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Celebrities, Fashion, Music, Opinion

The gospel according to Beth Ditto, the Gossip front woman and plus-size fashion designer: how to wear Spanx, why polyamory is in and what to do when you bump into Madonna (literally)

Ginny Dougary
The Times
september 2010

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto is wasted. She’s been on tour around Europe for the past eight weeks with her band the Gossip, and she’s barely had two hours’ sleep a night. So has the self-professed grandma of rock’n’roll – with her love of crocheting, baking and fixing her girlfriends’ hairdos – finally succumbed to its more grungy side? No, as it turns out, what’s been keeping her awake is trying to figure out the way the world works, with her best friend and manager, Tara (pronounced, confusingly, in the Southern way, to rhyme with Bear) with whom she is sharing her hotel room.

“So last night we had this crazy conversation, talking about the idea of what opinion is, what fact is, and what judgment is and, like, how those are three different things,” she explains, while munching on a bag of some kind of crunchy, dried fruit. “And how people have this idea that opinion is fact when they see a movie or read a book and how the left does it to the right wing and the right wing does it to the left.”

She’s also bothered that journalism is in danger of dying: “Because we all know that anybody can have a blog and be followed and believed – and it’s, like, people who think they’re so smart and so with it but they don’t even stop to write properly.

“Now, you have to follow me here, because I’m a little woo-woo, but it’s like in medieval times with all these major powers – London existing as a huge city, or Rome – and outside there were all these tiny groups that didn’t really have a voice and now all these little groups do have a voice, for the first time ever. [Like] rural Arkansas [where she was born and brought up] has a voice and those people have never experienced anything of the world.”

Beth Ditto is a most unusual person, quite apart from her status as the most (if not the only) well-known, fashionable, proud-to-be-fat lesbian rock chick, with her clutch of awards and accolades: NME’s Coolest Person in Rock in 2006; nominated for NME’s Sexiest Woman of the Year in 2007; winning Glamour’s International Musician in 2008. She is obviously thoughtful but also fun and seems to enjoy speaking her mind, regardless or – often without thinking – of the consequences.

Take her comments about Kate Moss, who later became a friend. “I was a punk and to me she was just a blonde, skinny, white girl…” Which is why you said that she was boring? “Well, I’d never talked to her [then] and I was coming more from a pop culture point of view.”

The Gossip’s most recent album in 2009, Music for Men, had some hands-on honing by the American producer and co-president of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. A legend in the music business, and listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Rubin invited Ditto to his home to work on lyrics. I told her I’d read somewhere that she’d said, “I’ve always said that the Gossip are a band I would go see, not a band I would listen to.”

“Yeah, I have always said that but it hurt Rick Rubin – he even called me, which is rare, because he’s an e-mailer,” she says. “He was, like, ‘I read that you said you wouldn’t listen to the Gossip but you would go see them – but we worked really hard on this record and that’s not fair.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh I never really thought about it like that.’ ”

As a performer, Ditto certainly seems to give her all. I went to one of the Gossip’s gigs last year at the old Town & Country Club in London and the place was heaving with a huge variety of people: lots of gay men (among whom Ditto has a big following), patches of punks with peroxide mohawks, some mothers and daughters, and people of advancing years as well as young, studenty types.

When Ditto ran onto the stage, the crowd went into a collective swoon. She was wearing one of her more improbable outfits, which resembled a baby’s short romper suit, but in black lurex, cinched with a belt. Her hair was tomato red and cut in a shiny, boyish bob. What was most remarkable about her performance was her energy; she tore across the stage, strutted (to screams from the audience) and sang her heart out, despite suffering from bronchitis.

After several encores (including Tina Turner’s, one of Ditto’s heroines, What’s Love Got to Do with It), she went down among the audience and then finished the night with a sort of motivational speech: “F*** what anyone thinks of you because you mean everything to me. If you don’t get the respect that you are due, then demand the respect – in the nicest possible way.

“It’s a big, big world. Take it and make it a good world because it’s up to us. Like my mama said to me: ‘Mary Beth Ditto, they are not going to eat you and spit you out.’ ”

I went up to her dressing room after the gig, expecting her to look sweaty after all her exertions, but her make-up was as flawless as her manners, and she was as poised as a Southern belle – albeit an unorthodox one – who had been doing nothing more arduous than reclining on a rocker on a verandah, sipping a mint julep.

She may hang out with the fashion crowd but she does not share that world’s enthusiasm for Class A drugs. Although she later tells me, in her scrupulous way: “I have taken ecstasy four times, probably, since we last spoke [eight months previously]. I have taken four in my life.” But not cocaine? “Oh my God, I would never do that. I feel I can talk a lot anyway, I can dance all night anyway, and I can sweat by myself… I can sit in sweat.

“But I do understand now why people feel that they need drugs [on tour]… because your body doesn’t know where it is and you are seriously burning the candle at both ends, and it’s lonely, you know.”
The Gossip’s electrifying performances are fuelled by a revolting-sounding cocktail which their guitarist, Nathan, invented and named “Whiskey Business” – a blend of sugar-free Red Bull and Jameson’s. “It tastes gross,” Ditto grins. “Like if you took three children’s vitamins and ground them up with a teaspoon of water, but it’s awesome.”

The next time we meet is at a studio where Ditto is modelling her second collection of plus-size clothes at Evans. There is a rail of dresses and tops behind a screen and a particularly sexy cotton jersey maxi number in black, with plunging neckline and Grecian folds which cunningly conceal a large tummy. The murky khaki version of it Ditto has on really suits her, with her milk-white skin and dark eyes. There are Sixties shifts in great retro patterns to be worn with leggings, which she has designed with a long waist to stop that annoying business of forever having to hoick them up. One of the engagingly practical aspects about Ditto is that she is absolutely committed to creating fashion that is comfortable as well as cool.

After the interview that takes place after the shoot, during which we spoke mainly about gender politics and her love life, I send Ditto some follow-up questions via e-mail about the nitty-gritty of looking good when you are large, such as: How important is underwear? You mentioned the joys of Spanx, for instance. Do you believe in the importance of a good bra? Are you into French camiknickers or no knickers at all?

Some weeks later, she came back with detailed replies and here is an edited extract:
“i am an underwear fanatic. i’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of panties and have been since i can remember. i like to mix comfort and cuteness. underwear are not cute when they’re bunched up or ill fitting. we all know what can go wrong with a poor pair. i am always on the look out for a perfect combination of stretch, cotton and lace. comfort is confidence in my opinion, and confidence is sexy and beautiful.

“i love spanx for 100 reasons. there’s no rubbing. for me, spanx accentuate shape without concealing your body. they truly are a revolution. i remember all my proms wearing snap at the crotch old school girdles. the misery and discomfort is ungodly, not to mention the work it took to undo them just to go to the bathroom.

“when i was a teenager i achieved the same results of spanx with tights that were a size too big and pulled them up to right under my bosom. so there’s still that option, for a cheaper solution.”
Back at the fashion shoot, Ditto is crouching and pouting, wearing her Evans gear as well as some torturous-looking super-high stilettoes. Her Australian hairdresser, Lyndell, tweaks her hair, her make-up artist is around – apparently this process takes two-and-a-half hours – and presumably Cedric, her stylist, as well as Tara on stand-by. Ditto hands a bag of dirty laundry to one of her entourage, saying that she will wash her underwear herself, and we take off to her hotel.

She has a number of heroines, one of whom is Vivienne Westwood, whose giant yellow Anglomania T-shirt she is wearing as a dress. “I love her for a lot of reasons,” she says, as we sit around a table in the hotel suite. “Number one, I really do think she invented punk. Number two, she’s an activist and she’s more of an activist now than she ever was.

“I’ve met her only one time and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ And I was, like, ‘You’re not really supposed to – you’re Vivienne Westwood, you know.’ ”

Ditto was born in Searcy, Arkansas, and christened Mary Beth Patterson. Her mother was a nurse, now 53, who worked long hours supporting her family of 7 children. Mary Beth’s father left when she was young and was replaced by a number of stepfathers, the most significant of whom was Homer Ditto, whose surname Beth adopted.

“There were too many kids and not enough bedrooms,” she says. “Like I’d take a bath with the door open and not even think about it because there was no privacy.”

So what’s your mother like? “She’s kinda like me only she’s a little more reserved. I think she wanted me to do the things that she always wanted to do. Not like, you know, ‘Wow! A free spirit,’ but to let go of all the hang-ups she had about herself, and her voice and her insecurities…”

Her voice? “Oh, she is an amazing singer and a loud person. She held my nose to teach me how to use my diaphragm.” (Her daughter learnt how to sing gospel in choirs at school and at church.)
She describes her upbringing as “really Southern old-style… with my mom, there was always a baby and my sister rocks her kids to sleep, and my brothers rock their kids to sleep, just like my mom rocked us to sleep. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to hold a baby.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s like holding a football. Just gimme that kid.’ I’ve always loved babies and I’ve always loved kids.”
At the age of 18, Ditto was rescued from the life she had envisioned for herself of being either a full-time mom or a hairdresser, when her friend Kathy Mendonca, the original drummer of the Gossip (now a midwife), sent her a ticket to Olympia, in Washington state. She describes it as “a magical place. Things have been created there, which have caught on in the pop culture, which are incredible and just couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

From there, she moved to her present home in Portland, Oregon, which she says is equally amazing: “It’s dyke city, with a huge fat-positive scene and huge feminist scene.”
In January, this year, she broke up with her girlfriend of the past nine years, Freddie, who identifies herself as a man. There had been tensions in their relationship for some time and Ditto had written a song, Love Long Distance, about their difficulties: “Call yourself a romantic, let me explain/ Been across the Atlantic and back again/ I had it with your antics, your childish games.”

What went wrong? “We didn’t drift, we didn’t explode; we just had incredible differences that were unresolvable. The things that were wrong four years ago [when she wrote the song] were the same things that were wrong when we broke up. I was never given an ultimatum, but the only thing I was not willing to give up was the Gossip.

“There was a lot of judgment, like, ‘You’re joining the fashion world,’ and somebody who calls Kate Moss boring and then all of a sudden becomes friends with her and all of a sudden has this respect for her because you’ve been thrown into this world you didn’t understand before but now I git [get] it… Like being in front of the camera today, I understand that it is a job and it’s really tiring and you’re actually giving a lot.”

Part of the problem was the age difference between her and Freddie, who was seven years her senior: “I think I was malleable and impressionable… I’m almost 30 now, not 20 any more, and the difference is crazy, although I still have a lot of growing to do, of course.

“I didn’t realise until after we broke up that I was always jealous of his exes and really felt threatened by them. I was the first fat girl that he’d ever dated and that was really strange. When Freddie and I first started dating we were open [sexually] and I f***in’ hated it. It destroyed my self-esteem and I blamed him for it for so long.

“I really tried for him to be the one but it was such hard work all the time. I’m not someone who gives up easily because I’m such a monogamist… well, a serial monogamist. The part of me that is feminist doesn’t like the idea of competition between girls and what we do to each other and how we tear each other apart. But I also don’t think polyamory is helpful for me anyway.”

Did you say “polyamory”? “Yeah. That’s a new thing that’s goin’ around these days.”
Anyway, they both have new girlfriends now. Ditto is with Kristin, who has been one of her best friends since she was 19: “She’s Asian – Japanese/Chinese – and very beautiful and handsome.
“She’s really into Hesher… Do you know what Hesher is?” Nope. “Like really heavy metal psych rock. And her hair is LHB.

Do you know what LHB is?” Afraid not. “A long-haired butch.” Ah. “She’s two years older than me and she’s taller than me – five foot four – which is awesome.”

What does she do? “She’s my assistant now!” A big gurgle of a laugh. “But she was a waitress and before that she wanted to be a doctor and went to school [college] for seven years. She’s an only child – so different from my family. Really sweet and really gentle.”

It turns out that the two have harboured a secret passion for each other for years – “a really crazy secret love, although it wasn’t that secret because everybody knew about it, I think, even Freddie” – and they plan to have a baby together. “Kristin is the one for me, for sure, and we’ve talked about having a baby and if it’s a girl we will call her Yoko.”

She says that although her girlfriend is the “butch” and she is the “femme”, she believes that no one person is all one thing or the other: “Like in our house, if something’s broke there’s no way Kristin would fix it – I would be the one to fix it even though I’m the femme.”

I wonder whether now that she is such a celebrity, Ditto has groupies lining up to hang out with her. “No, I don’t. You can ask Kristin. But I don’t read people’s sexual energy very well unless I know them – and sex is something which is really intimate.
“Also, it’s not like you’re going to find a closeted butch woman who’s gonna sleep with you as a femme but you will find a closeted femme that will sleep with a butch.”

Well, unlike the folks she left behind, Ditto certainly has seen something of the world…whether it is the radical, gay, green, punk, feminist scene in Portland or the glamour and glitz of the entertainment business which she is still a little bemused to find herself in, bumping (literally, much to her consternation: “Everybody went white as a sheet”) into Madonna at Pedro Almodóvar’s party. Debbie Harry, another of her heroines, was there, and Penélope Cruz. “And I was, like,” she whispers, “ ‘How the hell did I get invited to this party?’ ”

The Ditto of her late twenties, as she says, is very different from the girl who escaped from small-town Arkansas and, although there are some signs of the trappings of stardom (the rider for the shoot, for one, with an insane list of requirements, including a particular sort of water and tofu; the large entourage; the controlling management), she still retains a sense of perspective about her good fortune.

“I identify with all the things that are going on in Portland, but I feel like I have a window into life that other people there don’t have…Like I get to make a living out of art. And I don’t know many people that get to make a middle-class living. Middle class is rich where I’m from. Our slogan in the Gossip when someone starts to bitch about something really ridiculous is ‘Shut up and quit your bitchin’, cos you’re rich.’ You know, we’re lucky basically.”

I spoke to a fashion magazine editor before interviewing Ditto and she said that she found the whole Dittomania thing offensive and even a bit cruel. But I couldn’t agree less. On each occasion that I’ve seen Ditto on television – with Jonathan Ross, for instance – or in her print interviews, she has always seemed far too original and bright, with her own unshowy self-assurance, to allow herself to be patronised.

Still, I ask her, as Tara hovers to wrap things up before another sleepless night of philosophical debate, how she feels when people say that she is like a fetish or a mascot. “Well, what’s wrong with being a mascot? You know, they can treat me that way but I don’t care. You realise really quickly, from growing up poor, who your friends are.

“And you quickly learn that it’s not about making enemies your friends; it’s about making more friends and forgetting about enemies anyway. I mean it’s just ridiculous to me because everybody is someone’s mascot and someone’s fetish. Right?”

There’s nothing“ditto” about Ditto and I mean that, as she would say, in the nicest possible way.

Music

Leonard Bernstein: ‘charismatic, pompous – and a great father’

The Times March 13, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

His daughter Nina tells Ginny Dougary about the joys and traumas of life with one of music’s greats

bernstein

Had you been fortunate enough to be in the company of the most charismatic American conductor-composer- teacher-broadcaster of all time for long enough, it is likely that you would have heard this explosion at regular intervals in living rooms and auditoriums across the world: “That’s STEIN!” whenever someone affronted the late, great Leonard Bernstein by introducing him incorrectly as “BernSTEEN.”

His youngest child, Nina, now 48, is talking to me about her father, whose life and art is being celebrated all year at the Southbank Centre. It’s a tantalising and illuminating process attempting to channel such an exuberantly talented man through the women who were close to him (I also speak to Marin Alsop, the conductor, who was his protégée) but ultimately frustrating since everything you hear — good and bad — just makes you wish, even more, that you had met him.

Bernstein’s appetite for life and people and music, as well as his reckless disregard for his health and the judgmentalism of the bien-pensants, can be summed up by this statement: “I was diagnosed with emphysema in my mid-twenties and [was supposed] to be dead by 45. Then 55.

“Well, I beat the rap. I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I screw around. I’m over-committed on all fronts.” And this was on the eve of his 70th birthday. Two years later, the rap finally did beat him but, as Nina says: “Conductors are supposed to live for ever but he packed several lives’ worth into one. I think he had a good innings.”

It’s hard for a child, of whatever age, to see his or her parent through the eyes of the world and it becomes clear that Nina has pretty conflicted views of her father. While she obviously adored him and had huge respect for his musicianship, she still seems bruised from the fallout of his notoriously complicated personal life.

Bernstein was born of Ukrainian Jewish parents in 1918 in Massachusetts. After studying music at Harvard he swiftly claimed a reputation as a thrilling and flamboyant conductor, sometimes frowned upon, often leaping up from the podium or swooning in a lover’s ecstasy.

He brought classical music to millions — writing the great American opera West Side Story, conducting at the Berlin Wall in 1989, helping to popularise Mahler — and championed radical political causes, including, notoriously, the Black Panthers.

Nina is aware of how attractive her father was: “He was quite, yeah [“quite” in the American sense of “very”], and charismatic, and telegenic and photogenic.” But when I ask whether she was aware of his amazingly (by all accounts) sexual presence, she says, “No, not particularly.” Well, he was sexy — he even equated sex with music, famously asking a colleague, when considering whether to conduct Mahler’s reconstituted Tenth Symphony: “I have one question. Will it give me an orgasm?” But Nina says: “That’s not the card he played. That’s not what he led with in life. At least, not as far as I could tell.”

Alsop, 53, the artistic director of the Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre, was reared on the maestro’s enthralling Young People’s Concerts, which were televised from 1958 to 1973, and describes him as her childhood hero. They met when she was a teenager and her father was playing violin in West Side Story with José Carreras as Tony.

In her twenties she played violin with the New York Philharmonic in a couple of concerts that Bernstein conducted but she was 30 before, as she puts it, “he actually acknowledged that I existed”. Alsop was one of the young conductors who was selected to work with him, and they worked closely together in his final years.

She talks about “life going into slow motion for me — whether I was playing with him in the orchestra or even attending rehearsals, I still remember every moment”. I ask her did she, like so many people who came into his orbit, fall in love with him? “Absolutely,” she says. “It was the lure of his charisma and his enormous appeal. Even at 70, when he was not in the best physical shape, there was an attractiveness to his personality. He had the ability — which sent me over the moon — of making you feel that no one else but you existed.

“That summer of ’88, when I was accepted as a conducting Fellow at Tanglewood, I felt a magical connection with him. I felt very close to him and tried to be around him whenever I could. He used to love to write poetry and he wrote me a birthday poem which was very personal, and which I have in a book at home.”

I remind Alsop of something rather less flattering that she disclosed about Bernstein’s tutelage when she participated in a discussion about women and leadership at the Southbank. (As the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she knows a thing or two about the subject; in 2007, when she became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, there was an outcry — “You’d have thought the destruction of Rome, or at least Baltimore, was imminent,” she recalls.) As Bernstein’s conducting student at Tanglewood, she was told by him: “I can’t understand it. When I close my eyes, I forget that you’re a woman.”

To this she replied, possibly rather tartly: “Well, if it makes you more comfortable, why don’t you just keep your eyes closed.” Bernstein may have been very generous with many people but, she says, “he was a man who was both ahead of his time and of his time, and he was not really comfortable with a woman being on the podium.

“He was conservative in his own particular way. Clearly, he was comfortable with being sexual in many different ways and yet he wanted a traditional life, with a wife and children to whom he was devoted. He was a complex, complex man, and complex people have complex personal lives.”

One of Berstein’s enduring quotes, perhaps because it exemplifies his approach, is: “Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.” His daughter Nina’s film, which is called Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace, is part documentary — following her sister Jamie, ten years her senior (Alexander, their brother, is also a bearer of the Bernstein flame), around the world, from China to Cuba, as she spreads the maestro’s message to young musicians, while they are taught the complex rhythms of West Side Story — and part family memoir.

The old home movies show Lenny — as he was almost universally known — at the family house in Fairfield, Connecticut, being a captivating dad, rolling around with his children on the lawn, playing the prankster, tootling ditties on the piano and appreciating his beautiful wife, Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean actress, to whom he returned from his affairs with men, again and again, until, one day, he didn’t.

Nina was 13 when her parents split up. “My mother was a fairly conventional lady and so she expected to be treated like one. The deal was that he would be discreet and that she would maintain her dignity. And then he was not discreet [Felicia found him in bed with his lover, a young music researcher, Tom Cothran, whom he had met in San Franciso in 1973], and so that was that.”

Bernstein and Cothran moved in to a New York apartment together, in Central Park South in 1976, then Felicia found that she had lung cancer and, guilt-stricken, her husband moved back to be with her until she died, too young at 56, in 1978.

Nina knew Cothran (who died of Aids) and liked him. “The whole thing was terribly awkward and painful.” I say to her that many marriages do come adrift and yet, with enough care from the parents, the children can emerge relatively unscathed. But she does not agree, retorting quite sharply: “I don’t know that that’s possible.”

For all the Bernsteins, the break-up was compounded not only by it being conducted under the full floodlights of fame but, more significantly, the onset of Felicia’s terminal cancer; as though the shock of the final public humiliation had led to her premature death. And it was Nina, with her older siblings having flown the coop, who was left to bear the brunt of her mother’s despair, followed by her father falling apart after her mother’s death.

When I ask her whether she has forgiven her father for leaving her mother, she says: “That’s a complicated question. Initially it was all much too confusing for me. My 13-year-old mind didn’t really understand what was going on except that I knew my mother was in terrible pain. But then, of course, he came back after she got sick and by then it was all too late. And … it was a ghastly business, just awful.”

Are you still scarred by it? “Probably. But, you know, we’ve all had our opportunities at therapy.” Now when you think of him, is it still complicated? “Of course. It will always be complicated.” Do you swing between thinking, “You were just unbelievable” to “You bastard!” “All those things, yes.” Is there anything you would have liked to have said to him? Would you have been able to tell him that he was a selfish person? “No, because it wouldn’t have done much good. I was only 28 when he died — so I wasn’t really in a position to say that.”

What about your sister, who I can imagine being quite feisty? “She may have had it out with him. And don’t get me wrong, I was no mouse. I stood up to him a great deal and somebody even said he was afraid of me.

“I guess it was because I wasn’t shy about telling him how I felt sometimes — and that wasn’t always met with appreciation either. But it was only on a couple of occasions that we rowed.”

She talks about his depressions, as well as his manic moments, but when I ask whether he suffered from manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s called now, she says: “I don’t know whether that’s a useful question, sorry. Well, what would we have done about it? Would he have been put on some kind of medication? And then what would have happened?” After Felicia died, he was in “a slough of despond” for many months: “It was so bad. And then, I remember this very clearly, he snapped out of it and we all went on vacation over Christmas, to Jamaica, and we finally had him back.”

Fairfield seems to have been the place where, certainly when his wife was alive, Bernstein was at his most uncomplicatedly happiest; enjoying his lively young family, who kept him in his place. “He could be pompous and it’s one thing to be pompous for the fans and put on that persona, but don’t try it around us. You know, ‘Save it for the podium’, was the family credo.” There was a lot of laughter and game-playing involving words, such as anagrams.

