‘I didn’t want to be a rock’n’roll star,’ says Micky Gee. ‘I wanted an ordinary job, a girlfriend and a mortgage, but it just didn’t happen.’
Micky Gee was a beautiful, beautiful guitarist. Everything he played was classic in construction, peerless in execution and glorious in impact.
His sound graced many a hit record, many a film soundtrack and many a concert stage, creating a body of work that I defy you to listen to without holding your breath. And all achieved, it would seem, by default. It all started with Uncle Sid.
Micky’s Uncle Sid was a local painter and decorator who, crucially, played the guitar. Although he only knew three chords – C, F and G7 (the three chord trick) – he generated a fearsome Cajun-like rhythm, using the horny fingernail of his index finger and singing songs like ‘Singin’ The Blues’ and ‘The Great Pretender’. Micky was so mesmerised, he went to work for Uncle Sid, who taught him the three chords. C and G7 came easy, but F – a notoriously difficult chord for a beginner – took him about a year to get.
‘I was the thickest guy on the planet,’ he said by way of explanation.
Then he heard ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’ by Elvis Presley. The Scotty Moore guitar solo blew his mind.
‘It was like seeing a spaceship.’
He bought the record and learned to play the guitar part. Then he bought all Elvis’s records and learned to play all Scotty’s guitar parts. Inevitably, this pursuit led Micky to Presley’s Sun stable-mate, Carl Perkins, and a new obsession. He duly absorbed the Perkins canon. Then he read an interview with Big Jim Sullivan in the music press. Sullivan, the doyen of British session guitarists, listed his favourite guitarists as Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Joe Maphis. Micky bought albums by all three and learnt every note they played (a Herculean task). The building blocks were slipping into place.
In the summer of ‘63, at the age of 18, Micky embarked on a pilgrimage to the promised land – the USA, the spiritual home of rock’n’roll. He was going to Memphis to meet Elvis and Carl, and Nashville to meet Chet. He was going to place himself in their vicinity and see what happened. So he flew into New York, found the bus station and got the first Greyhound to Tennessee.
When he got off the early morning Greyhound in Nashville, his suitcase and guitar in hand, it was pouring with rain (See? You’ve got the makings of a song lyric right there, just by getting off a fucking bus). He pulled his collar up and trudged through the rain-lashed streets looking for a record shop. When he found one, he asked the proprietor if he knew where Chet Atkins lived. Which he did (I would imagine everybody in Nashville knew where Atkins lived, because his house was the most popular sight-seeing stop on the ‘Country Kings & Queens Bus Tour’). The proprietor gave Micky complicated directions, involving Interstate numbers and multiple freeway off-ramps.
‘It’s a twenty-minute drive,’ he finished helpfully.
‘I haven’t got a car,’ said Micky.
‘You don’t have a car?’ he said incredulously. ‘So how are you getting there?’
‘I’m walking,’ said Micky.
‘Nobody walks in this town, son,’ said the record shop owner. ‘You’ll be the only man walking in Nashville’ (another song lyric, if I’m not mistaken).
‘Just point me in the general direction,’ said Micky.
It was early afternoon when Micky got to the Atkins mansion. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining. He walked up the drive and knocked on the front door. No answer. He knocked again. Still nothing. There was nobody home. So he sat down on the wet, perfectly manicured lawn and waited. Maybe Chet had just nipped out to buy a pack of cigarettes? So Micky waited. And waited. And waited. He played a little guitar to pass the time. Playing guitar in Chet Atkins’s garden is something in itself. Late in the afternoon, a postman arrived.
‘This is the Atkins house, isn’t it?’ said Micky.
‘Yes, it is,’ came the reply, ‘but he ain’t home. He’s away on tour… in England, I think.’
Micky spent a couple days in Nashville, worshipping at the country shrines – the Grand Ole Opry; the Museum of Country Music, where the star attraction is the car in which Hank Williams died; Webb Pierce’s giant guitar-shaped swimming pool and Roy Acuff’s general store, where the British visitor buys the obligatory bootlace tie. Then he caught the Greyhound to Memphis to see Elvis. He didn’t get to see Elvis but he did visit that prima inter pares of shrines, the holy of holies – Sun Studios. He got off at the bus station and walked down Union Street to Sun Records. It was an intimidating street. All the alleyways were colonized by threatening gangs of mean-eyed lowlifes who threw taunts at him and his guitar case as he passed.
