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Interview

Michael Chapman: the man who connects Elton, Bowie, Nick Drake and Sonic Youth

This cult guitar great’s career stretches from smoking joints with Drake to inspiring Thurston Moore to form a band – plus at least one gig with a drunk bear

Michael Chapman
Fully qualified survivor … Michael Chapman in 1970. Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Chapman

Last modified on Tue 22 Sep 2020 12.54 BST

In a muddy windbreak atop the Pennines, three fields over from Hadrian’s Wall, stands a 19th-century stone farmhouse where Michael Chapman has lived with his partner, Andru, “happily unmarried”, for the past 45 years. It is a dark winter night, and in their crimson-walled parlour, faces lit by the roaring fire, stories are being told. Chapman has just related the tale of the weathered Martin D-18 guitar in the corner of the room, played by Jimi Hendrix in Soho’s Les Cousins club, while Chapman slept, mid-set, in the car outside. Now the couple are recalling the night in Hull in 1969 when Nick Drake came to stay.

“He’d played the Haworth Arms [in Hull],” says Chapman, “and they’d hated him. He never never lifted his head between songs. I felt sick watching him, but what he played was incredible.” The Haworth Arms, for what it’s worth, now has Drakes Bar, “named after the famous folk musician who played here in the 60s”.

After the gig, Andru saw Drake standing alone under a street lamp. “I asked where he was staying,” she says. “He had nowhere. I said: ‘Come with us.’”

“Back home, he opened his guitar case, took out a beautiful Martin and three joints and I said: ‘OK I’m with him,’” recalls Chapman, smiling. “We played until five in the morning. The next day he was gone. That was our only meeting.”

This is how an evening with Chapman goes: reminiscences and memories, told with a dry-stone Yorkshire poetry, and red wine top-ups, the host assuming a quiet supporting role in the three-act dramas of the more famous.

In theory, we’re here to discuss Chapman’s new studio album. Named 50, after his years on the road, and produced by the US guitarist Steve Gunn at Black Dirt Studio in Westtown, New York, it’s a rich, haunting, collection of forlorn love songs, apocalyptic picaresques and bewitching instrumentals that marks the latest stage in a remarkable career renaissance, fuelled by experimental solo guitar LPs, an impressive reissue campaign, and collaborations with Hiss Golden Messenger and the No-Neck Blues Band, that has seen this granite-faced 76-year-old Yorkshireman hailed by the likes of Meg Baird, William Tyler and Ryley Walker as the godfather of new cosmic Americana.

Click here to see Chapman perform Among the Trees, from 1975.

However, first we need to go back – to the working-class, self-taught musician from an industrial southern suburb of Leeds, who paid his way through art college playing in skiffle bands, strip clubs and jazz trios, plus a brief stint roadying for John Cage (“He did a recital at Leeds Art Gallery. I took him to the market to buy fish to put in his piano”). He later packed up his teaching job at Bolton College of Art, becoming a big name on the Cornwall acoustic scene, and signing to EMI’s hippy offshoot label Harvest in 1969.

His debut LP Rainmaker saw Chapman pigeonholed as part of the new London folk set, alongside Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and John Martyn – despite the fact that he lived in Hull, and refused to call himself a folkie – while its opening track, It Didn’t Work Out, with warm Gus Dudgeon production, Paul Buckmaster string arrangement, spiralling guitar and lyrics of self-reflexive introspection caught the ear of a 22-year-old pianist from Pinner called Elton John. Those same elements, except one, would be present and correct on Elton’s self-titled 1970 LP.

“Elton wanted me to join his band, but never asked me directly,” says Chapman, still bemused today. “Instead, Gus said: ‘Know any good young guitarists who play acoustic and electric?’ I recommended Davey Johnstone. Years later, I realised they were asking me.” Would he have stuck it? “Not sure. All I know is Davey Johnstone owes me a $2m house in California.”

A player of complex, dextrous flair, inspired as much by Grant Green as Woody Guthrie, Chapman knew a good guitarist when he heard one. For 1970’s Fully Qualified Survivor he recruited his neighbour, a parks gardener employed by Hull city council called Mick Ronson. This time, someone else was listening. “Mick was in this awful band called the Rats,” Chapman says. “I asked him to tour with me. He said: ‘I’m not leaving the Rats.’ So David Bowie turned up, took Mick, took the Rats, turned them into the Spiders from Mars.”

Here’s a fun parlour game: play Fully Qualified Survivor to an impressionable friend and tell them its a lost Bowie album, recorded just before Hunky Dory. It’s all there: the plangent acoustic guitars, the ornate strings, Ronson’s eastern-tinged Gibson wails; even Chapman’s surreal Dylan-esque ruminations, spinning on weed paranoia and delivered with a weary slur, point towards such labyrinthine Bowie head-trips as Quicksand and The Bewlay Brothers.

“Never heard Hunky Dory,” insists Chapman, “but everybody says it’s Survivor. Never asked him. Last time I saw David was in the mid-70s. I was going into our publishers to borrow 300 quid to keep my band on the road. He was borrowing 30 grand to keep his band on the road.”

The mid-70s were a time of hard work and hard play for Chapman. Floundering on Decca (“A label run by retired colonels”) Chapman subsisted on “booze, coke, loads of dope. It got very fuzzy.” He remembers a Sacramento gig with the US guitarist John Fahey, at which Fahey got a performing bear drunk on Guinness (“The bear grabbed the microphone like Rod Stewart … then collapsed with this giant, poisonous bear fart”), and budgets blown at Cornwall’s Sawmills Studio on 1976’s Savage Amusement, where drummer Keef Hartley nearly drowned, they drank St Austell dry, and Memphis producer Don Nix, “surviving on Quaaludes, cocaine and cognac”, dismantled all the Dolby noise-reduction modules, considering them “a commie plot”. The 80s were a thin blur, culminating in a huge heart attack in 1990 that put Chapman out of action for a year: “Everyone forgot about me. I signed to this record label called Planet. The guy operated out of a pub in Colne, Lancashire. A parallel universe. His friends were called things like Mick the Murderer, the Cat, and Cider Ronnie.”