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Authors: George Melly

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Music, #Genres & Styles, #Jazz

Owning Up: The Trilogy (87 page)

BOOK: Owning Up: The Trilogy
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That Easter my father died. He was sixty-one. His funeral was the last occasion Victoria put in an official appearance as my wife.

Later that summer the editress of
Queen
magazine sent for me and said that Colin Mclnnes had suggested that I might write something for them. Colin was a keen Flook fan and I had written a laudatory article in the
Twentieth Century.
I did a piece for them called ‘A Week-end in the Jazz World’. In it I wrote: ‘On the road. Ten years of it. I seem to have spent a lifetime looking out of grimy windows in digs at backyards in the rain. Weeds, rotting iron, collapsing outhouses.’

That article was in fact the key to my release. Out of it came other reviews and pieces, my Flook money had gone up and Wally and I were doing a weekly cartoon for the
Spectator
. I was also compering ‘Jazz Club’ regularly, and I suddenly realised I could make enough to pack it in. It took me a week or two to raise the courage to tell Mick. I did it one evening in a pub.

‘I was thinking of doing the same,’ he said.

He had recently bought a house on the Sussex coast. Pam and the children were down there the whole time. He kept on the flat in Lisle Street as a
pied-à-terre
, but most nights he used to drive the extra eighty miles home. He was thinking, he told me, of buying an off-licence in that part of the world. He had begun to yearn for a home life, regular hours, fewer hangovers. We decided that 1 January 1962. would be the day to disband.

The band were divided. Ian had begun to write a jazz column in the
Sunday Telegraph
. He thought he might make out as a writer too. Miff could always get along. Fat John decided to form his own band. Frank was the most pessimistic. In July of that year, the last Beaulieu.

On the river-boat shuffle, or ‘Floating Festival’ as it was called in the high noon of the trad boom, I sang, as had become accepted custom, an obscene Liverpool ballad called ‘The Lobster Song’. In Margate we went to the flea circus: ‘This little lady is Madame Frou Frou. And this is Hercules, the strongest flea in the world.’

Steaming slowly back through the pool of London in the dusk, I reflected nostalgically on other years. The time Simon Watson Taylor brought John Raymond and he, charmed by the high spirits and physical beauty of all the young people, said that for the first time he understood the point of the Welfare State.

The band’s last autumn. In the Colony Room early in October I met Diana; she was also married. We spent the afternoon together, I was meant to be taking Victoria to the newly opened ‘Establishment Club’. I rang her up and she said did I mind but she’d been asked out by somebody else. I said no. I took Diana. Afterwards we went and made love on the heath. We knew that day we were going to get married.

Three days later I went in to Victoria’s bedroom to tell her. Before I’d got it out, she told me she was leaving. She’d fallen in love with somebody else. I gave her my reciprocal piece of information. She asked who it was. I told her.

‘But she’s quite pretty!’ she said.

A few weeks later Victoria left in her Floride and Diana moved in with her two children and a Victorian bassinette.

Many people think it was Diana who persuaded me to stop touring. I had in fact decided three months before I’d met her. Diana came to all the jobs we could manage during the band’s last three months. At the Anarchists’ Ball at Fulham Town Hall, Mick said to me while we were going out of a pub together: ‘You’ve got yourself a good one there, cock.’ I thought he was being sarcastic on the ‘another good chap lost’ level. ‘No, cock,’ he said, ‘I mean it.’

That Christmas Eve we played The Bodega. Frank Parr fell off the stage and pulled down a huge Christmas tree on top of him. That was the last real moment in the official history of the band. The final job, a BBC show called ‘Trad Tavern’, proved to be a remarkably unemotional evening.

Actually, although the band no longer existed, we played together a lot over the next year. The trad boom was still on and I agreed with Mick to do a weekend a month and the odd job near town. Indeed so elastically did the conductor interpret his terms of reference that at one moment it was like being on the road and I had to put my foot down.

Diana and I bought a mini-van and she learnt to drive. I loved that year. She’d hardly been out of London, and it was all new for her. She turned it on for me too.

As well as band work I compèred a big festival for Paddy in Blackpool, and a three-day stint in Cleethorpes.

At the Albert Hall around Easter 1963, Diz Disley, Rolf Harris and I were linkmen for a BBC spectacular of’Jazz ‘n’ Pop’. The jazz bands got a lot of applause, but the stars of the evening were ‘The Beatles’, a group I’d only just heard of. The bell had begun to toll for trad.

Over the next two years trad died. Clubs closed. Managements turned over to Beat groups. Only the toughest bands survived. The Mulligan band, unaware of it at the time, did its last job. In ’64 I hardly sang at all – a few cabarets, the festivals at Redcar and Cleethorpes were about my lot. We loved these jazz festivals. It’s great to see the old faces milling about in the private bar tent. Humph, Sandy and Al, Jim Bray and Alex Welsh. It’s like the instant vision of a whole life which is meant to flash before the eyes of the drowning.

At the time of writing rhythm and blues is taking over from Beat. This is nearer allied to trad and several of the bands have made the jump. What is good about rhythm and blues is that it has meant that almost every month one or more Negro blues singers come over on tour. We went to Croydon recently. A young, serious audience, and several figures from the past: Jimmy Asman and Derrick Stewart-Baxter.

