77. BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM – Emmylou Harris


A lot of autobiographical stuff here, I’m afraid.  Feel free to skip (quite) a few paragraphs, to get to the song!…

I can carbon date my love for this song to that time, mid seventies, after graduation; I still lived with my parents; I worked for the DHSS in a big office on Newport Road in Cardiff.  It was a funny old time.  I often stayed in the city after work and caught the train home late.  There were things to see –I mentioned in an earlier essay about discovering opera (see no 13 ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’) But there were concerts, too, in Cardiff’s Capitol theatre – saw the Beach Boys there one night, and Donovan in his ‘intergalactic laxative’ phase.  Enough said.  And there was a funny couple of months when I hung around town because I was visiting a Trichologist. Yes.  Blame my mother for this one: my premature hair loss was of great concern to her, and when I declined her suggestion to ‘rub half an onion over my scalp and bury the other half’ (??), she then cut out for me an advert from the South Wales Echo for a clinic on Cardiff’s Queen Street, which for a modest fee would cure the problem of premature baldness. On her encouragement, I went along (and hey, it worked a treat, clearly!) I won’t go into the detail of treatments here but part of it involved a fairly noxious-smelling potion.  For everyone’s sake, I felt that wandering around town for a few hours would give my head’s smell a chance to wear off.

The relevance of all the self indulgent reminiscing, you may ask?  OK, I’m getting there.  One of the places I ended up ‘hanging around’ was a newly opened fairly trendy hamburger restaurant –can’t remember its name now –which played some really interesting music, which I suppose now that we might identify as ‘Americana’.  There was stuff like the Eagles, I think, country-tinged stuff I might not have paid attention to much up until then.  But I think this is where I first heard Emmylou Harris’s voice.  The Beatles’s covers blew me away – ‘For No One’, ‘Here, there and everywhere’…  But wow, that voice.

Then suddenly, of course,  she was everywhere.  The music mags – NME, Melody Maker  -showed pics of this cowboy-boot woman and raved about her music. Did I perhaps hear her as a fabulous backing voice on Dylan’s ‘Desire’ before I heard her solo performances?  I can’t remember.  But I remember an appearance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and suddenly too,  Country seemed to have shed something of its redneck right wing conservative image and become sort of cool.

No doubt it  helped too that the lady was pleasing to the eye, in a simpler and more fashionable way than most ‘country gals’: she in no way presented herself as a Tammy or a Lorretta (etc) – there was no primped-up hairdo, no mawkish sentimentality or TV show-smiles either in her introductions or in her performances.  And ah, that voice, that voice…  which of course has been much commented upon since those days.  While, yes,  it has a distinctive listenability, its uniqueness also relies undoubtedly upon a peculiar ‘catch’ in her register which adds, as some have said, a note of ‘ache’ or ‘heartbreak’, and therefore is ideally suited to tender songs of love, longing, and loss. Which brings us almost to the song!

But before then, back to memoirs.  Towards the end of my two year stretch in the civil service I was encouraged to seek promotion.  I went along to an interview in Bristol (a bit of a waste of time, since I had already planned to leave the job in a couple of months’ time).  My memory of the interview is that, having just read a book about the beginnings of the charity ‘Shelter’, I talked at length about the problem of homelessness in the UK.  Probably nothing to do with the question they asked me.

I came out of the interview and wandered around Bristol in an oddly euphoric mood.  In a record shop, I purchased Emmylou Harris’s ‘Pieces of the Sky’ album, because it seemed the right thing to do.  Back home that evening, I played it and played it.  There’s not a bad track on the album; even Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of many colours’ seemed to be redeemed from something twee into something noble…  But THIS song, ‘ Boulder to Birmingham’,this self penned songs of hers (OK, alongside some other bloke) brought prickles down the spine, tears to the eyes.

I had no idea about the inspiration for the song.  I didn’t know then that it was about the grief of losing Gram Parsons; but you get it from the weariness of the opening declaration  ‘ ‘I don’t want to hear a love song..’; you get it almost impressionistically, even through those images ‘this airplane…  the wilderness…  the canyon…  on fire’ you get a sense of someone struggling to give expression to a fierce kind of sadness (‘The last time I felt like this…’).  It’s there in the repetitions at the end of the two verses – ‘watched it burn…  watched it burn’ then ‘coming down to wash me clean…wash me clean’ – somehow a kind of need for catharsis.  It’s there most poignantly in that enigmatic chorus with its oddly ‘spiritual’ allusions – ‘my soul…bosom of Abraham…. saving grace’ and the longing in the conditional ‘if I thought I could see..  your face’.

Well I’ve said that was the most poignant, but perhaps that’s not true – on a conscious level I feel I hardly listened to the lyrics, certainly not initially in the analytical way that previous paragraph suggests! Because, really,  most telling of all was the voice that handles the lyric and that pretty exquisitely sympathetic melody.  It still feels like a classic, doesn’t it?

