Extra: One Thing, or maybe Five…

AMANDA & JACK PALMER, KOKO, FRIDAY NIGHT
I thought it a cute present for daughter’s birthday to take her to see a dad and his daughter play some odd cover songs. Of course, the fact that we’d never heard a note of Amanda Palmer’s music was neither here or there – the concept was good. And, as it turned out, inspired. She came on stage (at the unfeasibly early start time of 7.30) to an audience made up of Steampunks, ex-Goths, Chaps, ex-Chaps, ex-self-harmers – just your basic London list of niche tribes of all stripes. She picked up a ukelele and started a song:

“In my mind
In a future five years from now
I’m one hundred and twenty pounds
And I never get hung over
Because I will be the picture of discipline
Never minding what state I’m in
And I will be someone I admire
And it’s funny how I imagined
That I would be that person now
But it does not seem to have happened…”

So, first song in, we have a witty start. She’s had a baby since last touring and this sets the gig up nicely. As she puts down the uke, she wonders about her reaction to having a baby –  “I’d play nice folk songs, and then I’d would just start writing nice songs about nice things, all major key songs about my children, all “life is good”… but I’d want to kill myself. What I actually just realised is, by making this record with my dad…” she trails off to hoots of laughter from the audience. “And lo and behold, we covered a bunch of nice folk songs… so maybe I’m exorcising the thing like some satanic demon.”

There’s something sort of old school about her though, so I’m thinking… Nellie McKay meets Liza Minnelli? For the second song she moves to the piano, and a more typical number – “Machete” – ensues. At which point my reference changes. Flailing arms at the piano, smashing the keys hard, Palmer booms out a song that seems to deal in some major angst. And I’m thinking… Sophie Tucker meets Patti Smith? A baby’s cry breaks the mood and she calls a halt midway. “I actually don’t know what to do, cause when I hear the baby I’m supposed to get up and walk offstage. It’s too distracting!” She eventually finds her way back into the song. “I don’t much like this song, says daughter, “but I really like her…”

And it’s hard not to warm to her, especially when the bizarre parade of special guests starts parading. First up is Neil Gaiman and (their) son. He hands the baby off to Amanda at the piano and reads a sleeve-note entitled “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”, with spookily perfect keyboard interjections by baby. It’s hard to convey the amusement value that sometimes exists in live performances, but I’m up for anything that breaks the mould of earnest “Here’s a song from the new album” gigs. I still fondly remember an Aimee Mann and Michael Penn gig where their friend, comedian Patton Oswalt, set up each song – often witheringly, scathingly – after being their support act.

Proud dad is followed by a current collaborater, Edward Ka-Spel, who daughter describes, accurately and hilariously, in terms not fit to print. He is barefoot, has a cape, some strange optics on his nose, and sings slightly creepy poetry. I’m thinking… Edward Gorey meets Nico? At this point, dad Jack is introduced, and does a solid if slightly stolid version of Leonard Cohen’s “You Got Me Singing”. He sings, in Johnny Cash’s register, an affecting plain song, very much Greenwich Village folkie pre-Dylan’s arrival. Not like the fruity actor-ness of a Theodore Bickel or Sebastian Cabot, more like a non-Italian version of Dominic Chianese (who played Uncle Junior in The Sopranos).

By the time we’ve reached “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” and “The Skye Boat Song”, we’re feeling caught up in a Mighty Boosh version of Playschool, especially as the latter is introduced by another poet, a tall thin man dressed in high heels. At this point, daughter needed more wine. Amanda and Dad work their way through Phil Ochs’ “In the Heat of the Summer” – a piece of protest doggerel that hadn’t aged well, before attempting Sinead O’Connor, More Len, Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” (her sister comes on to sing on this) and John Grant’s slightly clunky cry for tolerance and difference, “Glacier”.

Amanda sometimes seemed a little, well, needy. But I get it, this genre is all about sharing/bonding/fandom/belonging etc – you can see she’s been a solid influence on Lady Gaga. As she talks to her patrones in the audience, super-fans who are currently crowdfunding her career, I’m now thinking… PT Barnum crossed with Lene Lovich?

Amanda and Dad end with Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” featuring a bravura piano arrangement before encoring with a couple of Dresden Dolls songs (I have no idea who the Dresden Dolls are, but Palmer was a part of them). Thus ends a night of variety and as we head down the warren of stairs to the cool outside air, I’m no closer to understanding how to describe AP & Pa. I have one last thought… Ethel Merman meets Tori Amos…

 

Extra! Woodstock Mania, part 3

Woodstock Four The John Cuneo Woodstock Express

woodstock

John is an illustrator that I’ve worked with through the years, and it was great to finally meet him and his wife, Jan, when we pulled into Woodstock from Connecticut. John and Jan live in a house that was part of the Robertson spread, mostly used as a crash pad and rehearsal space during the time of The Band’s Woodstock years (John says that one visitor, returning to the scene of his old band days told him “I’ve had sex in every room of this house!”). We settle for a fine lunch and conversations that range far and wide. Later, concerned that we haven’t seen enough, John puts on a guided tour of the locale, taking in Dutch barns, The Levon Helm Memorial Boulevard, the Byrdcliffe theatre (located just above what was Bob Dylan’s home, and the slopes of Overlook mountain). After fond farewells we take our leave later than we should and end up lost in the wrong part of NYC in a snowstorm (that’ll teach me to say we didn’t need satnav), and are saved by the directions of a Josh Homme lookalike police officer, wearing the largest bullet-proof vest I’ve ever seen, printed with the words Strategic Tactical Unit. Finally we sink into the warm snug of the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village (where Jack Kerouac penned the Subterraneans). Later, I find this version of “Up on Cripple Creek” – shot at the same time as the better-known clip of “King Harvest” – recorded in John and Jan’s house. Great loosey-goosey drums in the false start, Levon’s cigarette insouciantly dangling from his lips, and a great moment where Garth decides to stroke his beard rather than play the wah-wah clavinet line…

Woodstock Five East Village Night
As our old friends Rick and Liney guide us through the doors of the Summit Bar, located in the old Alphabet City section (so named because of Avenues A, B, C, and D, the only avenues in Manhattan to have single-letter names) we are struck by two things. One is the unique bouquet of cardamom, as the bartender infuses sugar spirit with the world’s finest pod, and the other is the sound of Levon Helm singing “Up on Cripple Creek” – I mean, what are the chances? Hearing this, Rick says, “Do you remember his great part in The Shooter?” I’d forgotten it, but Rick brings it all back home… Mark Wahlberg plays a sniper caught in a double-cross and set-up by a hawkish senator and, in the scene in question, drives up to a house deep in the woods. He glances at his companion, saying, “Welcome to Tennessee, the patron state of shootin’ stuff” and they get out of the truck and knock on the door. What follows is another of Levon’s great film cameos…

 

Wahlberg (Bob Lee Swaggart): “Suppose I was looking for a man to make a 2,200 yard cold-bore shot? Who’s alive that could do that?“
Mr Rate: “Seems I heard about a shot like that bein’ made not too long ago – said the guy’s name was Bob Lee Swaggart – never met the man so I wouldn’t know.”
Wahlberg replies, “Yeah, they said that alright”.
Mr Rate: “They also said artificial sweeteners were safe, WMDs were in I-raq and Anna Nicole married for love…!”

We eventually tumbled out of the Summit and into the warm embrace of the great staff at Kafana across the road, where we drank Serbian Cabernet Sauvignon and put the world to rights. And so our Woodstock-related adventures came to an end, but if you are interested in the music that was made there and the history of how a small town in the Saugerties came to be such an artistic and musical powerhouse, read Barney Hoskyns’ fine new book, Small Town Talk.

Oh, and Five Things gold awards to: The Marlton Hotel at 5 West 8th Street, The Summit Bar at 133 Avenue C (try the oysters) and Kafana, a great Balkan restaurant at 116 Avenue C.

