One evening in the summer of 1996 I was about to settle down to dinner at home with my family when the phone rang. PJ Proby was on the line and he sounded angry. “Jon,” he said, “get your sorry ass out of that chair and make your way to the West End without delay. Tonight I’m going to kill a man and I want you to witness the event, for posterity.”
Clearly, this was not an opportunity to be missed.
In no time at all I was sitting with Proby backstage at a London theatre where he was the star turn in a musical about Elvis. Seems he’d got it into his head that the show’s producer, Bill Kenwright, owed him money, and that Kenwright must die that very night. Proby seemed entirely serious about delivering on his threat, even claiming to have a loaded .45 in his bag. An anxious hour passed before some flunky appeared and handed Proby an envelope stuffed with cash. Proby carefully counted the money and appeared satisfied. At least, he never mentioned the death threat again for the remainder of the evening.
I’d first met him a year earlier when he was making his stage comeback in a Buddy Holly tribute show. He arranged to meet me at a sports bar in Knightsbridge, co-owned by Terry Venables. Proby turned up on time, borrowed £50 from me, and promptly disappeared into the London fog. I figured that would be the last I’d see of him. A month later he invited me round to his North Finchley home. He then proceeded to take me on a guided tour of his uproarious past which had seen him lurch from the dizzying peaks of pop success into the deepest troughs of booze-fuelled depravity and rank obscurity.
“I had made up my mind to blow my head off onstage. It seemed like the only way I could show I was in control, that I had the last say in my destiny. And I was planning to make a real show of it…”
“Take a look at me,” says PJ Proby in a tone of voice that suggests you’d better do as he says. Or else. “Take a good, long look at me. Now, let me tell you something. You’re looking at a legend. A true fucking legend. And that’s the way I always intended it. I always believed that I was born great. I knew from an early age I was going to have a tremendous impact on the world. I wanted to be famous and wanted to be known after I was dead. Plenty of people fantasise about these things. But I made sure everything I dreamed about came true. So I took that fantasy and made it happen. I made myself a legend. And, for a while, I was the biggest thing around. That was nearly 30 years ago.
“Now, people come up to me and they ask me where I’ve been for the last 25 years. They say, “Proby, we thought you had gone somewhere to lie down and die.” There have been times when I’ve woken up some mornings and read my own obituaries. And I’d laugh my fucking head off. Because going away to lie down and die was never in the script. They wanted a beautiful corpse and they wanted to lay to rest the legend that is PJ Proby. I came close to death many times. I experienced many low ebbs. I reached rock bottom more times than I care to remember. But I never stayed down. I always bounced back up again. And now I’m determined to stay up. Because I’ve made up my mind to join the human race for the last quarter of my life. I’m still here, you see. Which means that the PJ Proby story isn’t over yet. Not by a long way.”
“Show me a hero,” F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “and I will write you a tragedy.” PJ Proby is an authentic pop hero and his life has fashioned itself as one of the great pop tragedies. An epic saga of fabulous, extravagant success and spectacular, often grotesque decline. One almighty, white-knuckle ride on the headlong rollercoaster of unholy excess. The kind of cliff-hanging plot that even the most adventurous writer of fiction would reject on the grounds that it was undeserving of belief.
It’s a story that is as exhilarating as it is heart-breaking. And it’s a story that has just about everything. Sex and scandal. Agony and outrage. Honesty and corruption. Contradictions and paradoxes. History and myth. Glorious fame and abject failure. Dangerous degrees of self-love and self-loathing. Fortunes made and fortunes lost. Drink and debauchery. Genius fulfilled and genius squandered. A frantic gallop to the top and an all-out spin to the very bottom. The PJ Proby story is one that is stuffed full of wild implausibilities that rival anything ever cooked up in the Hollywood laboratory. And it is the turning point of the PJ Proby story that provides the wildest implausibility of all.
"Tonight I’m going to kill a man and I want you to witness the event, for posterity.”
