Arts and Entertainment, Existential Stuff, Music

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Vini Reilly

August 5, 2014

Sometimes – so very rarely – a piece of music journalism is exactly right; it reveals something new about an artist you already know is extraordinary, it makes you aware of a quality in their music that you had not been conscious of before, it makes you more engaged in the artist as a human and as a musician, and it compels you to revisit their work, from fresh directions.

I’m a little late on this, but about six months ago, Julie Hamill (who produces a website dedicated solely to “Interviews Celebrating the Work of Morrissey”) did a remarkable piece on Vini Reilly, the leader/conceptualist/guitarist of the band The Durutti Column; his work is relevant to Ms. Hamill’s line of interest because Reilly was also the guitarist on Morrissey’s landmark first solo album, Viva Hate.

First, a few words on Reilly, who I mentioned briefly last week, when I placed “Otis” by the Durutti Column in my all-time top ten:

Reilly is nothing less than the Brian Eno of the guitar, someone who redesigned and redefined the instrument in order to create stunning, stately, echoing, melodic, wide-screen music that emerged in the punk era, but had far more to do with Satie than Sex Pistols, even if it shocked…albeit softly.  Everyone who has ever picked up a guitar – or any instrument, for that matter – will, for a few seconds (or minutes) imagine a place where their instrument creates pure air; and then maybe something strange and beautiful happens for a few seconds, and the originality stuns, maybe we smile or giggle, and then, for one fleeting minute, we imagine, while holding the instrument, “What if that was enough? Wouldn’t this moment of starlight and tears and near-silence be enough?”  But then (most of us) we dismiss the excursion as an accident of tuning-up and go back to rewriting “Smoke on the Water.”

Reilly found that place, stayed in it, perfected it, planted his flag on it, claimed it as his own country, became its’ king; The King of Sighs, the King of the End-of-the-Day Echo, the King of the Rainy Sunday Cinematic Sonnet. A vastly original musician, Reilly’s territory was later colonized by musicians like The Edge and Michael Brook, who perhaps gained wider recognition, but never equaled Reilly’s grace and his abilities to capture loneliness, dusk, the tiny frisson of hope in a late-night pink sky and telepath it via an electric guitar.

It is also noteworthy – very noteworthy for those who follow the subtle shifts in shading as the punk rock’s loud night transformed into the more scenic and spacious dawn of post-punk – the Durutti Column were the very first band ever released on Manchester’s legendary Factory label; and it is impossible to even lightly consider the evolution of post-punk and the Manchester scene without considering the enormous role the remarkable Durutti Column played in birthing and defining both that scene and the whole course of post punk; like Public Image alongside and after them, Durutti Column set off bombs of space and deeply intense emptiness in the formidably solid sheet of punk’s wall of sound.  Not only did this approach greatly shape the thinking of bands like Joy Division (and subsequently New Order), A Certain Ratio, and many others, but it clearly and unfuckingdeniably made a rather huge impression on U2.

Hamill’s interview – which I just stumbled on last week – does something remarkable:  she has encouraged an eccentric and mysterious artist to reveal deep truths about himself, allowing us, the reader/listener, not only to get to know someone as we’ve never really known him, but also to apply new revelations into his already multi-faceted music.

I don’t know how Hamill did this – I don’t know her – but her interview reveals Reilly to be a deeply troubled, almost tragic figure; recently, Reilly has been hobbled by three strokes that not only prevent him from playing guitar, but make the most elementary aspects of living challenging; he also reveals a deeply dark past, full of violence, self-hatred, suicide attempts, a rather stunning lack of confidence in his astonishing skills, and depression (ands more recently extreme, and I do mean extreme,  financial struggle).  With Hamill’s assistance, Reilly connects all these struggles to his music and his process. Oddly, Hamill seems to bring out playfulness in famously dour Reilly, almost as if his recent extraordinary trials have given his life certain buoyancy.  Reilly even uses the interview as a platform to reach out and make amends to producer Stephen Street, who helmed Morrissey’s Viva Hate album, who Reilly feels he mistakenly wronged during one of his angry periods.

(I should also note, parenthetically of course, that my band Hugo Largo had the honor of playing with Durutti Column twice – once at the Bottom Line in New York City in 1987, and again at the Cambridge Theatre in London in 1988.  On neither time did I exchange any meaningful conversation with Reilly, who seemed so drastically thin, pale, and frightening as to appear virtually spectral.)

I suspect there are three massively important things a music journalist can achieve:  make you deeply interested in the work of an artist you are not familiar with, provide knowledge regarding an artist you already are interested in, or create deep and emotionally rich insight into an artist you never thought you would have a window into.  Hamill does the latter, and does it very well.  Even someone who doesn’t care about Reilly or the Durutti Column will be moved by this piece, and care about this profound, flawed, emotionally vulnerable, tragic, and magically talented person after reading this interview.

Here’s a link to this excellent interview.

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