Postscript. I took a copy of Small Town Talk to give to John. A few days later he emailed, saying how much he was enjoying the book, and attached this…

!dylanbassett

 

Extra! Josh Ritter

FROM RIHANNA TO RITTER
Gabe and I take turns DJing as he drives us back from a day trip to Old Trafford watching Leicester and Man U draw. It was wonderful to see Riad Mahrez up close, and the game featured a surprisingly deft performance by Marouane Fellaini (who would have expected that? Not me). I trawl around my iPhone to find things that I think Gabe’ll like and Dion’s “King of the New York Streets” gets the thumbs up. If you’ve not heard it, rectify immediately – it’s a terrific romp in the sound and style of Garland Jeffreys, or those tracks that Ronnie Spector cut with the E Street Band.

The newer songs that leap out as keepers are Rhianna’s “Desperado”, a sensational slice of noise with Robyn Rihanna Fenty’s wonderfully supple and slurry vocal wrapped around a industrial morass of funkiness, and a couple from Josh Ritter’s latest record. I’ve always been interested by Ritter, while never bothering to investigate much further. In general I find the whole Americana singer-songwriter thing a busted flush, peopled by whiny voices and dull songs, but Ritter is driven and clever, with the same vivid delivery and whipsmart wordplay as, say, the undervalued Steve Forbert (or, maybe, a rockier Lyle Lovett).

“Sermon on the Rocks” sees him and his great Royal City Band expand their sonic palette, alternating between a fearsome wallop and a delicate charm. Favourite on the road home from Manchester was “Getting Ready to Get Down”, a song in the mould of August Darnell’s great “There but for the Grace of God (Go I)”, a rocking tale of parental fears, small town morals and a daughter’s rebellion, spat out like prime Chuck Berry:

“Mama got a look at you and got a little worried/Papa got a look at you and got a little worried,
The pastor got a look and said “Y’all had better hurry/Send her off to a little bible college in Missouri!
And now you come back sayin’ you know a little bit about/every little thing they ever hoped you’d never figure out,

Eve ate the apple ’cause the apple was sweet/What kinda God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs?”

Each verse has another cracker:
“Four long years studyin’ the Bible/infidels, Jezebels, Salomes and Delilahs…”
“To really be a saint, you gotta really be a virgin/dry as a page in the King James Version…”

“And when you get damned in the popular opinion/it’s just another damn of the damns you’re not giving…”

Powered by a rockabilly/afrobeat/funk guitar line sitting on a big four-on-the-floor and a rootsy Hammond, we put it on repeat and it flies us down the outside lane of the M6 in fine, fine style.

Later, trawling for stuff on Josh, I find the official video, explained here…
“Hey All! A few days after we put out “Getting Ready to Get Down” as a single, my great friend, Doug Rice, discovered an amazing homemade video online. It was a guy in his dance studio teaching the world line-dancing steps to “Get Down”! We contacted Cef, who it turns out is a line-dancing instructor from Idaho, told him how great we thought it was, and next thing you know we had even more footage to work with. We knew this stuff had to be shared. Cef is a great guy and I thank him (and his wonderful class!) wholeheartedly for sharing his pure talent and enthusiasm with me and letting me share it with you…

I also came across this thoughtful video made for PBS News Hour, rather prosaically titled “How does a Singer Songwriter Deal With Self-Doubt On Stage?” I’m digging the threads,  especially the Paul Simenon-like paint-splattered boiler suit that he wears on stage.

Extra! Woodstock Mania, part 2

Woodstock Two Full Tilt, Theatre Royal, Stratford East
So, a few days after The Last Waltz revisited we head to the the theatre to see Full Tilt, a musical play about Janis Joplin, who was of course managed (as were The Band) by the Squire of Woodstock, Albert Grossman.
“On stage a woman stands, the greatest rock singer of her generation. Behind her is the hottest band that a record company can buy. In front of her, an audience of thousands of expectant fans. She is Janis Joplin. She is utterly alone.” So, it’s pretty much a salty monologue with a band for the performances. There are a few scenes where other characters – a night desk clerk, a road manager – intrude, but it’s pretty much Angie Darcy’s show as Janis. The musicians who make up her band (Big Brother in parts, Kozmic Blues at others) are some of Scotland’s finest – guitarist Harry Ward, Andy Barbour on keyboards, bassist Jon Mackenzie and James Grant on drums. The simple set, not much more than a dressing room, may be underpowered, but it’s the only thing that is. By the end we (wife, mother, daughter) have winced at the sad facts of a life shaped by bullying, heartache and drink, have heard the word “Maaaaann”, drawled at least 150 times, and had the roof raised by a bravura performance of “Piece of My Heart”.

