Wednesday, 25 January 2012

THE NEW NUREYEV: ALL DANCED OUT

Sergei Polunin, the youngest dancer ever to become a principal at the Royal Ballet, has resigned, sensationally, less than two years after his promotion.  While rumours suggest that he felt 'constrained' by the regime at the Royal Opera House, that he 'wants to make big money' from dancing around the world, and that he yearns to do something completely different - perhaps even open a tattoo parlour - insiders suggest that he is simply burned out, and has had enough.

I spent time in London with the boy tipped to be the New Nureyev when he was on the brink of superstardom and had the whole world at his feet. I also travelled to Cuba with him and the Royal Ballet, for the Company's historic visit:  the first by a foreign ballet company in 40 years. Anything could have happened in the following two years. It did.

The sinewy figure in sweats striding backstage where legends are made was not instantly recognisable as a modern Czar of classical ballet. To the naked eye, he was just a young dancer who had put in a hard day at the barre. Bereft of tunic, tights, wig and greasepaint, hair flopping like a damp flannel, there was little about the Royal Ballet’s new soloist to suggest a superstar.

This, however, is the company’s expectation of Sergei Polunin, the gobsmacking teenager who has taken Covent Garden by storm. His promotion, which led to him dancing not one but an unprecedented two leads this season - as the Prince in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Solor in La Bayadere - has caused a sensation. In scenes rarely witnessed inside the Opera House, audiences erupted like rock fans as he took his bows. Polunin, 19, has no B-plan. Having won the Prix de Lausanne at 13, the world’s largest student ballet competition Youth America Grand Prix in New York at 16, and having been named Young British Dancer Of The Year in 2007, he could be forgiven for starting to strut in Nureyev’s footsteps. He has eaten, slept and dreamt of nothing else since he was a little boy. In the quest to realise his far-fetched ambition, the sacrifices made by Sergei and his family have been mind-boggling. We meet in a bare-bulbed dressing room in the bowels of the Opera House. Sergei lands, legs akimbo, palming sweat from his neck. The physical similarities between him and the young Nureyev are obvious: Slavic mien, tall, strong, not a scraping of fat. His grey-green eyes lend steely appeal to a puzzled, slant-smiled face. But it is perhaps a tad early to predict whether Polunin will metamorphose into a modern version of the Siberian sex god.

‘The New Nureyev’ is quite a title to live down, as well as up to. The original, who died from Aids-related illness in 1993, lived a headstrong and impulsive life built as much on mythology as fact. His claim to have been born feet-first, of peasant stock, on a Trans-Siberian train turned out to be fairytale; affairs with male and female celebrities including Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Queen’s Freddie Mercury were indulged in while protesting that he despised fame and was naturally reclusive. He was predominantly homosexual at a time when it was illegal (exposure could have killed his career). He was also a problem to the Communist regime of the former USSR. It was when the Kirov Ballet toured in France in 1962 that 24 year-old Rudolf confounded the KGB and defected to the West. Shaking off death threats, he went on to dance for years with Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn at Covent Garden, in a celebrated mutton-lamb pairing which began when she was 43 and pondering retirement. Their partnership remains the most legendary in ballet history. Having danced all over the world, Nureyev became Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and accepted Austrian citizenship in 1982. Only decades later, when his mother was dying of cancer, did he win permission from Mikhail Gorbachev to return home. He died in Paris aged 54, where he is buried in a Russian cemetery.Post-fall of Communism and independence of the former Soviet Union’s states, Sergei travelled here without restriction on a Ukrainian passport. He enjoys his self-imposed exile to the hilt. Having been born in poverty in Kherson, Southern Ukraine - a large ship-building port on the Black Sea, birthplace of Bolshevik Leon Trotsky - he saw obvious advantages to making London his home, and has settled in the suburbs.

‘I live in Orpington, Kent, near the railway station, where I lodge with one of the dancers from this company and her husband’, he reveals in decent English with a dash of accent.
‘Not grand, but it feels like home. I’m very comfortable. The only thing I don’t really like is the food. I do miss what I used to eat in Ukraine - sausages, smoked meats, smoked fish, a lot of cabbage - which I don’t believe the British find appealing! But the things we like most are the things we grew up eating. There is nothing here like the dishes my mother and grandmother used to make.’

