5 April 1941 – 3 June 2016
I was seated in one of my Saigon locals, enjoy a glass of wine and writing, when the news of Dave Swarbrick’s death reached me. It hit me like a shovel. We all knew that he had been so poorly for so long; and although part of me was trying to come to terms with the inevitable, you just don’t, do you?
I don’t know where to start; Dave Swarbrick was a legend, an immense talent wrapped up in a ball of confusion. I knew the legend long before I knew the man. As a young man, I got into rock music and would be constantly amazed and enthralled by some of the “weird” bands that were opening up for my newly appointed demigods. On the British Rock scene in the early 70s there was always a symbiotic relationship with folk music.
From the folk scene, It was Swarb’s long time collaborator, Martin Carthy, that I first saw play live. I forget the date and indeed the venue (possibly the Free Trade Hall), but way back when, I went to see Jethro Tull in concert and the support band was Steeleye Span. Little did I know then that these people would later become friends. I used to buy the sampler albums that were so popular in the 1970s. Alongside rock music, folk music kept creeping into my life. The words Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath soon saw Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Roy Harper joining the young Hancock’s musical lexicon.
By 1987 I had turned pro and was invited to play at the Hong Kong Folk Festival. This was like a dream for me. I duly arrived and walked straight into Swarb at a restaurant dinner that the festival had arranged. I had met him a few times before but over the course of the next week I got to know him, and I loved what I saw. His energy and professionalism onstage was met by a warmth and rapier sharp wit off it.
By the start of the 90s I was still at the beginning of a stuttering career in music. I had two albums behind me and knew that I needed to do something a bit bigger to move the career along. I decided that I needed to do a band tour to reach a bigger audience. I spoke with my publisher John Martin in London and he suggested that I contacted no other than Martin Carthy. I nervously phoned Martin, feeling so far out of my depth it was ridiculous. Amazingly he was in, and it was he who suggested that Swarb would love it.
The Keith Hancock Band featuring myself, Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick and Ruari McFarlane of the Richard Thompson Band fame, toured twice in 1991 and 1992. It was on these tours that I grew to know and love Dave Swarbrick so much. He was, to put it bluntly, fucking hilarious. I was so far out of my depth, but the kindness of my fellow musicians, never made me feel inferior. I will never forget those two tours. At times in rehearsals I felt like a fish out of water. But the honesty, professionalism and humility of Dave, Martin and Ruari ensured that onstage, I was their equal.
An old grainy Newspaper photo of The Keith Hancock Band: left to right:
Ruari, Keith, Martin & Swarb
It was in the rehearsals that I realised the genius of the man. If any member of the band threw out an idea, Dave was on it in a flash. His musical rapport with Martin, was astonishing. They had a lightning quick grasp of music and were just as quick in conversation. Swarb would sometimes sit quietly in the background pretending not to listen, only to floor everyone with a great punchline. Swarb’s humour was infectious, you couldn’t describe it. I have related stories that he told me to friends and they just look on uncertain how to behave. You simply had to be there. Swarb’s life has had a massive impact on mine and last night I lost a huge part of everything that makes me who I am.
I’ll give you a few anecdotes here: In 1991 as we were preparing to start rehearsals, Ruari and I woke early and had breakfast. We were soon joined by Dave, who instantly started the rigmarole of rolling his daily joints. It was a work of art. He pretended not to notice as Ruari and I gazed on, then eventually lit one up, took a deep draw, paused and said, “I nearly woke up for a minute, then.”
In Hong Kong we were all invited onto a private yacht to go sailing on the waters around the island. I was seated chatting to close friend, Clive Gregson. Christine Collister was on the top of the wheelhouse sunbathing, the skies were blue and the scenery was amazing. As someone opened a bottle of champagne, Dave turned to Clive and said, “Clive, aren’t you glad you practiced.”
Dave told me this one in one of those quiet moments that one gets on tour. When an old friend of his died, Swarb went to the funeral home and asked to see the body. As he stood above the coffin gazing at his dear friend, he rolled a joint and slipped it into his top suit pocket. It was to be a cremation, Dave kissed him on the forehead and said, “have that one one me.”
In 2015 I made a huge professional mistake. I won’t go into details here, but I got something massively wrong. Dave was livid, he sent me an email and basically tore me a new one. I was devastated, both at my stupidity and the fact that I had so upset a great friend. I apologised and went away with my tail between my legs. About three weeks later I got an email from him. He simply said, “anyone can make a mistake, it’s forgotten”, and went on to chat about life in general asking me how I was getting on, Since then we chatted more than before and stayed in touch on facebook. To me that, more than anything spoke volumes of the man.
Dave Swarbrick was a giant, possibly the greatest musician I have ever known, and one of the funniest, gentlest men I have ever met. In a way I wish my sons had been older, to realise the enormity of having this colossus serenade them to sleep, playing classical music. I loved him.