Five years ago, on the summer Bank Holiday that takes place today, I said farewell to the oldest friend I ever had, and here’s how it happened.
Richard Southwell was born on May 18, 1947, two days after me, at Elmhurst Nursing Home, a maternity hospital at Bingley in West Yorkshire where our mothers were in adjoining beds. This led to a friendship between our families that lasted for years, and a camaraderie with Richard that was strong until I left Yorkshire for the south of England in 1969. Thereafter it was intermittent but it was rekindled on the summer Bank Holiday of 2011, two days before he died from cancer at his home in Steeton near Keighley.
The friendship was probably at its strongest when Richard and I boarded together at Malsis School between 1955 and 1960. On the outskirts of the village of Cross Hills between Skipton and Keighley, Malsis was once a lavish country home in its own extensive grounds, its impressive pillared frontage approached by a long drive that wound past a small lake through woods and playing fields. As well as spending time together in school – we were in the same year, in the same classes – we visited one another on a regular basis during the school holidays too. He lived at Eldwick, above Bingley, not far from where my maternal grandparents once lived. His mother and father, Bob and Dorothy, became friends with my mum and dad and on the eve of every new term we would all eat out together at the Overdale, a dining and dancing club in Skipton.
        In my time at Malsis I discovered a love of reading, especially Conyan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and one term Richard and I produced and wrote the script for a stage adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in which I played Holmes and Richard played Doctor Watson. The official school entertainment was the annual production of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and others, but it was soon established that I was tone deaf and I never took part in any of them. Neither did Richard who also couldn’t sing for toffee, but it was at Malsis that I discovered and first came to love rock’n’roll and pop music; Richard too but not with the same obsession as myself. We would have been nine when we first heard Elvis Presley singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on a 78 rpm record played on a wind-up gramophone that belonged to another Malsis boy. In quick succession we also heard ‘Diana’ by Paul Anka, ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ by Johnny Duncan & The Blue Grass Boys, ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ by Little Richard and two other early Elvis recordings, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. I remember visiting Richards house where he had a Frankie Vaughan 78, ‘Garden Of Eden’, and Harry Belafonte’s 1957 number one, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. Neither of these songs were rock and roll but I soon became absolutely hooked on it all, and from that age the acquisition of rock’n’roll and pop records (and knowledge about those who performed them) became an all-consuming passion that has sustained until this day and to a large degree provided me with a life.
        Of course, it’s far too simplistic – and probably also a great exaggeration – to suggest that the course my life would follow was decided for me at the age of nine by whomsoever it was that brought a wind-up record player and a pale blue labelled HMV Elvis Presley 78 rpm recording back to school with him. If I hadn’t discovered Elvis and Little Richard at this school I would probably have discovered them elsewhere, probably heard them on the radio, and still become hooked on them – but not only can I recall the actual room where I heard my first rock’n’roll record, but also where the wind-up gramophone was located and even where I was standing in relation to it.
        But I digress. Richard and I went to different schools after Malsis but because we never forgot how close our birthdays were we often exchanged greetings, cards and phone calls until the arrival of faxes and then e-mails. My Skipton band The Pandas played at a party at his family home in Eldwick around 1966, and my dad and I were at his (first) wedding in the early seventies. We stayed in touch in other ways too, me occasionally dropping in to see him at his home in Shipley when I went up to visit my dad in Skipton before he died in 1997. In 2009 Richard and his (second) wife Janet visited us at our home in Surrey. We always had a lot of catching up to do.
Richard worked as a travel agent in Bradford but in May 2011 he didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent on his birthday, nor had he e-mailed me on mine two days before his, so I called his office and was informed that he was off sick. So I called Janet and was shocked to learn that he was in the final throes of cancer. I wrote to him as follows:
“As Janet will have told you following my phone call earlier today, by a circuitous route I have just discovered to my profound sorrow how sick you are. I was quite lost for words actually as I had no idea whatsoever that you were ill, let alone how serious it was. It is an understatement to say that you and your family have my every sympathy.
