Rick Grech and Me: a Personal Memoir by Kenny Wilson

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Rick Grech with Geoff Overon in the late 1970s. “to ruminate and reminis (sic) is allright (sic) once in a while. file this under Rock to Geoff. Rick Grech”. Actually, this is perhaps the first time I’ve seen him play bass in this period. He mostly played guitar and violin. The cryptic comment is probably referring to the fact that although he is playing bass he feels he has moved on from that. He no longer wants to be seen as a “bass player”.

I realized as I started this memoir that I don’t really know how to either spell or pronounce Rick’s name. Until recently I thought it was Ric and that Grech was pronounced with a hard “K” sound. I’m not sure now. On most of his recordings, and his own signature on a photograph I have, it is spelled Rick and many people I have spoken to who knew him assure me that Grech should be pronounced with a “CH” sound. I also thought he was of Polish origin but many biographies online say he was Ukrainian. Not a great start really as I am now totally confused and can hardly put myself forward as an expert! Mind you, it fits the person I knew for many years who was both interesting and sociable but was also a bit of an enigma who rarely gave a straight answer to  any personal question.

What I do know is that I met him late 1975 and subsequently did gigs, wrote songs and recorded demos with him until the early eighties when we went our separate ways. When you look at biographies of Rick they all tend to agree that his career ended in 1977. Bizarrely, many say he became a carpet salesman. I don’t know where that came from but it was the sort of thing he would say as a joke. He had a cynical and sometimes surreal sense of humour. He actually saw himself as a musician and played in various combinations until his untimely death in 1990. The period I knew and worked with him was between 1975 and 1982 and we did many gigs together mainly around the Midlands area in the U.K.

In 1975 I was living on the St. Matthews Estate which was an area of social housing near the centre of Leicester. It was a time of economic upheaval with hyper-inflation and widespread industrial unrest. The then prime minister, Ted Heath,  announced a three day week at the height of a miner’s strike that eventually brought down the government and returned Harold Wilson and a Labour government to power. On top of that there were many terrorist acts being committed by the IRA and other extremist groups with particularly horrendous bombings in Birmingham and Guildford. It was a time of great unrest and social change. The hope of the 60s had dissolved into the pessimism and paranoia of the 70s.

However, personally untouched by the economic downturn (living “on the dole” was alright as long as you didn’t have expensive habits), I continued to pursue and develop my career as a singer/songwriter. There weren’t many gigs in the centre of Leicester at that time so I and some of my musical friends started a club in the top room of a pub called the Town Arms on Pocklington’s Walk. We met every week and played songs and generally had a good time. Everyone at that time was making a big effort and many of the songs were excellent. Regulars at the time included Geoff Overon, Mick Pini, Dave Plimmer, Gwyn Jones, Annie Williamson and many others, some of whom I’ve forgotten the names of. None of us were making much money at the time but that didn’t really matter. We were more interested in writing and performing good songs.

The Town Arms, Leicester
The Town Arms, Leicester where our club used to meet every week in the upstairs room.

One night, out of the blue, Rick Grech turned up with his violin. He commenced to play along with people and then borrowed a guitar and sang some of his own songs. He obviously enjoyed himself and started to come every week. At the time he had just finished working with Gram Parsons and had even made two records with the original Crickets! One week he brought a cardboard box full of records to the club. It was by a “super-group” called KGB featuring Rick on bass. He proceeded to give everyone a free copy of this! This is when I first encountered Rick’s evasiveness. I said shouldn’t he be in America promoting this record but he told me nothing and didn’t want to discuss it! It was at this time that rumours started circulating that he had been expelled from America and could not return. I don’t know any facts about this but I know he never returned when I knew him in the 70s.

At the beginning Rick was a bit of an anachronism with his Rock Star status and red Ferrari which he crashed and abandoned shortly after I met him. But he was a nice guy who was soon part of the scene and we started working with him in various ways. At the time my maisonette (like a third story house on top of another house!) was a centre for continual jam sessions. I had a reel to reel tape recorder set up (a bit like the Basement Tapes) and recorded many sessions that involved Rick and lots of others. Unfortunately, the tapes I used were the cheapest available and oxidized over time and are virtually unplayable now. Rick was buzzing with ideas and writing some great songs and playing some fine fiddle. He was still involved in recording as a session musician with people like Rod Stewart and was still managed by impresario Robert Stigwood who released a compilation album of him in 1973. He had also promoted the talents of guitarist Albert Lee and had involved him in records with the Crickets and “Doctor to the Stars” turned country singer, Hank Wangford. It seems like Rick was everywhere, doing everything, he couldn’t fail, but cracks were beginning to show. Hank Wangford says this of his time with Gram Parsons and Rick:

“I spent four months in Canada, and came back and resolved to make a country album with Rick Grech for Robert Stigwood, I called Rick up one day and said, ‘You know who should co-produce this? Gram Parsons.’ He said, ‘I know Gram well’, and called him up. And Gram came over. “This was 1972. I did a demo with Rick on bass, Mike Kellie from Spooky Tooth on drums, Mike Storey on piano, and Pete Townshend on lead guitar. Glyn Johns was the engineer. I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d made it. But the whole thing fell apart. Gram came over, we spent a couple of days at Rick’s house going over the songs, but it fell apart because of heroin. Rick and Gram just got really stoned, and I didn’t take heroin. I hated it. Rick was so wrecked, he couldn’t get his recording machine to work. For hours and hours, he and Gram would get higher and higher, and nothing happened. Nothing was put on tape. Actually, that time, he brought with him George and Tammy’s new duets album We Go Together. And that was Gram’s role model for him and Emmylou.” (http://www.gramparsonsproject.com/hank/)

Hank Wangford with Syd Barrett and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Formentera 1967!
If Daniel O’Donnell is the brightly scrubbed face of British country music then Hank Wangford is its guilty conscience, its dark and troubled grubby soul.This messianic derailment onto the path of country music came from befriending and playing with Gram Parsons, ex-Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, in the seventies. This was at a time when Hank – as Dr Sam Hutt – was a rock ‘n roll doctor. Many of his patients were from the world of rock music and the hippie alternative world. The Grateful Dead, the Who and the Rolling Stones were some of his clients.

There’s a horrible prescience to this because years later I was with Rick when he was incapable of working his tape machine because he was so wasted! He became a victim of serious drug and alcohol abuse that eventually sent him to an early grave!

In 1976 Rick decided to form a band to showcase his songs. It was based on the kind of music Gram Parsons had been producing on his two solo albums “GP” and “Grievous Angel” both of which contained songs written by Rick although he didn’t play on them. He did have a producer credit on “GP” though. He teamed up with a local Irish/Country band called the Lentones at the time but who changed their name to Rhinestone in 1976.Gram_Parsons-Gp_Grievous_Angel-Frontal

They did gigs at Irish clubs and were breaking into the Country & Western club scene that was becoming very popular at the time. They were a very good band who won a national Country Music competition and played at the Wembley Stadium at a big festival with Rick on fiddle. To get the “Gram” sound he invited singer Claire Hamill to join him. She was a fairly well-known singer/songwriter at the time from the North East (I’d seen her play when I was a student in Darlington) and had recorded four solo albums at that time. She was favourably compared to Joni Mitchell. Praise indeed!!

In 1976 we had moved operations from The Town Arms to a place called Watson’s Restaurant on Belvoir Street, Leicester. This was originally intended as a kind of club for well-to-do business types but it was short on customers. We turned it into a live music venue and it did very well for over a year until the owners went bankrupt. It was here that Rick and Claire refined their songs and harmonies and they sounded very good. It was time to go on the road. A band was formed and a tour was set up. Robert Stigwood was still the manager and was setting up recording etc.

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The site of Watsons Restaurant as it looks now on Belvoir Street, Leicester. The live music was on the first floor.