Emmylou has aged gracefully, opted for silver locks instead of dark dye; and kept on singing.  With a kind of modest sensitivity she seems to have become a ‘duetter’ for many other performers, and when she does, always enhances the sound.  You might remember her, for instance, in the first of the wonderful   ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ duetting with Mary Black on Sandy Denny’s ‘By the Time it gets Dark’. OK, just joining in on the refrains, but there’s that kind of understated shiver of silver which her accompaniment adds to others’ performances.  I’ve never seen her live, and I don’t know if she still performs ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ but it’s enough that we have that enduring recording on her first solo album.  Amen.


66. THE LATE SHOW & HOW LONG? – Jackson Browne



I’m putting these two songs together –perhaps over-ambitiously? –and I’m not sure if I can convey what I want, but somehow I want to suggest that the gap between these two songs is a story in itself, from the introspective angst which characterises (and caricatures) too much of the early 1970s singer songwriter material, to something more outward looking, observational, politically and socially engaged [Note: this is one of the reasons why Dylan was outside of his time – the chronology of his own development is quite different.]

When Jackson Browne’s ‘Late For The Sky’ album was released, I was just ripe for its musings and expressions, particularly for the emotings and the confident pseudo psychological declaratives of the final song ‘The Late Show’…’ Seems like people only ask you how you’re doing/ ‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care..’ This kind of rawness, this naked facing up to the need-for-meaningful-love at the core of our beings , was exactly where I was at, there in the early 1970s.  And even while I’m writing this, I’m recognizing a chicken-and-egg conundrum: did the Californian songsmith’s navel gazing emoting actually engender my perspective, or simply correspond?  Remember that I was late adolescent burgeoning into early adulthood: first romance (Margaret); equally in love (or was this the fault of DH Lawrence?) with the idea of friendships.  So the song resonated and resonated.  And either way, I recognise this as both the internal and external mood of the time.  I remember singing a snatch of the song at home one evening –could possibly have been the lines already quoted –and my mother saying ‘Oh?  Do you think that’s true?’ Or something equally unexpected.  It led to a brief, interesting but slightly awkward conversation where I affirmed my commitment to be real, to talk about real feelings.  I think I might even have said that my experience of God’s love meant that I felt ‘reconciled to the world, and the universe, and myself’.  Something of that nature. (!!)

The song continued in that vein, arguing (it did argue, I think) for emotional honesty – ‘to see things clear, is hard enough I know…/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise..’ and encouraging us to probe beyond surfaces and to recognise the rawest of human emotional needs – ‘you could be with somebody who is lonely too/ He might be trying to get across to you..’

The disturbing thing is that some of my own songs may still be ploughing this same particular furrow. Yikes.  Take my song ‘Discover Me’ which urges the same kind of awareness (‘perhaps it’s like the one about Not waving here but Drowning’).  But despite that, listening back and thinking back, I recognise, as JB himself must have, that there are limits to this heavy emotional dissection.  It simply calls for a ‘breaking out’ to less-internal preoccupations; and it is a refreshment, relief and reinvigoration when this is reflected in the song-output.

I’m choosing ‘How Long?’ From the ‘World In Motion’ album as the other contrasting bookend.  I found the album in a shopping mall in Asuncion in 1991, though I think it may have been released quite a few years by then.  This wasn’t by any means the beginning of Browne’s more outwardly looking songs –even back in the mid 1980s, when Sue, Kev and I had gone to see him in Hammersmith Odeon, he was promoting his ‘Lives In The Balance’ album full of eloquent criticism of America’s foreign policy, and of awareness of its effects globally. That very title track in itself was a most arresting wake-up call.

The World In Motion album follows in the same vein –but the ‘How Long?’ track really got to me –because it seemed more than just mere polemic; it also employed the controlled emotive focus which song is so good at, of course (* see below) –to help promote and clarify that same anti militaristic perspective.  And so it alternates political statement (‘How long will they tell us these weapons are keeping us free?/It’s a lie..’) with more blatant emotive appeal (‘how long/can you hear someone crying..?).  *And OK, what needs to be debated of course, is whether all this is just political naivety; it could even be argued that the subtle complexities of political and militaristic pragmatism cannot adequately be addressed within the vehicle of song, which perhaps by  very nature tends towards simplifications and polarisations.  Today, I’m particularly aware that ‘emotive’ arguments can be easily abused – hearing Donald Trump crassly justifying his own recent air strike on a Syrian military target, with a suspiciously sudden newfound concern for the ‘poor little innocent Syrian babies and beautiful children’ who had not seemed on the radar of his compassion any time previously.  I’m not comfortable thinking that Browne and Trump might be using the same kind of manipulative technique , and I almost wish I hadn’t started this bit. Still, of the two, I know who the more articulate one is, and who I trust more.

Be that as it may, I still find this a powerful song –one of those rare ones that did make me cry; and it’s a song I have used in school assemblies – I constructed my first ever power point presentation with this song –and, with its sense of purpose and ‘protest’, I suppose it’s the kind of song I wish I had written more of, and perhaps had paid more heed to, and had celebrated more.

