Reckless Amy: The greatest songwriter you've never heard of
'Heroin addicts, ex-cons, married men...' Amy Rigby has always based her darkly funny tales of love-gone-wrong on her own life. So how did the 'greatest modern songwriter you've never heard of' find herself living in the middle of nowhere with a former punk-rocker called Wreckless Eric?
Sunday 31 May 2009
Limoges, I remind Amy Rigby, is one of the few towns, anywhere in the world, whose name has come to be used as a verb. "Limoger," replies the Pittsburgh-born singer, as though she's reciting an entry from a dictionary. "To be banished to the sticks. To be put out to pasture."
Limoger might translate – with no offence to the residents of that trend-setting Yorkshire town – as "To be Halifaxed". And this conversation doesn't even take place in the heart of Limoges. We're talking in the outlying village of Piégut, close to the house where Rigby has lived with her new husband, the English pop legend Wreckless Eric, since late 2006. It's mid- afternoon and everywhere is closed. We pull a couple of chairs up to a table on the terrace of a locked café on the main street. Pedestrians go by without giving a second glance to the woman who is probably the greatest modern songwriter you've never heard of.
"Amy Rigby," according to Steve Earle, musician, author, playwright, and sometime actor in The Wire, "finds the humour in tragic situations and the tragedy in humorous situations; something very few songwriters are able to do. Think Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright, at their best."
It would be hard to overstate just how bizarre it is that Rigby should have moved here with Wreckless Eric. Wreckless, who grew up as Eric Goulden in Peacehaven, Sussex, is best known for his two-chord anthem "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World", the 1977 hit which recently became familiar to a new generation through its use in Marc Foster's 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction. In terms of mainstream popular music, it's rather as if John Lydon had relocated to the Dordogne and married Joni Mitchell.
It's never easy to convey the full extent of a songwriter's talent on paper. Perhaps the best place to start with Rigby is YouTube, where she performs a song called "Keep it to Yourself." In the first few bars, her gentle, slightly fragile voice, and the muted bossa nova rhythm, suggest the kind of perfectly crafted but inoffensive love song that might be piped into the elevator of an upmarket Manhattan hotel.
"You say you'd like to kill the man who broke my heart," Rigby sings. "You don't think he should be allowed to live/ You say you want to shoot the dude who screwed me up/ Me, I'm trying so hard to forgive."
It's the next few lines that make "Keep it to Yourself" what Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ magazine, has described as "the best break-up song ever written".
"But here's his address," Rigby continues, "Here's his picture/ Here's the make and model of his car/ He works until 4.30, then he hangs out at the topless bar/ With a girl on each arm/ If he should come to harm/ Just keep it to yourself."
Rigby subtly draws the listener into a scenario whose dark lyricism would do credit to Patricia Highsmith. "Remember how he cheated, and he lied to me?/ You told me that it makes you lose your head/ I see they're pouring concrete on Route 33/ I don't believe you'd do those things you said."
It's long been a mystery to me that – working as she does in a medium where a gift for wit and irony is detectable in so few performers – the woman once described as "the Elvis Costello of soccer moms" should not be better known outside the industry. Lavishly as her work has been praised by fellow professionals such as Earle, the late Warren Zevon and Laura Cantrell, Rigby's public profile has remained obstinately low. This is all the more perplexing given her versatility: Amy Rigby is far from being a lightweight comedy turn. Her instinctive feel for rock'n'roll produced exhilarating anthems such as "All I Want" – a song covered in 2006 by Ronnie Spector, accompanied by Keith Richards – and "Dancing with Joey Ramone", which is one of those songs that tells you, just from its title, that it's going to be great. Even "Girls Got it Bad" – a wonderful tune that sounds like the Bangles at the peak of their commercial success – somehow failed to reach a mass audience.
"Have you never said to yourself," I ask Rigby, "this is the one. This is the record that's finally going to bring me an international reputation?"
"Every single time," she says. "Always. I go into this child-like mode, where I actually imagine that everybody will be singing this song all over the world. I've believed that with every release. You'd have thought I'd have learnt by now."
Perhaps part of the trouble is that Rigby, as a solo artist, started so late: the first of her five original solo albums, Diary of a Mod Housewife, appeared in 1996. She celebrated her 50th birthday in January.
