Nina Simone – ‘Here Comes The Sun’

I came back to Bournemouth from the south of France via a month in Paris in late ’93. I had just split from my girlfriend and I was a bit lost and a lot unemployed. Looking back, streaming tears on a crowded train back from Paris whilst listening to Neil Young’s Birds seems like a faintly masochistic thing to do:

“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over, it’s over.”

Compared to the young, relatively shy, pale man who existed in early ‘90, the years I spent travelling and working abroad had changed me. I was more confident. I was happy with who I was. I had a raging suntan and a Brad from Neighbours kind of look. I’d like to think that look disappeared quickly but it probably hung around longer than the suntan.

So, what next? After an eventful few months of meeting some old friends and making some new, and playing some extremely good golf, I got a job. With MVC. The Music and Video Club, and I’d work for them for the next eleven years. Aged 27 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I had retail experience and a passion for music, so a job in a music and entertainment shop? Yeah, I might enjoy that. Enjoy it I did. Well, most of it thanks to the dozens of nerds, musos and funsters I’d get to meet and befriend. MVC took me to Bournemouth, Poole, Penzance, Fareham and Weymouth. I worked with many lovely and a few not so lovely folk, and my musical enlightenment was about to go up a few gears.

I have a strong memory at MVC, after just a few days in the job somebody stuck on a Nina Simone CD. I heard her incredible version of Here Comes The Sun and it blew me away. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard it before, though I soon realised there were endless other amazing songs, albums and artists I’d not heard and that would be a never-ending joy of the job. But Nina Simone stands out. It is a rare thing, hearing a Beatles song that’s better than the original, but here was one that managed that with its sheer, overwhelming beauty.

Nina’s voice is more than enough. But her tender piano, the brushes, strings and perfect percussion make this a sensory joy that radiates happiness. Those first few months at MVC were exciting times. Working in a record shop (okay, a CD, DVD and games shop) was, for a music nerd, a great place to be. But more than the music it would be the friends I’d make that would have a huge impact on my life. The travels had ended, but another ride had just begun.

Neil Young – ‘MTV Unplugged’

In March ’93 I returned to France with Keycamp, this time to Fréjus on the Côte d’Azur, to a smaller, more relaxed site than Vias Plage with more opportunity and need to speak French, which nearly thirty years later I’m still learning. In June that year Neil Young released his MTV Unplugged live album, and that was my beautiful summer earworm. Why I bought that and not Harvest or other ‘70s classic albums I assume was because I’d seen the MTV show in February, but regardless, I devoured its lavish simplicity.

Neil Young’s voice makes me shiver in a very, very good way. It’s totally unique like an about to crack falsetto. But it never does. It strains, sounds pained and gushes with emotion like the sound of tears singing. My senses die for it, as opposed to the low growl of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave who I’ve never been able to enjoy. My loss. On his MTV Unplugged album his voice is front and centre. Every song is performed in its purest form, with the likes of Mr Soul and Like A Hurricane and in particular Transformer Man almost unrecognisable from the original.

Performing songs from ‘67’s Mr Soul to tracks from Harvest Moon released in ’92 this was my second phase of discovery into Neil Young, following the previous year’s obsession with After The Goldrush. Listening to the album I had little idea about the origin of almost all these songs, so was listening with fresh and eager ears. There’s little on the album I didn’t love, but some songs hit me particularly hard. Mr Soul got me with simple guitar, harmonica and: I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter / I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her.” Such gorgeous torture.

Pocahontas and Stringman are both stunning through their musical restraint, leaving the anguish in Neil’s voice to heighten the intensity. The emotion increases on Like A Hurricane, performed on a pump organ the song just brought tears…

“You are like a hurricane
There’s calm in your eye
And I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feelin’ stays
I wanna love you but I’m gettin’ blown away.”

Unrelenting, The Needle And The Damage Done and Helpless both keep the mood beautifully low, until the spirits lift and love, hope and happiness shine towards the set’s end. The harmonies on Transformer Man are angelic, matched on the adoring and sentimental homage to an Unknown Legend. I’d play that song to death, just to hear Neil sing: “I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.” Featuring Neil’s half sister Astrid on backing vocals and Nils Lofgren on autoharp, guitars and accordion, the band’s tone throughout is impeccable, his songs shone, and that summer my love for Neil Young just intensified. His down was just divine.

Neil Young – ‘After The Goldrush’

Returning from the States I had most definitely caught a dose of wanderlust. I had no money, so working abroad was my only option. Mi amigo Simon was a Thomson rep, but whilst he was a natural entertainer I was a relative introvert. But I could dabble in French and I knew how to be nice to people, so a job as a rep for Keycamp in France was for me. Those six months turned out to be more fun than should really be allowed, sharing a campsite on Vias Plage with dozens of other reps and hundreds of friendly punters. But best of all I discovered three of my all time favourite albums.

Whilst it was through a girlfriend that I found these albums, I can look and listen back with no attached emotion. We had two seasons in the sun, a winter in Dublin and a month or so in Paris and I can very happily say, thank you for the music. Before we met I spent a few months working hard and partying harder. The most listened to album by far was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. We loved it and did the socks on cocks thing, because. But then peak season hit, and as the sun was at full strength with it came the start of a near thirty-year love affair with Neil Young. I heard After The Goldrush.

Neil Young has one of those voices. And yes, I loved it. Give me sentiment, give me sincerity, give me honesty and most of all hit my emotions with as much ferocity and ruthlessness as your words and music can muster. With After The Goldrush Neil Young delivered that with beautiful, unmerciful aplomb. Vocally, anguish reigns. That high-pitched, pained and tortured inflection adds huge weight to an album of angst, protest, social comment and fragile, tender love.

Tell Me Why is a great opener, but when the title track starts you know you’re going to be in deep. With Neil Young it’s all about the feel, and instantly it felt like an album to devour, with enough lyrical obscurity to provoke the imagination. But, as was my leaning, the more sombre and sorrowful the song, the more I loved it. There I was, partying my ass of in France and totally obsessing over something so beautifully, incredibly down.

“Someone should call him
And see if he can come out
Try to lose the down that he’s found
But only love can break your heart
Try to be sure right from the start
Yes, only love can break your heart
What if your world should fall apart?”

– Only Love Can Break Your Heart

“Everybody’s going out and having fun
I’m just a fool for staying home and having none
I can’t get over how she set me free
Oh, lonesome me”

– Oh Lonesome Me,

“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over, it’s over”

– Birds

With Neil Young living in Topanga Canyon, the nearby Laurel Canyon vibe is everywhere, with an instrumental sparsity bringing the lyrics to the fore. An 18-year old Nils Lofgren was brought in to add guitar and piano, adding magic with little experience but perfect musical smarts, and as with most of Neil Young’s classic early ‘70s work everything feels so loose, so musically free and easy. It’s only Young’s trademark lead guitar that shows signs of strain, no more so than in his castigation of Southern racism and slavery’s disgusting legacy in Southern Man.

If there’s a more sublime and perfectly pained sound than Neil Young’s voice and guitar, I’m yet to hear it, and if there’s a more beautiful album than After The Goldrush, I’m yet to hear that too.

Carole King – ‘Tapestry’

There are albums that define careers, even those as incredible as Carole King’s. One of the most successful songwriters of all time, having written dozens of hits for other artists including the classic (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman for Aretha Franklin and Pleasant Valley Sunday for The Monkees, both in 1967. Tapestry is her masterpiece, a stunningly blissful album, totally alluring for anyone with a heart, and particularly one that’s fragile.

In the early ‘70s the likes of Neil Young, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Randy Newman were writing deeply personal, introspective songs. There was a certain Laurel Canyon vibe in 1971, post-hippy and spiritual, songs capturing real life, acoustic with sparse musical arrangement. Tapestry, with Carole King living there at the time, captured that vibe perfectly. Unlike other troubadours like Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Tapestry’s lyrics were straightforward and unembellished. Carole King had a supreme gift in her ability to use simple phrasing, and the same talent to nail a sentiment, to capture the fragility of romance, relationships and love.

“Stayed in bed all mornin’ just to pass the time
There’s somethin’ wrong here, there can be no denyin’
One of us is changin’, or maybe we’ve just stopped tryin’
And it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it
Somethin’ inside has died, and I can’t hide
And I just can’t fake it, oh, no, no”

– It’s Too Late

From my teens and into my early twenties and largely influenced by the music I’d been listening to, I was becoming more reflective and ruminative, still dealing with shyness despite having a fairly lively social life. Tapestry struck a personal chord. That Laurel Canyon scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was primarily a stoned, laid-back amalgamation of blues, country, psychedelia and folk. It was the original Americana, and with the likes of The Doors, CSNY, Frank Zappa, Mamas and the Papas and Joni Mitchell all doing their thing, it was an era and musical landscape I dived into.

Tapestry is lyrically unguarded, bleeding the warmth and spirit of the early ‘70s, stripping back any fuss to fully expose the intense emotion and vulnerability. Carole King’s ability to write a near perfect album is matched by the overwhelming sincerity in her vocals and the jazz-tinged warmth of the production. For me this was, and still is an album almost impossible not to love.