Monthly Archives: June 2018

Songs that mention dates

Happy Bobby Goldsboro Day, everyone!

Why is it Bobby Goldsboro day? Because it’s 30 June. That is, it’s the last day of June – the date mentioned in Goldsboro’s 1973 hit Summer (The First Time), in which the narrator recalls his first sexual experience, with a 31-year-old woman he met at the age of 17.

It was a hot afternoon
Last day of June
And the sun was a demon
The clouds were afraid
110 in the shade
And the pavement was steaming

Songs that mention (even circuitously, as in this example) exact dates are actually pretty rare. I’ve been racking my brains all week, discounting songs about holidays (New Year’s Eve, Christmas Day, Independence Day, etc.), and I could only come up with the following:

Papa Was a Rolling Stone – The Temptations
It was the third of September
That day I’ll always remember

September – Earth, Wind &Fire
Do you remember
The 21st night of September?

Hilly Fields – Nick Nicely
Yeah, 1892 – lines are still on you
Hilly Fields
Yeah, 18th of July – someone in the sky
Hilly Fields

Cosmic Charlie – Grateful Dead
Hung up waitin for a windy day
Kite on ice since the first of February

Town with No Cheer – Tom Waits
This tiny Victorian rhubarb
Kept the watering hole open for 65 years
Now it’s boilin’ in a miserable March 21st

Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay

Sweet Baby James – James Taylor
Now the first of December was covered with snow
Yes, and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston

April 14th Part 1 – Gillian Welch
Hey, hey
It was the 14th day of April

Clothes Line Saga – Bob Dylan & The Band
Then they started to take back their clothes
Hang ’em on the line
It was January the 30th
And everybody was feelin’ fine

Isis – Bob Dylan
I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her very long*

The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down – The Band
By May 10th
Richmond had fell
it’s a time I remember oh so well

Friday Night, August 14th – Funkadelic
Friday night, August the fourteenth
Old lady luck smiled down on me

Anybody got any more? Leave a comment!

5th May, Cinco de Mayo, is a holiday in Mexico, so maybe this shouldn’t count. Oh well.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

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I’ve Never Heard… The Wall by Pink Floyd

Here’s a new regular feature. I was a little surprised to look down a list of the biggest-selling albums ever and realise that there was a good number I’d never really heard. Most of these records are such a pervasive part of our culture, and their songs are on the radio so often, I’ve never felt the need to sit down and listen to the albums those songs originally came from.

Last time, we looked at the Eagles’ Hotel California. Let’s see what we quietly desperate Brits were up to while the heads on the West Coast were getting mellow.

While considering myself something of a Pink Floyd fan, I’ve always avoided the band’s last two albums with Roger Waters at the helm, The Wall and The Final Cut. The latter’s reputation for impenetrable bleakness proceeds it, while The Wall is a concept album with more than a hint of the theatrical about it, and that’s never really been my thing. Frankly even after having my opinion on Floyd turned around by hearing Dark Side of the Moon properly, I still scorned The Wall.

Presumably The Final Cut is a still more gruelling experience than The Wall, but I can’t imagine there’s a darker album that’s racked up anything like The Wall‘s sales. At 80 minutes long, it’s a punishing listen. I went been through it all four times in 48 hours, and frankly, it left me in a rather odd mood.

It begins with the band at its most aggressive. In the Flesh?, rather than beginning the story of Pink, the album’s anti-hero, seems to address the band’s audience, although whether the narrator is Pink or Waters (or whether there’s a meaningful distinction to be made at this point in the record), is up for debate:

Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise

Roger Waters’ strained, cracking voice (the dominant one on the album, with David Gilmour getting comparatively few lead vocals and Richard Wright none at all) is accompanied by a heavy riff in 6/8 time that sounds oddly like Queen – grandiose and stadium ready – but without Queen’s warmth or exuberance.

