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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meeting Badfinger's Mike Gibbins in Wales

Badfinger Story



By Brooke Saunders



It all started in June 1977 when I flew across the Atlantic to England on a B.O.A.C jet with my cousins to a family reunion. As I stared out at the pale black sky joined to a tiled floor of clouds, and little did I know that I would soon meet the drummer for Badfinger, one of the most famous pop groups in the world. Their heavenly harmonies, ringing guitars, and close connections to the Beatles had fascinated me, but there was much more, something very personal in their music for me. The saintly voice of Pete Ham conjured a mystical vision of Wales, one that called out strongly to me, and I was ultimately lured to that lush green country.

I'd been obsessed with the band ever since hearing "Baby Blue" on the radio back in my hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. The mysterious song stuck in my head for months, it wasn't the Beatles, but who was it? The DJ had not announced the artist, but somehow I figured it out. I asked around and discovered their albums at a record store and happily took home Straight Up with the dreamy sun-tinged photo on the cover. The other songs I found on it along with "Baby Blue" were so good it was like discovering another Beatles-quality band, and course, George Harrison produced half of it. Our band Rivermont learned several songs promptly, such as "Day After Day," and of course the melancholy masterwork, "Baby Blue."

Later I got No Dice, which had "No Matter What" and "Without You. I went on from there to buy every single Badfinger record I could find.

When I heard about our family reunion in England, I really wanted to go. So I wrote a long letter to my cousin Janet, who was managing the family reunions, saying how I appreciated what she was doing, but I simply could not afford to go. Next thing I know, a $500 check arrives in the mail, an amazing thing, as I did not ask for it. The time and date were planned carefully; Janet wanted to get us there in time for the Queen's 25th Jubilee celebrations.

We'd been riding for hours in the plane through the long night when the sun finally broke through the edge of the great mass of clouds ahead of us, shining into the cabin as it rose over Europe. Slumbering passengers awoke and began moving around, window shutters snapped up, overhead hatches were opened and slammed shut, and shortly, the plane seemed to sag backwards a little, and then tilt. In a plummy British accent of the pilot announced the coast of Ireland was appearing below to the left. With ears popping, we descended from the clouds while viewing a gray and dark green sea with patches of surf crashing on Ireland's bleak western shore cliffs. Green fields came and went through patches of mist, and the plane turned and slowed we raced across the Irish Sea over Liverpool and south across the Midlands. As we neared London, we began to see the neat fields and tiny cars on a highway, and finally the plane leaned back and slowed to land, and the pitch of the engine whine changed substantially.

I was looking out of the window into dense tattered clouds when a small corporate jet came from below and soared up vertically near our left wing, barely a couple hundred feet away, and instantly vanished. I turned to my seatmate and others around me, but they'd completely missed it. The pilot did not mention it, nor did anyone else. Very strange to me, but it was not an illusion. The only thing I remember was that it was not a military jet, just a simple white corporate jet with no visible markings.

We landed and I saw the control tower and various buildings where we'd disembark soon and a long line of black London cabs in the pouring rain. "Paint It Black" came to mind, and that was the first of many moments like that, seeing stereotypes in person that met or exceeded expectations for mood and atmosphere.

After everyone got off the plane, we got into one of those black cabs, and began riding on a highway through industrial areas, with someone sitting on the "tilt-up seat" behind the driver. After passing warehouses and long rows of townhouses with chimney pots, and various industrial businesses, we finally began to see some of the older London buildings. Westminster Abbey and Big Ben loomed up in the distance, mists swirling around their heavy bulk. We arrived at our hotel in Russell Square, not far from the British Museum.

After getting settled, we had dinner and set off in the London streets at night with several of my cousins along for the walk. The rain had stopped by then, and we wandered around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, breathing in exotic smells from all the restaurants, the diesel fumes, and gaping at the amazing buildings and sometimes bizarre people passing by. I got a huge rush from just being on that wide sidewalk, swept along by strangers, with invisible dark horizon of Europe ahead, and breathing the very same air and force fields so many of my heroes and other characters in history, whether the Beatles or Winston Churchill.

