Things Behind the Sun


On Music

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Just past Tandy Crafts, a dark, unlovely store on the corner of Thirteenth and Sixth Ave, there was a door that led to the shop’s basement and storage area. Down there, tucked between the boiler room and the janitor’s closet, you could find the editorial offices of Crawdaddy.

I was there because Rolling Stone was in California, because Hit Parader was no longer interesting, and because Downbeat was incomprehensible. Crawdaddy was the only other music magazine I’d heard of, and it had the advantage of being in New York. It also had the advantage of not having a listed phone number, so I couldn’t be turned away unseen. In my pocket I had two stories I’d written for my school paper. One was a review of John Fahey’s Days Have Gone By, the other was an appreciation of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Neither was more than a few hundred words, and I’d probably spent more time tracking down the address of Crawdaddy than I had in writing them. But there I was. It was the middle of April, in 1970, and all was right with the world.

The office looked like the sort of place the right kind of people would plan a bank heist—not necessarily a successful one. Everything was in shadow. In one corner there was a gum machine with no gum left in it. Cardboard boxes and file cabinets and what looked like thirteen or fourteen pieces of abandoned luggage lined the back wall. Two guys with long brown hair, one with a mustache, one without, sat across from each other at a desk. The one with the mustache swept whatever’d been on the desk into an open drawer, then shut it. The other one took a long drag off his cigarette and stared at me with a mixture of hope and panic in his eyes.

I couldn’t find a chair, so I perched on the edge of a brown suitcase and pulled out folded copies of my stories. They passed them back and forth to each other. The one with the mustache turned out to be the editor, and he smiled once or twice and nodded in my direction and said, Butterfield as if it were a punch line or a benediction.

I explained why I was there. I was going to London for a summer job, interning at a film company. Maybe I could do some stories for them while I was in London. Some interviews. Or reviews.

“Right,” the editor nodded. “Except … there’s Miles.”

“Miles,” his friend agreed and stubbed out his cigarette.

Barry Miles was their London editor. He was friends with the Beatles. He’d started the Indica bookshop with Paul McCartney. John Lennon had met Yoko Ono at an opening in his gallery. He knew everyone.

The editor shrugged and leaned back in his chair.

“Leave us a number, someplace we can find you. Something turns up … we’ll be in touch.”

The film company wasn’t a film company anymore. They no longer made films. An accountant had gone through their books and determined that none of their productions had made money in a long, long time. What kept them afloat was all the equipment they’d accumulated over the years, much of it from the 1940s: the cameras and tripods and dollies, microphones, edit bays, widgets, and mechanical whatnots that went into day-to-day filmmaking. Overnight, a company known for award-winning documentaries, news reports, and music shows for the BBC had morphed into a rental office, grudgingly leasing their beautiful vintage gear to filmmakers that hadn’t gone bust yet.

The mood in the office was not sunny. The change had only gone into effect a few weeks before.

“It took the wind out of our sails,” the managing director told me when I first turned up. “The cream out of our coffee. The spring out of our step. Can you imagine … ?” he asked me. He was wearing tweed. I nodded. “No,” he snapped. “No. You cannot.”

I was put into the hands of Mrs. Pyne, a trim woman with tortoise-shell glasses and a style best described as crisp. She decided that I wouldn’t be much use lifting or loading gear, nor was my knowledge of London sufficient to have me handle deliveries.

My job was to take all the various scraps of paper, all the inventory sheets, memos, canceled checks, and invoice forms and enter the information into an oversize ledger.

“In this column you’ll list the pieces of equipment that were rented, the date of the rental, and the price agreed upon. You’ll do that in red ink. Red.”

“Here,” she said, pointing to the opposite page, “you’ll enter the pieces of equipment returned, their condition on return, date of return, and monies received. You’ll do that in green ink. Green. Are we clear? The pens are in the middle drawer. They are not to be taken home. They are office property.”

This was not what I’d had in mind. It was probably not what they’d had in mind either. No wind, no sails, no cream, no coffee. I tried to hum while I made sense of all the bits of paper, but no songs were available.

It must have been two, three days later when the phone rang. Mrs. Pyne held her hand over the mouthpiece and looked over to the managing director.

“Is his name Brian?” she pouted. He nodded. She handed me the phone and made a hurry-up motion with her hands.

“Hey,” a voice from somewhere far away drawled. It was the editor of Crawdaddy. He asked about clubs I’d never heard of, bars I’d never been to, bands I was only dimly aware of, parties I’d never been invited to. I mumbled affably. I was hoping that the sounds of despair and regret couldn’t be heard transatlantically, that it could be put down to static on the line. The heat pipes coughed, and the tea lady down the corridor was rattling cups.

“So listen … Barry Miles is leaving England. He’s moving to Woodstock to write a biography of Allen Ginsberg. We were wondering if you’d want to take over as our London editor. Is there anything you need?”

Looking in the rearview mirror, I should’ve said, An office! A phone! Money! A motorbike! Credit cards! Clothes! Pretty girls in tights!