‘Hey there, white boy, play me some blues.’
Sun Studios was an island of sanity in a sea of madness. The fountainhead of the dream, it possessed the qualities of an ashram, high in the Himalayas. Micky stood in the room where it all happened, soaking up the dream. He played his guitar to see what the room sounded like. Just to play in that beautiful, tiny room was inspirational.
‘I’ve done it!’ he said to himself, ‘I don’t care what happens from now on.’
Then he had to make it back up Union Street in one piece.
‘I’m lucky to still be alive,’ he said.
He was running out of money so he boarded another Greyhound bound, this time, for New York City. And home? No. He decided to stay for a while. He got a job washing dishes at a restaurant in the Bronx, found himself a place to live, and fell in with a nice crowd. He loved New York. He loved the energy and the bustle, and he was seduced by the poetry of American speech. Just walking through the canyons of the city, stopping off for a burger and beer, and relishing the casual conversations with wise-cracking New Yorkers was a sheer delight. And, throughout the long, hot summer nights, sitting alone in his apartment, he played guitar.
‘I was living the dream. It was the happiest time of my life.’
Then, out of the blue, he was drafted into the US Army. He was in America on a working visa, which meant that during his stay he would be eligible for military service (that isn’t a visa, that’s a death sentence). Before he left Britain, he’d even had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Stars & Stripes at the American embassy in London. Vietnam beckoned, so, reluctantly but swiftly, he came home. Coming back to Cardiff was like stepping from Technicolor into monochrome.
He started going to local gigs. At one, he was invited up to play with the band. People listened, open-mouthed, as Micky’s dazzling guitar conjured up rock’n’roll magic. Some listeners, I am unreliably informed, got down on their knees in homage. When he came off, everybody told him how wonderful he was, but Micky wasn’t convinced.
‘I thought they were all just winding me up.’
A close friend took him aside and told him that he truly was a wonderful guitar-player and that he really should take it seriously. Still Micky wasn’t convinced. But as word spread about the new kid on the block, he began receiving offers of work from virtually every local band. Suddenly, his dance card was full. But he was edgy. He was suffering from post-American wanderlust. He had an irreconcilable urge to travel to lands foreign and horizons new.
Then his father showed him an ad in the local paper. A band called Tommy Scott and the Senators from Pontypridd were looking for a guitarist for a tour of Germany. Micky thought a nice break in Germany would be just the ticket so, for that reason alone, he applied for the job and got it.
‘Germany, here I come!’
Tommy Scott was an ambitious man. He was looking for a major management deal so, to that end, he was in protracted phone discussions with Gordon Mills, one of the pop Svengalis of the day, who’d expressed an interest. Tommy knew that with Mills as his manager the stratosphere was the limit. But Mills was shilly-shallying, not saying yes, but not shutting the door, keeping Tommy in a state of frustrated limbo, which may have been his intention. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, they played some Welsh gigs. Micky wasn’t particularly happy in the band. They were nice chaps and Tommy had a big voice but he didn’t like the music and didn’t think much of their playing but, as far as he was concerned, the gigs were merely a warm-up for the German tour.
After a hometown gig at Pontypridd, they stopped off at a local curry house before heading for home. During the meal, Tommy dropped a bombshell. He was cancelling the German tour because he felt that to leave the country just as negotiations with Mills were reaching a critical stage wasn’t the smartest move. Fair point, Tommy. But Micky didn’t see it like that, so he dropped his own bombshell.
‘Right, that’s it!’ he said, ‘I’m leaving the band. I’m going back to Cardiff to play with my mates.’
Tommy, unaware of Micky’s secret German agenda, was astonished. He pleaded with Micky to stay, but Micky was intractable. But Tommy, who knew a priceless asset when he saw one, kept on trying. If the Mills deal worked out, he said, it would be the first rung on the ladder to fame and fortune. If the deal worked out, they’d be set for life. If the deal worked out, they’d all be laughing. There were too many ‘ifs’ for Micky.
