‘Roger Eagle, like his aquiline namesake is a large, far-sighted and occasionally superior creature...’
Nico looks down to two 'entrepreneurs who were always broke' Alan Wise & Roger Eagle
So began an article I wrote for the Beefheart fanzine 'Steal Softly Thru Snow' in 1995 titled 'Views from the Eyrie'.
Snappy title eh?
"Sit down! Listen to this!" is a much better one.
They're two staccato commands familiar to anyone who knew Roger and chosen by author Bill Sykes for his recently published biography of the influential DJ, club owner, rock promoter, recorder collector, mentor and dare I say 'legend'?
If he was still alive the big man would berate me for using the word legend - nowadays devalued by its ubiquity. Roger was always very particular about words. Not unsurprisingly as his mother Dorothy was a literary lexicographer at the Oxford University Press and worked with words all day. Such agility was previously unknown to Bill Sykes whose first venture into writing this book is.
Bill sets the scene at Roger's funeral at Bangor Crematorium in 1999 and it's a powerful eulogy that any writer would be proud of.
View a video of Bill talking about the book HERE
In an alternative universe Roger as a presenter on Top Gear
Bill got to know his subject as a neighbour in Whalley Bridge in the last five years of Roger's life.
His book is the culmination of 8 years of research, talking to 60 or so people who knew the man and these interviews are used as the framework to pull together the tangled threads of Eagle's life.
Bill adds where necessary, important musical, social and background information to give his narrative a context. The result is a lovingly drawn, warts 'n' all portrait of a complex, difficult, sometimes intimidating, on other occasions very amusing individual who is remembered by anyone who ever encountered him.
I was one of those people; Bernard and Martin Sheridan are two more that spring to mind, who had dealings with Roger, and unfortunately they weren't located in time before Bill came up against his publisher's deadline.
These days the internet provides a chance to add to the story so here goes:
My earliest recollection of Roger is seeing his towering, six foot four inch figure standing outside the Magic Village acting as a stand-in doorman. Roger would be giving forth in that exasperated Sergeant major way of his about us not being old enough to come in. But the banter was friendly and good natured and I was a bit in awe as a sixteen year old working class grammar schoolboy.
He needn't have bothered with his bouncer routine though because unlike the other back street city centre clubs there was never any aggro at the Village. No alcohol to fuel the aggro you see? However for at least some of the time, plentyof the Magic Village People were coming to blows psychologically -with themselves- as they wrestled, with the mind-bending effects of various newly ingested consciousness changing substances.
When he wasn't keeping an eye on things outside and enjoying a sly spliff in the process, Roger was inside, on the door, or in his office booking the bands or downstairs: playing weird and wonderful music, and generally blowing minds at Manchester's very own psychedelic dungeon, on Cromford Court.
It provided Dave Backhouse and Martin Sheridan the opportunity to put on their liquid light show and me to project a few films with them on occasion.
I recall he always called me "CRUMPTON" in that prefect-like manner of his which irritated. I'm sure it was a distancing and control ploy he adopted so as not to get too close to people. It must have given him a feeling of superiority. It was interesting to read similar accounts of this behaviour from other contributors to Bill's excellent book. Apparently it wasn't just me.
I spent many a Saturday/Sunday at the all-nighters with my school friends Steve Hopkins and Finbar Humphries where we'd spend hours flirting, chatting and trying (unsuccessfully) to get off with Denise and Janet, two North Manchester teenage girls.
We were also experimenting with other stimulants.
Being school kids we had little money and Roger always had a smoke. Many evenings were spent a round at his flat in Blair Road, Chorlton trying to persuade him to 'skin one up' and share it with us.
It was a grotty place (like all the accommodation I was ever invited into by Roger) but had the inestimable benefit of his massive record collection which when you're living at home in Wythenshawe became a Mecca of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll - although alas without the former. It was an innocently all male scene.Homosocial I believe is the new term.
The gatherings usually comprised Roger, Steve Hopkins, John Ansboro, Steve Thomas (who invariably ended up arguing loudly with Roger before the evening was out) Martin, Tom and Bernard Sheridan, Dave Backhouse and his roofer mate Max.
Lots of different kinds of games were played. Mind games, board games. Waddington's Risk was popular, but not their Monopoly - 'we weren't bread heads man': Diplomacy was another favourite as it gave mein host the chance to take over the world in a few hours.Time was a bit more elastic back then.
