Steve Turner – Poet and Explorer (part 2 of 3)

In part 2 of the Alternate Arts interview with Steve Turner, he discusses influences, exposure to art, and Hans Rookmaaker’s take on The Who.


Alternate Arts: Just to go off in a different direction. Which artists fascinate you and why?”

Turner: Bob Dylan has meant a lot to me, what he was and the kind of integrity he had – the way he combined stylishness with ideas about religion and politics, his use of language and rock music – that whole bundle of things that I was interested in. That all came together with him.

Allan Ginsberg. I like his interviews better than I like his poetry. I found him to be a fascinating person who was really interested in religious ideas and ideas about consciousness. He wanted to create poetry that made sense on the street and wasn’t just for the literary elite. I quite liked his standing in society as someone who was a poet, but you would go to him to ask questions. So, he had that kind of almost prophetic role in culture.

I like Picasso. I’m fascinated by his creativity. Like when he lived in Antibes, he would go and walk on the beach everyday. He’d pick up stones and shells and bits of wood, and he’d turn them into something. Just an amazingly fertile imagination. I find him inspirational as a creative person.

Alternate Arts: Has there been a particular work of art, a specific work of art, that touched you in such a deep and profound way that you knew that your life was not going to be the same after you saw or read or heard it?

Turner: I suppose most of the things would have been like in my teens. Like reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Discovering, not well known in America, but what we call the “Liverpool Poets,” Roger McGough, Brian Patten, and Adrian Henri. They were doing, I suppose, the equivalent of beat poetry in England. But because they were from Liverpool, it was all tied in with the Beatles and everything. Poetry you could associate with the whole kind of spirit of the Beatles and all the stuff that was happening in the sixties. Discovering poetry that fitted in with that, rather than was stuff about lakes and flowers and traditional sort of poetry subjects.

Hearing Dylan. I remember when I heard Positively 4th Street, and there was just something about that – the electric music and the care with which the lyrics were written. It wasn’t what it said or anything. I just knew it was a different type of song.

So, I think the stuff you’re exposed to as a teenager is so life-changing, that it’s important to hear and see good stuff when you’re a teenager because that’s probably going to be the stuff that will stay with you. I think it’s difficult to constantly be amazed by art as you get older, because you tend to think, “I’ve seen that before.”

This is not a very good example, but I went to see Jay-Z with my kids not long ago. It was so loud, and so well-staged that I thought the songs were almost overwhelmed by the volume and sound, and the spectacle of the staging. But my kids just thought it was fantastic.

I first saw Springsteen almost forty years ago. You build up a history with these people. You’ve seen them in so many different situations. Whereas my son, who’s interested, will ask, “Did that song come before that album, or did that come after that?” He’s got a totally different perspective because he just knows this guy wrote hundreds of songs, some of which he’s heard and some of which he likes. Whereas, I was around for every one of them and you’re in a different stage in your life at that time.”

Alternate Arts: The passion of the moment becomes the sequence of history.

Turner: Yes. I think a certain sort of naiveté is quite useful when you encounter art, so that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be swayed and overwhelmed, because you haven’t got so much to compare it to. It’s a lovely stage of life in that respect. It just gets a bit harder to capture that magic because you are exposed to so much.

I think of the access to material I can get now in the normal course of the day through the internet. I can wake up, read my Bible and listen to a sermon by someone. Yesterday I was looking at George Carlin’s sketches. Stuff that (a while back) you’d probably have to go out of your way to an obscure cinema to see. Now, you can just go at the click of a mouse. It’s a privilege, but at the same time you’re slightly overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s available. I suppose the impact is reduced because it is so available.

When I was young in England, we only had the BBC Radio. We didn’t have commercial radio. They didn’t play much rock at all. It was just parceled out – a few minutes here, a few minutes there. So, when, for example, you heard a Beatles song, you’d think, “That was fantastic!” And, you’d hope that maybe next Monday you might hear it again. Or next Thursday.”

Alternate Arts: Right!

Turner: It was that rare. You’d have to seek music out. Now, you kind of have to run away from it. You go into a store it’s there; you go into an elevator it’s there. People have earphones in almost all the time. It’s just there. It’s harder to make it that special when it’s that available.

Alternate Arts: Do you think, Steve, just on a sort of wide cultural basis, that leads to a sense of cynicism and sort of numbness, which ultimately could mean that for artists, the way to respond is just to shout louder and be more provocative?

Turner: Yeah, I think so. I’ve been working on a book on popular culture, sort of a follow-up to Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. One of the chapters in the book is about sensation, about living in an experience culture.

I went to see U2 in Pasadena, or somewhere in LA anyway, and they have this incredible stage show. Cameras flying around, and it was all being live-streamed on YouTube. I compared that to the first concert I saw, which would’ve been too small to have amplifiers on stage. I know the guy that does U2’s light show and I sent him this chapter (on sensation) to get his response. He had some other opinions about it. But I do think, how do you keep topping shows? How do you make them bigger, more spectacular, more talked about? I mean, volume is one thing, but volume gets taken to a stage where it’s actually damaging to your health. Have you heard of Hans Rookmaaker?

Alternate Arts: Yes.

Turner: He was an art historian. I was talking to him, must’ve been in the early 1970’s. He came to see a concert – The Who.

I said, “Well, what did you think about them?” And he said, “It was too loud.” And I thought, I wasn’t going to say it to him, but I thought that’s ridiculous, because rock music’s supposed to be loud.

But the funny thing is, Pete Townsend is losing his hearing now. And that’s the thing, you know. Rookmaaker had said, “I think that you get to a point, when it’s actually anti-human.” I asked him, “What do mean?” He said, “Well, for example, if music damages your hearing, or is too loud to bear, then it’s actually going against what we were made to be, it’s anti-human in that sense.” And now, thirty years later, Pete Townsend’s suffering from impaired hearing and has to have a hearing aid in both ears.

Alternate Arts: So, that’s a degradation to Townsend’s humanity?

Turner: Yes. Well it is, isn’t it? I mean, if it damages physical structures inside your body and actually makes it harder to perform normally.

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