A Portrait of the Artist as a Star


Dreamers, like the worlds they inhabit, come and go, leaving a profoundly vague impression in their wake. Kevin Ayers was never a major star. His songs were simply too idiosyncratic to garner mass appeal, but like many for whom fame was largely an irritant of the creative process, he exerted a greater influence than he imagined or really cared for.

Morrissey is now viewed as the quintessential English pop icon, but the soil he sprang from was gritty, working class, and Northern. The product of an inner city education system, his brand of Britishness is not as universal as it might appear to outsiders. There are many variations of the national characteristic, and Ayers had a colonial, distractedly comfortable middle-class one. sullied by his public school incarceration, and the memory of distant sunshine from a childhood spent abroad. A slightly surreal confection of Nick Drake, Noel Coward, and country house fop, he was a dandy, a stunning presence, who indulged in all the privileges and excesses his arch demeanor allowed as the '60s teetered into the '70s.

He was born in Kent in 1944. His parents split early, and he found himself in Malaysia after his mother married a civil servant. His birth father, Rowan Ayers, was a BBC producer who later created the legendary TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, on which his wayward son sometimes appeared. By the early days of the '60s, Ayers was living in Canterbury with his mother, a stipulation to avoid the remand system after a youthful drugs bust. It was there he fell into the orbit of drummer Robert Wyatt, and they mutated into the Wilde Flowers, whose ever-changing ranks included many of the original members of Caravan. By the psychedelic summer of '66 they were part of the overground exposure of the London underground scene After backing William Burroughs at a poetry reading in the city, they with his blessing appropriated his novel's name as theirs, and with Allen on guitar and Mike Ratledge on keyboards became The Soft Machine. Their appearances alongside Pink Floyd at the UFO, the Roundhouse, and in April 1967 the happening to out-happen anything, The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace, are now the stuff of many an elderly head's lovingly embroidered legacy. The following year saw them record their debut album and tour the U.S. twice with Jimi Hendrix, a cultural shock to the constitution that made Ayers chemically gratified on the first, only to turn macrobiotic on the second, and then depart the band, exhausted and disillusioned, selling his white Fender bass to Noel Redding, before their LP even surfaced.

In 1969 he found himself on EMI's new progressive outlet, Harvest Records, where he shared studio time and space with Syd Barrett, who in many ways Ayers resembled both creatively and visually, but without the lingering damage. It is the quartet of albums released whilst in their tenure, beginning with The Joy of a Toy that remains the core of his creative legacy of a dozen and a half. Quirky and a times unclassifiable, he garnered much critical acclaim, but never troubled the charts. It was when he fell under the management skills of John Reid, who sought to turn him into a rock star, as he had Elton John & Queen, that the slow rot of decline transpired. His debut for Island Records in 197 The Confessions of Doctor Dream, was arguably on a par with its Harvest predecessors, but each new album became an even more diluted version of previous glories, and with the ruthless advance of the New Wave, Ayers wasn't only washed up, but washed away. In the '80s he became the cliche of the druggy has-been, and a rather lackluster series of records slipped by. The '90s saw him as an artist in exile in France, a country he fell in love with decades before. When he met the American artist Tim Shepard, who enthusiastically passed along a cassette of home demos that Ayers had given him, this gesture of spontaneous appreciation found him a new deal, and TheUnfairground saw him emerge, augmented by devotees such as Teenage Fanclub, with a strangely beguiling and hauntingly wry set of songs about the major themes -- death. love, and disappointment -- in 2007.

I was lucky enough to catch the lingering legend under suitably surreal circumstances around this time in a strangely cavernous club in South Manchester that reeked of damp, old paint, and former grandeur. There was a flurry of "Rules Are Rules! If he didn't buy it here he's not having a corkscrew to open his wine!" bluster from the jobs-worth gaggle of bar staff. They were more accustomed to the drunken slobbering of their regulars than the effete request from their act for that evening to open the wine he'd brought with him from France before he was about to hit the stage. In fact there wasn't one. People stood around in small groups, or sat cross-legged on the floor in a side room, and eventually a tall lanky man took to the corner of the floor where the microphone stood. The poster for the evening looked like it had uncurled from 1968 with its mystic eyes, pyramids, and extending rays of light. And as the man whose name graced the top spot began to sing, he did so without the small array of lights that had revealed the support acts. When someone yelled from the crowd "Kevin put the lights on! We want to see you!" A delightfully fruity voice drawled with a perfect BBC purr, "But I don't want YOU to see ME!" We didn't as the entire set, charming and chaotic as it was, unfolded in the dark. It was an old man moment, wanting to be alone whilst needing the company, descending the staircase as Norma Desmond.

He was from that unique and decidedly dwindling assortment of artists who wrote because they had something to say beyond the expectations of commerce and the establishment of fame and came from a time when rock was intellectual, challenging, delightfully alternative, and pretentious. In the '60s his band played nude in St. Tropez, and when in 1974, the night before the recording of the June 1st 1974 album with Eno, Nico, John Cale which was suitably trailered as the "decadent Crosby, Stills Nash & Young," he was caught in bed with John Cale's wife. The legacy was tension on the night, and Cale's caustic song "Guts" on his Slow Dazzle LP.

Kevin Ayers died in his sleep, his final confession to the doctor of dreams.