Articles

Daily Mail - Saturday November 24, 2001
by Glenys Roberts

VIVIAN STANSHALL was the man who inspired Monty python's famous Dead Parrot sketch and invented the infamous radio character 'Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer'. He also came up with the term Cool Britannia way before Tony Blair thought of it. Often dubbed 'the last British eccentric', outrageous Viv was the ginger-haired art student from Essex who was the driving force behind the irreverent Sixties' creation, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

In an era when many famous bands, including The Kinks and The Who, came out of the iconoclastic climate in the art schools, Stanshall wanted to change the world with his bizarre new take on reality. As the Bonzos' lead singer, he was determined to get noticed. He would bellow at the top of his voice in the Underground, or read the telephone directory in public on his way to a gig. He loved to make uncouth bodily noises and would dislocate his shoulder intentionally to draw attention to himself.

Some of his most offensive stunts took place with Keith Moon, wildman drummer of The Who. The two spurred each other I on to wild acts of non-conformity. Once, they dressed up as a pair of Nazis and goose-stepped into a Jewish restaurant singing Deutschland Uber Alles. When the manager of a West Country hotel told them they had to wear a tie to dinner, they came down wearing ties -and nothing else.

Musicians, including The Beatles, loved him. Paul McCartney played with the Bonzos while Viv, with his surreal turn of phrase, helped John Lennon write his lyrics. Disc jockey John Peel said Viv was the one person he would seriously like to have been, while actor Stephen Fry said he set him on the road to a show business career. 'He was one of the most talented, profligate, absurd, infuriating, unfathomable and magnificent Englishmen ever to have drawn breath. , But a new biography of Stanshall, Ginger Geezer, takes issue with this view, questioning whether or not he was the tortured genius his friends fondly imagined or simply a deadbeat old drunkard, whose revoltingly anti-social habits finally killed him at the age of 52.

Viv's darker side was brought out by his lengthy bouts of alcoholic bingeing. All his attempts to reform proved fruitless. When he tried to join Alcoholics Anonymous, he said: 'I met so many nice people there I just wanted to take them out for a drink.'

STANSHALL grew up in Southend. He was a gawky child who had nothing in common with his family. By the age of 13, he had decided that all true artists die young, swapped his Essex tones for a Noel Coward accent, and dressed like a dandy, drinking and smoking. He was soon running with a motorcycle gang and getting into trouble with the police.

Viv certainly had real talent. He played a motley collection of instruments, including the trombone, ukulele and tuba, and was determined to become an artist. In 1961, he joined the Merchant Navy for a brief stint to fund his education at London's Central School of Art. By 1962 he had formed the band and set off with an ever-changing collection of musicians to play a punishing schedule of student gigs and music halls across the country. At first, the eccentric group successfully satirised traditional jazz, pop and rock.

Their 1967 debut album Gorilla (its first track was called Cool Britannia) was launched in Soho's legendary Raymond's Revue Bar, and the Bonzos were soon in the charts with their hit single I'm The Urban Spaceman, produced by Paul McCartney. They were asked to appear in The Beatles' film Magical Mystery Tour and on the trendsetting television show Do Not Adjust Your Set, working with future members of the Monty Python team. But the tensions were already showing.

Viv never understood the rigours of being a professional performer. He hated practicing and his speciality was off-the-cuff jokes. Yet he was also a perfectionist who found it hard to complete projects. An agoraphobic, he sometimes refused to leave the house for days, telling friends he was working when he was actually building rabbit hutches in his back garden. In 1968, Stanshall married Monica Peiser, a fellow student who was already pregnant with their son, Rupert. The couple went to live in the conservative North London neighbourhood of Finchley where, over the years, Viv's peculiarities became evident to his son as he grew up.

Viv cleaned out his tropical fish tanks wearing a wet suit and flippers and loved watching his tarantulas devour their off- spring. He often frightened visitors with his pet poisonous snakes and once fed his best friend a maggot sandwich. Rupert has nightmare memories of his father's DIY sessions in which he would brandish mechanical saws screaming: 'Grrr , this has big teeth, rah rah rah!' Viv would dress as Dracula and once terrified a debt collector by ushering him into a room containing a tank labeled Man-Eating Turtle. The man never returned.

But his basic problem was alcohol. Viv drank so much he would fall off his stool during recording sessions. He never made the connection between his unpredictable behaviour and the way theatre managements were apt to consider the band a student joke. Viv became so neurotic about being unappreciated while on a trip to the United States in 1969 that he was prescribed the tranquilliser Valium. It was to be the start of behavioural problems that would kill him. He came back from the States heading for several nervous breakdowns. Often, his wife would find him lying on the kitchen floor with sweat pouring off him, and indeed, by now, he was showing signs of serious psychological deterioration. In late 1969, he was finally admitted to hospital as a voluntary patient, but was thrown out when a boisterous Keith Moon arrived in a pink Rolls-Royce.

Back home, Viv painted his sitting room black with yellow windows. Then he shaved his head in front of the whole family over Christmas dinner. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band broke up in 1970. But Vivian, despite his problems, embarked on myriad solo projects. He put together several well-received albums with the help of famous names including Billy Fury, David Essex and Steve Winwood, and he acted as narrator on Mike Oldfield's ground-breaking Tubular Bells.

And he still partied non-stop with musicians who loved busking with him in Soho. He and Keith Moon would go into Marks & Spencer, ask to see how strong a pair of trousers was and then, taking a leg each, would tear them apart. They would hire a one-legged actor to follow them into the store to say that a one-legged pair was exactly what he was looking for. When Viv's new African grey parrot died suddenly, it became the inspiration for that landmark Monty python comedy sketch. Viv, outraged by the parrot's premature death, wrote to the Zoological Society inquiring about the cause of death and, in the meantime, stored its body in the kitchen freezer. Later, he told his comedian friends about the bird and the famous Dead Parrot sketch was born.

One of Stanshall's most enduring fans was disc jockey John Peel Viv was a regular on Peel's Radio 1 show, where he brought to life his invention Sir Henry Raw11nson with his servant Old Scrotum. But Viv's inability to take direction irritated most people sooner or later. Whenever he went over the top he would blame it on Valium - he even tried to sue the manufacturers at one point.

Ominously for one with self-destructive tendencies, his hero, by now, was 19th century French poet Gerard de Nerval, whose works gave birth to Surrealism. Viv wrote a song, Dream Gerrard, about Nerval who used to take his pet lobster for walks in Paris and was committed to an asylum before hanging himself aged 47.

By 1976, the pressure of living with an alcoholic madman had become too much for Monica and the couple divorced Ironically, Viv's drinking was aggravated by his success. His income from record royalties meant he coUld take to the bottle and not work at all if he felt like it. When he did work, he was unpredictable and woUld frequently wave his private parts at the audience.

When he moved to a Thames houseboat with bulldog, Mr Bones, and a menagerie of snakes and spiders, he hoped for a freSh start. But Viv was desperatelY depressed. Then, in 1977, a new woman entered his life. Pamela Longellow, whom he always called Ki, was an American with Red Indian ancestry who looked like the pop singer Cher.

For Viv, it was love at first sight. 'This is my woman. I am now complete,' he announced on the day they met. Ki was not sure what she felt about the bizarre figure dressed from top to toe in green velvet with his red beard tied in a knot. Ki was swept off her feet by the sexually-charged pop star. 'He never drew, painted, talked or sang about anything else but sex,' she remembers. 'He was absolutely the most erotic, most sensual being I have ever met. He raised sex to the level of an art form.

Viv loved Ki's support, but life was no less chaotic. He usually walked around the boat nude and, if he happened to be making love to her while their friends visited, he just carried on. Ki said he was so fertile she had about 14 abortions before their daughter, Silky Stanshall, was born in 1979.

A year later, the couple married but they were not to find happiness. Ever since Keith Moon had died of an overdose in 1978, Viv had been consumed with agonising about the meaning of life. Now in his mid-30s, he decided he was no longer young. If, as he had always thought, all artists died young, it must mean he was not a true artist. The contradiction tortured him.

On set in 1979 with Trevor Howard in the film based on a version of his radio creation, Sir Henry Rawlinson, Viv (playing the brother to Howard's Sir Henry) behaved worse than ever. He hid vodka bottles inside his jacket and would place his organ on the table for all to see, saying: 'Morning -needs a bit of exercise.' The film flopped and Vivian returned to writing music with Steve Winwood.

'The whole of the Seventies disappeared in alcohol and Valium' he told Stephen Fry. Ki finally walked out on Viv after he chased her around their houseboat with a machete during Christmas 1982. By then, he cut a very sorry figure. As depression took hold, the former dandy would often stay in bed all day, his sex life reduced to such lurid imaginings that when he wrote about them for a men's magazine they were too obscene to publish.

Sometimes when hunger forced him to leave the boat, he looked so peculiar in his multi-coloured kaftan accompanied by his frightening bulldog that people would stone him.

ALONE on the houseboat with his dog, who regularly fouled the floor, Viv became a danger to himself. He started two fires by smoking in bed, and in the winter of 1984, the ill-maintained boat sank, luckily while he was elsewhere. Though Ki tried to set him up in another boat that could be home, studio, floating theatre and padded cell to Viv, the venture was not a success.

At Christmas 1985 he put on his first full-length musical, the embarrassingly autobiographical Stinkfoot. The show made no money and it fell to his son Rupert to help his father move back to a small flat in Muswell Hill, North London.

From time to time, Viv still enjoyed periods of hectic creativity including one in which he planned, with Roger Daltrey, to make a film of the life of Keith Moon. But once more, because of his drinking it came to nothing. Now a recluse, Viv spent his time watching snooker videos when he was not in drying-out clinics.
Aged 50, he briefly turned to writing advertising slogans as a source of income, then went to Spain to make a film, The Changeling, with Ian Dury . Back in Britain, even his psychiatrists were afraid of his drunken rages. His only 'friends' were the rough sleepers he would take home and who ended up stealing all his belongings. Viv was now so frail that his death wish was soon to be granted. 'I've been cursed with a body that seems to survive everything,' he said. In 1995, he died of smoke inhalation in yet another bedroom blaze.

According to Ki, he was a man who was too sensitive for his own good. 'He had wanted to offer people a new way of looking at life, but the effort killed him.'

GINGER GEEZER:
The Life Of Vivian Stanshall by Lucian Randall and Chris Welch (Fourth Estate, £17.99).