See what I mean?  In these two songs, a whole history….

65. BORDER SONG – Elton John

I think one often returns from time-out breaks with a sort of heightened awareness –and perhaps particularly so when they involve some cultural contrast, and in my experience this is especially true when the breaks have had some spiritual focus –and ones antennae towards matters of spiritual reference becomes acutely sensitive – perhaps amusingly so…

At least, such was the case in the spring of 1970 when I returned home from an Easter jaunt with the church youth group, who had been taken by our pastor Rev. Albert Turner (recently deceased – God bless him) to camp in the Bois De Boulogne and see the sights of Paris (following, now I come to think of it, a short Christian youth conference somewhere in Belgium, the first opportunity incidentally to practice my excruciatingly clumsy bits of O level French).  Show us the sights he did, and looking back it seems slightly unorthodox that for one of our evening visits he took us  -all young adolescent boys, if I remember rightly –to stroll along Pigalle’s avenue of strip joints and girlie shows. ‘Something of the world’s attractions’ he said, implying that anyone blithely following a perceived call to a Christian lifestyle might as well know what they were up against!  Ironically other visits and evening walks –less sticky and embarrassing –were equally alluring: the beauty of the Champs Elysees, the Left Bank, the art…

We must have returned home midweek, because I have a feeling that I was still fresh and raw from the headiness of foreign travel and from the intoxicating camaraderie of young people together, and the rarefied atmosphere of constant ‘Christian fellowship’ and refreshment, when we came to sit down and watch our regular ‘Top Of The Pops’ date, as a family, that Thursday evening.

I had probably only been away about 10 days at the most, but I suddenly felt that everything had changed – a song called ‘Spirit In The Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum had rocketed to the top of the charts –and this obviously a song about God!   Other singles too (I forget which) seemed less about teen romance and more about less earthbound concerns. …Spiritual awareness was everywhere!  And now, look –this young fresh faced pianist-singer Elton John was also singing a song of unequivocal gospel tones and content!  Had a revival taken place in my absence?  It was spring, after all, and an opportunity for awakenings in more than one way!

Okay, very funny now, that I should think of Elton’s song as evidence of a sweep of Christian fervour, or something akin.  What on earth was I basing it on? ‘Holy Moses’, no doubt (though today Taupin’s ‘Holy Moses’ seems little more than a substitute for a more frustrated expletive!) and possibly the impassioned call for tolerance in the last verse, which in its clunky literalism sounds more like The Office’s David Brent than anything else! (‘tell the man over there/what’s his colour?/I don’t care/he’s my brother/let us live in peace…’).  I subsequently learnt that young Reg added this verse himself, while Bernie Taupin’s lyrics in the rest of the song remain much more ambiguous and enigmatic –and somehow more enduring because of it.  Take the ‘bridge’ for instance –‘I’m going back to the border where my affairs/my affairs ain’t abused/I can’t take any more bad water/it’s poison from my head down to my shoes.’..  And borders are of course essentially dangerous, risky, uncertain, ambiguous tightropes between neighbouring or opposing states.  Perhaps that’s why they appeal to poet-singers –think of Richard Thompson’s ‘when I get to the border’ and Joni Mitchell’s wonderful ‘Borderline’ etc.

So yes, it was pretty silly wasn’t it, to see the song as potent with spirituality.  But the funny thing is, for me the feel of the song is still gospelish, and although my Elton-history is a relatively short one, I gladly come back to this one (it’s on the jukebox) and experience from it a familiar frisson.






‘The kettle’s on, the sun has gone, another day…’  As I’ve mentioned more than once, it was not unusual  in the late 60s/early 70s for my brother to come home with a long playing disc of an artist hitherto unknown to me.  Here was a classic case: the album ‘Flat Baroque And Berserk’ was both captivating and intriguing.  On the one hand, there was some very nice acoustic guitar work, either with crisply strummed chords or some neat twiddly finger picking, and a few of the songs were par for the course in early seventies English folk prog imagery, with sunshine/ countryside/ seaside allusions, all not too far from McTell.  But with far more of them there was a different tone too, a Dylanesque sharpness, an edgy angry quality.  And let’s not forget to mention that voice – that lovely leaping range he has, from quiet/tender/menacing in the lower registers soaring up to strident/piercing/ challenging/pleading in the higher registers. ‘I hate the white man’ is a perfect example . One interesting feature  was a long monologue (would we pretentiously have referred to it as a ‘rap’ back then??) before Harper launches in to that particular angry song.  It’s a bit rambling, bordering on semi-incoherent, possibly fuelled by, ahem, substances… does it explain some of the ‘impressionism’ of these early songs?

Which is not meant as a put down, because this song ‘Another Day’ from the same album, is stunningly beautiful – but it feels like a case of words and images getting collaged, sort of, by slightly spaced out intuition or serendipity or because they sound good, rather than, I suppose I mean, by more conscious language choices : and maybe that was the creative spirit of the time and the perceived value of mind-altering  stuff – freed you from over-cerebral, overly-prosaic construction? So we listen to ‘Another Day’ recognizing that it’s in the feel  and the general tenor that emerges from the accumulated images – a feel of endings, missed chances, transitions ,loss, and I’m not sure the lines will hold up to too much individual analysis – ‘I must take her while the dove domains..run my wings under her sighs/ as the flames of eternity rise..’.

But I’m also thinking that to see it like this might slightly be doing Harper a disservice – he was avowedly a fan of the romantic poets so let’s assume it wasn’t just their toothache-remedies he emulated, but also their conscious lyrical power. There’s genuine aching loss in some of the lines – ‘I loved you a long time ago/ Where the wind’s own forget-me-nots grow/ But I just couldn’t let myself go/ Not knowing what on earth there was to know..’ and an attempt to explore distances between people – ‘sat here with ourselves in between us..’  And  there’s enough consistency to make it a thing of a unified, coherent mood – a delicious, almost colourful sadness  which ends with a ‘without a sound… walk away’. Whoever produced the album wisely and sensitively accentuated this simple minor chord sequences and ambience with a beautiful string arrangement , and you could play it over and over..

I only ever saw him once, and that was my first year in Swansea University, where he played a set in a very cramped and dingy student union bar.  His song introductions, his chat between songs, were as mumbled, profane and semi incoherent as that album had led me to expect!  But similarly I was not disappointed by this searing, incisive voice, and yes, he even included ‘Another Day’ in the set.


What of this second song?  I didn’t really follow the Harper trail, I’m afraid. I got a bit lost after ‘Stormcock’ – which, while I appreciated the ambition and the artistry..I dunno – blame it on my short attention span. Anyway,I can’t remember when I first heard ‘ When an Old Cricketer leaves the crease..’, and I suspect it was long after Roy Harper had ceased to be part of my familiar listening repertoire.  I know now that it comes from the HQ album , which actually was released a mere five years later.  One of the things that struck me about it was that it seemed, in its rather gentle evocation of English village green cricket matches, a far cry from the anti establishment anger stances with which I associated him in my memory.  But I am no Roy Harper aficionado, and perhaps those who have followed his career, and know the canon of his work more fully and more intimately, might be able to tell me that there is more seamlessness between the two Harpers than I was aware of.  The other thing about the song, bearing in mind what I said earlier, is that this one does seem more carefully, almost intellectually crafted, and gently sustaining its cricketing metaphor throughout.

I say metaphor , I assume metaphor, because surely this is a song about mortality, isn’t it.  ‘When the day is done and the ball has spun’.. and so on. (And I identify with this because as I look back at some of my own songs, a lot of them end up musing on mortality!) Even if it’s a tribute to the classic gentlemanly sport, it’s seeing it in the context of endings, and yet with the sense of the enduring spirit ? so ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone/
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly Mid-on..’ There even seems something semi-mystical as we get into the second ‘verse’ – ‘Well this way of life’s recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze/The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days’. The lovely vocal range is still there, the ability to leap up the octave. And back to the crafting – wow, this one’s workmanlike – that neat aabccb rhyme pattern in the first two lines of the verse, ferinstance.  And – I don’t know if I’m getting this right but – I like the gentle ‘defusing’ of this perspective by equating it with the ‘sting in the ale’…it’s all a graceful ‘sunset’ (of an English summer Sunday? of life? Of old guys? Of village green cricket matches?) evocation. And in keeping, this time, production gives us comforting low-key brass band music rather than moody strings.

Two classics, two special songs, ladies and gentleman, deserving to be known and enjoyed. As does Mr Harper senior.

53. ALL GOOD GIFTS/ON THE WILLOWS -from ‘Godspell’ (Stephen Schwartz)


I thought I heard, recently, that there was going to be a new national tour of this classic old 70s musical –perhaps I dreamt it, or if I did hear it, I might have now missed it –still, just the rumour got me a bit excited!  Though of course, nothing can possibly match the first time…

And the first time I saw ‘Godspell’ (a Tuesday night in the New Theatre, Cardiff –I’m guessing 1976) I was so blown away by it that I went back nearly every other night that same week, (I even sneaked in during the interval in the Saturday matinee where my wife to be – who coulda thunk back then – was watching it with her one-day-to-be-bridesmaid), to see it again and again. Mr Obsessive, even then.  Even today, i’m not exactly sure what Stephen Schwarz had intended as the effect of his musical (apart from money in the bank, obviously), but the impact upon me was pretty momentous –despite what it might be easy to see as crass, irreverent, flippant, gimmicky-hippie interpretations of gospel narrative, ironically I found that, with searing freshness it brought to life not only the narratives and teachings of Matthew’s gospel, but even, in some weird way, the person of Christ himself.  I can remember writing a (very bad, cringingly prosaic) poem about this, called ‘The Man’, the idea being that the musical had somehow helped to flesh out his reality for me in a new and unexpected way.

