James Edgar – The passing of a presence

When I first went to Blackpool alone, in the mid to late 1950s, there was a character around the town by the name of Jack The Ghost. He was mysterious. He was once described to me as ‘A Jewish cat’ who everyone swore had been in two card games at the same time during a ‘blackout’ in the Second World War. A succession of dogs were named after him at Blackpool greyhound track. I met him a couple of times. He was lean and elegant, but he was somehow shady. An attractive, shadowy figure, and a folk hero.

I’ve been deeply saddened by the loss of my old friend James Edgar this last week or two. He was such a big presence in my life. He was in turns funny, on the edge, assertive, reticent, cryptic, humble, and effing annoying. A character with a host of varying qualities, his major saving grace was always the flash of genius he could enlighten a moment with. Like me, he had glaring faults, but above all, he was perhaps the greatest lost human I ever knew.

I first met him in 1960. He was fresh from Northern Ireland, and he was a rugged-looking young man who was obviously carrying a great inner conflict. He was nervous and very shy at first, but over the years he gradually learned how to hide as much as he could of that. There were stories about why and how he’d left Northern Ireland, but he was always reticent about delving into the details of his childhood. All I really knew was that there’d been a violent episode, and he’d been in a coma for a while and emerged with a steel plate in his head.

He and I were part of a loose collection of a dozen heads that included flat-mate-landlord Jimmy Peglar, jazz base ace Tony Febland and the unforgettable Fred Yates, who knocked around Blackpool at the time. Edgar had the habit of changing his name periodically. It seemed that he was compelled to give life to the several personas he had, and used to wear them like you would a suit of clothes, just to change your appearance for the night-week-month-year. The names ranged between Jimi, ‘Irish’, which was Fred’s name for him, James, Irish Jimmy, James Edgar, which he took from Edgar Allen Poe, to James Edgar Schwartz, the Schwartz being taken from Tony Curtis, whose real name was Bernard Schwartz, and who was at the height of his fame in 1960.

He was also a big Johnny Mathis fan in 1960, and used to hang around the stage door of the old Hippodrome Cinema/theater on Church Street during Johnny’s seasons there to get the word from his hero. In the early 60s, many of us used to populate The Golden Nugget, a coffee bar on Cookson Street run by John Malkin, which was only yards from the Hippodrome.

Occasionally, he became Edgar Schmaltz, but only when he needed a ‘sub’. He usually got a ‘sub’ for a painting or for delivering info from the great outside. I thought about the desecrated encyclopedias he’d ripped sketches out of to present to me on one occasion. They were of gathered tribal humanity in big team fashion; like the whole of the tribes of North America had been gathered in a team photo and sketched. They were on four levels, ascending from those lying/sitting on the floor, to those seated, to those standing, to those standing on a bench behind. They were dressed in colourful tribal regalia. Then there was was a page of Europeans, a page of Africans and etc. I wondered where he’d taken them from, but I gave him the ‘sub’ anyway. For the longest time, I guess, he became Schwartz. Which is German for ‘Black’, of course!

There were also combinations of all the above pseudonyms. He was using Jimi Schwartz at one time. It may even have been me who separated the Edgar from the Jimmy and first called him Edgar. Anyway, he became Edgar in about 1965, and after that Edgar was my name for him. He always told you though, subtly, who he was at any time, and I’m sure he used to use his personas as demarcation points, almost like saying that he was now different than the last time you saw him. To subliminally try to lever you in one direction or another. Alter your mind about him. I once knew his actual family name, but I intentionally forgot it. It would have been insulting of me to have remembered it.

Edgar was one of the fixtures of my life. All my female companions often had to endure this character with megatons of pent-up emotion, hanging around for days on end with seemingly nothing to do except get in their hair. I can hear you laughing now, those of you who knew him. But he’d have wild conversations with me, sketch me while intensely informing me of a new way he’d discovered of making art more efficiently, and then occupy a sofa for the night. And then another night…

Some of them regarded him as a limpet, but he was a great if bizarre sounding board, and a conversation with Edgar took some unexpected twists that only he and I ever had a chance of following. If you were in the room with us it mightn’t have been for long, because we probably didn’t sound as though we were making much sense.

The fact that the space between the speech was loaded with all sorts of emotional information could sometimes lead to excluding some of the party. Speech where coded human feelings were being aired, stamped on, waded into, cried over, and swept under the mat of the next moment. We got stupid, we got deep, we got unimaginably ripped, embarrassed, withdrawn, reticent and then back into fellowship again.

