Every month or so, an old friend in England sends me a pile of clippings from British newspapers: things he thinks I’d like to read. They’re eclectic but mostly about wine and music. Two nights ago, making my way through the latest batch, I found a piece from the March 6 Times by Billy Connelly, “My hero, a quiet guitarist called Bert.”
The “Bert” is, of course, Bert Jansch, one of my own musical heroes. If you haven’t heard him or know about him, I have no time to fill you in. He was a Glaswegian and died too young—in 2011 at 67, from cancer. And his music was sui generis. His voice was nasal but somehow melded perfectly with his guitar, and his style of playing was haunting. Sometimes he’d put his fingers underneath the strings.
In 1965, when I was in high school, I somehow discovered his first album, bearing just his name. The Times piece noted that Jansch was paid just 100 pounds for the work, but the album sold 150,000 copies (one to me).
Despite his influence on other musicians (including Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Paul Simon, and Donovan), Jansch never seemed to hit the big time. He remains, I think, a cult musician. As Connelly said in the piece, “Everyone else seemed heartbroken that he didn’t get what they saw as his due, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all.”
If you’re a fan of Jansch, you’ll enjoy hearing these songs again, all from his first album. (His later efforts with the group Pentangle don’t move me as much.)
The first is his most famous: a solo guitar piece called “Angie”. It was written by Davy Graham but Jansch’s cover remains the best. If you’re a Paul Simon fan, you’ll remember it reworked as the song “Anji” on the Simon and Garfunkel album “Sounds of Silence”:
“Running from Home”:
“I Have No Time”
Finally, another of my favorites: “Needle of Death,” about a heroin addict. Bit of this appear in Neil Young’s song, “Ambulance Blues,” and the two performed it together in 2006.
“As much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix] was, Bert Jansch is the same thing for acoustic guitar … and my favorite.” —Neil Young