Monday, 3 May 2021

Lew Lewis 1953 - 2021


The following piece isn't meant as an obituary or a tribute, it’s a piece about Lew Lewis, about my intersection with Lew, and about the times in general.


I first met Lew Lewis in 1976. I knew about him - he played the harmonica with Eddie & The Hot Rods, except when I saw them in Hull in February 1976 there were only four of them and none of them was Lew.

I met Lew in the bar of the Victoria Theatre in London at a Graham Parker & The Rumour show. I’d just recorded Whole Wide World for Stiff Records. I'd just met Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood and that was a big deal - Lee had funded Stiff Records start-up with £400 and a camera so he was obviously interested in what what was going on. He walked up to me, said: ‘Hello Eric, my name’s Lee Brilleaux, I’ve heard a lot of good things about you and I’m very pleased to meet you.’ He was forthright and gentlemanly. I nearly fell through the floor because I’d been a fan since the day their first album came out - Dr Feelgood were gods to me. 


Lew was Lee’s designated driver for the evening. He’d made a record for Stiff too - Boogie On The Street / Caravan Man. It was already out and I’d been playing it to death for weeks. It was apparently recorded straight to two track on a Revox tape machine in the Feelgoods headquarters and rehearsal place. Boogie On The Street sounded like Canned Heat reinvented as a garage band. I’ve always been puzzled as to why it was the A side because the B side, Caravan Man is utterly groovy and there’s enough of it for Caravan Man Parts 1 & 2. It’s a crazy record - frenetic and vaguely formless, r n b meets uptown dub in a downtown Canvey Island setting with one ranted verse that I’ve never even begun to decipher in forty four years.


Lew was scary (at least to me he was, but I was scared of everyone back then). He was wiry, tense and twitchy and spoke in frenetic and violent bursts that echoed his harmonica playing. He vibrated with an unseen electrical energy, looking this way and that in all directions at once. There was a suggestion of flick knives, knuckle dusters, the seemy side of the race track, and dodgy deals done late at night at all-night card games. A dark and frightening but tantalizing world that I was not privy too. And yet he was an absolute gentleman and we somehow hit it off.

I asked him why he was no longer a member of Eddie & The Hot Rods. He stopped vibrating for a moment, snarled, said: ‘Barrie Masters can’t do this’ and proceeded to backflip his way down the length of the bar and back.


I didn’t see Lew again for a while - things got busy and he didn’t last long on Stiff Records. When Jake Riviera left Stiff Records it ceased to be the renegade label of old even though it traded on that reputation for quite a while. But the truth is the new semi-corporate Stiff didn’t like artists that were a problem, and Lew was definitely one of those.

At some point I heard he was back at his old job working as a roofer.


Then there was the Lew Lewis Reformer. They made an album and were back on Stiff: Save The Wail - raw and exciting, everything that most Stiff Records weren’t by that time. Lew used the advance money to buy a long wheel base Transit van which he fitted out for touring. It had luxury seats and a special bracket above the windscreen to hold the biggest boombox I’d ever seen. They’d come by the Stiff office sometimes - zip in and out in Harrington jackets, Sta-Prest trousers and monkey boots, on their way to a gig in Harlow or Exeter or somewhere, always on the move, Caravan Man. The Lew Lewis Reformer appeared to have complete autonomy and I envied them that, but the sad truth is I don’t think anyone at the label really cared. 


Early in 1980 I did a show in France with the Lew Lewis Reformer, a TV special filmed at Olympia in Paris. It was a strange bill - Don Cherry was the headliner, I was in the middle and the Reformer opened the show. We flew in and our flight was delayed. Lew and his gang got there before us and hijacked my limousine - I was at the flashpoint of my brief pop star career at the time but I had to get a taxi from the airport. The Reformer had apparently flown from Southend in a privately owned plane. I was already completely outclassed.

Later we were in the backstage getting ready while Lew was on. There was a TV monitor and I was keeping one eye on the show. Lew stood at the microphone between songs: ‘This one’s called Do Just What You Want.’ He disappeared and his feet sailed across the screen. He arrived back in the shot blowing up a storm on the harmonica and I knew we lost the night before we’d even started. They were on that night and we weren’t - we’d had a week off so we were out of practice. Lew’s set was astonishing as it so often was. After the show he disappeared into the night. He arrived  back at the hotel at breakfast time, bedraggled, having slept under the Eiffel Tower after a night of unimaginable capers in the City Of Lights. 


We played another time in Paris with Lew, at a big festival somewhere in the suburbs - ZZ Top, Madness, Lene Lovich... I took a lower billing rather than follow him, and it seemed for a moment that I’d shot myself in the foot - they seemed tired and road weary. It just didn’t seem to be happening until Lee Brilleaux joined them for a monumental dual harmonica breakdown. That gave them the kick they needed - they were unbeatable and I knew I’d made the right decision.


Lew dropped out of sight and I heard he was back in the roofing game. His guitar player, Rick Taylor, asked me if I needed a band. If I’m honest I needed a band like I needed a hole in the head at the time - I had no record deal and the prospects weren’t looking good. But it was fun hanging out with Rick and then Lew's drummer, Buzz Barwell, came around and I had a bass player, and suddenly we were a band and we rehearsed and then we were out playing every night on a seemingly endless round of scuzzy gigs for diminishing returns - on the road to absolutely nowhere with no record deal and a suited idiot for a manager.

