31.12.16

HOMEWARD BOUND: THE LIFE OF PAUL SIMON by Peter Ames Carlin


If ever a career in music was pre-ordained it is that of Paul Simon, the ambitious, gifted and ever-so-scrupulous first son of a professional double-bass player and the champion of this book, a biography as diligently researched and carefully considered as any of the songs in Simon’s extensive repertoire. Though clearly an admirer of his music, Peter Ames Carlin nevertheless feels duty bound to cast a less than approving eye on a man whose self-belief – some might call it arrogance – results in him repeatedly turning a deaf ear to well-meant advice, often with unfortunate results, as well as a distressing reluctance to share credits with collaborators. He's also on the depressive side, unfulfilled despite it all, and consequently resorts to psychoanalysis, usually successfully. The result is that Homeward Bound portrays Paul Simon as largely uncongenial, certainly not someone with whom you’d want to relax over a couple of beers, let alone share a catchy riff you’d discovered on your own guitar.
On the plus side, Simon is no fan of the cult of celebrity, generous towards charities and always pays his musicians well, sometimes when they don’t even know it, as was the case with British folkie Martin Carthy who introduced him to, and taught him how to play, ‘Scarborough Fair’, the traditional ballad that opens Parsley Sage Rosemary And Thyme, the third album Simon recorded with singer Art Garfunkel. Simon credited himself as the writer but dutifully sent a proportion of the royalties to Carthy’s music publisher who shamefully failed to pass them on, with the result that in his ignorance Carthy held a grudge against Simon for years until the issue was finally resolved after they shared a stage together in 2000.
This is but one of many interesting instances that Carlin brings to light where Simon appears guilty of minor larceny. Plagiarism is too strong a word, but Simon has a tendency to hear something, or be alerted to something, which after a good deal of chopping and changing, remixing and re-arranging and almost always adding his own lyric, he makes his own. Often this is tangential, as in the case of the musician Heidi Berg who in early 1984 drew Simon’s attention to music from South African townships by famously loaning him a cassette tape she had found entitled Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits No 2. Simon liked what he heard and two and half years later released Graceland, heavily influenced by that cassette and which arguably rescued his career, or at least gave him a new one, but Heidi Berg, without whom, is mentioned only in the very small print and referred to not by name but as ‘a friend’ in Simon’s own sleeve note. She didn't even get the cassette back. 
At the heart of this book is the volatile relationship between Simon and Garfunkel, a running theme of friendship and hostility that Carlin returns to time and again, often with eye-opening revelations about their endless rivalry and petty squabbles. This began in the Tom & Jerry era, that rather odd pre-S&G phase wherein they launched themselves as a precocious doo-wop duo, all smiles, crew cuts and sweaters, a time of innocence you might think but you’d be wrong. To his credit Carlin has researched this period, about which little has been written before, with extraordinary diligence, so much so that I found it one of the strongest parts of his book (vying with the political fallout from Graceland and the slow-burn build up to the Capeman debacle). Accordingly, we learn that Jerry (Paul) went behind Tom’s back, making recordings of his own under various pseudonyms, and that when Art found out he went ballistic. Even now, over 55 years and heaven knows how many millions of records sold later, this subterfuge still rankles. Its nadir was probably reached when they refused to be photographed together for a 1981 hits compilation, thus requiring their record company to hire lookalikes photographed in shaded soft focus as they stroll by gentle waves along a seashore.


Simon & Garfunkel, or is it?

All of this keeps us on tenterhooks as we progress through the sixties, the S&G years. They keep up the pretence well, the best of friends as their renown escalates, amiable quips shared on stage, but the tense undercurrent is always there, exacerbated by Simon’s need for control, Garfunkel keeping him waiting, their physical differences and the overlying sense that their personalities simply don’t gel. Well, John and Paul Beatle didn’t always see eye to eye either and neither do Mick and Keith Rolling Stone, let alone the Everly, Davies and Gallagher brothers, so perhaps we have disparity to thank for some of the finest pop music of the second half of the 20th Century, and I include in that the three greatest S&G albums, Parsley…, Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Long before the break-up of S&G it is clear that Simon wants to make it on his own, and it is also clear that he has always had eclectic tastes, that never ending need to broaden his musical palette. He was researching ‘world’ music long before Graceland; witness ‘El Condor Pasa’ on the Bridge album, ‘Mother And Child Reunion’ on his first solo record and the gospel and Dixieland excursions on his second, … Rhymin’ Simon. He is an avid reader of good books, a confidant of A-list actors, TV directors and film makers, and he repeatedly reaches out to teachers who can offer knowledge of technique, musical theory and literary skills. As a result, the career lows – notably the One Trick Pony movie and Capeman musical – tend to be redeemed by the quality of the songs within, both lyric and melody, which Carlin analyses and critiques with a clear eye for style, detail and procedure. It is to Simon’s credit that when things do go awry for him he has an uncanny ability to back off, lick his wounds and bounce back, even if that does mean a call to his old friend and rival who lives in equal splendour to himself on the other side of New York’s Central Park.
The book is refreshingly direct, focusing almost exclusively on Simon and only very occasionally veering off into matters concerning his rivals, usually Bob Dylan, or politics, and only then when it is pertinent to career choices that the generally apolitical Simon makes. Too many rock biographies resort to this kind of thing as padding but this one doesn’t, and to this end Simon’s personal life is not ignored. We learn of his marriages, and how the first two – to Peggy Harper (the ex-wife of S&G’s manager) and to actor/writer Carrie Fisher – broke up, and his immediate family, a troubled only son from his first marriage, and three later children, two boys and a girl, with third wife Edie Brickell. We learn too about the earlier generations of the Simon lineage, the tailor from Galicia, another Paul, who emigrated to America in 1903, and Louis the bass player, who found it difficult to come to terms with his son’s fame and enormous fortune. He desperately wanted his elder son to become a teacher and it wasn't until this very famous son reached the age of 50 that Louis could finally find the words to tell the multi-millionaire rock star, his boy who drew 750,000 to a concert in Central Park, how proud he was of his achievements.
Finally, I warmed to his book because here and there Carlin drops lyrics from the Simon canon into his text, usually to stress a point yet never tritely or as a clich√©. Search and ye shall find. It’s a lovely touch, a sure sign that not only does Peter Ames Carlin know his subject inside out but that he cares about his readership. Those fans that might be deterred by the unflinchingly objective light that Homeward Bound shines on Paul Simon will nonetheless be charmed by the warmth bestowed in this pleasing, slightly whimsical, attention to detail.
Highly recommended.


