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I Ain't Marchin' Anymore

by Russell Blatcher

Richard Thompson has not played Manchester for several years now, and so for the third time in a row we were driving over the Pennines to Sheffield. We’ve become used to this and quite enjoy the trip now. I’m not sure that I would now travel so far so regularly to see any one else, except maybe Neil Young. On the Dylan front this has yet to be tested, as Manchester seems now to be permanently included on his tour schedule, despite a brief hiatus, for some reason after 1966…

Richard is once again a ‘hot’ option, with a documentary on BBC4, and featured in the Guardian on Thursday last (Internet Reference 1). As ever, he is celebrated as a hidden treasure of English music. This must be a tiresome routine to the man himself. As ever the real underlying issue is sales. His fall firmly into the cult bracket, and his fan base falls very firmly into people of a certain age. Walking through Sheffield City centre, they were clearly recognisable (as I’m sure I am). Just to check I asked the only other couple in the restaurant if they were going to see Thompson: “Yes we’ve driven up from Northampton”.

Thompson has recently left Capitol Records and his new release The Old Kit Bag came out on Cooking Vinyl (Internet Reference 2). I have often wondered whether any of his many record companies have imagined they could achieve some kind of breakthrough into the big time, and how far this has influenced their policy on the musical front. I’m sure that Thompson himself entertains no such fantasies, and hopefully will retain a closer control of such matters now he is with a smaller record company.

Usually Thompson has played at the City Hall in Sheffield, which contains 3 different venues (“Classic style Concert Hall, Art Deco Ballroom, and an intimate Memorial Hall”). In 2003 for the first time he played in the Lyceum Theatre. First opened in 1897, this fine theatre was refurbished in the 90s after coming close to demolition and is now, deservedly a Grade 2 star listed building:

City Hall, Sheffield
City Hall, Sheffield

The couple in the restaurant recommended that we not miss the support act Kim Richey. I was impressed enough by her set to buy a CD in the lobby, especially as the poor woman was there in person ‘defacing’ the insert for those who wanted it. So for any of you attending later shows, I would get there in time for Kim’s set.

Sheffield was the first English date of the tour, and we therefore got an even longer set than usual. The order seemed fairly tied down, even if Pete Zorn could not always remember it. My request for Calvary Cross, as usual, fell on deaf ears, but we got just enough guitar pyrotechnics to satisfy me.

The new album was heavily represented. 9 of the 12 tracks were played: Gethsemane, Jealous Words, I’ll Tag Along, A Love You Can’t Survive, One Door Opens, She Said It Was Destiny, Word Unspoken Sight Unseen, Pearly Jim, Outside Of The Inside. This is never a problem with Thompson because his work is so consistent. I was struck by how seamlessly the new works slotted into the repertoire. Towards the end he referred to “rehearsing frantically”, and this had certainly paid off, even with a new drummer, Earl Harvin, joining regulars Danny Thompson, on bass, and Pete Zorn, on just about everything else, as well as his usual peerless harmony vocals. The high point of the show from Zorn was a scorching solo on Shoot Out The Lights, played on mandolin. Thompson’s use of string bass throughout is one of the unusual features of the band’s style of playing. He provides a dynamic driving pulse throughout, but at the same time, is much more to the forefront of the sound than even many jazz bass players. I am sometimes reminded of Charles Mingus or Jimmy Garrison.

One special addition to the set was Phil Ochs’ I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore(Internet Reference 8). Thompson had inserted a verse of his own about Bush, Blair and Iraq. Hearing Ochs’ remarks about the old men sending out the young men to fight and die had me close to tears:

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the sabre and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

Thompson made his own anti-war position clear, both in performing the song, and in his introduction to it. I only wish more artists would do this, especially Americans (Bob?).

That the chosen song was by Phil Ochs is significant. He may have been no match for Bob Dylan in talent as a singer and songwriter, but in terms of radicalism and bravery, I’m not so sure. Indeed, it would seem he paid a heavy price for this in both in his career and personal life . Dylan learned very early the price of speaking your mind publicly. I’m thinking specifically of the reaction to his remarks about Lee Oswald when receiving the Tom Paine award at a Bill of Rights dinner held by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in New York (December 13, 1963). In his letter of apology to the committee he said:

I should've remembered I am BOB DYLAN an I dont have to speak I dont have t say nothin if I dont wanna but I didn't remember

(Internet Reference 3)

Dylan learned this lesson well. Since then, he has (mostly) kept his views to himself, or expressed them cryptically. If he needed a reminder it came in the world wide reaction when he publicly embraced Christianity. To quote Vito Corleone: “Never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking”.

