Tonight I received news that one of the great figures of English rock has died. Kevin Ayers, aged 68, was the founding member of the Soft Machine, a band that inspired a generation of young musicians and singer-songwriters alike. I had most of Kevin’s vinyl records, they didn’t gather dust.
Many moons ago I formed a 3 piece band called Whatever She Brings We Sing, after the name of his early 70’s ground-breaking album. It was a tribute band to Kevin’s song-writing, and a few compositions of my own pen bundled in for good measure. All the time I felt his hand in my guitar playing, in performing, his genuine affection and respect for Blues music and a rather unique whimsical sense of humour.
His unique voice also captured a whiskey throated, gravely soul that projected pure love.
Sadly Kevin dwindled in the eighties and nineties due to the effect of drugs. He emerged with Falling Up (1987) that featured one time collaborator Mike Oldfield. Then in a few years later he returned with Still Life With Guitar (1991), a collaboration with Eddi Reader and Fairground Attraction. His last album The Unfairground (2007) was in my view one of his greatest recordings, the songs were simple, and peppered with the wisdom of his years.
I will never forget the last gig I saw him play, a wonderfully intimate set in the cellars at the Jazz and Roots Club in Shrewsbury 2003. He was on great form, having conquered a long standing addiction to heroin and alcohol. There was a moment in the concert where he slow everything down, to deliver a sublime version of Lady Rachel. The moment sent the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. It was his on-stage electricity, his unshakeable charisma, timing and belief in song.
I caught up with kevin briefly after the gig as he climbed into his touring camper van. I asked why he didn’t play much in the UK anymore? He still had a strong following here in England. He just smiled and said he was now living in southern France, he liked the pace of life there, it suited his Chi, as he put it. He was performing still, in Belguim with a Jazz outfit. He suggested I must go and see the scene there. I nodded that one day I would. We talked a little about his memories of Hendrix, and like him he didn’t follow the rules. We shook hands before he disappeared into the night. It was an emotionally ride home that night. I didn’t want it to end.
It’s emotional now, but in a different way. It feels like I’ve lost a friend. His songs filled my heart, in the good times and bad. They carried me across the turbulent waters of life. They rested my mind safely on the other side. He was a maestro, a mentor, a pacifist and a true gentleman. Wherever Kevin is now, I will keep the faith he imbibed in me. His music hasn’t died. It never will.