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Old rockers with a Peter Pan syndrome

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars Nick Duerden

Headline, pp.400, 20

What do the following individuals have in common: a political activist from Suffolk; a chartered psychologist from Oxfordshire, who enjoys playing golf at weekends; a funeral celebrant from Liverpool; the Birmingham-based chairperson of the Ladder Association Training Committee (‘When it’s right to use a ladder, use the ladder, and get trained to use it safely’); a pop star from LA? The answer is that all of them were pop stars, with the obvious exception of the pop star from LA who still is one. But even Robbie Williams used to be bigger.

In Exit Stage Left Nick Duerden sketches the afterlives of two dozen former or current musicians – ‘afterlife’ here signifying whatever befell them subsequent to the moment of their greatest triumph or notoriety, be it a string of sold-out dates at Knebworth (Robbie) or a drunken appearance on a late-night Channel 4 talk show (Wayne Hussey from the Leeds goth band the Mission).

Some of his interviewees, such as the singer and latterly teacher Natalie Merchant, are out of the game: ‘I look at these people, people like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, and I think to myself: If I were you, I’d just go home and enjoy my garden and my grand-children.’ Others will never say die. ‘Oh, I’d love to have another number one record before I’m 80,’ says an ebullient Leo Sayer: ‘That’s what drives me, and I’m always trying to prove myself. Hey, if Bob Dylan can do it, then why not me?’ As Duerden notes drily: ‘There may be any number of reasonable explanations as to why not, but Sayer’s drive can hardly be faulted.’

One problem for musicians who achieve celebrity, however fleetingly, when young is that they can become trapped in adolescence – not just theirs, but everyone else’s. As Justin Currie from the dependably tuneful mortgage-rockers Del Amitri observes:

The worst-case scenario is becoming famous for something you’re not proud of, or desire to outgrow. You start to wonder: are we the thing that we wanted to be or the thing that the market made us? That’s not a very pleasant question to consider, when you started out as a punk and are inspired by much more left-field music than your audience would either contemplate or tolerate.

It’s a dilemma Duerden and his subjects return to repeatedly: how to keep the flame of inspiration alive in a business seemingly designed to snuff it out? Whether it’s Gary Lightbody from the colossally popular Snow Patrol or toilers at the margins such as Sananda Maitreya (the artist formerly, and still much better, known as Terence Trent D’Arby), the message is the same: the creative industries cannot bear very much creativity. ‘I am still driven by the work, but just as much by the need to stay sane,’ Maitreya testifies, before conceding he misses his 1980s peak and what he memorably defines as ‘the unbridled bold naked stupidity of youth’s vibrant electric hubris’.

Of course, the unbridled bold naked stupidity of youth’s vibrant electric hubris comes before a fall, i.e. middle age. There seems to be general agreement among interviewees that the key to a long career in the music business is to hang on until people start referring to you as a legend: to hope you get old enough to play the Sunday afternoon slot at Glastonbury before you die. The tricky bit is navigating the 30-year doldrums in the middle, during which many musicians either sink or wash up on the shore of day jobs and training people how to use ladders safely.

Exit Stage Left is a funny and poignant book, drawing on Duerden’s considerable experience as a journalist and interviewer. From S Club 7’s Paul Cattermole (‘You will be tested on the plateau. The question is: do you have the temerity to bust through it?’) to the octogenarian folk singer Shirley Collins (‘I ought to be satisfied by this stage, but somehow I’m not’), he understands what motivates this strange bunch of people. ‘Artists may have had their time in the sun,’ he writes, ‘but they don’t really go away; they don’t disappear and stop doing what they’ve always done. Of course they don’t – they’re artists.’

Matthew Specktor’s recent memoir Always Crashing in the Same Car explored the seeming inevitability of creative failure. Duerden’s book offers a brighter prospect – that, however slim, there’s always the chance of a comeback: ‘Robbie Williams is the pop star who had his cake and ate it, and who now wants, as perhaps all pop stars ultimately do, more cake. Who’s ever truly satisfied with the crumbs?’

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