Ivor Cutler feature for Time Out, February 2004
He's been loved by everyone from John Lennon to Bertrand Russell.
He's been a hero to punks, hippies, prog-rockers and indie-kids.
He's the unlikeliest pop star you'll ever meet.
Time Out talks to Britain's greatest living eccentric, Ivor Cutler.
Interview by John Lewis, Photography by Rob Greig
‘You are the centre of your little world and I am of mine.
Now and then we meet for tea, we’re two of a kind
This is our universe, Cups of tea.
What do we talk of when we meet?
Nothing at all
You sit with a sandwich, me with a roll.
Sometimes I open my mouth.
Then shut it.
We have a beautiful cosmos, you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.
I’m in Ivor Cutler’s cheerfully ramshackle north London flat and I’m being treated to a very intimate performance. He’s whispering the lyrics, very quietly, in his delicate Glaswegian burr while playing a two-chord drone on his clunky, pedal-driven harmonium.The song is beautiful, and ridiculous, and funny, and slightly sad, and utterly trivial, and quite deep. And very catchy. It’s a perfect pop song, in fact. Listening to it reminds me of lots of things. The lyrics are somewhere between Spike Milligan and Alan Bennett; the mordant organ backing oddly reminiscent of Augustus Pablo’s melodica, or the ghostly harmonica on those Morricone soundtracks, or a qawwali harmonium, or the Mellotron on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.
The harmonium fades out to silence. He stops and looks at me. ‘Gosh, my voice sounded terrific, didn’t it?’ I smile, thank him and applaud. ‘Och, stop clapping!’ he insists, holding his hands over his ears. ‘You know that I don’t like the noise!’
Ivor Cutler doesn’t like noise. He always asks audiences not to laugh so hard at concerts. (‘No one is allowed to listen to Mr Cutler unless they remain very quiet.’) Mr Cutler, as he prefers to be addressed, is a militant member of the Noise Abatement Society, one who hates amplified music. All this despite having the kind of CV that most rock ‘n’ roll legends would sell their soul to the devil for. He was feted by Peter Cook. John Lennon cites him as an early influence, while Paul McCartney even enlisted him to play a character called Buster Bloodvessel in ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. He’s recorded albums for a string of ultra-hip labels, including Apple, Virgin, Rough Trade and Creation, and recorded dozens of sessions for the John Peel show.
Like many of his listeners, I first heard Ivor Cutler on one of these Peel sessions, probably sandwiched between Nurse With Wound and Throbbing Gristle. It was 20 years ago, I was 14, and I remember laughing so hard that I choked on my cocoa. I’ve been slightly obsessed ever since. But Ivor Cutler’s surreal verse and dank song-poems are not to everyone’s taste. Some are baffled, or even irritated, by his surrealist whimsy and his stage persona – unsmiling, irritable, slightly baffled by modernity. What’s even funnier is that Cutler constantly looks annoyed that the audience have the temerity to laugh at him.
‘Actually, I enjoy making people laugh,’ he says. ‘I’m good at it now. Thing is that they laugh, they relax, and that’s when this poison I’m using on them sneaks in.’ He giggles, the first of many manic, infectious, child-like giggles. ‘I noticed people at gigs coming up to me and saying “I didn’t know what the hell you were on about but I feel that I’ve been communicated with like I’ve never been before”.’ He sighs, dreamily. ‘And once you’ve had that, that’s the loveliest thing that I can do for society.’
Cutler taught for more than 30 years, in Paisley near Glasgow between 1950-51 and then to 7-11 year olds with the Inner London Education Authority before retiring in 1980. He was, from all accounts, a rather unorthodox teacher, one who valued spontaneity and the expression of the unconscious mind. He recalls a drawing class when a young boy drew a donkey with 12 legs (‘he said it just looked right: I wanted to hug him. Of course I didn’t – I’d have been locked up’). He’d read poetry standing on his head. His classes would dance as he played the piano, they’d be encouraged to improvise, they’d play African percussion, they’d make up poems. Although he says he’d ‘be happy to never see another child again’, he’s proud of the results.
‘I see music at the South Bank Centre foyer a lot – largely because it’s for nothing! – and one day there was a girl called Kate Williams playing piano with a jazz trio. She was brilliant. When she came for the bow, she saw me in the audience. And she was a little girl who I once taught! And she saw me and gave me a big hug and said, “if it hadn’t been for you, doing those wee classes during playtime, I would never have done a thing like this! You can see the tears are coming now,’ he says, wiping his eyes. ‘And there was another time I was going on my bicycle. A young woman said, “Hello Mr Cutler, I’m so and so. Remember that terrific song you taught us?” And she sang it to me. It was based on Norwegian Wood by the Beatles. “Oh give me a pin, please make it thin, to scratch my chin”. And at the end I’d sing “aah, that’s better!” But this wee girl, she sang me her filthy version, which was “oh give me a prick, please make it thick, to screw my chick – aah, that’s better”! And I was horrified. Can you imagine me teaching little kids?’ He giggles.‘But I’ve had enough of kids now. Which is a bit odd for me to say, because I’m just a big kid myself.’
His top-floor flat in Tufnell Park is testament to this. It looks like the kind of house that a small child would establish, devoid of any adult involvement. ‘Untidy’ doesn’t really do justice to this chaotic junkyard of surreal ephemera. Stuffed birds. A pile of pads containing expressionistic scribbles. Heaps of old newspapers. A bath full of books. The walls are plastered with a curious selection of posters: a Strathclyde metro map; a chart with the key characters from the Chinese alphabet; a guide to acupuncture. A washing line hangs across one wall, holding up assorted cartoons by him and his book illustrators, along with prints by his heroes Paul Klee and Joan Miro. The kitchen cupboards are plastered with labels from fruit – all meticulously colour coded. There are large portraits of Cutler taken throughout his career, including an old record cover which sees him wearing what looks like a mop on his head (‘I was once invited on to a nudist colony by someone. I was naked but for that wig for a few days’).
Cutler sees himself as a kind of medium, channelling unconscious ideas into art. ‘When I start writing poems I have no idea what I’m going to write. I just start and empty my brain. That the important part. Because, if you empty your brain and don’t seek any help from any other person, then you’re a poet.
‘When I was about 13 or something, I went to this piano teacher guy in Glasgow and said that I wanted to be able to play Bach. So he gave me some lessons. Not many, though. Good thing, actually, because the more you’re thinking about other people’s work, the less you are able to find your own voice.’
There is spiritual quest, although he’s dismissive of religion. Cutler’s parents were East European Jews who arrived in Scotland en route for the United States, but somehow got stuck in Glasgow. He lost his faith at the age of 13. ‘I asked the minister of this progressive Jewish thing “Do you know if there’s a god?” He said no. Probably he’d had a rotten night or something. And that was it, really. I don’t know, maybe God will punish me for not believing.’
He starts giggling. ‘Actually. I was just thinking how funny it would be to see God kicking someone into the river. I imagine God in His shawl, practically lifting it off the ground, raising His leg. "Okay here it comes Cutler, you fool!" Whack!’
Ivor Cutler plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall on February 1. His albums ‘Velvet Donkey’, ‘Dandruff’ and ‘Jammy Smears’ are re-released on Virgin this week.