If we have learned one thing from the Senate hearings surrounding the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is that years of pandering to the worst instincts of its base have left the Republican congressional delegation with no guiding principles save for free-floating xenophobia and an aggrieved sense of entitlement. If we have learned two things from the Senate hearings surrounding the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, the other one is that a compelling biography in itself is no substitute for excellence in one’s chosen field. It’s the latter point that I want to look at this week, particularly as it relates to Happy Returns, the upcoming album by London-based punk-popper Livan, which is — let’s get this out of the way right now — currently rockin’ my world down to a nub.
“Authenticity” is probably the most overvalued commodity in popular music. Any song, no matter how closely it hews to the facts, is inescapably altered in its essence by the very process of mediation, of experience being transformed into narrative. Autobiography is, of necessity, fiction. I mean, try this on for size:
When creating music is a matter of survival, then the product is nothing less than awe inspiring. As the phoenix who rises from the ashes to live once more, LIVAN’s eclectic music is the epiphany, which has allowed him to soar.
London based singer/songwriter Livan’s (pronounced Lie’van) story may sound almost clichéd, but if it was not for the hardships, then this master lyricist and musical inventor would not be able to draw on his struggles and be inspired to create his unique punk-pop sound.
Livan’s early family life — the tale of dramatic novels — led to his self-induced descent into drugs and decadence and finally, redemption. A moment that still impacts daily on Livan and his music.
Born in Greece, the son and grandson of prominent politicians who were exiled from their homeland during a period of great national turmoil, Livan’s story has given him the material to the soundtrack of his life. His father’s fate was more tragic than exile alone, having suffered physically at the hands of the dictators while under arrest. After relocating to England, Livan struggled under the perceived “burden” of living with a hero, which he now freely admits. In his youth, he chose to run from the challenge rather than embrace it.
“When you grow up with those people in your house, you wonder how the hell you’re going to top that. I was crap at everything, so I thought that if I couldn’t be good at being good, I would try being good at being bad.”
His descent into drugs, alcohol, gambling, and other undesirable activities brought Livan face to face with his own mortality. He found himself in prison and later, addicted to heroin, dying slowly in the ghettos of Athens and London. Livan’s turnaround came one rain-soaked, drug-addled Good Friday, when he simply looked upward from the park bench and said to himself, “This can’t be the end — life has to be better than this.”
And, from that moment was the beginning of a journey, filled with heartache and hard work, but now Livan is living his dream of creating music. Livan changed a life of self-destruction to a life of self-production, writing and singing with a feverish desire to evolve.
That’s laying it on pretty thick, no? Not just the grit of life, but the implied responsibility to the listener. Music saves lives, that’s for sure, and if you’re a musician then yes, the life you save could very well be your own. But something about this bio puts me in mind of this famous magazine cover, conceived by the notorious Michael O’Donoghue. There’s a kind of implied threat that if we don’t buy Livan’s record, if he doesn’t become a big big star, then he’s gonna end up back on a bench with a spike in his arm and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT. This approach may sell records — though that’s debatable — but it’s still a deeply suspect strategy; it’s the old PR pityfuck again, all dressed up in bloodstained clothes.
Even worse, from a critical standpoint, it’s unnecessary — because biography simply doesn’t matter to the experience of music. A song doesn’t belong to the one who sings it, but to the one who hears it — and the gorgeous innocence of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is not diminished by the fact that its authors were black-leather shagmonsters, drugging and whoring their way through the fleshpots of Hamburg. Joe Strummer was a diplomat’s son, a child of privilege, but that doesn’t make his lyrics any less mordant or his tunes less catchy. (For that matter, I suspect that Frank Sinatra probably never actually called the wind “Maria,” but I can’t verify that one for sure.) You’re grading the work, not the man; John Lennon was a C-minus human being at best, but a grade-A songwriter.
And yet artists — and their publicists — keep trying to sell us the notion of life experience as part of the artistic package. What gives?
It may seem like, in these columns, I’m awfully hard on public relations people; but really, it’s just a symptom of my fascination with the hidden workings of things. The work of publicists is invisible to the vast majority of music listeners, yet it is their efforts that can literally make or break an artist. Talent in itself has very little do with why one artist succeeds and another fails (god knows it’s had little enough to do with my own successes, such as they are). The pop landscape is brutally crowded with musicians and songwriters, most possessed of talent in a quotient falling somewhere in the broad range of “average,” and the way one distinguishes oneself from the pack is through presentation.
It’s a tricky business, though. While an embittered old hack like myself might find a brash presentation endearing, it might just as easily turn me off an artist that, y’know, I really ought to like. The key, I think, is keeping the image that you’re trying to sell in line with what you’ve actually accomplished. Livan‘s blurb describes his sound as “Nine Inch Nails meets The Clash.” He doesn’t quite live up to that billing (who could?), but the title track “Happy Returns” manages to sound like the Kaiser Chiefs meets The The with vocals by a slumming Peter Murphy, so we’re not completely off the mark. Punk has been through so many iterations and waves and revivals by this point that the notion of influence is nigh-on meaningless; suffice to say the song is a high-energy gallop with a hot fuzz bassline, a lyrical stance of mild self-loathing, and a pleasantly snotty vocal. It sounds like London, in other words — which is pretty much what was promised. And so a bit of high-shooting PR hoopla is forgivable.
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More than forgivable, in fact — it’s probably necessary, if only to sustain the totality of the packaging. The myth of Livan is one of triumph, of fearlessness; a dude with the stones to kick smack (not to mention wrestling with the worse angels of his own nature) isn’t going to be afraid of tooting his own horn a little. He’s brash enough to celebrate himself in his failures as well; he makes vulnerability sound epic on “Where I Bleed,” a slow burner with a sweeping melody recalling Green Day’s best moments. It’s melodramatic, even adolescent, but at least it’s of a piece with its ambitions — and so I can enjoy it unreservedly. If Livan keeps making records like this, he can stay out of the gutter and the rest of us can all die with clear consciences.