Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day
Dinner With Devoto

On the eve of my birthday I had dinner with Howard Devoto and his writer companion Karen Hope (she prefers the Italian word inamorata).

Howard Devoto, for those who don't know, is the man who pioneered the punk DIY ethic with his group The Buzzcocks in 1976, then went on to record some of the century's greatest rock lyrics in his groups Magazine and Luxuria.

If the unconscious is structured, not, as Freud said, by language, but, as I choose to believe, by pop music lyrics, mine is saturated with things Devoto has said, sung and written. Often sphinxlike, they come back years later with an irrepressible vindicating force, like all the best art.

Devoto is a somewhat shy, delicate and private man whose intense and beautiful green eyes twinkle humourously behind his thick black spectacles. I've only met him three or four times, but each time I come away with a feeling of having intruded somehow, of having tried but failed to get to someone very distant and private.

I've come straight from Moorfields Eye Hospital, and begin by explaining that the high dose steroids I'm on make me intense. That brings to mind a line from the Luxuria song 'Mlle':

Blame my deadening intensity

We share that deadening intensity, but mine sometimes turns into gladiatorial ideological manoeuvres, whereas Devoto's dissipates in a glow of warm red wine.

Devoto is a poet. A few years older than me, he has an avuncular air, and betrays the same manner of wise, disillusioned, semi-ironic Northern resignation you see in films of Philip Larkin. He's always had an oddly glamourous flirtation with obscurity and disappearance, from the 1976 classic 'Boredom' ('I just came from nowhere and I'm going straight back there') to last year's collaboration with Mansun, 'Railings', which goes:

My death
It's holy and awesome
It's as common
As muck on the spade

When I probed him once before about the double nature of this almost Buddhist detachment, we seemed to agree that there were elements of inverted narcissism in it. As I conclude at the end of my song 'How To Get - And Stay - Famous', perfect obscurity may well be the next best thing to perfect glory.

But tonight, perhaps fuelled by the steroids, I'm in combative mood. Devoto is a great and subtle artist, and his current obscurity is a terrible indictment of the British music industry. I offer him, as I always do, a modest recording facility through my label Analog Baroque. He is still writing songs.

We also talk about the new ways there are now to be active as an artist, the changes that are currently overturning everything in media: the crisis in copyright, editing, artists as curators, and the internet as the distribution system of the future.

Copyright: my position is that the age of copyright is over. I look forward to a neo-Elizabethan age of widespread plagiarism. Devoto and Karen aren't convinced, since they both depend (as I do) on money they earn from what they've published.

Editing: 'Punk was not just about bands in Salford talking to bands in Bolton, Nick!' Devoto splutters, banging the table. 'It wasn't this perfect little democratic network, it was also shaped by managers like Malcolm McLaren, journalists and record companies'. I describe my suspicion of A&R men and book editors, who claim by virtue of some mysterious professional insight to know how artists should make their work, and have the power to make them go away and rewrite it instead of being themselves.

Devoto is scornful. 'I can be myself every day of the week. I don't want to be myself, I want to make some sort of act of meaningful communication with people'.

I think Devoto was always a more collaborative animal than me. He's always spoken very highly of the musicians he's worked with, and here he seems to be saying that being on Virgin was an important part of what Magazine were about. His gifts worked in that context, by those rules. For the same reason, it would be difficult for him to accept the kind of solitary narrowcasting that I do on little labels and over the internet as fulfilling.

Artists As Curators: the subject of Beck comes up, and I say he's the Dylan of the 90s (knowing that Devoto is a huge Dylan fan) because, as Auden said of Freud, he's 'not just a man but a whole climate of opinion'. Beck, I rave, signposts his fans in the direction of Dick Hyman, Fluxus, Gainsbourg... he links primal grooves with something that connoisseurs can appreciate, and exemplifies the artist as curator. Devoto is by now getting a little impatient, and a whole bottle of red wine (which he later claims the waitress has helped him drink, reminding me of another of his great lines: 'Sometimes I forget my position... and my position is somewhere between the waitress and her table') is loosening him up.

'Artists aren't curators! A good curator tries to frame something reasonably accurately, whereas an artist who takes another artist's work and samples or quotes it is stealing or using it creatively!' I point out that he did exactly that with Dostoyevsky and Proust (I remember the spine-tingling moment when Morrissey came onstage in the middle of a Luxuria show and read a few lines from 'A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu').

Again, Devoto seems not to buy the line. I love polemics, though, and for me a great meal is one in which I hardly notice the food. This is turning out to be one of those. My kefta might as well be dogfood.

The internet: my way out of the copyright quandry (where the protection of intellectual property ends up stultifying and legalising the whole artistic landscape and actually preventing the free exchange of ideas) is artists establishing brand identities as interesting thinkers with permanent locations in cyberspace. One scenario is that songwriters will charge a few pennies for MP3 song files which a global audience can access in a system completely without middlemen. Devoto and Karen are a little bored by David Bowie's views on this subject, and Devoto recalls how Bowie went after the bootleggers in the 70s with particular fervour.

'You're talking about cottage industries, but why should I assume people will pedal their pushbikes to my little cottage, amongst all the others out there?' Devoto asks. 'How will they even find it?'

I reply that people like us are the ones who'll benefit most from a transition we have one foot either side of. We've established some fame in the mediated world of labels, press, radio and TV and we can now use that reputation to sell our stuff directly to people through websites. I intend to equip mine with credit card processing this year, and start letting people download music directly for a fraction of what they pay for my records (money which goes on stupid things like lorries and air freight and rent for record company offices neither I nor my listeners will ever visit).

Evangelism is always troubling, and intensity can be deadening. Perhaps Devoto really is in love with spiral scratches in plastic rather than the idea of himself as some sort of disincarnated etheric artist, and perhaps the scratches he has made, and their relative neglect by a public who preferred Sham 69 and Simple Minds, have hurt him in a way that, somehow, he likes. Perhaps it's just the devil he knows, the pain he's used to.

He seems the happiest he's been all night when he recounts a tableau from the new John Cale autobiography, about the time Reed visited Cale with transvestite partner Rachel in tow, and spent an hour shooting up in the bathroom.

Later, as we leave the restaurant, and Devoto has passed in tactful silence over a party invite I've been asked to extend on behalf of ex-members of The Clash, he starts quoting Eliot's 'Prufrock':

Let us go, then, you and I
While the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table...

Perhaps, at heart, Howard Devoto is an old-school rock poet in the style of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and John Cale. For me he's as great as any of them.

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