Roger was a very competitive guy who would use an assortment of tactics to grind the other players down if he wasn't winning. Loud protestations alternated with sullen silences in this war of attrition with the assembled crowd (who deep down just wanted him to roll another joint, change the record or make another brew).
A game of Scrabble could last forever- conducted at a glacially stoned pace to a chorus of exasperated 'Come ons' and 'Hurry ups'. When eventually Roger laid down his letters arguments would break out instantly as the word's legitimacy was called into question. This led to the habitual consultation of the Complete Oxford Dictionary for verification. Maybe Roger's mother had given him a head start as invariably the word that no-one had ever of would be found to exist to Roger's great delight.
There were frequent hoots of stoned laughter as the hours passed as clouds of cigarette and dope smoke mixed to fill the airless room. Roger added to it with his habit of tearing apart the smoked joint's 'roach' and burning it in the nearest overflowing ashtray. It was his police paranoia thing but I can't remember any drug squad incident but there might well have been the possibility and it added to Roger's hipster cool in our adolescent eyes.
The soundtrack was constantly changing with Roger's enthusiasm for one artist or another. He'd mention an artist that no-one had ever heard of then incredulously exclaim 'You've not heard 'Memphis Soul Stew' by King Curtis and the Kingpins!' or whoever was his current fave.
He'd continue 'I don't believe it!' crying out like some youthful nephew of Victor Meldrew before striding over the sprawling bodies and detritus in the room to the record deck to begin the next lesson in our musical 'education'.
'If you have ears prepare to listen' was a Beefheart maxim (outta Brutus) he was fond of and oft repeated.
I'd liked and listened to Dylan and a lot of the folkies that he referenced like Woody Guthrie,Leadbelly Sonny Terry, etc and I was a big fan of the Stones but Roger turned us onto the real McCoy- Muddy Waters,Howlin' Wolf and electric Rhythm 'n' Blues, vintage rock 'n' roll, obscure soul and reggae, avante-garde jazz, West Coast bands, all to us previously unheard: 'Tremendous music' (another favourite phrase of Roger's I recall).
They were high times indeed.
In other ways these evenings proved highly instructive.
Roger was an avid reader and a fountain of knowledge, though sometimes the water was muddy. He needed to have something to fill in the time between the agent's and other business phone calls. In addition to countless music publications he got through shelf loads of Science Fiction writings- the further out the better. Alfred Bester, Philip K Dick, Robert Sheckley et al and he was always commending, neigh commanding, books that had to be read. As with his choice of music his recommendations were always worth listening to and following up.
Then in 1969 I went off to Nottingham Art College. I regularly returned to Manchester to help Martin Sheridan and Dave Backhouse with their lightshows - the gigs mainly held at the Students' Union on Saturday nights. As a poor student who was starting to make films I was looking for any source of extra income to pay for film stock and processing costs.
A money making idea came to me after a workshop learning about silk screen techniques - print some hip artwork on tee-shirts and sell them to friends. Mike Don's Mole Express -Manchester's local alternative magazine at the time -used an image of an Anarchist Dennis the.Menace as its logo so I put a version of the DC Thomson original on a few T-shirts. Roger bought one and asked if I could do some other designs. At the time he was into ITV's distopian science fiction series The Guardians.
Loads of 1984 Big Brother Police State stuff from what I vaguely remember.
The show and the 'Guardians' themselves used as their insignia a more angular version of the old Granada TV logo and I did a one off as I could just cut out a paper stencil.
Sometime later Roger had taken to smoking Kool Menthol cigarettes. I think it was Beefheart's favourite cigarette and he'd turned Roger onto them on his first UK tour. Roger asked me to do some. I found a source of white singlet vests with green banding on the sleeves edges and with the Kool trademark lettering added in green ink the vests made a perfect match. He liked those I remember.
Returning to Manchester on a regular basis I never lost touch for more than a few months at a time. One time Roger mentioned he was promoting a few gigs for Beefheart on the Clear Spot Tour in 1973 and he asked me to do some tour tee-shirts.
These were the days before tour merchandise became big business and such things were not customary for lesser known bands. Like me, Roger loved Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's music, persona, weirdness, the whole thing. He intended to give the printed tee-shirts as a gift and at the same time I think impress Don that he had an 'in house designer' who could get this kind of thing done.
I was still at the Art College and there was a friendly silkscreen technician who for a small gratuity would do the technical work if I supplied the artwork. I came up with 2 designs. The first based on the Trout Mask cover and another based on the Spotlight Kid cover. They were silk screened by hand - one slip could produce a worthless 'dud' and were limited edition runs of about 20 each.
