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Finally a new reviewer is picking up on the obvious, that abbey tapes is fantastic. And on p. 110, the two Lol Robinson albums get excellent reviews. Really happy that Phil’s and Allan’s books and music are getting some additional attention- and in the same issue as such revered musicians as Levon Helm, Ashley Hutchings, Wishbone Ash, David Crosby, Jimmy Page, and the Incredible String Band. Here’s Ian Maun’s review in Stick it in Your Ear: http://www.siiye.co.uk/E28/PAGE_116.htmlSIIYE_review_photo

I’m pleased that my flute part in “The Comb Song” is described as adding “hiraeth”, the Welsh word for longing, nostalgia, homesickness and mysticism to the song.

Check out other issues in this great little e-zine edited by Geoff Walls, UK music writer and a biographer of Ashley Hutchings.

Happy to see that ‘The Comb Song’ is featured as a teaser on Phil Rickman’s shop web page, along with ‘Tanworth in Arden’ from one of the Lol Robinson albums: http://www.philrickman.co.uk/the-shop/

And a review of Abbey Tapes is to come out in January in a folk rock e-zine…. stay tuned.

Those of us who love fiction are accustomed to suspending our disbelief and enjoying a bit of illusion versus reality; if we are also music lovers, some rock and roll thrown in sweetens the deal. So, do I have a magical trip for you fiction and music lovers: the 1994 novel December by Phil Rickman has been republished along with a CD of songs by Philosopher’s Stone, the novel’s fictional band of psychic musicians, brought together one fateful night to record an album in a haunted Welsh abbey. This most recent collaboration between writer Phil Rickman and musician Allan Watson is one to have on your radar.

December, long out of print, has enjoyed a sort of cult following and more than one movie option. At long last, readers can buy a signed special edition offered by Mansion House Books, as well as a Kindle edition, with a Corvus print version and Isis audio book due soon. And even better, an Abbey Tapes: the Exorcism CD, a veritable soundtrack to December, became available as of December 8, 2011. If that date rings a bell… yes, it is John Lennon’s death date, which figures prominently in the novel’s plot. So get the tracks from iTunes or Amazon, or order the CD (info at Rickman’s website), or the special MHB signed book with CD, and settle into a comfy chair for a long eerie night of rock n’ reading. (update: Bloody hell, they’re even on Spotify now.)

Without giving away too much of the story, here’s the gist: In December of 1980, four musicians were invited to the ancient Black Abbey in Ystrad Ddu, Wales, near the holy mountain, the Skirrid, to record an album as the band Philosopher’s Stone. It turned out to be an almost cruel trick by the record producer to exploit these sensitive, psychic artists. The Abbey itself had been haunted since the 12th century when the Welsh bard Aelwyn Breadwinner (Breuddwydiwr, Welsh for “Dreamer”) died there. And each of the musicians had his own ghosts or obsessions which all seemed to come into play that fateful night, December 8… the same night John Lennon was killed. Some horrific things happen.

The musicians scatter and live with the damage done that night. The tapes for the notorious “Black Album” recorded that night were thought to be destroyed. But fourteen years later, the tapes resurface and the group is persuaded to reunite for another session. For the group and their friend/producer, Prof Levin, it becomes a reluctant attempt to heal, exorcise perhaps, the evils which still haunt them, the Abbey, the town and the Skirrid. Plenty of fascinating characters, bits of Welsh history and mystery, and scary stuff goes on.  December has been called “horror” and does have just enough blood, guts, and ghosts to satisfy that genre; but the depth of characterization and empathy elevate the novel beyond horror and in fact it works as a murder mystery/crime fiction. Rickman likes to call it a ghost story. Suffice it to say, if you are looking for cozy, you’d best look elsewhere.  Especially alluring are Rickman’s sardonic humor, occasional eroticism, and tidbits about the inner workings of the music industry.

The fab psychic four:

Dave Reilly is from Liverpool and has an affinity for John Lennon, though he (and most fans) derided Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy. He talks to Lennon in his head and has visited the Dakota and Strawberry Fields in NYC; he makes a living doing a one-man show in nightclubs consisting of startlingly accurate impersonations of Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and others. He pines away with unrequited love for Moira and tries to protect her from his dark visions.

