As Vivian’s letterhead used to say: Ah! There you are, dear reader.
Born into a family of English sparrows, Vivian Anthony Stanshall was a cuckoo in the nest.
, his dither of a mother, told me that even in the womb, Vivian - or ‘Non’, as she always called him - was most unusual.
“Doctor!” she’d called out, as herds of them galloped by her birthing bed, “Doctor, come quick. I can hear it!” It took her saying this much more than once before one cut away from the pack long enough to placate a stethoscope over her babyripe belly. And then the doc stood there and he stood there... and whilst standing there, became still unto rigid. Finally, gesturing frantically at the passing medical types, he hissed, “Clock this, fellow professionals.” And so they had. Gathered round Eileen, they took turns on the listening end of the stethoscope.
Eventually one of them found the wit to say, “My God! It’s... humming!”
After birth, Vivian only got more tuneful - and scarier.
I collided with Mr. Standstill in June of 1977. By then, the Dog Band had come and gone. Gone were GRIMMS and Gargantuan Chums and
and Vivarium and the making of the incredible
Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead
and oodles of other assorted mad couplings. Even Keith Moon was no longer such a close chum because as Vivian told me in all seriousness (this was after Moony had accidentally run over and killed his own roadie, oops), “Poor bugger and his silly wheezes - all getting a bit destructive for my kidney.” Having just met Vivian, the irony was lost on me then - though not now. Meanwhile, what VS was doing at the time was moving odd bag and odder baggage onto a World War One Submarine Chaser moored on the Thames between Chertsey and Shepperton.
Green, duck-pecked, and peeling, the
was shaped like a pencil. It took one minute to pass from port to starboard, but ten minutes to make it from stem to stern. Inside everything was painted the revolting colors of a skinhead’s tattoo... and this was because a preWings Denny Laine had owned and decorated it. Denny was under the impression he was a bona fide gypsy. Being a gypsy and all, bad taste only naturally followed, the same taste he then used to adorn A.A.Milne’s Winne the Pooh house when he could afford to move up from houseboats to a house. (Thanks to Wings, of course, and after selling Vivian the leaky moldering old sub chaser for a pretty sum - where do these rumors start: Denny gave Vivian the Searchlight? Wot a load of horse wallop.)
Vivian’s things fit right in. A huge zebra butt, J. Arthur Rank’s gong, a gorilla suit, enough musical instruments to outfit a fair sized somewhat eccentric orchestra, oversized cartoon speech balloons on thin ply that said things like: Wow! I’m really expressing myself!, terrariums lumpish with pythons, tanks huge with sodden fat-lipped fish, books with titles like The Illustrated History of Dentistry and Men I Have Killed, record albums, record albums, record albums, a wardrobe so extensive and so colorful... stop! I’m getting ahead of myself.
I met Vivian Stanshall on a blind date. I’d never heard of the Bonzos. I’d never heard of Vivian Stanshall. I’d never been on a blind date.
This is how it happened.
I’m a Yank but whilst living in England from 1972 to 1975, the Home Office had kindly allowed me permanent residency.... well, not kindly really, they had to by the terms of their own rules. Forget that... where was I? Oh yes - even so, sometime in ‘75, I went back to northern California. But by these selfsame rules, one who is granted such largess from the Home Office cannot stay away from Britain for more than two years and retain them. So, just under the wire, I returned to do just that, retain them.
And now here comes Vivian.
Unbeknownst to me, Vivian and I had all along had a mutual friend in Philippa Clare and Philippa did two things that changed the course of my life. Vivian’s as well, naturally. First she’d told Vivian - who’d expressed how lonely he was, how very lonely - that she could set him up with a very special ‘date’... and oh yes, the cost was on her. Secondly, she’d told me she had a friend, a sad musician, who could use some lively feminine company. Would I mind just meeting him for dinner or something, just to cheer him up? Can’t imagine why, put like that, I accepted - but I did. I was now committed to a blind date with who!knew!who! No trouble guessing what Vivian was expecting.
The evening of the ‘date’, I dressed in a black jumpsuit (why? I don’t know... it was ‘there’, in the suitcase). Across town, Vivian was also dressing... Vivian dressing is the stuff of legend. In any case, there I finally was, standing at the window of another friend’s flat in Belsize Park, looking down on the bus stop at which I’ve agreed to meet this... this... whatever, and I’m waiting for it to be time to go on down there. This second friend, Stella (curious jolie-laid mix of Cypriot Greek and Austrian), comes home as I’m doing this... and I explain why I’m wearing a black jumpsuit in her window.
“Who is this guy?” she asks me.
I say, “I don’t know. Some sad and lonely musician who needs a bit of company. His name’s Vivian Stanshall.”
“VIVIAN STANSHALL!” she shrieks, grabs my arm, and hauls me over to her stereo. “Listen to this.” By now, Stella’s gibbering in her inexplicable excitement. “This is Vivian Stanshall!”
So I listen and what I listen to is
The Intro & The Outro.
Stella is squirming in delirium, rushing back and forth from the window to make sure she does not miss Vivian, then over to me to make sure I am thoroughly impacted by who my Blind Date is.
I say, “I’ve never been on a blind date in my life... don’t want to, changed my mind - look! it’s raining.” A speck had hit her window.
"Fine!" she yells, "I'll go down. It's a blind date. What does he know!"
And off she rushes to get dressed. So I stand there... and now comes a strangled honk from the bedroom where there is another window facing on the same bus stop. It’s Stella, and she’s still hollering, “He’s here! There he is! That’s him!”
So I look.
And that’s when I decided I had to go down. Anyone who looked like my Blind Date looked had to be someone to show up for.
To Be Continued.
As Vivian would say: Dada for now.
Oh! You’re still here. What a nice surprise.
But where am I? I am meeting Vivian Stanshall for the first - and last - Blind Date of my life. I mean, how many of these things can a person take?
I am looking out the window of my eager friend’s flat and there he is... in first ballet position at the bus stop in front of her Belsize building. The building is Art Deco... but my ‘date’ is fin de siecle ponce, all Wilde-ian frou frou and half-studied nonchalance. He is head to toe in forest green velvet. A green velvet beret, the big floppy kind. Green velvet pinched-waist jacket with a green silk brocade waistcoat. Green velvet knickerbockers and green silk stockings. A pair of black patent leather pumps with big green bows on the toes. A silken lace-edged hanky tucked up the sleeve. A green scarab ring on his index finger. And a fire red beard tied in a neat hair-sprayed bow at his chin. (In all the years I am to know him, I shall never see his chin. Not live, in person, ever.)
He is also weighted down with four oddly assorted bags of godswot.
I am charmed at first glance. Also alarmed, but that is half the charm.
An Innocent aBroad, I flee on down to my fate.
I have no idea what either one of us say now that we are seated in the pub. We go to a pub, the nearest pub (do I recall it right - The King of Bohemia?) - directly, first thing, before ever another thing happens.
And now what? What happens next? As Vivian could smell the leatherette of his English pram, I can smell the wine colored leatherette we sit on, can feel the tomato red formica’d table, cold and smooth and sticky. The blind date to my left is rolling the first of a million ‘oily rags’, his eyebrows are too red and too arched, his hands are like birds. I am caught by the beauty of his hands... oh hell.
I can now write anything I wish to write, put any words I wish into Vivian’s mouth, any into mine - who could refute me? We can be delicious and witty, or artificial and arch. I can be coy and Vivian brash. Or Vivian coy and I brash. (Dreadful and heady, the hold an artist has on reality... whatever that is, ‘reality’. Anything I say will become a kind of truth, for me at least... and perhaps it should. After all, art is the only truth. Vivian and I both knew, amongst all the other things it is, art is lying with style. Art is also theft, but that’s by the by. In any case, somehow as I write this, I’ve come over all shy and private. This is the stuff of a real book... or maybe it is the stuff of my own memories, mine - and cannot, ought not, be shared. I honestly do not know. I will continue, see where my continuing takes me.)
We struggle, we pose, we are both no doubt brittle as hell. I thrash him at pool.
Once past the paint and beardspray, he excites me. Not yet in body but in mind. There is an electricity to him, a snap and a crackle I have never encountered before. He is both pink in his conceit and blue in his sweet silliness. His words are awkward or calculated for effect - take that! he is saying. Am I not clever? he is saying. And yes, I am thinking, you are clever and you are fast... can I keep up? Do I want to keep up? But then, at some point as the late sun shines like ale through amber bottled glass, from somewhere slanted behind his painted eye - comes a mystical someone, quick and wise. He begins to take my breath away with divine insight. He begins to frighten me. I have no idea who this man is, what he has done, what people think of him - but I do know he is dangerous. He can say anything. He can see anything. He can be blind to anything. He is not in control... he will never be in control. His conversation is full of absurdities - like little signposts to the land of Odd. He is bigger than his skin and whatever is going on behind his skull delights the words out of him - or scares the words out of him. I am ravished. I am irritated. I am not safe. I want to run away from Mr. Stanshall. To slap him. To crawl inside his body and warm myself in his blood.
Instead, I watch him calculate the odds on bedding me this first night. In Vivian’s experience, I see he thinks the odds against are minimal. (Of course, you must recall who he believes I am, ‘professionally‘, that is.) In my experience, the odds for are astronomical.
He takes me to Jan’s Centaur Gallery in London’s Highgate.
