Read an excerpt from The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton
In The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, journalist S. Sunny Shelton compiles the story of how British singer-songwriter Neville Charles and his musical partner, Detroit-bred vocalist Opal Jewel, rocket to fame in the wake of the headline-grabbing New York City concert that killed Sunny's father (drummer Jimmy Curtis). But in this excerpt, Opal, Nev, their producer Bob Hize, and Opal's best friend/stylist Virgil LaFleur recount for Sunny a moment just before that time: the flop of the duo's first rock & roll album together, 1970's Polychrome — another in a string of failures for the struggling label Rivington Records.
Of course it was painful, but it was a pain I already knew—I never managed to fit in anywhere but the freak bin. The only reason it got to me is because of how it was affecting Nev. He flapped his gums all the time about being proud to be different, but in his heart of hearts, ooh, that man is cocky. He expected to drop this record and immediately be huge—he wanted the love and the money and a big stamp of approval right across the forehead. Nev used to play at being different, but I don't know if he ever understood what being different really means. That the regular people like to beat back what's different, because it scares them half to death.
I became disillusioned with America, with popular music, with people's snap judgments and their stereotypes and their willful lack of imagination. But I want to make it clear that despite whatever creative differences came later, I never regretted for one instant working with Opal. I absolutely do acknowledge her role in my career, as part of the reason I am where I am. She helped me bring to life music of which I am extremely proud, and I believe that a place that couldn't accept the concept of us together was a place I had no business being. So when we hit those early bumps, there was never a question of me switching partners or styles, or going on my own again—it was whether I wanted to even bother trying at all.
Naturally my instinct was just to keep moving, moving, moving like I always had, but my partner had gone quiet on me. So I started going down to Ninety-Sixth Street to see about him, see if he wanted to rehearse or let me try out any new songs he might have.
He didn't want to cut on the heat in his apartment, so he'd come to the door wearing about twelve sweaters and mittens and one of those wool hats with the ball on top. You'd talk and vapor would be pouring out your mouth. He'd have lines on his face from his bedsheets—he'd just be getting up, three o'clock in the afternoon. You'd open his cabinets and all you saw was Campbell's soup. Not vegetable or chicken noodle or anything that would keep his system up, but the cheap cans you dump into casseroles—cream of mushroom, you know... cheddar cheese. Just nasty.
I figured he'd be too proud to take whatever spare change I had in my pocket, so I started showing up with leftovers from Miss Ernestine's, or sometimes a pint of pepper steak from this cheap Chinese spot near his place. And I'd tell stories about where I got it and he knew it was lies, but he'd pick at it and then he'd say he was tired and he'd see me later.
It didn't worry me much at first because you can get by, being poor—in my case it made me more stubborn, more creative. What had me bothered was when he stopped scribbling down lyrics, stopped fooling around on the guitar. It was like it was getting colder outside and everything inside Nev was freezing up too. I went to Bob and I said, He's not right.
I struggled with guilt over Nev, because we had all got his hopes up and it hadn't worked out; maybe I had spent the money incorrectly when I should have thought more about the business, and now Howie would surely want to abandon him. I talked to [my wife] Claudia, who had a deep fondness for Nev and, for as long as she could stand it, a certain patience with me, and she agreed that we could stretch for a while to accommodate him, make his last months in New York at least comfortable. I came up with a ludicrous reason that I needed him around—he could have the sofa in exchange for music lessons for [my daughter] Melody, even though she was only a year old and obviously didn't yet have motor skills. But that was the ruse we all lived under for a couple months, while he got his pride together—either got a proper job or left to go back to England.
It was hilarious, really: I had come all the way to America just to turn into [my old piano teacher] George bloody Risehart. I thought about that as Melody banged away on her toy xylophone, thought about my dad and his lady friend, this Carol person, thought about my poor dead mother, and I laughed to keep from falling apart.
As Nev hibernated, Opal blossomed. Artists of all stripes, attracted by her outer wrappings, hovered in her sphere. The New York scene in which she and Virgil immersed themselves could be glittery and confusing, but her social experimentation distracted her from the disappointments of Polychrome and, I imagine, her ongoing affair with my father.
Giving up never did anything for anybody. I just figured, Well, this project didn't work out—on to the next. Plus, I still had a way to go on my contract, and I'm nobody's freeloader. So I kept myself busy during the downtime. I started drawing out the shows we were gonna have one day, literally making sketches of the stage designs in Nev's lyrics notebook, and daydreaming with Virgil about the clothes.
OPENING AN OLD PHOTO ALBUM:
The winter look was about layers and textures. We used a lot of plush felt, and once even figured out how to tease a purple blanket into a quilted poncho. I threw a belt on it and voilà!—instant chic.
