Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bert Jansch

In the early 70's I spent part of the summer doing some construction work with a motley group in a rehab centre in south Dublin. As the weather was good we lunched outdoors in the middle of the day. A record player was found and an album that I had never heard before was played which I found captivating.

One song in particular "Needle of Death" really impacted with me in a way that only a handful of tracks have ever done. Music has the wonderful capacity to resonate - at least occasionally - in a profoundly meaningful manner. And this certainly was one such occasion!

I remember looking at the album sleeve and mistakenly leaving with the impression that it was by Bert Yance. And on several occasions over the years, I tried without success to learn more about this artist.

Then some 25 years or so later, I spotted a notice outside the College where I work in Dublin promoting an upcoming performance by Bert Jansch nearby in Whelans. In that moment I realised the true identity of the singer that I had heard all those years ago. Because I remembered the precise track no. for "Needle of Death" I am now quite sure that I was listening to the compilation album "The Bert Jansch Sampler" (The preceding instrumental track "Angie" also remained in my memory!)

"Needle of Death" appeared on Bert Jansch's first album in 1965 which was recorded on the cheap using a tape recorder and then sold for £100. Jansch was - and still is - a Scottish folk singer with a truly distinctive guitar style. Indeed some of his best tracks such as "Angie" are in fact pure instrumentals.

It is the sheer unadorned simplicity of the recording of "Needle of Death" that greatly adds to its stature. It was written following the death of a musical friend from drugs and contains some of the most heartfelt riveting lyrics that I have ever heard. The unusual guitar style of Jansch contributes much to the overall effect. In several places it seems almost as if his guitar is stuttering and coming to a halt only to resume again. Then at the end of the song it stutters once again before finally fading out altogether (like the life of the victim in the song).

For some reason I believe the song had an even greater effect on me hearing it outdoors as the unique guitar notes wafted in the gentle breeze before finally disappearing without trace.

I did nor hear that song again for 30 years. However I have recently reclaimed it and number it among my all time favourites.

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