On David Gilmour: The Loneliness of the Old White Male

David Gilmour seems to be fond of authors, and he says he loves their work — provided they are male, white, and very much like him. Here's why he's wrong.

French author Marcel Proust, whose work Gilmour says he has read twice.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are many good reasons to be upset about the things the novelist and broadcaster David Gilmour said in a recent interview on the Hazlitt Magazine blog. Both he and I work at the University of Toronto, so my instant reaction was institutional defensiveness: unlike Mr Gilmour, who teaches the odd college course, I am a professor of English literature here, and it stung to see his bizarre, reactionary views on literature and teaching associated in the media with my institution, and in particular with its literary scholars.

That’s why I think it’s important to say that David Gilmour is not a colleague of mine (though I speak in this, and in the rest of this essay, only for myself). As far as I can tell from his published comments, he’s not much of a literature professor either. He seems to be fond of authors, and he says he loves their work — provided they are male, white, and very much like him. If they check those boxes, there are few limits to how far Mr Gilmour is willing to go in his passion. Take Proust, whom he loves so much, he's read him twice. A true worker in the vineyard of the literary gods, David Gilmour.

The biggest hits on his shelf, he says, are Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Proust. His love for these men is reflected in his teaching, which focusses on "serious heterosexual guys. F Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth." But not, it seems, on the twice-read Proust. The massively guy-guy Proust, notorious philanderer, heavy drinker, gregarious man-about-town Proust. (Not the Proust you know? Someone might want to drop David Gilmour a note. Or send him Proust’s biography.)

Women authors, however, Gilmour won't teach, because he just doesn't love them enough. Except for Virginia Woolf, whom he loves too much. Woolf he can't teach because his students, even in third year, aren't sufficiently smart to catch up with her “sophistication.”

I don't know if this inane interview bears any resemblance to what Gilmour is telling his students. I rather hope it doesn’t, but he said what he said, and he hasn’t taken anything back in his subsequent interviews. And what he did say, besides the generally offensive stuff, barely reached the level of the average Wikipedia entry. It certainly didn’t have much to do with literature. I get why David Gilmour might want to do shots with Chekhov, but I have no idea why he would want to read his works. Authors sound a lot like George W. Bush when Gilmour praises them: great guys to have a beer with. Never mind about the writing, or the government bit.

All of which makes me think that it’s probably a good thing David Gilmour isn't teaching Virginia Woolf. I'm a bit sorry he's teaching Chekhov, and Tolstoy, and Fitzgerald. I don't really care about Philip Roth or Henry Miller: he can do with them what he likes. And I’m sure there must be other white, middle-aged, male authors who would benefit from having the kind of pseudo-biographical rubbish draped all over them that Gilmour heaps on poor Chekhov, who apparently was "the coolest guy in literature." (Christopher Marlowe just called to complain. What makes Chekhov so cool? Whom did Chekhov ever kill? Did Chekhov ever catch a knife in the eye? Or get done for coining? Fuck that milquetoast Chekhov!) Chekhov, Gilmour informs us, also laughed loudly. And he made everyone around him a better person. Man, that Chekhov. What a guy. What a guy-guy. Oh yeah, and a writer, too.

Obviously, that's all a curdled mess of intellectual mediocrity. And really not worth bothering with. What is more troubling to me than the initial interview, though, is Gilmour's follow-up conversation with the Globe and Mail newspaper, in which he explains what he really meant to say:

People are calling you a sexist for refusing to teach books by women. Were your statements in Hazlitt misrepresented in any way? They were totally, totally misinterpreted. I said, look, I’m a middle-aged writer and I am interested in middle-aged writers. I’m very keen on people’s lives who resemble mine because I understand those lives and I can feel passionately about them – and I teach best when I teach subjects that I’m passionate about.

So in order to teach, you have to relate?

I believe that if you want to teach the way I want to teach, you have to be able to feel this stuff in your bones. Other teachers don’t, but I don’t think other teachers necessarily teach with the same degree of commitment and passion that I do – I don’t know.

It is obviously Gilmour's prerogative, as a middle-aged writer, to be interested exclusively in other middle-aged writers. It may make him sounds staggeringly narrow-minded and parochial, but so what: it takes all sorts. But what this attitude of I-relate-only-to-myself has to do with teaching is entirely beyond me.

