andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: music and writing

Speed Trap Town, Songs and other Flash Fiction

What a great first line: ‘She said, it’s none of my business, but it breaks my heart.’ It could be the first line of a Raymond Carver short story, or an Ian McEwan novel. It’s only when you hear that the second line is ‘dropped a  dozen cheap roses in a shopping cart,’ that the rhyme gives it away as a poem, or a song.

Since splitting away from Drive By Truckers to plough his own furrow as a singer-songwriter, many of Jason Isbell’s best-known songs have a definite autobiographical air: ’24 Frames,’ or ‘Cover Me Up,’ where the line about swearing off that stuff always attracts a cheer from the gig crowd, which is ironic, really, since most of us haven’t actually sworn off that stuff. But he has, and we’re glad it’s working for him.

On the other hand, some of Isbell’s finest work is a narrative about someone else. ‘Hudson Commodore,’ for example, has a female protagonist, the story of how she’s making her own way amongst men who want to own her told in the third person. In ‘Speed Trap Town,’ however, he uses the first person to tell the tale.

The first verse is actually a superb example of what Robert McKee, probably the best known modern exponent of storycraft, calls ‘the inciting incident‘: the woman at the supermarket, with her kindly meant gesture, throws the narrator’s life out of balance in the sense that, up till then, he’s been going along, surviving, drinking a bit too much, visiting his Dad in the ICU; but that bunch of flowers tips him into making a decision.

The whole song is, at 271 words, an almost perfect example of what would without the rhyming scheme be called flash fiction. The narrator goes from the supermarket to a High School football game, a bottle of booze under his coat: but that only serves to remind him of how far, and how little, he’s come, since he left school himself. As the protagonist in this story, he has to protag. But the real story, as the twist reveals, is about how Daddy got in the ICU in the first place.

Anyhoo, I could witter on more about storycraft in songwriting, but since the real purpose of this is to get you to listen to my cover of the song, I’ll stop there and tell you instead a bit about it instead. I don’t generally do cover versions these days: too busy trying to bottle what’s coming out of my own head musically in the limited time available. However, Isaac Brutal is working on what promises to be a very interesting covers project, and was kind enough to ask me to supply some guitar for a couple of tracks. We kicked around two possible Isbell songs for him, I recorded the backing for both, and got to keep ‘Speed Trap Town’ for myself. I’ll let Mr Brutal reveal his own choice in good time.

The Isbell original is beautifully spare, with just him and his Martin acoustic, some fine electric slide guitar, and a bit of piano. The best covers for me do something different from the original: but I felt throwing more instrumentation at it would just distract from that brilliant bit of storytelling. So, instead, apart from my Lag and a bit of acoustic slide on my Freshman 12 string, I opted for sound effects. It was easy enough to find a hospital machine bleep on Freesound: but where I really got lucky was the police radio clip.

Some may feel I’ve over-egged that by keeping it going, albeit at a reduced level, under the vocals. However, it just fit the narrative so well: the way the female dispatcher and the cop interact. They’re not flirting, exactly, but there’s a relationship there, I think, as the terse information is relayed back and forth with a smile in the voice.

Incidentally, if you like the track enough to want to download it, sling me an email address at venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll sign you up for the Inner Circle of my mailing list. This is not an onerous thing: you’ll get an email from me once a month or less about my various creative activities, and much less frequently, something like this with a download code.

But hurry – you’ve got until the end of September to download this particular dragonfly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, only adverts – and Jason Isbell’s brilliant original…

 

 

 

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The Microphone that turned into a Guitar: or, ten years a slave to acoustic

I had a microphone that turned into a guitar the other day. No, it’s true I tell you! Selling a surplus to requirements Røde M2, the only offer I got was from my old mucker Jeff Sniper, the epnonymous organiser of Jeffest: he had a Telecaster, and did I fancy a swap?

Did I not just! The last electric guitar I’d owned was ten years back, and it was a CMI (anyone heard of them?) Stratocaster  copy that I disposed of shortly after Tribute to Venus Carmichael got going. There were three key reasons why I’d got rid:

1. It wasn’t very good. The whammy bar was long gone. Some of the pickup positions didn’t work at all: I’d bought it off a guy in Dundee in the 80s for £40, and occasional attempts to get its electrics repaired had foundered;

2. Most obviously, the whole Venus Carmichael schtick was going to be built around plangent acoustic sounds, not soaring Hendrix style fuzz-soaked soloing (even if I’d been good enough to do that);

3. Tony Blair.

This last one perhaps needs more explanation: around that time, Blair had made it known by the usual media that he’d bought himself a red Strat. Now, in the interests of political balance, I should stress it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Blair, Alex Salmond, Paddy Ashdown or Iain Duncan Smith who’d made that announcement: it would still have pushed the poor old Strat out of any realms of cool it had once inhabited into the distinctly tepid. And yes, I know Blair had actually played in a band at Oxford, another fact he was somewhat desperately keen to play up. It was called Ugly Rumours, apparently. Yeah, I know.