The other impacting effect of the musical is akin to hearing  gospel narrative all in one sitting –as I experienced most powerfully in one Edinburgh festival seeing Alec McCowan performing/reciting ‘The Gospel According To Saint Mark’ –it’s the shock, the unusual experience of seeing the arc of Jesus’ ministry from its beginning, the calling of the disciples, through to the end – betrayal, crucifixion (and of course, mysteriously, gloriously, what follows!)

These two songs are kind of book ends in that respect.  ‘All Good Gifts’ is sung, initially, by one of the disciples in the excitement of the early days of following the master, and intersects passages from the sermon on the mount.  It is, of course, that old chestnut of favourite harvest hymns, ‘We Plough The Fields And Scatter…’ – originally 18th century German, and translated into English in the 19th century (and mercifully cut down from its original 17 verses) –and given here a great new stirring melody.  As soon as I could, I taught it to our congregation for our own harvest celebrations!  In the context of the musical, the disciples are still bubbly, anticipatory and confident.  In the third verse they join in glorious harmony while the soloist improvises soulful responses of gratitude –“I really wanna thank you Lord…” etc.

Within an hour or so of dramatic action, and in theatrical terms in the second half of the production, the mood has slipped to a more realistic awareness of conflict, threat, impending suffering.  ‘On the Willows’ seems a strange insertion –an old testament psalm of exile in a minor key, sung ‘out of action’ by (at least every time that I have seen it) the musicians themselves rather than the actors, while on stage, there is a stylised re-enactment of the Last Supper with, most affectingly, Jesus embracing each disciple with some unique gesture reminiscent of their own story or actions from earlier in the narrative.

The mournful psalm captures just the right tone for the occasion –‘but how can we sing/Sing the Lord’s song/In a foreign land?…’ It’s Psalm 137,isn’t it, and it’s inspired lots of interpretations and versions -there’s the ’round’ that Don Maclean used to do; there’s a Leonard Cohen song based on it; my old house-mate Tim wrote a great song based on it, I think. (yes, Tim?) And..should we mention Boney M? But this version is lovely – all acousticky like an early Paul Simon song, all minor chords and sweet sad harmonies.The song symbolises the end of more naive idealistic rejoicings; or at least it signals significant grief-times, sobering times when those kind of songs must give way to more plaintive dirges.  Perhaps a repetitious cycle of experience most communities of believers must necessarily encounter, if they are also to know ‘reviving’ experiences and rediscoveries of resurrection joy and hope.

The movie version was…worth avoiding, but theatrical performances of it still give me a buzz, and yes I still find the music , admittedly  ‘of its time’ but despite that, compelling- for me, these two songs especially; I am glad to have become acquainted with it.  It’s now – for good or bad – a part of my internal musical fabric.  [smiley face signifying acknowledgement of pretentious phrase]

38. SOMETIMES – Jonathan Edwards


A quick one.  Here’s a little something which has ‘stuck around’ in that hummy singy part of my brain for four decades or so, surfacing unexpectedly now and again with me crooning “sometimes, in the morning…” –usually, not too surprisingly, in the morning, sometimes.

Despite that, I’ve too often thought of it as a little bit of 1970s singer songwritery ephemera from a one -hit- album wonder (and by the way, big brother, if you’ve been looking for the album, it’s in my house) and this song a melodically repetitious but pleasant two-and-a-half- chords earworm of dreaminess.  But over time, over the decades of occasional morning hums and croons, I feel the song began to acquire substance for me, and so I’m going to redress the balance and give this song something of the respect I think it deserves.

Let’s say this.  It’s not just a love song –or, if it is a love song, it’s equally about loss and memory –and the tricky, shifting insubstantiality of those memories which have acquire dreamlike wateriness.  These three simple verses eloquently explore that.  In verse one, the memory of the loved one is “…  A falling dream, disappearing scene”; in verse two, “a phrase [which] echoes through the haze/just beyond my vision…” In the final verse he declares an intention to “go back to sleep…[to] keep my memories in motion…” And there is a sad and subtle irony there –that only in the unreality of dream can the memory acquire clear animation.

We can be forgiven for not noticing the profundity of that –after all, it sounds so throwaway, such a naive, ridiculously simple, starkly structured little thing.  But – turn it on its head –and it becomes a jewel – neat, unadorned, pared to perfection – of a song, a classic of its kind.  And the melody, and the accompaniment –bravely understated, the simple chord shape chased up and down a few frets –and that voice, perfectly echo the dreamlike longing state between love and loss.  No jarring chordal acrobatics, no distracting melodic manoeuvres, but this gentle, seamless reflection.

I’ll be continuing to croon snatches from it, sometimes, in the morning –not of course those zingy, glad to be alive, thank you Lord mornings –there are plenty of songs for those days; no, this is for those more wistful, misty-headed mornings when we reach to feel the beauty even in a bit of melancholy.