Is passion about our subject matter important in the classroom? Absolutely. Is the passion required in teaching typically stirred because the teacher identifies with the author or the text she teaches? I seriously hope not. I can only speak for myself, but I can categorically say that I have never identified with Shakespeare or Ben Jonson. Marlowe, well that’s a different story. (For the record: I’m nothing like Marlowe, and I don't want to be Marlowe. I like my eye-sockets too much.) And yet, I don't believe I have a reputation for lacking passion for my subject. But what do I know: most likely, I’m one of those uncommitted, indifferent “other teachers” Gilmour has in mind. If feeling the stuff you teach “in your bones” is a requirement for teaching it well, I suspect Gilmour is right about his singularity. From what I can observe in my colleagues, I don't think many of them teach only authors in whose works they see mirror-images of themselves. English Departments would otherwise be rife with psychopaths, morbidly jealous types, pretend kings and queens, and wealthy socialites. And people who ride around on donkeys. I’m sad to say they're not. And I don't even want to think about how dangerous a work environment history departments would be: who would ever want to be next door to the colleague who’s teaching Nazi Germany?

Gilmour’s right, though, that passion, even love, are necessary ingredients in pedagogy. What he’s got completely wrong is the who and the what of that love. Great teaching requires empathy — the effort to understand things, ideas, and people totally unlike you. Some of those people are your students. Some of those things are of the past. Some of those ideas are the ideas of authors from different cultures than yours, and yes, shockingly, even of a different gender. Engaging with those people, things, and ideas is what teaching is all about. And not coincidentally, it’s also what research is all about, and why research and teaching go well together. Most crucially, engagement with the other is what reading is.

Gilmour's account of his teaching, by contrast, is strikingly devoid of empathy. Chinese authors? Nothing like me, can't love them. Queer authors? Nothing like me, can't love them. (But Marcel....) Female authors? Nothing like me, can't love them. White men who are like me or the man I want to be? Love those. Sympathy is what this view of things is all about: one big group hug among white guys across the twentieth century, all guys like Gilmour. What's grimly hilarious, rather than merely depressing, is the predictable casual homophobia that goes hand in hand with this chest-thumpy, circle-jerky, narcissistic literary bromance: Gilmour loves Chekhov so much, he'd marry him tomorrow if only they weren't both so amazingly straight. The "literary" bit seems almost incidental. None of what makes Chekhov a cool guy, after all, has anything to do with the plays or short stories he wrote. It's all about his "personality." His grace. His generosity. His "bellicose laugh." And the right set of genitals.

What David Gilmour professes isn’t literary scholarship or criticism. Never mind that he says offensive things (a big thing not to mind, I know). I’m sure we all say offensive things from time to time. Far more troubling, to me, is his basic failure to grasp why anyone should read literature at all, his stunningly self-righteous elevation of narcissism into the most powerful source of aesthetic appreciation — the infantile pleasure of self-recognition, and ultimately of self-affirmation as the highest, even the only end of reading.

We can argue about whether Hamlet is right or not when he claims that art holds a mirror up to nature. But let's just say he is. Here's what Hamlet doesn't say: that art is a mirror you choose to pick up to see yourself. Art doesn’t give you that choice. If you’re playing along at all, it forces you to look in a mirror; and what you see there isn't supposed to be your pre-conceived self-image. It's something strange, or alien, or scary, or ridiculous, or dull; beautiful or hideous; unsettling or vaguely comforting. But whatever it is, it demands engagement, an engagement that can’t ever be entirely on your terms. And sometimes, the mirror reveals something that you realise isn’t strange at all, but is in fact you — but that shouldn’t be a happy realisation. It’s supposed to come at a price. It’s meant to matter. And it’s not meant to be as easy to come by as self-love. Because if the thing you see when you look into a book looks exactly like what you think you look like, you're doing it wrong. David Gilmour is most certainly doing it wrong.

A version of this article first appeared on Holger Syme's blog, and is crossposted here with his permission

Dr Holger Schott Syme is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto.

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The £7m fingers: how Jeff Beck became a guitar hero by saying no

Kate Mossman talks to Jeff Beck about escaping Eric Clapton's shadow, dodging fame, and why he can’t go and see Pat Metheny.

Michelangelo and Da Vinci loathed each other. Ingres sneered at his chief rival, Delacroix. Picasso and Matisse all but ignored each other for 50 years: a bit longer than Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Even now, Beck – who is one of the top three guitarists in the world and no longer needs to concern himself with Clapton – finds it hard to listen to other guitarists. His internet radio is tuned to Kurdish music. Onstage, he plays out old rivalries with high camp, welcoming other axe heroes with a touching-the-hem-of-your-garment gesture and mumbling into the microphone, “I might as well f*** off, then.”

