The Parting Glass: George Jones

….A time to rise and a time to fall

Come fill to me the parting glass

Goodnight and joy be with you all.

Hard to admit but the only page in the newspaper that I always read is the Obituaries.  I frequently discover histories of fascinating people I surely should have known about who led lives of extraordinary achievement and colour.

Of course, the older I get the more I realise that there are no such things as ‘ordinary lives’ for every life contains miracles and marvels if we but took the time to hear all those unrehearsed and untold stories – perhaps God alone performs that service for us.

I also frequently find myself strongly disagreeing with the perspective of professional obituarists when they memorialise the lives of men and women whose lives I actually knew something about or who had an emotional impact on my own life through their work or character.

The Parting Glass will be a strictly amateur enterprise with few dates, lists of honours or details of former spouses.  Instead The Parting Glass will be the reaction of someone who reacts to a particular death with a sense of loss and a desire to celebrate with wonder how lives near and distant in place and time can resonate and echo with my own.

No 1 George Jones

He was born in Texas in 1931.  From his dad he inherited a taste for the bottle and from his mother the hope of salvation.  The world and his own nature offered up the simultaneous allure and spectre of sin, guilt and damnation.

From some higher power he was blessed with a singing voice that could express with enormous authority and impact the whole damn bone and blood gamut of emotions we’re all forever chained and in thrall to throughout our lives.G Jones

A voice that was never unrestrained even when plumbing unfathomable depths of pain and loss.  George’s voice had to be controlled even under the most crushing spiritual and emotional pressure because it was his, and our, final defence against defeat, depression and madness.  Sing one for me George! 

George could sing gospel with a repentant sinner’s fervour and in his youth with the tempo cranked up to hot rod levels he could almost sound like a rockabilly singer.  But, he lived and died as the greatest country honkytonk balladeer who ever lived.  If you want your heart pummelled and wrenched (and sooner or later we all do) no-one can perform emotional/emergency cardiac surgery like good ol’ George.

I won’t list all the hits – there are several fine compilations, easily available, where you can soak yourself in his genius for mining and assuaging in song the travails, tragedies and travesties of life, love and death.  What more do you want?

Take a few minutes now to listen to ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. 

When George recorded this he was a wreck of a man almost destroyed through drink and dissolution.  The writers, Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, gifted him a morbid son of a bitch of a song that needed a singer who could emotionally outstare the tragic story of a life stalled for decades because of lost chances and lost love.  A life only released from the stasis of loneliness and pain by the release of death. 

George was more than equal to the challenge.  He was well acquainted with loss and he knew what it was to be half crazy.  Knowing this as a man helped the artist to sing the song with startling tenderness – with the tone of a man who has been so blasted by the storms that have assailed him that he has surrendered all his rage to accept gratefully the consolations of bare humanity.

Hear the dignity he gives to the wonderful line ‘All dressed up to go away’ describing the funeral bound body of the song’s protagonist.  Hear how he allows the swelling instrumentation of the chorus to lift him as he reveals with power but without undue drama why, finally, the man at the centre of the song has stopped loving her today. 

Not many really deserve to have angels sing them to their rest.  For the rest of us we could do no better than settle for the immortal tones of the sinner’s friend – George Jones.

George Jones died on April 2013 in his 82nd year.

God bless you George!

You really should have been there! Bob Dylan

Sometimes, you just know.  There is literally something in the air. 

A sense of gathering fevered anticipation as the crowd assembles and the air becomes charged with faith and hope that this will be one of those nights.

The ones that you will relive in memory and recount proudly a thousand times to those who didn’t have the foresight, the cash, the sheer luck to be in that town on that night when everything clicked, when the energy built and built arcing from person to person, from stalls to gallery and flashing from the stage until we were all swept up and away into an ecstatic realm for those few hours on that one night that you will never forget and never be quite able to recapture.

All you can do is call for another drink, smile that distant smile and say with a regretful tone  ‘You really should,have been there.’

Concert reviews under this heading will appear from time to time – starting below with my review of Bob Dylan’s most recent concert in London.

SW7 Revisited

‘Let us not talk falsely now – the hour is getting late’.   Bob Dylan

‘The thing about Bob is that he is and always will be Bob’. Jeff Lynne

I discovered and fell headlong into obsessive allegiance to the music and persona of Bob Dylan as a callow fourteen year old in 1969.  Up to that night, when I incredulously listened to the epiphany of Desolation Row on a French language radio station I had been largely dismissive of contemporary pop/rock music. 

Much as I liked the vitality of the Beatles and especially the Kinks I was not thrilled and transported by their records in the way that I was when reading the works of D H Lawrence or Chekhov which seemed to open up whole new worlds of sensation and understanding.

