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Culture Interview – Lesley-Ann Jones on her memoir, Tumbling Dice


14 Minute Read

Lesley-Ann Jones is an author who worked for the likes of the News of the World back in the 80s and 90s. She was whisked around the world to interview people like Hugh Grant (post-Divine and very funny story), Madonna, Raquel Welch, Freddie Mercury and Marco Piero White. Now she’s re-lived it all in her new memoir, Tumbling Dice, which really brings it all back. It’s a fascinating read.

What prompted you to write a memoir now?

I had dined out for years on many hair-raising Fleet Street war stories. At one point, I might have mistaken the phrase ‘Tell me again the one about …’ for my name. I’d lost count of the number of people who had said to me, ‘You really should write a book about your own life.’ So I had been thinking about it for a long time, while never actually doing anything about it. Then my youngest child came of age, while my parents are now in their eighties. It occurred to me that it would be nice to publish such a book while they are still alive, and also that I wouldn’t have to hold back anymore because my children are now grown-ups and could take it. Once I started, it just poured out. It was a very cathartic experience. I hadn’t realized how damaged I was by certain episodes: we tend to bury things, and to live in denial. Writing about them forced me to confront my feelings about them in a different way. On the whole, I have to say, this was a good thing.

You have described the experience as like going out nude? Could you elaborate upon that?

I was staying at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood some years ago with my eldest daughter when an earthquake occurred. Quite a serious earthquake: 7.9 on the Richter scale. The bed I was in at the time ended up across the room, underneath the television, a vast thing, which was now dangling precariously from the wall. Ours was a poolside room on the ground floor, with the main door leading out to the swimming pool terrace. I looked outside and saw a naked woman running along the other side of the pool, screaming. She was completely starkers, except for a very elaborate diamond necklace and chandelier earrings. I remember thinking, not even in the most severe earthquake would I go legging it outside without my clothes on. Daft, really, when you think about the difference between bare-bum nakedness and being bikini-clad, which is a few skimpy triangles and some bits of string. Not that you’d catch me wearing one of those these days, either. But you get my drift. I’ve had three kids. The body is not what it was. I wouldn’t want to frighten the animals. In other words, I am extremely shy and self-contained, like most people. Writing a memoir is the most self-exposing thing that a writer can do, and yes, it is very frightening. What on earth will people think?

Philip Norman describes you as ‘naughty’ in the foreword? Why does he think that?

I have always been a wicked type. Always up for mischief. Given to double-entendres and pranks, with a taste for shaking things up. Life is much more interesting when it has a big tee-hee factor. I was involved in a lot of end-of-pier-type escapades on Fleet Street in the name of a good story. I’ve got some cheek, too. I tend to say the unsayable. I get away with it. I think Phil was alluding to that.

You seem to me to travel between prim and on the nose?

It’s an accurate assessment. I can’t explain it. My eccentric Welsh upbringing, probably. My great-grandmother, grandmother and elderly aunts were all unbendingly proper and obsessed with keeping up appearances. They wouldn’t even nip down the shops without reaching for hat and gloves. But they all knew how to let their hair down and have a rollicking good time over a tipple behind closed doors. I have vivid memories of them all hitching up their skirts and dancing. I must take after them.

This is a memoir that is mainly about the 80s and 90s, you say there was more drugs and alcohol in TV than the music biz?

That was certainly my experience. Drug taking at Chrysalis Records, where I worked, just wasn’t a thing. We drank our share of champagne, though. It was enough. I have never ‘done drugs’. I’ve never even had a drag on a cigarette. I have only wet vices.

You do have a few demons to face down in this book, was it cathartic in that way, or just painful?

Both. Now that I’ve done it, I have a taste for it. There is much more to say. I am already working on the sequel.

You really have hung out with a lot of musicians, actors including unlikely ones like Raquel Welch and Gary Glitter? Accessibility was just so different in those days, wasn’t it?

A number of full-blown careers that we nowadays take for granted simply didn’t exist back then. I’m talking personal managers and publicists, agents and PRs… and a lot of hangers-on. Most artists didn’t have such people in their lives, all justifying their own positions and jobs by interfering and coming between journalist and star. If we bagged an interview with a celebrity, it was just us and them, in a room or a restaurant for a couple of hours. If you hit it off and got on, they might ask you what you were doing for dinner that night. The following week, you might get a call asking you to go to Dusseldorf with them, to review a show. You’d be picked up by their limo, you’d sit next to them on the plane, stay in the same hotel, and be treated like one of their entourage. There was no ‘us and them’ about it. The unspoken rules were simple: you wrote the interview. You reviewed the gig. Whatever else you might witness, it was a case of, what happens on the road stays on the road. You didn’t write the off-record stuff, or you would never be invited back. That was the code by which journalists and artists lived. That code was broken during the early Nineties, when the age of the Paparazzi reached an all-time high – or should I say, ‘low’ – and when celebrity coverage became vicious, every-man-for-himself. Think back to how the rottweilers stalked Freddie Mercury during his final couple of years, photographing him as he left his doctor’s surgery, looking gaunt and on his last legs. They appeared to relish his demise, as if to say, look, this is what you get for being gay. It was shameless and appalling. Laws have changed since then, and rightly so. In our day it was mostly fun, light-hearted and good-humoured. But of course, the Pandora’s Box is open, now. there is no going back.

There are mentions re getting old and attitudes to it – Madonna, you describe, as in fear of it and in pursuit of youth, Joan Collins who also became a friend by the sound of it, is described as having ‘mock-croc’ skin on her body but the perfect face because she’s kept it out of the sun. What’s your personal take on getting older?

That it is better than the alternative. I have a circle of very close friends who are all considerably older than me. My best friend in the world, Simon Napier-Bell (the former manager of Wham!) is nearly three decades older than me, but we are virtually the same person. There is no ‘age gap’. Along with Simon, Ed Bicknell, the former manager of Dire Straits, Clem Cattini, the UK’s most prolific session drummer and former member of the Tornados, and Brian Bennett, the Shadows drummer, are my closest male friends. We make a formidable gang. My best female friend is a decade older than me. I’m still in close touch with three close classmates from school, and two from college … none of which proves anything, other than the fact that people are valuable throughout their lives, and that society places far too great an emphasis on ‘age’ and numbers. It’s not a qualification. I had grandparents and aunts who lived to great ages. I was accustomed to spending considerable time with much older people from a very young age. At my church, St. Bride’s, ‘the Journalists’ Church’ on Fleet Street, most of my friends there are in their 70s and 80s. But their ages are irrelevant. I wrote about Madonna’s hang-ups about growing older, because those are her hang-ups. Joan Collins has always been refreshingly candid about the ageing process. It was from her that I learned to keep my face and neck out of the sun! The ‘mock-croc’ phrase was hers: I’ve always admired the way in which she sends herself up. Worrying about growing and looking older is never going to arrest the process. We’d best forget about it. I live by very simple rules: keep the clutter down; dress the part; talk to men, women and children everywhere you go: everybody has a story to tell; live dangerously (because it lengthens and strengthens your life); never resort to cosmetic surgery, because those who have had it all look like freaks; keep your options open; and remember that everything that is working against you is ultimately working for you. It sometimes takes a while, but it is always the case in the end.

Bill Wyman was a friend in the 80s, and you realized in hindsight you were part of a friendship group that protected his relationship with Mandy Smith who was only 13 when she started seeing him. How does that feel now?

I feel guilty. I knew about it, but never told anyone. I should have. It had already been going on for a couple of years when I realized. I don’t know why I didn’t tell anyone. I was young too. What Bill did to us was a form of abuse. He convinced us to collude in his abuse of Mandy in insidious ways. We were impressed by him, and unsuspecting of his motives. Only when I became a mother myself did I begin to feel differently about it.

I was fascinated by all the machinations at the newspapers – the pay offs, the editors that are deposed and therefore you become more of that fallout, Nick Gordon at YOU who obviously adored you and sent you on all sorts of assignments. And then Piers Morgan when he was editing News of the World, you end up having to sit next to Hugh Grant in Business Class after he has been caught with his pants down and in the paid for company of Divine Brown – he scarpered as soon as he saw you and this impossible mission was not accomplished. How was it for you?

