All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015


Sitting here in the dark listening to Loose Ends on Radio Four I was thinking of the pre-war British crooner Al Bowlly as earlier I walked past the Duke Street corner in St James where he met his peculiar and untimely end. I've long been a fan and in the late nineties  I had a very strong dream about him which, along with another about a certain American actress,  kick-started The Real Tuesday Weld.  

Al was in a way the first British pop star - although of course he was actually Mozambique born and discovered singing in a South Africam barbershop by an impressario whose hair he was cutting .  His extraordinary voice and swarthy good looks set him above the bandleaders who were usually the stars at the time.  He made a mind boggling number recordings and played countless show before his final appearance in HIgh Wycombe on the 17 April 1941. 

He died later that night when his apartment building was bombed and he ignored the Blitz warning.  In a surreal twist, it appears he was actually killed by his bedroom door which was blown off in the blast and knocked him over.  

Here he is singing Close Your Eyes.

I was talking about all this with Ned Sherrin who used to present Loose Ends one time we played it.  After the show Ned would take his guests to the nice pub round the corner from the BBC where he would have a lunch set up behind a roped off area.  It was always the same.  Ned wouldn't eat anything but he would have a bottle of champagne. The guests could eat and drink whatever they wanted -  apart from his champagne.  When he finished the bottle he would leave you to it and get a cab back to his home in Chelsea.

Before he left he told me that he knew a secret about Al Bowlly.  He didn't actually say I couldn't tell anybody and sadly he is dead now too so I don't suppose he, Al or anyone else would mind after all this time.  You see apparently in his youth Ned had a romantic liason with an older man (Johnny?) who told him he had been Al Bowlly's lover.  Apart from the fact that it would have been impossible to be publicly homosexual at the time, Al's career and reputation was based on him being a romantic ladies' man so this would have been a very private affair.  And of course he was married  - and twice  - although the first attempt only lasted two weeks after his bride was allegedly found in bed with another man on their wedding night. Wow.

Anyway, Ned told me that the older gentlemen had told him that the reason Al had not heeded the siren call to the shelter which would have saved him was that they were together that night and did not want to risk being exposed.  

I always found something haunting about the image of the doorway as a metaphor for death and particularly in this case which influenced the writing of The Real Tuesday Weld song "Bringing the Body Back Home'   -  for in a final poignant twist Ned told me that Al's lover had always kept the very door that killed him. I suppose it may still be out there somewhere - like Al.


spillyjane said...

Of your entire body of work 'Bringing the Body Back Home' does it to me like no other song. I can not listen to it without aching inside and tearing up - which is by no means a bad thing.

There is something magical about liminal spaces - doorways, bridges - where one is somewhere and nowhere and who knows what's on the other side? It is so easy - and so quick! - to take that step across and then who knows where you are...

Al's story is now more even more tragic - and beautiful - to me now.

And speaking of doors, when I moved into my Manor there was a very mysterious one - off its hinges, and looking very old indeed - in the basement. It is still there as I love it too much to get rid of it. I wonder if it has a story to tell?

clerkenwell kid said...

Yeas absolutely right - but also often something comic.

I have been working with a very elegant German singer. Whenever I visit her apartment, I always seem to try to leave by opening the cleaning cupboard door and trying to get in.

She has alway been very understanding about it..

Zurich said...

What a story! And I found a homeless door in the street last year and took it to my studio (quite a heavy thing it was, I must say). Not that there's any chance it's one and the same, but still, I cannot help viewing it in a completely new light. Maybe I've been keeping an unhinged love killer in my bosom!

spillyjane said...

I had an apartment like that one - with the broom closet right next to the door! And you know, the same thing happened all the time with guests - especially during particularly lively parties when the wine flowed.

Maybe that door is a portal to something like a Narnia and your subconscious knows something you don't?

Anonymous said...

I've been having a recent love affair with Al Bowlly, trying to learn (with little success) how to play "Guilty" on my Mandolin.

As for doors, I think secret doors are the best of the bunch. In my old house, I found a panel at the back of a built-in bookcase the day we moved in. Behind it I found a book (quite old and falling apart) called "Hedwig's Carriage", which I've never been able to find anywhere else. It was probably the strangest thing I've ever experienced, but I loved it.

Empress Cixi said...

Thank you for sharing this secret. Al has knockin' on Heaven's door.
There is something that is truly courageous : to defy the Death to save his pride intact. Both of them have chosen this way.
End of Act III, the hero's choice is Death to stay a brilliant star in contemporary people minds.
It is a good start for a movie.

Empress Cixi said...

I am thinking about it, and a question is coming.
Why Al was afraid to be seen with another man as people would only see them together at the shelter, and not behind his bedroom's door ?
I mean, he could say he's met a friend on his way back home.
I wonder why he was scared to go out of this bedroom...

clerkenwell kid said...

Haha - thanks for all these door references and stories.
Particularly like 'unhinged love killer'..

Al's door would be quite a find for a London Ephemera hunter

Regarding his decision to not leave the apartment, it would have had a shared hall and staircase and people been very intimate and aware of each other I suspect.

Jack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack said...

Hi Kari,

Hope this guitar chords may help you play the song in your mandolin:

F, D, Gm, C7.

F D Gm E7
Is it a sin, is it a crime
Am Faug Bbmaj7 Bbm
Loving you, dear, like I do?
F Abdim Gm7 C7
If it's a crime, then I'm guilty
Gm7 C F C7
Guilty of loving you

F D Gm E7
Maybe I'm wrong, dreaming of you
Am Faug Bbmaj7 Bbm
Dreaming the lonely night through
F Abdim Gm7 C7
If it's a crime, then I'm guilty
Gm7 C F E7
Guilty of dreaming of you

What can I do
Bm7b5 E7
What can I say
Am Bm7b5 E7
After I've taken the blame?
You say you're through
D G7
You'll go your way
Dm7 Gm7 C7
But I'll always feel just the same

Maybe I'm right
G7 E7
Maybe I'm wrong
Am Faug Bbmaj7 Bbm
Loving you, dear, like I do
F Abdim G7 C7
If it's a crime, then I'm guilty
Gm7 C7 F
Guilty of loving you

clerkenwell kid said...

Thanks Jack - nice work - I'm digging these. Love the chords on the second line - tricky on the mandolin though?

Empress Cixi said...

Hey, this night i've told the story of Al Bowlly to a friend, as i'll perhaps use this story as a start to a short movie (if it is made, i'll write thanks to Stephen Coates for telling the secret).
He told me that this story reminds him about Teddy Pendergrass.

On March 18, 1982, in the East Falls section of Philadelphia on Lincoln Drive near Rittenhouse Street, Pendergrass was involved in an automobile accident. The brakes failed on his 1981 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, causing the car to hit a guard rail, cross into the opposite traffic lane, and hit two trees. Pendergrass and his passenger, Tenika Watson, a nightclub performer with whom Pendergrass was acquainted, were trapped in the wreckage for 45 minutes. While Watson walked away from the accident with minor injuries, Pendergrass suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

The "secret" that everybody knows is that the cause of the accident was that Pendergrass lost the control of the car as Watson was (sorry for the unholy word) sucking him while he was driving.
Since this, his career has been accidentally destroyed...

Empress Cixi said...

n.b. :Teddy Pendergrass was an american soul crooner

clerkenwell kid said...

WOW - Thanks for that Lucie. I don't think they covered that in the Highway Code when I took my driving test..

Empress Cixi said...

Now you know. Be careful ! haha
Too much joy looks dangerous...

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