The following are the liner notes I was commished to pen for a brand new limited edition CD-R set featuring a rare American performance, recorded in San Francisco 1998, by the recently departed singer-songwriter extraordinaire (and famed connoisseur of vin-anything-but-ordinaire) Kevin Ayers. And a marvelous and memorable performance it was, indeed.
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True story: a onetime friend once told me that his then-fiancee had been hit on by Kevin Ayers.
As she told it, said future wife was on holiday back in the mid-80’s; maybe Ibiza, maybe Majorca. She was sitting in a small café one afternoon, when a tall, blonde, slightly tipsy stranger walked up to her table.
He sat down and, in a deep British-accented voice, gently asked, “Excuse me, but…may I sit and stare at you for awhile?”
I saw Kevin Ayers make a criminally rare visitation to America, playing at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in the spring of 1998. And I should have brought bananas.
You see, as George Harrison might have said, bananas loomed large in Kevin’s legend. They were, in fact, part of the recurrent imagery constant throughout Kevin Ayers’ lifetime catalog of tunesmithery: bananas, the moon, and inevitably, a certain adult beverage made from grapes. Whether it derived from his interest in Surrealism and Pataphysics or just a manifestation of his wry, sly sense of humor, Ayers fans can scarcely move for all those pulpy yellow skins waiting to trip them up.
Then there was the ‘extravagant praise’ of Ayers’s ‘Banana Hymn’, which concludes…‘Instead of the boot or the bullet/just put that banana in.’
Such knowledge, however, was far in the future the first time I ever heard Kevin Ayers. A local Washington DC Top 40 station of my youth began airing a nightly ‘free-form music’ show, playing hip and obscure rock sounds from here and abroad.
Something about The Soft Machine’s ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ (for that was the song) unnerved me. Part of it was the grinding, overdriven keyboard of Mike Ratledge, but mostly it was the voice of Kevin Ayers: deep, ominous, foreboding. If Ayers’ wine-and-Gurdjieff-fueled head was a nightclub, I wasn’t certain it was one I ever wanted to frequent.
I forgot about Ayers until the mid-1970’s, when my high school clan of adventurous music-heads introduced me to the great, influential Georgetown University FM station WGTB. A big ‘GTB favorite at that time was the album June 1st 1974, recorded on that day at London’s Rainbow Theater as a showcase for the way-hip Island Records label.
I’d recently discovered the Velvet Underground via David Bowie’s liaison with Lou Reed, which led me to John Cale’s shock-and-awe-inspiring Island debut, Fear. Cale was a part of the June 1st lineup, joined by VU chanteuse Nico and newly solo Roxy-non-Musician Brian Eno. Topping the bill, accompanied by the likes of Mike Oldfield and fellow ex-Soft Machine pal Robert Wyatt, was the latest chosen member of Island’s somewhat dysfunctional art-rock family: Kevin Ayers.
Ayers’ own Island debut that year, The Confessions Of Dr. Dream, got much airplay on ‘GTB. This sent me rooting through local record store import bins (remember them?) for the batch of previous Ayers discs, made after he’d left Soft Machine, released by Harvest Records of Pink Floyd infamy. Soon enough, I had acquired a taste for the aural Cabernet of Ayers’ warm, droll baritone, sympathetically backed by mates like Oldfield and Wyatt, along with others like classicist David Bedford and the brilliant free-jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill.
Ayers could still scare one to hell (check out “Song From A Bottom of a Well” from his 1971 disc Whatevershebringswesing). For the most part, though, his songs captivated and delighted with their very Continental, bohemian, more-Beat-than-Hippie sensibility, one certainly foreign to myself or most Americans.
Which perhaps also made it more romantic: that it was easy to imagine the singer, content to be sipping wine at a sidewalk café or French Riviera beach, occasionally picking up his guitar and singing another song in the morning.
No doubt that it was this European vibe of Ayers’ music that ensured cult-figure status on this side of the Big Pond. No matter, there were enough of us who still had ears for the albums that followed Dr. Dream. 1975’s Sweet Deceiver, for ex., featured longtime Ayers compadre Ollie Halsall‘s stunning guitar on songs like ‘Observations‘, and carried forward Kevin’s edible complex with the song ‘Guru Banana’. Elton John even sits in on piano. Yes We Have No Mananas and Rainbow Takeaway also contained their share of tuneful, charming moments.
I sort of lost touch with Kevin Ayers’ music in the 1980’s, though the occasional track – like the luckless, boozy blues ‘Champagne And Valium’ (from 1983’s Diamond Jack and the Queen Of Pain) – provided sufficient evidence that his talent was, while perhaps diminished, still far from finished.
Close enough to June 1st/Ayers plays the City/pour some blues-colored wine.
— Haiku written by the author, three days before Kevin Ayers’ San Francisco show.
Flash forward and back, then, to May 24th, 1998, Ayers’ Bay Area solo debut. Some artists are only as good as the company they keep, and Ayers always kept stellar company when it came to accompanists and collaborators. So maybe it was no surprise that he would choose as his ‘pick-up’ backing group the amazing Bay Area art/rock/jazz/improv collective known as Mushroom.
