February 7, 2014
I keep collapsing into a ball of tears, mourning my father’s departure (as far as euphemisms for death go, that one is bearable, don’t you think?) back in September. It was followed swiftly by that of a close friend, Kate, an accomplished artist whose personal kindnesses to me had, over the years, become impossible to keep count of. And in recent weeks, a friend-of-a-friend, someone I thought I’d come to know one day, has also expired – very prematurely. So talk about black dog. On balance, I prefer the tears to the cold pointlessness I feel the rest of the time. At least during the sobbing and weeping I feel alive and as though my feelings have some kind of motion and meaning. The rest of the time, I am stumbling. I write down lists of things to do, trying to invest my existence with routine and substance. I think about learning a new trade when the next academic year starts, since most pleasurable forms of writing are no longer remunerative. In any case, I am still unable to sit upright for extended periods and as for standing, when it comes to that I have a very limited store of time. I am flailing. I love the word ‘flail’. It almost has an onomatopoeic quality. I know that doesn’t quite make sense – that the word, here used in its emotional sense, can’t really be said to have a sound that goes with it – but ‘flail’ nearly manages it.
As I wait for more physical recovery, dutifully exercising every day, I am anxious about Kate’s memorial service tomorrow. I have to read a short passage from the Book of Matthew, which isn’t a problem and is actually an extremely nice thing to be asked to do. But what about the walk from the chapel to the reception? I’m still living in a strange world where walking to Waitrose is an intrepid and exhausting slog, requiring advance planning and considerable forethought. I’ve lost quite a lot of my psychological pep, too. In my life, misfortune and error and loss and sadness appear to be caught in some sort of hideous, never-ending pile-up. I fear that everything good (and in that, I include everything good about me) is a lie, misunderstanding or pretence.
I’m aware of how I end up committing most of the mistakes and misdemeanours for which I judge others harshly. Slip-ups of grammar and punctuation are at the top of the list. While I’d never judge a grocer for using an apostrophe to make a plural (I’ll leave that to Lynne Truss), I do think that men and women of letters should be held to an extremely high standard. Sub-editors appear to be a dying breed, if the errors I’ve seen in the press, the parts of the press that I’d expect to be rigorous, are anything to go by. And then, just as I’m settling into my role of sneerer-in-chief, I catch myself, made half-witted by grief, going on to autopilot, using ‘their’ when I mean ‘there’ and writing the hideous and unforgivable ‘your’s’.
And then there’s base, petty snobbery. Oh, how I love to judge others for that. I overheard the expression ‘low-class’ the other day and flinched. I wanted to explain to the person using it that it’s a vulgarian-ism, like ‘common’. Then I realised, this is my form of snobbery, and it’s no less unattractive. I’m a snob about snobs.
Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter – my brain powers on as though life had meaning and purpose. Hasn’t anybody told it the news? Life has been discovered to be an empty sham, a painful and regrettable dance that we best get through as quickly and painlessly as possible and, if necessary, bring to an end by our own hand.
I get jittery and confused trying to keep oranges in the air. I’m juggling at least twenty. There are foot specialists, GPs, surgeons, podiatrists, bereavement counsellors, psychologists, twelve-step groups. And off-shoots of all those things. Appointment after appointment. Some forms of help I only get access to if I squawk and squeak and call a second, third, forth time, trying to pin down dates and get balls rolling. Waiting rooms and bleak corridors flanked by drearier and drearier posters. Hard, plastic chairs. Wooden ones. Oh, at last, a soft armchair I can sink into deeply. I numb myself with bizarre little documentaries about homicide and religious homophobia. I try to pummel myself with information, both written and televised, desperate to keep my own feelings at bay.
It’s two days later now and the world seems slightly less burdensome. My friend’s memorial service at the Royal Hospital Chelsea was wonderful and unexpectedly uplifting. As much as I consider myself a hard-wired loner, to be surrounded by people, all of whom adored Kate as much as I did, was a cheering turn of events. All the apprehension I endured the day before turned out to have no substance – it melted away once I was in a group, forced to introduce myself to people I’d never met before. The handful of people I already knew seemed to know about my accident at the end of 2012. “Please don’t do that again”, said one. I smiled and assured her that I wouldn’t. It was touching to discover that anyone cared.
Now that it’s Friday, I look back at the week and wonder if anything occurred in terms of growth or development. Back in 1983, Carly Simon issued a marvellous song called ‘Floundering’. Set against a reggae backdrop but with chord progressions and melody coming from some other place, the song was about a neurotic woman going from specialist to specialist, religion to religion, New Age treatment to New Age treatment, trying but failing to identify what was wrong with her and then repair it. The song is a more concise and quippy description of my current predicament than I could come up with. On the surface, it looks as if my sole concern is learning to walk again, but dig deeper and you’ll see that I’m actually trying to learn to live again. Every aspect of normal life seems removed from me. I flap over the slightest social engagement. What kind of chairs will there be? Should I bring a cushion? How do I get there and manage not to arrive already in painful exhaustion and quite unable to be sociable? And what new trade will I acquire, now that the only kind of remunerative writing open to me is SEO stuff? Or will I go back into SEO and web-related work?
Then I fret aimlessly over the mere acquisition of a sofa. I can’t mill around in shops yet – I would end up on my feet for too long – so making my flat habitable is a pursuit that has to be conducted online. Then it’s back on with the appointments – foot specialists, GPs, bereavement counsellors, psychologists, urologists, surgeons, physiotherapists, podiatrists. I entrust all the details to the care of my MSN calendar which syncs on to my phone, but still my head swirls and spills over with too much information. I struggle to get in touch with people, becoming despondent if I leave a message or send an email and don’t hear anything back. “It must mean they don’t like me anymore”, runs the familiar tape in my head. My attempts to keep a grateful state of mind are wispy and perfunctory. What I do know is that some anguish and some of the worry can be distilled down to a single question. Does life have a point? Answers on a postcard, please.
Shelagh McDonald, the singer/songwriter feared dead after a thirty-year disappearance, is alive and singing…
January 10, 2014
In 2005, flicking idly through one of the glossy music monthlies, I spotted a tiny box copy item about a singer/songwriter called Shelagh McDonald who had vanished. No one knew her whereabouts, nor had they for over thirty years. Her two albums (from the early seventies) were being reissued on a two-for-one collection (I later discovered that there had been earlier CD reissues, but that this one had a bit more promotional muscle behind it, courtesy of Sanctuary). I saw the tiny piece and thought – this deserves more. I set about contacting all the people associated with Shelagh so that I could write a more substantial article. I discovered that while a minority of them feared that she was dead, most insisted that she wasn’t. Rumours abounded, most of which suggested that she’d had a bad, one-off experience with narcotics.
I also immersed myself in her two albums. 1970′s Shelagh McDonald Album was a very pleasant introduction – the accompanying photographs showed a lovely, delicate-featured woman and the songs were full of enigmatic self-expression. The music was that of a young writer navigating her way through pop, classical and folk, and coming up with beautiful odes such as ‘Ophelia’s Song’, whose extraordinary pastoral feel was clearly understood and emphasised by Robert Kirby, provider of string arrangements for both Nick Drake and Shelagh.
Shelagh’s first two albums. Photography: Keith Morris
My feature eventually appeared in The Independent in 2005 which in turn prompted the Scottish press to run similar articles. To everyone’s astonishment, one of these pieces eventually reached Shelagh herself. She was alive and had been living an itinerant lifestyle, camping in Scotland in all weathers with her partner Gordon. It emerged that one of the numerous theories was true – Shelagh had indeed had a terrible experience with LSD, finding it impossible to come down weeks after taking a substance that should have worn off in 24 hours max. She had retreated to her parents’ home in Scotland and then voyaged into the wilderness, living off the grid as a free spirit. She and Gordon posed for a photograph to accompany an illuminating and sympathetic newspaper feature by Grace Mackaskill after which Shelagh promptly went underground again, to the dismay of fans. But then, following Gordon’s death, she gradually emerged in 2012, this time armed with a guitar and a renewed singing voice. To the folk and singer/songwriter fraternities, it was as if Richey Manic [Edwards] had returned from the abyss.
Now, forty years on, Shelagh’s third album is here. Parnassus Revisited finds her interpreting some traditional folk material, plus nine originals, with an open, free-form, jazzy quality to her guitar playing. She has yet to return to the piano, though I remain hopeful she will. Two re-workings of songs from her first two albums complete the set. I caught up with her as the album was emerging as a ‘soft’, independent release, with possible changes to come as momentum is attained. Contemporary photographs reveal that Shelagh’s looks have withstood the passing decades. It is impossible not to warm to her candid and direct answers. She is well aware that layers of mythology have been constructed around her and is keen to draw a line; not to regret the past, but simply to stop dwelling on it at the prompting of journalists.
Shelagh in 2013. Photo: Heather McLennan
“Yours will be the last interview I do about my past,” Shelagh tells me. “My past is merely a framework upon which others can weave their own fantasies about what actually happened and they’ll continue with their re-inventions, no matter what I say!”
CD: How is the recording process forty years after Stargazer came out?
SM: Recording studios look superficially the same, until you see the computer screen on the wall above the sound decks. It lends an almost Orwellian touch to the whole room. Sound engineers are no longer dependent on their hearing alone; now they need good eyesight as well as the patience of a saint to endure the foibles and tribulations of the recording process. The computer must be consulted at all times. The abandonment of analogue has reconfigured the quality of present day recording, but I believe that the reliance on computers to tell us how to listen is removing something basic and instinctive. Certainly, it was amazing to realise that, if I’d fluffed a line here and there that they could be erased at the touch of a button. However, a few of these mistakes that we did erase actually sounded better when left as they were, in some obscure way they had become integral to the performance. Others will judge, of course, and it’s all a matter of taste. One thing is for sure – recording is every bit as nerve-wracking as it was forty years ago!
CD: The album is sparsely arranged compared to your first two albums. Just you and guitar. How was that decided upon?
SM: Budgetary and, therefore, time constraints, did influence the way Parnassus Revisited was produced. From conception to completion, it took a mere six weeks. On the other hand, it concentrated the mind on how best to record music stripped down to the essentials. There’s no space for overlaying any kind of “mood” or anything that would coerce the ear into listening out for the sounds that have become so familiar to us that we no longer register them. To some this could be considered an uncomfortable album, but it has the rawness that I was looking for. My sound engineer, David Gray, instinctively knew this I believe and created the sound that was in my head.
CD: Were you asked to make an album? How did it come about?
SM: Pressure was put on me to make an album. Bearing in mind that I’ve been away for forty years and that the cost of recording has sky-rocketed, my original plan had been to make an album of songs that reflect the musical influences on my work. For example, I love jazz and it has seeped into my guitar playing quite unconsciously….although alas I’ll never play like Anthony Wilson! My piano playing is definitely classically based. And last but not least, I have some happy songs up my sleeve which should add an extra dynamic to the album I originally had in mind. We’re talking about quite an expensive production here because it would take a variety of other musicians to support me on this.
CD: You mentioned to Grace Mackaskill that your voice had at one point been shot. You simply couldn’t sing. How did you coax it back?
SM: The voice, when it returned, took some time to strengthen. There were periods when I didn’t have time to sing. Gordon, my late partner, encouraged me but the impracticalities of returning to the folk scene during the years before his death could not be justified. At the end he said to me “you must sing”. With this kind of endorsement how could I do otherwise? And recently I’ve been working with Nigel H Seymour who knows all there is to know about singing. He’s put my voice through its paces and, thanks to him, I feel a lot more confident about it. As for performing again, I most definitely have Ian A. Anderson to thank. He nagged me until I agreed to do a gig with him and Ben Mandelson (The False Beards). Ian knows my weak spot – pride! He told me to “Come out from behind the sofa”, so I said to myself, “I’ll show him!”
CD: Have you completely recovered from the after-effects of your LSD experience? Do you wish it had never happened?
SM: I’m completely recovered from what happened back then and it’s a miracle my voice has been restored. Only one lingering side effect – my mental arithmetic sucks! I’ve no regrets. It’s made me who I am today and has taught me that you only get out of life what you put into it.
CD: How was it to discover that old and new listeners had kept exploring your music during your absence?
SM: I could hardly believe it when I learned people had been listening to my music. Sometimes their children have come up to me at gigs and said that they had known my music since they were young! Really incredible that, and very, very touching. No one from the music business approached me through all those intervening years and to be fair, it would have been impossible for them to find me if they had been.
CD: Presumably there are funds due to you from album sales.
SM: I still have to be reimbursed by the record companies but we are in contact as this goes to press. As for being consulted about reissues and liner notes. No one made a move in this direction. And again, they could well have tried to find me for all I know. When I learned (in a newspaper article) about the reissue of my music, it was a complete puzzle to me how this could have come about. I had no inkling of the resurgence in interest in all things folk and had never heard of the collectors’ market, the popularity of old 70s vinyl and the like.
CD: The return to live performances must have been daunting.
SM: The Green Note in Camden Town, London last January was my first gig for forty or so years. The audience was fantastic!
CD: You re-emergence in 2005 was documented by the press but then you seemed to go quiet again. What was life like at the time?
SM: After my reappearance Gordon and I were still living in tents and the occasional B&B or hotel. By 2008 we’d had enough and moved into a flat, which was bliss! Unfortunately within five months of this Gordon’s health deteriorated. He died in 2012.
CD: Do you miss living in the wilderness? On other hand, do you miss London? What is your ideal living space –the wilderness, cites, villages, suburbia?
SM: I don’t miss the tents – it’s enough to have memories of the good times, and there were plenty. As for London, I miss it as it was in the 60s and 70s when it was cleaner and a lot more relaxed. My ideal living space? Definitely the countryside but within reach of a city on the odd occasion duty calls.
CD: Were you signed to B&C for more than two albums? ‘Spin’ – a new song which appears on the two-for-one compilation – sounds fully produced rather than a demo. Was it planned for the next album? ‘Spin’ in particular shows a new confidence and pop sensibility. Can you tell me whether a third album was planned then abandoned? Are we likely to hear any more of it?
A third album at that juncture would not have been on the cards anyway because the recession of the 70s had already begun to bite and the music business like everyone else was affected. To be honest I’m not sure how many albums I signed up for with B&C. That third album was planned but what label it would have gone under is anyone’s guess.
CD: One glaring omission from the new album is your piano playing. As a pianist myself, I thought you had a lovely style, which added poignancy to a number of your songs. Do you plan to resume piano playing?
SM: I agree with you about the piano Charlie. Before I returned to performing I’d actually planned to concentrate on piano-based songs and to play guitar occasionally during my sets. I suppose I was persuaded down the guitar route by the numerous guitar enthusiasts in the folk scene. I don’t regret doing this but also feel now that that particular avenue has been explored. Already, since working with Nigel [Shelagh has an album in the works, collaborating with Nigel H. Seymour] there’s this feeling that I’m back on track with my original musical vision. It seems to be in tune with his (although on the face of it our music differs widely).
CD: A nice and noticeable touch on the new album is that the guitar playing has a jazzy quality that mixes very well with the folk music. Is that you playing or did you use a mix of players for the album?
SM: The jazzy guitar? All mine I’m afraid, guilty as charged. As I’ve already mentioned, the album was done on a tight budget and time was at a premium. So, barely enough time for rehearsals with other musicians, let alone the money to pay ‘em.
CD: Are you back in touch with musicians who appeared on your early albums, like Keith Christmas [a singer-songwriter contemporary of Shelagh’s]? Sadly, the brilliant arranger – Robert Kirby – died, though I did speak to him for my original article and he had lovely memories of you, as did all the people I spoke to. They all missed you a lot.
SM: Yes! I am in touch with the old gang: Keith (and Sian who’s an angel), Sandy Roberton, Ian (A) Anderson, Maggie Holland, Jerry Gilbert et al. Sadly there are absent friends who I would so much have wished to see again – the wonderful Robert Kirby who transformed base metal into gold with his beautiful orchestral arrangements and who was the nicest person in the business. Al Jones who was uniquely talented and destined, I believe, to move beyond folk-rock to a multiplicity of musical genres. Likewise Dave Mudge (of Mudge and Clutterbuck) – Tim Clutterbuck is around somewhere and it would be great to hear from him. Perhaps he’ll read this!
Find out more about Shelagh at her official website.
Thank you to those who wrote about Shelagh before I did…John O’Regan and Peter Moody.
November 25, 2013
I’ve toyed for a little while with publishing the eulogy I wrote and read out at my father’s funeral. I did my best to capture his loveliness without whitewashing the more challenging, upsetting aspects of his character. He was a deeply loving individual who rarely let a day go by without telling me and my mother that he loved us. We’ll hold on to that forever. On the other hand, I feel shaped and warped by his odder streaks, but I know he forgave me for mine, so I forgive him for his. The funeral was eye-opening. I had underestimated the joy my father’s humour, his refusal so tow-lines, his naughtiness and so on had brought to so mny others. Despite the years of apprehension I went through between 16 and 30, my father acccepted my sexuality just as my mother did. All they’d ever wanted was for me to feel happy and fulfilled. So, as filled as I sometimes am with rage at his bevahiour, my forgiveness and my jubilation both dwarf those moments and always will. Here it was i read
The Hon. H Donovan – 1934-2013
“Several years before my father’s death, I made a post-adsolescent discovery – some of my male friends were only every touched by their fathers when being struck or beaten aggressively to reprove them for some very minor mischief. Then a penny dropped. I realised how lucky I was. My father hugged me from as early as I can remember. And these hugs were not the distancing kind where backs are slapped awkwardly as if to negate the effect of the hug. These were unmistakable gestures of unconditional love. The full realisation of how lucky I was hit me and I never took the hugs for granted from that moment on. I was equally lucky that my father said, “I Love you’ to me; not the distancing, non-committal, ‘Lots of love’, which we say to mere acquaintances, including those we don’t even particularly like. The phrase ‘lots of love’ has long since lost what meaning it might once have possessed whereas “I love you”, which my father said so often, could never be mistaken for a ca sual, throwaway remark. It is a phrase which has retained its power.
Of course, no one is that simple. We’re all complex – my father was not some idiotic, permanently grinning buffoon. He had a vast array of qualities. Some amused us greatly, others drove us to distraction. He never conceded defeat in an argument, no matter now compelling the case put forth by his opponent. One of the occasions that has seared itself into my memory is my father’s response when one of us remonstrated with him about some outrageous stance from which he would not budge. He would say, quite matter of factly, “I never said I was normal’. And that was the end of the argument. In hindsight, it makes me laugh to think that my father, whose rhetorical skills were second to none, would resort to the arguing style of a petulant four-year-old when it suited him.
I’m sure I’m not alone in recognising the crucial part my mother played in his life. Even though there was no terminal diagnosis, she effectively provided palliative care so that my father did not have to spend too much time in the joy-sapping, soul-deadening confines of hospitals. There can be few acts as loving as the refusal to hand over a loved one to the desperate, institutional and bleak surroundings of a care home or hospital. And my mother did this without a shred of martyrdom but because she loved him so much.
As my father grew more ill, his dependence on television increased. He enjoyed shouting at the newsreaders on BBC-24 rolling news, despairing at their studied hand gestures, use of language and sentimentality. I sometimes felt compelled to tell him that however loudly he shouted at the TV, the presenters could not hear him. He also discovered the American series Judge Judy which became a firm favourite. He would frequently come to stay with me in my one-bedroom apartment and turn up the the TV to ear-splitting volumes. But his generosity remained undimmed and he would often take us to dinner; myself, my mother and assorted cousins and friends. He loved visiting Oxford and developing a relationship with his great niece and nephew who were studying there. These budding relationships were a source of great joy to him and he would later regale me with tales of how well they were doing.
As I look out at those of us assembled here, I am doubly touched by the presence of those I know felt the sharper aspects of my father’s personality, my mother and myself included; his dedication to letter writing which would sometimes be misjudged and spill over into obsession, and his unpredictable temper. I hope they understand, as my mother and I learnt, that he reserved this rather vicious side only for those he cared about.
I will always remember my father’s quirks; his ability to pull funny faces at inopportune moments, to puncture pomposity whenever he encountered it, and his ability to play with me from the age at which I was pre-speech, pulling faces and feeding me at night so that my mother could rest. In fact, his roll-call of funny faces was something he was working on and expanding right up until the time of his death. I only wish I could mimic some of them right now and lighten the atmosphere.
I attended one of his appointments at Dorchester hospital some months ago and – to our annoyance – the reception desk was playing music quite loudly. It was banal, easy listening, Barry Manilow. As my father’s irritation increased, I started to mimic the rather weedy, simpering tones of the singer, deliberately singing a semi-tone flat which amused him and calmed him down a bit.
He was never one for shying away from political activism. In the late 90s, he sent Germain Greer a £5 note via her agent, to assist her passage back to Australia. Over the years that followed, he would grumble occasionally about never having received so much as a ‘thank you’ note. On another occasion, he wrote a published letter to the Evening Standard, concerning Glenda Jackson, at the time Transport Minister, and her decision to remove air traffic from Hampstead and the rest of North London, where she lived, and redirect it to west London so that while she enjoyed comparative peace, West London now received a double dose of the noise and pollution of passing aeroplanes. He wrote:
“I write concerning Ms Glenda Jackson’s meretricious vapourings. It should be remembered that throughout her working life, Ms Jackson has uttered words composed by others, and has done so at the direction of third parties.
That reliance appears to have rendered her incapable of discriminating between William Shakespeare and Sir Peter Hall on the one hand, and the misleading officialese of some time-serving bureaucrat on the other.
My father, when he was an MP, not only new the meaning of the words ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ but put that knowledge into practice. Ms Jackson could do worse than follow his example.”
The things about my father that made him difficult and maddening were the same things that made us love him as much as his more agreeable qualities. We saw them as scars and we longed to love and protect him all the more. I have no wish to remember a bowdlerised version of him, which I feel would diminish him greatly and turn him into a sugar-coated, red jelly baby. I know I can speak for my mother and myself when I say that, given the opportunity, we would gladly live through the same experiences all over again, both the good ones and the difficult.
In his final weeks, my mother would read to him from Trollope, acting the different characters rather than performing a flat, boring recital. This brought him enormous pleasure. And it’s safe to say that no one brought us the same degree of happiness as my father, complicated though it sometimes was. We will never be loved in quite the same way again and for that we are grateful to an extent that cannot be quantified. Whereas there are millions of husbands who wash and wax their cars on Sundays, have two children, and leave a trail of boredom in their wake, there was only one Hugh Donovan and we are thrilled and delighted that he chose to share his life with us. As my mother used to say, ‘just imagine if I’d married someone boring’.
When we strip away accomplishment, honour, acquisition and achievement, the only meaningful measure of a person is how deeply and how successfully he is able to love. And on that basis, my father was a resounding success. He told us almost every day that he loved us and the best thing we can do to sustain his legacy is to do exactly the same thing to those we love. My father knew that without action, love is just words; mere sentimental vapour.It only takes form and becomes real when it is expressed though touch: hand-holding, hugging, kissing and just being there in either companionable silence or stimulating conversation.”
In Roman Catholic churches, applause is considered exceptionally crass and vulgar. I was delighted that my description of my father rang true with so many people that this unspoken rule was disregarded and the room echoed with clapping as I stumbled back to my seat, thinking, ‘I’m so glad I got one thing right for my mother and father, if nothing else’.
I find it hard not see myself as part of the downwardly mobile curve of my family. Here, for example is my paternal grandfather’s Wikipdia page (not composed by me). But I am left with the goal of at least keeping the love going – and I have experienced bitterness, jealousy, spite, greed, superciliousness, all of which I wish to usher to the realms of the past. That is something I can at least have a shot at doing. My gratitude runs deep and wide. Representing my generation were two friends whose presence I had not expected. Arabella and Tom, friends from different areas of life, who’d made the tiring journey from Dorset to London and back in one day. Trembling with nerves, glancing across the church, the momentary catching of their eyes, upped my strength and leant me the necessary confidence to speak the eulogy. One of the nicest priests I have ever met led the proceedings. And the day was bright and pleasant.
You can see the Huffington Post version here.