Another song on a related theme, and a long standing fixture in Thompson’s live sets is Al Bowlly’s In Heaven(originally released on Daring Adventures 1986). This should be featured in some kind of Master Class of Songwriting. The arrangement perfectly reflects the period when Bowlly worked and manifests the strong link between Bowlly and the Second World War (he was killed in the Blitz 17th April 1941 - Internet Reference 4). At the same time the stumbling broken rhythm depicts the narrator, a stumbling, broken war veteran:

Well I gave my youth to king and country
But what's my country done for me but sentenced me to misery
I traded my helmet and my parachute
For a pair of crutches and a demob suit
Al Bowlly's in heaven and I'm in limbo now

Hard times, hard hard times
Hostels and missions and dosser's soup lines
Can't close me eyes on a bench or a bed
For the sound of some battle raging in my head

Thompson combines his love for the music of the period with a trenchant portrait of the reality of the aftermath of war for many of those who survive it. I would like to compare this with the view adopted by Spielberg and Hanks in Band Of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. These appear to be more realistic than any earlier portrayal of soldiers in battle. The addition of interviews with some of the survivors attempts to give credibility to the version of events shown. But the main feature of those veterans who suffer like Thompson’s narrator (“the sound of some battle raging in my head”) is their inability to articulate their feelings about the war as they experienced it. That is why Thompson’s achievement in giving them a voice is so wonderful.

There is no question in my mind that Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, the focus of Band Of Brothers were some of the most resourceful, unflinching, focussed and yes, brave, soldiers ever seen. The necessity of waging war against Germany at that time is almost universally accepted these days, which is why comparisons with that period (Munich in particular) have yet again been made in the Iraq situation.

There is a rich moment of black comedy in the film The Godfather, when Clemenza, whilst showing Michael Corleone how to gun down two men in cold blood, adds his criticism of appeasement:

You know you got to stop them at the beginning, like they should have stopped Hitler at Munich, They should never've let him get away with that. They were just asking for big trouble. You know, Mike, we was all proud of you -- being a hero and all. Your father, too.

[Clemenza hands Michael the gun after adjusting it. Michael points and fires the unloaded gun]

I’m sure Michael Corleone would have done well in Easy Company. However, perhaps we should ask ourselves how to view such advice from the caporegime of a Mafia family. We can only celebrate the heroism of Easy Company (which is what Band Of Brothers indeed does) if we accept the moral purpose of their enterprise. If not, then their actions in such a context (killing or maiming their fellow human beings) are no different to similar actions carried out by Mafia button men, the Wehrmacht, the IRA or Fatah’s suicide bombers. And even if you accept their objective, can you justify their actions?

We often hear condemnation of the killing of ‘innocent’ victims. But who is innocent and who is guilty? The legitimate use of force for purposes of self defence is enshrined in most legal codes. But they are always tempered by the concept of ‘reasonable’ force. Our legal system is regularly mocked by the likes of the Daily Mail when some householder is prosecuted for assaulting a burglar. Their unstated position is that, if I catch a burglar in my home, it is fine for me to inflict injury upon him to any extent to which I feel inclined. The Tony Martin case (see Internet Reference 5) is a classic in this regard. The right wing press was unembarrassed to support a man who shot and killed a teenager in the back with a Winchester pump action shotgun as he ran away from his house. Indeed, the Tories said they would change the law to prevent any such prosecutions in the future.

In a war, the notion of self defence is spread onto a global stage, and all notions of reasonable force are abandoned. We can use any methods to defeat our opponent. We certainly do not need to wait until we are attacked. We certainly do not have to use reasonable force. What exactly is a ‘War Crime’? How do the consequences of the use of atomic weapons, missiles, bombs, machine guns, hand guns and knives ever vary? How can the use of such weapons ever be reasonable?