Moira Cairns is the beautiful black-haired Scottish folk singer, the daughter of a clairvoyant gypsy mother who gave her an ancient magical hair comb. She experienced a strict upbringing by her Presbyterian grandmother, rebelling when she began to experience her powers. She appears later in another novel, The Man in the Moss, where she performs “The Comb Song”, and she turns up again in the Merrily Watkins books to perform with Lol Robinson.

Tom Storey is the most famous of the group- an electric blues guitarist from East London once compared to Clapton and Jeff Beck. The most erratic (“don’t worry Tom” they all say), Tom has a Down’s child, Vanessa, who also “sees” and plays a pivotal role.

Simon St John is a classically-trained musician who plays electric bass guitar, cello, and flute. He has become a Church of England vicar in Ystrad Ddu and by night is haunted by the ghost of the Black Abbot. Simon and Tom pop up again later in Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series.

Shaken together, the four musicians form a volatile cocktail of music, necromancy, aura reading, and divination- but they are as human and believable as you or I. If you’ve read December, you know about the fictional songs recorded at the abbey and that there were even scatterings of lyrics in the text. On Abbey Tapes, we finally get to hear the song which Dave Reilly fears caused John Lennon’s death, “On a Bad Day.”  Dave is ragging on the poor dead Beatle, berating him for lowering his standards on Double Fantasy, but betrays his love for Lennon with a heartbreaking “Are we ever gonna see you again?” chorus. Also included is “Dakota Blues”, Dave’s description of his visit to the Dakota in Central Park replete with Lennon-like voice and guitar touches. Tom Storey’s “Take Me to the River” is sung as a lighthearted ditty in his Cockney accent, but then reprised in “Take Me 2” as a mournful, bluesy version with Tom’s signature electric guitar as played by Allan Watson. The short instrumental “Vanessa” is a gorgeous complexly-chorded tribute to the  little heroine. Cheryl Reid’s beautiful voice is a highlight of the album, with her “Comb Song” a haunting Celtic melody; that song, while mentioned early in the text, figures more prominently in The Man in the Moss and the novel does not mention that the band played it at the Abbey. However, the comb was working its magic and lucky for us Prof was there to record it. And Moira’s beautiful gypsy tune “Sweeter” is a lovely interlude.

“Liverpool Unplugged” features Rickman’s divine reading voice (he’s a BBC radio announcer and reads Traherne’s poetry on his other albums) telling the true story of the infamous power outage of 1993. The epic “Ballad of Aelwyn Breadwinner” recounts the tragedy of a real 12th century bard who was killed in a massacre by the Normans near Abergavenny. And the ensuing “Holy Light,” featuring Simon’s healing prayer of exorcism, is glorious with its keyboards, violin, bass viol drone, and angelic Gregorian-like song. As in a rock opera, they do the voices. Dave’s Liverpool accent, Tom’s East London Cockney, plus bits of dialogue and sound effects embellish the tracks to bring you viscerally into the Abbey. This is a hauntingly beautiful album of original music grown organically in the ancient British folk tradition of story, myth, and landscape.

In case you are in terror of your hi fi melting from the novel’s  notorious Black Album, be reassured: Abbey Tapes consists of the songs from the reunion 14 years later and,  in a way, a final chapter is added to the book with this additional material discovered by Prof Levin and played by the musician friends of Phil Rickman. This isn’t the first musical collaboration between Glasgow’s Allan Watson and Rickman. They’ve done two albums already by Lol Robinson, the Merrily Watkins series character, heavily influenced by Nick Drake: Songs from Lucy’s Cottage and A Message from the Morning. Watson is a brilliant singer-songwriter with a long recording history in various Glasgow bands including Brig, Columbus Road, and Candy Séance. He’s also an avid reader, and in 2008 he and Rickman decided to complete Lol’s songs. Rickman includes snippets of lyrics in his novels, so those were fleshed out with Watson’s melodies, vocals, and electric and acoustic guitar.  It was a labor of love, then, for the pair to bring to life December’s Philosopher’s Stone, the holy grail of fictional bands. They involved other musicians including Cheryl Reid, another Glaswegian and member of Columbus Road. Poignant violin, flute, and bass parts add magic to the songs. Musician friends on several continents got into the action by recording tracks to add to the mix (Mattie Rouse, Julie Adams, Stevie Patrick, Dave Currie, Kasander). The result: Philosopher’s Stone lives! Have other such fiction/music collaborations ever taken place? Perhaps the only occurrences of their kind, these albums are a unique fusion of fictional characters and song: the imagination incarnate.

