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Julian Cope and the psychic underworld

A visionary and ambitious cultural critic.

Copendium: an Expedition into the Rock’n’Roll Underworld
Julian Cope
Faber & Faber, 736pp, £30

“Babies”, “kiddies”, “chil’en”, “brothers’n’sisters”, “motherfuckers” – Julian Cope’s address to his readers throughout Copendium is magnificently direct. He is always didactic, never patronising. He doesn’t assume he knows more about this stuff than we babies do; he knows he knows more.

The main reason for Cope’s ex cathedra tone is that Copendium began not as a self-contained book but as a series of album-of-the-month reviews on Cope’s Head Heritage website. So, although they were entirely public, available to anyone with browser access, they were also a private conversation between Cope and his remaining/growing/mutating – I won’t say “audience” – devotees.

Ever since 1995, when Cope self-published his Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards, I have been among his followers, verbally and musically, if not ethically. He began earlier than this with his raggedly glorious autobiography, Head- On, reliving his 1980s pop fame in the Teardrop Explodes. He has since wandered wherever the fuck he wanted, detailing “how the postwar Japanese blew their minds on rock’n’roll” in Japrocksampler and completing an erudite odyssey between prehistoric sites in The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European.

Although Cope consistently talks down to his devotees, it’s mainly because he is sure we’re down to begin with. Because we’re the heads, we’re already hip to the mind-expansion trip – all he’s doing is pointing us towards certain instances of it that we might have missed.

At a couple of points in Copendium, Cope references his culture heroes. One, Robert Graves, might be predictable. Cope’s writing includes numerous riffs on The White Goddess. His latest concludes, as it must, with a mini-hymn to Dorian, his long-term muse and incarnation of “the Diva whose beauty, fertility and timeless and effortless ensnaring of men’s hearts has made her the subject of all the great rock’n’roll songs”. Fine and dandy in the underworld. But how many rock’n’roll writers would ever know the name of, let alone feel moved to quote, Thomas Carlyle? Cope does this to the effect, central to his beliefs, that: “The obscene fudge of western culture’s hobbling, guilt-obsessed political correctness can never be more than ‘asemblance of the truth’.”

Cope believes, as all heads do, that music is worthless unless it is truly social; that the musician is a nomadic outlaw who visits sedentary conurbations and uses highly technological means (drums, lyres, Gibson Flying Vs, Moogs) to blow the tiny minds of the straights; that the tiny minds need to be blown and that the most efficient ways to achieve this are loud music and strong drugs. Many of the reviews here contain an encouragement to get out of it in order to get properly into it.

One of the things that makes Cope the best music writer going is that he listens to these albums more intensely, more bodily and psychically, than others. He won’t accept just being a music writer. He’s a Gravesian, Carlylean social critic. He’s more than prepared to boom, when necessary. He’ll even prophesy. And this is where there’s a potential problem. Although Cope still releases songs with “revolution” in the titles and eagerly anticipates the end of the obscene fudge of western culture, when he finally offers a vision of the future, it becomes extremely bathetic:

OK, as ye heathen with a grievance against the organised religion and a belief in the will of rock’n’rollers and other activists to change things, it’s my estimation that by the mid-2050s, the Way of [Black] Sabbath will have become recognised by society as a strange but acceptable route for a young heathen man to follow. The mass return of organised religion in the early 21st century will inevitably have spurred true rebels and stimulated refuseniks to defy the incoming conservatism by acts of flagrancy and non-collective thinking . . . Even hardy outsider heathens would start to consider the possibilities, as the government, recognising the zeitgeist and themselves raised on loud rebel music, cut tax breaks to those who admit to practising “rock’n’roll”.

No, Julian, no! This isn’t worthy of the “archdrude” you claim to be. You’re not just after a cheap cut from the Kapitalist Kash Kow (as you would put it). You’re after a righteous social reconfiguration, in which the forces of unreason find their many anarchic places.

I feel like I’m being some old Frankfurt school Marxist, demanding of the latest sonic barricade-builder, “Jah, vot will be your zocial brogramme?” Yet there is a real split – a real tear down the fabric of the universe – between the words “head” and “heritage”. The question is whether the latter succeeds in totally negating the former.

On the glibbest surface, there is little to connect Cope’s passions for megalithic stone circles with the collected works of the Swedish freak-out merchants Pärson Sound. There’s an aside possible here about Julian being into all forms of cock rock. More deeply, though, there is an utter kinship between stone circles and vinyl discs. Both are vestiges of lost social occasions.

We don’t know for certain what “happenings” took place at Stonehenge. Similarly, the utopian expectations of every drumbeat on the Pärson Sound LPs are gone from us. This is why both have become heritage, not praxis, and why the shaman/showman Cope has taken on the unlikely role of creating Alfred Wainwright-type hill-walking guides to the Munro peaks of psychedelic experience. Here’s the thing, though: how do you curate vastation? Is it really enough to point out the public right of way to the psychic underworld?

When I began writing this, I thought I might (apparently incongruously) review Copendium alongside Caitlin Moran’s similarly punningly titled grab-bag of cultural commentary, Moranthology. There are lots of parallels to be drawn. Both writers are, within their arena, the best; both craft world-class one-liners and putdowns; both establish themselves very often as their own fall guys; both know that the way we live now is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Cope is clearly the more ambitious cultural critic of the two, because he is the more visionary. Moran can’t get heavy on her audience, because then she would lose the lightness of touch that is her all-in-all. People don’t want thumbtacks in their cupcakes. Moran addresses social beings rather than, as Cope does, gods who are failing to fulfil their transcendental destiny.

That Cope brings such cosmic questions into play shows how far beyond most mere music writers or cultural critics he is. And his judgements are invariably right. He says things that have long needed to be said: “Hell, a good deal of the more lysergic offerings of the early 21st century actually cacked big logs from a great height upon the heads of many so-called original British and US Sixties ‘psyche classics’.” The same holds true of rock’n’roll writing. Cope is better than Lester Bangs, because he is vaster.

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis