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.

Wine Bar Nostalgia

Not Le Beaujolais … somewhere in London, probably 1960s and definitely chilly, Evening Standard archives.

Just off the Charing Cross Rd., on Litchfield St., is Le Beaujolais: a friendly, uber-French wine bar that has been here since 1972 – an aeon in catering terms. The 1970s and 80s were, of course, the great age of the wine bar, those civilized venues that allowed business types to get shitfaced in a drinking environment that flattered their sense of status more than any mere pub could manage. At the much missed Le Tartin (more on that below) I remember two suits so drunk on Muscadet and workplace hilarity that one of them laughed himself off his bar stool with a full- throated executive guffaw. After being solicitously helped to his feet by the ever-deadpan barman Bernard, he resumed his seat and continued his anecdote with nerveless determination: ‘Anyway …’

In that everyday world that now feels so remote, Le Beaujolais was the best place to have a leisurely lunch that extended into tea-time and beyond, hanging on to your table as the bar gradually filled and grew raucous around you. By that time you would probably have to hang on to your table in order to stand; so, if you ever get a chance to try this, the important thing is to have a substantial meal, not some evanescent platter of cold meats that merely gives the illusion of solid food. This is vital. And, as the pace is set by the drinker with the fastest pouring arm, choice of company is key if you are to avoid disaster. But, seeing as most of my friends are happy to help me steal an afternoon, I have experienced many afternoons that slid effortlessly into purple evening: ‘Like putting your liver on a pole at the bottom of the garden and throwing darts at it’. (A phrase coined by an old family friend.)

One example from a few years ago: man-about-town Miles R. joined me in Le Beaujolais for a light lunch scheduled between appointments. Somehow, these appointments were duly forgotten (I reassure myself that they can’t have been too important, although I cannot in truth remember whether they were or not) as we melted our credit cards in pursuit of some sort of higher fellowship in booze. Sometime around six we were joined by our friend and colleague Tom H. – who was visibly alarmed by our condition – at which point I remembered that I had promised to escort an expectant stranger to a singles party. As I was too drunk to meet the girl myself, Tom kindly met her at the appointed street corner and brought her to me at Le Beaujolais, whereupon she wondered what sort of evening she had signed up for. My memory gets a bit hazy after that, although she was smart enough to slip any attachment to me as soon as we reached the event, leaving me marooned and pissed in a room full of groomed and glossy strangers. I left quietly, struggling my way home to bed and dreams of gorgeous women with fat men. Oh, the humanity.

A view of Rose St. and Garrick St. taken in the early 1980s by Paul Barkshire; the chefs are taking a break from the kitchen of L’Estaminet.

Opposite the Garrick, on the corner of Rose St., there used to be a restaurant called L’Estaminet, which had a terrific wine bar in its basement: Le Tartin. Behind the counter you would find Bernard (bespectacled, austere), Gerard (an endearing shambles) and a revolving quota of gamine waitresses whose function was to smile at the regulars’ jokes and give them dreams of a better life. It was a time-warped oasis in the grinding metropolis, offering a far more intimate experience than any other London bar or club I can think of. I was a regular there for about seven years, until that sad evening when my regular visit revealed the dead hand of new management. Bewildered, I retreated to the nearby Le Beaujolais where I learnt the sorry tale of the departure of Bernard, Gerard et al. The staff of Le Beaujolais were sympathetic to my distress, because they understood what I had become: an exile.

Fortunately, Bernard (I never knew his surname) later ran a spartan but first-rate wine bar in Fitzovia: Manouche. I was a regular here for quite some time, although this particular bar has very mixed memories for me. It is associated in my mind with a particularly fraught relationship which was largely conducted in this bar, given that my beloved’s estranged husband was still living in the family home, and ultimately the affair began and ended here. After a promising beginning, my star began to wane and after a while I could chart my flagging appeal in between trips to the gents. I remember that they had an elaborate cartoon on the wall above the urinal, a coloured pencil drawing portraying in extravagant detail a gathering of early 1980s public figures in some imagined super-bar. That image is burned on to my retina, and is associated with boundless promise and total failure.

Manouche is long gone. Last time I looked, the site was occupied by a branch of the London Cocktail Club. This concern seems to be gobbling up wine bars; they have already annexed The Grapes, that strange, rambling bar beneath the Shaftesbury Theatre (point of departure for a memorable Christmas-time episode that you can read about here). I visited the Grapes in its London Cocktail Club guise a couple of years ago: the bar layout was unchanged but the place purveyed a youthful, slightly gothic vibe. Changing demographics, I suppose. These new bars aren’t suitable venues for dissatisfied middle-aged men to pursue doomed affairs with unavailable women. Then again, in the time of Covid, where are people supposed to go to conduct their inappropriate liaisons? You can’t even meet over a cup of tea, as Trevor and Celia were obliged to do in that awful station café. Can you get all misty-eyed and tragic and Brief Encounter-ish on a Zoom call? Discuss.

Trevor Howard falls in love with Celia Johnson’s hat: ‘Brief Encounter’, directed by David Lean, 1945.