When you get to the age of between 45 and 60, and therefore belong to the generation which is running TV companies and newspapers, you like to take the chance of putting out the bunting for all the people you worshipped when you were a kid. That, I guess, is why we had all these celebrations at the end of 2005 for Bob Dylan and John Lennon and George Best. Well, George Best was slightly different, as he was actually dying at the time, but from the premature obituaries and the mass coverage, you would have thought it was a pope slipping away, not a footballer. Most people under forty would have been pretty hazy about who George Best actually was, but most people under forty are not in charge of what goes in papers and on the screen, so we had the whole papal treatment for George Best, if that is the right expression for someone from Northern Ireland.
It seemed a bit over the top to me, because I belong to a generation before all that. I can clearly remember the pre-Beatles era for the simple reason that I can remember the time the Beatles came along, during my university years, and the reason I remember it so clearly is that they dealt a body blow to the music I loved, which was jazz. Jazz in the 1950s was the only kind of popular music a young man could love without losing all self-respect, the alternative being to buy records by Pat Boone and Johnnie Rae, or Frankie Laine and Tommy Steele. Then suddenly, just when I thought I could safely look down on popular music for the rest of my life, along came the Beatles and spoilt it all. I didn’t worry so much about the Rolling Stones, who were just a bunch of white kids stealing black American music, but I could tell the Beatles were doing something interesting. And then John Lennon sent a cold shiver down my spine by saying that he hated jazz, which – according to him - was just a lot of old blokes standing around with pints not even listening to the music.
The fact that there was something in what he said did not endear me to him. I regarded him with a cold eye after that. I did go to a Beatles concert once, in Hammersmith, so I can say I have seen the Fab Four in action, though I am not sure I heard much of them, as there was pretty non-stop squealing throughout from the teenage audience. No, I stuck to my jazz during the sixties, even though it was a lean time for the music, with the old guys beginning to fade away, and the modern guys glancing over their shoulders at the young avant-gardists like Ornette Coleman.
By this time I was actually reviewing jazz for The Times, and I remember being sent to see Ornette Coleman at a concert in the Albert Hall, where someone unknown called Yoko Ono was also on the bill. She came on and sang for twenty minutes. No, I tell a lie. She came on and screeched. All very avant-garde and repellent. I described her in my review as providing a sort of “novelty singing act” and predicted we would not be hearing from her again, which was certainly true on the singing front.
My younger brother, meanwhile, had fallen in love with Bob Dylan, whose music I found very dreary indeed, and I spent much of the 1960s trying to argue him out of it. I did not realise then that once you were a Dylan fan, you remained one for life. Ten years later I told another friend about my misgivings about Bob, and he was so shocked he insisted on buying a ticket for me to a Bob Dylan concert at Earls Court, on the grounds that when you had been in the presence of the master, you could not resist. I went. He was wrong.
To sum up, I have seen John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Yoko Ono in the flesh and didn’t like any of them much. (Oh, and I once saw George Best playing too, in the sunset of his playing days, when he and Rodney Marsh were at Fulham together, and he wasn’t on great form either.) I don’t think this is really because I am a miserable old sod, or even, actually, because I am the wrong generation; I think it’s because I have genuinely been unable to engage with the music of my time at any time in my life, and when people go weak at the knees at a certain record and say: “That’s my music, the soundtrack of my youth!”, I cannot think of anything that does the same for me.
Oh - except maybe Blind Blake.
My Aunty Peggy ran a hotel in Nassau in the Bahamas, in the 1950s, and she used to send us records by Nassau’s favourite calypso singer, Blind Blake. He was great. I played the songs endlessly and can still remember whole chunks of them. Songs about shipwrecks, songs about sexual revenge, songs about the Abdication (“It was love, love, love alone, caused King Edward to leave de throne” ), songs about a girlfriend with extravagant tastes. . . .
“My name is Morgan, but it ain’t J P,
There ain’t no bank on Wall Street that belongs to me,
You can forget your champagne appetite,
‘Cos the best you’ll get is beer tonight,
My name is Morgan. But it ain’t J P.”
And I remember a mildly naughty song which depended on you thinking that the last line of each verse would end in a naughty word. Instead of which he sang “yes yes yes”. . . .
“Mother bought a rooster, took it for a hen,
Thought it would lay some eggs, ‘bout nine or ten,
She made it a nest out of straws and grass,
But it didn’t lay nothing ‘cept its yes yes yes. . . “
The tunes were wonderful, the rhythms lilting, the whole thing enchanting, all the more so as nobody else had ever heard of him. I had all these records for about twenty years and one day they vanished. I have a dim memory of taking them to the BBC for a radio programme and not getting them back, so perhaps they are still in the music archives, and if I ever get on to Desert Island Discs, and choose one of them, they may say with surprise: "Oh – it’s got your name on it!". Till then, I mourn those records, and occasionally much to everyone’s surprise break into fragments of calypso.
A couple of years ago I met someone who was going to the Bahamas, and asked him to see if Blind Blake records were still available. In triumph, he sent a CD back. It had all the old stuff on. But they had “improved” it with a funky rhythm section and all sorts of electric nonsense, and it was now unbearable.
It’s rather hard that the soundtrack of my youth is completely unobtainable and only exists in my fading memory. Perhaps I should have tried to like Dylan harder
The Oldie Mon Dec 5 2005