Berkshire Beat, Terracotta Streets and River Songs
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Here's an interview I did with Terry for the Reading Chronicle in May 2004, before we got together - a few days after we met, in fact.
Lou Reed wrote love letters to New York and The Clash celebrated London life - but Terry Clarke prefers to sing about The Thames at Scours Lane, Lyndhurst Road and the Top Rank club. Weekender meets the Reading singer/songwriter who counts Johnny Cash - his own boyhood hero - among his admirers.
50's Rockabilly will sit happily beside earthy blues and folk, whimsical lullabies and love songs when Reading-born singer-songwriter Terry Clarke returns to play in his hometown next Friday. His music is laden with affectionate references to the town where he grew up, saw his first heroes play and where he bought his first records.
Playing his signature 12 string Guild, and with a voice that is sorrowful, edgy and rabble-rousing, his songs are compelling sketches of the people and places he loves from Tilehurst to the Cemetery Junction. The terracotta blush of Reading's Victorian and Georgian brick facades are celebrated for their beauty; the hidden history of his grandparents' home in Lyndhurst Road is remembered, as are nights out at the Majestic and The Olympia Ballroom, The Kennet Arms (Claddagh Ring) and the Polish Club.
The listening public is used to hearing New York songwriters immortalising that great city in their music, but you see romance and beauty in the pock-marked streets of Reading. It isn't a glamorous town, so what makes it special to you?
A place can be as ordinary or as interesting, as you make it. I'm sure James Joyce's Dublin and Dylan Thomas' Swansea were much like Reading on the surface, but everyone and every place has a story to tell. I have always loved Reading and have always written about some of my favourite places and favourite sights here, like Mcilroy Park, Scours Lane and all along the riverside. Even the crows at Norcot that woke me as a child every morning and roosted like shadows at dusk, and Union Street - which everyone always called Smelly Alley because it was full of fishmongers, butchers and greengrocers. I worked there in a men's fashion shop when I was younger and those characters who worked and shopped in that street are unforgettable to me.
Many of your songs feature the anecdotes and histories of your family, particularly your father, Joseph Clarke. Do you feel a sense of responsibility or any reticence in sharing them with an audience of strangers?
When I wrote the songs on The Shelly River album I didn't realise that they might become a little more difficult to sing further down the line and I guess I am beginning to feel the responsibility of them, particularly now my father has recently passed away. But they talk about an important time in history. My song The Leaving of Sligo is pretty much verbatim the story of my father's favourite older sister who emigrated to America when he was a kid. Back in Ireland, the night before a brother, sister, or cousin left for America, the family would hold what they called an American Wake because they knew it was very unlikely they would ever see their loved-ones again. My father never saw his favourite older sister again and he talked about that night for the rest of his life. It continued to shape him. That kind of diaspora had a massive, lasting affect on families down through the generations.
Your songs are loaded with imagery and craftsmanship. Tell me about your writing process?
That's just the way they come out. Sometimes I wish I could just write a straightforward narrative song. It would also be a real challenge to me to write a song without a proper noun. When asked the secret of writing a great song Townes Van Zandt said: "You've got to be sitting in the right chair." And he wrote some of the greatest lyric poems in the world. I agree with him that luck has a lot to do with it.
Johnny Cash appreciated your music and asked to write the sleeve notes for your album Rhythm Oil, with Jesse Taylor and Michael Messer (Which he said was '... refreshing, earthy, bare-bones blues ... gut-bucket rural rock...') He quoted from your lyrics in his notes. Did that thrill you?
It did, It does and it always will. The first record I ever owned was a Johnny Cash record and he has always been a Pole Star to me. He and Don and Phil are the reasons I wear shiny black boots and I hold my guitar high when I play. His Big River is some of the greatest poetry to me and it almost always in my setlist. There was a period when Cash and Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and all those guys who introduced me to the emotional power of music were out of favour, but when punk came along, and with it bands like The Clash and The Stray Cats, you could hear their influence in the music again. But no matter what was happening with the prevailing fashions, he is above and outside of the fickle nature of trends. Cash was always cool and he always will be.
Did you ever get to play together?
Almost. We kept 'missing' each other. A friend of mine, Rosie Flores, who sings on my album, Green Voodoo, told him I was in Austin a few years back and I know he was keen for us to get together. A little later I was touring Ireland and he sent me a postcard in Reading to say he wanted us to hook up, but that was at the start of his illness so it never happened. But it was an immense occasion just to meet him. Terry and Jesse Taylor
He was someone with a deep sense of humanity and humility.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have composed new melodies for two Robert Burns pieces, Highland Mary and The Slave's Lament. The natives seem to like them and I ain't been hung yet! I will play them at the Robert Burns Festival in Ayr this year.
I am also putting some more work into a collection of 'Reading songs' called Blue Eyed Plaice and Shiny Windows, with Tim Hill and the Pandaemonium Band. The album is being produced by Chris Britton's Wired Studio, for his Weird City Records, based at the Rising Sun Arts centre, so it is a truly local project.
* Terry Clarke plays the Rising Sun Arts Centre in Silver Street, Reading, on Friday, May 21.