Bob Dylan turns 80 today. I commissioned this ink drawing for an issue of Time Out celebrating Dylan’s arrival to play at Earl’s Court in 1978, his first London shows in a dozen years. Ralph Steadman chose to make his image out of Bob’s words. When I left the editorship a few months later, the staff very kindly acquired the original from Ralph and gave it to me as a leaving present. As you might imagine, it’s a precious possession, although not quite as precious as all the songs Bob has placed in the common memory over the past six decades. Many happy returns to him.
It’s 40 years this week since Jamaica came to a halt for the funeral of its most famous son. What follows is an expanded version of the reports I wrote on that extraordinary day for The Times and the French magazine Rock & Folk.
They buried Bob Marley on 21 May 1981 at Nine Mile, the Jamaican hamlet where, 36 years earlier, he had been born. His heavy bronze coffin was carried to the top of the highest hill in the village and placed in a temporary mausoleum which had been painted in the colours of red, green and gold. Alongside Marley’s embalmed corpse, the casket contained his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened at Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja placed there by his widow, Rita, at the end of the formal funeral ceremony.
In London 10 days earlier, a few hours after his death was announced, I’d gone to the Island studios in an old church on Basing Street in Notting Hill. I knew the members of Aswad were scheduled to be there, cutting tracks for a new album in the very basement room where Bob had finished off Catch A Fire, his breakthrough album, in 1972. But it was late, and the musicians had gone home after watching the tributes hastily assembled by the British television networks. The only people left in the building were the caretaker and a member of Aswad’s road crew, both Jamaicans.
“A sad day,” I said to them, unable to think of anything more profound or perceptive.
They raised their eyes, and the roadie paused in the middle of rolling a spliff.
“Jah give,” he said, “and Jah take away.”
And that was the mood in Kingston the following week, when Marley’s body arrived on a flight from Miami. There was no reason to grieve, the Rastas told anyone who asked. Death meant nothing. And Bob hadn’t really gone. He was still among us.
Since Jamaica was at that time almost certainly the only country in the world whose prime minister had once tried his hand at the production of pop records, it was perhaps not surprising that the announcement of the country’s national budget was postponed by several days in order to accommodate what amounted to a state funeral. It was necessary to send out invitations, to construct the mausoleum, and to organise the security at the National Arena, where the main ceremony would be held. And the prime minister, Edward Seaga, had to prepare the euology he would deliver during the service.
On the day before the funeral, the coffin was placed in the National Arena, a large gymnasium-like building. The lid was opened and members of the public were allowed to file past, taking a last look and delivering their final homage. Marley’s head was once more covered with dreadlocks; but this was a wig to cover his bald skull, his own locks having been lost during his treatment for cancer in hospitals in New York, Miami and Mexico, and finally in the Bavarian clinic of Dr Josef Issels.
In Jamaica, everyone claimed to have been Bob’s personal friend and everyone wanted to pay their last respects. The cab driver who picked me up at Norman Manley Airport knew immediately why I was there. When I asked him if he’d known Bob, he replied: “Sure I knew him. He smoked the ‘erb of life.” And he passed his spliff over his shoulder to his friend sitting in the back seat, a policeman.
In a single day, an estimated 100,000 people queued up to pass before Marley’s coffin, some of them returning two or three times. Many couldn’t get in and at times, when the crowd threatened to become unruly, the police used tear gas to thin them out.
The day of the funeral began with a service for family and close friends at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity on Maxfield Street, presided over by His Eminence Abouna Yesehaq, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere, who had baptised Marley into membership of his church in New York the previous November. This was just after his triumphal concerts at Madison Square Garden, when his cancer had already been diagnosed. Bob’s baptismal name was Berhane Selassie — “Light of the Trinity”.
At the end of the hour-long service the coffin was transported to the National Arena, where 6,000 members of the congregation were assembled under the eyes of television cameras and reporters from around the world. Above the entrance to the hall, a huge banner proclaimed: “Funeral Service of the Honourable Robert Nesta Marley, OM”. The Order of Merit had been conferred on him by Seaga a few weeks before his death.
The casket was carried into the hall on the shoulders of a score of white-jacketed guards of the Jamaican Defence Force. Inside as well as out, a public address system blasted out Bob’s records, while in the surrounding avenues the hawkers of badges and posters worked the large crowd who had arrived without invitations and were prepared to listen to the ceremony over the loudspeakers.
