Thanks to guest contributor Richard Derrick for this fine memorial of English guitarist Kevin Ayers, a veteran of such magnificent groups as Soft machine and Gong, who passed away on February 18.
The 1990s saw several “Canterbury Scene” musicians finally make their way to America, thanks to the efforts of Rick Chafen of Kansas City, a fan and friend of many of these artists. In a pre-Internet world, this meant huge phone bills from months of calling promoters around the US and musicians in Europe. Rick helped plant the seed, and for that we Canterbury fans in America owe him a debt of gratitude.
I got involved with Rick’s network, and I produced Kevin Ayers’ two Los Angeles concerts in 1993. The first of these was February 19, twenty years (minus one day) before Kevin passed away in bed at his home in Montolieu, France. He had just released Still Life With Guitar, a year earlier, to virtually no fanfare. It was his true musical “return to form” after Rainbow Takeaway in 1978. Contributions by Danny Thompson (who played bass throughout), Ollie Halsall and Mike Oldfield, with Kevin back in the producer’s chair, add to a fine selection that truly stands among his best work. Longtime fans who don’t seek this out do themselves a disservice.
When I brought Kevin back to the US in 1998 and 2000, we tried something different. There were only two shows each time, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and local musicians would rehearse with him to provide backup at the concerts. Spread out over two weeks, they weren’t so much tours as they were working holidays, a pace he much preferred.
The shows themselves were genuine Events – now, with the Internet on our side, the word got out, and I met people from as far as Holland who flew in just for the show. Kevin was surprised to find his music still had an audience, and he was gratified at the enthusiasm. The 2000 shows featured Gong as headliners, the only times they shared a bill in the US.
In 1994 Kevin had begun playing and touring with The Wizards Of Twiddly, but after a year he was in one of his semi-retirement periods, so it was always possible that his usual end-of-concert announcement of “This is the last song… ever!” might finally come true. Kevin may not have been the type of musician who needed the stage, by which I mean the drug of public adulation, but then the “look at me” mentality doesn’t tend to produce songs such as “Red Green And You Blue” very often.
Kevin told me in 1998 that he pretty much ran out of songs after Still Life With Guitar – before that, actually: as a ten-song album lasting under 35 minutes, it contained a rare non-original song plus two resurrected older songs. He said this with no sound of regret, just the opposite. I don’t remember his exact words fifteen years later, but it was something like this:
When you’re young and you have these life experiences, it’s exciting, and you naturally want to commemorate it in a song, or at least use it as inspiration somehow. The experiences are new, and is so your creative journey. (Having the Harvest and Island labels, along with their engineers, musicians and studios, on call, must have come in handy. Kevin also happening to be one of the greatest record producers of all time certainly didn’t hurt matters.) But after enough time passes, you’ve proven you can write a song, so just relax and enjoy the moment in life. You don’t have to write about everything.
Perhaps these US shows got him to thinking about songs again…? Well, something did, because in 2007 Kevin released his next and final album, The Unfairground, The last thing you hear, a few seconds after the final track ends, is Kevin quietly saying: “End.” It was obvious he was referring to the take, but by this point it was obviously something else as well.
In 2008 we had talked about doing another US mini-tour, this time adding Chicago and New York, possibly hooking back up with NY-based Ladybug Transistor, who appear on The Unfairground. Another extended working holiday. He seemed enthusiastic, but it never quite reached the planning stages, as the subsequent appearance of a heavy tour itinerary in Europe resulted in Kevin calling everything off, this time for good. By this point his health was beginning to decline, whether the world knew or not, and it was his time to rest. It was only fair.
Kevin waited fifteen years to release something that he felt was worth the world’s time, and his final two albums make a truly dignified end to a distinguished body of work whose stature can only grow over time. He once told me that he hopes his music could be his way to help make a world a nicer place. He certainly has my vote.
These two clips are from the final night of his second solo US tour in 1993, December 4 at Thai Bistro on La Brea near Wilshire. Sometimes he preferred to play with the lights turned down. Sometimes he wanted them all the way off. Joining him on Lady Rachel is Paul Roessler, who first learned the song minutes before he played it. Kevin saw the end of Paul’s opening set, and invited him to play based on that. “I Don’t Depend On You” appears on Kevin’s 2004 release Alive In California. Thanks to Jo Ann Lee for hosting, Brad Knox for videotaping, and Kevin for everything.