Phil Rickman writes about the borderlands between Wales and England where the “veil” is thin, that is, there is a blurring between the real and imagined, the present and past, the modern and the traditional, the living and the dead. While best known for his Merrily Watkins crime-fiction-with-a-paranormal-twist series, he first wrote a number of ghost stories such as Candlenight and Curfew, all of which are now being republished in paperback and Kindle editions by Corvus Press and worth ordering from Amazon UK if necessary. In addition, he has delved into a meeting of crime and historical fiction with his The Bones of Avalon featuring Dr. John Dee, physician and astrologist to Queen Elizabeth I, and their attendant Glastonbury/Arthurian legends (a sequel is in the works). He has authored other works under the pen names of Will Kingdom and Thom Madley.   -Julie Adams

(update: just don’t read the 1996 Berkley edition published in the US- for some reason they edited out some important details. Those Berkley butchers.)

Abbey Tapes: the Exorcism CD

CD of songs by Philosopher’s Stone, the fictional ill-fated band from the novel December, is available via Phil Rickman’s website or as MP3 downloads via Amazon and iTunes. The Black Album lives.

CD cover photograph by John Mason, this is the ruins of Llanthony Abbey in Wales, inspiration for the novel December’s setting. Llanthony is in the shadow of the holy mountain, the Skirrid.  

My blog post about the novel, the music, the project, here: https://brightjul.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/deepest-darkest-december/

On A Bad Day

Don’t know what you’ve got there but it sure ain’t a song
Feels like Patience Strong on a bad day
If you die tonight who has the last laugh
If that’s your epitaph, what can I say

Am I ever gonna see you again
I doubt it, I doubt it.
Are we ever gonna see you again
I doubt it, I doubt it.

Your lyrics suck and you can’t find a tune
reading Mills and Boon on the sofa
your soul got crushed underneath someone’s shoe
nothing left of you it’s all over

You said you knew what it was – like to be dead
Protest in bed now – you’re so tired
All you got cooking… – is Mother’s Pride
Your ticket to ride has expired

The Comb Song

Her father works with papers and with plans
Her mother see the world from caravans
I wish to God you had’na been born
Your hair’s a mess. Get it shorn. Get it shorn.
She sees herself in colours and ……….
She weighs her powers in her hand, in her hand
And then at last she starts to see
The time is here, she must break free

Never let them cut your hair or tell you where you’ve been
Or where you’re going to from here
Never let them cut your hair or tell you where you’ve been
Or where you’re going to from here

Comes the comb all wrapped in mystery
Let no-one say it wasnae meant to be
No-one knows how much it meant to her
This piece of Iron Age ephemera
She sees herself in colours and ……….
She weighs her powers in her hand, in her hand
She knows that now she’s on her own
This is a path you walk alone

And in the chamber of the dead forgotten voices her your head
For the night is growing colder now she feels it on her shoulder
Give up you fool there is no heat… the abyss opens up beneath her feet
The comb is ice it’s brittle-oh
She cannot hold it must let it go

Take Me To the River (Take Me 2)

Take me to the river – As it reaches the sea
Take me to the river – That’s where I wanna be
Sit me on a landing stage – Down by the riverside
Let me watch my troubles – Float out on the tide

Lonely water feels
Like a heart revealed
Holy water heals

Take me to the river – As it reaches the sea
Take me to the river – That’s where I wanna be
Take me out in a sailing boat – Toss me o’er the side
And watch my broken body – Float out on the tide.

