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31/10/18 The Ghost Who Left The Tape 

When I was 18 I did an audition for an agent who specialised in sending solo musicians out to play for month long contracts in Scandinavia, primarily Denmark and Norway. I was offered a couple of months in Denmark, as a solo singer/ guitarist- as my first engagement. 

The town was called Horsens, and I was playing something like 5 or 6 nights a week, in a bar called "Eydes Kælder." The gigs were long, the bar was smoky, but the money was good and I had accommodation and dinner thrown in as part of the deal. For an 18 year old who'd never travelled far way from home, I now recognise that the experience was a rather daunting one. I spent huge amounts of money on International phone cards, phoning everybody and anybody I could think of back in the UK, just to feel connected to some normality and familiarity.

Of course there was much alcohol, romance and partying thrown in for good measure, but I do remember feeling lonely, introspective and a bit spooked throughout it all. I wrote dozens of songs during the long days spent on my own, and I guess this gave my days a structure and purpose.

In the apartment, which consisted of just 2 rooms; stashed in the corner of the living room/bedroom-there was an old 1970s hi fi, which infuriatingly didn't work (I'm an avid vinyl collector and having an operational record deck in the room would've made me weep for joy) inside the tape deck was one tape, of the home recorded variety-no label on it.

 One day, I put it into my dictaphone, which I used as a songwriting tool-it was a great little machine that recorded on regular tapes-not the pesky micro ones. It seemed like the tape was blank, I think I let it play, though blank, whilst I made a cup of tea (and that would be "Lipton Tea Bags" for your info!) and suddenly "The River" by Joni Mitchell came flowing out of the small Dictaphone speaker, initially scaring the heck out of me. As my shock subsided, the melancholy beauty of that opening piano figure quickly stopped me in my tracks, and I was entranced and rapt

"I'm gonna make a lot of money

Then I'm gonna quit this crazy scene"

 I probably said a rude word when I heard that line. In fact I know I did. That couplet summed up everything I was feeling at that very moment. I'd tasted a mere few weeks of the life of a solo songster, and I already wanted to "quit the crazy scene." It didn't feel like a sustainable or long term life-plan, and I'd already met a few musicians 15 yrs older than I was, who had failed marriages, kids that they didn't see and drink problems.

 "Teach my feet to fly

I wish I had a river I could skate away on"

when she hit that high note on "fly" I was totally floored and already regarding this songs' arrival in my life as a religious miracle. She had channeled her sadness and regret and turned it into beauty for all the world to hear.

The beguiling juxtaposition of the jolly/ festive "jingle bells" melody with the self lambasting narrative, creates an almost impressionistic quality to the song. And when you're alone in a strange place, you feel that selfsame dichotomy constantly

"..They're putting up reindeer
Singing songs of joy and peace"

all these fun, lively, natural, joyful, wholesome things, the narrator of the song is observing, but is very much NOT participating in, she is an outsider, and caught up in a whirl of self-psycho drama-and I felt a bit like that everyday. I would hear the family who lived above my room, getting their young children ready for school in the morning, and I recall to this day, how ugly and unreal my life felt to me, compared to the dignity of theirs.

And I thought about who had left that tape. "The River" was the only song on it. What a mysterious gift.
I wanted to thank the ghost who left the tape. And I still do. Joni's song made me feel that it was ok to feel sad, and it was definitely ok to wish to be somewhere else-and that your dreams and hopes of doing so could be empowering and sustaining.
I know why that other musician carried that tape around with him with just "The River" on it. It's a first aid kit-of a song, and whenever I hear it, I remember when I listened to it in the dark, and it was my best friend, travel companion and guru.
And I left the tape exactly where I found it. I still wonder if St Joni helped other lonesome musicians in that tiny Denmark bedsit, like she helped me. I hope so.

 

3/5/17 Of The Homesick Troubadour And The Charms That Protected Him

I recall dragging a tatty old hardback volume of Rupert Brooke's poetry up the mini mountain that resided, somewhat implausibly in the middle of Allesund, Norway. That and Nick Drake whispering "Northern Sky" through the headphones of my cassette walkman, as I propelled myself up the tor for my daily constitutional, purging my lungs of the dense, acrid tobacco smoke I sang and played guitar within for 5 hours nightly. Fully fleshing out my spiritual armoury as I nervously jerked about Scandinavia for these three years, was a spectacularly battered and suitably ramshackle paperback copy of Cervante's Don Quixote-and I feel warmth and gratitude when I think of that comic novel and how it lifted my spirits on those months and months without a peep from the Nordic sun, to this very day.

