In 1986 I spent a few days with Ken Russell and his wife Vivian in Borrowdale, near Keswick, where they lived in a stone cottage with ravishing views. We had arranged to talk about his horror flick, 'Gothic', and to film something 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 a huge fan of Ken's. 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 sex-crazed degenerate. The film, which also had a part for Ringo Starr and which was scored by 20th Century keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, was a flesh-filled romp which blasted Daltrey into the stratosphere, leaving audiences in no doubt as to his good points. What Ken c 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 they came around, the world understood that you couldn't catch it. I'm fond of the idea that one could.
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 nineteenth 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 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 New York drinking buddy Peter Myers.The mysteries of Derwentwater, I am happy to report, remain unsolved. Pete'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 imaginary echoes of what had occurred there that he fled all the way to the beacon summit.