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!

Derek Bell (The Chieftains) and Samuel Beckett – As good as it gets!

Posts for Paddy’s Day 2

My dad, God rest him, was sparing with praise. Only those truly outstanding in their fields got the nod. Sportsmen such as jockey Lester Piggott and Hurler Jimmy Doyle were credited as being, ‘As Good as it got’.

The other accolade, very rarely bestowed, on someone considered unique in character and achievement was, ‘Now, he’s a one to himself’ which I remember him saying only about the actor Robert Mitchum and Muhammad Ali.

Taking up these terms I now use them myself though characteristically with more profligacy than he ever did! Even so it’s rare for me lavish both terms on an individual no matter how high my esteem for them.

But, the exception proves the rule. So, today’s post concerns an extraordinary Irish artist, Derek Bell; harpist, harpsichordist, pianist, oboist, arranger, composer and conductor and bona fide eccentric. If ever any man deserved to be called, ‘As good as it got’ and, ‘One to himself’ it is Derek Bell.

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He was born in Belfast in 1935 and before he was a teenager he was an accomplished pianist and the composer of a concerto. He had rigorous classical training at The Royal College of Music before taking up a series of prestigious posts with classical orchestras as an Oboist.

Incredibly, given his virtuoso status, he did not take up the harp until he was in his 30s. Searching through the harp repertoire in the Irish Tradition he inevitably came upon the work of the great 17th/18th century Harper, Turlough O’ Carolan.

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O’ Carolan is a mythic figure in Irish music and history. A bard, blind from the age of 18, who equipped with harp and horse roamed Homerically throughout Ireland composing and playing exquisite tunes that have immense melodic charm.

O’Carolan’s music has had no better champion than Derek Bell. His perfectly paced performance of the haunting, ‘Farewell To Music’ has a limpid beauty that pierces to the soul.

Here Derek puts me in mind of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans’ playing on, ‘Blue in Green’ ; only musicians of the highest order, secure in their craft and selfless before their music, can play with such simplicity.

It was a 1972 St Patrick’s Day concert of the music of O’Carolan that first brought Derek into contact with The Chieftains (referred to by one of his orchestral colleagues as a, ‘Tatty Folk Group’). The ever alert Paddy Moloney, the ringmaster of The Chieftains, recognised Derek as a great musician and knew that the the addition of a brilliant harpist would give the group an even more distinctive sound and expand their repertoire

So from 1975 Derek was a full time Chieftain, an inveterate tourer and a beaming collaborator with musicians running the gamut from Ry Cooder to Chinese Folk Orchestras. Beyond his musical genius he brought a wholly individual character and impish sense of humour to The Chieftains.

Derek cut a distinctive figure on stage: attired as he invariably was in a crumpled suit, tie and pullover with the short legs of his trousers allowing view of cartoon socks! He was often forgetful of the mundane elements of life. He was once arrested at Moscow airport for carrying a ticking alarm clock in his jacket pocket as he was about to board a flight!

Listen to him here with The Chieftains as they hymn O’Carolan and demonstrate their eminence as traditional musicians – individually brilliant and collectively harmonious.

For Derek what really counted was the music. Like Van Morrison he was a dweller on the threshold who devoted his life to his art with an open heart, an elevated spirit and religious fidelity .

His death in 2002 at the age of 66 was an incalculable loss to music. Ones to themselves don’t come along very often.

Ireland in the 20th Century was blessed with a dazzling gallery of Poets, Playwrights and Novelists who won critical acclaim, popular success and serial Nobel Prizes. To my mind the most eminent of them all was Samuel Beckett.

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I freely admit that I have been obsessed with the man and his work ever since I first encountered, ‘Waiting For Godot’ as a teenager. I have a zealot’s conviction that the tender Irish musicality, humour and precision of Beckett’s prose combined with the rigour of his thought and the scarifying uniqueness of his dramatic vision mark him out as the greatest writer of his era.

Beckett found in the actress Billie Whitelaw a muse who responded with dedication, wholehearted courage and endless commitment to the enormous technical and emotional challenges involved in the roles written for her by Beckett.

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He acted as a composer/conductor and she as a brilliant instrumentalist determined to play a seemingly impossible piece perfectly. The work they did together, just to cite, ‘Happy Days’ and, ‘Not I’ must constitute one of the most significant partnerships in the history of the theatre.

Today I’m sharing a film which showcases one of Beckett’s most intense and poignant late works, ‘Rockaby’. The artful structure and deep musicality of this short play reflects Beckett’s immense theatrical craft and imaginative daring.

The play expertly deploys rhythmical language in descending loops to evoke a dreamlike state where buried memories swirl around a mind and being that is closing down.

