Peter Straker – A Man Of Many Parts

Peter Straker is someone many bosses of the recording industry just can’t make out. “They think I should be a soul singer or do reggae, just because of my ethnic background. They’re not prepared to accept that I’m into totally different music,” he said, when Gay News interviewed him.

He’s tall and languid. He’d been to a party the night before then gone straight on to the BBC radio programme Open House with Pete Murray as part of the promotion for his new album, Private Parts.

Dressed in black, he curls himself elegantly into an armchair in the darkest corner of the room. Until he switches the lamp on there are times in the failing November light off Holland Park when it seems we were talking into empty space – and that empty space is talking back to us.

He’s just woken up. He’s been sleeping most of the day, after that party and the radio show.

He says: “I came from Jamaica 17 years ago, but that’s history now. Before I went into Hair I was on the road with a band but it was nothing.

“I think I did nine auditions for Hair, it was just nerve-racking and farcical. I didn’t know anything about the musical, I was touring at the time and my manager phoned me and asked me to come back to London for the auditions. I’d done auditions for shows before, so I refused. In the end he came down and dragged me back to London and then the nine auditions started.

“I was in Hair for about 21 months, and I really liked it but I got fed up with it after about a year or so. I got fed up and I had to leave and find something fresh to do.”

Peter Straker is half-actor and half-singer. Hair used both those talents, and it made Peter Straker. Now he has released an amazingly honest album called Private Parts, baring his soul in a way that could never have been done in terms of pop music before Hair.

He says: “Hair, as a musical, has broken so many barriers entertainment-wise and in so many ways. It’s a very ingenuous musical.

“But it touched on every major topic of today – and that was three years ago. We were due to open in July, but that was held up until the Lord Chamberlain’s office (which censored the stage shows) was abolished.

“Apart from the flower-power aspect, it dealt with all the important subjects, like pollution, disarmament and so on. I reckon that’s why Hair has lasted so well, even after the flower-child culture has more or less died.

“Because the critics are so blank in their imaginations they always go back to Hair every time a new musical with rock music opens, like Godspell or Jesus Christ. They always say something like “It’s very nice, but it lacks the zest of Hair.’

“But they don’t go back to Rogers and Hart every time an ordinary musical opens. Critics can only talk about the forms they know, so they classify everything into one of those forms.

“A criticism is just the personal view of one man or one woman, and it forgets the thirty or so actors, umpteen technicians involved and all the money that has been put into a show, and even if it’s a bad show it’s still had a lot of money poured into it.

“In two hours a man is going to come in, and make up a lot of people’s minds about a show – and some of them don’t even sit all the way through a show. I think critics are very over-rated, and, generally, superficial.

“I was the victim of bad reviews with Girl Stroke Boy (Straker’s first movie, and certainly not his last. For G/B he dropped his first name) which wasn’t all bad, although it had many faults.”

Straker played a boy whose boyfriend takes him home. The boyfriend’s parents don’t seem to realise that their son’s girlfriend is a boy. What they object to is her/his being black.

By this time Peter Straker was warming up/waking up. He said: “The reviewers were just trying to make it into a vast racial transvestite mountain. It would have been alright if they had just stuck to the movie’s failings as a comedy. And there were many, which I think were the fault of the director.

“When I read the script it was just hysterical but it didn’t turn out as well as it should have. But it was the chance of a lifetime. A first movie with just three principles, and the others were Joan Greenwood and Michael Hordern.

“We were talking about the movie and they said that I was going to be labeled as one thing or the other because of the part, if I took it. So I said I didn’t mind. The moment I knew I was making the movie I was conscious of what was going to be said about it and me. We have been offered some things to do already, but they have been very strange and I haven’t wanted to do them.

“Girl Stroke Boy opened at the Prince Charles, which didn’t give it much of a chance but it had quite a good run for that cinema, then it turned up again this year as part of a double bill with something called School For Virgins. I thought that was ridiculous, the movies were so different.”

Girl Stroke Boy may have had a rough time with the critics but it has opened new avenues in Peter Straker’s career. “I’ve had quite a lot of other scripts to read, but they all seem to be the same part, and I don’t want to do the same thing twice. It gets boring. Most of the things I have done so far have been seen to be controversial, and I don’t expect anything to happen without a hassle.” Some time ago he released a single of Jacques Brel’s Carousel – which got precisely nowhere commercially. So he went on acting. And Private Parts is his first return to the recording studios since Carousel. It, too, is a spin-off from Girl Stroke Boy.