It’s the beginning of 1965 and, having racked up three Top 10 hits in the previous six months, Proby is the most successful male singer in Britain. He is also, without doubt, the most outrageous. Wherever he performs, there is pandemonium. Teenage girls wet their knickers and throw them on the stage. Teenage boys smash up the seats and, when there’s nothing left to smash, scrap it out amongst themselves. “It’s my job to provoke fights,” Proby says. “That’s what rock’n’roll is all about.” Meanwhile, somewhat ominously, The Daily Mirror describes him as a “morally insane degenerate”, entreating parents to keep their children away from his shows.
On 25 January 1965, Proby performs at the Castle Hall in Croydon, the first date of a nationwide tour also featuring Cilla Black. His latest single, ‘I Apologise’, is climbing the charts and the tour is a sell-out. He’s on top. He can do no wrong. Or so it seems. Wearing a frilled shirt and cheek-clinging velvet pants, Proby walks out to a hero’s welcome and, launching into his first number (the number three hit, ‘Hold Me’), he whips the crowd into a frenzy. Then, halfway through the song, he attempts one of his trademark leg-splits and his pants tear from knee to crotch, revealing what on newspaper describes as, “the most intimate part of Mr Proby’s anatomy.”
The following morning, the tabloid press has a collective fit of moral panic, demanding that Proby be kicked off the tour without further ado. However, after the tour promoter announces that Proby has promised to clean up his act, the tour is allowed to continue. Three nights later at the Ritz cinema in Luton, during his second song, the trouser seams give way again in spectacular fashion. Hauled off stage, he is informed that his services are no longer required. This time the press go ballistic, demanding that he be expelled from the country. Protests from a Tory alderman’s wife are followed by blanket bans by theatre managers and concert promoters. Television stations follow suit. Before the week is out, his work permit is withdrawn by the government.
For the next 18 months, Proby is effectively blacklisted and his career is left hanging by its thumbs. By the time he is allowed back into public view, his moment has already passed. From there, it’s downhill in a handcart all the way. In 1968, he files for bankruptcy, claiming to have spent his fortune on, “wine, women, yachts, Lear jets and a fleet of Rolls Royces.”
Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, there would be numerous unsuccessful comeback attempts. But Proby remained a fallen idol. In many ways, his fall was as irresistible as his rise had been. He would spend the best part of those years living reclusively in the north of England in a state of abject poverty, wrecking himself with drink, hovering perilously close to complete destruction. Indeed, not since Brando had the myth of self-destructive genius been re-enacted so poignantly. By the early ’90s, he was living in a Bolton bedsit with no water, electricity or telephone. The tabloids regularly reported that he was drinking five bottles of bourbon a day and was only months away from death. It seemed there was no way back.
Flash forward to the summer of 1995. Against all odds, Proby is staging another comeback, performing a 15 minute solo set in Only the Lonely, the West End tribute to Roy Orbison. Advance publicity promises that this comeback is for real. Proby, it is said, has gone on the wagon, has rediscovered his vocal powers and is making a mammoth effort to claw himself back from the edge.
It’s opening night. The theatre is packed to the rafters and the audience stews in anticipation. Halfway through the show, the lights dim and Proby walks on to thunderous applause. He looks slim and fit, surprisingly unravaged by the years, his silvery grey hair the only clear indication that he is now in his late fifties. He is, though, visibly nervous and spends the first minute fumbling with the microphone and barking orders to the side of the stage. Then, then band strikes up and he launches into the first verse of his 1964 hit, ‘Somewhere’.
Remarkably, the voice is all there – firing on all cylinders, full of urgency, drama and shattering tension, charged with enormous sexual energy, roaring and pleading with the blow-torch intensity of old. The crowd are on their feet and they’re screaming, “Proby! Proby!” And, as he builds up to the song’s climax, he somehow manages to raise the ante…pitching the voice a couple of octaves higher so that it sounds as if it is about to finally implode. It sounds, as ever, like a voice thrilled at the sound of itself – willing itself to go where no voice has gone before.
And, hand cupped over left ear, he hits the last dying note, squeezing the very life out of it. Until there’s nothing left to give. For a few seconds, there’s silence; the audience are too stunned to react. Then the applause starts up and continues for a full minute. Wave after wave of adulation. Ecstatic. Completely ecstatic. Meanwhile, Proby just stands there, milking it for all it’s worth. And, with slow deliberation, helpless as ever before his own genius, he tilts his head upwards and raises both arms as though offering thanks to some invisible force. Then he turns to the audience and smiles. Thirty years of quicksand. Now the legend is back.
