When I was 17, my dad introduced me to his new girlfriend, a woman called Anne. She was in her 40s and was in the habit of punctuating everything she said with one of those smoker’s laughs that sound like a cough. When my dad went into another room to take a phone call, she asked if it was true that I liked music. I said it was. She told me that ‘Gordy’ Lightfoot had written a song about her. Really, I said, which one? Sundown, she told me. Isn’t that about a prostitute? I asked. When my dad returned, Anne said, ‘I think your son just called me a hooker.’ It was awkward.
Sundown is a heavy song. It was always on the radio when I was growing up in Canada in the 1970s but I never took much notice of it. When I began to listen to Lightfoot more seriously as an adult, I was struck by its darkness. The singer pictures this woman in various outfits and is filled by jealously and self loathing. In the end, alcohol is his only refuge. There is something oddly vulnerable about it. The singer seems powerless and doomed. Even his veiled threats – you better take care – sound hollow.
And it turns out that the song was not an ode to my dad’s girlfriend. In Nicholas Jenning’s new biography, Lightfoot, we learn that the song is almost certainly about Cathy Evelyn Smith. Sound familiar? Yes, the same woman who went to jail for her involvement in John Belushi’s death at the Chateau Marmont. If you have read Robbie Robertson’s memoir, you may remember her in connection to Levon Helm but that really is another story.
Where I come from, Gordon Lightfoot is bigger than…well, just about anyone. Put it this way, a lot of Canadians who wouldn’t know a Neil Young song if one backed over them could probably easily name 10 Lightfoot songs. I remember my grandfather throwing Gord’s Gold into the 8 track player and letting it play over and over all day. I can also remember the Canadian bands I loved in the 1980s name checking him in interviews and playing his songs in encores. He played Massey Hall every year to audiences that included Bay Street lawyers, Scarborough tow truck drivers, hippies, punks, Social Studies teachers, and glad handing politicians. He could have run for Parliament, he could have been crowned king.
However, the living legend status is something of a consolation prize for a singer whose viability as a recording artist came to crashing halt in about 1980. He kept making records but people stopped buying them. I own everything he released up to and including Endless Wire, which appeared in 1978. I had never even heard of the follow up, Dream Street Rose or any of the subsequent records before reading this book. I suppose there are superfans that would snort at my amateurishness here but the sales figures tell the same story. Thanks for all the great songs, Gord. Here’s your gold watch. The man was 42!
Lightfoot is a solid, chronological account of Gord’s life and work. It is a respectful and workmanlike book – rather Canadian, really! There are no startling revelations or particularly original insights. Instead, Jennings strives to build the character of the man through a number of significant episodes. Lightfoot is a very private fellow with a certain reputation for difficult behaviour. He has been married many times and has had troubles with alcohol. Jennings draws a picture of a hard working and shy man who couldn’t have been less temperamentally suited to stardom. He grew up in Orillia Ontario, a town probably not so different to Hibbing Minnesota. Unlike Hibbing’s favourite son however, Gord was never headed for Malibu via New York. I was interested to learn that throughout his long career he has always lived in Toronto. He spent years living on Alexander St, behind Maple Leaf Gardens, before moving to Rosedale. These days, he lives on Bridle Path, a glamorous address by Toronto standards but hardly Malibu.
Jennings explores Lightfoot’s relationship with Bob Dylan in some detail. Dylan is a fan, no question. There is a small group of songwriters that Dylan admires. He is generous but fickle on this topic in interviews. Sometimes he mentions John Prine, sometimes it’s Jimmy Buffett (no, really, he said that once) but the name that consistently comes up is Gordon Lightfoot.
Lightfoot has taken a different path from Bob in many respects. He was never the voice of a generation or a rock god. He never partied at the Factory or fell to pieces in the back of a Rolls with John Lennon. Gordon Lightfoot’s career has been comparatively low key. In the flashy dramatic world of popular music, there has always been something subtle about him. His albums, particularly the early ones, are quiet affairs. A small band, some strings here and there, and minimal overdubbing. I used to wish that Bob Johnston had produced at least one record for Lightfoot in the sixties. Are we rolling, Gord? But, maybe I’m happy that he didn’t. His 1970 Sit Down Stranger album, quickly renamed If I Could Read Your Mind after its most famous song, is a case in point. To me, this album is what Self Portrait should have been and is perhaps a glimpse of what Dylan had in mind. It was recorded in LA but there is a distinctly Nashville sensibility to it. It’s easy to see why Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash were such fans. The songs are beautifully written and unobtrusively performed. From MOR to Outlaw Country to the Laurel Canyon songsmiths, this was a masterclass in showcasing your work.
But back to Dylan. Bob doesn’t always work well with others and his relationship with Gord had always been cordial, if guarded. When the Rolling Thunder Tour pulled into Toronto in early December of 1975, Gord was asked to play the second last set in the program. He played The Watchman’s Gone and Sundown. Try to imagine following that on a Toronto stage. Bob Dylan might have been the only person on earth in those days with a chance but I’m willing to bet that his set was something of anti climax. Anyone who was there is welcome to correct me!
