Hats

The Blue Nile
Linn Records (1989)

hatsWorking night and day I try to get ahead
But I don’t get ahead this way

Autumn 1990. Second year of university. Riding the 20 into Glasgow. Listening to this opening track as the sun comes up, golden and magical, over the hillsides of the town. My bag on the seat beside me, saving it for L, hoping the bus doesn’t fill up too much before her stop. The prospect of a cold nose pressed to mine and a sweet sticky chapsticky kiss. This album is dedicated to that memory.

I can’t go on and I can’t go back
I don’t feel so, matter of fact
I tried and tried to make good sense
What’s the good to try it all again?

This album is also dedicated to the feeling of trying to be in love with someone you know is wrong for you.

The music was always richly nostalgic, even when it was just released. It’s music with an old soul. It spoke of old truths we were only just beginning to learn for ourselves. These are songs of experience. They’re the songs of a young man, borne of world weary wisdom.

How do I know you’re feeling? How do I know it’s true?

It’s dedicated to the Glasgow we used to know, to the Glasgow we knew before we knew Glasgow. The lights we saw as children. George Square at Christmas. Sauchiehall Street. The La Scala. The Irn-Bru clock. The Corporation buses. The window displays at Frasers and Goldbergs. The cafes our grannies took us to. The places that made our early memories of the city seem tinged with sadness and distance even as we entered our 20s.

We. Our. You can get mawkish with this stuff. Indeed, there’s a whole cottage industry around Glasgow nostalgia. But this album’s not that. Its poetry celebrates the city in its ordinary aspect, doesn’t get lost in particulars. Long after it feels the song should have faded out, the final chorus of The Downtown Lights presents a perfect imagist poem of the city. There’s nothing in it that especially suggests Glasgow. It could be anywhere. But just read it:

The neons and the cigarettes
The rented rooms, the rented cars
The crowded streets, the empty bars
Chimney tops and trumpets
The golden lights, the loving prayers
The coloured shoes, the empty trains
I’m tired of crying on the stairs
The downtown lights

How could it be anywhere else?

There was a time when Glasgow was large and held many mysteries, the names of the streets still had things to declare, secrets to reveal. Whole areas remained unexplored. It was full of people I had yet to meet, had yet to fall in with, fall out with. The place had promise.

Where the cars go by
All the day and night
Why don’t you say

What’s so wrong tonight?

The parts of the city I knew from childhood were the well-worn lines between Carntyne, Cardonald and East Kilbride. Views from the back seat of my parents’ car as we did the Sunday visiting rounds. Later, the freedom of the city, pocket money bus trips into town. A few shops. The Walrus and Carpenter. The Clyde Model Dockyard. My accordeon teacher in his tiny tenement dunny above Biggar’s. From the M8, tower blocks loomed dangerously in the distance, totems of a Glasgow that was, for us, foreign and unknowable. We never went west.

I know a place where everything’s all right, all right.

It’s incredibly healing music for me. It’s an album I need to hear up close, with darkness and raindrops at the window. I need to feel it reverberate gently inside my ears, wash warmly into my heart and reassure me that everything is going to be all right. And Paul Buchanan is a singer you trust with every single breath he sings with. You believe him absolutely, even as your heart is breaking.

And if in love she cried
Something wasn’t right

Hearing this album again after a very long time, I’m curious to note that cars feature rather prominently. Neon, rain, cigarettes, trains, bars. Yes. Also cars. Which should come as no surprise, really, for a city that has long since lost its soul to the motor car.

Headlights on the Parade
Light up the way
I love you

The song is named for Alexandra Parade in Dennistoun, with its eponymous headlights shining in the shadow of the monstrous M8 motorway half a mile away. The Parade itself leads to the old Edinburgh Road – former escape route to the genteel city. My grandparents lived just off that road, on Morningside Street. I once loved a girl who lived in actual Morningside in Edinburgh. Strange connections.

