Phew, 2017..... I felt I had to wait for this piece, mindful how sharp the scythe has seemed to be in this year just gone, culling indiscriminately from the ranks of musicians I have chosen to fill my ears with these last 40 odd years. I guess none of this should be a surprise, these are individuals in, usually, late middle age with lives often, um, well lived, shall we say, strangers not to the occasional pick-me-up in their primes. And some not. Indeed, some of the best livers, to follow the metaphor, clearly have superlative livers and still live on, maybe to give us cause for rumination. And copy for future years.....
Spoilt for choice, my subject may not be or ever have been a household name. That is, unless you lived with me in the early 1970s. I was at boarding school, that peculiar english idea of bettering the child by removing the parents, and, stranger still, l was loving it. Clearly, and as stated here before, I was an odd boy, and I enjoyed to distance myself from the Floyd, Sabbath and Purple of my peers, diving, in preference, into the splendour of folk and country influences, Fairport Convention and the Flying Burrito Brothers, studiously devouring the inkies for ever new and arcane bands. So when I heard of Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, my interest was immediately tickled.
An unwieldy mix of hippy redneck culture, filtered through a peculiarly anglocentric prism, to incorporate 20s pastiche, blues and bluegrass, the Willis were in the frontline of pub-rock, the pre-punk evanescence of a simpler music to the prog and pomp of that time. I was hooked. I think they were perhaps the 2nd band I ever saw live, at Hove Town Hall, mesmerised by the stick-thin guitarist, with what looked like a woollen tea-cosy on his head, peeling off staccato bursts of notes, each droplet lithe and discrete, quite different from the searing screech de rigeur back then, and indeed even now. Retrospectively more of a jazzy stylisation, though the notes were determinably blues in origin. The rest of the band were no slouches either, later Resident "Snakefinger" Phil Lithman, on guitars, fiddle and lap steel, later Attraction Pete Thomas, on drums and the 2 Pauls, "Bassman" Riley on, um, bass, and "Dice Man" Bailey on guitar, sax and banjo.
Bongos over Balham I bought on release, later to discover this was their 2nd album, there being an earlier, nominally duo album, Kings of the Robot Rhythm, featuring just Stone and Lithman and some cameos from assorted guests. Of course I bought it, along with the various compilations that appeared later, the lifespan of the band being distinctly short. Stone continued to drift about the pub-rock circuit, for a time a member of the 101-ers, Joe Strummer's pre-Clash band and, my last live sighting of him, the memorably named Jivebombers. And then zilch. He disappeared.
Being the geek I am I had to look backwards to get my fix, unearthing quite a few of his back pages, starting with Mod group, The Action, later morphing into psychedelic kaftan and yakskin afghan coat botherers, Mighty Baby. I think it was here that he defined and individualised his trademark guitar sound, not least as extended guitar wig-outs were the order of the day. Actually quite a challenging listen, attuned ears always expecting the aforementioned screech of his contemporaries, but worth it. Spells with various other bands, Savoy Brown and famed Ladbroke Grove mavericks/crazies, the Pink Fairies, appear in his c.v., never being quite in the right place at the right time for fame and fortune.
But where did he go to when the music ended? Intriguingly, a 2nd career beckoned and into which he became a far greater legend, disappearing into the little known sub-culture of bookrunning or bookscouting, the apparently cut-throat world of 2nd hand books, whereby fortunes could be made or lost by finding the right first editions in dusty bookshops and library collections. Stone's reputation was of the best, being described as having an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what was there, by smell or intuition, on entry through the door of a bookshop seemingly identical to the one next door. This is described way better here, or by reading White Chapell, Scarlett Tracings, a novel by Iain Sinclair, wherein the chief character, a Nicholas Lane, is unmistakably a thinly disguised Stone. I had become aware of this second life through my purchase of a re-released Mighty Baby LP, with extensive sleevenotes and an interview with Stone, but I always wonder how many of his book people were ever aware of his musical past. And vice versa. Certainly his music fans found it difficult to keep up with him, so it was quite a shock to me to hear and read of his death.
R.I.P. with a burst of their nearly, in my imagination, hit single......