andrewcferguson

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Tag Archives: bob dylan

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

A Musical Advent Calendar – Day One

Image result for liberty advent calendar 2017

Liberty’s beauty one prompted people to queue for hours back in October. RRP was £175, but you can still get it on Ebay if you shell £450 or so. The Fortnum and Mason £125 wooden one with chocolates seems almost a snip in comparison; Edinburgh Gin has one with 25 miniatures (£100); Debenhams has a pork scratchings one, apparently. Hell, you can get one which gradually assembles a screwdriver set, or if you prefer, gives you a sex toys a day.

What on earth am I talking about? Advent calendars, of course, which have come a long, long way from my childhood, when we had the same cardboard effort come out of the loft every year, with the increasingly ajar doors revealing pictures of nativity type things like angels. Or shepherds. Or, on Christmas Eve, the Nativity, with our Redeemer in a manger surrounded by adoring adults and farm animals. Our Redeemer, mind. Not a sausage roll in a manger, Gregg’s the bakers! Bad Greggs.

Anyhoo. Here’s an advent calendar you don’t have to pay a thing for: in the lead up to Christmas, I’m going to put up a link to a song I like every day, and, if I have time, some sort of story about either its making or why it means something to me. Or both. They won’t all be the type of music you expect, and they sure as hell won’t be Christmas-related. Unless you count ‘Hallelujah’ (it’ll be the Cohen version, before you ask). And Springsteen’s cover of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ will be the Christmas Eve one, I’m telling you right now. I might even take requests!

To kick things off, here’s a well known track – predictable, perhaps, but still ranked by some polls as the greatest rock song ever. It reminds me, somewhat counterintuitively, of Birmingham, a place I’ve visited three times: once to see England beat the Aussies at Edgbaston; once for a science fiction convention (back when I was masquerading as an sf writer) but, the first time, to see Dylan.

1987, his so-called ‘Temples in Flames’ tour, when he was backed by the late, great, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Roger McGuinn came on first and did a so-so solo set; then Petty and the others emerged from the shadows and assisted him on a transcendent ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ Then, after their own set, they provided a perfect foil to the wee man from Minnesota.

Dylan was still coming out of his Born Again phase, so we had a few Christian numbers to put up with. This version of Like A Rolling Stone made it all worthwhile though. I’ve seen Dylan three times, but I’ve never seen him better. This is from the Australian leg of the same tour.

Just before I go, here comes the money bit – instead of the Liberty calendar, you might want to think about giving some of your hard-earned to the Red Cross Myanmar appeal. I’m sure the politics of it is more complicated than the media’s portrayed, but bottom line is around 600,000 people are living in camps as winter closes in because of political, ethnic and/or religious differences. These guys are suffering, and could do with your help.

(Feel free to post your own thoughts and reflections on the song, His Bobness, or anything else you fancy)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here be monsters. Or at least WordPress-generated advertising. Which might not be all that monstrous, to be fair.

 

Everybody must get Stones: Keith Richards and me

One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Yeahanotherblogger, recently posted about his experiences as a youngster with the Rolling Stones. In Stoned Again and Again, Neil (shock news: yeahanotherblogger’s a nom de plume) gives an amusing account of his lifelong ‘obsession’ (he seems far too well-balanced to be really obsessive) with Mick, Keef and those other cats. Whilst not uncritical of their present lack of output, he clearly retains an affection for them – and the depth of knowledge to link to a couple of lesser known tracks from the Stones’ first imperial period, in the mid-to-late Sixties, the latter of which, Dandelion, I’d never heard..

And it all got me thinking. As the music press goes radge bongo for their first album in years and years (of which more later) what do I think of them myself? Do they still hold any relevance today? Should I be steering Daughter and Heiress towards them (as if she’ll listen, and/or as if she’ll not have made her mind up via Youtube already) as an ineluctable part of her rock n’ roll heritage?

Some context here. I was 5 in 1967, so Pinky and Perky were more my musical bag, man. Later on, I did become aware of the Stones at a relatively young age via the magic of my older brother and sister’s record collection. I still remember being especially impressed at the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) with its picture of a pair of well-filled jeans, and an actual zip! Come to think of it, I think Toe Blister’s still got that album – might even be worth something now.

By the time I had got through my Pinky and Perky phase, the Stones were mainly absent from such crucial sources of music we had in the UK like ‘Top of the Pops.’ Actually, in the mid to late Seventies, ToTP was pretty much the only source of new music on the TV in the UK: but by then, the Stones were rich and famous enough to be tax exiles, and didn’t deign to appear on the show. Come to think of it, given the number of TOTP presenters who’ve since had their collars felt by the constabulary for alleged – and in some cases – proven misdemeanours of the morally turpitudinous type, that was a pretty smart move.

So the Stones were gone from the current music scene, and viewed by some as part of the old guard that had to be swept away by the cleansing wave of snot that was Punk, circa 76/77. Not that it was obvious from your average disco DJ’s set of the time: as a bit of relief from Rose Royce, Gloria Gaynor, and the like, a few ‘classic’ Stones numbers were generally thrown into the set: but then, Paint It Black, Ruby Tuesday, Brown Sugar are the like are pretty damn danceable, after all. I was always intrigued by the opening bars of ‘Black,’ especially: that sitar!

So the Stones were great to party on to. But in terms of still being relevant? I remember hearing ‘Start Me Up,’ the single off ‘Tattoo You’ in 1981, by which time I was a 19-year-old serious-minded student of Rock (that wasn’t my actual degree, but it might as well have been – see earlier post on my ill-judged attempts to become the next Bruce Dylansteen). I was pretty underwhelmed. Still am, in fact – I always felt that was the beginning of the end for the fabled Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership.

Then, a long period passed – in fact, most of the Eighties and Nineties – when, for me at least, the Stones were more about the myth than the music. Specifically, the Glimmer Twins legend. It was almost as if the two of them had realised the game was up with a clever tune and a lyric and decided to construct a whole new mythology instead. Mick became cast as the stereotypical Lead Singer: vain, self-obsessed, good with the media; Keith, on the other hand, was the cool one, the moody Guitarist with the tortured-artist addictions and the piratical dress sense.

Other parts of the Stones’ actual history were grist to the mill of the myth: tragic, mysterious early death of founder member; bad acid and stabbing at Altamont as the band played on with ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ drugs busts, Redlands, Marianne Faithfull and that Mars Bar. The Establishment was trying to take them down, man. Even exile in France wasn’t so much as prudent tax avoidance as sticking it to the Man.

Along the way, certain inconvenient truths were buried, particularly around Brian Jones’s part in the early years. It was interesting to read, last year, Keef’s autobiography, Life, and more or less straight afterwards  Paul Trynka’s biography of Jones. The latter gives a possibly slightly overstated version of Jones’s significance, but it does show how it was his band originally, how Mick and Keef marginalised him, and eventually left him with no place at all. Jones was far from blameless in all of this – he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person, and he clearly ‘had issues’ – but it’s the way he’s been written out of the band’s history that’s striking.

Back to the Sage of Dartford though. Don’t get me wrong: respect is due from any guitar player for how, following Jones’s departure, Keef was largely responsible for refining the Stones’ sound around a riffing, country-blues vibe that played to the band’s strengths, along the way collaborating with Mick Taylor and then Ronnie Wood in a way that stepped away from the lead/rhythm guitarist paradigm and, instead, paved the way for a more egalitarian twin-guitar approach. And don’t be put off by my comments about his autobiography: it is highly entertaining, especially about the drugs busts, and well written. There’s even a section on tunings which will help you to work out how to play his stuff more accurately.

Look, I see myself as a guitarist rather than a lead singer, so like why wouldn’t I want to be a bit more Keith Richards? Indeed, I often feel the answer to many of my life’s dilemmas might well be, ‘what would Keith Richards do?’ And ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which very definitely has Keef’s fingerprints all over it, is my favourite Stones song ever.

It’s just, well, I dunno. He kind of takes the credit away from everyone else, somehow?

So, in his bio, he claims the only reason they recruited Bill Wyman was he had a big old bass amp. That famous meeting of Jagger and him on the railway platform at Dartford? He only got talking to the cat because of his record collection. In a recent interview with Uncut to push the new album, ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ he uses the same reason for hooking up with Brian Jones: ‘Brian was the first person I knew that had a Robert Johnson record … Very rare. That’s when I captured him. “I’ll take you, and the record!”‘

See what I mean? Even Mick Jagger’s apparent upturn in harmonica playing on the new album, according to the same interview, is down to him, via Ronnie Wood: as the interview puts it, ‘the two men worked discreetly, good-naturedly stoking Jagger’s enthusiasm for the harmonica.’ You can’t – or at least I can’t – help feeling a tad sorry for Brenda, as Keef calls him: forever guilty of acts of lead singerism, dependent on his guitarists to jolt him into harp-playing reanimation, the eternally uncool straight man.

