Saturday, 6 February 2010

Ralph, William and Jake (and Davey) or Act As Known


Since completing the previous post about Jake Thackray I have made three attempts at new subjects, but the Thackray-related topic which keeps pushing itself forward is that of Ralph McTell, forced to bear witness, chorus-like, to his friend's retreat from performing.


McTell himself has survived in the business, maybe because of the attitude revealed in responses like this to a question from a fan in 2003.
The older I get the more certain I am that music is its own reward. You should not expect more from it than the joy of making it. As long as you always try to improve and express your ideas better, you will retain all your original enthusiasm for it and the depth that each life’s experience can bring can only add to the overall effect.
That might seem redolent of Monty Python's Blue Peter parody ("Next week we'll be telling you how black and white people can live together in peace and harmony") but the context indicates that one of the ways McTell has retained his own enthusiasm is by dint of being something of a fan himself: in response to being praised for writing songs which reveal their meaning over repeated listenings he launches into his own paean to Randy Newman:
... his stories open like movies and he bravely gives us what on first listening seems hard and cynical interpretations of life’s ordinariness and inequality. He tackles love songs and hypocrisy, religion and Atheism, shallowness and depth with equal care and attention to the detail that fills the screen in our heads. When you take time to take in the whole picture and add the majestic and counter-pointed accompaniment you realise how deep his compassion and exasperation must be for our frailties and utter awfulness to each other.
And it was McTell who introduced Jake to Newman's music:

Jake sat there with his jaw dropping at each new song. I particularly remember the effect that the album “Good Old Boys” had on him. It was such a buzz to see how instantly the two writers connected. I have always dismissed the notion that Newman is a cynic. If he were, he would not even bother to write. Beneath that exquisite observation must lie a deep love of humanity and its frailties or why would he bother to make them poetic and orchestrate them with such heart rending arrangements. No, Randy Newman “loves mankind” and so did Jake.
He offers an intriguing suggestion of what might have been:
Perhaps, when the record companies recognised Jake’s talent they sought to make his “difficult” songs more palatable by sweetening them with orchestral arrangements and in so doing, drove many away. I have always found this to be a pitiful excuse, but people do respond to a SOUND and can easily be turned off at the first notes of a cello. Maybe Jake should have had Randy Newman to arrange his songs.

"Love , schmove! You work with ME, baby, you wear a freakin' tux, got that?"

The Jake Thackray website reproduces a Guitar Magazine interview from 1979 (the year of the Hampstead recording referred to in the previous post). I strongly recommend that you read it in full here but several details leap out: one is his slightly pained recall that guitarist Ike Isaacs suggested he should take lessons - which, Jake says, "I didn't do and really should have":
... if you’re not [conscious of what you’re doing] you will still be able to get something nice, but you won’t know what you’re doing and where to go on.
I'm not a musician so can't judge whether insecurities about his guitar playing are needless agonising; the interviewer, Lance Boseman, remarks that his "chord changes are just right and are sometimes inspired" and I do remember praise for his technique in the TV documentary. Either way, presumably it provided one more stick to beat himself with.

Most disturbing is the discussion about songwriting. On Again! On Again! came out in 1977, so he is speaking two years after what we now know was his last album. He has ditched commissions for point numbers but misses the impetus of a deadline, though it's Catch 22: "I’m such an idle bastard [...] But unfortunately when I’ve had deadlines I’ve done a lot of rubbish and some of it’s on record and I feel ashamed of that."

The interview does end on a note of hope, although reading it now you can understand how performing could have become increasingly burdensome if those songs he expected to force out didn't appear:
I’m beginning to get frightened about the lack of songs and the lack of interest some people are showing hearing the same songs. [...] The drying up thing is bad in another way insofar as if you’re making a living out of it you’re thinking to yourself, I’ve dried up so I’ll revert to what I was doing before and then it loses qualities doesn’t it?
And yet I know when things are down, if I stare at the paper long enough, ideas will come, they’ll pick up. I’ve gone through arid periods before and came out with the goods by trying hard. The music industry grates on me from time to time but what do you do except battle on.


