A Way With Words (Robert Hunter 1941-2019)

In the first hour of my first day on my first visit to the Glastonbury Festival I was assembling the necessary refreshments while watching my companion attempt to erect a tent I’d borrowed from a professional chess player of my acquaintance. She was no more an expert camper than myself but I was still surprised at the amount & volume of complaint coming in my direction. Please, I was trying to listen to the music drifting across the site, an acoustic version of a familiar Grateful Dead song, Of course it was, we had come to the festival for 3 days of Peace, Love & Music. As a Dead Head my interest was roused when another of their songs followed. I needed to get closer to the stage & investigate further. I left a joint for H, I’m sure that the weekend’s accommodation would be sorted by the time I returned.

 

 

So the first live performance I saw on Worthy Farm’s landmark Pyramid Stage was by Robert Hunter, the illustrious lyricist & collaborator with Jerry Garcia & the Grateful Dead, who unfortunately died this week aged 78. I’m no obituarist & it’s tough to settle on three selections when there are so many significant songs. I do have to mark the loss of a great American poet, someone whose contribution to our music & certainly to my own musical experience, has been considerable.

 

Image result for robert hunter jerry garciaHunter & Garcia were a thing before the Dead, even before Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. There’s just one credit for him on the group’s second album, “Anthem of the Sun” (1968), next time around his name was on all 8 tracks of “Aoxomoxoa” (1969). “Dark Star” is known as the apex of their improvised instrumentals but it has words & Hunter provided them. In 1970 the Dead’s recordings transitioned from being a psychedelic dance band to embracing their & America’s musical roots. Hunter’s stories of gamblers. losers, drug-addled train drivers & other working men, new myths of the West,  complemented this blend of Folk, County & Blues.  On the perfect “American Beauty” the Grateful Dead were singing sweet songs to rock our soul & the considered, philosophical lyrics made the listening experience transcendent.

 

 

The Grateful Dead records, live & in the studio, the solo albums & side projects, were all part of our collections. Robert Hunter’s “Tales of the Great Rum Runners” (1974) & “Tiger Rose” (1975) may not have got as much play as some of the others but they were good to have around, fine additions to a body of work from the extended Dead karass & an indication of songs that would have been more familiar if the band had picked them up. As the group matured so did Hunter’s lyrics & there were still those good enough to become long-standing inclusions in the live set. Bassist Phil Lesh said this week, “”As much as anyone, he defined in his words what it meant to be the Grateful Dead”.

 

Hunter continued to write with Garcia right up to the guitarist’s death. His intimate connection was established & he was still able to distance himself from the excesses of Rock & Roll by living in England for some years. I guess that’s how he ended up on the Glastonbury stage. He wrote with other people too, most notably with Bob Dylan on the “Together Through Life” LP (2009) where he shared credit on 9 of the 10 tracks. I could go on, checking for songs that mean more to me than they do to you, cherry picking some of his oracular lyrics, but I wont. Instead here’s Elvis Costello’s version of “Ship of Fools”, one of the outstanding songs Hunter wrote for “From the Mars Hotel” (1974) perhaps the last album from the Grateful Dead’s Golden Age.

 

 

Image result for robert hunter jerry garciaOne sure thing is that Robert Hunter’s words will be part of my funeral service, a reflection of the long, strange but hopeful trip it’s been. Problem is which song to settle on. It’s been “Box of Rain” for some time now though only a fool would not consider “Ripple”. Coming up on the outside is this beauty from Jerry’s first solo record. “To tell sweet lies, one last time and say good night”, thanks for your stories Robert Hunter. Fare Thee Well.