There is one, rarely mentioned element to this, the glamour of war. Richard Thompson refers to this in the first verse of Al Bowlly’s In Heaven:

Well we were heroes then, and the girls were all pretty
And a uniform was a lucky charm, bought you the key to the city
We used to dance the whole night through
While Al Bowlly sang "The Very Thought Of You"
Now Bowlly's in heaven and I'm in limbo now

(Internet Reference 6)

Some men can enjoy ‘a good war’, both on the battlefield and off it, and emerge unscathed. Indeed, on the opposite side, such men, denied these opportunities in peacetime, can cause serious social problems, for there are no other outlets for their skills. I would seriously suggest that some of the leaders of the once widespread football gangs here and on the continent would have been Company commanders in World War II. Just consider their mastery of logistics: it is not unknown for the leaders of rival groups to confer together via mobile phones to arrange a mutually agreeable venue away from the eyes of the police.

I followed Band Of Brothers with a mixture of horror and fascination. One thing is clear, that some men are born to fight, and some are born to lead them. The final episode provides a summary of the post-war lives of the survivors. If any suffered the fate of Richard Thompson’s soldier, wandering the streets, outside of society, we are not blessed with this information.

The makers of Band Of Brothers no doubt feel that they portray the full horror and heroism of war and it’s ultimate justification. In episode 9, Easy Company discover an concentration camp, recently abandoned by the guards. Just to make the meaning of this obvious, that episode is entitled Why We Fight. But we should know that using the Holocaust as a justification for American intervention in the European theatre is very much a post facto imposition.

The US ostensibly entered the war because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Consider the similarities to the attack on New York in September 2001. In both cases warnings of the attack were ignored by the US government. In both cases the consequences of the attack were used to justify turning away from a more cautious and isolationist foreign policy.

Governments always conceal the true motives for war from their citizens, because these motives are always essentially economic. What brought the United States out of the depression? The New Deal? No, it was the second World War. Can we seriously believe that George Bush shares Tony Blair’s apparent compassion for the victims of the Saddam regime, when he and his predecessors in the White House have so often ignored or colluded in the excesses of similar or worse regimes, whenever it coincided with their military or economic interests.

Richard Thompson gave us a succinct summary of this process in Yankee Go Home (Amnesia 1988):

I lost count of the chewing gum that I've had
And Coca-Cola make my teeth go bad
We'll handle this on our own
Yankee go home!

Dow Jones going into a stall
Spray paint saying it on every wall
The climb was fine, now it's time to decline and fall

Over-paid, over-sexed and over here
Get smart, gringo, disappear
The Hun's at the gates of Rome
Yankee go home! Yankee go home! Go home!
Go home! Go home!

There you have it: when the stock market falls too low, the troops must march. The Hun this time is Saddam Hussein, but anyone will do really.

 

Set List (starting point: Steve Willis Review on RT-List - Internet Reference 7)

Tear stained letter   Hand Of Kindness (1983)
Gethsemane   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
Pearly Jim   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
Outside of the inside   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
Razor dance  

you? me? us?

Missee how you let me down   Daring Adventures (1986)
Al Bowlly’s In Heaven   Daring Adventures (1986)
A Love you can't survive   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
I Ain’t marching any more   Phil Ochs: I Ain't Marchin' Anymore (1965)
One door opens   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
I'll tag along   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
Bank vault in heaven   you? me? us?
I Want To Se The Bright Lights Tonight   I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
Shoot out the lights   Shoot out the lights (1982)
She said it was destiny   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
Two left feet   Hand Of Kindness (1983)
Can't win   Amnesia (1988)
First encore:    
1952 Vincent Black Lightening   Rumour And Sigh (1991)
Crawl back   Mock Tudor (1999)
Wall of death   Shoot out the Lights (1982)
Second encore:    
Man in need   Shoot out the Lights (1982)
Jealous words   The Old Kit Bag (2003)
Words unspoken, sight unseen   The Old Kit Bag (2003)

Internet References
1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,903748,00.html
2. http://www.cookingvinyl.com/richard_thompson/index.php
3. http://www.aiconnect.com/~reiki/tom_paine.htm
4. http://www.btinternet.com/~I.Rogers/intro.html
5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/martin/article/0,2763,583540,00.html
6. http://www.richardthompson-music.com/song_o_matic.asp?id=150
7. http://www.rtlist.net/
8. http://www.cs.pdx.edu/~trent/ochs/i-aint.html

 

Phil Ochs   Richard Thompson

 
 
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