We were unstoppable of course but I couldn’t help sometimes thinking they’d be better with Lew at the front rather than me. We all had horrific and hilarious tales of life on the road. I loved hearing Rick and Buzz talking about life with Lew. It sounded like a waking nightmare but they only ever spoke of him with deep and abiding affection.

And then we dropped out of sight, and I dropped out of sight and the bottom dropped out of it all and I became a sound engineer and then I decided to give up the music business for good as we all do from time to time (that lasted for five minutes). And sometime in the middle of all that Lew had joined forces with Wilko Johnson. I saw them at Maidstone Technical College and it was like watching a pop-up lunatic asylum. When they started the audience - a collection of post-adolescent moustache growers - took a step back and stood transfixed. They were one of the most menacing outfits I’ve ever seen.

Time went on and Lew wasn’t playing with Wilko anymore which didn’t surprise me - backstage at Maidstone Technical College had been almost as entertaining as the show itself. The dressing room was a large empty classroom with chairs and benches lining the walls, and a vast expanse of parquet floor. The bass player lay sleeping on a bench in one corner, the drummer in the opposite corner. I sat with Lew in the third corner, with Wilko diagonally opposite. Wilko was at his most scary - it’s hard to align the funny, charming and garrulous Game Of Thrones Wilko of today with the Wilko from back then, imperious, unpredictable, eyes blazing… I was terrified of him.

That night in Maidstone could have served as a masterclass in why being in a band is not always a good idea, and what sometimes makes bands so great: Four people who can barely tolerate being in each other’s presence, some with fairly substantial personal issues and habits, forced to share the confines of a fast moving Transit van for hours at a stretch, shovelled into mundane and often squalid backstage rooms and overnight accommodations, and then, for an hour or so every night let loose onstage to do the business. The results are often spectacular but the cost can be very high indeed.


Lew fell off the map - or at least he fell off the map that I was busy falling off myself. I heard tales that may have been embellished as these things so often are: Lew burning the furniture to keep his family warm…answering the door to his piano player to find he was visiting in his official capacity as a VAT inspector…

The slope is slippery and once you’re on it there’s no telling how far you’re going fall or where you’re going to land. In my own case I was lucky enough to land on a ledge, and once rescue arrived the recovery was slow but fairly successful. I don’t really want to go into what happened to Lew because it’s not the way he should be remembered. He was driven to a most desperate edge and I think the system failed him. He needed help, he needed compassion. The system didn’t give him either.

To his enduring credit he came back from it. The last time I met Lew he was quieter - not subdued - but older and wiser with a gentleness that had never been immediately apparent. He got himself together - he even went and played in Japan (which is something I’ve never managed). I’m sad to see him gone but I’m glad that he made it through. I hope he found some inner peace.

Monday, 12 April 2021

A Right Royal Occasion

I imagine that my mother, wherever she is, will be very pleased. In the last year or so of her life, in the grip of dementia, she and Prince Philip became great friends. It started with a phone call from an aide at Buckingham Palace - he asked how she was and after an exchange of pleasantries he said the Queen would like to speak to her and would that be alright. My mother said ‘yes, that’d be fine, put her on’. The aide passed the phone to the Queen, she and my mother had a chat, and the Queen promised to keep in touch.

The Queen proved to be a bit flaky in that regard but Prince Philip, the Duke Of Edinburgh, was, in my mother’s words, an absolute brick - he called her regularly and they had great chats.
‘He’s not at all like you’d imagine’ she explained, ‘he calls me love…

I never met the Duke of Edinburgh myself, but he did once visit my school. I think he was coming to present a Duke Of Edinburgh Award or some such nonsense. I was sixteen at the time and full of a newly discovered and seething hatred for the establishment.

The Duke would be arriving by helicoptor and touching down on the rugby pitch. It was May and the weather had been intermittently sunny and wet so the grass on the rugby pitch was thick and luxurient. The groundsman, a simple and justifiably belligerant man who we called Happy Harry, was detailed off to mow the grass and paint a large H in a circle in the middle of of the pitch so the helicoptor pilot would know where to land.

There was huge excitement amongst the staff at the newly formed Priory Comprehensive School. The school was an amalgamation of the County Grammar School for Boys, the County Grammar School for Girls, and the Secondary Modern School, where the girls and boys who were not considered bright enough to merit an academic education had enjoyed being girls and boys together, along with woodwork classes, cookery classes, and plenty of evenings with no homework in which to watch Top Of The Pops.

The grammar school residue among the staff were particularly excited - they’d always tried to run things on the lines of a public school (as in Eton or Harrow), so a visit from a major league royal was something of a feather in the cap. The headmaster, the deputy head, heads of departments and the entire teaching staff along with a host of local dignitaries, the Lord and Lady Mayor, the local member of Parliament (the Right Honorable Tufton Beamish, Conservative) lined up along the edge of the rugby ready to greet the Prince as he walked from the helicoptor.

