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3:AM Cult Hero: Ivor Cutler

By Darran Anderson.

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“Voiding bowels in those days was unheard of. People just kept it in.”

The Sixth Beatle. Fan of bacteria. Enemy of loud noises. Ivor Cutler. Creator of the finest gallows humour this side of Beckett. An accidental Scotsman born after his Jewish parents, fleeing the pogroms of Russia for the promise of the New World, were unceremoniously ditched in the pleasant mild-mannered city of Glasgow. In his masterpiece, Life in a Scotch Sittingroom, Cutler would reminisce on his Great Depression-era childhood (and lampoon the perception of an austere Presbyterian Scotland) by inflating the misery and masochism to the point it became a thing of hilarity. He recounted how one of his favourite childhood games “was battering each other around the head with a thistle whilst shaking hands” and how instead of going on holiday, his grandparents would place a single grain of sand in their hands and spit saltwater in their faces to replicate the seaside. Billy Connolly compared him to the dreich, that endless depressing Scottish rain that soaks you to the marrow and resembles, to any sane visitor, a mild form of nuclear winter. It’s an astute comparison, the thing about dreich that gives it it’s resonance, isn’t just the bleakness of it but the fact that the natives seem to like it, despite all reason and protestations to the contrary. And that you can go so far into depression, into the dreich that you come through the other side into humour and something resembling wonder. “I might as well live for a bit longer,” Cutler once shrugged, capturing the mood.

Cutler’s real genius was putting together opposites. His best work is misanthropic but at the same time possesses a sparkling awe for the world, gentle and at the same time savage, elegiac and miserabilist. When a poem seemed too twee, he would suddenly throw in something sinister to unsettle the listener. When an observation seemed too cutting, he would bring in an air of wistful sadness or a sudden moment of absurd levity. There is both real bite and a curious mesmerising kind of beauty in his song-poems, a deep stirring melancholic mix of nostalgia, disappointment and capsized joy. It’s made all the deeper by his mournful voice (a remarkable amalgam of stern headmaster and civil servant queueing up to throw himself off a building) and the hypnotic sound of his pedal-powered harmonium wheezing in the background.

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Though he regarded himself as “an unassuming little man,” Cutler was a philosopher (as well as a poet, playwright, musician and artist). In his work, you are presented with the innate and inescapable ridiculousness of man. Humans are imbeciles and life a farce. Nothing is holy. Cutler deflates the things we revere by deflating himself; our lusts, pretensions and preciousness, sometimes all in the same song. He started off from the standpoint that he was ridiculous, a healthy view that many of us would do well to adopt. He hated poetry and radios for example and yet spent his life working on those very two things. He seems quintessentially Scottish yet escaped as soon as he was able. He was thrown out of the RAF for daydreaming and taught himself Chinese because the textbooks were cheap. He would hand out post-it notes to strangers with enigmatic messages on them.

Like his friend Robert Wyatt, Daniel Johnston or the late Harvey Pekar, Cutler showed us there were other paths, the ones less travelled and more interesting than the mainstream or the intellectual. If you had the persistence, you could strike out in your own direction and the old cliches, the old rules need not apply to you. Ivor wrote his first songs in his forties and signed for Rough Trade after a career as a primary school teacher. Only The Fall surpassed him for number of Peel Sessions (you think how fresh this mad little voice must have sounded amidst the drivelling babel of radio) and he’s probably the only person to appear on every BBC radio station, defying demographics and pigeonholes yet somehow managing to remain largely ignored in the process. His cult influence though is immense from the Fence Collective to Chris Morris’ Blue Jam and sadly under-acknowledged. In a way, it’s not surprising given he defied categorisation and ant attempt at glamour. Idols need acolytes and no-one else could really do what he did; anything as ridiculously tragic as ‘A Bubble or Two’ (“Daddy went out in the rain / I never saw him again”), as playfully cruel as ‘Between the Walls’ (“Do not stand in my light daddy / stand in the dark”) or casually violent as ‘My Next Album’ (“A bird was flying in the air, I rose to my feet and caught it’s bony leg… it snapped my arm at the wrist”) and ‘Happy’ (“I’m happy, I’m happy / and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not”). Who but a madman would stand pondering “the full and melodious” cries of a drowning victim (“Sir, will you call again I so enjoy the quality of your voice”) before reluctantly rescuing him from the canal (“I’m wearing my good suit Big Jim, please don’t ask me to rescue you,” knowing as I was speaking that I’d be forced to save this life… human though it was”)? Or describe a world where people fed meat to eggs (‘Eggmeat’), babies were thrown out windows to cheer up a spouse (‘One of the Best’) and bullied children stood in holes trying to grow until they took root (‘Steady Job’)?

Life is a boring place, Ivor made it much less so. And in these days when everyone is screaming “look at me,” we can but admire the man who said simply, “go away.”

Further: Looking for Truth with a Pin (Documentary) I / II / III / IV / V / VI / Shoplifters / I’m Happy / Good Morning / Lemonade / Big Jim / Alex Kapranos on Cutler / IvorCutler.org / Life in a Scotch Sittingroom #2 episode 1 / Cutler Spotify playlist

[Image: Chris Crites]

First posted: Wednesday, September 1st, 2010.

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