Monday, 28 December 2015

SINATRA: WE DID IT OUR WAY

FRANK SINATRA at 100, CHANNEL 5, TONIGHT, 9pm
followed by a live recording of Sinatra in concert in New York in 1974.

Frank Sinatra strode out onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1980, ambled across to the orchestra stalls where my father Ken Jones and I were seated in the front row, and sang the opening verse of 'Fly Me to the Moon' right into my face. Old Blue Eyes locked with Young Green Eyes, and that was that. It had long been a habit of his, I would discover later, to zoom in on a female in the audience to sing the first song to. I'd grown up on his music, thanks to Dad, and I knew the songs by heart. But everything crystallised in that moment. I've been hooked ever since.
This has been a year of Sinatra tributes, it being the centenary. What could Simon Napier-Bell's new documentary add to praise already heaped? I did wonder myself, when I was invited to take part. But I can't ever say no to Simon.
The cleverest man I know has sleeves heaving with tricks. He never disappoints. Taking the long view back over the crooner's career from a uniquely British viewpoint was a stroke of creative genius. Although Francis Albert was flogged to America through his live performances, movies, recordings, and via relentless press and publicity, whipping up hysteria among the bobbysoxers and guaranteeing him a place in the pantheon, information about him over here during the Fifties and early Sixties was bewilderingly scant. Imagine that today. No way. The result was a British music-loving public intrigued by and hungry for a singer they couldn't get their hands on. Sinatra fan clubs began mushrooming all over the UK long before his records were ever released here. Every import became an instant collectible. 
Those fans stayed loyal for life, tidal-waving to catch him in his acclaimed Royal Albert Hall and Festival Hall concerts. His nod to them? The only Sinatra album ever made outside the US was recorded here. 'Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain' featured gems by the British composers he most admired, including Noel Coward's 'I'll Follow My Secret Heart', Ivor Novello's 'We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring', and Ross Parker's and Hughie Charles's most enduring war-time rouser for Vera Lynn, 'We'll Meet Again'. The recordings were made in 1962 at CTS Studios in London W2. Only a few days before Sinatra began taping in Bayswater, the Beatles were convening a couple of miles away at Abbey Road, and the world was about to change irrevocably.
Simon's quirky, irreverent, unique documentary, which of course Channel 5 cannot broadcast in its Technicolor entirety, because, well, you know, focuses on the opinions and reminiscences of celebrity fans. Thus, Sir Tim Rice, Alice Cooper, Louis Walsh, boxing promoter Frank Warren, Mark Ellen, Paul Gambaccini et al, et al. We'll find out tonight which of us were left on the cutting-room floor. One for my baby, and one more for the road.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

IT'S YOUR SONG, ELTON

I confess to a double-take at Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun column yesterday, announcing that PR and communications supremo Gary Farrow had terminated his working relationship with Sir Elton John. Surely some mistake: these two go back more than forty years. To 1974, in fact, when gift-of-the-gob Gary landed a job as a runner at Rocket Records after pestering the Rocket Man for a break. Which I happen to know first-hand, because I've known and loved Gary since I was a teenager, when his garden backed on to my Mum and Dad's.

Only one way to find out. Our long conversation today left me saddened beyond words. Gary, who once flogged singles off a barrow in Berwick Street market, Soho, before rising to fame in his own right in the entertainment industry, has represented, promoted, protected and made superstars of the cream of the crop - Bowie, Elton, Wham!, George Michael, Bob Geldof, Frankie, Duran, Jonathan Ross, Ozzy & Sharon, you name them. But he has called it a day with Elton, with whom he was once so thick that they attended each other's weddings, and Elton became Godfather to Gary's eldest daughter. He can apparently no longer abide the way that EJ's husband, David Furnish, is running the singer's life. We could go into blood-curdling detail here, but let's not. It's Christmas. Although how could we ever shrug off the unbearable misery of Elton's mother, Sheila Farebrother, forced to hire an Elton John tribute act to perform at her 90th birthday celebrations this year - because her own son, the globally famous genuine article, has not spoken to her for seven years. Why? Because dear Sheila refused to cancel her friendships with her son's former manager and sometime lover, John Reid, and with Bob Halley, Elton's ex-driver and PA, who are like 'sons' to her.

Life being too short. It's a long time since I supped and chewed cud with the excitable Furnish. The last time was in Atlanta, Georgia, in God knows when. But from what I've heard, he has found his vocation as a talentless control freak hell-bent on destroying the most meaningful relationships in his partner's life. I can't imagine what he is trying to prove. But what will they do when there's nobody left?

Knowing Gary, never short of a line of two - he once bumped bang-smack into Mel Gibson and retorted, 'What a f-ing stupid place to put a mirror' - he'll be raising a Yuletide glass to all the good times, and privately wishing Elton well. He's unlikely to lose much sleep over it. But I bet Elton will.

I owe Gary eternally for the best piece of advice a media guru could ever give an insecure writer (is there another kind).

'It only takes one,' he told me. 

'Of all the nine billion however many people on the planet, it only takes one person to invest, to go 'let's have a punt', and to make your dream a reality. I've seen it happen more times than I've had cold breakfasts. I've seen for myself that it's true. So never, ever give up. Keep doing what you're doing. If you're any bloody good, then sooner or later it comes to you.'

Monday, 14 December 2015

WHY I WROTE IMAGINE AS A NOVEL

'Shock and Amaze on Every Page!' This was the brief, during the Eighties. We were the shady stars of the most outrageous rag this country had ever known. Rupert Murdoch appointed Kelvin MacKenzie as the brash new editor of Britain's biggest-selling daily, The Sensational Soaraway Sun, in 1981. MacKenzie hired me. He was the first newspaper editor to perceive that rock and pop stars were looting the limelight hitherto dominated by dull old Hollywood movie broads, and I was his brainwave: a fresh-meat girl-about-town columnist to augment the breathtaking celebrity gossip dished daily by jumpin' John Blake on his crackerjack spread,'Bizarre'. Too many adjectives for you? Never enough on the Currant Bun.

A front-page headline proclaimed me to be a 'Cheeky Telly Girl', so it must be true. I got there via an internship (not that we had the word then) at Capital Radio, a stint writing sleeve notes in the art department at Chrysalis Records, a regular gossip slot on Tommy Vance's show for BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service), and a Warholian stab at TV stardom as co-presenter, with DJs Gary Crowley and Nicky Horne, of rock'n'pop TV series 'Ear Say' for the new Channel 4. I soon found myself further down the Street, poached by the Daily Mail to interview rock stars. I spent the next decade on the road with the biggest artists in history, from Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, The Who and Elton John to David Bowie, Queen, Blondie and the Rolling Stones.

