Here comes stubble

Jah Wobble's long musical career takes a strange new twist with `The Celtic Poets'

He Has stayed up all night in the studio putting the finishing touches to what he calls "me requiem", and ended up driving aimlessly round the streets of east London at 7am listening to it on the speakers because he didn't want to wake his neighbours. Now, refreshed after a few hours' kip, Jah Wobble rings to say he'll be coming on foot from Bethnal Green to Canary Wharf: he proposes a trip, via the Docklands Light Railway and the Thames foot-tunnel, to Greenwich for a midday breakfast in a caff and, to finish, a brisk walk round the park.

This gives me an hour's leisure to contemplate the likely physical manifestation of one of music's most wayward and eccentric talents. On the cover of 1994's epic album Take Me to God, he was enthroned as a Roman emperor in toga and gold sandals. On 1995's Heaven and Earth, he appeared as an overstuffed and grumpy-looking scarecrow, topped by a bubbly blond wig. Wobble is as well known for his spiritual leanings as for the mighty bass- playing which originally powered Public Image Ltd and which now underpins the eclectic grouping of souls known as Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart. Not many Mercury-Award-nominated albums have featured the stern injunction "To have never known yourself - that's the ultimate sin!" like 1991's Rising Above Bedlam.

At the very least I was expecting some spiritual aura, an outward sign of inner sanctity. So the figure that bounces in comes as a shock. Wobble looks like the 2nd Murderer in a production of Macbeth sponsored by Man at C&A. But just as the phrase "barrow-boy who'd snap your neck for tuppence" is forming in my brain, I am pressed into a cheekful of stubble with one of the daintiest social kisses (mwah! mwah!) ever delivered outside Paris.

Wobble revels in the juxtaposition of opposites: the Cockney and the guru, the scholar of Eastern mysticism with a history of fist- fights and alcohol abuse, the archetype of musical cred who once took several years out to drive a tube train. The contradictions are most fruitful for his work: consider the way the opening bars of the haunting "Love Song", track two on Heaven and Earth, nearly faint away in an ecstasy of tinkling bells before a great, fat, throbbing bassline trundles in, as though Wobble's delivering the coal.

The last few years have seen a radical change in direction for Wobble, from the cross-cultural melange of Take Me to God and Bedlam through the mostly instrumental Heaven and Earth to a new interest in poetry and the spoken word. Last year brought The Inspiration of William Blake, in which Wobble intoned large chunks of visionary verse against settings that ranged from dreaming ambience to light reggae and the muezzins of North Africa. Though Wobble's Cockney delivery ("Speak, Fahver! Speak t'yer littul boy!") was not to all tastes, sales were respectable enough for his own outfit, 30 Hertz Records, to venture another toe in the water with The Celtic Poets.

This time gravel-voiced Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners recites heart-rending poems by Brian Kennelly, Louis MacNeice and (yes!) Shane MacGowan against a drifting backdrop of wailing pipes, flutes and - heretical but typically Wobble - oriental instruments. Nobody's more surprised about the tenderness of MacGowan's poem than Wobble ("You should see him - he can't stand up half the time"), but his lament for the dead of the Great Hunger is simple, spare, and devastating. Interspersed are instrumentals featuring the usual Invaders suspects - Mark Ferda, Zi Lan Liao (Wobble's girlfriend), and drummer Jaki Liebezeit - along with guests on sitar, trumpet and flute. It's deep stuff.

Wobble himself comes of Irish stock but "I'm not somebody who wears a shamrock. I don't celebrate St Patrick's, I'm a Cockney. I've been amalgamated into that tradition. I'm very against all that diddly-diddly-dee charming Irish bollocks, I hate it as much as pearly kings and queens. But there's most definitely a thing called a Celtic temperament and I've got it, which means a pretty keen mind, a fucking awful temper at times and a whole- heartedness. A very huge capacity for love - and hatred, you know?" An infectious hyuck-hyuck-hyuck cackle diffuses the hint of menace in his words.