What I said was, “A press pass. I need a press pass.”

No one in London had ever heard of Crawdaddy. No one. It didn’t matter. All doors were open, everyone was home, and the world was aflame and alive with possibility.

I was backstage; I was on the side of the stage; I was onstage singing backup. People I didn’t know bought me drinks, gave me their phone numbers. I looked up, and I was at the Baghdad House, a restaurant in North London with a private room downstairs where you could smoke hashish and drink rosewater honey. Frank Zappa was there. Peter Sellers was there. Sandy Denny saw me and dragged me off to a recording session, doing backup vocals for Stefan Grossman. The backing vocalists were Sandy, Linda Peters (soon to be Linda Thompson), Trevor Lucas, Heather Wood from the Young Tradition, and myself. I was pleased to note that Heather Wood had a tendency to sing flat, same as I did, and we were both conveniently placed behind Trevor Lucas, who was exceedingly loud and reliably in tune.

“You’re not flat,” he told me reassuringly. “You and Heather just like to approach the notes from the south side.”

It was the summer of 1970. All was right with the world.

Hampstead Heath was my favorite place in London, and if I walked far enough along Primrose Hill Road I’d eventually get to John and Beverly Martyn’s house, my home away from home. They took me in the way they took in stray cats or drifters en route to Morocco or Spain.

The fact that I had some sort of magazine affiliation, however vague the affiliation, however distant the magazine, was, if anything, a strike against me. John loved talking, loved having an audience, but he hated answering questions and was deeply suspicious of the music press. The fact that I was an American who knew and liked his music, who had actually paid cash money for Stormbringer back in America and who had heard songs of his played on the radio in New York, was a matter of amazement and pride. If he had a bad gig, if he broke a string, if the baby cried, if the weed or the whiskey didn’t take him where he needed to go, there was always that: somewhere in America someone was listening to his songs, someone liked his music. Over there. Somewhere.

“So,” he would say, leaning back, holding an oud, “if we could wait till it was a really clear night, the stars out, not a cloud, man, not a cloud, and we could go up and down the radio dial, we could listen to the future as well as the past, hear a whole album I haven’t even made yet, playing out there in the night. What do you think?”

“Save you the trouble of making it,” I ventured.

“Fuck off, Yank.”

A favorite pastime was making sense of Martyn’s record collection, trying to organize it or relate it to a world I knew. Hamza El Din sat right next to Pharoah Sanders; Lord Buckley leaned up against Manitas de Plata, Baden Powell, and Sandy Bull. There was Archie Shepp, Bukka White, Geoff Muldaur, Ann Briggs, a record of bagpipe music, Koerner Ray &amp, Glover, the Real Bahamas, and A Love Supreme. The records he loved, he played over and over again, until every note and every nuance was absorbed into the Turkish rugs on the floor, until the sounds were part of his life and his house.

Over time, I’d send him albums I thought he’d like, only to find them unapologetically unopened and unheard when I’d come by. Townes Van Zandt? “It’s the same song, over and over. And I know that song. I already wrote that song.” Tim Buckley? “Too many octaves, man. Too many octaves.”

It was the second or third time I was at his house. It was late afternoon, there was a soft light coming through the curtains, and we’d been listening to the same album of classical guitar—Julian Bream?—for over an hour, when something by the window stirred and started to rise. I hadn’t noticed anyone there, and it gave me a fright.

“Nick,” John nodded. “This is Brian. Brian, Nick. Everyone present, accounted for?”

The figure came into focus. It rose, and stretched, and where before it had looked like a small child that had folded itself into a ball, now I could see it was someone fairly tall with the physique of a tennis player, all arms and legs and elbows. A curtain of dark and uncombed hair hung around his face, hiding everything but his eyes. It looked like he was stoned. It looked like he was asleep. It looked like he was the most wide-awake person in the history of the world. All of the above. Each time I replay the scene in my mind, it’s different. And each time it’s true. He was wearing a frayed white shirt and jeans and boots and a black corduroy jacket that seemed a size too large. I don’t usually pay much attention to clothes, but my first thought was … where can I get a black corduroy jacket?

How long had he been there? What was he doing? Meditating? Dreaming? Drifting? Watching?

Over the next few months, I’d have the same experience over and over again, and I never got used to it. I’d be in a room or a restaurant and wouldn’t have a clue that Nick was there until he got up to leave. But, once gone, you’d notice the absence. It filled the air, like a chord that won’t die out, that hangs there, loud, even in fading, especially in fading, that hangs there until the next note is played.

“You heard his record?” John asked, after he’d wandered off. “No? Oh, man, how could you miss it? It’s the best. It’s alive!”

John handed me a well worn copy of Five Leaves Left. I looked at the cover. When he left, a moment ago, he’d been wearing the same clothes he had on in the cover photo. And it looked like he might not have taken them off since then.

