Kevin Ayers – Revived 35

Headline contributed by the Mediterranean boatman lui-meme. Actually he was born in 1944. Fascinating, isn’t it?

LITTLE VENICE is a stretch of canal in Paddington, a tranquil halcyon backwater where houseboat dwellers grow daffs and crocuses and keep rabbits on the tow-path.

A few weeks earlier the water was thick-lidded with ice and bleak hoarfrost whitened the trees. Now it was a fresh and sunny spring morning and the pussycats were frolicking and the buds sprouting.

As I neared his boat, the hatch-doors were thrown open and Kevin Ayers peered out, bright-eyed, tousle-headed and grinning in his usual detached way.

His voice has the cosmopolitan air of a not-quite top notch public school, six years in Singapore as a child, and a good few years of elegant boozin’ and druggin’.

He is sun-bleached and lithe from much deep-sea diving and loafing in the Canaries, Caribbean, Balearics and Casablanca. He moves with the slow grace of an alcoholic imp. I remarked on how sprightly he looked:

“I feel very sprightly. I think it’s going to be a great spring. I’ve been through a very down period and now I feel I’m on the upsurge.”

Good news indeed. I asked him to elaborate: “It’s fairly simple really. It was like a great day of reassessment. Apart from the fact that I’d been boozing and drugging very heavily over the last couple of years, which was very depressing generally and kind of eats at your soul and your spirit and your life force in general, I wasn’t very happy emotionally, which I am now, and the combination of all these things was just a very down period. It all happened at the same time.”

After recording Sweet Deceiver, a somewhat self-indulgent album, though with fine lyrics, Kevin went away to rethink what he was doing. Australia, Fiji and North Africa all saw him last year as he looked back over his decade of music, getting as far away from the position he was in as possible in order to look at it.

And so what did he think?

“What do I think? I think that particularly in live performances I was always scared and really never gave as I should give. Now I feel much more inclined to, and able to do that. I don’t feel the need to get pissed out of my head before I go on stage.”

Unfortunately, boozing was part of the suave Zen colonial image which Kevin first cultivated and which everyone else later projected upon him. The absurd romantic Englishman of the type once found lounging around Saigon and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee suit or watching the sun set behind the flaking facade of a distant British consulate while languidly caressing his Annamite mistress.

“I used to feel very unreal. The whole thing of boozing was a kind of anchoring, just to get your feet firmly on the ground.

“I think the mistake I made was trying to be something I wasn’t. Just being very narrow about it and just trying to be a rock ‘n’ roller and always forgetting about the gentle side and the humorous side.

“What I need to do is to combine all those sides to feel I’m really there. I think my performances would be better anyway – by being more varied.

*

THE LIGHT from the canal rippled and dappled the ceiling. I leaned back and drank my Earl Grey while Kevin searched for a battery for Penny’s camera. He found an olive pip.

He is making an album. That’s why he is here and not in his house in the South of France. Muff Winwood is producing it at Island’s Basing Street Studios. Ollie Halsall on lead guitar, who was previously produced by Winwood when he was with Patto, is still with Kevin.

The album also features Charlie McCracken, Viv Lipsey and Rob Townsend.

“It’s a very straight album… just songs, with some sort of musical interest thrown in but there’s no instrumental pieces as such. Nothing very complicated.

“They’re straight, quite strong songs. Strong for me. I’m singing in a stronger way these days. More convincing.”

His new single, ‘Falling In Love Again’, is from the album.

“I’ve tried to take a bit of the decadence out of it you know, the alcoholic melancholy. I’ve made it a bit brighter than the way Marlene Dietrich sang it.”

He’s also done Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness of You’ on the album.

“This is the first time I’ve ever used anybody else’s songs, and it’s just for the pleasure of singing them. I mean, they have some meaning for me, I have a reason for singing them, but I’ve just realised what fun it is. They’re fantastic to sing.”

He’s in a strange position at the moment. EMI have released his first two albums, Joy Of A Toy and Shooting At The Moon, in their Harvest Heritage double-album series. The compilation album of singles and unreleased tracks, Old Ditties, has just been released and his old single, ‘Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes’, seems to be attracting as much attention as ‘Falling in Love Again’.

“It’s weird to have such opposite ends of my range out at the same time,” he comments.

*

I NOTICED that the boat had a well-stocked bar. Maybe he had an eau de vie before I arrived. Anyway he was well prepared for an interview, giving me two jokes and several good closing paragraphs.

Kevin’s first joke:

Miles: “A lot of writers seem to work best under tense conditions.”

Kevin: “Like the Arabs. They all write in tents.” (hahaha).

Kevin’s second joke:

Kevin: “I don’t read very much. I like factual books now, such as marine biology.”

