Lost Tuneage

Wreckless Eric's Recovery From Dysfunctional Success

Eric Goulden a.k.a. Wreckless Eric, whose song "(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World” is one of the most recognizable tunes from the New Wave era and listed in Mojo magazine's Top 100 punk songs, was part of the historic Stiff Records 1977 package tour that included Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Larry Wallis. That tour was immortalized on the 1978 concert album Live Stiffs. Goulden had two stellar tracks on the compilation, the hilarious “Semaphore Signals” and slinky rocker “Reconnez Cherie.”

His current tour hasn’t been quite as easy as the Stiffs tour, with its big womb-like buses. Traveling solo from his home in Catskill, N.Y., Goulden had to have the entire steering system on his car replaced in St. Louis over the weekend.

“I blame all the potholes around my home,” he laughs. “When I get back I may have to take the mayor by the throat and help him eat my property-tax receipt. But we’re all good now.”

Unlike Lowe and Costello, who’ve gone on to highly public careers in pop music, Goulden has been a maverick for most of his career.

“I don’t really keep in touch with any of those people or that whole scene anymore,” he explains. “I see Graham Parker now and again, but I’m not someone who’s all chummy and needing to keep the old thing alive, you know. I don’t begrudge anyone their success, although I do find some of those records sound just like a recreation of 1962. By that I mean a lot of them don’t really touch me. Give me something that’s relevant now in my life, touch me somehow. That’s why I always liked the Smiths song 'Panic': 'Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ, because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.’ I know exactly what he means by that.”

Asked how he was spotted as an upcoming talent and signed to Stiff Records, Goulden gives a Cockney giggle. “I wasn’t.”

“I had this terrible job I hated, I was living in this terrible place, but I heard 'So It Goes' and 'Heart of the City' and maybe another song or two that Stiff had a hand in," he says. "Then I read an interview with Nick Lowe and Jake Riviera. I think I read the interview on a Wednesday and on Friday I quit my job. That weekend I made a cassette, looked up the address for Stiff Records, and on Monday I got on the bus, then took the Tube and eventually came to their office door and went in. There was this group of guys in there all staring at me — I later learned it was Nick Lowe and the Damned — while I gave my cassette to this huge man with a beard. I later learned it was Huey Lewis. I just said, ‘I have this tape I’d like you to listen to,’ and I was about to take off and the man says ‘Wait, we need a return address and your telephone number in case we need to get in touch.’ So I gave them the number to the public phone in the hall and I took off.

“I heard later that Jake Riviera [head of Stiff Records] had immediately taken the cassette in his office and he liked it so much he grabbed Nick Lowe and had him listen," Goulden reflects. "So they then scrambled out looking around for me, but I’d already gone. So the phone is ringing in the hall all the time for a couple of days and I finally say, okay, I’ll answer it. And this very nice voice says ‘Is Eric there?’ Anyway, they asked if I could come back to their offices, so I went over again. I walked in and here was a guy with a short business haircut and suit, so I said ‘hi, I’m Eric Goulden, someone wanted to see me.’ And he grabs my hand and says, ‘That cassette was yours? I loved it and I’m going to produce your record.’ Now I thought the only people who wore suits and had haircuts like that were people who worked in offices, so I’m thinking, ‘Oh, great, the office assistant is going to produce my record.’ And then he said, ‘I’m Nick Lowe.'”

The label also signed Ian Dury and Elvis Costello in the same time frame, but the Stiff lifestyle took a toll on young Goulden fairly quickly. He also began to sour on the Stiff business model. Drinking was the one constant in his life.
At 61, Goulden is in great shape and staying very active — “I go for a checkup once a year and the doctors seem disappointed they can’t find anything wrong with me” — but drinking made his moment of fame a nightmare. He finally stopped in 1985, coincidentally the same year Stiff Records shut down. The same year, he formed a band called Captains of Industry and released the underground classic A Roomful of Monkeys.

“I just realized I didn’t like the life I was living,” Goulden recalls, “and I knew I wanted to do something about it but I had no idea how to. I was just really disgusted with myself and the way I was. I didn’t like the people that were around in my life, I was just very unhappy with the whole situation. Fucking miserable.

“And I’m odd," he continues. "Just because of the way I am, I couldn’t do Alcoholics Anonymous, I didn’t like that. They’d always tell me you can’t go in bars and I’d tell them but bars are where I work and make a living; I have to go in bars. So I had to work all this out for myself, which I can tell you now wasn’t easy at all. I suppose if I’d been smart I’d have listened to the AA people, taken their advice.

“Understand I didn’t get drunk to play, I was very careful about being in good shape for my performances," Goulden says. "But somehow I knew I fucked up and I felt a deep sense of shame that I was allowing drinking to fuck up the things I loved most, so it had to stop. I simultaneously realized I hated my life at that point, that I don’t like the music business, that I didn’t like the company I was around. So I had a nervous breakdown and woke up in a psychiatric hospital.”

Once out of the hospital and back on relatively solid footing, he ditched London and moved to the middle of France in 1989. He stayed ten years.

“It literally was the middle of nowhere,” he laughs. “This lunatic had taken this old hall and cut it up and turned it into little spaces with a hammer and nails and a bunch of plywood. I got myself some equipment and started recording my own records there. Word eventually got around because all kinds of people showed up to record with me.”

In France, Goulden eventually got his life together and returned to England in 1998, where he wrote his autobiography, A Dysfunctional Success: The Wreckless Eric Manual. He married singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, and the couple lived and toured in France until they relocated to the Catskills in 2011. Rigby is currently working on a book.

“We’ve toured together for ten years and made three albums,” says Goulden, “but she’s finishing her book and doing all the stuff with the publisher. I figured she’d be busy doing the book launch thing so I’d need something to do. I didn’t want to be like the Duke of Edinburgh or some such, so I figured I’d better work on a record and do some touring on my own for now. So I‘ve got a new album recorded that will probably be out in November and I’ve got this tour going on.”

A perusal of Goulden’s Facebook page reveals a man who is somewhat tormented by the day-to-day tasks of touring.

“I spend so much time fretting over set lists,” he laughs, “I mean, I can really obsess. And I’ve got so many songs, so I’m always trying to calculate what will fit a given audience, what they might be most up for. I’m not a guy who can play the same songs the same way over and over night after night.”

Like other artists, Goulden is fed up with cell phones at shows.

“Everything is usually pretty normal until I start to play ‘Whole Wide World,’ and suddenly I’m looking at this sea of cell phones,” he notes. “I often wonder if I should even play it anymore but people are like just play the song. I want to play it but I don’t want to be filmed doing it every night, I don’t want it to be documented and have some crappy sounding video on YouTube every fucking time I play it. It becomes too self conscious, like I’m playing the song and the phones come out and suddenly I’m thinking I hope I don’t have a landslide of double chins.

“I don’t want that," Goulden says. "I want every show I do to be a unique event between me and them people. Sometimes I struggle and some people actually even like that, that it’s not perfect. It’s like running across that tightwire and thinking you’re gonna fall but you don’t somehow. And then sometimes you push through and you do get it right, then it’s unique.

“There’s also the fact that many audiences have forgotten how to give you something back," he adds. "It’s an exchange, not a one-way thing. I try to give you a gift and I’m trying to meaningfully connect with you, so engage me. It seems a lot of audiences don’t know how to give back energy anymore. It’s so magic when they do.”

The Wreckless One is also over bands.

“I don’t want to do a band anymore," he says. "You’re around all these guys you don’t really want to be around all the time, they’ve got different interests than you have, they’ve all got problems, they’ve got wives giving them shit about money or being gone. There’s the difficulty of just making a simple decision like where are we going to eat. Getting people on the same page is way too much work and frustration I don’t want or need.” 

Wreckless Eric performs at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, July 16 with special guest Salim Nourallah at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.
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William Michael Smith