Mystery Revisited! Iris Dement, The Velvet Underground & Blind Willie Johnson

By some mischance or gremlin one of my posts disappeared from the WordPress system leaving a spectral trace as, ‘Unknown or Deleted’ in my Stats.

It’s taken me a while to work out which post.

Now, I find, perhaps appropriately, it’s the one on the theme of Mystery!

So here it is again (with an additional track).

We are born into a world of blooming and buzzing confusion.

Yet we soon learn to discriminate. Magellans all, instinctive cartographers we test the boundaries of our physical and intellectual environments every hour of every day as we draw and redraw the map of the world we have made for ourselves.

We try, schooled and unschooled, consciously and unconsciously, to make sense of it all. We continuously attempt to construct a free flowing narrative which we hope will contain, order and give meaning to our lives.

Yet, on every mind map, every finely inked delineation of the rivers, the seas, the coasts and continents and the sheer mountains there is always, must always be, a blank space, that used to be called, ‘Terra Incognita’ the unknown world(s) coexistent with the known world.

And, who knows, perhaps that land sustains and shapes everything in the world we think we know.

We all understand that there is much, much, that seems far beyond our understanding. Much that may be beyond any human understanding.

I believe, without getting too catholically theological on you that there is essentially at the heart of every life much that will always remain – probably necessarily – a Mystery.

Each of us will have our own evolving sense of the mystery. A sense that grows not from interrogation but out of fleeting glimpses.

One of the graces my love of music has given me is a conviction that there will never be an end to the making of songs because there will never be an end to our sense of and need for Mystery.

Songs, even the greatest songs do not expain Mystery but they can, sometimes, illuminate Mystery and allow it to settle and perhaps to bloom in our own mysterious centre.

The songs that follow are best listened to in still, patient solitude. These songs are alive and if you open yourself to them they will speak. They may well carry you so far away that you find yourself confronting the most mysterious realm of all – your own inner self.

As one of the songwriters most dear to my heart Iris Dement (featured previously in the ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories’ post which provides her background) put it so much more eloquently than I can – ‘Let The Mystery Be’.

The version at the head of this post is Iris solo.

As a Bonus for this recovered post here’s a lovely version featuring David Byrne and Natalie Merchant with 10,000 maniacs.

Uncharacteritically, I will say little about my selections here. I’ll allow the artists to each evoke Mystery in their own way.

No one knows for certain. I think I’ll just let the Mystery be.

The Velvet Underground’s third album from 1969 could never have equalled the seismic impact on contemporary culture of their debut and sophomore records which seemed to have tilted the axis of music; opening up new thematic territory with a mixture of cool calculation and raging brio.

Maestro John Cale departed taking his unique combination of chapel fervour, conservatoire training and cathartic use of unleashed chaos with him.

There is a feeling of calm after the hurricane infusing the third Velvets album. Lou Reed, now unchallenged as leader, chose to showcase quieter, mor contemplative songs. Two of those ‘What Goes On’ (memorably covered by Bryan Ferry) and, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ are among the most luminously beautiful and aching songs in popular music.

To close out the record Lou wrote a seemingly artless song, ‘Afterhours’ which was sung with limpid grace by the self effacing Mo Tucker, the band’s percussionist.

After Hours contains a lovely line that rings through my mind every time I am wending my way home after a late night in London – ‘All the people look well in tne dark’. I find comfort, disquiet and unfathomable Mystery in that line and the song that surrounds it. A song that speaks powerfully in the child like tones and cadences of a nursery rhyme.

My venture into Mystery concludes with a recording, a performance, from December 1927 which Ry Cooder (whom God preserve) has called, ‘The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music’.

Blind Willie Johnson’s, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ is rightly featured on the, ‘Golden Record’ sent in 1977 aboard The Voyager space probe to represent the human experiences of the natives of Planet Earth to whomsoever it might encounter!

However far Voyager ventures it will still be catching up with the immensities contained within Blind Willie’s masterpiece. I seems to me to be the most profound keening ever uttered on the essential loneliness of the human condition.

Listening to the songs above I’m reminded that music is the most pure, potent and direct means we have of engaging with the deepest, inescapable mysteries of life.

Guitar Visionary Kelly Joe Phelps plays Bob Dylan & Leadbelly

‘… Kelly Joe Phelps plays, sings, and writes the blues. HOLD UP before you lock that in – forget about songs in a twelve bar three chord progression with a two line repeat and answer rhyme structure – though he can certainly do that when he wants to.

I’m talking about a feeling, a smoky, lonesome, painful – yet somehow comforting groove that lets you know that you are not alone – even when you’re blue. Play on brother.’ (Steve Earle)

‘I’ve heard Kelly Joe mention that he’s been inspired by people like Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, Dock Boggs, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and others. He seems to have absorbed all this (and all kinds of other stuff as well) and come back with something all his own.

Sounds like he’s coming from the inside out. The bottom up. He’s not just playing ‘AT’ the music or trying to recreate or imitate something that’s happened in the past. He seems to have tapped into the artery somehow. There’s a lot going on in between and behind the notes. Mystery. He’s been an inspiration to me.’  (Bill Frisell)

Modern music is saturated by the sound of you know what’s coming next, auto tuned, multi-tracked guitars.

Drowning in this aural tide you can forget that, in the right hands, the guitar can be a questing instrument; an instrument which can sound the depths of human emotions in this life of dust and shadows.

When Kelly Joe Phelps plays the guitar whether slide or finger picking what you hear is the sound of a musician who has indeed tapped into the artery.

I first encountered him more than two decades ago now at the tiny 12 Bar Club in London’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street.

Standing a couple of feet away from him I was able to read, as he tuned up, the scrawled set list at his feet. It included:

‘Goodnight Irene’, ‘The House Carpenter’, ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’.

Fueled by my early evening libations I leaned towards him and said, ‘Wow, you’re going to have to be very good indeed to hold us with those songs without someone muttering every two seconds, ‘… Not as good as so and so’s version.’

Sensibly, he answered only with a wry smile before stilling the room in in the next hour with an astonishing display of instrumental virtuosity harnessed to a deep emotional understanding of both the Blues and the Gospel traditions.

Songs that were veritable foundation texts (in some hands museum pieces) came shockingly alive as Kelly Joe fearlessly explored the territory they opened up – voyaging wherever his heart and fertile musical imagination took him.

Listen now to his version of the canonical classic Leadbelly’s, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and marvel at the deliberate beauty and power of deep sea sway he brings to it.

Ever since I heard this take on Irene this is the one that plays in my dreams.

 

 

Born in the dwindling days of the 1950s Kelly Joe began his musical career as a bass player in modal and free Jazz combos where the ability to improvise and react to your fellow musicians was paramount.

At the same time, as an alert listener, he was immersing himself in the core deep works of artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Dock Boggs.

Artists who made singing in the blood music which still casts a profound spell. Taking the slide guitar as his vehicle to explore this universe he began to cast spells of his own.

Kelly Joe’s music is all about reaching, reaching, for the other shore.

Listening to Kelly Joe play James Milton Black’s 19th Century hymn, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’ there can be no doubt that we are brought in soul’s sight of that other shore.

Now, if you are a musician of Kelly Joe’s class and intuitive understanding of what makes the songs of the , ‘Old Weird America’ so profound and eternally relevant you will struggle to find such rich material in contemporary songbooks.

Happily, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, has laid down a storehouse of mystery filled dancing spells which musicians of spirit will always want and need to explore.

Bob once said that he saw himself a song and dance man. Kelly Joe takes him at his word here whirling, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ round a mystic Maypole.

As his career has progressed Kelly Joe has featured more original material. His own fine songs show how deep he has drunk at the well of the blues and gospel masters.