Rockaby faces head on some of the deepest questions in human life? Who am I? How do we know ourselves and how do we know another? What moves the rocking chair? How do we come to terms with our extinction?

Billie Whitelaw found the play, ‘very frightening to do’ yet trusting to the truth of Beckett’s vision she produced a performance which is note perfect and almost unbearably moving.

Now, as they say, for something completely different. There was a time when the humour was on me and pints of porter were freely flowing when I would stand up, whatever the company and launch into the mock epic ‘Sucking Stones’ speech from Beckett’s novel, ‘Molloy’. A wondrous performance of the speech can be found on YouTube embedded in Barry McGovern’s legendary one man Beckett show, ‘Beginning to End’

I would suggest you read the text below out loud to catch the full brilliance of its humour. Only Samuel Beckett could have written this. After all, he was one to himself and as good as it gets.

I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of
sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on
this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them
equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn
about.

This raised a problem which I first solved in the following
way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these
being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my
greatcoat.

Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and
putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my
greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I
replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had
finished sucking it.

Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets,
but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to
suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my
greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time.
And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I
have just described. And so on.

But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that,
by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four.

In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was
really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.

But I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and
again, while I sucked, before transferring them, in the hope of
obtaining a more general circulation of the stones from pocket to
pocket. But this was only a makeshift that could not long content a
man like me. So I began to look for something else …

I might do better to transfer the stones four by four, instead of one
by one, that is to say, during the sucking, to take the three stones remaining
in the right pocket of my greatcoat and replace them by the four in the
right pocket of my trousers , and these by the four in the left pocket
of my trousers, and these by the four in the left pocket of my greatcoat,
and finally these by the three from the right pocket of my greatcoat,
plus the one, as soon as I had finished sucking it, which was in my mouth.

Yes, it seemed to me at first that by so doing I would arrive at a better
result. But on further reflection I had to change my mind and confess that
the circulation of the stones four by four came to exactly the same thing
as their circulation one by one.

For if I was certain of finding each time, in the right pocket of my greatcoat, four stones totally different from their immediate predecessors,
the possibility nevertheless remained of my always chancing on the same stone, within each group of four, and consequently of my sucking, not the sixteen turn and turn about as I wished, but in fact four only, always the same, turn and turn about.

So I had to seek elsewhere than in the mode of circulation. For no matter how I caused the stones to circulate, I always ran the same risk. It was obvious
that by increasing the number of my pockets I was bound to increase my
chances of enjoying my stones in the way I planned, that is to say one
after the other until their number was exhausted.

Had I had eight pockets, for example, instead of the four I did have, then even the most diabolical hazard could not have prevented me from
sucking at least eight of my sixteen stones, turn and turn about.

The truth is I should have needed sixteen pockets in order to be quite easy in my mind. And for a long time I could see no other conclusion than this,
that short of having sixteen pockets, each with its stone, I could never reach the goal I had set myself, short of an extraordinary hazard.

And if at a pinch I could double the number of my pockets, were it only by dividing each pocket in two, with the help of a few safety-pins let us say, to quadruple them seemed to be more than I could manage. And I did not feel inclined to take all that trouble for a half-measure.

For I was beginning to lose all sense of measure, after
all this wrestling and wrangling, and to say, All or nothing. And if I
was tempted for an instant to establish a more equitable proportion between
my stones and my pockets , by reducing the former to the number of the
latter, it was only for an instant. For it would have been an admission
of defeat. And sitting on the shore, before the sea, the sixteen stones
spread out before my eyes, I gazed at them in anger and perplexity …

One day suddenly it dawned on me, dimly, that I might perhaps achieve
my purpose without increasing the number of my pockets, or reducing the
number of my stones, but simply by sacrificing the principle of trim.
The meaning of this illumination, which suddenly began to sing within
me, like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah, I did not penetrate at once,
and notably the word trim, which I had never met with, in this sense,
long remained obscure.

Finally I seemed to grasp that this word trim could not here mean anything else, anything better, than the distribution of the sixteen stones
in four groups of four, one group in each pocket, and that it was my refusal to consider any distribution other than this that had vitiated my calculations until then and rendered the problem literally insoluble.

And it was on the basis of this interpretation, whether right
or wrong, that I finally reached a solution, inelegant assuredly, but
sound, sound.

Now I am willing to believe, indeed I firmly believe, that
other solutions to this problem might have been found and indeed may still
be found, no less sound, but much more elegant than the one I shall now
describe, if I can …

Good. Now I can begin to suck. Watch me closely. I take a stone from
the right pocket of my greatcoat , suck it, stop sucking it, put it
in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the one empty (of stones).

