Sunday, 23 December 2012
Sunday, 4 November 2012
Saturday 13 October
Live at Birmingham Symphony Hall
It's 1974 or thereabouts and I've been playing guitar now for about four years. Chris fancies himself as the lead vocalist in our ramshackle band but he sings like a choirboy. Still, we don't object because Chris knows some girls who he reckons might want to be backing singers. I hadn't considered backing singers but now I can see us being the next Mott the Hoople.
My mates are assembled in our front room and are keen to learn some cover versions. Luckily, my brother-in-law Geoff, has an extensive collection of sheet music which he's let me plunder merrily. There's Light My Fire and Paint It Black and The Sound of Silence. Loads of hits from the 60s, the sheet music (priced in old money, 2 shillings and 6 pence or 3 shillings each) and among them The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset and Autumn Almanac. The Kinks songs are credited to one Raymond Douglas Davies. Kinks songs? No problem. I know these songs well from my brother Phil's Golden Hour of The Kinks LP. But I quickly realise Kinks songs are far from simple, straightforward pop. For one thing, the music publishers have seen fit to transpose Waterloo Sunset into a really awkward key. Without a capo, the chords of E flat and A flat test the limits of the 13 year old Tony Gillam's virtuosity. But then, even in an easy key, lyrically and musically, Autumn Almanac is a fiendishly complex little ditty. The alliterative and assonant splendour of its opening line single it out as an extraordinary pop song:
From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar,
When the dawn begins to crack.
It's all part of my autumn almanac.
Breeze blows leaves of a musty-coloured yellow,
So I sweep them in my sack.
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac ...
This is no Twist and Shout - more Edward Lear, John Betjeman or ... Arthur Askey. The fact that there's a chord change on almost every beat - Yes- yes - yes - it's my - autumn alma- nac ... is enough to make a young guitarist drop his plectrum into his soundhole. And then there's the structure of the song - one middle eight is not enough; first, there's the bit that goes: "I like my football on a Saturday ..." but then, instead of going back to the main theme, the song takes off in yet another direction: "This is my street and I'm never going to leave it ..." This kind of variation and layering is less Dave Clarke Five, more Dvorak.
So, yes, I've always admired Ray Davies as a pioneer of the serious business of writing pop songs, fusing social commentary and poetry with exquisite melodies and rip-roaring riffs.And when my friend Phil invited me to join him to see Ray at the Birmingham Symphony Hall I was delighted to go and expected to see the grand old gentleman of English pop perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar. The gig began just so, Ray Davies and a second guitarist on the stage that, a few days earlier, had been graced by Boris Johnson as he wowed the Tory Party Conference. Ray worked his way through his opening songs including Autumn Almanac and delivered them in a cheeky chappy, music hall kind of way. But then, towards the end of Dead End Street, the band arrived on stage which meant, by the end of the evening, we would see the 68 year old Ray leaping around with an electric guitar like the rock n roll legend he also happens to be.
The set included several songs that began like quiet acoustic folk songs and ended up in full rock band versions, Waterloo Sunset among these. Other highlights were an unaccompanied Days and a heart-rendingly perfect See My Friends. Apart from the sheer musical enjoyment of the evening, there was something life-affirming about the fact that Raymond Douglas Davies the man continues to exude all the good humour, warmth, energy and authenticity embodied by his remarkable catalogue of songs.
Monday, 10 September 2012
Echo and the Bunnymen
Live at Moseley Folk Festival, Birmingham,
31st of August, 2012
Wednesday, 1 August 2012
Friday, 29 June 2012
Friday, 11 May 2012
Sunday, 8 April 2012
‘There is a Latin tag, solvitur ambulando, which means, roughly, that you can sort it out by walking...’ This is one of the observations made by Richard Mabey in Landscape into Literature: a Writers’ Anthology. Published by Green Books in 2005, Landscape into Literature features evocative, thought-provoking essays by many fine writers (Roger Deakin, Brian Patten and Richard Mabey among them) as they explore their own relationship with landscapes and the relationship between landscape and writing. One of the recurring themes in the book is the importance of walking as an activity for writers. Walking provides both a break from the internal mental activity of writing and an extension of the writing process into the external physical world. To me it seems obvious that walking is beneficial for mental and physical health and that it can be key to stimulating creativity and unblocking creative blocks.
