The17
TOURS / COAST-TO-COAST / LIVERPOOL England & NEW YORK USA / Liverpool

THE WILD FLOWERS

or IN DREAMS: A meditation on the work of Roy Orbison

7 June 2011

 

There are many ways to drive from Liverpool to London and for that matter from London to Liverpool. And by ‘many ways’, I do not mean many routes. As far as I am concerned there is only one route and that involves the M62, the M6 and the M1, or vice-versa, if coming from London to Liverpool. What I mean by ‘many ways’ is the many ways you can let your mind work while doing the driving. This is a drive that I have been doing since 1977 and in that time I have done it several hundred times. Thus I know what I am talking about, in the sense that any one of us knows what we are talking about when it comes to something as subjective as this. And most of those drives up and down or down and up, have been to do with music in some way. From coming down with Big In Japan in late 1977 to record Suicide A Go-Go, to going up to perform The17’s Score 1: IMAGINE while standing on top of a manhole cover at the bottom of Mathew Street in December 2009.  A span of more than 32 years.

 

Now I recommend, if you were to drive one of these ‘many ways’ yourself, do not have the radio or music playing in your vehicle. The radio or music has a tendency to distract from the greater things. For me these greater things have been pylons, birds of prey, dead oak trees, and feral or wild flowers. I have written in the past about the pylons on this particular drive, and how they flick a switch in my imagination, especially when driving through the Birmingham stretch of the M6.

 

The birds of prey are a constant on this journey. They have mainly been the diminutive but perfectly formed Kestrels, that can always be relied on to be there on every motorway journey from Liverpool to London. There he is hovering 30 or so feet above the verges, his gimlet eyesight piercing the grass below for any stirring of small rodent. The field mouse or vole, unaware that these are his last moments on this side of the great divide. To watch a Kestrel plummet from the sky and then rise up from the verge with a small vole in its talons is an act that contains more poetry than a Spanish bullfight can ever muster. That’s if you want poetry about the struggle for life, versus the certainty of death. There is also sometimes the odd Buzzard, but other than the Staffordshire stretch of the M6, the route from Liverpool to London just skims the limits of his domain in England. Other than its size (big), nothing much excites me about the Buzzard. They lack drama.

 

What does excite me is the Red Kite. This bird of prey was almost extinct in our islands only 20 years ago, but is now clawing its way back across the land. The Red Kite has a frighteningly large wingspan.  The highlight of driving through the Buckinghamshire or Bedfordshire stretch of the M1, is to have one of these birds seemingly tumble out of the sky and then almost smash into your windscreen. Although they do not have the majesty of the Eagle, there is something so inspiring about their reckless approach to life.

 

As for the dead Oak trees, to see one of these eldritch looking creatures standing in the middle of a field, its empty branches clawing the air around it, never fails to inflame the imagination. And it has to be an Oak tree; none of the other of our 32 native species of tree can do it in the same way.  All those other trees just look silly, once they have died. They look like they have just given up and given into death. But a dead Oak tree, standing in the middle of a field looks solid and noble, his stout trunk and muscle bound branches willing to take on all comers. And even after he has been felled, he can be assured of an after life as a beam in a building that will last hundreds of years, or even end up as planks for one of Nelson’s ships. It was those dead Oak trees that won the battle of Trafalgar not our jolly Jack Tars.

 

Pylons, birds of prey, dead Oak trees have all infiltrated and informed my work over the years. And undoubtedly will continue to do so. But it is the wild flowers that have had the deepest and most far reaching influence on my psyche. And when I say wild flowers this can mean the flowering weeds that are native to our islands or the exotics that have broke free and escaped the herbaceous borders of our over manicured gardens, for a feral life along the verges of our highways and bye-ways.

 

I guess we all are prone to tears on hearing a particular pop song from our youth or maybe a few lines of Wilfred Owen, but every year, when I first see a bank scattered with Primroses, I just break down. Nothing in the world can be more beautiful, more life affirming. However old, corrupted and diseased the world becomes, somewhere next Spring, there will be a bank studded with Primroses. And each face, on each Primrose flower, promises us that we are not defeated, that life has so much more to offer, our innocence cannot and will not be traded.

 

‘So Bill, why this and why now?’  I hear a reader ask, but probably not you.

 

Because my friend Tracey Moberly is doing a book with Ruth Daniel from Un-Convention. And if you want to know what Un-Convention is, there may be a quote from them at the bottom of this text that will explain. The book is and I quote from the blurb I got sent:

 

A global portrait of the grassroots music scene. It will involve those well known (from Jarvis Cocker to Gilberto Gil to Bill Drummond) and those who are actively involved in music scenes (from Colombian MCs to Indian Street musicians to music entrepreneurs). Each person will be photographed with one object that means the most to them connected with music – it may be a first gig ticket stub, a first album, a t-shirt.

 

Now I did not feel comfortable taking part in this. Did not naturally feel that I was part of whatever this grassroots music scene may or may not be. But I thought by refusing to take part would be me just being a pretentious  arsehole. So I said yes. Also Tracey is a pretty difficult person to say no to. And even if I did say no to her, she would then turn around and tell me that I had already promised her that I would do it.

 

As to what I should be seen posing with in the photograph was sadly obvious, my Gibson 330. I’ve had it since 1970, when I bought it second hand for £130 in a shop in Denmark Street, London. It is the only electric guitar I have ever owned and it is the instrument on which I have written every song I have had a hand in writing. I owe it whatever financial security I have ever had. It has been the one constant in my adult life. Women and homes have come and gone but the Gibson 330 has always stayed with me.

 

But there was something I felt uncomfortable about. We all know, only too well, the electric guitar has been used as a phallic symbol by generations of young men. And generations of young women (and men) have been driven wild at the sight of those young men on stages clutching and caressing and smashing and stroking and thrusting and slashing their electric guitars.

 

There is, however something unsightly about men of a certain age, when their flesh is beginning to sag and their hair getting sparse, to be seen posing with an erect electric guitar. It is a bit like sporting a comb over. We know they are desperately trying to cover up for something. I like to think I can accept my thinning hair, thus I should accept that I should never be seen posing with an electric guitar again. Ever!

 

Yesterday morning I was to be driving up to Liverpool via Manchester to meet up with Tracey Moberly. And while in Liverpool, I was to do the photo shoot for the book with Tracey and to do one of my IMAGINE WAKING TOMORROW & ALL MUSIC HAS DISAPPEARED graffiti on the side of the Runcorn Bridge. As I was readying myself for the drive north, packing toothbrush and pyjamas, I got my Gibson 330 out of its case. After all these years she still looked like the perfect guitar, she had served me well. I played a few chords on her and sang the refrain to Only The Lonelyby the Big O. Then I put her back in the case, shut the clasps and put it back under my bed.

 

In 1986, I recorded my one and only solo album – The Man(Creation Records CRELP014), I will not bore you with the why and wherefores now, partly because it is irrelevant to this piece and partly because I think I have done it elsewhere. It is the cover of this album that concerns me today.

 

Before the photograph for the front cover of The Manwas taken, every element that it was to contain, had to be carefully and methodically considered. I knew it would be only me that would get the references, but that did not matter. I had to be wearing a pair of Levi Strauss, button fly, shrink to fit, 501s. These are the only jeans that any real man should be seen wearing. All others are impostors. They are the only jeans that I have ever worn since I was old enough to buy my own jeans. It is what Jack Kerouac wore when he hit the road; it is what Bob is wearing on the cover of The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. Thus it would be what I would be wearing on the cover of my very own long player. The shoes were one of my four pairs of Church’s Brogues; my brogue fetish is something that I was writing about at length only last week while working as a shoeshine boy in Venice. The shirt was the shirt that I got when I worked on the trawlers out of Aberdeen in 1974. The shirt also sported a stencil of The Zoo logo that had been done in 1979. In the background there had to be a ship. I also knew I wanted to be seen posing with my Gibson 330, like I was on the cover of an eternally un-hip, Phil Ochs record (circa 1966). I could write a doctrinal thesis on what that cover, in all its parts, supposedly means to me. But above all of those parts already listed, the most important feature on it, the one that held up the shoot until they were in bloom, were the Rosebay Willowherbs.

