What Scientology did for Chick Corea (and John Travolta), Exegesis is doing for mild, retiring Mike Oldfield. He puts the stare on KARL DALLAS
"EXEGESIS, n.Exposition, esp. of Scripture". - Concise Oxford Dictionary
I CAN'T stand it! Mike Oldfield has been staring at me piercingly with those steel-blue eyes of his for a minute or more, it seems, challenging me to look away, and I just can't.
It's a stupid kid's trick, this, trying to stare someone down, but when Oldfield started it, like a fool I accepted the challenge.
So there we sit in silence in this trendy Fulham food joint, staring at each other, while the rest of the company shuffles its feet in embarrassment.
Eventually, the photographer, Barry Plummer, breaks the tension by packing up his gear and preparing to leave. Oldfield breaks off from this visual arm-wrestling to say his goodbyes and I take a breath - the first, it feels, for an eternity.
This new, self-confident Mike Oldfield is a lot harder to deal with than the old, elusive neurotic.
Even in the days when he was a guitar prodigy recording for transatlantic with his sister Sally, Oldfield was a difficult child. Each interview has been a new kind of challenge, each one eventually conquered - until today.
The first time, on the eve of the release of "Tubular Bells", was comparatively easy: he did what Richard Branson told him. So we were sprawled side-by-side over the bed in his tiny room at the Manor recording studio, and he answered my questions in a monotone so quiet that it was almost impossible to decipher them from the tape.
At the end of what I felt had been a fairly amicable discussion, he declared: "I feel as if I've been raped."
Success didn't spoil Mike Oldfield, but it helped to destro what little emotional equilibrium he had. Tracking him down for an interview became a sort of big-game hunt.
I tried getting one of those tiny recorders you can fit in your pocket and pinning a Lavallier mike bug to my lapel like a CIA agent, but Oldfield sussed the technology.
Although I spent an entire weekend with him in the house on the hillside facing Hergest Ridge, scrambling up the hill to fly radio-controlled gliders and going down into nearby Penrhos to play mandolin and sing folk songs to a troupe of bemused blue-rinse Amerrican tourists, whenever the conversation strayed close to music he lapsed into grunts and monosyllables.
Other reporters fared no better. I remember one paper who took commercial radio time to advertise their exclusive interview with Oldfield, and sure enough it spread over a couple of pages.
The "interview" consisted of a long description of the sort of emotional fencing with which I was familiar, and concluded with the single quote they got out of him: it was one word, "yes". Or perhaps it was "no". Par for the course.
Eventually, I came straight out with it, and asked him when he was going to stop buggering about and give me a proper interview.It was the day they recorded the Symphony Orchestra arrangement of "Tubular Bells", and to my discomfort (since I had no tape machine with me) he agreed straight away. "OK," he said, "Let's do it now." We settled for the next day, and for a couple of hours Oldfield told me more about himself and his music than I think he has ever done, before or since.
Afterwards he told Branson "That's the last interview I shall ever do." When a young man is shifting so many units of a single, cheaply produced album, he can make a decision like that and make it stick.
For a long time he kept to it, too, though he did grant an audience at the time of "Ommadawn", if only to deny that in deciphering its title as "amadan", a Gaelic word meaning "The fool", I had revealed its function as a musical autobigraphy.
Mike Oldfield is not the only artist of world stature who is unwilling to submit himself to personal scrutiny, preferring his music to make its own statement, and the critics to make their own assessment without his help. Pink Floyd have much the same attitude, and so does Bob Dylan, and it's an understandable one.
No one expects Sir William Walton to sit down with a procession of press to explain to them the motivations behind his latest symphony. They have to work it out for themselves.
But that wasn't the reason i took this sort of shit from him and kept on coming back for more. Nor was it the grey-bearded old scoopster, determined to get his man on the front page, even if it meant sitting on his doorstep all night.
It was simply that, like no one else I can think of except possibly James Taylor during his "Knocking Round the Zoo" phase, with Mike Oldfield the man and his music and his traumas were a complete whole, and it was impossible to understand one without getting to know the other.
