British composer Gavin Bryars has created hundreds of pieces but ‘Jesus Blood...’ is still the one people come to hear, writes Don O’Mahony.
The story behind Gavin Bryars’ landmark composition ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ is well documented. Working with a filmmaking friend on a documentary on rough sleepers in London in 1971, Bryars was left with a load of unused audio, which included one gentleman singing “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”.
Struck by the cadence of this fraily delivered hymn, Bryars improvised around it to create the hypnotic and haunting track of the same name. It was released in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure label, accompanied on the other side of the record by his other great signature track, ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’. Looking back now it’s easy to see them as twin towers of British experimental music, yet at the time they were critically derided and considered garbage.
Forty-plus years on and both tracks, particularly the mantra-like ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’, are the tracks what people overwhelmingly think of when Byars is mentioned, and yet, despite having amassed a substantial body of work these still feel vital to him.
“I remember my managers at the time said ‘you might feel a bit fed up doing all these old songs,’ but it’s just like the Rolling Stones with ‘Satisfaction’, you’re always going to have to do it and you’re always going to be in a place where nobody has heard it before so you do it with good grace.
“But in reality the more I’ve done it I still find lots and lots of interest,” he insists. I still hear something fresh in the old man’s voice and I must have heard it hundreds of thousands of times by now.”
It’s a refreshing attitude to have, but it’s not as if Bryars exists in a realm where he’d have fans baying for him to play ‘the hit’. But it’s not as if, recording for Eno’s label, he was entirely free of label pressures. Eno may have been running Obscure but he was being funded by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and the music supremo nearly put a stop to Jesus’ Blood, as Bryars recalls.
“Blackwell had a habit of listening to new releases while he was on the phone and if it sort of grabbed his attention it was fine but with this one he was playing it and, of course, it was going on and on and nothing was really was happening and he got really annoyed and he wanted to stop the press. And eventually he realised what was going on so he did relent. But he did have a ‘This is not a single’ approach,” reflects Bryars.
Initially clocking in at 25-minutes, the arrival of the CD allowed the piece to expand to 74-minutes. This was released in 1993 on American minimalist composer Philip Glass’ Point Music label. This time the tramp’s plaintive prayer was accompanied by the gruff tones of Tom Waits. The presence of the maverick singer gave the record unprecedented exposure.
Says Bryars: “I’d had this idea that maybe about two-thirds of the way through Tom Waits would join the old man and sing along. Because everything that happens apart from that is accompanying the old man and is repeating as the old man is repeating but to have Tom sing it in real time as if the old man has found a companion or kindred spirit, that was my idea.
“Obviously the record company were very excited about it and Tom and I eventually did it but I had decided and agreed with Tom that I would never let anybody else do it like that. So that’s a one-off. I know it does happen but it is completely without sanction, and in the score it does forbid it.”
Bryars acknowledges that Waits’ extrovert presence is a contentious one. “Well it divides people,” he remarks. “There are people who know the old version who don’t like it at all. It’s rather like with early music you’ve got these kind of purists who will say, ‘No. There’s a right and wrong way to do it,’ and I can respect that.”
He is looking forward to bringing the piece to the deconsecrated Triskel Christchurch in Cork.
“I think a church performance, whether one believes or not, does convey an aura,” he observes.
Among the other pieces he’ll be performing will be a brand new composition; the Irish premiere of ‘Winestead’ and some madrigals with singer John Potter.
All together, the pieces seem to communicate an overarching mood.
“A lot of the things I do do seem to hinge around, not always melancholy, but sort of a sense of memory and perhaps loss and recollection,” he observes.
“So that’s a kind of an artistic image that I’ve not consciously but naturally gravitated towards. So in way what I have done is to put together pieces with my own ensemble, which can go together with something like Jesus Blood.”
Gavin Bryars’ association with Tom Waits goes back some years before the singer appeared on ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’.
“He initially got in touch with me in the ’80s when he was performing in London,” reveals Bryars. “Apparently the old version of Jesus Blood was his favourite record and he had either lost it or it had become destroyed over the years. It had got scratched and so on and by that stage it had been deleted. I happened to have a couple of copies fresh in the polythene and I let him have them and that’s how we got in touch initially. So I knew his interest in Jesus Blood.”
In the early ’90s, Bryars intended on casting Waits in an opera he was planning with the English National Opera called Doctor Ox’s Experiment.
“I thought putting Tom in this operatic context would really be the cat among the pigeons,” says the Englishman.
Waits was interested but that particular production never materialised. However, he managed to realise another operatic project featuring the songs of Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan.
“I made arrangements of the songs of Tom and Kathleen for a band where the songs were actually sung by a white female operatic mezzo soprano with a band that I had put together. So I invested time working on Tom’s songs and making new versions and doing them in such a way that so that you’d actually hear them not as Tom the performer but as Tom as a composer,” he says.
Bryars describes they day the two spent together in the studio recording the vocals for Jesus’ Blood as “probably one of the richest and nicest days I’ve spent in music”.
He’s still in touch with Waits. “And his birthday is in my diary when it comes around I will send him an email.”
- The Gavin Bryars Ensemble play Triskel Christchurch in Cork on Sunday, November 25.