10. GAUGUIN IN THE SOUTH SEAS – Jimmy Webb

…which is its full title, I believe. When I saw Judy Collins perform in Aberdare a few years ago – the first and only time I’ve seen her- she was, as predicted, polished, professional, superb – as you might expect from 50 years ‘on the circuit’. She ran through a familiar repertoire which, I imagine, she imagined fans expected to hear: the hits, a smattering of Joni and Leonard, a couple of traditional (yes we even had ‘The Great Selkie’), some ‘standards’, and in amongst them all, this – “a song by my friend Jimmy Webb”.

OK, if it didn’t literally ‘take my breath away’ it certainly made me sit up a little, and there was, I swear, something of a prickle down the old spine…With Judy’s crystally lucid enunciation, the narrative was clear from the start, from the very first phrase – ‘Gauguin, tired of the climate in Paris..’ and there we were, carried along musically, embarked on that famous artistic journey of discovery.

This is a story easy to glamorize, of course – the idea of leaving behind wage-slave drudgery, conventional and artificial civilization, grey uniformity, suburban mundanity – and heading out – with just some impelling notion of wanting to paint, heading out, further, further to lands of colour and otherness. Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ tackles the story, and …I seem to recall…manages to avoid over-glamorization, I think. But songs, ah well, generally they can’t resist the emotive and the romantic – and we get it here. “So I’m going to go down and look for Paradise..”

Probably the realities of it all were a lot more sordid – selfishness and desertion, stubborn idealism, and an ending in licentiousness and syphilis. Still, but still…there’s something universally valid about ‘the romance of the quest’ – “To paint pictures of Paradise – you’ve got to lose yourself to find Paradise”. We can relate to that, can’t we?

And the song – back to the song – there’s a really engaging architecture to its construction, which indeed draws you in and on. I sought out Webb’s own version as soon as I could. I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s a writer who knows his craft.

3. SOMETHING’S WRONG – James Taylor

Okay.  Here’s the picture.  Its 1971, probably, or maybe 1970.  It’s late at night: and tucked up in bed in my a tiny, cosy box room of a bedroom in 74 Jubilee Road.  I’ve positioned my bed, and myself in the bed, so that I can rest my transistor radio on the windowsill and near my ear.  Is it Radio Luxembourg I’m listening to (was that still around then?) or some more obscure all late night radio one programme?  I would thrill to hear things like Moonshadow  by Cat Stevens or It’s too Late by Carole King.. and such.

And this song came on.  I knew James Taylor of course.  I probably already had ‘Sweet Baby James’ (Christmas 1970) and had seen him at least once on BBC’s iconic ‘In concert’ series.  Did I know then of the existence of his first London-made Beatles finished Asher produced Apple album?  I don’t think so.  And I’d certainly never heard this song before, when it came over the airwaves on my scratchy little transistor radio; but it sent a little chill through me. Mm

Off course, I loved the unfamiliarity of it, the fact of its existence as a hitherto unknown treasure (in the same way that I began to chase and mythologise the early unreleased songs of Joni Mitchell) but it was more than that.  Even at first listen, there is something so finely crafted about the song, its two simple verses (and I think I’ve always liked songs, and poems, organized into two mirroring stanzas); the diction crystal clear, and the appealing frisson –particularly appealing of course to the romantic 17 year old –of flight, escape, movement, adventure…

‘That restless feeling…’ –what adolescent could fail to identify with that? –and with the idea that the signs of invitation were all around –‘road maps in a well cracked ceiling’.  And there was that delightful youthful sense of holding lightly to things – and even relationships?  -travelling light, in order to follow the restless quest: ‘take some bacon/go and leave that watch chain…’, ‘…  Pack my bags/and leave them all behind…’

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan active–contemplative whose book about the male quest I’m reading this year (one meditation per day) would heartily approve, I think.

1. PATIENCE OF ANGELS by Eddi Reader

Sometime last week I thought I heard this, snatches of it, drifting through the background buzz in a supermarket.  Turned out it wasn’t, but it just reminded me of how much I loved this song.

I saw Eddi Reader perform twice over the same weekend some…  dozen years ago, first in the Ross on Wye festival, then at Greenbelt.  I knew very little about her except that she had been a vocalist in Fairground Attraction (and I knew little enough about them) and also that Al Pitt had seen her guest appearance in Songs of Praise and thought she might be a Christian ‘because she was waving her arm about.’

She performed this song in both concerts –a Boo Herwerdine composition, and in some ways perhaps lyrically slight, but stretched out in performance to a full five minutes.  Despite the thinness, there are several things about this song which appeal consciously to me (and of course the overall appeal will always be bigger than the sum of its parts).  First, there is the idea that it’s about a vignette (of a struggling young mum?) quickly glimpsed from a bus –and imaginatively reconstructed. As an eavesdropper myself, and a curious wonderer about other people’s lives which we just get merely flashed glimpses of, this was bound to appeal to me.

Secondly, how could one fail to respond to the enigmatic quality of ‘she saw Tuesdays and forgetfulness/and a little money saved.’ I did wonder for a while if this were a misheard lyric, a – what do you call them? -mondegreen? -but no, Tuesdays and forgetfulness it is: and that’s intriguing enough without  definition.

And finally I love songs –and poems –which talk about finding things within things. – There is a traditional folk rhyme like that, isn’t there –Keys of the kingdom?  Or some such…  But the idea appeals to something primal I think.  There is for instance Kathleen Raine’s wonderful poem ‘Spell of Creation’ –Within the seed there lies…’( –and I well recall the thrill of seeing that poem interpreted by dance at an Edinburgh fringe event one year.)

But lot of songs have done it too, I think.  Coming immediately to mind is that Tom Waites song ‘Take it with me’; and didn’t John Martyn do something similar in ‘Man in the station’?  I think we love the childish magic of finding that one complete thing can exist within another –perhaps that same childish delight with which we used to write our full addresses: ‘…  The earth, the solar system…  Etc.’ When we were about eight years old.  Perhaps the same delight as Russian dolls.  (I wish I’d bought the set we saw on a Bulgarian holiday with the face of Lenin…  And there was that Angela Merkel set…) But this is the sequence here in Boo’s great song:‘There’s a door/In a wall/In a house/ In a street/ In a town..where no-one knows her name…’  – there’s the song’s sadness I suppose: the result of all these one-thing-inside-anothers is just faceless urban anonymity,

And yes, the lassie can sing; and yes, she does wave her hands in the air as she sings, and when I hear this great song, I remember those summer festival performances with great fondness.