I couldn't be Jagger; how about Donovan?
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 29 December 1997
I started young. At eight, I sang a wobbly descant in the class choir. Our music teacher, an irascible Free French emigre called Mr Laloux, thumped a pre-war joanna and endured our ragged singing with contempt. He had never recovered from the mid-Fifties revolution in popular music. "You fellows," he said a thousand times, "are always talking about zer Beat; but of zer rhyzm you have not zer faintest idea". In the middle of a Handel largo, one day, he noticed I was singing so far off-key it could have been counterpoint. I was invited out of my seat and into the ranks of the real singers. My precociously low voice offered a kind of seraphic bass-line to the cherubic falsettos. I could hold a note, if not a tune. It was enough. I was launched.
At 12, I fashioned a rudimentary drum-kit from the plastic stalks that held the constituents of an Airfix model kit. Surrounded by old shoeboxes and saucepan lids, I percussed along to the first record I ever bought, Cilla Black's "Anyone Who Had a Heart". There was little sophistication involved. I whacked and belaboured the inoffensive cardboard, I dinged and bonged at the tarnished kitchen steel like Animal in the Muppet Show. By then I was up to Grade Five in the external piano exams of the Guildhall, but my heart never leapt at the plonking discords of the Bela Bartk pieces I had to practice. It was 1965 and the Rolling Stones were abroad, and Keith's rhythm guitar had gone straight into the bloodstream. "This could be the last time," I sang to myself, prophetically, as I headed for one of my last music lessons with a severe Anglo-Irish spinster. In vain did she point out that the Stones tune was a worthless two-note confection with a predictable Relative Fourth in the chorus. I didn't care.
Serving mass in Catholic Battersea, I used to stand on the lip of the altar after Communion and swing a thurible full of smoking incense at the seated congregation. The crowd would rise respectfully to their feet and I'd bless them with holy smoke. But in my head, the faithful were an audience, the altar was the stage of the Roundhouse, the censer was a microphone stand and I was Mick Jagger about to knock `em dead with "You Can't Always Get What You Want", accompanied by both the Stones and the London Bach Choir. At 16 things suddenly got real. My Irish cousin John Louis taught me to play "The Times They Are A-Changin"' on a Spanish guitar, and I was hooked. I bought my own instrument, a bashed-up acoustic with nylon strings, from a schoolfriend for pounds 11, scrutinised a chord book and stayed up nights wondering if I'd ever be able to master the stiff- fingered "bridge" across all six strings that was obviously a sine qua non for playing in the key of B or F Major.
By 17, I was a performer. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Music. On holidays in Ireland, before an audience of indulgent Galway relatives, I would bash out "American Pie" and "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall", the two most lyrically exhausting pieces of music outside Wagner's Ring Cycle. I had a phenomenal memory for the cheaply apocalyptic. Uncle Walter and the nun aunties had little clue what I was on about, but liked the noise it made. I single- handedly introduced Leonard Cohen's suave neo-Biblical seductions to young and impressionable females on the house-party circuit. "Come travelling lady, stay a while, until the night is over" I'd sing in a factitiously world-weary drawl, I who had at that stage still never seen a lady, travelling or otherwise, in her underclothes. I went public. I played in pubs, where the locals were so startled to hear an English voice singing Fenian rebel songs ("Come Out, You Black and Tans") interspersed with Joni Mitchell numbers, they forgot to throw empty stout bottles.
Back in London, the music world had bifurcated in the early Seventies. Half the population were listening to heavy metal - Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath - and the other half to the gruff introspections of James Taylor and Neil Young and a dozen other singer-songwriters. I was, naturally, with the latter tendency. Where Dylan had led, 10 years earlier, I was following, a wand'ring troubadour desperate for attention. I wrote a few pathetic, sub-Donovan lyrics ("When the night creeps up my stairs/I will call for you...") and tried to make a demo by playing the melody on guitar, piano, balalaika and tin whistle, and multi-tracking the result onto an open-reel tape-recorder with the aid of a microphone and a stop-watch. It was ghastly. And yet somehow brilliant. Somehow touched with genius. A young Phil Spector, a young George Martin, a young Paul Mc... No, all right then, it was just ghastly.