 

Kelly Joe’s music is filled with ancient lore and wholly alive in the here and now.

Surrender to his spell.

Notes:

There is a handy 2 CD Kelly Joe compilation, ‘Roll Away the Blues’ on the Nascente label which I highly recommend.

My own favourites in his excellent catalogue are:

‘Lead Me On’

‘Roll Away the Stone’

‘Shiny Eyed Mr Zen’

‘Beggar’s Oil’

‘Brother Sinner and the Whale’

Kelly Joe is a transfixing live performer. Seek out You tube for some wonderful clips.

Guitar buffs should seek out his finger picking tutorials.

 

Bob Dylan : The Nobel Prize, One Too Many Mornings, The Albert Hall & Me!

In honour of Bob Dylan being selected as the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature I am Reblogging one of the very first Immortal Jukebox posts which combines a tribute to Bob with a review of his 2013 Albert Hall concert in London.

Some may argue that as a songwriter/performer Bob does not qualify for the Literature Award.

Frankly, I regard such views as unforgivably petty and deeply wrong headed.

I can think of no figure in post World War 2 global culture more worthy of a Nobel Prize!

To add to the review below which had no soundtrack here’s my all time favourite Bob Dylan song in a bravura performance from the 1966 tour soon to be immortalised in a 36 CD set!

No one in the field of popular music has ever written as well as Bob Dylan and no one has performed and sung with such inimitable power.

Congratulations Bob!

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.’

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.

 

Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker : I Cover The Waterfont

Often, when we tell the story of our own life, to ourselves, or to others, the narrative teems with incident. An action movie filled with high drama.

Now, reflecting on my own life I have come to realise that a more apt comparison would be one of the contemplative, steady gaze movies directed by Robert Bresson from France or Yasujiro Ozu from Japan.

The meaning is won, revealed, not through a hectic series of heroic events but powerfully accumulated through close attention to small details and patient meditation on the weathering, sometimes destructive, sometimes ennobling, passage of time.

Life is mainly waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting for what you want or need the most.

Waiting for your mother’s or father’s attention.

Waiting for the fabled excitement of love and romance and high passion to blow into your life like a hurricane.

Waiting for someone to recognise you as the one they have been waiting for.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting on the waterfront for the one, miraculously found, to return.

Waiting, worrying, wondering why she had to go.

Waiting, never understanding why she had to go.

Waiting, rheumy eyed, obsessively scanning the horizon for her to return.

Waiting, waiting, covering the waterfront.

Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker.

Bluesmen. Brothers in The Blues.

Initiates. High priests. Orphean adepts.

Anam Cara – soul friends.

Sounders of the depths. In their music they tap the source. The energy they draw upon seems to come, direct, from the very core of the Earth.

In touch with such power is it any wonder that they are often described as, ‘glowering’ and, ‘moody’.

I Cover The Waterfront looms in our imaginations like a fevered dream. The great Booker T on organ sets up a heat shimmer from which Van and John Lee emerge like royal travellers from some mysterious distant land bringing testimony of great import.

Some say the purpose of art is to stop time. Well, here, Van and John Lee do a wonderful job of making time eddy and meander as they dig deep into the song. They are both able to lead us away from the tyranny of everyday time into new dimensions of being.

Ships leave harbour and the coast vanishes as they voyage into the open sea. Beside the vastness of the sea humans seem small, insignificant. Yet, the sea is bound by the shore while the human imagination knows no such bounds. With their voices, their intense vocal and imaginative presence, Van and John Lee take us far beyond the mere realms of cartography and circumnavigation.

Their music at its best always opens new territory bringing us visions, emotional insights and dare one say it – mystical revelations.

They bring it on home while we are waiting.

Waiting for someone to reply to the message in a bottle thrown in the sea those many years ago.

Waiting for the knock on the door – sometimes in hope, sometimes in dread.

Waiting before you go out with seed for the sowing.

