Monthly Archives: December 2020

So long, 2020

And here we are, then. It feels naive to feel too optimistic, as we look back at the horror show of 2020 and forward into 2021. The vaccine roll-out gives some reason to be hopeful, but you don’t have to look at the Twitter feeds of too many public health specialists, epidemiologists or healthcare workers to see that things might get a whole lot worse before they start to get better.

All I can say to you is that I wish you and everyone you know good health and peace of mind. You’re not alone.

Below are links to some of my favourite pieces from 2020. I’ve tended to post in fits and starts this year, my mind often not on blogging but on the various crises tha have befallen us, as well as on my own less-than-ideal work situation. Now I’ve got steady work again, I may be able to get back to more regular posting. I’m minded to do another one or two I’ve Never Heard posts, though, and they tend to take a week or more to pull together.

Anyway, stay safe, and I’ll see you in 2021.

Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 – Tim Buckley

Reverb, echo and delay revisited

Songs for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Running on Empty – Jackson Browne

Peter Green

Gillian Welch, living in the now

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness at 25

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA

BTW, I released a couple of things this year. Do check them out if you get the chance.

A new year’s wish (one among many)

I’ve never been a hard-gigging, road-warrior kind of guy. I’m not, in truth, the most natural live performer (I know, shocking, right?), and have always preferred rehearsing, recording and writing to playing live.

But I’ve also been a musician playing solo, in duos and in bands for over 25 years, so I know as well as anyone else what a live performance can be at its best, what it can mean to both musician and audience. The adrenaline of a set that goes well – those rare occasions when you’re so in the zone you’re no longer consciously performing, you’re just a conduit, allowing something powerful to pass through you – that’s a hell of a thing, no question. It’s not easily replaced.

In the UK, live music stopped abruptly back in March, and barely restarted over the summer. Not everywhere has been equally affected, of course, and some musicians have been able to find ways to function that work for them – low-volume home rehearsals, outdoor rehearsals and gigs for small audiences, live streams and so on. But for a band like the one I’m in, which is more or less a rock band and therefore reliant on amplification, and whose members live miles away from each other in a densely populated city with neighbours all around, and where public transport is a Petri dish, it’s not been possible.

Things are once again dire here – as bad as back in April and May. To complain about missing the opportunity to play live shows and rehearse with my friends seems tone deaf, I know. Nonetheless, I do miss having live performance and the attendant rehearsals as a part of my life. Maybe, as Joni Mitchell put it, we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone. We all have many wishes for 2021, and the main one is of course that we can somehow get through the next few months until the vaccine is rolled out widely, but a return to playing live shows, and the survival of the venues that host them, is high among mine.

I hope you’re all keeping safe and well.

Homegrown – Neil Young

For some reason, I missed Homegrown when it was released in the summer. I think I felt like I’d had enough new music by singer-songwriter icons for a while after Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways came out, and figured I’d get back to it sooner or later. It took six months, but I finally sat down with it for the first time on Friday.

My reaction is, I have to admit, one of mild disappointment. It’s not fair to the music to judge it against the myth that has become attached to it, but Homegrown has built up a legend as a great lost masterpiece, something too emotionally powerful to have been released while its author was still in the thick of the events it describes. Even Young himself has talked it up as “the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways and Harvest Moon“.

Leaving aside the fact that Old Ways doesn’t really belong in that list (I think it’s trying to do a different thing, something more country qua country, rather than country rock), I find it hard to hear Homegrown as fitting in that lineage. It seems truer to place it as a part of the run of smashed, bummer albums that included Time Fades Away (recorded on tour Feb-Apr ’73), Tonight’s the Night (recorded Aug-Sep ’73) and On the Beach (recorded Feb-Apr ’74). It’s more acoustic than On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night, less defiant and more tenderly wounded, but it doesn’t have the smoothness implied by Young’s sales pitch for the record.

What I will say for Homegrown is that it starts and ends well. Separate Ways, the opening track, is a little sketchy (Levon Helm sounds like he’s hearing the song for the first time; Tim Drummond’s timing is off for a substantial chunk of the song), but it’s a really fine piece of writing, with a couple of killer changes.

The four-song run that finished the album, meanwhile, is killer. White Line has something of the devastating simplicity of Neil masterpieces like Heart of Gold and Don’t Let it Bring You Down, and for me is only a narrow notch below both of those. Vacancy spits fire like an outtake from Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, although Karl Himmel’s drum fills are several orders of complexity above anything Ralph Molina ever attempted. The delicate, childlike Little Wing is another heart-sore ballad, in this case one that surfaced in 1980 on Hawks and Doves. Young’s chunky acoustic rhythm guitar is one of my favourite sounds in recorded music, so this one is made for me, as is Star of Bethlehem, which adds Drummond and Himmel, as well a guesting Emmylou Harris on harmonies and Ben Keith on Dobro.

It’s not all at that level, sadly. We can discount Florida, a shaggy-dog spoken word interlude in which Young talks about rescuing a baby after its parents are killed in a freak hang-gliding accident, but the first side of the record just doesn’t grab me other than Separate Ways and Kansas. I’ve never really felt that warmly towards Love is a Rose, which first appeared on Decade and was also recorded by Linda Ronstadt, while Homegrown is a lightweight goof that doesn’t have the desperation that underpins, say, Roll Another Number for the Road from Tonight’s the Night. Mexico is a sketch, albeit a pretty one. Try is just meh.

As I say, no record could live up to the expectations that big Neil Young fans had for Homegrown. Off the back of reading Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, I expected it to be epochal. Instead it feels to me like a 7/10 record with a couple of songs that would get full marks or something close.

Worth hearing for Separate Ways, Vacancy, White Line, Little Wing and Star of Bethlehem, but don’t expect it to be at the level of On the Beach quality wise, or stylistically of a piece with Harvest or Comes a Time.

Neil Young, some time in 1974

The Lay of the Land, 6 December 2020

Eight years ago today, I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that, I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At that point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

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Well, what a year.

I won’t go on at length. I know that some of you reading this will have had it far harder than I have. I’ve lost no family members or close friends to Covid-19, so far, although tragically my family doctor of more than thirty years became the first NHS healthcare worker to die from the disease in March. As far as I know, none of my family members or close friends has had it, except perhaps asymptomatically or so early that it wasn’t recognised as Covid. For that, I’m grateful every day. It’s no small thing.

Last September, Mel and I got engaged, and we were due to get married this September. We made the decision even before the first national lockdown that we should postpone the wedding. In the end, we decided to push it back a whole year, to September 2021, and it was definitely the right call. With a vaccination programme beginning next week, we’re hopeful we’ll be able to have our wedding next year the way we’d like to have it, without fear, and with our older relatives and those with chronic illnesses able to be there.

That was a disappointment, of course, but unfortunately things got worse in the summer. The travel industry was obviously hit hard by the pandemic, and I’d been furloughed since April. In July, my company announced it was cutting global staff by nearly half, having already closed down its operations in Asia Pacific permanently. Nearly all of my team was put at risk, and over half of us were made redundant.

No point in downplaying it, redundancy really sucks. My family and the friends I told (it sounds pathetic, I know, but I didn’t tell everyone; it was too hard to keep having the conversation) couldn’t have been more supportive, and Mel was an absolute rock, but I spent much of the rest of the summer alternating between feeling hollowed out, terrified for the future and furious about what had happened. Even in circumstances like these, in which a lot of experienced and talented people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own at all, it’s hard not to let it affect your confidence and self esteem. Plus, the job market was getting worse by the minute, with hundreds of applicants for every position. Thousands, sometimes.

I began the job hunt the day after getting the news. Luckily, I started to get some interviews after a month or so of applications. I came close on one or two, and then was then given an offer by an education company. So that’s what I do now, along with a little freelance subediting for a magazine. It’s great to be working again, learning new skills and working on different subject matter, much of which is delivered as video lectures. It’s a different challenge after seven years at a place where copy always had to be tailored to an audience that would be reading it on a phone. Everyone at the new place seems very nice, and I feel I can be cautiously optimistic about the future again. I feel very, very lucky; I have friends who were also made redundant this year who haven’t been as fortunate. I hope that the positive news about the vaccines will translate into more employers hiring again soon.

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During the time I was furloughed during the first lockdown, I tried to stay busy, to salvage something from the situation. Mel and I released a joint EP, our first as a duo, which we’d begun last year. I released a two-song single, consisting of a couple of power-pop type of songs that I felt shouldn’t go to waste but didn’t fit the duo EP with Mel. I finished mixing the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album, plus a Blueberry Moon EP. And I made a record with Yo Zushi. We started it last November, cutting basic guitar and drum tracks for three songs at my house. But in the event, we only used one of those songs; everything else was written and recorded during lockdown itself. It ended up being enough of a collaboration that Yo decided we should release it under a band name, rather than as a Yo Zushi solo record. So, we became Watertown Carps. The album’s called Mermaids.

I’m really proud of everything I worked on this year. It’s always a joy to play on James’s or Yo’s songs; I’ve been playing music with them since I was 18 years old, and they still impress me and surprise me and inspire me. It’s great to play and sing with Melanie, too. In the last year, we’ve worked hard on our harmonies, and I really love how our voices sound together, particularly when she sings lead. She’s a much stronger singer than me, but I’m getting better at finding ways to support her voice with harmonies pitched below the melody, which is something I found really hard for years.

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A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got an email from a man named James Tugwell at the British Library. Two emails, in fact – or rather, the same one sent twice, via this blog and via my website. He works as record company liaison for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Collection, and was contacting me to ask if I’d consider donating my music to their archive, to be – and I can hardly believe I’m saying this – preserved for the nation. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said yes immediately. I don’t know how James Tugwell came found me, but it was an incredible honour to be asked, one that I never expected. I’m not sure exactly when my music got added to the catalogue, but I guess it was at some point in the last couple of weeks, as it’s now searchable on the database and available for those with a pass to hear, theoretically for ever. I feel pretty good about that. Nothing in the digital world is permanent, but if anyone’s going to be looking after their digital property, it’s these guys.

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So the year winds down, and we look ahead to Christmas. It’s a worrying time. Our second national lockdown has just ended, and a loosening of restrictions – allowing more people from different households to meet indoors and suspending regulations about not travelling between areas at different alert levels – for Christmas itself has been announced. We’re likely to pay a heavy price for this in January. Stay safe, stay well, think of others. This too shall pass.