Friday, 23 November 2018

WHO WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER? FREDDIE MERCURY'S FINAL DAY



It was twenty-seven years ago today. Freddie stopped taking his medication. Everything except the painkillers. He was going to be the one to decide when he should die. For weeks, twenty-four hours a day, the world's press had camped on his doorstep at Garden Lodge, Kensington. He was a prisoner in his own home. Nothing could be done about it. Except, perhaps, what he did do - which was to let go. He'd had enough. The will to live was ebbing away. His only regret at the end was that there was so much more music still inside him.
'The Show Must Go On', Queen's brave, heart-rending single backed by 'Keep Yourself Alive', had been released in October. The band, their management, their publicists and entourage, all sworn to secrecy, continued to contradict rumours about Freddie's health. EMI continued to pump out product: 'Greatest Hits II', 'Greatest Flix II'. With their frontman's life hanging by a thread, the band appeared more prolific than ever.
Freddie's friends and housemates, Peter Freestone and Joe Fanelli, nursed him through the final days. Freddie had now begun to cut people off. He just didn't want to see them. His parents, for example. They had visited during those final weeks, and wanted to come again, the Saturday before he died. But Freddie refused. 'I've seen them,' was all he said. Part of the reason for the decision had to be that he didn't want them to see him as he now was. He wanted to be remembered as he had been. It was the reason why he had turned his back on so many friends during the final year. A few really close pals continued to be there for him: Dave Clark, Tony King, Elton John; and there was help from medical staff at Westminster Hospital. Gordon Atkinson, Freddie's physician and friend, made regular visits throughout the week. Terry Giddings, Freddie's driver, still came every day, despite the fact that Freddie wasn't going anywhere. In the end, he did entertain his parents at tea, one final time.
On 23rd November, with manager Jim Beach at his bedside for a long meeting, they agreed the wording of Freddie's last-ever statement, admitting to his fans and to the relentless press that he had AIDS. After years of keeping his biggest secret, his friends now had to stand by helplessly as the truth was broadcast to the world. Less than twenty-four hours later, Peter Freestone made the call to Jer and Bomi Bulsara with the news they were dreading to hear. Their beloved son, the king of Queen, the Great Pretender, was dead.

FREDDIE MERCURY 5th September 1946 - 24th November 1991 R.I.P. 
'Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury' by Lesley-Ann Jones, published by Hodder & Stoughton UK, Simon & Schuster USA, and in translation worldwide.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

PAUL McCARTNEY, BILLY JOEL, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, THEY'RE ALL HERE ...

LAJ's Album of the Month
#LookingForTheWorld
Michael Armstrong


More musicians fall off the side than ever make it. More guitars gather dust in garages and spare rooms than are strummed to stardom, thrown aside as symbols of failure and dashed desire. Abandoning an ambition of life on the long ladder with the missing rungs is a tough one. The road to hell is littered with almost-made-its, who had the recording contract, the publishing deal, a handful of singles to their name, enough paid gigs and regular session work to convince themselves that their moment was nigh. For most, it never came close. The insidious 'I want it so much' culture fostered by the X-Factor and its ilk has done little to dissuade wannabes that wanting is no guarantee. Fame and fortune won by wishing is an abhorrent lie. Success takes more than talent and determination. Timing, luck and choices matter. But even with those in place, it mostly eludes.
Still, better to try and to keep on trying than to reach the end of the road still wondering what it might have been like. You could have been a contender? Why didn't you stick with it? Michael Armstrong has, against the bleakest odds. 'The difficult second album' has not proved so for him. 'Looking for the World' is a confident, cool collection of original songs which honour the golden years of songwriting brilliance. His influences are all here, from the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Billy Joel to Macca, Steely Dan, Springsteen, Jeff Lynne and a few he hadn't even thought of. No airy-fairy pussyfooting, either: he tackles life's big subjects with grit and guts, sporting his heart on two bare arms and gargling with courage. His vast vocal ability and blatant inclination to love overflow from the soulful and spirited 'Gold Dust' and 'A Love that's True'. The title track is a stand-out hit, multi-layered and soaring, classic love pop with an unashamed Cliff vibe. Rapid, poetic 'Gypsy' reflects Dylan through its delivery and snipey lyrics. 'This Green & Unpleasant Land' is loaded with Lennonesque cynicism. His tight grip on Joel-style storytelling through song lilts loudly and wonderfully from 'The Haunting of Betty Higgins' ('..that acrid scent of sophomore' .. what a line!), biting and darkly from 'Periscope' with its magical Beach Boys trip, and on 'Rosie's Brother'. I heard the news today, oh boy. George Harrison haunts 'She's All Kooky' via a jangly Sixties string swing. 'Queen of Hearts', through playing-card symbolism, sums up both the album and Michael's entire experience of trying to make it in the music business. It also boasts what might be my favourite lyrical couplet (though the jury's still out):
'Oh loving flame, I'm blinded by your light/I surrender, I remain yours forever, hold me tight.'
I am wildly proud of Michael's co-writer, co-player and co-producer, the truly gifted Warren Bennett for his tireless commitment to this cause. Guitars, bass, drums, percussion, keyboards, handclaps and giggling: you name it, Warren contributed it. Chip off the old block, boy. Give us a kiss.
Sharp, infectious, whole-lotta-love, #LookingForTheWorld defies age, eras and genres in homage to music. Maybe you'll dance round the kitchen in your slippers to this, or round your handbag in your gladrags. Go on, we're watching. An album with everything? You bet. Bravo, Mike, Warren and Lisa. I love it. The world will love it too.



Monday, 19 November 2018

MAGNIFICO - OH - OH!




Oh Mamma Mia, Mamma Mia, I am so thrilled about this. 'Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury' is now Number Five on the Sunday Times Bestsellers List, nearly 13,000 copies sold. Thank you, thank you, everyone who has supported this book. I drank champagne until we could no longer say it with my mum and dad in celebration. I can't help thinking what Freddie would have made of it. 'It's only a book!', he would have cried. Just as it's only a film. Only a life. Perspective is everything.
May I offer you a song? One of my all-time favourite Freddie Mercury compositions. 'A Winter's Tale, from 'Made in Heaven', Queen's fifteenth studio album, which debuted at number one in 1995, four year's after Freddie's death. It was Freddie's swansong, written and composed in his Montreux apartment, overlooking the lake he so loved. The lyrics describe what he could see from his window. They celebrate the peace and contentment he found there towards the end. The title, whether intended or not as an homage to the romance 'The Winter's Tale' by William Shakespeare, reveals perhaps more than you might think about Freddie's early songwriting inspiration. One protagonist of the play is Polixenes, the King of Bohemia - an ancient kingdom which corresponds loosely to the modern Czech Republic. As such, it may have germinated 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. If, as presumed by many Bard scholars, this play was an allegory on the demise of Anne Bolyen, its character Perdita was based on the daughter of Anne and King Henry VIII, who would become Elizabeth I, England's Queen ... 

The band's original greatest hit laced through Freddie's final majestic offering? It's not impossible.


GIGS OF THE MONTH



SLIM CHANCE AT THE HALF MOON PUTNEY
THE HOUSE OF LOVE AT THE ROUNDHOUSE

One of the blessed advantages of growing older is that of hearing. The glam old days were infinitely less about the music, so often lost to flirtatious exuberance and riotous debauchery. We lingered at the rear of the old Hammy Odeon most nights, backs to the wall. Gossiping, mischief-wrenching. We came, saw, listened. How much did we hear?
The rewind is the gift. The many fragments of dreams colliding. The little hauntings, the enlightenments. Rejuvenations. Evergreen in demeanour and musicality, our beloveds are stepping through autumn now. Yet they carry with them an inexorable aroma of spring.
The swarms buzz, polite at the bar. Mind how you go, want any help with that bottle? The womb-like cave of the Putney Half Moon fetches us. Born again. We're still in with a chance. A slim one, was the joke of Ronnie Lane, famed of the Small Faces and Faces, who created some of the most enduringly succinct songs of the Sixties and Seventies. The late East End troubadour was a pint-sized party. He and Steve Marriott were one of the most magical songwriting duos of all time. 'Itchycoo Park'? 'Lazy Sunday'? Come on. My favourite Ronnie songs are 'The Poacher' and his final hit, 'How Come'. The newly-reformed Slim Chance gifted us both at their album launch, as well as Townshend's 'Squeezebox' and even 'Goodnight, Irene', together with tracks from the excellent new collection, 'New Cross Road'. All that, and Geraint Watkins too. The livid Welshman from Abertridwr was on stupendous rock'n'roll/boogie woogie form, his voice a growl from the deepest colliery pits. A legend on account of all that toil with the greats - Van Morrison, Macca, Dave Edmunds, Status Quo, Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings - Paul Sexton rated his best solo album 'In a Bad Mood' (typical Welshman) his number one album of 2008. Billy Nicholls was on pounding form. So good to hear him singing his own composition 'I Can't Stop Loving You', a top ten hit for Leo Sayer on Chrysalis back in '78, and for Phil Collins and the Outlaws since. I'd never heard Billy sing it live before. His rendition was fragile and spare. It is still haunting me.
Ronnie succumbed to MS. He continued to play and write until it claimed him, flanked by the greats, by Eric and Pete and the rest. Many A-listers were moved by his brilliance and his illness to raise money for MS sufferers worldwide in his name. the gig was all was about him. He will not be forgotten.
Hallucinations. We flag in the suburbs of our once central, sensational youth. Receding into the shadows, we peer over the abyss into inevitable darkness. Hang back, guys, we know where this is heading. Every now and then, a glimmer. The House of Love came out for the Thirtieth Anniversary of their debut album last Saturday, and stormed the Roundhouse. Oh what a circus, what a show. Alt-rock brilliance and shining on. It was spectacular. Guy Chadwick and the maverick Terry Bickers chiselled the band from ashes in the early Eighties. The debut single is a gem:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxUv79hejRU
Rock journos raved about their intricate psychedelic blend, their singles 'Christine' and 'Destroy the Heart'. The band carved into America, and leapt for the stars. They fell apart before we could raise a bottle of Dom to their first decade. They slunk off to live normal lives. Didn't we. Kinda sorta. But God, what a comeback. A lesson to us all.


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.