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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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide