Saturday, 29 November 2014

MUHAMMAD ALI, THE MOST FAMOUS AMERICAN OF ALL TIME?

The claim is made in the new Universal Pictures documentary 'I am Ali', produced by Claire Lewins, which I saw last night. I've been thinking about this all day. Is he really? He's got to be a contender. Alongside whom? George Washington. Teddy Roosevelt. JFK. Marilyn Monroe. Humphrey Bogart. Frank Sinatra. James Dean. A lot of other folk, people I've never heard of, people they tell me are very famous, and 'they' should know. If I have to look them up, they're not quite there.
The acid test was once described as taking a stroll into an African kraal with a handful of pictures, to see which ones people could pick out. Her Majesty the Queen is usually chosen. The Beatles - or at least Macca and  John. Nelson Mandela. Elvis Presley. Madonna. Michael Jackson. Of those, five are British, one South African, three American. A 'fifty-fifty' three. No one of any age, creed or colour ever mistakes Ali.
It's a curious documentary in many ways. I am biased towards liking it, as it largely came about because of my father, former sportswriter Ken Jones. Dad's first contact with Ali was in 1972, '73 - long before journalists were considered important enough to be significant in the story. 'That's when I remember being no longer a face in the crowd, but part of it,' he says.

When he and his late close friend, Sports Illustrated journalist Pat Putnam, introduced Claire to Gene Kilroy, aka 'the Facilitator', that was it. Claire was made. Gene knows everyone. She had everything.
A million people could have done this story. It's out there.  Whatever your take on professional pugilism, and the mood is shifting, there is no denying the impact on the fight game of the man born Cassius Marcellus Clay. The film features much personal family video and a lot of audio recordings made by Ali of his children when they were small - all supplied by Ali's daughters Maryum and Hana, who were there last night for this screening, and who were delightful.
I was unsettled by the movie's timeline and shape. I would have edited it differently. Parts were jumpy, and lacked pattern. More could have been made of its contributors. I'd have woven them throughout the piece to illustrate key points, rather than feature them chronologically and then cut them off, before they'd hit their stride. Its salvation was the soundtrack: exquisitely chosen pieces, many of them rock and soul classics, which breathed fire into the visuals, and which resonate.
Two important aspects of Ali's life linger in my mind today. The first concerns him having refused the draft. Ali did not fight in Vietnam. For a fighter, he was probably the ultimate pacifist - although my father points out that he does not recall having met many violent prize fighters, with the exception, perhaps, of Mike Tyson: 'but he's a psychopath.' 

The other is the fabled 'Rumble in the Jungle', when Ali went to Zaire to fight George Foreman. It was akin to the Second Coming. He could have gone into Africa, said 'I don't like what's happening here, let's have a war', and there would have been one. Parts of the dark continent would have gone up in flames, because he said so. As well as being a cauldron of contradictions, he was that famous, that powerful. People came to him. He was the Pied Piper, he was the Messiah. Don't get on my case about this. I'm not John Lennon. The comparison doesn't add up, anyway. Jesus Christ preached on earth in ancient times. Muhammad Ali was a fighter in the television era. You know what I'm saying.
That night in Zaire, the great ogre Foreman was destroyed. He'd battered everyone who ever got in his way. That night he got battered. They talked, at the time, of Foreman's life turning into an eternal silent turmoil, while Ali would be forever famous.
It turns on a sixpence. George came out of it. He's lucid, he has a life. He's in this film. Looking back on it all, he didn't have many fights. Most of them were pushovers. He rarely got hit. He emerged with a clever brain intact.
Ali, so often smashed in the head: he can't even speak, now. He has Parkinson's. He probably won't live very long. The Greatest irony.
The point is made perfectly in the film. It made us weep.
When Ali started out, boxing was the fastest way for a black American to make it.
'I was not that bright nor quick in school,' he said. 'I couldn't be a football or basketball player because you have to go to college, pass examinations and get degrees. A boxer can just go to the gym, jump around, turn professional, win a fight, get a break, and he's in the money. If he's good enough, he makes more than ball players make all their lives.'
He paid the ultimate price. Those who were along with him for the ride tell his tale. They tell it wonderfully. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS, FREDDIE'S HOME SHOULD BE A MUSEUM FOR HIS FANS

It is always thought-provoking to spend time with Queen fans down at Garden Lodge, Logan Place in Kensington, on the anniversary of Freddie's death. We joined the throng at around 7.30pm last night, by which time the candlelit vigil, chanting and singing were in full swing. I was delighted to meet fans from Spain, Romania and Lithuania, as well as several from Poland.

There was a time when Mary Austin, the former girlfriend turned assistant and companion who lived in the house after Freddie's death, would emerge from the green wooden door in the brickwork to read a poem or a prayer, acknowledge Freddie's followers, and share precious moments. Last night, the house sat in darkness. Mary doesn't live there anymore. Those of his co-habiting friends still alive at the time of his death, including his PA, Peter Freestone - 'Phoebe' - were promised that Garden Lodge would always remain their home. Not long after Freddie died, Mary ejected them. 
It won't be hers forever, however. Her legal tenure is just fifty years, almost half of which is spent.

I've often thought she should have opened the house to the public as a museum and monument to her friend. 
A genuine rock shrine - Freddie's own home, the place he died in - to which his millions of fans around the world could make their pilgrimage, pay respects, and inhale his spirit - would be right. The place is stuffed with treasures and artworks from allover the world. At least, it was. Such things can be sold at major auction houses for serious prices. Maybe they have been. Collectively, they represent an earthly reminder of the cultured, artistic and unique individual who remains loved by so many. As single pieces, divided and traded, antiques, paintings and furniture are only 'stuff', deprived of the personality of the man who so lovingly chose, purchased and enjoyed them during his lifetime.

Yes, a museum would have been nice. Apart from a mere bronze statue overlooking Lac Leman in Montreux, there is nowhere else. The fans are too often derided and scorned for congregating in Logan Place at this time of year, leaving their flowers, cards, letters, tributes and candles. All they want to do is express gratitude for Freddie's life and grief over his death. To draw comfort from each other, strangers and friends. Living in the past? Not the faithful I see down there each year who hadn't even been born in 1991, the year Freddie died.

Much has been done, over the twenty three years since, to deter them from coming. Plastic shields were nailed in place to stop the writing on the wall. Plenty of fans have managed to wedge their tributes behind them anyway. Tough trellising was erected along the top of the walls, a barricade to prevent trespassers from intruding. But would allowing them inside once a year have been a bad thing? All they want to see is the cherry tree beneath which, they believe, Freddie's ashes are buried. In consolation, I can assure them, Freddie is not there.

Monday, 24 November 2014

NOT EVEN FREDDIE MERCURY SAYS NO TO SIR BOB

Number One in sixty-one countries.

There.

In the global battle against Ebola, Bob has done it again with Band Aid. His critics can say what they like, and do. Lily Allen and Adele are entitled to their opinion and their abstention, of course, and don't go on at me again. You are entitled to yours too. 

Some artists do these charity recordings and gigs to kick-start, boost or revive their careers, as Freddie Mercury and Queen were accused of doing at Wembley Stadium in 1985. As good as a live rock performance gets, it did give the band a new lease of life. 

'Queen were over,' said Paul Gambaccini. 'They'd had their day. Yet here they were, reinventing themselves and going again before our very eyes. It still takes my breath away when I think about it. Freddie Mercury delivered the greatest front-man performance anyone had ever seen.'

Uplifted by the Global Jukebox experience, Queen had soul-searching to do. Perhaps they had been bracing themselves for a natural conclusion to their mostly phenomenal career. They couldn't go on indefinitely, could they? Bands that do so run the risk of diminution. Legendary status is achieved by quitting ahead. Each member of Queen had sidetracked into solo projects, with mixed results, and only Freddie with a modicum of success. Now forced to accept that they were better off sticking together than stalking separate paths, particularly at their time of life, they resolved to defer oblivion and go again. Live Aid gifted them a second chance. No rock act worth its stash would pass that up.  Let's be honest about it.

It was, if only we'd known it at the time, a hollow victory for Queen. The irony of the title of their 'It's A Kind of Magic' tour the following year - their most ambitious ever - took a while to dawn. For Freddie, the writing was on the wall. Today, we pause to remember that he has been gone for twenty three years. His voice is louder than ever. 

I'm sure that most who took part in this year's Band Aid offering did so for altruistic reasons. Good for them. If it also helps their own careers a little, as it helped Queen's - hugely - is there harm in that? It is preferable to the bribery, corruption  and exploitation that dominates the music business today. 

Remember the Human League, who turned down Live Aid?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

IS FACEBOOK STEALING YOUR BABIES?

I got a call from the Diary desk of a'Fleet Street rag, informing me that a well-known photo agency had sold them an image in which I feature. They identified a household name in the line-up, asked me for a left-to-right, requested dirt, scandal and filth on said celebrity, a priapic type, and offered a laughable fee for my contribution.
'You can't use that photo,' I said.
'Of course we can,' came the response, 'we've bloody well paid for it!'
'Well, un-pay for it,' I said. 'The photo is mine, it was taken at a private party, in someone's home, not at a public event. With my own camera. That makes it my copyright.' 


This wasn't the time to point out the 'grey area' in this particular scenario: as in, it may be argued that copyright of a photo technically resides with the individual who physically snapped it - i.e., not me, but the person to whom I'd handed the camera, so that I could be in the pic. Even though it was taken on my little Leica. But you get why I parked it.
'You're not hearing me,' barked the caller. 'An agency fetched us this photo. We have every right to publish it.'
'I say you don't.' I stood firm. Y
ou should have heard me. I explained that the only possible place that  photo could have come from - and therefore, had been stolen from - was my Facebook page.
'Well there you have it!' yelped Diary-Hack, triumphant. 'You post these pictures on Facebook, you've got to expect them to get lifted and sold. Everything that appears on Facebook belongs to Facebook.. and they are not going to take the time to argue the toss here. You can't even get through to them on the 'phone!'

I left the chap with a warning. Should he proceed to print, I would retaliate. It's no hollow threat, I've got plenty on these guys, but have chosen to behave. Until now.
A brief trawl through the pages of your friends, acquaintances, and those you're not sure about, and you'll find your own photos all over the place. We don't mind our pals having a share. It's one of the reasons we use Facebook. But when unscrupulous folk trade them on, for personal gain - I've even had some of my own photos offered back to me, with the expectation of payment - that's pushing it.

I rarely post photos of my three children, adorable though they are. I have often winced at the plethora of precious, juicy newborns who make their first public outings on Facebook; the chubby-pawed toddlers on swings, the grandmas and grandpas proudly promenading their beauties. It's melting stuff. But out there, beyond the apparently harmless realm of friends connecting, networking and celebrating life through simple pleasures, lies a seething underworld - of paedophiles, stealing and storing your images, for unholy and unthinkable practice and gain. Please, put your favourites into polished frames. Display them on a mantelpiece, a sideboard, a bedside table. Don't share them on Facebook, Instagram, or on other social media. They are yours, but they are anyone's for the taking. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

PEOPLE ARE DYING FOR YOU TO BUY THIS SINGLE: BAND AID 30

It matters not that Sir Bob went on the show that has slaughtered the music industry to promote it, looking as though he'd been dossing in a goat pen for a month. Nor that he badgered Adele by phone a hundred times, but she refused to pick up, and isn't on it. Nor that Chris Martin is. It's irrelevant, too, that 'it's that song, yet again, when will they learn to leave the bloody thing alone?' I said it myself, a week ago. I take it back.
Whatever we think of 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', and despite the fact that it rarely snows in Africa anyway, not even the frozen-hearted can remain unmoved by the efforts of Bob, Midge, Bono, Sinead, Guy Garvey, Roger Taylor, the Bastille boys, Emelie Sandé, Olly Murs and One Direction. When Bono was asked, outside SARM Studios on Saturday lunchtime, 'Doesn't it feel unbelievable to be back here thirty years on, doing this all over again?' his retort was just right. What's unbelievable, he said, is that we have to be. If all those international politicians at all those G8 summits and the rest had kept their promises, there would be no need.
Was it appropriate to screen footage of the harrowing removal of a dead African extinguished by Ebola on The X-Factor last night ? It was. Bleary Geldof, no stranger to anguish and tragedy, never beats about the bush.  The disease can arrive here on a plane, any time. It can kill us in a heartbeat. It's not going to. We will do our bit. We will download or pre-order this single today. The CD is out on December 8th, three Mondays' time, but you can have it on iTunes immediately.
We may reflect on the updated lyrics. Compare the impassioned, older, wiser recording to the almost gleeful innocence, three versions ago, of the original. We will love, hate or be left indifferent by what is, after all 'only' a pop single - all the while knowing, in our bones, why it is more.


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

THE NATION'S FAVOURITE QUEEN SONG ... AS IF YOU DIDN'T KNOW ...

So 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is voted The Nation's Favourite Queen Song in an ITV poll (Who do they ask? You? They never ask me!) and nobody is surprised.

What a song. Although it is engrained in the collective consciousness, every note, every nuance, to the point, perhaps, of having become a caricature of itself, it stands alone, outside time, beyond definition or categorisation, as the most enigmatic, rule-breaking and anti-rock rock song ever composed. 

Who wants to live forever? This song does. Therefore, Freddie does. And does. 


"UNHEARD-OF SINCE HITLER'S NUREMBERG RALLIES ..."

News reaches me of the death, aged ninety-one, of Charlie Watkins, an adorable and modest man. Charlie's contribution to the UK music industry was immense. In August 1967, he launched the first WEM P.A. system with hi-fi quality at the National Jazz, Pop, Ballads & Blues Festival at Royal Windsor racecourse. It had a basic starting power of 1,000 watts: 'unheard-of since Hitler's Nuremberg rallies,' Charlie said. That occasion marked a watershed for live music, from which Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, the Small Faces, the Move, Cream, Jeff Beck, Donovan and Denny Laine would benefit greatly on the day, and to which much is owed by live touring bands to this day.
Charlie's fascination with the guitar, its mechanics and its electronic reproduction paved the way to the first Watkins 'Westminster' guitar amps. In 1958, the 'Copicat' Echo and 'V'-fronted Dominator amps revolutionised music overnight. Charlie's amp is still regarded as an important element in Sounds of the Sixties chemistry - the other two being the Vox A.C. 30, and the Fender Strat. WEM P.A. made possible all those fabled early festivals, from the Isle of Wight to the Stones in the Park. Charlie is revered as 'the Father of the British P.A.'

'The curtain lifted on a new world of music,' he said to me, when I interviewed him for my book 'Ride a White Swan: The Lives & Death of Marc Bolan': Charlie was a long-cherished friend of Marc and his wife June. 
'Multi-thousand audiences were now practical, possible, desirable and certainly available. And they could at last hear! Now, all these brilliant young musicians could emerge and do their thing. Backline gear could be mic'd up to help it all along. The singer could be heard for miles. The rest is their history.'

Charlie was enchanted by the coincidence that my beloved maternal grandfather was also called Charles Watkins. Both saw active naval service, playing the accordion throughout.


Remembering them with love on this Armistice Day.

Monday, 10 November 2014

FLESH OR FANTASY, BILLY IDOL?


