Gospel Bob: guitarist Fred Tackett on playing with Dylan, 1979-1981

Gospel Bob theatre

This week, Sony releases the latest Official Bootleg Series set, Trouble No More, focusing on the Gospel years, 1979-1981, and comprising more than a hundred previously unreleased performances on the 8CD and 1 DVD deluxe set. 

To accompany the special feature on The Arts Desk, which features an interview with the guitarist on all the Gospel tours, Fred Tackett, here is the full text of my interview with Fred, done by phone between London and Topanga Canyon. He’s a good storyteller, and I hope you will enjoy what he’s got to say about working with Gospel Bob during those three extraordinary years.

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THE INTERVIEW

How did you start working with Dylan?

It was after Lowell George died. I’d come off the road, I was in a session, and my wife said, Bob Dylan’s office called, and they want you to come down and jam with them. So for three weeks I’d drive down to Rundown Studios in the middle of Santa Monica, a funky little place upstairs, and I started jamming with Tim Drummond, Jim Keltner, Spooner Oldham and Terry Young – who was an amazing gospel piano player – and Mona Lisa Young [her voice graces BA’s famous “Flower Duet” commercial] as well as the gospel singers. I remember grousing to myself, thinking, man it’s been three weeks. Are we gonna go on the road? Then I started thinking, there’s about 50 thousand guitar players who would die to do this, what are you bitching about? [laughter]

Eventually, Bob called me on the phone, days before the were going on Saturday Night Live. “We’re doing this tour, this TV show, can you make it?” And I said, sure man, have your manager give me a call. He says, “I don’t have a manager.” Okay. So the next day I went in to the rehearsal and after that he told me to come in to his little office, and said what’s the story. And I said, well Bob – and he put a finger up to his lips and pointed to his ear. So I put my face right up against his ear and said, you know Bob, I get uuh double scale, which is $600 a day for a six-hour session. So that’s seven days a week for three weeks…And he’d listen to me then pull back as if saying, you kiddin’ me? And stick his face right back in my face. Just playing with me, that’s all he was doing. He has a great sense of humour. Very dry. That’s how it all went down. He called me the next day and said, that’s cool. There wasn’t any negotiation about it. He just went through that whole little thing, which I thought was hysterical. I think he thought it was hysterical too. [laughter] Otherwise he wouldn’t have been doing it.

So we played all the songs from Slow Train Coming and the new songs from Saved, then we went on the road, which was a first for me, playing songs that hadn’t been recorded yet. It was only after we’d been on the road for I don’t know how long that we drove into Muscle Shoals, got off the bus, went in to the studio, recorded for about three days, got back on the bus and went to the next gig. And that was Saved.

Gospel Bob guitarThe Toronto recordings [which feature on the deluxe set and on the Trouble In Mind film] were spread over several days, with three cameras. It was a big thing that we were going to do this, and then no one heard anything more about it. They sat on a shelf for years, and now they’ve put it out. They have really done a good job editing it, and it’s just fantastic, the sound and the close-ups are really good.

What was the feeling in the band – were members of the band partaking of the spirit of it?

Everyone was into the spirit of it. I grew up playing sacred and secular music, so it wasn’t unusual for me, and I was glad to have the opportunity to play sacred music. We used to have a kind of prayer grouping every night, with all the girl singers and all the guys in the band before we went on stage, and even though I wasn’t an evangelical born-again Christian I would participate, because the idea of doing it was fine with me. We did that every night. I understand the power of faith, but I didn’t have it. Some of the guys in the band did. Most of the singers were pretty much Gospel all the way.

But it was a really good gig, I just love Dylan. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, so if he wants to sing about Jesus, that’s great, go ahead… And I love everything that Jesus said. The problems I have are with organised religions. Organised religion seems to be like a bad charity, and not an efficient one.

How did it go down when you did Saturday Night Live?

That was our first show! Everyone was extremely respectful, everyone was blown away that Bob was showing up. Because Bob wouldn’t be a part of any of the skits, they got Al Franken, who is now a senator, to dress up as Dylan, and he came over to us and was so humiliated. “I want you to know that I don’t want to do this, please don’t hold it against me…” It was the first night Bill Murray was in the cast, and it was the first show without Belushi and Ackroyd, and they called up Jim Keltner to wish us all good luck. Everyone was really excited about us being on the show, and it went down great.

How much antagonism did you face at the first run of gigs at the Warfield in San Francisco?

The reviews were terrible. That was a whole drama. We had Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist, protesting. There was a guy walking up and down outside with a giant cross. It was a whole theatre going down on the street. One of my subsequent friends who I met at that time was making good money busking old Bob Dylan songs, because you couldn’t hear them inside. [laughter] The best thing I saw was a guy in the front row with a sign that said, ‘Jesus loves your old songs’, which I thought was a good point.

At the same time, people were digging it, and we had everyone in San Francisco there, Gospel Dylan Roxysfrom Jerry Garcia to Maria Muldaur and Mike Bloomfield, all these people came and sat in with us. It was exciting being in the same spot for a couple of weeks. But the newspapers – one review was headlined, God-Awful Dylan. Most of the press was so bad, Bob told me once he called up one of the reviewers, got his number, and called him on the phone, and when his wife answered and he could hear the sound of children in the background, he was so shocked that this dude would have a wife and family that he was speechless and hung up. [laughter] Like, what in the world are you writing about me, man, and then thinking, my God this guy’s got a wife and kids… I don’t even know what to say.

