State Of The Nation: Vini Reilly Interviewed
, February 26th, 2013 06:13
John Mullen visits one of the greatest guitarists of his generation at home where he is recuperating after a series of strokes. His inspiration is the kindness of strangers, just don't mention Margaret Thatcher...
STOP PRESS: Check the Quietus news section later today (WEDS) for another, slightly more positive update on Vini's situation.
Over 30 years, the Durutti Column have created close to 40 albums and countless hundreds of songs. But there is just one composition that you could call explicitly, unambiguously political. It’s a song I’ve been playing obsessively for months. 'My Country', the final track on 1989’s Vini Reilly, has the potency of a Munch-esque scream, the bald, almost gauche lyrics a pre-emptive attempt to write Thatcher’s epitaph. “Old people/ No health care/ Young people/ Cut education… My country/ Will you ever recover?"
But, of course, it’s the music that truly conveys the song’s sense of despair – as Bruce Mitchell’s skittery drumming gradually intersects with Reilly’s plaintive, squalling guitar, you can almost picture the nails being hammered down into the coffin of the welfare state.
And the same way that guitar explodes in 'My Country', so reality has violently intruded itself into the life of Vini Reilly. For decades, Reilly has lived the life of a pure aesthete, a very Mancunian flâneur. He would occasionally rub shoulders with the mainstream through his association with Simply Red, Morrissey or the Mondays. But really he was happy to create music that spoke just to him and his close circle, his song titles populated by acquaintances and lovers (and how DC fans would love to know Pol, Catherine, Sophia or those Belgian friends!)
But all this changed when Reilly’s health (always fragile) collapsed. In the last couple of years, Vini has had had a series of strokes. The albums and sporadic tours that maintained his frugal existence ceased.
As a fan, you always think your musical idols are basically doing okay. But DC followers were shocked by an appeal from Vini’s nephew at the beginning of 2013. Vini was “currently struggling to cover basic outgoings such as rent, food, electricity, etc”. In a matter of days, the appeal was closed after an outpouring of generosity from, amongst others, Quietus readers.
I meet Vini in his house in Withington. Roused from sleep by his manager/DC drummer Bruce, one’s first impressions are, well, fucking hell.
Stumbling towards a bed on the floor of the living room, Vini looks like a fractured Giacometti sculpture, attempting to correct his posture while some invisible force is shoving him sideways. Because he’s just woken up, his language is slurred and pretty much indecipherable. It’s also evident that all his teeth have fallen out (a side effect of the strokes).
A cup of tea and a few roll-ups later (and joshed along by the ever-avuncular Bruce), it thankfully becomes evident that Vini’s mind remains crystal clear. He usually stares into space while talking, but when his beautiful blue eyes fix you during conversation, you can see why Tony Wilson sincerely thought Vini could be moulded into some kind of teen idol.
Vini has a reputation for disliking interviews, but today he seems keen to talk. Perhaps because he has no other way of expressing himself – as he explains, Manchester’s greatest ever musician can no longer play the guitar.
“I’ve had three strokes – the first two were within an hour of each other. They were treating me as I got the second stroke – but I could still play. But I got a third stroke a year ago, and that is the one that did the damage. It means I can’t play – my right hand side, my balance has gone.”
As a Vini fan, you’re drawn to looking at his hands, the centre of his genius. He still has freakishly long nails on the right hand (and a tattoo of a musical clef) – Vini famously never used a plectrum as the sound was too harsh. But now, the hand is as useless as a broken tool.
“I can’t feel the strings, and I can’t control the movement of them – so I’ve got all these pieces of music in my head, they’re complete pieces of music – and I can’t play them. They’ve got nowhere to go. So it’s driving me a little insane to be honest with you.”
So Vini has now set himself the task of relearning the guitar. “I spend two hours every day trying to play, trying to create new, fresh neural pathways. I don’t plug the guitar in as it’s harder to play, it makes you work harder.
“It’s very frustrating, because I know what I want to do, but I can’t get my fingers to play the way they need to be played. It’s hard to cope with. Sometimes I feel like smashing the guitar up”.
Alongside the musical tragedy, Vini has also been dealing with the day-to-day reality of becoming a disabled person. And now, his tone turns from mournful to positively homicidal.
Vini’s run-in with the benefits office have been long and torturous, but the upshot is that because of a series of lost forms and red tape, Vini couldn’t get access to the disability fund that he needed to survive.
“Bruce gave me money, a whole host of people practically helped me - otherwise I would’ve gone under. I would’ve lost my home. What was I supposed to do? Sleep rough? Eat no food? I want somebody to admit the responsibility of putting my life in danger. I’ve paid so much tax over the years, I’ve never had a penny from the state and this is the first time I’ve asked for money because I was disabled.”
After 18 months of agony, Vini finally turned up at the benefits office and refused to leave. “I said ‘I want my money, you’ve got my money, I’m 59, I’ve worked for this since I was a kid’”.
Thankfully, working at the office that day was a DC fan. “He said, ‘let Mr Reilly through, he’s a client of mine’. If he hadn’t known my music, nothing would’ve changed.”
The whole saga almost sounds like a postscript to the state of affairs described in 'My Country'. And, unsurprisingly, Reilly has nothing but contempt for the present Coalition. “These are all Thatcher’s children, this is the legacy she has left. She has spoiled this country and is still spoiling it, increment by tiny increment. There has been a gradual decline since Thatcher, whose grave I will dance on when she dies. She should’ve been tried for crimes against humanity, like a war criminal.”
Reilly coldly states that the situation has taken him to the edge of endurance. But that was before the incredible response to his nephew’s appeal. “I’ve been suicidal about three times now, over the last six months, but this thing my nephew did has made me think again.
“I owe it to these people who’ve unselfishly just given… You’ve helped in ways that are beyond the initial problem of paying the debt. It’s reaffirmed my belief in the decency of people, that they do want to look after each other.
“I didn’t know that so many people knew my music. It’s caused a real change in my attitude. Until then I’d been waiting for the fourth stroke to finish me off… It’s made me realise that people are concerned about injustices, and people will help people who’re struggling.”.
There’s a romantic cliché that great art can come through incredible suffering (Reilly’s favourite piece of music is Tchaikovsky’s sublime 6th Symphony, Pathétique, which was completed shortly before the composer apparently killed himself, and provoked not cheers but sobs when it was first performed). Perhaps all this pain can be channelled into the Durutti Column?
“That’s what Tony Wilson used to say – if I was in a relationship with a girl and it ended, and I was miserable or traumatised, Wilson’s response was always – ‘I’ll wait for the album then’.”
It’s time to go. Various friends and family members have been trying to call, and Vini wants to start practising the guitar. As Bruce escorts me out, he asks Vini if there’s anything he can get him. “Just one thing – a girlfriend”.
“Oh Vini - you’d only fuck it up”.
And for the first time today, Vini Reilly guffaws with laughter.