In 2010, Beck chopped off the tip of his left index finger while making a stew. It was hastily reattached but he took no chances, insuring his fingers and thumbs for £7m. That his brokers felt that there was £7m worth of music left in them is not insignificant – though for many, he will always be associated with a 1967 pop song for which he claims to have received “40 quid” in royalties. He has likened “Hi Ho Silver Lining” to having a pink toilet seat hung around your neck for the rest of your life.

According to rock lore, Beck’s journey has been marked by strange choices, leading him away from fame and fortune. Like a musical Forrest Gump, he was present at many of music’s big moments but remains at the edge of the photograph. He replaced Clapton in the Yardbirds on the recommendation of his childhood friend Jimmy Page but was kicked out for bad behaviour. (He is thought to have been the model for Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap.) Pink Floyd wanted him to replace Syd Barrett but they never got up the nerve to ask him. The Rolling Stones wanted him, but he turned down the offer at the last minute. Beck formed a band with an unknown singer called Rod Stewart but quit just three weeks before they were scheduled to play at Woodstock.

Stewart went on to form the Faces, while Page was ascending into the stratosphere with Led Zeppelin. Stevie Wonder wrote “Superstition” for Beck but decided to keep it. Was it bad luck or self-sabotage, or simply that the music he really wanted to play was never going to make him famous? Clapton has said that the only reason Beck was never a megastar was that he never wanted to be one. “He deliberately carved that image,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “He likes to be left alone. He wants to be underneath the car, working on the engines.”

Quite literally. He has restored 14 vintage automobiles “from the ground up” at his house in East Sussex and produced a book about them, Beck01, published this month. This is perhaps not as strange as it seems. Much of what Beck has done with his instrument resulted from a kind of musical mechanics, a private process of tinkering, test-driving and refinement. Years ago, while listening to Bulgarian choral music – presumably because he couldn’t bear to listen to guitars – he started playing a tune with his tremolo. Pulling the whammy bar high off the body, he divined notes from an invisible scale in mid-air. The ghost voice, more like a theremin than a Strat, appears on the 1989 song “Where Were You” (“Some people say it’s not real playing but you try,” he says). This and other tricks punctuate his music with moments of cosmic tenderness. On message boards, men analyse his work and, he tells me, “They say, ‘What string is he using? That’s what I need, because that’s what gives Jeff the sound!’ No it bloody isn’t!” At the age of 72, on the eve of his 17th album’s release, he says that the “guitar nerd image” has finally got to go. There’s little chance of that.

A man on a galloping horse would be hard pressed to pull Beck out of a line-up with Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – they all have feathered hair, eternally dark, and a weather-beaten urchin face. For many years, he has worn stage outfits of an athletic style: white, nimble boxing boots laced to the calf, skinny nylon track pants and sleeveless tops, leaving a sinewy arm free to arc down on the strings like a flesh-and-bone whammy bar. Today, at his management office in Kensington, his hair is a couple of shades lighter and his nose is comfortably bulb-like. He tells me that he might need to rethink the stage outfits. All of his clothes are designed by Hilary Wili; she did the costumes for Downton Abbey but, Beck says, “She still finds time to stitch me something.” He does not have the sunken cheeks or “keyhole face” of his Stones peers – a result, he guesses, of a teenage lust for sweets and the lack of dentistry to support it. But he is so much a specimen of that generation that he even has the middle name to prove it: Arnold.

He, Jagger, Richards and Page were born within 11 months of each other towards the end the Second World War, and baby Clapton came five weeks before VE Day. According to Google Maps, you could drive from the family homes of Mick and Keith in Dartford to Clapton’s in Ripley, via Jimmy’s in Epsom and Jeff’s in Wallington, in an hour and 50 minutes. Suburbia, war stories, flannel trousers and a childhood conversion after hearing Bill Haley or Les Paul on the wireless: the background that gave birth to the British blues boom is well known. This was a musical ground zero for the sons of insurance clerks and factory workers; they may have heard guitars but they couldn’t see any, so they made them – Brian May (of Feltham, Middlesex) from a fireplace, Beck from cigar boxes. It was just another project alongside the boy-sized spaceship that he was constructing from the bashed-out insides of 400 Oxo tins. Hearing Les Paul for the first time or watching the Sputnik – it was all the same thing.