 

 

 

The Subtle Difference Between Justice And Contempt (Poll Tax Riot 1990)

Image result for poll tax banner25 years ago today, the 31st of March 1990, our crew gathered at Dave & Isobel’s for Saturday breakfast. Isobel is French so there was decent coffee & tasty bread, maybe croissants. They lived in a 10th floor of a tower block on an estate overlooking Kennington Park in South London which that day was one of the rallying points for a march to Trafalgar Square to demonstrate opposition to the Conservative Thatcher government’s plans to introduce the Community Charge. This Poll Tax was a badly planned, ill- judged, unfair & politically motivated attempt to re-organise local government taxation & funding. The Labour controlled councils of urban Britain had become a thorn in Thatcher’s side. Her individualism (“there is no such thing as society”) & her vindictiveness meant that, like the trade unions, this “enemy from within” should be firmly put in their place.

 

From our elevated viewpoint we could see the streams of people entering the park. This was going to be a big one. Through the past decade we had rocked against Racism & Sexism, shown our solidarity with the miners, our opposition to nuclear weapons, apartheid & to the Falklands War. My friends, like thousands of others, we’re no “whatever it is, I’m against it” Rent-a-Mob. We are politically conscious, concerned that governments which act in our name should be aware of opinions beyond the halls of the Houses of Parliament. It was time to join the throng below & add our voices to an argument that needed to be had.

 

 

There is always a good humour to these marches. At one for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament I had missed my friends, hooked up with another straggler & followed the Gay Liberation Front whose “Reagan is the cowboy. We are the Indians” whoops became a rallying cry for our section. This day the sheer size of the turnout was exhilarating. We headed off for the city centre knowing that this would be noticed. It was a slow stroll up to the Elephant & Castle then to Lambeth Bridge. Crossing the Thames we could see the head of  the march at the Houses of Parliament, the crowd got more dense & more vocal, the police presence more visible. On Millbank sheer weight of numbers meant that we came to a standstill.

 

Our part of the crowd made it to Whitehall, to Downing Street where Maggie lived, the belly of the beast. The black gates had been erected the year before, access restricted since 1982. An anti-terrorism measure perhaps (in 1991 the IRA had to launch their mortars from Horse Guards Parade), an ” erosion of the Englishman’s right to wander at will in Downing Street”, a symbol of the State we were in. There were thousands of us outside the gates & we were going nowhere, there was no room anyway, the road up to Trafalgar Square was rammed. Up the front there was a hubbub & a fol-de-rol, it was expected. Fuck this government & fuck their gates. Anyhow, I had been on this march for 4 hours, we were never going to make the rally & I needed a beer. Four of us split, the others stayed. We knew the score & would all meet up later at the Lemon Tree in Covent Garden for a Saturday night in the West End.

 

On the Embankment the marchers were avoiding the crush & able to stretch their legs. We headed for the Lyceum on the Strand, a Sam Smith’s pub, a good pint & Mickey’s local from work. We left Downing St at 2.55 p.m. there’s a clock, Big Ben, just over there. When the entrails of the day’s events were examined it was just minutes later that a mounted section of the Metropolitan Police charged down Whitehall in an effort to clear the crowd. I doubt that horses or riders discriminated between anarchists (the few) & concerned members of the public (the vast majority). There was no way to avoid this provocation. The police wanted people to go home & people didn’t want to. A peaceful, well-mannered, very British protest march was about to become something else.

 

 

We were in the pub when we heard the first stories of it going off just down the road. Smoke rose from Trafalgar Square while 400 yards away we enjoyed our drinks & planned to rejoin the crowds when we had drunk enough. When that time came we were denied entry to the square by the police cordon around it. This was our city, these cops knew nothing. Mitchell’s girlfriend was working at the Cambridge Theatre on “Les Mis”, we had to get into there to get her out of there. We both knew that the narrow alley at the side of the Lumiere cinema on St Martin’s Lane was likely to remain unguarded. It was…result…we were back on the march which had now become a riot.

 

We were met by a line of riot-suited & booted police who impolitely told us we could go no further. I replied that the UK was not yet a police state & we, helped by others, waded into them. Not a chance against truncheons & shields but it had to be done. We had only been in the area for a couple of minutes & we had already lost track of each other. It was just me & Aussie Pete now, the other two were big boys they could look after themselves. Up the Charing Cross Road we found that the city had been taken over by the demonstrators. The burning & looting was going on elsewhere, here the police had lost control & the crowd were having some fun with them. A chant of “No Poll Tax” would start on one corner, the Keystone cops charged the chanters who would evaporate before another group took up the mantra just 30 yards away. Repeat until your sides hurt from laughing.

 

The threat of violence against police & property was around as was the sound of breaking glass, but this was more about walking the way you want to walk in the streets of the country where you live. The Thatcher government had increasingly used the police as a political agency. The sight of cops waving overtime-bloated wage slips at striking miners became a sickening symbol of the divisions of 1980s Britain. Today they were outnumbered & the city belonged to us, bricking a BMW showroom was extreme but it seemed important to be there…Power to the Correct People !

 

 

Back at the Lemon Tree there was a celebratory atmosphere as we swapped war stories. Around midnight we walked down Whitehall, deserted except for the police vans. We walked up to those damned gates, still there, but the cops stayed in their vehicles. Maybe they’d made their day’s quota, maybe they were too tired. The next day Mitchell & I joined the tourists & sightseers to check the damage & watch the clean up. Again we wanted to show out, to walk where we wanted to. This was a very British riot. like those in Brixton & Toxteth in 1981 & the disturbances across the country in 2011, normal service was resumed as soon as possible. We don’t really want to be full time street fighters but we do like to make the point that when lines are being crossed we are not to be fucked about or action will be taken.

 

Of course the breast-beating & the condemnation of violence & lawlessness followed. What could not be ignored was the massive unpopularity of the Poll Tax & the size of the demonstration against it. The Tory Party, worried by opinion polls, made plans to challenge Thatcher’s leadership. All 3 of her opponents were against the  tax & her successor, John Major, abandoned it in his first speech as Prime Minister (Though 2 of my friends still did jail time for non-payment). I know, it’s a pity that she was stabbed in the back by her own party, that we never did get to parade her severed head on a stick around the nation. That day 25 years ago did mark the beginning of her end & I am glad that I was part of that mass protest against her & her shitty ways.

 

 

 

 

The Fast And The Furious (Elvis Costello/This Years Model)

Stiff Records were so free and easy with their publicity slogans that I am not sure of the actual given title of that first, momentous package tour of their impressive roster. “Live Stiffs”, “5 Live Stiffs”, “A Bunch of Stiffs”, it was probably all of these at some time. Anyway, “if it ain’t stiff it ain’t worth a f*ck”. I do know that on the 25th of October 1977 when the ragged, brilliant pub-rock parade reached Birmingham Town Hall it was a very hot ticket. That night there was a whole lot of exciting British music going on. It was the night that I saw Elvis Costello & the Attractions play live for the first time.

Costello’s debut LP “My Aim Is True” (1977) was absolutely part of the blast of fresh air blowing away the stale fug of UK prog rock. 3 singles, the ballad “Alison”, the retro “Red Shoes” & the anti-fascist “Less Than Zero”, had not been hits but had shown the range of an invigorating new songwriter. “My Aim Is True” was a big record around my too-old-for-punk friends & that night in Birmingham Elvis, backed by his new band raced through the LP in fine style. 2 songs which were not on the record “held by many as the most impressive debut in pop music history.” (Pitchfork) tipped us off  that the next release was not to be missed.

The only misfire on “My Aim…” was that Elvis (a cool & surprising  name to appropriate in 1977) had a backing band which was no more than competent. That 2nd LP came around in March 1978 as a record by Elvis Costello & the Attractions. The singer now had his own band & the synergy was perfect. Here was a new gang with something to prove & they made a flying start. “This Year’s Model” is an amphetamine-fuelled charge, Elvis’ spitting, snarling bile matched by the urgency of the rhythm section (Look, there’s Pete Thomas, a man to watch since he was drumming for Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers ) & the impassioned keyboard stabs of Steve Nieve. Some of these songs were the leavings from the first record. They were all improved by the collective input of musicians eager to do more than just play the tune.

