Listening to the stories we could tell
I’ve always loved the Everly Brothers. I’m not sure why, but in the late 1950s they sounded, to me, a teenager in Harrow, as if they were the very personification of a new and deviant life to come. Don had an arrogant slur in his voice, singing his words in an accent so far removed from mine—the country boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains and the English boy living in a Home Counties suburb—that the very difficulty I had in deciphering his words suggested another world, another country, a life far removed from the one I lived with my Lincolnshire parents. Even now, listening to I Wonder if I Care as Much, I’m not quite sure what Don is singing. It was like that in 1958: if you couldn’t make the words out, it was because there was a whole other way of living; a way of living that seemed to hold the very key to life. Just how many times had I had placed my ears to the speaker when a record like the Olympics Western Movies was being played? Just how many times had I slowed the record down by placing my fingers on the rotating vinyl, so that the record player was circling at 40 rpm, or even 30 rpm?
And just how long had it taken me to decipher words like:
I call my baby on the telephone
To tell her half my head was gone
I just got hit by a great big brick
She says thanks for reminding me about Maverick
The Olympics, Western Movies, 1958
The Everlys, though, unlike these one hit wonders, stayed with me forever. I grew up, I grew older; but their Appalachian harmonies, as I kept on listening through the decades, began to suggest not the teenage angst that they’d so wonderfully portrayed in Bird Dog and Wake up, Little Susie, but a deeper narrative, an altogether richer landscape, a sense of continuity, a feel for family: their exquisitely sweet harmonies were as bells ringing out for a worldwide evensong. They were not from my land; but they were of my land. Boys whose roots went back to the Irish-Scots, but had been re-routed in the States by the calls of the blues singers in the fields and the electric guitars that their urbanised kinfolk were playing in Chicago. Boys who grew up with the songs their father played on his guitar, steeped in the Blue Sky Boys and the Louvin Brothers—but who caught, on a car radio, the sounds of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and heard what Elvis was doing over in Memphis. By the time they were in their late teens, they could no longer sing those spirituals that the Louvins had liked; but they could do a wonderful country version of Ray Charles’s This Little Girl of Mine, itself a re-working of an old black gospel song. Wheels coming full circle.
And, in the rolling of the wheels lay the perpetual unfolding of the stories.
I saw them a couple of times. The first was a frenetically insane evening at the Granada Cinema in Harrow. I’m not sure, now, where they featured on the bill, I think they finished the first half. They were on what was called a package show, with Bo Diddley, Little Richard and the Rolling Stones. I went there, in 1963, mainly to see Little Richard and Bo Diddley; and, true to form, Little Richard, the last act (who could follow him?), brought the house down, urging his audience in an orgy of sheer provocation to lay the cinema to waste. The Stones were in their infancy and disappeared somewhere in the first half, quite unable before they had discovered their own voice to match the magic of Bo Diddley who performed before them: after all, in 1963, who wanted to hear a group that copied Chuck and Bo songs when one of their mentors was actually on the stage? The Everly Brothers must have followed them closing the half; and—clearly fazed by the rock’n’roll razzle dazzle—stormed into their faster numbers at such a speed that their very raison d’être was destroyed. The songs sounded awful; Bye Bye Love and Claudette by the Chipmunks. But then as if to grasp the moment and state the obvious—that they were the world’s best harmony duo, the very template for Lennon, McCartney and Simon and Garfunkel—they performed a ravishing version of All I Have to Do Is Dream, forcing those harmonies into areas that seemed in 1963 to be from a world apart from the rest of that evening. The sounds of old Connemara and modern Nashville, touches of green, touches of blues, braided in the new synthesis that had emerged in their father’s generation.
The stories they could tell.
When I next saw them they’d fallen out, not talked to each other for years and—probably for financial reasons—had decided to re-form and tour the world. 1983. Twenty years since the Harrow gig.
It was at the Apollo in Ardwick, Manchester. I was supposed to interview them for a local radio station, Piccadilly, but somehow—and typically—managed to take the tape deck to the venue but completely failed in my central mission to force my way into the theatre and actually get something on tape. I did, though, see the show. It’s all I’d wanted to do, really.
I’m not sure how many times in my life I’ve been as moved as I was that night. It was not, for certain, a sense of pure nostalgia; though it was a sense of history, of time passing. Don had put on significant weight and was hardly the broody adolescent of Problems and ‘Til I Kissed You; but his physical weight was entirely matched by the sheer emotional weight of his vocal delivery, with a quite staggering intensity on songs like Devoted to You and Maybe Tomorrow. Backed by a wonderful array of British musicians whose memory of the Everly Brothers was the same as mine—but was coupled, unlike mine, with a musical skills set absolutely appropriate to need—Don and Phil gave the performance of their lives on that tour. And if Phil’s eyes were filling with tears as he watched his brother sing his solo lines on Let It Be Me, so were mine, sitting there in the audience. Both of our pasts, even though he was on a stage and I was a mere onlooker, were being simultaneously illuminated; mine with the memories of London singles and teenage girlfriends, his, so much closer, to churches and radio stations in Shenandoah and to the memory of their father who had taught the boys their harmonies, taught Don how to pick bluegrass and who had died just a short time before.
They played a few acoustic numbers in the middle of their set, just Don playing the guitar with, maybe, Phil pretending to play, just as he had done on Cathy’s Clown and some of their other hits. They were songs from a 1958 album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Put My Little Shoes Away dated back to the 1870s. It would have arrived in the States with immigrants on their way to Ellis Island on a boat from Liverpool. Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet was even older, traced back to Scotland in the 1790s.
The Everlys had history scorched into their psyches. In 1958, when I began having a quiff because of those like Don and Phil, I suppose I saw them as fashion icons, as boys of that teenage moment. They might have been that, but they were as rooted in the past as the isolated homesteads that still stood on the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their Virginia Skyline Drive, taking the trippers into the lush landscape of the Shenandoah Valley, memories of trappers and moonlighters at every turn was, in the musical world of Don and Phil, a road that seamlessly led to the Sky Road outside Clifden, with the Bens of Galway towering up above on one side, the Atlantic Ocean pounding the shores on the other.
I had known none of this in the 1950s. We lived then, as the young always do, in an ever present. It was a theme Van Morrison explored in the 1980s when he reminisced, for a couple of albums or so, on his Belfast youth:
And it’s always being now,
and it’s always being now
It’s always now
Can you feel the silence?
Van Morrison, On Hyndford Street
But, of course, the irony of the Van Morrison song was that it was when he composed it knee-deep in his own past, almost a wallowing in a cascade of images from his childhood: the moth catcher, stopping at Fuscos for ice cream, Sunday six-bells, reading Mezz Mezzrow and Kerouac.
I remember thinking, driving home from the Ardwick gig, of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. The way in which he revisited a place where he had been and had loved when young; and realising that his emotions on re-seeing the Abbey from a hill above could never again be the same as before. But in many real ways, the emotions he felt straddling his still, sad music of humanity were at an altogether more profound level. His past was over but his present had been defined by it. And, because of this he was able to define his past. He could give the narrative. He could not feel as he felt then but he could remember it. In context.
Exactly as Van Morrison had revisited Hyndford Street in East Belfast. The narrative was in the past, but the manner in which he approached it was indelibly coloured by the ensuing years. He sang the song in a 1980s present. He could not sing it as the young and wild lead singer of Gloria. But the emotional charge of the reconnection to his past brought about new perspectives, new angles, new syntheses. His past, given the ensuing years of his life, became not just a story—it was clarified. He could look back and see in a manner he could never have as the young lad cleaning windows and blowing his sax in a Down hall, what had been important, what had meant something.
You could see precisely this thought in Phil Everly’s eyes as he held back the tears watching his brother sing the solo on Let It Be Me in their reunion tour. You knew he was thinking back to older days but, at the same time, he knew that Don was singing those lines in a manner he could never have realised in 1960.
Past and present taken together were greater than their individual parts. The music was transcended. The narrative had deepened; its resonances carried more fundamental meanings.
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