In life remain considerate, in art the devil's advocate
- Momus, `The Cabinet Of Kuniyoshi Kaneko'
Momus is the mask worn by Nick Currie, born in Paisley, Glasgow, 1960. It's likely that you won't know much about him, unless you're an admirer already, and have made it your business to find out. There's been some concern over the years from the man's fans that Momus hasn't had his due from the media, partly because of hearsay about his personal life, and partly because he is too clever for the idiot terrain of pop music: a sort of unofficial censorship of morality and intelligence.
In all probability, Momus' lack of airplay or column inches is as much a calculation of his ultimate marginality as disapproval of his ideas, his personal life, or the misogyny with which he is charged. For all that the media controls public exposure, Momus has had his breaks, (`The Hairstyle Of The Devil' was picked up on by Steve Wright, of all people) and his artistic fearlessness has ensured seasonal attention (the famous rating of 0/10 given him by Betty Page for the `Hippopotamomus' LP is one of the more entertaining examples). No, the public could have had Momus, but they didn't want him. And he sees this himself. Ahead of his time, a pop star's pop star, Momus is at best John The Baptist. And if that makes Divine Comedian Neil Hannon the Saviour, gawd help us all:
Is it worth knowing any more about an artist than what they present to you by way of their art? In Momus' case, and despite his avowal that Momus and Nick Currie are two entirely separate entities, I should say so, given that it's been as much his personal life as his art that has been the subject of this debatable censure, if not censorship. More important than, say, knowing about the personal life of Jerry Lee Lewis before you listen to `Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On'. Momus' lyrics are open-ended, inviting the listener to pick up the reins and ride the horse the singer's just sat on. If you ask, he won't say, as many lesser lyricists do, that the song says all there is to say. There's always more to be said, a little further, it never ends. Which is why Momus, as a Man of Multimedia, has a website where he liberally sows rumours and theories about his life and work.
A website is currently the best way to circumvent a lack of press, whether it results from censorship or marginality. Discussing the pros and cons of the Net in this respect would further swell an already overlong article, so just let it be known that Momus is an old pro rather than an old con, and that he has some very interesting things to say about it (see `On Columns' and `On Quality'), as well as about music (see `How to write a Momus song' and `Pop Stars? Nein danke!'). Is Momus a misogynist? Can this be gauged from his songs or from the rumours about the taste he had for the art of seduction? Am I in fact lured by the lives of the characters he lets his songs inhabit? Do I secretly wish I was living (or departing) those lives? These are some of the questions that a perusal of Momus' website will help you consider, but probably won't help you answer.
The machinations of his lyrics - and the machinating reality behind them - are fascinating. Jellyroll Momus intimates that he does the things that we will never do; that he does them within a genre so seemingly inappropriate make the intimations all the more suggestive and disturbing. His words are the fulfilment of wishes experienced at the intersection between fantasy and reality. `They used to call me Nicky Kid, I live the life they wish they did'...
In Greek mythology, Momus is the God of ridicule, who was driven out of heaven for his criticisms of the gods. He wanted Zeus to put a window in the chests of human beings, so that he could check on the goodness or otherwise of their feelings.
Ludmilla is one of the characters in Italo Calvino's `If On A Winter's Night A Traveller', a novel about reading, if it's about anything. She is both a model reader and one who confounds expectations with her shifting preferences. She'd love Momus. She would be his perfect Listener, which, being male, I can never be, short of a sex change.
Far from being transparent, the songs are inconclusive, double or treble- edged, disconcerting in their ambiguities. But out of the picture that builds up, it is hard not to conclude when Momus sings, `I love women...'in `The Homosexual', that Nick Currie is in the same league as a corporate pornographer with a thousand notches in the headboard of his bed. One could warn against taking a song like `I Ate A Girl Right Up' too literally - but the intent is as likely to suggest the reality of the act as much as the (sexual) fantasy of it.
In the novel `Foreign Parts', Janice Galloway's character Cassie says:
Spot the yawning chasm between Cassie's knights and the Momus of `Closer To You', the Momus that gets down on his hands and knees and worships the fertile ground women walk on, the Momus `making art about making the choice between girls and art'? Only one of many Momuses, mind, although the deadly, the depraved and the promiscuous Momi don't bear much relation to the knights on white chargers either.
Personally, I find a song like `The Guitar Lesson' from his 1991 LP `Don't Stop The Night' too disturbing to derive any enjoyment from listening to it; its suggestion that it is the twelve year old girl who climbs into the lap of her teacher seems to recommend that child abusers should get cracking. But Nick Currie is too complex a character to dismiss simply as a would-be paedophile or a practising misogynist. The imagination is a powerful tool, and film directors murder with it every day. We're just not used to being faced with murder and bestiality in pop songs. It's like storing engine oil in a coke bottle. Why should a Momus character strangling a woman in a lift be considered any different to the director David Fincher's decapitation of the young detective's wife in `Seven'? The character is a facet of the author, but the author is not the character. What people miss is the fictional aspect in Momus. Pop songs have this first person aura of truth that is taken at face value in a way that no other art form is.