Will Carruthers: What music means to me

What does music mean to you? Will Carruthers – author, musician, artist and gent extraordinaire – takes us through his life in music, and shares his 10 favourite albums.

Gentle reader, it is my honour to be able to host a beautiful guest blog post today from Will Carruthers. Mr Carruthers is a talented gent. He has written Playing The Bass With Three Left Hands (one of the best music-related books I have ever read, and about which I blogged last year, in A little hate must fall). He has played on a number of remarkable records by Spacemen 3, Spiritualized and others (these records include Spacemen 3’s immortal Playing With Fire, one of my favourite albums). He produces incredible artwork on an ongoing basis in a range of media (including ink, watercolour, lino print and more – please visit his website to see and perhaps even purchase his art). I asked Mr Carruthers what music means to him. This is what he has to say…

Will Carruthers: What music means to me

WillCarruthers2

Music and the night. The dance and the joy. Secrets.

What does music mean to me?

The Buddhists say that music can be an impediment to enlightenment. It can bring the mind back to its old patterns, to the point that we return to our old mistakes again. Maybe I am far enough away from the patterns of my youth now to avoid falling into the ruts they made. Writing of the past is a way of navigating those ruts, and maybe even of riding the wagon out of them. Listening to music from our past can do the same. It helps to reorganise the past sometimes. There is no going forward without looking back from time to time. Despite what the story of Orpheus tells us.

There wasn’t a lot of laughter and joy in the house where I lived as a small child. My Dad left home when I was five and my sister was three. He didn’t leave much, but he did leave some records.

Ambassador Satch by Louis Armstrong, The Best of Ray Charles, and The Buddy Holly Story.

I can see the covers to these records in my mind’s eye as I type this. They seemed magical to me then. And now they seem magical in different ways.

Listening to The Buddy Holly Story as I write this snaps me back to that time when I was six or seven, listening to Buddy singing about the blues. About heartbreak and joy. About the fact that, even though it’s sunny, it is still raining in his heart. He sounded so old to me. He still does, even though I know he was nineteen or twenty when he made the recordings.

Buddy Holly died on tour. Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on the plane that killed him. Waylon had told Buddy he wasn’t getting the plane. Buddy said: “Well I hope yer bus freezes.“ Waylon replied: “Well I hope yer plane crashes.“ An offhand remark that would normally have been forgotten, but which haunted Jennings until the day he died.

Now Buddy is singing “That’ll be the day”. I can hear The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, loud and clear in Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The Elevators, who would also see me through strange times. Times that I barely understood, while maybe understanding even less of the lessons that they were trying to teach me.

The Crickets and the Elevators, hooting and hollering, chasing love and making some kind of glorious and uplifting noise for themselves and everyone else. A noise that guided me through the deep and strange world I found by accident, searching for cheap laughs and a free buzz in the mushroom fields of the British midlands. The same fields, incidentally, where Lewis Carroll had possibly received his inspiration and accidental induction into the world that opened up beyond the rabbit hole.

All of these emissaries, sent hither and yon, on clapped out coaches over miles of flat tar, walking and falling, to stand beneath the lights and scream back at the screaming crowd. To feed it and make it alright for an hour or so.

Further back in time, to my childhood home. We were a somewhat miserable household, making sense of heartbreak and longing and yet somehow still wanting to dance. Even as children. Maybe especially as children. Everybody was Kung Fu fighting on their way to Waterloo and none of us could escape if we wanted to.

In those precious moments, the cares of the day were turned into a dance and a thoughtless smile. A little joy broke into the room uninvited to light the gloom so that we could all forget our cares and concerns for a while.

We had a babysitter who would turn up with an armful of Elvis records. After my Mum had left for a rare night out, the babysitter would play records and we would dance and laugh, without ever stopping for a moment to wonder how, or why, the temporary sweetening of the mood had come to be.

This was a great innocence for me. Before I sought to understand the words. When the meaning was the feeling, and the feeling itself was more than anyone could ever wish for. After we had done our childish jive to Elvis, the babysitter would usher me and my sister (both in our bedclothes), out of the house, and into the back of her little minivan. She would then drive out to the nearby town of Lutterworth and park in the carpark of a pub called the Flying Saucer. Urging us to be quiet, she would go into the bar, returning with soft drinks and crisps for us both, telling us she wouldn’t be long, and that she would come out to check on us soon. We would sit, whispering in the dark, eating our crisps and sipping drinks through straws, gazing up at that huge plastic flying saucer, hovering on top of the signpost above us. On the way home, we would be urged to silence and we were sent to bed feeling, I suppose, a bit rock and roll.

We had stayed up past our bedtime, we had some naughty fun and we had a secret. Perhaps this was the beginning of a long romance for me.

Music and the night. The dance and the joy. Secrets. The night full of secrets and slightly naughty, harmless things you couldn’t really talk about. That babysitter would probably be locked up now, but she did, in her innocent and unknowing way, introduce me to a kind of secret society. It was exciting, and that world was far preferable to me than the sometimes sad reality it took me away from. It was full of possibility and dancing and crisps and coke in the back of a minivan in the carpark of a pub that felt to me, at the time, like a glimpse into another world.

That is what music means to me. A redemptive force. A genuine alchemy. Turning sorrow into a tune you can whistle. Each of those strands of musical DNA that I absorbed as a child is still in me somewhere, waiting for a little three-note melody or a half-remembered feeling to start the song, the dance and the possible transportation to delight.

That is what music means to me. These are the 10 records that have meant the most to me in my life.

1. Electric Ladyland…. The Jimi Hendrix Experience

When I was eighteen I lived in an Irish pub in Birmingham.

I used to steal crusts of bread from the guard dog to supplement my – otherwise mainly Guinness and crisps – diet. I had a guitar and one tape, which was Electric Ladyland. I went to sleep to it every night for about a year and consequently it became part of the fabric of my brain.

I find the music endlessly inventive, fluid, powerful and graceful.

This album communicates in about twenty-four languages, none of them common on Earth.

2. Easter everywhere…The Thirteenth Floor Elevators

Trippy as fuck. Listening to this album is like taking a smooth ride through strange and beautiful landscapes in a sleek vehicle while being pursued by peculiarly vicious pigs.

The Elevators, bless ‘em. Psychedelic evangelists. In Texas, in 1964.

You do the maths.

Hounded, maligned, imprisoned, and fried.

When Roky sings Levitation he actually sounds like he is starting to leave the ground, which he probably was.

3. Little Richard’s Greatest Hits (recorded live)

This is some cheapo album that I bought when I didn’t know how to look out for the small print.

I expected his greatest hits from the studio. But what I got was a live performance recorded in Hollywood on some unspecified date. I love this album because it contains storming versions of all his greatest hits as well as all of his between-song banter.

Richard is on fine form and very excitable. He claims his music can “Make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk” After a while you start to believe him.

He whoops, he hollers, he exclaims “OOOOOOOOOO……MY SOUL.” A lot.

The crowd love him. Then he says …

“Yeahhhhh ……We’re spending our cash and talking a whole lot of trash…. RIGHT HERE IN HOLLYWOOD”

At this point, the crowd go a bit quiet.

Another

“OOOOH…MY SOUL”, and they love him again.

Little Richard …the king AND queen of rock and roll.

4. Safe as Milk… Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band

“I bring the light to those who seek to hide their shadow beings”

At least that’s what I think he says. Never been too sure.

“I’ve grown so ugly I don’t even know myself.”

“Factories no place for me …Boss man leeeeave me be.”

All accompanied by some sort of fifth dementia, telepathic, go-go music.

A little bit of Howling wolf… an awful lot of EEEEEEEELECTRIIIICITY, Ry Cooder on bass and it doesn’t sound anything like Trout Mask Replica. In fact it doesn’t really sound like anything else, before or since.

It zigs, it zags ….it poaches yer frontal lobes and wraps yer reptilian back brain in neon fur.

Sure Nuff and YES I DO.

Dancefloor Beefheart for the weird of body and mind.

5. Raw Power… Iggy and the Stooges

Imagine, if you will, a party you have thrown. It’s a bit boring, no-one’s dancing and the music is too quiet. There is a knock at the door and a mysterious stranger dressed in silver trousers appears. He smells a bit and his eyes look strange. He falls over, breaks stuff, insults people, turns the music up MUCH too loud, does an improbable dance, drinks all of the drink and is sick on the carpet. Then, after loudly demanding drugs, he stumbles upstairs with your best friend and has sex with them, twice, on your bed.

This album is that party guest.

A fine record to go into battle to.

6. There’s a Riot Goin’ On… Sly and the Family Stone

And if there isn’t, there should be, and Sly knows it.

All his dreams of love, peace and dancing to the music are turning to dust and he can’t sleep a wink. He’s sweating and the valium won’t take the edge off.

Nothing to do but chop another line, try and see the night through, and sing a song to scare the ghosts away.

There are tigers in the garden, bugs under his skin, and a terrible feeling of impending doom.

The noises he makes when he wants to scream are somewhere between agony and ecstasy. The sound of the void demanding expression. Sly’s last gasp.

This album is a very strange anti-depressant and I still don’t know why.

7. Kind of Blue… Miles Davis

The music unfurls like a ribbon of heavy smoke in a still room.

Resigned and steadfast, triumphant and defeated.

Between each carefully measured note and beat you can hear stories of lost loves, bum deals, hard times and hope.

This was the first jazz album I ever heard. It was played to me by an old friend in Andalusia when I was about eighteen.

It makes me feel the way I feel about that friend now.

Glad to have known him and sorry he’s gone.

8. Live at the Harlem Apollo 1964… Sam Cooke

I bought this tape in Newcastle a long time ago. I loved it so much that, when the tape got smashed, I carefully removed the spools and replaced them in a new tape housing.

It’s lively and lovely. Sam Cooke is a master at work.

He sings about the chain gang and makes it sound like the best place in the world to be.

If you like soul music, this is as good as it gets.

9. The Incredible String Band… The Incredible String Band

For a while I lived in a tiny stone cottage beside a stream in the Lake District.

It was winter and the place was beautiful, spartan, and freezing fucking cold.

There was an open fire that poured smoke into the room when lit, leaving me with a difficult choice between warmth and air I could comfortably breathe.

The string band had a suitably Olde worlde feel about them and they also had a song about shovelling freezing smoke up a chimney, which made me laugh.

Fresh air, tangly woods, and God, in all her mysterious beauty.

I feel chilly just thinking about it.

10. The Fabulous and Mythical K-Tel Christmas Bumper Box Set… Various Artists

A very rare artefact which contains; the Pebbles box set ,the Story of Motown , the entire works of Skip James , Never Mind the Bollocks , Wizards from the Southside , Otis Redding Live In Europe, Blood on the Tracks, Transformer, It’ll End In Tears, Paris Texas, The Sonics Boom, The Village Green Preservation Society, African Herbsman , Solid Air, Astral Weeks, Let It Bleed, Steel Pulse, Massive Attack Versus the Mad Professor, The Grey Album and many,many more ……

Included for obvious reasons.

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