Tuesday, March 07, 2006

OBIT: Ivor Cutler

We've just heard (via a comment from Darren H) that Ivor Cutler died last Friday, following a stroke.

Prior to the launch of Radio 5 and subsequent weekly appearance of new radio stations, Cutler held the unique position of having recorded performances for all the BBC's radio networks - he was a regular session guest for John Peel and Andy Kershaw, but was equally at home on Radios 2, 3 and 4.

It's often assumed that the tale of his diasporan great-great-grandparent's arrival in Glasgow (they thought they were heading for America) was as dubious as his claims to have screamed his first scream as Rangers scored a few hundred yards away at Ibrox Park or the many tales of grim childhoods in parlours and sitting rooms which made him not as famous as he should have been. However, there's no question that his early years were harsh - a young Jew in 1920s Glasgow wasn't a recipe for acceptance; at home, he felt the birth of a younger sibling very hard - although he suggested that "without that I would not have been so screwed up as I am, and therefore not as creative. Without a kid brother I would have been quite dull. I did try and kill him, but my Auntie Eva came into the room and thought that it wasn't a good idea."

As a fifteen year-old, Cutler was inspired by hearing a Rationalist Society speaker to ask at his local synagogue "'can you prove the existence of God? He must have been in a bad mood as he just said 'no'. I never went to synagogue again." A later attempt to reconnect with God failed at the hands of an over-enthusiastic Unitarian minister who chased him, first to atheism and then to agnosticism.

Plans to become a doctor faltered when he discovered part of the training involved unspeakable beastliness to frogs, so he started to concentrate more on music. His first piano concetro was just three lines ("because I didn't know what a concerto was") but then his life was disrupted by war - first as an evacuue, then as an apprentice and a brief spell with the RAF, from which he "dismissed for dreaminess".

As a peacetime occupation, he tried teaching, first at AS Neill's Summerhill project where the famous freewheeling attitude wasn't quite freewheeling enough to encompass Cutler's approach. Having been judged too poor a teacher to be welcome at the most controversial school in the UK, he wound up instead at the Inner London Education Authority, surprisingly still teaching for them as recently as 1980. Cutler's teaching of creative arts to children is seen as one of the key factors in shaping the worldview he brought to his music.

It wasn't until his mid-thirties that Cutler began to give his attention again to music and poetry (as his fans will know, it's hard with Cutler to point to a definitive point where one ceased, and the other commenced). He described his technique: "My way of writing poetry was to go to a jazz concert and just let the music come through me and just write nonsense poems, so that one was listening to the noise of the words rather than the meaning. I wouldn't allow my intellect to get in the way. After six years I found certain sounds more to my taste than others and I gradually began to use actual words."

His plan was to write songs on the side to top up his ILEA income, but he turned up at Box & Cox publishers at the end of the day and wound up giving an impromptu performance which went down well. Cutler was hired, and quickly got a recurring slot on the BBC Home Service.

He made an appearance in the Magical Mystery Tour, playing a character called Buster Bloodvessel; the Beatles asked him if he'd be interested in becoming a tutor for their children but the thought of instructing Julian Lennon in latin didn't appeal, clashing with Cutler's socialism. He did, however, use the connection to work with George Martin on a 1967 album Ludo. Martin wasn't very pleased with Cutler's eccentric style of working and the partnership was not repeated.

Cutler would crop up in the strangest corners of the entertainment industry - between hard covers in a Faber collection of poetry; on Whistle Test; with a guest slot on Late Night Line-Up or the Acker Bilk Show; sharing Creation Records with Kevin Shields and Liam Gallagher. Although those who liked him liked him very much indeed, he was aware he was an acquired taste:

"John Peel has a show on Number One [Radio 1] on which he plays the latest gramophone records. He put one of my records on, and a few days later there was a cloud of envelopes coming in. But some people like Cutler, and some people don't. When I did Monday Night at Home one man called in and said 'Hey! Get rid of that guy! He's driving me nuts and his voice is making my wife's hair stand on end!'"

His subsequent years, installed in a flat in Parliament Hill Fields, saw him increasingly worried about ill-health: his father had fallen to Alzheimers and he feared the same end. An awareness of the onset of fraility meant he reduced his number of public performances after the turn of the century, although he still did the occasional live outing.

He's survived by his two sons; there are plans for a public memorial service later in the year.

There's a full obituary in this morning's Guardian; and a biography on IvorCutler.org