Me · music · Songwriting

In Memory Of A Friend

A few weeks ago, my son-in-law sent me a link to a podcast interviewing songwriters – the one he had recommended was the ‘Broken Record’ podcast episode with Jack White and Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs. It was good to hear songwriters talking about the art of writing songs and not just telling stories about life on the road etc.

So, since then I’ve looked to see who else I might listen to, and just yesterday finished the episode with Joe Henry. You may not have heard of him, but he’s produced a 15 solo albums over the last 30 years, and also been involved in projects with such people as Solomon Burke, Bonny Raitt, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello and many more. I first heard Joe Henry back in the early 90’s when someone recommended the album ‘Kindness of the World.’

It’s so good to hear someone talking about songwriting and to recognise some of the ways I work in what they are saying.

I’ve been working on a song for a few weeks, and just finished it, I think. It may need some tweaks, but essentially it’s there.
It was triggered off by a line in a book by Will Cohu – The Wolf Pit. The book is a memoir of his growing up in a sheep farming community in North Yorskhire. The line that caught my eye was this ‘The black dog had backed him in a corner.’
The black dog in question was depression, and the person was Will’s uncle Robert. It’s a deperately sad story of how someone tried to fight this disease, and the way his friends and family tried to help him.

I wrote the song, and just as I was beginning to feel that it was finished, it all came back to me.
When I was in the last few years of school, I had a friend called Tim. We didn’t go to the same school – In those days of selective education where I grew up, I was at the High School and Tim was at one of the Secondary Modern Schools. This was back in the late 60’s early 70’s.

The High School for Boys was one of the choices of school if you had passed the 11 plus exam. The education there was more academic, and I remember having to drop subjects like music, art, and woodwork when I was 13 in favour of Latin, History, French and German.

Anyway, I got to know Tim when he turned up at our church youth group, and we started to get to know each other outside the Sunday evening gatherings. He introduced me to his younger sister, Penny, and his parents. His Father was a gifted pianist, and Tim was likewise gifted. He had a similar ability to his father in playing the piano – whtout music and completely untrained. In addition he had an instintive feel for electronics. At the age of around 16, he had built a telephone exchange in the garden shed. In those days it was all mechanical relays, triggered by electrical impulses. He built it such that there was a telephone in every room of the house, all controlled by the complicated arrangement in the shed.

At that time, young people like Tim usually ended up in the Secondary Modern School, because he wasn’t academic in the traditional sense. Yet he was, in many ways, far more gifted than I was. I think someone like Tim would be spotted today as ‘gifted and talented,’ and would have access to a wider range of opportunities.

Back to the telephone exchange in the shed – the thing was, he had designed all of this in his head. At the same time, I was beginning to get some rudimentary grasp of electricity in A level Physics, and was familiar with simple calculations, which I would do on paper. What Tim had done was way more complex and it seemed that he could just think about an electrical circuit and know instinctively what values he should assign the resistors and capacitors in each circuit. I guess he was some sort of savant.

At the same time, Tim was an incurable romantic. He was madly in love with a girl, and she became the subject of our conversations, me as the listener as he poured out his feelings for the girl, and his uncertainties about whether this love was going to be returned.
I suppose this went on for a couple of years. He got to know the object of his love and took her out, and gave her gifts, but there was always this feeling in my mind that he was building this romance up into something that it wasn’t.

The time came when I went away to University to study engineering. It was at the beginning of one of holidays that I found out. I had got home at the end of term and my parents told me that he had died. They hadn’t wanted to tell me until I got home. I missed the funeral. I don’t think I went round to see his parents or his sister. I wasn’t mature enough to think of that. Tim had driven his car up to a nearby beauty spot on the South Downs (a place he had often taken his girlfriend) and taken an overdose.

I can’t remember much about how it affected me, but it must have done. Although it was a bit of a one way friendship, with me being a more or less permanent shoulder to cry on, he was a good friend.

Here’s the song lyrics, and a link to the song

Black Dog

A good friend of mine
was great to have around
but lately we had found
he had another side

The little pills
supposed to make him better
just became a fetter
He couldn’t let ‘em go

He was a lovable man and he tried
We let him know that we were always on his side

The old black dog
had backed him in a corner
buzzing like a hornet
wouldn’t let him go

He tried to fight it
Be normal like his friends
Not having to pretend
But it’s a long way back

He was a desperate man and we tried
but in the end there was nowhere to hide

He locked his car
sat smoking in the shade
he had overstayed
now it’s time to go

The old black dog
that had backed him in a corner
buzzing like a hornet
wouldn’t let him go

Jonathan Evans April 2021.

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