Enlightenment on Nirvana

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD feels slightly guilty about Kurt Cobain

The Peaceable Kingdom probably isn’t the first place one might have looked for Kurt Cobain. Of all the ironies and confusions of his brief life, perhaps none was as pointed as his choosing to kill himself in a room overlooking that sign, announcing the entrance to Seattle’s exclusive Leschi neighbourhood, with its panoramic views of Lake Washington and the snow-capped mountains beyond, where one morning in April 1994 Cobain, then in the third year of his marriage to his fellow musician and sometime actor Courtney Love, first injected himself with heroin and then took a shotgun and blew his brains out.

Yes, he was 27, like several other high-profile musicians including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Amy Winehouse to follow, which has helped popularise the belief that age is imbued with a mystical horror for anyone who plays the guitar or goes near a microphone for a living. A professor of psychology at the University of Sydney named Dianna Kenny has even published a statistically detailed paper on the subject. It concludes that the most common age for a rock musician to leave the mortal stage is in fact 56 (2.2%, compared to 1.3% at 27), although she concedes that an inordinate number of those both in and out of the 27 Club have succumbed by suicide, murder, injury or accident. The percentage of professional musicians dying by their own hand reached 9.6% of all such fatalities in the early 1990s, before falling to 4.5% today, set against an overall suicide rate which remains broadly stable at 0.25% of the adult UK population as a whole, while remaining the major single cause of death for males under the age of 45.

Why did Cobain do it? That’s a question the statistics can’t answer. Among other contributory factors, there was a history of self-harm in his family; he was a heroin addict, and, perhaps not coincidentally, suffering from crippling stomach pain; he may have been bipolar. And then of course there’s Richard Burton’s aphorism about the toxic nature of fame, which he defined as ‘a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps, before you come to choke on it.’ In 1989, Cobain moved from the ghost town of Aberdeen, Washington (British readers need only think of one of the country’s sadly reduced former Northern manufacturing hubs, but with rows of domino-like houses built of decaying wood, rather than brick, to get some of the flavour) – where, showing a bitterly precocious lyrical talent, he once scrawled on his childhood bedroom wall, ‘I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom. Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you sad’ – 100 miles up the road to the comparative bright lights of Seattle.

Kurt Cobain (playing drums) in 1981

Within two years Cobain and his group Nirvana, with a sludgy, bottom-heavy guitar sound and a matching dress sense that some critics fastened on to dub ‘grunge’, had accommodated themselves to signing a seven-figure contract with the corporate behemoth Geffen Records. Six months later, the band released its breakthrough album Nevermind, which to date has sold 35 million copies worldwide, been recognised by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically important’ to the nation, and which Rolling Stone magazine, displaying its usual air of critical reserve, describes as

…a dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and life-changing words … boast[ing] an adrenalised skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock … At the album’s sonic extremes, “Something in the Way” floats a translucent cloud of acoustic guitar and cello, while “Breed” and “Stay Away” race flat-out, the latter ending in an awesome meltdown rumble that’s both prehistoric and very contemporary in its approach.

(No, I don’t really know what it means, either.)

Before long, Cobain was wasting away in his own private Graceland, in this case a multi-level Seattle lakefront home hidden behind a brick wall topped by a screen of bushes with a sign out front reading ‘Beware of the Dog.’ He seems to have enjoyed the money, if not the deceitful comfort of living amongst the very software billionaires and corporate bankers whom he despised.

At bottom, I think the sad but inescapable truth is that Cobain saw himself as ill-placed in life’s queue. Perhaps only in America could a multi-millionaire in his mid-twenties complain of being under-valued, but there were compelling reasons for his dissatisfaction beyond the obvious material ones. Not only did Cobain have the misfortune to come from a family of depressives, he chose a profession notorious both for the brevity of its successes and the shark-like aspect of most of its managerial class, whose business morals might well have raised tuts of disapproval among the more malevolent attendees of a Sicilian Mafia conclave. Add the proximity of drugs and guns, for both of which he had a marked taste, and you can see the beginnings of the potential for disaster.

Cobain’s cousin Beverley, herself a psychiatric nurse, once told me that it was always hard to envision him growing old and contented, or for that matter reconciling himself to the indignities of today’s burgeoning senior-citizen rock tour circuit. For what it’s worth, I happened to write a slim biography of Cobain which appeared in the summer of 1995, about a year after he died, where I allowed myself the reflection: ‘The prospect of him playing Nevermind to a crowd of paunchy, late middle-aged fans in the year 2020 must have been unthinkable for a man who insisted life effectively ended at the age of 30.’ I’d change quite a lot of the book if I had the chance to do so today, but I think that one observation, at least, has stood the test of time.

Speaking of which biography: looking back on it now from my advanced antiquity I feel that in certain fundamental aspects I may have done its subject a disservice in suggesting to the world, or at least that small part of it that actually bought the book, that Cobain was at bottom little more than a petulant, self-loathing young man, admittedly with an ephemeral talent to entertain, who ultimately stands as a representative specimen of the sort of individual, surely found predominantly if not exclusively in the United States, who can be both materially pampered beyond avarice and yet simultaneously and vocally unhappy. This was not quite fair of me.

Cobain had certain quantifiable reasons for his misery: ill health, the residual effect of his wretched childhood in the backwater of Aberdeen, a difficult marriage, the bitter aftermath of Nevermind, which led to renewed record-company pressures for more of the same and to the consequent regime of doing tour after album after tour ad infinitum, which Cobain himself likened to the spectacle of a caged gerbil running on a treadmill. Both perversely nostalgic for his impoverished childhood and ever apprehensive about the future, he seems not to have had the gift of enjoying the moment. In the years since his death, several of Cobain’s journals have come to light in either commercial or private form. His disregard for dates and names, his rather approximate handwriting, and his apparently only passing familiarity with the rules of English grammar can often serve to confound the reader. As a rule, he narrates in a kind of singsong stream-of-consciousness which, disconcertingly, gives equal weight to events great and small; drugs and deaths, and thoughts of suicide, roll along with minute observations on the physical appearance of things. But Cobain’s voice is nonetheless always compelling. Reflecting on the whole thing today, one is increasingly left with a profound sense of sadness and waste, as opposed to any more venal emotion, at his loss. There’s also the fact, in passing, that with hindsight I should never have wholly swallowed the reminiscences of certain of those of Cobain’s near contemporaries with an axe to grind against him, or for that matter with some obscure agenda to pursue of their own that might have led them, and thus their interviewer, to an at best partial understanding of the events of the-then recent past. Nonetheless, it should go without saying that none of those who in their different ways contributed to my understanding of my subject can be blamed for the shortcomings of the text. They are mine alone.

Three decades on, Cobain’s image as the unwitting poster-boy of Generation X, the ones experiencing the world through the fun-house mirror prism of MTV and cheap drugs (later stigmatised by the American author Douglas Coupland as “42 million gripers”) serves as a distraction from his actual body of work. For the patron saint of slackers, he was surprisingly prolific. Nirvana released three full studio albums in just four years, which borders on the Stakhanovite by modern standards, quite apart from the profusion of greatest-hits compilations, live recordings, remixes and box-sets padded by spurious ‘rarities’ that help to pay for the Geffen company Christmas bonus to this day. Added to that, Cobain was constantly writing, touring, subjecting himself to interviews and in general becoming the world’s consensus rock star in the era between Michael Jackson and Michael Stipe. No, none of Nirvana’s music changed the world, despite what some of its more excitable proponents claimed for it. But it was always meticulously well crafted, and there are countless stories about Cobain’s habit of simulating ennui (what was Nevermind, but a shrug of indifference?) while in reality spending endless hours polishing the product. An early and rather touching example of this dedication to the job was recalled by a woman named Betty Kalles, who hired the 22-year-old Cobain to work as a summer maintenance man at a Washington state seaside hotel at the time Nirvana were coming up through the ranks.

Kurt was quiet, but he was also clean-cut and polite,’ Kalles told me. ‘He was never able to work on Fridays or Saturdays because his band would go out and play on those days, but he would always make it in to work on Sunday morning on time. He was really a model employee, but when he finally quit his job he told me the chemicals he was using to wash the windows were making his fingernails soft, and he was unable to play guitar. “I have to do everything for my music,” he said.

The author William Burroughs, who knew a thing or two about life (and for that matter death, having once drunkenly shot his wife through the head), whatever one makes of the literature that ensued, once remarked that he thought Cobain had been ‘acting out a kind of morality tale about what it means to be famous in America.’ Essentially, the plot was a simple one: the mother-dominated yet wayward boy from the wrong side of the tracks, discovering a talent to amuse, knows enough to turn it into money and stardom, but would always rather be elsewhere, doing something else.

In that context, I’m always reminded of the story Cobain’s estranged father Don told me about seeing his son for the first time in seven years after talking his way backstage at a Nirvana concert in Seattle in September 1992. The scene was an unprepossessing, concrete-walled room filled with tables of sweating, plastic-wrapped cheese plates and domestic beer, with people constantly tugging at Kurt’s arm even during his few minutes alone with his father. ‘I felt sorry for him,’ Don said poignantly. ‘It didn’t look very glamorous to me.’

Perhaps in the end it’s enough to say that when a materially and emotionally stunted childhood gives way to an adolescent taste for heavily amplified rock music and nihilistic literature, and factors such as debilitating stomach cramps, heroin, and the need to project oneself on stage in front of tens of thousands of delirious strangers are added to the mix, even a more self-confident man than Cobain might have been brought to the point where he considers his options.

Just twelve months after Cobain’s brief reunion with his father, Nirvana released a new album containing a sardonic and often caustic collection of songs named In Utero. One of the record’s tracks contained the line, ‘Wait, I’ve got a new complaint’, and another one ended with the repeated chorus, ‘I miss the comfort in being sad.’ Six months later, Cobain barricaded himself in a spare room above the garage attached to his Seattle home, took a lethal dose of drugs and then put a shotgun to his head. Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s entirely conceivable that had he lived he could have become a sort of David Bowie figure, his cutting edge progressively dulled, perhaps, but still remaining creatively restless across a variety of media, and on balance not likely to be found today crooning a medley of Nevermind-era hits from the stage of a Vegas casino auditorium. He is badly missed.

Polanski at (nearly) 90

Photo: Shutterstock
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD looks back at an astonishing and controversial career

Temporal landmarks may be purely arbitrary and exist only in our heads, as Einstein and his crew tell us, but it surely still comes down to a case of tempus fugit in the matter of the Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski. Turning 90 on 18 August 2023, he’s seemingly gone from being cinema’s perpetual enfant terrible to its grand old man, albeit with some significant growth pains along the way.

As often noted, Polanski’s own life has the makings of a Hollywood drama, if one with some distinctly noirish twists. His mother Bula, four months’ pregnant, was killed in the Holocaust, and his father Ryszard survived nearly three years in a German death camp. Polanski himself escaped the Nazis, but then spent the rest of his early life under Stalin’s jackboot. He eventually made it to freedom in the West, only for his wife Sharon Tate, also pregnant, to be brutally murdered in the couple’s Los Angeles home in 1969 by members of the so-called Manson family.

That might seem quite enough shadow for one life, but more was to come. In March 1977, Polanski, who was then 43, took a 13-year-old girl to a house in the Hollywood Hills to take photos of her for a magazine. Once there, he gave her champagne and tranquilizers, had sex with her, drove her home, and the following week was arrested. Polanski absconded from court on the eve of his being sentenced a year later, apparently in the belief that he was about to be locked up for life. As a dual Franco-Polish citizen, he was able to settle in Paris, where he remains at liberty to this day.

Before moving on, just a brief note on the judicial proceedings against Polanski in re. his statutory rape of a minor, which these days is increasingly portrayed – not least by Polanski himself – in almost Kafkaesque terms, and more particularly as a case of a vindictive and senile judge – one Laurence J. Rittenband, then aged 72, who presided over the Superior Court in Santa Monica, California – seeking to make an example of the ferret-faced, foreign-born sex predator standing before him in the dock.

Rittenband, it should be noted in this context, already had a long and not undistinguished legal career spanning some fifty years at the time Polanski first entered his courtroom. Of a modest background in Brooklyn, New York, he’s agreed to have been knowledgeable and personally unassuming – in one account, ‘not one of those judges who always thinks he’s in the movies’ (although by the same token, also not above keeping his own press cuttings file). In his memoirs, Polanski implies that Rittenband was star-struck by the 1977 proceedings, and, after initially exercising due judicial restraint (setting the defendant’s bail at a modest $2,500, and even allowing him to travel outside the country ‘should he so wish’), was ‘clearly over-enjoying his first excursion into the limelight.’

This account is not quite fair. In fact by the time he met Polanski, Rittenband had already presided over a host of high-profile Hollywood cases, including Elvis Presley’s divorce, Marlon Brando’s child-custody battle and a paternity suit against Cary Grant. Nor could it be concluded from these proceedings that the judge was in any way prejudiced against his celebrity defendants. In the case of Grant, for instance, Rittenband had made the eminently sensible suggestion that both the actor and the alleged mother of his child submit to a blood test, ‘after which we will determine what to do.’ When the woman in question had failed to appear for her scheduled test, and for two subsequent appointments, Rittenband curtly dismissed her suit. As well as being a stickler both for the letter and the spirit of the law, regularly advising plaintiffs and defendants alike of the need to be ‘decorous’ and punctual in his court, the judge was impressively well read in a variety of fields, which enabled him to make pertinent and original connections in his rulings. Regarding Elvis, for example, he quoted Jonathan Swift, observing to the charismatic but modestly educated ‘Hound Dog’ singer that ‘Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.’ Looking back on the Polanski case years later, Rittenband puckishly told the press, ‘It reminds me of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan: “I’ve got him on my list.”’

Three final things need to be said about the morals rap that has effectively defined the second half of Polanski’s life.

First, there was – and in some quarters, remains – a certain amount of doubt as to whether the then-widowed director had been fully aware of his victim’s age at the time he had sex with her. It’s true to say both that the child in question, Samantha Gailey, looked significantly older than thirteen, and also that she wasn’t perhaps the naïf widely portrayed by her defenders. In her own Grand Jury testimony on the matter, Gailey noted that she had had sex twice in the year before she met Polanski, that she had been drunk, and that “yeah, once I was under the influence of [drugs] when I was real little.”

However, it should also clearly be noted Gailey was still then a seventh-grade schoolgirl who “had a Spider Man poster on the wall and kept pet mice,” as she recalled in a magazine interview. Born on 31 March 1963, she was fully four years under the age of consent then required by the state of California. Polanski was later asked by the prosecuting attorney in the case how old he had believed his victim to be when he met her. “She was 13,” he said.

Next there’s the salient point of whether Polanski had in fact raped the child, or, conversely, whether, as he later insisted, she had been a ‘not unresponsive’ partner in the act. This is what Gailey had to say on the matter when questioned at the time in front of the Grand Jury:

Q: After Polanski first kissed you did he say anything?
A: No.

Q: Did you say anything?
A: No, besides I was just going, ‘No. Come on, let’s go home.’

Q: What was said after you indicated that you wanted to go home when you were sitting together on the couch?

A: He said, ‘I’ll take you home soon.’

Q: Then what happened?
A: Then he went down and he started performing cuddliness.

Q: What does that mean?
A: It means he went down on me or he placed his mouth on my vagina.

Gailey was asked whether either party had said anything following that point.


‘Did you resist?’

‘A little, but not really because … ’

‘Because what?’

‘Because I was afraid of him.’

Finally, there’s the belief, still widely in vogue today, that Polanski had been railroaded by a corrupt and/or incompetent judge who was apparently about to renege on a formal commitment not to send the defendant to prison following the completion of a mandatory 90-day diagnostic evaluation sentence. Those who insist the director was somehow misled into believing that his plea bargain in front of Rittenband would preclude the threat of further jail time may be interested in the previously sealed transcript of the critical August 1977 hearing at which Polanski pleaded guilty to a single reduced count of unlawful sex with a minor. As part of the process, the defendant was required to answer 62 separate questions posed by the district attorney in the case, among them the following exchange:

Q: Mr. Polanski, who do you believe will decide what your ultimate sentence will be in this matter?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will decide whether or not you will get probation?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will determine whether the sentence will be a felony or a misdemeanor?
A: The judge.

Q: Do you understand that at this time the court has not made any decision as to what sentence you will receive?

A: Yes.

Now turning from the criminal, or depredatory, to the small matter of whether Polanski’s films are actually any good. The director’s first full-length feature Knife in the Water (1962) is a beautifully crafted, if at times noticeably budget-conscious, thriller that offers the classic Polanskian brew of claustrophobia, latent menace, voyeurism, class antagonisms and sexual tension, in this case set aboard a small yacht. Seen today, it still seems as fresh as the moment it was released more than sixty years ago. Among other charms, Knife has some of the most convincing examples of the kind of pure and honest personal hatred that can pass for conversation in a marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All cult black and white Polish films should be shot on a shoestring, in an increasingly mutinous atmosphere among their cast and crew – that way they might be half as good as this one. Perhaps the best sign of the film’s artistic merits came when its distributors arranged a special showing for members of the Polish cabinet in Warsaw, and the state’s hardline communist party boss Wladyslaw Gomulka expressed his reservations about it by hurling an ashtray at the screen.

Following that there was a wonderfully twisted thriller named Repulsion, shot in London, which charts the mental disintegration of a young woman who lives with her sister on the top floor of a seedy South Kensington mansion block. As with Knife, the film occasionally betrays its budget-related shortcomings, but still shows an originality and a lightness of touch well beyond the stock Hammer-horror genre that its producers, a faintly comic-opera pair of East End entrepreneurs named Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, had in mind. The gradual crack-up of what Polanski calls ‘an angelic-looking girl with a soiled halo’, bereft of any of the sort of state emotional-welfare apparatus we might expect today, is what seems most shocking to modern viewers: both pitiable and ugly.

Repulsion was perhaps the logical curtain-raiser to Polanski’s first significant, and commercially successful, venture, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Essentially, it’s the tale of a young woman whose world, like that of the heroine in Repulsion, spirals into a living hell once she becomes pregnant – inseminated by Beelzebub himself, apparently – with her first child. Things soon take a downward turn. At first the neighbours in the woman’s New York apartment building show an unusual interest in her welfare, and in time weird chanting can be heard through the walls at night. Then another neighbour commits suicide by jumping out of a window. When the new mother finally gives birth, she’s at first told that her child has died on delivery. Hearing its cries from the next room, she locates her infant son, who it appears has highly unusual eyes, causing Rosemary to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. It’s all just a touch extreme, and the veteran actress Ruth Gordon, playing one of Rosemary’s neighbours, appears to have inadvertently wandered in from the set of a knockabout comedy, but set against this the direction itself is crisp, unpretentious and rarely stoops to cliché. The film brought Polanski both fame and fortune, but perhaps more importantly saddled him with the faintly unsavoury reputation he arguably still enjoys today. To some, it was as though the director himself had sold his soul to the devil, as some real-life equivalent of the Faustian pact seemingly entered into by Rosemary’s neighbours and tormentors. One widely-seen press headline of the time, parodying the advertising for Rosemary’s Baby, ran ‘Pray for Roman Polanski’.

After that came a notably sanguinary Macbeth, which most critics took as a cathartic exercise by Polanski, whose wife had been murdered the previous year, followed by Chinatown, a hard-boiled but gently paced saga of big-city corruption, peopled by Raymond Chandler-style wiseguys and featuring a memorable cameo by the director himself as a knife-wielding thug.

We can perhaps draw a discreet veil over the years from around 1975 to 2002, although the visually sumptuous Tess (1979) – like Macbeth, inviting numerous Freudian, if not overtly autobiographical interpretations, with its central plot of a young girl sexually violated by an older man – had both its admirers and detractors. Perhaps it’s enough to say that Polanski brought a distinct vision to bear in almost all his films, good or bad, and that this included a technical expertise (he remains an acknowledged master of matters such as camera lenses and stage-dressing) not as common in even the most prominent directors as one might think, as well as a tendency to explore the darker side of the human condition: the idea that we’re essentially adrift in a hostile world, the butt of some cosmic jest of unfathomable cruelty. ‘My characters’ destinies [are] the result of apparently meaningless coincidence,’ Polanski once said, which would appear to apply to much of his own career. One of the most pronounced themes, rarely far from the surface in his scripts, is the subject of betrayal, and, by extension, death – of compelling interest to the man whose mother, wife and unborn son were all murdered – and the inevitable survivor’s guilt. When asked about the violence in his films, muted as it may seem by modern standards, Polanski inevitably notes that he does no more than show the world around him, and whatever else he’s surely one of the few directors, living or dead, to have experienced quite as many of the twentieth century’s homicidal monsters at first hand. ‘People talk about the autobiographical aspect of Roman’s work,’ the critic and Polanski collaborator Ken Tynan once observed. ‘But his life’s much more interesting than that. The cliffhangers end with real falls.’

This somehow leads irresistibly to 2002’s The Pianist, the affecting Holocaust drama for which Polanski won his first and as yet only Academy Award. Surely one of the film’s many attractions is that it dares to underplay the obvious horror of the subject matter, never pandering to the audience with the sort of pity-of-it-all approach taken by other directors treating broadly the same material. In Polanski’s world there are no soaring choirs to mark the moments of redemption, and no Jaws-like thudding to signal the perils. The film’s climactic confrontation, when a leather-clad SS officer asks the eponymous musician Wladyslaw Szpilman to prove he can play the piano, the stark implication being that he’ll be shot if he can’t, stands as an exquisite example of the power of understatement. Where another director might have given us close-ups of squinting eyes and sweaty palms, Polanski lets the scene unfold quietly, with just the right balance of tension and release. Instead of the panoramic sweep of a Schindler’s List, The Pianist confines itself to a more modest and specific set of events. In scaling down the action to a single, not invariably heroic figure, it invites the audience members to put themselves in Szpilman’s shoes, and so achieves an impact that Spielberg’s worthy but heavy-going epic had somehow lacked. Taken as a whole, the film remains Polanski’s masterpiece, one that surprises through its understated and irresistible power to move.

It remains only to note that when Polanski won his Oscar for The Pianist, he wisely elected not to personally attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Had he done so, he would presumably have been met not by the traditional Academy limousine but by an armed police detail, which would have executed the outstanding warrant for his arrest and transported him to the nearest jail. Polanski’s friend Harrison Ford collected the trophy on his behalf, and was later able to fly to Paris and present it to him in person. The Oscar ceremony itself took place on 23 March 2003. By a morbid coincidence, it was sixty years to the day since Polanski’s father Ryszard had been marched off to the Mauthausen concentration camp, thus exposing his son to the full horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland. On at least one level, the whole ordeal now finally seemed to have been brought full circle. ‘I am deeply moved to be rewarded for The Pianist. It relates to the events so close to my own life, the events that led me to comprehend that art can transform pain,’ Polanski said in a statement from his Paris exile.

It is not a bad epitaph on his career as a whole.

The enigmas of Erskine Childers

Image: Gary Woods
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a gifted novelist and nationalist contrarian

The era either side of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. Perhaps there’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global shock to get the creative juices flowing. In July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes aside long enough to publish a story with the unambiguous title of ‘Danger!’, a cautionary tale of the British Isles being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade – and in at least some accounts one that proved spectacularly counter-productive, in that it spurred the Kaiser and his naval chiefs to do exactly what Doyle had warned of. The following year, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps mixed jingoism and Germanophobia in a topical yarn involving a sinister anarchist gang, a man with part of his finger missing, and an extended chase scene through the Scottish highlands.  Somerset Maugham went one further and actually became a wartime spy, an experience he later put to good use in his celebrated Ashenden series.

But perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, politician and latterly radical nationalist Erskine Childers. It had the lot. If some destructive process were to mysteriously eliminate the world’s entire spy-thriller library, only The Riddle remaining, we could surely reconstruct from it every outline of the basic formula, every essential character and flavour contributing to the genre. In essence, the novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system (at least a generation ahead of its time in that respect alone) with a lively seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the decrepit state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries, and The Times to call the author ‘a hero’ as a result; an ironic and perhaps poignant tribute in the light of what ultimately happened. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it ‘the first modern thriller.’ If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the sort of mass of technical description and verifiable detail later found in the James Bond series, The Riddle is for you.

Jenny Agutter in the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands

Curiously enough, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself, something of an odd bird, by all accounts, even by literary standards. Aged 33 at the time of The Riddle’s publication, he never wrote another novel, instead concentrating on dry military manuals and increasingly strident political tracts. To call Childers a man of humanising contradictions is an understatement. On the one hand, he served the Crown as a wartime intelligence and aerial reconnaissance officer, greatly distinguishing himself in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. On the other, he was busy on the side smuggling German-bought guns to supply the Home Rule nationalists in Ireland, running the weapons onto a moonlit beach north of Dublin on his racing yacht Asgard, accompanied by his wife Molly and a small crew. It was almost like a scene out of The Riddle, with the critical distinction that instead of sounding the alarm about German ambitions, Childers was in the curious position of serving the King while transporting arms from the Kaiser intended for a revolution behind the lines.

The 1916 Easter Rising that saw the deaths of 485 men, women and children, among them a number of swiftly enacted judicial executions, in a week of rioting around Dublin seems to have finally clarified any remaining questions of allegiance in Childers’s mind. ‘I am daily witness to the prostitution of the British Army I served to fulfill the many aims I loathed and combated,’ he wrote. ‘I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland.’

Having cemented his establishment credentials by winning the Distinguished Service Cross for his work at Gallipoli, Childers settled down to live as a sort of proto-hippy on a farm in County Wicklow, extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, enjoying an occasional toot of cocaine and, it’s said, a degree of freedom from the traditional monogamous ideal, while sending his three young sons to a progressive school where they would be taught nothing about religion until they were old enough to decide for themselves.

The war over, Childers was a victim of the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, and barely survived. This was apparently another significant, or decisive, turning-point in his evolution from popular middlebrow author to radical activist. At least one of his biographers has speculated that he suffered a psychological breakdown during the winter of 1919-20 as a result, with a subsequent ‘addiction to danger that amounted almost to a death-wish.’ The following May, Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a stinging attack on British policy, and followed it by a series of articles in the weekly Irish Bulletin tearing the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George to shreds. Childers was secretary to the delegation that negotiated a treaty with Westminster in December 1921, providing for effective Home Rule a year later. Following that, the proposal went, the Dublin government would act as a self-sufficient dominion of the British Empire, much like Canada or Australia. Lloyd George wrote in his diary of a ‘sullen’ Childers, seething with ‘compressed wrath’ that his attempts to bring about total and immediate Irish independence had failed. Winston Churchill went one further, calling him a ‘murderous renegade’, and a ‘strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.’

The Anglo-Irish Treaty spurred Childers, and others of his persuasion, to take direct action in the face of what they saw as a sellout to London. After a further series of articles in the perhaps provocatively titled War News, one morning in early November 1922 the now middle-aged and frail Childers set off by bicycle from his current home in County Kerry on the 200-mile journey to confer with Eamon De Valera and his fellow rebels in Dublin. There might almost be a certain wry comedy to the scene, which you could imagine, say, Alec Guinness later portraying on film, but for its consequences. Childers was soon arrested by British troops along the way, and found to be in possession of a small .32 calibre pistol, which may or may not have been in working order, in violation of the recently passed Emergency Powers Resolution.

The subsequent judicial proceedings were swift. Childers was indeed taken to Dublin, if under radically different circumstances than he would have wished, where he was put on trial a week later. The proceedings ended on 18 November 1922, after the defendant had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the British Military Tribunal convened for the event. The possession of the pistol was enough to condemn him to death. Childers lodged an appeal against the sentence, and this was heard the next day by a civil magistrate who said he lacked jurisdiction because of the ongoing paramilitary disturbances in the area. ‘The prisoner disputes the authority of the Tribunal and comes to this Court for protection,’ the judge wrote, ‘but its answer must be that its jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war that he himself has helped to produce.’

Early on the morning of 24 November 1922, Childers, now a stooped, gaunt-looking man of 52, was led into a tin-roofed shed used as a firing range on the Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin, where a row of twelve soldiers was waiting for him in front of an open coffin. Perhaps nothing in the life of this brilliant, troubled and sometimes perverse figure became him like the leaving it. After shaking the hand of each member of the firing squad, his final words were: ‘Take a step or two forwards, lads, it will be easier that way.’ A few hours earlier, Childers’s 16-year-old son – also named Erskine, and a future President of Ireland – had been allowed to briefly visit his father in his cell. The condemned man made him promise two things: that he would forgive every minister in the provisional government who was responsible for his death, and that if he ever went into politics he was never to seek to capitalise on his execution. The younger Childers did as he was asked, and in later years sometimes produced a scrap of paper on which his father had written his last testament: ‘I die loving England, and passionately pray that she may change completely and passionately towards Ireland.’

Wilko Johnson, 1947-2022

Wilko Johnson
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers the first time he met Dr. Feelgood’s ace guitarist

It’s a strange thing about biography. No matter how many facts are told, how many details are given or lists are made, the essential thing all too often resists telling. To say that so and so was born here, that he did this and did that, that he wrote this song or painted this picture, that he went around the world and married and had children and grew old and died – none of that tells us very much. What we want is a story.

In that spirit, all I can personally add to the numerous obituaries of the guitarist, sometime actor and raconteur Wilko Johnson, who died on 21 November at the age of 75, is a primordial memory of around December 1974, when I was just up at Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam student union somehow scraped together enough money to hire the band Dr. Feelgood to enliven our college Christmas party. This was the season, let it be remembered, of ubiquitous high heels and loon pants, of crushed velvet jackets with lapels as wide as hang-glider sails, when the charts were full of extravagantly quiffed artists like Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry, or David Bowie camping it up in his soul-revue phase, with a rather depressing weekly Top of the Pops regimen characterised by names like Charlie Rich, the Carpenters, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John and Jasper Carrott doing his ‘Funky Moped’.

Anyway, into the midst of this dross came the Feelgoods, and such was the shock I had to momentarily check the cigarette in my mouth (those were the days) to see if it might possibly have been tipped with something more exotic than Players Number 6. I mean, incredible. Four stony-faced Canvey Island geezers who looked like they might just as soon put the boot in as entertain you: two brooding hulks on drums and bass, both well tasty, and the twitchily charismatic figure of Lee Brilleaux up front singing – snarling, really – in a suit that might once have been white, jabbing his fist around in time to the beat in a way that suggested definite malice rather than some hippy-like state of being transported by the music, banging out a no-frills mix of sweaty rock and rhythm and blues typified by two-minute songs with titles like ‘I’m a Hog for You’ and ‘Stupidity’ and ‘Tequila’. This was not a group you could imagine sitting cross-legged over a communal bowl of brown rice to a backdrop of herbally-tinged joss sticks and the wafted strains of the latest Yes triple-gatefold concept LP.

And then slightly stage left, right there in front of me, Wilko Johnson on guitar. Amazing. Clad totally in black, pudding-bowl haircut, eyes staring out across the audience like searchlights, about twice a song he would suddenly take off like an overwound Energizer Bunny and go lurching across the stage, side to side, back to front, all the while keeping up a stark, percussive rhythm with a chopping right hand interspersed with a few demented solos that seemed to be more the product of a semi-tuned chainsaw than a traditional musical instrument, a routine he varied only by periodically lifting the guitar to his shoulder and peering down it as if to strafe the audience. As I say, stunning. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Johnson’s distinctive guitar style and powerful stage presence can be seen here.]

At the end of the show, Wilko walked right past me. He had little choice in the matter, because there was no backstage area to speak of and the band just had to push their way through the crowd as best they could in order to make it out to the impressively knackered-looking transit van waiting for them at the back gate. Anyway, there he was: sweating, hollow-eyed, carious teeth, funereal two-piece suit that looked like he might have slept in it. ‘Great show,’ I said with that originality of phrase certain critics later so admired in my various rock biographies. And since Wilko apparently still wasn’t going anywhere, I had a further moment of inspiration. ‘Who’s your favourite guitarist?’ I asked, thinking it might be one of the consensus heroes of the day like Clapton or Beck or Page, or even dear Keith Richards, with whom he undoubtedly shared a certain laconic, back-to-basics playing style. But no. ‘Mick Green,’ my new friend informed me, and then to my surprise stuck around long enough, right there in the chaotic aftermath of the gig, ankle deep in spilled beer and stubbed-out fags, as people banged past us, to tell me, a total stranger, all about Green, another great British eccentric, it transpired, and sometime staple of early-60s combos who also liked to chop up his lead and rhythm parts into one percussive wall of sound, and – proving his versatility if nothing else – later went on to rock up albums by everyone from Paul McCartney and Van Morrison up or down to Cliff Bennett and Engelbert Humperdinck. At the end of what became a sort of oral PhD thesis on the whole history of early British R&B, Wilko asked my name, introduced himself – as though he might not already be familiar – shook my hand, and effusively signed the scrap of paper I hurriedly thrust at him. ‘Keep in touch,’ he said. My first interview. Then he was gone.

Speaking of versatile, it later turned out that Johnson himself had been to university, wrote poetry, spoke Old Icelandic among half a dozen other slightly fringe languages, and in later years developed a keen interest in astronomy to the extent that he built an observatory on the roof of his Essex semi. Along the way, he married his childhood sweetheart Irene and they remained together, raising two sons, until her death from cancer 38 years later. As the world knows, Wilko himself was diagnosed with an apparently incurable tumour in 2013. He reacted with notable stoicism, remarking that he had never felt so alive than whilst under an imminent death sentence, continuing to perform every night he could and teaming up with The Who’s Roger Daltrey to make the album Going Back Home. Then the apparent miracle happened, and doctors in Cambridge performed a nine-hour procedure that saved Johnson’s life while relieving him of most of his intestines. Paradoxically, having cheerfully faced death, Wilko fell into one of his recurrent funks once given the all-clear. ‘I knew I was really getting better from the cancer when I started getting depressed again,’ he said wryly.

It seems funny to say this, but for all the bug-eyed stage antics and raucously loud, sweat-soaked nights in dingy rock clubs, there was a quality of innocence – an innate modesty, the eagerness to please, to connect with the audience, never to lose sight of his roots – that distinguished Wilko Johnson throughout his life and career. I doubt we’ll see his like again.

Fifty years of Exile on Main Street

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a basement-born, band-defining album

According to most accounts of the genesis of the Rolling Stones’ iconic album Exile on Main Street, there was a richly symbolic moment early in the recording process.

One of the group’s satellite members, in most versions the pianist Nicky Hopkins, reported for duty in the Stygian bunker-studio in the south of France where the Stones found themselves in the summer months of 1971, along with an extended cast of friends, hangers-on and others of a more narrowly entrepreneurial mien, perhaps most prominently the great country-rock pioneer and one-man cocaine industry Gram Parsons, who was eventually evicted for having come to assume he was a de facto member of the band.

More specifically they were in the cellar of Keith Richards’s rented house named Villa Nellcote, which stood perched on a clifftop overlooking the sparkling Cap Ferrat. The other Stones – Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor – were similarly domiciled, in varying degrees of luxury, with no immediate plans to return to their native land, hence the evocative eventual title of their new album.

To this day some disparity exists as to the reasons for their French sojourn. Keith himself insists that it was the logical result of a vindictive British ‘establishment’ campaign to rid itself of the Stones, while others saw it as a prosaic reaction to certain more material matters concerning the Inland Revenue. During the winter of 1970-71, the group’s newly appointed financial adviser, the portly, Mozart-loving Prince Rupert Loewenstein of the bankers Leopold Joseph, had hammered out a deal whereby the Stones would collectively spend between £150,000 and £200,000, or roughly £3 million in today’s money, each year of their chosen exile, and that the French government in return would waive any claim it might have to tax the band’s corporate earnings. So much for the anarchic spirit of rock and roll.

Anyway, working on the basis that it was easier to bring the band and its accessories to Keith Richards than it was to ask Keith to assume the vertical position long enough to report to a commercial studio, everyone went downstairs into the Nellcote cellar and plugged in their instruments, leaving Exile to become the greatest and most profitable record ever to emerge from a basement. And it was in this grim, chthonian spot that Hopkins, or whomever it was, had his sudden moment of insight into the uniquely troubled history of his present working environment. ‘I looked around me that first night we were down there,’ this individual reported, ‘and there were actual swastikas carved on the walls. The place had been local Nazi headquarters during the war. Somehow that really set the tone for me.

It’s a good story, with an almost theatrical quality to it: as in a stylised Hollywood film, a young man stands gazing up at the symbol that brings a frisson midway between horror and a strange exhilaration at the task that lies ahead of him. Keith Richards’s own abiding memory of the recording sessions might be said to display something of the same spirit. ‘It was a sick scene, man’, he recalled.

The basic vibe was like Hitler’s bunker. It was about 110* down there, no air conditioning, sweat pouring off the walls, people crashed out, shirtless, out of their minds. Hazy blue light, crappy equipment, everyone zonked, and yet somehow out of this chaos came maybe the greatest moment in Stones history.

Again, there’s a sort of cinematic vividness to the scene. Rock music’s own Boris Karloff figure lurches around in the sinister old Nazi redoubt – a cell or even torture chamber of some sort, he later theorised – conducting his similarly dead-eyed accomplices through the most gloriously debauched weeks of even their career. It seems an almost churlish technicality to note that the Germans occupied that particular part of France only from May 1943 to June 1944, and that Nellcote itself remained in private hands throughout the war, or that, for all the undoubted privations of the subterranean workplace, the estate itself was one of the loveliest on that stretch of the Riviera, with spacious formal salons decorated with antique brocade chairs, their floors inlaid with purple and white tile, and white silk curtains flowing from the windows, which offered a commanding view of hills almost obscenely bright with bougainvillea. But, anyway, there you have the enduring and pervasive legend of Exile‘s birthplace – a grim Nazi dungeon bathed in candlelight.

Even so, we can perhaps take Keith’s point. The album we know as Exile on Main Street, then going by the somehow fitting working title of ‘Tropical Disease’, was largely recorded by distinctly low-fi means, at the home of a musician then as legendary for his chemical intake as for his songwriting, in the last non-air-conditioned studio the Stones would ever inhabit, where the group sat around in their underwear bathed in a ghastly grotto-blue light, keeping their customary vampiric hours, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the work that ensued tended to be a bit on the dark and sludgy side as a result.

In fact, many of Exile’s best tracks worked in close connection with the chaotic and increasingly paranoid atmosphere at Nellcote, which the local police, alerted by the nightly arrival there of men in dark suits wearing sunglasses with briefcases chained to their wrists, kept under constant supervision that hot Riviera summer. ‘Rip this Joint’, to give one example, was comfortably the fastest thing the Stones had ever recorded, sounding as if they were in a collective race to finish it before the gendarmes kicked down the door. Sometimes it seemed the band were happy even to live with their mistakes, such as that heard in the guitar intro to ‘All Down the Line’, which was shrill, nutty and out of tune – if also perfect for the song. By the time it came to ‘Casino Boogie’, Keith himself once informed me, ‘Jagger and I had run ourselves ragged’ and resorted to William Burroughs’s cut-up technique for the lyrics, which perhaps helps explain lines like: ‘Sky diver inside her, skip rope, stunt flyer/wounded lover, got no time on hand.’ Friends could almost hear the banished Gram Parsons on the countryfied ‘Sweet Virginia’, like a musical phantom limb after an amputation. Likewise, ‘Soul Survivor’ seethed with subversive energy and a riff that lingered long after it was over. According to Keith’s inamorata Anita Pallenberg, the final part of Exile was recorded with power diverted from the French railway system. Mostly, though, it drew its electrical charge from an interior source, the tension between Jagger and Richards.

Apart from the central issue of drugs (Keith enthusiastically pro, Mick broadly anti), the Stones’s venerable songwriting firm faced a number of other creative and logistical challenges during the making of Exile. Agreeing to work in one of their own homes was no guarantee that the band members would actually all be present at the same time. Jagger particularly disliked the communal vibe – ‘you didn’t know whether you [were] recording or having dinner’, he later complained – and he also had his heavily pregnant and vocally unhappy wife, the former Bianca Perez-Mora Macias, to consider. Before long, Bianca decamped to Paris, effectively forcing Mick to commute across France for the remaining sessions. More than once, she threatened to leave him for good. The band sometimes called her ‘Bianca the Wanker’ behind her back. The drummer Charlie Watts was his normal congenial self, but his rhythm-section partner Bill Wyman was unhappy both about money and being forced to leave England in the first place (‘You’re getting up my nose’, Keith would remark to his lugubrious colleague, if so by no means the only substance to do so), although Wyman would at least go on to find that the Riviera was the ideal spot to indulge his hobby of photographing topless women. More than once, Bill sat in a boat anchored off the nude beach at St Tropez, aiming his camera at the obliging sunbathers, although often even this mild ruse wasn’t necessary. According to the journalist Robert Greenfield, who visited the Stones in exile, Wyman would ‘simply ask the most attractive woman at the dinner table to slip in to another room for a moment and remove her blouse so he could snap a quick photo to add to his collection.’

Mick Jagger for his part had now exchanged cheek for chic, dressing like a Frenchman in a beret and tight suede maxicoat, also the subject of some in-house chafing around Nellcote in his absence. His sometime host Keith was meanwhile living up, or down, to his most gloriously debauched 1970s rock star image. By the autumn Nellcote was beset on every front. The local flics were making their interest in the house and its hollow-eyed tenants more obvious by the day. Burglars walked in one morning while everyone was sleeping off the previous night’s session and walked out again with most of Richards’s prize guitars. The resident cook somehow managed to blow the kitchen up. The men in sunglasses began dropping by with generous offerings of what the musicians called ‘cotton candy’, otherwise known as pure Thai heroin. A stoned Anita duly set her and Keith’s bed on fire. One of the band’s chauffeurs broke down the door to find them lying there, comatose, with the mattress in flames all around them. ‘A wake-up call,’ Keith later ruefully admitted, in every sense of the term.

Shortly after that, Jagger, Richards and their immediate families and entourage deemed it expedient to catch a midnight flight from Nice to Paris, and then on to Los Angeles, where in time they were joined by the rest of the band. In their haste to decamp, they abandoned most of Keith’s sizable record collection, his two boats, and his E-type Jaguar. Some doubt exists about the exact nature of the mass breakout. In one version, the French authorities had let, perhaps even invited, Keith to leave the country on condition that he continue to rent the house while abroad, as proof that he meant to return. In another popular account, the local force was unaware that its wrecked-looking prey had moved on. In either case, neither Richards nor anyone else in the Stones would ever see Nellcote again.

Exactly two weeks later, on 14 December 1971, a squad of twelve policemen rammed open the gate and poured in to Nellcote through the doors and windows. According to published reports, they turned up enough heroin, coke and hash to throw the book at the home’s principal tenant. A maid told them that everybody had suddenly left one night, taking their mysterious cannisters of tape with them. A year later, a court in Nice charged Richards and Pallenberg with possession, tried them in absentia, and imposed a sizable fine.

Mick, Keith and the technicians spent most of the winter of 1971-72 at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, turning ‘Tropical Disease’ into Exile on Main Street. The album may have had an underlying note of film-noir in its conception, but it still got its Hollywood ending. Horns and washes of pop-blues hollering would flesh out tracks like the ever-popular ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Shine a Light’ got the full gospel-organ treatment, while ‘Let it Loose’ was subjected to a week-long revision by the Stones’ friend Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, and a soul-sister chorus. Bill Wyman wanted nothing to do with any overdubbing, and would appear on only eight of Exile’s eighteen finished tracks. In his absence, the Indo-jazz pioneer Bill Plummer came in to play upright bass. ‘The Stones weren’t exactly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’, Plummer later confirmed.

There was a lot of lubricating going on, and of course it’s always a thrill to be asked to play on a song called “Turd on the Run”. But they also knew exactly what they wanted. I did four tracks in about four hours, shook everyone’s hand, went home. There was a big crowd at the back door, I remember, and people were worried it was the Hell’s Angels. Mick and Keith were being hassled by them.

Plummer’s rollicking bass helped make Exile a major hit in Britain, the US and twenty-four other markets. He was paid his standard session fee of $125, or about $2000 in today’s money. Thirty years later, someone in the Stones organisation thought to send him a commemorative gold disc, which arrived snapped in half in the mail.

Wrapped in an arresting cover designed by the Swiss filmmaker Robert Frank showing a collage of circus performers and freaks, Exile on Main Street was released on the world in May 1972. The album’s legacy would loom large over both the Stones legend and the whole subsequent history of rock and roll, ushering in several decades’ worth of lo-fi tributes and parodies. It did a brisk enough business, if judged a failure by some of the reviewers – one of those ‘honourable’ failures, however, that rather endear a band to its critics, who noted that among other flaws the record sounded a touch murky, a discordant note coming at a time when studio technology was already aiming for the crisp, digitally-sharp result we expect of our music today. Although time has been kind to Exile, now one of those official classic-rock double albums, like Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, whose reputation ought to be sealed up in an eternal amber of chart and sales statistics, it initially flummoxed some of the same sages who had flocked to its more accessible predecessor Sticky Fingers, and who were left scratching their heads, not nodding them.

Writing in Rolling Stone, the journalist and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye said, ‘There are songs that are better, songs that are worse, there are songs that will become your favorites and others you’ll probably lift the needle for when their time is due … You can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past.’

Other critical assessments were that Exile was an ‘hour of bluesy clatter’, sounding  as if ‘recorded down a pit’ (not far off the mark), with an ‘overall vibe [like] a gang-fight inside a rusty trash-can’, while some of the era’s moral guardians, among them the venerable Mary Whitehouse of the UK’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, had more specific reservations about the likes of ‘Turd on the Run’, or for that matter the jaunty chorus of ‘Sweet Virginia’ which remarked on the need, in reference to low-grade heroin, to ‘scrape that shit right off your shoes.’ The album itself was a summer number one and spent six months on the chart before returning to the top on its re-release thirty-eight years later. You could do worse than listen to the song ‘Loving Cup’ as a brief taster of the insinuatingly loose-limbed feel of the record as a whole. Sticky Fingers may have been more organic, it’s true, but Exile was a flawed, sprawling masterpiece, and the last great extreme work the Stones have ever done.


