Friday, September 17, 2010

Miss Shirley Bassey

As the title of this biography suggests it is the young Shirley Bassey that particularly interests author John Williams. This is an exploration of the pre-kitsch, pre-national treasure Bassey - the black and white version.

Digging up the singer's past must have been a tricky business. If one were to organise a Shirley Bassey guided tour of Cardiff there would be little in terms of bricks and mortar to point out. It's not just key buildings that have disappeared but entire streets and districts. And yet the 'Girl from Tiger Bay' mythology still resonates in the Welsh capital. An enduring rags-to-riches tale of a black girl who sang her way out of poverty.

Williams begins his investigation by focusing on Bassey's mother, an extraordinary woman from a mining village in Cleveland. To say that she was unconventional would be an understatement. Her first five children had five different fathers - three of them black. It's no surprise to learn, then, that by 1926 she had gravitated to the one place in Britain where a mixed-race family might have a shot at a decent life - Tiger Bay, Cardiff.

Williams outlines the social history of the area - a tough sailortown, filled with music and brothels, that owed its existence to the world's hunger for coal. A district that experienced a race riot in 1919, but was also a haven for seamen from around the globe. One such sailor who put down roots in this unlikely global village was Bassey's father, a Nigerian stoker.

Unlike many biographers Williams doesn't adopt an omniscient position, stitching together episodes from his subject's life and offering them as some kind of truth. Instead he presents his research to the reader - usually in the form of newspaper cuttings and interviews - before providing us with an analysis. If he is unsure of events he will say so. It's an honest approach and by showing us the guts, as it were, of his investigations he is inviting readers to form their own opinions.

One hitherto unknown fact turned up by Williams is that Bassey's father was convicted of a sex crime and deported. Unknown, at least, outside the tight-knit community of Cardiff Docks. There is, of course, a moral question here of whether the author should reveal such a scandalous titbit. As the information came to light during his researches, I think the revelation is entirely valid. More importantly it sheds light on why the Bassey family moved from Tiger Bay to the white working-class district of Splott. They were escaping the shame.

Despite such inauspicious beginnings Williams engagingly charts Bassey's rise from Splott tomboy to singer in local pubs and clubs (some more legal than others). As an underage singer Bassey would be spirited away from Tiger Bay drinking dens whenever the cops came sniffing around. Showbiz and criminality, of course, have always been natural bedfellows. Later in her career she would be photographed with London gangster Reggie Kray. She even flogged the twins one of her old motor cars.

Bassey's move to London and her rise up the showbiz ladder is a particularly fascinating part of her story. It's a world of smoky cabaret clubs, and small-time Simon Cowells looking for talent to exploit. At each progression in her career the circling sharks and would-be Svengalis get bigger. Bassey, though, was streetwise enough to appreciate her own value as a commodity and was never afraid to fight her corner. Television appearances boosted her popularity further as did a burgeoning recording career.

Suddenly she was famous. These days Bassey is guarded about her private life but in the first flush of success she was remarkably candid in newspaper and magazine interviews. Whilst not quite using them as confessionals she certainly unburdened herself in print. Thus we find her fretting about her bad complexion; confiding that she had been jilted; and offering the world her opinion that she was a bit "weird".

Although she would perform for royalty and even the Kennedys, Bassey also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ken Dodd and Kenny Lynch. Williams has a keen eye for such absurdities. Footnotes and asides point up many comical details such as the Sunday newspaper report on Bassey written in jazzed-up Kerouacian prose. The author, however, never stoops to belittling his subject, and by the end of the biography Williams has moved from an agnostic position to declaring himself a firm admirer of the young Shirley Bassey.