At the time, all of those things were just part of the job. You simply got on with it. It is only now, looking back, that I can see what a crazy existence it all was. We walked tightropes on a daily basis. Vast sums of money were always at stake. Killing the competition and getting the exclusive were all that mattered. We risked our reputations and sometimes our lives for both. I now think what a mental movie it would all make. Because those Fleet Street heyday years have never been captured on film.

There are the famous you obviously like – Joan Collins, Linda McCartney, and others that you pour scorn upon – like Hugh Grant, Madonna?

While it is true that I adore Joan Collins, and that I really loved Linda McCartney, I can’t agree that I ‘poured scorn on Madonna’. She was good to me on a few occasions. I understand her dilemma. How hard must it be to evolve from pretty young sex symbol into ageing diva? You are doing your growing-old in public, and everyone is looking for the cracks. I wouldn’t necessarily have done it her way, but perhaps I’d feel differently in her shoes (and with her money). I have never seen the attraction of younger men, by the way. Men are immature at the best of times, and tend to need mothering, which perhaps explains my friendships with much older guys!

You also tell us about your own love life throughout the book, was that difficult to do because you haven’t had an easy time? You have been a single mum with three children for most of the time.

What do I know about love? That it hurts as well as heals. That’s about it. I am older and wiser, I like to think. I have three amazing kids. My parents are still alive. I have a very busy time with all of them. My life works for me. A partner would (might) be a bonus, but is not a necessity. I have always felt that it’s better to be on my own than with the wrong person; that it is not about being with a man, any man at whatever cost, but with the man. If I couldn’t meet someone naturally, in the real world, then it wasn’t my time, this time around. I don’t do internet dating, nor any of that. I respect other people’s reasons for doing so. It’s not for me.

Tell us about John Hurt offering to buy your first-born, Mia?

I knew John socially. He was married to his wife Donna at the time, and they couldn’t conceive. I was in an advanced state of pregnancy and hanging with him at a private members’ club when he offered me £100,000 for my unborn child. There wasn’t anything sordid about it. He knew that I was about to become a single mother, and probably thought he was doing me a favour! What he didn’t know was that I had chosen to go it alone and have my baby anyway, after my relationship broke up. He was so desperate for a baby that he was prepared to pay a vast sum for one. His desperation broke my heart. He was drinking a great deal in those days. His mind was distorted. He must have known that such a transaction would have been illegal, and we could both have been done for it. Not that I considered it for a second. I would never be without Mia, not in a million years.

You certainly have a way with descriptions – you describe Joan Collins as ‘smelling like toffs’ chocolate’, which made me laugh. And Linda McCartney as ‘as down-to-earth as a root vegetable’. Has your writing always been like that?

I started writing stories when I was about 5 years old. I have hundreds of notebooks dating back to infants’ school. I have always found it easier to write than to speak. I express myself best through the written word. I have a wry view of the world, which is unsurprising, given my eccentric family. I’ve also devoured books since I was tiny. The only way to become a good writer is to read avidly. Anyone can write, it is simply a question of doing it. Of reading a lot, and then doing it. But yes, it is vital to avoid clichés, and to deploy descriptions that do not merely echo what has been said countless times before. There are something like 200,000 words in the English language, if you count obsolete words and foreign derivatives. Our average active vocabulary is around 20,000 words. We can all do better!

Were you tempted to have sex with Marco Piero White? That chapter is titled ‘You know we are going to fuck, don’t you?’

Are you joking? Absolutely not! I was fed-up, not hard-up. He smelled of food, had dirt under his fingernails, and there was dried blood all down his trousers. He was considered something of a sex symbol in his younger day, as I recall. All that matted hair and menacing staring, I suppose. But no, not at all my type. Wouldn’t touch him with yours. I always preferred them freshly-showered, brushed and tweeded, with a volume of Shakespeare under one arm.

What did you discover about yourself during the writing of Tumbling Dice, which is taken from a Stones’ song on Exile on Main Street?

I discovered that there is no real closure. Not about anything. You live with things. You survive with things. No damage ever truly heals. You just have to get on with it, and keep laughing at yourself. Because everyone else will.

How would you sum up that era for you?

I loved it. It defined me, and to a great extent still does. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

The book will be available from 6th April on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com, as an eBook and in paperback. Signed/personalised/dedicated copies can be ordered from Lesley-Anne’s website via PayPal: www.lesleyannjones.com

 

 

The Culture Interview: Lesley-Ann Jones


1 Minute Read

Lesley-Ann Jones, 58, met David Bowie when was she was 11 and lived down the road from him and Angie in Beckenham. She went on to get a rock n’pop column for the Sun! And then the Mail on Sunday. In the 80s, those were the sort of days they were – she interviewed Grace Jones on a massage table, U2 in a pool and Cyndi Lauper on a plane. Her latest book is Hero: David Bowie on Hodder & Stoughton.

Was the decision to do a biography about Bowie an easy one?

It was a no-brainer. I had been writing features about and interviews with David Bowie for years. I always knew that one day I would write a whole book about him. We even talked about it: he said to me during an interview once that one day he would get me to tell the ‘entire, brutal truth’ about him in an autobiography, and that I could be his ghost. We also joked that it would be unpublishHero: David Bowieable. The morning I heard that he had died, I began writing the book in my head there and then. By the time I came to have the conversation with my editor, just a couple of days later, I already knew what I wanted to say in it, and how the whole book would pan out. Minus the surprises, of course. I was not yet prepared for some of the amazing revelations that were made to me by people close to David, who mostly felt that they couldn’t say the things they had to say while he was still alive.

 

Was he your hero when you met him in his yellow kimono and you were an 11 year old schoolgirl?

The first time I met him, I was still at infants’ school: Oak Lodge County Primary in Kent. I had a friend there, Lisa Money, whose mother Hy Money worked as a photographer on a local newspaper, the Beckenham Record. Mostly mother-and-baby portraits, but she also used to cover local events. One Sunday afternoon, Hy took Lisa and me to the Arts Lab, in the back room of the Three Tuns pub on Beckenham High Street, to see a sitar player called Vytas Serelis, whom she had arranged to photograph. David Bowie and Marc Bolan were there that day, but they could have been anybody. By the time we got to grammar school, we were a little older, and more aware. David was a local hero thanks to his success with ‘Space Oddity’, which the BBC had used as a soundtrack for their coverage of the historic lunar landings in the summer of 1969. My friends and I resolved to find out where he lived – Haddon Hall in Beckenham – and we started doorstepping him after school. Angie, his first wife, would give us signed photos and pack us off home. But I knew that we should keep trying; one day, she would be out, he would answer the door, and of course he would ask in in for tea. This he did. Imagine all the eyebrow-raising today: two 11 year-old schoolgirls in uniform going round to a rock star’s gaff for tea, behind their mothers’ backs, and that rock star dressed in little more than a lemon silk kimono… The last vestiges of innocence have been eradicated in the internet age. Back then, there seemed nothing wrong about what we were doing. He was nice to us. He talked to us as equals, and he wasn’t at all up himself. He was absolutely our hero. That first time, just sitting there hanging out with him, talking to him, I knew that I needed to grow up and live my life among people like him. But how was I going to do that? I was neither musical nor artistic. Then the pennies dropped. I could do what my father Ken Jones had done. Once a professional footballer, he was injured out of the game, and became a journalist – a big-name columnist, eventually, who spent ten years travelling the world with Muhammad Ali. I could go on the road with artists and bands, and write about them. It’s what I did.willie-and-the-poor-boys

 

You seem to have kept up a relationship with him across the years?

I hadn’t seen David for a few years when I bumped into him in Chartier, a budget restaurant in Paris one Christmas. I was a Modern Languages student on my year out, living in France, and he’d been doing his Christmas shopping at the Galeries Lafayette just down the road from the brasserie. We had a glass of wine together. He had a little phrase that he always used to say whenever he saw me: ‘You again!’ Eventually, I was interviewing him in my own right, for a variety of publications. I think, perhaps, that he might have had a soft spot for me because I was ‘from home’: from the same neck of the woods as him. The greater the superstar he became, the more wistful he seemed about ‘home’, and the ‘good old days’. Every time I saw him, we’d sit there talking about Beckenham, Bromley, our old schools, Medhursts department store on Bromley Market Square, where we both used to buy records. About Top of the Pops. We had people in common in New York, where I spent a great deal of time, during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I used to bump into him, we’d go for coffee or lunch, and just hang out. I could never have said, and I never have said, that we were ‘friends’, as such. He was a planet, I was a satellite. Superstars do not forge bosom friendships with hacks, and that seems right. But he was never less than kind and generous to me.

 

I love the way you say his best friend, George Underwood was much better looking?

David and George met in the Cub Scouts, and had known each other since the age of 8. George was, and still is, deliciously good-looking, with a gentle demeanour and a rakish charm. An incredibly talented artist, he was the one who got to art school – not David. He had a most distinctive personal style, and seems to have been a great source of inspiration to David. He was also a talented guitarist and singer. He and David were in a number of bands together, before David went off and did his own thing. Then George signed his own recording contract with the most successful producer of the day, Mickie Most, and was tipped to eclipse his best friend. David was so angry and frustrated about this that he threatened to kill George. But then something terrible happened: George had a complete mental breakdown, and was admitted to Cane Hill – the same psychiatric institution in which David’s brother Terry was incarcerated. When George had recovered eventually re-emerged, all thoughts of a pop career had been cast aside. He settled into the quieter, and safer, lifestyle of artist and illustrator.

 

How do you perceive Bowie’s approach to getting older and the changes he made to his life? And how do they compare with your own?

I think, in common with most rock stars of his generation, that he felt invincible and immortal. For a while, at least. Journalists liked to write about him ‘maturing’ during the mid-‘80s: certainly he had cast aside his various alter egos, the shock-locks, the mad make-up and the outrageous interview style. By the time of Live Aid in 1985, he was 38 years old, looked fit and glowing, and was probably one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. He was a rich single dad with all his own hair. He’d been on his own for a few years by then, and he had begun to talk about ‘finding true love’ and ’settling down’. That had definitely become a focus. He got engaged to Melissa Hurley, a dancer on his Glass Spider world tour, 1987. But she was half his age, and the age gap really showed. She dumped him. Who dumps David Bowie?! She did! It wasn’t until he met Iman that things fell into place. The gift of the love of his life seemed to give him permission to let go. He was extremely happy with Iman. He relaxed, made the music he wanted to make -which didn’t please everybody, but so what – and started going with the flow. He became who he was always destined to be – as he put it himself, he evolved into his own dad!

As for me: like my own father, I’ve always raged against the dying of the light. I think the relationships that we have, and the way we have and raise our children, shape our ageing process. I have always been a late starter, at absolutely everything. I had my first child at 30, and became a single mother for 8 years. I married late, and had my second and third children in my forties. I had always been fit and active, crashing around the world with rock stars, doing my share of champagne-guzzling (though never anything worse). I had to come off the road when I had children, of course, and that cut me down to size. But I still think of myself as a young upstart. In my head, I’m still an 11 year-old pop fan, and from behind, I like to think (I have kept my hair long), I still look 25… yeah, I know, in my dreams. I still wear denim every day, and black at night. It’s not so much desperation to cling to my youth, but refusal to change from who I really am. Dad’s in his 80s, and he still wears jeans. Who’s to say that we shouldn’t, and who cares what they say anyway?

