Kevin Ayers, dressed for success

Thanks for nothing, Internet — you only just told me that Kevin Ayers died, more than a month after the fact. What do I keep you around for, anyway?

Although maybe in a way that’s appropriate; I’m no expert on Ayers’ life and work, but I am under the impression that he was a super-talented guy who could have been a colossal star if he wanted, but just didn’t care to work that hard. He co-founded Soft Machine back in the late 60s, but when they started to get big and it became sort of a job, he took off for a solo career. His orbit intersected with those of people like Syd Barrett, Brian Eno, and, famously, John Cale — according to rock legend, the “bugger in the short sleeves” who “fucked my wife” in Cale’s song “Guts” was none other than Kevin Ayers — but he never quite became a household name.

Even so, he managed to make quite a few albums; I highly recommend The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories if you’re looking for a place to start. But even more than Ayers’ music, I am interested in his life, because he seems to have been a true hedonist. As one with tendencies in that direction, I have always wondered how things might work out for someone with the means and the inclination to pursue full-bore hedonism as a way of life.

The results, unfortunately, are about as I might have guessed: It is not very sound as a long-term strategy. Ayers’ early years seem to have been quite enjoyable, his later years not so much. His last album, 2007’s The Unfairground, is a pretty bleak affair, filled with lovely, well-arranged, and very sad songs about how life has gone wrong. For example, take these lines from “Brainstorm”:

You’ve just reached the part
where you’re losing your heart
and your spirit is leaving you fast
and then the storm blows a scream
and it crashes your dream
like a fist through a curtain of glass
and there’s a giant of darkness
surrounds you with fright
and the only way out
is to stand up and fight
and so you shout, scream
give me back my dream
I need one to get through the day
if its lost and if its gone
i wont keep hanging on
and the storm can just blow me away

Or these from “Heaven Knows”:

What do you do, when it’s all behind you
Every day, someone else reminds you
When times were sweet.
Wings on your feet, and bells on your toes
Ahh, only heaven knows….

What do you do when you’ve lost the feeling
Nowhere to go, you’ve reached the ceiling
Right behind the floor, no window, no door,
Yeah, everything’s closed
Oh, only heaven knows.

I find it interesting that none of the Ayers obits I read mentioned this; they all hail The Unfairground as a late-career renaissance without seeming to notice what a downer it is. Maybe people really don’t listen to the words?

I am tempted to compare and contrast Kevin Ayers with Rodriguez, who is also much written about lately for different reasons. They were contemporaries and shared a distaste for the limelight; but while Ayers lived a dissipated life of wine, women, and heroin in the Mediterranean, Rodriguez was working construction in Detroit. One is gone now while the other is just peaking.

But I fear this comparison would take on a moral dimension that’s not really what I intend. Kevin Ayers lived the life he chose, as do we all; I hope he found some kind of peace at the end of it all. Let’s end on a positive note with this lovely rendition of “Shouting in a Bucket Blues.” (Note Kevin’s resemblance to David St. Hubbins here. Or ignore it. Your choice.)