Pop: Apprentice to the stars
John Lennon, Marc Bolan and Paul Simon have all taken Nick Laird- Clowes under their wings. Now he's finally got round to releasing his first album.
Friday 26 March 1999
If you remember Nick Laird, it's probably for "Life in a Northern Town", his tribute to the aforementioned Nick Drake. The song was a hit for Laird's band, The Dream Academy, in 1990, but by 1991 the flautist Kate St John was working with Van Morrison, and the Academy were no more. Laird - loquacious, mildly eccentric, still boyishly good-looking despite his excesses - spent the rest of the early Nineties in a drug-fuelled fug. "I'd take ecstasy at 4 o'clock in the morning when I was already ripped on something else," he says. "Eventually, I started to think about that Jarvis Cocker lyric. What if I never came down? What if my brain was permanently frazzled?"
Recently signed to Creation, Laird has just released Mona Lisa Overdrive, a "future-folk" album that documents his journey back from the brink. "Inner Brownstone Symphony" finds him coming to terms with his heroin addiction in a New York apartment. "All Change" features samples recorded at a Tibetan monastery in Nepal's Kathmandu valley. It was here, Laird says, that he hit upon the alias Trashmonk after spending months cleansing his mind and body of some 20 years' worth of abuse.
When we meet, it transpires that he's just back from Nepal after a spiritual top-up. With characteristic enthusiasm, he whips out a timetable detailing lengthy periods of meditation and Buddhist teaching. "It's a big commitment", he affirms, "but after three days you love it and you're going to every class."
If recent events in Laird's life smack a little of Harrison-goes-to-India (the Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche is to Laird what the Maharishi once was to George), everything slots into place when you consider his background. At 13, Laird ran away to the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival to see The Doors. At 14 he befriended Jeff Dexter, and when the DJ dropped too much acid to man the decks for The Who at the Oval, Laird deputised. ("I distinctly remember Keith Moon smashing our copy of `Hey Jude' and making me put on the white label of `Barbara O'Reilly'.")
In July 1971, moreover, Laird met John and Yoko when they led a demonstration march protesting against Oz magazine's trial for obscenity. The couple were so impressed by Laird's megaphone-bolstered rallying that they invited the young refusenik to stay at Tittenhurst Park mansion in Surrey while Lennon put the finishing touches to Imagine in New York. "There was one room at Tittenhurst where all John's Beatles outfits were laid out," says Laird, "and I remember trying on his Sergeant Pepper hat and watching A Hard Day's Night, which was quite a big deal in the days before video." The visit also marked Laird's first sexual encounter. He recalls hearing someone whistling `Jealous Guy' as he got it on with a 27-year-old Australian model.
It was Maggie Bell, the Stone the Crows singer, who encouraged Laird to stop playing other people's songs and write his own, but it was some years before the obsessive fan was lauded himself. One milestone came in 1976, when Marc Bolan gave Laird's Beatles-influenced trio Alphalfa their first studio session. "I remember being taken for a spin in his white Rolls, and it was, like, `I'm going to be very camp and call you darling a lot, but don't worry - I'm not gay'," says Laird. "In the studio he was trying to teach us something that it's taken me years to learn," he adds. "Bolan knew that getting that energy on to tape was all that mattered."
What was arguably the pinnacle of Laird's rock and pop schooling came later. Long after Drake, Moon, Bolan and Lennon had died, Laird received a personal invitation to study song-writing with Paul Simon in New York. Typically, his meeting with Simon was the product of a long chain of unlikely events. Simon appeared to warm to Laird for no apparent reason. Once the pair were ensconced at the city's legendary Brill building, however, Simon gave the young pretender a grilling.
"He had this thing where you wrote a song in the morning and he'd critique it in the afternoon," says Laird. "I remember singing some drivel about being lost in a great big world, and of course he destroyed it. When I complained that I was staying in this tiny room in New York and he didn't seem to want me there, he suggested that I write about that instead. `Rule number one,' he said, `fact is always more interesting than fiction.'"
By the end of our meeting, I've strummed Nick Drake's guitar, watched footage of Laird and Alan McGee, Creation's boss, meeting Cornelius in Japan, and swished the ceremonial rangu (a wooden stick for goading animals) some Masai warriors gave Laird after he taped their singing on his DAT recorder (session payment: one goat). The Tittenhurst Park anecdote has reminded my host of something else, and I'm delighted when he reappears clutching a letter that he received from John Lennon in 1969. Laird explains that, as a child, he wrote to Lennon to tell him that he was slowly coming to terms with the Two Virgins album. John Winston, clearly pleased with the lad's commitment to his and Yoko's more avant-garde work, addressed his reply to "Nick Laird who heard" and signed it "love, peace and bagism". The accompanying doodle is unmistakably authentic.
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