There’s not many men round here who’ve still got their Meccano sets, you know! (Liz Smith)

Image result for liz smith hard labourI first became aware of Liz Smith, who died this week aged 95, in 1973 when she starred in “Hard Labour”, a BBC TV drama directed by Mike Leigh & produced by Tony Garnett. The weekly “Play for Today”, like its predecessor “The Wednesday Play”, was a forum for many emerging British talents. The strand encompassed a wide variety of styles & subjects. It was the hard-hitting & effective social realist themes, a development from kitchen sink dramas of a decade earlier which often provoked controversy. “Hard Labour” was Leigh’s first TV play, it employs his improvisational technique to achieve a naturalism & a bleakness unleavened by the humour to be found in his later work. Mrs Thornley, harassed by her husband, patronised by her middle-class employer & offered no solace by her religion, is a study in isolation & limited communication. Liz Smith was outstanding in the part & she broke our hearts.

Image result for liz smith i didn't know you caredThere’s very little of “Hard Labour” on the Interwebs so let’s move on a couple of years to her next starring TV role. “I Didn’t Know You Cared” was a sit-com adapted from his own novels by Peter Tinniswood. It ran for 4 series from 1975-79, another slice of Northern life, this time across the Pennines in Yorkshire. The Brandon family were a wonderful parade of absurd characters, the men cloth-capped, gloomy & cynical, the womenfolk keeping a close eye on them & their faults. It had a terrific ensemble cast, was tougher than the long-running “Last of the Summer Wine”, with the gentleness & acerbity of Alan Bennett. At the heart was Liz Smith’s Mrs Brandon, hen-pecking, haranguing & hilarious, nailing some of the best lines of a very good bunch. Some right old toot from the same period is now recycled on the nostalgia channels with no sign of this classic British comedy.

Ms Smith was in her fifties before this acting thing really took off. Her talent to portray the slightly mad but always likeable Grandma found her plenty of work in film & TV & she quickly became a very recognisable character actor. Her cinema work included Lindsay Anderson’s “Britannia Hospital”, Ridley Scott’s debut “The Duellists” & she was Lady Phillippa of Staines in Viv Stanshall’s brilliant “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End”. She was perfect for the BBC’s adaptations of Dickens & appeared in Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” classic episode “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite”. It would be 1984 before she gained recognition from her peers for her talents.

Handmade Films, a British production & distribution company, was formed by George Harrison when his Monty Python friends were struggling to finance “Life of Brian”. The story goes that George had to mortgage a house but I don’t think that he ever went short. In the next decade Handmade were involved with many fine British films. “A Private Function” (1984) is as close as this to the gentle, eccentric comedies made by Ealing Studios in the 1940s & 50s. Alan Bennett was an international success in 1960 with “Beyond the Fringe”. He continued to act while becoming better known as a writer for TV & theatre. This was his first screenplay, perhaps having less substance than his plays but no less lacking in the acuity Bennett has for language & the intricacies of social interaction & manners.

Image result for liz smith a private function“A Private Function” is set in post-Second World War Yorkshire when food was still rationed. The social climber Joyce Chilvers (Maggie Smith) is determined to make her mark in the town & intends to drag Gilbert, her chiropodist husband, (Michael Palin) along with her. A pig, being illegally fattened for a municipal celebration is kidnapped by the Chilvers & hilarity ensues…really it does. Along with the great writer & the two illustrious principals the cast involves an overflowing National Treasure chest. Denholm Elliott, Alison Steadman, Pete Postlethwaite & others all do their distinctive thing while Liz, as Joyce’s mother, driven mad by the smell of the secret pig, thinking that perhaps she could be the source of the odour, won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Image result for liz smith a private functionLiz continued to do the work, adding value to whatever she appeared in. In 1998 she was cast as Nana Norma in Caroline Ahern’s comedy “The Royle Family”.By this time she was 76 year’s old & the nation’s favourite grandmother, perfectly cast in a series which, along with Ricky Gervais’ “The Office” & Steve Coogan’s “I’m Alan Partridge” injected new energy & raised the standard of British situation comedy. “The Royle Family” was sometimes a kitchen sink drama but it was mostly on the living room sofa in front of the telly. The skillful characterisation, the pacing, the natural humour & affection made many people suspect that Aherne had placed a spy camera in their own homes to obtain material. This clip, from the 2006 special “The Queen of Sheba” where the new baby is introduced to the bedridden Nana will moisten the driest of eyes. A starring role in the UK’s most popular comedy brought Liz Smith even wider recognition &, in 2007, a British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actress.

Liz Smith was born in my hometown in Lincolnshire. She’s from the Crosby area up in the north of town. She attended the secondary school which, years later with a change of name, in a different building became my school. That may be why, even in those early days  before I knew of her origins, I found her performances to be so convincing. She reminded me & so many others of our own grandmothers except that perhaps my Nana Daisy actually knew her as young Betty Gleadle. Sad events have made this appreciation into an obituary & that’s a pity. It’s OK because I am reminded of the talent of Liz Smith by the old ladies I talk to at the bus stop, in the market & around my estate. For these women, who have lived through some times, have seen & learned some things, Liz Smith represented.

Joe Brown’s Hit Parade (2016)

Joe Brown has supported & encouraged this blog since the very beginning. When I wanted other voices to contribute their end-of-year stand outs he was the first person I asked because he got good taste. It’s a tradition now, the 5th year, that Joe points us to his favourites so, without further ado, it’s that man again !
Image may contain: 2 people, outdoorThere’s not an end of year “Best Of”, broadcast, in print, written & talked about anywhere on the planet that doesn’t acknowledge 2016’s Haul of Fame, I can be no different . When the indestructible Lemmy left us at the end of 2015 who could possibly have imagined who would have followed him by the end of 2016. I know it’s life and what can you do, but to see so many big hitters depart in an unreal succession was difficult to comprehend. Personally, Bowie,Prince,Leonard Cohen and Gene Wilder’s leaving shook me the most… what more can be said…so it goes.
OK, my top 3 musical highlights of the year in no particular order. In the words of Willy Wonka (via Oscar Wilde), “the suspense is terrible, I hope it’ll last”…on we go!
“Skeleton Tree”” is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ follow up to 2013’s “Push The Sky Away”. The album, his 16th with the Bad Seeds, bears all the Cave hallmarks, masterly crafted songs concerning doomed romance & foreboding fate. Only this time Art & Reality have collided to add a unique poignancy to the record. “Skeleton Tree”  was written & recorded around the time of the tragic loss of his teenage son Arthur. With that in mind listening to it had me in awe! For the man to continue on with day to day life must have taken some strength but to complete an album and pour his heartache into it takes a person with unimaginable courage and commitment and love. This is not a record for all occasions but you should find the time to give it consideration. It’s a mesmerising listen & will stop you right in your tracks.
Image result for parquet courts 2016From early this year Parquet Courts’ “Human Performance”  was, for me, their best since 2012’s “Light Up Gold”. After the improvised experiments of “Monastic Living” (2015) New York’s finest (really)  return to the stripped back post-punk, anxious lyrics combined with irresistible, melodic hooks, pure & simple human performances. Its an easy option to throw out the Modern Lovers/Velvets/ Pavement comparisons. Parquet Courts have a lot more going for them than their influences. Lyrically the album is packed with “what did he just sing?” moments but it’s tough to choose standout tracks such is the quality & consistency of the whole. “I Was Just Here” deals with displacement and the dreadful situation when you return home you find your favourite Chinese restaurant/chip shophas shut down..a horror I am familiar with.The title track, a great pop song, has a melody faintly reminiscent of Wire’s “Outdoor Miner”..wonderful!
Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” is an album that shows you something new on every listen, As Thom Yorke sings in “Daydreaming”…”this goes beyond me, beyond you”. Often described as a band in constant motion, they’ve shifted again. Sustained experimentation is probably their only familiar theme. Their skill lies in tweaking levels, dropping in signals, making serious music that is still bright & uplifting. “Ful Stop”, a tour-de-force, is up there with my favourite musical pieces of the year. The Latin shuffle of “Present Tense” counters the natural melancholy of Yorke’s lyrics. There’s so much to admire & discover on this record, Radiohead are operating in Miles Davis country, making records that are innovative artistic statements. “A Moon Shaped Pool”s musical journey has been my choice to accompany my own journeys this year.

