Thursday, 18 July 2019


Moondog (1969 Moondog album).jpg 

It was all my brother’s doing. Some years older than me, already adult while I was still a child, he educated me — without meaning to — in good taste. He and my other brother brought books into the house, where before there were few, and all those discs of shiny black vinyl encapsulating the newest ‘sounds’. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, the record companies hit on a canny marketing tool, the ‘sampler’: budget-price anthologies collecting single tracks from their latest releases. We lapped them up. 

CBS’s Fill Your Head With Rock (1970) was an innovation — a double album, a bigger canvas allowing for a loosely thematic arrangement of tracks. By the time you got to Side Three, you were skating the border between singer-songwriters and folk-rock. There were Laura Nyro and Leonard Cohen jostling alongside Al Stewart and Trees. But in between was something very weird. ‘Stamping Ground’, an instrumental track for orchestra, by someone — or something — called ‘Moondog’. An insistent rising motif over repetitive percussion, preceded by a man’s voice intoning an aphorism about “men” and “mice”, it wound itself into your brain like a coiled snake and lodged there. So, of course, my brother bought the Moondog album. The marketing pitch had worked. I don’t think he played it much, but I loved it, and I wanted to know where it came from.

‘Moondog’, I discovered, was really Louis Hardin, an American musician of classical training, born in 1916, who had spent much of the previous twenty years busking in New York. He took his name from a pet dog who used to “”howl at the moon more than any dog I know”. Blinded from his teens after an accident with a dynamite cap, he was a familiar figure around 54th Street in his horned helmet and loose-fitting robes, playing a variety of instruments he’d invented himself. ‘The Viking of Sixth Avenue’, they called him. David Bowie, on his first promotional tour to the US in 1971, encountered him there, a model of self-liberation at a point where, as Bowie later recalled, his own ‘Ziggy’ persona was beginning to gel. Moondog’s earliest recordings are, literally, street art: field recordings with titles like ‘Lullaby (2 W 46th Street)’ made on the thoroughfares of the Big Apple, his own idiosyncratic music-making in competition with passing sirens and fog horns. It was right that Moondog shared Side Three of the CBS sampler with Laura Nyro’s ‘Gibsom Street’, that chilling evocation of backstreet abortion from the ‘Bronx Brontë’: both breathe the spirit of subway vents and tenement fire escapes. 

When I was at school, I remember a lot of talk about ‘fusion’. All music was going to come together. Deep Purple and The Moody Blues recorded with symphony orchestras. Miles Davis shared concert bills with rock artists. The Soft Machine played at the Proms. That’s why we middle-class boys loved ‘progressive rock’, with its complicated time signatures and classical pretensions (so brilliantly lampooned by Jonathan Coe in The Rotters’ Club, where one of his schoolboy characters — who just happens to have the same first name as me — labours away at his prog masterpiece, ’Apotheosis Of The Necromancer’). It didn’t quite turn out that way, the ‘fusion’ thing. As the digital revolution made everything available, it makes everything avoidable, too, isolating us within our silos. Instead, we must look for hidden pathways through music, subterranean channels linking one tributary to another. Moondog is one of those. As a child he’d seen the Arapaho Sun Dance; later he’d played tom-tom with the Blackfoot tribe in Idaho and found a route through percussion to jazz, all the while obsessed with the counterpoint of J.S. Bach and the textures of European classical music. Others recognised and taught me to recognise that, somehow, this outsider’s outsider was on the inside track of coolness. I found a song about him on Pentangle’s 1968 album, Sweet Child. Janis Joplin recorded his madrigal ‘All Is Loneliness’ with Big Brother And The Holding Company in 1967. Frank Zappa praised his ‘dada clockwork’. Even T. Rex smuggled a topical reference into 1972’s ‘Rabbit Fighter’ (‘Tramp king of the city he’s my friend / Moondog’s just a prophet to the end’).

Big label interest peaked in 1969, when Jim Guercio, producer of Chicago and Blood, Sweat And Tears, landed him a deal with Columbia, hired forty accomplished musicians and laid down the breakthrough album, the one my brother would so presciently buy in 1970. Representing over thirty years of composition, it distils into little more than half an hour what Moondog was about. A chaconne in memory of Charlie Parker (‘Bird’s Lament’) and ballet music written for the Martha Graham company (‘Witch Of Endor’) nestle alongside a Swing-style homage to Benny Goodman (‘Good For Goodie’). Everywhere, except beneath the interlacing strings of ‘Ode To Venus’, we hear the driving rhythms of his extensive percussion battery.

In later life he moved to Europe and entered on an Indian summer of renewed compositional fervour. Apparently, he left hundreds of unperformed works at his death in 1999. His last appearance in Britain was at the Meltdown Festival in 1995, at the invitation of Elvis Costello, another fan. Sadly, I missed that. Moondog described his music as being about “the art of concealing art: maximum effect but with minimum means”. Not surprising, therefore, that he is held up as a godfather of minimalism — Philip Glass and Steve Reich both revere him, though he disclaimed the accolade himself. The ‘freak folk’ movement of Devendra Banhart et alalso owes him a debt (not just for his unconventional dress sense). And I owe my brother. Big-time.

[First published in RnR]

Thursday, 17 August 2017

David Bowie

Oliver James
ISBN 978-1-7822049-0-9 Softcover. 192 pp.

This is a tale of two half-brothers. One of them, Terry, became schizophrenic and committed suicide. The other, David, reinvented himself and became one of the biggest rock stars of the last fifty years. There was a history of mental illness in the family – three maternal aunts also went mad – and a toxic legacy of shared childhood from which David emerged as the favoured son and Terry as the emotionally neglected sibling.

James’s book is part psychobiography and part self-help manual. The author is a practising therapist and a firm believer in ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’. Genes play little part in determining who we are, he says: childhood adversity causes psychosis, not genes. Believing his family cursed by madness, Bowie avoided the same fate for himself by inventing ‘personas’ – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke – and playing them out on the public stage until he reached a state of psychic equilibrium in midlife and made peace with himself. This is a model, James argues, for how we can all develop a dialogue between different parts of the self and reintegrate them, producing new personas and pushing old ones into the background.

James began writing his book before Bowie’s untimely death in 2016, so he cannot be accused of ‘cashing in’. He traces effectively how Terry’s experiences surface in his brother’s lyrics and how personas, Ziggy in particular, enabled ‘David Bowie’ (another assumed identity) to reconnect with David Jones (his birth name). I was less convinced by James’s efforts to turn Bowie’s psychodrama into everyone’s struggle to keep it together. Many of us find something to identify with in Bowie – be it the sense of alienation, the gender-variance, the self-questioning, the restless need like the whale shark’s to keep swimming in order to stay alive. But there was only one Ziggy.

[First published in RnR

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Laura Nyro

Revisiting Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968)

There was soul, gospel, Brill Building pop, Motown, doo-wop, the jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, a touch of Broadway, even a hint of opera. It was a frantic synthesis of so many of the styles I was coming to appreciate. I never expected to find them together in one place, and the mystery was compounded when I found them in someone about as far removed from my nerdy suburban self as it was possible to get. Laura Nyro was a feisty Italian-American from the Bronx, of mixed Jewish-Catholic background. But it is to her that I owe my lifelong passion for women singer-songwriters.

I’d probably encountered her before without even realising it. Her earliest songs were picked up by other artists. I remember Pan’s People on Top Of The Pops, a vision in white polyester, applying their painfully literal choreography to ‘Wedding Bell Blues’, a hit for The 5th Dimension in 1969. Then an older brother bought The Rock Machine I Love You, a CBS sampler that included ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’, and I had my first exposure to Nyro’s own voice. Alternately soothing and shrill, ranging unfettered over several octaves, it was not quite of this world. Of course, I had to have the album from which this track was drawn.  

Nothing, I discovered, about Eli And The Thirteenth Confession was conventional. Famously, the original US pressing used perfumed ink on the lyric sheet, enabling Nyro’s college fans to identify each other by smelling its lingering aroma in each other’s dorms. No such luck with my UK copy. And some olfactory prompts would have been useful, for I never met anyone else who shared my taste, or even knew how to pronounce her name correctly (think “Nero”, like the Roman emperor).

The lyrics were obscure but poetic (“Silver was the colour | Winter was a snowbell | Mother of the windboys | Livin’ off the lovewell”). Sometimes she just made words up: “Surry down to a stoned soul picnic”. Humpty Dumpty tells Lewis Carroll’s Alice that words mean whatever he chooses them to mean: this seemed to be Nyro’s position likewise. I envied her for getting away with it. At other times a line of pellucid simplicity would jump out at you: “Emily, you ornament the earth | For me”. Her world was peopled by larger-than-life characters, God, the Devil, someone she called ‘The Captain’. Later in life, her music loosened up (to its detriment, in my view) and she’d refer to this early work as “a little crazy”, but to a young man ill at ease in his own skin it was a revelation.

