Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall by Chris Welch and Lucian Randall

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Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall by Chris Welch and Lucian Randall

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A fitting monument to a great British eccentric, chronicling the wayward genius of this true original. As Stanshall himself said “ I can't say whether I see myself as a comedian, singer or entertainer. I think I'm a plumber”.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: October 2002
Publisher: Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN: 978-1841156798

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Redheads, they say, feel more pain than the rest of us. They may even have a layer of skin too few. However literally true this might be, it certainly seems to be the case for Vivian Stanshall. As his second wife says in this excellent book, “There's nothing between him and all the sensations the world has to give us”.

Vivian (real name Vic) was born in 1943 to Londoners Vic (real name Vivian) and Eileen (real name Eileen). He is best known as singer of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. The Bonzos, as they were invariably known, were an anarchic adornment to the late 1960s English pop scene. Arty but never serious, they veered between recreations of obscure 1920s jazz songs and straight pop. Their stage act involved huge masks, mad machines and explosions. Lots of explosions.

In its accounts of those Bonzos years, Ginger Geezer is at its most entertaining and joyous. After briefly despatching Stanshall's childhood and teens in Southend, the authors – former Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch, and music researcher Lucian Randall – plunge into endless anecdotes from Viv's former bandmates. The pranks played on managers and the public are, in the oft-repeated but rarely true cliché, laugh-out-loud funny.

As the presiding genius behind this mayhem, Stanshall was never happier than in front of an audience. Whether on stage or in the street, however outrageous his garb and behaviour, he had to provoke a reaction. It is a testament to the man's charm that, despite his often stunning rudeness and dubious taste, his victims rarely took offence. For example, he and The Who's drummer Keith Moon thought nothing of marching into the pubs and clubs of Soho dressed in SS uniforms, yet seldom provoked hostility.

There's further evidence of Viv's charisma in the number of friends who line up to pay testament to his many contradictions: the ability to be casually cruel, but often kind – for instance he once spent an uninterrupted three days at the bedside of the injured son of a friend. Occasionally mean, he was also always ready to support fellow artists. And, eccentric though he was, he did have a conventional side, maintaining a respect for religion and for the sort of cheesy acts with whom the Bonzos appeared in scores of northern working men's clubs.

By showing us all of these facets of his character, Ginger Geezer gives a real feel for his complexities and helps us understand how he developed, functioned, and then fell apart.

Because fall apart he did. And Stanshall's story, from the latter days of the Bonzos onwards, frequently follows a tragic trajectory. Under pressure from a hectic tour schedule, the terminally undisciplined singer and band started to collapse during a series of gigs in America. Doctors at the time doled out Valium like Smarties. Thus Viv's lifetime addiction to tranquilisers began, fatally combined with a growing dependence on booze. It could really only have one end.

However, between the demise of the Bonzos and his own drunken death in a house fire in 1995, Viv's erratic career produced several enduring gems – stage shows, radio broadcasts, solo and band performances and recordings, lyric writing for Steve Winwood, paintings and woodcarvings, one or two brief TV films and an unexpected but lucrative late career in advertising.

True, as the authors say, he rarely produced such a coherent body of work as when he had the framework of a band to corral his chaotic genius. But his greatest creation, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, was yet to come. Despite hair-tearing exasperation, John Peel's producer at Radio 1, John Walters was one of the few people able to control Stanshall enough to enable him to produce this series of comic gems, first broadcast on Peel's show in 1975, and culminating in a feature film starring Trevor Howard.

Sadly, untrammelled by the creative discipline of a group or a producer, Stanshall's life, like his rusty hulk of a Thames houseboat, often struggled to stay afloat. Despite the ministrations of an amazingly loyal group of friends, and munificent support from the 1960s rock royalty (who indulged Stanshall as a kind of court jester), his addiction to drink and pills landed him in hospital on many occasions.

His second marriage to the hippyish American Writer Pamela (also known as Ki) Longfellow, briefly set him back on the rails. The restoration of a boat, moored in Bristol docks and christened the Old Profanity Showboat, provided a focus and a venue for Viv and Ki to collaborate on the successful musical Stinkfoot.

But ultimately he was too wayward, too sensitive, too insecure to hold together his massive personality and fizzing creative energy. He fell prey to a group of local drunks near his Muswell Hill flat who systematically stole from him. Whether he was somehow complicit in this, and even in the nature of his demise at the cruelly early age of 51, is debated here but never proven.

Skilfully assembled and never less than compelling, Ginger Geezer is a fitting, affectionate monument to Stanshall's life and work. As sad as it is hilarious, it fulfils an important role in bringing together in one place the disparate strands of what and who he was, showing the magical and monstrous sides of his character, but rarely judging. It shows just what a compelling character he was, inspiring loyalty and affection, frustration and anger in equal measure. In the end it leaves you feeling that, although his life may have been a tragedy, it would be a far greater one if his massive contribution and unique character were ever forgotten.

If you like this, try:

Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch

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