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Songbook: Jonathan Kelly – Making It Lonely

September 16, 2012

I became aware of Jonathan Kelly’s latter pair of albums relatively late. Waiting On you, made with his band Jonathan Kelly’s Outside, and the valedictory Two Days In Winter, came out in 1974 and 1975 respectively, when Kelly’s career in the music business was on the slide. The main factors in his decline seem to have been a lethal mix of drugs, disillusionment, bad management, diminishing commercial success and, ultimately, the lack of a record company that would release any more of his music.

A friend who, like me, appreciates Jonathan Kelly’s music, knew the two records and told me cheerfully that they “weren’t very good”. Intrigued, I bought them in their new format as a double-pack of CDs, played them and disagreed. I’ve listened many times since and now love them as much as the two ‘solo’ Kelly albums ‘Twice Around The Houses’ and ‘Wait Till They Change The Backdrop’. Waiting On You, in particular, with its light funk and beautiful, soulful singing is, despite its imperfections, a great record, with memorable, heartfelt songs I’ve grown to know very well.

One of the delights of a Jonathan Kelly record comes even before you hear a sound. Scanning the track listing you see some great, tantalising titles. Who is Rabbit Face? What were Yesterday’s Promises? Where, if anywhere, is Sensation Street? And how does one make it lonely?

After Waiting On You’s undistinguished opening track, Making It Lonely emerges quietly from Kelly’s plain voice/piano introduction. It’s a stunning first verse, with a gorgeous, unpredictable, descending chain of chords and a bold, arresting opening line: “I’ve grown so dependent on you”. You’re hooked in immediately by this naked expression of the insecurity of being in love, and by Kelly’s warm, vulnerable voice – that gentle vibrato on “I spend all day waiting at the window” is pure McCartney.

The chorus explains the title, as the singer accepts, even revels in, the loneliness his love has caused –­ “Making it lonely for myself, no I don’t need nobody else”. The song’s finest moment, though, is wordless. It’s the chilling middle eight, where a glorious key change is accompanied by a truly sublime, simple guitar solo.

Lyrically very evocative of its time (1974, when women in pop were ‘baby’ or ‘girl’), the whole song brings to mind Carole King’s Tapestry, in its predominance of the piano, the subject matter, and the sheer quality of songwriting. Yes, that good. There might be a few bits of performance that wouldn’t have got past the quality control department of, say, Steely Dan (Messrs Fagen and Becker wouldn’t have accepted the bass guitar and piano left hand being so far out of synch, for instance), but even these faults have a certain period charm.

The first time I heard Making It Lonely I played it continuously for several hours, and only moved on because I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. Its wonderful Sunday afternoon melancholy was addictive, and now I often play it late at night, either on the CD player or on my guitar. But singing along I can never match Kelly’s individual phrasing, however well I think I know the song.

The mystery of Jonathan Kelly’s Outside is how he could attract musicians of such quality (Chaz Jankel, a future  Blockhead and Snowy White, later of Thin Lizzy, were in his band) and fail to achieve commercial success. Maybe, knowing the strange practices of the music business and fickleness of the record-buying public, not such a mystery after all. And in many ways Jonathan Kelly didn’t give himself the best chance. You can absolutely sympathise with his career choice, though. Longing to play in a band, and deliver the kind of dancy, jazzy-funky soul music of his musical heroes, people like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Herbie Hancock, the more he strove to achieve his artistic aims the further he left behind the folk audience who wanted to hear the old songs, acoustically delivered.

I’m left wondering how Warner Brothers, according to an interview on Jonathan Kelly’s website, reckoned his voice wasn’t up to it when they were considering him for their label. If he ever gives lessons in not singing very well, I’ll be first in the queue.

Top photograph by Richard Derwent

Jonathan Kelly website

From → Songbook

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