“We were 64 last week. On the eve of my birthday Olivia, my daughter, who is now 19, played the appropriate Beatles song and handed over a bottle of wine, as per the lyrics. Sam, now 16, said he liked the song because Paul McCartney sounded so cheerful. I told him that Paul had written the song long before The Beatles became famous, when he was 16, your age. ‘How do you know?’ he asked. ‘Because it’s my job to know these things,’ I told him. Then we all sat down to a roast lamb dinner and, for once, I was excused the washing up. For desert Lisa produced home-made crème caramels, my favourite, from the fridge. The following morning, my birthday, I stayed in bed an extra hour but still went to work. I don’t think I’ll retire next year, nor do I think Music Sales will insist upon it. Just because I turn 65 doesn’t mean my accumulated knowledge of the history of rock and pop will disappear overnight. I’ll still know that Paul wrote ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ when he was 16.”
        After a paragraph or two of family news I closed my letter to Richard as follows:
“Sixty-four years ago this week ago our mums occupied adjacent beds at the Elmhurst Nursing Home in Bingley, and I would like to have been a fly on the wall, listening to the conversation:
“Good morning Betty, how’s little Christopher at three days old?”
“Hush Dorothy, he’s sleeping.”
“I wish I could get my Richard to sleep. He was awake half the night.”
“Just think… all their lives stretch out in front of them. I hope they become friends Dorothy.”
“I think they will Betty. I think they will.”
        I closed the letter: “All the best wishes I can possibly offer from your oldest friend,” and added as a PS: “Janet – if you think it’s practical for me to drive up to Steeton in the next week or two let me know. I don’t mind setting off early in the morning, maybe spending a night with a friend in Skipton.”
In the event I drove up the following Sunday because it was the Bank Holiday the following day, staying with friends who live in Knaresborough, and drove over to Richard’s house in the village of Steeton the following day. On a whim, as I passed through Cross Hills I called into Malsis School, up that winding drive, and parked my car in front of the pillared entrance. It was deserted, and the front door was locked, but as I wandered around the outside of the old building I thought about how Richard and I had roller-skated together along these same pathways over 50 years ago.
Then I drove to Richard’s house. Janet made me a cup of tea and told me Richard was sleeping upstairs. She would wake him soon. I chatted with her and their children, some from their marriage and others from Richard and Janet’s previous marriages. Then I went upstairs. Richard was lying in bed, looking 20 years older than me, as thin as a pencil and with a long white beard. I thought he looked like Rip Van Winkle, barely recognisable from the boy and man I once knew. He looked very frail. He smiled but didn’t talk much, and even when he did I barely recognised his voice, so I did most of the talking, about music, about families, about my visit to Malsis, about how long we had known one another. Janet sat on the other side of the bed and listened. Eventually she said the visit was tiring him out so I shook hands with Richard for the last time, gave him a hug, went back downstairs, made my farewells and drove back down south.
Two days later Richard died. Janet called to tell me and to say that my visit had seemed to act as a closure for my oldest friend, the friend I knew from the day he was born to two days before he left us. I didn’t go to the funeral. “There’s no need,” said Janet. “Your visit was all that Richard wanted. It made him so happy.”



Any day now Omnibus Press will publish A Tribute To Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute, compiled by Ian Snowball, designed by Who designer Richard Evans and produced in association with the Moon Estate, headed by Amanda De Wolf, Keith’s daughter. ‘There Is No Substitute’, of course, is the inscription on the plaque at Golders Green Crematorium where Keith’s last rites were held, on September 13, 1978.

With an introduction by Pete Townshend, the book is chock full of contributions from fellow drummers, Keith’s friends and Who fans. Focusing as much on Keith’s extraordinary talents as a drummer as his notoriety as a prankster, the book reflects the deep affection that this madcap genius inspired amongst all those with whom he came into contact.

Packed with photographs, many previously unseen, the interviewees include fellow drummers like Kenney Jones, Rick Buckler, Carl Palmer, Mick Avory, Max Weinberg, Don Powell, Clem Burke and many more, as well as other musicians like Jack Bruce and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith, various Who associates and some who’d known Keith since before he was famous.

