Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir – Iain Matthews
Star rating: 4****
Thro’ My Eyes
I picked up Iain Matthews’ autobiography during the break between two sets at an intimate Matthews’ Southern Comfort gig in an unassuming Pontefract pub, having just witnessed a rather fine opening set from the vantage point of a front row seat. I don’t think I had any intention of buying this book or any book for that matter, having far too many piled up on the arm of my sofa at home awaiting attention, yet there was something that drew me to this book. Perhaps it was due to the fact that both Iain Matthews and his ghost writer/helper Ian Clayton were present at the pub on this particular night; it could have had something to do with the sudden realisation half way through the band’s opening set that I knew little about its subject, other than the fact that he was in an early incarnation of Fairport Convention, that his was the first voice to be heard on the band’s torchlight song Meet on the Ledge, that his next band had a smash hit with Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, that his other band Plainsong appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test one evening just as I was preparing books for school the next morning. Added to these hazy recollections was the memory of seeing a later incarnation of Matthews’ Southern Comfort more recently at a winter festival in Skeggy of all places and that I actually got to speak to him backstage for a good half hour. What else did I need to know? Well lots apparently.
The title of Thro’ My Eyes is taken from an early song on Iain’s debut solo record If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, the LP with the swirling Vertigo label that’s currently on the player as I write, and suggests the book’s intention from the start, to explore a life very much lived from the author’s personal perspective. It’s pretty much a warts and all memoir, which takes us on a journey from an early Northern childhood in both Scunthorpe and Barton-upon-Humber, through to the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, and on through his earliest involvement in music, to his middle years in the States and more recently that of mainland Europe. One or two loose ends are neatly tied up for us, such as the question of the McDonald/Matthews, Ian/Iain confusion, which is all explained here and is notably far less pretentious than initially imagined.
Though the story takes us from one exciting episode to another, where we see evidence of Iain’s brushes with a veritable list of high profile musicians (Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Eric Taylor), there’s also an inherent sadness that looms in the shadows, occasionally present on the songwriter’s furrowed brow in some of the pictures included and sometimes in the words of his songs. Songs are an important part of Iain Matthews’ story and each chapter here is prefaced by lyrics from his prolific back catalogue. If like me, you have the rare ability to multi-task and are not particularly fazed by listening to music as you read, having a handful of Iain’s records by the player can be useful.
Iain can be candid in his revelations and refuses to shy away from his own insecurities, his open confessions of possible family neglect whilst in search of his own muse, his disappointments, his distrust in others, his episodic relationships and his mistakes and miscalculations along the way. This is an honourable quality throughout the book although occasionally you want to shake him. Through the decades though, we see a singular artistic bent and a desire to make good music and write great songs, both alone and in the company of others, a pursuit that continues to this day and that will no doubt go on until mortality becomes a tangible issue.
Here’s a song that took years to finish.. finally got it right in time for the new album ‘Like a Radio’.
Shot at Studio WildVerband in Boxmeer by Gijs Jacobs!
Matthews Southern Comfort did a show with Magna Carta in the Robin2 on October 30th. For the full review visit: Midlandmania.wordpress
“…More to the point, his shimmering alto vocals have remained undimmed by the passing of the years: the only slight change is in the addition of an oak-aged gravitas and venom (especially on newer, more lyrically bitter compositions like Bits And Pieces or Age Of Isolation) that was sometimes absent from his earlier work, and it’s no bad thing. Moreover, in structuring the set so that new songs rub shoulders with old classics like And Me (Say A Prayer), Darcy Farrow or Mimi & Richard Farina’s Blood Red Roses, Matthews- these days a Dutch resident, surrounded by an entirely Dutch lineup who undoubtedly bring a flavour of that country’s ownpop heritage to the group’s already potent blend of English folk and Americana- deftly highlights the continuity between both eras, thus also drawing attention to their finest elements….”
“…Of course, even back in ‘69, MSC were never a one-man show: indeed, by way of demonstration that this is and has always been a band (with, might I add, six fine studio albums in total under its belt) and even within the group itself, the emphasis (though its past should never be ignored) is very much on presenting the band as it exists now, both as composers and interpreters of others’ material (a balance Matthews has repeatedly favoured since the 60s) Thusly, acoustic six-stringer Eric Devries- in addition to his contributions to the ensemble’s already exceptional four-part harmonies – also asserts himself with a fine lead vocal on Mare, Take Me Home: meanwhile, electric guitarist/mandolinist/ all-rounder Bart Baartmans (leave your tedious Simpsons jokes at the door please) is a revelation, letting rip with several tasteful solos throughout that call to mind both his fellow countryman Chris Koerts (Earth & Fire) and a more restrained version of Matthews’ former bandmate Richard Thompson….”
“…Sadly, there’s nothing in the set tonight from the original band’s much-underrated eponymous third album, but further “golden greats” surface late on in the shape of To Love and (obviously) Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, the sole UK no 1 hit ever enjoyed by any former Fairport Convention member (now there’s a top music quiz trivia fact for you) Recognised as radically different from its creator’s original version even at the time of its release, it’s since been reworked yet again, its new vocal refrain and tempo showcasing yet another unexpected development in the fascinating history of this most iconic “hippie dream” composition: if anything, it actually now resembles its writer’s Miles Of Aisles version more than anything else, albeit with the funky backbeat replaced by the thrumming piano and Rhodes sounds of keyboardist Bart De Win. Yet another concealed weapon in the band’s already resplendent armoury, he also excels on further newies Like A Radio and (by way of unexpected encore) Crystals On The Glass: so much so, in fact, it almost seems a shame to cut him off in his prime….”
Forever destined to remain two of this country’s best-kept insider secrets, both Matthews and Simpson are gracefully gliding through their 70s with all the poise and invention of the true artists they are: though outwardly different, both are capable of stealing the listener away from the mundanity of everyday life and into a mystical fireside land of song, and for my own part, I’m overjoyed that glad this gig- allegedly cancelled and rebooked about five times- finally went ahead. And, from the 300-plus turnout tonight, it would seem the West Midlands’ folk-rock fanbase in general shares my enthusiasm. Verily and indeed, and with a hey nonny nonny tooralay.
By Darius Drewe
My first music cruise with my American songwriter friend Dan Navarro
for bookings, here is the link:
Thursday 15th: Köln – Yard Klub
Friday 16th: Schwandorf – Felsenkeller
Saturday 17th: Schwäbisch Hall – Konzert Kreis
Pics by Mark Dinnage at Kirton Lindsey Town Hall
Iain Matthews & BJ Baartmans play Matthews Southern Comfort
Thursday Nov. 8th. Beaver – Miltenberg DE
Friday Nov. 9th. Ratsche – Geislingen DE
.. If there was an award for the role of Godfather of Americana in the UK, serious consideration would have to go to Iain Matthews as a deserving nominee… read here what Rick Bayles writes about ‘Thro’ my Eyes’.