In 1968 a record was released called “The Songs of Leonard Cohen”. This was called a sleeper, it gained popularity gradually by word of mouth, there was no big commercial promotion of it, a bit like Joan Baez’s first album several years earlier. This record made a big impact on me, perhaps as much as Bob Dylan’s recordings of the mid 60s. Leonard Cohen was an established poet who had decided to move into music. Originally he had intended to sell his songs to other singers, most notably Judy Collins who was the first person to record his songs, but was eventually persuaded to make his own recordings, even though he had misgivings about his voice. The end result was unlike anything heard before. His lyrics dealt with love, despair and alienation and he sang them in a world-weary baritone voice. There was none of the anger present in Dylan and he eschewed rock music for an individual take on folk which seemed almost Continental in style (he became very popular in France) although it was a totally original sound. Producer Bob Johnson (who had recorded many Dylan and Simon & Garfunkle tracks) loved the songs so much that he gave up producing records and formed a band with Cohen with him on keyboards. I think “Suzanne” is one of the loveliest and most original songs to come out of the 1960s. I will say more about Cohen later, especially about when I saw his band at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970.
In 1951, the year of my birth, William Faulkner in a book called “Requiem for a Nun” said “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”. This evocative phrase means, I think, that what happens in the past stays with you and is a part of what you are. This is true for both individuals and society. Historical events create and inform the present.
I didn’t go to college because I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t even particularly want to be a student, but considering the options open to me at the age of 18 it seemed like the least awful one to do. From my first reading of Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times” at a young age to my first viewing of the film “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang later on I had an abject fear of becoming a cog in the wheel of industry. I thought if I ended up in a factory or office job I would somehow lose my personality and no longer be an individual, that I would become faceless and soulless. This concept of freedom has influenced everything I have done, although on several occasions I have felt trapped and unable to break away from my, sometimes self-imposed, chains. Individuality is weak and the forces of society and conformism are very strong. Indeed, the past WILL get you in the end!
What I really wanted to be was a professional singer/songwiter like Dylan or Cohen. I knew you could make a good living on the folk clubs. The problem was, at that stage, I simply wasn’t good enough. I needed more time to develop the skills required. I also needed to find my own voice. I thought that going to college to learn music would give me the time and facilities to do this. In many ways this is what happened, in others I lost some of my inspiration. Naivety and innocence can often produce inspired work and I sacrificed some of this as I acquired knowledge and experience. This is especially true of my poetry and writing which I changed to fit in with the conventions of the time. I ended up sucking a lot of the passion and chaos out of it in order to be more accepted.
At the beginning going to college was a traumatic experience for me. Middleton St. George College of Education was a long way away. It was situated between Darlington and Stockton in the North East of England on the same site as Teeside Airport, literally in the middle of nowhere. On my first day I took a train from Leicester carrying a blue cardboard suitcase full of my belongings, changed at Derby and arrived in Darlington about three hours later. At Darlington I changed trains and went to Dinsdale. When I got off there was no one else on the platform and I was still two miles from the college! I can’t remember what happened after this but I think a minibus may have picked me up. I arrived at the college a bit disorientated and was shown to the room I lived in for the next two years (it could have been three but I moved to Darlington for the third year). My initial feeling was that I had made a mistake going to college at all but I stuck with it and am glad I did.
The music department had it’s own separate block with practice rooms, a superb library and state of the art equipment (for the time). We were given keys so we could use the facilities 24/7. There was a comprehensive collection of instruments that we could borrow at will and the residential rooms and meals were all good. Really, I had nothing to complain about. As part of the course I had individual lessons in singing, piano and clarinet and we also had tuition in harmony (including keyboard harmony), music history and composition. The teaching was first class. On top of that we were given an “Arts North” card that gave us free admission to many concerts and talks in the North East. One of the best ones I went to was a talk by Paul Oliver who was a leading authority on the blues at the time. His books and field recordings were a big influence on me. In my final year I wrote a dissertation on “The Blues” and got a good mark for it!
I felt a bit out of my depth. My fellow students all seemed better than me. I had quite a bit of catching up to do but I eventually managed it. My piano teacher, Mrs. Robinson, said that I was like a cake that had been iced before it had been baked, which I thought was a rather good metaphor. By the end of the first year I felt like I was making better progress. Ironically, considering I was having no lessons on it, my guitar playing was really improving and my songs were getting better. I had a good guitar to play now along with a decent clarinet and access to quality pianos, courtesy of the college.
From being a major part of the Leicester music and poetry scene I became fairly anonymous at college. It was quite a difficult transition. The movers and shakers of the college music and arts scene were, obviously, mainly in the second year and I was seen as a young “fresher” with not much to offer. (The college had only opened in 1968 and there were no third years yet.) At least, I had to prove myself. It was like starting from scratch. I again began to doubt the wisdom of attending college but I persevered and gradually I made friends but not in the same way as in Leicester. I became more of an outsider and my friendship group were outsiders. I realised that my social group in Leicester, though quite large, were part of the new counter-culture so we were all kind of social outsiders. Weird was groovy! The predominant groups at the college were quite conformist and probably saw me as a bit strange. The college was quite isolated from urban areas so it lead to the forming of cliques and closed social groups which were difficult to break into. It did have it’s own airport though. The whole college had been an RAF base and the runway became Teeside International Airport. There were restaurants and shops there and they even had entertainment at the weekends. Because the runway was particularly long it was used as a testing ground for the supersonic aeroplane Concorde that was being developed then. So, we often saw Concorde taking off and landing with it’s distinctive moveable nose!! Amazing!!
At the end of the Summer Term I went to a festival in Bath with a girl I’d befriended called Suzy Walker. This was the Bath Festival of Blues & Progressive Music. In the spirit of reckless spontanaety we hitched all the way to Bath with no coats or sleeping bags or much money. When we got there we walked for miles to the festival site because the roads were totally blocked by traffic. It felt like the end of the World! Then it started raining and never seemed to stop. In the absence of having tickets we managed to get into the festival by bribing a security guard. Incidentally, this was the festival that inspired Michael Eavis, who also bribed his way in (or maybe he climbed through a hedge I can’t remember), to create the Glastonbury Festival which still happens now.
The word Rock wasn’t yet used widely and the idea of Pop Music wasn’t yet totally reviled by the cognoscenti. This was the first really large scale festival in England and had an audience of more than 200,000. It was also the first major U.K. gig for Rock Legends Led Zeppelin (They were going to call themselves the New Yardbirds but Keith Moon of the Who said that if they called themselves that they would go down like a lead Zeppelin). Other luminaries on the bill included the Moody Blues, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Country Joe MacDonald and a whole host of others, some of whom didn’t get to play because of the appalling weather and the gridlocked traffic. There was no helicopter here like at the Woodstock Festival the previous year in America. In fact, on the Sunday, Donovan (who wasn’t actually billed to play) kept the festival going for more than two hours while other acts made their slow way to the venue. I didn’t learn until recently that the John Mayall Blues Band who played at the festival included Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac on guitar and Rick Grech of Family on bass, who I had much to do with in the late 70s.
The summer of 1970 was an important one for me. Before I went to college I was in a relationship with a girl in Leicester. We were very close and were eventually married in 1972. Her name was Sally. I visited her quite often at weekends and saw her in the holidays. She was a beautiful free spirit and we got on really well. In 1968 she had hitch-hiked around Europe with a friend and had lots of wonderful experiences. In 1970 we decided to do the same thing and hitchhiked all over Western Europe (East was out of the question then due to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War!). We went to Paris then travelled through Belgium and went to Amsterdam which was a hippie Mecca at that time (still is I suppose, in some ways). From there we travelled to Germany via the war graves cemetery at Arnhem which made a huge impact on me, the graves seemed to go on forever! From there we went to Mainz and hitchhiked all the way down the beautiful Rhine Valley until we got to Basel in Switzerland. Quite by chance, here, we went to Picasso’s last exhibition before he died! It was high up a hill in a Chateau. There must have been a hundred paintings or more all done in a period of about two months. A final blaze of creativity!
From Basel we went to Interlaken. My plan at this stage (not that much planning went into the trip!) was to go up the Jungfrau to the highest station in Europe. I’d been there on a school trip a few years before. Unfortunately, the cost was exorbitant, more than a train journey to Paris, and we couldn’t afford it. Then disaster struck. We had been staying in youth hostels and a cheap little tent. On this occasion we were in the tent when the rain came down with a vengeance. We were totally washed out. Fortunately, a local guest house took pity on us and let us stay cheaply while we dried out.
From Interlaken we crossed the border and went to France eventually arriving at Avignon. Here we stayed for over a week at a camping site by the river overlooking the famous Pont!! This was a lovely place and we had a really nice, relaxing time there with lots of excellent conversations by the mighty river. The town itself is amazing and was the Papal Seat at one time. Some incredible, austere buildings and there is a massive arts festival there in the Summer.
After Avignon we returned to England. This is is quite hazy in my mind but I think we hitched to Paris and then got a train to Dover or Folkestone. I know we didn’t go back to Leicester because where ever we arrived Sally decided to hitch back to Leicester and I went to the Isle of Wight Festival. I remember feeling bad about her travelling alone but I was determined to go to what became known as the “Last Great Event”. Fortunately, she did get home alright!
There is a lot written and discussed about this Festival and I don’t intend to go into all of that. You can find lots on the web. Needless to say, I didn’t arrive at the festival until the Saturday. I had no ticket and joined the ranks of the great unwashed on the hill called Desolation Row (named after the great Dylan song). From this position you could see and hear everything going on quite clearly. I saw the classic Joni Mitchell set where she was interrupted by a deranged American anarchist. I also saw the ubiquitous Donovan (although, again, he wasn’t on the main bill) and the relentlessly cheerful John Sebastion, a great set from Blues group Ten Years After and then it all goes blank til the next day when I saw Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Leonard Cohen after it was turned into a free festival. I think I may have seen Joan Baez as well but that is a bit hazy. The problem was that, like Bath, the acts were going on at all sorts of strange times. Leonard Cohen appeared in his pyjamas after he’d been woken up early in the morning after Jimi Hendrix finished his set. He turned in a brilliant performance, though, which has fairly recently been released as a DVD. Following Hendrix was not an easy thing to do but he managed to pull it off to the amazement of people like Joan Baez who was so impressed she later recorded one of his songs. Perhaps the best performance was from the Who. I missed it at the time but have since seen it on DVD. Amazing!! The Who at their very best!!
The rest of the time I spent outside with an amazing bunch of people and we created our own festival. You could get everything out there, I had some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. The main festival were packed in like sardines while we had room to move. The alternative festival with The Pink Fairies and Hawkwind playing on the back of a lorry was also lots of fun. There was a war going on between those who wanted a free festival and those who didn’t. There was some amazing rhetoric that is captured in the DVD of the festival. One person describes the main festival as a “psychedelic concentration camp”. I didn’t realise until much later that many anarchists and veterans of Paris May 1968 and highly radicalised Americans had come early to the festival in order to disrupt it. What had begun at Woodstock the previous year was being carried on at the Isle of Wight! The organisers of Woodstock were far more savvy and understood what was going on and involved major figures in the counter-culture and avoided most problems although they eventually had to make it a free festival. The organisers of the Isle of Wight were totally out of their depth and managed to alienate virtually every group of people there, including the performers. On the other hand, some estimates say that there were more than 900,000 people at the festival and there was no major incident and everyone got on really well. I recall an incredibly friendly and supportive bunch of people. It was a success of the hippie “peace and love” philosophy. There wasn’t much peace and love coming from the organisers though! The gap between the Music Business and the counter-culture was becoming apparent. One person on the DVD talks about a “new feudalism” with rock stars as aristocrats and fans as serfs. The financial rewards for the top bands were so great it’s not surprising they moved away from the counter-culture. Joan Baez was quite insightful at both Woodstock and IOW when she spoke of fans resentfulness of highly paid “stars”. It didn’t stop her from claiming a huge fee for herself, though, from both festivals! Meanwhile, most of the lesser known bands were playing for next to nothing.
I really don’t know how I got off the island but I know I wasn’t in a rush. I can’t even remember how I got back to Leicester. It’s quite a long journey. Maybe I hitched but I wouldn’t be surprised if I got a train or bus.
Leicester group Family at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 with Rick Grech on bass and violin.
At the end of August I went back to college for my second year. This was more fun and I was involved with performances and concerts of the college choir. Alan Oyston, who was my music professor, was a brilliant choral director and I was involved in complete performances of Haydn’s Creation and Handel’s Messiah with live orchestra. A wonderful experience. I also played the lead part in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury” with a full orchestra which played to capacity audiences. It was given a contemporary feel with me as a hippie outsider fighting The System. We went on various interesting trips too. I saw Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Leeds Opera House. We also sang at York Minster which was a remarkable experience. My social group broadened and I became good friends with Geraldine Lodge and Val Harlan. They were both talented people and we collaborated on performances and writing. I bought a small reel to reel tape recorder and we made recordings of our work. Val was a brilliant artist and poet but unfortunately I didn’t keep in touch.
During the Easter vacation of 1971 I did another bout of travelling, this time to Spain. Sally was staying there with her friend Roma at a place called Altea (or so I thought). This was, obviously, before the days of mobile phones and even landlines were quite rare then especially in Spain. We communicated by telegram which I can say from experience is not ideal. When I arrived at Altea, having hitchhiked through France and Spain, there was no sign of Sally and my last telegram had been undelivered and was at the local post office! Actually, getting there had not been easy. I got a lift through most of France on the back of a Triumph Bonneville motor cycle (one of the last ones made in England) by an American serviceman based in Naples. It took me a whole day to recover from this. Then, lifts had not been easy in Spain and I spent many miles walking with a pair of crazy Dutch guys who had walked most of the way from Amsterdam. They looked so weird that nobody would give them a lift (or me while I was with them)! Eventually, I split from them and did a bit better although I missed their company. They were very funny and totally fearless! My last lift was with a bunch of Basque nationalists who were pretty scary and said how much they admired the IRA! I think that they had guns in the boot of the car! I kept quiet most of the time I was with them and was very glad when they dropped me off!
I asked around and people told me the girls had gone to Marbella on the south coast. This was a couple of hundred miles from where I was but there was no point in me staying. I hit the road and got a lift to a town called Lorca. This was good because I was a big fan of the poet. Later on I went to Lautrec in France (not far from Toulouse) because I liked the artist, but that is a different story! Then the rain came! There is a saying that “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” but the rest of it was falling on me, in giant drops the like of which I’d never seen before. I decided to go to the station to see if I could get a train. The nearest station to Marbella was Algeciras so I bought a ticket and off I went on probably the slowest train ever. It took more than 24 hours to get there! The train stopped at every station on the way for about an hour. At one station I went for a leisurely meal with two Spanish students I had befriended. We got back to the train in good time!
From Algeciras I got a bus to Marbella and booked into the Youth Hostel, which had all the facilities of a luxury hotel. Most of the people staying there were American backpackers doing a tour of Europe. I got quite friendly with them, especially a lunatic hippie from Montana, who used to give me amphetamines bought legally from the local chemist, and a beautiful girl from Alaska. One of them had a guitar and we had impromptu concerts in between swimming, diving and playing tennis. I managed to make quite an impact with my renditions of American folk songs and Bob Dylan numbers. At this point I began to realise how many songs I knew, although at no point had I deliberately learnt them. It had been a process of osmosis as I played the records over and over again in my room!
Needless to say, my reason for going was a complete failure. I found out that Sally and Roma had gone back to England a week earlier! Our paths had probably crossed! I decided to make the most of it and stayed in Marbella for two weeks. Then, I needed to get back to college for the summer term. At the hostel I had befriended two Germans who owned a car and were travelling to Bourdeaux in France. This was a long way and I offered to share the petrol if they took me with them. They said yes, but they didn’t want money. They wanted to know the meaning of Bob Dylan’s songs and offered me a lift if I could explain them! At this point I became Marbella’s leading Dylanologist as I travelled the whole length of Spain giving my meanings of songs like “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna”. Quite an experience which left me totally exhausted. Unfortunately, at the end of it, I don’t think they had a clue what I was talking about! They understood no more than when we left. Never mind, by that time I was in Bourdeaux and, anyway, I had just been making it up as I went along (which is probably what Dylan had been doing too, albeit in a totally inspired way)!
Bourdeaux is a university town and at that time many of the students were highly radicalised. There was a hardly a space on the walls of the ancient town that wasn’t covered in anarchist or Situationist slogans. I stayed over night but was running out of money so I decided to sleep rough on the beach. I woke up in the morning to a crunching noise. It turned out to be a wild pony eating the bottom of my sleeping bag! I waved my arms about to scare it off but it started rearing up at me! Time to beat a hasty retreat and I hit the road and hitched to Paris. There I managed to get a cheap flight (cheaper than the bus or train although, to be honest, the small propeller plane looked and sounded past it’s best) from Beauvais Airport near Paris to Ashford in Kent with a bus link to London. Then I hitched to Leicester. Home at last, but not for long. I had to get the train back to college for the summer term, the following day!
This term passed fairly uneventfully. I spent a lot of time playing tennis and developing my music skills. I also did a four week teaching practice at Spennymoor secondary school in County Durham. This went better than my first teaching practice, which had been quite stressful, and I enjoyed doing it. I didn’t just teach music but did a number of subjects with the younger pupils including English and Environmental Studies (Geography).
At this time I had decided, against the wishes of my tutors, to spend my third year out of college and live in Darlington. Towards the end of term I rented a room in a lovely, slightly dilapidated Georgian crescent on Woodland Road that I would move into in September. In terms of my development it turned out to be a good decision and I met up with a new crowd that were creative and had a lot to offer.
At the end of the second year I wrote an article in the student magazine criticising the college for it’s authoritarian attitude and demanding openness and democracy for the students. Three weeks later I received a “Level 3” warning and there would be no further warnings. I was told to buck my ideas up or I would be expelled. Strangely, I never seemed to have received a Level 1 or Level 2 warning! I began to realise the danger of throwing stones whilst being in a glass house. At the beginning of the third year the Principal E.L.Black dedicated his opening speech to rebuking the contents of my article. I’d obviously ruffled some feathers. On the other hand I had fallen behind with my work and had some catching up to do.