Image may contain: 1 personThanks Joe, you’re the 2nd friend this week to endorse the Radiohead record…that’s enough to put me on to it. In 2017 I look forward to new music from Joe’s band the Gatefolds &, you never know, a reunion of Derry legends Bam Bam & the Calling (Joe is the bassist) on the occasion of your upcoming big birthday would be the very thing.

Here Comes Santa Claus (A Christmas Story)

One of the good things about working in construction was that it was one of the last businesses to pay your wages weekly. The days of cash, in hand or in a lovely packet, may have been over but you could still work hard in the week & be holding the folding for the weekend. So, Monday I got Friday on my mind, by the time it’s Friday, it’s 5 to 5 & I’m looking forward to a crackerjack few days. It’s a thing, wash off the day’s dust, a throwaway meal, neck it pronto, music that’s loud & fast, maybe a couple of cheeky lines, certainly a couple of cheekier friends & I’m ready to go. Then the phone rang…

 

“Hi Mal, I need a little favour”. That was my friend Sally & a “favour” usually involved her handing her 3 small children into my care. Charlie, Danni & George were a rambunctious gang of angels.I loved their company, loved being the “uncle” who could share their fun. I think that they liked me too.My weekend would have to wait. “OK, should I come to your’s or will you bring them over ?”. “No it’s not that. I need a man with a big white beard in a big red suit”. It was the third week of December, I knew the fellow she was on about but…hmm…really ? “I know, but I promised a Santa & no-one else is around…Please !”.

 

So, within the hour I’m the most festively dressed man in this North Birmingham car park & thinking that this had all been a bit rapid. The kids knew that I could be a pushover but not all the time. The looks from & the amusement on the back seat clued me in to their surprise that Mum had got me to go along with this. The gig was on behalf of the local Round Table, not, unfortunately, the knights of Arthurian legend but a charitable network involved in raising money for their communities. Their was a hubbub of door-to-door collectors drawn from various junior paramilitary set ups like the Sea Scouts & the Brownies. I was shown to my “sleigh”, a Land Rover-drawn carnival float, handed a large bag of sweets, y’know, for the kids, a microphone (interesting !), a cassette of popular Xmas hits & sent on my way.

 

 

Related imageOK, a couple of things, no right-thinking person should let me loose in the suburbs with a microphone. I’ve got information man ! New shit has come to light & people need to hear it. Also I’m never really seized by the festive spirit until almost the last minute. By Christmas Eve I’m as ready as a red-nosed reindeer. I love the time spent with family & friends, I just don’t get the materialism, the planning in October, the office party with people you avoid for the rest of the year (though I’ve had my moments at these). I’m really not a miserable person but, if asked “Are you ready for Xmas ?” then you may get short shrift & the wrong impression.

 

Another thing…I’m really not a great fan of Xmas pop songs. I know that there are plenty of offbeat, cool seasonal offerings (I can’t resist including one here) but the mainstream staples have always struck me as just being too much of a novelty, bland to start with & not helped by the annual repetition. Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You” was released in 1963, just as Santa brought me exactly what I wanted, a shiny new record player. It pretty much covered all the ground that needed to be covered. Much of what followed, for me, paled in comparison & no-one was ever going to look as good as the Ronettes did in those Xmas outfits. This was not my gig & I didn’t get to choose the playlist. No-one wants a halfhearted, smart arse Santa stinking up the evening so it was time to get my act together & I’d better be good for goodness sake !

 

 

And it all went very well. I gave it the full amplified “Ho, Ho, Ho”, curtains were opened, old ladies waved back & the kids came out to meet me. I handed out the confectionery & not one of the little mites saw through my disguise. In return, when they told me what they hoped to receive when I called on Christmas Day, I made promises that their parents would possibly be  pissed off about. I didn’t even rise to the cherub who, when asked what he wanted for Xmas, replied “Everything !”. Greedy little blighter !