*Miss Shirley Bassey by John L Williams is published by Quercus and is on sale now. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Peter Wyngarde in Cardiff

Here's a nice advert (from 1974) trumpeting Peter Wyngarde's visit to Mackross, a long-since defunct department store in Cardiff. Wyngarde you may remember starred in such classics of '60s and '70s telly as Department S and Jason King. He also regularly popped up in the likes of The Saint, The Champions, The Troubleshooters and The Avengers. Although often portrayed on TV as an arch womaniser (partly inspiring the character of Austin Powers) Wyngarde was, in fact, homosexual. He was for many years the lover of actor Alan Bates. Just a few months after his visit to the mens & boys department of Mackross, he was convicted of gross indecency following a regrettable incident in a gentlemen's convenience at Gloucester bus station. Fans of the camp Anglo-French actor will know that he once recorded an album simply called, Peter Wyngarde. It has subsequently been reissued on CD under the more lurid title of, When Sex Leers its Inquisitive Head.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Talking of modern-day Welsh pop cultural legends, Gruff Rhys’s Patagonian documentary-cum-road movie, Separado!, is currently doing the round of art-house movie theatres. Shamefully I haven’t managed to catch it yet but the trailer is a thing of great beauty, so I’m sure the full-length version will be even better. In the past there have been several documentaries made on the Welsh diaspora to South America but I doubt any of them have been quite as cosmic as Separado!.

Upcoming screenings of Separado! in Wales: Theatr Mwldan, September 25, 27-29; Hay-on-Wye Festival, September 24-26; Aberystwyth Arts Centre, September 25-29; Galeri Caernarfon, October 20; Swansea University, November 2; Theatre Clwyd Cymru, November 4.

Mr Nice Trailer

This is the trailer for Mr Nice, starring Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny and David Thewlis. As we all know the film is based upon the autobiography of former international drugs smuggler, Howard Marks. Looks promising, and nice to hear a Welsh accent so prevalent in a mainstream movie.

*The film is scheduled for release on October 8.

T H Parry-Williams - Uneasy Rider

Think of motorcycles in popular culture and you will probably conjure up images of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper astride their customised choppers in Easy Rider (1969). Those of a more literary (and philosophical) persuasion might consider Robert M Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Or maybe one of Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s riotous biker memoirs, such as Hell’s Angel (2001), is more your cup of tea. Politicos, no doubt, will be quick to reference Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries wherein Marxism collides with road-tripping cool.

In Wales, writer and academic T H Parry-Williams was way ahead of the game. His motorcycle essay, KC 16, was first published in the literary magazine Y Llenor all the way back in 1922. The title is derived from the number plate of his motorbike (see pic), a Douglas 2 flat-twin model. By penning cultural essays, as well as the more typical poetry, the Sorbonne-educated Welsh-language writer was unusual in Wales (he still is!) and something of a pioneer.

*And while we're on the subject, why not check out the '92 video for Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manics.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jack Bond on Jane Arden

Sources at the splendidly subversive Vice UK have informed me that they've just released an interview with film-maker Jack Bond. Might I be interested? Dead right. Bond was the lover and collaborator of Jane Arden - actress, playwright, film-maker, and possibly the coolest woman to ever come out of Pontypool. Arden took her own life in 1982. Bond explains why he withdrew their avant-garde films from circulation soon after her death. And why he allowed the BFI to reissue them again last year. He also gives us an insight into Dali in New York, their documentary on the great Surrealist artist. Arden's confrontations with Dali during the film are absolutely priceless. The dude who interviews Bond is from The Klaxons. Whoever they might be.

*The above YouTube is just a trailer - you can see the Jack Bond interview in full here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Alvin Langdon Coburn in North Wales

Wales has long been drop-out central for artists and seekers of odd utopias. One of my favourites is American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966). He is famed for his pioneering symbolist photos, heavily influenced by Japanese art. His Men of Mark books of portraiture are also well-known. These included studies of Henri Matisse, Mark Twain, Auguste Rodin, Theodore Roosevelt and many other greats of his day. In addition Coburn is noted for his vortographs. What may look like camera-shake to you and I was, in fact, a conscious attempt to bring to photography the aesthetic values of Vorticism – then in vogue in the art world. His Ezra Pound vortographs (see pic) are perhaps his most famous.

