Friday, 29 January 2010

On Again! On Again! or Strangers on a Train

I was sorry to hear of Jake Thackray's death; I remember fondly, albeit dimly, early appearances on the Sunday afternoon children's TV show Tickertape (though he once replied to a letter of mine saying that he reddened to remember the songs). I also remember a (presumably live) performance on Bernard Braden's show in which Jake, possibly singing Sister Josephine, went on beforehand about his bowels to the amusement of the audience, prompting a slightly acidulous Braden to congratulate him on stretching out a three minute spot to nearer eight.
Years later, probably around the mid 90s, I was on a train going to or from Wolverhampton, saw what I thought was a spare seat and, approaching, thought I recognised the man sitting opposite: "Mr Thackray?" He acknowledged that it was indeed him, but I then launched into a rambling adulatory spiel, mentioning Tickertape, that was probably highly embarrassing for him in that public place with no escape short of the communication cord. But he simply said mildly, "Yes, well, I think that seat is taken," and I moved off.

Actually, it was Bantam Cock. But more on that brief encounter later. That's not the end of the story.

Having already rummaged awhile in the record shop of memory it feels right to progress (ooh, sharp) to Mr Thackray, another longtime musical hero. Sort of like Donovan, you could say, in that he was essentially a man with a guitar who felt part of the troubadour tradition; wholly unlike him, however, in his strong dislike for everything which came from America to enliven or dilute music in Britain in the twentieth century, preferring to align himself with music hall and French chanson.

His idol was Georges Brassens - in France, Thackray said, "not so much a household word as a household paragraph," - and the photograph in which he gazes upon that man during a rare visit to the United Kingdom when Jake had the chance to play support suggests a moment of blissful communion. (It's not the picture above, which I reproduce as the next best thing; I shall try to hunt the other one down.)

The missing pic is also an image to treasure because, as the years wound on, Thackray became increasingly uneasy about performing, seeing himself as "becoming a real Archie Rice," John Osborne's dead-behind-the-eyes comic. In fact, the only other recorded moment of unalloyed happiness on the Thackray features which I have come across occurs at the end of The Kirkstall Road Girl on one of the Bernard Braden shows: it's a gently swinging small group arrangement (far superior to the studio version); freeze the frame at the end and you'll catch a gratified, delighted nod towards his fellow musicians as if to say they'd managed to pull it off, and it was perfect.

Even before his death Jake Thackray was well represented on the net. Several sites have now been consolidated into one (a bit like those daytime TV ads for loan companies) and, as with the Donovan piece, it's not my intention to rehash existing information but rather to talk about Jake Thackray In My Life. And I stress that the actual part he played goes some considerable distance beyond that first meeting on a train bound for London (or Wolverhampton).

Part of the reason for thinking of him as a topic just now is another memory of my Town Hall humiliation (no, I'm not all that convinced either) brother. I bought a secondhand copy of Jake's Progress, possibly through Sounds, and he complained - to my mother? to me? - that the tale of Mrs Murphy, "a middle-aged widow living alone" entertaining a caddish "gentleman friend" was not suitable listening material for me: a case of, to adapt the old Victorian saying, What I cannot tell my brother is not fit for me to know.

As far as I remember this wasn't a moral objection so much as his being annoyed that the subject matter had no direct bearing on my life - unlike, say, the song by his beloved Tyrannosaurus Rex wherein "Stark, handsome eyes decide / The unicorn is a beast of borrowed wisdom". And to aggravate him further, the song has been added to the CD of Live Performance: Jake introduces the number as

A song about a certain Mrs Murphy. Its point ... I forget.

It was certainly odd, now I think of it, to have my first eager listen to the LP at teatime in the living room when so many of the songs (Country Girl, Nurse, Sophie) were so directly sexual, and the songwriter's friend Colin Evans was not on hand to explain that sex was merely a metaphor for the life-force in Thackray's work.

But Jake Thackray was a known quantity to my parents, mature and not longhaired, a regular guest on lighthearted consumer rights show Braden's Week then later on That's Life, the Esther Rantzen-fronted successor which was once lampooned on TV sketch show End of Part One as That's Bernard Braden's Show, Really. And even better, he was eventually revealed to be Catholic; in later years my mother would talk of enjoying the newspaper column by "your friend Jake Thackray."