Neither has she been blessed with the rabid lust for self-advancement that drives some of her competitors in the music business. There's a marked contrast between the diffidence of this softly spoken woman and the disarming frankness with which she has confronted her intimate history in songs such as "Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?" ("What became of Babe and Stud?" Rigby sings. "Too much KFC and Bud") or "The Trouble with Jeannie", in which she complains that her ex-husband's charming new wife is inconveniently difficult to detest. ("How can I pick up where she never left off?/ We're like a club of two who've seen him with his clothes off.")
"A lot of my motivation as an artist has been anger and frustration," she says. "It's just what sets me off."
"I've sometimes thought there should be an agency for musicians to go to," I tell her. "The singer would pay them $20,000. In exchange, at some time in the next year, the organisation would send somebody to gain the artist's confidence and love, then unceremoniously dump them, leaving them in the shattered emotional state that seems to encourage so much great songwriting. Actually, I'm not sure you'd need to resort to that: most of your songs don't exactly exude a sense of being settled. There's a definite hint of female Don Juan in a lot of your writing. In that song called "Balls", there's a line where you say: "I've been seeing a couple of men..."
"But they're like me, so I don't want them," says Rigby, completing the lyric. "They have feelings, they have morals; a conscience and a soul."
"That implies a certain pattern of behaviour."
"Yes, and not just from women. I've seen guys behave that way too; always after the unattainable woman. Eric says most men picture themselves as James Bond."
"He says that most men do?"
"That's what I hear from Eric." '
She was born Amy McMahon in Pittsburgh, but left when she was 17 to study art in New York. At 26, she married Will Rigby, the drummer of the power-pop band the dB's; they have a daughter, Hazel, now 20. The singer's life, she recalls, acquired some stability once she was making music in the mid-1980s: first with a country group called Last Roundup, then with a New York band named The Shams. "I had a balanced childhood up to adolescence, then things went pretty bad for me," she recalls. "From when I was 14 to about 24."
"So many creative artists seem to invite punishment on to themselves at some point in their lives."
"I'd say that was true of me."
"What form did that take?"
"Certain men that I took up with."
"Heroin addicts. Ex-convicts. Married men. Men way older. I took some drugs and I liked drinking but that was never a big problem for me. Men were my downfall. Maybe not 'downfall'. Men were my distraction. I'd just go off on a tangent."
"I hate to tell you this, but that all comes out pretty clearly in your songwriting."
"It's funny, I was just thinking to myself: oh, I'm exposing some profound secret about myself – I think I am actually blushing – but I guess you're right. It's all there, on the records."
The first song I ever heard by Amy Rigby was a stunning country ballad called "Just Someone I Had in Mind". I can remember going back first to the liner notes, then to the internet (twice) to make quite sure that she had really written it, suspecting even then that a song of this quality must be by Johnny Cash or George Jones. It has the lines: "Now every time I'm with him/ I keep wanting to return/ To when he was a lesson/ That I couldn't wait to learn/ I don't know how to tell him/ Without being unkind/ I loved him more when he was/ Just someone I had in mind."
The theme of restlessness recurs in her music.
"The great thing about all these people," I suggest, "the users, the ex-criminals, the married men, the elderly – is that they all imply impermanence; they require no commitment."
"They're unavailable. The other thing is that part of me has always been the polite person who wants to be a Nice Girl. To fit in. Then I met people who didn't seem to care about what anybody thought."
"And that was attractive."
"Yes. With certain men it was almost like, I wish I could be like you. I wish I could be an asshole, a raving drug addict, or a lunatic." Rigby divorced Will Rigby in 1996. She married Wreckless Eric, her second husband, last year.
"Until a few years ago, you were living in Nashville. You had a songwriting contract and a house there; you had a regular boyfriend."
"Yes. We didn't live together."
"So by moving out here to the Limoges area: are you turning your back on the business?"
"I didn't think that consciously when I came here. I first met Eric in 2000." (Bizarrely enough, Goulden – whose best- known song speculates as to which distant tropical island may be sheltering the woman who'll one day become the love of his life – met Rigby not in Tahiti but Hull; at the same venue where, as an art student, he first performed "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World.")