After the show, everybody, and I mean everybody, went back to Gord’s place in Rosedale. The party was legendary. Mick Ronson was there, trading stories with Ronnie Hawkins. Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez were avoiding each other while all eyes were on Scarlet Rivera. Then that lovable scamp Bobby Neuwirth threw his leather jacket into the fireplace and filled the whole house with black smoke. What a fun guy. See if he’s available for your next soiree.
Meanwhile, Bob and Gord had retreated to the parlor to jam. The wildest rock and roll party in Toronto history was unfolding downstairs but Dylan and Lightfoot were quietly exchanging songs. Oh, to have a decent recording. Alas, there is only a fragment of Lightfoot singing Ballad in Plain D, of all songs. Lightfoot is a remarkable man but the fact that he knew the words to Ballad in Plain D might just make him some kind of superhero. In any case, as Jennings points out, neither man was there to party. This was a summit meeting. Everyone has seen Bob’s exchange with Donovan in Don’t Look Back. This was not like that.
I suppose Jennings uses this episode to highlight the depth of Gordon Lightfoot’s commitment to songwriting. Sometimes, while reading, I had the sense of a man who might have preferred playing to a crowd of receptive regulars at his neighborhood pub to touring the world as a superstar. In one telling episode that took place in the 1970s, Gord signed on with a famous agent who managed a number of mainstream stars at the time. He wanted to take the singer to the next level where he would be on television, headlining regularly in Vegas, and selling zillions of records on the back of duets with divas, etc. After a few days, Lightfoot got cold feet and asked him to tear up the contract. He didn’t want to be Kenny Rogers or Tom Jones. Instead, he started taking the Toronto subway to the gym because he felt bad about the environment.
Nicholas Jennings had some access to the occasionally prickly singer while he was writing the book. It’s hard to imagine that such a modest and private man will ever write a memoir so this might be as close as we get. If you are a fan, don’t forget to read Dave Bidini’s utterly brilliant Writing Gordon Lightfoot too. There you go, you can ask for both for Christmas and spend Boxing Day on the couch reading while everyone else watches college football.
Meanwhile, Gordon Lightfoot will no doubt be playing his annual gig at Massey Hall and releasing a new album this year. Last week he was in Peterborough donating his canoe to the Canoe Museum there. A Canadian legend? You bet.
Teasers: The whole story behind If I Could Read Your Mind; his early days as a singing sensation in Orillia, Ontario.
Let’s start with an activity. Go over to your collection of LPs and/or CDs. Take every one by a Texan artist out and put it on the floor. Unless I am mistaken there should now be a big mess. Blind Lemon Jefferson, DRI, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Scott Joplin, T-Bone Walker, Guy Clark, Janis Joplin, Waylon Jennings, 13th Floor Elevators, a Tejano compilation, Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Wills, Pantera, Ornette Coleman, and, wait a minute, you own a Pantera record? Notice how many are on the floor. It’s remarkable. Now tidy them up and come back to hear about a new book, Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas.
All over the world there are regions in other countries that were once independent nations. Mercia, Java, Burgundia, Venice, Sikkim, and Galicia are just some of the ghost states that linger in the wider federations to which they now belong. Texas is another such place. From 1836 until 1846, the Republic of Texas had its own president and was recognised by many other countries including its big neighbour to the north, the United States.
Is this why so many of your records come from Texas? Perhaps it is. When Willie Nelson grew weary of Nashville in the late 60s, he grew his hair, started smoking industrial amounts of weed, and, to really make his point, threw his battered guitar in the pickup and moved to Austin. He crossed a border; he emigrated. Yes, I know he was from Texas originally but the point is that Austin, though only a long day’s drive from Nashville, represented another place entirely, another country – with all the implications of that phrase.
Pickers and Poets is not a comprehensive history of Texas music – it is, rather, a series of short essays about the state’s song writing tradition as it has played out since the late sixties. The extensive blues tradition in the state is not part of this book, nor is Texas jazz – an amazing story – or the wondrous Tejano music. Most of the artists profiled here could be classified roughly under the ‘Americana’ banner. The book is set out more or less chronologically beginning with figures like Steven Fromholz, Michael Martin Murphey and on up to contemporary songsmiths like Hayes Carll. In between, we meet such familiar figures as Kinky Friedman, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and James McMurtry. Willie Nelson gets two pieces.
I was sold when Willis Alan Ramsay turned up in one of the first essays. In the chapters that follow, it becomes clear that many songwriters continue to hold him in very high esteem. He recorded exactly one album in 1972. It sold poorly and disappeared almost immediately. But what a record! You’ll recognise one song on it. Yes, Willis Alan Ramsay wrote Muskrat Love and, what’s more, it’s a great song. His version, that is. He also wrote Angel Eyes, a song that you will either play or wish you had played at your wedding.
But it’s Townes Van Zandt who haunts almost all of the essays. He never had anywhere near the success he deserved and his story is not a happy one. However, his influence is beyond question. He was never a Nashville identity but many of his songs are standards on the Opry stage. It’s arguable that the entire Americana scene is his creation. Big call? Okay, but flip through the pages of No Depression and try to imagine a world where Townes had never existed. It’s not easy. I would argue, as many have, that his influence is comparable to Bob Dylan’s.
