Wingless Angels by John Stewart


I was only asked to be “Best Man” once. Dave and Gay asked me and I was very pleased and honoured to accept. I did a reasonable job in keeping Dave sober the night before and I didn’t lose the ring but my speech was terrible. It was very short and not very funny. Because they are generous people, they thanked me afterwards and asked if they could buy me something to thank me. I said I’d like a record please. I am fairly sure I detected a look of disappointment on both their faces although they’d probably deny it now. They very kindly bought me “Easter” by The Patti Smith Group. I still have it although I must confess I haven’t played it much recently. It’s got “Because The Night” on it. I wonder what other present they could have bought me that I would still have and, yes, treasure 42 years later. The gift of music is eternal. Well, that’s not true. Whoever has the task of sorting out my records after my death will probably chuck it in a rubbish skip but for as long as I live, “Easter” by The Patti Smith Group is going to remind me of the privilege I had to be Dave and Gay’s Best Man.

Over the years, a few people have made a gift of music to me. In 1994 Arthur gave me a voucher for my birthday. (It’s a shame that tradition has lapsed). I used it to buy the magnificent “August And Everything After” by Counting Crows.

John has to my recollection bought me at least two records. One was the eponymous first album by Tom Tom Club because I’d just been to see a gig by Talk Talk. He also bought me “Beyond The Sunset” by The Rain Parade with a wonderful first track called “Night Shade.” Until I started thinking about today’s blog, I had forgotten about this record. Try downloading this from your streaming service! Try asking me in an incredulous voice why people still buy records or CDs. Ha!

My sister bought me my favourite Rolling Stones album for Christmas in 1967 which is, of course, “Their Satanic Majesties Requests”. It had a lenticular cover and was quite expensive. I still feel guilty about the cost, even more so because I sold it when my love of Progressive Rock was temporarily suspended at Royal Holloway – the dark days when I sold all my Moody Blues records along with records by Colosseum, Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. I don’t have many regrets in my life but….

I think it was Christmas in 1971 when my parents bought me “Lorca” by Tim Buckley. I remember lying on my bed at around 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, listening to it on the headphones with my eyes closed and singing along quite loudly. If you know much about that album and/or my singing, you will realise that this was not my family’s happiest Christmas Day. I remember someone tapping me on the shoulder to tell me that Christmas Dinner was ready. I think it was probably all a bit undercooked but anything to get me to shut up.

Pete has also bought me some great records/CDs. Yo La Tengo, some great Brinsley Schwarz bootlegs and “Diamond Mine” by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins. Derek gave me “If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You” by Caravan and Alex gave me “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys; on both occasions it was because they were their favourite records which they thought they had worn out so they were buying new copies and wanted me to have their old copies.

Roo has, of course, bought me many albums. She likes to tell me that it was me who asked for Bongwater so she was (and still is) genuinely furious that I subsequently sold it. On the other hand, she did choose to buy me “Crazy On The Weekend” by Sunhouse because she thought I would like it which of course, I still do, 22 years later.

How many gifts, do you think, have this lasting power? Years and years later, I can still attach memories to certain albums. The gift of music is eternal.

In 1975, I left Royal Holloway and spent the Summer in Sevenoaks with my parents working on the Sevenoaks Holiday Playscheme for two weeks with up to 70 excitable children aged between 5 and 11. I can’t believe that that’s true but it is. I’ve changed. In September, I started my teacher training year in Worcester. Anyway, my Mum’s sister Edna and her husband Wilson were staying at the house for about six weeks. Just before they left to go back to Australia (my Mum was Australian), they asked me if they could buy me a present. And you’ll never guess what it was! “Wingless Angels” by John Stewart. Phew! I got there in the end.

“Wingless Angels” is John Stewart’s 8th album. I was going to say that it’s not one of his best but I’ve been listening to it whilst writing this blog and it’s great. The Wikipedia genre for this is “Folk” but that’s bunk. It’s definitely “70s singer-songwriter tinged with a hint of country” if such a genre exists. He sounds a bit like Johnny Cash except he can hold a tune. He’s got a tremendously deep emotional soulful voice and he writes great songs, often celebrating the lives of so-called ordinary American people.

A bit about John Stewart. He was a member of The Kingston Trio from 1961-1967; he wrote “Daydream Believer” in 1967; he went on the campaign trail with Robert Kennedy in 1968; he had a Top 5 hit in the USA with “Gold” in 1979. He wrote a fantastic song called “Mother Country” which is on his brilliant first album “California Bloodlines”. A tape of “Mother Country” was played on the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its return to Earth. You can hear a bit of this in the “Apollo 11” film. If you’ve never heard this song, you really should. You’d love it. (That’s a joke by the way and you’d have to read a previous blog to understand it).

According to Wikipedia, he recorded nearly 60 albums but I’ve never heard of more than half of them and I’m guessing they were self released and not widely available. I think I’ve got 12 of his albums.

The record starts with the lines “She could have gone to Colorado/We were riding on that road/I said ‘I’m going, will you follow?’/She said ‘Yes,’ but then said ‘No'” which sums up his writing pretty well really. The promise of something beautiful, the generosity of spirit, some moments of glory and final sad disappointment of reality.

There are two songs called “Survivors” on this album. Side 1 Track 3’s full title is “Wingless Angels/Survivors II”. It’s great. “Wingless angels on the coast of Amsterdam/ Wingless angels grease the cars in Birmingham/Wingless angels work the fields in Ohio/wingless angels walk the streets of Chicago.” I think both these songs are celebrating the life of the “ordinary person”. The song pauses, strings kick in and he sings “We are autumn/We are spring/We are part of a moving thing/Huddled round the fire/Survivors” It sounds patronising but to me it’s very moving.

Side 1 Track 5 is simply called “Survivors” and to me it’s the best song on the album. “He broke his back/To put the food on the table/In Columbus, Ohio he said to his wife/’I believe that the flag/It was more than a rag/But the outlaws in office/Have shattered my life'” He then sings “Can you hear me Ohio?/You are the country/You are the nation/You will survive”. This is repeated several times by a female chorus who substitute other states: Ohio is replaced by Wyoming, Virginia, Dakota, Colorado, California, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Hawaii, Alaska. The end of the song is quite affirmative in these days of Covid-19, lockdown, Trump and Johnson: “You are the country/You are the nation/You will survive.” Let’s hope we all do.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: