Twelve Months of Wonderful Things

It’s a year since I launched this blog, and this is my 50th post.

I’ve written about The Beatles, Mott The Hoople, Scott Walker, The Wombles, Driver 67 (of course!), Yewtree’s investigations and Simon Cowell.

And which post got the most readers?

I’d give you 50 guesses and you’d finally get there.

Wonderful thing No 1: Kokomo – they were the subject of my most read post. A band most people have never heard of.

Those who have, though, are passionately devoted. As am I. So it was wonderful to get a rush of attention for writing about artists who have never hit the charts, or sold a million.

And it didn’t happen just the once. When, a few weeks later, I recounted an incident that ended with several of the band in A&E, the numbers peaked again. Maybe I should just start a Kokomo blog!

Wonderful thing No 2: Because I wrote about Kokomo, Nick Hornby read my blog. Say no more.

Wonderful thing No 3: If this blog says anything about me, it’s that I have half a foot in the past, but most of me is in the present. Using computer technology and social media to create and promote my own new songs caught the eye of a book publisher.

He wanted a book which would guide young music hopefuls through the maze of the digital age.

So I was commissioned to write that book. Nearly done. Out by Spring, we hope.

Wonderful thing No 4: In my fifth post, I wrote about being backstage at a Bob Dylan concert in 1978 with my friend Heather.

Completely coincidentally – nothing to do with the blog – she contacted me last week. We hadn’t heard from each other for almost 35 years.

She asked if I remembered her. The usual response is, “Of course I do!” whilst searching your mind for some clue. But I was able to point Heather back to my post last February, and there she was.

We’ve since been reminding each other of escapades we got up to, including leaving the fabled Wembley ELO spaceship gig after just two songs. We weren’t much for the grandiose, Heather and I. Although we did go to a party Barry Manilow threw for Bette Midler. That doesn’t count as grandiose, does it?

Wonderful thing No 5: I was invited to join the Illuminati. Yes! I was!

And what had earned me this privilege? Last September I wrote about the ‘Paul Is Dead‘ conspiracy and talked about the current online obsession with the Illuminati.

I had an offer from illuminati.com to get (notice that: ‘get’) $2,500 every three days, and $1,000,000 ‘membership blessing for doing what you love to do best’.

“Change your life for the better, We holds the world.”

Those mistakes are not mine – that is verbatim how the invitation was put. I don’t care how much money is involved. Where grammar and punctuation are concerned, you can’t buy me.

Wonderful thing No 6: In November last year, I wrote about mental health. It was a slightly nervous post – not the happiest of things to admit to, being bipolar, or to talk about.

But the post attracted attention from outside the music sphere, and ended up in my Top 10 posts of the year. That’s pretty wonderful, don’t you think?

Wonderful thing No 7: One of my (very small) band of Twitter followers, @maxkelp tweeted “You are responsible for the Beta Band. Thank you.”

I was baffled. I had never heard of The Beta Band. I had certainly never imagined a one hit wonder inspiring anyone. So I took his ‘Thank you’ to mean, ‘You git’.

I replied: “Sounds like you don’t think that’s a good thing!”

And he replied: “No, they’re good, but they sound like you.”

So of course, I had to check them out. Seems the main guys would have been at primary school when Car 67 was a hit. So I guess it’s possible that Driver 67 became part of their cultural subconscious.

But I’m not claiming it. They remind me more of The Grease Band or Black Rebel Motorcyle Club, and I suggest if you like your music more on the acoustic and interesting side, The Beta Band is well worth a YouTube visit.

Wonderful thing No 8: Did I mention – Nick Hornby read my blog?

Wonderful thing No 9: I sent a box of 40-year-old tapes off to be digitised and received back a treasure trove of memories. Sessions I’d produced in some amazing studios: Apple, Air, CBS (mostly CBS, to be fair – I did work for the company!), Olympic.

As a result, I wrote my Kokomo post, wrote about South African Tony Bird, and about some completely bonkers sessions I did with crooner Vince Hill. Sadly, I haven’t heard from Vince, but Tony called me from New York and we talked for over an hour.

I have to say again, if the wind had been in the right direction, you would not now be needing me to tell you that Tony Bird is one of the greats.

Wonderful thing No 10: A couple of weeks ago, comedian Tim Vine Tweeted: “Hey who likes Car 67 by Driver 67?”

I love Time Vine (my favourite line: ‘Velcro. What a rip off!’). I like him even better now.

His Tweet resulted in a sequence of tweets mostly consisting of lines from Car 67. Even for an old cynic like me, that was heartwarming.

Wonderful thing No 11: In May last year, I wrote about my friend John Howard, and how the powers that be at Radio 1 deliberately stifled his career in the mid-70s.

I put up a video of John singing My Beautiful Days. It describes a trajectory where today, if you’re attractive enough, being camp is a career move (think Graham Norton, Rufus Wainwright).

But back then, his handlers were trying to make him more ‘butch’. My Beautiful Days is a very affecting song. I’ve seen people reduced to tears by it.

One Very Famous Person emailed me to thank me for introducing him to the song, which he had duly downloaded from iTunes. “What a should-be classic!” is how he put it.

Wonderful thing No 12: The Driver 67 catalogue (all 21 songs!) was reissued (online only) – after 35 years languishing in the vaults – by Cherry Red Records.

This year, I will release the follow up (!) album, called The Return Journey. This old cab still has some fuel in the tank.

I’m going to indulge myself here (it is the blog’s birthday!) and show you a performance by Lisa Hannigan, whose videos kept popping up while I looked for The Beta Band.

Lisa achieved some prominence as part of Damien Rice’s band. But solo, she is a revelation. Not since Joe Cocker have I seen anyone whose movements and facial expressions suggest such total immersion in the music. Except in Lisa’s case, it’s sexy. (Sorry, Joe).

 

 

 

 

How do you solve a problem like Maria? And other musical family matters

What do you suppose it feels like to be the runt of the litter in a family of super-talented people?

Well, I’ll tell you. Because I am that runt.

I’ll start at the beginning, which is when I met my dad.

What?

I met my dad when I was fourteen. He and my mom had split up when I was about 15 months old. She took my sister and me back from London to her home town, Wolverhampton. I never saw him again till I was a teenager.

Anyway, in my milieu in Wolverhampton, I was pretty hot stuff musically. Aged 8, I’d won first in class in my first competition at the Wolverhampton Music Festival.

Later, having achieved a distinction in my Royal Academy Grade 5 exam, and a credit at Grade 6, I was two grades away from a home run.

And then I went to London to meet my dad. Of course, I had to play for him. I can’t remember what I played, but what I do remember is that when I’d finished, he came over to the piano and said: “Have you thought of trying it like this?”

He sat down next to me on the piano seat and proceeded to deconstruct my whole view of what a musician should be. It was the best piano-playing I had ever personally witnessed. I was mesmerised. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Families, eh? Nobody had told me. The man was unbelievable. He knew the entire Great American Songbook, with chords even Cole Porter hadn’t thought to use.

And he could boogie woogie like nobody’s business. To this day people say to me, “Come on, you must like Jools Holland!”, and I say, “You never heard my dad”.

When I got back home to Wolverhampton, I refused to attend any more piano lessons, and insisted my mom buy me a guitar. Within three months, Beethoven, Mozart and the piano were forgotten. I could play the three guitar chords required to form a group and rip up the Milano Coffee Bar in Queen Street.

I might now be only the second best musician in my family, but the flame still burned.

Fast forward a few years, and on a train from Dublin to Killarney I meet an American named Pete Zorn. He’s just been signed to a record deal, and we hit it off famously. Then he meets my sister, and they hit it off even better, so they get married.

Now I’m the third most musically talented person in my family. But there’s a long way to go yet.

Because then it turns out that my brother, Dudley, instead of studying at university, has been sitting in his lodgings playing bass all day. He’s been doing this for some time. He is, in fact, the embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule. If you don’t know it, it’s a theory that says the people who are best at anything (music, writing, computers, sport) have put in a minimum 10,000 hours of practice before they break through.

Dudley, the little bastard, had put in his 10,000 hours and then some. Not only is he a brilliant bass player – you might have seen him here and there with the likes of Mark Knopfler – but his understanding of jazz and harmony is such that he lectures at the Guildhall in London, and other places around the country. He plays the piano better than I do, and he’s a bloody bass player!

So by the time I’m 30 (Dudley’s 12 years younger) I’m now the fourth most talented person in my family.

And we’re not talking slim margins here. We’re talking aeons. We’re talking the difference between you running the 100 metres, and then finding yourself in a race with Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis and Donovan Bailey.