‘Right!’ he said. ‘There’s only one way I’ll stay in the band.’
Then he delivered his ultimatum. The interminable Mills negotiations were now disrupting the band’s schedule, he said, and they had to be resolved as soon as possible. So, as soon as they’d finished their curry, they’d all get in the van and drive straight to Gordon Mills’s office in London and, first thing in the morning, sort it out with the man himself, one way or another. There were rumblings of discontent from Tommy and the band, because the last thing you want after a gig is a long, speculative drive, but…
‘We’ll do it tomorrow,’ said Tommy.
‘No,’ said Micky, ‘we’ll do it tonight. Take it or leave it.’
So, when they’d finished their curries, they all climbed into the van and drove to London. The following morning, Gordon Mills arrived at his office to find Tommy Scott and the Senators waiting on the pavement outside. He and Tommy went into his office and the deal was struck. Now that certainty was restored, reasoned Micky (somewhat naively, it has to be said), the German tour could still be salvaged. But now there were different priorities – a nose-job and image makeover for Tommy and the search for a song that would catapult him into the public eye. And, during the process, Tommy Scott became Tom Jones.
They moved up to London and Gordon Mills put them on a per diem – a pound a day. Mills ran an autocratic regime and his word was law. They were told how to dress, how to behave, where to go and what time to get there. Micky wasn’t happy, but Tom, having fulfilled his part of the curry-house bargain, now expected him to stay in the band, so Micky reluctantly did.
Tom’s first single, ‘Chills And Fever’ was a flop. Tom was well and truly gutted. This wasn’t part of the master plan. Some even thought he might be suicidal, because he was talking about jacking it all in and going back to Pontypridd. In this mood, he constantly badgered Gordon Mills to find the right song for his next single. Mills began to find it a little wearing.
Then Mills, and his writing partner, Les Reed, were commissioned to write a song for Sandie Shaw. She’d had two Number 1 hits and now she wanted a third. There was, said her manager, a deadline. So Mills and Reed wrote a Sandie Shaw-style song called ‘It’s Not Unusual’. They hired Tom to do the vocal on the demo, partly to earn him some money – they paid him £5 for the session, standard rate at the time – and partly to shut him up. So Tom did the vocal on the demo.
Demo sessions are brilliant. I’ve done a few in my time, sometimes two or three a week. If a publishing house finds a song with promise, or a song that might suit a particular artist, then the first thing is to demo it. It is in the common interest to make the demo as good as possible, because the better it is the more chance it gives the song. A good demo can sometimes sell an iffy song. A demo studio is booked, and a band assembled, usually drums, bass, guitar and piano. The session is produced by the publishers. In my case it was Ronnie Scott (not that Ronnie Scott) and Marty Wilde (yes, that Marty Wilde), who’d written ‘Pictures Of Matchstick Men’ for pre-three chord bashers Status Quo.
Demo sessions follow a well-trodden path. The songwriter de nos jours arrives and teaches the band their song, or songs. Songwriters rarely sang the song themselves, because publishers want an assured singer to present the song in its best light. Then everybody gets down to working out an arrangement. You find yourself in a ferociously creative environment, when much is expected of you.
Should you fail to deliver, then you will not be re-booked, resulting in ignominy and, its bosom buddy, penury. You are encouraged to be innovative. One of my tricks was mimicking a cello, by using the volume control on the guitar to swell the low notes. Ronnie and Marty loved it.
‘Deke,’ they’d often say, ‘I think this song could do with a string section, don’t you?’
I later used the same technique on several Manband songs, most notably on our magnum opus ‘The Storm’.
There was a further spur to greater things. If you came up with something essential to the song, then you might be invited to play on the final product, as I did on the Marty Wilde single ‘Shelley’.
Demo sessions, it seemed to me, didn’t have a downside, and a galaxy of benefits. Not only do you earn some money, but, by osmosis, you get a priceless education. You learn the tricks of the trade. You learn about the recording process. You learn how to arrange a song. You learn what works and what doesn’t.
So, Tom sang ‘It’s Not Unusual’ on the demo. As he sang he realised that this just might be THE SONG. When he heard the playback, he was utterly convinced. He asked Mills if he could have it for his next single.