I take a second stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it put it
in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket
of my greatcoat is empty (apart from its usual and casual contents)
and the six stones I have just sucked, one after the other, are
all in the left pocket of my greatcoat.

Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a balls of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the
five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by
the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat.

At this stage then the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty of stones, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied, and in the
right way, that is to say with other stones than those I have just
sucked.

These other stones I then begin to suck, one after the other,
vand to transfer as I go along to the left pocket of my greatcoat,
being absolutely certain, as far as one can be in an affair of this
kind, that I am not sucking the same stones as a moment before, but
others.

And when the right pocket of my greatcoat is again empty (of
stones), and the five I have just sucked are all without exception
in the left pocket of my greatcoat, then I proceed to the same
redistribution as a moment before, or a similar redistribution,
that is to say I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, now
again available, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers,
which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my trousers,
which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my
greatcoat. And there I am ready to begin again. Do I have to go on?

There was something more than a principle I abandoned, when I
abandoned the equal distribution, it was a bodily need. But to suck
the stones in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with
method, was also I think a bodily need.

Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads.
Such things happen. But deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and
forewards.

And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked
a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end
of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had
collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and
such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little
store, so as never to be without.

But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without,
when they were all gone they would be all gone,
I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.

And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all
the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another,
and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or
swallowed …

Van Morrison – It’s All in The Game

‘… This is a song from the 50s .. It’s been recorded by hundreds of people … But not like this!’

(Van Morrison’s introduction to It’s All In The Game before performing it at The Albert Hall in 2014)

Van Morrison is a dweller on the threshold.

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An artist who delights in the sensual world of earthly love and light and linear time while understanding in the very core of his being that we are also citizens of co-existing realms beating to the rhythms of a different eternal drum.

In his art he seeks to demonstrate that there are no walls between these realms but rather permeable membranes we can pass through if we would but release the flickering fires of our imaginative and spiritual nature.

So, when Van heard the song, ‘It’s All In The Game’; bizarrely written in posthumous collaboration by a Noble prize winning Vice President of The United States (Charles Dawes) and a savvy professional songwriter (Carl Sigman) he recognised that this slight, sentimental ballad from the 50s was ripe for transformation into a kaleidoscopic revelation of the simultaneously transitory and eternal landscape where the travails of all of us as winners and losers in the dance of the love are truly all in the game.

Van’s performance here as a singer, arranger and bandleader is proof of his genius as an artist. Surely, listening to such a searching performance, each of us will find our own history stirred and evoked; often in surprising, potentially disturbing ways.

One of the great gifts true artists can offer us is the opportunity, through encounters with their art, to come to terms with our unresolved subconscious struggles to find integration and wholeness.

Each of us in our own unique way will discover that we know what they’re writing about and what Van is singing about!

Van recorded, ‘It’s All In The Game’ on his magisterial 1979 record, ‘Into The Music’ which is lit with incandescent grace throughout.

Characteristically he assembled a superb team of musicians who had the technical chops and the imaginative reach to follow where his arrangements and inspirations led.

Herbie Armstrong (rhythm guitar), David Hayes (bass) and Mark Jordan (piano) were Van veterans and in Peter Van Hooke (drums), Toni Marcus (violin) and Katie Kissoon (backing vocals) he found rhapsodically empathetic partners.

The extravagantly talented Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis on the horns added enveloping depth and colour to the sound.

Of course, as with every great Van Morrison record, it’s Van’s heart-stirring, heart-stopping vocals which cast the spell we have to surrender to.

Here, Van in a vocal tour de force seems to hold the song up to a series of shades of illumination and heat so that, ‘Your heart will fly away’ can move magically as the song progresses from barely perceptible, deeply tender, softly shimmering candle light to searing, inescapable white hot conflagration.

And, this is not achieved through dramatic changes of tempo but through the vocal and imaginative engagement which Van brings to individual syllables, words and phrases as he utters them – teasing them, testing them, for artistic, spiritual and emotional weight.

Van makes intuitive raids upon the hoard of popular song for the mysterious values bound up in the sheer sound of the words as well as their overt meaning.

Of course, Van knows that words can only take you so far. Sometimes it’s the silences between the words and the accents of their placement which are most revealing.

Van added his own coda to, ‘Its All In The Game’ with its segue into his own, ‘You Know What They’re Writing About’ where he brings it all back home to the landscapes of his Belfast youth which will always haunt his every hour.

To my mind it is a mark of Van’s spiritual, not to say mystic insight, that he knows that there is no need to travel to distant valleys or Himalayan hideaways to find illumination.

Sometimes there’s no more words to say but its all right there in front of you. Right in front of you, wherever you are – down by the river, down by the pylons, down by the pylons, down by the pylons …..