At university, the nascent troubadour and the aspirant rock star both ran into a problem. Everybody else was doing the same thing, and doing it far better. At the Oxford Guitar Society, everybody could, and did, play an instrumental called "Anji". I, tragically, could not. All the teenage charm with which I'd wowed drunken party audiences in Athenry and Clarinbridge, all the six-chord expertise and the memory for impossible lyrics, all the passion with which I could supply a thrashing climax, couldn't disguise the fact that the fat Balliol chemist beside me could play like Villa-Lobos and I sounded like a Celtic George Formby. I had never learned to explore the melodic world beyond the chords, the filigree of chromatic runs and harmonics and improvisation. I should have given up then. But that's when I was asked to join a band.
There were five of us in Flying Wedge: Robert, painfully thin and endlessly creative, on lead guitar; Toss (as in Thomas), purse-lipped, energetic and cynical, on rhythm; Simon, dour and saturnine, on bass; Piers, handsome, blond and public-school, on drums; and moi (pouting, willowy and petrified) on lead vocals and, you know, irrepressible rock-star behaviour. Our name was a little political joke, from student-demo days, but we played serious rock 'n' roll in a variety of styles: "Tiffany Queen" by the Byrds: Rock 'n' Roll Music" by the Beatles; "Shake Your Money Maker" by Fleetwood Mac, "Domino" by Van Morrison, "Suffragette City" by David Bowie. We practised every week at a friend's rooms in Keble Road, and performed in the college buttery. There were power chords from Toss, high-speed solo chirpings from Robert, growly bass-lines from Simon, and an unloseable back-beat from Piers. What they had from me was a strong blues-shouter voice that sounded wobbly or merely petulant in quieter moments. I could swing a microphone stand with the best of them. Unfortunately I couldn't sing into the thing at the top of it with real conviction. And my between-songs patter lacked the common touch. "The next number is by Robert, and is very much our piece de resistance," I would burble, "Our chef d'oeuvre and signature dish, our..." Jeers and cries of "Get on with it" followed. It was not, perhaps, the coolest attitude to strike in 1973.
Before I knew it, I was out on my ear. One day my fellow musicians stopped talking music when I was near. The next time I walked into the buttery, a huge hairy git called Jim was handling the vocals with the sensitivity of a hammer going through a granite sidewalk. He was, on the other hand, convincingly sexy. When he'd finished "Walk in My Shadow" ("When I get you in the shadow, baby / I'm gonna lay you on the floor'), the whole room seemed to shudder with post-coital aftershock. Damn, damn, damn. I shambled off into the night, cursing softly, the very model of a redundant rocker.
I was on a plane to Ireland again, scene of many triumphs, with my Yamaha stashed at the back, waiting for me to resume my solo career. If I couldn't be Jagger or Jim Morrison, I might as well be Donovan or Leonard Cohen, or even Al Stewart. This was what I'd always been destined for, through choirs and descants and rudimentary drum kits and balalaika solos in the bathroom, and abortive relations with snotty Oxford college bands. This was it. I'd be the endlessly travelling, passionate solitary, the kinetic minstrel. I'd write my own songs. I'd learn the chord shape for B flat minor. The chicks would lap it up.
In a pub on the Clare/Tipperary border, I played Cohen's "Last Year's Man" to an audience of uncomprehending oldies. "Tha's desperate stuff," said one of them. "Can ye not play `The Old Bog Road'?" Sure that there must be some groovy young things lurking in there, I played Bowie's "Starman", off the Ziggy Stardust LP. The volume of conversation grew. I threw in "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser at my uncle's parties. "Excuse me now," said a man pushing past on his way to the Gents, and briefly clamping his hand round the top of the guitar neck, silencing the accompaniment and leaving my voice to quaver alone. "John," called out a one-time friend. "Can ya sing `Far Away'?" "How does it go?" I asked, before the penny dropped. "If you play `By The Window', we'll help ye out," called another, to general laughter. As soon as was decently possible, I left.
In the car park, a trio of urchins were jumping on bumpers, for the bliss of destruction. "Hey misther," one called, "Whyn't ya play us an ole song?". The rambling troubadour never felt more lonesome in his life. It wasn't a creative feeling. I didn't have the blues. I didn't have the talent to become what I'd so long dreamed of. Like a character in Michael Frayn's The Tin Men, I looked down at the strings, the machine heads, the struts and frets and studs and wires of my beloved guitar with its applique butterfly. It seemed to be dying of neglect. "Okay, you guys," I said. I'll never bother you again". And I didn't.
The time: 1973
The place: a pub in ireland
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