My marriage collapsed in divorce while my children were still very young. That took some getting over. For a long time, I regarded it as an ending, and an enormous loss. Another decade on, I have come to regard it as a definite beginning. I have written, published and promoted five more books since – which I may never have done, had I stayed married. It was definitely a new lease of life. My former husband wasn’t into rock and pop music – he preferred classical concerts, ballet and opera (which I love too, by the way), and so I hadn’t been to a rock gig for years. I picked up with a number of old friends in the music business, made some new ones, started going again. For me, the important thing is to be out there, and to take part. Life is all about people. Writing is a lonely occupation, but beyond work, there is no point in being a recluse. I maintain a strong Christian faith, and I truly believe that the next life will be infinitely more than this one. I’m not wild about growing old and losing my looks, such as they were: who is? But what are you gonna do about it? I’m far too squeamish for cosmetic surgery, and anyway, I have never met a face lift I found convincing. I lived with Raquel Welch in Los Angeles for a few months, a long time ago. She and her best friend Nancy Sinatra are richer than Croesus, and could afford the finest plastic surgeons on the planet. They looked ab-fab in photographs, but at point-blank range? The lips went one way, the eyes another. My take was always that you can cut through and re-stitch flesh and muscle, but not nerves. Our nerve endings give our faces their personality. As do our wrinkles. Jowls you can keep. But nowt can be done. I’ll keep drinking the champagne, then, and will remain ever grateful for myopia. And I only look in mirrors in the dark.

 

And his ways of thinking around his own approaching death?

I didn’t see David during his final years, and I never got to discuss this with him. But I have been told, by a couple of musicians who worked with him on his last albums, that he was sad when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer – because he didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to leave Iman, his daughter Lexi, his son Duncan. He wanted to be there when his grandson arrived. He at last had everything he’d ever wanted. He just didn’t have it for long enough.

 

What about you and getting older and how you look at the world of rock stars?

Once upon a time, they were supposed to want to die before they got old. Now, they just keep doing what they do for as long as they can. Why shouldn’t they? No one ever says that a classical musician must hang up his violin or her oboe because he/she has passed the point of no return. I know that many vintage rockers find the road gruelling beyond belief. There is no doubt that touring is exhausting. But Sir Paul McCartney is rarely off the road, and he’s still one of the finest rock musicians who ever lived. People love to knock, and to say that his voice is not what it was – but whose is? And why shouldn’t he? For as long as he’s performing live, I’ll be queuing up to buy tickets. Ridiculous? Who says? Who’s the judge? It’s not going to end well for any of us. We’ve got to make all the hay we can while the sun’s still out.

 

Please do reminisce a little about interviewing the famous in the 80s and compare to now?

It’s all very different now. Back then, pre-internet, we’d be sent everywhere, no expense spared. We’d get the exclusive interviews, sometimes trouncing our rivals. Sweet victory. If they liked you, the artist/s would say ‘let’s have dinner.’ You’d be invited on the road with them. You’d fly in their private jet, sit next to them on the plane, join them in the limo, go out with them for dinner. What changed? 1, technology. 2, middle men. In those days, there were not the managers, the promoters, the agents, the publicists, the hangers-on, coming between us and the artists. We could, and did, forge relationships with them, that lasted many years in a few cases, and a couple of which are still sound. Nowadays, journalists rarely get that close.

 

Bowie gave you his house in Mustique to live in while you were writing a book?

After he married Iman, they began offloading his various houses around the world. Iman was creating her own territory, her own landscape with him. She didn’t like Britannia Bay House on Mustique – primarily because Mustique is a very racist place. All the home-owners were rich white people, and all the servants were black. So David was getting rid of it. I happened to mention to him one day that I was going to go off for a while, to write my first book on Freddie Mercury. He invited me to go down to Mustique for a month. My elder daughter, Mia and I went together. That was special. There are photographs of our experience in the book.

 

Have you kept up a relationship with Iman?

I met her only once, and could never say that I had a relationship with her. Amazing woman, though. I have nothing but admiration for her.

 

By dying at 69 in the way that he did, at home, and by specifically not having a funeral, what was Bowie saying to the world?

I think he was telling us that he was in control. That he would die exactly as he had lived: by his own rules. On his own terms. How could he have a funeral? It would have been a bunfight. He would have loathed that whole showbizzy shebang. A funeral is an intensely private rite of passage. He left the rest of us to mourn him in our own individual ways. Some of us wept and gnashed and danced in the rain, in the street. Some went to his star on Hollywood Boulevard. Some left flowers and candles and album covers at appropriate landmarks around the world. Some pitched up on his doorstep. Some drew on walls. Some of us wrote books. Being David, he would have laughed at and approved of it all.

 

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