A Martyr For Investigation
Namedropplng songwriter MOMUS can tell us much about literate hits, argues JONATHAN ROMNEY.
Mr Tarquinius of Romford, a crippled biker and a female bodybuilder; a voyeuristic aesthete eyeing up young women on the Circle Line; a man who tends his consumptive lover while reading Andre Gide. All are figures from the cruelly comic, densely populated fictional world of songwriter Momus.
And the wan, soft-spoken young Scot who haunts the cafe of the Institute Francais, drinking red wine in the afternoon, dropping references to Kafka and Carlyle while the tip of his nose twitches gently as if possessed with its own life? This is Nick Currie, alias Momus himself, but he could well be a character in one of these songs, and sometimes he is.
Momus is a unique and contradictory figure, a true aesthete in the locker-room world which is pop. An experimenter with sexual role positions in a medium which claims to embrace sexual multiplicity only to shackle it to an exacerbated version the macho norm.
Nick Currie is an ex-public schoolboy from Edinburgh, a disenchanted Eng Lit student who sought solace in the pages of various European theorists and reprobates. He started his musical career in 1982 by making a concept LP on 4AD with a band called the Happy Family. 'A very Oedipal scenario about a fascist who steals the wife of a travelling salesman.'
Currie became Momus in 1985, when he signed to Mike Alway's singular el Records (although he's left the label, he still contributes the odd fruity sleevenote). Nick named himself after the Greek god of mockery.
His first releases were the 'Beast With Three Backs' EP and 'Circus Maximus', an album unique in being built almost entirely out of Biblical allusions. 'I was living in Streatham at the time, I rather saw myself as someone who'd fallen into a decadent city. This was my way of being a slightly shocked and puritanical Scot abroad.'
The LP's extravagantly narcissistic sleeve depicted a loin-clothed Currie in the guise of St Sebastian. 'The term 'I should be so lucky' seemed like a really good Jewish phrase- resigned, but in a warm and humane way. That idea of martyrdom, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, everyone feels that. But the best defence is to take a masochistic position and say, should I be so lucky as to be the most lacerated figure.'
Suppressing a perverse vision of Kylie Minogue chanting her greatest hit as the Roman arrows pierce her flanks I enquire about Momus's obsession for name-dropping. This is a man whose songs are studded with allusions to Ingmar Bergman, Sartre, Paul Klee, Joy Division, and samples from the Pet Shop Boys - and one who has no qualms about rhyming Holbein with Wittgenstein.
'You have to decide whether to talk to your audience the way you'd talk to yourself. Or else talk down to them and exclude all the things that excite you most. If there are very few people who are interested in the things I'm interested in, then so be it. But if someone hears a name on one of my records and goes out and buys "The Immoralist" by Andre Gide, fine.'
It does seem to be a particularly Scots phenomenon in pop; think of Lloyd Cole, or of Positive Noise's Ross Middleton, who never consented to be photographed unless he was clutching a copy of Georges Bataille. Nick ascribes it to the Celtic love of learning. 'I know Scots who live down here and do nothing but memorise French poetry all day.'
Although Momus is rarely to be seen sporting the billowing white suit with pompons once dear to Leo Sayer, his adopted archetype is the Pierrot, doleful third corner in the Commedia dell'Arte love triangle. 'I was browsing at this book on the influence of the Pierrot right up to Bowie and Boy George, and I thought 'Oh my god, this is me. Not only is the Pierrot oversensitive and melancholy, but he rejects the conventional notion of masculinity.'
'The concern with homosexuality on my new record is a concern with this decadent outsider figure. That Pierrot personality is associated with the narcissism that is supposed to be at the root of homosexuality.'
Narcissism's about hiding yourself while displaying yourself only as a mask. What's striking about Momus is that his songs seem intensely personal. but they're never quite about himself.
'It's a schizoid condition,' he muses. 'In most people there's a bit of reality in the mask, but in absolutely schizoid people the true self is kept protected and invisible to the world. The truly schizoid person is also a truly narcissistic person. Morrissey's a good example, he's just become this sort of theatrical shell.'
