Live at Leeds
There was a knock at the door of the summer of ’89. ‘Hi Tom. Long time, no see’. As she spoke, she took off the shades she was wearing against the glaring sun that was baking the dirty red brick and black coping stones up and down dusty Ashford Street. There was a woman standing in my room. An actual woman. A slim, attractive blonde woman who I was certain I’d never seen before, yet she knew my name and was standing there in my room. My face must have read ‘who-there’s-the-a-fuck-woman-are-in-you-my-room’ so she pointed at her face and said ‘Claire?’ Utter consternation. Synapses firing randomly in my brain. Who the hell was this? Then she must have decided she’d got as much fun out of this idiot as she was going to get and laughed. ‘It’s OK. We haven’t met. Dave from the recording studio next door sent me to see you’. Now all I was certain of was that I fancied this woman more than any other woman I’d ever seen before, including Catherine Schell’s Maya from Space 1999.
Claire Jones had recently completed a broadcast journalism course and had arrived in Stoke for her first job at Signal Radio. She was looking for a temporary place to stay and Dave Wilcox, erstwhile RE teacher and owner of Synergy recording studio had suggested I might be able to help. I was happy to.
Claire took one of the vacant rooms in the house for the summer and I became her guide to the pubs, takeaways and hash dealers of the potteries. She smoked silk cut and liked Stevie Wonder and much as I’d have liked it, there was no opportunity for a romantic tryst since she was attached to a morose violinist from London. I made a point of listening to Signal Radio to hear her reading the news and by the end of the summer when she was ready to vacate the house she’d landed a new job as a producer on the then new Radio Five Live.
As Claire departed for London and Five Live she left me with two ideas lodged in my mind. That all violinists were to be despised and that any female, English, Caucasian voice that came out of the radio belonged to someone slim, blonde and attractive. I prefer to think that this is because Claire made a strong impression on me during a formative stage in my life rather than the other possibility that I’m just shallow.
The cliché has it that the pictures are better on the radio. They are certainly cheaper and easier to create on the wireless. You don’t need to be in the Amazon rainforest in order to conjure up the sense of humidity and heat, a notion of the colours and the smells and the sounds. A good engineer and a well-crafted script can do it from a studio in Edgbaston. What’s more, the listener will fill in the gaps with what they already know, or think they know.
Among aficionados, the story of John Martyn Live at Leeds is well known. Island records boss Chris Blackwell was unwilling to release a live John Martyn album and so the independent and bloody minded Glaswegian decided to do it himself. An ad in the NME featured a photo of a grinning Martyn with the accompanying ‘quote’ ‘”Look ‘ere, I’ve made this album. Now keep schtum and don’t tell de uvver mob. Just send free quid as soon as you like to my gaff and my latest waxing can be yours”’. With a touching naiveté the ad had a coupon to cut out and send with remittance to 10, Coburg Place, Hastings, Martyn’s home address.
The initial run of 10,000 records proved lucrative but came with problems. Sure, he’d get up in the morning and find another couple of grand on the doormat but Martyn also found himself opening the door to hippy causalities, sleeping bags in hand, looking for a place to crash for the night. The sleeve was plain white with flipbacks and a round ‘stamp’ printed on the front, aping the Who Live at Leeds graphics. Lots were signed on the reverse with a message, others were not. At some point, the printed sleeves ran out and Martyn and his wife Beverly spent hours cutting out Xeroxed copies of the stamp motif and sticking them to plain covers. By the time I had discovered John Martyn in 1983, Live at Leeds had an almost mythical status as the rarest and most desirable album in the world.
One day sometime in 1984 I got wind that a friend of a friend had a copy of Live at Leeds and it became my ambition to at the very least see it. After a four mile walk, negotiation and promises of security, I was allowed to borrow this precious trophy for a couple of days. The lending and borrowing of records was a kind of glue that that bonded music fans. It was also a fraught business. While the lender was keen to share, they also had to be wary. Not everyone who liked records could be trusted to look after them. What passed for a hi fi varied considerably and there was always a risk that a keen borrower was going to play your hard saved for LP on their mum’s ancient radiogram, with its knackered stylus and eight gram tracking weight. For the borrower, there always existed the terror of some accidental mishandling of someone else’s prize resulting in excommunication from the brotherhood. So walking off with my friend’s friend’s Live at Leeds felt as though I had been trusted beyond measure but also that God himself was keeping a very close eye on me.
From the opening few free form ‘bars’ of Outside In I had a very clear picture of the Leeds gig. A balmy July evening, gentle breeze ruffling John’s locks, a darkening blue sky behind bassist Danny Thompson. I had as clear a view in my mind of the 2,000 or so pot smoking fans blissing out in a field to the echoplex pyrotechnics as the band had from the stage. After committing it to cassette, I returned the child to its parents and played the movie of the gig in my head over and over again until the tape wore out.
Then on the 10th anniversary of the original release a re-release, on the Cacophony label came out and I acquired one at the earliest opportunity.
I have always struggled with the insistence on augmented rereleases. It’s especially true of CDs but new presses on vinyl do it too. A recent, nice looking reissue of the Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue has been given this treatment, adding two extra tracks. This seems to me a travesty. Composers draft symphonies, then orchestrate them and fix and finalise them. You wouldn’t bolt the drafts for Shubert’s 7th onto the end of a performance of his 6th. When Miles and producer Teo Macero put out Kind of Blue they made it that way, it’s supposed to be like that. A CD of Ben Webster’s Soulville is augmented with two additional tracks, mercifully at the end, of solo recordings of Webster abandoning his tenor horn in favour of twatting the hell out of a piano, stride/honky tonk style, like a drunken sailor with a penguin up his arse. I do not approve of augmented rereleases. They are artistically bankrupt articles. Remember I said this.
The Cacophony rerelease of Live at Leeds was an authentic thing, without extra tracks. It stuck to the cover format, minus the flipbacks, added a very short and elegantly written story of the original release on the back and a discrete repro of the stamp motif to the label. It was nicely done. But I’m not sure that back in ’85 I appreciated it. At the time I would have liked some extra insight into that hash scented, summer perfumed evening in ’75. Perhaps I’d have got a better mind’s eye view of the really sexy girl sitting about four deep back to the left. But the images the record fixed in my visual memory did not disappoint. With each and every listening, that day in a warm field in Yorkshire, Rowans with berries forming, growing up through hot hawthorn hedges just beyond the stage, beautiful young people in cheesecloth digging the vibe became more sharply focussed and warmly colour saturated. All the evidence is that I was seven years old in 1975, playing with bricks and ‘granny’s hair’ from inside old and abandoned settees in the backs in Howard Street. If that knowledge were somehow erased from my memory then I would believe that I had been there, in sandals and probably a beard, with the girl four deep to the left.
Live at Leeds consists of seven tracks. Side one is given over to just two, a version of Outside In in which Martyn does extraordinary things with an acoustic guitar and an Echoplex while wailing and moaning on about fish and babies, followed by one of his signature numbers, Solid Air. Side two opens with a swinging Make no Mistake followed by the instrumental, Pharaoh Sanders influenced noodling (great noodling) of Beverly that then slips into a sometimes fierce Bless the Weather. In between a version of Man in the Station as gloomy Get Carter and that hot day’s cocky Charlie Coker take on I’d Rather be the Devil, there is a snippet of infamous John Martyn and Danny Thompson banter. The two were known for raucous on stage antics; rowing, scrapping, stripping naked during the set, cussing each other like ship builders, dockers, Jeremy Paxman and coalminers all rolled into one, falling over pissed, turning up on the stand with black eyes, belching deeply into the microphone at the end of each number. They must have been a delight. As the producer of the original album, John Martyn had decided to include a three minute long, foul mouthed exchange between him and his partner on the bass concerning the origins of a weak joke about Ravel’s Bolero and shagging. This is a record by a man at the height of his powers.
In the days before youtube, the inclusion of off mic incidentals and band banter on generally available live albums was important. It gave us a rounder picture of our heroes and heroines. We could relate their attitudes and manner recorded forever to our experiences of actually seeing them live, or the stories we heard about them playing live from other people. I can see Martyn and Thompson, hot and sweating at the end of Man in the Station, cutting loose at each other over a pointless dispute, spit and beads of sweat flying, while Stevens, bemused, sits behind his kit and winks at Paul Kossoff, the Free guitarist, who is waiting in the wings to come on towards the end of the set as a guest.
Forward twenty years. I have sold all my vinyl to Les. My priorities are different. I’m a father, a husband, a wage earner and a man with a mortgage. Sitting about listening to jazz, smoking fags, drinking tea and reading Penguin Modern Classics like you understand them is neither missed nor desirable as a long term approach to one’s inexorable path to the grave. My Local Authority middle managers pockets are deep enough for casual CD purchases at HMV and I pick up a CD of Live at Leeds for about a fiver. There is no real sense of urgency about owning another copy of one of my favourite records. It will, I’m sure transport me again to that glowing July evening, when bees buzzed lazily back to their hives and swifts swooped for their supper over the crowd of loved up bastards who had turned on, tuned in, and tripped out to John, Danny and drummer John Stevens, playing a blinder under this goodly canopy, the air. And so it did, up until the end of Man in the Station where it Segway’s neatly into I’d Rather be the Devil omitting the all-important Martyn v. Thompson swearfest over Ravel and shagging completely. If I didn’t want augmentation, I certainly didn’t want diminution.
Then came the Deluxe CD edition of Live at Leeds. This two CD set comprised the whole of the original concert, including Kossoff’s contribution plus rehearsals. As artistically bankrupt as it might have been, I had to have it. The whole original concert must not only include John and Danny’s spat but also how I get on with the sexy girl four deep to the left. And how it does! The running order of songs is different but in the temperate summer’s air, four back to the left and I shimmy in closer to each other. During May You Never our little fingers touch, then entwine, her shoulder gently butts mine. She passes me a spliff. During My Baby Girl she rests her head on my shoulder, laughs and I put my hand over hers. As John starts his volume pedal meandering into Outside In, four deep and I turn to face each other. She gives a small chuckle as she moves to kiss me and…
Hang on a minute! That’s not right! The Deluxe CD Edition version of Outside In bears no resemblance to the original at all. The spell now broken, I rush to the CD liner notes and as I read, my world changes slightly but perceptibly.
It turns out that of the seven tracks on the original record, only three were recorded in Leeds-Bless the Weather, Make no Mistake and d Man in the Station and that with a studio overdub vocal, the others being from gigs in London. A more shocking revelation followed that the original Leeds gig was not in a bucolic, low sun lit northern English meadow but within the sweaty, smoky, condensation striped walls of Leeds University Student Union bar. In February. There was not meadow grass, buttercups and daisies underfoot but a sludge of melted snow, spilled beer and probably piss. So where and when was the gig I’d spent 20 years being at? And what had happened to four deep to the left?
The invention of memories and the creation of an un-happened past is a theme often found in dystopian novels and films. From Blade Runner and The Matrix to 1984, A Clockwork Orange and episodes of Doctor Who, the idea that some external agency can control our thoughts and memories is a powerful and disturbing one. In this instance however the only deceptive agent was me. Looking back, I have no idea why I believed that Live at Leeds had been recorded at a festival in July. It was not important for me to believe in the open air version. Certainly at the time anything that meant more access to understanding and knowing about John Martyn was of importance to me but I never felt a need to invent things around my obsession. Quite the reverse in fact. I wanted verifiable data which was hard to come by outside of the occasional feature in Mojo magazine or an NME article.
The deluxe CD was quite an eye opener. A good 30% of the CD is given over to Martyn, Thompson and to a lesser extent Stevens and Kossoff abusing each other. Martyn is utterly obnoxious and the release does nothing to mitigate the common idea of him as an arrogant and boorish drink sodden git. I forgive him this. Lots of my heroes have turned out to be less than savoury in their habits and manners. The great W. Eugene Smith created photographs of the most exquisite beauty yet is recorded as behaving intolerably by many of his contemporaries. The novelist Malcolm Lowry was an unreliable and inveterate drunk and let’s face it, Picasso was no choirboy. I have learned to separate the art from the artist. Any artist or maker genuinely breaking new ground is almost by definition likely to be treading roughly on the well-tended boarders of convention and sometimes this is reflected in the behaviour of individuals. It is perhaps the price the better mannered must pay for progress.
So it was in the knowledge of the truth about Live at Leeds that I acquired a Cacophony copy while Retracing my Vinyl Footsteps. It was a costly affair, setting me back fifteen quid but a necessary evil. I took it home and fired up the Thorens. Volume pedal free-form meanderings at the start of Outside In and then there I was, back in the field again, with four deep to the left at my side. I tried to force myself to remember that this was a fiction but the memory of the gig that never was and that I was never at would not, could not be shaken off.
Beside the record there must be other physical remnants of the Leeds gig; ticket stubs, posters, photographs, all testaments to the actual event. But the event only exists in memories and each memory for every member of the audience will be different. Considered that way there never was a Live at Leeds gig but two or three hundred different experiences of the same thing, when John, Danny, John Stevens and Paul Kossoff played a set.
I am fond of telling the story of the walk in the woods. With a roll of the eyes my children will agree. Two men arrange to meet one day to take a walk in the woods together. One man gets to bed early the night before the walk and has a good eight hours rest. He rises early, allowing himself plenty of time for a shit, shower and shave and a hearty breakfast. Thus prepared he sets out, appropriately dressed, in good time to meet his friend. But his friend is not there at the appointed time. His friend is only just leaving his house. The night before, he went to the pub. He had six pints of Old Bastard, two packets of pork scratchings and a large Irish. He picked up a dirty big kebab on his way home where he washed it down with the third of a bottle of white wine that was hanging about in the fridge. Then he fell asleep on the sofa. He would be there still, had the cat not leapt on his balls wailing for food just ten minutes before he is due to meet his friend at the woods, half an hour away. He makes his bleary way to his rendezvous, in last night’s clothes, with a hangover the size of Wolverhampton and an unpleasant certainty that the kebab will be putting on a comeback show. After guilty apologies to his friend for his lateness, the two set off for their walk in the woods.
The two friends follow the same path. The first man (the well prepared one) looks around him and sees all that is beautiful in the forest. The light through the canopy dappling the pond surface, the subtle and infinite variation of colour and hue in the trees, plants and wildflowers. He perceives the light, living litheness of birds and mammals going about their unconcerned business and he marvels at the iridescence or saturated colour or dusty fadedness of the insect’s wings that beat and buzz all about him. The whole Gerald Manly Hopkins-ness of the experience enlightens him and as he is enlightened, he enlightens all that is around him. Except, perhaps, his hungover mate. He feels like shit. He does not see all this Pied Beauty, he sees decay, stagnant water, unidentified creatures scratching around furtively and irritating insects trying to bite and sting him. The experience serves only to darken his mood, and as his mood darkens so he perceives the forest as an ever darker, ever more threatening and unpleasant place.
This is of course a long winded way of expressing the idea that no two people interact with the world in the same way and that each of us is a unique sum of our experience, aspirations and expectations. I was five or six years old when my sister said to me ‘what must it be like to have Gordon Banks for your dad?’ I struggled mentally with that idea for some time before I came up with what has become my personal mantra-‘nobody knows what it’s like to be someone else’.
So what about Live at Leeds? I acquired another Cacophony copy of the record because it was so much cheaper than the one I’d replaced my original one with. Followed by another, with the stuck on Xeroxed stamp, presumably done by either John or Bev themselves. God bless Les at King Bee records. And that is still the gig I was at and yet never at, in that non-existent field on a July day when there wasn’t a John Martyn gig in Leeds at all. And it’s as real as the other Live at Leeds gig, the one on the deluxe CD with liner notes that create a new image, or film in the mind and provides ‘evidence’ that something specific took place, somewhere at a given time, which it kind of didn’t because two or three hundred different people experienced different things at the same time and however many thousand owners of the Deluxe CD were all at another gig, the one in each of their heads.
So a thing can exist in different ways at the same time depending on how it is perceived by individuals. In one way, this seems to put human beings at the very centre of everything, an argument for a Grand Design where the universe is created for our satisfaction. In another, it is profoundly isolating. Those things we understand as shared moments and experiences are not shared at all but only go on in our own heads, a world projected through the prism of our egos. Pub quantum theorists might cogitate on the possibilities this allows for internal multiverses within our own observable parameters of the universe. Those for whom a record is just a background to daily life-on the ipod on the train, while they’re doing the dishes, the mood music to sex, might just say ‘so what?’
For me the revelation that there is more than one Live at Leeds causes me to reassess my reaction to all around me. I am not paralysed by the prospect but there is the possibility that nothing in the world is what it seems to be, whether we are led to believe things by our own misapprehensions or by the deliberate deceit of others. It also sets up another possibility that one could choose to live in a world of self directed perfect memories, where you didn’t knock the china cup with the hunting scene from the mantelpiece, where you got the answers to all the exam questions right, where you weren’t found out or lost, or unloved, an internal world where there is no truth but there are no lies. A world where all the female broadcasters are slim, blonde and attractive and where record collectors are not shallow, they’re just at a formative stage in their lives.