Book Review: Vashti Bunyan “Wayward: Just Another Life To Live”

White Rabbit / Hachette 2022

A Sixties Fairy Tale Unfolds through recollections and anecdotes.

Vashti Bunyan’s adventures in the 1960s and early 1970s are, it is fair to say, legendary – and a romantic legend at that.  The things that people tend to recall is the Gypsy journey by horse-drawn caravan to Donovan’s commune in the Scottish Isles, and the album ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ that documents that journey and the surrounding scene of friends and musicians.  And then, to all intents and purposes, she disappeared from the music scene – but it is that album that eventually brought Vashti Bunyan back into a cultural focus when it was claimed as a touchstone of psychfolk by a new generation of Bohemian musicians such as Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic.  Before the travelling though there was an attempt to shape her as the new Marianne Faithful by Andrew Loog Oldham with a little assistance from Jagger and Richards, a phase that was collated on the compilation album ‘Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind.

Wayward‘  is introduced with a few scene-setting stories from Vashti Bunyan’s youth – growing up in a large house on the edge of Hampstead Heath with a cook in the kitchen and a nanny in the nursery, schooling was private and boarding and included scrapes and expulsions. When things got too much, as she got older, she was sent to New York to help her elder sister with caring for her young family…and one gets the impression of a Bohemian family who, whilst Vashti describes a general financial decline, was not short on resources. Few are the families – then or now – who think “my daughter is a bit of a handful – I know, I’ll send her to America for a while.”

The heart of the book though comes with Vashti Bunyan’s tentative steps into the music business – which was it seems frustrating from the very start.  Keen to record her own songs and become a pop singer, she was brought to the attention of Andrew Loog Oldham who had his own ideas.  A single using a song by two of the oh-so-hip Rolling Stones, backed, somewhat reluctantly, by one of Bunyan’s own songs led to an intense period of promotion over a few weeks which, ultimately, was not successful, leaving her adrift and not sure of her next move.  In a few telling short chapters, the heady whirl of the Sixties pop scene – and its absolute willingness to rapidly move on to the next good prospect – is captured, as well as the emotional damage of having been picked up and then, seemingly, discarded.  Seemingly – because we already know where this story is leading and that part would rely on connections and short acquaintances made during this first recording foray.

The next thing for Vashti Bunyan, though, was to start living the life that ‘Just Another Diamond Day‘ would go on to document in song.  And it is fascinating to read how close the songs connect to her life experiences – ‘Timothy Grub‘, for example, is a literal retelling of a period of living in woodland – or as the police regarded it, sleeping rough in an illegal camp – and the finding and purchasing of the horse and caravan (horse-drawn milk float is less romantic sounding) in which she and Robert Lewis would set out on a journey from London to answer an invitation to join Donovan’s bohemian commune.  Donovan would make the journey by Landrover – they would be walking along with a caravan which she says, “seemed to appeal to everyone, none of us in these our wildest dumb dreams figuring that walking might take us a lot longer to get there.”  There’s much similar disarming honesty in the telling of the journey – with its many highs and perhaps even more lows as it becomes apparent that these prototype New Age Travellers are no more welcome than those who would, knowingly or otherwise, follow in their footsteps over the subsequent years.  The telling is through short anecdotes or precisely recalled scenes, which manage to balance the romanticism of  the journey with the grinding of living a hand-to-mouth existence during long stretches of the progress.

As it becomes possible to recognise the songs of ‘Just Another Diamond Day‘ through the anecdotes it is also quite intriguing to discover how little regard for the eventual recordings Vashti Bunyan has.  The album came out of a promise by Joe Boyd to record the songs the journey would inspire – but the resulting recordings, mostly, did not please their author.  ‘Jog Along Bess‘ would have been better without the fiddle part,  the Gaelic in ‘Iris’s Song For Us‘ was not Bunyan’s choice and was retained merely to please the translator who was also a current neighbour on North Uist.  The listener may have their own opinions, but it is interesting to have this insight – as well as the assessment of the album’s poor performance driving Bunyan to forsake music for decades.

The last few chapters fill in some of the “what happened afterwards” information and describe a peripatetic lifestyle with long intervals of being grounded. There’s more travelling in Ireland with Bess, and a while living on a small holding.  There’s the purchase of a house in the Scottish Isles that turns out to have been a swindle – the seller not being legally entitled to make the sale.  There’s a short happy – and a longer unhappy – period in the Incredible String Band’s commune, the unhappiness stemming from the adoption of Scientology.  Perhaps inspired by an incident from their caravan journey, when strangers paid a ridiculous sum for an old pair of bellows, there is a move into buying up old country furniture and restoring it for a growing – and lucrative – antique market in such items.  And then there is the rediscovery of music, through a new generation of bohemians who really got what Vashti Bunyan was about – to the extent that ‘Just Another Diamond Day‘ finally becomes a hit, with the licensing of the title song for an advert cementing the “success” in pure financial terms.  It’s not quite a charmed life – mid-book Vashti Bunyan does question whether being educated and having a “classy accent” had played any part when things went well, deciding that there’s no way to tell – but it’s certainly a life full of incident.  If some of these incidents were, surely, not quite as spontaneous and fortunate as they are portrayed – the lending for the winter of a house in the Lake District by a couple who had only just met Vashti and Robert is one story that’s hard to believe completely as told – then the overall telling of the story has charm enough to overcome any eyebrows raised in doubt.  The core of the story – someone looking for a different sort of life and a path less travelled – is undeniable and this light and easy read tells that story well, with a conversational tone.  The brushing up against characters who would play a major part in the development of psych-folk and modern English singer-songwriting just adds an additional strand to the skein of tales.

About Jonathan Aird 2695 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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