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My life and good times:
Memoirs of a rock ’n’ folk survivor
"It’s been a long, hard road."
   – Richie Havens

Long? Certainly. I little thought, when I was singing Cumberland Gap with the Original Riversiders skiffle group back in the middle of the Twentieth Century, that I'd still be at it (albeit with a rather different repertoire), five decades later.

Hard? Well, there have been good times as well as bad. These days, the toughest time is when the phone rings, and it's The Independent on the phone; "Oh God," I cry, "who's dead now?" Because the only time the broadsheets call it's the obituary desk, and is so-and-so important? Funny, I could ring the arts page until my dialling finger's white-numb, and the day before, they didn't want to know about so-and-so. The day after so-and-so dies, I can get a big piece in, plus a picture splash.

Seems like, the way it's always been for artists from Dylan Thomas to Kurt Cobain, they have to die to live.

After Bert Lloyd died, they organised a big celebratory concert in his memory. "Sod that," I exclaimed, and we (Bruce Dunnet and I, that is) persuaded Ken Livingstone to lend us County Hall for a weekend symposium in honour of Ewan MacColl, which the great man could attend himself.  Thank God we honoured Martin Carthy while the old bugger was still alive , though that was someone else's bright idea, not mine.

It's a murderous business, this music. "Ashes t'ashes 'n' dust t'dust/If the drugs don't get you, the car-smash must," as the old jazz standard didn't quite put it. Back in the Seventies I wrote a book called Singers of an Empty Day: Last Sacraments for the Superstars. Much of it was bollocks, attempting to relate the rock scene to the writings of Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough), Robert Graves (The White Goddess, The Greek Myths), and Margaret Murray (The God of the Witches), seeing the dead superstars as ritual sacrifices. In among the ill-digested anthropology, I did get one thing right, I'm sorry to say: that if the Beatles ever re-formed, they'd die.

Well, they didn't. But the only Beatle who stayed more or less true to the original dream was shot down on the steps of the Dakota apartments in New York on December 8, 1980. The first I knew of it was when a colleague rang me. "I thought you were full of shit," he said, "but you were right. John Lennon's dead."

So many deaths, so many bright talents cut down in their prime: John . . . Jimi . . . Sandy . . . Phil . . . Peter . . . Redd . . . the Martins (Lamble and Winsor) . . . Tim Hardin, who had more or less kicked his habit when suddenly getting all those royalties from If I Were a Carpenter pushed him off the rails again.

Not to mention those whose more balanced lifestyle kept them going to a ripe old age but the grim reaper got 'em all in the end. So many wonderful singers and musicians, just to mention whose names is like plugging into reality: Maggie Barry, Michael Gorman, Harry Cox, Billy Pigg, Walter Pardon, Jeannie Robertson . . . each name drags back into memory too many more to list here.

People look wide-eyed when I reminisce about what Bob Dylan or Miles Davis or Jim Morrison or Phil Ochs might have said to me, but the real memories I treasure are the walking wounded who are still going -- if not strong, then soldiering on. People like Joe Cocker, who proved to me that white men can sing the blues if their roots are in the steel mill, the aforesaid Bruce Dunnet, who refused to manage the Rolling Stones and wouldn't book Paul Simon for a fiver, no longer managing acts but still hoping the revolution comes before closing time, John Hasted, the atomic scientist who turned his University College lab into a songwriters’ workshop, the man I used to dictate my songs to over the phone, and I did it just before the retired prof died, during the bombing of Yugoslavia, about Milica, an injured schoolchild in Serbia.

Walking wounded: the words came into my head when I was talking to Cocker, at some sort of half-arsed commemoration of Woodstock, staged in a half-empty aircraft hangar somewhere in the Lowlands of Holland, I forget exactly where, probably in ’79 or so, the sort of commercialised cash-in rip-off that all too often (thank you, Lord!) collapses into disaster. As did, indeed, Woodstock itself, despite the myth.

Talking to Cocker was like space communication in 2001 Space Odyssey: "Hello Mission Control, do you copy?" [Long pause] "Yes, we read you, Discovery. Go ahead."
And then he got on stage and was transformed. With a Little Help From My Friends transmuted into a work of power and majesty, the way he'd done it so often before. Blues is working class music, whatever your colour, and if a Sheffield steelworker can't sing the blues then I don't know who can.

