The writer, Jack Trevor Story, used to tell how he looked at the list of Birthdays in The Guardian each year to see if he were alive or dead. In his case that little ritual would have occurred on the 30th of March. Never having existed as far as the compilers of said list are concerned [And just who are they? Grizzled old obituary writers? Or interns let loose on Who’s Who?] whenever December 21st comes round I try to be disciplined and not look at all, thus avoiding the inevitable disappointment. But this year, somewhere between seven and eight in the morning, first coffee of the day at my side, I flicked open the relevant section and there I was. John Harvey, crime writer, 80. It would be lying to say that my initial prick of surprise was not followed by a small surge of pride.
Pathetic, you might think, but hey … 80. And in what company! Flanked by perhaps my favourite tennis player of all time, and one of my favourite guitarists [last glimpsed, some while back, in the Everly Brothers’ band at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall], and closely guarded by no less than Jane Fonda and Samuel L Jackson. What a pair!
And it was not only The Guardian … Totally unknown to me, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature had put considerable time and energy into creating an entry on their website called simply John Harvey at 80. A lengthy survey of my life and writing career, together with a broad choice of book jackets and contributions from a number of people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, including Giles Croft, former artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, screenwriter Billy Ivory and, in a brief but welcome video message, crime writer, Ian Rankin, You can check it out here …
Finally, the photographic evidence, birth certificate included. From the angelic lad in the tin bath (things were hard back in those far off days), through heaven knows what strange incarnations to the bald and bespectacled sage of today.
Four years ago, not so long after the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, was published, I was invited to be a guest on the BBC Radio 3 programme, Private Passions – a sort of (mainly) classical version of Desert Island Discs, only, since this was to be broadcast alongside the London Jazz Festival, there was to be a somewhat higher jazz content than is often the case.
I was delighted to be asked [understatement!] and thoroughly enjoyed the process, from making the choice of music to be featured to the interview itself, which was conducted with little or no preamble or rehearsal, the presenter, Michael Berkeley, making me feel immediately at my ease. The pair of us sat in a relatively small studio space, listening together to the pieces as they were played on air, which meant that one’s immediate response was, well, immediate.
I wanted to choose music that meant something in particular to me, while being conscious of delivering a broad ranging selection I thought people might respond to, and which might include some pieces with which listeners might be less than familiar with – Jocelyn Pook’s Tango with Corrugated Iron, for instance, or James P. Johnson’s Victory March.
Here’s the full list …
Mean to Me [Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk]
Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra inc. Lester Young (tenor sax)
When, in the early 1960s and recently graduated as trained teachers from Goldsmiths’ College, my friends and I were looking for somewhere outside London to ply our trade, and we decided, after a relatively small amount of research, that Nottingham was just the place. Rents were significantly cheaper than in the capital [nothing changes] and, according to the back pages of the TES, there were jobs. A couple of brief visits aside, however, our knowledge of the city and its environs was less than well-informed. We’d seen, and been braced by, Tony Richardson’s film of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning; seen and just managed to stay awake through Jack Cardiff’s tame version of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers, a novel I would have read as part of my English studies, Lawrence being more academically respectable then than I believe he is now. [Except at the University of Nottingham, of course.] We’d heard and half-believed the rumours about there being 10 young women for every man – or was it a baker’s dozen? What clinched it, however, was the opening, in 1963, of the newly designed Nottingham Playhouse – Peter Moro’s modernist building, John Neville’s fine profile and artistic reputation … if the city could support a theatre like that, well, there had to be something special going on … and it was only a few hours away from London.
As it happened, my friend John Phillips and I ended up getting jobs in South East Derbyshire, some ten miles west of Nottingham in the small mining town of Heanor, just across the Erewash Valley from Lawrence’s birthplace, Eastwood.
I was born nearly forty-four years ago, in Eastwood, a mining village of some three thousand souls, about eight miles from Nottingham, and one mile from the small stream, the Erewash, which divides Nottinghamshire from Derbyshire. It is hilly country, looking west from Crich and towards Matlock, sixteen miles away, and east and north-east towards Mansfield and the Sherwood Forest district. To me it seemed, and still seems, an extremely beautiful countryside, just between the red sandstone and oak-trees of Nottingham, and the cold limestone, the ash-trees, the stone fences of Derbyshire. To me, as a child and a young man, it was still the old England of the forest and agricultural past; there were no motor-cars, the mines were, in a sense, an accident in the landscape, and Robin Hood and his merry men were not very far away.