The next day we went to the British Museum and various tourist destinations, wandering around all the old paintings and statues, enjoyable, but we kept moving. More interesting was the street: green, magenta, and orange hair, Iron crosses on black jackets, tabloids screaming lurid headlines in the news boxes about the Sex Pistol's latest capers, spiky haired punks slouching and sneering. Later we got to see the Queen pass by in a carriage on London streets, and the Beefeaters in front of Buckingham Palace, but the music scene was really what sparked us.

The next day or so, we met some really interesting musicians at the Western Bar in Piccadilly Circus, and they invited us to their "squat" in North London in Tufnel Park in Islington. I got my first really good look at how the punks often lived in London, they would take over an abandoned building and as long as the utilities were hooked up, they could not be evicted easily.

Other British music than Badfinger or the Beatles started making more sense, I really started to understand "Dark Side of the Moon," and "Quadrophenia," albums I'd not paid much attention to. But one day when sitting in their back yard with "Breathe" playing through the stereo out of the windown on a perfect summer day, I certainly did "get it." And "Quadrophenia," with its symphonic crashing waves, and extraordinary musical images of London and Brighton of the 60's sure made a big impression. The squatters could not have been a more charming bunch, and I stayed with them on a subsequent trip to London three years later.

After a whirlwind of London events, we finally got in a bus, all 25 of us, and headed off to Oxford to meet more cousins and experience some wonderful countryside. We passed by Shakespeare's house, and saw the Avon River, and then kept heading southwest to Bath. I was playing guitar in the back of the bus and we sang various tunes together. In later years, I heard a number of people say they fondly remembered the music on the bus.

The countryside began to open up and change, the sky was bigger, and we passed a massive flat white horse carved in a hillside far away. This huge work was made in the 45-degree slope of a hill by exposing chalk to contrast against the trees. The white horse was sacred to the Celts, and ancient British culture in general, resulting in many horse sprinkled around the island. We only saw it from the bus window as we went by, but one day I'd like to go up close.

Then came Stonehenge, and it was June 20th. We were in the last year of public access to the structure, due to people damaging the stones or removing fragments. Stonehenge was there long before the Druids, but they believed it to be a spiritual place, and worshipped there also, as do the current Wiccan and Druid followers. Amazingly, the multi-ton inner circle of blue stones were transported 240 miles from Preseli, Wales, in Pembrokeshire, an incredible feat. We saw VW vans and hippie-looking folk trudging beside the road, lots of signs and tents as we pulled off the highway to the south side of the road and parked. After walking in a tunnel under the road, Stonehenge appeared before our eyes, a cold and forbidding monument under a gray sky. Emerald green fields stretched in every direction all around, and the hiss of traffic from the highway blended with the sounds of the chanting protesters. A strange and interesting place.

We kept going west to Bath, and had a great time seeing all the Roman baths and canals surrounding the city, truly an incredible place in many ways. I remember riding low near the water in a canal boat, looking across the still water through the stems of roses and tulips, which framed an extraordinary view of beautiful Georgian mansions on the far hillside. You were suspended in the water with no bank of the canal, very beautiful.

We took a day trip to Weston-Super Mare, and saw the famous beach and mud flats, while the rest of the party was interviewed on BBC television back in Bath.

The rest of the party was headed to the Lake Country in the north and then on to Scotland, tempting, but I decided to hitchhike to Swansea, Wales, about 100 miles or so to the west. I did not know if I could contact anyone from Badfinger while there, but I just felt drawn like a homing pigeon. My first ride was a good one, a salesman headed to Cardiff area, and I rode along. The thing that struck me as we passed through the landscape was how the people changed so much. The English had seemed a lot plumper with short hair living in a flat land, but the Welsh people that started appearing had much longer hair and were more slender, and the landscape more mountainous, less affluent, and the cars and houses not as fancy.

One thing I remember vividly was our car being stopped by a vast herd of sheep crossing the road on a wide-open grassy plain in the Black Mountains, and having to wait till they passed by. Another time we saw about 50 motorcycles parked in front of this vast old wooden lodge-like structure. The entire scene was surreal at sunset with the steep, bare hillside behind the structure going up to the sky, mountains all around, old motorcycles and the gloomy, hulking building.