I don't claim my demons are the equal of Cocker's, or anyone else's for that matter, and I'm not doing any kind of "poor me" bit, because if it all ended right now, then I'd still be ahead of the game. I've been a very lucky man. OK there's been shit; it happens. But the dark is a frame for the day, yin-yang, you win some you lose some, the rough with the smooth, as my friend Steve Ashley once sang, so brilliantly.

It has been my good fortune, ever since my first article appeared in Melody Maker on July 7, 1957, to have walked with giants. OK, I never met Leadbelly, because I couldn’t afford the fare to Paris when he made his sole European visit. Likewise Woody, though I was there when Arlo Guthrie started writing Alice’s Restaurant in my fifth-floor London flat, and spent happy times with Woody’s widow, Marjorie. I took her to see Bob Dylan at the Blackbushe airport gig and sent a message to him backstage to advise him she was there, but he never even acknowledged it. I guess he was still upset at the poor reaction he got from London folkies like me during his first visit to play a wandering minstrel in a TV play in 1964; he also remembered the way Martin Carthy and his then wife, Dorothy, had befriended him, and ensured that Martin got backstage at Blackbushe.

The thing was, Dylan really wasn’t very good that trip. We’d got used to having brilliant American musicians and singers in London (and, later, though I was never that keen on him – still am not – Paul Simon), and Bob’s rap about having hung out with Woody didn’t go down so well, since we already had, in Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a genuine compadre of Guthrie’s (Arlo told me Dylan only came to their house a few times, and visited Woody in hospital but once; of course, they never could have travelled the road together, since Woody was already too ill with Huntington’s chorea before Dylan even decided to leave Hibbing).

He turned up at the Singers’ Club when I was there, and I can’t agree with Robert Shelton that he got a great reception because he was, frankly, just terrible. Martin had him at the King and Queen in Foley Street, but Nigel Denver wouldn’t even let him sing at the Roundhouse in Wardour Street. Yes, he was that bad.

What we didn’t realise (though I suspect Martin did) was that Dylan’s ears were flapping all the time, and he was picking up traditional melodies which he was to use for the basis of some of his best new songs. And not only traditional: could he have written The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll if he hadn’t heard Bertolt Brecht? Later, people put him down for rifling other people’s traditions in that way, but wasn’t that we were all doing? When I wrote The Arbroath Tragedy I had forgotten I’d first heard the air I used from a Northumbrian shepherd when I was a lad of eight or nine. And when there were no recordings of traditional music to be heard to expand our repertoire, the only way we could build up a repertoire which wasn’t just a duplication of what we heard Bert or Ewan sing was to take a traditional theme and bring it up to date, as I did with the “who’s going to shoe your pretty little foot” theme of The Lass of Loch Royal (and many others) and turn it into The Conscript’s Farewell (I was mightily amused the other day to hear a “traditional” song using my melody sung in the Bradford Topic).

This was why, years later, I never could understand the supposed conflict between traditional and contemporary song. After all, the only reason trad survives is because it has a contemporary relevance and resonance to those who continue to sing it. In The Electric Muse I tried to explain why a song about a soldier dying of the pox had survived over the centuries and become a cowboy song and a New Orleans blues:

“Though the identity of the hero and the cause of death changes, one thing remains – the triumphant laugh in the face of death, and a horrible death at that – “Tell God I’m standing pat . . . raise hell as we go along” . . . “We’ll beat the big drums and we’ll play the pipes merrily”. One of the earliest versions says: “Don’t muffle your drums . . . play a quick march” (not a dead march). The song is full of scarlet and gold, bright muskets, squealing fifes, gaiety.

“All the other details are varied to suit the singer and his community, to help him communicate this basic theme, that life is all there is, that man must die but death is not the end of the story (though there is no suiggestion of life, punishment – despite the fact that “I know I’ve done wrong” – or redemption after death; man has the last word, but on this earth.”

(I wrote at that time as an atheist; now, as a Christian, I would place the story in a rather different perspective, without invalidating the basic point about the songs’ continuing relevance.)