Considering the nature of his preoccupations, it's odd to find Momus in the world of pop, where he's almost setting himself up to be sneered at. 'It's important for me to be working in the same medium as someone like Michael Jackson - there's just not the same glamour to someone like Anthony Burgess.'
What brings such a solitary aesthete to Creation Records, traditionally home to a sullen breed of leather-trousered misanthropists? 'It's such a good word. How could you resist a record company called Creation?'
Momus's youth was divided between travel (his father was a nomadic TEFL teacher), boarding school, and a day school which he survived by retreating into a precocious love of Eliot, Joyce and glam rock. Like the hero of his song 'The Homosexual', Currie was dubbed 'teapot' and 'shirtlifter'; he isn't homosexual, although he went through a phase of dorm orgies.
'Sometimes it almost alarms me how camp these records turn out to be, how the allusions are to all these gay writers. But you need some kind of slant on things, and the homosexual slant makes a lot of sense, since I'm dealing with the erotic. If I have a political axe to grind, it's with the erotic side of politics, which is still in the dark ages.'
Musically, his real affinities are with French songwriters like Brel, Georges Brassens (a man famous for a walrus moustache and a song in which a judge is anally raped by a gorilla), and bloated lecher Serge Gainsbourg. 'Gainsbourg lives in this little universe of sexuality. To live in that entirely would be a big mistake. But it's important to me - my biggest problem is waking up in the morning feeling the impulses of eroticism and at the same time this huge guilt. These two strands are battling it out all day long'
In pop, anyone who puts words together with a certain regard for coherent meaning is regarded with suspicion. So it's inspiring to see how densely and elegantly Momus can pack meaning into a song.
'If you can use language in the most economical form, then you can be devastating, you can be very subversive. There's something very disturbing - much more disturbing than any Cabaret Voltaire cut-up scratch formalism - about someone having something to say and saying it in an economical form.'
'I'm someone who can't really talk like you're supposed to, in this strange wisecracking language which posits itself as a stream of jokes. But which is actually what Barthes calls the doxa, the pile of received opinions which constitutes cultural consensus. I can't do that, so I have to have a form of magical speech, which is making records which can attack the doxa and yet make me loved for attacking it.'
Momus's next and unlikeliest shot at the doxa will take the form of a 7" version of 'A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy Pts 17-24', remixed by King Boy D and Rockman of the JAMMS, aka Tardis-hopping hitmakers the Timelords. Pet Shop Boys samples will never have sounded more subversive.
Momus's latest LP is 'Tender Pervert' (Creation). He also appears on the new Creation Records sampler 'Doing It For The Kids'
The legendary Momus takes time out to talk to the MM analyst
YOU can't make an omelette without breaking eggs and you can't write a poem without breaking the protective shell around a word and messing up its sexy yolk of meaning a bit. Unfortunately most song lyrics don't even take the eggs out of the carton.
I PLUMP for polygamy, if only because it saves you having to make up new jokes all the time. (Though most couples in the more advanced stages of monogamy don't even bother doing that-they let TV do it for them). In order to value your lover properly I think you need to be reminded just occasionally that someone, somewhere might be able to make a better job of it.
SEE Rick Astley.
STARTED in the garden with curiosity about fruit. It's been upsetting the apple cart ever since. Tiresias the hermaphrodite said that women enjoy it nine times more than men, and sometimes when I'm doing the pushups I believe that. Compared with the female epic the male orgasm is a laughable little spasm. If sex was an atlas and intercourse was Western Europe, you'd find me browsing through Asia and the pages with the pole caps.
I'M a Gas and Water socialist myself. The job of politicians is to keep the taps running and stave off war. The job of businessmen is to sell as many arms as possible and cut off the water supply so they can sell you Perrier. My one political belief is that ability, not money, is the real human capital.
