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.

Captain Beefheart: Visions from Beyond – Big Eyed Beans from Venus!

‘Mr Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note .. And let it float.’
(Captain Beefheart ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’)

‘Once you’ve heard Beefheart it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains like coffee or blood’ (Tom Waits)

‘If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in popular music it’s Beefheart’ (John Peel)

A day or so ago, on a whim, I decided to play my vinyl copy of, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

So, I carefully punched in the combination code (get it wrong twice and the caged tigers are released) and entered the sanctum sanctorum containing the motherlode of a lifetime’s dedicated record collecting.

Adjusting my eyes to the subdued lighting and breathing the filtered air in a thermostatically controlled dry heat I strolled past the substantial, ‘A’ section and found myself mesmerised by the bounteous treasures contained within the, ‘B’s.

Before extracting Sergeant Pepper from the compendious Beatles cache I lingered over titles from; The Band, The Beach Boys, Badfinger, Blind Boy groups from several States, Paul Brady, Tim Buckley, Joan Baez, Billy Butterfield and, of course, Sidney Bechet (Sidney Bechet!).

However, none of the above accompanied Sergeant Pepper on the walk back to the house.

No, nestled next to the Fab Four was an album from one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of popular music – ‘Clear Spot’ by the one and only Captain Beefheart (otherwise known as Don Van Vliet).

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Captain Beefheart! Captain Beefheart!

In an age when massed phalanxes of politicians, sociologists and Madison Avenue moguls spend untold hours corralling all of us into discrete groups, tribes and categories (personally I’m distraught if I don’t appear in the grouping called ‘other’ in such surveys!) what a relief it is to encounter the Captain – an artist who explodes all the imprisonments of classification and genre.

Captain Beefheart is hors categorie.

He was an American original in excelcis who arrived on the scene like some thunderous prophet from the Desert who lived on a diet of honey and locusts.

Listening his impossibly cavernous voice you imagined a Man-Thing emerging like a vision from the heat shimmer dressed in a hair shirt with buzzards on his shoulders and roaring lions prowling at his feet.

The Captain is best understood as a sculptor and painter who worked, for a time, in the medium of music. He moulded words and sounds and musicians like clay – ripping, tearing and main force wrestling all the material at hand until it matched the mysterious visions blooming in his heart and mind.

And, there can be no better example of the visceral power of his mysterious visions than, ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ which now takes an honoured place on The Immortal Jukebox as A20.

Usually I’m so pumped up after listening to this track that I have to set off for a long lung-busting run to restore some vestige of equilibrium.

Get ready! Get ready!

This is life changing music.

A work which explodes into life with a, ‘Now I’ve got you!’ guitar riff followed by one of the most arresting opening lines ever recorded:

‘Distant cousins, there’s a limited supply,
And we’re down to the dozens, and this is why …’

Four minutes or so later The Captain with the heroic support of Magic Band members Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad), Rockette Morton (Mark Boston), Ed Marimba (Art Tripp) and Orejon (Roy Estrada) has taken us on a hallucinatory musical journey fusing field hollers, free jazz, the delta blues, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll into a new and wholly original creation – and isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

No praise is too high for the cosmic commitment this group of musicians offer us here.

Listening I feel as if all my senses (including my sixth and seventh senses) have been shaken and shaken and shaken again until they are singing in rare unison.

The track while proceeding according to some hidden logic asks you to throw out all the conventional expectations of lyrical and musical song structure.

Instead you are taken on a wild, wild ride with sudden stops and accelerations keeping you thrillingly off balance and holding on for dear life.

When Beefheart and the Magic Band put the hammer down you’ll be pulling some serious G forces!

Yet, you always have the sense that someone is at the controls and though you don’t know exactly where you’re going to wind up you’ll be glad you got there when you get there!

Where you will be is far from home in a place you may yet find strangely familiar.

Perhaps Beefheart’s music comes from the parallel universes the physicists tell us surround our own!