If the final programme by Braden survives, at one point you will see Esther, one of that show's onscreen researchers, kissing her boss goodbye, an image which somehow burns in my memory like that celebrated Giotto painting, although I admit that Braden was entirely responsible for his own downfall, having traded on his "voice of the consumer" image to advertise Stork margarine on The Other Side (the BBC's commercial rival ITV, if you're American and have got this far).

I can't quote directly from her autobiography as I never went so far as to buy a copy, but as far as I recall when she asked him why he had done such a foolish and self-destructive thing, he replied that yes, he knew all that ... but the notion of however much money it was for a morning's or an afternoon's work simply could not be resisted. Stupid, but at least honest and unhypocritical. I am relying on an imperfect memory so it may be that Rantzen added a sympathetic there-but-for-the-grace comment at this point in her narrative - and it also may be that she is steadfastly refusing to accept any payment for her current role as the "face of Accident Advice Helpline" - the precise wording used on that company's website, which I'm sure you can find without my help, so let me direct you instead to the thoughts of W. Stephen Gilbert, who wrote so eloquently on Sedaka.

Most of which takes us away from Jake Thackray, so let me rewind to my first experience of him, on a Sunday teatime children's show called Tickertape. It was an odd mix of things, including a regular piece of jerky animation, possibly assembled by the creators of those "Charley says" public information films, in which the Devil found various ways to tempt a small boy into wrongdoing. It was introduced by that comic man-mountain Bernard Bresslaw, about whose performance I remember nothing other than his response to parents' complaints about the behaviour of the character in the cartoon: "Well, he is supposed to be the devil..."

Thackray sang the theme toon ("Each week I fly / To be ta-antalised...") and regularly contributed a song to the proceedings, the only one of which I remember - possibly not otherwise recorded - began: "Sophie is shy, she's ever so shy, " and concluded: "Sophie and William, they're two of a kind." No comedy, just a gentle account of two lonely people meeting or failing to meet - I can't remember which. Tickertape appears to date from 1968, which would make me all of ten years old when I first heard him. He may have been seated for that performance, even facing away from the camera, in a darkened studio. I retain the impression that we were eavesdropping on him singing and playing this non-comic song for himself, a thought which becomes increasingly poignant in retrospect.

If the net is to be trusted, Braden's Week started on the BBC in 1968 and ran to 1972, so it may be (I can't remember) that my transition to to this more adult Jake was a seamless one. I certainly recall that it felt grown-up to watch the programme on a Sunday evening. I can't recall when I finally bought an LP of his, although it was certainly after Fairytale.

And what was the appeal, given that he clearly wasn't a new Dylan (Jake, I mean, not Donovan) - which, to be momentarily fair to my immediate elder brother, was probably nearer what he meant about my not listening to more "relevant "songs. Between the novelty records, even Top of the Pops was reflecting its times: "Now they've got revolution, / But they don't know / Why they're fighting," sang Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, flamingolike on one leg (so arguably with a foot in the novelty camp as well); "That's quite true, actually," my eldest brother informed us.

I can only say that part of me responded to Jake's stories in song, and took pleasure, with repeat listens, in how carefully they were crafted, in the shaping of phrases and the choice of individual words. A few years later I would subject the 60s Pye recordings of Benny Hill to the same kind of concentrated attention but the rewards were considerably less: despite the pleasing phrase here and there, most of the songs were simply excuses for an assembly of jokes, and even though the musical settings (Tony Hatch) were often well done, Hill had no compunction about rehashing ideas, presumably never thinking that people would sit down and listen to several songs in a row.

One of the best of his Pye recordings, The Old Fiddler, is a recitation with musical backing, Hill exhulting in the yokel voice he later employed on Ernie. I'm also fond of the EMI recording The Dustbins of Your Mind, although it's an odd mix: the verses are indeed unrelated joke after joke after joke, but the chorus, which mixes one part Gentle on My Mind to one part Elusive Butterfly, is played straight and is moderately affecting. (No room here to mention another comic song by another hand which likewise drew on Bob Lind's Elusive Butterfly, but the first person to name it in the comments below may feel a momentary sense of satisfaction - or not.)

