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The Next Bob Dylan

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North London, 1966. No time to lose. I bunked off school, withdrew all the money from my Post Office savings account and took a 29 bus to Denmark Street in Soho, where I bought an acoustic guitar and a book called Play in a Day: Bert Weedon’s Guitar Guide to Modern Guitar Playing. It said in the Introduction that it would enable me to play ‘simple vocal accompaniments’ and, at 5 shillings, that would do very nicely.

The cause of this sudden depletion in my net worth had occurred the previous afternoon. I’d cycled home from school to find my mother and father in their armchairs waiting for my arrival. She was tearing pages from last week’s Radio Times, scrunching them up and tossing them into the kindling box, while he drew on his unlit briar. I took a seat on the sofa and prepared for the worst.

‘You are now 16 years of age,’ my father said. ‘In a few weeks you will walk out through your school gates for the last time.’ There followed a comprehensive litany of my scholastic failures, rounded off with, ‘Your mother and I are concerned about your future.’

They were right to be concerned. Unless it was a fact about cars or my favourite American thriller, or anything whatsoever to do with Shelagh Spaul in Form Five and my unrequited longings, it was most likely to sink in but never resurface. Consequently I came bottom of the class in everything. I coped by developing a nice line in role-play and by pretending to myself that I had exceptional hidden talents and could, whenever I chose, become a Nobel-winning novelist, say, or a jet-setting musician, or an artist living in the south of France avec lovers and châteaux.

Fortunately, I had recently sat through an entire sixth-form production of The Winslow Boy so I knew how to handle parental interrogation. I rose to my feet, put my hands behind my back and strolled to and fro in front of the hearth. ‘You needn’t worry, Father,’ I s

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North London, 1966. No time to lose. I bunked off school, withdrew all the money from my Post Office savings account and took a 29 bus to Denmark Street in Soho, where I bought an acoustic guitar and a book called Play in a Day: Bert Weedon’s Guitar Guide to Modern Guitar Playing. It said in the Introduction that it would enable me to play ‘simple vocal accompaniments’ and, at 5 shillings, that would do very nicely.

