Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Bert Jansch

7th October 2011

Mick Houghton pays tribute to a friend:

Bert Jansch died in the early hours of the morning. I must have said those words a hundred times yesterday. From the moment around 8.30AM when, twice in rapid succession, my office phone rang, followed by the confounded mobile, I knew Bert had died. He’d been battling uncomplainingly with cancer for close on two and a half years and for much of the past two months he had been seriously ill in hospital. Quite selfishly, it was a moment I’d been dreading as I knew I’d have to field calls from journalists about someone who meant so much to me and whose music has been a constant pillar in my life. As a kid trying to wean myself off drip fed pop music, folk music was the first music I discovered for myself. Dylan and Baez may have opened the door to this alien strain of acoustic music, along with Donovan who, of course, paid tribute to Bert in several early songs, but it was hearing a Bert Jansch Peel session sometime in 1966 that pole axed me. It wasn’t particularly his guitar playing, more a mood Bert‘s music conveyed, and the sheer emotional impact of him singing the traditional Scottish love song I Loved A Lass. I was sixteen, what did I know about forlorn love but the song and Bert’s aching performance went straight to the heart.

You’ll read a lot about Bert’s guitar playing and rightly so, but for me he possessed one of the great voices. So many of Bert’s songs have that emotional charge which his distinctively touching voice brings to them – It Don’t Bother Me and Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning are but two of Bert’s songs which I love, or forgotten ones like Morning Brings Peace Of Mind. As with his singing, Bert’s song writing was overshadowed by his revelatory guitar playing. For me, Bert was also the first to personalise traditional folk song on recordings of Jack Orion, Bruton Town or Blackwaterside. He brought those ancient songs to life in a way that I could understand. At sixteen, what did I know or care about their origins? It was Bert‘s rendition of the material that moved me. We’ll always have Bert’s music. It was truly life changing for me so to have known the man…wow, such a privilege.

Not that Bert was easy to get to know at least not for me. I was always too shy and just a little star struck around him, certainly when I first met and worked with him in 1996. He’d recorded the When The Circus Comes To Town album for Cooking Vinyl and was playing a three month residency at the tiny 12 Bar club on Denmark Street within walking distance of one of the great folk music haunts, Les Cousins on Greek Street. It was there I‘d fist seen him play as an underage teenager out of place in Cousins‘ seedy, bohemian atmosphere and the all night world of Soho’s beatnik troubadours which Bert has always epitomised for me. Thirty years later, I made my pilgrimage to the 12 Bar every Wednesday night when Bert played, usually with a journalist or two in tow or musicians I then worked with. The great and the good of the Britpop world all turned out to see Bert at the 12 Bar, all mesmerised by his playing and perplexed as to why or how someone like Bert could be playing in such a dive? I remember William Reid being transfixed by Bert’s unassuming dexterity. “He must have a fucking invisible third arm,” William said afterwards. That comment has always stuck with me. Week after week I’d take people upstairs to meet him in what passed for a dressing room though I swear he hadn’t a clue who I was or half the people I introduced him to. He must have thought I was some obsessive stalking fan, and he was right even though I had a pretext to be there.

Happily, I got to know Bert a lot better in the last ten years or so but would still be pinching myself to think I was his PR during that time. Folk music went through another of its revivals in the 90s and Bert rightfully became a revered and respected figure again, name checked by present day musicians queuing up to play with him or enlist him to play with them. Not that Bert paid too much heed to the attention. That‘s not to say he wasn‘t pleased or grateful for the renewed level of interest but Bert was never comfortable with the adulation of others. He’d shrug it off, welcoming the recognition though never seeking it. Bert was simply a natural, he just did what he did and what he had been doing all his life.

It always amazed me how little Bert changed over the years, listening to his music as far back as his classic 1965 Transatlantic debut, looking at those wonderfully iconic photos of him and my memory of first seeing him at Cousins. Forty years on, he was the same a slightly stooped, raggedy-dressed and tousle-haired figure who mumbled as much as I did and, something else I felt we had in common, he never seemed entirely at ease among a crowd of people. Perhaps he was, and that’s just me projecting my own unease, since Bert was always affable, always friendly, up for a quiet chat, and blessed with a wry sense of humour. Needless to say, Bert was always happiest talking about music and when playing guitar. Like so many great musicians, he looked naked without a guitar in hand or resting on his lap.

Early in August, the week before Bert was taken to hospital, he was back playing with the mighty Pentangle at the Royal Festival Hall. As someone who had seen Pentangle’s official debut there in 1967 and aware of his health problems, I probably wasn’t alone in fearing that this would turn out to be Pentangle’s final public appearance. That it was also Bert’s last ever was a tragedy but when he ambled on stage, acknowledging the cheers with a raise of his arm, it was as if time had stood still. As he sat, hunched over the guitar and wrapped up in his own timeless music, in that moment, Bert was probably oblivious to an audience that was completely captivated by the songs, dazzled by his technique and in awe of the man himself.

As a PR and as a writer I abjectly refuse to use the words legend or iconic about anybody. They have been so diminished by unwarrented overuse but in Bert’s case they are perfectly applicable. Bert Jansch was a true legend and I’m so proud to have known him.

Bert Jansch, born 3 November 1943; died 5 October 2011