There are several explanations for Jake Thackray's decline which may all be a part of the truth - or not. Additionally, there may be personal areas which it's entirely right we don't know about. For me, the idea of his no longer being able to refresh his onstage repertoire and so his live performance "los[ing] qualities," as he puts it, is a compelling one. Related to that is Ian Watson's observation, referred to in the previous post, that there wasn't the tradition, or the kind of venue, in this country which might have encouraged the writing of more serious and complex material.

The tension of that relationship between performer and audience interests me. On the one hand, as McTell says above, music has to be its own reward; on the other, there is an undoubted set of expectations (right) which an audience has when buying tickets to see a known performer live: you could even advance the notion that the artist owes some kind of debt to the public's idea of who they are. (I think this used to be enshrined in contracts in Variety days: artists, of whatever sort, were hired to perform "act as known" or some similar rubric; deviation of any sort was a serious matter.)

But deciding how large that debt may be, or even stooping to acknowledging the legitimacy of any claim, is up to the individual.


At one extreme, as seen in the Dylan documentary No Direction Home, is a rock-hard (no pun intended) certainty about your self-reinvention which can withstand any amount of hostility; at the other, as Mark Shipper's John Lennon puts it at the end of Paperback Writer, you dwindle into Bill Haley, accepting that your function is merely to hand the audiences back their memories, avoiding all talk of a "new direction."


Presumably most performers with the weight of a prior reputation find their own compromise between not disappointing the crowd outright and not so debasing themselves as to feel they are merely the playthings of those who have paid for their services for an hour or two.

Asked during a 70s UK tour whether he ever got tired of singing Rock Around the Clock, Haley eschewed talk about the audiences making him experience it afresh or other such tommyrot; hearing it start up, he said, was "just like having a little piece o'gold in my back pocket." But to counter that suggestion of cynicism, it was Haley's act in the 1972 Wembley rock'n'roll concert which, according to the Melody Maker reviewer, was the first to capture the true spirit of rock'n'roll that day.

Talk of Bill Haley is both a diversion and pertinent to the matter of Thackray and McTell. Ian Whitcomb, a minor 60s pop star who subsequently carved out a different sort of musical (and literary) career for himself in America, has written an excellent piece about the brevity of Haley's reign in the UK, findable here; the gist is that the pasty-faced reality of the man in live performance put paid to any further fantasy of him as a rock'n'roll rebel:
Lots of money had been made on the British tour but lots of pumping hearts and excited loins had been lost. [...] Back at school I closed my file on Bill, sorry to say. Elvis gripped me. Skiffle enabled me to buy a cheap guitar and flay and wail. No band, no scotch plaid tux, no vaudeville. Do it yourself and on the cheap. The end of show biz, the beginning of the British Invasion. And I was to roll in on that wave.
Whitcomb's piece ends with a memory of meeting with his former idol at a music venue in Hollywood in the 70s:
We retired to a corner where we chatted. Haley seemed kindly but watchful. He wasn't easy on the drinks but then I'd always been fond of Jack Daniels, too. He treated me like a brother act and I remember him saying: "I guess, like you tell me, I was the first conductor on that rocking train. But I lost control somewhere along the way. We both just got caught up in it. We happened to be there at the time, the place, and the beat. We made our mark, didn't we, didn't we?" I told Bill that "Rock Around The Clock" is a lode-star. A masterpiece that stands alone, indefatigable, unrepeatable. He looked at me a little oddly but he smiled and shook my hand.

A little later I read reports about his living in a garage in Harlingen, Texas, making desultory appearances at the local "Sambas" family restaurant. "I'm the guy who wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock," he tell whoever cared to listen, displaying his driving license.

He was found dead on February 9, 1981. He'd been dead for six hours.
I have a feeling - although I may be wrong - that the first version of that piece I read, on Whitcomb's own website, contained rather more about Haley's erratic and disturbing behaviour in his final days. If details were indeed excised, rather than existing solely in my imagination, then that may have been a last obeisance to his childhood passion on Whitcomb's part: Yet William was beloved. However briefly.


