The Intellectual Stalker
I first discovered the music of Momus (aka Nicholas Currie) in 1989 with the release of his album "Don't Stop The Night". He was at the time going through his 'after hours Pet Shop Boys' phase: the music mainly electronic and his voice not a million miles away from Neil Tennant's delicate nasal whine. Over the years, although the style of Momus' music has altered to reflect his current musical tastes, the one area where he remains consistent and truly out on his own is in his lyrical content. Here is a man totally in command of language and the power of words, with tales so subtly subversive that they could quite easily wash over you on first hearing. Lurking within, however, is a might and manipulation that warrants an attentive ear.
On "Don't Stop the Night" he touches on a diverse range of themes, with tales of cabinet-minister infidelity, necrophilic necking in a cabriolet, wry commentaries on the rise of consumerism in the late 1980s and voyeuristic meanderings around the West End of London.
Perhaps the most disturbing track on the album is "The Guitar Lesson", a song essentially about the abuse of a child. Momus takes on the role of guitar tutor with more on his mind than a mere guitar lesson when he and a school-uniform clad girl are left alone in a "now-empty flat". It was this particular theme more than anything else that led to a discussion of the possibility of Momus ever playing live. Would it be unwise for Momus to open himself up publicly, so to speak, whilst expounding such 'twisted' ethics? I took the view that Momus was only playing a role in that song, and that we never vilified other artists when they played dubious characters in films or plays. Momus himself, I have since learnt, describes his work and indeed the whole 'Momus' concept as an avatar or mask behind which the real man can hide.
It was during 1997, some seven years on from the first moment I first listened to Momus in the solitude of my bedroom, that I was able to hear the music 'in the flesh', as he lined up a handful of gigs in London before going on tour in Europe. These shows were intimate, cabaret affairs, where Momus played a selection of old and new material, using guitar, portable sequencer and backing tapes. He was amiable and relaxed, chatting with the audience. At times he took requests, though, more often than not, he plucked a title from the holler of the crowd and had to claim sadly that he couldn't remember the chords, let alone the words. In his first few shows, he often relied on notes in front of him to perform his new material.
I came to these gigs on the strength of material that was largely seven years old, but I thought that if they were half as good live then it would be more than enough. As things turned out they were incredible shows, and since then the obsession has spawned. Momus, already the creator of a collection of great poetical albums, proved to be a whole new paradigm of intellectual pop. And, at his last concert in London, he finished with "The Guitar Lesson".
"When you're not mainstream you're out of reach - And the shops won't stock anything off beat"
The new 'live' Momus coincided with a new album and the end of the artist's self-imposed exile in Paris, back to London. The album "Ping Pong" was road-tested during his summer shows, and was a collection of witty, sometimes poignant songs, spanning a new set of themes and concerns.
I was hooked by his freshness and craved the album's release. The shows were a work in progress: we could see the man at his craft. The delayed but eventual release even had a recording of heckling from his ICA appearance spliced onto the front of "His Majesty the Baby". It is a prized possession, which the artist and his fans can treasure.
But who are his fans, and how did they come to hear of him? Everyone I have introduced to his music has been turned on and never looked back, and those to whom I have only mentioned him in passing have looked at me with hungry eyes. Yet despite this, no one I have spoken to has ever known of him before I mentioned him.
The central problem for cult figures such as Momus is that their work remains hard to obtain. Mainstream channels of publicity like radio, TV and the press remain exclusive. Momus rarely gets a mention in the weekly music press these days, apart from the occasional (though frequently disparaging) album review. News of forthcoming gigs is virtually non-existent, and to this day I have never heard, nor heard of, a single note of his recorded output played on a radio station anywhere. The problem is compounded by the record shops, whose range of stock seems to become more conservative with each passing day.
It is a catch-22 situation, dictated by the conditions of demand and supply. Shops don't want to take risks and so won't stock anything that isn't guaranteed to sell, and as long as non-mainstream artists like Momus are denied access to the mass market, their demand remains limited. To ensure mainstream acceptance it is important to reach the 'lazy consumer'. In the case of Momus and his ilk, the consumer must reach the artist rather than the other way round.
