Tumbleweed connections

I must have been 13, maybe 14. In Calcutta. I’d never lived anywhere else, something that wouldn’t change for a decade or so. I was sitting in a friend’s house, listening to a “new” album by someone whose music I’d only recently discovered. Elton John. The new album was called Tumbleweed Connection. The song I was listening to was Where To Now, St Peter?

 

Until then, all I’d heard of Elton John was a couple of songs from his second, eponymous, album. I don’t think I’d ever seen an Elton John album until that day. [In India, those days, the way you listened to modern music was on the radio. Then, slowly, cassette tapes of new albums would permeate their way in to the country, albums left strewn around as visiting hippies traded their possessions in order to find themselves. Occasionally a diplomat or a multinational executive would head back home, and those in the know would rush for the bargains as they sold the possessions they no longer wanted. Some time later, the Gramophone Company of India would step in and release the album locally.

So I hadn’t seen an Elton John album until I saw the Katyals’ copy of Tumbleweed.

I’d never seen a tumbleweed either. And it wasn’t as if there was an internet for me to go to in order to find out. I could (and did) look up the dictionary. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, to be precise. And I was told “A type of plant that snaps off above the root, curls into a ball, and rolls about in the wind”. That’s what it said. Intriguing, but I still had no idea what a tumbleweed was. Maybe it was something the hippies wanted. Give me some tumbleweed. Hold the tumble.

Then, not long later, I found myself with a copy of James Taylor’s fabulous Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Suitably bashed and scratched, having made its way round Sudder St and Kyd St and Free School St, meaningful for those who remember the Calcutta of the time. We did something strange those days. We used to listen to whole albums. And so I heard Highway Song.

 

“… the one eyed seed of a tumbleweed in the belly of a rolling stone”. Now that really helped me understand what a tumbleweed was, didn’t it?

I was deep into discovering Laurel Canyon at the time, though I didn’t know it at the time. When you’re listening to a C90 BASF cassette with usually nothing more than a scribble of the album and artist name on the side, there isn’t a lot to go on. Track listings were a luxury; sometimes you had the actual album in your hands, but that didn’t mean you saw any liner notes. Far Eastern imports did away with all that stuff, you had paper-thin covers encased in even thinner polythene with blurred images of what passed for the album cover.

Where was I? Oh yes Laurel Canyon. The Mamas and the Papas. The Doors. Carole King. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, in their various permutations and combinations, solo, duo, trio and quarter. And of course Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell. I’d already heard Blue and I was hooked. Someone had a real copy of For The Roses and I managed to borrow it for a week. And I was in heaven.

There I was, quietly listening to the album. Wait a minute!  … but I know my needs/my sweet tumbleweed…. Here we go again. What was it with these people? First Elton John, then James Taylor, then Joni Mitchell. These tumbleweeds were beginning to follow me. [I didn’t know at the time that Joni had been dating James at some point then. Otherwise I may have thought that tumbleweed was something you could catch].

Things quietened down for a while after that, tumbleweed-wise. I had to wait till Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first “posthumous” album, Skynyrd’s First… And Last. I think it would have been their fifth. I didn’t even know that album existed until I came to the UK in 1980. But I found myself listening to it, and there it was again.

Like a restless leaf in the autumn breeze,
Once, I was a tumbleweed.
Like a rolling stone, cold and all alone,
Livin’ for the day my dream would come.

 

In classic truth-stranger-than-fiction style, the next time I would come across the word was when I was listening to someone who Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t think too much of, to put it mildly. Neil Young, with Don’t Cry.

Actually that’s not true. It was the next time I came across the word in lyrics of a song.

But something happened in between.

In 1984, I went to see a fabulous film by a guy called Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas. Brilliant. With Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, et al. Music by Ry Cooder. Unmissable. Check the trailer out.

 

Guess what. I saw my first tumbleweed. Now I finally knew what one looked like. More than a decade after coming across the world, having moved countries, continents.

west-texas_74.jpg

That’s not a still from the film. It’s taken from a blog called Blue Mesa, more specifically from a post on …. tumbleweed racing.

Fast forward to this weekend. Since watching Paris, Texas, I’d visited the US for the first time, been to Texas for the first time, and even seen a tumbleweed IRL.

I was done with tumbleweeds. I’d heard about them, heard them in songs, read about them, seen them in movies and then seen one. I was done.

Until this weekend. Until I read this article, regurgitated somewhere in my feed, about the Mine Kafon.

Mine Kafon. Go visit the site, folks, and see what you can do to help.

 

 

“Tumbleweed” designed to spot landmines. What a brilliant idea.

Tumbleweed. Connections.

A lazy Sunday playlist

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.

So said the Bard via the voice of Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. One of my favourite quotations.

