Terry Clarke Talks About Walk Like a King
Terry and I sat down for a chat about his album Walk Like a King, Songs For Dylan Thomas, while he was recording it. Here, he shares some of his thoughts on the songs, and on the poet's final years.
KC: This album casts Dylan Thomas almost as a rock & roll figure rather than a literary one - as an unruly kid in a candy store giving free rein to his appetites and to his sense of wonder while 'let loose' in the US. Did you make a conscious decision to wrest the poet away from academia?
TC: I couldn't see him, or the circumstances of those final US tours he made, in any other way. I found Dylan Thomas interesting as a character, as much as I was and I remain enchanted by his writing, so I chose to approach him almost as an invention - a work of fiction. And I'm a child of rock & roll and by no means a product of academia, so that sets my frame of reference. The circumstances of those reading tours Dylan Thomas undertook in his final years, where he behaved outrageously and was very obviously in thrall to the bright lights of the US, having arrived from a Britain that was still feeling the effects of the war, were colourful, to say the least. Particularly when set against everything that was happening in the US, culturally, at the time. It made the topic such a temptation for me, as a writer.
Dylan Thomas went to New York in 1949 and died there in 1953 - those four years were coming out of the bebop, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie era, into the New York of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. And when Dylan died, in 1953, that was the year The Drifters first recorded for Atlantic Records in New York. Phil Spector was 10 years old out in The Bronx, Billy Joel was five years old, living out on Long Island. All these things overlapped in my mind. My uncle Patrick, my father's brother, was a bus inspector for the New York transit authority in those years. So probably, one night when I had too many glasses of Jameson, I imagined Dylan getting on a bus in New York and my uncle inspecting his ticket. It could have happened, so I made it happen in my song, W. 12 Street, the closing track of the album.
It is a work of fiction but our works of fiction are mined from the truths we have observed and lived through, so I hope these songs are true to the spirit of Dylan Thomas as I perceive him.
KC: One of the most pleasing aspects of Dylan Thomas as a writer is his fascination with the small, and perhaps the mundane world he grew up in - the characters at Cwmdonkin Park in Swansea, which is a few steps from his childhood home, his childhood friends, his relatives, the tiny village of Laugharne where he lived later, as an adult. And a deep well of affection for the hometown has always been a hallmark of your work. You still write about the housing estate you grew up on, the characters you knew there, the gigs you saw there as a teenager, and the terracotta brickwork of the town of Reading. Is that part of the kinship you feel with Dylan?
"I think it is. The time and the place I grew up in are incredibly important to me and as I get older and farther away from it it becomes more important. That time in the mid/late 50s to early 60s that I came of age - just look at what was happening in the media and on the radio. Eddie Cochran, Dion DiMucci and Elvis Presley were setting fire to the airwaves. They had such an impact on me. But, also, my parents and grandparents and the friends I grew up with, it all still feels very close to me. We weren't wealthy, we lived on a council estate, my mother was a seamstress in The Burberry factory, my father was an immigrant from Sligo - a labourer on the railways. But when I was growing up my mum and dad were like kings and queens, in my eyes. From my child's point of view they were so glamorous and so important and their life was so rich. My mother loved going to the cinema and she would take me to The Rex all the time. I saw no difference between those Hollywood figures up on screen and my own parents. It was one big glamorous world that I was part of and that I loved being part of. I see that in Dylan's work, that sense that the ordinary is fascinating and exotic.
Fittingly, since much of the action takes place in New York, this is a melting pot of an album, as far as musical styles are concerned. You have, perhaps, confounded some critics and labels by genre-hopping over the years - rock & roll, country blues, Celtic, the Texas sound. But that simply reflects your listening tastes, doesn't it?
Yes. If I had to write a list of music I couldn't live without it would be a long list, and Miles Davis would sit beside Maria Callas, Dion DiMucci would be at the table with Johnny Cash, and The Everly Brothers would break bread with Patti Smith. I'm very lucky to be here at a time when it is all there for the listening. Maybe a lot of people would think of me as being influenced by the music of the American South and of Texas in the West, and of course I was and I continue to be - everybody in British rock and roll has been plugged into the music of the American South.
But the West Coat jazz scene of the 50s has been a deep love for me, as has the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. All the Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran records I have been obsessed with since I was 12 or 13 were cut in LA, as were the Frank Sinatra records I couldn't live without. And New York gave me and gave us all Cole Porter and The Gershwins, Dion and The Belmonts, The Orioles, The Flamingos, then Lou Reed, Steely Dan, Patti Smith, Springsteen, and Willy DeVille. These are people who have made music I have never recovered from and I never want to.
But this album also draws upon a very English seam of music that has left its own legacy and that isn't talked about so much - Anthony Newley, Don Black, Matt Monro's romantic ballads, and the London Palladium, West End side of show business. So, musically, perhaps Walk Like a King is somewhere between all those points - I don't know where it falls. probably falls somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic!
