By Blake Maddux
It is the classic love story: American woman plays a gig in Hull, England. English man DJs for American woman at said gig, which is at the venue where he first performed his most famous song. After remaining in touch for a few years, American woman and English man meet again at Yo La Tengo Hanukkah concert and later get married.
“Not many Americans go to Hull,” said Amy Rigby, the American woman in this tale. “That was a strange bit of serendipity, I guess,” The English man is Eric Goulden, better known – and to many only known – as “Wreckless Eric.”
Goulden was born in Newhaven, England, in 1954. He made a bit of a splash in the English punk and new wave scene in 1977 with a series of singles on Stiff Records that included Semaphore Signals, Take the Cash (K.A.S.H.), and his most enduring composition, (I’d Go the) Whole Wide World.
The last of these songs has been covered in various capacities by performers as diverse as Marilyn Manson, Will Ferrell, the aforementioned Yo La Tengo, and the Scottish duo The Proclaimers, who Goulden said did the best version of it. He is also the author of an autobiography titled A Dysfunctional Success: The Wreckless Eric Manual.
“I would like to write a second part to the autobiography,” Goulden says. “I should do that, really, because there’s a lot more to talk about.”
Amelia McMahon was born in Pittsburgh in 1959. She was a member of New York City-based bands The Last Roundup and The Shams, and was married to Will Rigby, the drummer of another 1980s cult band of sorts, The dB’s. Spin magazine named her Songwriter of the Year in 1996, the year that she released her debut solo album. Rigby has also lived and worked in Nashville and Cleveland.
Goulden and Rigby recently moved to upstate New York after living in France for several years. They will be returning to Johnny D’s on February 1, having previously played there last September in support of their 2012 album A Working Museum, the third full-length recording that they have done together.
Robert Christgau, so-called/self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” has long written reverently of Rigby’s work. His review of her 2005 album Little Fugitive reads, “It really is quite simple – no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby’s realistic post-folk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996. She’s the best, plus a fine singer in an apt doing-the-dishes mode.”
Of the praise that music critics have long and consistently heaped upon her, Rigby says, “It’s a double-edged sword, but it’s certainly good that someone is interested. You can’t take the praise too much to heart. If you believed every critical thing, you’d never do it again. By the same token, if you believe every complimentary thing, you’d kind of feel like, ‘Oh, my work here is done. I don’t have to do anything else’.”
Although they were born five years apart on separate continents, 1983 turned out to be – in retrospect – a momentous year for both Goulden and Rigby. Rigby has a song called The Summer of My Wasted Youth on her 1998 album Middlescene. Each verse looks back nostalgically with sentiments such as “Summertime of ’83, I didn’t need a J-O-B/’Cause unemployment kept me free to study country harmony.”
On the other hand, 1983, sung by Goulden on the couple’s latest release, contains the lyrics, “I wish that I could wipe out every trace of 1983. The clothes, the hair, the politics, and my beer-drenched memory.”
According to Rigby, “It was his worst year. I wouldn’t say it was my best year, but it was the year when so many things came together for me, like when I first started playing in a band. That was the year that he stopped playing in a band.”
While Rigby opined that “the music in ’83 was terrible,” Goulden went a bit further about the entire decade:
“The 80s was the worst thing that happened to Western civilization. It was the worst decade that ever happened. It was the most appalling time. People turned into money-grubbing materialistic idiots.”
How Goulden felt about the world at large and the people in it probably had a great deal to do with the fact that he was having a pretty difficult time personally.
“There’s a line in that song , ‘No one I knew had a job’,” he says. “In Amy’s Summer of My Wasted Youth, they’re kind of celebrating that. But I was a bit older, and to me it was kind of like I was pushing 30, and I’ve got no job, no hope, there’s no future, and no one in the music business wants to know about me.”
Surely Goulden would not take back all that happened that year. After all, as he explained, his daughter was born sometime within the first nine months of 1984.
As should be clear at this point, Goulden is spot-on when he says, “I have lots of opinions about stuff.” This stuff includes, of course, music.
For example, U2: “I think they’re detestable,” he says. Who is the greatest punk band of all time? Not The Sex Pistols, not The Ramones, not The Clash, but the far lesser-known X-Ray Spex. What about Elvis Costello, his world famous Stiff Records label-mate from back in the day? “I have no interest in what he does at all.”
Apparently though, his lack of interest was not enough to prevent him and his daughter from going to Mr. Costello’s Wikipedia page to, as he says, “change stuff, just to prove it could be done.”
But Wreckless Eric is not an all-around grouchy fellow. His sensitive side emerges when he thinks of some of his fellow musicians whom he knew when he started out.
“I talk to Nick Lowe when I see him, of course I do. Ian Dury [an English Singer-songwriter who died of cancer at age 57 in 2000] was a very close friend. It was a shame what happened, really. Wilko Johnson [lead singer of the influential pub-rock band Dr. Feelgood] is now very ill. All these people that I knew from that time are dying, which is kind of, I don’t know,” he says, trailing off at the end.
Moreover, his happier side is evident when he discusses the use of his Whole Wide World in the 2006 movie Stranger Than Fiction.
“I thought it was great,” he says. “I was thrilled to have a song in a film.”
Unfortunately, this did not really bring him the recognition or financial reward that he has long so richly deserved. On this point, Goulden is poignant:
“I went to the premiere, and no one’s looking out for you, like the record company or the publishing company anything. I would have liked to have met Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, although I’m sure it wouldn’t make an iota of difference to him, and Emma Thompson as well. And they were all there. Amy and I were invited to an after party, but it was one for the carpenters and the assistant undersecretaries (laughs). It was such a shame. Will sang my song and I never got to meet him.”
Moreover, Goulden says, “On the back of that, Whole Wide World sold 150,000 downloads in the US alone in one year. I didn’t make a fortune out of it. Between the record company and the publishing company, I think I made a pig’s ear at the deal. I was pleased, really. Anything that will help to keep you on the map is fantastic.”
As the happy couple makes its way to Somerville on February 1, they will obviously, as Amy Rigby says they always do, “have plenty to talk about in the van.”