One of the most engaging aspects of running a personal blog is the way in which it provides for a mixture of private meditation and public grandstanding. At whim, the blogger can share sober reflection or indulge in immoderate ranting. S/he can offer modest advice and tentative wisdom or reminisce interminably and flash a wallet-load of family snaps with all the tact and grace of a maudlin drunk in a bar. And best of all there’s no editor at the business end to spike the story!
Pushing 15 years ago now, I posted to my old blog a chronological account of my long involvement in the playing of music, from student days in the ‘60s up to the present. My original intention had been to provide something brief and downbeat concerning the fag-end of the rock-and-roll dream – the reality of crap gigs, broken-down vans, cynical promoters, vainglorious ambitions and preposterous aspirations. But as soon as I got started and the memory gears engaged I recognised in the moment, as I did way back when, that there’s a price for everything. Night after night of manhandling a bass amp up flights of stairs and then back down again with the summer sun not long set or in the winter rain; the built-in bullshit of agents complementing the built-in treachery of managers; the drunk’s insistence at the end of the night that he can play the drums like Ginger Baker; the single-minded, self-serving ambition of the brilliant lead guitarist who jumps ship for a faster vessel two days before that clincher gig… All of this and so much more is the tax imposed for an hour of glorious immersion in the music and the tidal roar of an audience that really gets it.
So in between the remembering and the writing, it all turned out rather differently…
DICK JONES – THE BASEMENT TAPES
The physical creaks and cracks of advancing age taken into account, it’s clear that a heart has grown old when its host accepts that the dreams and visions of youth will never be fulfilled.
Some of us, however, never quite attain that level of sober maturity and we remain uncertain into dotage as to what we’re going to be when we grow up. I still hanker occasionally for a life on the footplate of a speeding steam locomotive, or at the controls of a Spitfire sweeping low over the White Cliffs of Dover.
But my one great undiminished ambition, nurtured from early youth, has always been to play music for money. ‘Fun & profit’ was the rallying cry through successive bands jockeying for position amongst all the other contenders scrabbling at the foot of the ladder. Let this be what pays the bills!
So I became a teacher. The weight of bourgeois expectation, the assumptions of a middle class upbringing in post-war Britain, the simple practical need to put food on the table for the family and pay the mortgage dictated the sensible course. While others still struggled up and down the motorways wedged between the drum kit and the PA in a Ford Transit belching smoke, I knocked off work at 4.00 and returned home to mark books.
Well, actually, not quite. Lacking the strength of mind, or plain unselfishness, to slip the bass guitar under the bed, I continued to pursue the dream as if what happened between 9.00 & 4.00 was itself the fantasy. And, with the wisdom of hindsight, there’s little doubt that, over the years, home and family paid the price.
Between 1965 & 1990 I ricocheted from one musical venture to another, driven by the urgent need to locate musical territories largely unoccupied by others. The search was always for the unexplored genre, or at the least a degree of authenticity lacking in those already exploring it. Finally the accumulation of alarms and diversions that come with middle-aged parenting slowed the momentum down to a once-in-a-while gig. And then, just to compound the stalling of the dream, I started the whole cradle-to-classroom thing all over again with a second family! Only now, at a time of life when a modicum of dignity, decorum alongside physical dereliction might have been expected to hold sway, did I finally find the opportunity to achieve a little equilibrium between the music and the real world. Retirement – taken a tad earlier than absolutely necessary – and my very good fortune in renewing two crucial musical links from the dim and distant brought it about. But more of that later. Where did it ll start..?
1. BISMARK’S IMPERIAL JASS/JUG(G) WIZARDS
1965 was a strange year for the jeunesse d’oree at the cutting edge of fashion. The Beatles and Stones had been in place for a couple of years. Other groups had moved onto the block and were challenging their supremacy. The world of commerce was now taking an active interest in street culture and couture. The mod minority was now the catalogue-and-chain-store majority.
