The Immortal Jukebox’s Greatest Hit : Mary Gauthier (I Drink), Iris Dement (Easy Getting Harder) Ordinary/Extraordinary Stories

I was downing a couple of bottles of Mr Whitehead’s excellent cider at the, ‘Pub With No Name’ the other evening and fell into conversation with one of the hostelry’s regulars who commented (approvingly) on my most recent post on, ‘The Third Man’.

He told me that he’d been following The Jukebox since 2017 and must have by now read more than a hundred posts.

I asked him did he have any favourites and he replied :

‘Well, I’m a major Van Morrison fan and can see he is your specialist subject so I always look out for those. And, I always think there’s never enough written about The Blues so I especially enjoyed your Post on Little Walter.

Still, I would also have to say some of the Posts I’ve found most intriguing have been about artists I had never heard of previously like Arthur Alexander, Toussaint McCall and Paul Brady’.

He added, ‘How many Posts have you written since you started?’

I quickly looked up my Stats and said to my own astonishment, ‘I can hardly believe it but it seems I’ve published more than 320 Posts since March 2014’.

As he ordered up another round of drinks Declan mused, ‘I suppose your most popular Post must be one about one of the classic Baby Boomer artists like Van or Dylan or Carole King?’

‘Actually, you’d be surprised’ I said.

‘The most popular Post ever, by a significant margin, is the Post I wrote on Mary Gauthier and Iris Dement – who are not exactly household names!’

‘And, its a Post that every week, in countries all over the globe is being discovered by new readers’.

He immediately looked it up on his iPad (other tablets are available) and when he had finished reading said:

‘Well, those are two great songs and I like the way you’ve introduced the theme of the ordinariness and extraordinariness of all our lives. How many followers did you have when you wrote this?’

‘ A couple of hundred then and more than 10,000 now’ I replied.

‘That’s a lot of people who probably haven’t read your most popular post – you ought to ReBlog it!’.

So for Declan and all of you who haven’t yet read it here’s my Greatest Hit!

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life.

So do you.

Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction to art – to stories and songs – is because the best of them resonate with and go some way to help explain the eternal mystery of why we exist and why we have turned out the way we have.

A great song can be our pilgrim’s companion and staff as we navigate through life’s slalom ride of fate and happenstance while attempting to fashion a connected, meaningful life.

The singer-songwriters featured on the Jukebox today; Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier, share the ability to look compassionately, honestly and unflinchingly at ‘everyday lives’ illuminating them with sharp eyed, flinty, observations and heart rending detail.

These are songs about the dignity and indignities of real lives not adverts for ‘lifestyles’. Popular culture, as these artists demonstrate, can offer far more than mere consumer branding: it can offer us the insights and balm of art we yearn for as we struggle to make it through, or knock off, another ordinary day.

Iris Dement’s early childhood was spent, as the youngest of fourteen children on a tiny island in rural north eastern Arkansas before her father moved the family to California, as millions had done before, in search of work and a better future.

Crucially, she was also raised in the bosom of the Pentecostal Church with a mother who daily sang its sweet consoling hymns as she went about her domestic tasks – a process Iris recreates with tender love in her song, ‘Mama’s Opry’.

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled.

Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded, carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

Above all, the gospel influence is felt by the listener through her voice: a gloriously cracked country voice that throbs with yearning passion. It’s a voice made to embody intense emotions, a voice that cannot and will not be denied.

At the end of an Iris Dement song I always feel both uplifted and exhausted no matter what the subject of the song because her vocals are freighted with a humanity of heart, flesh, blood, bone and spirit that hits you like a punch to the solar plexus.

A punch that takes away the breath while reawakening you to the miracle of every breath you take.

‘Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day’ is Iris Dement’s finest song and one of the best songs ever written about the passions, dreads and torments involved in living a seemingly ‘everyday’ life’.

The song steadily, plainly and without hysteria or pity presents us with a portrait of a mature, self aware woman struggling to come to terms with the sense of strangled entrapment she feels in her marriage, her job and her community.

The beauty and art of the song lies in the dry eyed simplicity with which the weight of accumulating straws on the back of the protagonist are evoked: the rain, the buzzing alarm clock, the marital conversations and lovemaking reduced to mechanical routine.

The radio mast lights blink on simultaneously highlighting and mocking her dreams of another life with a different name in another town. She knows she will never make it to Couer d’Alene. And yet, though Easy’s getting harder every day she carries on.

She carries on.

*

Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity.

Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel.

She has been; an orphaned foundling, a teenage runaway and a street and college student of philosophy. She has known the degredation of addiction and the unremitting daily struggles of recovery. She has been arrested and jailed and also triumphed as a highly successful Cajun Cook and Restaurateur.

All the while with her keen intelligence and moral rigour she was storing away these experiences so that when she came to write her own songs she could have no truck with dishonesty or glib sentimentality.

There is an almost brutal matter-of-factness in many of her songs.

She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives.

It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them.

The reader or listener can do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

‘I Drink’ was played by Bob Dylan on one of his Theme Time Radio Hour radio programmes – an accolade given to very few contemporary songwriters.

