Lol Coxhill

Lol Coxhill (19.9.1932-10.7.2012)


Lol Coxhill, who died in the small hours of Tuesday morning, was fairly short in stature and a giant. I’m not qualified to write an obituary. The Guardian has a generous one (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jul/11/lol-coxhill?newsfeed=true), though it conveys more of him as ‘character’ than musical genius. To go deeper, see the biography on his own website (http://www.lolcoxhill.com/text/context.htm). Deeper still? The book “The Sound of Squirrel Meals: The Work of Lol Coxhill” (ed. Barbara Schwarz, blackpress, Hamburg/London, 2006, £16) is a wonderful labour of love, though it may not be easy to find. I heard Lol play many times over 30-odd years, in various settings, but often solo. At first, the sound of a single soprano saxophone exploring every corner of itself was probably a bit daunting for me, but it came to seem one of the few truly normal things. In early days, I was too awestruck to try to strike up conversation, and he had a bit of an acerbic exterior. Of course it turned out he was down-to-earth and utterly lacking in pretention; generous and enthusiastic about music of all different kinds; deeply and sharply funny. I remember: some multi-talented gig in hip West London that Lol was playing (unpaid). It was clashing with some other gig he was also supposed to play (unpaid). “But I thought I’d do this one,” he said. “I’d rather be exploited than ripped off.” Rather too much of the career that England offered him seemed to come down to choices like that. I remember: a dream I had about him, one of three or four fundamental music dreams. He was playing some kind of ferocious, stamping, hilarious dance music, for a dance that was a cross between the Skinhead Moonstomp and a Morris. It was chthonic, pagan, slightly frightening and exhilarating. There was something deeply English about his playing – the shreds of nostalgic old tunes he’d weave in, the comedy and self-depreciation and the otherwise-unspoken passion that were always springing up in it. Perhaps that’s why he was so much better appreciated on the Continent than here. I remember: early last year, he came to record a saxophone solo on a song in our home studio. (It’s here, if you want to hear it: www.touched.co.uk/sounds/7grace/imgvol2/2-12 Gone for Good.mp3) We were having a beer afterwards, before supper, and I’d (carefully) selected a record to play that I thought he’d enjoy: Bags & Trane, the 1961 album by Milt Jackon and John Coltrane. He was listening, and he started to weep. “I’m not upset,” he said. “It’s just that the music is so beautiful.”

 

The drawing above was done in a single line, trying to follow one of his breaths. The poem below was written with a similar goal in mind, in the course of a Lol solo improvisation. (The gig was at the Seven Dials Community Centre, Covent Garden, about 20 years ago.) I wanted to see if I could keep inventing in words as long as he did in sounds: if you know his music, I think you might hear that some of his tone and phrasing has leaked in here, and the story’s been twisted into the kind his lines might tell.

THE IMPROVISED VERSION

She was working in a deli or bar at the time I forget
Nursing the soft white belly anyway
He wasn’t working at all then anywhere as in anywhere and everywhere
That’s she and him which makes it a love story
Which makes it a love story
Meanwhile international crises came and went
Somewhere there was a meltdown and a sub went down
Assassinations caught them with their pants down
With their parts down one another’s throats
Somebody found out about not being born bulletproof
And the guy on the roof wasn’t putting up an aerial
Did they give a funny you should ask
They just had time to get some dubious turkey breast
Courtesy of the cold meats counter past its sellby
Into a french stick trying to go straight
When the spasms came back and bang they were back on their backs
That’s the point of a love story
They gave it their best shot
It was mind over matter they didn’t matter and they didn’t mind
Someone gave a speech somewhere the hall was full of mumbling voices
Afterwards somebody asked someone what they would do if somebody did something
Music counted the only one who spoke the same language
Suddenly he got a job
They had him taking casualties back home to their wives and children
Or back to their children and husbands if they really were unlucky
And explaining could they please be injured some other time
Or they were entitled to reapply with the same injury if symptoms persisted
Between the hours of 12 and 12 midnight Mondays Thursdays and Fridays
It was depressing work to say the least
They were hoping one day to afford a house a carpet a few luxuries
After nine months he was eligible for promotion to the mortuary
He didn’t last a fortnight there were plenty more where he came from
Where he came from people were falling over themselves for that kind of work
As far as he could tell people were falling over themselves anyway
Just for the fun of it just for a hobby
He took it up she couldn’t see the attraction
She tried to tell him there was no future in it
He tried to tell her there was a tradition to maintain
People have always done it that’s the point of love
They had their little differences when they had the time
She was still working in the bar or deli I forget at the time
Spoonfeeding the joker’s busy jaw anyway one way or the other
They told her it was the service industry she was in like the church
It was bound to be there for ever
Fashions may come and fashions may go they said
But some things don’t change and your wages are one of them
They were hoping to afford a wardrobe a teatowel a few luxuries
At which point he entered one of his extended resting periods
Like scattered rain merging into continual showers
He’d been between jobs since he was filling nappies
He couldn’t see how he could have been the point of a love story
He was willing to take it on trust I mean
If you insist I’ll take your word for it

LOL COXHILL

Extruded citric arrangements of tones
cantilevered over against the overtones…
Something stirred on the heap of memory.

Esemplastic corrosive displacements of tones
skirting themselves with overtones…
Cockcrow on the mound of memory.

Filibustering epicacophony of tones
sardonically figured with baroque undertones…
Glint of metal on the pile of memory.

An old-fashioned tune’s dismantled tones
assemble like ghosts in the overtones…
Spike of grass on the brow of memory.

Splay of clownish inarticulate tones,
poignant buffoon with harlequin undertones…
This was mine on the ash-tip of memory.

Elliptical double-edged tones…
Underdog truth comes over
like the sun on the nightly rise of memory.

John Gibbens

 


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