Monday, May 25, 2009

‘A million miles from my starting place’

I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1970s. As they say, a great place to come from, and a strange period indeed.

Being born there anytime would eventually make you conscious of the city’s place on Ireland’s musical map, but coming of age at that particular juncture meant a lot of musical influences slammed together very quickly; whether that was Irish traditional, rock and roll, blues, jazz, pop, country, then later punk and post-punk or new wave.

Whatever else Belfast was then – and its precarious political and social situation would undoubtedly feed into its evolving musical identity – it proved to be a wonderful melting pot, exposing all of us to influences way beyond its relatively small population.

The first street musician I was aware of was the man who played the saw outside the City Hall. Van Morrison refers to him as “the man who played the saw outside the City Hall” in his song “A Sense Of Wonder” (although as I remember he used to sit on the steps of what was then the Water Office, across the street).

Most people who walked past him had no idea of his name or what song he was supposed to be playing, but anyone who heard that ethereal sound, kind of like a more harmonic theremin, didn’t quickly forget it.

The earliest records I remember listening to were seventy-eights on my grandparents’ wind-up gramophone, complete with the little tin box of needles. My favourite was the Kalin Twins’ “When” on the Brunswick label. My granddad loved Dean Martin, and he’d always play “Memories Are Made Of This” (on the purple Decca label). I can’t hear that song now without thinking of him.

There was a pretty eclectic mix of music in our house, from Jim Reeves and Hank Williams to The Dubliners, to movie and Broadway show soundtracks. We also had a bunch of those MFP ‘Music For Pleasure’ albums with things like ‘Selections From Your Favourite Operas’ – I particularly liked the Prelude to “Lohengrin”.

My dad had been a big Bill Haley fan. When I’d go off to school in the morning he used to say “See you later, Alligator”, long before I ever knew what it meant. I remember one Saturday when I was about seven years old, we were walking round the second-hand record stalls at Smithfield Market and he bought two singles: “Wild Thing” by The Troggs and “Groovy Kind Of Love” by The Mindbenders. Over the next couple of weeks I proceeded to memorise these and would sing them on the bus to anyone who’d listen.

God, I must have been bloody insufferable.

A few months later I bought my first single with my own money. It was “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks on the pink Pye label (funny what you remember). There was just something about that melody – once it was inside your head it wouldn’t leave. It’s still one of my favourite songs.

Dad sent me to classical guitar lessons when I was ten, but I hated it. My guitar teacher must have been a hundred and three years old, and he was only interested in getting me to sight-read. I just wanted to bang the damn thing and hear how it sounded.

I eventually got the chance to do that - after diddling away in my bedroom for while - when I joined my first band at high school. We’d moved house when I was 14 and so I started hanging out with kids in my class who lived nearby. A couple of them were guitar players - and way better than me - so I figured I’d play bass just so we could start a band.

We filled out with a drummer and a lead singer, both of whom were every bit as cool and popular as we weren’t, and the band – christened Scruff after the singer, subsequently an Irish rugby international, was told he looked like one by our maths teacher – became the hip place to hang out whenever we were rehearsing or playing.

Every kid who’s ever been in a band has memories of playing in someone’s garage and being told to turn the bloody noise down. We had more than our share of those, including our guitarist’s neighbour stomping down the drive one afternoon in his dressing gown to inform us he was “on the fucking nightshift, for fuck’s sake”.

We’d cover standards like “Knock On Wood”, “Smoke On The Water”, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Turn To Stone” as well as lesser-known indulgences like Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” (although to be fair we never actually played that one live. I mean, really…).

Later we replaced one of the guitarists with a keyboard player and added songs like “Ships In The Night” or “Squeeze Box”. We also tried writing a couple of our own: simple, singalong rock anthems. The best of them, “Tell Me”, probably couldn’t have been any more banal, but was a show-stopper among the classmates who came to our gigs. If they had been allowed lighters, they’d have waved them. Diane Warren would have been proud.

We practiced pretty much every weekend and played at youth clubs and local hotels. We all had a great time and, considering what else was happening in Northern Ireland then, it kept us off the streets and – mostly – out of trouble.

Our first big hotel gig was at a fancy restaurant on the outskirts of the city called La Mon House. It was the first time we’d played in front of an audience we didn’t know. We were more nervous than we were polished, but for a bunch of fifteen-year-olds, it was a 45-minute triumph.

About eighteen months later, La Mon was destroyed in a terrorist attack which killed 12 people. In those days, there was no hiding from hatred. Even in music. Like many across the island, I’d been particularly affected by the depravity and senselessness of the Miami Showband murders, which shocked the country and for a while affected the movement of musicians between the north and the south.

