The Simian Line
I attended a party given by Claus, my doctor. He had a practice in the Kurfürstendamm, and made a fortune out of holding the hands of rich old ladies, and giving them bottles of elixir. Claus was the modern version of the old Wild West quack doctors. He was a friend of Pepis ex-boy-friend, Claus Götz-Claren, who was at the party with his brother, who was in Berlin on a visit. The brother turned out to be Gloria Swansons New York doctor, and an even bigger impostor than Claus..
Claus the Doctor was bisexual. He reckoned he was having the best of two worlds. He had two bed partners, one a beautiful black-haired, brown-eyed girl librarian, the other a male masseur in the Europa-Centre public baths. If my information is correct, they both eventually tired of sharing his attentions, and went off with one another, the masseur apparently going straight in the process.
At the party there were many other doctors, one of them being the regular physician of Rudolph Hess, who was now eighty years old, and confined all alone in Spandau Prison just up the road. I asked how Hess was bearing up.
This sparked off an earnest discussion of the rights and wrongs of keeping Hess in prison like that. In the course of the argument, whilst airing my strong views on the subject of perpetual incarceration, I spread my hands out in appeal.
Good God! said Claus the Doctor.
He grabbed my hand.
Darling, I said.
No, no. Look at this. A perfect simian. The other doctors gathered around, clucking like old hens.
I was immediately alarmed, thinking theyd discovered signs of cancer, or worse.
One inmmmtwenty thousand, dont you think?
They prodded, twisted and poked until I withdrew my hand indignantly. Apparently, my head and heart lines form one strong line across my right hand called the simian line. This is quite rare. My adopted son Marc also has it, by the way, on his left hand.
What does it mean, I demanded.
It means youre a mongol, an idiot, they explained kindly. Everyone had a hearty laugh at that, all except me, of course.
I bought a book which explained it all. Occurring frequently in the hands of monkeys and gorillas, it is an atavistic sign of degeneracy. It goes on to say that murderers have this line. Luckily, it points out that it can also be found in the hands of creative artists and musicians.
. . . the lives of these people are characterised by a strong internal struggle . . . racked between the devil and the saints . . . artists and musicians who create in a sort of agony to relieve themselves of an intolerable burden . . .
Thats me, folks.
Claus made me promise to go to him for a general overhaul, no charge. He wanted, as he said, to probe my innards.
When I did so, he put me through the complete works. Wired up from head to tail I was connected to several pieces of dangerous-looking electrical equipment. I drank several vodkas, rode a bicycle, stood on my head, and hyperventilated into a brown paper bag, which brought back vivid claustrophobic childhood memories of my first tooth extraction with gas, when I had awakened suddenly to find the dentist still struggling to wrench the tooth out.
I was tested chemically, physically and biologically.
Finally, I was told to bend over, and, without prior warning, a foot long ice cold stainless steel rod, three inches in diameter, was rammed past my sphincter, and deep up inside my bum.
Gasping with shock, I attempted to climb the walls of the surgery, suddenly remembering that Claus was bisexual. He followed me relentlessly.
Dont panic. Im only looking at your prostate, he grunted, skewering me even deeper with a deft twist of the wrist.
We cant go on meeting like this, I panted.
I was pronounced fit, sane, and healthy, with a tendency to gout.
Outside, in the Kurfürstendamm, a student riot was under way. Police trucks wielding water cannons made their way slowly past. My car was given a quick, free wash, and a couple of extra dents. When I got home, the student agitator Rudi Duschke had been shot by persons unknown outside my apartment. The police had left a chalk outline of his body on the pavement, looking curiously like one of the prehistoric cave drawings found in the Columbia River valley of New Mexico. People were walking over it already.
I was introduced to a girl called Vera Little. She was a great big beautiful black opera singer, and I do mean big. Vera was overwhelming, which made her hard to place in certain operas. In Madame Butterfly, for instance, she would have looked utterly ridiculous. She used to swoop up to her high notes, rather in the style of Joan Hammond, which often had a thoroughly demoralising effect on her listeners. She was a lot of fun, though, and the three of us hung out together a lot. Vera worked in the Berlin Opera House and sang at Salzburg in the summer.
She took singing lessons all the time from the composer Boris Blacher until he died. At his funeral she was asked to sing Gershwins Summertime in the church, which she did beautifully, unaccompanied. She eventually married a Greek geologist, much against his familys wishes. He was a big happy guy called Savas, who was always bounding around in shorts, like the archaeologists in the Indiana Jones films.
One day he told me to close my eyes. Something small and flat was shoved into my hand.
Look at that.
It was a microscope slide containing a very thin mottled substance which could have been anything.
Thats very interesting, Savas, I said, trying to give it back.
Its a piece of the moon. Ive been given it to analyse. Youre holding history. Dont drop it.
It meant nothing to me in any kind of scientific way, but his words sent an electric jolt right up my arm and straight down to my big toe.
Do you realise what it cost, just to get that little slice of rock?
I closed my eyes. I dreamt I was back up on the lunar surface again, me and Buzz, wondering whether the rockets were going to fire again to bring us home.
Vera told me about her life as a girl in Memphis, Tennessee; the troubles shed had by being black. She said shed had a younger brother who had tried to learn the trumpet.
He never got on very well. He was always complaining about troubles with his lip. He never thought he would make it as a trumpet player. My brother died of leukemia when he was only twenty-three, she added.
What was his name?
I experienced another electric shock.
Are you kidding? Booker Little? Your brother was a great trumpet player. He was famous all over the world, didnt you know that? Where the hell were you, anyway?
She was dumbfounded. I couldnt get over it. Talk about family rapport.
Carmen McCrea turned up to make some transcriptions with the band. We were all enchanted by Carmen, and I was especially so, having fallen in love with her singing way back in the 1950s. She knocked everyone in the studio cold with her perfect pitch. Id seen it all before from very many other American singers, but she upstaged them all during a little cadenza she sang in one of her tunes. In was wholly unaccompanied, and went on so long that I was sure she had lost the key. But after the cadenza, which took a good thirty seconds, she just came in, bang on the final note, and we joined in for the ending.
Carmen wasnt satisfied with the last take, and wanted to record the ending again. Do you want someone to give you the note? asked Paul. She shook her head, went back into the studio on her own and nailed that note right in the centre.
How can you do that? said someone.
Well, said Carmen, Its there.
Later that evening we all went out to a Kneipe and celebrated. After a few drinks I nudged our Rumanian pianist Eugen Cicero and indicated an upright piano over against the wall.
What was that note, again, Carmen? I said.
You..... she sang, and Eugen banged out the note on the piano, right on the nose.
Hey! That pianos an eighth of a tone flat, she said, as we all hit her with the beer mats.
Now and again the visiting stars forgot their music, or needed it altering to fit our line-up. I usually received the task of taking the original score down from a record or cassette, and rewriting the arrangement for our band. Its a thankless job, involving many hours of listening to the tape, and rerunning every second of it until all the notes and harmonies can be accurately transcribed. Most of the time this means having to run the tape at half speed to try and catch some of the inner notes, or at double speed to make the bass notes clearer.
One of Heidis boy friends was around the house one day while I was doing this. This was the guy she had escaped from the East to marry, gone through all the tortures, the year in jail, and so on, just to be with him. He worked for Volvo up in Sweden, and when she eventually went up there to join him it was to find that he was not only married, with two children, but that he had no intention of leaving his wife, and suggested putting her in a safe flat where he could come and screw her when he felt like it. Like most people in those days, he had made his promises, never imagining ever having to keep them.
But for now he was visiting in Berlin, and, seeing me working with the earphones, demanded to be allowed to hear what I was doing. I gave him the earphones, which were mumbling along slowly and painfully down in the basement, with no discernible music going on whatsoever. He tore off the phones and glared at me.
Is this some kind of a joke?
I was innocent. Whats up?
What is it?
Its Astrud Gilberto singing a Deodato arrangement of Ossahna. This is how I make my money, I explained, kindly.
