Le Grand Jake
Jake Thackray Remembered
'When I go, I don't care what happens to me. They can put me in a rubbish bag and throw me off the end of the pier for all I care.'
Jake Thackray, Le Grand Jake, one of Britain's greatest and most interesting songwriters, died today aged 63. In the vague vicinity of the pier he may be-- that evocative, rotting, somewhat forgotten pier of the British vaudeville tradition -- but nobody will be throwing him or his memory off it. Jake Thackray is going to be remembered with, I think, surprising upswellings of affection and admiration.
Before Morrissey was the last of the viciously tender, caustic vaudevillians, Jake was the last of the topical satirical francophile chansonniers. They don't make them like Jake any more, but if you wanted to make a Jake in your mind you'd have to gene-spice DNA from people like Jacques Brel, Tom Lehrer, Georges Brassens, Tom Waits, Paolo Conte, Rob Wilton and early 'Uncle Arthur'-period David Bowie.
He was a perverse bugger, Jake. So very English and yet so essentially French, so vehement and yet so whispery, so underrated for a man who was, in the 60s, a 'household face', so very electronic for a folk singer, so populist for one so aloof and didactic. Jake, savage and yet tender, caustic and yet sentimental, so timeless and so topical! Great Jake, austerely hieratic yet surprisingly sexy, sexist, smutty, saucy, in such a sixties way! Jake, smooth, mild, sinister and cheeky as milk!
Yes, you could be forgiven for thinking him flung away and forgotten in 21st century Britain, off the pier, off the Fringe, off the map. But only last month I made an iTunes playlist for mp3s of Jake's songs, and went, I don't know why, ransacking websites for photos of the young Jake, wide-lipped and handsome as a god, and the old Jake, a bit bloated and old-blokey, snapped by fans in his modest retirement on a street in Monmouth, next to a coach or a car park, with a plastic bag in his hand.
I've been fascinated by him for as long as I've been conscious. There's Jake in a roll neck sweater, amusing my parents on a small black and white TV in 1968 with his pointed, surreal, topical songs on the David Frost programme. There's me in my Chelsea bedsit twenty years later, learning how to play his fantastic, Brechtian song 'The Bull':
The bull, the bull
He's the biggest of all
He is the boss, he is
Because he's big and we are small
But the bigger the bull (bigger the bull)
Bigger the balls
The bigger the bull the bigger and thicker and
The bigger and thicker and quicker and
The bigger and thicker and quicker and slicker the bullshite falls!
There's Jake on vinyl, influencing my own work like crazy, ending up on every compilation tape I made for friends. There's Jake performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, dressed in a dark suit and tie, one foot up on a wooden chair in the style of the classic French chansonnier. There's modest, cool, beloved Jake asking an endlessly applauding audience if they haven't got a home to go to? There's Jake in live bootleg tapes recorded in smoky folk cellars, Jake post-TV, literally going underground in an 80s too fascist and psycho to understand his gentle, humane 60s satire.
There's Jake talking to me on the phone in the late 80s, agreeing to be interviewed for the NME -- it was to be my first and only interview assignment for the paper -- telling me, a non-driver, details of how to meet him in some brewery pub off some roundabout near some motorway after one of his Radio 4 appearances. And there's just a Jake-shaped space when, over an hour late, I finally find the place. A Jake-shaped space that, with his passing, is now permanent.
Now that he's gone, there will be the chance to raise him to his rightful place in the pantheon of dark comic masters, creators of odd, touching, telling, comical worlds. He'll be there with Kafka, Chaucer, Ivor Cutler, Jacques Tati, and Francois Villon. He'll be alongside his great mentor Brassens.
There will be documentaries, illustrated with classic archive performances from 60s TV, unwiped by the BBC. There will be CD rereleases, and a chance to listen again, above all, to those brilliant, oddly troubling story-songs: Lah Di Dah, Leopold Alcocks, One-Eyed Isaac, The Bull, The Jolly Captain, The Lodger. New generations will wonder at their stilted phrasing, their tender misogyny, their clumsy demotic elegance and homespun technical brilliance; songs as fakely folkish and comically compelling as the stories of Moliere, Boccacio, Plautus or Juvenal.
Put him in Westminster Abbey, then throw that off the end of the pier.
Momus, December 27th, 2002
The Last Will And Testament of Jake Thackray (mp3).
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