He died twenty years ago this week. He was a clever man, but he could be difficult. Very difficult indeed. However, I was close to Viv when life was proving particularly difficult for him; so don’t judge him from my memories – they’re just a snapshot.
1974. The Bonzos had split up four years earlier and Viv Stanshall was not only at a bit of a loose end, he was broke.
One day, the agency for whom I worked, in that less than rock and roll environment of a mews in Paddington, found its rooms enveloped by a tall, eccentric looking, but immaculately dressed Stanshall. He wanted to go back on the road as a solo artist, but had neither a manager, nor any vague idea of what he would do if he found himself on stage. We took him on immediately.
Now I say he wanted to perform, but I was later to learn that it was, in fact, the very last thing on earth he wished to do.
How fine it would be if this part of the story (or any part of this story) had a happy ending. It doesn’t.
After many assurances that he had a veritable barn-load of new material, Viv turned up on the opening night (Twickenham, I recall) of this series of College and University gigs, overwhelmingly stressed. He told me he wanted to cancel the whole tour, that I didn’t understand (I didn’t) and that he had ‘nothing’.
Somehow he found himself (maybe I shoved him) on the small stage, and with some help from ‘Doctor Footlights’, he cobbled something together. A sort of mish-mash of stories, music hall songs, and bizarre silences where he just stared into the distance, rather in the fashion of a distracted Gussie Fink-Nottle.
It was not good. The audience of, mostly, students, gave him the sort of respect one might engender for a lunatic uncle who has been allowed home for a few hours. They drifted away, in sizeable numbers, to the bar, and the gig ended with Viv ‘playing’ some sort of hosepipe contraction, which he waved above his head, generating a rather unmusical whooshing noise. No encore was requested or given.
If you’re hoping the tour got better, it didn’t. The opening night set the tone for what followed, and it was with a sense of amazement that we found that we had received no demands for the return of his fee (I think it was £125.00 per gig).
1981. I was walking along the towpath of the Thames, just before Shepperton, and there, sitting on a patch of grass next to a houseboat was a familiar figure. Familiar only if someone you knew seven years before, was now looking like the Children’s TV favourite, Catweazle.
I couldn’t help show my surprise. “Viv? Bloody Hell! Bloody Hell!”
“My darling fellow, how are you?” he responded. The words were drawn out, and laboured. He was possibly ‘medicated’, definitely drunk.
We spoke for such a long time, that it began to get gloomy as the afternoon turned into evening. He drank quite a lot. I just sat, and mainly, I listened.
Viv was under the devastating spell of repeated panic attacks. He told me he had been suffering terrifying spells of them when he went out on that tour in 1974. He said he thought he was going to die every night. Literally die, not just in the theatrical sense.
When I got up to go, Viv walked back with me all the way to Chertsey Bridge. He was, essentially, dressed in rags. If you had come across him as he ambled back across Chertsey Meads, you would have run the other way.
Remember I told you this won’t have a happy ending.
I went back to see Viv many times over the next year or so. He was always there. He had nowhere to go. He would always greet me with a “Hie!” That is, not the familiar “Hi” that we say with a smile when greeting a friend, but a dramatic, Shakespearian, “Hie!” as if he were Caesar seeking the attention of Cicero in the Senate.
Viv’s life and lifestyle had descended into chaos. He was mixing medication and drink, in copious amounts.
He was obsessed with, and always wanted to talk about, Stevie Winwood’s ‘Arc Of A Diver’ album. He had been asked to contribute lyrics (he said) for the whole album, and I suspect he also saw some financial light at the end of the tunnel of royalties.
It had, he said, broken his heart and spirit, when, after delivering the lyrics, he found, that with the exception of the title track, all of his lyrics had been dropped, and that he had been replaced by the American songwriter, Will Jennings.
He recited some of his lyrics. They were, in general terms, very esoteric, grandiose, and probably unsuitable for a Stevie Winwood album. Every time I saw him, he returned to this subject with, it felt like, growing despair.
Each time I saw him, he was wearing ragged, not-quite-clothing. A sort of dressing gown/toga/muumuu of depression and melancholy.
It got worse. The houseboat sank, and was destroyed.
He bounced back a little bit, had some moments of clarity, and undertook some work, sporadically.
Then, on 6th March 1995, Viv Stanshall died in a fire, caused by faulty wiring, in his flat in Muswell Hill.
I haven’t walked along the towpath at Shepperton since the 1980s.
Over Christmas 2009, Matthew Parris featured Viv in his splendid series of ‘Great Lives’
Spotify Link – Stevie Winwood – Arc Of A Diver
Spotify Link – Viv with the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – Jollity Farm
Terence Dackombe, March 2015