Colin Vearncombe - A Wonderful Life
Colin Vearncombe – A Wonderful Life
Tonight I bade a sad farewell to singer-songwriter Colin Vearncombe and gave thanks for his wonderful life and his wonderful music. How nice it was to see so many doing likewise at Liverpool Cathedral. The numbers of people there and, more than that, their passion were great testimony to the respect, love and affection in which Colin is held. He was a “private, ordinary man” who had an extraordinary capacity to touch people and move people, make them feel better. It was that innocence and beautiful naivety combined with a depth of understanding which meant Colin could strike so deep a chord with so many. His intimate and deeply personal songs get through.
In one of his final recordings, Parade, the final song on his final album, ‘Blind Faith’, Colin writes that ‘we leave with nothing.’ Maybe so. But we can leave plenty behind if we live well. Colin has left plenty behind. His words, music, and memories touched so many when he was alive and his legacy is that they will continue to touch those people most in need of them.
I remember first hearing Colin very well indeed. It seems strange to recall now, but it was that time when Wonderful Life was yet to be a big hit and yet to be known to the wider public. It had instant classic status to my ears. Then came “Sweetest Smile” and that first album. Colin was getting better and better as a singer and as a songwriter, he was really coming into his stride with a powerful, mature, take on life and its living. From that youthful classic first album to “Blind Faith”, all life is in there, in Colin’s songs of innocence and experience. Colin Vearncombe was one of the finest singers and songwriters to have come out of the singing city of Liverpool – one of the finest from anywhere, period - and he left a solid body of work that the world will be exploring and appreciating for years to come. More than that, Colin was a wonderfully rounded human being, someone who struck such a deep chord with so many on account of his knowing that a full human life was an experience of the dark as well as the light, the painful as well as the joyous. He lived his life with love and affection and filled his music with the full range of human emotions: love and regret, loss and separation, heartbreak and loneliness, and union and love again. Colin was a beautiful soul. I have been reading Colin's words in the sleeve notes to his final CD, the marvellous Blind Faith: "In the modern world it is all too easy to feel alone in a crowded room. I don't feel alone anymore." Those words are so sad, so poignant. You are not alone, Colin. And even in the days when you thought you were, there were people like me out there somewhere, feeling alone with everybody, listening, hearing a familiar voice, and taking solace in having found a kindred spirit.
It’s worth commenting on Colin’s band name “Black”. Colin brought energy, affection, love and light to many lonely souls out there. He knew that life wasn’t always a happy experience, that there was pain and suffering as well as joy. We live in a culture that has dinned into our psyche that darkness is bad, something to fear, silence, repress, something to deny and run away from. That can’t always be done, we sometimes have no choice. A summit is nothing without the foothills. The dark is ‘bad’ and light is 'good' says a dominant strain in our culture. I agree with psychologist Carl Gustav Jung here, who argued that if you don't have a pile of rotten stuff to work with, then you should go out and get some. No matter how painful, if we are to carry on making a life, we sometimes have to go to these ‘dark’ places and gather the rotten stuff in a pile and treat it as compost if we are to grow. A full life is made up of the dark as well as the light. Much healthy growth that sees the light of day originates in the dark, in the womb or deep underground in the soil, new life to be. I like Colin’s song ‘Black is the Colour of Hope’. I like the fact that the Black compilation album, with tracks voted on by the fans, is called ‘Any Colour You Like’. A life well lived is lived in all colours. It’s just that there are times when we don’t get to choose, or feel powerless to choose. ‘Black’ got through to many lost and lonely souls out there in the most soulless of times. In that way, 'black' brought a little light into the lives of those who felt most alone, abandoned or adrift.
Colin wrote 'All we need is the Money' to show his love and admiration for the people of Liverpool. This evening, people in Liverpool showed their love for him. But there were people from all over the world present in body and spirit. The claim that we have lost one of the most extraordinary singer-songwriters we have been blessed to know received a rousing and rumbustious standing ovation. I was, of course, clapping very loudly myself in full agreement with that statement.
Colin Vearncombe was one of the finest singers and songwriters Britain has ever produced. Or ever will. Simple as that. And a lovely man. Much loved by those lucky enough to have heard him. I was a fan from before Wonderful Life was a hit. Been with his music for thirty years now. I'll miss him.
I was always mystified as to why he never "made it", naively thinking in terms of pop hits. Of course he "made it", he made some of the most beautiful music in history. He wasn't "underrated", everyone who heard him rated him highly. He was just undiscovered by many. I have no doubt at all that his substantial musical legacy will endure with the passing of the years, no doubt at all.
With Blind Faith, Colin was writing and singing beautifully. There was so much more to come. But apart from the wonderful music, he was such a lovely guy. Life ... live it while you can, follow your passion, trust your heart, back your talent. I like how Colin escaped the corporate clutches and could express himself directly through his music. That's some achievement. So, yes, live life while you can - and appreciate the wonderful talents in our midst while they are with us, we are truly blessed to have them singing our songs, our hopes, dreams, disappointments and heartbreaks. They won't always be with us in person, however much the music lives on.
"In a fairer world, standouts such as The Love Show and Ashes of Angels would have made their way on to the Radio 2 playlist and helped alert the wider world to the fact that few other songwriters of his generation were quite as adept at Vearncombe when it came to setting battle-weary intimacies to an exquisite melody."
"How bitterly ironic that the one thing that might finally get people listening to his music beyond that one hit is the fact that he’s no longer here to see that happen."
