EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview with Bert Jansch was originally posted back in April when he opened for Neil Young. We are re-running it again upon learning the sad news that he passed away yesterday at the age of 67. The Guardian has an excellent obit you can read HERE.
“As much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix] was, Bert Jansch is the same thing for acoustic guitar…and my favourite” – Neil Young
Legendary folk guitarist Bert Jansch, who opens for Neil Young at the Tower tonight and tomorrow, emerged as one of the leading lights of the British folk revival in the mid-60s, staring down the camera on the cover of his debut like James Dean at at hootenanny. His early solo recordings — most notably his self-titled 1965 debut — deftly wedded ancient folk traditions with post-war American jazz and Delta blues, a fleet-fingered hybrid that would catch the fancy of people like Donovan and Nick Drake. In 1967, Jansch went on to form Pentangle with John Rebourn which, while not quite the satanic drug-folk the name conjures, often inhabited the middle ground between spellbinding and mesmerizing. Pentangle’s recorded six albums of pre-electric jazz-folk sorcery — all dueling baroque guitars and feverish drumming, bowed upright bass and trilling, flute-like vocals — before disbanding in 1972. Jansch resumed his solo career, touring regularly and recording over 25 albums over the course of the next four decades, more than earning his rep as a guitar player’s guitar player. In addition to then-contemporaries like Neil Young and Jimmy Page, Jansch counts Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Pete Doherty and Devendra Banhart as acolytes. We recently got Jansch on the horn to discuss his connections with Nick Drake and Devnendra Banhart, his participation in The Libertines reunion, the druid-folk reveries of Pentangle and getting ripped off by Led Zeppelin…
PHAWKER: Legend has it you recorded your first album, which would be hailed as a classic, was recorded with a borrowed guitar. Is that true?
BERT JANSCH: There were about four different guitars on there.
PHAWKER: So only one of them was [borrowed]?
BERT JANSCH: No, four. There were four [borrowed] guitars.
PHAWKER: You were not in possession of a guitar at the time?
BERT JANSCH: No, no.
PHAWKER: So, how did you learn to master the guitar if you didn’t even own one?
BERT JANSCH: I used to borrow guitars from friends.
PHAWKER: And just prior to recording your first album you worked as a nurseryman. That’s an attendant at a plant nursery, correct? How did you get into that line of work?
BERT JANSCH: Well as a child I used to go to this nursery that my brother worked at. He was a nurseryman and I used to go after school and during school holidays. And the first year after school I just worked at the nursery before the guitar took over.
PHAWKER: And tell me how you got into music. Was there a recording that you heard or did you see an amazing live performance that changed your life?
BERT JANSCH: Well I think basically it was because I discovered a folk club about when I was 15. A school friend had said there was a pub up the high street in Edinburgh and that I should check it out because he knows I was interested in the guitar. We both went up there and we took lessons from a girl called Jill Doyle. Fortunately for me she was the sister of Davey Graham, who is my all-time hero when it comes to the guitar. So, I mean from that point on, I sort of bypassed The Beatles and all that.
PHAWKER: And this folk club is called The Howff? Am I pronouncing that correctly?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, that’s right.
PHAWKER: What does that mean?
BERT JANSCH: It’s Gaelic for “meeting place”.
PHAWKER: It sounds spookier than that. It sounds kind of like a dragon or Kraken or something like that. ‘Release the Howff!’
BERT JANSCH: Well, ha ha, the whole Gaelic language is a bit like that.
PHAWKER: You soon established an association with Donovan, who eventually covered one of your songs. Do you remember when you first met up with him?
BERT JANSCH: Well, I first met Donovan after I’d made my first album, I think, down in London. But we didn’t do gigs together. We hung out together for a little while. And he was definitely much more in the commercial side of things than I was.
PHAWKER: Now he often got slammed for being a sort of Dylan knock-off. But I’ve also read people that compared you to Dylan at the time…
BERT JANSCH: I think everybody was trying to do that, but I didn’t take much notice of all that.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the incident where Jimmy Page allegedly stole your song “Black Waterside” and recorded it as “Black Mountainside” on the first Zeppelin record. And it’s my understanding that you were looking into actually suing him about this, but that it would require you to put up quite a bit of money in order to start legal proceedings and you were too broke at the time. Is that true?
BERT JANSCH: Well, you’ve got to remember it’s not me that’s involved here, I was just a singer and guitar player. It was the record company who was suing for breach of copyright. It’s got nothing to do with me.
PHAWKER: Okay, but I mean were you offended by this? Did you care?
BERT JANSCH: No, not at all.
PHAWKER: Didn’t care?
BERT JANSCH: Well I did care, but I don’t go around suing people let’s put it that way.
PHAWKER: Did Led Zeppelin ever give you any compensation?
BERT JANSCH: No, no.
PHAWKER: How about your association with Nick Drake? Was there an association? I know he covered one of your songs. Were you guys friends?
BERT JANSCH: No, I never met him.
PHAWKER: Oh, really?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah. I knew of him. I knew quite a few of the songs that he sang. At the time I was actually supposed to meet him, then he died.
BERT JANSCH: Because he used to work with [Pentangle bassist] Danny Thompson quite a lot and that’s how I knew of him.
BERT JANSCH: Yeah.
PHAWKER: I wanted to ask you about Pentangle. Who chose the name and why?
BERT JANSCH: John [Renbourn] chose the name. I have no idea why. He just came up with it one day.
PHAWKER: It has a number of associations, religious or otherwise, and I think more recognizably, at least in this country, is a sort of cult association. Were you guys dabbling in that kind of thing at all? I know that was sort of in the air back in the late 60’s.
BERT JANSCH: No, no. In folk music it appears quite a lot in different folk songs. So, from our point of view, it represented the five members of the band. You know, being a five-pointed star. And, actually, the word ‘pentangle,’ well John Renbourn invented it as far as I know. You can’t find it in any registry.
PHAWKER: Right. Well there’s a similar word. A pentacle, I think.
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, a pentacle.
PHAWKER: So you guys actually coined the word ‘pentangle’?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah. John did.
PHAWKER: I’ve also read that Charles Mingus was an influence on you. Is that true and how so?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, yeah. Because remember that, being young musicians at the time, we’d listen to all sorts of music without exception. Be it rock n’ roll or jazz or whatever. I used to love to listen to John Coltrane and Mingus Big Band. Roland Kirk. All sorts of stuff like that.
PHAWKER: Now you’re familiar with the story, obviously, of Robert Johnson and how when he started playing the guitar, he was at best sort of an okay player. And then he went away for a while and then he came back. When he came back he was, you know, a stunning player and this legend sprung up that he made a deal with the Devil at the crossroads. It’s my understanding that when you were a young man, you embarked on a very lengthy busking tour across Europe all the way to Morocco where you picked up a lot of your more unusual techniques and unique voicing and things like that. Is that correct?
BERT JANSCH: Well, basically, I was following my mentor, Davey Graham, who did exactly what you just described. And I was following in his footsteps. In fact, Davey went a lot further than I did. He went to India and other far away places, you know.
PHAWKER: I just thought it was curious that you went away on a long journey and when you came back you were this amazing guitar player, and I was wondering, if like the legend of Robert Johnson, you made a pact with the Devil and he gave you miraculous guitar skills in exchange for your eternal soul. Did that ever happen?
BERT JANSCH: Ha ha. No. I have no conception of the Devil at all. I am non-religious.
PHAWKER: It would be a lot more interesting interview if you did, though.
BERT JANSCH: Why?
PHAWKER: Because the Devil sells newspapers. He puts asses in the seats.
BERT JANSCH: It’s up to you. You’re the one who’s doing the interview, not me.
PHAWKER: Alright, I’ll take the blame for this interview not being satanic enough. Jumping ahead to more recent history, you’ve recorded with Devendra Banhart?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, yeah.
PHAWKER: What do you make of him? How did that come about and how would you characterize his music?
BERT JANSCH: Well, he is very much like a modern-day troubadour. He’s very gifted at getting ideas across to people. The gigs that we did together were great. They were fantastic.
