Well now that it's many years since I put out the first of these CDs, I thought I'd give some more insight into the songs.
I'm sure by now, listeners will have had plenty of time to have gotten sick of them.
I'm not sure if this is a recap or just a melancholy peruse through my songwriting efforts.
In the long run I guess they weren't exactly a successful business venture but I certainly had an interesting time writing them.
Unfortunately, the audience I think would enjoy them most, probably are as broke as me.
So here goes.
Crawling Out the Woodwork.
Recorded at Lost Cause Studios 2002
All songs by James Higgins except September in our Hands by JH and John Brown.
Cover Art by James Higgins.
Special help from Craig Merriman and Hilary Fayen Higgins.
This was the first CD I made using my 8 track studio which I bought through scrubbing pots at La Fiamma Pizzeria.
It was a very experimental CD but people seemed to either really like it or scratch their heads. Personally I was just trying to figure out the machine and this was what came out.
I hadn’t really any great instruments. I had my ancient Vantage guitar and an untuneable bass guitar. I also had some makeshift percussion. It was a very rickety CD. I myself was a bit rickety too. And though this was sort of my first official CD, it also felt like a comeback CD.
The Bellingham Herald voted it one of the top 4 local CDs that year. Maybe it was a bad year. I think it was around 2002. I'm not sure. Like I said, I was a bit rickety.
But their opinion was at least a compliment in the right direction.
Midnight in Milan: I wrote the basics of this on the train from Annecy via Italy through Innsbruck,and past Garmisch into Germany. Then hitching from Munich through Ulm en route to Schwabisch Hall.
The song evolved as the miles went past.
Tom Cat Caught a Bar Fly:
This was really a song about walking through the Red Light District in Nurnberg. I went through there every time I played at Tony’s Pub (The Castle) at the far end.
Me and PJ and Gerry from Derry were there one night. We’d had a few pints and Gerry was on fine form. He had a word with every prostitute in every window or doorway. I can’t remember all his comments but he was on a roll. “I want my fannie, not my Grannie” he said to one older lady. And to another woman walking in high heels with a little dog on a leash. “How much for the dog”.
In other towns though I often had time to kill before a gig. I’d do a sound check and sit at the bar anonymously watching people come and go. People complaining, the barman nodding, girls flirting. Ineviteably snippets of it all get mixed into lyrics.
No Hens in my Henhouse:
Just a fun song with some innuendo.
Me and PJ once bought train tickets that allowed us to travel anywhere in Germany for a month. It was a good deal. We were homeless at the time so we would scan the timetables for the longest uninterrupted night train journey in the land. We’d hop on board the Munich to Hamburg train and get a good 7 or 8 hours sleep. We’d busk somewhere in North Germany then take the night train back South and busk in Bavaria.
For the Life:
I have this memory of a tall Gypsy begging outside a church in Annecy. He was very casual about it. He stood with one hand holding the church door open while his other hand popped codeine pills into his mouth like mints. I was sitting by a well in the shade. When he finished begging he marched straight up to me and put a ten franc coin in my hand. He said, “it’s not for you. It’s for the life.” Then he strode off like he knew exactly where he was going.
Living in an Old House;
When I first moved to Annecy, many of the buildings surrounding the Vielle Ville (Old Town) were abandoned and derelict. I occupied quite a few of these at different times. Many other colourful folks used them too. There was quite a lot of sneaking in and out as people tried not to draw attention to the fact that the buildings were in use.
They were not the safest of places and a lot of volatile characters and lost souls roamed those empty halls. The police periodically cleared everyone out. They were like pest control.
Actually, talking of pests, I had a pet rat back then. I was busking in the subway when a guy walked past and asked me if I wanted a rat. I said yes (As ye do). I thought he was talking about a nice white rat but he produced a grey Ratus Norvegicus out of a pocket and then taking hold of my t-shirt collar he dropped the rat into my clothing. That certainly got my attention. The rat ran around and finally settled on my trouser belt at the back. The man promised he'd return in the morning with a cage. He was heading off to join the army. no place for a rat. Unless it was a desert rat. He never came back with the cage.
JB had a little white mouse called Gerry and now all us fellow vermin lived in the squat.
After 3 days I let the rat go. I was sick of it pooping in my t-shirt. I would have liberated it earlier but I didn't want to release it too early in case the owner suddenly showed up. JB's mouse escaped one day and was never seen again.
Heartbroken by the loss (Aye right), JB went back to Scotland and I was suddenly left alone in the squat up in an attic room like the nut in one of those Wuthering Heights books.
One evening I was writing a ditty by candlelight. I wasn't making much progress. "Living in an old house".... etc. What rhymes with house? Mmm..... mouse!
After 2 verses I went to sleep. But early next morning I awoke with a tear gas canister blasting me point blank in the face. I never moved so fast in my life. My eyes stung and watered. I wanted to vomit. My whole system went into emergency shut down alert. I could barely get a lungful of air into my lungs and I was completely blinded. Policemen were swarming all over the place and hauling squaters out of holes. I somehow made it outside where they wagged their fingers and let us go. I stuck my head in a doggie well which helped. Then I went busking but had to wear sunglasses all day. So that was where the 3rd verse came from.
The reason I got busted was that someone had continually left the secret window open which ineviteably gave away the fact that people were coming and going where they shouldn't have been.
Those same buildings are luxury apartments now. I wonder if anyone living there is aware of the odd history of their home.
Another day another bar…..
Where the Concrete Ends:
An odd little piece. It just sort of hangs together and no more.
