One day, when I was fifteen, I fell down a kind of rabbit hole into a dank Dickensian cellar and discovered a parallel universe called The Magic Village. The cast of characters I met there became part of my life story. Underground club, underground culture, now buried under the Arndale centre, along with the bag of amazing Thai grass that had travelled all the way from Singapore only to fall through a crack in the floorboards ( or did it? – that could be another story).
Days of Arts Labs and David Bowie, International Times and the Oz Trial. Third Ear Band, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, The Groundhogs, Family and Don’t Look Back at Holdsworth Hall ( I still have the ticket stub). Al Stewart – who didn’t like it when I reminded him I’d seen him there all those years later. ‘White Rabbit’ on the juke box – and ‘Please Crawl Out Your Window’ – how I longed to do that from my boarding school bedroom. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band‘s ‘Electricity’ threatening to blow the fuse board. Love‘s ‘Alone Again Or’ – my theme song.
But this is about Roger Eagle. I have just read Patti Smith describe a friend as larger than life with a delicate touch, and it brought Roger to mind. Such an imposing man, he could have thrown his weight around, but he didn’t. He shared his passion for music, introducing several generations of enthusiasts to the real thing. It’s hard to believe he was younger than I am now when he died aged 56 in 1999. He could have been intimidating, but he wasn’t. Instead he was impressive in every way, and as a fifteen year old fledgling student of English I was equally impressed that his mother worked for the Oxford English Dictionary team.
So Bill Sykes‘ long awaited biography of Roger – Sit Down! Listen to this! is published, and Roger has been a topic of conversation among those of us who knew him. One friend, a former Rockette, remembered him literally picking her up like a child, and what a great feeling that was. I had thought that Roger only managed two bands – Greasy Bear (which featured CP Lee who spoke at the book launch) and Drive In Rock and the Rockettes – and I was a Rockette. Quite an accolade to be managed by Roger. We were a nine piece band and we covered 50’s rock n roll in an authentic way.
We were surprisingly successful on the college circuit for at least a couple of years. I remember my friend Cathy – another Rockette – making an amazing multilayered multicoloured birthday cake for Roger. It must have been July 15th 1973. That was the same year that we got to join Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band on the Clear Spot tour. Two teenage girls probably did wonders for Roger‘s reputation, but we didn’t think of it like that at the time. We were his musical apprentices, soaking up the atmosphere.
Roger and Don Van Vliet could have been related, big imposing men with a passion for the blues. Roger was rumoured to have forever damaged his hearing by listening to Spirit playing live with his head in the speakers. What a way to go! And Roger has appeared in a book before. He was immortalised as Roger Lion in Cathy‘s father’s book Anything Goes. The command ‘Sit down! Listen to this!’ was usually accompanied by a big fat spliff or so I am told.
Just before I ran away to Morocco in 1980, Roger turned up in my life again. He had moved to Liverpool and Eric‘s was already a legend. But he came over to Manchester every Thursday to run an R&B night (that’s proper rhythm and blues) at Rafters. I did the door, and Roger stayed at my house in Longsight. He often left his vinyl collection with us, and my boyfriend systematically taped many of the rare singles. Does he still have the cassettes? – I wonder. In what I now think of as a short time Roger played a huge role in so many people’s lives, introducing music to each generation, multi layered, looking back and forward, from Northern Soul through Captain Beefheart and beyond. Some may have never spoken directly to him, others were lucky enough to hear him say the words, ‘Sit down, listen to this’. Now we can all celebrate him with Bill‘s book.
Last week I went to its Manchester launch.
The sign over the door read ‘Legends’. The club had an alternative identity for the occasion – the original Twisted Wheel. A legend as home of Northern Soul. We were there to invoke the memory of Roger Eagle because Bill Sykes has worked for more than seven years (this is the stuff of fairy tales and folklore too)to create a written record of the man. He deserves his reward for completing the task. So down a long flight of stairs into a dark dank cellar, with a cheerful tattooed barman who admitted that they had forgotten the event was on until that afternoon. A liminal place if there ever was one. The atoms of the past were dust in the air. Memories of the Magic Village, and every other dark and underground space dedicated to music and mayhem.
Under threat from German hotel development, there is a now a campaign to preserve the Twisted Wheel. If Roger‘s spirit could ever be conjured up it was in these circumstances, in this time and space. The tribe of Eagle was present. Layers of memories, influences, stories all vibrating, spoken in public, in private, in thoughts, and only two days after the anniversary of his birth. There were other legends from the Manchester music scene there too - C P Lee hosting the event for Bill Sykes and the Manchester and District Music Archive in his own brilliant style. Bill interviewing Roger Fairhurst, Elliott Rashman and Bernie O’Connor about their experiences of knowing Roger. Bruce Mitchell, Victor Brox and Alan Wise – all legends in their own time. Old friends and new friends. People from my past, present and future.
It was a rare gathering of the Tribe, and for me there were memories of those no longer with us, like Allan Frost and Steve Gee, and those who couldn’t be there, like Cathy Hopkins and Dimitri Griliopoulus. It was a powerful reminder of the role music plays in the lives of all of us bearing witness, and of course just to bring us back down to earth, one of the raffle prizes was nicked from the table where they were displayed. It was a compilation of some of Roger‘s favourite music. I hope it’s found it’s way to someone who appreciates the significance of it. Otherwise CP Lee‘s colourful curse might just come true.
In the past week I have read the book. Bill has written it in an oral history style – with his own links between the pieces he recorded in interviews, sometimes using other people’s interviews with Roger. There are photographs that span the decades. It strikes me that Roger was a handsome man, something I hadn’t appreciated at the time. I was astonished to see how often I was quoted, and proud to be associated both with the man and this celebration of his influence. The other interviews filled in the gaps and conjured up the memories. I now know I did see Gil Scott Heron, Bo Diddley and Curtis Mayfield at the International, (not on the same night !) and that it was perfectly possible that we were listening to records from the Twisted Wheel DJs at my Patricroft youth club and school lunchtime record sessions back in the mid 60s.
Memories of dancing to ‘I Spy for the FBI’ and ‘Shotgun Wedding!’ I was tearful and overwhelmed by the time I’d finished it, and very grateful to Bill for putting it together. You may have heard him on the radio – he’s been interviewed a lot over the last couple of weeks. It’s a book that works for anyone interested in the history of 20th century popular music, written in a very accessible form. For those of us that knew Roger, it’s something special. Sit down and read it, with the refreshment and music of your choice. You will learn something.
Words: Nicky Crewe