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Perspectives: Jah Wobble, musician, on William Blake

"For years, people were telling me that I’d love William Blake, but I had never felt like poetry related to me. When I thought of Blake I thought of “Jerusalem” and Last Night of the Proms and all that flag-waving, which put me off.

Then finally a friend of mine gave me the old tatty Penguin Classics edition of Blake. At the time I was on a pretty heavy spiritual kick and some of the stuff he said really felt like it applied to me, particularly “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” (from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). That was a big deal, because I used to be a heavy drinker. I was making some very weird music that turned out to be the perfect backing for a spoken-word project based on his poems – which I released in 1996 as The Inspiration of William Blake (30 Hertz Records).

I don’t think anybody really understands Blake. Songs of Innocence and of Experience seems pretty straightforward, but even there if you scratch the surface it gets really heavy. He’s been hijacked by retired colonels in Surrey who think he represents their Albion, and he absolutely doesn’t.

Blake was nonconformist and imaginative and rule-breaking. If Blake had been my age in the 1970s, he would have been on the punk scene, without a doubt. He was a regular London bloke who worked for a living.

Some art critics have dismissed his paintings, but there’s a naivety, a childishness there which verges on the fantastic. I don’t think that’s a fault, I find it charming. His painting of Cain and Abel shows that he wasn’t bothered with realism; he idealises figures. Just look at those strong, rippling muscles, not even six-packs, but nine-packs or something! With the paintings there’s a sense that somehow there’s more than what you literally see on the page. You feel his presence.

Blake was a mystic, very close to eastern wisdom. Someone like Krishnamurti would say that you can enjoy a beautiful sunset, but you’re in trouble as soon as you try to cling on to it, to take a picture or anything. I don’t remember in which poem, but that’s just what Blake says – when joy comes, it’s lovely, but don’t hold on to it. Kiss it as it flies past. Just kiss the joy. It’s very wise advice."

Interview by Daniel Trilling
William Blake’s 1809 exhibition is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 4 October
Jah Wobble’s “Memoirs of a Geezer” will be published in September by Serpent’s Tail