andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: music and writing

Free (Blind) Willie (McTell) ! Or, an introduction to Dylanology

So, you’re a fan of the wee man from Minnesota, and  you’re thinking of getting the December issue of Uncut for the free CD of Dylan tracks from his bootleg series. Is it worth it?

Well, for starters, you’d better get your skates on, because Uncut’s peculiar publication schedule means, although we’re only half way through November, the issue featuring the Bobster is already being replaced on the newsagent shelves by the January 2019 one! Of course, my colleague, friend and joint investor in Uncut manicpopthrills (we buy issues turn about and pass them on – canny Scottish tip for you all!) would grumble that another issue with Dylan on the front will be along in a minute, but let’s ignore him for now and focus on the December CD.

Actually, whether it’s worth it or not is really down to how much of a Dylan completist you are. If, like me, you’re something of a lapsed believer, there are some things of interest here: a reminder that, however dreary some of his deity-bothering material was in the 80s, he at least had the sense to hire the best of touring bands (a rocking version of Slow Train); nice too, to hear again the way he ramped up gentle folkie ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on the Rolling Thunder tour; and an outtake from one of my favourite albums, Oh Mercy, ‘Born in Time,’ which is kind of in the category of ‘good but I can see why he left it off.’

I really wonder though about all these old guys bringing out multiple outtakes, retakes, forgotten reggae versions and so on. Dylan’s a serial offender here: I noted with amazement that his Bootleg series, a rolling record of ‘official,’ cleaned up releases to counter the tsunami of bootleg versions that he’s been subject to over the decades has reached number 14. This included Volume 12, The Cutting Edge, which, in its limited-edition 18-disc Collector’s Edition incarnation, contains ‘…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.’ Take a week off work to listen.

Dylan isn’t alone, of course. The Beatles (or at least those with the relevant rights) and the Stones have been raiding their archives for years. Others like Pink Floyd aren’t far behind. It’s a lucrative venture, and you can see what’s in it for the record companies.

But, really, do you need 16 different takes of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ when you’ve got the one Dylan and Bob Johnson plumped for? Some artists, of course, are no longer with us, and there’s much to be plundered from Prince’s Vault that would be worth a listen, given how prolific the other little guy from Minnesota was. And then again…

Then again there’s the story of that nearly-lost Dylan classic, ‘Blind Willie McTell…’

1983, and Dylan’s emerging from his aformentioned born-again phase, engaging Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie, ex-Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and one Mark Knopfler, resting between Dire Straits albums, as producer of what will become Infidels. It’s an okay album, certainly better than the dirge-like gospel that went before, not to mention the dross that follows it up until Lanois drags Dylan off to New Orleans and makes Oh Mercy with him. However, what’s on Infidels isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s not on it.

At some point during the recording sessions, Dylan sits down at the piano, with Knopfler picking up an acoustic guitar. Perhaps with those two humungous talents together alone in the room it’s not surprising that magic happens, but boy, does it happen in bucketloads. His Bobness is later to claim that it was a demo version so the rest of the band could learn it, but Dylan only knows why that didn’t happen. There’s another take out there in the ether with Taylor on slide, but it’s the Dylan/Knopfler version that starts to circulate in bootleg form amongst the faithful.

This seems to put Dylan in such a huff that he refuses to release it, or indeed even play it live, for years, and is quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone interview: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.'”

So, an unfinished masterpiece, then, Bob? Certainly a lot of people see ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as one of the little fella’s best. In a style that’s now called Americana, the vivid imagery  of chain gangs, slavery ships, and bootlegged (ironically enough) whiskey paints a lyrical picture of a lost South that Dylan builds, verse by verse, his trademark croak betraying a rising passion as the song progresses. His own idiosyncratic piano and Knopfler’s subtle guitar accompaniment somehow work as the perfect sonic backdrop to the words.

A note here for Dylanologists – there’s been a debate amongst aficionados ever since the song emerged as to why the Bobster chose Blind Willie McTell for the refrain of ‘Ain’t nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell…’ when the real life McTell was actually quite a cheery sort of song and dance man who played ragtime as much as blues. Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, really, really could sing the blues. The answer, I think, is no more complicated than, as any songwriter knows, there’s a lot more words rhyme with ‘McTell’ than ‘Johnson.’

Why is this song so good? You might not agree, of course, but one reason I think this version’s so revered amongst fans is because it’s not overproduced, or overthought. I was talking to my friend and fellow songwriter Martin McGroarty about this the other night: when a song is newly forged, fresh from the furnace, those first few performances when you’ve just written it hold something special that you never get back. There’s a freshness to it, an emotion in the voice, that can come across no matter how primitive the recording method.