On the road, anything went. We rock hacks toed the line and kept their secrets, and got everything we wanted in return. Unrestrained by the managers, promoters, agents, PRs, record company reps and every other kind of hanger-on hell-bent on scoffing their slice nowadays, journalists and musicians could and did forge close friendships. I was despatched to the New York bureau, where I shared rooms, briefly, with La Toya Jackson – making me perhaps the only correspondent alive who could contradict the rumour, having dined with them together, that Michael and his sister were the same person. Relocating to Los Angeles for the Mail on Sunday, I dossed chez Raquel Welch (she was 'Rocky, I was 'Baby'), and interviewed them all, in every imaginable circumstance: Grace Jones on a massage table, U2 in a pool, Cyndi Lauper on a plane to Vegas, Stevie Nicks inside the Betty Ford rehab clinic. Graduating, after the birth of my first child, to the paper's award-winning colour supplement YOU Magazine - in those days more world features than lipstick and fashion - I broke my share of cover-stories, hitting the road with Cher in a tour bus that also contained George Best's ex-wife Angie, who was the singer's personal trainer; getting nicked for speeding with Rod Stewart; breaking rules in the British Embassy at a reception for Freddie Mercury and Queen; painting Amsterdam pink with the second-hand car dealer who taught Liz Taylor to like sex. It's what he said.
Piers Morgan airlifted me to the News of the World in the mid-Nineties. I wrote 'The Lesley-Ann Jones Big Interview' for him until he quit for the Daily Mirror. By then, Fleet Street was a memory, technology had taken hold, and the unions were buried. Our beloved industry was dissipated and in the early stages of decline. I paused to marry and have another child. I published a biography of supermodel Naomi Campbell, my first book on Freddie Mercury, and then came baby number three.

A year or two out of newspapers was a life sentence. I was in love with the job, and took little luring back in 2007, post-divorce, skin-cancer surgery and all the usual old heartache, to a world so changed that I barely recognised it. I penned freelance features for the Mail, and wrote columns, comment, reviews and interviews for the Sunday Express. My editor there was Martin Townsend, one of the merry band of music-loving mischief-makers with whom I'd once hurtled about the globe. What goes around. A commission to rewrite my biography of Freddie Mercury, and another to chronicle the lives and times of T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan, drew me into pastures new.

But how to park such a back-story and move on? I was never allowed to. It occurred to me that I was often invited to dinner parties and on long weekends in country piles by Haves and Have-Yachts because I was a fount of filthy gossip and farcical yarns. I'd meet people at functions both domestic and foreign who'd perhaps seen me on 'E! Entertainment' in America or equivalent, and who'd say, 'You should write a book!' 'I do,' I'd reply, 'look, here's where you buy them.' 'Not that kind of book,' they'd say. 'A book about you.' 'Nobody would believe it,' I'd laugh them off. Eventually, it dawned.

I've had a life. Like my father Ken Jones, the former 'Voice of Sport' at the Sunday Mirror and The Independent, and a fixture on BBC TV's Grandstand, I have ink in my veins. I've worked on-staff at five UK national newspapers, and have freelanced for many more: here, in the US and as far afield as Japan and Australia, over a quarter of a century. I was at Live Aid. I've covered the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy Awards, the Grammys; the Montreux and San Remo music festivals. I've toured with bands, survived the talk circuit with Sir Ian Botham, and in 2009 accompanied the Royal Ballet on their historic visit to Cuba - the first by a foreign ballet company for over forty years. I have wenched and wassailed with superstars across five continents, written reports from countless countries, got away with it more than most would consider fair. I've lived the double life, and I tell the tale. The other me remains a normal daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, aunt, mother, god-mother, god-daughter, girlfriend, friend. I've known my share of glory and ignominy, been party to the triumphs and despair of not only my cherished pals but also innumerable household names. Plenty of people make a living writing about less. I could pen volumes, couldn't I, exploring the seething, faded, moth-eaten tapestry of my own life, reliving the magic and dirt and marvelousness of the music industry and Fleet Street? So I have.



Sunday, 13 December 2015

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF FRANK SINATRA

It makes you think. I grew up on the maestro's music - my parents were (are) die-hard fans. I interviewed Ol' Blue Eyes in LA - twice - and spent time with his widow, Barbara Marx. I got to know his daughter, Nancy, when I lived with Raquel Welch in Beverly Hills - 'Boots' was her best mate. Only after his death, when I was researching Ava Gardner, did I realise I'd known barely the first thing about him.
What we knew was the Sinatra myth, the legend. What we didn't want to know was what got him there. We certainly didn't want to hear about his backstreet-abortionist mother, nor the hell through which she dragged him - which accounts, at least in part, for who he became. Perhaps most telling was that night in Elaine's, New York - the night that Frank, on being introduced to Mario Puzo, author of 'The Godfather', refused to shake his hand.
A recent survey on the kind of music played at funerals revealed that traditional hymns are now chosen by fewer than 35%, while pop songs have soared to an 'incredible' 58%. It 'devalues human life', declared one commentator about the survey, to take one's final, shortest journey on earth to the accompaniment of music from popular culture.
Why so? Why not pop our clogs to popular music, if that's the way we lived?
Unsurprisingly, the song most played at funerals these days is Sinatra's 'My Way'. What's so bad about that? Whatever turns you off.
My friends and I have spent countless happy moments dancing round the kitchen to 'New York, New York'. I've certainly slated that one for my own funeral - along with Cockney Rebel's 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me). performed live. Every time I see Steve Harley, he asks me if I've got a date. Clearly I have. I just don't know it yet.