Sometimes I got really carried away, and once spent all night transcribing and rewriting a couple of scores in that way for the Swedish star Wenke Myrre. Next day Paul asked me how I could stand listening to her singing in Swedish in my ear all the time. I had to listen to the tape again at full speed to understand what he was talking about. Id been so engrossed in what the band was doing that I hadnt noticed her singing at all.
Paul and I had a great time trying to get the words down for Light my Fire. In the end we had everyone in the band up in the control room trying to make out what Presley was singing. We managed to decipher Camarbaybelamafaa, but that was about all.
Paul was no mean singer himself. Thats it, said Åke, If you want to be a success, mumble.
For some time, now, Id had trouble with my hearing. This first became noticeable during my time in the Heath band. The guys used to make jokes about the way I would sometimes misunderstand Teds announcements and get out the wrong number to play.
Right at the last minute, after wed loaded our lungs, ready to start blasting, someone would mutter, Wrong number, and then the band would start.
Once again the time Id spent as a young man playing along with records paid off, because when Ted called out the Kenny Baker composition Bakerloo Non-Stop, a piece Id never seen before, I was able to play it without the first trumpet part, which had been mislaid. This had been one of the tunes with which Id serenaded the workers in the Carbodies toolroom. Everyone was suitably amazed, but I never gave away the secret.
Åke once told me a marvellous story about the Francy Boland band. Ronnie Scott, Sahib Shehab, and Tony Coe were in the sax section and Derek Humble was the lead alto. Derek had always been famous for his instant sight reading. Francy had written a passage for the saxes that was almost unplayable, so before Derek turned up in the studio the other four sax players rehearsed the tricky piece and managed to get it off pat. When Derek arrived they all pretended to be looking at the passage for the first time. The whole band was in on the gag.
The idea was to play it right themselves first time while he was still floundering through it. But Derek sailed through the piece, playing impeccably, without batting an eyelid. That shook them. To make matters worsewhen Derek was ill later on and unable to play on a concert in London someone suggested getting Alan Branscombe on lead alto, and he played everything perfectly at sight, including that particular passage.
I was astounded when I heard that. Alan had been the pianist in the Dankworth band when I was there. Most of us had no idea that he could play the saxophone at all.
When we recorded in Decca or EMI with the Heath band Ted used to stand in the control room listening. Because of his own deafness, he had a habit of asking us, in dumb show through the big soundproof glass window, whether the recording had been OK. As a joke, the guys used to point at meAsk Ron.
Ted would then mouth at me, was it OK?
Now I was only interested in the way I had played. If I reckoned that Id played good I would nod to him. He would then turn to the rest of the band and wave dismissal, but I was the only one who could read his lips when he did so. Sod off, said Ted.
There was an amusing incident in the studio when we made a recording with Jack Warner. He was still laughing about it when he came in. Jack was famous for his portrayal of a policeman in a television series called Dixon of Dock Green. When he arrived at the studio the only parking slot he could find was right in front of the police station just around the corner.
At once a policeman came running down the steps
You cant park here! he said, then seeing Jacks face he snapped to attention and saluted.
Sorry sir, didnt know it was you.
The Heath band came to make a television show in Berlin. I picked up Ted and Margaret, his secretary, at the airport. She was a dumpy girl who had devoted practically all of her life to him in the band office.
In the car Ted told me that hed been using Bert Courtley on lead trumpet after Id left. Bobby Pratt had finally managed to kill himself. Apparently, after his wife Tina left him he had sunk ever lower into an alcoholic nightmare. The rest of the guys had kept on booking him on sessions out of sympathythis shows just how great all these people were. He could hardly play, but they stuck him down on fourth or fifth trumpet and told him to play it cool.
Stan Reynolds had gone to pick him up one morning and smelled gas. He broke into the kitchen and rescued Bob, who was laying on the floor with his head in the oven.
It was a waste of time, because he did it again a short time later, and this time there was no one there to stop him.
Ted said that Bert had a lot of trouble with the lead parts, which were too high and too strenuous for him. When he did manage, though, it sounded great. I could never understand why Ted didnt give the lead book to Bert Ezzard, who was, as far as I was concerned, a far better player than all the rest of us, technically, and who could play every bit as high as Bobby Pratt, who was generally supposed to be the highest player in the country in his hey-day.