For me, the whole point of music is that it has no borders. Myself and a couple of guys from the band would hitchhike to Dublin and go to see ceili sessions in bars or to discos in the basement of the Trinity College union. We’d think nothing of piling in a car and driving from Belfast to Dalymount Park for an open-air festival, or to the RDS to see BB King. Music was everywhere. We were lucky.

And I consider myself fortunate - but still angry - to have lost only one friend in what we inadequately call the “troubles”. Michael was a police officer and had only been in uniform about a year when he was blown up evacuating people from a building where a bomb had been planted. Before he joined the force I used to hang out at his house, where we’d listen to music and swap records and tapes. One night he lent me an album he'd just heard and thought I would like. It was “Born To Run.”

But that’s a whole other story.

The first live show I ever went to was Horslips at the Whitla Hall in 1976. It was a knockout and I was hooked. Their music was clever and they were terrific players. They never failed to get a tremendous reception in Belfast and I must have seen them about six or seven times over the next few years.

They tried to crack the States with a more commercial radio-oriented sound , but then subsequently broke up. To this day I smile when I hear them, and I’m glad they’re finally touring again.

Another regular Belfast concert experience was Rory Gallagher, who was simply head and shoulders above every other guitar player I’d ever seen. He’d play the Ulster Hall every year between Christmas and New Year and his shows were always exhausting, exhilarating and inspiring.

Like other fans, I used to hang around at the stage door in Linenhall Street either before or after the show to shake his hand, and he always took the time for a few words. The man was just brilliant and is sorely, sorely missed.

Belfast has been blessed to have produced some outstanding guitar players of its own. Here’s a couple of the best, who I was never fortunate enough to see live, Gary Moore and Eric Bell, who both played in Thin Lizzy at various points, in a rare appearance together. Some friends and I got to meet Phil Lynott and the rest of the band at the Europa Hotel after their Belfast show in 1978. Let’s just say they lived up to their reputation.

During those few years we saw a lot of good, journeyman bands at Queens University like the Frankie Miller Band, George Hatcher or Racing Cars - another favourite of ours was a Welsh band called Sassafras - as well as bigger names like UFO and AC/DC (with Bon Scott).

On occasions when Belfast wasn’t a big enough draw for transatlantic tours, there was always the ferry to Liverpool for shows at the Empire. In early ’78, I went over for the weekend to see Rush on their “Farewell To Kings” tour and it was well worth the lack of sleep. I remember explaining to a teacher when I came back to school on Monday morning that the badge I was wearing was in support of a campaign to abolish the monarchy.

One of the best and most eagerly-anticipated gigs from that period was Van Morrison’s triumphant return to Belfast for the first time in years when he played at the Whitla Hall in 1979.

At weekends generally, a crowd of us would gravitate to The Pound club in downtown Belfast, known for its great atmosphere and liberal alcohol policy, to see guitarists like Jimi Slevin or Jim Armstrong, who used to play with Van Morrison in Them. One of our friends even auditioned for the drummer’s spot with Armstrong’s band Light, who had the Saturday afternoon residency.

Music was basically how we organized our lives, whether it was shows, friends’ gigs, drum or guitar clinics, or just meeting up at the various instrument shops in town to try out the new guitars and check the ‘musicians wanted’ boards.

And then Punk happened.

Before I left school, one of my last official acts was to play devil’s advocate in defending the likes of Wishbone Ash and Yes against charges of boredom and self-indulgence, as the debating society discussed the promise of punk’s vitality versus the overblown stadium mentality of dinosaur bands. We ended up agreeing that every band needed a combination of talent, enthusiasm and relevance.

Belfast became one of the urban hotbeds of the new movement, and everyone showed up to play, or in the case of The Clash, to cause a riot after their gig was cancelled at the last minute. The Boomtown Rats gave a great Christmas show at Queens, and there were regular visits by bands like The Buzzcocks, Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Damned, even Joan Jett and The Runaways; then there were acts who grew out of Britain’s post-punk new wave, like Graham Parker and the Rumour, Joe Jackson, Dr Feelgood, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Elvis Costello, or Prefab Sprout, all of whom put on terrific live shows.

Plenty of local anarcho-punk/power-pop bands emerged at that time, and we got to see most of them, either at The Pound, the Glenmachan Hotel or at the Trident in Bangor, a venue immortalized in Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster”.

Fingers became the benchmark for local bands – earnestly serious where Derry’s Undertones were irreverent. SLF guitarist Henry Cluney had worked in the same civil service office as my dad, so I wangled my way onto the guest list for a show at the Ulster Hall one night. I saw them a few times in the next couple of years and they never disappointed. Jake Burns was way ahead of his time.