For love of their only child and determined to support his calling, Sergei’s parents have long lived and worked apart.
‘My father, Vladimir, works in Portugal. He did many different jobs in Khershon – factory worker, labourer – but went there to work as a builder and send money to pay for my studies. I haven’t seen him for two years, although I speak to him every couple of weeks. My mother Halina now works in the theatre, making costumes. Even my Grandmother left Ukraine to find work, so that she could send money for me. She went to Greece to look after a rich lady. I don’t know when my family will be together again.’
From the age of six, Sergei was independent, travelling to and from school alone by bus.
‘When I wasn’t at school, I’d play in the streets. There wasn’t really anything else to do. No cinema, no pop music. I wasn’t aware of any Western stars of the Nineties. Then I got involved in gymnastics, joined a sports club. I respond well to discipline. I like exact ways of doing things, to be told and shown’.
It was his mother who first aroused Sergei’s interest in ballet:
‘Which was strange, as she didn’t even like ballet! She took me to a small local school which she knew sent pupils on to the school in Kiev. A light came on in my head. I was naturally good, the best in my class, and knew immediately what I wanted to do. When I was nine, my mother and I moved to Kiev for me to attend the ballet school. Very exciting for me, very difficult for her. She had to leave her friends and the life she knew. But she was determined to give me the opportunity. I knew that, to be successful, I would have to move again, keep on moving. The next stop was Leningrad’ (now St. Petersburg).
It was again his mother’s idea to try for the Royal Ballet School.
‘We filled in the application form and filmed the video – you have to send one of yourself dancing. Then they invited me over to audition. Suddenly I am 13 years old and living away from my parents in a foreign city. Did I miss them? No. Was I homesick? Not a bit. This was my destiny. It was what I had worked so hard to achieve.’
The experience had its downsides, but Sergei kept his cool.
‘I couldn’t speak any English. It took 6 months to learn, just by talking. My teacher was Russian, which helped. Thrown in at the deep end, you have to communicate. It is the best way. I was reading the Harry Potter books in Russian at the time, although I didn’t like the films, and it thrilled me to see so many things here that I had read about in the books. The Royal Ballet School itself, where I lived, seemed to me just like Hogwarts. So magical and surreal. I had the feeling of being in a story and acting my own part. I loved it.’

As for the future, Sergei says, his route is planned.

‘So far, so good. Yes, I am young to be dancing the classic leads, but mentally I am ready. Provided I do not suffer serious injury – I’ve already damaged my shoulder and broken my fifth right metatarsal - I will get stronger, develop greater stamina. This can only come with time and training.
‘My ambition remains to be as good as Rudolf Nureyev. I feel the affinity. His Foundation gave me the scholarship here in 2002. I want to live up to that and be a household name of ballet, just like him’.
To that end, Sergei eschews a ‘normal’ teenage lifestyle – parties, clubbing, drinking, smoking, football, girlfriends – in favour of devotion to his craft. He has time and energy for little else, and hasn’t even been to see Chelsea, the club he follows, at Stamford Bridge. Nonchalant about a spin-off career as heart-throb, he takes the bouquets, billets doux and paraphernalia of fandom in his stride. His one regret is that his mother, astonishingly, has never seen him dance professionally. For her to do that, he says, would be a major effort:
‘She doesn’t speak English, there would be no one to look after her, I would worry more about her than my performance as I danced. It would put me off. Perhaps it is better that my parents don’t come to Covent Garden.’
It is hard to imagine that Halina and Vladimir Polunin, who have parked their own lives, endured a long-distance marriage and worked finger to bone for the cause, can be dreaming night and day about anything else.










Tuesday, 24 January 2012

JACK TINKER, HERBERT KRETZMER, RAMIN: REMEMBRANCES

There is no shortage of wig-lifting memories about my days as a rookie hack on the Showbiz desk at the Daily Mail. This was a Golden Era, mid-Eighties, of veteran writers, star columnists and killer reporters, when the paper's showbusiness coverage was second to none. Its theatrical reviews, which never failed to appear on page 3 the morning after the show and for which the title was legendary, were the finest on Fleet Street. Surrounded by names I'd grown up on, I was there to learn.  Much of my education was imparted the old-fashioned way.

Across the table from me sat Jack Tinker, the Mail's pint-sized but formidable theatre critic, who invited me on many a first night  - it was because of Jack's dog-with-a-bone campaigning that theatre owners agreed to change opening night start times to 7pm, so that reviews could make the edition and be fresh enough to interest the paper's theatre-loving readers. In those pre-mobile days which seem so unfathomable now, Jack taught me how to file copy straight from my head to a copy-taker at the other end of a pay-phone. His first night verdicts, penned at the speed of light, could make or break. But if he slaughtered a show, he did it with such wit and style that even those wiped out by his critiques remained devoted to the man. I was a sucker for him.

I was a sucker, too, for the TV critic who sat next to me: a gentle South African-born giant by the name of Herbert Kretzmer, who had long been engaged in musicals, but whose claims to fame until that point were that he had won an Ivor Novello award for the Sophia Loren/Peter Sellers comedy hit 'Goodness Gracious Me', and had written, for the voice of French crooner Charles Aznavour, the English lyrics to a wonderful song called 'She'.

Herbie was not in the office all that much.  He came in to write his columns, and to tot up and file his expenses - he did them once a year - and he once let me sew a button back onto his blazer, which was woefuly ill-advised. I did the job so incompetently that the front of the jacket puckered like a cynic's smile when he was allowed to put it back on. Herbie grinned graciously, said nothing at all, and still treated me to a boozy Joe Allen's lunch. While we were there, and revealing my complete and utter ignorance, I couldn't resist asking him how he fended off the boredom, confined as he was to watching television at home and doing little else, most of the time.  Sweet Herbie was not offended.  On the contrary.  He simply made modest mention of 'something that he had up his sleeve', but said no more. It would be a couple years before we discovered that he meant that he'd been writing the English lyrics for 'Les Miserables'.

The problems began with the opening of this magnificent take on French social history, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, at the RSC Barbican.  'The Life and Hard Times of Les Glums', ran Jack's headline, in October 1985. 

'To pack all this, or even a portion, into three and a quarter hours of non-stop operatic treatment, encompassing such grandiose themes as revolution, human degradation, spiritual retribution, obsessive guilt and the triumph of true love might seem like attempting to pour the Channel through a China teapot', Jack wasped.

Putting the boot into the directorial efforts of Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and memorably dubbing the musical 'The Glums', Jack at least had praise for the guy across the table at the Mail - who also happened to be a former drama critic himself, having attended more than 3,000 first nights for the Daily Express.

'No one is more deft at pinning a French tune to an English ear with appropriate lyrics than my esteemed colleague Mr. Herbert Kretzmer', Jack conceded.  But the damage was done. The frost which settled on their personal friendship would never quite melt. Eleven years later, Jack was dead. Sixteen years after that, 86 year-old Herbie still lives. So, too, does the incomparable and longest-running musical in West End history to which he lent his immense talent and with which his name, now known around the world with endless accolades, Tonys and Grammys attached to it, will always be synonymous. 

I am reminded of all this because I was recently introduced to the recordings of an extraordinary artist whose debut solo album is presented by none other than Cameron Mackintosh at London's Cafe de Paris tonight.  Ramin, an Iranian-born Canadian hailed as one of if not THE greatest Phantom for his performance in the 25th Anniversary production of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall, has recently assumed the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. 

Ramin is no stranger to the show. He excelled previously in the roles of Fueilly, Marius and Enjolras.  He also originated the lead in the sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies.  He has won numerous Best Actor awards, and landed an Olivier Award nomination.  Millions all over the world have seen him perform. Commanding a stage like the fiercest rock front man, his arm wired with tattoos, he is an unforgettable presence in a firmament of fine artists.  He is here to stay.

'Ramin' the album is released by Sony Music on 5th March.  Produced by Tom Nichols, it features Ramin's own songs juxtaposed with great elegance alongside the work of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Bryan Adams and Muse. It's astonishing. That's it. Order it now.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

ALL THAT GLITTERS

A new 'Official' Gary Glitter Twitter account announces a comeback world tour and an autobiography. I wrote the following when he was released from jail in 2008. 


‘How do you feel?’ texted my sister Samantha, on the day Gary Glitter walked free.
Though words rarely fail me, I didn’t have a clue how to respond.

‘It repulses me’, Sam said. 
‘Maybe it’s to do with having just become a mother. The thought of someone ever doing something like that to either of my kids just appals me, I don’t know what I’d do. It did bring it all back. When I met him, I was only a child myself’.
How did I feel? Shocked, dazed, not a little confused, nauseous with revulsion but still curious all the same - like everyone else, I suppose - to learn what would become of this despised individual, at the time 64, and where in the world he might pitch up. It had been 20 years since my last encounter with the ex-con paedophile who was once my close friend, and if I said that it didn’t affect me I’d be lying. The episode of my life during which I hung out with Gary, and the realisation that he had a sick hidden agenda, not to mention a nature more depraved than anything I could have imagined – that he is sexually attracted to children - has haunted me for more than a decade and caused me endless sleepless nights. Whenever I remember how close I came to jeopardising the safety, health and sanity of my dear little sister, I am filled with self-loathing and disgust. While she assures me that the experience of having known him had not had lasting impact on her earlier life – as she says, she was only a child, who miraculously escaped becoming his victim – there is no doubt in my mind that finding out years later what kind of man we had found ourselves drawn to and become so unwittingly involved with, and what danger I had so innocently exposed her to, has damaged our good faith in the human race.

With the front pages splashed with his gaunt, defiant pictures all week as he emerged from captivity, Sam and I could hardly avoid being affected. Reading the daily updates on his resistance of efforts to bring him home to Britain, watching him wander South East Asia seeking a country to let him in, I was transported back to what I once believed were more innocent times, when Gary and ‘The Gang’ and I got together in Brighton for regular ‘Lost Weekends’…

We first met in the early Eighties when I interviewed him on television for Channel 4. My then 13 year old sister, who often came with me on studio days, stood watching from behind camera, out on the floor. I introduced her to Gary before filming commenced, and she told him she liked his bracelet. He insisted it was made of real rubies, but it looked like boiled sweets strung together on elastic, like the fake bling in Christmas crackers. He wouldn’t give it to her, but found her a red rose, which he presented to her ceremoniously. She blushed furiously, as she always did when any celebrity spoke to her, but I could tell that she was secretly pleased. She was in awe of him, but enjoying his attention – my contact with a wide range of figures in the public eye was one of the reasons she liked to come to work with me. Different world, glamorous lifestyle – it was all so unlike her normal day-to-day routine, and she’d be the first to say she was star-struck.
Gary was up-beat and animated in studio that day, hilariously self-deprecating and brimming with saucy anecdotes. His was one of the most memorable interviews of the series. We carried on over Champagne in the dressing room, and later rendezvous’d with a gang of my friends in a wine bar off Oxford Street. We hit it off, as ‘showbiz folk’ do. We’d meet for drinks and dinner, and before long were New Best Friends. We shared a wicked sense of humour and made each other laugh.

There was never any romance: apart from the fact that I believed him to be a closet queen – he’d hinted at misbehaviour with Elton John - Gary had a long-term girlfriend, Allison Brown, whom he said he had met through her Glitter-fan parents. Gary tended to come out without his leggy blonde ‘Sight for Sore Eyes’. Only later would it become apparent why.

Fancying himself as a nautical man, he loved the seaside and adored Brighton. I assumed his love of it to be linked to its gay community - he would disappear for hours on end. He was fond of the summer jazz scene, the buskers, its cosy pubs and bars, and he loved to poke about in antiques shops in The Lanes. Gary collected porcelain, which was somewhat at odds with his rocker image. His favourite was Satsuma ware, an old Japanese pottery, famous for its gilding and enamel work.

He owned a boat, a 22-foot sloop, and played the Skipper Glitter role to the hilt. Yanking on his waterproofs, he’d proudly pace the teak in his deck shoes with the wind blasting his bouffant wig – he was completely bald underneath. He lapped up life on the ocean wave, he said, because it was ‘the perfect antidote’ to his ‘shipwreck of an existence’.

Little did he know how disastrous that shipwreck would become. When we met, his career had hit the doldrums after years of Top Ten hits: Rock and Roll Parts I and II, Do You Wanna Touch Me, I’m The Leader Of The Gang, and so on. But Punk had elbowed Glam aside. Hell-bent on a comeback, it was perhaps the reason he made a beeline for me, one of the kind who could help put him back in the spotlight.

It never occurred to me that there was anything sinister about his interest in my sister. I thought he was just being lovely, avuncular, cuddly Gaz, who loved young people because ‘they bring out the kid in me’. I knew that Paul Gadd, his real name, had been illegitimate and had grown up in an orphanage. Elvis Presley changed his life, he said. But he could never cut it as a straight pop performer. He eventually found fame with an act, look and name which ridiculed rock, and the good times rolled. He was later declared bankrupt, lost his driving licence for a decade, was an alcoholic and a junkie, before embarking on a health and fitness campaign, jogging ten miles a day, turning vegetarian, dropping the cocaine and drinking only occasionally. When I knew him he had clear skin, rock-hard biceps, and real teeth.

I’ll be honest, I adored him for the fuss he made of my sister. Then a painfully shy homebody, very young for her years, she would blush beetroot every time she saw him. He’d envelope her in vigorous bear-hugs, sit next to her at dinner, pour her water, order her food. He’d call to arrange a jaunt, and it would be ‘So what’s Sammy doing this weekend?’ Sometimes he would write me reminders to fetch her along. It makes me shudder when I think of it. Thank God I never left them alone.

We lost touch in the end, when Gary and Allison split up. She exposed him as having taken advantage of her when she was only 14, after worming his way into her life through her Mum and Dad at their pub in the West Country. Settled, pregnant, and having moved on, I dismissed it.

It was only when the police arrived at my home in 1997, ten years on, that I was forced to face the truth. I’d married the previous year, and was nursing my new baby in bed when my husband came to tell me that police were on the doorstep, demanding to question me. They had an article I’d written about Gary’s relationship with Allison. When she sold her story, the sordid truth emerged. Also, a computer repair technician had found 4,000 child porn images on Gary’s PC, and had reported him. Although charges were brought for sex with a minor, the case was dismissed when it was revealed that Allison stood to make a total of £35,000 from a newspaper if a Guilty verdict were returned. They got him on the child porn, however, and Gary went down.

His abuse of Asian children which led to his 2006 year imprisonment in Vietnam, I still find impossible to comprehend. How could I not have been aware of his predilections? It has shattered my confidence in new friendships and has left me, now a divorcee, very wary of meeting men, in particular of them discovering I’m a mother of three.

As for Sam, her childhood shyness rendered her a withdrawn young adult, who maintained only a few trusted friendships. Lacking the confidence to leave home and study for a degree at 18, her 20s were by her own admission a reclusive wilderness. At 30 she plucked up courage to go to college, graduated with honours, and landed the ideal job in a primary school. Now in her early 40s, she and her partner  have adorable twin boys.

None of this, of course, was down to having met Glitter. It was just the way my Sam turned out. The impact of having known him hit home only years later, when he began to dominate headlines as a sex offender. By then, realising how close she had come to being one of his victims, she found the courage to look back.

‘I did start to feel uncomfortable when I thought about what he might have done to me, given half the chance’, she said this week.
‘I used to think he was lovely and outrageous, always so kind to me, always over the top and playing practical jokes. He’d walk in a room or a restaurant and all heads in the place would turn, everyone knew he was there. He was just so different from me. Now, I just think of him as a very sad, sick man. And I hope I never run into him again.’

As for Glitter: Jacqui Smith and the Home Office were always out of order for trying to purloin him as their puppet, to promote their controversial stance on sex tourism. His passport was renewed, he had the right to return here, nothing in the world could stop him coming home … Nothing, that is, except the loathing and contempt that many of us felt, and still feel, for the man who, in common with most paedophiles – the very essence of their illness – protests until he's blue in the face that he did  nothing wrong.







