In 1976, having obtained a BA in uselessness a young American found he had the funds and leisure to travel in the UK. He brought along traveler’s checks, a knapsack and his precious but cumbersome 1957 Gibson Country Western acoustic guitar into whose case he stuffed y-fronts and t-shirts for padding. Having done some writing for a West Coast music magazine the plan was to send back reports from London and write important songs. His contact at Melody Maker was very obliging with recommendations. One that stuck in his mind was to go to a club near Covent Garden where a band called the Sex Pistols was attracting attention. The guy promised he would hate them so he didn’t go.
One place he did go was called Dingwall’s which featured pub-rock in the Nick Lowe, Ian Dury vein. He took along his guitar which, in its hand-decorated vintage brown case, redolent of the genuine American source waters, turned out to be a good conversation starter. Harold, a long-haired chap in a splashy knee length leather asked about it and was thrilled to meet someone from California which to many Brits at the time was as fabled as Xanadu. After a few pints Harold invited the American to come round next day as he had a musical story of talismanic interest to share with him, specially as he had asked Harold, what the fuck has happened to the Stones?
The American turned up outside the appointed pub in Chelsea and was led to a once grand house where Harold said he had a flat. The American wasn’t sure what that meant but assumed all would be made clear. Harold did not seem quite as anxious to tell his story today and dropped fidgeting hints about recording studios where he had been a glorified tea boy but where had been around some of the musical demi-Gods of the epoch just passing.
A name that featured prominently in this ramble was Jimmy Miller who had apparently taken a shine to Harold, even vetting him to his dealer. The American remembered the name Jimmy Miller from a number of well-loved LPs in his collection including Mr. Fantasy by Traffic, the back cover for some reason having imprinted indelibly on the wall of his skull. Harold told him that Jimmy had produced Mr. Fantasy, along with a list of albums which dwelt in the American’s personal musical empyrean. What did a producer do he wondered but felt no need to betray his ignorance as he was a quick study, now possessed of the knowledge that a flat was pretty much an apartment.
Does your story have to do with Jimmy Miller he asked portentously. Harold face lit up momentarily but in the next instant his eyes flicked toward the windows facing the street. Satisfied that the India print curtains provided total modesty he solemnly requested that the Country Western be uncased so he might begin.
It was astounding. Not the singing, though he achieved a quavery Jagger/Richards hybrid; not the playing per se tho the first thing Harold did was re-tune the guitar G-G-D-G-B-D which he immediately recognized as the way Keith had achieved those distinctive, hard to duplicate voicings from Beggar’s Banquet forward. But what were these songs Harold was playing? Not off any Stones record or on any bootleg he had heard. There was something eerily, uncannily authentic about them despite the fact that Harold was usually only playing a shaky verse or two and sometimes a chorus.
Holy shit man, you gotta record this stuff!
Well… I would if I could but I can’t. It’s already been recorded. I had a cassette but (here he glanced once again at the windows as if they might be watchdogs) they made me give it back. And you can’t tell anyone. Anyone! I’m taking a big chance even doing what I’m doing now and only because you don’t know anybody in this town. But still, pretty fucking amazing, right? Here he allowed himself a wry smile.
The American no longer looked wonderstruck or gobsmacked as Harold would have said. There were too many hungry questions swimming around in his brain; as to who wrote the songs he was pretty sure. For the rest, having seen the film Performance, it was those haunting scenes that shimmied around in his head. He had made the mistake of seeing the movie after eating an unnecessarily large chunk of Lebanese red hash which had snapped his head back like a car crash 3/4 of the way through. Now he felt that same pricking sensation on his forehead and a rashy feeling wherever his clothes touched his skin. Kinda freaked him out.
He never heard from Harold again nor did he try to contact him. He hinted at the story to his contact at NME who told him where he could find all extant Stones bootlegs but assured him smugly there were no unreleased gems. And Jimmy Miller was MIA, probably back in the States having left the Stones fold under a cloud as everyone inevitably did. Under a cloud was better than in a well-upholstered casket set on fire in the desert like Gram Parsons.
On the way back to the hostel he bought fresh AA batteries for his cassette recorder and fumbled through as many of Harold’s snippets as he could muster, cursing himself all the while for not having taken notes and for having smoked so much pot at Southwest High. He was no journalist but that had never been his dream. When even the fumes had run out he had a list of 11 possible titles and banged out versions of six, not knowing how much resemblance they bore to what Harold had played. But he was sure the seeds were there.