Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Consuming Passions: Jarvis Cocker, Pulp and This Is Hardcore

Jarvis Cocker wanders through London's Tower Books and Records like a spy in a foreign country. Close by, music fans are harvesting the racks of pop releases, among them the extraordinary 18-year legacy of his band Pulp.

"You must feel like you're running the gauntlet," I whisper. "It's OK," he says crisply, "as long as you keep moving."

The lead singer has acquired a taste for the disappearing act. Aged 35, he's staging a contradictory battle with stardom, from the very core of his being through to the icy soundtracks and acoustic regrets that characterise Pulp's latest CD, This Is Hardcore.

Hit him with a direct question about fame, however, and he'll state that he is "barely at the mezzanine level". Pulp are a British phenomenon.

Originally we'd arranged to meet at Bungees, a London cellar cafe, but it turns out to be closed. Cocker is disappointed - the area it is in reminds him of his past as an art school student in the late '80s. We move to a wine bar, where he keeps fidgeting with his watch until he confesses that the American writer, Ken Kesey (famed for One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and his antics leading the Merry Pranksters), is doing a book signing down at Tower. "Do you want to come?" he asks.

Interviewing Cocker you encounter his diffident intelligence, a humility mixed with self-loathing, and a certain indefinable will. He has cycled to our meeting (cycling is admittedly de rigueur with London groovers right now), and once we check out Kesey he ends up giving me three hours of his time. When Cocker does encounter the odd fan on our walk through the city and in the store itself, he quietly extends the conversations. He's at pains to be like them.

Cocker himself is something of the ultimate fan. He slaughtered all comers on Pop Quiz and aside from a fascination for Kesey and '60s obscurities he maintains an avid interest in the culture around him, from fronting a new Channel 4 series on "outsider artists" to fossicking around the city for books and CDs. He's declared a moratorium on reading magazines - "it got so bad I'd have opinions on films without ever seeing them" - and is making efforts "to read more novels. I'm about 50 pages into Irvine Welsh's Filth but it's too early to say what I think. I've also got a copy of [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] This Side of Paradise by my bed. A friend says it's perfect for me," he says, raising his eyebrows.

The oily brown hair, the sallow skin, the burgundy polyester of his matching shirt and slacks, the slightly hunched posture of a man used to diminishing his own height ... he's cool in the way that all suburban dreamers are when they've managed to transform themselves into something exotic and uncertain. At heart, there's the polite Sheffield lad with permanently damaged eyesight from a meningitis attack when he was five, the young man who didn't lose his virginity until he was nearly 20. It is hard to recall this is the same strutting creature who dazzled an open-air crowd of 20,000 in North London recently, parading like a cross between a refined Iggy Pop and a strange, venal bird.

"Being on stage is about the only exercise I get," he says dryly.

Poor sales and uncertain critical responses for This Is Hardcore and a pair of stunning, if uneasily beautiful, singles ('Help The Aged' and the chilling title track) have been cited as benchmarks for the death of the Britpop phenomenon. Cocker was "gutted" by the popular rejection of 'This Is Hardcore' as a single, probably the most ambitious gesture of his recording career.

This Is Hardcore is a dark, epic world away from the almost vaudevillean, kitchen-sink wit of 1994's His 'N' Hers and 1996's Different Class. Its alienated sex fantasies, fears about aging and droll confessions don't fit the pop mould at all. And yet it is this material that the band - Nick Banks (drums), Candida Doyle (keyboards), Steve Mackey (bass), Mark Webber (guitar, keyboards) and Richard Hawley (a guest guitarist from The Longpigs) - attack with a devouring intensity in the live arena. And although one can immediately sense a quantum leap between most of the pre-Hardcore material and the orchestral, marooned density of songs such as 'Seductive Barry', it is clear that, for Pulp, this is the way to go.

"Pop music traditionally deals with young flash things but pop music itself is middle-aged," Cocker says. "I just want to find a way of being an adult without it being boring. I don't want to continue acting like a teenager for the rest of my life because I can't hack it, you know."

This Is Hardcore may sound bleak, but it combines all the glamour, sophistication and decadence of Pulp's major influences: Roxy Music, The Walker Brothers, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, glam rock and John Barry's James Bond movie-theme urbanity and drama. 

Or, as Cocker sings: "This is our music from a bachelor den, the sound of loneliness turned up to ten."

It's been a long trip to the lizard lounge. Pulp actually made their first album, It, in Sheffield in 1980 and did a live-to-air performance for DJ John Peel when Cocker was only 17. It would be quite a while (and several albums) before 'success' came their way again.