The reviewers hated us, but the audiences, they were pretty enthusiastic. I have tapes of all those shows. There were hecklers, but not so much in San Francisco as in other cities. I remember in Arizona he had people turn on the lights, like, let’s see who these people are. Some funny stuff. I remember him saying, I was telling these people about Jesus and they were going boo, and he was making this weird sound [a long, low-pitched boooooo], like he’d never heard anyone say ‘boo’ before. He thought that was so strange.

Does that kind of adversity fire up a band or hobble it?

Well, it was exciting because it was controversial. I really enjoyed it when we played the old songs, but the concerts by then were like a really good concert. The first ones, Bob was on a mission, and we felt like our job was to fulfil the musical vision that he wanted to put out. We tried to make it as good as possible so that people couldn’t deny it. It was undeniable, you couldn’t say it was horrible. If you did, you looked silly. A lot of times people said, I don’t like what Bob’s doing but the band are good. That was an easy ‘out’. But taken as a whole, it was undeniable what was going down.

There’s a sense of real intensity in 1979 and 1980. Did that change further down the line, and with the older songs in set?

It wasn’t quite as special. It was more like a really great Dylan concert. I mean, the first time we played Like A Rolling Stone at the second residency at the Warfield, that was the first song we played, and when we started the intro to that people just went crazy and this chill went up my spine. It was really, really special. We were still playing some of the Gospel songs, but when we first went out and were playing only those songs, it was definitely passionate and dangerous. People got upset, and also, John Lennon was shot in the winter of 1980 and that concerned everyone, because you thought, my God if someone went after John, why wouldn’t they go after Bob? So we were much more concerned. When we started the European tour everyone had bullet proof vests, and all this kind of stuff, special security guys checking out all the apartment buildings around the venues. That lasted for a little bit. Maybe one concert we wore those bullet proof vests, and then someone said, this sucks, enough of that. But there was a feeling of danger, something that was different from just going out and playing a bunch of good songs.

There are versions of amazing studio songs on this set that took years to come out. What was the experience of working on those in the studio?

Dyhlan writingWe’d rehearse all those songs in Bob’s studio, and Every Grain of Sand was really informal. Everyone had taken a break and gone off, to do whatever they were doing, and Bob and I and Jennifer Warnes were standing around the studio, and Bob started playing guitar. I started playing along with him, and they sang. It was very informal, and it came out really great. Caribbean Wind was a funny incident, I don’t know what versions they have on the boxed set but we got a call from Jimmy Iovine, one of these guys who thought, if I could just get Bob in the studio with the A-team guys, and really do a good basic track, all that stuff. ‘It’ll be huge, it’ll be great’. So he got all of us down early to Studio 55, an old studio that they had redone. An A-team LA pop music studio of 1981. He put me and Dave Mansfield in a room at the back. I had mandolin, Dave was on fiddle, and they had Jim boxed in with baffles and all this stuff, everything separated, everything discrete, and eventually Bob shows up with his guy, whoever was helping him out at the time, running errands and things, and he’s standing there, and they start telling him, Hey Bob this studio is where they cut White Christmas, because Bob loves old studios and is always looking for old studios and mics and stuff, and then they play this track of Caribbean Wind that they want Bob to sing over, and he stands there and listens to it straight-faced, waits until it finishes, and turns to his guy and he says, go get me the music for White Christmas because I can’t cut any of my music in here. [laughter]

And then he goes, Fred, where are you, and I say, I’m back in this back room, and he goes, get your guitar and get out here. So all of a sudden there’s me and Steve Ripley and Keltner and all the baffles are gone, and we’re all sitting in a circle in the same room and we’re all playing live again, and we start going through tunes. We’re doing Groom, and I’m looking down and the mic isn’t even pointed at my amp because someone’s kicked it, so I’m putting it back in front of the amp where it’s supposed to go, and we look up and Jimmy Iovine and his engineer have gone. [laughter] There’s no one in the control room apart from the second engineer.

Is there one gig, session, or song, that stands out for you?

Bob bwI really love Pressing On, from Saved. That is very funky, one of the funkiest things we ever did. I like that one a lot. Every Grain of Sand is another of my favourites, because it came down so naturally, but then all of them came down pretty naturally. I think we’d played most of the other songs a lot on the road, so they were a little more worked out. That’s always the thing Bob tried to avoid. He wanted to stop people getting a part that they’ll play every night, which tends to happen. You find something that works and you stick with it and the next thing you know you have this set- in-stone arrangement. Pressing On was more spontaneous, because I don’t remember us playing it as much as we did the other songs, like Saved. Now Saved is pretty great, especially when you hear these new live mixes. And Solid Rock, that’s a really good one.

For you, how does it all stand up today, 37 years later?

I have only seen the film, but I was amazed, man, it was so good. Everything was just so good. They picked the very best songs for it. Him and Spooner Oldham playing this harmonica and Hammond organ together at the end of What Can I do for You. Spooner would play these chord substitutions under Bob’s harmonica, and it was just so cool and hip, and Bob is playing so great. They found the best stuff of all that and put it in this movie. Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell is in there, all kinds of great stuff. It is really impressive sounding.

What were the recording sessions like?

We treated each of the songs as an individual. We were knew what the point of a song was, but we were just trying to figure out the best musical arrangement for it, and that was partly down to Bob. ‘Try it this way. Do it as a reggae’ [laughter]. We’d do everything as a reggae once.

