Last day of January 2006 and no diary entry since 20th December last year. Should I put this down to a Christmas/New Year letting go of the reins? Or is it simply the usual pre-occupation with all things creative? A lot of the former and quite a bit of the latter is the answer.
The usual over-indulgences at Christmas and New year have taken their toll, as they always do. Last year's constant pace came to a halt as soon as the shops closed on Christmas Eve and I dropped my accumulated stress at the door along with the final bags of shopping.
I'd eventually posted all my Christmas cards, found gifts for everyone, bought enough food to see us through to the New Year and stocked up on wine, mulled and otherwise, to keep the cold at bay.
It wasn't a white Christmas but it snowed a little the day after Boxing Day, enough to make the landscape momentarily magical. Walking through York's Museum Gardens at twilight, snowflakes spinning in gentle orbit around the amber glow of the old street lamps, the river gleaming silver at the foot of the hill beneath an indigo and rose pink star studded sky, I felt a welcome sense of wonder.
It didn't last, of course, the snow that is. Within a couple of days it was a brown muddy sludge that made everything seem grimy and forlorn. A sudden grey plunge into the annual January doldrums.
For a few brief days though, it had been a hedonistic, friends and family centred celebration of, not just the season, but for me, the completion of a year's constant work, a year with hardly a breathing space between one project and another.
Early in the year, I had worked hard on the design of the Dreamsville website, gathering visual material and bouncing ideas back and forth with David Graham until we got a look that suited the site's purpose. Then 'stage one' of Dreamsville was opened up to the world, generating a very positive response from all those who accessed it.
Later, there was the release of the two Rosewood acoustic guitar instrumental albums. Again, artwork had to be created for them, once I'd completed the composition and recording of the music. (And yet another challenge for Dave and myself.)
These two albums, particularly Rosewood Volume One, I found very satisfying to make. I'd wanted to create a set of acoustic flavoured instrumental compositions for several years but, somehow, had never got around to it until the Rosewood project.
What really took me by surprise though was the next of the year's albums: 'The Alchemical Adventures Of Sailor Bill.' For some reason, I was gripped more tightly by the hand of the muse with this album than anything I'd done for a long time. It completely took over my life and I worked longer and harder on the composition, arrangement and recording of the songs than I would normally have thought wise. Nothing's ever perfect, of course, but this set of songs comes as close to being personally fulfilling than almost any other album of mine.
I think the reason for this is to be found in my current state of mind, conditioned as it is by advancing age and thoughts of mortality. Not morbid thoughts, mind, just melancholy ones... At least some of the time. 'Sailor Bill' successfully captures a certain mood, something that could, I think, genuinely be called an indicator of the 'essence' of myself. It is, if I may be allowed the indulgence, a 'mature' statement. In three years I'll be sixty, (and how fast three years travels in this light-speed era of ours.) But sixty, damn it! I can't really comprehend this, it's somehow beyond belief, staggering. My childhood seems only a few heartbeats away, its memories still vivid, its hopes and fears hardly changed. Nevertheless, the face in the mirror reminds me that young Billy has vanished with the passing clouds of time and now only grandfather William remains, hobbled and earthbound.
And do I feel my age? Well, yes and no but increasingly yes. Aches and pains and other little annoyances, a brittle creakiness, an inevitable erosion of flexibility, physical or otherwise, a stealthy dulling of the senses, an increasing world weariness. Life as she is lived, with wear and tear an inevitable part of the living. Yet still a mystery and still a wonder...Snowflakes under gaslight, a river beneath the stars. As good a reason to make music as any, I suppose. What else occupied my energies last year? Have I forgotten? Already it seems to have become a blur. A lot achieved though, all told. Here are some of the other things that I found time for:- The recording of the limited edition 'Orpheus In Ultraland' fan convention album.
The Nelsonica 05 fan convention project with its attendant preparations and programming of content. The 'Popular Music From Other Planets' concert tour around the U.K. And yes, of course...lots of new music and video was created for that.
But even earlier last year, before the above, more live concerts: The Harold Budd tribute that I took part in that was held at Brighton's Dome. Fun with Harold and John Foxx, Jah Wobble, Theo Travis, Steve Jansen, Robin Guthrie and others...a lovely, memorable event.
