Cover Story: (9) Leonard Cohen or the Drifters. One last dance
Newport and Cambridge folk festivals: a marriage made in heaven?

Cover Story: (10) Bert Jansch or Neil Young. Needle of Death


Who said folk music has to be cheerful? Some of the best songs from the tradition, and also from the pens of contemporary writers, tackle bleak subjects. Has a better song been written on premature death from drug addiction than Bert Jansch's Needle of Death?

Diehard Neil Young fans - and I would include my elder daughter, Christelle, who is a publicist and has worked with him - would probably offer The Needle and the Damage Done as a contender. Like Jansch's song, it was inspired (at least in part) by the death of a good friend from the same cause, in Young's case Crazy Horse's Danny Whitten.

Clips I have viewed of that song show Young in considerably clearer voice than we find on his much later version of Needle of Death. It is perhaps unfair to choose, by way of comparison, an obviously younger Jansch singing his own song. But Young fans positively queue up to acclaim his shakier delivery; "that quavering voice will go with me to the grave one day," one said in a YouTube comment.

Cover Story has established itself, in my humble opinion, as a Salut! Live series of real merit. Its purpose, in comparing different versions of the same songs, is not to trash some and eulogise others but to make readers think and, if they feel like it, express a view.

I have not the slightest doubt which of these versions I prefer.

But then my musical development owed a lot to Jansch and musicians like him. He was the guitarist I wanted to be but never could. He seemed to have the bohemian lifestyle I was sure should be mine but never was. He mixed in the circles - the cooler end of folk - that I could do little more than briefly rub shoulders with as a folk club organiser and small-town newspaper folk critic.

That said, I cannot say I enjoyed all his work. I loved his interpretation of Dav(e)y Graham's wonderful instrumental Angie (adapted by Paul Simon for his Anji). I can play a little of it, though without anything approaching the accomplishment of any of the three; one of my ambitions is to live long enough to learn the rest. But some of his work I found too morose (an odd comment, I realise, for someone who so admires his Needle of Death), or unduly hard work.

Even so, as one who also considers Young a great artist of the same generation, I whole-heartedly endorse his view of Jansch's skills: "As much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix] was, Bert Jansch is the same thing for acoustic guitar...and my favourite."

There are other acoustic guitarists I adore(d) - not just Graham but Stefan Grossman, Jansch's buddy John Renbourn, Richard Thompson and Chris Newman among others who spring to mind - but I cannot help feeling Jansch was the best.

And for me, his interpretation of his own song depicting the heartache of grieving parents and friends, and the lost battle of the dying son against the grip of heroin, will never be bettered.


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* If you wish to buy Bert Jansch's album containing the song and help Salut! Live a little, use this Amazon link



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* Neil Young's version can be found on A Letter Home, available here

*** RIP Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davey Graham

Comments

Bill Taylor

Interesting you should mention Stefan Grossman. I've been looking for ages for what I think is his best album, "Aunt Molly's Murray Farm" (dedicated in part to Tommy Gilfellon), and finally found it recently on Spotify. I'm new to Spotify and regard it as sometimes miraculous in its range of obscurities.
Anyway, I'm a huge admirer of Neil Young but this interpretation of "Needle of Death" is just a little too quirky for my taste. It's an interesting video, though. Your own rendition of the song notwithstanding, I don't think Bert Jansch's original can be bettered. And, like you, I was never a fan of all his work.
Guitarists are difficult to compare. Grossman's style is so different, for instance, and I always found John Renbourn's work technically accomplished but rather bloodless. I saw Jimmy Hendrix at the Imperial Hotel in Darlington(!!) in 1967, when Chas Chandler, of the Animals, had brought him over from the States and was booking him in anywhere to build word of mouth. We only went to the show, which wasn't sold out, because we thought Chandler might get up and play. Five minutes into Hendrix's set and we'd forgotten all about poor Chas. The evening ended - typical bloody Darlington - with someone pinching Hendrix's black Fender. I've never seen a guitarist like him, though I'd put Richard Thompson up against almost anyone else (except Jeff Beck). Bob Crew, late of the Northern Echo, once described Thompson in a Toronto Star music review as "the thinking man's Eric Clapton..."
But for guitar virtuosity, look at this star-studded video of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." I was never ever a fan of Prince but his solo (starting at about the 3:30 mark) is stunning:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SFNW5F8K9Y

Bill Taylor

Whoops! I mention, of course, Jimi Hendrix. How unhip of me...

Colin Randall

I remember working at Cummins in Darlo, knowing (from a cooler colleague) that the Hendrix gig was happening and, since he didn't say 'come along with me', feeling too shy to go alone

Jake

I'm a big fan of both men, Neil in particular has played a big part in my life, but in this case Bert wins although I do like both versions. Just a mention on A Letter Home, the album that NY's version was taken from, it was recorded entirely in a 1947 Voice-o-Graph vinyl recording booth, the kind of thing that was typically found in amusement arcades and music shops. Talk about getting back to basics eh?

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