To the kids in the sold-out Earls Court arena, he
may as well be some sort of god. Pacing barefoot
around the stage, lanky 6'-plus songsmith Richard
Ashcroft is studiously tuning his guitar, making certain
that every note rings true before proceeding. As he steps
up to the microphone -- and a hush falls over the crowd
-- cameras project real-time, big-screen closeups of his
craggy, heavily shadowed face, one of the most
photogenic in modern music (picture Lurch from the
Addams Family after receiving some particularly good
news). Then: magic. He begins to softly strum, begins --
in his dark, velvety voice -- to sing. "All this talk of
getting old/ It's gettin' me down, my Lord/ Like a cat in
a bag, waitin' to drown/ This time I'm comin' down. ..."
You could hear a pin drop as Ashcroft, eyes shut, floats
into the ballad's grim chorus: "Now the drugs don't
work/ They just make you worse/ But I know I'll see
your face again."
The fans sing along to current UK single "The Drugs Don't Work." And the message beams in loud and clear. Drone-pop juggernaut the Verve -- which sailed into obscurity two years ago after a disastrous career-ending concert in London -- had returned, crusading-knight style, to reclaim its castle throne. Aided, of course, by an orchestral summer smash called "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and by old pals Oasis, who'd invited the reformed combo to open its three Earls Court dates -- not a bad way to announce to your comeback. Confirmation would arrive later that week, as "Urban Hymns" (the "Drugs" parent album) enters the English charts at No. 1 and refuses to budge. Even bratty Oasis mouthpiece Noel Gallagher took touching note of the event by stopping, mid-set, to tout the shows when "the two greatest fookin' bands in the world played the same stage together." And Gallagher (who'd also penned a song about Ashcroft, "Cast No Shadow") isn't known for befriending too many of his pop peers.
A couple of days later, Ashcroft -- all shaggy bangs, pouty lips, and big haunted eyes -- sits in a snack-strewn office at his label, Virgin Records, reminiscing about that historic gig. From the wings, he overheard the Noel kudo, he admits. "And I agreed wholeheartedly with him. Obviously, there are big differences between the Verve and Oasis as bands. But spiritually, I think we're comin' from the same place. We're trying to do similar things, but going down different roads to get there. And the point of us playing together at Earls Court was that three years ago, we played in front of 200 people, and we were both tellin' each other that one day we were gonna make it happen. So it was a celebration of that for us, the fact that we DID do it." Ashcroft scratches his angular chin for a second, pondering other possibilities. "Can you imagine if we HADN'T? Imagine that, three years down the line, we would've looked at each other and said 'Fuck, man -- we didn't make it happen'? But we DID. And for whatever madness went along the way to get to that point, we did it."
Madness, indeed. The Wigan-bred Ashcroft had, in the years following the Verve's spacy '93 debut, "A Storm In Heaven," spouted so much mystical rhetoric that he was dubbed Mad Richard by overseas press. "And I know how I got that profile," he says, in retrospect. "It's because this country's so fucking conservative. You say things like I said four years ago, like 'If I spent X amount of time learning to fly, I could actually DO it,' well ... But what I was really trying to say to people was 'Come on! Come on, wake up! Let's fucking take it on, because the power's there, there to be tapped. And probably next to someone else, people actually would call me mad," he adds, leaning forward, a Rasputin-wild look on his mug. "Because I've got that cracked pair of eyes. But I'm happy with my cracked pair of eyes on the world, happy with the way I see it."
How else, then, to explain his industry-stunning decision to disband the Verve in '95, after only two promising releases? A post-mortem single, "History," featured the bandmembers beneath a last-laugh theatre marquee that read "All farewells should be sudden," and rumors at the time blamed the split on everything from drugs to personality differences with strong-willed guitarist Nick McCabe. Naturally, when the Verve gave less than 100% at its final park performance, Ashcroft flipped out onstage, tossing instruments to and fro and nearly pummelling his own drummer. The end. No way to save face after such an embarrassing display. The Verve, it seemed, would go down in the annals as just another also-ran that never reached its full potential.
Listening to the confident, sonically-majestic "Urban Hymns," it's as if the group never left. A few sweeping swirls remain of the Verve's old "Storm" style -- meandering, neo-psychedelic numbers such as "The Rolling People" and "Catching The Butterfly." But the accent is firmly on Ashcroft this time around -- on his calming acoustic melodies, deep comforting vocals, and starkly self-analytical lyrics; a Verve, Mach Two, if you will. And there aren't many subjects that give him pause -- an early "Drugs Don't Work" demo even features a chorus of "Now the drugs don't work/ They just make ME worse." And the magnum opus "Bittersweet Symphony" -- amid coliseum-colossal drumming, plush cascading strings and a sample snippet from an old Andrew Loog Oldham/symphonic-Rolling-Stones album -- tackles far more serious Everyman issues: "It's a bittersweet symphony, that's life/ Trying to make ends meet, you're a slave to the money then you die/ I'll take you down the only road I've ever been down/ You know the one that takes you to the places where all the things meet." A solution to 9-5 drudgery, as seen through Ashcroft's rose-colored glasses.
An added irony: "Bitter Sweet Symphony," already a worldwide hit and currently creeping onto American playlists as well, elicited the lawsuit wrath of Allen Klein, who oversees the Stones catalog. Ashcroft thought the Verve would merely pay a small fee for the tiny Oldham tidbit; An unamused Klein demanded -- and won -- all "Bitter" royalties and a change in composing credits. Not exactly the 'welcome back' the Verve had anticipated. Ashcroft smiles, thinking about the petty incident. He's decided to simply let it go, he says, because "it makes such beautiful poetic sense with the lyric, and who's got the money, and the characters involved. The song is everyone's now. And people said 'Well, you could've taken it off the album.' And it's like, 'Fuck you!' It's a remarkable piece of music that's beyond us anyway -- let it be other people's now, because money isn't what I'm after. I ain't fuckin' Willy Loman. This isn't "Death of A Salesman." This is MUSIC."
Ashcroft wants to explain what happened to him in the "period away," as he calls it. The hard lessons he learned sans sidekick McCabe. It started several years ago, he sighs, with the death of his father. "I had that one, straight-bang in me senses at an early age," the 26-year-old frowns, staring at the carpet. "And obviously, you're gonna react to that. And you might have a big bag of chips on your shoulder, but you've gotta then learn how to start embracing the beauty in life, embracing the love. And when you DO find it, don't fuckin' shut the door to it because you can't believe it's there." (And Ashcroft has found some happiness in this department -- he's currently seeing Spiritualised mainstay Kate Radley.)
The next step, he adds, was returning home one day to find he'd been locked out of his rent-due apartment, with all of his worldly goods confiscated. The result? "Now I'm not fueled by the desire to acquire lots of possessions and money -- I'm fueled by a love of music, and to be in a band is a fucking honor, to have that kind of escape, to have that platform to express myself." Until he regrouped his regiment with one phone call to McCabe, two non-Verve years hammered those points home. By not being IN a group, "I've learned a lot ABOUT the group, the POWER of the group, the power of us all individually and together, and that none of us is greater than the sum total. I've learned that we ain't just this one-dimensional thing, that our brains and our psyches and our personalities are very complex things. And to me, the rest of my life, the rest of my musical career will be based on searching that part of your brain that a lot of people like to keep nice and quiet, thank you very much. Because if they tap into it, life becomes a bit rocky. I don't need no shrink. I don't need no fuckin' pills to make me. ... WHATEVER. I'm fortunate, because I do have music."
"Well, I've never prayed but tonight I'm on my knees," Ashcroft reverently intones in "Bitter Sweet Symphony." And the rest of the album -- as well as single B-sides -- are rife with references to a 'Lord' or a higher power. And that's the last step in his ongoing transformation, he concedes. "I think there are millions of us on this planet, going through life with no fixed religion, no fixed philosophy, but gathering bits of books, bits of other people's discoveries over the centuries and puttin' 'em together with their own lives and forming a new religion, a new philosophy. It isn't a religious thing or a God thing -- it's a PERSONAL thing, a personal quest to find enlightenment in me. And I think that's what it's always been about for any artist, any painter, any writer -- they've been on a personal quest. You write for yourself, you make music for yourself, your sounds are for YOU, initially, and if other people like 'em, they like 'em. And if they don't connect?" Ashcroft cackles wickedly. "Fuck off!"
It doesn't take long, however, for Mad Richard to claw his way back to the discussion surface. Bassist Simon Jones -- seated beside his bandmate -- tries to get a few words in edgewise. But Ashcroft is on a garrulous roll. He discusses rampant technology, the utter uselessness of most Internet information, the accelerated second-is-no-longer-a-second speed at which society is moving toward...toward.... Armageddon? Possibly, he ponders. "But there's an interesting quote that I once heard -- an American Indian said that people will hear the sound of a coin hitting the floor, but they won't hear the sound of a bird singin' in the tree. That's what happens. We have, as a society, become tuned into frequencies unil, like he said, your ears and your brain will hear the sound of a penny hitting the floor, but you can no longer hear the birds in the tree. And I agree with him, totally.
"The last couple of centuries, we could've gone a completely different way. That's why William Blake turned me on so much, because at a time when people discovered gravity, he was having his visions, off in his room writing and painting. But if we'd gone a different road a hundred years ago, we wouldn't have phones, we wouldn't have computers. If I wanted to speak to you in America, we'd know about it and I'd fuckin' SPEAK to you in America, but in my head. And if we needed to heal, we'd heal." And flying? Sure, shrugs Ashcroft. Why not? But let's face it, he concludes. "For anyone who's creating art, this is a pretty chaotic, insane time to be making music. It's like "Life's An Ocean" from our second album, "Northern Soul" -- "Imagined the future, I woke up with a scream/ I was buying some feelings from the vending machine."
"Bands and feelings are like candy now, because the world's falling apart around us." Ashcroft rolls his huge spooky eyes and slumps resignedly back into the couch. "Whatever, man. We're in it now, and we can't fuckin' get out." And where does a reunited Verve enter the picture? He chuckles quietly. "Hey, you've ALWAYS gotta have hope!"