WHOEVER wears Goth black at a Goth gig, or high street fashion on the high street, or designer black among designers, or 501s anywhere, is essentially choosing to ignore clothing as a creative message and walk in a form of unsexy nakedness. And what's wrong with that? If you've got a message there's always Western Union. Puritan? Me? Well, I do have an axe to grind. I live on the King's Road.
MARGINALLY preferable to World War III.
LIKE castor oil, I take it because it's good for me.
IS the last refuge of the scoundrel. Is never having to treat each other like human beings. Is a word which should be banned from pop songs - including mine. Is a fine religion as long as you don't try to convert anyone. I like Rilke's idea that we should free our love from the loved one and make it pure, wide and disinterested.
YOU can mentally travel the whole world without actually leaving your bedroom or, like rock bands and Americans, you can actually travel the whole world without mentally leaving your bedroom.
SUPPOSED to be frustrated musicians. Actually, most musicians would give their eye teeth to have a job as easy, influential, exciting and well-paid. Me, I make a point of sleeping with the people who interview me. It's the only way to the top. I just wish they were better in bed.
PERSONALLY I find megalomania more interesting when it comes pint size and slightly curdled, like Howard Devoto.
IN times of the wildest optimism or the deepest pessimism we have heroes who disturb us, who are outrageous and flamboyant, who offer unsettling critiques of the way we live, who expose our deepest psychic secrets or use their music to mount on attack on all we hold most dear, encapsulating in a single intoxicating burst the restless aspirations of a generation. In 1988 we have Rick Astley.
Melody Maker, 16th July 1988
PERVERTED JUSTICE IAN GITTINS LISTENS TO MOMUS AND HEARS WHY 'WOMAN' IS
THE BEST WORD IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, AND THE MOST PAINFUL
''YOU WRITE BECAUSE YOU DON'T know what the hell you think. You don't know who you are, what you believe. And you want to be loved as well. You stumble your way towards pretending to believe something and these things turn into the things you DO believe. It's very fraudulent, the playfulness of deciding who you're going to be. An essentially adolescent thing. It just seems to have taken me 10 extra years to do it. Maybe it'll take 10 more before I settle on anything . . ."
MOMUS, in Greek mythology, was the god of mocking and satire. A divine cynic. Nick Currie is a pale, lean young man who lives off the Kings Road in Chelsea. He lives in the kind of tiny bedsit you cramp yourself into when you leave home at 18. This is the base from which he lives his unlikely life as Momus.
Nick Currie was going to call his brand new LP 'The Homosexual'. Various friends and foes in the music business thought this wasn't a very good idea, so he settled for 'Tender Pervert'. It is a record consumed with doubt and conviction, joy and hatred. Any more? Perplexed by the puzzle of how to steer through this world, keen to grasp any notion which could be an ultimate truth, "Tender Pervert" has little idea of trivia and none of frivolity. Momus' world is a serious one.
There used to be two people worrying over the state of the world. Both lived on the Kings Road. Morrissey has returned to Manchester and Momus remains. His musings, immaculately conceived couplets of need and lack, are as striking as Morrissey's, but, unlike Morrissey, who couched his words in chunky Marr riffs, Momus has only the frailest of music.
'I was a Maoist intellectual in the music industry'
On last year's LP, 'The Poison Boyfriend', Momus sang of what troubles him - jealousy, rejection, the pain and pleasure of sex, the danger of losing yourself in a stifling relationship. Many chords were struck. A single, 'Murderers, The Hope Of Women', cited monogamy as the root of dullness and torpor. We held our breath.
'Tender Pervert' is no kind of move away to different fields. It's Momus looking closer and deeper, his convictions gaining intensity. 'In The Sanatorium' sees one-to-one love as clinical, deathly, apart from the thrill of the chase. 'A Complete History Of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17-24)' is just that. It's perhaps more direct, less prone to whimsy, but no change in course.
Momus, we've heard this before. Do you ride hobby horses?
"Yeah. You get on the merry-go-round and don't realise it's the same horse you get on each time. But I suppose it is. The reason I write songs, rather than Radio 4 plays or something, is you never have to commit yourself for long. It's always short. But I'm always surprised that the same things do crop up."
Your concerns are the same. A Momus worldview certainly emerges from it all.
"You see that more clearly than me. You're apart from it. Everybody IS the world, and so I just AM the world. When an individual dies, the world dies. Only other people see it wasn't the world, just one person. My perceptions happen to be about jealousy and
possessiveness, maybe negative things. But am I so sensitive to these things? I think everybody is."
Are you a very selfish person?
"Probably. But it's not a very happy state. It would be preferable to be able to live or die for somebody else, maybe. But I've never felt at one with the cosmos."
There's certainly a lot of detachment in the way you look at the world. Have you always felt at odds with other people?
"I guess I realised at 10, when I went to boarding school, that you can't depend on anyone. You don't give too much of yourself away. To preserve a rebellion, which is small and burning and private, you shut up and keep quiet. I put mine out once a year on a record. But I can't do small talk, which is the way you show you're on the same world as other people. I can't do casual chat. I'm good at being pompous and pretentious with people who understand."
'I love women, but I take them by surprise/Pretending absolute indifference to their breasts and thighs . . . ' - 'The Homosexual'
AGAIN and again Momus' lyrical wanderings return to sexuality. Where 'The Poison Boyfriend' was an essay in jealousy, 'Tender Pervert' is alive with the politics of desire and lust, caught in the agony of unrequited longing. Momus knows that the sexual urge is the strongest of all impulses. This may also make it the most important.
"I'm a true Freudian, I guess. I see everything in terms of sexuality. Every time I see a piece of dogshit on the pavement, I think of some poor lonely person who hasn't slept with a man for 30 years and has to go out and buy a dog. The shit is just their loneliness made tangible. I go along with the idea we're always trying to find someone who'll be the breast of your mother again. It's not just sex. That's easy to write about, but the thing is rediscovering that breast, getting the teeth round that nipple again. There's this enormous hunger."
This ideal can only be translated to the everyday by a constant search for new partners. Isn't it hard?
"No. I've never been enormously successful with women, but I've always refused to sublimate, as Freud puts it, go away and build model aeroplanes or spot trains. I've always preferred to suffer the pain of being constantly rejected and gone back there, getting hit again and again. Stay in there, no matter how painful it is. Woman is the best word in the English language. It's also the worst. The most painful."
Don't most people, though, feel their way through these things by instinct? Are you playing mind games, agonising over what should come naturally?
"Yeah, if I spent more time doing the things I'm singing about and less time analysing them and writing . . . I've got a ratio of having relationships which last for one month, they break up, and I spend four months thinking about it before the next one."
'GOD is a tender pervert / And the angels are voyeurs . . . '-"The Angels Are Voyeurs"
HOW does religion sleep alongside sex?
"I've got friends who are religious. But I can't really understand them. The state of God depends on the state of the people who create him. Basically, he is the Freudian father. He changes with ideas and fashion. The old ideas have been discredited, but they're still hanging around."
So you have a faith?
"Whatever humans do is right. Even killing themselves. You have to be on your own side. There's nothing human I don't identify with. The most outrageous crimes. Even mediocrity. It's all
'MAYBE the clinical way they undressed me/Stayed with me and deeply distressed me/I think, at heart, I'm something of a prude" -'The Charm Of Innocence'
THERE is a catch to all this. Some have pointed out, correctly, that writing about music should never be poor literary criticism. There are the textures of sound to dwell on. Momus is the master of the wry phrase, yet he has not yet found the power in music through which to propel his pearls of wisdom. There are smart tricks on 'Tender Pervert', not the least 'Ice King', a clever prod at those like Weller who use black music to assume automatic sensuality, "as an escape from knowing who or what you are" . Yet Momus sounds frail.
On record, it works. Live, playing to a busy room, he can die the death. He needs more impact, and is thinking of using old friends of his from Josef K. It's a good idea.
We can see you're vexed at how badly we handle the world. So how honest are you?
