For the first 10 years that I spent buying and treasuring his records, Kevin Ayers – the British singer-guitarist-songwriter who died on February 18th at 68, at his home in France – was an irresistible mystery: an exotic, carefree genius of that nation's psychedelic and progressive rock, accessible to this country mostly via hard-to-find import releases and never in person. He toured America once, for several months in 1968, as the singer-bassist in the improvising pop-art group Soft Machine, opening shows for Jimi Hendrix. That, apparently, was enough. He made no great efforts to return. The only time I saw Ayers perform live was at a New York club show in 1980, leading a band that featured the great, undersung English guitarist Ollie Halsall.
I was there and grateful. Ayers was everything I knew from his golden-era records on the Harvest label, including Joy of a Toy (1969), Whatevershebringswesing (1972) and Bananamour (1973): a wry, articulate observer of romantic failing and bohemian langour with a velvety baritone and a gift for eccentric, addicting melodies. Ayers made a pop music soaked in acid, Beaujolais and Ibiza sunshine, charged with an explorer's restlessness that ensured he never made the same album twice.
A Reluctant Star
I actually met Ayers before that New York visit, during a rare promotional encounter in 1977 for one of his infrequent U.S. releases, Yes, We Have No Mañanas. He signed my copy of the LP, something I especially treasure now because most of the green ink has faded. But the impression of his signature remains – an apt metaphor for the casual, often dismissive way Ayers passed through cult stardom, even at his busiest and best in the early and mid-Seventies. The British DJ John Peel, an ardent fan, famously declared that "Kevin Ayers' talent is so acute that you could perform major eye surgery with it."
But Ayers guarded that talent too well, reluctant to exploit his commercial potential and suspicious of the rewards. "If you're aiming for the sky, it's too high," he sang in "Star," the opening song on Mañanas. "Unless you're prepared to die, don't try for a star." As early as 1971, Ayers summarized the contradiction in his gifts – pop brains with a wayward rocker's heart; magnetic good looks and a mistrust of surface charms – in the title of a perversely cheerful, rockabilly-flavored single, "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes."
Songs for Insane Times
In the Eighties, Ayers fell out of favor with major British labels and into heroin addiction. There were extended periods of invisibility broken by occasional records with heartening flashes of his Seventies prime. That bleak streak was finally broken by 2007's The Unfairground (Lo-Max), a strong vocal and writing comeback made with the fond assistance of younger disciples such as the band Teenage Fanclub and older stalwart friends like British folk singer Bridget St. John and Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (who passed away in 2009).
It is now a reassuring finale to a body of work that deserves and rewards rediscovery – the original LPs; Ayers' often experimental BBC sessions and live-radio concerts; the weird, errant singles that were his curious idea of hits, such as 1970's bright and dizzy boogie "Singing a Song in the Morning." (An early take, with the working title "Religious Experience," included a barely audible guitar played by Pink Floyd refugee Syd Barrett.) I recommend without reservation everything from the first Soft Machine album to Mañanas. There is also much to examine and enjoy in what followed, particularly The Unfairground. For beginners, Ayers' Seventies solo work has been decisively anthologized on the 2008 four-CD set, Songs for Insane Times.
"We talk all night and we're all turned on/ Everybody heard him singing his song/ Telling us there was work to be done/ And we all sung that chorus, 'I am the walrus,'" Ayers crooned in that rich deep register, backed by his ex-mates in Soft Machine, in the title song of that collection, a gentle mocking of pop idols and rock godliness from Joy of a Toy. Ayers never reconciled his ability to attract attentive, faithful fans with the price in integrity and freedom. But he made wonderful records out of that struggle, with invention and flamboyant spirit. In that way, Ayers was, whether he liked it or not, always a star.