Stillborn Renaissance Man: Ramblings on the Return of Lawrence and Felt: The Book

Felt Book

This year’s Record Store Day at Into the Music turned out to be a rather notable one. Though I harboured some absurd hope that I may find a copy of the RSD 7” release of Go-Kart Mozart’s “New World in the Morning,” I soon discovered that the best I was going to do in the middle of the RSD melee was a vinyl copy of McLusky’s McLusky Do Dallas and a 7” copy of “Kick Out the Jams” on vinyl the colour of raspberry cheesecake. However, in a twist of fate perhaps even more absurd than my wish for “New World in the Morning,” the find that made me weak in the knees was a used vinyl copy of The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories. So weak, in fact, I managed to miss the second Felt album in the bin, which Laura duly purchased. These are the first signs of Lawrence that I’ve ever seen in this record shop in the ten years I’ve been a customer. It was a happy and strange coincidence considering the resurgence of interest in Lawrence in the past couple of years. It used to be difficult just to track down copies of Felt CDs – at least where I live. Nine years ago, Cherry Red Records decided to reissue the Felt albums on CD; they were a rather Spartan affair without nostalgic liner notes and without much beyond the cardboard sleeve designed by Paul Kelly. I began to collect them several years back. Then last year, Californian duo Girls released a limited edition heart-shaped piece of vinyl entitled “Lawrence,” an aptly woozy instrumental tribute to the reclusive frontman of Felt, Denim, and Go-Kart Mozart. Then came Kelly’s documentary film, Lawrence of Belgravia, which originally screened at the British Film Institute last year and is currently making its way across select UK cinemas. Having heard Lawrence talk about it on radio shows and having read numerous articles about it, I’m desperate to see the film; however, I suppose I have to wait just as I seemingly have to wait to purchase even a digital version of “New World in the Morning” (the odd limitations of copyright and distribution in the international iTunes system). Lawrence began giving more interviews on radio and online, and even hosted his own Domino Radio show. Even Tim Burgess expressed his love for Lawrence—something I found a bit odd until I noticed Burgess’s Lawrence-inflected intonation on part of the chorus in The Charlatans’ “North Country Boy” when it came on the radio a couple of weeks ago. Another more recent development concerning Lawrence, perhaps to build on the recent interest, was the limited edition of 1000 books of Felt photographs, quite simply entitled Felt: The Book.

This book, published by Fabrice Couillerot, Lora Findlay, and Paul Kelly with First Third Books, and signed by Lawrence, is a fitting tribute to the band, somehow exclusive and luxurious whilst plain, clean, and unassuming. The greyish covers complement the many black-and-white images inside; the simple word “felt,” in elegant, light sans-serif, is engraved in the front cover, a shadow melting into the general greyness, a half-impression, an indentation begging to be discovered. In fact, the few colour photographs that do appear in the book seem exceptionally lurid and startling, as though they’re encroaching on the soft, monochromatic world of Felt’s vintage timelessness. Bob Stanley writes the foreword, and is suitably enthusiastic in the way music fanatics often are, assigning life-changing properties to purchasing Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death. He highlights Felt’s gauziness, mystery, and lack of commercial success, the latter being the most common narrative when discussing Lawrence generally. It is a narrative that Lawrence perpetuates himself – the first photo in the collection, which is of three-year-old Lawrence looking on in distress as his older sister holds the toy she’s taken from him, is accompanied by his text: “A portentous snap – so prescient. The prize has been swiped and he stands alone – miserable.” Stanley ends his foreword with his first meeting of Lawrence in 1989, a meeting he is glad took place at the end of the Felt run because it preserved the romantic enigma of the band for him yet allowed him access to the Denim years. The Saint Etienne, Kevin Pearce, Heavenly, and Lawrence connection forms one big, blurry, beautiful mess. Paul Kelly, who used to play with Saint Etienne, directed Finisterre, a fascinating psychogeographic journey through London. It featured a Saint Etienne soundtrack, which, in turn, owed a debt to the likes of Felt’s Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death. And of course, Finisterre also featured voiceovers from Lawrence. And a script largely written by Kevin Pearce. Theirs is a world of fanzines, cult successes, indie mythology, fervent fandom, modish style, and beauty in urban mundanity. It is a world that was brilliantly rendered in the series of stills in Finisterre, and also in the stills of Felt: The Book.

