My first solo walk of the New Year on Hampstead Heath today, cold with perfect blue skies, a miserly 8,000 steps that took me, nevertheless, around a couple of ponds and up a couple of slow inclines, careful to watch out for what remained of the treacherous iced-over water that had run down onto the concrete paths.
Whichever route I take – and there are several – I usually aim to take a rest on one of the benches that surround the Tumulus, knowing that I’m now some 30/40 minutes from home.
If I’ve remembered to slip a book into my pocket, I’ll spend a little time there reading – today it was The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara – and before setting off on that last leg, take my little MP3 player from another pocket, set ear buds in place and press shuffle …
From which comes this first playlist of the year …
Leonard Cohen Chelsea Hotel
Louis Armstrong Chantez Les Bas from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy
Bill Morissey Inside
Bonnie Raitt Not ‘Cause I Wanted To
Joni Mitchell Blue
Jimmy LeVave For Everyman from Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Brown
Billie Holiday On the Sentimental Side with Lester Young and the Teddy Wilson Orchestra
Gretchen Peters When All You Got is a Hammer
As Long As I Live with (I think) Scott Hamilton (tenor) & Warren Vaché (tpt/c’net)
It used to be there under Birthdays, some years at least. The daily listing in the paper, the Guardian, occasionally the Times. September 18th. Valentine Collins, jazz musician. And then his age: 27, 35, 39. Not 40. Val never reached 40.
So begins one of my short stories, Minor Key, concerning a British saxophonist hoping to keep his life – and his playing – together by accepting a residency in a Paris jazz club, at the same time that one his idols, Lester Young, is in Paris trying to do the self-same thing. Though to an outsider – or to anyone who cares, such as Val’s long-time friend Anna – it might not seem as if either man is trying very hard. Rather, the opposite.
Here’s a taste, involving both men …
“Minor Key”: First published in Paris Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007. Reprinted in Minor Key, Five Leaves, Nottingham, 2009. Reprinted in A Darker Shade of Blue, William Heinemann, London, 2010.
Listening to a selection of recordings by Lester Young the other day reminded me of several occasions on which he crops up in my writing – quite frequently, in fact, in the Charlie Resnick novels – if not as frequently as Thelonius Monk.
Here’s one occasion, from the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment …
Another set of tracks thrown up by my excellent little Victure MP3 player on my morning walk on Hampstead Heath – warm this morning, without being overwhelming, and not an ominous cloud in the sky, unlike Friday, when they darkened, circled and finally unleashed a downpour that half-drowned me.
Stars Fell On Alabama : Billie Holiday
(If They Asked Me) I Could Write a Book : Ella Fitzgerald
P. F. Sloane : Rumer
My Next Thirty Years : Tim McGraw
Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore) Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Late For the Sky : Joan Osborne
Guitar : Tracey Thorne
Hard Promises to Keep : Kimmie Rhodes & Willie Nelson
She’s Got You : Rosanne Cash
Parchman Farm : Mose Allison
Old Time Feeling : Guy Clark
Alison : Elvis Costello
Boulder to Birmingham : Emmylou Harris
So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines
What’s New : Louis Armstrong w. Oscar Peterson
As Long As I Live : Rosemary Clooney w. Scott Hamilton & Warren Vaché
There used to be a record store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, across the street from Selfridges, and if I were down in London from where I was then living in Nottingham, I’d make a point of calling in. Good and varied stock; friendly and knowlegeable staff. Can’t remember what it was called. But there I was – autumn of ’86? early ’87? – leafing through the racks of albums when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I was looking for anything special.
‘You’ve got the Kennedy one?’
The Last Campaign. Yes, I had.
‘Nothing newer than that, I’m afraid. But look …’ Reaching in amongst the albums. ‘If you like John Stewart, you might like this. Give it a listen.’
This was The Last of the True Believers by someone called Nanci Griffith. Presumably that was her on the front cover in a polka dot dress standing outside Woolworth’s, a fat hardback cradled in both hands. [On later investigation it turns out to be Donald Spoto’s biogrpahy of Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers.] And over to her right there’s a couple who might be just holding hands or maybe even dancing and the man is Lyle Lovett, surely?
I turn the cover over. Yes, Lovett’s on the record, singing harmony. And there are a couple of other names I know, Bela Fleck on banjo, Phil Donnelly, guitar. Plus another picture of Nanci Griffith with yet another book and this time it’s clearly Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel I’d only recently read and liked a great deal.
And as if that weren’t enough in the way of little markers of temptation, there’s a note saying the album is dedicated to Count Basie. Count Basie?