36. FOR THE ROSES – Joni Mitchell

In 1972, Allan told me he’d got us tickets to see Joni Mitchell in the Royal Festival Hall and, bless him, was willing to drive us there too. It was 6 May, Cup Final Day, though, and believe it or not, dear smirking reader, in those days this actually meant something to me. Yes, I could actually watch a whole football match without wanting to shout out (in the words of a revered older lady of our acquaintance) ‘Oh for goodness sake, look at those men chasing a ball – give them ALL a ball!’ Even harder to believe I had an extra-special particular interest in the match since ‘my’ team (?!) Leeds United was battling it out, against Arsenal. Yes, hard for me to believe I was interested, but it was unquestionably essential we watched the match.

Allan hit upon a plan, deciding we could drive to London in the morning, and watch the TV coverage of the match at the home of our cousin Jean – despite the fact we had never visited her before, or given her any notice of this . Jean had earned some notoriety for us by having married Bruce Rowland, drummer in Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, and later in Fairport Convention. It was something of a cheek, perhaps, to turn up at her door unannounced, but that’s what we did. Jean and Bruce were clearly not Saturday morning risers though, so when we brightly introduced ourselves, middayish, to the slightly groggy dishevelled Jean who answered the door, we were sent for a 20 minute walk around the block while they got their act together. Eventually we were welcomed, and given a scratch lunch; despite being a bit in awe of Bruce we still rifled through his album collection; then we were allowed to watch the match (Leeds won 1-0) and went on our way into the heart of the big city. Hard to believe now, but Al was able to park ‘just around the corner’ from the RFH, without too much difficulty and without cost.

It did not go perfectly smoothly, this concert. It started late – the sound system wasn’t working so they ended up using the ‘house PA’ system which was a little echoey and tinny. Jackson Browne’s support set, then, was somewhat curtailed, but not before he’d whetted our appetite for further acquaintance.

Joni’s set, despite all this, was utterly entrancing and memorable. She seemed to me at the peak of her creativity – looking back, one of many peaks. Like the Cairngorms. She opened with ‘This Flight Tonight’, making the most of the song’s drastically dropped bass string to hammer a note of warning –if that doesn’t sound too fanciful (it does –Ed.) – that we were in for a confident showcase of some special stuff. And so we were: she focused heavily on the new songs, at times even a little apologetically – ‘but it makes it more interesting for me’ she explained introducing yet another new one. I for one wasn’t complaining – these new compositions were enthralling, instantly engaging. She rarely gave them titles, but each was unique and compelling. Only later did we learn we had been introduced to ‘Electricity’, ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ (breathtaking), ‘Lesson in Survival’, ‘See You Sometime’, ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars’(the ambition, the melodic sophistication!), ‘You Turn me on I’m a Radio’ – all finely honed, eloquent in distinctive ways, none moreso than this song, which was to give the album that eventually featured these new songs, six months or more later, its title.

She introduced it at length with some detail  of its inception – hearing the leaves of the arbutus trees rattling together like applause, while there in her retreat home in remote British Columbia. And she linked the anecdote with reflections from her friend who had talked about artists being like horses running for the rosettes and roses…

And of course this is what this wonderful song is about – or at least one of the things that it is about – art for art’s sake versus art for acclaim and rewards.  What happens to the artist when the acclaim and the accolades come.  The complex maelstrom of responses to success and fame, to the changing context of the artistic endeavours…  This song was chilling, then, when I first heard it on that slightly echoey PA System 43 years ago.  It is still quite chilling and it’s rich in its complex exploration of feelings and thoughts.

You’ve got to admire this about Joni Mitchell: there is generally an honesty in what she produces.  As early as ‘He Played Real Good For Free’ which made it onto the third album, she was beginning to confront awkward and uncomfortable discrepancies between the simple troubadour she had been and the superstar she was becoming, between the musicianship of fame, and the equally adept musicianship without fame, the discomfort and the something-like-guilt this engenders.  In the following album she was acknowledging the lucrative base of the business she was now a part of –‘I’m going to make a lot of money and I’m gonna quit this crazy scene..’ (she didn’t, hasn’t, couldn’t, quite…) ‘For The Roses’ takes an honest look at that –the artist caught up in a commercial merry go round so that art becomes contrived to the purposes of the machinery –‘in some office sits a poet…  And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around..’ She explores and confronts the discrepancy between the crowds of public acclaim (‘giant screens…  Parties for the press’) and essentially solitary nature of the artistic endeavour –‘it’s just you up there, getting them to feel like that…’ She explores and confronts the essentially inhuman, impersonal nature of the financial business world which controls the promotion of popular music –‘people who have slices of you from the company…’, and the powerful ‘golden egg’ metaphor in verse three hints of the precarious position of the popular artist, needing always to produce something marketable – ‘who’s to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so…’ The song is honest in confronting the idea that fame confers a lifestyle that is hard to move back from (‘…  Brings me things I really can’t give up just yet..’) so that to challenge the system for a successful artist indeed will seem like ingratitude as well as folly (‘…  My teeth sunk in the hand which brings me things…’) and –notably-we get the sense that recognition and acclaim are attractive enough that we carry the longing for them with us (‘did you get a round resounding for you way up here?’ from verse 1), but, equally, are essentially hollow –the ‘empty spotlight’ of that wonderful final phrase. How much more refreshing this bare probing than musicians perpetuating the pretence that they are reforming and doing another (fabulously remunerative) world tour of stadiums in their twilight years, merely for the love of the music, man.

