Saturday, 31 August 2013

EXCLUSIVE: A conversation with Barbara Dickson


This is rather a strange one. Some weeks ago Barbara Dickson contacted me about her new album To Each and Everyone: The Songs of Gerry Rafferty which is out imminently through Greentrax Records. 

Like everyone in the known universe I know some of Gerry Rafferty's songs, but not many, and my knowledge of him is mostly of his sad decline and fall.

This is where it gets weird, because I am a drinker, and I come from a lineage of drinkers, whose behaviour would these days be probably classed as alcoholic. I don't consider myself an alcoholic because I don't drink every day or even every week, and my life is not defined by alcohol. But I do drink, and sometimes when I drink, I drink heavily.

So the story of Gerry's decline and fall is one which resonated with me, and so behind our discussion about her new album, my conversation with Barbara had a strange subtext...


JON: Tell me about the new record

BARBARA: I must tell you that regardless of what happens to it, it’s a bit like having had a very, very lovely baby. I have now done my job, the baby is born and the baby has a life of its own.  And regardless of where it goes in its life, it will still be absolutely gorgeous to me, and I love it unconditionally. And that’s what I am like about this album.  Sometimes I say that to people I don’t know very well and there’s perhaps a little bit of a  fingers crossed behind my back when people can’t see me, thinking ‘well I am not sure about that track but I hope people like it’. I don’t feel like that at all about this.  This album because it came at me on a sort of sideways way, has been almost like – I hate to be metaphysical here – but it’s almost like fate. It’s come at me.  I didn’t think of it.  It wasn’t my idea to do a Gerry Rafferty album, it didn’t occur to me, but lots of people said to me, ‘When Gerry died,’ and I am still really grieving for him, but when he died at the beginning of 2011 - in my opinion extremely prematurely and that was another reason why it was so sad for me – I really did think to myself that that’s it now. I will still sing the odd Gerry Rafferty song here and there which I do in my set, I do Over my Head and I have done The Right Moment a great deal, that is another great favourite of mine, and these pop up in my concert set and I have got rather emotional while singing them since he died. But lots of people said, and my husband was one of them, he said ‘You know what, you should an album comprising songs of Gerry’s because you have every right to do that.  You have loved him since you were young, you’ve sung his songs, you’ve been a great exponent of his music and him as a songwriter and brought his music, in some cases, some songs to people who wouldn’t know his work apart from maybe Baker Street or something. You’ve got every right to do that.’ 

A German fan of Gerry’s sent an email to my website saying, ‘Dear Miss Dickson. It would be a very good idea if you did a whole album of the songs of Gerry, we love him…….’  And other people as well.  Strange little kind of messages were coming at me, and so I was going to do an album with Troy  Donockley  anyway and I said to him, ‘Look can we take a sideways step here, Tory.  What do you think about doing an album of the songs of Gerry Rafferty?’  Now he didn’t really know Gerry songs because Troy is not quite 50, so he’s 15 years younger than me, and consequently wasn’t part of the Steelers Wheel/Gerry Rafferty 1970-1982 real massive success. So he said to, ‘Yeah’, because he knows the songs that I’ve done of Gerry’s and I said ‘Listen I’m going to go away, would you be up for this?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, what would we play?’  And I said, ‘Let me go and think about it.’ So cut to about 6 weeks later; I came back to Troy having listened to everything that Gerry had ever recorded, disregarding the rarities – I looked at the rarities that were sent through by Alan Rafferty who is Gerry’s cousin, and decided they were sort of rarities for a reason and that reason was that Gerry was not sure about some of them – you know – and he hadn’t continued with wanting to keep that stuff alive. So I went back to big repertoire and looked at it and the album tracks and I was very lucky – it wasn’t like doing Beatles songs where most of the songs are very familiar to people.  It was extraordinary how little people knew about Gerry’s work.  They all knew Baker Street, some knew Right Down the Line, one or two knew one or two others, but basically it was Baker Street.  He was the man who did Baker Street, and that’s all they knew about him. And even then they didn’t know anything about Baker Street. It was just dah…dah… de…de…de, that’s all they remembered. 