Then one day, in Horsens, Denmark, beaming onto the barely operational television set in the sparsest of living quarters in my musician's digs, came the then latest single from British band "The Divine Comedy" "The National Express." I remember actually weeping halfway through the video; the joy was such a heavy, complicated one; as the deft song-craft of Neil Hannon listed everything dumb, kitsch, stolid and familiar about my homeland that I hadn't even realised I missed yet. The infectious, silly, tongue-in-cheek musical romp launched a lifelong love of the band and their leader Hannon, and thrillingly (I would've died on the spot back then had I known) I got to meet him once at The Savoy, and the signed Savoy napkin and the kind words he said about my music are framed and proudly hanging on the wall of my music room as I write these very words. 

The rousing singalong "Bah Bah" chorus transported me back to my ultra middle class UK origins; a land of strong tea, Carry On films, rain drenched bank holidays and sandwiches liberally dusted with actual sand from Broadstairs beach, my beloved stretch of the Kent coast. 

As a hapless (hopeless?) musician I've always faced the peculiar contradiction of being a scaredy cat homebody circumstantially forced to regularly traverse the globe in solitude like a medieval monk making reparations for carnal (surely carnal) improprieties. I don't like it, but I do like it; the hermit hates to leave his grotto, but he usually winds up having a pleasant enough time when he does...

That Divine Comedy single made me feel connected to my homeland, even while I was docked elsewhere, put a spring in my step, and told me that everything was going to be alright. Thanks Neil Hannon, I owe you a mug of tea. A big one. 


28/11/16 Raised On Rock, 1973, Elvis Presley

For some reason, a pristine, original US print of this overlooked, sometimes outright dismissed record spun it's mysterious arc to a Dickensian antique emporium on spooky Northdown Road, Margate, Thanet, Kent, England, sometime in the 1980s. As a 13 year old obsessed with a certain Mr Presley, this was a miracle far more diverting than any weeping Madonna or Christ in a bagel. It felt like a gift, it seemed implausible, resting on a coral bed of warped Andy Williams, Joe Loss and James Last discs, practically glowing, aware of it's own superior pedigree; sounds from the hallowed Stax studios, Memphis Tenn, had teleported to my local high street. And I was handing over my pocket money and taking it home.

You just didn't find REAL Elvis albums in the kinds of shops I had at my disposal in the late 1980s. The only Elvis vinyl I could get my trembling mitts on was the plethora of distinctly lower class "Camden" or "Pickwick" releases, pressed on the flimsiest of plastic, offering the most random song selections possible to concoct. To a young wannabe Elvis scholar, desperate to collate, analyse and ultimately understand every nook and cranny of the Elvis canon, these records were perplexing, beguiling puzzle pieces.

I realised quickly as my collection of Elvis literature grew, and I began to build up a clearer overview of the King's discography, I needed to posses the original albums however arduous it might be to achieve that aim. In a pre-salary, pre-internet, pre-mobile phone age, this was nothing short of a game of chance, played out in charity shops, car boot sales and due to random acts of God/Elvis/Buddah etc etc

Throughout the next month or so, I hungrily returned to the that selfsame shop, and purchased two other original 1970s Elvis releases; "Promised Land," and 1975's "Today."  Back in the seclusion of my room, I basked in these sounds, recognising the magic distilled and inherent in original vinyl, the primary source. Herein lies the very seeds of my record hunting addiction.

As the King advised onstage in front of a global satellite audience in Hawaii circa 1973

"knock and the door shall be open, seek and you shall find.."

21/10/16 Blue Beginnings

sometimes my dream world is more exciting than the real one. As I sit on this beautiful October morning in Ramsgate, crisp Autumn sunshine dusting the sea with its icy crystalline magic,  I'm still feeling animated by the conversation I had last night with Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash (regrettably of the sleeping and dreaming variety.) I was chatting to the pair about a project I had in mind, whereby Graham would record a track by track interpretation of Joni's 1971 masterpiece "Blue" perhaps with some Joni backing vocals, and in deft, neat response , Joni would issue a song by song re-interpretation of Nash's 1971 debut disc, "Songs For Beginners." As I shared the idea, I could detect huge interest on Joni's part, Graham, seemed more shifty, and hard to pin down within and without the shadowy corridors and whirligig mirror landscapes of my reverie world. Still, on reflection after my alarm clock c- sectioned me back into this present reality, "great idea!" I think to myself. Now, who's got Joni and Graham's email addresses....

