Friday, October 27, 2006

Stoned Fruit: Kossoff Live at Leeds

I was lucky enough to see Paul Kossoff play shortly before he died. People who saw him play after he died seem to agree he wasn't at his best then. Worse, he didn't get chance to recover completely. Only a few months after that, he died again, permanently this time. I saw him February, 1975, playing with John Martyn's band. I went the same night as John Martyn recorded his set for the Live at Leeds album, though I didn't know that was about to happen. Since the subsequent release was a limited mail order album, I didn't get to hear it until it was re-issued on CD. The re-release, unlike the vinyl release, has "added bonus tracks" featuring his guest guitarist, Paul Kossoff.

I went to the gig with a school-friend, arriving there early, since school looses at four. The evening started out weirdly enough. As we approached the Leeds University buildings a couple came up to us and the man asked (in a strange southern accent) where some building was.

"Excuse me – where do I find the [mumble] building? Wait, do you understand me? I don't speak Yorkshire. What's the Yorkshire for 'excuse me'?"

"Tyke," said my friend. "The dialect's called Yorkshire Tyke. You say, 'Si tha 'ere.'" (Literally, "see you, here.")

The man was excited. "Hey!" he called to his friend, who was gazing blankly into space with her arms folded like an arms-foldy StarGazy Pie fish, "Yorkshire dialect for 'Excuse me' is 'Kythera'!"

I have no idea what his association was with Kythera (if indeed that's what he said – it sure sounded like it). His friend didn't seem impressed and they wandered off in search of the building I've since forgotten. We went on to the concert hall.

When we got closer to the auditorium, I could hear the loudest and most perfect sound ever made. It wasn't the loudest sound ever heard where I was, outside the building, of course, otherwise, inside the building it would be louder than the loudest sound ever heard, maybe even as loud as the sun or something really loud like that. It was pretty damn loud though. It was a sound check, the instrument being checked was the guitar, and it was evidently Paul Kossoff playing. The music was beautiful, haunting and plaintive without being incomplete – the word plaintive always suggests to me that something is missing; this wasn't missing anything. It was perfect. It sounded like a swan-song, the sound that's made when you put everything into the present because there will be no time in the future. It literally stopped me in my tracks. I stood stock still, listening.

"Probably just a roadie," said my friend, whose name I believe is in the dictionary under "cynical" to this day. After a while my feet unglued and I walked on, thinking I'd hear more later that evening. I was wrong.

While I was wasting time with Ms. Sarcasm, according to Uncut Magazine, Paul Kossoff was out getting himself beaten up for trying it on with someone's bird. [1] According to this report, John Martyn took up cudgels on his friend's behalf, but on finding out Kossoff was the perpetrator, he became less than sympathetic and finished the job himself. I don't know if this had any effect on either of their subsequent performances.

At the appointed time, we went inside. I have to admit that I wasn't a big John Martyn fan. I'd heard the two tracks Solid Air and I'd Rather Be The Devil many times on the late night radio shows and liked them well enough; but anything else I'd heard struck me as being too folkie. Folk music always conjured up the image of equal parts my parents (who were folkies once upon a time) and hippies, who were, well, hippies. Overall, that's not a pretty picture. Also, I thought John Martyn was a bit of a man's man. Not that I have anything against men's men per se. It's just that there's nothing there for me. Nothing to admire or imitate, no opening for me to get inside and look around, or even think about possessing. A man's man to me is something striking on the horizon that I've never been tempted to investigate further, like a termite mound or a pissoir. Good luck to him, but we're not on the same track.

During this tour, Kossoff did not come on stage until the encore. I didn't know that before I went. So I sat through the first part of the set listening to things I normally avoided, like double bass, jazz breaks and John Martyn's guitar playing, which if you haven't heard it, at the time was frequently transformed from electro-acoustic folkie chordage to hypnotic-clouds-of-glory by his use of an Echoplex. It's the sort of sound that Frippertronics would make if Robert Fripp had visited the Earth and knew the ways of its inhabitants, a device to build on a rhythm until it seems to unroll another dimension and bounce off down it in an impossible yet somehow just right direction.

Since I don't remember much of the show, I listened to the CD while writing this. Unfair of me; it was a live performance and as such was really intended to be ephemeral, I think, by all who were there. (In mitigation, it was Martyn himself who released Live at Leeds on record. I didn't make him do it.) Martyn sounds much better on the CD than I remembered from the show or from the radio. His voice on I'd Rather Be The Devil studies so much evil all the time, and, like the devil himself, is full of passion and misdirected love. It tempts you past the banal misogyny of the Skip James lyric into the liquid music. The Echoplexed guitar evokes mermaids fucking, flashes of silver scales and flip of hip, breaching tails and ripple-banded caressing hands, rolling tumbling curves of slick bodies flowing together, slipstreaming, arcs of long platinum hair flinging sunlight-bright spray, fine droplets scattering strobed rainbows in foss-misted air. And that's just the first verse. And, although my well-known love of jazz double bass borders on irrational hatred, there's still something very lovely about Danny Thompson's sound in that band. He's seductive enough to make you forget for minutes at a time that you'd rather rip your own head off and eat it than listen to acoustic bass for a moment longer. Quite an achievement. The set was definitely worth the pound or so I paid to get in.

