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Vivian Stanshall: Chief Bonzo Dog Turns Human Bean

The doo-dah days of a music eccentric

Vivian Stanshall

English singer, artist, comedian and writer Vivian Stanshall performs on stage at the Camden Arts Festival at The Roundhouse, London, April 26th, 1971.

Michael Putland/Getty

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.

“I had written a play about Robin Hood in which Maid Marion was a bird I rather fancied. In the play I got to kiss her, but the main thing was that I actually got to fire an arrow. For one moment I could fire an arrow perhaps 50 feet in the air just to menace the clouds. It was a divine moment.”

After the convent school came Southern High School, from which, at the age of 15, Viv came very close to getting the boot for various crimes against the state. But, he says, “Instead, my mother went to a local art school and asked them: ‘Will you take this boy?’ They did, and I was saved the Tom Brown ignominy of actually being expelled, whipped out and booed by all the other chaps.”

At art school, Stanshall turned Teddy Boy and hung out with a gang of local toughs and gypsies. “During that period,” he says, “my major achievements were learning a lot of Gypsy tongue and getting involved in fights, brawls and outrages. I didn’t even know any upper- or middle-class kids, but I was saddled with a posh accent that was totally unjustified by my background. I didn’t know really which side I was on.”

After the first art school, Stanshall couldn’t get a government grant to go on in school because his father made too much money, so he shipped out in the Merchant Navy for a while. At first he was a waiter, but he made so many snide remarks to the dining passengers that he was soon made a utility steward. “This was better, really,” he says, “since you didn’t have to mix with the passengers and could grow a beard.”

After six months at sea, Stanshall went back to art school, ending up at Central Art College where he studied illustration. It was at Central that he met “Legs” Larry Smith, one of the original Bonzos. Members gathered from other London colleges, and the Bonzo Dog Dada Band (as it was first called) become a reality.

“Actually,” Stanshall says, “the Bonzo Dog began as a gang of wankers, 30 or so people who got together to fool around. Perhaps four of us were really stalwarts. It was just a release from college. We had no idea it was going to become as big as it did.”

This was in the early Sixties, and when Stanshall and the others graduated, the hard core of the band went professional as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. “We didn’t want to promote the New York-Paris Dada art thing,” Viv says, “so we made it Doo-Dah, which meant anything you wanted it to. But the main abrasive was the Dog part of our name. Several times we got mixed up with people who thought we were a dog troupe with mutts jumping through hoops, pushing tiny barrows and shitting on the audience at specific times to tremendous applause.”

The Bonzos staggered and lurched along professionally for nearly four years and reached some surprising heights before going down in self-ignited flames in early 1970. “We thought we were playing crap, and nobody was developing the way he wanted to,” Stanshall says, “so we said let’s jack it in. Besides, I was obviously cracking up.”

The real crack-ups came a few months later after Viv had shaved his head and started a new group called Big Grunt. The new group barely got going when Stanshall had a nervous breakdown. This was in the late spring of 1970. “It was weird,” Viv says. “I had a tremendous spurt of creativity and ideas were pouring out so fast that I had to dictate them to my wife. But then I slowly became a real vegetable.

“I found that I could look at a page of print and didn’t have any idea what it said. Then it got down to paragraphs, sentences and even words. I just couldn’t read. I got so I’d sit there and say ‘carrot’ 50 times in a row. Finally, the quack was called, and I was put inside.”

“Inside” was Halliwick Hospital, a small mental institution a couple of miles from Stanshall’s North London home. He was to spend seven weeks there.

“The first thing they did,” Viv says, “was put me on ten or 12 pills a day and throw me into the group therapy sessions with maybe 40 patients and three psychiatrists. There were people bouncing off the walls all day and screaming all night. I saw the quack and told him I wanted off the pills, so they cut me down to two or three a day and I wasn’t floating around in such a haze.”

After a while in Halliwick, Viv says, “I began to feel that I was a fake—not quite as loony as I was supposed to be. I mean, you sit in group therapy and hear some woman whose husband deserted her tell how she woke up one day and found her kid dead of malnutrition, and you begin to wonder: What the fuck am I doing in here?”