26/9/16 Ravello, mid-September

The click click of the mini lizards scuttling across the old heavy Ravello walls. The bum-bagged, white socked, sleep walking tourists aimlessly plodding alleyway to alleyway, seeking photo opportunities and outlets to blow dough.

I, a little heavy headed and gig weary, sit on a faded green bench, exchange a smile with a philosophical looking native and let the cockerel, car horn and gentle breeze triad drift pleasingly over my dull, song weary ears.

Flip flop and clip clop goes a map clutching character, looking bewildered yet determined to tick Ravello off his personal topography chart, but in doing so perhaps he's not here at all.

There had been some illuminating exchanges this morning at the musician's lodgings. The age-old "your room hasn't been paid for" scenario erupted like a petty Vesuvius, rendering my hitherto 'anything goes' outlook profoundly dead in its tracks like the unfortunate but now immortal mummified remains in Pompeii.

"The rooms are to be paid for by the person who booked them" I repeatedly and patiently (I felt) intoned. Etc etc. Hours and I mean hours later, and only with the merciful and assertive intervention from the band leader from the other wedding band (who had the benefit and full use of his mobile phone-and not having lost his like I lost mine) was the predicament settled. It's an occurrence I've encountered in dozens of locations the world over and it never fails to rattle me. The sorry truth is, I invariably don't have enough credit to even temporarily settle the contested room rate, but that shall remain our guilty secret dear reader.

Here comes a 'just this very instant' married couple, gliding from their reception, sweating photographer in pursuit. I blow a kiss and yell "congratulations!" They look at me as if I have said "may shit descend upon your bridal bed." Strange. These things happen to me all the time. Maybe when I'm 80 I'll stop bothering.

Oh no, I've just seen the wedding pair again, swishing through the town square attracting universal goodwill only to shoot it dramatically down with their perplexing indifference. I want to trot after them and yell "don't congratulate them, they're arseholes" to the hapless well wishers, but I keep private counsel on this thought.

In the same spirit as the 3 hour sleep, 6AM flight departure that brought me here to Italy on the day of the event I performed at, I'm now awaiting a 7pm transfer back to Naples airport, a 10pm plane that will deliver me back to my car, forlornly anchored in a grid of freezing concrete close by Gatwick airport and finally the two hour drive back to my corner of the Kent coast. These thoughts are softened by the Campari and soda that I slowly absorb, as that rigorous Ravello sun bids these ancient walls and this slightly lonesome musician arrivederci. Arrivederci.

 

 22/2/16    Of Ball, Brydon & The Beehived-Siren

Amy Winehouse has just been told "this isn't a Karaoke bar Madam" and asked to leave the American Bar in The Savoy Hotel. Her album "Back To Black" is currently no. 1 in the album charts. The American Business men in the corner of the bar ask the manager to "sling her the hook."  She leaves a little crestfallen, and walks out this 5 star bar, and my life for eternity. My Amy story lasts but a fleeting 15 minutes. Initially she is the only person clapping me, a truly wonderful and surreal moment, then, she cutely asks if she can join me for a few numbers. "Georgia" and "What A Difference A Day Makes" as well as some '60s Phil Spector girl group things ("Be my Baby" by the Ronnettes, and "Then I Kissed Him" by the Chystals, she corrected me on this one, feeling flustered I stated to her it was the Shangri-Las who first cut it, and I'll never know to this day why I did that, I know it's the Chrystals…)

I am aware of the disapproval simmering in the corner of the bar, but I am also a little bit in love with the delicate, tragic/comic bee-hived siren, who, when I close my eyes, sounds like I have 'Lady In Satin' era Billie Holliday sharing my piano bench.

She is ejected. I feel the drama of the night is surely over. It is. Until Rob Brydon let's his disapproval known for the expulsion of Amy. He expresses this with a jaw-dropping, martini- shaking rendition of "Green Green Grass Of Home." The American businessmen don't seem to mind this so much, but the air of chaos and dissolution is clearly putting them off their drinks. I see them request the cheque.

Mr Brydon is silenced, and accepts his fate slightly less submissively than Amy, though his Welsh tongue is firmly set in his Welsh cheek. I prepare to re-set the bar ambience to "default" mentally cueing "Fly Me To The Moon" and perhaps a little "It Had To Be You." My peripheral vision reveals a lumbering shadow slowly and menacingly approaching my piano.

