A few weeks ago, feeling stale and stressed, I escaped to our dilapidated cottage in Dorset for a few days on my own. When I was younger, and especially when I was drinking heavily, I often felt ill at ease in my own company, but these days I get on quite happily alone, though I sometimes worry that I talk to myself too much, and wonder whether I am going slightly mad in my old age. I once read that it’s OK to talk to yourself, but there might be cause for concern if you find that you are answering yourself back. I do that all the time.
If I am going mad at least it is a contented kind of dottiness, and walking on the cliffs, eating seafood at the splendid Hive Beach Café in Burton Bradstock and drinking endless cups of PG Tips did me the world of good. It also increased my desire to get a dog. Chatting away to myself wouldn’t seem so odd if I had a faithful hound trotting along beside me, or lying at my feet as I slumped in the armchair. These days I look at other people’s dogs with profound envy, and long to have one of my own. I think I have even identified the breed, a Lakeland terrier. It’s the unconditional love of dogs I think one craves. Our cat Nelson, fine and characterful creature though he is, often looks at me with what looks suspiciously like contempt, when he’s not pulling the even more disconcerting trick of acting as though he has never seen me before in his life.
I took a large number of CDs down to Dorset but discovered that in the unaccustomed peace and tranquillity I had no desire to listen to pop, rock or even jazz. Instead, I confined myself almost entirely to piano music, especially Alfred Brendel playing Schubert and Haydn sonatas with his splendid mixture of rigour, virtuosity and humanity. I was also hooked by a wonderful three-CD set called the Art of Maurizio Pollini, which features the great Italian pianist playing Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt alongside more modern pieces by Debussy, Webern and Stravinsky, combining bravura with satisfying depth. I have yet to be entirely won over by the passionate, fiery pianism of Martha Argerich but perhaps that will come with time, too.
All of which made me wonder whether I might finally have grown out of pop and rock music. These days even some of the stuff I hear on Radio 2 sounds rebarbative to my ageing ears, and I find myself guiltily retuning to the unthreatening aural pastures of Classic FM. Unfortunately, its late-night presenter, Margherita Taylor, who is always on when I come back from the theatre, makes me squirm with her faux-sexy voice and the constant impression she gives that every ‘relaxing’ piece she plays is a particularly naughty and possibly downright indecent indulgence.
Northern soul fans use the phrase ‘keep the faith’ when referring to the rare and beloved soul cuts they danced to in their youth during all-night sessions at the Wigan Casino and I have been worrying that I might be losing my faith in the pop and rock I have loved since I was eight.
Then I read last weekend of the death of Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the vocalists with the Band, who developed their chops on the road with the wild rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Later they backed Bob Dylan when he went electric and then went on to record some marvellous albums of their own. At a time of often silly psychedelia in the late Sixties, the Band went back to the roots of American music, writing classic new songs that felt steeped in the history of blues, country and western and old-time rock and roll.
After 16 years on the road, they decided to call it a day and went out with a bang at a farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom in 1976 where they were joined by a host of their friends including Dylan, Dr John, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the great bluesman Muddy Waters. Martin Scorsese was on hand to capture it all on film, and I dug out my DVD of the concert the other day. What a joyous affirmation it proves of everything that is sincere, thrilling, beautiful and moving about pop and rock music at its greatest.
The Band seem to be on fire, with lead guitarist Robbie Robertson playing with a mixture of savagery and grace as he rips out licks like a man inspired. There is also moving camaraderie among the artists and many moments that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Watching this wonderful film, I found that my love of rock music had been miraculously restored and I cannot recommend the DVD too highly, especially as it is on sale for a ludicrously cheap £3.49 on Amazon.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.