Woodstock Three Small Town Talk launch, Rough Trade East

A few days later, it gets more Woodstock-y at Barney’s reading – with guest, Graham Parker – to launch his new book. Recommended for its fascinating portrait of a small town unique in American music history, the book has a lot of time for the less famous among its denizens – Karen Dalton, the Muldaurs, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield and the floating pool of musicians who would come to define East Coast Americana. Graham Parker, who lived in Woodstock for a while, told us of his most memorable musical moment there: “I had the extraordinary experience of working with Garth Hudson, which was a full-day experience, for three songs… he fell asleep at one point, then he woke up and said, “Where did all these women come from?” There was just me and the engineer… [Garth has a narcoleptic condition]. We’d agreed on a fee – and he beat me down by a thousand dollars at the end! “Uh, that’s too much…”

Extra! Woodstock Mania, part 1

In the lead up to a trip to the States (that would include lunch in Woodstock with this blog’s local Correspondent), a series of random events coalesced around the subject of that small town in the Saugerties. So with three weeks to go ’til we left, we started with this…

Woodstock One The Last Waltz Recreated
An Irish group, called “The Group”, bring a show they have done for a few years now to London for the first time. In it “The Group” play most of the songs from The Last Waltz, the movie of The Band’s swansong concert. 
Tim sees a small listing in Time Out, and a few days later we find ourselves (Tim, Alison, Alex and me) at the Islington Assembly Rooms watching a live concert that is a tribute to a movie that was made about a live concert.

lastwaltz

The picture shows Winterland, er, Islington. From left, Unknown, Ronnie Hawkins, Rick Danko, Neil Young, Van the Man, Robbie Robertson (obscured), Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond (and Muddy Waters), Joni Mitchell and Paul Butterfield. But I’m sure you could tell that [click to enlarge].

The musicians all dress as the guys in The Band did on that night and they make a fair fist (Tim’s phrase) of the songs. There’s a horn section at the back, from which “Garth Hudson” steps out to take a couple of sax solos. They’ve got the moves down, from Robbie Robertson’s flailing hand shtick while soloing to Rick Danko’s bobbing and weaving (the bass player is pretty uncanny, actually, musically as well as visually). Behind them a very poor presentation of bad graphics and clips from the film is run from a Windows Laptop (boys! Really…). It’s great to hear the songs played well, although you can never quite shrug off the Tribute Band™ feel.

The revolving guest artists (who ranged far and wide at the The Last Waltz) are played by a motley crew. To actually convey how strange this whole thing was, I will just tell you that the same person played both Neil Diamond and Muddy Waters. Diamond spot on, Muddy, well… less spot on.Thankfully, we were spared “The Staples” singing “The Weight”. Eric Clapton was played by a very short older gent with a silver grey afro, who virtually had to be restrained from “Clapton-ing” everything he played on after “Farther On up the Road”. As the entire audience roared the chorus of “The Weight” back at the stage it was hard to tell who was in charge of the whole thing – the band or the crowd, a fair proportion of whom appeared to be friends of the group. Whatever, it made for a fitting end to a mad celebration of a unique event.

Woodstock Two Full Tilt…
follows next week.

 

Extra, April 22nd: Gotta Broken Heart Again

purple

 

Thursday, January 14th. Five Things that I Didn’t Write About in 2015, Part Two.

BREAKING BLING
In a distinguished lineage that includes Peter Sellers doing “A Hard Day’s Night” in the style of Richard III, and Burt Lancaster fronting The Highwaymen, intoning “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, we have Actors meeting Song, in this case, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” narrated by Bryan Cranston (amongst others). Enjoy.

