A Rainy Afternoon in Muswell Hill


Back in the fifties, the phenomena that was Elvis Presley toured fairgrounds and dancehalls. He performed on a circuit that catered for the small-scale. And he never joined the Stadium Rock artists. Elvis ended his career playing to a middle aged Vegas audience.  In-between those early fairground gigs, there were stretches of inactivity and a leather clad comeback performance in ’68.

Maybe if Elvis had lived long enough there would have been a Johnny Cash like renaissance. An album produced by Rick Rubin. A world tour and possibly a headlining of Glastonbury. I’m glad in many ways this did not happen. Elvis lives on: not as titanium-hip swiveller, or as a fossilised talk-show exhibit. He’s not a John Lennon or Jimmy Hendrix; Vegas and those white jump-suits put paid to that. But his music lives on.

I’m doing an old-school tour myself: visiting a bunch of independent bookshops. At each shop, I leave a few copies of Broken Down House.

Yesterday I was in Muswell Hill: an area of North London famous as the birthplace of Ray and Dave Davies, the original Muswell Hillbillies and founders of the Kinks. And because we are in England, it’s raining.

Muswell Hill is affluent and slightly twee; yet it’s nothing like the deserts of Knightsbridge and Mayfair. You can imagine ordinary folk, not Oligarchs making their home in such a place. Ok, these ordinary people will need a hefty bank-balance, but they will not be driving about in Ferraris. Think Volvo, Fiat and reliable Japanese.

I was accompanied on my tour by a friend who knows the place better than me. Before our visit to the Muswell Hill Bookshop, we did a circuit of the areas many charity shops. Second hand books, vinyl and clothes are my thing. I toyed with the notion of purchasing a Moody Blues album from one store, and bought a Keith Richards biography in another.

But the highlight of the day for me was the music playing in each store. Old music: because everything in these places is of a certain vintage. Popular music: because the weird stuff scares away the punters. And public music: because music sounds much better in a room full of people.

I heard Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and Elvis singing Love Me Tender. The latter sent me on a mental journey from the fairgrounds where Elvis started his career; to the Hamburg era Beatles, who featured the song in their set. Stuart Sutcliff, the groups original bass player generally performed the song. He was neither a musician nor a singer; but he gave the song a fragility, that suited his wavering voice.

At the end of our tour, we had a drink in a small café. Arranged in the corner was a portable mixing desk and small guitar amplifier. I supposed a DJ would come along later and spin a few tunes. But instead, halfway into our coffees, a guitarist plugged in and began to play. He started with Asturias, the classical guitar piece used in the song Spanish Caravan by The Doors. It was a perfect and musical end to a rainy afternoon in Muswell Hill.


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