Image result for santa sleighThe joviality was turned up to 11 despite being stuck with this music by all the usual suspects, Slade Wizzard, Elton John, Wham. I was having a good game, my festive flow was in full effect. The quality & sincerity of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” seemed incongruous & I wished the citizens of Kingstanding “Peace on Earth from John, Yoko & all the other Beatles”. that was as far as I was going to push it.There was a bit of a swerve when up came “Another Rock & Roll Christmas” by Gary Glitter, a man whose stage costumes resembled a foil-wrapped turkey but who had, more recently made the news because of his unsavoury sexual predilections. The Double Gee was a pervert & this was the wrong soundtrack to be handing out sweets to children. I needed to find the fast forward button sharpish to get to something less controversial (but equally offensive) like “Mistletoe & Wine” by Cliff Richard. Where’s an elf when you need one ?

 

 

Image result for bad santaI was still on roll when we left the residential avenues for the main road. The adults were corralled & we flash crashed a couple of pubs, y’know for charity. Back on my sleigh I gave a ride to Dani & her friend. My job done I passed them the mic & they serenaded passing pedestrians with the hits of Robbie Williams, who, for reasons that eluded me, was very popular at the time. Back at base photos were taken & everyone was very pleased with the evening’s work. Unfortunately they wanted the costume back & I was mild-mannered Clark Kent again.

 

I went back with Sally & the kids & when Dad, Bernie, returned from his late shift he was assailed with the stories of what he had missed. Bernie knew me well & he couldn’t quite believe that I had been persuaded to join the seasonal shenanigans. Sally was so pleased that I had helped her out that she fed me for the weekend (I like food !) & I stayed with this lovely family until Sunday. I wasn’t Santa anymore but I was full of peace & goodwill & knew that if he was busy I was up to the job of helping him out. Merry Xmas everyone.

 

 

 

 

Music To Fergal’s Ears (2016)

 

It’s the time of year that Loosehandlebars invites anyone who rocks up & can be bothered, to contribute their picks of the year. First up is Dr Fergal Corscadden, guitarist off of Derry noise merchants the Gatefolds. Dr Fergal is a real doctor just not a medical one. I’m still going to get him to take a look at this embarrassing rash of mine though !

 

Image may contain: 1 personA suck bag of a year: the death of some of the most celebrated musicians to have ever walked our polluted planet – mix into that a year scourged by a rapid, domino-effect decline in sensible politics (if ever such a thing existed) and you’ve got your suck bag. Yes, some would say 2016 has been evil; a fucking tremendous annus horribilis. But, this isn’t a blog-piece about that. No, I’m here to talk all things my top 3 releases of the year. I’m not choosing some of the more obvious choices among the massive hits this year, I guess that many fellow bloggers/contributors will no doubt mention those. Instead, I’m going to talk about ones that fell slightly below the radar and/or which merit greater attention.

 

I’ll not say that there was so much to choose from, but, well, yip, there has been. From what I have managed to listen to so far it’s all been good. In my traditional style (“borrowed” from the Miss World pageant), the run down will be in reverse order from 3rd to 1st . Believe me, this has changed a lot over the last week or so.

 

 

3       And, nudging fellow Manchester no-wave outfit Cabbage out of 3rd place, is DUDS. Like many new bands I’ve had the pleasure of listening to in 2016, BBC 6Music has been my main source so hats and scarfs off to them. DUDS released 3 EP’s in 2016, two of these, “NLP” & “Unfit For Work” are available (name your price) at their Bandcamp page . The 3rd EP, on physical release October 28 2016, gave us the jerky, quirky angular guitar laden ‘No Remark’. If young bands today are writing stuff like DUDS (and there are many…. Institute, Cabbage, Ulrika Spacek, Kane Strang to name a few), then there is a great future for music as we approach the end of the 2nd decade of the 21st Century. Every time I listen to this, it sounds like my very first time and at the end of it I want to hit repeat. So, go on, you know you want to…. DUDS/’No Remark’

 

 