"Let's do " The Wonder Of You" in any key you want." It's Michael Ball.

It's going to be loud. Incredibly loud. I visualise a P45 before me. I take an unusually long break and marvel at the things the piano player saw.

 

 19/10/15  The Devil In The Detail & The Wee That Wasn't

A glass of champagne is placed on the piano. Accompanied by a hard to decipher verbal message from an Italian waiter. I ascertain that the drink is in lieu of me playing "happy birthday" for a gent who has just popped out of the bar to the toilet. I deduce I am to await a signal from the appropriate table, and play the dirge, sorry ditty, upon the chap in questions' return. After assuring the waiter that this is all above board, and very doable, I recall funny moments when stand up comics berate absent members of the audience while they're in the bathroom, much to the amusement of the crowd, often with a side-splitting conclusion when the poor hapless dolt finally re-appears to take his seat, oblivious to the hilarity his call of nature has granted the performer on stage.

I thought I'd give it a go.

"If I could have everybody's attention for just one moment." I put forth into the microphone. "We have a gentleman here tonight who is celebrating his birthday, and the only catch is, he's not here, WE THINK HE'S IN THE TOILET!" People laugh, they really laugh. I'm growing in confidence. "The length of the intro to "Happy Birthday" will depend on the severity of his toilet visit." The bar literally erupts with laughter, I'm a little flustered and caught off guard at the power I hold over the usually apathetic clientele.

I commence a suspense laden intro, repeatedly playing the same sequence of notes over and over, emphasising every second of the main man's porcelain ponderance. I notice vague signals coming from the table in question, a different waiter is summonsed by the birthday boy's companions. My psychic antenna deduces something has gone awry, a judgement supported by the flustered visage of waiter no.2, who's now coming my way briskly.

"The birthday song is for someone who died a year ago."

The intro stops, I leap to my feet, stride to the table and put my arms around everyone, mumbling the humblest and most sincere apologies I've ever had the misfortune to require on a gig (nearly…)

"Don't worry dear, he would've loved that, don't forget your champagne."

Relieved, but self hating, I return to the piano, and, offer a toast to the now rather more permanently delayed birthday man. Needless to say, I never sing "Happy Birthday" these days without a little 'in depth enquiry.

 

 

6/10/14 Furiously Fantastic

I've always been a big Billy Fury fan, probably dating back to when my late Mother would shake her head if a clip of him came on tv and say "dear Billy, bless him, had dreadful health problems you know, but what a beautiful voice" I quickly mastered most of his greatest hits on my half size guitar, and, also quickly realised that he was probably the most charismatic rocker/crooner/film star/songwriter and all round friggin' LEGEND that the first wave of rock produced in the UK. He also had possibly the coolest hair I've ever seen. If I could make my hair look like that, I would. Right now.

I'm particularly fascinated by the slower, less successful periods of famous artists' careers, and Billy's is especially fruitful for a more discerning discography dig. Basically, after a record label switch from Decca (where he had all his hits) to Parlophone (where he had none) there is a lost continent of boundary pushing, re-inventing, hair-style re-vamping going on that is remarkable for any fan of the mid 20th century pop scene to investigate. He was one of the first acts to cover a David Bowie song (Silly Boy Blue) he covered obscure tracks by one of my favourite singer songwriters "Jimmy Campbell," and amassed huge volumes of work that never came out. Which is a tragedy, because pretty much everything Billy sang, was magical.

I recently found a rather nice 60's record box in a cool little retro store in Margate, Kent, and have started collecting all the billy Fury singles, and storing them in it. It's one of my favourite things. If you ask me nicely, have a record player, and supply the booze, I'll come 'round your house and play them for you.

 

 

 '

 

13/5/14   Smuggling Elvis

Wanted to tell you what I'm currently reading. One is a children's book called "A Sheltering Tree" by Richard Parker which I sought out with a little internet research, having discovered that it is set in and around the Isle Of Thanet where I live. I'm on a bit of a local history kick, and this lovely little book is full of nice descriptions of the mysterious, smuggler ridden Thanet villages. Cool cover to boot. The other book is firmly left of field. "Elvis And The Apocalypse" by Steve Werner. In case you don't know, I'm an Elvis zealot, and have a huge collection of El related books. This is a brilliantly clever, and impeccably researched gothic, bible belt, Revelation meets Elvis affair. Funny, spooky and a fine addition to my "Elvis Occult" stretch of the bookcase. There you have it, that's my bedside table today...

 

 

   

 

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