Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Weight

Dateline: just a few days ago. Location: somewhere in the thirty-second row.

Three men are gathered. The most senior wears a mane of snowy-white, quiff-quaffed hair over his beatific, all-knowing, perma-grin; the one approaching middle-years is topped off under his trademark black beanie while the youngest gunslinger huddles under a medium-brimmed hat, cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the same three would not have appeared out of place in a mid-west saloon; tinkling piano in the background, a pack of dog-eared playing cards to hand and fresh shots of whisky lined up in front of them.

Tempers might well have become alcoholically frayed, gunfire would possibly have been exchanged on the turn of a card and so, yeah… it may well have got very loud.

Today, however, they are sitting around what passes for an economy-sized circular coffee table having strapped on an assortment of acoustic guitars. And, in unison, they have begun picking out introductory notes before gradually strumming their collective way through the opening chords of a song that needs no introduction… whatsoever.

A few bars in, the one in the beanie leans forward toward a conveniently-positioned microphone and opens up proceedings in his reedy tenor; the white haired rebel-rouser of old keeps smiling his genial smile as familiar words tumble forth and the young pretender in the hat gets ready to obediently trade verses with beanie-man…

I just pulled in to Nazareth,
Was feelin’ about half-past dead
I just needed some place
Where I could lay my head

Dateline: the rural bliss of late-Summer 1968. Location: the outer-edge of Tadley – a village that lays more or less at the epicentre of the lop-sided triangle that connects Newbury, Basingstoke and Reading.

Similar to many rural communities in that part of Britain, the village would (probably) have begun its existence as a simple clearing in the forest – indeed, in Old English the word ‘Tadde’ can mean frog as well as toad while ‘Ley’ means a clearing.

Equals (maybe) – the bloke who cleared the clearing was called Tadde because of his looks and, possibly (perhaps), therefore, I ended up living on the edge of a village named after a bloke who… you get the picture.

London – forty or so miles distant, is the metropolis to which my Dad commutes each day but to which I’d only been a very few times; New York and San Francisco – names of cities on my (musical) atlas that felt as far away as the moon.

I’m still a bit shy of sixteen years old and, throughout that summer term at school, my friends and I had been avidly studying chapter and verse of our musical bible, The Melody Maker. These were the days when future passed as we tried to grow our hair longer than the regulation short back and sides permitted.

The previous year had seen Sgt Pepper on everyone’s turntable while we’d been embracing the Summer Of Love as best we could – heck, I may well have had my first, junior-pubescent, snog listening to The Byrds as Scott Mackenzie encouraged us to wear flowers in our hair. My parents weren’t particularly keen on this bit although I must confess I imagined myself as the puppy’s proverbials sporting a healthy crop of fresh-picked dandelions.

We’d all shelled out thirty-two shillings and sixpence of our old pocket-money on Cream’s Disraeli Gears and The Doors’ first album, spending hours studiously picking over every nook and cranny of each cover; days when 12-inch sleeve design was developing into an art form all of its own.

These both competed for needle-time on our fairly rudimentary record players with the likes of Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Love’s Forever Changes, The Who’s Sell Out – ohh, so many happy memories of staring at Roger Daltrey on that cover sitting in a bath of Mr Heinz’ finest produce.

We’d tripped-out (in our own way since we’d no clue what acid was really like or what it actually did… then; we just pretended we knew) to The Stones’ Satanic Majesties as well as records by the Moody Blues, Donovan, Booker T, The Mothers of Invention, Procul Harum and the Small Faces. We were entirely transfixed by Hendrix’s gattling-gun-guitar on Are You Experienced? and entranced by the enticingly-sleeved Axis: Bold As Love before we’d even got to place the vinyl on the deck.

And… at the end of 1967 came Mr Fantasy – Traffic’s first long-player which, that winter and for quite a time to follow, was barely off our family Dansette in all its glorious mono-aural deliciousness… my copy pre-dating the stereo release which, when purchased, led to further envelope-pushing of my own musical horizons.

Yes, all (and more) of the above-listed were (and, I would contend, remain) milestone recordings that’d transported me to ecstatic musical nirvana but this… now, this particular record – Mr Fantasy – was something else again and a record which triggered my very first musical g-spot orgasm.

So, there we all were, one year on and 1968 is tickling my fertile imagination by serving up yet another rich palette of sound. The counter-culture revolution is reverberating at London’s LSE (of which a certain Michael Philip Jagger was an alumni); there are anti-Vietnam war rallies and demonstrations being held in Trafalgar Square and outside the US Embassy in London and further from my own (then)-radar – all across the US.