Then the Lewes Guitar Festival with more new material to perform. And some other bits and pieces that slip my thoughts at this moment. Too much time spent in my room though, hidden from the world. Whichever way I look at it, the last two years have been intensely creative. Maybe I should feel a much higher sense of achievement than I currently do? Here and now, at the end of January, there's the usual weight gain to contend with, the usual promise to myself that it will be easier come spring, that the return of outdoor weather will coax the bike from the shed and encourage some sort of exercise...
What usually happens is the opposite of course. I end up trapped here in the studio, hypnotised by guitars and keyboards and computer screens whilst time accelerates around my wristwatch in dizzy circles. A little vortex of used-up life.
Some progress already: A couple of days ago, I completed the task of checking through Paul Sutton-Reeves' book about my career, ('Music In Dreamland.') It's taken me most of January to get through it all as I felt that I should explain to Paul in some detail my observations and reasons for suggested amendments. Due to approximately 30,000 words being edited from Paul's original text by the publishers, I felt that there were places where a little re-clarification might help. I've left it entirely up to Paul to incorporate or ignore these suggestions as he sees fit but I'm hoping that the time I've spent typing out emails to him will prove valuable to the book's integrity.
It has been a weird experience reading about my career in this way. I imagine it would be disconcerting for anyone who had been made the subject of such a book, but I found it particularly strange. Sometimes I don't recognise the person on the page and am not even sure that I want to. At other times it's like being caught with my clothes off in public. I'm too unguarded, too ready to explain the music away, this eagerness to please resulting in some invented 'on the spot' descriptions of what the songs are about when often, in truth, I don't really have a clue as to their meaning. Do songs have to mean anything? It seems that, most of the time, mine do. I can't find a suitable justification for this though and would be equally happy if they contained no meaning at all.
Here's something I've learned over the years but still regularly ignore: An honest pop musician does not generate as much public 'mystique' as a dishonest one. (Or one that plays his cards close to his chest.) And in pop music, mystique is everything. This indicates two things to me. First of all, I'm not by nature a pop musician, despite once, many years ago, pretending to be so.
Secondly: I'm more interested in unmasking the conceits of celebrity than perpetuating them. This, of course, is not a formula for a successful commercial career, nor is it an attitude welcomed by those who benefit from such jiggery-pokery. The cult of fame, that so captures the imagination of the 'general public', thrives on fake glamour and artfully manipulated image-mongering.
People, it seems, prefer being hoodwinked to being liberated. Certainly my own experience backs that up. Whilst the majority of my own audience appears to be reasonably intelligent and sane, there have been, (and sometimes still are,) worrying exceptions. I've occasionally gotten into quite heated arguments with overzealous fans who have taken issue with the fact that the 'real' Bill Nelson doesn't quite fit the 'virtual' Bill Nelson of their dreams. In fact, one sure way to experience just how negatively the cult of celebrity affects the human mind is to enter the arena of popular music. No matter how modest the level of celebrity one attains, sooner or later comes encounters with people who will obsessively claim you as the spiritual centre of their own fragile lives. You will be unceremoniously crowned the tin-pot God of their tin-pot universe... And woe betide you should you ever seek to unburden them of their illusion. Hell hath no fury like a fantasist brought down to earth.
How easy it must be to create a spurious religion with so many willing, potential disciples. But such unhealthy mystification is all part of the entertainment business and is accepted as its general currency. Entertainment over enlightenment? As Brian Eno said in a recent article, 'we're all entertained to death.' Or something like that. Anyway, back to the book. All said and done, (and taking the above into account,) I enjoyed reading it and expect that fans will enjoy reading it even more. It's Paul Sutton-Reeves' first published book and the first published biography of my career. A cause for celebration or trepidation? Well, perhaps we're both nervous of its reception. Will I have to hide from old girlfriends and ex-wives? Will my children understand their father any more than they do now? Will my friends still talk to me or look at me as if I've escaped from some travelling freak show? (Or do they already see me in that way?)
The problem with books is they exile our frail lives to cruel islands of print. They banish fleeting experience to the state of permanence. Books adopt a form that appears, on the surface, substantial. We invest the printed word with a faith that would do the Pope proud. Words on a computer screen can be made to vanish with the click of a mouse but that thick brick of a thing that sits on your bookshelf or coffee table in constant view..? Well, it can't be denied so easily. It can't be switched off by the removal of its electricity. Well...let's see what this thing unlocks when it's published. Maybe I'll have to leave the country.
There was some sad news just after Christmas which I've already commented on in postings on the Dreamsville Inn Forum. Derek Bailey, pioneer free-music guitarist and someone who has proved constantly inspirational to me over many years, passed away on 25th December, 2005. This came as quite a shock. I knew he had suffered some illness in recent years but didn't realise quite how serious things were. Derek died from complications arising from motor neurone disease. I learned of his death a couple of days after it happened. Ironically, I'd finally completed Ben Watson's lengthy biography of Derek and the free-music scene on Christmas Eve. On Boxing day, when my son Elliot and daughter Elle came to the house for a seasonal dinner, the conversation got around to Derek and I played them some selections of his music. The following day, the news came that he'd gone.
Perhaps many of my fans might be puzzled as to why Derek was so important or as to why I found his work inspirational. It could be argued that, in terms of form and intent, our approach to music was quite different. Derek's playing might be seen by some fans of mine as being too abstract, too confrontational, too fractured, too something or other, but certainly not comfortable listening. But these 'too whatevers' were exactly what atttracted me to his work. He appealed to the part of me that resists the herd mentality, that akward, stubborn, 'I know best' part of me that rudely and clumsily and some times stupidly resists compromise. His music also worked as a purely aesthetic artform, sound and gesture for its own sake, open to appreciation without it always being dependent upon the academic theories that surround much of free music's barbed history. There were threads, I might have argued, that connected Derek's music to Cage and Partch, though I'm sure he'd have considered these slender and quite possibly totally subjective. Webern seems to have come into his equation though, through his own admission.
There was also humour and mischievousness, grace and fire in Derek's playing. In his hands, the guitar was elevated to gallery status, a legitimate instrument of art. He was, in my mind, astonishing, revolutionary, the one player who I hoped I might one day be given the pleasure and challenge of playing with. Too late now. Like Cage, like Partch, like Picasso and Pollock and all of Art's far scouts and secret agents, the world required only one Derek Bailey. To attempt to play like him, (and some people did and still do,) would be a travesty. What he created was his and his alone, unique, absolutely essential and unrepeatable. The world of music was made more curious, more kinetic by his contribution to it. And that's an achievement.
There's an eloquent and reasoned account of Derek Bailey's life in the latest issue of WIRE magazine, a piece written by David Toop, (who curated the Hayward Gallery's 'Sonic Boom' exhibition that I contributed some music to a few years ago.) It's worth reading, especially as David had the opportunity to talk with Derek on numerous occasions over the years. It's as fine an introduction to the man and his music as possible within the restrictions of a slim magazine. Derek's own book , 'Improvisation' is an essential read too, even for musicians who aren't naturally sympathetic to the free-music cause. Yet another positive force...gone, gone, gone...but not yet forgotten.
Whilst on the subject of books. Christmas brought me new ones, as it always does. They were added to the small mountain of books that have accumulated throughout last year and which pressure of work has denied me access. I've made a start, although my reading is still done at the end of the day in the minutes before sleep. Here are some of the titles stacked by my bedside:-
'Despite The System: Orson Welles Versus The Hollywood Studios' by
Some of the above I made a start on earlier last year but because I was so busy I broke off reading them and need to begin again when time allows. I also was given some very welcome DVDs, the most special of which is a boxed set of a mammoth twelve and a half hour long film/series called simply 'JAZZ, A Film By Ken Burns.' I'd caught some of this when it was screened as a series on tv, quite a while ago now, but never got around to buying the DVD, partly due to its high price. However, Christmas presents are one of life's little luxuries and Emiko generously bought it for me as a surprise gift.
Whilst some have said that Ken Burns' view of Jazz history is a particularly selective one, for me the film is beautifully put together. I could watch it over and over again...it's uplifting, inspiring and heartfelt. Watching it is a wonderful way to unwind at the end of the day, the film's music and musicians providing a poetic reminder of why some of us became so besotted with music in the first place. It's the kind of programme that makes me feel proud to be part of a tremendous chain of musicians stretching back through history, meagre though my own contribution has been.
Anyway, I'd recommend this fine piece of work to all music lovers, irrespective of whether Jazz rings their bell or not. If, after watching this film, the penny still hasn't dropped, then they're beyond redemption. In terms of musical listening, when I've found the time, (usually over dinner,) I've been in a retro mood, albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt, Ben Webster, Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Also Bill Evans' 'Conversations With Myself' album and, (not exactly a 'retro' record,) Bill Frisell's 'East-West' live album. There's a real sense of elegance, intelligence and sophistication in these jazz albums, qualities that seem to have gone missing in action amongst our current pop/rock luminaries. To listen to these classic recordings is to enter another world, a world, I have to say, in which I feel comfortably at home.
So, what are my plans for this coming year? Well, the 'Music In Dreamland' book's obligations now discharged, the next thing on the agenda is the possibility of working with Russian musicians again. My old 'Nautilus Pompillius' friend Slava Butusov and his new band 'Jupiter.' Still awaiting budget conformation on this though.
The next thing I'll need to do after this is to mix the Be Bop Deluxe Decca audition tapes. I'm hoping to make these available on my own 'Sonoluxe' label before very long. Current favourite title for this cd is 'Tomorrow The World.' (Which was the title of an early Be Bop Deluxe song but equally suggests the group's ambition back in those early days.) Also, I've been asked by EMI records to mix some later Be Bop Deluxe live album tracks, different takes from those that found their way onto the 'Live In The Air Age' album, but from the same tour, or so I'm presuming. These tracks will be part of EMI's proposed big Be Bop Box set which will contain just about everything the band ever recorded. This is due for release later this year.
Then I must work on a new instrumental guitar album, volume two in the 'Painting With Guitars' series, (of which 'The Romance Of Sustain' was volume one.) I've yet to choose the 'main' title for this album but it will contain versions of the more recent instrumental material that I've incorporated into my solo performances these last two years, tracks such as 'The Girl On The Fairground Waltzer,' 'Blue Amorini,' 'Blackpool Pleasure Beach And The Road To Enlightenment,' and 'Electric Milkcart Blues' amongst others. Also planned is an album of unreleased sketches and demos from my 1980's archives.
The main focus of my attention will be a new vocal album, the next step on from 'Sailor Bill.' I want to take my time with this though and, bearing in mind the archive material already planned for release, I may not find time to complete a brand new album this year. We'll see... This year's fan convention, Nelsonica 06, is yet another project to deal with, and very soon too if it is to be ready for a proposed autumn event date. New venues to check out first. I have had an idea about including a sort of guitar 'masterclass' as part of the convention, a non-academically inclined one that will allow me to talk about aesthetic approaches to the instrument as well as technical ones.
A special, limited edition CD will be required for the convention too, as is usual, and 'Snow Is Falling', a song which I featured in last year's tour, is definitely going to be one of the tracks on it. Live dates? Well...I have some ambitious plans but I'm not sure at this stage how practical they will be. As always, it's down to funding. And that's plenty to be getting on with, I think. Letters from Harold who is moving house, heart and head. A jolly note from Roger Eno too. Emails from Peter Coulombe and Chuck Bird with reference to a possible Nelsonica USA fan convention. They are starting to get results back from a survey to discover how many American fans would be interested in attending such a thing. I'm told it looks promising at the moment. If all goes to plan, it may be that there will be two Nelsonicas next year, one here in England and one in the States.
Three new doors being fitted to the house due to weather damage. Awaiting quotations from decorators to repair all the exterior woodwork which will need doing once the new doors are fitted. One door has been hung today, ('though only undercoated at the moment.) The other two were not quite the right fit so have been taken away to be adjusted and will be fitted next Monday I'm told.
Elliot passed his driving test, first time! I'm pleased but now I've something extra to worry about. Part of being a parent, I suppose. My mother still worries about me when I'm out on the roads, even though I'm 57 years old and have been driving since the 1960's. (Why does that last sentence remind me of Alan Bennett?)
Emiko has had one day a week cut from her schedule at the flower shop and is looking for a way to fill the financial gap. She's thinking about putting in some time at an old people's home as a carer. Whilst I'm sure that she'd be able to do this quite well, it seems a shame as her talent is really with flowers. Sometimes, I wish she had more ambition and would make more of her gifts but she says she's too old to do so. I think she's too easy going in some ways but, I love her as she is. She accepts the difficulties of being married to someone whose career is always up and down and insecure so I have nothing to complain about. I'm very lucky to have her share my life with me. Outside my window: grey, undistinguished January weather. Nothing much to uplift the spirits, just that typically flat, beginning of the year mood-dulling atmosphere. Roll on Spring and the saffron song of daffodils.