Walk On Gilded Splinters

shattered

In 1968 the Broadway musical Hair opened in London’s West End. It caused quite a stir in the British news media. It was praised for its songs and production but there was some vehement criticism, too, mainly for the 20 second scene in which the actors stood naked on the stage.

Hair  was a story about a group of hippies living in New York and their struggle to break free from the stultifying conservative society they were brought up in. The publicity material used colourful, psychedelic images hinting at sex, drugs and debauchery. There was one particularly striking picture of a young Afro-haired black girl on all the posters. That girl was member of the cast, Marsha Hunt. Although Marsha only had two lines of dialogue she became the face (and hair) of the show.

Marsha

Marsha Hunt ca. 1968

In the wake of the musical in 1969 Marsha Hunt released a cover of the Dr. John song I Walk On Guilded Splinters. It’s a menacing song full of mystery and voodoo. Here’s a YouTube clip of the original from the album Gris Gris.

The Dr. John version contains a high proportion of undecipherable lyrics and rolls on for nearly eight minutes. Marsha Hunt’s single has a slightly different title, dropping the ‘I’ and using the more usual spelling of ‘gilded’. It also omits the unintelligible Creole verses and cuts the song to the radio-friendly length of 3:30 without losing any of the spine-tingling sense of dark forces barely under control. Both versions are well worth a listen.

There have been several other covers of Gilded Splinters, too, including ones by Cher, Paul Weller, the Allman Brothers Band, Humble Pie and a guy called Johnny Jenkins. None of those match the power and spookiness of the first two releases from Dr. John and Marsha Hunt.

Come, walk with me back to the sixties, but watch where you’re putting your bare feet – those nasty splinters sparkle and shine but they’ll get under the skin if you don’t tread carefully.

End Notes

  1. Marsha Hunt married Mike Ratledge (of Soft Machine) in 1967. The marriage has never been dissolved but they only spent two months together.
  2. Mick Jagger dated Marsha Hunt for a while and they have a daughter, Karis.
  3. Marsha Hunt’s version of Walk On Gilded Splinters reached number 46 on the UK pop charts in 1969.
  4. Crotchety Man saw Hair for the first and only time during its revival in London; that must have been in 2010. It was a great show. And for a man who doesn’t like musicals that’s a rare compliment.

The Fool On The Hill

painting

“We’re going away for a few days”, said Mrs Crotchety, “for your birthday”. The look of anticipation on my face prompted her to continue. “I’m not telling you where we’re going, just that we’ll be going on the train”, she said, enigmatically. So, for several weeks, I wondered where we would go and what we might do when we got there. As we were only going to be away for three days I could safely eliminate the trans-Siberian railway and the Canadian Rockies. The Orient Express was unlikely, too. EuroTunnel to Paris, perhaps? More likely, somewhere within the UK, but where? For the time being it was to remain the travel agent’s favourite ruse, the mystery tour.

A few days before departure I was told we were going to Liverpool, a city I had never visited before. Liverpool, of course, is famous as the place where the Fab Four grew up, formed the Beatles and began to make a name for themselves. It was where John, Paul, George and Ringo went to school, where they performed at The Cavern Club and where Brian Epstein gave them their first steps on the road to stardom. Mrs. Crotchety had booked us on the Magical Mystery Tour bus whose guide would tell us about those early days and show us all those places.

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It was an overcast day with a chilly wind but the tour guide was friendly and every bit as bright and cheerful as his bus. We drove past some of the landmarks: Ringo’s old house is down there on the right, George lived here, this is Penny Lane (you can still see the barber’s shop, the building where the banker worked, the shelter behind the roundabout where a pretty nurse was selling poppies). We stopped a few times for photographs: Strawberry Field (where trespassing was “nothing to get hung about”), the house where John lived after his mother was killed in a traffic accident, the McCartney family home (now owned by the National Trust). And all the time we were on the bus the guide gave us a potted history of the Beatles between the years 1940, when John was born, through to 1963 when they left Liverpool to find commercial success in London.

As the bus toured around the streets of Liverpool the guide’s commentary was interspersed with unforgettable Beatles songs. There’s nothing like a bit of unashamed nostalgia to take you back to the swinging sixties – those days of social change, sexual liberation and unfettered optimism – and Crotchety Man allowed himself to wallow in it. By the time the tour ended at The Cavern Club he was a well-softened sucker for the souvenir trade, play dough in the hands of the trinket pedlars.

The Crotchety Couple descended into the dark cellar of The Cavern Club, ordered a beer and a fruit juice and listened to a guitarist singing Beatles songs. I took a few photos before buying a harmonica and climbing the steps back up to the real world of brightly lit shops and the present time. It may be 2017 but my new harmonica will always remind me of the time the Beatles were growing up and honing their craft. Perhaps I’ll even learn to play it one day.

cover

To mark a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon I’ve chosen a track from the Magical Mystery Tour EP/album, The Fool On The Hill. Although The Fool was recorded in 1967, several years after the Beatles left Liverpool, I can’t think of a more appropriate song for my Track of the Week. It has the characteristic appeal of a good Beatles song and the flutes provide a hint of magic in the arrangement (Mozart would be pleased, I’m sure). The link in the text is to the original version on Spotify (remastered in 2009). The YouTube clip below is a live version by Annie Lennox with the other half of the Eurythmics, Dave Stewart, providing guitar accompaniment. Annie does a great job on the vocals but I miss the pied piper flutes on the original.

Miss Fortune

Miss Fortune - roulette wheel

A friend of mine went to a posh party recently – dinner, dancing and hobnobbing with the great and the good. You could tell it was a really posh occasion because the guests were being formally announced. There was an aristocratic middle-aged couple and a young woman in the entrance when my friend arrived. “The Lord and Lady Luck and their daughter, Miss Fortune”, cried the doorman.

My friend then stepped forwarded and the doorman scrutinised his invitation. “I’m sorry, sir”, he said in a loud clear voice, “you have come to the wrong place. This is the debutante ball for Lady Penelope Fortescue-Chance. I think you will find the Waifs and Strays Orphanage Benefit Dance is in the East Wing”.

That introductory vignette is, of course, entirely fictitious. The real Miss Fortune is a single taken from The Coral‘s latest album, Distance Inbetween. Crotchety Man thinks of The Coral  as an indie rock band with pop and psychedelia influences. Some analysts would add folk, country and dub to the list but that suggests a wider range of styles than I can detect and hints at a level of originality that isn’t really there. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that The Coral write straight up, honest-to-goodness indie rock songs that deserve to feature on radio stations and playlists in every respectable corner of cyberspace. And Miss Fortune is an excellent example of their work. It rolls along happily like a bright steel ball on a roulette wheel, skipping and jumping from one number to another oblivious to the fervent prayers of the punters. When the ball finally comes to rest the roulette players may go away with a small fortune or take nothing home but tales of outrageous misfortune. It’s all the same to the wheel.

Lady Rachel

Lady Rachel - with candle

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us.

There’s a fine line, sometimes, between a curious dream and a terrifying nightmare. The flimsy tissue-paper barrier between benign and malignant worlds, between the familiar and the unknown, is conjured up perfectly for us by Kevin Ayers in his song Lady Rachel.

At first it could be a lullaby. A gentle strumming of electric guitar leads into a flute motif – soft, familiar sounds for a baby in the cradle. But soon boisterous brass instruments add an incongruous flourish and the feeling of familiarity evaporates; we have entered a curious realm. Kevin’s deep baritone voice begins to sing of a lady carrying a candle up the stairs. It must be night and a time long ago.

We can not see the lady’s face as she  goes into the upstairs room. We can not discern her demeanour as the door closes behind her. But it’s a door with no handle. Is she trapped, locked in by her evil uncle? Has she bolted herself in against the creatures of the night? Or is she at the mercy of whoever or whatever may come, unable to secure the door against intruders? Kevin only tells us that she says a prayer …

And then in her bed clothes she hides.

