Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Changing man: a Weller biography

"...they are different to you and me, the songwriters. Normal rules do not apply. Theirs is another kind of existence, one that moves to a different drum beat. Their moods fluctuate, swiftly. One minute an angel, the next the meanest person alive. They feel themselves special. They are at the centre of the universe, and all because they write three-minute pop songs. Their arrogance is staggering, their humility a sham. They see and feel in different ways."
- Paolo Hewitt, 2006.

I've just finished reading a biography about Paul Weller, The Changing Man (2006), written by his former friend and biographer, Paolo Hewitt. Paolo Hewitt is a London-based music writer who originated from Woking where he and Paul Weller had met as teenagers. Weller was Hewitt's best friend from 1980 up until 2006, where Hewitt admits to the termination of their long-standing friendship. For Weller fans, Hewitt would be best known for his lucidly-written biography of Weller's first band, The Jam, called the Beat Concerto, published in 1983.

I feel that The Changing Man is the best book written about Weller, and it is an outstanding template for music biography in general. Hewitt has created 68 chapters in this book, each of these being a song title on which Hewitt ties the song in with an aspect of Weller's own personal life of which Hewitt knew intimately. This tends to sway the reader's awareness away from the sycophantic to the practical, in that you start to see Weller as a mere human being rather than a rock-god, a modfather, and a complex one at that too with his ever changing moods and personality traits. Whilst Hewitt is at pains to not "judge" Weller, he nonetheless has no qualms in expressing his disappointments at the flawed sides of Weller's character. Weller, he says, has an angel sitting on one shoulder and a gargoyle on the other. He says, "...Paul has a very good heart beating inside him. He showed a great generosity of spirit when the mood took him. Yet he could also be mean, aggressive, bullying, incredibly selfish, highly intolerant, and very thoughtless." Hewitt himself had been the target of Weller's bluntness and invective, and seemingly on many occasions. Particularly when it was centred around the darling drink, the lash, alcohol, of which Weller is incredibly fond. According to Hewitt, Weller had challanged him to a fight on three separate occasions ("...let's go outside, sort it out"). In 2006 came the final argument that saw the pair estranged, prompting Hewitt to write this book.

Hewitt understands music and he seems to understand Paul's music best of all. The book, as an elucidation of Paul's songwriting and personality, is a great read for those who love Paul Weller and his music. You come to understand that much of his vivid and complex personality is derived from his upbringing in the tough working-class and moneyless surrounds of Woking, Surrey, to his very protective and loving parents, and to the force and drive of his immense artistry and talent. Hewitt not only expounds on the larger elements of Paul's life, but the small details as well that show him to be very human and real, and ultimately, just another fella. Hewitt, after all, as a close friend of Paul's, had seen him through thick and thin, in public and in private.

It seems ironic to me that Weller has recently struck up a friendship with ex-Jam bassist (and current 'From the Jam' bassist) Bruce Foxton. With the passing of Foxton's wife, Pat, and Weller's father and former manager, John, both in 2009, a reconciliation of sorts seemed to have taken place. Foxton attended John Weller's funeral and perhaps the spark of reconciliation was reignited at that point. The irony comes from the fact that the words "Bruce Foxton" would have been four-letter words to Weller during the post-Jam 80s, four letter words beginning with F and with C, as was the phrase "The Jam". It was Paolo Hewitt after all, who in his book Beat Concerto from 1983, painted his friend Weller as some exemplary shining light who could do no wrong whereas as you could sniff a subtle air of distaste centred towards Bruce and Rick. Those would have been hard days for Foxton and Buckler. And now, 26 years later, Foxton and Weller are back on speaking terms and Hewitt's the shafted one. This despite Weller's disdain for Foxton's "cabaret" band 'From the Jam'. As Foxton says, they don't discuss or comment on Foxton's band, and certainly not on anything that sniffs of "reformation".

For all of his insight into Paul Weller and songwriters in general, I feel that Hewitt misses a point somewhere. What Hewitt doesn't or didn't fully comprehend is that driven songwriters, or musicians for that matter, unconsciously seek the same in friendship, and perhaps in love too. Hewitt after all is a music-writer, not a musician. He writes like someone who understands music very well, and that he certainly does. But I'm sure that unconsciously at least, and over a long period of time, Weller would have lost his patience with Paolo. It's a bit like, I'm the fuckin' player, I'm the songwriter, what the fuck would you know! It's a primal thing. Driven musicians possess it. It reminds me of Neil Finn telling his bass player in 1996 that he has a heightened sense of his own talents, that whole thing of I'm better than you. Weller's hard musical ego, over time, probably grinded down his close friendship with a man who wrote about something he loved, but wasn't that which he loved. That's my opinion.

It ties in with his reuniting friendship with Bruce Foxton. It was Paul and Bruce, along with Rick Buckler, who drove the band from fledglings to becoming the biggest band in Britain. It was they who were under the wing of Paul's father and manager John, all for one, one for all. It was they who performed those countless gigs from 1977-1982. It was Bruce who stepped in to help Paul when the Australian Rugby team were in the process of pulversing Weller at an after-gig drink hole in Leeds in 1977. (Interestingly, Paolo confesses to Weller telling him "Say what you like about him, he did that for me", revealing some level of disdain Hewitt must have harboured for Foxton).

It always appeared that Foxton and Weller had little in common. Hewitt and Weller, according to Hewitt, had most things in common. Foxton, after all, seemed a lot "simpler" than the more driven and far-more artistically and sartorially inclined Weller. Yet Foxton and Weller have one thing in common that Hewitt does not have, and that's a desire to play and perform, to make music. In Weller's life, this is a religion, and it's where primal understanding lies. It is the first consideration. Foxton is a doer, of something that Weller loves, whereas Hewitt is not.

I was glad to read that Foxton and Weller are on speaking terms again. It makes me feel that anything's possible. And Hewitt should be pleased for his book. It's a great read, well-written and elucidating, and with a right blend between musical appraisal and personal insight into Britain's most loved songwriter today. And while there's a balance between the positive and negative aspects of Weller's personality, ultimately you sense the good shining through the man. That's credit to Weller's music, and to Hewitt's excellent writing. As Hewitt says, "...when the mood takes PW, which it does a lot, he can shine like no other."

And Neil Finn has reunited with Nick Seymour too, that's ace!! :)

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