Thursday 8 December 2016

The Joe Jackson files: Excuse Me While I Disappear

They almost came to blows in their first interview in 1987, but from that inauspicious introduction to one of his childhood idols, Joe Jackson soon developed a great friendship with Richard Harris, who eventually asked him to write his official, in-depth biography. In memory of the man, Joe presents this exclusive article, which charts the ups and downs of his rocky relationship with the legendary hell-raising thespian from Limerick, and he reveals why the biography was never completed

Joe Jackson

Published 09/01/2011 | 05:00

Richard Harris
Richard Harris

It is somewhat surreal knowing that one of your lifelong heroes, Richard Harris, looks like he is about to punch you in the mouth. Even more surreal is realising if he does, you will punch him right back.

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Let's not even get into, just yet, the beyond-surrealism fact that this potentially pugilistic moment would also, in effect, kick-start a 14-year friendship, lead to me being asked by Richard to become his "official biographer" and even being asked by his family, after the man's death, to "represent all journalists" at the official memorial in London, right?

Either way, I really did feel Christ-almighty-looks-like-I'm-about-to-have-a-fistfight that day, October 10, 1987, as I sat in an armchair in the presidential suite of Dublin's Berkeley Court Hotel, taking part in one of my first major celebrity interviews, and watched Harris leap from a sofa, race across the room, slap a set of pages in my hand, and shout:

"You are a funny guy, y'know? You come in here saying, 'Here are all my questions for Harris on this piece of paper; I want the answers.' Well there are no answers! What do you say to that?"

So, what did I say? That, I'll leave until later. However, in the space between Richard's eruption and that response, my life sure as hell seemed to flash by -- at least, my life as a Harris fan. I remembered, for example, being 11 and reading about him for the first time in an article where he was described as the "moody, magnificent star of This Sporting Life" and "an Irishman", which made me think, "God, that's great, I didn't know there was such a thing as an Irish actor!" Not only that, as a child who had already told my mom, "When I grow up I'm going to be rich and famous, just like Elvis. Then you won't have to worry about money anymore," I particularly loved the line: "Though his career is soaring now, it was not long ago he spent the nights sleeping in a cold coal-cellar."

Then I actually got to see Harris in pictures such as The Long and The Short and The Tall, Mutiny On The Bounty, and Camelot. Though the last one, sadly, disappointed me, simply because "there weren't enough battles in it" as I noted in my diary. But Richard more than redeemed himself in my eyes with the release of MacArthur Park, which I, still driven by boyhood dreams -- by now of becoming a journalist, how dumb was that! -- instantly described as "my song".

Then again, who, in that halcyon summer of 1968, could resist its magnificent middle section with lines such as "I will take my life into my hands and I will use it/I will win the worship in their eyes and I will lose it." Few. Including my father who, one day when he returned from London where he was living at the time, heard me playing the song, burst into my bedroom, asked, "What the fuck is that?" and, when I told him, replied, "Well, that's the kind of music you should be listening to, not Presley!" Thus, prophetically, as you will see, making that recording by Richard the first song we both loved. Or, rather, knew we did.

In fact, it was my father who bought the accompanying Harris album, A Tramp Shining. So, too, did my friend, Paul English, along with its follow-up, The Yard Went On Forever, and both albums, strange as this may seem to some, became as central to my life as Sgt Pepper's had been to many of my peers, but not to me, the preceding year. Furthermore, those Harris recordings, of songs all written by Jim Webb, definitely formed a touchstone for my future love life.

Yet, there were darker resonances to my points of identification with Richard and, later in life, those resonances would very much define our relationship. Look at it this way. In 1972, he released the LP My Boy; that was the year my father had electroconvulsive therapy, and nearly every time he "savaged me, psychologically, as if I was the bastard doctor who prescribed ECT" -- to quote my diary -- I wept through one of the tracks, All The Broken Children, which was written by Harris himself. I even wrote a poem in reply to that song.

Of no less importance to me was Richard's poem, On The One Day Dead Face of My Father, which, a year before Harris died, he once read for me, leaving him in tears, and which I told him I'd heard echo in a morgue on the day after I found my father dead in 1978. But what I never told Richard is that five years earlier I'd finally knocked my father on his ass after he hit me for what would be the last time. And that then, in the morgue, I raised his right hand, kissed it; thought, 'God, to think I once was so afraid of this hand, but look at it now, as lifeless as I myself will one day be' and I swore that never again would I be afraid of anyone. Or anything. Even death.