The helicoptor circled around high in the sky, positioned itself over the rugby field and swooped into its final descent. It landed fair and square on the temporary H in the circle. The rotor blades whipped up the wet grass clippings and sent them splattering into the faces of all and sundry.

It was one of the best days of my entire school life.

Friday, 2 April 2021

When I Was A Young Boy...

I just realised, as I do at this time every year, that today (well yesterday technically) is the anniversary of my first ever record release. April 1st 1977 - it’s forty-four years today since Whole Wide World came out on the Bunch Of Stiffs compilation. Happy anniversary April Fool…

I sometimes wonder if my debut on such a day blighted my career. It’s a thought that I quickly put out of my mind because it’s not going to do much good - you can’t change the past. I'd prefer focus on the more positive aspects and learn to enjoy them. Whole Wide World or Go The Whole Wide World as it was originally titled was incredibly well received - it took everyone by surprise. It was John Peel’s favourite track on the album, it was singled out in all the reviews and plastered all over the airwaves. I went from being some div cluttering up the Stiff office in the hope of being noticed to being an overnight sensation.

They actually took time to talk to me:

‘We need to put this out as a forty-five - have you got a B side?’

‘Yes’ I said, suddenly inspired with confidence. ‘It’s called Semaphore Signals’. 

Arrangements were made and two days after my birthday on May 20th 1977 we went into Alvic, a four track studio in Wimbledon, and recorded Semaphore Signals. Denise Roudette on the bass, Ian Dury on the drums and me on my Top Twenty guitar through the Hohner Orgaphon amp with its jukebox speakers. Ian was the producer because he was the oldest and he’d been in a few recording studios before with his now defunct group, Kilburn & The High Roads. He also knew his way around Alvic because for the past year he’d been recording demos there for what would become the huge selling New Boots & Panties

Ian was very focused, not lost, but riding an edge of desperation.The record companies weren’t interested - a typical reaction came from Dick James - ‘Ian Drury [sic] - talented boy - spastic isn’t he?’

He wound up being my drummer and later producer because Nick Lowe introduced us and Ian thought I was as weird as he was so we quickly became friends and started hanging out together. He took me under his wing - he was probably hedging his bets in case he had to make a sideways move into artist management and production. He was my mentor. He could be a complete pain in the arse - a difficult man born of a difficult past, a polio victim since the age of seven, twisted, bitter and occasionally downright evil. He was also one of the kindest, caring and most loving people I’d ever met, and great fun to be with. Even though it seemed at times that everything was some sort of test designed to make you fall over so he’d have the perverse pleasure of watching you struggle to get up again.

Because that’s what he’d learned at Chailey Heritage.

Chailey Heritage was in East Sussex close to where I grew up and went to school. It was renowned locally as a dumping place for the mentally and physically unfortunate. We had no idea what went on there, who the inmates were, or what had caused them to be incarcerated there. We were totally ignorant of all that but Chailey Heritage was woven into our folklore and vernacular:

Lewes County Grammar School For Boys.
The place was fucking ludicrous. They didn’t play football, they played rugby. I say they because I didn’t – not if I could help it anyway. It was always mid-November. Standing around on a field of torn-up turf and mud, with a big white H at either end. H for Hellbound, He-man, Homo, Hypocritical, unHappy, Hard-Hearted, Hurtful and Humiliating…
The wind whipped across the field. It was getting dark and the lights were on in the classrooms. The silly oval ball came lolloping over and I got out of the way so that some other, keener boy could dive on it, face first in the mud.
‘You’re useless. Why don’t you go and play tiddlywinks with the spastics at Chailey Heritage.’
I started to walk away. I felt like crying. Not because I was useless – but because I just wanted to be somewhere else – anywhere but here. The games master sprinted across the pitch in his tracksuit. (Oh yes, he got to wear a tracksuit while we froze our bollocks off in silly black shorts and blue and black striped Bukta rugby shirts.) He came to a halt in a flurry of shrill whistles:
‘GOULDEN! WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?’
‘I’m off to play tiddlywinks with the spastics at Chailey Heritage. Sir.’
Ten laps of the rugby pitch while everyone else had a shower, but at least I missed the wanking. The games master used to stand at the entrance to the shower making sure that every naked boy went through. He didn’t mind how long you stayed in there, in amongst the steam and naked pubescent flesh. He must have seen the wanking. He was probably quite pleased about it, because that’s what we were aspiring to – Public School Traditions. And if boys couldn’t warm up toilet seats for older boys, the least they could do was wank each other off. 

extract from A Dysfunctional Success, Eric Goulden 2002 

At some point towards the end of my time at school I met a jazz fan, a man called Stan. Stan was short, burly, walked with the aid of two forearm crutches, and was incredibly jolly. He travelled all over South East England in a blue invalid carriage (which he reckoned he could get forty-five miles an hour out of with luck and a following wind) in search of live jazz and good times. Stan had been in Chailey Heritage. I never knew why - it wasn’t the sort of thing you could ask about. We’d been well brought up - you didn’t stare at a metal and brown leather leg brace or ask searching questions. I still tend not to ask searching questions but I’d be much more likely to stare at a leg brace, principally because you just don’t see them anymore - the metal and brown leather leg brace has gone the way of white dog shit and that clipped British accent peculiar to BBC radio announcers of yore. 