Lately there have been some signs too of trad reviving on a small scale. I have sung recently in a South London pub and a rugger club out at Osterley. The audiences were enthusiastic. The atmosphere fresh again. It seemed to be for love not money.

Do I regret anything? Only this. I’m vain enough to find it hard to walk up the queue outside the Marquee on my way to listen to Howling Wolf, and to be completely unrecognised by several hundred blues fans. Wally Fawkes went through the same thing some time before me. He was a great figure in the revivalist days, second only to Humph. You get over it, he told me. I’m beginning to already.

When I started this book the trad boom was still on. Certain statements at the beginning are now inaccurate, but I’ll let them rest. In the middle there are one or two references to the beat boom. That too is dying. If I was to aim at up-to-the-minute accuracy I should have to correct the proofs right up to publication date.

What has happened to the chaps?

Mick has his off-licence and grocery. He comes up to see me once a month with a booze order. He is still my manager. His character too has altered. He washes and shaves every morning. He works long hours to make his business a success. He has decided the time has come to ‘pull his finger out’, and yet his charm is as irresistible as ever. Under his white coat beats the same anarchic heart.

Ian, after a period as a photographer and a stint in a PRO office, is now a feature writer on the
Express
.

Fat John is doing lounge work. He has a trio in various clubs.

Appleby is still with Donegan. He turned up to see me not long ago in an American car that filled the street.

Frank is general manager for the Acker Bilk organisation.

Gerry Salisbury plays on Sunday mornings at a jam session in a pub in Kentish Town. He also works for a car firm.

What is marvellous is that once again I can listen to jazz. Sinclair Traill asked me if I would like to review blues records for him. ‘We pay, of course,’ he told me. Needless to say, he doesn’t, but it’s very exciting to get a packet of records every month.

But what about the raving and the birds? Don’t I miss that bit, some people ask and more people think.

No. I read a book recently by a man now dead called Verrier Elwin. He was a marvellous old man who spent most of his life in India. He wrote this:

Today, and for many years past, my old loves have been concentrated on my beloved wife, in whom I have found the essence of them all. I am a better lover now for those experiences.

AFTERWORD

… and so I left the jazz world and became a journalist. That was forty years ago. It wasn’t such an abrupt transition as you might think, though. Wally ‘Trog’ Fawkes and I usually dropped in to El Vino’s, Fleet Street’s famous fall-about station, after our weekly Flook conference at the
Daily Mail.

My gamble paid off. Quite soon I had a TV column in the
Observer
and was appearing regularly on
The Critics
. My mother
was
pleased.

Diana and I had bought a large house in Gloucester Crescent surrounded by the trendy media. We lived a full social life, gave and went to dinner parties; I’d inherited a much-loved step-daughter, Candida, and we made a lovely son called Tom; we owned a cottage in Wales… but by the end of the decade things weren’t going so well between us and we nearly, but didn’t quite, split up. We were still sometimes happy but more often sad.

On top of that, I felt there was something missing. Film scripts, books, an award for my
Observer
column; nothing seemed to lay this as-yet-unidentified ghost. Then Wally told me that on Sunday mornings several pro (or ex-pro) jazz musicians met to play for fun in a pub in Islington called New Merlin’s Cave – and why didn’t I drop in? So I did and found out what it was that had been haunting me –I was desperate to sing again.

Soon we were being offered jobs elsewhere. The Beatles’ ex-PR Derek Taylor of Warner Brothers took us up. We made an LP and were invited to play, much to our surprise, at Ronnie Scott’s (and we’re still there every Christmas twenty-seven years later).

The work just escalated and something had to give. It did – I resigned from the
Observer
and John Chilton and I, with three other regulars from Merlin’s, were back on the road. People thought we’d gone mad.

In the early ‘Feetwarmers’ days we were as wild as ever, probably wilder, as it all felt like playing hookey from the adult world. We toured the US several times, Asia and the Antipodes. We all came on as thirties’ gangsters (now it’s only me who wears fancy dress, although John remains a dandy). Gradually we got the act together – or at least John did. Not only a fine trumpet-player, he selects the material, arranges it, and watches my performance with a beneficent but constructive eye.

Jazz is not our whole life, though. Both of us, aware of Time’s Winged Chariot, have other irons in the fire (I can mix a metaphor as well as the next man). John writes his meticulously researched jazz biographies. I write books too, lecture on modern art and broadcast quite a lot.

Yet jazz is mainly where we’re at. We’re drawing full and appreciative houses, and will continue as long as we can. We went pro again in ’73 but these days, after the final number, I go no more a-roaming by the light of the moon. Diana and I, becalmed at times or driven before the storm, seem to have made harbour.

Yes, I have heard the chimes at midnight but now prefer to listen to them from a Queen-sized bed, in a comfortable hotel, sipping drinking chocolate and dunking digestive biscuits while wondering if I can quite be bothered to watch an ‘adult’ movie…

George Melly

April 2000

BOOK: Owning Up: The Trilogy
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