When it suited him Roger could be very generous. He invited me on the band's tour bus to a couple of gigs at Derby and Preston in 1973. I went along with my friend Harry Stephenson, then the 'star' of my film 'Heave Too' and later the lead singer with Plummet Airlines. Via Roger I heard that Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) liked the Beefheart shirts and wanted one for himself so I did several adapting a photo I took at the earlier Derby gig and gave them to him at the Preston gig.
Backstage after the gig Roger did the introductions and I got to meet and talk with the great man and his band. Rockette signed his autograph and 'To John' on a copy of the Clear Spot album. Don added his signature as well, plus a scribbled drawing of me that's still one of my most prized possessions.
Whilst I was away in Nottingham Roger moved over to Liverpool and co-founded Eric's. I bumped into him in late 1976 at the club when I was one of the camera crew videoing a gig at the club. We didn't get much of a chance for a catch up chat. Not that small talk was something Roger would consider worth spending much time on. The everyday chitchat that we all engage in to maintain our friendships were never high on Roger priority list. He invited us back to his flat in Sefton Park . Leading us through the usual chaos he immediately put on the Sex Pistol's 'Anarchy in the UK' at top volume and blew us all away. I went out the following day, bought the single and wore it out.Punk hit the mainstream a few weeks later.
Roger always had his finger right on the pop culture pulse.
I'd occasionally drive over to Liverpool for a gig, usually working as a cameraman and Roger seemed to have found his niche. I can picture him in Eric's, dressed in jeans and one of his brightly coloured Hawaiian shirts, leaning on the side of his Twentieth Century Juke Box, knowingly or unknowingly oblivious to the ankle deep piss sloshing around in the nearby the gent's toilet.
After that Roger and me (sounds like a good title for a movie?) went our separate ways for many years.
Me to Birmingham and TV post production work and Roger into musical and promotional ventures that Bill Syke's book describes so well. I returned to Manchester in 1989 and saw Roger a few times at various gigs at the International in Rusholme.
I was working at Granada TV when Guy Pratt the editor of the Beefheart fanzine 'Steal SoftlyThru Snow' contacted me to see if I wanted to contribute an article. My dealings with the Captain had been limited but I knew Roger's had been extensive so after tracking down his number I gave him a ring to see how he was doing and if he'd do an interview with me about them.
So in May 1994 I drove up to his house in Whalley Bridge with a borrowed cassette recorder.
To sweeten my undertaking I'd brought a 3 hour VHS tape of Beefheart performances that I knew he'd be interested in and he wanted to do a copy from.
He told me that he'd finished at the International 2 when some gangsters wielding guns had busted in demanding money and he said that as much as he loved rock 'n roll he 'wasn't prepared to die for it'.
He'd been doing the occasional local DJ gig and was eking out a living selling cassette compilations of his rare reggae singles. In that pre-internet age many tracks were pretty impossible to get hold of any other way. He felt a bit guilty about this -paying no royalties - but money was tight and he considered himself doing a kind of cultural social service.
I had a long list of prepared questions that was soon discarded and we ended up talking around the main subject of his experiences with Beefheart and the conversation explored more wide-ranging musical matters. Bill has used selections from this tape in his book and I am very pleased he did as Roger was on good form that day and riding some of his favourite hobby horses. Whether one agreed with his opinions or not they were always thought through and worth listening too.
When we finished the 'interview' Roger dug out a photo of him stood next to Beefheart from a 70's tour. Bill's book contains many similar ones- Roger stood by the side of his musical hero/giants.
Before I left Roger said he was writing an autobiography and it sounded like this was a 'solo project' and he didn't need any help with it. With hindsight I should have pressed him to do more tape recordings but never did as paid work intervened and we lost contact once again.
Fortunately Bill Sykes stayed in touch. About this same time he became friendly with Roger and completes the last five years of Roger's life.
This biography is a real labour of love as well as being an important testimony to events in the North West's musical and cultural history of which Roger was often a key mover and shaker.
It also comes as a refreshing counterbalance to the abundant out pourings of the Factory Records publishing machine. Ironically in one chapter Bill's book describes in fascinating detail an embryonic but never consummated business tie-up between Roger and Tony Wilson.
Now that's joint venture I'd have paid good money to see.
For all of the ten minutes it would have lasted.
Thanks to Steve Hopkins for his kind permission to use his photos of Roger.