Legendary British singer-songwriter Kevin Ayers lived in Deia off and on from the 1960s to the early 1990s and was a much cherished friend and inspiration to many in the village.
I would never have listened to the music of Kevin Ayers if I hadn’t come to this place. Now his songs, filled with tipsy romance and bruised sunlight are part of my personal Deia soundtrack. Four years after Kevin’s passing, I sat down to listen to his music, write what follows and revisit something I originally wrote for Deia magazine S’encruia shortly after he passed.
A life of allsorts
In the obituary for Kevin Ayers he wrote back in 2013 for The Guardian, Sean O’Hagan wrote that Kevin’s ‘singular songwriting talent was matched by a sometimes startling lack of ambition’.
I love the idea that Kevin lacked ambition. It makes him appear far cooler than today’s nakedly thrusting rock and rollers. But I don’t believe it’s true. I would say it was more the case that Kevin lacked direction. Or perhaps that there were no route maps for his generation of musicians.
Kevin Ayers was a founding member of 1960s psychedelic warriors Soft Machine, who were pretty much born in Deia. After leaving the band he went on to become one of the most cultish of English singer-songwriters. O’Hagan quotes self-consciously louche rock journo Nick Kent, who wrote ‘Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett were the two most important people in British pop music’.
It’s interesting to speculate why, in Kevin’s case, this might be so. I’m not sure why Kent regarded him as so important. Perhaps his singing in a British accent about wibbly-wobbly things influenced Bowie – Hunky Dory anyone? – and Bolan. These two, of course, went on to have a massive influence on punks, New Romantics, moody electro types and so on and on up to today.
To me, Kevin often sounds like a vair British, not so pretentious and prickly Lou Reed – especially on a song like ‘Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes’, which has a riff a kiss away from ‘Sweet Jane’. It’s worth remembering that The Velvet Underground’s first album was, along with that of Love, required listening for the Ladbroke Grove set Kevin was part of.
(Kevin went on to make the terrific June 1 1974 live album with John Cale and Nico of The Velvets as well as Underground fan Brian Eno. As my music critic and writer friend Dave Rimmer says, ‘in that company he was a good fit’. Cale and Nico came to Deia in the late 1960s or early 70s to see Kevin. Someone who met them back then described the pair as ‘pale, clammy, dressed in black and snotty towards all us sunkissed, blissed out hippies dressed in white’.)
Because, apart from the cognoscenti, it seems like no-one really got Kevin. Albums like Joy of a Toy or Whatevershebringswesing were lauded by earnest rock critics and featured the cream of British bohemian musicians. But they didn’t really sell and Kevin remained an acquired taste, certainly for my generation.
In the late 1970s, with punk in full swing, Kevin disappeared from the music industry, to Deia and then the south of France. He made the splendid The Unfairground in 2007 with members of Teenage Fanclub, Neutral Milk Hotel and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci as well as singer Bridget St John who sang on Kevin’s 1970 Shooting at the Moon album.
According to O’Hagan, a piece of paper was found by Kevin’s bedside after his death. On it he’d written ‘You can’t shine if you don’t burn’.
Kevin in Deia – the first rock and roller in town
Back in 2013, not so long after Kevin had shuffled off this mortal coil, I sat down with some Deia friends of his outside Sa Fonda to reminisce. The picture of Kevin that took shape was a little sad but mostly very sweet.
‘He actually first came in 1964,’ one person told me, ‘because Robert Wyatt’s mum Honore used to come to Deia. Robert was a friend from Canterbury who was later in the Soft Machine with him. Kevin stayed at Mirador, one of the houses Robert Graves used to rent to friends. It had no running water, only a well. At that time there was no music in the bars, or at least no pop music, although a lot of us played guitars. There was one posh English guy who liked to sing Cliff Richard’s ‘The Young Ones’. Mostly people just sat around. He was the first rock and roller in town.’
