Confessions of an Autograph Hound

What do the following names have in common, and why are some written in bold? 

Alistair Anderson, Gary and Vera Aspey, Robert Bartlett, Anthea Bellamy, Peter Bellamy, Peter Bocking, Lorraine Bowen, Wayne Boyd, Victor BroxAbner Burnett, Martin Carthy, Pete and Chris Coe, Kevin Coyne, Hank Crawford, Sandy and Jeanie [Darlington], Tommy Dempsey, Nigel Denver, Robin Dransfield, Teddy Edwards, Derek, Dorothy and Nadine Elliott, Lucy Farr, John Foreman, Reg Hall, Kinky Friedman, Vin Garbutt, Butch Hancock, Michael Head, Freddie Hubbard, Michael Hurley, Peter Ind, Vance James, Ethan Johns, Chester Jones, Stan Kelly, Janet Kerr, Jeanette Kimball, Lee Konitz, Bill Leader, Alfred 'Father' Lewis, Henry Lowther, Humphrey Lyttelton,  Jim McLean, Chris MillsPhil Minton, Louis Nelson, Jimmy McGriff, Johnny Moore, Sam Moore, Tracey Nelson, Watt Nicoll, Lea NicholsonTom Paley, Houston Person, Michael Plunkett, James Prevost, Josh Ritter, Tony Rose, Leon Rosselson, Mick Ryan (Crows), Peggy Seeger, Dave Shannon, Fiona Simpson (the latter pair from the duo Therapy), Mark E Smith, Chris Smither, Devon Sproule, Sun Ra, Dave Swarbrick, Joe ‘Corn Bread’ Thomas, Townes Van Zandt, Phil Wachsmann, Norma Waterson, Brenda Wootton.  

OK, to put you out of your misery (there's not much of a surprise if you've read the title): it’s a list of the autographs in my collection. Those in bold were solicited by myself, and the rest came ready-made. Most are scrawled on LPs, but there are a few CDs and books in amongst them. Another source, which would perhaps double or triple the total, are signatures appended to press releases, correspondence and publicity which came my way as an active music journalist. From this cache comes Dave Cousins, Ashley Hutchings, Michael Garrick, and a few others that will require a good rummage to uncover. 

Of the names in bold, Sun Ra dates from the time I interviewed the great man backstage at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, circa 1990. I fetched along two albums, and I was so nervous I couldn’t get Heliocentric Worlds out of its plastic sleeve. The laminate had stuck to the PVC, and, sadly, I tore the cover in my confusion. In collector’s terms, the signature and the damaged sleeve cancel each other out. Sound of Joy on Delmark is the other. 

Townes Van Zandt x 3 are other cherishables. Live at the Old Quarter comes with the date, ”29/10/87”, whilst At My Window has the same date and “Take care, Mike”, which is ironic coming from Townes, who couldn't take care to save his life, and Live and Obscure has the same date and a poignant “See you again”. 

I recall that I spent most of my snatched conversation with Townes asking about the then unknown Texas troubadour Abner Burnett, and I committed the gaffe of over-praising a rival version of 'Pancho and Lefty'. “He does a good version of ‘Pancho and Lefty’." [A pained expression passes Townes' face.] "Not as good as yours, of course…” People behind me in the queue started muttering (whether from solidarity with Townes or plain impatience) and I beat a retreat.

I’m happy to say that I eventually tracked down Abner Burnett, and I promoted some four UK tours by the world’s best (unknown) living songwriter (we will arm-wrestle to settle the claims of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Silvio Rodriguez.) “To my old pal Mike. Don’t let your meat loaf. Abner “enematic” Burnett, 1998” runs the hard-won inscription on Old McDonald. Crash and Burn has “June 8, ’97 … still humming gracias adios Abner Burnett”.  

“Howdy Mike, best of luck, Michael Hurley” graces Parsnip Snips by Michael Hurley, whilst Greatest Hits Volume One by The Lorraine Bowen Experience has “Mike many thanks for your lovely inspiration cheers Lorraine”.   

I can’t pretend that I was the intended Michael of “To Michael, Cheers! Humphrey Lyttleton”, which graces Gigs, because I acquired it at a charity shop in Didsbury. But the coincidence is pleasing, and Humphrey’s splendid handwriting honours the name of his self-owned label, Calligraph. 