Among the latter is John Schollar, the rhythm guitarist in The Beachcombers, the Harrow-based group for whom Keith played drums before he joined The Who. Keith was a Beachcomber for almost 18 months, from December 1962 to April 1964, and after he left John maintained his friendship with him though all the turbulence of The Who years, right up to the end. After Keith’s death John continued to visit Kit, Keith’s mum, on a regular basis, and he recalls Kit telling him in the eighties that if Keith had remained in The Beachcombers he’d still be alive. Kit, incidentally, is still alive, aged 95, now cared for by her daughter Leslie.
John Schollar’s contribution to There Is No Substitute is among the most poignant in the entire book, and I’ve reproduced it below. John also sent me the photograph below which wasn’t used in the finished book; taken at the Kodak Theatre in Harrow, probably very in early 1963, not long after Keith joined The Beachcombers. “He brought the gold lame suit with him,” John told me last night. “He’d worn it in his last group but he soon wore out the trousers, couldn’t sit still could he?”
          From left to the right The Beachcombers are John Schollar, Moonie, Tony Brind on bass, singer Ron Chenery (aka Clyde Burns) and lead guitarist Norman Mitchener. The picture was taken by their friend Roger Nichols who drove the group from gig to gig in his van.

“I grew up in an area not far from Wembley, where Keith grew up. Most of the early Beachcomber gigs were in venues in that area. We had a drummer, but he wasn’t really up to scratch, so we kicked him out and auditioned a few drummers. Keith was one of them and he was just superb. He was also very young, I don’t think even sixteen, but when he started playing we all looked at each other and knew he was something special. For a little bloke he produced so much energy and noise. And he made the most of what kit he had. Even with us he rarely used a hi-hat.
        “When The Beachcombers started out we were playing Shadows numbers and listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, and when the surf stuff came in we did some Beach Boys and Jan & Dean songs too. In fact people on the circuit knew us as the shadows of The Shadows. Can you imagine Keith playing drums on Shadows songs? He was shit-hot at it and would add a bit more drive to it. We had to drop some ballads because Keith would rock them up a bit too much. Plus he pranked about. Whilst playing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ one night Keith produced one of those duck decoy calls, the ones people blow when they go duck shooting, and in the middle of the verse he would blow it making the ‘quack quack’ sound. He even had a starting pistol one night and accidently shot our singer.
        “We had some laughs in The Beachcombers. There was a time when a friend managed to get hold of a pantomime horse, from the Wembley Ice Rink. He brought it to one of our shows and Keith loved it. He climbed inside it, fooled around and we couldn’t get him out. Keith held onto the pantomime horse’s head and took it to some audition we had to do in central London. He spent most of that night inside it charging around Piccadilly Circus. I remember we both went for a wee in one of the public urinals in Leicester Square. Keith kept the horses head on. God knows what people thought when they saw him. Another time he tried to get on one of the old London buses, the ones where you have to jump on the back. The conductor tried to refuse him but Keith just replied, ‘It’s okay we’ll go upstairs and don’t worry, the horse don’t smoke.’ The whole time Keith was in The Beachcombers it was non-stop laughter.
        One of the things that doesn’t really tend to come out in books about The Who or Keith is what a nice bloke he was and even back then he was. I was only talking to one of Keith’s sisters at the weekend and we were saying that there were only a few people that really knew him and saw that side of him. Even when he was a huge rock star he would still ring me up and invite me to gigs; several times, in the early Who days, I ended up bringing Keith home in my car. And there was never a hint of ‘how big I am’.
        “I remember he was on Top Of The Pops one time and just after the show he rung me up and asked, ‘So how was it mate?’ He did several things like that. In the early days there were times when he’d tell me about a gig and the next thing I knew I would be picking him up and taking him to it. It was only when The Who got much bigger did he become a bit distant and a bit wild.
