From Uncut’s January 2010 issue, John Robinson talks to Bert Jansch about LA Turnaround, alcohol and Led Zeppelin
964. A notice in a London music shop launches the career of one of Britain’s greatest guitarists. Four-and-a-half decades on, Jansch and his accomplices tell the story of an unassuming master craftsman and a songwriter who wrote the definitive heroin ballad while being strictly a “26-pints-a-night man”…
As the guitarist John Renbourn remembers it, he first read that there was an important new face on the capital’s folk music scene when he looked at the notice board of a record shop in London’s West End. Browsing in the folk department of Collet’s in New Oxford Street with the guitarist Wizz Jones, he looked up and read a terse, but emphatic announcement: “Bert Jansch,” it said. “Best blues in town.”
Interestingly, the note did not specify which town, an omission which with hindsight seems entirely sensible. Jansch, after all, has spent the best part of 45 years drawing his own map for music, never resting in the same place for long. He has travelled, of course, most notably around the world as part of Pentangle, the folk-rock supergroup that he helped form in 1968. Maybe more important, though, is the fact that Jansch remains on a creative journey that’s still productively continuing.
But from the stark compositions that comprised his stunning 1965 debut, Bert Jansch, to the lush arrangements and baroque melodies that you’ll find on 1974’s LA Turnaround, the first 10 years of Jansch’s career saw him visit musical places far from his starting point. From solo performer, to persuasive composer, to thrilling collaborator, to group performer, in these years, Jansch established a reputation less to be metered by heroic excesses, famous friends or bawdy anecdotes, but by the much more admirable fact of his having done exactly what he perceived to be right at the time.
“Bert was very alluring,” says Johnny Marr, a fan and later collaborator, who discovered Jansch’s music as a teenager. “He was mysterious, and came off as quite heavy, and reclusive. He was uncompromising, and that was particularly appealing. You knew it wasn’t a pose. He wasn’t trying to be liked, he was very cool, and his playing backed it up.”
“He was kind of a wild guy,” says John Renbourn, who took the advice of the note in Collet’s, and immediately went to check out this new player. “He was loose, I tell you that. Some people responded well to it and others didn’t. A lot of people liked him because he was crazy and unreliable. A lot of people just thought he was great.”
“I didn’t think in terms of career,” says Bert himself, now a softly spoken and politely intransigent 66-year-old. “I never have. In those days, you didn’t rely on media to get anywhere. Your reputation would precede you.”
In the days before he had a reputation – even before he had a guitar – Bert Jansch had a passion for blues and traditional music. A fan of the playing of Scottish guitarist Archie Fisher, and exposed to the Eastern-influenced music of guitarist Davy Graham (he learned Graham’s “Anji” from a demo tape), Jansch was intoxicated by the possibilities of the guitar, and thirsty for experience.