D. H. Lawrence: Nottingham and the Mining Country, 1929
Most mornings, unless we chose the alternative route through Ilkeston, John and I would drive out, often in thick fog, past the hosiery factories on the outskirts of the city, on and on towards Eastwood, then down into the valley and up again into Langley Mill, on the edge of Heanor, which was where both our schools – secondary modern in my case, primary in John’s – were situated. It was a journey rarely undertaken without another section of Lawrence’s essay playing somewhere at the back of my mind.
Now Eastwood occupies a lovely position on a hilltop, with the steep slope towards Derbyshire and the long slope towards Nottingham. They put up a new church, which stands fine and commanding, even if it has no real form, looking across the awful Erewash Valley at the church of Heanor, similarly commanding, away on a hill beyond.
So, somehow, those sentences, that essay ‘placed’ the area for me in a writerly way, gave it a kind of added resonance, just as, I suppose, Sillitoe’s writing did for much of inner-city Nottingham. I continued to read Lawrence for my own pleasure [The Rainbow & Women in Love] and read his poems – Snake! – and the short stories with my classes – Sillitoes’s stories, likewise. All of this without any suggestion, any idea or ambition that I might one day attempt to be some kind of writer myself; that was to come later, more than a decade later, and from a quite different direction. Though I suppose, in retrospect, what was learned, what was carried through, was some belief that story and character were best told, best seen and understood, when they were most closely allied with place. Which, in my case, has most usually been Nottingham – that and the few other areas I’ve spent enough time in to feel I know beyond the lines and contours of a map.
And speaking of maps …
The above is ‘borrowed’ from the newly redesigned website of the Haggs Farm Preservation Society – https://haggsfarm2.wixsite.com/lawrence – an organisation dedicated to encouraging the preservation of the farm buildings and reinforcing the vital importance of Haggs Farm to the early formative years of D.H. Lawrence’s development as an internationally renowned writer.
The farm was the home of the Chambers family, both farm and family being inspirations for much of Lawrence’s early writing; the daughter, Jessie, being the clear model for the character of Miriam in Sons and Lovers. The farm, unfortunately, has been uninhabited for over 50 years and is on private land with no public access. Despite being a Grade ll listed building since 1966, the house is in a serious state of disrepair and I would encourage readers to log on to the society’s site and pay the small amount [surely, it should be more?] it takes to become a supporting member.
Looking at the map above took me back to the many times I’ve walked, usually with friends, from the site of Moorgreen Colliery, north along the sparsely wooded side of Moorgreen Reservoir and then across the open fields towards Felley Mill, with Haggs Farm off to the west, turning then towards Beauvale Priory and round in a sweep back to Moorgreen. Beautiful country, indeed.
Since the summer, I’ve been reading – a group at a time – through the two-volume Heron Books edition of Lawrence’s Collected Letters, and just recently came across the following, written in response to a request from H. A. Pilcher, a writer of travel books.
from Del Monte Ranch, Questa, 17 April 1925
Dear Sir: I received your letter only last night.
The scene of my Nottingham-Derby novels all centres round Eastwood,Notts (where I was born): and whoever stands on Walker Street, Eastwood, will see the whole landscape of Sons and Lovers before him. Underwood in front, the hills of Derbyshire on the left, the woods and hills of Annesley on the right. The road from Nottingham by Watnall, Moorgreen, up to Underwood and on to Annesley (Byron’s Annesley) – gives you all the landscape of The White Peacock, Miriam’s farm in Sons and Lovers, and the home of the Crich family, and Willey Water, in Women in Love.
The Rainbow is Ilkeston and Cossall, near Ilkeston, moving to Eastwood. And Hermione, in Women in Love, is supposed to live not far from Cromford. The short stories are Ripley, Wirkswoth, Stoney Middleton, Via Gellia (‘The Wintry Peacock’). The Lost Girl begins in Eastwood – the cinematograph show being in Langley Mill.
… Not that much, just a couple of things hanging over from my recent blog about summer jobs, hot dogs, broad expanses of sand and distant seas.
First off, there’s the music. I’ve already mentioned the local Shadows-sound-and-look-alikes, Trek Faron and the Unknowns [whatever became of … ] but not the sounds of that summer in general, in particular. There seemed to be music everywhere: not through headphones, as it would be now, but from the dodgems, the amusement park, booming out from the juke box in the restaurant below the dormitory where we slept. It was – the summer of 1962 – a pretty good year for music; pop music; the charts; music on the edge of changing, tilting [see the Beatles sneaking in there] from a mixture of fairly basic rock ‘n’ roll, novelty numbers and sentimental ballads, towards something potentially more interesting.
A Top 30 [or so] assembled from the Mablethorpe juke box might have looked, alphabetically, like this …
A Picture of You : Joe Brown
Bobby’s Girl : Susan Maughan
Break It To Me Gently : Brenda Lee
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do : Neil Sedaka
Can’t Help Falling in Love : Elvis Presley
Crying in the Rain : The Everly Brothers
Desafinado : Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd
Do You Wanna Dance : Cliff Richard
Don’t Ever Change : The Crickets
Dream Baby : Roy Orbison
Duke of Earl : Gene Chandler
Hey Baby : Bruce Channel
I Can’t Stop Loving You : Ray Charles
It Might As Well Rain Until September : Carole King
Let There Be Love : Nat King Cole
Love Me Do : The Beatles
Love Letters : Ketty Lester
Return to Sender : Elvis Presley
Sealed With a Kiss : Brian Hyland
Sherry : The Four Seasons
She’s Got You : Patsy Cline
Softly As I Leave You : Matt Monro
Speak To Me Pretty : Brenda Lee
Speedy Gonzales : Pat Boone
Sweet Little Sixteen : Jerry Lee Lewis
Teenage Idol : Ricky Nelson
The Locomotion : Little Eva
The Wanderer : Dion
Twistin’ the Night Away : Sam Cooke
Walk on By : Leroy Van Dyke
What a Crazy World We’re Living In : Joe Brown & the Bruvvers
Ya Ya Twist : Petula Clark
Your Cheating Heart : Ray Charles
As I say, not a bad list at all, but there are three songs that I remember most from that summer and which seemed to be playing on the juke box more than most: one, the Nat King Cole, was pleasant if little more, but lifted by a deft arrangement featuring George Shearing’s piano; the other, a true monstrosity, was Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzales, with its high-pitched intrusions in cod-Mexican falsetto. An abomination.
The third was Brian Hyland’s Sealed With a Kiss. Well, it was summer and even in Mablethorpe the evenings could feel romantic, the sun sinking slowly down over the wide horizon. I remembered it, some of it, some twenty five years later, when writing Last Summer, First Love, the second of my books in the Pan Heartlines series of teenage romances. [Look, a guy has to eat!]
Set, yes, in Mablethorpe, it’s the touching story of true love between Lauri, whose last summer it is, helping out in her mum’s café before heading off to be a nurse, and Mike, a student working on the hot dog stall. The names [and a whole lot more] were changed to protect the innocent.
Towards the end of my second year at Goldsmiths’ College, where I was following a teacher training course specialising in English and History, I saw the ad amongst others pinned to the student notice board. Students wanted for Summer Work in Mablethorpe: thirteen weeks, all lodging and other expenses paid. Mablethorpe? I didn’t have a clue. The library had a map.
With no other plans, thirteen weeks by the sea seemed appealing; and, having made enquiries, the pay was decent – with food and lodging thrown in, especially so. With any luck, I’d be able to save some money for the coming year. I signed on.
There were around twenty of us from all over the country, some returning for their second or third spell. We slept, most of us, in a vast dormitory room above a self-service café and restaurant facing out towards the concrete promenade, the beach and the sea, although most days you had to take the sea on trust. Our meals we collected from the café along with the customers, or, if it was after hours, cooked ourselves, with access allowed to all supplies other than the steaks.
We were part of a small empire that seemed to control much of the town’s entertainment and other facilities: dodgem cars, slot machines, hot dogs, ice creams. In particularly busy times, we would be deployed as necessary; otherwise, we each had a particular job and mine was working on the hot dog stand. Which meant helping to serve and take the cash in the afternoons and evenings and peeling a large sack of onions each and every morning. It took until Christmas for me to get rid of the smell of onions from my fingers.
Despite working long hours, we did have a reasonable amount of time off, some of which I spent strolling on the sand dunes or along the beach. I can’t remember ever walking as far as the sea for as much as a paddle, never mind a swim.
Things picked up when I got to know Shirley, who worked in a little cabin in a corner of the car park, dispensing cups of tea to travellers exhausted by the drive over from Nottingham or Doncaster. On my evenings off we went bopping to Trek Faron [Farron?] and the Unknowns – Trek a potato picker by day and singer & guitarist by night, his band a pale imitation of The Shadows – or to the local cinema, which had very desirable double seats in the balcony, though rain on the corrugated iron roof had a tendency to render the dialogue inaudible. And one day we caught the bus to Lincoln to see the Cathedral – I’d been reading Lawrence – The Rainbow & Women in Love – and been taken by his description of first seeing the spire from a great distance. Which we did.
Somehow, I managed to wangle a weekend off and arranged to meet a friend from Goldsmiths at the East Coast Jazz Festival, which was taking place a short distance up the coast at Cleethorpes. This was prime Trad Jazz time, and we ended up staying in the same B&B as Bob Wallis and His Storyville Jazzmen, who had a couple of Top 50 hits featuring Bob singing old music hall type songs in a gruff Yorkshire-inflected Cockney – “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen, I’m Shy” and “Come Along Please” – this even though their stage outfit made them out to be Mississippi riverboat gamblers.
The festival was not all traditional jazz: Tubby Hayes was on the bill, along with Bruce Turner and Johnny Dankworth, but my especial favourites were the Alex Welsh Band, joined on this occasion by the irrepressible George Melly.
There is, believe it or not, more to say about Mablethorpe, but, like the sea, that will have to wait for another day.
A piece in The Guardian a while back, in which various (well-known) people talked about the summer jobs they had done while they were students, got me thinking about my own ventures into similar areas of casual labour. Like many of my generation, my first ever paid job, when I was fifteen, getting on sixteen – GCEs, I remember, the old ‘O’ levels, were on the horizon – was as a newspaper delivery boy for the paper shop just across the road from where we lived in Camden, North London. Bernard Shaw Court, to be precise. After that, still at school, I had a short-lived job behind the scenes at a small Sainsbury’s in Somers Town, close to King’s Cross Station. One summer – I think I must have been in the sixth form by now – I worked as a porter in the Covent Garden Fruit & Vegetable Market, before it moved from the area around Drury Lane several miles west to Nine Elms; the summer after that was spent sweeping out the cages in the Lesser Mammal House at London Zoo. And through much of this time, summer holidays excepted, and beginning, I think, in the second year of sixth form, I worked in various capacities for J. Lyons & Co Ltd.
In the first half of the last century, Lyons was the largest catering company in the world. Beginning in 1894 with one tea shop on Piccadilly – basically a café selling teas, coffees et cetera and hot or cold food at reasonable prices – by the turn of the century there were 37 tea shops in London and 14 in major cities outside; at the beginning of the Second World War, the number had risen to 253. Nor was it just tea shops. In 1909, the first Lyons Corner House opened on Coventry Street; larger, grander and appealing to a more upmarket clientele, it could seat an amazing 2,000 people at any one time. The Corner House restaurants often featured live music, and it was at the Marble Arch branch, in my early teens and in the company of my mother and my aunt, having trailed after them around Selfridges, that I heard Ivy Benson and her All-Girls Band, my first experience of listening to live big band jazz.
But back to the work. My years in the sixth form coincided with a rise in the popularity of jazz, the traditional variety in particular, and a corresponding increase in the number of clubs where bands might play. Even if you were prepared to walk home at the end of the evening, rather than take the bus, clubs cost money. And, on average, I suppose I would go two or three times a week. The 100 Club on Oxford Street, the Fishmongers’ Arms in Wood Green, small clubs scattered across North London – Finchley, Barnet, Golders Green. Pocket money not really being a thing, the only way to get the necessary was to go out and earn it.
At first, I just worked weekends, then, gradually, added a couple of nights a week. Initially, I was at the tea shop opposite Charing Cross station [It’s now a Pizza Express] and after a year or so, I was transferred to 213 Piccadilly – yes, the site of the first Lyons tea shop ever. Staff were rotated through various tasks when on duty, the two busiest of which were ‘the steam’ – making teas, coffees and other hot drinks – and ‘the grill’ – making sure there was a plentiful supply of hot toast, grilled bacon and sausages and poached eggs, as well as making up sample plates and putting them on display. In especially busy periods, you would often be turning bacon under the grill and removing toast from the toaster with one hand, while cracking eggs with the other hand and lowering them into the simmering water of the poacher, which was long enough to take at least a dozen eggs at any one time.
Though some of the staff were full-time, a good proportion were casual and ever-changing, so those part-time workers who weren’t shy of putting in a good shift were quickly noted by the management and a beneficial two-way relationship evolved. If the duty manager [she would have been called a manageress – senior management aside, all the people I worked under were female] knew you could be trusted to work the early evening shift on the grill several nights running without complaint, you were less likely to be sent out onto the floor to clear tables overflowing with dirty crockery.
Beginning, as I say, when I was still at school, I worked, on and off, for Lyons up to and including my three years at Goldsmiths when I was doing my teacher training: some eight years in total. And [mostly] enjoyed it. During the latter part of that time, I worked alongside a man called Richard, whose day job was at the John Lewis store on Oxford Street. After one especially busy period, a bank holiday weekend as I remember it, in which we’d performed above the call of duty sufficiently to be mentioned in despatches, both Richard and I were summoned to appear before a senior manager and invited to join the management training scheme, with the promise that within twelve months we would be managing shops of our own, with a clear career path upwards and beyond. I decided to stick with the teaching; the last I heard of Richard, he was managing a tea shop in Brighton.
from Where? (1961) Dolphy (flute) w. Mal Waldron (p) Ron Carter (bs) Charlie Persip (dr). Great,fluent flute from Dolphy and scintillating brushwork from Persip.
2 Slider : John Stewart
from The Day the River Sang (2006) one of Stewart’s final albums prior to his death two years later. The voice, even with some handy reverb, isn’t what it was, but it does take on a deep, bluesy feel that’s appropriate for this song about a wayward young woman, reminiscent in some ways of the sad and lovely Crazy [”I will drive you, Crazy”] from the 1971 album Lonesome Picker Rides Again. Some nice licks by Stewart himself on electric guitar, too.
3 Milk Shake Stand : The Three Barons
from Still Stomping’ at the Savoy, a fine selection of Jazz & R&B tracks from the 50s & 60s, including Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Errol Garner, Art Pepper, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, H-Bomb Ferguson, Joe Turner, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Little Esther and this track by the Three Barons, a doo-wop group who are still performing, in one guise or another, and will to travel to gigs up to ten miles from their base in Stamford, CT – well, you gotta slow down some time.
Featuring Alex’s trumpet, more broad-toned than usual, on this BBC Sounds of Jazz broadcast from 1981, just a year before he died; Roy Crimmins is on trombone, back in the band after a long break, Al Gay on tenor, Fred Hunt at the piano.
6 Sandwood Down to Kyle : John Renbourn
from Live it Italy (2006) about which Renbourn had this to say …
Anyway one place that still holds fond if blurred memories is Roma’s Folkstudio – a basement club that reminded me of the Cousins, only funkier. I’d go over and play there for a week or so, staying in a room down a little alley leading into the square of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The square at night was utterly beautiful and even the bare room had a certain charm. With the pleasure of good company and the wine from Sacrofano it was a productive time for me.
How this recording came to be made I honestly have no idea. To describe the p.a. in the Folkstudio as a curiosity would be charitable in the extreme. It wouldn’t have been out of place in Frankinstein’s laboratory. Somehow the benign boss Giancarlo Cesaroni engineered it on the quiet. And the result is documented evidence.
7 As Tears Go By : Rolling Stones
The Jagger/Richards song their manager Andrew Loog Oldham passed on to Marianne Faithfull for her 1964 hit; Mick himself recorded it with the Stones a year later [sounding oddly like Marianne].
8 Right Moves : Josh Ritter
from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007). Has a great chorus, which my daughter, Molly, and I sang along to heartily at his Kings Place gig a few years back.
