The Glass Eye of Henri Matisse & Other Stories
, December 1981
by Neil Norman
Click on photo for a larger view of this beautiful photo, taken onboard the
“Have you read ‘The Glass Eye of Henri Matisse? It would be very odd if you had. I can’t remember who the hell it’s by. It’s about a woman with a boring, sedentary husband who comes home and slumps in front of the telly in his vest with a six-pack. And she goes to an art class in the evenings and becomes very arty and goes to artsy homes where people do flower arranging, crochet, painting, what-have-you.
“After some months of this it becomes an embarrassment because she can’t ask people to come home and to that end she starts nagging at him to at least put in an appearance. This gets to him so much that he writes to Henri Matisse and says that he’s decided to have his eye taken out and would Matisse design him one? (I don’t know whether I made this up or not but if I didn’t it’s a great story.) So he does this and Matisse returns to him an extraordinary glass eye.
“The bloke has his eye taken out and puts this one in and the wife is delighted - he’s still sitting in front of the telly in his vest with a six-pack except that he’s got this Matisse eye - so people come home and of course he’s a talking point for three or four months, after which time interest dies down. So then he has his arm made into a parrot cage... “
The narrative stops for a great guffaw of laughter from the speaker before he concludes: “I think I’m a bit like that.”
Vivian Stanshall, Great British Eccentric, unlocks his word-hoard for THE FACE in the studio of the wonderfully cluttered barge which he shares with his charming American wife Pamela (or Ki, as he has renamed her), the infant Silky, and a young bulldog called Bones.
There are two reasons for the location of this interview; first in attempting to discover the real Vivian Stanshall it seemed a good idea to visit his home ground; second, alcohol is categorically banned from the premises.
Vivian Stanshall was born either in Shillingford, Oxfordshire or Bally Bricken, County Waterford but almost certainly on March 21, 1943. Of Irish Catholic descent, he began his education in a convent in Walthamstow and continued at Southend High until he was expelled for fighting. His subsequent art school career was not seriously interrupted by a spell in the Merchant Navy.
Is the Catholic connection still very strong?
“My mother thought I was religiously inclined, which is true but not in the way she understands. She certainly wanted me to be a priest. The old man was very keen on me being a barrister - but they both wanted me to be what they wanted me to be.
“I turned my back on Catholicism when I was 14. I walked out one Sunday and went for a drink with a coalminer’s son. All of my mates were on the periphery of what my mother considered ‘decent’ company. That’s why I’ve got this voice, I mean it’s completely false - it isn’t now because it’s gone in - but everyone else was ‘common’ so I rapidly learned that in order not to have the shit beaten out of me you start being like other people around you.
“That is not peculiar. It’s a way of survival, for God’s sake. As a result I always felt adrift; I’ve never had any sort of social roots anywhere; it would be a pose to pretend that I’m an East Ender but I spent what would be the formative years from the age of four to ten in Walthamstow E17.”
This rootlessness might be seen as the reason for Stanshall’s incredibly diverse and prolific output of material, only a fraction of which has actually seen the light of day.
Stacks of tapes and boxes of word-covered paper fill most of the available space on his studio shelves. Apart from the recorded output of the Bonzo Dog DooDah Band, he has recorded several singles with bizarre groups of his own design, notably Big Grunt and Gargantuan Chums, and worked with other unrecorded aggregations “designed for overnight anonymity” like Vivarian and Freaks.
Stanshall began a solo career proper as a professional eccentric and radio personality working with people as varied as Richard Baker (Start the Week) and Mike Oldsfield (“Tubular Bells”) before making a vastly underrated LP, “Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead.”
And all the time ideas were percolating through his head that would in time engender a radio play, a record, a book and a film, Sir Henry At Rawlinson End. The Rawlinsons actually made their debut on the first Bonzos LP, “Gorilla”, during the “Intro And The Outro” when we were informed it was “Great to hear the Rawlinsons on trombone.”
“At that point,” surmises Stanshall, “I think they represented to me middle-class normopaths. Henry saw the light when we came to make “Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly” which was the contractual album.”