The brass section provides a bellicose accompaniment again and the flute trills away while the narrator’s voice continues …

Now she’s safe from the darkness,
She’s safe from its clutch.
Now nothing can harm her, at least not very much.

As the guitar strumming continues an organ wheezes ominously and the bass pounds slowly like the tolling of a funeral bell awakening the fear of a little girl deep within a woman’s breast. Lying there awake she is safe but what will sleep bring?

What will you dream of tonight, Lady Rachel?
What will you dream of tonight?

The dream, when it comes, is strange, as all dreams are. To the sound of strings, Lady Rachel climbs up a hill and is handed a parcel. Inside the parcel she finds a castle. The drawbridge is open and a voice from the water says, “Welcome my daughter. We’ve all been expecting you to come.” Kevin doesn’t tell us whether Rachel finds this frightening or just weird. Perhaps the Lady crosses the drawbridge, enters the keep, lights a candle and climbs the stairs to her bedroom to start the whole sequence again. Perhaps it’s all a dream.

Who will you dream of tonight, Lady Rachel?
Who will you dream of tonight?

Electric Ladyland

Electric Ladyland - nudes

Why do we write about music? After all, mere words can not express the pleasure we get from listening to our favourite songs. How do you communicate the excitement when you hear something for the first time and your inner music critic says “Wow, that’s amazing!”? How do you explain what makes this song special?

We can, of course, use similes and metaphors: as sweet as honey, a sledgehammer of a song, etc. We can search for adjectives: mellow, gritty; stunning, awesome. We can compare this track with others that share some of its characteristics: pop, rock, folk, jazz; happy, sad; acoustic, electric. Do that well and we begin to sketch a phonic picture in the reader’s mind using a palette of rhythms, tones and melodies. But even then it is a ghostly apology for a picture, a figure without shape or substance, the merest hint of the sounds we are trying to convey.

Sometimes this flimsy sketch is enough to pique the reader’s interest and insinuate another note into their mental list of things to explore. If we write about a typical track by a well-known artist we may succeed in siphoning a little of its essence from our minds to theirs. But that’s the easy part of the blogger’s art. It is much harder for a writer to get across the thrill that comes from the exceptional or the utterly extraordinary.

That’s why writing about Jimi Hendrix is so daunting. Jimi was truly extraordinary. He is widely regarded as the greatest rock guitarist there has ever been. When drawing up a list of great rock guitarists for an article in Rolling Stone David Fricke put it this way:

Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.

So, how can I write about Jimi Hendrix? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? And, if I do write something, how can I compete with the eloquence of professional journalists? Well, of course, I can’t. What I can do is give you my take on the man and his music.

Electric Ladyland - faces

Looking down Fricke’s list there aren’t many I would have in my own shortlist. Most of them I’d reject as “not rock”¹ or “not in the same league” or even “not heard the name”². Steve Howe and Robert Fripp deserve consideration but they both belong in the ‘prog rock’ sub-category which is not really comparable. Peter Green is a genuine contender but even he didn’t achieve the symbiosis between man and instrument that Hendrix so effortlessly demonstrated. In Jimi’s hands the electric guitar could squeal and whine and thunder, but it could also sing with the voice of an angel. That, for me, is the mark of his genius.

The art of Hendrix reached its peak in the 1968 album, Electric Ladyland. When I think of Electric Ladyland I remember the electronic effects first. I think that’s partly because the album opens with a psychedelic wash of sounds that seem to be from another world or another time, the perfect introduction to the mystical land of lovely android women. It seems to say, this is what heaven must be like – soft, warm, your every need catered for.

If there is a theme to the album it is one of benign Science Fiction. The old Earth is dead but technology provides an escape from the devastation, a bolt hole under the sea, where what’s left of humanity can live in peace and harmony. Hendrix is known for his flamboyance and turning up the amps to maximum but much of Electric Ladyland is a laid back, gently rocking groove. It is powerful without being abrasive – the perfect antidote to the crash and thrash of later metal bands.

Electric Ladyland is very much a studio album. Guest musicians make an important contribution, changing the character of individual tracks, adding variety without destroying the integrity of the album as a whole. The 15 minute Voodoo Chile would be a different track without Steve Winwood’s organ, there’s tenor sax on Rainy Day, Dream Away and, if you pay attention, you’ll hear piano, congas, flute and girl backing singers. It’s a vibrant and faultless production.

Above all, Electric Ladyland is a showcase for Jimi Hendrix’ mastery of the electric guitar. It is an essential part of every rock enthusiast’s record collection, a disc for the desert island and one of the best reasons for writing about music that I know.

Notes

  1. Bert Jansch and Joni Mitchell, for example, were/are folk guitarists.
  2. In most cases that just illustrates my own ignorance; it’s not meant to imply any judgement of their talent.

White Rabbit

Mrs. Crotchety and I were watching the news the other day. There was a piece about the holiday-makers stranded in Sharm el-Sheik after the recent plane crash in the Sinai. A rankled Englishman was complaining about the delay and lack of information. I noticed he was wearing a Hot Tuna T-shirt and remarked that there was a band with that name. Mrs. Crotchety feigned a little interest, the next news item came on and the incident was filed in my memory under “curious connections” with a use-by date measured in minutes.

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On a completely different note, my Track of the Week is White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. It starts with an electric bass rapping out a rhythm reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero. There’s something bouncing down the path ahead of us, it says, and we must follow. For a bar or two it promises a simple driving rock tune but then there’s a dizzying key shift, up a semitone and back again. We have stumbled, tripped and fallen down a deep, dark rabbit hole.

The drums take up the beat and, as we look around, a psychedelic guitar riff leads us into the vocals.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small.
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.

We have plunged into Wonderland with Alice. It’s a world in which a caterpillar smokes a hookah; a world where cake makes you small and funny-tasting drinks make you tall. And yet, it is our world, too. A world where mother’s advice seems facile and mind-bending drugs offer excitement, adventure and fun.

The music shifts up again and becomes more urgent. On the chessboard the White Knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen screams “Off with his head!”. The sound crescendos ever larger. Things are getting out of control and there’s a hint of panic in her voice as the singer chants:

Feed your head… Feed your head… Feed your head…

Is she telling us to eat another magic mushroom? Is she telling herself to shake off her trippy haze and start thinking clearly? Or has she already slipped into insanity? We cannot know because here the song comes to its climax and ends leaving all our questions reverberating through our memories.

White Rabbit - wonderlandWhite Rabbit was written by Grace Slick in 1965 or 1966 before she joined Jefferson Airplane, but it is the Airplane version that is by far the best known. The single, taken from the album Surrealistic Pillow, was released in 1967 and reached number 8 in the US. The UK audience seems to have been almost deaf to both the single and the album although the single did scrape in to the top 100 at number 94 in June 1987. (There was a Jefferson Airplane compilation LP called 2400 Fulton Street released in March 1987, which might explain that 20 year delay.) Crotchety Man says that’s tragic; White Rabbit deserves to be in every music collection that includes psychedelic rock and it rightly has a place in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Like most rock musicians in the late sixties Grace was well-acquainted with marijuana, LSD and other drugs. She was in rehab for alcoholism “at least twice”. Grace, however, survived her adventures in hippy era Musicland, making records with Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Starship until 1989 when she retired from the music business.

In her retirement Grace started drawing and painting. Her best-selling artworks are pictures of the white rabbit and portraits of the musicians she knew personally (Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix and others). And there’s a connection between Grace Slick and that disgruntled passenger in Sharm el-Sheik airport… Slick’s paintings of former members of Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, were used for the cover of an album called The Best of Hot Tuna.

Now that really is interesting, even to Mrs. Crotchety.