Wednesday, February 15th, 2012
FAT AND FULFILLED
At 18 I had a waist you could put your arm round, just 26 inches. But in the mirror this morning I found myself looking at something the circumference of a bicycle wheel.
It’s restaurants that did it. All my life I’ve been a restaurant freak; they’re where I function best. And although the current size of my waistline is totally my own fault, if I were to apportion any blame it would go to a French family I stayed with when I was 12.
In 1951, I went on an exchange visit to Paris. The boy with whom I exchanged had gone on a summer course. His parents had no interest in me and went to work all day. They left 200 francs on the kitchen table every morning with which I could buy lunch. For two weeks I had the run of Paris bistros. On every street, at every corner, there was another one, bustling and inviting.
By the time I got home I was a gourmet. And what happened? I was sent to public school for five years of prison food.
“What are you going to do when you leave school?” the careers master asked.
“Eat in restaurants,” I replied.
And that’s what I’ve done – lunch and dinner nearly every day for 50 years, which means around 25,000 meals eaten out.
In the 50s, London had less than 150 licensed restaurants. The Good Food Guide described them as “unfriendly”, “serving over-cooked meats and sodden vegetables.”
By the start of the 60s things hadn’t improved much. I was working in Soho, editing films. For under a pound I could eat lunch at L’Escargot, Quo Vadis, Kettners, or Ley-Ons (one of only three Chinese restaurants in London). The food was second-rate at all of them. For something better I could pay double at the Caprice in St James where film and theatre stars ate posh lunches dressed in jacket and tie. But it wasn’t a patch on Parisian bistros.
By the mid-60s I’d moved into the music business. New restaurants were sprouting all over the place and food was improving, but foreigners still thought British cuisine was a joke.
Music people ate out all the time - lunches in Soho, dinners in Chelsea. The Casserole, Le Matelot, Daphne’s, the Aretusa, it was a nonstop calorie-fest, yet somehow my waistline stayed trim, probably because I was using so much energy. After dinner there were trendy discos, with dancing till 3am and sex to follow. In Swinging London sleep wasn’t important. I’d be up at 8am for an hour’s squash before going to work.
The 70s brought more eating options, in particular Langans, a French-style brasserie serving English-style food. Half-owned by Michael Caine, it stole the Caprice’s clientele of film and theatre people.
In the 80s, revamped and refurbished, the Caprice grabbed them back again, serving hugely improved food and setting a benchmark for all new restaurants to come. Everywhere in London, food was becoming more interesting. Indian restaurants were now as common as Italian. And in Gerard Street, previously known only for hookers, the Chinese moved in from end to end.
My waistline grew larger. But because I still played squash and was jetting round the world managing Wham!, I managed to keep it at a tidy 36 inches.
But in the 90s things went wrong. Terence Conran opened Quaglinos and Bluebird, and a new generation of chefs emerged with their own restaurants - Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsey, and Tom Atkins. There were other places too - Le Gavroche, Scotts, The River Café, The Fat Duck. London was on the point of replacing Paris as the eating capital of the world. And it was then I damaged my shoulder and stopped playing squash.
There were now so many restaurants worth eating at that lunch and dinner alone were hardly sufficient to try them all, but I did. And with hardly any exercise my waistline went out of control.
This morning, standing looking in the mirror, I wondered how it could ever have grown from 26 inches to 50. All in the line of duty, I decided. To have helped turn London into the world’s greatest city for eating out is something to be proud of. I feel fulfilled.
I’ve seen some amazing changes in my lifetime – the end of apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a black president in the White House - but none more amazing than London’s rise to culinary stardom.
Sure, the chefs and restaurateurs will get most of the praise, they were the generals. But how could they have done it without the foot soldiers, me and thousands like me, selflessly putting our waistlines at risk in the battle to improve Britain’s cuisine?
My enormous belly tells it all. I should get a medal.
Wednesday, February 8th, 2012
I HAD A DREAM
I had a dream. President Obama wasn’t really religious at all. It was just a front he put on for political purposes. His embrace of Christianity was just to get himself re-elected. Safely in the White House for a second term he dared to say what no President had ever dared say before. “I don’t believe in God”. And within twenty-four hours half of America was saying, “Well, you know what, nor do I.”
Then I woke up. What brought me to my senses was a report last week about America’s annual National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama told the audience, “I have fallen on my knees with great regularity…, asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation…”
So no more dreams. He could never have said something that drippy without really meaning it. Though I don’t think for one moment he’s ever fallen on his knees.
I did once. About ten years ago, I’d just bought a new tele and was carrying it out of the shop when I tripped. I had to make a split-second decision - drop the tele or land on my knees. And the knees won. It isn’t something I’d like to do too often; one of them still hurts to this day. Which is why I hope Obama was fibbing, because you wouldn’t want the person with the most important job in the world endangering himself like that. It’s bad enough him having a God-smacked brain, let alone busted knee-caps.
Since the President of the USA effectively becomes a president for all of us, whenever there’s an election it’s difficult not to worry about who we might end up with. Hopefully not a religious loony who makes world-changing decisions by holding mumbo-jumbo conversations with a non-existent God. But on that point, the Republican presidential debates have hardly been re-assuring. Devotion to the Almighty was the one quality all the candidates were most anxious to proclaim. Americans, it seems, don’t care what sort of hoaxer stands up in front of them asking to be President so long as he “believes”.
But to believe is to misuse your brain. Dogs say woof, cats say miaow - no need for belief, the proof is in your ears. You only need belief when you’re trying to convince yourself of something that’s highly improbable, like one of these Republican candidates being fit to become president.
For my money, the one most fit would be the one who disowned religion. But since none of them are going to do that, the best thing is to decide which person, if any, might be less than truthful in calling himself religious. And the most likely one seems to be Mitt Romney.
Yes, I know, he’s a devout Mormon, or says he is. But if you’re born into that community and don’t accept its religion, you’re ostracised, family and all, which is hard to take. Easier by far is to join in by professing belief in the Book of Mormon, a fairy-tale concocted by a conman called Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century.
Smith made a living telling fortunes, reading pebbles thrown into the bottom of his hat. To start with he told people where they could find buried treasure. Then he said an angel had guided him to a book written on gold tablets. Though no one ever got to see it, he claimed to have translated it from its mysterious ancient language with the help of two more pebbles, though this time, apparently, without the use of his hat.
The result was the Book of Mormon, the story of Israelite tribes who crossed the ocean to America as long ago as 2000 BC and went to war with each other. Between his resurrection and his ascension, Jesus Christ found time to pop over to America and try and calm things down, but once he’d left the tribes went back to fighting and killed each other off completely. Other Mormon teachings tell us the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, and God was once a human being and now lives on a planet near the star Kolob.
Saddled with a religion as potty as that, it seems likely that the majority of intelligent Mormon’s are just paying lip-service to it and are not actually believers at all. So for Americans who want a non-believer in the White House, Mitt Romney might be the best choice. On the other hand, if I’m wrong, we might find American foreign policy being decided by a President who sits in the Oval Office gazing at pebbles in a hat.
So on second thoughts it’s probably best to stick with Obama, endangered knee-caps and all.
Wednesday, February 1st, 2012
DRUGS. LEGAL AND ILLEGAL. BUT ALL RATHER STIMULATING
Last week Sir Richard Branson and Alan McGee were amongst people who wrote pieces in favour of decriminalising illegal drugs. They both say they once used them but don’t now. My position is different; I’m an addict. At least, I thnk I am, though not of anything illegal.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines “addiction” as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”
Not exactly sparkling clear, but it seems to suggest I might be addicted to quite a few things: to restaurants , to warm weather, and to having a few quid in the bank. But more importantly in this context, to alcohol.
I’m not an alcoholic - it’s not my body that craves the stuff, it’s my mind. I’m not a lush; I rarely get drunk and slur or fall over. I’m simply addicted to alcohol’s eclectic qualities. And I drink some almost every day.
It socialises me, renovates me, uplifts me and sends me off on conversational adventures. It can calm me, re-assure me, and keep me company late at night when I’m working alone. And when I’m feeling depressed or lonely, where a well-meaning person would be an unwanted intrusion, alcohol is a perfect friend.
I’ve never been interested in any other drug of any sort. Despite a lifetime in the music industry I’ve never sniffed a line of coke or dropped a tab of ecstasy. I’ve never known acid or hallucinogenic mushrooms; never taken amphetamine, or ketamine, or heroin, or opium. And never wanted to. I’ve occasionally smoked marijuana but it sets my throat on fire. My drug is alcohol.
Which brings me to the point.
In the West, people’s prejudices against drugs, like people’s prejudices against race, religion and sexuality, derive mainly from Christianity. For two thousand years wine has represented the blood of Christ at Holy Communion. As a result, alcohol is the accepted drug of Western society.
As attitudes have evolved, the powers that be in British governance have come to agree that all people are equal, everyone can choose their own religion, and nowadays can even be of different sexuality. But when it comes to using a different drug, they’re still not ready for it.
As a rock manager I’ve spent my life dealing with people on drugs. Most are relatively harmless when used recreationally, but a bloody nuisance when done to excess.
Marijuana is the commonest – friendly enough, but it can slow people down, as can ketamine or Xanax. Keep the drummer off them before a gig or the tempos will drag.
People doing acid should be kept away from windows and rooftops in case they feel a sudden urge to fly – the front of the stage can be dangerous too.
Cocaine pushes the tempos up and if you’re not careful the gig can be over before it’s meant to be.
Ecstasy makes people annoyingly friendly, which doesn’t sit well with rock’n’roll attitude.
And heroin, while having the worst reputation, is comparatively harmless providing your lead singer doesn't get himself arrested while out scoring some and find himself behind bars at the very moment he’s meant to be leaping out onstage.
Methamphetamine is the worst. People who take it see conspiracy theories in every corner. Guitarists think roadies are deliberately handing them un-tuned instruments to make them sound bad. Roadies think guitarists are plotting their dismissal, so they deliberately hand them un-tuned instruments.
For the most part, people in the touring party use these drugs with expertise. The show goes on and excesses only occur afterwards. And after forty years of observing all this I've only one question to ask - if other people can get the same pleasure from their drug as I get from mine, why on earth should they be forbidden from doing so?
I’m not advocating taking these drugs, just saying it’s absurd that to do so should be criminal. Their illegality has no basis in logic. Only in bigotry.
In this week’s Sunday Times, India Knight admitted, as a parent who once took drugs, it’s difficult to broach the subject with her kids. She also says, “years later nobody says, ‘I loved the years I spent stoned and paranoid on the sofa’.”
Wrong, India! I look back fondly at all the times I’ve been zonked on the sofa with alcohol. All the times I’ve been high on it, danced on it, cried on it, screwed on it, failed miserably on it, and even damned nearly killed myself on it. I love every single memory.
And if those same memories were in my brain as a result of taking cocaine, marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, amphetamine or opium, I’m sure I’d look back on them with equal fondness. The only difference being – I would have been breaking the law.
Which is absurd.
Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
POPES AND VILE TONGUES
Last week, the odious piety of Pope Benedict was again on display as he canted about the evils of homosexuality. While addressing the diplomatic corps at the Vatican he said gay marriage could undermine “the future of humanity itself”.
No mention of the world’s one billion condom-less Catholic willies ejaculating day in day out, doing their bit to over-populate the planet, surely a greater threat to man’s survival than a few gay couples affirming their love for one another through marriage.
What really undermines “the future of humanity itself” is to have a dogmatic bigot like Pope Benedict in a position of such influence. Currently, five Moslem men are on trial in Britain for distributing anti-gay leaflets. Their thoughts on homosexuality, though expressed in different words, were in much the same tenor as the Pope’s – “a threat to the future of humanity”. They’ll probably end up in jail. Whereas Pope Benedict will continue his life in the Vatican, visited by world leaders besotted, if not with his faith, at least with his position of power.
But what a pathetic picture of power he presents. A tarted-up relic shuffling around in Prada shoes mumbling homophobic dogma. Whatever happened to the great popes of the past? To magnificent corruption? To masterful intrigue? When popes received respect simply for the scale of their excesses. Like Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope.
Born in Spain in 1431, Rodrigo Llancol adopted his mother’s family name of Borja before moving to Italy to study law. Afterwards, he went into the church and by the age of 61 had become Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. When Pope Innocent VIII died, Borgia bought the votes of the other Cardinals with “four mule-loads of silver” and became Pope Alexander VI.
The new Pope entered into European power games with aplomb. To assure the ascendancy of the Borgia family, he bribed princes, blackmailed kings and appointed his illegitimate children to positions of power in Spain and Italy. He was also a dab hand at murder.
Vatican noblemen who became too wealthy were killed and their money confiscated. The Pope’s preferred weapon of assassination was a golden goblet with a concealed cavity for arsenic that was mixed with the wine at the appropriate moment. But when he wasn’t killing people or stealing their money, the Pope’s big thing was to party.
His fancy-dress balls at the Vatican were the rage of Rome. One of them, The Ballet of the Chestnuts, was recorded by the diarist Johann Burchard….
“Once the dishes had been cleared after the banquet, fifty of the city's most beautiful whores danced with the guests, first clothed, then naked, with the Pope and two of his children watching from the best seats. Guests stripped and ran onto the floor where they mounted, or were mounted by, the whores, the coupling taking place in front of everyone present. The servants kept score of each man's orgasms because the Pope admired virility and measured a man's machismo by his capacity to ejaculate. When everyone was exhausted, His Holiness distributed the prizes, the winners being those who'd made love with the courtesans the greatest number of times.”
I’ve got to say, if Pope Benedict threw birthday bashes like that, I could almost forgive his bigotry. It would be such splendid hypocrisy. But because he prefers to pontificate about the evils of gays getting married, I can’t help but wish on him the sort of ending that befell the Borgia Pope.
With his son Cesare, Pope Alexander went to dinner with Cardinal Adriano da Corneto, intending to poison him. But somehow the goblets got muddled and the Pope drank from the wrong one.
According to Burchard’s diary, Pope Alexander’s stomach became swollen and turned to liquid, his face became wine-colored, his skin began to peel off, and his bowels bled profusely. After a week of convulsions, he died, aged 72.
The Venetian ambassador reported that the Pope's corpse was "the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen, without any form or likeness of humanity."
In his diary, Buchard describes how, when malodorous gases started emanating from its every orifice, he had to jump on the bloated body to force it into its coffin, then threw some old carpet over the top to keep the smell in.
