Saturday, February 18, 2006

An Interview with George Melly, jazz singer, Surrealist, zoot suit enthusiast

An interview with George Melly, Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, Soho, London on the re-release of his albums Nuts and Son of Nuts, April 2004. By Alastair McKay

The first time I see George Melly, at an exhibition of new paintings by Lucian Freud, he is dressed casual: suede cowboy hat, dark jacket, sponge-soled trainers and a black eye-patch, the result of a detached retina. “This,” he declares of the exhibition, “is a collection of bits.”
The second time I meet him, in the daytime gloom of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho, he is in full plumage: the hat is joined by a purple zoot suit and a swishy tie.
“It’s silk,” he says, flipping the kipper for my inspection. On the rear is a label saying the tie was created by Unilever Research. The old Surrealist likes it because it resembles a painting by Matta. On his fingers, two eyeball rings. “A Surrealist symbol, Melly booms, making a playful fist. “Andre Breton said ‘the eye exists in a savage state.’”
Clothes have always been important to Melly. In his early days, he wore suits which belonged to “an uncle who was much bigger than I was”. He moved on to “cheap and rather wonderful clothes from places like Cecil Gee”.
Before Johnny Cash, Melly was known as the Man In Black. The more recognisable Melly style began at the end of the 1960s, when he bought a cheap suit in Camden Town and teamed it with a black shirt and a white tie, with corresponding shoes and a big hat. The only change was a progression from Cagney style suits to the full zoots, which he has made for him by the theatrical tailor Keith Watson. “I liked rather the Harlem look to them. ‘Hi, man,’ and slapping hands and all that.”
He has just had a lunch of eels, and is in good spirits. If he finds it tiresome to talk about himself, he does a fine job of disguising it. But the louche music of his voice is compelling. He talks like a man blowing smoke rings from a rusty trumpet.
“Nowhere’s like the Soho that was,” he booms fondly. “As you get older, because you experienced everything with such intensity when you were a young raver it’s always going to look a bit more drab. Also a lot of the characters have gone. I would never leave home with a couple of quid, which was quite enough then, to get drunk in Soho, which I used to enjoy. I used to enjoy going up to the Colony Room, in Dean Street. It was run by a woman called Muriel Belcher, and Lucian was in there, and Francis Bacon, and so on, many writers and painters.
“She was a funny old woman, Muriel, very handsome, Bacon painted her a lot. And, somebody who died, who wrote about her – before he died, incidentally, not through the ouija board – said that every night was a marvellous party, and she did have that ability. She was a foul-mouthed old thing, but witty, and famous. It was the centre for us in Soho, as well as the French pub which was then called the York Minster, and the French which was a wine place next door almost to the Colony Room. And of course there were many family businesses that had been there for a hundred years – for coffee. Now there a lot of chic places, boutiques and what not. Not then.”
Melly is in his old jazz stomping ground to promote the release on a single disc of two albums he recorded in the 1970s. They are period pieces which manage to sound amiably timeless, even if Melly’s musical contribution has been ignored by critics who had trouble categorising a man who styles himself as a half-Jewish bisexual public schoolboy “performing the songs of ancient black ladies from the 1920s”.
Time has also removed the context of the revivalist jazz boom of which Melly was a part, but his recollections of it reveal a lifestyle that is quite at odds with the prevailing notion of Britain in the 1950s.
“I did all that I wanted on the road. We all did in the Fifties. Stayed in awful digs. But they were rather amusing, too, in retrospect. Ate fried rubbish. Seduced who would be willing to be seduced in the scrubber belt as we called it. And so on. A good time was had by all. What was that joke? She was a good time that was had by all. Dorothy Parker, yes.”
Melly says that many rock’n’roll musicians have told him that their road was the same. “But they made more money. They could afford to throw a television out the window in a posh hotel. We couldn’t. In fact, John Chilton, who I worked with for 30 years said ‘we better do something about this. I know - we’ll break a saucer.’ ” He lets out a big laugh. “Or set fire to a lampshade.”
Those tours included odd sojourns in the Scottish Borders, where they were booked by a man called Drunken Duncan.
