andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

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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.

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An Encounter in Mérida: Fellow Travellers

Another extract from what may turn into a book on Spain…

The fact the quiet American had reached such a relatively obscure place as Mérida gave him, using my admittedly somewhat arbitrary points system, a double bonus for effort. That, and the way he kept claiming to be Brazilian.

We’ve actually met very few English-speaking folk on our travels. Of course, in the bigger cities – Madrid, Seville increasingly, and especially Barcelona; but not so much in the more out of the way places. Which is part of the point, of course.

The Roman Bridge at Mérida

The Americans, though. The Americans abroad are  – in general – more extroverted than us, shattering that icy Scots reserve as they include you into their evening, asking you to translate for them, joshing with the slightly stunned looking bar staff in high volume Spanglish, and generally being, oh, what’s that word there’s no positive equivalent for in Scots? Oh yes: confident.

Anyway, Don didn’t quite fit that stereotype. He was keeping himself to himself, and the only reason we got talking was because I offered a translation of something on the menu for him. However, he did then get to talking, he joined us at our table, and the next night we both happened to be in the same bar again.

That second night, the conversation – and the good local wine – was flowing. Don was extremely entertaining company, and Daughter and Heiress was of an age that I wasn’t too discomfited when he extolled to her the benefits of lysergic acid. I mean, it wasn’t like he offered us all a tab right there and then.

It was just – in the morning, thinking back – none of us could tell very much about what your man actually did in Brazil, for example, or why he went there in the first place. We got that he was divorced, that he knew his Iberian food and wine – especially the Portuguese variety – and was a fan of mind-expanding substances of the less than legal variety. But beyond that? Nada.

But then, being a stranger in a strange land can do that for you. If you want to give the impression that you’re a CIA agent operating under deep cover in Extramadura, then you can.

Our regular fellow travellers in this book, however, are a slightly less mysterious bunch than Don – all except one, perhaps.

Ernest Hemingway, to start with the most famous, is really too famous to need much of an introduction. Novelist, bullfighting enthusiast, big game drinker and thinker, Papa H drove an ambulance for the Republicans in the Civil War. Much of his best work is set in Spain, and the way he renders the language in For Whom The Bell Tolls is a particular favourite for me.

He may pop up at various points, by way of Hemingway and Spain, by Edward F Stainton (University of Washington Press, 1989).

Giles Tremlett is the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent. Although his book, Ghosts of Spain, (Faber and Faber, 2006) bears the imprint of a series of articles woven into a theme they didn’t necessarily start out with, it’s still a brilliant introduction for anyone who, like me, wonders what it’s really like to live in Spain with the Spanish.

It’s particularly strong on the pacto del olvido, the collective act of forgetting that the Spanish entered into after Franco’s death, allowing the wounds of the Civil War forty years before to crust over without healing; and the political and other circumstances around the Atocha bombings in 2005.

Gertrude Bone is the change-up pitcher, though. A couple of years ago, my sister gave me a copy of a second hand book: Days in Old Spain. (MacMillan and Co, 1939). I’d never heard of Gertrude Bone, or her husband, Muirhead (later Sir Muirhead, don’tcha know) who provided the illustrations. But the introduction hooked me in, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, by the time the book was published, it was already a historical artefact. The result of travels throughout Spain in the late 1920s, it described a country on the cusp of change, if not yet in the shadow of war: ‘Disaffection to the Monarchy was everywhere audible, and an impatience of backwardness and old fashions manifest in all parts of the country.’

Second, unlike Laurie Lee, who covered Spain on foot in his classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, on the very eve of the Civil War, the Bones got about by train – much as we do.

One of the other reasons I came to like Gertrude so much was her modesty. The introduction stresses that the text was really only to supplement the hubby’s drawings – something rather belied by how good the writing is, as I’ll demonstrate presently. More than that, just how misleading it is to think of Gertrude as the wee wife jotting down some footnotes to the artist husband’s great work only becomes clear with a bit more research.

Gertrude Bone (1876 – 1962) was the daughter of a Wesleyan minister (who had previously been a blacksmith). Brought up in Glasgow (which may explain the modesty), she was the author of at least three other published books: Women of the Country, The Furrowed Earth, and Mr Paul.

