We were very pleased to receive an email from Alikati (?) who sent us 3 out of the 4 pages of one of the last interviews with Kevin Ayers from 2008. The interview was in “Word Magazine”, but the web site exists no more. The interview exists elsewhere on the internet, but not with the completeness that we have here.
The images from the article are below and the actual text is here too. This is super special to us as we have visited Montolieu and we can picture exactly where the interview took place. Enjoy
Kevin Ayers: ‘I never considered another profession’ – one of his final interviews
In 2008, Word magazine ran what turned out to be one of the final ever interviews with Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers, who died this week three years ago aged 68. Here it is in full:
There are poppy fields above the city of Carcassonne in south-western France, and quiet houses with windows so tightly shuttered they appear to be in a permanent state of repose. The higher you get up the mountain, the closer the air becomes; there’s a place where the road forks into two – a little scrap of fenced-off land in the middle planted with fruit trees and a hammock strung up in the shade. It is here, on an afternoon like this, that if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Kevin Ayers.
Ayers has been living in voluntary exile in France for longer than he can remember; something about England never sat right with him. Forty years ago, when Soft Machine released their first album and toured the world with Jimi Hendrix, Ayers – lead vocalist and bass player, then 24 – gave up and fled to Ibiza. There, he later said, he “lived on nothing – fruit from the trees and the fish that I caught every day”. His first solo album, Joy of a Toy, was a piece of psychedelic whimsy with songs such as Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her) and The Lady Rachel, while the demos for his first single Singing a Song in the Morning, originally featured Syd Barrett – although by the time it came to the final cut, the ex-Floyd frontman was too far into his mental meltdown to remember the chords. The Whole World, a band featuring a young Mike Oldfield on bass, was assembled for a second LP, Shooting At the Moon, and Ayers was back in the limelight, hailed as a new David Bowie. He cancelled the promotional tour after a few dates, though, and aborted the group just as it was taking off.
The industry chased him, and the solo records kept coming through the 70s, with songs about bananas and girls in white dresses, eight-minute prog experiments and spoken-word tracks. Ayers slept with countless women – from Lady Aspinall to Nico, from the wife of John Cale to the girlfriend of Lou Reed. He lived with Brian Eno in Maida Vale, and it was at one of Ayers’ famous house parties in July 1973 that Robert Wyatt, drunk and caught with the wrong girl, fell out of an upstairs window and was permanently paralysed from the waist down. Later in the decade Ayers would once more head off in search of the sun, setting up home in Provence, Majorca and Minorca, and by the close of the 70s he had gone to ground completely.
In 2007 he released a new album, The Unfairground, which reunited him with many from the old scene, including Wyatt, whom he claimed he hadn’t seen for 30 years. It seemed to spell a new lease of life but a major tour of Europe and America, planned for that summer, has just been abruptly cancelled. Approaching the strange little pen in the mountains now – the hammock rounded with some human form and the tip of a fisherman’s hat just visible through the trees – I’m not quite sure what I’m going to find.
Kevin Ayers is perching rather uncomfortably on the edge of the hammock. He rises to meet me – 6ft 2ins tall, dressed in a tattered velvet jacket and white trainers, and winces. He broke four ribs a few months back and has a fresh cut on the palm of his right hand from a fall he took earlier in the day. He removes his hat and scratches his messy blond hair, then covers up again self-consciously when he realises his face is exposed in the sun. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the ribs – broken in a barroom brawl – are an excuse to keep popping the tablets he carries around in a blue plastic carrier bag – “my vitamin bag”, as he calls it. Unsteady on his feet and mortally embarrassed to be seen or spoken to, Kevin Ayers is in several strange kinds of pain.
“Did you see the nunnery down in the village?” he asks, fumbling a tiny roll-up. He sounds like a BBC broadcaster from the 1950s, his accent almost colonially refined, rich and sibilant, every T delicately crossed. “It’s very strange,” he goes on. “There are about 5,000 nuns in there but you never see any of them coming out.” We’re in surreal territory, and he’s brightening up. “I think they are fed into some kind of giant sausage machine,” he says, “or made into dog food perhaps.” By the time we get into his car, he’s drunk at least two bottles of wine and is winding down for a sedative-soaked siesta. For some reason I’m optimistic about making it down the mountainside in one piece. At worst we’ll end up with a couple of broken ribs, I tell myself, and besides, Kevin Ayers is probably still too much of a gentleman to crash me.
Ayer’s childhood was posh, lonely and miserable. His father was Rowan Ayers, the BBC broadcaster and creator of The Open Door and co-creator of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and when his parents’ marriage ended he was farmed out to live with his grandmother. His mother, “a cold woman with a fierce Catholic guilt complex and a desire for self-improvement,” set up home in Malaysia with a new husband, an army officer, and when they eventually sent for him he made the journey alone, at the age of six – a three-day trek to the far east with a stopover at Bangkok. “I was the only white boy among 80 pupils at school, and I spoke no Malaysian. Then they put me in a Catholic boarding school full of homosexual priests who were always trying to get into my pants because I was blond and looked like an angel.”
Back in England, Ayers was sent to “any school that would have me”. Some expelled him, and some he escaped; the names and locations are of no interest to him now, but one of them was the Simon Langton grammar school in Canterbury, where he met future Soft Machine members Robert Wyatt and Mike Ratledge, whose friendship represented “the first experience of intimacy, the first family I ever had”. He tried to live with his father in Chelsea but it backfired and he ended up on the streets “conning”, which is basically taking money for sexual favours and then trying to run away.
A car passes us by a hair’s breadth and the French driver jabs a finger sideways to signal, “get over the other side of the freaking road.” Kevin Ayers checks whether I’ve got my seatbelt on. We stop at his house for emergency supplies and he comes back to the car with seven bottles of wine.
Je suis un rock star … Je habiter la, dans la south of France …
The Bill Wyman hit of the 80s conjures images of a mini-chateau, a trout farm and a recording studio, PRS cheques and a comfortable life of food, drink and real estate. The Ayers residence is a tall, shuttered place at the end of a narrow street, built into the side of a gorge. The garden is on three levels with lichen-covered balustrades descending steeply and all sorts of greenery jostling together. It’s redolent of an old cemetery and there’s a strange, tropical ozone smell, rich in neglect. Overripe peaches spill from paper bags on the kitchen table and bits of buddleia blossom, faded and brown, have blown in on to the floor. There’s a small CD system on the dresser, half a dozen albums piled on top of it. One is by the Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis (“yes, someone gave me that”) and the others are by Kevin Ayers – The Unfairground, Whatevershebringswesing, Shooting at the Moon among them, all covered in dust. It looks as though they have been put there by someone else, to remind him who he is.
Throughout the 80s, Kevin Ayers was a heroin addict. He once received an entire portable studio as a gift from Mike Oldfield, and sold it to support his habit. His musical partner, Ollie Halsall of Patto, another “next big thing” from the early 70s, was his drug buddy – until he died of an overdose in 1992. His death weaned Ayers off the stuff, but there is something about this house – dishevelled and unfurnished – that speaks of those former times. The bedrooms, and there are many, don’t contain any bookshelves, or clothes, or clutter. He shows me his bed – green plush velvet – but each of the others appears to have been slept in too, the sure sign of an insomniac. He takes me to a room painted red, with the beginnings of a gold leaf design on one part of the wall. “This is the room with the woman’s touch,” he says. He’s referring to an American barmaid half his age who’d lived there on and off until about five years ago. The house misses her. If there is one thing Kevin Ayers can talk about freely – needs to talk about – it’s love. “I can’t write songs unless I am in love,” he states. “And I have always been that way. If I am not in love, nothing is meaningful to me. I have no energy.”
At the top of the house there is something that could once have been a nursery, “where I put children if I have them.” He has several, in fact, all grown up now, and he’s in regular contact with Galen, his daughter by Richard Bransen’s ex-wife Kirsten, a deal with Virgin Records in the 70s having proved fruitful in more ways than one. There is an old typewriter that no longer works up here, too, and a four-track tape-recorder that, over the course of three years, he used to put down songs for The Unfairground. There are no musical instruments and few other signs of his professional activity. I ask him how he writes his music now and feel instantly as though I’ve embarrassed him.
Out in the garden, a pint of neat Pernod in his hand, Kevin Ayers changes places with me so the sun is on my face and his is in the shade. I am bemused at his lack of physical confidence – he did a few small gigs in France two years ago and insisted that the venues were set in near-darkness. If he compared himself to other men in their mid 60s he’d feel a lot better. But that’s missing the point, really, because somewhere down the line, on the shores of Ibiza or Morocco 40 years ago, Kevin Ayers’s mind seems to have been frozen in time.
There is something unshakable about his attitude – his romanticism, his sedateness, the curious self-indulgence despite the impoverished circumstances – that sets him apart from those caricatures of the 60s bent on some kind of nostalgia trip. “I have always denied that there was a Canterbury scene,” he says matter-of-factly when I ask him about the early days. “There were no more than half-a-dozen people doing what we were doing – in a cathedral city that had its quota of real wankers. People would hit on me because I had a posh accent. Mike Ratledge got a first in philosophy at Oxford and Robert Wyatt came from a literary background. That was the thing that drew us together, really.”
“The thing about Soft Machine and me,” he goes on slowly, “was that I never considered another profession. My only other desire was to do as little as possible. Honestly, I just assume that whatever is going to happen to me is going to happen. There it goes: someone is there, someone isn’t there. This girl is here. This food is here. I think the clever people are the ones who do a little as possible.”
In a strange kind of way, Kevin Ayers is living bang in the present – his present. If he were feeding off the memory of his early career, he would be doing more to keep it alive. In fact, as I learn later, when he saw the dates for his planned tour in the summer of 2008 – in Europe and the US – he broke down and hospitalised himself with alcohol and painkillers. It was 1969 when he first cancelled a tour. This is not a man who is “past it” but a man who has not changed a bit.
The village is bedding down for the night and late in the evening, on the street outside his house, Kevin Ayers emerges carrying, to my surprise, an acoustic guitar. It’s the first voluntary sign of his musical life that he has given me. No one dares look at him or make a fuss, anxious not to put him off, and sitting in a doorway, Ayers starts to play an old blues song. His voice rings out loud, confident and unmistakable on the cobbled street, lagging lazily just behind the beat. One by one, people creep up on the street to listen. A couple of old French people open their shutters and look down. He finishes. “Play May I!” someone calls, wanting to hear a Kevin Ayers composition. “How about Lady Rachel?” They just don’t get it. “I can’t do those songs,” he says quietly, with a waver of frustration. “Because I don’t know the words and the chords.”