        “The Who were lovely blokes. I knew them when they were The Detours; we played the same clubs on the circuit. I was there on the night Keith got up and played drums with them. We all knew that Doug (Sandom) had left the band. I mean Keith wouldn’t have done it otherwise. As soon I heard Keith play with them I just knew that he had found the band that he should be in and they had found their drummer.
        “I remember when The Who did a University tour. Keith rang me and said, ‘John we’re playing in Brighton, do you want to come? Come over and we’ll drive down in the Rolls’. I said I did and my girlfriend (now my wife) and me drove over to his place. But when I got there Keith had left a note on the door where he had scribbled some message about having to go and pick someone else up and see you in Brighton. The problem was I didn’t have a clue where he was playing in Brighton.
        “We drove to Brighton and flagged someone down who told me The Who were playing in the Sussex University. So we drove there. We parked up and headed for the venue. We walked through the doors and walked up some steps but got stopped by the bouncers. I said, ‘We are invited by Keith,’ to which he replied, ‘Yeah and plenty of others. No tickets. No entry.’
        “Thankfully, a few minutes later Keith turned up, headed straight for us and gave my missus a big hug. I then told him that we were having trouble getting in. ‘Right,’ he says and goes and demands that the manager comes and speaks with him. The manager appeared and Keith explained that he had invited some friends down from London and the bouncers wouldn’t let them in, but there was still a no ticket, no entry type attitude. ‘Hmm,’ says Keith, ‘Have you ever seen The Who play without a drummer? I tell you they are bloody awful.’
        “By this time there’s a reasonable sized group that had gathered around us, all listening to what was going on. The manager seeing this eventually gives in and says it’s okay for Keith’s friends to go inside. To this Keith turns to the crowd and shouts out, ‘The manager says that any of my friends that don’t have tickets can go in. Who doesn’t have tickets?’ To which about a dozen hands go up in the air. We all got it and that was what Keith was like.
        “The missus and I followed Keith into the dressing room and there was John and Pete sitting around a little table with a bottle of brandy. They filled up small plastic beakers and handed us drinks and we chatted. They were also being interviewed by some journalist and as soon as Keith got involved it just turned into the Goon show. It was very funny to watch.
        “There was a bit of time before the show so we decided to go to the bar to get a drink. When we got there the barman says, ‘Oh mister Moon, these people have been waiting for you to arrive because they want you to open a tab, so that they can have a drink.’
        “‘Oh okay,’ says Keith, get them a drink. But I stepped in and said. ‘Sod them Keith, just have a drink with me’ and I ordered some brandies. The barman said, ‘But what about them?’ pointing to the crowd. Keith looks at them, then at me and replies, ‘My friend says sod them, they can wait.’
        “After a drink Keith had to leave us and go and do the show but before he left he told us that he had arranged for us to sit in one of the balcony booths. We sat down and the waiter appeared with a tray full of drinks for us. Keith had arranged that too. Keith could be incredibly thoughtful and generous. He was a great friend.
        “I was mortified when I heard that Keith had died. Unfortunately, I heard about it on the news. I came in, sat down, turned on the TV and the news about Keith was on the telly. I just couldn’t believe it. Then the phone started ringing and people were asking me if I had seen the news. I was so upset. And then I had to ring Keith’s mum Kitty. We spoke and she was so upset. We even talked about the funeral and she said she wanted a private event and didn’t want it turning into a circus.
        “The funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium and was an actually brilliant but sad day out. Every major rock star was there and after the service they were all sitting around telling stories about Keith, it was amazing. In fact the table that I was sitting on was getting louder and louder and Kitty came over. I looked at her and said, ‘Oh sorry Kit’ but she said, ‘No John, you’re telling stories aren’t you, you carry on, that’s what Keith would have wanted.’
        “I remember looking around the room and seeing Charlie Watts laughing and Pete Townshend in a hell of state. It was obvious that everybody loved him, even though he had done so many things to also piss people off.
        “There were loads of flowers too. Roger had sent a large bunch fashioned into a floral television set with a smashed champagne bottle hanging out of it. I spent some time reading the labels attached to the flowers and there were so many from famous people like Eric Clapton and members of The Rolling Stones. There was also a small posy of flowers and I looked to see who they were from. It turned out to be from a Children’s Home that Keith had helped out at some point.
        “After the service Kit asked me (and two members of The Beachcombers, Tony and Norman) to go back to the house. The house was jammed packed with people, you couldn’t move so Kit said to us, ‘You boys go out into the garden for a bit of privacy.’ We went to the garden and found Roger, Pete and John standing there. There was complete silence. It was very sad.
        “The other sad thing was that people were expecting something to happen to Keith. I thought he’d end up having an accident in a car. I think we just sensed that he was never going to make old age. At first the media tried to make out that Keith had committed suicide but that was nonsense. Kit even said to me: ‘I don’t know what this suicide business is all about.’ I replied: ‘No Kit, it’s rubbish, he was too much of a coward to do anything like that. He couldn’t stand any pain. Anyway, if Keith was going to do anything like that he would have hired Wembley Stadium and blown himself up in a coffin or something.’
        “A few days after the funeral Kit phoned me and told me that someone had rung her to tell her that lots of Keith’s stuff was in a room over in the Shepperton Studios. She asked me to go over and have a look to see what was there. There was loads of stuff just lying around and anyone could have walked in and walked off with anything, and quite possibly some people did. But I phoned Kit and told her that she needed to get Keith’s stuff out and store it somewhere safer.
        “Kit went over and collected the stuff. There were gold discs and all sorts. Kit then rung me and asked me to pop in and see her after work one day. So I went over to her place and she had piles of gold discs and awards scattered around her living room. It was an amazing sight and she told me to just pick whatever I wanted. There was some very rare stuff and I explained to Kit that she had some priceless stuff and should hold onto it. But she wanted me to have something so I took one of the gold discs for Tommy, which I have on my wall to this day.”


TOMMY – A Bluegrass Opry by The Hillbenders

Forty-seven years ago today saw the release of Tommy, the first and – to my mind – still the best rock opera recorded by anyone, and that includes Quadrophenia which runs it a close second. There have been many subsequent interpretations of Tommy, including three – Lou Reizner’s orchestral LP, the film soundtrack and the stage musical – in which The Who, or individual members of the group, took part, not to mention live versions, or extracts thereof, released by The Who themselves, on Live At Leeds, re-issues of Tommy and various other live albums. I’m sure there’s many more versions out there that might not have come to the attention of The Who though I’ve yet to learn about Tommy – The Ballet, but it’s not beyond the realms of imagination to visualize a line of rake-thin tu-tu clad ballerinas pirouetting around the deaf, dumb and blind one leaping across a stage in tights.
A couple of weeks ago I came across a poster for a bluegrass version of Tommy to be performed live by an American quintet called The Hillbenders at the Union Chapel in Islington in North London. I took a picture of the poster and posted it on FaceBook which prompted FB followers to steer me to a CD which has actually been on release for just less than a year now, so I’m a bit surprised I hadn’t found out about it before. I’ve been playing this on and off for a couple of weeks now, on the iPod and in the car and once I got over the shock of listening to Tommy without any drums, I’ve concluded it’s definitely a worthy addition to the Walker family.
The cover is an almost true facsimile of Mike McInnerney’s original blue cover for The Who, except that the cross-cross lattice on the front is made from what looks like wood, as befitting this acoustic recording. Within the lattice are the five members of The Hillbenders, guitarist Jim Rea who also arranged the piece, mandolin player Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves, banjoist Mark Cassidy and stand-up bass player Gary Rea. All five handle the vocals, sometimes individually, sometimes as a choir. They are based in Springfield, Missouri.
The five clearly revere The Who as the arrangements hardly vary from The Who’s original. There are 23 tracks, one less than The Who, ‘Underture’ presumably omitted because they felt unable to do it justice without drums and, in any case, the basic score is the same as ‘Sparks’. Elsewhere, it’s uncannily similar to the Tommy we know and love, from the ‘Overture’ to ‘getting the story’ at the end of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’.
