It is a disquieting experience to read of the passing of a dear acquaintance, gather ones thoughts, dispatch a note of condolence and have it returned to sender…
I had just landed in London on the overnight flight from New York when news of the passing of Jesse Winchester came over the wire.
Knowing how bravely Jesse and his wife, Cindy had come through one battle with cancer only for him be confronted by a second untreatable condition, I wanted to send my respects to the family immediately.
Remarkably, Cindy took the time to reply to me within the hour, saying with startling good humour and understanding that my kind words must wait for another day, as the reports of Jesse’s passing were premature.
Roll over Beethoven and tell Mark Twain the news…
I apologized for any distress my note might have caused and concluded hopefully, “Jesse continues to be a very surprising fellow”
It was humbling to see that Cindy shared this exchange with the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, when just a week later I landed in Australia to once again read reports of Jesse’s passing.
This time, I feared it must be the truth.
Since then, I’ve been recalling how kind Jesse had been to me, when as a novice musician I’d approached him in a London club in 1976 to tell him how glad I was that he had written “Midnight Bus”, as I could snare a restive crowd at the clubs and coffee houses that saw no charm in my own quiet songs but would respond to that song or Jesse’s risqué and philosophical gem, “Do it”.
Actually, “clubs and coffee houses” is a phrase for our American readers, as it would be slightly romantizing the location, which was actually a dismal creperie that I played for change on the occasional wet Tuesday night.
However, my compliments to Jesse were utterly sincere.
Like many people I had first encountered Jesse as portrayed in the stark, grainy black and white cover of his first, self-titled album, an edgier affair than almost all of his other recorded output.
He looked like a cross between D.H. Lawrence and a revolutionary dissident facing the firing squad.
The songs were pretty good too.
They were better than “good”, they were as enduring and resonant a group of songs as any produced by his early 70s songwriting contemporaries who went on to sell records in the multi-millions. It is a mystery to me that this success eluded this most gifted, if self-effacing, of writers.
One of those early songs, in fact Jesse’s first composition, “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” contains these beautiful lines:
“When you leave it will be like I found you, dear
Descending Victorian stairs”
It’s an entire storyline implied by fourteen words.
The occasional arcane reference in the language seemed to have something in common with the songs of The Band and Robbie Robertson did produce that first record and play some of his best guitar on the rockers like “Payday” which itself includes two of the funniest lines in any rock and roll song:
“I’ve got me this long-legged gal to help me to spend my dough
Her heart as big as your Mama’s stove and her body like Brigitte Bardot”
A more typical tone of elegantly restrained balladry was established from Jesse’s “Third Down And 110 To Go” onward.
That said, the album did include the romp of, “Midnight Bus”, a kind of rocker with a romantic twist:
“Ride me, ride me, far and wide me
I’m young and I am curious”
This was a sentiment that spoke to me when I had not ventured further than the late night bus or Underground train to the suburbs, after another dispiriting night of having my own songs ignored.
However, many of Jesse’s songs that I’ve carried with me over the years are those that seem suitable for playing in the late and hushed hours while an infant was sleeping in the next room. This is how I understand some of them to have been written and this is how I learned them.
“Nobody told me about this part”
That line comes from Jesse’s superb song “A Showman’s Life”.
It speaks of the romantic disillusionment of a tarnished vocation but it is a song utterly without rancor, bitterness and self-pity. If the author had ambitions they were poignantly expressed in this song and not pursued in any undignified fashion in his career.
Jesse’s songs were covered by many highly successful performers who happened to be good judges of great songwriting from Joan Baez to The Everly Brothers and Emmylou Harris.
There was even a decade in which Jesse took a step back from the performing spotlight and had many successes as a songwriter in Nashville before so much of the output of that town came to resemble the bad outtakes of a Glam-Metal band with a decorative fiddle.
When Jesse had followed his conscience over the border to Montreal rather than to Vietnam in the mid-60s, he ended up playing in a rock and roll band called Les Astronauts that dressed in space suits, which is perhaps a little hard to imagine for the author of the more thoughtful and measured, “Skip Rope Song”, “Defying Gravity” or “Dangerous Fun”.
