Tuesday, 12 February 2013

In Memory of the Associates Star Part I

This is a tribute to Billy Mackenzie, singer-songwriter from the unique 80s new wave band The Associates whose music I always admired.

Billy Mackenzie Tribute II

I thought I had read that Billy's suicide had followed a history of manic depression but I have just learned that this was not the case. I was eager to read the story, particularly from someone close to him rather than the mainstream media, and have decided to share a few excerpts from an article by his friend and colleague Steve Aungle. It makes for interesting reading so put the kettle on if you have the time and inclination to digest the following story.

Memoirs from Steve Aungle's Blog

This blog is dedicated to the late Scottish singer, Billy Mackenzie (1957-97). I had the pleasure and privilege of working with Billy for the last 4 years of his life as a co-writer.

11. Holland Road (3)

We planned our party at Holland Road for October. Our lease was due to run out the following month and we had already decided to get separate flats in London which we could now afford. We decided this not because we weren’t getting along but because it had been an exhausting year and both of us wanted some space. I assumed Billy would want to get a place where he could have dogs again.

For the party we bought in several hundred pounds’ worth of alcohol. Billy dyed his hair blond and donned a brown fur-coat with gold chains around his neck. I dyed mine blue and got myself a Doctor Zhivago suit. Strangely, after the party, I found blue hair dye all along the walls in the hallway just above the skirting-board, as if I had been crawling around on all fours, rubbing my hair along the wall. I have no recollection of doing this.

I can’t remember how many people we invited but it must have been at least fifty. We had assumed that the mountain of alcohol we had provided would easily last the night but it soon ran out. Everyone got very plastered very quickly. There was a fair amount of cocaine kicking around too- which has a tendency to put people’s alcohol tolerance through the roof. It turned out that there were certain tensions amongst some of our guests. Several ex’s of other ex’s had been invited. ‘I’m not coming if she’s coming,’ and ‘I’m not coming if he’s coming’ turned into a mantra. But they all came and there were several blazing rows in the hallway. Not to miss out on the fun, I deliberately invited two ex’s of mine.

As with most parties of this nature, it was all a bit of a blur. The one event which stands out in memory is Billy’s ‘a capella’ rendition of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ which took place in my bedroom- the room was packed with guests who all immediately stopped talking as soon as Billy started to sing. As it turned out, this was to be Billy’s last ever live performance. I know the lyric of this song well and noticed that instead of the line ‘I’m glad to go’, he sang ‘I’m sad to go’. He sat on the floor with his back against the bed in his brown fur coat and let rip. It was a remarkable performance and for several seconds afterwards there was a stunned silence. Then the room erupted into whoops and applause.

Shortly after the party we got a call from Keith. The publishing deal with Sony was on. Again, the rather flat response from Billy. He told me that he was going back up to Scotland to rest for a few weeks but that he would be back in January ’97 to sign the necessary papers for the Sony deal. I soon found a flat for myself in Highgate, north London and installed myself there. I remained positive and optimsitic about the future. I had no idea of what was about to happen.

12. Billy Mackenzie: Last Days

The publishing deal with Sony was signed on the 15th of January ’97 and Billy travelled down from Scotland with Steve Phillips to meet up with Keith Bourton and myself. Billy looked terrible. He looked pale and weary. I asked him what was wrong. ‘I’ve just got a dose of the flu,’ he replied. I had assumed that we would be celebrating afterwards but Billy said no, he didn’t feel up to it at all. After the signing we all left together and I remember watching Billy walking away with Steve Phillips. After about a hundred yards or so, he stopped and turned. He gave me a wave and I waved back. I never saw him again. I went for a pint with Keith but it was all a bit subdued. Keith tried to reassure me: ‘He’ll be fine. He just needs to rest for a while.’

A few days later, I called Billy at his father’s house up in Auchterhouse where he was staying. At first we spoke about music, and about working with Nude Records. There had been a development regarding our future recordings: Apollo 440 had agreed to produce for us. I had recently gone down to their studio in Camden to meet them and they were a lovely bunch of guys. Their track record spoke for itself. Billy agreed this was all very positive. There was a pause. ‘What’s really going on with you Billy?’ I had to ask. He then told me he had been hallucinating. ‘What kind of hallucinations?’ I asked. ‘Carnage,’ he replied. ‘Medieval carnage. Everywhere- even when I switch on the TV it’s there.’ I didn’t know how best to respond. He then said: ‘What am I going to do when I come back down to London, Steve?’ I found this a strange question. ‘Get yourself a nice flat with your dogs, Billy. You can afford it now.’ The conversation soon ended which was unusual. It was normally a case of trying to get Billy off the phone but not on this occasion.

Not long after that I received a phone call from John Mackenzie. There was no preamble. He just said ‘Billy’s dead.’ He was going to hang up but, of course, I demanded an explanation. ‘He killed himself- took a load of prescription drugs.’ I was stunned and couldn’t reply. John hung up. Naturally I instantly made arrangements to travel up to Dundee for the funeral. It wasn’t until this point that I was able to react. When I saw people outside the church crying, I went to pieces myself.

The wake was a disaster. A wake is supposed to be a celebration of a person’s life but there was too much grief and hysteria around for Billy’s. He had committed suicide at the age of 39 and it was all just too much. There was an upright piano there and I was bullied into playing ‘Beyond the Sun’ with Uncle Ronnie on the bagpipes. I could hardly play and made a thousand mistakes. Jimmy, Billy’s younger brother, had set up turntables and was playing Associates records. This didn’t last long- Billy’s favourite auntie, Betty, attacked Jimmy screaming hysterically, and sent the needle skating across a rare 12-inch record. People soon dispersed and I retreated to a pub with some friends where I drank myself into a stupor.

13, Billy Mackenzie: Psychic

It was shortly after Billy’s funeral, upon my return to London, that I started to think of a post-humous album for Billy. I threw myself into the whole idea as a means of staving off the intense grief I was experiencing. Billy and I used to ‘list out’ as he called it, drawing up lists of tasks that needed to be accomplished and I now did the same. I even pretended he was there as I did this, asking out aloud for his opinion on track listing, musical arrangement and so on. Even though he was gone, I felt his presence intensely. The emotion was bitter-sweet: on one hand comforting and on the other, desperately sad.

I then did something I never thought I would do in a million years- I went to see a psychic. I was and remain extremely skeptical about such things but a friend had suggested it and I thought well, why not? I made an appointment at the College of Psychic Studies in Knightsbridge. My thinking was: if I’m going to do this, I might as well go for the best I can find.

Accordingly I turned up there and was seen by a woman called Yvonne. The contents of her reading were astonishing to say the least. For the first few minutes she just sat there with her eyes closed. First, she got the name ‘Billy’ without any prompting from me. Then she said: ‘He’s asking for ‘Steves’. Billy is the only person I’ve ever known who has called me ‘Steves’ instead of ‘Steve’. But the next bit completely blew me away. She started to talk about a song. Apparently ‘Billy’ was telling her that this song was somehow important. What song? Then Yvonne said these words: ‘She lives by the sea.’ This is the first line of a song that I wrote with Billy called ‘And This She Knows’. I was stunned. The rest of the reading then became too general to be of any interest but this first part knocked me sideways- I finally left the building in a daze.

I thought long and hard about Yvonne’s reading. I refused to accept that it was incontrovertible proof that Billy’s ‘spirit’ was alive somewhere. But what other possible explanation could there be? I came up with two, both equally unbelievable: 1. Yvonne had somehow plucked all of this information out of my subconscious mind. 2. The College of Psychic Studies had a secret network of intelligence which enabled them to gather information about unsuspecting clients. The whole matter has remained unresolved in my mind ever since.

As if to compound all of this, I had a number of strange experiences in my flat in Highgate over the ensuing months. In my music room there, I would sometimes detect a very strong, fragrant smell like burnt incense. It would disappear as suddenly as it appeared, not fading gradually as a strong smell normally would. I thought this must be an olfactory hallucination but two friends of mine smelled it too. Then there was all kinds of inexplicably weird electrical stuff. Light bulbs flashing on and off, the TV suddenly going blank for a few seconds then coming on again. I checked with my landlady about the wiring but she assured me that it was fine.

Meanwhile, Nude Records had contacted me about recording an album as a tribute to Billy. Of course, I agreed to the whole idea and I knew Billy’s family wanted it...

The song ‘And This She Knows’ had always been a bit special for Billy and me. Billy had got the opening lines from a dream he had about Kylie Minogue. In his dream, he had walked into a nightclub and there was Kylie on stage with a band, singing those lines. I’ve had the occasional experience of musical ideas coming from dreams and it is strange how they are unfailingly of top quality.

25. Fame the Crying Game

The story goes that The Associates split because Billy just couldn’t face the prospect of a world tour and everything that goes with it- in other words taking his career to a new level. There is another side to this- his side. And it’s always healthy in the interests of balance and fair play to hear all sides to a story. I am going to recount his side exactly as I heard it- and it might surprise some people, particularly those in the music press at that time. During the entire time that I knew Billy he was extremely abstemious towards alcohol and drugs in general. He occasionally had a ‘Brandy American’ in the pub but never more than one.

It wasn’t always so and during the period leading up to the split of The Associates, he and Alan Rankine indulged in large amounts of alcohol and drugs- the latter being mostly speed and cocaine. On one occasion the two of them took so much speed that they both ended up in hospital with pulse-rates over 200. It was after this experience that they made an agreement to stop taking drugs altogether and it was the breaking of this agreement which caused Billy to walk out and split the band. They were due to rehearse the night before the first date of the tour which was a sell-out at the Dominion Theatre in London. When Rankine appeared it was immediately obvious to Billy that he had taken cocaine- two white tram-lines between nose and mouth clearly indicated this to be so. Billy’s reaction was instantaneous- he abandoned the tour and returned to Dundee.

The fact of the matter is that Billy loved to perform. I’ve lost count of the number of times when a visitor to our house would be given an impromptu rendition of a new song. I was perfectly happy to be bullied into accompanying him on the piano. There were many other occasions when he sang a capella for people. All of this seems to be at odds with the idea that he shied away from the spotlight and was in any way afraid of the attention which fame brings. It is true that he wasn’t comfortable with being on camera- but he wouldn’t be the first performer to feel this way. This alone isn’t sufficient to support the idea that he had no desire for fame and success. If he didn’t, then why on earth did he work so hard to get recognized in the first place?I have assessed it as follows: Billy’s priorities music-wise were songwriting and recording. Any performing would have to be done on his terms alone- which invariably meant an intimate atmosphere with a close communication with his audience. The one-off performance at Ronnie Scott’s in London in 1984 was a perfect example of this. A small band of hand-picked musicians with the excellent Howard Hughes on piano- and Billy was in his element. He mentioned this concert several times during the time I knew him. It was close to perfection- and Billy was always perfectionist-almost-to-a-fault. Afraid of success? Like most of us he was only afraid of failure and was intelligent enough to know that anything half-baked simply wouldn’t cut it.

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