Let’s stop a minute to discuss sound. Dark Side of the Moon remains to this day a hi-fi buff’s demo record. Alan Parsons’ production and engineering work is among the most impressive accomplishments in popular music. The Wall is a very different sounding beast. By this time, the band was working with Bob Ezrin, who’d made his rep producing mainly hard rock and metal acts, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Aerosmith and the Babys among them. He gave Pink Floyd a bigger, colder and less intimate sound than they’d had before, with a huge, undamped kick drum. It’s an arena-sized sound for a band that knew they’d be recreating the songs in arenas. Some sources claim The Wall was one of the earliest digitally recorded albums, but this isn’t something I’ve been able to confirm. Either way, the sound of the record is an integral part of the experience, and given the enormous dynamic range of the material, its natural home would seem to be CD and other digital formats, even as it arrived in stores a couple of years too early for them.

The album continues with The Thin Ice. The song, split vocally between Gilmour and Waters, again sounds like a prelude to the main story. We’ve not yet met Pink’s overbearing mother, but what other persona could Waters be adopting?

At this point, we do finally meet our protagonist, Pink, and the rest of side one tells us the story of his early years: the death of his father during the war (Another Brick in the Wall Part 1), his schooling (The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Another Brick in the Wall Part 2) and his suffocating relationship with his mother (Mother). About Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, though I should say that I find it a more powerful experience in the context of The Wall than on the radio; I never really felt the depth of Waters’s fury when he and Gilmour yell in unison “Hey! Teacher!” – the anger is palpable.

Anger may be The Wall‘s defining emotion, but Mother ends the first side on a note on a note more of dread than rage. The knotty structure of shifting time signatures defeated Nick Mason, so Toto’s Jeff Porcaro was brought in as a sub, and he aced it, as you’d expect, but the complex rhythmic structures only work because they’re part of a composition that’s harmonically and linguistically simple; otherwise they’d just be showy. Here, as elsewhere on side one, Waters makes effective use of straightforward, childlike language to tell the child Pink’s story:

Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Oh, Mother, should I build a wall?

Mother seems to me to be the heart of side one, the song that really sets up the story, and it’s followed at the start of side two by another one of the album’s key texts. Goodbye Blue Sky, while very pretty, is also extremely ominous. At this point in the story, we assume, Pink is no longer a child, yet he’s unable to let go of his memories of the Blitz, of life under constant threat: “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on.”*

The rest of side two tells of Pink’s growing alienation and psychological disintegration, with One of My Turns and Don’t Leave Me Now the centrepieces of the suite. One of My Turns features Waters’ most ragged (deliberately so, I think) vocal performance, by turns darkly hilarious (“Would you like to learn to fly? Would you? Would you like to see me try?”) and profoundly despairing, as when his voice drops in pitch and intensity over the course of the final phrase “Why are you running away?”

This leads into one of the album’s most troubling songs, Don’t Leave Me Now. Over an extremely unconventional harmonic structure (Eaug |D♭maj7 | B♭7 |G Gaug), Waters’ strangulated vocal is that of a man at the end of his rope, while what he’s actually saying is horrifying. He gives two reasons for needing his departing wife: “to put through the shredder in front of my friends” and “to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”. Until this point, our sympathy has been with Pink, even as he turned into a macho swaggering cock on Young Lust. After Don’t Leave Me Now, whatever sympathy we have for him is tainted, even if we read the beating he alludes to as metaphorical rather than physical.

By the end of side two, Pink’s wall is complete (Goodbye Cruel World), and side three begins with the beautiful Hey You. The song is credited solely to Waters, but Hey You’s arrangement seems to have come mostly from Gilmour – the unconventional use of a modified Nashville tuning (in which the lowest four strings are replaced by strings an octave higher, and in this case a low E two octaves higher) suggests the input of a guitarist, while the sinuous fretless bass playing is credited to Gilmour. Gilmour takes the lead vocal for the first half of the song, too, with Waters taking over as the intensity increases when Pink realises he can’t escape the wall he’s built for himself. One of the song’s strongest musical touches is the way the opening four notes of the Another Brick in the Wall melody reappear two minutes in as a heavy riff under Gilmour’s lead guitar.