The first version of this LP was recorded in a 45 minute burst of sheer Dadaist frenzy with most of the group (having reformed simply to cut the thing and free themselves from their Liberty contract) newtlike in sobriety. In the cold light of the following hangover Neil Innes and Stanshall had cold feet about the advisability of their (albeit inspired) action and decided to try and put a more conventional LP together.
“We were both knocking things off for it and I remembered I had some scribblings about which were largely to do with being in dentists’ and doctors’ waiting rooms and reading ‘The story so far’ in women’s magazines in which you get this great gobbet of information like what the Axminster cost and ‘Dawn, an accountant with such and such a firm...’ That’s all that excited me, reading ‘the story so far’. I loved having all those names slung at me and ‘Now read on... ‘ I never read on after that.”
The result formed the opening of “Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly” and started surfacing in bits on the radio. Sir Henry, not unlike James Stewart’s Harvey, became a constant companion: though Stanshall identified himself with the brother Hubert, “the only sane one”, to the extent of playing the role in the film. Taped and extemporized on stage, the Rawlinson saga grew... “It just became swollen like them carcasses what natives cross rivers on. There’s an analogy for you.”
He remains, however, far from happy with the resultant celluloid. While agreeing that the casting was largely inspired, especially Trevor Howard in the title(d) role, the problems inherent in working on his first screenplay brought about a nervous breakdown that put him away for a month or two. Others involved in the project cite Stanshall’s notorious devotion to Bacchus as the real cause for the breakdown in communication.
“It seemed to me the record was pretty much a blueprint for the way it should have been directed. The record is certainly flawed but it does have a rhythmic sense to it which I think the film lacks. I rewrote the bloody thing several times but even at that stage it wasn’t the brainstorm cocktail it was later to become. When I saw the rough cut thank God I was drunk because otherwise I would have been armed and there would have been bloody wounds - and more.”
“I definitely had a writhing cartoonish vision of it and I’m pretty damn sure that a lot of the thing could have been saved pictorially instead of stuffing it with narration. They went for the obvious whereas most of the stuff I wanted to be throwaway, in the background.”
The experience hasn’t put him off film making, however. Apart from the possibility of a sequel to Sir Henry he has ideas for a film entirely to do with the background.
“I think probably a torrid and passionate love story on the surface, but really rammed down your throat with inconsequential nonsense going on in the background. It’s just a question of someone coming up with the mazuma.”
There is also talk of a collaboration with Ian Drury on a stage musical in the not too distant future.
Not all of his projects reach fruition. There lies mouldering in the vaults of Island Records Ltd. a tape of the first version of the “Arc Of A Diver” LP, for which Stanshall wrote all the lyrics. The final version contains only one Stanshall original, the title track, the rest having been vetoed by Chris Blackwell when he found Stevie Winwood unable to explain the lyrics to him, despite the latter’s claim that they felt emotionally right.
“Teddy Boys Don’t Knit”, his own most recent solo LP, apart from being willfully varied, depicts Stanshall in a new light. It is, dare one say it, a serious proposition.
“Well, it’s so easy to get belly laughs and big punch lines. I suppose that beneath the surface there is a philosophy which I’m not about to extrapolate. I can’t continue to do silly songs, I mean I never wanted to do that anyway and the build-up of stuff that I care about is pretty terrific and, sod it, I’m not going to tread water even though I know that if I turned out a Bonzo-style album there would be a fair chance of it selling.”
Language, like laughter, can be used just as much to retreat from the problems of the real world as it can to confront them. Didn’t he ever feel guilty about playing with anagrams and puns while London burns and the streets are alive with breaking glass?
“It may be politically despicable. On the other hand, the same could be said of priests and I think artists are priests. There’s arrogance for you, if you like. But I think someone should be able to say there are lots of things out here that are gorgeously coloured, lots of fun, that we can laugh and enjoy and examine.
Or we can look at things tangentially. We can look at social human problems without concerning ourselves immediately with ghastly estates and unemployment. I don’t think I’m here to go on the Jarrow March. I think I do a better job as an example. I am saying in my own way to the beasts who purport to control us by not being involved: ‘Sod you! You don’t touch me. You don’t control me at all.’”
WHO YOU CALLING ECCENTRIC?
(A Dialogue in one act)
Scene. A barge somewhere in Middlesex. Two men face each other across a room that seems to have served as a model for The Olde Curiosity Shop(pe).
(slavishly synchophantic) You evidently read a lot. You must have an incredibly retentive memory.
(Hooting derisively) God! (Pause) What did you say? (Laughs) It’s bloody awful. I remember smells, tastes, and colours which I can recall at any time, but I couldn’t quote you anything.
Yet you give the impression of having assimilated a lot of literature.
I do engulf quite a lot of books but it’s not ordered - there’s no structure. I freely admit to being in awe and jealous of people who have a classical education. (Assumes ‘common’ voice) The best education is the yooniversity o’ life, innit?
You sing, you play, you write, you act, you perform, you paint, you read...
(Anticipating question) What do you do in your spare time?
(Ignoring interruption) Are you always looking for new areas of expression?
Truthfully I try as hard as I can to cut down. I found myself in quite a big pickle about a month ago because I get myself so hypersensitive that I’ve got so much pouring in I haven’t enough output channels. I’m also ambidextrous which is a blinking nuisance. I taught myself a long time ago not only to write but to draw pretty passably in the dark which is a real curse.
I don’t think I ever do relax really. I tried to hypnotize myself. I have agoraphobia and I get palpitations if I over-exert myself. It’s this grasshopper mind. Whatever I look at is a mystery. How does that wood feel? (Picks up log.) Why isn’t it moving? It’s because I don’t understand inertia. Everything’s going like the clappers. If it weren’t we’d fall over and we’d all collapse and implode.
Everything is giving me information all the time and the only way out of that is a pint of Burtons... is to clog yourself up. One can berate Noah and Sir Walter Raleigh but if it weren’t for those poisons what the hell would we be like? Would we be invisible? I should think we’d certainly be ready for lift-off, don’t you think? (Pause.) I think the only thing that can take my mind off it is making love and laughing, which in my condition is usually at the same time.
I used to kick sandcastles over when I was a kid. Horrible boy. On the other hand I suppose that’s the closest most people are going to come to sculpture in their lives. Apart from their haircuts.
(Sheepishly.) You give the impression of being a very eccentric character.
(Exasperated.) Why, for God’s sake?
Aren’t you aware of the fact that people seeing you in the street often think of you as a nut?
(Evasively.) It would seem to me that, well, Barbarian Cartland is a damn sight more eccentric than I am. The only eccentricity I have, if I can make so flamboyant a statement, is that I have integrity and I’m serious about what I do and I mean it.
Yet you are quite happy to be photographed and depicted in strange clothes and weird poses, aren’t you?
Yes, that would follow in the same way that I were the Elephant Man people would want to look at that. If you have to fill your magazine with pictures then I shall venture to say that I’m more interesting to look at than David Steele or a brick. But I don’t crave that. Because I’m nervous and have this sort of problem and take tranquilizers, when I’m in the street or in public I think, ‘God, I wish I was normal’ or, ‘I wish I looked normal. Why can’t I look normal?’ Somehow I never have.
Even when I was at school I never looked normal. To avoid being beaten up I would have to devise gags and strokes and pranks or behave in an outlandish manner in order to be taken under the aegis of bullies. Perhaps I was therefore purchasing by my behavior self-protection, so I suppose after a while that becomes natural.
(With bulldog-like tenacity.) Surely most people in a position of extreme sensitivity would crave anonymity?
(Earnestly.) But I do, I do.
But you’re not grey. You’re bright and colourful and flamboyant.
I know, I know. It doesn’t make sense. I think it’s very like the artist continuing to make self-portraits. I have severe doubts about my right to the title and so maybe I need to do that in order to know who I am. Or perhaps, if you want to be rotten about it, pretend that that’s what I’d like to be like because I’m not really. I haven’t the faintest idea which it is. (Pause.) That’s brutally frank of me. (Laughs.)
I bloody hate it really because you’re expected to perform; if you look like that you’ve got to do tricks. If you wear a tutu you must dance. (Pause.) Have you read “The Glass Eye of Henri Matisse”?
(Aside.) Isn’t this where I came in?
Now read on...