On Saturday, April 2, 2022, I will be playing at the New Old Rock Deli in NYC. (11 Trinity Place, NY, NY 10006). It will be my first show in which I am doing only my own songs–no covers, so I am quite excited. If you are in the area, come on out, or if you have friends or relations in the area, please tell them to come on down. It is already turning out to be a fun night.
Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 Algonquin Books, 2001
At the beginning of the pandemic, in late March 2020, Bob Dylan released a near 17-minute song, “Murder Most Foul.” Among the many, various reviews, one of the most consistent comments was on Dylan’s encyclopedic knowledge of music. The song references scores and scores of songs, familiar and un.
Well, anyone who reads Richard Thompson’s new memoir of his formative years (1967-1975) will likely also be amazed at the range of music that Thompson cites as influences. From French jazz to American blues, from Highland traditional songs to African rhythms, from classical music to British music halls, Thompson seems to have absorbed it all and writes intelligently and knowledgeably about them.
From early on, Thompson and his mates seemed to have had a vision and knew what they, as Fairport Convention, wanted and did not want. They did not want to be like the earlier “British Invasion” bands that were exploring and copying American blues and R&B and often bringing that music back to America. They wanted to use native British themes and rhythms taken from centuries-old British traditions and meld it with rock-and-roll. And thus, Fairport Convention gave birth to what became known as British folk-rock.
While admittedly influenced by Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and other American singer-songwriters and American forms (Thompson claims that what The Band did for “Americana” music with Music from Big Pink was essential in confirming what they wanted to do with British traditional music), Fairport Convention took what it learned and applied it to British themes. For example Thompson took a 15th-century British poem, married it to a 19th century Appalachian tune and electrified it (“Matty Groves”). “Matty Groves” was one of five “reworked” traditional tunes–along with three originals–that appeared on the Liege and Lief album (1969), which is unarguably considered the beginning (and high point) of British folk rock. The claim that Fairport Convention “invented” the form can be appreciated by considering the bands later begun by former members: Pentangle, Frothingay, Steeleye Span.
But Beeswing is more than a musical history. If it were only about music, its appeal would be limited. Richard Thompson’s story is a testament of persistence, resilience and a search for peace, a cultural memoir of the zeitgeist of London and the music world in those frantic years. Its focus on music arises from the fact that after leaving school, Thompson never worked at anything else but as a working musician.
And his is a story that has an almost Shakespearean plot arc.
There is much tragedy: early on, when the band is on the rise and returning from a gig, their van goes off the road killing their driver/roadie, their drummer, and Thompson’s girlfriend. Thompson himself spent a good while in hospital. At another time, a truck missed a sharp turn and plowed through the second floor rooms where he and fiddle-player, David Swarbrick, were living. There were firings–how do you fire Sandy Denny, the greatest vocalist of the day–and there were leavings. Thompson left Fairport Convention to tour with his wife as Richard and Linda Thompson. And then there was the fiery divorce that colored their North American tour.
But there is also–not so much redemption, for he was no more lost than anyone else at that time–but a sense of achieved contentment, of understanding. Much of that is due to his discovery of Sufism, which for Thompson has a “nobility of being … it seem[s] like the way human being should be.”
Anyone who has seen Richard Thompson in the past 20 years know him to be a gentle, humorous, friendly performer. (He is, by the way, also considered one of the finest guitarists in the world. The L.A. Times calls him “the finest rock songwriter after Dylan” and “the best electric guitarist since Hendrix.” And anyone who has attempted to emulate his acoustic guitar playing is often quickly daunted.) Whether playing with the excellent musicians he surrounds himself with or performing solo, Thompson regularly puts on shows that always leave the audience with the feeling that they have just seen/heard something memorable and remarkable.
And it is this genial manner that one observes on stage that informs the tone and pacing of his memoir.
Richard Thompson seems very much at peace with himself–perhaps this is where the “finding my voice” in the subtitle comes from–and this feeling of contentment permeates his memoir. Although Beeswing deals with a mere nine years–from the time he was 18 years old to when he was 27–they were nine years that helped form one of the trailblazers and icons of modern music.
A few years ago, in an attempt to be a cutting-edge, high-tech institution, the powers-that-be decided that the school I teach in didn’t need a library. The library is superfluous, they claimed. Students have all the information they need on their phones in their hands. (As if information was all that students need.) And so, quickly, the library was gutted, the librarian dismissed, and the books were donated, destroyed, or “disappeared.” From its ashes rose a Maker-Space and a Learning Commons. (If you are not currently involved in modern education, don’t ask.)
