Julian Cope: He Dresses as a Nazi so that you don't have to
Peter Ross meets the former Teardrop Explodes frontman on the eve of his appearance at the Burns An' A' That festival
On January 1, 2005, Julian Cope took hallucinogenic drugs for the first time in several years. Three months later he started dressing as a Nazi. Fourteen months after that, on a melting day in early May, he strolls down the path from his home, his raised hand meant as a cheery greeting rather than a fascist salute. "Hello," he beams. "Good to see you."
The former lead singer with The Teardrop Explodes is 48 years old and over six feet tall, his height exaggerated by clomping black boots and a peaked military cap; he looms above the flat fields, half scarecrow, half raven. Straw-coloured hair hangs down to nipple level, almost but not quite obscuring the Iron Cross pinned to his leather waistcoat; it is embossed with a swastika and a date – 1939.
He leads the way back to his home, a converted stables, stopping to chat with the postman and to talk about garden furniture with his new neighbours. Were it not for the fact that Cope is dressed for the invasion of Poland, this could be a scene from village life in any part of the beautiful south. An expert on ancient Britain (his book on the subject, The Modern Antiquarian, sold more than 40,000 copies in hardback) he lives with his American wife, Dorian, and their daughters in Wiltshire, a part of England rich in important neolithic sites. From his bedroom window, Cope can see Silbury, a gigantic hill built of chalk 5000 years ago; he says he feels connected to this mysterious mound, and well he might – nobody knows exactly why Silbury was made, and he, too, has suffered from public mystification.
Former pop stars are supposed to demean themselves on reality TV then rerelease their biggest hit in the desperate hope of a last creaky appearance on Top Of The Pops. That's a behavioural pattern we understand. But Cope hasn't conformed to it. Instead he has become some kind of weird heathen archaeologist who calls himself a shaman and an "erudite barbarian". So as with Silbury, we find ourselves asking: what is Julian Cope for?
Over a cup of tea in his kitchen, he sets out to explain. First, the outfit. He is dressed, he insists, as "a cartoon Nazi" rather than a real one. The other day he was with his friend Merrick, a road protestor, drinking beer at the childhood home of DH Lawrence, where Cope is working on his debut novel. "Merrick was saying that the reason he could accept the way I looked was that it's so beyond what is socially acceptable ... What's funny for me is when, say, I am filling up at a petrol station on the M4. I get out of the car, and it's almost as if I am invisible because it's so ridiculously over the top."
Nobody says anything because they assume he can't possibly be serious, can't really be anti-semitic? "Exactly. Who would be that extreme?"
The Nazi look began as a way of winding up a neighbour, who has long been unhappy with his presence in the village. But it has grown in significance, and now represents both Cope's refusal to accept a dull middle age ("You don't have to be an old tosser") and his general love of confrontation. He was bullied as a child growing up in the Midlands, but when he was 12, he bested the class bully by throwing his arms around his neck and kissing him; in that moment he discovered that in weirdness there could be strength, a tactic which has characterised his entire career. On the wall next to the downstairs loo, a commemorative disc marks 250,000 sales of the 1981 single Reward. The Teardrop Explodes were part of the post-punk Liverpool scene. At one point it looked as if they might become one of the biggest acts of the era, but they split acrimoniously and druggily in 1982.
As a solo artist, Cope continued to make music with mixed commercial success. He released two massively acclaimed records in the early 1990s – Peggy Suicide and Jehovahkill – but his label dropped him. Since then he has recorded for his own imprint, Head Heritage, and distributed albums via his website. His music is increasingly out there, but some of it is brilliant.
His most recent album, Dark Orgasm, is a heavy rock record dedicated to freedom and equality for women (he recently played a gig in Belgium wearing a burka). It is also an attack on organised religion, which is why the album artwork bears the slogan F*** The Pope. It will be interesting to see how that goes down in the west of Scotland when he performs at the Burns An A' That festival.
Dark Orgasm includes a song called I Found A New Way To Love Her, featuring the lyric "Just like Ken Bigley/I'm losing my head on account of you", a reference to the civil engineer who was kidnapped and beheaded by an Islamist group in Baghdad in 2004.
"I was really shocked by it," Cope says of his song. "But I think art should be shocking. The artist has to be shocking even to himself." Isn't that lyric cruel, though? "Very cruel. But that was part of it. There was an element about the Ken Bigley thing that meant it had to be cruel. That guy lost his head, and it wasn't a clean cut either. It was a disgusting way to die. But I have to say for all that I am anti-religion, I have far more respect for Islam than for Christianity because I know where I stand with Islam. To me, a religion is good if you are fearful of it."
He continues in this vein for a while then returns to his initial point. "For me, as an artist, I think I have to go to those places ... My job is to be constantly beating the bounds, to see how far we can go. Every so often – boom! – something will explode in my face, and I will have gone too far."
Is that what happened with the Ken Bigley line? "No, I don't think so, because I think it summed up what the 21st century is about. Do you think I went too far?"
I suggest it may have been hurtful to people who knew Bigley to exploit his name as a simile. He mulls this over. "I think, really, everything is funny," he says. "If I was taken and dismembered and torn apart, I would expect people to make a joke about it, I really would. There's always been a part of me that semi-expects that."
That expects to be dismembered? "Yeah. I'm an extreme artist."
He turns down a conversational side road, reminiscing about the time he was in Armenia, then rejoins the main route of our discussion. "The most shocking lyric that I ever heard was when the Sex Pistols did Bodies. It was an anti-abortion song, and they did it just after my girlfriend had an abortion. It was so weird. The idea of the Sex Pistols doing a song like that was so unlikely that to me it made them so real. The song was pointing at me because I was the guy who just facilitated the abortion. I was 19 and would have thought Johnny Rotten was on my side, but he wasn't. That summed it up for me. The truth is aiming for something that is beyond what's acceptable."
I ask about his daughters, Albany and Avalon, who are 14 and 12. They don't listen to his music, he says, and they find it a little weird when the parents of their friends are aware of who he is. "It sometimes puts me in a little of an invidious position. My youngest one, I met her best friend's mother, who had been to see me in Oxford. She said, 'I'd never seen you solo before. I didn't realise you were into self-mutilation.' I suddenly felt very compromised on a dad level that her daughter was coming round to the house of this potentially mad father."
Self-mutiliation? There was an infamous incident at a concert in 1984 when Cope – frustrated by his own performance – shredded his stomach with the jagged end of a broken mic-stand. He still cuts himself on stage. "I believe rock'n'roll should have some blood ritual in it. But it's impractical to do it too much. It's just messy. So I do it as early in the tour as I can, and get it out of the way ... Some people find it very gross and gruelling."
He gets up from the kitchen table, walks to the door and points Silbury out for me. Through his exploration of ancient sites, Cope has become known as an outdoorsman, which is ironic given that for much of the 1980s he was semi-agoraphobic. He and Dorian holed up in Drayton Bassett behind a barricaded door and covered windows; he became obsessed with Dinky cars, and converted a bedroom into a toy room which could be entered only via a secret tunnel.
What made him like that, so insular? "LSD," he replies. "It gives you such a wonderful inner life that your outer life becomes totally unnecessary."
He first got high as a member of The Teardrop Explodes (his memoir of the period, Head-On, ought to be subtitled How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bong) and soon discovered a love of acid trips. He stopped taking hallucinogens before the birth of Albany, but started again as part of his research for a forthcoming book on prehistoric drug use. He spends whole days tripping on the Marlborough Downs.
"I think I must be neurologically tough and have a neurologically tough family background," he says, "because I know people who have taken a quarter of what I have taken and utterly f***ed themselves up. So I think there's an element of luck involved.
"My mother-in-law, who is one of my main researchers, one of my muses, did say to me in 1985, 'You must stop two years before you aim to have kids.' She had talked to this psychedelic doctor in San Francisco called Dr Billy ... So when I went back into the psychedelics, I got in touch with my mother-in-law. There's always a dialogue."
Cope has been married to Dorian for 22 years. They got together in 1981 when she and a friend came to a show in Albany in upstate New York. "She's so important," he says. "I wouldn't have done anything without her. She is the most mysterious woman I have ever met … I have to petition her: 'I've got this idea, what do you think?' We'll sit down and discuss things long and hard. She is the ultimate editor for me … She'll tell me whether something is going to be misunderstood, and I trust her."
During their discussions, Cope and his wife refer to "Julian Cope" in the third person as a public entity distinct from Julian the husband and father. So is there a difference? "Definitely, yeah. I was invited to the House of Lords about three weeks ago for some bill on animal rights that I've been working on. I was actually really excited about the idea of going to the House of Lords, and Dorian said, 'Yeah, but Julian Cope wouldn't be excited.' I was like, 'Hey, you're right!' So I didn't go. Because he wouldn't have gone."
He has the good grace to laugh at the ridiculousness of this, but it does strike to the heart of where he is at right now. He is the archetypal square peg, the pigeon who spurns holes, and his has been a 25-year journey from the margins to the mainstream and back. He is dedicated to rock'n'roll, sacred rocks and role-playing, and he would tell you that is no coincidence that he shares his initials with Jesus Christ. Julian Cope is willing to be freaky for the sake of a straight society that just doesn't have the time; it's an act of redemption not rebellion.
"I do it," he grins, "on the behalf of people who are too busy paying the bills."
Julian Cope performs at the Festival Club, Ayr, on Saturday, as part of the Burns An A' That festival, see www.burnsfestival.com
21 May 2006
Posted by nickbrand
21st May 2006ce
Edited 21st May 2006ce