Wednesday 24 December 2008
I saw quite a lot of Davy Graham, mainly in London's Notting Dale zone, from the mid-1960s on,
writes Michael Horovitz. The newly swinging/anti-war underground was visibly dissolving boundaries between social and artistic media. In June '65 the First International Poetry Incarnation – the first large-scale gathering of countercultural tribes – transformed the hitherto rigidly establishmentarian Albert Hall into a hotbed of (a)political protest and Dionysiac revelry, at which Davy was the only musician featured alongside 17 poets from eight countries.
This megagig's internationalist impulse was one he had embraced from birth to a Guyanese mother and Scots-Gaelic father, and articulated by travelling far and wide throughout his late teens and twenties, absorbing diverse world musics and stringed instrument techniques. He was always up for "a session" of joints, booze, listening to records, plus conversational and musical impros, and was as happy digging or playing baroque music and raga as blues and bebop.
After the 1967 Rolling Stones bust he accompanied me with perfect guitar phrasing and pitch on a "Legalise Pot" poem at a benefit in Ronnie Scott's Old Place. It was warming to feel the relish for his skills coming as strongly from the hardcore jazzers present as from the bright younger folkies, whose delight and amazement at his innovations I had shared at traditional song venues like Les Cousins and The Troubadour.
When Allen Ginsberg spoke tenderly at the climax of a Hyde Park rally later that year, Davy exhorted the enraptured circle in whose midst he was sat to "Let's all hold hands" – and they did! There was an aspiration to innocence about him which both reflected and replenished the idealism of that late '60s "Love Generation", but when commercial and state control forces closed in around May '68, the beat/hippy dreams were fragmented, and Davy's personal flower-child stance wilted as abruptly as anyone's I knew.
Increasingly heavy drug-taking, partly encouraged by the incorrigible smack evangelist Alex Trocchi, took him way beyond adjustments to clock-time etc, which had never been his strong point. I gave up on booking him for gigs after two no-shows – one of them a massively star-studded and lucrative one in Brussels.
Getting stoned (mainly on amphetamines) afforded him little perceptible pleasure or inspiration, whilestripping away much that his explorations, performances and recordings had built up during his youth. Iwent on bumping into him round Portobello Road, where his feisty mother and sensitive sisters stayed based,into the mid-1970s, but he seemed to get less and less coherent. Some ofthe few gigs of his I still attended bombed disastrously: potentially unending sub-Lord Buckley/Stanley Unwin monologues had audiences who'd come to experience his finger-picking genius embarrassed, bored, and dwindling.
A couple of times, homeward bound in the small hours, I found Davy, guitar in hand, forlornly slinging little clumps of gravel and calling up to the windows of upstairs neighbours (including mine) for comradeship and dope, as if living out the quest of Ginsberg's alleged "best minds... destroyed by madness / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix".
Subsequent encounters in later years suggested that such downbeat phases became punctuated and redeemed by more settled domestic and musical circumstances, sporadic comeback appearances and, most fruitfully perhaps, by one-to-one guitar-teaching stints. The great mercy is that his unique and mesmerising early recordings will long survive his sadly unromantic agonies.
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