The Luke Haines Manifesto, Or What’s Wrong with Popular Entertainment
By Richard Kovitch.
Post Everything: Outsider Rock and Roll, Luke Haines, William Heinemann 2011
Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.
– Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987)
Luke Haines’s Post Everything: Outsider Rock and Roll begins amid the wreckage that concluded his first memoir, Bad Vibes, with the songwriter “teetering on the precipice of mental ruin”. It is 1997, Britpop is at its most banal, a haven for empty posturing and low-rent churnalism, whilst the Internet — by 2011 the great disruptive force of the era, at least to traditional media hegemonies — is still in its genesis. Fittingly, Post Everything begins with a stream-of-consciousness account of the perceived chaos that is to come, one that evokes both Mark Fisher’s depiction of an accelerated and exhausted culture, as well as tapping the same ennui that Simon Reynolds locates in his recent Retromania. Haines rants: “Post nostalgia, post reason, post memory…post Rock…post the arts, post modern, post irony, post albums, post archives, post (real fame), post telly, post film, post God, post science, post literature, post intelligence. Post. Any. Fucking. Good.” This then is the story of an artist’s acclimatization to an alleged ‘crisis’ in popular culture, characterized pointedly by the music industry’s free-fall and the erosion of old gatekeeper certainties. “Being on the outside is what this book, Post Everything, is all about,” he asserts, before embarking upon a scattershot history of his ‘career’ from 1997 up to 2005.
One must be cautious declaring “the end days” for popular culture (and especially for popular music). People have been claiming Rock’n'Roll died ever since Elvis joined the army in 1958, while Oscar Wilde was rallying against the “Philistinism of the English” in The Soul Of Man Under Socialism first published in 1891. Moreover, even if there is much obvious truth that the way we experience popular culture has rapidly changed through the 00s, popular music still remains a worryingly narrow prism through which to evaluate an entire civilization’s vibrancy. As Ian Johnson astutely argued in his essay “Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade” (Revolution in the Head), Rock music is only a small part of an imaginative and materialistic response to the ‘death of God’ that began 400 years previously, one that has enabled both the individual and the imagination to flourish, unrestrained by old orthodoxies. Yet still it is into these illusions of cultural terminus that Haines dives, armed with a razor-sharp wit and a once-in-a-generation ability to craft songs. And what a wit it is.
Post Everything is shorn of much of the petulance that characterized Bad Vibes, replacing it with a world-weary sense of the absurd. Haines remains irascible and caustic, yet it is his ability to say exactly what he thinks without fear of consequence that makes Post Everything so screamingly funny. Reviewers will be inclined towards regaling the hilarious public slaggings Haines dishes out — notably to “HRT Elvis” Chrissie Hynde whose militant vegetarianism causes her to brand Haines a “Nazi” simply because he’s eating a plate of sausages — but it is the precision of his attack that merits the real attention. His prose is immediate and, in a culture where BBC presenters are reprimanded mid-Glastonbury broadcast for — gasp, shock, horror — daring to dislike the Cowell-esque pop of Beyonce, his dissent utterly refreshing.
It is no secret Haines’s bullshit detector has long made him averse to groups (hence he is now a solo artist), let alone ‘popular movements’. As such, he is condemned to being a musician’s musician, and a writer’s writer. Yet, as with his hero Mark E. Smith, this plays to his strengths and enables him to spare no chancer, from “Banksy telling us what we already know” to the “rock’n'roll managers that come and go like new Dr. Whos”. His reflections on the late 90’s TV nostalgia boom epitomized by the I Love The… TV series (“not so much a TV Show, more a doomsday cult”) sets up a hysterical recollection of Richard Madely’s “millennium cupboard”, part of the TV presenter’s preparation for the Y2K Apocalypse that never came. Indeed, the Madely anecdote is pitch perfect and allows Haines to illustrate the inanities that govern mainstream culture, in much the same way that the late writer Gordon Burn (clearly an influence on Haines) would use B-list celebs and sports stars to document the grubby underbelly that haunts post-war British culture. Scratch the surface and the whole façade comes apart.
But there is heart here too, and where Bad Vibes was fuelled by an adolescent narcissism, Post Everything is more assured, even detailing Haines falling in love and getting married, as well as a very real friendship with Black Box Recorder partner-in-crime John Moore. Haines’s loyalty to a select few is touching and worth remarking upon given that as a songwriter he has always resisted the confessional, his lyrics emphasizing the universal even when dredging his life for material. As such this memoir captures the same absurdities about the artistic process that Geoff Dyer described to brilliant comic effect in his hymn to procrastination Out Of Sheer Rage, whilst Post Everything’s overall tone frequently recalls the hustle and humanity of Simon Gray’s four Smoking Diaries (especially when Haines attempts to write a musical about Nicholas van Hoogstraten for the NTS only to lose two years of his life to producing fuck all).
Financially then, Haines’s industry is in a state of constant chaos, with record labels crashing into administration all around him and the internet ensuring supply far outstrips demand (hence Haines calling for the First National Pop Strike in 2001). With each new recording he issues in the 00’s you can literally hear the money running out, yet his talent is constantly re-focusing and re-inventing itself, his music evolving to incorporate Rawkus beats, Stewart Home’s psychogeographic leanings and a re-reading of British culture quite at odds with the late 90’s / early 00’s nostalgia boom. This is a man re-inventing himself despite the numerous obstacles in his path and in doing so creating a body of work that transcends the petty fashions of the day.
Post Everything concludes in 2005, hinting at a possible third installment that might bring Haines’s story up to date. And yet this final book may just harbor an irony that would bring us full circle. By 2011 Haines has been spat out from the mainstream music industry, yet remains able to deliver his music straight to his audience via a bidding war on the Internet. For so long Web 2.0’s atemporality has been the villain of Post Everything, deconstructing popular music’s narrative traditions and Baby Boomer sensibilities, whilst robbing it of its enormous revenue streams. Yet Haines issued his 50 ‘Outsider Music’ albums via a blog and in doing so has been spared the dunces that for so long encircled him throughout Bad Vibes and Post Everything. He has been liberated from the “ten labels in 20 years” that bankrolled then betrayed him, leaving him free to write music, without harassment or restraint. Just maybe then the future bodes well for the artist after all? Just maybe we’re far from Post Everything and in years to come, Haines’s memoir will read less like an ending, and more like a brilliant account of an interregnum between two equally varied and fascinating eras. Only “Future Generations” will know for sure, but one senses that operating at this level Haines will survive, whatever obstacles the gods throw at him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Kovitch is a writer and director based in London whose work has won awards in Europe and the US. He has been published by Clinicality Press and is currently developing several screenplays.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 13th, 2011.