He had this really cool thing. When we were working on Saved, we just worked on those tunes. He was writing them and we were learning them before we recorded them. But later on, when we started playing his old songs again, he’d give me a tape of someone else’s song. One time it was Bob Seger’s Night Moves. Another time it was Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. We even did a version of the Muppets song, Rainbow Connection. He’d say, teach the band this song, so I’d write the chord sheets, the guys would come in and I’d teach them Night Moves, Sweet Caroline, and so on, and he would sing it, then he’d send the recording to Bob Sager or Neil Diamond. [laughter]

He never said anything about it, but I always thought he didn’t want us to have these set-in-stone arrangements down. He wanted us to rehearse as a band but without us butchering his tunes over and over again, banging them into the ground. So he gave us these other songs to play. Then we’d go out on stage and play his songs. We’d rehearse them a bit, but not enough to be set in stone or to get our parts down. And I thought that it worked great. It was a great tactic, and I’ve never run across anyone else doing that. It’s a great way to rehearse a band, where you’ve got everyone together playing, without wearing the songs out.

Very much like Miles Davis, perhaps?

Exactly. I think Bob is very much influenced by Miles, He told me one time that when he first started living in the Village he got all his ideas of what was cool from watching Miles Davis. And I can dig that. I understand that. The Carnaby Street shirts, the cool clothes, the ‘don’t tap your foot, tap your heel’. Miles always said don’t flap your foot up and down. Use your heel, it’s much cooler, man. We used to say on the band stand – watch Bob’s heel, man, to keep up with whatever was going down, or what was supposed to be happening – watch his heel. He had really good timing. He is really good musician, and he doesn’t really get the credit from a lot of people who don’t think he is as incredibly unique as he is. He has got a great sense of vocal phrasing. There’s that thing he does where he back-phrases, where he won’t come in right away and plays catch-up with the melody, and at the chord changes he just shows up at the right word. It’s clever, complicated stuff.

I once said to him after a show, man I didn’t think you would ever get to the four chord because you waited so long to come in, and the next night he did the same thing, turned around and looked at me, as if to say, ‘oh yeah?’ [laughter]. He has an amazing sense of phrasing. And he’s invented guitar stylings. There’s certain way he plays rhythm guitar where it goes from a swinging folk thing to being a really straight thing on top of it, and he invented that. No one did that before he did it. He’s just a really good musician.

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All images courtesy of Sony Music

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Gnawa Festival at 20

The marvellous Gnawa Festival in Essaouria celebrated its 20th birthday this year, and I celebrated my 11th visit to the festival, armed with drawing books, brush pens and black pens, friends including writers Andy Morgan and Jane Cornwell, and musician, DJ and all-round magician of London-Moroccan culture, Moulay Youssef Knight. Here’s some of that image hoard.

Fordefestivalen

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In the heart of Norway’s fjord country

 

Fordefestivalen plays host to some remarkable music from all over the world, and from across Scandinavia, the concerts unfolding in venues all over the little town in the midst of the fjords and mighty mountains. On Saturday, my report from the festival went live on The Arts Desk. This is an image mosaic from the latest edition, in early July 2017, and here’s a taster of the Arts Desk report. Click the link to read it all.

Førdefestivalen is a unique musical gathering in a small Norwegian town on Norway’s west coast, deep in fjord country, the landscape painter Nikolai Astrup’s habitat. Skydiving from the nearby Hafstadfjellet mountain (alas, sometimes fatally) is a popular pastime. Jumpers launch themselves from the television mast at the mountain’s peak, where Victor Tavares, a Cape Verdean nonagenarian accordion player, and his group Bitori made music one bright, cold Saturday morning in the Nordic midsummer…

 

Sam Lee and Song Encounters

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I’ve a new review up on the mighty Arts Desk today, Sam Lee with a quartet of amazing musicians from Scotland and Norway, playing under the name Wind Eye.

It was the last of the Songlines Encounters for this year. Sadly, as the closing words and music of Linden Tree resounded around the hall, an Islamist death cult was exacting its own repulsive encounters just south of the river in the folklore-rich, song-rich, history-soaked zones of revelry and gathering that are London Bridge and Borough.

One love for the true citizens of London, one hate for the scum guard of a rotten death cult.

Here’s a link to the review:

http://www.theartsdesk.com/new-music/vindauga-wind-eye-featuring-sam-lee-kings-place

Full Nelson

 

God's Problem Child packshot

First off, here’s a link to today’s review on The Arts Desk of Willie Nelson’s new album, God’s Problem Child. It’s got some crackers on it, and Leon Russell’s last recorded vocals on the title track. To go with this, below is the text of a feature published in The Independent, written overnight back in March 2005, after joining Willie on his bus to talk to him en route between Kay West Hotel and Shepherds Bush Empire, where he played a great set. The paper needed it the next morning, and I remember sitting up till the early hours with the poet Gordon Wardman, who’d joined me on Willie’s bus and asked the best question – “Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?”. [No].

“God may have a problem, but Willie’s cool” 
http://www.theartsdesk.com/new-music/cd-willie-nelson-gods-problem-child

 

On the bus with Willie Nelson, West London, March 2005

Written overnight, published the next day, and Willie was playing a second date at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Mid morning, The Independent calls to say someone called
David Soul wants to speak to me. Turns out he used to hang with Willie on his bus
in the 1970s, and wanted to reconnect. I did the connecting, and there he was,
sat on a chair at the side of the stage that night. 