What happened then can only be called a disaster. I went to one of the gigs at the Nottingham Boat House (a well known venue at the time) and Rick was not on his best form. Captain Video (an up and coming country rock band) did the support but the main problem was that most of the audience were not expecting Country music. They were there to hear Rick play bass and do a Rock set. He didn’t touch the bass and played no Rock, no Blind Faith, no Traffic, no Family. I believe this was the reaction that met most of the gigs on this tour! Although Gram Parsons had convinced us that Country was hip there were a lot of people who hadn’t got the message. A Abracadabra_(Claire_Hamill_album)shame, because actually it was potentially very good. The harmonies and songs were excellent and the musicians were good if a little unrehearsed. They should have toured the Country Music Clubs who would have loved it! To make matters worse I believe Claire and Rick ran up enormous expenses at London’s Claridges Hotel and charged them to Robert Stigwood who then immediately dropped Rick from his management. Well, that was the story at the time and I’m sure that’s what Rick told me!

It was towards the end of 1976 that I started doing gigs with Rick. By this time his drug and drink addiction was spiralling out of control and he was getting short of money. A Gibson Dove that had belonged to Gram Parsons began to be pawned regularly and the royalties from his recordings had begun to dry up. For the next four years I did many gigs with Rick as a duo and also in a band. At one point we were doing over four gigs a week! One of the most memorable regular gigs we did was at the Crows Nest on King Richards Road, Leicester every Tuesday night.

Rick Grech and me at the old Crows Nest, King Richards Road, Leicester
Rick Grech and me at the old Crows Nest, King Richards Road, Leicester 1978

This was always well attended and Rick often produced some great work on the fiddle. It lasted for several years. We also did many club gigs as a band and recorded some demos in the early eighties that showed some promise. From 1982 I didn’t have a lot to do with Rick but I know he continued playing. He’d sit in on jam sessions and continued to write songs and record them on his TEAC four track tape recorder. The mid eighties were a difficult time for him but interest in his old recordings was increasing. Many of the recordings he had been a part of had become classics and were selling well in the new CD format. I heard that he went to New York at one point, thinking of forming a band but I don’t think anything came of it. His early death was a great loss and he continues to be missed. He was a warm, funny guy who could be difficult at times but had a big and generous heart.

Here are two demos I made with Rick in 1981. We had a band called Blue Mountain with Stu Wilson on bass and Chris Drayton on drums. Rick on violin and vocals, both my songs:

 

Rick jamming with Geoff Overon and Graeme Malen at the Phoenix Theatre Leicester c.1985
Rick Grech jamming with Geoff Overon and Graeme Malen at the Phoenix Theatre Leicester c.1985

 

Here is a great concert video of Rick Grech with Blind Faith in Hyde Park 1969. They sound really good!! Rick is on great form!!

 

My Favourite Albums of All Time (Part Two)

This is the second part of my favourite albums of all time. You can find the first part here My Favourite Albums of All Time Part One.

6. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

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Astral Weeks is unique like many of the albums on my list. I’m not that much of a Van Morrison fan. I find most of his records fairly bland and stylised. I’ve heard most of them and am not that impressed apart from his early work with the seminal rock band Them. Here Comes The Night  is a genius three minutes of pop and Baby Please Don’t Go is the essence of R&B. Astral Weeks was recorded and released soon after Them split up. As already said, it is unique and genre busting. Yes, it’s kind of jazz, kind of folk and kind of poetry but more of an amalgam of all three with a dose of unintentional classical music thrown in. How it ever came to be recorded by a major label is one of the wonders of the late sixties when good music came to be commercial. Or was it? It was quite a long time before anyone heard it or was aware of it. However, it ranks as one of the most creative records released by a commercial record company ever.

Without knowing the full details behind the creation of this album I feel that it contains the essence of a real sadness and sense of loss. I don’t know this, I feel it! It is like a folk/jazz equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with it’s evocative phrases and overwhelming sense of sorrow and psychic pain. This really IS the blues. Not the black American blues of the southern plantations and urban ghettos but the white blues of a psychologically dislocated Brit in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. To add to the sense of alienation it was recorded in New York in 1968.

You know you’re in a different creative universe right from the word go. The first song Astral Weeks tells the listener that he is nothing but a stranger in this world and would like to be born again. The final song Slim Slow Slider describes a woman who has a brand new boy and a Cadillac but who is dying and every time I see you
I just don’t know what to do. The song ends in a blast of free jazz. Pretty bleak stuff!

In the meantime we have various shades of misery apart from The Way Young Lovers Do which is surprisingly upbeat and even optimistic. The real standout track is Madam George which in his Belfast/American drawl seems to sound like Madam JOY. He seems to plaintively be singing say goodbye to Madam JOY, wonder why for Madam JOY while the violins weep and intertwine around the three chord riff . Amazing stuff!!

7. Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

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Blonde on Blonde is a truly amazing album. The first double album in history with a price tag to match. How did anyone afford to buy it? I don’t know but I certainly couldn’t. I had to make do with the single releases until years later when I had a girlfriend who owned it. No, it wasn’t her only attraction!

This record continues the surreal imagery of Highway 61 Revisited but his voice has changed and the playing seems thinner and less aggressive. It was a thin, mercurial sound. When I first heard I Want You on a radio in Glasgow I thought it was a joke, a bad imitation of Dylan but I was wrong. I bought the single and soon realized it’s brilliance. The B side contained the rarely heard since version of Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues recorded live in Liverpool 1966. With screaming feedback and yelled lyrics it’s a complete contrast to the studio version.

Dylan in the 60s never stood still and he was a complete enigma. Not only did his voice change with each record so did the way he looked. It was like he was trying to stay one step ahead of everyone but he couldn’t, especially the growing army of crazies who were hanging on to his every word and before long were going through his garbage in search of even deeper meanings.

The real standout tracks on this album in my opinion are Visions of JohannaSad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Just Like a Woman and I Want You but the rest is incredibly interesting. The anger has been dissipated and he is investigating relationships and general absurdity. He’s like the bastard offspring of Albert Camus lost in an absurd universe. In fact, throughout the album there is an expressed desire not to have to go through all of these things twice. A really brilliant record!

8. White Light, White Heat by The Velvet Underground

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Dylan had the thin, mercurial sound but the Velvet Underground had the loud, distorted, grating  sound delivered to perfection on this second album. Nico is no longer present and the soft, folky ballads have gone apart from the song Here She Comes Now. The rest of it is self-consciously anti-beauty. According to Lou Reed the producer, Tom Wilson ( who also produced Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone), was so pissed off with the cacophony of Sister Ray that he left the studio and showed them the record button and told them to do it themselves. Fantastic, it’s one of my favourite tracks. Although, Andy Warhol was no longer involved with the Velvets his influence is still felt with the extremity of the lyrics and the overall sound.

Although it sold few copies when first released it became one of the biggest influences on British Punk Rock. Apparently The Buzzcocks formed  after members followed an advertisement looking for musicians who could collaborate on a Sister Ray cover.

Apart from the title song another truly great track is I Heard Her Call My Name which features uncontrolled guitar feedback accompanied with the cry of And then my mind split open by Lou Reed. It seems the band were disappointed with the recording of this because it didn’t match the energy or intensity of their live performance. Mercy!!

I actually bought this record when it was first released but I couldn’t convince many of my friends to share my love of it. In fact most of them thought it was terrible. How wrong they were!! Interestingly, Lou Reed was a very reluctant hero of Punk and, in fact, he had no time for it even though he is often presented as the ultimate Junkie Punk Persona. Many of his songs are quite complex both musically and lyrically and don’t fit into the simplistic barbarism of Punk. Okay, White Light, White Heat is the exception!

9. Hunky Dory by David Bowie

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White Light, White Heat leads neatly into this album because David Bowie was a big fan of the Velvets. He featured that song in his live sets and even recorded it twice. He also references the Velvet Underground on the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory as an influence on the song Queen Bitch.

Hunky Dory didn’t sell much when it was released in 1971 but people in the right places were aware of it and liked it. Bowie says that it was the first album he made that other people talked about and were interested in. Until then he was a promising singer/songwriter who had had one big hit with Space Oddity. His record company still had a lot of confidence in him, obviously.

