Janis: Little Girl Blue is a documentary directed by Amy Berg about Janis Joplin. It’s a story with which you’re already familiar, and a subject that might too easily appeal to those harbouring a lurid interest in drug-fuelled sexual excesses or a tie-dyed nostalgia for the sixties. Berg, though, avoids sensationalism or pathos (except perhaps in the title), and her film features few of those music biz talking heads, familiar from Friday evening BBC 4 music documentaries, blathering on about how so-and-so was such a wonderful person who single-handedly changed the course of modern music. Continue reading “Janis: Little Girl Blue: break another little bit of my heart”
Something happened on the day he died
– David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’
Three things we learned this past week connect in my mind. First came the news that Bowie had died, followed by a huge national outpouring of sorrow and loss. A day later it was revealed that the number of people attending Church of England services each week has dropped below 1 million – less than 2% of the population – for the first time, with Sunday attendances even lower at 760,000. Finally, amidst widespread condemnation, leaders of the Anglican communion meeting in Canterbury agree – in the words of Giles Fraser – ‘to punish its American franchise for the temerity of marrying gay people, sending out the message to the LGBT community: you are a problem, and we will establish our unity on the basis of your exclusion’.
The meaning of these stories, it seems to me, is that they reveal how British society has changed in the decades since Bowie first stunned viewers tuning in to watch Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972 to see him in the persona of Ziggy Stardust performing ‘Starman’, arm draped around Mick Ronson’s shoulders, pointing a finger at us all and singing, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-oo’. Continue reading “Something happened on the day he died”
Unlike Bruce Springsteen, I can recall no revelatory experience on first hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Indeed I cannot recollect the first occasion when I first heard the song – or any other track from Highway 61 Revisited, the album with which it opens. I can, however, relive the exact moment when I first heard ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ off Dylan’s next album. Such are the vagaries of memory. Continue reading “Highway 61 Revisited at 50: we never engaged in this kind of thing before”
Hard to believe, but this year it will be half a century since Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann agreed that the Grateful Dead would be a cool name for the band in which they had been playing together for several months.
For a man in his sixties, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to the Dead this past month -all because I laid out some bread in order to own Sunshine Daydream, the glorious box set that documents – across three CDs and one DVD – a show from the summer of 1972 that has long been regarded by aficionados as the greatest Grateful Dead live performance of all time.
As the psychedelic revolution began to sweep the San Francisco scene in 1964, guitarist Jerry Garcia met drummer Bill Kreutzman while buying a banjo at a local music store. The two got along, and Garcia began working at the store selling instruments and teaching guitar lessons. One of Garcia’s students was a 16 year old named Bob Weir. They got along, and early in 1965 Garcia, Weir and Kreutzman formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.
The band soon added Ron McKernan, better known as Pigpen, to sing blues songs. Son of an r&b dee-jay, McKernan was a fifteen year old harmonica player who skipped school and enjoyed the odd bottle of wine. Pigpen convinced the other band members to go electric, and so they became the Warlocks.
The Warlocks needed a bass player and music student Phil Lesh who had a leaning toward jazz and avant-garde electronic music was chosen for the part. By the autumn of 1965 the Warlocks were performing as the house band for LSD-fuelled multimedia shows hosted by Ken Kesey that came to be known as the Acid Tests.
There was another piece of the jigsaw, without which the Dead would not have been what they became. Another firm friend of Garcia’s was Robert Hunter. In their mid-teens they had started a folk duo, imaginatively calling themselves Bob and Jerry, before a brief intermission during which Hunter left the planet while being covertly paid (along with Ken Kesey) by the CIA to ingest sizeable quantities of LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline and report on his experiences in a research project at Stanford University.
Returning to planet earth, Hunter became the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead, writing the majority of the band’s original songs in collaboration with Garcia who composed the music. So important was Hunter that Garcia once described him as ‘the band member who doesn’t come out on stage with us’.
The first lyric Hunter wrote for the Grateful Dead was composed while on LSD – a song that would later become a staple of their live shows, ‘China Cat Sunflower’. (Hunter later swore that ‘A cat dictated ‘China Cat Sunflower’ to me. It was just sittin’ on my stomach, purring away, and sayin’ this stuff. I just wrote it down. I guess it’s plagiarism’.) ‘Dark Star’ was was the first lyric he wrote with the band as they improvised an early version of that long strange trip in the studio. Under the influence of its Phil Lesh-directed psychedelic improvisation, Hunter produced one of the archetypal lyrics of the psychedelic era:
Dark star crashes
pouring its light
the forces tear loose
from the axis …
Shall we go,
you and I
While we can?
the transitive nightfall
By 1966 the band members lived in a communal house situated on Ashbury Street in San Francisco, and were a fixture on the local music scene, renowned for their free concerts. By 1967 and the Summer of Love, the Dead had emerged as one of the top bands on the West Coast music scene, and had released their first album, a disappointing effort which failed to recapture the cosmic sprawl of their live appearances.
