Artist, designer, writer and publisher Roger Kohn shares some memories of Ivor Cutler
I first heard Ivor Cutler recite verse at Chelsea School of Art in 1972. The services of Ivor, along with Ted Hughes and Peter Porter, had been purloined to help open our minds to a creative world beyond the boundaries of the art school syllabus. Hughes and Porter did not resonate with me... but Ivor Cutler hit the spot – instantly. This dour, politely irreverent, gentle Glaswegian was captivating. I was hooked... and delighted to find that Ivor had agreed to teach a select group on Friday afternoons. Being a fan of the art of dadaist Marcel Duchamp, the drama of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, the music of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and the humour of Spike Milligan, I identified strongly with Ivor’s eccentricity and the absurdist nature of his unassuming yet often abrasive persona. I loved the black humour and the menacing delivery.
Ivor’s poetry, music, humour and lifestyle blended seamlessly. He wore odd socks and a never-ending series of silly, personalised hats – very often decorated with small bird badges, insects and flora. He was the least noisy, most highly sensitised and subtle person I have ever met. A leading light in the Noise Abatement Society, he was passionate about stamping out the senseless, insidious cacophony that accompanies our urban existence. Like Frank Zappa, Ivor targeted stupidity as the most pervasive and dangerous evil in our society. He questioned everything. He travelled by bicycle.
He “smoked” chocolate cigarettes in “no smoking” compartments if forced to travel on the tube, much to the annoyance of the regular commuters. Paul McCartney and John Lennon, whom he had met on a TV show, became fans and occasionally stayed over. Ivor once saw Paul cutting his fingernails in the wash basin, so he took one of the larger cuttings down to his local butcher and said “This is Paul McCartney’s fingernail!” The butcher, used to Ivor’s eccentricities, humoured him: “yes, of course it is Ivor”. The poet returned to his flat, collected Paul McCartney and returned to the butcher’s shop. Matching the cutting to the living digit, Ivor repeated, “THIS IS PAUL McCARTNEY’S FINGERNAIL!”
The extra-mural Chelsea class – a cohort of about half a dozen devotees – gathered in Manresa Road on Friday afternoons. This was a delightful ‘wind down’ for the weekend – more akin to group therapy than ‘general studies’. Ivor’s teaching experience at A.S. Neill’s avant-garde Summerhill school had convinced him of the need to free youthful minds from the straitjacket of educational conditioning and break down preconceptions; the essence of his teaching being to remind us how to play. On one occasion we were asked to bring along as many large cardboard boxes as we could find. We laid them out end to end, creating tunnels to crawl through, in silence, together. Congestion was dealt with politely and without tube rage. On another occasion, we brought telephone directories and newspapers to make music... by tearing the paper. The rhythms that flowed from this freeform expression, not surprisingly, developed into quite a formal structure – inherent in any tribal grouping. Disparate personalities began to bond through the unusual shared experiences... although for some it was too claustrophobic... “I’m an art student – get me out of here!” This was not Chelsea chic and not to everybody’s taste. Ivor Cutler did not suffer fools gladly and some of the fools soon departed.
It was a privilege to be invited around to tea at his flat in Laurier Road. Ivor’s tea and biscuit ceremony was virtually Japanese... much attention being paid to detail and etiquette. I was thrilled to find that he shared with me the taste for yerba maté, the South American herb tea from my childhood. He would entertain us with bizarre songs accompanied on his trademark old church harmonium, powered by foot. He once played a tune that he’d written years before which sounded very familiar. “We Can Work It Out” was a huge hit for the Beatles. I surmised that McCartney had absorbed the tune subliminally (to be generous) on one of his visits. The Beatles’ tune is remarkably similar and even retains the harmonium’s drone. Shortly afterwards, the Beatles offered Ivor the role of “Mr Buster Bloodvessel”, the tour guide who falls prey to the romantic attention of Ringo’s Aunt Jessie in their movie for television “Magical Mystery Tour”. I asked McCartney, on a radio phone-in, whether he had “borrowed” Ivor’s melody for “We Can Work It Out”. He avoided the question but went on to discuss the lasting impression that Ivor had made on him.
I once helped carry the old harmonium into a black cab and from there into the BBC studios in Portland Place where Ivor was recording a radio programme. I recall wondering how the rather surreal broadcast would be received but being delighted that millions of listeners would share the experience. A good friend of Robert Wyatt, Ivor was often invited to be the support act for sixties and seventies avant-garde bands such as Soft Machine. I can remember my delight when the huge audience of long-haired, head-banging hippies remained silent while Ivor regailed them with “I Am The Yellow Fly”. The air was positively buzzing as they gave him rapturous applause.
In the early 1970s, when space travel and moon landings were very much in the news, Ivor was ahead of the time with his extraordinary eye for detail. He encouraged me to think small and push the boundaries of perception by exploring the minutiae of the minuscule, celebrating the precious details of our planet along the way. Richard Dawkins reminds us that “Our imaginations are forlornly under-equipped to cope with distances outside the narrow range of the ancestrally familiar... not yet tooled-up to penetrate the neighbourhood of the quantum.” Ivor could see further than most. He was a passionate communicator and yet used words sparingly and with careful thought; mindful of the old monastic rule that you should not speak unless you can improve on the silence. One of his favourite modes of expression was to quietly distribute tiny, self adhesive, enigmatic white and gold “Able-labels” containing the essence of his philosophy:
“How to be. Climb inside a dot and shut the door. Leave yourself outside.”
“Add 15” to your stride and save 4½% insects.”
“befriend a bacterium.”
On one occasion we met up at Liberty’s and he gave me a new batch. Unfortunately I washed them along with my jeans and had to request replacements – which duly arrived in the next post:
“IVOR CUTLER’S NEEDS. 1 A FIRM BED. 2 WARMTH. 3 FRESH AIR. 4 NO CENTRAL
HEATING. 5 NO NOISE FROM: TRAFFIC, MUZAK, JUKEBOX, TV, RADIO, KITCHEN
“silence & space – the dark flowers of creativity Ivor Cutler”
My favourites being:
“to remove this label take it off”
and, of course:
“I WANT MY MAMMY”
I miss the phone chats that cheered me up in moments of self doubt. I miss the barmy communications between Ivor’s imagined vulture and my pet parrot, Aku. Ivor must have the last word from one of his most widely reproduced stickers:
Roger Kohn, Sunningdale, January 2008
Text and picture © Roger Kohn
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