Gilbey on Film: Prophet without honour

Paul Kelly has made a wonderful film about Lawrence's tortured genius.

If pop music appreciation is a solitary business, so is making the stuff, at least for Lawrence, late of the ethereal 1980s band Felt and the 1990s glam rock outfit Denim. Although I have only a cursory knowledge of Felt, and Lawrence's latest endeavour Go-Kart Mozart ("It's the first B-sides band in the world"), Denim means the world to me. The band's two albums, Back in Denim and Denim on Ice (there was also a bits-and-pieces compilation, Novelty Rock) are painstakingly crafted artefacts that function simultaneously as mighty pop music and a commentary on the nature and history of pop. The most obvious cinematic equivalents would be Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven or François Ozon's Angel, movies which draw upon, revive and celebrate aesthetic conventions which are now largely defunct.

In Paul Kelly's poignant documentary Lawrence of Belgravia, we see what life is like now for one of British pop's enduring eccentrics: preparing to be evicted by the council from his London flat for rent arrears, and fearing every footfall in the hallways; refusing to reform Felt or play old songs on tour; reflecting on a world of supposed technological advance in which the new Go-Kart Mozart album won't be released on his beloved vinyl and people don't get paid for writing online ("I knew the internet was rubbish!"). His face sunken and pasty from years of drug abuse, his circumstances depleted as he reflects from his tower-block balcony on dreams of marrying a supermodel, Lawrence is nevertheless an inspiring, if unlikely, symbol of artistic purity. Explaining his resilience, he says: "No one else has got this far, and failed"

In the same week as seeing Lawrence of Belgravia, I also watched Julien Temple's fine documentary Imaginary Man (made for the BBC's Imagine strand) about Ray Davies. At times, it seems only success separates Davies from Lawrence; certainly the scenes in which the former Kink is wandering through the park ("I wonder what that duck's thinking") or reflecting on his schooling ("I was sent to a special school to find out what my problems were. I think my problem was that I knew what was coming") mark them out as kindred spirits. A double-bill of the two films would be ideal.

At the London Film Festival this week, I spoke to the director, Paul Kelly, about the eight years it took to make Lawrence of Belgravia.

What made you go from liking or admiring Lawrence to thinking he could be the subject of an entire film?
Lawrence is such an eccentric character with such a bizarre worldview, and such incredible optimism, and I wanted to share that with people. I'd known him since the mid 1980s; I thought he was so interesting that he deserved to have a film made about him. The premise of the film was that I wanted to make a documentary that didn't use interviews with celebrity fans or any band members, no talking heads at all; it's just Lawrence's worldview, expressed partly through the interviews you see him conducting with journalists, and his circumstances over the past eight years. He was making this album in 2003, so I thought I'd follow him as he made it, you know, that classic documentary thing. But that took eight years; it wasn't purely that the album took eight years, of course. There were other factors.

You do refer in a montage to Lawrence's drug problem, but I wondered why you didn't go into it more.
I show that little montage referring to the drugs, the mental health issues and money problems, but it's such a complex subject that if you dwell too much on it, you find it can eclipse everything else in the film. Then you'd lose the most important thing, the focus on Lawrence. You can clearly see the result of getting into heroin. Just because he's not lying around shooting up, doesn't mean the subject is hidden. Also, I never wanted to do the Lawrence story, or the Felt story or whatever. It was always about trying to get the essence of him on screen because he's fascinating.

How would you define his relationship to the past?
He only looks back to work out where he is and where he's heading. He has no desire to actually revisit that, which is why he's so stubborn about not reforming Felt, and not playing any Denim songs. He was on the phone to me last night until 3am talking about this Stone Roses reunion tour. Lawrence was saying, "I can't believe they're doing that. I thought they were gonna stick it out like me."

He says in the film that he craves fame and celebrity, but isn't there a part of him that is deliberately thwarting any chance of that happening?
I think he subconsciously messes things up for himself, I don't know if that's a fear of achieving the success he craves. Part of it is being uncompromising. There's a point in the film when he mentions Lou Reed, his hero, reforming the Velvet Underground, and he says: "I'm stronger than that." Which is funny -- Lawrence being stronger than Lou Reed! But he is, in a sense. Some blogger doubted the claim in the film that Lawrence has had offers to work with other people. Well, I can tell you he's been asked many times. I've seen him turn down things that are guaranteed money-makers. I won't say who it was, but he's had big offers to write for other people, and I've sat there with him and said, "Lawrence, you will get a shitload of money for doing this." But he just turns it down.

How did that attitude affect the filming?
He'd deny this, I'm sure, but I think he's got an inbuilt mechanism that will always make sure things don't happen. I thought the film wasn't going to happen. I got the feeling he didn't want it to end, and he didn't want the album to be finished, so he somehow found ways of stretching things out. As long as he's busy and has a target he's okay. I know he'd like money, to have nice clothes and live in a nice flat but he doesn't crave, you know, getting a helicopter and flying somewhere 'cos he's got nowhere to go and he doesn't like socialising.

He's very eloquent and funny when he's talking to journalists in the film. Is he like that all the time, or is that him being "on"?
He definitely performs for journalists, he's very good at that; he'll spend all day thinking about interviews, and he's got such a unique, bizarre worldview. That's rare. I heard Will Young on Woman's Hour today and I thought, "Christ, why does this guy get airtime?" I've got nothing against the guy but he hasn't got anything to say. Then you get someone like Lawrence who just can't get his voice heard.

Does he know his own worth? Does he know how passionate people are about his work?
I think so. I think he's very aware of that and very protective of that. He wants everything to be so perfect, but he's so protective of what he does that he kind of smothers it a bit, doesn't let it go out there and breathe. He writes great pop songs, and they deserve to be heard. Someone at the Q&A after the LFF screening asked him what his favourite Denim album was, and he said: "Back in Denim. Denim on Ice. Novelty Rock." He counted them out on his fingers. He basically listed all three albums! Someone else asked if he ever thought about the legacy he was going to leave behind, and he said: "What do you think I've been doing for the past 30 years? Of course I bloody think about it!"

How do you feel now looking back over the last eight years?
Well, it wasn't the only thing I did in that time! But, you know, Lawrence has a lot of issues, he can't function in a regular way. He is clinically ill, I guess. He can't for various reasons make an album in a regular way, just a day here and a day there. He disappears for months on end. I knew it would be protracted. I thought it might take a year. I never dreamed it would take eight.

What's the future for the film?
I've had a lot of interest from distributors. I don't know if it'll be seen as commercial. It felt to me that if Dig! or The Devil and Daniel Johnston could do well, there must be an appetite for the kind of music documentary about these strong characters. I made it very much as a cinema film so I'm hoping it'll have a theatrical life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Show Hide image

In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496