“The Library Where the Sidewalk Ends” on Valentine’s Day
A few colleagues and I couldn’t imagine a school without a library, so we built our own. A “little library” it was, and ones like it appear in neighborhoods, towns and cities throughout the U.S. (I once was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for such a library on the porch of a bar in Key West, although it was much more of a Key West celebration than a library opening.)
Anyway, the library thrived with people taking and leaving a variety of books, CDs, and even art works.
The library itself was located in an odd place in the middle of campus. There was a cement sidewalk that jutted into a swatch of grass and then just ended. When I would announce new additions to the library, I would refer to it as “the library WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.”
And every student and every adult knew what I was referring to: the delightful first collection of poems by Shel Silverstein that every student had loved as a child and every adult of a certain age remembered reading to his or her own. The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends are silly, irreverent, charming, and knowing. It’s the silly irreverence that children most love: as if the adult Silverstein—unlike other adults in their world— was clued into the fears, the joys, the silliness, the incomprehension, the absurdity with which they view the world.
Yet, Silverstein was more than a children’s poet. He began as a cartoonist, and a successful one. It was his cartoons that prompted his publisher to suggest a book of poems. He was also a playwright–David Mamet called him his best friend–with over 100 one-act plays under his belt.
And he was a prolific songwriter. He had a number of hits with what could be called novelty
songs: “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and the “Unicorn” song ( you know, “green alligators and long necked geese… .”) But he also had a solid stable of songs recorded by a slew of people: Dr. Hook and his Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Belinda Carlisle, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash among others. I remember the first Judy Collins’ album I ever bought featured a rousing protest song called “Hey Nelly Nelly.” I didn’t recognize the name at the time, but it was written by someone named Shel Silverstein.
And so it comes to a song I have recently rediscovered. I was buying tickets to see Todd Snider in concert and was looking for the one Todd Snider album I own. I couldn’t find it. So instead I pulled out a Robert Earl Keen album West Textures which features a charming Shel Silverstein song, “Jennifer Johnson and Me.” (Snider mentions a Robert Earl Keen song in one of his own songs which is what originally had driven me to this album.)
Anyway, the song tells the story of a man who finds in an old suit jacket pocket a black-and-white photo (‘three for a quarter”) from an arcade photo booth. The picture is of him and an old girlfriend, Jennifer Johnson. The singer is well into adulthood now, and the photo is of him when he was in late adolescence, sitting with Jennifer Johnson.There is a sweet nostalgia in his memories of their innocence, their hope, and the belief in “forever.”
It’s a sweet song, and I opened up with it on Saturday. I think I will keep it in my set list. Here’s the tune, by Robert Earl Keen:
It ain’t over yet, ask someone who ought to know Not so very long ago we were both hung out to dry It ain’t over yet, you can mark my word I don’t care what you think you heard, we’re still learning how to fly It ain’t over yet “It Ain’t Over Yet,” Rodney Crowell
I recently discovered this song. It’s a few years old. But it spoke to me…and probably speaks to a number of my friends as well. It’s about second chances. Regrets replaced by hope. About “keeping on keeping on.”
I and a number of people I know and love are either going through some big changes or preparing to. I had one friend quit her job to spend more time with her adolescent daughter, only to be blindsided by her husband’s abandonment. She went looking for anything that could pay the bills. Another lost his job when some powerful people complained about his style of teaching. He landed on his feet, heartbroken but resilient.
Then there are others who are voluntarily leaving their jobs. A teacher friend of mine is quitting to be a full-time photographer. Another returned to Ireland.
They are all of a certain age. I could go on and on.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said “there are no second acts in American lives.” Rodney Crowell would dispute that idea. Throughout his song he lists his faults and his regrets, his successes and failures, his highs and his lows. But he insists in the “hook” of the chorus: it ain’t over yet. And by the end of the song, he’s in a good space.
I am quitting my teaching job in June. I quit once before but came back to it eleven years later. I’ve been doing it a long time.
A lot of people ask me worriedly what am I going to do with myself. I have plenty to do. I have my writing, which has been on hold for a few years–a novel needing a final draft, dozens of poems and short-stories to polish. (There’s a reason this is first post in 2019.) I have my painting, which I had been working hard on and then just ceased.
I’ve played about 35 gigs in 2019 and I am enjoying them and I think I’m getting better with each of them. I started out doing only covers but now am including 5 or 6 originals in each show. As I said, I think I am getting better.
And at my gig today, I am covering the Rodney Crowell song, “It Ain’t Over Yet.” I think of it almost as a fight song, fist in the air defiant: IT AIN’T OVER YET.
