Bob Frank and John Murry

Your blood may run cold but it’’s a heart-warming story. 63 year old Bob Frank’’s first and last album was released by the Vanguard label in 1972. Although he never stopped writing songs, he has spent the entire interim working in Oakland as an “irrigation specialist”. This is not the sort of person who, in an industry obsessed with youth and fashion, could reasonably be expected to sign a record deal in 2007, let alone be taken up as the darling of Rolling Stone and Uncut magazines. Yet this is what has happened.

Catalyst in all this is 27 year old John Murry, on the face of it a fearsome man-mountain, who was introduced to Bob Frank as a potential cure for depression following his move to San Francisco (where both can now be found). Immediately tumbling into a love-hate-love-hate relationship (the old ‘can’’t live with or without you’ syndrome), they first of all grew some poppies and then started to write together. The project was to create a canon of murder ballads which nodded in the direction of tradition, but which were based on their own historical research. Thus, the album contains songs about an unrepentant killer (“Boss Weatherford, 1933), about two contrasting lynchings (“Tupelo, Mississippi, 1936” and “Jesse Washington, 1916”) and a legendary Mexican Robin Hood (“Joaquim Murietta, 1853”).

Bloodthirsty, of course, but with a strangely alluring beauty all of their own, the ballads on “World Without End” are encased in sumptuously inventive arrangements by Murry and producer Tim Mooney (American Music Club), but live, they operate as a duo, with Murry’’s scratchy electric guitar inter-acting with Frank’s more traditionally picked acoustic. “”This guy came up to me after a show and accused me of ruining the songs by turning up my volume and drowning out Bob because I was supposedly in a bad mood”, complains John, in a manner that suggests that the audience member should really have kept his mouth shut. “”He didn’t understand that this violent juxtaposition of sound is exactly what we are trying to create.””

And it undoubtedly works. The combination of the grizzled gentleman with the acoustic and the terrifying grunge-rocker (actually a sensitive intellectual with a strange way of showing it) makes for a stage show like you’’ve never seen. Plus, they both have contrasting but equally mellifluous voices. As they brought their songs to a completely unprepared but soon converted European audience (the pair had never previously stepped outside the US), there were numerous cultural divides to be bridged but, as it should be, the music did the talking and the unique, unstudied nature of the characters triumphed. There’s always the danger with these things that there’’s an element of artifice involved, but talk to these two for a couple of minutes and you realize that they are the real deal, innocents abroad almost, and all the better for it. They certainly don’’t belong in the superficial world of the music industry.

Bob is resolutely laid-back about the project. ““It was John’’s idea to write the songs but we wrote them together. John is the creative impetus, hell, he came up with all the instrumentation, he even did all the design work. If I hadn’’t met this guy, it would never have happened.””

John: “”The original idea was to record old murder ballads, but Bob writes story songs anyway, so it just sort of came together. They are as factually accurate as we could make them, but some have different historical versions and others are legends. ‘Bubba Rose’ actually happened, we know that for sure.””

These guys are on an adventure which is the stuff of dreams but they remain blissfully unaware, taking each day as it comes and trying hard not to make reality out of art by actually murdering each other. How it all pans out is set to be one of the most intriguing episodes in recent musical history.

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Motorway phobia

I can’t wait for self-driven cars to become a reality. Sadly, I fear I won’t live long enough to see the day when they will be safe enough to be unleashed on the roads, but even if I do, we can assume they will be priced to be accessible only to the super rich.

I have a reason for this dream. One day, I’d like to drive on a motorway again. The last time I did that was in 1976.

If you don’t drive at all, no one thinks you are weird. But if you do drive but can’t drive on motorways, you are considered to be very odd indeed. That’s me.

It crops up in conversation a lot, because everyone knows I have this affliction. “I know”, people say, “I hate motorways too”. But that isn’t the point. I don’t just hate them, I live in such terror of them that I’m finding it painful just writing these sentences. My phobia is total. If a terrible emergency were to crop up tomorrow which made it vital for me to get onto the M3, for example to reach an airport because a relative was dying, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

“Describe how you feel”, people say. Well, I can tell you how it started. I used to drive on the Autobahn in Germany. I remember those huge trucks with trailers that would swing around in the inside lane. My wheezy old Beetle would struggle to overtake them. Sometimes it would take a minute or two of inching alongside them before the blessed relief of pulling in, and during that time, there would be angry BMW drivers in the mirror flashing their lights at me. But there was nowhere to go. Cars to the left of you, lorries to the right, stuck in the middle lane. It was claustrophobia in its most extreme form, but back then, I was able to cope with it. Most people wouldn’t even think of it as an issue.

Those suffering from conventional claustrophobia are compelled to get out of their situations and normally, with a little embarrassment, they can. An elevator will normally stop eventually, a theatre will have an exit, even a cable car will reach the top of the mountain, but if you are driving on a motorway, there’s no escape.

“What does it feel like?” people ask. In a kind way, they try to empathize. But they can’t imagine what this phobia is like. I was first struck by it in 1976, on the way home from seeing the Rolling Stones at Knebworth. Surrounded by headlights at speed, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by confusion. Were the lights in front of me, behind me or in the mirror? How far away were they? I literally froze, having no control over my body or mind. I lost all understanding of how to drive the car. I had to stop, get away, but it was impossible. My head span, I felt sick, I couldn’t see properly and my limbs were out of control.

It was a miracle I didn’t crash and die there and then, but the next day, assuming it must have been some weird one-off, I tried again. And it happened again, this time in daylight. And then again. There is a strong element of OCD in this. I don’t believe that I won’t plough into the nearest lorry, or that its driver won’t have a heart attack and veer across the motorway. It could happen, and that is enough to convince my troubled mind that it will.

Already my mind had taken over control of my intentions, learning the wrong responses, but I was determined not to be beaten by such nonsense. When I realised that something had to be done, I took medical advice, but before that, my dear wife offered to take me out on practice drives on dual carriageways. It was hopeless and we would always end up stranded at the first layby and she would have to drive me home as I shivered and sobbed.

Had my GP heard of this strange driving affliction? No, but he was sure it was merely stress and anxiety. He prescribed two sorts of pill, one of which I stopped almost immediately after I discovered it was an enormously strong and highly addictive anti-depressant. The others were standard tranquillisers, to be taken before attempting to drive. Bafflingly, the label said that one should avoid driving after taking the pills. That was helpful. And significantly, the doctor asked me if I felt I could drive better after having consumed alcohol? I did. But it obviously wasn’t a solution that it made sense to pursue.

I consulted a series of psychiatrists and psychotherapists. The first person I went to just made things worse. Despite his opulent house, his leather chaise-longue and the long series of letters after his name, he showed no sign of being able to relate to the condition. He also lived in a place only accessible via a busy road, so that didn’t exactly help. Another one tried really hard to help me by coming out in the car with me, the idea being to overcome the phobia by confronting it. In theory, it was a sound approach, but after a couple of sessions, he was so shit-scared that he told me he did’n’t dare continue. I didn’’t blame him.

Yet another psychotherapist thought that group therapy might help. Unfortunately, the other participants had quite different phobias, of bats, mice and snakes. They didn’’t empathise with my problem and I didn’’t empathise with theirs. Homeopathy wasn’’t any better. The white-coated expert was obviously a charlatan and sold me some pills which I knew were made of sugar.

The most helpful person was a local acupuncturist, although it was a bit awkward. Her daughter kept walking in to find me spreadeagled on the couch, looking like a pincushion. The acupuncturist also treated several of my friends and would regale me with information about their personal problems. I could only assume that she was also telling them all about mine. What she did do, however, was teach me good relaxation techniques, which I have found useful in a variety of situations ever since.

Finally, annoyed at my GP’s insistence that there was nothing for it but to “keep taking the tablets”, I changed to another doctor. He immediately said I should stop taking the tablets and also stop driving. “Stop driving?” “Why not? Millions of people don’’t drive. What’s the big deal?” He was right. I was reassured to look up several of my heroes (such as Liam Gallagher and Ricky Gervais) and find that they had never driven and didn’’t care. Although I guess they can afford chauffeurs.

I had long since accepted that I was a non motorway driver for ever when I was approached by the BBC, wanting to film a documentary item about my affliction. They already had an agenda in place. They would film me being treated by a hypnotist, an extraordinary lady I christened Mystic Meg. She would carry out a miracle cure, they would film me bowling along the M3 and they would have their programme. Of course it was a failure (although I really tried, as keen as anyone for a miracle cure) and they doctored some footage of me on a short piece of dual carriageway to make it seem like a success.

I now know that the only way to have conquered it was to have been forced, again and again, to confront it, but the unique nature of this problem made that impossible. I would never have been able to do it on my own, and no one else would ever have had the courage to accompany me. In my mind, I would certainly lose control and kill myself, my companion and numerous other drivers. That was too much of a risk to take.

So why am dragging all this up now? Well, partly because I want to know if I am the only person in the world who has this problem. When the programme went out, no one contacted the BBC saying they recognised the symptoms. I have met plenty of people who don’t like driving on motorways but none who simply can’t. Plus, last week, by an awful set of circumstances, I suddenly briefly found myself on a stretch of dual carriageway in Southampton. Was this the confrontation I needed? Was I cured? Nope, it was just as bad as the first time. I completely freaked and it is only the fact that there was practically no traffic that allows me to still be here and able to write this. No happy ending there, then.

I can drive short distances on small roads and luckily, my wife is an excellent driver who enjoys nothing better than blasting along motorways. The tranquillisers went down the toilet long ago and in my retirement, I plan to research and write a volume entitled How To Drive From Land’s End To John O’’Groats Without Encountering A Dual Carriageway. It’s bound to be a best-seller.

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A Tribute To Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan

The tributes to Ian McLagan that are flooding into the press and the internet mainly take two forms. There are the factual obituaries that set out his musical achievements, the stars he worked with and the hits he played on. And there are the others, which try, in a personal way, to explain why he was so loved. If you’’ll forgive me, this one fits firmly into the second category.

My most memorable Mac moment took place in late 1967. Of all things, an attempt on the Guinness World see-sawing record was talking place at the University of East Anglia. As the world record was approached, the DJ put on a song I’’d never heard before, a new single from the Small Faces. Those opening Wurlitzer chords hit me so hard that I can remember every detail of the moment to this day. Mac’’s riff, then Steve Marriott’’s coruscating vocals, PP Arnold’’s soulful backing singing and finally, the striking afterthought of Kenney Jones’’ drum roll at the end, which emphasizes the attitude that, while the song may be a recording, this was a LIVE band. Whenever that old chestnut crops up and I’’m asked to name my favourite single, it is “Tin Soldier”. Always was, always will be. Ian Mclagan’’s playing on that record established him as an intuitive genius.

Apart from modelling my hairstyle on his (even today), my relationship with Mac merely took the form of loving his contributions to the Small Faces, the Faces and The Stones. The Hammond + Leslie swish, as exemplified by Jimmy Smith, is my favourite sound, so I enjoyed, in tandem with my admiration for Mac, a love for the sounds of Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group. But that was a musical thing; they would never have the style of the Small Faces. When I saw Mac playing with the Stones, it never crossed my mind that I’’d ever have anything to do with him personally. He seemed, then, to be operating in a rarified rock stratosphere to which mere mortals could never be admitted. How wrong can you be?

It was at the Womad Festival in 1999 that Mac reappeared on my personal radar. As a gig promoter, you never rest, and on that particular occasion we had a show coming up with Robyn Hitchcock. Ticket weren’’t going too well, so we went to the festival especially to hand out flyers. I’’m embarrassed now, because most of them went straight on the floor, causing awful litter. But Billy Bragg and his new band The Blokes were also playing, and as I watched, I could hear an unexpected but unmistakeable sound: It was that Hammond/Leslie swell, and … surely that little white dot behind the dark brown cabinet couldn’’t be … … ? When Billy introduced the band and revealed that it was Ian McLagan, the drunk bloke next to me almost had a heart attack. “What? That’’s Ian McLagan? Ian Fucking McLagan? Oh my God?” He lost it so much that security had to ask him to calm down. Hardly any of the assembled world music fans were interested at all, but I was transfixed by the fact that this huge star was so comfortable to be just another member of someone’’s backing band, and was obviously having such fun doing it.

I’’d read in a biography of Keith Moon the story of how Mac had rescued Kim Moon from her husband’’s excesses by effectively doing a midnight flit with her and ending up in LA, but more than that I didn’’t know, so, if I’’d given it any thought, I’’d have assumed that Mac was living the Hollywood high life. But around this time, a mate of mine who ran a pub in Burton Bradstock, Dorset, told me that Mac was often to be found propping up his bar, sipping Guinness and nattering with the locals. The reason? Billy Bragg lived round the corner and Mac would often visit. It seemed highly unlikely but, confession time, I twice travelled to the Three Horseshoes in the specific hope that I would meet, or maybe just catch a glimpse of, the hero of my youth. It didn’’t happen, of course, but the locals all assured me that Adrian the landlord had been telling the truth.

Round about then, also, I started going to Austin, Texas on a regular basis. You can’’t help but make friends there, and all of them said the same. Mac and Kim had moved there and Mac had rapidly become a local mascot, unpretentiously playing all the local bars on a regular basis with his Bump Band. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. By now, I’’d started to put Americana shows on in Winchester and one of our earliest bands was The Resentments, featuring Austin guitarist “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb, who I knew was also in the Bump Band. Would it ever be possible to get them to play for us, I asked? Scrappy looked around the classic UK boozer he’’d just played in and replied, “I think he’’d love it here”.

I didn’’t give it a further thought, as the whole idea was ridiculous, but lo and behold, in mid-2008 I received an email from one of my most trusted agents: Would you like to book the Bump Band? Well, they were a lot more expensive than any band I’’d booked before and I’’d been spooked by a Mac solo show I’’d attended at the Brook in Southampton some years before, where there were very few people. What if I was wrong, and no one else shared my excitement? But it was impossible to refuse, and so the Bump Band was booked for the tiny Railway.

I got off to a terrible start with Mac. I knew that the Bump Band had a residency at the Saxon Pub in Austin and I had an idea to make him feel welcome and at home. I ordered a banner saying Saxon Pub and went in early to hang it up as a stage backdrop. When he arrived, his first words were, “I ain’’t going on till that banner comes down. I fuckin’’ hate that place”.” Mortified, and cringing with embarrassment, I took down the banner. Shit, I thought. I must have been wrong about Mac. He’’s obviously a diva. But I set about helping him