DCSIMG

Passion for life and death … and Mick Jagger too

IT WAS the era of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. The Swinging Sixties were just that, a time when the Captain Mainwarings of regimented post-war Britain were swept away in an orgy of student demonstrations and Ban the Bomb marches. The country's rebellious youth got high on marijuana or LSD, women took the contraceptive pill and all indulged in "free love" - to the horror of their elders.

The Rolling Stones were the bad-boy rockers whose image came to typify the 1960s. They swore, they took drugs, they boasted of their sexual exploits. Their lyrics and the stage appearance of lead singer Mick Jagger oozed sexuality, non-conformity and delivered two fingers to the stuffy British establishment.

But if the Stones were bad, there was a character in the swinging London scene who made their exploits appear tame. Donald Cammell, a Scot born into a privileged Edinburgh family, enjoyed an outrageous sex-and-drugs-laced lifestyle and was the one man at the height of Sixties Britain who could "out-Stone the Stones".

Jagger was a close friend and partied at Cammell's London house with the rocker's future wife Bianca. The story may be apocryphal but Cammell is reputed to have approached the pair one night and suggested that they join in a bedroom foursome. The Wild Man of Rock said "no" - this time.

Cammell was said to have an irresistible lure to women, certainly his "conquests" can be counted in triple digits. He even bedded his second wife when she was a 14-year old schoolgirl. But like many of his generation he faded along with the culture he espoused. In 1996, at age 62, the man who had once epitomised Bohemian Britain, shot himself in his Hollywood home.

Cammell's father Charles was a scion of the once-mighty Cammell-Laird shipbuilding family. An artist and poet, he owned a chateau in France and wrote a biography of his close friend Aleister Crowley - dubbed "the wickedest man in the world". The younger Cammell would later boast that Crowley was his godfather and that he used to bounce him on his knee although it is unlikely the two ever met.

Charles Cammell and his wife Iona rented the Outlook Tower adjacent to Edinburgh Castle and it was here that Donald was born. Described as a "precocious" boy his artistic upbringing showed itself at an early age. Donald studied at the former Fort Augustus Abbey School in Inverness-shire, then at Westminster, was a gifted painter and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy in London at 16. After studying in Florence he set himself up as a portrait painter at a studio in Chelsea. The work bored him and he moved to New York and then France. In the late 1960s he decided his future lay in directing films.

Between 1968 and his death in 1996 Cammell directed four films, one of which, Performance, had such a stunning impact on audiences in the UK and US that it became a cult. Performance was Cammell's zenith; the film contained scenes the public had never seen before - explicit sex, violence and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. At a test screening in California the wife of a Warner Brothers executive was so shocked she vomited. It put Cammell briefly on an artistic pedestal, as he had produced a genuinely pioneering piece of British cinema.

Even today, Performance is screened regularly on British movie screens. Starring James Fox as a gangster and Jagger as a rock star, it deals with how London's East End and West End clashed in the 1960s. The overtones are distinctly homoerotic, including a classic scene of Jagger in a three-in-a-bath scene with actresses Anita Pallenberg and Michelle Breton. Not surprisingly both women were lovers of Cammell.

That success, however, was never to be repeated. The shock element of the decade vanished to be replaced by the horror genre of the 1970s and 1980s. Cammell by this time had moved to a house in the hills above Hollywood with his second wife, China Kong, and struggled with production companies, bankruptcy hearings, box-office oblivion and depression.

When film company Nu Image cut what he regarded as crucial scenes from his movie Wild Side, the privileged Scot, seeing this as the last straw in a long list of disappointments, took a 9mm Glock pistol and shot himself through the forehead. He survived for 45 minutes with his wife by his side, even asking her to turn a mirror towards him so he could watch himself dying.

How did those who worked with Donald Cammell remember him? A survey of the people who knew him best offers some insight:

"Donald looked upon violence as an artist might look on paint."

- James Fox, who played the gangster Chas in Performance

"He was too clever for Hollywood. No-one likes to work with people who are too smart."

- Chris Rodley, film director and friend

"He was one of those people who once met, are never forgotten. Women, in particular, found him irresistible. He had a magnetic personality and he exploited it."

- David Cammell, brother

"You can only listen to someone say they want to kill themselves so many times. You say, 'come on, let's move on'. But it was 'no, I have to kill myself'. He used to rant about it."

- Myriam Gibril, long-term lover

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

A mysterious man and his Highland home

 
 
 

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