You have a song on the disc about Walter Hyatt. Tell us about him.
There's probably a book about Walter Hyatt to be written and I hope someone is working on it. I went to Austin in 1988 and I cut my first album there called Call Up a Hurricane. While I was there I became friends with an amazing guitar player, singer and fiddle player called Champ Hood. I would go back a few times a year, doing gigs and recording and I became aware of Uncle Walt's Band, which was one of the the biggest thing in Texas in the1970s, but had split up. Uncle Walt's Band was Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood and David Ball. People would talk about them and I paid attention.
In 1992 I went to an event at The Driskill Hotel, which is a huge hotel at the end of 6th Street in Austin.The place looks like something from the set of the movie Giant. The SXSW Festival was going on and I performed at it that year. They had assembled a house band for the evening and I walked in and the Texana Dames, from Lubbock, were playing. My eye was drawn to this man playing guitar and singing harmony, sometimes taking lead. He looked like he should have been in some movie in the late 50s, with John Garfield or Robert Mitchum. He had this baritone voice and huge acoustic jazz guitar. He was impeccably dressed and he sang like an angel. It was Walter Hyatt.
A couple of years later I was back in Austin and I met Walter just very briefly. I can't say I knew him, we shook hands and exchanged a few words. But I became enchanted by his music. His songs are as sophisticated as George Gershwin or Cole Porter. He is one of the great lost legends of American popular music. I was lucky enough to get to know Champ Hood very well. He played on my albums Lucky and The Sound of the Moon and I loved him very much. Both Champ and Walter are gone now, sadly - that is two thirds of one of the greatest ever American bands and not enough people know about them. I know from my conversation with Champ that both he and Walter were big fans of Dylan Thomas. There is a story of one night about 30 years ago in Austin when the power failed I think it was at The Waterloo Icehouse and without dropping a beat Walter started reciting Under Milk Wood. I started thinking about those stories of Walter Hyatt loving the writing of Dylan Thomas and I wrote the song Walter Hyatt and Dylan Thomas. I realise that the track and the story is obscure - it isn't going to be a hit single. But if just one person who hears the song investigates Walter and Uncle Walt's Band, then it was worthwhile cutting the album.
You cut this album with Wes McGhee as producer and he plays extensively on the record. You two have worked together a lot over the years. Tell us about Wes.
Wes brings so much expertise into the studio and he is also very funny in an English, Pythonesque, Goon Show way. He is a fascinating man. He comes from almost the first generation of British rock & rollers, he did one of the last ever British tours with Gene Vincent, and he was a professional musician when he was 14/15 years old, so while he was at school in Leicester he was out doing gigs as a professional musician. He played for 2 or 3 years at The Star Club in Hamburg about the same time as The Beatles. A lot of people over in Austin know him and know his work because he goes a long way back on that scene, and they talk about Wes with a certain look in their eye that speaks of good times. And here in the UK he has been part of the British country music scene for a long time, but he can do anything - he can play Broadway, Sondheim chord charts, he can get down and dirty on Howlin' Wolf blues, and he has written some of the great country songs, in my opinion. I say to anyone who will listen that Willie Nelson should cut an album of Wes McGhee songs and it would be one of the best albums in Willie's catalogue. I don't know why Wes isn't a superstar - he should be.
In 2004 we cut my album Night Ride to Birmingham together in his home-studio in Essex and we were upstairs one day after we had finished recording, having a few glasses of wine and looking through his library, and I saw a complete collection of the works of Dylan Thomas. This was years before the idea of this album cropped up but I'm glad we got to work on it together.
Your son, Joseph plays on the album. He brings something you don't bring and that Wes doesn't bring, doesn't he?
Joseph is an astounding talent. His sister is musical too - Amy played clarinet at school and I hope music is something she might go back to later. Joseph writes music that incorporates John Barry, Henry Mancini, Nino Rota soundtrack music, he is into bebop jazz, Barney Kessel, Charlie Parker, along with the 50s classic surf music of Duane Eddy. His favourite guitar player is probably Hank Garland. Every time Joseph sends me something new that he's working on I open it with such excitement because he has such broad influences - things from my sphere of listening, if you like, but also many, many act that are outside of my experience - Joseph is a young man with his own path to follow.
So, his music has some elements of things I've known for 50 years but he creates something out of those materials in a way I have never heard before.
Anything else you want to add?
You know I think of this record as a family album, because you are on it too. I know you are much more comfortable as a writer than as a singer, but one of my favourite moments of being in the studio with Wes and you was when you were putting down a harmony on Long Gone Lonesome Laugharne and you did a little Patsy Cline-style bending of the note, after a bit of provocation from Wes. And Wes laughed and said: "Katie. You dirty little girl." Don't think I didn't notice that.