‘Sorry,’ said Mills, ‘but it’s promised to Sandie Shaw. She has first refusal. If she turns it down, then you can have it.’
And Sandie Shaw, bless her heart, did turn it down, because, she said, although she’d loved the song, whoever’d sung on the demo had made it their own and she couldn’t imagine it sung by anybody else. She further recommended that this mystery singer release the song as a single, because, in her humble opinion, it would be a monster hit. So Tom recorded it and it was a monster hit.
This was the ‘we’ll all be rich’ moment. But Micky, getting unhappier by the minute, was still looking for an excuse to leave. It came on the day ‘It’s Not Unusual’ reached Number One. They were in Pontypridd when the news came through. To celebrate the event, Tom invited everybody – band, crew and girlfriends – to a slap-up meal in the local curry house. The champagne flowed and the mood was one of self-congratulatory bonhomie. At the end of the meal a waiter arrived and placed a small plate in front of Tom, on which lay the bill plus the obligatory After Eights. Tom ignored it. Suddenly he stood up. For one terrible moment, Micky thought he was going to make a speech, but no.
‘Right,’ said Tom, ‘I’m off.’
And he walked briskly out of the restaurant. For a second, everybody sat in stunned silence. Then somebody broke the spell.
‘He’s taking the piss.’
Everybody burst out laughing. Of course he was. He’d come back in a minute. But he didn’t. Somebody went outside to see if Tom was lurking in a nearby doorway with a mischievous grin on his face, but there was no sign of him. They looked at the bill and it was astronomical. Even if they clubbed together they couldn’t pay it. There was only one option – they had to do a runner (it’s not unusual, to coin a phrase, for a certain percentage of the clientele at a Welsh curry house to try and avoid paying the bill. It is almost regarded, by some, as a Celtic rite of passage). So, at a given signal, everybody rushed for the door. Once outside, they split up and ran off in different directions (long-established tactics, simple but effective). Suddenly, Micky, not the most athletic of musicians, found himself running flat out along a dark street pursued by a posse of furious Indian waiters.
‘That was the moment,’ he recalled, ‘when I decided to leave the band.’
When Micky decided to leave a band, he did so immediately, then and there, on the spot, no matter how inconvenient the circumstances.
Legend has it that he once left a band halfway along a motorway on a journey from Cardiff to a gig somewhere up North. None of the band seemed to like each other, and they were already bickering as they drove out of the city. By the time they got to Newport, the bickering had escalated into a raging argument, which went on for hours. Suddenly, Micky erupted.
‘Stop the van!’ he shouted. ‘I’m leaving the band.’
He got them to stop the van and ordered the roadie to unload his gear. They tried to persuade him to stay and do the gig, but he’d made up his mind, so the band drove off to do the gig without a guitarist, leaving Micky – in the middle of the hard shoulder, somewhere between Wolverhampton and Stoke-on-Trent – sitting on his amplifier, holding his guitar in one hand and his stage clothes in the other, wondering in which direction to thumb. Now, that’s the way to leave a band. I have no idea how he got home, or how long it took, but no matter how arduous the journey he could console himself with the delightful thought that at least he was a free man. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, but free…
In similar circumstances, I have always taken the coward’s way out. I’d have put up with the arguments on the way up, done the gig, put up with the arguments on the way back, then waited until they dropped me off, making sure that all my gear was safely in the house, before handing in my notice. It’s no less traumatic, but after it’s over at least I can put my feet up and have a joint in the comfort of my own lair rather then standing on a windswept motorway with my thumb out, hoping against hope that the next vehicle along would be driven by a lonely off-duty roadie with an empty van, going somewhere vaguely near my hometown. No contest.
After leaving Tom Jones, Micky wasn’t out of work for long. He and drummer Tommy Riley joined Joe Cocker’s original Greaseband. They weren’t there long, but long enough to work out the arrangement of the Beatles’ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ that would launch Cocker’s illustrious career. But by the time the song was recorded, Micky and Tommy had long gone, the victims of the first of many apocalyptic transformations that would engulf the Greaseband during their fractious existence.
