My tour of California, Reno, Washington and England is now finalized! Note - some changes from last week's posting - Carmel is now on a different day and Roseville has a later start time than stated. Visit my website tour schedule for further updates.
Next week in Reno I'll visit my old school pal Steve who used to be the Handyman at the Mustang Ranch. That story is below so keep reading and I look forward to seeing you on my travels in the USA, UK and Canada...
Apart from a couple of chance meetings in local pubs I hadn't talked to Steve since he left school at the age of sixteen. As for myself I went on to higher education, eventually getting a degree in Applied Physics. Steve's path was very different.
At Penistone Grammar School Steve (aka. Wrighty), Pinch, Millie and myself were a pretty tight group of friends. We'd connected through swim classes before coming to the Grammar school. In a way we were each of us loners who felt some common bond and gave each other mutual protection in the Lord of the Flies type of atmosphere that was the norm in British school playgrounds.
Over thirty years later I received a phone call in an unmistakable South Yorkshire accent:
"Eh up Ralph - it's me, Steve."
"Steve - from School."
"STEVE! Where are you?"
"I'm in Reno, Nevada."
We proceeded to catch up on the lives we'd lived in all the intervening years. I discovered with a sigh that my autobiography, without fleshing it out, was unimpressively short: "I did physics, got married, became a clown, had a daughter and then became an entertainer known as the King of the Ukulele. Which I still do."
Steve's post-school life seemed much more exciting; perhaps owing to his storytelling style. He'd always had a knack of taking an everyday event and making it into a comedic monologue. For example, describing his current colleagues at the pool table company where he worked he said, "They only have five teeth between the lot of them."
About men in Reno bars: "They all talk like they're tough but I've only seen four fights the whole time I've been here. And I was in all of them."
He'd worked in a Sheffield steel works, learned joinery/cabinet-making and at some point visited Reno. He liked the place and returned. Eventually he married an ex-hooker and found himself a job as handyman at the Mustang Ranch where he stayed for five years: "until the owner did a runner and bogged off to South America after not paying his taxes." Apparently a sad day for Steve. and these days he was employed installing pool tables and the armrest cushions on gambling machines.
I had to get him to repeat one of the last places: "You were the handyman - where?" I asked.
"The Mustang Ranch, have you heard of it?"
Indeed I had. Stories about Nevada's infamous Mustang Ranch: America's most famous 'house of ill-repute' came up on the news from time to time - even in Canada. Although, from the way Steve describes it, it's more a collection of trailers of ill-repute. And trailers don't have a lot of repute to begin with.
Inspiration can arrive in many ways. Sometimes it seeps in like a fog and other times it appears fully formed as if it had always existed. Instantly I knew that The Handyman at the Mustang Ranch was a modern day George Formby song just waiting to be written.
George Formby's songs were peculiar to the 1930's era. They often covered risqué material but with superbly quick and clever jokes that not only rhymed but were stated using only family-friendly words. Such songwriting is an incredible challenge. In applying for recording awards I've found that awards categories cover all manner of song types but nothing under which I can place my own work. I believe this is because, as well as being from another era, the style of songwriting is so hard to pull off that few people even try. It's deceptive because great comedy songs sound simplistic and straightforward yet are so difficult to create.
But having said that, such songs are also enormously fun to write. There is warm satisfaction in coming up with verses then trying them out on friends who crease up with genuine mirth at each funny line. The Mustang Ranch song is a personal favourite from my own oeuvre. I find it giddyingly delightful to sing this song, so rude, so naughty and yet acceptable in mixed company because it is put across with phrases whose meanings are wrought with cleverness and subtlety.
The first time I sang it for Steve was at a show in Nevada. Afterwards he jabbed his finger at me and said, "There's more truth in that song than you'll ever know mate."
Mention the Mustang Ranch to Steve and he still gets a wistful look on his face. "That was the best job I ever had." he says, "There wasn't a day went by when I wasn't happy to get up and go to work."
It must look a little odd on his resume though!
To hear the song for yourself you can order the album Laughter by Ralph Shaw from my website here or download it from iTunes.
and hello to everyone in Reno - I'll see you next week!