In fact, please do and tell me if there are any differences! Xxxxx
September 6, 2013
I seem to have found a happy rhythm, alternating between self-description and articles on the singer/songwriters who shed light on the human condition. Here you can read my current state of affairs. Cxx
August 15, 2013
Forgive me. I’ve been in such chronic pain that for twelve weeks it was simply impossible to sit upright and type. But right now I’m experiencing a rare reprieve. I don’t know how long I have before the torment returns, but I’ve got time to tell you about the singer/songwriter Harriet Schock (love the name). There’s a photograph of Harriet that, to me at least, captures her essence. It appears on the cover of her third album, You Don’t Know What You’re In For, from 1976 and was taken by Ethan Russell, noted for his dramatic shots of The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Beatles. Harriet appears to be gently staring down the photographer, fixing him with an exquisitely self-possessed gaze and a Mona Lisa smile. I am glad that it has been preserved because it helps me describe this complex and enigmatic songwriter. About two years ago, I tentatively explored the possibility of getting her first three albums reissued despite knowing little about the process. Her four most recent works are, I’m glad to say, readily available both as hard copies and download. But the three albums that established her trademark witticisms, melodies and chord progressions are currently unavailable to the wider public. Many people enjoy 1970s production values – the string and horn arrangements that don’t exist any longer in quite the same form, the vocals that aren’t excessively treated, the prominence of the piano, the intimacy. Harriet comes from this golden age of singer/songwriters – an age that has never been surpassed.
Harriet’s third album, You Don’t Know What You’re In For (1976)
Photos: Ethan Russell
Until the 1980s, 20th Century Fox had its own record label, 20th Century Records. Among its extravagantly talented stars-in-waiting was Harriet, along with Patti Dahlstrom and Rita Jean Bodine. Harriet had moved from Texas to Los Angeles in her early twenties, having married an actor she met at the Dallas Theatre Centre. When his work took him to Hollywood, Harriet agreed to follow. "I was very close to my family and that’s probably the only way I would have moved away from them," she says. "The marriage fell apart and he moved back to Kentucky. I stayed in Los Angeles and briefly worked as an advertising copywriter". Someone as creative and musical as Harriet was never going to be satisfied working in advertising for long, and she began acquiring a following playing the gay bar circuit, accompanying herself on the piano. "They were the only places I knew where a singer/songwriter could do original material, so I played them a lot, week after week". Word of Harriet’s talent spread quickly.
“Roger Gordon, who was a publisher at Colgems (EMI) came to see me perform. Shortly thereafter, Jack Gold signed me to Columbia but there was a payola scandal and all the acts signed by anyone at that label in L.A. (in other words, not by Clive Davis) were dropped. As I recall I got a car, which was really important because my ex-husband got our one car in the divorce. Then Danny Davis from Colgems took me to Russ Regan who headed up 20th Century Records. That’s when I got signed to the label I would actually record for.”
I first heard Harriet’s music after stumbling upon her albums at Music & Video Exchange, the second-hand outlet with the most surly and uncharismatic shop assistants in London. It was the Notting Hill branch. I knew I’d seen her name before and, within minutes, the information surfaced in my mind. This was none other than the same Harriet whose song-writing credits I’d spied on albums by Syreeta, Smokey Robinson, Roberta Flack and Helen Reddy. I knew I’d found something special. I clutched all three albums and rushed back to my flat near the Post Office Tower (like most native Londoners, I can’t bring myself to call it the ‘BT Tower’). Minutes later, what emerged from my record player were nothing less than three-minute romantic masterpieces, filled with the kind of flourishes and subtle tricks that today can only be found in musical theatre; deft use of internal rhymes, gorgeous melodic lines, sardonic humour. Instantly, I was a life-time member of the Harriet Schock club, whose members, it turns out, come from every corner of the world. Much to my delight, I noticed at least two Sondheim-esque traits running through the albums – Harriet never allowed the stress to fall lazily on the wrong syllable of a word, so her songs sounded uncontrived and intelligent, and she made only minimal use of melisma. Of course melisma (when a series of notes is sung for one syllable of lyric) was practised masterfully by lots of 1970s soul artists, but is now so gaudily overused on TV talent shows that it has become embarrassing and passé.
If Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell (not to mention Buffy Saint Marie) formed the first wave of singer/songwriters, then Harriet led the second, which came a few years later and included Melissa Manchester, Wendy Waldman and Karla Bonoff. To this day, her songs manage to balance the specific with the universal. No matter their subject matter, there is always space to allow listeners to overlay events from their own lives on to the material. Her first album was 1974’s Hollywood Town, produced by Roger Gordon, and it thrust her straight into the spotlight.
Harriet’s first album: Hollywood Town (1974)
Photos: Mike Paladin
“It was an exciting time but I had no “compared to what”, so I thought this was just what happened when you wrote songs. During the seventies, there was a station out here called KNX FM. They played album cuts. And according to my ASCAP statement, every cut on all three albums got played. I couldn’t go to the grocery store without hearing myself on the radio. That was the single most thrilling thing of all. I’ve been known to roll down my window and tell the stranger in the car next to me to turn a particular station on because I was on it. Okay, I did that only once before I realized how crazy it was. I also walked up to a group of very mean looking bikers in a restaurant when I was being played over the P.A. and told them. I’m not sure they were impressed but at least they didn’t hurt me. My first album cover was up on the outside wall of Tower Records and I had a picture taken of me standing in front of it with my so-seventies patchwork jeans on.”
Harriet with her Tower Records billboard (1974) and, years later, in Amoeba Records, L.A.
Photos: Mike Paladin and Mark Giffin
Hollywood Town was the launch-pad for a career that has remained buoyant to this day. Those who only engage with music at surface level, who think it’s a nice thing that gets played in shops, might hear it as a light pop confection and miss the point. “I had a disc jockey tell me when he heard my records that he thought they were a polished sort of Anne Murray until his wife made him take them home and listen closely. He then discovered I had something to say. I mean no disrespect to Anne Murray here. It’s just that my album sounded less like a “singer/songwriter” record than a pop artist’s album and in those days that determined the kind of airplay you got.”
The album is a seamlessly cohesive statement in which the narrator goes through a number of social and romantic rites of passage and shares the experience with sometimes barbed, sometimes touching observations. It introduces Harriet’s piano-playing style, which flows from the same influences of blues, classical and pop as Carole King. Supporting musicians are of the highest calibre – Leland Sklar, Larry Carlton, Russ Kunkel. These are the names you see stamped over the very finest offerings of the 1970s and give you some idea of just how important 20th Century Records considered Harriet’s career. ‘Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady’, which was to become Harriet’s signature song, opens with a conversational line that neatly encapsulates her bracing and intelligent approach: “I guess it was yourself you were involved with/I would have sworn it was me”. She manages to place a melodic and lyrical hook right at the start of the song and it’s not hard to imagine how this must have ensnared people hearing it on radio.
But just as ‘Ain’t No Way…’ was about to go stratospheric, events beyond Harriet’s control conspired to hinder its progress. “I came very close to having a top forty hit with it. The promotion people from 20th Century are still talking about it today. A music director of a major top forty station in L.A. was poised to start playing it but he wanted it sped up. I think he was moving faster than normal because of some chemicals rolling around his system. Russ Regan recalled the record, sped it up and reissued it. There was another station, in San Francisco, which promised to play the record if the L.A. station did. A few days before they were due to play me – which would have made it a hit because they were huge stations – the music director had a fight with the program director and quit. We lost the L.A. station which made the San Francisco station pull out. I didn’t quite understand what a disaster this was when it happened. But decades later, when I heard them retell how close we were and how heartbroken the label was, the severity of it became even clearer.”
Harriet had to adjust to success of a different kind; other artists and acts swiftly recorded their own versions of her songs. From Hollywood Town alone, her songs were covered by Manfred Mann, The Partridge Family and – most notably – Helen Reddy, who took ‘Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady’ well into the US Top Ten. “I was anonymous all the way to the bank,” remarks Harriet drily.
Harriet’s second album, She’s Low Clouds, came out later that year, created by the same team. It kicks off with ‘Go On And Go’, a startling break-up song, and also includes ‘Play It Again’, a soulful and beautifully arranged tribute to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Harriet’s piano-playing is gorgeously prominent and the album stands as a sonic extension of the themes first put forward in Hollywood Town. The songs are crammed to burst with witty remarks, internal rhyme, hooks upon hooks upon hooks, and memorable rhetorical questions, including, ‘What’s the good of new love/That’s too graceful to grow old?’ (from ‘Brooklyn Can Hear You Bragging’). The front cover makes it look as though Harriet is asleep – a better choice would have been to use the bright, engaging photograph on the back.