“This album is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie because he once made my clumsy feet dance upon the University of Texas ballroom floor as if on wing …”
Lovett, McMurtry, Basie – something interesting was going on here. Passing up the invitation to listen before buying, I paid up and was on my way. Perhaps I was in a hurry. It wasn’t till several days later, back home in Lenton, that I gave it a listen.
Side one begins with The Last of the True Believers and Love at the Five & Dime – two tracks still high among my favourites. Maybe all the songs weren’t equally strong and in the higher register her voice took a little getting used to, but with the next album, Lone Star State of Mind, which followed soon after, I was totally hooked. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds; Ford Econoline; Trouble in the Fields. Great songs. She even manages to purge some of the sentimentality from Julie Gold’s From a Distance.
It wasn’t so much later – the spring of ’88 and I was in New York, visiting a friend – when I noticed that Nanci Griffith was playing at a small club in Greenwich Village – I like to think it was The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, but can’t be sure – whatever it was called both Griffith and her band were on terrific form and what sounded very good on record was even more so live.
I didn’t know then that not long after I returned to England she would be appearing at Nottingham’s Rock City. Monday, 2nd May, 1988. Tickets £5.00 in advance. [My friend, David Belbin, saved his ticket, which is how I know.] It was as good as New York had been, if not better. Another friend who was there that evening, the singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, describes it as a key moment in her life.
Liz was with me again a few years later when Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra played a concert in London – and this is where the wheels of coincidence start turning – because who should she invite to join her on stage but John Stewart – over here on tour himself – to play lead guitar and sing duet vocal on Stewart’s song which closes the Little Love Affairs album, Sweet Dreams Will Come.
Just one more connection. The last time I saw Nanci Griffith was at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and a change in the personnel of her band had brought in the English guitarist – and singer/songwriter – Clive Gregson. The same Clive Gregson who would record and tour with Liz Simcock not so many years later.
Setting off on my Hampstead Heath walk this morning, the rain was falling quite strongly – but not strongly enough to prevent me calling in at the Lido Café for one of Allesio’s excellent flat whites – and by the time I was close to half way round my usual Sunday route – three miles or so in total – and passing Kenwood House, it had more or less ceased.
I don’t know what it is with these algorithms, but the third song that shuffled its way into my headphones and out of my MP3 player was Creedence Clearwater’s Who’ll Stop the Rain ? … Spooky.
Body & Soul : Lester Young w. Oscar Peterson Trio
Across the Border : Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris
Who’ll Stop the Rain? : Creedence Clearwater Revival
St. Olav’s Gate : Tom Russell w. Shawn Colvin
In the Ghetto : Elvis Presley
Old Chunk of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver
You Win Again : Mary Chapin Carpenter
Daniel : Elton John
Hard Livin’ : Martha Redbone
L. A. Freeway : Guy Clark
I’ve Got It Bad & That Ain’t Good : Thelonious Monk
Joy Spring : Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet I Remember Clifford : John Lewis You Go To My Head : Lennie Tristano & Lee Konitz Rhythm-a-Ning : Thelonious Monk [Part of the unused soundtrack for “Les Liaisons Dangereuses“] Blues For a Reason : Chet Baker & Warne Marsh South Street Exit : Eric Dolphy [From The Illinois Concert with Herbie Hancock, piano] Diga Diga Do : Chris Barber Band [From the Ellington-flavoured “Echoes of Harlem” – one of the late Henning Mankel’s favourite records] Getting Sentimental Over You : Charles Mingus [solo piano] Festival Junction: Acker Bilk w. Stan Tracey Big Band Hackensack : The Pee Wee Russell Quartet Groover Wailin’ : Al Fairweather & Sandy Brown’s All Stars Going Out the Back Way : Johnny Hodges
Inside : Bill Morrissey You All Over Me : Taylor Swift Tried to Tell You : The Weather Station If Not I’ll Just Die : Lambchop Face : Tracey Thorn Wichita : Gretchen Peters New Orleans : John Stewart Highway 61 Revisited : Dave Alvin Gimme An Inch Girl : Iain Mathews Flowers on Valentine’s Day : Liz Simcock Down To The Station : Nicola Hitchcock Last to Leave : Arlo Guthrie
For quite a while now, it’s been my habit to begin the year – my reading year – with either Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, occasionally both: one of Woolf’s novels, most often To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway; two or three of Mansfield’s short stories – ‘The Garden Party’, say, or ‘Prelude’; ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘At the Bay’. This time around, everything else being different, I felt like a change. Though nothing radical. Something from roughly the same period, the early 20th century.
