Fifty Years On …. or what Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Michael Caine, Leonard Cheshire, Paul Raymond, Eric Morecambe, Mick Jagger, Terry Wogan, Elvis Presley, Dennis Hopper, David Attenborough, Lord Hailsham, Tony Benn, Charlie Watts, Enoch Powell, Marc Bolan and Jimmy Savile and many more told me…
There are many good reasons for deciding upon a career in journalism, but my only thought, when I first went to work in what was then Fleet Street just half a century ago this week, was that I wanted to interview people.
I wanted to find out why they did what they did, and to know about the families and forces that had shaped them; to discover out what it was like to be them. You’d be surprised how much people will tell you if you have the cheek to ask.
Quite why I, a young man of twenty six with a truly terrible stammer should have imagined that I could make a living asking questions of strangers, I can’t imagine. Looking back, it seems delusional.
But somehow I made a go of it. And, as over the decades the stammer receded to a usually more or less disguisable inconvenience, my cuttings books filled and multiplied as I met some of the most famous people in the world…some of whom let their guards down.
There was, for instance, Muhammad Ali, who in 1971, suddenly broke off from a bragging diatribe about boxing to say he hoped his children would become ‘doctors, lawyers, scientists or engineers. For me boxing was the best thing I could have done. It was the only way I could get rich. If I could, I’d have been a great doctor, or something like that.’
In that moment, his stab of self-awareness was palpable, and his ambition to become something more worthwhile than a boxer already visible.
Then there was the time I was in New York in 1969 interviewing Bob Dylan on the phone when I realised he was much more interested in asking me about Elvis Presley’s come-back show, which I’d just been to see, than talking about himself. At that moment he wasn’t a superstar and me a reporter. We were equals, chatting away like 15 year old fans who had just discovered rock music.
I’m best known for my Beatles’ connections, three of whom I interviewed many times. Unfortunately, although he was always friendly, I never got on well with George Harrison – my loss.
I can only imagine he thought I was too close to John and Paul and didn’t value him as highly as I should. If so, he was right. My loss. The others, though, were always available for me and always honest.
Living in luxury’s lap in the Surrey stockbroker belt Ringo reflected on the downside of fame one day when he told me about a Liverpool friend of his called Roy who worked as a joiner. ‘He’s only got about thirty records, but he gets so much pleasure from them. Yet I’ve got a cupboard here with about five hundred LPs and when I want to play one I have to close the cupboard because I don’t know which one to play anymore.’
Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones summed up success in another way. ‘It means that if I want to buy a pound of peaches I don’t have to buy half a pound. I can have the full pound. And that’s nice.’
As for the surrealistic lyrics of the latter part of the Beatles’ careers Ringo was dismissive. ‘I don’t think I ever understood what some of the songs were supposed to be about.’
For some reason John Lennon is always portrayed in films as being permanently aggressive and bad tempered. That wasn’t the man I knew. For sure, he had a sharp tongue for those who got on the wrong side of him, but there was much of the stand-up comedian about him, too.
I loved his self-mocking description of how his second wife Yoko Ono had changed him after he and she had appeared naked on the front cover of their Two Virgins album. ‘She forced me to become avant garde and take me clothes off when all I wanted was to be become Tom Jones. And now look at me. Did you know that avant garde is French for bullshit?’
Then there was the time he allowed a troupe of Hare Krishna disciples to live in the grounds of his house in Berkshire while they decorated a small temple in the garden. ‘Peace, man,’ they would chime, smiling, every time you passed them. ‘Peace.’
Two weeks later they were gone. What happened to the Hare Krishnas, I asked John the next time I was down there.
‘Oh, I had to show them the door,’ he replied. ‘All that chanting ‘peace, man’ all day long was getting on my nerves. I couldn’t get any fucking peace.’
That was the Lennon I liked, never able to sidestep a joke when he saw the opportunity to make one, as often as not at his own expense.
Rock stars were always good value as interviewees. Marc Bolan insisted that he had seen someone levitate ‘about eight feet into the air’, knew how to make himself invisible and could ‘conjure up demons’. When I asked him to demonstrate levitation he said he couldn’t be bothered. By the end of that interview I got the feeling that he thought I was a demon he’d conjured up.