My Dad’s from round here. I always assumed I’d carry on the tradition, always imagined I’d find love and live along the Parade. Walking arm in arm on a rainwashed Saturday night at teatime, going out somewhere we both like, cars swishing rainwater into our shoes. But listening closely to myself here, to these songs, I’m astonished at how much of this album has infected my dreams and desires.

The city wins while you and I
Can’t find a way

I ended up living in Dennistoun for a short time, further down towards the Duke Street end, and had a romance that outlived my stay there, but not by much. I returned several years later looking to rent or buy, and every window I looked out from, across the city I could only see memories I never had, and the lights of the Parade glinting like sweets lined up in jars.

From a late night train
Reflected in the water
When all the rainy pavements
Lead to you

This is dusk music. Crepuscular. The musical arrangements are painted in soft oils with hard edges. The band’s great skill here is to place the listener into the landscape. We’ve all been on that train.

For me, it’s the line that runs through High Street. Looking out left as you leave the city centre, high up and heading east you see the Necropolis, etched out in silhouette against a darkening sky. A girl gets on with a wet umbrella. A short story fragment, a tiny drama.

It’s over.
I know it’s over.
But I can’t let go.

I never really shared my love of this music with L. It was kind of a given. Everyone loved The Blue Nile. They were never a fashionable band, but they were never a corny 80s turn either. This album is so very of its time, but the music hasn’t dated. They weren’t Hue & Cry, for example, or Deacon Blue, who were exactly contemporary and who weren’t running shy of the whole pop thing the way this lot were.

Stop. Go
Stop. Go.
I don’t know.

I stopped listening to the album after things fell apart with L. The music and the feeling of falling in love were inseparable. To hear these songs, that voice… for years the mere mention of The Blue Nile was to remind me of rejection and failure.

Who do you love?
Who do you really love?
Who are you holding on to?
Who are you dreaming of?
Who do you love?
When it’s cold and it’s starlight
When the streets are so big and wide

And I still wonder, if it weren’t for the music, would I have fallen quite so suddenly, quite so deeply for someone quite so wrong – or fallen quite so hard on my face…

Dergah

Ercan Irmak, ney soloları
Çetin Akdeniz, bağlama virtüozü

Dergah1995. I arrived in the middle of Ankara in the middle of a hot August to teach at a private language school called Kent English. I had secured the job on the basis of a twenty minute phone call with the owner a few days before and an ESOL qualification I’d faked up on a borrowed laptop. I was a thousand miles from anywhere I considered familiar and many leagues out of my depth.

It took a while to settle in to the job. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know any of the teaching jargon, didn’t know the grammar – or at least how to talk about the grammar – had no idea what present perfect even meant, never mind how to navigate my students through its nuances. I don’t think I ate properly for about three months.

But people were helpful. The students were amazingly friendly, falling over themselves to make me feel welcome to their country. My fellow teachers were eager to impart their knowledge, share lesson ideas. If everyone thought I was a fake, as surely they must, they were polite enough – English enough – to keep it to themselves. My flatmate, Paul, was my opposite in that he was massively well-qualified and well-versed in English language teaching and its lore. He had a Masters in English literature from Lincoln College, Oxford, and a Cambridge Trinity ESOL qualification – the gold standard. Everything I learned that year about the language and literature I owe to our many chats long into the night, smoking cheap Marlboros or Yeni Harman, drinking endless cups of Rize Turist Çay – and to watching him work. He was a man who did everything to consummate excess, from smoking to lesson planning. And he knew how the present perfect worked.

My first class was a pre-intermediate level group of young adults, roughly my age, most of whom were university students – Ankara is full of universities. They had enough English that you could converse about hobbies and interests, studies, families etc, but not for long. Much of the point of these classes was to give students practice in using the English they already had. Kent had a strict ‘no Turkish’ policy to encourage everyone to speak English when they were on the premises, even to each other, and ran a popular programme of “extra” lessons, lectures really, free and open to all.

