Remembering Pete

Pete Ham

Photo: Barry Plummer

But don’t you worry you love of ours,

They look like weeds but they’re really flowers

And they’ll soon be gone

– Dennis

This Saturday April 27th will mark Pete Ham’s 66th birthday. All birthdays are special, but this one has extra significance as Pete will be honoured in his home town of Swansea with the unveiling of a special heritage blue plaque at the Swansea Railway Station on Ivey Place. There will also be a tribute concert that night honouring Pete as well as The Iveys and Badfinger, featuring former members of both bands, notably Ron Griffiths, David Jenkins and Bob Jackson.

Like most of his many fans I can’t be there to celebrate Pete, so I thought I might write a few words of appreciation to try and show what Pete’s music means to me. What started out as a few words of thanks grew into something bigger, as it alway does when I write about something that is so personal to me.

The profound impact of Pete Ham’s music upon me was instantaneous. There was no gradual appreciation of his songs through repeated listenings. Many of the musicians I have come to love or admire have taken time to move beyond the head to the heart. This is almost impossible with Pete. His music is so direct and so personal that it is like giving the listener an ultimatum – let me into your heart or let me go. It is essentially that simple for me, there is no middle ground.

The lines that begin this piece are from the song “Dennis”. I chose these lines because for me they capture a feeling that runs through all of Pete’s music. The first line is comforting, reassuring. One of the great strengths of Pete’s writing is his tremendous sense of empathy. There is never any hint of a lack of conviction, and because of this there is always a solidity to his songs, a defined and constant backbone.

The second line reflects the beauty that Pete saw in the world – there was always light amongst the darkness. This darkness was ever present, however. The tone of the final line “And they’ll soon be gone” is a constant in Pete’s songs. I would call it autumnal, but it is almost too ominous to give it such a gentle label. It is almost as if these songs are bursting with life but so fleeting that they move from summer to winter without skipping a beat. You would be forgiven for thinking that all of these shadows would cast a pall of gloom over the music, but Pete never allows things to go that far. If there is a dark edge to these songs it is the prettiest darkness, deep and rich; warm not cold.

If there is one song that shows this best, it is “We’re For the Dark”. It is my favourite song of Pete’s, and I have come to realise, is my favourite song, full stop.

Tell me the day and I’ll set you free, what you wanna be
Show me the way and I’ll let you see what you do to me
Well, it’s not enough to live
If you’re gonna take, then you have to give
We’re for the dark, baby, you and I

As always there is a great unknown in that dark, but that is the point, and what makes the adventure worthwhile. When Pete sings “We’re for the dark, baby you and I”, you feel like behind that he is saying ‘and that’s OK if I’m with you’, that life is full of ups and downs, light and dark, that it is human to feel this way. At times Pete can come across as an Everyman, which may be a bit of an unfair label. Perhaps it is better to call his music Human, in the best sense of the word – heartfelt and genuinely compassionate.

I remember hearing Levon Helm speaking of the late, great Richard Manuel. He spoke of how Richard would raise a glass and say ‘Spend it all’. There were no half measures with Richard, and you heard that in his singing. He put himself on the line to make great music, and it came at a cost. But what music. You will never hear anything so beautiful and heartbreaking as Richard singing “Whispering Pines” or “I Shall Be Released”. Pete made music the same way. There is a leap of faith that must be made with this kind of music, an emotional investment that most music today is too scared to demand of its audience.

Artists like Pete and Richard Manuel are forever tied up in their tragedy, but I think it is unfair to view them this way. Their music more than speaks for itself, and would do so regardless of the tragedies that befell them. It may be easy to say this in hindsight, but I truly believe this to be the case for all great musicians. It is only a shame that the list is so long – for every Pete and Richard there is a Tom Evans, Nick Drake or Donny Hathaway.

This week is always a bittersweet time of year, there are now so many anniversaries of great musicians passing. It is even more so with Pete, as his death occurred a mere days before his birthday. My thoughts are with Pete and his family this week, and will be especially on Saturday, as I’m sure will be the thoughts of all his fans around the world.

Thank you Pete for the wonderful gift you gave to all your fans. Paul McCartney famously once said “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. For me, this never applied to you, Pete. You gave far more than you ever took.