Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

Vincent Glanvill writes …

It was 1994 and Rolf Harris had been booked to play our university hall. The hall was a good-sized venue, if a little run down, having lost some of its lustre since its Edwardian heyday. I was a second-year student and Iʼd already helped organise a couple of gigs; weʼd load all the equipment into the hall and help set up, then weʼd watch the gig, drink some of the band’s rider and stay just sober enough to pack up and load out at the end. Nominally in charge was one Mark Connolly (NB: not real name). Connolly was rarely sober for the three years that I knew him. Despite this, he generally managed to function in the role, which included booking bands for gigs. And, on one occasion, Connolly outdid himself and managed to book Rolf, at that time one of the most sought-after acts on the university circuit. 

Rolf was, of course, a TV legend and this was years before Operation Yewtree uncovered his misdeeds and destroyed his reputation . Back then, he seemed like everyoneʼs favourite uncle. He could draw, and cry about dogs being ill, and, kind of, sing. Rolfʼs version of Led Zeppelinʼs Stairway to Heaven re-launched his singing career: an implausible hit that led to an invitation to play Glastonbury, and projected Rolf back into the zeitgeist. He embarked upon a subsequent tour and thatʼs where I met him.

Rolf arrived dressed in a sheepskin waistcoat, with signature goatee, glasses and toothy grin all in place. He greeted everyone and made sure he shook hands with each of us. We helped the band set up, then Rolf joined them to sound check. They played Jake the Peg and Two Little Boys followed by a song with a didgeridoo, only Rolf mimed playing the didgeridoo; the keyboard player made the sound instead. I felt a little betrayed by this but put it down to the problems of feedback that a resonant instrument can create.

Rolf took Connolly aside after the sound check and said, ʻI’m going to need some help.ʼ Connolly volunteered me. Rolf took me back to his dressing room and produced a beaten-up leather suitcase. ʻWe always start with Jake,ʼ he said. ʻItʼs since Newcastle.ʼ He took a prosthetic leg and arm out of the suitcase and showed them to me. ʻStudents – they want the leg as a prize. Iʼll finish the song and wander over to you in the wings. Iʼll hand them to you, you put them straight into the suitcase and lock it in the dressing room. Straight away. We canʼt have another Newcastle. We canʼt risk losing the leg.ʼ I nodded and told him not to worry. ʻWould you like a drink?ʼ ʼI offered. ʻJust spring water. Iʼm teetotal. Have been for yearsʼ, replied Rolf. ʻDonʼt mind me having one?ʼ I asked. ʻNo, no,ʼ came the reply. Great! I thought. Thereʼs a whole rider of booze out there and he doesnʼt drink!

Rolf and his band opened their set around 9:30pm with Jake the Peg. Rolf hopped about the stage singing to the inebriated crowd, who went wild as they sang along to the chorus. The song seemed to end quickly and Rolf shambled over to take off his Jake overcoat and pass me the arm and the leg. I packed them in the suitcase, which I then secured in the dressing room. Mission accomplished, I grabbed another cider and returned to the side of the stage to enjoy the rest of the show.

As I climbed the stairs to the wings, I could tell something was wrong. I couldnʼt see Rolf. I stood in the wings, stage right, as the bassist and keyboard player started gesturing for me to come on stage. Rolf was on his knees at the front and a woman in the audience had taken the mic stand off him and was singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down into the microphone. I froze for a second. Where was Security? I ran on stage, pulled the mic stand out of the audience and swung it back in Rolfʼs direction, the microphone swinging at Rolfʼs head. He ducked at the last minute, grabbed the mic and seamlessly joined in with the verse as I tightened-up the screws on the stand. I realised there was no security, it was just me. Connolly hadnʼt left any money in the budget to book them and rather than stay to help was off doing lines of coke in a dressing room.

Full of cider and yet solely in charge, I faced a fresh problem with each new song: stage invasions by both men and women, who I escorted back to their place in the pit; people throwing drinks at the stage, me having to mop them up; women throwing underwear at Rolf, which I threw back. It was relentless. When the band started playing Waltzing Matilda, a woman mounted the stage and headed straight for Rolf. I started to escort her away, but this time the band gestured for me to stop. Rolf turned to me and winked, ʻThis oneʼs OKʼ. He took her hand and put his arm around her waist. ʻLetʼs waltz,ʼ he said and they danced around the stage as the audience sang the song.

