Archive for the 'Tale' Category



[Picture of Chessman]Caryl Chessman’s was the first legal matter to come to my attention as a young man.  His case had a fairly profound effect on me even though he was before my time. For me, his name just keeps cropping up again and again.

It is an unusual name, Caryl Chessman. I’ve always thought that. Maybe this has something to do with why it has stuck? Who knows?

Caryl was an out-and-out bad guy. A petty criminal on a life of petty crime. Let’s be clear, Chessman was a bad guy.

It this not about Caryl himself, but Justice —  and questions about the Death Penalty and the sheer Force of Destiny that make this story.

Here’s what happened: in California USA, back in 1948, Caryl Chessman (aged 27) was arrested and put on trial accused of being “The Red Light Bandit” who robbed couples parked up in lovers’ lanes.

He protested his innocence to the end.

It is weird to realise that California had the death penalty for kidnapping. The next weird thing to note is that it defined kidnapping as taking a person a short walking distance from one car to another.

Chessman was not tried on robbery and / or rape (which would not have got him the death penalty), yep — you guessed it, he was tried and found guilty of kidnapping.

Chessman defended himself in court. He tried to query the distance of 22 feet as not being kidnapping, he then explained that there was not sufficient evidence to show that he was “The Red Light Bandit”, he also suggested that the police questioning was flawed and his statement obtained under coercion or even torture.

Despite his best efforts, he was found guilty and was on death row for 12 years.

During these 12 years he was almost executed 8 times, getting a stay of execution by mere hours! Throughout he protested his innocence and continued to argue his case while in prison, writing letters, essays and books. He won his right to appeal on procedural and technical grounds, but the appeal was lost.

He was taken to be executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin on 2 May 1960. At exactly the same time, the Judge had obtained late some new evidence and asked his secretary to call the warden to stop the execution.  However, the secretary misdialled, and by the time she’d got through to the Warden, the gas had started to be released into the chamber — it was too late!

I am sure you can see why this case sticks in the mind.  It created a worldwide buzz over the 12 years, and gathered a lot of the great and good and the rich and famous to speak out against capital punishment.

Was Chessman a bad guy? – Yes. Was he the “Bandit”?  – Who knows?

Let’s say he was the Bandit and he did those things, does that merit the death penalty?  How does 22 feet equal kidnapping? And even so, ought kidnapping be punishable by death? Is it humane to put a man on death row for 12 years? Is it humane to rescue a man from being killed at the very last minute? And — at the end of the day — he was denied clemency and his chance to survive (and maybe clear his name) by the misfortune of bad timing and a wrong number on the phone!  He was NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN KILLED.

He proved to be a remarkable man, with his writings  galvanising the support for the cause against the death penalty in the USA. Whenever I hear arguments about capital punishment, injustice, or the inhumanity of a so-called modern civilised state, I cannot help but think of Caryl Chessman;  it could be you, or me. I’ve had nightmares ever since.




[Patrick Woodroffe's book cover for his book Mythopoeikin]The end of the 1970s was an amazingly creative time.  A lot of genres were mixing together, and mixing with new technology too.  County music went electric and gave birth to Country Rock, Jazz fused with world music and synthesisers — and so boundaries were challenged and blurred.  Music and art became one in the album cover, and there was a great new interest in graphic design, logos, typefaces and fonts.  Yes had Roger Dean, Hypgnosis had Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead had Mouse and Rick Griffin.

Punk used strong imagery too — ransom note styles and punk fashion thanks to Malcolm McLaren. Comic book covers were getting sophisticated with fantasy art images by the likes of Boris Vallejo.

In those few short years at the end of the 1970s, the creative arts exploded.

And in 1978 I bought Mythopoeikon by Patrick Woodroffe, and my mates and I tried to copy the fantasy styles of Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Roger Dean and Patrick Woodroffe as we experimented with air brushing art onto vans and hairy bikers’ leather jackets.

Fantasy was a brand new genre at the time, and offered an escape from the bleak economic climate, nuclear cold war and doomsayer inevitabilities. Woodroffe was a Big Star at the time.

The Big Image for me at the time was a book cover for The Billion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss as it was photo-realistic art — but it was nevertheless eyes on lighted candles. The wax drip runs resembled tears, and somehow it was an image that endured in the mind. Of course it made no actual sense, nor was it making any philosophic point. But still.

I found that, on his website, Patrick has this image as an album cover by the Strawbs:

[Art of eyes as candles by Patrick Woodroffe]

We LOVED Woodroffe’s  Budgie and Judas Priest covers — and of course, his famous Greenslade ones.  You know, we actually bought records because of the artwork! This is something lost when the music business switched to CD — and now that this is broken, people can just download MP3 files.  maybe they should bring back the art?

