My Pop Life #170 : Make You Feel My Love – Adele

Make You Feel My Love   –   Adele

…there is nothing that I wouldn’t do…

It was Jenny who first connected this song to Delilah Rose – you couldn’t escape it in that first year of her life, on the radio, the TV,  all over the place, the beautiful baby child all together in our experience.  What is also extraordinary is that Make You Feel My Love was released on the day that she was born.

2 days old

My god-daughter Delilah-Rose was born on January 28th 2008 at The Royal Sussex County Hospital, just a few yards from our house in Brighton.  What a precious gift.  Her mother Millie was the first of our friends and family to move down to Brighton after we’d taken the plunge and left the metropolis in 1996.   Like Jenny and I, she was childless.  Our situation is complex and multi-layered, Millie’s was simple so she decided to do something about it and found Rupert, who also wanted children, but not a relationship.   I think she was very brave, and very inspired.  The resulting child, a beautiful girl, is a blessing to us all.

2 weeks old

We’d had a busy winter, as usual.  I’d finished my first play since 1990 – the hilarious and biting tale of a punk band reforming to make a credit-card commercial called The Dysfunkshonalz which played at The Bush in West London.  Written by Mike Packer, it re-introduced me to the joy and terror of being onstage, and the joy and terror of learning the guitar, which I had to play in the show, and I’ll write about it at a later date.  Then (pre-cat days!) we went to St Lucia with half the family for Christmas.  Jenny’s parents have a house there in the village of Mon Repos and some of us stayed there, some down the road in the beautiful Foxgrove Hotel.  I will blog that trip later too, it was amazing.

 

family gathering in St Lucia early 2008

Jenny left St Lucia earlier than I since she had to start rehearsals at The Almeida : Harold Pinter‘s The Homecoming,  an exciting production which had Jenny playing the first Ruth who wasn’t white (with Harold’s blessing) with Ken Cranham (mentioned here many times because of our musical connection), Neil Dudgeon, Nigel Lindsay, Tony O’Donnell and Danny Dyer completing the cast.  Michael Attenborough directed.

The last week of January 2008 Jenny was in the middle of Tech Week for The Homecoming,  which means work is from 10a.m. to 11p.m. and she stays in London at her parents, all back from St Lucia by now, and travels to Islington from there.  I am at home, preparing for an audition with Richard Curtis.

Then came Delilah-Rose.

Millie had workmen in her house finishing the loft, so after a night on the ward to make sure everything was fine, she and her new baby girl came to ours and stayed in our bed upstairs in the bedroom of love.  I think I must have been on the sofabed downstairs because of Chaz, Millie’s birth partner, sleeping in The Green Room.   So Delilah-Rose’s first house aged 2 days old was our house.  I was in love with her from day one, and eight years later (nearly nine!!) I still am.  She is my delight.  I am, of course, Uncle Ralph.

2 months old

Six months later Millie christened Delilah-Rose in her local church.  The godparents pledged to nurture the child in the ways of righteousness and so on.

Christening :   Me, Jen, Delilah Rose & Millie, Lawrence, Betty, Chaz

6 months old, St Luke’s Church

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January 28th 2008 was also when Adele’s first album ‘19‘ was released.  Adele had been at the Brit School in Croydon, (same as my sister Lucy, and Amy Winehouse), graduating in 2006 and releasing a self-penned song on MySpace (remember those days?) which earned her a record deal with XL.    I bought the LP on the strength of the single Chasing Pavements but soon found this incredible song, written by Bob Dylan, which towers over the other songs in its simplicity and depth.  I’m not saying that Adele isn’t a strong songwriter – she is, and her 2nd LP ‘21‘ would bear that out even more than her great debut, but Make You Feel My Love is simply an outstanding piece of songwriting.  Covered by many artists, from Billy Joel to Bryan Ferry, Garth Brooks to Rebecca Ferguson, this version stands out as the best, revealing the young woman who was soon to be the most successful singer in the world, and one of the most successful of all time.  Pretty astonishing.

I love Bryan Ferry‘s version too, but my relationship with Bryan is eternal and faintly obsessive.   No one can sing the word “avenue” quite like Bryan.   Bob Dylan’s original, on the 1997 LP Time Out Of Mind is raw and instinctively unsentimental for reasons only Bob (and his millions of fans) will understand.  The greatest living songwriter perhaps, with a throwaway song that is held up and revered by so many, and spawns a thousand karaoke, Britain’s Got Talent, X-Factor covers.  Which has been enough to put many people off the song.  There is such a thing as over-exposure, but the best songs can deal with that.  This is one of those.

In the years that followed Adele’s success became simply extraordinary with Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globes and massive sales figures which have put her in the Guinness Book Of Records.  Over the same period Delilah-Rose has grown to be a simply delightful child, thoughtful, bright, helpful and affectionate, with all credit due to Millie.  Delilah does have a relationship with her Dad Rupert, and his extended family, but Millie is there every day.  When we lived in Brighton (and sometimes when I’m back) the phone will ring at 4pm or so and it will be Millie stuck in traffic and Uncle Ralph can you collect Delilah-Rose from school?  Some mornings I’m round there at 8 to take her to school because Mills has to drive to Norfolk or Chichester or Essex for a meeting.

10 & a half months old with Mimi

The first time I spent a long time with my god-daughter was Christmas Eve 2009.   I went over at 8a.m.   Millie gave me house keys and rushed out, not before pointing out critical areas such as nappies, food and favourite toys.  As the door closed Delilah and I looked at each other.  I remember thinking :  OK.  I have twelve hours with this child who isn’t quite two years old.  Now what ?   I decided to sit on the floor with her.  She immediately went to her toy box and one by one, pulled out a toy and showed it to me, naming it.  This took almost two hours!  After that we were firm friends.  We went into town to see Father Christmas in Churchill Square but she was a little young for that.  Mills eventually got home at about 9pm.  I’d changed nappies, made food, comforted, played and hugged – a perfectly normal day for any parent but a pretty special one for me.   I’ve had many more since then.

4 + 3/4 years old playing Snow White

you eyeballing me boy ?  (last week : 8 + 1/2 yrs old)

Moving to New York in 2014 was particularly hard for Delilah and I.  We saw each other every week.  Suddenly I wasn’t there.  I am still in her life though, and she is in my heart.  Only last week I was sitting on her bed reading her a story before she went to sleep.  Precious moments.  But it is exactly these moments that I have sacrificed in the move to Brooklyn, chasing the pension pot, the adventure and the fantasy of never growing old.  I miss my friends, my football team, my band, my family.  But mainly I miss the little ones, in particular Skye, and my god-daughters Delilah-Rose and Chloe.

Skye is 2, Delilah Rose is 8 

Millie bought the album “19” too, and one afternoon Jenny was round there, holding the baby girl in her arms as Milly was upstairs.  She must have been three months old.  This song Make You Feel My Love came on the stereo, and Jenny made a silent promise to herself and to the child, that she would keep for all of her life.

My Pop Life #100 : Stardust – Nat King Cole

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Stardust   –   Nat King Cole

…And now the purple dusk of twilight time

…steals across the meadows of my heart…

High up in the sky the little stars climb

always reminding me that we’re apart

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Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.

Featured imageHoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune.  The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental.    A jazz instrumental.    The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘.  So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.

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The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today)  is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).

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Stardust is a song about a song about love.  Lost love – all that’s left is the song.  The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust.  The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang  “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation.   The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog.  So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.

Featured imageI first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific…   And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance.    In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production.    Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on.   His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient.    I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road.   I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.   Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to?   Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script.   A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw.    I know.   It was 2008 and he was still making C90s.   They were completely brilliant.   “They’re all writer-based“,  Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…

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The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust.  There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982).  John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner.   The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers.   Four of the best versions.   I could not stop listening to the damn song.   I started collecting covers of it.   There are a lot.   At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific.  They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby.   Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!).   He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park).   Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version.  Unique, certainly.

Featured imageBut my favourite is Nat King Cole.  He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961).  By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so.  In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament.  The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic.    As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…

What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ?  Now sadly gone but he has the song….

My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain

The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall

when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”

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To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective.  “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie.  Then later “Though I dream in vain…”  the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric.    I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here.   I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts.  And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others.  But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.

Nat Cole :  LIVE !

My Pop Life #89 : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy – Paul Simon

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Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy  –   Paul Simon

…some folks lives roll easy, some folks lives…never roll at all…

…most folks never catch their stars…

It’s a slight, unshowy track on Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon’s masterpiece.  It’s a magnificent album chock-full of hits and flashy songs, the title track alone is the work of a genius, but then there’s My Little Town, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Have A Good Time – for me this is the perfect LP.  Look at it this way – you’ve written the song.  You have wonderful chords, searching lyrics, you’ve done well, you’ve chosen only the creme de la creme of your work.  And then :  you arrange them.

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 I’m a sucker for a great arrangement, something with a bit of thought, a bit of TLC.   Paul Simon shares this arranging fetish with Bob Marley – rarely is a song a straight guitar strum 4×4 and drum beat with a few bvs.  No – there is a careful consideration of how to tell the story of the song musically – and this means instruments dropping out, only appearing for the turnarounds, treating pop music a little more like a classical composition.  Brian Wilson went there with Pet Sounds, Kate Bush lives there.   There is something about jazz musicians playing pop arrangements that delivers delicious music (he generalised : eg Motown) – the line-up of A-list session players on Still Crazy After All These Years is long and distinguished and includes the celebrated Steve Gadd on drums and Mike Brecker on saxophone.

