It was my misfortune to see Bill Haley on stage for the first and only time in November 1979, about 15 months before he died, at The Venue opposite London’s Victoria Station. He was game but a bit of a sorry sight, aged 54 but looking considerably older, podgy and out of shape, sweating profusely and inclined to leave the heavy lifting to members of his band, none of whom were original Comets. I pushed up to the front to take a closer look at the man who more than anyone else first brought rock’n’roll to the masses, and I felt an urgent need to give him some encouragement, to let him know that even at this stage in his decline he was still appreciated for what he once did, perhaps unintentionally, to change my world. When he played ‘Rock Around The Clock’ I sang along lustily, along with everyone else.
This last visit by Haley to the UK included an appearance before the Queen on the Royal Variety Performance and would have been in sharp contrast to his first, in February 1957, when the riots started at Southampton docks, continued at Waterloo Station and lasted throughout his entire 14-city tour, to which a dozen extra dates were hastily added. Because Haley kept a diary and his wife at the time, Joan ‘Cuppy’ Cupchak, the second of three, is still alive and has a good memory, Crazy Man Crazy offers an entertaining blow-by-blow account of this tour and its consequence: the first ever rock’n’roll riots in the UK.
Bill Haley was already being held responsible for anti-social behaviour by teenagers in the US and, correctly, the authors of this biography attribute this to the inclusion of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in the soundtrack for the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle which is set in a multi-ethnic high school where juvenile delinquency is rife. Although in reality Haley was about as sinister as a glass of warm milk before bedtime, this association – which he did not engineer – appealed to moralisers in what was then a deeply conservative America, and thence to an anti-rock movement, demands for its prohibition and derogatory comments by those who feared that it might jeopardise their livelihoods, chief among them crooners like Frank Sinatra. As a result, poor old Bill - he was already 30 at the time - was Public Enemy Number One until Elvis, ten years younger, came along.
Regrettably however, Bill Haley Jnr and Peter Benjaminson are not the kind of writers to dwell overmuch on the politics of rock, social analysis of its consequences or how it impacted on American pop music, which is a shame. Instead they have written an immensely thorough but rather insipid biography of this unlikely standard bearer for rock’n’roll, excellent on facts but unsatisfying in regard to the bigger picture. Want to know, in some detail, what songs were recorded and when, which towns he visited on tour or even what Haley ate and drank on certain occasions, then this is your book; want to know how and why ‘Rock Around The Clock’ kickstarted profound changes in 20th Century culture, then look elsewhere.
Blind in his left eye from the age of four – his kiss curl was designed to hide this – and raised in some degree of poverty, Bill Haley certainly paid his dues, gradually morphing his country(ish) act into a rock’n’roll(ish) act that was more novelty than anything else, at least until it became commercially viable to stick to this path. Even at its height, however, there was something clownish about the way he and His Comets delivered their music, the antics of bassist Al Rex, and the way they jumped around on stage, ungracefully, for laughs. It was as if Haley didn’t take the music too seriously and wanted to play down its potential for trouble, unlike Elvis who played it up, at first anyway. Still, Haley made pots of money touring, squandered almost all of it – he was an easy touch and a hopeless profligate – and eventually withdrew into himself, somehow dissatisfied with his lot, and took to the bottle. He was a mean drunk, a lousy father, a philanderer and prey to dishonest business associates. Forever on the run from the taxman, in his decline he found solace in Mexico where his popularity was sustained through re-recording his songs in Spanish, and in the end he died, pretty much friendless, aged 55, from a heart attack, leaving ten hungry children.
Crazy Man Crazy covers this lurid rise and fall in the same kind of detail I commented on earlier and, considering one of its authors is Haley’s son, he is to be commended for covering his father’s grim life in such a warts and all manner. There is, however, a regrettable tendency for the prose to slide into Mills & Book-style romanticism whenever Haley’s eyes alight on a woman he fancies, which is often, and mawkish sentimentality whenever tragedy strikes in the form of a death in the family, which also seems to happen with lamentable regularity.
The overall impression is that Bill Haley was a man of weak character who was unable to control, let alone take full advantage of, the whirlwind in which he found himself. By the time I finished Crazy Man Crazy I was feeling a bit sorry for him. Then again, he only had himself to blame.