Even in Halliwick, Stanshall found ways to carry on a life-long campaign of calculated lunacy. “On visiting days,” he says, “I used to sidle up to outsiders and ask them if they wanted to see foaming at the mouth. Or I’d invite them in a very matter-of-fact way to come see the scratches on the walls.”

These and other typically Stanshall activities led the authorities at Halliwick to suspect that Vivian had recovered. After he’d been in Halliwick nearly two months, he was called in for an interview with his doctor. 

“I gave every appearance of being balanced and normal,” Viv says, “and the quack said it was time for me to go home. He got a bit shirty and implied that I was fucking this girl that I hung out with. I was more or less kicked out of Halliwick.” Stanshall went back to the hospital later, but he says: “I got the impression that they didn’t want anybody to return. They were somewhat less than warm and welcoming.”

Back at Chez Fred, Mike Hart is still trying to locate his bass player, and Viv, despite the miasma of oncoming flu, is raring for action. “One of two things,” he tells Mike, “either we rehearse or I want something to fuck. Is there any chance of fucking while we rehearse?”

No, not much, is the answer, and in despair Stanshall goes out to get something to eat. When he returns, he has somehow acquired a tall, kinky-haired girl in a sheepskin coat. She says her name is Sarah, and she’s a student nurse. After one more desperate appeal for a rehearsal, Stanshall says goodbye all around and disappears with Nurse Sarah bound for an Edinburgh discotheque.

The next morning at the only recording studios in Edinburgh, near the Firth of Forth, the guitarist and bassist are there, but no sign of Mike or Viv. But at last they arrive, Mike equibalanced by shopping bags full of notes and Viv showing signs of a monumental hangover. With them is Nurse Sarah.

Fighting his hangover and the flu, Viv strips down to a purple-shot turtleneck, unpacks his instruments and looks about him alertly: “Has the drummer not arrived yet?” he asks.

“That’s me,” says a 17-year-old boy who’s been lurking inconspicuously.

“Oh, yes,” says Viv, and he subsides without really anything to do.

Mike is still fiddling with the material strewn all over the floor, and in desperation Viv orders tea for everybody. When it comes, he hands the cups around with a good deal of bustle and efficiency.

And so the day goes, with Mike bumbling through the LP, a super-straight engineer (“Well, well, well, what are we doing now?”) being very efficient and Viv heard only in a random tootling of recorder and thwacking of ukelele. In between, he sits with eyes closed, obviously suffering. It’s rapidly becoming clear that there is only marginal reason for him to be there.

“Got to go cash a check,” he tells Mike during one of the many lulls, and we’re off into the street headed for the nearest bank—and pub. After a couple of scotches and a brandy, washed down with beer, Stanshall is talking about some of the things he’s been most aware of in the year and a half since Halliwick.

Human indifference is one of Viv’s current preoccupations. In the last few months he’s had a series of minor heart attacks, one of which hit him in the street near his house. He had to sit down on a low stone wall and wait for the attack to pass. “I’m sitting there holding my heart,” Viv says, “and people are passing by without a look. Not only straights but supposedly hip people, too. They just didn’t notice, or if they did they didn’t care. I suppose they thought I was crazy or drunk.”

At first the attacks totally immobilized Stanshall, and one ended in a bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital. But now he says he’s found a way to control them. “When I feel one coming on,” he says, “I gulp a pint of ice-cold water. My brain feels the impact, says, ‘What the shit is this?’ and gets my heart going right again. Or another way is to push my eyeballs as far back in my sockets as they’ll go, but that’s a pretty bum trip.”

Back at the studio, Mike is still earnestly and maniacally fumbling through the numbers. Viv contributes a few licks on recorder and uke, sings a little and adds a few words and a burp to a comedy sketch on musical criticism. But for the most part, he sits around looking as sick as he feels.

Finally, after a little more than eight hours in the studio, Mike is satisfied. He’s nearly finished an unpolished but powerful LP, and he wears a tired smile of elation. Viv just looks tired.

Chez Fred is dead so we depart for the Traverse, a theater-club. There, everybody knows Viv, and things almost get rolling with trombone solos by Mike and Stanshall. But Viv is just too knockered to really get it on. He and Mike are last seen leaving with two bottles of disgusting Spanish rose and Nurse Sarah.