The band ended with an obligatory encore of Stairway to Heaven then left the stage. ʻThat was worse than Newcastle. Where was Security?ʼ Rolf said as he clambered down the stairs.ʼ I lied and blamed the management of the University, knowing that this was all Connollyʼs fault. ʻShall I wait outside? Do you want some time alone?ʼ I asked Rolf. ʻNo, stay, itʼs fine.ʼ As I was taking a piss in the dressing room toilet, the door left open because the light was broken, the band came in with Connolly. Connolly, all jokes and banter, was wearing a white polyester suit and looked like an extra from Scarface. ʻHey Rolf, could you draw a Rolfaroo for my baby daughter?ʼ Connolly asked. ʻIʼd be happy to,’ replied Rolf. He drew the character with practiced ease and gave the page from his drawing pad to Connolly. ʻWould you like me to draw something for you too?ʼ Rolf asked me. ‘Oh, no thanks, I said. Then changed my mind. ʻActually, could you draw something for my brother? Heʼs nine. He loves your show.ʼ Rolf started to write my brotherʼs name and I quickly said ʻAnd maybe for me as well …ʼ

There was a knock at the door. I went over to answer. An attractive student was standing with one of the roadies. ‘Can I speak with Rolf?ʼ she asked. I started to say no, when I was interrupted by the roadie: ʻTell them what you wantʼ. Rolf came to the door. ʻIʼd like you to draw a little face on theseʼ she said, pulling up her top and bra to unveil her breasts to Rolfʼs face. I stepped back as Rolf grabbed his marker pen and set to work. He drew the same toothy grin on the womanʼs breasts that he had on his face.

ʻYeah! Thatʼs rock and roll!ʼ said Connolly.

Vincent Glanvill in his nineties pomp.

Never Trust A Hippy

The Drinker’s bathroom, 23 March 2021.

A few weeks ago I posted some accounts of domestic life with Keith Moon, which essentially consisted of all-day drinking and practical jokes. Moon made it to 32, overdosing on medication intended to combat his excessive drinking. In an earlier era, Charlie Parker managed to make it to 34, despite conducting his life as though it were an experiment in existential chaos. But anyone reading Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of the Anglo/Scots singer/songwriter John Martyn will wonder how this errant near-genius managed to make it to 60. (He died in 2009.) Booze runs through Thomson’s book like a flood from an exploding brewery and Martyn’s life story is a trajectory from the precocious teenager of his first LPs to the bloated, wheelchair-bound alcoholic who lost a leg to drink. (Martyn’s long goodbye to his leg was covered by the BBC in a 2005 documentary. I heard – anecdotally – that Martyn’s friend and collaborator Danny Thompson described John’s leg-loss as ‘a bit of a wake-up call‘.) Musically, Martyn had gone from sixties folk guitar merchant to seventies rock experimentalist, pioneering what became known – decades later – as ‘trip-hop’, before an association with Phil Collins led him into an eighties wilderness of jazz-funk and bad suits. (He made music to the end but his glory days ended around 1981.)

I read Thomson’s biography as a sort of part-time Martyn fan, a position that seems to be fairly standard for those interested in his work. He was nothing if not erratic and after he started making records with the Pope of Cheese even some of his most loyal fans drifted away. It seems that Martyn and Collins bonded over the ends of their respective marriages, but in John’s case he doesn’t seem to have connected cause and effect. John had been married to another singer-songwriter, Beverley Martyn née Kutner, and the pair started their marriage as a starry folk duo, before John sidelined Beverley’s career, leaving her to look after the kids whilst he went on a series of Rabelaisian tours in the company of bassist Danny Thompson. When he was at home, John’s behaviour became increasingly paranoid and threatening, eventually forcing Beverley to flee in fear for her life. Beverley’s take on this now is remarkably forgiving; she identifies the key flaw in Martyn’s personality as misogyny deriving from a lack of maternal contact in childhood. His parents separated when he was an infant and John was mostly brought up in Glasgow in the care of his father and grandmother; his mother re-married and stayed in Surrey. Contact with his mother seems to have been distant, although he spent summers with her at various addresses around Kingston-on-Thames, an environment he characterised as a riverside paradise, a stark contrast to the streetscapes of sixties Glasgow. (One early song testifies to his love of London’s riverine suburbia as well as projecting an aching image of parental abandonment.)