Then there was Pete Townshend of the Who who reckoned his whole stage performance was a result of his ‘having an enormous great hooter as a kid. I was always being baited about it. So I used to think, “I’ll bloody well show ’em. I’ll push my huge hooter out at them from every newspaper in England”. Then they won’t laugh at me.’
Elvis Presley surprised me when I had the cheek to ask him why he’d made so many bad films in the Sixties. ‘I wouldn’t be being honest with you if I said I wasn’t ashamed of some of the movies I’ve made and the songs I’ve had to sing in them,’ he said. ‘I’d like to say they were good, but I can’t.’ I learned later that, like me, he didn’t bother to keep his film albums either.
Such self-criticism didn’t out come at every interview. Nor, in fact, did honesty. Sometimes the interviewee would put on a performance of extreme niceness for me, only to reveal a vicious ego by breaking off in the middle of a conversation to nastily berate an underling for some minor oversight, before returning all smiles and jokes to me. Both Tony Curtis and Michael Winner did that. They were both awful.
Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, was terrific. Asked why he wrote poetry, he said, because he’d thought it was part of the courting process. ‘I must have looked extremely absurd because I wrote all my poems to ladies thinking that was the way to approach them. I was suddenly taken seriously as a poet, when really I was a kind of stud – and not a very successful one, because the successful ones didn’t have to write poems to make girls.’
He was, he reckoned, ‘a romantic and a lecher and a lover of women’. Then in a pre-emptive rebuttal of feminism, almost before it was properly launched, he insisted in 1968 that women were in control. ‘Everything a man does is laid out at a woman’s feet whether it is a battle or a song, or an amalgamation between two great companies. At some time in the day the man comes home to his woman and says, “Look what I’ve done”.’
Mick Jagger is another ladies man. You may have noticed that. As early as 1967 he was telling me that marriage was outdated. ‘I can understand why women want to get married,’ he said, ‘because they know that the man can always run off with another woman.
And as they’re dependent on him they have to make it that bit harder for him to get out of his obligations. But I don’t really see why men want to get married.’
After eight children with five different women, it would seem he still doesn’t see it, although it’s only fair to say he’s fulfilled his paternal obligations.
Michael Caine had another view on what in those Sixties days was being called the permissive society. ‘I think it’s all a bit of a myth,’ he told me in the back of a Bentley in 1971 as he returned from filming a scene with Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Blokes come over (to London from Hollywood) and talk about the permissive society,
‘But they’re all just balling the same couple of hundred girls that everybody else has been having. I’m sure the whole thing is kept going by a couple of hundred ravers.’
Changes in attitudes towards sex and marriage came up time and again in interviews back then. But it was Dusty Springfield, popularly thought of then as the sunny British girl next door with the voice of pure honey, who surprised most of all, when, for some reason, she decided to come out to me about being bi-sexual.
I’d heard the gossip about her, as had everyone else who wrote about entertainment in those days. But would never have dreamed of asking her about the rumours until she goaded me into it. ‘Go on, ask me?’ she kept saying. So I did.
Her answer was fulsome. ‘I don’t go leaping around to all the gay clubs,’ she said, ‘but I can be very flattered. Girls run after me and it doesn’t upset me… I couldn’t stand to be thought of as a big butch lady. But I know that I’m as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy.’
There was more. ‘I’m promiscuous. Not often, but when I am, I really am… I don’t mean that I leap into bed with someone every night, but my affections are easily swayed and I can be very unfaithful… The truth is, I’m easily flattered by people’s attentions and after a couple of vodkas I’m even more flattered.’
Today such self-revelations by a popular woman star would surprise, but no more. But in 1970 such talk could have been self-destructive.
As we lived near each other I drove Dusty home after the interview during which she mused jokily that what she’d just told me ‘might put the final seal’ on her doom. But she’d made her mind up. She wanted me to write it – although she couldn’t quite bring herself to say that she was a lesbian.
I was a huge fan, and liked her, and, worried that she might be damaging her career, I hid the quotes inside a long article under the headline ‘Dusty At Thirty’. She phoned when the article was published, happy with the result – although I heard later that her manager had a fit.
She was a brave, clever woman who was years’ ahead of her time, and I just happened to be the medium through which she let the public know a little more, if not everything, about her sexuality.