The Grateful Dead: The Golden Road live (Whicker’s World 1967)
The follow-up, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, captured something of the free-form jam aesthetic of their concerts, but after completing 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, the band were over 100,000 dollars in debt to the record company. Their response was to release their first live album, Live/Dead, whose highlight was a 23 minute version of ‘Dark Star’ that occupied the whole side of one LP. This was the Dead in all of their improvisational psychedelic glory, the first Grateful Dead LP I heard. For me, though, it had nothing like the impact of what was to come.
What followed in 1970 was a pair of classic studio LPs, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, albums that I have never stopped listening to. Followed by two incomparable live albums – the 1971 eponymous double known from its cover art as Skulls and Roses, and the triple-LP Europe ’72, a record of what are generally considered to be among their career-best live performances on their European tour that year.
‘A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through ..’ These four LPs revealed the Dead returning to their country, blues, bluegrass and folk roots, plus their jazz-like improvisational skill when playing live, an intuitive skill honed during those long psychedelic jams of the sixties. This was the moment when I fell in love with their playing – and with the songs of Robert Hunter. Gorgeous songs, such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’, ‘Ripple’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Casey Jones’, ‘Box of Rain’, ‘Bertha’, ‘Playing in the Band’, and ‘Truckin’, with its iconic line, ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been’.
But the meaning of the Grateful Dead is about more than music. More than any other band that emerged from the hippie era, they represented the counter-culture ideals of that period – the laid-back dream of drugs, free love and communal living that rejected consumerism and materialism, and instead favoured an alternative lifestyle of self-determination and self-sufficiency. A clear example is the way that the Grateful Dead have always allowed their fans to record and share tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made on the sale. Sometimes the sound crew would allow tapers to connect directly to the soundboard, resulting in some exceptional concert recordings. Astonishingly, of around 2,350 shows the Grateful Dead played, almost 2,200 were taped, and most of these are freely available online at archive.org.
Which brings me to Sunshine Daydream. Released by Rhino Records in September 2013, it’s an audio and video documentation of a concert long regarded by fans as a near-perfect Grateful Dead concert which took place on 27 August 1972 at Veneta in Oregon, a benefit for their old friend Ken Kesey. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, founder of the Merry Pranksters and instigator of the Acid Tests at which the Dead had played their first psychedelic epics in San Francisco, had served time for drug offences before retreating to the family farm in Oregon, where the Kesey family operated a creamery.
In 1972, the company was struggling, despite being the first American company to make yoghurt (their brand of Nancy’s Yoghurt was trucked to the San Francisco Bay Area by musician Huey Lewis). Kesey asked his friends in the Grateful Dead if they would play a benefit concert. Hand-drawn posters advertised the event for $3 in advance or $3.50 at the gate. The creamery turned Nancy’s Honey Yogurt labels into concert tickets. On 27 August, more than 20,000 came to hear the Dead on a sweltering afternoon when the temperature soared to 100 degrees. The creamery made around $13,000, enough to stay in business.
Bootlegs of the audio have circulated for years, but the concert was never officially released because the band’s intention was that the film shot that day should be included in the package. Copyright issues – finally resolved in 2013 – held things up. But what we have now is a delicious treasure – perhaps the finest evocation of a counter-cultural gathering of the hippie era (even including a guy who spends the entire concert head-banging naked atop a pole). As Prankster Ken Babbs memorably expresses it in the sleeve notes:
It’s a time capsule, a vessel full of exuberant free spirit as exhibited by the enraptured, edified, and satisfied concert-goers, a spirit that can still resound, that can still fill our hearts with joy, with compassion, with that sense and knowledge of our oneness, our open sharing and caring and the belief that the goodness inherent in all of us will continue to shine just as it did in Veneta, Oregon, in 1972. And will prevail.
The complete concert is presented on three CDs, while the film made by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field has been digitally remastered and re-edited on the accompanying DVD.
‘China Cat Sunflower’ from Sunshine Daydream
The film weaves into the concert footage brief glimpses from the days of the Merry Pranksters, including a shot from the famous cross-country bus trip in 1964 with Neal Cassady at the wheel. Also on the bus was Ken Babbs, Ken Kesey’s long-time friend since their meeting in a Stanford writing class in 1958. Over the years, Babbs was Kesey’s closest associate until Kesey’s death in 2001. Babbs was the compère at Veneta – heard memorably at the microphone, on CD and DVD, announcing measures to bring cooling water to the dehydrating masses, and issuing alerts of kids who have wandered into the lost children compound.
In a recent interview here, Ken Babbs expressed the opinion that:
We’re finding a resurgence of that spirit now; more and more people are realizing – as they did in those days – that the search for the ‘American Dream’ does not go through the materialistic, acquire-as-much-as-you-can world, but through returning to the natural world through health and spirit and body and community. More and more people are finding that out; more and more people are being forced to as they’re losing their jobs and their homes – and they’re seeking another way … and when they do, they’re finding a better way.