Joni’s ‘you’ seemed ambiguous throughout the song – at times she seems to be addressing herself; at other times she seems to see the ironies and discrepancies more clearly by addressing a different second person – a former lover maybe,  a James, a Graham, a Jackson or whoever –it doesn’t really matter, the reflections are still valid just the same.  And it is powerful, this eloquent reflection-and-recollection in tranquillity, and by no means just as a lyric, but as a completely integrated music-and-words song.  Five verses, the final (half) verse bringing us back to the opening image but with a warier note.  In each verse, the opening lines follow a simple melodic strain dropping down in semi tones until a ‘lift’ in the second half of the verse with more dynamic thrusting images, somehow faltering into a final line with a chord reflecting irresolution and uncertainty –none more so than the ending of verse four where the fickleness of investment popularity has become ‘…  Bringing out the hammers, and the boards, and the nails…’ –the phrasing, the pauses perfectly reflect a world-weary cynicism with the business…  There’s a kind of instinctive compositional brilliance about this.

The song speaks – OK, yes, as one particular artist’s reflection on commercial success from the perspective conferred by distance and solitude; but also it speaks beyond itself to anyone engaged in expressive, creative or performance related pursuits.  It asks questions: was it ever enough to ‘pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee’?  Or is some kind of recognition and acknowledgment always to be desired?  Why this blog?  Why upload onto youtube and look for the likes, the comments?  How important the backpats, the smatterings of claps at open mic events?  How dangerous is it to be thrall to that. What’s creative integrity all about and how does it live with the audience it presumably needs?

(For goodness sake, give them all a ball.)

18. AS THE RUIN FALLS – Phil Keaggy

I stumbled back onto this, a few days ago, after a gap of 30 years or more, and it stirred up a lot of thoughts.  (Also, I was rather surprised about how well I remembered it, and could sort of sing along, despite its fairly intricate construction.)

Here are some of the thoughts it brings to mind.  I’ve already and elsewhere touched upon the winds of change in the 1960s: renovations, reawakenings and renewals in the global Christian church, and the inevitable innovations it brought to forms and expressions of music both in ‘worship’ and in reflective/performance/message-conveying formats.  For bad or good, this spawned a new industry in the 60s and 70s –the ‘Christian music industry’.  Mostly bad, it began to seem, since capital-minded corporations suddenly discovered a new niche market to exploit, and surely that couldn’t be good?  Initially excited by what was being produced –and I’m talking mainly ‘performance’  output here – I soon sort of lost track of what the industry was all about, and sadly felt that in many ways the industry itself had, too.

While the interest lasted, we were listening to, and awaiting the next albums of (in the UK) artists like Graham Kendrick, Malcolm and Alwyn, Garth Hewitt, Len McGee; and (in the U.S.) Chuck Girard, Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, Michael Omartian, Annie Herring et al.  It’s easy now to dismiss it as a bit of a sad business.  To underline my dismissal of if, I’m remembering too a concert I attended in Cardiff about…eight years ago, with Pierce Pettis and Julie Lee (see my blog posting on ‘You Did That For Me’), two artists I discovered at Greenbelt Festival.  It was a very poorly attended gig, so there was plenty of opportunity to chat with them.  While both were fervent believers, they had also both resisted being drawn into the world of the U.S.Christian music industry.  The murky world, they implied.  The wonderful Julie Miller, also, had started her recording career in that world, but had managed to escape it to eventually disseminate her great songs more widely.  It was Richard Hines (fellow teacher at Colegio San Andres) who taught me that we do best to resist creating sub cultures –Christian poetry, Christian art, Christian diets, Christian music industry etc.  –and instead, try being ‘salt’ in the world.(Hmm. Discuss)

So, as I’ve said, it’s been easy to dismiss those early seventies Christian albums.  But this is what hearing Phil Keaggy again reminded me: that there was much within that industry that had both quality and integrity.  Just think, for instance, about the earnest and honest anthems of Keith Green; think too of the exquisite vocals of Matthew Ward –while several of his songs suffered from cliché, there is a handful in his canon that stand any stringent test of time –his ‘psalms’, ‘Love’, ‘Summer Snow’, ‘Noah’ (isn’t that a Keaggy song too?).On this side of the pond, real craftsmanship in such as Adrian Snell…

And Phil Keaggy himself: so, let’s get back to this song.  Keaggy was/is a consummate guitarist, and the exquisite guitar-work on this track attests to that too.  But most interesting too is the ambition of actually attempting a musical version of this sonnet by CS Lewis!  Its fluid syntax, its enjambements, its condensed and complex images do not lend themselves easily to musical adaptation!  But this is as brave and close to brilliant an attempt as you can get, and the 40 years since its composition only confirms that for me.