After Scruff broke up and I left school, I played with a few other local musicians but never for more than the odd gig – and some were very odd indeed.

I stood in with a friend’s band called Stage B for a couple of rehearsals and a gig at the infamous Harp Bar, where we met John Peel, whose radio show had been championing Belfast bands. Stage B played all original material. I remember one was an infectious dark rocker called “Open Up”, which was as good as I’d heard among new local bands. But then there was another one where we all rotated through each other’s instruments and played whatever we liked, in some kind of free-form nihilist statement.


Hardcore punk was never my thing. Yes, music needed a kick up the arse at the time, but for many people punk was too much of an easy leveler; that whole ‘talent versus enthusiasm’ debate was tilting way too far towards just enthusiasm. Suddenly everybody seemed to be in a band, whether they could play or not. And of course, everything was trumped by image.

But no-one could say what was happening wasn’t relevant, especially for somewhere like Belfast. It was a breath of fresh air, but there was only so far it could go musically before it started to feel as old as the establishment it was reacting against.

In the meantime, I had met some guys who were looking for a bass player and we’d started rehearsing regularly and seriously. I knew as soon as I walked in the door that they were really good. Two guitars, keyboards, excellent singer/front man and a solid drummer. We covered rock and R&B standards – “Reelin’ In The Years”, “Down At The Doctor’s”, “American Girl” a great version of “Hold Back The Night” and of course we’d finish with “Free Bird” (ok, make whatever hippy crack you like here, but that song is just an absolute killer to play live when you know you can pull it off).

We played a couple of gigs at school gatherings and while we didn’t even have a name at that point, we started to get a reputation as a good party band, with two shit-hot guitar players.

As we started doing more songs by bands like The Police and The Cars, and writing a few of our own in a similar vein, we eased into the melodic new wave and started to embrace it, called ourselves The Setz, and got ready for a serious push for a record deal. The keyboard player from the original band had already gone and we’d changed drummers; then Andy, one of the guitarists, left and subsequently recorded a very good solo album.

(He and I filled in one night with his brother's country and western band at a village hall gig somewhere in the depths of the Ulster heartland. I can't even remember where it was exactly, but we played two sets starting at midnight and got back to Belfast as it was getting light. It was wonderful.)

Eventually, I had to choose between going on the road and going to college, so I left the band in 1981. Shortly after, I went to see them play in the ‘Battle of the Bands’ show at the Ulster Hall and they were great. They changed the name to Silent Running, and eventually got a much-deserved record deal at the same time as the likes of U2 and Simple Minds were hitting the heights. They were of their moment and I guess it just wasn’t supposed to be mine.

I bumped into the guys one night a few years later outside a pub in Covent Garden. They seemed happy and of course I often thought about roads not taken. They made a series of albums and produced some fine music, but didn’t get the sort of recognition they should have.

Over the next twenty-five years, my own journey would take me to London, then pretty much all over the US, but from the time I left Belfast, I would just be playing and singing for myself; as college, then work, then family took priority.

As for musical constants, a lot of the performers I first saw around this time have remained my permanent favourites. Like Strabane’s own Paul Brady, who I first saw live in 1981 at the Ulster Hall and have followed ever since, interviewing him at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995.

I was at Hammersmith Odeon in 1982 to see Jackson Browne, a show that he remembered twenty-odd years later when I happened to run into him in a guitar store in Denmark Street.

In Birmingham in 1981, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the first time – another of my heroes, Pete Townshend, showed up to jam – and have seen at least one show on every one of Springsteen’s tours since then. If anything, the Giants Stadium shows in 2008 were even better than two decades previously, and that's saying something.

I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Rosemont in Chicago in 1983, supported by Nick Lowe; and then a double-bill of Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder at the Kiel Auditorium in St Louis and Eddie Money at the Hollywood Palladium. Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Heart, Stevie Nicks, Aerosmith and the great, great Warren Zevon were all acts I saw in the ‘80s whose music has endured and might be just as popular today as it was then.

And each year since then, I've picked up on lots of different bands and singers, too many to name here, but all of which resonated with me in some way. And that's what music is all about - you don't know how good something is that you haven't heard yet. I hope I'll always be open to new sounds and new musical experiences.

One night in 1992, I was in Iowa City covering the Presidential caucuses, when a friend invited me to sit in with his blues band. Two bars into the set I remembered how much I’d enjoyed being in a band and playing live. But I figured my performing days were gone, and I was fine with that. You don’t stop loving music, or love playing it, just because you’re not doing it in public.

