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What’s life without a sip and a song?

by

Special To The Japan Times

First of all, I’d like to thank so many readers for your kind messages to me over the past two months. I raise a toast to all of you.

After the operation in November, although the doctors said my cancer was all gone, I wasn’t much interested in food and was steadily losing weight. That was great on the knees, but I got a bit concerned after I’d shed 22 kilograms with no sign of stopping.

Then over New Year’s, I said to heck with it and broke out a bottle of the single-malt whisky I’d been invited to make a cask of to my own recipe at the Nikka Distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, in 1986, and which I named Old Nic’s Dram when it was bottled in 2000.

So I got some Antarctic ice out of the freezer, had a couple of hefty glug-glug-glugs (isn’t the music of a new bottle of whisky being poured a heart-warming sound?), and quietly savored, sip by glorious sip, that peaty, full-bodied spirit with an alcohol content of 58 per cent.

Magically, I woke up the next morning feeling hungry and started nibbling away. With my appetite restored, I gained 4 kilograms in 10 days, and now the doctor says I’m ready for a second round of surgery to reroute my innards back to normal.

When that’s over with, I look forward to walking and working in our woods when spring comes, going to the Arctic again in summer, and cooking lots of feasts for friends and visitors.

While I was in hospital, one of the books I was given was “The Beatles: The Biography” by Bob Spitz. The big, heavy tome was awkward to handle in bed, so I didn’t start on it till I got home — but now I think it’s one of the best modern books I’ve read.

I grew up in Britain at about the same time as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and like them I loved to listen to Radio Luxembourg, a commercial station that played lots of music disdained by the good old (but rather stodgy) British Broadcasting Corp.

I was born in Wales, but went to school in England where, from an early age, I had singing lessons and was enrolled in the church choir. Like most of my Welsh family I loved to sing, and by the age of 10 I was winning competitions as a boy soprano soloist. My stepfather, who I’ve always thought of as my Dad, came into our life when I was 10. He spent 27 years in the Royal Navy and was of Scottish ancestry, though like the Beatles he was born and raised in Liverpool. Dad had a voice like a foghorn, and Mum and I would be acutely embarrassed when he belted out the seafarers hymn “For Those in Peril on the Sea” on the rare occasions he was cajoled into attending church.

That biography vividly brought back to me so many scenes from my own life as a teenager — but with some very big differences. Unlike John and Paul, I could never get close to mastering a guitar or banjo, let alone the piano in our front room.

Also, unlike John and his friends, I didn’t smoke or pilfer records from shops — though Mum thought I was gay because I didn’t chase girls and loved writing songs and poetry. The truth was that I was determined to become an Arctic explorer, so I filled my life with weight training, hard cross-country hikes, shooting, kayaking and judo.

Had I met John Lennon back then I doubt we would have got along, because I had a visceral hatred of so-called Teddy boys — youths, often prone to antisocial behavior, whose greased hair was slicked back to look like the rear end of a duck , and who wore tight “drainpipe” trousers, long Edwardian-style jackets and thick crepe-soled boots.

That said, Brian Jones, a founding member of the Rolling Stones, attended Cheltenham Grammar School at the same time as I did. He was one year my junior. He was a fantastic musician, and he once told me he’d like to live for a year with reindeer-herding Lapps and learn their traditional music. Until the drugs and all that nastiness brought him down, he was a highly intelligent and sensitive young man.

Rock ‘n’ roll hit Britain in a big way, made instantly popular by Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” which topped the charts in 1955. When “Blackboard Jungle,” the film in which it featured, came to town, the ushers couldn’t stop the kids dancing in the aisles. It was a riot.

Then of course Radio Luxembourg gave us Elvis Presley, and Britain’s own king of skiffle, Lonnie Donegan. At the time I thought his song “Rock Island Line” was the greatest music ever, and I nearly drove my Dad crazy by playing it over and over on the little record player I’d bought in town.

Even though I started writing poems and songs at the age of 14, I didn’t join a band or start recording until I was 37, by which time I was working for the Environmental Protection Service in Vancouver, where I made two friends who would change my life.

One was Adrian Duncan, an EPS engineer who was a brilliant musician and played everything from tuba to penny whistle, banjo to lute; the other was Fred Koch, a waste-disposal expert on contract with the Environmental Protection Service who had a good singing voice and played bass. Together with guitarist Brian Barrington and drummer Ed Cherry, we formed a group called Pacific Rim. I was the lead vocalist.

By that time I had many connections with Japan, and so our group’s first recording contract was with Tokuma Musical Industries, who released a 45 rpm single of two songs I’d written in Japanese that we recorded in Vancouver.

Soon after, we set up a recording studio in Vancouver that we called Bullfrog Recording. It was a small place, but it attracted lots of new and young talent because we could make high-quality demo tapes and call on top-class session musicians.

It was all a lot of fun, but Japan lured me back and since 1978 this country has been my home. Nonetheless, I’ve never severed ties with my Vancouver friends, and we recorded two albums for Toshiba EMI at Bullfrog — “Sail Down the River” and “Whisky.”

In Japan in 1979, I came second in the All Japan 17th Yamaha Popular Song Contest with my composition “Ringo no Ki ni Kakurembo” (“Hiding in the Apple Tree”). NHK also used one of my songs, “Na Mo Nai Mizuumi” (“Nameless Lake”), in its regular program “Minna no Uta” (“Everybody’s Song”).

Since then I have sung in dozens of concerts all over Japan, on television and radio, and in 2000 I performed with Adrian Duncan and Fred Koch in a major charity concert at the Budokan in Tokyo. That was a blast!

Songs and singing have always been a part of my life, but expeditions, making a national park in Ethiopia, and a healthy, biodiverse forest here in Nagano Prefecture, have — together with writing books — been more to the fore.

However, having a thick plastic tube stuck down my throat for several days in hospital last November, with not a drop of water, let alone good whisky, has left my voice a little raspy — but friends still urge me to do more concerts.

Making music takes enormous effort and patience, but can be so much fun. Me though, I’ll probably end up like my Welsh grandfather, who once got thrown out of a stuffy English pub for singing — but not before he mustered his dignity at the door and yelled back: “I’ll have you know I’ve been thrown out of far better places than this!”

And he wasn’t even singing one of those naughty rugby songs!