BEDTIME FOR BONZOS
Do you know who the late Vivian Stanshall was? I didn't, either, until I got a job working a 50-year-old switchboard in the Gralyn Hotel in Washington, D.C., and moved into a tiny room in the rear corner of the building. This was about 12 years ago.
My space--which once had housed servants--was up on the third floor of this hulking old structure; it had been built in the 1870s as a private mansion, then purchased just prior to World War II by a grand Southern woman named Polly Morrison. University of Virginia, Class of '14. Old money. She had a woman named Hattie who cooked for her for four decades. Polly turned the Gralyn into a hotel/boarding house, and by the time I moved in, it was beautifully decaying as only a Southern mansion can. And filled with oddballs, drunks, homosexuals, disbarred lawyers, a pusher, at least two art students and various others who meant well but just couldn't quite figure out how to Fit In with the real world.
Polly let people slide on rent. Russell, for example, had come to Washington fresh out of Harvard to write speeches for LBJ, had lost his shit, as the saying goes, and checked into the Gralyn in the early Seventies. He stopped paying rent in '73, and ventured out only to get the cheapest, largest plastic containers of vodka he could find. Russell owed more than $10,000 in rent. I added it up once.
Then there was my down-the-hall neighbor Dickie Bell, a man of voracious sexual appetite and questionable taste in partners. Or, as my fellow front-desk co-worker Dutch put it, Dickie was an "indiscriminate fucker of men." Sometimes Dickie's enraged lovers would storm the hotel (the front door was kept locked) in the middle of the night, wanting to kill him. More than once, Abdul, the late-shift man, phoned me in terror, gushing in half-English, half-Urdu that "crazy man trying to get in here for Mr. Dickie Bell!" Dickie liked to wear sweat suits most of the time, the older kind made out of plastic with elastic around the wrist and ankle openings to ensure maximum heat and condensation. Dickie's favorite one was spacesuit-silver. He would sometimes visit me on my shifts at the desk, plopping into a folding chair in his plastic outfit. In ten or 15 minutes, a pool of sweat the size of a large fried egg would accumulate beneath him on the linoleum floor. One night, I was on duty, things were slow as usual, and I was listening in on the phone lines, a fun and easy thing to do on old switchboards. There was a really entertaining fight between Jerry, the Gralyn's "caretaker" (a fumbling, 40ish booze hound who once discovered a body sitting in a car in the parking lot, then went up to his room and went to sleep), and some teenaged boy he'd let stay in his place. The kid had apparently taken the phone and locked himself in the bathroom. He was talking to his girlfriend in casual and gleeful tones, telling her how "this guy was really fucked up, man!" while Jerry was sobbing and kicking the bathroom door.
That's when the big glass-and-wrought-iron lobby door opened and in walked Seward. He was an art student who looked like he was in the Clash. Pompadour, greasy, paint-splattered jeans, black leather jacket with one arm missing. The safety pins holding it on had finally given up. This was 1983, remember.
But he also had something in his hand, a best-of album by the Bonzo Dog Band. Some of you out there are no doubt saying, "Oh, now I get the point of it. I waded through all that mess about the hotel, but knowing full well that the Bonzos are gods, it's all been worth it." The rest of you--if you're actually still reading--are probably bored/confused. Maybe you're hungry, too, I don't know.
So I took the album from Seward, waited for Abdul to relieve me, then went up to my 10x10 abode and played the thing. Was my life changed? Did I find meaning? Was truth revealed and confusion made clear? Of course not; it was only a record. Besides, the Beatles had already done those other things for me years before.
But what I did find was a stunning load of British weirdness in the form of music and humor, parodies of everything from psychedelia to jazz to pop to vaudeville to blues to rock to country, mingled with performance art, standup and a general sheen of surreality. The Bonzos existed roughly from 1965 (pre-Monty Python, but carrying the same flag of brilliantly anarchistic scattershot humor) to '72, and in that time released a handful of the best music/comedy albums ever. (Check out Rhino's Best of the Bonzo Dog Band for proof.)
And at the helm of this nine- to 12-man ensemble was the aforementioned Vivian Stanshall, who died in a fire in his apartment on March 5, just days before his 52nd birthday. A true British eccentric, he wrote or co-wrote most of the group's best stuff--along with future Python contributor Neil Innes. The sheer breadth and depth of his work is remarkable. And remarkably funny still; unlike a lot of humorous material, Stanshall's output crossed so many periods and styles that you don't have to see it in a certain, now-dated context to "get it."
The Bonzos had a Top 5 British hit in 1968 with the Innes-penned "I'm the Urband Spaceman," produced by Paul McCartney (under the name Apollo C. Vermouth). The band appeared in the Beatles' film Magical Mystery Tour performing the classic "Death Cab for Cutie," and toured the States with folks like the Who and Joe Cocker--though U.S. audiences were generally confused by the act. But Stanshall and company never conformed their humor to any mold or mentality; Viv was great pals with Keith Moon, and the two often went out on the town dressed as Nazis.
Well, we can't all be gifted.
According to many accounts, by the time of his death, insecurity-ridden Stanshall's naturally unhinged nature had gone permanently into left field. And, even during his most creative years, the man was never easy to work with (mandatory reading for Stanshall fans old and new is writer Mark Ellen's tribute in the British mag Mojo; May issue on the stands now). Yet the work, as they say in obituaries, lives on. Particularly in my record collection, though I can't say the same for Seward's.-
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