Mike had once explained to me during that single, revelatory interview how his most exquisite, agonisingly beautiful melodies had been produced as a kind of self-therapy, not so much to express how he felt at the time of his deepest, most paranoid depression, but to give him something to cling on to, something to change his mental state in the way he wanted it to go.
Our meetings had become almost a sort of encounter group old boy's night, in which we reminisced about nervous breakdowns we had known, and how we were coping with the world today.
Then, suddenly, one day, all that changed. I got a call from a somewhat startled Virgin Records press office to say that Mike had suddenly arrived in town and announced that he wanted to do some interviews. We met, had a very cordial lunch in the creperie around the corner from Portobello Road, and I was pleased to see on how much of an even keel he seemed to be, but the conversation was mostly of a personal nature. Nothing of great musical consequence emerged, so I never bothered to write it up.
And now here we were again, and everything was different yet again. I hardly recognised this clean-shaven, fresh-faced young extrovert who flung his arms around me as I got into his Rolls, who sat with his arm draped protectively round my shoulders as he told me how he had been posing for photographs meant to look like the statues of Auguste Rodin, how he was thinking of buying himself a Lear Jet (cost: two million dollars), how he had taught himself to fly, dismissing as "rubbish" stories that he had accidentally wiped clean the tapes of his new album when it was almost finished, and denying also that he was thinking of going to live in Brittany.
"No," he said, "I still live in Herefordshire. But really, I've leart to live wherever I happen to be."
"you mean, in the here and now?"
As we waited to be served in the restaurant, the games began.
"OK," he said, "Ask me some questions."
I protested that this was hardly the time and place, knowing that informality could blow the whole thing, that the way to procure revelations was to set up a more formal, structured situation with real questions, and, maybe, real answers.
This was hardly likely with Donna Summer screeching "MacArthur Park" down my right lughole, so I demurred for a while, asking for time.
"Right," he said, briskly, looking at his expensive multi-dialled analogue watch. "We'll do it at 8.30. That's precisely ten minutes from now."
He switched his attention to Denise, who turned out to be a model and a children's author, a gentle young woman who seemed torn between a fascination with his undoubted charisma, and a resistance to the overpowering nature of the personality he was laying on all of us. I knew exactly how she felt.
She excused herself after the indifferent meal and didn't join us on Richard Branson's houseboat, where, at last, it was The Interview, the duel with the tape recorders in the small hours before dawn.
What in hell, I wanted to know, is going on?
"For a long time," he said slowly, in the measured tones of one dictating a business letter, "I was determined to have a very bad time in order to work out a few things, including my childhood. I have now completed that process, and have chosen to have a good time.
"I have chosen to express myself beyond my emotions because I'm fed up with emotions. I'm fed up with being a romantic" - a reference to an earlier part of the evening, when I had described him as a romantic, and he had denied the charge - "and I am just going to express myself and if the people want to hear me expressing myself, they will. And if they don't, they won't.
"It's not something I need to do. It's something I'm choosing to do."
Something you want to do, I prompted.
"Not really. I'm choosing to do it."
What was it in his childhood that he'd had to work out so traumatically?
"My relationship with my parents, my mother's and father's relationship to each other, everything. I was also responsible for that as well."
"I've chosen that to happen as well. I'm responsible for everything now, rather than saying it's all happening to me, and he did it and she did it, it's nothing to do with me. I'm totally guilty, and everything was totally my fault.
"I'm totally responsible for everything, so if I choose to have a good time,I will. And if I'm with somebody who's really nasty to me, it's also my fault, because I'm continuously creating reality at every moment."
"I'm exactly the same person . I'm just looking at things from a different viewpoint."
What had caused this transformation?
"I wasn't getting anything out of having a bad time. I was having a bad time in order to prove that people are a load of arseholes, I was an arsehole and nobody loved me and I hated everybody. I proved it over and over again, until I wasn't getting anything out of proving it anymore.
"So a couple of years ago, it was about the end of "Ommadawn," I started to make a decision to go the other way, to get off all that, to find out about that side of me and get off it. And to be myself, without all the bullshit."
It's a tough trick to do on your own. And I had noticed the whole evening the same sort of disturbing alienness that I had seen in other friends who had turned to Scientology, or to the Guru Maharaji, and in Communists who had turned to the Church - the hard, burning fire of the convert, disorientation replaced by certainty, the unerring confidence behind the eyes that had drilled into mine at the restaurant. As i suspected, this turned out to have been a component of Oldfield's recent history.
"Eventually, in june this year, I used a three-day course, a three-day seminar called Exegesis, which I used to definitely cement the change firmly."
Here, perhaps, I was being a little dishonest, because I didn't tell him something that had bothered me even before we met: namely, that I had heard his new double album and I didn't like it very much. Nor, I suspected, would many other critics.
I approached the subject obliquely.
Since, I said, the hard time he had turned his back on had also produced music which had brought him world acclaim...
He interrupted me: "Yeah, but I used that, you see. Before I made 'Tubular Bells' I knew it was going to be a success. That was even a conscious knowledge, that was. The pattern I've been repeating is to first make people like me, and then make people reject me, which was exactly what I was doing with 'Tubular Bells' and 'Hergest Ridge'."
So "Hergest Ridge" was the rejection; what, then, was "Ommadawn"?
"Oh, I had to make people like me again. But then I'd done my game with those two. 'Ommadawn' wasn't part of the game, especially the end of side one. That was a release of negative energy, of absolute frustration, which I'm fed up with."
So the critics who didn't like "Hergest Ridge" - and I was roughly in a minority of one in actually preferring it to the flawed work of genius which had preceded it - were right in rejecting it?
"Sure. I get exactly what I want. Because I'm continuously creating reality, all the time, I can't go wrong. Everything that happens to me, I'm totally responsible for."
Let's freeze the frame a minute right there. If Oldfield was a philosopher, we could get into a learned discourse on the theories of Bishop Berkeley, who reckoned that the outside world was the product of subjective perception, and no more real than our ideas of it. If he was just an ordinary guy, we might start thinking we had a very sick boy, here.
But he is an artist, and, as Freud said, "If a person who is at loggerheads with reality possesses an artistic gift, he can transform his fantasies into artistic creations instead of symptoms. In this manner he can escape the doom of neurosisand by the roundabout path regain his contact with reality."
Which is precisely what Oldfield seems to have been doing. I remember talking about him with someone at Virgin and asking how he was. "Oh", I wa told, "he's in a terrible state, because he's just split up with his girlfriend. So naturally he's started working in the studio again."
But what, I wondered, if instead of acknowledging the unpleasantness of some parts of the outside world, and using music to alter his consciousnessof it so that the world actually becomes more bearable, he learnt to tolerate it in all its horror, because, after all, it was just his consciousness playing games, what then?
What, for instance, i suggested out loud, if the critics didn't actually like "Incantations"? If "Hergest Ridge" was meant to provoke rejection, and "Ommadawn" a reconciliation - and the fact that the third album sold more than the second might indicate it was successful in acheiving it - what was "Incantations" supposed to do?
"What I intend is for me to totally express myself, and to put that into 'Incantations', which I acheived in a couple of places - the flute solo and the vibraphone solo on side four. I acheived the closest I've ever come to self-expression.
"Many people will have a lot of resistance to it, which they'll be responsible for, too. If they want to hear it, they will. It will be very, very rewarding for them, if they do want to hear it. If they choose not to hear it, that's also fine.
"But whatever happens to 'Incantations' will be perfect for me. I'll be responsible for it."
We spoke for a while about the album, why it was a double (apparently because he felt guilty about not producing anything for three years), the reason for devoting the bulk of one side to a chant, by folksinger Maddy Prior, of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Hiawatha," to the echoes of previous works, like the female chant over the drums of Jabula in "Ommadawn" which recurs on the new one.
"I must explain," he said, "that the most important parts are the flute solo and the vibraphone solo, and the guitar solo which is next to the vibraphone part. The rest of it is a load of rubbish."
"And all my works have been a load of rubbish."
By what standards?
"By standards of me fully expressing myself, rather than expressing my hang-ups, my happiness, my disappointments, my pride, what I thought of myself, all that sort of rubbish."
