I was going through a storage box just the other day, looking through some old letters and photographs . . . and realized, wow, it's been fifteen years since I was last in England. I used to go there quite a bit, for work and on vacation, but until that moment it hadn't occurred to me that I'd been away from there that long. Time certainly has a way of getting away from you . . .
The last time I was in Britain was in the late winter of 1997, while I was in graduate school. All University of Virginia MBA students were required to do a big group project near the end of the second and last year. This project was usually one of assisting one of UVA's foreign and domestic corporate partners with a business problem or issue they were currently facing; it's basically free consulting work for them, and hands-on training for us. The group I ended up in was assigned to a large British insurance company, with the task of determining the feasibility and cost effectiveness of the insurer owning and operating its own nationwide chain of auto repair facilities. As part of our research for this project, we were to spend a week in England, meeting with our corporate contacts and making site visits, at the end of which we would deliver a preliminary report of our findings.
So one morning in early March of that year, I drove up from Charlottesville to Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia, and with my fellow classmates took a Virgin Atlantic flight across the ocean into London Heathrow. There, an insurance company car was waiting to take us on a 90-minute drive northwest to lodgings in a small village called Tiddington, close to the corporate headquarters located in Stratford-upon-Avon, the legendary birthplace of the great William Shakespeare. By the time we arrived there, it was already getting dark, although due to the time change we were all functioning as though it were still in the early afternoon of the time zone we just left. Still, we had a lot of work to do the next day (although the company acknowledged our incipient jet lag by scheduling our first meetings for late the next morning), so we had an 'early' dinner at a local Indian restaurant and hit the hay long before 10 p.m. local time.
I woke up before the rooster early the next day, our first morning in England, and decided to take a walk and do a little exploring around the area before our first scheduled meeting with the insurance company people later that a.m. I pulled on my shoes and my beloved long black wool overcoat (mentioned here) and stepped out into the frosty, somewhat misty morning, heading west down the main road. I wasn't really going anywhere - I was just having a wander. I heard a faint gurgling off to my right, where the morning mist seemed to be the thickest, so I turned down the first side street I came to and headed towards it. In a few minutes, I found myself standing on the weedy banks of the Avon, a river steeped in history and legend. The river itself wasn't that impressive; in the States, a run like that would barely qualify as a brook, much less a stream. But, still, I was powerfully affected standing by it. With the heavy fog serving to obscure the sights and muffle the few early morning sounds of modern society, it was easy to imagine that Shakespeare had long ago once stood in the very spot I stood in, gaining inspiration from the same natural, bucolic sights I was then taking in. Even with all of the things we did in England later during that trip, that brief moment I spent alone beside the Avon was one of my personal highlights.
The rest of the day was spent down the street at work, getting our assignments and gearing up for the week to come. My fellow grad students and I split up into three or four two-man teams, each assigned with conducting on-site interviews at body shops and repair facilities all over the country. Beginning the next day, we were going to be driving into every corner of England, ostensibly to see if there were regional differences in the nature and cost of repair work being done. I made it back to my room late that afternoon to rest up and decompress a bit; I fired up the telly and was pleasantly surprised to find an episode of "Shortland Street" on one of the channels ("Shortland Street" is a long-running primetime New Zealand soap opera; back when I lived in Christchurch, it was almost required viewing for everyone there. Even the people who badmouthed the genre, the implausible plots and clichéd acting were, more often then not, devoted viewers). Later that evening, feeling a little "dry", I went across the street to an authentic-looking public house I'd noticed earlier that morning, The Crown Inn. I was not disappointed; the Crown had the look, feel and ambiance of what an American imagines an old English pub to be like - old and creaky, dark and smoky, with tankard-scarred oak tables, genial, ruddy-faced barkeeps and clientele, and a roaring blaze in the fireplace. I sat there near the fire with a pint of Guinness in front of me, writing a letter to a girl I liked back in the States, and happily felt like, yes, I really was in England.
My partner and I began our journeys early the next morning. He was in charge of driving for the first leg down to Slough, just west of London. That gave me time to take in the early morning countryside on either side of the highway. But after a while, that got old, so I switched on the radio. While spinning around the dial, I chanced upon the middle of a catchy little number I'd never heard before. The song was built upon a steady electric piano-and-drum groove, and punctuated by a nifty three-note repeated riff, played by what sounded to me like electronic horns. At first, I couldn't get a clear handle on the gender of the singer; the voice in the song lamenting relationship problems could have been either a man's or a woman's. Then came the chorus, which I heard as "I could never be a woman . . .", which indicated to me that the singer was a dude. My initial impression was that the tune was about a guy admitting to and commenting on his poor behavior to his girlfriend, while at the same time sympathizing with her over putting up with his bullshit. "I could never be a woman" - to me, that was a brilliant line and premise! I didn't catch the name of the singer or song then, but I knew that eventually I would.
I heard that song several more times that day as we made our way from place to place west and south of London - while it was unknown in the States, it apparently was a big hit over in England. The more times I listened to it (in some cases now in its entirety), the more mistaken my initial take on the song seemed to be. Various lines just didn't add up to what I assumed the overall premise was. Was the guy in the song projecting his feelings onto his girlfriend? Was he gay? Was it really a woman singing, and not a guy at all? I finally caught a broadcast where the DJ gave out the song details - it was called "Your Woman" by a band called White Town. That's when it all made sense to me - it wasn't "I could never be a woman"; it was "I could never be your woman". The male singer was impersonating a woman in the song - fair enough. I didn't learn more about the group until I returned to the States.
The "band" White Town was (and is) essentially one man, India-born Englishman Jyoti Mishra. When he was 23, he saw The Pixies play during their April/May 1989 English tour (immediately in the wake of their recently released album Doolittle). Inspired by what he saw, Mishra put together the first version of his band a couple of months later. With Mishra fronting a group consisting of a bassist, drummer and guitarist, they were the typical small town combo (based in Derby), trying to make a name for themselves by playing support gigs for other more famous and established bands passing through the area. The band's first release, the self-financed 7" White Town EP, came out in 1990 and was greeted with a deafening silence. By the end of that year, all of Mishra's supporting musicians had abandoned him, and White Town became a solo enterprise. For the next few years, the singer began making records (mostly EPs, and one album) out of his home studio, utilizing the occasional assistance of local Derby musicians, and releasing them on small independent labels. All of these releases failed to chart, in England or elsewhere.
White Town and its records were essentially Mishra's single-minded, unsuccessful conceit until the >Abort, Retry, Fail?_ EP was released in late 1996 on independent Parasol Records. This disc featured "Your Woman", a reworking of an old Bing Crosby song from the 1930s called "My Woman" - the most popular version of which was sung by Al Bowlly with the Lew Stone and Monseigneur Band and featured in the movie Pennies From Heaven (Mishra appropriated the trumpet riff from the original version (contact me with the following email link if you want this file: Send Email) and featured it prominently in his song). Mishra's "female" voice in the song was a bold, gender-skewing move, but one based on art rather than on sexual orientation. Either way, it made quite a stir. For once, a White Town release gained significant airplay and buzz, so much so that Chrysalis Records (a subsidiary of industry giant EMI) quickly swooped in and put together a joint distribution deal with Parasol and a recording contract with Mishra before the end of the year. With EMI's marketing muscle behind it, "Your Woman" made it to #1 on the UK charts by January 1997.
Chrysalis/EMI was eager to capitalize on the success of the single, and pushed Mishra unmercifully to put out a supporting album as quickly as possible. This heavy-handed pressure led to an ongoing, bitter dispute between the label and artist during the recording and subsequent release of White Town's Women In Technology in late February 1997. The album made it to the lower reaches of the British Top 100 chart, due almost entirely to the inclusion of the hit single in the song lineup. But the bad blood between Mishra and EMI remained and even intensified, so much so that by the end of 1997, barely a year after signing on, White Town was booted from the label.
"Your Woman" was sort of like the unofficial theme song for my time in the UK. We travelled all over the country for our site visits, mostly in the South of England. However, there was still plenty of time for fun and sightseeing - among other places, we went to Blenheim Palace, my hero Winston Churchill's ancestral home; Oxford University, a campus and area so steeped in history and gravitas that it made our own University of Virginia seem like some sort of 2-year vocational school; and the Ashdown Forest, home of Winnie the Pooh. We met up with the rest of our team members in London for a night; none of them besides me had ever been there before, so I sort of served as the tour guide there. And back in our home base, the insurance company made sure that we got a full appreciation of the city of Stratford-upon-Avon. We toured all of the Shakespeare-related attractions, including his home (which was interesting, but it was sort of off-putting to look out of his window to see a Laura Ashley shop directly across the street), and one night we
(I knew it was going to be a good night when, on a whim, I asked the barkeep for a Mackeson XXX Stout, an old favorite and deeply mystical selection nearly impossible to find in the States, and up to that point difficult to come across in England - the man served it up instantly, at the perfect temperature). Through it all, that song played everywhere, and I made a note to myself to acquire a copy when I returned to the States.
By the time I returned to Virginia, "Your Woman" was making a small run on the American charts, eventually reaching #23 on the Hot 100. That was the group's high-water mark. With the demise of the contract with EMI, White Town/Mishra rapidly returned to obscurity. He continues to release albums and singles on independent labels and his own Bzangy imprint, all of which have been met with tepid reviews and low sales. Until the increasingly unlikely event of lightning striking twice for him, White Town was and is considered a one-hit wonder. But hell - I guess that's better than NO hits, eh?
Here's the 2-song White Town Your Woman single, released by the American arm of Chrysalis in 1996. For me, this song will always be associated with England, and especially with a cold, foggy morning when I stood on the banks of the Avon and briefly imagined myself communing with the spirit of the immortal Bard.
. . . or not. Either way, enjoy - and as always, let me know what you think.
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