The Story of John Nightly is a novel about the nature of creativity, specifically at a heightened level - the level of genius.
It mixes real and imagined lives in the tale of a young singer-songwriter from the 1970’s. I wanted to write about how something as innocent and life-enhancing as the gift of music can also become destructive.
John Nightly (b. Cambridge 1948) finds his dimension in the world of ‘pop’ music, the art form of his time. In previous decades, he might have been a novelist or poet, a painter or playwright. In previous centuries, a grand chef or gardener, astronomer or plant-hunter, when these occupations were revered as highly as that of ‘Artist’.
John Nightly’s ability is spotted early, his LP Ape Box Metal becoming the third best-selling record of 1970. But success turns out to have side effects and he disappears into a thirty year void of missed opportunities and unfinished projects.
We meet him first as a musical child prodigy in the late fifties, then finding fame in the London music scene of the mid-sixties, supermaxed at various clinics in Los Angeles during the seventies and finally, after too many lost years, in his hideaway on the coast of Cornwall as a cultivator and exporter of exotic plants.
But his past comes back to haunt him via the rediscovery by a superfan of his magnum opus, the Mink Bungalow Requiem - a requiem mass which was to have been his parting shot. Just before his meltdown, John Nightly toured the world with it backed by two symphony orchestras, a thirty-piece rock band, a dance company, three school choirs and sixteen articulated trucks. Meeting this teenage saviour dude, can John Nightly be brought back to life again?
A tangled love story, the recording-studio as creative hub, the music industry as dramatic backdrop, astronomical tables, Methodist hymnals and surfer mags as well as some serious gardening tips also play important parts in this one thousand page novel.
The Story of John Nightly is a work of pure fiction.
The Story of John Nightly: LOS ANGELES 1971
From around the time of the third US tour, mid-July 71 onwards, the Nightly live set tended to be configured in two halves, the first being a slowburner. Ashley would begin with a short prologue, one chord held down on the mellotron with his left hand, while he played the Lux Eterna theme on an electric harpsichord with his right. Then a waltz treatment of Lavender Girl, a specialty which went down particularly well with stoned audiences. The atmosphere would be somewhere between evangelist convention, mime theatre with a budget and rock'n'roll funfair.
Everyone would be settling down - performers and audience - sunset would come and night would begin to fall. Without any announcement, dressed head to toe in white, and in complete darkness save for a solitary guiding torch, a silent, slight figure, a magicien - the Magicien - would emerge from the shadows.
With his guitar set unfashionably high - the way Merseybeat groups held their instruments - the only mahavishnu it could’ve been was John Nightly, if not John McLaughlin, who also cut a dash onstage and off in white cotton slacks and polo neck, Royal Navy haircut and twin-necked cherry-red SG.
In his soft white suit, loosely-tied cravat and felt bolero - one of three or four per night to be sacrificed to the crowd - John would’ve been watching the build-up from behind the PA. Getting in the mood, swaying in time to the music before stepping out. As candle-lighters tip-toed around the stage, making sure to avoid the perilous tangle of cables and leads, and dancers put their arms around each other to give good luck hugs, there would be a gradual realisation among those gathered that the ‘presence’ they’d come to pay homage to was now . . . among them.
As Ashley continued to improvise, forcing Stravinsky onto Irving Berlin, weaving in and out of Debussy, a dash of Pretty Things here and Russ Conway there, the twinkling, skywide star-curtain would appear from smoke-filled scaffold. As it descended, the lighting of candles would gradually replace the late evening sun as the stage-set was transformed into a revolving celestial sphere, backlit to reveal the performers, each bathed in their own radiant glow, while the band took up their positions and dancers trespassed upon the edges of the stage. As if Tycho Brahe had been the set designer for Jailhouse Rock.
After a few minutes or so the preamble would grind to a halt, the circular section of the platform would stop revolving and BANG !
“I . . .” John would say, “am a traveller . . .”
“I . . .” the audience would respond, "am a lost child” before the band attempted to reproduce whatever they could manage from the nascent work in progress, the still untitled Black Requiem.
Security Notice: Because of the use of lighted candles in the performance, the stadium manager requests that the audience refrain from smoking, lighting fires or using paraffin cigarette-lighters, incense or joss sticks in the main auditorium or the surrounding area .
‘The Story of John Nightly’ CORNWALL 1994
Cornwall is yellow in spring. From daffodil acres on sloping coastal plains to the lemon tapers of the Aeonium Heliconia which decorate Endymion Peed’s kitchen window. Fiery yellow gorse, nature’s barbed-wire, protects the outland pasture from walkers and hikers. The enemy, unwashed and unwanted. TRESPASSERS. Heavy-booted destroyers of coastal fields and plots. Despised by the indigenous population, walkers are both a serious environmental nuisance and a joke, as far as the locals are concerned.
“What are they on?” Mawg would ask,
“Private land”, RCN would reply.
John Nightly was always cold. No matter how much heating, natural or otherwise, was turned on in whatever room he happened to be. Ironic of course, given that one of his schoolboy ambitions had been to develop the means to conserve and re-use heat and energy produced by natural resources - not to waste massive amounts of expensive manmade fuel on plants.
John insisted on the heating at Trewin being turned up full at all times. As with life in general, everything had to be full-on. All his life he desired only intensity. The extremes of things; the rind of the cheese, the pith of the lemon, the spikiest cacti. The quadrophonic system at Queen Square produced ear-shattering volume which drove visitors away. In the brief period during which he used a car, he was stopped for speeding three times in one twelve month period and never sat behind the wheel (legally) again. He courted the most troubled and troublesome women and conceived of the most unrealistic, unreliable schemes, all the time popping pills as if they were polo mints.
There was never anything at all subtle or moderate about the man or his actions. John would wander through the house accompanied by a small convector-heater which he would plug in whenever he sat down, even for a moment or two, and angle directly toward his feet. Heating bills at Trewin were astronomical. £900 last quarter for the house and cottage alone with a massive £2,000 odd every three months to heat the sunlounges and outhouses. The bill from South West Water was also exorbitant, around £3,000 to £5,000 a quarter. Watering the community properly was expensive. Financially it was daft, but ecologically it was completely immoral. Nothing less than a sin.
The industrial rearing of exotics, both specimen plants and difficult-to-look-after seedlings, isn't exactly a stand-alone activity. Apart from the problems of importing them in the first place - many require special licences and stamped government papers, 'plant visas' you might say - the massive amounts of soil, fertilizer, drainage material, fibre, compost and the endless pallets of food which have to be regularly purchased in order for them to grow and thrive, there is endless administration and bureaucracy to be dealt with in registering each cutting and slip for National PBR (Plant Breeder's Rights).
In retrospect, this turned out to be a very good thing. It meant that every cutting propagated at Trewin Farm, mainly John's Canna Luxor, Lucifer and Mortada varieties, would be subject to a royalty when sold on, just like records, of around 15p per slip. The payments soon accumulated and by the final accounts quarter of 1994, songwriting income wasn't the only seasonal distribution to land on Trewin's welcoming mat.
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