Nobody Home goes some way to humanising this new version of Pink. Alone and despondent, he produces an inventory of all the things his success has bought him, and how none of it matters as he’s still alone.

I’ve got the obligatory Hendrix perm
And the inevitable pinhole burns,
All down the front of my favorite satin shirt.
I’ve got nicotine stains on my fingers,
I’ve got a silver spoon on a chain.
Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.
I’ve got wild staring eyes
And I’ve got a strong urge to fly,
But I got nowhere to fly to.
Ooh, babe, when I pick up the phone
There’s still nobody home.

Waters’ voice is a strange instrument, brittle and somewhat stiff, with a papery top end that sounded like that of an old man even when he was in his twenties, but on Nobody Home, singing near the bottom of his register until the end of the second verse, over a backing of piano and orchestra, his performance is hugely effective, and I can’t imagine any other singer, however accomplished, doing better.

Vera and Bring the Boys Home return us to the themes of side one. Pink (and, of course, Waters, whose father died at Anzio) remains haunted by the war, what it did to those who fought, and what it did to those left behind. In that context, Vera Lynn carries huge metaphorical weight, not just for Pink (and Waters) but for anyone of the same generation. Younger listeners, I suppose, cannot hear this song quite the same way as those for whom hearing Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again was part of a foundational shared cultural experience, but nonetheless I find it very moving.

Side three ends with Comfortably Numb, about which you probably don’t need to be told. More than just one of The Wall‘s most famous tracks (in the UK, the most well known is Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, which was a number-one single, but I can’t speak for other countries), it’s one of the band’s most iconic songs, with Gilmour’s guitar solos justly held up as some of the best in rock music history.

Side four sees Pink completely unravel and imagine himself as a fascist dictator and his concert as a huge rally. It begins with The Show Must Go On (the first line of which is “Must the show go on?”), the sense that something is wrong heightened by the incongruous Beach Boys-style backing vocals that are actually out of tune with the track. Then we get a horrifying reprise of In the Flesh (without its question mark), in which Pink is now an Oswald Mosley-like Blackshirt, railing against gays, Jews and black people and screaming how they should all be shot. It’s extremely unsettling.

Run Like Hell begins with one of Gilmour’s most exciting riffs, a series of triads with delay played over a D pedal tone. The song maybe never quite lives up to its riff, but it’s narratively essential, as it’s here that the crowd at the gig become a rioting mob, chasing after the “riff-raff” inventoried by Pink during In the Flesh. Waiting for the Worms switches back to Pink’s POV as he barks orders and hatred through a megaphone, while also restating the album’s most recognisable musical leitmotif: the grinding 4-note E minor riff from Hey You, itself the opening notes of the melody from Another Brick in the Wall.

At this point, Pink puts himself on trial, and is found guilty by the judge, who orders that the wall be torn down, and the album ends with a sprachgesang-ing Waters over the dance-band style melody we heard right at the start of the album, before the heavy riff of In the Flesh? crashed in.

So, what of the quality of the album itself? Of course, its sheer scale, musically and thematically, is impressive, and among concept albums it’s notable for its sheer dedication to its own premise. Everything here advances the story in some way, and the way it’s programmed into four suites, with its crossfades and segues, is both elegantly designed and technically accomplished.

Not all the music, though, is to my taste. While I’d concede its narrative importance, the track Young Lust is a low point – Pink Floyd were not a band made for louche Stonesy R&B, and Gilmour’s growled vocal is unintentionally comic, I think. He just doesn’t convince. The Happiest Days of Our Lives, while containing some cool bass playing from Waters, doesn’t add much to the album’s critique of the education system, and the dwelling on the beatings doled out by wives to their schoolmaster husbands is juvenile.