Townes was a hard living character indeed and as Steve Earle has observed, a terrible role model. His friend and partner in crime, Blaze Foley is mentioned in many of the essays. Blaze was Townes’ Townes, the embodiment of Kris Kristoffersen’s Pilgrim character and the ultimate cosmic country gypsy. Willie, Waylon, Tompall Glaser and Billy Joe Shaver are famous for the ‘Outlaw’ brand of country. Blaze was the pure product. And then some. His casket was covered in duct tape before he was buried. Beat that Gram Parsons!
If you are curious about the Folk/Country/Americana scene that has developed in Texas over the past half century, the book does a good job of creating a viable chronology. The original generation – Jerry Jeff, Townes, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and so on – were essentially folkies inspired by Bob Dylan but well versed in honky tonk, Western Swing, and sometimes bluegrass. Willie was a Nashville insider who brought a modern country sensibility with him, not to mention a whole pile of talent scouts who sniffed change in the air. The hippie/redneck/trucker/shitkicker scene around the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin wound down in the early eighties but songwriters continued to gravitate to the small city. The next generation, which included Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and many others regarded Nashville with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Successive waves have included talented Texans such as Ryan Bingham and Sam Baker.
The introduction includes a cringe-worthy explanation of why so few women are included but the chapter devoted exclusively to them is perhaps the best in the book. There are also chapters on newish singer songwriters like Kacey Musgraves and Terri Hendrix in the last section of the book. The whole thing, at times, seems edited by committee so perhaps they forgot. The chapter on Don Henley (yes, from Texas, shame about his anaemic music) was mercifully brief but still too long for this reader. The sections on figures like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams contained far too much general information that is already widely available. The chapter on Rodney Crowell, on the other hand, was fascinating. Guy Clark seemed underplayed throughout the book though the essay by Tamara Saviano bodes well for her recent biography of the man. But these are just quibbles about an engaging and informative book. Any book on music that I have to put down so that I can listen to an artist or album that I don’t know gets high marks from me. It took me weeks to get through this one! Discovering David Rodriguez alone was worth the cover price.
If for some reason, you didn’t end up with many records on the floor in the activity at the beginning of the review, this is required reading. For folks who are still tidying up, there might be, believe or not, still some gaps in your collection. Poets and Pickers might help to fill them.
Teasers: Both of the editors have written doctoral theses on Texas music. The analysis of lyrics and lyrical traditions in the book are truly insightful.
Willie Nelson on The Midnight Special, introduced by Captain and Tennille!
Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin, Henry Holt, 2016
First the bad news.
In the late 1980s when I was a DJ on college radio, I heard a rumour from a musician who came by for an interview. He said that he’d heard about a legendary singer from the sixties who had sought the services of an up and coming LA band. He had asked them to back him on a song for his forthcoming album. The legend’s stock was not particularly high at the time and they were happy to lend their current street cred to his record. He arrived and immediately began ordering them around and complaining after each take. It was clear that he didn’t have anything written but was hoping that a song might come out of a jam session. Eventually, the band played a song that they had been working on. They hadn’t recorded any demos but it had a name. The legend was interested in the song but the band had decided that it would be on their next album. The sessions didn’t produce anything further and eventually he left, seemingly unhappy with the results. They hadn’t been that impressed with him either and forgot all about it. Then his album appeared. It was a massive seller. They noticed that their song was on it. He had used the recordings they’d made that day and hadn’t even changed the title. The words and music were credited to him alone. They phoned him up and his response was: “Sue me, see what happens.”
It should have been obvious to me but there was no internet in those days and just about every legendary sixties artist was staging some kind of a comeback that year. I remember hoping that it wasn’t John Fogerty! It wasn’t. It was Paul Simon and the band was Los Lobos. The song was All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints from his Graceland LP.
Question: Who would rip off Los Lobos?
Answer: The same guy who has been pulling similar stunts since, wait for it, the late 50s.
So, it turns out that Paul Simon isn’t a great guy. Peter Ames Carlin has set himself a difficult task in Homeward Bound. His last book was an excellent biography of Bruce Springsteen, a much easier subject I suspect. Paul is a complicated, not to mention litigious, guy, which might explain why this is the first major biography of a superstar who has been recording for decades.
Incidentally, I am a fan. A big one. My initial Simon and Garfunkel freak out may have even come before my first Beatles thing. Do teenagers still go through these phases? I have owned all their albums on all of the successive formats along with bootlegs, DVDs, and so on. I only say this to make it clear that I’m not using the review to trash the man. His music has meant an enormous amount to me as it has to millions of others.