“Babylon system is a vampire,” Bob’s voice wailed above the heads of the young soldiers who had rested their rifles against the temporary barriers. The coffin was deposited on a table in the middle of the broad stage and covered with two flags, the green, gold and black of Jamaica and the green, gold and red of Ethiopia. The stage decor was the work of Neville Garrick, the graphic designer who had become the art director of Tuff Gong, Marley’s record label, and the creator of all the Wailers’ sleeve art from Rastaman Vibration to Uprising. The rows of temporary seating on the arena floor were reserved for invited guests, but the balconies were open to the public and filled up quickly. Among the spectators were many small figures in the neat uniforms of Jamaican schoolchildren, given the day off from their lessons. On the floor, the rows were marked with signs: Family, Government, Press, Twelve Tribes of Israel, Musicians.
Photographers swiftly surrounded the seats reserved for the family as Cedella Booker, Bob’s mother, took her place, followed by his widow and some of his children, including his sons Ziggy, Stevie, Robert Jr and Julian, and his daughters Cedella and Stephanie. Applause saluted the dignified entry of Michael Manley, the former prime minister, whose pro-Cuba policies had provoked the disastrous enmity of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, and who had been deposed by Seaga at a general election six months earlier. The warmth of the welcome indicated that the Rastafarians, in particular, still saw Manley as the friend of the poor and the oppressed, and the contrast was obvious with the polite but tepid reception accorded to Seaga, who hurried to his seat practically engulfed by a crowd of uniformed guards.
Rumours of the presence of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack turned out to be false. But the governor-general of Jamaica, Sir Florizel Glasspole, ON, GCMG, CD, the Queen of England’s representative, arrived from his official residence, the palatial King’s House, to provide an appropriate symbol of the island’s colonial history, a living reminder of the origins of most of those present, whose ancestors had been brought from Africa four centuries earlier to form the world’s only entirely slavery-based economy.
The formal guard of the Ethiopian Church, elderly men and women in white robes striped with the Rasta colours, took their places around the coffin. The stage was soon filled with the elders of the church, in robes of varied and vivid design. On the right of the platform a riser had been prepared for the church choir and for the United Africa Band, a group comprised of several percussionists, a bass guitarist and an organist, directed by Brother Cedric Brooks, the saxophonist more often found at the head of the band of Count Ossie, known as the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. On the left, another riser was covered with amplifiers, keyboards and the drums, all stencilled with the legend “Bob Marley and the Wailers”.
A voice came over the PA. “Brothers and sisters, this is a funeral service for Bob Marley. Please don’t forget that. The selling of all merchandise must stop now.” In the row in front of me, the producer Harry J, accompanied by his protegée, the singer Sheila Hilton, was in the middle of a conversation with a neighbouring Rasta wearing a red, green and gold tam o’shanter. “There has to be revolution to get a solution,” the Rasta said. Harry J, immaculate in his glossy silk suit, didn’t seem to be in agreement. (I had last seen Harry J outside his studio nine years earlier, during the Catch A Fire sessions, when he had taken a silver Smith & Wesson revolver out of the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile and tucked it into his shoulder holster before heading inside. I wondered if he was wearing it to the funeral, but didn’t ask.)
A little while after the scheduled hour of 11 o’clock, the service began with a hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past”, led by Cedric Brooks and accompanied by his drummers. As the old Anglican melody died away, His Eminence Abouna Yesehaq, standing beneath a parasol held by an acolyte, read passages from the Anaphora of St John, Son of Thunder and from the Anaphora of St Mary in Geez and Amharic, the ancient tongues of Ethiopia. “Jah!” came the answering salutation from some members of the audience, clad in the raiment of the Twelve Tribes. “Rastafari!”
The Governor General stepped forward to read the first lesson, taken from the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 20-38: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” The congregation sang another hymn, coincidentally a favourite of the late Elvis Presley: “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee / How great Thou art, how great Thou art.” Michael Manley, in his guise as Leader of the Opposition, read from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter three, verses 7-13: “Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith / For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.”
