Wednesday, 25 March 2015

ALL ABOUT THAT VOICE

Let's not start an argument about the most distinctive voices in popular music, we could be here all night. You - Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Chrissie Hynde. Him - Gotta be Bjork. Me - Ethel Merman – go with me, who else has ever sounded like her? While we're on it, Dusty. And, and.

The men? You're shoving me in that piranha pool? Smokey, Stevie, Marvin? Bee Gees? The growling ghost with a bourbon in each hand, aka Tom Waits? Maybe the fearless falsetto, trembling tenor and vibrant vibrato of Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Or Neil Young. Or Jeff Buckley. Or Lou Reed. Or Robert Plant. Or Marc Bolan's choking goat. But I have to land on Freddie Mercury's 4.5-octave range, those top notes clearer than yon crystal Alpine lake. Like Mary Poppins, practically perfect pitch in every way. There'll never be another him.

I hear you, Bob Dylan- and Elvis- and Bowie-voters. They fall, for me, into the category of Voices Easily Imitated. In order to be truly unique, genuinely inimitable, the voice needs to be not only instantly recognisable, but also impossible for anyone else to impersonate. I'm thinking Costello instead of Presley. Tony Bennett instead of Frank Sinatra.  Boy George.

What prompted this pointless musing (since we are never going to agree)? A remark made by my friend Nick Fitzherbert last night, en route to a rarer-than-sheep-in-make-up gig by one of the most distinctive voices in popular music: Jim Diamond. I'll own up here - Jim Diamond has been my cherished friend for more than thirty years. We once did a radio show together, with our other great chum, Bill Padley, on Radio Clyde. Those Friday nights in the Holiday Inn Glasgow after broadcast inevitably ended in the pool. I'd like to say that I perfected the art of flying with a hangover so consuming, it caused the retinas to detach for the duration. I never did.

Back to the recuhds. Nick was bemoaning his daughter's adoration of Sam Smith, newly nutrified and toned and slimlined, just like his bank account since a certain Tom refused to back down. Petty vacant, but just the start. He pulled up some Diamond Geezer and gave her a listen. I'm picturing scales confettying from Eliza's eyes.

Jim Diamond was running rings around the greats with that voice decades before the Sam Smith sperm was spawned. He's just a little guy, but the voice spews like lava from a volcano. It's arresting. I remember Pete Townshend telling Jim years ago in a gym that his voice was a 'priceless gem', to be preserved at all costs and never squandered. Jim was so proud, he told me that story every time we met for about ten years.

You're thinking, Jim who? Maybe you're going, oh yeah, PhD, 'I Won't Let You Down', and that other one, the Number One he threw away when he told everyone to rush out and buy the Band Aid single the following week at Christmas 1984, feed the world. 'I Should Have Known Better'. Or you're humming 'Hi Ho Silver' and grinning from ear to there at the memory of the late actor Michael Elphick, star of the show and Jim's mate.

Few know that Jim is a soul singer at heart. He summons pain from the depths and joy from the heavens. He is bashful when introducing his own compositions, shamelessly tearful when announcing 'this beautiful thing' by Smokey (My Girl), 'a lifelong favourite' (Stand By Me), or the Beatles' 'Eleanor Rigby'. He hasn't performed in public for years, other than for charity. Getting him up on stage at the Half Moon Putney was a fluke. A genius fluke.

He's still got it. 'One of our great underestimated talents,' as the great Keith Altham describes him. Yet another of rock's unsung heroes, the voices that got away. Voices that should have soared all the way to Coutts and beyond the international space station, but never quite did. He's still Jim. Unshakably rooted in the Scottish homeland he eulogises as he remembers his Daddy, the late fireman whom he adored. He acknowledges the song that 'bought the house.' He dedicates songs to his friends, his children, his beautiful wife Chrissie – 'the one thing that is always there, that has always been there, constant, no matter what.' We all have that, Jim? No, we don't. We'd all like that.

