London—”I think he wants to miss that plane,” complains the minicab driver, an Engelbert Humperdinck lookalike in a leather jacket, drumming impatiently on the steering wheel. The plane is due to take off in 40 minutes, and the road there is all but blockaded with holiday traffic.
Meanwhile, inside a nearby liquor store, the missing passenger, a tall, red-bearded man in a big-checked yellow, brown and orange urban lumber jacket, black trilby and sockless tennis shoes, is reasoning with the aging manager who keeps shaking his head no. In a few seconds, the red-bearded shopper is back in the taxi. “The fucker wouldn’t take a check,” he says. “I could have throttled him.” The cab moves on.
But only for a block or so. A shout brings another halt, and the passenger is out again and into another liquor store. A banker’s card is flashed. And a membership card of the Zoological Society of London. A moment of doubt. Then—success! The passenger lopes back to the cab with a well-filled brown paper bag.
Settling back in the seat, Vivian Stanshall cries: “Drive on!” and takes a long swig from a flat pint bottle of something called Coruba Jamaican Rum. “Really disgusting,” he says with the smile of a man who has tasted truly revolting booze in his day. Then Stanshall, formerly head loony with the Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band and currently fronting something even more amorphous called Human Beans, relaxes as the taxi continues its race to catch the 5:10 BEA flight to Edinburgh.
An inspired kamikaze drive, a mad, suitcase-swinging dash through Heathrow corridors and we barely make the plane. Viv slips into a seat next to a blonde in a fur-trimmed coat, takes another swig of the deplorable rum, cracks a pop-top beer can from the brown paper bag and begins discussing the possibility of a plane crash.
“I always figure,” he says, “that there’s not much I could do in case of a crash. But my idea is that if we do crash, I want to be drinking and fucking a stewardess at the same time. So whenever I board a plane, I make sure that I’ve got some booze and look for the prettiest stewardess. Then, if the pilot announces that we’re in trouble, I’m all set for action.”
That taken care of, Stanshall explains that he’s going up to Edinburgh to help a friend record an LP. The friend is Mike Hart, a Liverpool singer-songwriter who drifted up to the Edingurgh Festival last summer and stuck there. Famous as an eccentric, Hart used his own blood to decorate the cover of his last LP, Mike Hart Bleeds.
“It’s not a convenient time to shoot off to Edinburgh,” Stanshall says. There’s too much to get done at home, but, shit, why not? I like Mike. I like what he does. He’s seemingly sober about two hours a day, but what he does he does with incredible feeling. And he’s always been a good friend.”
The money is not big for this recording gig. On top of travel expenses, Viv might get five pounds ($12) for his services. In his green-tartan plastic carry-all in the cargo compartment of the plane are the tools of his trade: a ukelele, a recorder and a leather anklet with bells.
In Edinburgh, we head straight for Chez Fred, an Edwardian theatrical hangout in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. Mike Hart is waiting at a table near the door with a shopping bag full of dirty, tattered pieces of paper and a couple of reels of recording tape. This, he explains, is the LP they’re doing the next morning.
“You know,” Mike, a bearded elf with heavy, sleepy eyes and a Liverpudlian accent with Scots overtones, tells Stanshall cheerfully, “we haven’t done a stroke of rehearsal yet.”
“Let’s get with it then,” says Stanshall, full of London energy. “At least let me know the chords to the songs I’m doing. I’m sick of jamming.” Then he sets out to try to cash another check.
But Mike is not ready to rehearse anything yet. He still hasn’t finished gathering the ragtag band of actors, music students and local session musicians which will help him make his LP. Right now, he’s waiting at Chez Fred for Krista, a big Texas girl, reputedly the great-great granddaughter of Geronimo, who is supposed to take some part in the recording session. No sign of Krista, and from time to time Mike disappears to try telephoning other missing members of the recording team.
“No luck,” he reports every time.
Bored spitless, Vivian talks of his early life. He was born 28 years ago in South-end-on-Sea, a working-class resort. “My ancestors were quite base, really,” he says, “but by years of bloody hard work my father made himself a company secretary, and then a director of God knows how many companies. He was determined to pull us out of the working class.” He adds unemotionally: “Of course, he’s killing himself with work now; he’s a machine.”
Stanshall went to a private primary school and then to a convent school. “There I was taught a lot of perverted, one-sided rubbish by nuns who were otherwise quite OK, and I got by as the clever boy who built matchbox galleons they could display on Open Days.” It was at that school, at the age of 11, that Viv remembers his first day of glory.