Bob, the Keeper of American Song, would have recognised the spare elegance of the song and the craft involved in creating a wholly believable genealogy of alcoholism.

This is not the testament of someone who has won through.

It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition.

The slowly dropping hours and self absorption of the habitual drinker are superbly evoked as the narrator relates the banal details of how he cooks his TV dinner and the flatly acknowledged realisation that the face in the mirror is the same as that of the father silhouetted in the lighter flame a generation earlier.

Mary Gauthier’s words, sung carefully with a court reporters calm and measured clarity, move beyond prose into the realm of folk poetry especially in the nursery rhyme chorus which hits home with the keening knell of pure truth.

As the silence descends at the end of the song you are left bereft and sadly aware of the terrible imprisoning and yet alluring power, for the prisoner, of such cycles of defeat and pain.

Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier with immense skill show us lives that but for fortune any one of us might have led or might be on the way to leading.

Their visions are not comfortable to confront but to avoid such visions is to impoverish our humanity and our moral imaginations.

So Pilgrim, as you listen remember that everyone you meet today and tomorrow is almost certainly in the middle of a much harder battle than you can see.

I don’t know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

You can’t go wrong with these artists. All their CDs will repay your time with compound interest.

With Iris Dement I would start with, ‘My Life’ before moving on to, ‘Infamous Angel’, ‘Lifeline’ (a deeply moving gospel set), ‘The Way I Should’ and her comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

I was both impressed and moved by her CD, ‘The Trackless Woods’ from 2015 which Takes the Poems of the great Anna Akhamatova as the foundation for a  series of engrossing Songs.

With Mary Gauthier I would start with, ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’ and then move on to, ‘Mercy Now’, ‘The Foundling’, ‘Filth and Fire’ and ‘Trouble and Love’.

Mary’s latest project from 2018 is the very powerful, ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ which she wrote in collaboration with US Veterans and their families.

They are both well represented on YouTube and other sharing sites.

 

Gordon Lightfoot, Nanci Griffith, Ricky Scaggs & Tony Rice : 10 Degrees & Getting Colder

Where you headed?

East to the Sunrise or West to the setting Sun?

South to the Jungles or North to the Forests?

Where you headed?

One time I was sheltering from the wind outside of Medicine Hat and when the 18 wheeler pulled to a halt the driver asked, ‘Where you headed?’ so I said, ‘North to Alaska, through the woods and the frozen lakes. I’m trying to find the straight path again’.

‘Hop in – I hope you like Gordon Lightfoot ’cause I got nothing but Gord on these tapes and we sure got a ways to go to get you to Alaska.’

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Where you headed?

It can be read as a very specific question or as a very general question or as both – like all the really interesting questions.

We are all headed somewhere or away from somewhere endlessly redrawing the map of our lives.

We all have miles to go before we sleep – we just don’t know how many miles we still have left on the clock.

Where you headed?

Sometimes the world falls on your shoulders and wherever you’ve fetched up, for whatever reason, you find it’s time to head back to where you were raised up to lick your wounds and get ready to ramble again.

And, if you want a true voice to accompany you down the road as you try to find that straight path let me tell you that you’ll struggle to find a truer one than that of Gordon Lightfoot.

Gordon knows all about the ramblin’, about the taverns, about the gamblin’, about the lovin’ and all the extremes of temperature we encounter on the road.

You know this is a man who has been places and seen things and heard all kinds of stories from all kinds of men and women.

Stories you can’t help but recognise when they’re told in Gord’s rich baritone croon.

‘He was standin’ by the highway with a sign that just said ‘Mother’ ….’

Now I don’t usually find the citations issued by august bodies when inducting an artist to the company of the great and good worth quoting but in the case of Gordon Lightfoot’s elevation to a companion of The Order of Canada I’m gonna make an exception :

‘A singer-songwriter, musician and poet, Gordon Lightfoot has been telling our stories for over five decades. He possesses a unique ability to blend contemporary urban music with our traditional roots. Genuine and reserved, he has a down to earth style that defies categorization’.

Where you headed?

Down the road a piece?

Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

Santiago de Compostela?

Rain fallin’ on your shoes?

Feet almost frozen?

World fallin’ on your shoulders?

Where you headed?

Keep on keepin’ on.

Someone might just pull off on the shoulder and you’ll be on your way again.

But, remember people don’t usually stop if you don’t put up a sign.

‘Won’t you listen to me brother ….’

Nanci Griffith has always had a very good ear for Songs.

She’s a troubadour like Gordon Lightfoot and knows that some songs bloom every time they’re played – season after season after season.

You just have to respect ’em, sing ’em right and let ’em fly!

Nanci sings, ’10 Degrees ..’ just right.

Where you headed?

Rome? Jerusalem? Mecca? Kedarnath?

I’d advise you to travel light – you’re carrying enough baggage in that heart of yours.

Where you headed?

Wherever it is you might never get there.

You might turn back.