There are so many things to love about this man and that voice. He knows he is blessed. He gives thanks for his gift. If only the bastard would splash it around a bit more. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

HAPPY 98TH BIRTHDAY, DAME VERA LYNN, AND SORRY ABOUT THE SOUP

Not a lot of people know that I nearly killed Dame Vera Lynn with a saucepan of soup.
Not many can say that they've washed a Dame's kitchen floor, either. Not that it wasn't spotless when I arrived.
Paul Gambaccini, producer Clare Bramley, a camera crew, a jolly make-up lady and I trekked to her home in Ditchling, Sussex, to film a television special. When came the time to make tea, I volunteered, Girl Guide-ly, to wash the cups. Just as she was digging out the Fairy from under the sink, in through the back door, smack-adjacent to the draining board, came DVL's daughter Virginia (who lives next-door) with said saucepan of soup for Mother's lunch. Startled by the flung-open door, I jumped, knocking the pan flying and its steaming contents all over everyone present. At least I caught the brunt of it. I spent the rest of the day looking as though I had vomited down myself.
Our hostess chortled like a drain, not turning a snowy hair. I understood why as I listened to her talking about trips to Burma during the Second World War, when she endured long, arduous journeys by seaplane and on foot to bring a little bit of home to our far-flung, homesick troops.
'I slept on a stretcher between two chairs,' she confided. ''There wasn't always water to drink, let alone wash with, and dinner was very often a bowl of rice with a spoonful of jam. It didn't bother me. Those were the conditions our boys were putting up with. Who was I to demand better? They were the ones who were risking their lives, not me.'
She was 93 at the time of our interview. Her face was beautiful still. She looked almost childlike. There was a most poignant moment in her bedroom, while she was dressing for the shoot, when she couldn't bend down to do up her shoes. She asked me whether I'd mind doing it. To this day I can barely believe that I knelt at the feet of, and buckled the shoes of, one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century.
Divas take note. All those backstage demands, all those far-fetched contract riders - piles of fluffy white towels, Smarties with the orange ones taken out, crates of perfectly-chilled Bollinger, yes you, Madonna - you're having a laugh. The game Dame, even then a legend and an entire nation's sweetheart, left her toddler daughter at home and suffered extreme hardship in order to entertain servicemen offering their lives in the name of liberty. Truly, there ain't nothing like a Dame.
There'll Always Be an England. We'll Meet Again. Happy 98th Birthday, dear DVL.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

REDMAYNE RADIATES AS HAWKING

'The concept of heaven is a myth,' said Stephen Hawking, who shares his birthday with Elvis Presley and David Bowie, thought I'd just throw that in.
Such a notion is 'a fairy story for people afraid of the dark. We are each free to believe what we want, and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no after-life either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.'
Who would presume to argue with a man who thinks in eleven dimensions? After you. I'd been resisting 'The Theory of Everything', having found his wife Jane's published backward glances harrowing enough - how in heaven or on Earth did they manage, and with three kids - but finally today, still dreading it, I succumbed.
We know the bigger picture: the brilliant cosmologist and theoretical physicist, the modern Newton, the latter-day Einstein, struck down in his prime by illness that crippled everything but his brain; who gave us the Big Bang theory of how time and space began; who suggested our Black Hole ending; who blinded us with the science of Hawking Radiation. Most of us bought a copy of A Brief History of Time when it was published originally. Few of us got beyond the third chapter, if that. I used to leave mine on the top of the pile on the coffee table, to kid potential boyfriends that I was bright.There's a good deal I'd like to know about Quantum Theory and General Relativity. I knew I wouldn't find it in this film. Just as well, perhaps. This level of science is beyond me.
I'm limp at films, too. I can't be doing with horror flicks or action pics, or thrillers, or weepies, or most comedy. The murder-mystery-suspense genre leaves me dry. I am unhinged to the point of apoplexy by directors and screen writers who adapt novels I have loved, but who confound things by changing the ending. What for? I never expect much at the cinema. I go infrequently. I saw Meryl Streep in 'Sophie's Choice' in 1982, and cried for three weeks. I managed 'The Imitation Game', and adored Cumberbatch, but was irritated to read afterwards of the movie's infidelity towards Alan Turing's true life story. I was sorry for Benedict when he didn't bag the Oscar, but, having seen Eddie Redmayne's performance today, it was beyond inevitable.
There is little praise I can add to the downpour that has drenched Redmayne. At 33, he has already given the finest performance of his life. He is perhaps Ben Kingsley, post-'Gandhi'. Nothing he does in future will ever match up.
His minute observation of Hawking's gradual deterioration as the ALS (a form of Motor Neurone disease) consumes him, is agonising to watch. The compensations are never rammed home, but are clear: his new-found ability to see equations in geometric terms; his learning to communicate through a speech-generating computer, albeit in an American accent; the long-term devotion of a determined and selfless wife (Felicity Jones) who gave the best years of her life before his head was turned, not by a paralysed muscle jerking miraculously back to life, but by a flirty nurse. He divorced Jane, and married Elaine. Then divorced her, too. Rumour has it she used to beat him up. The police were involved at one point, but Hawking refused to press charges. Nowt so queer.
The doctor who diagnosed his illness when Hawking was 21 gave him two years. Yet here he is, 73, still writing, publishing, professing. Still reaching for the stars. Maybe wishing on them. Still hell-bent on flying to the moon, one day.
He posed his famous open question on the 'net in 2006.
'In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race survive another hundred years?'
He doesn't know the answer to that.
What he knows, as we know, is that we are under threat from 'sudden nuclear war, a genetically-engineered virus, other dangers we have not yet thought of.' He believes space exploration and the colonisation of space to be vital for the continuation of the human race. He affirms that the universe is governed by the laws of science.
'The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.'
Perhaps he has reconciled himself to the concept of God after all. The 'theory of everything'? All relative.


