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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Man Walks Into a Pub

DARK STAR

A Les Paul gets the job done, you don’t have to say things twice
A Telecaster rings just like the bells of paradise
I've held these curves for 30 years, my life is in these scars
but you are my favourite guitar.

Paris never lets you down, she takes my breath away
with her barricades and poets, hunchbacks and cafes,
and when I'm dead you'll find my ghost still drinking in these bars
but you are my favourite boulevard.

Guitars and bars and boulevards
My favourite wastes of time
But you are
My favourite way to rhyme

And when the night comes like a cat sliding down the street
nothing tastes like darkness does, so bitter and so sweet
light comes on like windows and passes by like cars
but you are my favourite dark star.

In the concert where he’s playing with a Swedish string ensemble, Ian Hunter introduces one of his songs by asking if there are any songwriters in the audience. He then says that songwriters will appreciate the next song, because songwriters understand that, every once in a while you have to write a song for your partner, or else. He then launches into the wonderful “Knees of my Heart”. This song’s a bit like that, in that I wrote it for my wife as a 17th wedding anniversary present. The trouble was, we only had my son Hari’s Spongebob Squarepants ukelele with us at the time. I have to say I am not a big fan of the ukelele. They seem to be all over the place at the moment, they have the benefit of being small and relatively easy to play, especially for children, and I’ve seen a dreadlocked punk bash one with appropriate punk intensity, and my friend Mark Whyatt managed an impersonation of an afro-reggae style on one - but to me they still sound twee, and whilst I actually rather like George Formby, that’s who they inevitably end up sounding like. They’re like the banjo, only not so heavy; they generally have a repertoire of style ranging from extremely jaunty to slightly maudlin, and lack the power you get with six strings. They got no bass, they don’t do gravitas, they don’t rock or sing.

So I had this song that when I came to transfer it to a guitar it didn’t. I liked the lyric, so persevered (I think I also polished up the first verse a bit, too, in the light of acquiring an Epiphone Les Paul). I thought I’d managed an effective resetting of the lyric as standard strummed ballad, recorded it for the album, but when I listened to it, it reminded me too much of a cover of Rolling Stones out-take from the Beggars Banquet sessions. It’s attached here, for fans of late 60s Rolling Stones covers...

By now though, I was enjoying exploring aspects of the acoustic guitar I hadn’t bothered with in years. When I first went to folk clubs, one of my favourite guitar pieces was “Delia”, usually played by John James. Sometimes, on a good day, I could also nearly manage a version of it too, though I never had the nerve to attempt this in public. So, I tried retuning the guitar to standard tuning, something I hadn’t played in for probably nearly 25 years, and attempted to fit the lyric to some vaguely ragtime finger picking. It certainly seemed a big improvement on the strummed version, with a better balance of emotions - standard-issue love song sincerity balanced by the bounce you with a thumb picking an alternating bass part. So now, not only am I using a capo at gigs, I’m also having to retune the guitar too.

 

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