Refine Your Search

The Culture Interview: Lucy O’Brien – Writer & Academic


11 Minute Read

Lucy O’Brien, 58, is a writer and academic. She has written for NME and City Limits as well as the Guardian etc. She has published various books including Madonna: Like an Icon. She has just updated and re-released her biography of Dusty Springfield – Dusty.

What attracted you to writing this biography of Dusty in the first place in the late 80s?

I interviewed Dusty in 1988 when Phonogram released The Silver Collection, a sumptuous greatest hits album. I’ve interviewed quite a few musicians and artists and she stood out – for her Goonish humour and her original responses. She didn’t trot out a PR spiel, and she thought carefully about each question I asked. I think that summed up her approach to life and music. She never sang the obvious, and she made each song her own. The angle I took with the piece was that Dusty was ‘Queen of the Mods’. She had a cool mod sensibility, and was a regular on the 60s pop show Ready Steady Go!

I did the interview for City Limits magazine, and shortly after it was published an editor at Sidgwick & Jackson wrote to me saying, ‘Would you like to do a biography of Dusty?’ I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t published a book at that point, and it was a great opportunity.

Can you tell us something about that initial undertaking and the process around it?

Ooh, it felt arduous at first. I’d never written a book before…but then I realised that it was like a string of articles put together as chapters, with a linking theme. The next challenge was tracking down interviewees, people who knew her and had worked with her. In the late 80s there was no internet, so I had to use a lot of snail mail, do a lot of phone calls and face-to-face interviews. I also spent time in the US, travelling to New York, Memphis, Nashville and LA, interviewing friends and musicians she had worked with. There was a mystery around her at that point, because she moved to America in 1970 and disappeared from the scene. No one really knew what had happened to her…and I had to somehow piece the story together. All I had to go on was a trickle of articles in back issues of NME, and some press around the time she visited the UK for a ‘comeback’ tour in 1978. It was like doing detective work.

How has Dusty’s image changed now in this LBGTQ-aware era? 

She has become an LGBTQ icon. She was in the closet as a lesbian in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Being out and gay on the pop scene was tantamount to commercial suicide (and to an extent it still is). She had to invent boyfriends and live a life in public that felt artificial. In private she had a very active love life and used to go to lesbian clubs like Gateways, and had a legion of gay male admirers, some of whom used to enjoy dressing up in her gowns!

What did you find challenging about the writing of it?

The main challenge in the late 80s was what I couldn’t put into the book. It was read by lawyers, and I couldn’t write about Dusty’s lesbianism. I could only hint that she was bisexual, because she had said once or twice during interviews ‘I’m just as easily swayed by a woman as a man.’

I loved writing about her music, her childhood, the 1960s pop scene, and all her soulful influences. But I had to be careful when discussing her mental health issues and her drug use – she hadn’t talked about these things in our interview, and they were not in the public domain.

Would it have been different writing it now with the internet?

Writing a biography now is a very different process – it takes half the time. You can get in touch with people much more quickly via the internet, you can do Skype interviews, and there is SO much more information at your fingertips. However, you still have to fact check. And there is no substitute for physically travelling to a place and breathing in the air and absorbing the atmosphere, and talking to people face to face. Old-fashioned physical research gives you much more emotional information about a person’s life. The internet is very flat, gossipy and superficial. For instance, I learned so much about Dusty’s experience recording Dusty in Memphis when I actually went to the rundown studio in Memphis where she recorded it. And feeling the close-knit cameraderie of the Nashville music scene, or, by contrast, the alienation of those sun-baked LA freeways.

Tell us something about the interviews you did? For instance, with Pat Rhodes her longstanding assistant? Or others that stand out? 

I loved meeting her 1960s manager Vic Billings – he was a camp impresario of the old school, a real gent, and hilariously funny. Also her Philips producer Ivor Raymonde, (whose son Simon was part of that amazing post-punk band Cocteau Twins). Ivor was dashing, dedicated, and very good at explaining why Dusty stood out from the other 1960s beat girls like Lulu and Cilla Black.

I also remember interviewing the Dusty In Memphis producers – Jerry Wexler (so articulate, yet a little exasperated with Dusty), Arif Mardin (he drove me through Manhattan in his enormous station wagon and talked about Dusty’s instinct for soul music), and Tom Dowd (who gave me funny anecdotes about her tottering into the studio with her beehive and gown ‘made up like a Southern lady’). Sadly, all of those wonderful people have passed away, so I’m thankful I was able to capture their words and memories.

Dusty’s assistant Pat Rhodes was also helpful, giving me insight into Dusty’s childhood – her vivacious, slightly unhinged Irish mother, her shy, lumbering father, and brother Tom, who formed folk act the Springfields with Dusty in the late 1950s. Pat was a constant in Dusty’s life, and she has been really supportive of the book, at each stage.

This publication is updated – could you tell us something about that?