Wednesday, 4 March 2015

NO DUNCE ... IN CELEBRATION OF WORLD BOOK DAY

It being World Book Day, I felt like sharing a nice reading list of 20th Century English literature that publisher and friend Mike Timperley wrote for me donkeys ago. Book lists are subjective, of course. Newspapers and colour supplements publish them periodically. They are only someone's opinion, and they matter not, in the scheme. But why not.
I have a shred of newsprint stuck to my office wall entitled 'The Johnson Top Twenty'. Whoever Johnson is, when he/she is or was at home. He/she puts Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' at number one, which is good, because I've got my dad's old hardback copy from school. There are a few others in there that tally with Mike's selection; and others, like Anthony Trollope, that I'm afraid I can't bear.
Anyway, for the record, here are Mike's. I agree with all of them, except for the absence of Leslie Poles Hartley's 'The Go-Between'. The novel has haunted me for years, not only because of its truly arresting opening line: 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.' An ageing man looking back on shocking things that happened during his childhood unearths painful memories that have been 'buried for all these years, but they were there, I knew, the more complete, the more unforgettable, for being carefully embalmed ...'
The faithful 1971 screen adaptation, with its stark screenplay by Harold Pinter, starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates in one of the most erotic pairings ever committed to film. Fifty thousand shades, and little grey.
Lucky Jim    Kinglsey Amis
Earthly Powers    Anthony Burgess
The Naked Lunch    William Burroughs
As I Lay Dying    William Faulkner
The Great Gatsby    F. Scott Fitzgerald
The French Lieutenant's Woman    John Fowles
Cold Comfort Farm    Stella Gibbon
A Burnt-Out Case    Graham Greene
Catch 22    Joseph Heller
A Farewell to Arms    Ernest Hemingway
Brave New World    Aldous Huxley
On the Road    Jack Kerouac
Sons and Lovers    D.H. Lawrence
The Golden Notebook    Doris Lessing
The Naked and the Dead    Norman Mailer
Of Human Bondage    W. Somerset Maugham
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter    Carson McCullers
The Pursuit of Love    Nancy Mitford
The Poor Mouth    Flann O'Brien
1984    George Orwell
The Catcher in the Rye    J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath    John Steinbeck
Slaughterhouse Five    Kurt Vonnegut Jr
Brideshead Revisited    Evelyn Waugh
To the Lighthouse    Virginia Woolf

So he didn't choose John Kennedy Toole's 'A Confederacy of Dunces'. Such a tragic novel. Unable to get it published, the author took his own life. His mother refused to give up on it, however. It became a best-seller, a classic. Gustave Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary' is missing too, but he is forgiven that one. 
It was written in French.

Monday, 2 March 2015

KEN RUSSELL KNEW THAT BOWIE & BOLAN WERE THE NEW BYRON & SHELLEY

In 1986 I spent a few days with Ken Russell and his wife Vivian in Borrowdale, near Keswick, where they lived in an idyllic stone cottage with ravishing views. We had arranged to talk about his horror flick, 'Gothic', and to film something or other for something or other for Channel 4. Ken and I went out one afternoon in a rowing boat on Derwentwater. We took what we could find in his fridge: a bottle of Laurent Perrier, two KitKats, a lump of Kendal mint cake and a head of uncooked broccoli. The cameraman, relegated to a second boat, was bringing up the rear.

I was, am, a huge fan of Russell. His 1975 film adaptation of The Who's rock opera 'Tommy' is a minor masterpiece. On the back of its success, Ken cast Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt in 'Lisztomania', portraying the 19th Century Hungarian composer and concert pianist as a fabulously sex-crazed degenerate. The movie, which also had a part for Ringo Starr and which was scored by 20th Century keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, was an extreme flesh-filled romp which blasted Daltrey into the stratosphere, leaving audiences in no doubt as to his good points. What Ken cleverly served up in this feature, beside tongue-in-cheek sex, was one of the world's biggest rock stars playing the world's first-ever rock star.

Lisztomania, or Liszt Fever as it was known at the time, was a 'medical condition' identified by Heinrich Heine in his 1844 paper on the Paris concert season, during which fan frenzy during Liszt's intense performances was so hysterical - with women tearing out his hair, snatching his cigar butts and almost killing each other for his gloves and handkerchiefs - that it was declared contagious. It pre-echoed Frank Sinatra's bobby soxers during the Fifties, the Beatlemania of the Sixties, the T. Rextasy of the Seventies. By the time those phenomena came around, the world understood that you couldn't catch it. I rather like the idea that one still can.

Factions of the media denounced Ken as a dirty old man on the release of 'Lisztomania'. 'Not dirty enough!' barked Ken. 

He'd made an earlier film called 'Clouds of Glory', about the Lake District poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. He was 'a sucker' for 19th Century Romantics, he said. We agreed that the closest thing to mad, bad Byron's relationship with Shelley, in rock terms, was David Bowie's with Marc Bolan. 
'You have to make that film,' I said.
'Yes, I feel a special affection for Byron and his club foot - rather, his cloven hoof,' Ken mused. 'You do realise that people regarded him as the devil.'
'Bowie would love it,' I said, 'you must do it.'
'Trouble is,' replied Ken, 'I know too much. I'll have to wait until David is dead as well.'
Ken died in November 2011, that dream and countless others unfulfilled.

While in the US a couple of years ago, I happened to visit an enthralling exhibition on the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley at the New York Library. As I read of Shelley the intellectual waif being taken under the wing of the more robust and influential Lord Byron, and of how their explosive friendship developed, that conversation with Ken on Derwentwater all those years ago came flooding back to me. The relationship between the two young Romantics was more significant than any other pairing in their lives. Each was the other's Yeatsian mask, projecting alternative aspects rather than opposites. Their intense conversations and interactions informed each other's poetry.There was rivalry and animosity; recklessness and emotional fall-out; boozing, drug-taking, complications with women; there was scandalous free love.Yet despite all this, the friendship endured, until Shelley died in tragic circumstances in 1822, at the age of 29. When his body was cremated on the beach near Viareggio, northern Tuscany, Byron was present. Mythology attached to the circumstances of Shelley's death lingers to this day. Then there was Marc Bolan ... who died in tragic circumstances in 1977, at the age of 29. When Marc's body was cremated in Golders Green, London, David Bowie was present. Mythology attached to the circumstances of Marc's death lingers to this day ... 

I drove past Ken's old Borrowdale place this weekend, during a visit to my best New York drinking partnerPeter Myers.The mysteries of Derwentwater, I am happy to report, remain unsolved. Peter's Keswick cottage is on Wordsworth Street, which reminded me of Marc Bolan's fascination with the poet, who lent his name to Marc's and his brother Harry's London school. Mark, as he was then, found himself relating to all manner of facts about William's early life. As a child, Wordsworth had 'heard the moors breathing down his shirt collar.' He imagined cliffs pursuing him across the water as he rowed his boat on the lake. Once, as he lingered on the hills beyond Penrith Beacon, close to the execution site of a local murderer, he became so terrorised by the echoes of what had occurred there that he fled all the way to the beacon summit. 

Wordsworth understood from a very young age that his psychological awareness and emotional fragility were the keys to his creativity. Nothing much changes. Everything does. It was good to be back.