Image result for preoccupations band2    #2 slot is firmly occupied by ‘Preoccupations’, by Preoccupations. The Canadian band described as ‘labyrinthine post-punk’ and formerly known as Viet Cong, released a substantial album in September 2016. Under their old moniker they threw out jams like ‘Continental Shelf’ and ‘Bunker Buster’ from their self-titled debut album ‘Viet Cong’. With the name change comes a change in sound. I think the new album, the difficult 2nd one, has a much more mature and focused approach. Take ‘Memory’ for example, at just over 11 minutes you might think that things could get a little samey, and that’s when they crank things up, change direction once again and finish the track off with 6 minutes of dreamscape ambience; you have to watch the video for more on this. Their sound, while holding onto their uniqueness, which comes from the very 80’s sounding vocals of Matt Flegel, is difficult to pin down, but why would you want to, their fantastic music is already enough of a preoccupation… Preoccupations/’Memory’

 

 

And…drum roll…the winner is…the tenth studio album from the incredibly talented Joshua Paul “Josh” Davis, aka DJ Shadow. Every single track on every album release since 1998s ‘Endtroducing’ stand out as masterpieces to me. This guy had me right from the start of his 18+ year musical career as DJ Shadow. The new album ‘The Mountain Will Fall’ is no exception folks. Related imageRight from the get-go, opening track and album title track, we get a “Hi” to welcome us in. This is one of my favourite tracks on the album because it is a down-beat instrumental hip hop track that grabs you by the shoulders and gives you a hug and says, “come on in, sit down, enjoy yourself, now, are you ready?”. The other outstanding tracks for me are track 4 ‘Bergschrund” featuring the German composer/producer Nils Frahm’, track 6 ‘Depth Charge’; and the final track on the album ‘Suicide pact’. I have to say, this is one of those special albums that upon repeat listen, you hear more and more each time. Happy listening folks! DJ Shadow/’Bergschrund (feat. Nils Frahm)

N.B. If Loosehandlebars hadn’t pulled rank & grabbed Underworld’s ‘Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future’, that would have been my No. 1 album, ya sod ye! ;).

 

This year Fergal treated me to my first ever gig in the Republic of Ireland, a fine night with good people seeing Hookworms do their thing in Letterkenny. Now he’s handed me 6 minutes of “dreamscape ambience” & a hug from DJ Shadow. Let’s hope there will be more nights in 2017 including a show by the Gatefolds who, I’m told, are ready to go with some new material.

Loosehandlebars Pick of The Pops 2016

Well, this has been some year. My generation is of an age where its cultural heroes are getting old & a certain amount of loss is to be expected. In 2016 the Grim Reaper seems to have been on some sort of productivity bonus & too many of the good & the great have left the Earth. The impression made on my own life by Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff & Prince ensures that their memory is eternal. There are others, it’s a list & it’s a long one. Parallel to this exit of giants has been the rise of political pygmies. The success of Theresa May, Nigel Farage & President Trump (now there’s something to choke on), pedlars of fear, hawkers of hatefulness & nostalgia for an age that never was, has been, for myself, a shock & a disappointment. Thank Jah that music is still able to calm my unease & to raise the spirit.

 

 

So #1 in my heart for this year is “Light Upon the Lake”, the debut LP from Whitney. This Chicago band came almost out of nowhere, I knew the Smith Westerns, less so the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. This short, 10 tracks, 30 minutes, collection of mostly break-up songs doesn’t waste a moment. The individual falsetto of drummer/singer Julian Ehrlich is a taste worth acquiring because repeated listening brings out the band’s Country Soul. Of course references to past music will be made, the use of brass reminds me of Calexico, while the guitar insertions of Max Kakacek (co-writer with Erlich) have the economy & taste of George Harrison, not a name you hear enough nowadays.

 

Image result for whitney bandAt a time when I’m finding the output of established American artists to be mining a seam that, while still productive, was providing a greater return 10 years ago, Whitney sound fresh & modern. The songs they choose to cover indicate a finely tuned taste. There’s a touch of Allen Toussaint in the way the songs are short, sweet, restrained & melodious. “Nashville Skyline” Bob Dylan provides “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You” & anyone who checks for NRBQ is OK by me. Have just one more. This swashbuckling version of “No Matter Where We Go” was a digital release which brings to mind the pop sensibility of Big Star. That’s some heavy names & no-one here has mentioned the Band…Get on this record !

