Ernest Hemingway, Sam Peckinpah, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Douglas Adams, Morrissey – all legendary figures whose obsessions, addictions and drives have been well-documented through press interviews, biopics and biographies.
But what were these people really like?
In his new book, I Was Douglas Adams’s Flatmate, Andrew McGibbon talks to a close friend or collaborator of each of these often near-mythical figures. We hear the story of how Johnny Cash became the Man in the Black Suit from his tailor, Manuel; we hear about Les Dawson’s literary aspirations from his joke writer, David Nobbs; Jon Canter, flatmate, recounts the time he spent living with Douglas Adams as he turned from aspiring writer into international star; and in the final chapter, the author tells his own story of his brief spell as the drummer for Morrissey.
Andrew McGibbon is a comedy writer, performer, director and producer who has made comedies for TV and radio starring Harry Shearer, Bob Monkhouse, John Bird, John Sessions, Bill Nighy, Sally Phillips and Fiona Allen. As a drummer he has recorded albums with Morrissey (Viva Hate, Bona Drag, Kill Uncle), Peter Gabriel (Peace Together), My Bloody Valentine (Glider), Bucks Fizz (New Beginnings), Suggs and Chrissie Hynde. His documentary about playwright NF Simpson debuted at the National Film Theatre in May 2008. He lives in London.
We asked him about the writing of the book and his own heroes.
Are you a bookgeek?
Yes I am. I was brought up surrounded by books as my father edited an influential magazine for the education and child psychology profession and we were overwhelmed at home with copies of every type of book in this field. I remember trying to read very specialised books by C.G. Jung, Vance Packard and others, finding the language hard going and the concepts difficult to grasp. But then I was only four and used the blank pages to draw crayon monsters. The book I remember best from growing up however – and I can’t recall the title or the author – wasn’t one I read but turned out to be just the right size to wedge the thermostat on the gas fire in the living room, thus keeping us warm during the winters of discontent
Did the process of doing these interviews change your attitude to the notion of celebrity and fame?
Celebrity and fame appear to have become as valid an aspiration as training to be a GP, solicitor or teacher or lecturer. Having said that I grew up in an academic family during the seventies and then went on to become a rock drummer so what does that tell you? I love drumming! I think that it’s still important to have a serious track record of significant achievements to qualify for inclusion in the I Was book. Being Katie Price’s Whig Pimp or Lindsay Lohan’s Nominated Driver would run out of steam pretty quickly as a chapter (thought it would sell the book I suppose). If anything the process of doing these interviews made me appreciate that celebrity and fame have become self administered internet narcotics for consumer and burning-out celebrity in equal measure and that doing something artistically or politically significant is the only way out.
On balance given the horrific denouement of celebrity culture following halcyon years of indolence and credit cards, I think it’s better for one’s sanity and self esteem to just do the best you can first in your chosen field and if notoriety follows then you have to deal with it like you would a chronic illness. Those who I’ve met tell me that being a famous celebrity gets pretty boring and depressing after a while, as your former life no longer exists. I am concerned for those not fully aware of the after effects of trivial fame from TV shows. They find the high so unbelievable and intense that they spend the rest of their lives trying to get the fix again.
I Was Douglas Adams’s Flatmate is based on a radio series – did you find it easier getting across the essence of the encounters you document on radio or on the printed page?
I think both ways work well. The radio version of Sam Peckinpah’s Girl Friday is as powerful a broadcast as it is written down. I Was Douglas Adams’s Flatmate as well comes over so well on the radio because of Jon Canter’s charming and funny retelling of his experiences but also reads well with a new introduction; equally I Was Johnny Cash’s Tailor and I Was Moazzam Begg’s Lawyer are fascinating just as written interviews.