“Any information about guitars was so scarce. I remember getting a bus when I was 15 and going eight miles just to look at this guy’s catalogue of Fender,” he says. “He wouldn’t even let me in the house. He came all the way down to the garden gate and said, ‘Here you are, don’t dog-ear it,’ and held it out to me.”

After botched attempts at making your own instruments came guitars on hire purchase. “Don’t talk to me about hire purchase! There was this guy, he wasn’t old enough to be my dad but he offered to be my guarantor. He said, ‘I’ll tell them I’m your stepfather.’ Within a month, they’d sussed out he was nothing to do with me whatsoever and they snatched the guitar back. My dad went along and explained that we couldn’t afford it – so they waived the rest of the payments and I got the guitar.”

His father walked three miles to the station every day and three miles back. “All his life was cricket,” Beck says. His mother hoped to refine his musical tastes. “She kept telling me how nice the boy down the road was, who plays the marvellous piano. He came in the house once and played Moonlight Sonata and my mum nearly collapsed with delight. I thought, ‘Get that bastard out of there.’”

Like many of his contemporaries, Beck went from grammar school to art college. His sister had introduced him to Jimmy Page as a teenager. Page recommended Beck to the Yardbirds because he didn’t want to give up his own lucrative career as a session musician – the idea of the guitar hero as solipsistic soloing genius was still a few months away from being invented. It was two years before the “Clapton is God” graffito appeared around London.

Clapton was a blues purist, Beck a wizard with tone and tricks. They could probably have coexisted in moody rivalry but someone arrived in London “with 14-foot hair and playing the guitar with his teeth” and ruined it for both of them. Clapton walked offstage when Hendrix played with him at Regent Street Polytechnic. “Jimi steamrollered right through my life,” says Beck.

While Clapton was an “ogre” in his mind – he rolls up imaginary sleeves and prepares to punch – Hendrix was direct creative competition, which was far worse. “It wasn’t the muso thing that got me recognition in the beginning. It was doing ‘Wild Thing’,” he says. “I had to stop that because Jimi came along. I was doing all sorts of weird things, detuning the strings, using a repeat echo, and I thought, ‘I can’t do that any more.’ I had to jump out of one bus and get on another. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

The first bus he jumped – or was thrown – off was the “converted school bus” that carried the Yardbirds around the US on the TV presenter Dick Clark’s 1966 package tour. “Lots of racial animosity,” he recalls. “A couple of black acts on the bus that hated the sight of us, didn’t like us playing the blues because it was their music. Twenty hours a time on the road; we’ve come 3,000 miles to play three songs a night and then it’s back in the misery box. By the time I got to Amarillo, I’d thrown my towel in.

“I was in love with someone back here, too, so it didn’t take me much to get back to England. But then, sitting by the pool for a day, I thought, ‘I wish I hadn’t done this! She doesn’t want me here! And I don’t want to be here!’ At least I got to say to Eric, ‘Na-na-na-na-na – I went to America before you.’”

***

Beck tells his story in the way that is most amusing to him. He recently said that his temper results from a bang on the head he received when his headmaster ran him over. Yet the decisions he made were the result of serious soul-searching. In the mid-1970s, he was flown to Rotterdam to discuss the possibility of joining the Stones. “I’d been there two days and I hadn’t seen a Stone, and I thought, ‘Right, I’m witnessing what it’s like to be
a Stone – not playing, and having single malt whiskies.’”

He decided to get away under the cover of night. Down the corridor, from Keith Richards’s room, Betty Wright’s song “Clean Up Woman” was emanating from a little Dansette automatic-replay record player. He entered the room and hovered over the sleeping figure of Keith and lifted the arm off the record. He left the Stones with a note slipped under someone’s door.

“They were living the rock lifestyle of all rock lifestyles. I don’t think anyone will ever be like that again,” he says. “But I wouldn’t have been my own master. And that would be my whole being truncated. I thought, ‘Now you’ve made your choice. You will go down that path and you will stick to it.’

“I dearly wanted to tell them how grateful I was,” he adds, of the men he has seen countless times over the past 45 years. “Maybe another time.”

The truth was, Beck had already had two experiences that would shape his musical life. His group had been on tour with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the shape-shifting jazz-rock tribe fronted by John McLaughlin, Yorkshire’s boy wonder who’d trained with Miles Davis. The two bands had a block booking on American Airlines, taking up the whole front of the plane, and it was joyous, he says, because they were all Monty Python fans.

