Saturday, 12 March 2016

Of A Child's Ear And An Unrelenting Year

Sound has always attracted, interested and intrigued me. My earliest years were spent in relative isolation so I had plenty of time to listen to things.  Having limited contact with other children I spent those years in a world of my own imagination in a first floor flat just sahf of The River ... where cabbies allegedly feared to venture after dark. In my childhood Albany Road, now mostly a park, was lined with a mixture of buildings (many of which had somehow escaped the blitz), rubble and I'm pretty sure there were also some prefabs, but I may have made that up.  There was also Mr Harrison's sweet shop.  Albany Road linked the Old Kent Road (how many other streets have their own definite article?) to where Walworth Road meets Camberwell Road. A trip to a park, or to my grandmother's flat (Nan lived pretty much where she'd always lived, not far from the Elephant And Castle), or playing with cousins, was a rare treat.  My favourite outings were to go "down the lane". I never worked out whether "the lane" was actually Westmoreland Lane or East Street. It was probably both and both were the sites of vivid street markets where the sounds of hundreds of people confined and milling in close proximity produced a hugely different acoustic experience from the reverberation of our concrete stairwell, the snug claustrophobia of our kitchen, the dry ringing sound of Nan's square (surrounded and overlooked by Peabody's finest architecture), or the sound that resulted when Mum pulled up the sash window to speak to Paul's Grandmother down in the yard to which no one else had access.  Even at an early age I know I relished those differences and found them very exciting. Of course there were also the street cries of the market traders. Every cry from every costermonger was an incantation, although the message was usually incoherent and became just a fascinating sound. On cold days we would usually buy a hot sarsaparilla and, as a very special treat when Nan came with us, we had dinner (what these days we would call "lunch") in the pie shop. I always had the meat pie, mash and liquor. Mum preferred a pot of jellied eels with her mash. The only thing I missed when, at the age of twelve I eschewed meat and became a vegetarian, was the almost phosphorescent green, eel-juice liquor that was such a evocative taste from my childhood.

I spent most of my waking hours with my mother, unless she went to work.  On those days I stayed with Nan - mostly.  One day I had a three year-old's adventure trying to follow Mum to work.  I think I lost her when she boarded a bus bound for Aldwych, so I went window shopping instead.  I vaguely remember being picked up from a police station.  I was certainly closer to my mother and I didn't really know my father very well.  Although he lived with us he had three jobs and worked long hours.  Actually I think he worked all of them. I can remember only a few things we did together. We were not close when I was young. We grew further apart in my adolescence. It took us nearly five decades before we managed to bridge that estrangement. I am so grateful for the second chance those final eight years gave us when I lived with him and learned to love him.

I always took refuge in sound.  Memory informs me that I spent hours standing at the window in the sitting room of the old tenement block that overlooked the mile-long Albany Road listening to and compiling a mental catalogue of the sounds that interested me.

This brick may be all that is left of the flat where
I lived till I was nearly six. I salvaged it when the
building was among the many being pulled down
to make space for Albany Park in Camberwell,
London.  These days it lives in my van
just in case I need an old brick.
Some sounds came from the street and some floated into hearing from within the block of flats. I devoured vocabulary and if I did not know a word I made one up. Sometimes my made up word took preference over the more established and commonly used one. Articulated lorries were "mom-moms" because of the distinctive sound of their engines as they climbed a shallow incline from the Thomas A Becket, the notorious boxing pub on the corner of the Old Kent Road. This fascination sometimes got me into trouble. One of my favourite sounds was the "ka-ka" that results from ringing a bicycle bell with the top unscrewed. My mother discouraged me from using the word because she thought it sounded like a swear word. Our lives were very much influenced by the "old lady", Paul's Grandmother, who lived in the flat below. I don't remember any particular encounter with her, but I do know she must have possessed a supernatural ability to hear what we got up to. Mum was in fear of disturbing her with our noise and definitely didn't want her to think I used swear words. Consequently a lot of my dialogue was in my head, or with my host of imaginary friends, of whom Doh was the most loyal. Fortunately Patrick was never jealous and understood that Doh and I had always been together. In cowboy games, when my cousin Kenny (who made the best gun sounds of anyone I knew) came round, I always died in spectacular and silent slow-motion. "The poor boy even has to die quietly," Aunty Doris would say.  I suppose Paul's grandmother was prone to complain. I know my mum would do anything to avoid conflict, so I learned the art of silent dying. 

To be fair, my silent world was never truly silent because there was always music somewhere.  My parents and grandparents loved to sing. Mum and Nan were always singing at home. Grandad was always in demand to sing dahn the pub when someone got on the joanna or even if they didn't. In later years when we went round to see Nan on a Saturday or a Sunday, Grandad would usually stagger in after lunchtime opening and continue the show, before the wrestling came on the television.  Having been generously rewarded in whiskies for his efforts in the pub, his baritone had just one setting - loud.  With his acting sergeant-major voice, loud was actually very loud.  Since even my deaths were characteristically silent I found him overwhelming and often frightening. I felt out of my depth when he tried to engage me in what he probably perceived as friendly conversation. I thought it was my fault that I failed to follow his alcohol-propelled reasoning.  I became very familiar with the "Oh-wa Danny-ya Boyyyyy-ya ....." style of singing decades before I realised it was a thing. 

