UNCOVERED: THE NEW ALBUM BY STEVE HARLEY

One of Marc Bolan’s favourite albums was 1970’s ‘Self Portrait’ by Bob Dylan, a cluster of folk and pop covers that stopped short of thrilling the critics. Never mind that it was a huge hit both here and in the US, affording Dylan a giggle en route to the Bank of America. Marc, still in his Tyrannosaurus Rex guise before electricity kicked in, was a knot of despair. He wrote a letter to the Melody Maker to express his disappointment at all the ridicule, singling out Bob’s soft-focus blaring of ‘Belle Isle’:
‘It brought to my memory all the moments of tenderness I’ve ever felt for another human being,’ he said. ‘And that, within the superficial landscape of pop music, is a great thing indeed.’
Love being nothing if not a FOR-letter word.

Bolan and Harley were ‘like that’: compadres, buddies, riding the crest, shooting the noise. Each a star in his own right, having matured on the magic of the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan, casting spells enough to taunt Bowie, Cat Stevens, Hot Chocolate and the rest. Steve and Bowie met once, at Marc’s September 1977 Golders Green funeral. Just as the Fab Four’s demise marked the conclusion of the Sixties, Bolan’s death tolled a knell for the glam decade. Does Steve reach for Marc’s hand here, in his own interpretation of beloved ‘Belle Isle’? Is his sweet take, with Eddi Reader, on the eroded Irish love song a veiled nod to his old friend, a shared balladic memory that tugged them both?There is otherwise no obvious Bolan on ‘Uncovered’, Steve’s own arresting cluster. But there is Zimmerman, Macca and John. There is David, Errol and Yusuf. There are the ghosts of Abbey Road, of posturing Cockney Rebel, of minstrels gone before, and of the Celt in him.

Gently, Steve. Gently. Acerbity stripped back, the caustic rebel pauses. Here is the musician at his most exposed, ventricles on his shirtsleeve, naked and raw. Open your stone hearts, bitter kids, and lend it your shell-likes. A septuagenarian grandfather can still be a boy in love, as long as he hasn’t forgotten the tenderness of falling. A brazen poet can pay homage to other poets, to troubadours who have inspired him, without dropping aside his own artistic integrity. Softly, softly, accompanied by his fine Acoustic Band featuring the maestro string-master Barry Wickens, does he tread through their hymns. Deeply and honestly does he rework them. There is complexity in all this simplicity. There is a lovely dance that makes you want to cry.

Listen. Bowie’s ‘Absolute Beginners’, the hit theme of a flop film, is close-up and soulful. The piercing scream is gone from Errol’s suicide dirge ‘Emma’, but there is Jim Cregan’s solo guitar. Made me smile. Harley’s rendition of ‘How Can I Tell You’ evokes all the purity and intensity of Cat’s original, but with a pleading quality, as though willing a lost one back. Robert Burns’s ode to unrequited love, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, throbs darkly with vulnerability. ‘Out of Time’, the Stones track that went big for Chris Farlowe in the summer of ’66, wafts a secret little whiff of ‘Brown Sugar’. Steve’s variation on Dylan’s ‘When I Paint my Masterpiece’ has a brothers-twanging-on-the-porch quality, before they take it into church. My favourite other version of this song used to be Emmylou Harris’s, on her 2008 album ‘Portraits’. No need to look far for symmetry.

Eleven tracks, with room for two of the interpreter’s own. Where have you heard ‘Compared With You (Your Eyes Don’t Seem to Age)’ before? Cast your mind back to 1976, to the Cockney Rebel LP ‘Love’s a Prima Donna’. Or to the compilations. Or to the many times Steve has performed it perfectly, live on stage. His first-ever love song, it has a new verse these days. As if beautiful Dorothy ever needs reminding. Baby, baby, baby. The ragged traveller is a long way from out of time.


Comments