My (very) occasional newsletters are usually upbeat reports of visits to exotic festivals or great concerts. This will be more somber, focusing instead on lives that touched mine – and many of yours – and which reached their end during these past months.
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Kate McGarrigle grew up in the Laurentians outside Montreal. She and her two sisters joined their father and mother around a piano in the evenings and sang. Parental praise was earned by finding a good harmony part. There was no tv. Their father was born in the 19th century.
In their teens, she and Anna joined various folk groups and Kate travelled a small circuit of coffee houses before returning to Montreal to complete a chemical engineering degree at McGill University. She went back on the road after graduation, met Loudon Wainwright III, started writing songs, married him, gave birth to Rufus and settled in New York City.
I met her in the mid-Seventies because Maria Muldaur, whose first album I was producing, wanted to sing Kate’s “Work Song”. The album included “Midnight At the Oasis” so Kate earned something from the song-writing royalties. When Maria was ready to make her next album, Kate sent her a demo of songs. We picked one called “Cool River”, with delicious, earthy-but-ethereal harmonies I assumed were Kate double-tracked. We invited her out to Los Angeles to add them to Maria’s version and she asked if she could bring Anna. I approved the extra ticket thinking she needed help with the baby. But that unforgettable day in the studio they all turned up, Kate and Anna stood around the piano with Maria and sang while Rufus kept quiet in a basket in the corner.
The sound of those voices together was one of the most astounding things I had heard in my musical life to that date. I persuaded Warner Brothers give us studio time to make a demo. Kate & Anna signed a contract and with engineer John Wood and co-producer Greg Prestopino we embarked on one of the richest – and proudest – recording experiences of my life. I have always loved recording and mixing harmonies; memories of blending those voices into the stereo master of the first McGarrigle album still give me a thrill. We mixed “Heart Like A Wheel” in short snippets cut together; in those pre-automation days the balances were so tricky we could never get more than a few lines right at a time.
Between demo and recording Kate split up with Loudon, but they got back together before the album was released so Kate was too pregnant with Martha to go on tour promoting it. I thought the Warner Brothers art department let us down with the cover. The album didn’t sell – one of the great disappointments of my life. A second album didn’t do any better.
Over the years, Kate & Anna began touring and slowly built an audience. Eventually, everyone realized how much they loved the first album. The British embraced them, so they came to London every few years. Kate and I argued about the touring band – they wanted a Hammond B3 player and a drummer, the cost of which meant tours were rarely profitable. They hated being pigeon-holed as folkies.
Linda Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris recorded their songs, their children began to grow and to sing, I licensed their records for my Hannibal label and they had a reunion with me and John Wood for The McGarrigle Hour. Rufus and Martha recorded two of their earliest compositions for it. Loudon came up for a couple of days and sang “What’ll I Do?” with Kate and their two kids. Not a dry eye in the studio.
I visited Montreal and St Sauveur from time to time. Kate turned me on to her favourite historian, Francis Parkman, and I turned her onto mine, Lesley Blanch. She and Anna and Rufus and Martha sang at my 60th Birthday party (cleverly located next door to their concert at the Newport Folk Festival). I shared her pride in her two remarkable kids and their growing success – which brought her through London more and more often. She was the proudest of mothers at the premiere of Rufus’ opera Prima Donna last summer at the Manchester International Festival.
By then she had been diagnosed with cancer and had had multiple operations; I rang her about a week after the last one and she was out of breath. I asked her if she felt OK, she said she felt great, having just walked in the door from a 3-hour cross-country skiing trek.
The family asked me to produce the annual Christmas concert, in London last year at the Royal Albert Hall instead of the usual Carnegie Hall in New York; there was an unspoken understanding that this might be her last. When Martha came to town for her Piaf shows in November, seven months pregnant, she went into pre-mature labour and a tiny son, Arcangelo, was born (now doing fine). Kate flew over, brought food and grandmotherly affection to the hospital and in her spare time worked with us preparing the concert. She wrote a new song, “Proserpina”, about the goddess the Greeks called Persephone and how she created winter because her daughter was far away and not coming home.
The week before the concert, Kate flew to Montreal for a scan and discovered things had gotten worse. She underwent exhausting treatment and travelled back to London in time to rehearse. She was at her shining best that night; everyone I spoke to said it was one of the most remarkable evenings of music they had experienced. (YouTube has some clips from the show filed under “Not So Silent Night”.)