“Comeback?! Don’t call it a fucking comeback! This ain’t no comeback. I’ve never had to make a comeback because I’ve never gone anywhere. It’s just the public went on vacation, that’s all.” It’s November 1995, Proby is holding court in the sitting-room of his semi-detached house in North Finchley, tucking into a TV dinner. Comeback? Revival? Rejuvenation? Call it what you like, but it seems that it’s all happening once again for the man once described by Terence Stamp as, “the Cassius Clay of pop”. There’s talk of a record deal, a full-scale nationwide tour, an autobiography, a stage show based on his life, the whole shooting-match.
“To some people,” he says, “it might seem as though the last 30 years of my life have been a failure and only now have I decided to get my act together for one last throw of the dice. Well, they’re fucking wrong about that. ‘Failure’ ain’t even in my vocabulary. To me, failure is losing sight of your goals. And I never did that. Failure is falling down in the shit and never getting up. I never did that either. A lot of bad shit has happened to me. I’m a lightning conductor for that stuff. But, even when I found myself at the bottom of the heap, I never lost sight of the fact that I’m a living legend. A fucking God amongst men. There were times I came close to death. And there were times when I didn’t care whether I lived or died. Then I decided that there must be a reason why the dude upstairs wasn’t ready to take my yet. I concluded that I could still be of some use down here. That’s when I realised the need to clean up my own back-yard and do something besides running around like Lord Byron. Until I could run no more and they shipped me back to Texas in an old wine barrel.
“But when people talk about this big comeback, they’ve got it wrong. All I’m doing is picking up on a thread that was left hanging loose 25 years ago. I didn’t leave it behind – I just put it to one side and got involved with another side of life, the side that was controlled by crate after crate of Jack Daniel’s. But 25 years? 45 years? 150 years? Who gives a fuck? It means nothing to me. All that matters to me is meeting the challenges that I’ve set myself. And I have no doubt that I will meet them. Because I’m stronger than I ever was. But my philosophy is basically the same. That’s never changed. I don’t do things. I am the things that I do. And I’m still living life to the hilt. That’s all I’ve ever done. I don’t know any other way. I’ve always done the things I’ve wanted to do. Everything I ever set out to get, I got it eventually. It’s only ever been a matter of time.
“What’s happening now – it’s all planned. And that includes the drink. I’m dry right now. I will drink again. But I’ve got to work towards my goal. This time around, the drink is my prize for working hard and putting up with the normal world. When I’ve achieved my career goals, when I’m financially straight, when I don’t have anything left to prove to myself or anybody else, then I’ll sit down and have a beer or whatever.
“See, my life has always been about extremes. I drank to extremes. That’s my life. And it’s been that way as far back as I can remember. I think it’s a genetic thing.”
He was born James Marcus Smith near Houston, Texas in 1938 and claims to be the great-grandson of John Wesley Hardin, the notorious western gunman who shot dead more than 40 men in his time. “And one of those was shot for snoring too loud,” says Proby with obvious pride. “My whole family on my mother’s side – the Hardins – they’re all outlaws. We don’t go round robbing banks or nothing. But we always carry a gun. You never know when you might need it.”
His childhood was not exactly conventional. One of his earliest memories involves being strapped to an electric chair by his grandfather, a prison governor. His parents having divorced when he was nine, the young Proby was sent to military academy where he remained until his mid-teens. By this time, it seems, he was already convinced of his own genius.
“From an early age,” he says, “I knew for sure that my life was going to be extraordinary. I knew that I was cut out to be a leader of men. I also knew that people would follow me. At first, I thought I’d be a boxer. But, even though I was a good boxer, I knew that I could never be a world champion. So I decided to be a singer. Because I knew for sure that I could be the fucking best. The best in the whole goddam world.”
At 17, he moved to Hollywood, working for a time as an uncredited actor in B-movies and TV westerns. Then he broke into the music business, first working as a session musician for Little Richard and BB King, before landing the job of demoing songs for Elvis movies. Proby fell in with Elvis when The King started dating his step-sister. The two hit it off immediately but the friendship was to be short-lived.