In Melody Maker Hill was later dismissive (or defensive?) about what might be considered his masterpiece, telling the interviewer, with a metaphorical sniff, "Yeah, Ernie's brought me a bit of money." Although he did reveal a detail which may amuse readers: for an earlier show he had planned a parody of Donovan called Benovan (possibly around the time of the minstrel boy's first folkie fame on Ready, Steady Go), and Donovan and compadre Gypsy Dave had been invited to be in the audience.

Come the recording, according to Hill, the camera pans to ... two empty seats. Don'n'Dave's car had broken down and/or they had decided to hitch anyway - and it never occured to them to demand the studio lay on some transport. Crazy times, eh?

Which again takes me away from Jake Thackray, but the point is that even as a young listener I knew I was hearing something which repaid further investigation. Looking now at the track listing for Jake's Progress, however, it's less the jokey stories-in-song with a punchline which appeal but the opening number which does seem to conform to Colin Evans' idea of being a metaphor for the life-force: the tale of a country girl

... milking the goats,
Legs open wide, all the springtime blows inside her petticoats

is a mix of lasciviousness (hear him pounce on lines like: "Ev- e-ning time, and she goes looking for a lover / At the church-hall Saturh-day dahnce:") and wistfulness: sex is a memory, and a prospect, which offers a glow to this modern-day Tess, makes the routine of her day bearable. Maybe it's also that it's integrated into her life: she

Goes in good time to the half-past-nine mass on her bicycle,
Sailing along, singing hymns to the hedgerows

without any sense that this is at odds with those "knees in the moonlight." I also love those lines "visiting the neighbours, / Dressed in her very best clothes / That she chose from a catlogue"; the suggestion, I think, is that her whole life is circumscribed apart from those moments

On her back, in the bracken
Where nobody sees her

When Thackray was approached about the possibility of a musical using his songs, the model cited either by him or his collaborators was Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, but maybe the later paintings of Stanley Spencer, where sex is an innocent, joyous and holy thing, might also be applicable; I'd certainly prefer them to the more jokey daubs of Beryl Cook or the cartoons of Bill Tidy.

I didn't hear The Girl on the Kirkstall Road till relatively recently, but you could hardly say it's a scathing expose of the hardships of sex workers. A brief reference makes clear he is indeed talking about prostitution ("lampost deals") but the way of life from which the subject of the song has escaped is painted as offering more honest, earthy enjoyment than the high-fashion pretension to which she has, so to speak, jumped. And despite the "lampost deals" line, the song seems to focus more on the idea she is being false to her working class roots, caught up in a lifestyle which does not allow her to be herself:

Spring collections on her back and a moue on her lips, her lips, her lips… ooh :
When she was coarse and saucy, at least she got her kicks.
And if her smile be snooty and her eyes be blasé, well,
At the Mecca Locarno they could flash more enthusiastically.

Inconsistent? None of that matters if you subscribe to Colin Evans' view that his songs essentially celebrate the life-force. The girl in the song has turned her back on something vital within her, settled for stultifying luxury, her love now given only to "small fat men with cigars ... arze," as Jake sang it on Braden (maybe his encounter with that naughty John Lennon in Abbey Road was more fruitful than our strangers-on-a-train bit).

And if any readers want to take the song analysis a bit further:

1) Girl on the Kirkstall Road - compare and contrast with the Eagles' Lyin' Eyes. (You have 45 minutes.)

NB: The Ronettes question, beginning "For every kiss you give me ..." may only be answered by students with the requisite qualification in Applied Mathematics.

My love for Jake Thackray also led to a penfriendship with a girl in Liverpool, an unexpected match made through Sounds when I put in a freebie wants ad for Thackray records around 1972. She must have been Catholic, too, as she attended a convent school. Presumably my comparative youth (I was about three years younger) was less obvious on paper, although she'd occasionally baffle me with her superior vocabulary, as when she remarked of a teacher: "I don't think nuns should have voluptuous figures, do you?"

I can't remember much about the correspondence now although it was important at the time - and lasted, I think, for a year or more. What did we talk about other than Jake Thackray, to whom there was at least one token reference per missive? The minutiae of our lives, I suppose, though I do remember she liked folk duo Jacqui and Bridie and raved about a singer called Isla St Clair, still more than five years away from non-folkie fame.

