An Interview With Colin Harper on Dazzling Stranger

by Peter Doggect for The Journal, February 2001 

Q: How did your original plan for a Pentangle book mutate into a Bert Jansch biography, almost a decade later?

It’s a long story! Bert has been a hero of mine ever since I saw a film of a Pentangle performance from Belgium in 1972, which was most curiously re-broadcast on Ulster TV in the early 80s. I was still at school, and I was really attracted to this music from a deeply distant era. I gradually began trawling round secondhand shops in search of Pentangle and Jansch albums, at a time when there were no reissues around, and the originals were really difficult to find – let alone any information about these people.

During 1990-91 I had some down-time after finishing a degree in History, and decided I wanted to write a book about Pentangle. It seemed like it would be a finite thing to do, a compact story. So I spent a lot of time interviewing various people in the group and outside – among them Bert Jansch, who I found to be most enigmatic. But I soon discovered that one of the group was very much against the project. He – justifiably, in many ways – feels that he was ripped off during the Pentangle era, and consequently associated my activities with that negativity. The idea of continuing with the book under those circumstances upset me. So, barring some fairly lengthy sleevenotes for the first wave of Jansch and Pentangle CD reissues, I put all the work that I had done aside.

Several years later, as I explain in the book, I was actually driving Bert across Ireland after a gig – we had got to know each other reasonably well over the years – when suddenly, completely out of the blue, he asked if I would consider reviving the book idea. Previously, he hadn’t taken any particular interest in my project, but I think his current wife Loren had suggested that it would be a good idea. There were a few external circumstances at that particular time which meant it would be possible for me to effectively take a year out of my other work and devote late 1998 and most of 1999 to researching and telling his story – because, to be brutally frank about it, the kind of advances available for this kind of book simply don’t cover the period of time required.

Q: Did you actually have a contract with a publisher for the Pentangle book?

No, I had approached several publishers in the early 90s, but I got very negative responses. So I was very pleasantly surprised in 1998, when I resurrected the idea as a book about Bert Jansch, that the response was much more positive. Bert had enjoyed both a commercial and creative renaissance during the intervening period, and there had been books on other, equally left-field, or marginal, or however you want to describe it, figures like Alexis Korner and Nick Drake. In a way, publishing had caught up with the CD revolution, which had led thousands of people to go back to the music of the past and regard these guys as legends, not old has-beens. Also, my own CV – and hopefully also my actual ability – as a writer had a good deal more credibility by this point.

Q: Between 1991 and 1998, were you still researching Pentangle material?

I became a professional writer during that period, in 1994 – feature-writing and reviewing for various national newspapers and magazines. I’d also acquired a postgrad in Information Management, as a somewhat extreme reaction to meeting Kim Fowley and feeling a need to balance my fraternisings with sixties eccentrics with something unashamedly pedestrian! As it happens, I’m currently pursuing a few opportunities in various archives and libraries so it might all have a happy ending… Anyway, through my journalistic activities I’d been lucky enough to meet lots of people who were part of the Jansch story, like Ralph McTell, Roy Harper, Anne Briggs, Wizz Jones; so I was inadvertently building up a library of relevant interview material.

Q: When you were approaching people for interviews explicitly for the book, was there any sense of bitterness from Bert’s contemporaries that you were writing about him rather than them?

There was no jealousy at all – something which I think last year’s tribute album, People On The Highway (Market Square Records), bears out. Bert is held in total awe by people: even by people he’s been married to! Even John Renbourn, who obviously had some kind of falling-out with Bert during a US tour together in the early ‘90s, is still effusive about Bert’s talent. It wasn’t just his stature as a musician that people respected, but also the fact that there is absolutely no malice about the man. I’ve scarcely ever heard him say a bad word about anybody.

Q: Yet he has a reputation in the industry for being difficult, or at the very least taciturn, which might make him hard to deal with.

It’s certainly very hard to get close to him in a conventional way. He’s very generous, very good-hearted, but he’s also a solitary and singular man. That doesn’t make him rude, merely distanced in a way that other people sometimes find unsettling. I think people expect too much from artists who are blessed, or cursed, with exceptional creative desire, and who, like Bert, can’t turn it off. But I also feel that his recent marriage to Loren has allowed other people to have more normal relationships with him.

Q: You found a wonderful quote from an old interview with Bert: “I’ve got a very bad memory for things I don’t want to remember”. That doesn’t make him sound like the ideal interviewee.

Well, Bert isn’t really interested in his own past. He’s a genuine enigma, there is no other way of putting it. For instance, he doesn’t even have copies of his own records. I think that reading the draft of the book – out of courtesy, I gave him the chance to say if there was anything he really objected to in the manuscript, and all he removed were literally two factual inaccuracies – was very cathartic for him. He’s never been particularly aware of his reviews, or what people had to say about him, so that was probably quite revealing for him.

We sat down for two very substantial series of interview sessions during the year of writing, and Bert did his best to remember stuff. But it was at least as important, if not more so, for me to collect together all the previously published interviews with him, particularly those from the distant past, as they certainly filled various yawning chasms in his memory!

Q: The first half of the book deals with the British folk scene in the 50s and early 60s as a landscape; the second half is a tight close-up on Jansch’s career since then. Why the shift in perspective?

When I began writing the book, I had two role models in mind: Harry Shapiro’s biography of Alexis Korner, another cult figure, which I thought was very tightly written; and Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, which inspired me as an example of how to weave together a narrative out of several interlinked but separate stories.

