Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Modest Genius of Bert Jansch: "I'm quite happy. I don't have to borrow guitars anymore."

It’s hard, listening to Bert Jansch, to place his music. On a song such as Strolling Down the Highway, you can hear a sweetness in the voice, and a jauntiness in the guitar that sounds old, but pastoral, and not American. But there is something almost mythically simple about the words. Who, now, would sing about "strollin’"? Who would write about not being able to hitch a lift?
Listen to Needle of Death and, as well as the eerie similarity to Neil Young’s Ambulance Blues - a composition which came later, without credit to Jansch - you hear a clarity of purpose and sound that is brutal. Such a sweet, gentle, funereal song could only have come from the mid-1960s, but it has few of the trappings of the music of that time.
Needle of Death was written after the death from a heroin overdose of Jansch’s friend Buck Polly, a guitar player in the style of Jack Elliott, who also repaired old cars.
"I didn’t realise that he had a problem, but Buck Polly had a lot of home troubles. He used to go clubbing and I used to score some dope. He came with me one day, and he scored some H, and I didn’t think too much about it. He died the next day. It seems that before I met him he had been a junkie. But he had been off it for about six months. Then he had an argument with his wife, and he went straight back on it, and he took the dosage that he was taking before. Which was too much, and he died. So I wrote the song.
"In the short time since I met him, about three months, I got to know him quite well. Then suddenly he was gone. I thought, is it something with me, is it something I helped create?"
Yo La Tengo recently covered Needle of Death, but Jansch doesn't play it anymore - "It depresses me" - though audiences still shout for it. "Usually they are ex-junkies, and usually, funnily enough, Scotsmen."
Bert Jansch was born in Glasgow, but was brought to Edinburgh at the age of three months by his mother, a Leither. They settled in a council house in Ferry Road Drive in West Pilton, and Bert went to school at Pennywell primary - "a row of huts, really" - and then to Ainslie Park. He started music lessons at the age of seven, but his mother couldn’t afford to keep sending him. "Also," says Jansch, "I wasn’t very attentive towards the lessons themselves."
One day, at primary school, the teacher brought a Spanish guitar. "That was the first time I’d seen a guitar. After that, Rock Around the Clock, and all those films started happening. Elvis Presley, Lonnie Donegan, it was all happening at once."
His mother bought a kit, and he built a Spanish guitar on which the strings were about an inch from the neck. "I managed to play a D." At Ainslie Park, his friend Harry Steele, the only other person he knew who was interested in guitars, introduced him to the Howff club, opposite St Giles at 369 High Street. There, Jansch was properly introduced to music. "Hamish Imlach was the first person I ever saw play a guitar for real. That was it. Nothing else mattered."
The Howff was little more than a room, but Roy Guest, who ran it, booked the likes of Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and Pete Seeger. Jansch helped do the place up, stripping the walls, and became a kind of caretaker. "I slept in the place. I used to wake up to the sound of St Giles’ bells." By the age of 16, he was teaching guitar.
Records were scarce. The fiddler (and late Scotsman journalist) Bobby Campbell "used to show up with a record he’d got sent from America. And that record, if it was blues, would go the rounds of all the musicians." Len Partridge, another Edinburgh musician, was interested in the blues, and gave Jansch guitar lessons. "Len was reported to have written Hey Joe," Jansch says. And Hendrix borrowed it? "Sort of."
There was, Jansch says, a coherent group of musicians in Edinburgh and Glasgow, who were mixing traditional music with the blues. Among them were Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer of the Incredible String Band, whose flat in West Nicholson Street offered a place for Jansch to crash.
"Between Clive and Robin and myself, we were actually the very first hippies," Jansch says. "We were a generation away from it, but there was a crossover to the folk that was going on at the same time. Edinburgh has always been a bit ahead of its time."
Drugs, Jansch says, were not scarce. "We were all well known to the police, Robin, Clive and myself. They never did bust us, but we were definitely well-known to them.
"I had tried most of the major drugs before I was 16. Between 16 and 17. In fact, I didn’t drink at all until I was 18 years old. Drinking was actually the one that caused me more harm over the years."
In 1987, while rehearsing for an album, Jansch’s alcoholism caused his pancreas to give out. "I couldn’t stand up. It was like being sick without being sick." The doctor ordered him to hospital, where he was told he had come close to death, and ordered to stop drinking.
"I had this nurse who was a fan, who came in and sat on the bed. She used to talk to me, and she tried to give me reasons why I should give up drinking."
When Palmer and Williamson formed the Incredible String Band, Jansch left Edinburgh to hitch around Europe. He was not, he says, a card-carrying beatnik, though he did come across people such as the poet Pete Brown, and played guitar at his readings. But the hitch-hiking was not a conscious attempt to find himself. "It certainly was extremely different from home life at that time. Basically, I was curious about what was out there."
Jansch had a friend from Edinburgh who did up summer houses in France. He would visit to help with the renovations, and was rewarded with free accommodation. "There’s a village near St Tropez that was built in a circle, like a fortress. They were doing a house up there, and every day we would see Brigitte Bardot in the square. She would be dropped off, and she would sit there in the sun, drink whatever she was drinking, then someone would come and pick her up, and she’d be off. I never did have the courage to talk to her."
Jansch was trying to hitch to Marrakech, from where the guitarist Davy Graham had recently returned. "I was astounded by his guitar, and he had just come back from Morocco. I said, ‘well, I’ve got to go’. It took me a while to get there, and it didn’t make any difference to my playing." Jansch never got beyond Tangiers. He contracted dysentery and was repatriated. He was no older than 18. "I was just foolhardy. I wouldn’t stop to think about any of the implications of anything."
Graham was a major influence. "Davy’s a bit indescribable really. If he heard something he would be able to translate it to the guitar. We were all well into listening to (Charles) Mingus by that time, and Davy could take a whole song, with Roland Kirk playing, Mingus on the bass or the piano, drummer, the works - and he’d put it all onto the guitar, just naturally. In a way, that’s what I discovered."
When he lived in Edinburgh, Jansch would hitch as far south as Rotherham to play a gig, borrowing a guitar when he arrived. "There was no motorways. You wouldn’t contemplate the train. That was just throwing money away."
From his journeys to France, he started to know people in London, playing occasional shows at folk clubs. "Of course, me coming down from Scotland, the style that I had for playing the guitar, none of them had ever heard anything like that."
Soho, he says, was different then. It was seedy, but family-oriented. Les Cousins folk club in Greek Street was owned by Mr and Mrs Matthews. "They ran the restaurant upstairs. Their son, Andy Matthews, ran the club. There were a lot of places like that, grocer’s shops, right next door to a strip club, old tobacconists.
"Mr and Mrs Matthews, because of their son, got to know every guitar player that went to Cousins. If they thought you didn’t look too well, or undernourished, they would take you into the restaurant and give you a huge steak."
Jansch met the guitarist John Renbourn. "We shared a flat, and we got fed up with the Cousins scene because it was an all-night affair. If you were booked to play there you had to be there from midnight til dawn. There was a guy called Bruce Dunnett, who was a left-wing Scotsman, a communist, but he was an entrepreneur. He ran this club for us, the Horseshoe. Me and John were looking towards getting a band together, but anyone could get up and play. Sandy Denny was there. Various drummers and bass players. And out of it came Pentangle. The first gig we did outside of the club was the Festival Hall, and we sold it out. From there we went seven years on the road."
Touring with Pentangle was good, Jansch says, "but eventually you’d had enough. In the end we had our own language. If we wanted to have conversations between ourselves in a crowded room, we could do it, and nobody would be any the wiser. The sad thing is because we kept doing two hour shows, it was very rare for us to meet other musicians, because there’d be no one else on the bill."
Jansch’s influence on subsequent generations is obvious. Just as Neil Young "borrowed" from Jansch, so Jimmy Page retooled Blackwaterside as Black Mountain Side. "That spawned a whole scene that I knew nothing about," Jansch notes flatly, "until one day I was in the States and somebody said have you heard this track? He did the same thing with Davy. White Summer is lifted from Davy’s arrangement of She Moved Thro’ The Fair."
Years ago, Jansch’s record company started court proceedings against Page, but ran out of money. Jansch says he has never mentioned the matter of plagiarism to Page. "I haven’t said anything. He runs away. He could be friendlier." He is not particularly interested in pursuing legal redress. "I’m quite happy. I don’t have to borrow guitars anymore. What am I going to do with three Rolls-Royces?"

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