On we went across the highlands until we got to a small town to stay for the night, and the driver mentioned there was a nice castle to visit there. He went to a hotel, but I wanted to get out and camp. So I found a field and rolled out my sleeping bag, it was such wonderful countryside. When I woke up, it was a gloriously beautiful day, soft blue sky, and air like velvet, and it was the summer solstice. I remember the guy calling for me a few times from the road to see if I wanted a ride onwards to Cardiff, but I chose to not reply, and went on to find the castle he'd mentioned in the area.

I paid a small sum to the old man at the gate. There was virtually no one around as I walked around the small granite structure, which had no great towers or anything fancy, just crumbled stone walls, and the green King Arthur countryside. I settled in a comfortable window ledge, and stared out over a precipice of about 250 feet to the ground below, where a beautiful little stream sparkled in the sun as it flowed in a vivid green meadow. Sheep dotted the landscape, and you could hear them bleating in the quiet morning air, which was like velvet balm. The sun rose behind me as bees buzzed around flowers and melodic bird chirps sounded. I could see the smudge of the Black Mountains as I looked outwards, and I just sat there enjoying the dreamy peace of my first visit to a castle. It was fortuitous I'd passed on continuing the ride with the traveling salesman, wonderful to be alone for hours in this extraordinary place.

I walked out of the castle and down some winding country roads, with my guitar and pack, and stopped beside a field, and played some music. Every once in a while someone would pass by, and give a smile, and eventually I went to find a bus to Swansea in the nearby village. After buying a ticket and getting on board, it became an amazing journey, completely unlike any local bus I've ever taken. The bus driver constantly sang and told jokes, greeting everyone with a lively remark, a barrage of comments made everyone laugh. The narrow roads had us lurching back and forth, causing the people to clutch their belongings closer as we headed west.

The countryside really began changing, as the industrial town of Swansea approached, a place built on shipping and mining, and heavily bombed during World War II. After a bus change or two, I landed on Oystermouth Road, right on the bay. I walked around and looked at small hotels and boarding houses, till I found something cheap, a small room upstairs in a modest building.

That night I started calling all the Hams in the phone book that I got from the old woman that ran the hotel. Some calls just rang and rang, in other cases someone answered in a heavy Welsh accent and we got nowhere. Finally a woman said to check John Ham Music, as that was Pete's brother's shop. So the next morning I got the number and called, and asked for John.

He answered, and was very friendly, and invited me down to the music store. I hurried down there, it was easy to find, and not that far from my hotel. I walked in, and it was a typical music store, and I told myself: Pete's been in here many times. I found John and talked with him awhile, and he finally said: "Would you like to see Pete's guitars?"

I said the obvious: yes, I most certainly would. I followed him up a set of stairs to the third floor, and there on a landing, were six guitar cases in a row, three acoustic and three electric. He opened one of the cases and handed me a brown Gibson SG, and I held it my hands in wonder. The strings were rusted from the damp sea air, and it was dusty and a little smudged, but still had a beautiful rose-finish. He said the Beatles had given various guitars to Badfinger and this was one of them. I later found out this guitar was sold by John in 2004 for nearly a half million dollars, as it was authenticated by Christy's auction house as having been used by George Harrison on "Revolver" and John Lennon on the "White Album," and then by Pete on lots of their records. Just holding it, knowing that the Beatles and Badfinger had really used it, was a wonderful feeling.

John then pulled out a couple of the acoustics, and I believe there was a Martin and a Gibson among the those, and I tinkered with the six guitars a little bit. I should have snapped a photo of them, but I restrained myself in general from too much touristy photo taking or note taking while in Wales with the Badfinger folks! But frequently I wish I'd just bought ten times as much film and blazed away.

