CHUCK BERRY (1926-2017)

Chuck Berry

“He could play the guitar just like ringing a bell.”

Thanks to his duck walk, the way he swung the neck of his guitar around and those nifty little bent-note licks that opened his songs, Chuck Berry was the first great guitar hero of the rock’n’roll era – but you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to play like him. With a little practice and a bit of determination just about anyone can play Chuck Berry’s music. That’s the beauty of it – and without it there would have been no Beatles and no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin and no U2, no Bruce Springsteen and certainly no Status Quo. Even David Bowie recorded one of his songs.
Chuck Berry did not invent the 12-bar blues but the way he played it is the nearest thing there is to the foundation stone of rock’n’roll. It is the primer for rock guitar players everywhere, the first lesson in the first class on the first morning in the first school, and while those who took it further than him wound up playing a more supercharged version of it in arenas, Berry stayed true to the first principles he laid down, even if it did become a chore towards the end and, for his audiences, less and less engaging as the years rolled by.
As if this wasn’t enough, however, Chuck Berry was also rock’n’roll’s first poet laureate. More than Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or even Buddy Holly, he painted in his songs a lyrical portrait of young America for those of us with the misfortune to live elsewhere. Berry’s America was the promised land, a country of glitzy cars and endless highways, of girls in tight dresses and lipstick, of driving along with no particular place to go, and where they never stopped rocking till the moon went down. The combination of his eloquent, witty lyrics and the incessant drive of his signature guitar style was irresistible to British and American teenagers as the black and white fifties morphed into the colourful, swinging sixties, and it will remain so for an eternity.
The timing of his arrival meant that Chuck Berry’s influence on the next generation of rock performers was incalculable. Most of them were cadging the money to buy their first guitars when ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ rose to number 16 in the British charts in 1958. In the UK that generational charge was led by The Beatles and the Stones, and in America by Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys. All four are immensely indebted to Berry, and aren’t afraid to say so.
“If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry,” said John Lennon, while Keith Richards went even further, telling the audience at Berry’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1986: “I stole every lick of mine from Chuck Berry.” Told of Berry’s death at the age of 90, Keith’s band mate Mick Jagger, not known for his benevolence towards others in the same trade as himself, said: “I want to thank him for the inspirational music he gave us. He lit up our teenage dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing and your music is engraved on us forever.”

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The son of church-going, upwardly-mobile parents, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born – according to him – in St Louis, Missouri, on October 18, 1926, the fourth child in a family of six. Failing to distinguish himself at school, at 18 he was imprisoned for three years for armed robbery, the first of four jail sentences he would serve for assorted crimes, and before opting for a career in music worked on a car assembly plant, as a janitor and in a beauty salon. He got his first guitar as a teenager and sought inspiration not just from blues musicians like Tampa Red, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan’s Timpani Five but from the smooth phrasing of Nat ‘King’ Cole and the swing jazz of guitarist Charlie Christian. More important was his introduction to boogie-woogie piano player Johnny Johnson whose trio he joined in 1952, bringing to the group a cool, detached vocal style and an approach to the guitar that mixed country licks with the increasingly popular hillbilly and blues styles. He was also starting to write his own songs.
        In Chicago in 1955 Berry met Muddy Waters who suggested he contact Leonard and Philip Chess whose independent label Chess Records specialised in urban blues. Leonard proposed that Berry record a revision of ‘Ida Red’, a traditional country fiddle tune, that was re-titled ‘Maybelline’ with lyrics about an auto race between a Cadillac – a Coupe de Ville, the details were crucial to the package – and a V8 Ford, all set to a toe-tapping rock’n’roll beat captured in the studio by Berry on guitar, Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Jasper Thomas on drums and Jerome Green from Bo Diddley’s band on maracas. It sold a million copies and the Chuck Berry Combo was on its way.
        After a couple of minor hits the following year with ‘Thirty Days’ and ‘No Money Down’, Berry hit a rich seam of inventiveness during his third Chess session when ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ were recorded. Subsequent Berry releases on Chess are a roll call of rock’n’roll classics: ‘School Days’ and ‘Rock And Roll Music’ (1957); ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Around And Around’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ (1958); ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Back In The USA’ and ‘Let It Rock’ (1959); ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ (1960); ‘I’m Talking About You’ (1961); and ‘Nadine’, ‘You Never Can Tell’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘The Promised Land’ (1964), the gap between ’61 and ’64 explained by his second penal detention, this time for ‘transporting an underage girl across state lines for immoral purposes’.
Those fans who left the dance floor for a moment could consider the lyrics to these songs, how cleverly they rhymed and how perfectly they dove-tailed with the music, each metre a lesson in precision synchronicity. Berry was adept at using place names, girls’ names, makes of cars and even household appliances. He told little stories in vignettes and brought fine observational detail to verses that invariably climaxed with the song’s title or a repeated phrase that lifted the spirit. “In Berry’s cities, real people struggled and fretted and gave vent to ironic perceptions,” wrote Michael Gray in an obituary published in the Guardian newspaper. “His songs release the power of romance, flying with relish through a part of the American dream.”
It was all the more remarkable, then, that Berry was the wrong side of 30 when he was writing and singing songs about teenage romance, and that he was an African American whose music transcended racial boundaries without relying on the outrageous and rather camp style of performance characterised by Little Richard. With his trademark red Gibson ES335, his slicked back hair and carefully trimmed moustache, Berry was ultra cool; like trumpeter Miles Davis, actor Sydney Poitier and boxer Muhammad Ali the personification of insouciant black power long before the term was coined.
        In tandem with the hits that rolled off the production line like new cars at an assembly plant, Berry developed his stagecraft, the duck walking, the wide-legged stance and the wise cracking, and a personality summed up in the lyrics to ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, for whom ‘a whole lotta good women [are] sheddin’ tears’. He was sharp suited, elegant and flash, all qualities unlikely to endear him to the white establishment in an era when racism was rife below the Mason-Dixon line, and the jail terms (another, evidently, was for trying to date a white woman) were not the only reason why Berry cultivated a side to his personality best described as disagreeable. Music industry practice in the fifties dictated the sharing of writing credits – and thus the publishing revenues – with DJs who played records on the air, and while Berry accepted this at the time, albeit under duress, he came to realise that as his songs became covered by the big selling British groups of the sixties he was losing a fortune in royalties. Then there was the fact that his biggest hit ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, his only number one (in 1972) on either side of the Atlantic, was by common consent the worst record he ever made. A novelty song with smutty overtones that melodically resembled ‘Little Brown Jug’, in the UK it displeased morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse who tried unsuccessfully to get it banned, an action that doubtless assisted its passage to the top. A travesty of his best work, it sold bucket-loads so why should he worry? In truth, Berry’s chart statistics always belied the influence and quality of his records. He didn’t even compose ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ anyway, so the issue of royalties never arose, though it is a strange and slightly troubling paradox that this superbly gifted songwriter did not write his biggest hit.
        Thus was conferred upon Chuck Berry a reputation as ‘difficult’ that in the fullness of time and through his own transgressions would morph into ‘unsavoury’. It was no secret that he dealt exclusively in cash, and that if the cash was not forthcoming neither was the show. Many stories are told of promoters dashing to his hotel with wads of notes to secure his services, and only after the money was handed over would Berry leave his hotel and drive to the concert hall, usually in a Mercedes Benz hired at the long suffering promoter’s expense. Similarly, if he was engaged for one hour, then on the sixty minute mark precisely Berry would leave the stage, not to return for an encore unless further funds were proffered which they invariably were if the promoter wanted to avoid a crowd disturbance that might result in costly damage to fixtures and fittings. Berry rarely spoke to the bands hired to back him up, let alone provide them with a set list or thank them for their services. Such ruthless inflexibility all added to the Berry legend, as did his truculence in interviews. He preferred to be addressed as Charles. “I will excuse you,” was his standard reply to a question that he felt was in any way disrespectful. When he came to London in 1987 to promote his autobiography it was reported that he wouldn’t leave his hotel bed to be interviewed unless the PR girl from his book publishing company joined him there.

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Despite the enormous influence he exerted upon it, the beat boom of the sixties was as unkind to Chuck Berry as it was to his contemporaries from the first wave of rock’n’roll. While many fell by the wayside, Elvis to insubstantial films and then Las Vegas, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran to fatal accidents, Jerry Lee Lewis to infamy and Little Richard to religion, Berry battled on. Re-recordings of old material on labels other than Chess failed to match the sparkle of the originals, however, and attempts to update his image in tandem with the new order, like the Live At The Fillmore album recorded with the Steve Miller Band, proved less than satisfactory. Back at Chess in 1969, ‘Tulane’, a terrific rocker in his trademark style, and a brace of respectable albums ought to have re-established his reputation, but the reality was that like those same contemporaries he was a ‘singles’ artist unable to prosper in the ‘albums’ world of contemporary ‘adult’ rock, and his future would forever rely on his past. With his friend Bo Diddley, he became a fixture on the revival circuit, always welcome in the UK where Teddy Boys from the fifties, their quiffs and sideburns greying now but still sporting Edwardian coats, bootlace ties and crepe-soled shoes, could be relied upon to jive with their wives in the aisles and cheer him to the rafters as he duck-walked across the stage, reliving memories of how Johnny B. Goode sat beneath the tree by the railroad track and played guitar just like ringing a bell.
Never work-shy, for much of the rest of his life Berry maintained a concert schedule of up to 100 shows a year, travelling solo, his red Gibson guitar his only companion, a white naval officer’s peaked cap hiding his receding hairline. In 1979, the same year he was jailed yet again, this time for tax evasion, he played at the White House for President Jimmy Carter, and for his 60th birthday in 1987 he was the subject of a documentary movie entitled Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll for which he was backed by a band put through their paces by Keith Richards and featuring guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Julian Lennon and Linda Ronstadt among others. He settled in Ladue, Missouri, a few miles west of St Louis, and one Wednesday each month performed at a restaurant in the city. He bought a restaurant of his own in nearby Wentzville that became known as Berry Park, but brought ignominy on himself again when it emerged that a video camera had been installed in the ladies’ bathroom. A search of the premises uncovered illegal drugs as well as footage from the camera. Subsequent legal proceedings reportedly cost him over $1 million in lawyers’ fees, a suspended jail sentence and what was left of his tattered reputation. Another lawsuit in 2000, brought by his old piano player Johnny Johnson, claimed joint authorship of over 50 songs but was dismissed when the judge decided too much time had elapsed since they were written. Many thought Johnson’s claim was valid.
Berry certainly knew how to make enemies and Keith Richards, for one, had good reason to loathe the man as much as he loved his music. Berry drove Richards to distraction by switching keys without warning during the filming of Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll but, since the Stones recorded six of his songs and modelled plenty of their own on his style, maybe Berry felt he was entitled to play fast and loose with a Rolling Stone. If you include tracks on their BBC sessions recordings, The Beatles recorded eight Berry songs and unlike the Stones managed to better a Berry original with a version of ‘Rock And Roll Music’ on their 1964 album Beatles For Sale. John Lennon, a great admirer, sang that particular track brilliantly, powering his group through its verses in one of greatest interpretations of Chuck Berry music ever recorded, as fine a tribute as you’ll find anywhere. Lennon shared a stage with his hero at the Toronto Rock And Roll Revival festival in 1969. What, if anything, passed between them is not recorded.
But covers by The Beatles and Stones are the tip of the iceberg of course. Put simply, everybody covered Chuck Berry. Right now some band somewhere in the world is plugging in, tuning up and opening a night’s set with Chuck Berry music: ‘I’m gonna write a little letter…’, ‘Deep down Louisiana…’, ‘Long distance information…’, ‘Riding along in my automobile…’ or any of a dozen more. And someone somewhere is listening to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, rocking again ‘in Boston, in Pittsburgh PA, deep in the heart of Texas, ’round the Frisco Bay, all over St Louis and down in New Orleans’, names on a map in a dull geography class until Chuck Berry transformed them into that mythical American paradise for us all those years ago.
Many years before he was born to run Bruce Springsteen found himself in one of those bands hired to back up Chuck Berry and had the temerity to ask the great man what music they were going to play. “Chuck Berry music,” he replied scornfully. What he really meant was that if you don’t know how to play Chuck Berry music you have no business hanging an electric guitar around your shoulders.



Without prior rehearsal Chuck Berry would turn up for a show to perform with a backing band hired by the promoter as required in his contract. Long before he was born to run Bruce Springsteen found himself in one of them and had the temerity to ask Mr Berry what music they were going to play. “Chuck Berry music,” he replied scornfully. If you didn’t know how to play Chuck Berry music you had no business hanging an electric guitar around your neck.
You only need three strings: bottom 6th open, first finger on the second fret of the 5th moving up to the fourth fret every other beat, strum ‘lively’ for two bars as music books say, then shift the whole process up a string for a bar, then back down again, fake it at the seventh fret, same on the fifth, then back to the first position for the final bar. That’s Chuck in E, the easiest key, but I think he preferred G or sometimes even further up the fretboard, and he barred across all six strings with the first finger of his left hand, never using a capo. Like Hendrix, he had really long fingers.
Thanks to his duck walk, the way he swung the neck around and those nifty little intro licks, Chuck was the first rock’n’roll guitar hero but you didn’t have to be a virtuoso guitarist to play like him. You could make a half-way decent fist of playing Chuck Berry music without much practice at all. That’s the beauty of it. It’s where they all started and where dreamers like me are happy to remain if they can’t get much further. The ones on stages in arenas invariably did go further but Chuck stayed true to first principles even if it did become a chore towards the end and, for his audiences, less and less engaging as the years rolled by.
Back in Skipton in 1963 when I toted a red Futurama in The Rockin' Pandas we played ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Around And Around’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. Before that I sat mesmerised in the town’s coffee bar listening to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Reeling And Rocking’ on the juke box, wondering what ‘rocking on Bandstand’ was all about, and smiling at the thought of Chuck ‘dancing with a woman who was twice my size’. More than Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard and even Buddy, he drew me to America: a land of cars and endless highways, of driving along with no particular place to go, of teenage girls in tight dresses and lipstick, and where they never stopped rocking till the moon went down. The combination of these wonderful lyrics and the incessant drive of the music was irresistible to me at 16 and remains so even now.
When I heard the news of his death aged 90 on TV last night they played ‘My Ding A Ling’. Please no, I cringed. His biggest hit and his worst record. There’s a paradox for you, along with the other dislikeable traits forged as a victim of racism that sent him to jail on four occasions, once for asking a white woman for a date. No wonder he trusted no one. Like the inexcusable mischief with video cameras in the ladies loo at his club, it conferred upon Chuck a reputation as a ‘difficult’ man. My old boss at Music Sales tells a wonderful story about how when he wanted to publish a book of Chuck Berry sheet music – who needs sheet music for Chuck Berry songs? – he was required to deliver a hefty advance in $100 bills to his home in Missouri. Charles, as he preferred to be called, always dealt in cash.
Chuck certainly had much to answer for and Keith Richards, for one, had good reason to both loathe him and love him. Chuck drove Keith to distraction by switching keys without warning during the filming of that Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll documentary in 1987, but, since the Stones recorded six of his songs and modelled plenty more on his style, maybe Chuck felt he owed him one. The Beatles, however, recorded eight if you include those on the BBC sessions records, and unlike the Stones managed to trash Chuck’s original with their version of ‘Rock And Roll Music’ on Beatles For Sale. “If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry,” said John who sings that particular track, brilliantly too.
But covers by The Beatles and Stones are the tip of the iceberg of course. Put simply, everybody covered him. Right now somewhere in the world some band is plugging in and opening up a set with Chuck Berry music: ‘I’m gonna write a little letter…’, ‘Deep down Louisiana…’, ‘Long distance information…’, ‘Riding along in my automobile’ or any of a dozen more. Me? I’m listening to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ as I type this, rocking yet again in Boston, Pittsburgh PA, Texas, Frisco Bay, St Louis and New Orleans, names on a map until Chuck Berry music turned them into a kind of mythical paradise for me all those years ago. RIP you old genius.



At 9.17 pm last night I received an e-mail headlined ‘The Who Announce Their Las Vegas Residency’. There was something a bit odd about the phrasing of this, I thought, and it wasn’t just the shock on hearing the news that The Who, of all people, were involved in this sort of thing, of which more later. It was the use of the word ‘Their’; not just ‘The Who Announce Las Vegas Residency’, but ‘Their Residency’, as if after everyone else who’s played Sin City it’s now The Who’s turn, a right of passage. It conferred a sort of dubious inevitability on the announcement, as if sooner or later everyone has to end up in Las Vegas by unavoidable decree, as if it is the natural order of things that regardless of their historical achievements all successful performers are obligated one day to wallow in the junkyard of cabaret entertainment where art becomes commerce and creativity a forgotten art.
Well, bugger me with a dead badger, as my old Melody Maker mucker Allan Jones used to say. Not The Who in a gambling den at Las Vegas, please. But it’s true. Here are the facts.
The e-mail urged me to purchase tickets for any of six Who shows at the Coliseum in Caesar’s Palace between July 29 and August 11 this year, with a hint that more will follow since it is described as the ‘first’ run. Follow a link from The Who’s website to that of Caesar’s Palace and you’ll find an advert for the shows that features the same famous ‘windmill’ photo of Pete used to promote the Marquee ‘residency’ that did so much to launch their career around the time ‘I Can’t Explain’ was released. Discounting extended runs in theatres like the New York’s Fillmore East and London’s Rainbow or arenas like Wembley or Madison Square Garden, the Marquee run was the last time to my knowledge that The Who actually played a ‘residency’, this one opening on November 24, 1964, with the first of 22 shows up to April 27, 1965.
Admission to the Marquee shows in those days was five shillings (25p in today’s money) unless you were a member of Kit Lambert’s Hundred Faces gang, in which case you could get in for half that, 2/6d, or half a crown as we used to call it. Tickets for the Las Vegas shows range from $501 to a more modest $76 and ‘are subject to additional service charges and fees’ which sounds a bit sinister, though $1 from each ticket sold will benefit the Teenage Cancer Trust. According to their website, also appearing at Caesar’s Palace this year are Elton John, Rod Stewart, Céline Dion and Mariah Carey, who advertises her shows with an immodest photo-shopped picture of her sprawling damn-near naked on black marble, all of whom are a good deal more suited to the neon-lit capitol of America’s gaming industry than The Who.
Additionally, we are informed on the Caesar’s Palace website that fans of The Who can expect the band to “take them on an ‘Amazing Journey’ through their entire career from the days of The High Numbers to classic albums such as Who’s Next, Tommy, Quadrophenia, My Generation and Live At Leeds to the present day”.
Well, well, well. High Numbers eh? Maybe they’ll have a crack at ‘I’m The Face’ or ‘Zoot Suit’. But that’s a diversion, and whoever wrote that tantalising copy really ought to have listed the albums in the correct order. More to the point: if ever there was a British group of their era that I imagined was the least likely to end up on stage in a Las Vegas cabaret room it was The Who. This group gave me far more pleasure than anyone else back in the day, and I’ve forgiven them a lot over the years – not least continuing after Keith and John, Face Dances and It’s Hard, the Who’s Last album, the endless stream of hits albums, even the Official History book – but this one really is hard to swallow.
I know I’m an old fan dwelling in autumnal nostalgia for how it used to be but it saddens me deeply that the group who more than any other – even (barring Keef) The Rolling Stones – stuck two fingers up at the establishment could wind up in Las Vegas. It saddens me that the group managed by Kit Lambert, whose philosophy was to create a monument to destroy, could end up here. It saddens me that the group led by a guitarist who gleefully smashed his instruments and whose worst nightmare was to play for the same fans night after night could wind up here. It saddens me that the group who wanted to die before they got old, even if they didn’t mean it, could wind up here. It saddens me that the group that once employed Keith Moon on drums – Keith fucking Moon for fuck’s sake – could wind up here. It saddens that the rock’n’roll group whose majestic, breathtaking, dazzling stagecraft, superior to any rock band before or since, could end up here. And it saddens me most of all that this goes against everything they represented, at least for me and, I guess, many more who once saw in The Who not just a truly great rock band but something much deeper, a toppling of the old order, a reaction against it, a new beginning. If, in the days when I was close to Pete, Roger, John and Keith, I had suggested to any of them that a residency in Las Vegas was worth pursuing I would have been subjected to virulent abuse, ex-communication and, at the very least, a custard pie in the face. Humour was an essential part of the package.
I would like to think that Pete took a bit of persuading before he agreed to this. All we can hope is that he does something, anything, to offend someone from his Las Vegas stage, preferably the recently elected occupant of the White House.  
At 9.26 pm last night – nine minutes after the one from The Who – I received another e-mail, this one from an old friend and fellow long-term Who enthusiast not known for tempering his forthright opinions. “Just think, it started with anti-establishment pop art,” he wrote. “Cue the sound of autodestructive vomiting!!!!!”
Not far wrong there, my old mate.


THE ROXY, 14 DECEMBER 1976 – 23 APRIL 1977, OUR STORY by Andrew Czezowski & Susan Carrington

On December 14, 1976, after a brief stint as the first in an endless stream of optimists who tried to manage The Damned, Andrew Czezowski, together with his partner Susan Carrington, opened the Roxy club at 41-43 Neal Street in Covent Garden. “It was a right old dump,” says Susan of the venue that would become the launch pad for punk rock in London. “The toilets were really disgusting too. The funny thing was, I thought, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ I felt such a sense of excitement to think we could bring this sad old place back to life again.”
It was a brave move, punk being derided by just about everyone apart from the punks themselves, and their venture lasted precisely 100 nights, until the following April when it all fell apart in an ugly exchange of opinions with their landlord and sundry other malfunctions that plague all rock clubs regardless of the music they present. Andrew and Susan would go on to open The Fridge in Brixton, a wildly successful club that became world famous, initially for the first wave of New Romantics and then, for far longer and far more significantly, as the cradle of the UK rave scene wherein they originated the concept of the chill-out room. But it was the Roxy that got them started, and it is the Roxy that is celebrated in their book Our Story, published privately by them a few weeks ago and in which your man at Just Backdated has a minor interest in that it was designed by my better half and, since it was sitting on our computer, I took the liberty of advising Andrew on a few legal matters, not that he took a blind bit of notice.
This isn’t surprising for the court summons that is reproduced on page 136 doesn’t seem to have worried him too much either. This is but one of scores of illustrations throughout a 144-page, large format book, essentially a day-by-day oral history of those 100 nights, as told by Andrew & Susan, together with many others, including musicians, who passed through its forbidding black door. Happily, none of them gild the lily, and this lack of rose-tinted nostalgia makes the book not just exceedingly readable but often wryly amusing. Andrew and Susan describe what went on in the Roxy exactly as it happened, and since both kept diaries and never seem to have thrown anything away the refreshing lack of hindsight makes it essential as a historical record.
The matter-of-fact delivery is also rather endearing. Take this entry from Susan’s diary for January 22, 1977: “Four thugs posing as the Drug Squad robbed us and locked us in a cupboard. Luckily we were able to smash through the stud partition office wall and climb into the kitchen. Lost over £200, no money for drinks. The Stranglers and The Cortinas were great.” Or this one, from March 9: “Captain Sensible was as stupid as ever throwing pies. Sid Vicious shoved a quiche Lorraine tart in Billy Idol’s face. A small fracas broke out, heh heh! The whole thing was very pleasant.”
But behind the humour, intentional or not, lies a more profound explanation of why the Roxy was influential, and why the music was perhaps only tangential to its social significance. As the book makes clear, at the Roxy you be who you wanted to be and no one gave a damn. Boys and girls could behave as they liked, dress how they liked, in bin liners if they chose, wear their hair how they liked, pair off with whomsoever they liked, and no one would look askance. It was devoid of politics, a place for outsiders, for those belittled by conventional society, the misfits and the disconnected, where girls could relax without fear of unwanted male attention (or at least give as good as they got), and where boys could escape the relentless pressure to conform to masculine stereotypes. It was liberated in the sense that once the black door closed behind you, the rest of humanity ceased to exist. In keeping with this ethos Susan chopped off her conformist long blonde hair and dyed the spiky stubble that remained reddish brown: the before and after photos of her in the opening pages of Our Story speak a thousand words.
The book contains lots of press cuttings (Sounds magazine really was punk’s in-house journal), correspondence, contracts and flyers, the latter all designed in the familiar DIY cut-and-paste punk style that often featured pictures of the royals for contrastingly shocking effect. There are also plenty of photos, many of them slightly blurred since Andrew and Susan evidently feel that an unseen but off focus shot of a lesser known band is more appropriate, more atmospheric, for their book than a cleaner professional shot of a better known act. They are right. This isn’t intended as a flashy coffee-table book, it’s a record of how it was, unglazed, with all its untidy splendour exposed for all to see. In this respect, the dark grey cover with its overcast photo of Andrew and Susan is perfect.
“I look at the 100 nights of the Roxy as the life span of punk,” says Mick Jones, and if you believe that a street movement has its moment but once it becomes mainstream and commercialised it dies, then he’s right. We are fortunate that Andrew and Susan captured that moment and choose to share it in their book.



I read that the 50th Anniversary Edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, due to be released on June 1, will include ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Someone has decided that since they were originally intended for inclusion, now is the time set matters aright. It never happened because they were issued as the A- and B-sides of a single earlier in 1967 and, in any case, the limited running time available on vinyl meant there wasn’t room. According to the Daily Mirror, back in 1967 fans were ‘furious’ that the two songs were left off Pepper.
Leaving side the wisdom of this decision for a moment, what a load of absolute bollocks. There was no ‘fury’. I don’t even recall anyone being so much as mildly upset. I don’t recall anyone even considering that they might have been on the album. No one ever mentioned it, as my friend Chris Welch, a writer on Melody Maker at the time, confirms. Everyone simply assumed that ‘PL’/’SFF’ was The Beatles’ wonderful new single without any thought given to whether or not the songs might have been intended for an as yet unreleased album about which we knew nothing whatsoever. In any case, The Beatles were in the habit of releasing singles as separate entities to albums, an admirably generous practice long ago abandoned by the mercenary music business.
Newspapers are big on inventing ‘fury’. It’s a short, four-letter word easily absorbed into a headline. These days it’s usually right-wing pro-Brexit rags stoking up angst amongst their readers over delays in leaving the EU, or ‘massive’ benefits ‘handed out’ to those of whom they disapprove, like refugees, the LGBT community, drug casualties or unmarried mothers. It’s not usually the left-leaning Mirror over a Beatles story, but fake news is everywhere these days.
The only ‘fury’ I can see being aroused by this issue is whether or not it’s a good idea in the first place to include ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ on Pepper. No doubt purists will, indeed, be furious, while others, younger fans with no loyalty to tradition, won’t care at all. I belong in the former camp and although I’m not exactly furious, after 50 years it will take a while getting used to a different sequence of songs on Sgt Pepper, and I don’t really want to either. Also, strictly speaking, if the argument for including ‘PL’ and ‘SFF’ is based purely on the fact that they were recorded at the same time as the Pepper tracks, or immediately before, then George’s dreary and forgettable ‘Only A Northern Song’ must also be included, which I’m sure no one wants at all. Finally, with the increasing popularity – and cost – of vinyl, how will they fit all three on to a 12-inch vinyl edition, if there is one?
No new Pepper running order seems to be available, not on The Beatles’ official website anyway, so anything you might read elsewhere is probably speculative. It is the accepted practice to place ‘bonus tracks’ at the end of the original sequence of songs, as we did with all those extra tracks on Who albums back in the nineties (apart from Leeds, of course), but somehow it’ll seem wrong for Pepper to end with anything other than the massive piano chord that concludes ‘A Day In The Life’ (aside from the gibberish). This was why we didn’t mess with the sequencing of Tommy or Quadrophenia – they are unified works, as is Pepper to my mind. Ditto Dark Side Of The Moon for that matter. Remember the fuss the Floyd made when it became known that DSOTM tracks would be available individually on iTunes? 
In the event, of course, ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ were included on the Magical Mystery Tour album, firstly in the US and subsequently in the UK when the original MMT EP was discontinued. This, I believe, is where they ought to stay.


BEATLES ’66 – The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner

“Ed Sheeran,” screams the cover of this months GQ magazine. “How he became the biggest pop star on the planet.” Not while Paul McCartney walks this earth, I thought to myself as I looked into the face of the red-headed troubadour in the newsagents. In Japan in 1966 the authorities were so concerned about Paul’s safety that 35,000 policeman were assigned to protect him and his fellow Beatles. How many would be assigned to protect Sheeran, I wondered as I watched him on last week’s insipid Brit Awards, a show that supposedly featured the cream of British pop but on which pretty much everyone (barring the band 1975) appeared to have been manufactured by committee. Three or four cops at the outside, maybe less.
The number of policemen required to protect a celebrity seems to me to be as good a way as any of estimating how ‘big’ they are, and I would hazard a guess that no pop stars ever have required anywhere near as many as The Beatles between 1964 and 1966. Worldwide the figure might well be double what those cautious Japanese thought necessary; just a shame one wasn’t in the vicinity of New York’s Dakota Building on December 8, 1980.
All of which brings me to Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, a book by Steve Turner that was published last November and landed on my doormat about a week ago. I’d completely forgotten that I’d helped Steve contact Alan Aldridge, the illustrator commissioned by The Beatles to produce artwork for their songs and one of the book's many interviewees, and Steve had sent me a copy as a thank-you. This is how I know that 35,000 Japanese cops were on standby when The Beatles played Tokyo’s Budokan on June 30 that year. His book is full of interesting little facts like this.
It’s not difficult these days to find out what The Beatles were doing on any particular day between 1962 and 1970. Diary-style books that offer accurate day-to-day coverage have been available for some time, but the difference between these and Turner’s book is the background he provides to their activities, the fine details, some trivial but always interesting, and explanations not just of how whatever they did furthered their career but how it furthered the progress of pop and rock in general. The year 1966 saw huge advances in the field, a time when the competition had never been stronger and the seeded runners – Beatles, Stones, Dylan and Beach Boys, now joined by The Kinks, Who and Byrds – were upping the ante every month or so.

Turner homes in on 1966 because he believes it was the key year for The Beatles, and he’s probably right, artistically anyway. It was the year they recorded and released Revolver, now widely regarded as their greatest LP, and when they chose to abandon live work in favour of the studio, an unprecedented decision for pop performers at the time. Perhaps even more importantly, it was the year in which they finally had time to sit back and take stock, to readjust their focus and seek inspiration from outside the cauldron in which they had been stewing since early 1963. Also, in alighting from the roller-coaster of Beatlemania, they would pioneer a different career path for musicians of their ilk, initially a bit of a bumpy ride to be sure but, as Turner points out, one that every single group or solo performer of merit and integrity has trodden ever since.
From January to December Turner shadows The Beatles very closely, in the studio, on tour (his coverage of the ugly Manilla episode is excellent), in the increasingly thoughtful interviews they gave and on their travels, both individually and collectively. He introduces us to the friends they made and explains how this increasingly wide circle of influential people helped them find their way into London’s alternative culture and what this brought to their music. It was the year that Paul discovered modern art (he bought two Magrittes, the canny sod), underground books and music beyond rock and pop, and that George discovered India, its religions and the sitar of Ravi Shankar. Ringo, grounded, was as cheerful as ever but a bit lost and so, in markedly different ways, was John, whose leadership of the group was dissolving amidst his humungous LSD intake and who more than even George was seeking some form of enlightenment beyond the emptiness of fame and what he came to see as the dreary routine of being a Beatle. He would eventually find it in Yoko, whom he encountered for the first time in 1966, but not before the nightmare of having to atone in America for his ‘Jesus’ remark, an episode with repercussions that resonate down the years whenever the words of rock stars are taken out of context by irresponsible newspaper editors. Complex, contrary and prone to laziness, John was reluctantly resigned to accept the responsibility that the Beatles’ fame had thrust upon him but, like the pot of gold at the end of the multi-coloured rainbow he and his three pals had painted in the sky, he soon realised that life at the toppermost of the poppermost wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Turner discusses all of this in an even-handed manner, restraining himself perhaps from suggesting it was all so much better then. Realising that much of his readership is probably too young to have been around at the time, he is at pains to set down the details without appearing condescending, yet for all this the book probably does read like fiction for anyone whose exposure to the history of rock and pop begins and ends with Brits shows like the one last week. Yes, it really was like this in 1966. The Beatles really did need 35,000 cops to protect them. That’s why books like this are written (and need to be written) to sit alongside the other 500 books or more that the adventures of John, Paul, George and Ringo have inspired. We need reminding that Ed Sheeran – the ‘biggest pop star on the planet’, let us not forget – has a very long way to go.



Abuse runs in the family, or so they say. Those ill-treated as children go on to ill-treat as adults and it’s near impossible to break the cycle, all of which means it wasn’t easy being Wilson Pickett. It also makes the job of his biographer that much more taxing, especially if the family are involved, so getting the balance right – the magnificent music against the disagreeable nature of its creator – becomes a delicate responsibility, one not easily resolved. Tony Fletcher, however, has a proven record at dealing with this kind of dilemma. Dear Boy, his masterly biography of Keith Moon, spared few blushes when it came to writing about the Who drummer’s unpleasant side, so he isn’t afraid to tackle Pickett’s character defects either, with the result that In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett is an assured and illuminating book on the great soul singer, perhaps the best of them all in an era when great soul records from labels like Atlantic and Stax arrived with the dependability of Al Jackson’s snare drum.
Most music writers confine themselves to a genre in which they specialise but Fletcher recognises no such boundaries. He opened his account with indie (Echo & The Bunneyman and R.E.M.), slipped back into the mythical golden age (Moon), moved on to punk (The Clash) and even disco (a novel, Hedonism). Then he wrote a history of musical New York and an autobiographical memoir before reverting to type with The Smiths. I must therefore declare an interest: at Omnibus Press I was responsible for publishing the first five of these books and acquiring the UK rights to the sixth, and in the course of all this developed a professional relationship and close friendship with the author. So it follows that I am sympathetic towards his work; then again, in the unlikely event that he’d written a stinker, I’d have said so. 
That said, soul and black music generally isn’t an area where Fletcher has previously shown an interest, at least not in the books he writes. However, I happen to know that he’s the proud owner of a Hammond organ, the keyboard that Booker T used to supply those shimmering chords on Otis Redding’s records, as was his late friend and Face Ian McLagan, Small or otherwise, another soulman to his bones. So I guess it was only a matter of time before Fletcher flexed his marathon-toned muscles in this genre.
As he demonstrated in his history of New York’s musical past, Fletcher likes to dip into the history of America too, and in the opening chapters of In The Midnight Hour we learn about Pickett’s breadline childhood in central Alabama, where families are big and dinner portions small, and about the legacy of slavery that mutated into institutional racism buoyed up by the state legislature and redneck cops. Pickett, a name handed down from a slave owner, was one of 11 children and like the rest of them was expected to work in the cotton fields for a pittance. Fat chance. Wilson was a man of talent and ambition with a chip on his shoulder the size of a baked potato, so woe betide anyone who stands in his way. Then again, it might have been the ‘whuppins’ he received from his ma that drove him on. As Fletcher points outs these were administered regularly for minor infringements, not just as punishment but as a warning not to get uppity with white folks. To say the wrong thing to a white woman, Ma Picket knew, could result in retribution much worse than a sore backside.

May 5, 1966: Wilson Pickett on stage with Jimi Hendrix
at an Atlantic Records party is New York.

Like his hero Sam Cooke, Pickett learned to sing in church and, though untroubled by the jump to secular, ‘Lord have mercy’ would litter his lyrics to the last. From Alabama he moves north, to Detroit where he is recruited into The Falcons (alongside Eddie Floyd), and thence to recording in his own right, often with Bobby Womack whose presence is crucial to this story. Fletcher is especially good at tracing Pickett’s path through the murky waters of the sixties music industry wherein producers, managers and agents are all out for what they can get and to hell with morals or ethics. Everyone knew that his lifetime manager, Jimmy Evans, was mafia. “They do no nonsense management,” Pickett’s brother Maxwell tells Fletcher. “When something needs taking care of, they just take care of it.”
On the road music was a cash industry where being handy with a gun was useful, and Pickett didn’t trust banks. He was wary of record companies too and soon cottoned on to the benefits of music publishing. He wasn’t called Wicked Pickett for nothing and it’s a credit to his ‘meanness’ – in Southern black speak read ‘unyielding’ – that he ends up with a nice house, a Rolls-Royce and the wherewithal to move his mother away from rural Alabama and buy her a home of her own, in cash from the wads of bills he stored in his wardrobe.
All of which makes for a lively and entertaining read. In the acknowledgements Fetcher lists no fewer than 67 interviewees, family members, romantic partners, fellow singers and musical accomplices, be they producers or studio hands, or members of bands that backed him on the road, of which there are dozens. In this respect the attention to detail is top-notch, most of them happy to recall the ways in which Pickett’s records were made and his bravura showmanship. All offer evidence that Pickett was a hard taskmaster but a virtuoso singer blessed not only with an extraordinary vocal talent but a musical brain that could weed out any tiny flaws in a track. So can Fletcher, who examines Pickett’s work in an almost scholarly fashion: ‘Every chord required of the song is announced in the opening two bars and one beat,’ he writes of ‘In The Midnight Hour’, Pickett’s masterpiece, ‘a descending pattern that, like a guitar beginner’s tutorial, follows the dotted marks of the fret-board from a high D major to an open E major…. Trumpets blaze those initial descending chords, on the last of which one of them breaks off to play a root note an octave higher, emphasizing the incoming E major.’ That’s but a sample – Fletcher devotes an entire page to his analysis of the song – and his assessments of other Pickett classics – ‘634-5789’, ‘Land Of 1,000 Dances’ and ‘Mustang Sally’ among them – are equally incisive. I particularly enjoyed the passage about the recording of ‘Hey Jude’, recorded in one take with Duane Allman on guitar, ‘the two locked into a musical communication that took on a life of its own’.
Pickett’s unpleasant side is never far away, however. He is perpetually violent towards the women in his life, perhaps a legacy of his upbringing but still inexcusable, unnecessarily aggressive when he drinks too much and more or less addicted to cocaine, which serves only to exacerbate his temper and his tantrums; the cliché ‘his own worst enemy’ is a common refrain. The eighties and nineties weren’t particularly kind to Pickett or any of his fellow soul men and when his career takes a dive after leaving Atlantic for RCA, there to succumb to the lure of inappropriate disco music, and thence to recording limbo, the wheels really start to come off. He winds up in jail, twice, on a variety of charges – assault, driving under the influence, firearms, drugs. “His life was chaotic,” producer Robert Margouleff tells Fletcher. “He was an alcoholic… not in control. That’s the reason he didn’t make records for years.” Other witnesses say much the same thing but almost all make the point that throughout it all he maintained his musical standards. “[Despite it all] he never really sang badly, and he never really sang out of tune,” adds Margouleff.
Pickett’s strong work ethic prevents him from going broke, and although salvation of sorts was offered by his impressive 1999 album It’s Harder Now, Pickett was unwilling to promote it, preferring instead to rely on the steady income accrued from cabaret-style shows staged to exploit his ‘legendary’ status, many of them in casinos. Sooner or later, though, even this proves too much and, his body devastated by drink, he finally comes off the road. In the end he collapses at home, alone, to be found three days later, only to die shortly afterwards in hospital, aged 64, from a heart attack brought on by a raft of health problems. There’s an unseemly squabble over his assets but Fletcher ends his book on a high, recounting how the pastor at his funeral service, a ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ devotee, ‘had the whole church chanting a joyous last hurrah: Na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na’, and how a week later Pickett was honoured at the Grammys in Los Angeles. “This is for the Wicked Pickett,” roared Bruce Springsteen as an all-star band broke out into a glorious ‘In The Midnight Hour’. ‘He was doing so not just on behalf of the musicians on stage, but on behalf of every soul fan who had ever been touched by one of the greatest voices and, yes, one of the most volatile personalities of the last fifty years,’ concludes Fletcher.
One of the greatest songs too, he might have added.


REVOLUTION? RECORDS & REBELS 1966-1970 - The Victoria & Albert Museum.

If they don’t already know it, Who fans will be delighted to learn that their heroes are well represented in Revolution? Records & Rebels 1966-1970, an exhibition at the V&A Museum that opened in September and is showing until February 26. The only act with a higher profile is The Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd having largely opted out, probably because they had their own exhibitions running around the same time this opened.      
I’d been meaning to check this out for a while and it wasn’t until earlier this week, when I had three hours to spare in the middle of an afternoon, that I headed over to South Ken, paid my £15 (£1 off for OAPs!), and joined a queue of folk whose ages ranged from teens to older than myself. I also opted to wear the headset as I walked round, and was pleasantly surprised that the opening track was ‘Magic Bus’ from Leeds. Much more Who would follow.
In many ways the exhibits are similar in approach to those at the hugely successful David Bowie Is exhibition a few years ago: lots of LP covers, clothing, handwritten lyrics, books, magazines, posters, musical instruments and miscellaneous memorabilia. In fact there are hundreds of LP covers to be seen as you wander from room to room, all of them evidently on loan from the collection of John Peel whose taste, as is well known, was beyond reproach. Peelie, you’ll be pleased to learn, was a methodical man and almost all his LP covers have a small handwritten four or five-digit number on a small label in the top left hand corner, no doubt signifying which shelf they belong on. In the days when I had a lot of vinyl, albeit a fraction of Peelie’s collection of course, mine had a letter in the same place, A for Abba, B for Beatles, C for Clapton etc. Peelie’s method was far superior.
But I digress. The most valuable artefacts in this exhibition are no doubt the handwritten Beatle lyrics on loan from The British Library, among them ‘Help’ by John and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ by Paul, and clothing worn by the Fabs including one of John’s early on-stage dark suits, John and George’s Sgt Pepper outfits and a couple of lovely embroidered velvet jackets worn by George and Ringo. There’s also Yoko’s white step-ladder upon which John climbed to peer through a magnifying glass at the word ‘Yes’ on the ceiling of the Indica Gallery, thus triggering the romance of the decade and, some would have you believe, the slow and painful break up of the group he founded.

It was twenty years ago today..

Regardless of the carping of history academics, it is right and proper that The Beatles should dominate the exhibition in this way, or at least the musical side of it, but there’s much more to it than music, to which I shall return later. In the first room we have a wall dedicated to the Profumo Affair, the sex scandal that in 1964 helped bring down Harold Macmillan’s complacent Tory government, and then it’s on to Carnaby Street, photography (Bailey & Peers) and Blow Up, sex (gay issues and the pill), feminism, drugs, Stones bust, dissent, the Oz trial, black power, anti-Vietnam War demos, the King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, early computers, space travel and probably more besides because there’s an awful lot to take in and as it was fairly crowded I wasn’t able to see everything or, indeed, spend as much time there as I would have liked. Visitors are advised to allot a minimum of two hours, preferably three if they want to absorb the lot.
There are a few eye-openers, the most profound for me the caption for a simple Barclaycard in a glass case which informs that until 1973 women weren’t permitted to have them ‘in their own right’. And all the while as I wandered around appropriate rock music (including a bit more Who) was playing in my headset, intercut from time to time with spoken words, changing automatically from room to room and a bit of a jumble really. By about half way round I took it off to concentrate better. I’d heard it all before anyway.
In some respects the design of the exhibition as it progresses mirrors the changing times, though I’m not certain this was deliberate. The earlier rooms are fun, brightly lit and colourful, the later rooms (with one exception) less so, dour and gloomy. As I remember it (and I know that if you remember it, you’re not supposed to have been there), the middle of the decade was, indeed, fun, mind-expanding, awash with possibility, all you needed was love and the hope that this might bring about permanent change. Then it turned sour, the dream was over, as John said, and the blue meanies, horrified that their power was diminishing, reasserted control, so away went the fun. ‘Four dead in Ohio,’ sang CSN&Y and the room devoted to this aspect of the sixties is grim and foreboding, as it should be, more stridently affecting than any other room in the exhibition and a bit of a comedown after Mary Quant’s technicoloured mini-dresses. 
The exception is the penultimate room, the largest of the lot, on which extracts from the Woodstock film are beamed on to a huge triptych wall beneath which sits Keith Moon’s double-bass drum ‘Pictures Of Lily’ kit, some of it anyway, to the right of which is a busted Gibson, presumably Pete’s, and Roger’s suede coat with the tassels that he wore on stage in those days. Headset back on, I watched and listened to the extracts: Country Joe, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane and Sly Stone before The Who’s extended ‘My Generation’, after which Pete disdainfully lobs his guitar into the crowd. It ends, as it should, with Jimi playing ‘Star Spangled Banner’. All around me visitors sat on cushions on the floor to watch, creating that homely hippie vibe that I remember from the first Virgin record shop at the eastern end of Oxford Street. Then it was on to the final exhibit in the final room: John singing ‘Imagine’, a bit of a Pollyanna cliché really. 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' would have been more my choice.

Roger's outfit, centre

So I came away with the thought that the only permanent memorial of the swinging decade really is the music, unless you count credit cards being available to both sexes. Successive governments of a right-wing bent have done their best to negate the social progress that sixties idealists sought to establish, some gains here, some losses there as our topsy-turvy world stumbles through the second decade of the 21st Century in the sinister shadow of Trump.
On the way out there was a book to sign with a space for comments. “Born 1947. We tried,” I wrote after my name.