And however those final years may have panned out, Hayley was a fortunate man in some respects if he was indeed able to think of his Big Hit purely as some Asda-style pattable guarantor of perpetual solvency (oh, why didn't I just say "little piece o'gold" again?).

What I mean is that it must be so much easier to accept your lot as a performer when you have no illusions about "owning"  or inventing the music, no compunction about changing the overtly rude bits of others' songs for wider acceptability (even if the surreal bawdiness of the "one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store" reference passes you by) and are willing, moreover, to admit your sheer luck ("We happened to be there") to a stranger whom you automatically assume must feel the same way about his own fleeting fame.

And on the film evidence of the Wembley show (about 3.30 in, below) Haley certainly seems delighted to be there, and that delight transmits itself. "There's a song that I've been carrying around in my back pocket for a lot more years than - [here the film either jumps or Haley changes tack] but I'm still happy at 47 years old that I can still sing it."

No mention of gold, but it is a sort of golden moment - certainly the announcer goes bannanas afterwards, maybe just from sheer relief, as I think earlier acts (not on the film) had included such ill-advised choices as Wizzard and Gary Glitter: "The KING, ladies and gentlemen! The KING is back! Bill HALEY, the king of rock and roll! The KING!"



He's markedly less enthused about Chuck Berry, who is merely "the poet of rock'n'roll" and "Mr Crazylegs." Ah well, it was a long day.



McTell, pictured above in the year of its composition, has his own Rock Around the Clock to contend with:



I haven't searched on the net for some definitive take on the matter but I note his gratitude in a tour diary when a hotel clerk names a less obvious song as a personal favourite: "You've just made my night."

My abiding memory of Ralph McTell comes from a radio broadcast. I have never been a huge fan, although I went to a couple of concerts in Glasgow in the seventies (McTell's own memories of the venue can be found here) and heard several albums. (Am I in denial? Possibly.) One of those performances, probably 19th March 1975, was recorded by Radio Clyde and played, that same evening or not long after, with McTell present in the studio to be interviewed between songs.

He was discussing Zimmerman Blues with identikit DJ Steve Jones (who later decamped to telly). I don't remember any talk of the mixed feelings about Dylan the man which led to the song - only a sudden, passionate moment where, talking, I think, of the range of Dylan's achievements, he exclaimed: "One song, that's all you need - that's all you need, for crying out loud!"

Jones caught up slightly late - "Yeah, sure," - but it was a notable moment, if I'm interpreting it correctly, because McTell seemed to be discounting any fame which Streets of London had brought him: none of what he had done counted for anything against Dylan's work.

(Momentary diversion: my memory might be slightly more reliable in this instance than some others as I had the chance to hear a cassette of the broadcast, borrowed from a schoolfriend and never returned; I remember, to my shame, his shouting, not too ill-naturedly, through the playground fence to remind me about "Ralphie" when I was passing by the school, having already left. Via the magic of the web, I have found a site for a Scottish folk band which appears to include my schoolfriend in its number - although as thirty five years have passed it's hard to be certain that the photograph is of the same person. Nevertheless, once this piece is posted I intend to send an email to alert him to it. And even if it's not him there are, after all, no strangers - only friends whose cassettes and trust we haven't lost. Yet.)

If I am interpreting the exchange between McTell and the DJ correctly, it could be another reason for his longevity: a sense that he would find that magical, anthemic song which wasn't Streets of London one day. (Ralph fans who have kept up with his output may be in a better position than me to say whether he has succeeded.)

And humility needn't transmute into crippling self-doubt, though it's worth remembering that the reason McTell was "not unduly shocked" initially about Jake's self-doubt is because "Anyone who really cares about their writing goes through these periods" - including, presumably, Ralphie.