Homeward Bound therefore, is not easy reading. Within 80 pages we learn that before he had even left high school, Paul had sued his first record company and made a solo deal behind the back of his best friend, Arthur Garfunkel. As Tom and Jerry, they had scored a regional hit with a song called Hey Schoolgirl. When a follow up failed to chart, Jerry, aka Paul, went solo without mentioning it. Artie, who really must be a saint, took it all in his stride. Five years later they were back together for the folky Wednesday Morning, 3AM album. It was a flop and Artie was once again sidelined while Paul went to England. When producer Tom Wilson put some folk rock spice in the mix of Sounds of Silence and released it, Paul found success, but again with Artie. And that was an issue. Art’s voice is thing of beauty and Paul’s isn’t. He had broken up the band and had no desire to play music with his old friend. The problem was that they sounded so good together.
It didn’t last long. Around 1970, Art’s involvement in the Catch 22 film proved too much for Simon’s fragile ego. He went solo, sank into depression when his first album only sold 2 million copies, and finally phoned up Artie to appear with him on the second ever episode of Saturday Night Live. “So, you came crawling back?” he said. The reunion lasted for one glorious song, My Little Town.
Carlin works hard to tell Paul Simon’s story without turning him into the villain of the piece. I’ve never read a music biography like this one. I felt like I was reading Great Expectations as rendered by Philip Roth. Or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as reimagined by Brett Easton Ellis.
It’s not really what you want in a book about a musician you admire, is it? If you are a fan, you’ve probably clicked away from this review and have no intention of going near this book. But wait! There is good news too.
If not exactly a hagiography (ahem), Carlin’s book is an excellent source of information about Paul Simon’s recording career. He explains, in detail, the early years when Paul recorded as Jerry Landis, Paul Kane, and True Taylor. Similarly, he explores Simon and Garfunkel’s first recordings and Paul’s long lost ‘Songbook’ album which he recorded in England. He goes through each of the Simon and Garfunkel records, song by song, commenting on the arrangements, the lyrics, and the performances. I went back and listened to all of them while I was reading. Until someone writes a Revolution in the Head type book about the duo, this will do just fine. He then applies the same microscope to the albums of Paul’s post Garfunkel career.
Many Simon and Garfunkel fans have only a passing acquaintance with Paul’s solo albums. I’m one of them. But this book got me listening to them, some for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised! There are gems on all of them. He didn’t forget how to write great songs after Artie left though one can’t help imagining what they would have sounded like with his curly headed pal in the mix. For a tantalising taste of what might have been, listen to the two of them singing Paul’s American Tune on the 1982 Concert in Central Park LP. Magic.
On the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, Simon had used tracks by an Andean folk band called Los Incas to create El Condor Pasa. On his first solo album, he worked with a group of Jamaican musicians from Jimmy Cliff’s band to develop Mother and Child Reunion. He eve went to American Studios in Muscle Shoals to draw on The Swampers for a few of the songs on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. In all cases, he recorded the sessions and then returned to New York or LA and overdubbed himself on vocals to finish the song. He is far from the only musician to work this way but his unwillingness to give credit where it was due is exceptional.
I suppose this is the crux of the story. Paul Simon is a gifted songwriter with a wonderful musical imagination. But to what extent has he, on occasion, exploited the generosity of his colleagues and collaborators? Carlin isn’t putting him on trial in this book but a pattern does emerge. I had no idea that he wrote Red Rubber Ball with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers. And neither did anyone else because Paul took Woodley’s name off the writing credit. He did the same thing with Woodley’s contribution to the Simon and Garfunkel song, Cloudy. Of course, Bruce Woodley went on to write the eternally annoying ‘I am Australian’ so perhaps he got what he deserved. But then there is Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. The story is well known though, as Carlin shows, Simon did try to make amends.
And that brings us to Graceland. This is where the book really takes flight. What a story! Graceland was an album that I loathed with an almost exquisite fervour when it appeared in 1986. It sounded like BMW coke music, the kind of thing Gordon Gecko would have in his car. Man, the 80s were awful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, kids. Simon predictably ran into trouble when he went to South Africa and recorded with a group of mbaqanga musicians that he first heard on a cassette that he forgot to give back to Heidi Berg. Before he even got around to his usual shenanigans with writing credits, he was in trouble with the ANC and found himself on a UN blacklist of musicians who had broken the embargo against working in South Africa.
Carlin explains what happened in great detail and Paul Simon comes off looking pretty good. He understood the ban but assumed that it was all about performing, rather than recording. He did refuse to apologize, which didn’t help matters. The ANC, noble institution that it was, turns out to have been very unreasonable when it came to musicians. Johnny Clegg, no less, had great difficulty with them over a tour of England. And if the founder of Juluka had trouble negotiating with the ANC then what chance did a man of Paul’s temperament have? He had the support of many prominent anti apartheid activists including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Maskela who toured with him. There is a theory that the popularity of Graceland played some role in the close of the Apartheid era. A documentary called Under African Skies is worth watching if you are curious. One person not impressed was Miami Steve Van Zandt who tried to redress what he considered Paul’s transgressions with his ensemble piece, Sun City. They met just once and Paul told Steve that his friend Henry Kissinger had told him that the ANC were Soviet backed communists. Miami Steve said, “Fuck you and your friend.” Steve did manage to get Paul Simon removed from an AZAPO assassination list but that’s another story.