Ian didn’t wait to not be asked, he talked quite openly about deformity, disability and the horrors of Chailey Heritage. If someone fell over the house rule was that you didn’t help them get back up again, they had to do it for themselves, even if it took them all day, which it often did. They had fighting too, just like at our school, but there the kids fought each other sitting side by side though they were no less brutal for that. He told me that some of his Chailey Heritage peers were so badly afflicted that they couldn’t pleasure themselves so you sometimes had to give them a helping hand. I’d never in my life heard anyone talk of these things. Chailey Heritage made Ian tough and maybe a little cruel. Stan the jazz fan was tough in a different way but they were both resiliant. 

Ian died twenty-one years ago - March 27th 2000. It was the anniversary of his death just the other day. I didn’t do anything to mark it other than quietly think about him in my own head. I’d prefer to remember him alive and driving us all slightly fucking mad. Scary and lovely, with the best advice anyone ever gave me:
look after your talent and your talent will look after you. I’m trying Ian, I’m trying, though sometimes I think the talent’s run off and found a better billet elsewhere. 

I don’t know whatever happened to Stan but those blue invalid carriages have gone the way of the metal and brown leather leg brace, white dog shit, and the clipped BBC accent. 


I wish I could have got beyond my ingrained tendancy to not ask searching questions in everyday life - I worry that people might think I’m not interested in who they are - it’s not the case, I am but I don’t want to be rude. Professionally it would have helped me immeasurably if I’d learned over the years to ask 
Mr Nice and Mr Smiley-Goodvibe just what they did before they started Shyster Records: We were fraud specialists working for an organised crime syndicate. I mean, they were bound to have owned up to that, weren’t they? But I at least wish I'd been forward enough to ask the question.

I feel proud and happy to still be making records all these years later but these feelings are tempered by ever present self-doubt -
perhaps my detractors were right, I’m an also-ran, a desperate and deluded no-talent who should have long since given up. I don’t know how the fuck I’ve got away with this for all these years but somehow I've kept going. I'm glad I did. 

It's Casual Friday over at Bandcamp today (Friday April 2nd). They don't take any commission for an entire day which means people like me get all the proceeds from the mega-tons of product that are bound to shift on such a day. I'm trying my best here - you won't, to paraphrase an A&R man, find another Whole Wide World in there, but you could augment or enhance your collection and help me make some room in the basement for the next unsung and unsold album, the one I'm working on right now. The postage and packing for everywhere that isn't the United States is obscenely, prohibitively expensive so if you don't live in the USA please accept my apology and ignore this entire paragraph and sales pitch. Unless of course you're made of money, in which case flop out yer wallet. Here's the linkage: https://wrecklesseric.bandcamp.com/merch 

Also The Good Lyre, a compilation of songs by Wes Stace / Jon Wesley Harding and featuring The Minus 5, Graham Parker, Josh Ritter and a host of other luminaries. I do a version of Sick Organism. All proceeds to Sweet Relief, a fund that helps cover musicians medical bills.  https://johnwesleyharding.bandcamp.com/track/wreckless-eric-sick-organism



Saturday, 27 March 2021

Acceptance

It occurs to me that this is the longest time I’ve spent in one place as in woken up in the same bed, in the same room, in the same house, in the same town since sometime in my childhood, and even then there were breaks - nights with grandparents, summer holidays in caravans, even nights sleeping in a tent in the back garden. But since I came back from England at the end of February 2020 the only break in the continuity has been two nights in a hospital in Albany in the wake of my oft touted heart attack.

I don’t mind. At least I don’t think I mind. I’ve always adapted to the circumstances in which I find myself with some kind of vague acceptance of the situation - I’m travelling in a van reclined on a pile of amplifiers and speaker cabinets…I’m fully-clothed and splayed out on a hotel bed that’s little more than springs covered by a poly-cotton sheet, I can’t sleep and I’m hoping the morning comes around pretty soon so I can get up and face a day of weary abstractedness…I came home from a tour in the middle of a night and put my bag down in a doorway and I’ve been stepping over it to get from room to room for three full days and now and I'm quite used 


It's the same with the pandemic - for the most part it feels like a vague inconvenience. I sometimes forget my mask and have to turn around, go home and get it. I have to drink my espresso outside in the bitter cold, I haven’t seen my grandchildren for close on eighteen months and it’s quietly breaking my three-stented heart.

I think I’d like to go on tour - I like driving a fast car fast, being in one place and arriving in another, the tawdry thrill of the soon to be discovered glumness behind the door of a hotel room, the promise of a venue I’ve been told I’m going to love - I arrive to find there’s no stage, the PA is a glorified hi fi and I’m sharing the bill with four bands and a fire eater… I think I miss all this crap but I don’t think about it much.


