Wednesday, 18 April 2012

One More Mile

 In 1976, after supposedly signing off with the most famous farewell concert of all time, The Band played on. Firstly, without Robbie Robertson; then, following the death of Richard Manuel, they limped further on: missing not only their chief songwriter, but also a third of their vocal prowess. Many things made The Band unique, but their ability to shuffle between - and combine - the talents of three astounding singers was something else, frankly. As a three-headed beast of exemplary vocalists, they had been in a class of their own.

 I saw them in 1996, when they were well past their best, admittedly; but there was still a palpable joy to be gained from seeing Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson doing what they liked to do best: they would probably have said, the only thing they knew how to do. When Danko died three years later, in December 1999, even the most ardent fan could no longer pretend that The Band existed in any way at all. A further complication was that Levon Helm, the sole surviving singer of any consequence, was grievously ill with throat cancer: a condition that, even if it didn't beat him, would almost certainly silence him.

It turns out that, for fifteen or so years, it did neither. Helm refused to be slowed: he released albums, he played regularly with an energy that not only belied his condition: it made him look more or less invincible. Or, at the very least, admirably stubborn.

So, after various internet rumours, it came as some kind of shock when it was announced yesterday that he was in the final stages of his battle. I say some kind of shock because he seemed unstoppable; and yet, I'll never forget what a close doctor friend told me years ago: that cancer wins in the end.

It may seem unpalatable to some that, in today's world, we tend to conduct massive, international, Twitter/YouTube-driven, preemptive grieving sessions for someone we don't know. I can't explain why this news affects me as hard as it does: only to say that no group has ever meant as much to me as The Band does; and for them to be finally silenced is, in the words of their most famous song, a load.

Photograph by Elliott Landy

EDIT: Levon Helm died the day after I wrote this, on April 19th 2012.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Regrets? I've had a few

In my time, I've come across more than one person to tell me sagely that you should never have any regrets in your life. Always look forward. Always be positive. This may be, on the face of it, sound advice; but it's also much easier said than done. Life is beset with far too many chances to make the wrong decision. It's too easy to say that everything we do happens for a reason, and that reason always ends up being something positive. Sometimes that's just not true. Sometimes we make the wrong decision and that's it.

Now, this is something relatively trivial. But it's a decision I took 23 years ago out of nothing but snobbery and stubbornness; and it robbed me of some wonderful memories that I will never be able to recreate and never be able to apologise for.

In 1988, my mother asked me to go and see Bruce Springsteen with her, and I said no.

I should probably put this in some sort of context. My mum was pretty young when she had me, nearly exactly forty years ago: she was 22. Being born in 1949 put her developmental years smack in the middle of the early '60s pop culture. She was totally won over by The Beatles' first four albums in her early teens; started buying singles in earnest in about 1965; and, although he was well past his exciting, early years by this time, above all this was Elvis Presley. She listened to Elvis all the time when I was growing up. My parents' parties in the '70s, and long car journeys to Suffolk or Cornwall, would always be punctuated by Elvis. His early stuff, drenched in reverb; his later material, much of which is all about regret. "I'm looking back on my life/See if I can find the pieces", he sang at the age of forty. To this day, Elvis' voice around 1975 reminds me of my mum more strongly than almost anything else.

Like an entire generation, she was heartbroken when he died. It wasn't until, a good decade later, that she managed to find someone else whose music meant something like as much to her; and that person was Bruce Springsteen. I clearly remember a Saturday in 1984 or 1985, when I went with her to HMV in Guildford so she could get herself some of his music, having been ensnared by 'Dancing In The Dark' on the radio. She came away with not only Born In The USA, but also The River, Nebraska, Darkness On the Edge Of Town and Born To Run. For the rest of her life, she would buy Bruce Springsteen's albums on the day they were released.