The majority of chapters in the book are straight single voice interviews where I act as facilitator to move the topic forward and provide an introduction and background. These are I Was…Moazzam Begg’s Lawyer, Chet Baker’s Final Tour Manager, Will Carling Osteopath, Billie Holliday’s Stand in at the Apollo in Harlem, Les Dawson’s Gag writer, Tina Turner’s White Dancer and Johnny Cash’s Tailor. Only four chapters in the book use the format of the radio series, where some additional voices were brought in to give context to the subject. This is true in I Was…Ernest Hemingway’s La Secretaria, Sam Peckinpah’s Girl Friday, Douglas Adams Flat mate, Dudley Moore’s First Bandleader. I Was Morrissey’s Drummer uses part of the radio show but I expanded it for the written chapter.
As someone who has had his own encounters with legends, do you find people treat you differently once they find out about them?
Some do, especially the very intelligent fans of Morrissey and The Smiths, some have never heard of the legends and most take me at face value.
Apart from Morrissey, obviously, which of the legends that other people encountered would you most like to have had the chance to meet yourself, and why?
Chet Baker – Great voice, great trumpeter, hopefully to sit in and play drums with him; Johnny Cash – just to hang out and maybe sit in and play drums with him on Ring Of Fire, Dudley Moore – brilliant, brilliant musician, composer, arranger, comedian and pianist and maybe to sit in and play drums with him on a bossa nova version of his tune Bedazzled (theme to the film he made with Peter Cook), Sam Peckinpah – to understand his affinity with crew and actors as a director and Ernest Hemingway to see how you define a writing style and then see off the competition…finally Douglas Adams – I love comedy in novels and it’s not as fashionable these days (except perhaps in chick lit) but when it was he was king of a unique style (perhaps along with Tom Sharpe, Alan Bennett et al). His philosophy and awareness of the absurd made many of his novels superb examples of the art of comedy writing. I long for a time when that style returns with some new young turks.
Were there any pieces of journalism (written or spoken) that particularly influenced your approach to this project?
Clive James’s TV reviews in The Observer were very, very funny. Bernard Levin’s pieces in The Times were superb. Victor Lewis Smith’s pieces in The London Evening Standard were also brutalizing funny attacks on the ever-shallowing quality of British TV. David Quantick and Charlie Brooker certainly are two great contemporary commentators who have the pulse of these tacky times! I lost interest when by-lines got larger than the subjects being interviewed. As far as the I Was series goes, I was keen from the outset to return to a time when interviewers didn’t keep interrupting their much more interesting guests like they started to do in the eighties and nineties. All subtlety and nuance has been sacrificed for presenter branding. That makes me f***ing angry. Even wisdom is now seen as coming from Grumpy Old Men. The train of trivialisation continues to gather momentum without a driver.
With that in mind I was keen to let the guest speak without clock, threat of barking voice with next question or “lets move onto your colourful sex life with Ziggy Stardust”. This bores me and there is enough disingenuous “intimate” personal information about these legends out there without adding to it.
We have been living through an age of unprecedented information access and a never-ending stream of biographies, blogs and bullshit. It seemed intriguing as I settled into the book to simply draw attention to a legend by learning about the person who was with them. This is not to ‘cosmosize’ the factotum so much as to learn about the day-to-day business of being a trusted confidante
If you could interview someone associated with absolutely any 20th century celebrity, who would you pick and why?
Billy Wilder – This is a man who made superb, cutting satirical comedies about the fading American dream which were box office successes and Oscar winners, yet his films still retained an awareness of human dignity under the pressures of conformity and temptation and the comedy that reaches deep into every human when those conflicts are exposed. The scripts are and remain superbly funny when read off the page; they are masterworks of comedy scriptwriting. To have made so many genuinely funny comedy films, especially The Apartment, but also Some Like It Hot, The Fortune Cookie, The Seven Year Itch, Sunset Boulevard makes him an idol and a figure I aspire to emulate one day. (I’ve made a film about comic surrealist NF Simpson (Reality Is An Illusion Caused By Lack Of NF Simpson) and have another film in the can exploring four characters on a London Housing estate – I have a long way to go!)