I’m happy enough staying home, just me and Amy most of the time. She’s upstairs writing a book or putting the finishing touches to another song or a podcast, I’m downstairs cooking up some infernal din with the naysaying detractors whispering in my head: you know, this would go better if you actually had a songyou should really get a bass player and a drummer instead of messing about with that drum machine and playing the bass yourself


I miss being able to get a drummer in but I suppose all that’s about to change because most of the drummers I know are old age pensioners like myself and we’re all busy getting ourselves vaccinated. And there’s a good laugh for you - the first shot of vaccine made me very ill. I’m quietly dreading the second one and desperately trying to finish up an album’s worth of recordings before I get it in case it kills me. At least there’ll be something release-able. And what with me being dead it might even sell.

I don’t know why I’m driven to make records because none of them sell that much, especially without tour dates and a nightly merch stall where I can guilt trip audience members into walking away with an album or CD which they may or may not listen to and might love, hate or feel completely indifferent to. Somebody posted the cover of my first ever album on Instagram the other day. One of the comments read:
His songs are dumb and I love them.
Of course part of me wanted to berate this person though I also loved their observation. I contained myself with a snappy repost: 

They were. I kept going - I wonder if you’d find a place for the stuff I’ve done in the past forty years! 

He replied:
Mr Eric, thanks for responding. I actually saw you live a few years ago so the prognosis is good.

In olden times a person like myself - a slightly famous faded pop singer - might be unlucky enough to overhear someone talking about them, and that might be quite upsetting. Now, if I put my mind to it, I can read what members of the general public think about me all over the internet. A selection from the past year:

I’ve been called a moron by someone who got it into their head that I’d been going out in public in the full knowledge of a positive Covid diagnosis (I certainly wasn’t and I’d dearly love to pin that person to the wall and share with them every tedious moment of two weeks under house arrest), a Facebook exchange concerning me that went something like: He was a one hit wonder wasn’t he? I wonder whatever happened to him… the inevitable: I liked that Gordon is a moron song - that was him wasn’t it? And the absolute worst, a recent exchange that went something like:

Stiff Records? Yeah, brilliant!
• You should hear his latest stuff - his last three albums are fantastic
• No thanks, I think I’ll stick with my copy of Whole Wide World

I can see the smug expression and resolute jaw and I want to break the guy open and bury him under the boxes of unsold copies of my fantastic later works that clutter up our basement. But really I just want to give him a copy of one of my fantastic later records and lead him by the hand to the nearest record player and coax and cajole him into opening his ears and mind, and listening. I’m thinking if I could do this perhaps a hundred thousand times I might have a bit of a hit on my hands. And I’m thinking that this would be entirely inconvenient because there’d be hundreds more idiots saying things like: I like that All Around The World I’ve Been Looking For You You You - that’s him innit? And I’d have to put them right, and I’m already feeling tired…


One lunchtime in 1980 I was sitting in a pub in Goodge Street, London. The seating was high-backed church pew affairs. Two blokes on the other side of the pew where I was sat were discussing concerts they’d been to - I couldn't see them but I could hear them - and I was vaguely listening in because I didn’t have much choice. They were coming in and out of focus and I heard: …yeah, Squeeze at the Hammersmith Odeon supported by Wreckless Eric - he made them look fucking stupid, they shouldn’t have bothered going on.

So that was good, but another time at a gig in London when Amy and I had just started playing together as Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby I overheard:
I don’t know ‘oo she is - just some bird ee’s seein’ 
And that wasn’t so good, but afterwards a person who sounded very much like the person who said that said to me:
Fuckin’ ‘ell Eric - where did you find her? She’s really good!
So that turned out alright in the end.

It's Casual Friday over at Bandcamp next week. They don't take any commission for an entire day which means people like me get all the proceeds from the mega-tons of product that are bound to shift on such a day. I'm trying my best here - you can stick with your copy of Whole Wide World or you can augment or enhance your collection and help me make some room in the basement for the next unsung and unsold album, the one I'm working on right now. The postage and packing for everywhere that isn't the United States is obscenely, prohibitively expensive so if you don't live in the USA please accept my apology and ignore this entire paragraph and sales pitch. Unless of course you're made of money, in which case flop out yer wallet. Here's the linkage: https://wrecklesseric.bandcamp.com/merch

Friday, 12 March 2021

Bits Of A Year


It’s been over a year since I flew from London to New York. February 28th. I was only going to be here for three and a half weeks. I’d been fixing up a small apartment in Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast. My mother left us some money. We figured if we brought it into the United States the odious Trump administration would somehow get their hands on a chunk of it so we bought a flat in England instead. We were hedging our bets thinking that the worst might come to the worst we’d be landed with another four years of Donald Trump. Back in those naive times, just over a year ago.

I’ve been here ever since. The flat in Cromer has been sitting there quietly waiting, a dishwasher sitting in the middle of the living room waiting to be installed in the unfinished kitchen. We spent so much time in England. Hotels, sofa beds, the charity of friends. It made sense to have a place in England. I could say it doesn’t anymore. I used to be a touring musician, a performing artist. I’d make a record and go on tour, make another record and go on tour again, and in between I’d go on tour and make another record. I was wondering how I was getting away with it and occasionally I felt burned out and took a few months off. I wondered how long I could keep going, driving hundreds of miles all alone and between shows, staying in dowdy hotels full of businessmen, wannabe businessmen, the desperate and the dispossessed. Sometimes I wondered what kind of life it was for a man of my age but I was proud of the fact that I was doing it and that was how I was earning a living.

