Saturday, 25 February 2012

SECRETS OF ETERNAL YOUTH

Want to know?  Not Botox - 'though I'm amazed how many times a week I get asked whether I've had any. They never believe you, either. Not sleep, frantic exercise, veganism, abstention. Not a fit young boyfriend (never date anyone you could have given birth to). Not love, actually.

So I remember the Seventies.  I met Marc Bolan. I went backstage at Live Aid, and  on tour with Freddie Mercury and Queen.  I've made a significant chunk of my living writing about dead rock stars. For want of an elegant euphemism, I'm knocking on.

But at least what I have is my own. I decided against cosmetic surgery a couple of decades back, when I found myself sharing the Hollywood home of Raquel Welch. I got to know her during my tenure as a West Coast showbiz reporter. What young, opportunistic journalist eschews the chance of friendship, however fleeting,with a motion picture icon?  She was a fabled but faded drama queen old enough to be my mother. I was an upstart nobody, young enough to be in awe - which was the rub. Hollywood friendships are always symbiotic but rarely equal, never devoid of ulterior motive, always and inevitably short-lived. It is not the fond beginnings of former friendships which we tend to recall, but the sorrow provoked by their demise. The thin line which divides love from hatred, fantasy from reality, has never existed in Hollywood. All edges are blurred, and anything goes. Arguably the only town in the world in which a personality disorder is a distinct advantage. Some newcomers last a week, others get trapped for a lifetime. When I left, it was because I had to, before it swallowed me whole. Looking back, I still believe what I suspected then: that Tinseltown is nothing but its own facade, and no place for the sane.

A chance encounter with Raquel's manager in Atlantic City had led to her granting me an interview to promote her new fitness video – a big deal for Raquel, as she was about to turn fifty that year. I was looking forward to meeting her again when I arrived at her elegant home in Evelyn Place on the Trousdale Estates. Raquel wasted no time in playing to the camera, even though there wasn't one. Perched on the edge of a mustard leather sofa in her creamy drawing room, I found myself dealing with a real-life Norma Desmond - the over-the-hill silent screen idol played by Gloria Swanson in cult classic Sunset Boulevard, who is determined to make an against-all-odds comeback. Self-absorbed to the point of obsession, oblivious of the fact that the world had moved on from inflatable dolls in chamois swimwear, it occurred to me that Raquel would be the perfect choice for a remake.

Everywhere I looked, pictures of her gazed down at me. Two huge Warhol-style portraits sat one either side of her fireplace. A vast Revlon advertising print dominated her formal dining room. Her home was part museum, part shrine, paying homage to her then quarter-century as a superstar. Not that she had worked much in movies since her 60s/early 70s heyday, denounced by the industry as too high-maintenance. A brief spell on the set of Cannery Row had led to her sacking by MGM Studios and replacement by Debra Winger. Raquel sued so brilliantly that she banked $15 million and never had to work again. She did, though - Body and Mind videos, cosmetic endorsements, TV shows, stage work, a hugely successful line in wigs - for profile rather than remuneration, the usual thing that keeps a superstar at it. If fame is a drug, the addiction knows no cure. Raquel and her ilk would sooner be dead than has-been.

All-woman, sex-on-legs, her smooth, tanned complexion looked more Latin than in her photographs. But her personality revealed a perplexing Alpha Male-ness. Her language was ripe, her laugh straight out of a locker room. She called me 'sweetheart', 'darling', 'Baby'. I had a fictitious boyfriend up my sleeve, just in case.

Hours later, when I made to leave, Raquel insisted on driving me in her new Japanese car. She sang along unselfconsciously to Beatles tapes, getting the lyrics wrong – very Raquel - and played Peter Gabriel full-blast. 'We all have our musical era, Baby', she said to me.  'When it comes to what you listen to, you gotta know when to stop - or you'll get out of your depth'.

For what felt like years but was in fact only months, we seemed inseparable. At Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset and Doheny, we'd bump into her celebrity pals - Carrie Fisher, Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin. Jack In the Box drive-through was another fast-food favourite, as was The Apple Pan diner on Pico. She adored being seen at Le Petit Four on Sunset, and at Le Dome (now closed). During the day, with nothing better to do, we'd meet for lunch in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, then hang by the pool until dinner. When we weren't indulging in 'mani-pedis' in the hotel beauty salon, I'd sit chatting with her while she had her mane coloured and sculpted at Umberto's. 'She has to look like Sixties Raquel', she'd say, often referring to herself unnervingly in the Third Person. 'This girl has to stay the same with her looks. That's the way people expect her to look. That's the only way they know Raquel Welch!'

But how did she still look as fabulous as 25 years earlier in her only memorable picture, One Million Years BC (who can recall any other?) without ever having resorted to plastic surgery?

'That's the point!', she'd squeal, delighted that 'the work' was undetectable.

'The secret is, start having it before you need it! Raquel started getting things done back in the 60s. All it's taken is a tuck and tweak ever since. You're sitting inches away from her face, you can't even notice? Result! But look at Nancy (Sinatra): richer than Croesus and one of the worst face jobs on the globe - with HER millions! That's because she came to it too late. Take it from Raquel, go now before they notice you need it. By the time you really DO need it, you'll be ahead of the game. Mother Nature figures she has us licked with this ageing business. But Baby (her usual nick-name for me – hers was 'Rocky'), it doesn't have to be that way'.

I never took Rocky's advice - and I have never regretted it.  I couldn't help but admire her, though, for having the guts to admit to what so many in her shoes were denying back then, before surgery got respectable.

In the end, she had a terminal falling-out with her manager. Because he had introduced us in the first place, I found myself tarred with the same brush. It proved the perfect get-out. Regrets?  None, really. As a journalist, I'd had nothing but a walk-on part in Raquel Welch's epic drama. I doubt she's even thought of me since. I do think about her, and all her stitching.  Because of her, I stopped looking in the mirror too much. In spite of her - because I refuse to believe that you 'gotta know when to stop' - I have never grown tired of listening to new music.

I'm raving ad nauseam about so many gifted artists right now. 

Daytona Lights - Louis, Laurence, Sam, Matt and Dan - who are produced by the magnificent Steve Levine for his label Hubris. I can't get enough of  these boys and their 'This Modern Landscape'
www.hubrisrecords.co.uk 
www.daytonalights.co.uk

Beautiful Bulgarian-born singer Ilona, produced by another good friend of mine, Tony Moore, who is currently promoting her in America.  Check her out here at http://www.jtvgo.com/thebedfordlive/b/286660166

Antonio Forcione, the 'acoustic Jimi Hendrix' - an irresistible, formidable, ridiculously nice composer and guitarist, whose new album 'Sketches of Africa' will be released this summer.  Do not miss this.
www.antonioforcione.com

Another old friend, Rob Lee, as Robert Levinsky, has created a more-ish album called 'Sea Breeze Cafe' which I'd love you to hear.  Just Rob, his memorable voice, his acoustic guitar and a little drum machine.  Simple. Heart-stopping.  All the pain, survival and hope against hope of Rob's own life are in these songs. 
http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/sea-breeze-cafe/id464269288

As for our magnificent The Dunwells - they don't need me now that prime American musicbiz mover-n-shaker Bob Lefsetz has discovered them.  'Utterly astounding', he called them last night, having just seen them play in Memphis.
'They sang about love, they sang about hope, and I'm electrified just thinking about it', he added.
Who Bob doesn't know in the music industry is barely worth bothering with.  He takes no prisoners.  He can't be bought.  He tells it from the hip.  He helped me tremendously with research and contacts on my recent biography of Freddie Mercury, to be published in the USA in July - but only because he wanted to.

Go with me on the cliche.  The Dunwells are fresh air.  You think you've heard this stuff before.  You think maybe it sounds a bit like Mumford and Sons.  It's folky.  It's country.  It's indie.  It's everything you've loved, it pokes around in your heart and pulls up the sun from the clouds of all your yesterdays.  Because it tells the truth, it heaves with soul.

The Dunwells' debut album 'Blind Sighted Faith' is out over there already.  It will be released in the UK on March 5th.
www.thedunwells.com

Get it. Get all of it.  These songs, these singers, these amazing, talented, kind and modest people, will sting your ears and light up your eyes. They will put the spring back in your skin better than anything by Estee Lauder or Creme de la Mer. They are the secrets of eternal youth.






















