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.