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Something Like Breathing

You're looking at the blog page for Consider it in beta form while I test stuff.

I've dropped in and out of blogging for twenty-odd years. Been away for a while (since the social channels intruded) but just lately I've found myself wanting to say a little more. Blogging has always been more attractive to me than Facebook's temporary closed loop or Twitter's transmit-only. Here, there's room to breathe.


Thus far it’s been mostly about my obsession with songs and songwriting, but I might stray into thinking about the state of the world from time to time. We’ll see how it goes: please leave a comment if you can work out how to do it (still beta, like I said)...

It’s early morning. A man is stealing out of the house, leaving a woman sleeping.

He’s dressed in railroad boots and a leather jacket. That’s all he needs.

Feeling his way in the dark, he passes some broken wind chimes.

Outside, he takes a scarf off the clothes line.

He curses the rain. The goddamn rain.

That’s it. That’s Ruby’s Arms.

Half a dozen details that break your heart. The woman’s heart is already broken.

It’s Tom Waits’ song, but it’s sung here by Patti Griffin. Beautifully. I know: this is always subjective, but it’s my favourite version. Not least because Patti utterly swerves the convention that a story told from a male point of view should be sung by a man.

It doesn’t matter a good goddamn. I dunno why. I’m not even going to offer a theory. I don’t want to break the spell. If anyone in the hive mind can explain, please leave a comment.

I do think I know where and how and why this song breaks hearts. Put it down to the details, but there's also that vocal leap again, cursing the goddamn rain.

That’s the whole story. Right there.

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Updated: Jan 16

Strange synchronicity. I came home last night to the news that Jeff Beck had died. Shockingly sudden. The news was accompanied by a short clip, without a lot of biography, of the great man playing Over the Rainbow.

An obvious choice, given the primetime news audience. They could have run Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers; or Behind the Veil; or Beck’s Bolero; or even Guitar Shop (Well, maybe not that one, though it would have been fun).

It’s tragic that we lost him, but this isn’t really about Beck. That very evening, you see, my band had been running through Over the Rainbow, so it was fixed in my head when it popped up on the news.

Not only had we attempted it, but we’d had the conversation we always have, about how to start the song. And while I don’t want to disparage Eva Cassidy’s memory - because her acoustic version is beautiful and delightful and different - I stick to my guns every time and demand that it starts with that joyous vocal leap. Some and Where, a whole octave apart.

Which of course is how Judy Garland sang it, her whole life long.

So what, you may say, and you’d be right. It’s one of the great songs, and that’s probably why it’s open to so much successful variation. The Eva Cassidy version. The Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version. The Eric Clapton version. The endless American Idol versions. The Ariana Grande version. And the Jeff Beck version, which starts with the leap, natch.

Take your pick. They’re all lovely, because the song is lovely. But just this once I’m going to be uncharacteristically fixed, and stick to the way Judy sang it.

Because, IMHO, that first octave takes you right over the rainbow, above the chimney tops, with the clouds far behind. And we all need a bit of that, right?

RIP Jeff Beck.

(Please treat this as a beta blog post. I’m experimenting, to see if this is a good thing to do. Should I carry on? Your comments will be welcome, either on the blog or in the Facebook hive mind. I’ll worry about Twitter another day.)

PS: I've just noticed. If you stick with the Judy Garland clip to the end, you may notice that there ain't no octave leap at the start of the last verse. Which sets her up gloriously for the end of the song. You learn something new every day...

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New year’s resolution, somewhat delayed.

I bought this battered beast back in 1991, or thereabouts. Got it after an afternoon trudging round the West End wondering which guitar might make best use of the part of an inheritance that I really didn’t want to get eaten up by my overdraft.

Memory is random as ever, but I vividly remember sitting in Ivor Mairants’ basement, playing for a very patient salesman, and wondering if it was too demanding for my fumbling fingers. It’s a Martin, you see, and they want you to put in a bit of work.

To be specific, it’s a maple-bodied Martin J-65M, and it’s as rare as hen’s teeth. The only one I’ve ever come across in this country was in an interview with Fairground Attraction’s guitarist, and he was as impressed as Your Fearless Correspondent.

According to the official Martin Guitar book, they made 391 of these before they gave up the ghost on maple guitars and went back to good ‘ole reliable rosewood. Cannot for the life of me figure out why, but that’s business for you.

I think of this guitar as Big Tom, and it has never let me down. It’s covered in dings and scratches: look closely and you’ll see the soundhole is surrounded by little pits that I put there very early on when my playing style mostly consisted of tapping downwards on the backbeat with a spare fingernail. That was so embarrassing I eventually had an oversized pickguard fitted. On the other side of the soundhole are some particularly spectacular gouges that came about when I lent it to someone who played with a thumbpick. Badly. The bridge has acquired what the antique dealers call patina. The neck varnish is beginning to look lumpy, probably from playing with a brass slide. The lower bout has some of those weird little scratches appearing that I worry might eventually turn into actual splits, and a couple of places where an odd dark stain has clawed its way to the surface, and which I think reflect a flaw in the original bookmatched wood.

Oh, and the nut falls off when I replace the strings. Must get that fixed.

I’ve lost track of the different types of pickup I’ve had installed. Passive piezo. Active piezo. Soundhole mic and piezo in stereo, linked to an external Fishman preamp. Right now there’s just an active dynamic Fishman in the soundhole, which works just fine, either through a preamp to the PA or my acoustic amp. The battery might be flat but there aren’t any gigs right now, are there?

In the summer of 2019 I lent this to a guitarist and friend I trusted (take a bow, Johnny Black) for a wee festival spot on the hottest weekend of the year. ‘Solid’, he said, or words to that effect: so long as you change the strings regularly, Big Tom holds his tuning without quibbling, and doesn’t mind the occasional excursion into G.

There are lots of other good guitars out there, but this is mine. It lives in The Battered Case, which has a small but perfectly formed reputation over there on Instagram. And it occurs to me that we probably ought to be celebrating our 30th anniversary round about now, if I only knew the exact date.

Of course the only correct way to do that would be to go out and play somewhere, but here’s my lockdown confession. I’ve done lots of musical things this past benighted year, but I have not played this guitar as often as I should. My fingers have become agile on slinky electric strings, but on Big Tom they feel indolent and flabby. Martins, you see, can be demanding.

So that’s the resolution. Put the software down. Put the nylon string down. Put the electrics down.

And man up my country jazz chops all over again, with the guitar I really would take to my grave if I didn’t think handing it on would be a better use of resources.

Respect, Mr Martin.


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