Bert Ezzard had already taken me aside about that, because he couldnt understand it either. In spite of his talents, he was never booked anywhere on first trumpet. I think he lacked the necessary drive and aggression. You have to be a bit of a bully to play lead, and he was too much of a nice guy.
Berts Courtleys wife Kathy Stobart had come over with the Heath band with Bert for the trip, so we spent a lot of time together. She came again later when she was playing tenor with the Humphrey Littleton band. Back in London Humph had quite often booked Bert and me to play in his band. He only had a few numbers with three trumpets so we spent most of the time in the bandroom waiting for him to call us out. During the waiting periods Bert would pick my brains. Here, you know everything, hed say, what does this mean?
He had an incredibly active mind. One of his big pals was the baritone player Gerry Gurk, who was a Canadian with a heavy Lancashire accent. They had nonstop screaming arguments with one another every time they met, sometimes when Bert was driving his car. He was erratic enough at that anyway, but sitting in the back of the car during one of the arguments frightened the life out of me.
Like the Formula One driver Jean Alesi, Bert only seemed to know two positions of the accelerator pedalright up and flat on the floor. From the front door of the Decca studios it was only about thirty yards or so to the main road traffic lights, which were nearly always red. By the time Bert reached them he had already gone through all the gears and had the gas pedal floored. We were doing maximum revs, and just as I was about to have a heart attack he slammed the brakes on and stopped at the light.
Jesus! I said, but he had his head turned and was screaming back at Gerry about something. Still they were the best of friends.
I was really in love with Kathy, and always had been. When Bert died later on I think we both wondered whether we could hit it off together.
About a year after he died I stayed for a week in her house in Norbury with Kathy, the three boys, and her sixteen-year old niece. The niece was trying like mad to get Kathy and me together.
There were some really weird modes going around for teenagers at the time, and the niece asked me to lend her one of my vests, preferably a soiled one. Over the vest she wore a frilly pale blue Baby Doll nylon nightdress, with a pair of old, torn jeans. This was, apparently, the last word in chic.
With her dressed like this, the two of us went for a meal in the local pub. I was surprised that we didnt get thrown out, but no one seemed to notice. Over the meal she told me that she was glad that Bert had died, because he had very nearly killed Kathy as well in the process.
On a previous visit Id noticed that Bert had slowed down a lot. Hed always been a bright, almost nervously energetic, fast talking, quick thinking type, with a tremendous amount of spontaneous humour. His sparkling, joyous jazz playing reflected his personality.
Now he moved like an old man, fumbling for words. Hed become an alcoholic, and had finally woken up in a ward full of screaming addicts, which had frightened him so much that hed determined to get off the stuff. When Id seen him he was slowly recovering.
I firmly believe that it was the job with Ted Heath that caused him to start drinking. Hed had some trouble with his teeth, and a dentist had ruined his embouchure by fixing a wrongly shaped crown over one of his front teeth.
The trouble with playing lead trumpet is that you have to be so damned accurate all the time. There can be no half measures about it, because you are terribly exposed playing up on top there. The strain has caused more people than I care to mention to turn to drink as a means of bolstering up confidence, and Bob Pratt has been by no means the only lead trumpet player in the world to commit suicide.
Bert managed to get off the alcohol trip, and went on to something even more deadly. He had somehow discovered that a certain well known Doctor Somebodys Cough Medicine contained opium, and became addicted to the stuff. In the end he was drinking several bottles a day. Kathy used to search the house for the bottles, even checking under the lid of the water closet. It was impossible to get him off it.
She moved in next door with her mother, taking the boys with her. The trombone player Ken Wray moved in with Bert. This was really a cruel joke, because it had been Bert who had tried so hard to get Ken into hospital when he was going right over the top with drugs and everything. Hed even driven Ken to Hyde Park Hospital once, but they wouldnt accept Ken for treatment unless he walked through the door himself, which he refused to do.
Now the two of them turned Kathys house into a horror trip.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved