Saturday, 24 March 2012

TAKE A SAD SONG, AND MAKE IT BETTER

My little sister is getting married today.

Why bore you with the details as to why I won't be there.  I'm not going to.  Families are strange and complicated countries where not everyone belongs. Some people choose to blame the inadequacy of their present on the bitterness and recrimination of the past. I can't say that I haven't paddled in these waters. All they made me was at sea.  Dry land seems preferable, despite the fact that even this is open to interpretation.

I was thinking about my youngest sister a lot last night as I sat with my friend Jane in Islington's sublime Union Chapel, listening to one of my favourite artists ever: Judie Tzuke. I won't enthuse and gush on the grounds that I have known Judie almost longer than I have known myself, because I hadn't seen her to speak to for some years.  Our lives overlapped frequently during the Eighties, when I worked at Chrysalis Records and she was signed to the label.  I remember clearly the first time I met her:  in the upstairs bar of the Lamb and Flag, a trad Victorian boozer on the corner of St. Christopher's Place, off Oxford Street, to which we escaped via the basement postroom stairs.

Judie was a vision. Angelic. Fragile. Not the kind of person one expected to find in such a pub. An ethereal, floaty, other-worldy creature who stood out from the throng on account of her exquisite blonde hair. It wasn't just the barnet, though:  she had this air of confidence, of having 'been here before'. 'Wafted in from some parallel universe', in the music-press jargon of the day.  An English Stevie Nicks, we thought.  Without the mad.  Not that I knew Stevie was bonkers at that point.  She just looked it, in all those 'it's my arty' Fleetwood Mac publicity shots. A few years on, I found myself on a plane with Stevie, heading for LA to do an interview and photo shoot.  I had never experienced a flight like it, and that's saying something - there were times mid-flight when anything went, and everything did.  But I'd never known a companion pull out a full-sized easel and a palette of oils at 35,000 feet, and start painting my portrait ...

I digress. Where was I?  In the Lamb and Flag. Lovely Kirsty McColl was at the other end of the bar. This must have been late 1981, '82, when Kirsty was signed to Polydor and had an unusual song out, 'There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis'.  Was she married to Steve Lillywhite at the time?  The memory lulls.  So there was jaw-drop Jude, famous throughout the world for her exquisite 1979 hit 'Stay With Me till Dawn' at one end, and quirky Kirsty at the other in a jaunty green bowler hat.  Some kind of fantasia.

Forget feminist polemics, enlightened subversiveness, the joyful fresh visions of womanhood. These were simply good birds. What they were was what I wanted to be, but I couldn't sing.  Jude and Kirsty, in their different, special, individual styles, retained their integrity and wrote songs from the heart.  Had they ripped open their own chests, torn apart the ventricles and slushed blood all over the mixing desk, they could not have been more honest about it. They wrote from experience, about what they saw.  It has always been daring, hasn't it: to refuse to conform.

We drank a lot in those days, so there wasn't much bigger-picture.  But now and again, you'd find yourself pausing to reflect, to look about.  While the Eighties music scene was diverse, entertaining and endless fun, there was a whole lot of self-serving going on.  Even the Live Aid caper, conceived by Bob Geldof in genuine, frustrated response to the shame of what was happening in Africa, proved over time to have done more for those who performed in it than for those supposed to benefit from what it achieved. 

I could bang on about that ad nauseam, but all I really want to say is this. There was no small talk with Jude and Kirsty.  They didn't do crap.  They said what they meant, and vice versa.  You knew where you stood. No back-biting, no back-stabbing, what you saw was what you got.  None of this 'us and them':  you're only a record company minion, we are the stars.  They were women. We bled together.

Kirsty had a fantastic career, knew heartache and tragedy, co-created the best-loved Christmas pop song of all time.  She paid the ultimate price for love in 2000, literally giving her life for her sons in a boating accident in Mexico. Who doesn't miss her.

As for Jude: well hey, hasn't it always been about the music.  She has been signed to so many labels, released so many albums. She personifies honesty in songwriting. She has never suffered fools, nor turned a blind eye to the unscrupulous.  She has never sold her soul.  Perhaps she would have had a Whitney of a career, had she done so.  But look, what kind of a price to pay in the end. Jude's heart has been broken, she has suffered, she has still soared. She has learned, evidently, to find joy in the little things.  If we can't have true happiness as our default, as the umbrella of life, at least we can lay  hands on the odd rainhat.  This is probably not quite how Judie herself would articulate her personal philosophy, but it's a take. She speaks for so many of us in her songwriting.  Her voice, delivering such carefully-crafted, quite beautiful lyrics, taps into our elation as well as our pain.

Oh sure, the tears fell last night, as I sat in the front row at the Union Chapel with friends who had driven all the way from Cheshire to see Judie and  'my beautiful Bailey', her daughter, born the same year as my eldest, Mia - so yes, we shared pregnancy, which was a moment. Back to the Lamb and Flag I drifted, with young Jude and Kirsty and with life to come.

Regrets?  Bring 'em on. Our hearts grow bigger because they heave with them.  With these swollen, shredded organs can we love more than we did when they were whole.  Buy Judie's new album, One Tree Less (www.tzuke.com/) and immerse yourself in  meaning.  I am sending it to my sister, on her wedding day.

3 comments:

  1. Loved this. I was there at Union Chapel and it was a wonderful concert. I’ve never met her but I’ve spent all my adult life listening to her music and whether it’s an old song or a new song, they speak to me about my life in a way that few artists manage. It pains me that she is not more recognised for her work. One Tree Less is an outstanding album.

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  2. Awesome to hear Judie is still going strong

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  3. More awesome raconteuse-ship, LA, I could read your tales from the world of music all day. And One Tree Less is on my list. Thanks for the tip, and the stories. DX

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