9 These Foolish Things : Thelonious Monk
Recorded in New York, on December 18th, 1952, with Gary Mapp (bs) & Max Roach (dr)
10 $1000 Dollar Wedding : Gram Parsons
from Parson’s second solo album, Grievous Angel (1974), with James Burton on guitar and Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals and close to keeping Gram in tune. I remember buying my copy for £1.00 from a student at the Stevenage school where I was teaching; she’d got it as a freebee at the Gary Glitter show at Stevenage Mecca the night before.
A swift return to the first Resnick story, the opening section of which is reprinted in the previous blog … and here comes the ending. Don’t worry if you still have the whole thing to read and want to avoid spoiling the denouement, the final surprise. There is no surprise. “They’re all dying, Charlie,” is how the story begins and that’s how it ends. How most stories end, I suppose.
The maitre d’ at Ronnie Scott’s had trouble seating Resnick because he was stubbornly on his own; finally he slipped him into one of the raised tables at the side, next to a woman who was drinking copious amounts of mineral water and doing her knitting. Spike Robinson was on the stand, stooped and somewhat fragile- looking, Ed Silver’s contemporary, more or less. A little bit of Stan Getz, a lot of Lester Young, Robinson himself had been one of Resnick’s favourite tenor players for quite a while. There was an album of Gershwin tunes that found its way on to the record player an awful lot.
Now Resnick are spaghetti and measured out his beer and listened as Robinson took the tune of ‘I Should Care’ between his teeth and worried at it like a terrier with a favourite ball. At the end of the number, he stepped back to the microphone.”I’d like to dedicate this final tune of the set to the memory of Ed Silver, a very fine jazz musician who this week passed away. Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’.
And when it was over and the musicians had departed backstage and Ronnie Scott himself was standing there encouraging the applause – “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson”- Resnick blew his nose and raised his glass and continued to sit there with the tears drying on his face. Seven minutes past eleven, near as made no difference.
That Gershwin album – The Gershwin Collection – was used as background in a number of scenes in the television version of the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, one of the two in which Tom Wilkinson played Charlie. [And before you start asking, neither Lonely Hearts nor Rough Treatment are commercially available and the BBC have no plans, apparently, to repeat them. Please don’t ask me why because I don’t know.]
Towards the end of the 1990s, I booked the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street for a Slow Dancer Press publication party and booked Spike Robinson as the evening’s featured guest, sitting in with the Nottingham-based band, Second Nature, in place of their leader, Mel Thorpe. And so came to pass one of my proudest moments, when I got to climb up on stage, take the microphone, and say, “Spike Robinson, ladies and gentlemen, Spike Robinson.”
Spike Robinson died of a heart attack just a few years later, at the age of 71.
My friend Tony Burns, whose band played opposite Second Nature on that occasion, died in 2013 at the age of 72.
* This solo version was recorded by John Stewart’s wife, Buffy Ford, as part of a short-lived project called Darwin’s Army, a four-piece group in which John & Buffy were joined by John Hoke & Dave Crossland sing a mixture of traditional American folk songs, mixed with compositions by the likes of Tim Hardin, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … and Yip Harburg & Howard Arlen’s all-time classic. Not, in truth, a great album [Appleseed APR 1025] but this, I think, is a lovely version of the song.
** My only other experience of Rod Stewart having been seeing him at the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in the mid-60s, when, introduced as Rod the Mod, he was a less-than-convincing second vocalist to Long John Baldry in Steampacket, a relatively short lived blues band [the nucleus of which – Brian Auger on organ, Julie Driscoll on vocals – went on to form the more successful Brian Auger & The Trinity] I was almost totally unprepared for Stewart’s first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, (1970) on which, supported by Ronnie Wood & Ian McLagan from the Small Faces amongst others, he uses his rusty voice to great effect on a range of songs, from Jagger & Richards’ “Street Fighting Man” to a rearranged “Maid of Constant Sorrow” (“Man” in this version) and – quite superb this – Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”. Four of the songs, including the title track, were written by Stewart himself, as was this one, “Lady Day”, which comes from the equally fine follow-up album in the same vein, Gasoline Alley.