Few things have given me more pleasure recently than listening to this concert and watching the DVD. As Nigel Williamson writing in the Guardian in September 2013 observed:
What is most striking about the recording from that sun-kissed day is the fluidity with which the Dead absorbed and transmuted every genre of vernacular American music, from blues, folk and gospel to country, R&B and rockabilly, and fed them into some of the most audacious, free-wheeling rock’n’roll ever made – past and future, outlaw spirit and hippy idealism fused into a soundtrack for a brave new frontier that birthed an alternative sub-culture which survives to this day.
An epic psychedelic jam around ‘Dark Star’ full of vaulting, free-form improvisation mutates alchemically into a loping take on Marty Robbins’ cowboy ballad ‘El Paso’. Merle Haggard’s country weepie Sing Me Back Home, delivered hauntingly in Garcia’s reedy but expressive voice, gives way to the Dead’s surging, feelgood acid anthem ‘Sugar Magnolia’, with its irresistible sunshine daydream refrain. Throw in the loose-limbed rhapsody of Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’, the psyched-up folk-blues racination of ‘I Know You Rider’ and the group’s own storied, myth-making compositions such as ‘Truckin”, ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Playing in the Band’ and you have cosmic American music at its most potent and joyous.
As for me, I won’t forget the shot of the little kid sitting there eating an ice cream: a dog appears and starts licking his ice cream while the band play ‘Jack Straw’: ‘We can share what we got of yours ‘cause we done shared all of mine’ – perfect.
‘Jack Straw’ from Sunshine Daydream
Walk you in the tall trees
Going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose
Breathing more freely
Ride out singing
I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
Walk you in the sunshine
Grizzled and jowled beneath the trademark black fedora and wearing a baggy t-shirt emblazoned with ‘EARTH’, last night at Liverpool Arena Neil Young was on a mission. To save the world, no less.
Young came on stage at around 8:45 with Crazy Horse – here comprising long-time collaborator in epic noise Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro (white-haired, tubby, wearing even baggier t-shirt) on guitar and keyboards and Ralph Molina on drums, with Rick Rosas on bass (standing in for Billy Talbot who recently suffered a stroke). To the rear of the stage, were Dorene Carter and YaDonna West whose backing vocals burnished the band’s fearsomely physical interpretations of numbers from the back catalogue, plus some surprises.
They began with ‘Love And Only Love’ from one of my favourite Young albums, 1990’s Ragged Glory. ‘Love and only love will endure’, Neil insisted. Two more songs from the same album, ‘Days That Used To Be’ and ‘Love To Burn’ seemed to reinforce the message:
People say don’t rock the boat,
let things go their own way
Ideas that once seem so right,
now have gotten hard to say
A theme was emerging, with Neil insisting that though we may be ‘just another hundred thousand miles away/From days that used to be’, the old values of sixties protest are still valid. It’s not that simple, of course. Outside the Arena we had had to pass the flags and banners of the Friends of Palestine protest against the Israeli assault on Gaza and Neil’s planned appearance in Tel Aviv (a concert now called off due to the security situation). Young been under pressure to abandon the gig by the increasingly influential boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement. Pink Floyd guitarist Roger Waters had joined the pressure with an open letter to Young asking him to cancel the show – something which the otherwise politically-engaged, though often wayward artist had resisted.
It’s a debatable issue, but I wonder whether we are approaching a tipping point where artists will consider it as morally repugnant to perform in Israel as it once was to appear in South Africa during apartheid.
However. Young once said: ‘As I get older, I get smaller. I see other parts of the world I didn’t see before. Other points of view. I see outside myself more’. He has been associated with many causes, particularly environmental issues and the rights of indigenous peoples. He campaigns against fracking and has toured Canada in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and its fight against oil companies determined to exploit the tar sands of northern Alberta.
It’s all marketing. It’s all big money. This oil is all going to China. It’s not for Canada. It’s not for the United States. It’s not ours – it belongs to the oil companies, and Canada’s government is behind making this happen. It’s truly a disaster.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Arena (photos: Liverpool Echo)
So, three songs into the Liverpool set, we get ‘After the Goldrush’, his dream vision of environmental disaster from 1970 that seems more chilling as the years pass (and as Neil updates the signature line which now goes: ‘Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century’). Introducing his acoustic take on Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ (‘a song that never ages’), Young observed that ‘this world is full of damage’. It’s a song that he memorably reinterpreted on Weld in 1991 at the time of the Gulf War. Then it was drenched in angry, Jimi Hendrix-style electric guitar; tonight he returns to its original incarnation:
How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
Questions that remain unanswered. Which is why it’s important that song continues to be sung.
As far as Neil was concerned, all this was leading to his new song, ‘Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?’, unveiled as one of the two encores. It’s a magnificent addition to the Young canon, a new ‘Ohio’. Like so many of Young’s songs, it states its position simply, even it might be said, simplistically. But what a shot of adrenaline it gives. It is magnificent, a powerful assertion of environmental values, challenging the policies of governments and multinationals:
Protect the wild
Protect the land, free the man.
Take out the dams
Stand up to oil
Protect the plants
Renew the soil.
Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?
Who’s gonna say that she’s had enough.
Who’s gonna take on the big machine?
Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?
The set, which lasted just over two hours, also featured more recent and some obscure material. ‘Separate Ways’ is a song from an unreleased 1970s album Homegrown, while ‘Barstool Blues’ comes from from Zuma in the same period. Every now and again, Neil would wander over to the side of the stage to whisper in the ear of a tall wooden Indian that stood there, reminding me of Hank Williams’ ‘Kaw-Liga’ who ‘just stood there and never let it show’. Then there was ‘Goin’ Home’ from 2002’s Are You Passionate? and the title track from 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. The latter was illuminated in a timely way by one of those rotating light shows that were ubiquitous in the sixties in those places where you went ‘looking for a good time’.
Light show recreation during ‘Psychedelic Pill’
For me, these were the least engaging moments in a great concert. There were many highlights, though. The short acoustic interval in which Neil covered Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and only had to strum the first two chords of ‘Heart Of Gold’ to be met with a roar of approval, was a high point, as was the finale – the great, ironic (and often misunderstood) anthem, ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’.
The band returned to the stage for two encores – the first of them was the new song ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth?’, an environmental battle cry that comes from the same place as ‘Mother Earth’ two decades ago. But while that took the form of a soaring hymn to gaia, this one is a pounding cry to arms, full of rage against the money men and the corporations exploiting the earth. It’s got the same elemental feel as ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, and could be a hit single (if there is still such thing). That was followed by a spectacular rendition of ‘Hurricane’ which culminated in a ferocious storm of electric noise – splintering mountains of bass rumble and feedback.
You are just a dreamer, and I am just a dream.
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Tectonic plates ground the world to smithereens as Sampredo manipulated a floating keyboard with great ferocity, Neil shredded every single string on his guitar, as he left the last lines shimmering and echoing around the arena:
I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feeling stays.
I want to love you but I’m getting blown away.
It’s nearly 40 years since I last saw Young – at Wembley in 1974. I can’t honestly recall much about that, apart from the sense of a long autumn day in bright sunshine and fragments of Joni Mitchell’s set, though I have written about it in this post. That astonishing event (The Band, Joni Mitchell with Tom Scott’s LA Express, plus four hours of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on one bill) came at the end of CSN&Y’s legendary 1974 tour. This week I listened to the newly-released collection of recordings from that tour (including some from the Wembley gig), curated by Graham Nash. On the whole, it’s Neil’s contributions which stand out, surviving the test of time.
It’s also 40 years since the release of On the Beach, an album I’ve always appreciated, even though it was panned when it first came out, its bleakness too much of a contrast to its predecessor, Harvest. The blog Johanna’s Visions has an excellent round-up of facts and opinions on the album: July 16: 40 year anniversary for On The Beach by Neil Young.
Now, nearly half a century later and a pensioner myself, I had spent an evening watching four grizzled pensioners deliver a performance of high-octane intensity. Young, the godfather of grunge, had confirmed that his star still burns brightly. With the extended solos of wailing, distorted guitar, the strong riffs and heavy drumming, Young, Sampredo and Molina demonstrated that age cannot wither them.
As we streamed out onto the Liverpool waterfront a huge full moon hung in a cloudless sky: harvest moon (almost).
Love and Only Love
Days That Used to Be
After the Gold Rush
Love to Burn
Don’t Cry No Tears
Blowin’ in the Wind (acoustic)
Heart of Gold (acoustic)
Rockin’ in the Free World
Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth
Like A Hurricane
- Neil Young and Crazy Horse top 5 performances Europe Summer 2014 (Johanna’s Visions)
I wish I was a fisherman
Tumbling on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories
Casting out my sweet line
With abandonment and love
No ceiling bearing down on me
Save the starry sky above
With light in my head
You in my arms …
Even now, a quarter of a century after I first heard these words, sung with passion by Mike Scott and with Steve Wickham’s fiddle sweeping and soaring around his voice like waves on the sea, I still get shivers down my spine. The passion and wide-screen romanticism of Fisherman’s Blues make it one of my all-time favourite songs and albums. So I was in raptures a couple of months ago when I learnt that Mike Scott, after sifting through hours of session tapes, was releasing to the world a mammoth six-disc box set featuring 121 tracks from the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, 85 of which had been previously unavailable. Even more electrifying was the news that he had reunited the legendary Fisherman’s Blues band to tour a show featuring highlights from the Fisherman’s Box – and that the British leg of the tour would open at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.