In many respects the stand-up bass makes up for the lack of percussion, though I think someone taps the body of an acoustic here and there, and I found myself warming to the two instrumentals – ‘Overture’ (taken at a frantic pace) and ‘Sparks’ as much as anything, as well as the dobro/banjo solo in ‘Acid Queen’. Guitarist Jim Rea follows Pete’s lines closely, on acoustic of course, and the rapidly picked banjo throughout seems perfectly natural once you’ve got your head around the fact that this is a bluegrass interpretation. The guitar/banjo opening on ‘Pinball Wizard’ is particularly effective. Towards the end, as one of the quintet offers up Roger’s ‘See Me Feel’ plea, it verges on the operatic, and when all five chime in on the closing lines – ‘Listening To You’ – the banjo speeds up like an express train.
Dedicating their record to ‘the power of The Who’, The Hillbenders are clearly in awe on them and their Tommy is without doubt a respectful tribute, in homage to them if you like. On the internet I spotted a picture of Pete with the five guys so we can assume the creator of Tommy has given them the green light. They’ve done him proud.


TONY BARROW - PR To The Beatles

Rather late in the day I discovered this morning that Tony Barrow, one time Beatles Press Officer, died last weekend, aged 80. I knew Tony well during my Melody Maker years, though by this time he’d long since moved on from the Fab Four – a term he coined, incidentally – and was running Tony Barrow International (TBI), a PR firm housed in an office block in Hanover Square, just off Regent Street. Among his clients were The Kinks, Deep Purple, Cilla Black and, once he’d shaken off the other three, Paul McCartney, with and without Wings.
Born in Crosby, near Liverpool, Tony was part of the inner circle of Beatle advisors from the very beginning, along with Brian Epstein, George Martin and music publisher Dick James (and roadies Neil Aspinall & Mal Evans), though his position was eventually usurped by the more urbane and whimsical Derek Taylor whose lively imagination and droll humour was more likely to appeal to JPG&R when they ceased to be Fab.
Famously, Tony wrote the sleeve notes for the first three Beatles albums and various concurrent EPs and though his words seem a bit cheesy nowadays they nevertheless convey the breathless enthusiasm of the first flush of Beatlemania. A trained journalist, Tony reviewed records for the Liverpool Echo under the pseudonym Disker, and he also wrote sleeve notes for artists signed to Decca Records, for whom he helped arrange The Beatles’ ill-fated audition on New Year’s Day, 1962.
Mark Lewisohn’s outstanding Beatles biography Tune In contains a lovely fly-on-the-wall account of Barrow’s first meeting with The Beatles in November 1962 in a pub near EMI’s London HQ at Manchester Square. First Paul comes to socialise, taking drinks orders but paying with Epstein’s money, then George takes a keen interest in what Barrow might do for the group and finally John remarks: “If you’re not queer and you’re not Jewish, why are you coming to work for Nems?” Ringo appeared too withdrawn to join in the conversation. “All the traits that came out at that initial meeting were consistent with what followed,” observes Tony.
By the time I got to know Tony Barrow he was an established, slightly old school PR, a bit of a veteran on the pop scene, the publicist for various US musicians when they toured the UK and few odd bods like Victor Borge, the Danish comedian and pianist, and Tom Paxton, the American folk singer. He seemed to have a foot in two camps, the traditional showbiz end of the market, acts like Cilla Black, and the rock world, exemplified by Deep Purple and The Kinks, though they were both handled by his assistant Marion Rainford who fixed up the first interviews I did with both these bands. Tony himself handled McCartney/Wings until Paul switched his business to Tony Brainsby who was a bit flashier. Also, TBI was superbly efficient and each Monday morning, news day on MM when I was the paper’s News Editor, I would receive in the mail a typed report on grey headed paper of all the activities that TBI’s acts were undertaking.