.


Monday, 16 January 2012

OUT OF INDIA

Freddie Mercury, a Parsee born in Zanzibar, was educated at St. Peter's School in Panchgani ('Five Hills'), Western India.  This tranquil old town with its lush strawbery fields, quaint old bungalows and ancient Parsee dwellings was founded during the Raj, as a sanatorium and rest resort. Looking out across coastal plains, dense forest and the River Krishna, it is a popular destination for tourists, who make the five-hour journey from Mumbai to walk, ride and unwind away from the heat and dust of the Indian plains.  Freddie Mercury loved it there - and found, years later, in the Swiss lakeside resort of Montreux, a similarly peaceful mountain haven which reminded him so much of his school days.

Ahead of publication of Freddie Mercury The Definitive Biography in India, I have just given  this interview there about Freddie's 'Indian roots'.

Q:  As a rock journalist who covered and followed Mercury for years, what went through your mind as you settled down to pen the opening lines of this biography?

A: I have always believed in leaving the writing of the opening chapter until last. It should serve, ideally, as an overview, as well as a prelude to what's to come. This time was no exception: I wrote the LIVE AID chapter first, then took Freddie's story right back to the beginning, to Zanzibar – and followed it from there. I had planned a summary of Queen's career and Freddie's life and times for the introduction – but then I heard from Roger Tavener. He had been the showbiz reporter on the Daily Express when I was covering mainly rock and pop for the Daily Mail. In the Eighties, we were 'bitter rivals', chasing the same stories and each other across the world. One evening in May 1986, we found ourselves in a bar with Freddie. The surreal night with him that ensued was something that we agreed not to write about at the time. We didn't analyse it, we simply decided not to compromise his privacy. Had our editors found out that we had thrown away that exclusive, we would have been fired for it – but we took a chance, and let it go. That felt right. Many years later, Roger Tavener (who has been living in Australia)  came across his old notebooks, and got in touch with me, having heard through mutual friends that I was researching/writing this book. Some pennies dropped. Our collective memories of that unforgettable evening distilled into appropriate introduction to Freddie's story. It was a gift. So I decided to begin with that experience of him. I must say that I felt sad and deeply nostalgic for those 'good old days' as I sat writing it. That gush of memories made me miss Freddie very much.

Q:  Did you find yourself feeling challenged at any point, that you perhaps hadn't done complete justice to a modern legend and his art?

A:  I hope that I have done Freddie justice, and that I left few stones unturned. He was a remarkable, complex, complicated and in many ways unique individual. I have done my best to understand and explain him – as much as anyone can. Do any of us really know ourselves? I have written extensively about the 'two Freddies', but I think in fact that there were many more of him than that. He was all kinds of Freddies, to all kinds of people. I honestly believe that I got as close as I could to most of them, thanks to the generosity of those who had known and worked with him, many of whom agreed to be interviewed. I couldn't have done it without them.

Q: Which segment of Freddie's life was the most difficult to chronicle, and why?

A:  Perhaps the hardest part of Freddie's life to chronicle was the concluding chapter of his life. I didn't see him again after the final Queen gig in 1986, so I had no first-hand experience. I had to rely on what other people who had been with him at the end could tell me – notably Jim Hutton, Freddie's last live-in partner, and Peter Freestone, Freddie's personal assistant. Both were immensely open and honest – at times painfully so. I tried my best to read between all the lines, and imagine what they must have gone through as Freddie slipped away.

Q:  Mercury chose to keep his Indian roots under wraps once he moved to London.  While researching this portion of the biography, what was the mood like as you interacted with friends, family and acquaintances, especially since most were aware of his choice?

A: When Freddie moved to London and immersed himself in the music and art scenes, during the late 60s, it was not common for rock stars to have exotic/ethnic roots. He had changed his first name from Farrokh to Freddie while at school in Panchgani, India – primarily because it was less of a mouthful, and because St. Peter's was the very model of an English public school. In London, he was Freddie Bulsara at college, and on occasions, when he auditioned for bands, 'Fred Bull'. I believe that it was not so much a case of him hiding his Indian roots as of him being inclined to close chapters as he went through life. As he left each stage, that was it, done – and on to the next. Freddie's father had a British passport, and Freddie had expressed enormous enthusiasm for a move to London when the Zanzibar revolution came. This was the perfect opportunity to reinvent himself in a thrusting, progressive part of the world which could not be more different from Zanzibar and India, where he had been born, brought up and educated. Freddie was always mindful of his family's religion and culture. He adored his parents and sister Kashmira, and did his utmost not to offend them. Certain ways in which he chose to live were not acceptable to the Parsee way of life. He retained his connections to India, however: his aunt Sheroo in what was then Bombay was very dear to him. The Taj Mahal remained his favourite monument on earth.

Q: How different would rock music have sounded, had Mercury and Queen been around today?

A: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was Freddie's magnum opus. I believe it was his expression of the need to allow himself to live a homosexual lifestyle. It was him giving himself permission to leave the 'old' Freddie behind. He was killing him off ( 'Mamma, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger, now he's dead, etc) although that original Freddie still haunted him ('I see a little silhouetto of a man …' etc). He could then move on to become the new Freddie. The lyrics were obscure, however, and he never explained them. Like any poet, he dismissed requests for explanations: 'if you see it, darling, then it's there'.
'Somebody To Love' was much simpler, and more direct: In this song, he expressed loudly and clearly the universal desire to find just one person in life to love, who will love us in return; a true soulmate, if there exists such a thing. The closest he came to achieving that was with his first love, Mary Austin. The relationship they shared endured for the rest of his life – on a non-physical level, at least. But he could not have Mary AND his gay lovers. This was his dilemma. The particular ideal that he longed for, then, did not and could not exist. Or did it? I believe he came pretty close to it with the German actress Barbara Valentin. She was his lover in every sense, and very different from Mary Austin. Barbara was prepared to share Freddie with gay lovers – and indeed, did so. But such a scenario is madness, and cannot continue for long. For the sake of sanity, Freddie walked away from it. It didn't stop him wanting it.
Freddie's death crystallised a moment in time for Queen and their music. With Freddie gone, their songs were preserved in perpetuity. Because of their quality, these songs have never aged. They sound as fresh and as ground-breaking today as they did when they were recorded and first released. Would Queen have gone on to record more and more music, had he lived? That's hard to say. The Rolling Stones have produced very little in recent years. When they tour, they churn out their greatest hits for the fans who flock to see them and relive their own past. By the early 80s, Freddie had come to hate touring. He loathed life on the road. He adored performing, however. His primary concern, during his final couple of years, was to leave the rest of the band with enough recorded vocals for them to go on playing and creating Queen songs. Would Queen's unique and varied sound have continued to evolve, as well as influence subsequent generations of bands? Most definitely. I don't think that rock music would have sounded 'different', as such. There would simply have been more Queen for us to enjoy.

Q:  Was there another side to the enigmatic musician you discovered while writing this biography?

A:  Another side to Freddie? As I said earlier, there were many. Perhaps the most surprising thing about him was that he was not in any way a rock diva. When he was not out there on stage, commanding the attention of perhaps 80,000 fans at a time, holding them in the palm of his hand, he dropped all the flamboyant behaviour and was simply a nice, modest guy. There was nothing 'tantrums and tiaras' about him. He did not draw attention to himself. He did not regard himself as a celebrity, but as a musician. He did not seek out the company of other artists, he let them come to him. He touched base with very few – Elton John was perhaps his closest 'famous' friend - and now, Elton is set to write about their friendship in his own new book about the AIDS epidemic.
Freddie's music spoke for itself. He never saw the need to blow trumpets. I loved him for this.


Saturday, 7 January 2012

REMEMBERING BOWIE: ON HIS 65TH BIRTHDAY, JANUARY 8TH 2012

Gold sunlight splashed our faces as Tashi and I got off the 227 bus and walked down Beckenham High Street, towards our first encounter with The Man Who Fell To Earth.


In Friday dregs of uniform, with tennis rackets and straw boaters wedged under our arms, we squinted in silence along Southend Road until we reached the scariest house on the street. A sign proclaimed ‘Haddon Hall’, number 42. It was a red-brick cross between a Gothic church and the Addams Family mansion, with stained-glass windows, mangled balconies and spooky turrets. I remember straining my eyes to look for bats.


It was the summer of ’69, our last summer as children: the year of Woodstock and Monty Python, of men on the moon. Bryan Adams would one day immortalise the season in a song. Natasha Holloway and I, classmates from Bromley Grammar, had for some time been secretly aware of David Bowie, known around our way as Davie Jones. He’d been friends with ‘Face of ‘68’ teen idol Peter Frampton at Bromley Tech, where Peter’s father was Head of Art. Davie had dropped the Jones to avoid confusion when Davy Jones and the Monkees emerged, and had been quietly building a new name for himself as a songwriter, singer, sax & guitar player and mime artist with his own Arts Lab studio in the back room of a pub, the Three Tuns, on Beckenham High Street.


Tashi and I had been taken to the Arts Lab by an exotically glamorous Indian photographer, Hy Money, whose daughter Lisa had been in my class at Oak Lodge. Hy was also a fine artist and folk-singer, who held regular soirees at her home. She danced like Isadora Duncan, and had a friend at the Arts Lab who played sitar - and who was teaching Bowie. 


It was there that we first saw him. We couldn’t take our eyes off his. His right pupil was so massive that it almost obliterated the iris. One eye was luminously blue, the other dull and tawny grey. He wore a washed-out pink tee shirt over a big girl's blouse with a wallpaper pattern.  One half of his hair was ruffled, almost curled, the other side swept straight back. He had bits and pieces of teeth. We had never seen anything like him, and it was probably love at first sight. He was surrounded by gerbil-cheeked girls with curtain hair-dos, and moody guys with moustaches and guitars. Giggling behind Hy, who clicked away endlessly with her camera, we made a pact to find out where he lived.


Little could I have known, as a schoolgirl, the extent to which David Bowie would influence my life. Nor that, a quarter of a century later, I’d find myself a guest at his home on exotic Mustique, actually sleeping in his bed.  The ageing rock chick in me sometimes has to admit, if only he'd been there too...


