"Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?"|
Rolling Stone, May 3, 1969
The cottage is an hour and a half from London. But it's a thousand
light years from Soho Square. Henley is like driving through a postcard, and then you pass
through dozens of little English hamlets with names as heavy as a slice of farmhouse bread;
Nettlebed, Wallingford, Uffington, Didcot.|
When we get to Aston Tirrold, we stop in at the pub to ask directions to the cottage. The owners are a friendly, florid old couple, who invite us in while the husband phones the cottage to see if we are permitted to go up.
We cross the main road just outside tiny Aston-Tirrold and dip down into the dirt track that leads to the cottage. There are really deep ruts in the road, and when it rains, it is impossible to take the upper road at all. Everyone who drives up for the first time stops here. Can this really be the road? Jim Capaldi had mentioned the white farm gate giving us directions to get up here. You are reassured when you see it, it's the right road, everything is cool. Bristling hedges, moldly wooden fences; behind a clump of bushes there are some white wooden beehives, and, on the other side, vast fields recede endlessly into space. Weird, impossible perspectives curl around the horizon; covered hills interrupt infinity.
The land in Berkshire is especially numinous, filled with spirits; in these valleys between Oxford and London, the Thames basin, tribes of Stone Age and Bronze Age settled, farmed and built their monuments, mainly giant earthworks like Silbury and Uffington, which is five minutes from the cottage by Land Rover (the British answer to the jeep). All these cultures have left their tracks, their scent on the land and everywhere it seeps through. Traffic were photographed for the centerfold of their second album at Uffington, sitting in the middle of the giant Neolithic chalk drawing which overlooks a dragon mound. It was in these valleys that Arthur, the spiritual and physical embodiment of the Celtic mysteries, fought off the invading hordes of Saxons and Vikings between 516 and 537 AD. Roman Hill is the highest point in Berkshire, and you can easily walk to it from the cottage. Stevie likes to take you up there as soon as you arrive, rattling across fields and lanes in Dave Mason's Land Rover climbing its steep sides to reach the small round platform. Sitting on top of the world, have a smoke, lie down in the long grass, exhausted with wonder, looking out on the soft green downs that stretch out forever into the misty blue distance. A low mound rising almost imperceptibly all around you like a green circular wave is all that is left on the surface of a Roman Temple, and of Celtic and Stone Age sanctuaries before it. In the center of the ring is a cement ordnance survey marker covered with symbols and numbers, indicating the elevation in feet above sea level. Engineer's hieroglyphics. A dozen cultures overlapping in celebration of a sacred place, and a reminder of our own, looking ill at ease as the earth around gently devours it.
Same (sic) city, oh what a pity
English music papers are notoriously business-oriented, but around Christmas a few columnists let us know a little of what they are really thinking. Melody Maker's "hip" columnist Chris Welch talked about groups splitting up to enable members to jam with other groups in an article entitled "And Now They Want To Jam On It": "It all sounded so idyllic, especially with Traffic setting a precedent by living together in an isolated Berkshire cottage, devoting their time to composing and rehearsing without any trouble from neighbors. But suddenly the idyll came to an end with Stevie splitting to Holland and the rest of the group locking up the cottage and leaving."
The idyllic Berkshire cottage was part of Traffic's image. Island Records didn't neglect to tell you about it; it was a stock part of their publicity. What could have been more ideal? Four funky cats in this idyllic scene deep in the English countryside, where there is nothing really to do except get stoned, groove and make music. A grove of sanity outside London's trendy mod world.
That is what the cottage was, except that publicity always pre-digests experiences for its consumers, who are generally relieved to find that the press release has very little to do with life as it actually happens. Before I went up to Berkshire, I had this image of four cats sitting in the middle of an enormous field the size of Christina's World, just sitting there for days on end writing songs in their heads and occasionally going back to the cottage to play. From the descriptions it all sounded like a Menotti opera, picturesque and set in an artificial landscape where everything that happened became the cue for a song. So when we eventually drove up to Berkshire in early March of last year we were confronted with a scene that was very different from anything that could have been imagined.
Little Woman walk the Downs
Winter. The cottage is almost entirely hidden from the road by a wall of bushes and tree, although it is March and there are no leaves on the trees. The cottage itself is a two story stucco building with a large cement platform in front which serves as a stage and it's still covered with paint stains from liquid light shows on warm summer nights. Boxes, bags of cement, an old brass bed stead, old newspapers, cans of paint, an old cartwheel lie about in front of the house. Very funky, down-home looking. A psychotic looking dog is leashed to an old collapsing wooden fence along one side of the sloping miniature jungle in front of the house. Except for a front porch and a rocking chair, it could almost be an Arkansas sharecropper's home.
Inside, the first room is piled with equipment: guitars, a drum kit, an organ, amplifiers, mikes, jacks and wires everywhere. Beyond this rustic looking room with a low tudor ceiling and an enormous blazing fire with a wrought iron roasting spit. Chris offers some tea. We sit around asking dumb questions, and after reading the latest International Times through about five times we go out and look for Stevie.
We see two figures moving down a freshly ploughed slope; it's Stevie and Stevie's friend Twitch who was responsible for getting the different people in Traffic together. Twitch is wearing along kaftan and in the oblique light of early afternoon in the Berkshire Downs look like the Sahara. Stevie is wearing his favorite battered old hat that looks like it was stolen from a scarecrow. He points out a couple of bird's nests from last spring that we can just make out in a tangled thicket that springs up at the edge of the field like a gnarled gnome. "There's this poacher up here ... it's like he's almost invisible ... the first time I saw him, I didn't know what it was ... I saw him on the horizon crouched over with a sack ... he hunts with a bow and arrow so no one will hear him ... it's really weird, you see him and when you turn around and he's gone ... Dave wrote a song called 'Little Woman,' it's about him and this girl who gets shot down with an arrow ... it's really beautiful, like an old English folk song."
Looking out into the country around the cottage, you can imagine you are at any time in history. There are no traces of the Twentieth Century to be seen anywhere - no houses or pylons, nothing to indicate time or place except the group's van standing in front of the cottage with the names of groupies scrawled on its dusty sides.
Chris puts on some sounds, a group called the Watersons, who sing really ancient-sounding English folk songs, unaccompanied voices, weird harmonies. "This is a medieval song ," Chris explains, "it's called 'The Killing of the Corn,' it's like the corn is like Christ and the harvest is the Crucifixion. They are just a young group, just three kids, I think, but they have their sound down beautifully. Why do you think kids are getting so hung up on old things right now, like the Watersons, old clothes and stuff? It's because they don't want to live through this time, they don't want to be a part of it…" says Chris.
Stevie: "Yeah, but it's the way they are used. It's almost like antique value… it's like an antique thing but yet it's the fact that things are taken from back then and used now, expressed now. We are using them, not taking things."
There's a crash in the next room. "That must be the ghost," says Chris, "there's one here you know, really, it's supposed to be the spirit of this student who drowned himself in the well. Albert's the only one who's heard it but he was pissed at the time. The people of the village say the only thing that can exorcise it is Beatles music."
"Do you really believe in the supernatural?"
"It's more natural, you know, it's a natural thing really; super natural, more real… " says Chris.
Stevie: "Yeah, it's the way things really are, because natural means something you've known before, you know which doesn't just happen, it happens in a super way. Super is natural; if it doesn't come across it's because of the environment we're in, we just need to take it further and further, deeper into it…" It's getting dark, and it was hard enough to find our way in daylight so we wish Chris and Stevie good luck on their first American tour and split back to London.
Summer. A really hot day in July. Stevie picks us up in his car and we drive out of hot sticky London onto the hot sticky A4 towards Henley. It's so warm it's hard to believe we're in England, more like a clear day in L.A. Car talk, great day, great to be getting out of London, how was the last tour in the States, we heard you stayed on an Indian reservation. "Oh the States was great, we really dug San Francisco. No, I didn't really live on a reservation, just went to visit, it was really like a sort of tourist Indian reservation. I did shake hands with the chief, though."
"Did you build the recording studio at the cottage yet?"
"Yeah, well not really. Like we've got this stereo machine and that's all you need really. I don't dig the idea of studios, it's a very sterile scene, in a studio the idea is to eliminate the character of room you're recording in so that the sound will be pure, that's very impersonal really. I think the sound of the room is very interesting, like every room has its own character and the room in the cottage where we do rough takes of the songs has its own special quality, because it is an old house and you can tell what kind of room the sound was recorded in when you listen to the tape. Also I dig the idea of doing the recording together without tracking so that you hear the group as a single together thing. I can't see the point of everyone going in and recording separately, like the drummer doing his track and then the guitarists and then the vocals, it's artificial and it never sounds as tight as when the group is actually playing together and reacting to each other. Anyway if you record something on an 8 or 16 track machine, you have to go through all that mixing down, reducing, back to two tracks to put on the album, it's a bit pointless really, and we can get the same effect with a stereo machine. I'm not into electronics, though I listen to a lot of electronic music like Penderecki, that sort thing, there are a few things that have to be done before, like getting into the flow, a constant flow of writing, playing, well, just a flow. We have been trying a lot of different things without any kind of amplification, although the guitar is actually the only instrument that improves its quality by being amplified, most amplification just adds more power… We thought about growing vegetables and things at the cottage, but it's really hard to get together, because we never know when we are going to be there. Albert started to put out a garden in the front, but it never got together for some reason… there is one thing we would like to grow, but I don't think there is enough sunshine in England. A friend of mine offered to give a goat, but they are very aggressive, when I went to look at him all he did was charge into things."
