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Remembering Jim Cleary

May 8, 2012

At three o’clock the other morning, as I was drifting in a half-sleep, Jim Cleary came to me.

The time was right, because almost all of my memories of Jim were of nights. In the pub. At gigs where he was playing his luminous songs. Or at parties where he would pick up a guitar, with a couple of mates accompanying, and go through those songs all over again. Once I even ended up in his bed after a particularly riotous night. Not that he would have remembered. He was far too far gone. All very innocent – there was nowhere else to sleep apart from the floor, and that was littered with bodies in various stages of progress towards the afterlife.

Jim Cleary was a songwriter who lit up my twenties. He died of cancer two weeks ago. I missed his funeral because I was en-route from Bahrain to the UK at the time. I heard of his death from a friend, and he had been quietly sitting in the back of my mind. And then he came to me, and I have been unable to stop thinking about him ever since.

Jim was in some ways an Irishman in the grand tradition. In the early days he reminded me of a bearded collie – you could hardly see his eyes for thick black hair. He was literate, witty, sentimental, genial but with a cutting edge that permeated his songs. He was a Birmingham man for many years  who left his native Dublin as a boy. In his voice you could hear  inflections both of the Brummie and the Dub. He liked a drink, and as a performer was at his best in pubs and clubs where he would surf with his audience on waves of Guinness and soapy local ale.

Jim Cleary circa 1973

He was no great shakes on the guitar. He accompanied his songs with meaty swipes across the strings. When he finger-picked, his stubby fingers often fumbled. But none of that mattered. It was all about the songs.

Jim was part of a close-knit Birmingham music scene in the 70s in which I also played a part, though more peripheral than his. Many of my friends were musicians struggling to get “a deal”. The Birmingham rock nobility at the time were the likes of ELO, Fairport Convention, Black Sabbath, the Moody Blues and half of Led Zeppelin. Most of us knew someone who knew someone else who had made it big – a case of “I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales”. Take a look at Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees and you will see all the interrelations between the musical nobility, gentry and even some of the journeymen. And occasionally some of those gods descended from the heavens to help those who were struggling up the ladder.

My connection was initially through friends at Birmingham University, many of whom, unlike me, went on to take sensible jobs while following their musical dreams on the side. I ended up spending several years managing bands and promoting concerts – a time I would never regret, but in which I made only an imitation of a living.

I was lucky enough to have Jim on the bill in a number of gigs – some in pubs, others in larger venues such as Birmingham Town Hall. Add to that all the parties and regular events in the pubs and clubs around the West Midlands, and I must have seen him play many dozens of times.

I wouldn’t say I was one of Jim’s closest friends – there were many drawn to his flame, but few with whom he shared his inner story. But we had some moments that will never leave me, such as Jim’s attempt, after a very liquid lunch, to sabotage the grease-caked assembly line at the Longbridge car factory. A number of students were working there on a summer cleaning job during the industrial holiday fortnight. We just managed in time to stop him from inflicting grievous damage to British industry as he staggered around, wielding a large metal bar and roaring like an angry grizzly bear.

Jim’s music ranged from alehouse belters to songs of love and loss, peppered with literary allusions as befitted an English graduate, and often set in faraway places. A fellow musician, Dave Morgan, once said about one of Jim’s finest songs:

“….it was a slice of music I just wanted to hear again and again. It glowed with a timeless message that came through loud and clear –  Nothing Says Goodbye like a Tear  – but the musical pirouettes it danced around to transport that message was upon first hearing a pure enigma to me. Jim had a way of honing chords that confounded any rules of music I knew about. After meeting him and hearing more of his songs, I soon discovered that ‘Nothing Says’ was not a fluke or a one-off, but just one of a series of devastatingly original songs….”

Dave went on to record an album with Jim under the aegis of the fearsome Don Arden – manager of the Nashville Teens, the Small Faces, Black Sabbath, the Move and ELO, and father of Sharon Osbourne. Sadly, for whatever reason, the album was never released. But that was just one episode in a series of attempts over many years by friends and admirers to help him reach the audience we all felt he deserved.

I’ve often wondered why he never found that audience.

Perhaps it was because his time coincided first with the stadium rockers – the likes of Zeppelin, Queen and Yes – and then with the feeding frenzy that sent every record company A&R manager flocking to press large wads of cash upon musical illiterates with safety pins in their noses.

Maybe also because he wasn’t a wispy, tortured soul clearly destined for a sad ending in squalid flat full of needles. The Jim I knew was a big personality who radiated bonhomie and love of life.

And perhaps, as much as anything else, it was that Jim lacked the all-consuming drive for self-promotion of a Madonna or a Freddy Mercury. He was a modest man who seemed happy to let others promote his cause, but not so keen to head-butt his way to success.

More fool the music business.

But when I look back three decades or more, and remember the dreams of so many of the people I knocked around with that were never quite fulfilled – including my own – I think differently today about their notional lack of success. They may not have platinum discs on their lavatory walls, and they may not be living in country houses. But most of them produced superb work, and many continue to do so. They have had varied and useful careers – some in music and others not – and they have never given up on their art. Above all, they have lit up the lives of countless others.

Does it matter that they missed out on the stadia, the Blue Nun and canapés in the dressing rooms and the fat royalty cheques? Maybe the money would have been useful, but I wonder how many would have gnawing regrets about what might have been. I certainly don’t. As we get older, we accept the limits and move on.

Just like the guys pictured around him – Dave Carroll, Bob Wilson, Nigel Darvill, Andrew Morton, Jim Simpson and Bob Boucher, who are seen here at Jim’s final recording session a month before he died –  Jim has left a legacy of music loved by those who came across it. Recordings, videos and memories.

L/R: Dave Carroll, Bob Wilson, Jim Simpson, Jim Cleary, Nigel Darvill, Bob Boucher, Andrew Morton. Photo courtesy of Andrew Morton

Among his fellow musicians, the love was not just for the music but for the man. It shines in the faces of those who accompanied him in his last live performance. Check out this clip of Jim and friends performing Café Au Lait at that gig late last year.

At the end of the 70s, I lost contact with him. He moved to Kent, I to London and ultimately Saudi Arabia. I very occasionally picked up news of him from friends in Birmingham, but nothing substantial.

I wish I’d been at his funeral. Perhaps I could have filled some of the gaps, and shared stories again with those who were closest to him. I also deeply regret that I never made the effort to contact him when I came back to the UK. He can’t have been more than fifty miles from where I lived.

But I thank him for coming to me the other night, because he awakened memories of a vibrant period in my life in which he was always one of the central dramatis personae. And his passing reminds me that there are still people around who played an equal part, with whom I must try to reconnect.

People are still playing and listening to Jim Cleary’s music. There must be hundreds of hours of recordings from various stages of his life preserved by friends and fellow musicians. There could be no better tribute to a man who was better than a thousand Pop Idols than for his friends to gather up their recordings and release the best of them, so that those of us who knew his music can marvel again at his talent, and those who didn’t can discover what they missed for so long.

From → Art, Music, Social, UK

10 Comments
  1. Andrew Morton permalink

    A lovely piece, Steve, which reflects that strange mixture of celebration and regret that accompanies some artists who “never made it”. Like Nick Drake, Jim has a “narrative” – perhaps not as melodramatic, but certainly worthy of close posthumous attention from the music world. I and a few other people are determined to collate all of Jim’s material and make it available to the public in the near future, partly through our personal love of Jim, but more importantly because his glowing songs brought us all together in admiration. I write songs myself and work with other song writers and this much I know: Jim’s material holds its own with the best of his era, and some of it resides in a sublime region explored only by the very best. I have a strong conviction that the Jim Cleary phenomenon will not end with his death.

    A curious footnote: you’re correct in saying that Jim’s guitar playing sometimes verged on the ham-fisted. However, he was endlessly inventive, and two of his best songs -The French Minor Poet and NothingSays Goodbye like a Tear were conceived in the key of B flat ! Anyone who knows the guitar will know that this is extrenmely unususal.

  2. Thanks Andy. Yes, Jim certainly had a narrative, and funnily enough Nick Drake was in my mind when i was thinking of “tortured souls”. I agree with you that Jim’s work will live on, and thanks to your efforts, he may yet reach a far wider audience in the future. Let’s hope so. S

  3. Bob Daffurn permalink

    Jim could make a grown man cry with performances of some of his songs. I still do when I listen to them now.

    • Indeed. I just wish he had reached a wider audience. He was too talented to be a musical secret garden.

  4. Bernard Martin permalink

    A moving piece about someone who was hugely important to me at one time. Jim and I were close when we were at Matthew Boulton College in Brasshouse Passage together, 1967-68. We were among those students who were grabbing a second chance at an education for one reason or another (I’d dropped out of school prior to A levels; can’t remember what Jim’s reason was) and thought of ourselves as a cut above the poor souls – the majority – whose parents were making them retake and retake…
    So as well as working for the exams we spent hours in the disgusting canteen probing the relative merits of, for instance, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan (‘Simon: better songwriting; Dylan: better poetry’ I think we concluded) of Walt Whitman and John Donne, of e e Cummings and, as Jim would have it at the end of a session, I I Going…
    I started and edited an ‘independent’ magazine for the students (‘Forge’) and Jim deputy-edited and contributed a number of poems. The only way we could get it printed was via the college office (this is before access to things like duplicators, remember, let alone photocopiers!) and the college Principal vetoed certain content, including all but one of Jim’s poems. The one that finally sneaked past the old fool did so despite referring to a man kissing a boy. I had to insist it implied no sexual content… I can’t remember what the others were about. The magazine finally appeared shortly before the end of the year, so was very much a non-event – though it taught me all I needed to know about the importance of controlling the means of production.
    At the Carousel (?) Coffee Bar on Broad Street, opposite the Rep, or at parties at his Mum’s flat or the flat of his girlfriend Kathy, Jim would get out the guitar and lead the singing. Not, then, as far as I remember, his own songs but folk and pop songs we all knew.
    I went away to Uni, Jim stayed in Brum. For the first three years, whilst my father still had a house there I’d return to Brum in the vacations to get work on building sites. I’d seek out Jim and usually find him in one of the regular haunts – a big Irish pub on Broad Street or the back room of The Windmill (?) off Needless Alley or Cherry Street and things were just like before, with added new friends: beery and full of song.
    Then I went away to Germany and different British cities and lost touch. I’d send cards but Jim was not a great one for replying. In the 90s with the arrival of the internet I began sporadic attempts to locate him without success. It was two nights ago, unable to sleep and surfing, that I tried again and discovered your blog.
    Though I hadn’t seen my friend for 40 years I now feel a great sense of loss. But it’s good to know he was still surrounded by people who loved and appreciated him.

    • Thanks Bernard. I too lost touch with him, as you will know from the blog post. But he still managed to touch people like you and me, even in the distance of time. I love your story about ee Cummings – very Jim! Great recollections, much of which are new to me.

  5. johnmostyn permalink

    Lovely piece Steve. Obviously I share many of the memories of the great man. I don’t know if you have one but we did make a DVD and CD of that amazing night in Birmingham when Jim came up from Kent a few months before he left this world and so many friends sang his songs for him which he followed by singing us a couple of favourites and a new song which he’d recently written which was gorgeous. I’ll never forget the look on his son’s faces when they walked into the packed Tower of Song. “Why are all these people here?” said one. “For your Dad” I said. They couldn’t believe it. They had no idea how loved he was in Birmingham. I have copies left of the DVD/CD package. If anyone would like one just drop me a line at john.mostyn@gmail.com and I’ll make arrangements.

    • Thanks John

      I’ll be up in Brum soon. Perhaps we can get together and I can get a copy from you. S

  6. john turke permalink

    i was jims neighbour for the last 18/19 years of his life,what a fabulous man jim was always full of life.It was a very sad day for me when jim left this world,but i’ll always remember him with heart felt fondness.there could never be enough paper to write about jim, god bless you jim ,XX.

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