The Muselectric blogger suggests that Kossoff may be playing the solo on the unnaturally prolonged Outside In. I don't think so; I don't remember him being on stage that early on. More tellingly it doesn't sound like his technique, his guitar or his tone. The solo sounds like someone who has never played a rock guitar solo before, whereas Kossoff that night sounded more like someone who had mostly forgotten how to play a rock guitar solo. It's different, believe me. There's also too much fuzztone, too little sustain and no vibrato at all, and chords Kossoff plays as block chords are played as arpeggios.

The audience was a bit boisterous and I think I wasn't the only one waiting for Kossoff to come on. Before he finally appeared, Martyn said on-mic that he had had to bribe Kossoff to appear by giving him a bottle of Crème de Menthe. At the time, I thought Martyn was a common drunk giving a fragile junkie a bottle of liquor out of laddishness. I realize now that Martyn had probably spent the day dealing with a man he has since said would "bite your ankles" to get out from under your supervision to score. Crème de Menthe probably sounded like a reasonable compromise under the circumstances. Nowadays I'd also see Crème de Menthe-drinking as a sign that Kossoff was very ill; no-one can drink a whole bottle of something as sweetly sticky as Crème de Menthe – it must have about a pound of sugar per bottle – unless there's something wrong with their metabolism.

Anyway, for the encores, the band came back on and Kossoff appeared with his guitar and his bottle of vile mouthwash-flavored liquor. The crowd bayed a little. He looked like a lion; I bet I'm not the first to say that. He had that scowl he developed at that age, which I think was from substance abuse causing the muscles of his scalp to droop, not due to any particular outbreak of bad temper. In fact he smiled a lot, though it seemed a mirthless sort of smile. Of the music, I mostly remember being disappointed that nothing he played matched the magic I'd heard at the soundcheck.

He played on three or four songs, and three are on "Live at Leeds – and more". The first one on the CD (I don't remember the order live), I'm So Much In Love With You, is the worst. It's a slow blues, in the mold of "Since I've Been Loving You", and it starts with one of the guitarists quickly retuning his guitar as he plays, which initially sounds like a flub and expectations drop into in the basement like pigeon shit down a liftshaft. And indeed, Kossoff is sloppy here, easily eclipsing the sloppiest Jimmy Page outings ever. Martyn sings it as though he was singing Summertime; he has jazz down all right, but he doesn't really have the blues. I take that back; he can sing a little Delta, but the Chicago sound escapes him. The rhythm section sounds poleaxed, as though they've found themselves in a horrible nightmare where they have to back a Tuvan kargyraa star without any rehearsal.

One issue facing Kossoff was the extreme loudness of his playing. He can't hide any mistakes because the amps are turned up to 11, so the slightest touch of a finger on a string, or even a tap on the body of the guitar, sounds like one of Zeus's thunderbolts landing. There's a legend that only Kossoff could play Kossoff's guitar; that it refused to play for anyone else, producing only feedback. Listening to this, it's easy to believe it. It's clearly a difficult beast to tame. You only have to do something clumsy a couple of times at that volume to alert everyone. And he does.

The other two songs, 'Clutches' and 'Mailman', are played well enough that you can hear the old Kossoff. The songs aren't great, but it would be tough to single out Kossoff as the cause. The whole ensemble seems to lurch into an amateur blues mode and comes over like a poor Savoy Brown cover band. The band wasn't exactly funky previously, but in the encore they swing like a rusty WC chain. The drummer, who had displayed the diamond-hard, digitally-precise timekeeping of a sundial during the first part of the set, develops issues over tempo in the encores, and mislays the number of bars in a 12-bar blues at the end of Mailman. The band weren't offstage long enough to get as loaded as they all sound during the encore. Perhaps they figured if you can't beat 'im, join 'im. Perhaps folk-rock musicians developed the first transmissible drunk-virus and they'd caught a dose off their itinerant rock-star friend. Who knows?

Even off-form, playing with a pseudo-bar band, you can still hear the feel that made Paul Kossoff such a contender. It's not the technique, because he doesn't have a lot of that left here and it still sounds the same. It's an intangible, a drop of magic, a demonstration that he means it and isn't going through the motions. He really does give his soul. Who could do that every day and not become attenuated, worn through, parceled out? It's no wonder he didn't last long. It reminds me of Janis Joplin: "Have another little piece of my heart now; you know you got it if it makes you feel good." (And boy does that make me feel guilty.) Eventually it's all used up; there's nothing left to give and he had to go away.

If only he'd stayed sober that night, and played the way we all knew he could. Instead I heard the Canned-Heat-on-'luudes version and that was my live fix of Paul Kossoff. I'm glad I saw him the once, though if I had a time machine I'd certainly go back to an earlier time and pick up some even fonder memories.

