Living in the Shadows: Bert Jansch, 1943-2011
by Justin Farrar | October 4, 2011
"Living in the Shadows" is a deep cut from 1995's When the Circus Comes to Town, one of the very best records of Bert Jansch's long (and at time tumultuous) career, which ended on October 5th, the day lung cancer claimed his life. Augmented by a muted rhythm section and Mark Ramsden's vaporous saxophone, Jansch's thick Scottish accent, all moody and temperamental, garbles most of the lyrics, save cutting little phrases such as "for the whole damn world to see" and "you got to run through the city with your head down, don't be seen."
It's not considered one of his repertoire's finest hours by any means, yet the song's title, as well as those lines I just mentioned, say something about Jansch's stature, or lack thereof, in America. A Scottish-folk legend in the United Kingdom, the singer, songwriter and deeply skilled picker has always been one of these artists we Yanks tie to more familiar names when he pops up during the course of conversation: "Have you heard Bert Jansch?" "No, I don't think so." "Oh, he's great. Neil Young and Eric Clapton totally worshipped him." Then there's Donovan and Led Zeppelin, both of whom apparently worshipped him as well.
These validations are, of course, true, yet in the end they are superfluous, really. Jansch is, in many respects, one of the modern titans of folk music and folk-rock. Hitting the British scene in the mid 1960s, he helped construct the "singer-songwriter" persona by taking traditional folk music and acoustic blues, and raking them over the white-hot coals of existential desperation, restlessness and melancholy typical of twentysomething bohemia. The classics came fast and hard during this period, among them "Strolling Down the Highway," "Oh How Your Love Is Strong" and "Needle of Death" (a tune so profoundly distressing I can barely listen to the thing anymore).
After having established himself as one of the most gifted troubadours and guitarists on the planet, Jansch teamed-up with fellow six-string virtuoso John Renbourn. Together, they assembled The Pentangle (later just Pentangle). Over the course of a half-dozen albums -- Sweet Child and Basket Of Light are particularly, utterly brilliant -- the ensemble explored a experimental blend of folk, jazz, Celtic music and any other tradition they could lay their hands on. Though they weren't hippie rockers like Fairport Convention, Pentangle played a pivotal role in the development of progressive rock, folk-rock and, decades later, the modern indie-folk movement (a/k/a freak folk, or the New Weird America).
In the mid 1970s, with the singer-songwriter movement hitting a peak in terms of popularity, Jansch re-focused on his solo career and released a string of albums -- Moonshine, L.A. Turnaround and Santa Barbara Honeymoon -- that felt like conscious attempts at climbing said peak. And why not? He was 10 times the talent of a saccharine clown like James Taylor (who surely counted Jansch among his early influences). Sadly, these albums failed to deliver him out of those shadows here in the States -- but not for lacking in excellent music. This period in his career has become my favorite in recent years; L.A. Turnaround in particular is amazing. Produced by ex- Monkee and country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith, the music is bluesy, prickly, rickety, rustic and boozy.
Speaking of booze, it was one of Jansch's most pernicious demons. It exacted a toll for sure. He released some very good records throughout the 1980s and early '90s, yet he also dropped a few clunkers along the way. In 1987 the bottle very nearly killed the guy. Amazingly, he cleaned up and by 1995 was recordings albums like the aforementioned When The Circus Comes to Town. In his last few years, Jansch, an "elder statesman" by now, had been enjoying something of a renaissance. In addition to a new generation of folkies, from Espers to Devendra Banhart, professing their love for him and Pentangle, he released the thoroughly enjoyable Black Swan album on the Drag City label. He also went out on tour, opening for Neil Young and Eric Clapton, no less.
America never embraced Jansch quite like those two classic rockers, but no matter. He will be missed by those who belong to his intensely loyal cult.