Saturday, 15 February 2020

Bless The Day #5: Stop This World

A casually caustic Mose Allison singing ‘Stop This World’ is something which seems very much of the moment, what with the way he suggests someone stopping this world, and letting him off, because there’s too many pigs in the same trough, too many buzzards sitting on the fence, and none of it is making any sense. Well, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from, and how it might be applied to the world today.

The song itself is a perfect example of Mose’s lightness of touch, the way he uses his wit as a weapon, with raised eyebrows and a studied nonchalance of manner. Mose and his piano are accompanied here by bluesy horns, which add to the drama. He may be down but he’s still the master of ironic inflections and acute observations delivered in a deadpan and detached wry way, the singer of songs which sting just as much as someone ranting and raving, yelling and hollering.

‘Stop This World’ appears on Mose’s Swingin’ Machine LP, a 1963 release on Atlantic. Breaking away briefly from the trusted piano trio form, the horns here are a rarity among the Mose catalogue, and particularly of note is the presence of Jimmy Knepper on trombone, who also around that time played on Gil Evans’ Out Of The Cool and Charlie Mingus’ Oh Yeah!

One tends to think of Mose as an urbane enlightened Southern Gentleman with nothing left but manners, wit and charm: “Better days this lad has known”. In another time maybe Mose would be in a Willa Cather book as a professor, viewed locally with amused affection. He certainly came across as a smart guy, in more ways than one.  He was smart in that he made his songs seem so simple, but few could achieve such elegant concision. And just look at those clothes he wears on his LP covers, the classical Ivy Look, those button-down shirts, the jumpers, and if a man must wear a moustache then Mose showed the way to do it. It really comes as no surprise that he was a favourite among some of the early modernists in the UK.

People always say that, oh you know, Mose, he came from the blues, and was blues through and through, but the blues has always been a bit of a blind spot here (along with opera and heavy rock), but Mose appeals because his singing is smooth and soft, almost like Nat ‘King’ Cole, and he sang sort of sly with a twinkle in the eye, and he coolly carved out his own unique space. Richard Barnes, and this would probably have been the first time Mose’s name was encountered here, in his beautiful Mods! book said that Allison stayed on the jazz side of the blues, which seems a good place to be.

When Mose first moved up to New York in the 1950s he played with jazzmen like Al Cohn, and indeed it was Al’s wife, the magnificent moody Marilyn Moore, who discovered Mose. He early on also played with Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. Is it only here that this always conjures up images of Jack Kerouac on Piccadilly at midnight being asked by teddy boys if he knew Gerry Mulligan? And some great jazz musicians played in Mose’s classic piano trios, like Paul Motian and Osie Johnson on drums, Ben Tucker and Red Mitchell on bass, all at various times. Oh yeah, and Pete La Roca played drums with him too.

Part of Mose’s genius was not singing too much. Goodness knows what the young mods who loved ‘Parchman Farm’ or ‘Young Man Blues’ thought when they tracked down an elusive early Mose LP. Did they despair at all the piano-led instrumentals, where he swings gently? That was the case here, but gradually there has developed a definite fondness for them, particularly the less jaunty numbers like ‘January’, ‘Spring Song’, ‘The River’, ‘Old Man John’, ‘Idyll’, all the calming compositions, which are therapeutic in the same way George Winston’s Windham Hill seasonal-themed sets are.

Maybe many of us, as here, first really listened to Mose via compilations, like the Prestige collection Mose Allison Sings, and in particular an Atlantic best of, which also concentrated on the vocal side of Mose, and God bless the day that CD collection turned up in the racks of the local Our Price in the mid-1990s, mid-price too, so bought as part of a process of filling gaps in a musical education, because interestingly original Mose albums never seemed to turn up in the charity shops round our way, or even when, as Shena Mackay wrote in Dunedin, on summer Saturdays and Sundays all of South East England was transformed into one gigantic car-boot sale, there never appeared to be any Mose LPs on offer.

Even with the Atlantic compilation it took time for Mose’s music to seep into the soul, but eventually his songs really took hold. It is likely that one of Mose’s songs was first heard here, indirectly, via the magnificent Sandinista! with The Clash swinging through ‘Right Here’, a track from The Word From Mose Allison, which was billed as being “words of wisdom from the jazz sage”, and the LP itself came out the same week this boy said: “Stop this world I’m getting on”. And that cover, with Mose looking decidedly dapper in that coat and scarf combination, with the grey-flecked hair, well, what can you say? It worked that look, it really did.

Sandinista! Oh, it’s a wonderful thing, a flawed sprawling affair, sure, but so was Sinatra’s Trilogy, his conceptual affair, which was out around the same time, and that could be more than coincidence. Sandinista! is brilliant because it covers so much ground, the musically curious Clash cats exploring whatever alleys their passions took them down, and anyway everyone has their own Sandinista! Don’t they?

The one here is all about the doomed romantic Joe’s post-‘Bankrobber’ blues and ballads, those unique infusions of reggae, jazz, and folk song forms, different permutations each time around, different emphases, the ones that sound like bottom-of-the-glass midnight confessions, the bruised laments, heart of darkness marching songs, last-ditch wild waltzes, and especially there’s ‘The Call Up’ and the rose that Joe wants to live for, although God knows he may not have met her, and the dance where he should be with her. It’s a sentimental strain that continues on into Combat Rock, where again approximately a third of the songs are that way, leading up to ‘Death is a Star’, as everything does.

Memories here of a Sounds feature in July 1982, with the best pop writer of the time Dave McCullough on the road with The Clash in Hollywood, and Joe’s talking about Dylan coming to see them and then going off to record back-to-basics rock & roll again, and Dave is suggesting this was ironic as Combat Rock’s richness saw The Clash heading towards the narrative style of Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni and so on. Then Joe picks up on the mention of Van and it touches something dormant in him and he seems to drift off into a reverie about Astral Weeks, a reverie haunted by ‘Cyprus Avenue’ in particular, and he talks about how Van had lived the songs: “I defy anyone to say ‘Cyprus Avenue’ isn’t soul”.

And being young men in the early-1980s they dismiss Van’s recent work. Dave was a big fan, though. He loved Into The Music, but hated Common One, which was characteristically perverse. He was notoriously fickle. Many years later, another music writer, Greil Marcus would write about listening to Van, and he brutally dismissed “the endless stream of dull and tired albums through the 1980s and ’90s carrying titles like warning labels.” He sneered at what he called the characterless singing, the faceless playing on all those LPs from Common One through to Tell Me Something. Well, that is fair enough. It’s a personal opinion, and at least it makes it easier to reject Greil’s writing on the grounds that he was stupid enough to write a book called Lipstick Traces about punk and not mention either the O’Jays or Subway Sect.

Whether you love them or not, Van’s determination to come up with an album every year-or-so is impressive, and his work rate is admirable, the dogged dedication to his craft is commendable, in an Agatha Christie type of a way. And all those records Greil disparages, well, it seems an incredibly rich seam of work, and throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, on these LPs, there seems to be a continuous narrative which has come to be appreciated here very much, and maybe there is a theory to be developed how one needs to be considerably older than Van was when he made these records to really love them and feel them. It’s not essential but it helps somehow.

At one point, in one of his poetic compositions, Van sings: “I wish my writing would come. You know it’s hard sometimes.” Oh yes. That was a familiar feeling for a while here too. And that’s when the penny dropped, when the words weren’t there, and one solution was to keep busy, to keep from thinking, too much. On days when routine gets you through, falling back on order and method, it became a ritual to play one Van CD late each afternoon, working through chronologically, and that’s when the 1980s LPs really clicked, despite or because of all their Sandinista!-style distracting or detracting moments.

And played over and over, some songs from that series of LPs, they offered something to draw on when there seemed little else. At times they connected with something inside. And then when the light came shining through, when everything fell into place, on days like that, other songs captured that inner glow, what Van might call the rapture, but just don’t ask him to explain.

The grandee Greil’s gripes seem to centre on Van’s references becoming too explicit, and that makes sense in a way, but Van’s sharing passions, and anyway you just go on and make your own new connections, which might make no sense to anyone else, like say with Bobby Scott’s ‘Rivers of Time’, Joy Division’s ‘Heart and Soul’, Hoagy Carmichael’s too, Go-Betweens’ ‘Arrow in a Bow’, Orange Juice’s ‘Tender Object’, Michael Head’s ‘Something Like You’, Jonathan Richman’s ‘Fly Into the Mystery’ and ‘Angels Watching Over Me’, also Shena Mackay’s The Orchard On Fire. Why not?

“We were the wild children, born 1945, when all the soldiers came marching home from war with love looks in their eyes,” sang Van. So, maybe Shena is a year older, born on D-Day no less, but it’s all there, the two of them, in their work at times, the growing up in the 1950s, the small but important details remembered, the tastes, the smells, the sounds, the words. Imagine them now, sitting, drinking tea, in a café on the outskirts of town, talking awkwardly about Ray Charles and Gene Vincent and gazing out of the schoolroom window, the colours of the leaves, the shops they remember, and the hymns that have haunted them.

So Van, there he was, in the 1980s and beyond, with all that poetry and jazz to protect him, in with the harps and synths, the pipes calling, his band and sweet choir, those Sisters of Scarlet Carol and Katie, pure gospel, nearer my god to thee, and the circling concepts, constant keywords, the repeated phrases, incantations and mantras, the richness, the vividness of Van’s vocabulary, his imagery, the Arthurian legends and Celtic myths, mysticism and mists, songs of spirituality, days of deep devotion, evening meditation, contemplation, got to go on with the dreaming, the healing, and into the daring night, the dark night of the soul, and you know this world is so cold, and cares nothing for your soul, but all these trials have not been in vain.

Then, in the daytime, a lot of walking, daily walking close, in haunts of ancient peace, up that mountainside, in that old great coat, in the woods, in days of leaves, wandering over the green fields and far away, down by the river and by pagan streams. And you know you’ve got to have faith, when it’s summertime in England, and the Irish rover, the eternal exile, is a long way from home, a stranger in a town called paradise, off the ancient highway, with the ancient voices calling, with visions of Sal Paradise.

There are so many cherished songs on those 1980s Van LPs, and into the 1990s too, where there’s ‘So Quiet Here’, ‘Hymns to the Silence’, ‘In The Forest’, ‘Til We Get The Healing Done’, ‘Underlying Depression’, ‘Days Like This’, beyond time. “Music and writing. Words. Memories. Memories way back”. It’s so great the way Van strives to capture the shaping forces that made him, to document and understand where he came from, and how he seems to draw strength from that knowledge.

The parts where he prefers the spoken word are peculiarly effective and affecting, in the spirit of those wonderful Rod McKuen and Anita Kerr records, Sinatra’s A Man Alone, Kevin Rowland’s reminiscences, and Joe on ‘Death is a Star’ where he seems to channel Jack Kerouac. Van’s violent outbursts of Sidney Bechet and ‘O Sole Mio’ are things of incredible beauty, aren’t they? “Previous, previous, previous”.

Van tells stories so vividly on ‘Coney Island’ and ‘Pagan Streams’ and conjures up the vanished world of his own youth beautifully when talking to us on ‘A Sense of Wonder’, ‘See Me Through Part Two’, and ‘On Hyndford Street’, singing too on ‘Cleaning Windows’. He is particularly good when he speaks about the transformative effect of the magic that came through on the wireless, through the ether, the jazz and the blues and the folk, and Debussy on the Third Programme, in the early morning when contemplation’s best, and so on, which all connects with growing up on stories of Grandad Carney’s solemn weekly ritual listening to Cavan O’Connor, and woe betide anyone who disturbed that sacred time.

The evocation of Belfast back then in Van’s songs is covered in a lovely little book by the Irish poet Gerald Dawe, which is called In Another World and so immediately connects with Richard Hell as well as Astral Weeks. The slim book is worth more than a dozen doorstop-sized biographies, the ones whose writers cannot understand why there should be more mystery, more things hidden. One chapter in Gerald Dawe’s book starts with a quote from Mose Allison’s ‘Was’ which probably not coincidentally is one of the songs that appears on Tell Me Something, a 1996 celebration of the songs of Mose, on which Van appears with Georgie Fame, Ben Sidran, and Mose himself, plus a fine young line-up of jazz musicians. It’s a fun record, and includes Ben Sidran sprightly singing ‘Look Here’.

Ben is in grave danger of becoming a real hero around here. Listening deeply to (most of) his 1970s LPs, finally, has been a revelation of late, largely thanks to a neat BGO 2CD set of his four Arista titles, and it’s been fun finding it so easy to relax into his flow. Little bits every now and then seem nigglingly familiar, from a Gilles Peterson show on the radio way back when perhaps, and unnervingly on I Live A Life he sounds suspiciously like he might have been on constant replay in Money Mark’s keyboard repair shop, but generally there’s not been a sense here of being bombarded by people saying you’ve got to listen to Ben Sidran, he’s right up your street, very sardonic, a right smartarse, like Lou Reed if (if only!) post-Velvets he went off and became a singer playing piano in saloon bars (after hours), and there’s no memory of reading how Ben’s tracks are so sumptuously funky and jazzy and hip.

Except that presumably Ben wasn’t exactly hip in the 1970s, but time has been kind to this wise guy and his acidic songs, and if he was out of step back in the day you can at least say he was cute enough to involve a lot of wonderful singers and players, like Phil Upchurch, Blue Mitchell, Clyde Stubblefield, Tony Williams, Frank Rosolino, the Brecker Brothers, Willie Tee, Woody Shaw, Mimi Farina, Larry Carlton, Richard Davis, Mike Melvoin, Arthur Adams, Phil Woods, and Suzanne Ciani, as well as summoning up the spirits of, say, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Bob Dorough and very definitely Mose Allison, going as far as covering his ‘Foolkiller’ which had been another highlight from Word From Mose. Ben has said that hearing Mose was a life-changing thing.

Van Morrison went public on the debt he owes to Mose back when he recorded A Sense of Wonder, in the mid-1980s, which included a cover of ‘If You Only Knew’ as well as Ray Charles’ ‘What Would I Do?’.  Tell Me Something forms part of Van’s collaborative phase, which began with Irish Heartbeat, his project with The Chieftains which is such a joyous and moving affair, with one of the most uplifting sequences in popular music, taking in ‘Raglan Road’, ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, ‘I’ll Tell Me Ma’. And then there is the duet with John Lee Hooker on ‘Wasted Years’, and the skiffle celebration with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber, and also there’s the partnership with Georgie Fame, who had played organ on a series of Van’s records, Avalon Sunset, Enlightenment, Hymns To The Silence, and Too Long in Exile.

Then in 1995 Van and sweet Georgie Fame had some fun at Ronnie Scott’s putting together the delightful How Long Has This Been Going On, where with a great group of young jazz musicians they perform a set of old songs, including a couple of Mose Allison covers and a cracking version of ‘That’s Life’. The emphasis was kind of on the swingin’ vocalese side of jazz singing, with nods to King Pleasure, Louis Jordan, and Jon Hendricks, so it was appropriate Annie Ross should pop up as special guest on ‘Centerpiece’, the old Lambert, Hendricks & Ross classic.

Presumably Georgie and Annie knew each other from the 1960s, with a Flamingo Club, Jeff Kruger, Ember Records connection, and from when she ran Annie’s Room in Covent Garden where the older in-crowd came to see the likes of Mark Murphy, Timi Yuro, Blossom Dearie, Anita O’Day, Ethel Ennis, Nina Simone, and indeed Mose Allison. Oh for a time machine! Then in 1981 Georgie and Annie recorded their celebration of Hoagy Carmichael, In Hoagland, and while that is Hoagy’s real name it always somehow suggests Hoagy Lands of ‘The Next in Line’ fame.

The record features Hoagy C. himself, shortly before he died, and a great line-up of British jazz players. Georgie and Annie are on fine form, and the record itself fits nicely alongside Kid Creole and Vic Godard records of the era: Vic needless to say being a big fan of Hoagy, and of ‘Washboard Blues’ in particular. That’s not a gratuitous Godard mention as Vic’s championing of the classic songwriters back then played a large part in a growing appreciation here of composers like Hoagy, an understanding of whom could be gleaned from Radio 2 shows hosted by Benny Green and Hubert Gregg. A big favourite here is a CD, The Old Music Master, with liner notes by the charming Hubert, which features Hoagy, caught on old 78s, singing his own songs (and you can trace the connection with Mose on those), including ones covered by Georgie and Annie, like ‘Hong Kong Blues’, ‘Rockin’ Chair’, ‘Stardust’, ‘Lazy River’, and ‘Georgia On My Mind’ which Van later did a great version of.

Annie is little more than a presence on Van’s How Long This Been Going On celebratory set, a totem, but from around that same time she can be heard in fantastic dramatic form on the Short Cuts CD, a Hal Willner project based on the soundtrack for Robert Altman’s film which was itself loosely based on some of Raymond Carver’s classic short stories. Annie stars in the film, but the record is far better, a real favourite here. On it she puts in a virtuoso performance of method acting, as a damaged nightclub singer, accompanied by a small jazz combo who get it just right, with calming classical interludes. Annie plays it on the record as someone emotionally eroded by life’s stormy blasts, and it all comes out in the tortured torch songs, delivered with exquisite timing and rhythm, though the voice may be careworn and shall we say lived-in, an ideal counterpoint to the gnarly Dylan of the time, oddly, and perfect for the part in a slightly unsettling blues-in-the-night twisted way.

Annie herself really turned pop music on its head when she wrote the words for and sang the aptly named ‘Twisted’ in 1952, with a small group featuring Percy Heath and Art Blakey, playing a large part in inventing vocalese as we now know it. Mark Murphy did a great version too on his immortal Rah! Another song Mark made his own was ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ which was the title track of his mid-1960s Immediate LP. This Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse song was also performed compellingly by Van Morrison and Georgie Fame on their Ronnie Scott’s set. Van really gets inside the song, and the arrangement is gorgeous.

And Van’s intensity is such that this listener is reminded of a scene in a 1991 TV drama about Tony Hancock, with Alfred Molina brilliant in the title role plus, perhaps, Frances Barber stealing the show as his wife, and this is when a very tired and emotional Tony is at the radiogram, in his flat, drinking, crying, his wife despairing, and Anthony Newley’s singing ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ in his highly melodramatic way and Molina manages, just, to say: “He really understands”.

And this was the standout number from the Newley & Bricusse stage show Stop The World I Want To Get Off which, as far as it’s possible to tell, has nothing to do with Mose Allison’s ‘Stop This World’. Indeed, Mose has said his title came from a sketch by Professor Irwin Corey. So, yeah, great minds think alike, and all that. Coincidences do happen. What makes this funnier is that the Max Harris theme tune for Newley’s The Strange World of Gurney Slade, a hit in the UK which the astonishing TV series most definitely was not, is at times extraordinarily close to Mose’s ‘Parchman Farm’.

What makes this stranger still is that the ‘Parchman Farm’ piano riff recurs in Anthony’s ‘Bee-Bom’, the fingerclickin’ cool bop b-side of his 1961 hit ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’. Newley mooching through ‘The Weasel’ and ‘Strawberry Fair’, playing the old Cockney vernacular card, was a particular highlight of listening to Radio 2 at home as a kid, and later it seemed easy to make the connection to punk rock. Appropriately The Clash would cover ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ at soundchecks.

Anthony’s showbiz mate Sammy Davis Jr. later teased ‘Bee-Bom’ into a very smart mod-jazz number, and Morgana King, with an arrangement by Torrie Zito, took it further down that road. The song even travelled as far as Czechoslovakia where in 1967 Karel Štědrý sang it as ‘Bi-bom’ and there is a gloriously daft pop-art video to go with the song from that optimistic pre-clampdown time there.

‘Bee-Bom’ was nominally written by Les Vandyke who also performed as the singer Johnny Worth. Les wrote early hits for Adam Faith and for Eden Kane, Beardy Pegley’s mate. Ironically, Les also wrote and recorded ‘Doin’ The Mod’, a piece of opportunistic fun that naturally would be frowned upon down at The Scene in Ham Yard where as Guy Stevens plays Mose Allison’s ‘Stop This World’, the young kids might be dancing, and thinking: “Why can’t it always be like this?"

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