Here’s a wonderful video of Rodney Crowell performing with John Paul White and Roseanne Cash. I don’t know about you, but I think the words speak to a lot of us.
The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.
But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.
And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.
I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while. And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.
The poem goes like this:
The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread. And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout. When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name. It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air. Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.
(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)
And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.
I used the word “vision” purposefully, for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.” For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.
Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne. That’s beside the point!)
Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us. But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives. If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.
As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.
Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore. Give it a listen…
And it was dark. It was almost a challenge to a god that has allowed humanity to do what it has in the course of human history. It was punctuated by the opening prayer of Rosh Hashana, “Hineni, Hineni.” (Here I am, Lord). And then it was followed by Cohen’s line: “I am ready, Lord.”
(Perhaps, Cohen shouldn’t have issued the challenge when he did. For in the week that he died, the world indeed became darker in many ways for many of us.)
There have been many wonderful obituaries written over the past week, articles that celebrated his music, his poetry, his novels, obits that detailed his fully-lived life, both the loves and the disappointments, the treacheries and the successes. (Here is The London Times’ obituary.)
Cohen in London in 1978 (SIPA PRESS/REX/Shutterstock)
And, of course, there were the inevitable comparisons to Dylan. Over the past several weeks, both have been rightly acclaimed as momentous poets of our times–death and international prizes undoubtedly will do that–but too many of the commentators positioned it as some sort a race, a competition.
It isn’t. It never is.
Certainly, they were both poets, but they are greatly different. Dylan’s words, he claims, come easy; Cohen struggled long and hard on his. (He claims that “Hallelujah” took him five years to write.) But they both brought to their work an elevated sense of language and imagery, a modern sensibility far removed from the insipid themes of most popular music of the time.
I learned about both of them when I was a very, young boy. When I was eleven, my eighteen-year old cousin and I both got guitars for Christmas. So we learned together, except he was 18 and much more part of the world and the emerging folk scene. Consequently, what I first learned on guitar was the Dylan songbook and the folk music published in SingOut magazine.
My first songs were Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” (one chord, E-minor, throughout) and “To Romana” (two chords, C and G). Before too long I moved on to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” In the small and insulated world of folk music, the song “Suzanne” was everywhere, as everyone it seemed was covering it. ( I mainly knew Judy Collins’ version. I can’t imagine my cracking adolescent voice trying to imitate her beautiful soprano. But oh well, …)
Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Bob Dylan
My fascination with Cohen, however, came much later. Dylan was Dylan and, if I had a musical idol, it was certainly he. For most of my adult life. But as I grew older, Cohen seemed to speak to me more readily. Oddly, Dylan’s writing began to seem overly specific, whereas Cohen was speaking to me individually and universally.
And as I grew older, his disappointments were more understandable. In a October 17, 2016 profile in The New Yorker, Cohen stated that “I am ready to die.”
I have been thinking about my own death a lot recently. One learns only gradually that one is not immortal, or at least the understanding of that comes on gradually. Cohen knew that, but he still kept creating; at 82, two weeks before he died, he put out this last album.
“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
“Mr. Tambourine Man”
Billy Bragg at the Union Transfer in Philadelphia 9/28/2016 photo 2016 by jpbohannon
As often is the case, my neighbors brought me, convincing me that it would be well worth going out on a “school night,” particularly given our current election season.
And they were right.
There has been a lot of momentous “politics” in the past year. Bragg apologized to the audience for his own country’s “Brexit” vote in June. (I had seen the novelist Ian McEwan the previous week who also apologized to the audience for the Brexit vote.) Bragg told us that few could foresee what would ultimately result–that most voters found the entire Brexit campaign an annoying nuisance which would right itself when the vote was finally counted.
They all were horribly mistaken.
Semi-jokingly, he stated that what Britain also lost with the Brexit vote was its “moral superiority” over the U.S.’s electoral process. However, he warned, they could gain it right back in November. And with that, he began singing his classic “Accident Waiting to Happen.”
The message was clear.
There has been a lot of fun this year at the bizarre nature of the current election campaigns. Comedians are having a ball, and water cooler conversation is more about the latest Bill Maher piece or Steve Colbert rant than anything of substance. And that might be merely because we are simply following the lead of those who want to be our leaders. It has all become performance. (The SNL season premier this week [10/1/2016] was priceless in its political skewering.)
And yet, Bragg was cautiously optimistic.
Billy Bragg, for those who don’t know, is a singer from Britain who throughout his career has taken up a variety of causes ranging from the miner’s strike during the Thatcher reign to the current refugee crisis. He is very firmly planted to the left of the American Left.