The most intriguing of the found inscriptions come with the double autographs on There Was a Lad by Nigel Denver: “To Fred, The parcel of rogues –– Jim McLean” and “[indistinct: “abolish”?]… the Church of Scotland + the Church of Rome, Nigel”. Clearly the beer was flowing that night.  

The signatures that adorn New Orleans’ Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band – viz. Joe ‘Corn Bread Thomas’, Alfred 'Father Al' Lewis, Louis Nelson, Jeanette Kimball, Chester Jones and James Prevost – are from a later edition of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band than that featured on the record, but I'm grateful to the original autograph hunter. This sleeve inspired some detective work by a correspondent – – and was signed circa 1978, we think. “Michael Head 1971”, was found on Michael Head Sings and Plays His Own Music (Pilgrim JLP 141, 1967). A unique case, Michael Head. A throwback to the age of the Victorian Parlour Ballad (or art song, you might say), he hung on until 1971 (as the date proves), when everyone was writing and singing their own songs.

Snapping the illustrating photos, I notice that half the Sun Ra signature is in danger of being lost, because the great man signed on peeling laminate (the same pesky laminate which stuck to the PVC cover and ripped while I was trying to remove the LP). And even Sound of Joy looks at risk, because of the cheap ink in Mr Ree's marker pen. This oddly echoes what happened in the interview. Sun Ra pronounced on the secrets of the universe, and I was dumbfounded. However, the mind can only take in so much revelation, especially delivered all at once, and amnesia usually results. I realised at the time I wasn't taking in all he was saying, and my only hope was that the cassette player was picking everything up. When I got home, I found that it had packed up after five minutes.

I am reminded of a friend, a record dealer (that is, Jonesy), who rejoiced when he found a David Bowie 45 with a picture sleeve with the signature of the Thin White Duke. He left it on a worktop in his chaotic kitchen and the cat pissed on it and washed the signature away! This is how the the universe is.            

Tango Siempre, Royal Northern College of Music

Saturday, May 30

It was gratifying to see a packed house for the excellent Tango Siempre, even if the dancers were the chief draw. The dancers, in fact, even the good ones (there were two pairs, one from England and one from Argentina) tended to be a distraction, although they cast shadows that rose and fell, in that enjoyably noir way. Choreography tended to underline the structuredness, and hence the group’s own conservatoire origins. 

In fact Tango Siempre comprise a chamber orchestra of piano, violin, (mostly) bowed bass and bandoneon, and recreate a vanished world of Buenos Aires saloons with virtuosity and expertise. There's poignancy as well as passion, but that's what comes from recreating vanished worlds. The mood swings are mercurial. Elegant one moment, charged and turbulent the next: the wood of the bass is slapped as percussion; Ros Stephens abandons well-turned arpeggios and scratches at the fiddle fretboard; the group push time to and fro at will, in complete togetherness of course. Within the limits of the tango genre, the music has a lot of freedom. 

It would be simplistic to characterise the divide as between tango and nuevo tango. We learned something about the history of different orchestras and different styles of tango. But pieces like ‘El gato negro’, pianist Jonathan Taylor’s homage to the legendary Horacio Salganin, were exuberant and unfettered, whilst Astor Piazzolla’s ‘The Dance of the Angel’ was as elevated and graceful as anything from the Old World. The sprawling beauty of Piazzolla’s ‘Vuelvo al Sur’ demonstrated the fate of all good iconoclasts: consolidation is the phase after expansion.  

The repertoire includes familiar tango fare like ‘Milango de mis amores’, and, most famous of all, ‘La campasita’ (offered as a lollipop for the encore). But the chief interest of Tango Siempre’s resides in Taylor’s original compositions, sometimes securely in the tradition and sometimes as questing and adventurous as Piazzolla's own. Julian Rowlands is an fabulous bandoneon player, roughly bouncing his instrument on his knee and getting it to squeak like a baby. He would be in trouble if it were. Ros Stephens' violin has real clarity and vigour. 

The tango transmutes sadness to beauty, and Tango Siempre understand it thoroughly. They might even be too good for dancers, if that isn't a contradiction. 

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