Ezra Pound once said, ‘I am old enough to make friends’. He was talking about Walt Whitman, I’m talking about Graceland. I listened to it again a few days ago, prepared to sit on my hands if I felt like breaking something. Funny thing is, it’s a great album. What sounded overproduced in 1986 now sounds like depth. It’s a BIG record with all kinds of elements. I know I won’t convince everyone but it is a kind of masterpiece, the vision of a great artist realised in full. The African songs are wonderful but there is also a great track with Rockin Dopsie, the Zydeco artist. Sure, he forgot that they were playing an old song of Dopsie’s when it came to the credits but still…
It’s clear that Peter Ames Carlin and his publishers had no desire to mess with Paul Simon. There are some gaps here and there where the legal department might have felt that discretion was the better part of valour. His personal life is outlined but not many of his friends, wives, or lovers were, it seems, willing to go on the record. Paul Simon certainly didn’t cooperate and neither did Art Garfunkel. The strength of the book is Carlin’s ability to arrange almost 60 years of interviews and press material into a compelling narrative. He is also, as I have said, damn good on the man’s music. He writes with enviable precision about Paul’s various musical passions including batucada, West African rhythms, doo wop, rockabilly, folk, and so on.
Behind the story is one question: What the hell is Paul Simon’s problem?
He’s a talented musician who has, for more than half a century, continued to produce critically acclaimed and highly commercial music. Who else can say that? Bob Dylan? Neil Young? David Bowie? Leonard Cohen? That’s heady company. So why is he so cranky? Paul Simon isn’t an evil man but he would appear to be a very difficult one, not to mention one who is strangely uninterested in any kind of artistic integrity when it comes to working with other musicians. So what does Carlin conclude? There seems to be two main possibilities:
- He is short, about 5′ 2″. I know this is ridiculous but when he was 12, despite being a talented baseball player, he was relegated to a league for short kids. It comes up a lot in the book. Artie’s height seemed to bother him. Watch the clip of their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Art, twisting the knife, says, “It’s mike height, that’s what split up this group.” Ouch. Mind you, I’m not making light of this situation. I understand that it can be a real sore point but then again there are a lot of six footers around who haven’t written Bridge over Troubled Water. Plus, he is hardly the only diminutive rock and roll star.
- His father was disappointed in him. Yes, the standard Freudian problem. Louis Simon was a jazz musician who never really got there and continued to belittle Paul even after his extraordinary success in the sixties. He thought Paul should have been a teacher. Better hours but…
If you have any interest in Paul Simon, you should probably take a deep breath and read Homeward Bound. I heard the other day that Art Garfunkel has written his memoirs. I might read them but then again I might just put on Bookends and imagine that Old Friends isn’t supposed to be ironic.
Teasers: His tangled up and true relationship with Bob Dylan. His role in the early years of Saturday Night Live. The whole Carrie Fisher thing. The story of Kathy Chitty who figures in several of his songs. The identity of Tom in The Only Living Boy in NYC. (Okay, it’s Artie!)
Raggedy folk glory from ’66:
Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg, Faber & Faber, 2017
Imagine a genre in popular music in which the most famous band is made up entirely of high school kids with virtually no musical experience. Now imagine that this band only ever plays a handful of gigs, never releases any records, and disappears after a few months. Then imagine that the genre more or less disappears from the public imagination while the band changes it name and becomes a cornerstone of popular culture. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Or maybe it does if you’re talking about skiffle music and a band called The Quarry Men aka The Beatles.
But let’s try another scenario. It’s 1954 and a group of young musicians are struggling to finish a recording session. One of them, the guitar player, picks up his guitar and starts mucking around with an old blues song. The producer hears something he likes and asks him to play the song again, this time with the band. The result is, in today’s parlance, a game changer. Popular music takes a sharp turn. The cultural landscape of the entire nation shifts.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Elvis, Scotty, and Bill messing around with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama and managing to invent rockabilly. But in the same week, far away in England, an almost identical scenario took place. In this case, the guitarist was Lonnie Donegan and the song was Rock Island Line. Rockabilly and Skiffle, distant cousins, born within hours of each other. Why? History is where geography and chronology meet. What was happening in Memphis that spawned rockabilly? What was happening in London that tossed up skiffle? The music historian, Peter Gurlanick, provides the answer to the former in his recent biography of Sam Philips. In a new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Billy Bragg – yes, that Billy Bragg – tells the lesser known story of the latter.
I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that rock and roll historians need to start talking about jazz and that jazz historians need to find a place for rock and roll. Not long ago, I had another look at The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book that I read endlessly as a teenager. The early chapters make a lot of noise about blues and country but seem to skim over jazz. Duke Ellington, it should be recalled, always regarded rock and roll as a form of jazz. And he liked it! One of the many intriguing points about skiffle is that its basis wasn’t in folk or country but in trad jazz.
The English trad jazz story is itself fascinating and Bragg does a great job telling it. It all started with a record collector named Bill Colyer who went off to the army in the 1940s and came back to find his little brother Ken listening to his records and playing guitar. Colyer’s records, and this is critical, were a mix of early New Orleans stuff like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, along with people like Blind Blake. In the mind of these fans, blues was at the heart of the jazz they loved so why wouldn’t they listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Naturally, they recognised that rural blues artists, songsters, and jugbands like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers used different instruments but to them it was all part of the same story.