Next, to the delight of the Rastafarians on the floor and in the balcony, it was the turn of Allan “Skill” Cole, Jamaica’s finest footballer and one of the dead man’s closest friends. His appearance barely tolerated by the elders of the Ethiopian Church, Cole had been scheduled to read from Psalm 68, which bears the subtitle “To the chief Musician, a Psalm or Song of David.” Instead, ignoring the text prepared for him by the elders, he announced that he intended to deliver passages from Corinthians and Isaiah particularly dear to Rasta hearts. Mutterings and shufflings among the church dignitaries on the platform were countered by the sounds of delighted approval from those clad, like Cole, in the robes of the Twelve Tribes. Their mood turned to riotous glee as the footballer refused to heed furious requests to leave the platform, instead continuing with his reading and finishing off by returning to his seat in triumph.
The Archbishop recovered himself in time to read the Beatitudes — “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” — and to lead the Lord’s Prayer before Edward Seaga, once a producer of ska records, made his appearance at the lectern to deliver his eulogy, which was memorable only for his closing benediction: “May his soul rest,” said the man in the business suit, “in the arms of Jah Rastafari.” Even the Twelve Tribes, otherwise opposed to Seaga’s worldview in every particular, could scarce forbear to cheer this unusually explicit acknowledgement of their existence within Jamaican society.
When the time came for the Archbishop to deliver his address, he took the opportunity to take his revenge on the seditious “Skill” Cole in the form of a direct message to the Rastas in the hall. Why advocate repatriation to Africa, he said, when it would profit them more to seek a better life in Jamaica? “Jah!” they shouted in defiant response to his words. “Rastafari!”
The most extraordinary moment of the ceremony, the most beautiful and the most African, came when the Wailers mounted the stage. The members of the Marley’s old band took over as Junior Murvin directed the guitarist Al Anderson, the bass and drums duo of Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother Carlie, and Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, the veteran percussionist. Ibo, Third World’s keyboards player, took the place of Tyrone Downie, who had arrived that morning wearing the robes of the Twelve Tribes but had been mysteriously denied entrance to the Arena. The I-Threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffith) sang “Rastaman Chant” to a ponderous and mournful rhythm, before the Wailers struck up “Natural Mystic”.
It was during this song, while the crowd was getting to its feet and moving towards the edge of the stage to join what had suddenly been transformed from a solemn obsequy to a celebration of the dead man’s spirit, that Ziggy and Stevie Marley could be seen, dancing among the musicians. Respectively aged eight and six, identically dressed in maroon suits and white shoes, they performed joyous imitations of their late father’s skanking stage dance, and the resemblance was such that the crowd gasped at the sight. When the mixing engineer superimposed a recording of Bob’s voice above the band’s heavyweight dub rhythm, accompanied by waves of cheering from a concert audience, the effect was hallucinatory.
It was Cedella Booker, Bob’s mother, who closed the performance. Accompanied by two other women singers, she delivered “Amen” — a song first recorded by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, whose music had inspired the Wailers’ earliest efforts — in a powerful gospel voice, the crowd swaying to the rhythm. When she finished, the musicians put down their instruments, lifted the coffin on to their shoulders and carried it from the stage, followed by the family and other mourners through the hall and out into the roadway where, after the crowd had been moved aside, it was placed in a flatbed hearse, ready to begin the 50-mile journey back to where Bob Marley’s life had begun.
As the cortège left Kingston, it passed in front of the house at 56 Hope Road, which Chris Blackwell had given to Marley to be the Wailers’ hometown headquarters. Inside the house, a wall still bore the holes from the bullets that had narrowly failed to kill Bob during what appeared to be a politically motivated attack by a gunman in 1976, while Jamaica was under martial law.
Then the hearse passed the Alpha Catholic Boys’ School on South Camp Road, where many of Jamaica’s finest musicians — Don Drummond, Joe Harriott, Tommy McCook, Vin Gordon, Rico Rodriguez — had learned to play, under the direction of Ruben Delgado, an inspiring teacher. The current generation of pupils now stood outside to sing “No Woman, No Cry” as the procession headed towards Marcus Garvey Drive and out of the city on the road to Spanish Town.
Crossing the parish of St Catherine to the town of Bog Walk, where the road splits right towards Port Maria and left to Ocho Rios, the cars turned north-west through Linstead and Moneague, with the 1,000ft peak of Mount Friendship to the east, taking the left fork past Claremont into the parish of St Ann, skirting the northern foothills of the Dry Harbour Mountains and on through Brown’s Town. As they approached each settlement, the passengers could see that people had come out of their houses and schools and farms and workshops to stand by the roadside. Near Cotton Piece the open-backed hearse broke down and the coffin had to be put into a replacement van. Finally, in mid-afternoon, the dead man and his mourners arrived at Nine Mile, a hamlet set at the end of a single-track road among gentle, verdant red-clay hills.