“A wonderful man, but by god he got pissed. He took us once, Mick Mulligan and I, for an afternoon to hear an old boy do the whole of Tam O’Shanter, which he did at Burns dinners. Well, okay. He did it.” Melly makes a noise that is meant to signify a Scots accent, but which more accurately resembles the death pangs of a Japanese pilot in a 1950s war comic.
“And then half way through, he said, ‘I’m gonnae poot oan the records I made of it.’ Well, that was even more boring than him doing it. And he had a chanter.” Melly makes a noise like a distressed tomcat. “And then he wanted to do a dance. He got on the table with the firearms to make the swords, and fell off, of course. But he was a lovely man, he put us on a lot in the Borders. He did very well in the smaller places in Scotland, and he’d thrown it all into this dream he had of turning the Market Hall, Carlisle into a great centre of entertainment.”
The music of this period has been overshadowed by rock’n’roll, but it was a time of great creative energy. Melly played with the Mississippi blues man Big Bill Broonzy in Birmingham and Liverpool. “He was a great friend of mine, and we went on tour with him. He stayed with my parents. To put up a black guy in the 50s in suburban Liverpool… He was funny because my mother showed him the spare room and he looked all puzzled. My mother said, ‘What are you looking for, Bill?’ He said ‘Where do you put the money in for the gas?’
“My father reviewed his concert. He was asked to do so by the national federation of jazz music. He went along and he was very funny about that. He wrote: ‘At the end Mr Broonzy declared he would be able to go on singing all night, and I felt he was telling the truth.’ He ate about four normal breakfasts too.
“Broonzy was clever. There was a lot happening in his head. He was wonderful to hear. We did a tour also with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer. We were a bit nervous about that. She turned out to be one of the boys, as it were. I was in a dressing room having a brandy out of her bottle, and suddenly they came in and said there was a journalist from the Sheffield evening paper, and she said, ‘What? Press?’ and grabbed the nearest thing to throw it over the brandy, and it happened to be her very elaborate and sexy knickers.” He breathes in happily at the memory.
Melly’s first marriage took place in the registry office in Edinburgh, after a wild night at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London. “I was so ill. Somebody helped me onto the train, and I woke up in this bunk, and I said to the fellow in this carriage, ‘Thank god I wasn’t sick’. ‘You were sick four times,’ he said. ‘You better give a good tip to the fella that cleans everything.’ And I was wearing a suit I had bought in a second-hand shop. I was very broke. Bright blue it was. And, uh, terrible. I was green. It wasn’t good. However. There we are. It was done.”
I express my surprise that Melly was the marrying kind.
“That what?,” he booms, deafly.
“The marrying kind.”
“We-ell. We were living together. Her parents were making a lot of fuss. They were Catholic converts, so we couldn’t just go to the registry office without permission. I’d’ve had to convert, I think. Which, as a lifelong atheist, I was not intending to do. So that was why that time. The other time I got married after two years living with my present wife because she was very pregnant, and there’s a lot of bother, you know, if you get divorced, say.”
After a while, the jazz revival faded. “Trad jazz became rather boring and repetitive, you know, played in every pub by gynaecologists on their night off. It was fine to drink to, but unsubtle.” He turned to writing, doing a cartoon strip in the Daily Mail and criticism for the Observer. “I think they asked me because it sounded so extraordinary that somebody in the jazz world could write. We were meant to be morons. A few of us were.”
Melly’s upbringing in Liverpool was “liberal, not bohemian”. His parents were wealthy, and kept the company of actors. His father lacked ambition. “He just said do what you want.” His mother wanted him to shine. “But she didn’t want me to be a jazz singer at all. She wanted me to be a critic. In showbiz I would have had to be Noel Coward to really please her.”
Was there a vacancy?
“No, he was still alive. And anyway, there was only one of him.”
In his autobiography, Owning Up, Melly implies that he became bisexual to please his mother.
“Well, the homosexual part pleased her rather than the bisexual part. She was something of a fag hag. She adored homosexuals, except for my father, and my father was perfectly tolerant about that. He didn’t mind when it was obvious I was going to be a queen, and he didn’t mind when I stopped being a queen and turned to the other sex.”
His parents had records by Coward and Cole Porter, and his uncle collected Fats Waller. “Quite good, eh? If my father liked something he would buy it. There was a woman soprano singing a faintly jazzed up song called The Wren, I remember he was very keen on. He developed a strong liking for the singing of a woman called Otterley Patterson. He said ‘Do you think your mother would mind if I bought one of her records?’ I said ‘No, you go ahead, buy what you want, as long as you’re happy.’”
Melly’s love of music snapped into focus when he heard Bessie Smith. “It was the fact that she was at the edge of two worlds – folk-blues, and sophisticated vaudeville singing. But she sung it with an immense sincerity. You felt she meant every word. She revealed herself in an extraordinary way. And her vocal tricks were wonderful – breaking notes in two and diving down. She was just a great artist.”
As much as music, Melly is known as the approachable face of Surrealism.
“I can’t be a Surrealist because there is no group any more. I see the Surrealists that are still alive. Not too many, alas. And I study it all the time. It was an amazing period and Breton, the leader, was a charismatic figure. He was called the Pope of Surrealism, but a friend of mine, an art critic called David Sylvester, now dead, said: ‘No, Georgie. Not the Pope of Surrealism, the Saint of Surrealism’. He was very pure, and what the Surrealists did outside his watchful eye was often not at all pure by his standards.”
Melly’s appreciation of Ernst and Magritte is balanced by his sober assessment of the career arc of Salvador Dali. “He became a money-grubbing swine. Led by his horrible wife Gala. Of course, he was very good at publicity, so everybody thought he alone was Surrealism. But his early stuff was remarkable. He was very clever and technically brilliant, but a monster. He met Max Ernst in New York during the war, and wanted to shake hands, and Max Ernst said: ‘I don’t shake hands with fascists’. And Dali said: ‘I’m not a fascist, I’m an opportunist’. That was very typical of him.”
Dali’s skill at marketing seems to have been appropriated by contemporary British artists. “They’re all concerned with being bought and promulgating their myths. But some are rather talented. What’s his name, Dominic Hirst? No, Damien Hirst! He’s a real artist. He is very concerned with the meaning of life and particularly of death.”
And Tracey Emin’s bed?
“I like her cheek. I don’t think she knows anything very much, but she knows how to make people furious. Now the bed, you see, at the 1937-38 exhibition in Paris of the Surrealists, they had a bed in each corner with dirty sheets. So it’s not that original, but she knows how to carry it off. I have no objection to those kiddies. They know how to put their thumbs to their noses and wiggle their fingers, don’t they?”
I ask whether he has heard of Jack Vettriano.
“What was that you said?” he replies. “Can I smell marijuana?”
The notion of art being shocking is redundant, Melly says, quoting Andre Breton. “Breton said you can’t shock anybody anymore. And it is hard, when they’re fucking and blinding on television every night after nine o’clock.”
The shock at the lewdness of Melly’s stage act was real though. “You’d occasionally get the sound of a banging seat: ‘Come along Muriel, we can’t listen to this filth.’ And now I can tell any story I want. I mention for instance that I’m now past sex, but they say they’ve invented a pill which is half Viagra and half Prozac, so if you don’t get a fuck you don’t give a fuck. I’d never have dared tell that joke in the old days, but now I do. And they laugh and clap.”
His great-grandfather was the Liberal MP for Stoke-on-Trent, but Melly never felt the urge to follow him into politics. “I was an anarchist. I still am, except the chances of anarchism succeeding in this wicked world, apart from riots here and there, is negligible, I’m afraid. But I still support its principles: don’t interfere with people, let them get on with it, let them learn to live together, let them learn to love each other. It looks like a pretty fatal concept now, but I still support it.”
Asked what he sees as his enduring legacy, the 77-year-old Melly expresses the hope that he has amused a lot of people, and perhaps made a few people think a fresh thought. “I’m not a genius,” he says, “but I have a talent to amuse. And I sincerely love what I love. And I sincerely hope I’m able to go fishing for trout till I die.”
His earliest memory is suitably artistic.
“I remember my mother or nanny taking me for walks and, to amuse me, rubbing her umbrella along railings. And I remember being in a garden in a house opposite where we lived in a street of Victorian terraced houses, and there was a maid who was a friend of our nurse, or nanny, hanging out washing. And the whiteness of the washing and the redness of her arms and the blue of the sky and the green of the grass.”