The strings are like veins swelling with blood — slowly at first, then increasingly uninhibited. A hint of horn and a tease of oboe offer brief flashes of bare skin, the melody floating over its surface. The song suddenly shifts up a key, and I gasp: it’s like we’ve reached the peak of a treacherous mountain, and now, below us, as clouds part, we’ve discovered at last hidden hillsides and dark, unknown forests. I’m entering Freudian territory. Man, I really am stoned. (p. 31)
This is a description of ‘Leather and Lace’ from Cowboy in Sweden — of Wyndham Wallace hearing it for the first time, and getting it right between the thighs. It’s the early ’90s. He’s been out to a Mark Eitzel show which finished abruptly when a heckler went too far causing Eitzel to storm off, and ended up, via a few games of pool, in a Camden flat inhabited by The Rockingbirds, hogging a joint and falling hard for Lee’s music. It’s some introduction, some description. Scenes of Wallace taking his first tentative steps in the music business from a privileged starting point which he sees as a disadvantage (how times change!) are woven in with his first meeting with Lee, five or six years later, in a hotel bar in New York. It doesn’t start well:
‘How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?’Wallace is actually 27 by this point, and runs the UK arm of City Slang (or possibly is the UK arm of City Slang). Steve Shelley is in the process of re-releasing some of Lee’s records and has involved Wallace for UK promotion. Faxes have bleeped back and forth, and now the launch party has occasioned this meeting with his hero. It’s a bit tense, but he gets through it without alienating Lee too much.
I’m not even shit on his shoes. (p. 18)
The book is the story of how these unpromising beginnings lead to a real friendship. Lee is difficult, Wyndham indulgent; gradually trust starts to build. It’s also the story of a comeback: the discography at the back shows a prolific career losing momentum in the mid ’70s, skipping the ’80s entirely and never really getting its mojo back right until the end, with 2006’s Cake or Death. Though there are reminiscences of the glory days, the focus is necessarily on the nineties and noughties, some comeback concerts (particularly at Nick Cave’s Meltdown in 1999 — though Cave’s one appearance in the book is stand-off-ish in the extreme), and Lee’s cancer, of which he died in 2007. It’s a fine memoir, but it makes you thirst for a similarly meticulous account of the sixties and seventies. A project to get down some of Lee’s anecdotes while he can still tell them is mooted late on, but there’s a problem with that idea: ‘Lee rarely speaks about the music on his old records. He’ll talk until your smile muscles ache about all sorts of things, but not the contents of the albums he made.’ (p. 195). There are a few indications in the book that there was a depressive side to Lee – at least, that he was a man who needed his own space. That made me think of ‘Friendship Train’, and the line ‘when you’re blue I’ll lie and say you’re not feeling like yourself today’. When you’ve sung that, really, why elaborate?
Except that one of the chief pleasures of this book is hearing Lee speak. It doesn’t much matter what about, and in fact, it’s hard to find anything very concise or even to the point. It’s just nice to do. Here he is reminiscing about making someone else’s records (‘Bubba’ is his nick-name for Wyndham):
‘You know, we started making Duane Eddy records in 1957, in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s over forty years ago. Corky Casey’ – he relishes the sound of her name as it rolls off his tongue – ‘played rhythm on a lot of them. She didn’t play in the band in person, but Corky was always on the records. You know, what Corky Casey may have been is the first American rock lady guitarist in America. I haven’t found anybody who can say otherwise, and I’ve talked to several people about it. They say, “1957? That’s waaaay back there, isn’t it?” So if you know of anyone, Bubba – and I don’t mean your grandmother who played in a band – then I think you ought to tell me.’Miss you, Lee.
‘I don’t think my grandmother ever played in a band,’ I laugh, surprised by the notion, since I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned her before. ‘She was more of a wannabe poet.’
‘Aha! I like the sound of her.’ (p. 96)