These were early days for Mushroom — then as now benevolently ruled by drummer Pat Thomas and guitarist/flautist Erik Pearson — and this might have been their most high profile gig to that point. Even then, though, they had evidenced an ironclad command of their source materials, picking up on the best elements of electric jazz, UK/German prog-rock and West Coast psych to distill them into a sound full to bursting with style and energy.
At long bloody last: here was a (don’t you hate this term?) ‘jam band’ for those who would not be caught dead, or even dying, anywhere near a Phish tailgate party.
For almost an hour, Mushroom filled the Great American Music Hall with sonic light and shade. Leading off with the deceptive pastoral drift of ‘Leni Riefenstahl’ — Erik Pearson’s flute doubled and tripled by the mellotron flute of Michael Holt — only to proceed to thoroughly blind-side those in attendance with the stomping backdraft blast of what was then the band’s anything-goes-and-will showcase piece, ‘The Reeperbahn’.
From there, Mushroom shed any potential intimidation of their circumstances to make a joyous and formidable noise. Pearson’s pacific six-string flow pleasingly rubbed up against Dan Olmstead’s more aggressive guitar style (I direct you to ‘We’ll Take You There’, one of two whole-cloth improvs performed that night. Somewhere, Phil Manzanera is smiling).
While the twin keyboards of Holt and Graham Connah darted around the periphery with bubbling, stabbing textures and bursts of spacey shortwave interference, Pat Thomas — with six-string bassist (and present-day pop music historian) Alec Palao — held down the engine room, Thomas clearly as adept at the motorik pulse of ‘Martina, Queen of Hamburg’ as the offbeat, Starkeyesque swing of ‘The Reeperbahn’.
After a surprise encore of the Soft Machine throwdown ‘We Did It Again’, it was Ayers time, and…let’s just say, as a performer and a presence, Kevin was pretty much what I imagined and anticipated. Wizened by the years, true, but there was still something of the youthful Euro dandy about him, with a bit of Peter O’Toole thrown in. Urbane, modest, self-deprecating…and, yes, a little tipsy.
Thus assembled, Ayers and Mushroom led off with ‘Champagne And Valium’, transformed from its solo blues origins into a roadhouse rambler that Dylan and The Hawks would have been proud to hang their collective hat on.
The odd ditties rolled from there, loose-limbed and informal yet, considering the limited rehearsal time, far from sloppy. A ‘Lady Rachel’ that dripped with Gothic phantasm. ‘Everybody’s Sometime…All The Time Blues’, a moonlit glide on a feather from Peter Green’s albatross. A reassuringly dreamy ‘Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her)’, featuring tigerbalm flute from Erik Pearson.
A most welcome pair of songs were drawn from Ayers’ superb 1973 effort Bananamour, best of which was the Nico portrait ‘Decadence’, appropriately and capably cloaked in Velveteen drone. Another pair came from his then latest disc, 1992’s Still Life With Guitar, the most affecting being ‘Ghost Train’, Michael Holt’s glistening mellotron buoying up yet another Ayers rumination on Gurdjieff.
More besides: a surprisingly punchy take on Dr. Dream’s ‘Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought of You’, and the inevitable ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ in which our Kevin got so caught up in the music (at least) that he blanked on the lyrics, until assisted by a member of the audience (guilty!) to much affectionately mirthful crowd response. A brief encore bringing things full circle with another gleeful bash at ‘We Did It Again’, and that’s all she wrote.
Since that singular summit, Mushroom have continued in consistently malleable permutations — everything from ten or more members to a stripped-down quartet — to record a fine series of discs, the latest being 2009’s Naked, Stoned and Stabbed. They have also shared stages and studios with such major players as Ayers mentor Daevid Allen of Gong, German Kosmische titans Faust, Henry Kaiser, Ralph Carney, Gary Floyd and legendary Oakland jazzman Eddie Gale.
As for Kevin Ayers, he returned to play in San Francisco once more in 2000, before retreating to his longtime Gallic environs. He managed one last brilliantly finessed disc with 2007’s The Unfairground, assisted by old helpmates (Wyatt, Manzanera, Bridget St. John) and young turks alike (members of Teenage Fanclub and Gorky‘s Zygotic Mynci), before his passing in February of this year.
As brief as such an alliance was, I am certain that many other people felt the luck and privilege to witness such an enjoyable night of music, one in which you might think that the stars actually do align on occasion. And while, yes, music fans – especially in this burg – throw around terms like ‘magical’ like so much tofu and beansprouts to describe such significant occurrences, Kevin Ayers and Mushroom’s performance on this night was truly, genuinely, all that and more.
I’m glad – chuffed even, as the Brits say – it was captured for posterity. But, as the man says, you should have been there.
And I definitely should have brought bananas.
Dedicated to the memory of Kevin Ayers’ crazy gift of time, all once and future Mushroom helpmates, and especially all those lost-to-memory Maryland friends whom I celebrated June 1st with for more than a few years.