Waiting before you return carrying your sheaves.

Waiting for forgiveness.

Waiting in vain for the Raven’s return.

Waiting for the Dove to return with an Olive leaf.

Waiting for a miracle.

Waiting for Ahab to sail The Pequod, laden with Whale, back into Nantucket.

Waiting for Godot.

Waiting for The Dodgers to come home to Brooklyn.

Waiting for this terrible day to become tomorrow.

Waiting for the slow train coming around the bend.

Waiting for the full moon to rise.

Waiting for two riders to approach.

Waiting for the barkeep to pour one scotch, one bourbon, one beer.

Waiting for the foghorn to blow.

Waiting for the dawn to break.

Waiting for the wind to howl.

Waiting for the circle to be unbroken.

We are all waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Whatever you are waiting for I hope it will have been worth the wait.

And, as each of us waits, for our own reasons, the music of Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker lends us peace and perspective.

Notes:

The version of I Cover The Waterfront featured here comes from the John Lee Hooker record, ‘Mr Lucky’. I’m sure of few things but I am sure you can never have too many John Lee Hooker records.

This post largely written on the decks of the M/S Lily and S/S Ukkopekka as they sailed in blazing sunshine between Turku, the Island of Vepsa and the town of Naantali in Finland.

Fred Neil – The reluctant guru of Greenwich Village

‘He was a hero to me’ (David Crosby)

‘I would prefer not to’ (Bartleby the Scrivener- Herman Melville)

Some artists songs reflect the busy world being born and dying all around them.

Some artists songs are front line combatant reports showing us how it feels to fall in and out of love.

Some artists songs like those of Fred Neil, the subject of today’s Immortal Jukebox tribute, are invitations to enter a dreamscape where the deep emotions of our unconscious selves are mysteriously evoked, recognised and sounded.

Listening to such songs can be an enormously affecting, liberating and transformative experience.

Everybody knows a Fred Neil song though most don’t know that song as a Fred Neil song.

So, ‘Everybody’s Talking At Me’, a song played on the radio all around the world every day is generally regarded as a Nilsson song or, ‘That song from Midnight Cowboy’.

And, ‘Dolphins’ is usually thought of as proof of Tim Buckley’s soaring imagination. Yet both were written and first recorded in definitive versions by Fred Neil.

Fred Neil was a magnificent songwriter with a voice of extraordinary beauty who entranced and permanently influenced the early 60s generation of singer-songwriters who congregated in the artistic crucible/enclave of Greenwich Village in New York City.

Bob Dylan started out in the village playing harmonica for Fred at Cafe Wha? David Crosby, John Sebastian, Richie Havens and Karen Dalton all sat at Fred’s feet and wondered, ‘How does he do it?’

How does he play with such relaxed freedom and integrate voice and guitar so seamlessly?

How does he write songs that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before which yet fall upon your ears like the welcome voice of an old friend returning home after a long journey?

How does every song he sings sound like an epic voyage into uncharted waters?

How does he do it?

One thing you can be sure of – Fred ain’t gonna tell you. Fred, famously, keeps his own counsel. But, if you watch and listen hard he might just show you the way a true musician carries himself.

When he’s singing a song Fred sails into the distance following his own charts to lands that aren’t inked in on any maps you can buy at the store.

Copy Fred and you’ll most likely drown – take inspiration from him and you just might find our who you are and where you’re bound.

Listening to Dolphins we join Fred on a voyage that can have no end. A voyage in search of the essential self we so carefully hide from the wide, wounding world.

The caressing intimacy of Fred’s vocal is that of a man who, at some unknowable cost, has been granted a revelation that has changed him utterly.

Odetta was right to talk about Fred’s voice being a healing instrument. In singing he heals himself and offers us balm for our own wounds. It is a rare and precious gift.

He knows full well that it’s not for him to tell any of us how to get along. Each of us has to steer our own course in search of the secret of our own true self.

