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.