Thank you for the music, Francis Albert. For better or worse, way to go.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

DAME JUDI DENCH'S BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

I can take or leave Branagh, but there was no way to avoid him at the Garrick last night. 'The Winter's Tale' is his own theatre company's adaptation of this exquisite and so often-overlooked Shakespeare play.
It's nothing personal. Old Ken may well be a decent bloke. In there, somewhere. It's his over-eggedness, his histrionics and his superiority complex that I can do without. Nor do I care for him gagging, spitting and dribbling all over the stage - what if someone slipped in it? That might be just me.
There are compensations. Dame Judi Dench in absolutely anything is a gift. I confess to a special fondness for this quintessential Shakespeare veteran, who first played Ophelia in Hamlet at the Old Vic fifty eight years ago, and who has since won an Oscar, ten BAFTAS, a record six Laurence Olivier awards, an OBE, a DBE and a Companion of Honour. She is also a thoroughly humble, human and compassionate being. Of this, I have first-hand proof. In April 2006, less than a month after my marriage collapsed and I was in a tremulous state, I drove my eldest daughter to the Haymarket Theatre to see Judi in Noel Coward's 'Hay Fever'. We were late, it was raining, I couldn't find the tiniest corner in which to park. In the end I threw the firstborn out of the car into the bus lane outside the theatre, hurled a ticket at her, and told her I would join her in the interval. I chucked a left, only to see a little yellow Porsche Spyder pulling out of a biscuit-sized space. It was mine, all mine. In I backed, at too sharp an angle, crunching the back near-side bumper of the Roller in front. Distracted, beside myself, not quite all there, I did something I would never otherwise do: I legged it, without leaving even a note.
We returned to the scene of the crime about three hours later, only to find a gorilla sitting on the boot of the Rolls, awaiting us. Turned out he was Dame Judi's driver. The Rolls Royce was her car. I explained the circumstances, and offered to pay. 'You'll be hearing from her lawyers,' he roared. Several written exchanges later, a charming missive from the Dame herself, and a 'compromise' cheque from me, not for the damage (thousands) but two hundred quid for 'polishing', and I was off the hook. I have worshipped the ground she rolls on ever since.
She brings dignity, gravitas and magic to this challenging play - the story of a king who loses his grip when he falls prey to the ultimate destructive force, male sexual jealousy. No longer able to distinguish between reality and delusion, he destroys the things he holds most dear. Shakespeare was approaching the end of his career and his life when he wrote it. The piece is consequently a confounding blend of psycho-trauma and sweet nostalgia, of tragedy and comedy. All's well that ends well, kinda sorta. In order to feel that, one must suspend disbelief. It's something I've found I am rather good at.
Freddie Mercury adored this play. He appeared in it at school, St.Peter's in Panchgani, India. An unusual choice for an all-teenage cast, it must be said, but the experience remained with him all his life. We talked about it. I was reminded of the conversation four years after his death, when Queen's fifteenth studio album, 'Made in Heaven', was released. Largely a Requiem to and a showcase for the diva in Freddie, the album features a haunting track entitled 'A Winter's Tale'. This was Freddie's swansong, which he wrote and composed at his Montreux apartment overlooking the Swiss lake he so loved. The lyrics, describing what he could see from his window, celebrate the peace and contentment that he found there towards the end. The song's title casts him back to the Shakespeare play he performed in as a boy, and appears to be an homage to the old romance. A major character in the play is Polixenes, the King of Bohemia - an ancient kingdom corresponding roughly to today's Czech Republic. If, as scholars believe, this play was an allegory on the demise of Anne Boleyn, its long-lost Princess Perdita character was based on the daughter of Anne and King Henry VIII, who would grow up to become Elizabeth I, England's Queen ...
Queen's magnum opus was, is, will always be, 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
See what he did there. Clever Freddie.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

THE LAST GIG? COME UP AND SEE ME


What are the stand-outs?
Bowie at Madison Square Garden, Serious Moonlight tour, 1983.
I interviewed David in his dressing room, pre-show – he always preferred to do the chats early, get them over with – and we had dinner together afterwards. I was invited back out to the last gig on that tour, at the Hong Kong Coliseum in Hung Hom. The show coincided with the third anniversary of John Lennon’s death. David and Slick were thinking of playing ‘Across the Universe’ as a tribute, but then David said, if we’re going to do it at all, we should probably do ‘Imagine’. They rehearsed the song in Bangkok and performed it in Kowloon. It was from heaven.
The Who revisiting ‘Tommy’ at the Universal Amphitheater LA, 1989, one of my last before I came off the road full-time. A charity gig, unforgettable. Elton, Steve Winwood, Phil Collins, Billy Idol and the rest performed with Pete, Roger and John. They’d just parted company with Kenney Jones after a decade, sadly, so Simon Phillips was on drums. The after-show was a train wreck, we lost three days.
The Stones, 1982, for Tattoo You, an extension of their massive arena tour across America the previous year. The tour on which Keith whacked a fan. Hampton Coliseum Virginia, December 1981. A guy leapt out of nowhere and came charging across the stage towards Mick during ‘Satisfaction’ – God knows where security were. Keith walloped him with his black Fender Telecaster and carried on playing as the guards woke up and manhandled the guy off. The guitar stayed in tune!
Live Aid, of course. July 1985. Queen stole it. Who remembers much else about that day? We remember Bowie, all cool in his powder-blue suit. The sound going down on The Who. Phil Collins catching the Concorde to perform at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, right after Wembley. Paul McCartney playing live for the first time since John died, and his piano mic going down at the start, and Geldof, Bowie, Pete Townshend and Alison Moyet singing back-up on ‘Let It Be’. Madonna’s gravity-defying antics, le Bon’s bum note of all time, on ‘A View To a Kill’. But it was Freddie and Queen who owned Live Aid.
I saw Prince play an impromptu gig at the Kensington Roof Gardens, I can’t remember what year, but is was unforgettable. Saw INXS the first time at the Montreux Rock Festival in 1986, and couldn’t take my eyes off Michael Hutchence. Ten sex symbols for the price of one in a white jeans jacket and smudgy strides. So much of the Jagger about him even then; even the hands were hypnotic.
Women? Tiny Pat Benatar. Tina. Whitney. Dolly. Debbie. My favourite Blondie show was Hammersmith Odeon, January 1980; all the girls fell for Debs that night. ‘One Way or Another’, who could forget.
I have sometimes caught myself wondering: what will be the last gig I ever attend, and will I know it's the last one, or be simply oblivious? I came close to knowing last night, I think, at the Indigo O2, where Steve Harley reunited with his old partners in crime: sublime guitarist Jim Cregan (Rod Stewart), Stuart Elliot (Kate Bush, Macca, Al Stewart) and Duncan Mackay (10CC), playing together for the first time since 1976. Long-serving Cockney Rebeller Barry Wickens was there, of course, on violin and guitar. Austrian twins Mona and Lisa Wagner, YES their real names, lent fantastic second guitar, percussion and backing vocals. They performed the entire 'Best Years of Our Lives' album plus a selection of greats - 'Sebastian', and 'the pension fund': 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)', which Steve promised years ago to perform at my funeral. Every time I see him, he asks me if I've got a date. Who knows, maybe I have, I just don't know it yet. After Jim Diamond, anything can happen.
How fab, Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart and his wife Penny in the audience. Rod's acclaimed new album 'Another Country' features a song penned by Steve and Jim in 2001. 'A Friend for Life' is the one that's going to haunt me for the rest of the century. Said Rod, 'I dropped one of my own songs off the album so that I could include this one. I've always wanted to record it. Steve's over the moon about it. He needed a new roof for his house.'
A whole lotta love in that place last night. Maybe it sounds trite, but who cares. It was as musical as it gets. I was reminded what a proud, creative, sensational musician Steve is. What a deeply probing lyricist. What a good geezer. Underrated for most of his life, but it don't bother him none. He has everything he needs. 
The last gig? Who knows. Who can ever know. But if that was it, I'll have no complaints. Come up and see me.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY AT 40: THIS IS WHAT THE LYRICS ARE REALLY ABOUT!

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Queen fans have been arguing the toss for years.

Although 'Bohemian Rhapsody''s creator, the late Freddie Mercury, never explained the lyrics, declaring vaguely that they were 'just about relationships' with 'a bit of nonsense in the middle', conflicting theories about the song's true meaning are as rife today as they have ever been. While Queen's surviving members - guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and retired bassist John Deacon - have always protected their frontman's most closely-guarded secret, intense speculation persists.

Forty years this month since Queen's soaring, decadent magnum opus was originally released, I can reveal the song's true meaning. The 'baroque'n'roll' classic was not, contrary to popular belief, Freddie Mercury's attempt at writing a song to upstage Led Zeppelin's folk-rock epic 'Stairway to Heaven'. Nor was it merely a fictitious fantasy, describing a random individual confessing a murder to his mother, pleading poverty at his trial, and resigning himself to a tragic fate - never revealing the identity of whom he had killed, nor why. It could not have been, as has been widely reported, Freddie's lament about having become infected with the AIDS virus. He conceived the idea for the song in the late 1960s, and dabbled with it for years, only completing, recording and releasing it with the band in late 1975. He was not diagnosed as HIV positive until ten years later.

It wasn't even a deliberate 'showcase single' of everything this superlative rock band was capable of, not only musically and lyrically, but also collectively and individually - as numerous music scholars around the world believe. The truth, though simply, is infinitely more personal.

The song was recorded originally for Queen's studio LP 'A Night at the Opera'. Realising its chart potential, the band drummed up support among radio DJs such as Kenny Everett and 'Diddy' David Hamilton for the unusually long (5:55 minutes) album track to be released as a single. It was, despite having broken every rule in the pop-hit-writing manual, an instant commercial success. It became the Christmas single of 1975, held its own at the top of the UK singles chart for nine weeks, and had sold more than a million copies by the end of January 1976. The single was accompanied by an avant-garde promotional video directed by Bruce Gowers, which is still considered definitive and ground-breaking, and which kick-started the MTV pop-video boom.
It reigned at number one again in 1991 for five weeks following Mercury's death, eventually becoming the UK's third best-selling single of all time - after Elton John's 'Candle In the Wind/Something About the Way You Look Tonight' (reworked for the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997), and the 1984 Band Aid fund-raiser 'Do they Know it's Christmas'. It was thus the first same-version song ever to reach number one twice in the UK.

It also topped the charts in various foreign territories, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and The Netherlands. In the United States, the song originally peaked at number nine in 1976. It returned at number two in 1992 after getting an airing in the smash-hit movie 'Wayne's World'.

In 2004, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Seven years later, BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs listeners chose it as their all-time favourite pop song. In 2012, it topped an ITV nationwide poll to find "The Nation's Favourite Number One" over 60 years of music. It is reckoned that the song is still played somewhere in the world at least once every hour. Despite Queen having released a total of 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles and ten number one DVDs worldwide, making them one of the planet's best-selling rock acts, not to mention the fact that they are the only group in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, it remains the song that defines them, their most enduring work. Largely because of it, Queen have overtaken The Beatles to become the UK album chart leaders.

Although critical reaction was initially mixed, 'Bo Rap', the name by which it is known affectionately in the music business, frequently makes lists of the greatest songs of all time.

All this, without anyone but Freddie ever knowing what the song really means.

Lead guitarist Dr. Brian May has always acknowledged Freddie's sole authorship of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', saying that when the singer first turned up with it, 'he seemed to have the whole thing worked out in his head.'

It was, Brian said, 'an epic undertaking.' The song comprises an a capella introduction, an instrumental sequence of piano, guitar, bass and drums, a mock-operatic interlude and a loaded monster-rock crescendo, before fading into its contemplative 'nothing really matters' conclusion. To the rest of the band, the piece at first seemed insurmountable.

'We were all a bit mystified as to how he was going to link all these pieces,' admitted Brian.

The song fetched to life a host of obscure classical characters: Scaramouche, a clown from the Commedia dell'arte; 16th Century astronomer and father of modern science Galileo; Figaro, the principal character in Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville, and the Marriage of Figaro, from which operas by Paisiello, Rossini and Mozart had been composed; Beelzebub, identified in the Christian New Testament as Satan, Prince of Demons, and in Arabic as 'Lord of the Flies', or 'Lord of the heavenly dwelling'. Also from Arabic, the word bismillah is drawn: a noun from a phrase in the Qur'an meaning 'in the name of God, most gracious, most merciful'.

In 1986, I found myself in a hotel suite with Freddie Mercury, during Queen's 'A Kind of Magic' world tour. Having his undivided attention for a few moments, I put to him, not for the first time, my theory about these characters. Scaramouche, I ventured, had to be Freddie himself, with a penchant for the 'tears of a clown' motif. Galileo was obviously astronomer, astrophysicist and mathematician Brian May. Beelzebub must be Roger Taylor, the band's wildest party animal, while Figaro was perhaps not the operatic character at all, but the tuxedo kitten in Walt Disney's 1940 animated classic 'Pinocchio' - a dead ringer for 'pussy cat' John Deacon. Well, Freddie did adore his feline friends.

Freddie's face was a picture. He didn't say a word. He looked even more perplexed when I asked him about the song's inspiration. I suggested in so many words that it was, in fact, a thickly-disguised confession about his sexual orientation. Having been raised in a close, intensely religious Parsee community, adherents of the monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism dating back to 6th Century BC Persia (modern-day Iran), Freddie had never been at liberty to live a publicly flamboyant lifestyle. Not only would this have offended his parents, but their religion does not recognise nor tolerate homosexuality. He was never able to live openly as a gay man. He shared his life for seven years with devoted girlfriend Mary Austin, before admitting to her that he thought he might be bisexual.
'No, Freddie,' responded Mary, 'I think you're gay.' From then on, apart from a brief, intense affair with the late German actress Barbara Valentin in Munich in 1984, conducted at the same time as liaisons with two male partners, he had sexual relationships only with men. He did not refuse to discuss all this with me. What he said about these questions was 'bad timing!'

Only after Freddie's death from AIDS-related illness in November 1991, when I went to spend a week with his long-term live-in lover Jim Hutton at Jim's bungalow in County Carlow, south-east Ireland, did the truth about 'Bohemian Rhapsody' emerge.

One evening after supper, we took a stroll in Jim's garden, where he proudly showed me his lilac 'Blue Moon' roses, which Freddie had adored. The conversation turned to his former partner's most famous creation.

'You were right about 'Bohemian Rhapsody',' said Jim.

'Freddie was never going to admit it publicly, of course, because he always had to carry on the charade about being straight, for his family. But we did discuss it on numerous occasions. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' WAS Freddie's confessional. It was about how different his life could have been, and how much happier he might have been, had he just been able to be himself, the whole of his life. The world heard this song as a masterpiece of imagination, a great command of musical styles. It was this remarkable tapestry. It was so intricate and had so many layers, but the message, if hidden, was simple. Just as the management, the band, all of us in his life, never admitted that Freddie was even ill, not until the day before he died - because it was his business - he felt the same about this song.

'Not only that, but you'd have to say that he was a bit bored by the relentless interest in it. He didn't 'reveal' what it was all about because he couldn't be bothered. He had said all that he was ever going to say about it - which wasn't very much. Others have stated over the years that it was better for the song's true meaning never to be made public, because it would last much longer if its aura of mystique was maintained. I disagree. I don't think that matters. The song has proved itself over and over. It has stood the test of time. It isn't going anywhere. Freddie will be known throughout the world forever because of it.'

However convoluted and obscure, said Jim, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was 'Freddie as he truly was.'

Jim died of cancer in 2010.

During the course of my research for my biography of Freddie Mercury, I discussed the song at length with arguably the UK's greatest living lyricist, Sir Tim Rice. Having collaborated with Freddie on songs for the 'Barcelona' album with Montserrat Caballé, the co-creator of 'The Lion King' and 'Evita' knew Freddie better than most.

'It's fairly obvious to me that this was Freddie's coming out song,' Tim told me.
'I've even spoken to Roger Taylor about it. There is a very clear message contained in it. This is Freddie admitting that he is gay.

''Mama, I just killed a man': he's killed the old Freddie he was trying to be. The former image.

''Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he's dead': he's dead, the straight person he was originally. He's destroyed the man he was trying to be, and now this is him, trying to live with the new Freddie.

''I see a little silhouetto of a man'; that's him, still being haunted by what he's done and what he is.

'Every time I hear the record on the radio, I think of him trying to shake off one Freddie and embracing another - even all these years after his death. Do I think he managed it? I think he was in the process of managing it, rather well.

'Freddie was an exceptional lyricist, and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is beyond any doubt one of the great pieces of music of the twentieth century.'

There are further clues in a track from Queen's fifteenth and final studio album, 'Made In Heaven', which was released in 1995, four years after Freddie's death.

'A Winter's Tale' was Freddie's swansong. He wrote and composed the song in his Montreux apartment overlooking Lake Geneva, which he loved. The lyrics, describing all that he could see from his window, celebrate the peace and contentment he found there towards the end. The song's title is an homage to William Shakespeare's romantic play, and alludes to Freddie's early songwriting inspiration. One protagonist of the Shakespeare play is Polixenes, the King of Bohemia: an ancient kingdom which corresponds roughly to the modern-day Czech Republic. As such, it may have germinated 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. If, as presumed by many Bard scholars, this play was an allegory on the demise of Anne Boleyn, its character Perdita was based on the daughter of Anne and King Henry VIII, who would become Elizabeth 1st, England's Queen

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

Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones is published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, and in numerous translations worldwide

Friday, 9 October 2015

JOHN LENNON THE TORTURED GENIUS, ON WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN HIS 75TH BIRTHDAY

I wrote this piece for the Mumbai-based news and culture website The Wire, published today.


'The more I have, the more I see, and the more experience I get, the more confused I become as to who I am, and what the hell life is all about.'
John Lennon, 1965

I never met John Lennon. I came to the party a little too late. I was only just out of college and working for Chrysalis Records in London when the news broke that John had been killed. The ground floor of our West End building housed the production offices of AIR Studios, Beatles producer George Martin's recording business. The entire staff gathered in shock to mark the moment. I will never forget the look on George's face.

George had weathered with dignity, throughout the Seventies, endless public vitriol from his former charge. Lennon belittled George's 'influence' and input, and denied him credit, while McCartney, Harrison and Starr, George revealed, 'were always sweet.' Implacably loyal, George was of course distressed by the news of John's murder. There would not even be a funeral at which to pay his final respects. In the end, he fled to Montserrat, where he had opened his dream residential studio the previous year. He sat for hours, staring at the ocean, he later told me, while listening to Lennon in his head. The recording complex, indeed the whole island, would be flattened by Hurricane Hugo within the decade.

Only after John's death did I begin to cross paths with others who had shared John's life, and who shaped my understanding of him. Paul, George and Ringo. Maureen Starkey, Ringo's first wife, who became a good friend. Linda McCartney, with whom I collaborated briefly on 'Mac the Wife', a memoir which never progressed. Cynthia Lennon, who invited me to discuss a new book. Her first, 'A Twist of Lennon', published in 1978, had left a bitter taste. She had been so frustrated at not being able to communicate with John after he left her that she had written the book as a 'long, open letter to him, pouring it all out.' With hindsight, she said, she would have done it differently. Now that the dust had settled on John's death, she was keen to have another go. But she became immersed in a doomed restaurant venture, and the project was shelved. Years later, in 2005, she published 'John', a second memoir, which was much bolder and more confessional than her first.

As a journalist, I accompanied their son Julian to the Montreux Rock Festival during the mid-Eighties. I met Yoko numerous times in London and New York. Like everyone else, I read Philip Norman's 'Shout!', Peter Brown's and Steven Gaines's 'The Love You Make', that infamous Albert Goldman biography, Hunter Davies's 'The John Lennon Letters', and of course Marc Lewisohn's matchless 'Tune In'. Thus, like everyone else, I formed and borrowed opinions of a man I never knew.