We exchanged photos at one point but the question of age was never broached directly - though I saw she had actually scored out the words "how old are you?" at the end of one letter. Perhaps I was meant to see it; there had been an earlier implicit enquiry when she mentioned a nun's reprimand that "at sixteen and seventeen" she and her classmates ought to be more sensible. And whatever surface fluency I may have had couldn't have masked such a disparity in age for long.

There was a certain amount of bitterness at the end when I harried her to send a long-promised cassette of the Bantam Cock album; she did so, but added something like It takes two to end a friendship - the correspondence had already become fitful - and that was that.

I was prompted to look up her Liverpool 8 address a few years ago; it no longer seemed to exist. Today I found that Caryl Gardens was one of several housing estates built in the thirties and demolished around the early eighties; the top image, above, is entitled "awaiting clearance"; the middle picture is dated 1968 and the final image comes from 1938, when those dwellings were new and inviting. A similar block, Gerard Gardens, can be seen in Basil Dearden's 1958 film The Violent Playground; a recent documentary tells that block's story. There seems to have been a high concentration of Irish immigrants on those estates, so our backgrounds were probably quite similar. If she ever reads this, I thank her for those letters - and I'm sorry for not being older.

To digress for a para or two on the subject of The Violent Playground: the title music, a horrible cinema-type idea of rock'n'roll, was written, incredibly, by Paddy Roberts (the South African Noel Coward to Jake's Yorkshire model), but there is, nevertheless, a disturbing scene where young David McCallum and his hoodlum friends, sans females, do a strange kind of trancelike dance to this would-be crazy beat as a gesture of defiance and contempt when Stanley Baker's juvenile liaison officer dares to enter his home.

The film, written by James Kennaway (Tunes of Glory) has elements of On the Waterfront and features a school siege which may have made a DVD release difficult. The ending, as with Tunes of Glory, is bleak: McCallum's character proves to be beyond redemption so the focus shifts to saving his younger brother and sister from going the same way.

My penfriend had the opportunity to meet Jake once and ask for his autograph: he replied, "Certainly, love, but I don't have a pen." I think he eventually wrote it on the back of a fag packet - his own, I trust. I wrote to Jake c/o EMI, and received a reply in tiny, spidery writing. I had lied a little and pretended I knew more about Tom Paxton, whom he admired, than I actually did; he was "glad you share my interest."

My follow-up letter did not receive a response, however, for reasons which are now painfully understandable: presuming, at the age of fourteen, to know more than Mr Thackray himself about how to manage his musical affairs, I suggested or demanded he add more lavish arrangements to songs like Sister Josephine, thus revealing a): that I didn't know the first thing about how best to present his songs and, more pertinently, b): that despite professing myself a superfan, I had obviously never heard his first album, The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray, where elaborate arrangements had already been employed with mixed results. Not only did they swamp some of the songs; Ralph McTell said in the TV documentary that a lavish arrangement reduced Jake-the-singer's room for manoeuvre so did not show him at his best vocally.

Oh, and there's more: anticipating Ian McMillan and Alan Plater (minus the becoming modesty), I then proceeded to suggest that he ought to write a complete musical about the anti-hero of Sister Josephine, whom I called Big Bad Bernard - thus revealing that I did not possess the Bantam Cock album and was relying for my information on a version of the song taped from Pete Drummond's radio programme (Jake habitually altered the wimple-wearing outlaw's name for digs at producers, etc; this was probably a reference to Bernie Andrews). Too late, Cock, to apologise to Mr Thackray directly, but at least I did what I could in a review of his collected studio work, Jake in a Box, for a well known etc, headed "An Unqualified Delight":

If you're already familiar with Jake Thackray's work it's the final CD that will be the real delight: unadorned guitar-and-vocal versions which show that the songs and delivery are almost all fully formed at this early stage, and that the more elaborate arrangements on the first album are essentially unnecessary.

There's a real sense of intimacy with the occasional false start left in or Jake (needlessly) apologising in advance to the producer or engineer about making mistakes on Remember Bethlehem.

It has long been one of my big regrets that I never got to see Jake perform live in 1977; listening to this disc in one sitting feels like the nearest thing to doing so - and no distracting laughter from other people.

Re the above, a schoolfriend was another Thackray fan - possibly because his mother was French, and Jake seemed naturally Gallic. We went along with my friend's sister to see him live at the Calton Studios in Edinburgh, only to find on the night that it was sold out; we listened for a moment to the muffled sound of his performance, already begun, behind a closed door then left.

Why were we so stupid as not to think of booking in advance? I mean, I was about nineteen by this time. Was it - and this is the impression I got when I first looked at the various fan websites and references in forums before they were all combined - that everyone believes Jake is somehow their own personal secret, invisible to all others, forgetting that all the TV exposure he had in the late sixties and early seventies means that millions of Sunday night viewers - not to mention we few, we happy few who remember Tickertape - could be potential rivals for concert tickets?

Be that as it may, Jake eventually chose to turn his back on All That. His friend Ralph McTell writes eloquently and affectionately about Jake here, including this painful account of his confidence deserting him:

I am not sure when the self-doubt began to take hold in Jake’s work, but I was not unduly shocked. Anyone who really cares about their writing goes through these periods, but Jake’s journey was catastrophic. The last time I saw him perform, he was shaky but still brilliant. Then stories began to reach me of total break down of confidence on stage and even failure to turn up for shows. The real trouble was that there was no one about with Jake’s intellect that could talk him through this crisis. Everyone who loved him tried. I remember dear Jim McPhee who was his agent, almost in tears as he told me of Jakes deteriorating reliability and disastrous and increasingly rare appearances. We all failed. As close friend Alan Franks remarked to me when he relayed the sad news.
“It became Jake’s choice, and it was his right to make that choice.”
The reasons why he took this route will probably now remain a mystery.
A very painful mystery.

All his friends could offer was their love and support and it wasn't enough. We talked about him, kept in touch, shared bulletins and occasionally received notes of recognition for our concern, hoping that in time, Jake would regain his confidence, resume his writing and be recognised fully for his genius.
Some hopes, but it remained hope.

They may have been taken down as an act of kindness, but at one time you could see somewhere on the net a series of pictures of Jake from 2002, the Gallic good looks all but gone, ruefully pointing to a branch of Barclays which I assume is associated with his bankruptcy in 2000. I sent it to a friend with the subject line "The saddest picture in the world", but actually there was a note of hope as he was accompanied in the pictures by a woman from an appreciation group helping to make a new limited edition compilation of his work available.

And he was aware of, and even offered some suggestions about staging, the Sister Josephine musical, so he certainly knew in his final years that his work continued to be valued. But the available videos of performances down the years tell their own story: this man, in Victor Lewis-Smith's phrase "as cool as a cucumber" in Braden days, gradually grows less and less comfortable in the public eye.

I was listening last night and this morning to a recording I downloaded of a live performance Jake gave in Hampstead in 1979. By mistake I put two MP3s of each song on my player so in effect he was going through the same routine again until I forwarded to the next number, and so on.

But it made me think: the between-songs chat didn't seem scripted, but how then did it go each night? There must be a time when invention fails and you fall back on repetition (because of course it's new for that audience), but what satisfaction do you then derive as a performer?

Linking back to Donovan, however I may have felt about that Festival Hall gig or the recent live feed from Munich, there is something both admirable and frightening when you try to add up the number of times he has stepped onstage alone except for a guitar, over the last forty and more years. And if portions, at least, of the between-songs chat have become preserved in aspic and the voice becomes ever more mannered then at least he has endured, and there is still an audience out there for him. In a similar way, Paul McCartney seems to have coped with the endlessly repetitive questions about Beatle days by developing a repertoire of answers to run through: I read somewhere that his employees, hearing or reading interviews, will actually say: Ah, that's version 2, etc or: Ah, that's an unusually long version of that story. Who can blame either man for not trying to feel everything afresh? It goes with the territory. Larkin said that Armstrong became like a great chef serving up the same meal night after night.

But I suppose if you don't want to get by in that way (one wonders how, say, a surviving Lennon might have dealt with interviewers), then the job of delivering your songs night after night long after the initial excitement of composing and first presenting them has died away must, on occasion, seem a strange and troubling thing when you have not resigned yourself to being, in Thackray's phrase, "a performing d*ck". Especially if, as Ian Watson suggests in these observations drawn from here and here, there is no real tradition in this country to support the kind of performer Jake was:

It's...quite likely that he got trapped by his own reputation as the writer and singer of very funny, sometimes 'naughty' songs, when a lot of what he wanted to say was very serious and deeply poetic. Because the UK does not have the sort of music-halls that you find in Paris, dedicated to a long tradition of popular, serious song, Jake had to settle for adoption by the folk clubs, which happily looked after him but into which he fitted uneasily.
He didn't fit any existing pigeonhole. Television didn't really know what to do with him. Singing a weekly point number for Frost or Braden or Rantzen was never going to get anywhere near his real talent; the tradition of song he was coming from was European, when the tradition finding favour in the UK was American; and whatever the venue he performed in, he was always the square peg in a round hole.

In the TV documentary produced by Victor Lewis-Smith, building on an excellent earlier radio programme, there is a shot of the home where Jake grew up. His widow, Sheila, says that his happiest days may have been when he had started teaching, would come home and write songs until called down for tea by his mother: no pressure, presumably, from others' expectations, or earlier achievements, and nothing but the pleasure of discovering just what it was he could do. To which I should like add (ignoring Jake's reddened recall) my half-memory of his performing on Tickertape, the camera stealing up behind him, unnoticed, in the darkened room as, perfectly at ease, he plays and sings this forgotten song.

Finally, Esther, to return, as promised, to the anecdote at the top of this piece: I can't remember exactly when I bumped into Jake on the train from Wolverhampton to London, as it probably was. (Where had he been travelling from? Leeds?) But as per my second letter to him all those years before, I had once more embarrassed him, varying my approach this time by thoughtlessly drawing an entire carriage's attention to the fame he may already have been trying to wish away.

That description of an encounter which gladdened neither heart was my contribution to an online book of condolences to be sent to the family but is, of course, more about my own need for expiation. Perhaps as an act of kindess it was later trimmed by someone else: a final paragraph (which I no longer have) told of my later excursion to the buffet, passing through Jake's carriage and losing my balance at the most inoportune moment, "doubtless" - I remember this line, alright - "confirming my status as a grade-A nutter in Mr Thackray's eyes."

I've often relived that experience - not so much the balancing over, but my initial greeting, and what I wished I'd said instead.

Maybe nothing would have been the right thing in that public arena but I wish I'd taken the opportunity to convey, in some way which didn't embarass or annoy him, that it didn't matter how he felt about his songs right now, that the best of them would live and would continue to bring happiness and comfort to listeners, and that he need never be ashamed of them. And if he'd muttered, "Patronising git" - well, at least that would have been a response. (Hey, at least I didn't go up to some random woman in the carriage and accuse her of being Gloria Jones or whoever.)

Not long after the news of his death I was upstairs in Tower Records in Picadilly Circus (another vanished shop) when they were playing On Again! On Again! (the album). This was one I knew well, but there was an additional pleasure in hearing it unexpectedly, and at such a time. Not exactly on the scale of the vigil at the Dakota, but someone working in the shop must have been responding to the death - or scenting a marketing opportunity. Whichever it was, the music felt like a glass of cool, clear water after whatever aural alcopops had just been blasting out, and I delighted in being reminded of his capacity for taking pains with details - "rascally episcopal", "pussyfooting butcherman", not to mention "wild as little strawberries" - but it was The Rain on the Mountainside, with its blind persistence and final note of defiant hope, which got to me most - and it is clearly poetry, not comic verse. A bare transcript cannot convey the strange half-growl ("singing in hi-i-i-is") with which he invests the final line:

For though the weather blow wild
I see the shepherd whistling on his moorside;
And in despite of the cold
The poor farmer singing in his meadow below,
Singing in his meadow below.

There was an article in which Jake denied any autobiographical dimension to any of his songs. But I'd still like to believe he was prompted to compose that account of the dignity of endurance by something which may have chimed, at least some of the time, in him.

Further thoughts about Jake Thackray's decline here.

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