The family also had its own language of sorts: Rybernian, which Bernstein and a childhood friend, Eddie Ryback (the lingo was an amalgam of their names) invented: “It’s basically a way of mispronouncing things — Yiddish words as well as people who just talk funny.” It’s hard for an outsider to fathom quite how it works but Bernstein would launch into Rybernian until the day he died, and his offspring still use it. “I love you” becomes “Mu-la-du”, to which the correct response, apparently, is “Mu-la-dumus”, which means “I love you more”. And when Bernstein took on airs, his kids would speak to him in Rybernian — “We’d say ‘La-lutt’ [shut up] and that would bring him right down to earth.”

I wonder what it’s like being the offspring of someone so famous; Rebecca Miller, for instance, daughter of Arthur, battled with feelings of being a “bottom-feeder” until she found her own voice as a writer.

“You grow up and all your life people are saying, ‘Are you musical? What do you play?’ It’s the inevitable question. We all took piano lessons but … Well, here I am in a line of work that is completely, diametrically, different from anything to do with Leonard Bernstein. I teach kids to cook and love food and there’s nothing about Leonard Bernstein in that.”

She is married to Rudd Simmons, a film producer (High Fidelity, The Road) — and at work she is known by her married name.

“When I fell in love with him, I was so proud because he was nothing like Leonard Bernstein — almost the other extreme. And now ten years into the marriage, I realise he’s a lot like him — not in his behaviour but in the dynamics of our relationship. How could I have known?”

All three siblings do their bit to keep their father’s name alive: Nina is the archivist; Alexander runs the family foundation; Jamie does concerts for young people “much in the style of our father; although she’s not musician enough to handle the musical examples — she does the talking, and she’s really good at it”.

What was her father like about ageing? “He was miserable about it. Terrified. When he turned 70, there was all this fuss being made and he was in a terrible mood because he felt he had reached his biblical span of three score years and ten, and anything beyond that was borrowed time.

“It might have hastened his end — but what do I know? His last words were, ‘What’s this?’ And ‘this’, of course, I like to think, was just the next big thing.”

Bernstein died without having created work on the scale of, say, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. “What he really wanted to do was the big opera, and that never came,” Nina says. He didn’t even get a Tony for West Side Story (Music Man, with its hit song 76 Trombones, did): “My father had written a big aria — you’d have to call it an aria — for Maria at the end of the show. But it got cut, and so now she just speaks the lines: ‘How many bullets are left, Chino? How many bullets can I shoot and still have one left for me?’ It was decided that it was inappropriate to have a big dramatic operatic ending. In his correspondence to my mother he writes that ‘All my favourite parts, the best parts, are being cut for being too operatic’.”

Oh dear. He sounds quite jaundiced? “I think he was plenty proud of what ended up on stage. Jaundiced? Heavens, no!”

Although it’s probably fair to say that Bernstein is still best known for West Side Story — part of the thrust of the Southbank celebration is to introduce audiences to his other works, from The Age of Anxiety to his Mass. “Of course, I don’t even need to put the CD on, as I’ve got Radio Nina in my head. Some days, I think, ‘I’ll hum through Candide from start to finish’, for instance, and that’s a lot of fun.”

In this way she can stay close to her father for ever: “I was thinking, when we were talking about the film, how damn lucky we are. Most people when they lose their parents have a few photographs or home movies to cling to by ways of remembering them. But we are so surrounded by images and videos and music; it’s like being able to visit him.

“I find it comforting and then heartbreaking because what you crave is just to sit and have a laugh with him. He was a great hugger — a real neck-breaker — and that’s what you really want because, in the end, I’m not a scholar of Bernstein, I’m just his daughter.”

* * *

Leonard Bernstein’s What Does Music Mean? is screened in the Clore Ballroom, Festival Hall, tomorrow. Marin Alsop conducts The Age of Anxiety with the London Philharmonic on April 21, and Mahler’s Symphony No 2 on May 9.

Music, Theatre

Even Lloyd Webber isn’t sure why Phantom of the Opera is his biggest hit

The Times February 13, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

webber

As a sequel to the Phantom opens, he talks about his new ‘almost cool’ status, his father’s roving eye — and the joy of a dirty joke

Andrew Lloyd Webber has his kind face on and is looking straight into my eyes as I sing: “Your looks are laughable, unphoto-graphable, but you’re my favourite work of art . . .”

No, alas, I am not the new Dorothy and this attempt at My Funny Valentine, in the back of a black cab, is the closest I could get to being auditioned by His Lordship. “Mmmm,” he murmurs, tactfully, “it’s rather nice, actually.”

We have left behind a long queue of would-be Dorothys snaking around the block. Inside the building in London’s theatre district are hundreds more hopefuls sitting in rows behind a glass façade, and upstairs flanked against a wall are the girls who are about to be called up to sing for the cameras. Following on from his search for Maria, Joseph, and Nancy from Oliver!, Lloyd Webber’s next TV talent show is Over the Rainbow.

One of the wannabes has the number 7,402 on a label on her chest — by the time the series is ready to roll, there will have been 10,000 young women all over England singing Judy Garland’s classic tune.

There was a time when Lloyd Webber — in the wake of his divorce from his first wife, Sarah Hughill, and his marriage to Sarah Brightman, whom he refers to as Sarah 2 — was the nadir of naff. The success of his early musicals with Tim Rice — Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, et al — eclipsed some of the later flops (The Beautiful Game, The Woman in White). But, quite apart from his portfolio of properties (Cap Ferrat, Belgravia, the country estate in Berkshire), the Pre-Raphaelite collection, the Canaletto and the Picasso, his air of haughtiness, masking a certain social awkwardness, did not endear him either to the press or the public. His puggish looks, which were mercilessly caricatured, also did not help.

But now, if he is not quite a national treasure, Lloyd Webber is certainly close to being the nation’s Funny Valentine. With his arch humour and genuine warmth for the kids on his popular television shows, it is possible that he is even in danger of becoming — amazingly — almost cool.

He is certainly keen to push the bad taste envelope as far as he can, once managing the feat of fazing his TV host, Jonathan Ross. Sarah Brightman had got the ball rolling, by enthusing about the enormity of her ex’s penis, on Graham Norton’s show. “I know, and I discuss it with Graham Norton frequently [Norton and Lloyd Webber, of course, do a double act on the BBC reality shows]. I thought it was very funny but as I said to Jonathan, ‘She always had a big mouth’ — which took the wind out of his sails a bit.” Then he adds: “What I do on television is exactly what I do in my private life. What I do all the time — and if I make naughty jokes I make naughty jokes. I’m sorry but it’s what I do.”

We had been introduced at various do’s before this meeting, and the overriding impression he conveyed was of slightly bibulous campness. I can’t be the first person to have made this observation because over lunch in Rules, London’s oldest (distinctly theatrical) restaurant, Lloyd Webber jokes: “Well, you never can tell, can you? I keep saying, ‘I’ve got five children and three wives and it’s a complete front!’ But if I were gay, I have to admit that in my current condition there’s nothing much I could do about it. I would be rather disappointing.”

This is a reference to his recently operated-on prostate gland, which he decided, against all advice from his minders, to make public. You’re fine now, are you? “Yah – ish,” he says. Are you frighened of dying?

“I don’t think that’s going to happen but I’m going to have to keep my eye on it. Be a bit careful. It was a little more complicated in my case but it hasn’t migrated so far.”

Aren’t you meant to be conserving your energy? “Well, yes, but I’ve thrown myself into the busiest schedule that I’ve ever thrown myself into. I have been told that I really should look after myself a bit and not do so much but . . .”

But … well, some chance, frankly. By the time we meet, I am pretty much Lloyd Webbered out. The night before, I attended a performance of The Phantom of the Opera, still packing them in a quarter of a century on, since our maestro is about to unleash its sequel, Love Never Dies. I can’t bring myself to tell him quite what a miserable time I had, although my enthusiasm for the new project — “It’s more psychological … less hammy, more modern” — must have conveyed something.

Why does he think people like Phantom so much? “I’ve often tried to put my finger on what it is. We know that people have been to see the show hundreds of times — insane in my view — and changed their names to Christine Daaé.

“I don’t know what it is. If you sat down and analysed the story of the original Phantom, it’s the biggest load of hokum that’s ever been written … but it’s a piece of really great popular theatre entertainment and, in all modesty, it’s got some good tunes.”

I tell him that I am not really a musicals person (although, oddly, I did attempt one myself) but I do recognise that apart from Lloyd Webber, 61, and Stephen Sondheim, 79, with their rather different audiences, there is no one else alive who has created a body of work in musical theatre at all.

Quite apart from the Phantom show itself, the experience of sitting in a narrow seat at Her Majesty’s, knees rammed hard against the man in front, who had a head the size of a pumpkin, was challenging. The staging, despite the gasp-inducing chandelier swinging over our heads, felt a bit creaky and tired. But the rest of the audience, filled with young people, was clearly enthralled, with endless applause and standing ovations. It is, apparently, the most successful single piece of entertainment of all time.

The next morning, I turned up at 10am at the office of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group (RUG) to hear the new musical. It was rather eerie, sitting alone at a long dining table in an empty room, walls full of posters from Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre.

The setting has been changed from the Paris Opera House to the freak-show fairgrounds of Coney Island, New York, ten years on, where the Phantom has become the biggest and richest impresario. The original heroine, Christine, is now married to Raoul, who has turned into a bitter, gambling alcoholic, resentful of his wife’s singing talent and her status as the family breadwinner (rather a modern touch), supporting him and their ten-year-old son, Gustave. There are some creepy Mervyn Peake-like underlings, Fleck, Gangle and Squelch, as well as the forbidding Madame Giry, who organised the Phantom’s escape from the baying crowds in Paris and is busily promoting her daughter, Meg, the Ooh-La-La Bathing Beauty of Coney Island.

The music seems, to me, to be more beautiful and less showy — partly, perhaps, because the boy soprano’s voice is so affecting, as is his unfolding relationship with the Phantom. “A lot of people who’ve heard it think it’s a much more rounded piece,” Lloyd Webber says, “and what I think that Ben Elton [who wrote ‘the book’] did was to unlock the psychological area.

“The other thing for me is that the Coney Island setting is very exciting because it all burnt down and the last big park closed in about 1960. I find something very romantic about the decayed architecture of entertainment.

“The original idea was that the Phantom would be this Howard Hughes figure living in the first penthouse in America but Coney Island is much richer because, of course, he could have gone there with his deformed face and walked around the streets and people would have probably paid 25 cents to see him. So that’s the back story with Madame Giry organising the side show, and Meg as the little girl busker.”

Lloyd Webber’s own back story is pretty intriguing, too. He was brought up with his younger brother, the cellist Julian, in a rented top-floor flat in South Kensington, opposite the Tube station, paid for by his maternal grandmother, Molly, who lived with the family. The boys’ father, Billy, was the son of a plumber — “who’d won every scholarship known to mankind when he was young” — and ended up as a senior professor at the Royal College of Music and a director of what was then the London College of Music. He was also the organist at the Central Hall, Westminster.

“He clearly had this seriously academic musical talent but as a personality he was quite regimented in what he was and wasn’t prepared to do. He probably realised early on that he had a side to him that would have been much better suited to becoming, say, a Max [Gone with the Wind] Steiner and working in the film world but coming from that background, his family would have gone berserk,” he says. “The problem was that he was a composer writing out of his time, he was a High Romantic, really, and interested in musicals and what was going on in the pop and rock charts, to a surprising degree. If he had been encouraged, I think he could have been very successful.”

So how did their father feel about the success of his sons? “Well, I was going through a whole load of papers the other day, and I unearthed something I didn’t realise I had, which was my mother’s [Jean, a piano teacher] autobiography, and there was quite a long chapter about my father and his reaction to both me and, of course, my brother.

“I think he was very proud of us but got very upset, according to my mother, with so many people saying, ‘You must be very proud of your sons’. I think therefore he probably always felt that as a composer he was never ever recognised.

“The one thing I’m sad about is that he never heard The Phantom.” Would he have liked it? “I think he would have loved it but whether he would have told me so is another matter. He also had a predilection for young sopranos and particularly for young sopranos if they sang Rachmaninov.

“And what I didn’t know about Sarah Brightman is that she did this series of Rachmaninov songs. I think probably what would have happened is that I would have introduced Sarah to my father and they would have got married,” Lloyd Webber says rather startlingly, “and that would have been the end of that.”

Really? “Yes, Sarah would have been spirited into his office by the sound of his music and he would have accompanied her on her Rachmaninov songs, and the story could have been very, very different. I often think that would have been the most intriguing meeting that never happened.”

More curious still, certainly in terms of its impact on the family dynamic, was his mother’s relationship with the classical pianist John Lill. Julian met him when they were both playing percussion in the junior department at the Royal College of Music. “My mother developed this great … well, enthusiasm is probably the word for it, for a guy called John Lill, who, as you probably know, won the International Tchaikovsky Competition [a music world equivalent of the Oscars; Lill was 26] and she took him into the house.”

Why do you say “enthusiasm” like that? Did they have some sort of thing? “No, no, no, they wouldn’t have done that — but she was very, very, very fond of him … she was just obsessed with him. They were obsessed with each other. It was difficult for Julian and I, but I was away [boarding as a scholar at Westminster], so it must have been far more difficult for Julian than me.

“And it was very difficult for my father, yes, because he never had the family on his own and also he was to a great degree … well, my grandmother was the person who rented the flat, you know, so he didn’t ever really feel fulfilled.”

What does he make of Julian’s observation that with their upbringing — variously described as chaotic or bohemian — it was surprising that neither of them had ended up as drug addicts. (Latterly, it seems, their father did develop something of a drink problem, which Andrew has also admitted to battling with in the past.) “I don’t agree with Julian about that at all because my grandmother was a very, very strong personality and a very interesting woman. She was the founding member of a particularly incongruous political party — the Christian Communist Party — which intrigued me and all my more politically Right friends at Westminster would come home and we would tease her and come up with ever more irritating political solutions.

“But she loved all that. She was just fascinated by all my Westminster friends — you know, the sort of school it is, my nephew is there, and it still has that slight tone of political incorrectness.”

Neither does he recognise Julian’s description of himself as a lonely child. Their parents may have been rather remote figures, absorbed in their own private passions, but as well as his indomitable grandmother, Andrew adored his Aunt Vi and spent most of his holidays with her: “When I didn’t fit into the musical cubbyhole that my mother had seen for me, well … I was so well placed in musical theatre because my Aunt Vi was really my surrogate mum and she knew all these impossibly glamorous theatre names and they were exactly the sort of people I wanted to meet.

“And that was another reason that I couldn’t be lonely because I was in my own world and I knew when I was very small that I wanted to be involved with musical theatre. I adored musicals, they were my life. And anyone who knew me at school knew that I was obsessed with the damn things.”

No change there, then. He says that because of the very nature of its success, the prospect of working on a sequel to Phantom used to frighten him but now he considers it to be the most exciting moment of his career, “because we’ve taken everything on so much further, and I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve put everything I could possibly do into this new score, and I thought of nothing else when I was writing it”.

But, if anything, despite the richness of his life — he is still friends with his exes, as well as enjoying being married since 1991 to wife number three, Madeleine Gurdon, who is more interested in gee-gees than luvvies — there is a sense in which, musically at least, he remains more in his own little world than ever.

“I do often think how marvellous it would have been to have worked in the Fifties when you had Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, the last days of Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter still going just about, Leonard Bernstein — can you imagine? All those great musicals going on.

“I can’t think of anything that I can compare Love Never Dies to … so I often feel like I’m working in this strange vacuum of a world in which there’s nobody who’s doing the sort of musical theatre I do. If there was a whole hothouse of young or, for that matter, old writers … but there’s nothing out there. The last really big hit around the world has been Wicked and it happens to have been written by somebody who’s a great friend of mine [Stephen Schwartz] but he wrote Godspell, you know. I mean, he’s older than me!”

* * *

Love Never Dies previews at the Adelphi Theatre, London WC2, from February 22 (loveneverdies.com, 0844 4124651)

Celebrities, Music

Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction

The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

What must it be like to watch your child’s life spiral into drug-addicted chaos, reported daily by a rapacious press? Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction, its impact on the Winehouse clan, and why he believes she’s finally getting better

Photo – Phil Fisk

mitch winehouse

So, let’s get the great big elephant out of the room straightaway. Is there something a bit iffy about the way Mitch Winehouse appears to be making a career on the back of his daughter’s demons? What career, you might ask. Well, there are at least two documentaries in the pipeline in which he features large as day, as well as Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant, an online TV series that films him in his cab sounding off to various celebrity-lite passengers (David Hasselhoff; someone called Shaggy, who was told to take his feet off the seat) – “And don’t get me started on that Lady Gaga…” and so on – and now he’s even recording an album of his own, Rush of Love, due to be released in spring.

Isn’t it a bit weird, I ask him, since he would never have got an album out if… “Never. Not in a million years,” he jumps in. “Course not. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know that I got the album ’cos I’m Amy’s dad.”

You love the limelight? “That’s a very good question, and you wanna know the truth? I do. There’s no getting away from it, Ginny. But I didn’t ask to go before the Commons select committee [to talk about addiction in families], just like I didn’t ask to go on GMTV or This Morning or Ian Wright’s show. They invited me. What am I supposed to do? Not go? And if I said, ‘I didn’t enjoy it,’ I’d be lying because I do enjoy it. But I don’t want it to come across that I’m big-headed and I love the limelight for the sake of it.”

It was for Amy’s sake, initially – a self-confessed “Daddy’s girl” with those words tattooed on her arm – that her father came to the fore to protest about various untruths, as he sees it, being written about his daughter. And now that the media have got a taste of Mitch, we find him distinctly more-ish. Although it’s debatable how much of that has to do with him being a convenient conduit to channel Amy, whose talent – and, more so, the personal turmoil that threatens to destroy it – makes her such an object of fascination.

For her father, of course, this objectification of Amy is part of the problem. The more insatiable the public interest in the details of her downward spiral, the longer it will take her to recover – or, according to him, stay recovered: “My daughter is a recovering addict. She is not a drug addict now.” He says she has been clean of drugs for a year. A whole year? “Yes, a whole year.” But according to one of the documentary-makers, Daphne Barak, who spent time with father and daughter in St Lucia and later wrote about it, Mitch had said there had been relapses since Christmas and, “She [Amy] didn’t [give up drugs] all of a sudden; she was talking about it for two or three months.”

When he talks to me, however, Mitch’s version of events is rather different. He tells me his daughter declared in August last year, “‘Dad, that’s it. I’m not taking drugs any more. I’m done.’ It did take her a couple of months, but she actually came off them in about October.” Part of me thinks that as Amy’s father, he is entitled to offer whatever edit on his daughter’s progress he wishes. But there is also something Faustian about accepting the role of the singer’s public mouthpiece that makes me want him to be, at least, consistent in what he tells us. At one point, he says apropos of an anecdote about him commanding Mick Jagger to pipe down during one of her performances: “What’s good about it is that it’s a true story. Normally, I make these things up.” Later, I make him swear on his daughter’s love that he hasn’t made up anything in this interview, and he does. So since he seems to me to be a good, warm-hearted bloke, we’ll take him at his word.

Barak, who did not endear herself to either her rival documentary-makers (with their My Daughter Amy as opposed to her Saving Amy) or her subjects, painted a grim portrait of Amy as a tragic child-woman – needy and obnoxious, in turn – who has substituted her drug addiction for alcohol abuse. Is this true? “Well, you know, having spoken to many counsellors and therapists and experts in the field, normally one addiction can follow another. But this isn’t an addiction; it’s just that she drinks too much every now and again,” he says. “It’s not alcoholism. I would say that she doesn’t drink every day, but when she drinks, she drinks a lot.

“But there are also positive addictions, like her gym work. She’s got the physiology – if that’s the right word – of, like, an Olympic athlete. The doctor who saw me last week said: ‘She could go into the Olympics, she’s so fit.’”

Is she happy? “Well… it’s difficult to know really. I mean, she’s my daughter and we’re very close but she’s not gonna tell me her most intimate things.” But does she seem happy to you? “Most of the time.”

Amy has been back in London, from her extended Caribbean sojourn, for about three months, working on songs for her new album and living in Barnet, near her mother. Her father says she wants to move back to Camden. Is that a source of debate for you? (He had earlier in our conversation told me that an addict had to be removed from surroundings that trigger their addiction.) “Well, it’s her choice – she’s 26 years old – and it’s her money.” But the thought of it makes you anxious? “What I was saying to you before – and I’m not talking about Amy, because Amy hasn’t taken drugs for a year – is if anybody wants drugs, they could be in Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, and they’d pick up the phone and within an hour, somebody will be there with drugs. So it doesn’t matter where you are.”

This is not the first time that Mitch seems to contradict himself, but the role of a loving parent in dealing with a child – who remains that father’s child, regardless of his or her age – is, perhaps, necessarily contradictory. You want to protect your daughter from herself, and from those who would prey on her vulnerabilities; you want to protect her from the scrutiny of the public and the press. You consider tough love or maybe that she needs more love. Most of all, it seems – certainly in Mitch’s case – that you want to believe that every small, teetering step towards getting your child back from the possibility of extinction might presage the larger step into her being restored to the blithe, healthy spirit she once was. If his own “recovery” – and it’s interesting that he uses that word for himself – involves a measure of blanking out and delusion (another word he uses), then so be it.

There is a poignant moment when Mitch is crooning some of the songs from his new album (Sinatra, but not the standards; Antônio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive; four new songs by Tony “Save Your Kisses for Me” Hiller – “They’re much better than that; more like Cole Porter”) and I ask him whether he has a vocal coach. “I don’t need one,” he says, mock-outraged. “I taught Amy to sing, for God’s sake! She used to stand on the table when she was 2, even younger…and I would sing…” He starts to croon, and I swear there’s a trace of that distinctive, slightly adenoidal Amyness about his voice. “…‘Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright/ Cause I only have eyes for…’ and she would sing ‘you’ in her little voice. Oh, she was so cute.”

Any parent can imagine the pain of seeing their child go off the rails so spectacularly. How did that dear little girl end up with blood-stained pumps and wild eyes, scoring drugs from a prostitute, fighting with her (now ex) husband, Blake Fielder-Civil? “I can’t remember how I felt,” he says. “Well, I do remember how I felt; I felt terrible. But part of the way I protect myself, and it’s not only me who does this – it happens with all the families of recovering addicts – is that as things progress positively, they kind of draw veils down a little bit. You can’t forget entirely.”

One of the reasons he agreed to participate in My Daughter Amy, Mitch says, is that although Amy was beginning to emerge “from 18 months of hell”, she was still being portrayed as “‘Junkie Amy’ and ‘Wino’ and all the rest of the stuff they do. And yet Amy was starting to get better, remarkably better, and I felt this was a chance to redress the balance and maybe show how she really is. How she is now.”