 

The photograph was taken in the Summer of ‘86 in the disused docks of Wallasey, Merseyside. When I first arrived in Liverpool in September 1972 to start Art School, much of the city was derelict waste ground. And much of this derelict ground was covered in a blooming flower, whose petals were a dark vibrant pink. This was the beginning of my love affair with feral flowers. Flowers that seed themselves in the waste grounds and bombsites of our culture. I have little interest in knowing where these flowers originally came from, or for that matter what affect they may be having on our indigenous flora. As it happens some are indigenous, while others, like the ubiquitous Buddleia, arrived here as late as the 1890s (from China).

 

At some point I learnt that this dark vibrant pink flower in Liverpool was the Rosebay Willowherb. Since first confronted by it in 1972, it seems to be everywhere across these islands come late summer. And over the decades since the early 70s, there is always one part of my brain, on the look out for all the other feral flowers that I have witnessed, blossoming along our railway embankments, motorway verges, crumbling industrial sites and fallow fields.

 

It is, as much for their determination, their willingness to take risks, their any crack will do attitude to life, as well as their natural beauty that draws me to them. It is that indomitable spirit that fills me with inspiration. More than any concert or record that I have ever heard it is these wild and feral flowers that have continually inspired my working life. Every year they are back, never growing old, never releasing a dull third album, never doing pretentious interviews, never getting fat, never doing a crap reunion tour and never ever selling out.

 

I climbed into my Land Rover, turned on the ignition and set off up the M1 to Liverpool (via Manchester to pick up Tracey) knowing exactly what I wanted to be holding in the photograph for this Un-Convention book – a bunch of freshly picked feral flowers. Picked on the banks of the Mersey. And all of that drive up the M1 and the M6 and then the M62 heading for Liverpool, I was surrounded on all sided by these wild and untamed flowers. It was as if they were throwing down their garlands for me. At no point in the four-and-a-half hour drive, was there a moment when I could not see a wild or feral flower blossoming on the verges of these motorways. There were millions upon millions of Dog Daises, waving their heads in my direction. Then of course there were the blood red Poppies, the odd cluster of Opium Poppies with their strange frayed leaves, the pale purple Thistles, the dark purple Knapweed, the golden Tansies, even patches of Lupins making their break for freedom from the well tended gardens of the Midlands.

 

By the time we arrived at our chosen location, in the shadow of the Runcorn Bridge, it was a golden evening. A bunch of Poppies, Dog Daisies and Knapweed were hastily picked. As well as the named flowers, there was a spray that I had picked in Manchester, they were small and purple and growing from a crack at the side of a doorstep. I had no idea what they were.

 

After the photograph was taken, I flung the bunch into the low tide mudflats of the Mersey. There they would wait for the ebb tide to sweep them out to sea. It is an insult to wild and feral flowers to pick them and put them in a vase. They respond to this insult by dying almost immediately. As when Blake said something about a Robin being in a cage, setting all of Heaven in a rage.
 
It was now time for the serious business of me getting done the IMAGINE ALL MUSIC... graffiti on the side of the Runcorn Bridge. Well actually not on the side of the bridge but on the side of the sea wall that divides the Manchester Ship Canal from the Mersey. This wall goes under the bridge. Tracey and I had worked out that this would be the best place for the graffiti to go. We knew the shot we wanted.
 
The only problem to get to the spot where it was to be done, required me to climb over two lots of heavily secured gates. The gates were topped with razor wire. They, whoever they may be, certainly did not want anybody getting out to where I needed to get. The first gate was at the start of it, the second several hundred yards along, just before where I was to do the graffiti.
 