The Dolphins cannot be willed to appear; you have to search. and, often, a;most always, nothing valuable can be found unless something valuable has also been lost.

What Fred can offer us through the majesty of his fathomless voice and crystalline guitar is a vision of a mysterious, thrilling beauty which though generally out of reach can illuminate our lives and inspire us like the circling moon and stars above.

Horizons are there to be scanned. Nothing is ever discovered in the safety of the harbour. Set sail. set sail.

Search for the Dolphins.

Everybody’s Talkin’ is a song lasting less than three minutes which you won’t ever be able to leave behind. A song which carries us over deep waters. A song which yet has the playful lightness of a skipping stone.

A song that whispers and whispers in the wind. Who are you? Where are you bound?

Fred’s golden baritone and the perfect alluring metre of his guitar help us slip the bonds of time measured in deadening seconds and minutes for the time beyond measurement lived in the chambers of our hearts and the shivers of our souls.

How long does it take to fall in love?

How long does it take to have the scales fall from your eyes and see, see, the world anew?

How long do you have to pray for forgiveness and redemption?

How long will it take before you jettison the baggage weighing down your life?

How long does it take to stop thinking how long will it all take?

How long. How long.

Oh, everybody’s talkin’ at you all the time. All the time.

Even if you knew what it was they wanted you couldn’t give it to them.

What Fred offers is a faith that somehow, no matter how bewildering the sound and fury of the world is there remains a place, a home, where the sun will keep on shining through the rain

There is somewhere where the weather will suit your clothes.

A home where you will no longer be a stranger in a strange town.

Sometimes, early in the blue light of dawn eerily beautiful dreams of freedom float to the surface of my sleeping mind. And, sometimes I can hear a spectral deep voice calling out ‘I’ve got a secret – didn’t we shake Sugaree’.

Then, waking with a lazy grin and a sense of gratitude I know that Fred has been visiting my imagination once again.

By 1971 Fred Neil was weary of the whole hoopla of the music business and the dangerous attractions of New York City (particularly the easy access to the drugs which threatened to mire him in lethargic melancholia).

So Fred simply flew the coop and literally went searching for the Dolphins in Florida. Down there he seemed to find the peace of mind he had always been looking for. There, comfortable in his own skin, he played for his own amusement not for applause or esteem.

He was not an exile. Rather he was a sailor who after many circumnavigations had at last found a place to weigh anchor.

Notes:

Fred Neil died in July 2001.

Fred had early songwriting success placing, ‘Come Back Baby’ with Buddy Holly and, ‘Candy Man’ with Roy Orbison.

His first LP, for Elektra in 1964, Tear Down the Walls’ was shared with Vince Martin. Tracks like, ‘Baby’, ‘Wild Child in a World of Trouble’ and, ‘Weary Blues’ already feature Fred’s honeyed vocal style and ability to make every line seem like a new gleaming thought.

‘Bleeker & MacDougal’ again on Elektra from 1965 was Fred’s solo debut. It is a wonderful record that yielded many treasures particularly, ‘Blues on the Ceiling’, ‘Other Side of This Life’ and, ‘Little Bit of Rain’.

In 1966 Fred moved to Capitol for the all time classic, ‘Fred Neil’ which in addition to the tracks featured above has a mesmeric version of, ‘Faretheewell’ (often known as Dink’s song’.

A live collection, ‘The Sky is Falling’ goes some way to explaining the hold Fred exerted over his contemporaries.

Those who fall fully in thrall to Fred’s genius should seek out, ‘The Many Sides of Fred Neil’ which is richly veined with rare gems.

Free – Gloriously Blazing Too Far, Too High, Too Soon!

Ah youth, youth. When the blood sang in our veins. When there were worlds to be discovered, explored and thrillingly conquered. When we were almost sure, almost sure, we were immortal.

Yet, in the dark watches of the night – a sudden shiver.

