Monday 10 August 2009

Val DOONICAN: Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently

(#50: 6 January 1968, 3 weeks)
Track listing: Scarlet Ribbons/If I Were A Carpenter/Rainin’/Hold Me/Yesterday/Small World/He’ll Have To Go/A Man Chases A Girl (Until She Catches Him)/Visions/Bella Rosa/My Colouring Book/The Folks Who Live On The Hill/Take Me
(Author’s Note: Sincere thanks are once again due to Mike Atkinson who with great kindness found a copy of this album for me just over a year ago, at a time when I had still planned to begin this story with entry #47; it has yet to resurface on CD but it is my modest hope that this article may lead in its small part towards that happening.)
A huge, deep but serene wave of strings sails in to underscore the nocturnal picture. A celeste makes an effort to cuddle. The man is possibly more distressed than he is letting on; he is quietly watching his daughter praying for something that he cannot hope to get her (and note the one crucial word hidden in those last three), worries himself to non-sleep as to how he is supposed to get them – the modest orchestral crescendi which accompany his nearly despairing “aching” and “breaking” quickly settle down for the greater good - but creeps back towards her bedroom door in the morning and to his astonishment sees that his prayer has been magically answered, and the bed is strewn with ribbons for the yet-to-awake girl.

We might be witnessing an early snapshot of the father snoring through “She’s Leaving Home,” someone who knows in his heart that the day when she is no longer sleeping in that bed, under his roof, will come quickly and soon, yet someone also fortunate enough to witness, and be astounded by, a miracle. “Scarlet Ribbons” is sometimes thought of as an aeons-old Irish folk song with multiple symbolism, religious or otherwise, but in fact was written by two Americans in the late forties; it is a measure of Val Doonican’s underplayed power that he can convey in his performance of the song an aura more in keeping with the last pages of Joyce’s Dubliners.

Doonican’s “Scarlet Ribbons” is not only the key track on this, his only number one album and the first Irish entry in this tale, but also a surprisingly effective postscript to the simultaneous end and beginning proposed by “A Day In The Life.” For now the consensus which had built up around the Beatles over the previous five years begins to fracture, atomise into endless scarlet ribbons; now, multiple different voices will begin to make themselves heard here, as though Pepper had already predicated that we would never again agree on something as strongly as we had done about Pepper.

And the first of these voices was an unassuming, good-natured forty-year-old cardigan-wearing, rocking chair-inhabiting singer and guitarist from Waterford who for nearly quarter of a century was a cornerstone of Saturday night light entertainment television. Easy on both ear and eye, it was clear that Doonican had already lived several lives before we became aware of him – almost twice as long as the artist responsible for that other worried Ireland-originating album of 1968, Astral Weeks – and that his easy-going nature had been hard won. The album title was more than fitting; knowing but reassuring – at least, if you took it literally and not as Val Doonican Loses His Mind, But Gently, since the portrait that the record paints appears to be one of a steadily disintegrating human being.

Consider that “Scarlet Ribbons” concerns itself with the wishes of childhood – no mother or wife figure appears in Doonican’s reading – and then hear his takes on Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter” (“Would you marry me anyway? Would you have my baby?”) and “Small World” from the musical Gypsy, the latter scarcely a typical choice one would expect from the singer. More intriguingly still, in the original Styne/Sondheim musical “Small World” is sung by Rose Lee herself, in an attempt to persuade the lead male character Herbie to become her children’s professional manager (is he the one who is moved to pray for scarlet ribbons?); she doesn’t necessarily mean what she’s singing but manages to persuade him anyway. Doonican’s performance is far more desolate, with no face or side whatsoever; his “It’s. A. Phe. No. Men. On.” is a manful attempt not to be mechanical, an invitation to lose his emotional countenance, but he knows finally that he must keep that countenance at whatever cost. His “funny guy” tails off into several “y”s (sounding like a concealed “Why?”) before streaking up an octave like an apprentice asteroid. “Small and funny and fine” he concludes, unsure of anything. His “Carpenter” meanwhile is funkier than either the Darin or Four Tops readings, with a nicely chunky bassline and rhetorical congas hammering nails in the background. I note how clearly and intensely Doonican concentrates on the word (if it is a word) “onliness,” and how much closer he approaches the original, debauched exhaustion of Hardin by doing so.

Most of the album’s tracks, however, base themselves on a Patsy Cline “Crazy”/Ray Charles Modern Sounds template of florid, commentative piano (for which pianist Frank Horrocks rightly receives credit in Doonican’s characteristically friendly sleevenote) with supple banks of orchestral and choral accompaniment. “Rainin’” is a Bobby Darin original (cunningly sequenced to come out of “Carpenter”) and Doonican is obligingly doleful in his delivery; note the despondent but unbroken slow motion rainfall of “Pourrrrrrr” into “maybe” and the resigned defeat of his “waiting around…the bend,” not too confident that anyone will be waiting for him there or anywhere. “Hold Me” is the same song which took PJ Proby into our top three in the summer of 1964 but Doonican completely excises Proby’s screeching carnality for a statelier, nobler approach; just gentle, but oddly reggae-like, high-pitched guitar, and the crucial “away” is taken out of the tag line “Never try to hold me away from you.” Doonican is desiring, but also patient; there is, after all, a “Take Me” waiting for him around this album’s final bend.

“Yesterday” provides the obvious link between Doonican and Pepper, though his version owes more to Tom Jones’ “Green, Green Grass Of Home” in terms of arrangement (Ken Thorne of “Legion’s Last Patrol” fame arranged and conducted all tracks on the album) although Thorne, as elsewhere on the record, is careful to vary his accompanying colour; harpsichord and guitar give way to an oboe whose figures may be slightly mocking, before reaching the inevitable choir, a flute zigzagging through the final verse and a faint high A lead violin, fainter and higher than the one heard on McCartney’s original, leads the song to its end. Still Doonican’s baritone is unswervable, solid, unbending, and, as Lena noted, he nobly resists the American ballad singer’s tendency to speak in the middle of the song.

With his easily-attainable bass notes and his general manner, Doonican inevitably drew comparisons with Jim Reeves, but the two voices seem markedly different to me; Reeves himself I will return to as the tale goes on, but Doonican’s reading of “He’ll Have To Go” posts a useful differential marker; this is at base a very sordid song, a dirtier Nashville variant on “One For My Baby,” except here the jilted man (or is he?) is drunkenly ringing his Other (or ex-Other, or was she ever his Other, or he hers?) from the bar; she’s in bed and we don’t hear her reaction at all but merely feel contemptuous pity for the sucker. Reeves, as with most of his songs, sings with the recently oiled confidence of an unbitten snake oil salesman, but Doonican knows he’s down; still, he tries to be dignified even though he knows that there’s no dignity to be rescued here. This brings to a close side one of a supposedly comforting album of songs requested by viewers of his TV show (and quite a contrast – or is it? Put “Rainin’” next to “It’s Raining Today” - to the likes of Scott Walker’s Scott Sings Songs From His TV Series); Doonican concluded every show by sitting in his rocking chair with his guitar, singing one of these unquiet songs, and although the sleeve works hard to portray him as our own Perry Como, with its shot of Val enjoying his pipe and wee glass of spirits on the rear, I can’t help but notice that some of the shots on the front cover uncomfortably make him resemble Kenneth Williams.

Irving Berlin’s “A Man Chases A Girl” is not only an unexpected echo of another key 1967 song, the Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” but intriguingly is also another song best known for being performed by a woman; Marilyn Monroe does it in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business but Doonican’s reading is far more melancholic than mischievous, even with prompting from the strangely ghostly, uncredited female backing singer, as though aware that he has no real hope of either catching or getting caught, not that this can hope to break the stride of his determined amble. Thorne’s arrangement here – a fountain of fluttering flutes to illustrate Doonican’s “hello” – stretches to the over-florid, as he sometimes does elsewhere; the Home Service chorus (I’m unsure whether it’s the Mike Sammes Singers) not really scaling Ray Charles heights.

Then, however, the album becomes markedly darker. “Visions” is the same song which had been a top ten hit for Cliff Richard in 1966, and its painstakingly slow moving procession of vague images and confined mental torment secondary to emotional desertion seems even more agoraphobic in Doonican’s hands. Despite the return of the celeste, there is no reassurance to be sought here; his triptych of “When, when, when” gradually slopes down like a stooping, beaten head.

Darker visions yet are to come. Thorne’s flurry of mandolin on “Bella Rosa” bodes the worst but this is a strange song indeed; Doonican sings wistfully of this image (“Her image returns”) as she passes by his window each day, even though there is no evidence that she ever notices him, let alone talks to him. Far more disturbing than Richie’s “Hello,” we learn that the singer has apparently already turned down several willing brides in favour of this Bella Rosa – and yet the final verse finds him in a world Scott Walker would immediately recognise; “It’s Saturday night…it’s bare and it’s cold…I lie in my room…” Gradually we discern that this is a variant on Diamond’s “Red, Red Wine,” that the “Bella Rosa” seems to be a different kind of spirit and that indeed it is slowly killing him.

By the time both he and we reach “Lazy” – another Irving Berlin song – he seems unwilling to move, and happy with it; over Horrocks’ ironically enthusiastic piano commentary Doonican becomes the unlikely pioneer of slackerdom. “Under that awning they call the skyyyyyyy” he murmurs, before dreaming of his escape from “the deep, tangled, wild wood” (but not forgetting to semi-rhyme with “child would”) with his “valise full” (to rhyme with “peaceful”) of books. He appears to wish to approach the idyllic borderline between existence and non-existence.

He begins Kander and Ebb’s “My Colouring Book” alone, and although this song of grievous loss, whose notion of colour intentionally becomes blurred as it progresses (“Colour her…gone”), is best and most profoundly heard as sung by Dusty Springfield, Doonican continues not to bend or break, even though he is obviously breaking. Even when he reaches the crucial quatrain of “This is the room I sleep in…walk in…weep in…and hide in” he lets slip some emotion – a shakiness on “weep,” an ashamed whisper on “hide” – but not enough to invert the applecart. Walker would have broadcast his loss to the cosmos. Doonican whispers to his rocking chair who he knows can’t and won’t talk back.

As this unexpectedly draining record reaches its close – Doonican produced the album and clearly had some awareness of how to shape the whole as a concept – we reach near-full circle as the singer once again considers the ideal life, the outcome of those early promises of scarlet ribbons. He is aware that his “Folks Who Live On The Hill” cannot approach the imperious tenderness of Peggy Lee’s version, but since the latter is one of the key pop records of its century this is hardly surprising; the “Hold Me” reggae-lite arrangement returns but the song is suspended in a foreboding, out-of-tempo limbo throughout the course of its middle eight; what if Doonican never realises this dream? And again: “just we two” – no child praying for miracles. Or, if he finds his Other, can they learn to be children again?

Throughout this record – whose undercurrents have been far more rocky than gentle – Doonican has alternately won the girl and lost the girl, and more often than not has dreamt of either. It is difficult not to listen to the album without thinking of the impact it might have had on impressionable young ears, particularly in Doonican’s key constituencies of Irish expatriates in Scotland and in particular the northwest of England (as well as in Ireland itself); would the eight-year-old Morrissey have been familiar with it from his parents’ collection? We know that “Scarlet Ribbons” was one of the first songs the infant Sinead O’Connor learned to sing, and that she breaks down while singing it, aged 25, on Am I Not Your Girl?

“Take Me,” however, is an astonishing coda. A real connoisseur’s choice – Doonican says in his sleevenote that the record’s intention was to provide a mixture of old favourites and less obviously well known songs – “Take Me” was co-written (with Leon Payne) by George Jones, and, taking the “man singing in a woman’s voice” to its logical conclusion, is best known in Jones’ duet recording of the song with Tammy Wynette. Here, finally, Doonican achieves something resembling an emotional breakthrough, first by facing the fiercest demons; he begins with an entreaty to “take me to your darkest room” – the choir verges on buffoonery here, but the firewood-chopping guitar and harpsichord make up for that somewhat – followed by a request to “take me to your most barren desert” (his ascending spire of “Cro-o-oss” as he contemplates the latter prospect) and a plea to make both room and desert light and fertile, as only “she” can.

And then things become slightly surreal. “Take me to Siberia,” commands Doonican. With her presence, “it would be just like spring in California.” He glimpses more actively at this world surrounding him, and all of a sudden it expands, as do his ambitions; here, astoundingly but surely undeniably, germinates the seed, or indeed the scarlet ribbons, which will one day blossom into streets that have no name, beautiful days – the seven-year-old Dubliner’s ears must already have been glued to his family’s radiogram speaker. Did somebody say something about walking tall?