I'd love to give you reasons for my absence which are exciting – "I've been on the Nostromo!" or "I was recruited by James Bond for sekrit spy work!" or even "been on holiday" but no, nothing like that. No good excuse, in fact. I haven't even really been editing the Novel O' Doom…
I did, however, play a gig last week with a fab bunch of musicians. We call ourselves Clarabella and the Crypt Kicker Five and we play 'pre-decimal blues', that is to say, mostly blues songs which are from before 1971, which was when Britain went decimal.
As an aside, I'm incredibly grateful for this because my maths skills are not super and I have enough issues counting decimal currency.
So we played a show in a little basement club on one of the most musical streets in London. The Rolling Stones recorded their first album in the same building, so on that basis you can expect tickets to my shows in 2060 to cost about a million quid. Start saving.
I'm fortunate enough to work with a bunch of people who are super musicians away from the electronic yoke of our office jobs. They don't seem to mind that my aforementioned issues with numbers mean I sometimes get stuff a bit screwy. Funny that music, which is so crucial to me, is fundamentally about The Math. Counting bars and figuring out key changes and stuff are actually tough for me because it's maths. Ugh. They're patient with me, anyway. We don't play together very often but when we do it's fabulous fun.
Last year we did a Christmas thing where we performed a Sleepy John Estes song called "Drop Down Baby" (ripped off by Led Zeppelin for "Custard Pie") in a later, Lonnie Donegan/Rory Gallagher arrangement (no prizes for guessing who suggested it, and unfortunately no YT link) which has fantastic slide guitar going on, "Please Mr Jailer" by Wynona Carr which some of you might recognise from John Waters' movie Cry-Baby and 'Got My Mojo Workin' by Ann Cole..
"Mojo" is probably one of the most famous songs in the blues canon. It's also a good example of the many issues around 'borrowing' and 'copying' and 'homage' and 'plagiarism' and 'copyright infringement' one finds in blues.
Now, as far as I'm concerned, Ann Cole did the original. Muddy Waters heard it and put his own version together. Lawyers then made some money but both versions of the song retain their own copyrights. You can probably make a decent argument that Muddy's version is pretty different. Certainly they feel different.
As far as that goes, fine. I love both versions and I'd no sooner choose my favourite child than say which is 'best'. Mind you, I have no children…
There's something about performing a song which (if you're doing it right) gives a person a deep feeling and understanding of a song. Or for me, anyway. I'd been shrieking along to Rory's version of the song for ages, and felt I knew it. I did… to an extent. But standing on a stage and putting it across as one's own self is, for me anyway, a different matter.
Who was I singing to? Who was I singing for? Why?
Remembering the words comes with repetition. Hitting the right notes comes with practice. Feeling it requires effort. That's why there are people with good pitch, decent tone, never get a word or note wrong and leave me cold (see Buble, Michael) and yet there are singers who are barely able to get in the same room as the right note that move me to tears.
It's why I'll put my heart and fucking soul into every damn thing I sing even if there's only five people in the audience. It's why I needed some idea of the answers to those questions.
When it comes to Mojo, the answers are actually pretty simple: I'm singing to every lost crush, every unrequited lover as every frustrated, heartbroken crusher. Pretty universal… more specifically, it's me to every single person who fails to recognise how totally brilliant/fantastic/wonderful/awesome/continued superlatives here I am with all the impotent rage of the unsung genius.
My ego-monster loves Mojo. My inbuilt self-bullshit meter recognises the tragedy of it. After all, not all the black cat bones and hoodoo ashes in the world change the outcome. To me, it's far more than just 'girl can't catch guy's eye', and that's before even dipping into other interpretations – the stalker language, the different vibes born simply of the performer's gender, different arrangements and interpretations of the music.
Intrepretation is at the heart of anything creative shared amongst humanity. It takes different forms depending on the medium, of course, but it's what makes the work live. It's what transforms passive consumption into passionate engagement. Incidentally, this is what 'non-fans' so often misunderstand about fandom. They don't see – don't feel – the effort, the emotion, the work fans put into their item of interest. Go to FictionAlley and you'll find Harry Potter fans still going at it years after the publication of the last book… or hang with Ulysses fans (both of them) on Bloomsday… it's not so very different to me diving into 'Only the Lonely' or all those Thin Lizzy songs I've sung over the years.
Interpretation is also what makes singing someone else's song an entirely different beastt to performing something of one's own. Not better or worse, but different. I have to try harder with someone else's choons than my own. With my own, I've already done the hard work. I've already stabbed myself in the heart and let the results run across the page, after all. I already have the key to the song because I built the lock myself.
It keeps the songs alive, too. I'm not talking about dull-as-scuff identikit covers, or that terrible habit of getting a girl to sing with nothing but an exaggerated Generic American accent, acoustic guitar accompaniment and calling it 'stripped down' and 'reimagined' because most of those are only fit for TV adverts for middle-class lifestyle products.
Now, to the song I'm actually featuring in this post. As well as as the three songs mentioned, we did a few others last week. One was Big Mama Thornton's "I Smell A Rat" which we kicked off so fast I practically rapped it; I had the audacity to think I could take on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and did OK precisely because I did my way and not Marvin's. We also did Ike Turner's "She Made My Blood Run Cold" which feels different just by switching genders. And we turned Memphis Minnie's "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" into what I would almost describe as electrified country-blues for want of a better description.
We finished with the many-times-covered "Rock Me Baby". I think most every blues band and every wannablues band has probably done it over the years. You know, people with names like "Hendrix". I like the Doors' version, of course. Otis had a go. I've got more than one of Big Mama Thornton's version on my iPod…
I cannot speak highly enough of the brilliance that was Willie Mae Thornton. Singer, songwriter, just fantastic. As she says in this very video "I can't sing like anyone, but I have to do it my own way." Which is why when we did it last week, we used her tremendous interpretation as a start and moved on from there to something entirely our own.
As Madam Yevonde said: BE ORIGINAL OR DIE!
It's actually really easy to be original: be yourself.
Part 18 – Thin Lizzy – "The Boys Are Back In Town"
Part 17 – Nat King Cole – "Mr Cole Won't Rock and Roll"
Part 16 – Rory Gallagher – "A Million Miles Away"
Part 15 – The Shadows – "FBI"
Part 14 – Marilyn Monroe as Elsie Marina – "I Found A Dream
Part 13 – Kenneth Williams as Ramblin' Syd Rumpo – "The Ballad of the Woggler's Moulie"
Part 12 – Chas and Dave – "Rabbit"
Part 11 – The Beatles – "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You"
Part 10 – Duke Ellington – "The Mooche"
Part 9 – The Doors – "Who Do You Love?" featuring Albert King
Part 8 – Queen – "These Are The Days Of Our Lives"
Part 7 – Thin Lizzy – "Don't Believe A Word"
Part 6 – The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – "Monster Mash"
Part 5 – Craig Ferguson – "Doctor Who Cold Opening"
Part 4 – The Bees – "Who Cares What The Question Is?"
Part 3 – Marvin Gaye – "Got To Give It Up"
Part 2 – The Dubliners – "Octopus Jig"
Part 1 – The Allman Brothers Band – "Statesboro Blues"