If you’re unsure whether Shaun Ryder’s lyrics for Happy Mondays and Black Grape really deserve the full Faber-poetry treatment, then you’re not alone. So, it seems, is Shaun Ryder. ‘I… wouldn’t call myself a poet,’ he writes in the preface, adding characteristically that ‘I’ve never put myself forward as an anguished wordsmith… like fucking Morrissey.’
It’s also unlikely that his work would have appealed much to Faber’s original poetry editor T.S. Eliot — not when the very first lyric contains the phrase, ‘Jesus is a c***’.
In fact, though, Wrote for Luck does add up to a rich and at times arresting portrait both of the man himself and of the 1980s Manchester scene from which he emerged — with the subject matter ranging widely through such things as cannabis, LSD, heroin, cocaine, crack, ecstasy and temazepam (a shamefully underrated drug in Ryder’s opinion).
Tony Wilson, head of the Happy Mondays’ record label Factory, claimed that Ryder’s lyrics were ‘on a par with W.B. Yeats’. Yet, while this was clearly Wilson at his most provocative — or if you prefer, most bonkers — they definitely have their moments. ‘Son, I’m 30, I only went with your mother ’cause she’s dirty’ from ‘Kinky Afro’ is, in its admittedly non-Yeatsian way, one of pop’s great first lines. And as pithy pen-portraits of drug addicts go, ‘Grass-eyed, slashed-eyed, brain-dead fucker/ Rips off himself, steals from his brother,/ Loathed by everyone, but loved by his mother’ is surely hard to beat.
The trouble is, of course, that even at their most darkly lyrical, these are the words to songs — which means the best way to appreciate them is to listen to the records. It also means we get the kind of repetition that’s perfectly fine when sung, but seems distinctly odd to put down on the printed page. The winningly titled ‘Fat Lazy Wrestlers’ includes two stanzas that each consist of the phrase ‘You did work’ 15 times.
As part of its quest to make the book worth buying, Faber has invited Ryder, like T.S. Eliot before him, to annotate his own verse. But this, too, brings mixed results. On the one hand, Ryder has a frustrating tendency to explain only those lines that we understood anyway, remaining silent on the more baffling stuff. (And plenty of lyrics here will leave the average John Ashbery fan scratching their head.) On the other, he throws in lots of memorable autobiographical anecdotes that are often all the more hair-raising for being so genially delivered. His key proof of temazepam’s greatness, for example, is that it once led to him waking up naked in a restaurant basement with two naked waitresses, a gun and no idea how he got there.
All in all, then, Wrote for Luck might well be one of the strangest publishing decisions in Faber’s 90-year history. And it feels even stranger when you read a pre-publication interview that Ryder recently gave online. ‘The most exciting thing for me about the book,’ he proudly declared, ‘is that it’s Penguin Books.’