Friday, 22 February 2013

“SO I SING FOR EVERYONE WHO FEELS THERE'S NO WAY OUT”: RIP KEVIN AYERS



Sometimes the brightest lights really do hide beneath a bushel.

Kevin Ayers, who sadly died earlier this week, was perhaps not the most household of names. He shunned the limelight and eschewed a music business career to a degree eclipsing even his sometime compatriot Robert Wyatt. His Wikipedia entry describes him as “a self-imposed exile in warmer climes, a fugitive from changing musical fashions, and a hostage to chemical addictions.” Never prodigious in his output, in the Nineties and Nighties he managed an output of one album per decade. (Neither of which I've heard, to be honest.)

When he is remembered now it's as a founder member of the legendary Soft Machine (though he left after their first release), or for the live album 'June 1st 1974'. Featuring John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico as well as Ayers, it's virtually the trump card to bring out when know-nothings claim nothing happened in Seventies music before punk. Though Ayers headlined the gig, ironically these days he's probably the least-known name of the line-up.

You could call that unfortunate, but really - it was the way it had to be. Ayers' musical explorations were undertaken the way previous generations of well-bred Englishmen had their more literal explorations – the preserve of the gentleman amateur. Where he was going, that was the only way to get there.

Quality was admittedly uneven. But the point was to tread the most eccentric of paths. Tracks were too playful, too song-based to be labelled as underground, experimental or avant-garde. But they were too quirky, too idiosyncratic to file under pop. They'd often sound like the soundtrack to some hip Seventies children's show, broadcast from behind the looking glass. (See for example 'Girl On a Swing.') A compilation album was called 'Odd Ditties' (after the working title of 'Up Against the Dried Fruit at Tescos' was nixed), which probably sums things up better than I ever could.

Put it this way... it was Ayers who started off Mike Oldfield's career. And I still love him!

21 comments:

  1. Off topic, but I have a British culture question for you. Recently, I was astonished to discover my wife had never heard of Enoch Powell. I quickly discovered that virtually nobody here has heard of Enoch Powell. Obviously I spend too much time steeped in British culture.

    My question is: is Barry Goldwater (who I think is roughly as influential a figure in U.S. politics from approximately the same period) similarly obscure the other way or do you think the average Briton has heard of him due to American cultural behemothry and it's just a one-way thing?

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  2. On a similar topic, I often call myself an Anglophile. What term do the English use for somebody preoccupied with American culture (assuming there are any such people)? Americanophile? Yankophile? Or would such a term just be insulting and mean something like "a kid who wears a baseball cap backwards"?

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  3. I'd say similarly obscure. Though Goldwater got named in a Dylan song, which is probably the main way UK folk would have heard of him. Plus the default crazy-right-wing-guy-in-American-history is McCarthy, so it's kind of like we don't need two to rail at. (Of course, they're actually from different eras.)

    I don't think we do know much about American politics and history, really, for all that we're so saturated in American culture. The culture just tends to buttress the stereotypes, so people are even less likely to look beyond them. Mind you, people seem to know less and less about British politics or history, so I suppose that's not surprising.

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  4. Asking island nations for positive terms for foreigners may be a bit of a fool's errand. The British can be quite xenophobic. We pretty much don't have terms for Americanophile or German-phile. Pretty much, you'd only ever hear Francophile in daily conversation. I used to be quite involved in comics fandom which for many years was obsessed with American comics to an almost complete exclusion of all else, yet the people involved would rarely comment on that.

    I suspect that when something American seems attractive it seems modern rather than a specific example of American culture, which makes the term less useful. We need to get with the times, more than get with America.

    There's also the odd paradox that political Americanophilia is the property of the right, yet large sections of the right can be culturally the most America-phobic. (Snobby disdain for "hamburger culture", crap TV shows and so on.)

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  5. Barry Goldwater was actually Bob Dylan's favorite politician and he has said he was disappointed when Goldwater lost to LBJ. I could actually explain why, but it would take a while.

