Nice Dream?


Waking up from a bad dream is probably nothing new to Thom Yorke but, hours later, this morning's dream is still lingering, still bothering him. Radiohead's notoriously maudlin frontman describes it to me with all the twitchy trepidation of someone obviously reluctant to seem as if he's taking such a thing too seriously, but who can't help talking about it.
"In the dream, everyone I'd ever met in my whole life came to a party at my house and I had to be nice to everyone," he says. "Some people I'd been really horrible to turned up and I had to be really nice to them too. Every person I know was there, watching."
You must have had a very big house, I point out, by way of compensation. "Yeah, I did," he admits. "I'm rich - in the dream, I mean. I'm rich." As dreams go, it's not exactly difficult to interpret. Fear of fame and being submerged by it; fear of the falseness that inevitably follows it; the fear of changing, becoming alienated, because of it.
He knows where the dream came from - from a party the previous night following Radiohead's triumphant showcase gig in New York. Yorke stood at the back in the corner clutching a carrier bag, looking like some sort of gamin, scruffy urchin bunking off school, a gate-crasher at his own party, drinking faster and faster as the groupies and star-gazers moved in.
Yorke shudders.
"The thing about what happened in the dream was that I liked it. Even though it was awful, I liked it cos everyone was being nice to me."
This last revelation, anxiously blurted out almost despite himself, hangs in the air between us, leaving us both feeling rather despondent. We sit there for a minute in silence, pondering his hypocrisy, struggling to come up with a move positive interpretation of the dream. His blatant insecurity is not the problem. It's actually quite endearing.
What's more unsettling is the possibility that this was not a dream at all. What if it's The Future?
Certainly, it's not difficult to foresee Yorke's private nightmare turning into reality. In retrospect, missing out on last year's Britpop bandwagon turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Radiohead. Passed over by the press, as the likes of Elastica, The Bluetones and Pulp cashed in their chips to claim their 15 minutes, Radiohead became the ugly ducklings of Britpop, The Band That Missed The Boat. Gradually, though, helped by a series of stunning videos for singles like 'High & Dry' and 'Street Spirit', the months went by, the momentum grew, and Radiohead's album, The Bends, released last year, is now widely regarded as the most accomplished and enduring of the lot.
These days it's almost impossibly to see the name Radiohead without the words 'the next REM', 'Britain's answer to Nirvana', or 'the U2 it's okay to like' written alongside it. Their first release since The Bends, the single 'Lucky', was so obviously the stand-out track on the Bosnia Help compilation that Melody Maker wrote, 'Radiohead are no longer capable of anything other that brilliance.'
America obviously agrees, responding to Yorke's almost adolescent sense of social anxiety and unease, his dark sentimentality, embracing the band as a kind of Oasis With Intellect. Sometimes it seems the only choice ahead of Yorke is whether he should take on the band's new-found stadium status with his integrity intact - like Michael Stipe - or with the shameless complacency of a band like Simple Minds - and turn into Jim Kerr.
Sleepy-eyed and pale, quizzical as a cartoon with his tatty Woody Woodpecker haircut and his thin bones lost inside crumpled clothes, Thom Yorke just doesn't look cut out for a superstar's job. He is 27, five foot five, clean and English and indulgent, his punched-in face scrunched up into a permanent scowl.
Born with one eye closed and paralyzed, Yorke grew up used to being the victim. He had five major operations before the age of six, and spent a year wearing an eye-patch and being laughed at by the other kids, who called him Salamander. Each time his family moved, he encountered a new ordeal and had to work through the same trauma. Maybe he's been getting up on stage all this time simply to shove his defects, his disability, in the audiences faces, challenging people to reject him on an even bigger scale.
Except now he finds their worshipping him. No wonder he finds it confusing. For years, the fuel to Radiohead's fire - their whole raison d'être - has been their sense of inadequacy and anxiety, that they would never amount to anything. They have virtually fetishized the threat of failure, cultivating their state of imminent collapse into a permanent state.
Formed in Oxford, around the time of 1991's Summer Of Love, and bonded by a love of bands like Magazine and Joy Division, Radiohead were instantly unfashionable, immediately out of step. Out of time.
Yorke squirms.
"It was a period of acute embarrassment. I was pretty into it at college, but there wasn't enough emotion to it. I kept trying to go to raves."
Their first Ep in May 1992, Drill (first chorus: `I'm better off dead`), was refreshingly dark and insistent, invigorating enough immediately to win them a fiercely loyal following. But disaster struck when their second, 'Creep' (with the chorus: 'I wish I was special/You're so fucking special/But I'm a creep'), became a one-song phenomenon, an American anthem of alienation and self-loathing, propelling their first album, Pablo Honey, into the American Top 40. in a self-fulfilling prophecy, Yorke became 'the Creep guy'.
Far from providing a sort of palliative to their neuroses, Radiohead turned success into something that only made matters worse. Encouraged by their American record company to capitalize, they toured the States for months, realizing too late that they where still playing material that was over two years old; just another band that turns into something they hate.
"We sucked Satan's cock," Yorke spits, with typical scorn, "It took a year-and-a-half to get back to the people we were... to cope with it emotionally." By then, says guitarist Jonny Greenwood, they were "operating in a kind of stasis. Thom was trying to shut off from everything. The rest of us weren't communicating." Sick of touring, by the time they went back into the studio, they had become phobic about recording anything. Their confidence was shot.
"We were like paranoid little mice in cages," says Greenwood. "We were scared of our instruments, scared of every note not being right". Perhaps the secret of their success is that they learnt to turn their paranoia into a virtue. Contrary to popular wisdom, it's often a band's second album that proves to be their most natural and direct expression; where they shake off their influences (in Yorke's case, early Elvis Costello) and get the confidence to be themselves.
After resting up and scrapping their early demos ("Guns N' Roses pomp rock"), they returned to record The Bends in majestic form. The title perfectly summed up the band's state of flux and Yorke's personal alienation that bordered on revulsion, brought on by the rigors and unreality of touring; 'Baby's got the bends/We don't have any real friends.'
The sense of malaise and self-disgust becomes more and more palpable the more you listen to The Bends. Greenwood has said it shocked him, "how much it's about illness, doctors... it's a real medical album". But despite it's success, they still perceive themselves as having never belonged, never been made welcome - by the press or the industry. Radioplay has always been denied them (too gloomy). Radio One even refused to put 'Lucky' on it's playlist, even though it was for Bosnia.
The music press too, has always treated Radiohead with suspicion. For a start, they can play their instruments (which is always a worry), with suspiciously mature, muso tendencies. They have far too many ideas, layering their records with strangeness and innovation, obviously aiming for something bordering on beauty. Too MOR and too middle-class, five students who first met at Abingdon boarding school, Radiohead are the sort of band who spend their time on the tour bus playing Bridge. When I'm introduced to bass-player Colin Greenwood (Jonny's brother), he's lending someone a book - the socio-economic history, The Collapse Of Power. Radiohead Do Not Party is practically a by-law among music journalists. When support act David Gray trashed their dressing room, the story goes, Radiohead tidied it up.
The single 'Lucky' encapsulated the sceptic's worst fears: a hauntingly uneasy ballad about Yorke's preoccupation with mortality, it includes a Pink Floyd-sized guitar solo, offering Americans unbridled air-guitar-solo and lighter-waving opportunities.
The common perception was that Radiohead, like Bush or The Cranberries, before them, were heading for the American mainstream, a sort of alternative version of Tears For Fears, set to follow in the footsteps of bands like James and Simple Minds and sell out as soon as possible. Watching them soundcheck in New York, I can't say you'd notice.
True, the unnaturally affable Colin Greenwood and the drummer Phil Selway fill the Wyman and Watts roles with foot-tapping aplomb. The others, though, can make for unorthodox, even uncomfortable viewing. Stage left, the tall, bug-eyed figure of guitarist Ed O'Brien charges around performing a series of the most overly-energetic leaps and glory poses since The Clash or The Who in their heyday.
Stage right (wearing what can only be described as a pair of mid-Seventies-style 'cans'), Radiohead's second guitarist, the impossibly beautiful, charmingly bashful, Jonny Greenwood appears to spend most of his time plucking agitatedly at the wrong end of his guitar. He crouches on the floor, coaxing the kind of noises more closely associated with a Van Der Graaf Generator - the sort of thing that has his elder critics reaching for the word 'extemporisation'.