There were celebrations of alcohol (‘Sweet Blindness’) and a cautionary tale about drug abuse (‘Poverty Train’). I suspected that the concerted whole was a song-cycle about coming of age. For a teenage boy grappling with the “facts of life”, she seemed to allude to dark secrets. The invitation on the final track to “super ride inside my lovething” was the most explicit proposal I was likely to hear all year. Present throughout was an inescapable theme of neediness, of dependence on a man, but on first exposure my antennae were barely attuned to other hints in the lyrics. When Nyro's bisexuality was finally confirmed in the obituaries, there were murmurs of “I told you so” as fans looked back to ‘Emmie’, a track on this early album infused with a near-romantic intensity.

Released in March 1968, when she was only twenty, Eli is a work of astonishing maturity. Later, as I learned more about her, I understood that the artistry went even deeper than I’d realised. Having transferred from her original label and won the support of David Geffen, she was given unprecedented creative control by Columbia. The careful sequencing of tracks across the two sides of the LP was hers. She insisted on accompanying herself on piano at a time when girls were supposed to be singers, not instrumentalists. The abrupt tempo changes and weird jazz voicings of her piano style were left unregulated. It would fall to others to make her songs hits by smoothing out their contours, simplifying the harmony – Nyro stuck to her guns.

What I realise now – but barely intuited at the time – is that this album lies at a cusp of Sixties music, a time when women were transitioning from singer with the band or soloist performing songs written by professional (usually male) songwriters to the empowered singer-songwriter figure who emerges at the end of the decade. We think of Carole King, and Joni Mitchell. But it’s no accident that Laura Nyro is the only female songwriter that Joni Mitchell namechecks with reverence.

She did one concert on British television, in 1971. Somehow I missed that – probably doing my homework – which is a crying shame, as the BBC, with customary disregard for my feelings, has since wiped all but seventeen seconds of the video master. I never did get to see her live. Alas, she died of ovarian cancer in 1997, but she lives on inside me and inside all those whose lives she has touched.

First published in R2 (Rock'n'Reel)

Monday, 23 January 2017

John Lennon in Bermuda

Scott Neil and Graham Foster
ISBN 978-1927750-02-5 Softcover. 120 pp.

The summer before his death, John Lennon hired a 43-foot yacht and, with a small crew, sailed to Bermuda for a little R&R. Arriving after a storm-tossed passage, he rented a house on the island and reconnected with his muse. The result was his final album, Double Fantasy, named after a freesia he spotted on a visit to the local botanical gardens.

It’s hard to believe there’s any cranny of Lennon’s life that hasn’t been picked over, but journalist Scott Neil has found one of the less-explored and tracked down those he met in Bermuda. The Lennon recalled by islanders was not the self-obsessed star they expected. He was polite, laid-back, into healthy eating and clean living. A generous, companionable man who returned favours and remembered kindnesses shown him. After five years out of the limelight, he relished going incognito as ‘John Greene’ and rewarded those who respected his privacy.

The book’s style is a little feverish at the outset, as the “former Beatle” battles crashing waves, alone at the helm against a “storm of Shakespearean proportions”. But once the prose settles down, the story is well-told and the reminiscences deftly woven into a highly readable narrative. It’s a tale about negotiating celebrity and finding the quietude to write. Songs like ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Watching The Wheels’ – Neil shows how both were inspired by events in Bermuda – may not be Lennon’s greatest but they fulfil his aim of writing for people of his own age group.

The sensitive artwork is by Bermudian artist Graham Foster, who also designed the memorial sculpture to Lennon in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens. Best of all are the scattered photos of the singer, some with son Sean in tow. He looks relaxed, like a man ‘starting over’ (another song-title), blissfully unaware of what lay ahead.

First published in R2 (Rock'n'Reel)

Monday, 5 December 2016

Alan McClure

Everything Is Fine (Until It's Not) (LOST WASP RECORDS, 2014, CD)

Alan McClure is a man to watch. A 36 year-old from south-west Scotland, he first crossed my radar as lead singer and chief songwriter to quirky combo The Razorbills. Now he arrives with a solo album, confirming his status as a profoundly interesting writer.

Here he’s backed by The Mountain Sound Session. According to the press release, they “comprise some of Hull’s finest musicians”, and I’m inclined to believe it. Most of the songs sit on a bed of sensitive two-guitar arrangements, McClure’s own fingerpicking blending with Dave Gawthorpe’s classical guitar. The arrangements never overwhelm the voice.

