Kevin Ayers, 1944–2013

The psychedelic guitarist who shunned stardom

The life of a rock star wasn’t for Kevin Ayers. The British singer-songwriter and guitarist helped found the iconic psychedelic 1960s band Soft Machine and even toured the U.S. with Jimi Hendrix, before giving it all up to retire to Spain. Touring with a band just isn’t fun, he said. “I get terribly bored with all the traveling, the hotels, and the general waiting around,” he said in 2003. “While a bit of recognition and celebrity is nice, a little goes a long way.”

Ayers, the son of a BBC producer, “discovered his latent musical talent” at a private boarding school in Canterbury, England, said The Guardian (U.K.). He started playing avant-garde jazz with his “well-bred” fellow schoolboys, who eventually formed Soft Machine, named after a novel by William Burroughs. A pioneer in the burgeoning English psychedelic rock scene alongside the likes of Pink Floyd, Soft Machine made music that was a “rainbow of sounds and songs drawn from gamelan to pop, via jazz and minimalism. There was nothing quite like it.”

Despite Soft Machine’s success, Ayers found life on the road “dehumanizing,” said Mojo (U.K.), and came to dislike the increasingly complex musical direction his band had taken. “They were into what I consider to be self-indulgence,” he said. He soon left Soft Machine and moved to Ibiza “with the aim to simply enjoy life.” But he couldn’t keep away from music, recording a string of acclaimed solo albums in the early 1970s. “Blessed with good looks and natural charm, Ayers seemed set for a blossoming career.”

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It was not to be, said The New York Times. Ayers abused alcohol and heroin, and “was not afraid to mingle with the wives of other musicians.” His output became patchy, and his friendships wilted. He was “coaxed” into making a comeback record in 2007, but refused to support it with a tour. Being a senior citizen rock ’n’ roller, he said, didn’t appeal. “It’s very charming to see the Rolling Stones banging on about teenage love—ooh, baby, yeah,” he said. “But I’m afraid it’s not quite my bag.”

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