Back then, he admits that he did succumb to despair, although he never really could bring himself to believe that Amy might die: “People said that I wrote her obituary. Absolute rubbish.” He took to going to bed with his mobile phone, knowing that it could go at three in the morning. “And I’d be waiting for the phone to ring. But it was almost as bad if it didn’t ring. Because if the phone didn’t ring, why didn’t it ring? Is it because something bad has happened? Is it because it’s been a good night? You know, there is a whole raft of emotions. What I found amazing is that if you had told me about this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But you are programmed genetically to protect yourself emotionally and you won’t know that until, God forbid, you are in that situation.

“And delusion is part of the protection. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of families [in therapy groups dealing with addiction], nice middle-class and working-class people, who were normal and didn’t abuse their children, and we have had exactly that conversation – ‘How are you able to cope with this?’ – and part of it is delusion, because how else can you survive? It’s all about very, very small steps forward, the occasional big step backwards, small steps forward… You cling on to little things; little things become massive triumphs.”

I had read that Amy suffered from manic depression but refused to take medication for it. Is that so? “She’s never been diagnosed as a manic depressive. Ever.” Has she ever been thought to be? “Not as far as I know.” Frankly, I would have thought that if there were a possibility that this might be the case, it would have emerged by now. Is there any manic depression in the family? “I’m pretty sure there’s none.” What about addictive behaviour? “Kindly leave my Uncle Alfie out of this, please,” he says crossly. Sorry? “Nah, that’s a line from Hancock… ‘Is there any insanity in your family?’ ‘Please can you leave my Uncle Whatever out of this.’”

What about his own experience of drugs?

“I once took a puff of a marijuana whatever – reefer – and I thought, ‘Why is everyone going mad? This is rubbish.’ I’d rather go and eat a bagel [which he pronounces ‘bygel’, very Yiddishly] or something.” Drink? “I have a glass of wine every now and then.”

I ask how many times Amy has done rehab but, apparently, she really meant it when she sang, “No! No! No!” “Yeah, she’s got a thing about it… I don’t know why, ’cos there’s obviously hundreds of thousands of cases of people going into rehab and having marvellous results,” her dad says.

“She’s had counselling and therapy but she’s got this thing about being able to sort a lot out in her own mind. You could argue that it wouldn’t work for everybody, but at the moment it’s working for her.”

So what’s his explanation for Amy’s descent? “I would say that she couldn’t deal with fame and in her mind, she had image problems, which she shouldn’t have done ’cos she’s lovely, and at the time that she was vulnerable, she met Blake who, in my mind, fed on that vulnerability and, you know, it was, ‘I love you, darling. Here’s some drugs.’” (Blake has admitted that he introduced Amy to crack and heroin.)

Is he totally out of the picture now? “Hope so. It will be a disaster if he’s not out of the picture.” Do you have anything to do with him or his family? “None whatsoever. I think his family saw [us as] a fantastic opportunity.”

Isn’t there talk about a book coming out? “You’re kidding! See what I mean? Now why would anybody be interested in a book that that woman [his mother] is going to write about her son, who is a criminal? He’s a drug addict, he’s a liar. He kicked someone in the head [so hard that the victim’s face had to be reconstructed], he tried to pervert the course of justice and his mother’s going to write a book about him?”

No, I think he was going to write a book (which was to have been a joint effort with his ex); that’s what I read anyway. “He’s gonna write a book? What’s he gonna write a book about?” My life with Amy? My drugs hell? “OK, that’s up to him. We need the money; we’ll be able to sue him. Jesus Christ. I think I have heard something about this before. It’s pathetic. Anyway, I don’t want to get aggravated by it.”

It’s only at the end of the interview that Mitch mentions that for the past two years – precipitated by Amy’s annus (or so) horribilis – he has suffered from panic attacks that have made it impossible for him to drive his cab. “If I heard over the radio that the traffic was gridlocked, it would come on,” he says. Now he’s worried that if he took a passenger, he might have forgotten the best way to go. Anyway, as he admits, he’s no longer reliant on cabbing for an income since he and Janis (Amy’s mum, his ex, who suffers from multiple sclerosis) now run their daughter’s business, which is worth £5 million – half of what it was the previous year. (So, this is what Mitch meant when he said, “We need the money.”)

When we had started talking about Amy’s troubles, he said that, “My own feeling is that Amy was affected by Janis’s and my break-up [when Amy was 9], although my son [Alex] and daughter saw even more of me. In the end, they said, ‘Dad, you really don’t have to come here every day!’ But I couldn’t be without them. I had to see them every day – which was causing Janis problems. But, obviously, when I left home I was guilt-ridden; not because of Janis, but because of the children. Although it was definitely the right thing to do.”

Had you been arguing a lot? “No, you couldn’t argue with Janis. She’s such a lovely, well-centred person.” But unfortunately you had fallen in love with someone else (Jane, who worked with him in a double-glazing business and to whom he has been married ever since)? “Exactly. It happens. But Amy has known Jane since she was 18 months old and she loved her then and she does now. Everyone loves Jane. Janis loves Jane. They all love each other! It’s fantastic!”

He comes from a huge Jewish family – tailors on his mother’s side; barbers and cabbies on his father’s – and was brought up not far from where we are conducting our interview in a film production office in Commercial Street, East London. “We had six people living in a house, including my uncle, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunty, and a lodger from the Holocaust who lived upstairs, and everyone was kissing and cuddling you. It was great in those days.

“And when you come from the East End, you do whatever you can to protect your family. When we moved to Southgate in North London, we were the only Jewish family there and they thought Jews had horns in their heads or something. So I was fighting all the time – that’s what you did, when we were kids. I’m not a tough guy or anything like that, but I know how to protect my family.”

When were you last in a fight? “In a fight?! I’m 59 years old! If I had a fight now I’d die. In a fight? About 20 years ago.” He does admit to throwing Pete Doherty out on his ear, when Amy was late for a gig and our Rimbaud wannabe was sprawled on her bed, being creative. When I ask Mitch what he thinks of Pete, his answer is succinct: “He’s an a***hole, but an enormously talented a***hole.” The problem for Mitch is that Pete’s attitude towards drugs is the same as his former son-in-law’s, who once told him: “I don’t want to give up drugs. I like them.”

Nick Cave – a reformed junkie – told me he used to feel much the same way. But he also said, “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society. It’s a very masochistic act. For a long time, it served me well, but there did come a point when it became intolerable. When it became clear that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”

Cave was a good deal older than Winehouse when he finally came to that conclusion, and it takes a certain level of maturity to weigh up your priorities in life. Amy has had a number of serious health scares – such as the threat of emphysema – but is she evolved enough to comprehend that her significant talent is worth fighting for, let alone her own health?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of her triumphs before her (hopefully short-lived) fall. Her debut album, Frank, in 2003, was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. With Back to Black, its follow-up in 2006, she became the first British singer to win five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. In 2007, she won the Brit award for best British female artist. She has won the Ivor Novello songwriting award three times.

Her dad loves Frank: “It was a much better time for her. The songs were great, innocent-ish. Back to Black obviously sold three trillion copies or whatever but, of course, to me, I can’t play the album any more because a lot of the songs are about Blake. ‘If my man were fighting’ – I mean how great is this – ‘If my man were fighting/ Some unholy war/ I would be beside him.’ But she’s talking about depression, ’cos he’s not around and whatever, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I don’t wanna listen to this album much any more.’ It reminds me of a really bad time and part of my recovery is to put that aside.”

He wasn’t best pleased when he first heard What Is It About Men?, with its stinging lyrics: “Understand, once he was a family man/ So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand/ Emulate all the s*** my mother hated.” “I thought, ‘How dare you?’ and when I read it, I thought, ‘You’ve got it bang on.’ ‘All the s*** my mother hated’ – perfect. Absolutely perfect. The way she encapsulated it in a sentence. At least I’m big enough to admit it.”

He’s heard some lines from a new song, Queen of Spades, Amy wrote for her paternal grandmother, Cynthia (teenage sweetheart of the late jazzman, Ronnie Scott), whose death three years ago was thought to have contributed to her granddaughter’s descent: “She was a massive influence on Amy because she brought the kids up when we worked.”

They’ve been talking quite a lot about songwriting recently; perhaps working on his own album is giving Mitch some ideas of his own. “What she does is carry loads of books around with her all the time, and I say to her, ‘What are you doing?’ and she says, ‘I’m just writing’. So when she’s gonna write the album, she does it in a month. She writes little stanzas which she uses and goes back to.

“Actually, you tend to forget… because to me, she’s Amy, my daughter, I tend to forget that she’s actually a genius. And those aren’t my words. She’s got people thinking she’s a genius and it’s not the singing so much as the songs. I say to her, ‘Amy, when you write a song, what do you do first? Do you write the music or do you write the lyrics?’ And she looks at me, like to say, ‘Aw, Dad!’, like I should know! So with Rehab, it’s re-hab – bah, bah. ‘They tried to make me go to re-hab,’” he sings rather unconvincingly, à la Matt Monro, “so she’s explaining to me about beats, but I’m still not quite sure what she does.”

What parts of you do you see in her? (They are remarkably similar physically around the eyes and strong eyebrows.) “She never gives in, ever. She’s resolute and brave and – although, obviously, there is a weakness in her character – nothing can beat her down when she sets her mind on it. And she’s got a great sense of humour. Like me, she’s a great practical joker. I mean, with us it’s like a fine art.”

Mitch is obviously partial, but Lily Allen said something similar: “I know Amy Winehouse well. And she is very different to what people portray her as being. Yes, she does get out of her mind on drugs sometimes, but she is also a very clever, intelligent, witty, funny person who can hold it together. You just don’t see that side.”

What would he wish for his daughter if he could wave a magic wand? “What I would want her to be is as she is – a normal, lovely person with a loving family – and to find a man, or a woman, if she wants…” Oh! Is she…? “No, no, no, no! A person she loves and who loves her and who cherishes her and wants to have children with her. That’s what I hope and I don’t care about her career. Well, I do care about her career, but it’s secondary. In other words, I’d prefer it if she had a normal life being a normal person, but she’s not.”

Finally, what does he think Amy’s new album will be about? Might there be any sunny songs? “I doubt that for one second! Every song Amy writes is like… [He sticks an imaginary knife into his substantial tum and circles around as though he is eviscerating his entrails.] In Yiddish, it’s ‘schlapping your kishkas [your insides] out’. Amy’s a great one for schlapping her kishkas – because every song is, like, heartbreak… sorrow… depression,” he thumps out the words. “She’s never gonna write a song about, ‘You look lovely in the moonlight, my darling, give me a kiss.’ I mean, that’s just never gonna happen, is it?”

* * *

My Daughter Amy is on at 7.30pm on January 8, 2010, on Channel 4, made by Transparent Television. Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant is on livingtv.co.uk every Wednesday

Music

Goldie’s Bittersweet Proms Symphony

The Times July 18, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Raised amid violence, fostered at the age of 3, addicted to cocaine… Goldie has had his fair share of demons. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that, in his forties, the drum’n’bass pioneer enthralled the nation as he took up the baton in Maestro, the television conducting competition. As he prepares to unveil his first classical composition at the Proms, he talks to Ginny Dougary

goldie
Photo: Jude Edginton

Goldie is the very model of concentration, his wide topaz eyes taking everything in. There’s a massive thunderclap of drums rolling, followed by a spooky whispering, hissing sound from the 70-odd sopranos and altos of the London Philharmonic Choir, the basses come in, quietly at first, their voices gradually swelling to another crescendo, a banging of a metal sheet, the BBC Concert Orchestra builds as one, as the whole choir sings out in full majestic force… and then silence, followed by applause.

The drum’n’bass pioneer, who experienced the harshest start in life, has just heard his first orchestral piece, which will have its world premiere at this year’s Proms. Sine Tempore (Without Time) – only seven minutes, but each one a thrill – is his response to the concert’s theme, evolution; not one big bang but a series of explosions heralding the birth and growth of new life. Just before the orchestra started up, he and his Maestro mentor, Ivor Setterfield, gave each other a quick hug. It was hard to tell from their expressions which of the two men was more excited – and apprehensive.

Straight after the performance – which is the first time the work has been heard, live, in its entirety – the team is back to work, honing and polishing and adjusting. Goldie is hands-on; no question of him not knowing what he wants, as he stands over the huge pages of the score (converted from his own musical “map”). The tempo isn’t quite right for him, so he sings out the notes to illustrate where he wants them to fall. Setterfield jumps in and asks for more “pungency” in the sound, and “protein” from the basses. “It should be looser, but not sloppy,” he says, and refers them to Goldie’s instruction that the sound needs to be “creamy”. There’s a titter at that but not a disrespectful one.

The rehearsal is taking place in Henry Wood Hall, a Grade II-listed converted church, with handsome columns and vaulted windows, which has been used as a recording space by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Alfred Brendel and André Previn. Goldie has joined their ranks because of his commission on the back of his appearance in Maestro, last year’s hit TV series, where eight celebrities competed for the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Proms in the Park. Comedian Sue Perkins won, but Goldie – the runner-up – was the undisputed star of the show.

We had met a couple of weeks earlier at his home in Bovingdon, near Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire. He opens the door, flashing his gold-toothed grin and shaking my hand. I’m a bit early so he tells me to make myself at home while his own Man Friday – a role which, until recently, was performed by his kid stepbrother, Stuart, 12 years his junior – fixes him an old-fashioned Mothers Pride sandwich.

It’s a perfectly comfortable home but no rock-star mansion. There’s a slight bachelor-pad feel, with lots of stuff lying around, including a Ducati motorbike (a gift from Val Kilmer) as a sort of sculpture on wheels. The walls are taken up with Goldie’s art – canvases of collages and a large work which looks like a psychedelic reading of a heart-monitoring screen. We sit at a substantial wooden table, at one end of the living room, and Goldie kicks off with a history of the drum’n’bass movement which, frankly, loses me completely.

What is clear is that he doesn’t suffer an iota of self-doubt on this front – “I became the picture boy of the Nineties in terms of the PR machine… that I didn’t employ… because I didn’t need one,” he says. Now 43, he is also knowing enough to be aware that part of his appeal, notwithstanding his talent, was that he had street cred, in spades.

We have barely touched on this, when he’s into the nitty-gritty: “People used to ask me, ‘How can you make music that’s so uncompromising and wear your heart on your sleeve, and bare your soul to the general public?’ and I’m like, ‘When you’re in a children’s home with 25 kids and you’ve gone from foster parent to foster parent, and all these different things, do you think that sitting in a roomful of critics is really gonna make a chink in my armour?’”

This is followed by another challenging stream of consciousness about Goldie’s spirituality, delivered with enthusiasm in his flat Brummie accent, while he endeavours to explain (actually, I’m not sure that he’s all that concerned about my receptivity) how he has exchanged that armour for a more translucent way of being.

He stops off, en route, with the memory of a very old astrologer who lived in a flat above Waitrose in Finchley Road – introduced by his then girlfriend, Björk, a major influence on him – who warned that he was going to burn himself out: “You are burning all the time and you cannot stop giving.” Thence the parallels between him and jellyfish: “If you see them in their environment, not washed up on to a shore, and you think about how ghost-like and beautiful they look, how they reach out with all these different tentacles, all electrifyingly dangerous and pulsating, but overall they just have a spiritual feeling of wanting to be left alone in this ocean… to be able to absorb everything and not just see everything but be able to sense everything…”

You are saying that you are like that jellyfish? “In a funny way, I am a little bit. I think I’ve just learnt that I’ve had to keep the depth around me to survive. If Goldie came along and made Timeless, which he did…” (This was his 1995 album, which went into the mainstream charts at No 7, a first for drum’n’bass.) I stop him abruptly because what interests me is the way he has started to refer to himself in the third person. “My persona has been created by a boy wanting to create a protective shell around himself, but the boy has always been there. When you look at me… [he meshes his fingers together in front of his face, opening and closing them so that his features go in and out of focus]… Goldie’s here but underneath that façade of everything, there’s still this little boy underneath that you can sometimes get a glimpse of.”

When Goldie was that little boy, his name was Clifford Joseph Price and he lived in Wolverhampton with his older brother, Melvin, and their Scottish mother, who was finding it difficult to cope: “She was getting beaten by one boyfriend and my dad was flitting around England, working in foundries in Leeds, not turning up when he was supposed to, disappearing for days and days,” he explains.

He remembers playing on a three-wheeled trolley with his brother, rolling down a steep road called Coronation Street, when a woman approached them to say they had to go home. Miss O’Connor, his first social worker, was there smiling. She beckoned him into a car and drove him away to a children’s home, the first of young Cliffy’s many new homes. He was 3 at the time and didn’t understand why he’d been sent away. Miss O’Connor, he says, was very kind to him but was taken off his case for becoming too emotionally involved.

Goldie’s family history is one of those grim cycles of abuse, anger and violence that is passed on, like a poisonous mantle, from generation to generation. When I ask him what has become of Melvin, the brother who remained with their mother, he says: “He’s in the Midlands, not really doing anything… just waiting. Well, no, he’s a fitness fanatic. He’s shorter than all of us and I think he’s got a little man complex because he’s like a maniac with his body building.”

Does his brother have problems containing his anger? “I think that’s why he trains so much.” While Clifford was dealing with his own problems in care, he says Melvin was being “beaten like crazy” at home by his mother’s partner.

For most of his adult years, Goldie has been unable to forgive his mother for sending him away. The difference for him now is that he understands and – the really deep change – empathises with her. He corrects me, for instance, when I assume that she had a drink problem. “No, she didn’t,” he says firmly. “When I readdressed that, it was her boyfriends who had a drink problem. She was just a victim of that, where she would just say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna have to drink to get rid of this…’”

What was her upbringing? “Bad. Really bad. A father who beats and hits her, who beats all the kids. She was one of many children – 11 brothers and sisters, something like that – and she was the one that ran away. But then she fell in love with two black men at the same time because they both, you know, promised her the earth.”

How about his Jamaican father, what was he like? “Very, very charismatic. I went to see him in Miami many years ago [Goldie was making jewellery there, including his ‘grills’ (gold teeth), got involved in a cocaine cartel and later became addicted to the drug], and I was, like, ‘Do you know what? I used to think that my mum was the one here and, to tell you the truth, you’re the one that really washed your hands of all responsibility. And then you tried to blame it on a woman who you promised the earth to and you couldn’t deliver.’”

Who does Goldie think he is more like, his mother or his father? “I think my mother, more than I’ve ever felt.” How? “Just very sensitive and…” Is she a lovely person? “She is lovely.” Do you wish you could have rewritten her life for her? Goldie yawns. Is this boring you? “No, it’s just… emotional… It’s fine, but sometimes I think that if my mother hadn’t gone through what she’s gone through, then I would not be half the man that I am now.”

It was so odd that he yawned at that point, something he does again when a question hits a nerve. I ask him whether it’s some sort of reflexive reaction to me delving too deep.

“I think so,” he says. “I really was condescending sometimes towards her,” he continues. “And that was really terrible of me because when I think of what she’s gone through and when she comes down to stay some weekends, and I just see this woman who has been in and out of hospital with various cancers and things like that…

“But whatever she’s been through, she still has her sense of humour. I think that’s what’s kept her on her toes. When she’s with her grandkids, I can see her really enjoying it. More than she ever did. I always try to think to myself, well, you know, the Eskimos say there are 100 words for snow, and there are 100 different kinds of loves and I love her in my own way, which is very special to me.

“It’s only recently, because I never really knew, when I started to ask, ‘Mum? The music… where does it come from?’ And, you know, she’s a singer! Yeah, she used to sing in bars, and she had a beautiful voice but I almost dismissed it for some reason.”

He says that his brother, Stuart, to whom he is very close, helped him to see that the way he treated their mother was wrong. “He was always, like, ‘Come on, man, you really give Mum a hard time.’ And that’s why I wanted to do the Hoffman [an intensive therapy course which he credits for turning his life around] because I needed to address a lot of stuff.

“I felt so angry toward her. I couldn’t hold a conversation with her for longer than five minutes, it would be so f***ing painful…” Another yawn. “And I really do have that relationship now where I call her up out of the blue and… well, God forbid, you know… I just need to make the most of that.”

Part of what made Goldie so watchable in Maestro – apart from his sinewy grace and the electrifying way the music seemed to course through him – was a lurking edge of danger. There was an air of grave intensity about him, quite unlike the other contestants, in the way that he stared so intently at the judges – who were bowled over by his musicality – as they advised him how to improve his conducting skills. Only once did his anger threaten to flare up, when the sassy cellist, Zoe Martlew, tempered her praise by gently mocking his “flip-flapping” non-conducting hand, and recommended he use a baton.

I ask him why his response had been so bolshy – he had snapped back that the orchestra understood exactly what he required them to do. “I think it’s because she fancied me. You wanna talk about being Freudian?” I hadn’t actually but… “Yeah, probably.”

But your conducting did improve when you had the baton. Another slightly torturous response: “That was probably the best thing to happen because what she’s done is to tell me to contain the method used to get my being misunderstood across. So back to that again, aren’t we? Back to those issues of what I wanted. So I took it on board.”

I ask him why he had looked so aggravated. “Because I was being told to by a woman. I probably had problems with that where, you know, this button’s been pressed, now what do you do? Press this one, that one. No! Don’t press them, wait. OK, engage. I’m going through the real process of doing that. So answer then, instead of going, ‘Well, f*** you!’”

“But I’m thinking even though this is television, I’m really looking at the one-on-one help thing, and I don’t need a teacher to go, ‘Stand up, Price, let’s all laugh at you.’ Because I know women. I don’t care what anyone says, a guy wouldn’t have said it like that.”

It took Goldie two years to kick his cocaine addiction – at its height from 1996 to ’98, when he was dating the likes of Stella Tennant and Naomi Campbell, and he and Noel Gallagher would indulge in 20-hour snortathons – but he says that he was still left with “an anger that was overwhelmingly too powerful”. In fact, for him, cocaine acted as a mood suppressant rather than an agitator, “and when I stopped all these emotions came out”.

The therapy has helped him understand that he cannot go on punishing women for what happened to him as a child. “All those years of never being able to really settle down with a woman ’cos I never trusted them. What would happen is I would pull them in and I would let them love me and then I would just… get rid of them.”

His chief regret is the way he ended his year-long relationship with Björk – “the only one that was really the most fascinating woman. And I ended that situation because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to carry it through. I was very, very scared and I also felt that I hadn’t evolved enough. Why couldn’t I love this person who was all-encompassing, musical and everything? Why couldn’t I?

“She was a woman who had every guy at her feet, in a sense. I was the person who ended it and everybody was, like, ‘You’re mad! You’re crazy!’ After many months, I called her up and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry for what I put you through because I just felt I wasn’t ready. I felt that you could have been everything but I felt I had to move on…’”

He sounds so regretful that I ask if there’s no hope of a reconciliation, “Oh, I’m in love,” he beams. “I’m in love with a woman I’m very happy with, a lady called Mika.”

