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Taking risks

Charles Spencer on his addiction to buying CDs

12 November 2008

12:00 AM

12 November 2008

12:00 AM

I had what reformed alkies call a moment of clarity last week. On one of my regular trawls through the Amazon website, I clicked the One-day 1-Click button and ordered the first CD in what I felt in my guts was going to be an expensive and enjoyable binge. But instead of the usual response thanking me for my order there was a problem. My credit card had expired. All I had to do, however, was enter the details of the new one, already activated, signed and tucked away in my wallet, and we could immediately get back to business as usual. Instead I decided enough was enough and let my account lapse. 

About six months ago I bought a new shelving unit that comfortably holds 200 CDs. It is already almost full. This suggests an average buying rate of about one CD a day, seven a week, 30 a month, more than 350 a year at a cost, I’d guess, of about £3,000 per annum. Oddly enough that’s exactly the amount I calculated I was spending on drink when I entered the Priory eight years ago. Had I merely swapped one addiction for another?

It’s been ten days now without an Amazon delivery and I’m surviving. I’m not adopting total abstinence. I’ll still buy CDs but I’ll buy them, discriminatingly and in smaller quantities, in shops. If the recession proves as severe as feared, music retailers will be among the hardest hit with so many free downloads now available. We could wake up one day and find that music stores no longer exist on our high streets. That would be a shame. Thumbing through the racks has given me countless hours of pleasure since I was eight years old. Shopping on Amazon never had quite the same thrill about it, though the ability to get your hands on almost anything, however obscure, is something I will undoubtedly miss.

Take Dick Heckstall-Smith, for instance. Dick Heckstall who? I hear you ask. Dick was the sax player in the often thrilling jazz-rock group Colosseum, whom I mentioned approvingly last month, and if you haven’t got your hands on Valentyne Suite or Colosseum Live yet I can’t urge you to do so more warmly. He had a long and fascinating career, graduating from Cambridge with a degree in agriculture before moving into London’s trad jazz scene in the Fifties, then shifting first into post-bebop jazz then into the nascent rhythm and blues scene that did so much to shape British rock music. For the most part Heckstall-Smith was a sideman in other people’s bands, among them Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, the Graham Bond Organisation, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and, though his sax playing is thrillingly wild and expressive, he never achieved anything approaching commercial success or widespread fame apart from during his years with Colosseum.

As Richard Cook writes in his Jazz Encyclopedia: ‘Heckstall-Smith’s legacy on record is rather disappointingly scattered and hard to pin down or even locate’, though some albums are still available. I would especially recommend the Graham Bond Organisation twofer, combining the mid-Sixties albums The Sound of 65 and There’s A Bond Between Us, which delivers terrifically raw and urgent R&B despite the fact that there is no lead guitarist. Graham Bond plays sizzling organ, and the rhythm section is Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on drums who went on to form Cream with Eric Clapton. Heckstall-Smith’s passionate sax playing — like Rahsaan Roland Kirk he often played tenor and alto simultaneously — remains superbly exciting more than 40 years on.

I’d also recommend DH-S’s superbly entertaining autobiography, Blowing the Blues, available from Amazon for 12 quid and including a fine, free CD of his work spanning four decades. He proves a marvellously laconic observer of both his own and other people’s follies, and his account of his years on the road with the Graham Bond Organisation, in which four extremely strong personalities, two of them junkies, spent four claustrophobic and violent years together, is at once hilarious and harrowing. Bond, a heroin addict who eventually became infatuated with Aleister Crowley, threw himself under a train. Heckstall-Smith, stubborn, observant, big hearted, and largely confining himself to alcohol and Capstan Full Strength, kept on playing until his death in 2004 at the age of 70. I particularly love his description of what turned him on in music:

Heckstall-Smith thrillingly lived up to his own challenging manifesto, which I believe could be adopted with profit by any aspiring artist, not just musicians. I kick myself that I never managed to catch this unsung hero playing live.

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