Two years ago, casting around for an appropriate song to begin his show at the Berlin Olympiastadion, Bruce Springsteen remembered a tune he had heard almost 40 years previously.“This is something we learned just for you,” he told the crowd. When I Leave Berlin had originally been written and performed by Wizz Jones – inspired by the Quadripartite Agreement of September 1971, which allowed West Germans to visit their estranged friends and relations on the other side. While the song doesn’t quite mirror the events of 1971 (in the song, border controls are relaxed in both directions: “gone are the soldiers and the guns”), nevertheless it captures in the amber of notes and chords what so many East Germans must have been dreaming about in the preceding decade.
Wizz and Bruce’s versions are both beautiful in different ways. With Wizz, the protagonist sounds sick with nerves, excited but uncertain: “In Amsterdam, I’ll see my lady/I hope she’ll love me/Because I’m going to need her/When I leave Berlin.” In Bruce’s hands, the song becomes an emphatic celebration of reunification, delivered with the barnstorming brio that characterised his 2006’s album The Seeger Sessions. A stadium full of fans who have almost certainly never heard the song are audibly singing along. But for one thing, you really couldn’t fault it. Bruce – usually so conscientious about crediting his sources, forgets to tell anyone the name of the person who actually wrote the song. Wizz Jones, who lives in a terraced two-up, two-down in Balham, first heard about it a few weeks after the Bruce show, when a friend mentioned it to him.
When Wizz related the story at his own show earlier this year, it was all in the perfectly-weighted gaps and the occasionally knowing look that allowed you to know that he knew what you knew: that, like so many stories about Wizz Jones, the triumphant pay-off never quite materialises. In 2001, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore contacted Wizz with a view to having him open for Sonic Youth in Boston and New York. “But the day I was due to fly out was 9/11. We made it halfway over the Atlantic and had to turn back.” Another typical Wizz tale.
Now that he’s well into his 70s, Wizz barely resembles the young musician filmed in a 1960 documentary fronted by Alan Whicker about the increase in beatnik activity among young British people. It’s perhaps for the best that the song he performed for Whicker – Hard Times In Newquay If You’ve Got Long Hair – no longer forms a part of his set. The hair is still long, but Wizz doesn’t sound especially angry about people’s reactions to it, or indeed, his continued lack of reappraisal. Someone with a greater gift for self-promotion might have done more to cultivate their own mystique. Keith Richards has frequently reminisced about his days at art school and, in particular, skipping classes in order to meet up with Wizz for a blues picking lesson in the toilet. Rod Stewart claims that the two travelled together in the early 60s. It wouldn’t hurt Wizz’s profile to pretend he has some memory of either, but he simply can’t remember speaking with either of them and doesn’t feel the need to lie about it now.
I was once convinced it must secretly bother Wizz that his influence never quite morphed into commercial success. But a few months ago, when John Renbourn was staying at his house, John invited me over to hang out for the afternoon. Wizz made endless cups of tea and told a funny story about bumping into Peggy Seeger in a lift, decades after she had given him banjo lessons. Did she remember him, he wondered. She did: “That’s right. You never paid me, did you?” To misquote Jonathan Richman: “Was there bitterness in Wizz Jones?/It was never detected.”
A few days previously, I’d seen Wizz and John play both separately and together to a half-full Union Chapel. The contrast between the two was striking: John’s scholarly approach – somehow assimilating jazz, classical, folk and blues guitar into something uniquely his – found its most feted outlet in Pentangle. Wizz never quite found a Pentangular outlet though. His relentless self-deprecation means that compliments bounce off him like a beach ball on a speeding car: “People like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch took it way beyond the stars… When Bert and I met, I could see we had the same roots, but he had added this extra thing… he was a genius. Davy was way ahead, I used to follow him around, and to this day, the handful of clichéd licks I do are from watching and listening to him.”
But the licks are anything but clichéd. There isn’t a guitarist from Wizz’s generation that can play with the physicality he brings to his instrument. Eric Clapton is another musician who likes to reference Wizz, but the mellowing of Eric’s style is something that hasn’t extended to Wizz. At the Union Chapel, he played Davy Graham’s Anji for what might have been the 10,000th time, and in doing so, combined head-spinning virtuosity with punk intensity: hard and precise, occasionally slapping the body of the guitar and pulling back the neck with a force that made you momentarily fear it was going to break. This was the very opposite to the pernicious process of emotional disengagement that afflicts so many performers as they finesse their patter and technique over a period of decades. Perhaps the weakest aspect of Wizz’s 70s recordings was his singing. Reedy and undemonstrative on those records, his voice has since matured into an extraordinarily expressive instrument. His performance stirred grit into the modal Appalachian blues of Cluck Old Hen – the resulting reverie broken only by an ovation well in excess of the numbers that had turned out to watch him.
In keeping with everything else we know about him, Wizz seems happy to make more noise about the prowess of the people whose songs he covers rather than draw attention to his own songs. And yet, when you go to his shows, his own songs are the ones that, almost by stealth, utterly dismantle your emotional defences. Delivered with a subdued ragtime swing, The Burma Star, from Wizz’s 2011 live album Huldenberg Blues, is a tale of breathtaking economy, focusing on two episodes: the 1945 night that Wizz’s father appeared in the family home unannounced, three years after being declared missing in action; and the 1979 evening that saw him pass away “in a hospital bed by the door.” In between, those two dates, the sparest of lyrical brush strokes depict three decades spent trying and failing to find his place in the world after military service. But The Burma Star is anything but judgemental, its author acknowledging that he was spared the horrors to which his father was exposed at a young age: “I was a man with an easy life/I never had to go to war.” Lullaby Of Battersea is no less moving, but for different reasons: a simple ode to the children in whose peacetime childhood he was able to play a full part.
Both here and, at the televised Bert Jansch memorial concert in 2013, where he stole the show, Wizz left me gasping for superlatives. Every show seems to be better than the previous one. And yet, it’s clear to those of us who have met him that Wizz is congenitally incapable of promoting himself. So, earlier this year, when AIM (the Associaton of Independent Music) asked me to curate a show in advance of the 2014 AIM Awards, I figured that Wizz – most of whose albums have been released independently – should be top of the wish list. He has graciously agreed. The show, to take place this Tuesday August 26th, will also feature sets by two more of my favourite artists. Julie Murphy numbers Robert Plant and Cerys Matthews among her fans. She’ll be travelling from West Wales to sing some songs from her beautifully spectral chamber folk canon. Her most recent album A Quiet House variously recalls Lal Waterson and PJ Harvey’s White Chalk. National-treasure-in-waiting Darren Hayman is also putting together a short set in keeping with the nominally folky nature of the event. I think it’s going to be an unforgettable evening, more so if you can join us too.