Charlie Watts, 1941-2021 – the solidest Stone

Credit: Terry Murden/Shutterstock
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD salutes the most grounded member of the Rolling Stones

There can be few terms in the English language more debased than ‘rock star’. Nowadays, it seems, the press makes a fetish of every halfway plausible such chancer to appear over the horizon, regardless of whether their art will endure, or their generally slim recorded oeuvre instead be among the detritus one eventually takes to the nearest Oxfam shop. But the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who died on 24 August aged 80, truly merits a place in the pop pantheon. He wasn’t just an original among the standard tub-thumpers of his profession. He was unique. Back in 1963 the Stones’s first manager, Eric Easton, fastened on the essential thing about Watts, which was that he was “totally unpretentious” and “perfect at his job”. Those same two qualities would remain intact for the next 58 years.

It was a curious path that took the impeccably polite, suave young drummer into a group that were to hear themselves described as ‘morons’ by a High Court judge, and to read newspaper accounts citing their UGLY LOOKS! UGLY SPEECH! UGLY MANNERS! among other unattractive characteristics. Watts, born on 2 June 1941, grew up in and around Islington, north London, at a time when the area was still a byword for urban decay rather than the spiritual home of Britain’s left-wing intelligentsia. His father, also called Charles, was a van driver for a precursor of British Rail, and his mother Lilian had been a factory cleaner. “He’s always been a good boy”, Mrs. Watts informed the press in 1967, the year of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request:

Never had any police knocking on the door or anything like that. And he’s always been terribly kind to old people. He was always a tidy dresser. That’s why I get nonplussed when he’s called ugly and dirty. When he’s home you can’t get him out of the bathroom.

Ten years later, Watts’s father remained equally perplexed by his son’s public image, especially because Charlie (who never learned to drive) still came up on the tube every Friday night he possibly could, “with a lovely fresh cake for me and his Mum”.

Watts himself was later to remark,

Part of my problem was that I was never a teenager. I’d be off in the corner talking about Kierkegaard. I always took myself too seriously, and thought Buddy Holly was a great joke.

And it’s true there was something a bit melancholic about the London lad with the long, Buster Keaton face who only ever wanted to read about cowboys or play the drums. He acquired his first kit at Christmas 1955, after at least a year of practicing nonstop on his mother’s pots and pans. At 18, Watts had only one ambition, which was to somehow find himself at Birdland in New York, wearing a hipster suit and sitting in behind the likes of Stan Getz or Miles Davis. Instead, he drifted in to a smoke-filled suburban London blues club one evening, to be confronted by the embryonic Rolling Stones. They courted him for about a year before he agreed to join, and even then he contained his excitement. The Stones’ roadie and sometime piano player Ian Stewart remembered that he’d simply driven up to the Watts’s front door one night in his van. “I said to Charlie, ‘Look, you’re in the band. That’s it’. And Charlie said, ‘Yeah, all right, then, but I don’t know what my mum’s gonna say.’”

In March 1971, the Rolling Stones began a short tour of Britain prior to their taking up residence in the south of France. To this day there are different views of the primary motivation behind the group’s decision to embark on an extended Somerset Maugham-like exile on the Riviera. Keith Richards would long rue the fact that “the Establishment – a lot of fuckin’ judges and politicians – kicked us out of our country”, while others believe that Keith’s ire might have been better directed at the Stones’ highly paid business managers for allowing the band to run up an unpayable debt to the Inland Revenue and thus necessitating a period of non-residence in the UK. Either way, there was a so-called ‘farewell tour’ to mark the occasion. Everyone’s parents came to the final show at the Roundhouse in London. Mick Jagger was later forced to admit that “It was weird wigglin’ around in front of me mum”, and that the general atmosphere of the night had been “crazy – everyone was out of their brains on dope”. Against this debauched backdrop, Charles and Lilian Watts sat together in the front row, wearing their Sunday-best clothes, and courteously handed round biscuits to their neighbours. You could see again how their boy Charlie might have developed into the personality he did.

Amidst all the surrounding Stones-related tales about Mars Bars, drug busts and Margaret Trudeau, Watts remained the calm eye of the storm. He bought the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s country home in Sussex, raised sheepdogs, and collected American Civil War memorabilia. He was the politest man in rock music. Once, in Detroit, a record executive named Mo Schulman invited the drummer up for a drink in his hotel suite, which was awash in champagne, caviar and an impressive variety of recreational drugs. When Schulman was then urgently called away on business, he affably told his guest to help himself from the display. “Anything you want”, he stressed. Charlie took a bottle of beer, leaving both a five-dollar bill and a polite thank-you note on the counter. A few years later, again on tour, the Stones were living it up one night in the pinball room of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion with its underwater bar and hot and cold running Bunnies. Charlie took one look at the Satyricon-like scene, rolled his eyes, said, “Uh-oh, this is star situation”, and retired alone with a good book.

I saw this same unaffected modesty for myself when Watts once quite unnecessarily wrote to thank me for a small cricket-related gift. His actual handwriting was always a bit of a challenge, but the signature was clear enough. It read “Charlie W”, or possibly “Charlie R” (his middle initial), followed by a pair of brackets, in which he neatly inserted – as if his current occupation might not be generally familiar – “Of the Rolling Stones”.

Watts was always the steadying influence of a band that often seemed to be on the brink of a messy, Beatlesque breakup. For large parts of the 1980s, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were united only in their mutual affection for the dapper, self-effacing man doing the locomotion behind them on stage. Richards called Watts “the secret essence of the whole thing”, and “the perfect drummer for the material”. Watts’s light touch and crisp, jazzy sensibility distinguished some of the band’s most iconic songs. Sitting impassively at his minimalist kit, he lit the fuse to ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Brown Sugar’ and many others. Variety once wrote of him on stage, “He looks like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”

That’s not to say Watts was ever a pushover. He may have been the most genial of all rock musicians, but there was no way he was going to let the buggers tell him what to do. In the winter of 1984, the Rolling Stones and their sundry friends and aides convened for a few days in Amsterdam, not so much to make new music as to take advantage of the Netherlands’ uniquely generous tax provisions for those entities at least notionally based in the country. Following a lengthy presentation by the band’s business advisers, Keith Richards apparently felt the need to take Mick Jagger out on the town and get him drunk. The latter’s usual transition from gregariousness to mindless exuberance was abnormally swift. A blotto Jagger returned to the group’s hotel in the early hours of the following morning. At that stage he made the decision to pick up the phone to dial Charlie’s room, and to then rashly refer to him in the course of the ensuing conversation as “my drummer”.

At that Watts got up, showered, shaved, dressed in a Turnbull and Asser shirt, silk tie and three-piece suit, went downstairs, seized Jagger, and punched his lights out. “It was like a scene in a movie”, Keith Richards later said of a room containing 30 or so well-oiled musicians and their friends. Anyone familiar with The Island of Dr Moreau, with its apes and dogs surgically turned in to semi-human form, has only to think of these same fauna dressed in 1980s pastels to get a bit of the flavour. The band’s ever-present security crew froze in place – nobody seemed quite sure what the protocol was for separating one Rolling Stone from another – leaving Keith himself to grab Mick as he “landed on a plateful of smoked salmon and slid along the table towards the window”. Richards later remarked that he had been moved less by humanitarianism per se than by the fact that Jagger happened to be wearing his own favourite silk jacket at the time. His intervention possibly saved Sir Mick from being defenestrated into the canal below, but its real motivation was to “stop my gear being ruined”.

“Don’t ever call me your drummer again”, Charlie observed on his way out. “You’re my fucking singer.”

On another occasion, in 1992, Watts emerged from a period of seclusion to record his own big-band album, broadly in the style of Cab Calloway, which he promoted by a short American tour. Sitting behind his kit for a show at New York’s Blue Note club in his immaculate zoot suit without removing his jacket or loosening his tie, it was hard to remember that this silver-haired gentleman was the drummer in the world’s most notorious rock and roll band. A night or two later, the ‘silent Stone’, as he was billed, was to have appeared as the musical guest on NBC television’s Late Night with David Letterman. This highly coveted spot would have exposed Charlie and his album to an audience of some six million potential customers, but it came with an important condition. In keeping with NBC policy, the show’s in-house band would have to accompany him. The subsequent discussions had not proceeded far before it became apparent that Charlie would not be open to this arrangement. Minutes before the programme’s scheduled air-time, he left the building with a muttered “Sod it” and wandered off alone into the warm New York night.

 In 2014, Watts became the first rock star to celebrate a golden wedding anniversary. He married his childhood sweetheart Shirley Shepherd when they were both in their early twenties, and the couple remained together to the end. In later years the Wattses lived on a sprawling farm in north Devon, which they shared with a stable of 23 Arab horses and several dozen cows, sheep and dogs. ‘The squire’, as he was known locally, could sometimes be seen walking in a waxed jacket and gumboots around the nearby village of Dolton, unmolested by the few residents who associated him with the Rolling Stones.

While Shirley tended to the farm, Charlie was content to sit inside listening to jazz records or watching old cricket videos, a routine he sometimes varied by perching, in motoring cap and goggles, behind the wheel of his stationary 1937 Lagonda Rapide. When compelled to go on tour with the Stones, he typically assumed the air of bemused detachment that was as much a part of the whole spectacle as Mick’s rooster-on-acid gyrations or Keith’s laconic riffing. For years, Charlie enlivened the experience of clocking on and off for group rehearsals by the expedient of hanging an old-fashioned shop’s ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ sign in front of his kit. Drummers, like goalkeepers, are a bit different.

The Stones’ final public appearance with Watts was a filmed segment for the first We’re-all-in-this-together Covid broadcast in April 2020. Seated on his living room floor, Charlie played along on a spirited version of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, drumsticks in hand, using a trio of musical storage cases and a nearby couch for percussion. It was an effortless, funny, and musically deft performance, and absolutely right for the occasion. Only the drummer in the world’s greatest rock band, it seemed, might not wish to keep a set of drums at home. Somehow that summed up the man.

Spirits of the Jazz Age – the Spiritualist craze of the Twenties

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD evokes an age of desperate belief

On 7 September 1919, the 60-year-old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GP, lecturer, seafarer, sportsman, indefatigable social campaigner – and globally-renowned author of the Sherlock Holmes tales – shared the platform of a Spiritualist rally at the seafront Grand Hotel in Portsmouth with a 38-year-old medium named Evan Powell. The Great War had ended just ten months earlier, and it had taken a fearful toll on Conan Doyle’s family. He lost no fewer than 11 relatives either to combat or disease, among them his 25-year-old son Kingsley, who had been invalided out of the front line in France but then succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic. It was a blow from which many felt his father never quite recovered.

After several departed souls had apparently materialised on the stage of the hotel ballroom, Conan Doyle, his wife Jean, and five colleagues repaired to a private upstairs room where they searched Powell, tied him semi-naked to a chair, and turned off the lights.

“We had strong phenomena from the start”, Doyle later wrote to his friend the physicist Oliver Lodge.

The medium was always groaning, muttering, or talking, so that there was never a doubt where he was. Suddenly I heard a voice.

‘Jean, it is I.’

 My wife cried, It is Kingsley’.

I said, ‘Is that you boy?’

He said in a very intense whisper and a tone all his own, ‘Father!’ and then, after a pause, ‘Forgive me!’

Conan Doyle, who assumed Kingsley was referring to his earthly doubts about the paranormal, concluded his account by saying that he had then felt a strong hand pressing down on him, followed by a kiss on his forehead. “I am so happy”, his late son assured him.

This encounter would have a profound effect on Conan Doyle, hitherto best known as the creator of English literature’s most formidably rational human calculating machine. Soon the author turned away from detective stories and towards a steady stream of papers and speeches on the subject of what he called collectively the “new revelation”. It was now clear to him, he wrote, that this insight into the ultimate meaning of life was not for his benefit alone, “but that God has placed me in a very special position for conveying it to that world which needs it so badly.”

Of course, Conan Doyle wasn’t the first celebrity, or even the first literary giant, to apparently commune with the dead. In 1849, Charles Dickens had begun to attempt ‘mesmeric cures’ of his young sister-in-law, who was said to be suffering from ‘intestinal evil.’ The great novelist reported that his performances of ‘animal magnetism’, as hypnotism was then called, afforded him clairvoyant power. Personalities as diverse as Queen Victoria, W.B. Yeats, and Edvard Munch all later engaged in Spiritualistic efforts to reach a departed loved one. There was a dramatic surge of interest in the paranormal both during and in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, with its 620,000 military casualties and undetermined number of civilian deaths. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary held a series of candlelit séances following the loss of their 11-year-old son William to typhoid fever, by no means the last time a US president would dabble in the occult.

But it wasn’t until the early 1920s that the Spiritualist message really gripped the imagination of the Western public. It did so as a consequence both of the Great War, and of the period of unrivalled national prosperity that followed. It sometimes seemed that the concept lying deepest at the heart of American life, in particular, as that country embarked on its extended period of 20th-century world dominance was that of illusion. The nation had bread, but it wanted circuses – and now it got them, in an explosion of music halls and other places of entertainment offering a rich variety of fare whose most common artistic theme was the idea of mystification, legerdemain, or some other form of deception. In 1909, there were 427 officially licensed “Mentalists, visual deluders, and [other such] artistes” active in the seven core eastern seaboard states; a decade later, the figure had jumped to 6,390, quite apart from the profusion of “street fakirs, jongleurs, bunco merchants, miracle workers, healers and seers” one New York newspaper found at work in the city.

“The times hungered for something”, remarked Harry Houdini, a sceptic who knew something about escapism, in every sense of the term. “A war memorial had appeared in every town, and many people naturally sought some divine solace for their grief.” Unfettered by an established Church, America was particularly rich in alternatives, among them such sects as the Holy Rollers, the Holy Jumpers, and the estimated three million followers of the evangelist Frank Buchman, whose core gospel of ‘inclusiveness’ eventually led him to try to convert Adolf Hitler.

But none of those groups, however well-patronised or devoted to their various causes, compared in size or intensity to the worldwide Spiritualist crusade with Conan Doyle as its de facto head. By early 1923, there were reported to be some 14,000,000 ‘occasionally or frequently’ practicing occultists, served by a network of 6,200 individual churches or lodges, in North America alone. Barely a week passed without some sensational paranormal claim appearing in the newspapers or over the radio. ‘“MY FRIENDLY CONTACT WITH DEPARTED SOULS: MESSAGE RECEIVED FROM MURDERED CZAR”, by Grand Duke Alexander of Russia’ ran one such headline in the New York Times. A few weeks later, Doyle explored this same historical turf when he and some friends sat down in a darkened room of a London home and apparently made contact with the recently deceased Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. The revolutionary hero left the sitters with the cryptic advice: “Artists must rouse selfish nations”.

In Edwardian Britain, the fashion for Spiritualism often came with a feminist subtext. Women were thought to be uniquely qualified to communicate with spirits of the dead, and in the séance room, at least, a medium could enjoy a degree of independence and authority not readily available to her elsewhere. There are no reliable figures on actual attendance at séances or services, although it was widely believed at the time that an increasing number of the nominally respectable were dabbling in psychic affairs. When reviewing the history of Spiritualism in the UK, Houdini would remark that

…by the turn of the new [20th] century an invitation to tea amongst London’s gentility would often conclude with a candlelit course in which the spirits would be asked to reveal themselves by rotating or lifting the table, among other manifestations, to the delight of the audience.

As early as 1882, the British movement as a whole was sufficiently widespread to bring about the creation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), with a committee of largely Cambridge-based academics promising

…to approach [Spiritualist] issues without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated

One can almost hear a foreshadowing of the ‘Follow the data’ mantra that distinguishes the great Covid debate of our own day. The SPR initially set up five subcommittees, to variously investigate Mesmerism, Mediumship, Reichenbach Phenomena (electromagnetic forces), Apparitions and Haunted Houses, and Séances, as well as a Literary Panel to study psychic history and conduct surveys. In one early census, the SPR asked 17,000 British adults whether they had ever experienced a “spiritual hallucination” while fully awake and in good health. Of the 1,684 who said they had, there were those who insisted that they had been psychically ‘embraced’ or ‘kissed’ by an unseen force, among several other less conventional liaisons.


There were several reasons other than the shock of war and the extended economic boom that followed for the early-20th century loss of momentum in the traditional religious dynamic. For one thing, science again. Who needed the Church, the theory went, when the answers to day-to-day life could be found in the laboratory? Presented at every turn with new labour-saving devices that owed their existence to breakthroughs in automation (this was the era of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and the refrigerator), the Western man – and, increasingly, woman – in the street was ready to believe that technology could accomplish almost anything. On the loftier philosophical level, people were now reading daily about scientific developments that seemed to lend respectability to psychic beliefs.

Among the newly evolving doctrines that purported to question man’s role in the universe was Quantum Field Theory – on one hand, a structure designed to analyse the creation and annihilation of minute particles, and on another, a contemplation on the ‘non-observable’ material world. It was one of several such “seismic jolts”, as the lapsed Catholic Conan Doyle called them, of an era that also saw the belated confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, as well as the invention and rapid availability of the household radio, which Oliver Lodge, one of its pioneering figures, insisted was itself a medium that allowed the spirit world to communicate with the living one over the ether. Many people shed their traditional religious beliefs in the face of rational scrutiny, while, to others, science diluted religion to a watery sort of social work.

By the spring of 1921, the Spiritualism debate was sufficiently ingrained in all walks of life for it to be the theme of several prominent Easter Day church services on either side of the Atlantic. In fact, opposition to the occultist message seems to have united the ordained ministry of New York, in particular, to a degree not seen since their similarly stout defense of Prohibition in 1918-19. At the city’s Seventh Day Adventist Temple, for instance, an overflow audience of 672 heard Revd. Carlyle Haynes speak on the topic of “Can the Dead Come Back? An Answer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”. The minister of the Community Church of New York was compelled to hurriedly move proceedings to the nearby 800-seat Lyric Theater in order to accommodate a congregation reportedly “seething” for his own views on the subject. Rabbi Lewis Newman, preaching at the Temple Israel on Central Park West, roundly mocked the idea that “the departed ever bring tidings from the grave”, a notion that “could surely only be visualised by a writer of fiction”.

Meanwhile, what might be called the more enlightened, or charitable, Roman Catholic attitude was expressed by the British Jesuit priest Herbert Thurston, when he wrote:

If Spiritualism has the merit of upholding the belief that man is not purely material and that a future life awaits him, the conditions of which are in some measure dependent upon his conduct here on earth, it must be confessed that there is very little else to set to its credit. Catholic teaching recognises one divine revelation which it is the appointed office of the Church, in dependence upon the living voice of the Supreme Pontiff, to maintain inviolate. For this, Spiritualism substitutes as many revelations as there are mediums … all these communications being open to suspicion and, as the briefest examination shows, abounding in contradictions about matters most vital.

Many contemporaneous Roman Catholic views on the spirit world were not as benign as that. The Catholic author J. Godfrey Raupert, a psychic investigator who abandoned his initial sympathy on the subject, wrote in the 1921 edition of his book The Dangers of Spiritualism:

The root of Spiritism … is the diseased moral condition of the age … Too powerfully dominated by intellectual pride to submit to the law of Christ, men seek another world capable of demonstrative proofs … That they should build a system upon phenomena which elude rational examination, that they should stake their hopes for time and eternity upon manifestations which have so much in common with the juggleries of the magician, while at the same time they shut their eyes to the proofs of supernatural life and supernatural power which living Christianity offer them, is a melancholy example of that fatuous superstition which is so often the punishment of unbelief.

Even this was mild compared to the likes of Fr. Arnold Pinchard, who in July 1921 wrote to enlighten Arthur Conan Doyle about his views on the “deplorable tendency” of Spiritualists to put curiosity-seeking before the cardinal requirement of seeking God. “You probably do not realise that I speak as a Catholic,” he wrote, “and that Catholics have certain knowledge upon such matters which others like yourself, more in an atmosphere of doubtful empiricism, lack.” Some of Conan Doyle’s critics took a more robust tone even than that. The author was to remark of one telephone conversation with the perhaps well-named Lord Dunraven, a self-appointed ‘Catholic authority’ on a wide range of spiritual matters, that “he was so furious that I felt it best to hold the instrument away from my ear.”

Arthur Conan Doyle and “the little chap”, Harry Houdini

Perhaps the greatest, and certainly most theatrical, showdown between the two foremost public performers of their day, respectively representing the pro- and anti-Spiritualist camp, came when Conan Doyle and Houdini met in the author’s suite at the Ambassador Hotel in New Jersey’s Atlantic City one sunny afternoon in June 1922. Even the occult can have produced no stranger sight than that of the birthright Catholic, then a stout, mustachioed 63-year-old figure of military gait, seated alongside his equally substantial wife and the “little chap”, as Doyle affectionately called their guest, the latter dressed in an ill-fitting white tropical suit, with their heads bowed over a table in their candlelit room. They were there in an attempt to bring Houdini news from his sainted mother Cecilia, who had died nine years earlier. In time the three sitters joined hands, and said a prayer. For some moments after that, Lady Doyle, who had recently begun to show a gift for channelling the spirits, sat motionless, poised over the blank writing pad before her. Then, with a jolt, the pencil in her hand began to move.

“It was a singular scene” Conan Doyle later wrote,

…my wife with her hand flying wildly, beating the table while she scribbled at a furious rate, I sitting opposite and tearing sheet after sheet from the block as it was filled up, and tossing each across to Houdini, while he sat silent, looking grimmer and paler every moment.

Lady Doyle was eventually to produce 15 pages seemingly full of the late Mrs. Houdini’s expressions of love for her son, including the statements “I am so happy in this life”, and “It is so different over here, so much larger and bigger and more beautiful”, and concluding, “God bless you, Sir Arthur, for what you are doing”. It was “profoundly moving” for all parties, Doyle later wrote, and a “striking affirmation of the soul’s immortality”.

When they met in New York two days later, Houdini gave Conan Doyle the impression that he believed “my mother really ‘came through’ … I have been walking on air ever since”. Over the next few weeks, Doyle spoke effusively of the event in public meetings, and in a full-length book he called Our American Adventure, while the ‘little chap’ apparently did nothing to contradict him. But perhaps it was all another case of artifice by a master of the craft, because Houdini later marked a newspaper report of the event with a satirical “Ha! Ha! Ha!”, while coming to wonder why it was that his dear mother should have chosen to communicate with him in fluent English, a language she had never spoken.

50 years of Sticky Fingers

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls the shambolic genesis of the Stones’ masterpiece

At about eleven on the Monday morning of 9 March 1970, a somewhat distressed-looking olive green, midsized BMC lorry of the kind typically used to haul heavy goods around the country, crunched up the gravel driveway of a sprawling manor house located just outside the village of East Woodhay on the Hampshire-Berkshire border. The driver of the truck was a burly 31-year-old with the uncompromisingly Scots name of Ian Stewart, and he was there not to deliver industrial equipment but to help record a rock and roll album.

For the next several hours Stewart and two assistants threaded dozens of multicoloured cables through the home’s heavily studded front doors and into the entrance hall, in due course installing drum kits and guitar amplifiers, knocking together crudely fashioned isolation booths like the old sensory-deprivation chambers in TV’s Double Your Money, and plugging in a forest of microphones against a backdrop of musty chandeliers and ancestral portraits that stared down in silent reproach at the cast of shaggy-haired residents gradually emerging from all corners of the home, whose doll-like smallness gave them the air of elves curiously inspecting a room in an advancing state of preparation for a party.


The somewhat implausible name of the house was Stargroves, and at that time it was owned by Mick Jagger. Jagger and his band the Rolling Stones – for it was they – had elected to record in this manner in order to relieve themselves of the tedious 9-5 restrictions of a traditional commercial studio. By doing it their way the five band members and their auxiliary musicians could plug in whenever the mood took them, and the 8-track console installed in the back of the truck parked outside would capture the results.

It was a good idea, and it almost worked. Jagger himself, along with his colleagues Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor duly spent much of the next six weeks cutting the basic tracks for what became the group’s ninth British LP, and the first to be released on the band’s own label, and which, after toying with the likes of Sour Grapes and – for some compelling reason – The Vagina Album, they named Sticky Fingers. For his part, the Stones’s narcotically-inclined guitarist and on his day leading creative force Keith Richards sometimes made it to the recordings, and sometimes didn’t. If a session was called for, say, ten o’clock at night, Keith might stroll in around three in the morning accompanied by his entourage of spliff-wielding Rastafarians, waif-like young women and sundry other advisers and assistants notable for their heavy use of mascara and the leather satchels clutched in their arms.

Before long, certain other challenges inherent to the concept of a group of young rock musicians working without external supervision also asserted themselves. As the weeks wore on, there were frequent arguments and absences throughout the band. The rhythm section of Wyman and Watts were both married men with children, and more than once they expressed their distaste for working through the night in a colleague’s remote country estate located some 80 miles from their own suburban-London homes. Several witnesses later noted that even the consummately professional Jagger would periodically down tools, if the phrase weren’t so inappropriate, whenever one of his specially favoured female companions appeared at Stargroves. “Suddenly”, Ian Stewart once told me, “there were days when Mick disappeared upstairs”.

Perhaps all rock and roll albums should be made with comparatively primitive technology installed in the back of a truck parked outside the door, with creative differences being not so much aired as shouted out, because the result of the Rolling Stones’s labours, as buffed up by the band’s wunderkind producer Jimmy Miller at various locations over the course of the next twelve months, and formally released on 23 April 1971, remains arguably the masterpiece of their long career.

It would require a life of more than mere detachment from the whims of popular culture, and devoted instead to the most austere monastic seclusion, for the reader not to be on terms of at least passing familiarity with the album’s opening number ‘Brown Sugar’. A – or the – classic frothy Stones raveup, it had curious origins. In the summer of 1969, hard on the heels of events such as the firing and almost immediate death of the Stones’s founding genius Brian Jones, and the band’s perhaps ill-advised free concert in front of 300,000 fans in Hyde Park just two days later, Mick Jagger had flown to Australia with his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull to take the lead role in Tony Richardson’s film Ned Kelly – the idea presumably being that one rebel, no matter how slight his screen-acting experience, should play another. The production got off to a bad start when Jagger was forced to walk a gauntlet of protesters on arrival at Sydney airport, indignant that their nation’s 19th-century outlaw hero should be portrayed by, as one of the signs had it, a “pommy faggot”. Following that there was the near-fatal overdose of Jagger’s costar and travelling companion, which again saw the words ‘Stones’ and ‘drugs’ deployed in close proximity to one another in the world’s tabloid headlines. Tony Richardson promptly dropped Faithfull from the cast of Ned Kelly, which would go on to grace all the ‘Worst Movies in History’ lists following its limited release in June 1970. Adding injury to insult, Jagger was badly hurt when, once out on location, a prop pistol exploded in his hand. The unit nurse stitched him up and told him to keep his right arm immobile. Preferring to doctor himself, Mick instead picked up a guitar one afternoon and idly strummed a two-bar phrase around the C, G and F chords, then threw in some hurriedly improvised bondage-fantasy lyrics. This happy collision between boredom and physical therapy would be the best thing to come out of Ned Kelly. Once back in London, Jagger and Richards swiftly worked up the riff into ‘Brown Sugar’.

Next up on Sticky Fingers was a hidden gem called ‘Sway’, a solid if largely unremarkable reminder of the band’s blues roots until Mick Taylor suddenly swooped in with a bottleneck slide guitar during the bridge, and a dramatic, virtuoso outro solo that may represent the finest 30 seconds of his five-and-a-half year tenure as a Rolling Stone. Another swift gear change ushered in ‘Wild Horses’, a lovely ballad in its way even if Ian Stewart, doubling as the band’s primary roadie and occasional pianist, had pronounced himself unwilling to perform on any ‘Chinese shit’, as he termed music with minor chords, when called upon to accompany the track. Essentially a love song from Keith Richards to his partner Anita Pallenberg, Jagger rewrote the lyrics as a plea to Marianne Faithfull to rejoin him after she’d stepped out with one of Anita’s exs (all very fraternal were the Stones in those days), the painter Mario Schifano. It perhaps wouldn’t be hard to locate the names of certain rock and roll bands who over the years have embarrassed both their audiences and themselves by their misguided attempts at the romantic air – somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of the baroque strains of Spinal Tap’s immortal ‘Lick My Love Pump’ – but what’s extraordinary here is that the Stones are at their most convincing when they aim at the sublime.

Next up: the gloriously eccentric ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, a rock-guitar groove that swerved halfway through into a mariachi jam session. It was pronounced No. 25 on one of Rolling Stone magazine’s incessant lists of The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time, but even without that particular bauble it would be hard for any normally sensate listener to remain wholly unmoved by Keith Richards’s shattering opening guitar bolt and the collective locomotion of his four colleagues and their sidemen – Bobby Keys on tenor sax to the fore – that followed. Side One, as such things were then designated, ended with the Stones’s somewhat frazzled take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s classic spiritual ‘You Gotta Move’, which they’d initially cut in embryonic form at around three one morning in December 1969 while crouched around a microphone positioned in a toilet bowl (for that ‘shitty sound’, as Keith approvingly put it) at Muscle Shoals studio in rural Alabama.

Flip the disc over, and you had the horn-drenched blowout of ‘Bitch’, after which things calmed down with three songs – ‘I Got the Blues’, ‘Sister Morphine’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ – with seemingly little in common but their border-jumping from the world of roots rock and roll into those of country and soul, and back again, not to mention their assorted drug references and the basic premise of ‘Morphine’ itself, with its gory allusion to Marianne Faithfull’s recent miscarriage.

The whole thing wound down with the soporific ‘Moonlight Mile’, a weirdly insinuating slab of orchestral blues with lyrics one earnest American reviewer described as a “rare case of Mick Jagger letting go of his public persona, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the weariness that accompanies the pressures of keeping up appearances as a sex-drugs-and-rock and roll star”, and another perhaps overextended himself by comparing to W.B. Yeats. The song had a curious and on the whole less exalted genesis. Keith Richards had first strummed the moody chords to ‘The Japanese Thing’, as the track was then known, while sitting on the kitchen floor, a bowl of cereal in his lap, late one night at Stargroves. Initially there had been something of a skeleton crew present at the moment of creation, with just Charlie Watts on drums and the trumpet player Jim Price improvising on piano. Mick Jagger was upstairs in his boudoir, Bill Wyman had also retired, and nobody knew exactly where Mick Taylor was after his co-guitarist had informed him, “Don’t bother to play on this – you’re too bloody loud”. Six months later, Keith was too stoned to make it to the final session for ‘Moonlight Mile’, which the two Micks put together in his absence. Taylor later expressed a certain surprise to see his name omitted from the song’s all-important writing credit, an early milestone down the road to his decision to defect from the band in December 1974.

Kali – unlikely inspiration for the Stones’ slavering lips and tongue logo

Even without the bulging Andy Warhol-designed crotch on the front cover, and the particularly lubricious advertising campaign that met its release, Sticky Fingers could be said to definitively capture the debauched essence of the Rolling Stones in all their strung-out 1970s glory. It was also the first product to feature the band’s iconic trademark, inspired, apparently, by the Thug goddess Kali, and actually drawn by a young Royal College of Art student named John Pasche. Pasche was paid his standard design fee, fifty guineas. That tongue and lips logo, slavering in a cunnilingual leer, would soon be recognisable to millions of people around the world who never bought a rock record or attended a concert: it remains today the ultimate pop-culture accessory.

The last sight that many Britons thought they would ever have of the Rolling Stones was of the band camping its way through ‘Brown Sugar’ on Top of the Pops. Mick Jagger vamped it up in a pink satin suit, Keith Richards’s chugging guitar drove the teenaged audience into a synchronised boogie, and the rest of the band mimed frantically away as best they could. By the time the clip aired on the evening of 15 April 1971, the Stones themselves were already safely ensconced in their new South of France domiciles, either victims of a merciless Establishment backlash, or, more prosaically, of the Inland Revenue’s attentions to their back earnings, depending on which version of events you prefer. Either way, the sessions for their next album moved from Mick Jagger’s relatively sedate Home Counties estate to the more ramshackle charms of Keith Richards’s digs on the Riviera, and the last of the band’s indisputably great albums would duly emerge under the title Exile on Main Street. But that’s another story.

Moby Grape – the greatest rock-and-roll combo you’ve never heard of

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls a brilliant, betrayed band

All rock musicians carry a strong potential for disaster. On top of their youth and volatility, already a toxic combination, they swim in the notoriously shark-infested waters of showbusiness. Add the proximity of mind-warping drugs, uncomplicated sex and other inducements, and, notwithstanding the example of a few carefully preserved vintage hotrods like the Rolling Stones, it’s possible to see how the spectacular rock-music flameout is the rule, and truly sustained creative or personal fulfillment the exception.

When coming to consider the list of such artists to have been undermined by their own management, the writer finds himself somewhat spoilt for choice. There was the particularly poignant case of Badfinger, for example. Despite being the first signing to the Beatles’ Apple label in 1968 and going on to enjoy four consecutive worldwide hit singles, the Anglo-Welsh combo spent much of their lives locked in a bitter and ultimately unwinnable feud with their New York-based manager Stan Polley, a man apparently only dimly familiar with the concept of paying his clients. Two of the four band members eventually committed suicide.

Badfinger’s contemporaries the Zombies were another case in point. In short order, the group from the north London suburbs scored three hit singles and released an LP, Odessey and Oracle (so spelt) now ranked in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, but who found their audiences understandably perplexed by the fact that two other bands, one hailing from Texas, the other from Michigan, had both appropriated the name ‘Zombies’ (the real band had never trademarked it) and were blithely touring the world playing the group’s original hits.

Or there was Tommy James, who along with his band the Shondells had no fewer than 14 Top 40 smashes between 1964-69, enjoying a vast mainstream success that extended – surely a first in these matters – to having the Vice President of the United States volunteer to write the liner notes to one of his albums. Perhaps the one flaw in James’s otherwise glittering success story was to have signed away his rights to one Morris Levy, a man AllMusic describes as “a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties”, and who died in 1990, aged 62, shortly before he was due to report to prison after being convicted of extortion.

The above list is far from exhaustive, and readers may well have their own candidate or candidates in mind for inclusion. Somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of Carlos Santana’s onetime colleague Marcus “The Magnificent” Malone, who ended up living under a bridge in suburban San Francisco, where, alerted by a local news station, Santana himself once came by to say hello. The reunion seems not to have done much for Malone’s fortunes, because not long afterwards he was critically injured by an unsecured tyre that flew off a car passing by his makeshift home, and today remains on life support in hospital.

But perhaps no group of musicians suffered the slings and arrows of misfortune, and more specifically of mismanagement, quite as grievously as the Bay Area-based quintet Moby Grape. Named after the punch-line of the absurdist joke about what’s purple and floats in the sea, the band covered the waterfront from folk, blues, country, jazz and pop, with an underlying sense that the five musicians might conceivably have been on terms of some familiarity with the world of hallucinatory drugs. Their 1967 single ‘Omaha’ is surely one of the great psychedelic rock songs of all time. To those both in and out of the music business enlightened by LSD, it seemed all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With acid, the theory went, humanity could “transcend its primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility”, to quote Terry Southern’s script for the 1968 cult sci-fi romp Barbarella, and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia. Nowhere was this touching belief more ingrained than in the San Francisco of the mid- to late-1960s.

That there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, It’s A Beautiful Day’s eponymous first LP, and the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, to name but three that in their different ways managed to be both joyful and serious, characterised by their tactical deployment of switched-on lyrics, a propulsive rhythm, and a general spirit of adventurous improvisation epitomised by the ‘cross-talk’ guitar work that led the way to the sort of extended instrumental exchange that stadium audiences still boogie to, echoing out among the plastic cups and soggy programmes, of a ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Layla’.

Even in this illustrious company, Moby Grape’s self-titled first album, released in June 1967, stands supreme as a Summer of Love artefact that manages to be distinctly of its time and yet still with the power to move us today. Far from being self-indulgently diffuse or free-form, the band members brought to their work a tight, if idiosyncratic, sense of structure and a well developed ear for melodic economy. In stark contrast to those of many of their peers, almost all of the band’s songs came in at less than three minutes. All five musicians – Jerry Miller, Skip Spence, Peter Lewis, Bob Mosley and Don Stevenson – sang, and no fewer than three of them played variations of lead guitar. The venerable music critic Geoffrey Parr described the ensuing confection as follows:

No rock and roll group has been able to use a front-line guitar trio as effectively as Moby Grape did on Moby Grape. Spence played a distinctive rhythm that really sticks out through the album. Lewis, meanwhile, was a very good player overall, and was excellent at finger-picking … And then there was Miller

equally adept at playing the string-shredding solo as he was an unobtrusive, bluesy rhythm, and still today regularly voted one of the great all-round masters of his craft; ask Eric Clapton what he thinks about the subject.

Parr concludes,

The way Moby Grape handled their parts and played together on the first album is like nothing else I’ve ever heard in my life … The guitars are like a collage of sound that makes perfect sense

What most strikes the modern listener to Moby Grape’s freshman LP is the sheer variety of the band’s wares. Nowadays we expect our commercially successful pop acts to tick one of the approved stylistic boxes and stick to it. The Grape, by contrast, always shunned the lure of the pigeonhole. As originally released, the band’s first record comprises 13 songs lasting a total of just 31 minutes. There are fast numbers like ‘Hey Grandma’ and ‘Omaha’ that come out of the gate sounding like a revved-up fusion of Hendrix and the Sex Pistols, with added Beach Boys harmonies, if you can imagine such a thing, and slow ones like the plaintive ‘8:05’ and the refined ‘Sitting by the Window’ that bear comparison to some of the all-time great busted-heart country ballads. Like a Swiss Army knife, Moby Grape provides different tools for different needs: there are times when headbanging mayhem comes in handy, and others when a certain introspection does the trick. It’s the evocation of these disparate moods, always executed with the greatest technical skill, and a refreshing absence of self-indulgent noodling – the band members give the clear impression that they were keenly aware at all times of where a song was heading – that gives the whole record its bite. You could do much worse than to buy a copy of it today.

Unfortunately, Moby Grape’s musical acumen was matched only by their truly tragicomic litany of personal misadventures. Their problems began even before the release of their first album, when their manager presented the young musicians with a contract that gave him, not them, ownership of the group’s name. In time this led to the expedient of the band releasing their records under an alias, among various other Spinal Tap-like indignities. For its part, the group’s record company seemed to go from zero to 80, as it were, without levelling out at 40 in between, in its marketing hype. Their decision to release no fewer than five of the band’s songs as singles on the same day was widely thought counterproductive. In due course, the members of Moby Grape became aware that the suits owned the rights to their songs, as well as to their name, and 30 years of intermittent legal wrangling ensued.

Meanwhile, a combination of bad advice, bad breaks and bad behaviour served to further undermine a band that we might otherwise think of today in broadly the same terms as a more musically adept version of the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. One regrettable episode saw Skip Spence forcibly removed from his New York hotel and transported to the criminal ward of a nearby psychiatric hospital. In the 1960s, the available treatment for such issues had barely progressed beyond that afforded the most pitiful inmates of a Victorian lunatic asylum. The prodigiously talented Spence lived most of the rest of his life in a series of mental institutions and died in 1999, aged 52.

Moby Grape’s bassist Bob Mosley also displayed emotional problems. In 1969 he quit the band and, in a notable career move, joined the US Marines. Discharged for medical reasons, he spent several years living on the streets. Peter Lewis (son of the Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young) developed an interest in metaphysics, moved to the upscale wine country of California’s Santa Ynez valley – familiar to viewers of the 2004 film Sideways – and still occasionally plays the guitar. Don Stevenson managed to continue in music while becoming national sales director of a Canadian luxury timeshare concern. Jerry Miller, for his part, returned to his native Pacific Northwest, and – I speak from at least brief personal acquaintance – remains the most natural, modest and unaffected of men, let alone of psychedelic-rock guitar gods, anywhere in the world. Collectively, the band is one of those cautionary tales in rock and roll about exceptional talent being squandered on poor choices (other people’s as much as their own, it should be noted) of which the biographer Jeff Tamarkin writes:

The Grape’s saga is one of lost potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad breaks, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever … They could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, or less

Except, of course, that’s not quite the end of the story. Despite seeming to have been on one long death march from the moment they released their incendiary first album, Moby Grape never truly disbanded in the formal sense of the word. A reunited version of the classic lineup performed for 40,000 fans in their spiritual home of San Francisco as recently as 2007, and the four surviving originals continue to play in various combinations, solo or collective, today.

Moby Grape may still mainly be thought of as precociously talented but commercially underperforming victims of callous management, satirically inept record company marketing and mutual poor judgement, but that’s at best only half the story. There is lasting greatness in several of their albums, but the first one is almost consistently great, and progressively so, an overall experience as thrilling as any that their particular brand of music can provide. I can’t imagine that anyone would listen to it now without at least reflecting on how great rock music’s promise was back in 1967, and how far it’s fallen.

Moby Grape’s self-titled first album is still widely available from all the usual outlets. For further information on the band’s guitarist Jerry Miller and his music, contact either Jo Johnson or Arne Nordwall at jerrysattic@turtlesociety.com

A truly progressive rocker

Genesis in 1973 (Steve Hackett second from right)

A Genesis in my Bed, Steve Hackett, Wymer Publishing, 208 pages, £13.99

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD enjoys the modest memoirs of a guitarist who has little to be modest about

While the likes of the capital’s O2 Arena brace themselves for the invasion of the Phil Collins version of Genesis next spring, or whenever it is we’re finally released from our collective house arrest, the band’s former guitarist Steve Hackett offers something that’s mercifully not as sugary. Residual 1960s peace and love might be at the core of Hackett’s long-awaited memoir A Genesis in my Bed – the title is taken from an excited American groupie’s exclamation on finding herself closeted with the author one night in his Midwestern hotel room – but there’s also a becoming modesty and a refreshing calm to this account of the unprepossessing kid with the goggly NHS specs who graduated from the bombed-out austerity of postwar London, where joy was in as short supply as fresh food, to flying the Atlantic on Concorde and packing them in at Madison Square Garden.

Odd as it might seem to the rest of us, Hackett makes it all sound like a perfectly logical progression in life, and it’s part of his book’s considerable charm that he treats the lows and highs (and more lows) with the same stoic good cheer, keeping a lid on any unseemly emotion. Steady on, you can almost hear Hackett say in these pages, we’re British – and you remember that the author grew up at a time when the country was more drilled and regimented than in any other era of its history, where ubiquitous gravy made everything taste alike and kids like young Hackett sat belted and shivering at night in their identical, redbrick houses furnished just like their granny’s. “Who has not felt,” wrote the social historian James Morris in 1962,

…the deadweight of that worn-out, disillusioned, smug, astigmatic, half-educated generation, weighing lumpishly upon the nation’s shoulders?

It was against this England that the Beatles and the Stones, with the likes of Genesis a half-step behind them, were in glamorous revolt. The latter made an only tentative start. Their debut single, a Bee Gees pastiche called “The Silent Sun”, conspicuously avoided any sales, and after recording their first album – entitled From Genesis to Revelation, and marketed in the ‘Religious’ section of most British record shops – the young band members all drifted off to university, convinced that their career was over.

They later gave it a second shot, and things finally took off when lead singer Peter Gabriel wandered on the stage of a boxing stadium in Dublin one night in 1972 while attired in his wife’s red cocktail dress and a fox’s head. Fleet Street ran a front-page photo of the event and the band’s fee doubled overnight as a result. Soon Genesis went on to cut their masterpiece Selling England by the Pound, and John Lennon was calling them one of his favourite bands, which was about as close to a papal blessing as you could get in their line of work.

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Hackett had joined the lineup after placing an advertisement in the “For Hire” columns of Melody Maker, instantly bringing an astutely varied guitar sound – covering the waterfront from heavy-rock riffing to an exhilarating but plangent touch of acoustic – to the mix. His solo piece Horizons on the Foxtrot LP had a lightness of melody with which Bach might not have been disappointed. Genesis were fabulously lucky to have him, and between about 1970-75 the band invented a look and a sound that was plainly modern, eclectic, virtuosic, emotionally thoughtful and lyrically witty, with a larding of dystopianism and a refreshing aversion to the demands of playlist-pleasing, box-ticking blandness. It was their fusion of rock-band swagger with some of the technical prowess of a string quintet that informed dozens of lesser groups coming up behind them.  Whether Mars Volta and the rest recognise it or not, an awful lot of what they do is streaming Genesis.

Of course that isn’t to say it was all plain sailing at the time. Hackett’s tenure in Genesis from 1970-77 may have marked the band’s creative peak, but it was matched by a relentless, budget-conscious tour schedule and at best only break-even material rewards. Beyoncé might live in a house made of Cartier jewellery and swim in a pool filled with Cristal champagne and pink ice cubes, but down at the other end of the scale, for working performers life can be tough. Not the least of this book’s charms is the author’s enjoyably deadpan account of some of the Spinal Tap-like indignities of keeping the show on the road. At one early gig at Cheltenham Ladies College, he recalls, the well-heeled young audience members sat staring open-mouthed at the shaggy musicians playing before them, as though they had just crash-landed from Mars. At least they bothered to turn up on that occasion.

On other nights the five-piece band was almost larger than the paying crowd. Hackett writes of one show at a football stadium in Italy,

where the few stragglers who showed up were completely outnumbered by the heavily sedated inmates of a psychiatric hospital bordering the pitch. Trapped behind a high metal fence, the poor souls just stared glassy-eyed at our show. We felt about as welcome as a condom at the Vatican

Even after going on to play to 15,000 ecstatic fans at the Empire Pool, Wembley, Hackett simply packed up his guitar and got a lift back to his parents’ small flat in Pimlico where he was still living. That same general air of modesty pervades the book as a whole. Hackett is too honourable to really spill the beans either on his fellow band members or any of the various perks of life as a working musician. Unlike, say, the Motley Crue story, the book doesn’t aspire to a joyful cascade of indiscretions, although at one point the author admits:

I had some pretty strange encounters [with women], from the burlesque dancer and the female wrestling champion to the girl whose fantasy was a brutal night with Vincent Price

Hackett left Genesis essentially to pursue his own career, and true to his word he’s gone on to release an astonishing 25 or so solo albums as well as collaborating with everyone from the American folk singer Richie Havens to the Hungarian jazz-rock group Djabe. There are musicians whose last record is very like their first. Having learned their trade, mastered it for once and all, they practice it with little variation to the very end. Steve Hackett is very different. He will be remembered for being fearless in his single-minded pursuit of what he thought his evolving craft required. This is a quiet, wry, unvarnished, always compellingly fluent account of 50 years of assorted ups and downs in the entertainment world, with the supremely satisfying ending of a happily married man at the peak of his creative game. You should treat yourself to a copy immediately.