It seems that I have reached a point in my life where my childhood wishes and aspirations have some chance of realisation.
I had a strange childhood, or at least this is what I am led to believe when I speak of it to people.
My father left before I was born, and I only very recently found out his name. I also learned that my mother had another child with a different father, and he now has a family all his own. That half-brother contacted me a couple of years ago, and it was like being given a view into another life that could have been had the stars been aligned in a slightly different way.
My mother died when I was seven, so I never really knew her, and I was raised by my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandfather had already drowned in the late 1950s, and my grandmother then died when I was sixteen, so for my later teenage years and all the years since that time I have lived my life without parents, without grandparents, without aunts, uncles, cousins, or any of the usual trappings that one could call ‘family’.
This is not something of which I have been particularly aware, nor is it something I have missed. As Joni Mitchell so famously said, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’, which leads me to think that you can’t really miss something you never had.
This, however, is all beside the point. If challenged, I would always err on the side of nature over nurture. I believe that we arrive with a great deal of mental and emotional baggage, and our childhood and upbringing does remarkably little to significantly influence who we are. I do not think we are a product of what happens to us in the few short years of childhood. I think we are all a product of a great deal more history than that. However, this is not supposed to be a comment on my personal life philosophy. That can wait for another day altogether.
I was talking about a stage I have reached in my life, having recently passed the age of fifty, and even though some of my friends and acquaintances are talking about slowing down and finding ways to reduce the amount of work they are doing, I find myself doing the opposite.
Very recently I started a band called The Whiskey Poets. We have produced one album, are busy at work recording the second, and we have been commissioned by one of the largest record labels in the world to write an album of songs and instrumentals for use in film and television.
I am currently in the process of organising a UK and European tour for the band, and this will be independent of the dozen or more tours that I undertake each year to promote my books.
I have just completed volume one of a trilogy entitled ‘Kings of America’ that will see publication in the UK in November. I have also written another book in an entirely different genre, and I am working to find a publisher for that project.
We have a film project ongoing in the USA (an adaptation of my book, ‘A Dark and Broken Heart’), and even though I am not directly involved in the adaptation, I am nevertheless keeping an eye on progress, and have been available for discussion with the screenwriter.
I plan to return to France in the late spring to work with Fabrice Colin on a second graphic novel. The first project, a graphic novel based on the trilogy of short stories ‘Three Days in Chicagoland’ was sufficiently successful for the publisher to ask if a second project could be undertaken. The answer, of course, was yes.
Lastly, I have taken on the directorship of a new company that will launch in April of this year. This is an unrelated activity, and will involve importation of wine and licquers from Eastern Europe. Every element of creative design, the website, the branding and promotion, the logo, even down to the name of the company itself has been and continues to be my responsibility. It is a new activity for me, and calls for a different approach and attitude to writing books, making music, or anything else I have done. Concurrently, I purse my interests in photography, research, travel, social media, maintenance of numerous Facebook pages, twitter accounts, two websites and a host of other lesser activities that are all time-consuming in their own way.
And yet, despite all of this, I find myself looking for more things to do.
Central to my life, underpinning everything that I do, is a sense that we are here for a very short period of time.
As I grow older, I am increasingly aware that time moves so very quickly.
A day is gone before I even get started. Christmas sees to have happened only yesterday, and yet here we are in the middle of February.
I am not in some relentless battle against the natural passage of time, but I am aware that it is our most precious commodity. Time is not the issue, of course; it is what we do with it that matters.
I was aware, even as a small child, that I wanted to pursue some kind of artistic goal with my life. I was utterly unaware of the direction I would take, and did not even think of writing until I was in my early twenties. I was deeply interested in music, photography, literature, journalism, all manner of things, but I did not feel that any one of those things was my natural vocation.
I think back to when my mother died, and the subsequent changes that occurred in my life.
That was a moment of significance, I have no doubt, but perhaps more as a result of the subsequent events rather than the event itself.
Considering this recently, and looking back at the past four decades, I see how important music became, and how important it continues to be in every aspect of my life.
For some weeks after the death of my mother, I was sent to stay with a relative. The relative, a great aunt – had a son. The son was a teenager, a wild guy, a rocker, and he had a room painted black with posters all over the walls – Hendrix, Joplin, Canned Heat, Jim Morrison and The Doors. He spent his time playing records, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer.
I found some strange comfort in the company of this wild teenager. The teenager told me a story and played me a record. ‘Robert Johnson,’ he explained. ‘He went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil for the Blues…’ And I listened, and I heard something in the music that stirred something inside of me, and I knew that no other music would ever sound the same. Perhaps more accurately, I would never be able to listen to any other style of popular music and not hear the Blues somewhere hiding within it.
Because the Blues sits behind everything. It is a rhythm, an atmosphere, a heartbeat, a pulse, a colour, a feeling. It isn’t just a sound. You hear sounds with your ears. This wasn’t just something you heard; it was something you could feel in your heart.
The fact that I went on to write novels is also not part of that story. Not directly. The fact that I became a writer who has always tried to capture that feeling, that emotion, that sound with words, is perhaps more to the point. Because they’re the same thing. It’s the emotional connection. The emotional impact. I think no matter what area of artistic endeavour I had undertaken, I would always have been working towards the creation of an emotional impact. Photography, painting, architecture, even journalism…it would all have been pursued with the same simple intention.
I read to feel something. I listen to Son House and Leadbelly and Muddy Waters and Charley Patton to feel something too. The emotion comes first, the rhythm comes second, the dancing comes last. Music is an outburst of the soul, Delius said. My interest was sparked as a child, like the small flame at the tail of the touchpaper, and at the end of that touchpaper was dynamite. I moved on from there, found so many different stories that had all been woven from the same original strands. It was an evolution, a progression – up through British rhythm and blues to The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Stones, and then the sound of the West Coast - The Elevators and Quicksilver, and West Texas variations like Doug Sahm, and out of the swamps came Dr. John and Professor Longhair, ‘Gris Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya’ and its strange, distorted reflection of the same things that the delta Bluesmen were saying.
All the same emotion. All the same story, just told in very different ways.
My girl gone left me. She left me alone. You don’t know how it feels to have no home. Got no money in my pocket, no shoes on my feet. Got no food in my belly and my bed’s in the street.
It’s all humanity, the same things suffered a thousand different ways.
Music was the support, the way in which we survived our difficulties, our travails, our losses. As Virgil Thomson said, ‘I’ve never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music is not going to let you down.’
And even the whites had their own thing going. They suffered the Depression, they suffered hardships, of course, and they sang and played their way through it. European immigrants into the Maritime Provinces and the Southern Appalachian Mountains brought Old World instruments with them – the fiddle from Ireland, the banjo from West Africa, the guitar from Spain, the mandolin from Italy. ‘Little Log Cabin in the Lane’, recorded by Fiddlin’ John Carson in the early 20s, Vernon Dalhart’s national hit, ‘Wreck of the Old ‘97’, the flipside of which was something called – not surprisingly – ‘Lonesome Road Blues’, and artists like this were followed by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers who managed to fuse hillbilly country with gospel, jazz, blues and folk music.
And without Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family the ‘The Golden Age of Country’ would never have happened. No-one would have heard of the Grand Ole Opry. Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jnr., Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson would have just been playing for drinks in some out-of-town juke joint or bowling alley. And on the West Coast, had it not been for Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell, we would never have discovered The Bakersfield Sound, and Merle Haggard and Buck Owens would have been packing groceries or fixing cars in a truckstop outside of Mendocino.
And from these strange unions came yet another illegitimate child – real rockabilly. Without that unlikely collision of Hillbilly Country music and Delta Blues we would never have had Carl Perkins or Elvis or Johnny Burnette or Eddie Cochran, and without Eddie Cochran we would never have had Chuck Berry, and without Chuck Berry we would never have had The Rolling Stones.