So giving this work to somebody like me was an absolute busman’s holiday because having done songs of Gerry’s in the past and felt that they really spoke to me; I mean sometimes male songwriters write songs that don’t speak to female interpreters of songs. Sometimes it is what Hugh Murphy, my friend – a late record producer – used to call geezer’s songs. ‘That’s a geezer song,’ he would say, and he was quite right. You know, there’s all sorts of songs that are geezer songs and don’t work for women. I don’t know what it is about it, but it can be quite, quite subtle I’m saying.  So Gerry’s songs were not geezer songs, apart from the ones about his ex-wife where he is sort of doing a bit of a rant. That didn’t speak to me either. But loads of others did. So I came back to Troy and we did this extraordinary thing where – I think I must have told you about before – I took the songs (he didn’t know the songs) and I listened on my IPod without him listening and just kind of got a feel of what I saw the song as being, sang it in his ear acappella, so Troy wasn’t listening to the track.

JON: Gosh

BARBARA:  It’s quite amazing. Nobody else does this, and if they do they don’t do it the same way. So I sing the song so it’s something like In Another World which is a final track on the album.  If I was to sing, I would just sing ‘If we ever should meet in another world’ in his ear, you see, and if he got he chord jim-jams he would do it, if he didn’t get the chord jim-jams we wouldn’t do it. There’s a kind of thing about the song, the way the song sort of carried itself from my heart to Troy’s heart.

JON:  There is something….. you were talking about something metaphysical earlier.  There is something very strange about that, something very magical about doing it like that.

BARBARA:  It is.  You are absolutely right. It’s nothing to do with arrangement, it’s to do with the actual kernel, the core of it. And it works for us and he said that he feels something when I do that.  And what happens in the recordings that we make together is that quality is still there at the end of the proceedings. It’s quite extraordinary that that quality is there, the song and me singing very close to the listener’s ear is in Words Unspoken,  is in Full Circle, in Time and Tide; it’s there all the time, but he and I think that this album is the culmination of what we’ve done since 2004.

JON:  Wonderful.

BARBARA:  We think it’s the best one we’ve done. It’s not that the others are aren’t good, but we’ve just been learning all the time and all the best things that we’ve learnt are included in this.

JON:  How long did you know Gerry?

BARBARA:  I knew Gerry all my life.  We started off by … I walked into the Scotia Bar in the late  ‘60s in Glasgow, and I was on my way obviously home to Edinburgh because I didn’t ever live in Glasgow, and I was going home – it was lunchtime and I wouldn’t be in the pub particularly at lunchtime – certainly not in Glasgow – so I’m just trying to place when it would have been, but I was probably going from  Irvine in Ayrshire where I used to go quite a lot to sing and play on my own and so I would be going back from there to Edinburgh and I would go into the Scotia Bar because Billy Connolly and the folk people of Glasgow would gather there and we were all like a sub-cult of friends.  We operated in a parallel universe to everyone else, but we all knew each other. And I walked in the pub, and I heard a voice – now it’s probably apocryphal this, but I’ve got this in my mind’s eye that he was singing My Father didn’t Like Me Anyway which was one of his very early songs but he definitely did sing that song that day. So in other words, there was a man there with a guitar singing round the corner and I came along and said to somebody, ‘Who’s that?’ And they said, ‘Oh, that’s Gerry Rafferty, he’s a friend of Billy’s.’  And that was just around the time that Gerry Rafferty hooked up with Billy Connolly in The Humblebums, although The Humblebums pre-existed that line up because The Humblebums were Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey who was a bluegrass guitar player and he and Billy did bluegrass – Billy plays banjo and the pair of them played bluegrass, singing My Dixie Darling and all that kind of stuff.  And Gerry joined them having been – Billy was much impressed when he heard Gerry playing – and Gerry joined them, and Gerry suddenly went from complete obscurity in the west of Scotland to being quite a big cheese in music, because The Humblebums were so popular. And that was 1969? And I sang on his first three big successful albums in the late ‘70s, City to City, Night Owl and Snakes and Ladders. He sang on my Dylan album that I did in 1992, he sang The Times They are A’changing with me.  He and I kept in touch all our lives basically and I was at his funeral in Paisley at the beginning of 2011. And I keep in touch with his family and we did the big concert at Celtic Connections in 2012 which was a tribute to his life and work.  I was on that with Ron Sexsmith and Paul Brady, Maria Muldaur and Jack Bruce. Jack did a killer version of Shipyard Town, you want to hear that with a young uillean pipe player from North Ireland playing the pipes on it.  Absolutely stonking. And it was a great concert and there was copious amounts of weeping and you can imagine.  Everyone could hardly keep it together, but all of this has been building up to this album, Jon, and I just said to a friend in an email this morning, I don’t know if anyone will buy it, if it will be a commercial success, but it makes no difference, it had to be done and it is a glorious project for me and Troy is a genius.