“It was the refinement of McLaughlin that presented a way out for me,” Beck says. “Arriving at the soundcheck and watching him and the sax player trading solos, I thought, ‘This is me.’ He has such knowledge of scales, and he tells the story within the scale. Playing with McLaughlin, and then the Stones – dang, dang, dang – can
you imagine?”

Although he reels off the rock’n’roll anecdotes like Johnny Rotten or Wilko Johnson, when he talks about music he changes. “Mahavishnu's drummer Billy Cobham was the best I’d ever heard. Not loud, that’s not the secret – powerful as hell when he wanted to be – but 90 per cent of the time he was just dancing with the drums, you know? Just like a butterfly, all over them.”

His second revelation came when he was booked to work with George Martin, who produced Blow by Blow, the 1975 album that showed off the full range of his jazz sensibilities and made him a tax exile into the bargain. Martin “was a massive pair of wings. Just knowing that somebody with such sensitive ears was approving of what was going on, you were flying. I can’t explain the joy. I found it almost impossible to deliver what he was looking for every day. I would feel the cut-off point, thinking, ‘I don’t know anything else I can impress him with.’ The band were looking at each other with new-found love for music, but with us playing.”

Martin encouraged Beck to play the piano, picking out skeletal melodies unhampered by style and padding. Beck finds fast playing physically upsetting. “It sounds impressive but it doesn’t mean a thing.”

Blow by Blow paid for his 16th-century farmhouse in Wadhurst, East Sussex, in 1976. He moved there with his girlfriend at the time, the model Celia Hammond, and Hammond’s rescued stray cats had the run of the 80 acre park. They split up some years later – her animal trust is still run from the town; he is the patron of one in Tunbridge Wells. He had been married at the age of 19 to Patricia Brown from Crawley. The couple’s first possession for their marital home was an Afghan hound; the fees from Beck’s band the Nightshift scarcely covered the dog food. The future Julia Carling was another girlfriend: she left college to live with him at 18 in the early 1980s but later said that, despite the age gap, he needed someone to mother him. He still lives in Wadhurst, with his wife since 2005, Sandra Cash, his sheepdogs Wilf and Paddy, a ewe called Bubba and a crow called Dave. He has been a vegetarian for 47 years.

I ask him about the old beef with Clapton. “Eric wanted to be the underdog,” he summarises, “the back-room boy, and I turned out to be that person, while he was like: ‘LAAAAAYLA!’”

Were their temperaments too similar? “The approach to playing maybe so,” he says, “but outside that, one of my touchstones is humour. I have to have people around who are of a certain strain of humour. I can’t deal with people who have no humour. I’m not saying he doesn’t . . .”

On 10 August, Beck will play the Holly­wood Bowl in Los Angeles, covering 50 years of guitar music in two hours. He asked Clapton to play but he is suffering from the nerve condition peripheral neuropathy. Beck is worried about him; he says that he googled
it and sent Clapton a list of websites offering treatment.

In technique and innovation, the two haven’t really been competitors for years. In 2007, Beck did a run of gigs at Ronnie Scott’s in London with one of his best discoveries, Tal Wilkenfeld, an Australian bass prodigy who turned heads because of her prodigious capabilities and possibly because she was a 20-year-old woman in the male-dominated world of instrumental jazz. In 2010, his album Emotion & Commotion included a version of “Nessun Dorma”, which won him his eighth Grammy. His new one, Loud Hailer, features the guitar playing of Carmen Vandenberg and the voice of Rosie Bones, Bill Oddie’s daughter. The girls wrote the songs with him in front
of a fire with a crate of Prosecco. After our interview, they’re coming to the office for a meeting, with another crate of Prosecco.

“The right time to record is when you’re not quite ahead of yourself,” he says. “You’re probing and you’re treading carefully and it sounds that way, like you’re telling a story. If you flash, people’s ears clam up.”

Of the top three guitarists in the world, Beck is OK playing with John McLaughlin (“I’ve done John”), although he has turned down an invitation to appear with McLaughlin’s “butterfly” drummer Billy Cobham (“I’m not up to that standard”). However, he is not sure that he can go to see the third player in the Planet Earth axe triumvirate, Pat Metheny, when he appears at Ronnie Scott’s the week we speak.

“They asked me if I wanted to go,” he says. “But I don’t know if I can see any other guitarists. It might just send me a curve ball. Maybe I’ll go. Or here’s what I’ll do. I’ll sit in Bar Italia across the way, getting plastered, and you can tell me how it was.”

“Loud Hailer” is released by ATCO Records

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt