You know that thing many felt about David Bowie?
I felt it when Jake Thackray died. I won’t overplay this: it wasn’t the utter loss and grief of the uber-fan. More an unexpected wash of upset, startlingly so, given that I was fairly convinced that I wasn’t the sort of person to be affected by the passing of a total stranger whose songs I happened to like.
Perhaps it was something to do with learning the news via his formal obituary: I was staying with my wife’s family that Christmas, opened my father-in-law’s Daily Telegraph, and there it was. There is something particularly brutal about learning such things via obituaries (it happened to me again a couple of years later, with a cricketing friend, artist Ian Breakwell. It is not a nice experience). A bit of rootling around later, and I had found his old friend Ralph McTell’s farewell piece to Jake, which had me in pieces.
I sent a silly little email to Ralph McTell to mumble ‘thanks’ and I’ve now found that email posted underneath that latter article. I think the songwriter might even have replied – I can’t remember, but it’s not out of the question; this was 2002 and people did that sort of thing those days.
Anyway. Like I said, I wasn’t an uber-fan, but over the years I became more and more convinced of Jake Thackray’s singular talent, especially as I drifted further into writing for a living. It hadn’t particularly occurred to me that there was lost material; EMI’s release of the ‘Jake in a Box’ set seemed to wrap things up; we enjoyed it and sighed deeply for the loss of a true great.
Then, out of the blue this year, an email. Would I be interested in hearing some recordings of Jake’s lost songs?
I wrote before about the unexpected manner in which Frederic Debreu’s music became reality. This was the bit I left out; a fairly major bit; the bit that was a secret; the bit where my new collaborator Paul Thompson dropped in that he – along with his son – was involved in producing an album of unrecorded Jake Thackray material, to be sung by John Watterson.
(John Watterson is a Jake Thackray tribute act, although the term ‘tribute act’ doesn’t quite do him justice, associated as it is with the another-day-another-dollar touring mainstream. After all, being a Jake Thackray tribute act is a niche occupation rather than a sure-fire route to a quick buck. I’ve not seen him live, but he’s splendid on video. John performs as ‘Fake Thackray’, which is reason enough to book him for pretty well any musical function you could ever think of.)
Would I be interested? Yes. I would.
Audio files began to appear in my inbox over the next couple of months. They came with explanations and annotations: this song was from X; this one was written about Y. Occasionally a touch of anxiety filtered through in the emails: do you think this bit works? Is the background to this song explained adequately? These were people who cared deeply about getting it right; of doing justice to the legacy. I made a couple of the most minor and tentative suggestions about a liner note, and poked my head above the parapet in a debate about instrumentation.
But mainly I just listened and gaped.
John Watterson doesn’t simply ‘do’ Jake Thackray in the way that most people with a certain type of voice might be able to ‘do’ a pretty good Bob Dylan (guilty), or a Johnny Cash (not one of my best), or an Elvis (no good whatsoever) or, indeed, a Barry Gibb (doubly guilty, and have wowed karaoke audiences accordingly). John just seems to inhabit Jake’s voice: the inflexions, the mannerisms, the little asides. Some of these songs have been heard in live recordings before, but many haven’t: it’s not as if John could have simply copied the originals. His performance is the aural equivalent of seeing a ghost; it makes your brain go funny. Some weeks later, my father and I sat down with a bottle of red and I played him the finished but unmastered tracks in a rough album order; I will cherish the look of confusion on his face before I recapped to explain all.
Of course the obvious question about any artist’s ‘lost’ material is: ‘why was it lost?’ and, more pertinently: ‘is it any good?’ To which the answer is: ‘yes.’ I can say that confidently, now that the initial impact of hearing it has passed. These aren’t songs that weren’t good enough to commit to vinyl at the time, but a mixture of work that post-dated Jake Thackray’s recording career, that was recorded for TV but not for album release or that were a staple of his live performances. A couple of tracks survived as lyrics alone; these have been set to new music.
So all-in-all a bit of a treasure trove.
There you go: an unexpected coda to the tale. This is the lot; Paul and John have been through Jake’s old papers and archives, and there’s nothing else. The Lost Will and Testament of Jake Thackray has now been released, with the backing of Jake’s family and Ralph McTell. One of the best, most brilliant things about my life is that sometimes the things that I’ve done, be it work-wise, authoring or blogging, have afforded me a little glimpse through unexpected doors – and this has been one of the nicest, most unexpected doors of all.
Here’s the YouTube commercial. See what you think. The CD’s available via the Amazon link above; cut out the middleman by buying it via John’s own website.