JON: I think its absolutely gorgeous.

BARBARA:  It’s very beautiful and it has a real quality of really quite reverential without being cloying in any way.  It’s treating him with the respect he deserves. And I just hope that people will see him as the great writer he was.  In my opinion he was a much better songwriter than Paul McCartney. Yes.  His tunes were as good, but his words are much better than Paul McCartney.

JON:  It’s got to be said.  Paul McCartney writes amazing tunes but some of his words are horrible.

BARBARA:  The words are rubbish, yeah. I mean obviously the best work McCartney did was with John Lennon because each of them had a talent. I mean although John Lennon wrote  In my Life which is the one that immediately comes to mind, his words were much much more meaningful and important to him and I think that’s why the Beatles combined had so much power as writers, but McCartney – once Lennon was removed from the equation – it was never quite the same was it?

JON:  It wasn’t the same for Lennon either, once ….

BARBARA:  No, I think you are absolutely right.  I don’t like what John Lennon did on his own, and that sounds sacrilegious I know, but that’s how I feel.

JON:  The only one of the Beatles whose solo stuff really stood up was George Harrison.

BARBARA:  Oh I love George.

JON:  It was because, poor sod, he was in a band with two great songwriters and he was just a good one.

BARBARA:  I agree with you. If he’d been in another band, if he’d been a songwriter in another band, he would never have been overshadowed like that. And I love George.

JON: It’s a bit like John Entwhistle and The Who.  When you are in a band with Pete Townshend you haven’t got a hope in hell..

BARBARA:  That’s absolutely right.

<....   Barbara and I got completely sidetracked onto an irrelevant conversation which, although I enjoyed it massively, had absolutely nothing to do with the main crux of this interview     ...>

BARBARA:  Gerry died of drink. 

JON:  I’d heard that.

BARBARA: Yes.  There’s no skirting round it Jon. 

JON:  Didn’t Gerry disappear for a while?

BARBARA:  Yeah, he did disappear.  He did all that stuff. And he never, never managed to give it up. And yet all the lovely men I know – I know lots and lots of lovely men from my generation – who have completely given up drinking and have gone on to have a wonderful new life because the energy and resolve and stuff that has happened to them since they gave up, you know.  I think there was a guy in Glasgow who said to Billy Connolly that if he gave up drinking there would be nothing to do. Like a true alcoholic would feel like that I suppose. There would be nothing to do apart from watch daytime television. And Billy said ‘No it’s not like that really. You do have lots of energy so you can go and do the things that you always wanted to do that you were too tired to do.’

JON:  How old was Gerry when he died?

BARBARA:  He was 63.

JON:  That’s ridiculously young. 

BARBARA:  Yeah, and if he hadn’t drunk… he was a big, strong guy, I mean constitutionally he was a big guy you know from excellent peasant stock, and he would have gone on for ever.

JON:  Why do you think he never got the recognition he deserved?

BARBARA:  He did get the recognition of course, but he turned his back on it.  He did get massive recognition. He had a number one hit in America with Stuck in the Middle – remember that?

JON:  Yes Stuck in the Middle and Baker Street were the songs ….

BARBARA:  And what happened was, he had a number one record in America, his album was number one in America, but he didn’t want to go over and promote it.  And so he fell out with the record companies and he basically had … I mean I am not saying this as a bad thing, Jon, I’m actually playing big Devil’s Advocate here.  He was signed to a massive record company.  The record company had not him a hit.  A hit album and a hit single and he decided he didn’t want that because I think he was afraid of what was going to happen to him and his life and his work and his songs and he was thinking this is all going to get cheapened and blah, blah, blah…..whatever was going through his head. And I don’t think hew as the sort of person who was … he didn’t want success that much.  He wanted his work to be recognized.  This was the big dichotomy, but he was afraid of being too noticed for the wrong reasons. Having to sit on a bollard by the Clyde and have his picture taken by the Daily Record, you know. ‘Rafferty jumps for joy’…..all this kind of rubbish, you know.  I think that bothered him and he didn’t want to be in that world, so he kind of backed off and he backed off so far that he never actually came back again. But he did have lots of supportive record company people and lots of record deals and big budgets and stuff right up till the 1990s. 

