Mojo, December 2001
BADTIME FOR BONZO
The tragic life of the man whose life was his art. By Andrew Male
The late Bonzo Dog Band frontman, arch Dadaist, Wildean fop and creator of that end-of-Empire vulgarian, Sir Henry Rawlinson, gets the biographical treatment 26 [sic] years after his untimely death
ON MARCH 21, 1978, the day of his thirty-fifth birthday, Vivian Stanshall sat up into the night, wondering why he wasn't dead. Although dedicated to living the life of an artist, Stanshall was convinced that if he truly WERE an artist he would already have snuffed it. True artists, he believed, died young. Dadaist Alfred Jarry died in 1907 at 34, a penniless alcoholic. That Stanshall had failed to achieve such a simple goal meant - ipso facto - that he was not a true artist.
Stanshall died in a house fire on Sunday March 5, 1995. To the outsider, his output was alarmingly scattershot, giving the impression of an artist who never realised his full potential. However, in this fascinating biography Mojo and Independent contributor Welch and writing partner Randall paint a far more complex portrait of a singular man who never knew where to draw the line between art and the everyday, or, for that matter, whether a line should be drawn at all.
Interviewing wives, children, friends, bandmates and celebrity fans such as Fay Weldon and Stephen Fry, Welch and Randall introduce us to Vivian the precocious child, who could hold a conversation at the age of 10 months, and Vivian the art-school teen, who would travel on the Tube to the Central School of Art, spraying his legs with Wasp-Eez insect repellent, or staging mock hangings, anything to gain a reaction from the "normals".
Yet, while much of Stanshall's boundless energy was channelled into a Dadaist distortion of the familiar, it also resulted in terrible panic attacks, an inability to face the horror of normality . Doctors prescribed Valium, Vivian prescribed booze. Both drugs would lead to this downfall.
His work in the Bonzos, the crafting of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End - soft, mellifluous playlets peppered with lines of delicious prose - were but the tip of the Stanshall iceberg. Randall and Welch reveal the madness, fear and dread behind such genius. Interviews with second wife Ki reveal a man scared of his own ability, who used booze to ease the terrors, someone petrified of the normal world, who just wanted to be safe.
As such, the last third of the book is heartbreaking. Exiled to a flat in Muswell Hill, with an entry phone he couldn't hear, Stanshall believed all his friends had deserted him. He could regularly be seen outside Muswell Hill Sainsbury's, wearing short black kimono and sandals, carrying a shepherd's crook and crying out, 'You bastards, I despise you all.' There was brief rebirth in the early 90s with theatre shows and surreal series of ads for Ruddles Ale but, as fellow Bonzo Neil Innes puts it, 'the soggy period were lengthening…. Like a sinking battleship firing on his rescuers.'
Despite their research, Welch and Randall admit that it's still unclear what happened to Viv at the end of his life. Apparently, a group of homeless drinkers he'd taken into his house slowly robbed him of his belongings, then demanded money for their return. Stanshall died in a bedroom fire. Suspicion surrounded the gang, but his family have another theory. Ki believes that Stanshall purposefully took the teenage winos into his house knowing that would systemically strip the flat of his belongings, piece by piece, a fabulous, stage-managed, final Stanshall production. Then, rather than end his days in some hospital, he died a Viking funeral. 'That's how I see it,' says Rupert. 'That's how I cope with it.
Perhaps, for someone who saw no dividing line between life and art, it makes sense that Viv's death was both lonely and beautiful. Like the Dadaists he so admired, little of Stanshall's art survives because so much of it was 'frittered away' on everyday living. As such, Ginger Geezer stands as a moving record of Viv Stanshall's greatest artistic achievement, his own life. Aged 53? That's not old, that's young.