You might find the road you set out on takes a turning you couldn’t have imagined from looking at the map.

You might find your steps matched by another’s and decide to set off together on another path altogether.

Where you headed?

Now, let’s turn to the high lonesome sound of Bluegrass aces Tony Rice and Ricky Scaggs.

When it comes to pickin’ clean and singin’ sweet you can’t, just can’t, beat Tony and Ricky.

They’ve logged up sideman credits with marquee names but I always like the taste of the pure drop myself so let’s hear their clear as a mountain stream version of, ’10 degrees …’

‘ .. he held the sign up higher where no decent soul could miss it .. It was ten degrees or colder down by Boulder Dam that day ..’

 

Where you headed?

Even if you’re following a path that’s been trod a million times before you’ll leave only your own footprints and no one can walk the way for you.

Where you headed?

Arcadia? Atlantis? Camelot? Elysian Fields?

Wherever you set out for you’ll find you’re changed by the journey even if you never reach the fabled destination.

Accept the wind – at your back or in your face.

Where you headed?

Lift your eyes to the sunny hill far ahead.

Walk on Pilgrim!

Walk on!

Where you headed?

‘Now he’s traded off his Martin but his troubles are not over ..’.

Sing it Gordon.

Where you headed?

Listen.

‘He was standin’ by the highway with a sign that just said ‘Mother’ when he heard a driver comin’ ..’

Where you headed?

Bon Voyage.

The Band : It Makes No Difference

The Heart, like the Mind, has cliffs of fall.

Any one of us can find ourselves tumbling head over heels down those sheer cliffs.

Prostrate at the foot of those cliffs; bleeding, broken, the Heart yet beats on.

Beats on.

Though the dawn no longer beings a sliver of hope still less the promise of joy the Heart beats on.

Night or Day, though the shadows never fade away – the Heart beats on.

The Sun, former friend, don’t shine anymore and the rains, the rains!

They fall and fall on your sodden door as the Heart beats on.

Oh, it makes no difference how far you go.

The Heart beats on.

It makes no difference who you meet.

They’re just a face in the crowd on a Dead End Street.

The Street where you live.

Without that love what are you?

Footsteps in an empty hall.

A scarred Heart still beating on though the battle is lost.

Lost.

Who can sing your broken heart’s Song?

Who can match in their musicianship and the harmony of their voices the depth of your loss?

 

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Four Canadians and one American, veterans of the roadhouses and Honkytonks, the white heat of Bob Dylan’s 1966 Tour and the restorative retreat of Big Pink.

Never a band better named – The Band.

They all played a plethora of instruments with loving skill and three of them sang with haunting grace.

Levon Helm – the Life Force.

The one with the leery vocals and the drummer beating out the animating rhythms.

Robbie Robertson – the Hot Shot.

The one with the gift of writing haunting songs and the guitarist who knew what you leave out is as important as what you put in.

Richard Manuel – The Holy Ghost.

The one who played the piano with gleeful brilliance and whose voice sounded like it had knowledge of those lands beyond the Styx.

Garth Hudson – The Professor.

The one who could play any instrument you put in front of him and who could conjure soundscapes from them (especially from the Lowery Organ) that no one else could begin to imagine.

Rick Danko – The Heart.

The one who played the bass like his life depended upon it and who sang with a keening country soul that could make you feel that he was saving your life and his with every word.

 

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And, when they had a great song to live up to they lived up to it.

A song for those who are hurt and scarred and whose hearts yet beat on.

 

The original version comes from The Band’s 1975 Album, ‘Northern Lights – Southern Cross’ a record that was shot through with autumnal elegiac solace.

Robbie said that the song was written specifically for Rick to sing and that as they rehearsed it the levels of emotion he brought forth demanded they all plumbed the depths of their musical instincts and empathy to match the magnificence of his vocal.

There is pain and loneliness in Rick’s voice but there is also a passionate determination for that battered heart to beat on.

Though he is aflame with torment he has not surrendered to final despair.

For despair is silent.

The supporting anguished harmony vocals of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel along with the fellow pilgrim guitar of Robbie Robertson and the soul cry of Garth Hudson’s final saxophone together with Rick’s peerless vocal make the Song a luminous triumph.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 The Band gave a, ‘Farewell’ Performance at The Winterland in San Francisco to which they invited famous friends like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Eric Clapton.

The concert demonstrated their ability to be brilliantly sympathetic accompanists switching styles with seamless ease.

Amongst many stellar moments there are two transcendent performances.

First, Van Morrison and The Band taking, Caravan’ right into the very heart of The mystic.

Second, a grand, stately, version of, ‘It Makes No Difference’ that rattles the walls of every Heart that hears it.

Rick’s vocal has the quality of an abandoned penitent refusing to believe, despite the rains falling all around him, that there is no hope left in Prayer.

Garth Hudson’s saxophone is a lambent lament fully equal to the line :

‘I Love you so much that It’s all I can do just to keep myself from telling you’.

 

 

In the years after The Last Waltz while Robbie went all Hollywood Levon, Richard, Garth and Rick initially struggled to find their way.

It was in live performance that they found themselves again.

While they would never fill the stadiums anymore those who saw them were privileged to be in the presence of a group of musicians of surpassing craft who could yet cut to Heart’s core.

Below, a performance from 1983 in Japan.

The intensity of Rick’s vocal and the interplay with the wraithlike Richard Manuel sears the soul.

If you have tears ….

 

Rick Danko died, worn out by life on the road and the ravages of drugs and alcohol in December 1999.

He was 55 years old.

When a musician takes to the stage he stands in the spotlight surrounded by pools of darkness.

It takes a truly great musician, in the way he plays and the way he sings, to respect in performance, and present to the audience the truth of both the darkness and the light and do so with a full heart.

Rick Danko was such a musician.

His performances, with his Brothers in The Band, especially of ‘It Makes No Difference’ will always flame, night and day, year after year, as long as there are human hearts that though broken stubbornly beat on.

Beat on.

 

Rolling Stones, Bob and Earl : The Harlem Shuffle

There is Presence in Place Names.

There is Romance in Place Names.

There is Poetry in Place Names.

Ulan Bator. Medicine Hat. Yekaterinburg.

Valparaiso. Terra Del Fuego. Finisterre.

Spoon River. Brigadoon. Elsinore.

Kathmandu. Coeur D’Alene. Cahirciveen.

Firenze. Maratea. Vigata.

New York City. New York City. New York City.

Manhattan. Queens. The Bronx. Staten Island. Brooklyn.

Harlem. Harlem. Harlem.

Black and white image of a street scene in Harlem in the 1930s.

Now for profound reasons of History Harlem has felt compelled to Shout!

Now for profound reasons of History Harlem has felt compelled to Scream!

But in all ages and conditions Harlem has lived and breathed through Song.

Harlem Sings! Harlem Sings! Harlem Sings!

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Harlem sings in the photographs of Aaron Siskind.

Harlem sings in the poetry of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Georgia Douglas Johnson.

Harlem sings in the melodies captured by a Harlem Airshaft.

Harlem sings in the writing of James Baldwin, Countee Cullen and W.E.B. DuBois.

Harlem sings in the polemics of Hubert Harrison and Marcus Garvey.

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Harlem sings at Olympic Field as the Lincoln Giants win again.

Harlem sings in the words and melodies of George and Ira Gershwin.

Harlem sings in the escapades of Harry Houdini.

Harlem sings in the crazed cavorting of Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

Harlem sings through Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins.

Harlem sings in the Knockout majesty of Joe Louis.

Harlem sings in the fleet feet of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.

Harlem sings through the inescapable Joy flowing from Fats Waller.

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Harlem sings through Frankie Lymon and Garland Jeffreys.

Harlem sings through Ralph Ellison and Johnny Hartman.

Harlem sings as another winner pings off the racket of Althea Gibson.

Harlem sings in the firm Gavel of Thurgood Marshall.

Harlem sings at Club Harlem.

Harlem sings at The Alhambra Ballroom.

Harlem sings at Havana San Juan.

Harlem sings at The Lennox Lounge.

Harlem sings at Minton’s Playhouse.

Harlem sings at Monroe’s Uptown House.

Harlem sings at Small’s Paradise and The Sugar Cane Club.

Harlem sings at The Park Palace and The Park Plaza.

Harlem sings and sings and everybody, everybody, wants to sing, sing, sing at The Apollo Theatre.

You move it to the left – you go for yourself.

You move it to the right – if it takes all night.

Take it kinda slow  with a whole lot of Soul

Do The Harlem Shuffle.

Do The Harlem Shuffle.

The Harlem Shuffle.

 

Harlem sings through through the raise the dead glory of Bob Relf and Earl Nelson’s, ‘Harlem Shuffle’ from 1963.

Don’t move it too fast – just make it last.

How low can you go?

Yup, even Lazarus himself, when he was laying down, would have got up off the bed and on to the floor once that brass fanfare kicked in!

Barry White (yes .. that Barry White) played Piano and did the arrangement (with Gene Page?) while Fred Smith produced.

Bob and Earl sing their hearts out through every line.

Now come on – don’t fall down on me now.

Just move it right here to The Harlem Shuffle.

The Harlem Shuffle.

Ride. Ride. Ride.

And that’s what Bob and Earl do.

They ride, ride, ride, slide and swoop so that we ain’t got no choice but to shake a tail feather for all we’re worth.

The combination of the urgent vocals and the insistent rhythms intoxicatingly surrounds you ’til you feel you can’t stand it no more.

That last for about a nanosecond before you want to be out on the floor again – head spinningly lost for another lifetime encapsulated in 162 seconds.

Yeah, yeah, yeah to the Harlem Shuffle.

Whoa, Whoa, Whoa.

Do The Harlem Shuffle.

Do The Harlem Shuffle.

Take All Night.

Make it last.

Meanwhile ….

Far across the Atlantic Ocean in England in an unremarkable place named Dartford two young men found that they shared a passion for The Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richard were and are true aficionados of Black Music.

Maybe they heard Harlem Shuffle on the radio or through hipper than hip Guy Stevens DJ-ing at London’s New Scene Club.

It was Stevens running the UK arm of Sue Records who first issued the record in Britain in 1965.

Keith, in particular, was taken by the horn heavy blast of Harlem Shuffle and he knew that Mick could really shake a tail feather to this one on stage.

He also knew that he had in Charlie Watts the coolest drummer in the whole wide world at his back so the song would hit the groove and stay hit throughout allowing him to dig deep.

Being the wily old bird he is Keith kept putting Harlem Shuffle on tapes of songs he gave to Mick until one fine day Mick just sang along as Keith and Ronnie Wood ran the song down in a rehearsal studio.

And, when they hit the stage – all brass and backing singers blazing there can be no resistance.

You scratch just like a monkey.

Yeah you do real cool.

Real Cool.

Real Cool.

Do The Harlem Shuffle.

The Harlem Shuffle.

Tail Feather well and truly shaken!

Notes :

Bobby Relf died in November 2007.

Hailing from Los Angeles (born 1937) he was in The Upfronts with Barry White.

Harlem Shuffle owes a lot to a West Coast tune, ‘Slausson Shuffletime’ by Round Robin.

Bobby kept in touch with Barry White and provided lucrative material for his fabulously successful Love Unlimited.

Earl Nelson died in July 2008.

He had an earlier brush with fame when he sang lead on The Hollywood Flames’ hit, ‘Buzz, Buzz, Buzz’.

Van Morrison : My Lonely Sad Eyes (& The Immortal Jukebox Van Compendium!)

 

The 31st of August is always a Red Letter Day for The Immortal Jukebox because it’s the birthday of Van Morrison whose glorious recordings have been the keystone of my musical life for for nigh on 50 years.

Happy 73rd Van!

No one brings together all the traditions like Van.

In his songs, singing and performance you can feel he has viscerally understood and integrated into his art; The Blues, Soul, Rhythm and Blues, Folk, Country and Jazz – all delivered with blazing Celtic devotion.

Leadbelly is there.

Ray Charles is there.

Hank Williams is there.

Arthur Alexander and Sam Cooke are there.

Jimmy Witherspoon and Mose Allison are there.

Mahalia Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe are there.

The McPeakes and O’Carolan are there.

Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis are there.

Bob Dylan is always there.

In Van it all comes together – traditions respected and added to creating a revelatory synthesis.

In celebration today a rhapsodic gem from 1966 pointing the way to the earth shattering triumphs of his solo career.

I remember at college playing a Them compilation for a friend and saying .. well here’s he honouring Ray Charles, here John Lee Hooker, here Bo Diddley and here Bob Dylan and then My Lonely Sad Eyes came on and we both shouted in exultation – here it’s all of them and it’s pure George Ivan Morrison!

Fill me my cup!

Fill me my cup!

Sparkling Wine indeed!

When Van sings like this he joins the Immortals.

You can pick out almost any line, any phrase or word and be dumbstruck by his vocal brilliance.

There’s a thesis to be written on the way he way he sings the word, ‘Lonely’ alone or on the oceanic surge he gives to :

Throw me a kiss
Across a crowded room
Some sunny windswept afternoon
There’s none too soon for me to miss.

He’s singing the Song and the Song is singing Him.

Into the Mystic.

Into the Mystic.

There are more Posts about Van than any other artist here on The Jukebox so, in case you missed one or would like to be reminded of an old favourite here’s the Van Compendium for your delectation and delight!

Brown Eyed Girl’.

An introduction telling the tale of my headlong plunge into obsession following my first hearing of Van’s best known song.

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Don’t Look Back’.

A meditation on Time featuring 2 astounding versions of John Lee Hooker’s tender Blues Ballad. One a reaching for the stars take of a teenager the second the work of a fully realised master musician.

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Carrickfergus‘.

A meditation on family, friendship and loss. How the shadows lengthen! Sung with infinite tenderness and bardic authority.

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In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

A miraculous meditation on the persistence of memory, the power of the radio and the post war world as seen by a young Irish mystic.

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Tupelo Honey’.

A rhapsodic meditation on the nurturing, redemptive power of Love. A Hallelujah!

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All in the Game‘.

A meditation on the carousel we all ride. It’s been sung by many singers but never like this!

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Domino’ .

A Founding Father joyously celebrated by a Master from the next generation.

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Sometimes We Cry‘.

Bringing it all back home to singing on the street corner Days. The sweetness of Doo-Wop seasoned with wry maturity.

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I Cover the Waterfront’.

Van and John Lee Hooker, Blues Brothers and Soul Friends, conjure up ancient tides.

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Buona Sera Signorina‘.

Van puts his party hat on and romps through the Louis Prima classic.

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Hey Girl’.

Van takes a stroll along the strand and suspends Time.

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Gloria! Gloria!’

Once, Now and Ever.

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Coney Island 

A Pilgrim’s glimpses of Eternity in the everyday.