Who can imagine what it was like to be a Beatle? Not even John Lennon, so it seems. All he had, at the height of the band's Sixties fame and significance, was a terrifying awareness of his own inner void. He was dogged by a deep sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction over the material things that fortune had afforded him. Neither recognition nor reward provided the answers to the questions that had tormented him since he had first begun to think about the meaning of life.

Sickened by his fear that 'this is all there is', John considered religion. At one point, he even asked God for a 'sign'. When nothing was forthcoming, he withdrew into his imagination, concluding that 'God' was simply energy that vibrates endlessly throughout the universe, and that it was probably benign. Still, he longed for a theme, a code to live by, that would shape his existence and give it a point. It was through drugs, principally LSD, that he landed on love.

An invitation for the Beatles to perform for the first live international satellite TV broadcast in June 1967, to an audience of four hundred million people around the globe, provided the perfect opportunity to promote his new theme to the world. Having fallen for his own publicity, John embarked on a mega-mission, to 'improve humanity'. This decision, however deluded, inspired the penning of the song they performed for that historic broadcast, 'All You Need is Love'. You want to save the world? Fit your own oxygen mask first. For what else is love but wanting to be loved?

But his stance chimed uncomfortably with the personality trait that had long kept him sane: his inherent cynicism. He clung to it nonetheless, a limpet to a rock, until Yoko Ono arrived and became that rock personified. Despite both the world's and the Beatles' rejection of this curious interloper, she was his constant, his one true thing. Into the sunset they strode, hand in hand, in search of world peace.

They would never get away with it today. But those were different, pre-politically correct times. One could still denounce the self-serving great and good and expose them for corruption, and go unpunished. John the peace-seeking missile hailed the human imagination as the key to salvation both collective and individual. His most famous and best-loved song, 'Imagine', took the three hottest taboo subjects, religion, patriotism and materialism, and coaxed us to consider them from alternative perspectives. In the absence of heaven and hell - it's easy if you try - there would be no fear of repercussion in the afterlife. Without frontiers - it isn't hard to do - we'd become citizens of the world, and could choose to live more harmoniously. As for overcoming our materialism - I wonder if you can - wouldn't the world be a better place if we could do what we were taught to do as children, and simply share?

'Imagine' was the distillation of everything that had hitherto preoccupied John Lennon. It reached for the stars in its attempt to inspire people from all walks of life, all over the world, and to transcend barriers of every kind. It succeeded, to a point, but was idealistic in the extreme. Look at us now.
*

Convicted assassin Mark Chapman aside: who, or what, really killed John Lennon? And when did the 'real' John Lennon die? For what is clear is that the four bullets which penetrated his body that fateful night in New York City on 8th December 1980 were just, so to speak, the final nail.

Was it his tragically dysfunctional upbringing, during which John was deserted by his father Freddie and virtually abandoned by his bohemian mother Julia into the care of her older sister, 'Aunt Mimi' - ? He subsequently lost his head to music, his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe to a brain tumour, his reckless mother in a car crash at the end of his street, and his heart to fellow student Cynthia Powell, who relieved him of his boyhood by getting pregnant and 'having' to marry him, long before he was ready for responsibilities. Consider his sexual dalliances with Beatles Svengali Brian Epstein; his self-damning declaration that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ; his secret true-love affair with British popular singer Alma Cogan, whose early death from cancer rendered him suicidal; how he was hijacked out of his ill-fated marriage by Yoko, a manipulative Japanese artist who decided to become his second wife, virtually giving up her daughter Kyoko in order to ensnare him, and destroying the band that had made her Intended a superstar.

Or was it John's own cruel, collapsible, convoluted personality that had been destroying him since early childhood? Had the women in his life emasculated him, and drained him of all but the will to live? How withered was he in later years by the guilt he felt over first wife Cynthia having to debase herself when her paltry divorce settlement ran dry, penning tawdry tell-alls, opening eateries, designing cheap bed linens, marrying chauffeurs to make ends meet? Was his left-wing activism, all that giving peace a chance, some cynical smokescreen for how little he really cared about mankind? Imagine no possessions, while owning planes and boats, infinite farms and multi-million dollar real estate? Do any of the tangled conspiracy theories that have gained traction down the decades hold water? Could the CIA and the FBI have been to blame?

*

Was music John's salvation? Probably not. He was a rod for his own back, in so many ways. In 'personalising the political, and politicising the personal', he made music too complicated for his own good. Never less than an artist of integrity, he challenged everything, even his own songwriting. He was the first to admit that his early lyrics were sexist, adjusting his approach to reflect his feminist side in later years. He believed fervently in the notion that popular music had a far more important job to do than simply entertain. He took risks, and often fell short, but seemed always true to himself... or as true as he could be. The Beatles excelled because they broke rock'n'roll's rules, both in song structure and in lyric-writing. The icing on their cake was John, whose sharp wit and sardonicism, whose love of riddles and puns and plays-on-words lifted their music into hitherto unheard realms. He experimented with the impossible, cramming mere pop songs with subliminal messages and layering them with clashing sentiments until they were almost too much. Listen to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' for proof. To the psychadelic 'Across the Universe'.

The so-called 'White Album', 'The Beatles', may be John at his most bitter, furious, frustrated, committed, mad, sad, vituperative, political and reflective. Then again, what about the 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono' band album, delivering his devastating denunciation of the Beatles - 'the dream is over' - and featuring the irresistible acoustic ballad 'Working Class Hero', John's gutted acknowledgement of what, thanks to global fame and unimaginable fortune, he was no longer able to be. Finally, from the last LP of his lifetime, 'Double Fantasy', 'Watching the Wheels': admitting why he stopped making music during the 'house-husband' years. Having found his own heaven on earth - domestic bliss, such as it was, with Yoko and his second son, Sean - 'I just had to let it go.'
*

What if he were here today? What sense might the seventy five-year old ex-Beatle have made of what our world has become? Would he have made the peace with McCartney that he denied his childhood friend towards the end? Might there even have been a Beatle reunion before George Harrison's death in 2001? I don't need to answer that one, do I.

John Lennon did the most important thing that a rock star can do: he died young. Instead of becoming a bloated, bitter, self-important old has-been with no new inspiration to share, rehashing the hits, busting a gut to write relevant songs and traipsing out endlessly on last-ever world tours, he was cut off in his prime and became a legend. He is preserved at that age, and for all that he stood for, into eternity.


