Author’s Note: Published four days ahead of the Jansch biography.
Published: The Independent, 23/6/00
‘My interest in albums usually wanes around this point,’ says Bert Jansch, fifty-seven this year and, for all the outward appearance of a man who never does anything in a hurry, still a bundle of restless creative energy. With Crimson Moon out next week – his twenty-first solo album proper, let alone a dozen with his sixties fusion band the Pentangle and its (now firmly past-tense) latterday reformations – he is already thinking about the next one. But only thinking about it. For now, a full quarter century after the NME could justifiably headline a feature ‘Bert Jansch? Not still going is he?’, the individual in question has acquiesced to the celebration of retrospection on a grand scale. Not only is he still ‘going’ but he’s probably going to have a bigger profile over the next three months than he’s had at any other point in the past three decades.
Next Wednesday, June 28, Channel 4 premieres Dream Weaver, a stunning and compelling new Jansch documentary; on July 13 a major concert, with special guests promised, takes place at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre; in August, Bloomsbury Publishing launch Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival, my own magnum opus on the man’s extraordinary life and times, at the Edinburgh Festival; in September there’s People On The Highway, a double CD tribute album awash with Jansch admirers of international stature young and old, British, Irish and American, and as diverse as Chris Smither, Roy Harper, Eleanor McEvoy, Donovan and Kelly Joe Phelps; there will also, that same month, be a double CD anthology assembling for the first time on one collection material from Bert’s entire thirty-five year recording career thus far. And if anyone has any cash left after all that, there’s a new live album this side of Christmas, a likelihood of his first concert hall level tour of the UK in years, a reissue programme raring to go and recurring talk of box sets.
With all this, and with the celebrity sport of name-dropping Bert as an influence never more popular, one could hardly imagine a better opportunity for the current generation of Nick Drake infatuees to cotton on to the most formidable survivor of that era – when men were men and musical enigmas happened mercurially, randomly and wholly independent of product-placement strategies and rooms full of marketing people.
The good news for Bert, and for anyone suddenly concerned that the Janschian hallmark of unimpeachable integrity might be fast-imploding, is that all this activity has come around largely by serendipity. Crimson Moon aside, Bert has not been the prime mover. Sounding out my interest in writing the book was his wife Loren’s idea.
‘She felt that there ought to be more information out there,’ says Bert, ‘other than my silly little press biography which I’d been using for years and years. That was fine enough as vague information for people who wanted to book me but beyond that… As for the film, it came out of the blue actually. I met Matt [Quinn, director] when he asked me to play at a wedding, at which he was best man. He sort of invited himself round to the flat on subsequent occasions purely for guitar lessons and then one day he phoned up and said, ‘I want to make a documentary on you’. I didn’t say yea or nay or anything much about it at the time. I didn’t really know him and I didn’t know if anything would come of it – but he went away, got his financing together and it worked out fantastically.’ I’m delighted, if not relieved, to be able to say that he feels the same way about the biography – both projects having been seen through with Bert’s approval but suitably independent of any editorial involvement.
Throughout 1999, and in parallel with my own endeavors, Matt, a twenty-something former employee of TalkBack Productions filmed a series of Jansch gigs and interviewed on camera many of those whose tributes and recollections appear in the book. A hundred hours of film was accumulated and somehow distilled into fifty minutes of exquisitely edited and artistically definitive black and white portraiture. Arch Bert-o-phile Jimmy Page – who once famously revamped a slice of pure Jansch, minus credit, as a Led Zeppelin track – had been invited but couldn’t quite make his mind up on appearing; Neil Young, who has eulogised Bert in print as the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar, was otherwise engaged. Yet as it stands Dream Weaver is already an embarrassment of riches. At Matt’s request, Bert had participated in genuinely spontaneous duets, albeit on pre-decided songs, with two devotees he had never previously met: former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and nouveau-Delta blues firebrand Kelly Joe Phelps.
If Bernard and Kelly Joe were nervous of playing with their idol, they weren’t alone in that feeling: ‘I’m actually terrified of those kind of situations,’ says Bert, on reflection, ‘but I’m proud that I played with Bernard and Kelly Joe. Something came out that was new, that hadn’t been there before – and this was us meeting for the first time. If I met Jimmy Page now and tried to play something with him there’d be nothing worthwhile happening. But with Bernard, within two minutes the film’s going and we’re playing a number we’d never played before and it was great. It’s a pity the playing I did with Kelly Joe didn’t make it into the film – hopefully there’ll be a longer version at some point.’
It’s ironic, given that Bert’s previous label Cooking Vinyl (he’s currently on Castle) became obsessed with trying to contrive such a situation, that the new record also features contributions from A-list admirers. Having met Bert through Matt’s film, Butler and former Smiths icon Johnny Marr became almost naturally involved in helping Bert with Crimson Moon. The finished record is no axe-fest but rather a brooding, richly textured collection of performances, by turns wistful and fiery, that do subtle credit to all concerned. ‘Well, it’s definitely interesting,’ says Bert, pressed for a verdict. ‘It’s an album I’m likely to listen to – and there’s not many of my albums I could say that about. It’s the first one I’ve produced, ever, and also the first one I’ve engineered as well – which certainly takes the strain off worrying about the cost of studio time. I’d actually like to produce a few albums for other people, but then the biggest hurdle is finding an outlet for them.’
With a mass of digital home-recording equipment that still, for someone so inextricably linked to the woody, analogue sounds of the mid-sixties, seems incongruous, Bert’s philanthropy in recording others less legendary than himself has already resulted in a couple of finished albums, by contemporary singer-songwriter Dave Sutherland and by an unashamedly retro, sartorially outrageous individual known as Johnny ‘Guitar’ Hodge. Neither has yet found a label though by happy coincidence Hodge’s recordings included a Jansch cover which has now found a home on Market Square Records’ forthcoming enconium People On The Highway. It seems somehow fitting that Bert’s only direct involvement in this whole project will have been shaking a tambourine on a track by its least-known contributor.
To their credit Market Square have pulled People On The Highway together – twenty-five artists via sundry lawyers and managers – in basically five months. Bert himself remains uncomfortable about the concept of tribute albums, but he’s chuffed that his son Adam – also debuting as a sideman on Crimson Moon – was invited to take part and proud too that his contribution is a good one. The idiosyncracies of Bert’s own presentation of his songs has perhaps deterred their interpreting by more than a handful of other artists in the past, but given this focused opportunity there was no shortage of people willing to pay their respects to Bert’s music and influence. As Johnny Marr confirms in the film, that influence is not only a matter of songwriting and guitar playing but a deep-rooted sense of destiny and attitude – a vocation, not a career choice: ‘It’s beating the system,’ says Marr, ‘it’s super-idealistic, it’s the music coming first. And it’s great for your own idealism when you go and see him live because you realise that it’s all about music and still loving what you do, in front of an audience of… who cares?’
Colin HarperCrimson Moon is released by Castle Communications on June 26; Dream Weaver broadcasts on Channel 4 on June 28; Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival is published by Bloomsbury on August 21.