And then the brash parents took a roadtrip, travelled further afield, and as they travelled they produced further offspring – artists like Gram Parsons, Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Allman Brothers, Buffalo Springfield and The Eagles. Country Rock was born. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, Canned Heat’s ‘On The Road Again’ – released in 1968, adapted by Alan Wilson from a song of the same name, recorded by Floyd Jones in 1953. And Jones’ song, well that was an adaptation of a song called ‘Big Road Blues’, recorded in 1928 by Delta Bluesman, Tommy Johnson. Did they know at Woodstock that they were listening to a song that was twice as old as most of the people there? Maybe not, but it didn’t matter. It said the same thing a different way. It conveyed the same emotions, the same heart, and you either got it or you didn’t.
These were no accidents, no coincidences. Serendipity perhaps, but not coincidence. The emotion was always there, always present, always pre-eminent. The emotion was what it was all about. And it carried through every thread, and it walked down every road, and it passed from hand to hand, from heart to heart, from soul to soul. It was a communication. It was a message. And those that heard it, really heard it, well they understood that it was not something that could be measured or quantified or given a value. It was priceless. The music was priceless. It was a universal language, applicable to all, understandable by all, and as it evolved it encompassed more and more people, more and more variations on the same theme, and even those that didn’t know exactly what they were listening to still felt the rhythm inside of themselves and got up to dance.
The seven year-old kid grew up, and nearly four decades later he’s putting a band on the road when all sense and sensibility says that such a thing should not be considered by an unfit man who has just turned fifty. But to hell with the rules and regulations, to hell with the conservative, the expected, the norm. This is about life. This is about being whoever you are. This is about feeling something inside of yourself that you cannot exorcise without making a noise. People might age, but the emotion stays young for ever. The band is called The Whiskey Poets, a little homage to Dylan Thomas, and even at gigs I do readings from my books, and people come with books for me to sign, and the two activities seem to be inextricably linked and will always and forever be driven by the same impulse. I am telling stories. Whichever way I look at it, I am telling stories. Why do I need to do this? I don’t know, and the reason why does not seem so important.
Even now, when I write my fiction, I am looking for the same rhythm, the same pace, the same tensions that I find in music. I am working on the sentences and paragraphs like they’re bars of music. I am losing a word here and there because the phrase has one too many syllables and it doesn’t feel right. I know when it sounds right to my ear. I know when it looks right to my eye. It has a tempo, a timbre, an atmosphere, a colour. And when I write lyrics my musical heritage is all the more evident. The girl is still leaving. I still ain’t got no money. The train’s pulling out of the station. I am sleeping in the street. This is what we do. This is what we have to say. This is what we sing about. Matters of the heart. Matters of the soul. The business of life.
Music has always been there, always something to look forward to, always there to return to. It is both a destination and a home; it is both a familiar friend and a new acquaintance; it is both a parent and a child. I look back at my life, and all the important events, all the things that mattered – marriage, fatherhood, new jobs, new places and people – and all of them were somehow connected to music. I can say in music what I will never be able to write. I can write in words what I will never be able to communicate with music. It has been said that a composer composes because he cannot say what he wants in words. I believe the corollary also, that a writer writes because he cannot yet communicate his thoughts and feelings with sounds.
And I leave the last words to a writer, fittingly. Not just a writer, but a writer for children who yet spoke to all generations. Hans Christian Andersen said something so simple, and yet it encompassed all complexities, all truths, all fundamentals: ‘When words fail, music speaks.’
For me, in just five words, I think that says it all.
Meer weten over de boeken van Roger of van zijn muziek? Hier een aantal links waar je meer over hem te weten kunt komen. Ook kun je hem op Facebook volgen.
De Perfecte Buren in gesprek met Roger (Nederlands) klik hier
De Perfecte Buren in gesprek met Roger (English) klik hier
www.rjellory.com on Facebook
www.whiskeypoets.com on Facebook
Uitgeverij de Fontein
Recensie 'Een circus van schimmen'
Recensie Het kwaad en de rivier
Review The devil and the river