One of the people who often came to the Weavers was John Tobler, who runs RGF (Road Goes On Forever) Records. He liked the songs enough to suggest we made an album, so it was really a version of the archetypal story about being in a pub and running into a stranger with a record company. He’d got some very respected acts in his catalogue, including the Texan singer Carolyn Hester, with whom a very young Bob Dylan used to play the harmonica. We’d already recorded seven or eight numbers at the studio which my brother Michael was running. We did some more there, and then had a couple of gruelling all-night sessions a studio in West London. One of the technicians was so drunk that he kept adjusting the notes until they were several tones out of tune. What started, to my ear at least, as a reasonably harmonious sound, was turned by the twiddling of a few knobs into a chorus of dying cows. I still don’t know how he did it.
But the thing got finished and out it came. I got irrationally terrified – I always do – about what people might think. It’s not as serious, obviously, but it’s a little like producing and nurturing a child and hoping he or she goes on to thrive when you no longer have any control over them. But the reviews were terrific, an one of the songs, Wishfulness Waltz, was taken up by Fairport Convention. John suggested I get myself along to the Festival Hall one night as it was on their set list and there was a good chance they would play it. About half an hour into the concert the lead singer Simon Nichol announced they’d been around so long that they’d despaired of getting any more publicity and so the only thing to do was cover a song written by a journalist. I was so excited that they were playing my song, and in a packed RFH, that I only just managed to stop myself leaning across to tell the stranger next to me that it was mine. It wasn’t so much listening to it being sung, but waiting for what they did in the instrumental breaks. That’s when you find out what kind of number you’ve written. The words aren’t there any more to share the attention with the tune; it’s on its own. But the good bit is that it’s not fending for itself at all. Quite the reverse, its structure and chord sequences are being flattered by top musicians picking them up and improvising around them. So it’s familiar, in that you recognise the building blocks of your tune, but unpredictable as well because you have no idea where they’re going to take it before they make their way back to the root chord and it’s time for the next verse.
The two musicians handling the breaks in these songs were the fiddlers Rick Saunders, who has been with Fairport for over twenty years, and Chris Leslie, who was a relative newcomer. Their playing was, to use an expensive word, antiphonal, talking backwards and forwards to each other and then settling into a harmony for the refrain.
As I say, you don’t really know what you’ve written, or perhaps failed to write, until other people, singers, players, audience, get hold of it. In this respect it’s just like any other kind of writing. You have to let go of it before you own it.
Once when I interviewed Leonard Cohen for The Times he said something that may have been disappointing to an interviewer, perhaps also to a curious public, but it was enlightening. I had, as it turned out, committed the schoolboy howler of asking him where the songs came from. I don’t think I asked him what they were about (the question which Bob Dylan famously answered once by saying some were about five minutes.) He replied fairly briskly by saying that his songs were reports and that he could never report on the reports. It was No Comment all right, but it wasn’t Get Lost. In fact it was probably the opposite, a suggestion that you can make of his stuff what you want; that you’re independent enough to make up your own mind without him telling you what to think.
I went down a similar road with the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis when I was doing an interview with him in front of an audience at the National Film Theatre. I wanted him to explain the process of improvisation between jazz musicians. I’m not sure what I was wanting him to say; I suppose he would somehow take the lid off the mystery, or demonstrate that it was really just a series of tricks. What he did say was at once simple and elusive. It was, he explained, just like a conversation, but with notes rather than words.
The only difference between a musical and a verbal exchange, he implied, was that the messages were being conveyed in a different form. They had in common the notion that one person listened to what others were saying, and then responded, developing a theme or shifting tack, as he saw fit. That’s fine, I said, but for much of the time in jazz the musicians are playing together, all at once, without knowing what the others are going to do next, and yet they are able to make their own contributions compatible, even harmonious. He explained that they were just following the structure of the music, playing in patterns that observed the chord sequences. What’s more, their playing would be influenced by what the others were doing, the more so if they knew each other well, just as in a conversation between old friends. The fact is that you can never really know how people like him do the things they do, and the truth of this just seems to grow in proportion to the number of times you ask.