For those of us tuned to his frequency, guitarist and songwriter Michael Chapman’s origin story was a legend the likes of which don’t seem to be written much any more. As the tale goes, one rainy night in the late 1960s he went to a pub in Cornwall, but didn’t have the money to enter. “So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I don’t want to stand outside in the rain; I’ll play guitar for half an hour for you,’” he once wrote. “They offered me a job for the rest of the summer and I’ve been at it ever since.”
When I met Michael around 2013, I was well aware of, and quite awestruck by, his history – his years as a key figure orbiting the London folk scene alongside players including Bert Jansch, Bridget St John and John Martyn; his time playing with and shaping the musicians that became David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars; his studio work with producers and arrangers such as Gus Dudgeon, Paul Buckmaster and Don Nix – but I was unprepared for how wide open, approachable and loving he was. In his later years, Michael had become something of an elder statesman for music heads like myself with a deep appreciation for the type of bleary, autumnal songs that live in the grooves of records like Fully Qualified Survivor, Millstone Grit, Window, Deal Gone Down, and my favourite, Wrecked Again. For many musicians, including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Jack Rose, William Tyler, Steve Gunn and myself, Michael was the connector between the big, wide world of English folk rock in the 70s – he once told me that he filled in at the last minute for Traffic at a massive festival because Steve Winwood wasn’t feeling well – and the marginal, underground musical universe that we then inhabited.
Michael could be gruff. Once in Dublin, I asked him whether he would join me on a rendition of Bob Dylan’s Meet Me in the Morning, to which he grumbled, “Why would I cover him? He’s never covered any of my songs.” Over time I learned that his prickliness hid a warmth and thoughtfulness that even a lifetime on the road couldn’t dull. He finished every phone conversation with: “I love you.” Wrytree, the old stone farmhouse on the windswept patch of land in Yorkshire not far from Hadrian’s Wall where Michael lived with Andru, his partner since the early 1960s, was a destination for many of us on the road.
I remember ending up there late at night after a gig in Glasgow and being boisterously welcomed by Michael and Andru with a table full of crusty bread, cheese, warm soup, and copious amounts of red wine. We stayed up until daylight listening to records including Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um and the Jimmy Giuffre Trio’s Western Suite on Michael’s hi-fi system at volumes that rattled the glassware – his love for jazz was deep and abiding and he once told me that Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue was his favourite album of all time. And Michael told great stories, my favourite being his recollection of an ill-fated tour in 1971 opening for Cannonball Adderley during which his band abandoned him and he somehow ended up playing guitar in the funeral band for saxophonist King Curtis.
Michael’s records were always great and grooving, his singing voice was always gorgeously burred and slurred, and his music never seemed in a hurry to get anywhere. He was the deepest lifer I’ve ever met. As anyone that knew him will attest, he loved red wine, old guitars, jazz and Andru. Once, after playing a small gig in Brighton, Michael and I crashed at the home of a stranger who offered to let us sleep on their hardwood floor. He turned to me as we were going to sleep side by side under borrowed blankets and said, “I love this life. We are so lucky.” At a time in my life when I had begun to wonder what being a musician for life might look like, Michael appeared, full of joy and wisdom and love and soul and hilarious stories, always looking forward to the next gig. We should all be so lucky.