Category Archives: General

The lay of the land, 6 December 2017

Five 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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Time moves faster than I ever could have imagined as a child, 25 or 30 years ago. I’m nearly 36 now, closer to 40 than 30, and finally doing the adult stuff that for the longest time I didn’t think I ever would – buying a house, getting a mortgage, making plans not just for retirement but for death (by making a will, you understand.  I’m not planning on hastening the end).

Most of the time when you’re doing this stuff, the process itself just sweeps you along with it and doesn’t leave much time for reflection. But every now and again, it occurs to me how unlikely this all is, and the fact that Mel and I have a financial commitment that’s going to last till more or less the end of our working lives in 30 years’ time is in many ways the biggest symbol of my recovery yet: inconceivable six years ago, massively unlikely five years ago, but now a reality. We move in next Tuesday. It’s daunting as we’ve still got so much to do, but it’s also hugely exciting.

Many of my friends are in similar positions and it’s nice to look around and see how many of them are happy and settled: buying houses, getting married and having children. I wonder, though, if any of them feel the same way I do: that they’ve been enjoying an elongated adolescence that is only now coming to an end.

I already have plans for next year. Setting up a studio den in our new house is first on the list. A new record with James McKean is in the works, and my own much-delayed album is finally – finally – recorded (I just plan to press an EP first as essentially a trial run, so I can make all my mistakes on a low-stakes release), but I’m not looking too far beyond those things at the moment. Compared to this year, next one should be quieter, and less stressful. There may even be more time for blogging! I doubt I’ll ever again get to the more-than-once-a-week schedule I maintained in 2013-2014, but at least once a week would be good.

I’ll be back later in the week if time permits, but you know, moving house and all. I’ve got a couple more drum posts planned, so if you’re into those, stay tuned.

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The Lay of the Land, 6 December 2016

Four 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 the 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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I’ve done one of these each year on 6 December since I started my blog, and they’re shoot-from-the-hip affairs. They’re a snapshot of how I feel on this day when it rolls around. The 2013 and 2015 pieces were positive, contented pieces; the second one was probably the angriest thing I’ve ever written on this blog..

This year, it’s been hard not getting angry every time I read a newspaper. But we on the left must resist the temptation to wallow in anger, bitterness and resentment. Our world is being remade into something ugly, and it will take a long, long time to undo the damage that’s been done.

Yet we must believe it can be undone. The only alternative is despair, cynicism, nihilism: destructive emotions that help no one, change nothing and destroy a person from within.

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In the meantime, you have to live life, with all its ups and downs. This year, my father’s sister, Marion, died unexpectedly. She was only 72 and had not been ill. I’ve also seen more friends and relations get married and start families. Mel and I look to our future and make our own plans.

We’ve been fortunate enough this year to see Santorini, Tuscany, Madrid and Liverpool, and I’ve just got back from Biarritz, where my company had its conference. I’ve continued to make music, helping James, Mel and Yo with their releases, and planning for my own, which will definitely be happening in 2017. Enough waiting. Time to make it happen.

I began running again, after my mum remarked that I never mentioned going running any more. I started, on the hottest day of the the year, by seeing if I could do 2.5 kilometres. Two weeks later, I ran 5k for the first time since I was at school. Two months’ after that, I ran 10k to raise money for Southend Hospital (where I was an inpatient on the cardiac ward). Next spring, I plan to do a half marathon, possibly for Cardiomyopathy UK. Training begins in earnest after Christmas.

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Things are fine for me. But they are not fine looking at the wider picture. Far, far from it. In a year of remarkable, unpredictable political upheaval, it seems daft to try to second guess the future, but next year is likely to be another difficult one for too many of us. It may seem an ivory-tower kind of exercise, but I’ll still be here, looking for music that means something to me. It still feels like a job worth doing.

Back at the weekend with drums. Take care, y’all.

running

Nearing the finish line

 

Things that are happening round here

Just a little update on things related to my own music.

This Sunday, 7th February, I’ll be playing a live session for Doug Welch on his folk show on BBC Kent. It starts at 9pm, and I’ll be doing three or four songs and talking a bit about them. I’m really honoured to have been asked to do it, and am looking forward to it a lot. I’ll put a link up to the podcast once it’s up, which will probably Monday.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a digital-download single, which is a trailer for full album to come out in the spring. It’s a song I wrote just before Christmas called Separated by Water, and I’ve been working on it at home for the last month, which has been slow progress due to a cold I just haven’t been able to shake and which meant it was touch and go whether I was going to be able to get a usable vocal done in time (colds tend to completely destroy my voice and leave me unable to sing properly for a week or so after I actually feel better). Anyway, I’m mixing it tonight and tomorrow, and will let it out into the world on Saturday, so I’ll put a download link up here then.

As for the album, I’ve finished it, I think! Just need to find a mastering engineer, get some artwork, photos, all of that jazz. I’ve never done a full album release with an actual physical product, and I want to make sure I get it right.

Added to that, James McKean’s second solo album, No Peace for the Wicked, is mastered and ready for release on 27 March. I mixed it, recorded a lot of it, played my usual assortment of instruments on it, and will be playing at least one live show with James to launch it (and potentially more), so I’d like leave my release till after his one’s done and dusted. James’s record is wonderful – very well sequenced, with excellent songs and brilliant performances from a pretty substantial cast of London-based musicians, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve all done on it.

Expect mine to follow it in late April or May.

In the meantime, here’s a bunch of songs more or less certain to be on it.

The Lay of the Land, 6 December 2015

This was mostly written last Sunday but wasn’t published at the time – halfway through writing it, I yawned, stretched and pulled a muscle in my shoulder, then spent the rest of the day lying on my back in a world of ow. I’m better now.

Three 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 the 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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I started this blog in spring 2013, so this is the third “Lay of the Land” post I’ve written. The first was a kind of round-up of all the changes that had happened in my life in the previous six months – starting a new job, moving to London, beginning a relationship with Mel – and how amazing it was to me that any of that had happened, given the place I’d been in. Last year’s was a very different piece, easily the angriest thing I’ve ever written on this blog. It was about a subject I care about very much (how the language we use around illness shapes the way we think about it, in a profoundly negative way). I haven’t changed my opinions on any of that stuff; indeed, I’ve seen some terrible, inexplicable things happen to good people this year. It’s not a comforting thought to us that a life-threatening illness could overtake any of us at any time, no matter how cleanly we live our lives, or how “strong” we think we are. But we must realise it, about ourselves and about others. It’s the only way we might develop empathy and a fair and just social policy. We sure don’t have one now, and as a nation we don’t vote as if we want one. I won’t get into that again now. I said it all last year and would just be repeating myself.

So 6 December 2015 – the third anniversary of that pacemaker procedure – finds me tired, but happy and looking to the future. I played a gig with James McKean last night, drumming at the Harrison Arms, and so I’m pretty shattered from having lugged a set of cymbals, a snare drum, and a kick pedal around all day. Which explains the tired, but I’ll be fine tomorrow. As for the future, let me tell you about that. First up, I remain healthy. I go for check-ups and scans and pacemaker tweaks at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, and at a scan earlier this year the cardiac physiologist told me that according to their classification chart, my heart is now within the “normal” range; I’ve improved from “severely impaired”, through “moderately” and “mildly” impaired to normal. My next trip to St Thomas’s is in a week or so. Let’s see what they say.

In the last few months I’ve begun working full time at my copy-editing job. I’ve been there two and a half years now, and still enjoy it. Mel and I have been together for over two years and we continue to make plans for our future, and not just in terms of holidays and trips. I’m blessed with friends who understand and care about me, and who for reasons better known to themselves than to me seem to like having me around.

I continue writing, recording and playing, both on my own and with Mel, James and Yo. Mel released her first EP this year, Yo his third album. I did my usual jiggery-pokery on both. James’s second album is pencilled in for March (my work on it is done; it’s just mastering, artwork and manufacture to go now), and I’m looking to release a proper full-length CD album soon, too, which is a long-held ambition but not something I’ve ever done before. Nearly finished on the music, but then that too will need artwork and so on. I was hoping it’d be ready to come out in February, but it might be a few months yet.

That’s what’s going on with me. But that’s only a small part of a wider story. More importantly, the lives of my friends and family members continue to change and develop, mostly in good ways, too. Just one small, happy example: I’m now the uncle of a nephew as well as a niece.

No life is perfect. No world is perfect. This is not the best of all possible worlds. There are things that I would change if I could in my life and in the lives of those closest to me. But I look around at the people I know and see folks who are mostly happy, mostly fit and well, mostly getting quietly on with whatever lives they have found themselves in, mostly fairly content with those lives. And speaking for myself, I have everything to be thankful for, much to look forward to, and lots to be getting on with.

I’ll be back on Sunday.

The future of the 12 Bar Club

Writing last month about the closure of the 12 Bar Club in its Denmark Street location in St Giles, I said:

This is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought and maintained their gear, and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

Nothing, that is, that the property developers behind all of this, the Consolidated Property Group, put there will ever replace it. If you’re having trouble imagining what that will be, take a walk through the alleyway next to St Giles in the Fields, past the Phoenix Garden, across Shaftesbury Avenue, down Mercer Street and into St Martin’s Lane. Continue until you see a Jamie’s Italian on your left hand side. That’s the western entry to St Martin’s Courtyard. Give it five years or so, and in all likelihood that’s what Denmark Street will look like: a privately owned piece of defensible space, monitored discreetly by private security, comprising a spa, some expensive (though not exclusive) retail and some upper-middle-price-range restaurants.

Feel like we have enough of these places already and don’t need another? Me too.

But this is a digression. As I said, nothing that Consolidated (what a hateful, foreboding name!) put there will be an adequate replacement for what the musician community of London is losing. That’s why we have to replace it ourselves. The glory of the 12 Bar Club was that it was one of the few really great central London venues, in a place that was a destination already. Denmark Street had been a musicians’ hub long before there was a 12 Bar Club; musical folk wanted to spend time there, and all of us living in this sprawling city were at an equal disadvantage getting there. It wasn’t in anyone’s neighbourhood, so it was in everyone’s neighbourhood. And it was readily accessible to those coming in from outside the city, too, who naturally enough gravitate to the West End.

I live in Lewisham, south-east London, 10 miles from Holloway. If the 12 Bar had reopened in Brixton, it would be 9.5 miles away from a musician living in Leyton. That’s the scale that London is built on. Those of us who live south of the river, or out in the west, must resist the temptation to start thinking of the 12 Bar as a “north London venue” and forget about playing there, hanging out there. If we do, it will likely fail. And we will all have lost something special. The continuance of a London music community is entirely dependent on the effort we put in to maintaining it.

12 Bar Club

A recent recording

 

Happy New Year (a clip show post)

So, we’re nearly at the end of Songs from So Deep’s first full year! I’m still finding it really rewarding to do this, the number of people finding the blog continues to grow and there are still things to talk about. So it’s looking good for 2015.

One of the things that remains really interesting to me (actually that’s a bit of an understatement) about doing this is seeing which posts prove popular. The majority of my most-read posts come from 2013, which makes sense, as they’ve been on the site longer, and as I don’t tend to write about much contemporary music (though more now than when I started), it seems natural that the posts would have a long tail. My not-very-well-written post on Bobby Caldwell’s What You Won’t Do for Love is still my most-read post, suggesting that a lot of people love this song as much as I do and can’t find much info on it elsewhere on the web.

But some posts I write that I think are an awful lot better than the Caldwell one only get a tiny fraction of the traffic. So for my last post this year, I thought I’d maybe point you in the direction of a few posts from 2014 that I thought were pretty good (by my standards at any rate) on subjects that people just don’t seem to bother Google with.

Enjoy New Year’s Eve, whatever you have planned, and I’ll see you on the other side!

Graham Nash David Crosby by, well, Graham Nash & David Crosby

Unsatisfied – The Replacements

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Moon Over Boston – Tanya Donelly

Merrimack River – Mandy Moore

The Persistence of Sentiment – Mitchell Morris

Turnham Green – Colorama

Summer Breeze – The Isley Brothers

You Used to Drive Me Around/review of gig at The Islington – Jon Auer*

*Jon was kind enough to link to this from his Facebook account, which was the highlight of my year as a blogger. It gets in this list on a technicality as it is in truth one of the most-read posts on this blog. But the majority of those views came from that link rather than search engine results.