My main regret is not trying to get inside at the sound check. I could have blagged my way inside. So why not? Because I was a typical teenager; poor impulse control, easily led by my peers and with an inability to think of the long term consequences of my actions. Accordingly, without a second thought I followed my cynical friend away from the hall and I have regretted it ever since.

Here's a tip for anybody who is still sixteen. If you're in a similar situation, go in and say hi. Offer to have his baby. You might never have the opportunity again. Take the plums. Eat the peach. In fact, have heaping helpings of all stoned fruit known to mankind, and may your god go with you.

[1] The link to Simon Waldman's site recalling the Uncut piece died, but luckily the Uncut piece appeared on the web in all its er, uncut glory.  It is quite a tale, too. (Blog edited 08/26/202)

6 comments:

simon said...

I don't know much at all about Kossof or Free, except for All Right Now and a clip of them performing that song at the Isle of Wight (Kossof looked like he was on ecstasy that day, so contorted were his gurning facial expressions; Rodgers' double mic was weird, too), but the way you describe his playing and his attitude is so nuanced and connected, it's becoming compelling reading. Echoplexed guitar picking turned up to 11 with no room for mistakes, indeed!

Now you need to explain to your readers the great paradox of 70s rock: namely that in 1970, at the Phun City free festival, Free were the only band who refused to play for free.

Peromyscus said...

Simon, it's Martyn=echoplex=mermaids and Kossoff=amps turned up to 11=soul. Have to keep them separate!

I don't think it was ecstasy Koss was on at the Isle of Wight, unless it was the natural kind. That's how he played. What with the amps turned up to 11 and everything there's no way to tell why he's doing that.

I was fortunate enough to catch Terry Wilson Slesser of Back Street Crawler in a chat session, so I asked him: "Is he actually singing with the guitar or is his voice silent?" Sless replied, "you could hear Koss scream the notes as he squeezed them out/ never seen anyone do that ever".
So that's what it is - he's screaming.

I do love a screamer. That answer made me very happy! I'll put a link to a video on the front of the blog. Maybe answer the other couple of questions later.

Gloomy Roger said...

I know that it's Kossoff you're interested in, but Martyn survives (against the odds). I saw him a Fairport Convention's Cropredy festival this year, with an audience of old folkies (one of the subsets into which I fall). He was wheeled on stage, minus one leg and plus a few stones, but you could still see the beautiful boy that he had been. He seemed to be a bit like the big amiable drunk that you don't mind watching on the bus, but you wouldn't want him to sit next to you. He played beautifully and wildly. It made me cry. eventually he was pushed off with no encore so that 10CC could set up. I think that you can guess how I felt about that.
What interested me later was how he divided the audience in two, people either loved or hated his music. Oh, you should have been there. I think you would have loved it too. Or at least you would have "got" it - unlike my friends, who were looking forward to singing along with 10CC. And maybe, if I hadn't been so angry I could have enjoyed singing along to "No milk today.." too....
If you hadn't been looking forward so much to Paul Kossoff do you think that you might have enjoyed John Martyn more?

Peromyscus said...

Gloomy Roger - I probably wouldn't have liked John Martyn more if I hadn't been waiting for Kossoff, because if I hadn't heard that Kossoff would be there, I wouldn't have bought a ticket.

But anyway, I did enjoy John Martyn's set at the time (perhaps I forgot to say that).

There probably some Greek word for the type of comment I'm about to make but here goes: I may be guilty of waiting patiently through Martyn's set because I wanted to see the next person more, but I feel vastly more justified in doing that over Paul Kossoff compared with 10CC. I mean, come on, 10CC? I hope he peeed in their drinks while they were onstage. 10CC? Criminy.

Anonymous said...

Kossoff was an idol of mine at a very early stage in my rock & roll/blues-listening years...Well aware of FREE at the time of "Walk in My Shadow" altho' they were not much favored in American AM radio back then. (Two years later "All Right Now" altered that completely, of course.) But, it was "Highway" that I wore out...Still an under-appreciated and deeply beautiful record w/some of the finest playing Koss ever managed before substance abuse poisoned his profound gifts. He did play loud as hell, and generally through a quite basic rig--no effects, that is. He used Andy Fraser's Leslie on a few things later, and a tiny little scrap of wah-wah on the second LP, but for the most it was his unique playing that came from the heart directly through those powerful fingers and out onto the fretboard of a Les Paul or Strat. In Feb 1976 I just missed seeing BSC with Roxy Music in Austin, TX...That would have been an astounding show--or a horrible disappointment...Roxy ended up being supported by someone else, however. RM was sublime, though, and in a few days Koss was dead. Forever. I haven't forgotten him at all...even after all these years & I am as impressed with his gloriously emotive playing as I ever was as a teen. Especially in view of the absence of similarly individualistic players these days. There are none, in fact. Paul was one-of-a-kind, and the rest is dross. So play on, Koss!

Peromyscus said...

Amen, anon. Amen.

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