Having said all this, what if Momus was given A-listed air play on major radio stations, heavy rotation on MTV, and a six page special in the Sunday Times Magazine? Would he be playing to the wrong market? More to the point, would he really want to be a pop star in this the true commercial sense? There is a somewhat selfish streak in me, which says that Momus would not be the same if everybody knew about him and was familiar with his work, as if he would be soiled or watered down in some way. As for the man himself, I suspect he feels torn between being happy with where he is at (the margins) as against the idea of being a successful and famous 'Pop Star' in the traditional sense. On the one hand, he gives the impression that he is above and beyond the manipulation of the music industry and frequently pokes fun at the system: he claimed, for example, that he was dropped from Creation Records in order to make room for Oasis! On the other hand, there does seem to be a streak of envy or jealousy surfacing occasionally in his work. In "How to get and stay famous" (a fantastically emotional plead of a song) for instance, he acknowledges the success of peer group artists who one by one have 'made it' in their respective field, but is left wondering why he has been denied the opportunity to "spread [his] wings and fly".
Pop outfit 'Pulp' may provide a clue to the 'what if' question, and Momus must make a comparison between himself and Jarvis Cocker. In a last ditch attempt to become commercially successful, he was asked to produce one of their records. It didn't work for him, but it certainly did for them. The difference further down the line now is that Pulp are obliged to be seen and heard, where as Momus, vacuum-packed with freshness, purely wants to be.
"You're an intellectual
stalker - with an electronic web crawler
Still, in an age on the brink of change, where the artist will soon be able to side step the might of the industry and self-publish and promote, the record companies continue to run up enormous bills in extortionate advertising fees and world-wide rights agreements, not to mention the mortgageable video shoots.
Momus, however, is making a break for it. He's not been talking about it, but acting on the new developments and buying into the freedom of the web. And it is from his website that I have been able to get to know the 'World of Momus'. It is excellent, not only because it is the only resource I have to obtain information regarding his forth-coming appearances and releases, but also because of Momus's own enthusiasm for the Internet. He updates it himself. He writes lengthy articles about all kinds of things that interest him and supplement his music. He floods you with information about other 'outsider' artists (many of whom he knows from connections with the Japanese music scene) and he pastes bucket loads of candid photos of himself dashing about his business. It is so much more than anything you would get from the mainstream, so much 'closer to you'.
In his song "Closer to You", Momus talks of stalking. He glides from one moment of voyeurism to another, from 'the Circle Line girl' to an art student whom he would love to take home with him (gently stowed away in her portfolio). It's almost an accidental stalking, with him watching their behaviour and altering his own in order to get closer to his subject. It is a delightful and well-meaning ballad, mirroring in places Woody Allen's "Everybody Says I love You" (1997). Allen's character, with inside information on the whole internal make-up of a woman he admires, shapes his own personality and lifestyle in order to become the man of her dreams.
It is a fascinating concept, but one which is doomed to failure. All relationships involve a degree of role-playing, but in this case the stakes are raised dramatically. The 'stalkee' has more to gain initially in finding someone who, to all intents and purposes, lives up to all their expectations. The 'stalker' however is continually playing out a role, and there is only so long that one may go on pretending, and neglecting the 'true' self.
In admiring someone, particularly a celebrity whom it is unlikely you will ever get to know well, it is often the case that you attempt to obtain as much information about that person as possible. I confess my obsession with Momus has gone beyond merely listening to his music. Indeed, since discovering his loaded website I have become, in effect, an 'electronic stalker', logging on regularly to see what he has been up to, following his movements as he tours, discovering his past and his lifestyle outside music. But such 'virtual stalking' uncovers new ground in the world of the stalking phenomena... for who is stalking whom here? Momus is the one up-dating his site regularly. He wants me to know about him. He posts up cubist pictures of his home, shows me photographs of Shazna, his wife, tells me what he would do if he ever went blind and talks of his friends as if I knew them too. It's an eye for an eye, and I'm hooked.
I'm listening to music he admires, reading books that he recommends. I've become fascinated with Japanese culture, reading books by Japanese immigrants and watching TV programmes on the "Onabes" of Shinbaku (thinking, he must be watching this too!) Now my behaviour seems to have deteriorated further: I am influenced by his own interests and recommendations, but perhaps we are both stalking in the same direction. It's not unreasonable to assume that we have similar tastes and interests, or that he would like me, if only he knew me.
To me, Momus is the expression of
inspiration rather than a figure of infatuation. There is a fine line
between admiring a person and their work and being totally infatuated with
your favourite celebrity to the extent that you feel everything they say
or do is directed at you. With this in mind, I tread carefully with my
current obsession. I have refrained from calling my wife 'Shazna' too, and
I have postponed, ostensibly for logistical reasons, hiring a Nissan to
tour Europe. Any notion of infatuation I may be suffering from is,
on the one hand, a way to prise open the gap that the mainstream fills,
and on the other, strictly ironic.
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