Sitting in my local coffee shop this morning (oh, alright, it was 1.30 already; I’m an insomniac, so sue me) I heard a Joan Armatrading song I’d forgotten about. And my mind flooded with memories of the mystery of Pam Nestor and the career that never happened.
Pam co-wrote 11 of the 14 tracks on Joan’s first album, on which my brother-in-law Pete Zorn played bass. I was also pretty friendly at the time with their manager, Mike Stone. So rehearsals and sessions were pretty open house to me.
What I remember from the time is a) thinking Joan was very shy, almost introverted, and – sorry to say – a little bit boring; and b) that Pam Nestor, by contrast, was a universe of energy to herself, and a lyricist of enormous talent, interacting with the musicians and directing events. She was also – forgive me – very, very lovely.
At the time, Joan and Pam were a duo. I think it was how they saw themselves. Certainly I did. They’d written the best part of 100 songs together.
So I was surprised and a little bit shocked to see how Pam was being sidelined, subtly and not-so subtly, little by little. Clearly, Joan Armatrading was considered the ‘marketable’ talent. And so it proved. Well, self-fulfilling, really. If you sideline one partner, and push the other forward, what do you expect?
A happy ending?
A few months later, my own life was transformed by the surprising call to come and work in A&R at CBS Records. One of the perks/privileges of that job was the ability to chase down neglected talent and see if anything could be done.
And so I tracked down Pam Nestor, and asked her to come and see me.
I’d love to tell you this story has a happy ending, but you already know it doesn’t. Because chances are, you’ve never even heard of Pam Nestor, let alone mistaken her for someone who had a successful career.
She came into my office, very late, breathless. But despite her lateness and obviously having rushed, there was no evidence of embarrassment or apology. What there was was a woman apparently in command, for whom this call was nothing less than she expected, and, obviously, I was going to fall at her feet and put her where she clearly belonged.
And believe me, I would have. In addition to her energy and talent, and apparent self-belief, she was startlingly beautiful, tall and rangy, and – in my memory at least – in perpetual motion.
But her life appeared to be chaotic. Getting hold of her was touch and go. She didn’t seem to have representation that might organise and guide her. And, honestly, it just didn’t seem to be in the stars. There’s a truism in the record industry: behind everyone you’re interested in are another 100 (today you could make that 1,000) artists who’ll be more committed, less trouble, and more easy to manage.
Not in the stars
I agonised for weeks over whether to put my neck on the line for Pam Nestor, but after one too many unreturned phone calls, I sadly decided not to.
Pam Nestor did, in fact, go on to make records as herself. She did get representation, and her own deal. But, as I suspected, it was not in the stars.
She later turned to academia. The most recent entries on Wikipedia about her are about lecturing and writing, as well as publishing her PhD at Birkbeck College in 2009.
So all that energy and intellect eventually poured into her life to good effect. It is, then, a happy ending. But I still can’t help regretting that it wasn’t a different ending; that we are not all now looking forward to the Pam Nestor retrospective, and next year’s appearance on the main stage at Glastonbury.
The mystery of Pam Nestor is the same as that of most promising artists. There’s only room for so many at the top. What I’ve written here may seem explanation enough for her failure to break through. But I can promise you that artists more chaotic and unmanageable than Pam have succeeded where she did not.
Maybe, in the end, she was destined for a PhD Doctorate rather than success as a songwriter. It’s all life and philosophy in the end.