The cause of this sudden depletion in my net worth had occurred the previous afternoon. I’d cycled home from school to find my mother and father in their armchairs waiting for my arrival. She was tearing pages from last week’s Radio Times, scrunching them up and tossing them into the kindling box, while he drew on his unlit briar. I took a seat on the sofa and prepared for the worst. ‘You are now 16 years of age,’ my father said. ‘In a few weeks you will walk out through your school gates for the last time.’ There followed a comprehensive litany of my scholastic failures, rounded off with, ‘Your mother and I are concerned about your future.’ They were right to be concerned. Unless it was a fact about cars or my favourite American thriller, or anything whatsoever to do with Shelagh Spaul in Form Five and my unrequited longings, it was most likely to sink in but never resurface. Consequently I came bottom of the class in everything. I coped by developing a nice line in role-play and by pretending to myself that I had exceptional hidden talents and could, whenever I chose, become a Nobel-winning novelist, say, or a jet-setting musician, or an artist living in the south of France avec lovers and châteaux. Fortunately, I had recently sat through an entire sixth-form production of The Winslow Boy so I knew how to handle parental interrogation. I rose to my feet, put my hands behind my back and strolled to and fro in front of the hearth. ‘You needn’t worry, Father,’ I said. ‘I have given my future considerable thought and you will be pleased to hear that I have found a solution which means I shall never have to work for a living.’ My mother paused mid-rip; my father, never one to waste words, struck a Swan Vesta and let his pipe do the talking. I reached into the blue-grey cloud, found his shoulder and placed a comforting hand upon it. ‘You see,’ I said, ‘I am going to be the next Bob Dylan.’ Now, in addition to those difficulties you may already have considered, this particular route to my future wealth and happiness had three major drawbacks: 1. the nearest I’d ever been to a guitar was standing next to Hank Marvin in a lift; 2. my only experience of singing in public was during school assemblies where the works of Marcel Marceau were a particular inspiration; and 3. my sole musical accomplishment was the first three notes of a blues harmonica riff acquired one wet weekend from a Howlin’ Wolf LP. In 1950 guitars were rare in the UK and sales barely touched 5,000, but Elvis, Cliff and British rock ’n’ roll changed all that. In 1957, when Play in a Day was first published, annual UK guitar sales topped a quarter of a million and the number of people wanting to learn the guitar vastly outnumbered those capable of teaching it – a situation well understood by Bert, who wrote in his Introduction that he wanted his book to contain ‘the essential requirements of the lone student without a teacher’. It went straight to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there for several months. With sales to date totalling around 4 million, Play in a Day is the world’s biggest selling guitar tutor and it’s never been out of print. Like all great delusionists, I had studiously avoided any situation that might expose my pretence, so the physical presence of guitar and teaching manual in my bedroom caused a rush of anxiety. Rather than running my fingers over the guitar’s component parts or actually reading the book, I daydreamed my future self into the Albert Hall where I was centre-stage, white-suited and adored by an audience of thousands. The following morning I discovered that my copy of Play in a Day had just 36 stapled pages, no spine, prioritized illustration over text, measured 8½ x 11 inches and was more like a children’s comic than a book – an astute combination for a target market of Bert’s juvenile fans. And Bert knew about fans. Before Elvis and Cliff had cut their first records he was already a household name. Born in East London in 1920 to a working-class family, he got his first guitar when he was 12; at 14 he formed his first dance band, and by the 1950s he had become a radio and television regular and the session guitarist of choice for Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra when they were recording in London. For sales of his own recordings of solo guitar music he was awarded gold and platinum discs. The book’s content was divided into two sections. The first included headings such as GUITARS: ‘two types, the Cello-built and the Spanish’; PLECTRUMS: ‘held in the right hand . . . but don’t grip it tightly as this tends to make the fingers and wrist tense’; and HOW TO HOLD THE GUITAR: ‘The beginner should sit down at first, only after he has mastered the art can he then think about showmanship and adopt the standing style.’ There was also, under HINTS AND TIPS, a harrowing insight into electric guitars of the 1950s: ‘Have a chat with an electrician re the earthing of an amplifier as several players have had severe electric shocks.’ The second section was much longer and was primarily concerned with rudimentary musical notation and what to do with your fingers. Apparently, the key to it all was something called a ‘chord shape’. Each shape had a name, e.g. D minor, G seventh, A major, and each came with its own explanatory black-line diagram. ‘Nature did not fashion our fingers for guitar-playing specifically,’ writes Bert – a statement I quickly discovered to be a euphemism. Guitar-playing is painful. I was required to stretch and contort my left hand and also endure the pain of steel strings pressing into the soft flesh of my fingertips. Once the left hand was in position I could then pass the plectrum, held in my right hand, across each string in turn and sound something called C major. My efforts were barely audible, episodic, and stumbled into being. Nevertheless, there I was playing the guitar just as Bert had promised – in a day. I immediately put in place a regular daily routine: at breakfast I positioned Play in a Day on the table above my plate, put the guitar across my thigh and, between mouthfuls, practised some of the sixty or more chord shapes chosen by Bert. Ditto lunch and dinner. During the evening while watching television en famille I provided simple vocal accompaniments to Reginald Bosanquet on News at Ten; and at weekends added harmonic invention to Sing Something Simple, my father’s favourite music radio programme. I made rapid progress until both book and guitar went missing. I was heartbroken and remained inconsolable for several hours until my mother persuaded my father to give them back. So certain was I that fame, wealth and assorted châteaux would soon be within my grasp, I telephoned my father’s younger brother who had contacts with the Unity Theatre Folk Club in Camden Town, and suggested he book me a performance slot so I could make my début to a waiting world. Unfortunately, I had no idea that the Unity was regarded by many as London’s premier folk venue and frequented by a notoriously demanding audience. The club turned out to be a large, packed ground-floor room, smoke-filled, with a bar to one side. Black polo-necks and ripped denim were everywhere; I had a fleeting doubt about the blazer I was wearing – the royal-blue one with brass buttons my mother had spent the afternoon polishing. Several performers preceded me. All were male, all had rugged, weather-worn faces, colourful neckerchiefs and deep-set eyes which they either closed for added intensity or opened and directed upward for angelic assistance. All sang unaccompanied, and all sang exquisite and poignant songs about the search for love inside factories, the search for love outside factories, and the search for love in the general vicinity of industrialized regions – a mysterious activity requiring a cupped hand behind one ear. I move my chair to the front of the performing space, sit down and begin to position my fingers one string at a time. I strike my opening chord and sing the first line, ‘If you hear the train I’m on . . .’ which the cognoscenti recognize immediately as my version of the Peter, Paul and Mary hit single ‘Five Hundred Miles’ – but it isn’t what they want to hear. They want British folk songs sung by servants of the song, not commercial music performed by a schoolboy dressed for a Butlin’s talent competition. I am losing their attention. It is time for added showmanship, but I fail to recall Bert’s accompanying caveat not to play standing up until you know what you’re doing. Consequently, the moment I get to my feet is the moment my playing develops an existential rhythmic complexity that would baffle even John Cage. My innate inability to apply reason precludes the obvious solution of sitting down again, and suggests that I direct my gaze upwards for angelic assistance. There is none. Instead, I am lifted into another vision of my future self in the Albert Hall: centre-stage and white-suited, only this time I am holding Play in a Day in one hand while running the fingers of the other over the component parts of Shelagh Spaul – a vision quickly punctured by the noise of the audience applying their own standing style as they rush to the bar. The once-packed room in Camden Town has suddenly morphed into a saloon on the Marie Celeste – a ghostly, smoke-hazed void of deserted tables and chairs. Alone and failing, my guitar is still, and the lyrics dry in my throat. A solitary voice punctures the silence. Standing at the back of the room, wearing his old Royal Navy duffel coat, my uncle is singing the words I cannot, beckoning me to join in. I return my smarting fingertips to the strings and together we sing the final chorus. ‘I’m five hundred miles / I’m five hundred miles away from home.’ It was the only truth I had uttered all evening.

*

Herbert Maurice Weedon, OBE, died aged 91, in Beaconsfield, on 20 April 2012. There were numerous obituaries in the national press, and many statements of gratitude from those considerably more suited to a life in music than I. Eric Clapton, Mike Oldfield, Hank Marvin, Paul McCartney and Mark Knopfler all publicly acknowledged the role of Play in a Day when they, too, were on the threshold of their adult lives.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 60 © Laurence Scott 2018


About the contributor

Laurence Scott lives and writes in south-west Scotland.

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