Bert Jansch passed away recently. As Earle Hitchner noted: his death was overshadowed by that of Steve Jobs.
It probably wouldn’t have bothered Bert; he had grown used to being a footnote. Nonetheless, guitarists all over the world picked up their axes and had another run at Angie, the instrumental that gained Jansch his most renown. Kind of fitting, I suppose, since he didn’t write it.
Though unknown to most, Bert Jansch was treasured by musicians and those with an ear for innovation. Neil Young once said that what Hendrix did for the electric, Jansch did for the acoustic.
Quite an endorsement! To add to it, Neil took him around the US as an opener on his last year’s solo tour, even as Bert’s health was fading.
Perhaps, the greatest compliment – and heartbreak – was when Jimmy Page lifted Bert’s arrangement of the traditional Blackwaterside and turned it into Led Zeppelin’s Black Mountain Side! Listen to them back to back sometime.
There was no acknowledgement of the influence and a lawsuit was threatened but the prospective costs caused Bert and his label, Transatlantic Records, to let the issue slide.
Odd, in an of itself, since Page adored Jansch’s playing and haunted his appearances in London’s folk clubs back in the mid-‘60’s. Strange too that these two brilliant musicians were both addicted for long stretches of their lives – Jansch to alcohol, Page to heroin.
What is it about musicians and addiction? I have only to figuratively glance over my shoulder to witness a trail of destruction and heart-scald amongst friends and acquaintances.
Perhaps it’s generational, for many younger musicians lead relatively straight lives. Was it something in the times, the general fracturing of society that occurred in the 60’s and 70’s?
One thing I am certain of - there’s a marked difference between musicians and performers. Many musicians are simply not born for the stage. Their focus is music – you'd be surprised at how many are even quite shy; and yet, almost all are forced to stride the footlights to pursue their craft.
That shyness has to be blotted out in some form or other; add the sheer availability of free booze to the boredom of the road and you have one hell of a lethal cocktail.
Bert Jansch’s drinking was a problem through much of his career, although he always showed for gigs – sometimes, however, without a guitar. There’s many the guitarist whose sole claim to fame is that Bert borrowed his instrument before hitting the stage.
But whatever his state, his playing was magical. Despite his innovative work with Pentangle - the groundbreaking folk/jazz group he formed with John Renbourn - I still love his first album, simply called Bert Jansch, recorded by Bill Leader on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Leader sold the tapes outright to Transatlantic Records for 100 pounds; the album has sold over 150,000 copies – a whole bitter story in itself. Sometimes his guitar slightly distorts when he hammers a chord in his distinctive percussive style but it’s all Bert and in your face. You’ll hear his arrangement of Angie just as Paul Simon did; Garfunkel’s better half copied it and changed its name to Anji – without an acknowledgement either.
You’ll also hear the chilling Needle of Death, a tribute to his addicted friend, Buck Polly. In three minutes and twenty seconds you’ll learn why you should never mess with heroin.
Ironic, in ways, because for all Jimmy Page’s adoration of Jansch, he didn’t take this advice to heart!
The redeeming part of this story is that both men kicked their habits and went on to live very productive lives. Jimmy Page is a rock legend – and rightly so – one can tire of Robert Plant’s affected keening but Page’s riffs, writings and production still make Zeppelin the pride of their field.
And Bert Jansch? Will he forever remain a hidden gem? I have a feeling that his star will glow in the years to come – a pity that he had to die for that to happen.
But that’s the crazy world of guitars, shyness, and taking that one step too far over the line.