Books on jazz, blues, country, rock, soul, and other styles of popular music are, for me, the closest written equivalent to potato chips. I have to be careful taking one down from the shelf, because there is a high risk I will get nothing else accomplished until I finished it. And it’s worse now with the Internet, since just about any tune mentioned, no matter how obscure, can be located and downloaded in seconds, so reading slips all too easily into listening and, suddenly, who knows where the time goes? At least in the old pre-Net days, all you could do was write down the record title and hope that some day in the distant future you might have the luck to find a copy in some used record store.
So when I got a copy of Val Wilmer’s terrific autobiography, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, I saw a lost weekend coming. She got her first taste of jazz via an early teen boyfriend and a copy of Rudi Blesch’s pioneering study of jazz, Shining Trumpets (1949), and the rest is history. Over the course of the last 60 years, she has listened to, photographed, interviewed, wrote about, partied with, and gotten to know most of the major figures, and many more of the minor ones, in pop music. You can get a good sample of her talent for sizing up musicians as performers, artists, personalities, and human beings in The Guardian’s archive of obits she’s written (and you can get a small sample of her work as a photographer here, here, and here).
But there’s some serious starch in Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. As Wilmer’s eyes and ears were opened up by her exposure to a variety of styles — including African, West Indian, and Jamaican pop years before it hit white audiences — her understanding of the social, economic, and gender dimensions of the music and the musicians also grew deeper and more sophisticated. She quickly learned a few lessons as a young and single white woman spending hours in the company of musicians, mostly black and uniformly male:
Many feminists believe there to be an unspoken bond between males, the understanding that all women belong to all men. Where the white woman and the Black man are concerned, this understanding of the woman as shared possession, breaks down under the white man’s gaze — unless the woman can be shown to be a “prostitute.” If she wasn’t, back in the 1960s, then in my experience the white men on the scene made sure she’d be treated like one. This was the penalty to pay for associating with Black men and breaking down the order of things white men had established. No woman was allowed to exist in her own right as an autonomous individual, if she was there, it had to be for the benefit of some man. As a result, hotel porters, bus drivers, stage doormen — real “jobsworth” to a man — became a thorn in my side when it came to moving around with musicians. If the thought of sex had never crossed anyone’s mind, these people certainly put it there.
Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This is really much more than a book about music, though it’s exceptional on that level. But Wilmer’s life is something of a distillation of much that was of importance in the 1960s and 1970s. The growing recognition of race as a political factor, of the rise of civil rights. The increasing influence of American culture in British life. The changing British economy (Wilmer collaborated on a never-published oral history of coal mining). And the sexual revolution.
“It is how we are treated as women, rather than as individuals, what happens to us because we are women, that dictates the direction of our lives,” she declares in the book’s introduction. “To us the personal is political, whether we like it or not.” In her case, it was not only a matter of being witness to the rise of the woman’s movement: she took an active part, helping to organize the first “Take Back the Night” events in London.
And her understanding of her own sexuality grew, as she came to recognize her preference for women. She describes experiencing a thrill when Althea Gibson was kissed by an opponent after a match at Wimbledon and the shock of seeing lesbian couples openly embracing and dancing in Paris nightclubs. In the mid-1960s in London, however, lesbians had to seek the safety of forming private clubs — which even then were occasionally subjected to vice squad raids. Yet the act of going to one of these clubs was also a matter of asserting a gay woman’s rights:
… because what we were doing by walking through that door was declaring ourselves — what some would call “coming out” — there was about the whole exercise a sense of terrible excitement. It revolved around bravado and ritual. Getting ready to go there was a ritual, the crease in the trousers, the eyes made-up just so Parking the car was a ritual, as near to the club as possible to avoid the voyeurs and the challenge of passers-by. Gaining entry meant mustering bravado. And for what? To spend time in a place where you could, supposedly, be yourself.
Wilmer acknowledges the large and positive role her mother played in her life. Her father died when she was still young, and her mother raised two children on her own, taking in boarders to get by. Despite a most conventional English middle class upbringing, her mother was remarkably open to both her daughter’s interests and the string of musicians — almost all of them black, male, and from other countries — that Val brought home for tea. Her hospitality became legendary among jazz performers visiting London. Harry Carney, Duke Ellington’s great baritone sax player, sent her Christmas cards every year. “Randy Weston stayed at our house and talked Africa and Nationalism, she cooked him bacon and eggs; the Liberian Ambassador invited her to his parties and she drank champagne.”
And though her mother never quite understood her daughter’s sexuality — “Well, not for women, dear” — she was open to just about anyone Val associated with: “I always knew I could bring my friends home to a warm welcome. Without such a love behind me, I doubt whether I could have even coped with the stresses of trying to be myself in an essentially homophobic society.” The only things she wouldn’t tolerate were slovenliness and mistreatment of her daughter. Other parents could learn from her example.
“People often write autobiographies as if they had no mother, no children, as if sexual love had passed them by,” Wilmer writes at the start of Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. “This not one of those.”