Tag Archives: Dominic Wells

Starman in the sky: Ziggy Stardust memories and David Bowie/Brian Eno interview

11 Jan
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From Gavin Evans’s Time Out cover shoot with David Bowie, 1995

The consummate showman, David Bowie even managed to make his death a surprise. When I sat down to work at the Guardian today, my colleague was staring at the homepage. “Iconic rock star David Bowie dies of cancer at 69,” it said.

“That’s a spoof, right?” was my first reaction.

“You mean you hadn’t heard?” She must have seen my face crumple. “I’m sorry,” she said, with the solicitousness reserved for deaths in the family. I headed off silently for a weep in the Gents. I haven’t cried for a rock star since Bob Marley died.

I don’t envy the task ahead of the newspaper obituarists. Bowie didn’t just pack a lot into his life, he lived several lives: young mod, would-be Anthony Newley, starry-eyed hippie, inventor of glam rock, godfather of punk, young soul rebel, big-trousered ‘80s dance colossus, washed-out corporate shill, and back to middle-aged experimentalist. More than 50 years after he began making music, he’s still pushing the frontiers with his new album Blackstar. And somehow he found time and energy for a long and successful film career, an early prescient embrace of the internet with Bowienet, floating himself on the stock market in the form of Bowie bonds, as well as painting (I bought one of his prints for my godson when he was born) and a position on the board of Modern Painters. Before he died, he was even working on a musical.

I wouldn’t know where to begin: all I can say is what he meant to me, to us. He’s the only rock star whose face I’ve hung on my wa-wa-wa-walls; the only one who’s visited me in my dreams (he picked me up in a limo; we discussed Japanese culture); for two years I played all of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars literally every single day, like a mantra, like an article of faith. He showed every sexually confused teenager, every outsider, that freaky can be good; that there was always a place for us with a Couple of Kooks.

Paul Burston, Time Out’s erstwhile Gay Editor, put on his Facebook page that Bowie saved his life. I believe he means this literally. The song Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide often moved me to tears in my teens: “Oh no love, you’re not alone/You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair/You’ve got your head all tangled up/But if only I could make you care…” He ends with a repeated phrase sung with such raw emotion it’s almost a screech – “Just turn on with me and you’re not alone” – that culminates in a single note from a violin, the greatest ending to any album since the 40-second piano chord of Sergeant Pepper’s.

I did my best to return the favour, in my small way. I watched for my chance to put him on the cover of Time Out, back when Bowie’s cultural stock was low and he was considered creatively bankrupt, a laughing stock. It came with Outside, and I leaped at the chance to interview him and Brian Eno together about drugs, art and the roots of creativity. The interview was recently reprinted in a book, Bowie on Bowie. You can read it below.

I also found that Bowie never scored highly in Time Out’s polls of the greatest albums of all time, and felt that this was because he’d done so damn many brilliant albums that they split the Bowie vote. Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, Station to Station and Low would all vie for a place in my top ten. Others might include Aladdin Sane, Heroes or Scary Monsters. These days I would want to add Heathen. And so, for Time Out’s 30th anniversary issue, I initiated a poll of the greatest music artists of all time (solo or groups), rather than the greatest albums. In this poll, at last, Bowie rightly came out on top.

Sigh. So long, Dave. It’s been quite a ride. Thanks for letting us hang on to yourself. And now there really is a Starman waiting in the sky.

[PS: As I had typed these final words, my son Sam called to check I was okay, which was sweet. He told me all his friends at university had been saying for the last few days how brilliant Blackstar was. With all due respect to my profession, sod the critics’ five-star reviews – the fact that he can still energise a new generation young enough to be his grandchildren is the best epitaph Bowie could receive.]

s-l225My Time Out cover interview with David Bowie and Brian Eno, for the release of ‘Outside’ in 1995

David Bowie: Could I just ask you first, do you mind terribly if we also tape this? Just for our own usage.

Dominic Wells: So you can sample me and stick me on your next album?

DB: Actually, it is likely. I nearly sampled Camille Paglia on this album, but she never returned my calls! She kept sending messages through her assistant saying, ‘Is this really David Bowie, and if it is, is it important?’ (laughs), and I just gave up! So I replaced her line with me.

Brian Eno: Sounds pretty much like her.

So, how did this album come about?