So, you see, I was prepared to lash back at Harris if he'd punched me that day in 1987. But he didn't. And, instead, what I said to his petulant little rant was: "There are no answers? Maybe. But that doesn't invalidate the questions." How did he respond? Smiled, sat back down, then replied, "OK, fair enough. So, let's continue our interview".

What had got Richard so riled? Again, I'll leave my guess until later. But, at the time, I hadn't a clue. Though I knew I hadn't helped matters by kicking off proceedings with this textbook example of how not to start an interview.

"Would it be fair to say that in some interviews, as with Jonathan Ross recently, you use anecdotes as a ploy against self-revelation, and seem to speak far more for effect than in truth?"

"Interviewers like Jonathan Ross don't want anything in-depth," Harris replied edgily. "Nor do people like Johnny Carson. He'd always say, 'Keep it funny, keep it funny.' But, although the old format of telling stories and jokes seems to be what the general public wants, I personally have no fear of discussing my private life -- at least those parts that should be made public. But I do not believe what you seem to be hinting at: that because one makes one's living from the public they are entitled to devour your life. They are entitled to a good performance, and that is all."

Indeed. And, actually, my opening question to Richard was my playful, if pathetically pretentious attempt at a Brechtian opening salvo, my tilt on what thespians call his 'alienation technique'. It obviously worked. But, whereas I understood why he might be offended by the suggestion that there was something about himself he was always trying to hide, or that during interviews he sometimes lied -- however true both these observations may have turned out to be -- I didn't understand why he later snapped at me again when I asked if there was a compensatory dimension to the decision -- made when he was 19 and had TB -- to become an actor.

"When I had TB I gave up everything -- rugby and friends. So, yes, it was then I started studying theatre. But who knows if it began then? If it did, why, when I was younger, did I go to every performance of the Gate that came to Limerick?"

"Do you know why?"

"It doesn't matter why!"

"You seem antagonistic towards the question of 'why?' Dare I ask -- why?"

"Look. I studied psychotherapy in America for years and found that one of the most dangerous things about modern thinking is 'let us discover why, why, why.' America is saturated with psychoanalysts. It's a rage; a fad."

"Are you similarly sceptical about self-analysis?"

"Probably. It's dangerous to unravel; to be so self-interested you need to know why you do this, who you are. I loved my father, hated my mother, hated my mother, loved my father, boom boom, it goes on forever. Yes, when I got TB, I was forced to draw upon my own imagination, but whether or not that is where it all began doesn't concern me. Questions like that really are irrelevant to me."

"OK, but here you even seem to be undermining the soul of MacArthur Park, in which you sing, 'After all the loves of my life I'll be . . . wondering why.' Now you are saying 'why?' is an irrelevant and potentially damaging question."

"No. My point is, it is dangerous if you can't handle what you unravel."

"Were you ever in analysis?"

"No. I was there because my wife at the time, Ann Turkel, was in analysis. But she is a typical American. She can't buy a dress without consulting an analyst, two astrologers, et cetera. But this is common in America. Why do you think that is?"

"You're asking me why?"

"You're the guy who likes to ask such questions. So, why do you think all this is so common in America?"

"Psychic insecurity?"

"Probably. But it also is a national disease because Americans think there are answers to everything. They want cheap, easy answers."

Then came Richard's eruption. After which, almost as though, having gone for me in the verbal equivalent of a rugby tackle and found I hadn't backed down, Harris seems to have decided I was worthy. It may even have been that at this point began what he would later call, on RTE radio, "our great friendship".

He definitely began telling me things that he at least claimed never to have told any other journalist. Such as disclosing that apart from his legendary love of alcohol, he'd also "nearly died, was anointed twice" as a result of cocaine abuse.

"It wasn't that I was into drugs, I was into experiences. I didn't know it was dangerous. If fact, I tried to stop drinking and was told by a doctor, 'If you want to stop, try a little cocaine' but, unfortunately, I am a very excessive person. Everything I did, I did in an over-indulgence of passion. I wasn't just taking coke. I wasn't just drinking. When I drank, I devoured alcohol. When I did coke, I devoured coke. When I went on my amorous adventures, I devoured women."

"That said, excessive drinking has radically altered your life in terms of the food you eat, the fact you can't have even one more drink."

"Yes. I've been told, 'If you take a drink tonight, you could go into a coma and be dead tomorrow.' That's my choice."

"Not much of a choice, is it -- to know if you take a drink, you die? As with friends of yours who did die from alcohol abuse, like Richard Burton, couldn't the tale of your indulgences be seen as a morality tale, a warning?"

"That is their choice."

"It's not their choice to die."

"It's his choice."

"Burton's? To die?"

"If that's his choice, it's his choice."

"If that's his choice?"

"Yes, and my choice is not to."

And yes, I was pushing Harris on this subject. However, it was only later, when we were discussing his film career, that I brought up the subject, which, tangentially, helped him understand why. This led to another turning point.

"Do you remember a script I sent you called Father and Son?"

"God, I do! Was that you?"

"Yeah, it was about my dad and me, and based on . . ."

"My Boy, right?"

"Right. I delivered it to the Savoy Hotel in London when you were doing Camelot in 1982. You phoned me, said you were interested, but nothing happened, maybe because you then had an accident."

"That's right -- was hit by a car."

"But the script was based on My Boy because that album meant a lot to my father and I. We even used to 'speak' to each other through its songs whenever we were at war and couldn't otherwise communicate."

"And My Boy was based on my relationship with Damian. Is your dad still alive?"

"No. He died as a result of drink and drugs at the age of only 50."

"Now I see your thing about all that. So can I have the script back -- will you let me read it again?"

One reason this was a turning point for Harris, he later told me, was because it was then he decided I was "a fellow writer, rather than just another journalist" and he secretly hated hacks. Indeed, at this stage in our interview Richard even joked, "So, shall I order coffee before we go on to the next round!" Then we did.

"Tell me, why are you so bitter about marriage?"

"I'm not bitter about it at all."

"No? You once said, 'Marriage is a process designed by women in which they proceed to live off men like poison fungus on a tree.'"

"But that's not bitter. That's a perfect description, by a calm, calculating man, who's been through it all."

"Quotes like that won't win you the feminist of the year award."

"I don't mind that."

"But how do you feel about being written off as an archaic chauvinist?"

"Am I?"

"I would imagine many feminists see you as a bit of a dinosaur, yes."

"I'm not that old!"

"In terms of your sexual politics -- if these quotes are true to what you believe -- you are. Here's another: 'Women should be allowed to have thoughts and not express them.' And another, 'Women are totally incapable of friendship.'"

At this point, Harris laughing loudly, admitted, "I forget half the fucking things I said!" Then he made me laugh by gesturing towards the pages he'd been slapping earlier, and asking, "So, can I have all these wonderful quotes when you're finished with them?" And then said, in a charmingly childlike manner, as if suddenly seeking my approval, "Is the interview any good?"

I replied, "I think so."

He said, "So do I. In fact, I think it's the best I've done in years, so let's get back to the subject of my views on men and women, OK?" Then, the legendary "ladies' man" gave me this contentious quote.

"Live a thousand years with all the expert knowledge, therapy and scientific know-how, we will never understand them and they will never understand us. What is happening now, this war between the sexes is only the boil coming to the top -- the boil that's been there for hundreds of years. We pretended we loved them; they pretended they loved us. But, deep down inside, this cesspool was burning with hate. Then suddenly, through women's liberation, it has blown to the top. It's out in the open; it is no more behind closed doors or closed curtains, or secreted away in little corners; the facts are now out in the open. We don't like each other. We don't get on."

He shouts the following sentence. "It is madness to try to think we do. They use us and we use them and, having used them, we put them aside and move on, and they do exactly the same thing to us."

"So you think we fake it when we fuck?"

"Absolutely, and not as much now as before. Many don't fake it at all. It's out in the open. It's revenge."

"Hate-making?"

"Hate-making? A lovely phrase, I wish I'd said that!"

"But is it true of a majority or minority of men and women, today, or just, to paraphrase a song title from A Tramp Shining, 'lovers' such as you?"

Here Harris sang a few bars of that song before continuing. "Let me answer that this way. We need them, they need us, and yes, they are glorious -- for a while. But let's sit down around a table, surrender to each other and draw up agreements. And the agreements are that we will tolerate each other, for a period. Then, we concede that they go back together in a bunch, and be with each other, and so should we. I'm not talking about homosexuality here, but men get on better with each other and women get on better with each other."

"People do read implications of homosexuality, latent or otherwise, into such comments. Have you always been secure in terms of your sexuality?"

"Absolutely, and it's OK if people read that into my comments or behaviour. I have no inhibitions about sexuality. I'm the freest guy in the world, and if I had any tendencies towards men I would fucking openly admit it. I think the idea of hiding, and the fear the church and society has driven into people, is very sad."

"And damaging?"

"And damaging, indeed."

"And you really wouldn't mind if connotations of homosexuality were read into what you say or do?"

"Not in the slightest. Yet, you as a man seem to believe it to be a sort of put-down, sort of degrading, to have such an association associated with you."