All of these clips are from a show filmed for German TV. I love to see a group who know that they have something special going on & just want to steamroller an audience with quality & energy. This frantic take on “Lipstick Vogue” is not as disciplined as the recorded version where the charge from “sometimes I almost feel just like a human being” into the chorus never fails to stir. There is a clip of the same song from June 1979 when the band had sold more records & the song is a showstopper but here there is a demand from the band that attention is paid to something this good.

Those impressive new songs on the Stiff tour were “Watching The Detectives” , released as a single coincident with the Stiff tour, & “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”. “..Detectives” tense reggae-noir arrangement is a step forward from the debut LP. “…Chelsea”, a taut torrential sneer  underpinned by Bruce Thomas’s abiding bass line  which holds the room together. Here Elvis was pushing his “wordplay as swordplay…puns for punters”. I’ve nicked that quote because I like it. Some of my favourite rock & roll is as dumb as a box of hair but I never saw nothing wrong with a finely turned phrase, with some wit & intelligence in my music.

“They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie” always, for me evoked the 1967 movie “Smashing Time”, Rita Tushingham & the younger Redgrave sister are down from the North to go up West & Stark Raving Mod. The LP’s cover is Elvis as photographer, as David Hemmings in “Blow Up” (1966). “This Year’s Model” re-makes re-models the Swinging Sixties, the decade that Elvis & I became teenagers but were still kids. The classic pop of the Beatles, the attack & wit of the Who & the Kinks even, in ” The Beat”, the pre-Fab Four sound of Cliff Richard & the Shadows.There is too an element of misogyny recalling the early Stones, maybe young Declan MacManus had some scores to settle. I’m prepared to cut the guy some slack. It’s a misanthropic record, he didn’t like anybody. The closing track “Night Rally” is a companion to “Less Than Zero”. The posturing proto-fascist National Front were gaining political ground in 1977. They were not to be flirted with, not to be taken lightly. “Night Rally” is serious & seriously good.

Back in those few weeks when “Punk” became the latest  moral panic (between that stupid one & something even more dumb) British city centres were the setting for a bit of pushing & shoving between the police & local adolescent anarchists. It was all nothing much about very little, the pubs closed at 10.30 & most of those suburban situationists had pleasant family homes that they just didn’t want to go back to yet. Anyway, a punk friend of mine was chased & cornered by a Birmingham bluebottle who, referring to Mark’s shiny, of-the-moment, leatherette trousers sneered, “What are these then…Punk ?”. With the confidence of youth, our dedicated follower of fashion put 5-0 right, “No, they’re New Wave”. It is a fine line, maybe you have to be of a certain age, but that is some funny shit.

Elvis Costello wasn’t Punk either but he’d help them out when they were busy. The “whatever it is I’m against it” choler of his lyrics set in the short, sharp, shocking context of the Attractions placed this music right there in the contemporary section. For 15 years the current British interpretation of popular music had been exported to & copied by the rest of the world. The music business knew that this new unruly mob, gobbing on life in the dole-drums, would be a harder sell. The track listings on Costello’s records were mucked about with for the US, the seismic debut by the Clash was not even released there. “Ramones”, an LP which should be part of the post-natal kit for all new-born babies reached #111 on the charts. So, “New Wave” it was then. Less threatening, designed to shift product.The catch all tag included the Good (Graham Parker, B-52s, Devo), the Bad (the Knack, the Cars) & the Flock of Seagulls. New Wave, as a style & fashion, was, at best, nebulous & probably meaningless.

“This Year’s Model” picks up the torch of British pop music that had become obscured by self-indulgent space odysseys & triple albums. It combined the best of that inventive mid-1960s beat with the energy & attitude of the new music of 1977. There are later records by Elvis Costello & the Attractions that I love but if I want a rush & a push it’s the charge, it’s the bolt, it’s the buzz of this record that I reach for.

I’m Having The Time Of My Life Or Something Quite Like It (Elvis Costello in London1996)

There seemed to be something distinct about London’s summer in 1996. I was working in the belly of the beast, maintenance work on the head offices of a major financial institution smack dab in the middle of the City. A front row seat at the less than brilliant parade of Thatcher’s Children, now grown. The suburban spawn who had fallen hook, line & stinker for voodoo economics. Kids with such a limited world view that their ambition was to be a Yuppie. Technology called the shots, made the scene. Now there were factory farms, batteries of drones tethered to their flickering screens, all eager to make, at least, the weekly vigorish demanded by their masters. You walked into these barns built with imaginary money & were hit by a wave of body odour, with more than a note of desperation. Hey, we got fooled, kicked in the nuts, why should they be any different ?

So what can a wannabe rich boy (or girl) do ? Of course cocaine (God’s way of telling you you have too much money) & alcohol, lots of it, was compulsory. The default setting for these people was to talk a lot of wind. After work, drink in hand, they did the same, only faster. But then there were the pub singalongs ! I don’t really remember those before this year.

June 1996 was the month that Football Came Home. The UEFA European Championships was the first tournament in England in 30 years (of hurt). Football support had mainly been the preserve of working class men but  the national team’s relative success & a subsequent media blitz widened the sport’s appeal. Now everybody & your Auntie followed a team & were not backward in coming forward with their opinions…why I oughta ! London really was Party Central in June. Cafe culture arrived on the pavements as the crowds spilled from packed boozers. Traffic was adorned in bunting, nationalistic maybe but reclaiming the flag of St George from the racist, right-wing meatheads. No flags round our yard but it was open house for anyone who showed up with beer & munchies. And there was a song…“Three Lions” was by 2 comedians who did have some football cred & the bloke from the Lightning Seeds. You know the word “ubiquitous” well that’s what it was. It was sung at the games, in the bars, on the bloody street & got right on your nerves after about 2 days.

The Euros finished & what were we to do. The English found that they liked a song along with their skinful. Even my cynical circle enjoyed the more frequent gatherings. There was no option but to Party On !

The next weekend after the Final found us at the Roundhouse to see Elvis Costello…a double result. EC had not played the old “Great Circular Engine House” in Camden Town since 1978. Not many people had. I attended a benefit in a small space there featuring the varied talents of Vanessa Redgrave & Lene Lovitch just before it closed in 1983. It is a beautiful building, friends have good memories of wasted days & nights, trying & failing to find a corner. Newly redeveloped it had to be checked for. Had Elvis been redeveloped too ? It was difficult to maintain such a high standard of wordplay as swordplay (OK I pinched that) & punishing, er, puns (that’s mine). His work with the Brodsky Quartet & the 1995 curatorship of the Meltdown Festival was not lacklustre but did lack a little lust. We wanted to see our boy pump it up & we were not disappointed.

Another attraction of the gig was that the 3 Attractions were around. Bruce Thomas may have been a paid up member of the Awkward Squad but he was Elvis Costello’s bass player. In the 1970s we had seen the 4 of them invent New Wave before our very eyes. The 1986 Royal Albert Hall concerts introduced us to the Spinning Song Wheel, an element of vaudeville, a sense of humour beyond those with an eye on world domination (Springsteen & U2). This tour was a big European thing, the new LP “All This Useless Beauty” was hardly classic but 20 years of songwriting was just that. There are 7 Costello records which make my all-time Top 5 but by 1996 maybe people had forgotten just how much they liked him. That Saturday night we had a few beers in Camden, mooched across the road, paid at the door & watched a giant of UK music deliver a mighty show.

“It’s Time” was the 24th song of the night (“Accidents…” 19th) before “Alison” & “Peace, Love…” sent us home smiling & singing. We had seen an authoritative, assured bunch who had a mountain of songs & were ready to take them anyway, anyhow, anywhere they chose. It was tough to pick out highlights. The ever-present “Clubland” is always a contender, “Shipbuilding” always beautiful, “You Belong To Me”…thank you. Back in the world rock music was the mainstream for the first time in a long time but it was not this lovely stuff that was being carried shoulder-high through the streets.

