Icons And Lesser Icons

Three years ago, almost to the day, I published a post titled Starman on the death of one of my musical icons. As many of you have started following me since then you may not have seen this before, so I thought I’d share it again. At the time I had intended to write a piece honouring the memory of one of the true greats of rock music and in a way I did. But it developed into one of my occasional rants. Take a look to see why, and I’ll return after to explain why this has become relevant for me again:

“Over the past two days I’ve been doing what I expect many have been doing: I’ve been playing David Bowie songs and reminding myself just what made him such a special musician. I also spent a lot of Monday watching the TV news and the various tribute pieces that were being broadcast. Yesterday, once the print media had the chance to catch up, it was the newspapers’ turn. My newspaper of choice is The Times – coincidentally, also Bowie’s choice, according to their obituary, although I’m not sure how they knew that. Yesterday’s issue came in a lovely wraparound, which featured a portrait of him with a cigarette – an image that would have been commonplace until he gave up his 60 a day habit when his daughter Lexi was born. Inside, they reproduced the lyrics to three of his most famous songs – Space Oddity, Starman and Life On Mars  – together with some more pictures of him and the album sleeves. Tastefully done, I thought, and a fitting tribute. Turning to the paper itself, there were a further twelve pages of tribute and obituary and a news story on the front page which carried onto page 2. There was also a full cover picture on the Times2 section. As I read through this I began to feel something I wasn’t expecting after the loss of one of my musical heroes: I was getting annoyed.

This feeling had begun on Monday evening, as I watched a special 30 minute programme that had been slotted into the BBC1 schedule. On the whole, this was a far better effort than Sky News had managed earlier, but there was one part that really irked me: the BBC6 Music DJ Sean Keaveny having the audacity to talk over the famous video of the 1972 performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops. For those who weren’t around at the time, this performance is largely credited with making Bowie’s career: his only previous hit, Space Oddity, had been three years earlier and Starman itself hadn’t exactly taken the charts by storm until this appearance, after which it climbed into the Top Ten. The rest, as they say, is history. So what did Keaveny tell us while he was preventing us from watching the video? Did he mention its significance to Bowie’s career? No, he told us that because Bowie had declared himself to be bisexual the fact that he put his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder while they sang the chorus made this a trailblazing video for gay power. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is there on record any suggestion that Ronson – who was married once and fathered children with three different women – was gay or bisexual, so where did Keaveny get this idea from? I guess he must have been ‘in the know’ at the time, right? Er, no, not quite: he was born two months after the record was released, so he must have been quite a prodigy! Maybe the gay community can tell me that this is indeed true, but I didn’t need Keaveny talking about it all over the video. So here it his, without his act of destruction:

The second dose of annoyance was served up for me by Caitlin Moran. I am a big fan of her writing, which always amuses and entertains me whilst being thought-provoking. Her piece in yesterday’s paper was heavy with suggestion about how important this music and its era were in her teenage years, but she was born three years after Starman was a chart hit! Of course, I won’t deny that she could have been listening to the music as she was growing up, probably because her parents played it, but to try to appropriate the timeframe for this as being part of her own youth is, to my mind, at best disingenuous and at worst, dishonest.

Why is it that whenever a rock icon dies everyone has to take their piece of him or her? The Times even gave us a comment from Tony Blair, that well known musical expert and purveyor of truth. And the music critic Charles Shaar Murray telling us that other journalists used to refer to him as ‘Bowie’s representative on Earth.’ Funny, I thought that role was played by Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long time friend and record producer. Whether that is true or not, it illustrates my point. The death of an icon is important for all of us who were fans, not just for those who are being paid to go into print or on screen about it and feel the need to boost their credentials. He was our icon. We all have a part of him in our memory, and we don’t need the self-appointed steamrollering over that, claiming territorial rights over the deceased and telling us what we should be feeling or thinking. I won’t be reading any more, if I can resist the temptation. Well, not until the next icon departs……”

Little did I know it that early in the year, but 2016 turned out to be an annus horribilis with the passing of several of my favourites. Look back through my catalogue and you will find tributes to Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, who wrote the song which gives my blog its title, and Dave Swarbrick, of Fairport Convention who, along with Steeleye Span, were at the forefront of the English electric folk-rock genre. Then, to round the year off, came the sad news of the death of Leonard Cohen. All of these had been extremely significant to the development of my musical tastes, but only one provoked a rant. Why? The short answer is that the outpouring of grief for David Bowie wasn’t matched by the coverage given to the other three. They were all accorded a fairly full obituary in The Times which, back then, was my daily paper, but nothing like the coverage elsewhere that he received. I put that down to the fact that two of them weren’t British, so the innate parochialism of our media didn’t regard them as all that important, and Swarb was a folk musician so wasn’t considered to be of sufficient stature to merit much coverage. Sorry, my bunker mentality showed through a bit there! But the points I made in the piece about Bowie are still valid: I know that journalists and media commentators make their livings by hanging on to the coat tails of those who are far more talented and famous than they could ever hope to be, but I don’t need them to tell me what I should like, or feel, and I can certainly do without the blatant stupidity displayed by the likes of Sean Keaveny and Caitlin Moran!

It is probably the fact that I grew up listening to their music, but there have been other losses in the musical sphere which have been poignant for me, notably Tom Petty, whose passing I covered here. We have lost other greats in recent years: Aretha Franklin notable among them. Her death resulted in possibly the most ridiculous piece of coat tail hanging that we have ever seen:

In case you missed it at the time, those were the words of Donald Trump on the day Aretha died. Not quite the same as Tony Blair raising his head above the parapet to claim a deep and abiding love for Bowie but, in his own inimitable fashion, Trump was claiming the importance of an icon for himself – as a former ’employer’ after she sang at one of his casinos (before they went bankrupt), giving him the perceived right to claim that he knew her well. Somehow I doubt the veracity of that – but he doesn’t tell lots of lies, does he?

But what about the lesser lights of music, whose passing is barely noted by the media? Does that make the loss of them any less tragic? Where are the likes of Sean Keaveny and Caitlin Moran for them? Presumably they are making the decision not to bother, as no one will pay them for their opinions if many in the audience will be asking ‘who was that?’ about their subject. Yesterday, I learned of the passing of ‘Beard Guy.’ How many of you know who I mean? Mike Taylor, to give him his proper name, was a member of the Canadian band Walk Off The Earth (usually abbreviated to WOTE), who have had a fair amount of commercial success in their homeland but relatively little elsewhere – though they have a loyal following which enables them to tour worldwide.

Mike died in his sleep during the night of 29 December. He was 51, and had two children. Where was the mainstream coverage of this, outside Canada? Why did I need to be following the band on Facebook to hear this sad news? To his family, friends and fans this was no less upsetting, but I guess it all comes down to scale: far more people will have been affected by Bowie’s passing, and those of Tom Petty and Aretha Franklin, than by Dave Swarbrick or Beard Guy. I find that sad. Yes, I know that the bigger stars are more newsworthy, but don’t we all deserve to be remembered kindly for what we have done, especially when that has brought pleasure to many – but just not enough for the media to make money out of the passing of a lesser light? WOTE may not be the biggest band on the planet, but they have certainly made their mark. They first came to prominence in 2012 when they released a video of their version of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know. This went viral, and has so far been viewed more than 185 million times, plus a further 12 million when shared by someone else. So, to redress the balance a little, here in Beard Guy’s honour is that video:

I wish he had been somebody that I used to know but, in a way, he was, as I’ve watched many of their videos multiple times and think of them as ‘friends’ whose sense of humour always brightens my day. Every passing is mourned by someone, and every individual is important. We shouldn’t need paid hacks to remind us of that. Take care of your loved ones.

RIP Mike.

Walk Awhile

Times obituary 7.6.16

Times obituary 7.6.16

By any standards, 2016 has so far been a terrible year for celebrity deaths. Some have been global superstars and have been widely mourned, and shamelessly used as an excuse for those Z-listers who hang onto the coat tails of the rich and famous – I wrote about this in Starman. Others have been more localised, but none the less tragic for that. I suspect that most of you reading this will never have heard of the person I am writing about, particularly as he died on the same day as Muhammad Ali, although The Times did a rather nice (almost) full page obituary of him yesterday. He wouldn’t have been expecting a 16 page tribute though, so no harm done!

Does the name Dave Swarbrick mean anything to you? No? I thought not. Swarb, as he was universally known, was a fiddle player, singer and songwriter who was a major part of the English folk music scene for over 50 years. He was well loved and respected by fellow artists in this field, and adored by devotees of this style of music, of whom I count myself one. Although not the only one to do it – and there have been many following in his footsteps – he was one of the first to play an electronically amplified fiddle in a band, taking the place of what would otherwise have been another electric guitar. That band was Fairport Convention, which Swarb joined in 1969 having originally been asked to help out on a few tracks of their Unhalfbricking album. Under his influence, the band moved away from being an English wannabe version of Buffalo Springfield and developed a uniquely English style, reworking traditional folk standards. Their first album with Swarb was Liege and Lief, released in 1969, which has become a seminal record in the modern folk rock genre in England. Some years ago it was voted as the most influential folk album of all time, and holds the further accolade of being one of the very few albums that I have owned on vinyl, cassette and CD – a rare distinction! The band is widely known across Europe but, as far as I know, this style hasn’t travelled to North America – please correct me if I’m wrong! I first saw them play live while I was at university around 1973, and have seen him in a number of gigs since then. His contribution always made a difference.

The best folk album. Ever.

The best folk album. Ever.

Swarb was the possessor of a wicked sense of humour. This came to the fore when, in 1999, he was rushed into intensive care after falling ill at a show in Coventry and the Daily Telegraph printed an obituary in error. From his comments he clearly saw the funny side of this:

That wasn’t the first time I’ve ‘died’ in Coventry! I did think of suing, but it was such a good obituary that my lawyer thought it could be argued that it had actually furthered my career. The tabloid press were camped outside my home and in the hospital grounds and it was the most publicity I’d had for years.

His wife brought the newspaper into hospital at 8.30am to show him the obituary. As he said, ‘she was keen to tell me I was dead before anyone else did.’

He recovered from this, and named the new band he formed ‘Lazarus.’ See what I mean about his humour? But his health continued to decline, culminating in a double lung transplant. Through it all he continued to make music, and we have a rich legacy to enjoy. I’ve been playing a lot of his music over the past few days and I thought I’d leave you with one of his best known songs, which was co-written with Richard Thompson, a founder member of the Fairports and a renowned singer songwriter – including in North America 🙂 :

That song was the opening track on the band’s Full House album, and was for many years the opening song of their live shows. The sound quality in that clip is pretty appalling, but it is 46 years old, and I hope it gives you an idea of the man and his music. It has the advantage of being the only clip of the song I could find that also included Richard Thompson, one of my favourite musicians. The chorus runs:

Walk awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me,

The more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree.

That seems to me a pretty good way to live our lives: understanding comes from sharing and talking, not from avoiding and attacking.

RIP Swarb