Then he joined Dave Edmunds’s Love Sculpture for an American tour. The first night of the tour was at the Ritz in Manhattan. Micky’d made it back to New York City. The band walked on stage to a riotous welcome and the crowd went apeshit. Micky felt a rush of emotion.
‘I’ve done it,’ he thought. ‘The dishwasher conquers New York.’ He had a second, similar epiphany a couple of weeks later onstage in Memphis, the epicentre of the music he loved.
Micky was an every-day, matter-of-fact, dope smoker and, as such, was always running out of cigarette papers, or ‘skins’ as we British call them. Unfortunately, in the USA, ‘skins’ are condoms, so when Micky, in urgent need of a joint, asked total strangers if they had any spare ‘skins’, he was regarded as a slavering pervert who had to have a condom immediately, on the street, in broad daylight. He was mortified when he discovered his faux pas, but not before he got lucky a few times.
Back in Britain, Shakin’ Stevens was making waves. Over the years Micky had contributed to Shaky’s albums when he was a hungry, young tyro, managed by the sharpest of managerial knives, the legendary Paul ‘Legs’ Barrett. Legs knew that Micky Gee’s presence on a track was a cast-iron guarantee of guitar fireworks, so he made sure Micky was involved from the beginning. But just when it was starting to take off, Shaky decided on a change of management. I know little about the resulting carnage other than it was vicious, acrimonious, left a bitter taste in the mouth and cost a fortune in legal fees.
When the dust settled, Shaky emerged with a new manager. One of the first things he did was to hire Micky as his permanent guitar-player. Shaky, for all his faults, knows a good guitar player when he sees one. With Micky on board, Shaky knew his records would be illuminated by some of the greatest rock’n’roll guitar solos ever to grace the genre. And they were. And each one was a first take. Micky’s one of the great first-takers.
‘I think “You Drive Me Crazy” was a second take,’ he tried to remember. ‘I have a pool of accumulated licks in my head and, when the need arises, one pops out.’
But he was more than a guitar-player. He became Shaky’s musical director, producer and arranger, and wrote a couple of his hits. Artistically, Micky was Shaky’s representative on earth. And, in between his Shaky commitments, he was much in demand as a session musician.
Dave Edmunds hired him to do the solo guitar on a re-working of a Smiley Lewis song called ‘I Hear You Knockin’ (even Edmunds defers to Micky at strategic moments). Micky arrived at Rockfield Studios, set his gear up and plugged in. Edmunds miked him up, ran the track and Micky played the guitar part. It was a perfect take. They checked it over for technical glitches, of which it was mercifully free, so Micky packed his gear and went home. The whole thing had taken less than half-an-hour, top to tail.
The opening lick is one of the great guitar licks of all time. It sucks you into the song. The first note is a string-bend among string-bends. Never has a string been bent so perfectly, with such authority, with such conviction, with such majesty.
‘That B to C-sharp bend gets ‘em every time,’ said Micky. ‘That’s the note!’
I don’t have to tell you that ‘I Hear You Knockin’’ became a mammoth, world-wide hit.
I almost formed a band with Micky Gee. We bumped into each other at a gig and by the end of the conversation we’d tentatively agreed to explore the remote possibility that it might be nice to play together, some day, sometime. This is as close as you ever got to a cast-iron guarantee from Micky. I suggested he come up from Cardiff to stay for the weekend in my flat in Shepherd’s Bush. We could smoke some dope, chew the fat and play a little guitar. He arrived on a Friday night and he had to be back in Cardiff on the Monday, so we had two clear days. I’d bought a temple ball of Nepalese (the prima inter pares of cannabis resins) and a bag of Durban Poison (deadly Zulu grass). That should last us until Sunday afternoon, I thought.
It was a great two days. We got our Telecasters out, plugged in, and blazed away. Whenever I played anything, Micky embellished it with a dazzling shower of subtle pyrotechnics that elevated my oh-so-mundane licks into the firmament, infusing them with a hitherto unsuspected majesty. And he was a peerless rhythm guitarist, always sitting in the pocket, and driving the song forward. There was an unexpected by-product – he made me sound like a better guitarist. Can you imagine how wonderful that feeling is?