It’s the year of Van Morrison’s seminal Astral Weeks; Cheap Thrills that catapulted Janis Joplin to fame, booze and heroin in more or less equal measure; we danced to the music of Sly and The Family Stone and grew curious over precisely who The Incredible String Band actually were and just what The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was as we got down with James Brown while getting bundled up in Dylan’s John Wesley Hardin – an album that actually straddled the previous year and this.

It was also the year when French wine growers got it in the neck when The Great Flood occurred – washing out much of southern England and with France particularly badly hit.

Which, in a sort of circuitous, almost-Freudian-like manner brings us to my second musical-g-spot moment (named, incidentally, after the gynaecologist Ernst Graefenberg).

As an aside, perhaps its worth noting that, two years earlier, Malcolm Muggeridge, the controversial British journalist, media-personality and latter-day Christian stated – “The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus for longing and fulfilment”.

And no, I’m not digressing with this mix of musical, biblical and sexual… bear with me. Please.

You see, my musical bible – the good old Melody Maker – had done a brilliant job as John the Baptist to a new offering on the altar of all that was good; so much so that, with my pocket-money in his wallet, my Dad dispatched his secretary to the new(ishly) opened Virgin Records emporium on Oxford Street to purchase a record that had been made on the far side of (my) world…

And, that night, following his return from London…

I found that my (own) next station of the Cross was contained within cover-art by Robert Zimmerman himself; a curious and child-like painting that featured a sitarist, a double-bassist, pianist, guitarist and drummer among the six musicians featured – although there were only five in the group – with an elephant staring in from mid-right. The group were not named on the cover, nor was a title appended.

(Later – and among other notables such as Millie Jackson’s Back To The Seat and Freddie Gage’s All My Friends Are Dead, it featured at an exposition entitled The Worst Album Covers Ever at the Fullerton Museum in California).

No matter the exterior, it was the interior that drew me in, deep within its velvet folds… then just as much as it has done every single time since. (whoops, am I grooving with Freud again?).

Maybe… ‘cos this was the open portal to what I’d argue strenuously as one of the finest débuts of all-time; where the warmth of vinyl fully encapsulated the uber-groove; where the furrow of music ploughed began a hay-ride into music’s nether regions that, on ending, begged another coin in the slot-machine marked… play me again.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the world of… Music From Big Pink.

Four-plus decades on and I still can’t fully fathom its arcadian-driftwood delta-blues reference points. I’m forever (and happily) lost in its indistinct smokestack that opened a rich musical seam of down-home country / folk-rock by sleight-of-hand.

From that very first moment when the needle touched the edge of side one, I’ve been mesmerised by singers harmonising from deep within the well of their souls; entranced by the modest virtuosity that can only be born of playing every backwater bar-gig; fascinated and hypnotised in equal measure by its ethereal sparse simplicity.

I picked up my bag, went lookin’ for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and The Devil walkin’ side by side
I said, Hey Carmen, come on, lets go downtown
She said, I gotta go, but my friend can stick around

But, hey… wait a minute, Chester… this is all very well but, its 2010 or hadn’t you noticed? Your days of strolling arm in arm with the Devil by the riverbank are long since passed. So… what’s your point?

Ahh yes…

Perhaps rurality has something to do with this because, back then, Big Pink came at me like a miraculous locomotive breath of new mown grass.

This was Mr Fantasy’s long lost cousin calling from America. Which, frankly, was so far away it equated to being outer-space.

Perhaps, therefore, its that craving for rurality deep within that’s led me to embrace two records recently; one of which has more escaped as opposed to having been released, the other having made much more headway – indeed, its been lauded high and low (sic) as much as the former – in my view – should have been.

A Town Called Blue (Evan Watson) and Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (The Low Anthem) both contain elements of that impossible-to-define special-ness that circumnavigates Big Pink.

Its also true to say that both are flawed in as much as Big Pink was as near perfection as makes no odds.


While that record has its own almost indescribable – unique of the time – orientation (as above); these two chart a similar course by harking back yet looking forward at the same time and, therefore, in their own manner creating a remarkable new roots synthesis that owes much to the sonic hedgerows surrounding Big Pink.

Some bright spark is bound to draw up a never-ending list of other records that would make commendable bed-fellows here… and that’s fine… Its just that the two I’ve chosen (which have nudged my musical trip-wire of late) are truly magical and… embedded within the silver-slither as they are, nowadays accompany me wherever I travel – just as much as The Band’s first album does.

And, I’d imagine that’ll still be the case forty-two years hence – the only fly in that particular ointment being that, by then, I’ll have (probably) become even more curmudgeonly and will be anticipating my centennial telegram from whoever – at that point – is in charge of the sum parts of Britain (Great or otherwise – your choice) and aspects of Northern Ireland.

