River Man

river man

Cormorant fishing on the Li river, Guilin province, China.

I don’t have much to say about this Track of the Week. So, instead, here’s a silly little ditty about the Chinese fisherman’s friend, the cormorant.

The common cormorant, or shag,
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
Is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have failed to notice is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

[A Crotchety memory from Verse and Worse.]

It’s unlikely that Nick Drake was thinking of the cormorant fishermen of China and Japan when he wrote River Man, although quite what was in his mind isn’t entirely clear. My personal interpretation is that Nick was feeling stifled by the mores and conventions of the middle-class society in which he was brought up. He envied the river that flowed by, unconstrained by the invisible shackles that bind individuals into a stable, coherent society. As the song puts it:

Going to see the river man
Going to tell him all I can
About the ban
On feeling free.

Perhaps the river is wiser than he. Perhaps the river has the key to his metaphorical ankle-irons. Perhaps if he immerses himself in the river’s swirling thoughts it can set him free.

The lyrics given with this YouTube video are credited to Emily Dickinson and Nick Drake. But the great god Google can find no connection between the American 19th century poet and the English singer-songwriter. There are some curious similarities, though. Both withdrew from public life, becoming semi-detached even from their family and friends. There’s a certain similarity, too, in the major themes of their work: death and mortality in Dickinson’s poetry; dark, autumnal overtones in Drake’s songs. Was River Man influenced by Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Perhaps, but I can find no evidence to support that suggestion.

River Man is from Nick Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, released in 1969. It was a time when Nick and his record company were expecting considerable commercial success. The song is dusky in tone, but far from gloomy – like dark molten chocolate rather than the looming shadow of sorrow and loss. Nick’s precise guitar playing and warm voice are complemented by Danny Thompson’s resonant double bass and backed by a silky string section. This is a song that is searching for an answer to one of life’s troubles and fully expects to find it.

Unfortunately for Nick neither that first album nor his next two, Bryter Layter (1971) and Pink Moon (1972), sold well. The lack of sales contributed to a developing depression and in 1974, at the age of 26, Drake took an overdose of anti-depressant pills. The coroner concluded that he committed suicide although Nick’s producer, Joe Boyd, prefers to think he was trying to recapture his earlier optimism and “making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death”.

nick drake

There were no fond retrospectives of Nick Drake’s music immediately after his death but in 1979 a new box set, Fruit Tree, was released and an appreciation of his songwriting talent gradually grew through the 80’s. Although undoubtedly under-appreciated in his lifetime Nick Drake’s influence has turned out to be, like a great river, deep and widespread. For those of us fishing for good music his River Man is as fine a catch as you could hope to land – with or without the help of a cormorant or two.

Radical Action …

iMonkey

The Buddha described the way our thoughts constantly nudge and jostle us as like a troop of drunken monkeys swinging from branch to branch. As each chattering simian swoops by its toothy grin mocks us for our failings. Behind us, it says, lie broken dreams, ahead of us endless trials and tribulations. And, as one screeching monkey tumbles away, another zooms in to harangue us. Again and again.

This incessant stream of worrisome thoughts is known as the monkey mind. Buddhists and a thousand mindfulness sites say the mind monkeys can be tamed by meditation. But, in these more modern times, the long-limbed creatures of the jungle have left their natural habitat and taken to social media. “Like me”, says one. “Hurry! Buy this, now”, shouts another. “That man is a monster!!”, shrieks a third.

How can we cope with texting doomsayers in the virtual jungle of Facebook and Twitter? How can we sift fact from fiction? Is meditation the answer or does it require more radical action? King Crimson‘s latest album suggests the latter. Its full title is Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind and it provides one of the most effective escapes from life’s troubles that I know.

