music

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).