The autograph we were on the hunt for took several attempts - Bowie was never at home when we called round. Three or four times his American girlfriend Angela, later briefly his wife, stood chatting to us on the doorstep. She was bleached-looking, sexy and beautiful - despite the oddest nose, and huge hands. She gave us signed photos. Tash and I were still on a mission to get the real thing.


Luck looked in that summer Friday afternoon. David himself answered the door, in some old dressing gown, an open bottle of nail polish in his hand. ‘Come in, scruffs’, he grinned, showing us into a huge Christmas-coloured room, with bottle green walls, a red velvet sofa and battered chairs. Angie wasn’t at home. David excused himself, and returned from the bathroom after a couple of minutes.  He lay down on the floor on some stale pillows and resumed decorating his nails, applying the varnish with a cocktail stick for want of a proper brush. His pale face seemed to hang out of place, as if attached to the wrong neck - much as it does now.  At 65, although I really don't want to type that number, he continues to defy time. Perhaps he always will.


He could not have been more friendly. We could not have been more thrilled - particularly as we were there behind our parents’ backs. We sat gushing about astrology, reincarnation, karma, Tibet - all the mystic stuff we'd read that he was into. We were trying too hard to be cool. If he noticed, he didn’t let on. He asked if we believed in UFOs, and what we thought of Marc Bolan. Tashi the joker began to warble ‘Ride A White Swan’. He told us about his many failed auditions for ‘Hair’, the risque stage musical of the day. Tash asked about ‘Space Oddity’, his new single. Bowie said he was ‘out of his gourd’ and ‘totally flipped’.  The song was later chosen as the theme track for Apollo 11’s televised moon landings. Tashi then said, incredibly, ‘How does it feel to share a birthday with Elvis?’ - David had been born 12 years to the day after The King.

No idea, kid’, David drawled, ‘ask him’.


Bowie was already well on his way to becoming the most iconic and enduring rock star in history, with a string of alter egos, images and sounds unlike anything which had gone before. He would achieve massive success as an actor, with movies like Nicolas Roeg’s ‘The Man Who fell To Earth’ and stage roles such as ‘The Elephant Man’ on Broadway. Tashi and I, die-hard Bowie fans, did the rest of school with a few modest alter egos of our own. I was ‘Ground Control’ to her ‘Major Tom’. We’d write each other coded ‘Space Oddity’ messages in our rough books during class: ‘take your protein pills, put your helmet on’. ‘Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing we can do’...


Against the odds and far too young to be out, in July 1973,  we obtained tickets for his legendary gig at Hammersmith Odeon. That night, an already burnt-out, drug-abused Bowie, backed by guitarists Jeff Beck and Mick Ronson, retired Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders, to the distress of millions of fans. Before he went, he treated us to incendiary favourites - Changes, Life On Mars, Ziggy Stardust, John, I’m Only Dancing, All The Young Dudes, Suffragette City, and Space Oddity - re-released as a single that year. Tashi and I attended the gig wearing our weight in glitter, David’s initials etched in brass studs into the navy leather of our matching platform boots.


Eight years passed before I saw him again. By then, I’d spent three years at college in London, a year in Paris, 6 months in New York. Determined to make my name as a rock writer, I had immersed myself in the London music scene, and was freelancing in the press office at London’s Capital Radio. In 1981 I flew to Switzerland with Capital Radio's Roger Scott (RIP) to assist at a recorded interview with Freddie Mercury – whose definitive biography I would go on to write. Queen were in Mountain Studios on the shores of Lake Geneva at Montreux. When we arrived, David Bowie, their neighbour, happened to be hanging out with them, recording well into the night a track which would become the Number One hit ‘Under Pressure’ - and which Bowie later pretended to have loathed.

He failed to recognise me, of course. Egged on by the others, I told him that I had stood on his doorstep as a schoolgirl, begging for autographs.

Blimey’, he said, ‘Did I give you one?’ Queen drummer Roger Taylor tittered. Bowie lunged with a swipe.

Bloody hell’, Bowie said. He didn’t say bloody.

Show some respect. We’re not all sewer-rats like you, Taylor!’

No’, responded Roger, ‘and we’re not all bi-sexual poofs like you, either!’

Freddie Mercury was the first in the room to laugh.


Two years later, I found myself backstage at the Birmingham NEC for the start of Bowie’s ‘Serious Moonlight’ European tour, to promote his massive hit album ‘Let’s Dance’. By now the rock writer I had set out to be, I was there to interview my childhood idol. The spangled, half-strangled, androgynous weirdo who had vanished from the scene five years earlier, had metamorphosed into an athlete filming a TV ad for breakfast cereal. He was barely recognisable: cool, elegant, clean-cut, his hair baby-blonde to offset a classy light suit. Instead of the tombstones, he now flashed perfect white teeth.


I was tired of the idea of being a freakish cult figure’, he told me. ‘I wanted to do something more accessible, more soulful, a bit more R & B, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. I certainly didn’t expect this much limelight. It’s a joy to me. I have never performed like this before in my life. I feel so much more relaxed, now that I’m not carting some character around with me any longer. At long last, I think I have learned how to be myself.’