To be fair, it wasn’t all about Blair. Although the Sainted Jimi had played one, other former guitar heroes who did had kind of gone down in my estimation in recent years: step forward Eric Clapton, who may have the status of deity to some, but whom I’d seen during his heroin years at Edinburgh’s Playhouse, and was sorely disappointed. Step forward, also, one Mark Knopfler, although I keep saying his reputation’s due a reappraisal. Then I listen to one of his solo albums.

(I should stress that some very fine guitar work has been, and continues to be, done, on Strats, including by Isaac Brutal’s lead guitarist, Graham Crawford. If you want a proper considered comparison between these two legends of Fender you could do worse than this one.)

The Telecaster, on the other hand, is espoused by Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. And, on my trip to Nashville in 2011, if I was in any doubt about its prominence in country music, the massive Tele in front of the Grand Ole Opry’s radio HQ was a bit of a clue.

And then, of course, there’s Dylan. I knew he’d favoured Telecasters on that fateful 1966 tour when he went electric: I’d even been moved to poetry about it:

 

 

 

Pictures with Meaning: Bob Dylan with Liverpool kids, 14 May 1966

Tiny rock jockey

coming up on the rails

the zeitgeist

riding his coattails

cup final afternoon in Liverpool

parents watching

Everton come back in black and white

the kids drawn

to the big car

the man

in a floppy hat

Feinstein fusses: at last they settle

suddenly still

jammed in a doorway

 

Pic: Barry Feinstein

Dylan stares

dead centre

of this grubby maelstrom

the kids

one hiding his laugh

one serious, buttoned up

one snot-sweet girl, mostly smile

 

two streets along,

a brick falls

worked loose on a bombsite

 

in three days

Dylan will die

when the folkies crucify him

then rise again

new electric god

playing it fucking loud

while the kids, oblivious

use jumpers for goalposts.

 

What I didn’t know until recently was that the one the Bobster used was, instead of the classic cream, black with a white pickguard, at Robbie Robertson’s request. The same guitar was up for auction this year, apparently. Robertson ended up owning it and playing it till the paint fell off and he had it sanded down to the wood: it sold at the auction for $490,000. Probably Tony Bloody Blair bought it, come to think of it.

Anyway, my guitar isn’t a Fender, and it ain’t going up for auction any time soon. Here she is: isn’t she a beaut? She’s a Harley Benton copy, and she’s even got the previous owner’s iconic Sniper logo on it. I’m not taking that off: I really like that she’s already had a history with another player, and I’m not wanting to wipe that history out.

 

Pic: Jeff Sniper

And yep, purely by chance it’s black with a white pickguard.

Anyhoo. How much will I play her? Not as much as the acoustics, unless Mr Brutal decides the third guitarist in the band needs to go electric any time soon. Venus Carmichael will still be founded on plangent acoustic backing, so you can hold back those shouts of ‘Judas!’ But…

When Jeff handed her over, he mentioned that she was a good guitar to write songs on, and one advantage of owning her for me is kind of the opposite of what you’d expect. Because already, I’ve had reason to crawl out of bed before the rest of the household with a song idea (most of these critters come to me first thing in the morning, and if I don’t tie them down in some way they just keep on going) and play the chords through unamplified, on the Tele. Much quieter than the acoustic if you don’t plug her in!

2008, which is kind of the year that this whole journey of changing from a fiction and poetry writer to a songwriter began, seems a long time ago in many ways. I do believe that people – and guitars – come into your life sometimes for good reason. I’m never going to be the next Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Robbie Robertson for that matter. But I’m still going strongly in that musical direction I set off on in 2008 (or, to be more accurate, a journey I restarted then) and I reckon being tooled up with a Tele isn’t going to do any harm.

So thank you, Jeff, and may the Røde be with you, and serve you well. We’re both travelling the same road (see what I did there) so, for us and other dreamers who find stuff gets in the way of that dream, here’s an inspirational story from Mr Robertson about that 1966 tour, when a black and white Telecaster guitar was all that stood between them and the uncomprehending world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here, but don’t let them detain you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Weekends in May (3): Bridge of Orchy

Executive Summary: I had a great time at a songwriting weekend in the Highlands, and you should totally buy this album as all proceeds go to Cancer Relief UK

What a summer so far! June might have been a bit mixed, but it’s heading into July on a high: and the heatwave before that, in May, was pretty special too. Which brings me to the last of my three remarkable weekends that month, when, between the 25th and the 28th, I joined a songwriting get-together in a ski lodge near Bridge of Orchy.

 

Hat to keep off the sun, surprisingly (pic: James Whyte)

A ski lodge? In May? Actually, in many ways, the venture was very like the story of the building of the lodge itself, which, apparently, had been a case of a bunch of people from Edinburgh who knew each other, and liked skiing in this bit of the Highlands, getting together and building the place by themselves. A massive, rambling place which featured basic-but-clean accommodation in wooden clad rooms, its main attractions for a bunch of like-minded songwriters getting together and building a songwriting weekend together were:

a) it was cheap;

b) it was cut off from most modern amenities like internet contact (although the poor mobile signal was a bit of a chore for a couple of our number who were expectant grandparents); and

c) it was set amidst stunning scenery, which, unusually for the Highlands, was clearly visible in blazing sunshine that weekend and not covered in a combination of rain, mist and clouds of midges.