The 1995 Britpop Battle of the Bands was purely a media brouhaha, a pile of toss. Who wins ? Who cares ? One year past it was Oasis, those Beatles Burglars, who were everywhere. This Summer 3.6 million applied for 300,000 tickets at a couple of their mega-gigs. “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” was selling 22 million copies. The LP would be played in pubs & a spontaneous serenade went off. No song sheet or conductor, people knew this stuff. I knew that these Lennon Larcenists made a noise which was reassuringly familiar & ordinary, comfort music but I had never before heard rock music, guitar music, make such an impression on the predominant popular culture. I had spent a lot of time on licensed premises too.

Now “Educating Rita” is not a great film but the scene in a pub on a noisy Saturday night when Rita’s mother is upset because “there must be better songs to sing than this” has always resonated. Here’s just a suggestion, a song written by Mark E Smith & Stephen Hanley about an earlier Madchester beat boom but absolutely prescient about Britpop’s mundanity.

I was not that chump who sat in the saloon bar on the outside of things…watching, judging. I’m British, I’m as hedonistic as the next guy & the next guy is going to end the night in a pool of piss & vomit (maybe not his own). I know him, he’s my friend. So when my very good friend, let’s call her Sue, invited me to a party round hers on a Friday night I assumed that 5 hours in the pub would be the ideal foundation for a good time. Unfortunately my definition of a party is at variance with Sue’s. The late arrival of 5 inebriate pleasure seekers at what can charitably be described as a stoned soiree was not appreciated at all. I did not realise that my friend had such insipid intimates but they did not deserve to have their night interrupted by my misjudgment. I was a barbarian, a beer monster & I was in big trouble.

My penance was an endless stream of apology, the purchase of a new hammock (I broke the old one…don’t ask) & a promise to take Sue to the next Elvis Costello & the Attractions gig. In the 3 weeks since a great night out at the Roundhouse there had been a media blitz & 4 other London gigs. The 27th of July return to the Roundhouse was the end of the European tour & the word was out about what a force EC & the Attractions still were. Unfortunately the word did not reach me until about 12 hours before the concert. That walk up of 3 weeks ago was not to be repeated, this gig was sold out & if I did not get myself together then I was going to be the guy who made promises that he could not keep.

Sue knew that tickets were hard to come by but I let her simmer & told her nothing. I had worked the phones all afternoon with little success. I knew that there would be touts (scalpers) around but that would be expensive & a little sleazy. We walked up to the Roundhouse box office past a long queue of ticket holders. I gave my name, a “plus one” &was given the nod. We were in, no money had changed hands. One of my partners in the previous week’s faux-pas had told me his mother was working the catering for the gig. A couple of phone calls got me to her & I explained my predicament. She knew about our lack of social grace & that  favour from her could improve my standing. We were on the guest list, Sue was impressed & I was on the way, at least, to forgiveness.

What a night it was. “You Bowed Down” the 2nd song of the first of 3 encores, the 21st of a 32 song set. The band segued their own songs into covers of the Stones, Dylan, the Isley Brothers. It was a tour of the force that had made Elvis & his gang the most creative & interesting act in Britain for a long time. After this Costello went on to pursue an ambition to play every musical style in the world with every musician alive. That’s OK because this night he showed he had the rock & roll down. The Roundhouse did it’s thing too, we stepped over the prone bodies of punters who had partied like it was 1969. You never got this at the Barbican !

In the Summer of 1996 I spent too much time with a blank generation who’s idea of a good time seemed to me to resemble a sketch by George Grosz. Maybe alcohol was back as the drug of choice after 5 years of “E’s & whizz”, I’m not sure., I was pissed. I saw Elvis Costello & the Attractions play 2 fantastic concerts. The football ?…our £5 each way on Czechoslovakia at 66-1 was looking scintillating when they were 20 minutes away from winning the thing. Mmm…440 reasons to dislike the Germans ! Peace.