It also gave me a chance to watch poetry-in-motion in close-up, and plunder his secrets, which he freely offered. Micky shared with Chet Atkins that exquisite economy of movement where impossibly complex runs tumble out without apparent effort. It’s all in the right hand. Chet Atkins has a signature arpeggio lick – stolen from Merle Travis, who probably stole it from Mose Rager – that swells and ebbs like the rolling sea. It is a blizzard of notes played at breakneck speed and lasts as long as you want it to last. When Micky played it, it sounded like a platoon of angels dancing in your eardrums, I have always considered it way beyond my capabilities but he showed me how. And now I’m going to tell you.
The right-hand picking pattern is eloquent and deceptively simple. Going up it’s 6-5-4, 5-4-3, 4-3-2, 3-2-1. Coming down it’s obviously the reverse. And you go up and down, up and down, up and down, ad infinitum. The left hand just plays chords, which can be changed at any point in the proceedings. I can now do it, but only painfully slowly, which defeats the whole object. But now, at least, I can understand what I can’t do, which is little comfort in the long, dark watches of the night, but better than nothing. I realise that this will be of minimal interest to non-guitarists, but if you play guitar it’s sonic gold.
Micky used a customised plastic thumbpick. The blades of factory thumbpicks are too long for Micky, so he files them down to his preferred size.
During our conversations it emerged that Micky was a born-again Christian.
‘That’s alright,’ I said, ‘I’m a born-again atheist.’
It was never mentioned again. He didn’t seek to convert me and I didn’t try to shake the foundations of his faith.
Micky told me a story. Years before, he’d been stuck in Germany for a month and the only distraction available was a copy of Do You Like It Here Now by the Manband. He’d kept boredom at bay by learning every guitar lick on the album. This I know for sure because he played me a selection. He still remembered them, without prompting, without reminder, and every one was spot-bollock. More than that, he’d first play the lick as per record, then gradually add to it, adjust it, nudge the rhythm slightly, add a few grace notes and change the mood, almost transforming it into an alternative song.
It was a salutary experience. Not only could he play my own licks – licks that I had long forgotten – he could conjure them up at will, years after the fact, providing tangible proof of his prodigious memory but also confirming my slapdash approach to music and highlighting the fragility of my tonal memory. Still, we do the best with what we are given, don’t we?
At the end of the weekend, with only a few remaining crumbs of the temple ball left and none of the Zulu grass, we decided to form a band. We couldn’t do it right away because we both had tours coming up, but at the first window of opportunity… But it never happened. We were both workaholics, so, if there was a free moment in my schedule, it never coincided with a free moment in Micky’s schedule. But, as Mystic Meg once said, who knows what the future holds? The race is not yet run.
Micky regularly guested, along with Andy Fairweather Low, with Bill Wyman’s labour of love, Willie and the Poorboys. Their first album contained Micky singing his magnum opus, ‘Revenue Man’: ‘I got a badge in my pocket and a gun on my hip/ And I find moonshiners and I never make a slip/ I’m a revenue man/ I’m a revenue man.’
As a breed, Cardiff musicians are more authentic than we western Welsh. I don’t mean of genuine origin (which, I think, we can all claim to be), I mean in terms of schooling. They are acutely aware of the history of their chosen craft so, whereas we western Welsh use the broadest of brush strokes, the Cardiff crew are miniaturists with a Dali-like attention to detail. They are connoisseurs of fine rock’n’roll of a particular vintage – the Fifties. When the Sixties arrived, we embraced the long, hazy soundscapes of psychedelia but the Cardiff lot held back, loath to leave their beloved rock’n’roll behind (they flirted with psychedelia but balked at long-term commitment). They stayed faithful to their first love, while we, in the manner of air-headed floozies, jumped onto the nearest bandwagon.
Micky agreed with my thesis but, with brutal self-awareness, pointed out the downside. Their entrenched position, he said, meant that they were less experimental, less adventurous and, ultimately, hamstrung by their heritage. Could be, Michael, could be. But surely there is something noble about taking a stand against the fripperies of ephemeral fashion. When the caravan moves on, some choose to stay behind and establish stylistic outposts (there is a crucial difference between being left behind and choosing to stay). Give me an example of this regime worthy of Sparta, I hear you say. O-fucking-kay!
