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?
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’.