CD case

Radical Action is a three-volume album of live performances, mostly recorded in Japan at the end of 2015. It was released as a Blu-Ray boxed set in 2016 and on CDs in late 2017. The songs are drawn mainly from the seventies, with some nineties material, too. That skews the selection towards some of Crotchety Man’s long cherished KC tracks and gives us some excellent recordings of their early compositions. I still remember hearing Epitaph at the Hyde Park concert in 1969, for example, and the version on Radical Action recreates the thrill of that performance better, I think, than the one on their famous first album, In the Court of the Crimson King.

There’s no point taking you through the track list, suffice it to say that this album contains songs from several KC incarnations arranged for the current seven-headed, three drum kit beast. It’s missing some of the short, too-complex-to-be-pop songs like Elephant Talk and Dinosaur but it covers the very early years well (21st Century Schizoid Man, Sailor’s Tale, Lark’s Tongues in Aspic) and the later Vrooom and ProjeKcts periods more sparsely. Here’s the official taster video.

Radical Action is one of those hitherto rare, but now increasingly common, examples of an album that captures the excitement of a live show without sacrificing audio quality or introducing the irritating distraction of noises off. And for long time King Crimson fans hearing their old tunes with the benefit of up-to-date 21st Century recording technology is a treat not to be missed. To quote Sean Westergaard in his review for AllMusic:

Rarely has a band that’s been around for 45-plus years sounded so vital.
This is essential for fans.

Next time you find yourself unable to think because your mind is full of the sound of chattering monkeys, and when meditation has failed to bring you peace, take Radical Action. Take the full course if you can and if you haven’t been completely cured after the powerful medicine of Epitaph and Starless in the third treatment session, well, I’m a monkey’s uncle and I’ll be driving you mad with my incessant bickering.

7 heads

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The Weaver’s Answer

bayeux tapestryLast week we had an Audience with a House on the Hill. They told us a story that asked where in life’s rich tapestry we belong. So, this week, it seems entirely appropriate that we look for some answers. And where better to find them than in the studio of those master weavers of sonic and lyrical threads, Family.

Family came into existence in 1966 when line-up changes in an R&B band called The Farinas¹ resulted in a change of direction towards psychedelic rock, with folk and prog rock influences. The name change was suggested by an American record producer because, at the time, they wore double breasted suits on stage making them look like a contingent of the mafia. The dress code was soon abandoned but the name stuck.

There are quite a few similarities between Audience and Family. So much so that Crotchety Man often confuses the two. Most strikingly, Roger Chapman’s singing for Family has been described as “bleating vibrato”, a phrase that perfectly describes Howard Werth’s vocals on Audience tracks. Add to that the fact that Family, like Audience, made full use of their multi-instrumentalists to craft a pleasing patchwork of sounds (Jim King contributed saxophones, harmonica and piano; Ric Grech bass, violin and cello) and you can begin to see how easily one’s thoughts can become tangled.

family

Family ca. 1970

As a band, Family was relatively short-lived, but between 1966 and 1973 they wrote and recorded many highly original songs. There were something like a dozen candidates for Track of the Week this time², but the one that always sticks in my memory is The Weaver’s Answer.

It starts gently with an acoustic guitar and violin introduction, the opening words falling on the ears like a poetic spell:

Weaver of life, let me look and see
The pattern of my life gone by
Shown on your tapestry.

An old man is reflecting on his life. It rolls by in his mind’s eye, unfurling like the Bayeux tapestry, telling a story. Not a story of war and invasion but of love and marriage, of his children growing up, of exquisite joys and the bitter tragedy of losing his wife.

There is a pause filled with a saxophone echoing both the good times and the bad.

When the tale resumes we find the old man now is blind and lonely. Though he can hear their laughter he can not see his grandchildren. His only comfort lies in the memories stitched into the warp and weft of his past and he longs to rewind the cloth, to see again the people and the places he has loved. Then, as if the Weaver of Life has heard his plea, he begins to see the loom on which his living threads are woven. And he sees, too, that the spools are empty. He is about to die.

Weaver of life, at last now I can see
The pattern of my life gone by shown on your tapestry.

The violin returns to tie off the loose ends. The old man has his answer. One more life has ended, the tapestry is complete.

Additional Notes

  1. This name reminded me of the Italian design company, Pininfarina, responsible for the styling of Ferraris and many other sports cars. It also triggered a memory of a concept car called the Ikenga which got a Crotchety lad very excited back in 1969. So much so that he went up to central London to see the prototype on display in the Harrods department store. Here’s an article that casts a fond look back at that project. And there’s a YouTube video of the car on the set of the Blue Peter children’s programme.
  2. I’ll mention here three other tracks that are well worth listening to: Burlesque, In My Own Time and No Mule’s Fool.

 

The House on the Hill

album cover

The English master was about to hand back our homework. “Before I return your books”, he said, “I’d like to read you one of the essays”. We sat there nervously for a moment, not knowing what to expect. Was he about to praise the text he held in his hands or lambast it mercilessly? And whose work had he singled out for special attention?

As soon as the master began to read I knew I was off the hook. The piece had a title, something like “The House on the Hill”, and mine was gloriously untitled. So, with considerable relief, I listened, intent on understanding why this ordinary piece of homework was getting such exceptional treatment.

From the title I had expected the essay to be a descriptive piece but it turned out to be a short story. It was written in the first person and told of a boy who wanted to explore a ramshackle old house. For the sake of this blog post I’ll call him Joe.

painting

The house had been empty for years and there was an element of mystery about it that fascinated Joe. He knew his parents would forbid him to go. He knew, too, that there were perfectly good reasons not to go sniffing around – the structure might be unsafe and he might be arrested for trespass. But the dark windows beckoned him and the more he tried to put it out of his mind the larger it loomed in his thoughts.

So, one day, Joe gathered his courage and walked up the drive to the house. All was quiet. The house looked unoccupied. As he stood there on the porch Joe got the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps he should go home. But, if he chickened out now his curiosity would never be satisfied. Joe tentatively pushed the door and it swung open easily as if the house was welcoming him in.

Stepping into the hall Joe saw nothing unusual, just a traditional entrance with a big oak staircase and some wooden panelling. An open door led to the living room. With its patterned wallpaper and faded carpets this struck Joe as a bit old fashioned, but there was something else, too. The feeling that something wasn’t right was stronger here. Something was out of place, he was sure, but what was it?

Going from room to room Joe searched for something that didn’t belong here. It wasn’t the furniture or the ornaments, they were as much at home as the walls and the floors. But the house was blighted by something. Something out of place or something out of time. Joe had to find it. Then, upstairs in a bedroom, Joe suddenly realised what it was. It was him!

The story ended, I think, with Joe running home, never to return to the house on the hill – not because he was scared, simply because he didn’t belong there. When I heard that story I was, like my English teacher, immensely impressed. The writer would have been 12 or 13 at the time and his story was so well written that it could have been published alongside established authors. That was why it had been singled out to be read to the class.

Some six or seven years later a band called Audience wrote a song with a similar theme; The House on the Hill was the title track of their 1971 album. As far as I know there’s no connection between the schoolboy’s story and the Audience song but the band did play at our school dance around the time the album was being recorded. (Caveat: I didn’t go to the dance and I only have my feeble and unreliable memory to rely on for that curious fact.)

Audience were an unusual band. With Keith Gemmell on tenor sax, clarinet and flute as the lead instrument and Howard Werth’s nasal, warbling vocals their sound comes very close to Jethro Tull at times. And yet, at other times their material strays too far from Tull territory to categorise them as progressive rock. So much so that one review of the band’s eponymous first album describes three of the tracks as “pure twee twaddle”. The consensus seems to be that we should file Audience under ‘art rock’, but there are definite folk and prog rock influences, too.

Here’s The House on the Hill on YouTube. I find it peculiarly unsatisfying visually but it’s a good example of the band’s arty, proggy music.