Monday, October 31, 2011

Dubai blues

I have just - just! - returned from doing 5 shows in Dubai with The Chicago Blues Brothers! We nearly made it there around this time last year, and to be honest I was half expecting this to be cancelled right up to the moment we walked on stage for the first show, but it was all ok in the end. Full story to follow as I made diary-style notes throughout our time there which I intend to reproduce here in one form or another in the not-too-distant future. But there's a more important thing to write about today...

We left Heathrow Airport last Monday afternoon; as we were walking towards the departure lounge CBB mainman Pete suddenly stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

He looked serious. He was serious.

'I need to talk to you mate - about something bad... I was on the phone to Paul Cope yesterday - who links me, you and Paul?'

As I said the name John Saxon I had a horrible feeling that I knew what was coming next.

'He's...' Pete hesitated ' longer with us.'

When I asked what had happened he just said 'he walked into the sea.'

I first met John in the early 1980s, around the time that I first met Pete. They were in a band called The Immediate - Pete was on bass, Paul was on guitar and Alan was on drums. John sang and played occasional lead guitar. He was amazing. He and Paul were a fine songwriting team and the band were good but with no disrespect to them it has be said that it was John that you had to see. For a start he looked great - with his collar-length hair, leather jackets, beaten up jeans and scarves he was completely at odds with the fashions of the time but looked so cool that it didn't matter. He was good looking (as someone put it to me once, 'he could win a Mel Gibson look-a-like contest; Mel would come second') with a cheeky chappy grin that had woman literally falling at his feet - even my mum fancied him! Of course none of this would have mattered if he couldn't sing, but he had a voice that was somewhere between Paul Rodgers and Rod Stewart. Yes, that good. He liked blues, soul, rhythm and blues, even '60s pop and he could sing any of it. In short he was brilliant. We got on well (and it must be admitted that not everyone did get on with him, or he with them...) and he seemed to like me, possibly because then as now I was something of an outsider and so was he. We got talking one day about guitar players and he revealed that he'd been a friend of the late and undeniably great Paul Kossoff, a player who has always loomed large in my record collection. When said that I was a big fan he'd met him when Koss came up to him one day to ask him where he'd got his jacket from. If ever you needed to sum John up in one line it's that an internationally famous rockstar guitar hero had asked him where he got his clothes from rather than the other way around. John was very proud of his friendship with Paul.

There was an aura about John that I've rarely if ever encountered before or since. If you ever asked him how he saw himself he'd invariably give you a very simple answer. He was a bluesman. And he was. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the music and the people who made it. Put simply, he loved it and indeed lived it, maybe even lived for it. Maybe that's why he was so good. He looked like a rock 'n' roll star, sounded like one, acted like one - but if I've learned anything in this life it's that you don't get something for nothing, and John was living proof of that. He suffered terribly from anxiety, depression, lack of confidence - I talked to him about that almost as much as I did about the music. While I was in The Price he, Paul and I (later with Simon Thompson on harmonica) formed an acoustic trio called The Diving Ducks, who regularly confused and confounded folk club audiences for a few years in the late '80s. Working with him I saw first hand just how hard he sometimes found performing, how it could leave him crippled with insecurity while all those around him including the band told him how great he was sounding. And he did sound great - if I've ever worked with a better singer than I can't think of their name at the moment. I'll let you know if I ever do... later he sang with The Chain Gang, Raw Deal and M.G.M. (including a show at The 1987 Reading Festival) and it looked as though he was going to get the success that he so richly deserved - but for whatever reason it was not to be. He formed an alliance with Duffy Power, another great talent who never fulfilled his potential, but then drifted away from performing and disappeared from view.

And then, suddenly, out of the blue sometime in the mid '90s he got back in touch with me, writing letters that showed that he'd lost none of his humour (there are off-the-cuff recordings of him from the Immediate days as 'Art Vincent' a bizarre comedy character that defies any attempt at analysis here!) and intellect, pouring scorn and derision on the then-current music scene (we never could quite agree on Oasis!) as well as sending me compilation cassettes and later CD's of everything from song demos to rare blues and soul recordings that meant so much to him. I would occasionally suggest that we could get together and play some music, but he never said yes. Shame. The last time I saw him was when he and his wife Cathy came to a Chicago Blues Brothers show in Rochford back in December 2006 - he looked apprehensive as we shook hands but within a few minutes the old John started to return. After the show he told me that I was playing 'better than ever' which was a compliment and a half coming from him. I said how great it would be to see and hear him singing again and he looked sad, saying 'no' with a resigned shrug before cracking a half- smile - 'well, you never know...'

Alongside old blues material The Diving Ducks played a version of 'Ooh La La' by The Faces. John was a massive fan of the band and always loved to sing the song - but he would never perform anything by Free. It always got the impression that it was almost too close to him, or something. One day in his flat I was doodling on my guitar as he left the room, I think to get a drink. When he came back in I happened to be playing the riff from 'Be My Friend' - he looked a bit shocked so I stopped but he said 'you play that really well, do it again'. He then sang the song beautifully; I started 'Love You So', one of my favourite songs of all time, I thought he stop me but he joined in and gave one of the most emotional performances that I've ever been part of, just me and him in a small room. We never played either of them again but I'll never forget it.

As I type this sentance The Faces's live version of 'The Stealer' by Free is playing in the background. I first heard it on one of his compiliation tapes so it seems appropriate. I love it, but it'll never sound quite the same again.

My little world is sadder for knowing that John is no longer part of it. God bless you Jonno - I hope you've found some peace at last.

And here is Cathy's very moving tribute to him.

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