When Ken Colyer and similarly inclined folks like Chris Barber began to play early jazz live, they broke up their sets with ‘breakdowns’ where they would pick up guitars and play songs by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lonnie Johnson (an influential musician who deserves some kind of revival). Robert Johnson had yet to be rediscovered at this stage, as incredible as that seems. The breakdown sets allowed them to rest their tired embouchures and introduce other songs to their audiences. As so often happens, the other thing became the thing. These sideshows brought people like Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner out front with their guitars. As rock and roll landed on the shores of England, guys out front with guitars looked like money to the boys on Denmark Street. The age of skiffle had arrived.
Why didn’t they just call it blues? Billy Bragg addresses this in the book. Apparently, when asked for a name for the members of his brother’s band that had just recorded some guitar based music – Bill Colyer said, ‘The Ken Colyer Skiffle Band’. Skiffle is an old American word for rent party so the association with good times and gutbucket blues is there. But apparently he just couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘blues’ to describe English music. It offended his sense of authenticity. I wonder what he thought of the Stones’ first record.
Speaking of The Stones, did you catch the name Alexis Korner back there? Yes, it’s the same guy whose Blues Incorporated band featured a drummer called Charlie Watts with guest stars, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He began his musical career replacing Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and was an architect of the skiffle sound. Later, it was his collaborations with Cyril Davies that laid the foundations for British blues. Now that’s a career!
Billy Bragg’s point in this book is devastatingly simple and very difficult to dispute. By 1964, British acts dominated the Billboard charts in America. From The Beatles through to Billy J Kramer, every one of these acts had begun as a skiffle band. All except Petula Clark. She didn’t start as a skiffle band. Bragg’s contention is that when Lonnie Donegan had a big hit with Rock Island Line, a whole bunch of kids were hit by two revelations.
The first was that a lack of talent didn’t disqualify you from music glory. This isn’t to say that Donegan wasn’t talented but he played three chords on guitar and told his story in a voice that would have sounded untrained and raw to kids raised on crooners. It was, as Billy says several times, a similar phenomenon to punk. No suburban kid with a guitar aspired to form a band like ELO. The Clash’s music, on the other hand, sounded like the kind of noise you and your friends could aspire to making without being doomed to certain failure. Of course Jeff Lynne of ELO was himself one of those kids who saw Lonnie Donegan on television and thought, ‘I can do that!’ So there you go.
The other revelation was that English kids could sing American songs. This is significant because without this understanding, it is unlikely that the British blues boom would have occurred in the same manner. It was as though Lonnie Donegan gave a whole generation permission to sing whatever they wanted to sing. And, of course, British blues became a genre in itself that, in turn, shaped the future of American blues.
It was observations like this that Billy Bragg caused a minor storm with an article in The Guardian about skiffle in 2013. He was trying to suggest that ‘Americana’ music could be traced back to England. His evidence had to do with The Animals’ decision to record House of the Rising Sun and the impact this had on Bob Dylan. The real point he was making was that skiffle has been unfairly written out of rock and roll history. The article was typical Bragg fare, earnest and provocative.
Nonetheless, this earnestness provoked Pokey Lafarge, and he took Billy Bragg to task in a Ted talk. He said something to the tune of: “Don’t let people like Billy Bragg tell us that our music came from Britain.” Billy replied on social media that he had said no such thing. At the Womadelaide Festival of 2014, Billy approached Pokey backstage and suggested a beer and chat. Pokey, still affronted, turned him down. Billy then suggested that they have an exchange of views in print. Pokey sourly walked away, leaving Billy and his olive branch to wilt in the South Australian heat.
Billy Bragg is an old punk rock warrior and a sort of George Orwell style English patriot. Pokey, on the other hand, sounds like he needs to update his manners software. He also seems to have missed the deeper irony of the argument. The musical exchange between the UK and Ireland and America is ancient. The ‘old timey’ music that makes up some of Pokey’s repertoire can be traced back to the Ulster Scots and others who arrived in America in the late 18th, early 19th century. To Pokey and everyone else, I recommend the book, Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. It’s a brilliant antidote to any overly nativist ideas about music history.
If you’ve never listened to skiffle, Billy presents the genre in great detail, picking out the notable from the forgettable. Ever wondered about the song ‘Maggie Mae’ on The Beatles Let It Be album? The original was the biggest hit of a Liverpool outfit called The Vipers. One of the issues for skiffle bands in the studio was the tendency for older producers to top up their sound with strings and other embellishments. The Vipers, fortunately, found a young producer who correctly noted that their rawness was part of their appeal. He simply recorded them, live on the floor. That young producer would use a similar strategy with another band from Liverpool a couple of years later. His name was George Martin.
This is a top read. Billy Bragg is a very capable writer who has done an enormous amount of research. He covers a lot of ground here and, setting skiffle in context, he has provided a comprehensive history of British popular music, in general, between 1945 and 1960. This is also a social history that made for very interesting reading as the British election unfolded. Skiffle, the rise of rock and roll, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, Pop Art, and the CND movement are all part of this story. And Billy Bragg, as his fans know, has exactly the right voice for the job.