Van Morrison is undoubtedly the living custodian of the hallowed tradition of blues based singing. He has spent a lifetime listening to and learning from those he inherited this tradition from.

So, when Van takes on a, ‘Big ballad’ he draws upon and invokes the shades of Ray Charles, Jimmy Witherspoon and Bobby Blue Bland with their ability to command a band, caress a lyric and move with fluent dynamism within a song from whisper to scream.

Van brings all this lore to his live performances of, ‘It’s All In The Game’ – each time setting forth on a new pilgrimage invoking the muse to descend.

It is possible to spend many days losing yourself while listening to epic performances by Van of this song (believe me I’ve done it!).

 

From the treasure trove I’ve chosen a performance from Dublin in 2015 where if you can’t see the muses of fire above his head you can certainly feel their presence.

What Van Morrison adds to the grand tradition he inherited is the product of his own unique Celtic soul: his gift for being at the dead centre of a song while being absolutely outside it at the same time.

So he is both hot and cool.

A relentless seeker and a still contemplative.

A dweller on the threshold.

The Things I Used to Do – Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy & Albert Collins

Sometimes a song, a blues song, filled with venom, emerges into the world coiled, contained and poised to strike. A song which as the venom circulates round the listener’s bloodstream commands surrender even as they ready themselves for the next strike.

Songs like this from the 1940s and 1950s often had as big, or a bigger, effect on fellow artists as they did on the radio and jukebox audiences. Especially if the song had an arresting instrumental riff that every self respecting guitar player just knew, in their hands, stretched out, would really blow the roof off their hometown honky-tonk.

Played over and over by hundreds of artists such a song becomes part of the DNA of the blues and showcasing a distinctive take on it a rite of passage for the would be guitar slinger out to make a name for themselves.

Featured today on The Immortal Jukebox is just such a song, ‘The Things I Used To Do’, Guitar Slim’s Rhythm & Blues classic from 1953.

Now don’t you feel snake bit? From the opening notes you know this song will bore deep into you and that there will be no escape from its clutches. As the song proceeds at irresistible lava flow pace the stinging, swooping distorted guitar figure seems to slow time while the languorous booze fuelled vocal, stately piano and swirling brasses wreath you in a narcotic mind haze that envelops all your senses so that the end of the record always seems a jolt waking you up from a delicious dream you never wanted to end. So play it again and relive the dream!

Guitar Slim, born Eddie Jones in Greenwood Mississippi in late 1926, was inspired, like so many, as a guitar player by T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown. His own style developed initially in New Orleans saw him learning to use amp distortion to boost the impact of his Les Paul’s sharp trebly sound. He performed and sang with a gospel fervour that quickly won him a loyal audience in the blues clubs.

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In addition he developed a show stopping stage act where the audience were treated to the sight of Slim decked out in a shimmering suit with hair dyed to match blasting out aggressive solos at high volume while sauntering through a club trailing a couple of hundred feet of guitar lead behind him. Once seen Guitar Slim was never forgotten! Listen to the great Buddy Guy explain the effect seeing Guitar Slim had on him!

‘The Things I Used To Do’ benefitted from the piano and arranging skills of a youthful Ray Charles who patiently coaxed Slim, over many takes, to deliver the recorded performance that has such a lovely spontaneous feel. Joining Slim in the J&M studio in New Orleans were Frank Mitchell on Trumpet, Gus Fontenette on Alto Sax, Charles Burbank and Joe Tillman played Tenor Sax with a rhythm section of Oscar Moore on Drums and Lloyd Lambert on Bass completing the lineup.

The record, issued by Art Rupe’s Specialty Records label, became a huge hit spending 14 weeks at No 1 on the R&B chart and easily selling over a million copies. The song became a Jukebox staple and almost an anthem across the South – especially in Texas and Louisiana.

Though Slim was never to have another record with the visceral, nothing can stop this being a hit impact of ‘Things’ his Specialty material features many wonderfully intense performances like, ‘Reap What You Sow’, ‘Story of My Life’ and, ‘Sufferin’ Mind’ demonstrating his brilliant guitar/vocal interplay.

Guitar Slim lived life with the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor seemingly scornful of the effect this would inevitably have on his health and career. Troubled by alcoholism Guitar Slim died in February 1959 aged only 32.

Yet, I’ll bet that in a blues club somewhere this week someone is bound to say, ‘Here’s one you might remember from the 1950s’ and launch into, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ certain that the audience whether or not they are scholars of the blues will fall under its unbreakable spell.

As a bonus treat I’m going to feature two superb versions of, ‘Things’ by two master blues guitarists – Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.

First up an imperious live outing from 1991 by Buddy who had listened closely to Guitar Slim in Louisiana before his arrival in Chicago in 1957. Once there Buddy impressed everybody with the power and intensity of his playing and soon those in the know were confidently proclaiming that the new heavyweight champion of Blues Guitar was none other than Buddy Guy.

Buddy has regularly featured, ‘Things’ in his set so that it often feels like he uses it as a touchstone of his youth and a battery charger to fire him up in performance. And, when Buddy fires we all get gloriously burned!

In conclusion here’s a lyrical, hypnotic version by Houston born Albert ‘Iceman’ Collins. Albert is one of those players who has a tone and touch that’s wholly individual and thus instantly recognisable.

It’s more than 60 years now since Guitar Slim cut, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ but from where I’m listening it still sounds newly minted and surprising every time it’s played. I think you call that a classic.

Notes:

‘Sufferin’ Mind’ on Specialty Records and, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ on UK Ace Records are both fine Guitar Slim compilations well worth your attention.

I have picked out 2 from the hordes of covers of, ‘Things’ above. Something of the reach of the song is indicated by further versions I have enjoyed you might care to look out for:

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Gary Clark and Jimmy Vaughan

Earl King

Little Milton

Freddie King

Chuck Berry

James Brown

Jimmy Hendrix

Muddy Waters

Pee Wee Crayton

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Elvin Bishop

Richie Havens

And during Van Morrison’s epic 70th Birthday Cyprus Avenue concerts what should he segue into from a contemplative, ‘Enlightenment’ but …. The Things I Used To Do!

Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Del Shannon (and Phil Phillips) dive into The Sea Of Love!

‘The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.’ (Isak Dinesen)

‘There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath’ (Herman Melville)

The sea begins at the shore. Standing at its edge we can only marvel at its immensity and otherness. Yet we know that some aspects of ourselves can only be brought to life by deserting the comforting security of the land and the harbour.

You have to put to sea; surrendering to its call, to discover the worlds of wonder which surely lie somewhere beyond the horizon. What’s true for the rolling deep and briny sea is true just as much for that other sea which consumes so much of our waking and dreaming hours – the sea of love.

Come with me now, come with me now and surrender to Phil Phillips and The Twilights original from 1959 and be borne back again to The Sea Of Love.

Phil Phillips wrote the song and sang lead vocals on this classic slice of swamp pop which was a million selling Number 1 R&B hit and Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He was born John Phillip Baptiste in Lake Charles Louisiana in March 1931. His roots lay in gospel music with the family group The Gateway Quartet. It was his barely required love for Verdi Mae Thomas that inspired him to switch to the secular realm and Sea Of Love was the dreamily hypnotic result.

Originally recorded as a demo at a local radio station the song came to the attention of George Khoury a sharp local music mogul with a downtown record shop who had enjoyed some chart success already as a producer and record label owner through the lovely, ‘Mathilda’ by Cookie And The Cupcakes.

Indeed it’s Cookie And The Cupcakes, with Ernest Jacobs prominent on piano, along with the mysteriously unnamed Twilights who back up Phil on the recording made at Eddie Shuler’s Goldband Records Studio.

Despite the phenomenal sales which accrued once the original Khoury label recording was leased to big time Mercury Records Phil always claimed that he only ever earned $6,800 from his song with the rest disappearing into the coffers of George Khoury, Eddie Shuler and Mercury. A sadly familiar tale!

What can never be taken away from Phil is the glory of his song and his performance on the record. Sea Of Love drifts along at a stately, one might almost say somnambulant pace as it carries us along. There’s a quality of eyes closed pre dawn hours reverie about the record that allows it to dive fathoms deep into our unconscious.

I love the hummed opening which speaks as eloquently of the yearning for love as the reticent yet straight from the heart vocal which follows. To my ears the lyric and vocal have more than a tinge of the lyrical and romantic tradition of the french/creole culture Phil grew up in.

The song almost seems like a creole chanson translated into English. Perhaps this gives the song something of its woozy surreal charm. Listening repeatedly to the song I felt adrift in a free floating dream – buoyed up by the depths of the sea with only the cool gaze of the forgiving moon to light my way.

The mysterious allure of the song has attracted many singers, both famous and obscure, keen to steer their own course through The Sea Of Love. The first cover I’ve chosen to feature today is by the erstwhile Charles Weedon Westover who became one of the princes of early 1960s pop under the more familiar name of Del Shannon!

As you will have heard this is a much more rhythmically forceful version befitting its 1982 vintage and the confident swagger of Del’s backing band on the song – none other than Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.

If Phil Phillips original brings to mind a pirogue calmly meandering through the bayou this version has the thrust of a powerful diesel engined motor boat beating back the deep sea channel waves. There’s an artful use of swirling keyboards in the middle of the song as a nod and wink tribute to Del’s own, never to be forgotten ‘Runaway’.

This version was a top 40 hit, the last of Del’s career (which ended so tragically with his suicide in 1990) and a highlight from the highly recommended, ‘Drop Down And Get Me’ album.

Del Shannon (who will feature more extensively on The Jukebox later) was throughout his life a highly distinctive and affecting singer who seemed in his voice to evoke the aura of someone who had never quite recovered from some awful secret hurt. A hurt that left him so wounded and anxious that any happiness on offer appeared bound to be fleeting if not wholly illusory. It’s a voice that suits the plangent mood of Sea Of Love holding you enthralled as the song unfolds.

Next from 1985 a version showcasing a plethora of Rock music, ‘Big Beasts’ on a retro R&B spree in the form of The Honeydrippers who featured Led Zeppelin alumni Robert Plant and Jimmy Page as well as Jeff Beck and Chic maestro Nile Rodgers. Paul Shaffer, famed for fronting the Letterman Show Houseband, held down the keyboard chair. Together they fashion a knowing homage to their 1950s roots in their swooning take on Sea Of Love which went top 5 on The Billboard Hot 100 chart.

And now as they used to say on, ‘Monty Python’ for something completely different. Here’s a, ‘Toasting’ master from Jamaica, U Roy (Ernest Beckford) with a deliriously enjoyable version rechristened, ‘Do You Remember’ which references both Phil Phillips original and a fine 1970 cover by The Heptones drawing on the production smarts of Joe Gibbs.

You can surely feel the hot Caribbean sun and the sea breezes wafting all about you as the irresistible rhythms take you over while U Roy extemporises with a winning mixture of cheeky humour and romantic ardour. You won’t be able to play this only once!

Follow that! Well, fortunately I’ve kept a take on Sea Of Love to conclude which can hold its own against any competition. This, by the one, the only Tom Waits, was a key element in the 1989 noiresque thriller movie, ‘Sea Of Love’ (starring a resurgent Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin), which was named after and featured Phil Phillips original song.

Tom Waits! there’s no one like him. Tom, here, gives us an intense, emotional, spooky hall of distorted mirrors Sea Of Love that leaves your head spinning and your heart battering threateningly against your ribcage. This is the diving deep, claustrophobic, submarine version which alters your sense of time and space with its strange charm.

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Tom Waits is a true American original who wouldn’t know how to just copy a song. His Sea Of Love is a loving recreation of a classic love song and Tom, having written a few of those himself, does it full justice by doing it entirely his own way,

As Tom showed Phil Phillips songs from the late 1950s still has endless depths to sound. Depths to sound in the always flowing, always churning, Sea Of Love.

Notes:

Phil Phillips career was effectively hamstrung by a lengthy contract with Mercury which he fought hard to escape from. Disillusioned with the record industry and never seeing any significant windfalls from later versions of his classic song he went on to be a well regarded radio DJ in Louisiana.

The always commendable German collectors label Bear Family has issue a compilation, inevitably titled Sea Of Love, which with excellent sound collects all the highlights of Phil’s career. Well worth a listen for more examples of his haunting vocal style.

Phil was quite properly inducted in 2007 into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.

Addendum – Since writing this post I’ve discovered this wonderful clip of Phil singing his classic song at The Louisiana hall Of Fame – prepare to feel your eyes moisten!

Rosanne Cash, John Hiatt : Hiding In Shadows – The Way We Make A Broken Heart

‘No adultery is bloodless’ (Natalia Ginzburg)

‘Adultery is in most cases a theft in the dark.’ (Stefan Zweig)

‘To borrow against the trust someone has placed in you costs nothing at first. You get away with it, you take a little more and a little more until there is nothing more to draw on. Oddly, your hands should be full with all that taking but when you open them there’s nothing there.’. (Jeanette Winterton)

‘There must be millions just like you and me, practiced in the art …’
(John Hiatt from, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’)

The human heart is about the size of a large fist and usually weighs about 10 ounces. Throughout each twenty four hours of light, half-light, near dark and dark your heart will beat some 100,000 times and if you are lucky enough to live a long life it will beat on and on three billion times and more.

Beyond its anatomical functions the heart has had, in virtually all cultures, a central place in human beings understandings and puzzlements about why we live the way we do: sometimes behaving honourably and faithfully sometimes turning away to wilfully betray our deepest loyalties.

The theme of love found, love lost and love betrayed has been a constant subject in all forms of art since the first cave dwellers palm painted their walls. Singers and songwriters have found that a truthful song about the twisted dance of the human heart as expressed in our carnal and marital relationships never fails to find an audience which will recognise their own story or one of someone they know all too well.