Dylan with Greenbriar Boys at Gaslight 1959 - Ralph Rinzler - Dylan - John HeraldDylan was also ahead of the game (at least as far as this folkie was concerned) in his awareness of the continuing significance of blues and (later) rock ’n’ roll to the traditions he was pillaging. I recall the day my friend Steve Sparkes, the mod photographer, brought in the single of Subterranean Homesick Blues to play me. It totally blew my mind, though I couldn’t understand what the hell it was all about (I am still working out some of its imagery, much as one can do with Shakespeare, finding new depths within  depths as the years go by).

DylanElectric-Newport65When I had recovered a bit of my self-control, Steve said: “Of course, you know what it’s based on?” I had to confess I didn’t. “Chuck Berry . . . Too Much Monkey Business,” he offered. He had me there. Like most folkies, I regarded the electrification of the blues as the grossest commercialism, though this was actually some years after I’d heard Fitzroy Coleman suggest to Ewan MacColl that an electric guitar would make a great accompaniment to The Bloody Gardener.

When Muddy Waters first came to Britain, he came with an electric band, and all we self-styled purists turned our noses up at him. Like all great popular artists, Muddy was willing to give the people what they wanted, so next time, he played acoustic. Unfortunately (and typically) by this time we had caught on to what was actually happening on Chicago’s Southside, so we gave him stick for not playing the “authentic” electric blues, and for indulging what he imagined were our refusal to listen to it. You just can’t win, if you’re a musician in a truly living tradition, not one that is as moribund as England’s has been for much of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. (And no, “moribund” doesn’t mean dead, as Ewan once suggested at Ballads and Blues when he was having a go at me: it means “at the point of death, in a dying state”, according to the Shorter OED; can anyone doubt that this was the way it was in the Fifties? The question is: is it in any better state today, for all our efforts?)

Well, that encounter with electric Dylan literally changed my life, as profoundly as the first time I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the time I was in my bath on a Sunday morning and heard Harry Cox sing on the radio and ran down soaking wet to find out who the hell that was, singing in a way that made Ewan and Bert and the rest of us sound like the self-indulgent chancers we were. I could never understand the people who shouted “Judas” at him. But by then, of course, my view of him had changed.

If there’d been no Subterranean Homesick Blues, I might never have ended up interviewing people like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. I might not have understood what was really going on when Fairport Convention took down the words of ancient ballads over the phone and turned them into Liege and Lief.

The crucial watershed, for me and I think many of the rest of us, was Dylan’s May 1964 tour, immortalised in the Don’t Look Back movie (recently released on DVD). I caught him at the Royal Festival Hall, and my wife Gloria did a brilliant drawing of him from our seat in the stalls. My friend Ken Pitt, who wrote a monthly cabaret column in a magazine I was editing at that time (for licensed clubs, since you ask) was involved in the tour in some capacity, and he promised to get us backstage. So there was I getting what could turn out to be an exclusive interview with a young man I wouldn’t have given the time of day to only eighteen months previously.

In his account of our meeting in his generally excellent biography, No Direction Home, Robert Shelton is less than fair to Dylan, describing him as “sometimes a boxer without grace”. His report of our conversation is accurate, and complete: “Dylan: ‘Are you for me or against me?’ Dallas: ‘Frankly, I don’t know you.’ After that, Dallas said, ‘I was given the polite bum’s rush.’”

But not by Dylan. He was charm itself (bear in  mind he was supposed to be resting between sets), offering us a drink, making polite conversation. I think his question was a response to the fact that I said I was going to write about him for the Daily Worker. I didn’t know at the time of the run-in he’d had with the New York Marxist establishment, which inspired My Back Pages. I’d heard, and quite liked Another Side, but it didn’t have the impact on me of The Times They Are A-Changin’, so I gave it to Sydney Carter to review.

The thing that struck me at the time was just how pretty Dylan was, compared with the disreputable-looking beatnik of the year before last. In later years,  I became used to Dylan’s constant changes of persona. I knew that all of us, from Jimmie Miller to Albert Lancaster Lloyd, were busy reinventing ourselves to fit in with an image we had of what it meant to be folk, but Dylan was the first in whom the process was a permanent revolution, never holding still so anyone could nail him down to any particular role.

