I’ll admit straight away that I was planning the full Biopic here – all the joys and disappointments, the injustices, the turning points, the challenges and failures, the insults received and given out, the girl who broke my heart… and so on, all the way to the Hollywood-style meeting with my lifelong associate Bongo Mike, as the lights dim and the credits roll across the screen.
But then I thought, in the end, well maybe not.
So I’ll be brief.
A friend of my brother’s (Lionel Took) gave me my first lesson on the guitar when I was 13 – not by any sort of prior arrangement, it just happened. Showed me how to play finger style, and taught me the introduction to The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun”. (An all-purpose beginners package back then.) It seems that at some point during the years that followed I conceived the idea, without telling anybody else or even letting my conscious mind fully in on the plan, to live my life as a sort of amalgam of “The Autobiography of a Supertramp” and “Bound For Glory” (autobiographies respectively of the Welsh poet W.H.Davies and the American folk singer Woody Guthrie). And after I’d paid my dues to the grand old British Education System, I went off and just did it.
If there was a problem at school, it was that the type of pupil I was, i.e. rather conservative, earnest and hard-working, didn’t fit so well with the type of musician I was trying to be, i.e. into contemporary folk and pop-rock. My teachers were mostly very friendly and helpful to me, but I would have to say that the chief impetus concerned my getting my arse up the M11 to Cambridge rather than getting myself a career as a busker-songwriter.
And when I did get to Cambridge, I would again have to say that I never really settled in. Considering that I was, as far as I knew, the first person in my family to get to Cambridge, and then understanding how proud they all were of me, and how encouraging they had always been along the way, I couldn’t lightly walk away from it all. And of course, the knowledge that I had successfully competed for my place did give me something to be proud of, even if my music was going nowhere; so it was easier to just immerse myself in the whole collective experience, on the vague assumption that something would work out at some point, rather than admit that I had lost my way, and get out of the gilded cage while there was still time.
Photographs by Matt Moon
I approach my years at Cambridge with a little more humility these days than before – time alters ones perspective. I was clearly given a golden opportunity, as a young man, to set myself up for life. It just wasn’t what I wanted; and I couldn’t see any way that I could fit in with or usefully contribute to the situation, or indeed even get out of it, as I already explained. Retrospectively, I’m sorry it all went so wrong – though I dare say anybody that I upset back then by complaining about everything has recovered from it by now! A lot of water has passed under the bridge since, and maybe the years of chronic indecision, that seemed wasted at the time, were all but inevitable.
And so I want to conclude by recording that, at some point after I had started working with Bongo Mike, who was one of the most committed opponents of elitism and snobbery in art that you could ever hope to meet, he said to me that one of the reasons why he had been interested to get me to join with him in distributing poems in the street, and later playing music as well, was that when we had first met, in a squat in Belsize Park in 1973, when I was completely destitute, I told him that I had been to Cambridge University. That’s how hard it is to escape your past.