Friday, 2 October 2015
Simon 'Si' Cowe (Lindisfarne guitarist) Obituary and Tribute April 1st 1948 -September 30th 2015
Just when it looked as if the AAA was actually going to manage a whole year without having to write an obituary for one of our beloved AAA brethren comes the sad news that Lindisfarne and Jack The Lad guitarist Si Cowe died in his sleep on Wednesday, September 30th at the age of 67. Cowe hadn't played with the band he'd co-founded in a quarter of a century (except once for a one-off memorial gig for fellow member Alan Hull in 2005, which turned out to be his last public appearance) and he'd established a totally new way of life a million miles (literally!) from his old life of rock and roll crazies, running a brewery in Canada. Si remained though a legend to those who knew him and appreciated his off-beat songs, his crystal clear guitar playing, his gorgeously sweet 'n' sour harmonies and the twinkle in the eyes that meant he was about to get up to some form of mischief, all key and under-rated assets in Lindisfarne's success. Having just recently sat through as many Lindisfarne concert and studio bootlegs as I can while writing the first draft of the AAA Lindisfarne book, one of the things that struck me was how good or bad the band played depending on what 'mood' their chief guitarist was in. Si may have been overshadowed by the creative powerhouse that was Alan Hull and the powerful lead vocals of Ray 'Jacka' Jackson', but he had the power to make or break the band's sound at different gigs and was a member of one of folk-rock's greatest front-lines for several good reasons.
Though Si, who always hated the limelight, would have been the first to ask the world not to make a fuss of him, it seems a shame that so far his death seems to have gone largely un-noticed except by the really big Lindisfans. He was after all a founding member of a band who were once the best-selling rock band of 1972 and who released some of the most important singles of the 1970s, playing key roles on all of them. That's Simon's lovely ringing baroque guitar on 'Lady Eleanor', his voice providing the Beatley licks to 'Meet Me On The Corner', his tonsils adding note-perfect backing harmonies to 'Run For Home' and he even gets to sing the whole third verse of 'Fog On The Tyne' solo, with his characteristic mix of wide-eyed innocence and half-smirk. Though Si's writing contributions for Lindisfarne are less well known than those by Alan Hull and Rod Clements and the guitarist was never as prolific a songwriter, he also proved himself to be a valuable third songwriter, providing 'Fog On The Tyne' and 'Dingly Dell' with three fan favourites and Si grew into one of the best songwriters in the band once Lindisfarne splintered and three-fifths of them became the tragically under-rated Jack The Lad, with Si trading best-song-of-the-album awards with Billy Mitchell, each outdoing each other for who could write the most emotionally quirky songs! Though Alan, Jacka and even Billy got most of the press attention, neither band would have sounded quite the same without Si there and for many Lindisfarnatics the group never sounded the same after he left the band in 1993 to pursue that over perennial Lindisfarne past-time: booze!
Si was, after all, a part of Lindisfarne from the first. He knew bassist Rod from his days in short trousers, with both boys attending King's School in Tynemouth, though the pair weren't close friends until their teens. Si had also met drummer Ray Laidlaw after his family moved into the house next door to a young lad named Giles Bavidge who in turn suggested he might fancy joining their band. Si officially joined the pair's skiffle band at the tender age of ten and in fact got his first guitar for his tenth birthday, setting him up nicely for a busy stardom. Trading on their beyond-their-years abilities and fresh-faced charm, the band were all set for stardom thanks to Si (whose mother had appeared on local network variety programme 'The One O'Clock Show' and had 'raved' about her son's band so much the producers agreed to take a look) but the understandably naive youngsters hadn't realised that they needed to pay musician's union fees to appear and couldn't stump up the money in time, a cruel lesson in the downsides of a career in music. The band gradually drifted apart and though Si quickly formed another one with Ray named 'The Aritsokrats' the writing seemed to be on the wall as the pair hit secondary school.
Si found to his horror that his parents had decided to send him to a posh public school named Fettes in Edinburgh away from his new mates. The school looked down on his new musical obsession and tried to talk him out of it, but by now the guitarist was too consumed by the bug of making music for a living - even building his own guitar during his woodwork lessons under the pretence of doing his coursework! Si also put together a new un-named band with some similarly music-minded friends who gave a mini-gig at a performance night which even received praise from an unlikely form in the shape of his elderly headmaster ('Very loud - but very good!') Si remained, however, in need of a guitar - his wooden one having busted during his school days. More to please his dad and have a bit of spare pocket money for records than in search of a career he signed up as a labourer at a local building site - and discovered he was something of a walking disaster area. Si lasted only a week before becoming involved in a nasty accident when he accidentally caught a bucket full of bitumen on the roof of the building he was meant to be building, pouring the scalding metal over his hand. Instinctively he put the other hand on top to shield it - and got stuck. Taken to hospital, Si discovered the silver lining in this bitumen cloud: he'd paid his first ever insurance stamp the previous Friday and that was enough to see him fully paid up and liable for full funds, which he spent on a new guitar once his hands had healed. The six months off from work gave him time to practice and work out his priorities: though unsupportive of his son's desire to play music for a living, Cowe senior was more relaxed about it than he had been before the accident and figured the bug would soon wear off anyway.
His hands now healed, Si found another job as a photographic assistant at the Newcastle branch of Turner's, a much more interesting job that related to another growing obsession with cameras. Si did however have to cut his already impressively long locks to get the job - an event he turned into publicity for his music when he and some friends invited the local press along to the local hairdressers where they improvised a slow blues song while Cowe's hair was cut (his first time in the papers!) Si was still playing at home at this time and had temporarily given up with bands when a chance meeting with his old pal Ray happened when he was eighteen. Offering Ray a lift, Si asked if he was still playing music and Ray was very pleased to say that the local band he was in named 'The Downtown Faction' were actually doing rather well. Ray offered to show off the band by bringing his old pal backstage to a gig - as well as commissioning some promotional photographs from Si. The guitarist found himself reunited with the bassist he'd remembered from many years before and soon became an 'extra' member of the band, staying in regular contact and even filling in on bass for Rod when Clements' parents decided to retire and move away (meaning some weekends Rod was too busy seeing them to play) When Clements returned, Si was by now a permanent fixture and moved to the spare rhythm guitar space instead. He was also building up his music collection too - an early Lindisfarne press release names his favourite single as Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile', his favourite songwriter as Leonard Cohen and his favourite musician as Frank Zappa - a very varied taste with Si finding his style will incorporate a little of all these across the next few years!
Si was also busy writing his first songs in this period: 'Positive Earth' (demoed by Downtown Faction in this period) and 'Uncle Sam', which was Si's first released song on the second Lindisfarne album 'Fog On The Tyne'. Though Si had left most of the singing to other members of the band in the early years if the Downtown Faction, he discovered a special blend with 'Jacka' when he joined the band in 1968 and they re-named themselves 'The Brethren' - and an even better three-part harmony when Alan Hull arrived in 1969. Hull had crossed paths with the band before - he was Newcastle's 'next big songwriter' so it seemed natural he should pair up with the town's 'next big band'. Hull had again met the band through Ray Laidlaw (who knew practically everyone in Newcastle back then - and probably even now!) and the pair had stayed in contact, with The Brethren a natural choice of band when Hull found himself lumbered into co-organising 'The Rex Folk Club' where any local bands could come hang out and play. With typical forthrightness, Hull told the band their songs were rubbish but they could play great and as he was looking for a good band of his own sometime over the course of 1969 the two halves became one. Lindisfarne finally got their 'real' name thanks to their first producer John Anthony, when the band found out that they'd been beaten to the name 'Brethren' by an American group and who told them they ought to choose 'something local' ('Lindisfarne' being a 'holy island' off the coast of Northumberland - the monk community that had first lived there were a 'brethren' of sorts anyway!) Si's guitar and vocals were by now a major part of the band's attraction and his brilliantly shaggy appearance (hipsters of today had nothing on Si Cowe's great look back then - he even had his haircut for charity on stage at a Christmas 1976 reunion gig!) soon made him one of the focal points for the band. He loved fans but hated stardom, eagerly signing autographs - but never with his own name! (He loved making names up to confuse his followers!)
The year 1970 was a building one for Lindisfarne, highlighted by the release of 'Lady Eleanor' with 1971 the year when the band could do no wrong (with hits in 'Meet Me On The Corner'; and 'Fog On The Tyne') with the band now touring all over the world and talked about as 'the new Beatles'. Though the low budget debut album 'Nicely Out Of Tune' is the fan favourite and received great reviews, it was the sequel 'Fog On The Tyne' that captured the mood of a nation caught between laughter and heartbreak thanks to some strong Hull and Clements songs - and Si's first published composition, the Vietnam protest song 'Uncle Sam'. By contrast with all this sudden success 1972 was the year a tired band, playing at the bottom of the bill on a tiring American tour none of them wanted to be on, could do no right. Resentment about the band's direction, the record company and the 'cardboard' sleeve for 'Dingly Dell' (greeted as 'pretentious' by a music press who'd been waiting for an excuse to slag the young darlings of the day off) had been building for months, but what triggered it was an almighty falling out between Alan and Si. Always keen on tuning his instrument until it was perfect as he could make it, even at the cost of delaying and disrupting the show, Si spent too long tuning one night and simply caused Hull to explode to him. Ironically this was at just the point when Cowe's position in the band had never been stronger - he'd written the clever instrumental 'Plankton's Lament' for the 'Dingly Dell' LP which neatly slotted into place between two of Hully's most potent political numbers 'All Fall Down' and 'Bring Down The Government!' and the charming 'Go Back' which mixed folk, music hall and colliery bands to strong effect. Alan, who had been chuntering the whole tour about how things were going wrong, wanted to form a new band without Si in it - the others felt that Hull's behaviour had gone too far and called his bluff, siding with the guitarist who hadn't even realised what he'd done wrong. The split was, to some extent, inevitable - the laidback Cowe with his natural predilection for upsetting authority and (by Newcastle standards) a slightly posh background had little in common with the pumped-up council estate kid Hull, who was always driven on to do new things. Fame and lengthy months on a tour bus can do funny things to the most solid of bands - and the pair had only known each other for three years (whereas Si, Rod and Ray had known each other for some fifteen-twenty years by now).
The band Rod, Ray and Si formed together with their old pal from the pre-Lindisfarne days Billy Mitchell, Jack The Lad, never came anywhere close to being as popular as the 'old' band. However there's a strong core of followers who consider this band at least the equal of the old band, with a predilection for country as well as folk and rock. In many ways it was the best thing that ever happened to Si - who'd never enjoyed the trappings of fame much anyway - and he was free to be as eccentric and creative as he liked without worrying about record sales or how his songs slotted in against the Hull and Clements material. After releasing a mere two songs with Lindisfarne on their three albums, Si set off on a writing spree that resulted in nine songs on the first three Jack The Lad albums including many of their best songs, covering all subjects from giants to monks to smokers and in every genre from the band's usual straight folk to dark comedy to a wonderful roaring twenties style pastiche. Si also had more room to add his signature guitar sound, adding the crunch and power that gave Jack The Lad's sound a rock and roll rebellious feel that made the band stand out against other folk and country bands of the era (his playing on 'Wheary Waling Grounds' for instance, is the equal of any other rock guitar flash solo-ing - even if it is on a sea shanty!) Si would no doubt have stayed with the band indefinitely after finding a band and a whole new audience receptive to the quirkier side of his writing, but for unfortunate circumstances beyond his control. His first wife had been secretly seeing Jack The Lad's roadie behind his back and he seemed distracted during the rehearsal sessions for fourth record 'Jackpot' and not his usual self, while the band - staying in a cottage to rehearse -were kept up at night by endless violent rows. Reluctantly Mitch told him the band couldn't afford to keep him if he wasn't paying full attention and if ever a band needed a good night's sleep after a week of partying it was Jack The Lad. Si, his heart on other things, sadly agreed.
His next job was to hook up with Rod and an old hero - Pentangle's Bert Jansch. However Jansch was always picky about his guitarists (he didn't really work with anyone outside his sparring partner John Renbourn) and the collaboration came to another sticky end. At a loss of what to do, Si retreated home to his London flat and started hanging around the local music clubs waiting to see what the bands there were up to. Nothing much seemed to be the answer, but Si was intrigued with a poster he saw asking for a guitarist by a Theatre Group named 7:84. Ringing them up to ask for more details, Si was told that the organisation was a left-wing radical theatre group who, unusual at it may seem, had Government funding from the Arts Council to put on shows cheaply or for free. It was a group that Alan Hull would surely have approved of, named after the shocking statistic that 7% of Britain owned 84% of the country's wealth back in the mid-1970s (the figure would be even higher today!) and a good place for a socialist writer like Cowe who'd already kicked out at conscription on his songs. Though hired purely as a guitarist, Si quickly became involved in the writing and organisational stakes and in between meetings and theatre plays began to write songs again, including two that were to appear when Lindisfarne got back together again in 1978. While Si welcomed the Lindisfarne reunion greatly for the safe income it brought and the band became good friends again - with far greater understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses than they'd had in their hot-headed youth - Si never again had quite the same opportunity to either write songs or to be 'himself' on stage. In fact past the B-side 'Stick Together' (which became one of the most widely known Lindisfarne B-sides, appearing as it did on the flipside of 'Run For Home') and the anti-music journalist song 'Dedicated Hound', he'd never write a song for the band again. The lack of Si's songs on the seven album run of Lindisfarne releases between 1978 and 1993 is a real shame for those who'd enjoyed Si's work with Jack The Lad and while the guitarist still gave his all on stage he was being treated more and more like a spare part.
By the 1990s Si had met his second wife and was longing to take a rest from touring, so he gave the band warning that he would leave in 1993 after one last tour and album 'Elvis Lives On The Moon'. It was an exhausting task - officially Si had moved, but he still faithfully came back to play every last gig, leaving his old Lindisfarne instruments with his family so he could avoid the expensive flight costs. With Jacka having already left in 1990 and Hully falling prey to a fatal heart attack at the age of just fifty in 1995, this was a real turning point in Lindisfarne's sound and history. Since the early 1990s Si had been making a quiet living running his own brewery in Canada and passed all the training needed to qualify as a teacher and help people come up with their concoctions of ales (which means that you could be taught how to make a brew to sip while listening to your Lindisfarne records by a founding member of Lindisfarne - how Lindisfarne is that?!) Si also won an award for brewing the best beer in Canada, before joining forces with Magnotta, the third largest winery in Canada, to market his product. Si only returned to the stage once in his twenty-three years away from the stage, to play at a moving memorial at Newcastle City Hall on the tenth anniversary of Hull's death in 2005.
Simon sadly died of natural causes in a hospital near to his Canadian home in Toronto after a long illness at the age of just 67, survived by his three children Jesse, Dylan and Bernadette. Though Si hadn't been in Lindisfarne for a quarter of a century, he was a special and important part of that special blend and is dearly missed by all the fans who realised just what an important role Si played in both Lindisfarne and in Jack The Lad. A guitarist whose clear ringing stabbing guitar solos gave the two bands much of their rockier edges, a songwriter whose quirky songs said much about the human condition (and, on one occasion, the conditions of a millennium-old giant!) and a singer whose gloriously wrong-yet-so-right harmonies cheered up every song they ever appeared on, Si was a real talent and a one-off who never comprised his ideals or did things the easy way. He helped shape Lindisfarne into a real musical force to be reckoned with and played a major part in their success and will be so very dearly missed.
Many of his old bandmates have paid tribute. Here's Jacka's fitting eulogy: 'Simon - the special relationship formed by the five of us in our two periods together, totalling 20 years, cannot be underestimated or replicated. We toured the world, had hits and misses, recorded with some of the greats and formed a unique bond. Si - you never signed your autograph the same way twice and never took the obvious path, both in music and in life. Rest in peace.' Here's what Rod had to say on Twitter: Very sad to hear of death of my old bandmate Si Cowe yesterday. A gentleman and a truly unique character. And here's an extract from an interview with Ray via Newcastle Local Radio: 'His contribution was immense, Simon was an exquisite musician, very off-the-wall, he didn't do the predictable stuff. Those who knew the band certainly in the early days a lot of the quirkiness came from Lindisfarne: those guitar tunings, the sweet and sour harmonies - he was the one behind that., lots of strange instrumentation and arranging. It was a large part of what made the band different and special'. Have fun with Hully, old friend, may you have a pint or two together and enjoy doing your thing. The clear white light once again shines so bright.
Before we leave, here's a rundown of five of the very best Si Cowe moments from the Lindisfarne and Jack The Lad song catalogues:
5) Mr Bassman (Lindisfarne, 'C'mon Everybody' 1987) - Sorry this song is missing from the playlist!
Si didn't tend to get that many lead vocal with Lindisfarne, especially during their reunion years, but it was all hands on deck when the band were invited to record a 'party!' double album full of old rock and roll hits in a hurry. Though not the band's finest moment by any means, the record was a great chance to hear the band doing material they wouldn't normally do and was a fascinating insight into their favourite songs. Si steals the show with a typically exuberant cover of Johnny Cymbal's quirky 1963 novelty song. While Jacka 'boom booms' along as the talented pro, Si is perfectly cast as the squeaky-voiced fan who wants to know how he sings 'a-yi-yi-yiy!' showing off a delightful falsetto we should have heard more of. If the rest of the album had been more like this I'd have worn it out by now, instead of leaving it to sulk at the back of my collection, rarely played.
4) Uncle Sam (Lindisfarne, 'Fog On The Tyne' 1971)
Written long before Hull or even Jacka was in the band and before Rod had started writing properly, it seems fair to say that 'Uncle Sam' is at least a candidate for the earliest song Lindisfarne ever went on to record. Jacka sings lead on a pithy commentary about the stupidity of the draft written while Si was waiting for a girlfriend outside a club after reading news reports of American street protests. Though the land of the States still seemed a world away when the song was written, Si's empathy is on full display as he imagines what he would do in their situation (chiefly run away!) and - for the times - daringly comments about an imaginary friend 'I can't picture you in uniform, your heart is much too frail -0 you're better off in jail!')
3) The Third Millennium (Jack The Lad, 'The Old Straight Track' 1974)
A delightful two minute novelty song that in typical Cowe style is quite unlike anything else ever written and which packs in an awful lot of action for something so short. This is a very adult fairy tale that mixes giant beanstalks, future apocalyptic annihilation and Nostradamus, containing some of Si's cleverest rhymes and is a warning - of sorts - about the millennium bug a quarter century early. The first verse has him 'planting out me beans' when the sky takes 'the queerest shade of green'. 'I asked my next door neighbour am I going off me head - he said, oh no it's just like Nostradamus said!' A weary people secretly wish for the doomsday to come and get it over with, while people leap on the predictions of doom and disaster for their own ends (in Cowe's eyes 'a butcher is a murderer with no redeeming grace', however fancy his words). Figuring that the rich won't get into heaven, the nonchalant narrator simply remarks that that's ok by him, 'I've taken out insurance in the form of being poor!' A clever, silly-yet-serious song with a catchy chorus, this is a charming track that's been overlooked for too long.
2) Go Back (Lindisfarne, 'Dingly Dell' 1972)
In a rare display of unity on their third album, Si tries to count everyone in on a delightful introduction thankfully left intact. 'Are you sitting comfortably Alan? Well then, get comfy!' Si jokes before the song slowly explodes into life, with Jacka rocking the leads with Si in support and those gorgeous sweet 'n' sour three-part harmonies rarely sounded better than on this song's chorus. A possible comment on the impending split, it's all cleverly subverted into a childish game ('You took me for a fool, you took me for a ride, but this is where I get off 'cause I'm going inside!') and treated with such a fun sunny melody and strong band performance that Lindisfarne have ironically rarely sounded like more of a team. The chorus, with the narrator waking up in a blood-stained field, suggests that this may be another anti-war crusade to go with 'Uncle Sam', making the point of how short life is and how it should be lived to the full. Cowe will no doubt have wanted to 'go back' to before these days many times in the years ahead, but in this studio on this day Lindisfarne sound like they're having a party!
1) Song Without A Band (Jack The Lad, 'It's Jack The Lad' 1973)
For me, though, the Si moment that stands out most is one that isn't meant to protest anything or make you laugh, but a magical moment from the first Jack The Lad album. In keeping with most of the record (especially Rod's songs), Si is debating on what went wrong with Lindisfarne and realises he no longer has a band to write songs for. Using it as an extended metaphor for his loneliness, he writes a desperate song of confusion that describes his 'mind a whir' and a vocal that pits him in duet with first a guesting Maddy Prior and then with Billy, leaping between the two as he ums and ahs between leaving the music world behind ('to pack your bag is a drag - on the stage is a cage, it's no wonder I'm so down!') and leaping back into the tour bus. A gloriously jazzy eccentric keyboard part takes the song in a quite unexpected direction before Si's own quicksilver guitar runs speak to each other and carry the debate on. Despite the final cry of 'I wanna go home!' it's clear that Si is destined for a life in music and belongs on that bus spreading his music round the world. A glorious song, with a wonderfully rounded melody, even songwriters with the gift of Rod or Hully would have been proud of this one.