Summer of the Sixties
Two nice Jewish boys bookend my summer of music, both of the first generation of singer-songwriters, both strongly connected with New York, both out of the Sixties which has been the theme of my live music over the last few weeks. The first was Bob Dylan at the newly revived Feis in Finsbury Park a couple of weeks ago (18.vi.11), the last Neil Diamond at the Millennium Dome last night. In between two unique evenings of singer-songwriters recorded for BBC4 at Porchester Hall for the ‘Songwriters’ Circle’ series.
The last time I wrote about ‘Songwriters’ Circle’ on Simple Pleasures part 4, magic of the internet the fella who makes Boo Hewerdine’s guitars got in touch. At this summer’s Feis I spotted Boo going into the artists’ entrance round the back with his kids and his trusty guitar case, on his way in to play with Eddi Reader. Little wheels spin and spin big wheels turn around and around…
Bob Dylan I have seen from time to time over the last few years and this was his best performance in London for the best part of 15 years (since Hammersmith Odeon). Because he was evidently enjoying himself. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the highlight, him singing in his reinterpretive style (see his memoirs ‘Chronicles’ for something of an explanation), the crowd singing along reverting to the 60s style as recorded (on Blooms Day, 16th June 1965 in NYC, so its anniversary just two days before this performance), everyone enjoying themselves hugely. I was on a (musical) high for a week after the Feis – I think I’ll make this my last time seeing Bob live, go out on a high.
The following evening was another flower of the 60s, Van Morrison, doing the sunset slot with style and statesmanship. The last Feis I went to (somewhere around 1996 by my calculation, called the Fleadh back then) was headlined by the same pairing, though both Van and Bob on the same magical night. It was memorably the night of the day I learned to make frozen fruit dacquiris. It segued into a party back at Watermint Quay over in Clapton (the place not the bluesman), dancing in the basement, pharmacy in the attic space. This time Van didn’t get out of orbit (unlike the transcendency of his Astral Weeks gig at the Albert Hall a couple of years ago) but it was the right music at the right time, perfectly conducted by the Man in the softening glow.
The first of this round of ‘Songwriters’ Circle’ comprised Leon Russell, Nick Lowe and Paul Brady. Leon Russell did his Dr John type thing with great shaggy beard, cowboy hat and shades – classic old school. In his time he’s played with Dylan and The Band as well as The Stones and Clapton (the bluesman). He performed with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh. At this more intimate gathering of musos, Paul Brady was the glue, veteran of countless Irish seisiuns, he knows how to accompany his fellow musicians and get some energetic interaction going. Back in the 60s he was playing traditional Irish with The Johnstons, moving to NYC in 1972 (where Dylan had been drawn to The Clancy Brothers a few years earlier and sucked up some Irish know-how himself). The three of them rounded things off with ‘Mystery Train’ which I know from Woodstock vets the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, although I first became familiar with it in the Paris Metro thanks to my old pals Stu and Jon who made it our theme tune on the legendary Select Latin trip – Train arriving, sixteen coaches long.
I met Paul Brady and Leon Russell fleetingly after the show at Khans, the injun just round the corner from the venue. Hadn’t been in there for yonks. On the subject of we’ll always have Paris, one of the last times I was there I walked in with a new girlfriend (now wife), bumped into a friend from Paris who offered us her flat in St Germain, we ended up going, our first time away together, so I scored a good few impress-the-new-girlfriend points, it’s a place of good happenings for me.
Back to this summer of love, the following night was even more quintessentially 60s with Donovan, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Roger Cook. Donovan was a bit on the charmless side – back from before ‘Don’t Look Back’ he seems to have struggled awkwardly in the shadow of Dylan and he just doesn’t feel comfortable in himself. Buffy the non-vampire did ‘Little Wheel’ (Desert Island Disc choice of Fay Weldon which is how I came across it) and peaked in her Nam protest song ‘Universal Soldier’. Her songs have been covered by Neil Diamond, as well as Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker. And Donovan (a successful version of Universal Soldier). Wheels within wheels.
Roger Cook went from his 1967 composition ‘Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart’ (which I know through Marc Almond’s later duet with Gene Pitney) to his 1971 ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, yup the Coke advert one. 1971 was a very special year of the Sixties. Much of what we think of as epitomising the 60s actually happened in the first couple of years of the 70s – in short, the 60s culminated in 1971, year of the wonderous ‘What’s Going On’. That’s my favourite record (with words). And one of my first records was ‘Hot August Night’, also released in 1971 (though that’s not when I got it). I spent hours drawing and colouring to it on the dining room table. It has its 40th anniversary next month and is still Neil Diamond’s best selling record. He played some great choons from it last night including his opener ‘Soolaimon’ (1970) with its herald of African drum beats, ‘I Am I Said’ and ‘Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show’. The Brill Building trained songwriter talked a bit about Nam and the assassination of Kennedy, King and ko. He played one of the tunes he wrote for The Monkees, ‘I’m a Believer’. ‘Cherry Cherry’ was a highlight, very 60s sounding. Yet for all his 60s credentials, it was in the early 70s he reached escape velocity and I think of him as a Seventies guy. I contemplated that record cover for hours in the days I only had a couple – I wanted a jean jacket like that, I liked the Jewfro, what was that hand position all about?
A resonant one for me last night was ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, memorably reinvigorated and given the seal of approval from another great lyricist of a later generation, Shane MacGowan. At one point Neil Diamond also punted his latest record, ‘Dreams’, a selection of covers a la Bowie’s ‘Pin Ups’, including Leon Russell’s “underrated classic” ‘A Song for You’ which he didn’t play live but which idea brings us neatly to the end of last night’s gig, rounding up my summer of music – the Diamond geezer put up a grainy black and white photograph of a 12 year old girl on the screens. She had travelled from Kiev to Rotterdam to New York City, alone it sounded like. She grew up to be his grandmother and he said he dedicated this, like every other performance of his, to her. Not very rock’n’roll but pretty peace and love.