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Loved And Lost: Jonathan Kelly

September 29, 2010

As a teenager growing up in Chester in the early 1970s, you identified yourself by the bands you followed along with the football team you supported. The albums you carried under your arm to school or pulled out of plastic carrier bags to show off or exchange in the yard at break time said as much about you as the length of your hair or width of your flares. There were clans dedicated to the unspeakably pretentious (Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis), to the teenyboppingly trivial (Slade, T Rex, Osmonds even) and to the interesting left-field ‘alternatives’ – people like the Incredible String Band, King Crimson and Strawbs. My own circle of friends were big Strawbs fans, and had followed their progress all the way from acoustic trio to full-on rock group. By 1971 they had released four albums, and records like From The Witchwood and Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios were rarely off our turntables.

The new LP would be the one to push them finally into the big league, leading eventually to chart positions and Top Of The Pops. The tour to promote Grave New World brought Strawbs to Manchester, and five of us set out by train early on the evening of Saturday 12 February 1972 to see them at the Free Trade Hall. Expecting to miss the last train back, someone’s mother or father would collect us after the show.

We arrived early for the headliners, but slightly late for the first support act. On stage was a man in a black polo neck sweater, with a shaggy mane of black hair and a beard. He looked like a star and sounded amazing, the chords that rang out of his acoustic guitar conjuring up a whole rhythm section. Hurrying to my seat so as not to miss any more, I flipped through the tour programme and learned that this was Jonathan Kelly, singer-songwriter, and that he too had just got a new album out.

The standard format for song introductions back then was incomprehensible mumbling (thisisasongabout…mmmggghnnnggghbwaaahhh…hopeyoulikeit) punctuated by copious bouts of guitar tuning – a downbeat style straight from the Bob Harris School of Public Presentation. Jonathan Kelly was the antidote to this approach. His between-songs patter was rattled through breathlessly at breakneck speed, with plenty of laughter and a surreal line in humour, all delivered in a warm, intimate Irish voice. I wondered what fuelled his astonishing energy, and reckoned it was simply adrenalin, the thrill of being there on stage, playing his music to a new audience and earning their devotion.

Singer-songwriters back then were ideal, low-maintenance support material for bigger acts – no shifting around bulky equipment or setting up second drum kits; just a quick one-two-check and you’re away. (The other support that night, a mime artist, made even fewer demands of the PA system.) That tour must have been a godsend to Jonathan Kelly – to be playing in proper concert halls and theatres to big audiences, all predisposed to like his music, and to be winning them over night after night. Like me, thousands of others became instant fans, and went from concert hall to bed to record shop the next day. I called in at Migrant Mouse, the local independent in Northgate Street on the way home from school the following Monday and bought Twice Around The Houses for about £2.

I’d somehow expected that the album would just be Jonathan Kelly and his guitar. After all, the songs had sounded just perfect played that way and I couldn’t imagine them needing any more. But the record featured some top musicians, the cream of the London session mafia back then. Names like Peter Wood, Tim Renwick or Rick Kemp might not mean a lot today, but these were the people you got in to add class to your record, enhance the music and colour in the spaces.

It’s a wonderful album, to this day one of my favourite few records, one I will never sell or give away, and I still get a thrill putting it on and settling down to listen. People I’ve been close to have pulled the record off the shelf, said “wow, who’s this?” and then, 45 minutes later wanted to play it over again, and again, and again.

Twice Around The Houses is a collection of ten songs covering everything you could wish to hear about. Songs of brotherhood and community (We Are The People and We’re All Right Till Then); of romantic yearning (Madeleine); of love and loss (Leave Them Go and the achingly, unbearably beautiful I Used To Know You); cautionary tales like the folkish, allegorical Ballad Of Cursed Anna and its contemporary counterpart Hyde Park Angels; songs of home (Sligo Fair and Rainy Town, surely a paean to the singer’s origins in Drogheda); the Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness of The Train Song; and finally a lullaby of exhausted contentment, Rock You To Sleep. Songs of everything, really. It’s an album where practically every track is a standout, if that’s possible – with wonderfully crafted, articulate lyrics, beautiful chord sequences, and memorable, uplifting melodies.

All these songs are favourites, but most of all I love Sligo Fair, the tale of a girl who longs to escape her humdrum rural life and hitch a ride to the big city with the travelling fair people. Just three verses and the picture is painted and the simple story told, with this closing image:

      Way above the northern coast the seagulls circle high

      As to the west the sinking sun spills gold across the sky

      And homeward wend the Friesian herd to the ending of their day

      And Sligo Fair is just a week away

I could quote line after magnificent line of Jonathan Kelly’s lyrics. But the best service I could do him – and you – is to mention the two-CD set of his pair of solo albums for RCA, where you’ll find the words surrounded by his gorgeous music.

The cover of Twice Around The Houses is one of those simple, evocative 70s classics that you don’t see so often in these days of antiseptic graphic design. It’s a photograph of the singer, probably in London, possibly in the rush-hour, at dusk, as he waits to cross a road. Wrapped up, with a scarf round his neck and the old-style Guardian sticking out of a coat pocket, his eyes focused on something miles away, it’s the picture of one man in a crowd of millions trying to get by and stay ahead in London – like the character in Rock You To Sleep.

A year later came Wait Till They Change The Backdrop. The follow-up saw Jonathan Kelly stretching his musical muscle, with longer songs, more complex arrangements, greater variety of texture (even, amazingly, a steel band on I Wish I Could and some Queen-like vocal harmonies on the title track) and a slightly darker mood overall. The album is a reminder that Jonathan Kelly was never really a folkie, more a musician whose natural milieu happened to be the folk club circuit – an acoustic rocker with a great pop sense, as the two albums he released with his own band as Jonathan Kelly’s Outside demonstrated later. There’s another memorable photo, this time a tableau of 21 people involved in the record – presumably, in those pre-photoshop days, all together in the same place at the same time. It’s a wonderful portrait of a kind of hippy extended family, with young and old, black and white, male and female, all manner of hairstyles – and at the centre a now clean-shaven Jonathan Kelly, looking proudly straight into the camera, surrounded by this huge cast of characters who have lent their talent to his music.

For the few years at the height of his musical career many people loved Jonathan Kelly, just as my friends and I had done that night in Manchester. I’ve only recently discovered the Benjamin Franklin quote: ‘If you would be loved, love and be lovable’. Jonathan Kelly was lovable in abundance, and audiences adored him as their own. There are stories of him going to a pub for a quiet drink and being reluctantly thrust onto the stage with a guitar and captivating an unsuspecting audience for the next hour. As well as the delightful character introducing the songs, there was that marvellous voice, sometimes vulnerable and tender, always sounding very close to the listener, but equally able to let rip and belt it out like a fully paid-up rock ‘n’ roller. In the booklet accompanying the CD set, Dave Stringer, who used to manage his folk club work, writes: “It was always a special pleasure to drive Jonathan to a new venue, where many of the crowd would not have seen him before. To feel the awe of the audience, to be lifted up with them, to share in their sheer pleasure, to be overwhelmed by the response at the end. To my knowledge, the magic never failed, no matter what the make-up or size of the audience”.

Then, some time in the mid 1970s, Jonathan Kelly disappeared off the face of the music scene. There were rumours that he’d become a recluse, even that he’d died. My own interests in music had moved on, but I still listened to his records just as keenly as ever, along with the punk and new wave I’d discovered. I often thought of him, wondered what he was doing, hoped he was OK, and would have loved the chance just to say to him ‘what happened to you?’

What happened was that he had dropped out of music altogether. From the engaging idealist, the Workers Revolutionary Party activist who used to sign autographs ‘Peace and love, Jonathan Kelly’, he had become a heavy drug user and a man who was rapidly leaving behind the people who cared about him. Finally he had grown disillusioned that his music couldn’t make the difference he wanted, couldn’t change the world any more than his politics had done, and thoroughly disillusioned with himself. In an interview many years later he describes the man he had somehow turned into, a person he no longer liked very much – arrogant, hypocritical, and self-indulgent. It’s a scathing and brutally honest appraisal, delivered entirely without the self-pity we expect in the age of the teary celebrity confessional.

But he had survived, was alive and well and had found another faith. Far away from that London rush-hour he had started a new life, a family and his own small business and was an active Jehovah’s Witness, giving his time to help people deal with their own problems. In the early 2000s a dedicated fan tracked him down, created a website about his life and work, and cajoled the first performances from him for nearly 30 years. Even after all this time there was a devoted following, people who, like me, remembered and loved his music, and relished the chance to experience it again.

The second career was short-lived, as he reckoned that the allure of music, the buzz of performing and recording again, would diminish his focus on the religious work, with his congregation, that mattered most to him. From a selfish point of view I was disappointed to be missing out on this ‘comeback’, having caught so little of him first time round. But Jonathan Kelly owes me nothing. I’ve taken all I wanted from his music over the years, and every day still I think of one or other of his songs…so whatever you choose, Jonathan, is absolutely fine by me.

Songwriters are often asked where their ideas come from – do they have to work hard for them, are they based on personal experience or imagination, which comes first, the music or the words? On the website dedicated to his work, there is this quote from Jonathan Kelly:

“I’ve got music in my mind everywhere I go. Songs come to visit and if I’m quick and copy them down before they leave, then I can play them to someone else. Many times they just come and stay a while and then slip out the back door never to be heard of again. It don’t worry me, it was just nice to have them around for a while.”

It’s the best description of artistic inspiration I’ve ever read – modest, even humble, easy to understand, and devoid of the mystique and pretension with which writers sometimes clothe their work.

Jonathan Kelly is one of a handful of people whose music means most to me. Great, great songs, which are in my mind, too, wherever I go, and keep on playing years after I first heard them. Music which shares my melancholy when I’m feeling low, lifts my spirits when I need a hand up, and smiles back at me when the sun’s shining. I’ve never met Jonathan Kelly, and only enjoyed his company for the length of that short set back in 1972. But I’m thankful that, just like the musical ideas that visit him, he dropped in on my life nearly 40 years ago and stayed long enough to share his songs with me before moving on somewhere else. Wherever he is, whatever he is doing, I’m sure he’s still illuminating people’s lives, and I hope that he too has found love and peace.

      Leave the sailor to the seaway, leave the shepherd to the fold

      Leave your loved one to her chosen and leave them go

      Leave them go


Photographs by Richard Derwent

Jonathan Kelly website

From → Loved And Lost

  1. Tony permalink

    I heard a Jonathan Kelly song at a folk club last night and was intrigued having never heard of him. Thanks for the biography, I will now try to get hold of Twice Around The Houses and give it a listen.

  2. in a world filled with tosh and awful boring crap like the X-Factor twas a joy to find your writing this morning I too bought Twice Around The Houses and saw Jonathon Kelly at the time at Southampton University and Bickershaw Festival all them years ago, played Sligo Fair all the time since then . . . Mike

  3. What a brilliant appraisal of a brilliant singer songwriter. Saw him many times here in the North-East during the early seventies and I couldn’t have described any better what he meant to me and many others. Gerald Sables should be applauded for attempting to get him back in front of an audience and although it’s sad that he probably won’t at least there’s a final live performance available to go along with the memories.

  4. What more can one say? I remember him well from his support spot on Strawbs Grave New World tour. It’s good that his records are out there again.

  5. Geoff Jarvis permalink

    I was at the same Strawbs show at the Free Trade Hall in ’72!

    I tracked Jon down in London in 75/76 when he was checking out of the music business and even carried his guitar to some of his last live dates

    I got to know him as a wonderful man who was unfortunately badly chewed up by the music business machine…

  6. Martin Bliss permalink

    Just got my Guitar out and played Leave them Go! Thought I would google it and voila… a lovely honest view of Jonathan Kelly… Will send it to Gerald Sables at the JK website!. Jonathan changed my life, I took up singing for a thirty year career because of seeing him on the Old Grey Whistle Test.. Thank you for a great write up of a wonderful, talented and truly missed artist. We Love love you Jonathan!

  7. Elsa permalink

    “I used to know you”: what a wonderful song!
    Thanks to my dad’s English teacher.

  8. Dave Jenkins permalink

    I saw Jonathan Kelly at the Shakespear Head Carnaby Street and bought his album Twice around the houses. Love Skipping to school and I used to know you.

  9. A wonderful tribute.

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