In the middle, Thom Yorke strums away furiously on his guitar, like an unnaturally absorbed, slightly deranged busker, blessed with the voice of an anxious angel. 'They love me like I was a brother/They protect me/Listen to me/They dug me my very own garden/Gave me sunshine/Made me happy', he sings, before tearing into the chaotic chorus, `Nice dream/Nice dreeeam`.
The others shuffle off, leaving Yorke's tiny frame performing a pretty-sounding acoustic number he's working on, a kind of emotional-protest music. With his eyes closed tight, his head hanging to one side, convulsing with spastic energy, he stands there singing his heart out, a bitter twisted mannequin. The punchline, sung in beautiful soprano, rings around the empty hall: 'I will see you in the next life'. And then he's gone. It's like watching a nervous breakdown gone solo.
Earlier, I had been reading an interview where he summed up The Bends as 'cynical and nervous and not making sense. you get the feeling at the end of it that there's something wrong, but you can't work out what it is.' Sitting watching him here, it's obvious that the something wrong with it is... him.
His baggy maroon cords falling over his shoes, and wearing a red Game boy t-shirt and a thin grey jumper, Yorke wanders around the empty auditorium with the sort of jaunty cockiness that reminds me of a Belfast schoolboy throwing stones at the soldiers. He is, predictably, a mass of contradictions: a strange blend of snide cynicism, bitter-self pity and earnest decency. There is still something studenty about him - his juvenile sense of humor; his naff sense of outsiderness; his naively radical idealism.
He wants to change the charts, change the Government, change the NME, and sits at home grumbling. shouting at the telly. He thinks the media should be "creative and informing, empowering", but says it's just a distraction instead, making a spectator sport out of fame. "The press could destroy us," he mutters darkly. "They have a million weapons." He thinks things like following football or liking The Clash are "not feminine enough" for him.
Most of all, he worries. He worries about swearing too much, about being too nice or too nasty; about not writing back to the fan mail he carries about in a duffle bag ("not exactly fountains of joy"); about what the next albums going to sound like; whether all his darkest, secret fears are just being repackaged into music for people to play on their car stereos as they travel to work. He worries about whether his life is becoming too glamorous and removed or too banal, too corporate. He sits there hugging his knees and scowling into space, worrying whether he's turning into Jim Kerr.
I can't help but point out that there was a time when Kerr used to spend his interviews talking about existentialism and the Speed of Life, the alienation and anxiety of travel and global communications, just like Yorke does now. And look what a travesty he turned into.
He worries about how to behave with all the screaming girls and groupies. "I tend to run away if it's anything beyond them saying they like the music. We were at a single sex school, so... you know... Anyway I have someone that I love," he blushes. "So it's... nice."
He worries about the words to new songs, works on them dutifully, and is obviously happy that they matter. But he squirms at the idea of them being treated like poetry, that his lyrics are a distillation of pure misery.
America, in particular, fails to see the irony, the way he's prepared to send himself up. The New York Times started it's review: 'The world is caving in on Thom Yorke. He has no real friends. He loses faith in everything every day and thinks he'd be better off dead.' At the same time, he can't help worrying about the idea that some 12-year-old girl in Seattle is sitting in her room at this minute, listening to 'Street Spirit', trying to decide which way to kill herself. In New York, where the 'culture of despair' is something akin to a teen craze, you can see the kids before the gig - 12, 13 years old, drinking beer, smoking dope and popping prozac, wearing their Nine Inch Nails t-shirts and clutching their Dennis Cooper novels. During the gig, just before 'High & Dry', someone shouts something and Yorke repeats it: 'This one's dedicated to the girl who just shouted "help me, Thom, I'm dying".' It's the Radiohead equivalent of a heckle.
"Some famous pop star told me to lighten up. And I felt really proud of myself. I felt really good because I haven't lightened up. I have no intention of lightening up, because when I do I really will turn into Jim Kerr."
Of course, despite everything, Thom Yorke is a jolly little chap. He's tough, with the sort of cocksuredness that likes to get into fights. He's prone to protecting his tetchy temper as a point of principle. He getting fed up being treated like some sort of casualty, popped up on prozac and poetic despair. He's started making jokes about being on heroin and attempting suicide, telling people if they want music to slash their wrists to, they should listen to The Smiths instead, even though that's what he did himself.
Still, for all his brave denials, as Jonny Greenwood says, "all Thom's songs eventually come down to how he's feeling". Talk to the others about him, and apart from an almost awestruck adherence to the belief that he is the most articulate, interesting lyricist of his generation, what you find is a sense of protection.
They all say that the success of The Bends, combined with the support slot on REM's tour last year and their largest headlining gig to date - 5,000 people in Toronto - have done him the world of good, "given him more confidence". Only an incident in Germany, described by the NME as 'Thom's Tantrum', clouded the idea that everything was going swimmingly.
"I freaked out. I couldn't sing. Threw stuff around. The amp, the drum kit... I had blood all over my face. I cried for two hours afterwards." His explanation - that he was ill and couldn't cope with his strange medication, that he cracked up when his voice started giving out - did nothing to allay the idea that he was undergoing some sort of burn-out, like Bowie or Kurt Cobain. He jokes about his imminent demise doing wonders for his back-catalogue, but stops when he realizes it probably would.
Radiohead's dilemma is What To Do Next. What sort of band do they want to be? How big do they really want to get? "It's a very weird position to be in," Yorke shrugs. "To be the stadium rock band it's okay to like.` I thought it might double my paranoia level, but it's exiting. It's actually more liberating, the idea that people might wanna hear it."
Still, he can't help but sneer about 'sit down audiences', and admits there is something truly disheartening about hearing thousands os American kids singing 'I wanna perfect body' with none of the lines' original pathos or irony. What Yorke probably wants, of course, is the best of both worlds, something similar to the artists he most admires - people like Elvis Costello, Neil Young or Tom Waits. "You know, just come back every three or four years, then go off and record an album down the bottom of the garden". But he has the grace to allow himself a smirk, adding: "Simple Minds probably said that too."
Just thinking about it gives him an attack of anxiety, a ridiculous sense of responsibility. "Paying the crew retainers suggests that the next record is going to do well automatically. The idea that what I do pays someone else's wages at all is just so weird. Disturbing. I'm not sure how long I'd be able to handle that - creatively. At the moment, the idea that we could be as big as U2 or REM, we just couldn't handle it."
Right now, Yorke is trying to get a life, make a life, before it's too late, so at least he has one to be taken away from him. "It's almost like frantic desperation at the moment," he grins, desperately. He has bought a house in Oxford (he calls it The House That Creep Built) and has been trying his hand at normal life - "spending as much money on household appliances as possible. Taking them home to my girlfriend and saying, "Here you go". The house is still full of them, still in their boxes. It's just stuff that i bought to try and claim my life back."
The prospect of repeating the commercial and creative success of The Bends must seem daunting. The new songs are coming thick and fast, and the ones I heard (as yet unrecorded) sound simpler, more mainstream, more REM, with some Roxy Music synthesizers thrown in. (Those of us who are worried about the Simple Minds factor will be alarmed to hear them talking about their excitement at "just hearing each other play".)
One called 'Electioneering' is pretty upbeat - an almost Clash style skiffle - while 'Airbag' is another scrape at Thom's mortal self. Another new one, 'I Promise', is, Yorke murmurs, "about faith, in, er, a relationship. It's supposed to be quite positive."
It's possibly that Radiohead's ultimate fate will depend not on Yorke but on Jonny Greenwood, who provides the avant-garde edge to off-set Yorke's perfect pop.
"The next great challenge," Jonny muses, "is to find the great, extremely catchy atonal riff." He's been exploring his growing 'prog-rock' collection (luckily, so far he's found most of it "unlistenable. Some of the lyrics are unforgivable."), learning the viola and the flute.
"It's a bit pastoral, isn't it?" he sighs. "A bit One Leg Up On A Log." Besides synthesizers, he's also been getting into dub, "which I suppose means the new stuff will be a heady mixture of Augustus Pablo meets Rick Wakeman".
The predominant atmosphere in the band, they all make a point of saying, is "very positive" (Radiohead fans will, understandably, immediately start worrying.) "I think we've got to get back to how we were when we started. Same kind of excitement. We're so uptight, generally, I wouldn't contemplate the idea of getting complacent. We're not used to people liking us, so I don't think it will ever happen."
Yorke, for his part, is beaming. "All of us have been given great belief in ourselves. It's like a flash of relief more than inspiration. I know we can do it know. The next album will be about that release. The way we're writing and the way we feel when we play together is about release now. And the new stuff is grateful and will hopefully be good because of that. I have every intention that the next record will be a very grateful record." It's a nice dream.