TNAG Notes: Brexit Edition by Stephen Bennett
Et oui! Coming to you from darkest France, home of nice bread, cheese that tastes of cheese and, most important…cheap wine. Sadly, it is also the lair of the dreaded Johnny Foreigner and so must be shunned by all Les Right-thinking (no pun intended) Rosbifs. Did we mention the cheap wine? Anyway…where were we? Guitars. Ah, yes. So (for now) allons-y. Etcetera.
IN OUR TRIBE (10,000 Maniacs - and Counting)
A significant slice of our love for the guitar is derived not from its sound, its look or even the intimate act of playing - but from the lore, the mystique that we attach to this simple-yet-sublime master-stroke of wood and wire construction. We all love a good story, be it comic or tragic, especially when it helps mythologise a world we’ve invested in both spiritually and materially, so, where facts are concerned, we’d arguably rather side with the reporter from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and agree that it’s always better to “print the legend”.
For guitarists, the tunes, the songs, the solos ARE the legend. The facts are often inconvenient to the point of getting in the way of our enjoyment. Just consider how readily we romanticise the notion of dying young in terms of cementing an artist’s reputation. Here are just a few of the usual suspects; Buddy Holly, who was only 22, Eddie Cochran even younger at 21. Jimi Hendrix? 27. Charlie Christian was 25. Stevie Ray Vaughan knocking on a bit at 35. And so on. They’d probably all have taken a mundane slide into MOR old age rather than all the posthumous eulogies and, let’s be honest, in reality most of them died either from rank bad luck or a questionable regard for their own personal well-being. Romantic? Hardly.
But let’s have some stories, instead! How about Robert Johnson, waiting at midnight for the soul-selling crossroads encounter that would make him the ‘ne plus ultra’ of Delta bluesmen? Yeah, right. Mind you, that’s a lot more glamorous (and quick) than telling the fans he took a couple of years off so he could get some much-needed practice in. Similarly, we have the tragic tale of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who died ‘mid-set’, ninety years ago, on a Chicago street-corner in the middle of a snowstorm, his left hand frozen around the neck of his guitar. Or not. Jefferson almost certainly died of heart-failure - and may even have been hit by a car – but the legend is a perfect blues lament in itself so we’ll stick with that, thank you. Then there’s Hank Williams, who died - a mess at 29, thanks to booze and morphine - on the back seat of his touring limo. It must’ve been a pretty grim night for old (sorry, young) Hank but, hey, we still have the tunes.
Of those heroes fortunate enough to stick around a bit longer, it’s easier to ignore the fact that Django, for example, was reputedly a pain in the backside to work with or that John Martyn, one of our most sensitive acoustic troubadours, has been politely described as “hard work”, even on a good day. No, give us a B.B. King, every time. Who could resist the story of Lucille, the great man’s beloved Gibson 345 – or was it 355 (he may have been unfaithful over the years) – being saved from the conflagration that burned down the blues club in Twist, Arkansas. Even the name of the town sounds like it’s made up. Now that’s a proper story.
We could argue that the music stands by itself and, most often, it does, but a bit of icing on the contextual cake certainly does no harm. Is our experience of the work of Van Gogh enhanced by some knowledge of his personal struggles? Maybe. Deeper insight inevitably allows for enhanced appreciation. Can we ever separate the art from the artist? Picasso was a bit of a git, apparently - Mozart and Miles Davis likewise - so maybe we can. But as with the case of the aforementioned Robert Johnson, who eventually died, unromantically and in agony (also aged 27) after drinking strychnine-laced whisky, we only pick the stories we want to keep.
So, with that in mind, here’s one…
Eddie Cochran. Born, 1938, in Albert Lea, Minnesota – which is already a joke, if only for guitar geeks - and as previously mentioned, dead at 21. Seems incredible now, especially when we consider our own ‘formative years’. Most of us still hadn’t figured out how to consume even minor quantities of alcohol without being sick on each other. Eddie, on the other hand, was a solid-gold hit machine who’d already, at the age of 18, featured alongside Jayne Mansfield in “The Girl Can’t Help It”. Four years later, 1960, after recording a string of classics including, “Twenty Flight Rock” and the immortal, “Summertime Blues” he was pronounced dead at St. Martin’s Hospital in Bath after a car crash that injured his songwriter fiancée, Sharon Sheeley, and nearly killed his rockabilly-tour-support mate, Gene Vincent (himself another ‘early leaver’).
Cochran’s iconic status was thus set in stone. Punks loved him. The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols all covered his songs. “Twenty Flight Rock”, initially launched via the Mansfield film as a spoof on the supposed lack of talent needed to make it as a rocker in the 50s, was the song that won Paul McCartney a place in John Lennon’s new band, The Quarrymen.
All part of the Cochran legend, then, but for guitar players, there’s more. Eddie played a modified Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Western. It was impounded along with other tour gear for a short time, after the crash, by Wiltshire police. But rather than have it just hanging round the nick doing nothing, and with Bath hardly renowned as a seething cauldron of criminality, an enterprising young copper named David Harman decided to teach himself a few chords between arrests. He then put them to good use elsewhere, changing his surname to Dee and recruiting fellow pop-wannabees, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
Dave wasn’t the only day-dreaming kid to lay hands on the magical Cochran Gretsch. A few weeks earlier, a 13-year-old autograph-hunter outside the Hackney Empire persuaded Eddie to let him carry the same guitar out to a waiting limousine. The kid had even changed his name to Cochran in order to sound cool fronting his new band, The Earwigs. Fortunately, they didn’t last long. But while the young rocker wasn’t to be deterred, he still wasn’t happy with his given name. And so Marc Feld became Marc Bolan. He died young, as well. In a car crash.
So, there we go. We could argue that all these stories, legends and anecdotes bring with them a powerful sense of communal identity. We become, through sharing them, part of that mythical world; part of a tribe – and that makes us different. Maybe even interesting.
AND FINALLY…YOUR (THEMED!) FORTNIGHTLY FAB FIVE!
“Say it ain’t so, George/Sacha/Chuck/Jeff and possibly Glen.” Or…great guitar players who’ve smothered themselves in legacy-scuppering syrup. Not all of them recovered.
- The live album, “Weekend in L.A.” is one of the great guitar albums. We brook no argument. It finds George Benson at the height of his powers and the cusp of his transformation from straight-ahead jazzer to somewhat saccherine soul-machine. Yes, there’s the singing but mostly it’s about the playing; fluid, melodic, joyous, occasionally showy, yes, but nonetheless, pure class from start to finish. And possibly the best advert Ibanez ever had.
- Apart from writing “The Good Life” (for which he can be forgiven almost anything), swoon-some Housewife’s Choice, Sacha Distel, was also a pretty nifty guitarist. By the age of 20 he was lauded as the best in France, particularly in the Manouche style, and watching him set about his hero Django Reinhardt’s signature, ‘Nuages’, on YouTube (where, after a tentative start, he launches into a rich and rippling solo) thoughts of his arch, ‘haw-hee-haw’ vocal-style all but fade away. Sadly, those same thoughts never vanish completely.
- “My Ding-a-Ling”. The title alone brings on deep depression at the thought of (arguably) rock’n’roll’s greatest folk-poet demeaning himself for a few quid and even fewer cheap sniggers. Possibly the worst aberration in rock history. Listen to “Maybelline”, “You Never Can Tell” or any of a hundred other historic guitar landmarks, to celebrate the cantankerous old goat as he should, forever, be heard.
- Fortunately, a one-off. And it was 51 years ago. Also, has there ever been a finer practitioner of the specialised fine art of the electric guitar than Jeff Beck? Surely there’s never been a player whose sheer control of the instrument’s sonic capabilities surpasses that of the man who’d rather tinker under a car bonnet than join the Stones or Led Zeppelin. Allegedly. Yet even the maestro himself is given to cringe at the mention of his lowest musical ebb, “Hi Ho, Silver Lining”. Still, get those arms in the air, regardless. No wedding-night would be complete…
- A controversial one, this. Glen Campbell never really made any truly rubbish records – he wasn’t capable. The magnificent voice and an innate good taste, not to mention teaming up with Jimmy Webb, probably accounts for that. Yet there’s a hell of a lot of filler between the gems. It’s probably only in his many TV appearances that the always likeable, eager to please Campbell demonstrates his six-string mastery to the full. And boy, could he play.
À la prochaine (as they say round here). Have we left, yet?
by Stephen Bennett