Jukebox Jury: Edwyn Collins

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 03.30.11 in Jukebox Juries

Losing Sleep

Edwyn Collins

On Feb. 20, 2005, after two days of intermittent headaches and nausea, Edwyn Collins collapsed at his home in London, felled by a pair of cerebral hemorrhages that rendered him comatose and — for a few brief moments — inches from death. Shortly after the operation that saved his life, he suffered an infection, forcing his doctors first to remove and then, when the infection had dissipated, to reinstate a titanium plate in his skull. The multiple, back-to-back traumas left him immobile, mentally detached and virtually mute.

And then, over the course of the next three years Collins — aided by the ceaseless care and unflagging belief of wife and manager Grace Maxwell — began the arduous process of reconstructing his entire life. His vocabulary, for six straight months, was made up of just three expressions — “Yes,” “No,” and — in a development that was as heartbreaking as it was hopeful — “the possibilities are endless.” Little by little, they worked together to, as Collins puts it, “resurrect” him. Eventually, Collins was able not just to speak, but to sing, strong enough and well enough to complete an entire record (with the help of members of the Cribs, the Drums and Franz Ferdinand) and embark on a brief 2011 tour. The possibilities are endless, indeed.

The most touching thing about interviewing Collins and Maxwell — since the incident, they do interviews in tandem — is watching the two of them interact. When they first arrive she volunteers to wait outside, but he implores her sweetly to stay. Throughout the conversation, they finish each other’s thoughts, disappearing into old stories and reminiscing about favorite songs. She teases him about the amount of recording equipment he’s acquired (“We’re going to need a planet to hold it all”) and gently helps fill in the gaps in his memory. It’s easy to sense in her both the steely resolve and the intense passion for life that helped to power Collins’s miraculous recovery. A quiet, touching scene from a 2008 BBC documentary about Collins perfectly summarizes the tenderly dependent nature of their relationship. After the hemorrhages, Collins’s right hand clamped into a permanent fist — making it impossible for him to ever play guitar again. In the film, Grace sits next to him, picks up his guitar and gently strums while Collins fingers the fretboard with his left hand — the two of them finding a way to work around another roadblock together to bring back just a bit more normalcy and a bit more joy.

The once playfully cantankerous Collins has softened some — he’s no longer the proud outsider casting a jaundiced eye at the pop industry (although when asked about his opinion of the Smiths, he can’t resist tossing a mild dart: “Johnny is a sweet, lovely guy, but Morrissey’s a bit of an idiot.”) Mostly, he radiates a true, palpable happiness. He’s made peace with his legacy, too, liberally sprinkling his recent sets with Orange Juice chestnuts like “Consolation Prize,” “Dying Day” and the rough-and-tumble “Blue Boy.”

“In my opinion, they’re classics,” he blithely says when I ask about them. “I wrote them 30 years ago — it’s amazing to me that I’m still here. Thirty years ago I was camp, wasn’t I? Not anymore — I’m grown-up. And thank God.”

Because Collins’s music is so proudly informed by the music of others — both in construction and in lyrical content — it only made sense to sit down with him and play him some of the songs he’s referenced. And so, in an impossibly swank, mahogany-and-oak paneled recording studio at the offices of Collins’s U.S. label, Downtown, on a stereo system nicer than either of us are ever likely to own, I played Collins some of his favorite songs and asked him to share his experiences with them.

The Buzzcocks, “Boredom”

Edwyn Collins: “Boredom!”

J. Edward Keyes: So, I had to play this one because of the lyric in “Rip It Up,” where you sing “My favorite song’s entitled ‘Boredom.’” What is it about this song that you like so much?

EC: Well, I was young, of course, and I liked the sound and the energy. “Boredom” is a classic to me, and it’s a good song — a punk song, and an exciting song, too.

Grace Maxwell: The Buzzcocks were one of your favorites. Edwyn was such a fussy punk!

JEK: Yeah, I read that you preferred them to the Clash and the Sex Pistols — why was that?

EC: I don’t know! Hailing from Manchester, I liked the excitement and the energy. In Manchester, Orange Juice was very popular. It was a rough place, but I liked the atmosphere. Nowadays, of course, Manchester is —

GM: — trendy. I remember you saying that your inspiration in forming Postcard records was [the Buzzcocks'] Spiral Scratch EP because of what it said on the back — it gave you a breakdown of what it would cost you to make a record, and what you would need to do it.

EC: When I was a teenager in Edinburgh, I got to see the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, the Jam, the Subway Sect and the Slits — all on the same bill.

GM [affectionately]: Scenester Johnny over here.

EC: I was 17, and I helped them load in.

JEK: You just hung around the door and helped them load in? That’s really punk rock! They wouldn’t let you get within two feet of them today.

GM: You could do that then, you could just wait at the stage door because people loaded their own gear back then.

EC: “Help me with the gear, lad,” said John [Lydon]. The Buzzcocks were the best that night.

JEK: Live, the Slits were notoriously very messy…

EC: But I like messy! Back in the day, I bought a Burns Nu-Sonic [guitar]. I couldn’t play back in the day, and also the Slits couldn’t play at all.

GM [emphatically]: Not at all! Subway Sect couldn’t play either. And I mean they —

GM and EC [in unison]: — couldn’t play!

EC: But the Buzzcocks could play and the Clash could play…

JEK: So over the course of a whole night it would balance out.

EC: Yes! But I liked that.

GM: He saw them and said, “Oh, you can be in a band and not know how to play!”

The Velvet Underground, “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together”

EC [starts singing along immediately]: This is Live 69, yeah?

JEK: It is. I read somewhere that you used to have this record on endless repeat at your apartment in Glasgow.

EC: Yes! It’s perfect. I like Lou Reed — it’s exciting to me. “Waiting for the Man” is a classic, “Pale Blue Eyes” is a classic also. “Rock & Roll” — ohh, what can I say? “Rock & Roll” is it to me.

GM: You were in Dundee then. This music was very exotic — there weren’t many people in Dundee who knew who the Velvet Underground were.

EC: I bought the the Velvet Underground — I was…13? [checks with Grace]. When I moved to Glasgow and met [future Orange Juice members Steve Daly and James Kirk] I asked them “Do you like the Velvet Underground?” And Steve said, “I prefer Patti Smith.”

GM: This is where you found common ground.

EC: I was wearing a Buddy Holly button, with a black & white picture of his face on it. And Steve saw me on the bus and thought, “Interesting guy!”

GM: And then you started talking about New York bands, like the New York Dolls and Television.

JEK: Do you think you learned anything from Lou as a songwriter?

EC: No, but I ripped off Iggy Pop, kind of, with “A Girl Like You.” My vocals are like Iggy Pop, I must admit.

JEK: My favorite line in that song is “Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs” — it seems to come out of nowhere.

EC: Well, I’d done a b-side called “Too Many Protest Singers,” and it wasn’t a very good song. But I thought, “What would happen if I rescue that one good lyric?”

GM: Edwyn’s got a messy brain and a messy life, but in fact he is on top of his muddle. I’d find piles of lyric books… Some songs came all of a piece, but some you could see he took one thought here, then he had another thought 4 years later and realized “I can put this with that…”

EC: Yes! And they make a song together.

Chic, “Dance Dance Dance”

EC: Chic! [mimics] “Yowza Yowza Yowza!” This is a good song.

JEK: You’re nailing these within seconds.

GM: Edwyn keeps saying, “Oh my brain, it’s not working properly.” Yeah, right!

EC: This was almost as important to me as the punk stuff. I was 17 years of age and I remember dancing to Chic.

GM: You’d have liked to see that — he was a disco boy!

JEK: Punk and disco are supposed to be like oil and water.

GM: No, Edwyn liked it!

EC: Punk music and reggae music combined, you see, but I was into disco. There’s good construction to these songs, the same as “A Girl Like You,” the same as folk music.

GM: You like syncopated music, too — you’re a massive Northern Soul fan. You like going out dancing.

EC [shyly]: I try my best to dance.

GM: You’re a good dancer!

JEK: Did you have proper disco clothes?

GM [cracks up]: He did!

EC: I had bags.

JEK: What are bags?

GM: They’re jeans, but they flare at the bottom, and they have buttons up the side. They were quite high-waisted things. You looked like Johnny from the Drums, basically!

Josef K, “Crazy to Exist”

EC: Oh! Josef K. Paul Haig, Malcolm Ross. I like the one, [sings] “It’s kind of funny…”

GM: They were always the stone-faced, serious band. I remember in 1980, all the bands were coming back from a Postcard showcase and needed a place to sleep, and Alan [Horne, Postcard co-founder] asked me, “How many of us can you fit in your house?” and I said, “As many as you need, it doesn’t matter,” and he goes, “Well, we can stand Josef K up in the darkroom…” I think you hear the influence of Josef K on quite a lot of bands, that very frenetic guitar with the serious vocals.

JEK: I’m fascinated by the whole Postcard Records history. Rough Trade was a bit of a movement, but at the same time, it was London, a big city. Postcard is more amazing to me because Glasgow was so much tinier — were you the coolest guys in town?

EC: Well, I was shy then, but arrogant at the same time.

JEK: An arrogant shyness.

EC: Correct! I was not very confident back then. And I was trying to find a sound to mark my territory.

JEK: Alan wasn’t very shy.

EC: No. He was arrogant. [Pauses] Grace is not happy with me…

GM: …because he won’t speak to Alan anymore.

EC: He’s always a mean guy.

GM: Alan bullied everybody, but Alan has his own insecurities to deal with. But somehow, Edwyn and Alan together complemented each other. They could go out as a united force and were sort of unstoppable. They were completely overwhelming. [To Edwyn] You gave Alan a conscience that he didn’t have, and he felt like he was operating at the top of his game and had an intellectual sparring partner. Steven, too. All they did was sit around and try to come up with the best put-down.

EC [chuckles]: That’s true.

JEK: Have you guys gotten to see Steven since you’ve been back in New York?

EC: Yeah, he came to the gig the other night!

JEK: It’s time for a full Orange Juice reunion.

EC [firmly]: No. It won’t happen. David is in Australia, James is in Glasgow and Steven is here.

Nirvana, “In Bloom”

EC [puzzled]: Nirvana?

JEK: So, I have a pet theory that “The Campaign for Real Rock” is, in part, about Kurt Cobain. Am I right?

EC: No. It’s about Sisters of Mercy. That line, “In a frock coat from Saville Row…”

GM: But it was a little bit about grunge. Edwyn liked Nirvana, he just didn’t like what came after them.

EC: “Campaign for Real Rock.” I was angry.

GM: It took an awful long time to write, too. I have the lyrics to that in several different forms — he labored over those lyrics: “They’re wondering why we can’t connect/ with the ritual of the smashed guitar/ one more paltry, empty gesture/ the ashes of a burned-out star…”

JEK: “The rotting carcass of July — your gorgeous hippie dreams have died!”

EC [cracks up]

GM: My sister, when she’s had a few drinks, she always goes, “That’s it — time to put on ‘The Campaign.’”

JEK: I must have listened to that song a thousand times.

EC: It’s complicated lyrics, though, I can’t remember them.

GM: One of my great ambitions for Edwyn is that he’s gonna re-learn “The Campaign.”

EC [dryly]: Oh, am I?

GM: You know how I am when I set my mind to these things! You’d love it, if you had a go at that one.

EC [hesitantly]: No, it’s too tough.

GM: You were angry at the time you wrote this, weren’t you? I like the idea that people would hear “A Girl Like You” on the radio and go, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna buy that guy’s record,” and they get it home and put it on and the very first song is “The Campaign for Real Rock”! [laughs] “What the fuck is this?!”

EC [laughs hard]

JEK: I told a friend I was going to see your show and she asked, genuinely, if you’d play “A Girl Like You,” because one of the things Kurt Cobain — and the ’90s in general — instilled, is that you should never, ever play the hit. You never give the audience what they want.

EC [defiantly]: Well, I do.

GM: Give the damn audience the hit, for God’s sake! There’s nothing worse than a precious, middle-aged rock star.