I reversed the Land Rover up to the first of the gates. From the roof, I was able to clamber over. The razor wire did it best, but I ignored the blood dripping from my wrist as I leapt to the ground at the other side. It was obvious no one had used this path for some time, it was almost completely over grown. But I was able to push my way through. A yard or so to one side of the path, was the Mersey, and a yard or so to the other was the Ship Canal. It was about a half-mile walk along the wall to where I wanted to do the graffiti. 
 
Before I got to the second gate, I was confronted by a hundred yards or so stretch of dense Honeysuckle vines. Now the domesticated Honeysuckle Rose may not be threatening in the least. And who does not swoon to the scent of its delicate bloom. But in the wild it can be another matter altogether.  In a wooded glade, I love to see the way that the vine of Honeysuckle can twist itself around fresh shoots of recently coppiced hazel, turning the arrow strait shoot into an exotic spiral. When it comes the time for me to have a walking stick, I will want it to be made from one of these hazel wands that have been transformed by the vine of the Honeysuckle. To my mind they look like something straight out of Norse mythology. 
 
But on this golden evening as the blood continued to drip from my wrist and the flow tide of the Mersey was rushing across the sands, my head was beginning to swim with the perfume of the ten thousand flowers before me. It did not take much for my seething imagination to see all of this impenetrable mass of writhing vines as the head of Medusa. She was doing all she could to draw me in, and I could be an easy seduction. It was obvious, even if I was able to get a few yards in, the vines would soon be twisting their way around my limbs and pulling me down. There would be no escape. My entwined bones would be found years later. 
 
I made my way back, climbing over the last gate on to the top of the Land Rover. I did not mention any of this Medusa stuff to Tracey but told her that I would have to come back at a later date with a pair of bolt cutters to snap the padlocks of the final gate. She suggested we come back in the morning with a pair. I knew, if ever I were to come back it would take a lot more than a pair of bolt cutters, to mentally prepare me for this job.
 
There is much more to this story, as in why it had to be the Runcorn Bridge, but I will leave all of that until I do get back to do the graffiti. And anyway this graffiti should maybe be the last of all the 40 that I am doing. Maybe even on the very early hours of the 29April 2013, before I set fire to the Land Rover on the tidal mudflats of the Mersey, out beyond Hale village.
 
Tracey was then dropped off back in Manchester. She was to be an extra in Shameless, which according to her, is the greatest TV programme ever made. I think it is something to do with the mid life crisis she has decided to have because she never had a real one, or something. 
 
Next, the four-hour drive down south on the M6 and M1. And on that dark journey, I was able to ignore all the flowers. Not once did they catch my attention. That was until I pulled up at my flat in North London and under the street light, as I was putting the key in my front door, I noticed a clump of small yellow flowers growing out of a crack at the side of my doorstep. Where had they come from? I had not noticed them before, but they must have been growing for some time. I plucked a spray and took them inside. A flick through Richard Mabey’s classic Floral Britannicaand I discovered it was Corydalis and I quote: from the southern Alps, increasingly naturalised in cracks in walls and pavements throughout the British Isles. 
 
After putting the kettle on, I pulled the case from under my empty bed, flipped open the clasps, lifted my beautiful Gibson 330 onto my lap and while sitting on the bed and starring out at the dark street below, strummed the chords and whispered the words, Roy Orbison wrote for broken hearted lovers the world over:
 

A candy-coloured clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper
Go to sleep. Everything is all right...
 

 

 

Post Script:And I wrote all the above without mentioning the most heroic but humble of flowers that have braved their way along the central reservations of our motorways – the diminutive Cochleari (Scurvy-grass). But as they are not in flower yet they did not get included.

 

Post Post Script:Here is the quote about Un-Convention that I mentioned earlier: Un-Convention is a global grassroots music and creative community and movement – that meets physically and virtually to share ideas; discuss and debate cutting edge issues around music, technology and creativity; and facilitates members’ engagement with their peers. Un-Convention is not about the business of music. The community is driven by a not for profit initiative that sees opportunity for the grassroots in the changes to the way music is being produced, consumed and sustained.