that moment, and by mid-1986, they had completed tours supporting REM and the Dream Syndicate and also been signed by a proper label, a subsidiary of A & M. Their first album, “Desert Grave”, largely written by Alex, while not charting, hit all the right notes with publications such as Melody Maker and NME in the UK. They even made the front cover of “Sounds”, although not with a photo, just a flash heralding an interview on page 6. Ironically, despite being recognized far more in Europe than in the US, they never got to tour over there, partly for financial reasons and partly due to managerial incompetence.
The Grams were dropped in 1990, having only got as far as demoing their second album but not recording it. They hadn’t hit major headlining status, but they had certainly achieved respectability. Sales, however, were more important to the record company than the much-coveted kudos of a “cult following”. But without that cult following, Corey Zander would never have reached Wikipedia. Alex’s friends had called him Zander for years, and Corey Zander was his idea of a cool country rock name. He adopted it when the Grams were signed, partly to avoid unwelcome comparisons with the Chocs, and partly to draw a line under his previous espousal of the darker side of rock and roll. The Grams were a band that was entirely free of hard drugs, although none of them were averse to the odd slug of bourbon to help out with onstage confidence, and calming joints were a familiar feature of the dressing room.
The Grams had spent time in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but their base had always been in North East Oklahoma. Thus, Corey (as he was forever henceforth to be known) remained close to his daughter Lucy, with Aileen helping out when the band was on tour. But many of the musicians Corey was meeting on the road hailed either from Nashville or Austin, Texas. Corey felt that Nashville was probably a bit “straight country” for him, but Austin, the self-appointed “live music capital of the world”, was an alluring prospect. Still not comfortable with the prevalent right-leaning, church-orientated ethos of Tahlequah, Corey was intrigued by tales of this liberal-minded University city where music was king. Austin, so he was told, was home to hundreds of music venues and like-minded blues and roots musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan (the most famous), along with the likes of Joe Ely, Doug Sahm, of course, Willie Nelson. It sounded very much like the kind of place he’d like Lucy to grow up in. Corey relocated to Austin in 1991, never to return and has resided there as a minor luminary of the Austin scene ever since. He lives there quietly with Lucy, who grew up in a laid-back atmosphere near the bohemian South Congress area, filled with music bars, where Corey plays to this day.