Much of what we remember him for today may well be little more than an illusion. But from where I'm standing, it is not a bad way to go.  

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

KEYBOARD WIZARD WAKEMAN'S OUTRAGE OVER DROPPING OF MUSIC FROM NATIONAL CURRICULUM

Grumpy Old Rock Star Rick Wakeman, the former Strawbs and Yes keyboardist and globally-acclaimed solo artist whose career spans more than half a century, delivered an impassioned speech about music and the state of the industry at this year's Tom Olsen Lecture at the 'journalists' church' St. Bride's, Fleet Street, London last night. 
Focusing on the 'shameful' dropping of music from our schools' national curriculum, the prog-rocker also worked up a lather over the way our music industry has failed musicians, and blamed 'replacement' for the loss of musical genres and styles which all too often spells the collapse of earnings for its purveyors and performers. He also cited technology as something of a 'curse that at times outweighs its blessings'; called for the internet to be brought under greater control; for a greater range of professional orchestras to be restored; for formatted radio and playlists to be abolished in favour of the return of creative DJs with their own eclectic record collections; and for music to be widely available in proper shops again. In his heyday, he noted, London boasted no fewer than seventeen fully-functional recording studios, all of which he worked in. At the time of writing, there are but two.
The former Royal College of Music student told of his tuneful awakening at the age of five; of the realisation, at the advent of Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle, that anybody could be in a band; charmed his audience back through the 'Baroque & Roll' period of the 17th to mid 18th Centuries, when the first 'show-off musicians' came to the fore: Antonio Vivaldi, the wild-haired priest who performed in his clerical robes; and Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin, who toured to huge crowds, women fainting at their feet. Rick wrote the score for Ken Russell's mad 1975 movie 'Lisztomania' - think the Pope played by Ringo Starr, and priapic, prancing Roger Daltrey as Liszt - describing his mother's delight convoluting to horror as Rick's own role in the piece evolved.
His knowledge of the great classical composers proved to be beyond scholarly. He revealed his personal favourites, and what they mean to him: Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff ... Dawson (Les) ... and performed a hilarious pastiche of nursery rhymes showcasing their disparate styles.
The piece de r√©sistance was his recollection of Seventies pop star Cat Stevens - better known, today, as the education philanthropist Yusuf Islam - hiring Rick to compose, arrange and perform the glorious piano part on his rendition of the Christian hymn 'Morning has Broken' in 1971, for his album 'Teaser and the Firecat'. The original hymn being less than a minute long, it was Rick's inspired imaginings, trills, repetitions and key-changes which extended and brought it to life. For this, he was paid no more than the standard session musician's fee of £9 ... which he didn't actually receive for thirty seven years. The track, released as a single, was an international hit. It remains instantly recognisable almost forty five years later. Rick was never credited for his significant contribution, remarkably. He concludes, however, that the song is a beautiful piece of music 'that has helped bring people closer to religious truth', and is 'grateful' to have played a part in it.
As he performed it, eyes wide shut, tuned in to but oblivious of his audience, one could hear an eyelash drop. A most moving and magical event.

THE OLSEN LECTURE
Tom Olsen had a long career in journalism both in London and the provinces. He worked as reporter, leader-writer, editor and author. He had a great love of writing, whether under his own name, or under the nom de plume John Morrell. He was also a devotee of the grape, and spent the last fifteen years of his life as the wine correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.
Tom was an enthusiast for the Church of St Bride, which during his time shared Fleet Street with the nation’s press. When Tom died in 1987, it was felt that his memory should be perpetuated through a trust that bears his name, with the aim of furthering the work of St Bride’s. Over the years, lawyers, writers, politicians and others have given the annual address. Past speakers include David Attenborough, PD James, Peter Hitchens, The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Simpson, Lord Rees-Mogg, Sir Oliver Popplewell, Miss Jane Asher, the Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe, the Hon. George Osborne and Nigel Farage MEP. The lecture is an important sell-out event on the St. Bride's calendar.


Monday, 21 September 2015

RIP JACKIE COLLINS: CLASS TO THE LAST


Sad about Jackie Collins. I so admired her spirit and her guts. She was much-maligned and ridiculed, but was in fact a magnificently clever writer, who invented a genre from scratch and who wrote in the old-fashioned way: on foolscap pads, with pencils and felt-tip pens, never plotting or planning but allowing the stories and characters to flow from her head, and to bring themselves to life. The way she managed to weave and knot her intricate tales together was almost Dickensian.

She kept her illness to herself for six long years. She didn't even share with her sister Joan until a fortnight before the end. Only her three daughters knew. Rather than doing the woe-is-me cancer-diary thing for money (for whom??), she just went about her business as usual until the bittersweet end. It seems to me an infinitely more elegant way of dealing with death. I know, I know, it's not the done thing to say so, but aren't all these Lynda Bellingham-style memoirs only a way of going out in a blaze of glory, to compensate for the success that largely eluded them during their careers? Living her big life until the absolute last - she was here in the UK from her home in LA only last week, giving interviews on 'Loose Women' and the like - Jackie refused to give the ghastly disease column inches. That's classy. She was.

She was always very kind to me. I interviewed her several times over the years, most notably at the Ritz in London, with a newborn baby under my arm (I was breastfeeding). Jackie seized her, and sat nursing her and rocking her to sleep while I asked the questions. She later wrote to me to thank me 'soooo much!!!' for bringing my baby, on cream vellum personalised notepaper with 'Jackie Collins at the Ritz' embellished top-centre in royal blue. How cool. I have coveted such notepaper ever since.

Go well, JC. Much missed.


Saturday, 19 September 2015

LOVE, PAUL GAMBACCINI

Paul Gambaccini has been a friend and sometime colleague for more than thirty years. We have worked together on various television projects. I have eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner with him. I have been to parties at his house. I have filmed and recorded in his flat. I admire him greatly for his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of music, of course, but most of all because he's a decent and honest human being.

Paul's life collapsed in October 2013, when he was arrested at his home in the middle of the night. His belongings were seized, he was suspended from his job by the BBC, and wound up having to spend thousands of pounds of money he wasn't earning on lawyers, in order to clear his name. He describes the nightmare experience as 'a witch hunt'.

Shortly after his arrest, he made a brief appearance at a party at London's Hippodrome to celebrate 25 years of Capital Radio's Gold network. As usual, I was wielding the camera. There were many other veteran, household-name DJs present, some of whom were more than happy to line up with Paul and show solidarity ... and others who were not.

I am never easily shocked. But I was that day, by those who apparently thought that to be photographed with Paul would taint their own reputations.

Paul turned out to be entirely innocent of historical sex abuse. He was falsely accused, as so many have been, in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, under the investigation called Operation Yewtree. He has been, as they say, to hell and back. What kept him sane was the daily writing of a journal that became this book. As Stephen Fry remarked, Paul's story reads like 'a page-turning thriller'. 'Read it and get very angry!' added Elton John.

If you care about the monstrous collapse of this country's justice system, and if you recognise that what happened to Paul could just as easily happen to you, buy this book.


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

WE LOVE TO BOOGIE, 38 YEARS ON

Long before I embarked on the path that would take me on the road with rock stars, I discovered Marc Bolan. It happened in the back room of a boozer on Beckenham High Street one Sunday afternoon, where I'd been taken to a sitar workshop by Hy Money, my school friend Lisa Money's Indian photographer mother. We were only kids, and he left little impression, despite the fact that magic-carpet-y Tyrannosaurus Rex had been making albums for years. It was not until 'Ride a White Swan' that we got it. Marc's debut single as the electrified T. Rex transformed him, early in 1971, into a schoolgirl fantasy. Big scary rock stars were a bit much for squeaky little virgins to digest. It was of sweet, diminutive Marc that we dreamed, the universe reclining in our hair.

When I was invited to write a biography to mark his thirty fifth anniversary and what would have been his sixty fifth birthday, I could hardly say no. Three and a half decades on, there remained so many unanswered questions. Where facts are meagre, mythology rules. I started asking around, and was surprised. There were plenty of people left who'd been close to Marc. Why had they not told all? As Marc's oldest, closest friend Jeff Dexter, 'The Man Who Taught Britain to Twist' and who styled The Beatles a bit, put it, 'nobody had ever asked.'

T.Rex hits are oversewn into popular culture, thanks to constant exposure through film soundtracks, TV commercials and radio playlists. Despite the fact that these songs are as familiar to our children as they are to us, little was known about what made Marc tick. The many books about him, some of them excellent studies of and homages to the classic 20th Century Boy and his music, left me wondering about the boy born Mark Feld in London's deprived post-war East End, who had transformed himself into Bolan. There was someone unknown still in there. The tiny tot in the nest of Russian dolls. I went to find him.

It's a common theme, the lowly-born loser with an eye on the big-time. Sport and entertainment are classic escape routes from the ghetto. Marc probably never kicked a football in his life, but had been obsessed with rock'n'roll since he was small. He got his first guitar for his ninth birthday in 1956. He emulated a string of idols - Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan - before he found his true voice. Even that was an invention, a phlegmy gurgle crossed with a kid-goat's bleat, punctuated with the splutterings, groans and hiccups of carnal ecstasy. That he managed to deliver this with butter-mouth innocence was his USP. Having realised he was onto a winner, he worked it to the hilt. That was Marc.

America never really got Bolan. T. Rex scored only one Top Ten hit in the States. Theories abound as to why, but I believe it was no more complicated than Marc having been ahead of his time. During the Seventies, cowboy country liked its rockers rude. 'Rouge'n'roll' and glam androgyny offended. Times have changed. Take Queen: they had no career to speak of in the US at the time of Freddie Mercury's death in 1991. Look at them now. We're still talking, three years on, about Freddie's impact during the closing ceremony of London 2012. When the crowd joined in with his classic 'Eyyyy-Ohhhs!', it was as if Freddie himself was there, larger than life - which of course he is. Whether thanks to the global success of their stage musical 'We Will Rock You', or to the popularity of some of their most crashing numbers as sports-event anthems - 'We Are The Champions', 'Another One Bites the Dust' - America gets Queen as never before.

My definitive biography of Freddie, published as 'Mercury' in the US, is still selling around the world. I'll be delivering a lecture about his continuing influence at Chicago Ideas Week on 14th October. Would that I were able to do the same for Marc. Queen's career has lasted much longer, granted. Their catalogue is greater. Bolan left but a modest body of work, compared. Gone at twenty nine, he simply didn't live long enough.

Then again, there's 'Billy Elliot'. The soundtrack of this quintessentially English piece, which millions of American movie-goers embraced and remain enchanted by, featured 'Cosmic Dancer', 'Get it On (Bang A Gong)', 'I Love To Boogie', 'Children of the Revolution' and 'Ride a White Swan'. I've got a feeling that Marc and America are not done yet.

Remembering him always. Can it really be thirty eight years?

'Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan', published by Hodder & Stoughton


Sunday, 13 September 2015

SOUL SURVIVORS

'I cry ... but tears don't seem to help me carry on ...'

This is what soul sounds like. This is almost as good as being there on the night. Almost - because nothing can ever compare to the live musical experience. I used to say that singer-songwriter Jim Diamond underestimated his capabilities. I was wrong about that... because I clearly remember him standing his ground and refusing to dilute himself, or to compromise, at a time when the music industry was consumed by an all-pervading delirium that caused it to lose its grip on what was good. A lot of Emperor's New Clothes being worn back then. Too many panicky A&R guys out there, headless-chickening about, trying to sign the Next Big Thing and wasting budget on also-rans and never-would-bes. And look what happened to our music industry. Those same execs, I remember the conversations well, poured scorn on investment in the BRIT School. 'Fat lot of good that will do,' was the refrain. Gave us Amy Winehouse, Katie Melua, Leona Lewis, Adele and the rest, didn't it? Poor Amy, whose music will stand the test. What of the rest?

It takes ten thousand hours. Jim was one of those who spent them - and ten thousand more. He is still spending. He writes songs from the rawest edge of his heart, from the innermost membranes of his eyeballs. He has been to the brink, like the rest of us. He shares the pain and heartache. He scrawls rings around laughable X Factor wannabes who spout a bit of karaoke down the Nag's Head, then present as would-be pop stars, thinking that all it takes is the ability to gargle a passable vocal impersonation of Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran, Sam Cooke or Otis, and to 'want it soooo much'.

Listen, wannabes.

It takes a unique voice, that is instantly recognisable.

It takes guts and determination and an instinct for survival.

It takes hope.

It takes a long time.

I remain in awe of Jim's talent. Time has not withered him. Not by a minute. Age, today, is the least relevant factor. The longer you live, the better you get at this stuff - if indeed you had it in the first place. Our ailing record business needs to summon some courage, look in the mirror, rediscover its integrity and wise up to the true meaning of talent. Then it needs to persuade this precious one-off and others like him out of the wilderness. It doesn't grow on trees.