I’ve always loved music, and tend to have a song playing in my head much of the time, whatever I’m doing. Which may sound strange, especially since neither me, nor my siblings (or for that matter our parents) showed any significant sign of being “musical”. Other than the usual teenage-angst thing of playing guitar, I can’t remember any of us actually picking up a musical instrument.

But we had relatives and friends aplenty who made up for our shortcomings in this respect, and the house I grew up in reverberated much of the day (and possibly even more of the night) with music. There was music everywhere.

This, despite growing up before television, and before the video recorder had made its messy inroads into our lives. This, despite the frequent paucity of electrical power and the relative absence of battery-driven solid-state radios.

For the most part, the music we listened to was based on vinyl, sometimes lacquer, and the sounds scratched their way through turntables and valve amplifiers through simple sturdy speakers. In later years the cassette player became the norm, given its then-unprecedented capacity to work on mains power as well as on battery. And we listened and swayed and sang along. And we even learnt to dance…. to Leonard Cohen…

Wonderful times. We were very privileged, there were some very talented musicians around then. And I’ve considered myself incredibly lucky to have been able to watch many of them “live” in later years, a trend that continues to this day. So for example in the last few years I’ve seen Steve Winwood, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills and Nash, Donovan, Don McLean, Cat Stevens, just to name a few.

I still have a bunch of their vinyl albums (and, thankfully, the ability to add to that collection as the vinyl gets retro-reissued).

I still have a bunch of their works on pre-recorded cassette tape (though I no longer have a cassette tape recorder in the house).

I still have a few thousand CDs of their works.

And I still go to watch them in concert. [Those that are still alive, that is].

If you’ve followed me on twitter (where I exist as @jobsworth) or directly at blip.fm/jobsworth, you’ve probably noticed that I tend to listen to a very narrow band of music, deeply engrossed in the period 1966-73, with occasional forays into the world that existed before and after. This is for a number of reasons.

Time. I can only listen to so much music.

Familiarity. It’s the music I grew up with, music that I’ve heard many many times.

Preference. I happen to like the styles, the genres, the whole nine yards. Everything about the music of the time.

But there’s one more reason.

An important reason.

The music was *brilliant*. And continues to be brilliant. From a time when singer-songwriters were the norm, when musicians actually played musical instruments, when the word harmony was to do with voices and not perfume, when lyrics were worth learning.

Now I’m showing my age. Every age is entitled to its music. I’m just glad my age had the music it did.

Why?

Here are a bunch of reasons why. And you know something? I could write a hundred posts like this, and still not run out of songs. So if you haven’t heard of them, do listen. And run to your favourite download site. And buy the ones you like. [And for those of you familiar with the music already, I hope I’ve contributed to your lazy Sunday.]

 

If I were a rich man

From the day I was born, until I left for England in 1980, I’d never lived anywhere but Calcutta. That time was spent principally in two apartments, 70C Hindustan Park (1960-69) and 6/2 Moira St (1969-80). We weren’t particularly rich, but we weren’t poor either; life was good. So it was quite a challenge for me to pack 23 years of my life, and whatever passed for my inheritance, into a single suitcase.

I wasn’t really that much into clothes; anyway, I didn’t have much that was suitable for English weather. There wasn’t much else: all I had room for was a few copies of the family magazine, my references and education certificates, a handful of photographs, a few keepsakes. That was it.

That meant that I left behind all the books I grew up with, all the music I grew up with. It was a real wrench, but nowhere near as much as leaving everything I called home, my family, my friends, the neighbourhoods I grew up in, my school, my college.

Since coming to the UK, I’ve been gently building a decent book collection, so much so I’ve had to move home a couple of times just to make space for the books. Right now I’m waiting for a time when I have enough money to build a proper library … I have the vision, the space, the planning permission, even the books. But the time is not right, I just don’t have the spare money.

I’ve tried to do the same with music, but I’ve cheated: instead of collecting vinyl, I moved to CD. So I now have maybe 1700 CDs, pretty much everything I’m interested in. 90% of the CDs relate to recordings made in the 60s and early 70s. In fact over 80% of my collection is between 1966 and 1972, focused heavily on that wonderful space where the folk and folk-rock of the mid-to-late 60s merge with the heavier stuff of the late 60s and early 70s, creating a sound and feel best exemplified by Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Who, Traffic and Blind Faith, by the Doobie Brothers, by Loggins and Messina.

Someone else didn’t cheat. Paul Mawhinney. Read his story here, go watch the video. [My thanks to Daniel Edlen for tipping me off. He’s got a good blog, worth a regular visit.]

Paul has built up a unique collection of over 1 million pieces of vinyl; at its peak the collection is priceless, he thinks it would be valued at $50m. Right now he’s aging (nearly 70), ill (he has diabetes and is nearly blind) and has been desperately trying to sell the collection for some time now. The price has come down, he’s looking for a paltry $3m now.

