Thursday, September 10, 2009

Shuffle : First Girl I Loved

And you're probably married now, kids and all,
And you turned into a grownup, female, stranger.
And if I was lying near you now,
I'd just have to fall.

For me, The Incredible String Band are possibly the archetypal Bad First Buy Band. I had read so much about them. Always invoked in lists of great 60s music, cited as underrated greats, an influence disproportionate to their success etc, they sounded fascinating. Back before the Internet and its access to a million opinions with a click of the mouse, I was dependant upon magazines - obviously, far more important then than they are now - and the odd book to fill me in on the many bands I was interested in learning more about. The All Music Guide - now a website I click on quite regularly - was then only really a massive encyclopedia of Rock Music I referred to obsessively. I would read it to see where was the best starting point for a band, which albums got five stars, which ones to avoid.

Well, the Incredible String Band's best record was reputedly their sprawling 1968 album The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. So I found that one secondhand one day, bought it - and hated it. It seemed like a twee mess of psychedelia and medieval folk with touches of world music instrumentation sprinkled throughout. It almost sounded like a parody of what a 60s psych-folk record could sound like. Sure, it was admirably ambitious and adventurous, but that didn't make it any better to listen to. I couldn't find enough to hang onto in terms of melody or
writing to make all the experimentation any more palatable, and so I gave up. It was one of those cds I owned but never ever listened to, and it totally informed my view of the band. The ISB (as I will henceforth refer to them) were a pretentious 60s museum piece of a band, to me.

Until a few years ago. I bought a twofer cd of two Judy Collins albums; Wildflowers (1967) and Who Knows Where The Time Goes (1968). The only Judy Collins I had been previously aware of were a couple of covers. Her sublime, near-definitive version of "Send In the Clowns", which is absolutely heartbreaking, and her take on Sandy Denny's lovely "Who Knows Where the Time Goes", which, while good, pales in comparison with Denny's own devastating version. But I knew she had a magnificent voice, and that Stephen Stills had played on many of her late 60s records, since the two were an item at the time ("Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", from Crosby, Stills and Nash is about her), and that some of the choices for covers she made were impressively outside the norm. One of the songs she chose to cover on "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" was called "First Boy I Loved" , and on my first listen I loved it.

A dense, rambling emotional tour of an ageing heart, Collins' version is a mid-tempo, full band production. It sounds big and casually epic, with piano and pedal steel and a big fat bass sound in a really deep mix. Stills plays some incredible guitar, chiming, powerful, intricate and perfectly judged, and Collins sings the lyric as if she is thinking it up as we go along, with that sort of exciting spontaneity, the band swinging along at a respectable distance. Her voice is really the most stellar instrument on display, and everytime she soars upwards with the melody in that effortlessly powerful, achingly lovely way it is absolutely thrilling. The loping melody is elusive, yet ripples through the song at a couple of intensely beautiful junctures, swelling up as if to suggest the emotional surge the memories in the lyrics evoke. And those lyrics have just the right mix of plain-spoken banality and melancholy poetry to become extraordinarily moving.

I checked who had written it. The name Robin Williamson sounded familiar, and a little research revealed that the song was an ISB original, entitled "First Girl I Loved" and included on the album 5000 Spirits Or The Layers of the Onion, the band's second release. Well, I bought that, and loved it. Whether that was because I had grown up since my traumatic experience with The Hangmans Beautiful Daughter or because it was a vastly superior record, I'm not quite sure. Its not quite so psychedelic a record as Hangmans is, while still providing examples of the ISB in experimental mode. The songs are mainly traditional British folk in composition, only radically altered by their treatment and the use of Arabian and Indian instrumentation. As well as "First Girl I Loved" there are great songs like "Little Cloud" and "The Hedgehog Song".

But it was "First Girl I Loved" which really converted me. The ISB version is a wonder of acoustic guitar played like Rickenbacker, a storm of bright chords always providing the song's foundation, in counterpoint to a bass string instrument, perhaps a cello or fiddle, cutting away underneath. The melody is full of awkward swings up and down, but Williamson makes it all sound natural and deliberate, his folky keen perfectly attuned to the songs emotion and requirements. This version is younger then Collins', in sound, in outlook. The playing is more energetic where Collins' is languid. Also less melancholy, but there is a sadness inherent in those lyrics which seeps into any reading of the song, I think.

This is chiefly a song about the magic of first love, of teenagers who "didn't have no place to go". The opening line lays it all out, all Williamson's intentions: "First girl I loved/Time has come I will sing you/this sad goodbye song/When I was seventeen, I used to know you." After that the lines are studded with details from memory: "Your long red hair falling in our faces/As I kissed you" "In the white hills and beside many a long water", and regret for what seems to have been an ugly split: "Well, I want you to know, we just had to grow/I want you to know, I just had to go" and "Well, we parted so hard/Me, rushing round Britain with a guitar/Making love to people/That I didn't even like to see." The last line is a final goodbye, sealed with a reassurance that the singer is alright too, that he is with a woman, "Maybe someday to have babies by", who is pretty and a "True friend of mine". But for him this first girl is lost, gone, a mystery, possibly married, and perhaps the darkest line in the song, considering the social and cultural era of its composition, is this: "Last time I saw you/You said you'd joined the Church of Jesus". When this line is considered, the line about her being "probably married now" sounds like wish fulfillment, like some hopeful hippie prayer. And, as in much art, the suggestion of a little bit of ambiguity may be the final element in making a great song a sublime song. Which this definitely is.

Since then, Jackson Browne has also covered the song, but it remains a curiously undervalued gem from an era rich in treasures. The ISB are a cult act, at best, while Collins' popularity has frighteningly waned since her heyday in the late 60s and early 70s.

This is a tremendous acoustic demo by Williamson, remarkably close to the studio version in sound and effect:

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