We get into Aston Tirrold about two o'clock. As we come down the dirt road up the cottage, we see a beekeeper disappear into some bushes. Stevie says, "I heard him talking to his bees the other day."
"That must have been interesting."
"Oh not really, it was more like 'Git in thar yer bastards.'"
When we get to the cottage Chris and Jimmy Miller are sitting outside in the sun. Jimmy Miller is in his cowboy hat, beaming in the flashing light. The cottage suddenly resembles a rock hide-out in one of the canyons. We get out of Stevie's car and everybody piles into Dave Mason's Land Rover.
Chris is checking out our position on an ordinance survey map. "Look over there, The Devil's Clawmarks." Chris points to a bank across the valley. I look out of the window and on a steep hill there are several long gouges about hundred yards long where the chalk has been exposed like a wound on the grassy green slope. It looks like some slimy paleozoic monster lost his grip here and left these chalky scars raking down the side of this gently rolling valley, a reminder that He was here, His Satanic Majesty.
The cottage is on the large estate of a famous racehorse owner. Driving through it you keep coming across water-jumps, bales of hay, surreal walls and fences where they train horses, little artificial landscapes set in the real thing stage sets for animals, a one act play for a horse, a sudden circus in field; paper sun.
The afternoon is suspended in time and place. There are no bearings; no roads, no houses, no cars, no telephone poles, no indications of place of direction, our destination is simply the miraculous, the signs and markings of ancient cultures, tumuli, Stone Age encampments, burial mounds, a side where a dragon was slain, a magical landscape that has remained intact for 200 years. The farmers have left most of these earthworks untouched, either because they are too massive, or of superstitious respect. They are impressive, even the smaller encampments, rings of green covered with bristling bushes, isolated in freshly ploughed fields like giant caterpillars.
Uffington is one of the most amazing sites in Britain. A steep slope rushes down to a giant mossy hillock at bottom, the dragon mound, and shining on the hillside above it is the famous Celtic chalk drawing the White Horse of Uffington, an image about 100 feet long cut into the turf on the steep northern scarp of the Berkshire Downs. It was carved by Celtic tribes living in the Thames basin about 20 B.C., hacking out the turf with deer antlers. It's very abstract and it's hard to make out exactly what it is supposed to represent.
"They don't know actually what it is," Chris says: "some people say it's a dragon and others think it's a horse. Down there is where they are supposed to have killed a dragon, he's buried in that mound down there. That's the eye of the dragon up there at the top of the hill." A square chalk circle in the middle. Chris dances on the eye of the dragon like a witch doctor.
We fall out on the grass, turned to stone in silent wonder. "It reminds me of this place I stayed at in the desert," Jimmy says, "we'd put this swivel chair on the top of a hill, just sitting turning around looking at the sunset in every direction. Long way from the Brill Building and all those New York hustlers."
The long ridges on the top of the hill, furrows where the Ark is said to have touched the bottom when the waters covered the earth. Something incredible happened here. This place would be awesome even without the White Horse or the dragon mound. Sheep tracks trickle down in unbelievable configurations where the land is folded like the creases in an angel's robe.
Pattern is everywhere: topological emanations. It is easy to understand why the Druids, who placed so much importance on patterns in the land (the astrological symbols written into the landscape around Glastonbury), should have chosen this as a sacred place, and why Traffic come here often to sit and watch the evening sun go down. In the photograph that was taken here for their second album, an uncanny solar accident: the sun refracted the pentagonal image of the pentax mirror onto the negative, leaving a ghostly pentagon glowing from the hillside above Stevie's head. In the centre of the pentagon Traffic put the Wheel of Fortune, the fiery sun wheel that the Celts used to ward off Winter and Death.
So often I have seen that big Wheel of Fortune
When we get back to the cottage everyone is starving. Nothing to eat except peanut butter, bread and some cereal. There's a large bowl of peaches and cream in the refrigerator with a dozen glittering moths and gnats drowning in it. Chris wonders whether it can be salvaged, then chucks it. Stevie plays us some tracks from the new album on the tape machine, Eric Burdon's wife arrives with a couple of chicks and the evening begins. Albert has already started shifting the equipment outside into the stage in front of the house; Phil has arrived with a light show: two sets of six-different colored lights responding to six different phased harmonic frequencies, a bubble screen, a liquid light show, and the only overhead projector in England (from the old Zoot Money Dantalion's Chariot stage show). Just Stevie, Chris and Dave are jamming but the sound booms out across the little valley. Jim isn't at the cottage this weekend so Stevie provides percussion using a Speed King foot pedal with a tambourine wired on to it to keep time. Stevie and Dave are playing guitars and Chris various wind instruments.