It seems to me that all of The Captain’s finest works have the hallmark of mystical transmissions from some crystal beyond. They are simultaneously nonsensical and revelatory bolts of bone deep human truths.

That’s what can make his work so unsettling and downright scary. As Earth people around the circle our instinct is as often to cower and turn our back on such truths as to welcome them.

The Captain’s vocation was to eschew the fol-de-rol of the music business and all the, ‘this is how you do it’ manuals and do, grandly, what all genuine artists do – fearlessly explore and expound the truths he found in his heart.

This was a man who said that a guitar was not really a guitar but a divining rod and that it should be used to find spirits in the other world and bring them over.

There can be no doubt that in creating and performing, ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ The Captain found some very powerful spirits and blessed us by bringing them over.

There never was and never will be anyone like him.

P.S. Many, many thanks to all the Jukebox aficionados who have taken the time to nominate The Immortal Jukebox for the UK Blog Awards. And, for the very kind words used to describe the virtues of The Jukebox.

Nominations remain open so … If you haven’t already please do follow the link below!

The URL is http://www.theimmortaljukebox.com

My email is thomhickey55@yahoo.co.uk

http://ow.ly/9hHJ304McG4

Do You, Do You, Do You, Do You Want to Dance? John Lennon, The Beach Boys, The Ramones & Bobby Freeman do!

The Sages tell us that when you really get down to it there are only seven stories in the world.

And, that these are endlessly retold and recast so that the human race can come to terms with the otherwise incomprehensible complexity of our lives.

So everyone from Homer to Tex Avery (not excluding Dante, Shakespeare and Emily Bronte) has expounded with greater or lesser wisdom on the eternal themes.

My own midnight reflections have led me to identify that what holds good for Story also holds good for Questions.

After deep contemplation I have discovered that there are only five Questions underpinning all human enquiry.

For four of them you’ll have to wait for the publication of:

‘The Five Questions every life must answer’ (pre-orders accepted now).

But, exclusively, for readers of The Immortal Jukebox, I can reveal that one of the Questions is:

‘Do You Want To Dance?’

It’s a profound question.

Especially if you regard it not solely as a question you ask another but as a question you should address to your innermost self every day if you want to live a fully engaged life.

So, ‘Do you want to dance?’

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Bobby Freeman a 17 year old from San Francisco, thought it was such an important question that he had no hesitation in asking it 19 times during the 164 second course of his classic recording from 1958.

Yowsa! Yowsa! Yowsa!

Now Bobby’s demo with him on piano and vocals and a friend on echoing bongos/congas seems to have been taped in a deep, dark hollow before New York musos like Billy Mure with a glittering guitar break added some semblance of professionalism so that the record could be commercially released

Of course, the circumstances of a record’s genesis don’t matter a hoot if, instantly, as it blooms from your radio or neighbourhood Jukebox you just know that it has uttered a profound truth as you obey its command to shake a tail feather.

It was thus no surprise that, ‘Do You Want To Dance’ was a top 5 hit on the Billboard Chart.

There’s a hypnotic charm about the latin beat, ascending melody, false ending and the artless vocal’s increasingly insistent expression of the central question.

Resistance is useless – surrender!

Do You, Do You, Do You, Do you Want to Dance?
Do You, Do You, Do You, Do You Want to Dance?

The song, easy to learn and easy to extend vocally and instrumentally if the audience fell under its spell, became a fixture of many a group repertoire.

In Britain it was a notable success for Cliff Richard (1962) and in the US it attracted the attention of Del Shannon and The Four Seasons (1964) before the startling genius of Brian Wilson took into into realms undreamed of by Bobby Freeman.

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The relationship between original and The Beach Boys version might be compared to that of a Lascaux cave painting and a high Renaissance masterpiece by Raphael.

Brian Wilson with his multi dimensional musical intelligence added structure and sophistication to Bobby Freeman’s sketch.

So we have three part harmony, vocal chanting, an instrumental ensemble of saxophones, timpani, massed guitars and organ seamlessly integrated into a sweeping wide screen orchestration which also features subtle key changes.

