Six months earlier on my first visit to London, weeks after I’d arrived in England, I stayed with Van Morrison for a few days in Blenheim Crescent off Ladbrooke Grove where he lived with a woman named Dee. He was lead singer with Belfast band Them and had already notched up a few hits. The previous year I’d been at a solo gig he played in a tiny crowded cellar under a shop on the Antrim Road close to where I grew up. Just him on guitar and harmonica, singing the blues. It was around the time that Baby Please Don’t Go had reached the top 10 and was being used as the theme tune for Ready Steady Go on Friday night TV. He was already a star in Belfast, famed for his fiery red hair and raucous performances at the Maritime Hotel with Them. That night in the cellar of Guy’s shop I heard something else, deep and soulful that presaged where Van was going with this.
One song in particular, some obscure blues number, had really grabbed me. I can’t remember what it was called although I don’t think I ever knew. That night in Van’s first floor flat we sat across the low coffee table with a bottle of ruby wine and a guitar and exchanged songs. I described the song I’d heard him play in the cellar. He knew which one I meant right away and played it, minus harmonica, probably because it was so late. When he went to bed I sat on the couch with my guitar trying to write a new song.
My bottle’s empty, my bed is bare (3)
I’ve gone dancing beside the sea.
But I’d drunk too much wine and was sliding into sentimentality when my stomach rebelled and sent me racing for the bathroom. Fortunately I made it just in time.
The next morning I drove into London in the back of a VW with Dee at the wheel and Van in the front seat. Radio London was playing. The early Spring sun was shining. The world was on uppers. The imperious buildings of Mayfair filled me with a sense of history although I knew it was only mine by default. Car horns blared. Red buses, crowded pavements, places names familiar from the Monopoly board, wide important streets. The throbbing heart of the capital. Here I was in the midst of what previously I’d seen only in films. Then, to underline the significance of the moment, from the radio came Van’s distinctive vocal “Here it comes, here comes the night.”
Van introduced me to Southern Music in Denmark Street or Tin Pan Alley as it was popularly known. They’d just published Donovan. John Carter listened to my songs and immediately opted for three, recorded them in the basement, got me to sign a contract and paid me a five deposit on each. It was like selling my babies and strangely I can only recall fragments of those songs! They were called Memories, Death of a rebel and Waiting for the train and I’d written them before leaving Belfast.
Later that night I played a support slot at the Marquee Club hosted by Long John Baldry and featuring Al Stewart and John Renbourne/Doris Henderson. Van and some other members of Them came to the gig. They paid me a fiver. In one day I had earned more than my father earned in a week. But the most important thing for me about the whole transaction was it confirmed my belief in myself as a songwriter. That was the only publishing endorsement I ever sought. To be honest I didn’t need any more. What I sought was authenticity and integrity in my songwriting. To write outside the box, to write from experience, to feed the imagination and to deepen my appreciation of the craft and I’d only just begun.
Years later I came upon a quote about the Marquee gig. It was from City Beat’s London correspondent. It said “Is it true that Paul Murphy is working in a Salford laundry? John Lee Hooker praised his performance at the Marquee Club. That is high praise indeed!”