My bigger problem with the album, though, is that it seems to be telling two stories, both of which work well on their own terms, but don’t quite fit together. I find myself completely won over by the story of the young Pink, never quite able to process the loss of his father and brutalised by a harsh education system. I buy that an overprotective mother could damage her son still further trying to compensate for the loss of a husband and father from family life. As the child grows up and finds a void within him, it seems psychologically reasonable that he’d look to fill it with things, while finding it hard to relate to other people emotionally, eventually building a protective barrier around the parts of his psyche that are most damaged. All of that seems to me psychologically realistic, well handled by Waters’ songs and successfully brought to life by the band.

What doesn’t quite work for me (thematically, rather than musically), is the jump from that to Pink’s hallucinating that he’s a fascist dictator. It doesn’t seem outlandish that someone in Pink’s position might harbour a fascination with the enemy his father died fighting, but in terms of him imagining himself their leader, it feels like a chunk of the story has been missed out along the way. Side four feels cut off from the rest of the album’s themes, even as the music is successful on its own terms. Of course, it was Waters’ misgivings about his relationship to his fans, his profound estrangement from them on the 1977 In the Flesh tour, that led to the creation of The Wall in the first place, but it feels to me like in the process of writing The Wall the early-years material took on a life of its own, and ended up becoming the more compelling part of the story.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. The Wall is still a massive achievement. That it took me until the age of 36 to hear it is partly a reflection of my own taste, partly a function of the band’s unfashionability for much of my adult life, and partly to do with its reputation as dark and misanthropic in a way I didn’t feel like I wanted in my life. Now I’ve heard it, I can’t say I’ll come back to it often, but it’s pretty radically altered my perspective on the band and Waters in particular. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.

*I haven’t mentioned the Alan Parker movie adaptation of The Wall, as we already had enough to get through, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t say at this point that Gerald Scarfe’s animation work is extremely impressive throughout, and his visualisation of Goodbye Blue Sky is one of the most haunting moments in the film.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

 

His Friends are More than Fond of Robin – Carly Simon

Other than You’re So Vain and Nobody Does It Better (both of which I love, though I have a few reservations over some of the former’s more convoluted lyrics), I’d never given Carly Simon much thought until last year when Mel and I watched a Classic Albums documentary on No Secrets that a friend of mine recommended.

It’s rare that I watch one of those without my respect for the artist increasing (even Duran Duran went up in my estimation after watching the one on Rio), and Carly Simon was no exception. If I’d scoffed a bit about the idea of a Carly Simon episode of Classic Albums when none exists for Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, I wasn’t scoffing 55 minutes later. Maybe No Secrets is not After the Gold Rush or Blue, but it’s a really sturdy early 1970s pop-rock record, with three or four excellent songs aside from the obvious picks (The Right Thing to Do and You’re So Vain) that were released as singles.

His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is foremost among them. Piano-led and intimate, with Simon’s gentlest vocal performance, it’s a beautiful, quiet interlude on No Secrets, which otherwise tends to be a little more grandiose. Simon’s producer Richard Perry was fond of bigness and stuffed Simon’s songs with chugging cellos, big undamped tom-tom fills and multitudinous overdubs of lead and backing vocals. Wisely, Perry let His Friends are More than Fond of Robin breathe, and Simon responded with what must be her best released vocal performance.

Even more than the arrangement, though, what’s really noticeable about the song is how stylistically at odds this kind of writing is with that practised by her contemporaries. The pre-rock reference points for most singer-songwriters were folk, blues and country, and there were also a few who dabbled a little with jazz (or more truthfully, with some of the signifiers of jazz). But His Friends are More than Fond of Robin is not jazz – rather, it’s a sort of Broadway art song (the sort of thing that Stephen Sondheim might have written, as Barney Hoskyns observed in the Classic Albums doc). That’s a tradition that, among her contemporaries in 1970s rock, only Randy Newman ever worked in, although he’s not tended to write such vulnerably romantic material to perform himself.