Before we get on to Mika – who, in the photograph he shows me, bears a marked resemblance to Björk around the eyes (Goldie is shocked when I say this and cannot see it at all) – there’s a lovely moment when he talks about Björk introducing him to the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Polish composer Górecki’s response to the Holocaust.

“I was in Iceland, where it had been snowing for a week, and I was in this house, sitting on the windowsill looking out at the port which was covered in snow, listening to this symphony of sad songs and I never got so moved by a piece of music. It was terribly beautiful and terribly sad, and hopeful – and I wanted to do something in the same vein. That was why I made Mother [an hour-long track on SaturnzReturn, which looks pretty disturbing on a YouTube clip].”

When he heard the Górecki symphony with Björk, the words were in Polish and he didn’t know what they meant. It was only much later that he saw a DVD of the work performed in Auschwitz, with subtitles, and: “Do you know what the opening line is? ‘Mother.’ She’s actually singing about her mother. And it’s all to do with lamenting the mother but I didn’t know that when I wrote it.”

We talk about Mika, whom Goldie met some years ago on one of his lucrative DJing gigs in Shanghai. She’s a half-Japanese, half-Dutch-French-Canadian, who moved from her mother’s home in Montreal six months ago to be with him. They met at a dinner and Goldie was “fascinated by her. She just has this glow… She’s not into fame or any of that; she’s made up of different stuff, very much like a Buddhist. I asked her what she does [she works in the fashion industry] and she said, ‘I make lots of clothes that people don’t need.’ Do you know what I mean?”

They were apart for the next year and a half, while Mika stayed on in Shanghai, and wrote love letters to help fill the longing. More letters flowed between them when she moved back to Montreal and “the great thing about letters is when you read them, they’re like pockets of air in your mind, and you’re reminded of who we are,” he says.

Our interview covered so much more, from his failed marriage to Sonjia Ashby (the wedding appeared in Hello! with its fabled kiss of death; “It was like I got married almost to upset my mother”) to his regrets about his abandonment of his own four children and his attempts to rectify the damage. Chance, his daughter, and he “are as thick as thieves, but I’ve still got unfinished business with some of my other kids”. One of his sons is slightly autistic and Daniel, his second born, is lead singer in a punk band: “Yeah, unbelievable! He’s doing remarkably well. I’m probably going to end up producing him next year.”

Before I leave, Goldie shows me an album of Mika and his billets doux, with groovy stencilled hearts, a long scroll-like letter written in his italic script thanking the dead composers who inspired him in Maestro, and most amazing of all, the map of his composition, an artwork in itself that perfectly explains everything he needs to convey to the second.

We hang out in his office, sitting on the carpet, while he plays some of his drum’n’bass tracks – Sea of Tears is a good one, the music whooshing over us in amniotic waves, a sub-sonic sobbing in the background – and he kindly makes me a mini-compilation to listen to later. How could one not warm to him?

Some journalists have felt uncomfortable about the ease with which Goldie talks about his horrible upbringing, as though there were something suspect and manipulative about it. But my impression was of someone who had learnt to look at the broken shards of his childhood and piece them together, so that he could now see the picture as a whole and move on with the rest of his life.

From the moment that he could be creative – be it his graffiti art (featured in a book and a Channel 4 documentary, Bombed), breakdancing, DJing, drum’n’bass, and now his entrée into the world of classical music – he has been so hungry to absorb and learn everything he could and he has soared. During the rehearsal of Sine Tempore, Goldie turned round and looked up at Mika, with such a dazzling smile; he didn’t need to say, “Who’d have thought it, ay?”

I ask Goldie, finally, what he thinks it is about him that has allowed him to flourish. “What I think about it is that – innately – it is a gift of some sort. And part of my gift is a seanceability – I’ve never heard anyone say that word – but I will get musicians together and I will pull something out of them which they would never have thought possible.”

But the gift is not much good without the grit? He agrees: “It’s determination that comes in my path of wanting to be somebody and wanting to stand out.”

And there’s something else, too: “Music and art are fundamentally the two greatest saviours I’ve ever had. They’re the last bastions we can all have. If we take away either of those two things, we’re completely f***ed.” I’m sure that Daniel Barenboim, Peter Maxwell Davies, and all the hundreds of Goldie’s illustrious fellow musicians at this year’s Proms, would agree.

* * *

A two-part documentary, Classic Goldie, is on BBC2 on July 31 and August 7. His orchestral composition, Sine Tempore, premieres at the Family Prom on August 1

Music, Travel & Adventure

A hip-hop tour of New York’s Harlem

The Times May 23, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Ginny Dougary and teenage sons take a guided tour of Harlem and the Bronx to find the roots of hip-hop

ginny and sons at the wall of fame

So there I am with my solid crew, two teenage sons and me in Kangol berets, dripping in bling, on loan from our hosts Grandmaster Caz and Reggie Reg, the grandaddies of hip-hop, manoeuvring our way through Harlem and the Bronx in a tour bus rapping to “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”.

What a great way to start a family holiday in New York. Caz (short for Casanova) is an A* teacher; no slacking permitted as he fires out questions, checks whether his pupils have been listening, points out places of interest — where such and such a gangsta rapper was shot dead (“We always pause here to pay a little love . . . a little respect”) — and lists the four cornerstones of hip-hop culture: the DJ, the MC, breakdancing and graffiti. And then there’s the clothes.

“What’s the difference between fashion and style?” Headmaster Caz asks. To my astonishment, son No 2 puts up his hand: “Style isn’t what you wear, it’s how you wear it.” “Excellent answer,” Caz replies.

Our first stop is the playground of an empty school in Harlem, walls ablaze with cartoon figures and slogans, which has been dubbed the Graffiti Wall of Fame. Caz, who does most of the talking, finds it amazing that what was once considered an “outlaw” activity has been transformed into Art — depending on who’s doing it and where it’s displayed.

We learn how hip-hop started on August 11, 1973, when Kool Herc (whose father was a DJ in Jamaica and taught his son that James Brown was god) decided that his Party Must Go On.

After several nights of booming music that could be heard three blocks away, “it started getting out of hand”, Caz says, and the party moved from a tiny living room to nearby Cedar Park, which is where things became creative.

He leads us to what looks like a lamppost and says: “We needed electricity so you open this up and inside is a ‘thingummyjig’. You go to a hardware store and get a ‘thingummybob’ and you plug the thingummybob into the thingummyjig and you’re away. So the authoriteee of New York Citeee unwittingleee kickstarted hip-hop.”

Soon hip-hop parties were taking place all over the boroughs, from its birthplace in the Bronx to Brooklyn and Harlem — the boom box became known as “the Harlem briefcase” — while the Manhattanites remained in thrall to square old disco.

The first hip-hop single to enter the Top 40 was the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in 1979, and the original words were written by none other than our tour leader who performs the number for us on the bus, urging us to sing along to his “signature” line: “I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, the rest is F-L-Y”. Grandmaster Caz fought successfully to get a writer’s credit but has never received a cent in royalties; all the more reason to book a ride on his illuminating, and massively fun, tour.

After we are deposited, now sadly bling and beret-less, the boys (boyz?) and I walk down the streets of Harlem, all the way to our serviced appartment near Times Square. This is something of a nostalgia-fest since the last time I spent any time in Harlem was back in 1981 when the boys’ father, Bruce, and I were in New York as part of an extended honeymoon.

He ended up working on 125th street, the main vein of Harlem, selling fruit and vegetables from a stall with Gillie who — a quarter of a century later — is the photographer for this trip.

Harlem, then, was considered something of a no-go area for many native New Yorkers. Bruce would always take the subway to work from our studio sublet in Greenwich Village, since most yellow cab drivers simply refused the fare.

Our Harlem circle of friends and acquaintances tended to be in a less respectable line of work than our downtown gang, and their recreational habits were more self-destructive. Manchu, the fruit-and-vege boss, was an engaging figure who lived on a diet of Thunderbird wine and various heavy-duty drugs which, sadly, did for him in the end.

The Apollo Theatre, Cotton Club and Lenox Lounge, whose heyday was in the 1930s, are still in operation and thrive under the new tourism, as does Sylvia’s famous soul food restaurant.

The Body Shop, The Gap and other international brands have long since moved in, along with Bill Clinton’s headquarters, and the magnificent brownstone terraced houses that were once derelict and used as shooting galleries for junkies (Manchu once offered me a look around, but I declined) are restored and selling for millions.

On Sunday we returned to Harlem on a gospel tour. On our way to church we stopped to admire a number of striking historical buildings which, rather shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of as a twentysomething. Sylvan Terrace is a double row of wooden two-storey houses, very quaint with their ivy-green shutters, built in 1882 across a cobblestoned street.

This was the carriage drive for a substantial Georgian mansion, Mount Morris, built in 1765 for Colonel Roger Morris, a Royalist, and his Dutch wife. George Washington used it as his headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. In 1810 the wealthy French-Caribbean wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his wife, Eliza Bowen, restored it.

Jumel died in mysterious circumstances, according to our guide, and his widow — who had become the richest person in New York — went on to marry Aaron Burr, Vice-President to Thomas Jefferson, in the front parlour.

The church service, itself, was a bit of a letdown and too long for our unGodbothering tastes. I loved the way the congregation dressed up and the warm, sprawling family atmosphere. But the gospel singing was distinctly tame (its members, we were told, are recovering addicts) and not a patch on the choir I saw at a gospel brunch in Jimmy’s, a celebrity hangout in Harlem in the late Nineties. The singers were ultra-lively and rejoiced in such bonkers lyrics as “My Lord is a washing machine”.

The rest of our week was packed with all the enjoyable New York clichés: the free entertainment of opera-singing, rollerblading show-offs in Central Park; carb-filled breakfasts in the Empire Diner; oysters in Grand Central station; the Rockettes in Radio City Hall; jazz in the West Village; Polish food in the East Village; ice- skating at the Rockefeller Centre.

After a break in Philadelphia we returned for a last night at the Mandarin hotel in a suite of Madame Jumel-like luxury. The boys were thrilled with their eyrie views of Central Park. The staff, with the minimum of fuss, converted the sofas into beds while we were dining downstairs and both sons pronounced the hamburgers “excellent” and the female diners “fit”.

Earlier, I had a half-a-day in the company of a personal shopper, Deanna, who picked me up in a white stretch limo. We were, alas, a mismatch; she being a willowy Sex and the City girl, while I am more Rosemary and Thyme (not Felicity Kendal, the other one).

Deanna was frank: my look “definitely needed updating”. Thus I found myself, in slight panic mode, buying absurdly feminine shoes, a white coat and Prada boots, most of which have remained in the wardrobe. I should have listened more carefully to the hip-hop headmaster or, indeed, my son: “It’s not what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it.”

Bang that, shoppers, to the boogie, boogie beat.

Getting there

The Mandarin Oriental (001 212 805 8800, www.mandarinoriental.com/newyork), 80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, has double rooms from £515 a night including breakfast.

Hush Hip Hop Tours (001 212 209 3370, www.hushhiphoptours.com) of Harlem are $50pp.

Fashion Junkie (www.fashionjunkie.com) offers four-hour guided walking tours from $100pp, and private shopping from $275pp including transport.

Further information NYC & Company (020-7367 0934, www.nycgo.com).

Virgin Atlantic (0844 8747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Heathrow to New York from £315 return.

Music

How do you pen a song for the Brighton Festival Fringe?

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

It’s taken a year, but Ginny Dougary’s latest song is about to be unveiled in public. It’s been a steep learning curve

(Scroll to the bottom of this article to listen to the songs)

This time next week, 150 singers will be on a stage crooning a song that has taken a year to write. Why has the gestation period been so extended? Is it because the piece is unbelievably long and complex? Or that the lyrics came from some deeply angst-ridden place? Could it be the case, as Nick Cave once told me, that: “In order to write a worthwhile love song, it needs to have within it the potential for pain or an understanding of the pain of whatever you’re writing about. I don’t think they allow themselves to be written until I’ve fully experienced what it is I’m writing about. They wait patiently to be finished.”

The answer is, unfortunately, rather more mundane — the occasionally fraught business of collaboration. As a team, the composer MJ and I are pretty new to this game, with maybe a dozen songs to date, some performed by professional singers and actors but mainly by amateur choirs.

The composer, as an experienced songwriter, more often than not, has the upper hand. This can be a frustrating process, particularly as she has not had to deal with a writer’s ego before.

This is the sixth year that the Brighton City Singers, now joined by the South London Choir (both directed by MJ), have performed new choral works commissioned by her for the Brighton Festival Fringe. The pieces come from composers all over the world who are thrilled that their work will be performed in public. Even with the current widespread interest in singing — choirs being the book clubs of the Noughties — contemporary composers, and that includes established ones, don’t get much of a platform.

There have been some terrific concerts: one of the most memorable was Vocal Tango; the title song had a fabulous troupe of ageing tango dancers performing, and the choir replicating with their voices the plucking sounds of the violin and the swooning strains of the accordion. This year it’s Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll — which is a suitable challenge to most people’s idea of what choral music can be.

The first song we worked on was intended for last year’s festival — Food of Love. My idea was to write a sort of pastiche of (or homage to) those 1930s Jelly Roll Morton/Bessie Smith numbers that were laden with sexual innuendo while ostensibly being about the joys of food (“I wanna put my banana in your fruitbowl”, etc). What I find challenging is that it’s almost impossible to write the lyrics without having a tune in your head — but the composer, naturally, has her own views about the musical style. Before I put the words down, we talked about the theme of the song: the idea that women tend to prefer slow cooking while the men are after a quick bite.

Sometimes — although surprisingly rarely — the sound of the song is so wildly different to the one that started out in my imagination that it becomes hard to reconcile the words to the music. The first version of Slow Cook Me last year sounded too squeaky clean and “choral” when the lyrics were so dirty. The new one works well because it has that languorous bluesy sound and, even better, it is not a pastiche but something original.

It has been a bit of a learning curve for someone who is used to being the mistress of her words to discover that if there’s a contest between a cracking tune or scintillating lyrics (one lives in hope) — the tune will always win. This means that I have had to learn not to become too attached to a phrase or a couplet because if the words don’t work in the rhythm they will be ruthlessly dispatched. For example, certain vowel sounds will be more pleasant to the ear — such as “when”, which people tend to say or sing brightly — and others will be less so — “what”, which can often sound very Brooklyn, and not in a good way. Apparently it’s something to do with the position of the tongue and the palate.

The composer will tend to use as many of my rhymes as she can easily mould into her music, and fill the rest with her own just so they fit, before handing the lyrics back to me to rewrite. My first job in journalism was as a sub-editor, inserting characters into a headline whose length had been dictated by the designer. This has proved invaluable for our method of songwriting, as I beat out the rhythm of the line, write the stresses on a piece of paper in a series of dashes, and then make the words fit into that pattern. Once the words have been agreed, the composer transforms them into fourpart harmony, and records each part on computer as a rehearsal aid for the choir.

As someone who is not naturally musical but loves to write and sing, I find the next stage quite magical. To hear the song taken up with enthusiasm by a room of singers, tentative at first but growing in confidence until the song really comes to life and takes off, is thrilling. It’s also fascinating to discover how malleable a song can be. This Moment, a love song we originally wrote for a musical as a duet, sounds, strangely, almost as intimate now that MJ has adapted it for the choir.

What makes a good song? Jarvis Cocker is considered to be pretty hot stuff as a songwriter (“This is our music from a bachelor’s den / The sound of loneliness turned up to ten”) but he told me that he prefers people not to read his lyrics when they are listening to his songs because it interferes with how they experience the music. Besides, he said, some of the greatest pop songs have rubbish lyrics.

While some of my all-time favourites are undoubtedly as much about the words as the tune — Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man, Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows — just as many are not.

Louie Louie, a song that is so successful it even has a festival dedicated to it, is a case in point. It was written in 1955 by Richard Berry (no relation to Chuck) as a firstperson story of a Jamaican sailor returning to see his girl. It would be fair to say that this is a good example of the tune beating the lyrics hands down. In fact, it has been rewritten by several groups and recorded more than 1,500 times. One version by the Kingsmen in 1963 prompted an FBI investigation into the alleged obscenity of the lyrics. It inspired a number of pop hits, including the Troggs’ Wild Thing (they also did a version of Louie Louie) and You Really Got Me by the Kinks, and ranks 55 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs.

When I bought my flat in Brighton I was told that the previous owner was a a big deal in the music business. He didn’t leave a forwarding address and continues to be sent royalty statements — which I must confess to opening once, and was delighted to discover that the songs were ones that I knew and once loved: Baby Come Back (recorded by the Equals in 1968) and Hold Your Head Up (Argent, 1972). The Pollyanna bit of me hopes that those same sea views will one day inspire a similar success.

Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll, Hove Town Hall Centre (www.brightonfestivalfringe.org.uk ), May 23.

Listen to MJ rehearse Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll

Listen to MJ rehearse Slow Cook Me

Listen to This Moment (Soloists – John Savournin and Katharine Prestwood; Chorus – Jonathan Mudgridge, Rosalind Strobel, Jake White, Rosamond Lomax, Mary-Jane Harris, Belinda Bunker, Rebecca Rocheleau; recording/ sound engineer – Tom Stone)

Listen to Ginger Chorale by MJ and Ginny Dougary

Music

Music, food of Hove: Ginny Dougary prepares some shockingly filthy numbers

The Times, May 16, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Ginny Dougary on the pleasures of writing dirty songs for the Brighton City Singers

Artists, even those who are not fortunate enough to be represented by a gallery, can show their work in art fairs, restaurants and shops. Writers get to see their words in books and magazines. But what of poor composers, many of whom never have the chance to experience their pieces coming to life?

For the past five years, the director of the Brighton City Singers (of which I am a founding member) has commissioned new choral works to be performed at the Brighton Fringe Festival. The results are often challenging, to put it diplomatically, and not all the members embrace the concept quite as enthusiastically as their choir mistress. Our usual repertoire is eclectic – Mozart to Abba, swing, musicals, gospel, Kaiser Chiefs.

As I write, we are in the throes of last-minute – it is always last-minute – organisation for this year’s concert. The theme is Food of Love and the pieces are the most appealing yet. The director has been more ruthless, rejecting anything that does not focus around love, food and sensual combinations of the two. The decorating committee is having fun transforming a rather sterile space into a scene of bacchanalian debauchery: men in togas reciting Shakespeare! Flimsily clad damsels offering grapes and Turkish delight on platters! Oyster shells, champagne bottles and dancers swirling in a half-crazed trance.

The choral pieces range from the lubricious – Pizza in Bed, with its references to gobbling spicy pepperoni, has divided some members of the choir – to the more intriguingly rhapsodic, a sort of electronic South Seas piece, set to a couple of Byron sonnets, with an overlay of African chanting.

There is a mad, madly operatic number about greedy Valkyries and a humorous tale of a food inspector whose job leads to a spectacular dental downfall. And – alas – I am writing this article instead of completing our song, which is a sexy number in the vein of the Bessie Smith “I need a sausage for my roll” genre.

The old blues numbers were shockingly filthy – men were keen to get their bananas into fruit baskets, women longed to get some sugar in their bowls, and both sexes yearned to churn butter and cream. My thought was to have the men champing at the bit – “Baste me in your oven ’til my juices start to flow” and needing their meat to be tenderised and marinated but, for God’s sake, get on with it. While the women would be quite happy for some slow cooking until they’re good and ready for the heat to be turned up for a final explosive blast, so to speak.

My elder son is a composer, as is my partner – but I only started writing the words to songs and choral pieces myself around three years ago. My first stab – a fledgeling musical based on the life and loves of David Blunkett and the Spectator shennanigans – was not dissimilar to my day job as a journalist. Writing an extended profile for The Times involves research. You look for what interests you about the character, clues and hints, as part of a narrative handle. For the musical, the idea was to create a version of actual people in which certain traits were amplified. The composer then used my notes and “read” about the individuals to create a musical character.

The process of editor and writer was reenacted but with an additional layer of me having to find words that would precisely fit the inflexible rhythym of the line. The difficulty arose when a phrase that might sound witty or eloquent when spoken simply would not work when sung. This sometimes led to a creative tug-of-war, with the writer and the composer debating the merits of the words over the music. In my experience (sigh) the music nearly always wins.

The next attempt was a commission by Terence Conran and Bluestorm, the managing committee of Embassy Court – a Modernist building on the Brighton sea front which had been restored to its former glory after years of neglect. What a high when we performed the piece with a 100-odd singers, accompanied by a brass band and a dozen Djembe Divas, as night fell and thousands of people gathered on the Hove lawns, before the fireworks cascaded down from the roof and balconies.

The new piece, juices and all, is still a work in progress and we are running out of time. But if we don’t manage to complete for the Brighton Festival, we will perform the piece for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall as the South London Choir and the Brighton City Singers – hurrah! – have been picked to launch the new season of free choral concerts on June 8. Food and love – well, it is such a winning combination, don’t you think?

Food of Love by the Brighton City Singers and South London Choir is on May 24 2008 at City College Brighton, Pelham Street (01273 709709), 7.30pm. www.brightonfestival.org

Music

Really good snares, Mum; how Shlomo taught my son and me how to beatbox

The Times, May 14, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Shlomo, beatboxer extraordinaire, is a courteous, cleancut young man with good teeth. This I know because he bared them repeatedly while demonstrating the basic skills of a percussive vocalist – a lip-smackingly resonant “B-uh”, followed by a wide-grinned “T-uh” and the finale of an open-mouthed primal pout “K-uh” – in a masterclass conducted for the benefit of my 17-year-old son and his mother.

This event came about because I thought it would be, you know, “wicked” to take my teenage sons – whose favourite mode of communication with one another is beatboxing – to experience Shlomo and his vocal orchestra presenting the world’s largest beatbox choir, alongside a beatbox chorus made up of 40 local schoolkids. On the morning of this Saturday’s concert at the Festival Hall members of the audience have been invited to a mega-workshop to prepare them for the finale of the evening gig. Now I have a head start and, boy, do I need one.

We meet in Shlomo’s office at the Festival Hall, where he is artist-in-residence with a brief to think ambitiously in every way. He has drawn up a list of world-class peformers with whom he would like to collaborate, three off the top of his head: Stevie Wonder “just a genius”, Brian Eno and Michael Jackson – “Well, about 30 years ago, before he started to go crazy”.

When Shlomo, 24, was a child he played percussion on pots and pans and was presented with a drum kit on his eighth birthday. His father, Jeremy Kahn, who is also his manager, is a jazz musician, and Shlomo started playing drums in his quartet from the age of 14. He also played in a local orchestra. “The timpani was my favourite, with the massive drums, and I would do my best to show off, basically.”

He has big issues with music in schools and music education in general: “Yes, the Government is pouring money into schools – it’s all about singing and it’s good stuff but at a city school, where you’re lucky if the kids even show up, you can turn up with a sound system and start beatboxing and straight away you can hit them because a) it’s cool and b) it’s something that everyone can do. They see one guy up there and it’s just his mouth – so there’s nothing they can’t do and have.”

As part of his mission to use beatboxing as a force for the good, Shlomo has set up a Beatbox Academy at the Battersea Arts Centre: “It’s only been going for a year but even if it’s just three hours when the kids aren’t on the streets stabbing each other, you’ve given them something they can take on elsewhere. Anything positive is going to reverse the spiral.”

He was “discovered” in his first term at Leeds University in 2003 having been persuaded by his parents and teachers to study astrophysics rather than go to music school. “The problem was that I used to smoke weed – don’t do that any more,” he adds hastily, “and that didn’t go with numbers and maths but was perfect for the music.” Foreign Beggars, the hip-hop crew, heard him performing outside a club and took him off on tour around Europe and Canada. “I didn’t think of it as making music, it was more like showing off with my solo party trick.”

A year later Björk asked him to perform with her at the Olympic Games “which blew my mind and changed my approach. That’s how I became hooked on the collaborative process”. Since then, he has worked with the comedian Bill Bailey, and Damon Alburn invited him to beatbox with Shlomo’s heroes, the Specials, who reunited at Glastonbury to sing A Message to You, Rudy. “Damon asked me whether I knew it. I said: ‘Do I know it? I only played it until it broke!’”

Shlomo is genuinely inclusive. I express some surprise about his collaboration last year with the Swingle Singers, for instance, because they seem so, well, square. He agrees that they are certainly “posh” and used to playing very formal concerts but what was “so wicked” was melding their harmonious “dabadabadabbadabbadoooos” with beatboxing underneath, and then slowing everything right down. I have to say that my boys seem to get a kick out of beatboxing to Nessun Dorma, so he’s obviously on to something here. And when the Swingles and Shlomo performed at the Big Chill Festival, 10,000 ravers just screamed their heads off – presumably in delight.

This summer Shlomo has a new commission for Wembley Stadium to create seven choirs representing different ethnic backgrounds with beatboxing as the common glue. The same choirs will be coming together in September for the Olympic changeover. But as Shlomo admits: “I’m never really satisfied. Everything I achieve is just the start.”

Off for our class in a recording studio in the bowels of the Festival Hall. Shlomo agrees that beatboxing is particularly alluring to teenage boys: “I don’t know why. It’s a bit of a boys’ club which upsets me because with the educational projects I do I’m not seeing many girls.” This interests me because it’s the polar opposite with choirs (I’m a member of two, the Brighton City Singers and the South London Choir), where women, including young girls, tend to far outnumber the men. At the Beatbox Championships there were more girls than boys in the audience but they don’t seem to have the confidence or inclination to perform themselves.

“I thought that one of the reasons girls don’t do it is that it’s too low for them, but there’s one girl in our choir – Belle (short for Bellatrix), who is 18, and she is phenomenal. She has made me realise that the really low bass stuff you do isn’t actually to do with your voice and how low you can sing, it’s all in your lips and resonance. I’ll show you how.”

First, a quick history of beatboxing. It came out of the hip-hop scene in the 1980s in America with the rappers and the breakdancers on the streets of the Bronx and Harlem, using their ghetto-blasters for the background beat. When the machines broke down, the human beatboxers took over. In the Nineties, beatboxing moved centre stage, Shlomo explains, with the likes of Rahzel and it was all “Wow! How’s he doing that with his mouth? Very kind of impressive. And now, with my generation, we’ve got past the point of it being impressive with solo performances and started to make it into music.”

The idea, I think, is to re-create the rhythm and sound of drums through the chamber of your mouth. So you replicate the kick of the drum (that sonic B vibration), then the high-hat of the cymbals (the T-uh) and the snaredrum (the K-uh). Listening to the tape it sounds more like the beating of metal against metal than something vocal. You then have to think about experimentation and independence. Both are tricky. The independence is like that exercise where you tap your head and rub your stomach, which some of us find challenging.

The experimentation is more tricky still: as I try to speed up, I just lose it and start drooling and making gibbering sounds, which may explain why young girls don’t do it – it’s exposing and quite unladylike. Breath control is the killer. Shlomo is always being asked how he does a song without seeming to pause for breath. He gives me various tips, such as drawing in breath while making an interesting sound so that it sounds like part of the beat. The problem is that I can’t create the beat in the first place.

There’s a eureka moment when he hands me a mike, teaches me to cup the end so that only a tiny circle of the head is revealed and then I lean over and “B-T-K-T” for all my worth. “Whooooohooo,” Shlomo says, “you’ve got really good snares going. Wicked.” I make kissing sounds out of the side of my mouth and horse whinnies and for a moment I feel as if a beatbox version of Damien has entered me. Even my son looks fleetingly unembarrassed.

When Shlomo finally gives us a demonstration – singing and drumming simultaneously as though he has two mouths in one – we are all enthralled. I’ve got a very long way to go but I’m willing to work on being the mother of all beatboxers.

* * *

Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra: the world’s largest beatbox choir is on Saturday, 8pm, at QEH, Southbank Centre, London (0871 6632500)

Music, Opinion

Paean of praise to the ginger-ninjas

The Times – June 29 2007
– Ginny Dougary

When Titian-haired Ginny Dougary wrote a choral piece celebrating redheads, it brought home to her how much ‘gingerism’ there is in England

Click here to listen to Ginger Chorale by Ginny Dougary and MJ Paranzino, performed at the Royal Festival Hall, June 2007

Jenny McAlpine
Photo courtesy Red and Proud

The e-mails from the choir built up to a great clamour in the days leading up to the Overture Weekend – the grand-scale reopening celebrations of the Royal Festival Hall earlier this month. “Have you heard . . ?” “Can you believe it?” “Talk about timing . . .” This was in response to the news about a family in Newcastle who had suffered three years of abuse – smashed windows, graffiti, physical attacks – forcing them to decamp from one council estate to another on two occasions, now pushing for a third move, and all on account of their red hair.

One of the more arresting details was that a council officer had apparently discussed the possibility that the family invest in a few bottles of hair-dye. As a ginger-ninja myself, I was appalled at the idea that the solution to being bullied was to change yourself rather than to correct the behaviour of your tormentors.

The news of a redhaired family’s travails was indeed quite timely since this was the week that a choral piece I had first thought about writing last autumn was to be performed, thrillingly, at the Royal Festival Hall. The title was Ginger Chorale, the story of a bullied ginga (or gingette) who ends the song feeling triumphantly special, after hearing the rollcall of all the amazing redheads who have existed throughout history, and a paean to the wonders of diversity.

There was to be a double-high to the event since I would be singing alongside my fellow choir members of the Brighton City Singers and South London Choir (around 150 voices) who were among a group of 15 choirs throughout the UK picked to perform on that day.

There is something weirdly Zeitgeist-y about gingerism – witness this week’s news about the ginger-haired waitress, Sarah Primmer, from Plymouth, who was awarded £17,618 after suffering “lewd and embarrassing” comments about her hair – but I was totally unaware of this when I was first smitten by the auburn theme.

So what prompted the piece? Well, I have to say that although the elder of my two sons is a redhead, neither he nor I, happily, has been victimised because of it. However, my son is a composer and it was partly considering his musical future that made me think about the ginger theme.

The idea came out of a flippant conversation in which we were discussing how to market his talents and I said something along the lines of “So what’s your unique selling point? Who’s going to be interested in a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ex-public schoolboy? – the only thing in your favour is that you might be considered ‘different’ because of your hair colour.”

It seemed to me that taking redhairedness as a route of addressing the whole issue of prejudice could be fruitful in that you could make a strong point in an unexpected and inventive way.

It took some persuasion, however, to convince my musical writing partner, the composer MJ, that this was a worthwhile project. She is American and in the United States red locks are something to be admired, apparently, rather than derided. The notion that anyone could be bullied because of his or her hair colour seemed utterly incredible to her. This was echoed in the Times Online response to the Chapmans’ story with American readers clearly reeling in disbelief. Jerry, from Phoenix, Arizona: “Anti redhead? Totally unheard of in the US. Come to the USA. Folks, you will be welcomed.”; Lisa, from Ohio: “Being from the US I have to say this baffles me. There is a lot of stuff that is wrong with my country but I can at least say that redhaired people can live peacefully here.”

It seems that England may be the only country in the world, in fact, to indulge in ginger-baiting. In May, just as we were doing a final polish to the song, I switched on the TV and found myself watching a most entertaining documentary called F*** off I’m Ginger, the personal investigation by a young redhaired (and very cute) comedian, Dan Wright, into why it’s so problematic being a ginga in this country. He believed, for instance, that it was his hair colour that prevented him from getting a girlfriend at university. One of his interviews was with a copper-haired, freckle-faced copywriter who found that his colouring was a magnet to women in France and America where he had lived for some years (he is now married to an American), but the reverse was painfully true for him in England. So are the English simply less tolerant than other nations? I don’t think so. Perhaps it stems from an atavistic hostility towards Scotland which has the highest proportion of redheads (13 per cent of the population have red hair; 40 per cent carry the recessive so-called “ginger gene”), with Ireland coming a strong second.

From the outset, I wanted part of the song to be dedicated to the names of famous redheads and thought that the internet might provide some helpful sites.

Well, what an eye-opening and cheek-blushing revelation this turned out to be . . . let’s just say that there seem to be plenty of men out there who have a positive fetish for scantily-clad Titian-haired beauties.

The most useful (and wholesome) source was one called Red and Proud, which gives an annual award to celebrated gingers (past recipients include Charlie Dimmock and Anne Robinson, whose face adorns one of the club’s T-shirts – “Not a Redhead? You are the weakest link”). Other sassily self-confident legends include: “Ginger Genius”, “Redhot Redhead Ready to Rock”, and “It’s a Redhead thing . . . you wouldn’t understand”.

It fell to MJ to fit these redheads into a musical form and although she found the exercise exasperating in some ways – beating out name after name until she got the right rhythmical combination, she also got a kick out of coming up with absurd juxtapositions such as these: “Ginger Rogers, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, James Cagney . . . Rita Hayworth, Charlie Dimmock, Sarah Bernhardt, Prince Harry”, and her favourite, “Oliver Cromwell, Woody Allen, Lord Byron and Kiki Dee”. I thought it was important to use accessible language and terms, with a few exceptions, that most kids could understand . . .”

It’s a smack,/ a knife attack,/ when you sneer,/ when you jeer:/ Oi ginga, you’re a minga,/ stop you’re whining little whinger . . . and so on.

Our first performance of Ginger Chorale was at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May in front of an audience of a hundred, before the big event a month later at RFH which was attended by thousands. It’s hard to know when you sing something for the first time what impact it will make: you worry whether people will hear the words and – more importantly – will they hear the message?

It seems that we had touched a nerve when, after our debut, a beautiful strawberry-blonde young woman in her early twenties came up and told us that the song had made her cry, remembering how she had been singled out and slagged off in her early teens. If only her classroom tormentors had been in the audience.

While it may seem faintly comical to some to equate gingerism to racism or queer-bashing, a punch or a taunt is as cruelly felt regardless of what makes the victim different, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

One of the most troubling parts of the Chapmans’ story was that their son – only 10 years old – was having suicidal thoughts. Two years ago a Premiership footballer – Dave Kitson of Reading – said that fans who made fun of his red hair were as bad as racists.

But how dull if we were all the same. As we sung on our big day: “I’m cool, I’m smart – my red hair’s a work of art . . . Don’t berate, let’s celebrate our existence, vive la difference, our good luck, what the f***, this crowning glory my red hair…” I haven’t managed to catch (redhead) Catherine Tate’s sketch about the refuge for Gingers, but as it happens, two members of the South London Choir almost didn’t make the performance at the Royal Festival Hall because they were attending the West End premiere of her new feature film, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution. Its director, Bille Eltringham, and editor, John Wilson, arrived minutes before we were due on stage with a message of support from their star who was “chuffed” to be counted among our illustrious redheads.

It is hard to convey the excitement that we choir members felt on the Big Day. But it was an unforgettable experience. Some of them said that it ranked among the best moments of their lives, and I would have to agree. But it was also thrilling to sing our Ginger Chorale to such a receptive crowd and see the looks of amazement and engagement on so many people’s faces as the message of the song sank in. The best compliment we received was hearing that at least one of the other choirs wanted to include the song in their repertoire. Ginger power!

Music

A song for everyone

The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Howard Goodall is a man of many passions: from composing the Mr Bean theme to popularising Wagner. He tells Ginny Dougary why singing and squash — but not dancing — are good for the soul

Howard Goodall

Howard Goodall, the composer, broadcaster and singing czar for the Government’s new Music Manifesto education initiative, is sitting at his kitchen table in Chelsea in his old Newcastle United T-shirt, telling me why he has no doubts about the healing powers of music in general and singing in particular.

At first he is able to come up with only some random observations that people who stammer don’t when they sing, and asthmatics no longer have breathing problems when they open up their voices. He’s a bit uncertain as to why this should be: “I mean I know there are scientific things like enzymes being released and all that kind of stuff.” Endorphins? “That’s the one, thank you very much. It’s a release like laughter that makes you feel better about yourself, and there’s no doubt that people who have a good sing feel great.”

But it’s when the composer recalls his “field trips” all over the country, as part of his national campaign to bolster singing in schools, that he snaps into focus. He was particularly impressed by a woman who teaches at a primary school in Bristol that has many pupils who are refugees: “It’s very, very difficult because they often don’t have the language skills, which means that they find it hard to cope and join in. She told a story about an Iraqi boy who was badly traumatised by the war and just sat at the back in a totally silent walled room of his own. The other children told her that he never spoke to anyone ever. On the second singing session she saw that the boy was singing along phonetically and this was the opening of the door for him and, after that, he was able to communicate.”

The teacher was so moved that she wrote a song about the experience, which was performed by 500 children at the national School Proms last year. “And the extraordinary thing is that when you see this boy now, you would never know what he’s been through,” Goodall says, “and it’s singing which has definitely changed his life.”

Goodall’s own childhood was untouched by trauma, unless you count an unhappy year or so as a boarder at the public school Stowe, and he went on to a glittering career that has included composing the theme tunes for Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley and The Catherine Tate Show. “Stowe was a beautiful place but I was lonely and I found the other pupils arrogant, privileged and unpleasant.” He was parachuted out, as he puts it, of public-school misery to join his two brothers at the local state school in Thame, Oxfordshire, where their father was headmaster. This suited him far better “and so I carried that into my adult life, a sort of sticking up for the state system thing . . . and I know that I’m doing this thing for government singing, but we’re working with independent schools as well. I don’t consider there to be a dividing line beyond which we can’t move because my own background was both.”

Goodall first started composing at the age of 8 when he was a chorister at New College, Oxford. He doesn’t know what gave him the confidence to do so: “It was just that I heard music in my head and wondered what it would be like if I wrote it down.” But the floodgates opened when he was a shy 14-year-old smitten by an older French girl on a school exchange. “I just thought she was, you know, incredible, but I couldn’t even get through a conversation with her,” he says, let alone play her the song that she’d inspired him to write. He thinks that “Françoise” was probably a bit McCartneyish or possibly Gilbert O’Sullivan-ish, and he can still remember every word. Would you sing it for me? “No, I’d be too embarassed.” Oh, go on, I say, turning into Mrs Doyle. “I can’t. I can’t. Honestly, I just can’t,” the poor man says.

“Anyway, up to that point I’d written what you might describe as classical music, but then I realised, ‘Gosh, writing pop songs is really good fun’, and I wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs at the piano and that’s why I moved into writing musicals, I suppose, as a way of using them up.” At Oxford, where he read music at Christ Church, graduating with a first in 1979, he became close friends with Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, writing the music for their revues and annual show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He owed his first break in television to Atkinson, composing the theme tune to Not the Nine O’Clock News, then Blackadder, as well as all the Mr Bean films, including the new one. Other TV credits include Red Dwarf and QI. He’s also written and presented award-winning music documentaries and presented classical programmes such as Choir of the Year.

He is quite sensitive to the suggestion that he owes his success to his friends, pointing out that Curtis has made four of the most successful films of all time ( Notting Hill, Four Weddings etc) “and if it were true that I just got asked to do my mates’ projects, I’d have done one of those, wouldn’t I?”

I watched Goodall’s last four-part television series How Music Worksbefore we met and was swept up by his enthusiasm and the way he built bridges between different composers from Wagner to Coldplay. He is as natural and unprecious in person as he is on television, but what is unusual is that he is disarmingly open — almost nakedly so — as though he has not yet mastered the art of masking his inner self from the public gaze.

In an early interview in 1994, he told the journalist that the reason why he found it so easy to relate to the George Eliot character Silas Marner (he was writing an opera based on the novel) was because “ it was a very sad time in my own life. My wife had just left me and I could empathise with the bitter despair of Marner.” He says that he shouldn’t have been so honest and then proceeds to go farther: “I’m happily married now on my second marriage [to Val Fancourt, a classical music agent]. My first wife was someone who had been in one of my shows.

“The leading lady and the composer,” he laughs, “bet you’ve never heard that before. I was about 28 or 29 [he is now approaching 50] and the marriage fell apart as I was writing the opera and so I felt my way through it with the pain I was going through “I loved my first wife and I missed her and I was devastated, but looking back on it she made the braver decision to leave because it wasn’t really working.

“I think I was young and very immature emotionally and unbelievably selfish as well. I had my music, with my head in the clouds doing my own thing. And I don’t think I really grasped what having a relationship of that intensity actually meant.” For some reason I ask him whether he gets angry — who knows why since he comes across as rather measured — and touch an unexpected nerve. “Yeah, I do have a temper and I’m sorry about that as it causes anxiety. I get impatient when I’m attacked; for example, when the person attacking me hasn’t done their homework. [His populist approach infuriates the classical elitists.]

“And it just drives me . . . it just drives my insides . . . I just get so frustrated.” Can he explain why this happens? “It would be nice for me to say that because I write music and it’s a very passionate, intimate thing and I bash away at the piano that maybe there’s a sort of raised temperature to my emotional state that I can’t stop happening in my normal life. But it would be a cop-out because there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write music and be a perfectly calm and patient person.” So what do you think it’s about then? “I don’t know,” he says, before suggesting that it may be a male problem. When his wife is dealing with a disagreeable builder, for instance, she is the model of diplomacy: “While I’m afraid there’s something male in me that makes me want to punch him and say, ‘You bastard. Don’t be so selfish and arrogant’. But of course I don’t do that because I’m a coward.” He has never hit anyone in his life, although he was once attacked by a puppeteer at a party.

“It was a Spitting Imagepuppeteer and they’ve got strong arms. He was drunk and threatening a woman friend of mine and she said, ‘Howard can you help?’ and I pulled the guy away at which point, you know, he lunged at me,” much laughter. “ Luckily, Stephen Fry was there and he’s a big man and managed to sort of calm things down,” he says, still looking relieved.

I ask him whether he still suffers from shyness and he says that he does, “which you might find hard to believe because, you know, I’m a perfectly normal chap sitting here not looking like a man who’s got a problem”. He has no difficulty making speeches or being on television, but what he can’t really deal with are parties, and he supposes that’s because he’s never been able to dance. Have girls laughed at him? “Yes. Oh yes,” he says. How mean! “It’s not mean; it’s what they do. I think girls are great.” He doesn’t like the way he looks either. How ridiculous, you’re perfectly good looking I say, and so he is with his startling blue eyes and cherubic curls. “Well, I wouldn’t say I was cherubic exactly,” he says. “I think that probably all of us who look like me really want to look like Jean-Michel Jarre.”

He worries about his weight even though he cycles from his home in Barnes, West London, to his Chelsea office every day, but he gave up squash which he really loved “maybe because it was an outlet for my irritation but they don’t advise men over 40 to play unless they’re really fit”. What matters to him apart from his music are his family and his friends, and he’s closer now, he says, to Atkinson and Curtis (he’s godfather to various of their children) than he’s been for a long time. Is that because he feels more on an equal footing with them now? “Maybe, but it’s probably more to do with life changing and mellowing you, and we’ve all got kids now, and for a while we were all wrapped up in our careers and then you realise that the things that really matter are being with people you like and the things that probably wound each other up in our twenties and thirties are all worn away.”

Goodall elaborates: “I think I was probably a bit of a tosser when I was in my twenties, terribly arrogant and haughty, and Rowan and Richard are just more mature and always have been. They probably found me a bit annoying. I don’t feel particularly good when I look back to that time; I don’t really feel good about the way I was.” He says that there was never a time when he felt ‘Gosh, I’d like to have children’ and I wonder whether that’s because I write music and will leave lots of stuff in my wake so there’s a bit of me there now to give meaning to my life and, anyway, I have the experience of parenthood since I completely adore my stepchildren, whom I’ve known since they were 5, and they feel like my own.” He first met their mother — who is not his agent, incidentally — when the two were students at Oxford and he asked her on a date that took her only 21 years to accept. Several times he refers to her calmness and how much he prefers the peacefulness of staying at home with her and the girls than gadding around town.

Writer’s block, artistic angst, none of these things applies. He says that he could compose all day: “It’s like a tap running or broadband, as though I have an enormous CD collection in my head.” I ask him to pick a song that has spoken to him consistently and at the end of the interview he says that it’s Paul Simon’s Something so Right because it’s delicate and beautiful and about someone who cannot believe that things have gone so well for them when they least expected it. He starts to sing the words, finally, in his lovely voice: “You’ve got the cool water/ when the fever runs high/ you’ve got the look of lovelight in your eyes/ And I was in crazy motion/till you calmed me down/ it took a little time/ but you calmed me down.”

General, Music

Men and singing — why we need vocal heroes

The Times – Body and Soul, December 23 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Many a man can ding dong and hark the herald with the best of them — so why won’t they join choirs?

’Tis the season to be vocal, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaah, when even the most curmudgeonly among you are likely to be coerced into doing a ding dong or harking the herald. But among the host of carol singers or church choirs, in how many will female voices swamp the males?

Which prompts me to wonder (not for the first time), what is it with men and singing? For three or four years now, ever since joining my first proper (or, possibly, improper) choir, I have been puzzling over this question. During this time I have asked all manner of men — friends, certainly, but also taxi drivers, hairdressers, waiters, supermarket check-out guys, florists, teachers, scaffolders, bankers, lawyers, handymen — whether they like to sing.

This line of inquiry has sometimes seemed to be redundant since it has been provoked by this or that fellow warbling along to a song on the radio or background Muzak.

At other times, there has been something particularly pleasing about the tone of the man’s speaking voice that has prompted the question. But the reaction is invariably the same — a panicky high-pitched squeak (the subtext being “Oh Gawd, is she some kind of religious zealot trying to recruit me?”) — followed by a rapid descent into gruff denial: “No, really, no, no, I’m hopeless, totally tone deaf, honestly . . . just ask my wife/girlfriend/kids.”