As ever, McClure’s lyrics take you to unexpected places. ‘Ugandan Sun’ remoulds a folk motif about forbidden love, complete with recurring refrain line, to skewer the state-sponsored homophobia of a certain African nation. The title track is full of his trademark verbal dexterity: statements are advanced, qualified, withdrawn, forcing you to attend to what the man’s saying. But he does easy tunefulness as well. ‘The Notion’ has a relaxed Laurel Canyon vibe, harking back like much of his music to the 1960s, while ‘Rant’ ironically updates Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ to the context of Glasgow dockyards and the ‘empty Highland’.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Peter Gabriel

Growing Up Live/Still Growing Up Live & Unwrapped (3 DVDs)

The voice has aged, raspier in its lower register than in his Genesis days. But as the (mostly young) audiences chant “PETER! PETER!” we’re reminded that only a couple of letters separate the showman from the shaman. “My friends would think I was a nut / Turning water into wine,” he sings in ‘Solsbury Hill’, as he rides round the stage on a folding bike.  Peter Gabriel may not be a miracle-worker but he is still a hugely charismatic presence.

These DVDs (predominantly reissued material) record the tours following the release of his album Up. The most spectacular is a 2003 Milan gig, where the band perform on a revolving stage in mid-arena. Aided by designer Robert Lepage, Gabriel’s love of spectacle is undiminished. He hangs upside down from an elevated set in ‘Downside Up’, perambulates the stage in a zorb ball for ‘Growing Up’ as if suspended in amniotic fluid. Close-ups of Gabriel’s penetrating eyes are intercut with shots of orange-clad techies toiling like Nibelungs beneath the stage.

The 2004 gigs find Gabriel introducing the songs in French. The theatricals are toned down, the setlist different. As the previous year, daughter Melanie joins on backing vocals and there is a touching moment as father and daughter hold hands in ‘Come Talk To Me’. But the finest cut here is on the DVD ‘extras’: a joyous duet on ‘In Your Eyes’ with Mauritanian Daby Touré.

The band is tight, with long-serving guitarist David Rhodes a stand-out, and sound quality excellent.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Hofmannsthal poems

Dredged up from an old computer disk – my clumsy efforts from the 1990s to English three poems by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) written a century earlier. If memory serves, the occasion was the possible publication by Carcanet Press of a volume of Hofmannsthal’s verse. Michael Schmidt, Carcanet’s editorial director, was unimpressed by my locutions, rightly suspecting that Michael Hamburger would have done it so much better. The poems are ‘Manche freilich…’ (1895), ‘Die Beiden’ (1896) and ‘Über Vergänglichkeit’ (1894).


Some there are who must perish below,
Where the weighty oars of the galleys scour,
Others dwell aloft by the helm,
Know the flight of birds and the resort of stars.

Some will always lie with heavy limbs
Among the roots of tangled life,
While for others places are set
With the sibyls, the empresses,
And there they will sit as if at home,
Light heads on lighter shoulders.

But a shadow falls from those lives
Across into the other lives,
And the light are bound to the heavy
As the air and earth are bound:

Weariness of quite-forgotten peoples
I cannot dismiss from my eyelids,
Nor ward off from my terrified soul
The silent fall of distant stars.

Many fates are woven next to mine,
Existence merges all of them in play,
And my part is more than this life’s
Slender flame or narrow lyre.


She held the goblet in one hand
-- Her mouth and chin were like its rim --
So light and certain was her gait
No droplet from the glass escaped.

So light and firm was his command:
He rode upon a sprightly horse,
And with a single careless gesture
Brought it, quivering, to a stop.

And yet, when it was time for him
To take the dainty vessel from her,
Its weight defied their joint attempt:

For both of them were trembling so
That neither found the other’s hand
And ruby wine spilt on the ground.


Upon my cheeks I feel still their breath:
How can it be that these so recent days
Are gone, gone for ever, as if in death?

This is a thing that no one fully knows,
Beyond lament, too dreadful to erase:
That everything glides by us, ebbs and flows.

And that my own self, quite unbound, appeared
Gliding out from a little child and rose
Towards me silent, like a dog, and weird.

A hundred years ago I too was there
And my forebears, asleep in shrouds, are near
To me, akin as I to my own hair,

As one with me as I with my own hair.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Rupert Brooke

Last year, among so many solemn centenaries of the First World War, we remembered the ill-fated Gallipoli landings – part of a campaign, intended to knock the Ottoman Turks out of the war, which cost the lives of so many British and Empire servicemen. The soldier-poet Rupert Brooke never made it to the landings. Bound for the Dardanelles, his troop ship was moored off the Greek island of Skyros when he developed septicaemia from an insect bite and died. He is buried on the island.

