“I’m Going to Learn How to Make My Own Kind of Life”: On Vashti Bunyan’s “Wayward”

September 2, 2022   •   By Dave Mandl

SINGER-SONGWRITER VASHTI BUNYAN’S Wayward is a rare memoir that deserves the now-exhausted metaphor “journey.” Bracketed on one end by the story of her mid-’60s near-miss with pop stardom and on the other end by the triumphant resurrection of her musical career more than 40 years later, the central portion of the book tells the tale of a long, long slog from London north to the Isle of Skye — a sojourn that, among other things, was the basis for the 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, which is now recognized as her masterpiece.

Inspired early on by a television appearance by Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and by visits to the bohemian digs of some retired theater people who lived in her neighborhood, Bunyan became obsessed enough with performing that she was thrown out of the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in the mid-’60s for neglecting her core studies. (When she told the principal of the school that she felt artists should be allowed to work in whatever medium they chose, he responded: “HERE YOU PAINT AND DRAW” — a stroke of unusually bad luck considering the number of English art-school students of her generation who were given free rein to launch musical careers on the side.) After picking up a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on an otherwise aimless trip to New York City at the age of 19, she decided once and for all that she wanted to be a pop singer and set about trying to hawk her songs on Denmark Street — London’s Tin Pan Alley. She met with precisely zero success, though being a woman, she found the familiar “Sorry, but you’re just not commercial enough” to be accompanied by a “dear” and a pat on the butt. (At age 61, she would recall those repeated snubs and exact some ice-cold revenge when one of her songs was used in a T-Mobile ad.)

Just as things were looking desperately grim, a music-agent friend of the family who’d heard Bunyan sing at a party arranged for an audition with Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham. She passed it, and thus gained entrée into the young music mogul’s gilded and excitingly irreverent world: “It swelled my heart as I watched him walk up to a stiffly uniformed doorman in a Park Lane hotel,” she writes, “holding a large joint and asking for a light before sweeping out through the revolving door into the London streets.” Oldham had Bunyan record a single, the Jagger/Richards song “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind,” and she suddenly found herself in a recording studio with the likes of Jimmy Page and John McLaughlin and a full complement of harpsichords, trombones, and flugelhorns, as befitted a well-funded mid-’60s pop session. Today the luxuriously orchestrated single easily stands among the best of Oldham’s productions.

But it was all over almost as quickly as it started, for a welter of reasons. The single went nowhere, to be sure, but Bunyan’s attitude may in various ways have been a contributing factor. Considering herself as much a songwriter as a singer, she grumbled about not being able to record one of her own compositions (Oldham attempted to compromise by putting Bunyan’s “I Want to Be Alone” on the B side), and she bridled at being sold as the new Marianne Faithfull, and “a darker-haired, rather dumb version of Marianne” at that. Her comment in a radio interview that she thought “she wrote better songs than Mick Jagger” — by which she meant, crucially, songs for her to sing — did nothing to help her standing, nor did a slew of inconsequential TV appearances (most of the footage gone now, alas) where she apparently didn’t move in time to the music in the way that was expected of a young female singer. Presumably as some kind of punishment for the Jagger comment, Bunyan also wasn’t allowed to tour, which meant the music-buying public would see little of her.

There was a bit more work with Oldham, much of it abortive, but that was pretty much the end of the relationship, and Bunyan’s nascent career along with it. Most devastating of all (or almost so, as we will see), American expat producer Joe Boyd, who had heard Bunyan sing at a poetry reading at London’s ICA, called her, but, as Bunyan writes, “I didn’t go to meet him.” Oh. Boyd is today recognized as one of the greatest producers of the period, having made records with Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, and Nick Drake. But Bunyan was having one last try working with Oldham’s record label, Immediate, when the call came, and she probably just didn’t recognize Boyd’s name. Nevertheless, Bunyan was by now understandably frustrated by her string of misses, and so decided to hang it up as a singer-songwriter.

It was right at this time, while staying with some acquaintances at their farm in Suffolk, England, that Bunyan met Donovan Leitch. Donovan, a bona-fide pop star (“Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Atlantis”), was heading north with some friends to a remote piece of land off Scotland’s Isle of Skye to start an artists’ community. Bunyan and her boyfriend Robert Lewis were invited to join them, but instead of driving, the couple made the inexplicable decision to head up in an old wagon with their dog Blue and a horse, Bess, that turned out to be significantly less young and spry than they’d been led to believe by the man who sold her to them.

The fitful trek through Scotland, which Bunyan recounts with great affection and warmth, was as far from the Rollings Stones’ Swinging London scene as one can imagine, and ultimately took them more than a year, but that year contained a proverbial lifetime of experience. It started out with the couple dumping or burning most of their possessions, including all of Bunyan’s writings, books (too heavy for the horse to carry), Mary Quant cosmetics, and “pretty shoes” (no good for walking in the grass and mud). They learned to become self-sufficient in ways they’d never imagined, including how to stay clean in rivers and streams and “how to dig a hole to shit in, how to cover it well, without being seen from the road.” They were treated with great generosity by some of the strangers they met along the way, and eyed with suspicion or shunned as entitled, slumming hippies by others. And they became increasingly sympathetic to the plight of Romany “travellers” they met who, compared to the middle-class Bunyan and Lewis, were treated with far less humanity in the exact same circumstances. Irony of ironies, when Bunyan and Lewis finally reached Donovan’s place (a year after they’d set out), they were turned away because there was no room for them or Bess. And so, their travels continued, the couple struggling repeatedly to find bunking places that could accommodate them and their horse, amid paranoid locals resentful of their presence.

Meanwhile, during a brief stay in London, and at the encouragement of a mutual friend, Bunyan eventually met up with Joe Boyd. The two hit it off, and Boyd offered to record an album of Bunyan’s songs as soon as she had enough material. Encouraged by Lewis early on to stop “writing those miserable little love songs and write about what is around you” (yes, Lewis was kind of a shit, his less-than-gentlemanly behavior eventually leading to the couple’s breakup), Bunyan eventually assembled a set of songs mostly based on the sights and sounds experienced during the epic trip, from the romantic to the mundane: “Just another diamond day / Just a blade of grass / Just another bale of hay / Hope the horses pass.” Boyd pulled out all the stops for the album, enlisting UK folk-rock royalty Robin Williamson, Simon Nicol, and Dave Swarbrick, as well as Nick Drake’s arranger, Robert Kirby, to accompany Bunyan’s gentle, dreamy vocals. On the cover was a painting of Bunyan looking domestic in apron and headscarf outside the stucco walls of a rural cottage, a small menagerie of animals beside her. While still having strong opinions about the presentation of her music and disagreeing with a number of the choices made by Boyd and the musicians, Bunyan mostly kept mum.

The album sank without a trace. “It was not really released,” Bunyan writes, “it just edged its way out, blushed and shuffled off into oblivion.” Bunyan doesn’t seem to have been all that bothered by this; among other things, it’s safe to say that her heart wasn’t completely in the project — or frankly, at this point, in a musical career. “Recording was something I was doing because the opportunity was there,” she writes, “because Joe Boyd had kept his promise.” Furthermore, she was angry and frustrated about being branded a folk singer, as evidenced by the very musicians Boyd had chosen for the record. She’d also just found out that she was pregnant with her first child, and was about to head up to the Outer Hebrides to get on with her life there. Bunyan and everyone else soon forgot about the album.

But that was not the end. A hardcore, even cultish, fan base for Bunyan and the obscure Diamond Day formed almost as soon as the album was released, and slowly grew over the decades. By the late 1990s, original copies of the LP were being traded among collectors for thousands of dollars. Bunyan, having long written off her musical career, was blissfully unaware of all this, and eventually got wind of these developments only while randomly googling herself on the internet in 1997. She was moved to track down the album’s original master tapes, eventually securing the rights to them. Hearing them for the first time (she’d only ever listened to the album on an old record player), she was finally able to appreciate the brilliance of Boyd’s work. Her children did, too: Bunyan learned that they’d found a tape copy of the album stashed in the back of a dresser drawer and had been listening to it on the sly out in the car.

Just Another Diamond Day was reissued as a CD by Spinney Records in 2000, and things snowballed, in a good way. Glen Johnson of the band Piano Magic invited Bunyan to sing on a record of his, the first time she’d recorded in 34 years. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement included her in a show he was curating at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Devandra Banhart and Joanna Newsom came out as super-fans and supporters of her music. At a dinner with members of the groups Fourtet and Animal Collective, Fourtet’s Kieran Hebden told Bunyan, “These guys all have your record.” Bunyan recorded a “follow-up,” 2005’s acclaimed Lookaftering, featuring most of the musicians mentioned above as well as members of Vetiver, and produced by German composer Max Richter. Live appearances, a documentary film, and four-star reviews in the Guardian followed. The song “Diamond Day” was used in a T-Mobile commercial. The world was turned rightside-up.

But what of the year-long horse-and-carriage trip, which after all occupies an outsize portion of Bunyan’s memoir? Its obvious importance to her can probably be chalked up to “growth,” and the life-experience that Bunyan (though she grew up in relative comfort) probably couldn’t have gathered elsewhere. And if she’s proud of this period of her life, as she clearly is, it’s not out of any sense of political or moral purity. Like her concurrent extended break from music, for which she betrays no regrets, it’s just something that happened. Considering the extreme back-to-the-land nature of the journey, and the matter-of-fact manner in which the story is laid out in Wayward, it can’t escape the reader’s notice that Bunyan goes easy on the hippie theorizing today, but it seems clear that she had no pretensions about what she was doing even at the time. “If anybody had asked me,” she writes, “I would not have known what to say. ‘I’m just leaving London never to return,’ I would maybe have said. I’m going to learn how to make my own kind of life away from the madness of war and injustice — even if the madness is in me and the war has always been playing out in my head. I was not making any kind of statement.”

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Dave Mandl’s writing has appeared in The WireThe BelieverThe RegisterThe Comics JournalThe RumpusVolume 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. He was the longtime music editor at The Brooklyn Rail and an editor at Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia. He hosts the radio show World of Echo at WFMU and plays the bass guitar in various groups.