He says: “Ned Sherrin, who produced Girl Stroke Boy, has a wonderful talent for getting people together, and he introduced me to Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, who were going to write a theme song for the movie for me to sing. But that fell through at the last moment, and we started to talk about the idea that became Private Parts.

“Almost every time I have been auditioned for any part the producers have said: ‘What bag do you see yourself in?’ I don’t. It’s the same with record producers in this country they think I’ve got to sing reggae or soul just because of my ethnic background.

“Private Parts happened this way really. When one is faced with making an album, one is faced with problems of what one is going to record. You can write all your own songs, like Leonard Cohen upwards or downwards, depending on how you see him. Or you can sing a selection of all the old songs everyone else does.

“The third option is to record an album of entirely new material. Ken and Alan said they wanted to do a ‘concept’ album and we started to talk about our ideas – it has taken nearly a year to talk about — about a ‘concept’ (their ideas and my ideas). They had to work very hard because they had to come up with all the material for the album.

“RCA were absolutely marvellous. They let an unknown singer get on with a work like this. And they put a lot of money into the project. And Ken and Alan just gave me the songs and let us get on with recording them. The sound was left up to us.

“Everything on the album has happened to me, but not necessarily in the order the events come up in on the album. We talked about so many things we didn’t have space to put on the album. We have tried to go through a whole pattern from childhood through the first sexual experiences and so on, through bum trips and the death of my father. It’s very personal to me.”

We asked him to expand on this, but all he’d say was that Denis Lemon had found the right word when he called the album ‘explicit’ in Gay News. “That’s the best word I can think of to describe the record.” he said, as the lady from the costumiers arrived to measure him up for the clothes he’s wear at his Queen Elizabeth Hall Concert.

He wanted it in black, he said, handing round the Harrods chocolates. He’d been thinking of having medieval trumpet-style sleeves. Velvet would be nice they agreed, for the coat he’d wear over the black shirt and trousers – trumpet sleeves on the shirt of course. He’d been thinking of having studs on the inside of the coat so that, if it ever came open, it would flash silver. The costumes lady thought this would make the coat too heavy. Why not have a nice beige lining and maybe a row of studs along the inside edge. All was agreed over another Harrods’chocolate.

Peter Straker was getting excited about the concert by now. They’d been having a little trouble with the sets. He’d wanted a big sweeping set, but the orchestra took up so much space,that idea had to go. They were still working on it. Whatever it was going to be, it was going to be dramatic.

He remembered a Dusty Springfield single he wanted to play. He said: “I’m sure it’s here somewhere – I play it almost every day” as he went through a pile of records, looked under the ornaments and moved the cushions.

He said: “Private Parts is just an expression of sexuality. It’s a personal expression of what has happened, although I couldn’t look at a specific thing andsay that it is something that happened at some particular time in some particular place.

“I don’t know whether we will ever come to terms with sex, because it is the most important part of our lives, no matter what form the sex takes.

“The normal thing is for people to grow up and for men and women to go out together and then procreate. Fortunately Hair broke down an awful lot of barriers for me. I tried not to get uptight about anything. The only thing I got all uptight about on the album was when we did the song about my first sexual experience.

“I think it’s on the third track, in the song about best friends in childhood. You know, the best friend you always have, but you can accept your sex with him or her, and don’t see it as anything odd.

“Children have a very different way of seeing things, It’s not innocent, they are aware. If you put a lot of children together they’ll notice that one’s black and another’s yellow and so on, but they don’t care.

“We moved through that and we moved through the first time one is conscious of the opposite sex – and that’s important, because we all go through that, whatever happens afterwards. I’m aware of gay people, but I’m not very aware of the gay organisations.

“The album is very personal because I discussed everything with Ken and Alan. We tried to be explicit – as explicit as Jacques Brel.

“They probably know more about me than anyone else. I welcomed their involvement, because I didn’t want the responsibility of sitting down and writing something for myself to do. Nothing that was written was presented to me as a fait accompli. We’d talk about what they’d written. For instance the track called While You Were Dying is an account of my feelings when my father was dying, and that was possibly the most personal thing to do on record.”