"Not at all. You have to remember I'm operating as a cipher here, in my role as interviewer, trying to anticipate questions a broad base of readers might ask."

"I understand."

"In fact, I'd say 'Fuck it, either way. To each his own, sexually.'"

"I totally agree with you. But to some it seems to follow that if a man makes remarks they think are vaguely misogynistic, he must be a latent homosexual. That's rubbish. Just like its rubbish to say all homosexuals are misogynistic."

Quite. But only after Richard's death did I realise -- largely because I'd forgotten that the only interview of mine he'd read prior to our meeting was one I did with Boy George -- that at this point Harris may have been trying to gauge my attitude to homosexuality because he imagined I was gay! Or, likewise, certainly as a result of my opening salvo, thought I suspected him of being gay and that I was trying to make him reveal his 'secret' -- as in self -- and come out!

None of which was true, at the time. However, as part of my quest to identify the tensions at the heart of Harris -- a quest initiated at his request -- I would often return to the subject of the man's sexuality. But I won't in this article, which focuses more on our first meeting. Besides, back in 1987, I was far more fascinated by the fact that Richard told me he had "no friends at all", even male ones.

"I used to have this friend in Wales," he told me, alluding to -- I have since discovered, having met -- Terry James, who, despite this temporary rift in their relationship, would remain, arguably, the non-family member who was closest to Richard for much of his adult life, up to his death.

"But when my brother [Dermot] died, legions turned up for his funeral, from all over [the world] and I watched and said to someone, 'They're all genuine people here, all weeping, but not when I'm gone, you won't have that.'"

"Do you seriously think that?"

"I do, yes. I never had a capacity for -- I have the capacity to flash into a room and be 'friendly' and make you probably believe that, eh, whatever."

Harris became self-conscious, as if anticipating my response.

"Like you are doing right now?"

"Probably, right. Then, on the other hand, when the door closes, I'm off somewhere else, doing the same thing, being sincere each time, but picking up a bank of experiences, not grabbing a throng of friends. I can't, I don't function with people very well on a permanent basis."

"So, do you see friends as excess baggage?"

"Probably. I live in the Bahamas by myself. I function best by myself."

"And never, say, in the middle of the night are you gnawed by loneliness, by a longing for a companion?"

"No, that doesn't exist for me at all, I'm afraid."

Much as I hated to admit it, then and now, there was a lot Richard Harris was saying here that I could relate to. And I told him so. Hence, the lines between interviewer and interviewee became more blurred. So much so that later that night, when I wrote in my diary, "It was like talking with dad, but not in any Freudian transference kind of way", I was referring to this particular exchange.

"I had a graveside experience, recently, like the one you describe, but it left me feeling that if no one misses me after I die then my life, no matter what I may have achieved as a writer, will have been a total failure."

"But, Joe, why are you assuming that the only reason we're born is to make friends, to be loved? We can be loved without having to suffer the burden of . . ."

"Friendship?"

"Yeah, of friendship."

"Yet, surely if everyone felt that way, Richard, we'd all be isolated, insulated, uselessly self-centred souls, all drifting around, already half dead."

"Less pain, much less pain. A lot of the pain we feel is caused not so much by what other people do, but by our own expectations of them."

This really was so much like the kind of conversation I'd so often had with my dad, and still miss deeply. However, it was only after Harris and I met three days later to do again the first part of our interview -- I'd phoned and said, "We both were acting the bollix at the start!" and he agreed -- I discovered how deeply rooted Richard's personal pain was when it came to his original family and, even more so, his father. Thus making me feel I got even closer to the man than I first had.

"Linking the poems on your poetry album is the song The Old House, with its line 'Lonely I wander through scenes of my childhood.' So, is loneliness the predominant feeling evoked when you look back on childhood?"

"No. Warmth. And yet, there is a tremendous psychological danger involved in being part of families that are absolutely united. It's as dangerous to be closeted with too much love, as it is to be without it. The aim should be to strike an even balance. So, I was lucky being lost in the middle of the Harris brigade. But this makes you fight for the affection of your parents, fight for attention; you didn't get it free. You got it from maybe the age of one day to two years, then you had to fight for it."

"So, from an early age you had to tap dance for your parents?"

"Exactly, tap dance to be recognised. You had to put up the flag and say, 'I'm here, too, don't miss me' [but] you were missed. You were passed over. I can't remember the parental stroke. I can't remember the touch from the mother or affection from the father. And you're right to class it as a tap dance for attention. I remember being very rebellious, running away from home and so on."