I became friendly with a few people in the class. Ozdenir was a prodigy – he went from knowing relatively little to speaking almost fluent English within about six months, due, it has to be noted, to his own phenomenal work ethic and extraordinary motivation, not to my teaching. He was a body-builder (a former runner-up in Junior Mr Turkey) and his ambition was to get a job at the Sheraton or one of the swanky expensive gyms in town, training rich Westerners. Then, obviously, make his fortune, meet a beautiful Western girl and travel to America. (Everyone wanted to go to America.) So I taught him the language of the gym, at his gym, while he trained me to lift weights.

Another friend, Bassam, was from Gaza and was studying at the Middle East Technical University. He was a link for me back to my time Israel, which I’d left only a short time before coming to Turkey and was still very fresh in my mind. I’d known a few Israeli Arabs like Bassam; I always found Palestinians to be generally very warm and welcoming, not unlike the Turks I was starting to get to know. Bassam lived in a spartan flat up the hill from the school with a bunch of other Palestinians. I visited a few times over the year, did a few private lessons with him over a shared breakfast with his flatmates – amazing to have za’atar once more, a complete rarity outside the Arab world, and which I had developed a serious taste for. I had a go at learning Arabic, and his flatmates tried to help, but ultimately I lacked Ozdenir’s motivation and determination and never really got anywhere.

To my shame, I don’t remember the name of the other guy. The third guy. The guy who’s the whole point of this story. The guy who introduced me to Turkish music. I think I’d even forgotten this guy’s name before the year was out. Let’s just call him Guy. He was red-haired, around my age. Quiet, serious, keen to learn. He was more enthusiastic than proficient at English and, lacking in vocabulary range, conversation was more limited than with Bassam or Ozdenir. It came out during one of our classroom sessions on hobbies and interests that he played saz, a kind of Turkish lute with a deep expressive zing to it. I in turn said I played saxophone, an unfortunate idiom in Turkey which means ‘I suck cock’. So when everyone had stopped sniggering long enough for me to express an interest in playing a Turkish musical instrument – a real one, not an idiomatic one – it became Guy’s mission to help me.

He suggested I take up the ney. I had never heard of a ney. It turns out the ney is a kind of Turkish flute with a deep expressive zing to it. It is used a lot in Sufi music, particularly in the ceremonies of the Dervishes, who were based in Konya, not far from Ankara. If I liked the sound of the ney and would like to learn, Guy offered to put me in touch with someone who could teach me. Which he did.

In the meantime, to whet my whistle, as it were, Guy turned me on to this guy: Cetin AkdenizÇetin Akdeniz, Bağlama Virtüozü. Back at the flat, Paul described him as “the Turkish Keith Richards.” You can make your own mind up about that in this overture to his debut album. It was the first of very many cassettes I bought in Ankara and the one that continues to bring fresh joy and a tingle up my spine every time I rediscover it. Like right now. It really is as it describes: it’s virtuoso bağlama music (bağlama, with a silent ğ, is alto to the saz’s tenor). It’s a tower of Turkish power. The fancy fretwork masks a hypnotic sense of rhythm and belies the fact that this music has its roots in folkloric dances. Indeed, my favourite memory of listening to this cassette is putting in a request to the driver on a bus trip with Kent English students at the end of the summer. Within mere moments, there was a line of young Turks giddily dancing up and down the aisle of the coach as we wove round the country roads through the rolling landscape of Anatolia. Keith Richards or not, that bus was rockin’.

Guy arranged for us to meet at the headquarters of TRT, Turkish Radio and Television, the state broadcaster. He knew people in there and he wanted me to meet them. So we went up to an office, can’t remember whose, and sat and drank tea and smoked cigarettes. Guy did his best to translate for everyone, but who those other guys were I will never know. After a few more rounds of tea and some more chat, we went through to one of the studios where a recording was in progress. We sat in the engineer’s tiny booth, peering out a television-sized window high up above a cavernous recording studio at three musicians playing, seated quite formally, and making the most incredible sound: it was deep, sonorous, resonant. It completely engulfed me, balls to bone. I could almost feel my kidneys reverberating. There were three wind instruments, including a massive bass reed flute which, from where I was standing, looked as long as a didgeridoo. The player of this instrument, was a neyzen, a skilled ney player, called Ferhat Erdem – who would become my teacher. This is him.

The session ended shortly after and we went down to meet the players. Guy introduced me to Ferhat. He was a quietly spoken man with good English, in his thirties, with a youthful face and a friendly demeanour. I liked him instantly. We talked about music briefly, I mentioned I was a sax player and was interested in learning ney. He offered then and there to teach me. We agreed a time to meet, back here again in a few weeks at TRT, but in the meantime, for homework, I was to go and find an album called Dergâh by a neyzen called Ercan Irmak and anything by the Erguner brothers.

I found the Dergâh album in the first music shop I passed and listened to it on the first cassette player I could find back at the school. I played it while I was doing lesson prep that day, and played it for a long time after. I found out much later that what I was listening to was deeply spiritual music belonging to the Dervishes, the occult branch of Islam. Dergâh in fact means Dervish, and the songs on that album form a large part of their sacred ritual. I just thought it sounded amazing. Ercan Irmak’s recording was only a year or two old when I heard it, and has various trappings of contemporaneity about it, synths and the like. It’s listed on one website as “ambient Ottoman classical”, which is about right. Of course, ten years later Omar Faruk and the whole Buddha Bar lounge-arabesque business swept this concept off its feet and bundled it off on a big camp magic carpet, but at the time I’d heard nothing like it. The sound of the ney still gives me chills.

I met Ferhat for my first ney lesson. He showed me how to get a note out of the thing – not easy. You need to hold the ney at a certain angle at a certain point in your mouth, your lips pursed a certain way. You also need to breathe with a certain pressure and try not to articulate. Tough to untrain years of clarinet and sax habits. Same with the finger holes, which you were supposed to close with the end joints of your fingers, not the fleshier tips. But I soon enough got the hang of it. At the end of our first lesson he, amazingly, gave me his own ney to take home with me, since they weren’t readily available. In fact he told me he had to travel to Adana in the south of Turkey to get them. Or perhaps that’s just where he got his from.

I met him for one more lesson then the trail went cold. I got more into my social life, work became harder and he was a busy touring musician so it was difficult to find a mutually suitable time. I deeply regret not keeping in touch. I liked Ferhat a lot, and still think about him as one of life’s great generous souls. I appreciated his generosity, his willingness to share his musical skills, and I enjoyed his company. As for Guy, we never really got a friendship going, sad to say. He stayed at the school for a long time after he left my class and we’d say hello, if our paths crossed, often at Kent’s famous extra lessons.

But I have those cassettes, that memory. And I still have that ney.

Amandla

Miles Davis/ Marcus Miller

AmandlaI got into Miles via this late-career electronic pop & funk influenced stuff. Amazingly, though he now feels like he belongs to a long gone and distant era, Miles was still an active, live, gigging, recording artist at the time when I was getting into him. He died in 1991, just as I was digging ever more deeply into his life and music. He famously played the SECC in Glasgow during the Glasgow International Jazz Festival as part of the Year of Culture celebrations – I snobbishly refused to buy a ticket, for fiercely held reasons I can’t remember, instead choosing to see a band called The Pointy Birds at the Third Eye Centre. I became a devoted fan, too late.

The title is a Zulu word, and references the struggles against South African apartheid, which Miles was outspoken about. Aptly, it means ‘power’. Listening to this again, I’m struck by how powerfully infectious the whole thing is. It’s deeply groovy, hugely melodic with a lot to delight in. I can still sing back many of the jerky funk riffs and solo lines, hum its scattered melodies, and my shoulders and ass keep wanting to pop and shake with the groove. Apart from some dated sounding synth and the odd wank-rock solo, the textures are absolutely incredible – the bass clarinet, the tone of the sax player – and I think this is what stays with me much more than Miles’s trumpet – here, less of a solo star, more the kind of star that can light up a beautiful, colourful universe of sound. The whole thing sounds like Miles paints.

The cover art intrigued me and, after reading an article in Wire magazine I bought a book of his paintings, which still sits on my shelf. It got me into painting for a while. Miles was everything for me for about a year, probably longer.