My dad was a Baptist Minister. His first appointment was in Bacup, Lancashire, a black and white ex mining town where colour hadn’t yet been invented.
He was approached one day by one of his deacons with this wonderful advice for the coming years: “It’s lovely to have you here, Mister Cooke, but make sure you keep yourself ‘umble and we’ll definitely keep you poor!”
Never a true word; I think I do remember those early days of genuine humility from both my mother and father whilst juggling the promise of church poverty and trying to bring up two small children. I think it was the fungi growing freely through the kitchen floor that may well have been a clue. A place where the mice would leave for better spoils, with copious amounts of hot and cold water…………. running down the walls!
But the idea of being Humble and Poor is something I think most musicians, artists and creatives believe will be their default throughout their lives. There are tales of certain people out there who believe they will be rich, famous, affluent, generous and then become far too rich. But most entering the performing portals simply want to be there for the sake of it and not the riches that so often elude and dissipate before even a subtle whiff is detected.
I certainly started out with the idea that as long as I did my six to eight hours a day practicing scales and ever increasingly difficult exercises on the guitar, I would be fine. I was living at home. No expense spent. All costs covered by the Bank of M&D with assumptions taking place on a regular basis that this was as it should be.
One day my dad, who had been a musician and football player before God got him, suggested that I try to make it work elsewhere and leave home. He later denied that he said this but leave I did, saying I’d been ‘kicked out’.
With a few pots and pans, a couple of bedsheets and a towel or two, I moved into the top floor of an off license in Highbury Islington. Two rooms with no kitchen, a bathroom of sorts and a very smelly dog that lived in the shop downstairs often leaving his savoury deposits on my stairs. This was a true definition of humility and poverty which, despite the few hours I dared spend there practicing and avoiding the lice, became affectionately known as the first place on my own. I think we all thought this was the way it should be. Fame and prosperity would arrive by surprise with the first hit song so meanwhile we should continue plodding on, getting those chops in better shape and ignoring the smells.
From one house share to another, each time moving slightly further up the poverty scale where finally I could afford to buy a few nice things around the hideous furnishings we’d agreed to accommodate that the landlords thought appropriate and worth the deposit.
I then pulled my first MD job on TV. It was a funs show that I’ve already written about called The Sunday Gang. Probably the most important reason why this was a game changer was that this is where I met someone. This someone while remaining humble certainly wasn’t poor. She had her own apartment in a trendy part of Chiswick as well as her own car, furniture and fittings; And we became friends. She was a well-established actress doing TV, film and advertising and getting in a few shillings for her valuable time. I, on the other hand, was still ‘developing my art’. I was asked to write and record a score for an original theatre play called “The Tree that Woke Up” by the esteemed writer Murray Watts. It was medieval in character including songs and some great opportunity to write some worthy ‘Olde Worlde’ underscore. Half way through the recording process we ran out of money and found we couldn’t complete the mixes for the opening night. We were trying to work out exactly how we could salvage the music and get something onto the master tape that we could eventually play in the theatre. My friend walked in and quietly yet confidently showed me her latest royalty cheque which certainly was in excess of four figures and immediately offered to underpin the entire recording and production of the score. We managed to get this to the stage in one piece and on time with everything paid for thanks to my lovely friend and, soon to be, first wife of many years.
Stay humble and poor as and when it helps the process, strive for riches that aren’t necessarily financial and if a few shillings come your way, celebrate, but with humility!