The Wild Swans’ Paul Simpson talks books and early 80s Liverpool with Getintothis’ Mark Brend ahead of his book release.
The band recorded the Sleeping Gas EP on Bill Drummond/Dave Balfe’s Zoo Records before Simpson left to form the Wild Swans, whose debut – The Revolutionary Spirit – Drummond considers the label’s best single.
Now, 40 years on, Simpson has launched his memoir Incandescent with the crowdfunding publisher Unbound.
I signed Incandescent to Unbound because it’s not just a rock’n’roll read, more a perceptive, picturesque account of life lived in pursuit of the muse.
From flat-sharing in bohemian poverty with Courtney Love to serious illness in the jungles of Sri Lanka, Simpson is a participant observer.
You have the sense of him living the moment while simultaneously standing back and taking notes.
Anyone looking for insight into late 70s/early 80s post punk Liverpool will love Incandescent, but it also expresses a heterogeneous creative life, with Simpson far more than your average indie hero.
These days, from a home full of icons and taxidermy in Waterloo, Liverpool, he writes for radio and the stage, paints and continues to make music.
I found him there in typically loquacious mood, sporting the look of an artist recovering from TB in a sanatorium in Northern Italy, circa 1912.
Getintothis: You were in the thick of things in a key era in Liverpool’s creative history – what did the city feel like then?
Paul Simpson: There was a crackle in the air, a raw electricity that is hard to conceive of it now. In the late 70s and early 80s Liverpool city centre wasn’t a fashionable place to live. Rents were cheap and vast warehouse spaces lay empty everywhere.
So, like a centrifuge, artists and freaks from the suburbs were drawn into the interior and concentrated there. Dozens of outrageous and fascinating characters creating and sharing original and abstract thought. They would be considered eccentrics now.
Getintothis: Many people hail Revolutionary Spirit as one of their favourite singles of all time. How does that feel, and did you know it was something special when you wrote/recorded it?
Paul: It’s the perfect situation for someone as artistically schizophrenic as me.
Because our debut single was regarded as something of a post-punk classic upon its release, audiences were, and still are more disposed to forgive some of my less celebrated artistic detours.
Getintothis: You’ve got a multi-faceted creative life now. Tell us a bit about the music, writing and art you are making.
Paul: Well, apart from writing the next Wild Swans album I am currently collaborating with ex-Montgolfier Brothers member – Mark Tranmer – on a side project, two tracks for a single.
So far they sound like the opening and closing themes to a grainy, lost-for-50-years film.
Alongside the memoir, I’m writing a collection of bizarre short stories under the title The Nutwood Strangler.
As far as the visual art goes, I collage on top of Victorian chromolithographs of stuffy clergymen until they are the stuff of trippy nightmares. The oil painting started about five years ago after I had a bit of a Sapphire and Steele moment while kayaking on a Scottish sea loch.
Stupidly, I’d paddled out too far at twilight and in the space of about three minutes a mist poured down from the mountainsides enveloping the entire loch, until sea and sky were the same dense, impenetrable, mirk.
The tide turned and I had no idea which direction land was. I was in danger of being dragged out to the Minch, the deepest water on the continental shelf.
Something told me to stop panicking and simply lay the oars across my lap and fully experience the fear and the remarkable sensation of trespassing in sacred space.
My canvases are the painting equivalent of ambient music really. Imagine rubbing a turpentine soaked rag across the surface of a Casper David Friedrich painting until the figures and landscape dissolve. All that’s left is the unsettling atmosphere.
Getintothis: You are writing a memoir mainly covering your musical life. What are your top 3 books about music, and why?
Paul: Mine, of course will be the glorious exception, but the truth is I don’t particularly enjoy books by or about musicians. I did enjoy Patti Smith’s Just Kids and M Train, but then music wasn’t really at the core of either. Instead can I answer the question – what are the three books that made the greatest impression upon me and why?
By the age of 10, I’d exhausted the children’s section of my local library so wandered in to find my mother who was looking in the art section. The spine of one particular book caught my eye.
Pulling it out. I read how, as a child, the author had tried to murder his younger sibling by jamming his grandfather’s cavalry sword across the bottom of the slide in his local playground.
Well, as you can imagine, I was hooked. Ignoring the librarian’s advice to pick something more age appropriate, I checked it out using one of my mum’s adult tickets. The book was The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. The accidental discovery of this astonishing autobiography proved to be a defining moment in my life.
I can take or leave his paintings but I cannot overestimate the impact this remarkable book had on me as child. By chapter four my little head had expanded like the inside of the Tardis. I renewed that library book every month until its spine cracked and one day they took it out of circulation.
I was 19 and living hand to mouth in a first floor bed-sitting room at 14 Rodney Street, Liverpool when I discovered Hunger by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. His 1890 novel about a starving young man’s doomed, hallucinatory love as he tramps the streets of Kristiania resonated deeply with me. I don’t recall how it first fell into my hands now, but it’s one of those special books I re-read every five years or so, just to reconnect with my younger self.
Because so many of my favourite books fall into the same Venn diagram as Hunger (i.e. tortured young men suffering an existential crisis), I’ll pick something more life affirming. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by the naturalist Annie Dillard. Scalpel sharp, her poetic precision and liberation of arcane words is astonishing. To me, her writing resembles a perfect mash up of Elizabeth Smart and David Henry Thoureau. She’s unapologetically religious, but in a fiery Old Testament way.
There’s no benign savior Jesus here, just her enthusiastic awe and fear at the majesty of creation, its fecundity and its dispassionate cruelty. Because I operate along very straight lines, the book struck a deep chord with me when I chanced upon sometime in 1978. Dillard describes observing a frog, peering up from the surface the river by her cabin.
While she watches, the light in the creature’s eyes is extinguished as its body collapses in on itself. Unseen beneath the water, a parasite has injected a venom that allows it to suck the liquefied meat from the frog’s body. She’s so deep into her subject at times, her writing becomes mystical; often bordering on the psychedelic. Spanning the microcosm to the macrocosm of creation within a single sentence, Dillard’s writing is, in a very real sense, illuminating. I’ve given copies of this book to at least half a dozen friends in my life and not one of them ever reported back. I think she’s a little too majestic for the uninitiated.
- Paul Simpson’s Incandescent’s publishing date is currently TBC.