After all these years doing what you do, have you figured it out? What came first? The music or the misery?
If you are poetic and if you write poetry then it’s natural to lament. This is what all the poets that ever mattered have done. The misery obviously comes first because the misery is the human condition, and it was there before I was, before you were, and it is simply the acceptance of cold-blooded realism, which, of course, a lot of people run from in the hope that it never catches them. It always does.
A famous and respectable Greek theater director, once told me that people cannot put up with their own lives if they don’t invent (consciously or otherwise) a vital lie. Do you agree? And if yes, what has been yours?
No, I don’t agree. We all have certain things about ourselves that we don’t like, but it’s not a lie to pretend that they do not exist. We learn how to deaden the pain, I think, and all that we ask of others is that they accept us in the way that they realise we would like to be accepted. This is why truths usually lash out only when people are roaringly drunk.
Last time we talked, a few years ago, you told me that the most insane thing you do is never to bask in attainments, although you know that it’s wrong, and that you should allow yourself to enjoy. Have you always been like this? Has this “non basking” been a completely instinctive way of being? Has it changed at all lately?
I meet so many people who have done very little in music yet they think very highly of themselves. I find this unattractive. I also rapidly go off any band or singer who is over-praised, and who accepts that praise. I cannot stand the awards system in modern music. In England, the Mercury Prize is usually a death warrant. Whoever wins it usually ends up selling matresses six months later.
So far have you come to a firm conclusion about where does the beauty and ageless power of rock ‘n’ roll lie? Myself I tend to agree with Giles Smith, who in his his excellent book “Lost in Music” refers to rock ‘n’ roll as an “aimless confusion”. Actually I think this aimlessness is its driving force…
It’s far more simpler than that. We really DO fall in love when we hear a visionary song. It could be Joni Mitchell or the Bay City Rollers … it really doesn’t matter. We are touched inexplicably by the voice, the music, the sound, the words, the faces, the moment … and it stays with you until the day you die. You may temporarily go off certain songs and certain singers, but you return to them later on. So, there’s nothing aimless about it at all, and it’s really not confusing. Also, for many, many people, music is their only friend. Even more importantly, it can tell us who we are. We have an idea, of course, but it always helps to have confirmation.
Has the sense of alienation, that nobody can understand who you really are (as you’ve said in various interviews in the past) gotten worse as years went by? Actually, would you prefer it otherwise? Don’t you think that life might be far less interesting if everyone had the chance to “decode” you?
I think if you spoke to fishermen in Vietnam about their problems they might tell you the same thing. We all keep a part of ourselves FOR ourselves, otherwise self-obsession goes insane. Look at any leading figure who falls for the spotlight in an over-reaching and all-consuming way. They go mad. They are no longer anyone. Historically, in entertainment we could examine Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, but there are many examples, and more these days due to social me-me-me-media. Everyone is certain that they are ravishing and worthy of your non-stop attention. As for me, I write the song and sing the song and surely that’s enough? I don’t feel the need to turn up at your house and make spaghetti. People who deliberately seek the limelight … such as the Beckhams … strike me as human desperation at its lowest. It’s a void that nothing will ever fill, and it’s usually people who have nothing to offer who chase it.
Do you think that pop records are at their most exciting the first few times you hear them and then gradually lose their flavour or that you can always rekindle that first spark? And apart from others’ pop records, what’s the relation you keep each new album of yours after 6 months or 2 years or something?
It is time that proves the worth of recordings, isn’t it? Many artists sell millions and millions yet have no lasting value whatsoever. When you, as the listener, are hit by a certain emotional quality, that quality … or the memory of it … doesn’t ever leave you because a genuinely poetic moment in life is not very frequent. You do not need to understand anything at all about musical structures because your heart is telling you that what you are hearing is magnificent. With my own music I obviously have very personal identity and judgment that I wouldn’t necessarily inflict upon music made by other people. I feel very lucky because I enjoy the music more and more as each year passes, preferring the recent to the older, and that’s unusual because a lot of artists spend their entire lives chasing the quality of their first few recordings.