24.12.16

Happy Christmas...


Happy Christmas and New Year to all visitors to Just Backdated, past present and future. CC

15.12.16

THE SPEAKEASY REVISITED


Last night I went back to the Speakeasy again, or at least entered the basement chamber that used to house the Speakeasy, down the same stairs and into the same area where we left our coats and where the names of those who’d passed bad cheques were scrawled on a blackboard, then through the doors and…
It was about 10pm. I was walking from Gt Portland Street to Oxford Circus tube and took a detour down Margaret Street. Outside the awning at number 48 was a crowd of people behind one of those ropes designed to separate smokers from passers by, and there was a stern looking black doorman guarding the old door. Emboldened by drink, for I had been at a Christmas party, I went up to one of the smokers.
“Is that still a club down there?” I asked.
“Yes, why?”
“Well it used to be a very famous club, visited by legendary rock stars back in the sixties and seventies, and people from the music industry, and I used to be a member.”
“Really?”
“Yes, I saw Bob Marley play there once.”
“Bob Marley?”
“Yes. And The Beatles used to go there in the sixties. And the Stones. And The Who. I once saw Led Zeppelin set fire to a pile of money in the dining room. You couldn’t get me inside could you?”
“It’s a private event.”
“I won’t stay. I just want a quick look.”
“OK.”
The doorman smiled at me. I think he’d overheard a bit of the conversation. He let me pass. I followed my new friend down and…
… through the doors and it’s one great big room now, unrecognisable really; no bar, at least not where it used to be on the left as you entered, no dining room where Luigi served the best petit pois and peppered steak in the whole of London, just a big open space though I noticed that at the very far end, where the stage used to be, there was a place where drinks were dispensed. A band with a black girl singer was playing pumped up soul music on a big stage along the wall behind where the bar was. It was very noisy and packed, and the lighting was quite bright, much brighter than it used to be, and I stood there misty-eyed amidst all these people and thought to myself that not one of them would have known the history of where they were partying tonight. I lost my friend in the crowd and was alone, and I stood out because I was more than twice the age of everyone else there. I had a lump in my throat. Must have been the red wine I’d drunk earlier.
I stayed for maybe five minutes, feeling a bit foolish in my big warm coat and scarf amid people milling around dressed for a party. A few people stared at me, wondering who this old geyser was, and I’d have chatted with anyone who wished but the music was too loud for conversation. So I left, climbed up those stairs again and into the night. The doorman smiled at me.
“Is it like you remember?” he asked.
“No. Not at all.”
“Did Bob Marley really play down there?”
“Oh yes. I was there. Jimi Hendrix too, though I never saw him myself.”
“Hendrix? Really?”
“Oh yes, g’night.”
         “G’night.”    