It would be another ten years before I’d get the chance to do it again.

I was getting ready to move back to London from New York, when I got a message to call the deputy managing editor at my paper. I thought it was something to do with my relocation, but he wanted to know if I still played bass. He had put together a band to play at his 40th birthday party and that show had gone well, but their bass player had moved on.

I knew Martin from work, of course, but I had no idea how good a guitarist he was. Same with Phil, the other lead player, and Peter, the singer, who's also a top-notch folk singer/guitarist in his own right. The drummer was the excellent Paul Ashby (who later played with The Woodentops) and our rehearsals at a studio in Lewisham turned out to be more fun than I could have ever imagined.

We hit it off, I think, because we were all playing for fun and for love of the music, and because our ambition was just to play the songs as well as we could and give the people who showed up a good time. We had a great, classic songlist: lots of Thin Lizzy, Bowie, Foo Fighters – we did terrific versions of “Baker Street” and “Times Like These” – as well as knockout closers like “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” and “Comfortably Numb”.

From the first gig we played together, at a strangely-shaped subterranean bar near Southwark Bridge, to the last, my farewell party at the Miller of Mansfield, we rocked the house. Simple as that. I’ll be forever grateful to the Xperience for making a – relatively – old man very happy.

So that’s the musical path that’s led me here. I’ve always believed that playing music can make life better, even for a few minutes, and while, of course, it's meant to reflect the totality of the human condition, I’ve always preferred music that’s not completely devoid of joy. Life's too short.

If nothing else, the next few months will give me a chance to find out if other people feel the same.

Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

‘There’s no such thing as a wrong note when you’re singing from your soul’

It was a genuine pleasure to be at Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening for the concert celebrating Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday.

A remarkable evening reflecting a remarkable life.

As John Mellencamp said from the stage to open the show, just to have survived for 90 years is an accomplishment in itself, one that most of us would take now if it was offered.

But to live that long, and fill those years with such passionate devotion to worthwhile causes like the environment and labor rights, all the while being guided by fundamental and unwavering precepts of peace, justice and equality, is akin to a gift from heaven.

On top of which, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that Seeger is one of the five or six most important songwriters in American history.

And the influence of both his craft of songwriting and his life of activism was on full view at this benefit show for Clearwater, dedicated to preserving the Hudson River and expanding environmental education.

Of the artists who trace their lineage of inspiration back to Seeger or his contemporary Woody Guthrie, many shared the stage on Sunday, with probably the most obvious absentees being Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan.

Legendary veterans performed, like Taj Mahal, Kris Kristofferson, Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, the McGarrigle Sisters and the amazing, ageless Joan Baez

Then there were the “middle-agers” who came of age in the 1960s, like Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle.

But also, significantly, there was a new generation of performers who bring whole new audiences to the table: people like Ben Harper, Dave Matthews, Ani Di Franco, Tom Morello, Michael Franti, Patterson Hood, Band of Horses and Rufus Wainwright.

Their sincerity and respect for the material and for Seeger’s inspiration proves that his influence endures and offers decent evidence that his songs will resonate as long as there are singers.

And there were plenty of crossover collaborations. For example, Turn Turn Turn was performed by Roger McGuinn, whose Byrds made it famous, alongside Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who was born two years after Pete Seeger wrote the song in 1962.

Hearing Seeger’s canon of songs in such a timeless environment, you’re struck by their enduring nature, and also their profound simplicity.

Little Boxes was probably the first one of his I can remember hearing as a kid, but of course back then I didn’t appreciate the subtlety of how it held a mirror up to the futility of the middle-class American dream; just as other classics from our childhood, like If I Had A Hammer, or Where Have All The Flowers Gone, take on a greater meaning as we grow in understanding.

Pete Seeger, more than anyone else I can think of, is the embodiment of the notion that songs are meant to be shared. They’re meant to be sung together and they’re meant to be passed along, in the grandest storytelling traditon.

And Sunday was the perfect setting for that.

Seeger himself spent more time onstage than most of us were expecting, with perhaps the most moving moment his version of Amazing Grace, which literally turned the arena into a cathedral, the rafters ringing with notes of joy.

That he found it necessary to preface the song with the history of its writer John Newton - a reformed slave ship captain who subsequently worked with the abolitionist William Wilberforce - tells you all you need to know about how to put a song in context. It doesn’t exist in isolation at the time it is written, but if we’re lucky, its message will span generations.