Still, we’re not done yet. Because I made the mistake of bequeathing a bunch of instruments, the makings of a primitive recording studio and 30-odd years worth of vinyl albums to my then 16-year-old son. And how did he show his gratitude? You guessed it – by becoming a better musician and a better songwriter than me by a factor of, ooh, about 20.

He worked his way so quickly through my albums that by the time he was 18 he had put away childish things and was ingesting Steely Dan and Frank Zappa like they were his mother’s milk.

Now I love Steely Dan, but frankly they’re in a different league musically and it’s beyond my ken. Still, I know the songs, and can even dance to some of them.

Frank Zappa on the other hand – well, nice bloke and all, but some of his music is so complex it makes my head hurt. I’ve certainly never found myself tapping my foot and humming along.

Not my son, though. Somehow or other, Noel decided to teach himself composition and harmony. Next thing I know he’s leading a band of pretty amazing players and he is the Frank Zappa figure, the master of ceremonies, the writer, the arranger, the almost virtuoso keyboard player. It’s stunning. A revelation.

Worse than that, I’m now the fifth most talented person in my family, and in terms of the 100 metres race, it’s all over before I’m out of the starting blocks.

And believe me, it’s not going to get any better. Two of my grandsons are already showing promise – one as a drummer, the other as a guitarist. And one of my granddaughters is already ‘making up’ her own songs which, while they’re never going to get played on Radio 2, would certainly make the nether regions of weirdness on Radio 6. She’s 8.

There are moments when I’ve just wanted to give up. In fact I did give up, for about 30 years. But I can always cheer myself up by reminding myself, “You’re the one who made the Top 10, you’re the one who sold half a million singles, you’re the one who appeared on Top Of The Pops.”

And then there are the moments like the time Noel, then in his mid-20s, played me a song he’d written and recorded called Maria. At first, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. And then about one minute in there’s a moment that just overwhelmed me, and the tears started.

Sometimes, being the runt of the litter has its advantages…

So here’s Noel’s 20-year-old demo of a song I believe would by now be a stone classic if he’d ever signed a deal and recorded it.

https://soundcloud.com/driver-67/maria

 

Lazy-assed Driver overtakes himself

I consider myself a lazy person, on the basis that I could always have done more.

At the very least, I’m easily distracted by visual, aural or olfactory stimuli. However peripheral the distraction, I’m on it like a snake on a rabbit.

So it’s quite a surprise to look back at 2014 and find that I’ve not only written a book – 65,000 words and counting – but that this is my 46th blog, which accounts for another 50,000 words. Well over 100,000 in the year.

In addition, I’ve written and recorded eight new songs and two instrumental pieces that I hope to release as an album in the Spring.

If I wasn’t so lazy and easily distracted, I might have had the time to achieve my wildest ambition – to run the country (kidding!).

Since that’s never going to happen, I’ve constructed a new website from which, in the run-up to the May general election, I hope to sell some reasonably amusing political slogans on t-shirts.

Oh yes, that’s something else I’ve been working on: the political t-shirt website.

Actually, now I look at my 2014 in the round, it’s making me feel tired. I think I’ll go and have a lie down.

But before I do, I’d like to ask you to have a listen to my last track of the year. Return Journey is named for this blog and for all the wonderful people who have paid it even the slightest attention since it launched just under eleven months ago.

It really has felt like a return of sorts.

I said back in February that I had spent decades trying to hide from the spectre of one-hit-wonderdom. Having finally given in and owned my cab-driving alter-ego, I have discovered a whole world of appreciation.

Most of all, I’ve realised I had nothing to be embarrassed about in the first place. The most recent comment I’ve had is from Benjamin Lee Matthews who says he’s a “70s-born 80s child”. He recently downloaded the Driver 67 album, Hey Mister Record Man, and has “just discovered The Secret. What a fabulous song. Why didn’t this become a million seller?”

Well, Benjamin, I wish I could tell you, but I don’t know. That’s the thing about music and the music industry – you never can tell. But I can tell you this: the sort of feeling you get from being told, out of the blue, that something you did 30-odd years ago still gives pleasure cannot be bought.

So thank you, Benjamin.

An equally warm feeling is to hear that something you’ve done recently has hit the spot. Malcolm Coles wrote, back on December 12, that he “can’t get enough of More Like That” which is from my 2012 album, Now That’s What I Call Divorce!!!

Malcolm, thank you.

So, here’s Return Journey, my last track of 2014. It’s an instrumental. Stylistically, it’s what used to be called ‘chill’ music. Pour yourself a gin and tonic, relax and give yourself over to the atmosphere.

I’d really love to hear, from anyone who has the time, what story appears in your head as you listen. It will be your story, not mine, and I would love to know what the track conjures up for you.

Meanwhile, let’s look forward to 2015.

Apart from anything else, the election promises to be gripping. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Scottish Nationalist Party ran enough candidates for Westminster that they ended up holding the balance of power in a new coalition?

I speculated about that on Facebook during the week following the Scottish Independence Referendum, and I still don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility. We do live in interesting times.

Bon voyage!

 

Sexual confusion down the ages

Teenage.

Do you remember it?

I bloody do.

Tongue-tied around any girl I fancied. Always putting my foot in it, always with the best possible intentions.

At 15 I was besotted with a small, mysterious looking girl who I saw only once a week at a youth club. She had a mass of dark, curly hair you could have got lost in.

Finally I plucked up the courage to tell her, “I love your hair”. Oh dear.

Turned out it was the thing about her appearance she most hated. Tomorrow – yes, tomorrow! – she was getting it all cut off. She was offended. I was tongue-tied. We never spoke again.

This kind of excruciating experience is not, I know, unusual among pubescent males. But when you’re at the centre of it, hormones shut down your rational self and confusion reigns.

Mind you, you don’t have to be pubescent to get it wrong. In my 20s I told a girl I loved the soft, downy feel of her face – like a peach. Oh dear, again. She was personally revolted by it, and was about to undergo lengthy and painful electrolysis to rectify what she saw as a physical defect.

These are the sorts of memories that are at the heart of this week’s song, The Date.

At the time it was written, cross-gender dressing (Bowie et al), had taken hold. Boys were wearing makeup, and girls were cutting their hair short. The New Romantics were just emerging.

And the final piece of my narrative puzzle were the occasional outbreaks of male violence: Teddy Boys, mods, rockers, skinheads, punks. Pete Townshend articulated it brilliantly in My Generation, Can’t Explain and many other songs, this sense of alienation and confusion that leads young boys to anger and violence in the face of things they can’t control.

The Date starts with that tingling sense of anticipation we’ve all felt as we get ready to go out on a Friday or Saturday night. You’re fretting about your hair, you’re pulling on your best jeans. Like Terry and Julie in Waterloo Sunset, you’re anticipating the moment you meet underneath the station clock.

But it soon goes wrong. Boy doesn’t even make it to the meeting place. Girl is beyond furious. Violence erupts. Police are called. Tabloids wring their hands. Sound familiar?

Keeping it short this week. I’ll explain why next week.

But as an added treat, a link to Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran. The pop star who lives in my house played this for me in the car the other day and I was captivated, (which is unusual, as she’d readily tell you).

For boomers, the song is an enchanting reminder of the simple emotions of pop and soul long ago – of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and maybe a little Don McLean in the voice.

For Strictly Come Dancing fans, the video will be a charming bonus.

There’s a line in this song, “When the crowds don’t remember my name”. By the time you watch this video, it may have surpassed 80 million views. When the crowds don’t remember your name, Ed? Not in this lifetime.

 

Christmas. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again!

I get grumpy at this time of year.

Before you say “Bah, humbug”, let me tell you a story.

When The Wombles were at their height, Mike Batt came into my office and flopped down on my couch.

He looked exhausted.

“I’m exhausted,” he said.

He was. Exhausted. And he and I were about to get a lesson in the demands of the market over the welfare of the humans.

Mike Batt

Mike Batt

A Womble

A Womble

Mike Batt, lest it be forgot, did almost everything on the Wombles records apart from playing the violins.

He wrote the songs. And that was pressure, right there. Each song was under intense scrutiny from Elisabeth Beresford, who wrote the books. Elisabeth was not about to allow her creations to be involved in anything less than her own moral universe would allow.

Having finished the songs to Elisabeth’s satisfaction (and they weren’t always, and out would go the song), Mike would then write the arrangements.

If you listen to those records now, without your child’s ear, you will marvel at their cleverness. There was no era, no genre, no style, that Mike Batt could not recreate and incorporate.

Mozart? Check. The Beach Boys? Check. Thirties dance band? Check.

Having written these brilliant arrangements he would then produce the recording sessions with big orchestras under intense time pressure.

And then he would do the vocals, including most of the harmony voices. If you want to get a flavour of what that entailed, have a listen to Down At The Barbershop.  The only voice I doubt is Mike’s is the bass.

And when he had done all that, he would don the Womble suit, visit hospitals and schools, pop up around the streets of London for a photo opp, and sweat off pounds on Top Of The Pops.

Exhausted? Barely covers it really.

So, here we are in my office. He’s already gone through this process twice in eight months. Now he’s telling me CBS is going to want a Christmas album. It’s September already.

“Well, let’s go and tell them you can’t do it,” say I.

He smiles, but his eyes tell the story. ‘They’ are not going to want to hear that.

And here’s where we get the lesson. Or, more to the point, I get the lesson. We go up to see Dick Asher, the head honcho sent from New York to make some money.

“I’m exhausted, Dick,” says Mike.

“Dick,” I say. “Mike’s exhausted.”

Dick looks at me. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, “I’ll deal with you later.”

Then he turns his charm on Mike. Dick Asher being charming was like that moment when you look at the shark’s smile and think, “Oh, maybe he’s not going to bite my leg off”. And then he bites your leg off.

“We need a Christmas album, Mike. I know you’re tired, and we really appreciate all the work you’ve done. But there’s no way around it. This Christmas has to be a Wombling Christmas.”

And so it transpired that Mike Batt delivered his third Wombles album and seventh single in less than 15 months. And not just any old single, but a Christmas record that was held off the Number One slot only by Mud’s Lonely This Christmas.

The Christmas Number One. What a palaver.

I blame John Lennon. I don’t remember the Christmas record being ‘a thing’ until Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Readers will correct me, I’m sure.

There are obvious songs we associate with Christmas. Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte was the first in my memory. Little Donkey by Nina & Frederik came  four or five years later. In between there was Little Drummer Boy. The version I preferred was by Michael Flanders of Flanders & Swann fame.

But the specially designed Christmas single didn’t really get going until Lennon showed the way, more or less telling the world, ‘it’s ok to be sentimental – it’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake’. War Is Over didn’t make Number One, but it did open the floodgates. So, thanks for that, John.

Yet I can’t find more than 12 songs that are about Christmas (or religion) that have been Number One since charts began 60-odd years ago. And three of those are Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Which kind of makes my point, really. That Christmas is about money and consumption. And Mike Batt’s exhaustion. And Dick Asher’s crass commercial imperative.

And that’s why I get grumpy at this time of year.

I’ve experienced Christmas in at least eight different ways. As a young child – Irish Catholic – it was a religious celebration. The music was fabulous, the feeling was profound and the sense of community was palpable.

Presents? What presents? That’s not what it was about. There was no sleepless Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa. We were poor, working class and it was about the baby Jesus, not some pagan ritual.

When I was eight, everything changed. My mother (divorced since I was two) remarried. My protestant step-father was lower middle-class, an only child, and Christmas for him was about spoiling everyone. It certainly wasn’t about Jesus (of whom he disapproved) or Church (which he tried to forbid).

This was the version of Christmas I carried forward to my own children. Having long abandoned religion, family and celebration seemed the right focus. The music, of course, was still fabulous (I’m talking about Carols, not Slade – although I might just mention Phil Spector’s Christmas Album).

But as my kids got older, I noticed the piles of presents getting bigger, until one year I couldn’t open the living room door because the boxes had collapsed in the night, blocking the room up.

That is the exact moment my seasonal grumpiness began.

Later, I discovered a different Christmas – divorced, my children with their mother and other family (quite right), I would leave the country and ignore the whole damn thing. Suited me fine.

Then I started another family. Went through the whole process again. Except this time, the excess was there from the start. Presents for my kids from people I didn’t know, friends of their grandmother, people I had never clapped eyes on. Rooms set aside for presents, there were so many of them.

At this point, I started to pine for the simplicity of my Irish roots and the Catholic celebration. Without Jesus, what was the point? The point had become, clearly, money, consumption and competitive buying.

So I resigned. From Christmas. I stay out of preparations and avoid, as much as possible, the preamble. Thank God for Tivo. I never watch a commercial, haven’t even seen the new John Lewis.

Of course, every time I go to buy bread and milk, the shops are saturated with all those yucky songs. So thanks again, John Lennon.

