Tuesday, 5 November 2013

July 1978

Only women bleed?

Now I’ve got to check my heart for a little love and affection because Joan Armatrading ain’t exactly my idea of a carnival ride with a mouth full of candyfloss.

She’s never really appealed to me. Adored Love And Affection but not much else. Saw her live once a couple of years back and her melancholia got a little intense sometimes. Maybe only women bleed . . .

So the prospect of an interview is kinda intriguing. I’m not in love, but maybe open to persuasion. You don’t get to interview many women in my line of business. And the ones you do get to meet are pretty special. They have to be. It’s always been that way and is due a change.

Lester Bangs got it right − ‘The only hope for rock ’n’ roll, aside from everybody playing nothing but shrieking atonal noise through arbiter distorters, is women. Balls are what ruined both rock and politics in the first place, and I demand the world be turned over to the female sex immediately.’

During the interview I suss out a few things about Joan. She talks intimately only to very close friends. She could be the little girl who never grew up − like, she taps her knees together throughout the interview and fiddles incessantly with her cap. She answers each question immediately and there’s not of hint of the ‘er’s that rampage through the words of a considerable number of pop stars. This is one erudite lady.

She adores flat caps. Well, she never told me that exactly but she wore one throughout the interview and didn’t even bother to doff it in a gentleman’s presence. What is this ultra-feminine make-up bag of a world coming to?

What of the current race problems manifesting themselves in the Bengali twilight zones of the East End? Not the coolest opener.

‘Journalists are always trying to make out I have a problem because I’m black,’ she says. ‘Let me tell you something . . . I don’t. Journalists are always trying to make me say I grew up in a deprived Birmingham ghetto. Let me tell you something . . . I didn’t. Sure, it happens in some cities, and don’t think I had it easy.

‘I was one of six kids and we were very poor. We just didn’t happen to live in a ghetto. I never had to fight for anything on that score. So don’t ask me about contemporary
race problems. I refuse to voice an opinion publicly. I may talk about it to friends but I don’t want to see what I think, politically, in writing. Besides, people in my position who do talk openly on political matters have the unfortunate tendency to influence the thoughts of their fans and I don’t think that’s quite ethical.’

She doesn’t like journalists. ‘I just get disappointed when I read my interviews.’

So do I, Joan. So do I.

Time for an up question − the Blackbushe festival.

‘Bob Dylan contacted my agent and asked him if I would play at the festival. I’ve been told he really enjoys my work. I must admit, the first Dylan album I bought was Blood On The Tracks so I guess I’m not an ecstatic fan. But I do like some of his stuff.’

That’s one of the most refreshingly disarming answers I’ve ever heard. Joan is as straight as they come and you can’t help admiring her honesty in the face of such an accolade from a rock god. Ordinary women are more fascinating than extraordinary men. Special women are goddesses.

Don’t forget, I am only twenty-five.

‘The last time I played an open-air festival was Reading − and I spent my entire set untangling the chains around my neck, which I fiddled nervously with beforehand.’

Shy, huh?

‘I was very shy. When I was younger I had to spend a lot of time with my brothers. But they didn’t really want anything to do with me so I found myself alone most days. They were too busy having boy fun, so more and more I had to rely on myself for company. I just reached the point where I couldn’t relax with people.

‘Suddenly it was a case of having to. I had to teach myself to be natural around people and I had to tell myself that it was pointless making a hard job of it. Eventually I got the message and from then on I started enjoying myself. But I won’t relax completely until I do everything I want − like playing more gigs and making more records and having more people like me.

‘That’s not to say I’m a different Joan Armatrading from the one that first started out in this game. I once wrote, "No, you haven’t changed − I’ve just got to know you better." You don’t really get to know someone for three years.’

What type of person do you take the trouble to get to know?

‘Unselfish, considerate people. People who think of others − though not necessarily putting others first. How can you help others if you can’t help yourself?

‘I guess I’ve only got one really good friend. She would do anything for me and I would do anything for her. She was very good to me when I first started out and let me stay with her until I found my feet. My income then was six pounds a week and my rent was five pounds − but I didn’t want for anything. That’s how good she was.

‘I’m not really very close to my family. I occasionally see two brothers and a sister but not my parents. They still live in Birmingham and it’s just a question of time.’

One of those memory bubbles seems to burst.

‘My dad kicked me out when I was fifteen. I’ll never forget, he was fixing the television, which had gone wrong for the umpteenth time, and I made a silly remark and he just blew his top. It was the damnedest thing. I ran into my room and packed my school satchel with some books, a toothbrush, limericks I’d written over the years and a camera. Know something? To this day I’ve never been able to understand why I took a camera. No food, no clothes, no money − but a camera.

‘I went and stayed with my brother’s girlfriend for a while − until my parents begged me to return home. But when I walked back through the front door I finally realised I could never stay. I’d looked after my brothers and sisters for most of my childhood. I knew that was no way to carry on and I couldn’t spend the rest of my life doing that. So the row I had with my dad just brought everything to a head. I left home as soon as I could.’

Sometimes, just sometimes, this non-smoking, non-drinking introvert, does give a little bit more than she realises. And it’s hunky-dory.
(Joan’s album, Into the Blues, debuted at number one on the US Billboard Blues Chart in 2007, the first by a British female artist to do so. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award. Her follow up album, This Charming Life, reached number 4 in the US Billboard Folk Albums chart. She was awarded an MBE in 2001 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012).

Next – The Hollies???
Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain © Barry Cain 2013

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