Back in Montreal, Kate held court on the sofa, then in her bedroom. I visited her in early January; she was as witty and sardonic as ever. She died on January 18, surrounded by her family, everyone singing. There was a cathedral funeral in Old Montreal with lots more singing; she was buried behind the church in St Sauveur-des-Monts, near the start of her favourite cross-country skiing trail.
Kate occupied a central place in my personal Pantheon of the greatest musicians I have known. Her songs are smart, romantic, cynical, tuneful and deeply rooted in the traditions she loved. She was demanding, determined, fierce, gentle, loving and never, ever dull. We could start a conversation about a recording or a concert and end up talking for an hour about the Ottoman Empire. I miss her terribly.
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On June 12, I am organizing a tribute concert to Kate as part of Richard Thompson’s Meltdown at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Her family and other well-known guests will sing her songs. I know, it’s the day England plays the USA in the World Cup, so we’ll start it at 430 so someone’s iPhone doesn’t reveal an England (or American! – it’s possible) goal while Emmy Lou Harris is singing “Mendocino”, Linda Thompson performs “Go Leave” or Martha does “First Born Son”.
This link will take you straight to the South Bank ticket site – seats go on Sale Thursday April 14. I gather tickets are expected to go fast, so if you want to go, I advise buying immediately…!
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It would be hard to put together a memorial concert for Charlie Gillett; far too many different styles of music would be involved and too many grateful musicians would demand to take part. It would have to be a three-day festival, really. Which actually isn’t such a bad idea.
Some years ago, Charlie suffered an unusual malady that attacked his immune system. The steroids prescribed confined him to a wheelchair and made his face puff up into a smiling moon. I say smiling because nothing fazed Charlie. Whatever torments he may have endured when the outside world wasn’t looking, one of many remarkable things about Charlie was his cheerful equanimity. He was positive, inexorable, curious about music of all kinds and I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t convinced Charlie was a great guy. Typical of Charlie is that here was someone who probably knew more about football (by which we mean soccer, Yanks) than any of us, yet he seldom took part in the ‘did you see that Arsenal goal on tv, yesterday?’ banter. Charlie didn’t watch much football, he just played it every weekend. That was the hardest thing about his affliction, giving up the weekly match; but he fought through, recovered completely and started playing again, often the oldest guy on the pitch but one of the quickest.
I played ‘Ping Pong’ with Charlie once. By that, I don’t mean miniature plastic tennis, I mean Charlie’s rich and delightful radio game where guests bring a bunch of their favourite records and Charlie passes the baton back and forth – ‘you play one, then I’ll play something in response.’ It was a disc jockey’s version of ‘whisper down the lane’ and it could start in Memphis and end in Okinawa. I suspect that aside from Charlie’s vision that it would make brilliant radio, the real motive was that he discovered so much new music that way.
As the radio outlets for decent music shrank over the years, Charlie’s ears came under more and more pressure. Getting a play on his shows on the BBC World Service, Radio 3 or BBC London meant a valuable shard of exposure. One of the side benefits of giving up running my label in 2001 was I no longer needed to keep up with new releases and could retreat crankily to my vinyl, leafing quickly through the reviews in newspapers and magazines. But Charlie kept listening; every year, not only would he fill the airwaves with new artists from every corner of the globe, but he’d put out a compilation of his favourites, most from small companies. Charlie was a born entrepreneur and knew what it felt like to run an indy label.
Many were closer to Charlie than I was and many will write more thoroughly about his books, his radio shows and his generous gestures to so many. But I can say that the calm pillar around which much of the World and Roots Music scene in Britain revolved has been removed with his untimely death. It was comforting knowing Charlie was there and many of us gauged our commitment to music and the community surrounding it by keeping an eye on him. No one competed with Charlie; he didn’t take up anyone else’s space, he expanded yours as he created his own. He glowed so brightly we’re all a bit in the dark now.
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Over the past year, there have been a further six sad and very English funerals. Each honoured someone I have known for most of the years I have lived in London.
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I met Robert Kirby against my better judgment over forty years ago. I was so convinced of Nick Drake’s monumental talent and potential that the idea of hiring an amateur fellow-student of his at Cambridge as our arranger seemed unwise. But the professional we tried didn’t work out and un-assertive Nick was startlingly confident about Kirby. When we met, I found him delightful, full of confidence and affection for Nick and his music. I’ll quote from White Bicycles on our first session together:
“They started with a song I hadn’t heard because Nick didn’t play it on the guitar. As John (Wood, the engineer) isolated the sound of each instrument, adjusting the mic position or the equalization, I could barely contain my impatience to hear the full sextet. The individual lines were tantalizing, unusual and strong. When at last John opened all the channels and we heard Robert’s full arrangement of ‘Way to Blue’, I almost wept with joy and relief.”