McTell was able to put at least some of his own doubts into that song about Dylan, as explained in an FAQ section on his website:
The Zimmerman Blues refers to the growing gap fame produces between original intentions and motivations whilst grappling with the new world you find yourself in.

"Do a concert for Angela" refers to Angela Davies -the black revolutionary activist. "Build a building or two" refers to the company Bob was involved in with Hugh Heffner that ‘Playboy mogul’. The Zimmerman Blues refers to that strange and uneasy relationship these two facets of fame bring and the bewilderment of those who "missed how they were making it end."
A McTell-approved essay by Paul Jenkins about themes in McTell's work, also on the website, discusses the song more fully:
Dedicated to, or at least inspired by similar problems facing Bob Dylan (ne Zimmerman), this song reflects a thickening of sorts of the artist's skin. He is speaking not just for himself, but for all artists who "have been used" by the system to create revenue but not necessarily to maintain their integrity or vision. The song is a dialog of sorts between "me", the artist, and you, the non-artist (promoter? consumer?). "Don't give me money", says the artist, "put something else on the bread", something meatier, more important. With success things "get harder for me", but "easier for you." So what do the "Zimmerman Blues" entail? An alienated relationship between the artist and his audience ("I get a little sadness now, just now and then/It comes to remind me, when I called you a friend.") An artist unsure how to proceed except to follow his conscience and his artistic instincts.


Interesting to see in a 2003 interview that despite that passionate outburst at Radio Clyde, he is able to separate Dylan's achievement from Dylan the man in what seems to be a good-humoured and balanced sort of a way: discussing the book (below) which he gave him about Dylan, interviewer Mike Cohen asks him: "Were you disappointed by him at all when reading the parts about stealing other people's records and so on?"

Oh he’s a despicable horrible person but he has feet of clay. There are things in there about him which reveal his ordinary human failings. I loved that about Dylan Thomas and I love that about Bob. I think there is probably quite a hard side to him which is disappointing perhaps but there must be mitigating circumstances - the man is such a genius. I was fascinated by the fact he didn’t always keep himself clean - the other thing that I love is that [...] the mystery of what music is still [eludes] Bob. He does albums in styles hoping that what it is all about will be revealed to him. It is not the way it works Bob! I keep wanting to tell him. He keeps wanting to play lead guitar - he’ll never be a lead guitarist - he doesn’t think that way, and he keeps on trying.

I love his adventure. I’m sorry he still seems to be deeply unhappy after it all. But you read the book and think perhaps there is some Karma in all this perhaps - I don’t know. I’m grateful for all the things he brought to us and the freedom to write and express yourself in a more meaningful way. It is all down to him.
 Not sure whether I'm merely saying this to provide a neat ending, stitching together the various threads of this piece, but I wonder whether McTell's apparent level-headedness compared to some other artists might derive from his not having been - for all his considerable ability - cursed/blessed (delete according to taste) with a talent as distinctive as Dylan's or Jake's, leaving him free simply to do his best, take pride in what he has done and continue to draw pleasure and inspiration from those he admires.


That would certainly explain a couple of lines in Zimmerman Blues:

So where do we go from here?
For me it won't ever get that near

To me those lines suggest not only acceptance or resignation - he will never achieve the megastardom granted to fiercer talents - but also, perhaps, relief at dodging a bullet: he will never have to face the choices and temptations of that kind of fame. There is a possible problem, however, as such a reading would make the song's conclusion -
And if it did I know what I would choose -
Anything but the Zimmerman blues
- more swagger than certainty, the narrator declaring he would behave honorably, knowing full well he will never be put to the test. Hmm. Anyway, you can make up your own mind by reading the full lyrics to Zimmerman Blues and other Dylan-related songs like Joan Baez's Song to Bobby here.



