Stuart 'Woolly' Wolstenholme
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Stuart 'Woolly' Wolstenholme
As a young teenager in the early seventies, I fell in love with a series of classic albums by the band Barclay James Harvest, of which Woolly was, of course, a founder member. His songs brought a classical flavour to the band's sound and helped to make them stand out from their contemporaries. In live concerts, Woolly's influence was even more apparent - as the lead singer of timeless songs such as "Mockingbird" and "She Said", and an engaging and witty raconteur between songs, Woolly was in his element on stage. He was also one of the world's finest exponents of the Mellotron, the early keyboard sampler which the band initially used in lieu of an orchestra and which became a vital part of the BJH sound.
It was many years later that I finally got to meet him, by which time my continuing enthusiasm for Barclay James Harvest had led to me running the band's fan club and producing a quarterly magazine about them. By then Woolly had left the band, and his subsequent solo career and move away from the music business and into organic farming seemed to me to be the untold story of the band's history. We therefore set off, with some trepidation, from London to the wilds of Colne in Lancashire to interview the great man. Trepidation, because they always tell you not to get too close to your heroes, and because we had no idea how he would react to being pestered about a part of his life which he had now abandoned.
We needn't have worried. We were made very welcome by Woolly and his then-wife Jill, who had run the original BJH fan club and then acted as mother hen for the Maestoso band. We found Woolly to be a gentle, principled man who bore no grudges, and fielded even the most difficult questions with honesty and self-deprecating humour. True, his quick-fire wit and instant ripostes could occasionally be inappropriate, but there was never any malice in them, and to spend any time in his company was a guarantee of much laughter and entertainment. That day was the start of a friendship which would span over twenty years.
Woolly was actually rather a shy person, but he hid it well! As an example, his partner Sue offered an insight into his early courting techniques and described the first time they ever met: Sue and her friend Marjorie were playing darts one night in The Commercial in Uppermill. They would have been seventeen at the time and, it must be said, playing rather ineptly. They were somewhat taken aback when a lanky lad got up from his seat nearby, walked over to the dartboard and, without saying a word, picked up the piece of chalk used for scoring. He drew a huge circle on the wall around the dartboard, adding, "There you go - now you've got a chance of hitting it!" How could a young girl resist such charm and flattery?!
Many years later, when he and Sue were regular visitors to our home, we happened to be going away one week when they wanted to visit. Woolly offered to housesit in our absence, and we joked with him that we expected the grass to be cut by the time we got back. On our return we were greeted by a note which read, "Grass is cut. Mower is in the pool. That's rock and roll, man!" In reality, Woolly was the least "rock and roll" of rock stars. He recalled how he used to travel home from early concerts at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on the bus, along with the fans who had been at the show, and he liked to tell interviewers that they were the kind of band who would stay in hotels after people like Led Zeppelin and The Who - and clean up the rooms which those groups had trashed!
Woolly was a very well-read man, and had many other interests; he was a knowledgeable wine buff with his own cellar, he had a keen eye as a photographer and he loved poetry, but at the centre of everything was music. Whether extolling the virtues of Love, King Crimson and Procol Harum or discussing the finer points of his beloved Mahler or Richard Strauss's "Salome", his whole life revolved around music and was given meaning by it. Fortunately for us, he enjoyed a musical renaissance in recent years, both with John Lees, playing classic Barclay James Harvest material and recording a new album, and his other band, Maestoso, with whom he recorded a stunning trilogy of albums. This was a late vintage of superb quality and epic proportions!
Woolly's own priorities were illustrated by an incident on the 2009 John Lees' Barclay James Harvest tour. At the hotel where the band was staying in Glasgow, the fire alarm went off early in the morning, and everyone dutifully streamed out to stand bleary-eyed and half awake in the car park, having grabbed just whatever warm clothes came to hand. Woolly, on the other hand, was stood there, half dressed and shivering in the late October frost, protectively clutching his precious guitar!
He had always been happy to engage directly with fans, and in spite of his suspicion of computers, he found a whole new outlet in this new-fangled interwebs thingy. For his own amusement, and for the entertainment of his loyal fans, he invented a whole panoply of bizarre and eccentric characters, from the sinister Austrian psychiatrist, Doktor Wolfgang Wotan Schreckmann, into whose Klinik many checked in but few ever checked out, to the under-achieving classical composer Tuborg Falschbier, whose meisterwerk, had he ever got around to it, would have been Symphony No. 1 (popularly known as "The Great Unstarted").
Behind the humour, though, there was a deeply serious man, and if he wasn't always comfortable in speaking openly about the issues which were important to him, it all came through in his music, expressing every raw emotion. Environmental issues, bitter-sweet love songs, intensely personal affairs, man's inhumanity to man, depression and comedy, it's all there. Fortunately, even though it may be hard to listen to it right now, his music is the gift which he leaves to us and to posterity and which will survive beyond the grave.
Ultimately, Woolly was a man who felt too much, but whose highs and lows drove an astonishing creativity and talent. A man of contradictions, he was gentle and yet passionate, a man who never wanted children but was brilliant with other people's, and a humanist who wrote profoundly spiritual music. Most of all, we should remember that music, the joy and the laughter which he gave us, and we should celebrate that. He touched all of our lives in many different ways, and leaves us all much richer for it.
Keith Domone, February 2011