Stewart Lee to Howe Gelb

From: Stewart Lee, Derby, Cambridge, Rochester, Canterbury, York, Newcastle, Salford, Wells, Coopers Hill, Gloucester, Malvern, Worcester, Rollright, Stoke Newington, Bungay, Kings Lynn, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Rochester, Tunbridge Wells, Basingstoke, Soho, Buxton.

To: Howe Gelb

May 12th – June 15th 2017

Dear Howe

I tried to explain what this is about in an email, but you and I are now in at the ground floor of a project that may only make sense to those that come after us, where it will be viewed in archived on-line form. It is an art project that, like the Welsh progressive rock band Man, is expected to out-live all those who initiated it.

The musician and artist Jem Finer, besides the odd hit single as a member of The Pogues, has made a number of installations concerned with time and eternity. He seems to be trying to initiate an endless chain letter, with each installment being uploaded to a website.

At the start of this year, a letter was sent by the writer Iain Sinclair to the writer Alan Moore, asking him questions intended to provoke a discussion, but Alan has not replied to Iain, sending the thoughts Iain’s letter inspired in him on to me instead. That’s what Jem wants the participants to do. Answer the ideas in the letter they received, but in a letter to someone else.

(Alan and Iain and I had all worked together briefly in the experimental filmmaker Andrew Kötting’s 2012 film Swandown, in which Alan and I helped to pedal a giant ocean-going model of a swan from the sea inland to the site of the London Olympics.

Iain, I recently discovered, was somehow commissioned, as an experimental film maker, in the late 60s, to sit in the garden of his Hackney squat, read all Robert E Howard’s Conan books, and write a treatment for a rich movie producer of a proposed Conan movie, his nearest brush with the mainstream. He maintains he forgot all about this script, which soon went into development limbo, until seeing Arnie’s 1982 Conan movie on TV sometime in the 90s and thinking that it appeared some of his initial draft had made it through to the final version.

I tried to press Iain on this by email, but I don’t know him well and I think he thought I was trying to take the piss. Iain Sinclair’s Conan The Barbarian. How can I explain the weirdness of this notion in cross-cultural terms to an American. It would be like Delmore Schwartz’ Paddington Bear. All I was able to ascertain was that Iain wasn’t responsible for the brilliant line, explaining that Conan sees the best thing in life is “to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”)

I asked Jem if I could forward the chain letter on to you, and he agreed, and now I am supposed to send you vague discussion points inspired by Alan’s letter. And then you can do the same onto someone else.

You will have to do this fast, I am afraid. As I have messed up the start of all this badly. The first letter – Iain’s to Alan – gets put on-line in late June. Alan wrote to me as long ago as February, but did it old school analogue actual letter style, as he views the internet as ‘an ocean of unwanted information’, and it went to the wrong address so I didn’t pick it up for a couple of months. If you knew Alan you would be surprised he stooped even to the level of post, that modern newfangled mail delivery service. You would expect him to have his letters carried in the beak of an owl.

Anyway, then I took Alan’s letter of on this 18 month on/off stand-up tour with me. I am not making excuses but I have been holding together my weekly writing commitments from hotel room laptops, being dad when I am back, and then having to do ongoing rewrites of a stand-up show I thought I had signed off on, as world and national events, both major and trivial, render existing sections of it either irrelevant or trite.

It is always awful when people try and put themselves near the centre of an event, but I had four shows in Salford in the week of the Manchester Arena bomb and communicating with the venue, which wanted to open the next day as normal, as to what was the appropriate response, and the euphoric atmosphere in the subsequent gigs from people who had chosen defiantly to come out, was the sort of thing that made you think performance had some kind of actual useful social function.

What swung it for me in the end was Stiff Little Fingers, Northern Irish Punk veterans, playing Paris the night after the Bataclan bomb, because as kids growing up in Belfast they were disappointed when their combat rocking idols The Clash didn’t show after a terrorist bomb. I went to see SLF last year. There is something heroic about them.

However, now I am in a hotel room in the peak district town of Buxton. I am performing 2 nights at The Opera House, designed in 1903 by the acoustic-architectural genius Frank Matcham, and where, ten years ago or thereabouts, the actual technical crew went on Twitter after my show to say in public how much they hated my act.

So, I am reset to my normal cynicism. The room four doors down from me here in The Old Hall Hotel is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots. This room is haunted by two complementary packs of Ginger Dunker biscuits, yesterday’s underwear, and a damp towel.

Anyway, this letter isn’t like an interview. You don’t have to write answers to individual questions. You just take whatever you like from this letter, and build on that, or not, in a letter to someone else. It doesn’t have to be as long as this. Somehow I woke up today ready to do this, maybe because I had a drink last night with the brilliant novelist Dan Rhodes, who is now a post-man here in the Peak District, and with whom I used to trade bootlegs of you before I ever met him. (When I say post-man I mean he delivers mail. Dan is not post-man like post-punk.)

Fruit Child Large at the Mean Fiddler in 1991 was the first one he sent me, a gig we were both at without knowing each other. Remember that ad-hoc touring band of yours? This is more relevant to later bits of this letter, but what was the reason for going on the road under a name no-one would recognise, when the individuals in the band – Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, y’slef – were all major indie-league draws at that stage?

Jem started this chain out with the idea it should say something about time, so maybe hold onto that notion if you can. It’s already even more about time than anyone expected as my part of the chain has taken two months longer than it should to get moving.

Howe, I have been a fan of yours since hearing Artists, from the first Giant Sand album, on the John Peel show late at night in 1985, when I was 16 or so; I’ve seen you live once or twice a year, most years, since 1989; and I have – what – sixty or so of your albums. I lose track, as I am sure do you.

Your approach to the working process has solved all sorts of creative problems for me for decades now, – sudden sideways lurches in direction, art dictated by economics, process that embraces chance and willfully orchestrated chaos, self-aware self-sabotage as a means to discovering new approaches (please confirm or deny these suggestions) so to me you’re already all about time, as I feel the Giant Sand idea is always with me on some level.

Alan Moore developed in his letter on Iain Sinclair’s thoughts about ‘long term’ art, and I put it to you that, consciously or not, you have been developing a long term project, that mutates to fit the times. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, despite being burdened with they tag ‘Godfather of Alt Country’, you were developing a secondary strain as a kind of Theolonius Monk figure, via strange low-key solo piano performances and limited edition self-released, and unpublicised, solo piano cds, of which there seemed to be an endless supply.

Indeed, the first time I interviewed you (in Feb 1990, for a fanzine, backstage at Acklam Hall in Ladbroke Grove, which you and giant Mark Walton endured with great patience) you said musical influences were a ‘smorgasboard’ from which there were three main food groups – Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, and Theolonius Monk. Of course, at the time, the latter made no sense to me. We lived in a jazz-ignorant era.

(As a teenager my brother-in-law Jim heard a Theolonius Monk record on the radio and loved it and wanted to track the artists down, in those pre-internet days, when what was done was gone and couldn’t be played back and checked. He never managed to locate the record, but that was because he had spend the next 15 years looking for something by an artist he imagined was called The Loneliest Monk.

I imagine this chance mishearing probably appeals to you. There’s a truth in it. When Theolonius Monk plays he really does sound like the loneliest of all monks.

My eyes are going. I went past a sign last week that said WE APOLOGISE FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE which I immediately misread as WEAPONISE ANY INCONVENINCE. I think this is sort of what we have to do. Take a problem, a blockage, a creative obstruction, and make it into a strength. I think WEAPONOSE ANY INCONVENIENCE may yet be the title of my unwritten self help manual.)

Anyway, it’s clear to me now that those apparently obtuse jazz experimentations were in fact a process of you learning in public towards a future persona.

The first time I saw you you were shirtless and fronting a sweaty country-noise band, undignified behavior for an older man now though.

And last time I saw you you were a suited and hated troubadour at the piano, fronting a sultry jazz outfit in a beatnik dive, still shot through with the spirit of the old work, but in a new and dignified persona; all those hesitant piano solo albums and out there improvisations (remember opening for Willard Grant Conspiracy at The Bloomsbury Theatre, 10 years back, solo piano-ing out to a crowd that had come to see tasteful roots rocking?) were working towards the fruition of a plan, the end point of which was projected further into the future than most musician’s careers last.

Clint Eastwood optioned the 1976 (!) script of Unforgiven in 1985, when FF Coppola’s option expired, but wanted to wait until he was old enough to play the lead. (Have you ever seen Yurusarezaru Mono, the 2013 Japanese samurai remake?) I put it to you that in holding off on releasing Future Standards until 2016, you were, like Clint, another jazz cowboy, playing a LOOOOONG game.

It’s also a strategy about identity that I think I responded to when Alan described a similar idea in his letter. He said his partner Melinda Gebbie told him the person he was ‘when writing an introduction to William Hope Hodgson’s The House On The Borderland (is) different to (his) everyday persona as someone who is continually worshipping a snake and being angry about Batman’.

He continued, “She said my persona when I am writing introductions is wearing an Edwardian smoking-jacket and puffing smugly on a Meerschaum, and I’m inclined to take her word for it. I know that my recent infatuation David Foster Wallace also felt that the persona he adopted for many of his essays and the various fictionalized versions of David Foster Wallace that appear in his novels and short stories were different to him-in-himself. I wondered how you, and also how The Comedian Stewart Lee, felt about this?”

Do you remember, somehow, in 1999, we ended up emailing each other. You had been dropped by Virgin’s V2 offshoot, I think, and were wondering whether to quit altogether, or to try and buy back an unreleased album you had recorded for them. I had been dropped by the BBC (from a show I now realise probably wasn’t really what I should have been doing anyway), split up with my fiancée, and was living in an office in an office rental building, but the owners didn’t know. (I have always been an outlaw). I think we both realised we had to be in for the long haul, but had to recalibrate our expectations of what this meant, and how were going to make it work. Or I might be back-projecting.

It seems to me that part of not giving up, of being able to hang in for the long hall, requires an artist to develop personas, so some other guy is taking the hit, or so that you have a collaborator who comes up with ideas you wouldn’t, even if that collaborator is really you as well.

When I write supposedly funny newspaper columns for the highbrow liberal broadsheet The Observer, I write them like a man who feels he doesn’t deserve the high-profile writing gig he has got, and is desperately trying to impress people with long words and clever concepts.

When I write stand-up I always, on some level, write and perform it like an arrogant, paranoid drunk, which is what I was for most of the ‘90s when I really got going as a stand-up. So there was a point in all those wasted years after all. They gave me this bulletproof character I can put on like a suit.

And these last ten years or so, there is this other person, that appears next to me when I am on stage, whispering suggestions in my ear that will actually sabotage the act of the comedian Stewart Lee, whom this other persona seems to hate, or at least wants to drive on to work harder by creating obstacles for him.

I can’t cover all the bases alone. And I am vulnerable. If the comedian Stewart Lee dies on stage, however, he is arrogant enough to assume it is the audience’s fault.

I assume you get this. You made country rock records as Blackie Ranchette. The shirt-off rock-god Giant Sand Howe Gelb wasn’t the same as the peyote mystic fronting that deep-blue free-floating immersive slow-mo Giant Sant that played at ATP off the back of the 2015 Heartbreak Pass album. And who is the jazz troubadour who, brilliantly, named his album Future Standards, is creating a magic charm that would ensure its immortality?

Also, who are you? You are associated in the public mind with a version of South Western identity, on some level, of a perception of a certain kind of desert (I am sorry) landscape that informs a certain kind of sound. Any yet your own genetic heritage is complex.

(So is mine, I discover, as my real relations unravel. Irish, English, Scottish, Indian… and the cultural association of the indigenous people of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the Sami, recently suggested I take a DNA test as they recognised me, facially, as one of ther own.)

All I am saying is I don’t think I could have carried on this long of it was just me doing the work. I needed these other guys to shoulder the burden.

Alan wrote – “You don’t have to be a writer or a performer to present yourself differently according to who you are presenting yourself to, and in what role. We don’t talk to our parents the way we talk to our sexual partners, and we don’t talk to our sexual partners the way we do to our houseplants. The upshot of all this is that human identity is probably consciously and unconsciously constructed, and that for this reason its default position is shifting and fluid. What I am saying is, we may be normal.”

Alan and Iain are both interested in the identities of places too, I suppose, how cities, for example, take on different personas as time washes over them.

I wonder if it is time to leave London. I came here three decades ago to be a kind of person that no longer exists, working in places that no longer exist, in parts of town that have changed beyond all recognition.

In the late 80s the places that housed the Alternative Comedy Clubs were in the bad parts of town, seedy bars in docklands or wharfs, industrialized claw-backs inhabited by arty types along the banks of canals. Now those places are all gentrified, but I am still performing in those postcodes, its just now they house shiny arts centres and theatres.

The Mean Fiddler is gone. The Astoria is gone. The Pied Bull Powerhaus is gone. Most of my generation of would-bes have been priced out and gone to Bristol and Whistable and so-on. So maybe we need to leave the city because it’s no longer somewhere we recognise. A fire in a West London tower block yesterday seems to suggest a deliberate policy of neglect of building maintenance aimed, perhaps unconsciously, at economically cleansing a now desirable area, to make way for multi-million pound developments that can be bought unseen by foreign billionaires wanting to use this former punk rock cultural powerhouse as a dormitory for their stolen savings.

The place that made me is gone. Why am I hanging around observing its death throes, and complainging that is isn’;t what it was. And the air! Boris Johnson, former mayor, sat on pollution reports and now somedays my daughter’s school say the kids can’t go out to play because outside is 3 times over EU pollution limits.

Alan also maintains that we carry the past with us, and make out predecessors immortal in a way. He put it to me, and I quote it only to goad you into wondering if something similar could be said of you, “I know you are an admiring observer of the comedians of the past, and wondered what you thought of the idea that when you are appreciating these past masters you are almost deliberately appropriating part of their consciousness, or at least your imperfect idea of it. This makes us all fluctuating composites, feeding into and out of each other, and perhaps suggests a long-term possibility that goes beyond our mortal lifespan or status as individuals. If this were the case, if identitiy were a fluid commodity and we all flowed in and out of each other, than you’d have to see somebody like John Clare* as an instance where the levees had been overwhelmed and he was pretty much drowning in everybody.”

I’m not big on personal conversations, but it seems that you are carrying the sound of the late Rainer Ptacek forward in you. And others, I expect.

Iain seemed to have told Alan about William Burroughs’ idea of a ‘word-vine’, which I understand (wrongly perhaps) to be the idea that the writer isn’t writing as such, but directing the associations one word, or idea, have to the next. “For me,” writes Alan, “most of the ideas are generated by the act of writing itself. An average idea, if properly examined, may turn out to have strong neural threads of association or speculation that link it to an absolutely brilliant idea. I am sure you must have found this with routines; that a minor commonplace absurdity will open up logic gates on a string of increasingly funny ideas, like finding a nugget that leads to a small but profitable gold seam. I don’t think creative people have ideas like hens lay eggs, but more they arise by a probably complex and scarcely definable action from largely involuntary mental processes.”

How I understand what Alan is saying as it relates to me is…. The idea is one thing, but then I have to get up there, jam with it, smash it up, try and force it into spaces it doesn’t want to go into, and then the idea often ends up as something much better or different, and it ISN’T REALLY MUCH TO DO WITH ME. Time has done its work, like techtonic plates of rock shifting and crushing fossils down into oil.

I used to have an exciting life, full of chaos, and I was experiencing lots of feelings for the first time which made their was direct to the mic. Now I need to protect the identities of the people I am writing about, as I am higher profile, and I can’t kill myself emotionally night after night in the pursuit of an end product. I need processes to synthesise results.

I’ve watched you apply processes – chance, deliberate lack of preparation, alienating the room, charming the room, volume, inaudibility – to exisiting songs to see what shapes they come out as. Am I imagining this?

Some of your songs have lasted a whole career, and they change over the decades into different works because the approach of that years’ musicians, and the attitudes of that year’s Howe Gelb, alter them massively. So time is at work upon the original aretifact always. And who we are, listening to them, changes to, and puts a lens filter on them.

For the first five years of this century you seemed to be always recording and performing different versions of Blue Marble Girl, an haunting and extendable ambient jam whose perfect incarnation it seemed was always just out of reach. When I think about that song I get a form of synesthesia. It swamps me in the colours of Monet’s water lily paintings and I go under.

Did you play it at ATP in Wales last year? It feels like you did. Or if not then what I am remembering is the whole Giant Sand set had the sound-colour that I associate with Blue Marble Girl. I can’t hear it in my memory. I just feel this dark dark shining blue, the blue of Kind Of Blue, a sort of narcotic ecstasy that doesn’t have morality or meaning, just covering me.

I can’t really explain it, but the whole thing, not just Blue Marble Girl, feels like a song that took decades to get right. Or maybe what I mean is it took fifteen years, or thirty years, for me to get right with it. Most artist/audience relationships don’t last long enough to enjoy that luxury.

I’m sorry this has taken so long, this letter idea. It is my fault. What you do with it is up to you and I realise contributing to this process is a big demand. I will copy Jem onto this anyway. You don’t have to write 4000 words like me. I know it’s hot there. Who will you write to, I wonder.

I’m going to find some food now. Then I have another day in this hotel room. I have one big writing job to finish before the tour ends in July and I take the kids off – 10000 words on my relationship with Birmingham, a town I left in 1986, which I expect will be all about ideas of memory and nostalgia.

It has been great thinking about what Giant Sand’s music has meant to me for thirty years and about what I might have taken from it, and how those ideas and approaches relate to wider world.

Good luck and thanks for the memories.

I haven’t read this back. In the end it was, after weeks of worrying about how to do it, a real time composition, like Long Stem Rant (1989, Homestead Records).


(*John Clare. 19th c ‘peasant poet’ whose enduring poetic abilities exceeded what was expected of an uneducated working class farm laborer, torn eternally between literary London and the land, between the life of a writer and the need to feed his famly, and eventually consigned to an asylum, his madness defined by long periods of anonymous rural wandering.)

Stewart Lee was born in 1968 in Shropshire but grew up in Solihull. He started out on the stand-up comedy circuit in London in 1989, and started to work out whatever it was he was trying to do zoo after the turn of the century. He has written and performed four series of his own stand-up show on BBC2, had shows on at the Edinburgh fringe for 28 of the last 30 years, and has the last six of his full length stand-up shows out on DVD/download/whatever. He is the writer or co-writer of five theatre pieces and two art installations, a number of radio series, three books about comedy and a bad novel. He lives in Stoke Newington, North London with his wife, also a comedian, and two children. He was enrolled in the literary society The Friends of Arthur Machen by Alan Moore, and is a regular, if disguised, presence on London’s volunteer-fronted arts radio station Resonance 104.4 fm. His favourite comics book characters are Deathlok The Demolisher, Howard The Duck, Conan The Barbarian, Concrete and The Thing. His favourite bands/musicians are The Fall, Giant Sand, Dave Graney, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Shirley Collins. His favourite filmmakers are Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Andrew Kotting, Hal Hartley, and Akira Kurowsa. His favourite writers are Arthur Machen, William Blake, Ian Sinclair, Alan Moore, Stan Lee, Ray Bradbury, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Richard Brautigan, Geoff Dyer, Neil M Gunn, Francis Brett Young, and Eric Linklater and Robert E Howard.

Howe Gelb is an American singer-songwriter, musician and record producer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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