Micky did a lot of work with Carl Perkins. Perkins recognised kindred spirits and regularly used Micky’s band, Memphis Bend, as a backing band (did you feel the earth shudder beneath your feet? Don’t worry – it’s just the axis of the universe shifting a degree or two. It happens every time I mention Memphis Bend). Memphis Bend were the perfect backing band for Carl Perkins. They knew all his songs inside out. Their first gig was at a festival. Thanks to the vagaries of rock’n’roll management, they’d had no rehearsal time so Perkins was hearing Memphis Bend for the first time, indeed, meeting them for the first time. Ten seconds into the first song he was nodding in approval and beaming with delight. In between songs, he shook his head in wonder.
‘You guys are great,’ he kept saying, ‘you sound exactly like my records.’
Then they did ‘Matchbox’. On the Perkins original recording there is a drum mistake. Going into to a guitar solo, the drummer overshoots the correct entry point and spills into the solo. Memphis Bend’s drummer, Tommy Riley, the ultimate authenticist, played the mistake. Perkins spun around and looked at Tommy, eyes wide open with disbelief. After the show he couldn’t stop talking about it. This is what I mean by authentic.
So what was Carl Perkins like?
‘He was a pain in the neck,’ said Micky. ‘He was the nicest person in the world. I never heard him raise his voice, I never saw him lose his temper, and I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. A real country gentleman. But he was so excruciatingly polite that it got on your nerves. I used to tell him, “For God’s sake Carl, tell me to fuck off now and again, just so I feel at home.”‘
They say that an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less. Maybe it’s as simple as that? Their sphere of interest was narrower than the rest of us and, as a result, more closely scrutinised, more easily deconstructed. They were deferring to tradition whereas we were making it up as we went along. I’d liked to have heard Micky construct a ten-minute improvised solo but that would have been like asking a sprinter to run a marathon. They are two totally different disciplines. I just happen to have an apposite anecdote just perfect for the occasion…
I remember an acoustic, kitchen-table jam Micky Jones and I had with Dave Edmunds at Rockfield Studios. We’d had a joint or two. Dave set us off with a storming rock’n’roll rhythm and Jones and I followed. We were all trying to impress each other so it got pretty intense (never has the backbeat been put under so much pressure). After we’d been going for a while, Jones, with a mischievous glint in his eye, leant over and, just loud enough for me to hear, shouted in my ear.
‘When I give you the nod, go psychedelic.’ I signalled assent and waited for the nod. When it came, both Jones and I went abstract, playing out-of-time, atonal runs. Dave stopped playing for a second.
Then, looking daggers at us, he persevered with the rock’n’roll rhythm. Almost immediately, Jones nodded again, and we went back into the rock’n’roll rhythm. Throughout the jam, Jones and I occasionally slipped into improvisation but not once did Dave come with us, preferring the certainties of rock’n’roll. And the more we did it, the more frustrated he got until, suddenly, he stopped playing and shouted at us.
‘Rock, you bleeders. Rock!’
In a perfect world, he’d have tossed his head and flounced out, but he didn’t. He burst out laughing. But Jones and I had got under his artistic skin and it was noticeable that whenever we quietly started a psychedelic improvisation, he was reluctant to join in. preferring to strum quietly. So we played even quieter, forcing him to take centre-stage. What he played was great, but he didn’t play it for too long and soon retreated back into the rhythm. We had taken him out of his comfort zone. Obviously, no-one taped the jam, but, one day, I’m gonna write a song called ‘Rock, You Bleeders, Rock’.
This, I think, supports my contention that Cardiff musicians are weirdly different from the rest of us. A breed apart. Micky agreed.
‘Other guitarists always get in the way,’ he said, ‘but Dave Edmunds and Andy Fairweather Low never do.’
In November 2008, I did a phone interview with Micky for this book. He was reluctant to talk. He wasn’t feeling well, he said, and didn’t feel up to it. His laboured breathing, which I could hear plainly over the phone, confirmed this. ‘Besides,’ he said: ‘I haven’t got anything to say.’
‘Let me be the judge of that, Michael,’ I said.