All of which brings up an interesting question: why isn’t Carly Simon held in higher esteem than she is among the critics, fans, writers and bloggers who’ve shaped the singer-songwriter canon if she was capable of delivering pop hits as well as something with the depth of His Friends are More than Fond of Robin? Certainly there’s an element of sexism to it, and class is definitely an issue too (Simon is the daughter of Richard L Simon, co-founder of publishing house Simon & Schuster – a fact that critics such as Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis repeatedly held against her), but on the whole I think it’s that you can’t attach an obvious narrative to her, and canon formers love a narrative.

She didn’t have a prolonged streak of artistic brilliance of the kind that gave Neil and Joni their cred, or the history in music and compelling life story of Carole King, or the doomed-outsider cool of Tim Buckley or Judee Sill. Unlike, say, Jackson Browne, she didn’t even stop having hits – through the late 1970s and all through the 1980s, every time she seemed to be done commercially, she came back again with a successful single: Nobody Does it Better, Jesse, Why (written and produced by Chic, from the soundtrack to the movie Soup for One), Coming Around Again and, as late as 1989, Let the River Run (from the soundtrack to Working Girl). She didn’t have a gigantic, era-defining album hit like Paul Simon did with Graceland, but she never really went away. Not forgotten, just simply there, in a lot of people’s homes and hearts. Not obscure, not cool, not a genius, not a beautiful loser. Such artists are all too easily overlooked when canons are constructed.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

Last Swallow EP – out Friday 15th June

Hi everyone. My EP Last Swallow hits digital stores/streaming sites this Friday, 15th June. I’ve already taken delivery of a batch of actual CDs, and through some means I’m not entirely sure I understand, it’s already available to stream and download on Bandcamp, even though it’s not meant to be until Friday 15th. But that’s good news for you, as you can listen/buy it now!

The EP has four songs, including two never-before-released tracks: Make it Last and Ghosts & Echoes. Make it Last is one of my occasional forays into Fleetwood Mac territory, while Ghosts & Echoes is a song I wrote around 10 years ago for my then band, the Fourth Wall, but this version is a stripped-down, guitar-and-voice recording, with some double bass from the always-excellent Colin Somervell. There are two other songs, Last Swallow and Separated by Water, which both had been available as single-song downloads on Bandcamp, but had never hit streaming sites or anything until now.

I’m really grateful to everyone who helped me with this: my partner Melanie Crew and James McKean, who sing harmonies (Mel on Last Swallow, Make it Last and Separated by Water; James just on the latter); Peter Vinten, who drew the beautiful cover art; and Nick Frater, who kindly listened to the mastered mixes to give me a second opinion.

I’ve been very fortunate that the title track has already been featured on several radio stations and podcasts. Here’s a few I’ve confirmed so far (there another five or six coming up this week, so I’ll add those links here too):

http://www.trevorkruegerfolkshow.com/

http://www.liverpoolsoundandvision.co.uk/2018/06/10/ross-palmer-last-swallow-e-p-review/

http://jpsmusicblog.blogspot.com/2018/06/new-music-from-will-turpin-sam-pace.html

Ross palmer_BANDCAMP-CMYK-page-jpeg

 

Everybody Knows – The Jayhawks

One of the things about writing a blog (as opposed to writing for print media) is that I don’t know very much about the people who read the pieces I post here. I don’t, for example, know how old my readers are. I assume I probably don’t have that many readers in their teens or twenties, but there’s no way to find out without asking you all to fill in a survey widget, at which point I imagine none of you would ever come back here again.

Because I don’t know how old any of my readers are, I don’t know whether you’ll all remember the incident that provides the backstory to today’s song, so I’ll got back over it, but only briefly, lest I bore the rest of you.

In March 2003, a few days before the invasion of Iraq by a coalition led by the US and the UK, the Dixie Chicks played a concert in London. The group’s lead singer Natalie Maines expressed her disgust at the military action and said that she and her bandmates were ashamed that President George W Bush was from their home state of Texas. The audience cheered (British solidarity with the US after 9/11 never led to much personal support for Bush).

Their American audience back home, or more accurately a large minority of their audience, particularly in the south, was appalled and angry. Their then single, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, dropped 33 places down the chart in one week, and the band, Maines especially, received death threats.