"In your poem On The One Day Dead Face Of My Father, you also tell of how you knelt by his corpse and prayed for his acceptance. So, hadn't you ever felt that you were singled out for that particular stroke of parental affection?"

"I don't think so. Though one tries to resist the reply you are looking for, Joe, I do think that answer is in my poem On The One Day Dead Face of My Father. I think he probably died without [granting me] that recognition."

"Did that realisation cause you grief?"

Press pause. Because here I must interject and say that back in 1987 Richard Harris didn't answer that question as truthfully as he would during our final interview in 2001. When -- less than a year before he died -- Harris read that poem for me, as I said earlier, he then broke down, absolutely became a child again at the age of 70, and said he didn't know if he'd be reconciled with the longing for his father's acceptance before he himself died. Now, back to 1987.

"Richard, I know you reacted angrily to my compensatory dimension question the other day, but do you think the fact that you became an actor may have had something to do with the relationship you had, or didn't have, with both your parents?"

"Yes. But as I said when we began our talk, I always enjoyed watching theatre and the cinema. But I didn't realise I wanted to be an actor until I had TB. So, yes, much of it probably had to do with establishing an identity, of saying, 'I may be just number five in the family, but I must assert an identity beyond that.' You also asked me the other day, about an identity crisis. If there ever was one, that was it! I wanted my parents to recognise who I was. That probably gave me my energy, my drive. Isn't it frightening the influence childhood has on us?"

And so, Harris and I continued talking in that mode for a further two hours and, in the end, I realised he was just as obsessed with the question of 'Why?' as I am. In fact, afterwards, when he introduced me to impresario Noel Pearson in the lobby of the Berkeley Court, we were even finishing each other's sentences.

"Noel, this is Joe Jackson, he knows fucking more about my work than I do! So I've asked him to write a script for that one-man show we're doing, where he'll set up my public image in the first half then -- tell him your idea, Joe!"

"Then in the second half, deconstruct, subvert that image, which is what I also intend doing with this two-part interview. Though I did meet resistance at . . ."

"At the start! You did, simply because you were too cheeky! But that's OK!"

Harris and I had travelled a long way over those two days. But it was nowhere compared to the road we'd travel. For example, two years after our first meeting, I did a profile of the man for the Irish Independent and then got this phone call.

"Loved your article, made me laugh, made me cry, good boy."

"The part about your dad?"

"Yes. Listen, Joe, I have been approached many times in the past to do my autobiography and this fellow Michael Feeney Callan asked could he do it. I saw him a couple of times. Then I went out and got his Sean Connery book. Would you be interested in writing my biography?"

"I would be."

"Good. The way you write -- that article you wrote has great style to it. Also, it is not without being critical, which is also good. I hate arse-licking things."

"And you hate arse-licking people!"

"I do. But I got fantastic feedback on your piece here. And if we do the book I want it done like that. Our book has to be fucking in-depth. But not a word to anybody lest it gets back to Callan. He is going ahead without me. He has masses of cuttings. But he'll be doing it without my notes, diaries, and poetry I can give you. He has nothing."

Unfortunately, in a sense, soon afterwards, Richard made what I called in the Irish Times, "a double comeback of unrivalled proportions" in the movie of The Field and on stage in Pirandello's Henry IV, and our book was put on hold. Meanwhile, two authors, including Callan, published what Harris described in an interview on RTE television as "cheap and trashy" biographies, which he also said he hoped our biography, "would correct".

Tragically, our book was never finished. Largely because at one point en route from London to Dublin, Richard lost "20 hours of tapes" he'd made for me and also, not surprisingly "lost heart in" the project. At least until 2002, when we were reunited to do an interview for the Sunday Independent and made more tapes for "our biography", which he suggested we could "work on, every second weekend once we get the deal". Much to my regret now, I never followed up on that offer. But how was I to know Richard would die in 2003?

And so, in memory of the man who would have been 80 this October, I present this article as the opening chapter of the book that never was. Of course, had we written the book during Richard's lifetime, I myself would not have featured in its narrative. But now I feel I must. Partly because three years ago, when I wrote a play based on my Harris tapes I was told by the literary director of the Abbey Theatre, "One thing that's missing from this is the effect the relationship had on the interviewer, how his life was changed by the actor."

So now you know. What was that play called? The same title Richard and I agreed would be "so right" for our book and that was, incidentally, a title I took from Angel Eyes, a Sinatra song we both loved. It also was a line that inspired Harris to write a poem of the same name to mark his 70th birthday and happens to be a perfect, eh, exit line for this article, if not for a life: Excuse Me While I Disappear.

L

For original articles, see joejacksonjournalist.com

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