Monday, 16 July 2018

THE FINAL CURTAIN?




If I could have back the lost weekends in the grass, the Glastos, the Readings, the Knebworths, the Isle of Wights. I gave up festivals years ago. Primarily because they were never about the music, but about loitering within tents, messing about with your musicbiz mates and boozing. You have kids, you grow up. I can never fathom those folk who take babies to open-air gigs.
Yet there are times to go back. We'll do it for legends, the opportunities to see and hear them receding all the time. We don't get our skin out. We shield ourselves from head to foot, but still boil in the blistering sun. We resist the champagne tents and the awful food. We glue our faces with Factor 50, equip ourselves with agua and face sprays, tissues and baby wipes, and are a bit Girl Guide about it. We seek swift stiffeners at the Hilton across from the park, in the Windows on the World. That's some view from the twenty-eighth floor, by the way. I had forgotten it. We brace ourselves to jostle among the throng for a few final shreds of the soundtrack of our lives.
Bonnie Raitt hauled us back to her roots. The ten-time Grammy winner who makes a mockery of sixty-nine is as great a guitarist as she is a singer, still pulling magic out of the same Fender Strat that she's used in every gig she's played since the Sixties. 'Nick of Time' and INXS's 'One of My Kind' were the stand-outs - the song that started life, in 1987, as 'Need You Tonight', and was later renamed.
James Taylor is much older than his seventy years, in many ways. His nine lives, triumphs and nightmares are all in the songs. The hair's gone, the cap's on, but the smile is as youthful as it ever was. 'Carolina In My Mind', Carole King's 'You've Got a Friend' and 'Fire and Rain' mesmerised. Taylor penned the cowboy lullaby ‘Rockabye Sweet Baby James’ for his newborn nephew, who was named after his uncle. The baby's father, Alex, was James's brother. He died on James's birthday, in 1993. 'There is another America,' he told the vast crowd, in a thinly-veiled reference to the embarrassment felt by millions of Americans at what their country has become under The Donald. Fear not, was the message: 'We'll be back.'
The eldest of the trio headlined in what is billed as his 'Farewell Tour'. Will he do a Tina Turner on us, and play fifteen comebacks? Only time will tell. Paul Simon celebrated a seven-decade career in the time-honoured fashion of subjecting us to a trawl of as yet obscure tracks from the forthcoming new album, while leaving the hits until the encores. 'America', 'Me and Julio' and 'Mother and Child Reunion' thrilled before the big one: his reclamation of 'the best song I ever wrote'.
'I gave away my best one,' lamented seventy-six year-old Simon, of 'Bridge over Troubled Water', meaning that he surrendered it to the voice of Art. 'This is the first time I've sung it. I'm reclaiming it. I am taking back my long lost child.'
Life, drugs and booze do the withering. Angels save the brave. They go again, rejuvenated by their own resilience. Music rescues them. It rescues us all.


Wednesday, 11 July 2018

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM





Gilbert O'Sullivan's showcase at 100 Wardour Street last night whisked us back to the time when time stood still. The half-mast trews and offside cloth cap are a memory. He still cuts his own hair, still sings with Waterford clarity, his quirky, gentle songwriting and plaintive themes at times hard to hear.
He was on top of the world in 1972. He was my first crush. Superstardom was as good as all over by 1975. But they don't go away. They keep doing it. A dozen albums later, a Glasto, an Albert Hall. He's still big in Japan.
There were tears in the eerily mauve-lit room, not least in the eyes of men. Ray performed tracks from his new album 'Gilbert O'Sullivan', to be launched next month, interspersed with the songs of way back when. 'Clair', 'We Will', 'No Matter How I Try', 'Alone Again (Naturally)', 'Get Down', 'Nothing Rhymed'. Could we take much more? Why is this hard to write?
It's true, isn't it, that the music we loved as kids means more with each passing year. Such songs hold disproportionate power over our memories. The brain binds us tightly to the soundtrack of our youth, more than anything we encounter down the line as adults. The connection never loosens. All it takes is for a song to be heard again. Musical nostalgia, explain the scientists, is much more than just a cultural phenomenon. ‘Doc Rock’ Julia Jones has authored a brilliant thesis on this theme. It's no less than a major neurological command. We stay wired to the songs that awoke us to love and life. It's that simple. I think.
But memories mean little without emotion. And nothing stimulates emotion better than music. It lights the sparks of neural activity. On rare occasions, it ignites it into a full pyrotechnic display. The music we love between the ages of twelve and twenty-two, when our brains are undergoing rapid neurological development, gets wired into our lobes for all time. Even as the importance of childhood memories fades, the emotional glow provoked by music lingers.
The years may have evaporated and can be experienced no more. But hear the songs we loved when those memories were being made and we are zipped right back there. The love and joy that they made us feel surge anew. Thank you, Ray, for reminding us.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

STILL GLEAMING?



My father covered ten World Cup tournaments. He wrote about their games, glories and fall-outs with the style and flair of the polished journalist, but with the courage and gut emotion of a genuine footballer. Which he had been. He played professionally before I was born, was injured out, and strayed far. Fleet Street called. He took his talent to the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, both roaring newspapers in their day, and then on to the Independent, at its inception. His confident overview, insightful sentences and acerbic observations floored the competition, took him around the world and made his name.
It's a big-bucks game these days. It wasn't always like this. There was a time when footballing excellence as good as defined this country, presenting fair play and best-of-British values; when the working man's fun gave us something to look up to. Then money happened. Sponsorship kicked in. Premiership players became obscenely overpaid. The heart was ripped out. Isn't it always.
Though my footballing forebears are mostly dead and buried, their names never heard of by most modern fans, they were once one of the greatest British footballing families. If I felt the game's decline personally, it wasn't hard to see why. My grandfather Emlyn Jones and his four brothers, five of ten kids, all played for Merthyr Town FC in Wales before being sold to English clubs. Grandad went to Everton. My great uncle Bryn became the world's most expensive player in 1939 when he was sold by Wolves to Arsenal for £14,500. The fee caused a riot on Downing Street, what with Europe teetering on the brink of war. History repeated during the 1950s and '60s when three of the sons of those five brothers, Ken, Bryn Jnr. and Cliff, turned professional. Our family soared again, producing the most valuable player on earth for a second time. 'Uncle Cliff' was a star at Spurs. The original Gareth Bale. My father Ken Jones turned out for Southend United, Swansea and Hereford before becoming a writer in 1958, and eventually the Voice of Sport.
Football gave in to corporate investment and gentrification. But where there was once dignity, there is precious little these days.
If the FIFA World Cup has a purpose beyond showcasing competition between the best on the planet, it could be to remind us not only of how beautifully the game can be played, but what it represents. Like baseball in America, the one constant down all the years has been our national sport. It marks time. It's why the tournament matters. It reminds us, as the writer said in the movie 'Field of Dreams', of all that was once good, and could be again.
People will come. They will flock to living rooms and kitchens and back gardens and sports bars and streets on Saturday afternoon, clutching beers and bottles and bags of crisps, and reaching for burnt offerings from barbecues; they will waft into private members' clubs and to giant screenings in leisure centres, fine refreshment on tap. A quarter-final is a quarter final. We may not be spared. The best team on the day will win. Gareth Southgate's knighthood is perhaps assured, not only for having galvanised a clutch of boys into achieving what has long been impossible, but for having restored diminished dignity; for having moulded a role-model team; for having inspired pride; and for revealing a glint of a foreign country, our distant collective past. We did things differently there. We won. We are winning now. Whether or not we lose.