For his ingenious and irresistible autobiography, Scottish musician/writer Nick Currie enlists no fewer than 217 famous — but dead — narrators to relate the details of his wayfaring life and fascinating cult-status career.
Impersonating deceased authors, filmmakers, artists, composers, an emperor, and even Saint Paul to tell bits of his story in their voices, the admittedly obscure would-be pop star reboots the concept of the celebrity bio into what the book’s subtitle calls “A Memoir in Pastiche.”
Currie has released more than 30 albums and seven books of fiction as Momus, after the Greek god of mockery. While never achieving anything approaching household-name fame, he has a big enough international following to keep him from needing a day job, which in today’s fractured music industry should probably qualify as a success.
As relayed in a segment channeling Umberto Eco, Currie (referred to throughout the book simply as “N”) unknowingly predicted his modest future in 1991. Writing for a Swedish magazine, Currie prophetically updated Andy Warhol’s adage about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame to note that, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.”
Fortunately, being one of those 15 is not a requirement for enjoying “Niche,” which is like a candy box of clever literary morsels. The book is divided into decades, beginning with Currie’s 1960 birth in Paisley, Scotland, as floridly recounted by Dylan Thomas. Other details about his childhood are related by revived spirits including Dr. Benjamin Spock, hardboiled Mickey Spillane, and an outraged and resentful Norman Mailer.
Tales of Currie’s first written song (at age seven), his boarding-school alienation and abuse, moves to Athens and Montréal, and a poignant portrait of a paternal grandfather who “lives alone in a dwelling near the sea” are relayed by revenants including Beatles producer George Martin, François Truffaut, George Orwell, Mary Tyler Moore, and Vito Acconci — a founder of the performance art movement in America and one of many that show the impressive range of Currie’s aesthetic and intellectual erudition.
His sexual awakening is described by Wilhelm Reich, while Denton Welch relays a beating by bullies for wearing the wrong trousers.
Currie’s recording career gets off to an inauspicious start with a one-off 1982 concept album by The Happy Family that flops. Three years later, as H.G. Wells is enlisted to report, Currie chooses the name Momus for his solo debut. The naughtily titled three-track single “The Beast With Three Backs” is followed by the album “Circus Maximus” on the boutique él Records label. Ezra Pound notes his later move to Creation, an indie label that achieved massive success with the band Oasis.
By contrast, the closest Momus comes to having a hit, as Niccolò Machiavelli informs us, is with “The Hairstyle of the Devil,” about two men in love with the same woman who become fascinated with each other. The single reached No. 94 on the U.K. charts.
According to Giacomo Casanova, Currie’s fondness for literately lascivious lyrics of the Serge Gainsbourg variety soon earned him a reputation in the U.K. music press as a “randy sod.” Along with name drops of musicians including the Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, Currie provides the particulars of his numerous sordid-to-sublime amorous encounters, ranging from the casually carnal to a later relationship that lasted more than a decade.
The 1990s brought a lawsuit for a record cover that parodied the Michelin man, permanent blindness in one eye due to an infection from a contact lens, and a tabloid-worthy international-incident marriage to a 17-year-old. The couple’s move to Paris, and the first cracks that would lead to their divorce, are recounted by J.D. Salinger.
Career-wise, however, Currie’s fortunes briefly were on the upswing, after writing and producing some sparkly pop songs for singer Kahimi Karie that became lucrative hits in her native Japan. In a double-meta passage, Currie has Agatha Christie tell the story of his biggest professional setback through her detective Hercule Poirot.
Frustrated by his inability to provide the names and specifics involved in an end-of-century multimillion-dollar lawsuit thanks to settlement language, the comically exasperated Poirot finally advises the curious to resort to an internet search for details (in a nutshell, musician Wendy Carlos, who formerly was Walter Carlos, was litigiously offended by a Momus song about her going back in time to marry her pre-sex-change self). To pay his legal bills, Currie offered to write songs for patrons at $1,000 each and include them on his next album, “Stars Forever.”
The new millennium saw Currie relocate to New York, where he witnessed from the rooftop of his apartment building the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Graham Greene explains how Currie and his most longtime girlfriend flout immigration law for years after moving to Japan.
“Alongside this administrative doubleness,” the long-gone Greene confides, “lurked a sexual duplicity: in bed, too, (he) began to live a double life.” The soap-opera details about Currie’s affairs and “traveling companions” become more tawdry than titillating, in a second-hand version of self-honesty relayed through stand-in spirits.
Bizarrely, the current decade is recounted in a mere 15 pages. Four of the increasingly idiosyncratic albums Currie made as Momus during that time are mentioned together in a single sentence. He likewise devotes exactly one sentence to extended travels he made to five Asian countries after leaving Japan following a breakup.
The good news is that two segments from that condensed era are among the book’s best. Charles “I’m a lousy old bum who talks filth” Bukowski gives an appropriately seedy account of a “Japanese American princess” Currie meets on Facebook. David Bowie, whose “lodestar” influence on Currie is given credit throughout, finally makes his beyond-the-grave appearance. Sadly, he arrives to deliver the moving story of how Currie heard about the shocking death of his lifelong musical hero.
Perhaps the highest praise for this endearingly unconventional autobiography is that the reader can’t help being disappointed that it was completed last year, meaning we don’t get to see how Currie’s revived narrators would have described him in relation to the current pandemic, this year’s extremely polarizing politics, and whatever creative output he may be in the process of producing next.
For those seeking unfiltered first-person updates, however, Currie occasionally uploads vlogs on YouTube, where many if not all of the songs in the Momus catalog also are available. Fair warning: once you dive in, you’re in for quite the ride.