Artists within the Country and Soul genres, speaking as they do to adult audiences, have specialised in forensically examining the sorrow and the shame, the exultation and the guilt, the secrets, lust, lies and conspiracies involved in those trysts conducted in the shadows away from the homes and marriages where the spurned spouse sleeps unknowingly with their heart beating steadily on.

Rosanne Cash’s version of John Hiatt’s, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’, featured above, was a number 1 single on the US Country charts in 1987. The song had originally appeared on Ry Cooder’s superb 1980 album, ‘Borderline’.

John Hiatt in this song carefully delineates a virtual users guide or manual for those locked in the throes of an illicit affair. The song recognises that the fruits of the passion shared by the protagonists are wormwood for the third party and come at high cost for all concerned. The song speaks of guilt, sorrow, lies and a trail of tears and ruefully acknowledges that the cycle may be unstoppable, ‘She’ll find somebody new and he’ll likely hurt her too’. However, it must be allowed that this perception may be the self-justifying shrug of a repeat offender who cannot believe others might follow a straighter path.

Still the affair must play out its painful course. Passion and longing are the drivers for the affair and once the strings are attached all must play their part whether they are willingly cast or not. In all affairs there is longing; longing to experience once again the white hot flame of addictive lust, longing to become again the person who inspires lust in another, longing for the thrilling possession of the shared secret knowledge of new lovers.

In the song we are in the shadows where lights are low and where on some dark night the lights will be forever dimmed on this affair. The song flatly advises that you get used to telling lies and intimates that the sorrow felt when the tears fall becomes ritualised rather than truly felt. The song may reveal the protagonist as an unreliable narrator who reveals more about himself, to his discredit, than he assumes in the telling of his tale. Hiatt’s reverence for the short stories of Raymond Carver may be making their influence felt here.

Rosanne Cash was at the height of her commercial success in 1987 racking up hit after hit: demonstrating that her success was due to far more than the help having her father’s name had given her initial steps in the music business.

Rosanne sings Hiatt’s song and makes it her own giving it an almost hysterical force in the live version shown here. Her lovely silver bell like voice rings out making every word strike home to do its emotional work on the listener. The arrangement and instrumentation take the song, given a soul/R&B flavour on the original recording, to the Tex/Mex borderlands emphasising the lyrical ballad like shape of the song and giving it a delirious dance rhythm.

It feels as if Rosanne is singing the song to herself as she twirls and twirls around a hardwood floor becoming giddier and giddier as she circles. Perhaps that’s why she lets loose with those intoxicating, ‘Ay, Ay, Ays’ as the song draws to a close. The hangover can, as she knows it must, kick in tomorrow! Tonight it’s a time to dance.

The pleasures and the pain of an affair are inextricably intertwined and this song and this performance bring both facets alive before us. How we hear the song will, of course, be partly determined by our own histories. We all have lessons to learn.

Rosanne Cash:

Rosanne has a distinguished catalogue which shows a highly intelligent woman building upon her considerable gifts as a writer and singer to create works of enduring musical merit and emotional impact. I particularly recommend the albums, ‘Seven Year Ache’ (for the announcement of a real talent), ‘King’s Record Shop’ (for its maturity and the luminous version of, ‘Runaway Train’) and two albums of beautiful but brutally honest and painful introspection, ‘Interiors’ and, ‘The Wheel’.

In the last decade Rosanne has produced a triumphant trio of records, ‘The List’, ‘Black Cadillac’ and, ‘The River And The Thread’ which show an artist at the height of her powers able to honour her family and regional heritage and face head on the sorrows and griefs which assail every life in songs of deep craft and humanity. She has also written an affecting memoir, ‘Composed’ to add to her earlier short story collection, ‘Bodies Of Water’. I think we can safely, at this point, refer to Rosanne Cash as a Woman in full.

John Hiatt:

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John Hiatt is a top drawer songwriter and performer who has written a cache of songs including the song featured above which have been recognised by fellow practitioners like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan as modern standards.

Chief among these is the song, ‘Across The Borderline’ which uses the Rio Grande border as a metaphor for the borders we all long to cross while remaining fearful that the promised dream may turn out not to be the gateway to the future we have fondly imagined.

For, we know or dread, that the promises we believe in or make to ourselves can often be broken by our own fallibility or the malevolence of fate.
There are wonderful versions for you to seek out by Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Freddy Fender and Willy Deville (who also does a characteristically dramatic version of ‘The Way.. ‘).

Each artist covering the song brings their own understanding of the history and promises involved in the ballad to the microphone – its a song that asks questions of each singer who takes it on.

John Hiatt’s songs are the product of a highly literate imagination tuned into the rhythms and routines of the victories and defeats of everyday life as lived in communities and towns in modern America. They are principally set in the South where the accents are rich and stories and myths abound to be told and retold.

