Music was my first love and it will be my last

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Over the past decade, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times a new musical artist has touched my soul and changed my order of all things.

That is quite a profound statement from someone married to the bone to Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Paul Weller, and other septuagenarian dinosaurs of rock.

My first new awakening happened in 2004, when a long-time musical friend Michelle Shocked, suggested I look up her New York based pal Mary Lee’s Corvette (aka Mary Lee Kortes).

I ordered Mary Lee’s first two albums – purely on the back of Michelle’s recommendation – and was entranced.

A few months later I hurried along to watch her perform as support to Thea Gilmore at Newcastle upon Tyne’s famous Cluny venue.

I was knocked out and left the gig before Thea appeared, not wishing to dim the experience.

I have since followed and listened to everything Mary Lee has produced and over time, she too has become a good friend.

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Check out her whole album homage to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks if you are not convinced and her new concept album The Songs of Beulah Rowley, is probably one of the most important releases of 2016.

My second enlightenment occurred in 2007 when I happened to go and watch the legendary Fairport Convention at Shrewsbury Music Hall.

The support act that cold February evening was an acoustic band, named Tiny Tin Lady.

Whoosh… these four young women’s playing of their own self-penned songs was mesmerising and their album The Sound of Requiem (which I bought during the interval) didn’t leave my car CD player for the next four weeks.

By various connections, in the May of 2007 I was asked to undertake the PR for the band and a long-lasting friendship was made.

Self-described as indie celery with a side of hummus the girls had already toured with Midge Ure, Jah Wobble and the English Roots Band by the time I first met them.

Whereas most girls in their early 20s may be star-struck by the likes of the Arctic Monkeys or Robbie Williams, Tiny Tin Lady were happy to admit that meeting Robert Plant was one of the highlights of their career, who walked into their dressing room after seeing them perform with Fairport.

Plant described the band as: “Absolutely marvellous, brilliant. And incredible voices.”

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The Sound of Requiem, released in 2005, had received rave reviews from the music press. Soon after I met the band, the girls began work on their second album Ridiculous Bohemia.

Released in 2008, it remains one of my favourite ever albums, and the song Fall Into Line is simply amazing.

The band split in 2010, but their bass player Helen Holmes has remained a best friend, soul mate and constant source of inspiration.

The next surprise addition to my music catalogue came just last Christmas at a mega concert for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Simply titled Concert for Corbyn, the gig at Brighton’s Dome included a stellar line-up including Kathryn Williams, The Farm, Robert Wyatt, Bill Ryder Jones, Stealing Sheep, Danny Thompson and Paul Weller.

The event was four hours of pure musical pleasure. But the surprise was a singer and guitarist in Paul Weller’s band called Steve Pilgrim, who was given the space to perform four solo numbers.

One of these songs, which he dedicated personally to Jeremy Corbyn, was Explode the Sun – one of the most amazing numbers I have ever heard.

Steve was originally the drummer for The Stands who were part of Liverpool’s Bandwagon scene in the early 2000s. After leaving the band he played with The Cuckolds and began work as a session musician playing with artists such as Akeboshi and Sophie Solomon.

Steve then went on to drum for Paul Weller joining his band for the 22 Dreams tour and played on the album Wake Up the Nation (2010).

But this drummer also began establishing a career as a singer-songwriter, releasing three amazing solo albums Lover, Love Her (2007) Sunshine (2009) and Pixels and Paper (2011) – on which Explode the Sun appears.

So within two weeks of first seeing Steve on the Brighton stage, I bought all three of his albums and have already pre-ordered his new album Morning Skies, scheduled for release next month.

For this stripped back and intimate acoustic album Steve enlisted the help of two of his mates from the Brighton gig: the legendary double bass player Danny Thompson and Paul Weller on keyboards.

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If you are already familiar with Steve’s work this album is his most melancholy, the most honest and most intimate work to date. Pure musical joy.

The stand out song is the title track, which is simply sublime.

Believe me, this guy is worth listening to!

And so that brings us up to date… well, not quite.

Now for the newest and latest addition to my personal play list, and what a find she is!

Through an accident on the social media picture messaging board Instagram, I stumbled across Canadian born – but LA based – singer-songwriter Lindsay Kupser, and what a discovery!

A graduate of Berklee College of Music where she studied Jazz Composition and Performance, Lindsay is a significant and unique musician, with a naked sound reminiscent of the aforementioned Steve Pilgrim, or a young Joni Mitchell.

Her first album The Boston EP, was recorded in February 2014, after she graduated from Berklee and each of the six songs have a certain jazz feel – such is the comparison to Joni Mitchell.

The song It Hurts, is a number I keep playing – just beautiful.

Lindsay’s second album Quiet Songs was released in 2015 and recorded live in the studio. It is an emotional and musical gem.

The album opens with the wonderful All of my Bones Broke on Thursday Evening, a nu-acoustic song of brutal observations on love and heartbreak.

Lindsay’s voice resonates somewhere between Kathryn Williams and the wonderful Laura Marling.