Lonely water feels
Like a heart revealed
Holy water heals

Sweeter

Sweeter – than an apple from the tree
Fleeter – too quick for me to dream
Deeper – than the bottom of the sea
Clearer – no horizon stopping me
On and on and on and on and on – The song goes on
On and on and on and on and on – The song goes on

Older – than a megalithic stone
Bolder – than a river rushing home
Smoulder – like ashes in a fire
Soldiers – marching with desire
On and on and on and on and on – The song goes on
On and on and on and on and on – The song goes on

Sweeter than an apple from the tree
Fleeter – too quick for me to dream
Deeper than the bottom of the sea
Clearer – no horizon stopping me
On and on and on and on and on – The song goes on
On and on and on and on and on – The song goes on

Dakota Blues

Cooling my heels in Strawberry fields, Can’t find no peace there
The night is breathless, Kirsty’s restless, she don’t care
No hope of solace or redemption in the air
Seven long years since I heard the news
I’m still waking in the night with the Dakota Blues

Taking the view down from the west seven two, I see his shadow
Salinger fan with a gun in his hand, a fucking saddo
He wants to be the star of someone else’s show
Seven long years since I heard the news
I’m still waking in the night with the Dakota Blues

Going where the madness beckons, diamonds in the sky
Arthur Ranker, Crown and Anchor, catcher of a lie

Imagine John was dead and gone, you never met him
He never knew, or thought of you, you won’t forget him
And in the evening he’ll come calling if you let him
Thirteen years since I heard the news
I’m still waking in the night with the Dakota Blues

The Ballad of Aelwyn Breadwinner

Aelwyn the dreamer came down from the mountain
His harp on his shoulder, His hopes for the future. All bright
But his footsteps are wary as darkness surrounds him
The sky is a curtain His heart is uncertain tonight

Out of the forest to play at the castle
That stands by the river. Comes Aelwyn the harper. Well met
By tables all laden with laughter and flattery
Wild boar and venison, Nothing is menacing. Yet.

And nobody notices, nobody listens – To Aelwyn the dreamer
Who sits in his corner, And sees the carnage That hides in the eyes of the Normans
Who lay off the wine
As they wait for a sign
…and he flees

Echoes of slaughter, the wine turns to water The water to blood
As he runs for the woods – And the hills, it isn’t –
The hack of a blade in his back
But the viper’s hiss Of a brother’s kiss …..that he feels

The Harp in fragments lies
A Warning to the wise
Under winter’s frozen cloak
They drag him to the oak

And the sky begins to pale
To the rip of flesh by nails
And the morning wakes in pain
As the mountain cracks again

Dave and Tom, December 8 in the abbey- missing John Lennon

Song by Phil Rickman and Allan Watson

My audio book arrived Monday from Isis and so of course I immediately had to rip it to my computer, put it on my mp3 player, and start listening. And was immediately mesmerized and enthralled! That Sean Barrett is marvelous, the story, of course, compelling. And to hear the strains of “The Ballad of Aelwyn Breadwinner” come floating up from the abyss just gave me chills.

The next evening I listened to more chapters, and on file #7 got to hear a bit of “The Comb Song” during the part about Moira’s growing up years. Yes, a little of my fluting is evident!- really thrilled.

Then I came to the portion where Moira talks to Donald after the Duchess’ funeral, and she tells him ……….. WHAT SHE DID WITH THE COMB… and my jaw dropped and my drowsy eyes flew open… wait a minute, that wasn’t in the book! I went to find my 2011 MHB Press edition to find the text, and sure enough, there it was. But then I checked the old tattered 1996 Berkley US version I’d read 3 times, and it was not there. Had Phil put new things into the MHB version that came out a year ago? Mystery. Hurrah for Kindle search feature: I searched the word “comb” in the Kindle version of December to find a whole bunch of references to it that were not in my old paperback! Have to admit sort of freaking out- it totally changes the story for me. I don’t want to completely spoil the story for people who may still need to read December, but the ancient mystical hair comb given to Moira by her Gypsy mother figures greatly in the story after all. Moira did something macabre with it, is warned that she is unprotected without it, misses it in her guitar case, tells her band mates about it in the Abbey, and then on the last page…. well, you have to hear/read it. All missing from the Berkley edition.

So, I mentioned it on PRAS, and Anne and Phil explained that the US publisher, Berkley, wanted to shorten the story and so left certain stuff out, Phil recalling being told that it needed to be more “accessible” to people in Ohio!!! And then the publisher dumped him for being “too British.” OK, if you know me, you know I’m a librarian and very much against censorship. To me this was at best censorship and at the very worst a travesty to change an author’s book. But to leave out such an important part of the plot… it’s just a sin. Not to mention an insult to American readers.