While there may be several levels of explicit and implicit meaning in the sonnet, at the very least it’s about an awareness that much of what we are and do is motivated by self gratification.  CS Lewis clearly highlights (and Keaggy underlines) that this often leads us into mere delusions of knowledge, our ‘flashy rhetoric about loving you’ keeping us from the true experience of the real thing – ‘I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek…’ Like many good at-the-core Christ-infused creations, there is the hint of the end-of-self and the divine redemptive mercy and grace that rescues us from that state.  We get this in the final lines and Keaggy captures the note of hope in the final couplet (‘For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains/You give me are more precious than all other gains’) with a minor to major change mirroring the gratitude of the rescued.

Speaking as someone who has dabbled with “collaborations with CS” myself (!! –songs for my ‘Pilgrim’s Regress’ dramatic adaptation, pale little efforts by comparison!)I recognize what an impressive achievement this lovely song is .  I’m very glad to have stumbled back across it, after far too long.

16. THE DONOR – Judee Sill

Any Britisher of my generation who remembers the late Judee Sill will also then probably remember the first of her two appearances on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ where, off-script, she made a direct plea to the viewing audience to buy her debut album so that she would not have to open for any ‘snotty heavy rock bands’ anymore…  then proceeded to play and sing the tender, deftly crafted and intriguing put-down song that is ‘Jesus was a Crossmaker’.  The next day I went to Pete’s Record Shop in Bargoed to buy the aforementioned album.  “You’d be surprised how many people have come in as a result of her appeal,” he said, or something like.

While critics praised the way that mystical, religious imagery metaphorically charted her love life and inner conflicts, to me, my ears and eyes youthfully starry with Jesus  – many of the songs sounded simply and authentically Christian in their language –‘the Lamb ran away with the crown’ comes to mind- but perhaps I too easily saw Jesus where there were just strange mixed-up pictures from the biblical teaching in the correctional institutions to which her teenage addiction/prostitution horror stories had consigned her.  Still, here was a strange, talented girl, whose (reportedly) messed up background had nevertheless led her to a place where the iconic symbols and images of Christian theology, and of Christ himself, had somehow captivated her to a point where they informed and inhabited her creative responses to life.  So yes I liked it; I liked her songs.

When I went off to university, Judee Sill took her place in the lineup of the many singer songwriters (several ‘girls with guitars’ among them) that was never far from my vision, though her limited output –just that one great album –perhaps meant that she was not in the forefront, either.  Until I came upon her second album – ‘Heartfood’.  I snapped it up, and was delighted to find that her spiritual language, her obliqueness, her unusual perspectives were just as alluring and potent.  There were even songs that felt like ‘straight’ Christian anthems e.g.  ‘When the bridegroom comes’.  And then there was the 7 minute extraordinary treasure which is ‘The Donor’…

If ever there was a song whose meaning was conveyed impressionistically rather than through lucid lyrical content, then it was this one. First that long introduction itself seems eloquent: a sequence of ponderous piano notes quickly becomes built upon with what sounds like xylophone accompaniment, and then with a repeated chant of wordless musical phrase (like Hey Jude but at the beginning not the end!), growing in intensity and tiers of sound; from this wordlessness ‘kyries’ begin to emerge with increasing distinctness. At a climactic point, when the kyries have reached unequivocal clarity, the voice begins the song ‘proper’, to a starker piano accompaniment. There’s a profound, elemental feel to the song; and inevitably and instinctively I assumed that it was about the Great Donor, Jesus, with the great ‘donation’ of himself implicitly referenced in typically indirect, esoteric Sill-style.  I think that it was the first time I had ever come across the phrase ‘Kyrie Eleison’ (hard to believe now, but bear in mind my spiritually sheltered background of Welsh nonconformity); and its use as a refrain in this song is haunting, plaintive, the layering of voices accentuating the utterly appropriate aching dolorousness of the prayer.

There was no lyric sheet with this second album, and it’s only now, 40 odd years later, that I come to look at them…and find them, like water, hard to hold, without any obvious linear coherence.  Take the opening –‘I’ll chase ‘em to the bottom/Till I’ve finally caught ‘em/Dreams fall deep…’ Like I said, sort of, the meaning is more in the sound than the lyric –but what you can say about the lyric is that everything leads to the Kyrie.  The hints and implications seem to be that inner impulses (the voices ‘Moaning and a-rhyming/…Ringin’ and a-whining’) and the profundities of human experience (‘Songs from so deep/while I’m sleeping’) and the sadnesses of life (‘Sorrow’s like an arrow…  Reaching to the marrow’) all lead us to this prayer –Lord, have mercy.  ‘So sad, and so true…’ – and Judee, bless her, on what level of consciousness I don’t know, helped to highlight the bedrock necessity of that prayer. Well, for me, at least.