I guess it’s about sprawl.
The Last of Me:
I wrote this in The Buffet a La Gare in Annecy.
I’d only been in France about 2 months. I tried to get some French girls to translate it into French for me. They had the greatest laugh ever. They were doubled over and falling off stools. It didn’t do my ego much good but I think I made their day.
September in Our Hands:
Me and JB had arranged to meet Yannick’s brother at 6 am. He was driving to Lake Constance and had offered to take us in his truck for free.
We know we would never wake up at that hour so we stayed up all night and wandered around Annecy like spooks. We went all over the place: through swing parks and beach fronts and up and down trees. I think we even went half way up the Semnoz mountain.
At one point in the near pre dawn, we found ourselves idly dangling our feet off a wall up by the visitation church. I remember JB scribbled something in my sketch pad just before we went to town. I didn’t really read what he wrote till 2 years later to the day when I was on Skye. I put the music to it then.
As to our trip to Lake Constance? It was a disaster. We got strip searched at the Swiss border and Yannick’s brother left without us. We then hitched separately back to Annecy having only travelled 40 kms.
The Sad Heart of Verdun.
All songs by James Higgins.
Cover Art by James Higgins.
Special thanks to Craig, Hil, and Huck.
Recorded at Lost Cause Studios in 2003.
I wrote this when I was about 21. I’d been hanging out in Salzburg when me and some friends took a trip to Copenhagen. That’s where the song sprouted its first early lyrical shoot. Then it lay dormant for a while.
The next bud was the little riff that plays in the back ground. Originally this was just a doodle that moved between a G chord and an F chord.
The lyrics evolved over a period of months and had no connection to the riff for a long while. But somewhere they crossed paths and they evolved into an arrangement. I began to play it at a few gigs in Regensburg.
I made a 4 track recording of it in La Loge in France. Then I did this Verdun version.
When I gigged with Patrick (Gay) and Kevin (Crow) in The Rustix, Christiana was generally our opening song. It was one of my favourites to play.
The Muddy Boots band who were usually quick to pick up new tunes, just couldn’t grasp it. I don’t know if we ever played it live though we practiced it quite often. The Boots more than made up for this small failing by making such a good job of so many other tunes.
The Sad Heart of Verdun:
Me, JB, Hil and Jan were driving to the French coast to visit Hil’s family. They (George, Genie and Sarah) were on holiday in Port Baye (spelling?)
At the time (1992?), me and Hil were living in Regensburg. JB and Jan showed up from Scotland in a white transit van and off we all went for a road trip.
Heading West, we crossed out of Germany near a place called Frankenstien. Here in torrential rain we picked up a silent spooky hitcher with no luggage who gave us no destination and later refused to get out. We had to evict him in the end or he’d have come all the way to the Atlantic with us.
The rain followed us all that night as we crossed into the great battle field of Verdun. Hil and Jan slept oblivious in the back while JB drove through wild thunder and forked lightning. The wind shield wipers were drowning. As we passed through Verdun we were the only sign of life anywhere. It was a bit scary. A tiny frightened van draped in a flickering black and white movie. The stabbing veins of forked lightning had zapped us back in time to the no man's land of World War One when so many souls had died right here.
We drove all night. The rain pounded the van like relentless schrapnel. No other car was met. It was scary and magical. So real and so hauntingly near.
They say 100,000 bodies still remain buried today around Verdun sur Meuse. it’s illegal to dig for war memorabilia in this region because it’s considered to be grave robbing. However the French Forestry Service still unearths remains and turns them over to the Douaument Ossuary where they find a final resting place.
Estimates of the losses at Verdun (Feb. 21 1916 till Dec. 8 1916) vary but according to the Reichsarchiv Potsdam 1918, The French lost 337,231 soldiers while the Germans lost 337,000. That's an unbelievable difference of only 231 casualties over a period of ten months and a total of 714,231 people.
Modern estimates now put that figure at 976,000.
I once asked my father who won the First World War.
He said, "Nobody".
Hitching up to heaven:
Kind of a fun song about choices in life. Inspired though by hitching in the South of France. It was somewhere around Bezier or Montpellier. I stood all morning getting nowhere, so I decided just to hitch in the opposite direction to see where I’d end up. I got a lift right away.
Where did I end up? Here of course.
Hitching back from Spain with Hil, we ended up on the outskirts of Grenoble late at night. We were stoney broke and looking for somewhere to sleep rough. The first place I found seemed good. It was a sandy spot under a bridge by the river. It was a bit litter strewn but I would still have taken it until a rat the size of a wallaby bounced past as I stood there.
I tried out a nearby park but every bush seemed occupied by shadowy fumbling figures who didn’t seem pleased to be disturbed. There was certainly plenty of paranormal activity: a lot of bush rustling, descreet coughing and (excuse the pun) coming and going.
In the end we just wrapped ourselves up in our sleeping bags in a tarp like a giant taco somewhere near the highway. We didn’t sleep much.
The night passed painfully slow. Our sleep was a mere cold damp doze. My mind was over-active as I tried not to think about the chill. So as I often do in uncomfortable moments, I set my mind to work on some bizarre scientific theory. (That’s my version of counting sheep). The idea that fringe habitat is everywhere sort of stuck in my head. Life loves fringe habitat. It thrives there.
Fringe habitat is where two habitats meet. For example a forest beside a meadow or a lake lapping a shore. These are fringe habitats. But a fringe habitat could also be a twilight or dawn where night meets day, or where shade meets sunshine. Where a stem touches the soil or where the sky meets the earth. The fringe habitat list is endless. Wildlife thrives in these areas.