It is a surprisingly mature piece of work for someone who is still finding his voice. It ranges from total all out pop to introspective gloom. He includes songs about Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol which are hard to fathom. Are they hero-worship or sneering sarcasm? There seems to be a bit of both there. Andy Warhol looks a scream hanging on my wall, Andy Warhol silver screen can’t tell them apart at all. The sleeve is interesting in that he deliberately creates an androgynous image, based on a picture of Marlene Dietrich apparently. He is developing and extending the kind of cross-dressing and gender-bending that had already begun with Mick Jagger who wore a dress at the Hyde Park Free Concert in 1969. Bowie also wears a dress on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold The World.

This really is a seminal album that throws up all kinds of interesting things. When William Burroughs interviewed Bowie he said that he thought the 8 Line Poem was referring to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Bowie professed to know nothing about T.S. Eliot but, almost certainly, went away and found out about him because he was so in awe of William BurroughsBurroughs describes The Waste Land as the first cut-up poem, a technique that Bowie used in many of his songs.

One of the standout tracks is Life On Mars which along with O You Pretty Things illustrates one of the aspects I find most disturbing about Bowie’s work i.e. his flirtation with Nietzscheanism and the idea of the Superman. This idea features in many of Bowie’s songs e.g. The Man Who Sold The World, The Supermen etc.  I’m not saying he is a Nazi but he comes dangerously close at times, especially when he gave a Nazi salute in Berlin in the mid 70s (he blamed it on the coke!). Oh you pretty things don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane let me make it plain, you’ve got to make way for the Homo Superior! Hippie ideology this aint!! And it’s all wrapped up in a fluffy pop package.

This is a brilliant record, though and gets better with each play. I particularly like the Bewley Brothers. This song has a sense of mystery and loss about a musical group who obviously make a big impact but maybe were never famous (or were they like the Beatles?). Like all good poems you can draw your own conclusions and read many different things into it.

This album became a hit after the success of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy made Bowie a big star but the standout record of this time, I think, is Hunky Dory.

10.  GP/Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons

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I discovered this record in 1975 about the first time I met Ric Grech. I was running a folk club in the top room of the Town Arms, Leicester U.K.at the time where many aspirational songwriters turned up. One night Ric arrived in his Ferrari with a violin and joined in. He had recently arrived from America having just made a record with super-group KGB. Okay, why he left LA and came to Leicester I don’t know but he was in awe of Gram Parsons and was interested in forming a country group with Leicester musicians playing his ( Ric’s) songs which were actually very good. He had collaborated with Gram on his two solo albums before he inconveniently died (Parsons that is. Ric inconveniently died some time later!) and two of the songs are written by him Kiss the Children and Las Vegas. He also had Gram’s guitar, a Gibson Dove, with him.

Gram Parsons had a big effect on people he met. English musician and hippie doctor Hank Wangford became a country singer because of his influence. By proxy, through Ric, he became a big influence on the local Leicester scene where many people turned to Country which had previously been a much maligned genre and was considered reactionary, corny and simplistic.

Parsons is considered the inventor of Country Rock but this isn’t apparent from his solo records which are actually quite traditional in many ways. He certainly didn’t like the sound of the Eagles who were becoming very successful at the time, members of which had played in various groups with him. What really stands out in his records are the ethereal quality of his songs, his voice, the brilliance of the band that included many top musicians like guitarist James Burton and the duets he sang with Emmylou Harris. In fact, after his death Emmylou Harris became a major star in her own right and continued Gram’s ideas for many years.

These records don’t leap out at you like Astral Weeks and others on this list but they definitely grow on you. Standout tracks include $1000 Dollar Wedding and Love Hurts. Gram and Emmylou are outstanding together, something that Bob Dylan picked up on when he hired Emmylou to sing on the Desire album. He also makes you aware of some really great country singers and songwriters that were not well-known at the time like The Louvin Brothers.

Definitely worth listening to, but give it time!