Whether Lawrence intended it to be or not, the book is a document of his own narcissism and Type A personality. Of course the book is also indicative of the singular vision and divorcement from reality he writes of in his introductory paragraph in the book. Perhaps they are the same thing. They are attributes that made Felt both extraordinary and impossible. Lawrence openly writes about his frustration with his band members, and what he perceived to be a lack of seriousness and passion for the band. At the same time, he chooses band members according to how lustrous their hair is; he chooses guitars according to which one would look the best. He admits to his own paranoia about photographs of himself, asking to keep all negatives, so they wouldn’t end up in the wrong hands. To accompany a series of photographs of the band in his bedroom, Lawrence writes: “From day one I was reluctant to take photographs outdoors because I refused to be at the mercy of the elements. I think that was a particularly wise decision from one so young.” He outlines the importance of the band’s cohesive look, ostensibly one he created himself: the checked shirts to invoke Richard Lloyd on the cover of Marquee Moon and John McKay on the sleeve for Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “The Staircase (Mystery)”; thin Doc Marten soles; 50s-style peg trousers, a look which would later be pillaged by the pretentious S.C.U.M. (alarmingly, lead singer, Thomas Cohen, even seems to have stolen Lawrence’s “Primitive Painters” hat and the moody glare from beneath a dark fringe); and old leather jackets, which had to be different from the types of jackets worn by The Ramones.

In a striking two-page spread following Lawrence’s anecdote about touring Europe with his disinterested bandmates, Lawrence’s head appears in the bottom corner in front of Edvard Munch’s “The Worker on His Way Home”; he is dwarfed by the large nightmarish painting of hollow-eyed workers, who look like they are either dissolving or emanating from within flames. With his eyes downcast, Lawrence takes on a martyr-like pose in front of a strong indictment of industrial labour. He comes to embody both the cultivated apartness of many of the images and the text he provides for a different set of photographs: “Any activity that demanded effort was, in the end, left to me. Even acts of vanity.” A photo of Lawrence’s reflection in an ornate mirror, entitled “Me and my mirror in my room,” speaks to the essence of Lawrence on so many levels, it may as well be a tower block. The text beside the photo makes me more uncomfortable than most of the other pieces about his control issues. Lawrence recounts his time with a girlfriend named Vikki, who he convinced to steal a mirror from a hotel room: “Vikki was a great kid – I could get her to do anything.”

Another fascinating dimension of the book is found in the opening pages of each year/section organizing the groups of images from 1980 to 1989. Each year begins with a page of short lists of cultural texts, ranging from film titles to book titles, from album titles to live performances, from documentaries to music press articles. The implication is that these were important influences on Lawrence’s art and thought during these specific years. Just as meticulously curated as his photo archives, which he had kept organized and labelled and could present to Couillerot when the idea for this book came about, these lists present a highly specific construction of reality to accompany the carefully chosen representation by the photographs. Lawrence’s interests are perhaps both expected and unexpected. The post-punk indie favourites, like Joy Division, Sudden Sway, Echo and the Bunnymen, Win, Fire Engines, The Teardrop Explodes, and Orange Juice, in his lists seem natural as inspirations for his own DIY aesthetic. The Pop Art/Andy Warhol/Factory references and Beat Poets also seem to fit with the romance of the loner, the extreme control over one’s own microcosm and image, and the absorption with self-destructive fame. I can also understand Lawrence’s affinity for documents of deliberate isolation from society, including the two Edies of the Grey Gardens documentary and Marjorie Wallace’s coverage of “The Silent Twins,” June and Jennifer Gibbons (the latter also interestingly taken up by Nicky Wire in the lyrics of “Tsunami,” the Manic Street Preachers being yet another node on the Heavenly, Kevin Pearce, Saint Etienne network). Then there are films like Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, which probe the darkness and corruption of humanity in the context of the Vietnam War, and obscure road movies like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. Additionally, Lawrence includes films that deal with ostensibly real street narratives about young people, including Pixote and Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. I suppose, in a sense, all of these texts are about being outside of society, whether through escape, rejection, revenge, or gritty voyeurism. These little lists without explanation are what you would imagine to be on Lawrence’s Facebook profile page if he were to have one.

