Me, Bobby McGhee and the Family Trees

Ok, nothing about me and Bobby McGhee (see what I did there?) but a long overdue blog about me and Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees. As our baby collective ‘Family of Rock’ approaches its first birthday I’d like to talk a little on not only what got us here but our adventures as curators to the most precious of rock n roll archives.

A year ago I wrote a submission of what Rock Family Trees meant to me for the ears of the incredible Family of Rock as we collectively celebrated a wonderful union of the clans at the inaugural dinner for the wide-eyed idealists who all had a shared passion for Pete’s art and the values of a new, fairer ‘collective capitalism’! This was addressing the people that made this partnership possible in its inaugural stages. Suzanne Moore, Gavin Martin, Elaine Collins, Clive Rich, Deborah Orr, Will Self, Tim Delaney, Kevin Brown, Professor Lorraine Gamman, Sam Taylor, Tim Clark and Paul Lennon.

In my diatribe I went to say…

I can’t remember how I first fell under the Rock Family Trees spell.   I was lucky to have three older brothers so our house was full of music.  And music papers….

“The map is not the territory” (Gregory Bateson).   No, sometimes it’s far better. I prefer the map of the London Underground to a journey on the Northern line.  Nothing illustrates this better than Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees, where I can easily lose an afternoon in a walk-in-world of a band I’ve never even heard, or heard of.   Hell, I even broke the punk rock law and listened to Pink Floyd for the first time after being absorbed by the tales of Syd Barratt and poisonous line-up changes, reading and watching what seemed like a revolution captured by means of a beautiful hand book that I could unfold both mentally and physically.

We are more than honoured that Pete Frame has agreed to join forces with us in a new venture, Family of Rock Limited.  Indeed, it is a trophy signing.   Every A&R man wants to sign a headline act and whilst not be young enough to be called The New Beatles, Pete is in my view without doubt the greatest exponent in his field.   If all art is the coming together of two things put together in a new way, welcome to the cartography/calligraphy/genealogy/musical mash-up.   And not just for music. The internet was built to navigate in exactly this way.   If it’s happened, it has a time-line, whatever the discipline; rock, opera, classical, jazz, fashion, art (by movement), history (by royalty), cooking, design, sport, nightlife, dance, drama, politics, gangs, style, indeed civilisation itself.  It’s our intention to have Family Trees in all of these areas and more. It’s also truly exciting to entertain the idea of how this translates to each country, making this a genuinely universal knowledge exchange.

Then, joy of all joys, Pete stood up to what could only be described as a god-like hush of awe and respect. You’ll be very clear why, much to his  chagrin, I repeat an edit to his speech – mainly cos of how great it makes me look when it gets to me…

I’m not good at waffling in public – it’s a very unnatural practice for me. I’m okay at interviewing people and I get by at writing – but I’m not so good at making speeches. Nevertheless, I feel I should say something this evening. To this end, I have jotted down a few notes.

I have enjoyed a very varied and bizarre life – but I had planned a very conventional retirement. Like all conventional retirements, I scheduled it to start on my 65th birthday, in November 2007.

I had moved to a remote part of the Scottish Highlands a few years earlier, and had just published a book about the rise of rock music in Britain during the 1950s. It had taken ages to put together and I always knew it would sell about five copies – but I needed to get it out there for anyone who might be interested. In many ways, it felt like a final statement.

And so, just over a year ago, I settled into retirement mode. I was going to read all the books I had accumulated over the years, listen to all the millions of records and CDs that I had carted up to Scotland, and play host to the string of friends who came up to see us…take them to Cromarty and Ullapool and Dornoch and Loch Ness and wherever else they fancied.

Well, it was all going very smoothly, according to plan, when who should come tripping into my life but Ben and Andy, the Boilerhouse Boys. Their first communication came on 14th March last year. They had some ideas they wanted to discuss with me…concerning my Rock Family Trees and the internet.

Now, I’ve been a very lucky laddie. I might not have made a shed-load of money, but I have had the best life I could ever have imagined. I’ve met all my heroes, from Ray Charles to Dusty Springfield, from Leonard Cohen to Keith Richards; I’ve made loads of radio documentaries – some of which won awards; I’ve written for all sorts of publications from Rolling Stone to The Times; I’ve driven across America both ways, and up and down; I’ve written books; I’ve had my rock family trees on display in art galleries and exhibitions and museums; I’ve seen them on record sleeves, in tour programmes and turned into a couple of television series…but the one disappointment was not getting them onto the internet.

Over the years, a lot of people approached me with schemes to achieve this – but none of them could find a way to make it work. My leftie, hippie sensibilities had always encouraged me to look for the best in people – but my experiences with some of these characters left me exhausted and frustrated.

So, by the time Ben and Andy made contact, I’d become something of a sceptical, prickly old bugger.

All of you here will have known them far longer than I, so you will understand how they dissolved my wariness, and my weariness, and charmed me! I’ve never known anything quite like it. It was a ten month courtship. Lots of emails, usually very brief but always seductive.

At times, I felt like a damsel being wooed by two extremely courteous and respectful medieval knights, who were the quintessence of chivalry and decorum – at other times, I felt myself being drawn into a mysterious nether world I didn’t understand.

The first time Andy phoned me, he was panting in a way that suggested something rather more energetic than a phone call – and I could hear police sirens in the background. “Are you phoning from a police station?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “I’m just striding past Buckingham Palace, actually”. Jeez, I thought – this is a young man in a hurry, grabbing a moment for a chat! Here I am, up in the wilderness and he’s at the very hub of the empire! That was sometime in summer last year.

In September, Andy and I met for the first time – at Luton Airport. I’d flown down from Inverness to go to a funeral in my old village in Buckinghamshire and he’d caught the train up from London. I knew then that he might be serious – no-one goes to Luton Airport for fun. “It’s like meeting your pen pal,” he said – and it was!

We repaired to the Bar des Voyageurs, where we consumed several drinks. From the word go, it was obvious that we would get along – and we parted like old friends who’d known each other forever.

In late November, I was due to visit London for an annual lunch with a bunch of mates I’ve known since the 70s – and I arranged to meet Andy and Ben beforehand. They suggested the genteel atmosphere of the Union Club in Greek Street . . . and I knew then that the stars were in the right place, because before moving on to the restaurant, my mates and I always met at the Pillars Of Hercules, just across the road from the Union – only about 20 yards away.

It was the first time I’d met Ben. Whew! I have known some eccentric people – I’ve hung around with Captain Beefheart, Bill Drummond, Frank Zappa, to name a few – but I was not prepared for Ben! It was rather like having a memory stick shoved in my ear and having an intense dose of arcane information about art and science uploaded into my brain. I was reeling – it was just too much to assimilate. I thought he must be some sort of mad professor – but since then he has confounded me by revealing supernatural supercharged superhuman organisational and business skills.

Andy and Ben have been partners for a quarter of a century – and I feel privileged to have been invited into their world. I would like to thank them for their interest in my work – and I would like to thank everybody who has invested in this project. I can’t tell you how very grateful I am.

I always believed that my family trees were a natural for the internet – and now I’m going to see it happen. And maybe other things too. Another TV series would be good. Some merchandising would be good too.

Naturally, my retirement plans have gone out of the window. Andy and Ben have invigorated me, boosted me up, made me realise that I have too much stuff inside my head to retire – and I’m too young anyway.

So, a whole new episode of my life starts tonight. Here’s to 2009 – and to Ben and Andy.

Now that’s what I’ve instructed Gill to put on my tombstone. Not only rock n roll heaven has this company given me a shoe-in to, it also provided an epitath and an obit.

To be continued…

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