She’s Low Clouds (1974), second album in Harriet’s classic trilogy
Photos: Mike Paladin
Though She’s Low Clouds garnered similar critical acclaim and support from Cashbox (a defunct trade title not dissimilar to Billboard), it did not break through (despite yielding another Helen Reddy cover); a change of approach was called for. 1976’s You Don’t Know What You’re In For, produced by Billy and Gene Page, was an example of pop music with soul production, not unlike Melissa Manchester’s Don’t Cry Out Loud album, which was produced by Motown’s Leon Ware. Key figures of the singer/songwriter movement, including Leland Sklar and Tom Scott, are present, but the sound is a considerable departure from the first two albums. “Since Gene was a famous string arranger, he put strings on every cut,” explains Harriet. “It isn’t nearly as stripped down as Hollywood Town and She’s Low Clouds.” The collection’s high-gloss factor makes for a wonderfully indulgent listen; it has a sultry quality not unlike that of the Evie Sands albums from the same period (Estate of Mind and Suspended Animation). Tucked away amid the clever and affecting love songs (most notably ‘I Could’ve Said It All’) is a withering parody of the Lieber/Stoller perennial ‘I’m A Woman’. ‘He’s So Macho’ is a send-up of cartoonish masculinity incisive and pointed enough to stand side by side with ‘You’re So Vain’.
“When I first started writing songs,” says Harriet, “I wrote comedy songs—satire, parodies. Once I started writing more autobiographically, the humour and irony stayed but the subject matter switched to what I was hurting about or wondering about or just wanted to say. I’m from Texas and I shoot from the hip, so some things sneak in there that a more thoughtful writer might have the good sense to leave out.”
Harriet’s lyrics are often character studies with a sting in their tails but not wholly damning of their subjects. “I never feel like something is totally someone else’s fault,” she says. “That’s just an ignorant point of view, in my opinion. Also it’s boring. If there’s no realization or some understanding the song leads to, then it’s just a rant and I think the ranter looks worse than the rantee. Also, being a Southern woman, I’ve had to learn to separate the head from the body without the victim ever knowing there’s a knife involved. And sometimes that head just has to go.”
But despite the lovely front cover and the lusher production, You Don’t Know What You’re In For marked the end of Harriet’s first recording career. “Disco came in and though I was still performing, I didn’t know how to fit into what was happening without abandoning who I was completely.” Harriet bid the seventies farewell, having bestowed the decade with a trilogy of albums whose sheer beauty and quality still attracts listeners today despite languishing out of print. As a fan, of course I wonder what Harriet’s 1980s albums might have been like, had they been made. Would she have put through different stylistic straitjackets, like Melissa Manchester and Carly Simon, in search of a home? Overblown power ballads? Synthesised, new-wave pop? Reggae? R’n’b? Would a team of stylists have thrust her into lycra and leather or crowned her with unusual, lacquer-drenched hairstyles?
Rather than pursue any of those questionable paths, she side-stepped into song-writing behind the scenes, working for Jobete, the publishing arm of Motown. “It was so much fun interacting with Berry Gordy and Hal Davis. I had started writing with Misha Segal and we got signed as a team. A working day usually entailed going to Jobete and finding out what was needed, showing songs to Mr. Gordy, working with Iris Gordy (who is still a close friend) and others there. I wasn’t really employed by them. I just had a publishing deal. Ironically, Lester Sill, who had run Colgems when I was signed there, took over Jobete so I worked with him again. A number of nice projects came out of my collaboration with Misha Segal – the music for The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking and the song, ‘First Time on A Ferris Wheel,’ which has been sung by over 30 people—either live or studio-recorded. Smokey Robinson sang it in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, a Motown film, and Nancy Wilson recorded it. Many others covered it. The ultimate recording was Carl Anderson’s and it became his trademark. What a truly great singer he was.”
As the nineties got underway and ‘Harriet Schock – Recording Artist’ receded further into the past, up surfaced Nik Venet, who had not only signed the Beach Boys but also been an instrumental figure in the original singer/songwriter movement, producing brilliant albums by Dory Previn and Wendy Waldman. His influence had a revolutionising effect on Harriet. “He couldn’t see any shred of who I was in what I was doing – collaborating on R&B dance tunes. He made me realise there were people who actually got who I was and wanted to hear that. So I started recording again”. Beginning tentatively with the low-key, cassette-only offering, “American Romance”, Harriet’s renewed recording career gained momentum with the release of the concept album Rosebud in the late nineties. American Romance (since reissued on CD and digital download) was a discreet, keyboards and vocal release which contained several songs that forced the listener to stop whatever he or she might be doing and succumb. “For What It’s Worth” and “You Are” were two such moments. The follow-up, Rosebud, was more widely publicised and featured star players like Dean Parks, produced with a kind of pop chamber-group approach. Just as she had in the 70s, Harriet was able to command top-flight talent, and collaborated with no less than Arthur Hamilton (composer of ‘Cry Me A River’) on ‘Worn Around The Edges’. The album’s concept was a winning one – Harriet took the themes and motifs of classic cinema and grafted them on to stories and moments from her own life. A live album came next – a most suitable format for an artist who is very much a storyteller and whose intimate asides to her audience are always witty and worth preserving.
The come-back albums, American Romance and Rosebud
At the same time, the advent of the internet facilitated contact between Harriet and her audience in hitherto impossible ways. “It was spectacular, the way it enabled people to find me,” she says. “I heard from people saying they’d worn out their records and did I have any CDs of these albums. Of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t legally get the rights. I would hear from disc jockeys who played the records, fans… and children of fans who grew up with the records. A few years ago, a 25-year-old girl from Stockholm contacted me. Her parents had owned a record store and had brought home my first album, Hollywood Town. She took an extreme liking to it and it formed the soundtrack of her childhood. She wanted to meet me and planned a trip to L.A. with her band called Molly Ban. I showcased them at an L.A. Women In Music Singer/Songwriter Night, an event I have been hosting for 22 years. They brought the house down. The girl, Alexzandra Wickman and her partner, Mikael Back, accompanied me in a show I did a few nights later. It was so lovely to see how much the record had meant to her. She remembered songs from it I hadn’t performed in years. I’ve since added some of them to my current set list.”
It was at this point that Harriet and I came into contact. I wrote her an email, wanting her to know that I’d heard her first three albums, I’d listened to every word and marvelled at every elegant, shapely melodic line. I commissioned Harriet to write some short film reviews for the magazine I was employed by, to tie in with her surprise appearance at a musical festival in Somerset. I went to the show (as brilliant as I’d anticipated) but had to leave as soon as the last note was played; I was moving from Fitzrovia to Fulham (a terrible, terrible mistake that led to the most miserable stage of my life). In 2002 we would eventually meet in Los Angeles, sharing a stage both that year and the following one. At the time, I was trying to be a performing songwriter, getting paid gigs around London but finding very little traction.
By now, Harriet had become a teacher and her home in the Wilshire District of L.A. was the musical version of a literary salon. Initially, she’d been reluctant to teach something that she felt had to be innate. After all, you cannot teach talent. “I had a friend who is now quite well known as a classical composer—Morton (Skip) Lauridsen. He asked me to teach song-writing at USC. There was no department of song-writing at that time. I answered by telling him it couldn’t be taught. The next year he asked me again. I decided I wanted to see if maybe it could be taught. So I devised a step-by-step method of tricking the USC students into doing what I did naturally. In other words, I felt like a potter who had been throwing pots for a long time. I no longer thought where to put my thumb or how to set the clay on the wheel. I just thought of a pot and threw it. But these students needed a method to get something out of them that was what they really wanted to write about. And song-writing was a language they didn’t speak fluently yet. So I had to get them speaking English and keep them communicating until suddenly they had a song, without falling off into “song-writing”—that foreign language they didn’t yet speak well. I taught there for a few years but I found that these kids were not motivated the way an actual songwriter might be, so I stopped. I taught for the Songwriters Guild of America for quite a number of years. I honed my steps and made them work better and better. Now I teach privately, over the Internet and in classes here in L.A. It’s really fun. My students study with me time after time until they become very good friends.” Anyone interested in adopting some of Harriet’s techniques but unable to commit to actual lessons can pick up Becoming Remarkable, a print anthology of Harriet’s song-writing articles.
In recent years, Harriet’s career has continued to diverge. With Geoff Levin, she composed the theme song for Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks, the animated children’s TV show with voice acting by Mel Brooks which enjoyed worldwide syndication. “It feels great to meet children who can sing my Jakers theme song by heart or young adults who can sing the Pippi Longstocking songs because they grew up on them. I also have a song from a Little Mermaid album that’s a children’s favorite and Misha and I wrote the songs for the animated Secret Garden. I really enjoy the children’s market because it’s less strict in subject matter. I mean you can use your imagination and let it go wild. I think one of my favourite projects was writing a song for Disney’s Sing me a Story with Belle. I wrote to an old re-cut cartoon of Mickey Mouse, Pluto and Donald Duck ghost-busting. The film Ghost Busters had to have been inspired by that old cartoon. They even said “I ain’t scared of no ghost”! I also love to write for regular films and television. It’s just that kids remember every word and note of what you write and it’s so rewarding when they come up to you and sing it. I find writing for the theatre similar in that you don’t have to dumb down. Oddly, writing for children and for the theatre, you can be intelligent because in theatre, people are listening and children hear songs hundreds of times. You can also be melodic. So you don’t have to have some mindless phrase both lyrically and musically repeating over and over for a listener who is actually doing four other things while your song is playing.”
Next, Harriet forged a successful alliance with London-born director and playwright Henry Jaglom. She composed the music for Going Shopping (2005), Hollywood Dreams (2006), and Irene in Time (2009). “I met Henry Jaglom around 2005. He was speaking at an event and he found out I was a songwriter in his audience. He said, “I just make movies because I can’t write songs” and I thought to myself “I just write songs because I can’t make movies” and at that moment I knew I would work with him. He had me submit a song called ‘Going Shopping’ for his film of the same name. I submitted lots of versions. Finally there was one version of the song that his son, Simon, said he thought was good – he couldn’t get it out of his mind. So Henry sent me into the studio to record it and asked me if I would also record some cues he could use. That started a long-term collaboration. I provided the theme song at the beginning and end of that film along with cues that were used under fifty per cent of the entire film. Then later, I provided some music for Hollywood Dreams. Then his star, Tanna Frederick, wanted to do a concert with me. She had sung some of my songs when she was briefly cast in a play Karen Black wrote around six of my songs – Missouri Waltz. Tanna’s schedule wouldn’t allow her to continue in the play but she liked my songs. So I put a concert together with Tanna. She and I both sang my songs with my band backing us. Henry Jaglom came to the show and decided that night to use my band in his next movie, Irene In Time, on camera. It featured my band and four of my songs but the song that’s played in it over and over is ‘Dancing with My Father’ which I wrote with Ron Troutman. Henry called me recently and held the phone up to his car radio. Apparently my record of ‘Dancing with My Father’ was getting played on the Sinatra channel of Sirius radio. After Irene in Time, Henry cast me in a play he had written. I played one of the ensemble starring roles in Just 45 Minutes from Broadway (2012). I was also in the film of the same name that was released last October. It has now been sold to In Demand so it’ll be seen much more broadly than just major cities. It’s already led to other acting roles for me. That’s a lot of fun.”
Harriet with the late Karen Black, one of the vast number of performers who have interpreted her songs and which includes Smokey Robinson, Nancy Wilson, Helen Reddy and Manfred Mann
Photo: Andrea Ross-Greene
In between all of that, Harriet found the time to release her sixth studio album, Breakdown On Memory Lane, in 2010. The title is clearly more than just a reference to the track of the same name; a concept is there for anyone who cares to perceive it. Harriet is embarking on journey, breaking down at ten different points along a road where she is confronted by (and comes to terms with) aspects of her past and present. She conducts a delicate post-mortem of her first marriage (‘When You Were Mine’), gets to grips with the vagaries of life as a performing songwriter (‘Sound Check Song’), admits to a longing that can never be sated (‘Searching For You’) and dispenses with an unsatisfying relationship (‘You Just Don’t Get Me, Do You?’) before embracing a new one (‘It Tears At Me’). It’s a stunning piece of work, with an unadulterated and unapologetic pop production that recalls the approach of her first two albums.
Breakdown on Memory Lane (2010)
One final point: developments occur so frequently and rapidly in Harriet’s career that by the time this article is published, it will require an extra paragraph with at least one more to follow with the passing of each month. Watch this space.
June 8, 2013
A bit slow on the uptake here, but I was in hospital after all. Shelagh McDonald, the singer/songwriter whose albums came out in the early 70s, then apparently vanished from the face of the earth for over thirty years. I wrote about her in 2005 and – not longer afterwards – she reappeared only to go under the radar again. Far from being dead, she’d dropped out after a traumatising experience with hallucinogens and latterly been living in a tent in the wilderness with her boyfriend. Now she is properly back, singing and playing in territories including London. Since my original article no longer appears on The Independent’s website, I have posted it here. Click here for Shelagh’s own website. And there’s also an in-depth 2012 interview with Shelagh here.
Meanwhile, here is my 2005 feature. Of course, I’d have written it differently today. Shelagh’s piano, guitar and song-writing approach share more with Joni Mitchell (Blue era) than Sandy Denny. And compositions such as ‘Ophelia’s Song’ are not comparable to either but demonstrate that Shelagh was forging her own style.
May 19, 2013
Back in February, I published an interview with singer/songwriter Lori Lieberman which touched on ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’ – a composition which Lori recorded prior to Roberta Flack. We also spoke about how the song came about and the fact that in recent years, the song’s composers, Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, had gone into print to attest that Lori had had no involvement in its creation. Now, the acclaimed writer, Sean Derek, has shared her recollections concerning the true origins of ‘Killing Me Softly…’
Sean Derek writes:
“For quite some time I’ve tried to ignore this controversy, given my admiration for both sides and my preference to remain anonymous. However, I just can’t sit silent any longer knowing the truth about how it really happened.
I had the privilege to work for Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel in the 70’s. I can’t say I knew Charlie well, but I did become good friends with Norman.
Back in those days, while I was working for Fox-Gimbel Productions, Norman and Charlie eagerly promoted the fact that Killing Me Softly was inspired by Lori and the poem she wrote after seeing Don McLean perform live. Aside from it being absolutely true, it was great press for their song. At the time, no one doubted or questioned it, because if you listen to the lyrics, it is clearly from a woman’s point of view.
All of us that were there, now wonder why Norman and Charlie would suddenly change the story. Sadly, the only answer any of us can come up with: They are afraid that Lori has a legal claim as co-author, which would mean finally having to share a piece of an extremely lucrative pie.
I know Lori Lieberman; she doesn’t worship the almighty dollar as so many of us do. She genuinely loves creating music and has always been very proud to be the inspiration for what has become a timeless classic. She should be proud, without her there would be no Killing Me Softly.
Very sincerely, a firsthand witness,
March 17, 2013
If anyone would like to read an update about what the last two weeks have been like, here it is:
So here I am. Still adjusting to wheelchair life, having swallowed enough mephedrone to rouse a rhinoceros and then jump off a flyover. I try to confine my communications to email and text. The other methods – phone and face to face – well, I might say something regrettable. I have made impact with the ground but I have not yet landed. Right now, my body ricochets from the surfaces it encounters. It hasn’t made the final thud. Hear Our Prayer… Lord In Your Mercy… except I’m not a believer, so I’m not sure why these phrases from Mass wriggle and writhe with one another in my mind.
First, there’s the appointment with a local wheelchair service. “Our driver is outside in Kilburn Square”. Well good luck to him, but that’s not where I live. No, it most certainly isn’t where I live and neither is it an address I’ve ever muttered over the phone. Am I just an ungrateful sod? I’m trying to play along with the system as best I can. He or she will just have to wait. I wheel myself downstairs. Another call. The driver is in Kilburn Square. I thought we’d already been through this. I don’t live in Kilburn Square. I’m extremely grateful that the wheelchair service wants to help, but I don’t know how many different ways I have of explaining that they’re at the wrong address. I rush, I flail, I flap. It becomes apparent from our interactions that they see things very differently: it is not they who are at the wrong address – it’s me. Why, I ask the driver, can’t he come to my address, wrong though it is? Oh, he can’t and that’s that. He has a script and he mustn’t deviate from it. Help me, someone. Why am I so interminably dreadful at asking for help? I get the distinct feeling they want to help. They are kind and considerate in their manner. But they can only go to Kilburn Square.
