Wednesday, 5 September 2018

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY



It's hard to believe that today would have been Freddie Mercury's seventy-second birthday. He feels as alive to me today as he did thirty years ago. Forever young, vibrant and full of it. I remember him as a tangle of contradictions. So shy at his own parties, he'd emerge from the bedroom only when the guests were all in place and when the bash seemed in full swing. He'd go round filling everyone's glass with champagne himself, so that he 'had an excuse to talk to them'. In the wings before a gig, he looked small and terrified. He was never a star away from the spotlight. He put on the stardom like an overcoat, and took it off again at the end of the show. I was never unamazed by the way he seemed to treble in size out on stage.
I've told it once or twice before, the way he shared his deepest secrets with me. We were in Montreux, at the White Horse Tavern. Freddie was with the French boys. He knew me. I'd watched from the side of the stage as Queen performed at Wembley for Live Aid in 1985. I'd seen them perform around the world by then. The band invited me for the ride to a string of destinations on the 'It's a Kind of Magic' tour in 1986. In Budapest, I attended Queen's reception at the British Embassy. I witnessed their historic show behind the Iron Curtain, one of their greatest live moments ever.
Freddie opened the conversation that night. He bought the next round. It wasn't nothing: he didn't trust the press, having been turned over by hacks in the past. But this was his bar, his stomping ground. He could be himself there.
'I can breathe here,' he said, dragging on a borrowed Marlboro Red.
'I can think and write and record, and go for a walk. I think I'm going to need it, these next few years.'
Without spelling it out, he was admitting that he was dying. He knew by then that he was infected with HIV. Not long afterwards, I discovered who was responsible. I never wrote it. I know precisely where his remains lie. I've never written that, either.
There was a time when journalism was perceived as a venerable profession. That impression fell off the side during the 1980s, when celebrity-bashing became an Olympic sport. Nevertheless, most of us who pursued the print dream did in fact respect the lines. Where they were drawn. How to resist the urge to step over them, keeping an eye on the bigger picture and the notion of some eventual prize. Reverse psychology. Ju-Jitsu technique. We often kidded ourselves.
Privacy was in those days a thing. The first thing that celebrities sacrificed. The last thing they realised they wanted back. Too late, too late. Freddie knew. He squinted into his vodka, swishing the glass.
'It's exactly the thing that keeps me awake at night,' he said. 'I've created a monster. I can't blame anyone else. It's what I've worked for since I was a kid. I would have killed for this. Whatever happens to me is all my fault. It's what I wanted. It's what we all strive for. Success, fame, money, sex, drugs - whatever you want. I can have it. But now I'm beginning to see that, as much as I created it, I want to escape from it. I'm starting to worry that I can't control it, as much as it controls me.'
No one could be more excited than I about the imminent Queen feature film, starring Rami Malek as Freddie and Lucy Boynon as Freddie's girlfriend Mary Austin. I worked as a script consultant to Peter Morgan, who wrote the original version of the screenplay. Now, in honour of the picture, Hodder & Stoughton are publishing a new edition of my book 'Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography'. Entitled 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to sync with the movie, it'll be here on 18th October. Thank you, Freddie. Happy birthday, wherever you are. See you sometime.


Thursday, 23 August 2018

MAMMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN ...




The birthday fun continues. The firstborn is thirty-one today, impossibly. I have just been recounting the brutal birth to the assembled troops, and the girls are horrified. That's how it was in those days. Gas and air if you were lucky, a perineum torn from ear to ear (figuratively - they had me in stitches, literally), and a post partum haemorrhage to bring up the rear. As you were, people.
I'd like to write that I was a child bride. There was in fact no such luxury. Her father decided that he didn't want kids after all, and legged it to California. I had choices, and decided to go it alone. With a full-time job on Fleet Street, travelling transatlantically by the week, it wasn't the easiest. Nick Gordon saved my life when he poached me from the Mail to YOU Magazine, in those days a seriously credible rival to the Sunday Times Magazine. Nick was Editor of the Year three times in succession. How I wish he were still alive. 
My dream job there took me from the wings of West Coast stages to Iraqi war zones; from remote South Dakotan farms to Barry White's barbecue in Encino. I interviewed the world, it felt like, at times. Not even Frank Sinatra, who famously never gave interviews, escaped me. And all of it, for the first five years until she had to go to school, with my roving reporter Mia Clementine Jones under one arm. By this time, we were based in LA. The acclaimed movie producer Julia Phillips, who was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Picture ('The Sting', 1973) and who also won accolades for Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver' and Spielberg's 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', once offered me $3,000 in exchange for my daughter. True story. Charlton Heston took her to church, Grace Jones had her for lunch (not quite literally), and Billy Idol had her over to play with his little boy Willem. When Mia was offered the role of Macaulay Culkin's little English cousin in 'Home Alone 3', I knew it was time to return to Blighty. Reality check. A normal life beckoned.
We had eight years as a dynamic duo until marriage got the better of me. It was doomed, ultimately. But Mia got out of it the brother and sister she had craved. It has never been boring, not a minute of it, despite everything that went wrong. Eric Clapton once pointed out, a year or so after his little son Connor died so tragically, that there are things you don't get over. You have to find a comfortable place to put them. But they're always there. Despite all the angst and heartache and stress and backbreak of single motherhood - any motherhood - I would do it all again in a beat.
Happy birthday, beautiful firstborn. Keep in mind that life always offers second chances. It's called tomorrow. More than anything, be self-deprecating. You have no choice. When the hecklers get the better of you, get better. I love you, Mia. Love, Mamma.