Fisherman’s Blues first TV performance: Channel 4’s The Tube
Speaking of the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, Mike Scott has asserted that ‘music isn’t worth the air it occupies if it doesn’t change both its makers and its listeners’. Despite being out of tune with a music scene in thrall to raves, ecstasy and sampling, Fisherman’s Blues would turn out to be the biggest selling Waterboys album, and you only have to attend a Waterboys concert to understand how much it means to those who have taken its songs to their hearts.
1984: the first Waterboys show
As Dave Simpson put in a Guardian feature last Friday, ‘At the end of 1985, Mike Scott had the world at his feet. His band of three years, the Waterboys, had just entered the charts with The Whole of the Moon, a song that would become his signature anthem. … Had Scott been a different, more compromising character, he would perhaps have followed [U2 and Simple Minds] into stadium-filling rock. However, the impassioned singer-songwriter wasn’t having any of it’. During Sunday’s concert at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, Mike Scott explained how he ‘had got bored with rock, hating the sound of synthesisers and snare drum drenched in echo’.
Mike Scott backstage in 1986
As a result of Scott’s distaste for the scene, the Waterboys disappeared off the radar for two years. Moving first to Dublin and then the west coast of Ireland, Scott went in search of ‘something older, more real and more rooted’, regrouping the band around fiddle and mandolin and pursuing deep explorations of Irish music and all points west: , the country blues of Hank Williams, soul, gospel, jump blues – anything that was earthy and real.
In recording sessions that took place over two years, ranging from Dublin in early 1986 to San Francisco, and then Dublin again the following spring and summer, Scott and his raggle taggle gypsies recorded nearly 100 songs, sometimes in several different versions. From all of those sessions the final version of Fisherman’s Blues was assembled and released in October of 1988. As Scott put it in an interview, ‘We started recording our fourth album in early ’86 and completed it 100 songs and 2 years later’.
In another recent interview, Scott was asked whether he felt like a pioneer at the time:
When we were blending rock with folk influences, we weren’t the first ones to be doing it… You could date it back to folk rock, when the folk boom music, the protest music, met the beat boom and you had people like The Byrds and the Turtles coming out. In Britain, we had Fairport Convention and bands like that in the late 60s and early 70s. And so it wasn’t even new when the Waterboys were doing it. I always think that the Pogues and the Waterboys were the two bands at that time, in the late 80s, that took the trad Celtic music and merged it with rock. […] And rediscovering isn’t enough. There has to be something original brought to it. Certainly Fairport Convention did that and the Pogues did that and I believe the Waterboys did that with Fisherman’s Blues. We did certain blendings of folk and rock music that hadn’t been done. We did more of that on our follow-up album, Room to Roam.
A re-creation of the cover photo of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, shot two years later during sessions for the follow-up, ‘Room to Roam’, at the same location, Spiddal House in County Galway. Back row, L-R: Colin Blakey (flute, pipes), Diarmuid O’Sullivan (guest vocalist), Barry Beckett (producer), Seamus & Eileen Begley (guest vocalists), Trevor Hutchinson (bass), John Dunford & Jimmy Hickey (crew). Front, L-R: Anto Thistlethwaite (sax), Sharon Shannon (accordion), Mike Scott (guitar/vocals), Noel Bridgeman (drums) & Steve Wickham (fiddle).
In 2013, some 25 years after the conclusion of the recording marathon that produced Fisherman’s Blues, Mike Scott assembled a 6-CD compilation from the archive of session recordings, chronologically charting the progress of the band – gathering discarded songs (many of them as much classics as those that made it onto the original album) and the varied attempts at songs as Scott sought the sound he wanted. In his memoir, Adventures of Waterboy, published in June, Scott explained the purpose behind his task:
The twelve songs, six from Spiddal and six from Windmill Lane, told only a fraction of the story not just of the music we’d made but of all that had happened since I’d come to Ireland three years earlier. We’d recorded nearly a hundred tracks and twice as many out-takes, probably the largest body of work ever for one album; and the stylistic and personal changes the music documented were as deep and manifold as some bands go through in whole careers. Fisherman’s Blues could and should have been a double or triple album but most of the Dublin recordings, including many of our best moments, would remain unfinished for another decade. Three hundred and seventy four master reels, piled floor to ceiling and wall to wall in a room at Windmill Lane, waited for the day twelve years hence when I’d return to complete the work.
Steve Wickham and Anto Thistlethwaite, Galway, 1987 (photo by Frank Miller)
Having presented the Fisherman’s Box to the world, Scott then set about re-assembling the original band:
I talked to Steve Wickham [electric fiddle and mandolin] first and he wanted to do it, too. And then I contacted Antony [Thistlethwaite] our old saxophone and mandolin player, and he was up for it. And then I contacted Trevor [Hutchinson], our bass player. Once everyone was in, then I spoke to our agent and he liked the idea, too.