What’s good with this publication is I have been able to use some of the interview material that was out of bounds in the first edition. I can be much more frank about her lesbian relationships, and her struggles with mental health and addiction. It’s enabled me to go into her story in greater depth, and really explore the full impact of her legacy. I was able to interview her former lover Julie Felix, who told me a lot about the tensions of their secret relationship in the 1960s. I also talked to Pat, and Dusty’s close friend, the singer Simon Bell, about the last five years of Dusty’s life after she got the cancer diagnosis. They both spent a lot of time caring for her, staying at her house in Henley. It was reassuring to know that Dusty’s dry wit and humour stayed with her to the end.

And I interviewed playwright and TV scriptwriter Jonathan Harvey, who wrote the recent Dusty musical. He gave me a fresh perspective on her music, her psychological struggles, and her legacy as a gay icon.

Was there anything that shocked you when researching Dusty or Mary O’Brien’s life? 

I never forget talking to Brooks Arthur, producer of Dusty’s ill-fated, unreleased 1973 album Longing. ‘She wasn’t handling her New York trip very well. Something had begun to tumble,’ he said to me in an interview for the first edition of my book. He was hushed and close to tears when he talked about how she attempted suicide. He had to take her to hospital, and was devastated that he couldn’t take ‘good enough care of her.’ I was also shocked when talking to her US manager Howard Portugais, about how she tumbled so badly through drink and drug use, that she ended up with no money, living in a ‘halfway house’ in LA. I had no idea things had got that bad. I felt enormous sympathy for her, and realised then what a fragile character she was.

Did you understand Dusty’s mental health problems any better at the end of this research? 

Yes…that she was a bit like Amy Winehouse in the way she had to fight personal demons just to sing. She was her own worst critic, and had such a harsh opinion of herself. Yet she created such vulnerable, beautiful music. So much more is understood now about mental health. Many musicians struggle with it, and the music industry, with its punishing schedules of touring and promotion, can make someone’s mental health much worse. Dusty suffered from having to hide her true sexuality, and she battled anxiety and depression. However, as Jonathan Harvey says, what’s so inspiring about Dusty’s story is how in the end she made a brilliantly successful comeback with the Pet Shop Boys. And although she died young at 59, she found happiness and peace of mind at the end of her life.

I hadn’t realised what happened to her in South Africa and how she took that stand that made her controversial at the time, she wouldn’t play to segregated audiences in 1964? Good on her. Max Bygraves wasn’t too pleased!

Yes, Dusty was close friends with the Motown crew, particularly Martha Reeves. She was a huge supporter of the civil rights struggle, and was utterly opposed to playing to segregated audiences. However, Dusty really paid for that – many of her peers (like Max Bygraves) criticised her, saying she shouldn’t mix politics with showbusiness. A question was even raised in Parliament, asking whether a pop star should get involved and speak out against apartheid. Times really have changed.

And what about that beehive? What did it represent for her?

Dusty modelled her look on drag queens. She was never particularly comfortable being a typical girl, so she created a style that was hyper-feminine and over-the-top, with the panda-eye make up and the huge beehive. The queens loved it. I explore this in the book, how there was a split between the real-life Mary O’Brien and the stage persona Dusty Springfield. After a while, though, this split triggered a psychological crisis, and Dusty felt dominated by the alter ego she had created.

And the Lady? Her reputation wasn’t always great with musicians? And she was known to throw things around in her dressing room?

Dusty had a fiery temper. She had a ‘difficult reputation’, but many argue in the book that she had this reputation just because she was a woman making demands in the studio, and not accepting second best from the musicians she worked with. She was a hard taskmaster…and she fell out with a few musicians – notably jazz drummer Buddy Rich. They got into an argument and she whacked him round the head, sending his toupe flying.

She also liked to release tension by throwing food and crockery around her dressing room. She says that she always cleared it up!

Why did she disappear in the 70s in the US?

Dusty adored US soul music, and wanted to perform and record in America. She was also fascinated by American culture and Hollywood films, so moving to the US in the 70s was like the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Unfortunately it was also her undoing. The US music industry then was still very segregated, and they couldn’t understand or market a white English woman singing soul music. Also, as her backing singer Doris Troy said, there was a lot of cocaine around – ‘the devil’s dandruff was rulin’.’

And did she ever find a good gay relationship or was her family Catholicism always at play in the background? 

Dusty was inhibited by her Catholic upbringing, and found it hard to form lasting relationships. However, she had a long-term lover in the 1960s, artist-singer Norma Tanega. And she lived with a number of lovely women in LA. Pat says that towards the end of her life Dusty was single, and more devoted to her cats. It was simpler that way.

How was your interview with her in the late 80s?

I really enjoyed talking to Dusty. She was an original thinker with a nice turn-of-phrase. I always remember her talking about how being a female performer involved ‘such a lot of upkeep. All those hair extensions…’ And she enthused about Sinead O’Connor saying, ‘Where were women like her in my day? She’s young, Irish and so talented.’ She was analytical, and she KNEW her music. I would love to have known her as a friend, and to have her perspective on pop music now.

Dusty: The Classic Biography, by Lucy O’Brien is out on August 22nd

* Lucy is featured with writer Julie Hammil at The Rock N Roll Book Club event ‘Madonna and Dusty: Icons of Song’, London Dublin Castle, on September 4th. For tickets and info: https://www.wegottickets.com/event/476707

Surprise Me

Hear more from us

Subscribe to our newsletter