Frustrated with his band's progress, Cocker left Sheffield for art school in London. But the urge for making music never went away. "I heard the other day that crocodiles can slow their heartbeat down to three times a minute if they're conserving energy. That was kind of like what we [Pulp] were doing - we weren't actually dead, we just looked like we were."

With his National Health Service specs and geeky cool, Cocker made his name as "the Mike Leigh of Britpop", securing hit after hit from the mid-'90s with songs about hiding in a cupboard to watch his girlfriend's sister having sex ('Babies'); losing your virginity ('Do You Remember The First Time?'); taking drugs at a rave ('Sorted For E's and Wizz'); and the tale of a northern lad being seduced by a female art student interested in some lower-class experiences ('Common People'). The last song virtually became the anthem of 1996.

"'Common People' transformed things for us in this country. It seemed to enter the public imagination," Cocker says.

This Is Hardcore is an about-face, a blow against that "imagination" and any possibility that Jarvis Cocker could continue in the role of Britpop's quirky jester, the man who waved his arse to Michael Jackson on stage at the 1996 Brit Awards.

Of fame, he would later tell Time Out magazine: "It would be great to walk into a club like John Travolta does in Saturday Night Fever and have everyone give you a high five and yelp 'hello', but the reality is some pissed-up bloke going, 'How's your mate Michael Jackson, eh?'"

It brought other dubious rewards, too. A 1996 Sunday tabloid kiss-and-tell expose of a fling he had with a make-up girl. Of this he says, "You really have to keep it locked away. You don't want to do a Clinton, do you?"

Even more painfully, a tabloid newspaper in Australia tracked down his estranged father in Darwin. Cocker hadn't seen or heard from his father since he was seven. They offered to pay Cocker's air fare to visit him. Cocker quietly declined.

It's an awkward subject. "I only met my father face-to-face this year for the first time. It's a personal thing. Something that can only be worked out by the two of us. The papers only cloud the issue," he says, before holding each word like a blow, "it's ... not ... right."

To add to the events of the two years leading up to This Is Hardcore, Cocker also broke up with his long-term girlfriend. He is now single. Again, there's that sense of Cocker being hit by his own words as he speaks.

"It's not the best thing to happen to you if you want to keep the relationship together ... to be successful."

'Help The Aged' and 'A Little Soul' were inspired by his encounter with his father. In the latter, Cocker sings: You see your mother and me, we never got along that well/I'd love to help you but everybody's telling me you look like me/I've had one, two, three, four shots of happiness/ I look like a big man, but I've only got a little soul.

"I know it's boring," he says, hating the moaning rock star image as much as recent depictions of him as "a porn-fixated heroin addict". "But you do get a distorted view of what life's about, chasing this thing called success. When you get it you have to ask, 'Is this it?' There's a loss of innocence."

"Pornography seemed like an appropriate comparison. Because it takes all the romance out of romance. It's like there's always a forward urge in people's lives to go deeper. That when you get there it's going to be better."

He talks about the process of reflection, the way "you accumulate a lot of stuff, then sit in a room and instead of taking more stuff in, you dredge it out. It's like you get too cluttered.

"Your 20s are a period of exploration, finding out who you are. But you do have to cut back on experience. And find some kind of order instead of leaving stuff strewn about everywhere. When you are young you don't understand that. Secretly at the back of your mind, you're quite pleased to go through trauma. It gives you something to write about. You might even see something noble in it. But as you get older it just f - - - s you up. It does you in.

"I hate the consumer-based society," he says. "Everything is based on consumption, using something and throwing it away. It's no surprise divorce rates are rising. People do the same with relationships."

The restlessness that burns away in him found some respite in his work for Channel 4. "I first read about outsider artists in a book by Roger Cardinal when I was a student. It's stuff made by people who've never had any training: people who are in institutions or people who are isolated, usually.

"They're pleased that people look at their stuff. But that's not the reason they made it. It's more that they feel compelled. They say they had a dream, or that God made them do it. In the me, me, me world of popstardom, who has that attitude? "

- Mark Mordue

* This story first appeared under the title 'Pulp Friction' in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro, 18.09.98

Friday, August 5, 2011

When Cool Goes Cold

The very thought of writing this story made me feel like vomiting over my laptop and down my flannelette shirt. Yet another lifestyle piece on Cool with a capital ``C", another voice-deadening set of icons whose style and attitude should be genuinely rebellious and outside easy mainstream embrace.
I imagined how it would go: the file photos that would link Lord Byron, James Dean, Jeff Buckley and New York's latest rock'n'roll bad boys of dissident pretty, the Strokes.