A helicopter buzzed overhead, carrying a film crew, their cameras trained on slopes covered with white-robed figures. Rastas from all over the island had set off early to be in place when the procession arrived. Policeman cradling machine-guns were prepared for trouble yet, despite the crush as the coffin was removed from the hearse and carried up to the small temporary mausoleum, disorder was minimal.
Nine Mile turned out to be little more than a scattering of shanties, with one or two bars and a small single-storey stone building consecrated, according to a hand-written sign, to the use of the Holy Baptist Church of the Fire of God of the Americas. This was a place where workers in the sugar plantations set in the flatlands towards the sea had been allowed to build their modest homes and cultivate their own subsistence crops. It was here, on 6 February 1945, that Cedella Booker had brought a son into the world and that, only a few paces away from the mausoleum, in a two-room shack measuring about 20ft by 5ft, Bob and Rita Marley had returned for a year or two at the end of the ’60s, and here that they nurtured their own first child.
After a brief ceremony of interment, the convoy departed, followed by the police. Only the Rastas remained, wandering to and fro around the village and across the hills. For the last time, Junior Murvin and Neville Garrick climbed the little mound up to the mausoleum, picking their way through empty Red Stripe cans, the music they had helped to send around the world now throbbing from a dozen portable cassette players.
As the light began to fail, the vendors of ice creams and soft drinks began to pack up. The thump of the helicopter’s rotors receded as it wheeled away and headed south, back to Kingston. The white-robed members of the Twelve Tribes melted into the gathering dusk. Bob had come home.
Just about the first thing I discovered when I began a three-year term as artistic director of Berlin’s historic jazz festival in 2015 was that I would be required to explain myself. More specifically, I would be asked to describe my “concept”. This was a little disconcerting since I didn’t really have one, at least not in any worked-out form.
What I came up with, thinking on my feet, was a definition applicable to the kind of festival I wanted to make. “Jazz,” I told my inquisitors, “is any music that couldn’t exist if jazz hadn’t existed.”
I’ve never been quite sure whether I invented that aphorism simply out of expediency, in order to cover myself and to explain some of the music I wanted to present, in which the elements of traditional forms of jazz were sometimes attentuated or modified almost to invisibility. Eventually I decided that I believed it enough to feel comfortable about using it whenever it was necessary to justify something.
In my first year, the best example was provided by Divan of the Continents, a 22-piece band jointly led by Cymin Samawatie, a singer born in Berlin to Iranian parents, and Ketan Bhatti, a drummer born in India. Both graduates of jazz courses at Berlin’s University of the Arts (the UdK), together they had devised an ambitious project to bring together a large ensemble of locally based musicians from various ethnic backgrounds, from the principal viola-player of the Berlin Philharmonic and an English free-jazz trombonist to virtuosos of the sheng, the oud, the ney, the kanun and the koto. The aim was to work at creating music which honoured the essence of each player’s respective genre while (and this is the important bit) aiming for something genuinely new. What it would not be was an example of musical tourism. It wouldn’t be obviously “jazz”, either. But you could even see this as being a modern version of jazz’s origin story, in which elements of African and European musics came together to form a hybrid that took on a life of its own.
Since the music was complex, it seemed right to arrange for them to have three days of rehearsals in the small concert hall at the UdK’s Jazz Institute, open to students and the public. Then, on the festival’s closing night, they gave a performance in the 1,000-seater hall of the Berliner Festspiele, leading off a bill completed by Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Four Blokes and Ambrose Akinmusire’s quartet with the singer Theo Bleckmann. It was, I think, a success: the audience gave every appearance of being intrigued, particularly by the settings of poetry sung by Samawatie and two other female singers.