He can’t find that Dusty Springfield single but it was “divine. We’re booking a table for Dusty’s show at the Talk of the Town. Come along.”

Peter Straker is a Scorpio in this Age of Aquarius, and he says: “That’s important, very important.”

Forelock and Foreskin

Fields of Wonder, by Rod McKuen. W.H. Allen, £1.00
Twelve Years of Christmas, by Rod McKuen, W. H. Allen, 80p.

19720901-10Two slender volumes of lyrics from the man who, according to the blurbs, must be something like the eighth wonder of the world. A thousand popular songs he’s written. Academy Nominations have crossed his path and there’s a string of major classical works too. He’s the world’s best-selling poet, it sez here.

The few times I’ve seen Rod McKuen perform (on television) he turned me off like nobody since Michael Parkinson. He was, it struck me, a case where sincerity was at once too much and not enough. Too much to tolerate – that intense gaze beneath the white-blonde forelock, an arm buried elbow deep in sheepdog, the introspective muttering. Not enough – to explain and excuse an inability to sing: to carry a tune, hit a high note, project.

In one of his Christmas verses he writes:-

There was the year I first heard Brel and cried
because I thought I’d never sing that well

Does he think he sings that well now, I wonder. But this seems to be how McKuen casts himself, as a transatlantic Brel, a chanteur in an essentially European tradition. But Brel has musical guts and dynamism, he looks outwards. McKuen looks inwards, the introspective loner in faded jeans, riding the range of the recording studios and babbling, like Falstaff on his death bed, of green fields.

In these sequences McKuen throws himself on the world like an open sore and records the pain and balm that come his way. He is passive from the opening stanza :-

“. . . I travelled not to Tiburon or Tuscany
but battled back and forth
between the breasts and thighs
of those who fancied for a time
my forelock and my foreskin.”

Always he is the innocent: “Fields of wonder/ are the places God goes walking,/ I found them by mistake and I’ve trespassed.” And he makes his position clear:-

Love I wore
As open as a wound
a mad mistake I know
but love, like Lent,
only comes to those of us
who still believe.

We are not, in all honesty, so far away from the wonderful world of Patience Strong (“A smile is a light in the window of the face that shows that the heart is at home”) and even in pain the quiet, consoling voice preludes sleep. He has added a tentative awareness of sexuality to this simplistic view of life (“I have in common with all men/a lump in swimming trunks”), but it seems a faintly embarrassing itch, lost beneath sententious, didactic clumsiness when the message is rammed home.

Only a few of these collected verses are intended as lyrics for music. But they are often ridden with the kind of imagery that sounds probing when murmured through a microphone but which fails to survive reading: “There were fences that I leapt/and some that I slid under,/even when I knew I’d tear my pants.” Now and then, though, McKuen does come up with the goods as here: “The sawdust made/by two lives rubbed together/is as useless in the cover up/of changing feelings/as the kind spread thinly/on the floors of butcher shops …”

Twelve Years of Christmas is a collection of annual messages to his friends between 1958 and 1969. They are summings up of the past year, very personal and idiosyncratic. Ironically, their very intimacy makes them far more immediate and interesting than the pomposities of the bigger sequences. Here, in such verses as The Jazz Palace and El Monte Rod McKuen does indeed nearly approach the quality of Jacques Brel. The style of these Christmas messages is less effortful, the lines more fluent, the experiences more relevant than in Fields of Wonder.

All Over The Rainbow

David Bowie at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park

19720901-12The Rainbow, after being given a new lease of life by the Chrysalis agency, was the scene for David Bowie to give his most impressive concert to date. David, after being talked about in the musical press and pop circles generally as the new ‘Superstar’ of rock, finally proved he was all, if not more, than people had been saying about him.

Apart from his excellent backing group, Lindsay Kemp and his theatre troupe joined David on stage. The stage incidentally had raised platforms erected on it, which were used extensively by the actors and the star throughout the performance.