Take me back, Billy Idol, to those Stratford Place days. To sensational times as told last night by the former Chrysalis Head of Press in the High Road House Chiswick, pre-Billy at the Hammersmith Apollo.
When Chrysalis agreed to continue backing post-Gen X Billy and brought him in from the States, they knew they couldn't put him up in a hotel. He was pre-programmed to trash places. Chrysalis had a flat down the road on Park Street, Mayfair, which had just been renovated, as they were planning to sell it. Berni Kilmartin stocked it to the hilt with Billy's favourite red wine and champagne, made her excuses and went home. 

Drop-out rocker-Billy didn't care for record company personnel. He didn't care for anything much. He just wanted to make punk rock that people could dance to. His songwriting collaboration with guitaristSteve Stevens, an apparently fright-wigged, bell-bottomed dude with a bit of Jeff Beck about him, endures to this day. It was through Steve that Billy met Bill Aucoin, manager of Kiss. It was Bill who masterminded Billy's metamorphosis from daft punk to mainstream rock star.

It might seem unimportant now, there being so few record companies left to tell such tales. But in those days it was vital for an artist to get the label behind them. Secretaries, receptionists, every last dogsbody. Dear Berni, who oversaw everything, sensed a tall order. The first warning came when she visited Billy at the flat, after his interview with Pet Shop Boy-to-be Neil Tennant of Smash Hits. Billy answered the door naked. Berni looked anywhere else. She didn't have to look far. The television had been toppled from the window into the street below, and red wine had been sprayed over the freshly-painted walls. The interview had not gone well. Billy had vented his anger on 'the suits' responsible for providing his accommodation.

Billy couldn't stand 'suits'. There were a few, though not many, at Chrysalis. Berni resolved to put things right by throwing her charge a 'meet-'n'-greet' at the company canteen, the Coconut Grove, up the office back stairs and out the fire exit, opposite the Lamb & Flag. To bridge the gap, she invited the lads from the post room - and instructed Alan, the Grove's manager, not to serve them Billy's vintage champagne, but to tank them on beer instead. Either he failed to hear the request, or he chose to ignore it. 

In the blue corner, a posse of pissed-up posties spoiling for a punch-up. With anyone. In the red corner, a gaggle of glamorous, gargling execs, primed to tame their Turn. The boy Billy, after arriving suitably chastened and gifting Berni a peace-offering of roses, had vanished. He was locked in the Ladies' with a pair of erupting cocktail waitresses, allegedly attempting a world record.

When the balloons were blown, the streamers streamed, when the party was over and all had vomited their last, the hostess was handed the bill. There was so much else going on that she barely glanced at the '£675-something' reckoning, thinking it not too bad, considering. Turned out she had overlooked the zero. The damage was over six grand. For a party which lasted only a couple of hours. 

And there he was, last night. For a man about to enter his sixtieth year, he was a vision. It doesn't take him long to get the skin out. The abs are as bars of carbolic soap, aligned in pairs under stretched chamois. The facial features might well be enhanced, but you'd have to stick your nose in to tell. The Look: leather, chains, sweat, backcombed barnet - has barely budged since the Eighties. It works. This is Panto Billy, a self-made caricature, longer incisors, larger than laughs, having us on that nothing has changed. Not that his audience minds. I swear they crammed double the usual number into the Apollo last night, and they were roaring their burgers up for him. All Billy had to do was curl a lip and insinuate a bad time, and they were in meltdown. What he didn't have to do was ponce about with instruments too grown-up for him, plucking the odd chord, making like the axeman he never was. It's fake, not to mention a waste of a pending sexagenarian's energy when you've got a crap-hot Anglo-Swedo-American line-up doing the necessary. Just sayin. What Billy told Neil Tennant years ago was that 'rock'n'roll is a type of music that goes beyond whether you can play a guitar or not.' So why pretend to?

But he redeemed himself musically, right? Well. The new material had the shakes. A couple of the good old numbers creaked. His vocals were flat, here and there, not that he noticed. He took longer to belch them than I would have liked, and there were fewer than I remembered. But I'm knocking on too.