If I were a rich man, I’d buy the whole collection. Today. Not just for personal enjoyment, but to leave as a legacy. It’s not a collection, it’s a piece of history. The man that hath no music in himself….

So. Is there anyone out there with the spondulicks? [In fact, is there anyone out there who even understands what a spondulick is? Sometimes I wonder.]

Maybe it’s time for us to club together, set up a twitter fund to acquire the collection, use social tools to find a place to store the collection, digitise it, do a Google Books on it. Anyone from Google listening?

In the past it’s been about a Getty or a Gates stepping in. But surely that’s the old model? Surely today is about the way Barack Obama raised his funds, small pieces loosely joined?

Anyone interested?

Musing about lazy Saturdays and unGoogleable things

I grew up in a family where we were intense, almost obsessive, about many strange things. During my mid-to-late teens, I don’t think a day passed without there being a “session” at home. What do I mean by “session”? A gathering of people, numbering greater than 10, all focused on some activity or the other. What activities? They varied, in mini-seasons lasting a week or two, and included:

  • Carroms (played in fours lying at odd angles on the floor)
  • Table-tennis (on the dining table, using books to form the net
  • Card games aplenty (from “56” to Memorial Power, finding pairs, to Canasta, to TwoToTheLeft)
  • Chess (not as many takers though
  • Categories (which we called NamePlaceAnimalThing and played with real gusto).
  • Scrabble (played with an incredible intensity)
  • Board games in general, particularly Cluedo, but including Ludo, Chinese Checkers and Snakes & Ladders

That’s when it was too hot to play outside. Participant ages ranged from 6 to 60 (really) and everything was played with ferocious yet humorous spirit. Wonderful times. Usually half the people present were friends of one family member or the other, the rest were family or neighbours.

Sure we fought. It wasn’t always all sweetness and light. But in the main we played, played as close family and close friends, and we’ve stayed close ever since.

What I described above  was a daytime and weekend and holiday thing for the most part. Weekday evenings were all about hanging around together and listening to music; when it got late the scene shifted to playing duplicate bridge. And we read. We read by the shelf-load, by the truck-load. Draped in strange positions all over the place, usually munching on the food that would materialise by magic.

And one more thing. We were trivia freaks, but we didn’t call it trivia. We called it quizzing. It was perfectly normal for any one person to pull a dictionary, a book of quotations or a volume of an encyclopaedia off a shelf and then start asking passers-by questions. Calcutta had a brilliant quiz scene in those days, probably still has.

[Strangely enough, I don’t remember seeing anyone study. Or do homework. I can’t imagine where they could have, every room was packed with other, ultimately distracting, activity].

Anyway. As I was saying. We loved trivia. And we didn’t treat trivia so much as a test of knowledge but as a test of recall. More importantly, quizzing was a team sport and individual machismo was of no value.  Sure, “golden” answers were appreciated and respected, where you knew something that no one else on the team knew. But the important thing was the team.

These values made their way into the DNA of the quiz scene in Calcutta, particularly the “recall not knowledge” principle. Any fool could come up with a question that no one could answer. The challenge was to come up with a question that every team could answer, but not necessarily within 30 seconds while under competitive pressure.

It became a fine art, setting questions that danced teasingly on the tips of tongues. Those were the days Before Google. Nowadays it is actually quite hard to set a question that’s unGoogleable, and as a result the “recall versus knowledge” principle must be under severe attack. Particularly in today’s age of ubiquitous communication. I lost interest in the UK quiz scene once mobile phones with Web browsers and Shazam entered the scene; too many people resorted to, shall we say, alternate and assisted modes of recall.

Since then, just for fun, I’ve been quietly compiling lists of questions that can’t be Googled. Which means I look at many things with an unusual perspective. Take today for example. I was “watching” the cricket in Dhaka, and when I ran down the names of the Indian team, I noticed something:

The average surname-length of the team was below 6 letters, just 63 letters across the eleven people. Very unusual. [Incidentally, I also noticed that I have children older than half the team, a sure sign of my age].

So. Cricket fiends amongst you. What’s the shortest team you can come up with, the one that would trouble the scorers the least to put up. 63 is the target to beat. Sehwag Gambhir Sharma Singh Pathan Dhoni Raina Pathan Chawla Kumar Sharma. [I remember some Leicestershire and Northamptonshire teams in the early 1980s that had quite a few short-named players, must check].

Incidentally, the full name letter count could also be a record. 68 plus 63 makes 131. That’s low. That is very low … for a country that has had a President named Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, a singer called Madurai “MS” Subbulakshmi, a composer named Laxmikant Kudalkar;  and cricketers named Srinivasa Venkataraghavan and Bhagwat Chandrashekhar. [My own name and surname take up 21 letters].