Now I’m left wondering what I am - I keep recording stuff but it’s not easy to find the motivation to assemble it into a coherent record, an album. And I’m not a fan of putting tracks up on Bandcamp or whatever as and when. I admire other people for doing it but it’s not my thing. I love albums - LPs - collections of material designed to sit together and be listened to in a particular order Something to be considered, not cherrypicked and discarded. I know it’s an old fashioned view but it’s where I come from and if I wrote a novel with chapters I’d expect my readers to buy the book, not just a chapter here and there, and I’d quite reasonably expect them to read them in the intended order so they’d understand where I was going and hopefully get something from the experience. My albums are my novels but please don’t take that too literally.

It’s been an awful time and a bloody nuisance and helped along and not helped at all by displays of utter stupidity, gross ineptitude, selfishness and self-seeking subterfuge. I can’t see it coming to end but life goes on. Except when it doesn’t. 

My own life nearly came to an end last May outside the Emergency Room at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, New York. I'd quarantined twice - the first time they said I hadn’t got it because my symptoms didn’t match the official symptoms. The second time I managed to get tested and the official symptoms had re-aligned themselves to fit with my own diagnostic, I also tested positive when they stuck the Q tip up my nose so this time I had it officially, I’m pretty sure I had it the first time around and that’s not just me trying to make the first quarantine not a complete soul-sucking waste of time. 

After the quarantine the lung damage, the shortness of breath, the inability to walk to the end of the street and back, the heart attack - three stents and the long road to recovery. Everything’s fine now - X-rays, EKGs - but I still get nausea, shortness of breath and crippling tiredness and it seems like I’m not the only one. 

The last doctor I saw, an older woman who had come up from New York City to help out, told me ‘there’s a lot out there that we don’t know’ the tacit message being 
there’s a lot they don’t know and a lot they aren’t telling us. Whoever THEY are. I liked her a lot but she had no answers. She referred me for yet another Covid test which yet again came back negative. It’s as well to be sure about these things. Not that I’m a hypochondriac - I’d prefer to be hale, hearty and fully functional. 

I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom, gloom or consternation either. 

I’m not very good at sticking to the subject - the word 
ABOUT is a real problem for me. People say you could write a song about that and I try not to get pissed off. Perhaps it’s because of the way my brain works that the word about reduces three, four, or even five big beautiful dimensions to one tiny, flat dimension. 

I think it’s the way my brain works. Or doesn’t work - it’s my own fault. 



I was asked to write a piece about a lost album of the 1960s or 70s. I decided on Moonshine, the third and final album by Mickey Jupp’s band Legend. It proved to be a monumental task. I have no trouble writing - I just write what comes out of my head about whatever’s going on around me and in my life, and there it is. But writing about something in particular - it turns into something bigger than I am and almost reduces me to tears of impotent rage at my inability to express what I feel in a string of coherent sentences. 

I wrote sentences. The sentences said what I genuinely thought but the sentences seemed to have nothing much to do with each other. To me the whole thing lacked cohesion. And all the time that question in the back of my mind: 

Is this making any sense?
  

And here I am writing this stuff and it doesn’t actually matter to me whether it makes sense to you or not - I don’t think sense has got much to do with it. But writing about someone else’s work, something that matters to me, almost brought me to screaming point. 

Who the fuck cares what I think? What the fuck difference does it make that I think this album is great? I’m not an an arbiter of taste... 

I was transported back to 1962 - I was eight years old and I’d been sent to a Catholic prep school where the main thrust of the education, which they took very seriously, appeared to be reading, writing and violence. At the end of the first week of punch-ups punctuated by spelling tests and thwackings on the hand with the stick that held the roller towel the weekend came along and I was charged with writing an essay or composition that had to cover at least two and a half pages of my exercise book. The exercise book was large and the lines were close together and by Sunday afternoon I was in tears, unable to complete the task, worn down by the shouting, lecturing and cajoling of two parents, and fearful of the wrath of an entire order of Catholic brothers and the prospect of another week of bullying and whackings. 

But right now I could go on and on. 

Don’t worry, I’m not going to, I’m just going to pretend to get to the point. 

The point possibly being that I’m amazed that I’ve ever managed to get anything done ever in my life. 

I got the Moonshine piece finished. Amy read it and loved it. Karen Schoemer came round to record another track for the album we’ve been making together and I got her to read it. She immediately wanted to hear the Moonshine album so I think that means the piece does what it should. 

We got the track recorded, the basics - electric guitar and a vocal, a few overdubbed vocal harmonies and a second electric guitar. I used my big old Japanese Yamaha, a seventies knock-off of the Gibson George Benson model - large, clunky and nothing like a Gibson. It was all quite easy - we had it on the second take. We’ve managed to get most of the tracks in one or two takes and never got to the point where we’ve had to abort the session and come back another day because it just wasn’t happening.
 