    Yes, it's not surprising post-Thatcher, that the right would both admire and despise the United States. Enoch Powell himself was very anti-American. Of course, he came of age during World War II and suspected the Americans were trying to use their wartime leverage to destroy the British Empire (which they were and which they did). And, of course, he thought American ethnic diversity and immigration policy was crazy and suicidal.

    We're in sort of the opposite relationship now as we were in the 19th century. An American who really loved 19th century British cultural products (Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, etc.) would be viewed as a 19th century literature buff, and not as an Anglophile, since 19th century British culture is considered just part of the common culture. But that's because in the 19th century, the U.K. was the cultural behemoth. I'm sure there were some penetrations the other way (Mark Twain? Edgar Allen Poe?) just as there have been some penetrations the other way since WWII (particularly British musicians and actors). Because of this, as a child, I would have recognized the names of Gladstone and Disraeli as 19th century PMs, but not Ted Heath or Harold Wilson who had been PMs in my lifetime.

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  6. Oh, and it's not like we have many more words. In casual conversation, only Francophile and Anglophile would come up. There aren't enough people really into any other cultures to bother with. (Though the words Sinophile, Germanophile, Russophile, Hispanophile, and Nipponophile do exist.) From roamings on the internet, it is clear to me that there are a significant number of young people now who are growing up steeped in Japanese culture (anime and video games) to the extent of even learning the language, so I predict Nipponophile will become more popular in the next thirty years or so.

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  7. I hadn't heard that before about Dylan. Goldwater could have 'libertarian right' tendencies, couldn't he? (Which would be the very opposite of Powell.) Would it to be with that? There's the general hot/cold thing between hippie culture and the libertarian right, as hippie culture tended to have the same fetish of the individual.

    It's funny how British cultural exports switched so quickly from literary to popular culture - from Oscar Wilde to the Beatles.

    It's noticeable how if you go to comics events now Manga and Anime have become the focus of young people. I suspect America seemed foreign and exotic to us Seventies comic fans (I definitely used to imagine it the way Kirby drew it!), but now it's too familiar and Japan has kind of replaced it. But they're no more Nipponophile than we were Americanophile, as the focus is so much on that one aspect.

    I'd imagine the most popular foreign country for us would be Spain. When the British finally starting holidaying abroad in the Seventies Spain was a prime destination and it's kind of stuck. Spain seems like the opposite of Britain, it doesn't rain much and the people smile. Thousands have moved there. (Where they live in enclaves and make no attempt to learn the language, so I'm not sure we're always that popular with the Spanish!) Also, Spain isn't as much as economic rival as France or Germany. But again, no-one ever talks of Hispanophiles.

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  8. Andrew Stevens3 March 2013 at 20:57

    Yes on Goldwater and Dylan, more or less. I would caution against viewing Dylan as a hippie, though. There is pretty strong evidence that Dylan not only never considered himself a hippie, but never really liked hippies much either. Of course, he's Dylan. He's so Delphic, it's impossible to say for certain what he thinks. Goldwater was actually very libertarian except on foreign policy where he was a strong anti-Communist during the Cold War. In his old age, he was rather famous for his wars with the Religious Right within the Republican party and, during the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" debate, Goldwater stood firmly for allowing gays in the military (he had retired as an Air Force Major General), famously remarking, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight." However, Dylan also thinks rather poetically. He said he liked Goldwater because Goldwater "reminded him of Tom Mix." I think it was really Goldwater's personal qualities that Dylan admired and not the details of his policy positions. So I think it was really Goldwater's qualities as a straight-shooting anti-Establishment type (including the Republican Establishment of the time) that Dylan liked. Then, of course, there is the old joke. "They told me if I voted for Goldwater in '64 that we'd be at war in Vietnam. Well I did and damned if we weren't." Dylan may have just had distaste for LBJ earlier than the political left. Goldwater would have gone to war in Vietnam too, but at least he was willing to say so before the election.

    Goldwater's reputation, though, is decidedly that of "crazy right-winger." As he himself said, "By the time the [1964 Republican] convention opened, I had been branded as a fascist, a racist, a trigger-happy warmonger, a nuclear madman, and the candidate who couldn't win." His later career did little to change that, despite his wars with the Religious Right and his being the man who convinced Richard Nixon to resign.

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  9. You're probably right about Dylan, both not being a hippie and thinking a little... um... laterally. Of course he was originally from the pre-hippy era. (There's a story the Beats coined the term 'hippie', which their latter-day followers took up but to them meant something closer to Lenin's term “useful idiots”. I've no idea whether that's true or not.) Plus I suspect he mostly liked Bob Dylan, certainly more than anybody else.

    But I think he'd have had a hippie's rather adolescent view of individualism (“don't hassle me, man”), which can very easily become right wing.

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  10. It's actually pretty odd having this debate about Anglo-Americanism under an obit to Kevin Ayers. I can't imagine someone more English! The Americans who are Ayers fans, they're the real Anglophiles...

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  11. Andrew Stevens3 March 2013 at 23:31

    Dylan has said, "The world was absurd ... I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of."

    "I was fantasizing about a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all 50 states for gangs of dropouts and druggies.”

    He also said about fans who showed up in droves to his Woodstock home, "I wanted to set fire to these people."

    Dylan does mostly have a "don't hassle me, man" view. Combine this with his Christianity, and ... well, I wouldn't say Dylan's political views are coherent enough to be called left wing or right wing, but he definitely can't be simply pigeonholed as a "man of the left" as I think most people view him.

    Being a complete philistine when it comes to modern music, I sadly have to confess that I'd never even heard of Ayers before your obit and have only a vague idea of who Soft Machine were. I was a big fan of Pink Floyd as a kid, including the early Syd Barrett stuff, but I assume that's much less distinctly English. Also, if we distinguish between real Anglophiles and fake ones, I'd definitely classify myself as a fake one. I have no desire to emigrate to the U.K. or anything like that.

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  12. Not just incoherent but wilfully inconsistent. As I said in my review of the anti-biopic 'I'm Not There', Dylan's "the ideological equivalent of a serial monogamist." The guy who wrote the couplet "God said to Abraham, kill me a son/ Abe said man you gotta be puttin' me on" later became a Christian. Normally, as soon as something he'd said had hit print he was already bored of it and saying something else. I suspect your quotes are from his recluse days in the late 60s, when he didn't really want to see anybody at all.

    Fake Anglophile is probably the way to go, soaking up the received images of a place. Real Anglophiles would have to deal with the real UK, with it's perpetual rain, surly shop assistants and where the village clock only stands at ten to three because it's been wrecked by vandals.

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  13. Andrew Stevens5 March 2013 at 00:07

    Yes, late '60s. Of course, he had children by then and the hippies (for the most part) didn't. I imagine that's the start of the disconnect. I'm not sure I agree with you about Dylan's inconsistency, though. I think he was already religious (though not yet explicitly Christian) when he wrote the couplet you're talking about, for example. I don't really think his beliefs have changed that much over the years; they're just so nebulous that people interpret them differently and he becomes an inkblot.

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  14. I dunno, I tend to take the 'I'm Not There' angle. I think when Dylan changed his style of music, everything changed around it - his politics, his style of dress, the whole lot. 'Highway 61' adds the Bible and, implicitly, the Church to the paving on the road to rack and ruin, which is very different to 'Slow Train Coming.' He may have been religious in some sense, but that's not the thing he's singing about. He's definitely an inkblot, but an ever-morphing inkblot.

    Incidentally, i think I've done a thing I promised to myself I'd stop doing - compare American and British culture. America is so large and so varied it only really makes sense to compare it to the whole of Europe. I don't think you can generalise very easily between Mississippi and Maine.

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  15. I suppose the classic example would be when he was berated by some underground interviewer for not opposing the Vietnan war, and he retorted "how do you know I'm not for the war?" I think as soon as he lost interested in writing directly political songs he straight away lost all interest in politics. I don't suppose he had much of an opinion about Vietnam at all, figuring it wouldn't affect his music either way.