But really, I count it a triumph if I haven’t become too stressed by Christmas Eve, have plans to see my family, and wake up in my own bed on Boxing Day – all over for another year. And that is really, sincerely, how I feel about it.

So, now, altogether – Bah, humbug…..

But not before we remind ourselves that Mike Batt was no one-trick pony. For me, still being capable of a song as romantic and heart-wrenching as this in your mid-50s is an inspiration. As for Katie Melua – I don’t care what you think (unless you love her). If the current crop of pop divas would just once sing a song with this level of control, tone and emotion I might take them a bit more seriously.

 

Insomnia In Song. So Wrong It Keeps Me Awake At Night.

It’s five o’ clock in the morning. Birds are singing. Somewhere far away I can hear church bells ringing.

These are things of beauty to someone else, I know. But in my sleepless brain, they’re just another form of cruelty.

Or, as John Lennon put it: ‘I can’t sleep. I can’t stop my brain. It’s been three weeks. I’m going insane.’ (I’m So Tired).

I don’t expect you to take a sudden interest in insomnia, but it’s interesting that if you Google “songs about insomnia” most people’s choices are songs about sleeping. Ruminating on ignorance like this keeps me awake at night.

The worst thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping. The best thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping.

On the one hand, it can literally be painful. Unchecked, it will lead to serious mental illness.

But on the other hand – all those extra hours in the day to get more things done!

My insomnia started when I was eight years old. I know why it started, and I’m not going to tell you about that.

But I had just learned to read, which was a nice coincidence. Inability to sleep meant I had extra hours to devour books under the bedcovers, illuminated by a night light I can still picture. I can even summon up the way the light felt in my hand, and the little button that clicked it off if I heard the wicked stepfather approaching.

When I went to London aged 17, I took to leaving the house at one in the morning, taking the night bus from Brixton to Waterloo, and walking along the Thames, calmed by its relentless movement.

A year later, I was in the thick of the music industry whose night-owl habits suited me fine. But a year after that, I was married with a child on the way (we didn’t hang around in the 60s, y’know).

Through my 20s and 30s, insomnia was my friend. I would do a day’s work, leaving the house around nine in the morning, getting home anywhere between 8pm to 2am the following morning.

If I got home early, I’d see my kids, have some dinner and then go straight into my ‘studio’ (the front room of my house, furnished with a piano, a tape recorder and a microphone).

When everyone else was tucked up in bed, that’s when I would write my songs and make my demos. God knows what the neighbours made of these strange goings on floating through the window at all hours.

ATT88981

Later, when the music career had gone, a combination of a manic episode and insomnia proved to be seismic. I could do anything I put my mind to – more energy and more time than the next guy.

And then, aged 42, the insomnia left me. Just like that.

I’d go to bed. I’d go to sleep.

That was novel.

In some ways, I felt bereft. How was I going to cope without those extra hours? Eventually, though, it just felt normal to be asleep by one am, or even before, and get six or seven hours.

About ten years later, it came back with a vengeance, all the crueller for having allowed me a taste of ‘normality’. If insomnia and a manic episode could be seismic, insomnia and depression combined to be, well, even more fucking depressing.

Having previously felt like a friend, a co-conspirator in getting things done and achieving dreams, now it felt – still feels – like an enemy.

And you get unwanted – and unwarranted – advice.

“Just get into bed, lie down and shut your eyes. You’ll soon go to sleep”.

No I bloody won’t!!!!!!

Al Pacino portrays it brilliantly as a detective in 2002’s Insomnia, with Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. He’s not helped by being up in Alaska, during a season of perpetual daylight. Watch the scene where he tries to black-out his room. It’s sheer torture.

Tonight, if I don’t take at least half a sleeping pill, I’ll still be awake at six or seven tomorrow morning. It’s a given. Which brings me back to Googling ‘songs about insomnia’.

The Beatles I’m Only Sleeping features a lot. But that’s a song about sleeping and dreaming, and not wanting to be woken from a pleasant experience.

Others that turn up – Asleep by The Smiths, Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline), California Dreaming (The Mamas & The Papas) – show that insomnia is woefully misunderstood.

In penance, I think the people who chose those songs should all be forced to listen to Insomnia by Megadeth, turned up to 11, until they beg for mercy.

But I’ll let you off lightly by directing you to my own song on the subject, One AM.

