Pop music: My dinner with Derrida
He drops names like Beuys, sings like Michael Jackson, but is inimitably Green Gartside aka Scritti Politti.
Friday 16 July 1999
A recluse in South Wales since the early-Nineties, Green Gartside is back with a new album, and a new title for 1999's post-historical blues - Anomie and Bonhomie. Gartside has arranged to meet me in the Geffrye Museum, a converted almshouse in Hackney. His publicist is laughing about a piece that drew attention to Gartside's resemblance in the Eighties to Princess Diana. But now, unless growing a goatee is a condition of passing into the afterlife, there's no likeness.
It's been more than 10 years since Gartside's last album, the largely forgettable Provision. All that time on his own has possibly made Gartside more self-conscious than he is ordinarily. It's no surprise that this is someone who appears to invest importance in the name. It's a point of contact. The name Green came from a teenage desire to be different from everyone else. "I wanted there to be a degree of randomness about that and I was on a train looking at the Welsh countryside. It was all green." Even his family found it easier to call him Green after he renamed himself, and whatever it is about his original name, he refuses to reveal it. Scritti Politti means political writing, and it's taken from the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci who was the Marxist of choice for Eighties cultural/political critics. As a teenager in Wales, Green set up a branch of the Young Communists.
But it was Green's experience at art college in Leeds that shaped Scritti's take on pop. And maybe it's an art-college trait, but he communicates his story with the precision of a curator, exactly like Malcolm McLaren. But whereas McLaren is a self-dramatist, Gartside is enthused by ideas. "At the time, I was aware of conceptual art, and to me the most interesting thing about art was asking questions about it. There had been a few artists that had made those inquiries and turned it into the work itself." So he gave up painting and they tried to chuck him out.
Gartside eventually got his degree "but by that time I couldn't have cared less because the Pistols and The Clash had been to my college". Though he's reticent about it now, there was something conceptual about the Scritti oeuvre; about the way in which the pop swoon delivered by songs such as "Sweetest Girl", "Jacques Derrida" and "Rock-a-boy-blue" were accompanied by the vertiginous realisation of the song's construction. "Yes, I think there was a degree of self-reflexivity. But just as there is an obvious limitation to how many paintings you can make that are about painting, without needing recourse to language, there are only so many songs you can write about songs." But in many respects, this Scritti formula continued on their second album, Cupid and Psyche. On the 12" cover of "The Word Girl", there was a part of a page of Lacan's Ecrits, and the song itself was a love song that was also - in the language of the time - a song about the "discourse" of love.
Gartside denies that there was any intellectual or political agenda behind this. "This was what I knew. It was unselfconscious. I'd gone from being a school student to art student. What else am I going to sing about? I'm going to sing about the stuff I had read and the stuff that interested me. I hadn't any interest in constructing a narrative about my own life, and I don't like confessional songs for the most part. Plus the language of pop music is very conducive to metaphorical use. In the age of anomie, the `girl' in the love song, unrequited love, or lost love can stand for other losses, greater longings.
"I remember working with [Elvis] Costello and I was troubled sometimes by how much his lyrics drew attention to themselves by the fact they were clever. If in doubt, I opt for stupid. I write lots of lyrics, and end up throwing away anything that sounds too clever." Nevertheless, "The Word Girl" and "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" were Top 10 hits, pop about pop, that seduced you with their plush sonic arrangements. Because, above all else, what Green clearly understands is that the pleasure of pop is in the artifice of innocence.
So when I ask him about the cover of "Wood Beez", with its image of beeswax, felt and copper, an unusual nod to Joseph Beuys, he has no interest in the ideology; the meaning of this icon of post-war Germany. "I was in Germany and there was a Beuys exhibition. But my interest in Beuys is purely as a decorative artist. The German journalist I was talking to said `No! It is his ideas, his ideas about art and democracy'. I've no idea what he was on about and I don't actually find that very interesting. I like the look of his handwriting. I bought a big print of one of his scribbled notes."
It's no accident that Gartside chose Beuys handwritten note. He perceives the visual expression of the purely personal, handwriting, as something aesthetic. It's this same impulse that gives the Scritti sound its unique quality. If the voice is the signature of individuality in pop, Gartside delivers up a perfect simulation of his own voice.
An ex-producer told me of Gartside's temporary obsession with Michael Jackson's vocals, its yelp, his almost schizophrenic glossolalia, and the hours in the studio that Green would spend trying to create the authentic, "spontaneous" vocal inflection. Though denying anything like an obsession, Gartside admits to his fascination. "It would have been something about this noise, this energy. Have you read much Kristeva? Do you remember the thetic drives that you see in a baby, this excessive animation. Jackson definitely affected the way I sing, but not in any practised way. There is a certain kind of faux-naif quality to it. It's a little bit a voice of innocence. It's somebody else doing that. I'll step aside and let somebody else have a go. Whoever that person is, and wherever they are, it's a nice place. I occasionally go there."
In pop, the voice is normally an index of "soul", of authentic "expression". In Gartside's case, as he sings on "Wood Beez", his voice is the "gift of schizo". The difference between innocence and artifice is the motor of Scritti's work.
Few people get to choose their own name and so even the name "Green" is in effect a work, an expression of an individual choice, despite his desire to see it as innocent and random. When Derrida invited him to Paris, he tackled the Frenchman over this notion of the spontaneous and unmediated expression. "I went to the Beaubourg to have dinner with him. I think his students had played him the `Derrida' single when it first came out and he'd been intrigued by it ever since. He claimed to have kept up with any press about me.
"I didn't acquit myself at all well. We were talking about music and I asked him why he had never written a book about music expressly, and he said that is the most difficult thing. In a sort of slippery Derridean way, he said something to the effect that his books aspire to the condition of musicality, that's the loftiest aim he had. Then he said how much he liked jazz. I had a little go at him. I had used his arguments against jazz in the past in relation to ideas of spontaneity, improvisation and unmediated expression."
Given that the "rap" form is heavily coded as the contemporary form of unmediated authentic expression - "up from the street" - it seems odd that he's working with Mos Def, M'Shell Ndegeocello and Lee Majors on Anomie and Bonhomie. But in fact there's nothing more machinic than good rap when it's driven by its lyrical and rhyming engine. And in a way, it's a perfect illustration of the artifice of spontaneity. Anomie and Bonhomie is his best work yet. The album's textures and colours sound like bathing in ecstasy. Recorded in LA, tracks such as "Tinseltown To The Boogiedown" and "Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder" have a West- coast ease mixed with open-topped post-ideological tristesse. In two words, anomie and bonhomie.
`Tinseltown' is released Monday; `Anomie and Bonhomie' on 26 July
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