The Dylan I discovered that night was like the elder brother I never had – someone cleverer, more assured and knowing than me who yet leaned over to tell me all the secrets he had learned with a nod, a wink and a rueful grin. 

He would continue to fulfill that role throughout the following decades.dylan3

So, when I saw him in concert in November 2013 at London’s Albert Hall I was moved to reflect on all the years and miles we had travelled since he had last been there.

At the Albert Hall In 1966 when the last notes of an  epochal, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that sounded like nothing less than an electric typhoon faded into the night air Bob Dylan walked off stage a fully realised genius.  In the previous four years he had created a body of work that would have, even if he had never recorded again, made him the single most important artist of the second half of the century.

However, he was also swaying on the precipice of a physical and emotional collapse. This was brought on by an impossible workload of recording and touring only tolerable through the fuel of a teeming headful of ideas and an increasingly dangerous reliance on ever more powerful drug cocktails.

He had once said that, ‘I accept chaos – I’m not sure if chaos accepts me’.  Now he was learning to his cost that chaos was indifferent to his acceptance – chaos swallows and destroys.

He was saved from permanent burn out and death by the happenstance of a motorbike accident that gave him the opportunity to clean up, rest, recuperate and find a new way of working allowing for some form of future and family life in the haven of Woodstock.

Over the next 47 years he would never again attain the heights of inspiration achieved through to 1966 (neither would anyone else!) but he would continue, in an unmatched way, through craft, cunning and sheer bloody mindedness to write, create and perform works that honoured the traditions of American song while being thoroughly modern, post modern and finally timeless expansions of and additions to that tradition.

bobdylan1So, when he returned to the Albert Hall as Thanksgiving approached in November 2013, as he looked around at the grand old venue he might have been excused the quizzical smile that had become his trademark expression. 

Much like Ishmael returning after an age to the Nantucket waterfront he carried with him the knowledge of how hard survival could be and how that knowledge was every bit as much a curse as a blessing.

In 2013 Bob Dylan could be more reasonably compared to an old testament prophet (Jeremiah? Isiah? Micah ?) than to any of his ‘peers’ within the entertainment industry albeit a prophet who doubled as a song and dance man.

A song and dance man, walking and gliding through a blasted landscape, who while not dismissive or disrespectful of his classic creations, primarily chose to mine the new seam of the songs collected as Tempest.

In this he was aided by a road tested band, alert to his hair tigger mercurial nature, who artfully melded blues, rockabilly and sly swing to embody and illuminate the songs.

Upfront, the man himself settled either into a seafarers stance when centre stage or bobbed like a sparring boxer when stationed behind the piano.  His voice, a bare ruined choir of its former glory, though still uniquely distinctive, adapted its tone to the demands of each song – variously knowing, bewildered, threatening, regretful, cajoling and doleful. 

Somehow his totemic harmonica playing still manages to encompass all these qualities and more and audibly thrills the warmly affectionate audience.

Bob Dylan has, not without cost, become what he set out to be all those years ago – a hard travellin’ troubadour, with a lifetimes worth of songs, something for every occasion, in his gunny sack, always on the way to another joint.  Always looking at the road ahead not the road behind. 

I can’t help but feel that up ahead the shades of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Whitman and Rabbie Burns are waiting to welcome another to their company.

Well they can wait a little longer – this troubadour has more miles to go before he’s ready for the final roadhouse.  May god bless him and keep him always.

Thanks to Karl-Erik at Expecting Rain for posting this article on his wonderful site.

 

The Immortal Jukebox

Red and green and yellow – buzzing and glowing with the neon primary colour promise of dangerous thrills and illicit pleasures.

A sensual blow to the solar plexus when in wonderfully mechanical operation.  The chosen 45 is lifted from the racks and placed with a hugely satisfying clunk onto the turntable and then the arm housing the magic needle descends and …..   Two or three minutes of temporal and eternal bliss.  Play that one again!

Maybe the jukebox is in a roadhouse just outside of Memphis where a truck driver who loves ‘all kinds’ of music gets to hear the singers who can wrap up heartache and joy and project them through the vinyl into the hearts and souls of the dancers and drinkers and the quiet girls in the corner.

Maybe it’s in a dancehall in Hibbing where the iron ground vibrates with magnetic energy and the bitterly cold wind hits heavy on the borderline.  Here a tousle headed kid with a teeming head full of ideas and an unassailable sense of destiny has an epiphany when the lonesome whistle blows and he has no need to ask for a translation of Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!

Maybe it’s in a coffee bar in Liverpool where two teenagers levitating with energy and talent and the desire to make the world anew can go when they are sagging off school and dreaming impossible dreams of songs with their names in brackets after the title.

