It’s my good friend Rob’s birthday today. I have known him since 1977 and we have never lived closer than 175 miles to each other. That’s quite unusual. I think all my other friends have, at some point, either lived near me, worked with me or played cricket with me. I got to know Rob through our mutual friend Paul who shared a house with him in Malvern. For the first few years I never met Rob without meeting Paul but recently we have met up two or three times a year for beer and curry in London, normally preceded by a cursory visit to a museum. I wonder how long it will be before we can resume this.
Rob and I have a lot in common. Mainly music and politics but also in the way we relate to other people. He came with me to see The Unthanks on the day that I left Oakmeeds Community College in 2011 after 13 years work. He organised two great weekends in Cork with four other friends. We also met up in London many years ago when Paul’s brother arranged for us to go and see a band at The Scala in Kings Cross. (The Scala was, of course, the venue where the TV programme in “A Hard Days Night” was filmed.) Paul’s brother vastly underestimated how long it would take him and Rob to drive from Bristol to London on a Friday night so I got to the pub where we were due to meet two hours before they arrived. Luckily Rob’s son and fiancée were there and although we had never met, we passed a very pleasant time waiting for them. Quite a bizarre encounter which could have been very difficult if it wasn’t for the fact that these two people less than half my age are utterly charming, funny and sensitive people who made for excellent company. A lot like Rob.
As I said, Rob and I have a lot in common musically. I don’t like Focus but apart from that we pretty much agree on most music. Rob is the only person with whom I can talk about “progressive” music such as King Crimson, van der Graaf Generator and discuss how much The Unthanks music is derivative of the late sixties underground music scene. I love it that we can suggest songs to each other which invariably we like. Rob compiled 52 very interesting Spotify playlists in 2018, one a week, which led me to discover many artists I’d never heard of or previously considered, for example, Bob Fox & Stu Luckley, Phil Beer, Jim Moray, Harvey Andrews, Nic Jones, Steve Hillage.
Rob is an excellent guitar player and singer. Ever since I’ve known him, he and Paul have performed as a duo, playing in pubs and clubs round Bristol and Weston-s-Mare. A long time ago, I travelled down to Bristol one cold and wet Friday night and watched the two of them rehearse before going on to perform at a folk club. I can remember the thrill I got from hearing their powerful and emotional version of “Fire And Wine”, a Steve Ashley song.
I went to stay with Rob in October 2018 and he has the most magnificent music room in his house where he and his very talented son play a range of instruments. There were at least 11 guitars as well as a mandolin and keyboard. Now he is learning how to play the saxophone. I was very jealous. When I retired (for the first time, last August), I was considering what to do with all the spare time I had and I was considering learning to play the piano. What with holidays, voluntary work and snooker, I never pursued it. I’m now seriously considering it again. Maybe one hour’s practice a day? I’m not very good at doing something that I’m rubbish at but it might be worth giving it a try. I tried very hard to play golf and had several rounds with my dear and trustworthy friend Keith Burton before giving up because I was so terrible. I used to be half decent at cricket but gave up when I started getting out for next to nothing and not being able to pitch the ball on the wicket. So it could be an expensive waste of time but maybe I should try it.
A few years ago, I suggested that Rob listen to “Queen Bee” by Brent Best. A week later, I was thrilled to receive a version of the song that Rob had recorded with his son. It’s a great song and they perform it very well.
Brent Best used to be in Slobberbone who were a really excellent group. I once went to see them with Ben in The Borderline in London on a Tuesday night. I had never drunk Red Stripe before but I had more than I should have. I somehow staggered back to Ben’s house before waking up at 6:00 knowing I was teaching at 8:30 and I had an hour and a half’s train journey to negotiate first. I wasn’t sober and that was the first and only time I ever took a “sicky”. I also saw Slobberbone in a venue called “The Lift” in Brighton where there were fewer than ten people in the audience. Both times, they were magnificent. They played loud, in your face, literate rock music. Brent Best writes very intelligent, lyric-heavy songs. Michael Toland wrote “Heavily influenced by Southern literary authors like Larry Brown and Harry Crews, Brent Best has long crafted lyrics that are short stories unto themselves, singing them in a plainspoken ramble and marrying them to engaging roots rock melodies that elevate his tunes beyond the usual Americana drone.” I once wrote a review of their third record on my website and Brent Best sent me an email congratulating me on “digging so deep” into the record. Yes, Slobberbone were great and I was gutted when they split up in 2004. Most of the group formed a short lived group called The Drams but this didn’t really live up to the heights of Slobberbone.
Between the time of Slobberbone’s 4th and last record and Brent Best’s only (so far) solo record, he changed his appearance significantly.
The record that Brent Best released in 2015 is called “Your Dog, Champ”. These words appear in a song called “Robert Cole” where his mother is the victim of domestic abuse. “I am your mother. I told your sister and baby brother, your dog, Champ and your best friend. Your name is Robert Cole and tomorrow you are nine years old but you will not walk this road again.” The opening song on the record is “Daddy Was A Liar” and some of the words are “You’re wading in the water and looking for your daughter. Daddy’s at the deep end dragging something under from the shore.” In “Good Man Now” he sings “Momma you always told me that the only good man was a dead man.” After the singer shoots his father he sings “Momma please don’t cry. Daddy’s now a good man.” The song “Aunt Ramona” describes a long car journey with his family when his Aunt dies in the car.
As the review of this record on “No Depression” said, this is not a record to play at a children’s birthday party. “Despite the sadness, the listener cannot turn away from the melodic, rhythmic narrative that runs throughout most of the album. The record is like a good book (a long one) that you cannot put down. Best’s guitar work and harmonica masterfully complement his ballads, many of which last for six minutes or more. Strangely, despite of the album’s melancholic message, Best’s voice and guitar work come across as slightly uplifting.”
“Queen Bee”, though, is definitely uplifting. In fact, it brings me to tears most times I hear it and these are not tears of sorrow but of redemption. This is a love song in which he compares himself to the object of his love. She is a beautiful girl but he is a “dime store devil.” She is an architect but he is “building forts out of cardboard and in sand.” She is a rock and roll star but he is “just one fan”. She is “a space age helicopter with pilots who don’t sleep” but he is “a horsefly in a stockyard full of sheep”. There’s a beautiful but strange sounding instrument which I take to be a distorted fiddle and it gets me every time.
Whatever happens to these musicians? Brent Best is a highly intelligent but, possibly, troubled man who has made some truly original music. How is he? There is no information on his website. No new music for 5 years. Listening to his songs, I have felt a real connection with someone who is telling me things about himself. We all invest so much in our heroes and yet we all live our lives independently. Listening to this record is a deeply emotional experience. Brent Best has given so much of himself in singing these songs. And when it’s all over, what next?