Steve Wickham and Mike Scott on stage at the Phil
And so to the Phil. It’s been sold out for weeks, and now the auditorium is electric with anticipation. On the darkened stage, a figure steps forward into the spotlight, long black coat, floppy hat covering his face as he stoops toward the mike and sings:
We’re sailing on a strange boat
heading for a strange shore …
We’re sailing on a strange sea
blown by a strange wind
We’re sailing on a strange sea
blown by a strange wind
Carrying the strangest crew
that ever sinned …
We’re living in a strange time
working for a strange goal
We’re living in a strange time
working for a strange goal
We’re turning flesh and body
Another figure strides out, and Steve Wickham’s haunting fiddle takes up the refrain as the rest of the band slide into their positions before a back-projection of the house in Spiddal where several of the Fisherman’s Blues songs were recorded. With the exception of present Waterboys drummer Ralph Salmins, it’s the old eighties band reunited: Scott and Wickham, with Anthony Thistlethwaite (sax, fiddle and mandolin) and Trevor Hutchinson on bass guitar.
After opening with a couple of tracks from Fisherman’s Blues, Scott and the band paid tribute to John Lennon, as we near the 33rd anniversary of murder, with a blistering account of Cold Turkey. The set included some of the great covers that peppered the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, including one of the best versions of Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ that you’re ever likely to hear and a Celtic-flavoured rendition of Hank Williams’ ‘I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry’. Towards the end of the concert the band gave us their tremendous cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ with the segue into the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ at the close.
There were plenty of reminders, too, that the Fisherman’s Blues sessions ran the gamut of musical styles. ‘Tenderfootin’ was a Scott original, a ‘cautionary tale’ with echoes of jump jive and Robert Parker’s ‘Barefootin”; ‘Blues for Your Baby’ was a sultry, late-night conversation between Scott at the piano and Thistlethwaite blowing on sax; while the band stormed their way through ‘Meet Me At the Station’ a traditional gospel number recorded by Reverend Gary Davis and the Memphis Sanctified Singers – the version that Scott had heard.
Scott introduced ‘Come Live With Me’ with a lengthy anecdote about how he and the band first heard the song. It was during the period in early 1986 when they had moved to California at the invitation of Bob Johnston, the legendary producer of Dylan (Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline), Johnny Cash (San Quentin) and Simon & Garfunkel, who had called Scott to suggest the band record with him in his home studio in southern California. Down the valley was a small town with ‘the best record shop in the world’. It was there that Thistlethwaite came across the 1974 Ray Charles album Come Live With Me. When they got back to Ireland, the title song ‘just blew our socks off’. At the time, Scott said, he had ‘just won – and lost a girl’ who had moved to New York. Scott learned the song – ‘a gorgeous mating call from a man in love with his woman’ – and the band spent a whole night recording it. Then Scott took the next flight to New York with a cassette tape of the track, found the girl’s apartment in Manhatten and said to her, ‘You gotta listen to this song…’
Come live with me
And won’t you be my love
Share my bread and wine
Be wife to me
Be life to me
Oh, come live with me
And be my love
Let our dreams combine
Anto Thistlethwaite playing in front of the Spiddal House backdrop
Naturally, the set was crammed, too, with the widescreen epics that emerged from the marriage between Scott’s exalted vision and the insistent, electrified violins of Thistlethwaite and Wickham. There was the fierce urgency of ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ in which the band dropped out to accentuate the timely lyrics of the last verse:
The world’s full of trouble
Landlords are frowning
Cupboards are bare
People are scrambling
like dogs for a share
It’s cruel and it’s hard
but it’s nothing compared to what we do to each other
There was ‘Higher Bound’, one of the triumphant songs that didn’t make it onto Fisherman’s Blues:
I‘m the song of the river
speeding unceasing to the sea
I’m in love!
Each and every time
there’s some for me
My head is in the stars
my feet are on the ground
I’m tumbling through the years
And there were old favourites, iconic Waterboys anthems like ‘A Girl Called Johnny’ and ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’:
Well here we are in a special place
what are you gonna do here?
Now we stand in a special place
what will you do here?
What show of soul are we gonna get from you?
It could be deliverance, or history
under these skies so blue
could be something true,
But if I know you you’ll bang the drum
like monkeys do
Here we are in a fabulous place
What are you gonna dream here?
We are standing in this fabulous place
What are you gonna play here?
I know you love the high life, you love to leap around
You love to beat your chest and make your sound
but not here man – this is sacred ground
The encore featured a stunning performance of the delicate and beautiful ‘Saints and Angels’ – just such a great song that it’s a puzzle why it wasn’t released on the original album:
It is a wide world we travel
and our paths rarely cross
and we do a whole lot of living in between
So come we’ll share more than time
We’ll put our cares far behind
while we sail the ship that never goes to sea (friendship)
It could be months, and it could be years
until we find one another once more standing here
until then my beautiful friend I have a wish for you
Many hearts to keep you warm
Many guides to speed you through the storm
and may the saints and angels watch over you
A magnificent and memorable show.
