20 Questions: John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

The talented songwriter, singer and internationally best-selling novelist from East Sussex, John Wesley Harding, has a new CD out now, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and a new book coming out later this year, too. Bright, articulate and fearless – just the kind of artist we truly appreciate at PopMatters — while discussing “Cabinet of Wonders”, a theatrical production that brings musicians, authors, and other talented, intelligent people together at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge (through 15 April – then going on tour), Harding told Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal, “In the world of books, being smart is considered a virtue. In rock, there’s a snobbery about intelligence.” (“Harding and His Cabinet of Wonders”, 18 March 2009). Harding talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about some of the art and the artists that he appreciates.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Things overwhelm me quite easily. I’m liable to cry at the crucifixion in some old biblical epic. I even get glassy-eyed when I play a suggestive chord on the piano. I cry less at books, however: the last was The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

Most recently, movie-wise, probably a British TV adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (I’m talking about, like, yesterday.) The last opera was Massenet’s Thais at the Met: the end was quite overwhelming (and high camp).

To see someone perfectly in charge, like Ute Lemper doing cabaret, or my sister, Melanie Stace, in her pomp onstage — that does it for me, too.

2. The fictional character most like you?

According to my mother, that would be Rose Loveall in my first novel, Misfortune. But I suppose anyone published would probably say the same about their own main character, and that makes this question unfairly easy, so instead I’ll say Yorick in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy: I like the finer things in life, I’m quite sentimental, but I am no stranger to the bawdy.

Or Mister Dick in David Copperfield: odd ideas but essentially harmless.

My wife says I’m like Willy Wonka. I think that’s a bit scary; she thinks it’s a big compliment because he’s a creative genius and a wiseacre with kids. So, that’s very kind of her. But I just think of a kind of crazily dressed psychopathic child murderer with a very sweet tooth.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt. It’s been a constant in my life since I was about 14. I’ve always found something new to like in it, it’s never fallen out of favour, and I always try to turn other people on to it.

I could probably the say the same of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, but Rock Bottom always comes up top because it’s still worth telling people about it.

The most recent “greatest album ever” that I heard recently is The Rotter’s Club by Hatfield and The North — same kinda bag.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I never paid attention to either of those very much, though I believe I liked Star Trek (the original TV series) as a kid. I’m immune to Sci-Fi generally. I don’t mind watching a Sci-Fi movie, but reading the books is hard for me. I tried it again recently, and I just can’t go there. But I did get all the jokes in Galaxy Quest (which I loved) so I must have taken all the rules on board.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I like the quiz in the back of the Guardian‘s Saturday colour supplement, but I rarely see it. I also like a good cryptic crossword while on a train traveling to London.

I like research in dusty libraries. I love a book like How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen. That’s my kind of book. I am a devoted reader of The Times Literary Supplement.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I somehow manage to maintain my season ticket to Arsenal Football Club even though I live in a different continent. I should have really seen sense about this. But it shows how lunatic my support for this football club is.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

Writing David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Never lying. Those kinds of things.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

I’d say Charles Dickens might be one — hard worker, phenomenal output of fantastic quality; Leonard Cohen, still going strong, better than ever; Trollope, wrote loads every morning and then went to his job at the Post Office; Christopher Hitchens — I love his literary essays. His breadth of knowledge is phenomenal. Output allied with quality impresses me.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

A Matter of Life and Death (called Stairway to Heaven in the US) by Powell and Pressburger. A profoundly moving, very funny and technically jaw-dropping movie. Just reissued on a new DVD.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I’m good in a supermarket. There are lots of things I’m not good at (not panicking when I get lost in a car on my own, putting together IKEA furniture, etc.) but I am very level-headed in the bright aisles.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

I follow it all the time: Never leave your wallet in the dressing room.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Interesting. The best thing I ever bought was a first edition of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: I shouldn’t be allowed to own it. It should be in a museum. It was at the dawn of the internet and it was quite a steal; signed by the author three times.

What have I ever stolen? I stole a bottle of bourbon from a dressing room the other night, but was it mine or did it belong to the band before me? I didn’t really consider that. Either they’d left it, or it was mine. Either way, it’s here.

The guitar I’ve used for almost every gig since 1988 — a Takamine EN-10c, bought with my first music publishing advance — was clearly a good purchase.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

The clothes from Girbaud fit me very well. I don’t know how they worked it out.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Jack Weston and Rita Moreno, of course. It would be nice to take Carole Lombard to the Ritz, but I don’t know what she was really like and she’s dead, so a) it would have to be as she is on film back then and b) she would have to have the very best screwball scriptwriters.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I’d like to know how and why they built Stonehenge. And find out who Jack The Ripper was. And then I’d like to come back to the present and put an end to all speculation on such matters. Whole industries would grind to a halt.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Beach. Paperbacks. Sea. Cocktails brought to me in real glasses. More realistically: a massage focusing heavily on the shoulders.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

I like to have a good bourbon around. At the moment, I buy Pogue, though I’m quite happy with Knob Creek. I loved Bookers and Bakers, but I’ve decided that they’re so good, they’re almost undrinkable. Mind you, it took me a long time to work that out.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I live in the city and am moving to, more or less, the country, in a year or so. So ask me again then. “I was raised in the country, I been working in the town, I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.”

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Can I have an MBE or something?

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I just finished and handed over a third novel, which is about a classical composer around the time of the First World War. I’m working on a review of two books about music. And I just wrote a new song yesterday called “Music Cemetery of America”, which I may play quite soon.