Fringe habitat usually provides two environments in close proximity: one for safety and one for hunting/grazing.
So in Grenoble that night my mind was turning all this over along with the events of the day as we waited for the dawn.
Different creatures need different fringe habitats. The rat lived by the river, and the hitchers were traveling along the highway.
From out of this jumble in the fringe habitat between sleep and wakefulness, the song “Fringe Habitat” was born. Its plot centred more on the park and those shy nocturnal persons who live on the metaphoric edge of our societies. They occupy a schizophrenic fringe habitat between personalities. If Nature does everything for a reason , then what was she working on here?
By morning they were gone without trace. To safety or to feed? From dark to light? From park to city? From strange to ordinary? Ordinary to strange? I don’t know. All of their fringe habitats seem equally dangerous.
We too were swiftly gone. Off to the next fringe habitat along life’s highway.
Don’t Flush it Out:
I think I tried too hard to make this a tidy recording. This song was meant to sound dirty. In fact the best recording of it came from a session in Munich back in the 90s with JB, and Jan. They were living out in Westkreuts in a run-down house in a paper factory beside the tracks. We recorded it just on a basic tape cassette player. We simply placed it somewhere in the room and pressed play/record. But that version unwittingly captured an anonymous episode in time.
It seemed to sum up where we were in our lives at that moment. I think we all teetered on the brink of personal insanities. A nudge would have toppled us over. As it was, we were severely wobbling in a fog of stoned dillusion. Sometimes I think we were born wobbling. Certainly dillusional.
Good fun right enough.
We poured our poor souls into those Munich sessions: And out came our poverty, reality, stupidity, frustration, our dodgy singing, and our endless laughter.
That’s quite a lot.
We played till we collapsed and I don’t think we ever played in daylight or jammed the same song twice. I loved every messed up minute of it.
If it wasn’t for the existence of those few low fi recordings, it would be like our Munich Bodensee Strasse Chapter never happened.
The building was eventually bulldozed. It was in a sorry state (just like us). I made one single sketch of it for posterity. I think JB and Jan moved straight back to Scotland on the same day.
I could never hope to recover those moments again on my own in a studio 10,000 kms away and a decade later.
In that respect, it barely makes the studio version worth a mention.
Last I heard of JB, he was doing fine. He was last sighted fishing around Scotland’s coast. He was based inThe Hebrides, living in a wee cottage.
I asked him once about the fishing life and he said, “I love it. See when ye lose sight o’ the shore and ye go up front o’ the boat and the seas a bit wild… And ye feel the wind screaming in yer face… I just spread my arms oot and scream right back. There’s nuthin like it. Nuthin. I love it.” A long way from Westkreutz.
As far as I know, Jan became a Vet. She’d always loved animals. She really got her head together. I can only admire her.
Me? I’m still a jack of all trades, master of none.
The Dead Man’s Bass:
When I was living in Madison Wisconson, I inherited an old Bass.
Hil’s sister (Xanda) got it from an old friend who’d died under mysterious circumstances. He’d found the bass in a dump. It had been broken in two and he’d glued it back together.
So it came to me and when we moved out West it came too.
I recorded a few bits and bobs with it but it was seriously unplayable.
In the end I gave it back to Xanda’s son who took it to Montana (I think).
This song kind of tells the story of the bass. I think I recorded it too slow. It should have been a fair bit faster but this version grew on me.
A voice Across the Table:
A song about busking up towards Christmas where there is the chance to make extra money or to just freeze hopelessly in despair.
The imagery focuses around the Station Bar in Annecy in Winter. Life got a bit gritty but there were lighter moments too.
I have this memory of Frank coming by every lunch time and we’d go for hot chocolate of all things at the Buffet a la Gare. One day as I was sitting alone, the waitress delivered my chocolate and said quietly, “C’est dur la vie non?” then as I paid up, she said, “Lonely people drink hot chocolate.” I said, “I thought lonely people drank alcohol”.
Anyway I remember Frank coming by one day and he was all excited because he’d just seen the movie “Back to the Future”. He was getting all animated as he described a scene when Marty McFly plugs an electric guitar into a gianormous amp.
Frank’s English was generally very good but this day he was mixing up English with German and French words and some random syllables too. He was in a hyper-hysteria as he tried to convey this scene. (It could have been a chocolate buzz).
By the time Marty McFly had strummed a power chord and got blown across the room, Frank had been jumping up and down, spilling drinks and knocking over chairs for an hour. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of an air guitar solo and looked at me like he wondered who I was. Then he whooped, “Wow. That’s rock n roll.”
I think the whole bar was listening by the time Frank finished his blow by blow account of the movie. Maybe they’d seen it too but in a different language.
I didn’t see the movie till years later. It took me all that time to figure out what the hell Frank had been talking about.
It was a great movie scene but I enjoyed Frank’s version better.
He was one of several voices across the table in the song. Looking back now, I realize how much lonelier those hot chocolates could have been if Frank hadn’t dropped by regularly.
I must say though that the waitress was pretty nice too.
A political slant here.
Four characters and none of them kings.
And not all American.
Yet all of them had an influence on history.
Modern politics; can there be anything so frustrating and mind numbing. I speak mainly of American politics wherein 2 parties pretend that they aren’t just one party who split everything up between themselves. Yes America: where presidents are ventriloquist dummies with no more clout than a flat tyre and the election is about as relevant as winning Miss World. Where political speaches have the lyrical substance of a bad Eurovision song contest entry. Where corporations have the country bought and sold and the government just goes through the motions. yes indeed. US politics: an insult to intelligence.
Oh oh. Rant coming on. Clear the room….
I sense that America’s social and political environment now exists somewhere between the Industrial revolution (1851) and a failed communist regime where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others.
There is no bored middle class who need a worthy cause to brighten their day. They have been whittled away. Now there’s only the poor folks scraping by and the mega rich who are happy milking them and the country dry. Somewhere above it all, there surely must be a Godfather figure out there so emotionally detached from general life that he’d as well be on another planet.
As for us doughnuts, what can we do? A world strike? Would it work? A siege. I doubt those in power would even notice a strike. They could easily survive a lifelong siege and still feast.
I wonder what would happen if the people just ignored them and pretended they didn’t exist. They have nothing to offer society so why should they be allowed any say in its running?
Should we start a Dali Llama type grass roots hunt for a solid leader and get the ball rolling. There doesn’t have to be a revolution. Our political leaders are like dead weights. Cut them loose. Not with malice, but with resignation and a sigh of relief.
I wrote two songs called Squeezy People. The first one was written to help raise money for children born with aids. Then I wrote this one which was darker and dealt more with adults who were liable to contract aids through their lifestyles.
Sleeve Notes for A Drop in a Fall.
A Form of Coal:
Looking back now it seems a very clichéd song. I was unaware at that time that the diamond from coal scenario had already been well over-used. And there was me thinking I was being original.
Still I enjoyed playing this song. There was a nice little electric guitar riff at the chorus and the whole song had a nice feel.
I think I recorded it originally in La Loge in France. I redid it in Bellingham. Its arrangement was always sparse. If I record it again I would give the drums a much bigger part.
What was it about? I remember trying to keep it vague so that it could work on several levels. Was it anti-war or about a relationship or a chess game? One of those arty ones.
Can’t Keep Me
This was another James Higgins/John Brown song.
The lyrics were mainly John’s. He’d written them in one of my notebooks somewhere along the way maybe in Annecy. They lay unread and forgotten for a few years until he came back to the Continent from Scotland and we started jamming again around 1992(?). By then I’d dug them out, tweaked them, and put them to this tune.
In later years in Bellingham with the Muddy Boots, I speeded it up a bit but kept a relaxed rythme. Somehow we maintained its mellowness but it became more crowd friendly.
Take it down the Subway.
A fun acoustic rock n roll song dedicated to my good friend Frank.
Frank was a great musician. He really loved music. He didn’t care for much else. Music, freedom his dog and his girlfriend, that about summed him up.
I met him for the first time one day down the subway in Annecy. It was an Autumn afternoon when JB came running up all excited. “Come and see this guy play”. So we hurried along the tunnel and there was Frank and his pal Jimmie, thrashing away on their guitars. They were playing every Neil Young song ever written and blowing them to bits. I could just see the energy flying off Frank. All I could think was, “I want to be like Frank”. My problem with that ambition was that while Frank’s fingers played like sparks from hot metal, I played like fingers down a chalk blackboard.
I got to know Frank a lot better over the years and we jammed a lot. He seemed to know everyone in town. I believe he spent as much time chatting with commuters down the subway as he spent playing. Both activities paid about the same.
So the song was kind of about Frank holding court down in that tunnel a la Gare’D’Annecy.
The rock n roll guitar riff throughout the song was based on a style Frank employed where instead of playing 12 bar blues with a bar chord, he’d play normal guitar chords and incorporate the boogie part into its structure. It was a style that cheered up an average song and it added a warm jangliness to rock n roll. Not that “Take it Down the Subway” is particularly jangly but you get the idea.
This one always reminds me of the Bavarian town of Amberg. Me and Peter used to busk there a lot. Amberg was a small town with a pedestrian area that could just about squeeze in 2 buskers at once providing no one played the bridge which was the best pitch. Me and Peter would go to either end of the pedestrian zone and do a pitch each then we’d play together on the bridge. In the afternoon we’d swap sides then do another pitch together on the bridge.
Some unfortunate days, a 3rd busker would turn up and set up on the bridge. He’d probably wonder why I wasn’t playing on the bridge, unaware that Peter was at the far end. So a 3rd busker effectively cancelled us all out.
Because buskers often stand in one place for an hour at a time, we become focal points for all kinds of people on the street. They seem drawn to us. Some are bums looking for a handout. Some are folks wanting to cry on your shoulder while others just want to say shut up and go away. Then there’s the Auscheiders: guys who have just finished their military service and go out on the town on an all day drinking binge. Any time I saw them approach they’d rarely pass by without demanding a song.
Once in Wurzburg a rowdy bunch came swigging by and naturally they wanted a song. I was about to play their favourite tune, ”Country Roads” but they wagged their fingers and said they wanted a slow love song (“a shlow luff shong). So, off the top of my head I said, “What about, Sweetheart Like You by Bob Dylan? “
“Yesh that’s the one”, they all agreed with whoops and ole ole oles.
They stood around me in a tight menacing semi-circle, drooling slack jawed and hanging from each other’s shoulders. And as I sang the song there was complete unexpected silence. It was as if their bio-modums had switched to Stand By. But the moment I finished singing, they came back to life recharged and began liberally spraying coins in and around my case like it was a wedding scramble. Dankeschones were said and then they stumbled off down the street, yelling, “Auscheider!” like I’d literally gone in one ear and out the other.
