STEVE HARLEY: FRIEND FOR LIFE
‘Madeleine de Proust' is an expression describing sounds, aromas, tastes and other sensations that remind you of your childhood, or that provoke memories and emotions from long, lost times. It alludes to ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ author Marcel Proust’s recollections of tiny cakes in French bakery windows. Their appearance, scent and taste jolted long-resisted reminiscences of more innocent, simpler days.
The smell of Helena Rubenstein lipstick and a Max Factor powder compact, the kind for which my paternal grandmother Nancy reached each morning, had much the same effect on me back in the day. Nowadays it is mostly music that unlocks my memory and gets me sweating. Finding myself on a long-distance city-to-city drive the other night, I tuned in to Jo Whiley on the car radio and was transported: back to the haze of schoolgirl days when I acquired, with birthday money, two copies of Elton’s fifth album ‘Honky Chateau’ (the second in case I lost or damaged the first). A listener had requested ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ from that perfect LP. I had forgotten not a single lyric, nor the melody, though I couldn’t have pulled it out and spun it in maybe a decade. Harmonising with the rocket man as I chootled on down that fast unlit road, I was right back in my navy-blue-and-burgundy uniform, spinning the vinyl behind a closed bedroom door after lights-out. I turned around and said good morning to the night.
Some music is simply too painful to listen to. Steve Harley’s at times has that effect. The memories are dear, and can be excruciating. Friends for centuries, we discovered way back our shared love of Thomas Stearns Eliot. The master’s poetry was a ‘set-piece’ at English O or A Level, I can’t remember which. So many of the lines committed to memory for exam purposes remain embedded, from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ especially.
‘Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table.’
‘I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.’
Young teenagers are unattuned to the fear of growing old. They could not care less for the sentiments evoked. Now, for vincible us, inching ever closer, acknowledgement of its proximity is wise.
I ventured down at Steve’s invitation to experience the final night of a trio of acoustic shows at one of my favourite London venues, the Pizza Express Holborn. So moved was I by the night that it has taken me until now to process it. Firstly because Steve articulated one of the worst drawbacks of growing old, that of losing one’s friends. He dedicated these shows to gifted bassist Kuma Harada, ‘one of the sweetest, most considerate and humorous guys you could ever wish to share a tour bus or stage with’; and to dear friend guitarist, composer and songwriter Alan Darby, who faded from us in January. Beautiful, life-enhancing creatures both. Their loss is keenly felt.
Maybe Kuma and Alan looked in that night. There was magic in the air that was more than music. More than trusty tunes of yore whisking us back to tight Levi’s and taxi shoes. More than the camaraderie of a confined space when all are in for the same reason. More than the deep, brilliant poet in Steve, widely acknowledged and adored yet still largely unsung. More than the gorgeous virtuosity of violinist-guitarist Barry Wickens, whom I knew before I met Steve (which is saying something). More than the musicianship of acoustician (which he must be), zip-fingered plucker David Delarre, who draws dances from his instrument with unspeakable ease. More than appreciation, more than applause, more than the cosy familiarity of songs that have thrilled us perhaps forever.
‘You carry me like a child You're a goddess when I'm wild Whеn I'm desperate and black, you arе golden…’ are starkly romantic words from ‘(Love) Compared with You’: the kind of songwriting that should have earned Steve millions. Though he has triumphed compared with most, he gladly presents as a humble troubadour living from a battered bag on the high road through his seventies; taking in museums, galleries, cornices and corners by himself. Seeing worlds of wonder through a balladeer’s eyes. Bringing realisation and revelation to sublime stanzas.
There is a ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ dimension to ‘Mr Raffles (Man, It Was Mean’) that I can’t remember having heard before. Hear that?
‘The Last Time I Saw You’ takes you down –
‘… my eyes were red from constant crying
Blue moon was at my door
The leaping of my ransomed heart
Said trees can weep and stone can bleed
We knew but we were unsure’ …
… and ‘Journey’s End (A Father’s Promise)’, written for Steve’s son Keir (beside whom I sat that night) has you weeping.
‘Hold on to early souvenirs,’ Steve urges his heir. ‘Write down your feelings.’
Refrain from reaching for the obvious - ‘Mr Soft’, ‘Judy Teen’, ‘(Make Me Smile) Come Up and See Me’ - until you have soaked up ‘The Coast of Amalfi’ and ‘Friend for Life’ (penned for Dorothy, his wife), and have immersed yourself in his interpretations of cherished tunes: Cat Stevens’s ‘How Can I Tell You’, Bowie’s ‘Absolute Beginners’, the Stones’ ‘Out of Time’.
I can go on. I’ll leave you to listen – to Steve’s 2020 album ‘Uncovered’. Perhaps we will see each other back at the Pizza Express Holborn on 27th May. When I looked in to purchase tickets today, just a table or two left. Skates on.