Working with Nick was a pleasure to begin with because his music was so rich and because underneath Nick’s shyness was a highly intelligent and skilled musician. But having both John Wood and Robert on board raised the experience to another level. It is a rare privilege to be part of a team of such talented and dedicated individuals without an iota of ego-driven dissent. We might disagree, but there was never any static; we were all moving passionately in the same direction. The two albums the four of us made together are among my most enjoyable and proudest professional achievements.
I believe Robert’s arrangements for Nick had a huge effect on the musical landscape. Not at first, of course, because hardly anyone heard them until years later. Robert’s opportunities to work were limited – his style was a difficult fit with the ‘70s. Eventually he took a ‘day job’ in market research and music became a hobby. My reconnection with him in recent years coincided with such an increased respect and demand for his work that he was able to commit himself full time to music.
It would be wrong to call Robert ebullient – he had an English reserve about him, but his joyful and delighted take on life was impossible to ignore or fail to be affected by. The musicians we assembled for the Way To Blue concert in Birmingham last May all adored working with Robert. His commitment to young musicians and his love for Nick’s music endowed that concert with an extra dimension that elevated singers, players and audience. We were all looking forward to more such concerts with him when his heart failed last October.
He was buried in a family plot behind a village church in Norfolk. His arrangements sounded glorious in our January concerts. His influence has been heard more and more as years went by, but no one ever sounded like him. His sensibility remained unique and audiences will continue to be entranced by his arrangements whenever and wherever we present Nick’s music.
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No sooner had I returned from Robert Kirby’s funeral than I learned of the death of another friend. I suppose that is what happens when you get to my age, but the fact that everyone experiences these losses later in life doesn’t make it any easier. Many of you are familiar with the work of the first three subjects of this newsletter but few of you know of Julian Hope, whose death at 59 was terribly cruel and sudden.
Julian was the grandson of Somerset Maugham and for many years we lived near each other and played tennis from time to time. I knew that he was managing the Maugham Estate and had been instrumental in the adaptation of his grandfather’s work for stage and screen. I was also aware of his background as a conductor and his love for opera, but our stimulating conversations were always aesthetic rather than practical.
That all changed the day he asked if I could help him get in touch with Caetano Veloso’s office. I had worked with Caetano on the Virginia Rodrigues cds for Hannibal, so I asked what he needed. It turned out Caetano’s management represented the estate of Vinicius de Moraes, one of Brazil’s great poets and author of Black Orpheus. The upshot was that Julian and I became partners in a project to combine the film and stage scores for de Moraes’ Black Orpheus into a concert production. Our timing was bad. The creators of The Lion King chose that moment to propose developing a Broadway version of Orpheus and the rights slipped from our grasp.
Julian knew so much; mention any composer, performer, film-maker, opera singer, writer – Julian could quietly impart the most astute and erudite insights. I moved away from his neighbourhood and an eye problem made me give up tennis, but we never stopped talking of other ideas we might do together. A few weeks before his death, he joined me and another friend to watch Murnau’s pioneering film of the South Pacific, Tabu. Julian knew everything about the background of the film, about Murnau’s fateful trip to Hollywood in the early ‘30s and tragic death. It was a typically rich, enjoyable and thought-provoking evening with one of the best-educated (in the best sense of those words) people I ever met. I had heard he was ill but didn’t realize how grave it was. Two weeks later, he was gone. His funeral was full of wonderful music, performed by his many friends from the classical music world.
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Almost a year ago, John Michell died. He was best known for his books on stone-circles, ley-lines, crop circles and other such phenomena. For the non-English among you, ley-lines are die-straight magnetic paths across the landscape that mysteriously connect hundreds of pre-historic monuments such as Stonehenge, Glastonbury etc. I first met John when he donated his basement as headquarters for the London Free School in 1965. Across the street was the All-Saints Anglican Church where John’s funeral took place. In 1966, we used the church hall there for the fund-raising shows that marked Pink Floyd’s debut on the London underground scene.
The Guardian published a letter from me as an addendum to his obituary.
Your obituary of John Michell treated his writings about Ley-lines and the operation of magnetic fields upon pre-historic travel and communication as an endearing eccentricity. I am not qualified to refute this view, but feel compelled to report on a day spent in Michell’s company in 1968.
I mentioned to him that I was driving to Pembrokeshire that weekend with Robin Williamson & Licorice McKechnie of the Incredible String Band. John asked if he could get a lift as far as a friend’s house in the Welsh Borders, so four of us set out on a beautiful cloudless summer Saturday. John came equipped with a compass and some Geological Survey maps and asked if we would be interested in helping him conduct an experiment in the countryside around Avebury (home of one of England’s most remarkable stone circles).
During a fuelling stop, John took out a map of Southern England and drew on it the most important Ley-line, the one connecting Glastonbury Tor (in the SW of England) with Bury St Edmonds (in East Anglia) which passes through a remarkable number of towns named St Michael or St George as well as many ancient places of worship. Getting out his 1-inch map of the Wiltshire Downs, John proposed that we leave the A4 near Ogbourne St George and attempt to follow this Ley-line Trunk Route across the downs towards Avebury.
When we entered the village, John led us to the church, where his map and compass proved beyond a doubt that the Line passed straight down the aisle of the church, dissecting the nave at 90 degrees. We followed a dirt road out onto the Wiltshire Downs, turning into smaller and smaller tracks as we attempted to stick close to the Line. Eventually we parked and continued on foot, compass and map keeping us on track. From the top of a rise, Avebury lay below us. The line we were following cleaved the stone circle below directly in half. More remarkable still was a long barrow (burial mound) placed at right angles to it along the crest of the hill. In the centre of the barrow, exactly where the Line crossed, stood a dolmen (standing stone).
Standing with our backs to the dolmen, we looked west along the Line. At 45 degrees to the left, our eyes could follow an absolutely straight road. When the road turned, the straight line continued along an avenue of trees. At 45 degrees right, the same thing was clear: verges of fields, roads and rows of trees stretching in a die-straight line as far as the eye could see.
John’s explanations for these clearly observable phenomena included the prosaic fact that Romans built roads along existing tracks, Anglo-Saxon wagons followed suit as did property boundaries and the 20th century highway builders who referred to long stretches of the ‘old straight track’ as “the A5” or “the A1”. That afternoon, and, I confess, to this day, John’s explanation for the geometric string of St Michaels and St Georges seemed almost as plausible. Those names indicate ‘dragon-slayers’ and saints, as we know, often originate in pre-Christian legend and mythology. The ancient Celtic word for dragon, he said, was derived from root words meaning ‘fiery, flying, coiled serpent’. If you were an Ancient Celt, how else would you describe a flying saucer? And how else would UFOs travel around our planet except by following magnetic paths? (Let me declare at this point that at age 15 I saw a flying saucer in Puerto Rico. It was observed by thousands and made the front page of the San Juan daily paper.)
Whenever I met John, I thought of that afternoon and those lines stretching across the countryside to the horizon. And I wondered if he mightn’t have been closer to a profound understanding of our world than are the rest of us.
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Those Powis Square shows by Pink Floyd led directly to my starting the UFO club with John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins. Once we were up and running, we decided to commission a poster in a suitably psychedelic style. My friend Nigel Waymouth was running the shop “Granny Takes A Trip” and had designed the shop’s brilliant front window as well as all other related graphics; I felt he should be the one to create the poster. Hoppy, however, had an artist he liked who had done design work for the International Times. True to the spirit of the times, our solution was to invite them to design it together. They immediately set about creating the gold, peppermint-stripe UFO poster that was the centrepiece of the ‘60s poster exhibition a few years back at the Victoria and Albert Museum and went on to create dozens of posters, the originals of which fetch huge prices at art auctions and are constantly utilized to evoke the spirit of London 1967.
The other artist was Michael English who died last autumn. After the last of his “Hapshash & the Coloured Coat” collaborations with Nigel, he went on to a successful career as a painter and designer. Michael was a warm and engaging guy of whom I wish I had seen more over of the years. A worn copy of the gold-and-candystripe UFO poster greets me in my hallway each morning. He and Nigel stood at least toe-to-toe with the great San Francisco poster artists of the era, creating a body of work that transcends its time.
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Since the publication of White Bicycles, I have been working on another one about the World Music phenomenon. During these recent years, I have become more aware of a parallel movement consisting of individuals and groups proposing a re-orientation of how we feed ourselves and our planet. My father’s favourite maxims concerned the compatibility of aesthetics and pragmatics – and World Music followers and food revolutionaries share a vision in which things that taste and sound wonderful also have a good effect on our environment. (No, I won’t take up space here defending that thesis – you’ll have wait for the book!) As Charlie Gillett is a hero of the World Music movement, Rose Gray, who died recently, can claim a place in the Food pantheon.