Trying to capture Cool is a loser's game worse still, it's uncool. Plenty of you have no doubt groaned and rolled your eyes already at the very idea of this story, turned the page sneering, said no.
In keeping with this mood of negation and refusal, Cool can be regarded as the street's desire to turn stardom inside-out: to strengthen what's moving beneath the radar, what's not apparent, and so-far undiscovered. It's a kind of secret identity that corporations and the media will eventually wish to mine, but they can't have it or define it no matter how hard they try, or at least they can't have it for long. 

In his 1998 essay The Birth of the Cool, an analysis of Miles Davis's groundbreaking 1949 album of the same name, Greil Marcus observed that, ``Cool is a mystery, because while everyone knows what cool is nobody can define it. It's like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous pronouncement on pornography: `I know it when I see it."'
I'd dare to say it's a synonym for integrity. And that's what it has always been, even at its most anarchic or dissolute or just plain unlucky.
Perhaps that's why Cool is often fatal, like those last steps Jeff Buckley took fully clothed into a tributary of the Mississippi for a gentle swim in 1997, his music left to us in a state of permanent promise. As his mother said in the memorial documentary Fall in Light, ``I have a picture in my mind that was actually a metaphysical image. That the body of my son was not the speck of dust they pulled out of the Wolf River but the body of his work." 
Cool is this kind of moment or person or subculture up ahead of the present or lost somewhere far behind it but still intact in some sacred, radioactive way, still living a half-life of intensity, self-possessed and eternally unpossessed, like Marlon Brando's feminine shyness in The Wild One or Sonny Rollins walking away from jazz at the height of his career to practise his saxophone devotions to no-one but the wind as it blew off the Williamsburg Bridge. It's danger in vulnerability. And you can't buy that.
Cool can become fashionable, of course, but becoming fashionable is often what ends it. More usually it is the opposite of fashionable, a force of reaction like punk rock in its heyday and grunge when it first broke, movements whose anti-beauty aesthetics attacked the high style directives of consumer culture before becoming self-annihilating in themselves. The dialectics of fashion Cool are certainly constant and unforgiving, if strangely cyclical: I often yearn for the wardrobe I had when I was a 12-year-old boy in Newcastle, recast in adult sizes of course, because it was so right, so ``now", when all it felt to me back then was wrong and out of place. 
This suburban discomfort and the rages of its energy, from AC/DC and Cold Chisel through surf culture and silverchair are enjoying a comeback in Australian Cool, something the ``aging hipster" and author of Golden Miles, Clinton Walker, attributes to ``the fact it's all localised Australian stuff. It's real. Cool to me is about that localised quality. Look at the old muscle cars like the Charger and the Holden Monaro, now they're cool unlike all those silly cars and 4WDs you see people driving in Sydney's east". 

The distance of Australian suburbia from international design and fashion, and its being subsumed into kitsch, also explains the surreal bent at work in everything from the humor of Roy and H.G. to the films of Baz Luhrmann: a genuinely Cool Australian style.
Equally vital now is the nascent formation of what Social Change Media's Tony Moore identifies as ``deadly culture" (``deadly" being an Aboriginal slang for ``cool"), and what Bangarra Dance Theatre's Stephen Page sees as the surge in Aboriginal influences on a contemporary Australian identity. ``Look at Cathy Freeman," Page says. ``There's a spirit that's Cool. A cool spirit is what I want to know about something joyous and sacred. I wonder if the word `cool' comes from spirit?" 
Maybe there's a virginity of cultural experience to this as well, to that true spirit of Cool and how one encounters it, like reading J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when you are in high school, or hearing Nick Drake's Pink Moon at university and thinking you are the first one of your time to know it again, take it deep inside. As Kerouac so famously and so lovingly put it in On The Road: ``The only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, delirious of everything at the same time..."
Speaking about that vitalising energy in his 1999 manifesto Against Cool, the writer Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Demonology) recalled his love for ``beat writing as a young reader. The velocity and the spirit, the opposition to the stuffiness of academic writing (to the monolithic sobriety of New Criticism), the sheer, dizzy glee. What the great beat writers did for American letters was appropriate America's one truly indigenous music form, jazz, and fuse the lessons of that music with the transcendentalism that had been irrigating American literature for a century. The beats yoked Miles and Bird to Whitman and Emerson. And by the late '50s and '60s, the cool beat idiom had become as frankly spiritual as its transcendental models".
Whatever happened, though, to that passionate, spiritual form of Cool? How did Cool, so romantic, so possible, so immersed, get so cold and superficial today? How did we move from Jackson Pollock and Brett Whiteley to wallpaper; from the spiritual might of Sonny Rollins to the ironies of cocktail muzak and a self-congratulatory, thuggishly macho rap hyped as ``sonic reportage"; from the anarchic situationist theories of Guy Debord and Paris 1968 to modern advertising with a sly conspiratorial wink?
Of course, it's easy to identify another strand to Cool, the very opposite of the transcendental mode I've been pushing: the reptilian slither and icy nihilism extending from Burroughs through Warhol into Bret Easton Ellis, the electronic ennui of Radiohead. But this does not explain the shallowing of the feeling.
Nor would it be fair to say that Cool no longer exists, or that it has lost its spiritual or activist edge, whether one speaks of Patti Smith's ongoing musical career and techno-music-inspired environmentalists or magazines like Adbusters and concepts like ``culture jamming" (media pranks like the recent ``Dole Army" fiasco that saw A Current Affair and Today Tonight led down stormwater drains looking for a subterranean world of bludgers).
Cool is still happening out there, fighting for life, but the word itself has been given a mainstream makeover and a mobile phone to keep it busy. Cool now: it's what you buy to look good, isn't it? Isn't it?

