"Ten hours in a plane, England left behind. Here in LA, wonder what I’ll find".


An airplane's engines are heard and then with these words John Mayall opens his "Blues From Laurel Canyon" album, released in 1968 as a musical diary chronicling his three-week visit to Los Angeles. Here at The Budapest Times this excellent record has long been a favourite, having been purchased soon after it came out and a regular on the turntable ever since. It was, then, with some considerable excitement that we noticed Mayall had just published his autobiography and we were going to find out a whole lot more about that LP, and the rest of his life too.

Born in 1933 in Macclesfield, near Manchester, UK, Mayall is thus 86 years old and still playing some 100 shows a year, including Budapest in 2019 on his 85th anniversary tour. In the book he explains his raison d'etre: "My mission is to celebrate life through the blues and it always has been. Many people in this busy world might be new to this music, so it's my job to share the work of the great people who shaped the blues that I play. I hope that you will respond to it and find a connection between it and the feelings and events in your own lives. That's what it's all about!"

A fault with biographies, we sometimes find, is that they delve too deeply into the antecedents of the family tree when we wish that they would just get on with the matter in hand, the special thing that has attracted us to the particular person in question. Mayall does go back three generations to his great-grandparents but not only doesn't he overdo it, it is entertaining stuff.

We "enjoyed" reading about maternal great-grandfather Edmund, a strict disciplinarian who, for serious infractions of house rules or unruly behaviour, would not only beat his 10 children (an 11th drowned young) with his hefty leather belt, but would take them by their collars and hang them up on meat hooks, suspended from the kitchen ceiling, for hours on end.

Gypsies once sold a blind horse to Edmund's son Fred, Mayall's grandad, who didn't discover the deception until the horse refused to leave the stable. Fred's wife Rose enjoyed handing out sexual favours to a few admirers, and Fred dabbled too, but she was the more discreet and blew up on discovering traces of semen on the hearth rug in the front room.

Mayall's mother Beryl was a non-conformist and a tomboy, his father Murray was a brilliant man with a fellowship in English Literature and a master's degree from Cambridge, but also a high achiever in drunkenness. Murray's recklessness and unreliability led to his becoming a lowly wages clerk. He was an accomplished banjo and guitar player in semi-professional dance bands, and as a sideline to boozing he liked to collect pornography.

When Beryl became pregnant, Murray was very much against it and bought medications from shady back-street shops to "solve the problem". However, Beryl's robust constitution won out and John Brumwell Mayall survived in the womb, born on November 29, 1933. And so a promising first chapter of the book ends.

Mayall had the sort of mostly happy childhood that many English boys enjoyed: life in the countryside in the village of Cheadle Hulme, 18 kilometres from Manchester, meant playing cowboys and Indians in the woods, comics, bikes, going to the circus, helping with haymaking, collecting cigarette cards, making snowmen, trainspotting and discovering films. It was wartime and there were air-raid shelters, gasmasks and rationing. And most villages seemed to have their crazy eccentric.

With Dad setting at least one good example, being a music lover with a collection of 78s, Mayall began to build his own record collection and learn guitar chords. But his parents' marriage broke up and Mayall had to spend a Dickensian-type year in an awful boarding school that he hated.

He progressed to Junior Art School in Manchester, then to walking out on a job at a dead-end advertising agency before becoming a window dresser, which he enjoyed. All the while he was absorbing himself to the max in music, delving deeply into bebop, boogie-woogie, Delta blues, electric blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and soul. A lot of black "nigger" music, in other words.

In 1952 he was called up for National Service, whereby most 18-year-olds had to do two years in the British Army. This was not abolished until 1960, so it entrapped older blues/rock musicians-to-be such as Mayall, Alexis Korner (born 1928) and oldest Rolling Stone Bill Wyman (born in 1936), whereas the likes of younger John, Paul, George, Ringo, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and company were lucky to just evade duty.

When Mayall was posted to Korea he took his guitar with him. The sea voyage took weeks and on arrival it was minus 40 degrees. Piss froze as soon as it hit the ground, he notes. They were basically wasted years for him but, still, the war was over. He visited Nagasaki eight years after the bomb, and it was rebuilding.

Back home, Mayall earned notoriety for the eccentricity of living in a tree house he built himself – with 500 records, a gramophone, a guitar and a tape recorder, said one press report. His early bands included The Dreamland Boys, The Blackfriars Society Jazz Band, The Hounds of Sound, The Powerhouse Four and Blues Syndicate.

His camera got him backstage and he met many of the increasing number of touring US blues artists, as interest in them grew in England thanks to the fledgling bands discovering their music, which was pretty much unheralded in their native America.

Anyone with a serious interest in British blues/rock knows the essentials of the Mayall story, how he helped lay the foundations of British blues and nurtured a generation of future stars in his "music academy" that included Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Mick Taylor and other luminaries, earning him the title of "godfather of British blues" (a tag that could be claimed by Alexis Korner too).

There were the constant line-up changes in search of new musical directions, gigging galore and eventually recording. So much going on, in fact, that our beloved "Blues From Laurel Canyon" album doesn't rate any more attention in his autobiography than anything else, despite the book's title.

Still, here it is – started with the stereo panning of the jet plane ("Vacation"), the excitement of "Sunset Strip ("Walking on Sunset"), the peace and solitude of the hills ("Laurel Canyon Home"), life at Frank Zappa's log cabin ("2401"), the highs and lows of his various affairs ("Ready to Ride", "Medicine Man", "Somebody's Acting Like a Child"), staying with Canned Heat ("The Bear"), three songs about a particular lady ("Miss James", "First Time Alone", "Long Gone Midnight") and finally his sadness when the time came to return to the grey UK ("Fly Tomorrow").

The sunny alternative lifestyle seduced Mayall. Los Angeles felt like the place where he most belonged, not gloomy England, and Laurel Canyon – quiet and almost rural while just minutes from the happening Sunset Strip, was his first and only choice to buy a house. It quickly became a party central, earning its habitués the name the Brain Damage Club.

Later a couple of teenage kids playing with fireworks started a fire that destroyed 24 houses, including Mayall's, losing diaries belonging to his grandfather, uncountable personal possessions, music recordings, photos, art, instruments, even a collection of vintage erotica from his father. It was a true disaster.

Mayall's reminiscences are great for music enthusiasts, like the time he visited sacked Rolling Stone Brian Jones and was shocked by how frail he looked, having trouble walking and looking and behaving "like a little old man". Two days later he was found dead in his pool. We forgive Mayall the major mistake of jumbling up Bob Dylan's 1965 and 1966 tours of the UK.

To have the blues is to be sad, when you are unlucky in love and express your pain through music. But there's happy blues music too, and Mayall's book reminds us to be happy he has been around for so long and entertained us in often splendid fashion.

Time to play "Bare Wires", "Blues From Laurel Canyon", "Turning Point" and some others again.


Loading Conversation

RELATED POSTS
The news that made headlines

The Brief History of the Week

Geschrieben von BT

Presenting in one concise package the week’s most important and fascinating national stories,…

ComiX Coffee in District V

Inmates running the asylum?

Geschrieben von Attila Leitner

Briton Ben Innes became the very definition of cool on Tuesday. In case you missed this, the…

Protests, no apologies as government-teachers dispute widens

Fight of the roundtables

Geschrieben von BT

The civil public education platform representing the teachers’ movement, which calls itself an…