Every year, or most every year, the Polish ex-pat artist Jan throws a great summer bash in his art-stuffed gardens high on the hill in Highgate. Vivian is always invited. This year I go with him. I am graciously introduced to this artist and to that artist, I make small talk, I eye the
... and all along, from start to finish, from statue to statue, from overblown rose bush to artful gazebo to surprising outhouse, Vivian is at my elbow. It is a mad dance of madder courtship... and ends three hours later with his announcing to hundreds of imperfect strangers: “This is my woman! I am now complete.”
At which point I panic - and run out into the street. It takes forever, the gallery is a maze, this room, that room, each clotted with art. The ceilings are little more than six feet from the floors. Once escaped, I hail a passing cab. I give the fellow Stella’s address in Belsize - only to find Vivian suddenly beside me, countermanding my address with his own. What is it about men? With a frantic woman in his cab, a woman who has jumped in first, the cabby drives us directly to Vivian’s house.
Maybe it was the black jumpsuit.
Some time later, he bites me. We are sitting quietly talking and he leans over and bites my thigh. I scream, a high piercing scream of real pain. As Vivian later puts into a song: ‘Wolves mate for life.’
Let’s see now. Where were we when I so rudely interrupted us and went off somewhere else for the longest time?
As they once did in more innocent days (or perhaps those were simply more tasteful times - or perhaps people were easier to titillate), let us draw a veil over the rest of that tremendous evening and skip right ahead to the banks of the River Thames.
Imagine that it is late June in the year 1977. Imagine this, imagine that - enough of this kind of thing and you have a whole new world.
But as I was saying...
Even then there was nowhere in the south or east or west of England that was well and truly away from one’s fellow man. Probably not in the north either. But if you stood on our towpath in just the right place and shaded your eyes with cupped hands in just the right way, you could almost imagine you were on Alice’s sleepy riverbank during one of her golden afternoons.
Crack willows trail their leaves in the pea green water, solemn swans slide by (actually, of course, they are giant snorkels), Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole potter through their eternal teatimes in waistcoasts of fur, while overhead... the Queen goes to & fro in her shiny red helicopter. And there, moored at water’s frilly edge is the Searchlight, as green and red and yellow as Mr. Toad‘s caravan - and every bit as dotty. And in the Searchlight is a magical chaos - for Vivian Stanshall has come to stay. And me. I am there too. Come for a visit, just to see what there is to see, and all unaware that I will never see anything the same way again.
We stayed for five years. And in this time Vivian made Sir Henry, for radio and book and record and film, and in this time he recorded two albums of music - the slightly bucolic, completely indulgent, but totally honest
Teddy Boys Don’t Knit
, and a second which has never been released, and in this time we traveled to America and back again.
(Now therein lies a tale... and in due course, I shall certainly tell it - imagine! Mr. Standstill concussed and lying on the backseat of a Los Angeles rental car reliving the year he was eleven and his brother Mark was five. Mr. Standstill running down a steep steep street near the Golden Gate Bridge shouting USITHU! Mr. Standstill trapped in flat Nebraska in three feet of snow. Mr. Standstill in New York City reclining like a pasha in a blackened nightclub declaiming godswot to John Cale. Mr. Standstill wondering who Gilda Radner is as she importunes him to work with her on something, anything, one night over dinner after we are guests at Michael Palin’s hosting of Saturday Night Live.)
And in this time my eldest daughter Sydney went boating on the river, dreaming her dreams and humming her hums, and with her often went Vivian’s son Rupert, hair of red red red - and Vivian and I would quietly watch as they rowed and fished and generally messed about, and listen as their bright young laughter came floating back over the water. And in this time Vivian and I gave birth to the glorious
(As usual, I did all the hard work.)
And while he was doing all that (and more and more: drawings and paintings and songs that were never ’officially’ recorded, and sculpture, and the actual shingling of the Searchlight’s odd & odder entrance way, and designing instruments which actually got made, and doing voice-overs for all sorts - hilarious, these, and more and more and more), I did something as well. But as this is not about me, but about Vivian - I’ll leave me be for the nonce. Save to say that one of the things I did was to love Vivian with a passion that has not abated to this day. And to despair of him with equal passion.
We used to press our heads together in the terrible hope that somehow it would help us see inside, each into each. As we lay in bed, he would throw his legs over mine and shout: “See! A perfect fit. We were made for each other!” We would sit in public places facing each other, knees against knees, and stare at each other until our eyes crossed. We used to do things that got us thrown out of places.
Vivian used to giggle a lot. When Silky giggles she sounds just like my old man. It breaks my heart.
And then came the Old Profanity Showboat.
But it all comes down to this. Until the day he died, there was a wall in his house he called his Family Wall. On that wall hung a picture of his mother, and one of his grandfather in his fireman's hat, and two of Silky and two of me, and one of himself holding a four year old Rupert. And that was it. No father. No band. No former this or that. That was his family. Silky. Rupert. Me. His grand old fireman granddad. His poor old mum. And himself.
My god. That man is still in my bones - and in my hair.
Who wouldn't find this man irresistable?