HEART AND SOUL, OR NOTHING
A couple of weeks ago one of the souvlaki places near the Glaros, decided to belt out at full volume across the sunlit bay, the remarkable song Baby Jane (1983) by Rod Stewart (born 1945, now 70). If you don’t know who Rod Stewart is, you must be living on the moon, or maybe even Pluto, or maybe even one of Pluto’s moons, currently big in the BBC online news, as I’m sure you are aware. But suffice to say his charisma is such that one of the local Kythnos teachers who must be around 55, still sports a Rod Stewart fringe and flap haircut, from circa 1974, when Stewart was 29, the teacher would be around 14, and Fascism was just about to finish in Greece. Thus it is, that a middle aged teacher on a very obscure Greek island, is still avidly paying homage to a British pop idol as he was 40 years ago, when no one these days back in the UK, apart from doubtless umpteen hideous tribute bands, is poncing around with a Rod Stewart coiffure. Isn’t that touching? However all I need to add to spoil the picture, is that the same teacher by way of casual Kythnos dress, often wears a violently red football top and flappy white shorts, the kind of thing a 12 year-old would run around in, and which Stewart, despite his famous soccer addiction, would not be seen dead wearing. Still, a fan is a fan is a fan, is an idol, no matter what. Apropos which, all too briefly, aged 17, back in 1968 at my Cumbrian Grammar School, aka The Brothel on the Hill, even though I had a girlfriend, because of my very long centre-parted hair, I had my own fan club of about five 14 year-old girls, who held their daily club meetings under a tree on the road into town. Laugh if you will, but I have never walked so tall in all my life, and perhaps never will. It beats inter alia the lure of winning the Booker Prize and even the Nobel Prize, including the ones in Medicine and Science as well as Literature.
You won’t believe it, but by a miracle Baby Jane is currently playing on Galaxy FM Greek radio just as I write this. It feels damn near mystical, as the souvlaki place had it ready-prepared on a CD or maybe an mp3 player or even on i-bloody tunes, whatever the hell they might be, something to do with Bugs Bunny as far as I know. But to backtrack to my fan club year of 1968, when Rod Stewart was 23, he was then touring the States as singer and songwriter with Jeff Beck (born 1944), now recognised as a guitarist’s guitarist of towering world stature. In the late 70s, Beck played jazz alongside Czech keyboard ace Jan Hammer, and the genius bassist Stanley Clarke, but in the early 60s he cut his teeth, along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, in the Yardbirds. Stewart has since said that Beck was such an exacting taskmaster, his virtuoso standards being so impossibly high, that in all the 2 and a half years they worked together, he never once had the courage to look him in the eye. In June 1968, when it was Rod Stewart’s first ever US performance at the Fillmore, his stage fright was so bad, he actually hid behind the amplifiers completely invisible as he sang. He had to be dozed with brandy to get him out on stage, since when of course, as strutting peacock or maybe I mean prancing popinjay sex symbol (see his 1978 Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? ) he has never once looked back.
Anyone who knows me, as well as careful readers of these pages, will know that I am a focused jazz, world music, classical music and especially an opera fan. But in addition I’ve always paid homage to any vocalist, including Rod Stewart, who demonstrates concentrated emotional power or great poignance or authentic visceral passion, or whatever you might wish to call it. In this regard, it is instructive to compare Stewart’s cover version of the harrowing and truly haunting When I Need Love, with the Leo Sayer 1976 hit original. Sayer is a sweet and sincere guy, no doubt of that, but his singing is all done very much at a safe distance, and from the outside, and with the deepest feeling always at one remove. Stewart by contrast, inflects pure passion into the powerful lyrics and his sense of rhythm and cadence are absolutely flawless. He is what you might call a relaxed genius, and such people, despite the hype, are very rare, and I for one would not include Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin in their number, though just possibly Tony Bennett, yes. For the same reason, for over 40 years I have revered the music of Stevie Wonder, or at any rate all but the early Motown stuff. You only have to listen to that beautiful and truly mesmerising album with the terrible title Fulfillingness First Finale (1974) or Songs in the Key of Life (1976) to feel the sheer power of the man’s soul radiating like Rontgen x-rays through all the known and unknown cosmos. The fact that born in 1950, he has been blind from soon after birth, is both beside the point and infinitely relevant. He exudes the profoundest, ripest spirituality, and his admonitory gospel songs as in They Won’t Go When I Go, on FFF above, would definitely win more converts that any amount of dutiful church attendance might.
In the same league, and by way of a handy checklist (my birthday is 18th October, if you are interested) I relish the music of variously Kate Bush (aged 57), Rosie Gaines, Joni Mitchell (now 71, and with very serious health issues), and Judie Tzuke. Tzuke’s best known hits, both in 1979, were Stay With me Till Dawn and Welcome to the Cruise. Born in 1956, she came of Polish parents, hence the unusual surname which replaced her adopted name of Myers. Her voice is like no one else’s, and curiously always sounds as if sung in an ice cold wind, whose bitterness is pierced by the sheer poignancy of her singing. Rosie Gaines’ date of birth is a state secret, and I personally aged 50 years trying to find it. She first made her name in 1990, as singer for Prince on his excellently titled The Nude Tour. If you haven’t heard her 1995 number Closer Than Close, you have not lived; intensely passionate, subtly erotic, beautifully paced, absolutely hypnotic. Recently she has been very ill with leg infections, and has had periods of homelessness, with friend Brenda Vaughn doing fundraising concerts on her behalf. These women singers all have one thing in common, though Bush and Mitchell are obviously in a different league when it comes to compositional virtuosity, agile jazz experimentation, plus the remarkable ability to use their voices in an enormously versatile and unpredictable and wholly original way. All these female vocalists put their hearts and souls totally and fearlessly into what they sing, and they are infinitely and vulnerably inside the emotions they are powerfully rendering in song.
If you would argue that e.g. a smooth and hygienic night club crooner like Robbie Williams (born 1974) or Diana Krall (born 1964) do the same thing, I would say you are 500% wrong. Real feeling cannot be assumed or faked, it is ineffable, inimitable, and has the dimensions of the animate soul. And thank God for that.