*** Probably the most musically literate of The Monkees, Nesmith [whose mother made a fortune from Liquid Paper – Tippex to you and me] released some good country albums with the First and Second National Bands in the 1970s, the majority of them featuring Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar. “Joanne” is perhaps the best known of the songs he composed, along with “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues”, both of which are on the album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. I saw him perform a couple of times during this period, once at the Roundhouse in Camden, the other time at a theatre in Victoria, at the end of which evening, in the spirit of something I didn’t quite understand, he told us the evening had been as much about the way we were communicating with him as he was with us and bade us, therefore, not to applaud after his final number, but to leave in a mood of quiet contemplation. Which, mostly, we did.
**** I first heard this in the late 50s/early 60s, and almost certainly bought the album, Local Colour, from Chris Willard’s jazz record shop in New Cross, because it was one of the tracks. Allison was a better-than-average post-bop pianist – he made early recordings with Al Cohn/Zoot Sims and with Stan Getz – and a distinctive singer with a soft and insinuating southern blues-tinged voice that was a clear inspiration to Georgie Fame. When I saw him performing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho some dozen years ago, it was good to see Georgie sitting in the audience.
***** There are two quintessential sets of early Charlie Parker recordings; those he made for the Savoy label in the mid-40s and those on Dial, mostly slightly later. Both “Now’s the Time” and “Billie’s Bounce”, also included in this shuffle, were recorded in New York City on November 26th, 1945 by a group known as Charlie Parker’s Reboppers, in which Parker’s alto was joined by Miles Davis on trumpet and a rhythm section of Curley Russell on bass, Max Roach on drums and (possibly – there’s some discographical argument, I understand, about this) Dizzy Gillespie at the piano. And talking of the piano, my favourite version of “Now’s the Time”, Parker’s aside, is by John Lewis on his 1960 album, Improvised Meditations and Excursions. Love it! Play it all the time!
****** It’s difficult to listen to any of Cohen’s albums in the last decade of his life – Old Ideas, 2012, Popular Problems, 2014 and You Want It Darker, 2016 – without realising that he had a keen and growing awareness of his own mortality. You Want It Darker, which he was only able to finish with help from his son, Adam, was released just a few weeks before his death and is, to my ageing ears at least, easeful and disturbing to varying degrees. Comfort listening for those about to enter their final decade.
******* There’s an affecting scene in David Hare’s film for television, Page Eight [the first of what later became The Worricker Trilogy] in which Bill Nighy shows Rachel Weisz a segment from the 1957 American television programme The Sound of Jazz from 1957, in which Lester Young on tenor sax is among Billie Holiday’s accompanists as she sings “Fine and Mellow”. In the clip Nighy chooses, we see Young, far from well, soloing, then a close up of Billie Holiday listening intently, love, regret and admiration mingling on her face. As Nighy points out, however, the moment the solo is over, she is sharp to the mike to continue singing. For Nighy, it’s both a way, I think, of persuading Weisz into loving him, at the same time as saying that when push comes to shove, as inevitably it must, it’s work that wins. The critic, Nat Hentoff, was in the studio during the filming of The Sound of Jazz, and had this to say about that part of the session: Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.
******* “Time on My Hands” was one of the many songs Billie Holiday recorded with various Teddy Wilson aggregations during the late 30s and early 40s, many of them featuring Lester Young. Here, the tune is played almost painfully slowly, Billie’s voice weary yet knowing; the only solo is from Wilson on piano, and all we hear of Lester is his saxophone behind Billie’s voice more or less throughout, the sound distant and subdued.
******** This begins with two of the best opening lines from a Dear John song that I know … “Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs, Got a ticket in my pocket says I’ll make it out of here”. Only rivalled, perhaps, by these from “Bittersweet” on the Everything But the Girl 1985 album, Eden. “Don’t talk to me in that familiar way/When the keys are in my hand.”
A few days ago I was reminded a piece by the poet Anthony Wilson called “Life Saving Poems”, describing his visit to a Slow Dancer poetry reading at the Voice Box at the Royal Festival Hall. It was reprinted, with Anthony’s permission, on the old Mellotone blog in 2013 and seemed so evocative, so well-written, that I’m reproducing it again here …
Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading. The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.
Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.
For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.
The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.
He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.
Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.
When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.
I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.
When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.
At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.
I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The North, and had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.
When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’ His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.
The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.
Ghost of a Chance
He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.
Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.
From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.
At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.
John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop) 1992. Reprinted in Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop) 2014