One idle morning in May, James Wood woke up and strolled down to the bus station beneath a sky the mottled colour of a gravel garden centre car park. He got off at Hull Station, then, like a man who accidentally mislaid every care he had to give, plonked himself behind a piano and played David Bowie’s opus ‘Life on Mars’. In the process, he casually delivered the greatest busking performance I, and thousands of other global fans, have ever seen.
There is nothing much to see, no fanfare or orchestrated flamboyance here, just the back window of a restaurant with a fantastic food safety rating and one of those candle cages you see everywhere, the occasional passing backpack of a scurrying commuter, and James Wood giving it his all and taking her easy for the rest of us sinners. All the who, what, whys, and wheres are subsumed in the gentle awe of a humble masterpiece. It’s bewilderingly magnetic and that bemusement isn’t lost on Wood either.
“It’s honestly the most bizarre thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says, evidentially still baffled by the whole thing five years on, “I mean brilliant, obviously. It was great. But yeah, so very strange.” It came as much out of the blue for Wood as it did for everyone else. I can never remember searching for the video myself or even coming across it, but in moments when I’m seeking some sort of transcendence or whatever the hell it is that draws me back, I pop it on in a heartbeat and bask in the brilliance of the performance, and all the other adjectives in its unassuming welter.
“I’ve got sort of semi-clear recollections of it. I went to meet my mam in town, and I knew that this piano had been put there because it was the year that Hull was the city of culture,” And as we all know, nothing demarks that quite like one solitary piano. With the excitement of being interviewed evident in his voice, Wood continues, “So, I’ve gone into the station and thought, ‘I’ll have a little go’. Just for some interest really, it wasn’t planned or anything like that.”
That’s part of the joy of it—the way the video just about catches the start, the wandering camera held quite shyly further afield than you’d hope, it’s all as patently impromptu as an improvised best man speech, only where peril usually prevails on that front, some sort of mystic masterpiece is plucked from the arils of improv on this occasion.
“It probably wasn’t the only song I played,” Wood recalls. “I did a few others. But that was the one a woman caught, and she came up and said she was going to put it on YouTube if that was alright with me and said that I would go viral. I just sort of said, ‘Yeah that’s fine, thanks’ and thought nothing of it. Then I just toggled off to meet my mam in Next or something. The next thing I know, I check my phone and I’ve got like 99 notifications, and I don’t even know 99 people, so I knew something was going on.”
Thereon the internet took hold of it. People in Hull were asking others to identify the mystery maestro in their midst, and he was fatefully tagged by a friend who had come across it. “After that, it just sort of grew and grew, as these things do, and all of a sudden, it was shared all over, well, all over the world really,” Wood explains, still with a note of surprise in his voice.
In its own humble way, it even went on to change his life. “At the time I’d just come back from university. I’d started doing open mic nights and stuff like that. I knew I sort of wanted to do something in the music industry, but I didn’t know what that was going to be. I guess I was a bit lost at this point,” he says.
But fate was offering up signposts. As he explains, “As for ‘Life on Mars’, a friend of mine from Uni was in a band and they were going to New Zealand when their keyboard player dropped out. So, he asked me to step in. It was only like ten or 14 days or something, but I played a bit with them, and it was around then that I thought ‘Life on Mars’ suited my voice. It became one of my little show pieces. But I was very much a fledgling musician at that point. It wasn’t a career. Then I was just really lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”
That sense of ‘right place and right time’ is palpable in the video. You get the impression that the ghost of Mick Ronson had even been warming the stool up ready for him to spill off the number 36. And now, it has allowed him the liberty of becoming a professional musician. However, much like the video, even that is understated with a strange sense of fate.
A paradigm for this comes from a tale he tells me about a wedding he was recently playing. The bride and her mother had bonded over the video for years beforehand. Like many of us, it had become that weird little escapist touchstone in their daily lives—the little hymn that you pop on twice a year for some Hull-based spiritualism, or tell a friend about whenever you pass a public piano and your fingers wander towards it, romantically thinking, ‘I wish could do that’.
However, it was very much unbeknownst to the bride that she had booked this mystic viral star for her wedding. That is until he offered up a rendition of his secretly famed showpiece and the old, ‘This might sound weird, but you sound just like this amazing guy on YouTube’ got rolled out. Obviously, it was greeted with a fateful response that rendered the bride in mother in mutual floods of strange, mystic tears of happy happenstance.
And as Wood reiterates, it was all for the sake of not wanting to mull around Primark for too long. “It was literally a case of just killing 20 minutes,” he confirms. “I think maybe I’d been to pick up some business cards in the morning or something,” but business would drum itself up far sooner than expected. “That’s it really, I just wanted to perform. Maybe I’d garner a bit of attention, maybe nobody would take any notice, but I certainly didn’t quite expect it to go like that.”
Now, the performance holds an obscure, revisited place in Wood’s life, as it does for the rest of us. “I do watch it back very occasionally. I remember watching it at the time thinking, ‘I could’ve done it better’, but it’s not the worst performance I’ve ever done.”
Beyond the desire to simply perform, there is an added punch to proceedings given that it was also partly in homage to one of Hull’s favourite heroes. “It’s obviously significant. With the whole Spiders from Mars basically being from the city. I love the Mick Ronson arrangement, so I was just trying to replicate that on the piano, without all the strings and trying to keep the descending scales and stuff, just my own pianistic arrangement, because it’s not an easy thing to pay either. Certainly, the chorus is a big belter. I think it’s a B-flat that Bowie hits, so it’s far from easy.”
Nevertheless, he is not one of Humberside drunken denizens who happily tell you in a bar that they gave Ronson his best ideas in the same tone as the many folks who have suddenly had West Ham trials after six pints. Nope, the ever-earnest James, simply laughs, “The closest I got was my mam and dad went to school with his brother. I do know that someone shared the video to his sister though, so I hope she watched it, that would have been lovely. Just like any cover, you just hope you’re doing it justice.”
And then he delivers the line that is both comical and misguided, but clearly puts its finger on part of the charm, “I’m not dressed up for the occasion, as you can see. I remember someone commented something like, ‘Wow, the chav can play!’” He’s not a chav, but he isn’t dressed up either—it is a rare sort of music delivered purely without pretence. It’s almost like the hallowed vault of Hull station is an empty room and he’s rattling the rafters with his own little cloud-shifting prayer that broke through the malaise of an overcast day like an assegai of exultation that thankfully one woman was open-eared enough to bask in and share the poetic moment with the rest of us.
“It’s something I’m really proud of,” Wood concludes with gratitude, “it’s nice to know that you’ve touched people’s lives in a significant way, and you know, even just a little small way like that, it’s really humbling, and it’s lovely.” As the many fans have no doubt said when they occasionally approach him on the street in a moment’s recognition, ‘Mate, it’s the best damn busking performance I’ve ever seen.’
James Wood now performs in a band, The Queen Story, who are playing the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield later this month on July 28th. You can find out more information on the band and forthcoming shows by clicking here. He also performs in a solo capacity with a big show at the Humber Street Sesh coming up on August 13th. You can find more info on his solo outing here. And finally, he is also in the band The Late Night Marauders, you can check them out here.