After the mournful MacGowan poem, "The Dunes", Ronnie Drew combatively launches into Brendan Kennelly's "A Man I Knew", a burning tribute to the poet, Patrick Kavanagh: "It's about living your life in such a way that it isn't bollocks or superficial," confirms Wobble. "This belief in principles and being honest and upfront, not devious or sly. Being real. Being ... real," he repeats, forcefully. "Before you can become godlike you've gotta be a human being. I remember when I embarked consciously on the spiritual path a good few years ago, I thought, I can't even sit properly, can't even bring my knees to the floor in the lotus position, what hope is there for me? Then I realised that first of all, you've just got to be a human being, which is a lovely, lovely release. It means you can fuck up and make mistakes. As long as you realise that sooner rather than later, it's all right."

At 15, Wobble was reading the Upanishads in a Shadwell public library, although he flunked school ("There was no Miss Jean Brodie for me, it wasn't like Dead Poets Society") and hung out with the fledgling Sex Pistols. After punk imploded, John Lydon asked his old mate Jah Wobble (Sid Vicious's inspired garble of real name John Wardle) to become the bassist in Public Image Ltd. To this day Wobble has never had a bass lesson and was so nervous that he had to play the first PiL gigs sitting in a chair. "Yeah, that's true. For some of the lines, especially when I had to move around the frets a lot, I'd find it really difficult when I was standing up! But I liked sitting down anyway and I miss it now. Sometimes I do take a little sit-down during sets. You wanna be close to earth, actually. That thing of bands moving around and doing silly little leg movements, I find weird."

Wobble talks with relish of the post-PiL years lost to alcohol. The family at the next table who have sat stolidly munching their way through egg and chips, listening to Wobble deconstruct Buddhism, now get the full benefit of his days as "scourge of the ferries", boozing and fighting his way his way across the channel, or scuffling on aeroplanes. "Thing is, you're a lion when you're drunk, but a mouse when you're sober. `Oh no, I didn't, didn't did I? I'm sorrree ...' I enjoyed every drink I ever had." He gulps at his tea. "But when you're a drunk, psychically your back door's always open. You're vulnerable. You don't respect other people's boundaries, or your own. Because you're terrified of being rejected, you reject nobody."

He hasn't touched alcohol now for 11 years, but subsequent attempts to close the psychic back door were often thwarted by the fact that people's feet were in the way. He came home once and found four Dutch fans on the doorstep of his "tiny house" in Bethnal Green. Bemused, he let them in and listened to them yak on for hours. Then suddenly he exploded: "GET OUT! NOW!! I CAN'T HANDLE IT ANY MORE! I'm a bit better at dealing with that stuff now," he says, but he is still a curious mixture of the wide- open and the self-protective, operating out of an anonymous post-box address in E2 and carefully screening all his calls. He got an awful lot of Blake nutters on his tail last year, not to mention indigent poets whining for gigs.

Business and creativity are another pair of opposites in the Wobble psyche as he attempts with 30 Hertz "to be a record company mogul on a limited budget". (Forthcoming releases include "me requiem".) "Love knows no bargain, love knows no business. And music's love. But I can do deals, I wouldn't have survived if I couldn't have done deals, and I've got that East Ender thing in me ..." Which he plays up? "Sometimes as a defence mechanism, because people are half-expecting it so it just keeps them at bay. Yeah, that's right, I'm a fucking thick East Ender yeah-yeh-yeh. Y'know?"

The last, strange track, "Thames", takes sound and fury of all that's gone before and drifts it out with the tides towards infinity, ebbing and flowing. "One of the little paganistic things I do is to walk to the Thames regularly and say an offering. All rivers are special, but the Thames is my river. I was born and brought up by the Thames." A pause, as his blue gaze sweeps over the park, the river, and Docklands. "Sometimes I do think, Oh no! I'm turning into an old `ippie!"

`The Celtic Poets' is released by 30 Hertz Records on 9 June. Jah Wobble will be talking about the work of William Blake at the `Ways With Words Festival', Dartington, Devon (01803 867311), on 18 July.

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