Pete looks well for his age - as Bruce Springsteen said: “He looks like your granddaddy, if your granddaddy could kick your ass” – and the man of the hour closed the show by leading the stage and the crowd in a spirited version of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, including “the verses that never get performed”.

In his remarks, Springsteen reminded us that throughout his life Seeger has always found ways of forcing America to confront itself and face up to those times when it falls short.

This new American world, with its historic young president and an almost unprecedented opportunity to remake itself, would do well to find a standard-bearer half as articulate, or half as passionate as Pete Seeger.

(The New York Times review of the show is here.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

'Well I started out to God knows where,
Guess I'll know when I get there...'

Every story starts somewhere. This one starts in midtown Manhattan on a bright, chilly afternoon in March.

It’s the day before my 48th birthday and things are not, shall we say, working out as well as I’d hoped.

I’ve been a journalist for about twenty-five years – arguably journalism's most interesting quarter-century - and every day I'm watching the promise of new technology tailspin into an accelerating meltdown of some long-standing media institutions. At the same time, a general dumbing-down and relentless pursuit of the trivial has meant it's harder than ever for good journalism to prosper.

For reasons you'll hear more about as we go on, I haven't had a 'real' job for almost a year, and the search for work has been taking its toll. The fact that the economy is tanking and my chosen profession is self-destructing around me doesn’t offer much encouragement that things are going to get better anytime soon.

I’d just come from lunch with my long-suffering wife, who’d been trying to 'snap me out of it', and my last words to her before I walk to the subway station are: “I never thought I’d feel I have nothing worthwhile to offer anymore." She sighed her usual little tolerant sigh, we said goodbye and I got on the subway at 51st and Lex, to ride the V train downtown to 14th Street, where I'd change to the F and go home to Brooklyn.

On the F train platform, I stood looking at the oncoming lights and wondering - as I’m sure many people have done on many platforms - what it would feel like: a brief moment of flight, and then nothing. But the train stops, I get on and for the next couple of stations I’m numb, thinking about how, deep down, I’m too big a coward for what would be the ultimate selfish act.

But then something amazing happens.

The doors open and three young African-American men bound into the carriage carrying huge, bright red bongo drums. In the crooks of their arms they have small folding chairs. They’re dressed like they brought their own rainbow with them, and they start by announcing the usual “sorry to disturb your journey folks…” that subway riders hear pretty much every day.

With that, the guy who’s talking looks straight at me.

Whether it’s just being overwhelmed by the sudden flash of color amid the drabness, or whatever, I realize I’m smiling. And he says: “That’s right! We’re only here to put a smile on your face and let you know that whoever you are, the groove can touch your soul.”

They unfold their chairs, sit down by the doors with the drums between their knees and they start to play. It’s perfect. It’s a rhythm they must have hammered out a hundred times together, as they kick in with flawless synchronization and catch each other’s eyes when it’s time to slide the tempo up, and then stop, simultaneously, with a series of slaps.

In those two minutes or so, there is something undeniably infectious and even life-affirming.

Their timing is impeccable: the train eases into the next station as they fold up their chairs and get ready to leap back out onto the platform, while one of them dances from passenger to passenger, proffering a smile and a colorful upturned hat.

There must have been about twenty people in the carriage - admittedly, one man holding a cat in an animal carrier got up and moved away shaking his head once the stealth percussionists arrived – but at least half of them, including me, put some paper into the collection.

But the thing that hit me most while they were playing was looking around at my fellow passengers and realizing that most of them were, like me, either smiling or tapping their feet, or nodding their head. Only a few were making a point to look away.

And it struck me: this isn’t about money. This is about making a human connection in a world where there are way too few. This is one person – or in this case, three – putting themselves out there and saying ‘here we are: let’s try to make all our lives a little better, even in the time it takes to travel between stations.’

There are two things that we sometimes take for granted: the city we live in, and music’s power to reach us. A combination of the two is, for me, irresistible. I want to find out more about this world under Gotham; who chooses to do this and why, what it means to them and what they get out of it.

That’s why I plan to spend this summer – this unprecedented summer of mad money and media meltdown – singing and playing under the streets of New York, and getting to know some of the musicians whose stage is a subway platform.

Between June and August, I’ll busk for a couple of hours a day, starting out at forty-eight different subway stations around the MTA map and see where the day leads, and the subway musicians it leads me to. I’ll keep a diary of who I meet, what I see and what’s going on in the ‘real world’, as well as a list of the songs I play and how much money I make.

We only get one go round, so even for a little while, I’m going to try to connect music's universal language with people's everyday lives and see if we can’t find something joyous beneath the surface.

At least there should be a few good stories to tell. And that, I think, is what I've been missing.