On a blisteringly hot day in July an unlikely group of people emerged from the overground rail line at Manor Park. Turning left, they formed a slow and jovial walking chain heading towards the crematorium. Men in their sixties in ‘pork pie’ hats with silver ear-rings and gangly fifty-something punks with anarchy symbols emblazoned.
The topic on the steady trudge towards the funeral – how did you know Lol, then?
I first encountered Lol Coxhill at the Oakhayes Albion Fayre on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk in the late seventies. As a young man, excited by the do it yourself aesthetics of punk, I had never heard such a sound emerge from an instrument. Lol Coxhill, standing beneath a tree and next to a lake, squirting out a mercurial and staccato set of breathy notes. I later learned that the instrument was a soprano saxophone and that this man was undoubtedly part of a chain of improvisers extending back to Lester Young and the roots of bebop. I owe Lol Coxhill a great debt, as those moments of listening to him led me off on a particular journey towards music and experimental art. Lol Coxhill was inspired by Lester Young and the free form nature of jazz – the goal ultimately to extend the medium while finding a sound. As Steve Beresford has observed, Lol’s sound could be detected within a few notes – a scramble of notes interspersed with reedy cat cries, pauses, longer silences and then occasional lower range howls. The sound was not so caught up in the potential cul-de-sac of free jazz, it was rather like listening to someone talk in a strange language, perhaps with comparison to Eric Dolphy.
Lol played around on the fringes of English culture and popped up all over the place. Always with the saxophone in case, wearing black clothing and the thin glasses seemingly welded to his head. Conjuring up this image again, he was a cool man in every respect – laconic, unegotistical and self-assured. It is interesting to reflect on this aspect of alternative English culture, unbothered by fame, out there in a field and maybe on drugs.
I next encountered Lol Coxhill near Lowestoft in Suffolk, performing as a part of a ‘band’ of somethings. The legendary – appropriate use of this word I think – Ian Hinchcliffe sang ‘God Save the Queen’ in a snarling and psychotic fashion, while the assembled musicians (Lol included) wore brown paper bags over their heads. Hinchcliffe, rounded the song off by setting fire to himself and watching the crowd as they winced. Sentimental perhaps, but Ian Hinchcliffe always set a high bar for his performances.
Lol Coxhill carried his saxophone and career across artistic borders with ease. It would have been easier to do the jazz festivals or work out as a side man on recording projects (which he did do). He formed unlikely alliances and collaborations with people such as Ian Hinchcliffe. At the King’s Head in Bungay, I sat with 7 other people as Hinchcliffe, Coxhill and Bruce Lacey performed a surreal performance largely concerned with penguin ephemera. Hinchcliffe emerged with slices of white bread, proceeded to intimidate everyone present with loud barking commands, while Lacey assembled the ongoing ritual. In the background Lol Coxhill played his saxophone while going up and down a child’s playground slide. The performance was topped off with a metal skull cap or egg cup which was placed on Lacey’s head. Hinchcliffe then placed an egg on top and burned the side of it with a flame torch. The smell was intentionally putrid.
Lol Coxshill spent time at Digswell near Welwyn Garden City, an artists’ commune and hang out. While there he recorded one of his best collaborations with Simon Emmerson and Veryan Weston – ‘Digswell Duets’. He also contributed to The Damned’s second album and had a part as a priest in Derek Jarman’s ‘Caravaggio’.
All in all, a wonderful life.