Mal Griffin and I were Drama students at Goldsmiths’ College in South-East London. We were cocky, arrogant and pissed off that in our tonik suits and tab-collar shirts we were pretty much indistinguishable from any 50 other mardy lads just out of school who considered themselves at the cutting edge. So we took to spending our Saturday mornings sifting through the contents of the battered barrows that clogged the length of Douglas Way, an annexe of the historical Deptford Market along the High Street.
This was the era of the drip-dry shirt and off-the-peg suit and it was also only a decade since the first wave of West Indian immigrants had arrived on the Empire Windrush. The market barrows were elbow deep in pre-war striped collarless cotton shirts and boxes full of the stiff, starched collars that attached to them. Dangling from hangers beneath the canopies were rows of blue, brown and grey pin- and chalk-striped double-breasted suits, the jackets full skirted & the trousers high-backed and front-pleated, the legs flapping like sails from their deep pockets down to their one-inch turn-ups. And fluttering amongst them like exotic birds were the massive spatulate ties, big as trowels, of the Jamaicans and Trinidadians – the height of fashion in Kingston and Port-of-Spain, but dumped in a rush in favour of attire more acceptable to conservative and largely prejudiced employers.
At 2/6d a shirt and 10 shillings a suit (12.5 & 50 pence respectively), there was still enough left in our student grants to ensure fags and beer. So Mal and I abandoned our Fred Perry casuals and our knuckle cord hipsters for three-piece demob suits, Edwardian shirts and collars and technicolor ties depicting sinuous naked ladies, tropical flowers and parrots in full cry.
All that we lacked in our splendour was a context. Sitting amongst our fellow students in the refectory we simply looked like extras from a period film set on a coffee break. We needed a setting, a platform for our costumery.
Cometh the hour, cometh the band! Word reached us that at the Tiger’s Head in Catford – a brash ‘30s pub with a function room – a wild and surreal art school outfit called the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band was appearing every Friday night. Fronted by the debonair (and now late and legendary) Vivian Stanshall, they played a beguiling mixture of between-the-wars novelty numbers and self-written material, these played on the standard instruments of the ‘20s dance band and interjected and interspersed with dada-cum-cabaret-cum-vaudeville routines. And all the members of the band wore impeccable swing-time tailoring.
We were simultaneously seduced and inspired and from a synthesis of our sartorial indulgences and a shared love of pre-war popular music, we formed Bismark’s Imperial Jass (later Jug) Wizards. Lacking both the expertise and the instrumentation of the Bonzos, we went in the direction of the American jug and skiffle bands of the Deep South and our set included breakneck versions of such classics as Digging My Potatoes, Stealing and I’m Satisfied With My Gal. In those days before easy access to music of all genres we were very fortunate in having Chris Wellard’s jazz record shop sited exactly between the main doors of Goldsmiths’ and the college pub of preference the New Cross House. Chris stocked not just jazz releases from the States, but a range of American blues and folk records on the Vanguard, Folkways and Elektra labels so the proportion of our grants that didn’t get turned into Guinness next door went the way of those wonderful thick cardboard-sleeved LPs. Chris Wellard was obliging to a fault, delighted that amongst the rugger-bugger boozers and the pious geographers there were two kids in fancy dress who knew what they wanted in the way of imports from the States.
Mal and I drafted in a guitarist (Pete Currie, later to play a key role in the transition from rattlebag acoustic to full-on electric) and a banjo-player and then relied on a core of kazoo-blowing and washboard-bashing fellow drama students who made up in energetic self-promotion what they lacked in musical aptitude. We got ourselves a Sunday lunchtime residency at the New Cross House and enjoyed to the limit our slightly prolonged 15 minutes of local fame. Our zenith there (which preceded by only one Sunday our demise) was undoubtedly the moment when, at the conclusion of our barnstorming version of Blind Blake’s Black Dog, an enormous black Labrador burst through the double doors of the saloon bar and set about ravaging our washboard player.
Bismark’s was always more of a platform for Mal and my stylistic indulgences than it was a serious musical venture. But within its short lifetime I discovered my metier. DJ as poet, novelist, actor, director (why not all four?) – the old dreams evaporated like steam. Poop-poop – I was going to be a musician! So when Bismark’s ran out of creative fuel, I was ready to rock…