Miles: “Are you really studying that deeply?”

Kevin: “No. Not deeply. Down to about 60 feet.” (hahaha).

There is plenty of evidence of his interest in skin-diving. He and his lady Kristen brought back the many beautiful sea fans which decorate the cabin from a recent swimming holiday in Antigua. There’s a stuffed cloth palm-tree over the door and the whole room has a tropical flavour. I asked him if his writing was affected by his environment.

“The best environment for working is the most miserable environment, because I don’t like doing anything else then. I don’t feel like going swimming or don’t feel particularly hungry because I’m not moving around and getting a good appetite.”

Judging by the lyrics I had always assumed that his writing came from somewhere where he felt fairly relaxed.

“A lot of it does. A lot of it is a kind of therapy to relax.”

At this point Kristen interrupted, “I don’t believe what you just said: You’ve been telling me the opposite for the last week.”

Kevin explained his way out of that one: “No. What he’s saying is ‘How does environment affect you? i.e. When you’re in the Caribbean, do you feel like writing that kind of music?’ and I said, ‘No. I feel like being that kind of music. I don’t feel like recreating, I feel like being it. Then, when I come back to rainy old England I then feel like recreating what I felt there. At the time I’m too busy feeling it.”

We talked a lot about songs since I’ve always felt he was stronger as a lyricist than as a musician:

“Songs, to me, start off as letters to people. Either specifically or generally they are messages. I’m a very preaching and messagy sort of person. I’ve got less and less like that but they are still fairly direct.

“I mean, I’ve just had to try to learn to make my personal messages accessible to lots of people, i.e. as any good writer should be able to do. To get the depth of saying something personal and yet at the same time taking away the esoteric references and private meanings so that everyone can share in it.

“Obviously you have to generalise and broaden what you’re saying so that lots of people can get in.”

Do you revise a lot?

“Too much maybe. I’m not a very spontaneous person, especially when it comes to words.

“I listen to very simple sun-hot music, the simpler, the better. High spirits music. But mine is low-key music. It’s ponderous, most of it. I mean, I occasionally manage to rise above that, but rarely – especially in the words.

“I get very bored with my own output but it’s what I can do best so I do it. I mean, if I every try to write or sing or do those kinds of music that I like listening to it always comes out unsatisfactory for me.”

*

I WONDERED if there were any literary influences on him. After all he was one of the founder members of The Soft Machine (along with Daevid Allen, Mike Ratlege, and Robert Wyatt), a group who took their name from William Burroughs’ book.

“Burroughs and Rimbaud. I think they have affected everybody at some point. Anyone who has ever written a word, read a word. I think Rimbaud for the imagery and Burroughs just for style. But not now, not now at all.”

I always thought of your lyrics as very much like poetry.

“I like to think that they have something poetic in them. I started off like everybody else, writing poetry, which I called poetry and probably wasn’t. Now I see myself as a lyric writer and call myself a lyric writer, songwriter.

“And I think song. I think in simple rhymes and imagery that is hopefully accessible and that, whenever possible, is still thought provoking and will stimulate somewhere along the line – although I’ve got simpler and simpler and this album’s probably the simplest I’ve done in terms of word content.

“I mean, hopefully, if this one is more successful and pays off a few bills and things I’ll start being a bit more experimental again. But those kind of pressures mean a lot to me. The things record company people say – ‘It’s all very well doing this but you only appeal to a very small audience, and though they like it, you’re never gonna get further than this… And whereas previously I’d have said, ‘No, I don’t believe that, I’ll just keep on doing what I believe in.’ now…”

It’s true that Kevin’s records have never been big sellers. They reach a certain ceiling, though that ceiling does go up for each album.

The problem is of course that he has never penetrated the American market. His records haven’t even been released over there, though the next one will be.

I returned to the subject of his new songs and asked if they were love songs because I really like his love songs. This is ending number one:

“One or two are love songs but not the kind that I’d like to do… that I hope I’m going to write. They’re much more the kind of early stages of being unsure and afraid… that area which is not so much love songs as ‘questioning’ songs and ‘statement’ songs.

“I think the kind of love songs that I’m talking about and maybe you are talking about come at a later date, sort of when I’ve got over all those areas. That’s how I hope things will develop.

“Kirsten was right then to question what I’d said, because I’ve previously always relied on pain and anguish as stimulants to do anything, especially writing. But I’ve always secretly longed to not always have to write about human entanglements and misfortunes.

“I’d like to be creative about mountains and rivers and fish and… I don’t know… lots of other things and other areas of being.

“I feel that coming on. It hasn’t come on yet, but I feel it coming. And that’s the way I hope it’s gonna go.”

© MilesNew Musical Express, 10 April 1976

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