Tuesday 26 September 2017

Obituary: Bruce Langhorne

Folk musician, film score composer and hot sauce creator who inspired Bob Dylan's 'Mr Tambourine Man'

HIGH NOTE: Bruce Langhorne played guitar on many of Bob Dylan’s greatest recordings
HIGH NOTE: Bruce Langhorne played guitar on many of Bob Dylan’s greatest recordings

Bruce Langhorne, who has died aged 78, was a guitarist, percussionist, acclaimed composer of film scores, and creator of what many consider to be the world's finest chili sauce; he also spent five years as a macadamia nut farmer in Hawaii.

Bob Dylan was inspired to write the 1965 song Mr Tambourine Man after he saw Langhorne at a party playing a Turkish tambourine close to a metre in diameter.

Langhorne collaborated with figures such as Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, but his most significant musical association was with Dylan: their collaboration began on the 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and continued for a decade.

He played guitar on many of the singer's greatest recordings, notably on every track on the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, including Mr Tambourine Man. He played the guitar on Knocking on Heaven's Door, and percussion on Like a Rolling Stone.

"If you had Bruce playing with you," Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, "that's all you would need to do just about anything".

Langhorne's creative virtuosity as a guitarist was especially remarkable given that the thumb, index and middle fingers of his right hand were reduced to short stumps - the legacy of a ballistics experiment he had conducted at the age of 12 to test how much powdered magnesium might safely be included in a home-made mix of rocket propellant.

On the morning of the explosion, his mother Dorothy was downstairs in the kitchen, working on her own, less hazardous, recipes.

"I made the rocket using a steel jacket," Langhorne told an interviewer in 2007, "packed with magnesium and plaster of Paris. I had planned to launch it out of my bedroom window. I realise now that there were significant gaps in my knowledge of both chemistry and ballistics. The rocket exploded before it took off. I blew my hand off, basically, and my face was covered in blood". It appeared for a time as though he might lose an eye.

Langhorne's musical career flourished despite a lifelong indifference to celebrity.

"I have always believed that fame is a curse," he once said. "I don't envy one of the famous people that I have ever met." In his early 30s, at the height of his popularity, he would give up the guitar because, as he explained, "it was boring me".

Bruce Langhorne was born in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 11, 1938. His parents separated when he was four, and Dorothy took him to New York, where she raised him alone.

His father had been head of English at the Florida Agriculture and Mechanical College for Negroes.

His mother, who was in charge of the Harlem library network, was a gifted pianist and was in the habit, as Langhorne once recalled, "of playing Schumann's Sonatas on her piano, until I took it apart to see how it worked".

He was the first African-American student to be admitted to the Horace Mann Prep School (a smart New York establishment founded in 1887) but was expelled after starting a gang.

Though kindly by nature, Langhorne was a spirited boy who said he was picked on "for looking too white, for looking too black, and for looking too Puerto Rican". When he was 16 he inflicted a knife wound on one aggressor and fled to Mexico where he lived for two years.

Langhorne began playing the guitar only at the age of 17. Being right-handed, "I had to play with two fingers and the nub of a third. Which meant that I had to strike two notes with one finger. So I developed a technique that used each of my fingers to generate a harmonic line. I could not be taught by traditional techniques. I had to rely on communication and empathy. Which is why I really liked working with Bob Dylan".

The two met in 1961 at the New York folk club Gerde's Folk City, where Langhorne was accompanying the MC, a gospel singer named Brother John Sellers. When he first heard Dylan, Langhorne was unimpressed, "especially by his voice. But he turned into such a wonderful writer".

Their friendship would survive Langhorne's withdrawal from the mainstream pop business; in the last years of his life, the guitarist had a house a few blocks inland from the ocean at Venice Beach, Los Angeles, where he lived with his partner, Janet. Bob Dylan would visit the property on occasion.

Together with Dylan, Joan Baez and others, Langhorne performed on the podium at Martin Luther King's 'March on Washington' in August 1963.

He was one of the few black performers to have dedicated himself to folk music at that time. "Black meant jazz," he recalled. "Black meant gospel. Black meant soul."

Georgia, his first wife, was also black, and a professional ballet dancer.

Their marriage lasted only 18 months.

By the late 1960s, Bruce Langhorne was living with his then long-term partner Natalie Mucyn in a large, colonial-style house in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, near his close friend Joni Mitchell; John Lennon was a regular visitor.

In 1969 Langhorne was approached by Peter Fonda, who had just starred in Easy Rider and who commissioned Langhorne to produce what would become the trance-like soundtrack to his 1971 picture The Hired Hand. Langhorne's contribution to Fonda's film (on which he played organ, piano, harmonica, banjo, Appalachian dulcimer and violin) anticipated the languid, hypnotic style later developed by composers such as Ry Cooder.

Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs, then persuaded Langhorne to work on his third film, Fighting Mad, released in 1976.

"Just occasionally," Demme said, "you come across these geniuses who respond instinctively to the visual image. Bruce Langhorne was one. I still remember the insane thrill of working with Bruce on Melvin and Howard".

(This, their second film collaboration, released in 1980, was based on the story of a Utah service station owner who claimed to have been bequeathed millions by Howard Hughes).

Langhorne, then a bold and enthusiastic consumer of hallucinogenic drugs, met his third significant partner Janet in 1978 through the Arica School, an institution dedicated to the attainment of higher levels of consciousness. ("For instance," Langhorne said later, "talking to a rock".) In the early 1980s, Langhorne and Janet left their LA villa for a Hawaiian cane shack, where they became macadamia nut farmers. The work was punishing and unprofitable.

Jonathan Demme believed that Langhorne's unexpected move into agriculture was triggered by his disillusion with the fate of Demme's film Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn, for which he had composed the soundtrack. The production of Swing Shift (eventually released in 1984) degenerated into a war of artistic attrition in which Demme was comprehensively defeated.

"What Bruce had achieved in that soundtrack," Demme said, "was just brilliant. Had I not been fired; had Bruce's score not been trashed, he would undoubtedly have gotten the Oscar nomination he deserved. To experience the horror of seeing work of that quality thrown into the trash by Warner Brothers... I have always suspected that was what prompted Bruce to chuck it in".

Langhorne and Janet left the farm and relocated to Venice Beach in 1985.

Back on the mainland, he rejected approaches from rock stars and film-makers, preferring to collaborate with a diverse range of musicians, including the Nigerian master percussionist, Babatunde Olatunji.

Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1992, Langhorne became increasingly interested in developing a diet which would help stabilise the condition. To this end he developed his own recipe for Brother Bru-Bru's African Hot Sauce, to allay the tedium of a low sodium regime. (The condiment contains no salt or sugar). The sauce was recently acclaimed by GQ magazine as the best on the market. Though twice the strength of Tabasco, Bru-Bru's (which measures 8,400 on the Scoville scale used to measure chili heat) has been widely praised for its subtlety and originality.

In his last years, increasingly frail as a result of complications from his illness, Langhorne remained determinedly hospitable. He rarely touched the many guitars which hung on the walls in his house, preferring to experiment with the djembe, a skin-covered hand drum from West Africa.

A curious visitor, opening the hardback edition of Bob Dylan's Chronicles that Langhorne kept on his living room table, would have found the following inscription, in black ink, in the author's hand: "Back then it was better to be in chains with friends than in a garden with strangers. So true, huh? From Bob Dylan to Bruce - Mr Tambourine Man." Bruce Langhorne died on April 14.

© Telegraph

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