Sunday, 17 December 2017

Of Unintended Stalking And Magic

I am not a stalker; perhaps that should read that I am not a stalker on purpose, although I do accept that sometimes I get a bit more enthusiastic about my musical likes than some find comfortable or even comprehensible.

Gone are the days when the only way to find out about your musicians of choice was to scour the classifieds in the back of Melody Maker or write to their record company or a radio station. I've done all those and I can testify to the excitement experienced on receiving an acknowledgement. These days, being a fan is so easy. Social networking and mobile communications make everyone available all day every day. We musicians are made to feel we are not doing the job if we don't play the game. Pretence and imitation add to the blurring of personal territory.

When I started listening to music that was not the music of my parents there were few gurus. Like many, I took John Peel as one of mine. Later, Radio Geronimo was required listening. For that brief window during the 60s I was an avid listener to the so-called "pirate" Radio London.

the MVGalaxy from an article by Gerry Bishop, Hans Knot and John S. Platt  (

My credibility may have been enhanced had I been able to claim Caroline as my radio station of choice, but that wasn't to be. Radio reception of Caroline was poor and sporadic and I preferred the playlist on Big L. It was John Peel's first job when he returned to the UK from the USA. Listening to him was how I discovered musicians and bands that I have continued to follow throughout my life. One of those bands was Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. Although he didn't feature them on his show as often as he did, say, Tyrannosaurus Rex, John Peel played Beefheart often. He had strange stories to tell, many of which seemed to revolve around telephones. I have a vague recollection that he was at least once berated by Captain Beefheart (later to be known more widely as the fine artist Don van Vliet) for not being at home when he phoned. Captain B. also appeared to know exactly when the phone was about to ring. Incomprehensible as it may seem now, our telephones were once large blocks of electrickery that had to be plumbed into our houses. Mobile phones were only ever seen on Star Trek or spy films. We had no idea that mobile technology would become so pervasive so quickly in the late twentieth century or a revolution would take place in the way in which we conduct ourselves in the early twenty-first century as a result of "social media".

In the late sixties and early seventies I heard tracks from "Safe As Milk", "Strictly Personal" and "Trout Mask Replica" on the radio and bought the records to hear more of the tracks in their album contexts. No one else seemed to be making music like this, particularly by the time it got to "Trout Mask Replica" and "Lick My Decals Off Baby". Unfortunately, in my family, no one else liked the music ... their loss.

Fast forward to me at the age of seventeen. My family had recently moved to a village near Hertford  and I had been going out with a Stevenage girl for about a year, long enough to get into a routine. Our Sundays were shaped by the church attendance (probably mentioned in other essays here) of our families ... church, Sunday dinner with her family, more church, tea with my family, drive her home to Stevenage. "Clear Spot" had been released and I loved every track. Then came the news that Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band were playing at The Mecca in Stevenage on Sunday, 22nd April 1973.

Formerly known as The Locarno Ballroom, The Mecca was indeed a mecca long before it metamorphosed. Along with Bowes Lyon House - the town centre youth club - the Locarno saw most of the famous bands of the sixties on stage, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who (several times), The Small Faces, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Paul Simon and many others. By 1972 the big live gigs had reduced in number although dances were still held there between bingo sessions. That there was a gig there at all was one thing, but that it was Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band was something quite amazing. I was challenged to make a choice between the normal Sunday routine and something utterly extraordinary. I think it was one of those relationship tests that seemed to appear from time to time. Of course I went on down to the big dig ... er, gig. I didn't know why it had to be a contest. There was no question in my mind that we could go together. There was no question in hers that we would go at all. We nearly ended there, but we went on to get married a couple of years later, although she always left the room if ever I put on a Captain Beefheart record. This is my long-winded way of trying to say that it feels as though The Magic Band and I have a long and sometimes complicated relationship.

You probably know that Don stopped performing music, moved into the desert and took up painting as his main occupation. Sadly he passed away in 2010 as a result of MS. In January 2004, though, John Drumbo French brought a reconstituted Magic Band to The Royal Festival Hall. Made up of members from different stages of the Band's forty-strong list of musicians and played some of that music I thought I would never hear played live again. That evening they were supported by The Fall - another of John Peel's favourite bands, albeit one that didn't touch me at all. Since 2004, though, I have seen The Magic Band play many times on their return tours to Europe. This one that finished on Sunday, 26th November 2017 was, it seems, the final tour.

The Magic Band 2017  (l-r Eric Klerks, John French, Jonathan Sindelman, Max Kutner, Andy Niven)

I saw them twice that weekend - on Friday night at the Garage in Highbury and on Saturday night in Norwich. Norwich was more relaxed and the band played a storm. By many accounts the following and final night in Essex was even better. After the show on Saturday, all members of the band eventually found their way into the bar at Norwich Arts Centre. Anyone who knows that space will be familiar with its intimacy. I managed to hold a conversation with every member of the band and was once more impressed by how nice it is when musicians make themselves available, no matter how exhausted they must be. There is a huge difference between musicians who meet and mingle and those who don't. Some need the safety of a structured space, Peggy Seeger and Donovan, are examples of people who choose to keep a desk between them and the public as they chatted and signed merchandise. The Magic Band, along with others like Arthur Brown, a man who needs to prove nothing, are prepared to mingle. This attitude is in such contrast to a band I've followed for decades, when after a show this year in Nottingham, about twenty people were waiting behind Rock City where the vehicles were being loaded. Everyone was keeping a safe and respectful distance. I just thought it would be nice to say a quick hello, thanks and wish them well for the remainder of the tour. I didn't expect anyone to know my name or remember extended conversations we have enjoyed in past decades. I waited for a long time. Eventually members of the band came by. They weren't the stars. They were this year's new young musicians. There was no danger of anyone being hurt, but not one of them stopped or even acknowledged the greetings and good wishes of those assembled. They seemed to gather into a single file and, eyes fixed ahead, marched right through us while road crew cleared an unnecessary path. It looked so arrogant. It felt so dismissive. Forty-five years of support for this band and >£250 spent on that evening alone - half of that on merchandise - should not have made any difference (any and all of that was, after all, my choice), but somehow it did. I suspect some of them might have liked to chat, but they were following orders. The stars of the band are knocking on a bit and no doubt need their beauty sleep, but what a difference in attitudes!

Simple things can make all the difference. As far as The Magic Band was concerned it was being able to talk to Andy Niven and Max Kutner about their Android Trio project (well worth a listen by the way). With Jonathan Sindelman I talked synthesisers. Eric Klerks (the third Android Trio member) made my night even better by giving me a huge smile that shone like the sun and threw his arms round me in a lovely embrace.

I may not be a stalker by intent but temptation, by definition, is hard to resist. Perhaps i can express this modest thank you to all those musicians who have brought me so much pleasure over so many years.

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