Monday, 20 February 2012

TRUE BRIT

I hear a lot of moaning at this time of year, about the integrity of the BRIT Awards, and a prevailing suspicion that this annual bash celebrating musical excellence amounts to little more than a 'graduation' ceremony for the talented alumni of the British  Record Industry Trust School.  The Trust's original remit was to create a dedicated academy through which the record business could 'give back'.  This is my experience of it. 

'Have you been here before?' enquired the greatest record producer of all time, as we stood in a Croydon car park awaiting confirmation of a false fire alarm.

By 'here', the fifth Beatle Sir George Martin was referring to the BRIT School: the south London educational and performing arts centre renowned for having given the world Adele, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua, Jessie J, Kate Nash, Katy B and the late Amy Winehouse - not to mention Imogen Heap, The Feeling, Luke Pritchard of The Kooks and an exhausting list of others, who together have sold a staggering 65 million albums worldwide. Even George, who produced all but one of the Fab Four's original albums and who knows a thing or two about hits - having notched up thirty UK Number Ones, and in whose honour the school's new recording studio is named - could not fail to be dazzled by this.

'Oh yes', I told him, 'I've been here before'.
And how.

How 'Fame' it all seemed: kids in sweatshirts and leggings doing routines en route to lessons; bursting into song on the stairs (especially Adele) before crowding into a studio to harmonise round the piano; standing about in costume pretending to be apple trees and waste paper baskets. Lockers slamming, bells ringing, sweaty dancers tossing towels as they preened off to the canteen … where the luvvies would be giving their Bertolt Brecht ...

I had thought that this was all laid on for the parents' Open Day benefit. I soon found out that the BRIT was like that every day.

'I think it's a kid's dream come true', I commented, as the fire engine finally departed.
George's comfy old face lit up.
'Me too', he grinned.
I must be honest. The temptation is to rewrite history in the wake of the school's phenomenal success and on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary celebrations; to bask in reflected glory, to kid myself that I had been thrilled all along about the idea of becoming a BRIT Mum. I hadn't, though. When Mia, my firstborn, announced her intention to apply, I consoled myself with the fact that she'd never get in. With fifteen applicants for every place, and only seventy out of 700 students seeking to study her chosen 'strand' of Theatre receiving offers (Music attracts even more), I was confident that she didn't have a hope. I got that wrong. I remember depositing her on her first day and hanging around behind the car for an hour, just in case. This was in 2003, when Mia was sixteen going on twelve.
Why did I have misgivings? What Mia says now once filled me with dismay.

'I was a white, middle-class, nicely brought-up schoolgirl in a smart uniform who had never faced any struggle', she said.
'My parents had paid for my education, and there was conformity and expectation. I loved my friends and my school, but it was never the place for me. I felt I was different, while most of the others seemed 'the same'. I needed a 'deep end', I needed to be thrown in. I knew that at the BRIT School I would no longer be a bored and unfulfilled child, but that I'd be allowed to be myself. At BRIT, you mix with students from all walks of life. You are not bullied for being poor, rich, white or black. No one would laugh at what you were wearing, everyone was different, all of us were accepted, and everybody was so superbly talented that there was this constant race to be the best. In an environment like that, people soar. They realise their potential at an incredible rate. Some of our friends seem to the outside world to have become huge stars very quickly.

'None of it happened overnight.'

I remember well the rumblings which led to the brainwave that became this fantastic school. It was Kenneth Baker, then Education Secretary in Margaret Thatcher's government, now Lord Baker of Dorking, who put to Richard Branson the notion of setting up a part-State, part-industry-backed school for performing artists, as well as for the many who wanted to work on the technical side and behind the scenes. All aspects of the creative industries, in which Britain leads the world, would be catered to. The initial tranche of funding, £3 million, was derived from the profits of a Knebworth concert in 1990, at which Paul McCartney, Elton John and Pink Floyd played. The music industry lobbed in as much again, and the BRIT – British Record Industry Trust - School was born. The core remit was to create a dedicated academy through which the record business could 'give back'. The BRIT became the first, and remains the only, non-fee-paying performing arts establishment in the UK, to which entry is decided on talent alone. Never before had it been possible to study at such a school unless your parents could fund you into somewhere like Sylvia Young's Theatre School or the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.

The BRIT opened its doors in 1991: the year of Nirvana and grunge, of pop-country, R.E.M., The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The year we lost Freddie Mercury. The school progressed by trial and error, taking time to find its feet. Today, its track record is unmatched by any school of its kind. Academically it performs in the top 1%. The BRIT is also now branching out in support of other vocational arts academies and courses, notably in Birmingham and Bournemouth. A further BRIT School is planned for Manchester.

Only when its truly remarkable Principal Nick Williams arrived in 2002 was the balance perfected between responsibility to the National Curriculum and creative experiment and development. Never was the BRIT intended as a 'Fame' school. Children would not be 'hothoused', but encouraged. They would receive a balanced education as well as vocational training. Those who let slip, in interviews, that their primary motivation was 'to be a star' were turned away. Just to get in was such an achievement that some would burn out from that alone. For others, reality would not kick in until they graduated, and had to take on the record industry, get an agent, deal with Hollywood, or 'simply' find a place at a university. To go from the 'anything is possible' fantasy realm back into the real world is more than some can handle. Even the successful can find it too much. When songstress Katie Melua collapsed last year after driving herself too hard for too long, few were surprised. Do such schools toughen kids up enough, prepare them for the cut-throat careers they crave? Could this be the one area in which they fail? The music industry, in particular, is a very different world from that which existed when the school was conceived. Where once a hit recording career burned slowly and gained momentum, the tendency now is to catch fire and go up in smoke. I blame Simon Cowell and televised karaoke.

Singer-songwriter Kate Nash we had known since the girls were fourteen. She and Mia had attended Sylvia Young's Saturday school together before moving to the BRIT to study acting. Both were also passionate about music. I would drive them everywhere to gigs: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Busted. They went on ski trips together. Kate was the relentless letter-writer, Mia the hoarder. The letters and songs are still here.

My home began to double as BRIT School digs, as more and more of Mia's friends pitched up and stayed. Those were all-singing, all-dancing days. My younger children loved it. Countless were the times I'd get upon a Saturday morning, not knowing how many I'd be cooking breakfast for. In the summer months we'd stage gigs in the back garden. Up would go the gazebo and through my French windows the bands streamed. One regular whom I've known since his early teens, guitarist Louis Souyave, is now part of the group Daytona Lights produced by Steve Levine of Boy George and Culture Club fame.

Kids 'from all walks of life'? Certainly. Tormented, troubled, 'misunderstood at home'? Some of them. There emerged a collective personality. Our teenagers gelled into an entity of self-support. The confidence this afforded them was inspirational, and at times made me want to be young again. They didn't need me to mother them - but they'd never say no to a hot bath, home-baked lasagne and a bottle of wine.

Of all former BRIT students, the late Amy Winehouse fascinated me most. Amy was quirky, clever, precocious. An old soul. Constantly searching, usually bored – not uncommon in creatives. For Amy, the BRIT School was never enough. Nothing would have been enough. The constraints of any system or establishment were something to fight against. In the end she quit for Camden, hung out with real musicians, got sucked into the drug scene. Compare Amy to her stage-school god-daughter Dionne Bromfield, now 16 - harder, savvy, more grounded, with an inexhaustible work ethic - and you have the blueprint for what it takes to make it. Should I add, to a point.

My friend Simon Napier-Bell, the industry's most infamous rock and pop manager, who wrote hits for Dusty Springfield and made household names of Marc Bolan, the Yardbirds and George Michael, points out that all stars are insecure and desperate to be noticed. That they are always seeking an audience, because of something lacking in their past.

'The great artists invariably had an abusive childhood – at least in terms of emotional deprivation', he insists.
'Think Elvis, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton. There's a desperation to succeed, to get love and attention. All the others just drop out, eventually.'

The first time Simon met Mia, he warned me to be prepared for the fact that she would never achieve stardom.
'Not that I'm saying she isn't talented', he stressed.
'I can tell just by talking to her that she's an actress. She's beautiful, compelling, plausible. But she'll never succeed. She doesn't need it enough. You have given her too happy and secure an upbringing.'