After this amazing experience, we went back downstairs and he mentioned that Mike Gibbins, drummer for Badfinger, came in the store from time to time, and would I like to meet him? Of course, was my response. I told him where I was staying down on Oystermouth, so he insisted on calling his friend Martin Ace to see if I could stay with them around the corner, knowing I had very little money. A bass player, Martin was a founding member of the Man Band, which I'd never heard of. John gave me the address, and I left the store, walking around looking for the address. It did not take long to find, and I rang the doorbell. A slender man with brown hair about 30 answered the door and welcomed me in, and introduced me to his wife, and their 4-year old daughter. I put down my huge pack and guitar case, and we had tea.

I stayed in their living room for the next few days, it was great, they told me stories of the Man Band, and the Welsh scene in general. Each day, I'd be woken up in the morning by their adorable daughter, who would come running in laughing and jump on the sofa, delighted at the world, and she would play with her friend "Mouse," drawing and coloring. Martin told me stories about Man and traveling to San Francisco to record with John Cippilina of Quicksilver Messenger Service. I noticed how little they had in the way of possessions, a couple dozen albums (mostly Man albums, they have a dozen at least), and a stereo and furniture, and that was about it in a small apartment. But there was family and music and love, those important things that can transcend modest accommodations.

I had gotten directions as to where Pete's ashes were scattered, and told Martin I wanted to take some flowers there. He explained where it was, and I went by bus to Swansea Crematorium. We passed through the typical British row houses with the chimney pots, which I really loved, one of my favorite things about Britain. There are a lot of things that stood out when thinking of England: those Mary Popkins chimney pots against a gray skies, giant roses in tiny front yards, and the smell of diesel bus exhaust.

The bus passed shabby areas of stores and factories, with working class people in walking by a mixture of unremarkable new buildings built since the air raids, and older ones, many churches and hulking Victorian-styled structures. There were not nearly as many people with green and red hair in black leather as there was in London.

I finally got to the nearest stop to the crematorium, and as I started to walk down a street, I saw what seemed to be a knife sharpener with a bulky cart, and several young boys beside him. I took a picture, and it remains one of my favorites to this day.

Rain began spattering down as I entered the large building and walked down the hallway to where an old man stood in a small room at the entrance to the chapel and grounds. I asked him about Pete Ham, and first he thought I was talking about the member of another band that had died in the early seventies, the Crowes I believe it was. But I gave him the name again, and he opened up a giant book, and thumbed through the pages to Pete's name, and I saw the listing, Ham, Peter William. He pointed out to the garden, saying there was no gravestone, but that's the area his ashes were scattered. I walked outside and raindrops began to fall again, with piles of murky clouds scudding over the horizon, and tombstones as far I could see. I sat there a while on the bench, reflecting on the loss to the world Pete Ham represented to music fans, and even more, to his surviving family and all those who knew him.

I finally left and returned to my hotel. The next day I called John and he said he'd been in touch with Mike, and gave me his number. I called him and eventually I made my way to his apartment in a row of nondescript housing, probably built after the war. I went in, and introduced me to his wife, Gaynor, and his son. We sat inside a small bedroom and he brought out his guitar, a Martin with the side bashed in, and lit yet another cigarette. I do remember tea being made, and we started talking music. He pulled out Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder and cranked it up. He then played a few songs he'd been writing on his guitar, which he said George Harrison had given them (naturally I asked to play it!). He also played some tracks on a Revox ¼ tape recorder that he'd been taping, but I confess I don't remember much about them.

After a while, he wanted to go out and get some cigarettes, so we walked down to a small grocery store, and I got him to pose for a few pictures, including one where he flexes his muscles while putting one foot on a toy tricycle. We had a good time, he was lively and cheerful, and we talked about various things, not particularly music.

I asked Mike about the melancholy but beautiful mood of Pete's songs, and he explained the Welsh word "hiraeth," meaning a longing for, something that you don't have for one reason or another, and not likely to.

Finally, I said goodbye, we arrange to meet again down on Oystermouth Road near where I was staying at a pub the next day.

The next day at the pub, and it was hard to understand what he was saying due to the volume in the place, and his Welsh accent. I asked him about "Midnight Caller," what it was about, "beneath the midnight caller, she thinks of paper green," and he said she was a prostitute, Pete was singing about the gloomy life of an aging working woman.