Waterboys and Sharon Shannon: Saints and Angels
Mike Scott and Steve Wickham play Waterboys live Fisherman’s Blues Epstein Theatre Liverpool 9th October 2012
The Waterboys Cold Turkey John Lennon Cover live Liverpool Philharmonic Hall 8th Dec 2013
- Strange Boat
- When Ye Go Away
- Cold Turkey
- Stranger To Me
- We Will Not Be Lovers
- Higher Bound
- Girl Of The North Country
- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
- When Will We Be Married?
- Blues For Your Baby
- Come Live With Me
- A Girl Called Johnny
- Sweet Thing/Blackbird
- How Long Will I Love You
- The Raggle Taggle Gypsy
- Fisherman’s Blues
- Don’t Bang the Drum
- Meet Me At The Station
- Saints and Angels
Well, knock me down with a feather! Dylan produces new album that’s not only melodious and beautifully sung, but revelatory, too, casting new light on a period in his career generally held in low esteem by fans, including myself, and deeply suggestive of something else that might have been.
Plenty has been written in the last week or so about the latest official instalment from Dylan’s unreleased archive, the Bootleg Series (we’re up to volume 10 now), so I won’t recapitulate the whole story here. Suffice it to say that Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is in some ways the most revelatory of the whole series.
What we have here are alternate and stripped-down versions of songs released on the infamous Self Portrait album and – most spellbinding – songs recorded in the same period but never released – indeed entirely forgotten. There are two discs, with songs falling roughly into two groups. The first CD mostly comprises songs recorded prior to Self Portrait, and is where you find the real jewels of this set: amidst alternate versions of some of Dylan’s own songs are unreleased versions of traditional songs. The second CD offers alternate versions of Dylan originals from Self Portrait, New Morning, and Nashville Skyline, plus remastered live recordings from the set performed by Dylan and the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival. In many cases, the differences in these versions are striking, and make you wonder what the original Self Portrait might have been.
What it might have been was an anthology of American music – blues, folk, old-timey, country and pop tunes – but it came out all wrong, with songs slathered with syrupy strings overdubs and good stuff discarded in favour of some decidedly dodgy recordings – Dylan duetting with himself on the amateurish version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer was either a bad joke or a serious loss of judgement.
As much as ordinary mortals can fathom what goes in the mind of Bob Dylan, we know a bit more now about where he was coming from perhaps, having heard a much more spartan version of what this might have been two decades later on the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and listened to Dylan present his radio show Theme Time Radio on which he celebrated all forms of American music – from jazz and blues, through country and R&B to classic pop of the fifties and sixties.
But back then, at the start of the 70s, was the heyday of the singer-songwriter, and Dylan was regarded as the greatest of them all. To fill an album with songs written by others was taken as a sign that you had lost your mojo, and were playing a bad joke on your followers. Moreover, Dylan had gained a huge reputation as a protest singer, so we expected any new album to contain lyrics of social criticism. The worst thing about Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning for many of us back then was the overriding tone of domestic bliss and bucolic rapture. For Christ’s sake, the cities were burning and there was a war going on: was this the best that the voice of a generation could do?
Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream
That was New Morning, a rapturous collection, apparently rushed out quickly by Dylan to obliterate the stain on his career represented by Self Portrait (notoriously rejected as ‘shit’ by Greil Marcus in his review for Rolling Stone that basically set the seal on the album’s reputation). The general interpretation of Self Portrait in subsequent decades has been that it represented a deliberate act of career destruction – he just ‘threw it all away’ in order to get the rest of us off his back. But just as easily it could represent just one more example of Dylan’s legendary misjudgements in the choices he has made about what to put on, or leave off, an album.
As Mark Richardson observes in his thoughtful review for Pitchfork:
Though we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, the idea of Dylan making a poor album on purpose never made sense. He worked with too many top-shelf musicians that he cared about, and had friends and colleagues investing too much time, to make something that would embarrass them. It seems more likely that the “intentionally bad” storyline was a defence mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Self Portrait was a strange and all-over-the-place album because, for one reason or another, that’s the kind of album Dylan wanted to make at that time.
Whatever the circumstances that led Dylan to release the sickly-sweet, sloppy, sprawling Self Portrait, the artefact delivered to us in 2013 is a different kettle of fish entirely. Even before considering the tunes themselves, the remixing and the remastering, there is the fact that Dylan sings beautifully, in a voice far removed from the gravelly rasp of later years, a voice tender and expressive and melodious. Mark Richardson again:
That is where the deep and immense pleasure of this set resides: hearing melodies – some new, some old, some borrowed – performed by a distinctive singer at the height of his powers.
Dylan has seldom recorded more lovely vocals that here on his beautiful unreleased reading of the traditional English folk ballad Pretty Saro, or on alternate versions of such songs as Belle Isle or Copper Kettle, with its bucolic, if not intoxicated, refrain:
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.