The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street to close in January 2015

When I first started playing solo acoustic gigs as an 18-year-old, one of my ambitions was to play at the 12 Bar Club.

The 12 Bar is a small (150 capacity) but rambling live music venue at the far end of Denmark Street, close to what I’ve come to think of as Google Plaza but which is, I guess, still properly St Giles Circus. It consists of four rooms, in an L shape, with the tiny live room at the back. If you were starting a music venue from scratch, you wouldn’t plan anything like the 12 Bar. The site of an old forge, it has a tiny stage (made smaller by the remnants of the furnace), a small area for punters standing (or sometimes sitting) in front of the stage, an overhanging balcony that came up level almost with the front of the stage but only sat about 15 people, and no sound insulation from the bar, which despite being in a different room is only about eight feet from the stage. Yet despite all these seeming limitations, I love it.

If you want to know how important a venue the 12 Bar is, think on this: in its 25-year history, veterans like Bert Jansch, the Albion Band, Gordon Giltrap and Peter Rowan played it. Roddy Frame, Boo Hewerdine and Robyn Hitchcock played it. Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, KT Tunstall, Damien Rice, Regina Spektor, the Libertines, Keane, Jamie T, even Jeff Buckley played there. Whether I or you or anyone else likes those artists is not relevant in this case. What is relevant is that for a couple of generations of musicians, the 12 Bar Club has been an important rung on the ladder, one which you could play knowing whose footsteps you were walking in, and as a result its warmly regarded by practically everyone who’s ever played there, folkie, anti-folkies, punk rockers and roots songwriters alike.

I’ve played it more times than I have any other venue: a bunch of solo gigs (six or seven probably – conceivably more), a few with Yo Zushi, one memorable show with Great Days of Sail (the band I was in with Yo 10 years ago), an early gig with my old band the Fourth Wall, the last-ever Fourth Wall-related show.

So I have a lot of happy memories of that place. The show where I supported Berlin-based American songwriter David Judson Clemons, which I think was the first time I played solo there. The aforementioned GDoS gig, which we packed out, the one and only time I’ve been been part of a spontaenous, unplanned encore: James McKean joined us to sing You Ain’t Going Nowhere and the on-stage crowededness crossed the line from “impractical” to “farcical”. The time when I looked up during my set and realised that TV newsreader Martyn Lewis was watching me (his daughter Sylvie was top of the bill that night), looking very serious and newsreaderly. That time when a group of very dressed-up soul music fans who’d come to watch an after-show set by Roachford caught the back end of a Yo Zushi Band set (a particularly ill-prepared one at that) and looked rather flummoxed by what they saw.

In 33 days it will be closed, a casualty of the Crossrail development. The large Enterprise rehearsal complex, across the alleyway (Denmark Place) behind the club, will close also. I don’t know whether the buildings will be demolished. The 12 Bar is part of a terrace, so if it is to be knocked down, I assume that Hank’s guitar shop next door would have to go, too. Enterprise could be knocked down without it affecting the fabric of the buildings that face on to Denmark Street though. Conceivably the property developers (Consolidated) just want a nice shiny retail outlet there and would rather the place wasn’t filled with scruffy rock’n’rollers. We’ll have to see. I’m not optimistic about the future of Denmark Street though. I suspect that rents will continue to rise and the instrument shops will bow to the inevitable. With no form of rent control in place, central London real estate is too expensive for independent retailers, even niche ones like instrument shops. Unless Denmark Street is made a conservation area like Hatton Garden (and Consolidated are obviously not keen on this), an era looks to be ending.

Andy Lowe did a heroic job programming the live music there. In the course of more than a dozen gigs I played there, the bills were always high quality and thoughtfully put together. I was never on the bill with an inappropriate act, I never saw anyone on there who wasn’t up to the job. I could say that about no other venue. He did all this while being tremendously likeable and friendly, and without wanting to take up too much of his time, I stopped for a chat with him whenever I could.

There have been rumours about this for a long while, and the 12 Bar Club’s owner, Carlo Mattiucci, has obviously been prepared and look set to move the club to a new venue. But still, this is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought gear and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

ross 12 bar
On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2004-5

ross 12 bar 14
On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2014