Very often it transpires that the men got the idea that they couldn’t sing way back in their school days, often at the time that their voices broke. It makes me quite angry when I discover how many teachers are responsible for destroying so many young boys’ confidence in their ability to do something natural and joyful, and how this has created a lifelong handicap. For if you have been silenced at such a tender age — told to mouth along to the words but on no account to make an actual sound — it is hardly surprising if you grow up with a hang-up about your voice.

When we started the Brighton City Singers (BCS) three years ago, for a long time there was often a scant handful of men singing alongside 20 or so women. Our doughty founding BCS men hung in and we are now fortunate enough to have about 15 solid male voices (and twice as many females), so we can all experience the thrill of four-part and, on occasion, even eight-part harmony.

This means that when a brave-soul solo male potential recruit walks into our rehearsal room, he no longer feels quite so exposed and vulnerable, and is thus more likely to stay.

Now I have joined another newly formed singing group in London — the South London Choir (SLC) — and it’s the same old story. Ten months on, there are 45 members and yet only three or four of them are men. One evening, there was much rejoicing because we had as many as seven chaps at the back. But this leaves me as exercised as ever as to why so few men are attracted to the idea of singing in a community choir, when so many women clearly find it so appealing.

Here are some additional questions: how come men in crowds sing with such uninhibited enjoyment at football and rugby matches? (Tradition? Alcohol? Vicarious sports euphoria?) Why is it that in Scotland, Ireland and famously in Wales men sing in choirs and pubs and at each other’s homes as a matter or course? Why do scaffolders tend to sing with such abandon, suggesting that they feel invisible even at their most visible? Why do my teenage sons think it is somehow “girlie” to sing in choirs when one is a music scholar and the other is heavily into bands that favour vocal harmony? The mysterious male ego seems to enter the equation, too. While the majority of men seem to suffer from lack of confidence, the obverse is also true. In both the BCS and the SLC, we have women members who have sung in rock bands, West End musicals and the like, but who seem to relish the way that the musical director — MJ (who is herself a professional entertainer) — can coax a magical sound out of this blend of members, many of whose voices are completely untrained. But it is also true, from my observations, that men who have sung professionally will join us only for the big high-profile shebangs of the annual festival or one of our specially commissioned works. That is, they are not prepared to come week in, week out, for regular rehearsals which are the life-blood of a choir. Again, I can’t help wondering why? I have seen what a difference it can make to a person’s wellbeing to sing on a regular basis. Only the other day a choir member told me that she had been extremely depressed for a variety of physical and emotional reasons but had completely forgotten about her unhappiness for the two hours that she was singing. Men are notoriously reticent when it comes to acknowledging that they have a health problem, let alone tackling it. Singing is a proven tonic, and the feel-good factor is enhanced substantially when your voice is joined by others in a friendly community setting. It seems sad that so many men deny themselves such an accessible pleasure when there is so much they could gain from it.

Richard Frostick is an unashamed evangelist for the health benefits of singing. He founded the Islington Music Centre in 1992, running weekend sessions for children and young people from the ages of 6 to 18 (the numbers have grown from 60 to 400) as a way of getting them to explore musicality outside the school framework.

His favourite quote is from Peter Pears, the great tenor, who once said: “A voice is a person.” He, too, feels that there is nothing funny about the idea that someone cannot sing, since what could be more revealing or personal than the sounds that come out of a person’s mouth.

First of all, Frostick says that boys’ voices don’t “break”, they change. “The idea of a ‘broken’ voice is not helpful when you are trying to persuade a 13-year-old boy that he sounds OK! There are changes that occur in the vocal folds but — despite the misguided orthodoxy that still prevails — boys can actually sing safely and happily through the change, even though they may croak and crackle or sound gravelly. It’s better for boys to continue singing through this period than to drop singing altogether.

“Young boys can be noticeably more insecure about singing than girls of the same age, but I’m a great believer in just getting on with it and once the children are singing wholeheartedly in a group, the pleasure of the experience is often all you need to convince reluctant boys; they just get swept up in the general enthusiasm.” Female voices change during puberty, too, but less dramatically, as the vocal folds (formerly known as cords) thicken. Girls’ voices may become deeper and richer but then all our voices continue to change over a lifetime as a direct consequence of changes in our hormone levels. (Joni Mitchell’s smokey deep register in her 2000 version of A Case of You, for instance, sounds nothing like the girlish swoops of her Seventies original.) Few people, Frostick says, are tone deaf and yet “so many have been told this by bad teachers in the past. Nearly everyone can be taught to sing in tune but we don’t have the workforce of teachers that have the skills to do this. Primary teacher training in this country is seriously inadequate when it comes to training teachers to sing in the classroom.

“There are signs that singing is making a comeback and the Music Manifesto has just announced a national campaign,” says Frostic, of the government-backed initiative to provide the young with more musical opportunities. “I really can’t think of a better way to get a child musically literate than through singing.”

As a parent, I know how much difference it can make to the whole atmosphere of a school when you are lucky enough to have an inspirational music teacher.

At my sons’ local state primary in London, Honeywell, we had the fantastic Alexander MacMillan, a Guildhall graduate whose general demeanour (punky hair, multiple earrings) may have been helpful in sending out the message that there was nothing remotely uncool about playing an instrument or singing a classical song. But it was his personality and commitment that made the difference to his pupils’ lives. Every year, for instance, he would put on a musical extravaganza at the Battersea Arts Centre which gave every child, from every sort of background, an equal chance to play an important part in making it a success.

Frostick gets his “reluctant” boys to name as many male singers as they can; all styles, from Top Ten pop to jazz, rock and classical. Once the board is covered with names, he looks them in the eye and says: “Now tell me that singing isn’t a male thing.” So we may have a steer on how to handle and enthuse reluctant young boys to sing freely, but what can be done about their reluctant fathers? Choral singing seems to be all the rage: just think of the terrific car park Honda ad, in which a choir sings the noises of a car’s engine; and the recent BBC Two series The Choir. Even a supreme cynic such as Simon Cowell, with his group Angelis, seems convinced that what the nation needs to listen to now is glorious choral harmony. But will any of the above persuade all the men out there — who would have such a blast if they only dared to rise to the challenge — to turn up to any number of the community choirs that exist around the country and make our day? I asked Frostick, finally, if he thought there was any essential difference between English men and women that might explain the gulf in their attitude to singing. “After 25 years’ experience, what I would say is that it goes very deep. Men’s relationship with their voices is an emotional one. You can disguise your speaking voice to conceal what you are thinking, but it’s far harder to do this when you’re singing. Women are more prepared to take risks with their vulnerability. Men find it more hard to let down their guard, and I do think it’s a particularly English thing. But once they’ve broken the barrier — wow! It’s a life-changer.”

Singing your way to health

A study of children, aged 4 to 6, published this year in the journal Brain, indicates that music can make kids brainier. The children who were taking music lessons had greater brain development than those who were not.

Singing means better breathing and lung capacity, according to a survey of the choral society from Canterbury Christ Church University College. Over half of the members said that their breathing control had improved through singing. To breathe like a singer, pull your diaphragm down, and visibly move the ribcage outwards.

Australian scientists at a pain clinic decided to get their patients singing to see whether it would help with their chronic pain. All of the singing patients improved their ability to cope with pain.

Singing even helps your body with bug-busting. A German study found that singing in an amateur choir not only boosted mood, but also the immune system.

Great posture is also a bonus. Jenevora Williams, the vocal adviser to the National Youth Choir, says to imagine that the crown of your head is being gently pulled towards the ceiling, the shoulders and chest widening and the spine straightening. And, relax.

As part of a rehab scheme for stressed people in Norway, singing increased the confidence and drive of patients.

Singing may be a cure for snoring. The success of Singing for Snorers, a CD by the signing coach Alise Ojay, which has sold 1,000 copies and promises to cure even severe cases of sleep apnoea by strengthening throat muscles, has inspired researchers at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital to launch a two-year clinical trial of her exercises, the results of which are due next year.

* * *

ALL TOGETHER NOW
To find a choir near you, visit www.gerontius.net

South London Choir (SLC) and Brighton City Singers (BCS) rehearse every week (from January). Male voices welcome. For SLC, email the director mjzino@hotmail.com; for BCS visit www.brightoncitysingers.co.uk

Islington Music Centre 020-7254 4452

Celebrities, Music

Who wants to be good?

THE TIMES – March 9, 2006
Ginny Dougary

30 years after the birth of punk, Malcolm McLaren reveals that his gran invented it — and taught him the virtues of being bad

In the age of the soundbite, Malcolm McLaren is an anachronism. Ask him a question and he’ll tell you a long and meandering story. The stories are never ordinary since his is a life marked by improbability and melo- drama. There’s a strong whiff of theatricality about the man who spent his childhood sitting at the feet of his grandmother, Rose, while she read Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol to him again and again. As he narrates, he turns into the characters he is describing — adopting their voices and accents: a plodding northern brogue for his ex-partner-in-punk, the fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood; a Warren Mitchell Jewish archetype for his grandmother, wheedling and hectoring, while she gleefully wreaks havoc through her family’s life; a sneery whine for Johnny Rotten.

Something else happens as you get drawn into his atmospheric swirl — the walk-on parts of the likes of Cat Stevens and Paul McCartney in unlikely guises; the discovery of a missing father in the mists of the Romney Marshes; the confusion of tenderness on seeing Joe Corre, McLaren and Westwood’s son, cradling the duo’s newborn granddaughter, Cora . . . You watch the 60-year-old, tweed-suited McLaren, cherubic russet curls now shorn and a shade between chestnut and grey, while the images that he is conjuring flicker cinematically in your mind’s eye, and you can’t help but think what an extraordinary movie his life story would make.
He is currently preoccupied with quite a different film — a fictionalised account of Fast Food Nation, the exposé of America’s fast-food industry. McLaren picked the book up five or six years ago, just before it started to creep up The New York Times’s bestseller list, and became convinced that it should be turned into a big Hollywood film playing in shopping malls all over the US rather than a high-intentioned documentary screened in a few arthouse cinemas.

Consequently the film he is co-producing with fellow Brit Jeremy Thomas — who he worked with years ago on The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle — stars Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson and is directed by Richard “School of Rock” Linklater. The film-makers are planning to show it at Cannes in May.

For anyone buying into the McLaren mythol- ogy — he has been variously described as “the most evil man on earth” (Johnny Rotten) and “amoral” (by almost everyone else) — it is interesting that the creator of a movement associated with nihilistic anarchy should even concern himself with the conditions of animals, workers, and what goes into our bellies. But then McLaren is full of surprises, not least of which is that with a background like his, he didn’t end up a serial killer.

“Oh, those were the very words of my second major girlfriend, Lauren Hutton [the gorgeous gap-toothed model and actress] in Hollywood,” McLaren beams. “That’s exactly what she said” — presumably just before marching him off to a therapist.

McLaren is here ostensibly to discuss punk’s 30th birthday, and it is fitting that much of our conversation revolves around Rose — Malcolm’s grandmother, who is also the grandmother, it becomes clear, of punk rock itself.

Rose Corre came from a wealthy family of Portuguese-Dutch diamond dealers. She was a thwarted actress with a strongly rebellious streak who filled her home in Highbury, North London, with bohemians and gays.

Agatha Christie was one of her friends and the writer’s housekeeper used to come to stay when Christie went off on her foreign travels. The agony aunt Marjorie Proops was apparently a protégée of Malcolm’s grandmother, who paid for the young Proops to take drawing lessons at Hackney Art College and thereafter found her a job at the Daily Mirror.

All of which sounds rather generous-spirited and fun, but less so when you hear how Corre manipulated her family by keeping them distant or suffocatingly close or paying them to go away. She had married a man, a master tailor, whom she couldn’t stand, refusing to take his surname (Isaacs) and banishing him to a house down the road; she also loathed her daughter, Emily, who lived next door and who hated being a mother, in turn, and left her sons to be brought up by their grandmother: “My mother might as well have been a stranger, or a sort of strange aunt who visited once a week.”

Peter McLaren, the father of Malcolm and his older brother, Stewart, was handed a sum of money by Rose and told to disappear — which he did so effectively that it wasn’t until Malcolm was 45 that he managed to track him down.

With his curls and pale, milky skin, Malcolm was encouraged by his grandmother to dress like a girl and share her bed — not when he was little but around the age of 14. What was that about? “I’ll tell you very simply — it wasn’t anything sinister,” he says. “It was just that she didn’t want me sharing a room with my brother. She didn’t want me to have a relationship with anyone except her.” While Stewart was left to his own devices, staying out all hours, and leaving school at 15 to become a taxi driver, Rose lavished her attention on her younger grandson, moulding him to create mayhem.

“The effect of growing up in a family that never wanted to be a family is that it’s very difficult for you to behave in a normal way,” McLaren says. “To respect elders. To respect any form of authority. I think if you have clear parental figures in your life, you get to know at a very early age who to listen to and who not to listen to and how to behave.

“My grandmother used me to take out her dysfunctional upbringing on the world. She used to say, ‘You know, Malcolm, it’s very difficult to be bad. You’ve got to work at it. But then again . . . who wants to be good?’ That’s a phrase that haunted me from the age of 5 or 6 onwards.

“She was extremely possessive and forbade me to have anything to do with girls from the age of 13 but if I was the worst-behaved person at a friend’s house or causing tremendous problems at school, that was all fine. She would go to the headmistress and say, ‘Boys will be boys. What’s wrong with what he’s doing? If he drives me crazy, I just bash him with my handbag. So I don’t know what your problem is’.” He says this approach led to him being on the verge of being sent to a special-needs school but his grandmother decided to have him home-tutored for several years instead; the better to indoctrinate him in her wayward ways.

When I ask McLaren what he considers his proudest achievement, he says: “The moment when I was able to imitate my grandmother’s imagination. It was what ultimately inspired me to go to art school in the first place and discover a new way of looking at life and then putting it into practice. I would be creating what I thought she would . . .” he thinks. “You see, my grandmother really loved chaos and really loved discomfort.

When she thought everybody was uncomfortable that was always most attractive to her because that was when she thought people really revealed themselves. And I always believed in that aspect.

“What you have to understand is that as much as it seems ridiculous, if it’s all you know — then it’s everything else outside of it which seems ridiculous, which means you’re always going to be a loner.”

What kept him from going completely off the rails, he believes, was finding the wherewithall to use all his hothoused trouble-making to productive ends: “You find ways to make whatever it is causing trouble — which is the thing you constantly got rewarded for — to use it creatively . . . so my idea was to create trouble since that was how I was brought up. I was absolutely born to be a punk rocker. It was inevitable. Blood’s thicker than water, so what can you do? It’s rooted in you, baby, it’s like that’s the tree. You will go to the grave with that. You have to make sense of it, and making sense of that for me was making punk rock.”

The details of his background become more picaresque the longer McLaren talks, and more implausible, if possible. He reminds me of another freckle-faced, fanciful storyteller — Jeanette Winterson; they share the same delight in recounting the strangeness of the worlds they grew up in.

Malcolm’s father, so despised by his reluctant mother-in-law, was nevertheless hidden in Rose Corre’s cellar during the war (in which he didn’t wish to fight), became her driver and helped her to run a black market scam, stealing cars and renting them out. Fagin, after all, was her hero. Was it the money that was important to her? “Partly, but what was more important to her was to have these kind of rogueish lives. She loved it.”

Once Peter McLaren had outlived his usefulness, he was paid off to get lost: “We had never seen a photograph of him, our name had been changed to Edwards (the name of Malcolm’s mother and stepfather’s chain of clothes shops). He was rubbed out of our lives.” It was Lauren Hutton, during McLaren’s stint as court jester-cum-ideas man for Steven Spielberg, who persuaded her maverick boyfriend that it would be worthwhile for him to try to find his father.

First, Malcolm resolved to confront the mother he hadn’t seen for more than 20 years: “I said to my brother, ‘Look, if we can find our father, if he is still alive, maybe we’ll have the last piece of the jigsaw and it will help us to understand everything. Because right now, Stewart, I’m 45 and I think I should know what it is that our mother had a major problem with and then we can understand how we came to be who we were . . . these kids who were not wanted and brought up in the most dysfunctional way’.”

The reunion with the boys and their mother was not a success. It was Christmas in St Albans, at Stewart McLaren’s home, and Malcolm was so terrified at the prospect of seeing his mother that he hid in the bathroom when she arrived: “Ludicrous, I know, but there were obviously psychological problems.” Over dinner, “a sober affair”, the brothers demanded to know who their father was and where he was, saying it was time she told them the truth. But their mother became extremely upset and made up some story about him having gone off to Australia. Later, she followed Malcolm into the kitchen and started to swear at him: “She said I looked the spitting image of my grandmother, who was the most hideous woman who ever lived on the planet, and as it was getting a bit over the edge, I decided to leave.” Three weeks later, the McLarens’ mother — Emily Isaacs (she kept her father’s surname to spite her mother) — died of a heart attack.
The jigsaw was finally completed not long after when Peter McLaren’s wife, Barbara, contacted a newspaper in which Malcolm had said what he wanted more than anything was to be reunited with his father. The brothers were driven by a chauffeur in a limousine provided by CBS, with whom McLaren was signed at the time, to a remote part of Romney Marshes — Miss Havisham-land — where the fog from the ocean rolls in. They met at their father ’s greasy-spoon shack of a café, The Oasis, with its abandoned garage of old petrol pumps from the 1930s and clientele of Hell’s Angels.

Was the meeting emotional? “Of course, you would be, yes. You were curious. You were scared . . . There was this guy with a shotgun and an alsatian, wearing a pair of white Levi jeans, and an emerald-green shirt, with very flaxen-grey hair, small, with an incredibly lined face — a bit like that guy W. H. Auden, and I thought, this is a well-travelled man with a really weather-beaten sailor’s face.” But, as it turned out, Peter McLaren had never left the country and didn’t even own a passport. According to the Home Office, he didn’t exist. He led his sons up a fire escape and into the top floor of the building, where he and his wife lived, and took out a wooden box filled with photographs, one of which was of him and their mother at the age of 16. “She looked very dark and good-looking and deeply Jewish and he was moustachioed and dapper and Errol Flynn-ish,” he says. Stewart was not impressed by their whisky-drinking father and didn’t really want to see him again. Malcolm persisted half-a-dozen times more and met up with his half-brother, Ian, who was a Cambridge professor of para-psychology.

In all Malcolm McLaren’s incredible life, what I am most struck by is how much his own son, Joe Corre (owner with his wife, Serena, of the lingerie shops Agent Provocateur) longs for the warmth of a close-knit family. But McLaren rarely sees Westwood these days, bumping into her only at the occasional fashion show, although her name is the one he mentions when I ask him if he’s ever really loved a woman.

“I find it hard to look at people as people that you are meant to love,” he says. “I think it’s the way our early lives began. My grandmother formed me into someone for whom the world was one you would have to create alone, your own anti-world in which you would really have your own rules so you could never really behave as if you were a parent.

“And I think I have the words ‘willing prey’ stamped on my forehead because if you don’t have strong enough connections to family, you’re always looking for connection. You are very open, and so some people get attached to you very quickly and get very possessive of you because you’re easily possessed. And then you’re also easily able to discard and people get very hurt by that, which is a problem I’ve found during my life. So it’s not that you prostitute yourself, you just don’t quite have that sense of belonging. “You don’t quite have that ability to be loyal to your friends.”

Despite how this sounds, McLaren insists that it’s Westwood who is the cold fish, not him. “Oh no, I’m quite the opposite,” he says. Passionate? “Oh yeah, I’m a cheap date.” All he can remember about Joe when he was born was that he was big and strong. “But Vivienne was astonishing. I thought she looked very beautiful and I thought the kid was adorable,” he recalls.

The 18-year-old father, who had lost his virginity to Westwood (grandmother Rose, whose view was that it was a straightforward case of entrapment, gave Malcolm the money for a termination but Vivienne bought a cashmere twinset from Bond Street instead) was also admonished by the nurse for turning up three days late: “Are you a long-distance lorry driver or something?” He was there in the hospital, however, for his granddaughter’s birth: “And it was kind of extraordinary — Joe coming out full of tears, holding this baby. He’s such a different person and he just adores family. That’s what he adores.”

So will you make an effort for his sake? “I think that is something that I’m beginning to face. It concerns me, probably more than it ever has in my entire life and times, with him and without him, and I’m attempting — I think that’s the best word to use — to try to help, if it’s not too late. You know, Joe’s heading to become 40 any minute now.” Attempting to help what, exactly? “ To make him feel appreciated. Simple as that, really. I don’t think he does for some reason.”

Oh dear, time’s up and Young Kim, McLaren’s assistant and girlfriend, a Yale-educated Korean-American, sends word that they need to catch the Eurostar back to Paris. We’ve barely covered punk, but is there really anything new to say about it? McLaren says the anniversary is a complete marketing ploy, but it’s also presumably a nice little earner for him, so he’s happy to play along.

He’s amusing about this latest celebration being held in a department store, “but then entertainment and shopping have joined to become one culture”, he supposes. “You might as well create a new word, ‘shoppertainment’, since department stores have almost taken on the role of becoming cultural temples. You know, some people will queue up to go to the Tate Modern, some of them will queue to go to the British Museum, but most will simply go shopping.” In our quick romp through the early days of punk, there are a couple of scandalous revelations. Although they were surrounded by drug-taking, neither he nor Vivienne was much interested: “We both experimented with heroin once in an apartment in Grosvenor Square. But we never touched it again.”

He describes John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) as “a bit of a buffoon who was a very good boy trying to be a bad boy”. And tells scurrilous stories about the late Nancy Spungen rolling around with Johnny and the late Sid, “who was definitely a little gay, no question about it”, in the kitchen of the Mayfair hotel suite of a hooker who was turning tricks. How Sid was the real star of the Sex Pistols, “because it’s always the great stars who look vulnerable”, and how Vivienne always thought he should have been the lead singer of the band from when she first spotted Vicious in their World’s End clothes shop, SEX, and how Sid’s lawyer recommended that his client should go jogging, “get a ****ing dog” and a new girlfriend, preferably a librarian . . . none of which McLaren was able to convince Vicious to do. And how Sid was “willing prey”, too, and John Lydon, and how all the creatures in the Sex Pistols were dysfunctional and would never have ended up in that band had they not been: “They didn’t really have anywhere else to go, you see. They needed a Fagin and a mentor.”

But what I like far more are the glimpses of domestic life far away from the fetish wear — Malcolm and Joe being dispatched at night with a torch to pick dandelions on Clapham Common for Vivienne to tranform into coffee as part of the family’s macrobiotic diet: “We all came out with boils on our backs, which made us feel extremely unattractive.” Malcolm and Vivienne, while she was still a schoolteacher, taking the city kids to the country, where he would use his skills as a former Boy Scout to light a fire and cook a sausage or two.

McLaren is feeling older and more vulnerable these days, he says, but also clearer and able to make better decisions. Which is not to suggest that he is becoming a wiser or a better person. Heaven forbid. For if he is sure of anything, it is that he is still very much his grandmother’s grandson: “To this day, I’ve never felt that anything she’s said has been wrong. It is hard to be bad. You do have to work at it. And, yes, she’s right. Who wants to be good? Tony Blair’s good, and he’s horrible.

“Whenever I’ve not listened to authority, I’ve always felt much more attractive as a person and I’ve always felt that the decisions I’ve made may have been hellish or extremely provocative or confrontational, but ultimately they’ve been pretty worthwhile.

“And so, yes, I prefer to be bad.”

————————-

The McLaren file

1946 Born in London

1972 Opens Let It Rock store on the Kings Road with Vivienne Westwood, selling 1950s clothes and memorabilia

1974 First hears the New York Dolls. Let It Rock becomes punk shop SEX

1975 Begins managing the Sex Pistols

1976 Sex Pistols signed by EMI

1978 Sex Pistols split up

1979 Restyles Adam and the Ants; forms Bow Wow Wow with 14-year-old singer Annabella Lwin

1980 The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle is released

1983 Releases Duck Rock, a combination of world music and hip-hop Early 1990s Lives in Hollywood, dates model Lauren Hutton and works with Steven Spielberg

Celebrities, Music

Preacher man

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – June 25 2005
Ginny Dougary

For 20 years, Bob Geldof has raged, hectored and charmed to get what he wants: hope for Africa. but even superheroes have their flaws, as Ginny Dougary discovers in a stormy encounter.

Just how much of a bully do you have to be to pull off something extraordinary? Does it matter if you bruise or upset people along the way and do you even care if you do, when the goal you are striving for is so important? Do you feel outraged to be challenged over issues which you consider to be trivial, unnecessary and possibly obstructive? These are the questions which nagged me after interviewing Sir Bob Geldof.

I had expected him to be a tricky customer but he far exceeded my expectations. His harshest critics, and I am not among them, would find it difficult to claim that Geldof has not been genuinely big-hearted and an effective catalyst in pushing governments in the wealthiest countries to tackle the economic plight of Africa. But even beyond his political and charitable galvanising, I had developed something of a soft spot for him over the decades.

For a man who can be almost comically disarrayed and foul-mouthed, to the extent that his anger sometimes appears out of control, Geldof was a model of dignified restraint when his late wife, Paula Yates, left him for Michael Hutchence. While she was most outspoken about how unhappy her ex-husband had made her, I was unable to find a single criticism of Yates by Geldof, and to this day, as I witnessed, he talks about her only with love and respect and regret. I was also struck by the grace and the immediacy with which he embraced the orphaned Tiger Lily, the daughter of Yates and Hutchence, into his own family.

I approved of his un-rock’n’roll parental firmness; there is an instance of this in his riveting book on Africa, published to coincide with the television series, when he is in the back of a truck in the dark, in a state of bowel-loosening terror, and one of his daughters phones on the mobile to seek permission for a sleepover. All thoughts of an imminent ambush by gun-wielding rebels on some hell-hole of a road are eclipsed by Geldof’s concern that homework has been completed and that said daughter is back home by 11 in the morning, even if it is the weekend.

His appearance has changed dramatically over the years and, again, I rather applaud his lack of vanity. He was a strikingly good-looking youth, as chief Boomtown Rat, in that sexily dishevelled Jagger-Stoppard mould. With Paula, who loved her frocks and once incurred her husband’s wrath for making a public appearance in something too revealing while he was out of the country, Geldof could be seen in three-piece tweeds sporting a strange surrealist-beatnik beard.

But, increasingly, with his drib-drab locks and hanging clothes, his pale glistening face contorted in a rictus of existential pain, he brings to mind a tramp from a Dennis Potter drama; a preacher from an early John Huston film, wide-eyed in the wilderness. He seems a man driven by his destiny, the huge mantle of Africa weighing down his bony shoulders. He talks – and how he can talk – with a lyrical, almost biblical, intensity and he has given himself the power because of the unassailable rightness of his cause to castigate, chide and cast into the darkness, anyone who stands in his way. So pity the poor wretch of an interviewer who has been dispatched to be more than a mere recorder to tape his sermonising zeal.

Why, with this well of good feeling that I had towards him, did I expect Geldof to be tricky? Partly because it has become an ingrained, and rather dominant, strand of his persona that he is grumpy. But also because the sensible-sounding book publicist had warned me, “You know, Bob is a very strong personality.”

There had been niggling criticisms of him in the press but, mostly, from the usual suspects. It became clear during our encounter that it was the disappointment felt by the more unusual suspects – about the lack of specifically African but more generally black faces in his concert line-up in London – that really bothered him. Although he affected not to know – most disingenuously – that it was the lack of blackness per se that disturbed people. These voices clamoured even louder after our interview and, at the time of writing, have clearly forced Geldof to rethink his position.

Something else hovered, a ghost of a thought, in the back of my mind. A young, twentysomething colleague – clear-headed, super-bright and unencumbered by Seventies feminist ideology – felt that there was a strong whiff of misogyny around Geldof. She said this en passant and I didn’t have time to quiz her about it. I was probably a bit uneasy about his campaigning alongside Fathers 4 Justice for aggrieved dads but also felt some sympathy for his view after rereading the articles about his painful custody battles with Yates.

Reviewing his life in the hundreds of cuttings, in the days before we met, I found myself warming to Geldof even more. He seemed gratifyingly co-operative and quite forthcoming about the likely effect on his developing personality, as a small boy left to his own devices after his mother had died and with a travelling salesman father who was often absent for long stretches of time. But as I read on, knowing the dreadful inevitability of what was to come – the utterly senseless, sad deaths of Hutchence and Yates – the research began to feel almost oppressive.

It was not as though I had felt any particular kinship with Paula Yates while she was alive. Although she was peppy and minxy, quick-witted and funny, she was also an absolute pain in her finger-wagging at working mothers mode. (And what were her In Bed with Paula interviews for her husband’s successful TV company if not work?) But even that phase, when she wore her aprons and crinolines and baked apple pies, seemed odd and slightly desperate in hindsight. After the split, she wrote her autobiography in which she described how confined she had begun to feel in her marriage: “Bob is the most controlling person in the world, which he freely and rather proudly admits. He used to tell me, ‘If I can’t exactly control the environment I’m in, I feel like I’m going mad.’” And towards the end, “I felt that I couldn’t do anything in case Bob was cross with me. I was always quite scared of him and hated him to be angry with me.”

What I found really upsetting was a piece for The Sunday Times Magazine’s Life in the Day slot which appeared after her death. Reading it was like being ambushed by her torment and distress, and all the more poignant for her occasional rallying attempts to regain her perky tilt on life.

She talks about her agoraphobia and depression, in between the jokes, and the horror she faces at three in the morning when she lies awake: “thinking ghastly thoughts about death, the transience of beauty and the squandering of talent”. And, so bleak this: “There’s a horrible dark place inside me now where nothing much matters any more.”

Geldof lopes into the room, an editing suite in an office in Soho where he is nipping and tucking the final episodes of his African TV series. I say that we have met once before and he – being polite – says that he recognises my face. When I add that it was a long time ago when he was in the Boomtown Rats, he says in that case he must be mistaken. As a student in the Seventies, I had seen the Rats in some godforsaken place near Swindon. Thinking Geldof was a bit of a love-god, I decided to pass myself off as a rock journalist in order to get backstage… whereupon I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Since the story reflects well on him, I say how patient he was and he counters, faux-darkly – although perhaps it was not all that faux – “Well, that’s certainly changed.”

He sits on the sofa and I take up a position – a bit of a mistake as the interview unravelled – on the floor near his feet. (Seating was a problem, either too cosy or too remote.) That morning’s news is that Bush has announced that the US plans to sign off its African debt and Geldof is “you know, moderately pleased.” The debt deal, on its own, is not enough and he is consumed with the importance of addressing the other two key issues at Gleneagles of doubling aid and trade reform, “which is what the Commission for Africa requires them to do”.

As he explores the financial intricacies of each of the G8 countries, his knowledge is as impressive as the precision of his words – “…so when Brown was trying to push the IFF – the International Finance Facility, which I completely endorse – I think it’s simple, elegant and admirable…” but I’m also, already, daunted by their unstoppable flow. The rules of an interview demand a certain to and fro – if there are to be answers, there must also be questions. It is a dance of sorts, if you like, and I suspect that Geldof wants to pogo on his own.

We know, full well, that having spent a year working with presidents and prime ministers on the Commission for Africa – which, it should be remembered, was his initiative – Geldof must have been quite capable of exercising diplomatic skills. Yet, the image persists of someone who shoots from the hip. It is Geldof, himself, however, as much as anyone else, who is responsible for perpetuating this legend. Here is a typical quote: “Me and Bono are known as the Laurel and Hardy of international politics. He’s the one who’s always saying, ‘That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into.’ He thinks I look for fights, but I don’t.” And, in the same breath – rather contradictorily – “Bono wants to change the world by embracing it. I get angry and want to punch its lights out.”

When I manage to ask him about his own talent for diplomacy, he says: “ You know, I didn’t just sit for a year on the Commission for Africa. I mean, I’ve done this for 20 years… The anger comes from the fact that while you understand everyone’s difficulties as the leaders of sovereign states, the point that you eventually come down to is ‘Well, why not do it anyway? It costs nothing.’ And I do get to that point but I don’t shout and bang and roar and I haven’t been shouting and banging and roaring on television, you know. People are saying, ‘Calm down.’ But I’m calm. I am calm, you know. “Don’t you think that somebody might say, ‘Hold on, there’s this idea you have of the guy. How does he get to be there, if he’s this sort of cartoon figure?’”

It strikes me, more forcibly when I listen to the interview later, that this is the start of a pattern in our encounter. Geldof should know, and surely does, as a major media player himself, that it’s a journalist’s job to put questions to the subject that are being aired in the public arena. But time and time again he shoots the messenger, insistently and perversely ascribing those views to me.

I wonder – and how I wish I hadn’t – what he makes of strange bedfellows such as Janet Street-Porter and Bruce Anderson sneering at a pop-star’s attempts to change the world. Again, I make it quite clear that I don’t go along with that view.

But still, off he went: “I’m not aware of those criticisms because I don’t read it and so your entire agenda is to ask me what a columnist who is paid to be provocative…” It’s not my agenda, and it’s only one question. “You’re using their agenda and you’re another journalist and it’ll appear in a newspaper and all this is froth that consumes you people in journalism and it has no bearing on what is happening. And I’ll tell you what is happening: the political world is shifting en masse towards a resolution of the greatest political fracture in the world and certainly what I believe is the greatest moral sore and not to deal with it corrupts our soul – not that I wouldn’t be ambivalent about the existence of that entity in the first place – but none the less…”

Much more of this, then: “And, so you know, it’s pointless answering what to me what is an inconsequential thing – and it’s Janet who I love. I think she’s completely, you know, turning into one of those great bonkers old women and I love it…”

Like Germaine? “Germaine is just beyond wonderful. I’m mad for her. And I love Bruce Anderson’s writing and Frank Johnson and all those people when they write about me. Obviously I don’t read it because it would just get in the way. I’m aware of it but I just get on with doing my thing.”

I clap my hands with glee at this: the artful magnanimity, as well as the Irish charm and blarney. And it’s fair enough for him, too, to see the criticism – but, surely, not all criticism – as a distraction from his goal. But what interested me is how thin-skinned Geldof is – despite affecting nonchalance or media knowingness – since throughout the rest of the interview it was he, not me, who kept revisiting the issue of how he is perceived.

For a moment, we are all smiles… and then I ask another question. I wonder what prompted his Dunkirk flotilla manoeuvre. A number of people had mentioned this to me as another bonkers idea from Bob but, again, I rather liked the sound of it; it is often the more outlandish activities which prompt people to sit up and pay attention. Geldof feels the only way he wants to answer this is by giving me the whole background from his last visit to Africa, 18 months ago, which led to him approaching Blair to set up the Commission for Africa – drawing together “the greatest economic minds of our time” – right up to the Live 8 concerts and events.

It is fascinating – Blair’s responsiveness to Live Aid all those years ago and Geldof’s cunning plan to exploit the PM’s populist instincts and “kidnap British policy”; the drawing in of writers such as Umberto Eco for “fresh thinking seminars” so that beyond the specialists, you have brilliant minds coming at the problems from different angles; the intense level of intellectual argument, “which I found, to my dismay – since I’m not a big committee guy – hugely stimulating”; how you go about changing the structures of African society – and I understand why Geldof says you need to see his whole game plan in order for him to explain the individual moves. But as the minutes tick by, and tick by, with him brooking no interruptions or slapping me down when I do, I begin to panic.

Look, I say, this is good and I’m happy for you to continue – (after a page-long speech where he’s barely paused for breath) – but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover so will you give me more time? “No, I’ll give you an hour and that’s it.”

He has been getting steadily ruder. I mention a historian I admire who has done some work with Geldof… He’s interesting, isn’t he? “He’s not very.” John Gray (not Men Are from Mars, but the other one), on the other hand, “is a very interesting man. His book is profoundly important. I think it’s one of the first important books of the 21st century. The Africa Commission being the second first important book of the 21st century.”

Another attempt at a question and “Stay with me. Stop hopping all around the place. I’ll just tell you what happened and you keep interrupting.” You’re so controlling, I say.

Fast forward – well, forward, at least – to the concert. Geldof’s lack of enthusiasm for staging a sort of Live Aid revisited has been well-documented. When Richard Curtis and Bono approached him, his first response was “You f****** do it.” “And Bono said, ‘I’m gonna be on tour.’ And I said, ‘That’s very nice. I’d like a bit of that action, you know.’ And Richard said, ‘It’s not the sort of thing I can do.’

“My feeling was ‘What’s the point in a gig? What are we doing it for?’ And also the cost to me was too much: the physical cost, I don’t sleep, I panic, I worry – the potential for failure is enormous. Failure to achieve what we set out to do, which then betrays the people in whose name you do it. That you will create a vast generation of cynics because you mobilise a country and you seek to persuade them that this is the right way forward and in so persuading you cannot let them down. And then the personal failure that it didn’t work. So those things have an emotional toll and it has a personal toll in terms of your time: you can’t be with your family which has a toll on your relationships, and it’s got financial costs, of course. You can’t earn money. So all of that.”

In the end, after a great deal of agonising, Geldof persuaded himself that a concert and allied stunts was the most effective way of ensuring media coverage which if handled correctly – or even incorrectly – would, in turn, be a vehicle for pressurising governments in the relevant countries. “Because once you announce it, you get weeks of you guys talking about people who are on the bill – they’re old, they’re young, they’re not black, they’re not African…”

Controversy, in other words. “It’s not controversy… it’s silly stuff. You get your Bruce Andersons and your Janets going at me and then beyond that you get, ‘Well, what is this about?’”

He lists all the pages of newspaper coverage and, indeed, since we met there hasn’t been a day when Geldof hasn’t been in the news: the black debate raged on; conveniently eclipsed by the Pink Floyd reunion; the eBay ticket sales scandal; the Eden Project concert. He’s thrilled that Lorraine on her pink sofa was asking him about corruption and trade reform in Africa “at eight in the morning! That is seriously significant.” That in Berlin, where he had been the previous day, he spoke to a packed press conference, which was running live on all networks, “and this half-assed Paddy pop singer was being asked in-depth questions about Africa”.

At this point, I spill my cup of hot coffee over me but Geldof doesn’t falter; he just keeps motoring on. How could he bring in the other countries? (He is asking the questions now as well as answering them.) “We’ll make it fun. Instead of ‘Give me your f****** money’ famously, it’s ‘Give me you.’ You know, ‘Come to Britain.’ ‘How are we gonna get there?’”

So here we have arrived, 30 minutes later, with the answer to my Dunkirk question. This was all part of his long walk to justice plan, although it will be a long train or short plane ride to Edinburgh, since four days between the London concert and the G8 summit in Gleneagles is not enough time to go by foot… but no matter. So Geldof has got Air Berlin to put on free flights, and he’s already got his old gigging mate, Sir Richard Branson, to help out with Virgin, and he’s doing a sort of Dunkirk re-enactment led by solo yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur “and it’s a massive national effort”.

And when the G8 leaders fly back to their countries, “their straggling people will be returning home ragged and weary from a triumphant failure but a miserable defeat for their leaders – or a glorious triumph, it’s one or the other. They will be asked by the embedded journalists, ‘Hold on. You got on your jet, you had massive numbers of people willing you to do something for Africa, and you did nothing. You did nothing. You answer for it.’ So there is a political consequence to this one.”

We enjoy a charming but shortlived sunny interlude before the storm breaks. Will Geldof’s own four girls be bunking school to join their father in Edinburgh? “If they’re doing exams, no. They’re not bunking, anyway. I will take them out and write a letter saying I think it’s important that my children participate in the world. I don’t want them bunking. Anyway, I can’t think of anything more educational. It’s the entire curriculum – geography, history, civics, religion.”

I say that my 14-year-old son watched some of the programmes with me the previous night, and since Geldof actually seems interested in his response – “Did he like them? Did he get it?” – I do my maternal duty and ask for an autograph. He scribbles with good grace and, suddenly remembering his manners, offers me his last slither of sashimi.

But all traces of good will evaporate – and it is alarming to be at the receiving end of such a sudden and dramatic mood swing – when I ask the black question. When the London line-up was first announced on May 31 there were no black artists. The Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour was added to the bill, but on the day I interview Geldof, the addition of American rap artist Snoop Dogg and British Ms Dynamite had not yet been announced.

I mention Ms Dynamite and Beyoncé as black women who could have been included: “What are you talking about? Miss Dynamite and Beyoncé are on the bill.” (I have still been unable to find any reference to Beyoncé on any of the line-ups worldwide; the only mentions of Ms Dynamite up to this point were complaints that she wasn’t appearing.)

Oh, I apologise, I must not be up to speed. There have been criticisms by Andy Kershaw and… “Get with the programme. You’re completely under-informed. Kershaw’s thing is about African bands.” I know, but also… “I mean, you are emblematic of the model at the heart of the liberal consensus.”

(Geldof has said: “I see things in black and white; I am not a liberal at all.”)

Don’t bash me up, I say. “Do you not see any difference between black people and African people?” I do, I do, and… “What have Beyoncé and Ms Dynamite got to do with Africa?” Because of the criticisms that Kershaw came up with and… “It was about African bands.” Yes (at last I get a chance to speak) – but there have also been criticisms that there aren’t enough black faces in the line-up.

“Oh, right. I didn’t know that,” he says, literally unbelievably. “If he can name people here who sell millions of records I don’t have a problem. So can you name any? Here. In London?”

If I can think of some, should I ask them to come forward? “No,” he says. “There’s no space now.”

And then, an argument that he must now be aware is increasingly unacceptable to many people: “If there’s a guy who sells – I don’t care if they’re lime green and orange. If they sell ten million albums, I’d beg them to be on the bill…

“If I have a load of African artists – great as they may be – no one’s that interested. Why? How do we know this? Because we know how much their record sales are and we know what sort of gigs they play. And the equal truth is that most Africans listen to Eminem and 50 Cent. And the truth is that if you had a load of African bands on, people would go and make tea or else they’d switch over to Wimbledon. And I can’t afford that.”

Geldof was so very belligerent, even with me asking questions in the most unconfrontational way possible, that I’m glad I didn’t come back at him on this. But, really and truly, it is the most ridiculous and offensive thing he could say. He is assuming that people in their living rooms will care enough about African people, having heard Madonna and Pink Floyd, to put pressure on their governments to affect wide-reaching and necessary change. But when one or a group of Africans come on the stage – captivating, wonderful artists such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, Salif Keita – this same audience will suddenly be so uninterested they will turn off in their masses. In which case, it’s not just the African musicians who should feel patronised and insulted.

But more than this, it cannot be any good – surely – offending the very people in whose name you are acting. Two days after my interview, the Senegalese star Baaba Maal wrote about his disappointment, in admirably measured tones, in The Independent: “I do feel that it is very patronising as an African artist that more of us aren’t involved… If in a concert like Live 8, people don’t give African artists the chance to appear, how are they going to add their voice?…” And, tackling Geldof’s justification head on: “This is not about how many records African artists sell. It should be about the whole package. If African artists aren’t given a chance, how are they going to sell records and take the message back to Africa? Sometimes it seems to be about keeping artists down at a level where some people want them to stay.”

As I write, it has just been announced that there will be a separate event for African musicians – in the wake of so much criticism about the Hyde Park “too Anglo-Saxon” (Damon Albarn) concert – held at the Eden Project in Cornwall. While this strikes me as a sort of rock’n’roll apartheid, the African performer Angelique Kidjo had no problem with it: “Why are we having this controversy?” she asked. “What is important is that we all work together against poverty.”

Still, people will continue to be offended and Geldof’s defensiveness on this issue suggests that he realises his approach may not have necessarily been the best – or, perhaps, he’s too arrogant to concede he could be wrong. He should apologise, but, like a politician, being Bob means never having to say you’re sorry.

We move on to the issue of monitoring precisely where aid money goes, since there is still a widely held perception that it pours into the pockets of corrupt governments and dictators. “That doesn’t happen. That’s the first thing.” Never? Not even 20 years ago? “No, it doesn’t happen.” You can actually trace all the money?

“Now listen… if you come to interview me and you’re from The Times, please read. OK. Please do work. Go to the Charity Commission. All the accounts are there. It is all over the place, precisely what happened. I’ve written a book about it. Other people have written books about it.”

So you’re saying that no money ever gets diverted and misused by dictatorships? “Are you talking about Band Aid money?” I’m just talking about… “Don’t conflate the two! Have some mental rigour and discipline. Honestly.”

Don’t berate me like this.

“Well, don’t you start asking me stupid f****** questions after 20 years. You know, you should have a little bit of sense, you know.”

OK, but my job is to be a conduit to the public and you must know that there is some anxiety about money going to dictators. “There isn’t. There is no perception that Band Aid money went to dictators, no.” Well, I don’t think that people are… [I was going to say, that nuanced about the different accountabilities between charities and government-to-government aid.] “I don’t think you understand the difference between bilateral, multilateral aid flows and individual charities.” I probably don’t, I say. (Not being the charity correspondent of my paper, which I don’t say.) “Well, then you should. If you’re coming from The Times and you want to talk about Africa, the very least you should do is understand that or f*** off.”

OK, I say, and my voice sounds tiny.

At this point I think the interview is over and – frankly – it is a relief. It still bothers me that I felt so trapped by trying to do my job that I didn’t walk out. To have a man towering above you – it didn’t help that I was on the floor – a face implacable with cold rage, is intimidating. To be yelled and sworn at, with such force, felt like having my face kicked in. I don’t think you should ever show another human being so little respect. And I do think Geldof has a real problem with his anger.

Incredibly, his mood switches again and he launches into another three-page lecture, this time about devices to ensure the transparent flow of aid to Africa. When I had said that I thought he himself had declared that a certain amount of money was diverted, he exploded: “I did not say that at all!” Later, I found the quote which had registered in the mountain of information I had mugged up on… it was in an interview Geldof had given the previous month, where he says quite clearly and without any ring-fencing: “I’m not saying there isn’t endemic corruption in Africa. A proportion of aid goes missing.”

But like all good bullies, by this time – bludgeoned by his sustained barrage of verbal blows – he had successfully shaken my confidence. As a colleague put it, later, it was almost as though I had been caught up in a mini-abusive relationship.

Perhaps this explains why, when I do introduce the very human and emotional subject of Paula – in the final, more amicable stage of our interview (we talk about his childhood, his love of poetry and his readings of Keats – we recite the first stanza of Ode to a Nightingale together – and Yeats at the British Library, his Willy Loman dad, his purposeful and engaged 96-year-old aunt, the cuddles and kisses and affection in his family) – I find myself in tears. That is not a particuarly easy thing to write but it seems important to be as honest about my conduct as I am about Geldof’s.

I mention the harrowing piece in The Sunday Times and how sad it was to stare at a soul in such distress. “But she was,” he says simply. He’s unfazed by my evident discomfort and not unkind. “She was a great girl, a fantastic girl and then it all just flipped. If she had got through it, she would have been all right, you know. She would have stablised herself and everyone would have been fine. But I don’t think she could find her way out of the place she’d put herself into and she suddenly realised that this was a cul-de-sac…”

And, in the midst of everything, to find out that your real father was Hughie Green!

“Who I just thought was a wretched person. I mean long before anything we used to laugh about him because he was so emblematic of naff, you know. But that’s – I mean, I just don’t talk about that stuff – but she was great. I mean, she was just great. She was a fantastic girl and, f*** me, we laughed…” He looks hot-eyed now.

“And she was beautiful. But funny with that, you know, she took the piss out of that aspect. We knew each other since we were kids and I didn’t even have a record out but we just went on this mad journey together. And it was good, but then, you know… something happened to her and she just turned.”

Did you ever believe you could stop things spiralling out of control? “Well, it was nothing to do with me at that stage. Much as you would offer and suggest stuff… I mean, you just have to let it play out, you know, whichever way it was going to go. From my point of view, I just had to keep taking care of the kids. But luckily for me there was Jeanne [Marine, a French actress and his girlfriend for almost a decade] another remarkable… I’m so lucky with girls. Not only my children or my sisters but, I mean, having had my mum swiped from me maybe there was some karmic balance.”

I ask him whether he has a lot of friends. “Boyfriends or girlfriends?” Well, men and women friends, you know, both. Yeah, he says he does, and friends from the days when he and Paula were together, and then he adds, quite unprompted, “I prefer the company of men.”

We talk about the differences between the sexes which takes him on to the divorce laws and back to Paula. “I was thrown up against this thing, that my wife didn’t love me any more. And I was bereft beyond belief but I understood that she had to go now because she didn’t love me… and it was like this great joy went out of my life. But I didn’t understand why my children went. What had I done? Why did the supreme joy of my life have to go as well? What had I done that was wrong, you know?”

Which was the start of his journey to try to change the legal system: “Then people say, ‘Oh, he’s against women.’ No, I’m against a law being prejudiced towards women and against men.”

At the end of the interview, we sit and watch one of the African programmes which was still being edited. The most haunting section of his book, for me, is when he writes about the night children of Kitgum. Every evening, for the past eight years, thousands of children walk many miles from their villages in the Acholi province in northern Uganda, so they can sleep safely on the streets of Kitgum. Their parents dispatch them, not knowing if they will see them again, but in the knowledge that if they stay, they risk being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and turned into infant killer soldiers: ten-year-olds forced to kill their own parents.

The worst story was of a group of eight-year-old girls who were captured and told that if they tried to escape, they would be killed. But their bonds are loose and one child leaves. The guards capture her and force her friends to bite her to death. They are told that unless their captors can actually see the little girl’s flesh in their teeth, the same fate will befall them.

I watch these children telling their terrible stories with tears streaming down my cheeks. As Geldof watches himself on the screen he is crying, too. At the end of the sequence, he gets up and says: “So. Now do you see?” We chat a bit about other things and I say, “You know I’m not stupid, don’t you?” “Yes, I do,” he says and bends down to ruffle my hair.

People who achieve extraordinary things – and Geldof is certainly one of them – often have their less palatable sides. We may adore Picasso’s art, for instance, but deplore the way he treated his wives. Geldof himself has always loathed being called Saint Bob and told me: “I’m the least noble person you will ever encounter. It’s just that I can do the stuff, I don’t know why. I never asked for it, but I can do it.”

So let’s leave him, with his sights set on Edinburgh, at his rhapsodic, biblical best. The question, by the way, was how was he going to deal with the more violent anarchists:

“You will have some complete wankers going up but I imagine that with so many of us there, these guys would be just squashed down. But if you look at the great political mass movements – whether it’s Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela – it’s peaceful means in the face of political stubbornness. And it’s such an attractive proposition to be peaceful.

“But, more importantly, to show absolute respect for those in whose name we’re there. The weak, the mute, the powerless, the put-upon, the trodden down, the beaten up. They can’t even crawl, so we’re going to walk there. And the very least you show these people – the very least – is utter respect for their condition.

“So anyone who has the slightest misapprehension as to why they’re there, don’t come. But if you’re coming to celebrate the possibility of what we can achieve on behalf of these people, if you’ve come to celebrate their spirit and, indeed, yours… then come to the party. And if it’s a million people, so be it. If it’s a thousand people, so be it. But we will be,” he pauses. “Yes, we will be a great, peaceful pilgrimage for the poor.”

Celebrities, Music, Women

Ginny meets Dolly

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – November 2 2002
Ginny Dougary

Dolly Parton’s bosom goes before her. It is impossible to think of her voice and her songs without conjuring a mental picture of that famous cantilevered shelf which juts so implausibly over her minuscule waist. Her top-heavy form even enlivened debate in the House of Commons when some years ago Kenneth Clarke chastised Gordon Brown for relying on the “Dolly Parton school of economics — an unbelievable figure blown out of all proportion with no visible means of support.”

If it seems unseemly to linger on a person’s poitrine in this way then it must be said that no man or woman has more boldly gone into this territory than Parton herself. Reading past encounters with journalists — mostly male — it is she rather than her interviewers who nudges the subject back to her breasts again and again. Dolly’s bust, she makes it clear, is up for grabs. There has been much speculation in the press over the decades as to the secret of her bosom’s buoyancy: exactly how much silicone has been pumped into those mamas? She has never denied that she is partially plastic but she won’t be drawn on the detail. When one persistent fellow pressed her for specifics, she said: “Look, I’m in show-business. I look at my boobs like they’re showhorses or showdogs. You’ve got to keep ‘em groomed.”

Emboldened by Parton’s own approach to her body, I had convinced myself that it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty not to ask her if I could briefly touch her, ahem, breasts. The readers of The Times surely had a right to know what such significant assets in the Parton empire felt like. But, alas, when it came to it I chickened out…partly because in the flesh, despite appearances to the contrary, there is nothing remotely fluffy about Dolly.

A big heart may be beating under her big chest but Parton is also a tough cookie and steely in her determination to run the show precisely to her specifications. If you attempt to steer her into uncharted waters, she makes her disapproval very plain. The version of herself that she is prepared to offer has been carefully honed over the years — the teasing paradox of the God-loving “toilet-mouthed” sinner; the woman who has been apparently happily married to her teenage sweetheart, Carl, for 36 years (they met outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat in Nashville) who has neither confirmed or denied rumours of her affairs with men and women over the years; the simple country girl who is an extremely shrewd businesswoman, an owner of five houses as well as various enterprises including a radio station, a brand of cosmetics, a lucrative theme park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dollywood, and a Hollywood film and television production company.

One of Parton’s much-quoted lines is that she looks like a woman but thinks like a man. “You know, there are many women who think good,” she tells me. “I just mean that you would be foolish as a man to underestimate me.” Plenty of men have been fooled by her appearance which has doubtless been good news for the Dolly dollar: “It’s worked for me because I’ve got the deal done and gone before a lot of people have got past looking at the boobs or the hair.”

She makes no bones about the importance of being in control of her business affairs, and I wonder whether Parton would go so far as to say she was a control freak. “No, I’m not a control freak but I’m very alert and very aware of my things. I have to take care of my things my way,” she says, sounding very southern indeed, with her mah’s (for my’s) and ah’m (for I’m) and swooping high-speed delivery. “I’m a very professional Dolly Parton. I don’t try to run other people’s lives but I know what I want, what I don’t want, what I will do, what I won’t do and I think it’s important for people to take care of that part of things themselves. And I don’t care if I’d been born a man or a woman or both.”

When I visited Dollywood two years ago (of which more later), I was told by one of Parton’s assistants there that her boss’s days often started as early as six in the morning and ended late at night, with every minute in between accounted for. Like presidents and Hollywood stars, Parton keeps her interviews short and to the point, treating herself as a rare commodity to be sampled at arm’s length by outsiders, and only with limited access. The briefer the encounter, of course, the easier it is for her to keep the conversation within the boundaries which suit her. She is happy projecting a contained provocativeness (four-letter words, a relish for sex) — which may be bold and shocking in her hometown of Pigeon Forge, dominated by hellfire Baptists obsessed with sin — but she is not prepared to be controversial in a broader context.

I come close to offending her, for instance, when I broach the subject of politics. “I’ll talk about sex and God but I ain’t talkin’ about politics,” Parton says firmly. So I can’t talk to you about America and Iraq? “No, you cannot.” She says that she definitely has her opinions — which I don’t doubt for a minute — but she doesn’t even care to discuss politics or religion with her friends because those discussions can very soon turn into arguments. And being in the limelight herself: “I don’t voice my opinions about those things because people take it out of context. Especially journalists. You say one thing, next thing you know it’s plastered all over the page and taken out of context: ‘Dolly said this’. I just wish we all got along. I wish the world was perfect, but it is not.”

Dolly’s world-view is this: “If we were more God-loving, God-like, Christ-like people, we wouldn’t be having the problems we do. But we’re having them because nobody will forgive, nobody will love, we’re all so selfish and just get into our own little place of what is right and what is wrong and so we’re all just screwing up big time.” These sentiments are echoed in several of the songs — Hello God, Raven Dove — on her new record Halos & Horns, the fourth back-to-bluegrass album Parton has released in the past four years. This return to the unadorned acoustic music of Parton’s mountain roots — fiddle, banjo, snare-drum, washboard, tambourine and goosebump-inducing harmonies — has given her career a new lease of life, happily coinciding with the post-O Brother Where Art Thou hipness of bluegrass (her first album in this vein, as she points out, came out before the film), and prompting her to form a new band, the Blueniques, made up largely of Pigeon Forge recruits, and go back to touring. For die-hard Dolly fans like myself, it is incredible to think that she hasn’t performed a concert in this country for 20 years.

“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” is one of Dolly’s favourite Dollyisms, along with, “If I hadn’t been a woman I’d have been a drag queen.” She based her look, she has said, on a local prostitute who stood out from the rest of the drably dressed, careworn women in the community with her yellow hair, red nails and lipstick. For our interview, however, Parton looks comparatively sober, almost tasteful, in a little charcoal grey skirt and matching monochrome sweater, a V-neck revealing only a glimpse of pale cleavage, flesh-coloured nylons and high-heels. Most of the time, she tucks her pointed feet underneath her bottom on the sofa.

There’s the same wig of teased hair but close-up — obviously, really, since she’s a 56-year-old woman — her face does not have the dewy, youthful glow of her photographs in which even recently she looks like a gorgeous tarnished angel. The Annie Leibovitz snaps on the sleeve of the new album are a case in point and among the best of Parton I’ve ever seen: tatty, faded denim shirt, blue jeans, and the sort of understated make-up which takes at least three hours to apply.

The singer’s husband, Carl Dean, has always come across as a mystery man in the press, principally because he has rarely been sighted in public. They met the day Dolly arrived in Nashville; she was 18, he was 21, and they married two years later. I must say that I do like the detail of the Wishy-Washy Laundromat: “Well, I was doing my dirty laundry that I’d brought from home — you know having graduated the night before — because I was in such a hurry to get to Nashville and be a star.

“Carl had just finished work — he and his father owned an asphalt paving company — and he had gone home and cleaned up and he was just driving around…looking for me, he said. And he must have.” Her voice does a fabulous loop-the-loop — he-yyyyyy-uhv. “He was very shy and bashful and that’s not like him. So that’s another way I believe God has purpose for people.

“Of course, I was tiny and I was blonde, for sure, had that hair all hiked up and I had on a red rib-tickler halter top and my little hip-hugger red pants and I guess he just looked and thought, ‘I’m gonna say something to her.'”

Do you remember what he said? “Well, yeah, I know exactly what he said. He just pulled up to the sidewalk and said, ‘You’re gonna get sunburnt out here, little lady.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you think?’ And so we just started talking and that was that.”

She says that her husband loves music and is forever whistling and singing around the house and the barn “in a kind of pop sounding voice”. He has a large record collection and is a great Led Zeppelin fan, which was one of the reasons why she did her own version of Stairway to Heaven on Halos & Horns “because I’d heard that song in the house a million times”. I think it’s by far the most exciting track on the CD, and really beautiful — full-blown and delicate at the same time, building up to a great choral swell of celestial female voices at the end.

And what was Carl’s reaction? “‘Only you’d have the nerve to do that damn song that way!’ You know, he doesn’t say it’s good or bad. He just says, ‘Well, it’s different, I’ll give you that.’ Yeah, that’s about all he says.”

Is he a loner? “Very much a loner. But he’s friendly. He’s funny. He does have a handful of very good friends but they’re mostly people that he went to school with.”

I had gone to Dollywood in the summer of 2000 in the hope of talking to Parton, who was scheduled to be there. The interview had been agreed — after questions had been asked about The Times (“Was it a tabloid?” “Was it a new paper?” “What was its circulation?”) — but after a great deal of shilly-shallying about how many minutes I would be given, Dolly’s people cancelled. I decided to go anyway, and thought that if I approached Parton after her press conference to launch her new water park — Dolly’s Splash Country — she might relent. Not a bit of it. There was no hobnobbing with the locals at the reception, no pressing of flesh, or bestowing of gracious smiles. This was a glimpse of the “very professional Dolly Parton”. She came, she went, she vanished and although you can be sure I pestered her manager, Ted Miller, for at least an introduction having come so far, none was forthcoming. Dolly had a toothache, it was explained. And, besides, she was only interested in local journalists for this story.

Still my time there was not without its diversions. Her appearance was sensational, to say the least. The local press and dignitories were sealed off behind a cord waiting for Dolly to say the word so that the bulldozer could start the ground-breaking ceremony. We had watched her blonde head approach us, poking out of the top of an army tank as it made its stately progress up an interminable dirt track while Islands in the Stream crackled in and out of the loudspeaker system.

She was helped out of the vehicle by a half-a-dozen butch lifesavers, and there was an appreciative murmur as she asked coquettishly: “So howdy’all like mah wet suit?” Lady Penelope meets dominatrix scuba diver, I wrote down on my notepad. I was amazed by how filthy she was, which possibly explains why she and Graham Norton hit it off so well. (Norton went to Dollywood to film a Christmas special last year.) All the attractions, she explained, were based on places that were important to her as a child: “Like the Suck Hole but I don’t think with mah reputation we should call it that!” She screamed with laughter. She brought up a story which had appeared in the National Enquirer about her alleged dalliance with a 15-year-old boy: “It’s not true, unfortunately. I wish it was,” she said mock-wistfully. “Sounds fun!” And then she was gone.

I was impressed by Dollywood itself. Having expected to enjoy it in an ironic “Isn’t it kitsch?” way, it was far better than that, with none of the plastic unpleasantness of mainstream theme parks. In Craftsman’s Valley, blacksmiths, soap-makers, woodcarvers and coopers were hard at work. The food all smelt delicious: wholesome, authentic home-cooked ham and beans and grits. The children’s area was a splendidly inventive Professor Branestawm interactive paradise. There’s a replica of the two-room newspaper-lined log cabin Dolly and her 11 brothers and sisters grew up in, and many spangly frocks in the Rags to Riches Museum. And, naturally, you can hear every sort of music from country to gospel to Fifties rock’n’roll…although one of Dolly’s brothers, Randy, who does a sort of gospel meets Blues Brothers gig would probably not be drawing crowds where it not for his sister’s patronage.

I went on the Imagination Express, a brightly painted vehicle designed to look like a train, for a storytelling session at a local infant school down a long, winding road. This was part of Parton’s literacy programme — the Dollywood Foundation — through which every child in Sevier County, where the singer was born, receives a new book every month from birth to the age of five. I was given Madeleine in Paris to read to the children by Parton’s jolly assistants, Karen and Doreen, since my suggestion of Harry Potter had been rejected. (The book had recently been banned in a couple of southern states on the grounds that J. K. Rowling was promoting sorcery.) That evening, I went to The Dixie Belle Saloon and drank nasty sweet non-alcoholic cocktails out of a plastic drinking vessel in the shape of a boot. The county is dry, and being America there was no smoking. And although the cocktail waitresses were trussed up to look like old-fashioned whores (frilly knickers, plunging necklines), it would — of course — be a sin for gentlemen to harbour impure thoughts about them, even if those thoughts only did remain in the mind.

What is intriguing is how Parton reconciles her robust appetites with her Godliness, particularly given her severe Baptist upbringing. For a true Holy-Roller doesn’t just believe that sex is sinful — it’s also a sin to dance or drink or have any kind of fun. As her fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather used to tell her: “A dancing foot and a praying knee don’t fit on the same leg.” And she used to think: “‘Well, why not?’ Because I believed in making a joyful noise and rejoicin’.”

Even as a child, the young Dolly was a determinedly free spirit so she simply remoulded her God into a more accommodating form: “I didn’t want to worship a God that I felt was vengeful and scary. I mean those preachers — and not just my grandpa — they would scream at you, and threaten you, and yell at you, ‘If you go out of this church unprepared and get killed on the way home, you’re gonna go straight to hell’…that used to scare me to death.”

So she would take off on her own and have her own conversations with God in an abandoned church and “try to reason with him a little bit find him in a softer way”. One morning, when she was nine years old, she had such a feeling of profound light-heartedness as the empty room flooded with sunshine that she believed herself to be “saved”. She skipped down the street telling everyone she met that she was on her way to paradise and insisted on being baptised there and then…”So I made my communication with God in my way and he’s always dealt with me according to how I can accept him in my own heart and in my own emotions and in my own mind.”

On Halos & Horns there’s a jaunty-sounding song called Shattered Image which Parton wrote and recorded in 1976 in response to one of the first tabloid stories about her love life. It uses the image from her childhood of her throwing stones into the river to shatter her watery reflection, and then fast-forwards to the present: “I’m far from perfect, but I ain’t all bad/It hurts me more than it makes me mad/You gather your stones by stooping so low/Then shatter my image with the stones you throw.”

She says she dragged the song out again because of more stories in the press about her alleged 19-year affair with an improbably named singer-songwriter called Blaise Tosti. He claims that Parton seduced him when he was 13 years old: “That’s bullshit. I know the people. We used to go to the house and feed the family because they were poor and the boy’s mother was an alcoholic. He was a kid then, I was young also and I had just gotten married and brought down my own brothers and sisters to raise them. (One of the reasons she has cited for never having had children of her own.) And he was a great singer and a great writer and I worked with him. But, you know, people turn on you and are desperate for money so they do stuff and it does hurt.”

There has always been speculation about the precise nature of Parton’s relationships with her leading men — from the man she first sang with, Porter Wagoner, through to co-stars in various movies, such as Burt Lancaster. She’s an open book on this, just as long as you don’t attempt to turn the page yourself. So she will spin an impression to me of herself as a free agent: “Even if I was having an affair with someone, you don’t like to hear people talking about it…all people are capable of anything and I’m no angel…I’ve not done all the stuff that I’ve been accused of, but I have done a lot of stuff that nobody’s found out yet…” But if she suspects that you are angling for more information, she will slap you down: “I’m not here to tell you everything about myself. You have no right to know that any more than somebody else. But I’ll tell you all I can. I’ll tell you all I will [weee-youl],” her voice goes up. “And you can guess the rest.”

My question had been, simply, whether she thought her God was an unjudgmental one, particularly as regards sex. “Well, how can sex be wrong?” she says, after subjecting me to her mild knuckle-rapping. “I have no problem with sex. I have no hang-ups about sex. I enjoy sex. And if that’s a sin, well, then somebody else will have to punish me and if God decides to…and, you know, I’m not saying that I’m right, I may be the first person he punishes, I may be burning in hell tomorrow…but if it’s wrong, as much faith as I have in God, I would just ask him to take the whole desire from me. You can make anything a sin. It’s all in how you deal with it. If you believe it’s a sin, if you feel it’s a sin, then it is a sin.”

Parton has not always felt this unmuddled and forthright. In her forties, she suffered from a serious depression for 18 months. She was 50lb heavier than her ideal weight, which ballooned over three or four years, she had mood swings, gynaecological and personal problems: “Never between me and Carl…that was always fine, thank God.” She hated herself and felt despairing enough to think about suicide. You didn’t! I say, shocked that such an indomitable force could have been so derailed. “I didn’t do anything, let me finish telling you,” Parton says, crossly.

“I’m just saying that when you get into those places, you really realise how people get on drugs and how they would commit suicide because you really don’t want to live and it’s like you’re waking up dead every day. And one night, I was thinking: ‘Do you know what? I’m just lying here wallowing in my fat, wallowing in my misery, and it’s either do something about it — git off your fat ass and git on a diet — or shut the hell up.’ And I said to God, ‘You either get my ass out of this mood, show me a way, help me, or I’m ending it. Even if committing suicide is a sin, I’ll just burn in hell.'”

Fortunately for us, God came up trumps, Dolly went on a diet, sorted out her hormones, and went though a whole emotional, spiritual and professional rejuvenation. When I point out how unexpected is this glimpse of a darker Dolly, even though a fair number of her songs — and she has, incredibly, written more than 3,000 — deal with heartbreak and despair, she says: “I am cheerful and optimistic but people also forget that people like me are not mannequins, we’re not plastic dolls; even if we’ve got plastic parts, the heart ain’t plastic, the mind ain’t plastic. People think that just because you’re a star and because you’ve got a big smile that you never suffer, you never hurt. But people like me are the ones that hurt most because we’re the ones that leave ourselves wide open in order to be able to write. To be sensitive enough to pick up on everybody’s sorrow as well as your own, you have to leave yourself wide open. And I don’t know how to do anything just a little. Same with food. If I want to eat, I want to eat the whole thing. If I’m gonna love you, I’m gonna love you to death. If my heart gets broken it’s gonna shatter. And you know, it’s just the whole thing. That’s the kind of person I am.”

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