My eyes alighted on a keyboard. “Ah yes,” I said. “During Roxy Music concerts – my reason for living as a teenager, as I’ve already told you – when it came to the bit where you warbled ‘The crazy music drives you insane – this way! … ’ and minced across the stage for your solo, this is it. This is the exact one you played.”
“No,” said my idol, leading me further along, “that’s, er, this way.” Was he absolutely sure? Yes, he most definitely was. Ferry, if he didn’t know it from all the moments when I’d finished his sentences for him and corrected the man on key dates, must have realised then that he’d opened his front door to a nutter.
Why would pop stars grant access-all-areas to journalists? I don’t think it really happens any more and, looking back from the perspective of this PR-controlled era, am surprised it ever did. But I was glad it did.
What the interviewer got from this privilege is what in the trade is called “colour”: what the star’s front-room was like, what their loo was like (I always asked to go), what they were like, surrounded by their stuff, and whether they had fresh milk in the fridge/knew the price of a pint/could even locate the cold storage appliance.
PRs like to control presentation. Preferably in a plush hotel suite. They might tell you this enables them to maintain their charges’ essential mystery, but when I read interviews which have taken place in chillingly bland surroundings, the opposite is invariably true and something of the aura is dulled.
My encounter with Ferry in 1999 wasn’t at his home but his studio in London’s Kensington. That was good enough for me, though, and – a diffident subject who avoids eye contact and speaks in a murmur – he was as relaxed as he was probably ever going to be, and only sighed once at my insane fan-knowledge: “You really should get out more.”
But pop stars’ actual gaffs? I’ve cased plenty of them. Boy George, for instance, who’s just announced he’s selling his mansion in Hampstead, London, asking price: £17 million. I was there, also for this paper, in 2002 and for the first half-hour George wasn’t, so Eileen, his long-serving assistant, cheerfully showed me round the Gothic pile, which was eerily reminiscent of Gloria Swanson’s house in Sunset Boulevard with its imposing carved staircase and dead water in the swimming pool (though, unlike in that movie, no dead body).
Was George relaxed, a la maison? I’ll say. “Do you masturbate?” he asked me, out of the blue. He revealed how, insulted by “this queen” in a nightclub, he’d just had to pay £23,000 in damages for breaking his abuser’s nose. How the Sunday Express, for whom he was writing a column, had banned him from using the word “arse”. And how he was a committed vegetarian, more or less (“I only eat meat when it’s attached and pleased to see me”).
After a rollicking hour and a half of ribald chat, we were going to be late for Taboo, the West End celebration of his band Culture Club, so he got his driver Paul, a builder on the side, to ferry us in the white van, me in the back squatting on paint pots. On the walk to the theatre, George in his “Earth girls are easy” T-shirt, a succession of tourists made us pose for photos and I wondered if one would turn up in the gossip columns: “Boy George steps out with a mystery man… who’s his new Earth boy and is he easy?”
In 1999, The Scotsman dispatched me to Buckinghamshire – the rockbroker-belt – and from the main road Ozzy Osbourne’s house was as foreboding as you’d expect of a heavy metal hell-raiser, with my taxi driver laughing as he turned away: “I shall always bear witness that those big, eff-off gates opened for you, fate unknown.”
But while the big eff-off door creaked upon opening and the walls were blood red, Ozzy was warmly welcoming. Yes, there were seven crucifixes round his neck, but he wore the sort of baffies you see advertised in People’s Friend for my guided tour.
In the kitchen, there were messages on the fridge from his kids: “Be good, Daddy!” and “Don’t go to Boots!” But at one point he got slightly lost and in that moment it seemed that home was the safest place for the Black Sabbath legend. When he eventually arrived at the master bedroom, his wife Sharon had written in lipstick on the mirror: “See you soon XXX” and “No girls!”
Then in 2004 back in London and Camden, there was Amy Winehouse. Beautiful, tragic Amy when she was very much the former and not yet the latter. “The fence is broken, a Yellow Pages rots by the gate and empty cans of Stella litter the garden,” I wrote. “Wading through the jumble of shoes in the hall, the living-room looks like a crime scene. Dirty mugs, CDs out of their sleeves, discarded clothes – pants! – a cushion embroidered with a crude likeness of Patrick Swayze. Only a woman could live here.”
I couldn’t get away with an intro like that now but I wouldn’t have been allowed such insight later, when fame swamped Winehouse. Even then, when it was new, she said: “I haven’t got time to be me any more.” But she was a sweetie. I helped wash up, she found milk for coffee and we had a lovely chat with a big kiss on departure. Chez Amy was a career highlight.