Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My interview with Kevin Ayers in 1993, Hoboken, NJ

Kevin Ayers performing at a free concert on June 29, 1974 in Hyde Park, London, 
around 20 yearsearlier than his performance at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ.
Photo by Tim Duncan, used with permission.

Kevin Ayers, the eclectic English singer/songwriter 

and founding member of Soft Machine 

[Note: I'm very saddened to hear that Kevin has passed away. That made me remember this interview, which has not been online in many years. I originally published it on a now-defunct site called Themestream.]

The Interview


This was Kevin's tenth stop in a 3-week, 11-city first-ever solo tour. The visit to the U.S. was paid for by his fans in a labor of love. Audiences were reverent and cross-generational, from college kids to aging baby boomers.

The interview took place on Friday night, March 5,1993, in the dressing room of Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ, about an hour before the show. The dressing room was small, with graffitied walls and a single light bulb. In the room were Kevin, Jay Plumb, overseeing the performance, and Judy Pokras, the interviewer.

Kevin: [I] hope for a U.S. record deal. I came to the U.S. without a guitar, bought one in a pawn shop in Denver. I never did a solo tour before this.

Rick Chafen (Kansas City, MO) organized tour. He likes the Canterbury scene, which started with Soft Machine and then the spin-offs. Rick has all weird stuff (in his music collection), not a regular record like the Beatles. He worked out a network of fans who wanted to see us, Gong and Richard Sinclair.

I arrived three weeks ago. "Why are we Sleeping" has developed over the years.

I did a European tour before coming here, Belgium, Holland, France, Germany. I had to go where they speak English (in order for them to understand the lyrics). The whole point of my songs is the words. (Otherwise) I might as well be speaking in Swahili.

[Judy tells Kevin she's interested in astrology and came across his birth date somewhere, sees that he's a Leo, wonders if he knows his moon or rising sign.]

Kevin: I was born August 16, 1944. When I was young I used to say "cock rising," but I don't anymore.
I started out as a writer, singing the poets I like: Louis McNiece, Auden, T.S. Eliot. Because I hate poetry readings. So I'd play one or two chords and recite or sort of sing lyrics by Eliot...it sounds a little pretentious, doesn't it. Then I started writing my own. Poetry readings are boring. Unless there's a dramatic reader, like William Burroughs.

The tour started in Denver, Colorado.

Judy: Why come here [for a tour] without a guitar?

Kevin: I like the whole troubadour spirit again, thought there should be more of that. Travel light and take it as it comes. I've never worked on my own (before this). It's pretty scary. Particularly with my songs, which are very...the artist naked. If somebody said "It's a piece of shit" I'd probably walk off the stage and say goodbye. If I had a band I'd blast them off. A lot of people are writers, but it's hard to write song lyrics. It's a completely different art than writing poetry. I learned that quite early on. I used to write verbose stuff. In song writing you have to be direct, can't use esoteric imagery, have to get rid of cliches. Most songs are about love and the lack of it. It's very challenging.

Judy: How do you get around these challenges?

Kevin: Obviously you have to read and listen to a lot. You have to know what other people have been saying.

Judy: What are some things you read and listen to?

Kevin: The last good book I read was "Homeboy" by an American author. Also "Perfume." But I overdosed on reading when I was younger. I think we've played just about every theme, used about every word, (content, philosophically) unless we move up the evolutionary scale another step, we've exhausted it [content]. But style. That's all anyone has who works in the arts nowadays. Without a major intellectual H-Bomb (content has been exhausted). I still like Dylan. Also listen to Randy Newman, Ricky Lee Jones. I listen to jazz, mostly.

Judy: What kind of jazz?

Kevin: Classic--Monk, Ornette Coleman, Ellington. To write words, you're dealing with time scale, fashion, taste [flavor] of the month. The majority [of words] are limiting. I never had any plan to become a song writer/performer. It just developed that way. I just had an inquiring mind.

[In the period of time before this solo tour] I had a long layoff of not doing anything, not being inspired. Then I heard the acoustic group Fairground Attraction (three musicians and a girl singer who was involved with one of the musicians). They had a million-selling album, "The First of a Million Kisses," the best album I'd heard for many, many years. The girl singer makes my heart want to bleed, she sang so intensely. I said I'd like to work with them. Someone got in touch with them in my behalf. They did half the backing tracks on my latest album, "Still Life with Guitar." And I co-wrote a song with Mark Nevin, "Something In-Between." I sent him the lyrics in the evening, and by morning, he had written the tune to it.

Judy: What will you be performing tonight?

Kevin: From the new album, (songs about) love, and a few social comments, the difference between dream reality and waking reality.

Judy: How long have you been living in Majorca?

Kevin: 12-13 years.

Judy: It must be beautiful there.

Kevin: Beautiful but boring... [But] if you're with someone you really like, anywhere's okay.

Judy: What kind of family do you come from?

Kevin: I had basically no family. I was a colonial child. My parents were involved in the last of the British Empire. I lived six years in Malaysia, went to every type of school. (First three years there, then four years of private school in England, ages 12-16.) They stuck me in a private school in England. Very weird. Run by sadistic homosexuals who were misogynistic. They used to say, "Come and sit on my lap, baby." We used to get thrashed bare-assed til you bled. You didn't complain to anyone.

Judy: But you talked to the other boys about it?

Kevin: No. If you did, you were expelled. It was worse than death. There's a joke that English men like to be spanked. I don't.

Judy: No siblings?

Kevin: I have a half-sister, probably a 3/4 sister. Ten years younger. My parents were always squabbling. It was very traumatic being around them. I used to set traps for them, wire the place up with black cotton like a spider's web. So they'd walk into this web and freak. Private school (military style) was like a concentration camp. No women.