JON:  Is that when he retreated into alcohol?

BARBARA:  No.  He had always drunk.  I think that what happened to him was that he was left alone and because he was left alone to write more, and record more and stuff he didn’t achieve anything like the success that he’d had at the end of the ‘70s.  I don’t think he minded that. I think he was trying to get it to work in his own way but it’s not like that. It’s a Faustian pact.  We know this, don’t we?

JON:  Yes.

BARBARA:  It’s a Faustian pact.  You give them your soul, they give you money. That’s how it works.  There’s very few people that can actually come out from under all that unscathed. And Gerry was a delicate, sensitive individual and I think he drank like a lot of people do to hide, to escape,  to stop voices in his head, you know all that stuff. Who knows what exactly was going on?  I don’t know, but he was much loved by a lot of really good people and we all shared copious tears when he died.  But his legacy lives on, and look what’s happened.  I’ve made an album which I’m offering to people as an indication of how talented and how brilliant this man was and I also say in the sleeve notes, go and find out more about him. He wasn’t just a sort of trite pop writer.  That was nothing to do with what he was.  Great depth and great emotional capability in music and could write killer middle eighth and good words.  He was great.

JON:  He was a remarkable man.

BARBARA:  Yeah.  And this is what he’s left us, so he might not be here any more but he has left this great legacy and I am going to go down fighting to keep his memory alive. 

JON:  Well that is a very wise and brave and sensible thing to be doing.

File:Gerry Rafferty.jpgBARBARA:  Well it is important to me.  It’s very, very important to me to do that, and I will keep at it and I will send you a copy of the record because you need to hear what the music is about and then you can – you know – make your own judgements about how successful you think Troy and I have been in this.  And there will be songs probably that you – and you’re very informed musically – you might never have heard.  There will be songs there and you might be able to look at the originals and say ‘hmmm, well I like what Troy and Barbara did, but I’m not so sure about that one.’  And all that stuff, you know just to compare notes and that is what I am inviting people to do as well and it’s just to not let his memory die.
  
JON:  Oh yes, you’ve got me hooked.

BARBARA:  Good, good, that’s great.  Well the official date that it comes out is 1st September, so we have time for you to listen to this.  It’s on Greentrax – that’s the label – but Rob very kindly said ‘Yeah it’ll be fine for you and I to talk, because of course it’s the bigger picture and there’s stuff on Gonzo and hopefully one or two people will pick upon that having got interested in the Rafferty project.  At least I hope they do, because all that stuff with Troy which is on Gonzo is really good.

JON:  So what’s your next project? 

BARBARA:  I don’t know.  For once I don’t know.  Usually I’m saying ‘Well actually what I am going to do next is….’  I mean I wouldn’t mind actually doing a second volume of songs of Gerry’s because there were more. But I might do traditional music.  I’m just going to see what’s floating towards me – you know those little rubber toys that children wear on the end of their finger?  Sort of jelly monsters. I’m a bit like that.  I’m sort of picking up sensitive things flying about and if projects come at me and things are coming at me I’m at the stage in my life now where I don’t have a manager saying, ‘Oh don’t say that, you won’t make any money’, or ‘Don’t do that nobody will buy it’.  I don’t care, I’m just doing what I want to do.

JON:  Which is the purest thing an artist can do isn’t it?

BARBARA:  It’s perfect Jon.  And so much of my musical life has been pressurised by other people for the wrong reasons and now that’s not there and that’s just perfect.  For the last sort of 10 years it’s just been marvellous. So I am going to continue in the same vein and I just hope that people will pick up on the Gerry album because people did like Gerry a great deal when his big records were out he was massively popular so there might be one or two sensitive souls out there who really remember him with fondness.

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