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Something Like Breathing

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I like writing about songs, and singing, and the music that accompanies it. The political stuff is on hold. 

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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Updated: Jan 16, 2023

Let’s start the year with something positive.

I’ve been distracted this past year. Work. Family. House move. Virus avoidance. Consequently, it’s not been a great year for discovering new music, compounded by not being able to go to gigs.

So forgive me if I don’t have a bulging list of new releases to recommend. I’ve just the one, in fact.

I nearly missed it, to be honest. Came out in October. Maybe I was otherwise engaged at the time. Work. Family. House move. Virus avoidance. You know the sort of thing.

So when a dear friend gave me a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You I was slow to drop it into the CD player. Didn’t actually get round to it until we went for a drive a couple of days ago. We were only going to Tesco for groceries but we ended up getting lost in the North Herts countryside to give the album time to finish.

It’s his best for years. Decades, maybe. Interestingly, some of the finest songs on here were written back in the 70s before he was signed, but forgotten about till he ran them past today’s E Street Band. Recorded as live, to devastating effect.

This is the band I fell in love with way back in the 1970s, when I walked my first daughter round the room to get her to sleep to the sound of Jungleland. This is the band I fell in love with in that apartment in Brookline, Mass, when I first heard Greetings from Asbury Park and couldn’t stop playing it, my head dizzy with lyrics tumbling over each other, packed with characters that were simultaneously familiar and mysterious. This is the band that gave me the glorious interweaving piano and organ and the slow, heartbroken release of Point Blank.

It’s all here. The finest band it’s been my privilege to have seen, fronted by music’s most intelligent writer and spellbinding performer. He’s described it as a sad album (and I defy anyone to listen to the opening track without un peu de tristesse) but it’s also everything rock and roll should be: unifying, life-affirming, cathartic, defiant.

Tears of joy. And the drums: oh god, the DRUMS.

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It’s April 14th. Ruination Day.

I like a bit of mystery in a song. That’s why I go back, over and over again, to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator). It came out 19 years ago, and it still hits me like Casey Jones’ hammer.

Especially the strange pairing at the heart of the album: April the 14th Part I and Ruination Day Part II. Two separated facets of the same story that connect like a meditation on disaster. A punk band from Idaho, out of gas with a van full of trash. The Titanic, struck by an iceberg. Okies fleeing the Black Sunday dust storm. And the Great Emancipator, taking a bullet in the back of his head.

They don’t immediately join up, these disasters. It’s only when you get to the second of the pair, three tracks later, where the rhythm becomes more ponderous, and everyone involved is five hundred miles from home, that you realise they loop: the first song opens with the same verse that closes the second.

And for a generation of admirers April 14th will always be a harbinger of ruination. It’s funny how a song (or two) can do that…

‘When the iceberg hit Oh, they must have known God moves on the water Like Casey Jones...’

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