When your last album came out, I wrote a small essay about it. In one point I wrote that after more than 3 decades in the music business you finally released a record with a cover that’s so indicative of the relationship you have with your fans, people like me, who discuss and try to analyse and find “secret meanings” etc in every word of yours. So there you are on the cover, holding a pen before someone loyal to you – a dog, a fan, it doesn’t matter. Am I completely out of my mind analyzing this cover so much?
There’s nothing wrong with going out of your mind … it can be quite a relief! But, umm, it’s important, I think, to make assessments whilst being aware that you might be on the wrong track completely. When writers grade music with moral certainty and moral indignation … well, that’s when criticism becomes ugly or useless. As a listener, I think you must accept that there might be two realities to a certain song or album. One reality is your own outer view, and the other is the inner view which can only be voiced by the person who made the recording.
Last August I turned 35. I don’t want to sound melodramatic and older than I actually am, but although I consider myself more or less optimistic, and a person that keeps up with what’s going on in the world in my own time, I find myself more and more interested in exploring culture much older than I am (from records to books to paintings), and I have to admit that i find this whole “tsunami” of “nostalgia features” in pop culture (20-40-70 year anniversaries etc) quite irresistible. Do you look forward to the future or do you prefer to dwell in the past, at least culturally?
I am not capable of considering the future, and I never have been. But I don’t live in 1845. I am certainly in possession of a wrist-watch. The past is a very big place, and there is lots to discover whether it be music or paintings or poetry. But you must dig and discover for yourself because modern media will only feature people who are current. For example, the death of an actor who had great success in the 1940s, 50s or 60s, will receive no media coverage, whereas the death of someone who appeared in a soap commercial in 2014 will grab the headlines. Ezra Pound will never be on the cover of GQ magazine, which, I think, is unfortunate. Anne Sexton will never be heard on daytime radio, and again, that’s our loss. Gertrude Stein will never be on the cover of Vogue magazine even though her appearance was a fashion revolution. In modern print media the content must always, always be the same. I could describe the next ten covers of Vogue magazine to you right this minute.
The ability we have today to learn instantly about everything that’s happening all over the world, do you think that it amplifies the sense of wrong about what’s going on around us, or does it just reveal the true nature of the world we live in?
Well, you can finally understand how much suffering and torture took place in the past without the public being informed. We can finally understand the bad deeds our governments got away with because they always controlled the television news. But we no longer need the television news to tell us what’s happening because we can see it and film it for ourselves. The social uprisings throughout the world are, in my view, a fantastic and new adventure, and they run concurrently with the common use of the internet and iPhones and so on. The BBC and CNN and Fox News can no longer get away with feeding propaganda because the people of Syria and Ukraine are on the ground filming the event in the moment, days before CNN have decided what the public should or shouldn’t know. The misery and hate throughout the world is not at all new, but we finally can see it for ourselves without government intervention, and that is new. Whatever ease the internet has brought, it is also a curse for political leaders who just cannot get away with it any more. Now. Although I’m excited by social uprisings, I am not excited by religious militancy such as ISIS. There is a difference.
World Peace Is None of Your Business (as a whole album, but even more the song itself) contains some of your political lyrics. Over here in Greece I guess you know that the last 5 years have been the worst this country has seen after the fall of the junta in 1973. The latest polls show that the left wing opposition is ahead of the right wing government, which means that Greece might have its first leftwing government in a few months, which gives a sense of hope to the people over here. Is it completely futile, since the problem is with the whole process and not just one party or another? (“Each time you vote you support the process” you sing in the opening song).
