Uncle Dave

IMG_4939Dave Henderson, my uncle, was a legend. No other word for it.

To me, growing up, he was this larger-than-life superhero figure, like Jacques Cousteau or James Bond. I even thought the guy in the Milk Tray ads that were out at the time had a slight air of Uncle Dave about him. There was just no-one else in my life who even remotely resembled him. And though the mystery that surrounded him gradually diminished the more I got to know him, my respect and admiration for him never did.

He passed away recently, at the legendary age of 80. I thought he’d live to a hundred. I remember him as a singularly athletic man. He was lean and wiry with the sort of relaxed physicality and poised energy that came from years of military discipline, someone used to being ‘at ease’. I remember playing in my Nana’s garden with Dave and all the cousins. A ball got bounced into the busy main road and Dave, to our astonishment, leapt over the hedge in a single bound to rescue it. It was only a hedge, but for us it was like he’d jumped over a tree.

Mum and Dave
Dave walking my mum into church on her wedding day.

He lived quite far from us, so we saw him only occasionally. My mum, Dave’s wee sister, told us he had settled in the south of England to get as far from their mother as it was possible to be while still living in the same country.

I don’t know how true that was but Annie, our beloved Nana, was a strong-willed woman with high expectations of her children. Dave, coming of age in the late fifties, early sixties and possessed of a will every bit as strong as his mother’s, had a fresh set of inclinations and modern ambitions that were in fierce opposition to the stern Catholic mores of his elders.

They clashed frequently and, as soon as he could, Dave took flight. Literally. His ticket out of Glasgow was the RAF. He joined the military band and travelled the world, eventually settling in Portsmouth where he trained as a telecommunications engineer and married his sweetheart, my wonderful Aunt Jan.

I only ever heard about Dave’s early conflicts with Annie in a roundabout way, alluded to in passing and quickly glossed. Sometimes you picked it up in a roll of Dave’s eyes when she was mentioned. My mother occasionally hinted at Annie’s strict and demanding nature, but never went into any detail. Age had evidently mellowed her – Nana was nice as ninepence to my brother and I and all our cousins, to the point of spoiling us. Annie was as sharp as a tack and possessed a wicked sense of humour. Brilliant at cards. An amazing wordsmith. She could be cunning but never malicious, and a wiser, more generous, more loving person I have never known.

IMG_4948
Annie, Dave, Jan and Thomas

Dave featured large in the tales that Annie and Auntie Maxie used to tell about the two sides of the family, the Hendersons and McArthurs. They loved to conjure the world they grew up in over endless pots of tea and rounds of toast in front of the ‘living flame’ gas fire in their living room. It was a beautiful little cosmos, lively with characters who all seemed to be called Tim and John and Martin. It was in their telling that Dave became this mythical hero of lore. A legend. An actual legend. And the fact that we saw him so seldom allowed the legend to grow.

We heard about the time Dave performed in the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. They described how Dave marched out with the RAF band onto the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade and, without missing a beat or breaking stride, waved up directly at them. It seemed so improbable to them that he should be able to pick them out in such a big crowd, but to hear Dave tell the story years later, Annie and Maxie wrapped up against the dimming northern night in their tartan blankets and rain-mates cut rather a conspicuous figure amongst the tourists.

There was Dave the deep-sea diver. He’d got into scuba during his years in Singapore and the far east. When he returned to civvy street and was living on the south coast of England, he was part of the dive team that did some of the reconnaissance work on Henry VIII’s sunken warship, the Mary Rose, before it was raised from its 450 year old bed in the Solent. Apparently, Dave’s local scuba club knew all about the wreck of the Mary Rose and had been diving it for years before there was talk of raising it. We watched him being interviewed on the news one day in his wet suit and diving gear. Legend status assured.

He and Jan lived for a while in the tiny town of Selsey, stuck on the tip of England that pokes into the Channel known as the Manhood Peninsula. Television’s Patrick Moore was their starry neighbour. My only memory is of a house filled with mysterious artefacts – strange looking shells, bells, ship’s wheels and assorted treasures from the deep, many of which he’d personally recovered. Their house was the first time I’d ever seen tropical fish and I’d stand at the massive tank, soothed by the sound of bubbles and mesmerised by the darting neon tetras and the languid swooshing angel fish.