“I don’t want to take her picture, she needs it to breath,” she sings… wow!

The stripped down soundscape continues with Couldn’t Move to Brooklyn where Lindsay sings about her decision not to follow so many young artists and make the well-worn pilgrimage to Brooklyn in New York.

“Pour on the Turpentine and ignite the flame, I’m not afraid of the light or the pain,” she sings on It Is My Turn, a mournful ballad, with the stunning refrain: “It’s my turn and I want to get burned”.

The song is already a classic.

On Tough Country we get a snatch into Lindsay’s childhood memories, as she describes her Calgary childhood home while sitting and observing old photographs. It is sweetly reminiscent of Michelle Shocked’s Memories of East Texas.

The five-track Quiet Songs concludes with Everything Feels So Hard Always, beautiful reflection of the difficulties of big life decisions.

Look out for this woman… her songs might just change your life.

 

Words for Friends #1

I STARTED blogging at www.seagullnic.wordpress.com in September 2013 as a form of therapy and catharsis following my nervous breakdown earlier that year.

Now some 462 posts and tens of thousands of words later I have reached the third anniversary of my leap into hyper space.

During the ensuing time I have blogged about everything under the sun, including a navel-gazing exposure of my life, my family, politics, opinion, plus poems and songs.

I have also reloaded a score of pieces from my years in newspaper journalism, written extensively about my villains and heroes and published the first 12 chapters of my new children’s novel.

At this point, my blog posts have received 145,433 hits with over 460 comments and 214 regular followers.

Topping the popularity stakes is These MPs voted confidence in Jeremy Corbyn with 30,941 hits.

The Crippled Estate of BBC Spin  currently has 24,500 hits.

And Traitors’ Gate: 28 Labour MPs named as part of Coup has 9,179 hits.

About 85% of my readers are from the UK, while a further 6% are from the USA and there is a sizeable audience in Canada, Australia, Pakistan, France and Spain. My blog has been read in every country in the world, with the exception of Paraguay, Greenland, Kazakhstan and a few countries in central Africa!

Wow!

Thank you all for reading my missives and thank you so much for your wonderful support.

The writing journey now continues with a new series of blogs entitled Words for Friends, in which I will try to acknowledge some people in my life for whom words of thanks are not nearly enough. Each piece I will endeavour to keep to 150 words or less.

These living epitaphs will be published in a random order as fancy takes me.

True friends cannot be measured by the length of time you may have known someone, but I will in tribute start with my oldest friend.

#1 Alex

Alex and I have been friends since we were 12 years-old, after my family moved house and I was parachuted into the local secondary school as the “new boy”.

Alex’s memory of my first week will always haunt me: “You turned up for your first swimming lesson wearing a vest!”

We were soon best buddies, sitting next to each other in class, cheating in maths lessons, playing and following football together, and he introduced me to proper music.

On leaving school he became a DJ and thanks to him, music has been the driving force throughout my life.

An abiding school memory is of Alex opening a carrier bag under his desk to reveal a pair of 32” loon leg trousers in school regulation grey. We dared him to change into them at break time. He did, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The fact that 45 years later he is still a friend, is more important to me than he will ever know.

 

Poem: September Song

Boots and bottles and a telescope reel
No-one knows just how I feel
Sitting blindly by a Catherine Wheel
I open my arms to you

Write me a song to sing all day long
Catch me a tune to howl at the moon
Watch me waltz on a silver spoon
I open my arms to you

My golden daughter does what she oughta
Reading medical books with whisky and water
The words get longer but never shorter
I open my arms to you

The breakdown came the breakdown went
Forty-four years they were paid and spent
I’ll pack up my shoes and buy a new tent
I open my arms to you

The sun still warms the September air
The grass is green and the day is fair
I look at my life with barely a care
I open my arms to you

The fox it will run and the bat does fly
The poacher stares at the empty sky
Time it passes with no reason to cry
I open my arms to you

Journey Through Dark Heat: Part 1

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1972-1978

 Forty years
Forty banners united over the field
Where my life lives and grieves
Desperate men, desperate women divided
Spreading their wings ’neath the falling leaves

HOW can I do justice in words to a writer I have admired beyond all others for more than 40 years and to whom my words are like dust?

So I will not try to even pass close to justice. Instead just a simple narrative about my love affair with the greatest and most profound poet of my generation.

I came to Bob Dylan by way of a detour through David Bowie. I discussed some of the details in my recent eulogy to Lou Reed. It was one song by Bowie on his 1971 album Hunky Dory that provided my own Highway 61. The song was unsurprisingly titled: Song for Bob Dylan!

The lyrics are a refrain to my life:

Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man
Called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance
They could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more.

After playing this one song more than a dozen times in the first week I bought Hunky Dory, there was an inner need to discover more and answer some unanswered questions. Sure, I had heard Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone on the radio when I was younger, but what makes this guy Dylan so important that my hero Bowie writes a whole song to him? And what was I missing?

The answers came quite soon.