"The paths to truth are overgrown with weeds in our culture. The eight-lane highway is to death, and having a big house and nice car just before you go. I don't personally know how Bros, and people like that, can be happy with what they do, but maybe that chap just wants to sing. My talent is for words, his is for having a high voice and being sexy. He's like a blackbird sitting on the branch of a tree singing, and the female blackbirds flock to the branch. And I'm, I dunno, some sort of owl, staring at the moon and hooting away in the middle of the night, when nobody wants to be woken up by my hoots!"
Momus cracks up. It's a funny game.
New Musical Express, 6th August 1988
CV of Mortal Sins
Is MOMUS (aka NICK CURRIE) a voyeur, ex-rent boy
and semi necrophile? Or is he merely writing
a rock'n'roll bad reputation for himself? DON WATSON prods at the Tender Pervert's soft spots.
Considering its outdated form in this age of cut and paste-up sound, the song seems all the more stubborn in its will to survive. Its carriers, these resilient obsessives who insist on telling us stories, never seem to go away.
There's Morrissey, extending the erotic fascination of his fey little dramas from behind the net curtains of the railway cuttings. In a different field there's John Balance of Coil, whose concern is also with unphotographable British youth. Kate Bush's songs of sex and dreams and isolation. Rickie Lee Jones' visions of Catholic mid-America, Tom Waits' albeit faltering Odyssey through a similar landscape of ghosts. Nick Cave and Neil Tennant, the two extremes of the musical continuum meeting in their sense of just how much a dumb song can tug on our heart strings. Johnny Brown of The Band Of Holy Joy and his chaotic vision of the two Victorian eras (then and now). Elvis Costello's continuing fascination with the psychotic cuckold. Leonard Cohen, who has had a sense of humour for so long that even the stupidest of critics have begun to notice. Finally, living up at last to that burden the great potential, there's Nick Currie, aka Momus.
'Tender Pervert' is actually Nick Currie's fourth LP. Since his debut on 4AD with the band Happy Family (born out of his twin obsessions with the Glasgow band Josef K and the novelist, Franz Kafka, from whom they took their name) Nick has been shamelessly growing up in public (or as shamelessly as his inherent puritanism will allow).
On his El releases, the EP 'Beast With 3 Backs' and 'Circus Maximus', he was clearly reaching out towards something fascinating - a blend of Scottish and European sensibilities, where puritan values collide with a taste for bizarre sexuality. Initially though his ambition outstripped his abilities and he ended up with an unintended tone of preciousness.
A step back into his influences on the EP of Brel cover versions, 'Nicky' seemed to set him straight. In covering 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' ('Don't Go Away'), he put himself in the company of Scott Walker, Nina Simone and Marc Almond, and acquitted himself brilliantly. His version is still my favourite outside Brel's original and his cover of 'See A Friend In Tears' invariably brings a lump to my throat.
Returning to his own songwriting efforts for the 'Poison Boyfriend' LP, he declared "I'm in love with everyone who knows it's hard to find a way of seeing" , at the same time as proving with songs like 'The Gatecrasher' that his own vision was developing a new clarity - a mix of autobiography and self-loathing, wild imagining and bitter romanticism. He began at last not just to live up to but to transcend his influences.
The new record 'Tender Pervert' is confirmation and further revelation, exhibiting a new found confidence in its picking and mixing of musical styles. Each of the songs is a perfectly crafted story, twisted every now and again to reveal a glint of self mockery. They exhibit serious concerns but are constructed with a gleeful, and often immaculately tasteless, sense of humour.
Here is a gallery of pederasts, corrupters and schemers, all observed by the Tender Pervert Supreme of the title, yours unfaithfully God.
Part of the intrigue is the way in which he blends autobiography with what is clearly fantasy. Take the song 'Bishonen' for example, about a young man raised by a "surreptitious gay" step-father, particularily to die young, according to the Japanese aesthetic of the title. The first line is "I was born in the town of
Paisley in early1960," a detail I happen to know applies to Currie
himself. Why the need to implicate yourself Nick?