However, the silly heart rock and roll remained present in Jesse’s songs from “The Nudge” to the extraordinary “Sham-A-Ling Dong Ding” from his penultimate album, “Love Filling Station”. It was a celebration of the nonsense lyrics to which people attach their heart’s desire.
Now I had briefly corresponded with Jesse when I wrote some liner notes for his “Best Of Jesse Winchester” collection. I say, “corresponded” - I wrote my words on the core of an Apple and received a letter of thanks written with a fountain pen in an impeccable hand - but Jesse and I were to meet again properly in 2009 on the stage of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem when he was one of the guests on the television show, “Spectacle”.
It was approximately 39 years after I’d first heard him sing on record and it was worth the wait.
This edition of the interview and performance show of which I was briefly the host took the form of a guitar pull, in which contrasting songwriters sang and spoke briefly in turn about their experiences.
If I tell you that Jesse’s performances that day had the effect of making Ron Sexmith’s beautiful singing seem as if it embodied the showiness and bombast of say, Freddie Mercury, then you will get the idea of the restraint and poise of Jesse’s performances.
He both stole and stopped the show with an astounding rendition of his then current song, “Sham-A-Ling Dong Ding”, which brought members of both the crew and cast to tears and left me speechless and almost unable to continue the taping.
I’m struggling to convey how it felt, better still see it for yourselves…
A short while later, Jesse returned to New York City and played an entirely unamplified concert at the Rubin Gallery on 17th St.
It was as beautiful a ninety minutes of music as I have ever heard and a generous and good-natured survey of Jesse’s catalogue as one could wish for as a long-term admirer, while still appearing to move forward.
It seemed only a few weeks later that news of Jesse’s first illness reached us. He, and Cindy faced it with the very definition of resolve and dignity.
My friend, Bill Flanagan, thought that there was no better time to approach many of Jesse’s admirers to record an album of his songs and Jimmy Buffet and his colleague, Mac McAnally saw that the record had both a budget and a release.
James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett – who has often been compared to Jesse vocally – Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Little Feat, Rodney Crowell and the incomparable, Allen Toussaint all sang Jesse’s songs.
Here is A.T. singing a live version of the song in 2013, that is now almost unbearably poignant to watch:
When it came to the day to complete my contribution to “Quiet About It” with a recording of the title song, I received a phone call from Europe to tell me that my father had been taken seriously ill and that his time might now be measured in weeks and months rather than years.
There was no way to begin my journey to England until the following afternoon, so I was glad of having something to occupy me that day.
“Quiet About It”, the song that I had chosen from Jesse’s catalogue was originally cast a rock and roll tune, which contrasted with the contemplation of mortality and faith that was somewhat unusual for a man who might have only been 25 when he wrote it.
I had decided to cast it as a ballad and caught the basic vocal recording in a hotel room armed only with a baritone ukulele and that most modern of recording device, the iPad.
I now spent that melancholy afternoon in a recording studio adding punctuations of piano, bass, mandolin and even a few bars of drums by my hand to highlight the drama of Jesse’s lyric.
Here are the words of the first verse:
“Be of good cheer
It's all in His plan
He's walking with us
And He speaks through every man
But I have this notion
Call it my fear
That I will die alone
And even He won't be there
But when I feel that way
I thirst, and I want to shout it
Trust me Lord, to be quiet about it”
At the time the “Quiet About It” collection was recorded, I think we all feared that we might be saying goodbye to the subject of the salute but remarkably Jesse came through that first illness only to be confronted by another more ferocious foe.
My father passed later in that year but I remain grateful for the opportunity to record Jesse’s gospel song – although it is one that contains a decent amount of both dread and doubt – on the day that I began coming to terms with his departure.
Jesse’s lessons of economy and brevity in song and grace, modesty and forbearance in life are not always examples that I have been able to apply to my own experience but his songs and our brief but valued acquaintance will travel with me always.