It’s more country rock than death metal, and it has no references to ‘the guilty past I’ve buried’ or ‘my swollen bloodshot eyes’  (© Megadeth, 1999).

But if you listen closely, you’ll hear that the first lines of this post are the third verse of the song. And the backing vocals were arranged by the very wonderful John Howard, the first time we’ve worked on something together since 1975.

Sleep well tonight.

Let’s talk about sex, baby. And mental health, while we’re at it.

I recently had a Tweet from a reader asking me to retweet as part of her campaign to bring herself to the notice of Joni Mitchell.

Two weeks later, my reply is still being retweeted and favourited by people I’ve never heard of.

You  never know with the internet, do you? You work your socks off trying to be noticed (blogging, Facebooking, SoundClouding) and then an off the cuff remark grabs all the attention.

This is what I said, in reply  to @SarahGSings, who wants to be noticed by Joni Mitchell:

SarahGTweet

I did, honest! On release in 1976, I reviewed Hejira for a weekly music magazine (long gone). Obviously, I raved about it. I finished up the review with the observation that “it’s better than sex”.

I wasn’t knocking sex. But while you can’t always get what you want in some spheres of life, music is always available to thrill, caress and lift you to heights…..oh, you know what I’m saying.

I was in a funny place in my life in 1976. After nine years of secure employment since leaving school, work was scarce and unreliable.

I was also going through an episode of what was later diagnosed as depression.

I felt, in a word, transient.

And then along comes Joni with a whole album about transience. The word Hejira derives from the Arabic for migration, or exodus.

She had already hit unbelievable heights with Court & Spark. But with Hejira she entered a whole new domain – she became, overnight, one of those rare birds in popular music. You could now regard her as an artist rather than as a mere musician or singer.

In one song, she’s talking to her lover, a ranch owner who is “brushing out the blue mare’s tail, as the sun is ascending, and I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel” (that’s a pre-digital studio reference for you young’uns).

In Amelia, she addresses the wanderlust of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Joni’s “driving across the burning desert“, when she spots “six jet planes, leaving six white vapor trails“. They are “the hexagram of the heavens, the strings of my guitar“.

You need to be unattached, restless, with a lot of time on your hands to notice these things and write them down. But you need to be an artist to come up with that last line.

Lyric after lyric on the album spoke to the deepest depths of my soul.

But my favourite lines, which are never far from my mind, are:

There is comfort in melancholy, when there’s no need to explain.                                                                        It’s just as natural as the weather in this moody sky today“.

I imagine those words resonate with everyone who has suffered from depression. Melancholy is a familiar state of mind, and – naturally – it feeds creativity (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?).

It’s a funny thing, depression (or, in my case, bipolar). Unless you’re at the extremes of the spectrum – being sectioned or even straitjacketed – even friends find it difficult to accept that you’re not well, simply because you have learned to cope and behave in a ‘normal’ way.

I had not begun to talk about my condition, which had been diagnosed 20 years earlier, until nine years ago. Mostly I was met with comments of the “you’re not depressed!” or “pull yourself together!” variety. The breakthrough for me came when Stephen Fry did his two-part documentary for BBC in 2006.

As Fry described his manic phases for the tv cameras – shopping for England, buying again things he already had, moving at 100 miles an hour – friends were calling or texting me saying, “Oh my God, it’s like being with you!”

Being manic was wonderful. Almost everything I’ve achieved in my life of any note (other than my children) has been during a manic phase. I can move mountains. Nothing gets in my way. I say “was wonderful” because I haven’t had a manic episode for nearly 10 years. I really miss them.

But it is odd that people can recognise that aspect of your behaviour, but still struggle to understand that the other end of the spectrum, the depression, is anything more than feeling a bit down.

It’s also quite sad that people you’ve known for years suddenly start treating you like a leper. Not close friends, not people you can sit and talk frankly with. But some quite important bits of my life fell apart when I opened up about being bipolar.

Well, in the immortal words of J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs, ‘Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke’.

I wrote my own song about it, comprised in large part of things I used to tell people to try and help them understand. It’s called Trouble With Me.

I’m going to leave you with that. I don’t think it’s a ‘depressing’ song. It’s really a country blues. In the tradition, the lyrics are personal and explicit about feelings and about the reason for the feelings.

Joni Mitchell is much, much, much better at that than me.

Hallo? Joni? Are you listening…..

Sorry, @SarahGSings – can’t help. Joni’s just not paying attention.