Mind you, by then, the silver-slither will be an antique and vinyl… goodness, that’ll be like looking at old 78’s won’t it? ‘Hey great, great grandpa… did you really play music on… that?’

‘Yep… and, you know what… you should have a listen… ‘cos this is what broke the mould’.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year’s Day

Around about this time a decade ago, we – the collective all-around-the-world we, that is – were mopping up after lashings of celebratory fireworks had been ignited amid a multitude of popping champagne corks; all to usher in not just a new decade but… a new century and therefore the dawn of a new epoch.

Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me… and I’m feelin’ good.

We all know the song – its been popularised by the likes of Nina Simone, Muse, Sammy Davis Jnr among many, many others as well as… dare one even mention it… something called The Pussycat Dolls and… Mr and Mrs Bublé’s son (whose warblings are, I confess, a long way off the Storey-radar although, according to those I know who’re in the know, his singing is said to be frightfully popular).

As much as that may be the case, the lyrics and the tune have also been sampled over and over again besides being used in tv-adverts the globe around… but… I’d suggest that one of the lesser-known renditions is the one that’s as near the definitive as it gets.

Think back a bit in time to… side two, track one – yes, we’re back in vinyl heaven – of a record entitled Last Exit. The final (at that time) Traffic album; comprising half studio material which, quite frankly, constituted little more than studio outtakes and singles’ ‘b’ sides cobbled together with two pieces recorded at the Fillmore West when the band consisted of just Mssrs Winwood, Wood and Capaldi.

A San Francisco show – about a nine on the scale of nought-to-ten of ‘jazz-cigarettes’ having been inhaled prior to (by artistes and audience alike) – that committed to posterity the uber-tight-looseness which was that band at that particular moment in time… smokestack-spiralling out from the traditional confines of mere ‘stoned-rock’ via jazz / folk and ending up in a hitherto unexplored musical universe.

Sure, from the first click of the needle in the grooves, the pungent scent of finest Moroccan was totally apparent… yet… there is something else – something that’s almost indefinable – within the ten minutes and forty-or-so seconds of their variant that places it on an entirely different plane to the more measured readings by any listed above.

Why mention it now? Well, for two reasons really.

One, because my entire archive no longer resides at what was Merle HQ. The rescue-mission came about via the generosity of Aunac’s very own Dark Lord, the Prince of Chisels himself (that’s as tight a fit as a pair of nun’s knickers, Neil) who offered to not only collect but store and catalogue the lot. Top fella indeed.

So, pretty much all that matters has made its way into one of his voluminous barns in my absence from French soil. And – among many other slabs of delicious vinyl – this little musical gem just alluded to and self will be re-acquainting ourselves before many more weeks are passed. Oh, joy.

Second is that it’s a tune which has been running around my head during the headlong rush of the last few days – not least as it evokes what could be / what can be / what will be. Thus becoming a fitting end to a decade that, to a large degree, was tempered by absolute betrayal.

Ah yes… the moment of perfidy – the lightning flash of tumblin’ dice within the bitter stench of that Judas kiss. Baby, I’m gonna crash your car in my Garden of Desire. Now, thank God, just a fading snap-shot in far-away time.

For way too long, I’d sipped from the poison flow and, it took a while to learn how to fly without wings and even longer figuring out that landing my suitcase in a safe harbour without a safety net was – truly – about as exciting as painting on a blank sheet of canvas.

Equals – those words above resonate. Because, this is a time to look forward and not re-cap the past.

Yet…every time one picks up a newspaper or looks on-line, we’re confronted by this full-frontal assault of ‘lists’ being trotted out. All pertaining to the great, the good and the ghastly; all relating to either the past year or the full decade.

Which, I suppose, is all very well – after all, it is that time of the year (decade).

But… this Voltaire on its windswept knoll out there in the wild-west’s-awake-prairie reckons a couple of things.

Firstly, that the commentators are blinkered in their thinking back… because, each ‘list’ one cares to peruse is as subjective as it gets.

As a – brief – for instance, the other night, I glanced through one of the UK’s leading newspapers’ listing of its top ten albums of the decade. I think there was one among the ten chosen which I’ve listened to a few times but not chosen to commit to the machine’s hard-drive / the silver slither i-touch… In other words, yeah, its ok but… am I really going to be listening to ‘that’ in another ten years… errr, nope.

So… was that ‘list’ a useful aide-memoire of music from the last ten years? Not particularly since choosing ten out of (probably) a million that have been issued is similar to saying X marks the spot of a single needle in that particular haystack.

Anyone can assemble these kind of lists – from the greatest sporting achievements of the decade to the most absurd hat seen on Ladies’ Day at Ascot in the last ten years. From the most useful gadget to the least appealing political leader.