By a coincidence, I was out seeing a Dylan tribute band on Friday night. Yeah, I know: I don’t make a habit of it. ‘Bob’ himself seemed a bit off his game: maybe it was him starting the first song of the show with the wrong harmonica that threw him, the way it can. Could have done without all the chat from the bass player, who seemed to feel it necessary to share with us at one point that he wasn’t much of a Dylan fan himself. The guitarist was great, though: and if ‘Bob’ got the lyrics of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a bit, well, tangled up, he clearly was an aficionado, and his song choices, including ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ were totally sound. Shame my home town, by the size of the audience, isn’t stuffed with fellow Dylan fans.

On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Nowt to do with me matey

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Back On Song(writing)

Ferguson Common Good LawA strange weight lifted off me the other day. I finished writing the second edition of my law book, and felt this overwhelming sense of release when I pressed ‘send’ to my publisher with the manuscript.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel deeply, deeply grateful that I’ve been given an opportunity to write not one, but two editions of Common Good Law. I have supportive colleagues in Scottish local authorities up and down the land encouraging me; a wonderful editor/publisher, Margaret, at Avizandum; and generous organisations who have agreed to give the necessary financial backing to such a niche venture.

More, I still feel slightly stunned that the first edition sold so well – 300 copies for such a, well, really niche area of the law is pretty good going, and, given the topic is mainly of interest to councils and there are only 32 of them, about 268 more than I expected.

Back in 2006, when the first edition came out, I was as pleased as punch; and next February/March, which is the scheduled publication date for what I’m trying to persuade Margaret she should call Common Good II: Revenge of the Sith, I’ll warrant I’ll be pretty much as the dog with two tails, too.

But things have changed since 2006.

First and most obviously to me, I’m 12 years older. Going over the original manuscript, I was struck at how… jocular the tone was, in as much as a legal textbook can be. In the original preface, I talk about title deeds having an aura of ‘mystery and romance;’ I even speculate whether I was asleep in the lecture that the subject of the book came up in at University, since I’d never heard of it before I joined a local authority.

These don’t constitute a bundle of bellylaughs, I appreciate, but even they struck me as a bit on the … well, racy side for a law book. Some of the other bits of jollity I found myself editing out this time round: maybe the intervening years have made me more of an Eeyore than a Tigger. Although I kept the line in about the Luftwaffe carrying out environmental improvements to Scotland’s urban landscape.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe Western culture, with its 24/7 Twitter spats, increasingly polarised positions and a whole new level of political correctness, is just a little bit grimmer than it was in 2006. I can now imagine someone taking offence at the Luftwaffe gag.

Anyhoo. The whole thing for me was, much as there was some level of intellectual stimulation in rewriting the original book to take account of 12 years’ worth of cases and legislation, I resented the couple of months’ spare time it took, because it meant my music had to take a back seat.

And, leaving aside the big life events in those intervening years (like losing both parents), that’s one change I didn’t anticipate.

Back in 2006, years spent in the Boondocks of Fife had meant I’d focused on writing, at first on my own, and then increasingly in collaboration with others. I’d already had a co-written history book published, not to mention the dozens of short stories and poems that had flowered, briefly, in various magazines and anthologies. Since the early 2000s, I’d taken to performance spoken word with my buddies in Writers’ Bloc. But still…

Despite all those years of it being firmly kicked to the back of the dream cupboard, my dream of being a singer-songwriter in the Bruce Dylansteen mould kept finding its way to the front. 2008, my first Free Fringe shows, saw the emergence of that mysterious alter ego, Venus Carmichael. Various combinations of music and words followed – I remember an Unbound night at the Book Festival in particular as a key moment of realisation that, actually, the standing on stage with a guitar and other musicians bit was far more fun than the spoken word bit – and then, a couple of years further on, I got my chance to join that merry band of country punkers Isaac Brutal, and the music bug bit hard.

But those of you who know me, or have read blogs of mine in a similar vein, will know this already. What’s news to me is that there’s no way back now. The dream of being a writer has reached a plateau I’m happy to be on (ironically enough, after Revenge of the Sith there might be another, history-based, book in the offing, as a publisher has shown an interest) and the only way forward for me is combining words with music.

So, for the next couple of weeks before I’m due to turn in the history-based thing (fortunately something else I prepared earlier, years ago) the only writing you’ll be seeing from me will be right here. Otherwise, I intend to spend as much of my free time as I can performing, practising, collaborating on, and most of all making, music. The computer keyboard I’m typing on right now will once more assume its rightful place – perched atop a proper Korg keyboard, so that I can, at all times, fire up some synth sounds and dive right in, headphones on, clumsily splaying untutored hands across the black and whites.