By this time, his stormy marriage to wannabe actress Angie having snuffed it, Bowie was weirdly involved with his personal assistant Corinne Schwab. It was obvious to all that he and ‘Coco’ were lovers, but he didn’t want to talk about it. Anyway, she was in the room. I found myself staring at a spectacularly unravishing woman with pale lank hair and a wrinkled smile, trying my damnedest to fathom the attraction.

A band member read my mind.

She does everything for him’, he explained. ‘I mean everything. Ange never did, and it was a revelation to him. David just sits back and lets her do it.’

The way David himself put it to me later, ‘She is a very good friend, she became the most important person in my life in the mid-70s. My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers, and I had a complete breakdown. Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming, and she made me snap out of it, I’m glad to say. Sex is not all there is. There really have to be relationships in your life to make it worthwhile.’


He talked about his 12 year old son Duncan, once Zowie, of whom he had won custody and with whom he shared his life in an unostentatious New York apartment and in a house in Lausanne. They ski'd together there, he told me. Skiing was Bowie’s only sport.


I saw him backstage at ‘Live Aid’ two years later, then again at the premier of the flop movie ‘Absolute Beginners’ in 1986. Each time, we exchanged a brief kiss, and he came out with his catchphrase for me: ‘You again!’



In 1987 he was planning the Glass Spider World Tour, which would kick off in Rotterdam on May 30th. I spent a couple of months negotiating an exclusive interview for the Daily Mail, where I was now resident rock and pop writer. But when the time came, the Editor, the late Sir David English, had a problem with letting me go.

How the hell are you going to make it to Rotterdam in your condition?’ Sir David quizzed me. ‘You can’t even fly, for a start.’


At the time I was 6 months pregnant with my first child:  a minor detail. Determined to have my major exclusive with the rock star I’d worshipped since childhood, I said I’d get there by train, boat and train. After an epic journey riddled with sickness, I found myself knocking on David’s dressing room door backstage at the Feyenoord football stadium, outside Rotterdam.


You again!’ His eyes fell to my unmissable bulge.

What happened to you!’ He pinched my cheek with a laugh. I had inserted one green, one brown contact lens, in homage.

Very bloody funny. Can we get on with it?’


What thrilled me at the time, and has enchanted me ever since, was that my baby girl attended her first-ever Bowie gig before she was even born.


The show was heart-stopping, the ultimate stadium rock spectacle. It was choreographed by Toni Basil of ‘Oh-Mickey-You’re-So-Fine’ fame, and was a culmination of all the performing skills Bowie had honed down the years. Even Peter Frampton, Bowie's school chum from Bromley Tech, had joined him to play lead guitar. Caught up in the excitement, I remembered afterwards that I hadn’t made arrangements to get myself back. The journey from hotel to stadium had caused no problems, but for the return, no ride was to be had. I stepped outside into a milling throng of some 80,000 fans, all trying to make their way home. Beyond the stadium lay the kind of estates a girl didn’t want to venture into after dark - let alone an achingly pregnant one.


I wandered back inside and lurked a bit, wondering what to do next. Suddenly, David poked his head round the door of his dressing room.

You again! Haven’t you had enough?! Whassup?’

I explained.

Within minutes David had despatched a minder, who returned with a couple of Dutch policemen. Negotiating with them personally, he arranged a police escort to deliver me back to our hotel.


It is those qualities of Bowie's - spontaneity, kindness, sardonic humour - which I’ll always cherish, along with the great legacy of his songs. That, and the magical month I spent with my daughter at his exquisite Balinese home on Mustique, to which I escaped in November 1995, to begin work on my definitive biography of Freddie Mercury.


Mercury had died of Aids-related illness, in 1991. The following year, Bowie performed outstandingly at Freddie's Wembley Tribute concert. That same year, in Florence, he married Somalian supermodel Iman Abdulmajid (with whom he now has a daughter, Alexandria Zahra.) The Mustique home, which Bowie had lovingly put together with Coco Schwab, had at last lost its charm. Before he sold it - to eccentric Time Out publisher and poet Felix Denis - David wanted as many friends and acquaintances as possible to experience the place.


Built of original Balinese and Indonesian teak, on a peak above Brittania Bay looking out towards St. Vincent, the house, with its infinity pools and exotic pavilions, was a fantasy tropical paradise, where the clock took its time. I remember climbing into Bowie’s own bed that first night, shattered from the long journey from London but ecstatic at the thought of where I was. The gauche Bromley schoolgirl who had idolised a rock star since childhood, was now partaking of the fruits of his labour in the Caribbean home he had built for himself. I pinched myself blue.


The next day, the house chef took us to visit Mick Jagger at his place on the beach, then later let us in to Princess Margaret’s old house, les Jolies Eaux (he had the keys), where we read her letters, jumped on her beds, played hide-and-seek in her wardrobes. At Basil’s Bar on the beach that night,we toasted Bowie with the cocktail he referred to as a ‘Penis Coladis’, and drank to his long, against-odds health.

Wow, Mummy’, said Mia,it doesn’t get better than this'.

It never has.