Part of the love affair was seeing him in concert. I get this now: I understand. I've seen him in concert myself five times. There's no one like him. But at the time, I was a snotty teenager who thought he understood everything. So, I teased my mum about her new obsession. I'd make fun of the way he sang, of the way he dressed, of the way he punched his fist in the air while he sang 'Born In the USA'. She never gave up trying to convince me otherwise, though. She sat me down in front of Springsteen's 'Detroit Medley' at the end of a 1985 Whistle Test, as if to say that anyone who liked rock 'n' roll would simply have to like this. How could I not? Years later I'd begrudgingly admit that I quite liked the quiet stuff: 'Atlantic City'; things like that. But I resisted the other stuff with a stubbornness that defied logic.

In 1988, she had tickets to see him. Thanks to the internet, I can see that he only played London twice that year: once in June, to promote Tunnel Of Love; and once in September, as part of the Amnesty tour with Sting and Peter Gabriel. I know that she went to both; and, perhaps as a way of punishing myself, I have come to believe that it was the Tunnel Of Love gig that I turned down. I had nothing else to do that day. The ticket was free. I might enjoy it, she said. We stood there, in our sitting room, for what seemed like hours as she kept saying to me, "I know you don't like him. But I wish you could understand how good he is live. Even if you didn't like it, you'd have to admire what a performer he is. Go on. Please. For me. There's nothing to lose"; but I refused. I knew I wouldn't like it because I was 16 and I knew everything there was to know.

By 1996, I'd grown up a bit and was beginning to buckle. Kind of. I always said to Mum that I wasn't really interested in the E Street Band, stadium rock experience; but, if he ever toured smaller venues - just him and an acoustic guitar, something like that - then I'd go with her. She was so excited when Springsteen announced a series of dates to tour his new 'quiet' album, The Ghost Of Tom Joad. He was playing at the Royal Albert Hall. Even I had to admit that this would be something I might enjoy. She left for work on the morning they put the tickets on sale. She made sure I was up and dressed before she left. She gave me her credit card and sat me down next to the phone in the kitchen - a phone which had a seemingly uniquely fast redial button. That was the only way to get tickets in those days. She warned me that it might take as long as two hours, but that I had to keep going. Dial. Engaged tone. Hang up. Redial. Repeat until you get through.

She was right: it took hours. But I did it. I got them. I rang her at work. She was so excited. As was I. We were going to see Bruce Springsteen at the Albert Hall in April 1996.

In March 1996, the day after her 47th birthday, she was admitted into hospital with aggressive secondary breast cancer. Everything turned upside down for a while. Bruce Springsteen was way down the list of priorities, but it was very clear that she wouldn't be able to go. We joked that she might be able to hear it, had it been a full blown E Street Band concert: the Albert Hall wasn't far away from her hospital bed. Maybe we could get him to come and play for her or something.

I went with my brother, in her place. It was tremendously moving, for all sorts of reasons. Especially when he played a new song he'd written for his mother, called 'The Wish'. I have a great many personal memories of the music that I heard that night, and feelings of what it has meant to me ever since.

My mother died a few weeks later, on June 1st. For fifteen years, I have thought of her every time I have heard the music of Bruce Springsteen. I have come to appreciate and love his music in ways that I wish I'd done when she'd been alive. I've been to see him in concert again and again and again. We could have shared all that. I could have made up for the fact that all I ever gave her was ridicule and derision about this man and his music. I could tell her that she was right, so right: that a Springsteen concert can be a very special thing indeed, and I'm so so sorry for being stuck up and closed off and idiotic, especially on that silly little day in 1988.

But I can't. And that's why I regret that seemingly insignificant decision 23 years ago.

A couple of weekends ago, I got up early and prepared to book tickets to see Bruce Springsteen when he comes to Hyde Park on July 14th. No need for a phone with a stupidly fast redial button. All done and dusted on line in a matter of minutes. I booked four, so my wife and I can take our children. Thing is, my daughter's a bit uncertain about Bruce Springsteen. Not her kind of thing, really. She's 16. Old enough to make up her own mind about these things.