Some of his songs have a pickup out of control on a country road propulsion (Tennessee Plates’ ) and some have a woody back porch lyricism (Lipstick Sunset). All his best songs have wit and sharp observation incarnated in well honed lyrics. Hiatt is a hymnist of scarred blue collar lives giving them their due weight in careful description and emotional drama.

Recommended CDs – ‘Bring The Family’, ‘Slow Turning’, ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’, ‘Open Road’ and, ‘Anthology’ are my picks though a trawl through his extensive catalogue will undoubtedly find you adding your own choices to this list

Christmas Cornucopia – Third Day

Onward! Onward our Sleigh proceeds cutting its way through the Christmas snow. Travel with me back in time now to Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood on September 7 1957. A small group of men assemble to cut an album of Christmas songs. From Gadsden Tennessee the modestly brilliant guitarist Scotty Moore, from Memphis Tennessee the ever reliable bass player Bill Black and from Shreveport Louisiana the sprung-floor drummer D J Fontana. Huddled together Gordon Stoker, Neal Matthews, Hoyt Hawkins and Hugh Jarrett – collectively the Jordanaires, a gospel quartet filled with the spirit. Today on piano sits Dudley Brooks.

Tuning up and swapping musicians banter they all look in the direction of a quietly spoken, respectful, hooded eyed, devestatingly handsome 22 year old from Tupelo Mississippi who has in the last few years recorded a series of records that seem to have shifted the axis of the planet. In addition through his live shows and TV appearances he has set an entire generation ablaze to the marked discomfort of, ‘sensible’ folks who can’t bring themselves to approve of the shaky-legged, swivel-hipped singer who bears the ridiculous name of Elvis Aaron Presley.

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As usual the group will warm up by accompanying Elvis as he runs through some of the gospel songs that have surrounded him through his youth and adolescence. If there’s one thing Elvis believes in and knows through his own bodily experience it’s the power of music to raise, thrill and sustain the spirit.

Neither he nor anyone else could have guessed when he started out that he would possess an almost unique capacity to supercharge a song, to sing with such relaxed intensity and charisma that the listener felt lifted up and transported whether the song was secular or sacred. Given a half decent song Elvis always sang his heart out and on many occasions the results were and remain nothing short of miraculous.

Like the Beatles and Bob Dylan the best of Elvis’ records are if anything under rated for all the millions of copies they have sold. I really don’t have a fixed position on many of the great political and cultural issues of our times though I’m happy to debate with anyone. What I am certain of and will jump up on any table anywhere, anytime, to proclaim before any audience is that Elvis was, is, and will always remain the King!

Elvis’ Christmas album was a massive success and continues to sell today. The cut featured above, ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ was written by the whip smart pairing of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who couldn’t have write a lifeless song if they had tried. Here they provide Elvis with an opportunity to demonstrate his charm, his rhythm and blues chops and the sheer swaggering physical presence his vocals could embody. I love the tip of the hat to Elvis’ love of the Cadillac and the erotic promise of the whole song incarnated in the line, ‘Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light …. ‘. Christmas brings many forms of celebration not least the chance for lovers to share some quality time together. And, I can think of no one better to serenade such times than Elvis.

We move now from a lover’s serenade to a mother’s lullaby. ‘A la Nanita Nana’ is a traditional song from Mexico sung here with characteristic tenderness and care by Tish Hinojosa. Tish (short for Leticia) grew up, the thirteenth child, in a crowded household in San Antonio, Texas. Through her brothers and sisters and the crowded radio waves she absorbed and was inspired by music from her native Mexican culture and the folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll traditions which suffice the very air of Texas. I recommend her CDs, ‘Culture Swing’ and, ‘Frontejas’ for those of you inclined to further listening.

The historical facts of Jesus’ birth remain shrouded in the mysteries of antiquity. However, I think we can be sure mothers nursing their new born child have always sung songs to soothe the babe just exposed to the blooming buzzing confusion of this world of ours. The first sound we hear as we grow in our mother’s womb is the beating of her heart and hers is the first face we come to recognise in those initial hours and days of life.

Similarly, our first sense of the musicality of language comes from the sound of our mother reassuring us that we are loved and all is well. If we are lucky we will carry this message with us throughout the whole of our lives. I have no doubt that Mary, though she had much to ponder in her heart, will have sung to her precious babe a song that could we but hear it would sound very like, ‘A la Nanita Nana’.

Today’s poem is, ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman a poet who managed to combine popularity with real poetic achievement.

‘ And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass Window’s hue,
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?

… No carolling in the frosty air,
Nor all the steeping-shaking bells
Can with this simple truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.’