Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)
Writing a book is a strange activity. People know me for writing lyrics, but that’s a different thing altogether. Lyrics reveal feelings and parts of your character in short bursts. They offer a glimpse of someone, catching a part of their personality but in a light of their own choosing. Writing a book is much more revealing, like having an arc light shone on you for a prolonged period. At first you can do nothing but blink at the glare.
Even the word ‘autobiography’ sounds a little too grand – to me it suggests a book about Winston Churchill, say, or Errol Flynn. Autobiography has partly been devalued now, with glamour models chucking out a volume just in time for Christmas, and footballers, barely out of their teens, doing their urban philosophizing (in the words of their ghostwriter, of course).
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, so I’m inclined to view my past in terms of TV and film – Kes and Stand By Me perfectly capture my early youth, where responsibilities were absent but every day was a morality minefield and a series of massive lessons in social standing. At other times my life has seemed like anything from GoodFellas to Twin Peaks. But throughout it all I’ve retained a strong sense of my self. Maybe at times I seemed just round the corner from death or just over the road from utter madness – but at the time it felt like what I should be doing.
When I was growing up, Hollywood might as well have been on another planet, and the music business was some kind of holy grail for any kid looking for excitement. I never dreamed I’d end up in either, let alone both. But I did, and I was no better prepared for any of it than you are right now or than anyone else would be for that matter.
Everyone has a view on Hollywood from a distance, ranging from ‘It’s where all the beautiful people go’ to ‘It’s full of dickheads’ – after spending twelve years there my conclusion is somewhere between the two. Both opinions are right.
Like a lot of people of my generation I got my first taste of Hollywood through classics like Superman, Jaws and Grease – in my case at the Regal Cinema in Northwich. As I got older I went with mates to watch films like The Blues Brothers and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Then there were first dates, watching John Hughes’s teen masterpieces Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink.
Then videos appeared on the scene. A kid down the street had a Betamax system, and we would watch horror movies and video nasties – Friday the 13th, Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, The Exorcist – as well as the occasional soft-porn tape from a mate’s father’s stash. Not that they were porno by today’s standards. Films like Electric Blue look more like a Strokes video than triple-X action. Still, they were enough to keep five teenagers in wide-eyed awe.
I remember what a stir films like The Warriors and The Wanderers caused and how much controversy they kicked up. They were apparently corrupting the youth and knocking the world off its axis, which of course made me want to watch them even more. At this time I was going to the local Northwich disco dressed in my Crombie with the words ‘Police killed Liddle Towers’ emblazoned on it. The disco was run by the local police.
One day, without discussion, my dad threw the Crombie in the bin. My mum pointed out sympathetically that I didn’t need to work hard to draw attention to myself. ‘People notice you enough anyway,’ she said. I knew what she was getting at … but it definitely still didn’t feel enough!
I got a clip round the ear from my dad for getting my ear pierced, the newly punctured lobe making the clip twice as painful. But parental involvement in my sartorial journey was not always negative. I tried not to advertise the fact, but my favourite bondage trousers ever were made by my mum, out of a pair of cricket trousers. I had stopped playing and become a punk, and my mum’s involvement with my punk odyssey was probably based on her disapproval of waste rather than her hatred of society or her allegiance to the spirit of ’77. Anyway, the trousers were literally the talk of the town.
My ambition at this time was to be Damien from The Omen. I wanted to wake up with 666 on my head. This may sound ridiculous, but I identified with the combination of his neat, unassuming appearance and his dark demeanour: angelic features, but turn your back and you would have a pole through the top of your head. Later on I would identify with the Perry boys, their smart look disguising their menacing ways.
My first introduction to art-house cinema came in the ’80s and early ’90s, with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Betty Blue, Wings of Desire and similar films. I remember sitting in the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill watching A Short Film about Killing, Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband and The Big Blue. I feel as though it was a golden age for this type of film. Or does everyone just think that their early twenties were a special time?
Hollywood is so startlingly bright. Even the coyotes wear shades. The trees, the beach and the sky come together with the jasmine and the ocean to provide a scented, sensual soundtrack to the laid-back slacker cool. Unsurprisingly, it quickly seduced me. It was the furthest thing away from a regular life on earth that I could think of.
I never imagined that I would ever live there. In fact, I didn’t even like it when I first visited in 1990, although I did like the sunshine, the surf and the boogie boards. But at the time I had a bee in my bonnet about New York being my kinda town. But I grew to love LA, and through a strange series of events I ended up living there in the beautiful hills, right opposite the famous sign, the most recognized placename in the world.
My first actual dealings with Hollywood came about when we were recording our first album, Some Friendly, in Wrexham in the summer of 1990. We had a song called ‘109 Part 2’, which included dialogue from the Alan Parker film Angel Heart. Robert De Niro played the part of Louis Cypher, a mysterious boiled-egg-eating client of Mickey Rourke’s gumshoe, Harry Angel. I sampled De Niro’s line ‘Some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul, did you know that?’