Will I be buying ‘Blue and Lonesome?’ Nah. Partly because that pure, unadulterated blues isn’t really my thing, but also because, well, if I want to listen to the blues, there’s an excellent local band called Lights Out By Nine I could go and see in a small venue. I’d rather give them the money, same way I’d rather go see my good friend Norman Lamont recently (and contribute to Edinburgh Foodbanks in the process) perform his ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ live than go and see the non-Nobel Prize Ceremony attending old curmudgeon himself when he reaches Glasgow on 7th May (plus I’m working that night, come to think of it).

Still, Keith. We’ll always have Gimme Shelter…and to be fair, even the story of its recording is the stuff of legend.

Image result for keith richards

 

First Bands and Badly-Judged Bandanas: Reflections on Lost in Music

I read Giles Smith’s Lost in Music recently: got it second hand in Leith Walk’s excellent music and bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare. A  journalist of some repute as well as, apparently, ghost writer for Tom Jones and Rod Stewart, Smith is the same age as me, so part of the appeal of his book was the bit about growing up and having your formative experiences in pop music filtered through that particular time period. Like me, he had older siblings,  whose record collections allowed access to a slightly more sophisticated set of tastes than, say, T Rex.

I also enjoyed his often extremely funny tales of first bands and the travails of wanting to be a pop star, only to find you and your best mates have neither the connections nor, necessarily, the talent to make it. Of course, part of the charm of the book is it’s related with typical British self-deprecation: Smith did, briefly, nearly make it with a band called Cleaners from Venus, being signed to RCA’s German division. (If you think that name’s dodgy, try those of Smith’s previous bands: Pony, and Orphans of Babylon).

Unfortunately for Smith, what should have been a triumphant promotional tour of Germany was slightly marred by the lead singer and leading light’s philosophical aversion to touring, leading to a tour with no lead singer. For an excellent  – and, looking back now, poignant – review of the book, go to John Peel’s piece in the Independent.

Anyways. It got me thinking about my own early forays into the world of music, all those years ago. I came late to guitar playing, after discouraging parent-inspired forays into violin and piano. At about sixteen, I first started painfully acquiring the muscle memory to play basic chords on my brother’s nylon-string guitar: this led to a birthday present of a Kiso-Suzuki J200 copy. I embarked on mastering this, fired by the conviction that I could be the Next Big Thing in Rock. Specifically, I saw myself becoming the New Dylan – this was the early Eighties, bear in mind, when the Old Dylan was finding Jesus and tearing up his back catalogue.

At about the age of nineteen, I responded to an advert in a music shop in Edinburgh, and the Rob Long Band was formed. The band, at least in that incarnation, consisted of just me and the eponymous Rob,who was, I think, the same age, possessed of a red Stratocaster, (before Tony Blair made such an instrument terminally uncool) and of immeasurably greater guitar-playing experience and ability than me. Rehearsing solidly in Rob’s student flat above the Southsider, we quickly assembled a set of what might now be described as ‘classic rock.’ I sang, played harmonica and rhythm guitar; Rob did all the clever guitar bits.

We did ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ because Rob could do the riff. I can’t remember if we did ‘Message in a Bottle,’ live, but he could do the riff for that, too. He really was a pretty good guitar player, looking back. There was one original song in the set, a jointly-penned effort with a twelve-bar blues structure. The lyrics were something about Maggie Thatcher and nuclear war, which back then was about as original as using a twelve-bar blues structure for the music.

Our first – and in many ways best – gig was in the University Union in Chambers Street. All our friends came along to cheer: the folk in the flat below Rob’s, who had had to endure the solid rehearsals, came along to boo. I dedicated ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to them: not a Judas moment, exactly, but it did shut them up for the full five minutes it took for all four verses plus verse-long harmonica solo. I also encountered my first example of the live-performance brain freeze known as Temporary Fretboard Amnesia, making a complete bourach of my one guitar solo (Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here.’)

In retrospect, we must have been pretty awful. Rob could have been Eric Bloody Clapton for all it mattered: my guitar playing was basic to say the least, and I had home-schooled myself in the Dylan/Mark Knopfler nasal whine, to the extent that it was pretty much croak-perfect. But our friends were kind, and most of them weren’t in bands so maybe didn’t know any better, so the long march to musical stardom wasn’t stopped in its tracks then and there.

For our second, and, in many ways, worst gig, Rob enlisted a bass player pal, one Andy Robb. I think we had one rehearsal with him before unleashing ourselves on the unsuspecting punters in Sneaky Pete’s in the Cowgate. However, one rehearsal was quite obviously going to be enough for Andy, who was one of that breed of musician you meet from time to time in bands: the self-proclaimed virtuoso. Andy played double bass in the Uni orchestra, didn’t you know, so he was basically doing us (or, at least Rob) a Massive Favour by slumming it in the Rob Long Band.