And…

And then, at least so far as internet research goes, it all becomes a bit second-hand, as she gets a mention, not in her own right, but as wife of Sir Muirhead, and mother of Stephen Bone, who followed his Dad into the war artist business. The picture you’d get from the Internet, with father and son both meriting a Wikipedia entry but not her, would be that implied by Gertrude herself: the supportive wife and mother, playing second fiddle to the men of the house.

This is not the place for a feminist discourse on the innate bias towards DWEMs in cyberspace. But when you look at Gertrude’s published works, the reality is that she was the writer, and father and son illustrated her books.

More: in one of my internet searches, I turned up a page about a letter signed in 1913 by the ‘Manchester Suffragettes,’ amongst them that faithful wife and mother Gertrude, or ‘Mrs Muirhead Bone,’ as she’s quaintly termed.

To return to the subject of Spain, her book on it is very far from being a bit of hack work to accompany the illustrations. Mrs Bone has the eye of a true poet. Take, for example, this turn of phrase when writing about Andalucía: ‘Shadow is hoarded in the streets and in the churches, and where old men follow the shade for their rest as in England they follow the sunshine.’

Or this description of the Spanish character, allowing for it being the language of an Edwardian (are you even allowed to call Spanish people Spaniards now?): ‘The reserve of the Spaniard is never surly. He requires his own personal dignity, but he will invariably allow you yours. If he knows what will please you, and you are a well-behaved person, he will of his own accord open an entrance to the interests you seek in his country.’

That, to me, is a perfect way to describe the Spanish, and their kindness to strangers. English, Scottish or American: treat the locals with respect, give them their space, and they’ll go the extra mile for you every time.

Even if you want to claim you’re from Brazil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Sunshine Amongst the Snow Squalls: Edinburgh, April 1st

‘APRIL is the cruellest month,’ TS Eliot said, ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain…’ this being his epic poem, The Waste Land, he chunters on for a fair amount longer, but we get the gist and, frankly, that’s about as much as anyone remembers (I’d forgotten the bit about the dull roots and all that, to be honest).

Anyway, I’d like to say I was meditating on modern classic poetry yesterday as we wandered round the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens yesterday, but I’d be stretching it: the day before we’d shuddered in and out of charity shops in Morningside, as sleet tried very hard to turn itself into snow: today, the snow is making a proper go of it in our corner of the Scottish Lowlands. What is this crazy weather?

Yesterday, by comparison, it was just dry and cold, wind whipping across the sandstone faces of the nearby tenements as we exited the agreeable coffee shop quarter of Stockbridge (like Morningside, a village within the city that, as economic downturns come and go, still maintains the fur coat part of Edinburgh’s ‘fur coat and nae knickers’ image).

To the Botanics, then, with its outstanding internal and external views.

 

One of the real pleasures of the Gardens at this time of year is the rhododendron collection beginning to brust into flower. The severe winter seemed to have taken its toll on some of the plants, with evidence of frost damage. Nevertheless, there was the start of some sort of colour to be had:

It used to be, of course, that you could go into the tropical and other glasshouses for a heat: but now they charge for that, so we stayed out! Fortunately, the little alpine glasshouses are free.

This alpine collection, sheltered from the recent storms, was really the highlight of the whole Gardens yesterday, and Edinburgh’s Botanics-visiting classes buzzed round them like puffa-jacketed bees.

We totally need to go back later in the Spring. The rhoddies will be really quite spectacular in a month or so. Still not sure what they’re doing to the great long herbaceous borders at the moment: they seem to be a work in progress; but the massive series of rockeries that climb towards the southern boundary are always worth a wander round. Oh, and the trees. Lots of trees of every description.

For now, though, the alpines were the ones putting on a show.

 

(Later, our excellent local, John Leslie on the South Side, provided a warming atmosphere. TS Eliot may have been right about April, but they serve Deuchar’s right through the month!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and the bit about Leslie’s is as close as you’ll get to an endorsement from me! Other people’s endorsements below here.

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?

The Endlessly Photogenic East Neuk

The sun was out today, so we went along to the East Neuk, that incredibly well-kept Fife secret. For those not in the know, let me induct you into the Illuminati: Fife, a region known for its mining communities (now ex-mining communities) and St Andrews, home of golf, has on its south-eastern coast a string of fishing villages that are, well, just endlessly photogenic!