Willie Nelson’s bus is something of an American legend, one you can walk all the way around and still see nothing but that legend staring you in the face, albeit with darkened windows and all the mod-cons money can buy.

Willie probably spends more time on the bus – he plays over 100 dates a year – than anywhere else on earth. When you climb up the steps behind him, you find yourself in Willie’s world; there’s the faint aroma of grass, the windows are completely opaque, and the mirrored doors create a sense of unreal space – you could be anywhere on earth, or suspended above it.

Right now, we’re travelling from the band’s hotel to the artist’s entrance at the Shepherds Bush Empire, the only indication of where we are in the world from a distant siren, and the occasional judder of the brakes.   Willie is dressed casually in a grey tracksuit top with IRISH PUB BOXING down the sleeve. There is absolutely no indication from his relaxed, casual manner that in twenty minutes or so, he will be leading his band onstage to play a two-hour set before a packed house. He does look older than when he last played here –his hair is perhaps thinner, but still hangs down to his waist, and the beard is pure white. He is big on eye contact, and though he’s hard to get to, once you’re there he completely accommodating. There is no one who wears their ‘legend’ status as casually or gracefully as he does.  He and the likes of Merle Haggard – yes, he’s still alive and touring America with Bob Dylan – are among the few surviving elders from Country’s rebellious pantheon, the ones who blazed a trail out of the saccharine stupefaction of 1960s Nashville and laid down the prototype spirit of rugged individualism that has inspired the alt-Country/Americana revival of the last decade.

‘They had their own individual style,’ he says of a generation of which he is one of the few survivors. ‘When you heard Johnny Cash, you knew it was Johnny Cash. Same with Hank Williams, or Waylon [Jennings]. The guys who have their own sound are the ones who’ll always be hanging around, and we’ll always like their music.’

With his headband and long, tied-back hair, he still looks like the original Cosmic Cowboy, a left-field, sometimes outspoken figure in a deeply conservative industry – witness the fate of the Dixie Chicks after daring to criticise Bush – and whose music and aura hits you like direct eye contact in a world of mirror shades.   And he is as busy as ever – there is a new album being released on I-Tunes, a batch of gospels songs with his sister Bobbie, and he scoffs at suggestions that this may be his last international tour; the idea of last anything doesn’t really figure on Willie’s internal route map.

There will also be a chance to hear a reggae album recorded in the mid-90s for Island, but never released. ‘Toots Hibbert (of Toots & the Maytals) and his engineers did some tuning up on the album,’ he explains, ‘they added some great rhythms and took off some things and stripped it down. I’ve been listening to it, and it sounds really different, but it sounds good.’

Over the decades, Willie has become an expert in the fine art of song-catching – virtually the whole of the American song book can be found rolling around in his oeuvre of more than 100 albums and countless concerts over five decades. ‘When you hear a great song you know it,’ he says. ‘You can’t explain why they’re great, but you know they are and you want to sing them.’

The same song-catching spirit applies to his own compositions. The ambivalent romance of the title track from 2004’s It Will Always Be, shows how, with a few words, he can speak volumes, and say different things at the same time, for beside the song’s affirmative chorus are verses of doubt and profound isolation. ‘That song came all at one time,’ he says of its composition; it’s as if he’s talking about a flower coming into bloom. The elongated, conversational phrasing and half-rhyme of the opening verse tells you a lot about his famously around-the-beat vocal style. It’s so simple it’s almost see-through, but the more you listen, the thicker it gets; and it’s not half as sentimental as it first sounds. The lines and delivery are loaded with feeling and executed with a masterly minimalism learnt on Nashville’s front lines.

‘The shorter that you could make it and still get your point across, the better the chances of airplay,’ he remarks of those early songwriting years, ‘so we writers were sort of taught to see what you could say in nine lines of verse or whatever, and that makes you concentrate on the lines you wanna use and put more thought into them. I’d sooner lose thirty mediocre verses and come up with three good ones. Good songs are timeless, you can do em today or a hundred years from now, they’re still good.’

Born in Abbott, a small town on the plains of central Texas, in the depths of the great Depression, and raised by his grandparents, his life journey is the archetypal Country ride through lucky stars, ill omens, and fortunate catastrophes. His mother, who left when he was six months old, was part Cherokee, a singer in her own right, while his father was also a player – he would later do stints in Willie’s family band decades later, when Nelson had finally made it through.

‘I have Indian blood and I’m proud of it,’ he says, ‘There’s a lot of Indian and Irish ancestry in there… Native Americans have a lot to teach us, their attitudes and way of life, the way they love and protect the earth.’ And perhaps the roving mother who left him soon after he was born – though she became a part of his life in adulthood – is the absent figure to whom so many of his songs launch their appeal. The likes of Everywhere I Go and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground aim straight for the heart, and they rarely miss.

It’s been said that Willie Nelson wears the world like a loose garment, but finding that loose fit was some way up the line, and the distinctive voice and phrasing, his easy, elastic turning of a line, was way out of step with the times. By the end of the Sixties, with his songs finding success only in other people’s hands, he had semi-detached himself from the music business to run a hog farm just outside Nashville before a fire sent his home, his business, and most of his belongings up in smoke, and he returned to Texas, took his band on the road, and found that the music Nashville had dismissed, Texans loved.

He bought some land outside Austin, and hit the local music scene, which included the likes of Guy Clarke and Townes van Zandt. ‘There was a place called Armadillo World Headquarters,’ he says, ‘and I was playing the real cowboy redneck places down there, and I started hanging out at Armadillo; there was a lot of young people around, and I knew some people who owned the place. They had a beer garden there, and I thought, listen, we can try out some Hank Williams here. So I started playing there, and sure enough, they were big Country fans. There were guys doing it already,’ he adds, ‘like Gram Parsons and Commander Cody, but the traditional guys like me, hadn’t started to hang out with that crowd yet.’

He teamed up with the likes of rocker Leon Russell. ‘We started realising these things can mix up good,’ he says, ‘and we really mixed it up, and proved that it can be done.’  With 1975’s Country concept album, Red Headed Stranger, he had his first million-selling LP, and by the end of the Seventies, he had been elevated to iconographic status, a national monument etched into the American fabric as firmly as the heads on Mount Rushmore.

There were numerous crossover hits through the 80s but by the decade’s end Country radio was tuning out the old guard for a shiny new breed. There were further severe setbacks in 1990, when the IRS raided his compound in Luck, Texas, and took everything that could be taken, down to the glass between the control room and recording booth. Willie picked himself up, dusted himself down and released the IRS Tapes, went on the road and by 1993 had paid off his debts, moved back into Luck, and resumed an itinerary of touring, recording and golf that continues more or less unbroken to this day.

As he is often wont to say when asked about retiring, ‘All I do is play music and golf; which one do you want me to give up?’  His genius may be casually worn, but there’s a powerful sense of continuity about his music that ensures it never strays far from its sources. He has played the same guitar, and led the same band for decades, and on stage at Shepherd’s Bush, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica blowing like tumbleweed across Willie’s guitar runs and sister Bobbie’s bone-dry gospel piano, the Family band – including guitarist Jody Payne, drummer Paul English, the Gothic cowboy looming darkly over his one snare drum, and Bee Spears on bass – are one of the longest-serving and sweetly-seasoned bands in the business.

Their subtle, mercurial sound summons up the spirit of classic songs with uncluttered playing that leaves plenty of room for Willie’s incredible guitar playing and vocal phrasing.   They may have been playing more or less the same set for decades but there’s room enough for Willie, the band and the whole audience to move about in those songs, and it seems that Willie is never going to get tired of reconstructing and rephrasing his work in new and refreshing ways.

‘It’s something that you wanna do it bad enough that you just go ahead and do it,’ he says, when asked about his career’s legacy. ‘It’s not ever easy. There’s always someone saying you can’t. But you can. If you think it’s the right thing you can do it’

And what is the most important lesson a life in the music business has taught him? He considers for a moment. ‘Patience,’ he says, and laughs. He tries to think of something else, but that’s about all there is. ‘Mainly patience,’ he says, and laughs again.

Beethoven, revolution and Number Nine

Peter Cumming Beethoven001

(above, Beethoven in his rooms in Vienna, by Peter Cumming, circa 1993)

Published here and by the Boston Musical Intelligencer, what you are about to read casts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony into a fresh light, stripped of historical excesses, and drawn from the conductor Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra’s outstanding performance of what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank on Saturday 18 March 2017.

Beethoven, Revolution and Number Nine approaches the Ninth from the raw, the vernacular, the immediate, in view of the classical but focusing on the vitality of the experience of being in the concert hall with this music as it is being made, and drawing on a generously expansive and informative conversation with Zander in its aftermath. His and the Philharmonia’s new recording of the Ninth will appear later this year.

Benjamin Zander is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he has held for 39 years, and his radical account of the Ninth is the first to incorporate all of Beethoven’s instructions concerning tempi, and proved to be a revelation to many who were there, and revolutionary, too, in how it still speaks to us now, in the present tense, not as a remote monolith but very much alive and very close.

The drawings that illustrate the text are by my father, the artist Peter Cumming, and taken from a number of the sketchbooks he kept throughout his life. The above drawing was made in the frontispiece of Michael Hamburger’s Beethoven’s Letters, Journals, Conversations

Peter Cumming Orchestra001

The Orchestra, Peter Cumming, circa 1960s

Please take your seats. The performance is about to begin.

The Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, 18 March, 2017. 730pm

Revolutions – they tend to date quickly and age very badly. But sometimes the music they inspire remains immortal. Such is the case with La Marseillaise, and so it is, too, with Beethoven’s Ninth, one of the most recognisable and globally loved of all pieces of music, and whose roots, in the poet Schiller’s revolutionary-era Ode To Joy, date back to the turbulent 1790s. And while the Choral Symphony is just a few years short of its 200 birthday, and familiar enough to anyone with a sprinkling of musical knowledge, if conductor Benjamin Zander is right, we haven’t been listening to the symphony as Beethoven wrote it at all.

Zander is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and has spenzandert a lifetime studying the Ninth, and in March he came to London and the South Bank to lead the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra through a radical restoration of Beethoven’s original tempi, which have been largely ignored or dismissed as unplayable, and the errors of a deaf and disturbed old man since Wagner made a colossus out of the Ninth with his Bayreuth premiere of 1872. Zander’s energising 58-minute account shaves about a quarter of an hour from the standard performance, and his recording with the Philharmonia will be released this Autumn, and promises to change the way we respond to what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written.
 
The conductor’s preoccupation with Beethoven’s original tempi goes back to the 1980s, and a project with the BBC to record a Ninth at the radically faster times indicated by the composer in his annotated scores. The project stalled when the broadcaster asked Zander to use period instruments; the conductor preferred a modern orchestra. His extensive notes and research into the world of Beethoven’s metronomic markings would later be passed to Roger Norrington for his 1987 recording, while Zander released his own account with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra five years later in 1992, with John Eliot Gardner’s excellent Philips release following in 1996. “At the time, I felt very annoyed,” says Zander of Norrington’s recording, “but subsequently I was delighted because I needed another 35 years of work.” He laughs. “At the Royal Festival Hall I got a chance put forward many different things that I didn’t know about in 1980.”
Zander’s reading of the Ninth is a vigorous raising of the symphony’s  original fiery spirit, rather than its monolithic reputation
Commissioned in 1822 by the Royal Philharmonic Society for just £50 (and initially dismissed and disdained by London ’s august critics’ circle), the Ninth was revolutionary then, and remains so today. Its colours never fade – it is only our perceptions of it that change, and Zander’s reading of the Ninth is a vigorous raising of the symphony’s original fiery spirit, rather than its monolithic reputation.
 
For us listeners, the Ninth is a deeply internal voyage, with very powerful communal effects. It gets to you; it’s in that spectrum that penetrates like an X-ray. It is music with the quality of urgent speech but from a place that is generally beyond words, if close to the inner voice, and the inner ear; it’s music that speaks inside us, and its immediacy extends from the contexts of its creation to the reception we give it today.
“It was a very troubled time then, as it is for us now,” says Zander, talking a few days after his triumphant Ninth at the South Bank, that saw the audience rise for an unprecedented 15-minute ovation. “And the message of the Ninth is more relevant than ever. It is not a description of what is, but a presentation of what could be. It is music for our time.”
 
By setting Schiller’s revolutionary-era ode, Beethoven was harking back to the spirit of the revolutionary 1790s, of intellectual, cultural and political release as the European Enlightenment exploded into anti-monarchist revolution, which itself exploded into self-consuming violence, Napoleon, empire, continent-wide warfare, Waterloo and, by 1814, the Congress of Vienna, with Europe’s royal houses recalibrating power back to something they could understand – complete top-to-bottom control.
The message of the Ninth is more relevant than ever. It is not a description of what is, but a presentation of what could be. It is music for our time
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home004
Which means that, by the 1820s, the liberation fervour of the 1790s was long gone, as far away from the middle-aged Beethoven as the optimism and fervour of the 1960s is from us. The composer’s troubled times, and ours, are coupled, if not at the hip, then at the ankle. The Ninth was created in hostile conditions, under the dystopian eyes and ears of Metternich’s secret police – they had a fat file on Beethoven, and they added to it. Like the Stasi of the 20th century, they were listening.
And we still listen. This angry, anguished and disabled man’s late testament to personal despair, resolution, acceptance and ultimate sense of shared liberation from within remains the European Union’s anthem, even as the EU project teeters and buckles under the weight of banking algorithms, Brexit, populism, and debt. The Ninth still speaks to us, and in the present tense. And how it speaks.
The first movement, that cosmic egg breaking open among the strings, is a sound structure suspended in the first ripple of space-time
Under Zander’s baton, it’s as if two centuries of varnish, candlewax, and post-Romantic indulgence and mythology has been cleared from the surface to illuminate the depths. The smoky accretions of the 19th-century masters and their 20th century successors have been simmered off by the process of patient reduction and a return to the source.
 
The first movement, that cosmic egg breaking open among the strings, is a sound structure suspended in the first ripple of space-time. And then the opening descending riff, the armature around which the movement unfolds, expands, retreats and reiterates. In the grand recordings of Toscanini or Furtwangler there is something gigantic and ponderous in this first movement, a great creature of great depths. With Zander and the Philharmonia the depths remain, but our attention deepens, and what we hear is more translucent, fresh, immediate, and the underlying dynamic in Zander’s account here and in the whole symphony, is of compression and release – great compression, with the potential to blow the roof off – and great release, of exultation, of orgasm, of liberation and of union.
 
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home003The muscular riffs and fanfares of the second movement speed along at Beethoven’s indicated tempo, with the trio section cramming in four notes to the bar instead of three, at a speed deemed impossible, until now. It is not only possible, but realised by Zander and his players in a way that no other performance has achieved, the extraordinary detail of the composition brought out with a rare clarity and sense of space. It’s the Ninth stripped of grandeur and High Romanticism’s self-regard.
 
The extraordinarily beautiful third movement unfolds its secrets one by one, lotus petals opening in a soft southerly breeze of wind and strings, and though taken at a faster pace, losing none of that sense of timeless suspension, of infinite space and utter calm descending into musical form.
The extraordinarily beautiful third movement unfolds its secrets one by one, lotus petals opening in a soft southerly breeze of wind and strings
At its close, Zander barely pauses before launching in to the ‘Horror Fanfare’ that hurls the final choral movement into being. Again, the feeling is of hearing something anew, afresh, in real time, in our time, cleared of the dirt and grease of accumulated performance traditions. For this is an Ode to Joy that’s bare, forked, and naked. There’s a renewed sense of excitement as it rounds up and corrals signature themes from throughout the symphony to create a sense of time inverted, dispersed, eddying in the flow of music before revealing its signature tune – Beethoven drafted it painstakingly to get it right, in the little sketchbooks he carried with him everywhere, his blank-paged familiars. The chorus is a revelation, more nuanced and dynamic, no longer turned up to 11 throughout. Deep within, the Turkish March is simple, humble, haunting, as around it the choir and orchestra rises and falls in peaks and valleys, turning and weaving as the dynamism of that folkish little tune unfolds itself, over and over, like the secret of perpetual motion in sound.