“The tongue,” he wrote, “had bent over in the mouth, completely double… so ghastly that people who saw it said they had never seen anything like it before.”
So, beware Pope Benedict!
God may love gays more than you think. In fact, at this very minute he could be planning a similar fate for your own vile tongue.
Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
A ROCK STAR BEFORE ROCK EXISTED
Personality, personality, that's the thing that always makes a hit
Your nationality or your rationality doesn't help or hinder you one bit
That was Eva Tanguay – America's first superstar. Her philosophy would one day be embraced by rock stars everywhere, “the singer not the song”.
Tanguay was the biggest star of the time. She died 65 years ago this week, but her highpoint was one hundred years ago, during the first two decades of the 20th Century. There had never been anyone like her before. Nor was there afterwards. Not until Madonna and Lady Gaga dug up her soul and re-inhabited it.
Onstage, Tanguay simulated sex. She slurred and screeched and punctuated her songs with cackles. She poured bottles of champagne over her head, flailed her arms, and shimmied her breasts. Her bra was just an encumbrance. The law said she had to wear one onstage, but she didn’t much care if her breasts stayed inside of it or flopped out.
Aleister Crowley, the English occultist, was besotted by her. “She cannot sing, as others sing; or dance, as others dance. She simply keeps on vibrating, both limbs and vocal chords… I could kill myself at this moment for the wild love of her.”
Eva Tanguay was a provocateur. Her songs were outrageous, and like Lady Gaga she was a plotter of new looks. Her costumes were manic - bells, leaves, feathers, seashells, and coins. After the Lincoln penny was issued, Tanguay appeared in a coat made from 4,000 of them. Her most outrageous dress was just a whisp. "I can fit the entire costume in my closed fist," she boasted.
At her peak, she earned the highest salary of her day, $3500 a week. Wads of $1000 bills were her stock in trade. She once threw a stagehand down the stairs. He sued her for $50 and when the judge found in his favour Tanguay pulled out a wad of $1000 bills and handed him one.
Hurrying to her dressing-room, someone accidentally stepped in front of her. She stabbed him in the belly with a hatpin and when the police arrived to arrest her she threw wads of cash in their faces, shouting, “Take it all and let me go, for it is now my dinner time.”
If these things got into the papers, it was usually because Tanguay put them there. Anything that happened to her, she used for publicity. When her jewels were stolen she kept it on the front pages for days.
Like Madonna, who watched her mother die when she was four, then never stopped seeking attention as a substitute for love, Tanguay sought constant attention after her father died. Left with a penniless mother, she started working in the theatre at eight. As a chorus girl she upset the others with too much shimmying. When another girl criticised her, Tanguay choked her till she turned blue and lost consciousness. When it got into the papers she fell in love with notoriety. They called her “cyclonic” and “volcanic”, so she left the chorus and started on her own, incorporating those qualities into her act.
Whirling onstage like a dervish she got terrible cramps. After shows, to unknot her leg muscles stagehands beat them with wooden staves. Her aim was to spin so fast “no one will be able to see my bare legs."
Tanguay was a rock star before they existed. She arranged her own coast-to-coast tours and broke box office records everywhere. She was a poor singer, an indelicate dancer, and her hair was piled up in a tangled mess, but it worked. Especially her trademark song, “I Don’t Care”.
If I'm never successful, it won't be distressful,
‘cos I don't care
No one can “phase” me by calling me crazy, ‘cos I don’t care
The song was long and wordy and perfectly defined her character – provocative, wild, sexual, and indifferent to society’s opinon. In 1922, almost at the end of her stage career, she recorded it, the only record she ever made. It was at the time when record companies were just becoming an important part of the music industry. Staid and cautious, they would never invest in someone so controversial. Which is why no one else like her emerged until after the rock revolution in the sixties.
Tanguay married and divorced three times but kept the best part of her love for her dog. When it died, she kept its heart for years in a glass jar. In the Wall Street crash she lost everything – almost 2 million dollars, and in the 1930s she retired from show business with kidney disease and arthritis. She ended up broke, bedridden and blind, and died in 1947, age 67.
In 1953 Mitzi Gaynor played her in a Hollywood biopic called The I Don't Care Girl. Madonna and Lady Gaga have been playing her ever since.
Wednesday, January 4th, 2012
RONALDO'S NEW BOOTS
Ronaldo has some new boots. Have you seen them? They’re cheat’s boots.
The Real Madrid star has been working with Nike for the last year to develop a new pair of boots in orange and white and grey, covered in circles and parallel lines (and a few non-parallel ones too). The boots deceive an opponent into thinking that Ronaldo is about to turn in the opposite direction from the one he’s really about to turn in. He started using them a couple of weeks ago, and although there’s been no report yet as to how successful they are, it’s actually irrelevant. Because they still make him a cheat.
Which is hardly surprising news. Ronaldo, after all, was the man who fell over more times in a single season of Premier League football than anyone else in history. An opponent only had to run up to him and say, “Hullo Big Boy”, and he was down on the ground grabbing his ankle or head or whatever other part of his anatomy he figured would earn his opponent the best colour card.
If a footballer uses a piece of equipment blatantly intended to deceive another player, that’s cheating. Like American golfers in 70s who started to use a new self-correcting ball that always flew straight. Either everyone had to use it, or nobody, which is why the United States Golf Association banned it. And why Ronaldo’s boots should be banned too.
And there’s another point to this - Nike made these boots for him. They spent a year helping to create a boot designed to cheat. Is that good for their image?
These days, it probably is! Let’s face it – sport is all about winning. And if a bit of cheating is what’s needed, why not?
Nike designer Andrew Caine explains. "The movement of feet is something a lot of players are looking to see. We did some stuff during the World Cup using a bright orange color to help players see their teammates' feet more easily. This goes in the opposite direction. With this boot you see slightly different feet depending on what side of him you are looking at."
And if a little bit of cheating is OK, why not a lot? How about a Cheat’s Olympics?
It would be a no-holds-barred event in which competitors could use anything they like to improve their performance. As long as their movements derived entirely from their own body power they could leverage it anyway they chose - bauxite boots, articulated ankles, platinum knee joints. Or drugs.
After all, soldiers have long been filled with amphetamine before going into battle, the better to run up the beach and bayonet the enemy. And the same goes for space exploration. You don’t think astronauts are sent into space without a pillbox half the size of the rocket, do you? So why not for athletes trying to break new frontiers of speed and strength?
There could be two tiers of sport, like forty year ago when there was amateur and professional tennis. Wimbledon was amateur - nice for gentlemanly play and strawberry teas. But anyone who won it immediately joined the pro circuit, which is where you saw the really top-class tennis. Amateur players in those days were banned from tournaments simply because they’d accepted five pounds worth of luncheon vouchers, the same way they can be banned today for smoking a joint during a month's break in training.
Think of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee South African. He uses bendy bits of metal instead of legs. At the moment he’s not allowed to compete, and quite rightly too, because for all anyone knows his false legs are stronger and faster than the real thing. While he’s trying to get accepted into mainstream athletics he’s keeping his false legs at a normal length. But if this new double tier sport takes off he’ll be able to make them twice as long and maybe still move them just as fast. World records will blow out the window.
And drug companies can start developing energy-tripling drugs. Given the freedom to do so they’ll probably get people running the hundred yards in 5 seconds. Can Peter the Pill from Peebles beat Tommy the Titanium Tearway? As a spectator sport, no-holds-barred athletics would knock the traditional variety for six.
You see, Ronaldo – there’s no knowing where the trend you’ve started will end. Scientists might even devise a new way of falling over. Bruises could be made to appear at once; then disappear as soon as your opponent gets his red card.
Wednesday, December 27th, 2011
A CHRISTMAS RAPE
“Have you ever been raped?”
I was eating lunch with a gaggle of friends last week when the discussion got round to Julian Assange and someone asked the question round the table. I said, perhaps I had. Or perhaps not, depending how you looked at it.
To my mind, the Swedish woman who was happy to have sex with Assange before they went to sleep, but called it rape when she woke up and found him taking a second helping, was being a touch pernickety. What happened to me I put down to experience; nothing much to worry about, be more careful next time. I’d put myself into a silly position.
It was 1960, when I was 21. Early in the year I’d finally decided I was gay. Then I fell for a girl and decided maybe I wasn’t. But the week before Christmas she ditched me.
The weather in London was cold and I was feeling hurt. I needed somewhere warmer to think about it so I set off for France with just twenty pounds in my pocket. By the time I'd hitch-hiked to Menton on the Italian border half of it was gone and I still had no idea of what I should be doing with myself. And in the absence of any clear pointers I carried on.
Later, standing on the main road from Genoa to Pisa feeling exceptionally hungry, a small Fiat stopped for me driven by an Italian man who looked fortyish. He didn't speak English so we got by in poor French. He explained he was the owner of a factory. Well-known in the small town where he lived; he didn't have a current girl-friend, so once a month he went to the next town to have sex with a girl from the local brothel.
His story made me strangely nervous and as we approached the next town he asked if I'd like to join him. If I did, he’d pay for a girl for me. And although sex with a prostitute sounded terrifying, my golden rule was to experience everything, so I agreed.
The brothel turned out to be nothing more than an alberghetto, a simple restaurant and bar with a few rooms to let and several women lounging round the juke box. The man paid some money to the manager then took me upstairs where we had separate rooms. He told me he'd only booked one girl but we could share her. Ten minutes later he knocked on my door and said he was ready. When I went to his room, lying on the bed was a woman the size of a Rubens nude, and just as naked.
“You go first,” he said.
It looked daunting, but always the optimist I thought if I undressed and climbed on it might all work out. But it didn't. When I clambered aboard she instantly grabbed me in a grip of iron. And while I lay there crushed and breathless the Italian man jumped up behind and rammed himself home, a bullseye in one, with no cream to soften the blow.
Fuck me, did it hurt!
Ten minutes later I was back in my room in great pain. I checked things out in the loo and found there was a fair amount of blood. After a painful rinse I limped over to the bed and lay down. The Italian man popped in to say my room was paid for and so was an evening meal, with breakfast in the morning. Then he left.
For a while I lay on the bed and moaned, but despite the dreadful throbbing in my bum, hunger became an even greater pain. I hadn't eaten all day and had scarcely any money left, so I showered and gingerly dressed myself, then hobbled downstairs to the dining room.
It occurred to me that this scene might take place in the hotel's dining room on a regular basis. If the man came to the town once a month, as he'd told me, this was probably what he did each time. The hotel would have witnessed a succession of butt-wounded young chaps like me passing through.
Acutely embarrassed, I ate the food they served me - spaghetti vongole and a carafe of white wine - then limped back to my room and slept. In the morning, still hungry, I had coffee with three croissants. But I was bloody sore.
From the hotel to the main road was a painful trek but I finally reached it and stood with my thumb out, pointing towards Rome. I didn't know why I was going on, but if I'd chosen to go back I wouldn't have known why I was doing that either. To advance seemed better than to retreat.
It was just as well I did. In Rome I got a Christmas present. I met a young hairdresser, the same age as me but much more sexually self-assured. He fell for me and me for him. And by the time I hitch-hiked back to London early in the New Year I had a pretty clear idea of where my willie was leading me.
Wednesday, December 20th, 2011
2011 - AN OFF-BEAT CENTENNIAL
This year in music hasn’t been too stunning.
Cee Lo's “Fuck You” was fun, Lady Gaga's “Born That Way” was gaily re-assuring, Adele’s continued success was satisfying, and the emergence of dubstep in the UK showed that drugs still have an influence on dance music styles. But there was nothing you could call momentous. Bruno Mars proved yet again that a boyish voice and a catchy song is the mainstay of good pop music but he hardly broke artistic barriers. And there are still no signs of where the industry might be going in the future.
All in all, 2011 was a pretty dull year. By contrast, one hundred years ago was one of its most exciting years ever.
1911 saw two great seminal changes in popular music. It was the first time the biggest hit of the year was publicised as much by the sale of records as by sheet music. And it was the first time anyone had the faintest inkling that American black culture might become an influence on popular music throughout the world.
The song that did all this was “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” by Irving Berlin.
Berlin was still an emerging young writer. He’d had a couple of previous hits but writing only the lyrics. He’d now started writing the music too and for some time had been trying to figure out how to incorporate black rhythms into popular songs.
America had already seen the influence of black culture on its music industry. It had started with coon songs in the 1890s – syncopated tunes with derogatory lyrics about watermelon-chicken-loving negroes; buffoons, good for a smile and a dance but not much else. The titles of these songs were appalling, like, “If the Man in the Moon Was a Coon”, or the hugely popular, “All Coons Look Alike to Me”. This last one was written by a vaudeville singer who himself was black and called himself “The Unbleached American”, Ernest Hogan. Black people found the song so offensive that a white man could intimidate them just by whistling the first two bars as they passed on the street.
Hogan was much abused by his own people for writing it but his big excuse was, it had introduced the general public to ragtime, a little bit of which was featured in the song. And maybe he was right. Because in 1899, Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” became the hit of the year, and thereafter ragtime became a staple of part American popular music. But it didn’t go anywhere internationally until Irving Berlin came up with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”.
The song wasn’t a real rag, it was just a clever pop song, a VERY clever one. A mix of black and white styles with military touches, not classic ragtime but with a syncopated feel similar to the rhythm of American speech.
Songs in those days took months to popularise. There was no radio, and sheet music was the thing that was sold. Tunes were plugged by pianists in department stores and given to famous vaudeville singers to perform in their act.
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was slow to catch on, even by the standards of the day. After a few months it began to sell a bit and became popular in what Irving Berlin described as “a mild pale-pink way”. Eventually though, it took off. By mid-summer it had sold 500,000 copies and by the end of the year a million. And by that time it was happening worldwide.
One of the off-shoots of the its popularity was a boost in the popularity of the gramophone. The song started a new worldwide dance craze. Reading the sheet music and banging away on a piano wouldn't suffice. To dance to it you needed a record. And a gramophone. So all over the world the sales of gramophones increased, even as far away as Russia and China.
The song’s international success was the first indication that American black music had the ability to influence popular culture across the world. Even though the song’s black influences came second-hand, through the writing and performance of white musicians, it was from that moment on that popular music all over the world began to incorporate the beat and singing nuances of American black music, however subtly.
But that was to evolve gradually. There was one other change that came at once.
Irving Berlin’s song bought a new kind of rhythm to the dance floor, ending the tradition of using military bands for dancing. Old-fashioned dance music had emphasised the 1st and 3rd beats of each bar. By copying the black man’s ragtime rhythm, Irving Berlin moved the emphasis to the 2nd and 4th beats.
Clapping your hands on 2 & 4 became the new beat of popular song. And has remained that way ever since.
Wednesday, December 13th, 2011
AS NATURAL AS LIFE ITSELF
Male mosquitos are as benign as butterflies. They have fleshy lips with hairy antenna and fly around gathering pollen. It's the females who are the horrors. Their lips are hypodermics, made for sucking blood and injecting itch-making saliva. As a result, when mosquitos fall in love they don't do a lot of kissing. But what if they’re both males, with those big fleshly lips?
Homosexual behaviour has been observed in more than 500 species of animal, including nearly all common insects. If you’re a bedbug or a club-tailed dragonfly or a flour beetle, then just like a human being you have a one in ten chance of fancying a member of your own sex. If you’re a bean weevil, a migratory locust, a blueberry bee, or even an ordinary house fly, you could turn out as queer as a coot (as can a coot itself, of course).
In China, at Harbin Zoo, a pair of male penguins prepare their nest each year for an egg that never arrives. When it doesn’t, they steal eggs from other penguins. So this year their keepers gave them an egg laid by an inexperienced female. And they’re turning out to be perfect parents.
In the zoo business that doesn’t surprise anyone; there have been gay bird couples all over the world. In Coney Island aquarium, Wendell and Cass, a pair of male penguins, have been living happily together for years. At the Jerusalem zoo, three years ago a pair of male vultures, Dashik and Yehuda, reared a baby vulture chick. And at Slimbridge in England, two male flamingos, Carlos and Fernando, have for five years performed the same courtship dance as their heterosexual neighbours, then stolen their eggs to rear as adopted children.
No question, homosexual zoo animals behaving in a loving way is one more thing that has helped whittle away prejudice against homosexuality. But for the full picture of homosexual behaviour in animals, we should look in the wild. Apart from insects and birds, every known mammal is at it too, from elephants to bison to killer whales to polar bears, though not always as prettily as a pair of male penguins with an egg.
Amazon river dolphins of both sexes use their snouts and flippers to indulge in genital rubbing without regard to gender. For sexual penetration males sometimes use another male’s blowhole, which is the equivalent of its nostrils. And for the ladies, there’s a technique developed by bottlenose dolphins. One female inserts her beak into the genital opening of the other female, then swims gently forwards.
Male giraffes are unstoppably gay. Ninety-four per cent of penetrative mountings are male to male, with a great deal of necking going on beforehand. Hyenas, on the other hand, are rampantly lesbian. The females have a strange vagina that comes to a point and grows hard, which they use to mount other females.
Elephants too engage in same-sex relationships, including mounting and orgasm, but always preceded with trunk intertwining, kissing, and placing trunks in each other's mouths. And then there’s the sex-mad Bonobo – a 100% bisexual chimpanzee that resolves all its quarrels with sexual activity. (And never stops quarelling.)
To those who are bigots (popes, mullahs, Nigerian bishops, and Republican presidential candidates), homosexuality in animals probably seems as distasteful as in humans. But there’s one thing they can’t deny – it shows that far from being “a sin against nature” it’s as natural as life itself. Around one in ten of us are born gay, about the same number as are born beautiful, ugly, tall, or short. Homosexuality doesn’t require people to be tolerant of it. Just ignore it. It’s no different from someone having blue eyes or being a red-head. It’s how nature made us. And it was wonderful to hear last week that the United States has offically recognised that fact.
President Obama has ordered US agencies abroad “to use foreign aid to fight for gay rights”. And Hillary Clinton told an audience of diplomats in Geneva, “Gay rights are human rights”. Countries receiving American foreign aid, if they legislate against gays, lesbians or transexuals (or even make things difficult for them), may find their aid cut off.
Until the 1990s, US immigration frequently turned people away simply for being homosexual. To have come from there to here in twenty years is amazing. For President Obama it’s an extraordinary step to take the year before an election. No doubt he was somewhat re-assured by hearing that 60% of Americans now think that gays should have all the same rights as straights. But he still needs to be thanked.
So thanks Pres! And Hillary too. And all those nice zoo birds who make being gay look so pleasant and natural.
Wednesday, December 6th, 2011
MOUTH OUT OF CONTROL
Last week at the Groucho club I bumped into Jeff Beck. I hadn’t seen him for ages.
Of all the artists I ever managed, he’s my favourite. And I’ve always considered him the best of Britain’s blues guitarists, certainly the best of the three who came from the Yardbirds.
As far as the blues were concerned Jimmy Page had technique and angst but lacked heartfelt sadness. Eric Clapton too - despite his lengthy period on heroin, trying, he said, to find the true pain at the heart of the blues - never quite got there (and later showed us why - his real talent was in pop songs, "Wonderful Tonight" ranking with the best ever). But Jeff was different.
Ask any manager about his greatest moments in rock management and he’ll probably recall putting his first million-dollar cheque in the bank, or pulling off his first big record deal. I remember those too, but there was also a blues solo by Jeff Beck.
In 1966 the Yardbirds were on a troubled tour of America, with Jeff and Jimmy Page grumping endlessly. One night we found ourselves on Catalina Island, a seaplane ride from Long Beach, where the group had a gig at a local dance hall.
For forty minutes it was nothing special. Then Jeff took a solo during a mid-tempo blues.
The next ten minutes were stratospheric. I was directly in front of the stage in amongst the groupies; mesmerised, as were the band, who were lifted to new heights. (Even the groupies realised something special was happening.)
I’d never before heard a more soulful, more searing, more moving blues solo, nor have I since, except perhaps from BB King during an extraordinary set at the Village Vanguard ten years later. But it still hit no higher than Jeff did that night.
Mentioning it again to Jeff the other evening set me thinking about some of the other supreme musical moments I’d experienced – not the personal highs, like seeing Wham! play in Beijing after three years negotiating with the Chinese government, but the purely musical ones.
There have been dozens. Hendrix at the Saville. Elvis in Vegas. The Duke Ellington band, six feet in front of me at Birdland. Niggaz With Attitude steaming through “Fuck tha Police”. Or the incredible duet between Joe Cocker and Patti LaBelle at the re-opening of the Apollo in 1986. Not at the show, but the rehearsal. As it flowed out of them, they could hardly believe what they were hearing, staring at each other incredulously as their voices soared and intertwined, startled by their own intensity, reaching musical orgasm with their eyes wide open in wonder.
And the Count Basie band at the Odeon, Shaftesbury Avenue.
In 1957, intent on becoming a world-class jazz trumpeter, I’d sold my record collection ready to emigrate to America as soon as I hit 18. With what was left over I went to see Count Basie. It was the greatest Basie band there'd ever been. Its dynamics and swing and precision were miraculous. I remember one moment towards the end when Basie himself was so overwhelmed by the relentless flow that he just gave up playing, took his hands off the keyboard and sat motionless, eyes closed as the sound washed over him.
Three days later I left for America. When I got to the departure lounge at Heathrow there was the entire Count Basie band sitting waiting for a flight. Always the opportunist I went straight up to the Count himself.
Six months earlier I’d worked for the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra as band-boy. I told Basie, and asked was there any chance he needed one.
He smiled kindly. “No – sorry kid – we're already well serviced in that department.”
Well they would be, wouldn't they! The greatest band ever; they must have had the greatest road crew ever too. And who cared? I didn’t really want to be their band-boy; I wanted to play with them. But before I could go quietly back to my seat, my idiot mouth took over.
I swear I never meant to say it – it was just my mouth, completely out of control.
“Actually,” it said, “I'm a trumpet player too. Maybe....”
This time Basie didn't even reply. He simply tilted his head to one side and nodded towards the people sitting opposite him in the departure lounge - four of them, seated in a row - the four guys who made up his trumpet section – Reunald Jones, Wendell Culley, Joe Newman, and Thad Jones. Possibly the best trumpet section ever in the history of jazz.
Then the band's flight was called, which was just as well.
Because the utter stupidity of what my bone-headed mouth had just said was beginning to sink in, leaving me to slink away to a corner and give it a mighty scolding, thoroughly self-demoralised.
Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
A MATTER OF APPEARANCE
Since James Murdoch's appearance before that parliamentary committee a couple of weeks ago media coverage of him just hasn’t stopped. Amongst all the talk about his evasive manner, his shortcomings as the head of a big corporation, and whether he might or might not have been telling the truth, there’s been one thing noticeably missing. No one has said in good plain language what a nasty toady piece of work he appears to be.
Well of course not! Journalists are taught not to say such totally subjective things. And quite right too. Even so, I haven't spoken to anyone of any background, or profession, or sexuality, who having watched James Murdoch in front of the parliamentary committee didn't say exactly the same thing, “What a horrible person.”
Now this could be most unfair. We’re talking here about how he comes across, not necessarily how he is, which is exactly why good journalists are more circumspect. Yet what people instinctively feel about Mr Murdoch is an important point to take into consideration. For one thing, it might have worked unfairly against him, causing his interrogators to think that some of the truthful things he said were actually false. Though it's just as possible it could have worked the other way. Because British people are always keen to be fair, I wonder if the interrogating MPs didn't perhaps confer together and say, “We mustn't let how much we dislike him influence our conclusions. After all, it's not his fault he's like he is.”
So what makes Mr Murdoch Jr seem so unpleasant? It's not that he exudes wickedness, or cruelty, or deliberate malice. Rather, it's the opposite. He exudes almost nothing. Except perhaps a certain disdain for everyone around him. One journalist called him “snippy”, which seemed about right. My own conclusion is – he doesn’t like himself much.
I checked on his career. He went to Harvard but was rebellious - left without competing his course, dyed his hair blond, wore a ring in his eyebrow, liked music and invested in a hip-hop record company, Rawkus Records. Later, he ended up selling it to his father's company, News International, swapping youthful rebellion for the benefits of being a rich man's son.
I guess the unattractively shuttered person we now see is the result of that decision. For the billions he's now worth, it's understandable why he did it. But I bet he often regrets it. Following in a rich father's footsteps has few benefits for self-esteem. And his elder brother, having done much the same to begin with, finally opted out aged 38.
Now, a little detour…
A couple of years ago I was walking in the gardens of the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and there sitting on a chair was Robert Mugabe, alone in a white suit, looking a bit sweaty. As often happens when you see someone well-known, I had a momentary feeling he was a friend and without meaning to I smiled at him in a familiar way. Then realising who he was, on a sudden impulse, I said, “Far too hot, isn't it. No wonder the British never colonised the place.”
I could see a couple of bodyguards a short distance away but they didn't move and Mugabe smiled and replied. “Didn't stop them in Malaya, did it?” And we were off - a couple of minutes of chit-chat about Thailand and tropical weather.
It was interesting, as it always is, to find a pleasant side to someone who’s usually considered unpleasant. So I thought, if I walked out of that hotel lobby again, only this time it was James Murdoch sitting there, would I chat to him. And the answer was no.
I then asked myself - who is the absolutely nastiest person in the entire world? After having been through Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, Sepp Blatter, and Colonel Gaddafi (and because this was pure fantasy it didn't matter in the slightest that two of them were dead), I came up with Sean Hannity.
In case you don't know him, Sean Hannity is a pundit-cum-interviewer on Fox TV in America – a brainless, belligerent, bellicose supporter of all things right wing and republican - a sneeringly impolite shouter at the guests he invites onto his programme. In short, he's totally vile. Yet if I came across him in the same sort of way that I came across Robert Mugabe, I think I would still try to find a few things we could talk about politely, because it might confound me, and sometimes it's good to be confounded.
So why not James Murdoch?
Sorry! If you’re waiting for an answer, I don’t really have one. It’s just that he doesn’t look worth talking to.
Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011
A STIFF DEBATE
Earlier this year, trawling round the net, I came across a new comic-book hero - Foreskin Man.
Styled after Superman, Foreskin Man is an all-American, all-flying, all-powerful, muscle-man in tights. Blonde, square-jawed, and fully-foreskinned, he flies round the world with his companion Vulva Girl, rescuing infants from circumcision. So far they've swooped down on Kenya, grabbing baby boys from the arms of a tribal circumciser - flown through the windows of a Californian hospital to steal newly borns from the clutches of Dr Mutilator - and snatched screaming infants from Monster Mohel, a black-hatted Jewish foreskin remover with a fearsome pair of scissors.
The reason for all this was a referendum in San Francisco that proposed banning circumcision for under 18s except as a medical emergency. The “for” people were behind the comic book, and it led to fierce discussion. “Stiff debate over circumcision rights” was how a Californian TV station put it.
Jewish community leaders called the Foreskin Man comic-book “vilely anti-semitic”. But really it wasn't; any more than it was anti-African or anti-American. It was simply very anti-circumcision. And how could it put the case against circumcision without naming the people who do it – tribal, medical or religionist?
After a few months of kerfuffle, the San Francisco referendum was cancelled by a judge who decided a city shouldn't be able to decide the fate of a medical procedure, only a state.
It was a pity. Because had it become law it would have been fascinating to see how many young men (Jewish, Moslem, or anything less), having managed to get through adolescence with their penis still intact, would rush to the doctor on their 18th birthday to request its immediate decapitation.
Something interesting I learnt from all this was - whereas in the rest of the world the medical profession long ago decided it was best not to meddle with babies' sex organs, in America fifty per cent of boys are still circumcised. The doctors who do it claim it's for reasons of hygiene. In other words, they don't trust men to wash their willies.
Most of these “medical” circumcisions are done without anaesthetic, the baby screaming, its legs strapped to a table; more like a ritual than modern medicine. Perhaps the doctors feel sanctioned by five thousand years of religious custom. And what a daft custom it is.
The religious sects who practise it worship a God they believe is omnipotent. Yet they rate him so poorly on penis design they feel the need to cut bits off before it's ready for use, which doesn't sound very worshipful. But at least it gives Foreskin Man something to do.
But really, this isn't my battle. Apart from an instinctive distrust of anything connected to religion, I don't have much of an opinion on circumcision; I'm just pleased it never happened to me. Yet although my foreskin has given me pleasure for as long as I can remember, I've rarely heard a circumcised man complain about not having one. I've always presumed, where penises are concerned, what you have is what you come to love.
For most men, their penis is an inseparable friend - their partner in crime, their alter ego, even their raison d'être. During the course of the day, safely trousered, it gets touched, adjusted, stroked and patted. When it's taken out for a pee it's given a friendly shake afterwards. And of course, there are the more exciting times.
With all this camaraderie between a man and his penis, it seems absurd to think it won't get properly cared for. Of course it will. It'll be washed, loved and cherished. Every man does that for his penis. If hygiene were the real motive, there'd be no reason for those American doctors to be doing all that circumcising.
On this side of the Atlantic, it seems that men get a thumbs up on penis hygiene. Very few baby boys are circumcised except for religious reasons. The general attitude to circumcision is much like mine, “Just don't do it to me”. And this summer, while Americans were debating the rights and wrongs of banning it, people in Britain were more interested in preventing a cull of badgers.
One benefit of this British lack of concern is that circumcision has never attracted government interference. Parents have the right to decide, and the vast majority opt for leaving their baby boys au naturel. Which might yield an unexpected bonus.
Because at a time when some people want greater discipline in the home, while others are demanding the abolition of smacking, it could be useful for parents to keep a reserve punishment up their sleeve. “Johnny! Stop that at once or daddy will cut off the end of your willie.”
Quick Johnny! Time to call Foreskin Man!
Wednesday, November 16th, 2011
EMI. NOT QUITE AS BRITISH AS PEOPLE THINK
Last week EMI Records was sold to Universal Music. Many nostalgic pieces appeared about “the last truly British record company”. In fact, EMI owed its existence to four Americans.
In 1877, in his laboratory in New Jersey, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which recorded on a cylinder. In 1887, Emile Berliner, working in Washington, invented a recording machine that used a flat wax disc, the gramophone record. Because competition with Edison's machine was going to be tough, Berliner decided to get a head start in Europe and sent one of his sales staff to London.
New Yorker William Owen moved into the Cecil Hotel in the Strand. His brief was to sell Berliner gramophones throughout Europe. To do so he set up a new company, The Gramophone Company, which was the company sold last week to Universal Music.
To sell gramophones he needed local recordings so Berliner sent him another American, Fred Gainsberg, a recording engineer. On the boat on the way over Gainsberg met some music-hall artists and on his second day in London they turned up at the company's offices – in full stage-costume and make-up. An hour later The Gramophone Company had recorded its first huge-selling record, The Laughing Song, by Burt Shepheard.
In the next few years William Owen expanded The Gramophone Company throughout Europe, and even to India, where The Laughing Song sold half a million. Meanwhile Fred Gainsberg looked for new artists. In 1902 he heard of a young opera singer causing a stir in Milan – Enrico Caruso. When Gainsberg arrived to record him, Caruso demanded £100. Owen's reply to Gainsberg's telegram asking permission was, “Fee exhorbitant, absolutely forbid you to record.”
Gainsberg ignored him. With an eye to publicity, he recorded Caruso in the hotel where Giuseppe Verdi had died a year earlier. The arias he sang put EMI on the map as the world's number one classical music company.
William Owen then shelled out another £100, this time for a painting of a terrier listening to its deceased owner speaking on a gramophone. The picture was called “His Master's Voice”, which became The Gramophone Company's trading name, HMV.
HMV's only rival was the London branch of America's Columbia Records. Running it was another New Yorker, Louis Sterling. When the 1st World War started retailers were afraid to stock records, thinking it unsuitably frivolous. Sterling told his staff to dig up any recordings they could that were patriotic or stirring, then rushed them out as “war records.”
Within days dealers started buying again. At HMV, William Owen took advantage of the upturn to issue the sort of records a country at war really wanted to hear - sentimental heart-breakers - “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and “Roses of Picardy”.
The game bounced back to Columbia. Louis Sterling signed contracts with every musical show on the London stage, recorded them, and shipped records to the troops in Europe. The British record business was now totally in the hands of these two highly competitive New Yorkers.
At this time recording was still done acoustically, in front of a large horn. Singers stood in front of it and bellowed. Jazz bands jostled and shoved to get in front of the horn for their solos. The most famous jazz soloists were not the best, but the pushiest.
In 1924, Western Electric's laboratories in New Jersey came up with an electrical method of recording. At the plant where they evaluated test pressings, a friend of Louis Sterling sneaked one away one and sent it to him in London. Sterling was so astonished by what he heard that he got on the next boat to New York where he pressured Western Electric into a deal - then hit a snag.
Only an American company could buy the system. Columbia America was almost broke and couldn't afford it. Sterling borrowed two million dollars and bought them out, then signed the deal in their name. Columbia Records became a wholly British-owned company and with the new technology in its hands Talking-Machine News announced, “England is now in fact 'top dog' throughout the world...”
But when the stock market crashed, British record sales collapsed. In 1931 the companies of London's two emigré Americans were forced to merge. Columbia was folded into The Gramophone Company, which became known as EMI - Electrical Musical Industries – the biggest record company in the world. Louis Sterling was put in charge and celebrated by opening Britain's best recording studio, Abbey Road. He then oversaw EMI throughout the musically booming thirties.
The huge success EMI had in the fifties and sixties was built on the company these four Americans created. Emile Berliner’s gramophone was its raison d’être; William Owen conceived and started it; Fred Gainsberg provided it with its original catalogue of recordings; and Louis Sterling turned it into a respected multi-national corporation.
Not quite as British as people think.
Wednesday, November 9th, 2011
A BAG-CARRYING BIGMOUTH
Insults? Perhaps the best in the last ten years time came from Christopher Hitchens, “If they gave Jerry Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.” And amongst the worst, this week, from the New Zealand caddie Steve Williams when he called Tiger Woods a “black arsehole”.
The media called it racist, but more than anything else it was simply uncouth. No wit, no style, no real meaning. John Bright, a nineteenth century Quaker politician, had the right insult for Steve Williams. “He is a self-made man and worships his creator.”
Personally, I'm not too sensitive about being insulted. People on the whole are pretty annoying and need an occasional put-down, me included. Throwing a decent insult at someone can be half the fun of life, but Steve William's comment about Tiger Woods wasn't even half decent. There wasn't the faintest glimmer of humour; there was no play on words, nor anything that indicated why Tiger Woods might deserve it. An insult like that simply demeans the person who delivers it. A good insult needs a more pungent filling.
This week I've been in Thailand where political correctness is unknown. Thais love throwing a good insult; but at the same time they tend to like people, and are rather polite. To insult a foreigner the offensive part has to be based on something other than race of colour. Scanning the Thai-language newspapers over the weekend I managed to find Koreans called “pickle-eaters”, Chinese “floor-spitters”, Americans “burger-belchers” and a visiting dignitary from Nigeria as “coming from the land of stinky-armpits”.
Whether these insults are truly offensive or not is irrelevant, they at least explain what it is we should take exception to in these people, whereas Williams' comment about Tiger Woods was plain abusive. Even so, I doubt it had much to with racism, more to do with Williams having an inferior person's superiority complex. After all, he's only an overpaid porter, and despite making millions from it my guess is, for ending up a caddy rather than a golfer, he hates most of the world. Just change “black” for chink, frog, paki, pom, queer, or wop - to Steve Williams, everyone is a potential arsehole.
It's a style of abusiveness common in a previous generation of antipodean men, when masculinity was defined by having BO and swearing a lot. These days people from down under have grown more refined, but fifty years ago far too many of them, both Aussies and New Zealanders, enjoyed being as brainlessly belligerent as Steve Williams. I remember getting a bellyful of it in the sixties the first time I visited Sydney.
One evening I was standing on a packed bus going up the hill to Kings Cross when a fat, rednecked Aussie got on. He wore shorts, had sturdy walking boots, a dirty shirt, and reeked of sweat. He pushed his way down the crowded aisle until he arrived at where I was standing. On a seat next to us was an elderly aboriginal man sleepily enjoying the effect of having had a few too many beers.
The sweaty Aussie glared down at him. “Hey, abbo. Stand up and give your seat to a white man.”
The black man got up unsteadily and the redneck sat down. The aboriginal was now standing next to me; he appeared to be only just this side of consciousness and swayed dangerously whenever the bus went round a corner. Each time he did so he toppled against me, and on the third occasion, I murmured something peevishly British, like, “Excuse me, do you mind…”
In a flash the Aussie redneck was on his feet, his face pushed into mine, his voice raised. “Don't yer bloody talk to an Aussie like that mate. This bloke's one of ours. Show 'im some respect, yer fuckin' pommie bastard!”
Mindless antipodean belligerence, just like Steve Williams. And it's not just Tiger Woods who's been at the wrong end of it. After he'd caddied for Phil Mickelson, Williams said, "I wouldn't call Mickelson a great player, 'cause I hate the prick".
Steve Williams' talent lies in neither loyalty nor words. Presumably, though, he's good at carrying things.
Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011
ONE OF LIFE'S LITTLE SUCCESS STORIES
The first bit of this happened in the 60s when I managed the Yardbirds and lived in a posh flat behind Buckingham Palace. It started with a phone call.
“Is that Simon Napier-Bell, the rock manager?”
“That’s me.” It was 8.30 in the morning and I was eating my shredded wheat. “Who’s that?”
“I’m a freelancer. I’ve been paid to do a job on you. I've been trying to contact you for days.” The voice sounded reproachful.
Was it a journalist? I wasn't sure. He was quite rough spoken. “What d'you mean – ‘paid to do a job?’”
“I've been told to rough you up, but I thought we might reach a compromise. Can you give me your address.”
A practical joke, perhaps? I wasn't sure. “I suppose you'll want me to make coffee and toast?” I said sarcastically.”
The voice sounded hurt. “There's no need to take that sort of tone, mate. We've all got our jobs to do.”
I hung up. But later in the day when I was coming out of my office in Dean Street a man jumped out of nowhere and shoved me into an empty doorway. “Gotcha!”
I was staring into a podgy, busted face on top of a large untidy body. And I was shivering with fright.
“Let's get down to business,” the thug said. “Someone's paid me twenty-five quid to bust your kneecaps. Give me fifty and I'll leave you alone.”
I managed to steady myself. Normally, I don't believe in buying people off – they just come back for more - but buying time is another matter. “OK, fifty quid,” I told him. “Come and have a coffee and I'll write you a cheque.” (This was in the days before cash machines.)
We sat in Valerie's in Old Compton Street and I bought him a slice of chocolate mousse gateau. He had good table manners, used a fork to eat the cake, and ate with his mouth shut.
“Who sent you?” I asked.
He smiled - a busted-nose, chipped-tooth smile (actually quite endearing). “No-one sent me. I pick a name out of a directory then go round and find the bloke and offer not to beat him up if he gives me double what I'm being paid, which I tell him is twenty-five quid. It's a good trick. A mate of mine told me about it. At the moment I'm doing the music industry - Kemp's White Book. Me mate's doing the Real Estate Directory.”
“That's extortion?” I said. “You'll end up in jail. Anyway, I don't believe you ever hit anyone in your life. You're just an uneducated fraud.”
His eyes flashed indignantly. “You don't need to be rude, mate. I took 'O' levels.”
“Did you get one? What was it? Metalwork?”
I couldn't help it; I burst out laughing.
“So I'm right - you're not a thug at all.”
He looked a bit forlorn.
“Anyway,” I said, “why cookery?”
“Me and me brothers was bought up by an auntie. There was five of us and she put me in charge of the kitchen. I got good at it.”
“How did your face get bashed up?”
“I was working as a chef and a shelf fell on me.”
“And doing this is better than being a chef?”
“Not really. I miss cooking, but I've not been able to find a job.”
I had a friend, Hillary James, a psychologist who was also a restaurateur. He owned two of my favourite restaurants - the Elizabethan and Le Matelot – both in Elizabeth Street in Belgravia. I called him from the phone box opposite Valerie's. He thought the story was a hoot and told me to bring the guy over.
The thug was called Hector and turned out to be quite a good cook. The other staff liked him and he fitted in well – so well, in fact, that a few months later he eloped to Spain with the cashier.
This next bit happened when I was in London a few weeks ago...
There was Hector, walking along Shaftesbury Avenue, a lot older but still much the same; burly, untidy, busted-face, endearing smile. He stopped to say hello and gave me a quick resumé of his life. The thing with the cashier hadn't worked out; he'd married a girl from Hull and worked for thirty years in a works canteen. He's now a grandfather with three married children, one of whom is a pilot.
He insisted on taking me to Valerie's where he treated me to a chocolate mousse gateau.
One of life's little success stories.
Wednesday, October 26th, 2011
THE NEW APIFFLISM
I've just made a big decision. I'm no longer an atheist. My stand against religion is simply not sustainable. It's defeated me.
It's just too absurd that a person should be defined by what he doesn't believe in, rather than what he does. Nonsensical, in fact. And since God is just one of many things I don't believe in, I've now become an apifflist.
For people who don't know about apifflism, let me explain...
The world's population is pretty much divided into two. On one side there are people who believe in piffle. On the other side there are apifflists, who don't.
Atheists are defined by not believing in God. My list is longer than that.
I don't believe in the earth monster who lives in the centre of the world and causes earthquakes every time he sneezes. Nor do I believe in his brother the fire monster who causes volcanos to erupt every time he belches. Nor in their cousin George the super-sized purple chicken who lives in the sky and causes it to rain whenever he pecks the clouds. Nor in Father Christmas. Nor in the tooth fairy. Nor in ghosts, seances, palmistry, Old Moore's Almanack, magic potions, miracles, or God. In other words, I don't believe in piffle. Which makes me an apifflist.
What got me started on all this was a particularly nasty column by the Telegraph's religious correspondent, Tim Stanley. In it he called Richard Dawkins 'an arrogant chimp' 'a talking monkey' and 'a coward', simply because Dawkins had dismissed the idea of having a debate with American evangelist William Lane Craig.
Craig calls himself a philosophical theologian and Christian apologist. Alternatively you could call him a brain-tangled, logic-crushing, re-interpreter of science who steam-rolls over reason and “proves” the existence of God by quoting fairytales from the Bible. To put it bluntly, he talks piffle. But with good oratory.
In one of his debates, Craig justified an Old Testament story in which God ordered the massacre of a city of heathens, by saying, “We must not forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven's incomparable joy.”
Richard Dawkins decided he would be unable to debate logically with a man whose brain was so severely piffled, though he found a more polite way to put it.
Tim Stanley's piece, sneering at Dawkins' decision, was snide and intolerant. So much so, I decided to go to his blog and find out more about him, which is where I found this gem...
“When I have children – and so help me God, I will have a million – I will indoctrinate them all in The Faith. I’ll bludgeon them into it with Sunday school and prayers at nighttime. I’ll have them memorizing Psalms and spitting at the Heathen that live across the street.”
Take it with a pinch of salt, perhaps, but it's the perfect description of “piffling the innocent”. How to turn children into little bigots; teaching them morality by rote, not by social understanding. They'll grow up thinking they know right from wrong yet all they've done is learn it like a maths table.
In his column, Tim Stanley went on to complain that “The most frustrating thing about the New Atheism is that it rarely debates theology on theology's own terms.”
Nor should it. Because there's no logical argument to be had with anyone where religion is concerned. And although Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens are forever giving it a try, they're wrong to do so.
People with piffled minds have no understanding of logic. They respond to fact with fable, to data with dogma, to morality with myth. Their belief in whichever of the world's great piffles has infected their brains blocks their ability to reason clearly or to accept scientific and historical fact; all of which makes them impossible to argue with. Even if you're Richard Dawkins.
Perhaps, following his refusal to debate William Craig, we'll see Dawkins moving away from his strictly atheist stance to re-define himself under the broader term, apifflist.
I hope so.
Wednesday, October 19th, 2011
GUY HANDS KNEES AND BOOMPS-A-DAISY
Guy Hands is still hanging on. At least he thinks he is.
Two weeks ago he started an action against Citibank claiming they grabbed EMI from him wrongfully. Citibank have been trying to sell EMI for 4 billion dollars but the offers they've received so far have come in at less. At the end of this week they may decide to put the sale on hold. Mr Hands feels, as long as the company is still owned by them he still has hope. Everyone else sees it differently – he's lost and he's wasting his time.
You may remember Guy Hands turned up in 2007 to buy EMI when it was doing rather badly. He claimed to have a golden touch. He said he'd 'seen the way'. No more of this music business crap of putting artists first and kowtowing to talent - if artists didn't do as he said and touch their cap to him, out they'd go.
The city was enamoured of Mr Hands. They discussed him in reverential terms and ran articles about his ability to do something new and striking in the music business where others had failed. But anyone with an eye for the ineffective could see at once he wasn't the right person to handle the situation. It's astonishing, but it's a male failing to prefer to listen to a man's words rather than open their eyes and look at the man who's spouting them. And in this case, it wasn't really the man you had to look at, just the mop of carefully coiffed golden hair on top of his head.
Anyone who'd been around the music business a while had seen it all before - an executive who arrives in the industry from somewhere a good deal less glamorous and is overwhelmed by the new world of stars. Mr Hands was in love with money, perhaps. But he was in love with Guy Hands even more. He turned up all full of himself and started jetting round the world attending parties with the who's who of the entertainment business – star-struck, but mainly with his own star quality.
Guy Hands had made a killing by buying up motorway service areas in Germany and installing nice bathroom facilities, something they'd always lacked. The bathroom facilities at EMI weren't too bad, so looking for ways to improve things he decided in future the company would no longer be bullied by its artists.
'If they're not satisfied,' he announced, 'they can leave.'
Radiohead did. Then Paul McCartney. For a while Robbie Williams refused to honour his contract, then so did Gorillaz and Coldplay.
'Never mind – we'll invest in finding new talent,' said Mr Hands.
The poor man hadn't a clue. The cost of finding new artists, breaking them, and building them into guaranteed income is greater than any demand an established artist might make for more royalties. It's not just the cost of searching out new talent; it's the 10-to-one signing ratio needed to produce a hit, followed by the the 10-to-one ratio between those who get that first hit and those who go on to become substantial sellers of albums. To let Radiohead go was as clever as buying a bank and throwing out the gold in the vault because 'it's taking up too much space'. One thing you never ever do is let a profitable artist leave you. Anyone in the industry with half a brain knows that, but Mr Hands – brash, blond and boot-headed - wasn't from the industry.
It got worse. The Rolling Stones were next to go; then in America, Joss Stone; and after 25 years, the UK's chief executive, Tony Wadsworth. Then Mr Hands closed down EMI's operations in South East Asia, which everyone with any business sense at all knows is the future of just about everything.
In due course, as could be predicted, doom arose and engulfed him. Citibank, from whom he'd borrowed the money to buy the company, took possession of EMI.
In the end it all came down to pride. When he first bought EMI, Mr. Hands was shocked to discover that artists took drugs and stayed up late; they weren't interested in the difficulties of running a record company and only wanted higher royalties. When he met them and complained they gave him shit.
His reaction caused his downfall. Installing new toilets to make money from service stations had taught him shit was best flushed away. But anyone who deals regularly with artists could have told him - sometimes it's better swallowed. It's the golden rule of artist management – 'Never let pride pre-empt pragmatism'.
So he lost EMI. And so did Britain. Which is a bit of a pity.
But that's Guy Hands for you - a bit-of-a-pity sort of chap.
Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
I'M HOMOSEXUAL - QUEER - GAY - A PANSY - A NANCY BOY. UNDERSTAND?
I'd finished my weekly piece for the Huff, and sent it off. I'd had dinner, drunk a bottle of wine, was halfway through a brandy, and I got an email from my editor. 'Apologies for short notice. We've noticed it's Coming Out Day tomorrow. Wondering if you'd like to write something for it.'
'Well no, actually, I wouldn't. I'd like to go to bed.'
Which I did.
But once there I couldn't get to sleep. I went from hating the subject to thinking how good it was. From wanting to have nothing to do with maudlin gay reminiscences, to thinking, 'Perhaps I should.'
Age 18, I went to America intending to become a famous jazz player. At school I'd had sex with boys, but I'd never connected that with being gay. And since leaving I'd never had sex with anyone. For two years, working as a musician, I suffered all the problems an unaware gay normally suffers – pressured to go out and find girls, pretending to fancy them. But finally I gave up on the whole thing and came back to London.
For my 21st birthday I got £50 from my parents. I went to Spain where I rented a room in Fuengirola, then a tiny fishing village with only two other non-Spanish residents. I'd taken a bunch of books - everything I ought to read and never had – Tolstoy, Balzac, Faulkner, Joyce – my goodnes it was hard going.
The two other English-speakers were young homosexuals. A Canadian called Gerald, probably 25, and Sascha, an 18-year-old who'd deserted from the German army. When I sat on the beach reading they'd come and tell me I was obviously gay, why didn't I admit it.
'Absolute rubbish.' I said. And I think I believed it.
Then one evening Sascha came knocking on my door in tears. 'Gerald's drowned'.
I went to his house and talked all evening. With wine.
Eventually he started saying things like, 'If you're not gay, why do you look at me like that'. And I'd say, 'Like what?'
We ended up in bed and I couldn't even get a hard on. Which pleased me a lot. It meant at last I knew – I AM NOT GAY.
I went back to my room feeling most satsified. But next morning I woke up in love.
I rushed to his house but he wasn't there. He'd left me a note. 'Gerald didn't drown. He just called me. He swum out too far and a boat picked him up. They're taking him to London. I'm flying there to meet him. Use the house if you want.'
I did, and lived in lovesick solitude for a month. Then he sent me a postcard with an address in London and I left at once on the train.
Three days later I rang the bell at an address in Portland Square and found myself in a nest of queens. And me suntanned and 21, fresh from the beach. 'Well, darling, what have we here? Come in, ple-e-e-e-e-ase.'
Sascha wasn't there. He'd moved on days ago. But I was stuck. Penniless, pretty and prey to a bunch of old predators. But it wasn't too bad and I soon found out what I really was.
A year later I was enjoying London gay society circa 1961. I had a boyfriend with whom I shared a bed-sit, a good job, and a busy social life. BUT... I hadn't done the one thing I knew I had to do. Tell my parents.
It wasn't quick. I went for Sunday lunch every week, and endlessly planned to get my father alone in the sitting-room. But after a year I still hadn't managed it.
Then it happened. We were in the sitting-room. Lunch was over. My mother was washing up, the others had gone into the garden. 'I've got to tell you something,' I said. 'I've been trying to for a year. It's, it's, it's... well I'm homosexual. I like boys, not girls. I'm queer.'
He was shocked. And very silent. 'Are you sure?'
I got annoyed. 'Of course I'm bloody sure. I've been waiting a year to tell you. You think I'm not sure? I've got a boyfriend. We live together. I'm homosexual – queer – gay – a pansy - a nancy boy. Do you understand?'
He looked at me very strangely. Then suddenly smiled. 'Well, that's good,' he said. 'I was afraid you were turning out a bit boring.'
The next day he took cigars to the office and told everyone one. 'It's fantastic – I've got a daughter, and a son, and a gay son. All three different. What a pity I didn't have another daughter. She could have been a lesbian. I'd have had one of everything.'
So I just want to say. There's no question about it - my father's wonderfully supportive attitude....
OH GOD! That sounds S-O-O tedious! Try again...
THERE'S NO QUESTION ABOUT IT...
MY FATHER'S ABSOLUTE, COMPLETE, TOTAL DELIGHT at having a son who was gay was the greatest support I could have been given.
Wednesday, October 5th, 2011
NO SYMPATHY FOR A LOSER
Dr Conrad Murray's having a bad time. Outside the courtroom where he's being tried for manslaughter, people are holding up signs saying, 'Who really killed Michael Jackson?' But it's a question we already know the answer to. Dr Murray's just the fall guy...
Michael Jackson killed Michael Jackson.
If ever a career was going to end in tears, it was Jackson's. You compared the seething anger in Billy Jean, or the livid fury of Beat It, with that daft Lady Veronica speaking voice. Or contrasted his crotch-stroking ass-fingering dancing with his fey coyness when anyone mentioned sex. And you saw it at once – Vesuvius with the lid on. The job of his various managers was to keep it from blowing off.
In the 80s, the success of Thriller gave Jackson money and Neverland, his Californian home. It contained a warren of luxury suites where hero-worshipping young boys came and stayed with him. They drank wine, played video games, watched TV, took drugs, and did together what 13-year-olds often do, masturbated. The problem was, one of the 13-year-olds was 30.
For cover, Neverland had a zoo and a funfair and welcomed coach loads of children. To run it required courtesans, cooks, accountants, cleaners, lawyers, zoo-keepers, and bodyguards. It was big money and eventually needed refunding. So in 1992 the Dangerous tour was organised.
Halfway through, the lid nearly blew off.
Just before a show in Bangkok, sexual accusations by a 13-year-old were broadcast worldwide. For two days Jackson lay sedated in bed, the concerts postponed, his brain brought to a standstill.
After a few stuttering shows he quit the tour and went home to rehab were his brain was slowly revived - plans were made, money raised, lawyers paid. Then came an article in Vanity Fair. The 13-year-old accuser recounted how he lay naked on the bed while Jackson made him come, then licked it off his tummy. No libel action came from the Jackson camp, just a twenty million offer to withdraw the accusations, obtained by selling half his publishing company to Sony.
Somehow the lid was still on. The music industry's take on these things was decided by one thing only, 'Can he still sell records?' Jackson still sold a few, so probably he didn't do it. It was just nasty people trying to extract money.
Encouraged, he married Marie Presley and tried to make himself so weird that people would think, 'Maybe he really did sleep with all those boys without having sex with them.'
But in 2003 he was accused again, which led to a court case. And although the prosecution was a mess and the verdict was 'not guilty', this time no one believed it and record sales dried up. Amazingly, though, the lid was still in place.
By now, through a surrogate mother, Jackson had acquired two children of his own which gave him something less dangerous to love. The problem was money. It simply poured out. Not helped by his obsessive use of drugs.
He looked a mess; his face wrecked by cosmetic surgery - half a nose, pinched perma-red lips, frightened eyes. Yet occasionally he could pull himself together, like when he delivered a eulogy at James Brown's funeral. It caused the current protector of the lid to ask a big question, 'If Michael can pull his messed-up mind and body together sufficiently to do something like this, is there a chance – perhaps – possibly – maybe – that he could do another world tour?'
Business people said yes. The tour was fixed, tickets put on sale, rights sold, everything insured. All they had to do was drag this unwell, unfit, mentally unstable, physically collapsed body round the world and get it onstage for a minimum of ten minutes a night. The rest could be covered by dancers, doubles, and technology. Except...
One more thing was needed; a get-up-and-dance drug drug before each show and an oblivion drug afterwards. Jackson was an expert; he knew which ones he wanted and understood the dangers. He just needed someone to administer them. And along came Dr Murray.
Halfway through rehearsals the lid finally came off. Not with the explosion his managers had always dreaded, but with a sad little plop.
Surprisingly, nobody else had realised what was going on. Family, agents, promoters, record company executives. 'Drugs? Oh dear no! We had no idea. We thought he looked the picture of health.'
After Jackson's death, everyone did pretty well. Insurance was collected, videos of rehearsals were turned into a touring show, and back catalogue was re-released. Just one person missed out - Dr Murray.
It's his own fault, of course - the music industry has no sympathy for a loser. Which is why he's about to be hung out to dry.
Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
ROCK 'N' ROLL PEOPLE, I HATE YOU
Passing through Amsterdam airport a couple of weeks ago I was reminded how good those Segway machines are – small electrically propelled platforms on two wheels, on which you stand clutching a control bar, held upright by a gyroscope. At Schipol airport the security staff use them, skimming around efficiently and silently.
I'd always thought these things might be the future of the British high street – everyone on silent moving platforms, taking no more space then a normal walking person. But last month the Court of Appeal decided they couldn't be used on pavements.
It's a pity, because Segways appeared to be safe and easy to ride, at least for people who are good at staying on things. Not so good, perhaps, for people with a track record of falling off. George W. Bush, for instance, was a repeat faller-offer. Between falling of a sofa in a dead faint when he choked on a pretzl in 2002, and falling off a pushbike at his ranch two years later, he managed to fall of a Segway during his summer holidays in 2003. Mainly because he didn't realise you had to turn it on before it would hold you upright. No power means no gyroscope – no gyroscope means over you go.
'Over you go' also happened to the British millionaire who bought the company in 2009. Jim Heselden predicted a great future for the Segway and stressed the vehicle's safety record, then did its image no good at all by riding one over a cliff and killing himself.
However, what the British appeal court was concerned about was not the danger Segways might present to their riders, but to other people.
What can and can't be used on the pavement is a complicated matter. Motorised vehicles for disabled people are OK if they go no faster than 8 miles an hour. But prams, in which mothers push babies, are actually illegal. Consequently the laws about pavement usage are enforced with much turning of blind eyes. Technically, pushing your infant around in a pram is only legal if you fit it with a motor that goes no more than 8 mph and the baby is disabled.
But back to Segways...
While I admit I'm somewhat in favour of them, I can't help remembering I was once the victim of an irregular piece of pavement transportation. And it wasn't pleasant. I was run over by a refrigerator.
In 1978 I was in Germany with Japan, a group I managed. They'd just played a midnight gig at the Batschkapp Club in the centre of Frankfurt and at 2am we still hadn't eaten. We set off to try and find some food but Frankfurt 1978 proved not to be a midnight festival of gourmet cuisine. The only place we could find was an outside cafe opposite the railway station – beer, wine, sausages, and potato salad.
Actually it wasn't too bad. It was August, and warm, and we ordered wine and a huge communal dish of potato salad and sat outside at cheap metal tables in the early hours of the morning, not at all unhappy. Until suddenly a fridge appeared from nowhere and ran me over. It was a Westinghouse.
The lady in charge of it was around eighty and was pushing it along the pavement on a single roller skate, moving rooms in the middle of the night. As she approached us she encountered a slight downward slope and lost control. The result? One minute I was sitting gracefully holding a glass of red wine and scooping up a forkful of Kartoffelsalat; the next I lay crushed on the pavement under a 10-cubic-foot freezer-refrigerator in white with automatic ice dispenser.
Worse still, she was a hit and run driver. No sooner had I been smashed to the ground than she gathered up her fridge, re-positioned it on its roller skate and skittled off, leaving me floored and bruised, and everyone potato-less, because the dish of Kartoffelsalat had fallen underneath me.
And if that wasn't indignity enough, my companions thought it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen and sat roaring with laughter.
The owner of the cafe hearing the commotion came running outside. He saw me lying next to an upturned table, the potato salad mashed beneath me, the broken glass on the pavement, the wine dribbling down to the gutter, the group in stitches.
'You're all drunk,' he shouted. 'Rock and roll people, I hate you. Go home.'
He carried the tables and chairs inside, put up the 'closed' sign, turned out the lights, and at 2am left us hungry and without food with nowhere else to go.
So yes – on reflection I think the appeal court is right. Pavements should be for people and nothing else.
Wednesday, September 21st, 2011
CAPRICE DE FEMME
This month, London's Caprice restaurant is celebrating its thirtieth birthday. Actually, it's not thirty years old at all – it's sixty.
The Caprice opened in the late 40s and became an instant hit with the post-war film and theatre set. In the 50s, age 14, I was taken there for lunch by my father. He was a documentary film director and amongst the other directors in the same company was Lindsay Anderson. Despite being passionately left-wing they both liked a good lunch. The Caprice was a cut above where they usually ate but they'd read a review by the composer Vivian Ellis. 'By saving up a month's royalties,' he'd written, 'I can sometimes treat myself to a glimpse of such well-to-do Communists as Monsieur Picasso, en voyage, his white locks falling gracefully about his shoulders'
That decided them. If a well-known Communist could eat there they could too. So when he won an Academy Award, Lindsay decided they should go there to celebrate. Because it was the school holidays and I'd popped into the cutting-rooms to say hello, I was taken with them.
Picasso wasn't there that day. But we did see Robert Morley – a famously fat English actor - eating spaghetti.
After that, I only went to the old Caprice a couple more times. By the time I started doing well in the music business in the 60s, it looked stuffy - a jacket-and-tie place for old-time films stars. And in the late 70s, change caught up with it and the place closed down.
In 1981 it re-opened in its current form and it's been one of the restaurants I've eaten at most ever since. From the mass of anecdotes it's provided me with, picking just one isn't easy. But...
In the late 70s I lived in Paris with my Singaporean boy-friend, Allan Soh. We rented a furnished apartment in the 8th Arrondissement. It had once been magnificent - furnished with antique furniture in Louis Quatorze style - but was beginning to fade.
We paid our rent each month to Mademoiselle Pelletier, a flamboyant young lady who'd been left the apartment in her uncle's will. She drove a red sports car and spoke beautiful Parisian-intoned English, leant from studying in London. She looked like someone who had the world at her feet, but Mademoiselle Pelletier was not quite what she seemed – she was a Monsieur.
At the age of 24 she'd reached a difficult point in her life. She had to decide whether to continue to live the good life on the rent from the apartment, or to sell it and use the proceeds to pay for the operation that would complete her transition to the person she really wanted to be.
On rent days Allan and I sat listening sympathetically to her confusion. We became rather good friends but always recommended against the operation since that would also be the end of our tenancy. Eventually, though, she decided in favour of it. Allan and I were given notice and the apartment was put on the market.
And the point of this irrelevant-sounding story is...
About five years ago I was in the Caprice having lunch when I noticed an elegant couple a few tables away from me. The man was handsome and suave, in his mid-fifties, and very obviously French. His wife had the unmistakeable chic of a middle-aged Parisienne. And with them was their daughter, a stunning twenty-year-old who looked a bit like Charlize Theron. They talked together intimately, laughing a lot, the daughter addressing her parents as ‘Mama' and ‘Papa', with Papa oozing adoration for her.
Having puzzled for a while over what made the father so familiar, I suddenly realised he was Mademoiselle Pelletier.
As I was leaving the restaurant, his wife and daughter went together to the toilet, so I walked across to him. 'Excuse me! Nearly thirty years ago, you rented me an apartment in Rue Du General Foy.'
He stood up at once, the epitome of politeness, and shook my hand. 'That's right,' he said, 'I remember you well. You had a Chinese friend.'
Confused for a second to find myself talking to someone so completely different from the person I'd once known, I asked, 'What happened to your...er...plans?'
He shrugged broadly and waved a Gallic hand. 'I changed my mind.'
I looked him up and down; his suit was superb, his shirt, his tie, his moustache, his hair, his whole demeanour. There wasn't a hint of effeminance about him.
'Changed your mind, did you?' I repeated rather foolishly.
'Well why not?' he asked. Then leaning close he suddenly pursed his lips in just the same way Mademoiselle Pelletier used to do twenty-five years earlier. 'It's a woman's prerogative, isn't it?'
Wednesday, September 14th, 2011
BOTTOMS - CLEAN & DIRTY
This week's subject is not too tasty.
Age 11, on an exchange visit to France, I discovered the bidet. Its absence in all other Western countries has puzzled me ever since. And poses a question...
Why do the French, the Arabs, the Japanese, the Indians and most other Asians, wash their bottoms after they've been to the toilet, while Americans, Australians, Britons, and most Europeans prefer to take a piece of paper, wipe off what they can, then smear the rest around until they have a thin film of faeces covering the anal area where it stays until next time they have a shower or a bath?
Toilets in Arab and most Asian countries have a hose pipe next to the seat with which to wash your bottom when you've finished. The French use a bidet on which you sit while a rising jet of water does the washing for you. The Japanese prefer a system in which the rising jet of water is incorporated into the toilet. But in Britain, America, Australia, and Europe (outside of France), after they've finished performing on the toilet, people wipe their bottoms with paper, but don't wash them.
To be succinct, and none too polite, the world is divided into two distinct camps – the bottom-washers and the shit-smearers.
If you're a bottom-washer and you find yourself staying in a hotel in Britain or America, and you need to do a poo during the day (because you're jet-lagged, perhaps, and your timezone is out of kilter), you have a problem. The only way to properly clean yourself when you've finished is to hang your bottom over the edge of the bath and use the shower hose.
In many hotels, there isn't a shower hose, just a shower head sticking out of the wall at a height of six feet. So the only answer is to get completely undressed and start your ablutions again from the beginning. And that's only if you're lucky enough to be at your hotel. If you're not, and you have to use a toilet in a public place, paper is the only option.
This may sound like a poor-taste lavatory joke, but it's not. It's serious. And completely inexplicable. I'm not talking about the poor or under-privileged or homeless; I'm talking about the middle-classes, the well-healed, the educated, the rich, the super-rich, even the medical profession. In nearly all the Western world, hundreds of millions of these people walk around a great deal of the time with grubby bottoms. In the Middle East, the Far East, and France, they don't.
Frequently I've seen a chat show – Jay Leno's was the last time, and I remember it once on Parkinson – where a celebrity returning from Japan describes the pleasure of discovering, after using the toilet, that the push of a button turns on a jet of perfectly aimed warm water to wash his behind. Another button produces a jet of warm air that blows it pleasantly dry. The audience laughs, the celebrity is applauded, the viewers treat it as a weird story about a funny foreign place, and the next day everyone who watches the show goes back to smearing shit around their bottoms as usual.
All that's needed to avoid this is a 'shower-douche' - a stainless steel flexi-tube. One end has a small press-tap, the other end is fixed to a faucet next to the toilet. You can buy them in hardware shops in London's Edgware Road, centre of the annual Arab summer migration, or in Southall, or Birmingham, or anywhere there's an Indian or Bangladeshi community. Or go online and type in the words 'shower-douche'.
There should be one of these next to every single toilet seat in the world. Yet when Manchester Airport installed facilities for people who wanted to use a traditional Moslem squat toilet, and included a shower-douche, the outrage was instant. Granted, no one much likes those silly footsteps toilets where you squat over a hole in the ground. But that wasn't what upset Mr. Mike Bone of the British Toilet Association. For him it was the idea of washing your bottom. He said the bottom-washing shower-douche posed 'a hygiene hazard'.
Unbelievable! Yet it's what most Brits and Americans seem to think.
Now, though, there's light at the end of the tunnel, and it's our national airline that's flashing it.
British Airways has installed bidets in the toilets of its first class lounge in Terminal 5 at Heathrow. It's a start, but hardly enough to justify Willy Walsh receiving any sort of award for contributions to anal hygiene.
That should go to Shinichiro Ito, the chairman of the Japanese airline, ANA. Its new aircraft are being fitted with bidet-type bottom-washing toilets in all three classes.
Wednesday, September 7th, 2011
LGBT? NOT ME! (Well, not too much of it, anyway)
Last week there was a report from America - a college in Elmhurst, Illinois, has added a question to its application form. 'Are you gay?'
Of course they don't ask it quite like that, they phrase it in the boorish modern manner. 'Would you consider yourself to be a member of the LGBT community? ' (i.e. 'Are you lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered?')
If I were to answer at all, it certainly wouldn't be with a simple yes or no, it would be angrily. 'What my knob chooses to point at is none of your damned business.'
More likely though, I'd just scrawl 'Bollocks!' right across the application form and start looking for another college.
Yet, despite the monstrously retro nature of Elmhurst college's new application form, Mr Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the gay advocacy group Campus Pride, praised the decision. 'In the next 10 years, we'll look back and ask why colleges didn't make this change much sooner.'
Extraordinary! Difficult to know what he's thinking. We know most Americans are totally out of touch with the rest of the sane world. Even so, when you read rubbish like that you have to raise a bit of an eyebrow.
Especially as, in the same week, we get news of a murder trial in Los Angeles where a fourteen-year-old boy took a gun to school and shot the boy who sat in front of him in the back of the head – because he was gay.
Well wouldn't you just love to fill in that form! 'Yes, I'm gay. Elmhurst College here I come. Psychos get your guns out.'
Personally I hate the whole concept of an LGBT community. For years now, by admitting I’m a bit the other way I’ve found myself lumped together with every other gay man on the planet. Now it gets worse. Apparently I’m in in a club sandwich with all those BLT people too. Just because of an errant willie.
But why should any of us be identified by just one small part of our personality?
Stuck on a desert island with a gang of people I wish I wasn't stuck with, would I automatically make an alliance with someone just because they were lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgendered?
Look at all the characteristics muddled up inside me - middle-class, English, bought up in a capital city, public school educated, well-travelled, bilingual, anarchic (a bit), conservative (a bit), socialist (a bit), wine-loving, food-loving, workaholic (but also ridiculously lazy), and oh yes... gay too.
Let's suppose one of the other people on the island is Johnny Goodchap – ex-Oxford cricketer, failed restauranteur, occasional travel writer, and now the international marketing director of a Brazilian condom company. We take an instant shine to each other and talk nonstop. He knows I'm gay and I know he has a wife back home and four children. And what happens? We find we have so many things in common we feel like long lost brothers.
Another castaway on the island is a Ukranian ostrich farmer's Russian-speaking daughter who's had testosterone injections and grown a beard and has giant biceps which she uses for chopping wood for the camp fire. Do you really think I'm going to ditch good conversation with Johnny Goodchap in order to start an LGBT community with Muscles Buchilova?
Only one thing will ever bring equality to gays (and all those BLT people too), and that is complete and utter indifference to other people's sexuality. Not well-meaning liberalism, or reasonableness, but indifference. And especially, not tolerance.
Tolerance is the most miserable of qualities. It means putting up with something you don't much like – probably something that's annoying you a great deal – like an unpleasant child banging on the back of your seat in an aeroplane. Don't even think about being tolerant. If you do, sooner or later you'll snap, and blow up. It's just not worth it.
Only indifference will overcome prejudice. Beautiful indifference. And thankfully in Britain these days it's on the increase.
More and more often, when someone learns that someone else is gay, they say, 'So what? It's none of my business. I couldn't care less.'
Those are lovely words to hear.
Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
Those Jedward trousers are just too ridiculous to keep quiet about any longer. Its not their bum-to-ankle skin-tightness I'm talking about - it's their absurdly unnatural silhouette - neither male nor female nor even truly human. Like an asexual teddy bear.
Pretty face; bulgy crotch - that's always been the first rule of pop imagery. Start at Elvis and run forward. No one ever went against it. And in the same way that make-up and mascara were often patted onto a male face to pretty it up, suitable additions were often patted down into the crotch area to pretty that up too.
In rock, it was less so. Rock stars were supposed to turn up with their credentials already in place. Plain for all to see. Some of the finest belonged to David Lee Roth, Robert Plant, Axl Rose and Stephen Tyler. But with pop, the provocation was less precisely anatomical – more jokey - often false.
Jedward's idea of provocation is the strangest of all. Their trousers, instead of rising in the usual way to an upside down V at the crotch, are cut into a curved arch - a false crotch - some four inches below the real one. The normal teasing innuendo of the natural crotch is barricaded behind a featureless expanse of fabric that runs from thigh to thigh, and from the waist on downwards to the curve of the arch. Behind – in the empty space between real crotch and false - Jedward's personal belongings hang hidden from public appraisal.
Was it their idea? Their stylist's? Their manager's? Or was it simply that they asked Cliff Richard to recommend a tailor? Because their trousers closely follow the style Cliff used after he discovered religion in the 60s.
When Cliff found God he became celibate. Having promised to never use his naughty-bits again, he felt he should also expunge them from his public image. So using the arch method, he lowered the crotch of his trousers a couple of inches which allowed the naughty-bits to flop around invisibly in the resulting void.
Two inches was all it took. And in the fifty years since no one has ever spotted the slightest hint of anything masculine lurking in Cliff's trousers. And if two inches was enough for Cliff, why did Jedward need to drop the crotch of their trousers halfway to their knees?
My first thought was - perhaps they're hung like stallions. Or the reverse - maybe they've been neutered (which is why they behave like puppies) and are afraid it might show. However a quick search of the internet turned up pictures that disprove both theories. On fan blogs, old photos of Jedward in swimming trunks reveal a reasonable semblance of maleness beneath the fabric. The size is modest but at least the right bits hang in the right places.
Britain's last pair of twin popsters was Bros, in the 90s. Above the waist their pretty-face image was much the same as Jedward's. Below the waist it wasn't. Their trousers were as tight round the crotch as it was possible to make them. And to finish things off, woollen rugby socks were rolled up and shoved where there was already no room for more shoving.
Bros's audience was much the same age as Jedward's – 10-years-old upwards (and a bit downwards too). But even at that young age the kids in Bros's audience were noticeably interested in the bulges in their trousers and could often be seen aiming their cameras right at them. Not that the pictures revealed anything salacious. Bros's fake bulge was just as unrevealing as Jedward's void - all sock and no meat. But at least the Bros twins looked like normal sexy guys. While Jedward, through a trick of rogue tailoring, look castrated.
Traditional tailors must look at Jedward's trousers and wince in despair. Nowadays, most of us don't have our trousers hand-cut, but in the days when we did, the tailor, having measured every last curve of your buttocks, your thighs, your calves and even your ankles, would straighten himself, tape-measure over arm, and turn a questioning stare towards your crotch - 'Now tell me sir, on which side do we dress?'
Once told, he would ensure that a smidgen of extra material was added on the appropriate side – and from what I've seen of Jedward in their swimming trunks, a smidgen would suffice.
So why the curved arch and the void above it? Is this where they keep their hair spray?
Wednesday, August 24th, 2011
BRINGING DOWN THE SOVIET UNION
Last week's Guardian interview with Mikhail Gorbachev made me realise how much I miss the Iron Curtain. It made the world so simple – good on one side, bad on the other.
My first glimpse of it was in the mid-70s when I went to West Berlin, a flagship of Western consumerism stuck behind enemy lines. People usually flew. I took the train.
It left from Hamburg in West Germany and ran through East Germany hemmed in by electric fences. Inside you were in the comfortable warmth of capitalism; outside was communism.
An hour from Berlin the outside invaded. The train screeched to a halt and we were boarded by East German police. They came stamping down the corridors clattering their pistols against the windows and yelling at passengers. The woman they were looking for was hauled away.
During the 80s, with artists I managed, I visited most of Eastern Europe's capitals. All of them smelt of decay. Buildings were dilapidated and hotels grubby. You could be arrested for taking a photograph where you shouldn't, or walking down the wrong street. In Moscow the hotel staff were indistinguishable from police. “Your flight is cancel. You will delay 48 hours. We will retain your passport. Eat in the designated place.”
They'd give you vouchers for six identical meals – stale fish, boiled chicken, black bread, grey margarine. If you didn't eat it, there was nothing else. The shops were empty.
And with nothing to do and nothing worth eating, visiting businessmen were often entrapped by KGB hookers, or people selling black-market caviar. And then sometimes blackmailed.
In the early 90s I managed CC Catch, a German girl who’s cheerful style of Europop clicked with Muscovites. Hits and a pretty face got us into illicit nightclubs that catered to a privileged cabal - ballet dancers, film stars, politburo members, and mafia chiefs. You'd be safe talking to one; in trouble speaking with another. But you never knew which - like an incomprehensible game.
I made a wrong move and got inveigled into judging a singing contest in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. There were six judges, five from non-communist countries and one from Cuba. For three consecutive nights twenty contestants had to perform a song each. The fourth night was for awards.
The first evening's show dragged on till 11, then it was dinner with the mayor. He plied us with vodka, toasted everyone lavishly, and announced, ‘You will be making the North Korean singer win’.
We said maybe we wouldn’t.
Undeterred, he poured us more drink and praised the North Korean's qualities - 'his fine tone, his range, his sensitivity' - none of which he actually had.
When someone said it was time for bed the mayor proposed more toasts. There were no taxis and we had no idea where we were. We were stuck. It was 5am before we were taken to the hotel and three hours later we were woken for a tour of the city.
Next night was the same. After the show we were whisked off to dinner where the mayor again said the North Korean must win. We were tired. Two of us said OK; three said we didn't care. The Cuban judge held out, so we were kept up late again. And woken early.
That's how the Soviet Union operated - intimidation and coercion. This was the gentle version - for foreign visitors.
After the third evening's show the mayor wanted to know our final choice, ready for the next night's awards. The Cuban had developed a cold. All he wanted was to go back to the hotel. Us too! So we told the mayor, 'OK – North Korea wins.'
But the following evening we did the West proud. When it came time to announce our decision we voted unanimously for the Filipino. The mayor glowered. It was as if we'd undermined everything the Soviet Union stood for. And perhaps we had.
A week later there was a coup. Gorbachev was put under house arrest, Yeltsin took power in the Russian parliament, and four months later the Soviet Union was dissolved.
At the time it felt good to have helped destroy communism, but later I regretted it. A trip behind behind the Iron Curtain was an irreplaceable experience - a trip to the other side of life – and now it's gone.
These days you check into the Moscow Marriott or the Hilton and they're the same as 5-star hotels everywhere. You shop at Next or Armani, and eat at any of a hundred good restaurants. Moscow is as pleasant and prosperous as Paris or London.
Which is a pity! Because when it was communist, getting back home always felt so incredibly good.
Especially with a kilo of black-market caviar.
Wednesday, August 17th, 2011
A BETTER CLASS OF REVOLUTION
After last week's riots, Russell Brand writing in the Guardian owned up to having once been involved in such things. And a while back in the Daily Mail, right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens also owned up. Neither attempted to excuse their behaviour, but there was a slight suggestion that perhaps in their day, compared with what we saw in Britain last week, there was a better class of riot.
The Hitchens riot became a part of rock history and spawned two hit records. It was in March 1968 and started out as an anti-Vietnamese war rally planned by Tariq Ali, publisher of the political newspaper Black Dwarf. He wanted 100,000 people to gather in Trafalgar Square. And he asked John Lennon to come.
It was the year the music press started drawing a line between pop and rock. Two years earlier the word 'rock' (without 'roll') had never been heard of; the trendy word was 'pop'. But by 1968 'rock' had become the new thing. The differences were vague. Pop was the instant hit - formulated - tidy like a snapshot. Rock was disorganised – less packaged. Pop was conformist. Rock was anti-social. Pop was a song. Rock was a lifestyle.
Several groups previously known as pop were now called rock. The Rolling Stones' moment of transition was when Mick and Keith were arrested for possessing drugs. The Who did it by developing a violent stage act; Pink Floyd by going psychedelic; the Yardbirds, whom I managed, by adding Jimmy Page on guitar. With Jeff Beck already in the group, they now had two of Britain's best guitarists blasting away from opposite sides of the stage.
But the Beatles never pulled it off. Their songs were too rounded, too perfect, too pop. Sergeant Pepper got them halfway there. “Ob-la-dee, Ob-la-da” sent them right back again.
Lennon found it galling not to be considered part of the new rock scene. He decided Tariq Ali's anti-war rally would be good imagery and wanted to go. But when he was told it might cost him his American visa he excused himself and went to India to meditate. Ali asked Mick Jagger instead.
After speeches in Trafalgar Square, the younger members of the crowd, about 20,000 of them, marched to Grosvenor Square to have fun hurling insults at the American embassy. They arrived to find mounted police and a phalanx of foot police, but managed to break through. With police horses galloping behind them, they charged towards the embassy. The riot was on.
With Mick Jagger beside him, Tariq Ali stood on a pillar and waved his troops forwards like Achilles at the gates of Troy. The rioters, mostly teenagers, fought the police, kicked their horses, and surged forwards screaming abuse.
Amongst them was a young Malcom McLaren. 'We rolled hundreds of marbles along the floor at the mounted police... then, like Agincourt, we ducked down and people behind us had catapults and started firing gobstopper marbles at the windows of the American embassy.'
After the riot Jagger spoke about it rather cluelessly. 'They never ought to have had police... If they had no police there, there wouldn't be trouble...'
But the riot had impressed him. When he got home he threw away the song he'd been working on and started again. A few days later he had the result. 'Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet. 'Cos summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street.'
When it came out, 'Street Fighting Man' moved the Stones to a new place – rock stars as revolutionaries.
John Lennon came back from India feeling rather left out of things. Hoping to regain the initiative he wrote 'Revolution', but there was a line he couldn't finish. 'When you talk about destruction don't you know that you can count me......'
'In' or 'Out'? He couldn't decide, so he made a version of each.
So much for revolutionary idealism; he didn't even know whether he was for it or against it. He was simply trying to get a song out of it.
Tariq Ali's, Black Dwarf newspaper didn't rate it at all. 'No more revolutionary than Mrs Dale's Diary,' they sneered.
Lennon wrote back, livid. 'Who do you think you are? What do you think you know? I don't remember saying Revolution was revolutionary – fuck Mrs Dale...'
What he didn't realise was...
The problem with the song wasn't the words, or the melody - it was just that 'Revolution' was pop. 'Street Fighting Man' was rock.
It was something Jagger could feel but Lennon couldn't. Something intangible.
Like the difference between riots then and riots now.
Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
TV INTERVIEWERS 2011
“Oh, that big, fat, smug face.”
“You mean you don't like him?”
“No! I love him. He's beautiful.”
My elderly transvestite cleaning lady was looking at Piers Morgan on CNN. She phrased it strangely, but appeared to approve of him. He's not always so lucky. When his ITV travel show took him to Dubai, John Preston in the Telegraph summed it up as, “a travel documentary about somewhere you wouldn’t want to go to, presented by someone you wouldn’t want to go with.”
It's Piers Morgan's gross over-confidence that seems to upset people, like when he moved to CNN and announced, “the secret of getting great interviews will be not doing them live.” What piffle! If an interview isn't live it's as unexciting as pro-wrestling.
He soon realised his mistake (or his producers did). A month ago the show went live.
And what happened? Nothing! It's still as unexciting as pro-wrestling, and even reminiscent of it – too false, too much mock controversy.
Before he left the UK Piers Morgan was making progress towards becoming a serious interviewer in the old-fashioned David Frost mould – talking to top people and digging into their private thoughts. He even got Gordon Brown to shed a tear on camera (though Brown's PR chap was probably the man most responsible). But in America, faced with an interview every day and a show-business culture that doesn't like to dig too deep, Morgan's interviews have quickly become standard celebrity obsequity.
Perhaps his name being mentioned in connection with the phone hacking scandal will give the programme a lift. Or give him a reason to leave it without having to admit he's failed at what he set out to do – repeat David Frost's success of forty years ago as America's best TV interviewer.
These days, as always, TV interviews on both sides of the Atlantic are mostly jokey chit-chat -“Nice to see you, tell us a funny story”. But when it comes to digging beneath a guest's smiling face, Britain has always had the edge. David Frost was the first to turn it into a prime time sport, cosying up to guests to get their confidence, then popping the unforgiving question.
The BBC's current first choice seems to be Andrew Marr – like steel when he doesn't like a person, but easily put off if they brim with charm, something Hardtalk's Stephen Sackur wouldn't even notice.
Sackur's technique is to leap from his corner like a boxer going for a first-round knockout. Hardtalk's back-up interviewer, Lyse Doucet, is even more intimidating. Purse-mouthed and persistent, pressing for answers like an investigating headmistress.
And there's a new breed of interviewer too - Martin Bashir and Louis Theroux – who often seem more like private eyes.
For sheer tenaciousness there's still no one to beat Jeremy Paxman, who once asked Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question fourteen times without getting an answer. The BBC editor who hired Paxman described him as having, "the slight air of danger - you switch on and you don't know what's going to happen." Which is how all good interviews should feel.
As for the need to go out live, nothing underlines it better than the Murdochs' appearance at Westminster last month. Questions stuttered, questions repeated, irrelevant questions, and questions that went on for so long the questioner forgot what he was planning to ask. Considering the appalling lack of cut and thrust in the questioning it should have been unwatchable. Yet it was electrifying. And the reason was - it was live - anything could happen.
I wouldn't be surprised if Piers Morgan and his producers watched it and thought, “If only we could produce a crowd-puller like that”. And why shouldn't they? It could be a new concept in TV interviews.
Of late, British parliamentary inquiries and Senate hearings have become compulsive viewing. So why not try the formula on TV? A panel of six people grilling someone currently involved in a controversial situation. Something of an inquisition, but why not? The public love that sort of thing. And there'd always be people prepared to undergo it for the sake of publicity.
Who knows - Morgan's producers might decide a show like that is worth thinking about. In which case his denial of being involved in the phone hacking scandal could turn out to be a lucky break. If he's asked to repeat it in front of a Parliamentary Committee he'll get a chance to try out the concept for himself.
Could be the most unmissable interview he's done for months.
Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
EL BULLIMIA - AN EATING DISORDER
Ferran Adrià, chef and owner of the restaurant El Bulli (famous for its 34-course tasting menu and its waiting list of a million customers), has closed the place down. He wants to spend more time in his food laboratory.
Good riddance! El Bulli wasn't a proper restaurant anyway – it was an eating disorder. And it's been spreading.
Although the flavours may be earth-shattering, these tasting menus aren't really meals at all; they're just the chef showing off. Like going to a concert where a composer of prize-winning advertising music plays you his 30-second jingles - one after another till you go stark raving mad. About ten minutes, I should think.
Serving thirty-four tiny dishes, however delicious, has nothing to do with what restaurants are about. Each of these morsels, once well chewed, would be best spat into a bucket like a wine tasting. Then afterwards everyone could go out for a decent dinner with good conversation and proper gaps between the waiter's interventions.
It's those damned interventions that spoil these tasting menus. If they could just put all 34 dishes down in front of you and let you get on with it like a Chinese feast, that would be fine. But no - there you are at dinner with a friend you haven't seen for ages, or someone you want to do business with, or flirt with, and every time the conversation gets going the waiter arrives with another dish and another annoying explanation of what it is, sometimes even telling you the right way to eat it. Restaurants are for enjoying good food in relaxed surroundings, not for waiters to turn up every three minutes with a new set of eating instructions.
A while back, my friend Hass K and I went to Sketch, another restaurant suffering from El Bullimia, where we were talked into trying the tasting menu.
Hass had just come back from holiday
'How was it?' I asked.
'Great, especially the day we drove over to...'
We were interrupted by the waiter arriving with a tray of saucers - tiny starter courses, each just a mouthful.
'Gentlemen - your sushi of sauerkraut and white beans with liquorice and tomato concasse, the cod mousse with coulis of cucumber, the foie gras with chestnut tuille, the......'
'Great – thank-you,' I told him, and scoffed the cod mousse.
'Where was it you drove to?' I asked Hass.
'Excuse me sir. You're re eating them in the wrong order. You're meant to start with the foie gras and eat in a clockwise direction.'
You see – it can drive you mad . This is not what restaurants are meant to be about.
A good restaurant is about the pleasure of arriving, of walking in, of surveying the room - the décor, the buzz, the waiters, the clientele, the tables, the cutlery, the glasses, the menu, the expectation. It's about relaxing with food and wine and good talk. About watching people come in and leave; observing the shifting scene; enjoying the pleasure of simply being there.
A tasting menu destroys much of that. Instead of a finely prepared plate of food, to be eaten slowly, melding with the wine and improving over successive mouthfuls, you're presented with a tray of the chef's best conjuring tricks - clever cocktail snacks that burst in your mouth destroying the harmony between food and wine, and served by intrusive waiters who spoil the flow of conversation.
If Ferran Adrià really cared for restaurants he would never consider closing down El Bulli. Instead, he would take his 34 miraculous cocktail snacks, and all the other flavours and textures he has devised, and weave them into a normal menu which people could choose from and dine on at their leisure.
A top chef has to love more than just food. He has to love restaurants.
Wednesday, July 27th, 2011
LARDERS and LINOLEUM
Record companies are the past. Nothing wrong with them – they served a purpose, and the names of their labels were a part of our lives. But like larders and linoleum and cars that didn't start on cold mornings, they belong to another age.
Trouble is, they don’t realise it. In 2004 BMG merged with Sony, then sold out completely. That left just four major record companies. BMG then changed their mind about leaving the record business and made a bid for Warner. Having failed, they're now bidding for EMI. So are Universal and Sony. With one company buying another – then separating, then re-buying - the record industry in its death throes is beginning to look like a demented dog running in circles trying to eat its tail.
The first digital camera appeared in 1990. Just fifteen years later Kodak gave up making film. The end of darkrooms and negatives and 35mm slides was that quick. Yet 17 years after the first mp3 showed us the future of recorded music, record companies still haven't got it - they cling to the past, making scratchy little circles of plastic.
Well of course they do. Since the early 1900s, records have been the greatest source of income ever invented. It started with one cent's worth of shellac selling for a dollar. And though the type of plastic has changed and inflation has upped the prices, the ratio has always stayed the same. There is, of course, the cost of finding something to press into it that people want to hear, but from source material to finished product there's a profit of ten thousand per cent, the highest in all of retail selling. Who'd want to let go of that?
Certainly not the major record companies. They're squeezing what they can from a dying market. No longer investing in artist development, they’re playing safe, serving up pappy pop and endless re-issues. The companies aren’t run by young forward-thinking people; the people at the top are the same old faces who've been there for years, growing ever more wrinkled, applying sludgy minds to a declining situation, clinging to overpaid jobs. Defunct, but refusing to accept it.
From the 80s onwards, as the major companies got bigger they became the industry's doormen. To have a career in popular music you had to find a way past them. When originality was still welcomed, that wasn’t so bad. But today, with record companies only wanting more of what they sold yesterday, anyone offering something new has to find their own market through the internet. Which is what they’re doing, making record companies progressively more redundant.
To begin with record companies were run by people who loved music. In their heyday the greatest albums were a perfect balance between marketing and art. The work of art was the record, in its sleeve, in its rack, in the record shop. But as the companies conglomerated, instead of continuing this balance between commerce and creativity, they simply chased profit.
For rock and pop managers the first priority has always been to fight the record company - arguing, manipulating, coercing and cajoling them into doing whatever’s needed to get success for their artists. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Major record companies are dull, deaf, greedy, blind, stupid, grasping and dishonest – but that's what they're meant to be – they're the enemy. As an artist's manager your job is to go to war with them.
But like a professional soldier - without an enemy you're out of work. And on that basis I regret their passing. Yet there's a certain fondness for them too. These days, watching the major record companies writhe is like watching a terminally-ill uncle endure a long tortuous death. You remember the good times you had together, but they're over. You're lovely old uncle is suffering incontinence, dementia and pain. The right thing to do would be to help him on his way. But you can't.
Poor old record companies, I wish I could give them a pill to finish it off painlessly.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
GODS, GAYS, & BAGELS (& CROISSANTS)
In 1957, when I left school, being gay was still a choice. You couldn't, of course choose what would make your knob jump up and dance. But you could, and did, make a choice about whether you were going to get on with life as you were, or cover it up.
The point was, it was illegal. Most homosexuals kept their sexuality hidden - lived reclusive lives, got married as a front, or told endless silly stories about having never met the right girl. But a surprising number didn't. They enjoyed things just as they were, particularly the clandestine nature of their social life.
By the time I was fifteen I'd already read Isherwood and Auden and was enthralled. It wasn’t so much the sexual side of things, it was the outsider nature of their lifestyle. I couldn't wait to get on with a gay life and had no reservations about jumping into it. So as soon as I left school I made the choice and jumped.
In those days, for anyone who wasn't a part of it, the gay world was a secret. Nowadays it's public property and the excitement has gone. Being gay is no longer a choice, it's just a gene. If you're homosexual, that's fine. No one's going to bother you and most countries in Europe even allow you to get legally hitched. All rather dull compared with how it was.
At school, the other big decision was religion. We were told point blank we had to believe in God. There were school prayers every morning and the only way to avoid them was to be Buddhist, Jewish or Moslem, in which case you could wait in a small room next to the library.
Since my atheism wasn't accepted as an excuse for not attending prayers I made my protest by refusing to lean forward and shut my eyes when they were being said. Instead I sat bolt upright and stared at whoever was on the podium delivering them. In due course I was called before the headmaster.
“You don't shut your eyes during prayers,” he snapped.
“Seems like you don't either,” I told him.
For this I was sent to London to see a psychiatrist. When I told him I refused to be railroaded into believing religious claptrap, he muttered, “Good choice.”
But over the last few years there've been ominous rumblings about a religious gene - a gene that creates an unstoppable need in people to believe in an all-powerful gentleman in the sky. This would put religion on a par with homosexuality – not a choice, but something you're born with.
Which brings me to bagels.
A week or two ago H&H Bagels, New York’s most famous bagel establishment, closed its doors after 39 years in business. Regular bagel buyers stood outside the empty building in tears and columnists wrote about a culinary disaster. But why? How could any right-minded person like a bagel? Bagels are the nearest thing to stale bread ever invented.
They were first brought to America by Jewish immigrants in the 19th century. The same immigrants gave America its film industry, its music industry, its best songwriters, many of its great comedians and authors, and outstanding people in every other field. But they weren't too hot on food. True, they could drum up a decent cheesecake and were quite clever with pickles, but oh... those bagels!
Imagine in front of you on the breakfast table is a bagel - freshly baked perhaps, maybe still warm, but with nothing more to offer than the sensation of chewing on stale crusts and blotting paper. Next to it is a croissant. Crispy and flaky on the outside, soft and mouth-watering on the inside - maybe the most delicate confection ever produced by the baking of flour and water in an oven. These two items are about the same price, about the same size, made mostly from the same ingredients, and serve the same purpose. One is utterly exquisite. The other is disgusting. So why would anyone choose the bagel? How can it be explained?
Some day soon scientists will come up with the answer, but I'm afraid it's going to be very boring. Like being gay, or believing in God, I’ve a feeling they’re going to discover a bagel gene.
It’s depressing. There are far too many genes around these days. I preferred it when we made choices.
Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
THAT SPLENDID C-WORD
A couple of weeks ago Julie Burchill was complaining in the Independent about people who use the C-word. She thoroughly disapproves. But I think she's wrong. It's a splendid word. A super word. A great full-stop of a word. Uttered with a suitable amount venom it can bring any conversation to a complete halt, whereas its miserably overused cousin, the F-word, has lost all power to shock.
Julie's objection seems be that using the word to abuse someone denigrates the female sex organ. But she's wrong. The word has two distinctly different meanings. And when used to abuse someone it has no more to do with the female sex organ than calling someone a silly old bugger has to do with homosexuality.
As a term of abuse, the C-word has developed a distinct meaning of its own. Think for a minute at whom you might hurl it at. Nearly always someone stubborn pedantic, bureaucratic, and - in the way. That's the most important bit - in the way. Someone coming between you and something you want. Not reasonably; but because they claim principle, or bureaucracy, or correct procedure to be on their side. Like the waiter who won't let you sit at the table you want because it's for four, and your only two, despite the fact the restaurant is completely empty.
A candidate for the C-word is always in the way of something that seems quite reasonable for you to want to do. And therein lies the clue to the word's transition from its original meaning of the female sex organ. In its transitionary stage to being used for an obstructive person, the word was used not about the sex organ itself but of its owner, for telling some randy full-of-himself lout to get lost.
Far from regarding the word unkindly, Julie Burchill should warm to its use in this context. It was created by stubborn, men-resistant, women, dismissing sexual predators. From there it has come to be used about anyone who is stubborn and pedantic, who makes no effort to compromise, and who unreasonably gets in the way of what seems (to the other person) to be a perfectly reasonable objective.
A perfect example was a couple of weeks ago when a paraplegic passenger was trying to fly from Dallas to Denver. A flight attendant told the pilot his seatbelt might not be sufficient to secure him. So the pilot ordered him off the plane. Three law enforcement officers came onboard to remove him but when they saw the seatbelt was actually perfectly secure they told the pilot it wasn't a law enforcement matter. But the pilot still refused to take off with the man on the plane.
The airline later said, "We had a well-intentioned pilot who was seeking to do the right thing..."
No they didn't. They had a self-important, stubborn, bureaucrat. He never even left the cockpit to assess the situation for himself - a perfect candidate for the C-word.
The point is, it's such a wonderfully expressive word, both ugly and blunt. And that's its beauty - an extra offensive word for an extra offensive occasion.
Like everyone else, though, I don't find it much fun being on the wrong end of it.
Some years ago, I was managing Ultravox whose keyboardist was Billy Currie, a likeable chap, but with a tendency to sudden irrational outbursts.
One sunny summer morning I'd just made a cup of coffee and carried it into the garden to accompany the morning newspaper when the phone rang in the kitchen. I went back inside to answer it and when I picked it up the handset shrieked at me. It was Billy, and he was on fire. “You're an, ass-licking, shit-shovelling, cock-sucking CUNT.”
And he banged down the phone.
I can tell you - it quite spoilt my day. I threw the coffee down the sink, put the newspaper in the bin and considered leaving at once for a year in Kathmandu.
But five minutes later the phone rang again and Billy was back with his nicest, smarmiest, what-a-great-manager-you-are voice. “Simon, did I ring just now and swear at you? I’m really sorry man – I dialed the wrong number - thought you were someone else - sorry mate.”
Too much cocaine for breakfast, I should think.
Wednesday, July 6th, 2011
ART IS THE NEW ROCK'N'ROLL
In the last few weeks there have been art events all over the place - The Hong Kong Arts Festival, the Venice Biennale, the Basel Art Fair, the Royal Academy's summer exhibition, and the Hayward Gallery's retrospective of Tracey Emin. In music, that would be five of the year's biggest rock festivals happening in the same month.
Art is booming as never before. Booming creatively, booming commercially, booming subversively. At every level, art is the number one popular expressionism of the moment. Music has fallen to second place.
Coming from the music business, and having only entered the art world in the last year through taking on the management of an artist, the most noticeable difference between the art world and the music industry is freedom. Freedom from being dictated to by major record companies.
Imagine if, all over the world, every art gallery in every city in every country belonged to one or another of four major corporations. In order to have their works shown every aspiring artist had to go to the local office of one of these multi-national corporations and present his work to the art equivalent of an A&R man, someone who would make his decision based on the lowest common denominator of public taste. That's how the music industry has dealt with newcomers for the last twenty years, and if a similar thing happened in the art world the only artists having success would be Jack Vettriano and people painting cats.
In the early 70s rock music was at a high point of creativity. Not only were there plenty of independent companies but artists who signed with majors were still given freedom in creative matters. Since then, as major record companies have amalgamated, the space for artistic freedom has grown smaller. Success with a first album is obligatory and the need for corporate profit at all costs has caused X-Factor and American Idol to become the industry's major showcases.
Never mind! Before long the internet and downloading will cause record companies to disappear completely. New music makers will have the same artistic freedom that painters and sculptors have long had. But although major record companies will cease to be the doormen of the industry, creative young people dreaming of becoming superstar artists may no longer find the music industry the best place to be.
It's true there won't be A&R men standing between the artists and their potential audiences. But although the internet will offer everyone exposure, there'll be a much broader spread of styles. Audiences for each artist will be smaller, which means there'll probably be no more mega-rich rock superstars.
There are already more millionaire painters and sculptors than millionaire pop and rock stars. To make money from music, huge numbers of people must have homogenous tastes and buy the same record. In the art world, a work of art is more tangible and needs only one buyer. And these days there are millions of them. Not just the super-rich arriving in their yachts for the Venice Biennale, or the millionaires who queue all night at Basel to rush in the second it opens and buy the place dry. There's the more ordinary folk who flock to the Royal Academy's summer show, or the millions who buy lithographs and prints on line from websites like art.com. What attracts all these people to contemporary art is its incredible diversity of style and subject, its wonderful freedom. And in sharp contrast to the world of music where creativity has long been stifled by profit-obsessed corporations trying to second guess what the public wants next; whether it's Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds, Tracey Emin's bed full of tampons, or Allora & Calzadilla's upside tank with a running machine on top, the artists most likely to create blockbuster hits are those creating art primarily to please themselves. As it once was with music.
The music world is in debate as to what lies ahead. Record companies will soon be gone. No one's crying. But new musical artists are wondering how, in the internet age, they will get sufficient focus on themselves to rise to the top. Bit by bit fresh promotional mechanisms will emerge; in the meantime the new style music industry would do well to keep an eye on the world of art.
For young people with something to express, art is the new rock and roll.