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: Wednesday 26th March

It’s Album Week at 5 Things! New Album Display
These may be my favourite two album covers, ever. Jimmy Reed’s a study in perfect 50s still-life, and Blind Blake (or rather, Blake Alphonso Higgs, not Blind Blake the bluesman) looks like some proto-Neville Brody illustration (if you remember his illustrated 12-inch singles from the 80s, that is). The guitar neck and peghead is fantastic, and the fingers are a little like Robert Johnson…

Blake

Check out the wonderfully-named Dust & Grooves
I really like Jeff Gold and there’s much to enjoy here. Dig Jimi’s personal album collection, the Rolling Stones eponymous debut album – “the first pop album with no type on the cover, thanks to their innovative manager, Andrew Loog Oldham” – and the great see-through Faust album, which I remember owning (and liking for the cover more than the music), but can no longer find!

Faust

I Read this Guardian piece, titled “Is this the first post-internet album?”
And then I read it again. And both times I didn’t understand a word of it. I didn’t understand the subject and I certainly didn’t get a sense of what it may possibly sound like. So I find the first track, “Satellites” online and there’s some industrial noise, the words “open the satellites” repeated a lot, some beats and a haircut. And nothing that sounds remotely new, post-internet or like a musical version of a William Gibson book.

From the blog, Just A Hint of Mayhem
“Don’t you just love Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets” from his 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? I certainly do. I knew that it wasn’t a live recording but the applause included on the track makes it sound as though it is. Did you know that the applause wasn’t even recorded at an Elton gig? In fact it is drawn from recordings of the audience clapping and shouting at Jimi Hendrix’s Isle Of Wight festival set in 1970. I know of another occasion where that kind of thing has happened too. The sound of the crowd used on the title track of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album is actually the applause taken from a live album by the Faces… Can any of you offer any similar gems?”

A Little More Llewyn Davis
Llewyn Davis has become our background music of choice over the last few months. I’m not sure why, as the album is not consistently good (in fact, I think the best thing on it are Dave Van Ronk’s “Green Green Rocky Road” and Dylan’s “Farewell”, the only original tracks) but it creates a great mood. So a few more ILD bits:

1> Annie Charters I wanted to know what Annie thought of the film and was pleased that both she and Sam loved it, while realising that it, of necessity, played loose with the truth of actual life in the village in 1962. Sam produced Inside Dave Van Ronk for Prestige, (apparently the cat was only there for a couple of frames as the cover was shot, but it was enough for the Coens), with Blue Note legend Rudy Van Gelder as engineer, which I hadn’t known. Annie took the lovely pic of Terri and Dave on a Village rooftop. She said that she and Sam were both mouth-agape at the re-creation of Moe Asch’s office (where he offers Llewyn Davis a coat instead of royalties). Apparently the walls really were covered with terrible paintings that Moe was convinced were priceless, and he left some to Sam and Ann in his will.

12-Inside
2> Oscar Isaac: “Here’s a crazy story. I was doing this really small movie and there was this guy in the scene, he was an extra, he’s in his sixties and he’s playing a drunk in a bar. There was this guitar just sitting there on the set and in between takes he picked it up and started playing. So I asked him what his story was, and he said that he was a guitar player from New York. So I told him that I had this audition coming up and that the part was based a little bit on Dave Van Ronk. So he says that he played with Dave Van Ronk. And then he told me to come by his place, and I asked him where that was and he told me that he lived above the Gaslight on MacDougal Street and that he’d lived there since the ’70s. It was like this time capsule. He had these stacks of records and guitars all over the place. And he doesn’t start playing Dave Van Ronk, he starts playing the stuff that Dave Van Ronk was listening to, like the Reverend Gary Davis and Lightnin’ Hopkins. And then he introduced me to Dave Van Ronk’s widow. And this was all before the audition. So I felt this has to happen. It was meant to be. So then I started playing with him. I’d go along to coffee houses and open up for him and we would share the basket. And that really immersed me in the whole scene and allowed an organic folk sound to come out.”
3> Richard Williams: “I’ve seen it a couple of times and was impressed by the faithful portrayal of the Greenwich Village folk scene as it prepared for the transition from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan (although, as a friend pointed out, nobody tied a scarf with a loop in the way Oscar Isaac, who plays Davis, does until about 10 years ago).”

Extra! Goodbye Card from Dan Mitchell…
… as I leave my job. Thanks, Dan!

Good Luck

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