And Wow, what a show. David Bowie is now a true ‘superstar’; he lives and acts the part completely on stage. He knows exactly what is expected of him and delivers his ‘superstar’ act perfectly. David’s knowledge of the theatre and long association with the pop world make for a type of professionalism that is all too often sadly lacking in the top rock acts of today. In comparison Little Richard should retire, and Mick Jagger should take a few lessons.

Lindsay Kemp’s involvement added another dimension to the show. Lindsay, this country’s best mime artist, radiated love, hate, madness and all the other emotions and fears that come to mind with David’s music and words. A song like The Width Of A Circle, which has been written about in Cream magazine as ‘a Dantesque farago of homosexual schizophrenia’, becomes frighteningly alive, reaching out beyond just the music with the aid of the scores and David’s performance.

As well as singing the most notable songs from his last two albums, on RCA, David used material from his soon to be re-released The Man Who Sold The World album on Mercury, and even going further back into his recording career to sing the classic Space Oddity. Also his rendition of Jacques Brel’s My Death a song that few rock stars would be brave enough to attempt, was one of the highlights of the evening.

If you didn’t see David Bowie at the Rainbow, you missed a remarkable performance by a truly original artist. Whether the gay aspects of his act are just part of the show, or a real part of the world of David Bowie, are unimportant. His defiance of accepted social conventions and the purity streak that runs through all levels of society, including the young and the supposedly aware and informed, does much to break down the barriers that stop so many from accepting and understanding. David Bowie is just what the World needs.

The supporting band at the Rainbow concert was Roxy Music, a bizarre collection of musicians, playing even stranger music. They derive their sound from all forms and styles of music, but what you end up hearing is quite unlike anything you have ever heard before. The music and songs are also delivered in a somewhat camp way, one song being introduced “for all you sailors”.

The weird attire and hairstyles the group wear also help to stop them being categorised. Andrew Mackay (saxophone and oboe) had his hair in two large ringlets on the top of his head, and the antics and silver pants of Eno (synthesiser and tapes) kept the audience’s eyes at times riveted on him, whilst the performance of Bryan Ferry (lead vocals and piano), looking like a refugee from the 50’s/60’s period of rock, was amazing.

It took a little time for the group to break through to the audience, but by about their third or fourth number the crowded theatre was theirs, entranced by the wall of sound being created on the stage.

If you have a chance to see Roxy Music, and you’re interested in 1972 experiments in rock music, make sure you don’t miss them. Have a listen to their album, Island, first – it will help you prepare.

GAYROCK

David Bowie, in concert at The Royal Festival Hall.

05-197208xx-6There comes a time when each of us has his turn to be right. But let me put that truism in perspective.

This year your reporter said this was going to be the year of “gay rock” And the year when David Bowie was going to happen.

He said it last year. And the year before. By now his ancients are used to dismissing these portentous statements by “Just because you fancy David Bowie” and that sort of thing.

This year Alice Cooper is getting friendly with snakes, the Kinks are living up to their name, the grounds of Elton John’s Honky Chateau have turned into a camp-site. And Elton and Rod Stewart camped around with John Baldry on Top of the Pops.

Most important, Bowie is back in the top twenty singles for the first time since Space Oddity (1969) and he’s well up in the album charts.

It’s good to be right. And that brings us to the event.

THE EVENT: Saturday July 8th Bowie played at London’s Royal Festival Hall in a benefit for the Friends of the Earth’s Save The Whale campaign fund.

Bowie and Mott the Hoople were going to be equally billed. But Mott insisted on doing their full two hour act, which, with Bowie, makes the thing too long, so Mott drop out.

That leaves the boy from Brixton at the top of the bill. And makes the concert something of a coming out for him. And of a gay event.

Two weeks before the concert you couldn’t get a seat in the RFH for deviant practices or money. Your reporter got in early with a couple of quid and there he was just a few yards out from the stage and enough amplification equipment to set up a small to medium sized radio station.

Kuddly Ken Everett is compere. Introduces Marmalade and the JSD Band, who replace Mott. It seems podgy Scots boys with glasses are in this week. They get a reasonable reception. But we’re waiting for the Star.

The crowd isn’t noticeably campy, even though the after shave lies slightly heavier on the air than at most concerts at the RFH.

Then Ken Ev (“I even went a bit gay” – Nova) in a fetching jumpsuit of blue denim with massive while buttons showing how he’d got in and how he meant to get out says he’s fought his way through the feather boas to the star’s dressing room.