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Brand New Day

Born again each Day with The Dawn.

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Happy Birthday Van!

Jukebox Jive with : Mark Bedford of Madness (Our House, My Girl)

I am delighted today to feature Mark Bedford, the Bass Player for Madness, in the ‘Jukebox Jive With … ‘ series.

It was a pleasure to converse with such a patient, thoughtful and generous interviewee. I would award Mark the high Jukebox accolade of RGB (Right Good Bloke) which in my estimation far outranks the OBE and such beribboned gongs handed out by the Queen!

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It is no exaggeration to say that Madness, now with a 40 year history as a Band with some time outs for rest, recuperation and diversions, have become fixtures in the imaginations and memories of the entire British Nation.

It’s not simply a matter of the 15 top ten hits in the UK and the ubiquity of their albums in homes all over the world.

It’s the way their presence through the folk like memorability of their songs,  the quirkily brilliant videos and carnivalesque live appearances has made them seem like part of more than one generations extended family.

In a real sense many of us have grown up with Madness with them sound tracking the joys and terrors of ageing.

Their role as, ‘National Treasures’ has been officially certified by their performances at such red letter day occasions as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace, the closing ceremony of the London Olympics and the farewell celebrations to mark the last day of programming from the original BBC Television Centre.

What has impressed me most about them is their creative energy – their ability to continually grow as musicians, songwriters and performers.

They have emphatically not fallen into the trap, which has captured many veteran bands, of becoming witting or unwitting cartoon versions of their former selves.

Madness today are still properly restless and minded to surprise themselves and their audience with new material and the vigour with which they present their gem filled catalogue.

And what a catalogue!

Starting out as devotees of Ska and Rock Steady from Jamaica they expanded their tonal palette to include Music Hall exuberance, downbeat drama documentaries, lyrical and lovelorn romantic ballads, risqué end of the pier jollity, sharp situation comedies (a la Clement and le Frenais), surreal pantomime and state of the nation proclamations.

Oh, and you can sing along and dance to all of them!

On the very rare occasions when I can be persuaded to attempt karaoke (usually fuelled by too much Tequila) I always chose a Madness song – invariably, ‘Our House’ because I can be certain that as soon as I launch into:

‘Father wears his Sunday best, Mother’s tired she needs a rest ..’

my own reedy warbling will instantly become a full throated choir singing;

‘The kids are playing up downstairs, Sister’s sighing in her sleep,

Brother’s got a date to keep, he can’t hang round …

then the roof’s durability is tested as the whole ensemble (including the moody ones who never sing) roars out:

‘Our house in the middle of our street

Our house in the middle of …’

Our House has instant memorability yet repays repeated listening to savour the superb song craft and the layers of feeling embedded in the lyric, melody and performance.

We can all recognise this family – the nuances of the relationships and the truth that comfortable familiarity and subdued foreboding can coexist.

Naturally Mark has insights into Madness in all their dimensions denied to the outside observer. So, it as a genuine privilege to prompt his  thoughts in our interview.

IJ – Was there a musician who inspired you to want to be a musician yourself?

MB-

Well, indirectly, it was Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople.

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I had seen them on Top of the Pops. I liked their songs and I liked the way he sang – ’And you look like a star but you’re still on the dole’, from, ‘All the way from Memphis’ was really intriguing.

I found out he had a book out so I went to Compendium Books in Camden Town and bought ‘Diary of A Rock ’n’ Roll Star’.

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I read it and thought this is what I want to do. Unfortunately I was only 14, so I practised the bass and had to wait for a couple of years.

As far as playing Bass goes I, like everyone, adored Motown’s James Jamerson.

David Hayes, long time Bass Player with Van Morrison was an important influence.

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On the UK scene when I was starting out I took note of the playing of Bruce Thomas with Elvis Costello and Norman Watt Roy with Ian Dury.

The drummer Kieran O’Connor and pianist Diz Watson also taught me a lot.

Reflecting on my career as a musician I’ve come to realise how important it is to be generous to other musicians and how such generosity benefits all concerned.

IJ – What was the first record you just couldn’t stop playing?

MB

Technically, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

Given my age I straddled Punk, so there were key records pre and post.

At school I listened to Steely Dan, Neil Young (‘After the Goldrush’ is still one of my favourite records) and Little Feat.

Once Punk erupted I was a massive Clash fan and listened to a lot more reggae. 

I also couldn’t stop playing Elvis Costello’s first album.

IJ – Was there a radio station/radio show/live venue that was important in introducing you to the music you love?

MB

My first radio memory: Eating breakfast, before going to school and listening to Tony Blackburn play Motown records on Radio One.

Of course, if you were a music fan listening to John Peel was compulsory.

Things were a bit more lax in the 70s. When we were in our teens, me and a group of friends used to sneak into pubs and listen to music.

At the time it seemed that every pub in North London had a back room with a band playing in it. I soaked up a lot of musical education in the Hope & Anchor, Dingwalls and The Carnarvon Castle.

We widened our repertoire and then started going to the Sunday concerts at The Roundhouse. These were amazing.  

IJ What was the first record you heard by one of your contemporaries that made you think – ‘Wow .. they’ve really got it!’

MB

‘Ghost Town’, The Specials. A giant step forward. We felt this really raised the bar for our generation of bands. It was addictively listenable while putting over a strong political message.

 

 

IJ – Looking back over your career which 3 albums are you most pleased with?

MB The first one, ‘One Step Beyond’ because it showed us we could do it.

Going in to the studio to make our debut we were nerveless. We really had the songs down from playing them live so we didn’t go in for any timewasting, ‘noodling’!

Producers Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer made important contributions. Alan was very adept technically and Clive had a musically interesting and empathetic mind. They were an excellent combination.

The second album, ‘Absolutely’ because it was written under such time-pressure but produced some brilliant songs (it is my favourite Madness record).

And, of course, ‘the last one’. (which as of 2018 was ‘Can’t Touch us Now’)

IJ – Similarly which 3 songs are you most pleased with?

MB

These Singles, because they helped us take a step forward: ‘My Girl’, ‘Grey Day’ and ‘One Better Day’. 

 

My Girl showed the reflective side of Madness.

This is a domestic love song about the kind of real stop/go hesitant love so many of us have experienced.

Mike Barson’s melody owes something to Elvis Costello’s, ‘Watching The Detectives’ though the mood is more discomfited male puzzlement rather than noir threat.

‘I found  it hard to say … she  thought I’d had enough of her …

‘Been on the telephone for  an hour … we hardly said  a word  …

’Why can’t she see she’s lovely to me ….

’Why can’t I explain … why do I feel this pain?

Been there Brother! Been there!

 

 

Grey Day though recorded in 1981 was conceived in 1978.

It shows Madness were atuned to a sense of dread that seemed to hang heavily in tne air at that time for a host of economic and political reasons.

It might properly be called a dystopian diorama or Orwellian vision of a society where it’s casualties are treated as though they were invisible.

But, though the central character is made black and bloody he endures.

He endures . He endures.

 

One Better day was born with Mark running down a chord sequence on guitar. Given the era it was then recorded onto a cassette in Suggs house.

Something about the melody suggested the wistful atmosphere of the song.

Now it’s a rare person who doesn’t feel as if they’ve seen better days.

Yet as the song makes clear even in the most desperate circumstances one better day may be right before us.

If you take the time to look around.

The feeling of arriving when you’ve nothing left to lose.

One better day.

IJ – What was your greatest ever live show?

MB

Madstock, Finsbury Park, 1992. A home coming, a farewell and a rebirth, all at the same time. There wasn’t a dry eye on stage. (The concert reunited the original band for the first time since 1984).

IJ – Nominate one artist who you think is criminally under rated?

MB

Robert Wyatt. From Soft Machine, Matching Mole to his solo stuff – so much of it so beautiful. What a voice.

 

 

Mark plays the Bass on this classic recording. It’s probably Elvis Costello’s most poignant lyric perfectly married to Clive Langer’s plangent melody.

There were clearly powerful emotions present in the studio that day – beautifully offered up in Robert Wyatt’s vocal and Mark Bass playing.

One of those records that hangs in the air long after it has finished playing.

Mark told me that he would love to have Madness and Robert collaborate.

I fervently second that proposal.

IJ – Nominate one record (by yourself or anyone else) to take up an honoured place as A 100 on The Immortal Jukebox.

MB –  ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’, Van Morrison. Specifically, ‘St Dominic’s Preview’

It’s the record I learnt to play the bass to and still practise to. I know every single note of it. And I have such a close emotional attachment to it.

It’s the manual on how to play together as a band. The interplay between the musicians is fantastic.

And, as a lovely circular story – A couple of months ago I was sent a message, through Mez Clough Van’s current drummer, by David Hayes, the bass player who is on the record.

Speechless. 

Regular readers of The Jukebox will know my reverence for Van. I have written that ‘Too Late to Stop Now’ is the greatest double live album of all time.

I’m delighted Mark seems to agree with me!

Mark is right on the money in referring to the miraculous interplay between the members of The Caledonia Soul Orchestra as they support and inspire their mercurial leader.

St Dominic’s Preview seems to me to a prophetic prayer yoking dreams of youth and the enigmas of maturity.

No sense in trying to force a linear narrative on it.

Surrender, surrender and be uplifted.

Thanks again to Mark for participating in Jukebox Jive.

It seems to me that Mark and all the members of Madness have been fortunate in finding each other and in the chemistry of their combination.

And, fortunately for us they have shared their gifts generously with each other and with us.

Long may they run.

Notes :

The Classic line up of Madness:

Chris Foreman – Guitar

Mike Barson – Keyboards

Lee Thompson – Saxophone

Daniel Woodgate – Drums

Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson – Lead Vocals

Mark Bedford – Bass

In addition to the albums referred to above I am particularly fond of:

’The Rise & Fall’, ‘The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1’ and, ‘The Liberty of Norton Folgate’.