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  16. Andrew Stevens6 March 2013 at 19:08

    Incidentally, i think I've done a thing I promised to myself I'd stop doing - compare American and British culture. America is so large and so varied it only really makes sense to compare it to the whole of Europe. I don't think you can generalise very easily between Mississippi and Maine.

    Yes, whenever I hear people complain about the "parochialism" of people in the United States, I always try to remind them just how large and diverse the United States is. You don't need to travel outside of it in order to visit a "foreign country." Mississippi and Maine are great examples. They are two of the four most rural states in the country (along with Vermont and West Virginia), but they're not even remotely alike. New York, L.A., and Chicago are very distinct cities with distinct ethnic makeups, character, and industries. And that's even leaving out Alaska and Hawaii which, for obvious reasons, practically are foreign countries. (The military even considers them "overseas postings.")

    On the other hand, mass market culture-wise, I do think it can make sense to talk about an "American culture," probably centering on Hollywood. In music and literature, it makes less sense.

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  17. I tend to think of the dominant American culture as a constant tussle between California and the North East. Yes there's Hollywood but if you asked someone to name an American paper I think they'd come up with 'The New York Times' or 'Washington Post. They'd be like the equivalent of Paris and Berlin in Europe.

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  18. I think that's fair, though there's far less daylight between the cultural elites in New York City and Los Angeles than there are between them and the populace at large. Though that's pretty much true everywhere.

    Only tangentially related, and I wish I could remember who said it originally, but I remember reading once a great quote. "The rest of the world has been convinced by America's artists and poets that America has no art or poetry." I thought you might appreciate that one.

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  19. Are we on metaphorical daylight there or just literal?

    I suspect there's some circuit breaker in our brains that stops us appreciating our own. As a knee-jerk reaction, British culture always seems like a perpetual third runner after America and the Continent. It's like one can do the highbrow stuff, the other the popular and we're just piggy in the middle. Anglophilia can seem a pretty weird concept if you're an Anglo! And yet when you get down to the nitty-gritty I actually like so much British culture...

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  20. Metaphorical. I was just saying that the struggle between Hollywood and the East Coast (primarily NYC) for American culture is a struggle between two fundamentally pretty similar groups of people. NYC is certainly more highbrow than LA and that's something, but you will not see the tastes of Mississippians or Mainers very well reflected in either place.

    I personally believe the British do high-brow much better than the Continent. Unless you count pretentious, self-consciously artsy, and fundamentally fairly meaningless as high-brow, in which case, yes, the French have the British beat. I am forever having French films recommended to me. I dutifully watch them and invariably find them to be unholy messes. I freely grant, of course, that something might be getting lost in translation since I don't speak a word of French and must rely on subtitles. But it's really hard to imagine that that much is getting lost. (I do assume, though, that the French actually can make good films as well, and it's just that only the bad, pretentious ones get recommended to me.)

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  21. I dunno about that. In an old job I had I dealt quite often with sister offices in New York and Phoenix. (Okay, not California but West Coast.) And they always seemed two completely different types of people to me. The New Yorkers were very much individualists, while the Phoenix folk were much more group-minded. One always answered the phone with their name before the company name or department, the other the other way around.

    I could probably think of a hundred French films to waffle on about, but just for starters, Renoir, Vigo, Bresson, Clouzot, Melville, Cocteau, the New Wave mob (Godard's 'Weekend' is one of my all-time faves or Chris Marker (French despite the English pseudonym). Yes there's a bad type of state-sponsored prestige film, the French equivalent of Merchant Ivory with added pseudo-intellectual veneer. And there's people who buy into that just because it is French. But you just look past that to the good stuff. Plus I don't think it's my four or five words of French that are giving me a way into it.

    It's sometimes claimed that France lags behind in music, but the surprising thing for me is the relatively small number of French Modernist artists - or at least when you consider what a centre of Modernism Paris was. After the Impressionists, there's not so many. Even movements that people think of as quintessentially French such as Surrealism, not so many of the visual artists were actually French.

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