Rourke replies, ‘No, I didn’t know that.’
‘Would you like an egg?’ says De Niro.
I was told that to get clearance I would have to write directly to De Niro. So in my neatest handwriting I wrote:
Dear Mr De Niro,
My name is Tim Burgess, I am in an up and coming UK band called The Charlatans and we are at this moment recording our debut album.
We are all big fans of your film Angel Heart and your character Louis Cypher.
We have a song called ‘109 Part 2’, where we have sampled your voice, and I am writing to tell you in hope that you would give me and the band permission to use some of the dialogue.
I have included two versions of the song, one with you on, and one with you off. I think you will agree that the one with you on is the best.
Really hope you say yes.
It was a handwritten letter with a Wrexham postmark, and before we’d finished the album we had got a reply. Not only did he say yes, he said he loved it!
I suppose this was when I first thought that Hollywood stars might be accessible.
Eva Mendes is a fan of The Charlatans, as is Chloë Sevigny. Of course, I am only going to tell you about the famous ones! There’s no accounting for taste, and there’s no predicting where your fans will come from.
In my dreams, the only three people from the Hollywood and film world I ever really wanted to care about The Charlatans or be somehow interested in them were Samantha Morton, Joaquin Phoenix and David Lynch.
I first came across Sam Morton in the television series Band of Gold, in which she played a prostitute called Tracey. I watched it avidly each Sunday night, altering my recording schedules to make sure I was in front of a TV. Around the same time she appeared as a pregnant girl in Cracker. The first time I saw her in a film at the cinema was in Sweet and Lowdown, for which she received an Oscar nomination. She played a mute girl alongside Sean Penn, with Woody Allen directing.
I met Sam for the first time at the Isle of Wight in June 2009. I always hoped she would come along to a gig. I had never met her but I had seen her in The Horrors’ video for ‘Sheena is a Parasite’, directed by Chris Cunningham, so I knew we shared a taste for great music. I couldn’t have been more pleased to see her walk out of the crowd in the venue that I was curating that day. It was a 10,000-capacity big-top tent, where she had been watching the likes of The Black Lips, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and The Horrors, with us playing at the end. She seemed as happy to see me as I was to see her. In fact, she had recently been in touch asking for permission to use one of our songs for her directorial debut. It reminded me of our brush with De Niro, so I happily gave her clearance, knowing I would be proud of the results. We’ve kept in touch ever since.
I first became aware of Joaquin Phoenix when I heard the harrowing 911 call that was played all over the world after his brother’s death outside the Viper Room in 1993. Joaquin was just 19 years old at the time. My first sighting was watching him being seduced by Nicole Kidman in the Gus van Sant film To Die For.
In Los Angeles in 2007 I ended up spending three weeks in a studio on the corner of Beverley and Fairfax with Joaquin and Antony Langdon. From what I could gather the music was mostly being written by Conceptualized, and was paid for by Joaquin, though it was certainly Antony’s record. The project name was ‘Victoria’, and I was attending the sessions with Alan McGee. According to McGee we were there as tastemakers …
Joaquin’s intensity in the studio was every bit as captivating as his performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line – from clearing the room of studio executives and hapless agents without warning, to smashing his head through a plate-glass window in what seemed to be a show of just how extreme he could be. I didn’t want to win that game, or even join in.
But along with this went his impeccable attention to detail. It was hugely inspiring.
‘Victoria’, Take One
The project was meticulously produced by Joaquin, with Antony’s Bowie-inspired, grandiose, Anthony Newley-styled English warblings and Joaquin’s words about demons, secrets and the past, with occasional guitar by Casey Affleck thrown into the mix, and me doing backing vocals and harmonies. I never spent studio time with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson or Charles Manson, but at times it seemed like all three were in the room. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
‘Victoria’, Take Two
‘Victoria’, Take One, was scrapped for no obvious reason, so I concluded that the contributions of myself and Alan McGee were no longer required. Some tastemakers we had turned out to be!
Alan was already moving on. He’d met Lisa Marie Presley at a dinner held at Joaquin’s house and wanted her to make a country album or a covers album – I can’t remember which, and I’m not sure if it ever saw the light of day either.
Joaquin looked like he lived in a car, and his car looked like someone lived in it! He would drive me the thirty minutes home each night, and it was on these journeys that I actually got a real feel for him. He would tell me stories about his films with the same gusto you might use to tell a story of a recent trip to the post office. I loved him even more for this, because he was one of Hollywood’s most famous faces.
He would say things to me like, ‘I learned to play the guitar for a movie that I was in,’ or ‘There was this film I was in where I had to wear, like, some robes and a laurel crown.’ I worked out that these cryptic statements were references to Walk the Line and Gladiator, two of the biggest award-winning movies of the last decade. He was intriguing and humble, crazy but always generous. He threw his car keys to me across a parking lot one night, saying, ‘You can keep hold of this for as long as you like.’ It was a blacked-out 4 × 4 BMW. I knew he meant it, though I didn’t accept. How could I? I would have missed out on our little evening road trips.