FAVOURITE SONG I HEARD AND THEN SET OUT TO TRACE…
A hot summer’s day and I’ve just parked the car in a side street in Walthamstow, about to pick up some pegboard that was being made up for me. Bleeding out of a car with closed windows is this great tune, with the repeated refrain – “I’ve got a girl on the other side of town, she’s waiting for me to come around…” There are those moments when a piece of music just seems so right for that time and that place. I motion to the guy inside and politely enquire if he knows who’s singing and what it’s called ­– but he doesn’t, although he agrees that it is a top tune. I find out a while later – Barry Boom singing Lou Ragland’s “Making Love”. It seems that it’s one of the best Lovers Rock tunes out there. It’s here, if you’re interested.

JAMIE XX – I KNOW THERE’S GONNA BE (GOOD TIMES)
It’s always nice to hear a sample of The Persuasions. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot about the rest of Jamie’s song that’s very interesting. I saw The Persuasions once at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues in a ridiculously hot basement where the audience was on the stage with the group. Two feet from acapella doo-wop is a great place to be. Here’s their lovely version of Dylan’s “The Man in Me”.

And if you like that, this is my absolute favourite, a doo-wop classic, “Looking for an Echo”. What a cracking title – a phrase that sums up a lot of what life’s about. Written by a folkie [Kenny Vance] who acted – guest star on Kojak and The A Team, no less – its yearning and touching lyric hitting dead centre on that large nostalgia target…

And if we went to a party / and they wouldn’t let us sing
We’d lock ourselves in the bathroom / so nobody could get in
’Cause we were looking for an echo / an answer to our sound
A place to be in harmony / a place we almost found…

BEST ONE-STOP SHOP FOR CLASSIC JAZZ COVERS…
…was this post by London Jazz Collector. Virtually every major design style from the Fifties until now is captured in these stunning albums. As the man says… “These are my personal choices, you can see where I’m coming from. Portraiture cements the relationship between the musician and the instrument. Record = hearing, Cover = seeing, Great music, great covers, brings it all together.”

top-covers-late-entries2

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE
I love a story that dates time like this: “I started working for Selmers around the Truvoice/Grey crocodile era, and left around the grey/silver speaker-cloth era.” Just brilliant. This memoir by Patrick Kirby was found when I was looking for stuff on Selmer amps, whose store used to be at 114-116 Charing Cross Road. After talking about Teisco guitars (see earlier posts), Mark had mentioned that Selmer amps were really sought after as they were so amazing, and that he had once been the proud owner of one. Brett (Best Coast) had mentioned them too, so I realised that was why they now go for thousands instead of hundreds…

“My colleague in the Organ Salon was an unlikely chap called Ted Woodman, who was totally sold on Art Tatum. When I first saw Ted playing Jazz on organ I feared he was having an epileptic fit, or was on drugs… his eyes rolling as he writhed his arms over the keyboards, twisting and turning his legs across the massive 32 note pedalboard, swinging his head around dangerously. Soon after, having seen Alan Haven on TV with the Beatles, doing exactly the same thing, I quickly picked up the art and with the encouragement of a guy called John Bell, who ran the drum department (and was rather nifty with the skins himself), we were out playing jazz gigs in dodgy Soho clip-joints most nights, earning on average 10 shillings each a session (then fondly known as half-a-knicker).

“John and I used to beg and borrow keyboards from the store for gigs, but eventually saved up and bought a second-hand Lowrey Heritage organ from Selmers. I discovered some of the words to a Sergeant Pepper song written on the polished wooden top, and thought this was sacrilege until I found out from John that this was the organ that Selmers used to hire to EMI, Abbey Road! For Bob Dylan and The Band, appearing at the legendary Isle of Wight Music Festival, Selmer engineers took weeks customising a Lowrey H25 console organ. The result was the most amazing set of sounds you’ve ever heard.”