I was playing at a pub, and he actually came to hear me, and stayed a few minutes. I asked him where he was playing and he did not want to tell me, I think it was probably some terrible cover band in a hotel, a far cry from world tours and the Beatles.

One odd thing I remember was being inviting me to go into another room for one reason or another, and I just did not go, I missed the cues or something. I'd have gladly gone anywhere he asked, but I probably had too many beers at that time.

On one of the next visits he gave me an extraordinary gift: a ¼ inch 7" reel to reel halftrack Ampex tape of their last 10 songs they recorded, to be called "Head First." He wrote down the names of the composers on the songs, and gave it to me. It said "Record Plant" on the box, though it was actually recorded at the basement studio Apple had on Savile Row in London, I found out later. I was stunned and grateful, I promised to keep it safe and share it with my friends, he said that was great, because it would be a long time before it came out. He also gave me 5 contact sheet photographs of the original band with Joey Molland, taken at A.I.R. Studios in London while they were finishing "Wish You Were Here," and a couple of other photos. I thanked him again and again, it was an amazing moment.

We'd walk around Swansea talk about music in general, and hang out I various pubs. I met Clive John, very, very nice, and I also met a blind man, who could shoot darts with amazing ability, even bull's-eyes. They would set him on the line exactly the right distance from the board, and somehow he would pull it off.

I finally decided to go back to London, and after saying good-bye to everyone in Swansea, I reconnected with the friends at the squat in North London. I called Tom Evans from the number Mike gave me, talking to him for a while on the phone, and arranging to meet. But that day, of course the trains were late, I underestimated the time to travel to New Haw in Surrey, and by the time I called, he said he could not make it. I took the train back to London, vowing to leave more time next time, but there was no next time. Three years later he was dead.

In 1980 I went back to England and stayed with my old friends in North London, though this time they were not squatting in a bombed out house in Tufnell Park, they had an apartment in Islington somewhere. I called Wales, and heard Mike was not there, so I went to North Wales and stayed with some folk musicians I met by chance. Great times jamming and going to a slate mine deep in the Snowdonia mountains.

I met Mike the next time in Richmond in 1982, he was touring with the remnants of Badfinger, including Tom Evans, Bob Jackson, Don Dacus, Reed Kailing, and Tony Kaye, and I saw them play at a club in town here. The first set was not good at all, and I don't remember much of the set later, except it got better. If I were them at that stage, I'd probably phone it in too, playing to 70 or 89 people in some dinky club off the beaten path. I never saw Mike again after that.

In the several years after I met Mike in 1977, we exchanged letters about various things for a couple of years, but unfortunately, I lost them in a move. They may show up somewhere in my stuff, but I doubt it now. At least I have all the pictures. Once I called him and forgot the time difference, and woke him up, I guess they might have thought it was serious music business from America, but nope, just me.

Later in Richmond, around 1998, I went to see Joey Molland's Badfinger a couple of times. The first time I saw them was at the Classic Amphitheatre with a variety show of bands from the past, and they did 5 songs (Come and Get It, No Matter What, Baby Blue, Day after Day, and Without You). It was not that great, the boomy sound and lack of Pete's voice did not add to the show, though the musicians played well with spirit.

Before the show started, I'd sent notes back stage through a burly guard to Joey mentioning my friendship with Mike, and saying I'd like to meet him etc. Finally the third note worked, and the guard shuffled back reluctantly, with a message saying to meet at the Days Inn lounge at the airport. After the show, we went to the room and knocked, they let us in. Otis Day was there, and Gary, who sang the hit sixties song "I Love You More Than Yesterday." We hung out a while and drank beer, and then it was suggested we go down and play pool, which we did. I asked Joey a few things about guitar parts, like "Baby Blue" ending up almost in the key of C, but plainly was written in B. He said they just sped it up in the mix, and we chatted in general.

Later I saw "Joey Molland's Badfinger" at the Boulders, a concert venue here in Richmond, playing to a crowd of about 1,000. The show was okay in some respects, but not that special, kind of like a Holiday Inn band playing Badfinger, really. That was the last time I talked with a member of Badfinger.

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