Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tom Doyle — ‘The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie’

Poor Yaki. And Paul. But most of all, poor Billy. ‘Billy’s dead,’ I said to S., mournfully, as we set off on Sunday afternoon to look at pictures of him and others in Harry Papadopoulos’ fantastic What Presence! rock photography exhibition, which has now rolled around to Dundee’s McManus Galleries. We were roughly opposite Bonnybank Road (where the MacKenzie family once lived) as I said this, though that wasn’t deliberate, and had walked along Lyon Street (cf. the short-lived Associates spin-off group 39 Lyon Street) a minute or two previously. So many landmarks in The Glamour Chase are five minutes’ walk from my flat, it’s an odd feeling. ‘He has been for some time,’ said S., not unkindly, to bring me back down to earth. I know it’s spurious to claim any kind of connection based on shared geography, especially with (of all the clichéd things to identify with) a rock ’n’ roll suicide, so I won’t, but still, having just finished this splendid book, I do feel a little as though Billy’s spirit haunts this place. ‘He was alive an hour ago,’ I protested. That’s the magic of biographies, isn’t it? By telling the stories that make up a life, they do something much more powerful than fiction’s suspension of disbelief: a good biography will reverse the fact of death, for a while, at least.

To tie in with What Presence!, there was a screening on Friday of a TV documentary based on Tom Doyle’s book (also called The Glamour Chase, you can watch it on YouTube), followed by a Q & A with the author. Doyle came across as garrulous verging on incoherent, beginning every answer to Lorraine Wilson’s questions, ‘Yeah, totally,’ and proceeding to not really think about what he was saying until he was three quarters of the way through. It wasn’t a bad effect, necessarily (he was warm and enthusiastic), but surprising nevertheless in someone who writes books. After that, still having half of it left to read, I kept noticing straggly sentences with too many clauses, and phrases which didn’t quite say what they were obviously supposed to mean. Neither of those tendencies make Doyle a bad pop writer: on the contrary, he has a bullish way of interpreting Billy’s actions that cuts through the mystery / bullshit and always gets to the funny side if there is one (there mostly is). He stacks anecdote upon anecdote until you’re left with the left with the impression that here was a mind like Captain Beefheart’s: autocratic, wired to make life the absurdist artwork, unable to even consider practicalities like cooking, money or record contracts. He gives a balanced account, too, of Billy’s artistic achievement, picking out successful songs on unsuccessful albums during the mid to late ’80s, keeping a tally on the number of years without a hit, and the unbelievable sums WEA and then Circa paid out for these records which didn’t sell (it works out as over £250,000 each for four albums, one of which wasn’t even released, and the last of which sold around 3,000 copies). So Sulk is the masterpiece, as everyone knows, and the posthumously released work with Steve Aungle the return to form.

As the documentary wraps up, the various talking heads (Siouxie Sioux, Marc Almond, Martin Fry) pay tribute to Billy’s talent, but Alan Rankine takes a different tack: ‘I’ve had a hell of a lot of laughs in my life so far, but I’ve never laughed as hard as I did with Bill’. The stories in this book are just great: the early jaunts to New Zealand and Los Angeles, getting married at seventeen in LA so as not to lose a job chopping onions at a hot dog stand. The punks who gobbed on the Associates during a gig, and ended up on the receiving end of Billy’s ability to projectile vomit at will (powered in this instance by vodka and blackcurrant juice, swigged for the purpose); or the other vomit story, of the ‘restaurant crawl’ in Paris, Billy claiming that by eating and then throwing up the food of all these swanky places, he was absorbing the best nutrients on earth. There are the record company scams, beginning with the Associates’ first single, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, intended to attract the attention of David Bowie’s music publisher, as they hadn’t sought permission to cover his recent single. Later he would charge just about everything to the record company’s account, like a Holiday Inn room for his beloved whippets, or a taxi from London to Dundee when he was finally dropped from WEA. There’s a lovely portrait of domestic oddity from the time he and Steve Aungle shared an Edinburgh flat in 1994, in order to concentrate on their songs. There were ‘no pots and pans in the kitchen, only a champagne bucket’, which makes even less sense of this:

both found themselves sonically addicted to the soothing qualities of the ‘pinging’ sound emitted from the timer on the old-fashioned cooker in the kitchen. ‘It was just this hypnotic ping that you could hear from any room in the house,’ the musician remembers, ‘and you got so used to hearing it, if it stopped and we were right in the middle of something, I’d go, “Oh, the pinger’s stopped” and Billy would run down and put it back on again. [...] Then, Billy used to try to get me to make all the tea. He said, “Steve, you might think this is a bit weird, but I think the kitchen’s malevolent and I can’t go in there any more.” (pp. 192-3)
A daft note to end on, but if this biography is anything to go by, he was as daft as he was amazing.

1 comment:

steg said...

Great post.
I was (and am) just struggling to know if this edition is worth buying, as I already have two copies of the first.

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