Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Music of Gregory Gray

One of my favorite people I’ve gotten to know a bit via the ether of the internet this past year is a wonderful pop musician with whom more listeners should be familiar. He’s something of an enigma, a nomadic poet and a shapeshifter, but a true gentleman, nevertheless. He’s also one of the only mainstream musicians I can think of who released three major-label pop albums with three different record companies over the span of a decade in the ’80s and ’90s. His name is Gregory Gray — or at least that was his name on record sleeves for a while back in those days.

The singer and songwriter known for a time as Gregory Gray was born in 1959 and raised in the north of Ireland, under the name of Paul Lerwill. He was a member of the bands Rosetta Stone and Perfect Crime before being signed to CBS Records as Gregory Gray in 1985. A self-made artist in the same fashion that his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde championed, Gray was (and remains) a devoted fan of Beat Generation poetry, an eclectic spectrum of music ranging from punk to jazz to folk, and much of the authentic talent that lies on the fringes of popular culture.

There aren’t many people of whom I would say this, but he also has such impeccable taste, and not just in terms of his distinctive personal style. Browsing through his list of favorite videos on YouTube a while ago (he currently posts all of his own new songs and videos there as Mary Cigarettes), I was so impressed by the sharp, hilarious, and consistently brilliant catalogue of the things that he loves. It’s one of the best aesthetic examples of “we are the things we like” that I’ve come across in a long time.

Gregory Gray’s 1986 debut album, the evocatively titled Think of Swans, was completed just before the compact disc revolution began, so the record was released only on vinyl and cassette. Several months ago, I was able to find a pristine promotional copy of the LP from a record dealer in England. I hadn’t actually played anything on vinyl for about 25 years, so I had to track down a record player to listen to the album on as well.

Once I put the needle in place, the sound in my headphones whisked me back to the great New Romantic period of the early ’80s, but without ever fully settling there. Saxophone, guitar, and piano all wander through these ten songs, with some brief, sporadic nods to New Wave rock (on the catchy opener “Life of Reilly”), blues (on “Charlie Gets Hurt,” a tune about a sort of dandy figure), and classic synthpop (on the epic closing number “Seatown”).

David Bowie’s legendary glam persona is certainly a stylistic touchstone here, and he’s one of Gray’s most apparent influences. Even the cover image on the single for the album’s finest track, “Books to Read Twice,” was taken by the late Brian Duffy, who photographed Bowie for his Aladdin Sane and Lodger album covers. The overall tone of Think of Swans is youthful and upbeat, lyrically playful and opaque, delivered with vocals that are always passionately invested. “Johnny Purify,” from which the album’s title is drawn, blends together sonic elements both industrial and dreamlike. And the end of “Seatown,” an ode to jaded Irish sailors, explores the archetypal themes of leave-taking and homecoming, which will re-emerge later in Gray’s oeuvre:

“Life does not begin and end

In this little shanty town

So I’m leaving

But I am not really leaving.”

Gray’s sophomore album, 1990’s Strong at Broken Places on Atco/Atlantic Records, was a much more thoroughly polished commercial endeavor. Produced by Davitt Sigerson — who also produced records for such acts as Tori Amos, The Bangles, and Olivia Newton-John — Gray’s second disc found him crafting his lyrics with more radio-friendly aims, while broadening his sonic palette to include slight touches of funk (“Universal Groove”), reggae (“People Are Hard”), AOR balladry (“Don’t Walk Away from Love”), beach party surf-rock (“The Fun Has Just Begun”), country twang (“Easier Said Than Done”), gospel (“A Hard Man’s Gonna Fall”), and even some rhythmic appropriations of early hip-hop in his vocals at times. His voice itself is truly unique, and it can swerve in seconds from soulful choirboy loftiness to a full-throated howl.

Though the lyrics on Strong at Broken Places are accessible, they still don’t make easy compromises, often poking fun at the music industry and culture that funded the making of the album — meaning, of course, that these songs are quite a bit smarter than the majority of what’s out there in the pop music idiom. As Gray archly sings on “When the Music Turns into Money,” “Fender jangle like a zillion shillings, / Drum machine stamp like a printing machine, / The chorus comes like a train in a hurry, / The singer can’t sing, she’s a tacky young hussy.” The song’s memorable refrain, with its intentional irony fully intact, is “I’m a goldmine, I’m a goldmine, I’m a goldmine.” Only a handful of pop songs succeed at sincerely dismantling the mainstream music business from within it, and this happens to be one of them.

Outsiders of various sorts lurk at the periphery of many of Gray’s songs. One tune on his second disc begins, “All of my friends have settled down, / They talk a foreign language now… / I have always gone astray / And marry every town I stay.” And when Gray sings, “I don’t give a damn, / I don’t give a damn” on the chorus of the album’s opener, you’ll believe him and you’ll sing along, too. His earnest penchant for incorporating catchy chants, riffs, and hooks from song to song is especially noticeable on each of his records: “Cowbells and Linn drums and tambourines play / No matter wherever you go.”

In one of his recent videos on YouTube, Gray mentions how crushed he felt when Strong at Broken Places didn’t garner the commercial attention that it deserved upon its release, to the extent that he contemplated leaping from the seventh-floor balcony of the hotel in Los Angeles where he was staying at the time. Importantly, he acknowledges the necessity of living past such moments of desperation, since we can all move forward to do other things on new days. Given the distance in time that retrospect provides, the question of commercial achievement matters much less now, and this album can still be appreciated for just how solid and ably performed all of its songs are.

On his third and final album in 1995, the jaw-droppingly good Euroflake in Silverlake, Gregory Gray raised the stakes of his own game significantly. His previous album’s producer, Davitt Sigerson, had since become president of EMI Records, so he offered Gray his new album contract. As luck would have it, the famed pop music icon Stephen Hague was enlisted to oversee the album’s production. Hague had already collaborated on massive hits with a roster of some of the UK’s most celebrated musical luminaries: New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Marc Almond (of Soft Cell), Jimmy Somerville (of Bronski Beat), Holly Johnson (of Frankie Goes to Hollywood), and Britpop darlings Blur.

While some of the album’s sterling production values can be attributed to Hague’s contributions, Gray’s singing and songwriting had also strengthened in confidence and innovation by this point. The album’s themes encompass everything from urban malaise to finding happiness in gay relationships to surviving in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. For me, part of the album’s enduring allure comes from Gray’s unabashed openness about being gay in several of the songs, something that’s still a rarity in the world of mainstream pop music today, unfortunately.

In fact, that’s probably what led me to discover Gray’s music in the first place. A gay friend of mine who was a manager at Strawberries Records on Boylston Street in Boston at the time had placed Gray’s CD on the “Manager’s Favorites” listening station in the store, prompting me to give it a spin. I was totally blown away by what I heard, and a couple of the record’s tracks, “Lover, Brother, Friend” and “Three Minute Requiem,” remain among my very favorite songs of all time to this day. (More on those two songs later.)

One quality that really resounds on this album is Gray’s disregard for societal conventions, his dismissal of cultural demands and expectations, again reflected in his love for the Beat poets. Rather than being overly serious, this attitude manifests in a clever humor throughout the duration of the album. The opening track and the album’s single, “The Pope Does Not Smoke Dope,” delivers just as much as its tongue-in-cheek title promises, discreetly underscored by a sleek techno beat and a hopping harmonica line. A sublime meditation on just how little sense the world makes, how things never operate the way that they ideally should, Gray’s verses satirically encourage us to accept the entire disillusioned mess at a more relaxed stride:

“It’s not enough behaving wisely

And having someone you choose to call dear.

It’s not enough to pay the rent on time

And function on fear.

It’s not enough to give yourself completely

To what every day demands.

Who cares if you visit your mother

Whenever you can?”

“I’m Not Paranoid” kicks that adrenaline up a few notches, cruising along on swells of rhythm guitar, punctuated by The Kick Horns’ jubilant trumpet flares and some metropolitan drama: “The DJ’s on amphetamines, / The night goes on forever, / My lover and I are soaking wet, / The police don’t think it’s clever. / They’re waiting in the parking lot, / They’re waiting for some evidence, / They’re waiting for a promotion, / Their pay raise is my innocence.” The segue into the appropriately ethereal down-tempo “Coming Off Drugs” works seamlessly as a kind of come-down in itself.

The album’s fourth track, “Lover, Brother, Friend,” is a song that’s been immediately loved by every single person I’ve ever shared it with. I can distinctly remember making out to it with a boyfriend back when I was in college, just lounging on his bed together in his dorm room, looking out at the thousands of shimmering lights spread over the city. Despite its seeming simplicity, this direct and unadorned love song possesses a magical kind of euphoria that no other song I’ve heard has ever quite matched:

“Dreaming I’m asleep,

Waking up with you

On a hallelujah Sunday,

Far away from fear

Or falling out of love,

New York in a hailstorm.

I’ve been alone every single day.

Satellite, come into my life again.”

Individual identity is another recurring motif on the disc, “I Don’t Know Who I Am” being the most whimsical example (“Too much time for thinking / Makes a person lose their way”), obliterating everything from religion to gender. “Troubled Mind” feels equally lighthearted, swaying along on a breezy island rhythm in spite of its title subject, as does the Peter Gabriel-esque “Town with No Telephone.” “Tough, Baffling Road” turns more downbeat both in its tone and its list of dire but likely predictions (“In the future you’re gonna need a fortune just to stay alive…to keep your clothes on…to have your children”).

Perhaps the album’s most brilliant, unexpected stroke is “Scenes from a Madison Avenue Office,” a dramatic monologue/fantasy that’s spoken from the perspective of a Manhattan business executive, either in person or via the telephone, to a different sort of working girl whom he’s hired for an evening’s worth of her services. The sad bridge of the city’s overheard traffic makes a perfect crossover to the album’s quietly profound orchestral finale, “Three Minute Requiem,” which recounts the years spent in the shadow of AIDS during the decade leading up to the album’s release:

“We live in times

When making love can kill you,

So I’m on my guard,

And life is hard enough.

What kind of fool

Would look me in the eye

And tell me I am wrong

To live my life this way?

I left my home

So I could be myself,

I stumbled into town

Trying to move ahead.

No fear of hate

And no fear of fate,

1975 was a totally different game.”

So much is captured by the heartfelt lyrics of this song, an entire portion of history for an entire subculture of people — and moreover, it closes on a hopeful, open-ended note: “Let there be laughter, / And let the music play.” The song belongs in a time capsule, along with all three of Gregory Gray’s albums. But naturally, each of his albums can already be cherished as its very own time capsule.

To hear and download (totally for free!) Gregory Gray’s excellent, more recent songs that he’s written and recorded independently as Mary Cigarettes — all of which are consistently poetic, atmospheric, refined, and occasionally a bit raunchy please visit and have fun exploring at:

You can also enjoy watching his artfully composed videos here:

Postscript: I start another busy school year of teaching college courses this coming week, so my blog will be on hiatus a bit over the next few months. I’ll plan to write another post or two along the way, whenever I can squeeze some in. And in the meantime, thanks to everyone who reads and comments on them.