I can only speak in terms of left and right in England, where there’s little difference because governments are always in awe of the same powers, the same bankers and the same business conglomerates, and, even worse, in awe of so-called royalty. We all need leaders who will listen to the people, and this is something that never happens, and this is why the world is an unhappy place. Bad politicians such as Tony Blair might historically come to an embarrassing end, but they make sure that however disgraced they were when they left office, that the people whom they betrayed will nonetheless continue to pay for a luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by Blair and his family until the day they die. This is why political life essentially only attracts people who are intoxicated by corruption, who are shameless, and care nothing for the lives of others. The voting system is an illusion because although the process of voting might appear democratic, once someone is elected that person has no allegiance to democracy, and if the people disagree with the government then the people are termed demostrators, extremists or rebels or agitators. They are never referred to as «the people».
Is the idea of “home” and “settling down” still a mystery to you, as you said in an interview a few years ago?
I am further away from possessing a home or settling down. I have been homeless since 2007, and i have never possessed a mobile-cell phone.
When you get onstage, by instinct do you tend to connect with the 20 year old indie kids who dance in the moshpit or with the older ones (who used to be 20 year old indie kids a couple of decades ago) who stay in their seats and tap on their legs?
It doesn’t matter to me in the least. I connect with anyone willing to listen.
The great writer Howard Jacobson recently said that writers are by nature and remain till the end of their life unhappy, unsatisfied, difficult to live with people. What’s the deal with singers/songwriters (considered by numerous people as key figures for their own lives) turned writers?
I think he’s summing up people in general. I’ve never known anyone to be delighted to be on their deathbed. It’s unfortunate that we only tend to fully examine our lives when we’re feeling tired and weary, but again, that’s human nature. If you’re in a field playing football and it’s a sunny day and you’re with all your best friends and you’re about to score a goal, you don’t suddenly stop and say to yourself, umm, how do I feel about unhappiness and displacement? Whether you sell fruit or you are a successful writer is immaterial except in the sense that writers measure their own happiness and then write about it, whereas fruit sellers keep it to themselves.
They say that writers deep down inside they keep writing the same book, which I guess it means that everyone has his own obsessions in his mind. Your literary career started with an autobiography that made headlines all over the world. Now that you’re preparing your new book, do you find it difficult at all to “shed your own skin” and create new characters out of thin air?
Not really because it’s my hand pushing the pen and my fingers clicking the keyboard, and you can only draw strength from whatever it is that you know or imagine, so if you shed your own skin then you let go of everything and probably cease to have a reason to write anything whatsoever.
Would you agree that all truly creative minds in order to stay creative must maintain a sense of ignorance, you know, to try and not rely on the easiness gained by experience, to create their next piece of art?
I’ve never experienced easiness, so I wouldn’t know! As with everything in life, a sense of humour helps. Beyond that you are on your own. I don’t think you can decide to stay creative – as you put it, because this implies that you could, if you so wished, decide to become a great opera singer or a Shakespearian actor at random will. Most people in the arts are what they are because they discovered that this is how they are by nature. I don’t think it’s a decision as such. You just find that this is how you are and what you are, win or lose.
Do you still have in your car the army dog-tag that a Greek fan (actually a friend of mine) has thrown on stage in Athens?
Yes. I wore it onstage this week in Vienna and in Padova. I wore it combined with a circular Mexican object that I was told would relieve me of all sorrow. It relieved me of $300, but nothing else.
And last but not least, since you’re a “cat person”, what would you say to the ones responsible for research that just came out and is telling that cats are selfish, unfeeling, environmentally devastating creatures?
But that’s a perfect description of the human race, so if the same applies to cats, then why single them out? I’ve never seen cats building nuclear power stations … I don’t see cats bombing Iraq or Afghanistan … cats don’t spread Ebola … cats don’t smoke in public places … I’ve never seen a cat drunk on vodka … cats don’t mug the elderly …cats don’t … well, I could go on, of course. It is the human race that thrives on destruction and murder and human sacrifice and slaughter and extremism. Animals are innocent and child-like and at the mercy of humans … who chop them up and eat them. I rest my case.