I was really boosted to be asked to come along. The whole weekend had happened already last year, so I felt a little like the new kid on the block: the rest of the group consisted of some people I knew, and most who I didn’t, or had only glimpsed across a crowded gig venue. However, it quickly became apparent that I was amongst genial, like-minded company. Although the place would have been a perfect setting for a murder mystery where songwriters disappeared, dispatched in a series of increasingly ingenious, music-related methods, no-one seemed homicidal. At least openly. I made my call home on the Friday night and relaxed, already feeling the benefit of not being able to check social media.

The secondary purpose of the weekend was to record some live work, with Gerry Callaghan, one of the organisers, at the digital desk. Gerry, an accomplished singer-songwriter himself, is also a very talented engineer and producer, as I knew already from his work on Norman Lamont’s new album. The set up was in the big room where we ate, sat and did most of our workshop activities, of which more in a minute. On the Friday night, it was Norman Lamont and Tricia Thom’s turn: as you can hear here (the link takes you to the album of the weekend, of which, again, more later). Tricia has a fantastic voice, and her delivery of ‘Crying in the Street’ is simply stunning.

On the Saturday morning, Norman started us off with a mindfulness session: if any of you are groaning internally, this was definitely at the unfussy, non-pretentious end of that sort of thing. Sitting in the sun in the Highland landscape, eyes closed, listening to the sound of the water in the burn and Norman’s dulcet tones is, like many other things that weekend, an experience I wished I could put in a bottle.

Songwriters disporting themselves in a Highland landscape. Pic: Ali Graham Barclay

 

Next up, the first workshop. Norman had us pairing up and walking round the ruined house a hundred yards or so up the track from the lodge. This was a strange blot on the landscape: a relatively modern place that had been smashed up, it appeared deliberately. According to Callum Carlyle, further up into the woods there was a clearing surrounded by the remnants of police incident tape, so maybe the place was the perfect setting for a slice of Highland noir after all…

Back at the lodge, Norman had us reflecting on what we’d discussed between us at the ruined house, and writing haikus individually. I must admit there was a part of me that groaned internally – I thought I’d finished with writing poetry – but I knew Norman’s intention: there are few greater examples of compression acting as a spur to creativity than the strict rules around the haiku form. We duly produced a number of poems and then, suitably inspired, paired up again and set about writing songs, Norman giving us a simple chord progression to set us off.

One of my efforts at haiku, with the ruined house that inspired it

 

 

 

 

My songwriting partner, James Whyte, was one of the group who fell into the ‘seen across a crowded gig venue’ category in acquaintance terms: bass player in Norman’s band, he’s also a talented singer-songwriter who really should release more of his own material. However, his EP, Ship, is out there on Bandcamp.

Co-writing a song with someone you’d kind of just met properly was interesting, to say the least! However, it was a fascinating insight into another person’s creative process. In the Highland sunshine, with the sound of the burn babbling beneath our feet, it wasn’t such a bad way to spend an hour!

James in reflective mood at the burn. Pic: Gerry Callaghan

That night, after dinner, we abandoned our own songs for the evening and just jammed: all the singer-songwriter favourites you might expect came out (I remember Neil Young getting a good airing) and some you wouldn’t. It was a great way to kick back.

The songwriting workshop the next day took things to a new level. Norman had asked us all to bring along a couple of books, and we put these in the middle. Then, pairing up again, one of us came up with a chord progression while another sang from one of the books. Yes, that’s right: sang, from one of the books! You’d be surprised how good that sounded: it was a bit like improv, and some of the results were, actually, quite inspiring.

The book-singing session. Fiona Thom in full flow. Pic: James Whyte

Next up, we were to come up with ten song titles for songs we hadn’t written yet. I struggled a bit with this – the title of anything I do is generally the last thing I come up with – but there was a buzz round the table as we discussed each other’s lists, and expressed views on which ones we wanted to write/have written.

I’ve said to a couple of people since that, as everyone dispersed from the main room to write the song title they’d chosen, it would have been fascinating to have had an MRI scanner to hand to see what bits of our brains were lighting up, because it would have given boffins a fair view of what inspiration looks like. Of course, it might have spoiled the moment slightly for us all to have had to get loaded into an MRI…

As I walked out of the lodge to my favourite songwriting spot next to the burn, my brain was buzzing particularly with two thoughts: the chord progression Gerry had chosen, E through F#m and G#m to A, was one I’d previously thought of as a good start to a song; and the way Callum had put a conversational part of a novel to it had worked particularly well.

Originally, my idea was for a song in the Paul Simon/Suzanne Vega type of mould, with a couple of street-smart New York types trading bitchy comments with each other. My song title was ‘Clara Said, Yesterday,’ so Clara, clearly, had to get things started. She told the narrator she’d made the coffee far too strong; but then, before my narrator had a chance to come back with some whip-smart reply, Clara was chuntering on again, something about a recipe. At that point, the narrative started to change: this wasn’t a meeting of equals in some trendy loft apartment after all. I think I wrote the third verse, with its emotional punch, next: once I had that in place, the rest followed.

