Vivian Stanshall was his own peculiar creation.
Born in 1943, and named Victor, this artist, musician and unique personification of the English dandy, free spirit and eccentric, proves hard to pin down.
His widow, Ki Longfellow, has had this book in planning for a long time. Her history. His history. That of friends and collaborators, family and fans, and more.
From the early days as a member of the Bonzo Dog Dada Band – the quirky mix of Studdy drawing and creative canvas – the renamed Vivian excuded a virile and dangerous charm in the most simple of songs. If his Intro was via affectionate spoofs of old 78s, it would be the route to a drunken Viking flame, all consuming much of his legacy in his Muswell Hill flat.
This book is not a biography. Not a memoir. Some of it we’ve seen before (Vivian and Ki’s first date, with him in green with his beard tied with a ribbon, and her, the American who had no clue who he was, regarding him so closely they clicked and understood each other; notes on his solo albums Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead and Teddy Boys Don’t Knit), some is new – the drinking, the chemical experimentation leaving to a broken, brilliant brain and a sensual sensitivity alongside the behaviour one might charitably describe as quirky, but those who lived with it might have felt they were screaming into the void.
The book, which runs to 320 pages of beautiful perfect-bound paperback (and did I say it smells great? Well, it smells great), is, as promised by the title, illustrated, lavishly so with drawings by Ben Wickey, personal photographs from many aspects of Vivian’s life, and writings and paintings by the man himself – he threw his torment and his sense of fun into his art, and wrote love notes to his wife on single sheets of toilet paper – musing while straining?
There’s love on each page. Frustration, too. Loss. Admiration. Regret. It’s a happy book. It’s a sad book. It’s an honest book. There are lyrics – Strange Tongues, Arc of a Diver – which belie the mad and odd image many carry of Stanshall, if they remember him at all. They speak of a perceptive visionary who looked at life and the world so askance that it probably gleamed crystal clear.
Keith Moon, Who drummer, fellow imbiber, partner in frivolities, dead just past thirty. Vivian Stanshall, at thirty out of the Bonzos, creating Sir Henry at Rawlinson End for radio, album, movie. Hubert the hurt who lost his shirt.
Ki opening herself wide open to pull his into that world, sticky, tricky, prickly – the boats, the art, the exploitation, the obsession with cock which made the artist honest and unabashed as addictions removed inhibitions and lifted the Crank into something wider.
Sadness. When Vivian Stanshall died, he was still only young but in that physical shell there was so much strength. That beauty on page 22 (and he was, however curio-bat-crazee that sounds) became the genius, the push me pull me which came apart and reassembled in a shape which couldn’t operate within the normal.
This book is a triumph. It’s pricey for sure, and will cost you the same as a decent West End theatre ticket, or all of the recorded oeuvre of VS put together, but if you are any kind of fan – and it is squarely aimed at the fan – you will feel a connection to the man, or as close as you can get through one woman’s reality of his reality of himself. Or something.