And… all subjective; none objective

Indeed… this whole looking back exercise is (probably) better summed up by The Waterboys’ lynchpin, Mike Scott who, earlier this week, Twittered (or is that Tweeted?): only a very advanced consciousness can even part-interpret the meaning of a decade at its end. Our culture isn't filled with those. I mean, we're only now getting the point of the 19 feckin 60s. Give up now, newspaper article writers!

Secondly… given that there are a preponderance of this, that and the next thing lists… why have I yet to see a list of… lets call it, ‘one or two things the planet as a whole should buckle up and collectively address in the next decade’.

OK, as snappy titles go, it is absolute pants but – subjectively – it says what I want it to.

(a) Communicate – a hoary old soap-box subject this, isn’t it? But, the fact of the matter is we – and I’m in collective we-mode here – simply don’t communicate any longer. We think we do but, the real reality is, we don’t.

In fact, its almost becoming oh-so last century to actually… talk… one to another.

Think about it… people e-mail each other within office environments, thereby avoiding the physical act of walking from one desk to another and actually speaking to a colleague – the end result (far too often) being mis-communication because the written word is totally different to that which is spoken one to another.

Or what about this… the other day, I was out for dinner and, two tables along, there were three people sat together. One of the three sat for fifteen minutes studying the menu, repeatedly asking the waitress to return when they were all ready to order – the other two spent that entire time fiddling with their respective i-phone and blackberry. Time was when people went out to dine, to a bar, to a pub or a café to (yes) eat, drink, make merry and… talk.

There is a wealth of difference between relying on the technology one has at one’s disposal and utilising that technology to socially network as a screen behind which one hides.

The art of communication is – look around you – disappearing almost as fast as the ice-cap yet we have it in our collective power to put a halt to that… talking of which…

(b) Climate-change – this is a quote lifted from that most esteemed organ, Time Magazine – Scientists and serious minded people everywhere are saying that there is something wrong with the planet.

Even if we don’t travel, we have the technology now to see the facts for ourselves. The ice-caps both north and south are melting – that’s a fact; all over the globe, summers are warmer and winters colder – again, fact. So… why, on earth, is the ‘issue’ of climate change being addressed as something that’s clearly a lower priority than… that which is dressed up as ‘war on terrorism’?

The longer term of gaining climatic control will – of course – take time to implement; naïve I may be but… not that naïve.

Nevertheless, the shorter-term could be being taken care of better than it is currently… for example, wherever in the world one looks, new housing is being built. But… is any builder roofing with solar-panels as standard? We know the answer but it still begs the question – why not?

Why (just as one other example) are there so few wind-farms? Ecologically they make sense – like solar-panels, that’s been proven but… the aesthetic lobby appear to hold sway here. Fine, that’ll mean we’ll end up with a fxxxxd planet because we’re told that we can’t harness natural resources ‘cos the end result doesn’t look… errr…. pretty.

For pity’s sake oh ye political beings of whatever persuasion – this ain’t no beauty contest.

Lets just have a little look at what happened in Denmark the other day – lots of agree to disagree, lots of manoeuvring and posturing, political this that and the next bloody thing… The Chinese will only agree to this if Russia say that; America will only agree to something else if Pakistan don’t do another thing; Peru will only commit to whatever it is they’ll commit to on the basis that Holland says yes (or no) to something that Great Britain is dithering about but which Germany is quite keen on so long as France say maybe.

Ifs and bloody buts…

Isn’t it time for a David Attenborough equivalent to put every single world-leader into a vast bag and not let a single one of ‘em emerge until they all commit to radical change without these blasted reservations.

‘Cos, if they carry on the way they are, then there really isn’t going to be much left for our childrens’ childrens’ childrens’ children.

Ohhh… I could go on and on… In fact, I very nearly did…

My original notes for this piece contained other headings (Toleration – c/f the religious / oil wars; Fame – c/f society’s collective obsession with celebrity culture bound up in a world of reality tv that’s so un-real as to be (un)believable and Greed – c/f society brought to its knees by individuals / companies milking (hoodwinking) individuals / companies.

And, instead of ending with a few snappy stanzas from the prolifically splendid pen of Holt Marvell... remember this...?

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces; An airline ticket to romantic places
A tinkling piano in the next apartment; Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant
A fairground’s painted swing; These foolish things
The winds of March that made my heart a dancer; A telephone rings, but who’s to answer
The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations; Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations
Oh… how the ghost of…………

Ghosts..? Bah, humbug… its 2010.

Isn't this more apt; more appropriate..?!

All is quiet on New Year’s Day; A world in white gets underway
I… I will begin again
I… I will begin again