Those of you who have followed my posts about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will be pleased to learn that as a voter I have, as ever, been invited to the Induction Dinner at the Barclays Center in New York on April 2, 2017. The 2017 Inductees are Joan Baez, ELO, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes, only one of whom – Yes – I voted for. Chic have been ignored again, though Nile Rodgers is to be given a separate Award For Musical Excellence, and Kraftwerk, too, have been given the thumbs down, probably because no one is quite sure who Kraftwerk is these days, apart from Ralf Hutter who runs the franchise and recruits ‘touring members’ for shows, and who probably isn’t on the other three members of the ‘classic’ line-up’s Christmas Card lists.
Anyway, nice to see Yes making it at last, and what a shame that Chris Squire – the only member of this multi-personnel ensemble to have played with every edition of the group – won’t be on the podium. Of the rest, ELO, Journey and Pearl Jam were never really my cup of tea, I’m not big on rap and I always thought Joan was a folk singer. Lovely voice, mind.
However, I shall not be attending the event. This is not a protest against my votes being ignored (and again I shouted loudly but in vain for Richard Thompson) but because the cheapest ticket is $3,000, the most expensive (Chairman’s Sponsor) $100,000 which gets you and nine friends into the rehearsal, a pre-event dinner with inductees and a few more bells and whistles.
Finally, I’m probably not alone in thinking that as the years go by the calibre of names put forward for induction becomes less and less distinguished. Unlike awards that are presented on the strength of records released during the previous 12 months (of which there are far too many, but that’s a separate issue), entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is judged on a career’s worth of work that is deemed to have sufficient merit to warrant it. Six seems to be the minimum number of nominees inducted each year (and sometimes it’s more), so it is logical that the benchmark will gradually decline. Since artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record, it is a terrifying thought to realise that in four years time The Spice Girls will become eligible.



Odd how four words can make you well up. ‘The applause was deafening,’ writes Sylvie Simmons at the start of chapter 18 of I’m Your Man, her acclaimed biography of Leonard Cohen that I have only just got around to reading. It follows a chapter that describes in horrific detail how Cohen was fleeced of over $10 million by a deceitful manager and another in which, in order to shore up his crumbling finances, he is obliged after five years away from the spotlight to tour again, albeit very reluctantly and only after months of preparation in which he seriously believes no one cares any more. So, when after all this we read that at the first show on the tour, in the Canadian backwater of Fredericton, ‘the applause was deafening’, it becomes an affirmation that right will win out in the end and that this great artist, writer, poet, musician, songwriter and singer was as missed in his absence as he is adored in his presence.
The absence occurred because Cohen opted to spend his time in a Californian monastic retreat, dressing in monks’ robes, eating frugally, rising at 4am to observe ritual chanting in the lotus position and generally devoting his life to acquiring divine knowledge at the feet of his spiritual master Jushu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen master of the Rinzai school of Buddhism – ‘hardcore’, as Simmons puts it. This might seem unusual for someone who through no fault of his own was often lazily categorised as a ‘rock star’ but then again, as this book confirms, Cohen was much more besides. Also, in view of his much reported fondness for beautiful women – and them for him – it comes as something of a relief to discover that celibacy was not part of the pact, and that there occurred the odd tryst with a friendly nun in the front seat of his jeep parked nearby.
Such levity notwithstanding, this is a serious book, beautifully written, the definitive work on Cohen, and for the writing of it Cohen gave Simmons his full support and asked for nothing in return, not even to read her manuscript. This also explains why her research was facilitated by interviews with many musicians and producers who had worked with Cohen, friends and fellow poets going back to his home town of Montreal, not to mention the many women in Cohen’s life, all of whom seem to adore him still and look back warmly on their relationships with him as immensely valuable experiences.
Completed in 2012 and not yet updated to take into account Cohen’s death last year, I’m Your Man makes clear that music was by no means Cohen’s first career choice. Prior to signing with Columbia in 1967, he was through his novels and poetry already a distinguished man of letters in his native Canada, and by this time he’d reached the age of 33, positively ancient by recording industry standards. Also, despite an appetite for recreational drugs and good wine, he wasn’t the sort to fit into the déclassé world of rock. He was dapper, erudite, modest, a man of culture who invariably dressed in dark suits, a legacy from his family’s prosperous clothing business. (‘Darling,’ he tells Simmons, ‘I was born in a suit.’) It is not therefore until we reach page 161 (out of 499, excluding back matter) that we find Cohen in the recording studio attempting to record ‘Suzanne’, his most famous song until ‘Hallelujah’ slaughtered all before it rather late in the day.
By this time Simmons has painted a picture of Cohen as assuredly his own man insofar as life decisions are concerned. He is a seeker, a voracious reader, curious about religions, restless, often on the move – the descriptions of life on Hydra are as delightful as the Aegean island itself, as are passages about less well known visits to Mumbai – rarely looking back, unconcerned with material possessions or accumulating wealth, though the success of his music would eventually make him rich. Also, he’s a reluctant performer, largely due to stage fright, but when the occasion arises – as at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival – he rises to it, wondrously. At two in the morning, high but serene on Mandrax, Cohen asks the huge but restless crowd to light matches – perhaps the very first manifestation of this now ubiquitous concert practice – which they did. ‘It was magical,’ producer Bob Johnson, watching from the side of the stage, tells Simmons. ‘From the first moment to the last. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was just remarkable.’
Cohen was never prolific. His record label grew used to long waits between albums, though in the USA Columbia seemed not to care because – extraordinarily – it wasn’t until very late in his career that American audiences wised up to him. Latterly, of course, he was welcomed everywhere, especially in Europe where he’d always enjoyed massive admiration. The ‘Awards And Honours’ listing in the index extends to 28 lines in the tiniest type, the longest I’ve ever seen in a music biog. The concerts he performed following the management swindle were amongst the most over subscribed ever, everywhere, again and again, and in London he was able to fill the O2, not that he enjoyed it much. Intimacy was Cohen’s game, but this wonderful lap of honour makes the prefect climax to Simmons’ book, a fairy-tale ending she delights in telling.
This book has already been praised to the hilt by numerous reviewers, and deservedly so, and I came to it late. As Cohen’s most authoritative biographer Sylvie Simmons found herself called upon last year to talk endlessly and with a heavy heart about a man whose death she would have mourned more sorrowfully than most. She discovered him in 1968 as a teenager on the cut-price sampler The Rock Machine Turns You On, where Cohen’s ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ shared vinyl space with 14 other Columbia acts, of which only Bob Dylan and Paul Simon can be said to rival him. For a biographer, that’s the kind of credential that makes for a great read and Simmons doesn’t disappoint.