So, being a ruthless bastard, I started asking my questions. He had plenty to say and, half-an-hour in, he said: ‘I’m enjoying this.’ Fifteen minutes later the interview ended abruptly. His mother, who’d just come out of hospital, was calling him. We’d only got halfway through his story, so I pushed my luck.
‘I know you’re not well,’ I said, ‘but can I phone again to do the rest of the interview?’
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘but leave it until the new year. I’m up to my neck in it at the moment.’
Come the new year, I was back on the case, but I was reluctant to phone him just in case he might still be ‘up to his neck in it’, so I kept putting it off. Then, on 22nd January 2009, Terry Williams phoned me.
‘Micky Gee’s dead,’ he said in a very shaky voice. My heart sank. Terry didn’t know the circumstances of his death but, fighting back the tears, he told me he’d let me know the time, date and location of the funeral.
Micky died in a hospital bed, a victim of emphysema. He was the second friend – the other being John Cipollina – I’ve lost to emphysema (I’m beginning to think that emphysema has some personal vendetta against me). So Micky’s gone, and he took his glorious talent with him to the grave. Civilisation can ill-afford to lose its lynchpins, but Mankind has survived the loss of Socrates, Euclid, Darwin, Marx and Elvis Presley, so I suppose we’ll muddle through without Micky Gee. But, mark my words, it won’t be easy.
The last time I saw Micky was at the premiere of Twin Town, for which he provided the soundtrack. During our conversation, he told me that he’d fallen in love with a young goddess.
‘So’, I said, ‘domestic bliss rears its ugly head.’
‘No’, he said laughing, because she was cool. She often stayed the night, but she’d never mentioned moving in.
‘They never do,’ I said. ‘It’s a gradual process. You’re chugging along nicely then, suddenly, you wake up one morning and realise she’s moved in.’
He dismissed me as an irredeemable cynic with a bleak view of human nature.
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘In fact, there is a point of no return. A key moment when the die is cast. They start moving their plants in. The first pot of ferns is your final warning signal. Ignore it and you’re doomed.’
‘Oh God,’ said Micky, the colour draining from his face. ‘Last week she brought a pot of ferns around. She said she liked my flat but it needed a few plants.’
‘You’re doomed, Michael,’ I said.
I didn’t make it to Micky’s funeral because it coincided with arctic winds dumping ten inches of snow on Britain. I live 150 miles from Cardiff so that put the kibosh on driving down. I’m bad enough in good driving conditions, but on icy roads I’m the Grim Reaper on a seek-and-destroy mission. Sorry Micky, I was there in spirit. On the day of the funeral, I held my own private farewell. I rolled a five-skinner, listened to a couple of his songs and mourned his passing.
Micky never got the public recognition he so richly deserved. There are many reasons for this. One is that he was much in demand as a session guitarist so most of his work went unaccredited. ‘Twas ever thus for backroom boys. Scotty Moore, James Burton and Mick Green, with whom he ranks, suffered in much the same way. Despite their massive contribution to popular music, none are household names. Everybody’s heard of Elvis Presley but only a few sad cases have heard of Scotty Moore.
Another reason was due to his character. He was self-effacing, genuinely enigmatic, and the gypsy in his soul was always looking for that half-open door, so he wasn’t a natural limelight-hogging attention-seeker (de rigueur for your common-or-garden frontman). And if he’d wanted to take that route then he would have, wouldn’t he? He was a great singer who didn’t sing enough.
Those he left behind will remember him as delightful company and a master of his craft. Artists who are gifted with more than their fair share of talent always seem to have a whiff of immortality about them. They are among life’s constants, and you find it hard to imagine life without them. So beat your breasts, rend your garments and wring your hands, for one among their number is no longer with us. I don’t feel a primary loss because he wasn’t part of my daily life. I rarely saw him, but when I did it was always a pleasure. But I feel a genuine loss. Let’s just say that I am now subject to bouts of long-distance sadness.
But, look on the bright side. Micky has smoked his last joint, which means that his prodigious share of the marijuana harvest will now become available to the rest of us. Expect a glut in supply and expect prices to go down.
In the Land of My Fathers is available now from Northdown Publishing Ltd.
Illustration by Dean Lewis