This is probably the most compassionate song I know.  The concept of the piece – that some folks’ lives roll easy, while others don’t, is relatively simple, and yet not commonplace in pop at all.  There are songs which celebrate, defiantly, being working-class – Dead-End Street by The Kinks, most of The Streets output, The Clash – and there are songs celebrating or lamenting the easy life – large chunks of hip hop, Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks, disturbingly large amounts of Bryan Ferry – but there are very few songs it seems to me which put these two universes together in the same song.

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The narrator – Mr Paul Simon – contemplates the fact that “most folks never catch their stars”  – this alone is an astounding line in a pop song and the truth of it stabs you unexpectedly with its clear-eyed compassion.  Then we’re in the middle eight and the narrator suddenly becomes the self-confessed supplicant speaking directly to his “Lord” – at his place of business, despite having “no business here”.  He speaks directly to his God :

“You said if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted?”

The music around this repeated middle eight is tremendously affecting. first time around a simple string section supports and leads us away from this humble prayer,  then it repeats :

here I am Lord, knocking at your place of business, and I know, I got no business here

but you said, if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted…”

and this time the horns punch us back to the first verse “Some folks’ lives roll easy, some folks never roll at all, they just fall, they just fall…” but this time with a soaring three-part harmony which tears your heart open.   If you have one, naturally.

There is no chorus in this song which is unusual, but what is more unusual is the narrative that it offers.  We think we know this story, but when we hear the song, we hear it all over again on another level.  It’s pretty damn special.

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I didn’t buy solo Paul Simon until the 90s, but this song quickly became one of my wife’s favourites.   I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, I had singles and greatest hits as a very young teen.  They were the sound of my youth.   I thought, and still think, they were totally amazing.   But I never did bother to follow up and get into Paul Simon until I was deep into my thirties.  This LP, his 4th, came out in 1975 and is perfect, as described above.  Of course there is Graceland which broke the boycott but helped make Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international stars, Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon, ah look, there’s a kind of endless tapestry of brilliant songs and LPs to be honest, right up to the present day (2011’s So Beautiful or So What), consistency applied – he never appears to write a bad song, and his taste in musicians and arrangements is impeccable.

Featured imageJenny and I went to Liverpool for the year of culture in 2008 and had an absolutely brilliant long weekend – again a subject for another post (!) but we did see Paul Simon at the new Echo Arena on the River Mersey, with his incredible band which includes South African Bakithi Kumalo (pictured right) on bass (with Simon since Graceland in 1986), and Cameroonian Vincent Nguini on guitar.   He didn’t play this song, but did sing Sound Of Silence, The Boxer, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Gumboots, Boy In The Bubble, Duncan, Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Mrs Robinson, Still Crazy, Slip Slidin’ Away and You Can Call Me Al.  Among others.   An amazing night.

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So, cut to : at some point in 2010 I’m basically giving up every Saturday morning, sometimes the whole day to canvas on behalf of Caroline Lucas of The Green Party in the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the 2010 election.   A Party which I’d recently joined, partly due to renewed political optimism engendered by Barack Obama‘s first election victory (white Americans voted for a black man – there is hope).  The Green Party understands that some folks lives roll easy, some don’t.  Many former Labour supporters joined the Greens, myself included,  depressed by the right turn of Blairism, and the pusillanimous surrender of the Labour Left to the City – see the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for the NHS if you doubt my words.  So:  I’m meeting Green volunteers who’ve taken the train down from all across the UK to Brighton to support the big push, and they’re getting into my 4×4 Jeep Cherokee (converted to LPG!!) and being taken out to places like Withdean and Hollingbury.   To leaflet every household.  And Radio 3 has a show being presented by Richard Curtis, with whom I’d worked the previous year on “The Boat That Rocked” his film about Radio Caroline (yes yes there will be posts about that obviously !) and really enjoyed his humourous positivity.  He’s actually not particularly English, probably because he grew up in diplomatic surroundings in dozens of different countries.  And maybe that gives him a slightly dewy-eyed view of England.  Anyway enough Freud, he was on Radio 3 this very day in 2010.   And he was playing his six most personal favourite songs.  And one of them was this one : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy by Paul Simon.   It made me love him even more.   The UK public are as hard on Richard as they are on Paul McCartney – big soppy rich so-and-so they appear to mutter under their breath – we prefer snarling mean people, like us.  Well sod you all, mean people.  Richard Curtis is one of the sweetest people I know, generous, funny, loves music and is genuinely supportive.  You may not like his films, or Blackadder, or Comic Relief, but if that is the case, have you actually sat down and asked yourself what is wrong with you ?

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Compassion is not to be sneered at.  It’s what makes us grow.  The best bit of ourselves.  Let’s nurture it.