Saturday, 11 August 2018

I WILL SURVIVE




Definitive anthems of indefatigable womanhood (Philip Norman’s phrase): I’ve been thinking about them. This was prompted by the ‘I Will Survive’ weekend, a wild trip to Sitges below Barcelona for my debut live experience of Disco Queen Gloria Gaynor. How can that be, I wonder? I’ve seen everybody else. I just never got around to seeing Glo. Her globally-cherished self-empowerment classic was a bit of fun during days of wode and karaoke bars. It acquired significance for me while I was trying to get over my divorce. At first I was afraid, I was petrified … but I grew strong, and I learned how to get along. Discerning male music-lovers of my close acquaintance tend to scoff at both Gloria and at her chart chestnuts. Because they’re men, I guess. I can’t think of many artists of any gender who would turn up their noses at ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’, ‘I Am What I Am’ and ‘Survive’ as a hit legacy. Nor at her bank balance.

At sixty-nine, the artist is flagging, physically. But the voice remains rich and powerful. She has a three-sixty stage presence and a spiritual energy that reach to the bleachers, inspiring even the guys to punch the air. But despite the sizeable gay contingent present, this was incontestably ladies’ night. Glo’s entire show was a tense, perfectly-orchestrated build-up to the Freddie Perren/ Dino Fekaris chart-topper, the pièce de résistance, the one we’d all come to hear. She slid into it sensuously, like an aural striptease, dragging out the suspense, bringing us to the brink, then going for the full-on disembogue. We howled, we shuddered.

I’m not ashamed to admit that this was the song that reminded me to be a bitch. To kick ass. To get up off it and to go again. To rescue my children and celebrate the end of all things bad. Still think about him? Only fleetingly. It’s the negative that surfaces. The smashing up the kitchen, extra-virgin and Merlot running down the walls at breakfast time. The endless lockings in the cellar, the Courvoisier bottle to the head. Who needs? Baby, I’m done. Go on, now, go. Still bitter about the many wasted years? Get outta here. Life begins again. It begins again every morning. All it takes is somebody to love. Miss Ross, I’m still waiting.

But I know so many women in bad relationships. We’re not supposed to be angry, are we. Where-we-are-we-are is not compulsory in the 21st century. Contempt and boredom are life-threatening. There are choices. Come on now, quit. Get out, get happy. Convert your broken heart into a crystal ball for a brand-new life. If I can, anyone can. Digging my clichés?

Empowering women with music is no new thing. Wind back through Beyoncé’s ‘If I Were a Boy’ and ‘Irreplaceable’, Lily Allen’s ‘Smile’, Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’ via Mary J. Blige’s ‘Enough Cryin’’, Dusty’s ‘All Cried Out’, circumnavigating Queen Latifah and Christina, Alicia and Cyndi and Shania, pausing at Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’, Nancy’s ‘Boots’, Aretha’s ‘Respect’. Take it all the way back to Arthur Hamilton’s ‘Cry Me a River’, a hit for Julie London in 1955 but really for Ella, whose version I favour only a little ahead of Crystal Gayle’s (’though Shirley Bassey’s, Dinah Washington’s and Streisand’s takes are hard to beat too); to Loretta, Tammy and Dolly and, ultimately, to blessed Kitty Wells. Who reminds us, in her rendition of Jimmy D. Miller’s killer, that ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’:
      
      '… as you said in the words of your song,
           too many times married men think they’re still single,
           that has caused many a good girl to go wrong.'

Same as it ever was?

‘Ever it was’, actually.




Wednesday, 8 August 2018

NEON GODS: THE SOUND OF SILENCE




NEON, a new play by Patrick Swain,
Presented by Caged Bird Theatre 
Touring production of Exeter, Nottingham and the Camden Fringe Festival 2018



Lawyer Sarah shares her flat with reclusive oddball John, who seems to think that he’s God. Sarah’s psychotherapist girlfriend Jude is counselling an American patient called Thomas, who hears voices and sees visions of a man in his flat. When Jude goes round to Sarah’s and comes face to face with John and his laurel-wreath necklace, connections are made that have far-reaching and sinister consequences.

The theme of ‘Neon’ is religion in both its universal and most personal sense. Which poses questions. Have social media and our obsession with Self replaced the need for faith in a higher power? Or has it made us more dependent on it? Humanity having made gods – false idols – of material things, which we invented ourselves, how do we control their effect on our minds and desires going forward?

This tight, funny, tragic, often devastating piece hinges on a line from ‘the Sound of Silence’, the 1964/65 song by Simon and Garfunkel from their debut album ‘Wednesday Morning, 3A.M.’: ‘And the people bowed and prayed/to the neon gods they made.’ The internet was a world away at that point. Most modern forms of communication were sci-fi fantasies. Did Paul Simon experience premonition, or was he just a kid strumming a guitar and chewing words on the bathroom floor? His reference to neon signs was a comment on advertising and consumerism rather than on social media that did not yet exist. But the message remains relevant. The more technological methods of interaction we create, the less capable we are of communicating with each other in real terms. The less inclined we are towards original thought. You get the picture.

The biblical references are subtle, but also loud and clear. During Jesus Christ’s ministry, ‘followers’ were not the faithful, but were idol-worshipers. What else are we today? Both faith and social media are about people finding their reality and truth in a non-physical dimension. The thought of ‘God’ liaising via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogging in order to preserve and perpetuate faith might seem absurd. Until Swain, inspired, follows the rabbit down the hole, that is, giving us ‘Jude’ and ‘Abraham’, summoning ghosts of Christmases past and yet to come, flinging unpalatable truths in our startled faces and challenging us on the most provocative tenet of all: that it doesn’t really matter what we believe, as long as we believe in something.

Prepare thy table. Belief is a construct, a cultural constant, this precocious young playwright knows. Behold, the shepherd and his sheep. Likewise after supper, he took the communion Capri-Suns.






Monday, 16 July 2018

THE FINAL CURTAIN?




If I could have back the lost weekends in the grass, the Glastos, the Readings, the Knebworths, the Isle of Wights. I gave up festivals years ago. Primarily because they were never about the music, but about loitering within tents, messing about with your musicbiz mates and boozing. You have kids, you grow up. I can never fathom those folk who take babies to open-air gigs.
Yet there are times to go back. We'll do it for legends, the opportunities to see and hear them receding all the time. We don't get our skin out. We shield ourselves from head to foot, but still boil in the blistering sun. We resist the champagne tents and the awful food. We glue our faces with Factor 50, equip ourselves with agua and face sprays, tissues and baby wipes, and are a bit Girl Guide about it. We seek swift stiffeners at the Hilton across from the park, in the Windows on the World. That's some view from the twenty-eighth floor, by the way. I had forgotten it. We brace ourselves to jostle among the throng for a few final shreds of the soundtrack of our lives.
Bonnie Raitt hauled us back to her roots. The ten-time Grammy winner who makes a mockery of sixty-nine is as great a guitarist as she is a singer, still pulling magic out of the same Fender Strat that she's used in every gig she's played since the Sixties. 'Nick of Time' and INXS's 'One of My Kind' were the stand-outs - the song that started life, in 1987, as 'Need You Tonight', and was later renamed.
James Taylor is much older than his seventy years, in many ways. His nine lives, triumphs and nightmares are all in the songs. The hair's gone, the cap's on, but the smile is as youthful as it ever was. 'Carolina In My Mind', Carole King's 'You've Got a Friend' and 'Fire and Rain' mesmerised. Taylor penned the cowboy lullaby ‘Rockabye Sweet Baby James’ for his newborn nephew, who was named after his uncle. The baby's father, Alex, was James's brother. He died on James's birthday, in 1993. 'There is another America,' he told the vast crowd, in a thinly-veiled reference to the embarrassment felt by millions of Americans at what their country has become under The Donald. Fear not, was the message: 'We'll be back.'
The eldest of the trio headlined in what is billed as his 'Farewell Tour'. Will he do a Tina Turner on us, and play fifteen comebacks? Only time will tell. Paul Simon celebrated a seven-decade career in the time-honoured fashion of subjecting us to a trawl of as yet obscure tracks from the forthcoming new album, while leaving the hits until the encores. 'America', 'Me and Julio' and 'Mother and Child Reunion' thrilled before the big one: his reclamation of 'the best song I ever wrote'.
'I gave away my best one,' lamented seventy-six year-old Simon, of 'Bridge over Troubled Water', meaning that he surrendered it to the voice of Art. 'This is the first time I've sung it. I'm reclaiming it. I am taking back my long lost child.'
Life, drugs and booze do the withering. Angels save the brave. They go again, rejuvenated by their own resilience. Music rescues them. It rescues us all.


Wednesday, 11 July 2018

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM





Gilbert O'Sullivan's showcase at 100 Wardour Street last night whisked us back to the time when time stood still. The half-mast trews and offside cloth cap are a memory. He still cuts his own hair, still sings with Waterford clarity, his quirky, gentle songwriting and plaintive themes at times hard to hear.
He was on top of the world in 1972. He was my first crush. Superstardom was as good as all over by 1975. But they don't go away. They keep doing it. A dozen albums later, a Glasto, an Albert Hall. He's still big in Japan.
There were tears in the eerily mauve-lit room, not least in the eyes of men. Ray performed tracks from his new album 'Gilbert O'Sullivan', to be launched next month, interspersed with the songs of way back when. 'Clair', 'We Will', 'No Matter How I Try', 'Alone Again (Naturally)', 'Get Down', 'Nothing Rhymed'. Could we take much more? Why is this hard to write?
It's true, isn't it, that the music we loved as kids means more with each passing year. Such songs hold disproportionate power over our memories. The brain binds us tightly to the soundtrack of our youth, more than anything we encounter down the line as adults. The connection never loosens. All it takes is for a song to be heard again. Musical nostalgia, explain the scientists, is much more than just a cultural phenomenon. ‘Doc Rock’ Julia Jones has authored a brilliant thesis on this theme. It's no less than a major neurological command. We stay wired to the songs that awoke us to love and life. It's that simple. I think.
But memories mean little without emotion. And nothing stimulates emotion better than music. It lights the sparks of neural activity. On rare occasions, it ignites it into a full pyrotechnic display. The music we love between the ages of twelve and twenty-two, when our brains are undergoing rapid neurological development, gets wired into our lobes for all time. Even as the importance of childhood memories fades, the emotional glow provoked by music lingers.
The years may have evaporated and can be experienced no more. But hear the songs we loved when those memories were being made and we are zipped right back there. The love and joy that they made us feel surge anew. Thank you, Ray, for reminding us.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

STILL GLEAMING?



My father covered ten World Cup tournaments. He wrote about their games, glories and fall-outs with the style and flair of the polished journalist, but with the courage and gut emotion of a genuine footballer. Which he had been. He played professionally before I was born, was injured out, and strayed far. Fleet Street called. He took his talent to the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, both roaring newspapers in their day, and then on to the Independent, at its inception. His confident overview, insightful sentences and acerbic observations floored the competition, took him around the world and made his name.
It's a big-bucks game these days. It wasn't always like this. There was a time when footballing excellence as good as defined this country, presenting fair play and best-of-British values; when the working man's fun gave us something to look up to. Then money happened. Sponsorship kicked in. Premiership players became obscenely overpaid. The heart was ripped out. Isn't it always.
Though my footballing forebears are mostly dead and buried, their names never heard of by most modern fans, they were once one of the greatest British footballing families. If I felt the game's decline personally, it wasn't hard to see why. My grandfather Emlyn Jones and his four brothers, five of ten kids, all played for Merthyr Town FC in Wales before being sold to English clubs. Grandad went to Everton. My great uncle Bryn became the world's most expensive player in 1939 when he was sold by Wolves to Arsenal for £14,500. The fee caused a riot on Downing Street, what with Europe teetering on the brink of war. History repeated during the 1950s and '60s when three of the sons of those five brothers, Ken, Bryn Jnr. and Cliff, turned professional. Our family soared again, producing the most valuable player on earth for a second time. 'Uncle Cliff' was a star at Spurs. The original Gareth Bale. My father Ken Jones turned out for Southend United, Swansea and Hereford before becoming a writer in 1958, and eventually the Voice of Sport.
Football gave in to corporate investment and gentrification. But where there was once dignity, there is precious little these days.
If the FIFA World Cup has a purpose beyond showcasing competition between the best on the planet, it could be to remind us not only of how beautifully the game can be played, but what it represents. Like baseball in America, the one constant down all the years has been our national sport. It marks time. It's why the tournament matters. It reminds us, as the writer said in the movie 'Field of Dreams', of all that was once good, and could be again.
People will come. They will flock to living rooms and kitchens and back gardens and sports bars and streets on Saturday afternoon, clutching beers and bottles and bags of crisps, and reaching for burnt offerings from barbecues; they will waft into private members' clubs and to giant screenings in leisure centres, fine refreshment on tap. A quarter-final is a quarter final. We may not be spared. The best team on the day will win. Gareth Southgate's knighthood is perhaps assured, not only for having galvanised a clutch of boys into achieving what has long been impossible, but for having restored diminished dignity; for having moulded a role-model team; for having inspired pride; and for revealing a glint of a foreign country, our distant collective past. We did things differently there. We won. We are winning now. Whether or not we lose.