Keeping Music Alive

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Flight Case, Guitarist
Duffy Marshall

It's Saturday night, just like any Saturday night, in any music pub in any town. Well, almost any town. Alright, a dwindling number of towns. Outside the pub, a notice board proclaims, 'live music tonight!'
A transit van is being unloaded by four, late-middle-aged men and the sticker on the back door of the van says, 'keep music live!'.

I have often wondered about this. I mean the idea of 'live music'. Live music. As opposed to what? Dead music? Surely, all music is live. I mean even if it is coming at you, barely audible and somewhat irritatingly, in a lift or a supermarket, it is still there, filling that space... live. Wounded and on its last legs, perhaps but, still live.

So, maybe, the sign outside would be more informative if it said, 'live musicians tonight'. Maybe the sticker on the back of the van should say 'keep musicians live'. Mind you that is just one letter away from saying, 'keep musicians alive'. And that is not always easy.

The musicians unloading the van are, by any standards and despite their advancing years, very much alive. They wearily heft p.a. speakers, guitar amps, drum cases, instrument cases and various undefined bags and boxes into the pub. Their faces say they have been here before — many times before.

I have, of course, assumed that these are the musicians, the act, and not a team of tour-weary roadies whose job it is to prepare the set for the band who will arrive three minutes before start time with nothing to do other than walk onto the stage, pick up their already tuned instruments and launch into the opening number.

I make this assumption based on the fact that the fee that the band will receive for two forty-five-minute sets with a fifteen-minute break in between and ten minutes at the end for an encore or two, whether asked for or not, is probably somewhere between £150 and £200.

The fee somehow contradicts the quality and quantity of the equipment and instruments that now form a pile in the middle of the lounge bar. How does that all work? The more I think about this, the more I realise I have stumbled across a whole other talking point worthy of filling the pages of an article all by itself. So, enough said about that for now. Bring on the music.

Well, ok, not just yet. There is, after all, a bit of setting up to do first but as I am not really at this music pub because It is a hypothetical music pub, I will skip to the opening number.

The band launch into All Along the Watchtower. It bears little or no resemblance to the original Bob Dylan song, and why should it. It does, however, sound competently reminiscent of the Jimi Hendrix version.

I sit back, to enjoy the familiar chord sequences and guitar licks, the strong, dependable bass line and precise drum fills and...wait a minute... something is wrong! What the fuck is it? And then I realise what it is. This musical experience with a small 'e' is cosy, warm, comforting, nostalgic. I have used words like familiar, dependable and precise to describe it. And that, exactly, is what is wrong.

With this revelation, I find myself no longer listening to the live music. My mind drifts back to late 1967 and a music lesson when I was about 13 years old. You know, the sort of music lesson you had to attend at school in the same way you had to do games. In other words, whether you liked it or not.

Our music teacher was nicknamed Fred. I don't remember why but I do remember he was quite unpleasant and spat a lot when he spoke and especially when he was angry, which he seemed to be most of the time with our class. He attempted to teach us about quavers and minims; he forced us to listen to Beethoven and Mozart. Most of us were underwhelmed and uninspired.

And then the student teacher arrived. For the first few lessons he did little more than 'observe' as Fred carried out his saliva-fuelled instruction but, at the end of one lesson, it was announced that the student would take over the class next week.

He was young and enthusiastic in that way that young and enthusiastic vicars used to be, and he invited us all to bring along our favourite 'pop records' to the next lesson so that we could share and discuss them.

The day came, the student took centre stage and Fred, arms folded, and watery mouth shut, stood to one side. Before the student had opened his, no doubt, much drier mouth, an impromptu one minute's silence was called for by one lad to mark the passing of Otis Redding. Somehow this was observed for the full sixty seconds. With no interference from the student, or Fred, the class had taken control.

Then the first record was offered up. It was 'Hey Joe', the Hendrix version. The student took it and unwittingly set it playing. I would estimate that it lasted about 15 seconds before Fred exploded, gob and spit flying around the room as he snatched the vinyl from the machine and hurled it in the general direction of its owner. Fred then took back control, the student fell silent and was never seen or heard of again after that day.

Now, you see, that is the effect that the music of Hendrix could and often did have on a grown-up. And when it had that sort of effect on a grown-up it had a much greater and opposite effect on us. To say it was exciting would be an understatement. It was like nothing we had ever experienced.

A couple of years later at a youth club, I remember standing, open-mouthed and in awe of a lad as he explained that after dropping a tab of acid while listening to Purple Haze, Hendrix actually appeared in his bedroom, playing the song. How about that for keeping music live?

That was such a dangerous story. A radical and dangerous story that I would never, ever have been able to tell to a grown-up. Not even mention this teenagers name to my parents let alone relate the Experience (capital 'e' this time) that he had had.

I don't think any of this thrilling, exciting, dangerous and subversive stuff was down to the lyrics of the songs. It wasn't down to Jimi playing his upside down 'strat' with his teeth or setting fire to it — that was Jimi being a showman with an eye for performance and spectacle. No, It was, quite simply, the sound. That alien, wicked, un-holy, electric and alive sound.

In fact, this wasn't just about the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It could have been Deep Purple, Ten Years after, Black Sabbath, Black Cat Bones, Led Zeppelin, Savoy Brown, The Pink Floyd of Syd Barrett and many, many, many more. Some survived some did not. Some are now superstars, most are not. Some are still live and alive; some are not.

So, all power to the ageing pub bands who honour the memory of this music. All power to the younger musicians who have discovered this music in later years. I even give a nod to the ageing and surviving superstars who reform in the name of 'Heritage Rock.'

But, I have a request, a plea. It might be too late for Jimi and Otis and all those others but to all those who are still live and alive, let us please have the danger back. The subversive, the thrilling, the edge that gave the tingle down the spine, the allure of forbidden fruit. Go on, give it a try.

Keep musicians live, keep musicians alive and just occasionally dangerous.


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