Clive James 1939-2019
At school I was in a folk group with two chaps called Ian Taylor and Jeff Minson. Ian had the looks and the voice, Jeff had a 12-string guitar, and I just tagged along. When was this? Well, one Saturday afternoon we paused our rehearsal at Jeff’s parents’ house to watch the transmission of the very first episode of Dr Who. (Another clue: the coffee bar we played at was called the Jules et Jim.) Eventually Ian went up to Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights. In 1970 he invited me to one of their performances at the Hampstead Theatre Club, and that’s where I met another member of the troupe, the singer-songwriter Pete Atkin, and his lyricist, a talkative Australian called Clive James.
Clive died on Sunday. He and I once joked that we should start a club for people who had voluntarily stepped down from presenting a BBC television series; the two of us would be the only eligible members. But a couple of years later he returned to the small screen and went on to a fame far beyond that which he earned from his wonderful weekly TV reviews in the Observer.
He did a lot of stuff, and sometimes he overdid it, but what will last for me are some of his more serious poems — such “Japanese Maple”, the one in which, writing in 2014, he foresaw his own death — and a handful of his lyrics. The latter could be archly funny, like “The Only Wristwatch for a Drummer”:
The Omega Incabloc Oyster Acutron ’72 / Without this timepiece there’d have been no bebop to begin with. / Bird and Diz were tricky men to sit in with / Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new. / Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three, / One on the right wrist and one on the left / And the third one around his knee.
A number of his lyrics were about musicians, always informed by his huge reservoir of knowledge and an understanding of the condition of, for instance, a session man or a pianist accompanying a torch singer. Above all, he knew how to draw popular culture into the art songs he and Pete wrote together. For me, their magnum opus was the title song of the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, in which James imagined the four students shot dead by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University the previous year hurtling to their tragic destiny through the landscape of the American imagination: Baby Face and Rosebud, Moose Molloy and Herman Kahn, Norman Rockwell and FDR, Jersey Joe and the Kansas City Seven. Being Clive James, he even chose their cars with precision: a Studebaker Golden Hawk and a Nash Ambassador.
James and Atkin took a high-risk approach to singer-songwriter music in the early ’70s. The combination of music, lyrics and voice didn’t always work. But it was a risk worth taking, and it still has an audience.
* The photograph is taken from Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin by Ian Shircore, published in 2016 by RedDoor.