When I returned the record a few days later, I couldn’t stop talking about how great it was, how it was something new and strong and pure. That voice! So smooth, so delicate, yet so hard to shake. Once you heard it, you couldn’t get it out of your head. Those strings! The way they wove through the melodies like a Greek chorus, reminding you of the depths below, the darkness, and the night just around the corner; maybe you can’t see it now, but you will, you will! How he’d taken bits of John’s guitar style and brought in some of the Brazilian shadings of João Gilberto, the soft, floating chord changes of Jim Webb, the sweep of Astral Weeks. How he’d invented a genuine British blues form, standing right there on the corner of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Brownie McGhee!

I went on and on. John might have winced a little, but I didn’t notice. His wife Beverly did, and she took me aside.

“It’s great that you love Nick’s album. You know we love Nick’s album. You know we love Nick. But maybe you shouldn’t talk about it quite so much. To John, I mean.”

Point taken.

Martyn could be competitive and fractious, especially if he’d been drinking, and if I’d been raving about Bert Jansch or Richard Thompson, I’d have been bounced out on my ear. But when it came to Nick, different rules applied. John was fiercely protective of him, provided safe haven and no questions asked. Nick could leave his shadow behind; John would roll it up, put it in the hall closet, and it would be there safe when he returned.

I tried to tell Nick how much I liked his album. It was later that week, we were in the kitchen at John and Beverly’s, drinking tea, and there was silence everywhere. I mentioned a few songs, ”Cello Song” and “River Man” and “Saturday Sun,” and he nodded and stared at the table. After a few minutes, he started fumbling through his coat pockets. There was a smell of mint and tobacco, maybe cloves, and he was pulling out scraps of paper, guitar picks, rolling papers, and such. He looked up.

“Do you like chocolate?” he asked. He held an unopened bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate.

I had come to London with a Gibson Hummingbird guitar. It was beautiful and shiny and too good for me. In New York, it was like driving a Volvo: solid, reliable, safe. In London, it was like showing up in a Porsche.

I brought it to John’s house to show it off, though John was only mildly curious. I played a few chords, and Andy the Greek, who ran Cousins, a club in the West End, began bombarding me with questions: Wasn’t that the guitar on the cover of Nashville Skyline? What does it cost? Do you have a pickup for it? What strings do you use?

While I was answering, best I could, Nick materialized and asked if he could have a look. He picked up the guitar, carried it out into the hallway, and then shut the door tight. Through the closed door, I could just about hear bits of half familiar melodies, the strings being coaxed into music.

“Do you ever play clubs?” Andy the Greek asked me while I was trying to hear the muffled sounds. I admitted that I’d played Bunji’s a couple of times. Not very happily.

“They’re a tough crowd there. You should try Cousins.”

“Sure. But whom would I audition for?”

“Me,” he shrugged. “And you already have. You can play there next Friday. Right before the ghost in the hallway.”

My performance at Cousins was forgettable. Nick’s was memorable mostly for its awkwardness. Sitting on a small wooden chair, the kind favored in most third grade classrooms, he seemed to shrink, to recede further and further away from the microphone, as if we were all looking through the wrong end of a telescope. He hunched over a small mahogany guitar, a parlor guitar, and began fingerpicking with the ease and  elegance and grace of the playing on his album, though he pulled the guitar tightly into himself, hugging it as he played, and the sound was distant and muffled and indistinct, as if he’d found a way to get up and walk out into the hallway and close the door on us while he sat there on the stage.

He began singing “Thoughts of Mary Jane,” and you could hear the sound of the buttons on his jacket hitting the guitar, the sound of the chair creaking, and midway through, just as it seemed like he was getting warmed up and settling into the performance, he changed directions, changed songs. No one could tell if he’d forgotten the chords or lost the words or simply grown bored and decided to move on. He settled into a rolling guitar figure, beautiful and stuttered and strangely uplifting, and he began singing the opening lines to a new song, new to me at least:

Do you curse where you come from?
Do you swear in the night?

And then he would look away, even further away, and begin the pattern once again and continue the same words until they sprawled into a chant, slurred and strange and hypnotic:

Do you curse where you come from?
Do you swear in the night?

The words seemed a challenge, a prayer and a whispered threat all at once, a quiet British voodoo sung to an unseen moon and an all-too-present dark:

Do you curse where you come from?
Do you swear in the night?

You couldn’t watch. But you couldn’t look away. And then it was over. I don’t remember if there was any applause, but I know that there were no celebratory drinks, there was no after party; the audience simply drifted off into their own version of the night.

We were driving to a late dinner. It was foggy and rainy and dark. I was there with John and  Beverly and their friend Paul Wheeler, who was driving. He was with a woman in a dress that was much too pretty. Out the window we could see Nick driving somewhere in a battered white Chevy. We waved and honked, but I don’t think he saw us. Maybe he didn’t want to see us.

“He’s like a phantom,” I said.

“The flying Dutchman,” Paul Wheeler agreed.

“Jesus,” John snapped, “why does everyone think he’s so gloomy? What, do you think he’s off to wander through some abandoned graveyard and just look at tombstones and think about eternity? That’s not who he is! That’s not what he’s doing!”

But that, in fact, was exactly what he was doing.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.