before I get older
Jacques Rigaut, 1921
In the summer of 1999, Pete Williams wrote an article for Tangents called 'before I get old', in which he suggested a wholesale cessation of involvement in Pop at the age of thirty. In December 1999, Dickon Edwards responded to this piece with his riposte 'The Pig Farmer's Alibi'. In the finest tradition of encouraging lively journalism, here now is Pete's newest volley in the debate. If anyone else feels like joining in with their own views, please do get in touch.
I read your riposte to 'before I get old' with interest and amusement. Of course I didn't take it "personally"; in fact, I think your reply was true to the spirit of the original, the intention of which was to provoke discussion and debate, always a good thing as I'm sure you'll agree. Bearing this in mind, I hope you'll allow me in turn to respond to some of the points you raise. One thing though: I wonder if maybe you didn't take my original article a little personally yourself? Did I detect a note of defensiveness amidst the bravado? Perhaps not.
Firstly, you're right that I threw around the words "success" and "failure" rather wildly. In my defence I'd point out that it was primarily a piece of Pop writing rather than an academic argument but in retrospect I was rather careless. As you painstakingly illustrate, there are indeed many definitions of these terms, so let me clarify what I meant.
Artistically, I wouldn't say that I failed and my songs are still a source of pleasure (and occasional regret) to me. But neither do I believe that I completely succeeded in translating what I heard in my head onto tape, and it was partly a frustration at this which led me to quit. I suppose I wanted to be exceptional (I share with you a horror of being merely "all right") and, if I'm honest, I wasn't - not quite. Better than most, but I never made a record as great as 'Little Johnny Jewel' or 'Strings of Life' or 'Hand in Glove', which was my ambition. At around the age of 28, it occurred to me that I probably never would.
In terms of reaching any sort of audience at all - which I hoped to do - I'm afraid I did fail, abysmally. It bothered me at the time, but I got over it and moved on. The opening passage of my article was intended as a joke and I certainly don't feel either self-pity, envy or most of the other things you accuse me of. Self-righteousness? An underrated concept. Secretly insecure? Well I've never tried to keep it a secret as far as I know.
Dare I suggest that your definition of "success" is itself somewhat confused? A quote in Melody Maker? (I didn't know anyone still read it). Fifteen grand from a multinational corporation? A good review from somebody you probably knew anyway? You seem very easily pleased, Dickon, which is a blessing as life can be disappointing.
Other than this, I stand by my argument which revolved around the following related observations:
1. That Pop is too old, the process of making and releasing music is too slow and that pop culture generally is being suffocated by an industry geared towards CD reissues and excessive respect for The Canon. These things militate against anything fresh or new emerging.
2. That youth culture generally is depressingly apolitical
3. That the new paradigm of "middle youth", the extension of the Pop life into our 30's and beyond, isn't necessarily a good thing and may even be a capitalist conspiracy.
My solution, requiring Pop Artists to quit at 30, was an imaginative response to this situation. There are always exceptions (which prove rules) but I rather like it and stand by it.
You admit that Pop is going the way of the dead art forms of jazz and the blues but state that "to protest against this tide of events, King-Canute like, is pointless". I find this staggeringly defeatist for one so young. What are these pages for? Is any criticism of dominant cultural norms and trends a waste of time? You appear to believe so.
As for politics, well Pop has always been about more than just music for me and the inspiration I've drawn from my favourite Pop Artists has coloured the way I see the world and how I believe it might be. You seem to hold the same misconception as many of our generation in thinking that politics is something "other" which you don't care to dirty your hands with. You see a parade of fakers, egotists and control freaks and conclude that we can do nothing to influence or replace them. I don't share this conclusion. I think its mistaken and intellectually disingenuous.
Personally I do want to grow up. I lived the Pop life to the full in my 20's and things got a little out of hand. But even if they hadn't, I still think it would be time for some reflection, for sorting out what was good from what was bad, for deciding what I do now. I became disillusioned chasing my particular dream: it's time to chase some other ones instead.
I wish you luck with your Life as Art project, but can't you come up with something more original than those tired old Wildean postures? I was reading recently about a minor French Dadaist, Jacques Rigaut, who declared at the age of 19 that he would live until 29 and then kill himself. Which he did. Amazing I thought, he seems to have synthesised our respective aesthetic positions with one bullet to the head. Now that is Style.
P.S. I'm not suggesting you follow Mr Rigaut's example
© Pete Williams 2000.