L - R -- Lol Coxhill, Gerry FitzGerald, Geoff Leigh, Cathy Williams.
Sadly English saxophonist Lol Coxhill passed away in the small hours of 10th July 2012. No doubt almost every musician who ever met or played with him has a few crazy stories to tell - here are a few of my own personal experiences.
I was a regular face on the busking scene around 1968 - while packing up instruments and counting money after a session with my busking buddy Alan Moller, we heard a distant soprano saxophone - I immediately thought "wow this is some serious sax playing, got to check it out". So off we went, following the sound. Lol was standing in a doorway in Piccadilly Circus, looking every inch the archetypal be-bop jazzman - white mac, black suit, beret, goatee beard, shades (it was dark) - only much later did I realise it was all pure theatre - the beard was false for starters. After listening for a while, and noticing the total lack of interest from passers-by, not to mention the absence of any money in his sax case, we offloaded some of our (relatively easily earned) cash on him. Over the following few months we spotted him several times, always playing his ass off and still not earning very much, so we continued to give him money every time - we were playing poppy stuff - covers of Dylan, Traffic, Simon + Garfunkel etc, and basically cleaning up.
Not so long after this (1971?) I met Gerry Fitzgerald (also whilst busking), and joined him in the sessions for his Mouseproof album. Then around 1972 along came Henry Cow. We were one of the first bands to sign with Virgin Records, and Lol was also on the label - we had already played with him on some of our self-organised concerts, where we would invite well-known figures from the free jazz scene to perform with us. I remember Lol coming to a rehearsal with HC - as soon as he saw the music stands and reams of music paper, he solemnly announced "I don't do written music". Immediately after we started playing, he very obviously kicked over the music stand and proceeded to improvise through the whole piece - needless to say it was almost note-perfect!
A couple of years later I was playing a short UK tour with Hatfield And The North, featuring almost everyone who played on their 1st album - The Northettes, Jeremy Baines, plus Lol, Lyn Dobson, Jimmy Hastings, Robert Wyatt and a few other Canterbury faces. During one of those typically Terry Riley-ish meandering minimalist type of pieces, I was playing a very delicate understated flute solo, when I got pushed in the back hard enough to bang my face into the microphone - I turned round, and there was Lol - he simply said "Get it together man", then walked away. A typical Coxhill wind-up!
On the same gig a student asked Lol for an interview - Lol agreed as long as the guy was willing to do the interview onstage. Lol was playing a duo set with Steve Miller - the 1st question was "How long have you and Steve been playing together?" Lol replied "We don't play together - he tries to play with me". Devastating!
After leaving HC, forming then quitting Radar Favourites (also with Gerry), Cathy Williams and I started the duo Rag Doll. Gerry was by then playing regularly with Lol, and we organised some double-duo gigs in France (the photo above was a publicity shot for the project). Only during this week of eating, sleeping, and travelling together in the HC bus did I come to realise the sheer inventiveness of the man, not only musically, but particularly the thin dividing line he trod between reality and theatre - it was almost impossible to know what was going on in his head, whether he was being serious, playing a role, or just bloody-minded! At one point he threatened to stab the agent who organised the tour - obviously a theatrical gesture, but very scary for the poor woman (who spoke very little English).
Fortunately Mike King of Reel Recordings is a true fan of both Lol and Gerry, and has released (to date) 2 cd's of live recordings by the duo. Hopefully there'll be more to come soon. At least then the music stays with us, life-long memories of a true individualist, comedian, family-man, and non-compromising maverick (a much over-used word these days, but one which totally sums the man up), and one of the best improvising saxophonists ever....Lol Coxhill....rest in peace.