Now hang on a minute. If these are not what makes a person himself, if we are not the sum total of our experience, but something above and beyond the life we lead, then how can we be said to have an existence?
"They are part of myself, they are in myself, but they're just very unimportant parts of the mechanism which carries me through my life. It's OK to express them, but I've found a direct means of expressing me as a being. It's your choice whether you decide to see things like that or not.
"It's fine, whatever you think, but I see myself as not my body, not my mind, and I'm expressing that essence of me.
"I've still go tloads of hang-ups, but I carry them like baggage, if you like. I don't think I am the hang-ups. If you like, I am the context within which there are hang-ups, rather than being the hang-ups."
But the hang-ups had been responsible for producing some of his finest music - as, for instance, the swirling clouds and cypresses of Van Gogh were the product of his schizophrenia. Or so, at least, I had understood from previous interviews.
"I used them as evidence to support whatever I did," he replied. "But whatever I've done has been a choice I've made. I'm coming from a position, now, that there's no such thing as an accident, no such thing as a mistake. Everything I've done, everything I do, everything I get has been totally and exactly what I wanted, and totally exactly what I've created for myself."
This began to sound very much like the est session I went to, which similarly promised insights it was impossible to explain to the unconverted, which also offered images of boundaries to be crossed, doubts to be shed. We were talking, weren't we, about Exegesis.
"Yeah. It started at nine o'Clock in the morning and finished at about 11, 12 at night. You listen to this guy talk to you, and you do variuos processes with a group of about 230 people in a London hotel. It starts on Thursday night and it finishes on Sunday.
"What it is, is all your hang-ups you experience to the full, get them out of the way. It involves destroying a large part of yourself, which you obviously have an incredible resistance to doing, because a lot of you has to die, literally die.
"And beyond that is you, what you really are. I've taken charge, I'm at the controls, I'm not a passenger any more."
So who was driving before?
"My mind, my hang-ups were driving me. My hang-ups, problems, repetitive patterns of manipulating people. You know I used to be very quiet and reticent and wouldn't say anything: a perfect way of manipulating people. Beautiful."
But what if his greatest work was produced by his hang-ups?
"That's impossible. Because hang-ups are completely mechanical things. You have experiences when you're young, even when you're old, and you record them, like tape. They're completely mechanical things, and a mechanical thing can't create anything. It can only make decisions.
"Like you have this pile of reasons for, and this pile of reasons against, and it can work completely automatically, like a machine.Things that come from me, as a being, an entity, are total creations. They don't come from anything, they're free choices, they're not like hang-up things.
"I don't have to do anything, at the moment. Honestly. And I don't care whether you believe me or not. I don't need anybody's approval. I'm choosing to make it work for me, which I don't have to do by making music and going on the road. I'm choosing to do that.
"Otherwise there's no point in being alive. I'd quite happily just die, you know? There's no need to get ill. A lot of people think you've got to get ill to die. You don't. You just stop playing."
"This game we're all playing."
Did calling it a game mean it was unimportant?
"No, No, no, no, no, no. Otherwise we wouldn't have chosen to be alive, would we? It's a beautiful game.
"You see, the game I'm playing at the moment is the biggest game you can play, which is the game of not playing games, being totally honest. It's amazing, to not play games, to have nothing to defend.
"Yet it's still a game."
If "Incantations" wasn't a commercial success, critically and/or saleswise, would he still regard that as perfect?
"Sure." Didn't he mind? "No."
And his old complaint, that giving interviews was like being raped?
"That was a con. I did enjoy it very much."
Which suggested that this current attitude might also be a con.
"I'm just playing a different game. It's a bigger con because it's a bigger game I'm playing.The only thing that's not a con is switching off and full self-expression.
"But in a way, switching off is self-expression. If we were to sit alone together and just look at each other, we'd switch off, but we'd also begin to express ourselves to each other."
Like our game of staring each other down; he'd certainly expressed himself then, and I wasn't sure I liked the person he seemed to be, then.
"Once the tour's finished, I'll get back into the studio again.
"But it's not a necessity any more."
But that wasn't so much different from the Old Mike Oldfield, so how much, really, had changed?
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