"It's a way of remaining interested in the story. "
You mean you can't be interested in something unless you're personally involved?
"It's like a satyr in mythology, which is half man and half goat,
but you can't tell where the mythological element meets the
human element, although it's obviously a mixture of both.
"But a lot of people who aren't professional critics tend to think
everything is about oneself."
Thus according to this LP you are voyeur, ex-rent boy and semi-
"Well I was once in a famous music business lawyer's office
when a client rang up suggesting litigation on the ground that his
reputation had been slurred, and the lawyer replied 'You can't put a price on a good reputation in the music business, because bad reputations are what everyone is desperate to get.' It's a CV, I suppose, a CV of mortal sins."
What a charmingly old fashioned idea, the mortal sin.
"Well, I'm being camp, I suppose. Not being brave enough to actually commit mortal sins, I write about them instead . "
Your characters often seem wracked by conscience, do you think people have consciences nowadays?
"Of course they do, that's hardly old fashioned. We're more guilty if anything now, we're living in a uniquely repressive period, and AIDS has introduced a biological element to conscience: ' Don't be unfaithful to me or you'll catch this hideous disease, which will be a kind of retribution.' "
But things change fast nowadays, and what might have been true in the paranoia of last year might not hold up so well in this summer of chemical-assisted Ecstasy.
What is your idea of fun?
"It's to do with appetite, which is perverse: you have an appetite for one thing and then very quickly you need to escape from it."
Like Morrissey you seem to have a certain longing to appear perverse.
"I have an electorate who will not turn away if they consider me to be perverse, although they may turn away because they consider me too polite.
"I have this problem that I'm a Scot and yet I don't have a Scottish accent. We always had the World Service on in our house and that's where I learned my accent from, it's a voice no human being has taught me. I have this feeling that I have to offset the standard Englishness of my voice by seeming increasingly perverse. It's an instinct I have."
Does this increase your ability to get away with it?
"Well studies of promiscuity show that the most educated are the worst, it's the old man in his study with the leather bound volumes, who's most likely to have the whips hidden behind them."
Your songs betray a deep fascination with the 1890s decadents.
"I think it's all in the title of 'The Immoralist' by Andre Gide (referred to directly in 'In The Sanatorium'). I myself am heterosexual, but I have a fascination with the homosexual view of the world, the deep seated bitterness against the predominant culture. I've always been stigmatised as a homosexual, and if that happens to you, you do tend to hold up the stigmata."
This feeling gives rise to 'The Homosexual', a wickedly unpleasant little song about an effeminate man who gains revenge on his persecutors by seducing their women. Its nastiness is continued on 'Complete History Of Sexual Jealousy', a particularly repressed song that bursts forth in fetishistic fascination with the broad green streak.
"I think it just comes back to the general theme of not wanting to block out the alternative possibilities. There's always a sense of fascination in the sexual rival. I suppose this does all sound like repressed homosexuality, in that you're making love with a woman in order to get revenge on her husband, or you're more obsessed with the people who are going to steal your girlfriend than you are with your girlfriend herself.
Outsiders always have a momentum that people who are just involved in building a status quo don't have. That's what always terrifies me, that thing of building a status quo in a relationship, turning it into an everyday banality that then has to be defended against the outside world."
The ending of all your stories is precisely that status quo settling down to stability with the wild past behind you. Is that your idea of hell?
"I suppose it's the inevitable point you come to when rebellion collapses, your sense of being different is not enough to sustain you any longer and you start following the rules."
The most overtly comical, and most self-directed of the songs is 'I Was A Maoist Intellectual' in which a dead songwriter looks back on his own irrelevance.
"It's partly about my interview persona, this Frankenstein's monster that people like you and people like me collaborate in creating. But it's purely a joke if I take on that role."
The LP's rallying cry is the quotation from Joe Orton 'Give me the ability to rage correctly', a contradiction of rebellion and etiquette that seems to suit Nick Currie's quaint perversity very well. Such skill and self effacement should ensure that his polite revolution will storm for some time yet.