But the link to fantasy is the strongest with Woodroffe for me.  I read a lot of fantasy at the time, including The Lord of The Rings, but also the newer stuff — one that stands out in my memory is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (by Stephen R Donaldson). The first of the trilogy came out in the late 70s, and we had to wait until the next one was written and published, and again.

This period was like that; we were always waiting for the next release or publication — magazines, comics, books, albums, books, movies — you name it , things were in a series and fans were “locked in”.

You were always on the look-out for sub-cultural references, and cross-pollination, so there was a great delight to discover that  Jaco Pastorius played for Weather Report — but also played on Joni Mitchell albums, or that a browse around a second-hand book shop would unearth a book with a cover by Woodroffe — such as I did with The Seedbearers by Peter Valentine Timlett:

[Woodroffe book cover The Seedbearers]

I loved Mythopoeikon — and still have it.  It was my very first “coffee table book”, my first “art book”, and I have travelled with it as a very important part of my youth when I have sold or given away an enormous amount over the years.




[Picture of Russian Sonstress, Regina Spektor]Regina Spektor seems to be everywhere these days. Her music is used extensively in TV commercials, movies, trailers and campaigns, and she’s done all the big European festivals like T in the Park and Glastonbury.

Her album “Far” is actually pretty good.  It is very New York East Village, very girly, and all that.  She is quirky, plays the piano and has some orchestration. That sounds like so many others, doesn’t it?  It moves on the Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom, Tori Amos thingy, and sits well with St.Vincent — or even Emily Simone.

If you listen a wee bit more closely, you hear that she does crazy things while singing — odd noises are emitted form her mouth, buzzes, rasps, tuts and heavy breathing!  She has a broad range too.  This moves the music up a notch from the usual girly wistfulness to something else.

But it doesn’t stop there.  Oh no.  There’s the “Back-Story”, and what a tale to tell — what a soap-opera!  You couldn’t make this up!  I’ll try to be brief and still do this fascinating tale some justice.Where to begin?  Well how about a few weeks ago?

OK, it’s the 7th of July 2010, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland. Regina was set to perform, but was reportedly distraught, shaken and in tears most of the time.  She had to stop several times simply to regain her composure — all because the day before, her cellist, Dan Cho, drowned while swimming in Lake Geneva near Chillon Castle. But the show went on, and she pulled it off.

Flashback: to 1989, the USSR during the period of Perestroika, the Spektor family (including a nine-year-old Regina) emigrate to Austria and then Italy. She is completely fluent in Russian and reads Hebrew.

They were admitted to the USA as refugees with the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and settled in the Bronx in New York where she studied classical piano with Sonia Vargas, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, until she was 17.  She did a four-year studio composition program of the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College graduating within three years.  In the summers she worked at a Butterfly Farm and even worked in Tottenham, London. Otherwise she was gigging to sell her home-burned CDs and gain a reputation.  She started getting recognition by performances at the East Village’s Sidewalk Café, CB’s Gallery, the Living Room, the Knitting Factory, Fez and Tonic that led to signing with Sire in 2004.

She was on Loose Women (Housewife Daytime TV show in the UK) back in 2007 — and later that year — during a sound-check for her gig at Ryman Auditorium, Nashville on 14th November that year, she collapsed due to intense vertigo as a result of an inner ear infection, and was rushed to hospital, cancelling the concert.  I can relate to that as I was suffering a similar state of affairs at that time too.

I take my hat off to her; she’s not had it easy, she’s a grafter, and she’s done a lot already with her life.  She’s definitely one to keep an eye on; some people just attract happenings and events!

[Embedded videoclip from YouTube: Spektor’s “Samson”]


[Embedded videoclip from YouTube: Spektor’s “Machine”]





I know that some people just adore John Martyn‘s music.  He has a loyal fanbase indeed.  These fans would have been delighted that John just got awarded the honour of an OBE — but then everything is overshadowed by his death yesterday.

When I was growing up, John was just a neighbourhood character.  He was often seen out and about — at The Malletsheugh or Eglinton Arms Hotel. He had an absolutely dreadful reputation — but to be fair to the man he was, at the time, in the throes of a very messy divorce.  When I met him the most, he was not at his best!

For a start, I was not a fan of folk music back then, so I would never have bought any John & Beverley Martyn recordings.

