The stellar combination of Clive James’ witty, erudite, masterfully crafted poignant lyrics and Pete Atkin’s agile, subtle, eclectic music and understated vocal delivery produced a body of work which belongs in the finest songbook tradition.
Each song has its own delights, and each is moving and captivating in its own way. I particularly relish those which present a cameo of a person, a character who is immediately and vividly created through pithy phrases and sharp dialogue, whose story could be the basis of a novel or a film.
Your heart goes out to Thirty-Year Man, who reflects on his life as a jazz pianist who hasn’t made the big time in rueful, weary, resigned tones. He’s in the nightclub where he plays, waiting for it to open. You recognise him, the one with the brindled crew cut and the silk-lined jacket, still a bit hip after three decades in the game.
He’s the one who some punters will pay attention to because he’s a good musician and they’ve seen him somewhere else, at Ronnie Scott’s maybe, or didn’t he back that singer, you know the one…But most of them have come to see ‘the little girl just starting to begin’, the repetition of meaning in the words emphasising her youth and her inexperience.
The atmosphere of the club waiting to open is beautifully captured, the dark tables, the starched napkins, the gleaming glassware and the covered-up drums, the dimmed spotlight, microphone cables snaking everywhere. In filmic mode, our focus is constantly directed to the piano on which he is playing, quietly, to himself, ‘a few things’ of his own choice, just for himself.
The strength of his attachment to music is shown in the image of the piano glistening in the darkness ‘Like the rail at the end of the nave.’ It’s as if, for this short hour, the club is a church and he and the piano are joined in a ritual whose meaning transcends the surroundings and assuages his feeling of failure.
Thirty-Year Man and The Hypertension Kid could well rub shoulders in a bar in Mayfair or Soho (The Pillars of Hercules, maybe) or in a Damon Runyon story.
Hypertension Kid takes the form of a dialogue between the poet-narrator and the Kid. You get the nature of the Kid right away.
He’s in a Mayfair club where he finds the plush furnishings and flock wallpaper and servile barman rather soothing. He’s ‘Grimly chasing shorts with halves of bitter’, and he’s the one you avoid when you go up to the bar. Too edgy, too restless, too intense. Too drunk.
But you would miss the kind of exchange he has with the narrator, an exchange of life views studded with witty and pertinent philosophical gems. The narrator is haunted by memories he can’t expunge, which are trapped like flies in amber, like overflowing garbage.
His complaints are quickly dispatched by his companion — ‘Your metaphors are murder’ — who then offers advice about how to live with your demons. Take it easy on yourself. Don’t fight it. Steer into the skid. You can’t stop sliding, so ‘find a graceful way of staying slid’. At least you’re not a mass-murderer. Deal with the memories, ‘the waste and poison in the spirit’s river’. The Kid himself has a deft touch with metaphor. The twist at the end explains his linguistic dexterity, as the narrator, calmed by this encounter, turns to leave, and the Kid, his second self, fades into the mirror.
Frangipani Was Her Flower takes 27 lines to capture in a series of tart but not unkind phrases the story of a spoilt girl, the kind we have all known. You may have come across her at a party in the late 1960s.
She’s a daddy’s little princess who always had everything she wanted. She’s the one asking you what your birth sign is and telling you that her flower is the exotic frangipani and that her birthstone is the amethyst. She probably has one on a chain round her neck. She’s wearing a floaty expensive Ossie Clark number.
Our girl imbibed privilege from the beginning: ‘The world at her behest/ Had fed her from the breast.’ Born with a silver spoon in her fist, ready to scoop up the best that life could offer, she had the best dolls, the best everything, a white wedding which would have been a sumptuous affair — and here comes the first hiccup, a less than totally successful wedding night.
What went wrong, then and in the following period? We could ask why she married a man ‘supremely trite’ — oh no, we get it. And he drives a Ford Cortina, a motor which The Clash were to dismiss some years later in Janie Jones: ‘He’s just like everyone, he’s got a Ford Cortina.’ He should have been putty in her hands.
But, for reasons unspecified, one night at 11.35pm, hubby drives off in said car, wheels screeching on the gravel, leaving the ‘damsel in the tower’ alone for the first time in her life, no longer able to snap her fingers for what she wants. The princess has lost the magic power.
Our slightly satisfied response is unexpectedly challenged by the final image of her wrecking her room in a paroxysm of rage or misery.
Last year, Clive James wrote in The Guardian about a petite beauty called Shirley who he used to see at church every Sunday when he was a boy. She wore a round silk hat, always with a sprig of frangipani, a picture which now, ‘as doom closes in’, shimmers in his memory.