There often isn’t time for meticulous overseeing of recordings around here, it’s a matter of getting it done and not getting bogged down. So inevitably there are glitches, crackles, clunks and vocal mic pops. I clean up as much of that stuff as I can without compromising the overall sound or performance.
 

I used to mix things in the computer but I got tired of it. The endless choice of echoes, reverbs, compressors and so on, that slightly flat quality in the sound as though you were looking at a photo of a cityscape rather than at the city itself. 

Soundcraft 200B
I had a sixteen channel Ramsa console that I started using for a while. I'd bought it in some sort of bancrupt stock clearence sale years ago. I didn’t immediately take to it and it had been very cheap so I put it in storage and basically forgot about it. I rediscovered it last year when I needed sixteen channels and it superceded an eight channel Soundcraft 200B which followed in the wake of a twelve channel Soundcraft K1 that I used to record the Transience album in conjunction with an eight channel Teac Series 5 which I’d previously used to record Construction Time & Demolition

That sounds very complicated and perhaps it’s really boring for most people, but it’s what’s in my head so it’s what I’m writing about. I’m hoping that my enthusiasm for the subject might help to captivate the odd reader in the same way that I sometimes find myself fascinated by someone talking with enthusiasm about golf, or stamp collecting, or some such thing that I have no interest in and know nothing about. 

Anyway… the Teac Series 5 is a magnificent piece but somewhat limited having only eight channels and a couple of fixed eqs (that’s 
tone controls in layman’s terms) about which some of my engineering friends have been quite snippy. I don’t use a lot of eq myself, or if I do it’s more as an effect rather than as a correction - if something doesn’t sound right I’m much more inclined to change or move a microphone than reach for the controls. I’ve watched engineers wrestle with the board, equalising the hell out of something, only to watch them re-wrestle the hell out of the same thing a couple of weeks later when they come to mixing it and quietly realised they fucked-up. Perversely I learned a lot of what I know about recording from watching bad engineers and producers at work. 

I got took the Ramsa out of commission because I got a chance of a Tangent 3216 which proved to be something of a white elephant for me. The Tangent is big and beautiful with a fat, creamy sound. Magnificent. But also problematic - it needs a thorough clean up - pots and switches crackle and cut out and two of the channels don’t work. It could be great but it’s a project. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that there aren’t enough hours in the day or days left in my life. I want to make records, not enter into the world of restoration and refurbishment. So it’s dismantled and in storage waiting on a buyer. i have it for sale on Reverb if anyone’s interested. 
Tangent 3216 - gorgeous, infuriating...
I replaced the Tangent with a sixteen channel Soundcraft 200B, the upgraded model with sweeping eqs. I got it from a Harley Fine who runs Super 70 Studio in Newburgh, New York. He got hold of an Allen & Heath Mod 2 console from the late sixties so the Soundcraft, which he’s used to mix countless records, became available. 

I’ve mixed a load of tracks that I’ve recorded for this album I’m doing with Karen Schoemer on the Soundcraft and I have to say I absolutely love it. I’ve learned that no mixing console is perfect - the Soundcraft 200B has no direct channel outputs and only four busses - it could be an issue if I was recording a band but I could work around that, and it’s not likely to be happening soon given the current state of affairs. My studio certainly isn’t large enough to accommodate a social distanced recording session with a lot of musicians. 

I organized a couple of socially distanced recording sessions in the backyard during the summer. Someone had put a large white gazebo Folded up in a special wheeled carrying case) on the wrong shelf in Walmart and somehow, by using a mixture of charm and tenacity I managed to get it for half its real price which made it an affordable bargain. We erected the thing outside the back door to keep the sun off us and then put up screens made from plastic tarpaulins to hide us from the gaze of inquisitive neighbours. 


I have a theory concerning noise, neighbours and musical instruments: if they can’t actually see them they don’t present a threat and therefore aren’t as loud. And even though a person playing a guitar is a fairly mundane sight these days it’s best not to risk a crowd forming. 

Brian Dewan came round with his electrified autoharp which I plugged into a Fender Princeton sitting amid the junk out on the breezeway. Amy played a Telecaster through my old Fender Vibro Champ and I sang and played a Framus acoustic guitar.
 I miked everything into three channels of a Tascam 424 portastudio and got two tunes out of it. The results were intimate, sparkling and quite casual. I sat on the swing chair with the portastudio on a low patio table next to me, An insect chirped along in time and the neighbour’s kid bounced a ball and threw hoops while someone mowed a lawn in the distance. 
Tascam Portastudio 424 MkII
I got obsessed with portastudios after I transferred, mixed and mastered a collection of Amy’s portastudio casette demos.the year before last. I love the Portastudio - it makes you want to go away for a few days with a load of notebooks and cassette tapes, a collection of wacky musical instuments, and record a classic lo-fi album. Easier said than done though - we can’t all be The Cleaners From Venus. 

