"I've always found it impossible to function in any kind of society," says Eric Goulden. "I feel like something that's come here from outer space and got sucked in."
Even in 1976, when he recorded his first single, the man better known as Wreckless Eric was a misfit--quite a distinction, considering he was on the roster of UK punk label Stiff Records alongside characters like Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, and Nick Lowe. Diminutive, disheveled, and wild-eyed, with a reedy, ragged voice and an equally rough demeanor, Goulden combined a biting wit with an outlook that was genuinely romantic and quixotic, at odds with his often brash and brawling sound. Over the past 30 years the British press has called him both a "belligerent alcoholic dwarf" and a "national treasure."
If Goulden had stopped after that first single, "Whole Wide World," his place in music history would be secure: it was a hit on the English alternative charts and has since become a punk standard. But he's released many equally rich songs in his long career--though he's never equaled the commercial success of his Stiff years, in a just world he'd be as revered as his old labelmates.
Now 51, Goulden will be in Chicago this weekend for an afternoon gig at the Hideout, his first appearance here since 1980. These days he's playing solo, switching between acoustic and electric guitars and mixing songs from throughout his career with salty stories from his 2003 autobiography. But his performances are hardly hushed, intimate affairs--he clangs at his guitar, storms around the stage, and throws himself into the tunes with disarming zeal.
Goulden's autobiography, A Dysfunctional Success: The Wreckless Eric Manual, jump-started his current renaissance when it clicked with critics for high-profile English outlets like Mojo and Uncut. He launched his own label, Southern Domestic, to coincide with the book's release, and in 2004 he put out Bungalow Hi, his first new album in nearly seven years. He's also ramped up his touring schedule, but a good bit of his energy still goes into his writing, much of which he posts at wrecklesseric.com.
From the many wild tangents and colorful stories in Dysfunctional Success (upon arriving at the Stiff offices with demo in hand, he famously declared, "I'm one of those cunts that brings tapes into record companies"), a picture emerges of Goulden's tortured relationship with the music business, for which he has well-documented contempt. "What I actually loathe and despise," he says, "is the people who are busting themselves up trying to get somewhere in it. It's unhealthy. And as you get successful as a pop star, suddenly it becomes de rigueur to star in a film, or to release a small volume of poetry, curate an art exhibition, and maybe even model some clothes as well. And it's like, just 'cause you can write some fuckin' songs doesn't make you good-looking and all the rest."
He began his own career tweaking the idea of pop stardom. "I started in art school in the early 70s, where we used to do things like have light shows and play washboards with loads of feedback and stuff," he says. "Then we started playing pop music because it was almost like a bizarre art statement to play songs that sounded like the Ohio Express or the 1910 Fruitgum Company."
After "Whole Wide World" and his three subsequent full-lengths for Stiff, Goulden began to feel boxed in by his own public persona. "I didn't want to be famous on the terms that I had been famous on before," he says. "Stiff Records had me tagged as a sort of lunatic. Jake Riviera's perception of me was as a space cadet, which was probably right. I was their cosmic whiz kid. And then when he left, the nonvisionary staff had me pegged as a drunken loony at one point. Though I did have a drink problem at the time, so I suppose it was fair enough."
Goulden split from Stiff after 1980's Big Smash! and disappeared from music for nearly five years. Backed by the Captains of Industry, a group featuring members of Ian Dury's Blockheads, he released A Roomful of Monkeys in 1985, but its grimy character studies didn't fit the prevailing zeitgeist of British pop and it failed to sell. In '86, newly sober, he made a pair of LPs with former members of Billy Childish's Milkshakes, including the no-fi garage classic The Len Bright Combo Present the Len Bright Combo by the Len Bright Combo, which cost 86 pounds to record. The group split acrimoniously a year later, though, and Goulden suffered a nervous breakdown. He decided to give up music and go to teachers college but ended up in a mental hospital instead.
Eventually he left England, but not music--by the early 90s he was living in the French countryside, where he continued to make albums, including 1993's The Donovan of Trash on Sympathy for the Record Industry. "I was in France for nine years and lived in bohemian squalor," he says. "Toward the end it was getting very difficult to keep earning a living. I missed my friends, my dad was very ill, and for one reason or another I came back." Goulden settled in Norwich and began working on sound tracks for small experimental films and writing his autobiography.
In 2003, a couple months after the book hit stores, he reissued the Len Bright albums on Southern Domestic; the British label Hux chipped in with a collection of his live BBC recordings, Almost a Jubilee. Then came Bungalow Hi, which mixed Goulden's downbeat narratives with bits of atmospheric electronica and dub. "Me embracing techno and the whole DJ culture was a bit of a fuckin' shock to some people," he says. "I've done all kinds of stuff that people just don't know about--which probably fueled part of my disdain for the music industry."
But some of that disdain, at least toward Stiff Records, is subsiding. Since the late 80s the Stiff catalog has been under the control of ZTT Records, and ZTT is making regular royalty payments to Goulden. "I never got a royalty check until 1996," he says. "It took 20 years." ZTT also plans to restart Stiff next year and has approached Goulden about a career anthology and expanded reissues of his albums. "They want me to remaster everything, make sure it's all the right mixes, write sleeve notes, and so on," he says. "They've been great about it."
Stiff is also scheduled to release a compilation of covers of "Whole Wide World." Goulden says ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon and Death in Vegas are among the likely contributors. "It makes me happy, that," he says. "I don't want to be bitter about [Stiff] anymore. This is a way to finish things up."
Meanwhile Goulden is considering a second volume of his autobiography and a follow-up to Bungalow Hi, and he's working on material with his girlfriend, indie-pop singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, who's also on the tour that brings him here.
"Ian Dury once said to me, 'Anybody can have a good idea. People have a hundred good ideas a day. But the thing that singles someone out is when they can take one of those ideas and turn it into something.' It's always hard work, like 3 percent inspiration and 97 percent perspiration," he says. "Although I prefer to keep the percentage of inspiration a bit higher. I don't know that I really want to work that hard." v
Wreckless Eric, Amy Rigby, Jon Langford's Ship & Pilot
When: Sat 3/11, 4 PM
Where: Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Steck.