Seeing In A Straight Line

At age 16, guitarist Robbe Robertson had the opportunity to join Ronnie Hawkins’ Rockabilly band, and made the long journey from the cold of Canada to Arkansas and the steamy south. It was THE turning point in his life, and from this decision would emerge one of the seminal bands of the late 60’s early 70’s – The Band.

Hearing this story reminded me of an encounter I had on Victoria train station in the late summer of 1973.
Just a few weeks before this encounter, I had finished my first year studying engineering at university, and failed two important exams. It could have meant the end of my student life, but there was a possibility of a reprieve. I could retake the two papers at the end of the long summer holiday. My friend Mark had failed the same papers, so he came to stay that summer, and together we went through every single past exam paper we could get our hands on.

By the end of a couple of weeks, we had done as much as we could, and we duly turned up at the university to do our retakes. They put us in a small room, with just enough room for two desks, one behind the other. The retake papers were placed on the desks, and nervously we turned the first page. The first reaction as I read through the questions was one of surprise, closely followed by joy! I had done the questions all before. They had simply lifted questions from past papers! My relief must have been audible, and I could also hear Mark’s reaction – not quite the same as mine. He also recognised the questions, but in his panic he couldn’t remember how to answer them. There was no-one else in the room, and no CCTV, (!) so I whispered to ask if I could help him. He declined the offer, whether through fear of being found out or a degree of self belief, I’m not sure. Anyway, after a while, his state of fear subsided, and we both got on with answering the questions.

We both heard a short while later that we had done well enough to continue with the course in the autumn. As it turned out, I had done very well on the retakes, and my tutor was pleasantly surprised, even shocked!

The encounter outside Smiths newsagents on Victoria station, which is the real point of this post, came between doing the retakes and getting the results. After our stressful couple of hours in that small room, where our memories of electronics and structures were tested, we had a few more weeks of holiday before the new term, so we both went home.

On the way home, I had caught a train into King’s Cross station, and then across London by tube to Victoria. As I was waiting I was browsing the record stand outside W.H.Smiths. I was aware of someone else also looking through the records. After a minute or so, we struck up a conversation, both of us clearly interested in the same sort of music. He introduced himself, and as we were talking, I explained that I had failed my exams, but hope to pass my retakes and go into the second year etc etc.

At some point I started talking about my love of music. In those days, I had a 4 track reel to reel tape recorder, taping from the radio, playing around with using echo and such. It turned out that he worked for Decca records, and as the conversation went on, the possibility of starting in the music industry with a view to being a recording engineer became exciting. He left me with his card, saying that if I changed my mind about continuing at university to give him a call.

On the train journey back home I was already envisioning a future in the music business. The bubble burst when I got back home and relayed the conversation with the Decca man to my parents. I was from a family where education was important, and to leave at this point would be a risk. I would be throwing away a secure future for something that may or may not work.

I was persuaded. Actually I don’t think I put up much of a fight. I’m maybe a safety first person at heart ?

The title of this post is ‘seeing in a straight line.’ That phrase came up in a conversation between T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin (see my last post). Seeing in a straight line is what we do most of the time. There maybe some special times when we are able to see around corners, but most of the time we don’t.

Back in 1974, I wasn’t able to see around the corner. I maybe had some stuff in my peripheral vision, but not enough to divert me from the easily visible path ahead.

I think since then, I have been able to see around the corner a couple of times, and allow myself to be taken to a new place in my life.

Thinking back to that conversation on Victoria station, I have no regrets. We probably all have some regrets, but for me, that’s not one of them.

And finally – listening to Robbie Robertson got me asking the question ‘If you could choose to have been present at the recording of one record, which would it be ?’

For me, it would be when Robbie Robertson and the Band recorded their second album, called simply ‘The Band.’ (Or ‘The Brown Album’). Here’s a link to a live recording of one of the songs on that album The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
(3 million views and counting).

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.