Why the seemingly recent flurry of interest in Lawrence? Can it all be due to Lawrence of Belgravia? Or is the time finally right for an artist like him? The Internet nurtures the niche and the cult, and Lawrence has pretty much always been a cult. His mystique and power comes from being a timeless artist perpetually out of his time, and now time has become eternally present. Now everyone has become a solipsist in her/his private, yet public, corner of cyberspace. We can all follow our singular visions and realities, and cultivate and display very particular versions of ourselves, just as Lawrence always has. Lawrence also makes sense within the paradox of extreme intangibility and tangibility in the digital world; this duality of the current digital age both allows for increased disposability, mobility, and immediacy, but encourages an extreme sort of fetishism for the physical, material, and artisan, in ever more limited editions, in response to the immaterial of the digital. Lawrence thrives in the climate of exclusivity, limited editions, and limited engagements. He is a walking exhibit of archive fever, an aspect of culture that has only intensified in recent decades with the possibility of infinite archives and memory trumping history. Not only does Lawrence have an apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of indie culture, but he also owns a well-curated, enviable record collection. After playing Nightingales’ “Idiot Strength” during his Domino Radio stint, Lawrence makes the off-hand comment of “I haven’t heard that record in twenty years because my records have been in storage”; a world of subtext from the man who was living in London hostels for years due to lack of funds, but who managed to retain his extensive, eclectic vinyl collection. He embodies a false sense of mobility and minimalist living, a tension that could be definitive of these latter days of capitalism. Lawrence, the consummate contradiction, highlighting the contradictions inherent in society itself. Alan McGee once wrote that Lawrence “wanted to be renowned in the underground like Andy Warhol, but simultaneously felt he should be writing hits for Cliff Richards,” an artist in a liminal position of high and low, cult and superstardom. In a world where global superstars and major record labels are on their way to becoming obsolete, Lawrence seems to be vindicated, and he fits quite perfectly.

Lawrence the Man Who Was Not With It

In Felt: The Book, Lawrence states, “I’m quite averse to renaissance men and dilettantes.” In quite ornery, contradictory fashion, he has experienced a rebirth of sorts, and in simultaneous projects. By relinquishing control and allowing himself to become the object rather than the subject in the last few years, Lawrence’s unbeaten path has finally converged with the more travelled networks across the wireless globe. The last photograph in the book is one by Donna Ranieri; it is of Lawrence holding Herbert Gold’s The Man Who Was Not With It, an image which, incidentally, was also used as cover art for Veronica Lake’s 7” named after the Gold book. As with many of the Felt photographs, the image works on several levels. There’s a certain mercy in Lawrence’s self-belief; other eccentric, but brilliant artists have been destroyed by self-doubt, cutting their work, and often their lives, short. Instead, Lawrence has bided his time, remaining stubbornly true to his own artistic instincts. His thought processes may be baffling, and sometimes maddening, but they are beguiling, too. And, in the process, he may just have become with it.

After seven years, the next, highly-anticipated Go-Kart Mozart album On the Hot Dogs Street will be released this June. I’ve already ordered my LP copy. Order yours here. On Gideon Coe’s radio show last week, Lawrence also talked about the release of a mini-album of electronic music, so keep a watch for that as well. Copies of Felt: The Book are still available – order here.

Declaration – Felt

Until the Fools Get Wise – Felt

Sunlight Strings – Felt

5 Comments

  1. Ian Brock says:

    Wow, that’s a really nice piece of writing, certainly way better than anything I could come up with when pondering The Allure Of Lawrence.

    In a curious twist of fate, not only is Lawrence Of Belgravia currently touring the country’s indie cinemas, but Lawrence himself is touring WITH IT. He popped up here (Nottingham) on Thursday & was happy to submit himself to a slightly awkward Q&A after the film. He was also selling copies of Go Kart Mozart’s RSD 7″ for a fiver, signed, believe it or not! I shook his hand, almost died…

    1. larissa says:

      Thanks, Ian. It seems like Lawrence is permanently bound up in curious twists of fate. I’m super jealous of pretty much everything in your second paragraph.

  2. Ian Brock says:

    Throughout the film + Q&A he came across as being charming & self-effacing – fortunately so in fact, I wouldn’t have approached him for his signature otherwise! He’s pretty funny as well, & has plenty of amusing anecdotes to tell, & his Brummie accent is still in tact…

  3. vinyl301 says:

    That’s a really nice Felt write-up – it puts the waffling on my blog to shame. Anyway, I’ve posted a flac rip of New World In The Morning if you haven’t managed to track down a copy.

    http://vinyl301.com/2013/04/15/go-kart-mozart-new-world-in-the-morning/

    There are a few other Lawrence related rarities there too, although I’ve removed the first Denim LP because it seems to be back in print.

    The film is well worth seeing, although I found the sight of Lawrence in his current state hard to take.

  4. [...] Read Larissa’s piece on Lawrence and Felt: The Book here. [...]

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