THE NOTE OF A ROOM
From a terrific interview with Richard Flanagan on Bookclub, R4. They were discussing his 2014 Man Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is set among prisoners of war who were forced by the Japanese to work on the notorious Thai-Burma railway. He reads an excerpt where a widow is talking to her visitor about love:
“I have a friend in Ferntree who teaches piano, very musical she is. I’m tone deaf myself, but one day she was telling me how every room has a note – you just have to find it. She started warbling away, up and down, and suddenly, one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum, this beautiful sound, like you’ve thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you. You wouldn’t believe it Mr Evans… these two completely different things, a note and a room, finding each other. It sounded right. Am I being ridiculous – do you think that’s what we mean by love, Mr Evans?”

Flanagan stops reading, and a member of the audience joins in: “Yes, I really noticed that passage in the book, ’cause I’m sort of a failed musician and I know exactly that feeling you get in a room when it just works right to play music in, and I thought it was a lovely metaphor for love, that I’ve never seen used elsewhere before, and I just wondered how you came to think about it…”

Flanagan: “I was drinking with some musicians one night and we ended in a wine cellar in Hobart, in a vineyard in Tasmania and they told me that every room has a note – and I’d never heard this before. Then they started ‘pitching’ their throats, going up and down the scales ’til they found the note of that room and then suddenly it all came back, and as a musician you know this, but I didn’t know it, and I cannot tell you what an extraordinary sound it is when you find the exact pitch of a room, and you hear it coming to you. The whole room thrums with it. It is the most beautiful resonance with the world…”

Extra!

[INSERT DAVID BOWIE SONG-OR-LYRIC-BASED HEADLINE HERE]*
It’s a wet Wednesday night in Soho in 1971-ish London. A group of school friends who meet to rehearse and play Creedence Clearwater, Marc Bolan and Atomic Rooster songs have decided that they should find a pub to play in (if any will take them). They have tried busking on Waterloo Bridge until their portable amp has died, and they haven’t even made enough in four freezing hours to replace the battery.

They walk into The Sun and 13 Cantons, on the corner of Great Pulteney and Beak streets. In the corner are two men with guitars working their way through recent pop smashes – Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Dave Edmunds’ version of Smiley Lewis’s “I Hear You Knocking”, Terry Jacks “Seasons in the Sun”, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”

The boys buy halves of lager and lime, that early version of an alcopop, and study everything. Guitars, amps, the acoustics of the room – mostly things that they have little or no knowledge about – are assessed, discussed. When the men finish they move closer to ask questions: How much do you get paid? Is the audience always this small? Do you need it to be bigger to actually get paid? Do they pay you in money or drink? What songs go down well?

The men are Scottish and seem old to the boys, but they’re probably in their forties. Their answers start out gruffly, but they show patience at this naked attempt to suck up their hard-won knowledge, to go away and practice, all in the hope of coming back and stealing their Wednesday night gig off them.

And as the boys have exhausted their lines of questioning and start to leave, the older of the two men calls to them at the door in a deep Scottish accent, “Oh, and lads, whatever you do… whatever you do – Don’t. Play. No. Bowie…”

*Actually, there are just no more left now…

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: DAVID BOWIE, US ESQUIRE, MARCH 2004 ISSUE
A couple of excerpts:
You’re never who you think you are. Sometime in the Eighties, an old lady approached me and asked, “Mr Elton, may I have your autograph?” I told her that I wasn’t Elton but David Bowie. She replied, “Oh, thank goodness. I couldn’t stand his red hair and all that makeup.”

They’re never who you think they are. When I first came to the US, around 1971, my New York guide told me one day that The Velvet Underground were to play later that night at the Electric Circus, which was about to close. I got to the gig early and positioned myself at the front by the lip of the stage. The performance was great, and I made sure that Lou Reed could see that I was a true fan by singing along to all the songs. After the show, I moved to the side of the stage to where the door of the dressing room was located. I knocked, and one of the band members answered. After a few gushing compliments, I asked if I could have a few words with Lou. He looked bemused but told me to wait a second. After only moments, Lou came out, and we sat and talked about songwriting for 10 minutes or so. I left the club floating on cloud nine – a teenage ambition achieved. The next day, I told my guide what a blast it had been to see The Velvets live and meet Lou Reed. He looked at me quizzically for a second, then burst into laughter. “Lou left the band some time ago,” he said. “You were talking to his replacement, Doug Yule.”

Five Things Extra: thinking about Sam Charters and a few nice things

I woke up at 5am on the day we were to go to Uppsala to meet Annie, who was going to read some of Sam’s poetry at an evening performance at the English Bookshop, during Uppsala’s yearly Culture Night. Annie had asked me to say something about collaborating with Sam on a book of poems and photographs that we had published near the end of his life.

 I awoke with thoughts going around my head of what I would say, and decided to get up and write them down, as I’d either not get back to sleep if I didn’t, or remember them if I did. So in the apartment that we had spent such memorable times, I wrote as swiftly as I could.

*****

I always looked up to Sam – as a young boy, in a physical sense – he was a towering figure dressed in Levis’ 501s, Bass loafers with cream socks, a light blue shirt, with a v-neck dark blue pullover, a canvas-coloured London Fog raincoat.

As a teenager, it was less Sam’s physical presence as much as his intellectual one – it was about the expanding of horizons. I can see him now, padding around my parents’ Charing Cross Road flat, a suitcase full of books and notes and records – always open – that spoke of exotic places, exotic thoughts, exotic music.

In 1968, we were sent three plane tickets – Pan Am, London to New York – to visit with the Charters. So for three weeks we soaked up America with Ann and Sam as our guides. My dad Bill was sent on his first visit to New Orleans, to hang out in the places – and with the people – that his brother Ken had written about so vividly in 1952 when he jumped ship to play with his heroes. We, meanwhile, headed to the Newport Folk Festival to stay in a spookily empty school dormitory and watch Arlo Guthrie and Janis Joplin and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Sam was Buddy and Junior’s record producer, and he took me backstage to their trailer where Buddy let me hold his guitar. That was an education right there.

*****

When Sam came through London in 1970, en route to a new life in Sweden (he’d felt that staying in the States at that point would mean joining the Weathermen), he left with me some of his favourite albums. There was God Bless Tiny Tim; there was I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die by Country Joe and the Fish (produced by Sam); more indelibly, Music From Big Pink was there, and I remember Sam saying that Richard Manuel’s “In a Station” was his favourite track.

Around this time (I was about fifteen) there was an open invitation to visit whatever project Sam was currently working on, so after school most days and weeks that he was in town, I would make my way over to Sound Techniques, a recording studio housed in an old dairy building off the King’s Road in Chelsea. I’d sit on the couch at the back of the control room as Sam produced American protest singers, English folksters, blues guitarists and Ragtime Orchestras, always with the same good humour, but also with an intense desire to bring out the core of whichever artist he was working with.

I saw his rapport with them, his subtle direction of them, and his real love for what they did. I experienced at first hand the camaraderie of musicians, the application of their gifts, their ability to come together and coax magic from thin air. These things have always stayed with me.

*****

Sam had a really sophisticated knowledge of music and its history and such a wide-ranging love of song. He’d gone with Ann on voyages of discovery that, for some, equaled Stanley’s trek to find Livingstone or Vespucci, America – voyages that took them back into the struggles and art of an earlier America. Yet he wore his knowledge lightly and often worked with music rooted in apparent simplicity, always coming back – in some way – to the blues, a music that had spoken across states and racial boundaries and decades of time to him. And although he often wrote of the past, it was always the future for Sam: there was the next project, just around the bend, to find and illuminate another neglected or wrongly understood strand of music. It’s no coincidence that one of his final journeys was to tell the little-known story behind the creation of the songbook Slave Songs of the United States, and the woman who made it happen, Lucy McKim Garrison.

When I was eighteen, about to go to art school, Sam was in town, working. He had the record company, who he’d just written a liner note for, make the cheque for his payment of £60 out to me. A week before, I had seen an advert for a Leitz enlarger, a photographic printer that allowed you to turn a bathroom into a darkroom. With Sam’s cheque I bought it and began my practical journey into photography. I didn’t become a photographer – music and design were what I became mixed up in – but it gave me an appreciation of the commitment photographers, like musicians, need to make their work happen.

*****

Sam and Annie have been a constant and wonderful presence in the life of my family and 14 months ago, when Sam asked if a package had arrived in London ahead of our trip to Stockholm, I had no idea that he was asking me to collaborate on a project with him, designing and adding photos to a collection of his London poems. I was touched and thrilled to do it, worried about my rusty photographic skills, but up for the challenge. I remembered the day in 1973 when we trekked around the city finding poems in boxes at the locations that had inspired them, before meeting up with Sam in a pub in Hampstead where he put a cover on our sheets and stapled them together into a book. Batting the design of the new book, back and forth across the internet, was among the best experiences of my working life…

And when I think of Sam now, as I often do, I mostly think of him laughing, as he talked of the absurdities of life, of the footwork of Zlatan Ibrahimović, of finding rare sheet music in the Canary Islands, of the value and import of friendship, love and art. He taught me to pay it forward; to work with collaborators that you liked; to encourage other people’s talent. He was an inspiration to me, as he was to many others, and he showed me not only how to be enthusiastic but – more importantly – how best to use that enthusiasm.

Sam Arsta

Sam, Årsta, Jan 8th, 2015, listening to Willie Nelson singing Steve Fromholz’s “I’d Have to be Crazy”.

Five Things Extra: Martin Stone

Photograph by Keith Morris

Photograph by Keith Morris

My favourite guitarist in the world is Mark Pringle, obvs, but – for the time he was active in the London scene in the late sixties and early seventies – Martin Stone ran him a close second. Many nights were spent nursing a pint of that horrible seventies’ version of an alcopop, lager & lime, at the Greyhound in Fulham and watching his band, Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers. Not quite as mellow as Bees Make Honey, not quite as rocky as Head, Hands and Feet, not quite as threatening as Kilburn & The High Road, the Peppers were my favourite band of that period – they swung (Pete Thomas was the drummer), they had vim and attack (especially where Martin was concerned), they played great songs and they were funny (frontman Phil Lithman left to rejoin San Francisco avant wackos, The Residents). When he played something particularly wonderful Martin would peer from under his woolly hat and crack a mischievous smile. Now, Martin (who quit the music business and became an antiquarian book seller/scout) is ill and the NHS won’t fund his treatment as he lives in Paris. It’s time to partly pay him back for those nights when the Kings of the Robot Rhythms reigned over Balham’s Bongos – go to the Just Giving site here.

And here’s an excerpt from a vivid piece by Martin that I loved, written in tribute to a book collecting mentor (and I remember that flat in Cannon Street Road, too – Martin shared it with the aforementioned M. Pringle):

“I first met Peter at the Olympia Bookfair in the late 1970s; he had a table of James Joyce in absolutely marvelous condition, many of them inscribed. I stood there hypnotised. I was new to the game, working the coal face of the book trade, a bottom-feeding outsider. I had never seen books like these; a first edition of Joyce’s Dubliners, brand-new in dust-jacket, that had never been tipped out of a sack at five in the morning in Brick Lane market.

Peter peered down at me with avuncular concern. “Stay well away from Joyce,” he said. “He’s a nightmare to buy and sell.”

He said he’d like to see my books and I gave him my address and phone number. He ignored the phone, and sometime after midnight there was a rapping at my window.

“Fuck off,” I yelled. My home was in Whitechapel; bad people sometimes tried to get in under cover of darkness.

“Now, now, Martin, it’s Peter Howard and I’m here to buy your books.”

A fellow member of the 24-hour club. I hid the cocaine and let him in.

He pointed at the far wall of my storeroom. “What are all those?”

“Minor Edwardian and Victorian fiction.”

“There’s no such thing as minor.”

“Er, no, of course not… I mean, I rather like them all really.”

“How much for the wall?”

I was checkmated; it was the first time I’d encountered the omnivore approach to book buying.

“Well, some of them are a bit more but mostly they’re about two pounds each.”

“Why can’t they be more, Martin?”

No book dealer had ever asked me that question, either.”

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