My one regret is how blinkered and judgemental I was once about the BRIT. I may have preferred my daughter to proceed with A'Levels at her molly-coddling girls' school – but it was not about me. To have denied her the experience would have been unforgivable. Following BRIT, she won a place at Exeter University to read Drama (and achieved a 2:1), left acting behind and went to work in the music industry. A stint at PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd - the music licensing company which protects rights and collects royalties on artists' behalf) led to her joining Outside Organisation, which represents such artists as Roger Daltrey and David Bowie. She is now developing a career as a club DJ, having this year played festivals and clubs in London and the Home Counties, Croatia and Paris, under the DJ name 'mi&u'. Once a performer, always a performer? What did I expect?




Tuesday, 7 February 2012

THIS OX WAS NO ASS

My friend the Ox died in 2002.  It's as if it were yesterday. Today, 9th October 2014, would have been his 70th birthday.  Rock on, John.

His death, as he himself would have joked, was the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy: out of his head on booze and cocaine, in the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel. Not New York, like Sid Vicious (been there) nor like John Belushi in L.A.(done that), but Vegas: easy, sleazy, where the liquor comes fast,  where the chips are never anything but down. You couldn’t make it up: exactly the kind of final curtain John Entwistle used to laugh about. It was ‘what he would have wanted,’ to use a phrase he'd so often uttered himself.  It will be ten years in June, incredibly, since the legendary Who bassist raved his last. Never one to do things by halves, his demise was as seedy as it gets. Hoped he’d die before he got old, to quote the Who’s most famous lyric? At just 57 he was overweight and hypertensive, with a zooming cholesterol level and one completely blocked artery for which he was on nuclear medication. Those factors may have rendered him prematurely geriatric, in some ways. But 57 these days is hardly a foot in the grave.

Those who knew him well enough to have heard how he died before the news made global headlines knew that nothing would have pleased him more. When a few of us got together shortly after his cremation, to share the kind of ‘John moments’ we wouldn't have got away with airing on the day, the final chapter was already being penned. No one would have laughed harder than John, we agreed, at the news that his own girlfriend had run off with the vicar of his local church: the very vicar who had just conducted his funeral. That was poetic. It was rock ‘n’ roll.
Rewind.

I first met John at the beginning of 1985, at the BPI music awards in London. Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood was up at the mic, gumming gags about phone sex with Prince. The fall-about throngers were so drunk, they’d laugh at anything - even bad jokes at the expense of a disgruntled velvet-clad midget.
Beam me up,’ jawed an unfamiliar voice behind me, ‘I’d have more fun three feet under a motor-way. Burger, anyone? You look as though you could do with feeding,’ he nodded at me. ‘Come on then, shake a leg, haven’t got all night. Certainly not for this crap’.
The joint we repaired to was the Hard Rock Cafe, Piccadilly, then owned by Isaac Tigret. He was the multi-millionaire boyfriend of John’s mate Maureen - once Mrs Ringo Starr. She was there waiting for us: John and his eventual second ex-wife Max (whom he’d picked up at the Rainbow Bar and Grill in LA); John’s Mum Queenie and her gentleman friend, Who drummer Kenny Jones and his wife Jayney, former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, his secretary Karen, and me. It was in Maureen’s Hyde Park front room that we later passed out, after a nightcap or seven in Bootleggers, Margaret Street - at that time John’s favourite club. It was a night which was to set the tone for many to come.

Who can explain friendship. John and I shared a sense of the ridiculous, a love of dark humour and the macabre, a pathalogical inability to take anything seriously. I didn’t know much about The Who, in those days, having been a child when the school chums from Acton kicked off. During the 70s and early 80s I’d been a massive Hendrix and Bowie fan - which didn’t leave much room for 'maximum R&B’. The Who, however - sensational at Woodstock in ’69, massively popular in the States - were as big as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Their hits - 'Substitute', 'Pinball Wizard', 'Who Are You', 'My Generation' - were instantly recognisable. But I had never yet seen the band perform live, and owned only one of their albums, ‘Quadrophenia’. I knew that windmill-armed Pete Townshend wrote most of the songs and leapt about, that sexy Roger Daltrey preened, that their beloved Keith Moon was a gonner. But who knew anything about the big bass guitarist they called ‘the Ox’, quietly getting on with it, hanging back behind his lipless smile? John, despite his innovative and aggressive technique, was the ultimate rock and roll enigma. He was just there.

Perhaps I was folded into the Entwistle throng because I got on so well with his mother. They called her ‘Queenie’, and she lived up to the name. I asked her that first night what John was like as a kid. She was never one to mince her words.
A miserable little bugger if you want to know, she said. ‘Ruined by his Grandad, a real spoilt brat. Academically average, but always very artistic. Always singing and drawing. Singing from the age of 2, precocious little rat.

I took him to see Al Jolson when he was 3. He knew every word of his songs. Afterwards we went to a club called Napier’s, and John did a turn. Stood on a table and sang his heart out, then fell off and ended up in hospital having his head stitched. Funny thing, he's never fallen off stage - though I think he walked off once, when he was blind drunk. Too plastered to notice where he was going. I remember the first guitar he had, when he was 14. He made it himself, on his Grandma’s dining room table. I think I knew it would all be downhill after that.’

You know how it is with a new audience. I was the only one at the table, I could tell by their faces, who hadn’t heard John’s stories before. Eyes rolled as he told me about his job as a counter clerk at the Tax Office: ‘I used to get told off for combing my mohair jumper in the toilet. I was always half asleep and completely hoarse, having been up with the band half the night. I used to nip into the filing room for a kip.
We were earning nothing, and owed a fortune in smashed guitars and ruined equipment. We started smashing up our gear so that we didn’t have to do encores. The habit stuck. We were never sentimental about our instruments - just as well. At one point Pete was paying for 6 Rickenbackers which no longer existed.’

John confessed that he had always been closest to Keith Moon:
He was shabby, never really grew out of it. We were two of a kind. Always shared a room on the road and got up to no good. We could make each other laugh, always agreed to agree. It made us stronger within the band. We’d listen to the others getting on their high horses about something, look at each other and fall about. We had so much to hide. We dumped a dead fan in a wheelie bin one night, only to have him come back to life in our room. We thought he was haunting us. And we blew up a toilet in an Alabama hotel room, because they told us we couldn’t have room service. We did it with a cherry bomb, which wouldn’t flush away. That toilet was dust all up the walls by the time we checked out. Which we had to, the management brought our suitcases down to the gig and said ‘don’t come back ... I’ve probably cried every single day since Keith died. He went in 1978. I’ve never actually calculated, but it’s an awful lot of tears.’

A few weeks later, I was invited to my first party at Quarwood, John’s 55-room, 42-acre estate at Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. Walking into his bar, hung with lifesize casts of shark and marlin he had landed, I was confronted by a motley crew: actors John Hurt and Robert Powell, drummers Kenny Jones and Zak Starkey ( Ringo's son), Midge Ure, Phil Collins’ wife Jill, Jim Diamond - Glaswegian singer of the unforgettable ‘I Should’ve Known Better’, who remains my pal to this day. There were John’s son Chris, Queenie, other family members, neighbours, the publican from down the road and other local mates, his driver Si, his personal assistant Dale, a good few suspects down from London. John was behind the bar, inventing cocktails. We were never the wiser. His favourite, the ‘Link-Up’, went down well, being 3 parts Stolichnaya vodka to 3 parts Southern Comfort. He’d created it, he claimed, to commemorate the joining of Russian and American space modules. He also made ‘Traffic Lights’, involving creme de menthe and cherry brandy, and the ‘Good King Wenceslas’, a recipe he reckoned he stole from Paul Young - so lethal, you didn’t need to know what was in it, just where you would be spending the next 3 days.

John pointed out the pool house, trunks optional, and reminded Max to show us our rooms before she’d drunk more Champagne than she could say. 'Only thing she ever wears in bed’, he said. I was given the ‘Lion Suite’, a bedroom the size of my London flat, the double bed laden with dozens of fluffy toy cubs.

The house, eccentric country pile meets musty museum, contained all manner of collections: teapots, toys, suits of armour, weaponry, especially guns (he adored the Wild West), trainsets, lighters, Disney porcelain, guitars - I once counted 170 - rugs, fine art and photography. There were a couple of life-size skeletons, a pinball machine, a beautiful roll-top writing desk at which he said he’d written ‘a couple of ok songs, like Boris the Spider’. He had a chess set featuring Adolph Hitler, and every one of the Marilyn Monroe collector’s plates. There were vintage brandies, wines, cases of Cuban cigars. He also collected cars - Cadillacs, Thunderbirds, even a Rolls Royce he’d had converted into an estate car, to accommodate his favourite (gigantic) Irish wolfhound, Fits Perfectly - but he never actually bothered to learn to drive. ‘What do you do with them then?’ I asked him. ‘I drink in them’, he said.