I could go on about this forever but perhaps I’d better wrap it up and shut up. I’m working on a new Amy Rigby album at the moment. Or in reality I’m reclining on the sofa getting over a bad reaction to the Covid vaccine while Amy finishes up a piece she’s been asked to write about Bob Dylan. We were both vaccinated the other day in Woodstock. It was a charming and humane experience - old hippies and aging groovers lining up outside the village hall and being screened, processed and even reassured by delightful healthcare workers at tables inside the door. As it was Woodstock I was almost surprised to not be asked for my star sign. The injections happened at injection stations lined up across the middle of the hall, and afterwards we were invited to sit on the edge of the stage and wait for ten minute in case one of us had a fit. We didn’t so we left and Amy took a photo of us in the parking lot to commemorate the event. 

post vaccination, Woodstock NY

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Just To Be Clear...


I don’t have a vote here in the USA. I live here, own a house here, pay property taxes and make a tax declaration every year, but I don’t have a vote. I have a green card entitling me to long-term residence but with no voting rights. Some might argue that it’s taxation without representation which is unconstitutional, but considering the current president has clearly never read and understood the American Constitution that argument isn’t going to take you very far. 

People have asked me why I haven’t applied for citizenship. I was going to, I really was, until just under four years ago. A friend of mine got citizenship and I saw a photo of him standing next to the Stars & Stripes holding his right hand up in a salute of allegiance with a framed photo of President Obama behind him. I would have been ok with that but things changed, and now the only way I could give that salute of allegiance would be to have three fingers on my right hand amputated leaving just the middle finger. I need those fingers to play the guitar and other instruments, so I remain a green card holder. 

This doesn’t stop me from having an opinion and taking a political stance. I’m really heartened to see that so many people have already voted. I hope that most of these votes are for Joe Biden. I know Biden might not be the ideal candidate or many people’s preferred preference but he’s what we’ve got at this point. A non-vote or a vote for another candidate who has no chance of winning is effectively a vote for Donald Trump. As we sang in Vote That Fucker Out:
it’s the devil you can work with or the devil you hate… 

I should have become an American citizen but I’ve spent the past three and a half years wondering if I actually want to be a citizen of a country with such an abhorrent administration. And then I had Covid and an attendant heart attack, and then it was too late. So I’m still just a green card holder and I still don’t have a vote. 

Maybe you’re reading this and you haven’t voted and you’re thinking you’ll just stay home and not bother. Maybe you think there’s no point because
whatever will be will be, or you think it makes no difference anyway - you’re wrong about that, it does make a difference, but only if you actually do it. So if you’re one of those you could do me a favour - on Tuesday take a walk to the voting station and vote for me.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Evinrude...which yacht is yours?



All boat mechanics are called Mike. In fact anyone who has to do with the running of things in the boating community is called Mike. They have to be: there’s Mike who runs the Bliss Marina in Catskill where we park/moor/dock the boat (never sure of the correct term), there’s Mike the boat mechanic at the Hop O’Nose marina, and there’s Mike across the creek at the other marina.
 
Then there’s Larry - he’s obviously the exception that proves the rule. But he’s down near Poughkeepsie where the rules are probably different. One day, when his time isn’t taken up with delivering the posh Closer-To-New-York-City boating crowd from disasters like having their floating gin palaces sink due to the batteries that drive their bilge pumps going flat in the wake of torrential rain storms, Larry is going to sell me a reconditioned Johnson Seahorse outboard. He just needs to find the time to recondition it. 
In the meantime Mike the mechanic twiddled with the motor last Friday resulting in a weekend of boat trips up and down the creek and out onto the utterly terrifying Hudson river. It was all quite wonderful but Monday evening came around and it became evident after thirty or so pulls on the starting cord that the Evinrude is settling in for a week off.
I think the two stroke ratio is off. Everyone says 50:1 - that’s fifty parts gasoline to one part two stroke oil. If I was ploughing up the creek at a forty-five degree angle
 with the motor on full throttle, terrifying myself and everyone else, the ratio would probably be fine, but I hardly ever push it above a steady five mile an hour chug so the plugs keep oiling up.
The guy I bought the motor from told me 100:1 is the correct ratio and there’s a sticker next to the fuel intake that says 100:1, but I bowed to the superior knowledge of men called Mike because the guy I bought it from was called Scott, so what would he know? 
I’m thinking Scott might be right.
I took a can of gas down to the boat and diluted the mixture. The damned thing almost started up but it gave up and so did I. So it’s back to Mike the mechanic. He’s promised to drop by and have a look at it. I think he’s impressed by my tenacity.
Amy and I went down and took a sedate row across the creek. As we paddled slowly alongside a large moored up yacht a man looked down at us:
“Outboard not working eh? Which boat is yours?”
I didn’t immediately understand what he meant but Amy caught his drift straight away.
“This is it” she said, “we don’t have a real boat, just this.”
He thought we were using it to row out to our own massive yacht. He looked slightly taken aback and went back to what he was doing, which was attending to a barbecue.
Amy asked him what he was having for dinner.
Hamburgers, he was grilling hamburgers.
“Imagine,” I said, ‘having a boat large enough to grill hamburgers on.”
We sloshed away in our tin tub with its defunct outboard hanging off the back.
The dismal sound of the same four chords being played over and over on a ukelele wafted across the creek. It appeared to be coming from the house that until yesterday had a large banner hung off its balcony that said Get Aboard The Trump Train 2020. Today the banner is gone. Perhaps they watched the Republican Convention. Or heard our latest track: