Saturday, 10 December 2016

The sad life of Jackson C. Frank

Artists often have tormented lives. Some die young, some are unexplainable unsuccessful, some have alcohol and drug abuse problems. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Searching for Sugarman, which shows the life of Sixto Rodríguez, a very good songwriter who didn’t have much luck back in the seventies. Quite sad, at least some parts, right? You probably don’t know the story of Jackson C. Frank.

I came across Jackson C. Frank by coincidence. I often have some music in the background while I work and youtube decided that it would introduce me to this guy after the song I was listening to ended. I couldn’d help but pay attention to his voice and I decided to learn a bit more about him. When I finished reading his wiki bio, I had a lump in my throat.

I’m obviously not going to get into religious matters here and I mean no offence, but sometimes it looks like there is a God and he’s a huge fan of dark humour. Can you think of something bad that could happen to you? Well, I’m pretty sure it happened to Jackson.

His childhood was already fucked up enough. In 1954, when he was eleven, a furnace exploded in his school somewhere in the state of New York and, while most of his classmates (including his girlfriend-ish) died, he suffered burns over half of his body. He had to stay in the hospital for seven months and during that time he learned to play the guitar because his music teacher bought him one.

As a teenager he was in several rock bands. After all it was the late fifties/early sixties, Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll and so on. However, what Jackson really liked was folk music, so when he received a small fortune from an insurance cheque when he was 21, he spent some money on cars and concerts and then he took a ship to England instead of starting university. While he was travelling by boat he composed what would become his best known song, the beautiful Blues Run The Game.

In 1965 Paul Simon produced what would be his only album. He was so shy that during the recording that he wasn’t able to play in front of other people, so he had to ask to be shielded by screens. “I can’t play. You’re looking at me”, he would say to Simon, Art Garfunkel and Al Stewart. I’ll never understand how someone with such a beautiful voice and more than decent guitar skills was so shy to play in front of people but well, it was his personality.

This is the only video you'll find of Jackson C. Frank

One more thing: let me point out that he was only 22 when he produced this album. 22. If you listen to the whole thing, you'll see that the music is too mature for his age and his voice as well. Let that sink in. It's personally difficult to believe that a voice like that could belong to a man who was just past his teenager years.

His only album

His album didn’t sell much, his mental health got worse and he was running out of money, so he came back to the States for two years. When he went back to England he was totally depressed, a depression that had its origins in his childhood trauma. Al Stewart said the following:

"He [Frank] proceeded to fall apart before our very eyes. His style that everyone loved was melancholy, very tuneful things. He started doing things that were completely impenetrable. They were basically about psychological angst, played at full volume with lots of thrashing. I don't remember a single word of them, it just did not work. There was one review that said he belonged on a psychologist's couch. Then shortly after that, he hightailed it back to Woodstock again, because he wasn't getting any work."

Jackson married a former model and they had a son who died from cystic fibrosis. His depression got obviously worse and he was even sent to a mental institution when he went again back to his homeland. He would end up homeless for years and, to make the whole thing even more cruel and surrealistic, some kids who were fiddling with an air rifle shot him in the eye.

At last, his bad luck finally gave him a little break. A fan eventually tracked him down, made him get the royalties his album had generated since 1965 and found him a place to stay. Jackson was blind and had obvious psychological problems, but he recorded a demo in 1995 and he played in bars around Woodstock until he died from pneumonia in 1999 at the age of 56.

This story should make many of us realize how lucky we are. Rest in peace, Jackson.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Mikel Laboa: elegance and fragility

A few months ago I wrote a post about a Basque songwriter called Ruper Ordorika and one of his songs, Martin Larralde. This time I’ll write about Mikel Laboa, another Basque songriter who was, I believe, a big inspiration for Ruper Ordorika and definitely one of the biggest Basque singer-songwriters of all time.

Mikel Laboa was born in San Sebastián and lived between 1934 and 2008. He was actually a doctor and worked as such for about twenty years. Meanwhile, he was one of the founders of the cultural group Ez Dok Amairu (There Is No 13) with the goal of revitalizing Basque culture, which was having a tough time under the Franco dictatorship.

I am ashamed to say I only know one of his CDs, Sei (Six), which has mesmerized me in the last few months and which is obviously the one I will talk about.

The first thing that stroke me when I listened to it for the first time is his voice. Sei was released when he was 51 years old and yet Laboa’s voice gives me the impression of belonging to a teenager, as if it wasn’t fully developed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing but rather an interesting combination of fragility and elegance. The fragility reaches its peak in the song Sorterriko Koblak. I don’t know what it says because I barely know a few words in Basque, but in my mind I imagine it as the desperate cry of an introvert teenager for whom music is the only way to properly express his emotions. Yes, I’m sober, thank you very much.

Melancholy is the general mood of the album, which has the piano as the main instrument, always accompanied by Laboa’s guitar and sometimes by an accordion, violin, txalaparta (a sort of huge wooden xylophone for two people) and/or synthethizers, which give this generally traditional sounding album a more experimental sound. There is also one song, Lizardi, which, although not from my favourites, is very interestingly tango-like (or something like that).

Here are a few of my favourite songs from Sei, which I strongly recommend you to listen. As always, here is the facebook page for the blog, in case you are interested.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Jethro Tull (XI): changes

Going from the 70s to the 80s was not just a change of numbers for Jethro Tull. Firstly, John Glascock died in 1979 and soon after that Barrie Barlow, who was perhaps hisclosest friends, quit the band. Also, Ian Anderson decided he wanted to work on a solo album, which made John Evans and David Palmer leave the band as well (and not in the best of terms either, I believe).

At that point, only Anderson, Barre and new member Dave Pegg remained. Two more people joined: drummer Mark Craney and pianist/violinist Eddie Jobson, who made it clear he was only there for one album. Craney would finally leave after one album as well; a real pity, as both he and Jobson were extremely talented.

Ironically, this Ian Anderson solo album ended up being the new Jethro Tull album. The thing is Chrisalis Records pressed Anderson and he gave in to that pressure, naming the new Tull album A (taken from the labels on the master tapes for his scrapped solo album, marked simply "A" for "Anderson", according to what I’ve read in Wikipedia and one or two more websites).

A is a very different album from the previous one, Stormwatch. While the second was quite folky and extremely dark, Jethro Tull took the 80s very seriously in A and Jobson’s synthethizers made themselves heard in pretty much the whole album.

I’ve read many fans complaining about how Stormwatch was the end of Jethro Tull and I don’t agree. I do agree that things were never the same and the band didn’t produce such good music again (with a few exceptios) but, still, they made some good stuff. A, while overlooked by many, has a big bunch of more than decent songs, although perhaps not “Tull good”, with the exception of the unusually catchy Black Sunday.

Other good songs are the slightly jazzy Crossfire, the 1984-themed Working John, Working Joe and the beautiful And Further On. On the other hand, Batteries Not Included is absolutely awful and Uniform is totally forgettable. The rest of the album is good, with Jobson doing a great job at the piano/synths and at the violin as well, as can be seen in The Pine Martin’s Jig.

The tour that came with the album saw the band wear weird parachutey tracksuits which can be seen in a DVD with a few videoclips for older songs (Anderson really enjoyed himself doing the Sweet Dream clip) and some very nice versions as well, such as the one for Skating Away, which I love for several reasons. First of all, it’s an original rendition of a beautiful song but, mostly, it’s proof that Jethro Tull members could all switch instruments without making the song worse. In this case, there are three guitars (ok, a guitar, a mandolin and a mandola) but the guitarist, Barre, doesn’t play. How cool is that? Ian Anderson plays the guitar, Pegg (bassist) plays the mandola, Jobson (pianist and violinist) plays the violin and Craney (drummer) plays the bass. Let me repeat: how cool is that? Let me answer: very.

I guess A can be seen as a transition album, as the next album, The Broadsword and The Beast, proved to be somewhat more solid. But hey, it’s not too shabby for a transition album. It’s a pity Craney left though, because his replacement, Gerry Conway, did a mediocre job. I know, it’s easy for me to say those things from my chair, but I just don’t like his drumming with Tull.

Anyway, this is it for this time. I’ll try not to wait for another two and a half months until I write the next post. By the way, this is the facebook page for the blog (I promise to post more stuff there as well).

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Everybody hates John Barleycorn

Dear people who have enough time to read my pointless rants: I am troubled.

I am troubled by all the hate I see towards John Barleycorn. Why does everyone want to kill him? So far I’ve heard bands such as Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Traffic sing it, and according to the internet, this has been going on for centuries and many other bands. Poor guy.

If my calculations are correct, this introduction may be in my top 5 lame attempts to sound funny, and that’s saying a lot, so let’s stick to music.

John Barleycorn is a very old song. Very, very very. In fact, even if the versions I’ll show you in this post aren’t that grandfather sounding (only a bit). According to a couple of websites, there is a version of the song included in the Bannatyne Manuscript in 1568 (really old), but I’ve also read that the earliest copy is the one in the Pepoysian collection from 1465 (really, really effing old).

By the way, Johnny is not a man, so don’t worry, he hasn’t been melodically beaten to death throughout the centuries. Johnny is actually a personification of barley and of the alcoholic beverages made from it, beer and whisky.

If you have a look at the lyrics (you’ll find the lyrics for the Traffic version at the end of the post) you’ll see that all the terrible, terrible things people do to Little Johhny correspond to the different stages of barley cultivation (reaping, malting, etc).

The funny part is the last verse, though. Because, after all, who can live without “a little Barleycorn”? (Note: I am not an alcoholic, I promise… I don’t even like whisky!)

I first heard the Jethro Tull version included in the live album A Little Light Music (yes, I took this blog’s name from there). Three or four years later I heard the song by Fairport Convention, and last year I listened to the version by Traffic included in the album John Barleycorn Must Die, which by the way is very good.

The three versions are good and I can’t really choose. The one by Fairport Convention is suprisingly different from the others, to be honest it sounds like a different song. The version by Traffic is the most relaxing one and the one that has the most delicate arrangement. Anyway, it’s up to you to judge. Here are the three versions, as well as the lyrics.

The nonsense I have to write to do something more than just posting music videos, right ?

There were three men came out of the West
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die

They've plowed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in
Threw clouds upon his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead

They've let him lie for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head
And so amazed them all

They've let him stand till midsummer's day
Till he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man

They've hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee
They've rolled him and tied him by the way
Serving him most barbarously

They've hired men with the sharp pitchforks
Who pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he's bound him to the cart

They've wheeled him around and around the field
Till they came unto a barn
And there they made a solemn oath
On poor John Barleycorn

They've hired men with the crab-tree sticks
To cut him skin from bone
And the miller he has served him worse than that
For he's ground him between two stones

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl
And his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last

The huntsman, he can't hunt the fox
Nor so loudly to blow his horn
And the tinker he can't mend kettle nor pot
Without a little Barleycorn

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Poland's got the blues

Four and a half years ago, in September 2011, I started my year abroad as an Erasmus student. It was an amazing year; I met so many great people and travelled to so many different places. However, the place I called home for nine months was not exactly the one I had planned: whereas I wanted to go the Polish city of Kraków, I ended up being sent to a place 150 km from there, Rzeszów.

Let’s face it, not even Polish people go to Rzeszów. There’s nothing to see there, except a nice market square (which pretty much every Polish town has anyway) and a monument called “Poland’s biggesty pussy” by many. Charming. Still, Erasmus is all about the people, and even the biggest shithole on Earth could be a perfect destination.

Hanging out with my pal Tadeusz (summer 2015)
Regarding Rzeszów’s market square, there’s a statue one hundred metres from there that caught my attention. A guy who looked like some sort of young Eric Clapton, guitar included, had been immortalized. I could read something like “Tadeusz Nalepa, gitarzysta y kompozytor” (Tadeusz Nalepa, guitarist and composer).