“He insists on introducing himself in about four minutes time. So here is the second greatest thing, next to God . . . David Bowie.” says Kuddly Ken.

The speakers boom out the Moog martial version of the ‘Song of Joy’ from ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

The capacity plus crowd claps in time and in the dark as people sneak across the stage in the murk.

It ends. A single spot picks out a thin, almost drawn, jester. Red hair, white make-up and a skin tight red and green Persian carpet print space suit. All this on top of red lace up space boots.

“hello. I’m Ziggy Stardust and these are the Spiders from Mars.”

More lights and we have Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey.

A few seconds and we have the mind-fucking electric music of Bowie from the amps matched by the words that make Burroughs look like a slouch.

And on stage, Bowie rampant.

Until now, Bowie’s never been a star, but he’s studied some of the best, like Garbo, Presley, and now he’s on top he knows what to do.

Sometimes he plays guitar, sometimes just sings with his eerie thin voice, but sometimes that voice grows. Bowie is the understudy who’s been waiting in the wings for years. Finally his Big Day comes, and he’s got every step, every note, every voice-warble right. A star is born.

He’s a showman alright. Even the pubescent girls who’d spent their Saturday-morning-at-Woolies wages on a seat, or crowded into the gangways, screamed.

He says, “Tonight we have a surprise for you”. And everyone knows what it is. Lou Reed. The NME and the other pop papers carried that secret during the week in inch-and-a-half caps.

“Tonight we’re going to do a number by the Cream – Free.” Anti-climax swamps the hall.

But the Bowie voice is haunting in the few lines of words at the beginning of the number. Then he leaves it to the spiders to get on with it. They do – talented musicians that they are. Strobe lights on the gantry over them slow then into a far from silent movie, one frame at a time.

Then our David’s back. Now he’s in white satin space suit that leaves only how he managed to get into it to the imagination.

Garbo on Mars

And, off-hand, he says: “If you’ve seen us before, you’ll know we do some numbers by the Velvet Underground. And tonight we have, for the first on any stage in England, Lou Reed.”

And the Velvets’ former leading light bounds on in black to match Bowie’s white.

We get a set of Velvets numbers. David plays to Lou.

Lou plays to Mick. Mick plays to David.

While they’re having fun on stage there’s enough electricity generated in the RFH to keep the national grid pulsing high voltage goodies all over the land.

They end, and the front several hundred of the 3,000-plus crowd mobs the stage. Time for the expected encore.

Ziggy and the spiders reappear and do ‘Suffragette City’, orange handouts with their pictures on, explode from the stage.

In this hour-and-a-bit Bowie has passed from wild electric rock to simple ballads, such as ‘Space Oddity’ and a Jacques Brel poem, ’The Port of Amsterdam’ and back to wild electric rock.

His words span concepts from science-fiction and the coming of a superrace to sexual liberation.

And that’s what a lot came to hear, your reporter supposes. For Bowie is the totem of gay-rock. Lou Reed a “bisexual chauvinist pig.’

But more important is the little girls who came to scream at Bowie’s “bump” — as the groupy girls say – get turned on to sexual liberation.

And we all had a bloody good time.

David Bowie is probably the best rock musician in Britain now. One day he’ll become as popular as he deserves to be. And that’ll give gay-rock a very potent spokesman.

After the event:

Reporters in state of shock, deafened. So easily put off making prearranged backstage tryst with the Bowie circus by unfriendly lady from Friends Of the Earth, who’s busy being seen with the Stars.

“Thank you so much, Kenny, it was wonderful” Kisses the ducking Ev. Lady from F O E is another reason for mysogeny.

So back to the records.

  • Brief discography of albums:
  • ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ (Deram. deleted) but much of the material is on the low – price ‘World Of David Bowie’ (Decca).
  • ‘David Bowie’ (Philips, deleted).
  • ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (Mercury deleted) ‘One Stop. Dean Street. W.1 has some U.S. import copies of this., Bowie’s most powerful album, at £2.99.
  • ‘Hunky Dory’ (RCA)
  • ‘The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (RCA) his latest is equally best. Treat yourself. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ (Side two, last track) is a wow.