Last night my wife and I went to a Julie Felix concert at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford. This dynamic 71-year old with jet black hair and two guitars took me back fifty years. My mind marinated in memories of the 60s. I know they say if you can remember the 60s you were never there, but I have memories of the 60s and I was there – make of that what you wish.
My sensibility, which was quarried from the family landscape shaped by my sister’s death before I was born and rough-hewn by the second World war and its aftermath, was later chiselled and polished to some degree by the culture of the 60s. Its particular sense of the value of the individual and the importance of community found expression in the protest song. I resonated not only to that art form but also to the whole folk music tradition – English traditional, American blue-grass and acoustic blues most specially.
Julie Felix sprayed a mist of iconic names and sounds over the audience – Tom Paxton, James Taylor, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Woodie Guthrie, Joan Baez and above all Bob Dylan to name but a few. In the first half of the concert she swept through a nostalgic but still living panorama that started for me with Long Black Veil and ended with a superb rendering, a mind-rending one in fact, of Dylan’s Masters of War. In the second half she responded to requests from the audience which included Blowing in the Wind. It became more of a sing-along, not my favourite activity as I can’t carry a tune more than ten seconds without dropping it, and the spell began to break.
I have strewn a couple of YouTube videos across this post for the benefit of those who weren’t there and don’t share the intensity of my ruminations. None of the recent ones that I could find do justice to the Julie Felix of last night so I’ve ignored them and chosen instead one or two that are steeped in that heady perfume of hope, love and compassion mixed with anger that inspired so much of what went on in those days.
I was fighting to stay in the present as my own particular memories crowded in, triggered by almost every word she sang and almost every note she played.
Most vividly I remembered the upper room of the Starting Gate, Wood Green, where a friend of mine and I ran a folk club for a few years. Many who played there have probably been long forgotten, certainly by me until last night. There was Jackson C. Frank, whose life tragically went downhill after the brilliance of his first album, or Jesse Fuller, the exuberant one-man band who had us all tapping our feet much to the irritation of the regulars below. Oh and Diz Disley.
In the mid-sixties, he had fallen from the heights of being a passable Django Reinhardt imitator to scraping a living as a George Formby sound-alike on the guitar. I bumped into him again a few years later when his career was having a very respectable resurrection linked to tours with Stéphane Grappelli.
At the time I got to know him, he was living in a bedsit at the back of the same house as me and, as I walked off to work in the morning, I used to see his battered old gold Cadillac, formerly owned by Paul Getty he said, parked in the street outside. Four of us shared a manic non-stop drive to Budapest in the Cadillac, fuelled by Proplus for Go-plus on Diz’s part as he fended off sleep driving through the night. When we arrived in Budapest our decrepit symbol of capitalism broke down on a bridge over the Danube. We pushed it to safety and expensive repairs much to the amusement of the passers-by.
It was the first Bert Jansch appearance in particular that took us completely by surprise. The first time he played at our club was just after his debut LP came out and before he raised his fee to £45, a month’s wages for me in those days. We turned up on the night, with a biscuit tin for a till as usual, to see a queue all down the side of the pub, round the corner and heading up the hill to Ally Pally – sorry, Alexandra Palace.
We were authorised to have 50 people in our long but narrow room upstairs. After a quick word with the landlord, who clearly saw a huge escalation in beer sales on the way (this was long before I had even heard of the Bahá’í Faith so I had no scruples about increasing the profits of the breweries at that time), we tripled the limit and kept counting them in. Even so there were a few sad people left to drown their disappointment downstairs to the delight of the landlord.
Our takings were more than enough to cover his subsequently increased fee so we booked him again about a year later. I still feel though that Renbourne, with his softer voice and superb guitar playing, was the more enjoyable guest.
Of course, the giant that overshadowed them all, and wrote many of the songs that Julie Felix sang last night, was Bob Dylan. I was chatting to the lady sitting on my right-hand side in the theatre. We both agreed that the crucial test of taste in those days was whether you were a Beatles, Stones or Dylan fan at heart. We disagreed about the final outcome though. She was a Stones fan: I am an unreconstructed Dylan devotee to this day.
What a night! Thank you, Julie, for the memories.