The Go Betweens : Cattle and Cane

What are we made of?

Well, you could say we are mainly Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorous.

Add some pinches of Potassium, Sodium, Sulphour, Chlorine and Magnesium.

Just the tiniest amounts of Boron, Chromium, Cobalt and Copper.

Traces of Flouridine, Iron, Iodine, Manganese, Silicon, Selenium, Vanadium, Molybdenum, Tin and Zinc.

Scientifically that’s absolutely the case.

Still, I prefer to think we are, each of us,  a whirling constellation of dreams and memories.

Dreams beget memories and memories beget dreams.

We are star shine, dreams and memories.

Just before you go to sleep – a shimmer in the mind.

Just before you wake up – slow spools of overexposed film.

A Life lived in a landscape of dreams and memories.

Sometimes pin sharp with hallucinatory detail.

The grain of the kitchen table, the fragrance of your mother’s perfume, the bark of a long dead dog, the leathery feel of your father’s hands.

Sometimes drifting in and out of focus – colours merging and fading.

The faces of the children you played with, snatches of skipping rhymes, the clang of trolley buses passing by.

Tracking shots, jump cuts, slow motion.

And, the landscape of dreams and scudding memories is so often the landscape of childhood.

A landscape that will never leave you.

When we are very old and our powers are failing we will forget today’s appointment and the name of the current political leaders.

But, until our last gasped breath we will remember the intensity of the light in our youth.

We will remember the sounds of our childhood home and street.

We will remember the breeze blowing our hair awry and the sound of the wind outside our window in the deep dark of night.

However old you become you will always in some sense remain the child you were all those years ago.

The child who will be your secret companion and your deepest mystery.

And, if you are a songwriter – an individual given to times of silent thought – you will find yourself returning over and over and over again to that landscape in search of that companion and that mystery.

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If you are Grant McLennan you will recall a schoolboy coming home.

Home.

Through fields of cane.

Fields of Cane.

To a house of tin and timber.

Tin and Timber.

And in the sky a rain of falling cinders.

A rain of falling cinders.

Falling cinders that will fall, fall, fall all around you all your life.

If you are Grant McLennan you will dream up a hypnotic guitar riff in the key and time signature of memory and write a classic song of recalled childhood and the greatest song ever to come out of Australia.

If you are Grant McLennan living in a world of books and music and silent times in thought you will write, ‘Cattle and Cane’ and you will be certain of immortality as a songwriter.

I recall ….

Grant recalled his childhood when he was far from Home, Queensland and Australia when he wrote Cattle and Cane.

In 1982 he was staying with fellow expatriate Nick Cave on whose guitar he conjured the unforgettable guitar figures threaded all through Cattle and Cane.

With Robert Forster (his song writing partner) and Lindy Morrison on drums as The Go Betweens the song was recorded in Eastbourne in 1983.

Forster added the enigmatic last verse identifying the heart of the song as both the consolations of Home and the sense of aloneness you feel when Home is far away.

Home first became far away for Grant when he went away to Boarding School leaving the fields of cattle and cane far behind.

Boarding school where he would never forget losing his father’s watch.

In silent times of thought he will have returned to the rain of falling cinders and the sky above his Home.

Dreaming in the night he will have returned on the virtual train to the fields of cattle and cane and been blessed by the rain of falling cinders.

Those dreams of home will have flashed brighter when he left Australia in search of his chance.

Recalling the genesis if the song Grant McLennan said in 1983:

‘I wrote (the song) to please my mother. She hasn’t heard it yet because my mother and stepfather live (on a cattle station) and they can’t get 240 volts electricity there, so I have to sing it over the phone to her.’

The beauty of the lyrical imagery is fully matched by the melody and rhythm.

Opening with a riff that seems to signal a dive into the subconscious the song builds and builds through the verse until there is a feeling of breathless elation.

This a song which has the space and time stretching quality of dream.

Further, longer, higher, older.

Further, longer, higher, older.

The adult and the child co-exist and find peace with each other.

For the duration of the dream and the song they live together surrounded by fields of cattle and cane.

Fields of Cattle and Cane.

For the duration of the dream and the song they live again in a house of tin and timber.

A House of Tin and Timber.

A House that will always shine bright in the memory.

And, Boy and Man, dreaming their dreams, they stand under the sky and a rain of falling cinders.

A Rain of falling Cinders. that will never stop falling,falling, falling.

There is the quality of an anthem about Cattle and Cane.

An anthem to an Australia that is both real and mythic.

The anthemic ‘Australiana’ nature of the song is very well captured in the version by Jimmy Little.

 

A Song that can be deeply personal and an anthem for us all is some Song.

So, ‘Cattle and Cane’ tales up an honoured place on The Immortal Jukebox as A45.

I’ll leave you with a glorious live version with Grant and Robert diving deep ….

‘I recall a schoolboy coming home

Through fields of cane

to a house of tin and timber

And in the sky

A rain of falling Cinders ….

 

 

In memory of Grant McLennan 12 February 1958 – 6 May 2006.

For Malcolm McCulloch.