 

 

 

Best known of these villages is Anstruther. I was saying today, not for the first time, that quite a few places in Fife should take a leaf out of Anstruther’s book: whatever it’s done over the last few years, it’s done right. Despite the decline of the fishing industry, it’s thriving, and growing, partly at least because of the decision to invest in harbour pontoons which now attract pleasure boats as well as fishermen. Its fish and chip shop is rightly renowned, although you can also get other eating options.

 

 

St Monans has a great plant nursery we also visited today; Pittenweem is equally picturesque down at the harbour; but in terms of scenery, Crail (pictured here and at the top of the page) is probably my favourite.

The gable ends of the houses, by the way, are described as ‘crow stepped,’ and I remember at primary school being told it was because the traders with the so-called ‘Low Countries,’ (modern day Holland and Belgium) in centuries past liked the architecture there so much they replicated it when they got home. The truth is slightly more complex: the area was deliberately settled with Flemish traders, who then brought their architecture with them.

 

…and that’s it, really. A hidden string of pearls, just a few miles from home. And the real kicker is, the micro climate there means that it’s drier than the rest of the county, so even if it’s raining at home, along the coast there’s a decent chance of sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see down here. Nothing as good as the East Neuk, anyway

Going all Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Exterior view of the Hill House from the garden on a sunny day

Here’s the thing. In May, we’re going to Hill House, the Charles and Margaret Rennie Mackintosh designed house in Helensburgh. To stay.

The Hill House Drawing Room

 

 

 

 

 

I know – who knew you could actually stay there? The pictures (courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland) give you an idea of just how stunning a place it is: we’ve visited the bit you visit twice, but never had a scooby that there was an apartment upstairs you could actually have as a holiday let.

Mackintosh’s designs are found throughout the Hill House, including the hallThe NTS website gives you a good idea of what the place is all about, but for those of you who’ve never heard of the Mackintoshes, he was an architect and she was an artist and designer who, as a husband and wife team, created not just the most outstanding pieces of modern architecture in this country – the Glasgow School of Art is the best known example – but also designed the interiors, down to the last door knob. I’m no architecture student, but there are clearly resonances with Gaudi, as well, I suspect, as Lloyd Wright.

So, in May, just before the whole place gets enclosed in plastic to ward off the effects of the weather and preserve it for future generations, we’re staying up a spiral staircase, away from the madding crowds going round the rest of the house, in what was the schoolroom.

Margaret Macdonald’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ design above the Hill House drawing room fireplaceAnd here’s another intriguing thing: the website, for some reason, says ‘Like all rooms once the domain of children, it has the feeling of a place where much spirit and energy have been expended.’ Do they mean it’s haunted?

I shall of course report back. I plan to take a guitar, and some recording equipment, so if the Blackie children join in the song, there’ll be evidence!

P.S. You can read about why they’re ‘boxing’ the Hill House, and how you can contribute to the fund raising appeal, here. There’s even a video featuring beefcake TV history presenter, Neil Oliver, who’s also NTS President.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Nothing you’d want, probably.

In Another Life – the Effortless Album

Some of the greatest, most effortless-sounding albums were a weary long trauchle (to use a Scots word) to make. To take one example, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours took over a year, and yet sounds to this day as if the whole thing happened spontaneously over a sunny LA weekend. Apparently they took three days just to agree over the tuning of a piano; only Christine McVie’s classic song ‘Songbird’ was done and dusted in the course of a night, and that took a truckload of champagne to get it over the line, so the story goes.

Of course, the French Prosecco was kind of the least The Mac were doing in the course of the Rumours sessions; and then there was the small matter of them all breaking up with each other at the same time. In comparison, and with all due respect to their rock n’ rollness, I can’t really imagine Norman Lamont and the Heaven Sent using much more than a strong brew of Tetley’s during the making of In Another Life.

According to the man himself, the original intention was simple – create an album using a small multi-track recorder in a living room, with the whole band playing live, and minimal overdubs. That, however, was in late 2015, and over two and a half years later, at least three different recording spaces, a producer, a cover designer, and a pro master wizard later, the album is finally, officially out. And yet it sounds effortless!

Norman has described the overall style as ‘pop,’ and I guess, in some ways, it may serve as the gateway drug to some of his darker material, such as ‘Fingerpuppet,’ or ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ on the album before this, All The Time in Heaven. Nevertheless, bright and breezy folk-rock like In Another Life’s opener, ‘End of Tears,’ is hard to make sound as effortless as this. Similarly, the way Norman leans into ‘Well, I’m the type of guy…’ on the next track, ‘Green Lights All The Way,’ sounds as easy as the narrator’s lucky life, but, as I can personally testify, it takes talent – and time – to sound that easy.