Maybe it’s in Detroit where an ex boxer and jazz buff with enough entrepreneurial ambition to found an empire has figured out that the empire could be built on the talents of the hometown teenagers of his own race – once he had organised them.  He understood that the white world was waiting, unknowingly, for a vision of a young America that he could manufacture and supply in the form of a production line of vibrant, electrifying   45’s … Are you ready for a brand new beat?

More likely it’s in a thousand towns all over the globe where men and women meet to,drink and laugh and cry.  Where they go to find love, laughter and sex and temporary forgetting.

On the jukebox there’s always that song … The one that makes the hairs rise on the back of your neck … The one that makes your heart pump faster and faster … The one that makes you ask the first time you hear it ‘Who’s that!’ … The one you’ll never forget as long as you live, the one that will always embody youth and hope and the promise of a better, bigger life.  The one to play again and again, learning every word , every riff and lick, the one you saved up to buy to play at home as loud as your neighbours would allow.

The Immortal Jukebox will celebrate 100 of those records.  Not the 100 best records of all time or my hundred favourite records.  These will be a 100 records that would turn your head when you hear them come blasting out of those jukebox speakers.  A 100 records that sound great whether you are drunk or sober.  A 100 records that pull you in whether you are in the giddy throes of new love or bemoaning the love you have just lost.  A 100 records to give you hope or consolation.  A 100 records that would have you reaching in your pocket for the money to play that song again.

A1: Them (featuring Van Morrison) ‘Gloria’ A1: Them (featuring Van Morrison) ‘Gloria’
 Some songs have a brutally simple primal perfection. Usually these songs are recorded at the very beginning of an artists career before they start to look into the rear view mirror and become conscious that they do indeed have a career, a legacy and a reputation to protect.

These are records that come at you full bore and demand that you listen now! Think of the primitive perfection of the last song recorded on the day the Beatles recorded their first LP. You want to know what The Beatles sounded like in Hamburg? Listen to the raw bleeding magnificence of John Lennon’s vocal on, ‘Twist and Shout’ and the eyeballs out commitment of Paul, George and Ringo. There was no way a second take could top that!

Think of the stupid beauty of the Undertones debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks’ – a record that captured as few others have the thrilling intoxication of young love and lust. Feargal Sharkey’s impassioned vocal (All right!) and the unrepeatable delirium of Damian O’ Neill’s guitar solo combine to create a miracle that comes up fresh every time and is endlessly replayable – which seems a pretty good definition of what I want from a jukebox single.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that throughout the 1960s that wherever and whenever a group of would be rock and roll stars gathered – in the family garage, in the basement or at a flea bitten church or municipal hall – very soon after they had plugged in they would launch, with wildly varying degrees of competence, into the daddy of all the primitive perfection songs, ‘Gloria’.

Puzzled passers-by must have wondered why such a simple name needed to be spelled out with such repetitive intensity, ‘ … And her name is G – L – O – R – I – A, Gloria!’. They must also have shuddered at the threat, ‘ I’m gonna shout it out night and day .. G – L – O – R – I – A! G – L – O – R – I – A, Gloria!’. They must also have shuddered at the threat, ‘ I’m gonna shout it out night and day .. G – L – O – R – I – A!

It is likely that many of the groups who attacked the song made a fair fist of the instrumental ground of the song – three chords don’t take long to master. A few of the lead guitar players will have matched Jimmy Pages fluency and prowess as demonstrated on the recording. However, No-one, No-one, will have come anywhere near reproducing the frenzied intensity of Van Morrison’s pyrotechnic vocal.

This Van Morrison was not the superlative song stylist or the Celtic soul and blues master he would later become. This was a snarling, desperate, bewildered teenager who was reluctantly coming to terms with life and lust, the whole painful mess of it all. A youth who looked down more than he looked up but who was nevertheless able to surprise himself with the ability to express vocally the gamut of emotions and frustrations he faced every day and every night.

But, from the very get-go in his career it was clear that there was no doubt who was leading and commanding the band. Van Morrison on the bandstand or in the studio acts as an emperor, a ruler by right of his eminent majesty as a singer and as a band leader. In this, as so much else, he took his cue from the high priest of soul – Ray Charles.

Gloria is the work of explosive youth, of wanting and yearning, of overwhelming mind and body dominating lust. Gloria may be the most purely male, testosterone fueled record ever made. Gloria, five feet four from her head to the ground, is the eternal lust object. Van Morrison might say that she knocks upon his door and even more thrillingly comes to his room but the thrust of the song seems to me to be the solitary, devoutly told repetition of an oft returned to fantasy.

There may well have been a real Gloria but it is the dream of Gloria who knocks on Van’s door with such insistent force. Surely, if he could only chant her name with enough power she would indeed knock upon his door and make all his fevered dreams come true:

G – L – O – R – I A !! G- L- O- R – I – A !! G – L – O – R – I – A!!

The musical drive of Gloria is the relentless beat, beat, beat of male desire in all it’s sullen and obsessive purity. Gloria is the incarnation on vinyl of the desperate male imperative to be adultly carnal – its a boy desperately wanting, needing, to be a man. Gloria has more tension than release – much like all young lives. This is no doubt why it appealed so powerfully to beat group boys all over the world.

Van snarls his way through the lyric with his uniquely salty Belfast tones alternately pressing and holding back – he already had a grasp of dynamics within song arrangement born of years of listening to Ray and John Lee and Leadbelly on the street where he was born.

Gloria is also as every listener who’s ever heard it knows one hell of a rush! It comes roaring out of the speakers and before you have time to catch your breath you are carried along on its tidal wave of rhythmic power. Two minutes and thirty-eight seconds later you will be nearly as elatedly exhausted as Van Morrison himself.

Take a breath or two and maybe down a shot of Bushmills – then press A1 again – you know you want to.

Notes & Comments:

Gloria was recorded on April 5 1964 at Decca’s Studio in West Hampstead, London and released as the B side of Baby Please Don’t Go on July 6th. Gloria was recorded on April 5 1964 at Decca’s Studio in West Hampstead, London and released as the B side of Baby Please Don’t Go on July 6th.

Them members Billy Harrison (guitar), Alan Henderson (bass), Ronnie MIllings (drums) and Patrick McCauley (keyboards) were present in the studio when Gloria was recorded and all probably contributed to the single. Also present were key members of London’s top session musicians of the time. Jimmy Page surely played the lead guitar and Bobby Graham (who would later play the on the equally epochal ‘You really got me’, must have played the drums). Arthur Greenslade probably played the organ.

There have been numerous cover versions. The most commercially successful being that by The Shadows of Knight which made No 10 in the US charts at the end of 1966. The most artistically successful is Patti Smith’s reinvention of the song on her amazing debut LP ‘Horses’ in 1975.

Van Morrison’s solo career post Them is too extensive and contains too many Himalayan peaks of achievment for me to outline here. However, his career as the leader of Them has too frequently been overlooked and/or under regarded. This is a pity as Them’s canon contains some wonderful songs and performances as well as tantalising auguries and intimations of his mature triumphs. Here are 5 wonders you should seek out urgently!

1. Mystic Eyes – A supernaturally intense harmonica driven howl past the graveyard. Can a white man sing the blues? Damn right he can when he’s a visionary Ulsterman who doesn’t view the blues as adolescent rebellion. Instead its virtually his first language. This track has the visceral power of a nightmare and would surely have raised a knowing smile of recognition from Sonny Boy Williamson or Little Walter.

2. My Lonely Sad Eyes – In which Van seems almost overwhelmed by love and longing as he surfs atop a gorgeous rolling melody. Almost, for Van has the rare gift of being simultaneously in and out of control – an artist and shaman who can be articulate even as he opens up the otherwhere beyond our everyday gaze.

3. Could You Would You – A wounded and yearning romantic ballad with Van seductively pleading his case to his love object. An early example of the tenderness and world weary longing he could evoke. In ballads Van can with a devotees fervour infuse a prayerful gospel hush into a song and still the heart. Its clear that Van has been listening appreciatively to the wonderful Arthur Alexander’s reveries in song ( Dream Girl, You Better Move On). The track was memorably covered by the late Willy De Ville who also knew all about heartbreak in song.

4. Hey Girl – An eerily beautiful prefigurement of Astral Weeks dreamlike mood. Van takes a walk and watches the boats go by in the early morning light. A spectral flute welcomes the wind and sun as Van’s vocal caresses each word of the lyric in which once again he encounters the young girl, his Beatrice figure, who will almost make him lose his mind. The track is only three minutes and ten seconds long yet seems to last much longer – indeed seems to have stopped time.

5. All Over Now Baby Blue – Excepting Jimi Hendrix’s immortal take on All Along The Watchtower the greatest ever cover of a Bob Dylan song. Van has always respected Dylan’s songwriting genius and yet as a comparably gifted artist is not afraid of recasting the song as a rhythm and blues ballad drawing out the wistful regret and emotional depth of the song.

Van has always been able to make each song a voyage where he invokes, reveals and rides the dynamism of the waves of emotion within lyric and melody. The strikingly beautiful chiming guitar riff was later sampled by Beck.