Ronald Blythe's contribution is an essay on the poet John Clare. We learn that it was while ploughing in a cornfield that Clare ‘began his “muttering”, 'his softly speaking aloud of the rhymes which he would later write down...’ This may have been the start of John Clare’s poetry but it may also have been the beginning of his mental illness. As Blythe puts it: 'Boys sang, they did not mutter, and eyes would have been upon him, this child talking to himself, a sure sign of something being wrong or different...' I wonder how much Clare's "mutterings" could be seen as a sign of his emerging mental illness (a sign of 'something being wrong') and to what extent they could be seen as a sign of his creativity ('a sign of something different'.) Talking to oneself is one thing, speaking aloud rhymes is another; but then speaking aloud rhymes that you later write down is something else and, when these rhymes are published to great acclaim, that is something else again. Claire was, at various times, a young boy making up rhymes to amuse himself, someone who suffered serious mental illness to the point where he spent years in an asylum -- and a successful poet. Had he been allowed to roam free, one wonders if Clare might have been able, to some extent, to ‘sort it out by walking’.
Also included in Landscape into Literature is an essay by Penelope Lively, in which she returns to what she calls ‘the abiding relationship between walking and writing.’ She jokes that ‘the Lake Poets set the pace, I suppose, literally...’ and goes on to make a serious point eloquently. Walking, she writes, is 'a good healthy escape from an otherwise sedentary way of life, but there's more to it than that. Writing takes place in the head; theoretically you could write blindfold in a soundproof box. But this solipsism generates an intense need for an alternative, a need for the eyes and ears to take over the mind, a need to look and listen and wonder what kind of tree that is, and why that field is shaped thus -- a need to stop writing, in fact, except that of course in a subliminal way you are not; any or all of it may be grist to the mill, in ways you could not possibly anticipate.'
Saturday, 3 March 2012
My friend Linda recently asked me to name my favourite writers. The question took me rather by surprise and I actually found it quite difficult to answer spontaneously so I thought it would be a useful exercise to try to compile a list. Scouring my bookshelves, it's interesting to realise how few of my books I would consider real favourites but some authors keep cropping up so, if frequency of appearance is anything to go by, fellow Shropshire romantic Mary Webb would appear to be a favourite novelist and American humorist William Saroyan a favourite short story writer.
Jerome K Jerome is dotted around the house and his Three Men in a Boat is one of the few books I have read more than once. There are the tatty old copies of classics I was required to read at school or university -- Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Dickens’ Hard Times, DH Lawrence's The Rainbow and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn along with Voltaire's Candide and Rousseau’s Meditations of a Solitary Walker. The fact that I haven’t got rid of any of these indicates I still hold them in some affection. Classics that I wasn’t required to read but remember enjoying included Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (and they remain on my shelves, along with the short stories of Kafka and Chekov).
More modern classics that might fall into the category of cult fiction include Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I went through a craze of collecting Persephone books (publisher of ‘rediscovered’ inter-war novels and twentieth century fiction by neglected mainly women writers). Among these, I recall particularly enjoying Monica Dickens’ Mariana (which has since been adopted as one of my daughter's favourite books) Denis Macrail’s Greenery Street (which has quite a lot in common with the aforementioned Jerome K Jerome) Jocelyn Playfair's House in the Country and highly evocative wartime short story collections by Elizabeth Berridge and Mollie Panter-Downes.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince left a lasting impression on me, as did Patrick Leigh Fermer’s luminous A Time of Gifts. People seem to think my own writing is influenced by Garrison Keillor and he does make a couple of appearances on my bookshelves, as do the books for adults written by Finnish novelist and painter Tove Jansson (best-known as the creator of the Moomins.) I enjoy Simenon's Maigret books but, more obscurely, I'm a great fan of Janwillem van de Wetering, purveyor of Dutch Zen detective fiction.
Some of the more contemporary discoveries I’ve recently savoured include Gil Adamson's Help me, Jacques Cousteau, Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ Adios, Hemingway and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, (though I found his novel When We Were Orphans disappointing.) Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, Alice Munro's Runaway and Owen Shiers’ White Ravens were all a pleasure but the book I enjoyed most in recent years was Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, whose other books I am slowly working through. I'm not sure I can distil this down to a 'Top Ten' but perhaps this goes some way towards answering Linda's question and may also prompt me to revisit some of those books I should reread (and whittle out some of those books I'll never read again.)
- Tony Gillam
- Tony Gillam lives in Worcestershire and his fiction and non-fiction has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, academic journals, textbooks and blogs. His blog – passengersintime.blogspot.co.uk – purports to be about books, music ... and time travel. Tony is also a singer-songwriter, guitarist and dulcimer player with Worcestershire's most undiscovered indie-folk band Fracture Zone.