Returning to the theme of McTell as a bit of a fan himself, asked in a website Q&A whether he had worked with or written to artists he admired, he replied:
I admire most real musicians although like most musicians, I am quite hard to please. Over the years I have met but not played with James Taylor and Joni Mitchell (best album in the world "BLUE") Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Rev Gary Davis, Memphis Slim, Jack Elliot, Derroll Adams, Stan Tracey and a few thousand more or so. I guess I just become a punter in the sense that I just like to be in the same room with my musical heroes like everyone else. I worked with the Everly Bros which was great. I suppose I like the unattainable dream as much as the reality.
He goes on to provide what might have been the best solution to my train conundrum:
It is so hard to find the right words to express your admiration for the quality of heroes’ contribution to your own happiness. I usually just end up saying "Thanks".
And as if by magic to reinforce the idea of McTell as both an artist and a kind of superappreciative fan, his latest CD, buyable here on another offiicial website, contains "Ralph's interpretation of songs by artists who have had a formative influence on his songwriting. Includes tracks by Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, Mance Liscombe, Blind Boy Fuller, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie." And to compound matters he is appearing in a tribute to Finbar Furey on Friday 19th February at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, not to mention this warm tribute to Davey Graham here:

To say Davey’s performances were uneven is an understatement. In later years even more so and Davey’s open attitude to the use of hard drugs may have been a contributing factor but I have seen as many great performances as indifferent ones. Sometimes it is enough to be in the same room as genius and the performance is secondary.

[...] on hearing Davey was ill I wrote him a proper fan letter thanking him for opening up the guitar for me and for all his wonderful contribution to the British if not world music scene. There are precious few true innovators on any instrument. Without Davey I don’t think the styles of Bert Jansch or John Renbourne would have emerged. I think John Martyn and Paul Simon would admit an influence too. I certainly am proud to acknowledge my debt to Davey and perhaps that is the contribution we all subconsciously make when we absorb another artist’s style into our own. We are passing on part of their music. [...] Davey’s deep understanding of music and his own explorations will be a constant reminder that music itself will always be bigger than those who aspire to play it. I am just grateful that Davey Graham chose to do it on the accoustic guitar.

The whole piece is well worth reading as a pitch-perfect tribute to a great innovator which makes me see that superfan is too jokey a term for an artist with such a clearsighted sense of himself in the relation to the music - and the musicians - he loves. (I don't think you'd get the same humility from another who came by the Beatnik route, Donovan, these days.)

It feels right, both because it's the first Davey Graham recording which really leapt out the grooves at me from the LP I borrowed from Motherwell Library, and because it's Graham likewise placing himself in that bigger picture by acknowledging an idol of his own, to sidestep Angie (his Rock Around the Clock) and point you towards Tristano from the 1967 album Large as Life But Twice as Natural - sounds like it's from vinyl, too:



But I get a little sadness now myself, linking back to Jake Thackray in the final straight: in the piece above McTell is effectively describing being right slap bang in the middle of a rich tradition which sustained him in his formative musical years. It borrowed from the east, as with Graham, and looked to America as well (see the list of players McTell cites in the earlier Q&A), and all at a time when there was a young and appreciative audience with money to spend, willing to join the artists in their examination of this tapestry of sounds, encouraging their experimentation - read producer Joe Boyd's autobiography White Bicycles, for example.

Part of me wants to conclude, in ripely Sindenesque tones: "And in contrast to fortune's favourite McTell, born at the right time and in the right place, what was there to sustain chansonnier-out-of-water Jake? What indeed, apart from the poisoned chalice of BBC patronage which he must perforce press to his lips?"

But that might be - just a tad - overheated, so let this brief appreciation by Richard Stilgoe from one of the books of condolences stand as the final word - for now, anyway. Having also disgorged his fair share of point numbers for Esther and her ilk, he is in a better position than most to assess Jake Thackray's work - and in view of what has been discussed, his final sentence may offer another part of the answer:

His was a wonderful, unique talent. Nobody else wrote songs like him (though a lot of us tried). Nobody else sang like him. And no other performer had that strange mien of a singing peregrine falcon perched on the stage. He once sat in my kitchen and sang songs to my dog, who admired him nearly as much as I did. I’m delighted I worked with him, and bitterly sorry that I’ll never work with him again. Being unique is bound to be lonely.

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