In 1930 he did something strange. He gave up his Hammersmith home, destroyed almost all of his negatives, donated what was left of his photography collection to the Royal Photographic Society, and moved to Harlech to pursue an interest in Freemasonry. Maybe it was the recent death of his mother; or the loss of his treasured Pianola rolls in a flood (don’t ask!), that prompted this radical break with his past.

Coburn was actually no stranger to north Wales. He first visited Harlech in 1916 at the invitation of George Davison, a photographer and philanthropist. He was also really interested in Druidism. In fact in 1927 he was made an Honorary Ovate of the Welsh Gorsedd. He took the Welsh ceremonial name of Mab-y-Trioedd (Son of the Triads). During his stay in Wales he balanced his esoteric spiritual quests with more mundane activities. In 1935, for example, he became a lay reader for the Church in Wales. He’d practically lost all interest in photography but did take some snaps of dolmens and standing stones – many of them in Wales - circa 1937. During WW2 he turned his home into a 15 bed hospital and was appointed honorary secretary of the Merionethshire Joint County Committee of the British Red Cross Society. It’s interesting to note that while Coburn was performing his civic duties, his former sitter, Ezra Pound, was doing propaganda broadcasts for Benito Mussolini.

After the war he moved to Colwyn Bay where he continued his interest in Freemasonry until his death in 1966. He died at Awen, Ebberstone Road East, Rhos-on-Sea. There is apparently a commemorative plaque on the house. A collection of his papers can be found at Colwyn Bay library.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Carlton B Morgan on Beefheart's Welsh Gigs

Carlton B Morgan gives us his thoughts on Captain Beefheart’s three concerts in Wales, as mentioned in a previous blog entry:

With reference to your item on what is known in certain circles as "John French’s Bumper Book of Bitterness and Bullshit":-

SWANSEA, BRANGWYN HALL, 1974: It was the so-called "Tragic Band", hastily assembled country rock session-players backing a Captain who appeared to have fallen into a creative black hole. I have had my heart broken three times, twice by women and once when I saw this lot. I got over the women.

CARDIFF UNIVERSITY, 1975: Though on the previous tour he seemed to have totally lost it, Beefheart returned to form, like no one except maybe Muhammad Ali. Gone was the flirting with AOR, back were proper Magic Band members Winged Eel Fingerling and Drumbo (the pickup band had ludicrous names like "Dean Smith") amended by Zappa sidemen, firing on all cylinders.

"Does Richard Burton come here?" he asked from the stage. "Does he bring his wife with him? You know what his wife says? Success is the best deodorant!"

Before the gig, I stood and watched him draw in thick black felt pen all over Cardiff University toilet doors. It got washed off next day by cleaning ladies. They weren’t to know. A friend stood behind him and thought "I could take his hat off". The Captain turned and said "don’t even think about it" then carried on drawing.

CARDIFF UNIVERSITY, 1980: The first UK date of the last UK tour, and not a little historic. By now all of the original Magic Band members had been replaced by new young whippersnappers who had been fans of Trout Mask Replica. CB seemed sorta grouchy onstage; despite having a band who had grown up with his finest work and would obey his whims: he no longer came amongst us doing us drawings and psychic tricks. At the time of this gig I was working for those robbing bastards Welsh Water and they gave me advance notice of some work function that was taking place on the evening of this gig. I told them I couldn’t attend, and why. Do you know what they said? They said "do you have to go?"

That is not quite the stupidest thing that has ever been said to me but it is a close 2nd.

*Very special thanks to Carlton B Morgan for these eye-witness accounts. Carlton is the co-author of the satirical cartoon collection, Great Pop Things, as well as being a musician and performer in his own right. The above photo is an advert for Captain Beefheart’s 1980 gig at Cardiff University.