'He will be remembered as a fine singer and songwriter, one of the best to come from a musical city. He had a cult following but many of his albums deserve more attention. "I despair of some of the songs that do become popular," he said, "it really sickens me that the vocabulary of the popular song is now down to about 200 words. It's like they are taking the mickey out of their audiences. You always have to do your best and use some ingenuity."'
"Colin Vearncombe was born in Liverpool on May 26 1962. A fan of Elvis Presley, he used to say that he was born in the week that Presley’s Good Luck Charm was at No 1."
If ever you needed another reason to rate this guy tops... an Elvis fan...
I have spent years telling one and all that here was a voice it should hear. People around the world will think “Beatles” when you mention Liverpool. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it, so much great music has come from Liverpool since The Beatles. In the 1960’s, poet Allen Ginsberg said that Liverpool was the ‘centre of the universe’. It was quite a fall from there to mass unemployment in the 1980s. The response was a great creative musical explosion from the city, and this was our self-expression, our self-identity, our attempt to say that we still existed, still mattered. This was my time. You can hear in Pete Wylie, it’s there in The Christians, the Icicle Works, the Bunnymen, Michael Head and the Pale Fountains, China Crisis, It’s Immaterial, The Lotus Eaters, Cook da Books, Thomas Lang, Alternative Radio, The Wild Swans, Teardrop Explodes etc. etc. Anyone remember The Reverb Brothers? Brian Atherton and the Light? I do. These were my “John, Paul, George and Ringo”. And it hurts to say goodbye.
At the end of the Memorial Service, we were treated to Colin on screen singing an acapella version of Wonderful Life. Colin wrote this, his most famous song, at a time when he was homeless. He dedicated this version to all those who are needlessly suffering in the world today, the homeless, the displaced, migrants etc etc.
So long, Colin, a friend on some long and lonely nights in the past. We’ll miss you at The Citadel here in St Helens.
Beyond absence to presence, to that place where all tears are wiped away.
Listen That sometimes your life begins to go in directions you don't like. You can't resist the flow. If you listen then you might. Then you might.
Tonight, we heard that Colin's life is but a breath away. We remain close. That made me think of Ecclesiastes. The author of Ecclesiastes is a man who has everything - palaces, vineyards, gardens, parks, pools, servants. He finds that all the wealth and success in the world mean nothing:
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?
The key word of Ecclesiastes – used thirty-eight times - is 'hevel'. This is usually translated as 'vain', 'pointless' or 'meaningless'. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, however, points out that the word means 'a breath'. ‘As in many other ancient languages, the Hebrew words for soul or life are all forms of respiration. Nefesh, 'life', comes from the verb meaning 'to breathe deeply'. Neshamah, 'soul', means 'to inhale'. Ruach, 'spirit', also means 'wind'. Hevel is a part of this family of words. It means specifically 'a shallow breath'. (Sacks 2011: 189).
The point of Ecclesiastes, then, is not that life is meaningless and human beings without hope, quite the contrary. The point is that seeking meaning in wealth and possessions, even in books and wisdom, is futile, since life is just a fleeting breath. And because life is a fleeting breath, it is precious and should be appreciated when we have it. Ecclesiastes does not encourage despair in the meaninglessness of life at all but calls upon us to contemplate the vulnerability of life and thus come to appreciate the life we are privileged to have while we have it.
Parade, the final song on the final album. Breathe in, breathe out ...
Go home Lie down Breathe in Breathe out Be here Look up Feel safe Feel warm
As all the stars are free to die All the birds are free to fly Tied to the sky Til all the stars and birds are gone Walk on ,walk on Breathe in , breathe out
As all the stars are free to die All the birds are free to fly Tied to the sky
We gather up the dreams we need to fly But leave with nothing We leave with nothing
Walk on , walk on Be here Lie down Breathe in Breathe out Be here Look up Walk on……
And this, an absolute beauty of a song, says it all for me. From the first, Colin was singing for all those looking for home, a resting place, a place to be.
I can’t find my way home It’s still a place I need to be Can someone show me any place, That could be home for me
Not back there in the North In the windswept bitter cold With the sidewalks growing grass Where we would only grow old
And all the mines are gone But no one knows or cares If a thing is not nailed down It was never there
I still remember how it seemed An old-world symphony of tears And now what I want’s always beyond my reach Where the river bends
Wasn’t down here in the South Always on nightshift or on call There’s no sunshine in the streets The buildings grew so tall And no-one sees your eyes But from a corner of their own And they only really feel it when the balance has all gone
They don’t care how And they don’t care why It’s enough to make a grown man cry, and I do What’s it to you?
If I can’t find my way home And it’s still a place I need to be Seems what I want’s always beyond my reach And where the river bends
Singing songs down from the trees To race across the open fields Around the trucks like carrion for the fall And the fruit we tried to steal
I cannot find my way home, Empty places packed and gone As if what I want’s always beyond the point Of where the river bends
Just where the river bends
Where the river bends
And here’s my next stop, tomorrow, California here I come, with a message of social and environmental justice. One day, my shadow will catch up with me. But he’ll have to be quick. Watch out. California Colin Vearncombe performing "California" with Callum MacColl at The Citadel, St Helens, Merseyside, England on 19 April 2013
Wonderful video created for, and played at the memorial service celebrating the life of Colin Vearncombe, held at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, 19th February 2016. Credit to the Cathedral for allowing swear words, for allowing the direct expression of a truth about the way we are messing up big time on this planet. A song dedicated to all those suffering needlessly in the world right now.