Colorizing the grey
Growing up in the fifties was rather a grey experience in these islands. We wore grey clothes to school; grey shirt, grey pullover, grey short trousers, grey socks: my dad wore a grey suit to work. Even the sky was grey. And so, when Uncle Ted sent over piles of the Sunday Funnies from New York newspapers, the colour alone was exciting. I think that was the beginning of my cultural colonization. We didn’t have a tv in the house until I was nine (black and white, of course, or rather, various shades of grey) but the American tv programmes had an air of excitement and danger about them that was entrancing. They called trousers ‘pants’, for one thing, and that’s what we called underpants. They called people ‘bums’, and bum, to us, meant buttocks. They shot guns at each other and drove around in big cars. The guns, chiefly, seemed to be there for the noise value. Only a few criminals got shot, and they were the ones who were supposed to get shot. The whole thing was exciting and vulgar in a somehow admirable way. British tv at the time was a bit nice, a bit safe, and a lot middle class. Violence on British tv was stage managed fisticuffs that didn’t fool anyone, especially not nine year old boys. No, America was the place to be, and American was the thing to be.
Perhaps that’s why, even at this late age, in this new century, with few illusions left about American culture and media, a far more vibrant and vivid native culture to draw on, I still write songs that are in American, and placed in American settings. Not all of them are written in this mode. But the default position of my song-writing programme seems to be American. It’s not even as if I’m trying for the American market. I only write for a few friends to hear, and that’s, realistically, all who will hear them. It’s a bit of a puzzle, frankly, and the only explanation I can think of is that, in my formative years, America owned my soul, and I’m only slowly buying it back. Meanwhile, if I sound like Johnny Cash or JJ Cale, it’s because I’m trying to.