This job brought me into contact with all the rock and pop PRs operating in London in the early seventies, some of whom were younger and trendier but rarely as business-like or reliable. Tony’s only rival in this strata of the industry was Les Perrin, who’d snatched up John, George & Ringo and who also handled the Stones. Like Les Perrin Associates, TBI was an incredibly professional, well run set-up and even though the boss was occasionally prone to a drop more of the hard stuff than was good for him – a trait he shared with many in the PR trade – I liked him a lot.
For years and years I received a Christmas card from Tony, long after I’d left MM. He retired to Morecambe where he lived until his death last Saturday. RIP old mate.


MILES AHEAD - Film Review

Back in the autumn of 1970 the phone rang on my desk at Melody Maker’s offices on Fleet Street and, to my surprise, on the other end, calling from New York, was Miles Davis, asking to speak to Chris Welch. I passed the phone to Chris who took it with a look of apprehension, like the protagonist in ‘Worried Man Blues’.
“We spoke for quite a while,” confirms my old friend and colleague. “Miles was upset at my review of his performance at the Isle of Wight festival which I thought was embarrassingly awful. Terrible jazz rock made worse by his posing as a rock star. I was cross with Miles because his real music was so much better. But I never expected him to read MM. After a long complaint, he said, ‘I’m going to leave CBS’.”
I was reminded of this strange exchange last night as I watched Miles Ahead, the quasi-biopic of Davis directed by Don Cheadle who co-wrote the screenplay and takes the starring role. Miles never did leave Columbia, or CBS as the label was known in the UK. But he did have his ups and downs with the label, as the film makes abundantly clear.
Judging by the wardrobe, the film is set in the mid-1970s although there are flashbacks to the 1940s when Davis was in his pomp and courting the gorgeous dancer Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the muse he clearly still adores. Thirty years on and Davis is a reclusive, drug-addled nowhere man, a volcano of fear and paranoia who answers a knock on his door from Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill, played occasionally and, I thought, inappropriately, for laughs, by Ewan McGregor, who is seeking an interview. Thus ‘Dave’ finds himself caught up in the crazy world of Miles Davis, in which guns and car chases play an important role in their quest to track down a tape recording of recent sessions that Columbia wants to release and which, with Dave’s connivance, has been stolen from Davis’s apartment.
        All of which is exciting to behold and mixes plenty of drama into a movie that I thought would be more biographical than it was. I don’t know how much liberty has been taken but since I never encountered a Rolling Stone writer called Dave Brill during my stay in New York, which coincided with the period in which the ‘reality’ part of the film is set, I am assuming this story line is pure fiction. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to trust the authenticity of Cheadle’s top-class portrayal of the great trumpeter, a performance that dominates the film in every aspect. Davis was a proud but difficult man, barely in control of his life, brought down by heroin, racism and the certain knowledge that the music he made after the mid-sixties wasn’t what his audience wanted or appreciated, a dilemma that has almost certainly led to problems other star musicians have faced when that star begins to fade. All of which might suggest that Davis is a violent brute but this doesn’t stop us rooting for him as he chases his tapes through the mean streets of New York, gun in hand and sidekick Dave at the wheel of his speeding Jaguar.
        While this aspect of the film seems a bit too much like every other cops’n’robbers movie, it is counterbalanced by some outstanding musical scenes, either in a studio or on stage, almost all of which are from the earlier period, and in which Cheadle as Davis is joined on stage by a host of illustrious jazz musicians. The continuity between the two eras shifts cleverly as scenes are juxtaposed on the crash of a cymbal or the blast of a trumpet, the only issue with this being that – his receding hairline aside – the young Davis doesn’t seem to have aged anything like 30 years by the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, Cheadle’s portrayal of Miles as the fighting underdog, smoking incessantly, barely audible in his hoarseness, desperate to prove he’s not a has-been, is immensely powerful.
        In the end the tape is retrieved but I won’t spoil the fun by saying what it sounds like. Sufficient to say that my old pal Chris Welch was probably lucky that in 1970 the real Miles Davis was calling him from New York and not a pay phone in Fleet Street.