"In 2005, she says, "we got together. Then we were talking, in Paris, and he was telling me about when he lived in France [Goulden spent most of the 1990s in the Chartres area] and how he'd like to come back. He knew a local estate agent and we came here. I didn't realise at first how remote it is. I kept thinking: this will look very different, once the people are here."
"I know exactly how you're going to write this," Goulden announces, when we meet him back at the couple's house: a 19th-century stone building with a beautiful back garden and a welcoming, unfussy, bohemian feel about it. "Reticent American marries belligerent Englishman known for his, er..."
Goulden smiles. It's true that, in common with many gifted professionals from the music business, like his late friends Ian Dury and Kevin Coyne, he's ready to defend his corner vigorously when it's necessary, and sometimes when it isn't. His 2003 book, A Dysfunctional Success: the Wreckless Eric Manual, is one of the best, if most disturbing, rock autobiographies and, in person, Goulden can be volubly articulate on almost any subject. Like many musicians, he spends much of his life at altitude, travelling between Europe and the United States. I don't know what his mood's like on a plane: placid and conciliatory, perhaps, in which case he's the first man I've ever met who suffers from ground rage. (Later that day, when we go to Bussière-Badil, a nearby village, to visit an elderly couple I met there many years ago, Eric manages to persuade Monsieur Louis, who is 88 and unconfrontational by nature, into joining him in a protracted tirade, in French, on the subject of the Euro.)
Once Goulden starts talking about, for instance, the evils of rock promoters, the conversation is such that, if an alien were asked to decode a transcript of his speech, they would probably assume, on the basis of frequency of use, that the F-word was the verb "to be".
"Someone said to me a few years ago: 'Eric – you're bitter.' I said, 'Of course I'm ******* bitter, you ****. I'm ******* angry. I'm ******* furious. I got treated like a ******* moron. For four ******* years. The ***** paid me 50 ******* pounds a week and told me I was a ******* failure and I ******* believed them. Of course I'm ******* bitter. You'd be ******* bitter.'"
Even though "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World" was covered by The Proclaimers in 2007 and is at the heart of the pivotal scene between Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger Than Fiction, Goulden somehow seems to have emerged with almost nothing from either venture. (Stranger Than Fiction grossed in excess of $40m.)
Even so, his life now must be as good as it's ever been.
"It could always be better," says Eric.
Even in mid-rant he can be very funny: fuming about an ancient grievance with the tax authorities, who wanted paperwork, he complains that: "It's bad enough being a loser, without having to prove it."
But the anger that fuels these semi-mischievous outbursts seems real enough, and isn't impossible to understand. ' Though he admits that, in his early years, when he was on Stiff Records with Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Nick Lowe, he was not helped by his chronic alcoholism, Goulden, like Rigby, has made excellent records that have never had the recognition they deserved, except from a core of broadcasters including the late John Peel, Andy Kershaw and Marc Riley. It's an obvious source of frustration that his best songs, such as "Young, Upwardly Mobile... and Stupid" (the song gives you an idea of how Gene Vincent might have sounded if he'd ever collaborated with The Fall and, when played, invariably halts all conversation in any room, whatever its size) remains little known. Goulden has always had the gift for a great opening line, and the first track on Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, their recent collaboration, is no exception.
"Here comes my ship," he sings. "I've waited so long for it." If that line was an ironic prediction that the CD would not be the huge commercial success the couple longed for, it was accurate enough – even though it was hailed by Mojo magazine as "a triumph of an album".
Bitter or not, Goulden is undoubtedly in a much better place than most might have predicted in the mid-1970s. He hasn't had a drink, he tells me, for almost 25 years. This is his first marriage; previously he was in three long-standing relationships which he describes as turbulent; he has one daughter, Luci, who is 24.
"You had a hit with '(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World' very young. Did you drink out of fear?"
"Yes. And I thought I was boring without a drink. Once I stopped, in August 1985, I was face to face with myself. I remember the guilt and the self-loathing. I hated myself. You stop drinking, and that's when the shit hits the fan; the anger."
"Anger at what?"
"At the world. Anger. Rage. Sometimes even now, I am arguing, and there's another me saying: 'Stop it. Park it. You don't even care.' But I keep pushing it."
Sober, he was prescribed heavyweight anti-psychotic drugs such as Largactil, which is used for severe bipolar disorder and as an anaesthetic for goats.
"It was horrible," Goulden recalls. "The years 1987 and 1988 were really bad. I was so depressed. It was like staring down into an ocean. I couldn't see it ever being better. I'd be on the Tube, shouting at strangers. I seemed to be in hell. Then, early one morning – I'd been up all night in this psychotic state – I walked to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London. I said: 'I think I might be a danger, to myself and possibly to others. Something is very wrong.' I was just the most beaten-down person in the world. They said, 'We think you need to go somewhere, and rest.' They didn't say mental hospital. I admitted myself. I was there for about four weeks. Things started to get better, after that."
Going on excursions with Rigby and Goulden to local towns, there's something very charming about the way the locals have taken this couple to their hearts, and vice versa. We have a wonderful afternoon talking to Nico, the owner of their favourite establishment, the Lawrence d'Arabie Café in Châlus, where they play regularly. The Lawrence d'Arabie, where the writer stayed in 1908, is truly one of the great bars of the world, and stands next to the house once occupied by Châlus' great artistic son, the late comedian Pierre Desproges, whose surviving recordings are as good an excuse as any for learning French.
While Rigby and Goulden's modest success means that you'll never have to find £500 to take a few friends to watch them from a decent seat at Wembley Arena, for a very reasonable fee you can book these two unique artists to play in your kitchen. "In America we used to do this thing where I'd be singing in someone's house," Rigby says, "and Eric would arrive in a dressing-gown, pretending to be a neighbour, furious about the noise. Then he'd pick up the guitar, and play 'You're Gonna Screw My Head Off'."
There are die-hard fans of both Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric who have found their musical partnership somewhat difficult to come to accept. Some people, Rigby explains, still resent the fact that they can't see Wreckless going medieval with a garage band.
"Other times we'll be playing," Eric says, "and you get some guy yelling at Amy to play 'Tonight I'm Gonna Give the Drummer Some'. [This song contains the line: "He's alive – that's saying a lot. You'd be surprised how many are not".] And I'm thinking – hold on a minute, we've only been married a year."
The couple still carry their own equipment on stage. Their transport, which sometimes doubles as their hotel, is a decommissioned ambulance. "It's very like a Robert Plant and Alison Krauss tour bus," Rigby says, "except it's a tenth of the size. And I bet theirs doesn't have its own oxygen supply and stomach pump."
I ask Amy Rigby about my own favourite song from her back catalogue: a track from her 2003 CD Till the Wheels Fall Off that, if I can strike an unashamedly subjective note for a moment, would be first on my list for Desert Island Discs. It's a love song called "Don't Ever Change", which begins, unusually for that genre, with the singer standing on a riverbank, observing a group of beer-swilling redneck anglers. It's intense, haunting and, I would argue, very close to perfect.
"Now there," Rigby says, "is a song that is not motivated by anger or bitterness. I'd believed my forte was always going to be twisted disappointment. 'Don't Ever Change' just came from love. Every time I play that song, I feel how powerful that emotion can be. And I know..." She pauses. "I know other people feel it. I get very choked up when I sing it." She looks, unless I'm mistaken, as though she has tears forming in her eyes.
"And how about when you talk about it?"
There was a moment, in my first conversation with Rigby in Piégut, where I found myself asking her how on earth she thought her career was going to progress from here. "I'll keep writing," she said. "I'll keep working. I'll pay off my back taxes."
The longer we sat on that café terrace, the more bizarre it seemed that an artist of her ability could hang around in a public area for so long and go totally unnoticed. On reflection, this should come as no surprise in Piégut, a place where Bob Dylan could stand in the main square, naked, singing "Tiger Feet" with Lord Lucan on maracas and still not draw a crowd. Rigby's enduring anonymity would have been far more striking if we'd met in New York, Los Angeles, London, Manchester or Paris, and it's in those cities that she might legitimately inquire as to how many more great songs and how many more wonderful albums it will take before she's more widely recognised. Or, as one of her admirers once asked me: "Do you think they're ever going to notice?" n
'Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby' is released on Stiff Records. They play on 22 June in Manchester, 24 June in London, 25 June in Bristol and 26 June at the Glastonbury Festival. Check www.amyrigby.com for details
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