I knew Rose before she became the co-founder with Ruth Rodgers of the River Café and co-author of the River Café cookbooks. Our paths crossed only occasionally in recent years, but she never failed to be warm and gracious whenever we met. Everyone who knew her or worked with her has similar reports. Trips to the River Café on special occasions confirmed her remarkable culinary skills. I have since come to appreciate how much Rose and Ruth’s insistence on sourcing food locally and seasonally means to our planet, more even than sourcing our music that way! We’ve lost a noble warrior in one of the fundamental causes of our time.
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Fellow collectors have always held a special place in my heart and in the late Hercules Bellville, I recognized a fellow obsessive with a completely individual taste and approach. Hercules’ name was rarely forgotten once heard, but he avoided limelight or credit. He worked for 40 years in the film industry, mostly behind the scenes with directors like Roman Polanski, Bernardo Bertolucci and Michaelangelo Antonioni. (It is his hands scarily breaking through the wall in Repulsion.) There are warm and thorough obituaries online from the Guardian and Independent and many knew him better than I did, but from our first meeting in the early ‘70s, I relished talking with him about recordings he had discovered or books found in dusty out-of-the-way shops.
He was as eccentric as anyone with such a name should be, calling in advance of coming to dinner to ensure I had an interesting beer in the fridge – he wouldn’t drink wine. Perhaps the fruit of the hops inspired him to insist that I purchase Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job And Shove It” so that I could enjoy the wonderful beer-centric b-side “Colorado Kool-Aid”. Conversation with Hercules was an adventure from which you emerged wiser.
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I end this litany of loss on a brief encounter with someone who lived to an advanced age and was able to look back with satisfaction on a life well-lived and accomplishments widely recognized and honoured. He was not a friend, but a hero whose hand I had the honour to shake one afternoon three years ago in Memphis, Tennessee.
My arrival there for a book-reading at the Folk Alliance conference coincided with the onset of a miserable cold. I got through the reading, then reluctantly kept a date with local journalist Andrea Lisle, who had interviewed me in advance by phone and promised to take me for a ribs lunch. After an agreeably authentic meal, she proposed a visit to Sun Studios. I was feeling tired and grumpy: “no, that’s just a museum now, not a real studio”, I said.
“How about Stax?”
“Nah – I read somewhere the original building’s been torn down and re-built!”
Determined to stimulate my interest in her local heritage – and cheer me up – she finally pulled out her hole card: “Maybe Willie’ll be over at Hi Studios this afternoon”. Now you’re talking, I said.
We parked in the middle of a run-down housing project, with boarded up buildings and garbage piling up under the utility poles and entered a non-descript former movie theatre – the hallowed building where Al Green and Ann Peebles made all those great records in the 1970s. Willie Mitchell and his son Boo were sitting in the reception area. We chatted for a while; when I told Willie about seeing the Hi Review in LA in the early ‘70s, he cursed and said “I was so mad that night! Ann had been drinking! And the band played terrible.” I remember a magic evening, of course, but Willie had higher standards.
Boo took us into the studio. It had an incredible acoustic – the sound just popped off the walls. A drum kit was set up where it had clearly remained for forty years. Al Green’s vocal mic was in the sweet spot; where the carpet ended and the cement floor began were the horn mics. It wasn’t a versatile room – it had been perfect for that Willie Mitchell sound in the ‘70s and it remained so these many years later. Clients, some from as far away as Japan or Spain, came looking for that sound and here they found it.
The control room was a 1971 time capsule: no automation, no Pro-Tools, an Ampex 24-track 2” tape recorder, tape boxes, trol room was a 1971 time capsule: no automation, no Pro-Tools, an Ampex 24-track 2” tape recorder, tape boxes, an echo plate. In the middle of the studio was a stairway to a long-unused doorway halfway up one wall.
“What’s up there?”, I asked Boo.
“Dad got a bit carried away after he had all those hits in the ‘70s and built a quadraphonic mixing room up there. I don’t think anyone’s been up there since about 1980!”
When we got back to the reception area, a cheap cd console was playing Al Green singing “I Can’t Stand The Rain”.
“I never knew he recorded that”, I said.
“He didn’t until now”, said Willie. “That’s a rough mix for the new record.”
As the sparse vocal-and-rhythm track played, Willie’s left hand toyed with a cheap octave-and-a-half Casio keyboard perched awkwardly on the desk next to the receptionist’s typewriter. Duh-duh, uh-duh-duh – the squeaky little chords coming from the Casio sounded familiar. Horn charts! Willie was figuring out a classic Memphis horn arrangement on a Casio while we chatted in the Hi Studios reception area. I had witnessed the great man casually creating more inimitable music.
Willie Mitchell passed away in January, one more loss to our world this twelvemonth.