Whatever the underlying reason, Martyn was serially dreadful to the women in his life, frequently hitting them or absorbing them into his own addictions. (A later girlfriend proudly says that she had done kickboxing in her youth, so ‘he never landed a punch on me.’) He abandoned his children in infancy, and, when he finally did make contact with his teenage son, took him on tour, whereupon the kid acquired a heroin habit. Even other musicians are described as being wary of Martyn at the bar, or ducking his company in a social setting (he developed a John Belushi-like tendency to out-stay his welcome). The chaos increased as the musical output deteriorated and some of the vignettes in Thomson’s book offer startling testimony of a life in freefall. There are dark mutterings of ‘nightmarish’ benders on tour, with stops at every roadside bar, and indications that people started to turn up to his gigs just to see what state he was in (a situation undoubtedly fostered by his legendary appearance at the Mean Fiddler in 1987, when he went on stage three hours late, sang one song, threw up, and left). And the Glaswegian hard-man persona he developed would have tried anyone’s patience. At one point he gets beaten up by nameless men wielding an iron bar, another time he gets stabbed with his own knife during an altercation in Chicago. But he had the constitution of an ox and, gradually, came to resemble one. He returned to the jazz-folk milieu of his earlier career and managed to claw back a degree of personal and professional respectability, although the drinking remained heavy to the end. He expired a few weeks before he was due to receive an OBE, but he lived long enough to get a Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award, shunted out in his wheelchair a receive a mantelpiece trophy, a message from Eric Clapton and a kiss from Phil Collins.

I suppose this book has rattled me a little. I am old enough not to care too much about the personal failings of artists I admire, but when a documented wife-beater and delinquent father is quoted saying ‘quite literally, the most important things to me are my childrens’ smile and my woman’s love, one is inclined to think that clubbing with an iron bar was too good for him. Even without the gruesome personal life, John Martyn made an art form out of disappointment. He was consistently inconsistent and this applies to his most celebrated record, Solid Air. He was often twee and crass within the framework of the same LP. But, at least some of the time, it was worth putting up with the dross for the bits that were really visionary and unlike anything by anyone else. As a live act he was best encountered as a solo turn, playing his acoustic guitar through an Echoplex machine to create his own personal orchestra. I saw him a few times and was lucky enough to attend a small charity concert he gave in 1980 in Bourne Hall, Ewell, near the happier scenes of his youth. In front of an audience that consisted of every hippy left in Surrey, he played a sentimental and good-natured set, concluding with a haunting version of his greatest song. So … all right. Some forgiveness is in order. RIP.

At Home With Keith Moon

Keith Moon at Tara, early ’70s. Photo Alec Byrne. (Not commercial use!)

Stories of Keith Moon’s behaviour on the road and on the town are the backbone of rock music’s mythic past, that never-never land which seems as remote now as the England of Byrd and Dowland. Moon’s biographer Tony Fletcher suggests that the drummer’s hyperactivity and penchant for breaking things were symptoms of undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder, aggravated by the fact that he played in a band that parlayed violent destruction as performance art. By the early Seventies The Who’s huge success finally gave them a chance to have a breather from back-to-back touring and recording. Unfortunately, Keith wasn’t very good at sitting still and had no real interests beyond drumming for The Who. Nevertheless, he did the rock star thing and bought a country house for himself and his wife and young daughter. But it wasn’t deep in the countryside: the house was in Chertsey, inside the present-day perimeter of the M25, thus within striking distance of London’s clubs, and of a startlingly contemporary design. He bought it from film director Peter ‘Italian Job’ Collinson, who had built it on the site of a Victorian house he had blown up for a war film. (Apparently Collinson bombed the old house because he’d been refused planning permission to extend it: the film featuring its destruction is called The Long Day’s Dying.) Collinson called the new house Tara, and seems to have designed it himself; but no sooner had he finished it, in 1971, he decided to move to Los Angeles and put the house up for sale. Tara was an essay in futuristic opulence, a rambling agglomeration consisting of five pyramid-capped structures set in five secluded acres near a lovely stretch of the Thames: the ideal playground for a hyperactive man-child with time on his hands. (Although, tellingly, the one thing Tara lacked was a drum kit: Moon didn’t practice at home.)

Keith and John Entwistle with their vehicles at Tara: the Cadillac is Entwistle’s, the milk float is Keith’s. (Not commercial use!)

It was at Tara that many of the urban legends associated with Moon originated. It was here that he acquired a stable of cars that he couldn’t drive, including a Ferrari (that got wrecked), a hovercraft and a milk float. And it was here that he accidentally backed a Rolls Royce into a shallow duck pond, giving birth to the quintessential rock image of a Rolls submerged in a swimming pool. It was also during his tenure at Tara that Moon’s personality changed, errant playfulness curdling into something darker. His reliance on booze (principally brandy and champagne) became chronic, and the house became base of operations for his ongoing assault upon the straight world. The relentless japes and jokes and dressing up (as Hitler or Marilyn Monroe or Long John Silver, and usually in the company of Viv Stanshall) were reportedly hilarious or desperate or both: Keith never knew when to stop. Moon’s young wife Kim lasted a couple of years at Tara before she finally fled, taking her daughter but leaving her mother, who sounds almost as damaged as Keith. An account by a visitor:

‘Tara was like a sort of trap. In the morning or whenever people were awakened, you’d be aroused with a large gin and tonic or a Joan Collins, which was Keith’s mother-in-law’s own specially lethal version of Tom Collins. What were considered light drinks were imbibed during the day – gin, vodka, Pimms, beer alternating between the pub and the house. After six o’clock, though, it was serious drinking. Joan would switch from gin to Bells or Teachers whisky and Keith would switch from beer, or whatever, to cognac. The problem was that the days were all one long blur. Each hangover was hidden with yet more gin breakfasts in bed and so another round of semi-tired silliness would start’. (Richard Barnes, Maximum R&B, a biography of The Who.)

Fletcher’s biography contains a poignant anecdote from Jeff Beck, who visited Tara after Keith’s marriage had broken up, ostensibly because Moon wanted to sell Beck one of his cars (a fabulously ugly American ‘hot rod’; Beck demurred). The afternoon came and went, Keith gave Beck a tour of the house, warning him of the dog shit in every room, illustrating the custom-built cupboards full of junk that immediately fell out, playing Beck’s hit single Beck’s Bolero on a vintage jukebox that then repeated it over and over and over again. Meanwhile, Keith’s stunning but nameless girlfriend flitted about looking anxious, and ended up in bed with Beck. Next morning Beck and Keith’s girlfriend were woken by industrial noise coming from outside: it was Moon riding his hovercraft onto the lawn. Later, they went to the local pub with Beck driving Moon’s other Rolls-Royce, a drop-top Corniche. The pub regulars were fond enough of Keith to be a bit wary of Beck, seeing him as perhaps yet another hanger-on, but then it was back to Tara, Moon and the girl taking their clothes off in the back of the Rolls, surf music on the sound system, as Beck narrowly avoided wrecking the big car on an unexpected roundabout. Beck summed up his experience chez Moon thus:

He just seemed to have opened up all the sluices to enjoy life more, and this house was a piece of man-made nonsense which was a fashion accessory that enabled him to do what he wanted in the middle of nowhere. … He gave me the impression that the thought of staying more than two hours on his own there would be a torture. It looked like it and it smelled like it. (Quoted in Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon.)

On the town, somewhere … via Rex Features (not commercial use!)

Shortly thereafter, Moon followed in the footsteps of Tara’s creator and headed to Los Angeles, where he stayed for four years. He ended up selling Tara to another rock musician, Kevin Godley of 10cc. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, Tara was not memorialised as a relic of rock’s golden age, or even as a piece of ambitious Seventies architecture: in 1990 Godley sold it to Vince Clarke, he of Erasure, who promptly levelled it and constructed his own millennial fantasy home on the site. But Moon was long dead by then, having expired in 1978 at the age of 32: an overdose from prescribed medication for alcohol addiction. (News of Moon’s death didn’t reach the planning committee of the 2012 London Olympic Games, who got in touch with The Who’s management to see if he was available to play at the opening ceremony.) As for Peter Collinson, he succumbed to lung cancer in 1980, just 44 years old.

More photos of Keith at Tara here.