Wednesday, 17 January 2018

PILOT OF THE AIRWAVES




David Jensen’s brave declaration, that he has been suffering from Parkinson's for the past five years, is typical of him. He has done this neither to draw attention to himself, nor to attract pity, but to raise the profile of the debilitating and ultimately fatal disease which affects men more than women, that cut short the career of Michael J. Fox and made a quivering wreck of Muhammad Ali. David's aim is to help to find a cure for it. There were indications that all was not well: he retreated into his family and stopped going out to play. He has made his wife, children and grandchildren his priority, and has quietly got on with life. At the BBC Radio 1 Golden Reunion party in London last October, he seemed on great form. One of the finest broadcasters of his generation, he remains one of the most selfless and best-loved. Our collective tenure at the original incarnation of Vintage TV was as good as it gets. David's sane voice and steadying hand helped to offset the madness (and boy, was there madness). We survived.
Music broadcasting has always depended on a single fundamental ingredient: an inherent love for and understanding of music and musicians. It's that simple, and that complicated. There are many in the game today who will never get the point, selected as they are for their profile in other arenas and 'ability' to put bums on seats - not for their handle on what Keith Richards calls 'life's fourth essential' (after air, food'n'water, and a roof). Few got this as completely as the Kid. Keep going, DJ. X


Monday, 8 January 2018

DAVID BOWIE IS ... AN OPEN BOOK



'The President of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounds himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound. He is manifestly unfit for the job. Who knew? Everybody did,' writes Masha Gessen in the New Yorker.
Indeed: the whole world knows that America has been had, and that Trump is a cartoon. So is Michael Wolff, author of the best-selling 'Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House'. Yet his latest book has conquered the New York Times best-seller list, and has been flying out of bookshops faster than they can re-stock it. I haven't read it: I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy. Maybe we think that we have read enough reviews to know the content by heart; to know that this overnight sensation is a poorly-written recycling bin of questionable gossip; a cocktail of old news and sloppy reporting padded with superfluous detail. Someone, I forget who, said that the fact that everybody is talking about it is both illogical and degrading to us all.
Wolff has been denounced by Trump for never having entered the Oval Office, and for not ever having spent three hours interviewing him. A number of individuals who grace the pages of the book now claim to have been misquoted. Writers are used to this kind of thing. Presumably, if Mr Wolff is a professional, he will have recorded every conversation, and will be able to produce back-up transcripts of the interviews upon which he based his work. If not, it is his word against theirs. Has anyone filed a lawsuit?
I experienced some of what Mr Wolff is currently going through when my book 'Hero: David Bowie' was published in hardback just over a year ago. The paperback edition, for reference, is out now. This book is by far my best work, and I stand by every word. I knew David as a child. I became a music writer because of him. I went on the road and wrote about him, because it was all that I wanted to do. Meeting him changed my life. He championed the cause of misfits and kooks like me. He validated us. He gave us the confidence to survive. I reflected all of this in my book, which is part-memoir, part-biography. It's very personal, and not at all an encyclopaedia of his life and music. There are far too many of those. It is my own experience of the man who became the greatest rock star who ever lived. I had the right to write it, and I did.
Just before the book was published, the Rights department at my publishers Hodder & Stoughton offered the book to Fleet Street for serialisation. It went to the highest bidder, the Mail on Sunday. To be clear, the author does not receive the money for serialisations: the publisher does. The newspaper in question is then able to deploy the copy and images as it sees fit. We get neither copy nor picture approval. Quite rightly, as to grant it would compromise the fundamental tenet of journalism. We do not get to vet the headline. We have nothing whatsoever to do with the process, and yet ours is the picture byline that is stamped on the piece. We are therefore held responsible, and are 'to blame'.
The Mail on Sunday bannered its extract 'DID DAVID BOWIE KILL HIMSELF?' Yes, way. Nowhere in the book do I claim this. Nowhere in the book do I even suggest such a thing. I did not go there. Please read it for yourself, and see. In the concluding chapter, Andy Peebles makes respectful passing reference to the sweeping rumours surrounding the 'timing' of David's death - a long-awaited record out on his birthday, 8th January, then he died two days later, on the 10th - but not in any callous or sensational way. He merely mentions them. I merely quote him. No conclusion is drawn. That's it, we move on. But thanks to the Mail on Sunday's headline, I was vilified. Thousands of people who had not read the book but had merely seen the piece, either in the newspaper or online, and jumped to conclusions, rushed to abuse me. I was attacked on social media, particularly on Twitter. Fake reviews damning the book, a book they had not even read, were posted widely. Complaints were written to the paper's editor. I received a string of frightening death threats. High-profile 'Bowie people' were moved to express their contempt for me. No, they hadn't read it either. What could we do about it? Nothing.
Time has a habit of shaking things up. Balance shifts. Reality is restored. Some of those die-hard, devoted Bowie fans eventually got around to reading my book, and saw for themselves that they had made a mistake. A few of them wrote to take back what they'd said. This was gratifying. One well-known friend of David's whom I interviewed at length hit out publicly to say that I had misquoted him, and that he had not made certain statements. I had spent two days at this man's kitchen table. I had recorded every word of our interviews on a reliable device. I had transcribed the material personally. I returned to his home and combed through every word of my printed transcript with him. A few words were deleted at his request, and a couple of statements modified. He signed off every page, with his own pen, in his own handwriting. I was of course able to produce this proof when he later questioned what I had written. His response? That he 'didn't want to talk about it ever again.' But he didn't back down and admit that he was wrong, either. People say that there is no smoke without fire. Oh boy, there so is.
There are few on the planet who knew David Bowie better than his record producer Tony Visconti, a man for whom I have gigantic respect. I interviewed him for my biography of Marc Bolan, 'Ride a White Swan'. He even penned a glowing endorsement for the cover. He declined to be interviewed for 'Hero', and was scathing about the book when it was published. He hadn't read it. I'm sure he still hasn't. He also dumped me on Facebook.
My point being, assumptions are the root of all cock-ups. We can assume all we like about Michael Wolff's book on the Trump administration. We should probably read it. I intend to.