He remembered that when he first toured America, it was 1984, the “Reagan years.” No way then, he recalled, could he have anticipated that a man who labels himself a “Democratic Socialist” would be considered a major contender for the presidency in 2016. And for that he is hopeful.
He feels there is a hopeful momentum, but a momentum that can be stopped by “he who shall not be named” as he referred to Donald Trump. His defeat he believes is as important a vote as any the American public has faced.
And he asked us not to make the mistake that the British voters made with Brexit, not to believe that the unthinkable cannot happen.
And then he played some wonderful and thoughtful music.
The seal and John talk on the beach at Clew Bay 2016 by jpbohanno
And I’ll tell you another thing. Go on? All this … He swings his head to indicate the world beyond–he’s got a fat stern head like a bouncer. Fucked, he says. You don’t mean… I do, John. It won’t last. You mean everything? The works, he says. But it sounds as wherks. The wind, the waves, the water, he says. But it sounded as wawteh. It’s all in extra time, he says. It’s all of it fucked, son. Mostly what John cannot get his head around is the Scouse accent.
And so it is 1978 and we are in the West of Ireland in the town of Newport in County Mayo. We have booked a B&B in the town before heading out to the uncle’s farm, knowing that he and Ana and Carmel and Tony would insist that we stay with them. But we are twenty-four and will not be bridled. That night there is a ceilidh in the local pub and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends–long heard of but never met–gather and we the Yanks are the guests of honor. We crawl back in the wee hours but once again in the morning the whole crowd is together at Mass and when we leave we speak to a few new faces on the church steps which gives the priest time to beat us to the pub. Two nights earlier in Kerry we had played guitar in an old sheep-farmers pub, but the caravan of hippies that showed up with their instruments wanted only country-and-western which was not my strong suit. But I was able to give them some Woody and some Hank nevertheless, and then a few rebel songs. It was a long and dangerous night on the Kerry road.
And at the same time, unbeknownst to me, John Lennon was in my uncle’s town, hiding, according to Kevin Barry’s brilliant novel Beatlebone. I would have loved to have met him, but in the novel, he was not in a very good state of mind. And he was trying very hard to stay under-the-radar.
The novel is built on the fact that in 1967 John bought Dorinish Island, one of the many small islands off the west coast of Ireland. He had great plans for it, but few of them succeeded. And he only visited it a few times.
But now in Beatlebone, it is a decade later, John’s creativity seems to have flat-lined and his life consists of baking bread and raising his young son, Sean. He rarely leaves his New York City high-rise. He is not feeling right. He has been through Primal Scream therapy, but is still forever haunted by the father who abandoned him and the mother who lived around the corner from the aunt who raised him.
And so, he comes to Ireland to spend some time on his island and to heal himself.
Neither of which is an easy task to complete.
John is chauffeured by an irascible driver named Cornelius O’Grady, who very well may be a shape-shifter and who has taken the responsibility to hide John from the press, which has been alerted that he is there in the West.
Cornelius is open and honest and uncowed by his famous fare. In fact, his advice and wisdom and observations show no sign of tact or concern. And his and John’s conversations are great fun. (At one point, Cornelius convinces John to grease back his hair, wear Cornelius’s dead father’s eyeglasses–he is already wearing the dead man’s suit– and say that he is his stuttering cousin Kenneth from England. All so that they can go undetected into a pop-up moonshine pub in the hills of Mayo.)
It is after escaping the hotel that Cornelius has stashed him in and spending the night in a cave on the beach that John has his conversation with the seal and where he realizes his new album BEATLEBONE. He maps the entire thing out in his head before he is gathered up by Cornelius. He is sure that it will be the album that will change his reputation, his legacy forever.
As I was reading Beatlebone for the first hundred pages, I wanted to text, e-mail, call friends and tell them that no more novels need be written for this is the definitive example. (I lean towards hyperbole.) The language itself is exquisite and daring and
The novelist Kevin Barry. Photograph: BryanO’Brien/IRISHTIMES
imaginative. And that is what one would expect from Kevin Barry, whose greatly awarded City of Bohane was a tour-de-force of underworld argot and Dublin slang positioned in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.
Beatlebone is a novel that is so fresh, so funny, so beautifully amazing and accurate that one finds oneself reading out passages to anyone who listens. (Another fault of mine.) There is one oddly placed chapter where the author talks about his research for the novel that, while fascinating, might better have been placed at the end or the beginning of the novel. But that is a minor quibble.
The rest is perfect. So much so, that many may give up writing fiction entirely.