I met Cutler just once, on March 3rd 1999, during the recording of my Stars Forever album. He was sitting in the Photographer's Gallery, near London's Chinatown (he had learned Chinese, and apparently liked to spend time in Chinatown practicing his skills). He gave me some little gold stickers covered in proverbs of his own provenance. I might still have them somewhere. I told him we had been released by the same record label (his records were being released by Creation at the time). "Oh, is that what it was?" he asked, pointedly.
I first heard of Ivor Cutler when I was a schoolboy in Scotland. For some reason, he was a cult in our seventh form rooms on Henderson Row, Edinburgh. Johnny Glenn and Puckle Stewart would bump into each other in the corridor, shout "Ivor!" and collapse into hysterics. We circulated postcards printed by Virgin, Cutler's label at the time, showing a chest-bare Ivor, already looking like an eighty-year-old man (although he must only have been in his mid-50s at the time) striking a pathetic pose, cupped hands held in a sort of mute appeal to the viewer. The photograph was captioned (on the back) "Ivor Cutler: the North face".
What I didn't realize until later was that this laughing stock, this eccentric, was a mountain of talent. I bought Cutler's "Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Vol. 2", a long-playing album of a live performance at the Third Eye Centre, Sauchiehall Street -- an unreliable surrealist autobiography sprinkled with useful "Jungle Tips". It was a record my parents (who had quite similar lower middle-class upbringings to Cutler) could enjoy as much as we children did. Like Cutler, the record combined the childish and the ancient.
I first saw Cutler perform in about 1978, at the Aberdeen University student union. I reviewed his show of poems and songs in the student paper, The Gaudie, headlining my review "Priceless Cutlery". Like a cross between Franz Kafka (his favourite writer, and a fellow Jew) and Nico (for the harmonium, of course), Cutler pumped out songs and stories that, while whimsical and very old-fashioned, nevertheless bore traces of the "lucy in the sky with diamonds" 1960s, recalling the psychedelia of the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" (which Cutler appears in) and even some of the spirit of that other great Scot, R.D. Laing. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Beatles had Cutler in mind when they wrote "Sgt. Pepper".
Rather like that other traditionalist eccentric, Robert Crumb, Cutler was more marked by the radical counter-culture of the 1960s than he seemed. A teacher by profession (he was also in the RAF, and a graduate of Glasgow School of Art), he spent a happy and productive few years teaching (and living) at A.S. Neill's radical alternative school Summerhill. I think the connection with Lennon and McCartney (Cutler even recorded an album with George Martin, Ludo) reminds us that the 1960s in Britain contains that valuable cultural moment: the collision of surrealism with music hall. Acid, of course, had something to do with it, but I suspect Cutler was a bit like Obelix, dipped in hallucogenics at birth. Rather than chemicals, he reached his astonishingly original images and scenarios by writing very late at night, when very sleepy. (This is something else he shares with Kafka.)
Cutler's influence over my own work reached its peak only in the last few years. He's a notable presence on my "Oskar Tennis Champion" album, in the sleevenotes of which I offer "a bearhug to Scotland's greatest living poet, Ivor Cutler" and direct listeners to his poem A Land of Penguin, the inspiration behind the song A Lapdog. I think you can also hear a song like "Lovely Tree" as Cutleresque. His influence also surfaced in the stories I told last year during my performance in "I'll Speak, You Sing" at the LFL Gallery in New York.
Just this week I considered doing a Click Opera entry about Cutler "while he's still alive" (because he's always appeared so ancient, his death, though shocking, has often seemed even more of a foregone conclusion than it is for the rest of us). Yesterday, without knowing he'd died, I chatted about Cutler with a London friend, mentioning how I'd been listening to a lovely song of his called "Lemon Flower" and urging her to listen to it too.
I was delighted to discover that my name appears right next to Cutler's in Wikipedia's List of People Widely Considered to be Eccentric:
• Nick "Momus" Currie, Berlin-based Scottish "folktronica" musician, design critic, orientalist and "emotional communist".
• Ivor Cutler, Scottish poet, musician and comic.
I hope posterity will be eccentric enough to consider Cutler, as I do, a "star forever".
Some Ivor Cutler resources:
Biography on Benbecula Records site.
Obituary in The Guardian.
Feature in The Guardian, "Cutler's Drawers"
Website about Cutler.
Audio clips of Cutler performances.
Ivor Cutler's radio sessions.
YouTube video of Cutler performing "Shoplifters" on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
A BBC Radio Scotland documentary about Cutler (broadcast 2002).
Glasgow Dreamer, a tribute programme by fellow comedian Arnold Brown broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2003.