On the top Dennis Wilson, with his first lead vocal for the group, provided glowing warmth and drive.

A singular aspect of Brian Wilson’s talent in his mid 60s pomp was his ability to to create complex arrangements which though capable of endless analysis by musicians and critics flowed with what seemed complete naturalness into the hearts of his listeners.

Under Brian’s baton Pop Music had a cathedral like architectural glory it has rarely ever attained.

Success and sophistication went hand in hand as Brian and The Beach Boys had hit after hit.

John Lennon was another who knew a thing or two about marrying art and popularity in song.

He would have heard Bobby Freeman’s version in Liverpool as a teenager. The Rocker in John, a defining aspect of his character, must have been taken by its sensual sway and swoon.

For it was this aspect of the song he chose to emphasise when he recorded it for his, ‘homage to leather jacketed youth’ album from 1975, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

It should never be forgotten that John Lennon was a great Rock ‘n’ Roll singer. I’d hazard the view that the true primal therapy for John was singing and that through singing he found balm for his own troubled soul as well as providing it for millions of others all over the globe.

The final version featuring on The Jukebox is a 1977 blitzkrieg New York City take by The Ramones.

We will have to call this the spray paint on the subway wall graffiti version!

I must admit that in my college days I did some very enthusiastic ‘pogoing’ to this one propelled by my love of high octane, eyeballs out Rock ‘n’ Roll and large quantities of cheap alcohol.

There’s no messing with The Ramones.

They set out in a cloud of dust like a drag racer and don’t let up – wholly careless as to whether the parachute will deploy!

So, whichever version you prefer the eternal Question remains which we will all have to answer in our own way – ‘Do You Want to Dance?’

For my part the answer is a resounding Yes!

Notes:

Bobby Freeman could never match, ‘Do You Want to Dance’ though he did have several other hits. He was a winning singer and I’m always pleased when one of his songs comes up under random play on my music player. A comprehensive collection of his 56-61 work can be found on Jasmine Records.

Other versions you might care to investigate:

The Mamas & Papas

Jan & Dean

T Rex

Dave Edmunds

David Lindley

Bill Withers : American Hero – born on the 4th of July!

The great Bill Withers was born on July 4th in 1938.

He is a great master of American Song who has added significantly to that treasure trove.

As a tribute I am pleased to reblog a post from the very early days of The Jukebox which many of you will have missed.

 

‘A good man out of the treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things’ (Matthew)

‘Lean on me when you’re not strong and I’ll help you to carry on’ (BIll Withers)

Bill Withers stuttered painfully as a boy and young man which meant he didn’t say much.  What he did do was listen carefully and thoughtfully to the people around him in his family and his community. 

Bill was  born and brought up in poor blue collar West Virginia mining communities where every day was a struggle with the constant background threat of injury and disaster.

In such communities loyalty, mutual reliance  and co-operation were not painted storybook virtues but living realities.   People worked with and for each other so that everyones burden would be a little lighter and thus more bearable. 

Bill was and is a proud working man who knows the labourer is worthy of his hire and worth listening to.

After leaving home at 17 Bill spent 9 years in the US Navy where once again you learned that if you wanted your back covered you had to perform the same service for your comrade – buddy or not.  Your life literally was often in your brother’s hands.

He also listened with intent and attention to the songs he heard in church and on the radio. His imagination became infused with the enduring resorative grace of gospel, the energising pulse of rhythm and blues and the sweet balm of soul music. 

Bill was storing wisdom and treasure in his heart and when the stuttering stopped his voice came through loud and clear. 

Bill Withers would draw from a deep well of resources to write and perform songs that would always be fresh and relevant because they addressed fundamental questions about how our lives were and should be lived.

Which is to say that in many senses Bill Wither’s vocation combined that of a songwriter and singer with that of a preacher ministering to his community through the uplifting medium of music. 

The prolific country songwriter Harlan Howard defined the essence of a great song as three chords and the truth and that’s exactly what Bill Withers offers us in his wonderfully vivid songbook.