Teasers: A possible explanation of the line, ‘Look at those cavemen go’ from David Bowie’s Life on Mars; the possibility that this book will get you listening to British trad jazz. It’s good stuff. Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk! Legends!
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recently collaborated on an album called Shine A Light. They recorded the whole thing live in railway stations and hotels as they traveled southwest from Chicago to LA on trains. Great album to listen to while reading the book!
You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig, riverrun 2017
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig’s book, You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s might appear from the cover to be a ghostwritten or co-written memoir of the former’s career. It isn’t, though it does include a lengthy section at the beginning by Mike Heron that recounts the early years of the band. The core of the book, however, is Andrew Greig’s own memoir of growing up in the late sixties with The Incredible String Band providing the soundtrack and a spiritual path.
I was a bit perplexed by this format as I began the book. Mike Heron’s section is fascinating. His memories of the Scottish folk scene of the early sixties are vivid. Readers of Colin Harper’s Dazzling Stranger will already be aware that this period represents one of the great gatherings of talent and unique characters in popular music. Locals such as Bert Jansch, Alex Campbell (one of the drunken revelers in Dylan’s hotel room in Don’t Look Back -not the dude who threw the glass though), and Hamish Imlach mix with mythic figures like Anne Briggs in the legendary folk pubs of Edinburgh. At the semi rural home of Mary Stewart, the folk community mixes with the mountain climbing set. Rose Simpson, in fact, met Robin and Mike in the house after an unsuccessful attempt on Ben Nevis. Mary’s children appear on the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, considered by many to be their finest album.
The first incarnation of ISB included Clive Palmer, another great British folk eccentric. He left after the first album and headed for Afghanistan before returning to the music world as a sort of cult musicians’ cult musician. If you’ve never heard Sunshine Possibilities by his Famous Jug Band or any of the early Clive’s Original Band (COB) records, the time has come! Mike Heron was an early fan who ended up playing with him in the trio that became The Incredible String Band. The story of their trip to London to record a demo for Elektra is wonderful and partially explains Clive’s plastic coat on the front of at least one version of the LP.
Just when I was getting ready to hear about the recording of my beloved The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion album and the time that Paul McCartney declared The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter the most important record of the year, the narrative came to an abrupt end.
Suddenly we’re back in Scotland in the mid sixties. It’s raining and Andrew Greig is at school. He discovers the Incredible String Band, has his mind blown, forms his own freak folk outfit, and becomes a poet. I enjoyed the stories but I kept waiting for Mike Heron to come back. Then the penny dropped.
Andrew Greig is not a rock journalist. He has written many books of poetry, a few novels, several books on mountain climbing, as well as a memoir about his friendship with the Scottish poet, Norman McCaig. He is a literary writer and thus his memories, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s are assuredly delivered. There is also a discernible subtext here and it relates to what is perhaps the most enduring legacy of The Incredible String Band. Andrew Greig heard the whisper of freedom in these endearingly loose records. The 1960s in Scotland was not, he observes, all that different from the 1940s. Men went to work, women stayed home and ironed sheets. Even Mike Heron’s father, the head of English at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, finds it hard to come to terms with Mike’s decision not to become a chartered accountant.
The Incredible String Band bring colour and light to the young Andrew’s dour existence in Fife. He and his friend George form a band called Fate & ferret. They write their own songs and go as far as meeting with Joe Boyd in London. Boyd is, of course, the John Hammond of English folk rock. His good taste brought, in addition to ISB, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, and many others to the recording studio. In Greig’s memoir, he is friendly with them but not particularly interested in their music. Their initial meeting with him does lead to a gig opening for John Martyn at Les Cousins. Not bad for a high school band!
There are a number of books on The Incredible String Band that will provide a chronological account of their musical journey. Rob Young’s take on their career in Electric Eden is particularly good. But You Know What You Could Be is something different. Surely a band’s story must include their audience to some extent. Without going all ‘trees falling in the forest’ here, the effect of the music is often as significant as the music itself. Most rock and roll biographies will trace the influence of their subject on subsequent acts but what about the ordinary fans whose lives are changed, sometimes dramatically, by the music? Clearly, no one wants to read a whole book of Led Zeppelin fans cooing about Knebworth or, worse, a Deadhead memoir (there are many, if you do!) but I like what Greig has done in this book.
He has explained the real power of The Incredible String Band in a manner that wouldn’t be feasible in a straight biography. For most of us, our favourite bands exist in a dreamscape with a great soundtrack. We may see the band live or even meet the members but, as Yeats says, it is the dream itself that enchants us. You Know What You Could Be is a book about music, imagination, and the freedom to do exactly as you please. Who could ask for more?
(*The Band’s performance at Woodstock didn’t go over that well either. The Dead were booed apparently. No shame in struggling to identify the elusive zeitgeist of half a million wet hippies!)
Teasers: Wish you’d seen The Incredible String Band live in 1968? I sure do! Andrew Greig did and he has the writing chops to put you in the front row. I find many of the concerts I see these days far too formulaic. These chaotic evenings sound glorious!
Best song ever about insomnia!
These Are The Days: Stories and Songs by Mick Thomas, Melbourne Books, 2017
I’m sure Mick Thomas gets tired of hearing this statement:
‘Weddings Parties Anything changed my life!’
But I might be able to impress him with my story.
“No really, Mick!”
In 1990, I was living in Toronto and had no interest in Australia. I knew that Sydney had the Opera House and Melbourne was the other city. That was about it. Less than four years later, I was living in Carlton, barracking for the Saints, and knocking back pots of VB at Young and Jackson. What happened?
Weddings Parties Anything happened.
My cousin Tim invited me to see them one night at a venue called The Siboney Club in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He promised me that they were like the ‘Australian Pogues’. It wasn’t easy to summon that up but I went along. I remember a furious version of Knockbacks in Halifax and the religious experience that resulted. If you’ve seen enough live shows, you’ve had this happen. Something snaps and you become a fan. A really big fan.
I moved to Japan soon after with a 90 minute cassette of their music. Melbourne had begun to loom large in my imagination. Songs like Under The Clocks, Roaring Days, and Brunswick were calling me in a southerly direction. I took a short vacation there in 1992 and walked up Johnson Street singing Manana, Manana. Back in Japan, I played my 90 minute cassette for a woman from Melbourne. We got married and moved to Carlton.
I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century in Mick Thomas’s city. Weddings Parties Anything ceased trading about 15 years ago but Mick has continued to build on his repertoire as a solo artist. If you stopped at WPA, you’re missing some of his finest moments. Melbourne still figures in his songs and I still see the city through his eyes. That said, my life has begun to drift towards the northern beaches of Sydney of late but the 90 minute cassette will come with me when I finally head up the Hume for good.
Mick Thomas’s book, These Are The Days: Stories and Songs is beautifully presented with sharp photos and reprints of tour flyers and posters. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will pick it up and start reading. They’ll be happy and you won’t have to entertain them. Win win! The photos frame the chapters, each of which is based around a particular song from either WPA or his solo years.
He begins with The Lonely Goth, one of many standout tracks on the Dust on my Shoes album, his first without the band. The song is the kind of story that Mick tells so well. A Goth kid in a small town hangs around the war memorial, shocks his grandmother in the chemist by buying black nail polish, and corresponds with a Goth girl from a nearby town he met at a Marilyn Manson show. If Mick wrote crime novels, he’d be Elmore Leonard. His characters breathe. The listener can not only picture them but can hear them. Recently, I read Jock Serong’s brilliant new novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. I kept thinking of Mick Thomas’s mastery of voice. Then I noticed that Serong is thanked at the back of the book. I pictured the two of them sitting together in the Mona Castle Pub in Seddon, not talking but just listening.
I was particularly struck by the chapter on Sisters of Mercy. This song from Weddings Parties Anything’s Roaring Days album was written in response to a nurses’ strike in the 1980s. In 2012 he was invited to play it for a large group of nurses at a strike meeting in the Melbourne Convention Centre. This chapter might have been a straightforward story about the song and how things never change. But it wasn’t. Instead, Thomas talks about a critique he’d copped in another setting for overdoing the emotional dimension of a song about asbestos poisoning. He was accused of emphasising the victimhood of the sufferers instead of celebrating their fighting spirit. The charge seemed terribly unfair and few singers would have the courage to revisit such a hardline dressing down. Mick then finds himself playing Sisters of Mercy for the striking nurses and choking back tears so as to avoid a repeat of the asbestos song episode. He manages it but only just. My own eyes grew a bit misty reading this chapter. The idea of a singer at a strike meeting in these cynical times is itself moving!
I was going to say that Weddings Parties Anything is the biggest Australian band to have missed out on the big time but that’s a pretty competitive field. They are a cult band but it’s a big cult. For a different sort of musician, this sense of ‘there but not there’ would be unbearable. The story of their song Monday’s Experts is a case in point. Many years ago now, a sports commentary television show called Talking Footy used the song. For most bands this would have been a lucky break and for Mick it should have been some extra cash in his pocket. But the TV station squirmed around on paying royalties, claiming it wasn’t the show’s ‘theme’ so the rules didn’t apply. I used to watch it occasionally. It was the theme. When Mick asked politely if they might be willing to pay for it, they immediately replaced his song with a similar and wholly inferior one. Don’t be a musician, kids!
Fortunately, Mick isn’t a bitter man or least he doesn’t sound like one here. He seems to have enjoyed the ride and never lost the desire to write songs. This doesn’t always happen when I finish musicians’s memoirs but I wanted more. I particularly would like to hear more about the early days of the band. The chapter on Away Away provides a tantalizing chronology but I need details! I think another book is in order but for the time being this wonderful collection will do just fine.
Teasers: The lyrics and guitar chords for every song! Jim Dickinson says that no one wants to hear a short song about cannibalism! A frank discussion of dysentery and marital discord in Turkey!