Most of my subjects were entertainers, but by no means all, some of the most memorable stories coming from politicians. Enoch Powell was a controversially outspoken MP in the Sixties and Seventies, so it was a surprise when he told me about a love poem he’d written while a student at Cambridge. ‘I remember the emotion I felt,’ he told me, ‘although I don’t remember who the subject was.’ Actually, I think he did remember, but didn’t want to tell me.
The Tory grandee Lord Hailsham was fascinating in his description of life in an upper class family in London’s South Kensington before the First World War, where his ‘father and mother and four children and eight indoor servants lived’ and where there were just two lavatories. Taken out in his sailor suit by his nanny to Kensington Gardens he would return black with soot from playing on the grass.
‘We forget how filthy dirty everywhere was in those days before smoke free zones came in,’ he remembered… ‘frightful pea-soupers and a terrible smell of sulphur everywhere.’
Then there was the rudimentary surgery of the time. Shortly before going away to boarding school at seven he was taken to a doctor’s surgery for an inept circumcision to be rectified – without anaesthetic. ‘I was just flung across the doctor’s lap and snip-snip! All I remember is the humiliation, the pain and all the blood.’
Memories of World War II brought a romantic story from Barbara Castle, who spent her honeymoon night locked in the carriage of a packed stationary train at Paddington in her wedding outfit with her husband ‘as air raid sirens went off and V-1s started dropping around us. ‘You could have been in your own coffin, so to speak,’ she said. ‘Then the all-clear sounded and the train started….and, you know, nobody ever had a better wedding night’.
There have been so many interviews. Tony Benn’s recollection of how he and two other British officers celebrated VE day in a kibbutz near Jerusalem in 1945 by performing ‘Hands, Knees and Bumps-a-Daisy’ at the request of their Jewish guests; and Group Captain Leonard Cheshire describing watching, as an official observer, ‘the flicker of light and then the ball of fire about 2000ft above the ground’ when the atom bomb was exploded over Nagasaki, and thinking: ‘That’s it. The killing of six years is finished’. And then turning his thoughts to those who had just died.
It was a terrible story, but there were many funny ones, too. Eric Morecambe recalling how when he was having a heart attack he was driven to a hospital by a minicab driver who asked him for an autograph ‘before you go’.
Then there was Paul Raymond saying that the first naked lady he ever saw was when he was fourteen and ‘peeped through a keyhole at my schoolteacher aunt as she undressed to get into the bath’. And Dennis Hopper saying how he saw James Dean purposely urinate in front of a crowd of hundreds of sightseers who had come to watch the filming of the movie Giant in Texas.
Some interviewees have been boring, but not many. And some people were impossible not to like, such as Terry Wogan, who told me about the busker who would walk up and down outside the cinema in Limerick singing his own lyrics to the tune from South Pacific: ‘Someone chanted evening…’
And then there was the great David Attenborough on the sex lives of millipedes. ‘A male millipede has his sex pouch on his eleventh ring and he takes out the sperm with a feeler-like hand. He then has to bung it over into the female’s genital opening, which occurs on her fifth ring, and you can see him counting, looking for the opening…one, two, three, four, five… And if he misses, he has to start all over again. Oh, it’s fascinating.’
Now and again, I would have to protect interviewees from themselves and their own naivete and not print what they told me. And sometimes good advice would come my way – on one occasion from the least likely source.
I never liked Jimmy Savile. I didn’t know anything about his behaviour with young girls, but his popularity at the BBC confounded me and many others. I just found him deeply odd and very annoying.
But one thing he said has stayed with me. ‘Whenever you go to visit someone in hospital never forget that your face is the mirror of their condition,’ he said. ‘The patient can’t see himself or herself. But, if you let your expression show what you’re thinking…!’
He was right. It was invaluable advice. As were a few words from Paul McCartney’s father in 1967 when it fell to me to ring Paul and ask for a comment on the disastrous reviews that the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour had just been given.
Paul, whom I hardly knew then, was still asleep when I first called his home, but his father, whom I’d met in Liverpool, was staying with him over Christmas, and advised I call back little later. I did. Again and again, until Mr McCartney said something that I’ve borne in mind ever since.
‘Son,’ he said, ‘God loves a trier.’ And, with that, he went upstairs, woke up his son and demanded he talk to me.
My conversation with Paul McCartney that day became my first front page story in my career in newspapers.