The Pig Farmer's Alibi
"It's no good running a pig farm badly for thirty years while saying,
Mr Pete Williams' article on these esteemed pages, being about his disapproval of music makers hacking away at the coal face of Rock Recognition when they're past the age of thirty, intrigued and provoked me enough to write the following, my own retort on the subject. I trust he won't take it personally.
He sees the Pop Artist as one with a strict sell-by date. He states he is proud of quitting his "failed" musical attempts at the age of 30. I assume he is now an excellent pig farmer, and is a shining example to other potential porcine purveyors still In Denial with their plectrums and 4-tracks.
His piece begins on a morose note riddled with stultifying regret: "You won't have heard of me...". With this one sentence he sulks with the very same self-pity he goes on to criticise in others. To counteract his doom and gloom, here is a message of Hope. Oh yes.
I disagree with much of Mr Williams' argument at a very basic level. For starters, he banters about such nebulous terms as 'success', and 'failure' very freely, with very restrictive and personal criteria. How does he (or you, for that matter) define Success in the pop world? Writing a song on the bus to work? Releasing a record? Playing a gig outside of your home town? Getting signed to EMI? Getting signed to Creation? Making a living from your Art? Making a mansion-owning fortune from your Art? Being known by name to the Queen Mother? Being known by name to Lawrence From Denim? Having your own tribute band? Selling out Madison Square Gardens? Having a Number One hit then vanishing from sight? Getting a single in the bargain basement of your local used record shop (as was Galaxie 500's sole goal). Having a string of albums which never trouble the Real Charts, but which solicit heartfelt letters on a regular basis from strangers all over the world? Influencing record buyers for one week alone to propel you into the one hit-wonder bracket? Influencing countless generations of bands to come, but never being able to support yourself when your band is actually going (q.v. The Velvet Underground)? This subject alone requires an argument of its own.
At time of writing (December 1999), this week's issue of Melody Maker has a short feature on a look back at the '90s, and this week it's 1996, when I was 24 years old, and one half of the one-album pop collaboration known as Orlando. I am in the Quotes Of The Year: "If Orlando fails, I will voluntarily opt for euthanasia." To which some anonymous hack has kindly added "we're still waiting..."
Clearly the music paper's idea of Success is similar to Mr Williams', and vastly dissimilar to mine own. I was entirely serious. A year later, Orlando succeeded, as far as I'm concerned. We released a 'critically acclaimed' album, plus I didn't have to get out of bed again for 18 months, due to it being on a major label, despite not Troubling The Charts. It was a nice feeling, the day I banked a cheque for £15,000 for Being Dickon Edwards. The money didn't last, but my being Me had enriched considerably. The riches of Persona are yours for as long as you want them. That is my principal Message of Hope. And it's so important I shall write it out again:
The riches of Persona are yours for as long as you want them
Anyone can be a millionaire. There's more millionaires than ever today. But not one of the new Lottery lot has the style of Mr Hefner, Mr Rockefeller or Mr Trump. What is the point in being financially rich if your Style is bankrupt?
Money is a comfort, but only as a means to an end. For keeping body and soul apart, as Ms Dorothy Parker remarked. If you ARE making music purely to make money, then you clearly live in Mr Williams' world of equating success with wealth and waiting for "it's going to happen". In which case I advise you to take his advice and move immediately into doing something less precarious, more lucrative with your life. Like being a lawyer. Or, indeed, a pig farmer. The trades are not, after all, dissimilar. But it's important that you feel at home doing them, and that you bring a little of Yourself to them.
Calling others 'sad', or 'tragic' or 'failures' to me smacks of being self-righteous and secretly insecure, to the point of envy.
It's true: "We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are gazing up at the stars."
Mr Wilde forgot to add that, moreover, the other man's gutter is always... cleaner.
For the record, I personally define Success simply as this: Cultivating Your Unique Self, And Staying There. That's beyond the age of thirty. That's to the grave. So that it's impossible to do any kind of Art or Job where you cannot be Yourself without being instantly dismissed. And then it's simply a matter of time before people recognise you for being Yourself, and perhaps, even, start giving you money for doing so. This process may take a long time. For three of my own Pop Icons, Quentin Crisp, Samuel Beckett and Ivor Cutler, it took until they were each at least fifty. For some, it didn't happen till after they had died.
Oh, and another benchmark of Success is being quoted years after the event, if only to take a pot-shot at me. I'll take being thought of unkindly over being forgotten anytime. At least you know where you are. Praise always makes me suspicious. When someone says, "Dickon, you're wonderful", I cower warily and fully expect their next breath to be "Can I borrow some money?"
Age ain't nothing but a number (though not, sadly, to Mr Gary Glitter, but I am ,of course, speaking of operations and pastimes carried out within the boundaries of modern law...). Even the calendar by which we measure our age in this part of the world is based on erratic and tenuous calculations by Extremely Dead People from an ancient era. What business has the Solar Cycle in my life anyway? What did I ever do to offend it? The Movements of Uranus are... just a vicious rumour, m'lud.
Some 35-year-olds are younger than some 16-year-olds. Nature has a very cruel sense of humour. I pity Catullus for never having heard Abba.
The two teenage sisters in the group B*Witched have faces and attitudes (judging by their interviews) which would cause the average Tory Wife to advise them to "loosen up a little". I know many people (of all 48 genders) twice their age who would make far better teenage girls than they.
To all intents and purposes, I myself am a 17-year-old girl from Guildford.
Mr Williams says Pop is essentially a youthful art form, despite the first Pop Record, 'Rock Around The Clock', being made by a gentleman who was no spring, or even summer, chicken. It may have been once viewed as such, in the '60s and '70s, but today the success of such publications as Mojo and Uncut indicate that this is definitely no longer the case, and it never will be.
Pop is already Old. It is going the way of jazz and blues. You can either embrace this fact or choose to pretend it's not happening. The surviving members of The Beatles, The Stones and The Who are all still working in the pop industry. The Daily Telegraph has its own Pop Correspondent. Need I say more?
The world today is not made for the young, but specifically the young-at-heart. To protest against this tide of events, King Canute-like, is pointless. And besides, the music industry itself has never been young: for every Beatle in his twenties, there's a less sprightly George Martin (or Andy Warhol or Alan McGee or Pete Waterman) lurking in the wings, but just as essential.
Mr Williams also asks ageing struggling artists to "grow up". This I agree with if the poor victims of his vitriol are essentially not being themselves, making music for the sake of music. Supergrass wrote a song about being young and "all right", which is never a good idea. I was never all right in my teens and early twenties. I'm slightly more all right now, having stopped trying to be anyone else but myself. I continue to make music not to emulate others but to express my own lop-sided persona and jaundiced worldview in a populist, universal medium. The CD today is uniquely ideal for the purpose of instantly communicating to strangers of all ages, far more so than books, films, paintings, and so on. It's more portable for a start. And shorter. Perhaps one day I will eschew actual songs in favour of, say, spoken word. But the conciseness of the pop lyric still excites me, and remains one of the few things I understand in this confusing jumble of existence.
Moreover, I am incapable of Growing Up, and believe me, I have tried. I will not pair off, reproduce or live in more than one room, you'll be relieved to hear. This is my own little agreement with the world in return for foisting my words and music upon it.
Growing up would be... out of character. That said, some people might argue that I have never really been young in the first place. I have never dropped an E or a tab of Acid (I winced so much as I typed that last alien-sounding sentence. It might as well have been my first faltering steps in Serbo-Croat). I prefer wearing old men's three-button suits rather than untucked shirts and t-shirts. I will go on doing so, trying to look and act exactly the same until I drop dead. Hence the bleach and make-up. I believe in individual Style as opposed to following the Fashions (and rules) of others.
For those of an artistic bent, the only Progress worth marching with, is to progressively be more and more like yourself every day. Invent your own rules and stick to them, but don't force them upon others. The rules of your own will never feel as restrictive as following those of someone else. You should only Give Up on an art form if it simply isn't "you".
And as for giving up pop music in order to "ultimately" embrace political commitment, need I remind Mr Williams that our own Prime Minister was once in a band during his twenties.... Pop, politics. It's all egotism on a stage, advancing your name, preaching your words in the hope of affecting peoples' lives.
The only difference between working in Pop and working in Politics is that with Politics, you get a far more exciting sex life.
And that really isn't me.
© Dickon Edwards 1999