England, My England, a collection of ten short stories by D. H. Lawrence, was first published in 1922; the copy that I have – one of Penguin’s uniform edition with tastefully rural photographs by Harri Peccinootti – I bought at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly in 1974. Still a long way from Oradea, which, if you were uncertain, is a university town in the north west of Romania, close to the Hungarian border. But I urge patience. No sooner had I finished reading the second story – ‘Tickets, Please’, which begins with a bravura description of the journey made by a Midlands tram into the industrial countryside and back again: two jostling, skittering 11-line sentences with a pair of shorter sentences applying the brake in between – than I thought the perfect companion for my reprise of Lawrence would be Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which he does everything possible not to follow his alleged purpose of writing about Lawrence and ends up writing about him with perception and a great deal of humour. A quote from Lawrence himself, at the beginning of the book, gives us the idea …
“Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.” D. H. Lawrence, 5 September, 1914
The title page of my copy was signed by Geoff – in green ink – matching the cover – with a sprawling dedication which refers to the “many memories … of our Romanian quest … especially of your drumming.” Drumming? Okay, take a step or so back. Try to explain.
In the spring of 1997, I was one of a group of writers setting out on a British Council sponsored visit to the University of Oradea to take part in a three day seminar, an exchange of work and views with Romanian (and, as it turned out, Moldovan) colleagues. Myself and Geoff Dyer aside, our group included the poet George Szirtes, the short story writer, Helen Simpson, and the academic and critic, Valentine Cunningham, who had recently written a very positive review of one of the Resnick novels for the Times Literary Supplement and, I suspect, was behind my inclusion. It was Cunningham, also, who had the trumpet. Have horn, will travel. In this case, aboard BA2894 from Gatwick to Bucharest and hence by well-appointed coach across country to Oradea. If he had known there would be a band on hand at our welcoming dinner, I don’t know – perhaps he took his trumpet with him everywhere on the off chance – but once he had discovered that George Szirtes could play the piano – admittedly only 12 bar blues in the key of, I think, C – and that way back in the early 60s I had played drums in a ‘trad’ jazz band at Goldsmiths College, he had no hesitation in leading us up onto the stage the moment the band announced the interval. What occurred for the next thirty minutes or so is something of a blur – much as it was at the time. All I know is that I performed my basic function of keeping time, with only the occasional cymbal flourish or snare drum paradiddle, and Valentine played some decidedly tasty trumpet.
Could our visit get any better? It could, and did, and one of the highlights was listening to Geoff Dyer read from Out of Sheer Rage, which had me – at the appropriate moments – helpless with laughter.
Amongst the writers whose work I enjoyed discovering were the Romanian poet, Romulus Bucur, and a young Moldovan poet, Julian Fruntasu, and thanks to some financial help from the British Council, I was able, through Slow Dancer Press, to publish their poetry in Britain for the first time. Typeset, of course, in Romanian Bookman Light.
The following year, together with a different group of writers, including the poet and novelist, John Burnside, I was pleased to return to Oradea with copies of the two pamphlets, present them to the poets, and listen to their inaugural reading. My only small sadness on this occasion, no welcoming band, no trumpet, no last chance behind the drums.
Stand By Me : Wendell Berry The Falconer : Dana Czapnik Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me : Kate Clanchy All Among the Barley : Melissa Harrison Long Bright River : Liz Moore Olive, Again : Elizabeth Strout
Anne Enright Kent Haruf Thomas McGuane
Country Music : Will Burns When the Tree Falls : Jane Clarke New Hunger : Ella Duffy Yes But What Is This? What Exactly? : Ian McMillan How I Learned to Sing : Mark Robinson Sweet Nothings : Rory Waterman Squid : Matthew Welton
The Perfect Candidate : Haifaa Al-Mansour Rocks : Sarah Gavron The County : Grimur Hakonarson Da 5 Bloods : Spike Lee A White, White Day : Hlynur Palmason Portrait of a Lady on Fire : Celine Sciamma So Long, My Son : Wang Xiaoshuai
From An Old Guitar : Dave Alvin Ballads : Paula Cole Time : Jess Gillam Piano 2 : Pete Judge Bach, Goldberg Variations : Pavel Kolesnikov Monk – Palo Alto : Thelonious Monk Winter Hill : Liz Simcock Avenging Angel : Craig Taborn
The Oil Rigs at Night : The Delines All in the Past : Dave Ellis & Boo Howard Straight Back To You : Everything But the Girl Angry All the Time : Tim McGraw Inside : Bill Morrissey Wichita : Gretchen Peters Angels & Acrobats : Rod Picott You Tattooed Me : Tom Robinson Old Chunk Of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver Flowers on Valentine’s Day : Liz Simcock Sister Mercy : John Stewart Tryin’ To Hold the Wind Up With a Sail : Jerry Jeff Walker