Throughout, Norman’s intention to get things as good they can be shines through. ‘The Ballad of Bob Dylan’ is probably the song Norman’s known best for: but here it gets a radical treatment that keeps the core shaggy dog story front and centre whilst mixing up pace and instrumentation all around it. A modern classic!

Whilst the overall sound is what I’d describe as folk rock, or maybe acoustic rock, there are a couple of departures: the jaunty spirit of ‘In Another Life,’ is such an earworm that I can forgive him for reggae, one of my least favourite genres; and ‘Damn Grey’ and ‘Goodbye Song’ both exhibit jazz influences.

The other highlight, unsurprisingly to long-term Norman-watchers, is his facility with words. The music may sound easier than it is, but the lyrics are at all times smartly turned out, and on occasion have a hidden bite. ‘You Made Me Do It,’ with its refrain of ‘You made me this way,’ leaves the listener in no doubt who the narrator holds responsible. In another context, ‘Damn Grey’ deals with the weighty topic of depressive illness.

Favourites? Surprisingly perhaps for a fellow devotee of the Cohen/Cave dark axis, I’m really drawn to the upbeat stuff! Those sly vocals in ‘Green Lights All the Way,’ with its earworm of a tune, for example. ‘End of Tears,’ is another stand out.

Incidentally, if you go through Norman’s website to sign up for this, you get an incredibly generous package of stories behind the songs, videos, and bonus tracks. Strongly recommended, it emphasises the care, love, and sheer blood sweat and tears went into the making of the album.

It’s just that it sounds so effortless.

P.S. You can also get a deal on the launch gig, which is next Thursday, 22nd March, at the Voodoo Rooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts be below here. Not Norman.

A Tale of Two Guitars

So, when I was reviewing the two amplifiers I use recently, I mentioned I was planning to review my two main guitars, to compare and contrast, and I’m a man, at least in this regard, of my word.

I suppose before I start I should confess these are not my only guitars. The others that I own (I had a gorgeous Danelectro 12 string on loan from Mr Brutal for a while, but he’s borrowed it back at the moment) are: a Kiso-Suzuki copy of the Gibson J200, which I think I may have mentioned before, with a bridge so cracked it would cost more to repair than it’s worth; a Freshman Acoustic 12-string which these days is tuned to Open D and used exclusively for slide guitar; and a blues box guitar, picked up in a Black Friday sale at the Works bookshop, of all places, a couple of years ago.

Which leaves me with my two main guitars: A Lâg Tramontane T100 ACE; and an Epiphone EJ200CE.

Prices first of all, just to see we’re comparing like with like. I bought the Lâg a few years ago, but it currently retails at around £350 – £360 (although I found it quite tricky to track down in this country now; a lot of the sites were American). The Epiphone is currently on Gear4music.com at £360, so, in other words, they’re pretty much both firmly in the mid-price range for acoustic guitars, not being the cheapest by any means, but certainly not up there in the stratospheric levels you can shell for a bit of wood and six strings.

Looks? Well, here they are together.  Both, to my mind, beautiful in their own way: the Lâg, at least so far as I know, not trying to copy any other maker’s guitar, and with that distinctive headstock and the wee Knights Templar stylee cross at the soundhole.

The Epiphone, of course, very definitely is trying to copy another guitar, namely the Gibson J200, a fabled model that’s been used by Elvis, Dylan, Lennon, Harrison, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, etc, etc. Like the Lâg, it’s available in a range of finishes, and I was very tempted by the sunburst version before plumping for the all black model: a mean looking machine, indeed. (Gibson have 20 more facts about the original J200 if your curiosity isn’t sated).

As an aside, I’ve never quite understood how, or why, guitar makers put up with others making copies of their models: in any other context, you’d think the original makers would be suing the copyists’ asses just as quickly as they could make it to the patent office. However, every other guitar you see is a copy, often of famous models by either Fender or Gibson (Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, Hummingbird, etc etc). Time was, back in the 70s and 80s, when most of the copies were made in Japan (for example my Kiso-Suzuki); then, Korea became the cheapest place; these days it’s more likely to be China.

