Sunday, March 05, 2006

Book: Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall; Biographies in general.

Life and times of Bonzo Front Man, Troubled Genius and Great British Eccentric.

Reading this reminded me of why I don’t read many biographies any more. They are always depressing. The main character always dies. And always right at the end, just when you want something happy to happen.

It's my fault for only reading biographies of people I admire. You are emotionally connected more than in a novel because this person was real and you have (usually) experienced their work or seen them. Maybe even touched them or perhaps thrown your underwear at them. (Perhaps I should only read biographies of people like Adolf Hitler, so when at the end he shoots himself, defeated in a concrete bunker, I won't feel that sad about it.)

I guess the problem could also be circumvented by only reading biographies of the living. But there’s no point in doing that. Who wants to read an unfinished book?

There is a big difference between the structure of most novels and most biographies. In a novel there is a struggle ending in triumph. Most biographies have struggle, followed by a period of success, then usually a slow fade with even more struggling then tragic death. In a novel, the text moves towards the ultimate climax. In a biography, the climax comes somewhere in the middle, and the whole story works towards the death of the subject. All very morbid.

No matter when it occurs, the death is always tragic. No artist dies without any more work left in them. So even when they die peacefully in their sleep at 104, if you like their work, it is still a tragic death before their time.

Because of this, the book I mentioned in the title has been sitting around on my shelf waiting to be read for well over a year. A book co-written by someone on whose floor I have slept, about someone I greatly admire. It had to be read sometime.

There are lots of people these days, some of them on the surface not ignorant people, who don't know who Vivian Stanshall is. It is understandable, he has been dead for ten years and in the latter part of his life did not enjoy widespread success. In fact, not since the early 70s has he been involved with anything that has reached a mass market. Back when he was singer and musician in The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band. If that doesn't ring a bell, then your education has a very large hole in it. So, in any case, read on dot dot dot.


One of the supposedly searching questions people ask is "what time would you go back to if you could go back to any time?" Most people seem to say thins like, "back to the time of Jesus and see what he was really like," or "back to the Tsarist times and see what Rasputin was really like," or "go back to the dawn of time and see what came first, the chicken or the egg."

For me, History is History. It doesn't matter what Jesus was like because it won't change the popular mythology of the man today and it would just be frustrating to know he really was just an earnest rabbi with gift for communicating to crowds and not a real son of a god.

I would want to go back to just beyond my lifetime. To an early Bonzo Dog Band gig and experience the sublime mayhem of them in their prime. To see the delightful silliness and awesome invention of creative people enjoying the freedoms of the age.

People say that I am odd to want to do this when I could go back to the time of Napoleon and see if he died of natural causes or wallpaper poisoning.


The book goes into great detail in certain periods, such as the well-researched childhood years, but almost seems to skip through the art-school and early Bonzo Dog years. But then this was the late 1960s, and as they say, anyone who remembers the sixties wasn't really there. And all the Bonzos and everyone around them were really there. Big time.

What I feel I really missed was a good feeling of what it was really like to be in the studio with the Bonzos and even more of an impression of what those early gigs were like. That is not to say they are missing from the book, just not there in enough detail to satisfy my obsessive desire to relive what I can’t.

Periods later in life are better documented, although there are years and years that are practically missing. But this is what happens you drink and are addicted to tranquilisers. All famous drunks have months, weeks and years missing from their diaries. Periods where their friends have no idea what they are up to, but complete strangers have outlandish anecdotes.

Some biographies manage to pin down their subject and get you into their mind. The mind of Viv Stanshall is a vast and bewildering place and defies exploration without some sort of marvellous Heath Robinson / Rube Goldberg / Roger Ruskin Spear contraption probably shaped like a mechanical fish holding a basket of monkeys. As the great, late John Peel put it, "I fear that a single one of Viv's thoughts would blow my damn brains out." All we can really do is list what people remember and what Viv said and latch on to the infrequent insights he and others can give us. And this is where the book does very well, in its use of anecdotal and autobiographical quotations to get a glimpse into the troubled mind of a man plagued with raw genius. All the time treating the subject with respect, but not hiding the warts at all.

This is the sad story of man who spent his life fighting back the deluge of ideas in his mind sometimes drinking them away, sometimes honing them into a body of work which veers from oddness to sublime genius. It is a warm yet depressing book that I would recommend to anyone who has been delighted by The Intro and the Outro, tickled by Tent or awed by Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. Unless, of course, like me, you find biographies depressing.

Rating: Three oscillating pallindromiduses with wishtastically good rhinoledging up