It was late 1972 and a lad in our upper sixth form was a Bob Dylan fanatic – he even had hair like him and was forever being reprimanded by teachers for not wearing a tie! So I asked him why… he eagerly lent me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits on vinyl LP and suggested I should get a copy of Blonde on Blonde to discover the real Dylan.

Then two related events overtook me. First I bought a copy of More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits simply because 21 tracks seemed like good value. Then CBS suddenly released the film soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and the single Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door made the UK charts!

Now armed with two albums, plus the Heaven’s Door single I was beginning to discover Bob Dylan and it didn’t take long before I was hooked. His voice like sand and glue and words of truthful vengeance had me pinned to the floor, and like those before me I started to dissect his lyrics and find a new meaning to living.

More Greatest Hits was a delight. From Watching the River Flow to Crash on the Levee I was entering into his world of music and poetry. Two songs in particular drew me in… the wonderful Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and the forgiving Tomorrow is a Long Time.

If today was not an endless highway
If tonight was not a crooked trail
If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time
Then lonesome would mean nothing to you at all

I spent the rest of my sixth form and university years buying up Dylan’s back catalogue of albums on cassette tape and allowing his music and words to become the soundtrack to all I did. Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They are a Changin’ led me to discover folk music and in turn Fairport Convention, while the awesome Planet Waves and Desire wrapped me up in stories, vignettes, lyrics and emotion I had never previously known.

On its own Forever Young became the anthem to my life, which I have played to each of my children in turn:

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

These years also included the magnificent Blood on the Tracks, but more about that later in this narrative. He had already lit a burner on my stove and brightened my life.

And suddenly it was 1978… an important and pivotal year.

For the first time in my life I was working – as a trainee psychiatric nurse – and earning money. It was the first disposable income I could really call my own. So apart from buying Dylan’s latest LP Street Legal I also got to my first gig.

It was life changing.

I bought the ticket for one night at Earls Court in London after queuing for hours at an over-the-counter box office in Brighton. For weeks afterwards I was sweating with anticipation. At the age of 22 I had been blessed to have seen some amazing live acts; David Bowie (twice), Roxy Music, the Average White Band, Al Stewart and The Stranglers to name just a few. But as Dylan had not gigged in the UK since 1966, I – like thousands of others – had to wait to see my hero live.

Saturday, 17 June 1978 dawned like no other day in my life. I had hardly slept the previous night and was up at the crack of dawn with my ticket clenched firmly in my wallet. My father gave me a lift to our local railway station on his way to work, and I hopped a commuter train to Brighton and then a connecting express to London, Victoria. I arrived in the capital just before mid-day, grabbed a coffee and had hours to wait until the evening performance… but I was not going to miss this life event.

I spent most of the day in and around Oxford Street browsing record shops and at one side street outlet was a breath away from buying my first Bob Dylan bootleg… but that would have to wait. At around 6pm I met a friend from my university days and together we shared a couple of beers and our mutual excitement. The tension was palpable. It was Dylan’s third night at Earls Court so he should be relaxed and well in tune… we hoped.

And our hope was rewarded.

By 7pm we were in the venue and took our seats way back in the auditorium. Suddenly something was happening… the opening number was an instrumental Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall, with sax and keyboards blasting the arrangement and pinning us back, waiting to hear the voice of the man himself. There he was singing an (at the time) unknown number Love Her with a Feeling, complete with female backing vocalists. He was live in front our eyes and invading our senses.

Dylan was awesome. The sound and the view weren’t great from our seats; but when he sang “You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man babe, now you’re back where you belong,” it didn’t matter… this was amazing, and yes “the sun was always shining”.

Sure I had heard his 1975 live album Hard Rain, but to listen to new interpretations of his songs straight from his mouth and guitar in the same room where I sat was without precedence. I had bargained for salvation and here he was giving me a lethal dose.

Dylan was this tiny figure in a waistcoat singing for me. His voice was strong and his harmonica electric. Here’s your throat back, thanks for the loan.

The highlights were many: Tangled Up in Blue was sung like never before, almost a hymn, and after about 45 minutes Like a Rolling Stone had me on my feet singing back How Does it Feel? I was tangled up by every song and by the time he sang All Along the Watchtower I was enveloped by tears of emotion.
The full setlist that evening was: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall; Love Her With a Feeling; Baby, Stop Crying; Mr Tambourine Man; Shelter From the Storm; Love Minus Zero/No Limit; Tangled Up in Blue; Ballad of a Thin Man; Maggie’s Farm; I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); Like a Rolling Stone; I Shall Be Released; Going, Going, Gone; Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later); You’re a Big Girl Now; One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below); Blowin’ in the Wind; I Want You; Señor (Tales of Yankee Power); Masters of War; Just Like a Woman; Simple Twist of Fate; All Along the Watchtower; All I Really Want to Do; It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding); Forever Young; The Times They Are A-Changin’.

We left exhausted and exhilarated… my love affair with Bob had entered a new dimension and I vowed to see him again, and again, and again.

I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ’neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you

The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times

Bob was no longer invisible but he still had secrets to conceal.

To be continued