Time Out 14-21 November 2001
Recalling the comical life of Vivian Stanshall
Wading through the quotes on the late Vivian Stanshall, one's attention is snagged by 'rock'n'roll's answer to Peter Cook', and another that claims him for 'a one-off'. I agree. I once spent a day abord his WWI submarine chaser moored on the Thames at Chertsey, worried about his shipmates, the tarantula and the python now coiled in the bilges, and Mr Bones his farting bulldog. I liked his companion, the beautiful Native American Longellow, and only swam with Stanshall after first, like Blondell, calming him with readings from Wyndham Lewis's 'The Apes of God' which I had brought along because the beat of the prose reminded me of his 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson End'. 'Wonderful!' he cried. Months later, the boat sunk, news relayed to its owner who was once again in hospital. 'Mr Stanshall. I have bad news for you. Your boat has sunk.' Mr Stanshall: 'Nonsense. I'm fit as a fiddle.' He had his tuba with him on the ward, and delighted in beating his medication. In the phase of my acquaintance with him, Vivian Stanshall was an alcoholic. In 1995 he set his bed alight and died. Viking funeral!
His biography, 'Ginger Geezer', certainly brings the originality and the larks back into circulation. Stanshall and the similarly late Keith Moon (drummer with The Who) had a comic public routine. They would go into a gents' stockists and ask for strong trousers. They would each take a leg and tug. Most trousers parted, tearing in two. The salesman, distressed, would cry, 'how am I expected to sell this?' and a hired, one-legged actor would hop into the shop - 'Just what I've been looking for' - and buy both halves. Stanshall sounds unknowable but didn't, of course, start that way. He was born in 1943 as Victor, changed his name to this father's Vivian. In the Teddy boy '50s he wore a frock coat and top hat. 'Vivian always took it to the max,' recalled his brother Mark, 'and could crochet.' He joined the merchant navy and refined his ability to fart, belch - he claimed in Swahili - and drink. He claimed a blood brother initiation in Papua. By 1962 he was enrolled in art school. He produced little, but collected 30 instruments, including tuba euphonium and ukulele, and, bored with pretending to hang himself on the tube, joined the original Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band as singer.
This was an era rich in comical absurdist bands very much following the tradition of Spike Jones. There were the Temperance Seven and the Alberts, led by Bruce Lacey who made the props for the Goons, the biggest influence on the Bonzos. Archaic instruments, vintage lyrics, pub circuit. Old sheet music was at a premium. More recent readers will have bumped into the now severely relevant Victorian 'Abdul Abulbul Amir' - infidel know that you trod on the toe of AAA' - through the late Ian Dury's Desert Island Discs. Stanshall's fascination with language lent wings to the band. 'Gorilla' is the definitive collection containing his piss-take on British trad, 'Jazz Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold', and 'The Intro and the Outro', an endless introduction - 'and looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes' - to members of the band. The Bonzos' TV show, 'Do Not Adjust Your Set', was loony, often rude and included the comic gifts of the young Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. But the band broke up in 1971, partly because Stanshall did not tour well, what with panic attacks and alcoholism - supine on the stage and staring glassily up, he was heard to explain to God: 'This is what I look like standing up' - and nervous breakdowns. His wonderfully mellifluous voice, however, guaranteed him a continued living as voice-over on beer ads - 'I'm Vivian Stanshall, but it's always sensible to have a urine test' - and on the radio reading his inspired nonsense: 'An ordinary day, yes, but for ex-seaman Robbie Beckles it was a day of tension.' He also did the narration for 'Tubular Bells' but forgot to ask for payment. His masterpiece, 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson End', appeared on record and was subsequently filmed with Trevor Howard, himself a man with a drink problem, who nonetheless remarked: 'You keep that bugger under control and I'll do my job. The boy needs looking after and whipping into shape!' Somehow, Stanshall kept working during the punk years, and 'Teddy Boys Don't Knit' was released in 1981, complete with 'Terry keeps His Clips On', in the teeth of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Duran Duran.
Longfellow recalled her first date with Stanshall who struck her as a 'fin de siecle ponce, green everything from floppy beret to velvet knickerbockers to the bows on his pumps'. When they finally broke up, he lived alone, letting dossers sleep wherever in his house. They robbed him. 'I thought they were going up and down stairs a lot,' he later mused. His decline was saddening. He was buried under the pseuduonym of St John Davers.