Sunday, 20 May 2012

Desert Island Discs

So - for anyone out there in internet land who isn't aware there's been a programme on BBC radio since 1942 in which people of note are asked, "if cast away on a desert island, which 8 gramophone records would you take?" It's traditional to put at least one classical piece in, lest the audience think you shallow, and participants also choose a book (other than the Complete Works of Shakespeare & The Bible, which are already provided) and a luxury item.

So I was pondering in the car the other day what my choices might be, were I ever important enough to be invited on. Here goes....

1. Yellow Submarine by the Beatles It all starts here really. Being from a Beatle-y household, I must have been tiny when I first heard this, and I have a memory of sitting on the spare bed of my parent's house aged 3 or 4 strumming the strings of my Dad's guitar while he made the chord shapes to produce the song. Perhaps that's why the music bug got me.

2. Help Me, By Sonny Boy Williamson (II) The secondary school I attended only catered for students up to 16, so after sitting my GCSEs I had to choose where I would go to continue my education. On the strength of a friendly seeming History department and a good show at the open day I opted for the local catholic school, which I soon realised was a mistake. I kicked against the strongly disciplined approach of the place, grew my hair, and found myself more interested in music than in lessons, especially those on maths. A subject which seemed to dramatically change from learning a series of rules that made neat logical sense and I could easily apply in exams without having to put a tremendous amount of work in, to a barrage of wildly complex equations involving sine and cosine functions that appeared to have no penetrable links with either the real world, or any of the mathematics I had learned in my education up to this point.

The consequence of this was that I tended to spend my free study periods noodling on pianos in the music department practice spaces, and getting ejected for taking up space intended to be used by those with actual music lessons on their timetable. So, it was in a somewhat adversarial mood with the school management that I elected to put myself in for their 'young musician of the year' competition. Help Me was the piece I chose to perform. I turned up for the first round, mouth organ in hand, expecting to play, hopefully make my point that there were students in the school who just didn't like Bach, but still enjoyed playing music and go home. "What's a harmonica?" I overheard a 13 year old with a grade 6 in clarinet asking her friends in the general hubbub as I entered the room. I blasted a few notes and announced, triumphant, and as cool as an acne-ridden 17 year old blues obsessive who plays the harmonica can possibly muster "that's a harmonica!". Musical Establishment - 1. Yours Truly - Nil.

To my surprise, the judges were local music professionals external to the school, and the appointed accompanist had understood the 'sheet music' I had generated by feeding a midi file of the track into a piece of software and printing out the result. So I found myself in the woodwind final. And then in the actual final, wearing a bow-tie and a dinner jacket that didn't fit, nervous as hell, in front of a hall full of people and up against students with grade 8 in more than one instrument. A self taught harmonica player, who when asked to submit the sheet music I would be playing had to hand over pages with harp tab hastily scribbled out in pencil underneath, because I couldn't actually read it. And then I was given strict instructions to walk out, bow and then play, bow and walk out again. And I forgot to bow, either before or after. And to my amazement when they announced the last four I was still in, much to the disappointment of several of the more able musicians who had been overlooked. So I played again. And forgot to bow again. And when they announced the results I didn't really mind that I was the only one from the last four not to get a prize, or that when I tried to shake the hand of the winner she turned her back on me, because I got a standing ovation and no-one else did. And I suppose having entered just to make a point I realised that playing what I love, as well as I could was enough to win a crowd.

3. Katy, by Kelly Joe Phelps This is something of an arbitrary choice, as really I want the whole Shine Eyed Mr Zen album. I bought it when I was living in Australia, and it blew me away to hear solo acoustic guitar that could easily outmatch any of the fast electric blues guitarists I was listening to at the time for expression & complexity. I also loved the way it held blues songs that didn't follow the obvious structures and had weird free association lyrics, and yet still sounded like blues. It played in my flat in Sydney and in my caravan when I moved to a fruit farm to work. I had it on headphones to block out the sound of a couple making love on the bunk below me in a hostel in Coff’s Harbour and in Singapore as I lay in the sweltering heat unable to break the timelock on the air-conditioning. It played when I was at University, trying to impress the girl that's now my wife.

Over the years this album has grown and grown on me, and become a comfort blanket for me at my lowest moments. Last year when my father in law died, after the sorting flights, and the funeral, and the laying his ashes to rest, and the being there for my wife, and the being there for her family, when I was finally home and off duty, I put this record on, turned it up, drank four beers and made the richest creamiest cheesiest pasta dish I could think of and felt better.

4. Friend of the Devil, by The Grateful Dead Whilst the two Dead country albums aren't exactly characteristic of their work this is a songwriting triumph. My Grateful Dead phase coincided with the early days of my relationship with my wife, and this reminds us of carefree days spent together when we should really have been studying, shooting around in an old camper to look at castles. Later when I started playing with home recording my sister and I recorded it together and it seems to have become a staple of her set...

5. Shake em On down, by R.L. Burnside Another cheat because really I want the whole 'Burnside on Burnside' album. I've covered this ground elsewhere but R.L. is my all time hero, and this is my all time favourite performance of his. I cover this song most gigs, along with 'Skinny Woman', and it never gets old for me.

6. Knocking on Heaven's Door by Bob Dylan It's easy to miss, with it being so widely and often badly covered, but the original Dylan version of this from the Pat Garret & Billy The Kid soundtrack is a near perfect record. There's just nothing you could add or take away to make it better. The graceful harmonies on the 'Ooooh-Oooohs' on the build in. Dylan's acoustic guitar in one channel and a twangy electric in the other perfectly complementing each other. The bass driving the song with the ever so simple tick-tock drum beat taking a back seat all just works so darn well together whilst complementing the strangely non-specific lyrics to evoke the melancholy of the gun slinger who knows his days are numbered.

7. I Feel Like Funkin' It Up by The Rebirth Brass Band I couldn't tell you what made me take up piano, harmonica, ukulele or kazoo. But I can pinpoint my desire to own a trombone to the first time I heard this song on the TV show Treme.

8. When the Lights Go Out by the Black Keys I kind of felt I had to have some Black Keys on the list. Around the time I gave up on piano and picked up a guitar I first heard this and it, along with some of the White Stripes better moments, convinced me you could still music heavily rooted in the blues I loved and sound fresh and contemporary and up to the minute.

Book - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams I'd love to put something deep and highbrow here, and indeed Orwell and Vonnegut are favourite authors of mine as well, but there's really only one book I'm sure I could read as many times as you would when stuck on a desert island and not be sick of and it's this one. I've read it a dozen times and still love it, and I suspect I could read it a dozen more and still find jokes I'd missed every time.

Luxury - a guitar (& slide!) Although until fairly recently I might have said harmonica, there's nothing that could entertain me for the endless days that being a castaway might entail like a bit of guitar practice. If nothing else I'd have the eight songs mentioned here down pat by the time I was rescued.....

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