He told me his motto in life was ‘If you can buy one, why not buy three.’ Queenie maintained it was because he’d been born during the war, if only just: ‘He’s got this thing about panic-buying: if he’s not buying something, then he’s panicking’. A small framed tapestry on the kitchen wall declared ‘Everything Men Know About Women: Please Turn Over’. The back of the frame, predictably, was blank. It was in that same kitchen that I once saw John appear for breakfast at around 4pm, demanding the remainder of the Chinese take-away we’d all shared the night before. Queenie, non-plussed, gesticulated at the bin. Without a word, John shuffled over, rifled through the rubbish, retrieved the containers and proceeded to eat the contents. No one had the heart to point out that the left-overs had reached the rubbish via the dog.

I remember once driving John and Max back to Quarwood in my jeep, after a party at the home of Kenny and Jayne Jones. Coming too fast at a bend I’d not anticipated, I smacked into a young doe, killing her outright. ‘Don’t panic’, said John, getting out and hauling the animal into the boot, muttering about venison stew. Further down the road - I was sober - we were pulled over by police. ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear’, mumbled an officer, happening upon the creature in the back.
Er, no’, retorted John, there’s only one of them. I say, Officer, would you care to blow into my bag?’

The night before Live Aid, July 1985, I stayed with John and Max at their Roehampton, London home, in a bizarre bedroom filled with Max’s china dolls and John’s trainsets. The next morning, I was summoned to their room.
Max has got a problem’, said John, who was lying in bed, wading through the newspapers. ‘She can’t decide what to wear.’ All over the bed and hanging around the picture rails, I counted at least 15 pairs of white shorts. Every pair looked identical. ‘Damned if I know’, I said. ‘Me neither’, replied John. 'Brandy, anyone?’

We were sober enough as we climbed into John’s Rolls estate to head for Wembley Stadium, me into the boot with Fits Perfectly. But the colour of the car got me queasy. I had never seen a Rolls Royce that shade before, I told him.
Neither has anyone’, said John. ‘I took a plastic Harrods carrier bag to the bodyshop the day I bought the car, and told the paint sprayer to match that’.

New Year’s Eve at Quarwood became a regular fixture. The occasions did not disappoint. Neither did joining John and the Who on the road, which I got to do on 4 or 5 occasions. When The Who revived their rock opera Tommy for charity at the Universal Amphitheatre Los Angeles in 1989, 20 years after they’d premiered it, I received a personal invitation. The occasion all but blew our heads off: Elton John as Pinball Wizard, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Winwood, Billy Idol and Phil Collins, as well as The Who. At the after-show party, a bouncer doubted the authenticityof my VIP pass , and barred me. I asked him nicely to go and get John - who appeared, moments later, with actor Chris Quentin, then of Coronation Street. The bouncer, pure jobsworth, still refused to allow me through. John marched silently through the barrier, picked me up and tossed me over the fence into Quentin’s arms. 

I could go on. I will never forget July 10th, 2002, the day we bid John a final farewell. Too many mourners to fit into tiny St. Edwards, a little 12th Century church opposite Quarwood. Pete and Roger, chalk-white and silent with grief. Kenny Jones and Zak Starkey, grinning helplessly. John’s coffin too massive to lift, they wheeled it in on a trolley. No Buddy Guy, no Beach Boys, no Everly Brothers - the music John loved - but the sober strains of ‘Jerusalem’, and ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’
A poem by Joyce Grenfell. Alison, John’s first wife and Chris’s mother, weeping for ‘my darling - I never stopped loving him’; a black widow spider in the form of Lisa Pritchard-Johnson, former partner of the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, who had shared John’s life for 8 years, post-Max (and who later did a temporary bunk with the Reverend after a tryst in the pub; he went back to his wife.) 
No Max. Alison and Lisa had banned her, but she may as well have been there - her absence was the talk of the funeral. I was sad not to see her, recalling good times, the lunacy she and John had shared. John once said of Max ‘She’s my soulmate - as addictive as highlights’. 
I remember staring at the once-black, swept-back blonde hair-do he was so proud of.  I knew what he meant.