In Spain after Anne Aylor’s ‘novel intensive writing retreat’, and inspired by the participants’ great writing, I have been working on my third book, working title “My Music World”. “My World Café’ was about food and memory and this is about music and memory. Here is a taster
WHEN THERE”S ‘PAIN IN MY HEART’, ‘GET UP, STAND UP’
-“When music hits you, you feel no pain” Bob Marley
I have always been drawn to musicians who sing their troubles. That tells you as much about me as it does about their music. In the 60s I was an addict of American Blues singers, agreeing with Leon Redbome that ‘the Blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad.’ I guess I am drawn to the way Blues takes sorrow and turns it into an emotion that can be life-enhancing.
I made sure never to miss the London gigs of Delta and Chicago Blues musicians when they came to the UK. Black musicians had always received a more friendly welcome in Europe than they got back home in the US. In the same year that Miles Davis recorded A Kind of Blue he was beaten up by NYC cops. Not long afterwards he was in Paris to receive the Legion ‘d’honout from France’s Culture Minister. His contemporary, saxophonist James Moody, moved to Sweden, fed up with ‘being scarred by racism’ in his own country.
The night before their main London gigs at the Marquee, the American Bluesmen and women would stage a ‘rehearsal’ gig at south east London’s Bromley Court Hotel. Among earlier visitors had been the Duke of Wellington and Charles Darwin, but I was there to see Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Sony Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley. Many female Blues artists as well. I was sorry to have missed Sister Rosetta Tharpe was on the bill with Muddy Waters, for his 1964 European tour, but caught the flu when in Manchester and didn’t join him in London. Watch her singing ‘Didn’t it Rain, standing in her coat on a wet and windy Manchester station platform. I guess it was that gig that must that made her ill. Female Blues’ artists are often overlooked. We’ve all heard ot Aretha Franklin, but what of Koko Taylor, sometimes called ‘The Queen of the Blues’, and known for her rough, powerful vocals, and Big Mama Thornton? Her ‘Nothing But a Houndog’ stands alongside Elvis’ version.
South east London has strong connections to both Blues and rock ‘n roll musicians. David Bowie spent his childhood in Bromley and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, all came from Dartford, on the edge of southeast London and were to play an important part in promoiing the Blues. They never played at the Bromley Court, but I remember travelling to Richmond to see them at Eel Pie Island. I found them a bit tame and preferred The Pretty Things. They were punk 15 years before The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Their vocalist, Phil May, had been at Sidcup Art College with Mick Jagger, but there they parted. Chris Morris says that The Pretty Things had “A noise that made the early Stones sound like tea-sippers.” I agreed and remember going to their gigs and lying on the dusty floor like an upturned turtle as they performed ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’.
Monday 11 December 1967 was another rainy day and I skipped my sociology lecture at Essex University to take the bus into Colchester from the campus to buy Otis Redding’s album, ‘Pain in My Heart.’
That morning I’d heard that he had been killed the day before when his plane crashed into Lake Monoona, Wisconsin. I wanted to honour him. I already had three of his singles, ‘Dock of the Bay’ , ‘These Arms of Mine’, and “Try a Little Tenderness”, but on this day I wanted to listen to more of his music.
The year after Otis’ death Percy Sledge released ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ which included these words: “If she is bad, he can't see it. She can do no wrong.” He claimed the original title was ‘Why Did You Leave Me Baby’, but changed it to ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’. “I just reversed it”, he said. “ The song is about potential devastation. You only hope there's going to be a happy conclusion.”
My introduction to reggae music came with first hearing Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’. I thought the song’s title was a reference to the relief of not having a woman in your life — “No woman, no cry’.That tears came with the woman. The song first appeared in his 1974 album, Natty Dread, and I played it over and over again.
It was composed by Vincent Ford, a friend of Marley’s who ran a soup kitchen in Trenchtown, where Marley had grown up. Royalties from the song went towards the running of this meals programme. Many years later I learned that my interpretation of the song had been mistaken. The correct punctuation is not ‘no woman, no cry’, but ‘NO woman. NO cry.’ The title is alluding to encouraging women not to cry. Marley’s bassist in The Wailers, Aston Barrett, said, "The song is about the strength in the mama of course, strength in the ladies. And we love a woman with a backbone. Something like a wishbone! They have to be like a she-lion! Woman strong, you know, not depending on the man.”
I thought the song was an expression of the trauma in my own relationship with a woman — my first wife Renata. She was certainly a she-lion and I spent years trying to escape her claws, hoping for a ‘happy conclusion’. When the song was released in 1984 on the Legend album it appeared with ‘Could you be Loved?’ ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, ‘Redemption Song’, ‘Exodus’ and ‘One Love’. In the next few years I did all that. Questioning whether I loved and could be loved, standing up, an attempted redemption and an exodus. Finally moving into a new ‘one love’ relationship. A move from anguish and anger to a woman with backbone who would also be my wishbone. “One love, one heart, Let's get together and feel all right.”
Marley has remained at the centre of my world for sixty years, and I am proud that his words are inscribed next to my image in the entrance to Mostar’s Pavarotti Music Centre
Towards the end of my time in Bosnia I helped smuggle into besieged East Mostar, Island Records’ Marley photo exhibition. They were hidden under bread crates. The local ‘war radio pulsed out his songs for the ten days the exhibition was in town; which was mounted in a cellar on the front line.
Even after I left Mostar I helped bring reggae music into town. In 2001 we brought roots-reggae artist, Horace Andy, there. Pain again. His singing is full of anguish, the minor key to Marley’s major. His performance with Massive Attack in Hyde Park in 2016 is memorable as he sang from a wheelchair because of his broken leg.
So much music is about overcoming pain, or at least learning to live with it, and there is always the need for tenderness …”But It’s all so easy, all you got to do is try, try a little tenderness.”