He could move around undercover pretty well, wearing understated clothes. His general demeanour wasn’t that of a movie star. As McGee put it, he was more ‘bag man’. We would always go to the back entrance of a club for discretion’s sake, and always entourage-free – unless you count Antony, me and McGee as entourage. A Hollywood A-lister, a legendary Scottish music mogul, one of the UK’s foremost ex-pat musical talents … and me.
Once, when asked by a doorman, ‘Who the fuck are you?’, Joaquin looked uncomfortable and started to bumble around, saying under his breath, ‘Dude, don’t do this.’ I knew him by now, and I knew he wasn’t enjoying what was happening. He leaned in close to the guy’s ear, glanced around a little, jacket sleeve over hand, over mouth. He whispered to the doorman. He either said his name or issued the scariest and shortest threat known to man, as immediately the entire security team jumped into action, parted like the Red Sea and led us to a table – the kind of table that you would imagine was permanently reserved for the imminent arrival of some local mafia don.
‘Victoria’, Take Three
Having been told that my vocals and contributions had been stripped from the ‘Victoria’ record, I found out through a friend of a friend that my voice was back on. Things had very quickly moved forwards and sideways.
My voice was now being included, supposedly, on Joaquin’s latest recordings – a hip-hop project. It was much reported, very much mocked, and perhaps eternally destined to be a ‘hotly anticipated’ record. At this moment the release date is still unconfirmed.
I met Michael Douglas at a Paul Weller gig, of all places. I say of all places, but then I remember hearing that Catherine Zeta Jones was a big fan of The Style Council. Michelle, in a stage whisper, pointed out that CZJ, who was giddily running around, chatting and working the crowd like minor European royalty, was rocking a lot of jewellery. She was over-accessorized, over-excited and over in Hollywood.
I used to love these nights, so much fun, a Northwich punk standing next to a Welsh girl who had done well and was reacquainting herself with the music of her youth, made by her hero.
Anyway, Michelle grabbed Michael and told him I was in a band called The Charlatans and was going to be playing the El Ray Theater on Wilshire Boulevard. Michael seemed interested, but looking back I think it was more to do with the venue than my impending gig. In fact I am sure that was the case as he gave me a near-perfect history of the place. I think he took my open-mouthed stare as a green light to continue with his oration, but it was more to do with the fact I was getting a virtual architectural tour from Gordon Gekko himself. ‘Only in LA’ is the expression that definitely applies here.
I mentioned to Michael that I really loved his film The Game. He nodded and smiled. I happened to mention that I knew an actor who had appeared in it, a Scottish friend of mine that I had not seen for a few months, whose favourite song of ours was ‘My Beautiful Friend’.
‘You mean the dude with the scars on his face?’ said Michael, marking out an extended smile-shape with his finger. ‘I hear it’s referred to as a “Glasgow smile”!’ We were talking about Tommy Flanagan, a Glaswegian who had come over to LA and had landed parts in Gladiator and Braveheart. I met him when I had been in LA for three months. We hit it off after he bowled up to me outside Barney’s Beanery, a rock ’n’ roll haunt of some repute, and started enthusing about a Charlatans performance on Jools Holland’s Later show. We had mutual friends who would invite us to parties, and we definitely shared the same glint in our eye that only someone who knows, knows.
Much later Tommy was involved in an incident at his place near Lanewood, where we ended up after a party one night, that helped turn me against the city. The apartment backed onto the Hollywood High School, where every weekend they had band practice. It was beautiful and innocent enough, but if you had a hangover it could be extremely annoying. The perky football kids and brass-band boffins were the polar opposite of the whacked-out freaks who circled the flat in search of their lost sunglasses and more of what they’d had the night before. It was a scene of post-party carnage that would be played out every weekend to the point of tedium: usually the same characters, sometimes with a gatecrasher or two.
This particular day sticks in my mind because it took a swerve from the norm. It was 7 a.m. and a fight broke out between Tommy and some other party animal. Tommy had a dog, a boxer called Papillon, which was a canine version of him, excitable and always on high alert. As the fight continued the dog took a perch on the back rest of an armchair and started barking in time with the blows.
His owner had blood all over his face and had had his two front teeth kicked out. Tommy was scrabbling around on the floor, still with shades on, trying to find his missing incisors. He looked like Gary Oldman in True Romancewithout the dreads, and coincidentally it was Oldman’s dentist who would later fix the teeth.
That could only happen if he found them, though, and his bloodied features, sunglasses and manic dog weren’t helping. The fighting eventually stopped and the dog joined in the search, while the Hollywood High marching band kept on playing and the school football team began to practise in the background. It was like The Warriors meets the video for Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. I began to feel like an autistic kid who’s unable to cope with the sensory overload.
Harry the Dog said it was the worst violence he had ever seen in LA, but this kind of incident was becoming a regular part of my life, the fallout from a house full of borderline loons. I was moving gradually towards the decision that it had to come to an end, though it took me another eighteen months to act on it.