Episode 39. Three autographs from people I never met.
It was 1992 and I was living alone in Melbourne, Australia. For the first time since leaving school, I had a day-job, working at a musical instrument import company and my Saturdays were spent shopping and drinking. Sunday afternoons were for films, Sunday evenings and nights were for TV and that horrible ‘work next day’ feeling, wonderfully described by Douglas Adams as ‘the Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul’. Life was decent though. I had a good salary and plenty of friends and I wasn’t missing touring with bands. One Friday night, I nipped into town after work to buy the new box set of Yoko Ono CDs that had just been released and on the way back, stopped at my usual supermarket to pick up my weekend bottle of Jack Daniels. Now for those of you who are thinking ‘Yes, I’d need a bottle of Jack Daniels to listen to Yoko Ono as well’, you’ve obviously only heard the screaming stuff which I happily admit only got played once but she has actually written some excellent songs and performs them well. Check out Winter Song for example.
I digress. Back home, I put the first of the discs and poured myself a large one. An hour later I was on disc two and an hour after that, disc three. The evening wore on and I was really enjoying the music and JD so thought I’d write her a letter telling her so. This is pre-internet of course and I didn’t even have a typewriter so it was hand-written, disc four had just finished when I finished my letter, popped it in an envelope and sealed it, ready for the post box. The problem was, I didn’t know her address. This when the Jack really kicked in and I just decided put ‘Yoko Ono, New York City, USA’ and hope by some miracle it would get there. The post box was 100 yards up the road, I staggered up there, posted it, came home and crashed.
In the morning, the pen and paper were still on the kitchen table so I remembered what I had done but by the time a week had passed, I had forgotten all about it. Coming home a couple of weeks after that, there was an envelope in my letter box from an address in New York. I dropped it on the table cooked and ate dinner and then opened it. Inside was a letter from Yoko thanking me for my kind words (of course, thanks to the Jack Daniels I couldn’t and still can’t actually remember what I wrote) and a signed photo. It was the moment my opinion of her changed. She was no longer the woman who hung on John’s arm, the one who supposedly broke up The Beatles, the avant-garde artist I didn’t understand. She was a kind, caring lady with a heart who took the time out of her day to write a personal letter to someone on the opposite side of the world who had said a few kind words about her music.
That December, I received a New Year Card from her. Then another in 1993, 1994, and every year until I left Australia in 2000. They were all personally signed. Some I still have, others I auctioned off with her permission and donated the proceeds to her charities. I have heard some amazing stories of her generosity and kindness from people all over the world and get angry when people dis her based on a piece of music from fifty years ago, created at a time when every artform was freeform and experimental. Yoko may not be many people’s cup of tea musically but that doesn’t make her any less of a human being. I have the utmost respect for her.
The box set that I bought and the autographed photo Yoko sent me.
It’s four years ago and I’m sitting in Mendips, my guest house in Tachikawa. It’s late and I’m thinking about going to bed. The phone rings, I check the caller and it’s my good friend Geoff Gillespie. Geoff was in the NWOBHM band Sabre, worked at various record companies, went to many of the same gigs I did but rather amazingly, we never met until we bumped into each other in a record shop in Tokyo. That was in 2002 and we’ve been great mates ever since, sharing our ups and downs, leaning on each other in times of trouble so I’m hesitant as I answer the phone as Geoff usually sends me messages rather than call; I’m a bit concerned that something’s wrong.
It turns out that he, by way of another friend, heard of some 1960s UK tour programmes that were on sale and was wondering if I was interested in buying them. Now these programmes were of the classic tour packages that used to go around the UK in the decade and although not very valuable, a bit hard to find in good condition. I said yes of course I was interested and Geoff did a deal at that very moment with the seller; £100 for eleven of the programmes that I chose. I was happy. One of them was the Tommy Roe/Chris Montez tour from 1963 which had The Beatles 3rd on the bill and another was the Duane Eddy/Gene Vincent tour, also from 1963 which had an almost unknown group at the bottom of the bill, Carter Lewis and The Southerners. This one I wanted because the guitarist in that band was a very young Jimmy Page. There was also a Billy Fury programme, one of my favourites from that era so I had to have that.
They arrived less than a week later in pristine condition. This was an absolute bargain as far as I was concerned and I slowly read each one over my morning coffee. The co-owner of Mendips, Hiroko, was here doing the accounts. I was about halfway through the pile when I picked up the Billy Fury one, opened it and something fluttered to the ground. It landed face down, I picked it up, turned it over and then, literally, fell on the floor myself. Hiroko looked on aghast and asked if I was ok. I mumbled a ‘yes’ stood up and sat myself down on a chair. In my hand was a photograph of Billy Fury…and it was autographed. I couldn’t comprehend it at first, thought it might be a printed signature but at close examination with a magnifying glass saw it was real. It read ‘Just to say, keep swinging, Billy Fury’. Why was it in there? Who knows but it was quite common on those package tours to insert photos of the artists to get autographs on should the fans meet the stars after the show. Maybe it was one of those but there again, this was no scribbled signature for a fan whilst leaving a venue. It was in legible handwriting and comparing it to other examples on the internet, written while relaxed, not being hounded by a couple of dozen screaming girls whilst trying to get into his car. The reason why it was in there and who he signed it for shall remain a mystery but it now hangs on a wall at Mendips in a special place.
Three of the vintage tour programmes I bought and Billy Fury’s autograph. That’s Jimmy Page on the right in the top picture.
It’s that man Gillespie again! Geoff and I don’t get to see much of each other these days due to conflicting schedules but we always make an effort to get together around each other’s birthdays for a meal and bit of birthday present shopping. August is Geoff’s birthday and this year we ended up in Disc Union in Shinjuku, as we normally do. I bought Geoff a couple of Blu-Rays for his birthday and then just as we were leaving, I spotted a ‘Progressive’ section in the second-hand book racks. There was only one book and I took it out to have a look. It was titled ‘Word Sculptures’ with the subtitle ‘Lyrics for the Musical Life of Greg Lake’. Now I’m a big ELP fan so I flipped it open to have a look and it was exactly what the subtitle said, a book of Greg’s lyrics. I wasn’t particularly interested but had a look at the title page and there, it seemed to be Greg’s signature. I called Geoff over, he concurred, I bought it for 4,500 yen or about £30.
Back at Mendips I started searching the internet but could find no mention of it. ‘That’s odd’ I thought. Even odder, not even Greg’s own website mentioned it so I put out a message on a few ELP fan sites and Social Media pages for any information and a few hours later received a bit of a cryptic message telling me I was a ‘very Lucky Man’ - an obvious reference to Greg’s most famous song - and that they were very rare. No other information than that. I engaged my mystery messenger in a bit of dialogue and discovered that this person was very close to Greg but knew no more than me about the book. Wonderful to make contact but I was still none the wiser.
After a few days, I tracked down Bruce Pilato who was Greg’s manager in 1997 when the book was published. He assured me it was Greg’s signature explaining that it was a limited edition run and that Greg signed each one of them with a red fountain pen. How limited? Just 100 copies. My mystery messenger was right when writing ‘They are very rare’. Again, like the Billy Fury autograph, I wondered for a while about its origin. Who had originally bought it…and why they had sold it to Disc Union? It doesn’t matter. It is now on display at Mendips for all to see and enjoy, another little treasure I have collected through my decades in music.
Greg’s book and signature.
Postscript. A few weeks later, I received a message from an ELP fan who wanted to buy the book. I declined to sell it as I wanted to keep it for my little museum and he then replied with an unbelievable amount of money for it. I emailed back and told him he had mistakenly typed to many ‘0’s but he confirmed the offer. I thought about it but again declined writing ‘No thanks but if I ever change my mind, you will be the first to know’.