Youth will, must, in time wither and decay. Beauty, so breathtakingly potent now, will, must, lose its bloom. What if the impregnable certainties of our beliefs should tumble and fall as medieval castles did to unimagined assailants?

The sand in the hourglass flows and flows running down your unknown span of days. Enjoy your youth while you may for it is a currency too easily spent never to be replenished.

These are the days, so soon to melt away, that you must savour. These are the days that will always echo in your soul. These are the days that you must always hold in your heart while it still beats.

Cut to April 1968. To a pub, The Nags Head in Battersea London, where a band of teenagers, named, ‘Free’ are about to make their debut. For all the hard drinking punters knew that day they were just another of the hundreds of the by the numbers blues/rock bands that had emerged in the wake of the pioneering work of John Mayall and his assorted Bluesbreakers including star alumni Eric Clapton and Peter Green.

As it turned out Free before they played their final gig at Newcastle’s Mayfair in October 1972 would justly earn a reputation as one of the great live bands of their era and record seven albums featuring superb singing and collegiate musicianship associated with a series of songs that would echo on in the decades after their days in the sun were long shadowed by time and personal tragedy.

Cut to the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. Free, riding high (helicoptering in!) with their anthemic signature song, ‘All Right Now’ topping charts all over the globe take the stage and deliver a performance to an audience of half a million souls which demonstrated beyond any doubt that two years of intense touring has turned them into an awesomely accomplished musical force no sensible competitor would choose to follow.

The brilliance of Free’s live shows are well captured on the essential, ‘Free Live’ CD with their set from Sunderland showing them at their incendiary best. Listen to their own ‘Mr Big’ and their definitive cover of Albert King’s, The Hunter’ and you will encounter magnificent musical control with every member of the band contributing with distinctive skill to create a glorious unified sound.

The sound of a band in its pomp playing with confidence, power and finesse. The sound of a band overflowing with love for their music. No wonder they accumulated a huge loyal fan base that filled and shook concert halls whenever they played.

Free’s singer and a natural born front man Paul Rodgers was 18 when Free formed. He hailed from Middlesbrough in England’s gritty North East. His father warned him that working class boys must learn a trade or face decades of insecure low paid drudgery.

Paul took this advice to heart though not in a way his father could ever have forecast! Paul’s apprenticeship was spent not in a shipyard but criss crossing the motorways and A roads of Britain with Free learning to form his own singing style from the lessons he had learned from youthful hours listening to Muddy Waters, Otis Redding and Levi Stubbs.

Like those masters Paul became a heroic singer able to command the stage and the recording studio using the resource of his smokily sensual voice as each song demanded; now playful, now raging, now tender, now regretful. A band with Paul Rodgers strutting his stuff out front was never going to be overlooked!

Free were blessed that their bass player, Andy Fraser, just 15 when he joined, was a genuine prodigy who had a seemingly inborn sophisticated sense of rhythm which gave the band a lovely organic flowing sound.

Andy as well as being a technically accomplished bass player was also an acute listener who was able to pick up on, channel, challenge and redouble the melodic imagination and songful soul of Paul Rodgers and guitarist Paul Kossoff to create thrilling song arrangements.

With Paul Rodgers he formed a songwriting partnership which would give Free a treasury of songs to draw on. Before his death in 2015 he would go on to write fine songs for leading artists with my own favourite being the exquisite, ‘Every Kinda People’ recorded most notably by Robert Palmer.

Behind the drum kit, escaped from rural Wales, was Simon Kirke, 18 when he joined. Simon anchored Free’s rampaging sound with unfussy authority. When they went into full blitzkrieg mode he was a heavy wrecking ball drummer but he could also rein things back and provide a lulling pulse on ballads and reveries.

His calm and sensitivity was an important element of the overall Free sound and his security playing at slow tempos marked him out from so many of his over busy contemporaries.

Enter, Londoner Paul Kossoff, just 17 when he joined, a genuinely tragic figure, dead at 25 a victim of a drug habit he seemed incapable of resisting, whose extraordinary guitar playing whether in unison passages or in heart rending solos marked him out as one of those rare musicians who has,
‘The Touch’.

The Touch is hard to define but easy to recognise and impossible to learn. It’s nothing to do with technical accomplishment. It’s everything to do with a sound that is immediately distinctive, a sound that bears the unmistakeable hallmark of the human soul with all the blessings, graces, weaknesses and wounds that produced it.

Peter Green had the touch. Jazz pianists Bill Evans and Jimmy Yancey, in their very different ways, had the touch. B. B. King had The Touch.

Players with The Touch stop you in your tracks shaking you out of imaginative torpor. They make you listen. They make you feel. They take you places you didn’t know existed.

Paul Kossoff lived to play the guitar, lived most fully, was most himself, when he played guitar. Playing guitar he transformed his Les Paul or Stratocaster into a wizard’s wand conjuring unrepeatable, inexplicable magic out of the air.

You can hear The Touch in nearly everything he played in his short life. You can hear it in his supernatural interplay with Andy Fraser on Mr Big. You can hear it in the anguished vibrato and nerve shredding trills of his sound in, ‘The Hunter’.

You can hear it in the measured magnificence of his playing throughout, ‘All Right Now’ which I must have heard a thousand times or more on student jukeboxes. Yet, I can still stand to hear Kossoff, Rodgers, Fraser and Kirke another thousand times or more because, ‘All Right Now’ is a real song they play with steady heads and full hearts.

In 1971 Rodgers and Fraser wrote one of the favourite songs of my youth – the dizzying, whirling carousel beauty that is, ‘My Brother Jake’. You can feel their joy in playing together, in getting away with doing just what they always wanted to do and getting paid for it! This is one of my first go to songs if I ever need reminding that it’s a wonderful thing to be alive.

Free were undone by the inevitable personality and character driven disputes that arise between charismatic, forceful young men like Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser and by the tragic decline of Paul Kossoff despite the best efforts of his bandmates to save him from himself.

We will never know what wonders they might have created had their choices and circumstances been different. Yet it must be better to celebrate the treasures they have left us rather than to mourn what might have been.

As I was thinking about writing this post a song I could not name for several weeks kept edging its way into my consciousness. It was only when I sat down to write this tribute that the overworked minions of my memory vouchsafed that the song was, ‘Get Where I Belong’ which I will leave you with as an elegy for a band who blazed a shining comet’s trail and left us with music for the ages.

Perhaps, with the spendthrift wrecklessness of youth they did go too far, too high, too soon, with little thought of how they would come down but we should always be grateful for the view of the moon and the stars they illuminated for us.

Notes:

Free issued 6 albums of original material and a live recording in their brief 1968 to 1973 career. They will all repay your time.

The classics are, ‘Fire and Water’ and, ‘Free Live’

There is a handy 19 track compilation, ‘The Free Story’ and, for enthusiasts (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) there is a marvellous 5 CD set, ‘Songs of Yesterday’

Eric Clapton: Finding Redemption at 461 Ocean Boulevard

Music is an art and a craft. And, for a performing artist it’s an art and a craft that must be practiced; physically, emotionally and spiritually engaged with- if the music is to live and the artist is to grow.

Between the beginning of 1971 and the early part of 1974 Eric Clapton who had become rock music royalty and widely acknowledged as a guitar god after his work with The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, Delaney and Bonnie and Derek and The Dominoes was not practicing his art and craft.

Instead he was holed up in Hurtwood Edge, his luxurious hideaway in rural Surrey, seemingly having abandoned his talent and career in pursuit of the oblivion provided by alcohol and heroin.

As is the way with addicts wasted days became wasted weeks became wasted months became wasted years.