 

 

New music can take longer to reach me now. Johnny Marr’s solo LPs were released in 2013/14 but it was only this year that I really came around to them. Similarly the melancholy Merseybeat stylings of Bill Ryder-Jones’ “West Kirby County Primary” was almost a year old before it made a very good impression around here. Anyway, I keep returning to the music of Steely Dan & Donald Fagen, some of it 40 years old now, a reminder that intellect, sophistication & a jaded cynicism are still to be valued. Here’s #2 on this year’s Hit List.

 

 

Way, way back in the early 1990s while the world was going “grunge” & then, over here, buying into the Britpop thing there was a thread in British music, collectives who were listening to House, Hip Hop & Dub before creating their own sounds. Dreadzone, Leftfield. the Bristolians Massive Attack & Tricky were all making music that seemed more acute than the rock retreads of boys & girls with guitars (Teenage Fanclub being the exception). Underworld’s “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” & “Second Toughest in the Infants” LPs were a one-two knockout combination of high quality techno & world class production placing the trio in the vanguard of the new dance music’

 

Image result for underworld band barbaraAn Underworld b-side “Born Slippy. NUXX” featured in “Trainspotting”, Cool Britannia’s flagship movie. “Lager lager” was a popular flavour at the time & the group had a big hit on their hands. Subsequent releases did not match the quality of those two records, we were chilling out & trip-hopping while they were becoming Underworld-by-numbers. This year’s “Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future” is their first release for almost 6 years. They are back to the original duo & Karl Hyde’s collaboration with Brian Eno, 2 albums in 2014, was a tip off that they had got it going on. It’s a collection for the head, the heart & the hips, strong songs topped by the glitter-rock done by the Fall of “I Exhale”, tailed by the shimmering beauty & power of “Nylon Strung”. Underworld know what they want & know how to get it done. Listening to”Barbara…” is, for me an exhilarating & uplifting experience & 2016 sure needed some of that.

 

 

OK, the 3rd choice is a tough one. For most of the year Daniel Romano’s “Mosey”, an exercise in Bohemian Country, was almost nailed on. Later in the year the 2 Knowles sisters, Solange & Beyonce, impressed with their new records. Common’s “Black America Again” sounds like Hip Hop as it should sound while the return of Tribe Called Quest always demanded attention but “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” came a little late & well…I miss Phife. This past month I have been listening to a lot of Sade !

 

Image result for sade mf doom“SADEVILLAIN” is a 20 minute mix made by young Portsmouth producer Seanh2k11. It matches #1 rapper MF DOOM with Ms Adu, a prominent purveyor of Eighties coffee table Soul & man, it sounds very good to me. DOOM sampled Sadie’s “Kiss of Love” on “Operation:Doomsday” his debut back in the last century (1999) & Sean Harrison has merged the greatest hits of both of them with imagination & skill. His Soundcloud page is well worth a visit. I am familiar with Sade’s work, I knew a lot of women who loved her back then. The light jazzy tinge suits DOOM’s other-worldly flow & gives a consistency to the 8 tracks. I recently watched Common’s NPR concert, Jazz-Rap in the White House Library is a little too refined for me. “SADEVILLAIN” is as cool as I need Rap to be. While we wait for DOOM’s collaboration with Ghostface Killah, this will do !

 

David Bowie Is My Friend by Danny McCahon

Towards the end of 2015 I turned the age my father was when he died. Not only did that mark a year of reflection on my own mortality, it ushered in a year when many of the cultural stars of my youth would leave the planet. Actors, pop stars and political leaders who’d featured on the walls of my bedroom or in my pub debates were dying at an alarming rate. Even the immortality of Celtic’s European Cup winners, the Lisbon Lions, was being challenged.

Without doubt the celebrity death that affected me most occurred on January 10. Two days after he gave us what I would argue is the best album released so far this century, two days after his 69th birthday, David Bowie shuffled off this mortal coil. We heard the news early on a Monday morning and the sympathetic, silent nod from a colleague, a full quarter of a century younger than me, at 9:00 am said everything about what Bowie meant across the generations. There were no words.

How could we be so affected by the death of a man we’d never met? Well, we had met him, hadn’t we? We might never have shaken his hand but we knew him and, by the gods, he knew me. If a friend is defined as someone who is there when you need them, David Bowie has been my friend for 43 years.