Peter Cumming Beethoven at home005
At the Royal Festival Hall, before Zander and the Philharmonia, as the drama of the music – and our reception of it – unfolds, it is hard not to feel awe before the Ninth, to hear in the flesh rather than in a recording the music that lies in all those little sketchbooks, all the sheet music, the unsettled scores, all the mess and anguish and temper, the shabby rented rooms of the grey-haired, shock-haired, deaf-as-a-post composer, on his own here, quite alone, the giant who, at the Ninth’s premiere, needed to be tapped on the arm and turned to face his audience by a pretty young soprano, a woman whose mouth the composer had just filled with the most beautiful music. It takes your breath away.
 
It was quite extraordinary; people said they hadn’t seen a reaction like it before – but it is Beethoven who got the reaction
As Zander brings it on home in the last few bars, after the last note there is the briefest silence before the first wave of applause builds across the Royal Festival Hall, a standing ovation that seems to go on and on. “It was quite extraordinary; people said they hadn’t seen a reaction like it before,” says Zander afterwards, adding: “It is Beethoven who got the reaction; I was the servant who enabled that to happen with the orchestra and the choir and the soloists.”
And now it is the orchestra, the choir and the soloists who stand with Zander, as the audience around them stands, as audiences have done over the past two centuries, right back to that seat-of-the-pants Viennese premiere of 1824, with Beethoven being turned to the audience, all of us getting to our feet and bringing our hands together in the spirit of the Ninth.

 

Beethiven conducting the 9th

A 19th-century depiction of Beethoven at the Ninth’s premiere

 

“The most touching and moving thing,” says Zander, “was that this man, who was deaf, who had no connection, no woman in his life, no companion, cut off from the world in terrible conflict with his nephew, with the authorities, and having to move house constantly, one of the saddest individuals and ill to boot, wrote a piece which brings the world together. That is the most extraordinary idea, the most moving idea, and there it happened in concert on that Saturday night.”
 
Europe today is in shabby shape, like Beethoven’s rented rooms, piss-pot under the piano, the keys out of tune, debts everywhere, shouting in the street, fears that the treaties binding us together will not last the way that Beethoven and his Ninth will last, that little tune of liberation and joy singing away in its handful of notes. But whatever our troubles, the music lets us in, brings all of us here to this place with one purpose, to realise the greatest of symphonies, to unleash the Ninth and to experience for ourselves, for a moment, its spirit of joy.
Tim Cumming
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home002

The composer in his rooms, by Peter Cumming, circa 1960s (JS Bach?)

You may now turn on your mobile phones and tweet madly about this piece.

FINALE: Watch Benjamin Zander at TED

 

The Grey Mare and Her Colts

from-the-mare-her-two-colts-26-2-17

Following on from a recent post, Flint Head, this is the landscape from The Grey Mare and Her Colts, from which I found and carried the anthropomorphic flint back home.

In this picture, you’re looking west towards Golden Cap, the Blackdown Hills and over towards Dartmoor. The Western Lands. Peninsula airs.

And to accompany it, a short piece of prose on that part of the county of Dorset, travelling from Hardy’s Monument down to the Valley of Stones and the nearby Kingston Russell Stone Circle, another beauty of the British neolithic.

Landscape with White Horse

We’d driven up to Hardy’s monument. Not the writer Thomas, but Thomas the seaman who cradled Nelson as he died at Trafalgar. The wind is as big as the view from here, plunging away on all sides and playing in epic scales.

There was an old green bus parked up by the monument, a vehicle driven out of the Peace Convoys of the New Age, travellers who wound their way to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. The side of the bus was opened up, facing the coast, and a mother and daughter served tea and apple cake. ‘We’ve been travelling for a long time,’ said the mother. ‘We’re settled near here.’

She had a son, too, ‘a very good singer,’ said the daughter. She was slender, freckled, pale and pretty, a face like a mask, and she let the mask slip, an old god with a shining young face. I asked about the local music. There were local pubs that held monthly sessions. ‘We’re going to have a festival up here,’ said the daughter. She sounded defiant, looked it too.

‘Here?’ It was fabulous, an out of the way spot, but not for a gathering. The cloud shadows and gusty sunlight kept playing out its permutations over the waters of the channel and when we drove on the sky was clearing from the west. A clear day ahead, and a view of the western lands.

The landscape beyond here rose and fell between two great old roads through which your journey could sink down to the prehistoric level. Roads cut on foot, before horsemanship. One man and his gods and his charms – now in the local museum – terrifying big-cunted women, heavy chalk cock and balls, antlers, cattle bones, the long bones of his ancestors, finger bones, the right kinds of woods. The A303 and the A35 meet near Honiton, near the River Axe. These were old antennae of the body mythic.

We’d crossed over the A35 and were heading into the backwoods. The fork in the road came just below the brow of the hill, one way crossing the south eastern slopes of the Valley of Stones, the other reeling like a bobbin of cotton around the villages near Bridport. Not many cars came this way. Grass grew down the middle of narrow lanes that twisted and turned on themselves like stories from myth.