PHAWKER: And then you also…
BERY JANSCH: I also joined his band for a while.
PHAWKER: You did, right. When was that?
BERT JANSCH: 2008, I think, or 2006.
PHAWKER: How long did it last?
BERT JANSCH: About a week. We teamed up together because I was already doing a couple of gigs on the West Coast and he asked me if I would join him in a few gigs and also he was instrumental in me meeting Neil Young at The Bridge School Benefit. That’s how Neil and I became acquainted
PHAWKER: Oh, is that how that came about?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, yeah.
PHAWKER: Interesting. I just assumed you guys had some association that went back farther than that.
BERT JANSCH: Well, we met each other back in the 60s, but since then, you know, I haven’t had any contact with him.
PHAWKER: You did some things with Pete Doherty, you played on the Babyshambles record?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, that was great.
PHAWKER: Most Americans, if they know about Pete Doherty at all, it’s all tabloid stuff and I think the image that most people have is that he’s always walking around with a needle sticking out of his arm. But, I’m assuming he must have had his act together if you were going to be performing with him or recording with him. Correct?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, I don’t know much about that side of it because, to me, his performances on gigs were fantastic and he had the audience in his grasp. It was fantastic, really.
BERT JANSCH: He’s a brilliant musician.
PHAWKER: Okay. And you also played at a reunion gig between him and Carl Barat from The Libertines. Correct?
BERT JANSCH: Yeah. Those are the gigs that I’ve done with him.
PHAWKER: Wow. That’s pretty awesome, I really love that first Libertines record.
BERT JANSCH: Yeah, I just did a solo spot very similar to what I did with Neil.
PHAWKER: Oh, okay. You were sort of an opening thing. It wasn’t like you guys were playing together?
BERT JANSCH: Well, we did. He wanted to play “Needle of Death”. And, you know, I hadn’t done it for years so I played the guitar and Pete actually sung the song.
PHAWKER: And “Needle of Death” is a song off of your first record and it’s sort of an anti-heroin song. You had friends or associates that had gotten messed up on it back in Glasgow. Is that true?
BERT JANSCH: Well, ha ha, bits of it are true. It’s a song about a friend of mine from London when I first came down to London and met up with him. And two or three months after meeting him he died of heroin.
PHAWKER: Sorry to hear it.
BERT JANSCH: I mean he’d been clean for a while and he had an argument with his wife and then he went straight back onto the level of heroin that he was taking before. And it killed him.
PHAWKER: Okay. Last question I wanted to ask you is: Neil Young famously said that you are to the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar. A. What would you make of that? And B. Did you ever meet Hendrix and what do you make of Hendrix’s music?
BERT JANSCH: I think he’s fantastic. Really is. Or was. I did a show with him in the early 70s at the Royal Festival Hall in London along with Paco Peña and Tim Walker, a classical guitar player. The four of us on the bill, and I met Jimi then. And he was very quiet and everything. He was very quiet as a person. He was a delight to meet. And then when he started playing, he was completely different.
PHAWKER: And how old are you now, Bert?
BERT JANSCH: 67.
PHAWKER: 67. And I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about being a folk musician. Unlike a rock n’ roller you don’t have to be a young man. Correct?
BERT JANSCH: Ha ha. Well I don’t know. There are actually many, many, many rock n’ rollers who are in their 60s, you know.
PHAWKER: They have gotten older and older. Well, I should put it this way, if you are a folk musician you don’t have to be a young man to avoid looking ridiculous.
BERT JANSCH: Well, I don’t know. How many do you know that look ridiculous? They are just people, you know. And they are doing what they’ve always done all their lives. My music is a bit more sedate than Rock n’ Roll. It doesn’t mean to say that I haven’t lived a Rock n’ Roll life though.
PHAWKER: I’m sorry. You said that that doesn’t mean you haven’t lived a Rock n’ Roll life?
BERT JANSCH: No, I didn’t say that.
BERT JANSCH & HOPE SANDOVAL: All This Remains