Remembering Judy Garland
"Ditch the rainbow song!" - Anon., Hollywood, 1939
May 28, 2003
I'll never forget Judy Garland. So few artistes have the compassion that she so often showed. That poor man, I remember she said to me once - he's been cleaning all those windows and now he's leaning on a lamp post at the corner of the street, doesn't he ever get to sit down? She actually sought out George Formby and sent him a note, with a signed photograph and a rather nice armchair. I don't know what became of it, though, I never actually worked with George.
Our paths did cross once, now I think of it, over a matter of pastiche and travesty rights. Remember young Alfie Gainsborough? Much the finest ex-Services George Formby impressionist of his day, on the Wirral circuit at least. To begin with he didn't have the clothes for the part, you see, and after a time we made a feature of it - we got him billed as 'Khaki' Gainsborough. Worked like a charm - they loved him in Heswall, I can tell you. (Well, they clapped.)
Anyway, Alfie lugged his ukulele up and down the A540 for a couple of years, but after a while he decided to look further afield. So we relaunched him in France. He had to make a few changes, obviously: the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn't really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we'd changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went 'Khaki' Gainsborough and in came 'Serge' Gainsbourg.
The rest of course is history: where Heswall led, the Left Bank could only follow. As time went by Alfie had more and more difficulties adapting the old George Formby material; he often told me he was working on a new version of 'the window song', but nothing ever came of it. That said, one of Alfie's biggest hits was adapted from an old Formby number, albeit one that George's people would never let him release - it was called "When I'm Between Your Kidneys". Racy little number, as I recall.
That was with the Birkin girl, of course. Lovely girl - daughter of a judge, I believe. She'd known Alfie back home, you see, and quite by chance she ran into him in Paris one day. She was quite taken aback by his appearance, apparently, and she blurted out, "Qu'est-ce que c'est donc de quoi il s'agit dans l'ensemble, Alfie?" She was concerned that he'd become a little too French, you see; she wanted him to lose the strings of onions, you know, and the stripey jumper, and the red wine and the Gauloises and the womanising. I suppose one out of five isn't too bad.
Marvellous career, he had, Alfie - influential in all sorts of ways. Take young Whitney Houston - she'd never have had that big hit of hers if not for Alfie. She actually jotted down the first draft straight after their meeting; it was originally called "I Will Always Love You (If You'll Get This Ghastly Frenchman Out Of My Face)". But do you know, 'the window song' evaded Alfie to the last. In the end he handed it over to an old Forces friend who'd also set up on the Continent - Jack 'Clanger' Bell (or 'Clanger' Brel as he preferred to be known by that time). Old Clanger turned it round in no time:
Les oiseaux noirs du désespoir
Ne chantent pas seulement pour toi -
Ils chantent doucement pour moi,
Quand je lave les fenêtres!
"The black birds of despair sing sweetly for me, when I'm cleaning windows" - rather nice in its way. They wouldn't have it in Hoylake, mind you. Funny thing, years later little Dirk McCartney got hold of that song and tried to translate it back into English. Missed the whole point, though - lost the windows for one thing. No professionalism, these youngsters.
I'll never forget Judy Garland. Judy was unlike any other actor I've ever known. As I remember, she was particularly unlike Samuel L. Jackson - 'Klaxon' Jackson, as I called him. But that's another story.
Dear Samuel had his wilderness years, of course. When I first knew him he actually lived in the wilderness - one used to see him walking down roughly-beaten country tracks, wearing an ill-fitting hat and talking to himself. He never strayed off the beaten track, though, even then. Pulp Friction changed everything. And yes, that was the title; people say now it was that film Samuel did with the boy Tarantino that changed everything, but I know better. In my business, you see quite a few instructional films from industrial liquidiser and blender firms, but that one really stood out. "Gahooga!" When I heard that, I knew I had to work with this man. Ultimately it was the boy Tarantino who reaped the reward, but one doesn't like to bear grudges; I feel he's suffered enough.
Dear Quentin's a great personal friend and a longstanding client. I remember one Friday afternoon; he'd come round for his regular foot massage, and we started talking about film plots. What I'd like to see, I said, would be a film told mainly in flashback, framed with sequences in which an undercover cop is bleeding to death following a failed robbery. The role should be taken by a British actor, I said - Simon Russell Beale, say, or Simon Callow, or perhaps Simon Cadell; I felt that the part called for a Simon. Now, I'm not claiming any great originality for this suggestion; indeed, Reservoir Dogs was out at the time, so I dare say the idea had occurred to Quentin himself at some stage. But I like to think I played some small part in helping the boy towards a glittering career. We'll just have to wait and see.
Anyway, I signed Samuel on the strength of the blender film, and I started pitching a little idea of mine. 'Klaxon' Jackson was the name of the film and the name of the character; you'd see him trawling the streets of San Francisco in an ill-fitting wig, looking to settle some scores with a rogue trichologist. "Gahooga!" That was his catchphrase, you see. This was just after that Pacino film with all the hoo-hah, Whiff of a Lady or whatever it was, so I felt the public was ready. I even had a theme song:
"Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about?"
It could have turned Samuel's career around. The poster was going to say:
Starring Samuel "'Klaxon' Jackson" Jackson as "'Klaxon' '"Klaxon" Jackson' Jackson"
The movie spent three years in Punctuation Hell, and by the time it was greenlighted we'd all moved on. I've still got the blender film somewhere. I'll never forget it - after Samuel delivers his last line, he smiles, then turns and takes a sip of a freshly-made wheatgrass and aubergine smoothie. Then he says it: "Gahooga!"
Dear Samuel, I hope he's well; the last time I saw him he was walking down a country track in an ill-fitting hat, muttering something about a pig. The man's a true professional, though. That wig he wore in the boy Tarantino's film? He wore that thing from the beginning of the shoot to the end, in every single shot in which he appeared - even if he didn't have any lines. They don't teach you that in drama school.
"Ditch the rainbow song!"
The words were mine, all those many years ago; those sad, misguided words were mine. Fortunately for all concerned, my advice was ignored, as it would be so often in the future. But that's another story for another day.
Of course, dear Judy didn't ditch 'the rainbow song'; indeed, it would be associated with her name for many years to come. It affords me a crumb of solace to note that the song was heavily edited before recording, eliminating most if not all of the elements to which I had objected. Even the title had to change - "Have yourself a merry little rainbow", what sense does that make? None! None, I say!
These, then, are my memories of a life in the green room; a life which I can truly say has been lived among the stars; a life that's full, in which I've travelled each and every byway. But more, much more than this.