Mum and Dad sang together, harmonising in thirds. We also had a Redifusion box on the wall in the kitchen that we clicked on when we wanted to listen to the wireless. We could choose the Light Programme or sometimes the Home Service I think. If the Third Programme were an option we never took it. We also had a wind-up gramophone and Mum and Dad let me play any and all of their extensive collection of popular contemporary and inherited 78s. Somehow, by the age of three, I could locate any song they requested and they never knew how I did it. I would put them on and dance and dance and dance. 

My parents' music and music from the wireless informed my musical universe. I think our worlds began to diverge with Merseybeat. By 1967 we inhabited completely different dimensions. 

Of course I had been aware of pop music before 1966, but that was the year I discovered pirate radio. Nan gave me a little transistor radio and it was tuned permanently to Radio London, the floating one. I wrote about it in a previous essay. The first band I claimed for myself was The Monkees. I saw them perform at Wembley in 1967. The following year I saw Tyrannosaurus Rex, David Bowie, Roy Harper and Steffan Grossman. The first 45rpm single I bought with my own money was "Purple Haze".  I'm rather proud of that. It could have been something far less worthy. How I loved Jimi Hendrix. Three years later he was one on the acts I really wanted to see at The Third Isle Of Wight Festival. I was taken ill on the last day of the festival, missed his performance and within weeks he was dead. 1970 was a horrible year for musicians dying. 1971 wasn't much better.  

2016, though, has seen slaughter on an altogether different scale. Yesterday it was Keith Emerson, the day before, George Martin. The year started out badly and since the beginning of January we have lost Paul Bley, Pierre Boulez, David Bowie, Dale Griffin, Glenn Frey, Jimmy Bain, Black, Signe Tole Anderson, Paul Kantner, Maurice White, Dan Hicks, John Chilton and I daresay more I have yet to find out about.  At times some of these musicians have touched my life quite deeply; others, naturally, less so.  I mentioned having seen David Bowie at the second concert I ever chose to attend.  That was in 1968. I saw Mott The Hoople perform many times before they found fame with David Bowie and "All The Young Dudes". At the time I thought they were one of the best live bands on the circuit. Buffin, like many in this list, seems just too young to have gone - Alzheimer's too. So cruel. Jefferson Airplane were so much a part of the sixties and the whole revolution coming out of the American West Coast scene that anyone my age could not have failed to have been touched by the loss of both Signe Anderson and Paul Kantner on the same day. Although I certainly enjoyed their early albums I can't claim to have been a diehard fan of E.L.P., but I loved The Nice back in the day. During my first trip to Switzerland in 1969 I picked up an album of theirs that wasn't available in England. That pleased me greatly as did my trip to see them play at Croydon's Fairfield Halls that same year. Keith Emerson was performing the usual acrobatic tricks with his Hammond, but when he moved on to the hall's pipe organ he looked over his shoulder and called out, "Do you think they'll mind me sticking knives in this one?"  

I also saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer's first (okay, probably their second) gig in 1970 at the Isle of Wight. George Martin, I think, probably touched us all and I cannot select just one song of his ... oh, of course this is the one for me ... no wait, it's this one ... or this ... or this ...  No I can't decide on just one and it's difficult to find definitive versions on YouTube.

There are many months left of 2016 and we are going to lose more musicians before the year is out. I have often pondered why the death of someone I have never met in person is such an emotional experience.  Music has always been one of the most important and stabilising things in my life. Music has been with me in my highest and lowest times. Music got me through some very dark days I experienced in my adolescence and has sometimes helped on even darker ones since. Other songwriters have found ways of getting to my truths in ways that have frequently eluded me.  I may not have known the musician, but I have often been very intimate with their music. Some of that music is deeply embedded in me, or do I mean ME?

I was a teacher in a primary school when John Lennon was killed.  I didn't understand why I felt so upset by his death and I couldn't explain it to the head who asked me why an overpaid pop star's death should be more important than an unknown elderly woman who brought up a family and died alone.  I understood what he was trying to say, but that unknown woman hadn't embedded her art in my soul. Maybe that was a failing in me.  I couldn't say for sure. What I do see is that this year's harvest has reaped a number of people not so different in age from me.  Such a dramatic illustration of my own mortality is demanding my attention. I suppose there is a generation of musicians following the baby boomers who have already and will increasingly be moving on. I suppose newer musicians touch the lives of others too, but I don't really see who they are and I don't have the same emotional ties. Surely our generation is not unique in having such a fundamental intimacy with the music of our awakening years?

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