Rupert Brooke, “the handsomest young man in England” in the opinion of WB Yeats, has become a poster-boy for the Lost Generation.  His Cambridgeshire connections are well-known. In 1909 he took lodgings in Grantchester in a former farmhouse called The Orchard (doubling as a tea room even then) before moving next door to The Old Vicarage a couple of years later. Early in 1912, frustrated in love and thwarted in his bid for a Fellowship at King’s College, he suffered some form of nervous breakdown. Recuperation abroad was recommended, and in May we find him in the Café des Westens in Berlin, seated at a table by the window, reminiscing about his skinny dips in Byron’s Pool:

Here I am, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.

‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, from which these lines come, has become one of his most famous poems, a deft combination of nostalgia, luxuriant language and whimsy that stays just this side of sentimentality. Or so I would argue. George Orwell was less impressed:

Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’, the star poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of ‘country’ sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem ‘Grantchester’ is something worse than worthless but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document. [Inside the Whale (1940).]

My impression is that Orwell was a sensitive reader of other writers. As a thinker of the Left, he was naturally suspicious of writers who didn’t share his politics, but he was also a big enough critic to appreciate literary quality wherever it surfaced. If he didn’t find literary quality, he still recognised that a writer could be read historically as a voice of his time – which seems to be his approach to Brooke. The long, nuanced essay he wrote on Kipling shows all these strategies in play. Conversely, a writer could be on the same side of the political fence as Orwell but still be chastised for irresponsibility. A few pages after his comment on Brooke in ‘Inside the Whale’, he takes a pop at Auden. In Auden’s poem ‘Spain’ there’s a reference to “necessary murder”. Orwell doubts that Auden had seen murder at first hand: “Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled”. Yet, overall, Orwell declares the poem to be “one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war”.

But I digress. Back to Brooke’s poem and his “accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names”. As a Cambridgeshire resident of twenty years standing, I’m perhaps more attentive to these place names than Orwell was (he was living in Hertfordshire in early 1940 when his essay appeared).

Brooke’s strategy is first to contrast England, where an “unofficial rose” blooms under an “unregulated sun”, where feet may trespass on the grass, with the Teutonic passion for order and regulation:

… and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten.

Then he narrows his focus to tell us why, of all Cambridgeshire villages, he prefers “the lovely hamlet Grantchester”. By contrast, he says,

… Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.

In the margin of the manuscript Brooke wrote a list of villages to be worked into the poem. Comberton was on the list but didn’t make the final cut, being replaced by Trumpington. Denis Cheason, in his book The Cambridgeshire of Rupert Brooke, suggests that Brooke may not even have visited all the places he mentions. In any case, we locals are not to take offence:

To those of you who are residents of the villages, do not be dismayed by Rupert Brooke’s comments. He was only joking, or perhaps belittling neighbouring villages to highlight the Grantchester which he loved.

No offence is taken, for the choice of names is very obviously driven by the rhyme scheme: “Coton/verboten”, “rhymes/crimes”. But could there be any more behind it? In her slim volume on the history of The Old Vicarage, Mary Archer concedes that the place names “appear to have been chosen more for convenient scansion than for any accurate local allusion”. However, she goes on to suggest possible, if far-fetched, sources for the references to Barton and Madingley.  For Barton she quotes the anonymous ballad ‘The Knocking Ghosts of Barton’, which is almost in the same octosyllabic metre as Brooke’s poem:

Jiminy, criminy, what a lark,
You must not stir out after dark,
For if you do you’ll get a mark –
From this knocking ghost of Barton.

And of Madingley it is said that, in the late nineteenth century, a Rector of High Church leanings promised the villagers a High Mass on Christmas Eve. The squire forbade his tenants to attend but they went, defiantly, and were turned out of their homes on Christmas Day. It’s the sort of story that might have appealed to Brooke, had it come to his ears.

But neither Mary Archer nor Francis Burkitt and Christine Jennings, in their book Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester, have any suggestions for Coton.  Another work, Coton Through the Ages (Kathleen Fowle and others, 2013), lists a number of crimes and misdemeanours over the centuries – at least one case of arson and a fair bit of sheep-rustling – but I don’t see anything likely to tickle the fancy of the “handsomest young man in England”.

So do these place names go down in the annals of literature merely as handy rhymes? As “accumulated vomit”? Or are we missing a trick here?