But then I admired his strange guitar techniques — I mean to say,  this guy was deft with the special effects at the time — an acoustic through effects and a bizarre sort-of finger-plucking style to create a wall of trippy sound.  It was amazing to watch.  Yes, the man had talent.  I quite liked “One World” for that (although  I could not take the slurring vocal stylisations for long periods), but I also found that it was altogether too morose.  Martyn’s music was sad — and that is popular — through Pink Floyd down to the pop artists today — Radiohead and Coldplay and the like, sad stuff sells. Martyn’s pal, Nick Drake was also melancholy — and in fact died from an overdose of anti-depressants.  We are talking about seriously bleak and introspective music here!

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I remember that John Martyn had a cousin — called David Roy was a Marc Bolan look-alike, and he was pretty talented too — he played flute, guitar and sax in a middle-of-the-road lounge jazz band called  “The Arthur Trout Band”.  The twist was that it was “Gongy” — sort-of Steve Hillage meets Spyro Gyra. I think they played a couple of live gigs too — but let’s face it, there wasn’t much of a scene back then — very few places had live music. I think I remember them doing a gig at The Burn’s Howff as soon as it was legal (we all were fifth and sixth year school pupls).

The Trout’s bassist was a lovely chap called Neil Fairweather. Neil looked exactly like Neil from the Young Ones! At Eastwood High (which we all attended), there was an art teacher who made violins.

At that time, although there was a lot of DISCO and PUNK about, serious musicians were into Jaco Pastorius and his fretless bass playing with Joni Mitchell and Weather Report. Jaco had removed the frets using pliers.  The sound was new and wonderful — it even filtered down to pop music, such as Paul Young’s “Wherever I Hang My Hat” and Kate Bush’s “Babooshka”.  I think it was Brit John Giblin who played the fretless, sliding, bass lines for Kate Bush.

Anyway back at the art department at Eastwood High, the teacher, myself, and Neil Fairweather, carefully removed all the frets from Neil’s Gretsch semi-acoustic bass with great success.  Neil was an absolutely brilliant bass player — and could do all the Jaco style runs, slides and chords for The Arthur Trout Band. I think his brother had composed an Eurovision Song and was working as a composer/ arranger or session musician back then, so Neil was from good musical stock.

John Martyn actually used John Giblin (from Kate Bush) as bassist on “Grace and Danger“, and needed someone good enough to handle the fretless parts for a promotional tour.  He naturally thought of his nephew’s band and Neil Fairweather, and left a tape with David Roy.

As I remember it, the guitarist of their band, Alan Thomson (who was a brilliant lead guitarist/ shredder),  learned the bass part from the tape and was hired instead of Neil to begin a long career as a working musician. I thought it quite sad that Alan seemed to have dropped his “own” or “real” band — his friends, Tim Britten, Dave Roy, Neil Fairweather and Jim Prime.

But I think Neil got the better deal, for John Martyn was infamously difficult to work with at that time.  After years with Island Records, John Martyn was without a deal.  He said himself that this was the lowest period of his entire life!

Eventually, John signed with WEA and recorded “Glorious Fool” with young Alan Thomson, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton — I know this entirely because of gossip and chat, rather than through hearing any of the songs.

I have always felt sorry for Alan Thomson, it can’t have been a very nice experience for such a young guy. Martyn was “Old School” — heck, even though he was around the 30 year mark, my Dad was one of his drinking buddies — and you cannot get more old school than that!  Heavy drinking, drugs, bad diet, years on the B roads, struggling to make it famous.  I only know that I couldn’t do it.

In fact, when I was faced with signing up with a record label, I ran a mile in the opposite direction, and it was almost entirely down to what I saw happen to Alan with John Martyn.

But that was a great many years ago.

I saw part of an interview on TV with John Martyn a couple of years ago, and he seemed a lot nicer — wiser too.  He didn’t exactly look a picture of health, but hey, he’d had his leg amputated and was still doing pub gigs from a wheelchair! But, somehow,  I could relate to his outlook, sure he was still a “character” in the old-school grumpy cantankerous style, but had somehow mellowed into a lovable colourful auld rogue.

It has been at least a decade since I bumped into Alan Thomson. He had moved back to East Renfrewshire — Giffnock, I think — and was renovating antiques between jobs as a bass player.  He had married and spoke of his wee girl.  He seemed happy and had matured a lot.

It was just a brief chat in the queue at a filling station, but as I drove away, I felt good.  Meeting Alan had cheered me up no-end.  I had lost so many friends around that time (quite a few to drugs), so I was elated that he was OK, that it worked out for him, that he was not-just-alive — but that he had married and had his own wee family. He at least made it through to the other side!