Interview #6: Vinny Peculiar
A prolific UK singer-songwriter, who has turned his attention to painters from the modern canon with his latest record, reveals a long-running interest in the literary, particularly the Beats
Vinny Peculiar is a songwriter from the English Midlands who has just released his fourteenth studio album of a 20 year solo career which has also seen him collaborate with leading figures from the British indie community from Bill Drummond to Luke Haines, Jah Wobble to Mike Joyce. Artists Only, the latest collection from Peculiar, draws its inspiration from some of the greats of twentieth-century modern art – Jackson Pollock, David Hockney, Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon.
But his often serious sources belie a brilliant kitchen sink irreverence, a commonplace pop poetry, that has drawn comparisons with Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough. Just back on the road promoting the new record, after some two years of pandemic lockdown, he talks to Rock and the Beat Generation about his reading habits and his present interest in the world of contemporary painters…
I know that you have an interest in and affection for the Beat Generation writers. When did you first come across them and how and which are your favourite novels or poems from that world? Do you still read them today?
At school I loved the books of Richard Allen – Skinhead, Suedehead, Hells Angel. They were the first books I read that felt risky, underground even, they were the first books I read that my Dad seriously objected to so I must have been on the right track. I read On the Road in my twenties and totally bought into the roaming, sprawling adventure ethic, freedom and escape. And it sat perfectly alongside my love of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ which has a similar sense of freedom.
I love that On the Road was written all in one sitting idea, streams of consciousness, the picture of the spool of paper in Jack Kerouac’s apartment, I bought into that. I also read Allen Ginsberg, who’d crop up in all the best Beatle stories, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, and, a few years later, Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road, which sets her love of writing against the sexism of the day, reminding us that freedom to write, roam, be Beat and such was very much a male preserve of the day. She’s the unsung heroine of the Beat Generation.
The writer that really got me into reading Beat stuff – although not strictly Beat, I know – was Richard Brautigan. I’d read In Watermelon Sugar at school and was totally smitten with intrigue, this strange delicate hippie from San Francisco with his childlike narratives, one-word chapters, abstract flights of imagination; he was just so different.
He was also poet in residence at the San Francisco Institute of Technology. I loved the idea of being a poet in residence, it seemed kind of glamorous. I have since acquired all the Brautigan’s books. I even tracked down his house when I was in San Francisco a few years ago – the owners were perfectly charming, clearly there have been others seeking out this piece of literary history.
Pictured above: Vinny Peculiar in composing mood
Then came the Richard Brautigan poetry. If you read just one, try ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, a most beautiful and prophetic poem with love at its heart. He has a such a gentle and unique voice. Some years ago, I met his daughter at her book reading in Waterstone’s, Manchester. Her book You Can’t Catch Death is a fascinating insight into the famous father she never knew. It’s very touching.
I should also mention Charles Bukowski, who I discovered in my early thirties. Someone had left a copy of The Roominghouse Madrigals in a Liverpool recording studio and I was up and running. There is just so much Bukowski to experience: the writings are never over wordy, always succinct and conversational. Women, horse racing, boxing, drinking, poetry…he tends to write about the same things, and I find great comfort and wisdom in his work.
It’s the poetry I tend to return to the most. I re-read him regularly; it’s like keeping touch with an old friend. If I had to recommend a few I’d go for ‘The Genius of the Crowd’ or ‘Firestation’ or ‘Poor Al’. There’s comedy in his work, too…Poor Al, all his girlfriends are crazy! He sees a psychiatrist asking why this is and the psychiatrist advises him he’s as sane a man as he’s ever met. John Cooper Clarke would approve.
You and I both know that significant rock figures from Dylan to the Beatles, David Bowie to Patti Smith and beyond, have been lured by Beat lifestyles and attitudes. Do you see a connection there between some of your concerns and inspirations as an artist and those novelist/poets?
The first songs I wrote were kind of lyrically expansive, not sure if they were a spontaneous prosody-driven thing, or if they always worked. Things tend to be more narrative nowadays but there are no rules.
The Beat Generation legacy for me is about embracing the freedoms to express and belonging in the moment: hard to explain but feels like an enforced, joyous open-mindedness. Finding moments of fusion, transcendental moments, moments that work…
I have a song called ‘King of May’, inspired by the Ginsberg Prague incident of spring 1965, so, in a very literal sense, I’ve been directly influenced by stories from the Beat Generation era.
One thing that is clear about your output is that it has a very English flavour, a sort of post-punk kitchen sink aesthetic. Would you agree and which British literary voices have drawn your attention?
I love Keith Waterhouse. The novel Billy Liar was like a religion to me when I was young and I still re-visit it every now and then. The film is similarly brilliant, something about the ordinary folk, small town tedium, dreams of London, dreams of escape and ultimately responsibility, family, reality.
I also love Martin Amis, Hanish Kureishi, JP Donleavy, and, of course, Dr John Cooper Clarke. I saw JCC several times back in the late 1970s at Barbarella’s in Birmingham, where I saw lots of early punk gigs. He opened for pretty much everyone.
Your songs are riddled with popular culture references. Why do you use that composing technique for your lyrics and what effect does it have, do you think, on listeners and audiences?
I don’t consciously think about including popular cultural references in songs, it just kind of happens that way, I suppose. I like to think the listener is on the same page as me, same worldview, though, of course, this is often never the case. On the positive side it can register and help lure people into the song, but it can also date stuff pretty quickly. I like specifics in songs, although sometimes the overtly personal means I’m the only one who can get away with singing it, so that in itself can make the song a lesser force somehow. Or perhaps I’m just going round in circles now, sorry!
Why did modern art and some of its most famous practitioners catch your attention for the latest album?
I first got interested in modern art via Robert Hughes’ 1980 book The Shock of the New, which I discovered via the TV documentary of the same name. Both book and show are just fabulous: his enthusiasm was infectious and it was like a mini cultural awakening for me. I am especially drawn to conceptual art: art that argues black is blue, art that doesn’t involve art; I like the endlessness of art, I like art’s contrariness.
Most of the music on Artists Only was done first, so the songs’ musical templates dictated their lyrical match, so to speak. We have Grayson Perry as a kind of blue-eyed soul Bowie, Mark Rothko’s dense, impenetrable rock with Hendrix overtones, David Hockney’s bright and breezy West Coast-style directness, while Jackson Pollock is kind of dark and weird and affected. Francis Bacon is sonically multi-layered and sort of relentless…
I didn’t want the songs to be cut-and-paste lifestyle summaries of the artists’ lives: they are about personal relationships, getting a headache in a gallery (Rothko), the shared love of a poster (A Bigger Splash), art as liberation and challenge (‘Jack the Dripper’) and so on. I’m aware that sounds a bit pretentious! I am prone to get a little carried away…
Note: To find out more about the Vinny Peculiar album Artists Only, visit vinnypeculiar.com