Laura, That Summer and John Martyn

For some reason I’ve been thinking of someone I knew long ago. Well, not just for any reason. In this new place I’m not far from where she lived, and driving along these streets, the ones where I walked – I was just 18 and who owned a car or took driving lessons all those years ago – has bounced her back into my head a few times. I don’t even remember her surname now, her face is a blur in time, but really, that doesn’t matter.

We were a couple for less than a two months, just a blink in the scheme of things, but I owe her a great debt. After all, she introduced me to the music of John Martyn. And that really did change my life. Over the years since I’ve bought his albums, seen him play whenever I could and even ended up writing a book about him (which you can buy here if you really want to). At his best, the magic of John remains strong, even 41 years after I first heard him.

She was called Laura, which she shortened to Lol, back when that had no other connotations. I’d finished my A levels, I was done with school, an empty summer loomed ahead of me. She was a little younger, just back from a trip to Paris with her mother after a small breakdown following an abortion. We met at a party, one of those teenage affairs where a couple of bottles of light ale and a toke or two on a joint seemed daring.

Now I think she was probably drifting a bit, trying to find herself. Her parents were very liberal, her father was a professor at Leeds University, her mother a published poet. They lived in a detached Victorian house with a flagstone floor in the big kitchen. Dinner conversations ranged all over, and I was included as an adult. It was all I’d dreamed of for myself.

It was an affair that came with a time limit. I was leaving in September and she’d be back to the mundane life of school. We knew it without saying a word.

One day in August, when the trees in the garden were full green and shady, she took me into the music room. Grand piano, a wall full of sheet music, expensive stereo. We sat on the floor and she put on an LP. A few seconds later came the first notes of “Go Down Easy” off John Martyn’s Bless the Weather and I was shaken to my core. I must have heard him on John Peel’s radio show, but this was really hearing him for the first time. It was slow, sensual music, so different from any singer-songwriter I knew. The voice slurred through the notes like a tenor sax, the guitar and bass worked off each other. This was…I didn’t have the words for it. Then came the title track and all the rest and I knew I’d heard something that would lodge in my heart.

We played that album a lot over the remainder of that summer. I bought a copy, I was hooked in a way I’d never been with anyone before or since. The music still moves me. It always will. At his best, John vibrated my soul the way no one else ever managed. Even late in his career, after a couple of decades of ups and downs, he had something special – I was able to review On the Cobbles for NPR. I’m still ridiculously grateful to Lol for introducing me to him.

I did see Lol once more after the inevitable breakup. It was two years later. I was back living in Leeds, a student who’d decided studying wasn’t for him. It was outside the Town Hall, after a King Crimson concert. I was on my own, she was with some new boyfriend. A brief surprised hello and we went our separate ways into the rain. But some moments in life don’t always vanish into nothingness.

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In Praise Of The Editor

I try to avoid writing about writing. After all, what the hell do I know? And what works for me might not work for anyone else. But I do know one thing. While the act of writing might be a solitary occupation, bringing that writing to the printed page is a team effort.

A good editor makes a huge difference.

I’ve been lucky, I’ve had several. There was the guy in charge of The Rocket who offered me tips and chances 20 years ago before unleashing me on an unsuspecting Pacific Northwest. For his own safety, it’s better to leave him nameless, although I feel indebted to him.

In the late 1990s, well established, with well over a dozen non-fiction titles under my belt, as well as regular appearances in music magazines and on local National Public Radio, I began writing for a website called Sonicnet. It doesn’t exist any more – MTV bought it and I’ve no idea what happened after that. It was a music news site. I was a freelancer in the amorphous ‘World Music’ section, and it was demanding, writing and researching stories five days a week, tracking people down, interviewing first and second sources.

With my experience, I felt pretty confident when I turned in my first story. It came back torn apart by the editor. At first I felt affronted. I knew how to write, I’d been doing it a while. But he worked with me. Once I’d stopped raising my hackles in defence, I read, listened – and learned. Over the course of a year or more, he improved my writing 100 per cent. Again, I’m hugely grateful.

Starting review for national NPR in 2000, my producer was a perfectionist. I voice the script I write, and she’d have me going over it time after spending, spending up to an hour for what was little more than two minutes of text. But it helped me not only be better on air, but (hopefully) as a writer. I learned to write for voice, not for the page.

And then there’s Lynne Patrick, the editor of my novels. I’ve been lucky, and had the same one from The Broken Token to the about-to-be-published Fair and Tender Ladies (not that this is an ad, you understand). She’s become a friend, but also one who knows my writing and can call me on things I’ve missed. I almost always accept the changes she suggests, and they make the book better. I’ve even dedicated this book to her, for all she’s done to improve my writing.

She’s the direct link. But not to forget commissioning editors (the people who say ‘Yes, we’ll have that” – extremely important, the publishers themselves, designers and proofreaders. They all deserve their plaudits. Yet this one goes out in praise of editors. Thank you.