Monday, March 25, 2019

Carrying a Scott Walker LP under your arm in 1967 was a cry for help

Not everything that came out in 1967 was bitten by psychedelia.

I bought this copy of Scott Walker's first solo LP in the same shop in the same year that I bought “Sgt Pepper”.

Scott Walker was just coming out of three years of being a scream idol with the Walker Brothers and he was determined that this time he was going to undersell himself. I fancy the picture on the back which has him looking soulfully towards the camera while a sophisticated lady gazed admiringly in his direction was originally planned to be on the front. I bet he didn’t want it, which is why they wound up with the picture they did, in which he seems to be doing everything in his power not to be a heart throb.

Of course, that was something he couldn’t help. This was a big hit album. The only records that stopped it going to number one were "Sgt Pepper" and "The Sound Of Music". He still got booked on the same TV shows as Tom Jones and Cilla Black. He even had his own prime time series.

This was one of those LPs you carried around under your arm, in the hope that some of its existential chic would rub off on your school blazer. Everybody has to have an image. It's often the case that the people trying hardest not to have one end up with the most powerful images of all. Scott Walker could have put a patent on "Beautiful Loser".

Musically I liked it then for the same reasons I like it now. He had a voice that seemed built for Rodgers and Hammerstein as much as Burt Bacharach. He had that thundering sound that was magically cooked up in Phillips studios between Wally Stott, a rock and roll rhythm section and scores of fiddle players who probably wore braces and armbands.

And there's nobody like him, before or since. Scott Walker's one of those artists, like Randy Newman, who arrived without antecedents. Now he seems to have departed without successors.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Does Leaving Neverland mean we've adored our last pop star?

I watched the whole of the first part of Leaving Neverland. Then I watched the whole of the second part. Finally I watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, the two men whose recollections of their time in Michael Jackson’s retinue of pretty young boys make up the film.

Before I watched it I wondered why it needed to be four hours long. Afterwards I thought the length amply justified. The film needs the time to take you through the experience of the boys as they and their parents were slowly lured into an unfamiliar world of unbelievable privilege and fathomless indulgence, as they were made to feel that they were among the Elect and their first duty was to protect the misunderstood demi-God who had put them there; as slowly, friendship turned to wooing and wooing turned to touching and then outright abuse in the many hiding places afforded by a sinister palace like Neverland. It’s a gradual process, which I gather is standard in these cases.

You’d have to be either a purblind fan or in some way financially dependent on the Jackson estate not to believe these two men. The film and the Oprah interview explain why they might have given contrary testimony in the past and also makes it clear they were not paid for their participation in the film. And even if they were no amount of money could possibly compensate them for the death threats they seem to be on the receiving end of today.

Was I shocked? After the supposedly clean-living River Phoenix was found dead on the pavement outside the Viper Room I stopped being shocked by the things that very famous people are capable of concealing from the public. And River Phoenix couldn’t buy anything like as much privacy and looking the other way as Michael Jackson could.

I didn’t feel betrayed either. Certainly not in the way many other, younger people have been. I couldn't be betrayed because I was never devoted.

I don’t believe you can ever be a fan of anybody who’s younger than you are. The only people you really look up to are the people who were already stars during your formative years. I was already an adult when the young Jackson started his career and so there’s always been a certain amount of detachment to my admiration of his gifts.

One of the things that comes through in the film is that Jackson had two gears. The first was "I love everybody in the world and I want them to love me" and the other could be perfectly expressed in the sentence he uttered to one of the parents, "I always get what I want".

I don't believe in the banning of music – or anything else for that matter. However I'm glad I don't have any shares in Jackson's catalogue because he and his music are about to disappear from the airwaves and streams, if not for ever then certainly for the next few years. Even the charity shops will be having to decide how they feel about selling all the copies of "Thriller" that are bound to be traded in.

Is it possible to separate the man and the music? Yes, it should be. Problem is the world which made Jackson a superstar operated on the principle "love me, love my music". His personality was baked in to ever last note. Every video Jackson made was an advertisement for himself. It was an invitation to join in his adoration. There was no modesty in his make-up, false or otherwise. In his case people are going to find it harder than ever to separate the music from the persona and the persona from the culprit.

My new book "A Fabulous Creation" is all about the age of the LP, which began with "Sgt Pepper" in 1967 and finished, for a variety of reasons, with "Thriller" in 1982. Jackson set out to make "Thriller" the biggest album in history and he succeeded. Everything he did was designed to make him the biggest. Being the biggest mattered to him in a way that it doesn't matter to most stars.

After watching Leaving Neverland we can only conclude that the biggest star in pop has also turned out to be its biggest creep. He believed what Goebbels believed – that if you're going to tell a lie, you may as well tell a big one. A lot of people believed it. Some still do. You have to wonder if they really do in their heart of hearts. As the producer of the film says to Oprah Winfrey, "all these people rushing to his defence – how could they possibly know what went on behind closed doors?"

Fandom's a kind of madness. All too easily it spills over from liking somebody's music and the way they do their hair into a blind belief that everything they do is beyond question. To some extent idols have always let us down. But in the past they've let us down gently. That's not the case here. After Leaving Neverland I find myself wondering. Have we adored our last pop star?

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

It's not the writing that counts - it's the crossing-out

One of the most striking revelations in Andrew Roberts book about Churchill is how much work he put into every single piece of communication he authored.

He had a prodigious memory, which meant he could call upon every poem, Bible reading or Shakespearean speech he had ever heard, and he was almost incapable of writing an inelegant sentence.

But that didn’t mean he would wing it.

Churchill would dictate his speeches, then correct them on the page and then dictate them again. The final version he read from would always be rendered in “psalm form” with the short lines indented so that he could read each one before saying it and then easily see where his eye should go next.

That’s how he became the greatest orator of the twentieth century - by starting off with a God-given talent and then working at it four times as hard as anybody else would.

I was thinking of him yesterday when I saw this letter which John Steinbeck wrote to Marilyn Monroe. It’s just a simple request for an autograph but it’s better written than most novels.

I bet he did it ten times before he got a version he was happy with. That’s the difference between the greats and everybody else. The infinite capacity for taking pains.