As I now recall, Strange Salvation was written about a born again Christian. Right now it’s kind of vague. I think she came by a few times one day in Amberg, giving me the “Jesus loves you” pitch. I said I wasn’t really a Jesus kind of guy. But then another guy stopped and he said that he was. So she headed off with him.
Looking back now I wonder if this was actually a born again Christian chat up line. Was I missing the innuendo?
Is Jesus with you? Wink wink.
“What denomination are you?”
"What's your position on women in the clergy?"
"My church or yours?"
"What time's mass?"
I think this was inspired by the odd folks who hung out on the corner of Holly and Railroad Ave in Bellingham.
I’ll have to think about that one.
I remember practicing it with Kevin and Pat somewhere up near Alderwood Ave in Bellingham. Pat had a great practice place out there in a large converted garage. The inside was draped with carpets for noise insulation so we wouldn’t disturb the neighbours.
We were in full swing one night when suddenly there was a policeman standing right beside me at the microphone. For a moment I thought he wanted to join in. Instead he told us that the front door had blown open and noise had caused a neighbor to complain. We apologized. He apologized too but said he still had to register Pat’s name in his book. He was quite friendly about it and as he left he said over his shoulder, “sounded good”.
Back in Annecy. I think it must have been shortly after I arrived there for the first time.
Mmmm. I’m looking through the lyrics and they seem to jump around to other times and places. There are references to later times when I was in Copenhagen.
I’ve written songs like this before where I will have something on my mind as I move from A to B. That train of thought comes along for the ride and gets mixed in with other notes from different backgrounds. It all gets merged together till a tune pops up somewhere and I hang the ideas on it like wet laundry to dry or developing pictures in a dark room.
I guess this was one of those songs.
But the one image I have is of a guy called Pascal who dabbled in heavier substances but could never afford them. He was walking past an outdoor café terrace one afternoon. He needed a spoon to burn his substance in the traditional way. With a superb flick of his wrist he neatly scooped a spoon up from a table as he walked past without breaking his stride. He strode smartly on till the market place where he picked up a lemon from the abandoned fruit on the street. Then he bummed a cigarette and put the filter in his pocket.
If that makes no sense, don’t worry about it.
Rocks Made of Stone.
Remember the joke about the guy who’s telling his friend about how he once fell off a high scaffold on a building site?
Well his friend asks, “did the fall hurt?”
And yer man says, “No, it was the impact at the bottom.”
Nobody Heard of Mr Cale.
I grew up listening to the music of JJ Cale. He was a household name in Europe.
When I moved to the States, I was always amazed how many people had never heard of him even though he’s American.
I had assumed he was known everywhere. People shook their heads blankly till I mentioned his hits. After midnight, Cokaine etc.
So that’s what that song was about.
In the lyrics I mention how we saw him perform in Munich back in the 90s. The hall was very large. A big auditorium. But the soundman didn’t turn up the volume. I think he must have been used to sound checking small bars because beyond the first few rows JJ Cale was barely a whisper.
And that, as I said in the song was a metaphor for JJ Cale’s life.
Last I heard though he was playing with Eric Clapton and finally getting the recognition he deserves in his own land.
Whether he wants it or not, I don’t know.
I don’t think he was ever that bothered.
All That Was Left was a Thorn
The age old story of love turned bitter. Not much to say about it though that hasn’t been said. Another song verging dangerously close to clichéd waters, but just gets away with it.
The rose dies but the thorns linger on.
And just to be arty farty I sang it backwards at the end like a melancholy memoir of looking back towards the rosier part of a relationship. Back when the thorns were still as sharp but true love conquered all.
Just like in the cartoons.
I think I recorded this CD in 2004. It was the year Ronan was born.
Originally I had drawn a different cover but the moment I saw the ID footprint of Ronan’s sole that the nurse took, I knew that was the new cover. There was just a plain simplicity to it.
Artistic credit must go to that attending nurse in the wee hours of May 15 2004. I guess this is the only CD cover I cannot claim complete responsibility for. I know there’s a joke in there but I can’t be bothered dragging it out.
20 Tonnes of thunder
This song was a collage of hitching trips and misadventures all jumbled into one song.
On one such outing, I was hitching from Heidelberg to Nurnberg when a big tanker stopped and picked me up near Heilbronn. The driver explained he could take me to Nurnberg but had to first drive past Nurnberg to make a delivery at a small town (Lauf?) then he’d drop me in Nurnberg.
It was about a 2 hour drive to his destination. When we arrived, we got out to stretch our legs while the cargo was unloaded. I was standing behind the tanker when the driver appeared with 2 glasses. He turned a little tap on the tanker’s hull and filled the glasses with what turned out to be white wine. I’d assumed the tanker had been carrying oil. I hadn’t even bothered to ask. It was a nice surprise.
One in 37
I seem to remember that this was a prison statistic about US citizens.
It seemed very high. 1 in 37 people serve time in US prisons.
Looking back now, I wonder if I was mixing things up. Was it 37 %?
I honestly cannot remember.
But there was a tale in the news of a celebrity son who was arrested on drug possession and released whereas almost simultaneously another story appeared in our local paper of some guy on a street corner being arrested and imprisoned for the same charge.
It seemed a bit odd.
Girl in a Redwood.
I guess there was a big plan to chop down some real old growth redwoods in California a few years back. There was a girl who climbed up one of them in protest. Maybe she’s still up there.
I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it tragic that in this day and age when there are so few of the Earth’s ancient wonders left intact that greedy people would still want to destroy such an irreplaceable legacy. As the song mentions, some of those trees were around before Columbus.
And as I also said in the song, if someone were to blow up the Eifel tower tomorrow, then the world would be shocked and horrified. But how can an industrial tower of mechano girders and bolts compare to the real majesty and aura of the primeval redwoods?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sadly many beholders behold a tree and see only a big trunk of money.
There is a 100 acre wood in Bellingham. Second growth they call it. That means it was harvested before. They were about 50 years old in 2004. But just before the big stock crash a few years back these woods were set to be cut down and replaced with a housing scheme. They are not spectacular woodlands when compared to the redwoods but they are a beautiful place of solitude and are home to many species of animal.
Imagine they had knocked them all down then the stock crash had happened. There would be nothing but an ugly scar on the hillside because no one could afford to build the planned houses. The forest would have died for nothing. Sure it may eventually have grown back but not in my lifetime.
Happily just a year or 2 back, the city finally managed to buy that woodland for a cut price. We fought hard for those woods. Hopefully they are safe for the time being.
It’s a pity though about all the regulations now they are posting. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Dogs on leash. Not much good to me now.
Sailing in a Buick.
I heard a tale of a Cuban who had converted a 1950s Buick car into a boat and sailed it across the 60 mile gap of shark infested waters between Cuba and the USA. A man would have to be desperate to try a stunt like that. I believe he had his family with him. He was definitely very creative but the US coastguard didn’t appreciate his genius. On interception, he and his family were promptly shipped him back to Cuba on a US transport. His boat was scuttled. No doubt he’ll build another and try again. He’d only sought a better life for himself and his family.
Shortly after this story, I heard that a celebrity venture capitalist who’s name rhymes with Tichard Pranson had just invented a car that converted into a boat and he was now selling them.
I know there’s an ironic moral in there somewhere.
If I’d 99 Cents More.
I am always broke. I'm broke right now. Rarely in my life have I ever had more than a few crumpled bank notes in my pocket to my name.
This song I wrote hitching across Switzerland East to West.
One driver picked me up outside of Friburg. He drove like a crazed racing car driver and it was the most terrifying lift I ever had. By the time he kicked me out on the hard shoulder of the motorway near the Lac Gruyere rest place, I was laughing hysterically. I’d only been inside his car for about 10kms. Time wise probably only about a minute and a half. I swear we were moving before the door closed. He looked at me and said, “Roll me a cigarette” and then we were swerving in and out of traffic like we were on a winding mountain road and not a long straight highway. I saw a car with a little girl looking out the back window. Her happy smile changed to horror as my driver closed in so fast it seemed he was aiming to ram them. But then he cut inside and I was suddenly looking up at a bus driver and I’ve got a half rolled cigarette paused half way to my tongue. But I wasn’t looking at the driver through his side window, I was looking through his front windshield!
I handed the rolled cigarette to my driver and as he lit it, he decided I wasn’t much fun. The car screeched to a halt and I was suddenly spat out along with a dud match. I saw the bus go by. The driver growled at us and shook his fist. I couldn’t hear him but I knew he was growling. His lips contorted and needed no translation. I scrambled on to the safety of the grass verge. My driver was already gone. I was amazed to be alive.
The experience was very surreal. Like an out of body moment. One minute I’m in Friburg. Birds are tweeting. Next I’m hurtling through a video game racing track. Then the birds are tweeting again and I look around and wonder where I am.
I can only remember vague details about the guy. He was maybe 40 years old. He had dark short hair. Slim built. That’s about all. I guess he smoked too. Said he was a millionaire. The car was a Jaguar.
After singing this song for years, someone finally told me it was spelt “Injara.
Injara is the Ethiopian word for bread but according to Paddy and Emmelance in Burundi it means “Life”.
This song doesn’t need much explanation. It is about famine in a modern world. How can one country have too much while another is starving?
The first time I heard the word Injara was in Bellingham. We were invited to an Ethiopian meal at the co housing complex off the Parkway.
I overheard the hostess telling someone about the food prep and about their coffee culture. I guess it stuck in my mind.
It was the Muddy boots who really brought this song to life. My recorded version was quite tame but when we practiced it with The Boots, we knew it was a gig hit from the first note.
Credit I think must go to the various drummers who all seemed to latch on to it in a different style. My personal favourite was Tree’s stomp. For me it was perfect.
Then Steve, (a friend of Charlie’s) gave it a new direction which pushed it into the realms of world music.
After that, Chuck and Chris expanded on what we’d learned from Steve. They brought in hand drums and percussion which led to an experimental drum break in the middle.
Injara was an ever evolving song. It had a life of its own.
I wonder where it’ll go next.
Lyon is the second biggest city in France. Me and JB got ourselves bogged down there for a couple of weeks. We hung out busking around Perache Train Station. It wasn’t the nicest of places to be homeless but to be honest, the busking wasn’t that bad. Large towns can be so heartless and Lyon wasn’t exactly a samaritan but it could have been worse.
I think this one explains itself. Basically when I die I’d love a baby giant redwood planted on my grave.
Many people believe in spiritual reincarnation. Personally I think the theory is based simply on the circle of life. It’s a bit like how the Jesus story is really a retelling of sowing and harvesting. We die, we go into the earth, we then nourish the grass that feeds the cows that make the meat that feeds the man who lived in the house that Jack built.
I figure if my redwood is looked after then I can get about a thousand years out of it. In that time I will have been more than integrated into its roots and trunk. Maybe they’ll name a ring after me. Now I just need a gardener who will live a thousand years too.
Something From France
I better not go into detail about this or we’ll be here all night.
Suffice to say we were living above an Irish pub. There was a dispute about rent etc. Tempers flared. Punches flew. I skipped town for a while to let matters cool.
I went off to France. Hil stayed in Germany.
So I was hanging out back in the French Alps when I wrote this song.
Sitting by the Lac D’Annecy near the Marquesat in the early morning, I watched an old lady coming along the shore. She had a basket full of breadcrumbs which she was scattering to the swans.
I was in a pensive mood thinking about Hil and Regensburg and about what to do. There was something very meditative about watching the lady and the swans that made me get out my notebook and start scribbling.
Later that day, I met my good friend Peter who had come to check I was alright and see if he could talk me back to Regensburg. He even brought some German beer.
We camped that night up in the clearing in the woods and got ridiculously drunk. It rained and the fire hissed all night as we huddled round it. At one point I had my guitar out and played my new song. I called it “Bring me back Something from France”. Those were the last words Hil had said to me as I left town.
Peter laughed and started singing, “ bring me back that eejit from France”.
So anyway I guess Peter talked me into going back.
We spent the next few days busking like mad till we earned 2 one way tickets to Strasbourg. The train left at 11:30pm on Thursday and arrived at 8:30am Friday. Peter actually had a gig to play on Friday with Rik at 9pm in the Harp in Regensburg. It seemed very far away and an impossible distance.
From Strasbourg we walked and hitched all day. We got several lifts all going in the right general direction. I can’t remember them all but during the last one we managed to get ourselves incredibly stoned with the driver. Finally in a haze, we got into Nurnberg, borrowed some money from Gerry from Derry (thanks Gerry), caught a train to Regensburg and arrived at the Harp a mere 6 minutes late.
All things considered, it was a miracle but the boss wasn’t pleased. All he said was, “You’re late”. And then Rik said he was disappointed that Peter had turned up at all as he’d worked out a whole new set list and had been looking forward to playing it. I still remember Peter’s face as he turned to me, speechlessly miming, “ye just can’t win”.
Poor Peter. He’d just travelled from Regensburg to the French Alps and back to help me and to help Hil. He’d raced back to Regensburg so as not to let the boss down and was ready to get right up on stage so as not to leave Rik out of pocket.
Anyway that was the basis of the song.
Remember the original problem? Well it all went to court and it all got settled.
We moved out.
Also there was another verse to this song which I very cleverly wrote on a separate piece of paper and then lost. Yes very smart. I have no idea what I wrote. It may show up one day.
Not sure I want to see it.
Was it love in Summer?
A melancholy little song about commitment and maturing relationships.
When relationships set off on a journey there’s no telling where they will go or how long they’ll last. They may endure a night or a season or a lifetime.
For sure though it won’t be Summer every day. But as long as there’s enough warmth and love for two then the winters should be fine.
That’s almost a song on its own.
Sleeve Notes for the Signal Man's Leap.
All songs written by James Higgins or adapted from traditional songs.
Recorded at Lost Cause Studio. WA. USA
Signalman’s Leap: Melody by JH. Leaping by Gerry Higgins.
Thanks to Hil, Paddy, Peter (J), Peter (on Skye), Gerry.
Cover Art by JH.
The Lugton Signal Box (circa 1982)
The Pad (2012)
The Signal Man’s Leap (2012)
I guess this CD isn't old yet but I'll give some notes on it anyway. Some of the recordings actually date back a few years.
Whiskey in the Jar O.
Not to be confused with the classic “Whiskey in the Jar”. The two songs are completely different.
I originally heard Michael Lynch and John Ransom playing the "Jar O" version at a session in Gallagher’s in Regensburg. John had a real baritone voice and when he sang backing vocals at the chorus it really added a haunting depth to the song.
Michael said the song was a piss take of some other tune. But I never knew what song he referred to or if this was his version.
He was singing about Orange Men but I changed it to Tax Man as I thought that would be less controversial.
My lyrics were pieced together from fragments that I remembered from that one performance. I never heard anybody sing it anywhere before or after. I couldn’t even find a version on utube.
Michael died suddenly a few years back. John moved back to England.
The song still hangs on.
This song appeared on “Cave Paintings”. But this was the original version. I liked this one as much as the other. So I decided to stick it in here rather than have it gathering dust somewhere..
As I no doubt mentioned before, the song is about Shackleton’s incredible rescue of his stranded crew from Elephant Island about a hundred years or so ago.
Jack and the Beanstalk
I don’t think there’s anyone needs told what this is about.
This was always my favourite fairy tale. Somehow though I always felt sorry for the giant who seemed quite happy up there in the clouds till Jack showed up and messed up his life.
Peter the Poet on Skye
Peter was a local character at the time I worked up on Skye.
For his own good, he was banned from buying whisky anywhere. He’d hang around town waiting for a sympathetic tourist to go into the shop for him and buy a bottle.
He stopped me on the street one day and started reciting his poetry to me. One of his verses stuck in my head.
“When a fool and whisky
Form a bond
Mind and body
No more correspond.
Or words to that effect.
So I guess he deserves some writing credit on this song.
Gone for to Soldier
A traditional song adapted and meddled with by me and Peter Jordan (Not Peter the Poet on Skye).
He found the lyrics in some old book but there were no chords and he didn’t know the melody. So he just made one up. Then we sat around jamming with it. The song took all kinds of twists and turns before finally ending up back at Peter’s original tune.
The Signal Man’s Leap.
An instrumental but I’ll give the story in more detail later.
I guess this is an anti-war song. I was thinking about Verdun again and how the fields still provide the final resting places of so many fallen soldiers. I was thinking about the crops, the scarecrows and the crows who now co-exist upon that huge graveyard. Life and death in that eternal circle. How silent it must all seem now since the guns ceased firing.
Strange how life can be silent as the grave.
A song about the original Ski to Sea Race. That race was the precursor of the modern one that still takes place annually in Whatcom County. The race starts on Mount Baker and using, bicycles, canoes, kayaks, skis and footpower, competitors relay race to Fairhaven on the coast.
The original race seems to have been a bit loose on the rules. Apparently back then, taking the train or going by horse or being carried weren’t considered infringements. The official winner didn’t seem to have been given any credit. I guess winning was done by a popularity vote and he wasn’t as popular as the 2nd placed guy.
Oh no. Not another Glen Coe song?
Yes and no.
It is said that on the eve of the night of the infamous massacre of Glen Coe that many Campbells tried to warn their hosts, the MacDonalds of their impending doom.
Dirty Dan Harris
Dan was another local character living in Fairhaven south of Bellingham back around the late 1800s. He was a bit of a rogue and not reknowned for his high hygene standards. Hence the name.
There is a great statue of him lounging on a park bench beside the Fairhaven green. He looks very relaxed like he owns the place, which in fact I believe he did. I think it was only put up a few years ago.
Fairhaven also celebrates Dirty Dan Harris Day.
A few years back we were putting a Scottish trad band together. We toyed with the name, Dirty Dan Haggis.
No idea where this came from. One of those songs that kind of burst out of nowhere. Maybe living too close to the sea too long.
I liked its chaos. It really sounds rough around the edges, just like any self respecting pirate should be.
I changed the words to this a few years ago then recorded it and forgot about it.
Maybe I should have left it forgotten.
This Cd was released in September 2011. I forgot to mention it.
There were some great musicians on board on this outing. Aaron on Bass, Howie on Fiddle. Mark the Mud Man on acoustic guitar.
Me and Mark had been jamming a lot just before I left the States. The basic track we used for “The Secret Circus” was recorded live at one of our jams. The actual song though goes back quite a few years.
The Song Mama Mazama is about the changes in the beautiful Methow Valley on the East side of the Cascade Mountains. We have been going there every year for a few years now. Even in that short time I’ve witnessed the inevitable trophy home sprawl creeping along the river like an invasive species.
Cardboard Box: A fun song about adventures in boxes. I think I spoke at length in a gig journal entry about Cardboard boxes.
The Contessa: A song about art and war. Apparently some folks want the art but not the artists.
Junk Shop: A song about decisions that can seem right at the time.
Garage Band: Maybe ”Garage” should be written with a silent B. As in Gar(b)age.
I recall years ago jamming up in Keith’s garage. I think a tape survived the encounter. Julie was banging on the drums, Jan was playing bass. Me and JB were on guitars. We were all off our heads. Keith’s mum was making tea.
We were thrashing “Brand New Cadillac” to death and having a blast at the neighbours’ expense. That’s all I remember. Except that outside, the night was torrential rain. Quite a racket: inside and out.
But we weren’t all thrash. We often had mellow moments like this song.
I like the stuttering end of this piece as it just fizzles and dies in true garage band style.
The Seine: A small moment in French time.
Painted Pony: For some reason I always thought that this song involved a random Scottish or Irish guy. The Celts were everywhere. Why wouldn’t there have been a couple at the Little Big Horn?
But I think it’s about a Native American boy and his horse who go to war and discover strangers fighting strangers in the middle of nowhere.
James Caird: A song about Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic and his subsequent rescue of his stranded crew.
I asked Aaron if he could give this song a sense of bleak haunting coldness. He immediately applied his bow to his double bass. I knew right away that was exactly what I wanted.
Unfortunately we recorded it in a slightly higher key than we usually played it which was a bit tougher on the voice.
Weeping Willow: Are people born to be who they are? Do events in life only exaggerate or diminish their essential character? We adapt to the soil but we really don’t change for longer than we need to.
This song is about a girl I once knew. She had a kind heart but it lived in a forest of anger.
Bouncy House: Some fun innuendo that hopefully goes over kids’ heads. We were in Regensburg last week and went passed the old neighbourhood “Bouncy House”. It looked quite respectable, like it’s now official apartments with longer leases than it was previously accustomed to.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. We had fun making it.
Hopefully this CD comes across as an honest reflection of the live music we were playing over the past few years: partly spooky, a bit stompy, and a touch melancholic with an ink smudge of interesting subject matter thrown in.
At the end, because I was leaving for Europe, I had to do some rush job mixing.
I do believe I mixed over 30 songs down to stereo over an intense 24 hour period. Normally I can only mix about 2 songs a day at most after a long month of analysis.
In the last few days before we moved to Europe, our new renters wanted to store their stuff in my studio even though I was still using it. So, being a friendly chap, I emptied everything out except my mixing desk. They piled their furniture up to the ceiling and I was left in a tiny corner not wide enough to even hold a guitar properly. It was in that space the size of a phone box that I did all the final mixing for this entire album.
Just in the last few weeks of recording, Howie got injured (Ski-ing I think) and he was unable to do his fiddle parts on a few songs. So a few songs didn’t make it onto the CD.
My studio is now in storage in someone’s basement (Thanks Janet). I probably won’t see it for at least a year. By then it’ll be obsolete but I definitely got great use from it over about ten years.