DICK JONES – THE BASEMENT TAPES 1. Bismark’s Imperial Jug Wizards.


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 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 10 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, but in the rain; the intrinsic mendacity of agents complementing the inherent 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 levy imposed for two hours of glorious immersion in the music and the tidal roar of an audience that gets it.

So in between the remembering and the writing it all turned out rather differently…


The physical creaks and cracks of advancing age taken into account, it’s clear that a heart has grown old when its owner accepts that the dreams and visions of childhood and 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 drones 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 crammed between drum kit and 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 overwhelming 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 and 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…

1a_bismarks_1_copyL. to R. Mal Griffin, Pete Currie, Sam Hodson, Dick Hughes, Colin Oliver, Jon Richards DJ.

                                  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 and I were Drama students at Goldsmiths’ College in South-East London. We were cocky, arrogant and pissed off that in our tonik suits & 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 the single street that was Deptford Market.

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 & grey pin- & chalk-striped double-breasted suits, the jackets full skirted & the trousers high-backed & front-pleated, the legs flapping like sails from their deep pockets down to their one-inch turn-ups. And fluttering alongside them like exotic birds were the massive spatulate ties, big as trowels, of the Jamaicans & 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 shirts 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 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.

NUMBERS LISTAn early list of numbers. (The ‘Gwyneth’ referred to in brackets is Gwyneth Powell, later headmistress of Grange Hill).

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 & 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.


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 proceeded to ravage 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…

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Forty-plus years separate these two photographs. The first was taken within the bombed remains of a church off Tooley Street in London Bridge as part of a batch of publicity pics for a band, which, at that point, was more a shared fantasy than a seasoned reality. I had only a couple of weeks before become a bass-player for no better reason other than that Pete Currie owned both a red Hofner ‘Colorama’ electric guitar and a blue Selmer ‘Artist’ bass guitar and he wanted to stand at the front playing the former as we evolved triumphantly from college jug band to rock and roll phenomenon. Struggling anyway with moving from root to barre chords at speed and suffering still from flying plectrum syndrome (whereby the inexpertly gripped plectrum played on the downstroke is fired over the shoulder at high velocity), I yielded to the principle of six-strings-good-but-four-strings-better and became The Nervous System’s bass guitarist…


Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting to my bog an account of those four-and-a-bit decades. Hubristic, self-indulgent, name-dropping (walk-on parts are taken by the likes of Sandy Denny, Dorris Henderson, Bert Jansch, Paul Simon, John Peel, David Bowie, Elvis Costello and various blues legends, living and deceased) and over-decorated with the fine lacework of unnecessary detail, it’ll be the equivalent of the pub tale that goes on too loud for too long. With the crucial difference, of course, that you can slip into the next bar and I’ll be none the wiser!

But for most of us born this side of the Second World War, our lives and times, personal and contextual, are set to a soundtrack that starts with the uninhibited fever of early rock’n’roll and continues with whatever synthesis of words, melody and rhythm that moves hearts and feet collectively today. So if a sequence here or an anecdote there brings across a little of the atmosphere of time, place and incident then that will be gratifying indeed. But in the final analysis it’s my own desire to track the ‘long strange trip’ from remembered past into active present that drives the story. And that, I guess, is reason enough…


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Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care. The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath. Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course. Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Night falls. It bellies up to windows, crowds
the house. Da capo – dancing blind again.
Or stuck in a lift, trapped in a mineshaft,
premature burial. A hood, a mask, a carbon
lens across the eyes. A brush with oblivion,
I mutter, cotton-mouthed and bitter. Sleep
is a secret whispered to everyone else;
I’m kept in the dark.

Then cries from your cradle: birdsong,
catcalls – you have a menagerie in your throat.
I stumble down the stairs and find you caught
between solstice and equinox with a pulse
beating behind your eyes. I hold you tight
and draw your dream into my bright darkness.

You smile and, turning in my arms once,
you spill sleep like a benediction. The cipher
cracks. My darkness has no name.
I slide between its sheets.

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I wish I could do that – seize the time and place no trust in tomorrow. Difficult, though, when that stubborn illusion of personal immortality that gets one through childhood and youth finally yields to a sense of timespan and fragility.

And yet, between the jumping-at-shadows bouts of vulnerability when a sudden awareness of the body’s incapacities against the vitality of the consciousness bring gloom, I can still take heart. Yes, I keep forgetting names (and I understand that this is where the mental dereliction begins), but I can think and feel as passionately as ever. Age appears not to have significantly diminished what my headmaster described in the 17-year-old me as ‘an overbalanced sense of justice’. And a powerful sense of a spiritual dimension remains firmly in place alongside a quiet certainty that there is no God. I take great pleasure in the company of my friends; I laugh a lot; I read constantly; I’m writing steadily again; music, in the playing and the listening, continues to excite and move me in equal measure; and I am aware each day that I have much loved family immediately about me or close enough to see and/or hear whose years cover the spectrum from the horizon right up to a shoreline not so very far away from where I stand.

