Sunday, 9 October 2011

living is a gamble, loving's much the same

I can't let the sad loss last week of someone who changed the World go by without making some sort of comment.

There are lots of people who are called a 'genius' - only occasionally is it really true.  We seem to have many people around who 'change our lives' with various technical devices that are said to make our lives easier.  I talk to young people every day and many of them do not understand how one can grow up without phones, computers, video games or your whole music collection in a box the size of a fag packet.  Whether or not we actually need these things or not is debatable, and I'm not sure that my life is easier for having them - it's just different.

When these geniuses shuffle off this mortal coil their work is held up to scrutiny and often there is a sudden rush to buy products related to them - we could call it the Amy Whitehouse effect, I guess. I'm sure that magic black boxes are flying off the shelves from impulse buys this week for obvious reasons.  I'm not sure if Bert Jansch cds are flying off the shelves.  I guess not.  His passing was quiet and dignified, much like the way he lived his life.

However, Bert's death came as a bit of a shock - the news was over-shadowed by the death of soemone far better known.  In his own way, Bert Jansch changed the World and to some he had as much impact as Steve Jobs.  If you doubt that, ask Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Donovan, Johnny Marr, Beth Orton and listen to Nick Drake's legacy.  The term 'genius' has been used in several obituaries and reports.  I'm not really sure if he was a genius or not but he sure as hell was one of the most influential acoustic musicians these shores have produced.

Bert was born on 3rd November 1943 in Glasgow.  By the time he released his first album in1965, he was a wanderer, journeyman and one of the most accomplished guitarists and songwriters of the folk boom.  I'm not going to write out a history but try reading Colin Harper's excellent book Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival (Bloomsbury Books, 2000). Harper's book really is a great read.  Unlike many such scribblings, Harper enjoyed many interviews with the quiet man himself. This meant that there is an honesty to the book - it's not cobbled together from old NME and Melody Maker interviews.

I saw Bert live a couple of times.  He really was amazing at Colchester Arts Theatre a few years ago but the first time I saw him  was at the Fleadh festival in London a while back.  A friend commented last night that the sound was awful - interestingly, I don't remember that.  All I remember is that I had finally managed to see this master musician live.  His vocal delivery was often mumbled but not in the same way John Martyn used his voice as an instrument, and his guitar playing was masterful. It's easy to say such things - my comments about the easy bandying around of the word 'genius' stands - but Jansch was in a class of his own.  The very free flowing style he used is beyond bedroom strummers like me but he was incredibly influential.  The Neil Young album On The Beach was very influenced by Jansch, especially the track Ambulance Blues and, of course, Young would never have written Needle and the Damage Done if it wasn't for Jansch's Needle of Death.

I'm listening to one of his live albums as I write and Blackwaterside has just come on - possibly one of Jansch's most famous songs.  I'm glad that I was able to see him perform it, and not just because I like the song but because it's a song that many people have recorded versions of.   The Oysterband, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson have all recorded versions but there is something very special indeed about Bert Jansch's version from his 1966 album Jack Orion.  I love the sheer, er, Scottishness of his The Ornament Tree (1990).

However, if you think that's all just living in the past, his last album Black Swan was released in 2006.  He was still writing new songs and working with and influencing a new generation of guitar players.  The title song is an interesting science fiction story.  All this and he played Yamaha guitars, not flashy hand built expensive models by master craftsman.  Very down to Earth.

He will be sadly missed and his like will not be seen in these parts again.

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