Actors, Celebrities, Politicians, Theatre, Writers

David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime

THE TIMES – April 13, 2005
Ginny Dougary

The lyricist for David Blunkett: The Musical, reveals how the show was inspired and explains why the real-life characters are perfect for the stage.

THE life of the musical began, in a curious way, last summer before the news about any of the key players had even broken. I had gone to the Bloomsbury office of The Spectator to interview Boris Johnson, who was attempting to publicise his debut novel, Seventy-Two Virgins.

The date was Tuesday, August 10. On Sunday, August 15, the News of the World splashed with its story about the Home Secretary’s long-term affair with a married woman who was revealed in The Sun the following day to be Kimberly Fortier.

Boris was late for our interview and so I hung around the stairwell, as various women of a certain age walked past. One or two had the whiff of breeding and resigned melancholia that made me think of a heroine in an Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym novel. And then Kimberly appeared, bright-eyed and as bouncy as a puppy. We spoke for a few minutes, during which she managed to namedrop several times: “Have you met my husband?” “Do you know Lord and Lady . . . ”

When Boris appeared on his bicycle, soaked from a rainstorm, Kimberly hovered — encouraged by my interviewee — and her manner became even more hectic. Out of the blue, she mentioned Boris’s wife: “Yes! Yes! Yes! He’s got a terrific wife! She’s the best!” For his part, Boris sighed and mumbled and tugged his wet, yellow hair and complained that he was finding the whole experience of being interviewed “harrowing”.

The hero of his novel is a shambling, bumbling, bicycle-riding Tory MP who is worried that his extramarital affair is about to be exposed by a tabloid newspaper. “He’s not me, by the way,” Boris made clear, then added: “but you’ve got to use what you know, haven’t you?”

Speccie columnist Rod Liddle’s affair had already broken and his estranged wife, Rachel Royce, had referred (writing in the Daily Mail, with a swift retort from him in The Sunday Times) to the frisky atmosphere at The Spectator — soon to be dubbed, as the extramarital shenanigans mul- tiplied, The Sextator.

I had asked Boris if he felt that as editor, he was responsible for creating the ethos of his office. “You mean, am I presiding over a bordello? Certainly not!” he exclaimed, giggling hugely. The strangest part of the interview — spookily prescient, given that I had absolutely no idea what was unfolding behind the scenes — was this question: “Would you have any qualms about printing a story about a senior Labour politician’s liaison?” “Got a good one?” Boris asked. And “I tell you what. There’s only one way to settle this moral issue. Bring me the story and I’ll scour my conscience.”

As I said, I didn’t have that story to bring Boris (it turned out that he had one of his own). But in the months to come I found myself gripped by the Blunkett-Fortier saga — and, to a lesser extent, by the disclosures about Boris and his columnist, Petronella Wyatt.

All four characters are con- summate media operators and poli- tical players. Just as the Prince and Princess of Wales had manipulated their contacts to gain sympathy — who were, of course, only too happy to oblige — so did our newspapers seesaw between the various combatants.

The developments had all the makings of an epic drama. Commentators compared Blunkett’s downfall to a Greek tragedy; Shakespearean analogies proliferated. Here was a man who had overcome so many obstacles, driven by the steel of his will to succeed, toppled near the pinnacle of his world by that which makes him most human: love. But there was also something uniquely modern about it, too. A politician — or any man in high public office, for that matter — who risks his career by insisting that a child out of wedlock is his and he wants to see him? Unheard of. Yet it does seem strangely contemporary, chiming in with the protests of Fathers 4 Justice. And there’s something both ancient and modern about a woman who uses her own power and influence to destroy one of the most powerful men in the country.

It began to intrigue me that the publisher I had met at The Spectator — with her breathless voice and cheerleader manner — was being portrayed as a femme fatale. From the newspaper stories, as more and more lovers crowded into her boudoir, she became a fantastical creature from another era. I saw her as Violetta in the opening scene of La Traviata, a gorgeous salon courtesan in a scarlet ballgown, fluttering her fan, captivating all the male guests at the party, her come-hither manner promising them everything. Blunkett, who had never particularly interested me before, became Alceste — the anti-hero of Molière’s 17th-century play The Misanthropist. He rails against the shallowness and frippery of the age but the woman he is besotted by — the young, flirty, faithless Celimene — embodies everything he detests. As he tells his one loyal friend, Philinte: “La raison n’est pas ce qui r ègle l’amour” (it’s not reason which governs love).

Once Boris had been snapped jogging in that skull-and-crossbones beanie and long baggy camouflage shorts, it became obvious what to do with him. He had moaned in our interview about the straitjacket of his shambling, bumbling bicycle-riding persona. Clearly behind that P. G. Wodehouse façade there was an urban rapper bursting to break free. So in our musical there is the ultimate tribute to the man we call The Sultan of The Sextator — The Boris Rap. Yo!

As for Petronella . . . what a joy! The more I read about her, the more perfect she was for our musical. She has posed for the Tatler in satin babydolls and ostrich-feather mules. She loves to sing Cole Porter and her party trick, which she performed for Norman Lamont’s birthday, is singing Lili Marlene in the husky tones of Marlene Dietrich. She has apparently serenaded Boris with arias from La Bohème. She’s a daddy’s girl — her father was Woodrow, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford (doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?) — who lives at home with her mother, Verushka. And she’s obligingly indiscreet.

It is down to Petsy, as she is called by her friends, that we know about Kimberly’s “extraordinarily flirtatious banter” at the dinner where Blunkett and Fortier met, accompanied by Boris and Petronella. Ostensibly reviewing Stephen Pollard’s biography of Blunkett, she informed us that “Mr Blunkett and I ate Dover sole. Ms Fortier ate Mr Blunkett”. And this is where we learnt that Kimberly had informed the new Home Secretary that she had “ always wanted to know what it was like to sleep with a blind man”.

More outrageous lines followed, Blunkett’s gift to the headline writers, “The Socialist and the Socialite”, was one of the best, and it dawned on me that this dramatis personae were calling out for a stage of their own, to express themselves in song. More extraordinarily, I, never having written a song before in my life, would be the one to make it happen. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a composer friend by the stage-name of MJ (short for Mary Jo) started to bash out some lyrics and melodies. Our first number was Blunkett’s theme song. Handily, she had written the tune only a few weeks earlier, while on a songwriting master class in Yorkshire under the tutelage of Ray Davies of the Kinks fame. That was for Cinderella: The Panto but the robust, catchy opening, which moves into a poignant lament before its bracing return, worked brilliantly for Blunkett’s story.

Left to our own devices, who knows how long it would have taken us to write the whole musical? But on the evening before Christmas Eve, my 17-year-old son, Tom, read out a paragraph in The Week about a producer, Martin Witts, who was planning to put on a David Blunkett musical and this news galvanised me into action.

The slightly surreal atmosphere that has attached itself to much of the making of this musical began with my initial phone calls to track down Witts. I spoke to Nigel Reynolds, an old mate who had written the original diary item in The Daily Telegraph. He was sitting in a car park in the dark in Devon and was about to go canoeing. And so it went on, each phone call more bizarre than the last, until I fin- ally found Witts — driving down a country lane in Yorkshire — who agreed to meet MJ and me in the new year in Soho, where we would play him our songs.

Over Christmas, MJ — who was at home with her family in the US — and I e-mailed each other lyrics and ideas and the opening of Kimberly’s Song (Blunkett’s companion piece) was written on her laptop on the composer’s return flight to London.

Around the time of our first meeting, I picked up T2 to read Richard Morrison under the headline “Don’t just read this column . . . turn it into a musical”. Well! “Where are the new Lloyd Webbers?” he asked. “And who will give them the chance to show what they can do, when staging even a small West End musical can easily leave a producer sadder and wiser to the tune of several hundred thousand quid?” (I hoped Martin Witts was not a Times reader.)

Morrison was publicising a Greenwich Theatre initiative to encourage new composers and lyricists to submit works from newspaper stories . . . “The fact is that a huge number of masterpieces — musical, literary and cinematic — have started life as headlines ripped from the morning papers,” he wrote, and listed Porgy and Bess, Rebel Without a Cause, Blood Wedding and Anna Karenina, just for starters.

In the weeks to come, these illustrious antecedents proved a useful rebuttal to the accusation that there is something intrinsically suspect about basing an artistic endeavour on a news story.

Martin turned up for our first meeting almost an hour late — an inauspicious start (his train from York was delayed). It never happened again. The three of us hit it off immediately, but the promised piano was not available, and Leo Alexander of Kettners was persuaded to let us use his baby grand in the private rooms upstairs. Two good-looking boys — I assumed they were Leo’s nephews — asked if they could listen in. Martin whispered in my ear “That’s Simon Anstell from cd:UK.” Now I see his impish features on the televison all the time.

There were gratifying grins when MJ finished singing and, most importantly, Martin was persuaded by the two songs that we could pull it off. We were on! And, almost immediately, rather like the Blunkett story itself, the musical began to take on a life force of its own.

The so-called preview in The Grey Horse pub in Elvington, Yorkshire, was a case in point. The original thinking behind this was that it would be a good idea if the London writer and the American composer visited Sheffield to get a bit of a feel for Blunkett’s northern origins. We would drive around the estate where he grew up and his Brightside constituency and this would illuminate our script and songs. As part of the Yorkshire experience, we would stay in Martin’s friend Dave’s pub and try out some of our songs on his clientèle of ex-miners. A reporter from the Yorkshire Post might come along; possibly someone from the local radio station. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

At this point, I should say that Martin has impeccable showman credentials — he produced last year’s award-winning show Hurricane (about Alex “Hurricane” Higgins), and the musical of Prisoner: Cell Block H (with Lily Savage); he was the promoter for B. B. King and Nina Simone, and stage manager at Glyndebourne. But I think it is fair to say that he was unprepared for “the world’s media” — as The Guardian put it — arriving en masse in Elvington.

They started turning up shortly after breakfast. So many television crews; so much equipment. Press agencies. Newsnight. Ridiculous numbers of photographers with more equipment. The Sky presenter seems as bemused as us that her bosses insist that she keep on filming, when she clearly wants to wrap it up and go home. An independent crew film us being filmed by Sky. I cannot get the hang of someone talking in my ear and feel myself pulling unattractive faces in response to the rather haranguing tone of the interviewer. My eye-rolling and muttering and Martin’s bossy admonishments are all caught by the independent mob, as well as our phoney smiles when we go back on air.

I just want to hang with the guys from The Guardian and the Telegraph but keep having to pose for photographs — which is one of my least favourite activities. The locals are pretty bemused by all this activity, much to the delight of my fellow hacks. John, an old chap, complains about the loudness of MJ’s singing voice, and then threatens to show me his hernia scar but instead pulls out an enchanting sepia photograph of his wife when they were courting.

One of the photographers chalks up a blackboard with a Blunkett: The Musical preview sign and places it in front of the pub. All his colleagues are delighted t hat someone has had the wit to produce a bona fide photo opportunity.

By 8pm, I have completely had it. It is interesting seeing what my press confrères do with the material. They, like me, are as charming as they can be during the interview — but the finished article or television slot will often have a slightly different tone: a coolness and detachment which I recognise in the way I work, too, and which is only proper. But when you are the subject, I now discover, you can’t help feeling a tiny sliver of betrayal: Oh, I thought you were my friend. Which might be true, in some cases, but mostly it’s not.

I have to say that we were as thrilled by the splendid coverage as we were surprised by its extent. Suddenly there were hundreds of stories about the musical from all over the world; Google is full of Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch references to it. We are in the Hollywood Reporter. And Florida, and other rather surprising places. But then Kimberly, of course, is American.

Friends phone with regular updates on the key players — did you know Kimberly had been keeping diaries? Consternation at Condé Nast’s London office over US Vanity Fair’s investigation of l’affaire Blunkett (Mr Quinn being the publisher of Vogue UK); Did you catch Blunkett on the Today programme? My mortgage broker e-mails: “Have you got a tag-line yet? Every musical needs one. Something along the lines of ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind Man there is only one Woman: Quinn.’ Or maybe not.”

A few weeks on and a US production company wants to fly over to film us. MJ gets very excited. This is a big deal, apparently. Current Affair was a famous pioneering series and they want to film us in rehearsal for their relaunch (to be broadcast nationally on prime-time terrestial TV).

The crew from LA do their thing while we do ours in a practice room at the Pineapple Dance Studios. A couple of women from one of the Edinburgh Festival venues sit in. One completely gets the spirit of the thing; the other sits there as sour-faced as can be. Perhaps this is a good cop/bad cop routine. But it is quite lowering to meet such a blank response when we have had really positive feedback to date.

Martin has been approached by two record producers who are interested in producing a Boris hip-hop single. Four different independent television companies are pitching Blunkett: the Musical ideas to the Beeb, etc. Is this all hot air or is it real, I wonder?

Mostly, I find, people are responding to the idea of the show. The majority think it’s a “hoot”; one or two that it’s cruel and invasive. But when they hear all the songs, they are quite unprepared for the impact. Alvin Stardust — one of Martin’s clients — takes a break from being the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and describes the songs as: “A meeting of Stephen Sondheim and The Little Shop of Horrors”. (Thanks, Alvin; we love over-the-top compliments.) Mark Perry, who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers and will play him much straighter in our show, says: “The songs are lovely. Very accessible. I mean, they’re not Sondheim.” MJ and I exchange a private smile.

The writers India Knight and Andrew O’Hagan have been midwives of sorts to the show. India, who takes singing lessons with MJ, has not only opened up her house for auditions but has found us the two amazing women who are playing Kimberly and Petronella. Lynne Davies (Glyndebourne; ENO) has a nightingale-beautiful soprano voice. Watching her first attempt to inhabit Kimberly — in that Traviata-esque opening — was like some sort of alchemy. I hardly dare to look at India for fear of breaking the spell.

Zigi Ellison, who played opposite Steven Berkoff in the US tour of Salome, is as much an actress as a singer — and she is fantastic as Petronella. And such a fox . . . I can’t help but think that Petsy would be flattered by the portrayal.

Having been a bit snooty about actors in the past, I have now developed a slavish admiration for them. Believe me, when you have written a song or a script and the actor seems effortlessly to bring those words to life — and far more — you want to fling yourself at his feet and moan “I am not worthy”.

When Robert Bathurst came to check out the Boris songs, my jaw dropped as he transformed himself within minutes — can’t you just see him in the role? — into a sort of über-Boris. Watching him grin from ear to ear, like a schoolboy at the most thrilling birthday party, as he heard all the material and the darkening of his face in the sadder songs, was . . . well . . . it was a very good thing indeed.

Behind the tawdry versions of our characters that we have all read about in the papers, we had invested them with souls and an inner life, he said.

So now we have a man who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers playing Blunkett (he is filming the new series as we rehearse for our opening), and the man who plays a PM (in My Dad’s the Prime Minister — I’m looking forward to the third series) as Boris. We have all nine songs, the four actors, a nine-part choir for our Greek chorus, the script, the five-piece band, and the narrator . . . and, yes, I’m excited (and a bit terrified) as we embark on rehearsals for the real preview with an invited audience at the Soho Theatre.

Martin decided to go for a bigger venue in Edinburgh, not the one represented by the two women who had come to watch rehearsals. We have invited all the real-life characters to check out the musical for themselves, and have yet to hear from them. We think they would be pleasantly surprised.

General

Oh come on all ye faithful

The Times – December 20 2003
– Ginny Dougary

One of the joys of Christmas is the chance to belt out a carol or two. Our correspondent took singing lessons and was transformed from a tuneless novice into a proud, if not perfect, chorister

These are the snatches of songs that I remember my parents singing; some from my childhood, some from much later on. My father would hoist me on to his shoulders, before he became crouched with arthritis, and croon: “A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go, we’ll catch a fox and put him in a box and never let him go.” In the bath, he would hiss a “hot” song when the water was scalding and warble a “cold ” song, with shiver-me-timbers side-effects when it was tepid.
My mother would sway from side to side, her lips pursed in a swooning, romantic pose: “Two lovely black eyes, oh what a surprise . . .” And (making her voice deep and booming) she would sing: “Drink to me only wi-ith thine eye-eyes and I-eye will drink to thee” and, much earlier, the lullaby that her mother sang to her and that I, in turn, would sing to my own children: “Go to sleep my baby, close your little eyes, angels come to greet you, looking at you, darling, from the skies./ If they catch you peeping, o’er their silvery beam, they will tell their darling (substitute name) to go to sleep now.”

At the end of her funeral, four years ago, the elderly congregation was doubtless startled by a raucous, joyful blast of Glenn Miller’s biggest hit. I chose to play it because that’s how I felt my glamorous mother should be remembered — kicking up her heels, sashaying around the room as she sang her own words to her favourite song, “In the mood, da-dah-dee-da-dahhh . . .”

Songs, perhaps even more than music, are a direct heartline to memory. There is something so evocative about the resummoning of someone you love who has died, the aural equivalent of one’s inner-eye replaying precisely the way they would swoop around a note, and poignant, too, because those of us who love to sing tend to agree that, in the act of doing so, we never feel more truly alive.

Although I can remember my parents singing, I have no memories of particularly enjoying singing myself as a child. Like most adults and children, I didn’t mind yodelling away at the old Christmas numbers “Glor-or-or-or-or-or-or . . .” etc, although all that snow-on-snow imagery didn’t really work as I was brought up in the heat and dust of an Arabian desert.

At my boarding school in England, I learnt the words to Jerusalem and I Vow To Thee My Country and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind (heartbreaking then, even as an innocent from grief; almost impossible to sing now) and played around with the descant on O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come All Ye Faithful — but I was never in the choir; nor was I really cut out to be one, in most respects.

Although I’ve always sung with old friends, given half an opportunity, and sometimes new ones — singing, like death, is not only a great leveller, it can also bring people together — it was only a couple of years ago that I started taking lessons and joined a choir.

I was away from home for three-and-a-half months, attempting to complete a novel. On my own, severed from my family and friends, I decided that it would be healthy to give myself some sort of hobby so that I wouldn’t go crazy pounding away at the keyboard in isolation. On my second weekend, I enrolled on a vocal workshop and found it exposing, challenging, exciting, liberating. It was also exhausting, since controlling your breathing is key to improving your singing technique and I was still recovering from a bout of pneumonia.

In my group, there was a cross-dressing couple of TV executives, a mega-successful thirtysomething producer of musicals, a lovely retired schoolteacher, who took me under her wing, and a retired lawyer. There was also a woman in her late fifties who had, incredibly, never sung before. There were no snatches of remembered songs for her, since she grew up as an only child in a house wreathed in sadness and silence, her mother afflicted with a nervous condition that had rendered her mute. But, by the third day, the woman’s quaking voice already sounded stronger and richer and, most striking of all, this reclaiming of a missing part of herself seemed to transform her even on the outside, so that now, standing tall and proud, she had actually grown in confidence.

The next week, I experienced my own transformation when I joined a non-denominational choir. For those who have not had the pleasure, it is hard to convey how thrilling it is to hear the vibration of your voice in the tumultuous swell of four different parts singing in harmony. It’s like falling in love, eating the most delicious chocolate, catching the perfect wave. And, as I soon discovered, singing can become addictive.

Three years on, I am still singing and have joined two choirs, directed by the inspirational MJ — a vocal powerhouse in Brighton, with residencies at the Ebony Room, the Joogleberry Playhouse and the Sussex Arts Club.

I’ve also become something of an evangelist for the voice, having now thrown a couple of singing parties — and discovered that there are an amazing number of musical people in my circle of friends. This year, my husband played the trumpet and sang — both for the first time in public. And it was lovely to hear so many different parents playing the guitar or piano, as their daughters performed songs by Norah Jones, Christina Aguilera, Bonnie Rait. My sixteen-year-old son Tom — the serious musician in our family — accompanied me on the piano, while I sang My Funny Valentine, and our old friend Tim played the sax. Man, did we swing.

So, do I sing like an angel? No. But the beauty of taking something up in your middle-youth is that it comes with the freedom of knowing that your ambitions can be very limited indeed. In my case, all I want is to get to the stage where I can sing a whole song as sweetly and steadily as I can now manage to sing parts of one. Even my sons, who used to clap their hands over their ears when I struck up, admit that I have improved. I still tend to retreat into a high, little girl’s voice when I have the build to sing like Alison Moyet. And I still find it incredibly challenging to get all the different parts of singing together — holding a note for long enough, giving that note texture and character so it sounds pleasing, performing the song to bring out the meaning of the words. All of this on top of merely holding the tune . . .

What I find quite difficult to deal with are those people who clearly get a kick out of saying they hate singing. To me, that’s like boasting that you don’t have an appetite for food or sex or love. I would go further. To be anti-singing is to be anti-life. But then you only have to scratch the surface of the killjoy and you’ll find that a wife or (more rarely) a husband, has mocked them for their “terrible voice” whenever they have dared to sing.

To the mockers, I would say you are being undermining in ways that you can’t imagine. A person’s voice, after all, is an integral part of them. Being told that what comes out of your mouth is ugly is a pretty offensive insult, and far more personal than saying someone is a crap artist or writer.

So next time you’re tempted to scoff, find your loved one a brilliant singing teacher, such as MJ, and get them to work on improving their voice. Even better, if you think you are such a maestro or diva yourself, why not sign up for a course at the same time? Incidentally, my correct name is Ginette after an apparently celebrated French chanteuse to whom my father was partial. While he was alive, I never got round to asking him more about her, and now that I’m so keen on singing myself, it’s too late. But, thank goodness, it’s never too late to sing.

* * *

For information about voice lessons, vocal workshops, the Spectrum chorus in Epsom or the newly formed Brighton City Singers, contact MJ on 01273 202562 or mjzino@hotmail.com. The Brighton City Singers will be performing the premiere of MJ’s choral work Listen, as part of next year’s Brighton Festival, as well as The Cuckoo Sings by the choir member and composer David Ingledew, on May 22 at St George’s Church, Kemptown.

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.”

Music

After the wipe out

THE GUARDIAN – June 1 2002
Ginny Dougary

Life has not been fun, fun, fun for Brian Wilson, presiding genius of the Beach Boys and creator of Pet Sounds, one of the very greatest pop albums. He bears the scars of too much acid and too much pressure. But he can still reduce audiences to tears, whatever their age.

Hearing Brian Wilson, former Beach Boy and genius, live – perhaps because he is alive – is enough to make a grown man weep. Legions of grown men, judging from the response to his packed concerts earlier this year at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The reviews were uniformly ecstatic and emotional, with at least one male critic unashamedly admitting to crying. Roger Daltrey, Elvis Costello and Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie were among the musically famous seen wiping their eyes. Since the average age of Wilson’s audience is 25, this phenomenon can’t, however, be dismissed as a bunch of old hippies having a sob-in over the idol of their lost youth. So what’s going on?

“The way I sing, sometimes I sing pretty,” Wilson tells me, in his home in Los Angeles, attempting to explain the tearfulness factor. “Like Caroline No. I sing very pretty, Caroline No. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), people cry when they hear that. Caroline No makes people cry. God Only Knows makes people cry. A lot of love went into that album.”

The album in question is Pet Sounds, described by aficionados as the masterpiece that sealed Wilson’s reputation as a genius back in 1966; the last great musical flowering before his long exile from reality. It’s the album that prompted Paul McCartney to rush home straight after he’d heard it and write Here, There And Everywhere, one of his loveliest love songs. It was the spur for the Beatles to create their own concept album – a cohesive whole rather than the usual disparate assortment of singles: Sgt Pepper’s (Lonely Hearts Club Band).

And, for the past year or so, Wilson and his devoted and multi-talented 10-man band have been playing the album in its entirety at sell-out concerts in America and, now, England. Pretty soon, with an Australian tour in December, the world will know that Brian Wilson has come back from the dead.

Growing up in an Anglo-American community in the Middle East in the 1960s, with a sister 10 years older than me, I was inevitably more exposed to US popular culture than my contemporaries in England. I can still remember the covers of the LPs she played: unblemished American youths – usually four smirking guys in matching V-neck sweaters – with cheesy names such as The Freshmen and The Letter Men. The best of all these young boy bands by far was The Beach Boys. It is said that the three Wilson brothers, Dennis, Brian and Carl, along with their cousin, Mike Love and friend, Alan Jardine, invented California: the fun, fun, fun of living in the sun, two girls for every boy, catching a wave in the cool, clear water, driving along in your daddy’s T-Bird, or lovingly touching up the bonnet of your little Deuce Coupé.

But really their songs spoke directly to almost any straightforward, outdoorsy teenager who was male, endowed with a healthy sex drive, and had the good fortune to live in a clement climate by the sea. For the less fortunate, such as the Boys’ huge number of fans in the UK, well, at least they got to live that sun-kissed life vicariously. Babysat by my big sister, at the Hubara Club and the Gazelle Club, I watched her and her friends – the guys in plaid Bermuda shorts, the girls in bikinis – twist and frug and fool around to Surfin’ Safari and California Girls and Surfer Girl, while the muezzin in their minarets were performing their own vocal pyrotechnics, summoning the faithful to prayer.

A decade later, at university in England, frugging had been replaced by pogoing, and the boy bands wore black and never smiled. Mostly we listened to them, but my housemates and I also sang along to the Beach Boys (we had a tape of the backing track to the group’s greatest hits); reading from the lyric sheets, we’d try to emulate that burnished Californian sound in drizzly Bristol. It was hopeless, of course. The harmonies are so richly textured and the rhythms so complex, and none of us could even attempt to match Wilson’s fabulous falsetto; when he was young, when he really could sing pretty. But I did get a part in a student rock’n’roll revue – the only time I’ve graced the stage – by singing I Get Around at the audition.

Mulholland Drive, so famously lala-landish that David Lynch named his most recent award-winning film after it, is a winding road cut high into Beverly Hills, with an abundant shock of crimson and burgundy bougainvillaea against banks of bleached green scrub. This is where the stars live in their compounds-cum-fortresses, where, beyond the massive security gates and 24-hour security guards, they can pretend that they lead normal lives. The taxi drivers with their faltering American accents get a kick out of pointing out celebrities’ homes, as though this knowledge, in some small way, affords them an entrée into the same club. Rod Stewart, Sylvester Stallone and Magic Johnson all have houses in one of these estates, which is a slightly awesome thought. Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson are neighbours in another. Brian Wilson, however, barely registers on the cabbies’ radar.

The Wilsons live in a terracotta hacienda-style house – quite modest in scale – with a children’s play area on the front lawn (but no sign of a sandpit) and a Stars and Stripes draped at a drunken angle from the upstairs balcony. Inside, there is an impression of pale, marble floors and antique furniture guarded by a large, ferocious black poodle called Lu Lu. I am shepherded up the sweeping staircase by Wilson’s press assistant, Jean, who is young and hip and exudes an air of balmy efficiency, and into a study where our hero is sitting bolt upright on the edge of a sofa, as rigid as a waxwork figure, his face a powdery grey, with eyes that look as though they will never recover from the horrors they have seen. Outside, the sun may be shining, but none of its rays penetrates the gloom in this room.

The next 45 minutes are the most excruciating I have experienced in 20 years of interviewing. The mystery is that I’d read of numerous encounters with him before my own, yet nothing had adequately prepared me for the extent to which he has been so clearly damaged by his nervous breakdowns and years of mental illness, exacerbated by his use of hallucinogenic drugs and the subsequent doses of prescribed medication he must rely on merely to function.

One hand frantically bats the air, like a bird with a damaged wing unable to take flight, while the other intermittently tries to restrain it. His speech is slurred as though he has suffered a stroke. He often seems confused about the meaning of even the most straightforward questions. The best he can do is offer monosyllabic responses, which come as though prompted from somewhere deep inside but somehow unconnected with the man. Any sustained conversation of more than a few sentences appears beyond his powers. Most of the time, he looks over my shoulder at Jean, who is sitting behind me. On the rare occasion that he does lock eyes, you wish he hadn’t because they look so haunted. It’s as though he is an inmate in a luxury institution, with each question acting like an electric probe. What made it so sad was that he seemed to be trying so hard to play the game. This is an unedited example of what we were both up against:

People often mention your childlike quality. Do you know what they mean by that?

“I have a kid-like, I don’t know about child – I have a kid-like. I am. I think young.”

Do you get a kick out of children? (He has two grown-up daughters, who are also singers, by his first wife, Marilyn, and two adopted daughters, a five-year-old, Daria, and her four-year-old sister, Delanie, with his second wife, Melinda.)

“Yeah, I do and I don’t. I like kids …”

But they can be irritating?

“Kids can be irritating.”

Well, they’re demanding, I suppose?

“Yeah, exactly.”

Do you like to have quiet around you, tranquillity?

“Yeah, I like peace of mind. Peace is something I like.”

You need quiet around you to be creative?

“Yeah.”

Do you feel that you’ve grown up now?

“Yeah, I’ve grown up. I’ve grown up and I feel real good.”

So you would say that you’re happy?

“Yeah, I’m happy as hell, yeah.” (Grimly.)

In your long tormented years, did you ever think you’d be happy again?

“At times I thought I’d never be happy ever again, and then at times I did.”

Wilson’s parents are dead, which is not unexpected since he will be 60 later this month. (Jean, the PR, has to remind him that they’re celebrating it by going bowling.) But both his kid brothers are dead, too, which would compound even the sturdiest person’s sense of isolation. Dennis – the beautiful one, the only brother who actually enjoyed surfing and thought that maybe it would be kinda neat to do some songs about catching waves and chicks – lost the plot himself and in the late 1970s took on the demonic look of his great buddy, Charles Manson; the two were so friendly at one time that Manson moved into Dennis’s mansion with the harem of acid-addled middle-class girls who later helped him butcher Sharon Tate and her unborn baby. One of Manson’s songs appears, uncredited, on the Beach Boys’ 1969 album, 20/20. Dennis drowned in 1983 while swimming off his boat in Marina Del Ray. Carl died of lung cancer in 1998, when he was barely into his 50s.

Ronald Reagan – a big-time Beach Boys fan – gave his own presidential stamp of approval for Dennis to be buried at sea, overriding Californian law to do so. I had assumed that the Wilsons were united in their feeling that this was a most fitting send-off for the man who had embodied everything the Beach Boys once stood for. But when I ask Brian whether he found the occasion moving, he says, “For me, it was rather sad.” It didn’t seem right to you that he should go that way? “No, it seemed wrong to me. It didn’t seem like it should have been.” It wasn’t your idea, then? ” Noooh . No. It should have been a regular burial, yeah.”

I wonder what Wilson made of Reagan – thinking, what with the US flag and his all-American boyhood, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that he’s a Republican. But, of course, Brian Wilson is too unworldly now to be a political animal, if he ever was one. “I used to love him, I used to love Ronald Reagan,” he says. “I thought he was … is he still alive?” “He’s alive,” Jean says. But he’s got Alzheimer’s, I say. “Oh, does he?” Wilson says, something approaching an expression crossing his face. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

On a couple of occasions, he does become genuinely animated – and you catch a glimpse of what he must have been like as the excitable, talkative boy he once was. He is thrilled at the prospect of performing in the Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace; at this stage, Wilson and his band are the only American artists to be thus honoured, although he seems unaware of this. “I’m going to play for the Queen, did you know that? The Queen of England! We’re gonna play for her! Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t it amazing!” It is amazing, I say; for all sorts of reasons, I think. “It’s scary, it’s kinda scary. You think, ‘Goddamn, what’s it gonna be like? What’s it all gonna feel like?’ ” Do you think the Queen will groove? “Groove? Oh sure. She’s gonna move her head. She’s gonna go, ‘Outta sight, man!’ She’s gonna love it!” I wonder whether she’s a Beach Boys fan. “I don’t know. Who knows? We’ll find out.” And Wilson laughs for the first time.

I ask him whether he holds any views on the monarchy. “On the what?” he asks, perplexed. Um, I try again, do you not really concern yourself with the outside world in that way? “I sort of stick to the trip, do you know what I mean? Instead of going off on a side trip, I try to stay on the main highway.” He gets himself back on firmer terrain. “You know, if we’re gonna bump into the Queen, we’re gonna have to be in shape for it. It’s not gonna be like any old day, it’ll be a big occasion. And she’ll remember it for years to come and so will we. So we’d better be right on.”

Loyal friends and collaborators mention Wilson’s sense of humour – which was barely glimpsed at our meeting – and his terrific memory. I had severe doubts about the latter, but he surprised me by remembering to issue the 10-minute warning I had requested him to signal when he wanted to draw things to a close. It came 35 minutes into our interview, with precisely 10 minutes of the allotted 45 minutes to go. In the remaining time, he became increasingly confused and contradictory – Do you think about yourself very much? “No, I actually don’t wallow in the mire. I don’t think about the Beach Boys.” So what do you think about? “I tend to think a lot about the Beach Boys” – and sat coiled at the edge of the seat as though poised to bolt.

I wondered whether some of Wilson’s befuddlement may have been to do with his partial deafness and with my English accent and expressions. But, if so, although he says that he is a grown up now – just as well, in his 61st year – he is too shy or awkward to ask me to repeat my questions. Contrary to the often-stated assumption that his abusive father, Murry, an unsuccessful songwriter, caused his son’s disability after bashing him around the head when he was an infant, Brian says that he was born deaf in his right ear: “My father hit me, but he didn’t hit my ear. I’ve never heard stereophonic sound ever in my life.”

He was in his teens and had already written a canon of great pop songs when Wilson first learnt about Beethoven’s deafness. How did that make him feel? “I felt proud, maybe, proud to have one ear,” and then, with more certainty, “Are you kidding? It’s a great experience to have one ear!” I think this may be an example of a Brian Wilson joke.

The speed and fluency of his creative output as a teenager was staggering – by the age of 18, he had written enough material for 23 albums, or perhaps it was the other way around; anyway, at one count he was writing as many as 60 songs a year to fill the insatiable maw of the band’s record company. While there is no doubt that Wilson spurred himself on to be productive, there was also a great deal of pressure from others – not least from within his own family – and it seems almost inevitable that those demands would eventually take their toll on a driven but sensitive young man. As his mother, Audree, used to say, her eldest son had “a gentle soul”.

After his first breakdown in 1964, which reduced him to wailing and rocking on his hands and knees in the aisle of a plane taking the Beach Boys from LA to Houston for their Christmas show, Wilson was released from the stress of touring and replaced on stage by Bruce Johnston. Left to his own devices in the studio, he teamed up with a transplanted British copywriter, Tony Asher, in what has come to be seen as the most successful of all Wilson’s collaborations.

Wilson anticipated that Pet Sounds would prove way too adventurous for the tastes of the rest of the band, let alone the record company. Or, indeed, his despot of a father. He was right on all three counts. Although Asher wrote the lyrics, he has always been punctilious about acknowledging that the album was Brian’s baby. “It’s fair to say that the general tenor of the lyrics was always his and the actual choice of words was usually mine,” he told Nick Kent, the gothic stalker of rock journalism, in his extraordinary extended essay on Brian Wilson. “I was really just the interpreter.” Wilson was the composer, arranger, singer who could sing all the parts, player who played most of the instruments, conductor of the classically-trained musicians, producer and even the engineer; the maestro who cajoled and flattered and insisted that everyone in the studio conform to his vision, with an absolute certainty he was on the right path.

I ask Wilson whether he felt like a visionary at the time, and he says – with the utmost gravity – “Right, exactly. A Christ figure kind of thing.” That’s the way you saw yourself? “Yes. When we did Pet Sounds, I said, ‘Hey! This is Jesus Christ stuff.’ I was very excited about it.”

The singles that were taken off the LP – Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows – were hugely successful, but the album itself did not sell at all well in America. Undeterred, but already beginning to unravel, Wilson persisted in pushing the envelope. He spent the next six months working on a single he called a “pocket symphony”. In his pursuit of his own idiosyncratic wall of sound – he has held a lifelong admiration of Phil Spector, which flipped into obsession at the height of his paranoia – Wilson experimented with hitherto unconventional instruments for a pop single, including the jew’s-harp, cello, harpsichord and theremin. The result – Good Vibrations – was a massive number one hit in the US and Britain. But the album, Smile, was never released, and has assumed a sort of cult outlaw status ever since. Making it, Wilson had gone well and truly over the edge – where he was to remain for the next two decades.

The stories of the wilderness years are now part of the Brian Wilson legend. The time Paul and Linda went to pay homage, only to find the genius holed up in a changing hut by the swimming pool, refusing to meet his guests who hovered outside listening to him sobbing. McCartney had said that God Only Knows was the greatest pop song ever written, and Wilson was unable to cope with the tribute. I gently suggest that he must have been extremely fragile at the time. “Very. Yeah. Very.” And so you freaked out? “Yeah.” Are you able to explain your reaction now? “I didn’t really freak out, I just freaked in.” He had another “freak-in” when Leonard Bernstein, while introducing a television documentary about the Beach Boys, claimed that Wilson’s Surf’s Up was the most important piece of contemporary music he’d heard.

Everyone knows about Wilson’s sandpit – his grand piano placed on a floor of sand so that he could feel the beach beneath his feet while he was composing. It’s rather fabulous that, at recent concerts, he and his band now sing the Canadian Barenaked Ladies’ tongue-in-cheek tribute to him, complete with Beach Boys harmonies: “If you want to find me/I’ll be out in my sandpit/Wondering where the hell has all the love gone/Playing my piano/Building castles in the sun/And singing ‘Fun Fun Fun’ ” and its chorus, “Lying in bed like Brian Wilson did – oh-oh-oh – I’m lying in bed like Brian Wilson did.” Now, for Wilson to sing this, I think, shows that he has not only a sense of humour, but also self-knowledge and a certain grace. It strikes me that Wilson’s sandpit – the concept of bringing the outside indoors – is very feng shui, very now. Thirty years ago, however, it was taken as one of the signs that the musician’s wits had turned – particularly since his dogs tended to crap in it.

Eugene Landy, the notorious Californian shrink hired in desperation by Wilson’s wife, Marilyn (usually described as “the long-suffering”), managed to get him out of bed and off the junk-food diet that had turned him into an unsightly 25-stone Michelin man, by imposing a rigorous exercise regime and a drug-free existence – monitored on a 24-hour basis by his team of men, who became known as the Surf Nazis.

In restoring his patient’s physical wellbeing, Landy created a new dependency in Wilson, who now seemed unable to do anything unless his doctor was by his side. Both Landy and his girlfriend are named as co-writers on Wilson’s solo album in 1988, but it was only when Wilson was apparently persuaded by Landy to rewrite his will in 1990 that his family intervened with a lawsuit, and all contact between the two men was abruptly severed.

I ask him whether he misses the drugs. “No, I don’t miss drugs at all,” he says. “Drugs are no good. I take medicine, mild medicine, but not drugs.” Marilyn has said that she believes Brian would have been able to cope if it hadn’t been for the drugs: “Anyone who knew Brian, pre-drugs, saw an eccentric, talented, beautiful, sensitive person, who made them laugh and feel good.” She’s also convinced that, if he hadn’t lost his way so spectacularly, he would now be a major force in the West Coast music scene; running his own record company, writing movie scores, producing all the acts he wanted, and being endlessly creative. “It would have been so easy for him,” she says. “It’s the only thing he really feels comfortable doing.”

Does he think it was the acid that was his undoing? “It hurt my mind,” he says. “It hurt my mind a little bit, screwed me up.”

In 1984, Wilson was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and a manic depressive. Does he recognise those terms today for his illness? “Paranoid schizophrenic? No, not really. That’s not true.” So when he says he hears angels’ voices, for instance, is he talking symbolically or are they real to him? “It’s symbolic in that each voice is different, you know,” he says, muddlingly. “You’re not listening for any one voice. You hear them all together. You can’t concentrate on any one voice. They sound good altogether.” So you don’t actually hear the voices in your head, I ask, confused. “Oh, I hear them,” he says. “I have auditory hallucinations in my head.” Do the voices come when you’re on your own or at any time? “Any time,” he says.

Although he has started a few songs, he says, he hasn’t been able to complete one in two years – “which is a long time”. He’s even thinking of getting back with Tony Asher, to see maybe if, together, they can get those old Pet Sounds juices flowing again. But can’t he be satisfied with what he’s already achieved? “Absolutely. I am very proud.” So if you never reach those heights again … “That’s enough for my whole lifetime.”

God has saved him on many, many occasions, he says, but he gives his wife and kids the credit for restoring his confidence and getting him back on the road again. When he was a slightly plump, speccy youth, trapped in the phoney wholesomeness that the Boys were forced to project, his lack of grooviness really bothered him: “I used to feel paranoid about not being hip. I laugh when I think about it. Yeah, I was so stoopid. I was a stoopid person,” he says.

And, now, how does he find touring – which made him so ill – without any of the Beach Boys? “Much more fun,” he says with conviction. “I’m having much more fun than I did as a Beach Boy. Because I’m no longer a Beach Boy. I’m Brian Wilson.”

I ask finally what his views are about Eugene Landy now, but Jean intervenes: “We’re not going into Eugene Landy at all.” Really? “No. Zero. No. Not at all.”

“Done?” Wilson grunts with palpable relief, and stands up. I think so, I say. “Well, I enjoyed that very much,” he says. Did you? “That was very pleasant.” Really, I say, I couldn’t tell that was the way you felt. “I did very much, very much,” he says, shaking my hand with a good, strong grip, which is not what I would have expected.

When he is out of earshot, I say to Jean that I imagine Wilson is probably only at ease in public when he’s back singing on the stage. Oh, she says, instantly gleaning my drift, that was a good interview; he often stops after 20 minutes. No, she insists, you got Brian on really good form – which for some reason makes my eyes well up.

Jean says that it’s not true that he hasn’t written any songs in the past two years. She’s heard them and they’re good; it’s just that he’s terrified of acknowledging they’re finished because then people will expect him to do something with them. He’s still suffering from that time, more than half his lifetime ago, when he was a one-man song factory. He’s happy to do stuff for other musicians, however, and has just finished singing on Richard Ashcroft’s new album.

The reason why Wilson makes people cry is mainly, of course, that his songs are so very true and beautiful, particularly the ones on Pet Sounds. From the optimistic, instant-grin opening of Wouldn’t It Be Nice to the more soulful tunes tinged with the regretfulness of experience, acknowledging the forbearance required to stick with a relationship: You Still Believe In Me; the soaring strains of God Only Knows, a perfect bitter-sweet love song, the first line of each verse with its in-built recognition of the possibility of love’s loss: “I may not always love you”, “If you should ever leave me”; the prophetic I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, with its affectingly childlike repetition of “Sometimes I feel very sad”, to the final Caroline No, which seems to signal the end of innocence, as much as a love affair: “How could you lose that happy glow/ O Caroline No/Who took that look away?/I remember how you used to say/You’d never change/But that’s not true … Could I ever find in you again/The things that made me love you so much then/Could we ever bring them back once they had gone?” Then the mournful hoot of a train; the barking salute of a dog.

His voice is still lovely now, but roughened by age and illness. And although those songs together can be seen as the story of an adolescent boy’s rite of passage into manhood, they also tap into universal feelings of love and disappointment. Which is why it is moving, rather than grotesque, to hear an elderly man singing the songs he wrote as a not-so-sunny youth.

Wilson’s rehabilitation is a sort of miracle; that at last he is getting the recognition he deserves, seemingly on his own terms, while he is alive and well enough to appreciate it. Particularly when you consider all the rock legends of his age who are no longer with us: Jim, Jimmy, Janis and John. Or the reclusive spectres of the other lost geniuses: Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green.

And this, I think, may go to the heart of why so many people want to protect him. It’s a conspiracy of compassion. The writers who are sent out to interview him, mainly men and usually die-hard Wilson fans, bend over backwards not to state the obvious – which is that, although he may be making a triumphant return musically, and despite his fit, lean physique, Wilson is clearly not sufficiently robust mentally to have to undergo the ordeal of being interviewed. It strikes me as cruel to pretend otherwise.

I was discomfited for days afterwards about having been part of a process that I cannot believe he enjoys, despite what he said, and I wonder whether, even now, Wilson is still being leaned on to conform to other people’s demands. He talks about the fun of exercise, and going out to restaurants every other night, and how he likes to hang out with his family and friends, but I suspect that he finds most of life a bit of a trial when he’s not being creative – and even that is proving frustratingly difficult. Will he be able to cope with being thrust back into the spotlight? Will his nervous system be able to handle all the touring in the months ahead? God only knows, I suppose.

Daria, the five-year-old, is wearing a pink tutu, fresh from her ballet class, and curtseying for the umpteenth time. She is being herself and I am being the Queen. I extend my hand graciously, tilt my head, and wait for her to call me Ma’am. The little girls are almost as excited as their father about the visit to the Palace, but eventually they tire of playing miniature dignitaries and start bashing the keys of their dad’s piano, in a distinctly unreverential fashion.

Twenty minutes later, the dog is barking downstairs, there is the sound of the girls running round and round and shrieking with laughter, and I’m still waiting for my taxi, when Brian Wilson reappears, walks across the room, takes me in his arms and gives me the biggest, warmest hug. “That’s for the interview,” he says, and walks out again.

Right at the start of things, I had asked him what it had felt like playing at the Royal Festival Hall. “Well, I felt a love vibration that was so powerful, I couldn’t believe it. It was a love vibe, a very powerful love vibe. And everybody loves love. It’s a popular thing, love,” he said. “So I put love in my voice and my music. There you have it.”

And there you have it.

Music, Writers

The new romantic – Interview, Nick Cave

THE TIMES – March 27 1999
– Ginny Dougary

Not many rock stars write novels and biblical commentaries or give recitals on love at the Royal Festival Hall. But, with years behind him as the ultimate bad seed, Nick Cave has never played by the rules. Ginny Dougary meets the man behind his own myth.

If you didn’t know what Nick Cave does, you would be hard-pressed to guess. In the past couple of years, he has delivered a religious broadcast on Radio 3, contributed to The Times’s Op Ed page, alongside John Major, with a column on what Easter means to him, penned an introduction to St Mark’s gospel in Canongate’s bite-sized versions of the Bible, with writers such as A.S. Byatt, A.N. Wilson, Louis de Berni res, Fay Weldon and Will Self, and been a visiting lecturer at an academy of poetry in Vienna; in three days time, he will be giving a recital on the love song at the Royal Festival Hall, and he is director of this summer’s arts festival, Meltdown, on the South Bank. He has been the subject of a biography, the author of a novel which attracted some glowing reviews, including one from The Daily Telegraph; he has written film scripts and appeared, as himself, in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, and as an actor in a number of less memorable films. It’s an unusual curriculum vitae, especially for a rock star.

Cave appears to have entered the ranks of the great and the good without really trying, and certainly without much fanfare. As a gifted writer with an abiding interest in literature, religion and art, it is perhaps not surprising that Cave has harnessed himself to projects beyond the narrow perimeters of pop. But how many of his fellow musicians could command comparably lofty platforms from which to broadcast their views, or the licence to experiment from within the portals of such august institutions? Cave is not, after all, a well-connected Brit but an Aussie outsider.

What is surprising is that he remains a marginal figure in the music business, albeit mega in those margins. When Cave and his band the Bad Seeds played at the Royal Albert Hall some years ago, both nights sold out; five hours after the box office opened, the tickets for Cave’s solo show at the Royal Festival Hall had all gone. He is – what people often fall back on when describing an artist who is difficult or difficult to place, and Cave is both – a significant cult figure.

But why isn’t he huge? His love songs on The Boatman’s Call, Cave and the Bad Seeds’ most recent album of fresh material, were a revelation to me when I first heard them a few months ago: sweet and melancholy, stripped back to the raw emotion and sung with the voice of a wayward Elvis Presley. I am not alone in thinking they are up there with Van Morrison and Dylan; everyone to whom I’ve played them has the same reaction. “The guy’s a genius!” they say, and “Why haven’t I heard the songs before?” The singer, of course, is partly to blame. He may have appeared on Top of the Pops with Kylie Minogue, for whom he wrote the murder ballad Where the Wild Roses Grow – and what a strange pairing that was – but the success of the single was a commercial deviation for him. He wrote it, not because he wanted a Top 20 hit, but because he liked to play with the tension between the darkness of the material and the lightness which Kylie projects. He is quite clear about his desire to conduct his life and career on his own idiosyncratic terms. In 1996, for instance, he was shortlisted for an MTV Award for Best Male Artist – but asked the organisers to withdraw his nomination. “My muse is not a horse,” he attempted to explain in a letter, “and I am in no horse race and, indeed, if she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel – this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.” While he clearly had a lot of fun spinning his excuse – he sounds as arch and overblown as the Scarlet Pimpernel – the gesture can hardly have endeared him to the powers that be in the international music scene. Cave’s habit of disappearing in foreign cities for years at a time – Berlin for much of the Eighties; Sao Paulo in the early Nineties – has not helped to build a serious profile in this country. And, of course, there have been some more self-destructive habits along the way.

Our first encounter is in Amsterdam, where Cave is performing in a kind of lit-rock festival at the Paradiso, billed alongside various artists with out-there names like Furry Green Lamppost. The Paradiso used to be a church and is one of the legendary venues, where everyone has played from Janis Joplin to the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols; in the late-afternoon gloom and empty, it looks tarnished and slightly seedy.

On the stage, Cave’s elongated form is hunched over the piano like an up-ended U. He is wearing a skimpy V-neck sweater and with his eyes closed and his face pointed skywards, he could be a 12-year-old boy. Since he is, in fact, 41, in the looks department at least, he is a disgracefully good advertisement for bad living. After an hour or so of faffing around with the sound engineer, Cave comes over to join a group of us.

Away from his piano, Cave towers over us but doesn’t stoop. Walking back to the hotel at some pace, I clock the familiar wings of bat-black hair, the white face, blue eyes and cupid’s pout. In his scuffed shoes, a fake fur collar adorning a long black coat, he has a certain theatrical – Aubrey Beardsley meets Withnail – thrift-shop elegance. His people keep telling me what a great time it is to interview him. Why? He’s so happy. He’s so open. He’s so well. He’s in love.

Before the gig, there is a dinner for Cave and his friends in an old-fashioned seafood restaurant. It’s a strange, slightly strained event. Everyone would like to talk to our host, but since he exudes all the hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie of a Howard Hughes, it does not make for an easy flow of conversation. Among the guests is Cave’s new paramour, Vivienne Westwood’s erstwhile muse, the model Susie Bick – who appears to have made liberal use of her boyfriend’s hair-dye.

Bick is exquisite. She has a porcelain face, phosphorescent green gaze and a breathy, cut-glass little voice – rather like a posh Una Stubbs. With the dansant frock, antique clasp-bag and demure manner, she feels distinctly unmodern. She and Cave sip mineral water and smoke a great many Marlboro Lights. I ask him whether he’s suffering from pre-concert nerves. No, he says,
slightly bullishly. Then he grins and admits, “Well, yes, actually – I am.” Moments later, as if to comfort himself, he folds Susie into his arms and kisses her. We all look away. But for some reason it’s not embarrassing, just rather sweet and unaffected.

There’s a commotion on the steps of the Paradiso, and a sign on the heavy wooden doors informing the crowds that the gig is SOLD OUT. Cave takes to the centre of the stage and starts to read his introduction to St Mark from the small book in his hand. The piece is long but the Dutch tend to speak English fluently, and Cave seems to carry them. As befits a former place of worship, the atmosphere is solemn, even reverential. Of course, it is equally possible that the fans have been stunned into silence by the oddness of this incarnation. Cave’s voice is rising, clear and loud, and his body rocks as he describes his early love of the Old Testament, with its malign God and presence of evil so close to the surface, “you could smell its mad breath, see the yellow smoke curl…” Give him a backdrop of cornfields and a southern twang, and he could be Flannery O’Connor’s crazy-eyed preacher in Wise Blood (a book Cave knows and loves).

And now there are murmurs of recognition and approval from the congregation, as Cave says, “But you grow up. You do. You mellow out… You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity as you learn to forgive yourself and the world.” In his pre-teen choirboy days at Wangaratta Cathedral, he tells us, he was singularly unimpressed by the Anglican Church: “It was the decaf of worship,” he sneers, “and Jesus was their Lord.” And on he goes, via references to Holman Hunt and the odd Latin and Hebrew quote, to explain how Christ came to illuminate his life – through the Gospel According to Mark – “with a dim light, a sad light, but light enough”… and on and on, accelerating as though wary of imposing upon our patience as he reaches his triumphant conclusion: “Christ understood that we as humans were for ever held to the ground by the pull of gravity – our ordinariness, our mediocrity – and it was through his example that he gave our imaginations the freedom to rise and fly. In short,” he stares out into the dark, “to be Christ-like.” It’s hardly rock ‘n’ roll, but they like it.

Cave may have grown up, but he is still a perverse cove. His desire to move and shock – the function, he believes, of art – remains intact. Perhaps a religious reading is the Nineties equivalent of bashing his fans over the head with a microphone. “To get up and speak about matters like that is pretty much the last thing you can annoy people with,” he confirms. “Because in my business God has a very, very bad reputation. He needs to get a new spin doctor… and I’m the man for the job.”

The rest of the set goes well. Post-Mark, the proceedings still have a gospel feel. The audience mouths the words to the songs or joins in. People sway arm in arm; a number of them weep. As Cave sings his anthem of disappointment “People ain’t no good” – “… It ain’t in their hearts they’re bad/ They can comfort you, some even try/ They nurse you when you’re ill of health/ They bury you when you go and die…” – a young man plucks my sleeve, tears streaming down his cheeks, and tells me how the song speaks straight to him, confronting him with how badly he has treated his estranged brother and how he must make
amends.

When he was a child, Cave tells me back in London, he and a mate would get driven miles out into the bush by his mate’s dad, who would deposit them with a six-pack of beer and a couple of shotguns and instruct them to kill as many living things as they could. The boys were 12 at the time. Cave is the father of a seven-year-old son, Luke, and he’s been thinking that was a pretty rum way to handle kids.

First novels have a reputation for tending towards the autobiographical. The Ass Saw the Angel, Cave’s fictional debut, would not appear to conform to that pattern. It is an extraordinary story – both compelling and repellent – of Euchrid Eucrow, the mute surviving twin of a grotesque alcoholic mother and a sadistic father, who is the outcast and Anti-Christ figure of a warped religious community. It is full of Old Testament imagery welded on to the imagination of a serial killer, informed by a love and knowledge of the literature of the American Deep South. The novel is littered with the carcasses of small birds and creatures, captured or shot, which makes one think that those trips into the bush and the ensuing carnage must surely have made an imprint on the child’s psyche.

Cave’s writing has impressed some of the most respected young guns in publishing. Jon Riley, who bought the paperback rights to The Ass Saw the Angel for Penguin, struggled to persuade his superiors that the acquisition was a good idea. Penguin stumped up Pounds 25,000 for the rights. Since its publication in 1990, the paperback has sold 75,000 copies and continues to sell steadily.

Richard Beswick, editorial director of Little, Brown, whose authors include Beryl Bainbridge and Gore Vidal, says of Cave’s writing: “Most literary novels look linguistically impoverished compared to his. If I’d been publishing fiction at the time, I would have jumped at it.” Instead, he commissioned a biography of Cave: Bad Seed by Ian Johnston, which has also enjoyed healthy sales – about 30,000 copies – since it was published in 1995. “There’s a very good cross-over audience for Cave amongst literate rock fans,” Beswick says, and less reverentially, “There’s also substantial sleaze and some great photographs of him rolling around on broken glass.”

Cave arrives bang on time for our meeting, dressed smartly in a grey suit and white shirt. The rendezvous is in the library – appropriately since much of our conversation is about books and writing – of one of those discreet, old-fashioned hotels which seem to be popular with the rockerati. There is an interesting tension, a word he employs a lot, between his manner: still amiable, as it was in Amsterdam, and his body language, which is guarded. Before we get properly stuck in, Cave tells me about his mental filing cabinet in which are stored all the names of the journalists and critics who have offended him – which is less intimidating than it sounds. What people tend not to get is that Cave is funny, with that laconic, deadpan wit shared by larrikin Australians from Bob Hawke to your outback cattle drover. After his attempts to give me a preview of his forthcoming gig, for instance, he assumes a baleful expression and drawls, “Thousands of people send their tickets back.” Knowing how seriously – and quite rightly – Cave takes his writing, I ask him somewhat tentatively whether he wishes he had been as rigorous in the editing of his novel as he was in his new songs. I preface the question by asking him if he minds me making a comment about it. “Yeah. You can make a comment,” he says darkly, “I’ll log it in there,” tapping his high forehead.

During the years in which he wrote the book in Berlin, Cave’s lifestyle was chaotic, to put it mildly. Rock hacks used to lay bets on who was most likely to die of an overdose on stage first, Keith Richards or Nick Cave. At one particular low point of his addiction, Cave resorted to dealing heroin and was thrown out of the room in his shared apartment when it became a shooting gallery. Writing the novel is what Cave believes kept him from going under. I ask him if there were any times during his work in progress when he wasn’t off his face? “Erm, no,” he says, “but that suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re wandering around in a stupor. I was taking speed a lot, and the thing about that drug is that it keeps you totally in the moment. It doesn’t allow anything else in. I think I would have written the book any way, I would like to say – and it could well have been a better book. Part of its obsessiveness and the way I was living at that time was to do with that. “Cave’s tiny room was transformed into a sort of fetishistic aide-memoire; the walls were covered with a mixture of religious and pornographic images and a wig of a young girl’s hair. “It became a very similar world to the one I was writing about in the book,” he recalls. “It was very tangible and different, populated with the people that I’d invented. It was a place I retreated into… It afforded me some relief.”

I ask him whether he considers that his writing, his art, is at the centre of his life. “I think that attempting to strive at some kind of happiness in my life is more important,” he says. “And I have to say that I feel happy quite a lot.” Would you say that’s your natural disposition? “No, I don’t think so…” Is it because you’re in love? “Yeah, now I can never remember being sad,” he says, mock-mawkishly. “But even despite all the disasters and catastrophes and the debris around me, I always got my sense of fulfilment from being able to write and come up with things that I felt good about and that if I hadn’t had that artistic endeavour, I don’t think I would have been allowed to survive.” Allowed? He sighs and shifts around in his seat. “Oh no, I’m going to sound like Glenn Hoddle… but I feel I’ve been protected in certain ways by other, other…” he looks into my eyes, “by God.”

So you link your creativity to God?

“Yeah.”

You think it’s a God-given gift?
“Yeah.”

You talk about being in the presence of God. What does that feel like?

“Despite what’s gone on in my life, I’ve always felt it. I just had a different concept of what it was. For a long time I felt it was a malign presence, and now I see Him as benign,” he clears his throat. “It feels like a sense of being protected.”

There is a clear interconnection between the defining patterns in Cave’s life: his drug addiction, his spiritual faith, his belief in his own creative powers, his touchingly transparent desire to hold on to the idea of true love, his attachment to artistic outsiders, and his complicated relationship with his father. There may be an element of self-dramatisation in the version Cave presents of his life story to me, but he seems to think that he was born a bad seed – shall we say – who has had the good fortune to be redeemed by a compassionate God. At one point, he says that if he had discovered heroin when he was a child, he probably would have taken it. He was one of four children, with two older brothers and a younger sister, and discovered that the most effective way of getting attention was to be a troublemaker. It is quite hard to picture him as a choirboy. At 12, he and his gang of friends would drink themselves sick on cheap sherry. At 13, he was expelled from Wangaratta High School for attempting to pull down the knickers of a 16-year-old girl; her parents tried to press charges of attempted rape. By the time he left his new school, Caulfield Grammar in Melbourne, in 1975, Cave had formed his first band, the Boys Next Door, and discovered the joys of shocking his fellow pupils by wearing drag. On to art college, where Cave maddened his modernist teachers by decorating his workplace with prints of classical religious paintings. After failing his second-year exams, he concentrated on the band full time and hung out in St Kilda, the low-life area of Melbourne. By thetime he was 21 – the year of the death of his father – Cave was already injecting heroin and speed. Colin Cave was a teacher of maths and English, and the director of adult education in Victoria. He was passionate about language and literature, and determined to pass that love on to his youngest son. In his Radio 3 broadcast, Cave recalls being ushered into his father’s study to listen to “great bloody slabs from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, or the murder scene from Crime and Punishment, or whole chapters from Nabokov’s Lolita. My father would wave his arms about, then point at me and say, ‘This, my boy, is literature.'” What Colin Cave really wanted to be was a writer himself. His son remembers seeing in his desk “the beginnings of several aborted novels, all neatly, sadly, filed and titled”. When the boy was about 12, his father asked him what he had done to assist humanity. When, stumped for an answer, the son turned the question back on him, Colin Cave took out a couple of short stories which had been published in magazines. “And I shared in his pride as he showed them to me,” his son came to write many years later, “but I noticed that the magazines were of an earlier decade and it was clear that these two short stories were tiny seeds planted in a garden that did not grow.”

Fuelled with enthusiasm, the young Cave went off to write what he admits was bad poetry and worse songs; none of which had the desired effect of pleasing his father. “At some point, we became very competitive. I believe it was when I started to have my own ideas about things, and he wasn’t particularly interested in that,” he recalls. Was that hurtful to you? “Oh yes,” he says. “I just wanted to impress him. I thought that he was what it was all about.” Cave’s behaviour at home and at school – extreme by the standard of even the most difficult adolescent – put further strain on the relationship between father and son. His mother, Dawn, a librarian, whom Cave describes as a “very brave, intelligent, sturdy woman who just gets on with things”, has always been unconditionally supportive of him. His father, in contrast, was not. And although Cave can see, now that he is a parent himself, how unbearable he must have been – “a self-made monster in his very home” – it has taken him a long time to forgive his father for turning away.

Colin Cave died in a car crash in 1978. The news came through when his wife had gone to bail their son out of St Kilda police station, for the umpteenth time, where he was being held on a burglary charge. It is hard to think of a more harrowing context in which to hear of the death of a parent to whom one is unreconciled. “Because I was there with my mother when we heard, it was quite painful and after that I don’t really remember anything,” he says. “I can remember going home in the car with my mother, and then… I don’t remember the funeral or anything that happened afterwards. Pretty soon, I just left. I think the trauma makes you shut down until you’re able to deal with it. Certainly, that’s how it felt for me.

“I think that my father lost out on a lot of what’s happened after his death, and I do feel a sense of regret about that. Considering that all I ever wanted to do was to make him proud of me… He died at a point in my life when I was at my most confused.”

In the years that followed, it must be said, Cave seemed no less confused. Wherever he lived – Melbourne or London or Berlin – he would be accused of glamorising heroin. Inevitably, in such a long interview, we talk about Cave’s relationship – and it seems correct to call it that – with the drug. What really aggravates him is the way society demonises the drug-user. “How are we supposed to look at junkies?” he asks. “As the scum of the earth, so we can all feel better about ourselves? It’s like the sex offender in prison; mass murderers can feel OK because at least they’re not sex offenders. It seems like everyone needs someone under their heel… I was a heroin addict because I couldn’t stop taking drugs. In fact, I didn’t want to stop taking drugs. I liked taking drugs. That’s my own choice, really, and I don’t think I did glamorise it. I wasn’t much of a glamorous figure back then, to be honest.” Certainly, there doesn’t sound anything very glamorous to me about all the times he lay sick and shivering, wrapped up in a blanket on a mattress on the floor. Or the state of mind he must have been in to write lyrics with a bloody syringe while travelling on the London Underground. (He doesn’t much like it when I remind him of that episode either.) And it can’t have been the last word in glamour to have to score in some dive every time you arrived in a new city. Or, indeed, to be a serial overdoser.

It is striking that what he admires about his cultural exemplars – from Van Morrison to the reclusive J.D. Salinger (whom he has invited, in a dangerous fit of optimism, to appear at Meltdown) to the Chicagoan outsider artist Henry Darger – is their refusal to run with the herd. “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society,” he says. “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 to me and a lot of people that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”

There was another impetus. In 1988, Cave was arrested in London for possession of heroin and agreed to undergo treatment for his addiction in order to avoid a prison sentence. He was not incarcerated in Priory-style rehab-deluxe but at a clinic in Weston-super-Mare which he describes as a brutal, shaming place. “I don’t think that just because you take drugs you should be made to feel like a degenerate,” he says, with feeling. When you go into a place like that, you don’t really have much of your personality intact. You don’t go there because everything’s OK.”

As far as the CV goes, Cave endured his two months at the clinic and has remained on the straight and narrow ever since. But there have been various hints to various journalists in the intervening time which suggest that this is not the complete picture. And he tells me that he has been to rehab clinics more to his liking since his sojourn in Weston-super-Mare. It is almost as though it is a point of honour for him not to perpetuate the myth that he hasn’t touched hard drugs in the past decade. Plenty of celebrities wouldn’t feel the need to be so honest, I say, why do you?

“I won’t be bullied into taking drugs or not taking drugs,” he says. “I’m not a repentant ex-drug addict. I feel I have every right if I want to take drugs to do so.” And do you? “I don’t actually,” he says. “I’m not taking drugs at the moment.”

There is only one point during this exchange when my questions seem to upset Cave, and I see now – in hindsight – that the awkwardness of his answers may have had something to do with his struggle to keep on an even keel. He had always hoped to become an artist; painting for him was the pinnacle of the creative ladder and rock music was rock bottom. For many years – but no longer, he insists – he felt like an impostor, a practitioner of an art form he disdained. But when he talks about the artists he admires – the ones he would exhibit if he could at Meltdown – what seems to grip him is the effect on their art as their minds deteriorated. Over lunch, he tells me about Louis Wain, an Edwardian artist whom he collects; a painter of cats in unlikely poses, playing cricket or a church organ, and how as Wain’s psychosis deepened, the faces of his cats began to dissolve and unravel on the page. And of Henry Darger, who was raised in institutions and stayed at home seeing no one and creating a world of conflict between good Christian girls, cut out of catalogues and blown up with a projector, fleeing from anti-Christian forces who are hunting them down. Cave says that what he admires about their work is the excellence of the execution and their “terrible beauty”.

I say that I read somewhere that he sometimes felt the need to take heroin to dampen his creativity, which suggested, intriguingly, that it was his art which was dangerous for his health rather than the drugs. “Well, yes… I go through cyclical periods of being very up and hyper, a feeling of incredible inspiration and a kind of super-capability – and with that comes,” a rueful laugh, “a voice, and it’s my voice, and it observes and chatters away and always has something to say – about doing the dishes, or whatever – and it just rattles on and on. I can feel my whole body changing and it’s exhausting. It also affects my judgment.”

Have you always had this?

“It’s difficult to say, because it’s something that makes itself apparent when I don’t use drugs.”

How about in your teen years?

“No, one of the ways – Oh God – one of the ways I’ve dealt with that in the past is to… I know exactly what will shut it all up. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for someone who is a junkie to go and take heroin once. So these days, I would try and deal with that stuff in a more appropriate way.”

Like?

“I have to… I have to… ration the kind of things I allow myself to get excited over in order that I sleep, which is the other problem with it. It would seem if I get involved in certain things creatively, it can lead to this sort of cycle… I also go through periods when I don’t do much and don’t feel inspired, and I don’t feel very good during those times either.”

I ask him if he is a manic depressive, and he sighs and groans and rubs his hands through his hair. Why do you think you find this such a difficult area to discuss? “Because,” a long silence, “I’m not sure why.” Because it’s scary? “It is, actually, to be that way. It is quite scary.” Do you think you’re going nuts? “It’s just that I’ve not had much experience with it, and I’m trying to go through it without doing the drugs. I don’t really know if I’m… “I can’t label it, and I don’t want to do endless interviews about being a manic depressive – ‘Are you up or down today?’ If I understood it better and that was the way things were, I could come out and say that I was bi-polar – or whatever they call it. I’m not a doctor or a psychiatrist, but I do know they’re discovering more and more forms of manic depression, and medication to cope with that.”

The most beautiful song for me on The Boatman’s Call is Into Your Arms; the one Cave chose to sing at his good friend Michael Hutchence’s funeral. The first two verses start with the things he doesn’t believe in – an interventionist God, the existence of angels – and the last one deals with the redemptive power of love: “But I believe in love/And I know that you do, too/ And I believe in some kind of path/ That we can walk down, me and you…” Part of the strength of the songs is the nakedness of the emotion, unmasked by metaphor or allegory. It’s all there for everyone to see: his love affair with Luke’s mother, Viviane Carneiro, the Brazilian fashion stylist who was the reason why Cave transplanted himself to Sao Paulo, and its painful end; his doomed romance with P.J. Harvey in West Country Girl, with her black hair and heart-shaped face and broad accent. I wonder, again, why he had felt the need to be so open; to paint the pictures so vividly.

“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.” One can only hope, in that case, that the Songs of Susie will remain incomplete. He says, when I ask him, that he has never been married but likes the idea of it. And that he would like to have more children. And that, yes, he is in love and very much believes that she is the one (that he’s been waiting for)… “But I do have a past and I do have recollections of the way things go.” Are you waiting for disappointment? “When things go well, I’m often surprised and expect that it will be taken from me in some kind of way,” he says. “But I’m not feeling like that at the moment. I’m feeling very happy.” I point to the scar on his cheek – which looks like an errant dimple – and he tells me it was an old domestic wound: “I was stabbed in the face with a vegetable knife.” I wonder, thinking about the scar, whether his relationships with women have tended to be confrontational. “In the past, I’ve had extremely volatile relationships in that way… but I think that there have been influences within that – alcohol and drugs – which exacerbate that kind of behaviour,” he says. “What’s going on at the moment is that I really value what is there, and I feel that I have some chance of making it work, which I’ve never really felt before… and with anything of value, you take care.” When I ask him what makes him happy in life, he says: “My son, my work, my girlfriend.” He’s been with Susie, this time around, for six months – and is staying in her Chelsea home until he moves into a house he has recently bought on the river. Luke continues to divide his week between his mother, who lives in west London, and his father – but Cave admits that now he is living with Susie it makes things a bit more complicated. He has another son, Jethro, more or less the same age as Luke, who lives with his mother in Australia. When I ask Cave whether he has a relationship with this son, he says that he does, and that “it’s great” and “he’s coming here, actually, to live for a year”. Will you see a lot of him? “I will, yeah.” So, soon, life is likely to get considerably more complicated.

He says that he’s a hands-on dad and was a great nappychanger. How did you find that? “Interesting. Scary. Overwhelming.” Until recently, when Cave was living on his own, Luke used to share his bed, and now “he’s been booted out of it. So that’s been one of the great wrenches.” He seems to take his parental role pretty seriously; he’s there for the swimming galas, and speech days, and all the cringe-making stuff like the Dads’ Egg and Spoon Race. But what they like doing most together is talking. I imagine Luke lying in bed, struggling to stay awake, while his father tells him stories of far-off places, and good and evil, and bewitching damsels with emerald eyes and ebony hair, who rescue poor travellers who’ve lost their way.

At the end of our lunch – during which Cave eats heartily – he asks me for the time and jumps up, stricken, when I tell him. “Oh God, if I don’t go now I’ll be late for Luke,” he says, looking like the 12-year-old I first saw. “You know what it’s like in the playground; I’m terrified of getting into trouble with the teachers.” His father, I think, would be proud of him.

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