intellectual hooliganism

-- Melody Maker, March 2, 1991

For the last three years, Green Gartsdie has been in Wales, going for walks, playing darts and contemplating the generic empty parlance of pop. Now he's back with a new Scritti single -- a radical reconstruction of The Beatles' 'She's A Woman', recorded with 'Ragga King' Shabba Ranks. Chris Roberts reports.

"SO you use the language of dreams and you toy around for the micropolitical effect of the goosebump. I like that -- the goosebump as empirical evidence of the micropolitical effect of music. God, I talk some trash! I love it though. Stops me getting bored if I can't play darts."

When the interview's done, Green apologises and makes excuses.

What, for being articulate?

"No, for being inarticulate. I was just rambling on. I'm sure I'm going to come out of it sounding like the wanker I always was."

It's so obvious to me at that moment that he's the most erudite interviewee in the whole game that I can't think of any platitudes with which to reassure him. It was Jean Cocteau who said, "An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture." He had not met Green. The man's hitting heroic heights of intellectual hooliganism. Only 24 hours later, when I've transcribed his theories (a gargantuan task akin to copying out "Moby Dick" five times) do I realise that a) I do understand most of them, and b) I disagree with about 60 per cent of them. But any day, any day, give me someone who cares about pop music this much. Or not at all.

"Discussion gets more and more convoluted, and for that it gets all the more interesting. It's a shame not many people are saying anything very interesting about music any more. You've got to either accept that talk around music is pointless, or if we're going to talk about it anyway then let's have something interesting to say about it.

"And if what's interesting sounds fanciful and overinvested and unreal, then I'd much rather that than stupid talk about The Farm and their trainers or the political decline in Jamaica. So I make my own ill-informed attempt. Pretension is a wonderful thing. One should always have pretensions above one's station. Again though pretension is from an old-fashioned critical language, it serves us very ill nowadays..."

GREEN's collaboration with "Ragga King" Shabba Ranks has resulted in a new Scritti Politti single, a radical reinvention of The Beatles' "She's A Woman". After that will come Gladys Knight's "Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me", with Sweetie Irie providing the ragga counterpoint, and a contribution to B.E.F.'s latest cover version opus. Green feels this rides nicely with the "delirious pluralism" of our times. I tell him I find the record confusing.

"I suppose that's equally likely to be because I f***ed up as it is to be anything intended. But the more confusion the better. If the other side is everyone thinking they've got everything sussed and they know what's going down, then I'm certainly in favour of confusion. Lest terrible, terrible things happen. 'Doubt' -- there's a good title, Mr Jesus Jones, even if I have used it myself before. Doubt is an undervalued human response."

Because it leads to creativity?

"Or schizophrenia. Or inertia. Most of which has to be preferable to dumb cocky self-assurance, which is very pernicious. But -- oh, here we go again -- musicians' intentions count for nothing. Once the piece of vinyl's out it has its own intentions. Whatever I intended by it is only relatively important. There was, I suppose, some intention to juxtapose two different ways of going about things, the ragga way and the pop way. Maybe mashing it all together does become confusing. and maybe some good comes out of that."

Is there a danger it falls between two stools, that it'll be disliked by both ragga fans and Scritti fans?

"Yeah, you know it. Damn right. From anyone that can be bothered to listen to it anyway, I expect quite a bit of flak. They'll think Shabba's sold out working with me. They'll think I've tried to lamely jump on the back of ragga and not done it properly. I expect all that backward thinking to surface."

So who are you making the records for? Yourself?

"Ooh. Who do you make records for? I'm trying to think of a good analogy. Stumped, really. Yes I make them for myself, I suppose. It's not a very good answer. But music isn't to do with what the rational sensible side of you ever does. It's a lot to do with the unconscious, and the unconscious is an unruly f***ing crowd. Yours is, mine is, Shabba's is. You don't know where a coming together of unruly crowds is going to end up. Or why they're doing it."

Do you actually think "She's A Woman" is a good song or was it one you wanted to defile and abuse?

"No, a neat, neat song. I've always loved it. There's something about The Beatles -- they've been around since before one was ever forming one's own memory, so you grew up with an uncritical relationship to them. I can't hear The Beatles really. Where they're coming from. It's like ether. 'She's A Woman' is a great little wisp of ether, if tautologically stupid."

WHERE has Green been since 1988? In Wales, doing nothing, going for walks, drinking and playing darts, getting into ragga music. "I'm congenitally lazy." In retrospect, he offers, making the "Provision" album took its toll.

"Maybe we should've made a more radical departure from 'cupid And Psyche'. We thought there was enough of interest to carry over to another album. It ran out of joy at some time. Became a bit joyless. After I did it, I was thoroughly hacked off with life as I was leading it. So I went back to Wales and did very little for quite a long time, which suited me fine.

"The expressive thing I did was getting into ragga. Buying records is a very expressive thing. There's a lot of mystificatory talk about expression which I don't like. I don't like the romantic and reactionary ideas of the tortured soul pop artist and his expression of interior angst."

Why not? (This, clearly, is where I'm going to beg to differ.)

"Because it's crap! It derives from a very ancient and conservative politics and philosophy. From old-fashion ideas of the soul and emotion, about interiority and exteriority, and cogito ergo sum. All sorts of garbage still surrounds the way most people think about musicians and their work. I mean that's why I got out of the indie stuff that I started doing and moved towards the now infamous saccharine pop. It was a deconstructive turn on what was thought to be important and precious about artists. True expression is always a proclamation of territory and possession."

If you deny the Pre-Raphaelite, you get endless soup cans. For better or worse.

"I don't accept either. You have to realise that music doesn't say anything and there's nothing you can say about it. Which sounds a bit rich coming from me, but you have to bear that thought in mind -- that music is semiotically empty, and that's part of its bizarre effectiveness."

Some music sings to me. It really does.

"Yes, well obviously it then accrues meaning at all sorts of different levels. At every level at which pop music enters society it has different opportunities and empowerments, a spectrum of different significations. But it's important to remember that it is empty and it can't be read simply as indices."

Then how do we get "I can relate to that"? How do we get "That's timeless"? Or "Yes, that gets me right there"? Little of which is political. Much of which is romantic.

"I think it is a political thing. I think you make decision about what you will allow to get you right there. It just doesn't happen by accident. There's reasons and influences, how you grew up, your family and friends. It's always something more.

"What you'd call romantic, I'd perhaps grandly call micropolitical. That great sense of longing and yearning or becoming, all the great feelings of listening to music. I don't accept that it's some sort of direct transient route between interior-tortured artist-mouth opens-out comes shit-shit clearly contains tortured angst or longing-recipient receives and consumes it-neat little circle is completed. I just don't believe it happens that way. It's a lot more refracted."

But when I'm getting off on an Al Green record, there's Al, there's me, and there's very probably an absent woman I'm having a love fantasy about. Believe me that's apolitical.

"No, but what does 'getting off on it' involve?"

Oh hell, come on. Shivers down the spine, all that...

"Well one way of getting about this, since there's been what people call the postmodern crisis -- ie language doesn't work like we thought it worked any more, identity doesn't exist, reference doesn't work, truth doesn't obtain, everything's adrift -- then perhaps what music does against that relief is quite significant. Even though we may only have the language to talk about it as 'shivers down the spine'."

And that was how we got onto the micropolitical effect of the goosebump.

"When I met Derrida he said the most he could ever hope for what he did would be that it had some musicality. This crisis of all that we ever held dear, which includes the romantic ideas of the artist, perhaps liberates music into being something more. One of the things that has gone down in flames is rationalism."

Are we saying everything chaos, in which case I beg to agree?

"Oh yes."

When did everything become chaos then, do you think? Ten years ago? A thousand years ago? Yesterday afternoon?

"Well I hate the way post-modernism has been a handy little label to keep a lot of academics trucking along just reinventing and reinvesting themselves. But where it began? It had its precursors in Nietzche and Freud and all the rest of it. But I would think...France in the Sixties, what come after structuralism, Derrida and the rest. And that will filter through. Now people think: perhaps we ought to understand music better now that everything else is unhinged. Whereas previously we thought of only music as unhinged. Do you know what I mean?

It's the first time Green's said, "Do you know what I mean?" I must look dead clever.

"So maybe music is contaminating back into the rest of language and life. Oh, this is sounding well wack. I can see myself looking a complete tit saying all this. Again. But, since you'd be foolish of anybody to close their minds to these possibilities, ramifications, echoes, allegories of counter-assimilation. But even if music is only allegorical, now that the distinction between what is real and what is representation is collapsing, perhaps music allegorical role is a real role."

Damn straight!

DOES the author of "Faithless" and "Lions After Slumber" have to slap himself now if his lyrics aren't inane enough?

"Every time. Reams and reams of paper go by. Until it's got at least five 'babies' and five 'girls', the generic empty parlance of pop, I'm not happy with it."

Green is currently writing an album of his own songs, which may not infiltrate 1991. "Perhaps I'll hold back the proper songs for a while and just enjoy some more of these accursed popagga experiments."

Commercial suicide?

"Oh yeah, probably. I'd rather proceed along my own aberrant path at my own pace. It's always a magical thing, finding chords and tunes and the rest of it. I couldn't deny the potency of that. I would never not do something just because it didn't fit in with what I'd said it was all about. The theory just bumbles along after the unanswerable subconscious. So it'd never preclude me from basing a six-string and being tortured, no."

There's a possibility of working with Miles Davis again, a possibility of giving some talks in Paris, a possibility he'll just go play some more darts. "That linear progression towards a goal, I don't really buy that either. I don't have huge material ambitions." He doesn't play live "because it scared me to death -- people gawp at you."

We talk some more about pop music until the second I use the phrase "anti-image", I just know he's going to say "anti-image is image" and so des he so we just wave each other on...

"Rhetoric becomes more apparently redundant. What is just. Proper. Fair. Utterly meaningless! There is no evidence or greater authority. There has to be a new politics in which there are no certainties about those things. And in that, I'll be interested to see where music is. Clearly, music does not lose any power or efficacy through being a commodity which you can go into a store and buy. It's something which survives commodification amazingly.

"My capacity, thank Christ, to be allured by it, has not diminished a jot. There've been times when I've been tempted to jack all this in -- it certainly doesn't agree with my temperament, it's stressful and I find a lot of the bullshit about it unbearable. But then, you know, a record comes on the radio and you think, 'Jesus Christ! I can't leave all that! I've got to go and buy it!' And then I've got to go and buy something just like it!"