Today would have been David Bowie's seventy-first birthday. Wednesday will be his Anniversary. This is a week to reflect, for Bowie aficionados. He is right here, of course. He hasn't gone far. We still have the music.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

WAR IS OVER?



We spent Christmas Eve with best friends in Highgate; saw the kids off at Waterloo to spend Christmas with their father, and zapped home to collect heaving turkey, trimmings and sackloads of sickly delights. We were just beyond Brixton in selfish traffic when the call came: that my father had fallen, my tiny mother couldn't pick him up, and that she had dialled Emergency. When we reached the Wolds maybe an hour or so later, a prickling of snow clouded the headlights as frosty wind made moan.
Paramedics don't mess about. They do the full-body on the spot. They toil to exacting guidelines. With oxygen levels deemed life-threateningly low, they were obliged to convey my father to A&E. With Dad stretchered, wired, cannula'd and 02-ed to within a gasp, I sat, holding his hand ... for eleven and a half hours. I realised that the anything but silent night had turned only when a bacon sandwich of a voice took to the hospital tannoy: 'The Paediatric Department would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas ...' followed by similar from various other hospital departments after that.
Back at the ranch, my mother and elder daughter had long retired. Perhaps not with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, but with what horror they might awake to.
We were waiting for a bed, so that my father could be admitted. No extortionate five-star health insurance policy will help you on this date, in this situation. We'd be lucky. A porter let slip that the only way we'd get one during the early hours of Christmas Day would be if some poor unfortunate up on a med ward should die. Who'd wish that? I dozed in the orange polypropylene chair. Watched the bleeding, the bruised and the battered of the Borough of Bromley and North West Kent being stretchered into bays as if from the battlefield. Back home, Mamma succumbed to norovirus, and spent the day appealing to the newborn Almighty on the white porcelain wall-mounted. The sumptuous feast went in the bin. There is always next year.
The days between Christmas and New Year tend to evaporate. They did this year. The killer germ took me down too, as it was bound to. Dad got the better of his chest infection, and has been allowed home, on nuclear antibiotics. I'll be back there tonight. If we can stomach the thought of champagne at midnight, we might have some.
I haven't been out-out on New Year's Eve for eleven years. We revelled blindly as a couple, and partied annually as a family, our round-the-clock home Party Central. Few would dispute that it's not the best singles' night. Real life does not propel Billy Crystals through freezing New York streets to claim Meg Ryan-sized hearts on the count of twelve. The rictus grin we feel obliged to pull when surrounded by kissing lovers is not the best look. I was once lured along to a singles-only New Year's dinner-dance, only to quit before 10pm, feeling like a chunk of meat on a stick in a lions' den. I was better off at home behind my own knitted cushions, watching Queen with Adam Lambert by myself. Which is not to say that I don't have the best New Year's memories. My favourite? Go on, then, David Bowie's old gaff, Britannia Bay House, Mustique, in 1991.
Resolutions? Well. On Christmas Eve, I saw shadows in the pale blue eyes of my eighty-six year-old father, as he asked me over and over where his mother was. They were him as a fierce young footballer, a debonair globe-trotter, the Richard Burton of Fleet Street, the Voice of Sport. As a child, I saw him on television more often than at our dinner table. He was in so many ways a figure of fantasy to me. He still is. Now a frail, slightly shrunken old man with his best years behind him, he is nevertheless no less than he always was.

The lesson being, if there is something that you have always longed to do, see, experience, be - do it now. Time will not wait. New Year's Eves are inconsequential. Reflect, if you have to, on the highs and lows of 2017 - but then move on. Memories and nostalgia are so time-consuming. Like all those boxes in the attic, they take up too much room. Our eyes are in the front of our heads for a reason.  What's on the cards? 2018, for me, will mark the publication of my debut volume of memoir. May the coming year be a thrill and a game-changer for you all.

Friday, 8 December 2017

FIRING UP THE QUATRO ...



I interviewed Suzi Quatro at the Gibson Guitars studio in the West End last night, as part of Found in Music's 'In Conversation With' series for SAGA. The event, exclusive to members, with tickets won by ballot, drew fans from as far as Birmingham and as wide as Portsmouth. One couple told me they were so keen to attend, they'd actually set off from the south coast the day before. It only dawned on them when they'd driven as far as Guildford that they were twenty-four hours too early, and had to go back home ...
People make fun of me all the time for 'hanging out with ageing rock stars'. 'Why do you bother with all these old dinosaurs?', my hip-and-happenin' friends say. The answer is simple: they are more interesting. They've had breathtakingly creative, globe-trotting lives that armchair-theatre-goers can only dream of. They've been everywhere. Met everyone. Seen everything. They've jammed with their own idols. They remain idols themselves to millions who have followed them since they emerged. They have the greatest war stories, the most stamina, the kindest hearts, and they are rocking 'til they drop. Isn't that how we all want to be?
Detroit-born Suzi Quatro was a female pioneer during an age of male rock'n'roll rebellion. Micky Most brought her to London in 1971, not to be 'the new Janis Joplin' (Pearl having died the year before, and every music mogul and record producer was seeking a replacement), but to be 'the first Suzi Quatro'. She wrote with Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, and was massive throughout Europe and Australasia. But she could never really give it away back home until she was offered the role of Leather Tuscadero alongside the Fonz and Ritchie Cunningham in 'Happy Days'. The part was made for her, and she for it. She became a huge star in America and around the world. They offered her Leather's own spin-off series. She declined, not wishing to be typecast. The biggest mistake of her life,' crowed the naysayers. 'What has she ever done since?'
She has sold fifty-five million records. She has written and published three books - her latest an anthology of poetry entitled 'Through My Eyes'. She has starred in a West End musical, 'Annie Get Your Gun' (in 1986, when I first interviewed her). She's acted in 'Minder', 'Dempsey & Makepeace', 'Ab Fab', 'The Midsomer Murders'. She has two new albums: 'Legend', a compilation of twenty tracks, and 'Quatro, Scott & Powell', with Sweet's Andy Scott and Slade's Don Powell, out on Warner's. She's just headlined an arena tour with Hot Chocolate, David Essex and the Osmonds. She still lives in the moated Essex manor house where she raised her two children and now cares for her cherished grandchild. She has twice the energy of a woman half her age. She is sixty-seven, and shouts it. She made it all possible for the female rockers who came after her - Tina Weymouth, The Runaways and Joan Jett, Girlschool, the GoGos, even the Spice Girls - which is perhaps her greatest legacy. She inspired both women and men. She inspired me: I had her poster on my bedroom wall.

How does she do it? 'By being myself,' she says. 'I have never tried to be anyone else. I've always known where to draw the line.' A line that reminds me of cowboy Curly's advice to Billy Crystal's character in 'City Slickers', when he tells him that the secret of life is 'just one thing.' Yeah?' says Billy, eagerly, 'so what is the one thing?' Curly curls a crusty lip, and smiles: 'That's what YOU'VE gotta figure out ...'

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

WALKING IN THE AIR



'There was music in our house, and my mother played the piano,' said the composer of the greatest secular Christmas song of all time.
'We lived in this flat, and I had this tiny room, and there was an asbestos wall, and the piano was the other side of the wall, right up against my ear. I was six. And my mother would play the piano after I'd gone to bed, and it was deafening. And I just used to listen. And she played an A minor waltz of Chopin, and I thought, I've got to play that ... I learned to play by ear and read music all in one go. It never seemed difficult. It seemed the obvious thing to do.'
Howard Blake's disarmingly modest explanation of how he came to be a musician nutshells the words of so many artists I have interviewed down the years. Their charm lies in the fact that they kind of don't get it. The truly organic creative rarely perceives anything special in his or her talent. It just was. Is. It is 'obvious'.
How ironic that this mind-blowingly prolific creator of hundreds of ballets, concertos and film scores - including an orchestral score with Queen, for 'Flash Gordon' - is revered the world over for a children's song. But not just any old children's song. We're talking 'Walking in the Air', the nucleus of 1982's 'The Snowman', which generations have grown up on and which resonates to this day. My own three children are adults now, but we still bunch around the telly together every year to revisit it. Because the animation is without dialogue, it is the music that speaks, taking a little boy on a journey which has become every child's dream: for a snowman he has made in his back garden to come to life, and fly him to Lapland to meet Father Christmas. The relatively recent addition of the snow dog has taken the story up a notch. The themes are poignant and tragic. They thrum with heartache. They seize control of our emotions. They speak silently of the gradual, inexorable loss of innocence, and of the beckoning grave.

There are priceless moments to make the journey worthwhile. Such as last night's: Howard Blake on the Sir Peter Blake 'Sgt. Pepper' piano at the Groucho Club, without warning - playing 'Walking in the Air'. I'm still pinching. Howard, in his eightieth year, retains the wide-eyed innocence of the little child in his story. I was thrilled to meet him. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

IS THAT A WEINSTEIN ON YOUR DRESS, OR ARE YOU JUST PLEASED TO SEE ME?




What surprises me is that anybody is surprised.
We know that sex abuse is endemic: in religious institutions, in church schools, in residential care homes. Sexual violence and molestation of pupils and students is on the rise. Harassment in the workplace is rampant: you wouldn’t want your daughter to work in the average bar, would you, facing endless abuse from beer-swilling louts?
We’ve had it in television, in radio and in PR. We’ve had it in football and other sports. Even in politics. And we have long known about the casting couch.
So why was anybody shocked about Harvey Weinstein?
Because he had so much money that they believed he could walk on water?
Because he owned Hollywood?
Because he could do no wrong?Let’s see who else falls out of the woodwork. I'm guessing Michael Winner, for one.
And now Sir Tom Jones, revealing that it was rife in the music industry, and not only against women. It happened to him.
Blow me down. Of course it went on in the music industry. It probably still does.
I remember feeling deeply shocked, during the Eighties, when I worked for a record company, on hearing from my friend at a rival label that the boss of that outfit - a male, for the avoidance of doubt - had slept with every one of his female employees. It was a joke in the industry. He was a legend because of it. It seemed almost expected. You would know who I mean.
I had another friend who was PA to a world-famous British rock star. He seduced her at the first interview. She got the job, yes, and she worked for him for twenty years. He paid her extremely well, but was that right? Well, no.
I was once taken to a party at Dolphin Square, the exclusive residential complex in London, by a household-name DJ. Again, you would know who I mean. I was twenty-two. He was a giant, and I was a slip of a thing in size six jeans. He fed me a lot of champagne and, at the point of no return, backed me through a pair of double doors with the palm of his dustbin-lid hand, pushed me down onto a huge double bed and flung himself on top of me. I was felled, like a tree. I tried to scream, but nothing came out. I grabbed him by the barnet and I’ll never forget it, his hair came away in my hands. It was a wig, complete with bits of double-sided tape and bobby pins. He was so shocked that he jumped up, clutching his raw head, and made a run for it.
Did I ever tell anyone?
NO!
I was ashamed.
My mother would have killed me for having gone there in the first place.
I always believed, when such things happened, that it was my fault in some way.
Is it a sex thing? A power thing?
Sometimes one, sometimes the other. But probably both.
We live in the twenty-first century, in the first world, in an enlightened society. Nobody’s asking the thousands of female Muslim victims of military rape in Myanmar what they think about Harvey Weinstein.
Certain types are banging on about the fact that the predators are not always men, and that the victims are not always women. Which changes nothing. it must be talked about. it has to stop.

I can think of a few old-timers who must be quaking. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

THE ROCK STARS' ROCK STAR





I'm often asked 'Who's your favourite rock star?' That's as easy to answer as 'Who's the best person you've ever interviewed?' Where do you start? Many stand out, for all the wrong reasons. But 'best'! You'll get more out of me by asking who was the worst (Richard Gere in Philadelphia, but let's park him.)
I've banged on for decades about John Entwistle, whose fifteenth anniversary fast approaches; about  Jim Diamond, almost two years gone; about Steve Harley who has promised to sing 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)' at my funeral, and who asks me every time I see him if I've got a date; about the artists to whom I have devoted years and about a million and a half words: David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Marc Bolan.
What about Rick Wakeman? He is is hardly ever perceived, as a 'rock star', let alone a Grumpy Old one. But he is one. 'Rock star' less in the sense of international hell-raiser, rebel-rouser, ground-breaker, heart-breaker, risk-taker, music-maker, though he has long been all these. Watching him last night at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre, absorbing his anecdotes (a few of which I knew by heart), I found myself floored.
He'd never claim this, but Rick created the electronic symphonic album concept back in 1972, with 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII'. Having studied classical piano from the age of four, inspired by his father who also played, Rick made it to the Royal College of Music but became sidetracked by rock and pop. He sessioned for many, including David Bowie, Cat Stevens and T. Rex. In 1970 he joined the Strawbs for sixteen months, and replaced Tony Kaye in Yes a year later. He metamorphosed into a keyboard wizard, embellishing the band's at times flatulent sound with flair, technique and classical influence. By 1974 he was out on his own, following up 'Six Wives' with further solo albums. 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', with its vast stage interpretation, was a huge success. 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur' was on ice at the Empire Pool, Wembley, with a forty-five-piece orchestra and a forty-eight-piece choir. It made a ton of money but left him skint. Hardly surprising when you consider the payroll. On with the solo recording, while rejoining Yes for three more years until the turn of the Eighties, when his luck changed. Health, women, money, the usual. It was not until '1984', for Charisma (when we first met) that Rick was back on the yellow brick road. I adored him in 'Listzomania'. Fleet Street coined 'Baroque and Roll'. He was double-handedly responsible for bringing keyboards to the fore in rock. But where's the knighthood? Shabby.

The 'Piano Portraits' album is a collection of favourite pieces, several of which he created the piano parts to. It was inspired by his live performances on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio 2 show last year in tribute to Bowie. Such was the demand that the recordings were released, with all profits to Macmillan Cancer Support. This inspired the album, which led to the tour, which now segues into twenty more UK dates; back on the road with Yes; the band's upcoming fiftieth anniversary; Rick's fifty years in rock. 'After which,' he swore blind last night, 'I'm gonna jack it all in.' Right.