In the case of the Epiphone, it was originally a company in its own right. Originating in Turkey with a Greek owner, in 1903 owners and company relocated to the US where, by the 50s, it was a main rival to Gibson for archtop guitars, at which point it was taken over by Gibson’s parent company. However, far from being bought up to be closed down, the two companies were run separately. Epiphone guitars continued to have their own name and reputation – the Beatles used them, before inevitably, trading up to the bigger cachet of the Gibson name.

And there’s the thing for me. Every guitar band you see on the telly these days are either toting Gibsons or Fenders and, contrary chap that I am, that just makes me all the more determined to play something different. Plus, of course, the Gibson equivalent of my guitar costs £5,000. Yes, that’s £5,000. Could it sound nearly 14 times better than my Epiphone? No, I really don’t think so either.

Because the Epiphone is a beauty in every sense. As you can see from the photo, it’s a big beast of a thing (the J, dear reader, stands for Jumbo) so it wouldn’t be for everyone (interestingly, Emmylou has her own smaller equivalent made by Gibson, the L200. Do hope the L doesn’t stand for ‘lady’). Played acoustically, it’s surprisingly quiet, with an even, pleasant, but unremarkable tone. Indeed, in the shop it nearly lost out to the Epiphone Hummingbird. And then I plugged it in.

Where the EJC200 really wins out is in the quality of its electronics. With an under-saddle and under-bridge pick up, and nanoflex technology (no, I don’t really know what it means either) it sounds just fantastic when amplified. The Lâg, in contrast, sounds great played acoustically, but its electronics are, well, a bit french. So much so, that when I’m recording with it these days, I mike it up rather than using pickups. That’s not so easy live, and the best I can get from it is using the Vox amp, as described in the review of the amps.

Bottom line? I’m really pleased to have both of these. For finger picking and the generally quieter stuff I do with Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the Lâg is a superb instrument. For playing in the house, again it’s a pleasure. Its tone is gorgeous.

Which is not to say the Epiphone doesn’t get played in the house too. Although the Lâg isn’t hard to play, the bigger guitar is particularly easy: someone said it plays like an electric, and it actually is as easy as that to knock out chords on. Plug it in, though, even with a loud electric band, and it comes into its own.

Here’s a wee instrumental I’ve put up on Freesound, the excellent sound sample site. It’s basically a song that didn’t make the cut for my next album lyrics-wse, but I’ve put a bit of both the Epiphone in strum mode, and the Lâg in finger-pick mode. I’ve not done anything clever effects-wise in the production process, deliberately: just a bit of light reverb to take some of the dryness out. On other tracks, though, I’ve used the Epiphone much more extensively because, with its dual inputs and better electronics, it produces a very handy, malleable signal for tweaking.

If I had to have only one of these guitars, I’d have the Epiphone. But I don’t, and for my purposes at least, they’re a near-perfect complement to each other.

Finally, should you wish to hear more from these guitars, a Youtube review of each:

The Epiphone review’s long, but I love Topdazzle’s no nonsense approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ignore the adverts below here. Actually, I have a plan for adverts on this page…

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.

That Difficult Second Album (again)

So, regular readers of this blog (who must number, oh, I don’t know, single figures, but are clearly very discerning) will know that I’m in the process of finishing off my second solo album, to follow up my soaraway success debut, Songs in a Scottish Accent. (1)

Things are actually, finally, starting to coalesce. It’s not that I’m suffering from shortage of material – in fact, I’ve probably got enough between the finished stuff and the half-written to fill a double album – but I’m trying to put together something that’s coherent in some sort of way: certainly not a concept, and I’d be lying if I said the songs were all one style, but still. They seem to hang together in my head, at least.

The song I’ve just got to next-to-final draft is maybe out on the edge thematically. The country punk band I’m in, Isaac Brutal, has many qualities, one of which is the level of inter-band banter on the Facebook group message. In one of these, the phrase ‘It’s all gravy,’ came up, and I just kind of picked it up and ran with it. I describe it as Kafkaesque country.

More releases to come up soon – I’m particularly looking forward to one called ‘Due Ceremony,’ which borrows a tune fellow Scots may recognise…

(1) Actually, I have now given away almost all copies of my first album, so if you’ve missed out so far, let me know. Remember, it’s free in return for a contribution to a refugee charity, which I just trust you to make, so no complicated filling in of online forms or such. I don’t even ask for your email addy.

Alternatively, you can download the tracks from the Soundcloud site – but be warned, all but a few of them will be disappearing soon to make room for the new album…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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