I ‘ve been able to see most of my musical heroes…well except the ones who’d already left this mortal coil before I realised they’d be worth the watching. I’d love to have seen Billie Holliday or Duke Ellington for instance and I missed the Beatles because they decided to quit touring in my teenage years and they’d never have been able to re-produce that great span of experimental albums live on stage back then anyway .The technology wasn’t up to it.You’d have needed 21st century expertise to reproduce something like “A Day in the Life” ,just perfectly . By then , you had to take the Beatles a bit more seriously when they turned rock and roll inside out and shook it like a pillow case.
If they could dig up an unmouldering Frank Sinatra or Captain Beefheart, when they were in their musical and experimental pomp, I’d gladly pay my ticket. To witness Sinatra’s breath control on something like “Old Man River” is a revelation .The first time I heard it on record ,I could hardly believe what the man just did with his voice .When did he pause to breathe ?, I asked myself. Was that kind of control even possible? Apparently so. No studio jiggery pokery there at all. It may not have even been available back in the days of two track and four track recording. He just did it like magic. Then there was Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet ,injecting his love for expressionism and abstraction into something as primal as those old blues idioms. Like Louis Armstrong after a visit to Mars.
There’s the “July Collective” of musicians who either died on my birthday or in that same month of July, in or around it. It’s a curious birthday gift to have a Jim Morrison or an Amy Winehouse indeliby stamp the sunniest day ,of the sunniest month, with their shocking early demise at a mere twenty seven years. I always remember them on my celebratory day .My birthday wanders from the second day right through Independance Day on the 4th of July.why not ? My mum said I was born during the night into the third day but my dad and my grandfather , possibly in celebratory mood, registered the great day “officially” as the second day. I suppose I was aborning betwixt two days really!! The running joke was that I’d get my pension one day earlier .That’ll not be long coming, now.
The list of July leavers includes the “27 Clubbers” Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison of the Doors, but also Clyde ‘Skip’ Battin, Louis Armstrong, Syd Barrett and several more. Each one of them carries a musical memory for me and all are featured in my record collection and memory.All birthday boys and girls that left too soon.
All our heroes dissappoint us at one time or another , of course. Sometimes we’ll catch them on a bad night when they are struggling through a tour with a bad head- cold, Montezuma’s Revenge, or maybe they’ve just gotten too old to cut the mustard anymore. We might pardon them their frailty but we’ll ultimately wish that they were hale and vibrant and in their glorious pomp again. Glory days don’t last for ever, of course. No matter what we actually say , we still want Van Morrison to look like the moody cover star of “Astral Weeks”. You can do “moody” when you are young and get away with it. It seems romantic, knowing and deep then. When you are some old stumblebum , grumping and grouching around the stage , you just seem like an old curmudgeon. Hardly a loving cup. Not even a loving spoonful.
The music is the thing though.
It’s not the light show or the costumes or the dancing girls. My own personal celestial quartet of creative musicians who have woven through the decades , consistantly surprising, sometimes puzzling me with the breadth of their work, are Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. I have seen them all in live venues except for Mr .Waits and although they sometimes take their experiments to extreme places, , they retain the ability to constantly embrace and surprise without bringing on the dancing girls to cover their asses.
They are all polymaths of sorts …my heroes. They’ve all dabbled in the various arts .Should it be Dylan with his writing, film making, painting and metal sculpture. Waits with his film appearances and his theatrical works with his Irish- rooted wife , Kathleen Brennan or his “found” instruments adding new soundscapes and textures to his work..Neil young with his environmental projects , his new pure sound development “PONO” , his pollution free, environmentally safe car development and his own films and writing.
Waits and Dylan both borrowed their voices from old blues , jazz and country artists. Dylan, even as a callow boy of nineteen wanted so much to be an old bluesman like Skip James or Muddy Waters that he made himself become that very thing, still performing with his tatterdemalion vocals sending out songs that he used to sing with a loping feline, feral grace and cussedness, now raggedly sailing into the huge forums like riven, breaking, galleons of sound but still stopping occasionally , as in a sly doldrum, to croon a perfectly pure vocal of love and remorse to catch the unaware with it’s warm grace .
I’m used to that with Dylan, having followed his errant twists and experimental turns throughout my life on numerous unreleased bootleg recordings. Tom Waits borrowed his voice from the great “Satchmo” [Satchel Mouth} jazz vocalist and revolutionary trumpet player , Louis Armstrong. His stage persona would have been cobbled and stitched from Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael and a host of jazznik and beatnik performers whom he admired ,in retrospect. He invented himself from those old clothes and bones.None of this stopped his songs being covered by more homogenised artists such as Rod Stewart or the Eagles.
The one person who really surprised me though , has to be Leonard Cohen
I’ve seen everyone from Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, but Cohen managed to trump them all with a four hour set of perfectly played songs , a knowing dry wit and for such a presumed “suicide’s friend” , a poetic humanity and joy. All this from some old guy , now on the cusp of his 80th year. Leonard is a poet and a well-respected novelist. Some might think him dour, but his wit is warm and dry and at the finish of his Dublin show at Kilmainham Hospital , he doffed that famous hat and literally danced off the stage … like an old trouper. All this after a four hour concert preceded by a long sound-check which I was lucky enough to hear.
I’m off to see Neil Young in Liverpool shortly, as a birthday present from my daughter. I’ve no doubt that Mr Young and his band Crazy Horse will not disappoint. Hopefully he’ll not eat a dodgy sandwich before the curtains open. I’m not expecting Neil to dance off into the wings though. I don’t think he has Mr. Cohen’s style or chutzpah.