‘And he brought other great players into the scene, especially Ollie Halsall. Kevin called Ollie the best ever guitarist in the world and he may have been right. Eddie Van Halen is on record as saying that Ollie was one of his favourite guitarists. Ollie was also hilarious.’
‘And mad,’ someone else added. ‘Once at Can Costa he didn’t have any drumsticks so he smashed up a chair and played with the legs! Kevin himself wasn’t the greatest of guitarists. He could strum and he had a good sense of rhythm. But when we played together he’d usually forget the words and crack up for an hour and a half giggling. The thing was, he was very charismatic and he had a great voice. And all those romantic songs! He was a complete romantic.’
I asked why his friends thought Kevin liked Deia. ‘He could be himself here, disappear, swim and fish,’ one said. ‘He liked spear fishing, calypso and barbeque. He used to love eating. All the pleasures of the flesh. And Deia people are very tolerant of madcaps, as you know. He lived life to the full. Every single day was eventful and bizarre, an adventure. You could lose your bearings when you were with him. He won a car in a poker game – he used to enjoy playing poker. It was one of those little Peugeots I think. He described it as looking like a vicar’s car. One night he was driving to or back from Soller and he came off the road, had a bad crash. Hit some palmeras and bashed his teeth into his nose. That corner became known as Kevin’s Corner. In the late ‘70s, when he’d made a bit of money, he had a long-nose Citroen, a powder-blue one. He deliberately parked it somewhere the kids could play in it. He liked the good life but he didn’t really care about possessions.’
‘And he was ever so flamboyant. When I first saw him in the early 1960s he already had long hair. And he was always carrying a book on Chinese or Buddhist philosophy. No-one had long hair in Spain then, not even in the 1970s. Women used to find him fascinating.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ another person said. ‘My first memory of him was when I was about twelve years old. He was just coming out of the Guardia Civil office (where Clare’s shop Nexus is now) and said, incredulously, “They’ve just taken my passport away. They’re throwing me out of the country.” They may have found him smoking dope, although at that time the main drug among the Deia crowd was cheap coñac and a cough syrup containing a lot of opium. Throwing him out was part of a clean-up campaign. His revenge was to come back as a superstar in 1978 and buy a big house in Deia; by that time the Guardia office had closed down. In the 80’s, I came back from Nicaragua with a record of music from the Caribbean coast and he got hooked on one song called ‘Gimme Leg’, which he learned and sang at parties. One of the lines was “… And she got de whitewash” which he explained to me was when a black girl gets laid by a white tourist. He loved calypso, West African high life music and all things Caribbean, including wearing a crumpled white suit and white shoes. In the bar and at parties, we would spend hours singing all kinds of songs, from Lonnie Donegan or the Beatles to Harry Belafonte. “The Big Bamboo” was the one he most enjoyed singing but he would never do his own stuff; he was probably too shy.’
‘Yeah, he loved to sing ‘The Big Bamboo’,’ someone else added. ‘That old Andrews Sisters’ song. But that was also because there was an Indonesian restaurant called Bamboo above the brothel, which was above the Indigo Jazz Club in Palma, on the street Corb Marie (which means ‘sea gull’) that he used to love. One time he sold a typewriter, went to Bamboo and blew all the money on a huge meal.’
As the sun began to go down, I asked what his friends felt Kevin’s legacy in Deia might be. ‘If you asked me what I thought he bought to Deia,’ one said, ‘I’d say “On the face of it, nothing”. But, I’ve met literally dozens of young Majorcans who have an anecdote about him, who he touched in some way.’
‘I still dream I’m making music with him or playing pool,’ another sighed. ‘It doesn’t really feel like he’s dead.’
And on that note:
Now it’s time to go
I hope I don’t leave you feeling low, oh no…’
‘All This Crazy Gift of Time’, Kevin Ayers
Illustration of Kevin by David Templeton, a great friend of Kevin.
If you’re searching for somewhere quiet and tranquil to tap into inspiration, Torre del Mar and Can Lamar, both tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Llulcari not far from Deia village, could be just what you’re looking for.
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