Song of the Soul

Wednesday 26th June 2013 at 6:58PM

At the end of 2005 this co-author comes into the story.  Nowhere near as qualified a ‘Martin fan’ as any of the Egroup, I’d last listened to Martin’s music in 1992 when The Boy’s Heart became one of the first CDs I’d bought.  I recall telling my wife Ana that he was the first artist whose music I owned on vinyl (Boat to Bolivia), cassette (Gladsome, Humour and Blue and Salutation Road) and the new CD.

It amuses me now to recall how ownership simply underlined the notion of music as a commodity – a product to be used to enrich the people with the least interest in the emotion generated.

But back in late 2005 I was planning a surprise party for Ana.  The publication of the revelation that she was to complete 40 years on the planet in the late Spring of 2006 will not impress her now, but it’s important for it brought me into contact with Bob Paterson, who for some time now had been helping Martin with booking and organising gigs.

Having been messing around on the Internet, I came across the website, after basically asking myself the question: what is Martin Stephenson up to these days?  What I discovered was that it was possible to book him to play your own gig.  I acted quickly and following a couple of early email exchanges with Bob Paterson, I’d soon hear direct from Martin himself.

When, shortly into 2006, I revealed to the intended guests that I’d booked him to play, a diverse group of 40 year-old-plus ex-Sheffield University students broke into spontaneous reminiscences.  I hadn’t appreciated what an impact he’d had on one his several visits to the Octagon in Sheffield in the early to mid eighties.  There were executives from the pharmacy industry, publishing directors, journalists, teachers and (to cries of ‘we’re not worthy’) people who were still students.  The buzz ensured a 100% response to the invitation from guests, while my better half remained unaware of the ‘blast from the past’ that was about to remind us all that he’d never gone away in the first place.

Logistically the evening presented a couple of problems.  We needed to get the guests there before Ana – and we also needed to get Martin there early enough to do a soundcheck and to settle in.  A plan was drawn up.  I would drive up to the venue first – ostensibly to make sure all the catering was organised.  Martin would arrive next, then the guests and then Ana, who until this point knew only that there would be a reunion of some sort, unaware of the location or the schedule.

I can dimly recall the rider presented by our guest performer. Usually one might expect a crate of extra strength lager, some cigarettes and a packet of skittles (but only the green ones).  Having set aside a couple of hours to procure said items I received a call from Martin asking only for some pistachio nuts, a cheese sandwich and a bottle of water (he never did eat the sandwich).  I made the assumption that my supplier - an independent organic food store in Halifax - would somehow meet with the approval of my guest.  What a crazy rock and roll world.

As the time approached for Martin’s arrival, I was preparing the pre-gig music: a selection of songs, old and new, that would have some meaning for those gathered.  From Pete Wylie’s The Story of the Blues, via the Passions I’m in Love with a German Film Star to the Cocteau Twins Heaven or Las Vegas and from Wire’s Outdoor Miner, via Talk Talk’s It’s My Life to anything coming out of Sheffield in the early 80s and a basket of salsa from Juan Luis Guerra to Ruben Blades, it felt appropriate for the evening.  It’s worth saying that we also were forced to shoehorn Girls Aloud’s Biology in for the youngsters.  None of the gentlemen present in the early part of the evening knew anything about Girls Aloud, but interest did increase when a photograph of said lissom pop group was presented.

My phone rang.  It was Martin. “My guitar broke so I had to divert to Newcastle to pick up a spare.  I’ll be with you in half an hour.”  Smiling nervously, I thanked him for the call and started on the task of biting my fingernails to the bone.

The guests began to arrive and the sun obliged by warming up the late spring afternoon.  The kids gathered outside on the upper deck of Cragrats Mill in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, while the adults greeted each other and began the age-old reunion tradition of pretending that ‘you haven’t changed a bit’.  Even if my glabrous state and more rounded figure declared the opposite, I could actually claim the statement was true.  The fact is, when last seen I was probably wearing the same shirt.

At this point – and dangerously close to my wife’s planned arrival time – I received a second phone call from Martin, just to clarify local directions.  He was upon us.

But so were my wife, kids and parents.  I stepped outside.  It was still light and two cars were making their way up the hill.  In the first, an old but sturdy C-series Mercedes, was Martin.  In the second, my wife and kids.  Although I was tempted to run out, best man-style, and instruct them to do a lap of the block, I was forced to act more reasonably, so managed, with the help of a friend, to smuggle Martin around the back while my wife, wide eyed with surprise, walked into a throng of guests. Martin did never get to do that soundcheck.

So there we were: 50-odd guests, musical reminiscences, a curry buffet and a former (or at least we assumed) 80s heart throb nibbling at a pistachio in the green room.

One by one I brought various guests in to meet Martin.  My sisters Catherine and Sarah, my best pal Mark and one or two others (who still had the poetry book that came originally with Gladsome, Humour and Blue) wandered in, starry-eyed, to come between the minstrel and his cheese sandwich.

After the food, the lights darkened and my daughter Elena took the microphone.  “Ladies and gentlemen” she announced as my wife caught a glimpse of my own guitar resting against the back of the performance area (and probably drew a gloomy conclusion about who she was about to hear singing).  My daughter continued “All the way from County Durham … it’s Martin Stephenson!”

I can recall every detail of the evening that followed.  The riotous combination of songs, from Chet Atkins via children’s songs to Doc Watson, raps on encounters between Julian Cope and Gypsy Dave and an obliging ‘request’ section where rapt members of the audience called for their favourites.

True, there were few requests for anything chronologically placed after The Boy’s Heart, but that mattered little.  Our guest had conjured up an atmosphere that the organiser could not have dreamed of: an ability to connect with every member of the audience.  At one stage my brother in law Martin approached the stage to offer our singer a pint of lager.  It was politely declined, but rather than casting off the offer, it led to an entertaining rap on all of the demons that Martin Stephenson was trying to overcome.  My brother in law felt less like an interloper and more like a participant in a comedy sketch.

At one stage Martin transformed the atmosphere by producing a series of harmonics and engaging all of the youngsters present by comparing them to rain drops and stars, while at the end of the show, rather than walking into the embrace of 50-odd portly ex-students (I can hear them saying ‘speak for yourself’) he sat down next to my parents and spent an hour talking about common acquaintances from Stanley and Consett, County Durham.

The Stephenson travelling market stall was then produced: an old suitcase containing a miasma of material: all of the CDs, the poetry books and much more.  We buzzed around him like wasps on a rare English summer’s day.

To the vast majority of the people in the room, this was not a comeback, but a new beginning.  There were people there who were new to his music and there were those present who were patiently waiting for either Running Water or Crocodile Cryer but the consensus at the end of the evening was that it was a total vindication of the decision to turn his back on the path of musical careerist and an evening to live long in the memory.

It felt like a family gathering, a ceilidh, a celebration of the power of music to bring people together.  It was authentic.  There was no set list, just an invitation to make requests and challenge the minstrel to reach out to all of us.

The evening ended with guests walking back down the hill to local B&Bs, hotels and friends’ houses, children laughing in the darkness and me and my publisher being told by our guest that we should speak to a friend of his called Richard Cundill.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Or given the time it’s taken us to pull this together, maybe the rest was double Latin, because with so much happening all of the time with Martin, it hurts your head to choose those little moments that define him so richly. 

He told us he was interested in the ‘power of the small’, not the grand gestures or the big artistic and commercial manoeuvres and one can imagine Martin rejecting the idea of offering a new album free, on-line; in favour of turning up in your kitchen and playing the new songs live.

The next day Ana’s mobile phone rang.  It was Martin.  He was ringing to make sure she’d enjoyed her evening.  If this man were ever to issue customer feedback forms, his advocacy levels would be outstanding.

So in 2006 my second Stephenson period began.  I had a lot to catch up on and after spending all of my beer money on The Haint OfTthe Budded Rose; I was immediately struck by the variety of the canon post-The Boy’s Heart.  I was soon also struck by my wife, when she realised I’d spent the beer money.

Rich and I met up shortly afterwards – and through Ronan Fitzsimons’ careful curation, we began to figure out a way of stepping back and recording the journey we were both witnessing from completely different perspectives.  One of us, the arch-fan, the archivist, the friend and the supporter, the other, starry-eyed, discovering that one of his favourite artists had just released sixteen ‘lost albums’ all at once.  Like having Dennis Wilson appear in your front room on Christmas Eve and playing River Song just for you, with an angelic chorus behind him, it’s sometimes hard to be objective, but the contrasting perspectives of my distance and Rich’s proximity have hopefully helped follow the clues and present an objective view of Martin’s own particular song.


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