She still wasn't used to the cold on her bare scalp, so we played with hats—this one is just a pleated turban with a Japanese folding fan hot-glued to the side, see? Ingenuity! Yes, and that one had a salad bowl as the base. We lined the inside with flannel, turned it upside down, and built it up from there.... It had a chinstrap but she had to wear it cocked to the side and hold her head just so—it could not be a windy day. The lip became plum, the eye bronze. Gorgeous. I took a photograph of her every day for a while. My portfolio.
I felt like... otherworldly. Like walking art. Whatever I wore was my shell and nothing outside it could touch me. I attracted so much attention just strutting down the street. All that energy—horror, delight, sex, disgust—it would warm me up and then bounce off. Whatever you gave to me, I threw it right back at you, and every day was a performance.
Me and Nev couldn't get a decent crowd anywhere, but I imagined that playing to a giant audience, all those people focused on you and cheering, could give you that feeling two thousand times over. So honey, I was in rehearsals for the role of intergalactic showstopper, and everybody in New York City was on notice.
There was usually a party somewhere downtown on a Saturday night, and if your papa had obligations elsewhere Mad would be my date and we would be the hit. She left an impression. If I went out the next week alone people would ask, "Where's your fascinating girl?"
An art dealer we met somewhere wanted to give me money to show up at his gallery opening. I said, "What do you want me to do, sing?" and he said, "No, just be as fabulous as you are right this moment." So me and Virgil get there and we walked around and around this gallery, drinking champagne and pretending to look at the paint splatters. Everybody was glamorous and rich and cold, and none of them talked to us much but you could feel them staring out the corners of their eyes. At the end of the night the man gave me fifty bucks and thanked me for coming. I thought, Well, isn't that interesting.
Our home address fluttered onto someone's list, and we started receiving invitations. More galleries, concerts, a higher echelon of artists...
Sometimes it did get boring. I didn't mind the attention, but some of these party-party scenesters could be as phony inside as they were out, and besides that they were half-crazed on speed and their own huge egos. You'd try to hold a conversation with these people about something, anything—politics, music, what you ate for breakfast—and they'd be nodding like they were listening, but their eyes would be spinning out of their heads.
Virgil suggested I start smoking weed, God bless him, so I could relax and make it through the nights. He promised something big was gonna happen. For him that meant meeting Miss Diana—Vreeland, not Ross, although he wouldn't have been mad at that either. For me, it meant getting me and Nev booked for a show at Max's [Kansas City, a restaurant and club near Union Square].
Now that was a decent place—a wild, drugged-out place, yeah, but a hot spot for freaks and any artist who loved them. By the time I started making that scene, Andy Warhol had stopped showing up, but his vibe
still lingered in that back room he ruled—you know, the feeling that you could be a nobody weirdo one day and then pop out of Max's a glam super star the next. Everybody who went had a quality about them, a buzz, and the connections were legendary. I wasn't surprised, when Blondie got big, to hear that Debbie Harry had once waited tables at Max's, or that Iggy Pop first met David Bowie there.
The summer before I started going, they'd flipped the upstairs into a venue for parties and concerts. The Velvet Underground had done a residency, the last shows before Lou [Reed] left the band, and after that the upstairs only got hotter. You never knew who might show up. Celebrities, yeah, that was always a given. But also maybe [music executives] Ahmet Ertegun or Clive Davis [who signed Aerosmith after a 1972 show at Max's]—money folks who might be useful to me and Nev if Rivington did decide to drop us.
I was trying to learn how to work the place. My MO was to act the same way Lou sang, or like my favorite, Rose Stone, on "Everyday People"— cool and casual, you know... unbothered. I couldn't walk up in there demanding to talk to [Max's concert booker] Sam Hood, or pass out the record and beg for a shot. So I made my way around. I smoked, drank my wine, studied the people and the shows they put on. I made conversation with the ones around me and they thought I was funny, I guess, and maybe I looked extra interesting in the red light [emanating from a backroom sculpture by Dan Flavin]. And then I casually slipped in that oh yeah, I do music, me and my British partner.... Ooh, I wanted a shot at that upstairs so bad! "Nev Charles featuring Opal Jewel at Max's Kansas City": I was already drawing up the flyer, honey, I was visualizing!
But we never did make it to Max's, because Rivington Showcase happened before we had the chance. Imagine if our first big show had been there instead: Maybe I wouldn't be talking to you today. I'd like to think I would, though. I'd like to think that we couldn't help but get famous, just because we were that good. I'd like to think that folks didn't have to end up destroyed for Opal & Nev to have made a name.
From The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton. Copyright © 2021 by Dawnie Walton. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
- Get all the details on Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts book tour
- See the cover for Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny's new thriller State of Terror
- Mayans M.C. star JD Pardo says EZ will choose between Gaby and the club or it's 'going to get him killed'
- The Resident star Conrad Ricamora on Jake's growing bond with Bell amid heartbreak: 'This is a huge step'