Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Journey Through The Past


“The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can – even if it's only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards.” – Gil Scott Heron.

 I’ve always liked nostalgia – the idea of looking back to a kinder, gentler time appeals to my sense of a cosy, sepia-tinted, halcyon age that, let’s face it, you and I both know never really existed. When I first worked at Andy's Records we used to play Gil Scott-Heron’s Greatest Hits in the shop all the time. Always a bit embarrassing when somebody wanted to buy it as we had to explain that we kept a stock copy especially for playing in-store which was definitely, no way, not the same one that we had the sleeve for out in the browser and which we unaccountably seemed to have lost. Pretty soon we cottoned on the idea that if we really did hold one for playing and a couple for selling then everyone would be a lot happier and no-one would need to get nailed to anything. In later years this would be explained to me as a putative kanban system, however at the time it just meant we had to hide a copy when Andy came round as he didn’t like us holding too much stock.
 My absolute favourite Neil Young song (and I have a lot of favourite Neil Young songs) is probably ‘Ambulance Blues’. It’s a rambling acoustic number which closes his masterwork On the Beach. It is chock-full of metaphor and opaque references and one which I laboriously copied out in longhand and blu-tacked to my bedroom wall some years ago before either appropriating or deriving a number of phrases when Ol’ Neil seemed to have put something down so much better than I ever could, which was most of the time. “Picking up tips on the Navajo Trail…” began one such couplet, which later helped win me a songwriting award. It's on my parents' wall, in their office.

The song itself begins with the line “Back in the old folky days / The air was magic when we played” which I consciously appropriated when starting a misty-eyed glance at my own back pages in a thing I wrote called “Start One of Your Own”, which opens its account with the deliberate homage “Back when I was someone / I used to write these songs…”. My version goes on to name check some actual people I used to be in bands with and one (“…and another guy on lead”) that I have fairly consistently been in a group with ever since, and it also references a few pubs that have gone the way of so many of the fondly-remembered venues of our youth, a couple of which may not necessarily have embodied paradise per se, but are indeed now parking lots. The old landlord of one of them is now a bus driver, and I can only imagine the expression he conceals when pulling up at the stop whose sign now bears fading, solitary witness that there was ever a pub there at all, let alone one whose cellar bore witness to countless debut gigs by keen young guitar thrashers, myself included.

I put a live version of my song on a CD I had burned and made available called “This Much Talent” which contained both a two note harmonica solo I attributed to Alanis Morissette and a dedication to one ‘Albert Herring’ who’d penned a (presumably) pseudonymous complaint to the local paper regarding the number of local tribute bands siphoning off the goodwill, interest and money that would clearly otherwise be channeled toward the great number of exponents of producing original, self-financed music there were available to fill our Chelsea boots. Having a foot in both camps, I had to admit that could see his (or her) point somewhere on the horizon, without necessarily agreeing with it, given that around the time the CD came out, my participation in the former was financing my dabbling in the latter. In maintaining this dual life, I suspect that I may have helped to sell more Beatles records than those of my own compositions over the course of my performing career, but then I think we’d all agree that they had the better tunes in the first place. I've looked at crowds from both sides now and, sadly, in my experience there is very little to match the indignation of an audience who haven’t paid to get in somewhere at close of play, or their capacity to offer timely advice and instruction on how you can proceed. The number of times I’ve heard the phrase “Come on lads - earn your money!” toward the end of an evening’s free entertainment is alluded to in “Do You Do Any Wings?”, as is the once heard, never forgotten imprecation to “Get back on that stage and play some more, you cunts!”. In contrast, you very rarely get that sort of thing at Suffolk Songwriters Night.

My final contribution to the most recent round of Songs from The Blue House recording sessions was in April 2011. One of the things we included was a version of Start One of Your Own, which I sang, and to which Nick Zala, John Bennett, Tony Turrell and Steve Constable notably added frills and flourishes aplenty. My other main contribution during the recording process was to get the drummer put a tea towel on his snare to damp the sound and to invite him to limit fills to a maximum of two throughout the course of the number. In my head I was channeling Dave Mattacks’ attempt to get Levon Helm’s drum sound at Liege and Lief rehearsals, Ringo playing Get Back on the roof of the Apple building in Savile Row, and Neil Young’s efforts to get Crosby, Stills, Nash and Dallas Taylor to slow down enough to play Helpless at his pace in the studio. In Helpless, a twenty five year old Young looks back on his schooldays in Ontario. I’m forty eight and I’m nostalgic for last year.   

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