The Valley of Stones sounds like a Tolkein invention, but you’ll find it on any Ordnance Survey map. It takes its name from the clitter of conglomerate megaliths scattered across the hillside and down the valley bottom. It’s possible some organising agency may have taken hold of the Neolithic ritualists, for some see an arrangement of stones here. I could see nothing more deliberate than the scattering of Dorset Black Face across the higher slopes. It isn’t arable country here, but pastoral land for grazing. The air hums with insects and pollen, a skylark sings at different stations of the air above the long meadow grasses where it keeps its nest, the troubling young. The song is beautiful, and can’t be heard fully without the accompanying senses, pressed upon by the heavy heads of cow parsley, flashes of sunlight through the thick and twisted hedgerow, which is what Walton wrote into his music. You notice the hedgerow colours – green and blue and russet. Then a gateway of dried mud and a great circle of cattle faeces, across a field of grass your shadow advances upon you.

‘Dad did some paintings here,’ says John, leaning at the gate, sweat on his brow from the afternoon heat, and out of breath, full of time. What Dad did. An antique sign that had toppled over into the undergrowth announced our destination. Kingston Russell stone circle. My daughter clambered over the gate ahead of us and plunged into the long grass. John pulled it open and we walked through. Looking around, you could see why the spot had been chosen. Five paths met at just this point, walked out of the countryside by generations of feet. Pilgrimage, cattle drive, border march, festival?

Nearby, the Grey Mare and her Colts is an exposed, denuded burial chamber of sarsen stones from the mobile, pastoral Neolithic, a giant stone’s throw from here, down the hill towards Little Bredy, West Bay, the Jurassic coast and middens of shellfish. The three sarsens lean against one another like the fates, dried and haunted undersea conglomerate of the same geology as the stones here, 13 of them in a perfect circle, recumbent on grazing land. You could smell the fecundity. Sumer is a cumin in. I watched my daughter jump sunwise from one to another until she’d completed her circle, and I gave her a carton of apple juice. Someone had dressed one of the stones with a leather string through a hagstone, tied with a little bow of red silk. Done a careful job. The distances piled up from here, the skylark sang again. Bird music, mouth music, the wind in the high trees, through stones and walls and boughs. First music.

The oldest music written down comes from Sumer, a Hurrian hymn in cuneiform on a clay tablet from 1400BC, from the city of Ugarit, an ancient port town in northern Syria. We now know it as Homs. The hymn is to Nikkal, a goddess of orchards, a wife of the moon god. The Hurrians came from Anatolia, home to the oldest settlements in the world. Gobekle Tepe, ‘navel of the world’, was uncovered here by a German archaeologist in 1994. The previous expedition, an American crew, had mistaken the tops of the T-shaped stones for medieval graves. It is a temple complex, stones carved with an animal bestiary, dating to around 10,000BC. The last of the cave art was only a thousand years older. The complex was deliberately buried around 2,000 years later under thousands of tonnes of earth, around the same time the first root sounds of the European tongue are said to have emerged. Expert etymologies.

When this hymn was written down, its culture and place in history was already coming to an end. The music may have been thousands of years old, even then. Lend an ear, and feel your mind bend at the strain of a half-familiar tune, like the taste of the first domesticated wheat. The music has the quarter tones of the future, and the group chant, the weight of the past. It has been reconstructed as music for voices – the voices of men – and for the nine strings of the ancient lyre. Stringed instruments were old but the world’s oldest known instrument, apart from the hands and mouth, was the hollowed out bone of a cave bear, finger holes matching the inscrutable habits of harmony embedded in homo sap like a fossilised bear’s tooth lodged in the crevice of a cave painting. Singing do re mi through eternity.

The three of us sat on the stones for a while, absorbing the landscape as if it was freshly made, still wet, and we were taking in its colours like blotting paper. Down below was Little Bredy, the name an old word for broiling water – spring itself. Just beyond the village and in view still of its steeple, the descendents of Auroch cattle a Falklands War veteran had bred back out of the cave wall and into the Dorsetshire meadows. Long Horn breed, moving at the pace of epic timescales, tectonics churning in the mouth and cud. The most expensive meat in the farmers’ market.

We sat and listened to the skylark, the subtle tones of fields under a sky cleared of traffic. Pointing to the north, I told my daughter to scour the sky beyond the hills for the indigo pall of the Icelandic volcano. “There it is Daddy!” Not a plane in the sky…

Crammed in the car, doubling back to the forked road under Hardy’s Monument, and taking the little lane that unwound north of the Valley of Stones, into woodland spreading out from the valley floor. Ash, oak, thorn, birch, pine. Beech cathedrals vaulting over the road, the Dreamachine flicker of sunlight and shade. I can remember on the first long slow curve of the road out of the valley spotting a white horse standing in a dappled glade on the edge of woodland. And beyond that, a white caravan parked up at the edge of the greenwood, barely any traffic on this grassy byway. A black-haired man, very white skinned, naked to the waist, stepped from the van into the sun. He saw us, but he saw through us, we were chimeras from a later time, and not wholly part of his world, or of the white unsaddled horse in the sunlit glade of the deep wood, where the land folds in on itself and hides away.

Below, the original field drawing from The Mare. 

Mare and her Colts Aug 26 16001

Field work: Looking west from the Grey Mare and Her Colts

 

On a final note, preoccupation with prehistory and stone circles
goes back a long way in my book of life. This is an imagined picture from 1974,
with poster paints on cardboard. 

stone-circle-1974