A fantasy became a reality for Traffic. There was a time when even playing together was just a fantasy. Stevie: "It started actually with a big hang-up with Dave over a year ago, it was before Traffic had started, but it really had started. Dave got this paranoia that he couldn't play his instrument, you see, because we went through this scene of knowing each other before we got into playing, because all the time I was playing with Spencer we used to go around together but we never got a chance to play together and Dave got this hang-up about not being able to play and this really how the 'Fantasy' theme came about. Like to us music was a fantasy because we used to think in terms of it but never get to play together so playing was a fantasy."
It's still very warm so we walk into one of the field opposite the house and sit down. The front of the cottage has become a gigantic screen for the light show. Giant bubbles seem to drift down from the sky, light and colour flashing, breathing in time with the music that explodes from the stage. R & B riffs, freaky moans from the bass, and Chris's flute lyrically whistling like a mechanical bird into the Berkshire night. Images cover Stevie, Chris, and Dave. From the slope they are scarcely discernable from the wall of colour, surging, suspended, patterns melting, swelling like a tidal wave of light and sound that is about to engulf everything. The moon is the only other presence. A marathon session. It goes on till five or six in the morning, they stop for a sandwich or a bowl or Weetabix or a smoke.
Sunrise. Everyone stops, packs in, sits down on the edge of the stage, drinks a bottle of beer and listens to the incredible noise that has just drowned out everything. It's morning and the birds have taken over. We just sit there and look around at everything. Stevie, Chris and Dave go to take a look at the sunrise from Roman Hill, everybody else staggers upstairs and falls out in one of the bedrooms. When we get up it is early Saturday afternoon; dead silence. We go downstairs, sit outside and listen to the wind and crickets. Chris has fallen out on the slope in front of the house, arms and legs stretched out. It's really hot again and he's very sunburnt. Albert comes down and tries to wake him. A couple of elegant gentlemen in jhodpurs and riding boots come rattling down the road in a Land Rover. "Look here, I know this sounds a bit odd, but we've lost a horse. Exercising in one of the upper fields. Must've wandered off, you know. Haven't seen him, have you?"
In a couple of hours everyone is up, spilling out of the cottage into the sunshine with bowls of cereal and cups of tea. Twitch arrives from London with some "ammunition." It becomes like an Indian encampment on the grass in front of the cottage. "You didn't bring any blinding light down with you, old man by any chance… no? Pity." Asks a very dignified old gentlemen in tweeds who could have been an ex-prime minister. Someone is rapping about seeing 2001 on speed.
Chris talking about a paranoia trip, the time Traffic thought they were going to Vietnam, "Our road manager, Johnny Glover, comes down, well, he's like he put you on quite a bit, he was talking about listening to the radio driving down to Henley. And he got us into a state already. Then we got off the boat, we were quite worried, we had rented this boat for the summer, and when we came back I said, 'Listen, I'm going to buy a newspaper,' because like we wanted to see the headlines and when we were getting off the boat, and there was a guy sitting right there just beside the boat and we could see the headlines clearly W-A-R and we just freeze on the boat and we had this meal it was like the Last Supper. I couldn't even hold the milk. Everything we did was like the last time, 'they're playing our song.' Well that funny flow, but then, man… we really thought we were going."
Unexpectedly the afternoon turns around. Strange changes. A dragon was awakened under one of the mounds. Undercurrents have ambushed the afternoon. Long silences filled with electricity. Every sentence takes on an ominous meaning, Someone is smashing up an old Land Rover with an axe, the day is being torn apart. We go for a walk and when we get back it is late afternoon. Stevie is sitting alone on the stage. He doesn't say anything after a while hands us some contact sheets. Old fences, faces flashing in another dimension, simple objects transformed into symbols, they were taken on another planet… "Chris and I shot these on acid," Stevie says. "Did you bring it up here?" Stevie asks, showing us the cover which says:
For Information Leading to the Apprehension of
For Sedition, Criminal Anarchy,
Vagrancy, and Conspiracy to Overthrow
The Established Government
We have to get back to London. Stevie offered to drive us, but it's too beautiful a day. "I can drive you to the station. I'll buy your ticket, I know you don't have any bread," he says intuitively, and goes into the cottage to check out the train times. He is on the phone for an incredibly long time. The cat at the other end is making him repeat things, putting him through changes. He give up in exasperation. The railway station is a grey gingerbread monster, an appropriate gateway to the lower world. We say goodbye to Stevie and wait patiently for that train to come.
Page created November 11, 1997.
Last updated November 11, 1997.
© 1997 by the author; reproduce only for non-commercial purposes and with full attribution.