I also intend to spend more time with my guitars the same way politicians plan to spend more time with their families: cradling them, lavishing attention on them, tugging at their heart strings (that analogy could have gone so wrong there…). My most recently adopted baby, the Telecaster copy, has been sulking in the corner of the dining room mostly since I acquired her, but I know that even my limited abilities can coax great sounds from her.

Where will it take me? I’ve no idea. I’m no longer the 19-year-old kid in his first band at University, dreaming of super-sized stadia and all the attendant perks of a rock n’ roll lifestyle. I’m realistic. I may play no more glamorous venues than Henry’s, the Edinburgh dive bar where the excellent sound people are slightly offset by the furniture that is well, frankly, sticky. And don’t even mention the toilets they share with the Chinese restaurant upstairs…

However it turns out, you can count on me blathering on about it here. It may be the only type of writing I do beyond songwriting from here on in. Stay tuned!

Image may contain: 2 people, people on stage, people standing and indoor

Tribute to Venus Carmichael in full flow, Wednesday, 7th November (pic: manicpopthrills)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing but boring advertising stuff down below here

 

Rip It Up – And Start Again?

Just while I work up the next travel blog, here’s something else I started on earlier…

Rip It Up Poster illuminates the douce museum decor

To the National Museum of Scotland, then, for ‘Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop,’ an exhibition running now until 25th November. Well worth a visit, although bring your piggy bank, because it’s £10/£8 to get in. I suppose it’s been a while since I paid to get into an exhibition, and there’s one hell of a lot of Scottish musical history crammed in, to be sure.

For anyone put off by the ‘Pop’ term, rest assured the displays range from out and out pop stars like Lulu and Bay City Rollers through rock in its various levels of heaviness, to the indie of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie et al and the post rock of Mogwai. There’s even more modern formats such as hip hop represented by Edinburgh’s Young Fathers.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way right off. Not everyone that everyone would want represented as key Scottish pop/rock whatever icons is in there. Indeed, my mate Harky, who worked on the exhibition as part of his job at the Museum, told me that significant parts of his time at the ticket desk has been spent explaining to bolshie musos why so and so, or such and such a band, aren’t represented when they were so integral/important/influential etc. Lay off him, musos! There are any number of reasons why folk aren’t in there, including because they asked not to be. So there.

Of those that are, I didn’t really see any major omissions: but then I’m not a muso.  Some people might claim, indeed, that the likes of Rod Stewart (Scottish Dad and well-known predilection to act Scottish) and AC/DC (mostly emigrated to Oz at an early age) aren’t, well, Scottish enough, but, hell,  I’ll take ’em. Many of the others scarpered over the Border as soon as they could and never looked back, although that was very often because it was the only place you could land a decent record deal back in the day.

One band I would love to have seen in there, simply because they produced such great stuff before, it would appear, disappearing almost without trace, was all-girl Glasgow band His Latest Flame, but as I say, I’m not complaining. Here they are in full flow, in case you’ve never heard of them.

To be honest, I’ve always thought that Scotland was distinctly under-represented in the broader rock n’ roll world, and it was actually kind of emotional for me to see just how much great talent there was, and continues to be, from my home patch. Definitely an exhibition worth seeing if you’re in town. Fay Fife’s dress (lead singer/songwriter/theremin player with punk band the Rezillos, and with post punk band the Revillos, she assumed her nom de guerre because she was, er, fae Fife) is worth the admission money alone!

One could go on about the many Scottish musicians that have made their appointment with the Grim Reaper all too early. However, I’m not sure that, statistically, it’s any worse than pop and rock musicians generally. We certainly have some noticeable survivors, including the aforesaid Sir Rodney, and others such as Annie Lennox.

It was strange, emerging from the visual and aural assault of this exhibition, to the calm contemplation and glass-case living death of the regular museum exhibits. I plan to do my level best to ensure that the story of Scottish rock and roll is only just beginning, and it’s not just something for the archaeologists.

So, is there a definitive Scottish sound? It’s more an attitude of mind, for me, one that embraces the miracle of life and love, although at the same time, the melancholy. There’s a darkness which is never far away, even from the poppiest moments. And humour. Although sometimes the humour’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

Daughter and Heiress at the Museum. Not an exhibit yet.

I don’t know there’s a single song that represents all of that. However, since I mentioned this exhibition to a couple of non-Scottish people, the same name came back as the first one they thought of: and although they may not do it for everyone, they were a fine band in their time: the Blue Nile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just adverts down here. Go see the exhibition and get off your phone!

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…

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For non-local adverts, look below here

 

 

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.