But it wasn’t he who gave us the bum’s rush. It was my friend Ken Pitt, who’d been told in no uncertain terms by Dylan’s manager, the dreadful Albert Grossman, to get me out of there, and he did it, very politely, as I told Shelton.

The concert itself had been a revelation. The songs were better than anything he had written previously, certainly better than the awful Blowin’ in the Wind, much of which he’d filched from a student song of the time, anyway – but I knew those from the albums. What was different was the authority with which he sang them, so different from the diffident, insecure young man who’d been barred from the Roundhouse less than two years before.

Some of my folkie friends found this reaching into the world of Allen Ginsberg hard to take: I remember Gill Cook complaining about the surrealistic imagery of Hard Rain, though it isn’t surrealist, strictly speaking, something I felt passionate about, having been strongly influenced by the surrealist poets – Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and especially the Chilean diplomat, Pablo Neruda (all of them communists, like me, incidentally) – in my pre-folk writing days.

Ewan seemed never able to free himself from the memory of the terrible showing Dylan made at the Singers’ Club, and constantly assailed him in print, mostly in magazines I edited (I disagreed with him, but that’s freedom of the press). He failed, also, to differentiate between Dylan’s undoubted if unruly talents and the hype that surrounded him, most of which was typical American showbiz baloney. In one article, comparing Dylan to McGonigall, he attacked Dylan’s use of the deliberately tautologous phrase, “pathbeaten trail”; I felt at the time that this was one of Dylan’s better metaphors (reminiscent of the Biblical duplet technique used throughout the King James version – always a powerful influence on Dylan, demonstrated by the nearly 60 Biblical references in Michael Gray’s Song & Dance Man III - the art of Bob Dylan – eg Psalm 121, 4 “he shall neither slumber nor sleep”) and worthy of Woody Guthrie himself. Then MacColl had a poor view of Woody’s talents as a versifier.

One of the great missed opportunities of my publishing life was not taking up Hamish Henderson’s offer to give me an essay on McGonagall for my magazine; when I saw it published elsewhere, I realised how appropriate it was as a riposte to MacColl’s facile jibe.

Like Woody, Dylan would twist pronunciations to make rhymes where none existed (as in “that dirty little coward/Called Judas Iscariot” in Woody’s Jesus Christ) and in performance could make limping couplets work (eg “But I mean no harm, nor put vault/On anyone that lives in a vault”). In his magnum opus cited above, Michael Gray devotes several pages to the infelicities of Dylan’s writing on the Infidels album, excoriated for its “sloppiness, his self-imitation and his recurrent reliance on counterfeit sentiment and rather reactionary non-ideas”. He quotes MacColl’s “embarrassing fourth-grade schoolboy attempts” dismissal of Dylan (“what poetry?”), but aims to draw a distinction between the verses of 1983 and the torrent of words from his pen fifteen years before. But Dylan always appeared slipshod to those whose devotion to neatly encapsulated morality was almost anal.

But he certainly had the ability to come up with images which stuck in the brain (and had a nasty habit of coming true, like “But even the President of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked”). How true it is that “he not busy being born/Is busy dying”, that “it is not he or she or them or it/That you belong to”, not to mention the final affirmation, “It’s life, and life only”. A wonderful song!

The sad thing was the way his occasional sloppiness was emulated as a quality by many who imitated him on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps because I had already digested many of the influences so evident in Dylan’s work, I was never tempted to follow his lead in my own songwriting. And the fact that, to the people who controlled Melody Maker, Dylan’s sales figures disqualified him from being considered folk (a sort of perspicacious philistinism which also prevented me from writing about the Dubliners during their Seven Drunken Nights chart success), meant that I never wrote about him in their pages. Not so The Daily Worker, and in fact my failure to admire every stitch of this young emperor’s new clothes got me into hot water with the Communist Party establishment, who accused me of sectarianism. (These were the same opportunists who destroyed the party during the miners’ strike, when we had need of a strong and united left response to the destruction of our manufacturing base.)

When Jack Hutton hired me to write about folk for the MM, he was blunt about what he wanted from me: “I don’t like folk, and I don’t want to know anything about it. But there are people out there who like this garbage, and they advertise in our gigs guide, so I’m giving you a page to fill to keep them happy. Don’t bother me, don’t ask me, write about what you think is important, and we’ll get along fine. And no law suits.”