Lean on Me is a simple song that tells an eternal truth.   We all have pain, we all have sorrow: we all need someone to lean on.  It opens with plain repeated piano stabs calling the listener to attention – listen up I got something to say! 

The melody and rhythm echo the tradition of a gospel service: state your theme, tell your story through examples we can all recognise from our daily lives then call on the audience to respond. 

Invite your listeners to testify that the seemingly unbearable can be borne if you call out to your brother or if your sister calls out to you – ‘I’ll help you carry on’.

Show that we can all be the leaning post for our brother or sister in need .. ‘I’m just right up the road, I’ll share your load if you just call me.’ 

For, as long as the moon lasts we are  all bound to stumble and fall in this life – it’s just a question of who falls when and how far and whether a helping hand and load bearing shoulder will be at hand to help you up and lead you on. 

The foolishly proud always think they can stand up alone while the wise now that with help we can all make it through today’s troubles to tomorrow.

Lean on me acknowledges, indeed celebrates our weakness and vulnerability but also our strength.  We are supplicants but we are also enablers, uplifters and  restorers. 

Yes, life will batter us and nobody walks in the sunshine all through their life but if we are honest, admit to our difficulties and failings and call for help we can be amazed that others are ready to come to our aid. Family, fraternity and faith in each other will get us through.

Of course, where a song is concerned having good intentions and a good moral to impart does not mean that the song will live. And, if a song does not live, get up and walk by itself on its own merits, then you won’t capture your audience, won’t get them to listen once – let alone sing along and punch that number on the jukebox. 

Lean on Me passes this test easily: it’s a wonderful up and walking living song!

First and foremost Bill Wither’s warm, supple and alluring voice commands your attention and wins your allegiance – you want to listen to what this man has to say.  This is the voice of a strong, mature man with hard miles over rough ground on the clock. 

Yet, it’s the voice of an optimistic man ready to roll up his sleeves and face unafraid whatever challenges the next day will bring.  So, when Bill Withers sings you listen and when he calls out for you to respond you find that before you’ve realised it you’re singing :

‘We all need someone to lean on’

The song proceeds at a stately pace like a great powerful train allowing lolly gagging passengers plenty of time to get on board – confident they are in safe hands and will arrive at the right destination at the appointed time – the driver clearly knows what he’s doing.

As,’Lean on Me’ develops in come the most primal musical accompaniment of all – handclaps.  These are organically perfect in context: a song addressing our common humanity using the, ‘instrument’ even the most musically illiterate can at least assay when enthused. 

On record Bill uses the handclap as a propulsive encourager of the spirit of the song, ‘Come on! This way’.  In concert it is unimaginable that the bands handclaps aren’t swelled by all of those in the audience.  By now everybody is on board the train and seeing themselves as one body – whatever seat they happen to be in.

As the song moves forward the strings come in to emphasise the swelling strength that acknowledged common vulnerability can unlock – ‘Call on me brother’ and we will get through, we will get through – together. 

This is a song, without doubt as time has proven, an anthem, that proclaims our individuality and our community membership should not be warring forces but aspects of a natural, nurturing whole.  That’s what Bill and, ‘Lean on Me’ are – nurture for our humanity.

The greatest ever political leader once put it this way a century or so before Bill, ‘We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.’. That is how we will find the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln said that. Or to put it another way:

‘You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand

We all need someone to lean on.’

Bill Withers said that.  I doubt that popular music has ever had a truer or more passionate guide to our better angels than Bill Withers.

 

Notes, Comments and further listening:

Lean on Me was written and produced by Bill Withers and recorded in 1972.

The musicians featured were James Gadson on drums, Ray Jackson on keyboards, Benorce Blackman on guitar and Melvin Dunlap on bass.

Lean on Me was a Number One record on both the R&B chart and the Hot 100 Billboard US charts.

Bill Wither’s catalogue is filled with powerful melodic songs and taut performances.  His first two albums, ‘Just as I Am’ and ‘Still Bill’ are essential components of any record collection. Songs like the warm, witty and wise ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and the gloriously evocative and consoling, ‘Aint No Sunshine’ are undeniable classics.

‘Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall’ is among the very greatest live records with superlative singing and musicianship responding to an audience that is thrilled to celebrate in his company.

Sony have recently reissued the complete Bill Withers catalogue which is widely available at a ridiculously cheap price given the eternity shale it contains.

Fare Thee Well Muhammad Ali – Fare Thee Well Champ

Regular readers of The Jukebox will know of my lifelong love and admiration for Muhammad Ali.

Tens of millions of words will be written about his legendary life and career. Below is the heartfelt, unfiltered, outpouring of a devotee whose life was immeasurably enriched by the great man’s life.

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As usual the music I have chosen speaks with a purity of emotion and eloquence which my writing can never hope to match.

Dare to dream. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Pursue your dream with all the energy at your command, all your talent and every ounce of your will.

Wake up in the morning and work every day to make your dream one day nearer to coming true.

You will stall. You will stumble. You will have setbacks and disasters.

Don’t let your dream be dashed. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

And, when you need inspiration (we all need inspiration) look to Muhammad Ali.

Look up into the night sky. That’s his star shining brilliant and true. Follow the star.

Dare to dream. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Muhammad Ali was a skinny Black kid from Louisville Kentucky who dared to dream.

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He dared to dream on stepping into his local gym that he would become the best fighter it would ever see.

He dared to dream that he would be a Golden Gloves Champion.

He dared to dream that he would win an Olympic Gold Medal.

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He dared to dream that he would beat the terrifying, unbeatable Sonny Liston and become the Heavyweight Champion of the whole wide World!

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He dared to dream that he could invent a style of boxing beyond the imaginations of anyone who had ever fought before – float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. No jive you’ll go in five.

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He dared to dream that little educated as he was he could charm paupers and peasants and kings and have all of them laugh with love and recognise a true monarch of life.

He dared to dream that he could stand up proud before the might of the state and say, ‘I won’t fight in a war I don’t believe in’.

He dared to dream when they took his title away that one day he would win it back.

He dared to dream when he lost for the first time in his career to the great Joe Frazier that he would beat him the next time and the time after that.

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He dared to dream that he could beat the unbeatable colossus that was George Foreman.

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He dared to dream that he could break all the rules of boxing and win the title by laying back on the ropes while the hardest puncher in the world whaled on him for all he was worth.

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He dared to dream that when he was cruelly stricken by illness that he would find peace of mind and heart and spirit in the love of his family and God.

He dared to dream that a skinny Black kid from Louisville would become the best known man in the whole wide world.

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He dared to dream that he would become the greatest fighter who ever lived.

He dared to dream that he would become the greatest and most significant sportsman who ever lived.

He dared to dream that his life would uplift and inspire dreamers all over the world.

He fulfilled all of his dreams and launched millions and millions of others because he pursued his dream with all the energy at his command, all of his vast talent and every ounce of his will.

He woke up every morning and worked as hard as he could to bring his dream one more day nearer to coming true.

Though he sometimes stalled, sometimes stumbled and endured setbacks and disasters he never allowed his dreams to be dashed. He always, always dared to dream.

He was Muhammad Ali. He was exactly what he said he was – The Greatest of All Time.

Thank you Muhammad for all the outrageous boasts. Thank you for all the giddy glory. Thank you for all the thrills and all the good hearted laughter.

May all your tears be dried. May flights of angels sing you to your well deserved rest.

Good Night Champ and may God bless and keep you always.

Happy Birthday to Paul Brady – Irish Folk Icon!

Paul Brady will be 69 this week. Here’s a tribute from the very early days of The Jukebox many of you may have missed.

Bard: A tribal poet – singer skilled gifted in composing and reciting verses of satire and eulogy on heroes and their deeds.

