When The Wheels Stopped Turning
The normal format for the TV programme Britain’s Got Talent starts with the judges scouring the land to discover those they consider may have the magical talent. The initial auditions are like a medieval crusade with a host of cringe worthy performances by eccentrics paraded in front of the TV camera, screened directly into our living rooms and considered ‘light family entertainment.’ It is a short cut to celebrity stardom for a handful of budding artists, which plucked Susan Boyle from obscurity in 2009. Boyle finished 2nd place in the competition to the dance troupe Diversity. The day after the final she was admitted to The Priory, a private psychiatric clinic in London. Her stay in hospital attracted widespread attention. The Press Complaints Commission following press reports about Boyle’s erratic behaviour and speculation concerning her mental condition, wrote to remind editors about clause 3 (privacy) of their code of press conduct. Her family reported “she’s been battered non-stop for the last seven weeks and it has taken its toll, but her dream is very much alive,” Boyle left the clinic 3 days after her admission. Bullied at school and cruelly nicknamed ‘Susie Simple’ by fellow classmates Boyle spent most of her young life believing she had a learning disability, although she was later diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Boyle continues to be subjected to ridicule by professional comics and one liner joke merchants who trade on her physical appearance and disability as a crutch for their own creative limitations. There is in existence whole pages on the internet dedicated to cruel observations of Boyle, yet it is hard to imagine Andrea Bocelli the blind Italian opera singer being subject to the same level of ridicule. What is evident with Boyle is that she is faced with a multi layered onslaught of discriminatory attitudes cutting across disability, gender and class. If becoming a successful musician was not difficult enough, becoming a successful musician whilst disabled is simply remarkable regardless of the genre of music and demands respect.
It is an aspiration many disabled artists are increasingly unlikely to achieve given the obsession with image and safe marketing that often results in disabled people being portrayed as secondary characters, weak individuals, to be made fun of, or to be pitied. Transport issues and inaccessible venues are just some of the issues facing musicians with a disability. Yet the existing and historical musical landscape is a rich, diverse and creative movement that has borne witness to disabled people as creative pioneers and leaders.
As Ludwig Beethoven (properly the worlds first punk) approached his 26th year in 1796 he was already facing deteriorating hearing and by the time he composed his 9th and final symphony he was totally deaf. Richard Dale Miller was born November 28, 1942 in Dallas County, Texas. An evangelist, travelling across US preaching his interpretation of the Gospel through song and testimony. Richard Miller’s full stage name is Little Richard Miller Born Without Arms or Legs. He is an organist and guitarists who has recorded several albums mainly in the country style.
Robert Wyatt was the drummer and vocalist in the band Soft Machine, part of the so called ‘Canterbury Scene.’ A loosely based network of progressive rock, avant-garde, jazz musicians based around the city of Canterbury, Kent, UK. Since an accident in 1973, when he fell drunkenly from a fourth-floor window at a party, he has been paraplegic and confined to using a wheelchair for general mobility. In the 1970s the producer of BBC 1 ‘Top of the Pops‘ programme wanted Wyatt to perform from a normal chair on the grounds that his use of a wheelchair ‘was not considered suitable for family viewing.’ After strong arguments and support from his fellow band members, which included Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) and a young Andy Summers (The Police) Wyatt won the day. In September 1974 Wyatt performed his cover version of ‘I’m a believer’ on national TV in his wheel chair, whilst the audience danced along. Wyatt also recorded, what many still consider to be one of the finest anti war songs ever recorded, ‘Shipbuilding’ a song written by Elvis Costello.
If like me you have fumbled about with a guitar trying to learn 3 chords and then desperately sought to put these twisted sounds together in order, so they rendered the simplest of recognisable tunes. Then you can hardly start to imagine what it takes to do the same without the sense of sight. During the 1960s Bob Dylan chose the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt for an early recording session. His choice of pseudonym was a nod to the delta blues singers, who were such an influential to him. Arthur Blind Blake (1893-1933), Blind Willie Johnson (1897–1945), Blind Boy Fuller (1907–1941), Blind Willie McTell (1898–1959), Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893–1929) to name a few.
Following in the footsteps of these incredible musicians Ray Charles (1930-2004) was a true musical pioneer and genius. During the 1950s he started to fuse together rhythm and blues and gospel music. This style emerged into the blueprint we now understand as popular soul music. Stevie Wonder was to take this blueprint and push it to another level during the 1970s via classic albums like Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. At the same time an unpretentious, middle-of-the-road cabaret act scored a massive hit that would elevate them to international stardom. Lennie Peters (1933-1992) was one half of the duo Peters and Lee. Peters was an uncle of Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. He had lost the sight of one eye at 3 years old. He lost the sight in his remaining eye when 16 and immersed himself in music by teaching himself to play the piano. Peters & Lee enjoyed their number-one hit ‘Welcome Home’ in July 1973 and went on to become platinum album artists with two and a half million sales enjoying 4 British top 20 hits and 4 top 10 albums.
At the age of 7 the genius singer, song writer and actor Ian Dury (1942-2000) was stricken by polio. He suffered the long-term effects of the disease throughout his life, which left it hard for him to walk. In 1981 Dury released the song Spasticus Autisticus, which was written to show his disdain for that year’s International Year of Disabled Persons, which he saw as patronising and counter-productive. The song was banned by the BBC given the lyrics were uncompromising, “so place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin and thank the creator you’re not in the state I’m in, so long have I been languished on the shelf. I must give all proceedings to myself.”
In August 1990, a lighting rig fell on soul legend Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) during a sound check before a New York concert. His 3rd, 4th and 5th vertebrae were all broken, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Despite the fact that he was unable to play an instrument, Mayfield would lie on his back in order to catch enough breath to sing. Mayfield created another album before his death. In 1984, Rick Allen the drummer with Def Leppard was involved in a car accident that resulted in the loss of his left arm. To accommodate his missing arm, Allen had a specially made drum kit and continues to performed to this day. Adrian Anantawan is one of the world’s most accomplished young violinists. The young man sometimes closes his eyes as he plays, as if lost in the music. If his audience closed their eyes, too, they would never know the violinist standing before them has no right hand. Social networks and assistive technology have allowed blind jazz keyboardist/pianist Andre Louis to perform, even though getting to gigs is a real challenge. “None of the gigs I’d like to do are near where I live in west London. If I were to take public transport, it would be me, a laptop, a keyboard stand and a cane, trying to navigate the underground. Taxis would be around £35 so costs would get high quickly.”
Toyah Willcox was born with a twisted spine, clawed feet, a clubbed right foot, one leg two inches shorter than the other and no hip sockets. Because of this she endured years of painful operations and physiotherapy. Her physical condition was a cause of difficult times at school. “When I was bullied at school, it was coz of my character. I was a weak child, I was incredibly small. I had a speech impediment, I was the perfect bait for bullying”. Willcox had 8 Top 40 singles, released over 20 albums, written two books, appeared in over 40 stage plays and 10 feature films, and voiced and presented numerous television shows. Diane Schuur is an American jazz singer and pianist. Nicknamed “Deedles”, she has won two Grammy Awards, headlined many of the world’s most prestigious music venues, including Carnegie Hall and has toured the world performing with the likes of Quincy Jones, Stan Getz, B. B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Ray Charles, Joe Williams and Stevie Wonder. Like Stevie Wonder, Schuur was blinded at birth due to retinopathy of prematurity.
It was the 3rd of November 2001 when I managed to see perform an artist who would go on to become one of my personal favourites. It was at the Barbican Hall, London and the event was billed as Beyond Nashville with Howie Gleb and others.
I was invited by a friend (Derek) and to be honest I had mixed feelings about going. My approach to music is very much slow burning. It normally takes quite a while after a particular music genre has been hip before my musical taste catches up and so it was to be with the so called Americana genre. The Others referred to on the concert billing, included an astounding array of bands and solo artists, Giant Sand, PJ Harvey, Evan Dando, Kurt Wagner, Mark Linkous, as well as Vic Chesnutt.
Vic Chesnutt (1964–2009) was a truly remarkable talent. Involved in a car accident in 1983, which left him partially paralyzed; he used a wheelchair and had limited use of his hands. During his career he released a total of 17 albums (2 produced by Michael Stipe of REM fame). Chesnutt performed 5 or 6 songs that evening with Kurt Wagner (Lampchop), which were haunting, funny and poignant including, Is A Women, Girls Say and My Blue Wave. An unassuming man on stage, sitting in his wheelchair, strumming his guitar with a delicate voice that brought a concentrated silence from across the whole audience. Chesnutt described his relationship with his native America as “centred around the love/hate axis with a bit of Stockholm syndrome thrown in.” It was the many contradictions of the worlds richest country, which provided him with the source for such of his material, alienation, isolation, human failings of the body and heart, hope, war and everyday observations.
Silver Lake was Chesnutt’s 11th Album and while it sounds like a Vic Chesnutt album through and through, it is a better than average introduction to his work, filled with quirks. The album kicks of with the emotionally shattering ‘I’m through’ one my favourite Chesnutt tracks. The corner stone of any Chesnutt album are the stories that underpin each song. The songs on Silver Lake are honest and pull on every emotional chord possible no matter how surreal the narrative. Throughout Silver Lake you will hear heart-tugging beauty. On December 25, 2009, at the age of 45, Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants that had left him in a coma. Chesnutt had attempted suicide 3 or 4 times before. According to Chesnutt, being “uninsurable” due to his quadriplegia left him $50,000 in debt from his medical bills, and had been putting off surgery for a year. A tragic, unnecessary and sad end to a remarkable genius and one of the reasons which you need to give Silver Lake an honored space in your record collection.