Sometimes it would alternate between jest, childishness, deep rant, love of life and painful humility in the same sentence. It was hard to take for some of the less forgiving brethren. It was hard to take for us too. We’d often become too aware of each others foibles to want to share another moment with each other. And we didn’t, for a hour, or two, or a year or three; but then we did again: and it was the same again; all the way from exhilarating to disagreeable and back. We deserved each other…

He was a peaceful but wild animal who was forced to live outside of society by his restless inability to settle, either mentally or physically. He perhaps saw something of himself in the people he chose to paint. As though he was painting his momentarily desired alter ego all his life.

For me, his most memorable interruption occurred when he handed me a copy of a collage he’d made that featured a portrait of Geronimo with an 18th century pastoral English scene in the background. This background was a copy of a typical etching from a Victorian encyclopedia. He’d tinted it red, and added the same tones of paint to the Geronimo figure. The two together were incongruous, and yet the effect of the combination was to include each other, and to give me a visual account of plans I was already hatching.

How was I going to try to include and combine the whole of human emotion, character, endeavour, and way of life into one song? It was obviously going to be influenced by my own view of history and psychology, but how much of that influence could I honestly attribute to that of being a truly impartial witness? Could anyone ever be an impartial witness to life on Earth? How was I going to try to paint the biggest possible picture of humanity on any kind of a finite canvas? But there it was, on a piece of A4 card in front of me. There was the first step.. The resultant song was something I called ‘The Lords Prayer’. I was being provocative, but I was also humbled by it. And Edgar had been the catalyst.

I quickly saw that the face of Geronimo had two halves. One was full of animal cunning, the other was full of wisdom. Eventually, I had the sleeve designed to shed light on that, to expose a very natural human face. I split the front cover of the LP down the middle, splitting the life mask of myself in half. When the two halves were opened, it was easy to see that you could fold them round the back of the LP so that Geronimo’s face would join to reveal the picture that Edgar had given me together with the vision of how I saw it and the effect it had on me. (see pic of original ‘Lifemask’ LP sleeve in the gallery on the Jimmy Schwartz web page).

In the early twentieth century, when this photo of Geronimo was taken, that kind of revelation would not particularly have been of note, but sixty years later it was exactly the sort of thing that modern social scientists and people watchers were looking for. The character exposed. The thought often occurs to me that Edgar never.. but then again always.. knew what he was doing. Invariably he was actually lighting the blue touch paper just by throwing something onto the scales.

He used to call me ‘Master’, but in the end I wasn’t worthy of that, because as I got older and moved 500 miles away, I lost touch. More fixed in my own selfish headlong dash into the next thing that I’ve got to think about – - the next problem on the agenda. More fool me. I should be treating my oldest friends with the respect and time they deserve, in the way that they deserve it. (In any case, in the moment he believes he is, the master is automatically reduced to servitude).

I read the messages of condolence for a fallen hero on the web page his friends have built, only to discover that in his last years he went back to his Catholic Club. We never discussed religion. My critical views were obvious, and he understood. I had no reason to examine his. The eggshells of shattered adolescence were now powdered and on distant paths grown over. There was no need to walk over them again to test each other. We’d grown up in our separate ways and we both carried that silently in each others’ company. He was a very free spirit, and there was absolutely no need. On occasion, I’d make a joke about it, but the actual archeology remained in place. Not a critical stone was ever turned.

Apparently, in the last couple of years, he’d managed to find his birth certificate, and so, for the first time in his life he had some support in terms of benefit. What no one knew, apparently, was that he’d developed a heart condition, which isn’t a wonder, in view of the hardship of his life. The story goes that at the beginning of July 2012, he was in such pain one day with gout he’d developed as a result of a toe injury that his landlord persuaded him to get an ambulance to hospital. He went, but he’d mislaid the pills he was using for his heart condition that day.

I know what it’s like to arrive unannounced at a hospital. There are no records of you. No one knows what to do, and all the staff take care of business conservatively. He might have known what the pills were, but he was unlikely to have been given them without some sort of executive decision having to be made. They’d probably have taken blood, given him some paracetamol and waited till the morning. They were probably rushed off their feet, as usual. He died that night, at about 1:00 am., slipping quietly off the mortal coil almost unnoticed.

There was no one there for him. No one he knew. Not a friend to bid him farewell. Death comes quickly; especially for those who’ve put it off till the last minute. If I’d have known, I’d have travelled the 500 miles just to speak with him again. I was filming in West Cork with some journalist friends. I had no idea. None of his friends did really. Like one of them said to me, “On reflection, I find some peace in the knowledge that his passing has been rather in keeping with the way he chose to live his life”.

It’s some consolation for me to know that he found some solace towards the end of his days. The means are irrelevant. It’s maybe best that no one knew where he was in those last few days. At a time when all the world might cease to make any of the sense it previously had for some of us, it might not have done for him. We might have been out of place. After all, my memory of him is one of profound vitality. He was the best example of a philosopher-vagrant I ever personally knew.

Some kind of an aesthete of the west, and of the north. His type of presence can be seen as an ancient undercurrent in humanity that regular society ridicules and ignores, but it’s real enough. It’ll always be there to posit the thought of an alternative way of addressing life. Of living without a particularly resource invasive high tech culture, or the present need for the world to be chasing $£€ market fluctuations to bleed spreadsheet skim into offshore wells of habitat impoverishment.

The life of the itinerant artist/creator questions society, questions the mores of accepted normality. Is he/she forced into the margins of society by an innate mentality that was at one time considered a more useful mentality? Going well back into pre-history: before rows of nuclear family hutches were thrown up to house local wage-slave work forces. As far back as ancient Egypt and beyond, high society was always powered by virtual or actual slave labour. Few artists were really funded after Rome until the Renaissance; the real shaman was never ‘paid’.

Mental health is paramount, but still a taboo subject in X-Factor red-top world. Who’s mentally healthy? All of us? None of us? What criteria could we possibly use in order to judge mental health? How many who’ve fought in the front line of a bloody war can be regarded as temperamentally stable? Can a line between compos mentis and non compos mentis ever be precisely drawn? No, not in my opinion.

Edgar fought in a long series of battles to keep himself this side of pure fright. In the end, he won. He was too determined and proud not to. He somehow managed to remain functional in a dislocated world. When younger he was irritatingly needy, but always incredibly generous and strangely dignified by living below the bottom rung all his life. I’m perhaps a more organized version of what Edgar was, a sophisticated beggar.

Edgar will always have a very special place in my heart. His own place, where he and I will remain together for the rest of time. My own place, where he and I can occasionally wander around our own spontaneous folly, our own mystical coherence, at eternal leisure; uninterrupted by a superficial world we always battled with.

His last name for himself was Jimmy The Ghost. It was his last message to all of us who knew him, and a poignant one for me when I discovered that. In that elusive way, he was related to an earlier incarnation we both knew. What an edge he had. At once comedic, uncomfortable and beguiling. I’ll miss him, for all and ever. Well done Edgar. What a life!

James Irish Jimi Edgar Schwartz-Schmaltz, Jimmy The Ghost, artist-shaman, 1939-2012.

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admin on September 11th 2012 in Uncategorized

A Tribute To Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch and I arrived at the same club in London within 3 months of each other in 1965. We’d both had very separate journeys to get there, we knew nothing of each other, but we arrived at Les Cousins in Greek St, Soho, for the same reason. We were both inspired to play music to people. I was introduced to the club by Peter Bellamy of The Young Tradition

Within a week I realised that this was going to be my new home. There was lots to take in. There were so many fantastic young musicians. I can remember being absolutely blown away by a young American called Danny Kalb in the first week. Going home and thinking that as far as the blues was concerned, I was miles behind where I could have been. I’d been in my own vacuum, it was time to get involved.

The young players were all very gifted but very different people. It was an amazing place to be. Among the many I saw in that first week were John Renbourne, Alexis Korner, Paul Simon and Alex Campbell, oh, and yes, someone called Bert Jansch. Bert who? How d’you spell that then? At first I didn’t know what to think about Bert except that, in all probability, from a woman’s point of view, he was incredibly attractive.

He was very softly spoken and obviously very shy. He was an attractive young man with a good average physique that seemed to have a wiry strength. His hair naturally flowed and fell in waves across a gentle but strong face with kind eyes. His Scottish accent was strangely only just discernible, but his playing, and his delivery, were both immediately stunning. Some of his words weren’t always that decipherable, but the combination of the guitar and vocal together were truly a perfect and unique fit. The one thing you knew was that this guy had really found his medium. And it looked like he’d been there for years.

For a young man of 20, his songs were astounding. Things like ‘The Needle Of Death’, ‘Running From Home’ and ‘Strolling Down The Highway’, as well as his own version of Davy Graham’s famous ‘Anji’ were truly magic pieces of their age. He was a humble powerhouse whose honesty was so obviously unquestionable.

Bert was always such a very private man. Getting him to respond was sometimes an undertaking. It was often a struggle for him to speak, but then again, his songs spoke for him. They were often among the most eloquent pieces of musical folk art imaginable. Plaintive, intricate and beckoning, with seemingly an ancient root reaching back across long centuries to some deeply pure and mysterious earth knowledge.

As a presence, and particularly as a young man, his effect on most of his friends was beyond description. He was unfathomably and instantly attractive. I will never forget that. He gave love in such a gentle way that it was impossible not to immediately identify with that and be forever enraptured by one so gifted in that respect. Bert wrote his songs, and treated his friends from the heart, and his friends will never forget him. Ever.

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admin on October 5th 2011 in Uncategorized

Wishful Thinking

The last blog was full of wishful thinking. I apologise. It gets like that sometimes. Especially when someone who should never have been in power is still there after 40 years. It shouldn’t be that difficult to remove a bully from the playground. I’ve wished for years that the poisonous and deluded wretch who controls Libya would be deposed. The majority of the population of Libya have this last few months tried to take control away from him. He has tried to retain power by using the billions he still has to buy a mercenary army, PR and propaganda. This time the international community have not faltered.

I’m very pleased to have to admit that Cameron and Sarkozy have done a lot better than Bush/Blair ever could have done. You can say that’s unfair, because they now have the Iraq experience to draw on, but there is a general consensus that society is now in a period where defending what we have from invasion and destruction is paramount. As I’ve probably implied many times before, Blair promised so much for those who fell for his schmaltzy charm, but he was always so clearly ego driven, to the extent of rendering much of his posturing cringe-worthy. In the end, a self-important insincere pop star waving a transparently fabricated ‘dossier’ around that would prematurely end hundreds of thousands of lives. His apologists will deny this, but the hard evidence eventually reaching the public domain isn’t ever likely to absolve him.

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admin on June 1st 2011 in Uncategorized

A New Light?

There is a new light in the world. Time alone will tell whether or not it’s a great new light. The young people of much of North Africa and the Middle East are developing a voice of their own. They have discovered the power and the democracy of the information age, and are beginning to be able to mobilise an alternative voice to the religious despotism and political totalitarianism that has controlled their lives for so long. In the main, their desire seems to be to become part of the modern world. I applaud them. Their achievement is timely, and is of course, if it’s carried forward for the next decade, likely to be one of the biggest social changes in all our lifetimes.

Certainly it has the potential to achieve just as much social change, for at least as many people, as the ‘Peace and Love’ generation achieved in the late 1960s, and if it continues to grow may even rival events such as The Russian Revolution of 1917. They have it in their hands, literally, to change the world. As some people will know, I’m a fervent anti-monotheist, and as such, I can see the possibility of a great new light in the world.

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admin on March 8th 2011 in Uncategorized

Politics For Beginners Part 3

In the event, the left/right split is less than 38% to the right, and more than 62% to the left of center. And the horse-trading has begun.

I was wrong about Brown. He found his soap box again during the last couple of days of the campaign. He no longer looks tired. He’s still tarred with the Iraq brush, as is Cameron, and with other more minor stumbles, such as Duffygate but for the first time in years, he is looking like his own man again. Perhaps this is because he’s been given a mandate to trade, deal, and argue his case, and let’s face it, he is the most articulate of the three, by quite a distance.

I thought, on election day and today, (Friday 7th May 2010), that he articulated his thought and policies in a far more lucid fashion than either of the other two. Clegg was all but royal and arrogant at times during the week, but I still went with him, while Cameron wavered between arrogance and wet. Brown’s policies are also more fully formed, and he has a precise map of his own vision which he’s able to refer to as he speaks. He wants to preserve as many of the people in work as he can, and he seems to have the most joined-up kind of plan to do that. Which would seem to be ideally ‘conservative’!? Cameron showed some promise in his speech today, but he still needed the frequent glance at his notes.

The next few days should be pretty interesting. For sure, Clegg would be mad to trade away his position on Proportional Representation for a seat at the Tory table. As Ming Campbell says, “We’ve been down this route before”.

For the wanabe and bedroom anarchists among you, don’t worry, it’s coming, but meanwhile, wouldn’t it be better to enfranchise more people? We’re all well aware of the fact that Westminster sucks, but it’s just slightly better than death, pillage and destruction, and with a bit of luck, and if we play it right, we just might be able to control a whole lot more of it. That’s what this fight is about. It’s about opening the doors as fast as negotiation will allow us to, and then keeping them open for as long as it takes for all of us to be inside.

Parliament is just that, and consists of who we want to put into it every 4 or 5 years. It’s the place where we parley. It’s the place where our council sits. If you don’t want one, fair enough, but societies have to speak to each other. We all know what happens when we don’t. We’re the ape who speaks. We have to make full use of that facility in order to pass human culture to our children. You can choose which bits to pass down, and what to leave behind. That’s how we progress this thing. A vote is an element of that, and an act of conscious volition.

If you want to you can turn your back on it and become a traveller, a tramp or an aesthete, or turn ‘god save the queen’ into a drum solo. Or you can stay in the bedroom. We have slowly developed the ability to give ourselves choice. We can choose not to have children. We can choose not to hand this kind of a fate to another being. Over 95% of life on the planet is bacteria. Their choice is more limited. They’re born, they have sex and they die. And that’s it. Not much different, but different enough. If you don’t want to be taken over by people like yourself, you’re best plan is to try to do something about it…

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admin on May 7th 2010 in Uncategorized