His life and his career was saved from this tragic torpor through a combination of his own everlasting love of the classic blues, his need as a man and a musician to make music again and the insistent promptings of friends like Pete Townsend and fellow Domino Carl Radle.

A demo tape of Bassist Radle, Keyboard player Dick Sims and Drummer Jamie Oldaker jamming together appears to have whetted Eric Clapton’s desire to play again.

He began to imagine a record which would feature his continuing devotion to the blues and his preference for organic, song centred recordings in the style of The Band in contrast to the bombastic pyrotechnics of his Cream days.

It was time to take, ‘Blackie’ his custom made Fender Stratocaster out if its case and strap it on!

So in April 1974, installed in Golden Beach Florida he assembled the above musicians adding George Terry on guitar and Yvonne Elliman on vocals with the redoubtable Tom Dowd sitting in the producer’s chair.


The result in terms of music history was a record, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ which in my view stands second only to the all time classic, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ in the canon of Clapton’s recordings.

It’s a record, at its heart, where a true bluesman reached out in tender gospel supplication for peace and redemption – a peace and redemption the record seems to find.

When you have hit bottom you learn, whatever you thought in your careless heyday, that no one can ever really stand up alone. You need help. You learn you will have to go down on your knees and ask for help.

You need strength to carry on – especially if you know that your vocation as a bluesman is to live life out on a highway which is always shadowed by tempting snares.

Snares you have fallen prey to before (Lord I’ve done so much wrong) and which you can never doubt you can fall prey to again – perhaps never to recover from.

Somehow, from somewhere, as part of your recovery you will have to find a renewable source of strength; a nurturing relationship between your self, the world and god in whichever form he appears to you. All this is evoked for me by Eric Clapton in this humble hymn.

There is a deeply affecting tenderness in Clapton’s guitar playing and his vocal in this song with superb use of sustain and falsetto. Indeed throughout 461 Eric Clapton meshes his guitar and vocal talents like two well worn hands meeting and supporting each other in prayer.

Eric Clapton through obsessive practice and natural affinity learned and internalised the language of the blues as a teenager so that it became second nature to him.

His extravagantly brilliant playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers became the aspirational benchmark for a whole generation of guitar players.

He has, no matter how far from the original source he has sometimes strayed, always eventually returned to the blues for sustenance, rescue and refreshment.

So, searching to rediscover the essence of that calling, in Criterion Studios in 1974 he turned again to the masters who had called forth his own voice as a bluesman and guitar player.

Listen to the majestic, tensile strength of his take on the Willie Dixon/Elmore James blues standard from 1960, ‘I Can’t Hold Out’.

Eric doesn’t try to emulate the scything style of Elmore instead emphasising the tension rather than the release. So that when he does stretch out all you can do is echo his own, ‘Aaal Riiggght’ and ‘Oooh Yeh!’

Lest anyone think that the powerhouse Eric Clapton heard on ‘Layla’ was lying buried in the Surrey woods, never to rise again, listen to the coruscating brilliance of his playing on, ‘Motherless Children’!

Driven on by the relentless rhythm section he demonstrated his signature ability to mine the tropes of the blues guitar he knows and loves so well so that what emerges goes beyond generic statement to become real artistic creation.

This track begs you to cast caution to the winds before jumping on board a runaway train for a ride to the very end of the line!

461 was an artistically and commercially successful record. Eric’s Kingston Surrey by way of Kingston Jamaica take on Bob Marley’s, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ became a US No 1 single and his version of Johhny Otis’, ‘Willie and The Hand Jive’ was also a substantial hit.

But, I’m not going to feature neither here today. Instead I will close with the emblematic, ‘Let It Grow’ which glows with a redemptive penitent fervour that almost always brings tears to my eyes.

At the end of this track and listening to 461 as a whole you can’t doubt that Eric Clapton had definitively rediscovered his mojo and was once again an artist gloriously practicing his craft.

Perhaps, you can never glimpse Paradise until you have spent your allotted time in Purgatory.