Thinking of Pete
The late, great Pete Ham died in 1975 by his own hand one night after drinking an absurd amount of scotch, crushed by the bankruptcy engendered upon him by a crooked business manager. His best friend, the talented Tom Evans, always thought that Ham must have changed his mind at the last minute owing to the way he found the body, but we’ll never know, and we’ll never know what the two might have gone on to write together if Pete hadn’t killed himself. Their band, Badfinger, had gotten royally screwed by their business manager but it’s possible that they could have recovered had they turned to the right people for help.
Depression in combination with alcohol is a deadly mix, and it unfortunately led to the death of Tom Evans eight years later. Sometimes, in fits of despair, he would tell his wife or his friends that he wanted to be where Pete was.
It’s a terrible story, made even more terrible once you start learning about what a great guy Pete Ham seems to have been. In the extensive interviews Dan Mantovina conducted for his band bio, Without You, he found no one who had anything bad to say about Ham, who appears to have been sensitive, supportive, and loyal. And universally liked.
The reason I became fascinated with him had nothing to do with the tragedy of his life, but because I find him a phenomenal pop songwriter. His words seldom work any particular magic, but the melodies are McCartney-in-his-prime worthy and his song arrangements are inspired. He (and occasionally Evans, though usually in concert with Ham) is the only songwriter I know whose songs are so Beatle-like that casual fans with musical training have thought them the work of Lennon and McCartney. That’s saying something. Almost all Beatle imitators are patently obvious about their influence but unable to carry the weight — they don’t quite understand how to write a genius level song, not being, you know, geniuses. Ham was, and he wasn’t just trying to copy the Beatles, he was of the era and from the same places, with similar melodic gifts, albeit filtered through Welsh melancholy.
By the time I was old enough to care about any of this Ham was long dead. I never met the man, but I love his music and when I was a teenager I used to imagine what it would have been like to jam with him, or somehow to be there at that right moment to stay his hand.
I’ve long since stopped gigging around in rock bands and I almost never pick up a guitar anymore, and I really haven’t been on any kind of major Badfinger kick in years. I long since absorbed all the info I wanted to know, collected the music, and moved on. So it’s kind of surprising that from time to time I still have vivid dreams that I’m hanging out with Pete Ham. There was that once where we wrote a song together, which was danged cool. There have been plenty of times that we just kicked back with guitars and played together. And — what inspired this entire post — last night I dreamt I was reading a book he’d written about his years in the band, full of photos that don’t exist of them in concert, or backstage talking with other rock stars.
I meet many people in my dreams, and some of them are famous, but the one who pops up most often, for some reason, is Ham. Maybe I’m just catching glimpses of an alternate reality when things turned out better for him and his friends. I’d like to think that.
Here, in honor of a great songwriter, is a link to my favorite power pop gem, “No Matter What.” It starts so simply, with just a guitar chord sequence. And then, bit by bit, more details are added to the framework. Each time through the verse or the middle eight, he adds a little more, whether it be a lead guitar line or falling backing vocals, or a third harmony part. It hooks you in, builds, then pulls out before you get tired of it. Of course it also works on the much more basic level in that it’s a catchy tune. That’s where Ham always started.