christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: folk music

The Boss at 70: When I was kidnapped by Bruce Springsteen fans for a lost weekend in the north

It’s a cold, Saturday night in March, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1996. My flatmates – medics and geography students with exams approaching, are making pasta in their dressing gowns or watching Friends on TV, their revision notes resting on their laps. As an English student, I have a somewhat more relaxed schedule. But this evening there is renewed sense of urgency. Tonight, Bruce Springsteen is in town.

But this is not the barnstorming Bruce of Born in the USA and Badlands, all chiming electric guitars and thunderous drums. This is The Ghost of Tom Joad acoustic tour. He’s picking up where he left off with the Nebraska album: mournful downbeat ballads inspired by the lost souls of the American south and Mexican border; Steinbeck anti-heroes. Still Bruce is Bruce and I’m drawn like a moth to the light.

It all began five years earlier. Babysitting for the neighbours’ kids, I was rummaging through their tapes, and stumbled on Born in the USA and Dark Side of the Moon. I had heard of both, but had listened to neither. While my fourteen-year-old self found himself impatient with the celestial space-rock of the Floyd’s album, what punched home was the whip snap guitar, the howl and bear-like roar of The Boss. While I was later to discover his soulful depths, the folk, the storytelling, like millions of others, I was lured in by the big, bright, bold production, the Chuck Berry-like torrent of lyrics and the lock-tight band.

It was the start of a journey that took me from boy to a man. I dropped the needle on Born to Run when I got my GCSE results. I prepped for my driving test by listening to Racing in the Street (I would have been better off swatting up on my highway code) I snogged to The River and drive through France with the Live album ringing in my headphones. At one point my lovely American aunt takes me to his front drive, where I collect a pebble and put it in my pocket (my little brother later lobs it in the sea…). By the time his flawed twin albums Human Touch and Lucky Town arrived, I was loyal enough to look beyond their weaknesses and appreciate that even below-par Bruce was above-par everyone else. Which takes us up to ‘96.

Approaching the end of my third year, all three of my student loans have now evaporated in a cloud of Newcastle Brown Ale, second hand books and cheese and pickle stotties. I have about fifty pounds to make it to the end of term, still a couple of weeks away. My credit card is lying in two pieces at the bottom of an HSBC wastepaper basket after it was neatly snipped in half in front of me.

Bruce collage

All the evidence says I should stay in. Instead I grab my coat, withdraw all my earthly wealth and head down to the City Hall. Declining a hundred-pound ticket from a tout, I shuffle to the back of the returns queue and pray to the angels of E-Street to let me in. I’m with a couple from Manchester, Dave and Sue. Between them, they carry a flask, packed lunch and a vinyl copy of The River from 1980, hoping for a signature. They saw Bruce last night and loved it so much they drove across the country on the off chance of getting a ticket for tonight. We hang around for twenty minutes exchanging Bruce-lore, all of us quietly aware that the chances of someone deciding not to go and see Bruce Springsteen and stay in and watch Friends instead, are quite slim. That is until the president of the Bruce Springsteen fan club ambles up and waves three tickets like winning lottery tickets. At first we think he’s gloating, until he says: ‘Face value is fine,’ he adds casually. ‘Who’s a three?’

‘We’re a three,’ Dave says immediately, grabbing his wife and me, and holding us up by our collars to demonstrate the fact. The deal is swiftly done and we glide into the venue, unable to believe our luck. Bruce is reliably magnificent, playing an all acoustic set of Mexican border songs peppered with dramatic renderings from his back catalogue. His new version of Darkness On the Edge of Town now sounds like Pinball Wizard. He essays a blistering slide guitar version of Born in the USA, its fist punching chorus entirely absent. When someone calls for Thunder Road, he growls: ‘I ‘aint playing that old bastard.’ With a ponytail, goatee and torn white t-shirt, he looks more like a pirate shipwrecked at Whitley Bay than a millionaire from New Jersey.

I get chatting to the fans on my other side, two blokes and their sister, all from Liverpool, who tell me their allegiance is divided between Bruce and Jackson Browne. ‘When I listen to Jackson,’ says one of the brothers, ‘I kind of feel like I’m cheating on my wife.’ They ask me what I’m doing here on my own, and I tell them the smallest white lie: that I’m covering the gig for the local paper.

‘A journalist!’ one of them exclaims. ‘Flippin ‘eck, we’ve got a journalist here! Mind your Ps and Qs Deborah.’ I daren’t tell them that it’s just the student paper.

After the gig, they whisk me across town to a tiny club where, in a surreal twist, Denny Laine, the Moody Blues and Wings’ guitarist is just finishing a gig. One of the brothers pushes me to the front. ‘Hey Denny, he says, ‘we’ve got the press here! Will you have a word?’ Forced to improvise on the spot, and without so much as a pen and paper for a prop, I tell him I love Again and Again and Again, an obscure late Wings’ song he wrote. He seems to like this, but I quickly realise it’s not a question. ‘Er, what songs are you playing on the tour?’ I blunder. ‘The ones I just played,’ he replies. I retreat to the bar.

The next thing I know, I’m in a new-build house in a village outside Newcastle being plied with more booze. We sing Jackson Browne, Bruce and Neil Young until the small hours. I’m younger than the rest of them by a good ten years, but they seem to have adopted me. ‘How come you know all this old stuff?’ Deborah ask me. ‘Well you see,’ I explain, ‘there was this stack of cassettes…’

When I wake in the morning dribbling into the grey carpet of a home office. A cup of tea is delivered, and I’m informed we’re heading up to Edinburgh.  I wonder whether I’ve been kidnapped. If I have, then I’ve developed a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.

Over the next 24 hours, I’m driven to the Scottish capital, plied with more booze, bought a ticket for Bruce’s Edinburgh show (‘We’re earning, you’re not’ they tell me) and taken on a pub crawl. We stay over at Deborah’s house. Next day, I’m deposited on a grey street in Newcastle with a telephone number scratched on a piece of paper, watching their car disappear around the corner. Two Bruce gigs and about fifteen pints for twenty-five quid. This is the sort of thing that only happens at Bruce Springsteen gigs.

I can’t help but feel it’s the sort of thing the man himself would approve of. Ordinary decent people sharing what they have and looking out for each other, bonded by a common love for music. Bruce keeps adding new chapters to his story and everyone else’s. His latest album, Western Stars, is a jewel. But for my part, I still treasure those two lost days of adventure, travelling up the beautiful Northumbria coast into Scotland, stepping out of my own life for a little while, with the windows down and sound of Bruce’s voice and guitar filling the sky.

Happy birthday, Bruce. Thanks for the music and thanks to your great fans too.

The Penguin Diaries by Christopher James, 65 sonnets about Captain Scott’s last expedition, is available now.

‘Sing us an old song’ – Review of Before by Boo Hewerdine

A new album by Boo Hewerdine is always an occasion for bell-ringing, carousing and general rejoicing. In short, it’s something to look forward to. ‘Before’ is no exception. Except ‘looking forward to’ is perhaps the wrong phrase, because this is another impeccable collection of those irresistibly old-fashioned songs in which Boo excels.

He admits as much himself in ‘Old Songs,’ in praise of the ancient melodies that had families gathered in parlours singing with grandad, a pint of stout and a woodbine. ‘Sing us an old song,’ he begs, ‘one we all know, that lives in our memories from so long ago.’ It’s a lament for a simpler, happier time when families didn’t disappear into their devices and Netflix box sets on a Friday evening. Not only does it seem like it was written about the 1930s, it sounds like it was written then too. What makes Boo’s music so audacious is that he attempts (and usually succeeds) in creating brand new classics.

There are two theories. Either he has a stash of Sinatra and Nat King Cole albums that no one else has heard, and is slowly releasing the songs, or else he has an ear trumpet that reaches all the way back to 1937. His ability to transport you back to the golden age of popular song is consistently astonishing.

Last Rays of the Sun is a nostalgic, elegiac reflection on ageing, with toy piano accompaniment. ‘We see true beauty in the last rays of the sun.’ It’s one of those luminous, mid-pace numbers that Boo has made his own. His McCartney-esque melody is a counterpoint to the gloomy ruminations, the metronomic ticking in the background reminding us of the unstoppable march of time.

One of the many delicious quirks of this album are the extra tracks between the songs – eccentric instrumentals that foreshadow the main songs. For example, the one before Before is called Before Before. It’s a little confusing, but you get the idea. These are recorded in bizarre, creaky, arrangements on what sound like Japanese banjos and toy pianos. They’re like those odd, lean-to sheds that are squeezed into the gaps between houses. My favourite is Prepared, a funky, lo-fi interlude that threatens to turn into something interesting before vanishing into the ether.

If the opening track is a reflection on advancing years, then Imaginary Friends is a bittersweet look back at childhood spent on bicycles riding ‘by the old canal.’ It conjures images of a lonely existence, but with the consolation of a vivid imagination. It’s graced with beautiful instrumental passages, descending lines and unusual instrumentation.

Silhouette is the first of the true classics, beginning with a delicate, timpani-like accompaniment, rather like opening a music box. The lyric is masterful ‘When shadows are your own company, then you’re a silhouette.’ While classic sounding, the melodies are genuinely affecting, reliably inventive and freshly minted.

The title song, Before, continues the purple patch. Except this time, we’re not merely returning to the early 20th century. Instead Boo transports us back several million years ago, to an unspoilt planet Earth untroubled by human meddling. ‘Come with me and understand, this was never our own land.’ It’s a brilliantly original take on conservation, climate change and a warning against hubris. We weren’t around for billions of years and the Earth did just fine without us.

Reno is something of a departure; a low-key country balled, complete with mournful dobro. ‘Don’t go to Reno’ is Boo’s advice – ‘you won’t come back this time.’ By the resigned tone of his singing, he doesn’t believe you’ll follow his advice. He knows you’ll be led into temptation.

Undoubtedly the jewel of the collection is Starlight, a song he had already gifted to Eddie Reader. She delivers an ethereally beautiful cover; yet Boo’s stripped back version is arguably better. His voice is high and keening and the melody utterly mesmerising. If it found its way into a Disney film it would earn him a million pounds.

Wild Honey is another magical tune, with fragmented poetic lyrics, but like so many of the songs on Before, it’s tinged with melancholy. That’s perhaps why the optimistic, defiant sounding ‘I Wish I Had Wings’ is such a welcome closer. I imagined hundreds of synchronised swimmers performing to it, in a lavish finale to an MGM musical. ‘I know these words aren’t much, but I don’t care/I can hear an orchestra it’s in the air.’

One day, these new songs will become old songs and people will appreciate more than they do now.  Bravo Boo Hewerdine on a first-class return.

Before is released in September.

Harvesting gold: Boo Hewerdine and Dan Whitehouse at Cambridge Junction 2 (25/10/16)

To Cambridge’s Junction 2 for a spellbinding evening with Boo Hewerdine and musical accomplice, West Midlander, Dan Whitehouse. Dan opened proceedings with a pared back set of emotive love songs, carried home on a succession of glistening electric guitar lines played on his battered Telecaster, (which, he tells us ‘was rescued from a pub loo in Camden’). Imagine a Brummie Jeff Buckley and you’re nearly there, with a warmth and grit in his vocal which transcended his flat Birmingham vowels. As modest as he is accomplished, there was a strong strand of Americana combined with an attractive English understatement. His songs demanded attention and his stage craft was superb.

Boo and Dan.jpg

Dan stayed on stage to add musical weight and heft to the songs of long-time troubadour, Boo Hewerdine. In something of a homecoming gig (The Bible played their early gigs at the Junction, next door), he was on assured form, leading off with comeback single Born, a litany of events from the year of his birth. This was swiftly followed by The Man That I Am, (already sounding like a classic) about the controversial child migration programmes to former Empire outposts. Village Bell rang out on Boo’s sky blue guitar filling the beautifully lit auditorium.

There were numerous highlights, not least a clutch of new songs, performed solo. Cinderella is a smoky, complex jaunt in the old style complete with Boo’s impersonation of an orchestra at the halfway point. Its cross-dressing theme (it’s from forthcoming musical Fancy Pants, written with Chris Difford) only added to the intrigue. Possibly his finest moment came in ‘Old Songs,’ an authentically ancient sounding tune (it could have been written in the 1930s) about the power of song in stirring lost memories. If Boo hasn’t shared this with those working with dementia, he probably should. With strange lost chords, unusual and affecting subject matter it’s another fine example of Boo’s quest for the perfect song.

Boo’s deadpan delivery (‘My record company is planning to turn me into a star – I’ve had plenty of practice’) is undoubtedly part of the attraction, but it’s the songs that constantly amaze. Sweet Honey in the Rock, originally from his State of the Union project is beefed up into a glorious stomp, augmented by a natty country solo from Dan. Their metronomic timing created a seemingly hypnotic effect on performers and audience alike. More recent songs, like Harvest Gypsies, sound every bit as strong as perennials like The Patience of Angels and Honey Be Good, the great lost classic from eighties. Boo’s voice was particularly strong this evening, nowhere more so than on an ambitious take on the Bee Gee’s ‘I Started a Joke,’ which soared to majestic heights.  

While light on tunes from his Brooks Williams collaborations (no Hellzapoppin!) Boo has songs to spare and is adept at varying his set to provide enough interest for long-time fans, as well as to keep himself engaged.

As with many Boo gigs, there is the spectre of a parallel universe where the Bible became as big as U2, and Boo became a superstar. As things stand, there were not many who would have traded the opportunity to listen to such fine songs in such an intimate setting. It was life affirming, inspiring stuff from two uniquely blessed musicians dedicated to their song craft, respectful of their musical forebears and still digging for musical gold.

Review: Born EP by Boo Hewerdine

The Born EP finds Boo Hewerdine in reflective, but never less than tuneful mood. The lead track, The Year That I was Born is a gently ironic meditation on the momentous events of the year 1961. From the publication of Catch 22 and the death of Hemingway to the ‘cracking of the genetic code’, he succeeds in producing a more measured, and quintessentially English, version of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.  

Boo Born

To stately piano and understated bass and percussion, he contrasts these seismic events with his own lethargy ‘(‘I let today just drift away’) and ultimately the admission that he was nothing more than a blip in history and just ‘another mouth to feed.’ However you cannot help but feel he was quite pleased to have made his own minor ripple in this eventful year. The major chords and gently ascending melody capture the optimism of the new decade, before being tempered by minor key diversions, suggestive of the looming threats of Cold War; he celebrates the: ‘post war girls and boys in a world that might explode.’ His voice, as always has a doleful clarity which seems to evoke pathos, resignation and humour in equal measure. It’s all quite beautiful. Further listening: That’s Me, by Paul Simon and That Was Me, by Paul Simon.

Hometown is an equally reflective piece and is delivered in a quietly dramatic performance. To the accompaniment of well mannered, front parlour piano, and with pastoral images of drifting clouds and passing bees, the narrative is pleasingly oblique. The theme, right across this EP, is the passing of time, and here, memory in particular is a place of sanctuary and retreat. It has a heartbreakingly beautiful bridge too.

Swimming in Mercury is a playful waltz with a bittersweet theme, namely that old television sets contained mercury, a deadly toxin that sat happily in the corner of the room beneath the plant pot and the school photo. It has the carefree resignation that is thoroughly charming.

If we are to skip past Tim Rice’s thoughts on the subject, Chess is hardly obvious territory for songwriters. However Boo hits a rich seam with Bobby Fischer, an elegiac two minute bio-pic of the 11th World Chess Champion, who placed himself into self-imposed exile in Iceland. The central tragedy is a genius who for reasons of his own turned his back on his talent, seeking ‘sanctuary in the land of ice and snow.’ The wordplay with ‘openings’ and ‘sacrifices’ is skilfully done and the chorus is strangely uplifting; the ironic counterpoint of the major key melody and downbeat sentiment is once again Boo’s trump card.

Finally, ‘Farewell’ is an elegant, doomed waltz that provides a fitting coda to an exquisite EP that is a love letter to Boo’s past. But far from being a pall bearer for the 20th century, with these songs you get the sense of Boo exploring his cultural influences, the landscapes of the past, drifting back to unlock his own identity and find the source of the river. 

Bruces’ Philosophers Song

Emmanual Kant

He looks like he could do with a drink doesn’t he? Anyone for a song? 

Run Away to the Circus

Ever  feel like running off to the circus? I had one of those days recently, but let’s face it, it’s not always a practical option. So I had to make do with a song. And that got it out of my system. I can’t juggle either.

The Uke of Wellington – My second ukulele LP

In October last year, I released my first ukulele LP, In the Plink. (Q****) Since then, U2 and I have been in secret talks to ensure that the release dates of our new albums do not clash. I’m pleased to say that these talks have ended happily and I will be releasing The Uke of Wellington today.

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To access the tricks, simply click on the links below. All songs by Chris James.

Side 1 

Lighter Than Air

Old Fashioned Things Called Love

The Hot Club of Bohemia  

Rainy Days 

The Scarecrow in the Rain 

Side 2 

The Golden Age 

Allotted Time 

Neither Here Nor There 

Heaven Farm 

If you like what you hear, tell your friends and perhaps even buy a copy of my latest book, The Fool. Be good, be kind, have fun, eat plums.

It’s a little known fact that the Duke liked to unwind by playing the greatest hits of J.S.Bach on his humble uke to sing his dear horse Copenhagen to sleep each night. The ukulele is now kept in the Tower of London. His famous pastime is remembered each year by the players at the Uke at the Duke on the second Tuesday of every month in Shoreham on Sea.

Duke Uke

 

 

 

 

In Praise of the Allotment

Apparently the popularity of allotments shot up when The Good Life first aired in the UK. The antics of the much-missed Richard Briers and the wonderful Felicity Kendal conjure up a dream of self sufficiency, healthy living and optimism: in fact all the reasons people still grow their own today.

Allotments are resurgent again, with people recognizing not only the economic advantages of tilling your own scrap of earth but the the dietary and health benefits too. There’s no better exercise for the body and mind – and it’s no secret that gardeners live longer and happier lives.

Shed

For more allotment inspiration, watch Mike Leigh’s Another Year where the allotment represents sanity and stability, when the world crumbles around you.

In the meantime, here’s my new song, Allotted Time to celebrate the allotment, a Great British Institution.