When I was 17, on Sunday evenings I would go down to Soho in the West End, to play. I would take the train down to Bunjie’s – a tiny coffee bar in a white painted brick vault, set in the basement of a shop opposite the theatre where The Mousetrap was on. I used to manoeuvre my guitar in its soft case ahead of me, down the narrow rickety stairs, the walls smelling of mould and damp. Downstairs in the half light people were drinking coffee, reading poetry, with their long hair flowing over their white roll-top jumpers.
It was a holy place, revered – after all, Paul Simon, Al Stewart, Ralph McTell and Bob Dylan had all played there. I have no reliable memory of who I saw. The stage was a tiny raised platform two arms-lengths away from your rickety chair. You were one with the performer, a meeting place of music and minds. It was the opposite of my life in middle class, conservative North London, in a community that was inward-looking and where the neighbours judged one another by the size of their car, and their perceived righteousness on High Holy Days. That life was performance without meaning. The one in Bunjie's was communion through shared meaning.
I always went to Bunjie’s by myself, and never made a friend: I would dissuade people from talking to me. I was uncertain and suspicious of this Other type of life, and truth to tell, I was shy. They were different. Though it was unfamiliar, it was open and accepting. The music was everything. Acoustic music. Beautiful lines on guitars, people singing with their eyes closed, their souls open. When my turn came I would maybe sing a David Crosby song like Traction In The Rain, or one by the Byrds like Goin' Back. The first song I sang of my own was Black Clouds – a portentous little ditty about the end of time. So - in 50 years nothing at all has changed! I never felt humiliated or out of place. What a warm, tolerant, enriching place Bunjie’s was!
Bunjies, in the 1990s I think. Still the same…
With acknowledgements and thanks to Pat Orchard Music
I would leave alone, taking the Northern Line from Leicester Square back up to Woodside Park. I’d walk the last mile home in the suburban Autumn night, lights behind net curtains, mist falling, a cat or a car passing occasionally. How alive I felt, my breath hanging in the air, how proud I was to feel different and alone!
I have always felt that same sensation playing my songs to an audience - a mixture of utter belief in myself, and at the same time feeling I am outside most people’s experience or interest. So on those occasions I find I’ve touched people, it’s special for me – particularly a solo acoustic gig. I always think of Bunjie’s, and remember the bravery it took, the warmth I felt.
March was a strange month in the Long Player Listening Project. Now, five months later, I can’t recall my journey through it. My Long Covid was easing, and I was starting to write songs again, and seeing people.
There were some truly stand-out albums. I loved the production and sheer assertiveness of Laura Mvula’s album Sing To The Moon. I do keep a list of my favourites – a very demanding one! – and that album makes it there. It was a wonderful surprise. Lush, rich, deep.
One of my friends has been brilliant at recommending albums, outside genres I am used to and comfortable with. She is very different from me – age, background, the way she lives, music she listens to (and makes). But we share some values and attitudes to life. The music she recommends always hits home. Ebi Soda, a Brighton band wowed me with Honk If You’re Sad. Totally unexpected pleasure. Funky, life-affirming.
When I was a student I saw UK jazz singer Norma Winstone many times – a beautiful technique, with perfect breath control, and a timbre from the angels. Her ECM album Distances is chamber jazz just right for those intimate moments when you need a musical blanket. Olafur Arnalds has been a companion to me the last year or so, being a model for the serial-organic piano style of my album Still. I was delighted to listen to a restful album of his I did not know, alongside one by the vaguely similar Ludovico Einaudi.
What am I looking for in all this? Uncharitably of course it’s just a sad project by someone with a limited life at the moment – says he pitiably and defensively! More positively it is to aid my recovery, to not ‘waste’ time completely, to live in the moment, to find meaning. In part it is a larger quest to understand why we like what we like – not from a music theory point of view, but to explore why what touches you may not touch me – and vice versa. To find the points of intersection and divergence – and to celebrate both.
Mostly though it’s to rekindle that sense of exploration and wonder, stepping into an unfamiliar but welcoming world, as I did on those Sunday nights, reaching into the basement of Bunjie’s in Soho. That’s the feeling I want – that’s the feeling I am getting. Music is a recurring step into the unknown where you can be received without judgement, where you can receive with love.
The Long Player Listening Project - March
- Ebi Soda - Honk If You’re Sad
- Submotion Orchestra - Finest Hour
- Frazey Ford - Indian Ocean
- Dusty Springfield - Dusty in Memphis
- Wayne Shorter - Juju
- Gary Burton & Chick Corea - Crystal Silence
- Wanderwelle - All Hands Bury The Cliff at Sea
- Julia Bullock - Walking in the Dark
- The Beatles - A Hard Day’s Night
- Ludovico Einaudi - Seven Days Walking (Day 1)
- Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters
- David Broza - Tefila
- John Abercrombie - Timeless
- Billie Holiday - Lady in Satin
- Kraftwerk - Trans Europe Express
- Rogé - Curyman
- Norma Winstone - Distances
- Ralph Towner - Solstice
- Elvis Costello, Brodsky Quartet - Juliet Letters
- Steely Dan - Can’t Buy a Thrill
- Modern Jazz Quartet - Third Stream Music
- Madison Cunningham - Revealer
- Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved Man the Way I Loved You
- Taylor Swift - Speak Now
- Richard and Linda Thompson - I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
- Olafur Arnalds - some kind of peace
- Talking Heads - Remain in Light
- The Temptations - Cloud Nine
- The Band - The Band
- Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem - Some Bright Morning
- Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon
- Tattletale Saints - In The Summertime
- Grace Petrie- Connectivity
- Burt Bacharach - All Time Greats Vol 1
To date: 110