In their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, writers Dick Pountain and David Robins (the former an author of computer textbooks, the latter a student of criminal sociology, a combo somehow appropriate to the subject at hand) study the political and cultural history of Cool. They trace its origins back to the slave trade and acts of ``silent rebellion" against authority, a ``pose of resistance" unable to make itself explicit.
They then move through the classic and archetypal history of what Cool became as a style, noting ``a strikingly similar attitude to be found in European culture, the sprezzatura of Italian courtiers during the Renaissance, the famous reserve of English aristocrats and the Romantic irony of 19th century poets. Cool is by no means an American phenomenon, although its modern manifestation was incubated among young black American jazz musicians during the first decades of the 20th century, before being discovered by hard-boiled crime writers and Hollywood scriptwriters of the '30s and '40s, and finally injected into youth culture during the '50s by Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll."
Obviously the beats, the hippies and the punks get a look-in, along with the influences of French existentialism and the nouvelle vague cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Berlin cabaret and Brechtian theatrical techniques, the paintings and aphorisms of Warhol, the debaucheries of '70s rock as epitomised by the Rolling Stones, and era-defining films like Easy Rider, Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction.
From the beginning of Cool Rules, Pountain and Robins announce a desire to ``show how this attitude, which originally expressed resistance to subjugation and humiliation, has been expropriated by the mass media and the advertising industry in the '80s and '90s, and used as the way into the hearts and wallets of young consumers". 
A little more bluntly, it's stated: ``Cool consumer capitalism has discovered, as Thomas Frank puts it, how to construct cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent."
For those in the know, Thomas Frank is the giant killer of Cool today, a philosopher of anti-Cool. In his book The Conquest of Cool, and more regularly at his Web-magazine The Baffler, Frank argues that big business hasn't just appropriated the language of youth culture, it's always been the driving force behind it.
This business revolution is ongoing today as ``a host of self-designated corporate revolutionaries outlining the accelerated new capitalist order in magazines like Wired and Fast Company gravitate naturally to the imagery of rebel youth culture to dramatise their own insurgent vision".
It's this depressing landscape of Cool that made Rick Moody cry out for a Cool that was ``gone, long gone. Cool is spent. Cool is empty. Cool is ex post facto. When advertisers and pundits hoard a word, you know it's time to retire from it. To move on. Cool is a trick to get you to buy garments made by sweatshop labourers in Third World countries. Cool is Triumph of the Will. Cool enables you to step over bodies. Cool enables you to look the other way. Cool makes you functional, eager for routine distraction, passive, doped, stupid."

Since September 11 there is a desire to rerun the 1950s in America and with it a creepy rage for consensus at any price. Conservatives everywhere have taken possession of the event as a vindication for their righteousness; there is no room for dissent, for unsettling voices, off-kilter words. The national agenda is one of unity, ``healing": a new conformity. The McCarthyist tone, the lauding of material satisfaction and security at any cost is very familiar. 
Speaking of Kerouac and the beat phenomenon in a famous 1957 essay ``The White Negro", the title an acknowledgement of the influence of black jazz musicians on a new style of American revolt and literature, Norman Mailer wrote: ``The only life-giving answer to the deathly drag of American civilisation is to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self." 
He was being extreme; the end result of that thinking for many was perversion, suicide. But in this squarest of times, ``the rebellious imperatives of the self" remain a necessary adjunct to any lifestyle and the purchase it has on you, an interrogating and humanising request from within to stay Cool but keep warm.  
- Mark Mordue
* First published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Essay section,Saturday, February 23, 2002.