Afternoon Tea & Chat with Jarvis Cocker

Helensburgh Tower Digital Arts Centre

4th December 2016

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Credit given where credit is due. Argyll and Bute seaside town Helensburgh is not an eminent presence within Scottish music folklore but the remarkable transformation of the St Columba church in the heart of the town into a modern performance space, digital education hub, exhibition room, television studio and recording suite, whilst retaining some of its most redeeming features such as the church organ, has breathed new life into the Victorian church. Add some exceptional talents travelling to the town courtesy of Café Improv curator and indie musician, Future Pilot AKA Sushil K. Dade; former member of the Soup Dragons, BMX Bandits and Telstar Ponies, and a lease of new life is stirring in the old girl.

A lengthy queue consisting of the old Glasgow indie mafia, resplendent in winter parka coats, snaked around the side of the building for the third installation of the Café Improv sessions and the arrival of Pulp frontman and radio broadcaster Jarvis Cocker. Inside, a cosy stage was assembled consisting of four lampshades, couches, fairy-lights, piano and drum-kit exuding an enchanting façade to welcome host and interviewer, BMX Bandit frontman Duglas T Stewart. Stepping aside ticket issues at the front desk for the sold-out event, the scene was set to welcome one of the leading figures from the Britpop generation.

Easy chat bounced between Stewart and Cocker, including some of the latter’s earliest memories of beginning a band, using his friends’ interest in his sister Saskia to get them onside. “The shyness I had as a child made me want to start a band as it would mean people would have to come up to me rather than the other way around”, Cocker concedes, “Hi Jarv, I’d want them to say. I really like what you did there”. That feeling of isolation continued as the Sheffield-born pop star revealed his dreams of being a spaceman in his juvenile days. “Perhaps that’s why I associated with the ‘2,000 Light Years From Home’ 7-inch single by the Rolling Stones in my mum’s collection so much – that feeling of being so far away from home was so alluring. Along with your usual comic books, I would read space annuals that were available at the time”. Encouraging the crowd to close their eyes, host Stewart played the song in its entirety to the point where it became a little uncomfortable.

While the chat was pleasant, the congenial qualities between Stewart with Cocker did appear to be somewhat homogeneous at points when discussing interest in androgyny, music, and social ineptness. Little pockets of insight to how Cocker’s interesting mind works presented themselves in an art piece called “Country Rock” by Peter Doid featuring a rainbow on a bridge which appeared on the sleeve of one of Pulp’s albums. “It appears to be some urban thing for badgers or deer, but the rainbow could be a portal to some other place. I like when you get a recognisable event but then a mythical thing happens”. Stewart agrees, offering “We both came from post-industrial, grey landscapes – you can transport yourself on a mind excursion through music”. Heavy, man! After a slight blip with music over the PA, Cocker reveals that after an accidental fall out a window sent him to hospital, he found more time to write his own thoughts down, or “bring your own details into music and bring it to life”. This point about Cocker’s writing would have been a fascinating insight into his lyricism and poetry but unfortunately the interview steered towards production by Scott Walker on Pulp’s fan-favourite “The Trees” from 2001 album ‘We Love Life’, and the opportunity had passed.

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An interval signalled the end of the interview session, allowing the audience to indulge in samosas and chai tea. Whilst a snaking queue appeared to confuse itself around the venue, an unfortunate delay that could have been better spent listening to today’s guest unfurled whilst the smarter fans leapt upon the stage, keen to grab the opportunity to meet with their hero. Cocker was pleasant towards those who queued in their numbers to meet him but looked suitably ill-at-ease too, likely keen to take a break of his own. It could be easy to criticise the organisation at this point after two previous Café Improv sessions must surely have encountered similar situations, but with young girls collecting rubbish in refuse bags and friendly ushers peppered around to offer assistance wherever possible, one was quickly reminded that a number of volunteers are used to make the Digital Arts Tower, as director Brian Keating made a quick impassioned speech referring to the particular detail that the Tower hadn’t received any grants – yet. What was being achieved so far was honourable, if a little rugged around the edges in places.

In the second half, Cocker read an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ in tribute to the point that Wilde had appeared at this venue in 1888 in a programme entitled ‘How to dress as a gentleman’. It was a profound acknowledgement of honest writing as Cocker quoted “Art is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Leaving guest James Yorkston to take to the stage, the capped Fifer received a warm welcome from the packed audience. Opening with “B’s Jig”, Yorkston’s romantic lyrics and in-between songs chat were perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Each miserable ode was accompanied by a hugely amusing anecdote and having only returned from India 48hrs previously, the Scottish songwriter was unsurprisingly fatigued during each performance – but with its charms. A touching dedication to his late friend and bassist Dougie Paul rounded off a 4-song set with the gorgeous “Broken Wave (A Blues For Doogie)” before apologising ‘Sorry, that was a bit….’, before trailing off. Cocker returned to the stage to perform a wonderful duet with Yorkston on a cover of folk singer Lal Watterson’s “Scarecrow” before an over-needed rendition of Pulp’s “Babies” with Cocker sharing in guitar-duties, kicking from the knee in hallmark fashion.

One further short break later & a resounding version of Pulp’s “Disco 2000” alongside house band The Poppadoms, the evening was concluded with a film-choice selected by Cocker, opting for Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns”, rounding off a fine afternoon of music, film, and food. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember that Jarvis Cocker has been involved in creating music since 1978 and one couldn’t help but feel that a wealth of fascinating anecdotes, advice, and perhaps a couple more songs would have been greatly welcomed but overall, there is stepping stones being planted by the Digital Arts Tower and Café Improv which have to be commended. If I could just get the Tower’s staff to remove a block on my phone number (Checks have been tried and tested, guys – loosen up), then I would be delighted to return and see its progression over the coming months.

Reviewer : Stephen Watt

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