Jeff Pearlman

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John Wesley Harding

#75
The British singer/songwriter and novelist has excelled in multiple mediums by taking a quirky world view and giving it voice. The result: Greatness. POSTED November 7, 2012

Back in 1990, I arrived as a freshman at the University of Delaware with very little music knowledge. Oh, I loved Hall & Oates, Public Enemy, Billy Joel, Kiss and Run DMC. But that was all standard fare. Were there any high schools kids in the late-1980s who didn’t share those tastes, to at least some degree?

Thanks goodness for Scott Capro.

Cappie lived across the hall in Russell A. He was a pretty quiet kid, often locked up in his room with his girlfriend. As we became friendly (and, ultimately, close friends), Scott opened up. Primarily, via music.

His tastes were all over the map, and mostly groups I’d never known or styles I’d avoided. There was this Seattle band, Pearl Jam. There was this Memphis quartet, Human Radio. Have you heard Elvis Costello’s new classical CD? And, most important, there was a British acoustic artist, John Wesley Harding, and his debut disc, It Happened One Night.

Man, did I loooooove that CD. It was live and up close and personal. Listening to it, I could smell the cigarette smoke clinging to my shirt; I could hear the drinks being poured; the glasses rattling. Mostly, I could hear one of the most unique and gifted singers I’d ever encountered. One song, July 13th 1985, remains an all-time, all-time, all-time favorite.

I digress. Wes (his real name is Wesley Stace) has had a brilliant career, both as a singer and an author. His three novels—Misfortune, by George and Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, have all been praised as remarkable work. Here, in the 75th Quaz, Wes talks about the ties between writing music and writing book; about cynicism in music and whether pop tarts are doomed to a life of failure. He always thinks he’s about to die in a plane crash, loves Kate Bush and has no real interest in meeting Hosken Powell. You can visit his website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace—on November 7, 2012, the Quaz is yours …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m going to start you with a really obscure question about a really obscure song (this is the beauty of having my own site with my own questions). I love July 13th 1985. Like, absolutely, positively love it. Brilliant social commentary; brilliant, pointed takedown of the corporate musical love-fest that was Live Aid (fuck, and I loved Live Aid). My question is: What inspired you to destroy an event so many people embraced, did you ever get any feedback from participants and, were you asked to play that song right now, could you?

JOHN WESLEY HARDING: I could play the song now, but I tend not to because the hard edge of the satire, given the 25 intervening years, has diminished somewhat. The same song could be written about almost any charity event. Though the drug-taking part of the song was not necessarily part of the experience of July 13, 1985 (we were too poor!), the rest of the lyrics were a sampling of my thoughts as the long day wore on. I felt it was a sentiment that hadn’t been expressed and should be. The song was, in fact, expressly written for some kind of (theatrical) revue I was involved in, various sketches about what we in The West thought of what we then called “the third world.” And seen in that context, it makes total sense. The song was my calling card for some time. It changed a lot as I played it.

J.P.: You’ve had a remarkably unique career in two endeavors—singer/songwriter and novelist. I hope this doesn’t sound overly lame, but is there much crossover between the two mediums? As is, does knowing how to write a song mean a higher probably of one knowing how to write a novel? Are they at all related?

J.W.H.: Songwriting certainly freed my mind up for novel-writing (and I had no fiction-training at school or anything) since it meant that I could trust in the words a little more. I think there’s a lot of crossover (though songs can be written on napkins in trains, whereas novels mean sitting down at a desk, and they’re totally different disciplines. But it’s the same addiction to getting it right, or getting it less wrong, that makes you continue. Songs are pared down; novels (at least, the ones I write) need to have characters with motivation. As professions, one is social and fun, the other is solitary and a drag. So they complement each other very well indeed in that sense. I’m lucky.

J.P.: Sorta lame question—but one I’ve often wondered: Why didn’t you just use Wesley Stace—your real name—from the start of your musical career? I mean, I know all about “John Wesley Harding”—but Wesley Stace seems awfully nice, too.

J.W.H.: I didn’t use it because I was at university, and didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing, assuming it would go wrong very quickly. But it didn’t and by then it had stuck. John Wesley Harding was amusing at the time because it meant people could just keep calling me Wes.

J.P.: Many, many, many of your songs seem to be lathered in cynicism—which is a reason I so enjoy your music (There’s a Starbucks (Where The Starbucks Used to Be) is a perfect example). Yet I wonder if you’ve ever felt—or cared—that the same cynicism that empowers your takes also has prevented you from having massive commercial success. I mean, I’d argue there’s a very thin line (I mean this as a compliment) between your music and that of, say, an Elvis Costello. Yet you express much more agitation toward the world. Do people have a limited appetite for that? Small doses sort of thing?

J.W.H.: I’ve never really felt that. Randy Newman, Warren Zevon and Tom Lehrer are (or were) extremely cynical writers. I wouldn’t think it would prevent commercial success: what’s cynical is having success with things that you don’t believe in, dumbed down for the audience—and that tactic finds success all the time! But by the same token. I’m not sure I express that much agitation. I think my view of the world is affectionate. I remember a lot of Elvis Costello songs leaving a very bitter taste—they were meant to—and I’d be surprised if people felt that way after listening to one of my songs. Particularly Starbucks. I mean that song isn’t even anti-Starbucks, though it uses Starbucks as a symbol for a problem. I like to look at life with a smile; and I feel a laugh is more likely to affect people in a positive way than agitated finger-pointing.

J.P.: Totally off topic—you’re 47-years old. I just turned 40, and I’m genuinely confused how I got here. How does aging impact you? Are you someone who says, “Holy fuck, I’m halfway to 94?” Does the looming eternalness of death concern you? Consume you? Do you look in the mirror, see gray hair and moan?

J.W.H.: I’ve been grey for a long time so I’m not worried about that at all. (I’m growing my hair long. Perhaps it’s a last hurrah.) Aging doesn’t really impact me very much and I’m not worried about it. I’ve been dealing with a bad back for about 20 years. I like having young children, though I could have probably been a more active wrestler for them twenty years ago. I’d rather not die until it wouldn’t affect my kids so much but other than that I don’t worry about those things at all.

J.P.: In 2005, you published your first novel, Misfortune. The Washington Post named it one of its Books of the Year—and that was merely one of many accolades. In brief, it’s the saga of a man, Lord Geoffroy Loveall, who finds an abandoned baby, brings her in, names her Rose—then, ultimately learns she’s a boy. I’ve never written fiction, but have long aspired to. How did you come up with the idea for the story? How did you write it? Literally, how long did it take? Where’d you do it? How torturous was it? And did it, ultimately, give the same feeling of reward as a completed album?

J.W.H.: The idea for the story was developed from the song of nearly the same name on Awake, and I’m not quite sure where that idea came from, though one spark was definitely the rhyme of ‘world’ and ‘girl’. Misfortune took about seven years. I wrote it first in Seattle on Vashon Island, then Ballard, and then finished it in Brooklyn. It was a lengthy lengthy process—only completed because it was ambitious beyond anything I’d previously attempted. Doing gigs at the time (for a living) didn’t help! It was far more satisfying than a completed album. No doubt about that. I felt it really reflected me, and that’s why I published it under my own name.

J.P.: Do you think it’s OK for artists to openly acknowledge shit work? For example, Eminem has repeatedly said his “Rehab” CD wasn’t so hot. Well, I know many people who loved that album, only to learn the guy who released it wasn’t so high on it. To you, does it show commendable honesty, or are some things meant to remain quiet? And, along those lines, are there songs or albums that you wish you could have back—or bury?

J.W.H.: Interesting question. I find It Happened One Night to be completely unlistenable (I don’t like my singing on it at all, but then I’d only just started) but I don’t shout about it. And also I’d note that I don’t listen to any of my music ever: do any artists? I know a lot of people who love that record, because (among other reasons) it was the first time that they were exposed to me, and of course that’s a meaningful moment. However, it wouldn’t put me off if an artist said they didn’t think one of their work was any good. But I don’t feel negative enough about It Happened One Night to want it back. I got much better, is all. It’s just a shame that artists are given so much attention at the start of their careers. Almost everyone improves over time. But that’s the way the business works.

J.P.: How did you get here? I mean, I know you’re British, attended boarding school, blah, blah. But how did you discover your voice? When was the first time you picked up an instrument and said, “Yes! Yes! I can do this! Yes!” When did you know?

J.W.H.: Miming to The Beach Boys 20 Greatest Hits with a tennis racket. I didn’t even need a guitar! The scene is in my next novel in fact. Or a version of it. Heaven knows when I discovered my voice. Probably by adapting Phil Ochs songs into anti-Thatcher language for student demos at Cambridge. Someone had to do it. Or I thought they did, and I was uniquely placed.

J.P.: You do reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. Personally, I loathe writing book reviews, because I know how painful it feels to get a shitty one, and I also have an understanding of how much effort goes into a book project. Does reviewing not bother you in such a way? And how about writing negative ones?

J.W.H.: I write for the TLS (and occasionally for other people) because they give me long, long deadlines, excellent editorial attention and expect the writer to explain the topic in question before approaching the book. I love writing for them and, so far, they’ve had me write on Dylan (the book in question was awful), Patti Smith, Bowie and now Prince—all things I’m really enthusiastic about. In other words, I really WANT to write about these things—and then it’s interesting to see how well or badly the book in question does its work. I’ve had to write one really bad one; you’re not exactly proud of it, but it’s a good logical puzzle to work out how something succeeds or fails on its own terms. I only ever reviewed one novel (for the New York Times) and I’m not really interested in doing that again: it didn’t seem a fun way to pass the time. I ended up being more polite than I wanted to be, which was kind (at least) but not what a reviewer should do.

J.P.: Is there hope for the Justin Biebers and Selena Gomezes and One Directions of the world? Or are they simply doomed to be gobbled up by the Giant Corporate Pop machine, make millions, blow millions and ultimately end up either giving hand jobs on a Los Angeles side street or crying on some reality TV rehab show?

J.W.H.: I have no idea about these people. I have never even heard of One Direction or Selena Gomez. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard Justin Bieber sing, though I realize he’s everywhere (I just don’t know why he’s there.) Pop has always been full of ephemeral stars (and it’s one of the glories of Pop that it is), one-hit wonder type people, if that’s the question. Just because they’re not doing work of lasting value, or they’re manufactured to be Pop Idols, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be damned to a bad career. Nowadays it seems reality TV and that rehab culture might be part of the career trajectory. It’s a tough life, music, and showbusiness generally. I wish them all luck and hope they’re happy what they’re doing, whatever it is.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOHN WESLEY HARDING:

• Five greatest singers of your lifetime: Robert Wyatt, Colin Blunstone, Duncan Browne, Kate Bush, Bob Dylan.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Every time I fly. I predict a plane crash which makes me feel fairly certain it won’t happen. But only fairly certain.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Punky Brewster, Hall & Oates, UCLA, Ryan Howard, vegemite, Justin Timberlake, kitchen tables, Dynablob 4, Bob Dylan, Mitt Romney, nasal hair, American Airlines, chicken soup, the smell of ginger: They all seem equally awful when you put it like that.

• Can music really heal the world? Or is that just bullshit?: Music Therapy can certainly help people with real difficulties, so in that sense: yes.

• If a person should hear one John Wesley Harding Song, it is …: Making Love to Bob Dylan.

• Any thoughts on how to lower the unemployment rate?: Stick with Barack Obama.

• Celine Dion offers you $3 million to play guitar on her next tour—but you have to do so in a bunny suit. You in?: Absolutely. I can’t see a downside to that at all. And the bunny suit would preserve my dignity.

• Are farts still funny at 47?: I would hate to smell a fart that was 47 years old.

• Best joke you know?: Most recently—Angela Merkel goes to France. Immigration asks her three question. Name? Angela Merkel. Nationality? German. Occupation? No, just here for the weekend.

• One question you’d ask Hosken Powell were he in front of you right now?: I have no idea who that is, I’m afraid. So: “Who are you?” Or perhaps: “Are you any relation to Michael Powell, the filmmaker?”

  • Richard

    I still have my copy of “It Happened One Night,” and listen to it whenever I’m in a nostalgic mood (“The Night He Took Her to the Fairground” is an overlooked classic). I’ll give him credit for not taking offense when I yelled out “Freebird” at one of his concerts. He simply shook his head and said, “There’s one in every crowd.” I’m sure he thought, “What a dick,” but was too much of a gentleman to say it.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life