‘Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake’. (Richard Sennett)

‘Some guys got it down …. Paul Brady …. Secret heroes’. (Bob Dylan)

Paul Brady harbours and husbands extraordinary talents. He is a great singer of traditional ballads in the Irish and American traditions able to breathe life into ‘set texts’ through his exquisite instrumental and vocal control and his natural discretion.

These craft skills allow him to reveal the often buried wit, vigour, romance, tragedy and flat out strange power of those remarkable works composed by the great ‘Anon’.

He is also an accomplished guitarist with the quiet unflashy discipline of the skilled accompanist who can anchor a tune setting a virtuoso fiddler like Andy McGan free to fly.

He also has driving rock ‘n’ roll chops learned through ingesting whole the riffs and rhythms of the Shadows and Chuck Berry as a youth.

As far as traditional ballad performance goes Paul Brady’s version of Arthur McBride is rightly regarded as an enduring triumph.

It was wholly appropriate that he performed it at the Dublin memorial evening for the late keeper of the Irish word hoard, Seamus Heaney.

Heaney would have understood how the seeming ease of Paul Brady’s performance of Arthur McBride was based on a deep understanding of the ballad form and hard hours spent honing his instrumental and vocal craft. It takes a great artist to make the artful seem artless.

The song is an Irish tall tale featuring protagonists Arthur and the unnamed narrator encountering a military recruiting party led by a bumptious sergeant as they take the early morning air one Christmas day.

The Sergeants blandishments and promises of glory, riches and female favours are satirically shown to be counterfeit coin by Arthur who though he chooses not to join the army would clearly have been a first class barrack room lawyer had he chosen to enlist.

Arthur and his friend turn the tables on the sergeant and the unfortunate little drummer boy leaving them bloody backed on the beach and the boys then merrily continue their seasonal stroll.

The drummer boys instrument, his ‘rowdeydowdow’ having been made a playful football bobs uselessly in the tide. The song represents a victory for the native over the coloniser, of hedge school wit and satire over the prepared script. Brains beats bullshit.

Paul Brady’s performance of the ballad as shown here is peerless. Nothing is pushed too hard, the song virtually seems to sing itself with Brady as the pilot who knows every ripple of the tide and currents as he steers the song home. Now he allows a little drift, now he touches the tiller, now he adjusts the tempo and volume to bring out the full salty tang of the song.

His guitar playing throughout is astonishingly deft and alert to every nuance of feeling. Arthur McBride is a big song filled with lovely sly dramatic touches which Paul Brady inhabits with unshowy assurance.

Listening to the song you naturally follow the arc of the narrative and feel yourself drawn in to the world it presents. In traditional song Paul Brady wears the bards cloak teasing out the shape and character of the song sure in its proven potency to cast a spell over its audience.

As a contemporary songwriter he has at least two hatfuls of wonderful songs and he is the author of two certifiable classics; the euphoric ‘Crazy Dreams’ and the heart rending ‘The Island’. He has also found himself in demand as a supplier of quality material for artists of the calibre of Tina Turner (Steel Claw, Paradise Is Here) and Bonnie Raitt (Luck Of The Draw, Not The Only One).

Paul Brady’s songs are imbued with deep feeling set within satisfyingly well carpentered structures. They are the product of inspiration shaped by a craft won through a thorough musical education. Paul Brady’s songs are built to last and last they will.

This is not a matter of tricks or sleight of hand but of a deep understanding in his mind, in his heart, in his hands and fingers and in his voice that real songs truly speak to and of the lives we lead both above and below the public surface.

To produce these songs he draws upon traditional practice and the craft techniques of which he is a master. He is then free to follow his inspiration wherever it leads and to choose the right tools for the task at hand.

Like his Irish near contemporary Van Morrison he can mesmerically summon the spirits to open up the terrestrial and mystical landscapes of Ireland. Like Van he is a canny songsmith finding the particular combinations of lyric, melody, rhythm and vocal attack needed to make a song take off on record and in performance.

A perfect example of this is, ‘Crazy Dreams’ one of the great ‘leaving my hometown’ songs where he lights out for the territory to find out if his those dreams of independence, of self realisation in a new world, can be made to come true.

The song has a thrillingly heady melody and a rhapsodic rhythm always flowing forward like waters heading for the falls. Paul Brady’s vocals achieve tremendous excitement for the listener because of the way he maintains his setting at intense simmer rather than boil. You can feel the gathering impulse to follow the dream in every second of the performance. Ringing, dazzling guitars and shimmering keyboards surf atop drums which drive the dream forward.

He’s leaving behind the Joycean snow falling on the Liffey, the fog of familiarity that shrouds his true identity as he packs his suitcase filled with his own dreams not those of his city, his friends and his family. Now is the time for one last look back – closing the door on the hesitations of the past before turning definitively to the future.

Now is the time to drink champagne with your darling companion until you both fall down. Tomorrow the dream comes alive. This is a journey we all have to take for someone elses’s dreams get you nowhere.

The Island is a miraculous piano centred meditation on the pain and futility of civil wars yoked arfully to a deeply tender love song. In this song Paul Brady incandescently evokes a triumph of love over hate. As an Irishman he knows the power of death fixation (the young boys dying in the ditches) yet he hymns the nurturing power of another love which finds its expression in lovemaking by the healing waters of the ocean.

His vision for his neighbours rejects a future built on slogans, tombstones and twisted wreckage. Rather, it looks to a future illuminated by the simple dreams we all have for ourselves and our families. Our children deserve to inherit a country not mired in the hurts and traumas of the past.

In so doing Paul Brady willingly takes on tne role of the holy fool opposing the zealots who are willing to sacrifice anyone and everything to achieve their utopian goals. The simple message of the song is choose love – be prepared to be a fool for love.

Paul Brady’s sublime vocal in this song is filled with bruised tenderness. Who would not want to go to the Island when the invitation is sung with such alluring enticement? Throughout the song the prayerful piano piano (by the late Kenny Craddock) invokes the redemptive balm of the love of one person for another. If that’s a foolish faith so be it. Paul Brady’s performance of this wonderful song makes that faith affectingly real and welcoming.

Paul Brady is a great musician whose work has firmly placed him in the front rank of the the bardic company of Ireland.

An Irish Bard is something to be.

Recommended listening:

Paul Brady has never made a bad record. Here are a few of my favourites with key tracks in brackets.

Paul Brady/Andy Irvine (Mary And The Soldier)

Welcome Here Kind Stranger (The Lakes Of Pontchatrain, Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore)

Hard Station (Crazy Dreams, Busted Loose, Nothing But The Same Old Story)

True For You (Helpless Heart)

Trick Or Treat (Nobody Knows, Trick Or Treat)

Back To The Centre (The Island, The Homes Of Donegal)

The Missing Liberty Tapes a 1978 live recording stands as a high peak of Irish acoustic based music making.

Philip Chevron (The Pogues) & Francis Ledwidge – The Music of longing

One of the roles of a true writer is to bring all the gifts of their being to the task of creating art which though conscious of history and artistic tradition demands that you attend to how it feels to be alive NOW in this particular society and culture in all its messy complexity.

And, if you can accomplish this task by creating songs, lyrical ballads, which speak urgently to their time while having depth of humanity and beauty of composition you will find that such songs do not wither and die.

Rather, they take on a life of their own and become beloved by audiences and fellow artists from different eras and cultures who will find universal truths emerging from these particular songs. Songs, filed with the quick life of the day, if they are good enough, find entry into the hallowed treasury of traditional song. Such songs will always find an audience and always find singers to sing them.

Philip Chevron wrote such songs.

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Ireland was fortunate to find, in Philip Chevron from his 70s days with Ireland’s pioneer punk heroes,’The Radiators From Space’ through to his solo work and triumphs with The Pogues, a songwriter who wrote with fierce aching truth about the life he lived and the times he lived in.

Philip Chevron (born Philip Ryan) in 1957 grew up in Santry, Dublin. In his writing he chronicled with deep feeling, literary finesse, puzzlement and pain the realities of growing up in the Dublin of the 1970s. Few punk bands anywhere had a singer and writer with the ambition and artistic scope of Philip Chevron.

The Radiators 1977 debut record, ‘TV Tube Heart’ was filled with urgent songs displaying the frustrations and anger of urban youth in a society that seemed in many respects ossified and coldly indifferent to all those who in any sense lived lives which crossed the borders of catholic propriety.

The Radiators second album, ‘Ghostown’ produced by Tony Visconti is simply a great record including two songs, ‘Kitty Ricketts’ and, ‘Song of the Faithful Departed’ which demonstrated beyond argument that Philip Chevron was a world class songwriter.

Critical acclaim came plentifully but this was not reflected in record sales. Moving to London Philip found a home in the expatriate community and became friends with Shane McGowan of The Pogues and became a member of the band at the time of their second album, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’.

His abilities as a guitarist, singer and songwriter became crucial especially in view of the increasingly erratic behaviour of Shane McGowan.

To celebrate Philip Chevron on The Immortal Jukebox I’m going to feature three wondrous songs. The first, ‘Under Clery’s Clock’ is a miraculous song which finds heart rending beauty in a situation where a young gay man struggles to find dignity and love in a world which stonily refuses to admit that love has never been limited to that between men and women.

The use of Dublin districts like Burgh Quay and the cultural landmark of the department store clock – for generations a meeting place for trysting lovers anchors the song in time and place.

The regretful melody adds poignancy to the protagonist’s situation; living with urges he can’t fight wanting to be able to meet a lover in the light not in a dark and stinking place. The sense of outraged dignity and desperate longing in this song is palpable and overwhelmingly moving.

Let’s turn now to ‘The Song of the Faithful Departed’, which may be Philip’s masterpiece. A compendious song which, without strain, artfully and compassionately invokes the literary, religious and historical crosses and legacies that Ireland stumblingly shouldered in the 20th century.

No better man to take on such a song than the eminence grise of Irish music, Christy Moore, whose radar always picks up on songs which speak with power and humanity.

The version here is from a July 2013 live performance – a benefit for Philip in the last months of his life. Christy introduces the song by reading a letter from Philip Chevron which shows the measure of both men.

A line like, ‘The graveyard hides a million secrets’ resonates with increasing power with every passing year as the sins and scandals of Official Ireland have been brought shamefully into the light. But, impressively, this is not a finger-pointing song it’s a song of empathy and fellow feeling. Its a song from a writer at the height of his powers.

There will be no end to the singing of this song.

The emigrant ballad is one of the staples of Irish song. Philip Chevron with The Pogues produced in, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ a deeply felt and formally sophisticated song which yearningly evokes the shared experiences of Irish emigrants to America over two centuries.

Again the song does not hesitate to face up to the painful realities that spurred emigrants to leave home and the challenges they faced when arrived in the long dreamed of America.

It was one of the signal hallmarks of Philip Chevron songs that they beguile rather than batter and that while conscious of the painful realities of life in the end they urge us to sing out the darkness and dance into the light.

Philip Chevron’s funeral service in October 2013, attended by family, friends, fellow musicians and artist in their hundreds, saw his coffin carried in accompanied by ‘Faithful Departed’ and borne out to the strains of ‘Thousands Are Sailing’.

Among the tears there must have been enormous pride.

For poetry today I turn to a lesser known Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge who died at the third battle of Ypres in 1917. Sometimes referred to as the poet of the blackbird or as a peasant poet he was, as all true poets are a protean figure always remaking himself to write the poetry demanded of him. Contradictions prove creativity. I urge you to seek out his work.

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To One Dead

A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone,
Bluebells swinging,
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.
The song was for you
and the ship was for me.

A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
Bluebells swinging,
I see in a distant wind.
But sorrow and silence,
Are the wood’s threnody,
The silence for you
and the sorrow for me.

Happy St Patrick’s Day!