Time flies. Ten years and some weeks already since I was riding in the car one night with Mike Thaxton and then, unannounced, he put in a CD with a powerful backbeat and an undeniable synth hook and a blaring horn section where a guitar solo might have been. At the time, scarcely a few notes in, I thought it was Eric Clapton's 1986 song It's In The Way That You Use It. I commented that it was good to hear that Clapton song after all this time. I had to bite my tongue when Mike straightened me out and told me it was Nik Kershaw's song Wouldn't It Be Good. Just as well. It had been even more years since I heard that one too, and this was a joyous reunion. Mixing up the songs was not impossible; Clapton was in his horns-and-background-girl-singers, 80s rock mode when he did In The Way. Glitzy 80s soulful rock stuff. Having both songs before me right now, it makes sense to mistake Nik's song (done in 1984, Clapton's in 1986), at least sonically, and with just a few notes to judge by. But I could never get into Clapton like I did with Nik Kershaw.
I think Mike had prefaced that night with some notice that he wanted me to hear some Nik Kershaw because he thought there was some loose parallel to the sound and career of Kevin Gilbert. Invoking KG was a surefire way to get my attention because Thax himself had given me a load of KG over the year prior, and that was the single most valuable artist for me then. What is interesting is that while Mike gave me a lot of KG in a hurry, there was a lot less NK available, though he did provide me with a copy of 15 Minutes and a year or so later, with To Be Frank. But it all hung on that one playing of Wouldn't It Be Good, that one November night, probably after a Magnificent Meatsticks session. That song still has some sort of magnetic attraction for me. I guess Mike's selling of NK by referencing Gilbert was to highlight that both had an insanely quantized and clear electronic sound in the 1980s that gave way to more organic and gritty acoustic-classic rock sounding instrumentation, greasier vocals, and generally more raw sound in the 1990s and present. In both cases, that was an appealing shift, though more so in Kershaw's case, I enjoy quite a bit of the earlier stuff. Another appealing thing for me was that both had a strong self-produced sound with each playing a number of instruments and minding the production too. Each has a distinctive voice that is applied in interesting ways. Sounded like promising stuff, this Nik Kershaw.
If my recollection of things is right, I didn't know it at the time, but Nik Kershaw became like a trusted new friend to me that season. Having hardly any prior experience with his music except for a vague recollection from 1984 of seeing the video of Wouldn't It Be Good, I was ready for his music to hit me with full force, not being diluted by endless radio play or other overexposure. Just as well. His CD 15 Minutes, the first he did after many years off and gone from the limelight, was the first full disk I heard, and this during the first weeks of the new wave of family drama that began about this time in 2000. For a few months from the fall of 2000 through the winter of 2001, it seemed the only disks I had in my 5-disk changer was 15 Minutes, Radiohead's Kid A, Jeff Buckley's Grace, Mike Keneally's Dancing, and Kevin Gilbert's Shaming of the True. That was the soundtrack to a time of depression met with a hopeful reunion with one side of my family which in turn was a provocative move for the other side, all with the exhaustion of finishing my own CD not long before and wondering when that would be pressed. Having just turned 27 shortly before, I was in deep. Whoever this Nik Kershaw dude was, he gave me a total gift with 15 minutes. I can't listen to it now without evoking memories of a cold empty house where my grandmother had left by ambulance and which the newly deregulated ($200) energy bill came down heavily upon me; angry letters; a day in the therapist's office (my sister's therapist); the lonely, tear-filled, raging 90 minute ride home from Long Beach at one in the morning; the smashing of tables and chairs and the spray painted message upon the tabletop, put out by the street for all to see; the fading moments of my grandmother's life, she sadly having seen the genie in the bottle finally get uncorked, and her befuddled response and complete helplessness to do anything but listen to me until she was overwhelmed; the endless hours of mining her belongings left behind; the painting of the house to make it my own; the trips to the CB therapist; the signing up for school at AIC—All that life for four or five months was accompanied in part with one great album of songs from a guy who I had hardly heard of a few months before.
Mike Thaxton eventually got me a copy of To Be Frank, the follow up to 15 Minutes. This came to me at another time in life, about a year later, when a lot of that edgy drama had subsided into a livable life. Maybe it was that that led me to not savor this album the same way. The songs are just as good but they didn't hit me the same. There are some that I do totally love now, but on the whole, I don't have the same experience with that disk. The uncharted territory remained so for a few years to come: with the exception of Wouldn't It Be Good, I had not heard a note of his 1980s era stuff. That took a few years to get to. At that time there wasn't YouTube to help find stuff to listen to, nor was there iTunes Music Store, so I relied on some alternative means to collect even a partial bunch of his songs from that era.
Even now there is woefully little on iTunes America store, and the CDs are damned hard to track down for a decent price, but I've gathered much of the 80s stuff by one download or another. I don't have a favorite full album from the four that he made in the 80s, but I tend to favor The Riddle and Radio Musicola. My understanding and appreciation for Nik's 80s era stuff was helped along considerably by the analysis of Patrick Daily. More recently, I found out about another thoughtful but more fan-oriented take on NK's music which helped shed more understanding. (The Patrick Daily dissection did a lot to help me understand more about music, and he analyzes more artists in similar fashion on his website.) Dissections did not scare me away because I already had an emotional connection with the music and I always appreciate a deeper look at it or what motivates its creation. Not particularly being of age in the period when this 80s era stuff was coming out, Daily's study about gender roles and New Men was an interesting perspective. His observation that despite the synthesized gloss and glitter, Nik is essentially protesting the capitalist culture even as he embraces the trappings of same. All that has given me more to look at while listening. But dissection or none, I am usually enthralled by the interesting harmonic and melodic turns this music takes. With a mix of live drums played by some of the best in the biz, and sequenced drums playing some nearly impossible parts, and sometimes doubled up parts using acoustic and electronic parts, there is rhythmic excitement too. At times Nik's voice seems exactly like Stevie Wonder. An odd thing, considering Nik is a very white dude from Britain. But not surprising considering he would have had Stevie's music to digest all during his formative years before he even cut his first album. At times I hear a sophistication and production spit and polish that one regards Steely Dan as having, but without the pretense and snobbiness that seems to accompany SD. One song, Know How, is a bunch of clever but subtle word and rhythmic play, and has this enormously satisfying Weather Report style bridge.
The thing is, I just don't know what I like about Nik's music. I know know that it speaks to me in its onion-like layers of meaning revealing themselves over time. There is no shortage of melodies that have sunk their hooks deep into me. This to me is the sign of good music, and even popular music can be good if it can keep peeling the layers away. I have to keep mining the recordings because Nik doesn't tour the States. There is a kind of longing that I have as this reality sinks in. Maybe that is part of what makes Kevin Gilbert and Jeff Buckley so appealing—the book is closed on those guys, and Nik and I are unlikely to cross paths unless I get to Blighty or Europe. I have never seen any of his 80s albums in the flesh; never read the liner notes or chewed on the lyrics like so many other albums I've held in hand. So I have to do what I can to forge an ongoing relationship with the material that I do have.