DB: A pivotal moment for us was actually at the wedding.

BE: It’s absolutely true, that’s where we first talked about it.

DB: I was just starting the instrumental backings for the ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ album and I had some of them, just as instrumental pieces at the wedding, because it was written half around the idea of the marriage ceremony. Brian at the time was working on ‘Nerve Net’, and we realised that we were suddenly on the same course again.

BE: That was quite interesting, because it was the wedding reception, right, everybody was there, and we started talking and Dave said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this!’ He went up to the DJ and said, ‘No, take that off, play this.’

DB: And then we both rushed off to our individual lives knowing it was almost inevitable we’d be working together again. Because we both felt excited about the fact that neither of us was excited about what was happening in popular music.

It seems strange that on your last album you went back to Nile Rodgers, with whom you had your greatest commercial succcess (‘Let’s Dance’), and now you’re going back to Brian…

BE: With whom you had your least commercial success!

…With whom you had some of your greatest critical successes.

DB: Funnily enough, the things I said to Nile were much the same things that Brian said to me: look, we’re not going to make a stereotypical follow-up to ‘Let’s Dance’. I’d just come out of the Tin Machine period, which was a real freeing exercise for me, and I wanted to experiment on ‘Black Tie’. I love doing a hybrid of Eurocentric Soul, but there were also pieces like ‘Pallas Athena’ and ‘You’ve Been Around’ which played more with ambience and funk. Then there was an interim album for me which was very important – ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’.

BE: That was the one I got really excited about. In fact I wrote you a letter saying this record has been unfairly overlooked. I felt because it was a soundtrack, as usual people were saying, ‘Well it’s not real music then, is it?’ It’s so incredible to me that the critical community is so unbelievably restricted in its terms of reference.

I went to the ‘Warchild’ exhibition at Flowers East [where Eno persuaded dozens of rockstars to auction off their art works for Bosnia], and you made a very good little speech about that. And in fact my magazine was one which had printed a snide, snipy little thing in Sidelines.

BE: Yes, I remember that. Do you, David?

DB: Which snide was this? Ha ha. I’ve had at least a couple in my life.

BE: It was, ‘If these people are so concerned why don’t they give their money over instead of just massaging their already enormous egos.’

DB: I remember that line! Yes, but it’s perfectly understandable. It’s a very British thing, isn’t it? The same’s true in America, isn’t it?

BE: No. You’re allowed to take pleasure in, enjoy and actively even benefit from the act of helping somebody else. Here, if you want to help somebody else it’s got to be directly at your own cost.

DB: It’s got to have a halo attached.

But it’s not just the charity, is it? It’s an assumption that rock musicians shouldn’t be doing art shouldn’t be acting and shouldn’t be writing books.

DB: It’s like saying journalists shouldn’t be doing television shows – which in some cases is probably very true!

BE: In England, the greatest crime is to rise above your station.

DB: There are more and more people moving into areas they’re not trained for, especially in America. I’ve just been doing this film with Julian Schnabel [‘Basquiat’, in which Bowie plays Andy Warhol], and he’s making movies, having just made an album. . . I think that’s fantastic.

What’s the album like?

DB: It’s Leonard Cohen meets Lou Reed. Lyrically, I think it’s really good.

A good dance record then?

DB: Ha ha. I think it’s as good as a lot of other records that came out that week. Not as good as others that came out that week.

BE: One of the reasons it’s possible now is that for various technical reasons, anybody can do anything, pretty much. I can, sitting in my studio, put together records with basses and drums and choirs, or I can put together a video in a similar way. So the question then becomes not, ‘Do I have the skill?’ It’s not an issue.

DB: The skill hasn’t been an issue in art for 50 years. It’s really the idea.

Damien Hirst once said something to the effect that if a child could do what I do, that means I’ve done it very well.

DB: Picasso said, I think, when someone said to him a child of three could do what you’re doing he replied, ‘Yes, you’re right but very few adults.’

BE: Einstein said, ‘Any intelligent nine-year-old could understand anything I’ve done; the thing is, he probably wouldn’t understand why it was important.’ That’s the other side of that coin: to be free and simple and child-like, but to be able to understand the implications of that at the same time. To be Picasso is not suddenly to become a three-year-old child again, it’s to become someone who understands what’s important about what the three-year-old child does.

It says in the blurb about your album that much of it was improvised, and that Brian would hand out cards to different musicians saying things like: ‘You are the last survivor of a catastrophic event and you will endeavour to play in such a way as to prevent feelings of loneliness developing within yourself; or: ‘You are a disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes they won’t allow.’ Is that to strip everything down, remove everyone’s preconceptions and start again from scratch?

BE: There are certain immediate dangers to improvisation, and one of them is that everybody coalesces immediately. Everyone starts playing the blues, basically, because it’s the one place where everyone can agree and knows the rules. So in part they were strategies designed to stop the thing becoming over-coherent. The interesting place is not chaos, and it’s not total coherence. It’s somewhere on the cusp of those two.

The rhythm is very strong throughout the album. That’s what holds things together…

DB: Something we really got into on the late-’70s albums was what you could do with a drum kit. The heartbeat of popular music was something we really messed about with. And very few people had done. It was, ‘Right, bass and drums, get them down, then do all the weird stuff on top.’ To invert that was a new idea.

I did a lot of walking around with the album playing on my headphones, and often you would get noises from the street – a bicycle bell, beeps from bus doors – and wherever they came in the songs, whatever noise it was, it fitted right in, you could absorb it into the song and it would work because the layers were so strong you could add anything on top.

DB: The great thing about what Brian was doing through much of the improvisation is we’d have clocks and radios and things near his sampler, and he’d say find a phrase on the French radio and keep throwing it in rhythmically so it became part of the texture. And people would react to that, they’d play in a different way because these strange sounds kept coming back at them.

BE: Yeah, and he was doing the same thing lyrically. We had a thing going where David was improvising lyrics as well; he had books and magazines and bits of newspaper around, and he was just pulling phrases out and putting them together.

DB: If I read some off to you, some of them you’d find completely incomprehensible.

I did try that, in fact. I read the lyrics sheet out loud and thought, ‘He’s gone off his rocker.’ Then when I heard it with the music, it made sense.

DB: Exactly. There’s an emotional engine created by the juxtaposition of the musical texture and the lyrics. But that’s probably what art does best: it manifests that which is impossible to articulate.

If an English student, on a poetry course or whatever, sat down and tried to analyse your lyrics, would they be wasting their time?

DB: No, because I think these days there are so many references for them in terms of late twentieth-century writing, from James Joyce to William Burroughs. I come from almost a traditional school now of deconstructing phrases and constructing them again in what is considered a random way. But in that randomness there’s something that we perceive as a reality – that in fact our lives aren’t tidy, that we don’t have tidy beginnings and endings.

So you’d be very happy if I and another journalist had different ideas of what the songs were about?

DB: Absolutely. As Roland Barthes said in the mid ’60s, that was the way interpretation would start to flow. It would begin with society and culture itself. The author becomes really a trigger.

In rock music, the lyrics you hear are sometimes better than they turn out to be. In one of your early songs, ‘Stone Love’, a line I adored was ‘in the bleeding hours of morning’; I finally got the lyrics sheet and discovered it was ‘fleeting hours of morning’, which is much more prosaic.

DB: That’s right. For me the most fascinating thing was finding out after years that what Fats Domino was singing was nothing like… I’d gained so much from those songs by my interpretation of them. Frankly, sometimes it’s a let-down to discover what the artist’s actual intent was.

You’ve now got a computer program, apparently, to randomise your writing. But you’ve been doing cut-ups since the ’70s, inspired by Burroughs.

DB: As a teenager I was fairly traditional in what I read: pompously Nietzsche, and not so pompously Jack Kerouac. And Burroughs. These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life, and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live…’

It’s a drugs thing as well, isn’t it? When I was a student and took lots of drugs, suddenly all kinds of things would make sense that otherwise wouldn’t; or rather, you’d see connections between things you otherwise wouldn’t.

BE: That’s what drugs are useful for. Drugs can show you that there are other ways of finding meanings to things. You don’t have to keep taking them, but having had that lesson, to know that you’re capable of doing that, is really worthwhile.

DB: But you know, I think the seeds of all that probably were planted a lot earlier. Think of the surrealists with things like their ‘exquisite corpses’, or James Joyce, who would take whole paragraphs and just with glue stick them in the middle of others, and make up a quilt of writing. It really is the character and the substance of twentieth-century perception, and it’s really starting to matter now.

BE: What I think is happening there is it removes from the artist the responsibility of being the ‘meaner’ – the person who means to say this and is trying to get it over to you – and puts him in the position of being the interpreter.

DB: It’s almost as if things have turned from the beginning of this century where the artist reveals a truth, to the artist revealing the complexity of a question, saying, ‘Here’s the bad news, the question is even more complicated than you thought.’ Often it happens on acid I suppose – if I remember! – you realise the absolute incomprehensible situation that we’re in… [Bowie, who has been gesturing with dangerous animation, knocks an ashtray full of chain-smoked Marlboros on to the carpet] … like this kind of chaos! [Eno kneels to sweep up the ash and butts from Bowie’s feet.] Why are you doing that, Brian? That’s immensely big of you.

BE: Just so you can finish your sentence.

DB: I didn’t need to. I illustrated it! [Hilarity] The randomness of the everyday event. If we realised how incredibly complex our situation was, we’d just die of shock.

There’s a lot in the short story that accompanies your album about artists who indulge in self-mutilation: Chris Burden, who had himself shot, tied up in a bag and thrown on to the highway and then crucified on top of a Volkswagen; Ron Athey, an HIV-positive former heroin addict who pushed a knitting needle repeatedly into his forehead until he wore a crown of blood, then carved patterns with a scalpel into the back of another man and suspended the bloody paper towels on a washing line over the audience. You seem to have this morbid fascination. It’s also the most literal expression of the old idea that art can only come out of suffering.

DB: Also it has something to do with the fact that the complexity of modern systems is so intense that a lot of artists are going back literally into themselves in a physical way, and it has produced a dialogue between the flesh and the mind.

BE: Yes, it’s shocking suddenly to say, in the middle of cyberculture and information networks, ‘I am a piece of meat.’

And is shock also a necessary part of a definition of art?

BE: At some level I think it is, yes. It doesn’t have to be only that kind of shock.

DB: The shock of recognition is actually more what it’s about, you know. I think that’s what it does to me, anyway. That, for me, is Damien [Hirst], of whom I am a very loyal supporter, it’s the shock of recognition with his work that really affects me, and I don’t think even he really knows what it is he’s doing. But what there is in the confrontation between myself and one of his works is a terrible poignancy. There’s a naive ignorance to the poor creatures he’s using. They’re cyphers for man himself. I find it very emotional, his work.

Have you been collaborating with him?

DB: We did some paintings together.We took a big round canvas, about 12-foot, and it’s on a machine that spins it around at about 20 miles an hour, and we stand on the top of step-ladders and throw paint at it.

BE: You should see his studio!

DB: It’s from a child’s game; you drop paint on and centrifugal force pushes the stuff out.

You’re on the editorial board of Modern Painters, along with the likes of Lord Gowrie, and actually they’re not so modern. You must be like the man in the HM Bateman cartoon, saying, ‘Actually, I think Damien Hirst is rather good.’

DB: The magazine is changing. But why write for, say, the Tate magazine, which is full of people already on one side of the argument? At least on Modern Painters there’s a chance of opening up the magazine a little bit. I love the idea of combining some ideas from the Renaissance with ideas that are working now; not to make some kind of . . . editorial point, but because of the pure. . . fun of creating those hybrid situations.

A lot of people were shocked by you doing a wallpaper.

DB: Well, it’s not very original. Robert Gober and a number of others, even Andy Warhol, did them. It’s just part of a tradition.

You also had your first solo art exhibition recently. It must have been frightening to open up your work of 20 years to public scrutiny and to the critics.

DB: No, it wasn’t at all.

Why not?

DB: Because I know why I did it. Ha!

BE: The thing is when you show something, or you release a record, you open it up to all sorts of other interpretations which don’t belong to you any longer. I have millions of tapes at home I haven’t released. I feel quite differently about those than if I put them out on to the market and suddenly there they are, filed in the racks, after the Eagles. Suddenly I imagine someone who isn’t at all sympathetic, who’s actually looking for an Eagles record happening on mine, and I start to hear the thing through what I imagine are their ears as well. So by putting something out you actually enrich it, I think, and you enrich it for yourself. You get it reflected back in a lot of differently shaped mirrors.

DB: I was just a bit late. The reason I wasn’t afraid, either, is I’m an artist, a painter and a sculptor. Why should I be afraid? Seemingly the only other thing I’m supposed to be afraid of is whether other people thought it was any good or not, but I’ve lived that life ever since I began, publicly, of whether I’m any ‘good’ or not, for nearly 30 years, so that comes with the territory.

Does it hurt you if a lot of people are walking around London saying, ‘David Bowie, what a pretentious tosser’?

DB: I don’t know of a time when it was never said, though. What’s the difference? It’s just a different colour overcoat. Not at all.

BE: You know for sure that in England, if you do something different from anything that you did last time, there is going to be a band of people who’ll walk around saying you’re a pretentious tosser but after a while you just have to accept (Bowie is laughing too), both of us just have to accept that we’re good at what we do. The record proves it. We’ve both influenced a lot of things, and a lot of things that are going on can be traced back to what we did, as we would trace ourselves back to other people.

DB: The history of any art form is actually dictated by other artists and who they are influenced by, not by critics. So for me, my vanity is far more interested in what my contemporaries and peers have to say about my work. A lot of it just comes from pure pleasure, you know? I work because it’s such a great way to escape having to work in a shop – to be a songwriter, and a musician and a performer and a painter and a sculptor – it’s so cool to do all this stuff, I can’t tell you how exciting it is. It really is great.

Online at last! Watch our acclaimed short film, Dotty

20 Jun

1620580_10151837018812062_1676636489_n1I am unbelievably thrilled to announce that Dotty, a truly lovely short film I wrote, is finally available online to view for free. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you anything about the plot, save that my influences were Harold and Maude, Alan Moore and The Usual Suspects.

It’s one of those rare films where everything comes together. Sadie Frost, the producer and award-winning star, gave me a terrifically useful note on my first draft: it was just “simpler, with less dialogue”. Ben Charles Edwards, the hugely talented director, put great care into the details as well as the big picture, from the gloves Sadie wears as Dotty to the long hours spent in the editing suite with editor Darren Baldwin making it just so. John Hicks’s cinematography is ravishing, and it was he who first suggested filming something about a mysterious older woman in a trailer near his home in Lanzarote. The landscape looked to me looked like an American desert – helping to inspire my key story idea. The music by Paul Honey still sends a shiver down my spine at the climax. And Sadie’s son Rudy Law really is a natural in front of the camera, as we first found when Ben filmed him in Suzie Lovitt.

To me, it was the best possible illustration of the way film is the ultimate collaborative medium: that it may start with a strong idea and a few words on a page, but it takes the combined talents of many to give them life and make them sing.

Anyway. I’m proud of our little film, as you can tell. The many festivals round the world who accepted it for screening, from Australia and Korea to Raindance and Hollywood, seemed to like it. I hope you’ll like it too. Let me know!

To watch Dotty on Nowness.com, click here.

Gay abandonment: Time Out axes LGBT section and editor

20 Dec
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Paul Burston, outgoing LGBT editor of Time Out. Pic: Adrian Lourie.

Bit of a departure today from my usual topic of film. The Media Guardian has just published a short piece of mine about Time Out canning its LGBT listings (The Listings Formerly Known As Gay), along with its editor of the last 20 years, Paul Burston. First, read the piece here.

I also wanted to share with you the story of how Paul got the gig in the first place, a tale of split personalities and being held hostage by Lesbian Avengers…

I employed Paul when I was Editor of Time Out in the ‘90s. The previous Gay Editor, Michael Griffiths, was a lovely man who also doubled as the receptionist. You would know when he fielded a call for the Gay Editor, as he would first answer in his high, lilting, very camp voice, “HelloTimeOut, howmayIhelpyou?” Then: “I’ll just see if he’s in.” He’d put the phone down, inspect his nails, wink at anyone who happened to observe the charade, then pick up the phone again and speak in a deep, butch voice: “Hello, Gay Editor Michael Griffiths here.”

Problem is, Michael was too nice. He gave everything glowing reviews, even when he admitted to me that the play or whatever was awful. “We all have to pull together,” he would say. So when, very sadly, he became too ill with HIV to work, I was determined to employ a trouble-maker, someone who, as in other sections of the magazine, would speak their mind without fear or favour. That man was Paul Burston, and he’s been causing wonderful trouble ever since.

I know this to my cost, as I was once “held hostage” (as the papers later put it) in the Time Out lobby by 20-odd Lesbian Avengers, a group of activists who in 1988 famously broke into the BBC studios and chained themselves to the cameras as Sue Lawley was reading the 6 O’Clock News live on air. The reason was a supposedly “anti-lesbian” piece in Time Out – written in the Gay section, by a gay woman. I came down to hear their concerns and explain why we stood by our story, and they left after half an hour, agreeing to disagree but happy to have had a dialogue.

Paul, as his many friends will know, has become a flamboyant figure, not given to hiding his light under a bushel. Author of several novels, founder of the Polari literary salon which just won LGBT Cultural Event of the Year, prone to photo-shoots in terrific hats and, often, none too many clothes. Yet quick as he usually is to take up arms on issues that affect LGBT readers, he has remained touchingly loyal to Time Out and keen to avoid knocking it, even for cancelling his section.

I, too, am loath to criticise my beloved old mag and the talented and tireless people who still work there following successive waves of cuts; not least CEO Tim Arthur, a second-generation Time Outer whose step-dad was the lovely Comedy editor, Malcolm Hay. Nevertheless, I felt the Guardian piece needed to be said.

The Hartlepool Monkey: how we made comic-book history

21 Sep

ImageSummer’s always full of comics turned into films. We’ve had Superman, Iron Man 3, Wolverine, 2 Guns, Red II and Kick Ass II, with R.I.P.D. still to come. But comics aren’t all about superheroes – in fact this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, Blue Is The Warmest Colour (opening Nov 15 in the UK), was based on a graphic novel.

The world of comics is much more diverse than some people realise, as demonstrated by The Hartlepool Monkey, a French graphic novel which I co-translated with the multi-award-winning Frank Wynne, published in the UK in early October. It’s based on the true story (the details of which are shrouded in legend) of a monkey who was washed ashore from a wrecked Napoleonic vessel, and hanged by the Hartlepool locals who mistook the small, hairy brute for a Frenchman.

To this day, the Hartlepool football team has a monkey as its mascot. In a bizarre twist of fate, the man in the monkey suit ran for mayor in 2002 on a platform of free bananas for school children… and won. He was even reelected in 2005 and 2009.

The graphic novel is terrific, so much so that it recently won the prestigious “Rendez-vous de l’histoire” prize, awarded by a distinguished panel of historians. Sadly, my excitement at opening an advance copy was somewhat diminished by discovering that the English-language edition had one salient omission: our translators’ credits were mistakenly left off! Ah well. Virtue is its own reward. (And the fee, of course.)

You can find advance previews here: Propermag, The Times (paywalled), Hartlepool Mail, Forbidden Planet, and The Crack magazine. To pre-order from Amazon, click here.

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The goss on Bros: the Goss bros are set to reform

8 Aug
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Matt Bros in the Hangover Suite with his non-identical twin, Dominic Wells (that’s me). Tiger not included

News today that ‘80s Brit boy band Bros are contemplating a reunion comes as a shock. As the picture above shows, I thought it had already happened!

Seriously, though, the picture records my meeting with the ludicrously handsome Matt Goss in early 2010, on the eve of his reincarnation as a Las Vegas lounge singer. We sat in the suite at Caesar’s Palace where The Hangover was filmed, though there was sadly no tiger in residence that day, and he told me then that he was open to a Bros reunion.

Talent-spotted by the manager of the Pussycat Dolls, Matt Goss was about to start a residency performing Bros hits, old jazz standards and new material on a giant, garishly painted indoor boat called Cleopatra’s Barge. As you do. Giant billboards of his unfeasibly sharp cheekbones and five-day stubble sprang up all over Sin City, complete with the optimistic caption, “This century’s Sinatra”.

I found Matt charming, talkative, and working that dapper British gent look to the max: sharp shoes, a three-piece suit with a watch chain and cool tattoos poking out from under the sleeves, and a hat that he was happy to admit was less a foppish affectation than a disguise for a receding hairline (takes one to spot one).

He had one funny story about growing up with his brother Luke, who is now a reasonably successful Hollywood actor with credits including Blade II and Hellboy II. After moving from Camberwell in south London to the country, the twins used to make their own entertainment by throwing darts at each other across the fields and trying to dodge – until Matt got one stuck in his ribs.

He also described himself as a savvy business-man, having “learned the hard way” when Bros put on a hubristic concert at Wembley Stadium. “The show broke even,” he said, “but we didn’t understand the difference between ‘net’ and ‘gross’, and we were contracted to pay someone 20% of gross profits! It cost us a fortune. So now I pay attention!”

It obviously had a positive effect on Bros’ bassist, too. Craig Logan left Bros at the height of its fame, still aged just 19, and fought six successive legal actions with the label to recoup any share of the money. Logan is now a bona fide music mogul, managing artists such as Tina Turner, Sade and Pink. He’s never been keen on the idea of getting back on stage, so getting him to agree to a reunion is a coup.  

There’s just one snag: how can the three schoolfriends from Surrey who conquered America now sing When Will I Be Famous with a straight face?

A brief history of when I met Stephen Hawking on set

28 Jul
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Stephen Hawking enjoys his 65th birthday present: a zero gravity flight on a modified plane owned by the Zero Gravity Corp.

The paralysed cosmologist Stephen Hawking has already been played by Benedict Cumberbatch on screen, and will be followed next year by fellow “hunk who thunk” Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Before that, though, is Hawking, a documentary to be released on September 20, which reveals how very nearly none of this happened.

According to today’s Sunday Times, Hawking says in the new film that doctors recommended switching off his life-support back in 1985. He had only just been commissioned to write A Brief History of Time, the book which went on to sell ten million copies and made him so famous he has guested on The Simpsons five times, and the three weeks of intensive care that followed after his wife refused to let him die robbed him of what little remained of his speech. He wrote the book by raising his eyebrows to select letters on a computer program.

By 1991, when I met him on set of Errol Morris’s excellent documentary, he wrote and “spoke” through his voice synthesizer by twitching one finger on a toggle on his wheelchair. I’d known of Hawking for several years before he became globally famous. My elder brother studied Maths at King’s College, and he had pointed out to me the wheelchair ramps which made Cambridge the most disabled-friendly city in the world – built to facilitate Hawking’s passage from college to college.

I also read A Brief History of Time when it came out in 1988 – yes, from cover to cover. The first part is a very accessible overview of the history of physics and cosmology. The final part is a little hard to follow, though fascinating – especially for the Big Crunch theory, which is that at some point in the future there will be a reverse Big Bang, sending all matter hurtling back towards the single point from which it began: travelling backwards through time as well as space, so that at some point, untold billions of years from now, I will be alive again, and typing in the words of this blog, except in reverse; starting from the final sentence, deleting and deleting until I am left with nothing; then I will regurgitate my breakfast, get into bed, and sleep until Saturday night.

I will fondly watch my children grow younger and smaller and in greater need of my care. Having regressed to babies, one day they will be gone, but I will not be sad, it will be as if they never were. I will join The Times, leave it for AOL, then be appointed Editor of Time Out a few months after the chimes of Big Ben count down the historic twelve bongs from the 21st century into the 20th, then after a series of steadily less assured covers I will be moved into the less stressful roles of Deputy Editor, then Chief Sub Editor, then Sub Editor; I will go to Oxford university where I will spend carefree days with the former mother of my vanished children until, one day, we will see each other for one last coffee and part forever, without bitterness or regret.

I will go to school in Winchester; then emigrate to Canada to play in the snow; finally a confused and inchoate period of sleeping and crying and feeding and waking and being cradled in my parents’ arms, my father no longer dead but young and vigorous and beardless so that his bristly cheek would sandpaper over mine, until one day, I would simply… cease to be.

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Stephen Hawking and Errol Morris on set in 1991

I wanted to talk to Stephen Hawking about all this when I met him and Errol Morris on set (right), but the great man typed his sentences so painfully slowly that it was impossible to do much more than say hello. I noticed that, despite this, he still said “please” and “thank you” to everyone he dealt with, a courtesy that, for him, must have been important as every syllable cost him dear.

Watching him, I became obsessed with a thought, a truly terrible thought. Hawking was working, and is working still, on the Grand Unified Theory that will unite the contradictory worlds of Physics and Quantum Physics – “and then,” says he, “we will know the mind of God.”