I am old enough to see how little I have done in so much time, and how much I have to do in so little.
Sheila Kaye-Smith.

[We] get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
Paul Bowles

“t’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.
George Harrison

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Matthew 6:34

There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.
Jean-Paul Sartre

The word “now” is like a bomb through the window, and it ticks.
Arthur Miller ‘After the Fall’)

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
George Eliot

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Sore Nature’s Balm 3

Sleep won’t let me in. From 23.15 to 02.20, a great weight of tiredness, moments of consciousness drift & then there’s the moonlight again. Weirdly, the brightness in the corners of the room is a small comfort. Something atavistic, maybe, from a time when nights were total darkness. I’m strangely alert now, but as the Thane of Cawdor says, it’s ‘sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care’, & when the alarm goes off in 3 hours & 20 minutes, unless sleep does let me in, even if only for a brief, leg-juddering few minutes at REM level, then unravelled I shall be!

Time to lie down.

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The time right now is 03.53. Apart from about 30 minutes of deep sleep between 23.45 and 00.15, to all intents and purposes, I haven’t slept since. When I awoke suddenly at 00.15, it wasn’t to the convulsive leg movements of PLMD (which normally occur in deep REM sleep after 60 to 90 minutes of initial sleep): I simply woke up. I then lay awake with thoughts and tune fragments drifting through my mind, as is pretty much standard process with my sleeplessness. The thoughts are not anxiety-driven; they’re generally clear and sequential, alternating between what strategies I might best use to get back to sleep and memory fragments from the preceding days.

After what I assumed to be at the most 30 – 40 minutes of tired but consistent wakefulness, I checked the time. It was 01.35. Somehow 1 hour 20 minutes had passed. It seemed inconceivable that I’d been lying in the same sleep-promotion position, awake and mentally active for so very long. Presumably I must have dozed off, but I had no sense of having passed from clear consciousness through light sleep and then back into the sequential thinking and the earworm tune as a murmurous soundtrack behind it all.

Since 01.35 I’ve been completely conscious – tired (so tired after nearly two months of disrupted sleep), but alert. I’m calm and philosophical about another night during which sleep – sore nature’s balm – has eluded me. But I am concerned about these strange holes in nocturnal time, periods during which I was either effectively asleep, albeit so lightly as to have been completely unaware of any transition between states, or, more alarmingly, awake but made subject to some unaccountable looping of time bringing about a greatly accelerated sense of its passing.

Tonight’s sleep-deprivation experience has been a sort of augmented insomnia, unconnected to my sleep disorder, which enables sleep but interrupts it. The standard process for me – inasmuch as there is any kind of pattern to it thus far – is an hour or so of sleep at a time alternated with leg convulsions that wake me up and will only abate after physical exercise and/or a period of full wakefulness in bed. A good night is one in which I fall asleep quickly after the necessary therapy. Straightforward insomnia is much less common; tonight’s experience of ‘time-slip’ insomnia is, I believe, a first.

I’m ringing the surgery tomorrow morning (more accurately, in about 3 hours) to get a referral for a consultation with a sleep specialist at a local private hospital. Hopefully, in essence the disorder will prove to be relatively straightforward. Having experienced Restless Leg Syndrome in youth and early middle age, I’m assuming that my PLMD is what is termed ‘primary’, as opposed to ‘secondary’, which would indicate some underlying disorder. (My health anxiety issues are very much tied in with fears of conditions relating to extreme morbidity or mortality). Until some programme is in process I shall continue to record my experiences here on the blog, elective access to which is available via Facebook.

It’s now 04.54. I’ll go back to bed, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll fall asleep now. The day ahead will be difficult: the general disorientation and dislocation caused by the effective merging of one day into another without sleep in between is something of a struggle. I don’t have the option of napping during the day because, as during the night, when I hit REM sleep the PLMs begin. So tonight I have to hope for, at worst, a resumption of the hour-long alternations of sleep and leg convulsions with a swift dropping off after each enforced full awakening. And at unlikely best a resumption of the full night’s sleep free of PLMD that the clonazepam gave me up to the tolerance that so suddenly came about early in August.

And so to bed…

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A persistent tugging in the right leg has me awake after an hour. A circuit or two of the house fails to release the spring and I lie in bed again with the coil of muscle tightening and then twanging in release. Reuben comes stumping upstairs, also awake but anxious from the thoughts that stalk about in the dark. So 35 minutes on I’m sitting by his bed waiting for his breathing to deepen and extend in that steady train-on-the-track rhythm so hated by the insomniac lying awake beside a sleeping partner.

Which now it has. Alone again. Back upstairs to fall asleep the other side of the lost hour or to lie in the nearly new moonlight with that leg-spring coiling and releasing every 8, 10, 12 seconds. 

Two goodish nights behind. Enough sleep investment to soak up the hours to be lost tonight?Or will the leg, now diverted, unwound, give me a couple more hours before it loosens its newly wound up clockwork (ironic noun) to whir back into life again within 2 or 3 hours?

And so, an hour after waking, to bed…

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