A very insightful memoir from Al Gromer Khan about his days in London – on New Year’s Eve he and Mike Figgis played at Seed Restaurant…when John Lennon and Yoko Ono came in.
Chapter from Jazz Christmas by Al Gromer Khan, reproduced with kind permission of the author. Published 2011, his novella a clef captures the transition in the London scene from jazz and R&B to the alternative society and psychedelia.
‘Sam’ is Gregory Sams.
No matter what anyone says, the oversize woollen jumper was invented by us, by our generation, the Flower Children. It was then carried further by German Green Party members. Almost all patrons at Sam´s Macrobiotic Club wore woollen jumpers (in bottle green and lavender blue) on New Years Eve 1967, complete with the small black holes scorched by burning hash pieces that had fallen down from joints. But if your psyche had gone somewhat wonky with acid, the proprietor of ´Sam´s´, a quiet Californian named Sam, well on the way to be a Zen master, would provide healing – or normality – with benign vegetables and organic soy-sauce. This was restaurant, Zen monastery and docto´s practice all in one, a subterranean place where guests sat cross-legged, setting standards for legions of psycho-analysts who came thirty or so years later, for us to get in touch with our inner selves. This ´inner self´ was what our musical performance was meant to enhance too.
Prepared with small cups of Mu-Tea we began ringing in the New Year. Our musical works were based on certain concepts. One was a Kafka-quotation: ‘There is a point of no return let us reach it!’ Or a John Cage principle; ‘Go to the border but not beyond’. A third was, ‘The chief gives more than he takes’ (and leaves the most important notes out). This was not background music, rather an exercise in the spirit of Zen. When our performance was announced we went to the stage and started tuning up. In a few hours it would be 1968 and we were feeling ´The Source´.
You could know ´The Source´ by the fact that in playing together each player left space for the other player to develop his music. You could furthermore tell by pauses left in order for the sound to unfold and create its own momentum. Now and then short jazz phrases would be thrown in – nothing superfluous, nothing vain. What was shown was essential and you got the feeling that it couldn´t be any other way. This was good. The music flowed.
Very soon an atmosphere of detached gratitude set in. Sounds remained in space. While playing, Fargo and I looked at each other. He had a satisfied smile on his lips – this was a good day, it would be a good year. Fargo continued his ostinato with his left hand and took a sip of MuTea with his right. ´Mu´ means eternity, man! Next, as if this was nothing special at all John Lennon and Yoko Ono stepped into the room. With a serious face Fargo nodded his head towards the table where Lennon and Ono had taken their seats. He looked at me saucer-eyed, but he didn´t smile. This was brilliant. This would be an evening the two celebrities wouldn´t be forgetting so soon. Hadn´t our music found their sublime centre just tonight? What hundreds, nay, thousands of young musicians wished for – an audition before Lennon and Ono, to be discovered, promoted and put on record, this opportunity had arisen spontaneously and without any effort on our part on the eve of 1968. We would, in all humility, demonstrate to them how to attain optimum brain function with an absolute minimum of means and show. This might be a chance of convincing Lennon that pop songs were, in fact, an outdated musical form, that they were nothing but simple pub songs, enhanced by electrified guitars. Ono, an avant-garde artist in her own right, would presumably point out the finer points of our art, the high intuitive quality in particular. We would be discreetly asked for an appointment with Apple Music at Savile Row … a three-year contract with further options. An adequate advance sum would carry us through the first years and allow us to terminate our ignoble jobs at the jazz club in order for us to apply ourselves entirely to our art … I said, ´Fargo, shall we start with ´Prayer´ like we said?´ ´No, man,´ Mike replied, ´´Prayer´ is too subtle. We should really start with ‘Kafka’ A knot fastened in my solar plexus, ´I really don´t see why we should allow the listeners to influence our repertoire.´ Fargo spoke under his breath out of the corner of his mouth, ´I´m telling you ´Kafka´ is the coolest piece for the occasion! Think of the implications!´
´No ´but´, man. I´m not having you ruin my career with your ideological principles!´ I hissed back to him in the same hushed intense voice.
´This is not about ideology at all, man! I simply think we should continue as we had planned our performance, do ´Prayer´ and not deviate from our programme, simply on account of the fact that some famous people are sitting over there.´
´What do you mean ´famous people´, man? These are Lennon and Ono, man! ´You know vat? Zis whole thing iss beginning to get me seriously on the balls!´ In my anger my English had fallen back into German grammar and pronunciation lapses.
Fargo said, ´Then fucking well do something about it, fucking hell!´
At this point we became aware that quarrelling was counter-productive. So we retuned our instruments and started the piece proposed by Fargo. However the sounds were different now. No longer rich and sonorous, warm and expansive, they refused to bear fruit in terms of overtones. A situation had come about whereby you started thinking while performing, a situation in which you would think what you´re going to play next in order to maximise the effect. And on account of not being absorbed in the sound, you would play everything slightly faster. Squint-eyed you looked for the listener´s reaction – and you would start playing competitively.
The famous Beatle was looking about antsy, pale-faced, restless. It did not appear as if Lennon had taken any notice of the music or the musicians. It seemed that he was occupied with something else, something that seemed to absorb him entirely. If he did look in our direction he seemed to look into the middle distance above our heads, or right through us – lost in thought. Yoko Ono appeared to be talking to Lennon uninterruptedly with a restrained voice. With an impatient gesture Lennon waved the young long-haired waiter over, said a few words to him and gave him a bank note. The waiter started to move away from their table in the direction of the stage, over to where we were sitting and playing music.´Mr Lennon sends you these ten pounds and asks whether it would be okay for you to call it a day with the music. He says he can´t really concentrate on his macrobiotics.´
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