My mind darts back to the day I started my first full-time job at IPC Media, which then had the more attractive name of IPC Magazines. It was 1995 and I’d found a way into journalism by taking a job that was part administrative, part editorial. I remember a ridiculously chippy man at a party commenting that I’d only got the job because ‘Daddy runs IPC’. Why didn’t I stick up for myself? My father worked in an entirely different profession and had no connections whatsoever to publishing or media companies. I hadn’t got the job unfairly. Why did I cower in front of those little bullies? We’ve all met them; the people who pull you down, who devastate you with a killer line, even though you’ve never harmed them or hurt them in any way. And I’m sure I’m not alone in having that version of Stockholm Syndrome which prompts you to collude passively with your bullies, to take sides with them. What on earth are they here for, sharing this journey with us, those strange, psychological assassins? There’s such a sadistic pointlessness to what they do. I think back to my teenage tormenters at The Hurlingham Club (a country-club in Fulham that aspirational people, people blood-hungry for status, wait ten years to join). I remember the first day that my mother and I joined the club with the entirely different motive of wanting to swim and have fun. It was 1979 and I held her hand as we walked through the gates and found piles of autumn leaves to jump in and throw around with our hands. We had no idea how unpleasant the other members were. I recall the Catherines, Claudias and Mimis, the Jonathans and Sebastians. I could never understand why they ridiculed me at teenage parties and seemed to have a sixth sense for locating my most vulnerable areas – my emerging sexuality and my nervousness. I have never met people so unencumbered by angst or self-reproach, so cushioned by their glib sub-urbanity. But I suppose that’s how bullying works; it exults in its own sheer needlessness and un-called-for-ness.
So, back to my first job; someone else had been working it on a provisional basis. The job was called Features Assistant. Sophie, I think her name was, had been doing it pending approval by the editor. Well, if looks could’ve killed when I came for interview and landed the job on a permanent basis. I’ve never felt so hated. The job had been promised to her, and how dare they take it away. She found a place on another title, so I kept bumping into her in the building. She used to dart me the most awful paint-stripping glances when she saw me in the canteen. I can only begin to imagine the joy my current predicament (broken back, unable to walk, mentally incapacitated) would bring her if she ever found out about it. She really seemed to think that I’d got the job as a deliberate and personal affront to her own ambitions.
Back to now; I have pressed the ‘fail’ button. I’ve put several fingers on it just to be sure. I’m so scared. In my former life, I never had to muster the courage to have a shower. It was just something I did without thinking about it. I didn’t have to plan it, as though something might go wrong. Now, I reach out for the things that comfort me and which don’t require form-filling or phone calls. I watch ropey 1970s horror films (Italian or English ones are the best) and black comedies, and I listen to my favourite songwriters. Thank God (if you believe in God; I mainly don’t) that life has brought me into contact with these amazing people. First and foremost, there’s Pamela, a friend who has been with me through every victory and disaster and never loved me less because of my flaws. Then there’s darling Harriet Schock and Andrea Ross-Greene, who believed in me despite my failings. I think of Essra Mohawk, a musical pioneer who’s made many brilliant albums and whose Primordial Lovers deserves much more attention than it gets. And Catherine Howe, an RCA recording artist who has become a real friend.
Songwriters and lovers of songwriters came to my aid when I was lying, incapable of motion, at St. Mary’s Paddington. Lori Lieberman wrote a song for me. To say that I was grateful and astonished would be an understatement. The incredibly good songwriter, Renee Armand, sent me messages that never failed to amuse and educate. And then came Christopher, a charming man from Seattle, whose words of encouragement combined flirtatiousness and wisdom in hitherto unheard of ways. I am so lucky. Nice, interesting people flow into my life. There’s Seth, Eryl, James, Arabella, Sally, Andrea, Tom, Sarah, Adam, Nicky, Niall, Janet, Michael, Huw…where do I stop? These lovely people never judge or castigate me. There are many more of them, and I mustn’t slight them by leaving them out, but I cannot mention them here or this update will read like a laundry list. And my parents are the two funniest, lovely-looking and intelligent people I’ve ever met, never failing to make me laugh or feel exuberant.
At last I begin to think of how lucky I am. No, I can’t walk properly. I can’t don suitable attire and go for a run. But there’s so much I can do. I can cook (or at least someone is going to help me try, next week). I can play the piano, despite the metal in my left wrist. A wheelchair-accessible gym is just one minute away. With help, I can wash myself. An amazing company called Sweet Tree sends saviours to me every day who help me work out what to do and how to move forward. There is so much I can do, that instead of being overwhelmed by it, I am going to start doing it.
March 10, 2013
I am searching for a lost album. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the sense of being an undiscovered treasure (though it certainly is that), I mean it literally. The master tapes for Pamela Polland’s Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? from 1973 have apparently vanished. Help me find them! Because they deserve finding. If ever there were an album jumping up and down and shouting, “I’m brilliant!”, it is this one. Its most plausible resting place is with Sony in America, but so far it hasn’t shown up even when searches have been requested. And the greatest pity is that this album begs to be found. Not only is it one of the best albums I’ve ever heard, but I’m in no doubt that others would like it too. It’s by afore-mentioned singer/songwriter Pamela Polland (musos will know who Pamela is, the rest will catch on in time) and was recorded for Columbia Records in the early 1970s. It features an all-star studio cast, including Elton John’s band and producer, as well as backing vocals from Joan Armatrading and an appearance by Taj Mahal. Pamela’s songwriting throughout is visionary and expansive. It has to be heard to be believed.
Let’s go back a bit. Let me introduce you to Pamela, in case you don’t know who she is. Pamela is one of my dearest friends. Since 1998, she has been with me through every pratfall and resurgence. There is nothing about my life I don’t disclose to her and, possibly, vice versa. Rarely have I met someone who exudes such magic and whose personality is so much like a fresh, dripping slice of sunshine. It’s a friendship that I do my best to cherish. Pamela and I became pals simply because I found her 1972 album in a Notting Hill record shop many years ago, and dropped her a line to say that I liked it. Bit by bit our correspondence became more personal until we’d established a certifiable friendship that only grows. As I said, Pamela knows everything about me; the drugs, the prostitution, the hard times, the good times, the desperation. There is nothing I don’t tell her.
Pamela’s place in music history cannot be overstated. She’s a genuine Los Angelina. Her career began with early live performances with Ry Cooder when she was in her teens and blossomed to the extent that a few years later, she made her first album as part of the duo Gentle Soul (Epic Records). Pamela went on to join Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour and then forged an intermittent solo career. There is almost no one she hasn’t worked with and she is held dear by all those fortunate enough to cross her path. And we are fortunate. I cannot imagine a life without Pamela. In 2003, I had the pleasure of sitting at my upright piano and singing directly to her one of the songs from her first solo album in the intimate setting of my living room.
So, back to the lost masterpiece…following the release of her first album for Columbia Records, Pamela found herself in an enviable position for a recording artist. Clive Davis (a name now forever associated with Whitney Houston) told her to come up with a list of her favourite producers. The first album, on which Pamela accompanied herself on piano and guitar, had been a solid effort, but with sales of around 25,000, it had not been enough of a success to make her a name in the living rooms of America. This time, things would be different. Pamela was ready to make a statement as profound and personal as Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry or Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
“Paul Simon was top of my list. He told Clive he’d love to produce me but he also said he took at least a year to produce an album and he wasn’t immediately available. Clive didn’t want to wait. Norbert Putman was on my list, but Gus Dudgeon was higher up and when he said, ‘yes’, we were thrilled.” Pamela chose Dudgeon because of his work with Elton John and Joan Armatrading. “He showed an amazing breadth of style and creativity”.
Pamela was swiftly dispatched to London, recording at Trident Studios in Soho while living in Covent Garden. As a native Londoner, I’m fascinated by the way areas change. Today, Covent Garden is a garish extension of Leicester Square and most of the people who live there are not native central Londoners or creatives. I avoid it at every opportunity. In all likelihood its residents are a mix of money-loving people from the counties trying to be urbane and obscenely wealthy Europeans, working in oil or banking. Pamela – a transplant from Los Angeles – is more a Londoner than they’ll ever be. Back then, the area was still real. “It was the ‘vegetable’ district,” says Pamela. “Lorries came through every morning at around 5.30 a.m. Lots of artists lived there because it was cheap and centrally located. I never had to go far to get anywhere I might have wanted to go. My memories of it are very happy ones. I had a boyfriend, I loved Indian food which was inexpensive and plentiful, I was working on my music all the time…it was an artist’s dream come true”.