Loveliest of all is the remastered, achingly beautiful rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme performed solo at the Isle of Wight. James Reed, writing in the Boston Globe, was entranced like me:
The joy of Another Self Portrait is hearing the music for its own merit. This is Dylan at his most tender-hearted, finding his way around songs that clearly made an impression on him. Because so much of the material is traditional or written by others, it allows you to ruminate on Dylan’s interpretive skills.
Anyone who claims Dylan can’t sing, or that he’s not the most soothing of singers, has never heard his previously unreleased version of “Pretty Saro” included here. His voice is soft, delicate, as if it’ll buckle under the weight of the song’s heartache over losing his beloved.
Listening to the album a few times you begin to realise that it’s not only that songs that were messed up on Self Portrait have now had the excess of overdubbed strings removed; it’s the rediscovered ‘lost’ recordings – traditional songs and songs by Dylan’s song-writer contemporaries that astonish, too. Dylan offers tribute to Tom Paxton with his lesser-known tune, Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song, This Evening So Soon is a version of Tell Old Bill by Bob Gibson, an old buddy from the Greenwich Village days, and there’s a great version of Thirsty Boots, written by another overlooked contemporary, Eric Andersen.
Mark Richardson puts it like this in his Pitchfork review:
The real revelations on the first disc are the unreleased versions of songs from the public domain … the songs Dylan grew up with and studied… The versions here of “Railroad Bill”, “Little Sadie”, “Pretty Saro”, and the especially powerful “This Evening So Soon” are brilliant showcases of his ability to inhabit old material and make it his own. And they benefit from the generally spare and acoustic sound. Dylan started his career singing traditional folk songs, but his understanding of them eight years later was far richer.
A picture begins to emerge of the album that might have been: Dylan’s own Anthology of American Music, a foretaste of 1992‘s Good as I Been to You and 1993‘s World Gone Wrong. Self Portrait was top-heavy with less than inspiring versions of country and western standards such as I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know (recorded by just about every Country artist going, from Tennessee Ernie Ford by way of Skeeter Davis to Patti Page and Dolly Parton) and two songs written by Boudleaux Bryant, the man who probably wrote more country and western hits than anyone (including ones for Jim Reeves); indeed, the strings and vocal stylings were reminiscent of a distinctly square Jim Reeves LP such as one’s mother might have in her collection. There were also passable versions of pop songs that Dylan had grown up with in the fifties, such as Blue Moon and the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me.
Imagine, instead, an album that truly lived up to its name: a self portrait of Dylan in the form of an intimate, acoustic session where, along with a handful of trusty musicians (David Bromberg on guitar, Kenny Buttrey drums, Al Kooper organ and piano, Happy Traum banjo, and Charlie McCoy on bass), he presented a showcase of the songs that had informed his musical sensibilities – a blend of blues and country, folk and pop. Well, we’ve finally got to hear it – or something like it – albeit 40 years later.
Significantly, perhaps, the collection opens with a demo recording of Went to See the Gypsy, Dylan’s lyric apparently inspired by an encounter with Elvis in Las Vegas:
Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel […]
Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears
I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone
There’s another demo of When I Paint My Masterpiece, a simple recording of just Dylan and piano, the song best known through the Band’s superb arrangement with with mandolin and accordion released on Cahoots in 1971.
Other highlights of this magnificent collection for me include the thrilling remastered recording of Dylan and the Band tearing through Highway 61 Revisited at the Isle of Wight; an exuberant alternative take of New Morning with horns; Copper Kettle, stripped of strings with just David Bromberg’s shimmering guitar and Al Kooper’s delicate organ noodles for decoration; a 1971 recording of Only A Hobo with Happy Traum on banjo and harmony vocal that has the feel of an impromptu Greenwich Village coffee house session.
Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere
Mark Richardson, the reviewer for Pitchfork, is clearly of a younger generation than mine, many of whom were perplexed, outraged even, by Self Portrait when it appeared in 1970. He writes:
Returning to it, it’s hard for those of us a generation or two younger to understand the reaction to it not because it paled in comparison to the greatness that came before, because it obviously did. If you’ve spent any time listening to Bob Dylan’s 1960s catalog, you are still trying to wrap your head around the thought that one person wrote the 56 songs on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline between 1965 and 1969. Self Portrait, next to these records, in that moment, must have seemed like a joke.
But later generations hear it differently. We’ve discovered Self Portrait in the used bins, torrent downloads, and streaming services alongside records like Street Legal, Saved, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, and Under the Red Sky. And in this broader context, it sounds quite good, another weird and sloppy record from a guy who released a lot of them.
Hearing Self Portrait now, alongside the fantastic music now released on Another Self Portrait, casts Dylan’s efforts in the recording studio at that time in a whole new light, Richardson rightly suggests, arguing that the collection further cements Dylan’s Bootleg Series as one of the most important archival projects in modern pop history.
We’ll probably never know why Dylan, after recording all these wonderful tracks, decided to discard them and release something entirely different. Never mind; 40 years late, we have a gem to treasure
Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day
I must have been mad
I never knew what I had
Until I threw it all away