Encouraged by the band’s two-gig longevity, I splashed out on some performance gear. This took the form of a bandana (I know, but I repeat, this was the early Eighties) which was white, but with a Japanese – style rising sun in the middle. With this and (if I remember right) a grandad shirt with vertical stripes, I was good to go stage-gear wise, I felt.

Needless to say the gig didn’t live up to the lead singer’s outfit. Most of the punters moved away to the other bar as soon as we got started; Andy chose to tell me half way through that I wasn’t playing in time with him (it couldn’t have been, of course, that he wasn’t playing in time with me). There were no encores.

After we finished, a girl I vaguely knew came up to me.

‘What’s that on your head?’

‘It’s a bandana. It’s got the Rising Sun on it.’

‘Oh, right. I thought it was a bandage and you’d cut yourself.’

That summed it up, really. There was no third gig. I stayed friendly with Rob, but I suppose we both realised we needed something more than a virtuoso bass player to get us to the next level.

After that, my musical career kind of went on the back burner. I rehearsed with another band at Uni, but the other guitarist was too spaced out for us ever to get a gig organised. After I started work there was a disastrous solo gig in the Lundin Links Hotel when the receptionist, as part of the deal that got me the gig in the first place, got to play her own set first, which basically consisted of my set list, for reasons which I have never quite managed to work out.

There were the rehearsals with a couple of blokes in Dundee who mainly wanted to play Whitesnake covers. There were the couple of rehearsals with a friend of a friend, also in Dundee, which came to an end when he brought in another self-proclaimed virtuoso, a guitarist, who calmly announced that neither I nor Barry, the friend of a friend, were good enough guitarists to make it as a duo (Barry, when I last heard, is still playing and still gigging. I do hope the self-proclaimed virtuoso isn’t in the band).

Then, other than solo home noodling, nothing for years. I threw my creative energies into writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, with mixed success. It wasn’t until 2008, when I formed Tribute to Venus Carmichael with Kelly as a musical interlude in the Free Fringe spoken word gigs I did that year, that the fire was lit under my musical muse again. Another key collaboration was at the Book Festival Unbound gig in 2010, when I did a spoken word and music number with Kelly, Charlotte Halton on sax, and one Mark Allan, my future Isaac Brutal band leader, on the other guitar.

What would the nineteen year old me make of how things have turned out? He’d probably be pretty disappointed my main source of income isn’t as the new Dylan, if not exactly surprised. (He’d be secretly impressed, I reckon, I married a beautiful woman and have stayed married to her.) Would he settle for being in two bands with fantastic people, with songwriting duties in both? An album from each as well as a self-produced solo album coming out in the next few months, not to mention the novel?

No idea. The nineteen year old me was terribly ambitious about his creative endeavours.

Would he want me to write a song titled Fuck Off Andy Robb?

Yes. Yes, I think he would.

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Incidentally, if any of you have war stories of disastrous band relationships or gigs, feel free to contribute – I might write a song based on them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The War on Drugs: Preview

And so, at the end of a challenging week, to see The War on Drugs (don’t forget the ‘The’) at the Usher Hall tonight (Saturday). The band first crossed my and Daughter and Heiress’s radar (as so often these days) with a slot on Jools Holland; since then, their latest album, Lost in the Dream, has come out to universal acclaim, gaining five stars in the Guardian and Uncut, amongst many other places. Any band that invites comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen will invite attention from yours truly: as well as a modicum of suspicion – are they too derivative?

In fact, on listening, the band’s sound is anything but. It’s a subtle wash of ambient guitars and brooding, throbbing synths. The lyrics – principally a meditation on front man Adam Granduciel’s downward spiral into paranoia and depression when he finished touring the last record – do take a bit of a left turn into Springsteen territory at times, particularly on the title track; and the opening song, Under the Pressure, could be renamed A Bit Like Dylan without losing the scan of the chorus line, and would provide a fair summation of Granduciel’s vocal stylings.

However, this is scant criticism coming from someone who, on waking up yesterday morning, scribbled down the lyrics to The Greatest Song Bruce Springsteen Never Wrote.

The portents are promising for tonight’s gig: by all accounts their recent appearance at the Brixton Academy was a success – see, amongst others, the Digital Spy review. For those of you without a ticket, here’s some recent footage taken by one of those annoying types who can’t live in the moment and insist on holding up their iSam. I haven’t watched it: that would feel a bit like skipping to the last page to find out whodunnit.

For what really happened tonight, Daughter and Heiress is writing a review for altmusicbox – her first for them – so stand by…

 

 

 

 

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