11.12.16

1971 – NEVER A DULL MOMENT, ROCK'S GOLDEN YEAR by David Hepworth



There can’t be many amongst us who haven’t at one time or another wished we could turn the clock back to a period in time when life seemed like a fairground ride. For me, like David Hepworth, doyen of Smash Hits, Q, Mojo and The Word, that period in time might just be 1971, my first full year as a staff writer on Melody Maker, my feet just about under the table, my antenna tuned exclusively into the rock and pop of the day, my work and play focused entirely on and within what the great PR man Derek Taylor called ‘the industry of human happiness’.
I saw The Who perform nine times that year, the last time in Charlotte, North Carolina, on my first trip to America. I saw the Stones and Faces twice, Zep once (at the Marquee, of all places), dozens of others, interviewed McCartney, discovered Slade and, most weeks, was responsible for MM’s front page lead story at a time when its circulation rose to 200,000 an issue. I lived in a flat in Bayswater where free albums galore piled up next to my Dynatron stereo on which Gasoline Alley, Imagine and Who’s Next were on permanent rotation. What a lucky sod I was.
It is Hepworth’s contention that 1971 remains the most important year in the history of rock and his book sets out to prove the point, month by month, album by album, song by song, and he succeeds. Although it focuses on 1971 we read about what went before, insofar far as it reached an apogee that year, and some of what went on after, insofar as its genesis can be traced back to that year. It deals with the UK and US rock worlds side by side, skipping across the Atlantic with the regularity of The Who and Led Zeppelin, two of the first three UK bands to realise and take full advantage of the rewards that America offered, both of whom – along with the third, The Rolling Stones – occupy plenty of pages herein.
Hepworth sets out his case with the scholarly logic of a barrister addressing a government inquiry, at least as far as his research is concerned, though he’s a great deal more colourful in his delivery. He writes pithily, often amusingly, and the dry humour makes for an easy, fast read as well as an enlightening one. Setting the scene, he notes that, amongst many other things, there were, ‘no joggers, no health shops, no gyms, no leisurewear, no trainers, no mineral water, no Lycra, no fast food, no obesity’ (my italics).
Clarifying the socio-political and economic importance of Carole King’s Tapestry album in the January chapter at the beginning of the book he notes that for the cover photo King wore, ‘a sensible pullover and jeans, much as she would have done had she been weeding the garden’, a few pages later Bette Midler is precisely sketched with the succinct tongue-twister, ‘saucy tongue sheathed in rouged cheek’, and towards the end we have Mike Love described oh so accurately as The Beach Boys’ ‘most reliable source of embarrassment’. Equally amusing is the suggestion that, for Sly Stone, ‘the many women in his life were giving him grief about the many women in his life’ and that, because Mick Jagger felt it was bad form to be without a girlfriend, ‘This inevitably resulted in periods of overlap which could be fraught’, litotes at its best.
It’s not just the quality of the music that supports Hepworth’s case. It’s the way in which the music is marketed and the way in which those who make the music conduct their affairs and themselves, all of which changed, or deepened, or solidified, in 1971. To this end the long and at times tongue-in-cheek description of Jagger’s marriage to Bianca – ‘the shabbiest bunfight in the history of both rock and marriage’ – which forms the centrepiece of May is not there just for amusement – though amuse it certainly does – but to illustrate how in this period rock stars became the new high society and how the event was as √† la mode as debs’ balls or royal weddings.
In reality the book boils down to a series of smartly turned out essays on those acts that held sway in 1971, Hepworth having correctly identified that in many cases this was the year in which they wrote, recorded or released the music on which their careers and reputations have relied upon ever since. In the case of the three British acts I mention above he's not wrong, specifically Who's Next, Led Zeppelin IV and Sticky Fingers, more specifically, ‘Baba O'Riley’, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and ‘Brown Sugar’. Coming up on the inside are David Bowie, Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart while Marc Bolan – ‘not one for digging out a valuable away point’ – will fall by the wayside. Oddly, the only rising Brit superstar missing from Hepworth’s otherwise infallible summation is Elton John, who also had a pretty good year in ‘71.
So did George Harrison, whose Concert For Bangla Desh provided the template for all future charity rock concerts and which occupies most of Hepworth’s chapter on August. Hepworth notes that this was the first time that Beatles songs had been performed with distinction by anyone other than The Beatles, a hint of the forthcoming realisation that for many acts for whom 1971 was a vital year, the past was the future, especially for The Beach Boys. He points out that heritage rock had yet to be invented, which reminded me that when I watched The Who in Hyde Park in the summer of 2015 I wasn’t alone in noting that the most recent song in their set was 33 years old.
It’s not all about the superstars. Hepworth writes perceptively about many lesser names, among them favourites of mine like Nick Drake, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger; also the labels whose proprietors took chances on acts unlikely to find commercial acceptance, not at first anyway. Occasionally he goes a bit off-piste (as far as 1971 is concerned) by digging back into the past, most noticeably in his history of Motown – he's pro Stevie but a bit anti Marvin – which takes up much of April. Still this is a minor quibble, and I can forgive anyone who writes with calm assurance that, ‘No rock and roll band before or since have been more accomplished live performers than The Who in the years between 1968 and 1972’, a sentiment with which I most heartily concur.
        Recommended as a Christmas present, especially for those who bought MM when we sold 200,000 copies a week.


3.12.16

ELVIS KIDNAPPED – Latest News!

My plans to self-publish my novel Elvis Kidnapped as an e-book at the end of November have been postponed because friends whose advice I respect have persuaded me to seek a ‘real’ publisher instead.
To this end the manuscript has gone out to five literary agents and a couple of contacts I have at big mainstream publishers. It may be that this will come to nothing, in which case I’ll go back to my original plan, but since Elvis Kidnapped has been taking up space on my hard drive for a long time now, a few more weeks won’t make much difference.
So, sorry to disappoint anyone who read the extracts I posted on this blog and was looking forward to it. One way or another it’ll happen in 2017 which, of course, will see the 40th anniversary of Elvis heading up the great Heartbreak Hotel in the sky.