Pamela and her producer Gus Dudgron
Photo: Michel Ross
Recording her second solo album was an experience of unadulterated joy for Pamela. “Gus was wonderful. So funny, intelligent, generous and a true lover of music. He had a great sense of humour and an amazing ability to inspire.” And, as a consequence of sharing the same producer, Pamela met Elton John and found him to be a charming and kind figure totally removed from the frowning, petulant curmudgeon constantly lampooned by the tabloids. “I got to go to his house a couple of times. He was incredibly gracious and ‘real’. He was actually very kind to me for a few years after I left London, letting me in backstage when heʻd play the Bay Area arenas. One of my fave memories of Elton is when he gave Gus a Rolls Royce for Gusʻs birthday. How many people would be so generous?”.
But what we haven’t touched on yet is how it was Pamela’s songwriting that elevated the album to an inspired level. Something had given her a shot in the arm and Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? was an incredible step forward. Whereas the previous year’s eponymous album was lovely – a sort of Carole King/Laura Nyro-ish confection – this new album was pure Pamela. No longer did she sound like anyone else. No more a follower; now she was all leader. It begins with ‘The Refuge’ – an uptempo pop song about Mexico, with wonderful backing vocals. Things only get better from this point. From the intimate reflection of ‘You Stand By Me’ to the exquisitely cosmic closer, ‘The Clearing’, in which Pamela finds herself at the fount of all wisdom and in possession of the meaning of life, there is not a single misstep.
Pamela is not modest about the album. And why should she be? “Those recordings, which are now 40 years old, still hold up today as beautifully well-produced songs. At the time, I felt I was in the hands of a true master and, to this day, I’m proud of the work we created.”
She remains in awe of the skilled musicians who accompanied her. “Good natured blokes,” she says, “professional, skilled, talented. The one we used the most was Ray Cooper, Eltonʻs brilliant percussionist. He would literally invent instruments, like the water gong he used on The Clearing. We all used to sit in the booth and gawk at his brilliance”.
Arrangements for the album were by Paul Buckmaster. Pretty much any time you see an album with his name on, you know you’re going to hear beautiful orchestral work. And then, on Wild Roses, comes a choir of Joan Armatradings. “Joan was a quiet women, hard to get close to, but fun to sing with. It was like we were from two different planets, but it was an honour to have her appear as a cameo artist on my album. Iʻve always admired her unrelenting uniqueness”.
Then the problems began. After a bit more recording was undertaken in America, then a bit more in London, the album was complete. “Three songs had extra recording work done in America. Gus had always wanted to work with renowned session players Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel. I was also able to bring Taj Mahal in for a track since we were friends. We worked at Columbia studios there for a couple of weeks. After delivering the masters to CBS in New York, we started working on the album art. I was told it would take about a month, but three months later it was still on the production line. We had all the elements. Gorgeous photographs, graphic art, lyrics, credits – everything was laid out and ready to be produced. Clive was hesitating because he didnʻt think I had a “single”. He wanted me to go back and record one more song, but thatʻs when CBS fired him.
“The whole company went into a complete state of chaos. The things Clive was accused of were activities that all record company execs participated in. No one felt safe, and all unreleased productions came to a screeching halt. It was an awful time. The twelve vice presidents at Columbia were all trying to figure out if they were going to be next in line to be promoted or fired. Everyone was so paranoid, not just at Columbia, but at all the labels. It was a huge game changer for the industry. No one at Columbia wanted to stand up for me, because I had been so closely associated with Clive. So they took my album off the release line and simply waited for my contract to run out, and then they didnʻt renew my contract. It was quite a let down after the happy year I had spent in London.”
The masters are supposed to be in New York or LA. When Sony Japan started to reissue Pamela’s work a few years ago, they launched an investigation and were told that the album could not be located. Pamela’s bold and naturally uplifted spirit has helped her come to terms with the loss. By the mid-seventies, she had reinvented herself as Melba Rounds, a bawdy madam with a knack for sexy, between-song banter and a fondness for performing jazz and blues. But getting over the unreleased album was not easy or overnight. “It was a slow process. At first, I just assumed the album would be released once Columbia got back on its feet after Clive’s demise. I waited around for almost a year before they dumped me. When they didn’t renew my contract, my manager and I just assumed weʻd get another label to pick it up. That was a common occurrence in those days. Label hopping. My manager shopped me and that album for three years. We started with the big labels and slowly worked our way down to the dinkiest of labels. But no one would touch me after Iʻd a) been dumped by Columbia and b) been so closely associated with Clive. It was as if I’d been black listed. It never occurred to us in a million years that I wouldn’t be picked up by another label or that my album would never be released. After three years of knocking on every door in the business and being turned away, my manager resigned from exhaustion, and I was left without representation. Always resilient, I simply kept singing and writing and performing, but the loss, shock and disappointment came upon me like a slow boil. In a way, I still canʻt believe it forty years later”.
The later chapters of Pamela’s career are indeed testament to her resilience. Her fictitious character, Melba, went down incredibly well in San Francisco in the seventies. Then she explored teaching – both songwriting instruction and vocal coaching. When opportunity allowed, she made further albums, the latest of which is Hawaiianized – a covers album on which famous hits are rearranged with ukelele-based accompaniment. Lest anyone fear, Pamela is no gimmicky dilettante. She’s been studying Hawaiian culture and music since she first moved to Maui in the 1990s.
Pamela will always cherish her memories of working at Trident. It’s no longer in existence, but its reputation is legendary. David Bowie, Tony Visconti and Marc Bolan, among many others, found their feet at the studio. Pamela explains, “Trident was a state-of-the-art studio at the time. Because we were working analog, mixing was challenging and sometimes weʻd be in there for 15-24 hours at a crack, working non-stop to get a mix right. In those days, you couldn’t save your work and come back the next day and pick up where you left off. You had to get it right in or start over from scratch, so it was the standard to just stay with a mix until you were happy with it no matter how long that took.”
She laughs to recall some of the old recording methods. “One of the engineers at Trident, I think his name was David Briggs, was a Moog specialist and created some great patterns for The Clearing. In this day and age, you just punch up Garage Band, or any number of
professional sequencers, and you have thousands of loops, patterns and sounds to create from and with. David worked for hours and hours dialling in one sequencible pattern on the Moog. My, how times have changed!”.
Pamela Polland’s Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? should be right up there. Every time a documentary heralding brilliant 1970s singer/songwriter albums is aired, it is missing and unmentioned. I am in the lucky group of friends and fans who have heard it. “I worked with my dream producer and arranger in a dream studio for a year. I was very happy with the arrangements and production values and my own performances. I felt that Gus really did pull the best out of me that I could give at that phase of my life. There are no words to describe how disappointing it was to never be able to share the work we did with the rest of the world”.
If you go onto iTunes or any other digital retailer, you can find Pamela’s first album, which was simply entitled Pamela Polland. It is excellent but it is not the masterpiece. Get it anyway. And dip into further Pamela albums, such as Heart of the World and Hawaiianized. For the missing album, the work that makes Pamela every bit the equal of Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan, Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell (seriously, why aren’t we hearing from contemporary versions of these stars? Where are they?), you need to make contact with Pamela.
“I have, in my possession, a half track tape of the final mixes. I had it transferred to DAT about 15 years ago, because I knew the tape would deteriorate. My lawyer tells me that if Sony canʻt produce the masters, they wouldn’t be able to take me to court if I decided to release the album, but at this point, Iʻm not sure who would care. Itʻs hard to get anyone to purchase new music these days, so Iʻm not sure who would want to buy an album thatʻs forty years old. I have the music available for listening on my website. Itʻs slightly “hidden”, but anyone who really wanted to hear the project could find it with a little searching around my site.” With typical charm, Pamela ends our conversation by saying, “Thank you for the opportunity to tell this strange tale.” I can’t help thinking it should be the other way around. It is Pamela, through her mystical and earthy songwriting, who has told my tale. That’s how I feel when I listen to her music. Pamela sent me a CD of her lost album in 1998 and now I can’t get any of its songs out of my head. They need to be heard. And now. I did some investigating of my own. I contacted the Gus Dudgeon estate. Nothing turned up. I contacted Sony/BMG UK. The people were very pleasant but could not help. The next step for me is to contact Sony/BMG USA. We’ll see. I’m just glad to have written about the album. To me and others fortunate enough to be in our band, Pamela is one of life’s stars. From the maximum kilowatt eyes to the lovely singing voice that needs no pitch-correcting software, she is everything a singer/songwriter should be.