Thursday, 16 November 2017

Of The Pleasure Of Small Gestures

Did I tell you about the early concerts I attended? They were life-changing events in that they are still with me fifty years later. I'm sixty-two and I feel myself slipping into life as one of those older people who loves to share stories of earlier years. If I find them so fascinatingly memorable, why doesn't everyone? In 1967, the so-called summer of love, I was one of the many swept up in, amongst other things, Monkeemania. There was something so appropriately sunny about the music, even when the subject matter was slightly daft ("Your Auntie Griselda"?), somewhat improbable ("Saturday's Child"?) or even downright stupid ("Look Out [Here Comes Tomorrow]"!). I enjoyed the weekly antics on the television show and bought the first three albums - Meet The Monkees, More Of The Monkees and Headquarters - as soon as they came out. I went to their show at the Empire Pool in Wembley, dressed in my Sunday suit, and experienced the grip of mass hysteria as I stood up on my seat and screamed like all the girls were doing. My mother, could only sit next to me in horror and amazement.  By the time we got to  "Piscces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Limited" and "The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees" my attention had moved elsewhere. My interest was raised again with "Head", but the relationship was never quite the same. That show was opened by Lulu. She was sunny, bubbly and totally inaudible, but I decided I loved her too. I bought several of her singles.

I had begun to devour the weekly music press at the age of twelve, starting with Disc & Music Echo, while John Peel had become my guru on the radio. I had listened to him on the independent radio ship, Radio London, and had reluctantly followed him to the BBC and their new venture, Radio 1. While never quite being able to forgive him for taking Auntie's shilling he did still play the most interesting music. He played Tyrannosaurus Rex every week and they became the next object of my adulation. Again I bought the first three albums the moment they were released. I had pestered the poor man behind the counter at the local Rumbelow's for weeks leading to the release of "My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair, But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows" and I bought Marc Bolan's book of poems, "The Warlock Of Love", with similar haste. I was devastated when Steve Peregine Took left. He was my favourite - it wasn't just the long hair, the cloak and the percussion, but he added those strange and beautiful vocalisations to the songs. I was horrified when, in 1970, Jeff Dexter played "Ride A White Swan" over and over and over again at the Third Isle Of Wight Festival. I wasn't aware of the controversy caused by Bob Dylan's expansion into electric expression at the time, but I think I felt betrayed in the same way as John Cordwell who shouted, "Judas!" during the second half of the concert at The Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 17th May 1966. From that moment my relationship with Tyrannosaurus Rex was severed. I had been prepared to give the new man, Mickey Finn, a try but every further move into commercialism (including the unconscionable shortening of a great band name) distanced me more from the band.

At the height of my affection for Tyrannosaurus Rex, though, I begged my parents to let me go and see them play live. Obviously it was not feasible for a thirteen year-old to be allowed to attend one of the all-night gigs at Middle Earth in London that were the tofu of many legends in those days, but when the Babylonian Mouthpiece Show was organised at the Royal Festival Hall 3rd June 1968, my mum and dad relented and bought tickets for the whole family to attend.

This isn't my ticket, but wasn't far from where I sat.
The evening opened with Stefan Grossman. I seem to remember him singing the line, "Delia, I wanna steal ya", which made an impression on a young man who had yet to write his first song and a whole year before I plucked my first guitar string. After his set was David Bowie, who didn't sing a note that night. Instead, he danced/mimed his way through a story about a village being invaded by an army, I think. I could look this up, because someone is bound to know. I do remember this was the time of discontent over US involvement in Vietnam and at one point Bowie was heckled by a man with an American accent. Tyrannosaurus Rex were the final act of the evening and of course they were wonderful, but I was actually most taken by seeing Roy Harper play for the first time of what was to become many times. His second album, "Come Out Fighting, Ghengis Smith" had just been released and he was also singing songs from "Folkjokeopus", which wouldn't be released for a while to come.I remember my father laughing at a line in "She's The One" and my mother giving him a disapproving look. Roy Harper had mentioned "pants" - shocking. My two younger brothers slept through it all - pity, they'd have thought it very naughty and a lot of fun. I bought "Ghengis" within days of attending that concert and I played it almost literally to death. I made the mistake of using a brand of so-called record cleaner on it. This imbued the music with a hiss which over months became a storm of noise on the record that gradually obliterated the music altogether. I've kept the album, but it has been unlistenable for decades. From time to time I looked for a replacement in whatever format I could find, but nothing seemed available.

Recently I stumbled across Roy Harper's website. He seems to have most of the licenses to his recordings and is able to offer them as downloads. I jumped at the chance of buying a download copy of "Come Out Fighting, Ghengis Smith" and getting my ears wrapped around the title track that has been such an important influence on the way I make music now, or the mysterious "Highgate Cemetery", the doped up, "You Don't Need Money" and the extraordinary "Circle". Although my own parents never put me under the same pressure as the parents of the schoolboy in the song I identified very strongly with the protagonist - victim status has been fashionable for a very long time. As I was downloading the album and one or two others that caught my eye I also saw a hardback version of a book of Roy Harper's lyrics, photographs and recollections, "The Passions Of Great Fortune". I bought that too. I sent an e-mail message to the web-site sharing something of what I have written here. I didn't know if Roy Harper saw the e-mails that were directed to his site. A few days later a heavy package arrived from Ireland. It was my book. Indeed it is a beautiful volume and it was great to have the lyrics of most of the words in one place. As I opened it I came to the title page and there in thick black pen was a personal message from Roy Harper addressed to me and thanking me for my recollections. I cannot say just how much I was touched by this simple and thoughtful gesture. It's a lesson many could learn and a reminder to myself to try and be nice to people.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Norwich to see (and this time hear) Lulu in concert. She was, of course, superb. She has one of the finest rock voices this land has ever produced and, maybe I'm just an old softy, but I did find it very moving that she has only recently found her own voice as a songwriter along with the confidence to sing her own songs. I bought a signed copy of her cd of those songs. I do find great satisfaction in completing previously unfinished business, even if it takes me fifty years.

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