Of all things to cut, that was not even one of the more disturbing bits in the book. I mean, Simon and the brown candles, the dinner party bloodbath, the ghosts … why leave out the comb? They weren’t trying to protect those Ohioans from any gritty sex or murder. And it was so deliberate- these clever editors had to search out tiny bits on far-flung pages. Go through it with a fine-tooth… never mind. There’s a lonely sentence where Moira walks along the frosty ground and the bristly grass makes her think of the comb, now where it is … sentence gone. On the last page where the comb makes one more plot twist in barely a sentence – they had to find that and cut it on purpose. Why the comb?  Phil has added on PRAS that they may have left out the comb since they weren’t publishing Man in the Moss (due to Glasgow and Northern English accents) in which the comb story is retold, the song performed and the lyrics included, but again he says not the real reason, could embarrass someone yet. Being oblique as usual, the cheeky sod, -affectionately said.

So as I listen perhaps I’ll find more things that are new to me, things left out of the crappy US edition. Spread the word- DON’T read the butchered 1996 Berkley edition, or if you have, be sure to get hold of the original 1994 UK Macmillan, the 1995 paperback from Pan Books, the 2011 Mansion House or Kindle editions, or the new Isis audio book (on Audible, too) to get the unadulterated text of December. Sure wish I’d read the new MHB version when it came back in January- I assumed I knew the story well having read it three times. Then there was me writing a bleedin article about the book. I feel kind of duped.

In the US edition, “The Comb Song” is mentioned once, early on in describing Moira’s faded folk career. And that is the only mention of it or of a comb at all. I thought that Phil and Allan were stretching it a bit to include a song on the Abbey Tapes CD which features more heavily in The Man in the Moss, though I was glad they wereAnd while it is true that the song isn’t mentioned as being played at the Abbey, there’s a much stronger chance that it might have been, considering the comb’s importance to the book. Now that I know that, it is even more meaningful to me that I got to contribute a little to it.

Update as of Dec. 6, 2012- I finished listening to the audio book last night and it was marvelous! Scary and chilling and horrifying but satisfying and redemptive. I can pretty confidently say that the comb references were all that were new to me as a reader of only the butchered American Berkley Books edition. It remains a puzzle as to why that was omitted. It was a beautiful and I think essential part of the story. Anyone with ideas please comment.

From PRAS, Phil Rickman on the new Isis audio book: “Got to hand it to Isis and Sean Barrett. The audiobook of December is, in some ways, actually better than the book. At 21 hours long, it’s an epic production. Every character beautifully developed, even minor players like Moira’s dapper, slightly camp agent, Malcolm Kaufmann. And with the Philosopher’s Stone songs fading up here and there… well, it truly comes alive in your head. I can say all this because my contributions were minimal. So… it’s probably a pioneering venture in the field of audiobooks. More than a bit expensive, but don’t forget you can order it from your local library.”

The Audible download will follow in the UK on Dec. 1- will have to find out about in the US.

According to Phil Rickman,  “Sean Barrett starts recording the long-awaited December audio book next month… with six songs on there, from Bad Day to Holy Light. Better than a movie.”

Isis http://www.isis-publishing.co.uk/ has already included Hazey Jane II recordings in a couple of the Merrily Watkins audio books. These are unique in the audio book world! Exciting.

A detail from The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby

Richard Winham and I talked about the Abbey Tapes project and played many of the tracks on WUTC.org, the NPR station at the Univ. of TN at Chattanooga. It was an hour long radio program airing in February 2012.  That interview and our March program on the 2 Hazey Jane II CDs are here for download: https://spideroak.com/browse/share/Julie_Adams/Radio

Richard commented that the music was beautiful and stood on its own even apart from the books and that this fiction/music collaboration was unique. I’ve been listening to Richard’s fantastic radio programs for years, so it was a thrill to meet him! In fact it was he who introduced me to the music of Richard Thompson and other artists that surprisingly few Americans know about.

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The beautiful cover design is by Bev Craven; photography by John Mason. Order the CD from Terry: cottageindustries@ledwardine.co.uk


With Phil’s permission I’m posting the awesome CD cover art by Bev Craven.

John Gilmour Smith, Cheryl Reid, Allan Watson and Stevie Patrick as Philosopher’s Stone