I was aware as I was researching the book that the pre-history of the folk scene had never been chronicled before, and that there were loads of characters who had peripheral, or sometimes major, roles in Bert’s story, who deserved to be documented in more detail – but who would probably never get a book of their own. So the landscape approach was a way of giving them their proper place in history.

You’ll notice that the point where I narrow the focus was at the start of Pentangle. In fact, I virtually skate over the most successful middle years of their career, for the reason I’ve already mentioned, that one of the band really didn’t want their story to be told. So I concentrated entirely on Bert’s activities during that time, and that set me up for the second half of the book, from Bert’s early ‘70s solo ‘comeback’ onwards, when anyway the folk scene was more diffuse than it had been the previous decade.

Q: Perhaps the key question is whether Bert Jansch is actually the most central figure in that folk scene, as well as in your biography.

That’s a good question! He certainly is in the sense that he seems to cover all the different areas I was writing about. His career began in the ‘50s, and it takes in London and Edinburgh, the two cities I focus on. Bert was also one of the first singers to go travelling round Europe. Then he was certainly regarded as the key figure in London between 1965-1967; he was like a hipper version of Donovan. In another way, Bert is the key representative of the British singer-songwriter tradition: in fact, he’s probably the first of the line. Obviously, when you look at the traditional end of the folk scene, then Martin Carthy was a more important figure among revival singers; he was the one who brought that music into a modern context. But in terms of contemporary music, Bert was the man.

Q: You mentioned that you let Bert Jansch see the manuscript before publication. Were you concerned that might prejudice your independence as a writer?

Not at all, because he had already given me carte blanche to speak to whoever I wanted, and just get on with it. In fact, Bert wasn’t the only person who read the book. I sent out copies of the relevant chapters to several of the main participants, and also to important observers like the journalist and author Karl Dallas, and almost let them ‘referee’ some of the disputes. I think that added to the accuracy and detail of the book in the end, rather than detracting from it. It certainly didn’t add up to any kind of censorship of what I was writing. Incidentally, I dedicated the book to Karl Dallas – who championed folk music of all shades for Melody Maker and the various specialist journals he founded and edited during the sixties and seventies – because I felt quite strongly that people like me, and indeed yourself, are only able to write these kind of books because people like him went the extra mile in the detail and veracity of their reporting and interviewing at the time. Had he been in it purely for the money, Karl could have got away with an awful lot less as a writer – and history would have been very much poorer as a result.

Q: Given that Jansch is, in publishing terms at least, a marginal figure, did you have any problems getting such a substantial book past your publisher?

Overall, I had a very constructive relationship with them, and I’m very pleased with the finished book. But I did have to make some sacrifices along the way. My original deal was for 110,000 words, with a verbal agreement with the editor who signed the deal that I could go to 140,000 words. Unfortunately he left Bloomsbury, a new editor was appointed – and I submitted a manuscript that was 200,000 words long! Even getting it down to that point meant cutting out a series of massive appendices, including discographical material, lists of Bert’s radio sessions, and so on.

I think it retrospect that Bloomsbury wanted another book like Patrick Humphries’ biography of Nick Drake, which would be a nice linear narrative about one man. But I was determined that the book would also be the story of the Folk Revival. Under the circumstances, I think we came to a very good accommodation. They appointed an excellent text editor, and between us we trimmed the book back from 200,000 words to 175,000 – which I’m happy to concede was an improvement. There was a slightly tense moment after that when Bloomsbury were suggesting further cuts, but I put my foot down and said, no, this is the book. Cover price had been the imperative, but even with all the editing it still had to go out at £25, which understandably concerned some at Bloomsbury but, to their credit, they accepted the 175,000 word version and went with it. I’m sure it has affected sales to some extent but, sales wise, I’m delighted to say its comfortably outstripping their targets.

Q: And this has obviously given you the taste for biographies . . .

Well, yes and no! I did promise my wife ‘never again’, but somehow I’ve found myself collaborating with Andy Irvine at the moment on a book which I’m describing as “a biographically-assisted memoir”. So it’s not quite the Irish equivalent of the Bert book, but it will cover the ‘60s folk scene in Ireland, centred around Andy’s immediate circle, Sweeney’s Men, and so on. I’m also helping Duffy Power make his first record for 25 years, which is a direct spin-off of the book and tribute album. I think he’s one of the great lost talents of British music, so I was very pleased to be able to write about his work in the Bert book – and thrilled to be helping him make music again. It’s very exciting. Who knows, we might even make some money!

2006 Update:

Well, I did become a librarian, in September 2001, and I also got to meet the great Humphrey Carpenter – who was appalled that his sometime publishers HarperCollins had not, as they had told me, bothered to forward my gift of a copy of Dazzling Stranger to him. I sent him another one direct. Sadly he passed away not long after, but I was honoured to be able to tell him how much I enjoyed his work. I also did end up writing a version of the Pentangle story – 45,000 words worth of it, based on the early ‘90s work but substantially revamped – to accompany the Pentangle box set The Time Has Come: 1967-73 (Sanctuary, 2006). John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee both cast their eyes over it and made various significant changes and suggestions, and I was very happy to be a part of that process. I still don’t suggest that what I’ve written about the band is in any way official or definitive – but similarly I don’t apologise for its right to exist. There is room for all shades of opinion in the world.