The next morning, the Edinburgh-London train leaves Waverly Station at 8:00 a.m. sharp—without Viv Stanshall.

Somehow he makes it back to London, and I next encounter Viv at his yellow-fronted, late Victorian house in East Finchley, a North London mixture of suburbia, derelict houses, scant woods and brick highrise flats.

The inside of the house is a cuckoo-land of tanks of fish, turtles and snails, Stanshall’s art works ranging from a papier mache lion’s head, various masks, a tree stump in the process of being carved into a head with flowering begonia hair, to oil painting in various stages of completion, a ventriloquist’s dummy, numberless musical instruments including a ukelele shaped like a duck, endless magazines, records and trivia. In the shrubbery around the house are a nude mannequin, an olive-drab tuba and a hedge in the shape of a human leg. Also sharing this wonderland are Stanshall’s wife Monika and his son Rupert, three years old.

Viv ended a period of near isolation early last year by getting together with Neil Innes, another ex-Bonzo, in a new group called Freaks, which was managed by Hemdale Ltd., a high-powered agency originally formed by actor David Hemmings.

But from the beginning, Viv says, the relationship between Freaks and Hemdale was a complete cock-up. After investing something like $9,000 in equipment for the group, Hemdale couldn’t seem to be bothered even to go see them perform, and Freaks dissolved in a welter of bitterness and disgust last May. Viv says he may still be under contract to Hemdale, “but they’re so inordinately rich that I hope they’re not going to bother.”

At loose ends, Stanshall was asked last summer to do a series of radio broadcasts on BBC-1. The result was Vivian Stanshall’s Radio Flashes, a concoction of nonsense, humor and eclectic records. Viv let his imagination and sound effects run wild and produced such gems as Gerry Atric and His Aging Orchestra, a Nankypoo Shaggis and his Hawaiian Peasants (or Pheasants), New Repelephant, “the aerosol answer to today’s pachyderm problem” and a detective series featuring a Sherlock Holmes figure. In this drama, Stanshall played Col. Knutt, and the Who’s drummer Keith Moon played his faithful assistant, Lemmie. Viv hopes to turn the Knutt serial into an LP. Radio Flashes got great reviews, and Viv is still doing a segment of a BBC morning show.

Viv’s latest group, Human Beans, got its start last summer at the Edinburgh Festival. “At the Festival,” he says, “we found a lot of people who had such cerebral sympathy with each other that we needed scarcely any rehearsal. It was so comfortable, exciting and liberating gigging with them that Human Beans evolved out of it, and I thought that we should perform as a group whenever we could find an audience.

“I keep a long list of people: mimes, musicians, poets and madmen, and when someone offers me a date, I call around to see who’s available. Whoever it is comes along, and they’re the Human Beans for that gig. I always include at least one poet. One thing I learned in Edinburgh is that when a good poet is put in front of an audience which wouldn’t ordinarily go to a poetry reading, they go down unbelievably well.”

So far, Human Beans has been anything but a financial bonanza. They play mostly low-money college gigs, and they’re still owed £150 ($360) from the last one they did in November. But Viv has other gigs lined up for early this year. “The incredible thing,” he says, “is that the same people who haven’t been paid yet, will still come along and play when I get something going. It’s completely daft.”

Not all of Viv’s current projects are musical. In his studio a green-topped table is piled with long, manila envelopes labeled:

Prong: A play Stanshall is writing which is “loosely based on erections.” Viv says the play has Greek myth overtones “but it’s not quite as serious as it sounds.”

My Life So Far: An autobiography in progress.

Poetry?: A collection of Stanshall’s poem.

Trivia: A picture and text book featuring Viv as a Christ-Van Gogh-Junkie figure wearing a toilet seat as a halo and Band-Aids over his stigmata. This work is open to many interpretations.

Brunel: Viv is doing the music, narration and sounds for an animated biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a great Victorian engineer.

None of this promises to make Stanshall rich, but he’s not particularly worried. “It seems to me,” he says, “if I’ve kept going as long as I have without much support, I ought to be able to keep on.” Besides: “I’ve got a great bank manager who’s let me get pretty far in the red. He seems to believe in me.” 

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