We got 45 minutes to write something. In the end, I had something, and it was a complete song I’d had no idea I was going to write before the book-singing session. When we returned to the lodge, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who’d been inspired: not all of the great songs written in that brief period have made it out there yet (Ed Ritchie’s ‘Bookends,’ for example) but there are a couple of them on the album: Calum’s ‘Uphill’; and Norman’s stunning ‘10 Objects’.

Did I say album? Yes, dear reader, because, even if you weren’t with us on the weekend, some of the magic was bottled, with the best of sessions from the aforesaid Norman and Tricia, Calum, Impossible Songs (the husband and wife team of John and Ali Graham Barclay), Ed and myself all being engineered, produced, mixed and mastered by the irrepressible Mr Callaghan into a digital album that you can download on Bandcamp right now. What’s more, the proceeds will go to Cancer Relief UK, so please give it a listen and download what you enjoy: there’s some great stuff on there.

Ed Ritchie, aka Dog On A Swing, being mixed and mastered by Gerry Callaghan (pic: James Whyte)

As you’ll have gathered by now, I had a blast, and hope to go next year. Final thanks are due to Fiona Thom (aka Ms Fi of Ms Fi and the Lost Headband) who, having recorded a session last year, sat out the recording this time, and contributed a very useful workshop on performance; and Sarah, Gerry’s wife, who masterminded a meal plan for us that maximised good food whilst minimising cost and the need for fussy cooking.

 

The songwriters’ dance. So relieved the cleaning up of the lodge at the end is done (pic: James Whyte)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here for stuff that won’t be half as good as that album!

Three Weekends in May (1) – ReimagiNation: Three Days in Glenrothes

As I said in my previous post, May was quite a month of weekends (the working week was pretty average, thanks for asking).

Let’s talk first, non-sequentially, about ReimagiNation, the Edinburgh Book Festival’s residency in our own New Town. It ran from Thursday 17th to Saturday 19th: and the Friday for me consisted of doing a reading from the The Wrong Box in the Rothes Halls at lunch time, and providing the music (with Venus Carmichael) at night for the ‘Whisky, Words and Music’ event.

As well as meeting lots of new people who said very nice things about my work, at the ‘Glenrothes: A New Day?’ event the next day I encountered one of my Mum’s best pals, 90 years old and still sharp as anything!

It’s always great to promote my book and get a gig, of course. However, to do it as part of a festival in the home town I’ve now spent most of my life in, and which has been so important to my family in so many ways, was, well, intense! It was particularly important to me to hear my Dad still being venerated as the town’s historian by so many people. In fact, that was what made it for me. Glenrothes has its critics, and it’s by no means perfect. But to hear so many of its residents talk about its good bits in positive terms – the garden city design, the sense of community, the remarkable collection of town art (currently sporting, somewhat mysteriously, purple ribbons) was really heartening.

I never meant to live here as long as I have, and I still plan to move to Edinburgh some day not too far away. The Festival did make me think though, what would the 17-year old me, the one who longed to bust out of town Springsteen-style, think of what I’d achieved?

Well, he might have been impressed I’d actually got a novel published, and I was playing in not one, but two, gigging bands that play original material. Of course, he was an ambitious little bugger, so he’d have probably been expecting me to be playing the Albert Hall by now… and he would’ve been disgusted that, in amongst all of this, I had to be in the office on Saturday morning, clearing through the emails.

And the fact I was still in Glenrothes, at the tender age of 55? I’ll take the Fifth on that one. Meantime, here’s a piece I did as part of the Glenrothes Digital Storytelling project earlier in the year, a really fantastic thing that was helmed by the endlessly affable and patient Dan Brown (no, not that Dan Brown…)

 

 I’d love to hear back from you if you have your own thoughts about that sort of thing. What would the 17 year old you have thought of where you are now? Could they have even imagined it?

 

Tribute to Venus Carmichael with, right, our spoken word reader for the night, Jayne Russell. Pic courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Me and Bob Dylan: Or, a case of mistaken identity

I wasn’t absolutely sure until he spoke.

‘Excuse me,’ came that voice like sand and glue, ‘Do you know if they stock fresh turmeric?’

I have to say, the chances of coming across the Greatest Living Songwriter in the fruit and vegetable aisle – or indeed, any other aisle, up to and including the meat counter – of our local branch of Morrison’s, might seem astronomical. Indeed, you might consider all of this a tall tale, and I could hardly blame you.

And yet there he was, as large as life, and looking for fresh turmeric.

‘They did stock it for a while, but I’ve not seen it recently. Not much demand for it in Glenrothes, I suspect,’ I said, trying to act as if encountering international recording artists – not to say long-term heroes – loitering near the parsnips in a Fife supermarket was part of my everyday experience. ‘Do you use it a lot?’

‘Yeah, for sure,’ Dylan said, suddenly looking animated. ‘Do you know the kind of health benefits they say that stuff has?’

By sheer chance, I had been reading recently of the putative merits of the roots of Curcuma longa, but, fearing my show of insouciance was about to crumble, I just shrugged and shook my head. Dylan smiled, like a man happy to find another convert to his latest beliefs.

‘Man, you gotta get some of it,’ he said. ‘It’s argued by many to be the most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease. Its many proven benefits,’ he chuntered on, with a use of syntax raising the suspicion of direct quotation from some website or other, ‘include the slowing and prevention of blood clots, reducing symptoms of depression, fighting inflammation, boosting the immune system, promoting skin health, and even reducing or preventing many common forms of cancer. I mean,’ he concluded, moving a little sideways to allow a fellow shopper to get access to the celeriac, ‘I’ve been on it for 6 months, and look at me!’

I looked at him. He looked like a scruffy seventy-something with questionable dress sense and the kind of three day stubble that only looks good on the likes of George Clooney. He also, unquestionably, looked the dead spit of Bob Dylan.

He clearly had much more to get off his chest on the topic of turmeric. ‘Another study suggests..’ he said, but I had heard enough. ‘Look, Bob,’ I said. ‘You are Bob Dylan, aren’t you?’

‘I go by many names…’ he started to say, but I cut across him. ‘I’ve just one question for you, as a long term fan. When are you going to stop doing all these Sinatra covers and get back to the good stuff?’

It was out before I could help myself. I looked at Dylan as he rocked back on his heels, surprised at the vehemence of my tone perhaps. Then his eyes narrowed. ‘Wait a minute. You don’t work for CBS, do you? Those bastards are always trying to get me to dial back on the American Standards. Well, you can tell them from me…’

‘No, no!’ By this time, we had, jostled by other shoppers in search of various types of root vegetables, ended up in a far corner of the store by the less popular end of the deli counter. Overcome with guilt at upsetting my hero, I outlined to him my early devotion to him, bordering on fanaticism in my student years, now tempered into a more mellow appreciation of his absolute mastery of the songwriting craft.

I may have gone on a bit. ‘Okay, enough already,’ he said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘Let’s see how true a fan you are. Favourite Blonde on Blonde song?’

‘Visions of Johanna,’ I countered easily.

‘Hmm, pretty good. Favourite live album?’

‘Well, I started out on Budokan, but I still think Hard Rain is greatly underrated,’ I said.

‘Hmm,’ he said again, stroking his chin and casting an appreciative eye over Morrison’s range of prepared pizzas in the chiller cabinet behind him. ‘You’re right. It is greatly underrated. Okay. You seem like a decent fellow that’s not going to share secret information with the world at large, so, just between us, I’ll tell you why I’m doing all this Sinatra nonsense.’ He glanced left and right, but it was just us and the pizzas. ‘It’s a contractual obligation to my real employer, the Devil.’

‘Say again?’

‘You’ve heard of Robert Johnson, right? Going down to the crossroads to trade his soul for musical ability?’ I nodded. ‘Well, I out Johnsoned Johnson, man. I been to those crossroads twice.’

‘What d’you mean, Bob?’

His eyes took on a faraway look. ‘Well, you know, all those years ago … 1961 was the first time. Came up to New York and realised I couldn’t play guitar half as well as Dave Van Ronk and all these other folksingers at the Gaslight. So I took myself down to those crossroads. All I wanted was the guitar chops: but Old Nick, he threw in some songwriting ability, too. There was just one condition.’

A passing shopper gave us a curious look as she reached for the barbecue chicken with cheese combo 12 inch, before heading off  back towards the soft fruit.

‘One condition?’

‘Yeah. He insisted I worked my way through all the genres. He was very clear about that. It’s why I had to keep changing styles throughout my career: folk, rock, blues, country… by the early Eighties I’d just about run out of genres, so I asked him about gospel. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘go for it.’ Dangerous strategy on his part, of course. Before I knew it I’d got in a situation with one of my backing singers, who was religiously inclined, and she got me to renounce the Devil and all his works. Safe to say he wasn’t best pleased about it.’

Things were beginning to dawn on me. ‘So that explains your mid-Eighties career slump. You lost the ability to write a decent song.’

Dylan nodded grimly. ‘Yep. Totally blocked. Wasn’t till I went down to New Orleans to record that album with Lanois, Oh Mercy, that I could get back down to those crossroads and rework the deal. Even then, it took a while to get the songwriting back in the package.’

‘You’re telling me,’ I said. ‘Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong…

He gave me the kind of look only a Greatest Living Songwriter can give you when you’ve overstepped the mark. ‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe I didn’t have the best lawyer in the world, what with the Devil having the best of them.’

I nodded, guiltily. ‘Sure, Bob. Sorry…’

‘Well, things got back on track, with albums like Time Out of Mind. Then Old Nick, he started hassling me about doing American Standards. I mean, those Rat Pack guys – Frankie, Dino, Sammy and the rest – they were his people, man. So I’ve been stuck with doing them ever since.

‘That’s why I need to keep going on the turmeric, see. I’ve just about fulfilled my contractual obligations on these crooner favourites with him, so if I can keep myself healthy enough for long enough, I can go back to the good stuff before I go down into the flames. Plus I’ve just hired a new lawyer who thinks he’s found a get out clause.’

I could tell my time with the Greatest Living Songwriter was coming to an end: mainly by the way he was edging away from me in the direction of the speciality cheeses. I was racking my brains for something short and pithy that would encapsulate my undying admiration for his life’s work, only enhanced now by knowledge of his very real battles with his inner and outer demons. However, he had his own parting statement ready.

‘Uh, I really like that ballad you did about me, by the way. Very good. All that shifting perspective stuff. I approve.’

‘Eh?’

‘You know. ‘Twenty miles away, in a high-security hospital…’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘You’re confusing me with my friend, the singer-songwriter Norman Lamont. It’s his song. I’m still waiting to write something that good. By the way, do you have an address for those crossroads?’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see down here. Not even a crossroads.

At Long Last: Final Days

One needed the vocals up a bit. One needed an extra scrub of acoustic guitar; another needed more dynamic drums. And one, ‘Rollercoaster,’ needed dropped altogether.

Finally, though, my new album, Final Days, is done. I never knew I could be quite so painstaking. It’s taken over a year and a half, in between other projects, to get it over the line. And the final 9 new songs (I’m so used to playing the bonus track as part of Isaac Brutal, I almost think of it as a cover version) have come from a winnowing down of about double that, probably.

Here’s the last track as a taster: a little bit of uplift to counter the album’s title track. It was the one that needed that extra acoustic guitar: I had no idea, and still have no idea, why it took multiple takes to get down a simple D to A strummed chord change, but it did!

For the story behind the songs, mosey over to the Final Days page using the tab at the top of my site. You can download the tracks for free from Soundcloud, or contact me on venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll send you the CD, post and everything else free. You can even join my inner circle of email followers and get bonus tracks and more free stuff!

All I ask in return is you donate to charity: there’s a couple of suggestions on the permanent page.

I’ve also had a bit of fun with the artwork. There’s always a picture of the bozo making the music somewhere on any album, and I guess my original idea was something like the cover of ‘Street Legal,’ with Dylan at a street corner looking elegantly boho. I couldn’t resist this picture of me in Madrid the Redoubtable Mrs F took, though, somewhere between Calle Atocha and Plaza de Santa Ana. Someone had decided to put a saying of Confucius up there: translated, it reads: ‘I heard, and I forgot; I saw, and I understood; I did, and I learned.’

That pretty much sums up the making of the album!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down here are adverts for random stuff. But if you’ve got the album, why would you need them?

Robert Burns and the Black Keys: or, The Clerk’s Revenge

Scottish Icons: Robert BurnsWarning: if you’re a big fan of Robert Burns, look away now

I’ve never really quite got Burns the way I think I should, as a Scotsman. It’s a bit like me and whisky (the two, of course, often go hand in hand): I understand the attraction in theory, and I’m really happy about the contribution to the Scottish export industry they make, but still. I don’t know.

I have tried to like Robert Burns  – and whisky for that matter. When I was in fourth year at secondary school I won a Latin speaking competition (I know! Rock and Roll!) and used my prize, a book token, to buy my own copy of  his Poems and Songs. I still have it: it’s a nice edition, in a kind of faux-leather binding.

Anyhoo, for the non-Scots and/or non-Burns fans amongst you, Rabbie (as he’s often called by his adherents) lived from 1759 – 1796, and packed a lot of stuff into those 36 and a bit years. He was, variously, labourer, farmer, father of several illegitimate children, exciseman (a kind of tax collector) Freemason, proto-socialist, proto-nationalist, and darling of Edinburgh society. He also found time to scribble down a few poems and songs. Ok, ok, a lot of them, some of which are classics. His birthday on 25th January is celebrated worldwide by Scots, Scots expats, and others (the Russians, in particular, are fans) by eating lots of haggis, drinking lots of whisky, and doing lots of speechifying about him.

No, I do like Burns. Honestly. Some of his stuff, anyway, like the long narrative poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter,’ which, when recited by the right performer, is simply stunning. I’ve always wanted to do a punk version of ‘Parcel of Rogues.’ Some of the rest of his work, frankly, I find over-sentimental, personally. I suppose the date I got Poems and Songs – 1978 – is significant: if you had to choose a year when the best of Old Rock was still around, locked in hand to hand combat with Punk and New Wave, it might well be that one. Burns’s poetry and music, by comparison, seemed to be the stuff of old men crying into their pint in the pub I wasn’t – technically at least – old enough to get into then.

All that said, there was one of his tunes – variously called ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ and ‘Banks o’ Doon’ that I always thought was just a great melody. Burns’s words,  a woman’s lament for a false lover set in agreeable scenery, not so much. Recently, though, the tune resurfaced in my subconscious, broke the surface of my conscious, and I wrote some alternative words to it, of which more presently. But then, doing a bit of research for this article, I came across something of a revelation. Robert Burns didn’t write the melody!

I suppose I’d always wondered whether the tune was a Burns original. Not unusually for the time, Rabbie used traditional ‘Scotch’ airs to set his words to; indeed, some of his songs’ lyrics are ‘trad, arr. Burns,’ as he took old sets of words, often cleaning them up for polite society in the same way that a lot of old blues songs had the sexual element toned down for wider publication. Nothing wrong with that. Looking at the text in my copy of Poems and Songs, I see that it says, ‘Tune: Caledonian Hunt’s Delight,‘ which probably gave me the idea that it was a traditional tune, perhaps hummed by be-kilted warriors to their tiny warrior children in the shieling as Edward I’s forces marched past to certain defeat at Bannockburn just down the road.

The truth, as so often, is a bit more complicated. The melody first came to general notice when it featured in Niel Gow’s collection of Reels. Gow, a contemporary of Burns (1727 – 1807) was  – and still is – considered one of the greatest folk music violinists, or fiddlers, of all time. But Gow didn’t write it either. In his collection, it’s attributed to ‘Mr Miller of Edinburgh.’ So who was he, then?

According to tunearch.org, he was James Miller, a ‘writer’ (in this historical context a lawyer specialising in property law) who was clerk in the Teind (obscure Scots property thing – don’t ask for more detail) Office in Edinburgh. Not a be-kilted warrior, or even a Mrs be-kilted warrior. Except maybe on the weekends.

Here’s where Burns steps in. History may be written by the victors, but musical history is, often, written by the celebs. Here’s Burns in a letter to his publisher, Thomson, as quoted on tunearch:

Do you know the history of the air—It is curious enough.—A good many yeas ago a Mr. Jas. Miller,… was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air.-Mr. Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air.-Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr. Miller produced the rudiments of a air, which Mr. Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question… [quoted in The Life and Works of Robert Burns, 1896, by Robert Burns].

Now, maybe it’s just my being a fellow property lawyer – and clerk, for that matter, although we did away with teinds, finally, a few years ago. But I smell snobbery here: the inverse snobbery of the rock and roll lifestyler for the humble plodder; and, worse still, musical snobbery. The sub-text seems to be: ‘here was this bozo, wanting to write a Scots tune, so my old mucker Clarkey tells him to use the black keys of the harpsichord! What a joker! Wouldn’t you know, kind of monkeys-with-typewriters thing happens, and this poor booby comes up with something half decent? Of course, the Clarkester needs to do quite a bit of tidying up, and there we go…’

Is it just me? Probably. But it’s significant that, from Miller getting sole authorship credits in Gow’s musical collection, a modern day site like tunearch credits the tune to ‘James Miller and Stephen Clarke.’

Well, I say, sod that. Miller’s my kind of bloke, and I reckon he should get the credit he deserves. Black keys, indeed! If it’s as I think it is, the black keys on the harpsichord correspond to those on the piano, and the only tune you could get out of them is the one for the Flake advert (try it out on a keyboard near you, if you don’t believe me). Jimmy Miller did it all by himself, and Burns and his organ-playing monkey can go and get raffled.

Which brings me to my lyrics, which, frankly, owe far more in inspiration to Mr L. Cohen, of Montreal, than Mr R. Burns, of Alloway. It may upset some traditionallists, so if I’m found, my innards carved up like a haggis, bearing the bruises of a blunt instrument like a faux-leather volume of poems, you know where to start looking.

But even if you don’t like the words, you can at least appreciate the violin playing of Ms J Kerr, of Kirkcaldy, my colleague, friend, and contemporary. Niel Gow, at least, would be pleased.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Bet Burnsy didn’t have to put up with that on his blog.

Discovering your inner Plant, and other musical journeys

Image result for meredith belbin

Meredith Belbin. Bit of a rocker, apparently.

Anyone who, like me, has a day job featuring the pleasures of middle management, or even just belongs to an organisation that had cash to splash on an away day in the last thirty years, will have probably heard of the Belbin Team Roles. Invented by the eponymous management theorist, the general sketch is that we all fit into one (or more usually) of nine moulds in terms of our role within a teamwork environment.

This isn’t the same as a set of personality types: instead, it focuses on what our approach to team work is. Grossly oversimplifying, the best type of team contains a spread of people with different attributes: having a whole bunch of, for example, Monitor Evaluators and nothing else in your team, would generally be a Bad Thing.

The nine roles are set out here, if you’re interested. However, the only reason I’ve brought it up is that the Redoubtable Mrs F was asked to complete a Belbin questionnaire recently; it made me look up the old stuff out of curiosity again; and it reminded me that, to my great disappointment, when I did the test about ten years ago, I wasn’t a Plant.

To be honest, I can’t remember what I was; a mixture of things, I think, with a vague tint of vegetation; but what self-styled writer and musician doesn’t want to fit into the definition of a Plant? ‘Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways.’ Nope. Not me. Not in a work context, anyways, it seems.

Well, when working on the latest of the tracks – or reworking it, I should say – for my next solo effort, I’d like to think I was a bit bit more of a Plant than, say, a Co-ordinator (‘Needed to focus on the team’s objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately.’)

In fact, a bit more of a Robert Plant.

Image result for robert plant

Robert Plant. Not big on management theory, apparently.

Now, this is in no way to compare my vocal talents to the Golden-Maned One, currently drawing plaudits for his new album, Carry Fire. I’m no more him than I’m Jimmy Page on guitar. However, having completed the stripped down version of the track in question back in the autumn, as previously blogged about, I had put it aside to see how it developed. And then, quite recently, as I woke up one weekend morning, a melody came to me that fitted not just over the verse, but the chorus as well.

I tried really hard not to make it a flute part. Honestly. It just seemed too … well, too Led Zeppelin-era, really, what with all the lyrics about the Ninth Legion, an acoustic guitar in double-drop D, all that reverb on the singy bits… but try as I might with other synth voicings, I couldn’t make it work any other way.

So I decided to embrace my inner Plant, and hope you can too.  Imagine you can time travel, and transport yourself back to, oh, let’s say, 1973. In Glenrothes, Fife, the 11 year old me is reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. In Fife, it’s probably raining. Meanwhile, in a sunny late summer field in Sussex, a hirsute young rock god is tuning down both E strings, while a willowy girl in a paisley pattern dress is mucking about on a wind instrument. The bearded one finishes his tuning, cocks an ear, and starts to improvise. Overhead, thunder begins to build a static charge around them, like a psychic crucible.

(The other track I’ve put up with it isn’t quite so epic in scale, but I’m reasonably pleased with it. It just happened to reach the same stage of completion around the same time. Usual rules apply – free to download if you like it, but think of giving something to a refugee charity if you do).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertising below here is put up by WordPress, not me. Stick it to The Man and ignore it…

 

Musical Advent Calendar Day 24: Bruce Springsteen – Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town/Mariah Carey – All I want for Christmas

I’m not a great fan of the modern, non-geographical, use – or over-use – of the word ‘journey,’ to describe a period of personal development of some kind. So I’m going to call this month’s musical advent calendar a trip instead.

It’s not been without its dilemmas (and one discovery has been how to spell that word). Each piece of music carries with it some sort of freight: I haven’t consciously tried to be unduly ‘cool’ in my choices, but, for example, there’s not been any Abba, when there clearly could have been.

Beyond that, though, the songs and the act of choosing them have stirred up memories, almost all good, of various things: events and periods in my life I associate them with; gigs I’ve been to; but most of all, the familial and other relationships they evoke.

Frozen Spider’s Web in Fife, earlier this year

I write this morning from our flat in Edinburgh, where we’re spending Christmas with Daughter and Heiress. It’s the first time we’ve done that: and yet, even though we still live full time in Fife, coming here still feels like coming home. Who knows, this could be the start of a new Christmas tradition for us…

…and as daylight slowly breaks over stormy, red-edged skies, I know that the rest of my small but perfectly formed family are gathering together elsewhere. In Canberra, my brother and his wife will be preparing for their two sons coming round, along with my younger nephew’s girlfriend; my sister’s in London with her Son Number 2 and his girlfriend; my older nephew will be with his wife, his own daughter and heiress, and his in-laws near Stirling. And wherever we are, I know two things: we’ll be raising a glass to those missing, and there will be music of some kind going on.

I’ve always considered myself the least musical of my siblings: I mean, they’ve both got Grade 107 or whatever in proper instruments like piano, violin and viola, and sing in choirs. I’ll never be much more than an average guitar player, and my singing’s not really up to much. But music, this month has taught me if I hadn’t known before, is a part of me. It’s been the soundtrack to my happiest moments; it’s kept me going through the most laborious of workaday chores; and in my darkest times, it’s been my salvation.

Grandpa Anderson’s Christmas Rose Pics: Alison Ferguson

So of whatever religion or none, celebrating the winter solstice or the longest summer day south of the Equator, I hope Bruce, Clarence and the rest of the band soundtrack a great day for you all, and thanks for listening!

I could have left it there. But Mariah Carey is a guilty pleasure. Yeah I know it’s cheesy, and she’s a total diva etc etc, but that joy in her voice when she hits the final top note: you can’t tell me that was a chore for her. You can act all cool and say, huffily, ‘well, I was going to give him Springsteen, but Mariah Carey! ‘ sake…’ all you like. I bet you click on the vid when no-one’s watching.

Last chance to donate to the Myanmar Red Cross Appeal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’ll be selling you stuff down here. Why not wait and see what’s under the tree for you

Musical Advent Calendar Day 21: Randy Newman – Political Science

Image result for winterval

Winterval in Waterford.

As we inch (so it seems this year) ever closer to the Big Day, I keep thinking, I should really start doing something a bit more festive. And I have done – well, sort of. There was the Prince track last Friday to get you gee’d up for your office parties. And … errr … Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ had the word ‘red’ in it, and that’s a Christmas colour?

Anyway, here’s a song I’ve loved for decades about the US blowing up the rest of the world, so suck it up!

Seriously, Randy Newman is an under-appreciated songwriter. I don’t think he minds too much, as he has a side line scoring major Hollywood movies, which presumably keeps the wolf from the door: since you ask, Wikipedia tells me –

“His film scores include Ragtime, Awakenings, The Natural, Leatherheads, Cats Don’t Dance, Meet the Parents, Cold Turkey, and Seabiscuit. He has scored eight DisneyPixar animated films: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Cars, Toy Story 3, Monsters University, and Cars 3, as well as Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and James and the Giant Peach.

Newman has received twenty Academy Award nominations in the Best Original Score and Best Original Song categories and has won twice in the latter category. He has also won three Emmys, six Grammy Awards, and the Governor’s Award from the Recording Academy.[3]”

He wrote this, by the way, in 1972. Thank goodness it’s lost its topicality.

What? Oh really? Still a thing? Sorry, American chums. I know you’re on the side of the angels.

 

Yeah, I know, I say this every time. But really, these guys the military regime have kicked out of Myanmar who are living in refugee camps could use some help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts below here. Buy stuff before America drops the big one!