This last was because Eric Winter, who had taken over my column when I went off to travel the land with Billy Smart’s Circus, had twice involved them in threats from the continually litigious Dominic Behan. Eric was probably in the right of it, but the old hack’s dictum, “the greater the truth, the greater the libel”, applied here, and I was back at the folk helm at MM, a position I held for the next twenty or so years, until all the specialist jazz and folk pages were abolished into an unsuccessful attempt to turn the paper into a tabloid version of the enormously successful Smash Hits.

Dominic had a thing about Dylan’s “borrowing” of traditional tunes and themes: when Bob performed With God on Our Side on TV, he was on the phone to me in a trice. “That bastard has stolen my song,” he spluttered. In vain did I point out that the tune was basically The Nightingale, as sung by Burl Ives (though I didn’t dare remark that this was obviously the source also for the tune of Dominic’s The Patriot Game). Interestingly, when Burl came to Britain and I met him from the airport, Dominic was the one British singer he wanted to meet. When I tried to interview Big Daddy Burl about his red-baiting performance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, when he named many of his old singing buddies as reds under the bed, he retreated into tight-lipped silence.

I seem to be writing about all my failed interviews, so let’s acknowledge the others that got away: Miles Davis (who strode off into the night waving his arms in the air and crying that everyone in England hated him), the wonderful Irish jazz guitarist, Louis Stewart, who took exception to my playing devil’s advocate, and my suggestion that some might consider his style a little old-hat in the age of Jimi Hendrix (nothing wrong with that, of course, but Louis clamped his mouth shut and has never spoken to me from that day to this), and of course Chuck Berry, who goes into automatic pilot when he talks to the press, and never says anything they haven’t heard a thousand times before (unless you dare to mention his prison record, whereupon the interview is terminated, like immediately, and with extreme prejudice, as the CIA would put it).

Dick Gaughan once criticised me for being too close to the people I wrote about, and in a way he was right. I never did a decent interview with Sandy Denny, for instance; she had a nasty habit of saying, “Oh Karl, you know the answer to that”, if I touched on something rather basic, that I still needed to hear in her own words. I do think I never let friendship (or, in Sandy’s case, something akin to love) get in the way of saying what had to be said about a poor performance. After Fairport’s disastrous Royal Albert Hall concert, on which so many of their hopes were riding, I felt I had to tell it like it was, friends or no friends; a year later, Sandy said to me: “I have almost forgiven you for that review, Karl.”

Knowing Sandy, and following her career from the naive gamine uncertain of what direction she should go, or even to consider giving up her work as a nurse, seeing her blossom into a singer (and songwriter) of authority and passion, a power that persisted even during her last tour, when she was patently unwell and unfit for the rigours of the road, is probably the one most exciting experience of my over a half-century of critical writing.

If anyone was one of the walking wounded, it was she, and her untimely death was far from unexpected. Today, perhaps, knowing how to deal with my own self-inflicted wounds, I might have been better able to help her into the sort of recovery that has changed my life, but who knows, after all? “If only” is as idle a speculation as “what if”.

Would she have been as great an artist if she had been less damaged, emotionally? The conventional wisdom is that genius (and she had that elusive quality, of that I’m sure) is close to insanity, and one can certainly think of other tortured artists (Mike Oldfield and Eric Clapton, for instance) whose work since they confronted and defeated their demons has been a pale shadow of what went before. On the other hand, Eugene O’Neill produced his best work after he quit boozing his life away, and certainly Scott Fitzgerald’s fast decline after his first promise was due to alcohol.

We seem to have ended up where I started last month, with death. The eternal return, as Jean Cocteau called it. Of course, when you reach the Biblical allotted span of three-score years and ten, as I have, one tends to lose friends. The exciting thing is to find new ones, and especially brilliant new performers who have the flame that illuminated so many of those who have shot across all our lives like shooting stars. I ask only that they be given space to grow, without the spotlight of overpraise and constant scrutiny which is making some of our most promising performers old before their time. There were no “young singer of the year” awards when Sandy was singing at the Scots Hoose, and I’m dubious that they would have been anything but a negative influence upon her artistic development.

Perhaps I’m just turning into an old curmudgeon. Or perhaps I always was.

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KD 2008/07/13

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