I was a teenage seminarian and, after two years of football, prayer and operettas, third year was getting me down. I had discovered T Rex and on the odd occasion we were allowed outside the cloisters I would buy a music mag. Gradually I was finding less and less in common with the boys around me and had begun to feel cast out, isolated. Then, the night before I was due to catch the train back to the loneliness at the end of the Christmas holidays, I saw David Bowie on “Top of the Pops”.

 

Image result for david bowie jean genie ray lowry

The Jean Genie gave me a glimpse into a brave new world and by January 25 I had left the seminary. The following Monday I enrolled at my local comprehensive and was asked the question: what music are you into? One word ‘Bowie’ and I had friends. Those friends introduced me to all the best music in the world, but none gave me more guidance than Bowie. Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople, he told me about acts that are favourites to this day. And he never stopped giving me tips: Nine Inch Nails, Mouse on Mars among the more recent.

Sixteen years after that “Top of the Pops” epiphany, the first of my children was born. I had never looked forward to anything more in my life, but the moment I held my son in my arms panic hit: was I ready for the responsibility? Again, Bowie was on hand to help. When Roddy’s mother and I brought him home for the first time and Susan had a nap, I put the needle on to side one, track five of “Hunky Dory and welcomed my baby to our flat with this soundtrack:

 

 

Image result for david bowie kooksI repeated the action with all three of his sisters on the days we brought them home. On January 11, each of those children sent me a heartfelt, comforting message. Coincidentally, when my youngest, Carol, asked her granny if she like David Bowie, my mother started to sing The Jean Genie. I guess that song had a bigger effect on my family that I had realised.

By 1987, after the release of “Never Let Me Down”, like many fans, I began to rely on Bowie’s back catalogue for a familiar catch up. Even Bowie had become bored with Bowie and he ducked for cover among his pals in Tin Machine. I’m a loyal mate but had to work hard to hang out with Dave and his band.

Then, 20 years after The Jean Genie had changed the direction of my life, I was working in an office full of good people but with a head full of plays and dreams of another new direction. I was having a bad day at the office and went for a walk. I wandered into a soulless indoor shopping centre in a drab West of Scotland town and gravitated towards the record shop. In the window there was a poster for a new David Bowie album. I had got so caught up in family and career that “Black Tie White Noise” was the first Bowie album since 1973 I hadn’t known about in advance. I felt guilty as I handed over the money and when I reached track eight on the disc I realised that Dave had only been on sabbatical for six years, he hadn’t deserted us. I didn’t grudge him the break.

 

 

When Dave died, I was reminded how private grief is, how personal moments had been even when I’d enjoyed a live show among thousands of others or heard a new release on the same day as millions. I didn’t want to talk about it and even got mildly angry when the Aladdin Sane flashes began to appear everywhere from the local baker’s window to the Daily Mail. There was much more to Dave than glam rock. People, sincere music fans among them, still argue that he hadn’t recorded anything of note since the seventies. I counter with this masterpiece first released on the 2003 album “Reality”:

 

 

David Bowie was still expanding my tastes in his final days. On playing “Blackstar” repeatedly for two days on its release, one of my first reactions was: that drummer is amazing, who is he? I’d found another new favourite in Mark Guiliana.

Image result for david bowie blackstarIt’s difficult to think of “Blackstar” now outside the context of what the great man was suffering when he wrote and created it and his subsequent death, but for that first weekend the music was all that mattered. After the weak “The Next Day” three years earlier, here was the man back on top of his game, on top of the heap. And like the magpie he’d always been, he had taken the finest ingredients of drum and bass, electronica, rock and jazz and made them into that finest of things: A Bowie Album. Like all of his best works it is of the now but carries deep heritage in its grooves, it didn’t rise from nowhere but is the result of a life, a history, an evolution of curiosity and genius.

On the day it was released, I said the final two tracks, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, alone had an album’s worth of music and story in them. I take great comfort from the fact that the final songs on his final album show that his creative power and artistry hadn’t faded.

As we approach the anniversary of its release and its creator’s death, “Blackstar” is still my go-to Bowie album. I haven’t put it on the shelf among the rest of my records, the notion feels too final. I don’t want to say goodbye to my friend.