Well, if I was going to spend nine months there, I may as well check this guy out. I actually didn’t do it until the last couple of months of my stay, but then I downloaded most of his stuff.

Tadeusz Nalepa wasn’t really born in Rzeszów, but in Zgłobień, in 1943, although he did graduate from the Music Academy in Rzeszów in the departments of violin, clarinet and contrabass. However, what he was really good at was at playing the guitar. He did some damn good blues.

He formed his first band, Blackout, in 1965. It was a relatively short experience, as it disbanded two years later. In 1968 Nalepa formed a new band, Breakout, which lasted until 1981. Breakout released ten albums. He then went on solo, except from brief Breakout reunions and other occasional collaborations, such as the great Numero Uno, an album he recorded with Polish band Dżem. He finally died from a serious illness of his digestive system in 2007.

I understand most of you don’t know Polish; I don’t know it either and it mostly sounds like gibberish to me (no disrespect intended). However, if you like blues, you should give him a chance. Here are a few cool songs from Tadeusz Nalepa:

Friday, 29 January 2016

Martin Larralde

Today I want to tell you about a guy who lived about two hundred years ago. This is going to seem totally off-topic at first, but I promise this is still a music blog. There's a song in the end, in case you want to skip the boring stuff.

Martin Larralde Ithurbide, “Bordaxuri” was born in Hazparne, Southern France, in 1782, and died in Rochefort in 1821. He was a farmer and a bertsolari, a sort of poet who improvised his verses.

When Larralde was young, he lived in a caserío, a country house that can be found in the north of Spain or the south of France. When his mother died, he asked his father for his share of the caserío, which led to arguments between father and son and a worsening of their relationship.

Larralde’s father gave permission to a neighbour, Jean Ospital, to harvest grass from the landa round the caserío. While doing it, Ospital was shot. Martin Larralde was judged and declared guilty. He was sent to prison, where he wrote some poetry and died six years later.

Martin Larralde bécame, for some reason, some sort of local myth;  songs were made out of his verses, a theatre play about him was made and poet Joseba Sarrionandia wrote a poem called “Martin Larralde”.

Why am I telling you this obscure yet rather uninteresting story? Why so very few details, by the way? About the second question, there’s not much online about Larralde, so I took Wikipedia’s article in Basque, the only language it’s in, and asked a cousin (thanks a lot!) to translate it, as I don’t speak the language.

Ruper Ordorika (photo source:
About the first question: I’m boring you to death with this story because Ruper Ordorika, a Basque songwriter I really like, made a song using Sarrionandia’s poem as lyrics. I first listened to the song ten days ago and it has been stuck in my head ever since. The song is not especially complex instrumentally speaking and I didn’t understand the lyrics until I looked for the translation to Spanish and yet there’s something about it that makes it beautiful.

I translated the lyrics from Spanish to English. Bear in mind that it’s a double translation and I’m no translator anyway, so some nuances are probably lost.

The fields are green, the houses white with red roof tiles.
The gendarmes’ car
drives past the road between the lambs.
Prayers are held in the houses and in the churches the prayers,
the usual prayers rise like smoke during winter.
Martin Larralde never returned
but if he had returned
(like a hedgehog with his spikes upside down)
-          And if he had returned, what?
-          Today is Sunday, the fields are green,
the houses white with red roof tiles.
The gerdarmes’ car
under a panel that reads Bayonne 17
The people, prepared as for a family photo
go to Mass with their soul overscented
Nobody unties the knot of memory
(everything is habit, everything is guilt, everything is forgiveness)
Nobody needs a bard
(everything is habit, everything is guilt, everything is forgiveness)
Martin Larralde died on a day like today in a prison.
He lay with his eyes open
saying perhaps that the sky is a dirty sea.

As always, here's the facebook page for the blog. I hope you like this song as much as I do!