What if, I thought, the motor neurone disease that paralyses him should progress so far that he loses even this small movement of the finger that, in 1992, enabled him to communicate? It’s all too close. These days, he says in the forthcoming film, he can only write and “speak” by flexing a single muscle in his cheek. One day soon he may lose even that movement. Kept alive, mechanically, for years after, his mind, floating free of earthly concerns, may finally solve the great riddle of science, the secret of life itself – and he will be unable to communicate this greatest of all discoveries to the world.

What will that be like? To apprehend the secrets of the universe but, imprisoned in his cage of flesh and bone, be able to do nothing, say nothing?

Perhaps he’d go mad and become God, like the intelligent bomb with the existential crisis in John Carpenter’s brilliant 1974 black comedy, Dark Star: “In the beginning, there was darkness. And the darkness was without form, and void. And in addition to the darkness there was also me. And I moved upon the face of the darkness. And I saw that I was alone…

“Let there be light.”

Aguirre, Wrath of God: the tale of a lunatic, told by madmen

18 Jun

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On Sunday I saw Werner Herzog’s startling, visionary, hallucinatory 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God at the BFI Southbank with my 17-year-old son. It was a big moment, as well as a great film, for two reasons.

One, that my son would choose this over the easy thrills of Man of Steel shows how far he’s come in his own cinephile journey (click here for the funny, sweet short film he made in Film Studies). Two, Aguirre was the film that turned me on to European art cinema, when I myself was 17.

The film stands up to time. Slow by modern standards, but, as my son said, still not a second wasted.

Aguirre tells of a doomed expedition of Spanish conquistadors to find the legendary gold city of Eldorado, sailing downriver through the jungle on makeshift rafts at the mercy of hostile Indians, in scenes that are a blatant influence on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It opens with an astonishing shot of hundreds of soldiers and their South American Indian slaves winding their way down a vertiginous mountain pass. As the fog slowly parts, like the mists of time, it’s clear that the film will be more symbolic as literal.

The second in command, Aguirre, is consumed with dreams of glory. He betrays his commander and leads his men through a combination of sheer will and sudden brutality. “That man is a head taller than me,” he says to his henchman, as he overhears talk of mutiny; “that may change.”

After the henchman takes the hint and decapitates the conspirator with a machete, so suddenly that his severed head completes his final sentence from the ground, Aguirre delivers an inspirational pep talk to the rest of his starving, fever-stricken troops: “Anyone considering desertion will be cut into 198 pieces and trampled on until you can paint the walls with him.”

But it’s not so much what he says and does, as how he is, that inspires fear and awe. Klaus Kinski is a one-off: a diagnosed schizophrenic and insatiable sexual libertine, his fleshy lips are set in a perpetual sneer, and slashed across his face like an engorged sexual organ; his jagged cheekbones provide a constant reminder of the skull beneath the skin; his gigantic eyes are as blue as the sky and as cold as ice.

Watching Aguirre stroke his 15-year-old daughter’s hand, brought along on this lunatic venture because he could not bear to be parted from her, is made especially uncomfortable by the revelation earlier this year that Kinski’s younger daughter Pola was sexually abused by him from the ages of 5 until 19.

Kinski’s mere presence helps elevate the film to the realms of myth. As Aguirre refuses to abandon his dreams despite overwhelming odds, you question what a fine line it is that separates the madman from the visionary, genius from delusion. It’s a question Herzog has returned to again and again in his film-making career, and in a sense, it is the story of every director, and every film. The making of each feature is a triumph of will, a victory of dreams over common sense, an impossible task conducted by a madman with dreams of glory leading a raggle-taggle band of occasionally mutinous followers.

Herzog more than others. The shooting of Aguirre was famously fraught: the perilous raft journey you see on film was real, and experienced by the actors; the fevers they suffered, real too. Herzog and Kinski fell out so badly that – accounts differ wildly – a gun was brought into play. And yet, a decade later, they reunited in the South American jungle to make Fitzcarraldo. This time, their task was to haul a three-storey, 320-ton metal steamship up a mountain – both fictionally, and in reality.

No, they really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Aguirre, Wrath of God is still playing (till Thursday) in a new restoration at the BFI Southbank, Curzon West End, and after that at selected venues nationwide