A few weeks ago I visited the Museum of German History in Berlin, which is much more interesting than it sounds. Amongst all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff from the Middle Ages was a text analysis of Medieval society. It was a very structured society: everyone had their place, depending on what family, class, or profession they were born into. Social mobility was most often achieved by strategic marriages. There were two kinds of people, though, who were considered 'outside' of normal society. The rules did not apply to them, which might not sound so bad, except that society also owed them, and often gave them, nothing. Those two kinds of people were Beggars and Minstrels—i.e. musicians.

I'll return to this theme, but first I want to thank all the people who've sent emails asking if I'm OK, under what I will try to be content to refer to as 'the circumstances'. I'm flattered, though at the same time, I can't help wondering what's the point of announcing that I'm fine unless I keep on doing so, pretty much on a daily basis. On top of which, I think some of my peers have been royally embarrassing themselves online. Better, I thought, to just keep quiet. But at some point you have to do something, and people keep urging me to write something, so here I am. I'm not sure I am 'fine', though. There's a difference between just being free of illness, and being really healthy, just as there's a difference between just being alive—as in 'not dead'—and actually living. People have said 'you must be doing a lot of writing, eh?' Well, I've forced myself to do a bit, but it's been hard. I've found lockdown-with-no-end-in-sight creatively deadening, and it's taken me a while to figure out why. Now I think I know, and it's connected to one of the weirdest questions I get asked by journalists: do you make music for an audience, or for yourself? I thought it was obvious that we're all doing both, though we may lean a bit more towards one than the other.

It's clearer to me now, though, which side I come down on. All the writing I've ever done, has been with the intention, somewhere in the back of my mind, of playing it with other musicians, recording it, releasing it, promoting it, planning tours, putting bands and road crews together, and most of all, performing to an audience. It's all about connecting people. Lockdown is the opposite. It's really hard to try to create something with no idea of how, when, or if it will ever be shared.

For the record, you can put me down as one of those people—call us what you like—who are more and more convinced that the damage caused by lockdown and continuing restrictions, will be much worse than the damage caused by a virus. Plenty of scientists are saying the same thing, and I could cite all kinds of sources and statistics, but in my experience people either want to believe things or they don't, and anyway, who am I? Only a minstrel! Either way, a lot more of us are going to be beggars in the near future. A lot of my friends and colleagues will be both, if they're not already.

More generally, and apart from current 'circumstances', there are ways that musicians can make a difference to people's lives and ways we can't. I don't really like the idea of 'political' music. It never quite made sense to me; it's not what music is for, is it? You can put political ideas into lyrics if you like—and if it's what you feel you must do, then have at it, and good luck to you. But you could probably do the same thing more effectively in an essay, an article, or a book, and if you're really that passionate and want to make a difference, then get politically involved, don't just sing about it. 'Political' artists and entertainers may fancy themselves as brave and rebellious, but mostly they know their audience, and are preaching to the choir. When they start preaching at me, I start yawning.

(Some people have detected 'political' themes in some of my songs, for which I can only apologise. They're probably in earlier songs, from when I thought I was cleverer than I was, and in any case they would have been pretty oblique, or even found their way in there completely by accident). 

Making music is not a life-or-death issue, it's a quality-of-life issue. It's not about how society should be organised, but about how it can be more enjoyable, more soulful, and more alive. Some people say that 'everything is political', and I don't actually disagree. I just think it's one way of looking at it, and there are others. A lot of current 'political' controversies are in any case more about culture, than traditional political concerns such as class and money. In one of my What I'm Listening To blog posts a couple of years ago, I said that getting into any debate these days about things like race and gender was like being thrown into a swimming pool full of rabid chihuahuas. If anything, the chihuahuas are turning into Rottweilers. I keep hearing that everything has become more divided, and I'm not sure if that's true or whether it's more that the extremes have gotten louder. But I've noticed that being a political centrist who tries to be rational and fair, feels lonelier than it used to. 


'OK Joe, how about a new WILT, about what you've been listening to under lockdown in the UK?' Well, I don't really have the heart for more than a rough sketch, but here goes. 

Colombian music. Lots of different artists. 

Classic Cuban and New York latin music. As well as enjoyably cheesy latin-pop and 'Bugalú' by people like Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. 

Count Basie. Especially the earlier stuff, with people like Jo Jones, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing . . . 

Ella Fitzgerald and early Billie Holiday. 

Django Reinhardt. My God, he was great. Duke Ellington said he was the greatest European jazz musician, and he's still right. 

XTC (and their wacky alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear, a fictional psychedelic rock band from 1967-8. Their complete works have been compiled, re-mixed, re-mastered, and released as Psurroundabout Ride). 

Bob Marley. Especially Kaya(And Toots Hibbert, RIP). 

Beethoven. Especially the third and ninth symphonies. And not because I don't know how great and underrated the second and fourth are!

Ancient recordings of British Music Hall artists. (The ones that were still alive when recordings started to become almost listenable). 

Marlene Dietrich singing Ich Hab' Noch Einen Koffer In Berlin. Living most of her life in exile, she sings of still having a suitcase in Berlin, which she will someday go back and claim. When she opens the suitcase, her former life will come spilling out. But is the suitcase still there? 

German lessons online. Well, it's What I'm Listening To! Hey, they just sent me a certificate saying that, after all this time having einen Koffer in Berlin, my official level is Intermediate. But it's only a 'virtual certificate', and my German is still crap.

Dr. John. Including some lesser-known stuff like his enjoyably peculiar Ellington tribute Duke Elegant. 

Ray Charles. The old Atlantic albums: What'd I Say, Hallelujah I Love Her So, Yes Indeed, The Genius of Ray Charles

Etta James's late albums: The Right Time, Life, Love and the Blues, Let's Roll.

The Pogues. With a side of Dropkick Murphys. And a wee glass of Green Spot.

Fela Kuti and Le Tout-Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou. 

J.S. Bach's solo violin music.  

I always expected to live the life of a beggar and a minstrel, and sometimes I still find it hard to believe that I've actually done pretty well. Though I'm far from happy with what's going on around me, I'm deeply grateful that I put out a new album and did six successful months of touring . . . last year. But more importantly, I'm grateful for having had some mid-level success back when such a thing was still profitable. That's another reason I'm not putting self-indulgent, self-pitying videos online. The fact is, I will probably not be reduced to poverty by the current 'circumstances'.

But again: being 'not-dead' is one thing, and living is another. And many of my fellow musicians, and the people we work with, will indeed be reduced to poverty, or at best to an even more stressful and uncertain life than they'd already been reduced to in recent years—in a business that's supposed to be fun. (Does anyone remember fun?!)

Like those ragged medieval itinerants, we know now that we are among the most dispensable members of society, the last ones whose world might get back to something like normal, if it ever does. In the meantime, I have no interest in being filmed playing the piano at home, or jamming with other musicians via Zoom, or streamed performances recorded in empty clubs. For me, a live performance without an audience just isn't a live performance, and I can't help feeling: it's not my fault I'm not being allowed to do what I do, but must I do a half-assed, sad-assed, compromised version of it? It's not easy for me to say this, because I want to applaud people for making some kind of effort, and I don't claim to speak for all musicians—I hope I'm not that foolish. But I can't be the only one who finds all this stuff, on a gut level, somehow a bit desperate and even demeaning.

Finally: it's not like me to sound so pessimistic, and now that I've got all that off my chest, I can say that I'm plotting and scheming and not ready to throw in the towel. And if anyone has any better ideas than the above, I would be very pleased to hear from them.

J J