Now Samawatie and Bhatti have made an album of that music, and other pieces, with an ensemble of similar size and instrumentation, containing about half the original personnel. In the meantime, the project been retitled: the album is called Trickster Orchestra. But the concept is the same, and the time spent in preparation has resulted in something rather extraordinary: a music in which the sheng of Wu Wei and the viola of Martin Stegner have equal weight, in which the double bass of Ralf Schwarz can emerge with a walking 4/4 line and the various items of tuned percussion can set up rhythm patterns reminiscent of Steve Reich. The words of the songs range from Psalm 130 to the Sufi poet Rumi and the contemporary poet Efe Duvan, and are sung in Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish. The lyricism is always poised and sometimes swooning, but the serenity can be punctured by a fusillade of drums, subtly coloured by electronics.
It’s not a mosaic, but it is a kaleidoscope. Each musician retains her or his own tuning and vocabulary. The various tones, textures and idiomatic accents are overlapped, juxtaposed and filtered through each other, creating something much more interesting than a flavourless fusion. I think it would have interested the founder of Berlin’s jazz festival, the late Joachim-Ernst Berendt, a man with a strong belief in the potential value of opening jazz up to new relationships with the music of other cultures. Trickster Orchestra is an impressive example of where that kind of thinking has led, giving musicians of high skill and inquiring minds the chance to find new paths.
* Trickster Orchestra by Cymin Samawatie and Ketan Bhatti is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Bassem Alhouri (kanun), Naoko Kikuchi (koto) and Ralf Schwarz (bass) is from their 2015 concert in Berlin and was taken by Camille Blake.
By the time Wes Montgomery died of a heart attack in 1968, aged 45, he was most famous for a series of albums, supervised by the producer Creed Taylor, in which he used his jazz chops to turn pop hits — “Goin’ Out of My Head”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “California Dreaming”, “A Day in the Life” — into a form of high-quality, lightly funky easy-listening music. In his earlier years, however, he had raised the bar for jazz guitar — and that Wes Montgomery was the one who visited Europe three years before his death. His touring itinerary included a season at Ronnie Scott’s, where he met some of the musicians who would accompany him to Germany for a TV broadcast commissioned by Norddeutsche Rundfunk, the Hamburg-based station that was, and is, part of the ARD national public broadcasting network.
Playing in NDR’s studios in front of an audience, Montgomery led an eight -piece line-up including one fellow American, the tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. The six European musicians were the Austrian altoist Hans Koller, the French-Algerian pianist Martial Solal, the French bassist Michel Gaudry, and three Brits: Ronnie Scott on tenor, Ronnie Ross on baritone and Ronnie Stephenson on drums.
The music they played on April 30, 1965 in NDR’s Jazz Workshop series has just been released for the first time, and it’s a fine example of multinational mainstream-modern jazz. The four-piece reed section breezes through the solid, tightly-voiced arrangements of Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues”, “Four on Six” and “Twisted Blues”, Ross’s “Last of the Wine” and “Blue Grass”, Griffin’s “The Leopard Walks” and Solal’s fascinating “Opening 2”. There are special features for Wes on a quartet bossa nova version of “Here’s that Rainy Day”, and an electrifying Griffin on “Blue Monk”. It’s a very satisfying hour, and a welcome discovery.
But there’s also a second disc, a Blu-Ray video recording of the rehearsal in the studio two days earlier, in which the musicians are getting comfortable with the charts while the TV director works out his camera shots. And it contains five minutes that are absolutely remarkable.
Between the rehearsals of “Blue Grass” and “Blue Monk”, Solal runs through an intricate trio arrangement of “On Green Dolphin Street” with Gaudry and Stephenson. As they begin, the other musicians slowly gather round, listening intently. Scott peers over Stephenson’s shoulder, following the chart on the drummer’s music stand. Montgomery stays his chair, cradling his fat-bodied Gibson guitar, but is paying serious attention. So is Griffin, who prowls round to stand behind the pianist.
It’s a breathtaking performance. Typically of Solal, it mixes angular modernity with perfectly integrated hints of the history of jazz piano, from stride to bebop. It’s audacious and witty and wonderful, and the bassist and drummer do brilliantly to keep pace. By the time it’s over, you’re thinking that Solal is the inheritor to Art Tatum’s breathtaking virtuosity. And the other musicians are thinking something similar. You can see it in their body language. And you can hear it when, as the last note dies, Griffin walks round beside Solal, leans into him and says: “Ridiculous!” And as he walks away and he and Scott cross paths, you can see them shaking their heads in admiration. It’s a beautiful thing to see musicians reacting spontaneously in an informal setting. More than half a century later, we can share their sense of delight and discovery.