We saw our parents every six months. I was telling my youngest daughter her school is like a five-star hotel. At 16, as soon as I could, I went on the streets, lived out of dust bins. [The band I was in called] Soft Machine [originated in] 1968 to 1969. They were people I liked. I was musically illiterate. I never dreamed of making this kind of stuff my career. Probably to be a writer was my ambition.

Daevid Alien, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge (who was the first guy to discover the semi-tone switch on the Lowrey organ on the foot pedal). They were the only family I knew. We all lived in a small house in Dulwich. But we'd met first in Canterbury, a small town. It was an intellectual contact to begin with. They were into music. The weirdest modern jazz: Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Coltrane. I said, "What the fuck is that?"

Jay (to Judy): Robert Wyatt said Kevin was the only guy in town with long hair so they knew he was a free spirit.

Kevin: I was originally invited to Majorca by Robert Graves (the poet) and he gave us a house to stay in. And we hung out with that family a lot. (Robert Graves was friends with Robert Wyatt.) We created a productive family. We were all into producing stuff. We'd all rush into each other's rooms with our latest stuff and I really miss it.

Jay (to Judy): Do you want to ask one final question?

Judy: I can't think of one...

Kevin: There is no final question.

[Kevin shakes hands with Judy]

Kevin (to Judy): Thanks for asking such intelligent questions.

Judy: Thanks. I'm looking forward to hearing you [perform in a few minutes].

Kevin: I hope I don't let you down.

Judy: You couldn't.

Kevin: I could.

Judy: You couldn't.

[Judy walks out of the dressing room. As she walks upstairs, she passes Jay, who's escorting another reporter downstairs.]

Jay (to Judy): You were incredible! I've never heard him talk before!


Judy's notes on Kevin's performance at Maxwell's in Hoboken, on Friday Night, March 3, 1993, including the order in which he played his songs.

1. "When Your Parents Go to Sleep"

2. "Shouting in a Bucket Blues" From lyric: Lovers come and lovers go, but friends are hard to find, and I can count all mine on one finger.

3. "Champagne and Valium (Too Old to Die Young)"

4. "There Goes Johnny"

5. "Everybody's Some Time and Some People's All the Times Blues" From lyric: When it's late in the evening and the weather is cold, I begin to miss you...strange kind of blues, color moon shines in the middle of my room

6. "I Don't Depend on You" From lyric: Why don't I depend on you? [from newest album]
[The stage lights dim.]

7. "Lady Rachel" (From album "Joy of a Toy") From lyric: She's safe from the darkness, safe from its clutch...Lady Rachel.

[Kevin sings and plays soulfully, intensely, with real emotional depth, eyes closed.
In "Lady Rachel" he whispers one phrase so you can barely hear him.

Sonorous, powerful guitar.
Members of the audience sway with him.
Audience cheers as they applaud, some for each song, lots for this one.]

8. "Super Salesman" From lyric: Sell yourself, it's later than you think. You've got to sell yourself. I'm a super salesman, you can find me anywhere. Just take a look inside yourself, you can find me in there.

9. "See You Later" From lyric: Don't say "See me later" don't say "see me" How will you see me later if you can't see me now...

[The audience feels very simpatico, like we all love each other because we all love Kevin. The audience is pretty young, how do they know Kevin? Through friends, I guess.]

10. "Hat Song" From lyric: You say you like my shirt, like my hat, but what about me?
[Audience sings along, echoing My shirt, My hat, What about me?]

11. "May I?" From lyric: May I sit and stare at you for a little while...I like the company of your smile. You don't have to say a thing, you're the song without the sing. May I sit and stare at you a little while. You know I like the company of your smile.

[This song is how I feel about Kevin himself.]

Kevin: We're rapidly running out of songs here.

12. "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes" From lyric: I'm just workin' for the company.

Kevin: One more song, because I can't remember them all.

A guy in audience (shouts to Kevin): Do them over again!

Someone else (shouts to Kevin): Olay, Olay Bandu, Bandong

Another person (shouts to Kevin): Why Are We Sleeping!

13. "Two Goes Into Four" From lyric: Blue goes into green. Blue becomes green. Green take me so far. Life is the star. Go follow the wind, open your heart, then you may start to be ______.

[Kevin turns his back to the audience to take a drink.]

[Jay: There's no backstage. I'll bring him back from here.]

Kevin (to audience): You have to be really quiet for this one. This is the last one because I don't have any more. This is called "Thank you very much."

14. "Thank You Very Much" [Kevin sings in his deepest voice, low and intimate, from lyric:] If I sing something blue dedicated to you, don't think I'm sad, just dreaming. I remember your kiss and at least I know what it's like to have kissed you...

[This makes me sigh "Ah" out loud.]

...and if you feel that there's pain with this sleepy refrain, it's only my imagination. [Kevin sings sweetly and deeply]

[I feel him viscerally now, like my body, my skin, are drinking him from the air. It's tactilely spiritual.]

Here's Kevin performing in 1970: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T9NFEyzB7o

3 comments:

George Henderson said...

Thanks for this outstanding interview.

I have a tiny piece of Ayers lore to add; he mentions here his friendship with Robert Graves; the song Lady Rachel echoes a Robert Graves poem, Warning to Children. It is Ayers' pop version of Graves' theme, with only the word "parcel" left to link the two.

http://www.crockford.com/wrrrld/warning.html

Valestrania said...

Judy, thanks for posting this!
I was at that show, having flown in from Cincinnati for the night. Reading your article has me reliving that evening.

-Elliot, Cincinnati

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. He was a rare talent and a singular voice, if also a somewhat tragic figure.