I Want To Vanish

nmeI just scanned in the last of the interviews I have (“Die Zauberer”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung), concluding the groundwork for the big “let’s post every Prefab Sprout interview ever done in one big timeline” project, started in mid August 2015.

I should add that I’m well ahead of the site, so there are quite a number still to go up, and there’ll no doubt be more interviews that will turn up anyway here and there, but substantially I’ve laboriously worked through the lot. Scanning them.  Correcting the scans. Reading them. Translating them. Not to mention listening and watching them for the audio/visual material – I spent numerous long haul flights listening to audio interviews, often drifting in and out of sleep to the point where I’m still not sure whether things I heard were true or imagined.

It’s a little like the 15 year anniversary posting of the 2000 tour, in that the mechanics of actually doing it brings its own insights. I more or less worked chronologically, so you find yourself perpetually caught up in little vortexes of repetition. Where did the name ‘Prefab Sprout’ come from? Why did you take a pop at Bruce Springsteen? What have you been doing between “Jordan” and now? Why don’t you like touring? Is it true you have written an album about Michael Jackson? What are your influences? Which of your contemporaries do you listen to? For any given period, there’s a pre-set journalistic agenda, and when the interview actually comes out, it’s heavily edited anyway to a set of minimal and rather obvious content.

I’m pretty sure I could convincingly give most of these interviews myself, incidentally. Like Paddy’s brother Michael did via a phone link for an Australian radio station in a probably apocryphal but nonetheless wonderful story.

But just imagine being cloistered in a hotel room for hours and days on end doing this. Trying to remain helpful and polite, knowing that there’s a lot of record company money riding on a successful album promotion, but being bored, far from home, and away from what you love doing. And having to answer the same questions over and over again, knowing that one slip into light sarcasm and you’re a headline, one unguarded off-the-record quip and you’re in the centre of a controversy.

Me, I’d have had boards printed. Subterranean Homesick Blues boards. And just pointed to them.

The problem of course is that this all reinforced a pattern of behaviour where just the thought of doing another round of promotions has become a barrier to releasing things. Paddy has said as much. And there’s another, subtle, problem too: the constant repetition wears you down. I found that a lot. Just transcribing and posting these things, let alone giving them, makes you doubt anyone can possibly be interested in any of it.

But then every now and again the process is redeemed by a good interview. Someone who asks an off-the-wall question or takes an oblique angle, or just chats. I have to say these were far more prevalent in the 2013 batch, and you could sense Paddy became more and more receptive to the interview process as time went on – at the start we were being told he’d do only the CD in the box set, Radcliffe and Maconie, and a couple of others, and there ended up being absolutely loads of them. You can always tell when Paddy finishes an interview with a spring in his step. It’s nice. The Pete Paphides one, and Miranda Diboll on Rephertoire are great examples. And Arnie, of course.

And although the attempts to scan Japanese text led to nought save oddly surreal nonsense  – leaving a little kobi-rump of untouched interviews mostly from the 1986 tour of Japan – in general I’ve been amazed how well technology now works in allowing scanning and translation. A couple of times, faced with a particularly opaque writing style, I’ve been a little stuck here and there when creating an English text, but usually a knowledge of the usual structure of the interviews and the answers Paddy usually gives pulls me through. The technology has been a fascinating aspect to me; this simply wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

My last observation is how much the business of promotion has changed in 30 years, and how the band were perceived via the promotional tactics employed by the label. Early on, the broadsheet music press was prevalent and the “serious” music journalist was an aggressive opinion on legs, very influential, and therefore engaged with seriously with attempts at talking up the indy credentials of the band and an uncompromising attitude. Then through into the middle ‘Langley’ period where you could see attempts being made by CBS initially and abortively to promote Wendy to teenage girls and the band more generally via more lightweight pop magazines (including French soft core porn mags!) and then into the later “Uncut” style of magazine where a knowing middle-aged bloke nostalgia and retrospective rules (I’m of the impression incidentally that it’s a legal requirement to have an article on at least one of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles or the Beach Boys in such magazines). Each period brings its own polarising filter, and the evolution from upstarts to wise old bird has been driven as much if not more by perceptions coming from this shift in journalism.

I’ll end by considering a couple of Paddy quotes about interviews and context. The first, on the face of it rather discouraging, is from an encounter in 2011:

“I don’t like talking about myself, never have done. And I don’t like reading about myself either. Can I let you into a little secret? I hate being interviewed so much, that I just talk about anything for as long a time as possible so that I can get the whole thing over with. I really will talk nonsense to those people until their time’s up and I can get out of there. I’ve done it from the very early days, with NME, Melody Maker, all those old articles, everything I said was total crap… I can’t think of anything that I’ve said in the past that you can point to and say ‘that’s the truth, that’s how things are’. And that’s because they print the shit that they want to print, and I’m including the internet in this, and they leave out all the rest. The way those articles have been edited make it look like there’s some meaning, but really there wasn’t.”

And the second, on T.S.Eliot from his letter to the Guardian:

“…in time, all personal details will fall away, leaving only the words on the page. Which is surely all the truth a reader can learn from a writer.”

In both cases I’d venture to suggest he’s wrong.

As someone who is at heart a seeker after truth, historical and philosophical, I’d point out that where there is a conflict between accounts, you find an approximation of the truth via comparison and aggregation. Yes, there has been misdirection, there have been misleading statements, hyperbole, jokes at journalists expense, journalistic agendas, editing, exasperation, and all the other things that happen when you’re in a hotel room for a week promoting an LP to someone trying to sell a periodical, but lay these accounts side by side and fully consistent elements emerge. This is pretty much why I’ve been doing this, if I’m honest. Truth is like water, it eventually finds a way out.

And then on T.S. Eliot, I suspect his statement was wish fulfilment. He doesn’t want his own (as he sees it, imperfect) presence to cast a shadow on his work. He wants to withdraw himself from it, rather like the protagonist in the Elvis Costello song, “I Want To Vanish”. For all his apparent self-confidence, I’m pretty sure he thinks of himself as a chancer, always on the verge of being exposed. But were you were to accept the assertion he makes, you might as well try to make sense of Smile without knowing about Brian Wilson’s troubles: a not inconsiderable part of the fascination of the piece comes from there. Knowledge of the artist – even incomplete or mythic – is additive, not subtractive, seldom corrosive.

Whether that is comfortable for the artist himself is anyone’s guess. But here’s the song anyway.

2 thoughts

  1. Sometimes enigmas are better than reality. Sometimes mysteries are better left mysterious. I think an artist’s role is to flavor and inspire the imagination and that’s all that’s needed.

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