All these men — in their stylish polo shirts and cardigans and narrow slacks and neat haircuts, with their mastery of a complex musical language — are now gone, except one. That one is Martial Solal, who played with Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt and wrote the music for Godard’s À bout de souffle, now 93 years old and, as he has continued to prove through the years, an authentic genius of jazz.
* Wes Montgomery’s The NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings, produced by Stefan Gerdes, Axel Dürr and Joachim Becker, is on the Jazzline Classics/NDR Kultur label.
Some time in the future, academics will pore over the ways people found to make music despite the restrictions imposed during the various lockdowns. But there are things that don’t need the benefit of time to provide perspective. The knowledge that Peter Hammill’s In Translation was created in cruel and unusual circumstances may increase his listeners’ admiration, but its quality transcends such considerations.
Coming 50 years after the release of his first solo release, Fool’s Mate, in the summer of 1971, this is Hammill’s covers album, with a difference. Only three of the songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “This Nearly Was Mine” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” — are likely to be well known to the Anglophone audience. The remainder are either Italian pop songs or melodies by classical composers with lyrics translated by Hammill. It’s the measure of the strength of his artistic character that the whole thing has the unity of a song cycle.
Working in his Wiltshire studio, he weaves his own guitars and keyboards together with samples to create orchestrations that are full of interesting textures — complementary and contrasting — while retaining a sense of economy and intimacy, finding common ground between material plucked from seemingly divergent sources. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that he creates a emotional microclimate within which songs as different as “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Gustav Mahler’s “Lost to the World” can thrive together.
Hammill’s vocal style, with its clear diction, complete absence of blues inflections and occasional use of a pronounced vibrato, has always emphasised the closeness of his music’s spirit to that of European art song, from the Weimar cabaret music of Kurt Weill to the chanson of Jacques Brel, filtered through the sensibility of British musicians who served their apprenticeships in the second half of the 1960s. You can hear this tendency at its most declamatory on “Ballad for My Death”, whose melody is by the tango master Astor Piazzolla but could easily be by Brel. Hammill dials back the drama on other songs, such as Fabrizio de Andre’s “Hotel Supramonte” and Gabriel Fauré’s “After a Dream”, that might have been submerged by similar treatment.
“The Folks” and “This Nearly” are songs he grew up with, so he’s not going to poke fun at their 1950s sentiments. He takes them seriously, delivering them in his ardent English semi-croon, relishing their shapely contours and allowing listeners to make up their own minds about what the lyrics represent. “I (Who Have Nothing)” comes with drama built in: you either sing it that way or you don’t sing it at all, and Hammill’s version adds a shadow second vocal to emphasise what he calls the song’s “somewhat creepy nature”, as well as the hallucinatory sound of a mellotron (I think) and a paranoid electric guitar.
Perhaps the most striking arrangement of all is provided for Piero Ciampi’s “Il Vino”, a late-night drinking song that sways to synthesised strings, a cheap organ and glockenspiel. Its finale reminded Hammill of Nino Rota and thus of a “Fellini-esque aesthetic” which, he thinks, suffuses the whole project.
In Translation is an exceptional album: warm, approachable, and betraying no sense of the isolation in which it was created. Rather the reverse, as Hammill suggests when, in his notes, he remarks that, as well as the coronovirus, he had Brexit on his mind while he was making it. “Now the free travel around Europe which has been such a feature, pleasure and education in my adult life has ended,” he writes, “and all the benefits of cultural exchange are gone with it. I wouldn’t have been able to approach or understand many of these songs without that experience and to lose it is piteous.” It’s hard to believe that one day, when our corner of the world has come to its senses, those borders will not be open again.
* Peter Hammill’s In Translation is released today on the Fie! label: http://www.sofasound.com. The photograph is from the album cover and was taken by James Sharrock.
In 1965, when she was 18 years old, Marianne Faithfull was cast as Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s Hamlet, a Roundhouse production swiftly transferred to film. Two years later Bill Gaskill directed her in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Royal Court, alongside Glenda Jackson: “Marriane (sic) Faithfull looked Irina most plausibly,” Philip Hope-Wallace wrote in the Guardian, “even if she could still get more out of the words.” Today, in her maturity, Faithfull knows that the best lines can be allowed to speak for themselves.
Lines like Keats’ “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing”, for example, and Tennyson’s “The mirror crack’d from side to side.” They’re heard on her new album, She Walks in Beauty, in which she recites verses from the Romantic poets over backdrops created by the Australian musician Warren Ellis.
I’ve no idea whether, following her recovery from a bout of Covid-19 which put her in intensive care for three weeks, she has plans to make any more albums. If not, She Walks in Beauty would make a fitting capstone to a career that began in 1964 when, at a party for the singer Adrienne Posta, Andrew Loog Oldham spotted a convent schoolgirl who was already in thrall to the poetry she reads here.
The album adheres to a single mood, tending towards the ethereal: drifting ambient soundscapes sparingly garnished by Ellis’s violin, Vincent Ségal’s cello, Nick Cave’s piano and, on two pieces, Brian Eno’s treatments. Faithfull’s delivery of the verses is respectful and measured: her deep contralto has the grain of experience, grounding the poetics. About half the tracks received their voice tracks after her recovery, which might explain why one or two of them are more deliberate than the rest, although not obviously or disturbingly so.
Among the pieces I particularly enjoyed are Byron’s title piece, Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy”. I was amused, too, that she borrows a tactic perfected by her old admirer Bob Dylan with “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”: the trick of leaving the collection’s epic performance until last. In this case it’s the 12 minutes of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, which she gives in the 20-stanza version published in 1832, 10 years before the author revised the ending to suit Victorian sensibilities. (It’s a shame her script — repeated in the accompanying booklet — gave her “Through the squally east wind keenly/Blew…” rather than “Though…”, but the blemish is fleeting.)
It’s worth adding that ownership of the special edition of She Walks in Beauty is much enhanced by the inclusion of reproductions of a dozen watercolours — including the cover illustration — by the English artist Colin Self, any one of which I’d be happy to have hanging on the wall.
As a collateral benefit, Faithfull’s album sent me back to Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, a 1968 release in which Joan Baez read and sang poetry over music by the composer Peter Schickele. Conceived by Maynard Solomon, the co-founder of Vanguard Records, it was an ambitious project in which Schickele created bespoke settings for verses from poets ranging from anonymous medieval Chinese and Japanese writers through John Donne, William Blake and Walt Whitman to Arthus Rimbaud, Wilfred Owen, Henry Treece, James Joyce, Federico García Lorca, Jacques Prévert, Countee Cullen and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
The album is bookended by Treece’s “Old Welsh Song”, a fragment sung by Baez, backed by a harmonium. Much more of a mosaic of miniatures than Faithfull’s album, the mood of the programme is defined by a hatred of war and bloodshed, beginning with Whitman’s “I Saw the Vision of Armies”, read to softly rolling tom-toms and cymbals, and the Chinese verse “Minister of War”, punctuated by a distorted guitar and a clashing gong-like effects. A hovering unison cello and bass line wanders disconsolately behind Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translation of Prévert’s “Song in the Blood”, glockenspiel and celeste accompany the sung version of Joyce’s early “Of the Dark Past”, a jaunty string quartet matches the vivacity of a fragment from the same writer’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
If the flute and harp embroidering Rimbaud’s “Childhood” are a bit twee, his “Evil” gets a cinematic soundtrack whose opening sounds of strife thin out as they give way to pathos. The flute, viola and celeste colouring Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Japanese haiku are appropriately exquisite, and Schickele gives Baez a lovely melody for e.e. cummings’ “All in green went my love riding”. Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, with its devastating payoff, is wisely left unaccompanied.
Baez was 27 at the time of this recording. Sometimes her delivery could be a little over-reverent, but mostly she found the right tone, nowhere more powerfully than on the two short poems at the heart of the album: Blake’s “London”, with its appalled visions of the corruption of the flesh and the spirit, and Norman Rosten’s “In Guernica”, where a simple, almost photographic description deepens into tragedy through a single word: “In Guernica the dead children / Were laid out in order on the sidewalk / In their white starched dresses / In their pitiful white dresses.” Both pieces employ the tolling of tuned percussion over strange drones.
By 1968, Baez had sold a lot of albums. Her two In Concert albums had made the Billboard top 10 in 1962-63, and in a year later Joan Baez 5 reached the UK top three. Baptism made it no higher than No 84 in the US and failed to register at all in Britain Somehow, though, partly for its sense of adventure and partly for “London” and “In Guernica”, it’s the one that’s stayed with me.