The liberal media and the rock press, previously lukewarm towards the trio, came out in support of them, though, and their 2006 album, Taking the Long Way, which was in large part a comment on the 2003 controversy, received the best reviews of their career and a boatload of Grammys.

For that album, the trio looked to writers and co-writers outside the Nashville system, and lighted upon Semisonic’s Dan Wilson (then taking his first steps as a writer for hire, now one of the most highly remunerated writers in the business) and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris. Everybody Knows, co-written with Louris, was a far sharper comment on living as a pariah than the more showy Not Ready to Make Nice, which was plodding and earnest by comparison, with a leaden string arrangement. But Everybody Knows was only a minor hit, while Not Ready to Make Nice, co-written by Wilson, went top five and won three Grammys, including record of the year and song of the year.

Now, Louris and the Jayhawks have recorded their own version of Everybody Knows for their new album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, a collection of songs Louris has written over the years with other artists. The Jayhawks version of Everybody Knows – the only track available from the album at the moment – is wonderful, with an excellent, moving vocal from Louris and top-notch ensemble performances, particularly from drummer Tim O’Reagan (solid but supple, everything the song needs and nothing more) and the ever-reliable Karen Grotberg on piano and backing vocals. I’ve listened to it over and over in the couple of days since I first heard it, and it makes me smile every single time.

Lately I’ve Let Things Slide – Nick Lowe

They called him Basher, which seems hard to believe when you look at the cover of 2001’s The Convincer. Nick Lowe, then only in his early ’50s, sits cigarette in hand, resplendent in silver-fox quiff, blue blazer, cufflinks, pinstriped shirt and pale tie, looking about the age he is now (69) – and thanks to his tobacco-thickened voice sounding it, too. He looks a crooner for the Peter Skellern set, but looks can be deceptive.

The unlikely-seeming nickname goes back to the late 1970s. As an in-house producer, Lowe earned the sobriquet from his repeated advice to young bands to just “bash it out”, an attitude that birthed the Damned’s debut single New Rose – a fearsome 2-minute block of distorted noise – and led a generation to believe that Elvis Costello was essentially a punk artist (OK, EC’s spittle-drenched delivery of his manic diatribes contributed to that, too).

But Lowe’s own records were always somewhat more elegant than his production clients’, even during the years when he was a semi-father figure to the punk generation, and they’ve only gotten more so.

Lately I’ve Let Things Slide from The Convincer is a portrait of a man who ruefully admits he’s going to pieces over the end of a love affair, but is still trying his best to hold everything together and not let it show. Lowe’s style is usually an economical one, and in typical style he sketches his character with a few simple details, in plain language and short phrases:

With a growing sense of dread
And a hammer in my head,
Fully clothed upon the bed,
I wake up to the world
That lately I’ve been living in.

There’s a cut upon my brow:
Must have banged myself somehow,
But I can’t remember now.
And the front door’s open wide –
Lately I’ve let things slide.

The five-stress pattern he establishes in these first two verses is the basis of the entire song, but it works without becoming repetitive because of the accumulation of wryly funny details (“That untouched takeaway/I brought home the other day/Has quite a lot to say”) and the little variations in Lowe’s phrasing – for example, in the lines “Smoking I once quit/Now I got one lit/I just fell back into it”, it’s the way he pauses for a tiny split second after “just” and hangs on “fell” a hair longer than you expect. Lowe’s voice might have become rounder with age and lost some notes from the upper ranges, but his delivery is still razor-sharp.

The Convincer is a lovely record. Between Dark and Dawn, I’m a Mess, Let’s Stay In and Make Love, Indian Queens* and his cover of the Norman Bergen/Shelly Coburn song Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart are all favourites of mine, but the whole record is worth your time, and Lately I’ve Let Things Slide is the song I’d put on mixes for anyone interested in late-period Nick Lowe.

Image result for the convincer nick lowe

*Indian Queens is an oddly named village in Cornwall. The song is a character sketch of a man who has travelled the world and now years to return to the village where he grew up.