Sunday, 31 August 2014

Lives Well Lived

There's more, far more, than one way to define success

Mick Dolan died last month. I found out as a surprisingly wide range of friends and acquaintances marked his passing online. Texts, emails, facebook, tweets: a social media thing. I'll come back to that. That's often how we do this now: appreciation rippling out across the net. Refreshingly, unusually, it was sincere and heartfelt. 

I knew Mick in the mid 70s; he fronted an outfit called Big Front Yard. They were a fine, credible band. They made some lovely stuff, but ultimately didn't get anywhere. Before that, he and his brother were in a Birmingham prog rock outfit, Hard Meat, who didn't tear any trees up but richly deserved to - check this piece from Sam Umland. And don't snigger: that was the age of preposterous band names: Heavy Jelly, or Iron Butterfly, anyone? Hard Meat, never mind the name, did a lot more than most hopefuls: they scored a proper deal with Warners, and even got to play the US. You can find their stuff online...

.... and I think it's worn well, despite the prog trappings. There's some great guitar work in there. Let it play while you read on; it's worth it.

What happened in between then and now? I really can't tell you. I knew he was around. His name would crop up in discussions and music notes. He was respected, well respected. One of those guys doing good things, quietly and well. This year, 45 years on, he was still hard at work as a producer. Here he is, with Kate Gee, and a set of musicians I have a lot of time for. 

These are scraps and fragments: brave, innocent pictures of young men with a lot of hair and a lot of skill; odd recordings posted to YouTube by people who clearly loved Mick's work. It's not a lot. It would be even less without social media, which, bit by bit, collects traces and fragments from decades of work.

Hard Meat, early 70s    
But that's what we have left: files humming in a server somewhere halfway around the world: scraps of our lives. Little virtual milestones marking random moments. It doesn't really tell the full story of how we work and try and fail and try harder. These are lives lived, and the internet flotsam that washes around them is mostly what we're left with. It never tells the full story, but I'm still glad I can look. 

Sometimes we succeed and we have our moments of success. Inevitably, we get old, without noticing, until that change slaps us in the face. Suddenly there are new people, shiny and pumped; they run through the same brick walls we too used to burst through without even noticing. The difference? Now, we notice those walls because we're bouncing off them. It goes without saying that new talent is to be cherished and supported. People helped you on your way; now it's time to pay it forward. 

Mick did that. I try to do that. In fact, I don't really know anyone in music, or radio, who doesn't see that as an obligation. I don't care to know those who don't. 

So the wheel rolls on. Spirited young talent either flies or it doesn't. And when your shining new future doesn't quite work out like you hoped - or even if it does - then there are decisions to make. You love what you do? Stay doing it. But move, shift sideways, find new approaches. If that's what you love, there are ways. And once in a while, you'll bump into someone who remembers what you did back in the day, or who you can work with, and help. Sometimes they help you.

Our media gobbles up the next big thing, and tears down last year's sensations. Social media, with its lack of self-restraint, is especially guilty: it encourages you to jump and shout about the shiny new star you've just discovered. It discourages loyalty and considered appreciation. The next time you catch a likely bunch of swaggering young blades strutting their fine stuff onstage, think of those bands you saw five years ago - the ones that didn't make it. Where are they now?

Mick in '76   © Michael Gray, 2014    
Chances are they're still playing, just maybe not with the same people. Maybe there's a few rough edges been knocked off. Some will have given up and got a proper job, the better to pay for that house and mortgage. Maybe the guys still doing it have developed into much better musicians after their five years of toil. Maybe they still harbour dreams of glory. One thing won't have changed: the love of the music. The ones who jumped in for the love of the music will still be plugging away, and those are the ones we should salute. But - horror of horrors - they're older now. 

On this blog, I write about music and radio people, and their craft. I try to tell stories, and I look at the business trappings. Personally, I adore catching new, brave young talent, fresh and fierce, stealing audience hearts effortlessly. These are people driven by the pure love of music and performance. But so, too, are those - there's a lot of them - who have lived their lives in and around music and radio, and who still pitch up to battered mixing desks and pub stages, or who work behind the scenes to try to do the right thing. It's often the bit in the middle, the ugly business bit, that loses me, despite the fact that the ugly business bit often gives me lurid blog stories that get fantastic responses.

So here's to those people who've put in their shifts, who are burnished by the years, and who add craft and wisdom to their talent and energy. The weird old guy you've never seen before, who sits down at an open mic night, comfortable as you please, and... just blows you away. The battle-scarred veteran who can read your talent and make you shine. The ones who've got miles on the clock, and who still care. The ones who put music nights on for the love of the music, not the money. The ones on whom our entire grassroots scenes depend. These are the ones who share, and in so doing leave behind those little traces of their lives for us to discover - if we're lucky.

Mick was one of those.

See also this very touching May 2015 blog post from Michael Gray

You can find other blog posts on people we've lost here 


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Rich Ridings said...

Hi Robin
Just want to thank you for your fantastic blogs, but this one in particular had me welling up. Beautiful writing. Thank you.
Rich Ridings

Bromyard Boy said...

Heartfelt piece Robin and when local is good it is great.
Cheers Tom Oliver.