There was Dave the jazzer. Nana had an album filled with fabulous photos of Dave from his military days, pictured in various far-flung locales. He played alto sax in the RAF dance band who had a regular gig at a hotel out in Singapore. He also had a jazz combo that jammed after hours in a kind of West Coast cool/ Paul Desmond/ Dave Brubeck vibe. Dave’s instrument was a super-stylish white plastic Grafton alto sax – one of the classic saxophone makes of the 50s, made famous by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and Johnny Dankworth. In one of the photos, there’s Dave and his band with Buddy Rich – one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. He was on tour, passing through, and came to sit in on one of Dave’s jams. Absolutely legendary.

No surprise, then, that I became a sax player. After my very first school music class at high school, I impressed my teacher enough for him to offer me an instrument to learn at home. I chose the trumpet. I came home excitedly that night and showed it to my mum. She didn’t much like the idea of an apprentice trumpeter in the house and I was sent back with it the next day with the explicit instruction to ask for something quieter, a “nice gentle instrument” like a flute or a clarinet “like your Uncle Dave plays”.

That clarinet took me into the military too, years later, as a bandsman in the 51st Highland Volunteers (the Black Watch Territorial Army band, based in Perth – which is a whole other story). I played first clarinet there for five years and the money I made allowed me to travel extensively throughout Europe in my early 20s and even paid for my first saxophone. I didn’t quite get to see the world with the TA, but it took me to some interesting places with some weird people and the music was never less than glorious.

I loved how musical Dave was. My Dad and I went down to Portsmouth to visit him and Aunt Jan. It was not long after his younger brother, my uncle Tom, had passed away, and the same year my daughter was born. During our stay, Dave took me up to his music room in the attic. He’d long since parted company with that gorgeous Grafton alto, but there was his clarinet which still sounded silky warm and woody, even in my unpractised hands. And there was the old diatonic button accordion that had belonged to his father, Hugh, my grandfather. There was a banjo ukelele that he’d had since he was a boy, given to him by an old aunt. And there was his newest addition – an electric guitar. At the age of 74 he had decided to learn and was teaching himself with YouTube and a Tune-a-Day book. He was just inspirational.

We didn’t keep in touch so well between visits. A few emails now and again, but I found it hard to sustain any kind of correspondence. Dave was always much better at that sort of thing. For years he phoned Annie every Friday to check in, swap stories, exchange news. And he continued this tradition with Maxie long after Annie died, calling her every week at the appointed hour until she too passed away.

Dave was a warm, wise and gentle soul with a streak of shining steel. He had a quick and ready laugh and a big, generous smile that began at the corners of his eyes and radiated out. He listened eagerly and with compassion. He was always interested in you, and in what you had to say. He loved sharing stories of the old days, about the Hendersons and the McArthurs and preferred to tell those rather than recount his own adventures. He knew all the old songs that his aunts and uncles used to sing at Hogmanay.

Dave reminded me of my Nana a lot. And apparently I reminded people of him. Auntie Maxie used to call me by his name. I looked nothing like him and thought the whole thing was nonsense but I guess people who knew us both recognised our kindred spirits.

One of my lasting regrets is that we never went on a bike ride together. Dave was a die-hard roadie, out doing time trials every weekend well into his 60s. My kind of cycling has, for the most part, been of the functional, get-around-town sort. I’d done a few cycle tours in Europe and completed the Land’s End to John o’Groats, but I only got into proper road cycling in my late thirties, by which time Dave was getting ready to hang up his bib shorts. I knew he and his club buddies went over to Normandy ever year for a long weekend – the Tour d’Honfleur, I think they called it – and I asked if I could tag along one year but I was politely rebuffed on the grounds of general infirmity and dwinding health among the group, not least Dave who was then struggling with various heart complications.

Kite flight
Dave teaching me how to fly a kite. Portsmouth 1980.

I did, however, get to play music with Dave. That afternoon in his music room, Dave took his guitar and started to play. I took out the clarinet and we sat and jammed together, gently, quietly. The first and only time we ever did. No Buddy Rich. No Brubeck. No legend to print. Just two kindred souls, conjuring notes in air, finding not just the joy in music, but the deeper joy of making our own.

Dave Henderson was a legend of the best kind, someone who lived his life truly and well. He was a brilliant, soulful human being with a knack for the new and a talent for excellence. He had a restless, questing mind and an unquenchable sense of adventure.

He was many things to many people, as the best of us often are, and we shall miss him dearly.

Gullible Travels – for Russell

There’s nothing like the death of a dear one to make you ask all the big questions.

Why do we do what we do?
How do we know who we know?
Why do things die when they die?
How does friendship survive?
How does love thrive?
What’s the point of doing anything?

The older I get, the longer I live, the more I think that the point of living is simply to make life that bit more bearable for other people.

Colin and Russell, Worcester MAYou don’t know it, my friend, but you kind of showed me that. Not just for me but for countless others who knew you and loved you. You had an amazing talent for looking after people. You even made a living out of caring.

You took people in to your heart, your home. You gave them your time, your space, your energy, even when it cost you, even when it irked you, even when it pained you. Whoever it was, you always had your eye on their angle of vulnerability, and you did what you could to make it better.

Now we’re all taking in the news that you’ve gone. Suddenly and without fuss or fanfare you just slipped away quietly one night, hoped we wouldn’t notice. But we noticed. We’re going to be noticing for a long time that you’re no longer with us.

You were always such a plotter, a planner, a schemer. There was always a project to be getting on with, always a new destination to be setting off for. When we met that time back in East Kilbride at the end of 2015, some twenty years since the last time, it was the day before my birthday and everything was up in the air with both of us. I remember saying to you how much I had always admired this aspect of you, that you were always so firmly future focussed.

And suddenly we were the best of friends again, swapping music crushes, sudden pashes, flash-in-the-pan fads, new raves, old faves. Like twenty years were nothing. I assumed from that point on we’d stay friends into our old age, checking in, hanging out.

It was music that made friends of us back then, at that draughty old rehearsal studio out in the country lanes by Auldhouse. It was music that brought us close, that started conversations, that led to deep discussions long into the night.

IMG_2735You had my name listed as “Sax” in your phone (was that the joke? “Sax in ma phone”?) which made me laugh, even though I haven’t played the thing in earnest in years. For me, Russ, you were all about the bass.

There’s so much music in my life because of you. Things I’d never have listened to in a lifetime have become lifelong companions because of you. There are bands who are indelibly stamped in my mind with your passion and enthusiasm, like a rock n’ roll tattoo. There are songs that conjure places, people, gigs, jams, days spent wandering, nights spent smoking menthol cigs in cars and bars in East Kilbride, Glasgow, London, New York, Boston, Worcester MA.

It’s impossible to list every single piece of music that magically sings of you, but here’s a few things kicking about my shelves at home that conjure you as I best remember you.

Supertramp - SupertrampSupertramp
Supertramp (1970)

You liked proper proggy muso music. Long songs, extended solos, big looping bass lines. I only really knew Supertramp from their hippy-haired Top of the Pops hits; you were all about their early stuff, which I grew to love. Try Again was your favourite, you said, and my first entry point into your musical universe. Weird, trippy, slightly gothic, melodic, mellifluous and emotional.

But it was there in the air that we share in the twilight
Humming a sad song, where was our day gone
But in the dark was a spark, a remark I remember

Traffic - Eagle

Where The Eagle Flies
Traffic (1974)

It’s really all about that one song, Dream Gerrard, and that incredible wah-wah tenor sax. I remember buying a wah-wah pedal for £25, using it a couple of times on my own horn in the rehearsal studio then eventually passing it on to you (who made much better use of it). The song appeared on one of the mix tapes you made that I played a lot, which also contained another Traffic track that’s quintessentially you – The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys – as well as a song you wrote and recorded yourself, called Gullible Travels, which I liked a lot.

Gullible travels
Baby’s gone and papa’s dead
Gonna leave this place now
It’s cold and sick
And I’m feeling blue
cos I’m leaving you

You were amazed I even remembered the song, never mind quote the chorus to you…

Edie BrickellShooting Rubber Bands at the Stars
Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians (1988)

I’m not usually big on lyrics, as you know. I’m paying more attention to them now though, especially the first song of this album, What I Am, and I wonder if the reason you loved it so much was because it seems to sum you up so well.

I’m not aware of too many things
I know what I know if you know what I mean

What I am is what I am
you what you are or what

Or maybe it was just the wah-wah solo. I remember you describing me once as a “Bohemian”, which I thought was preposterous. But by East Kilbride standards, though, I suppose both of us probably were.

QueenQueen
Queen (1973)

I’m thinking, obviously, of the first track, Keep Yourself Alive. It’s a rather cruel and ironic title given the circumstances, but I bet you’d allow yourself a chuckle. Or even a LOL. I never got on with Queen, though God knows you tried to win me to the cause. I eventually bought this album at your insistence and listening again now I think I hear something of what you heard. Adrenaline pumping hard-rockin bombast, a bunch of guys acting as if they were already superstars, doing wildly inventive things with guitars, and a massive flouncing fatally flawed show off in the middle of it all. It’s basically your anthem.

rush

Moving Pictures
Rush (1980)

Another key piece of genetic material in your musical DNA. Not hard to see what appealed to you about this triumverate of turbocharged neo-prog hyper-rockers. And the 1991 Roll The Bones gig was a big one for us.

Again, the lyrics in the first track, Tom Sawyer,  seem to say meaningful things about you.  I don’t know. Pick a lyric.

Don’t put him down as arrogant
He reserves the quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events

Always hopeful yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is

The world is, the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his eyes are wide

Janes Addiction RitualRitual de lo habitual
Jane’s Addiction (1990)

We played the bejesus out of this. Manicmetal. Mischief music. The song about shoplifting caught your ear by accident late one night on MTV, you passed it on like a flu bug. Every few days another track became a fevered favourite. Like we’d invited a pyromaniac worm into our ears. You’ll find this weird, but I always think of the song Of Course… as being about you and me. I have no idea what the song is actually about, but these lines spoke to me of our relationship: simultaneously close and aloof, affectionate and brusque, concerned and indifferent. Like brothers in music.

When I was a boy,
My big brother held on to my hands,
Then he made me slap my own face.
I looked up to him then, and still do.
He was trying to teach me something.
Now I know what it was!
Now I know what he meant!
Now I know how it is!

VarmintsVarmints
Anna Meredith (2016)

You used to send me things in the post. Ruth Gordon’s autobiography appeared one day – the Harold and Maude actor you had a massive thing for. You were so delighted to have found it from an ebay seller halfway across America. There was the card you made from a photo you’d taken congratulating me on a new job. Mostly it was music, of course – Future Islands, Tame Impala, couple of other things, chief among which was this album by the Scottish artist Anna Meredith which I grew to love enormously. I bought tickets for her band show in March at the CCA that I wanted you to come to but by then you were doing the First Bus thing and you couldn’t commit the time. Things moved so very quickly after that. The year passed in a blur and I saw you only a couple more times.

Empire State and Twin Towers 1993The Anna Meredith thing was so typical of you in so many ways. You were so open to new and interesting stuff. For every Rush or Bryan May gig we went to, there was an equivalent Ornette Coleman & Prime Time or John Zorn. And as much as you loved big bombastic cockrock, you could be just as passionate about female artists – Joni Mitchell, Ricky Lee Jones, Tracy Chapman, Oleta Adams, Aimee Mann.

Only latterly I found out we had a shared love of St Vincent. Now, since you’ve gone, I keep returning to her song about love and loss and New York. It always transports me to our week there in 1993 when you were heading to Worcester, MA, to begin a career in care and I was off on a transcontinental train trip.

All the things we did. That first sunset taxi ride into Manhattan from JFK, taking in that breathtaking skyline – a waterside city the height of the clouds, the colour of rust and diamonds. Staying at the Chelsea Y. Endless wanderings. Walking downtown to Battery Park from 110th St. Dinner in the Dojo. Tasting tahini. Camp Kiwago. Nights with Carolyn. Seymour’s house full of whales in Jersey. Then returning the next year when you were settled in Worcester and the madness of all that.

I was in New York recently and the wide city streets still ring with those memories.

She sings,

I have lost a hero
I have lost a friend

and boy do I know it.