Firstly, Proby was banned from Elvis’s home for smuggling a crate of beer onto the premises. Then, when he bedded one of Presley’s girlfriends, Proby was called into Colonel Tom Parker’s office and informed that he was no longer welcome.
After a spell as Paul Newman’s chauffeur, he began recording his own songs under the name Jett Powers. Recently reissued on a CD entitled California License, there early rock’n’roll excursions are unexceptional in themselves, notable only for the skew-whiff intensity of his vocal which possesses a looniness all of its own.
By the early ‘60s, he’d begun working under the name that would make him famous. His very first appearance on American television provided an early indication of the mayhem to come. Having downed two bottles of Jim Beam to boost his confidence, he took to the stage with his arse on backwards. Then, before a note was sung, he toppled forwards, nosedived off the stage and fell into a tank of live seals.
Ignoring the studio manager’s advice to go home and have a lie down, he clambered to his feet and instructed the band to take it from the top. It was only during the second verse that he realised he had been singing the wrong song entirely. When a couple of security guards attempted to drag him off, he headed them off at the pass with a couple of timely left-hooks. Backstage, a television executive calmly informed him that he would never work in television again. To which Proby replied, “Fuck you Jack, I’m going to be the biggest thing since Julius Caesar.” If nothing else, Proby started like he meant to carry on.
In 1964, he came under the wing of pop impressario Jack Good, who took him to England to perform in the first Beatles TV Special. Arriving at Heathrow, dolled up to the nines as an 18th Century dandy, he made an immediate impression. Asked by waiting reporters what he planned to do in England, he thought for a moment and replied, “I’m going to fight all your men, fuck all your women and steal all your money. Then I’m going to buy myself a yacht and sail off into the wide blue yonder.”
“I had made up my mind to blow my head off onstage. And I was planning to make a real show of it...”
Within three months, he was riding high in the charts with ‘Hold Me’ and then there was no stopping him. Overnight, he became a superstar and lived the role up to the hilt. “People treated me like a god,” he says. “And I acted accordingly. People were looking for a magical figure. They had Elvis but he wouldn’t come to England. Or rather Colonel Tom Parker wouldn’t let him. People could worship Elvis from afar but not in the flesh. I was over here so they worshipped me instead. And I didn’t let them down. Because everything I touched turned to gold.”
‘To Make A Big Man Cry’, ‘I’m Coming Home’, ‘I Can’t Make It Alone’…the recordings he made around this time were extraordinary things; spooky masterpieces each and every one. His voice was an awesome instrument; huge range, perfect pitch and all the rest of it. But it wasn’t the voice by itself that made these records so memorable. It was the way he would use that voice to warp a song out of shape so that it was transformed into something else altogether. This was best demonstrated on his version of ‘Somewhere’, the West Side Story ballad, where he veered between a torchy moan and a torched vibrato, achieving a kind of surreal intensity that time has not diminished. Nowhere in the pop canon will you find such a deranged mix of concentrated agony and convulsive beauty.
“With a song like that,” he says, “I was aware that it had been done to death. I wanted to do a version that people would never forget. So there was a part of me that wanted to take it, play around with it, leave it completely fucked up. Because people don’t like things to be perfect. They like things to be just a little bit…perverted. On the other hand, I wanted to bring the song down to a level where the average layman could relate to it. I wanted to tell a story with it. So, as I sang it, I imagined myself with a switchblade in my hand, chasing a man down a darkened city street and into a piss-stained alleyway. See, I wasn’t interested in showing the world what a beautiful voice I had. They knew I had a beautiful voice and didn’t need reminding. What I gave them was something that made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up, that would make their noses bleed and their ribcages shake every time they heard the fucking thing.”
Then there were his incendiary live performances, best described by Nik Cohn in his classic pop history, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboo (1969). “On stage,” Cohn wrote, “Proby was magnificent. He’d stand behind a curtain and extend one toe and all his little girls screamed. Then he’d draw it back again, then he’d extend it again, then he’d draw it back again. This might continue for five full minutes, getting slightly bolder, even flashing his ankle, and then he’d suddenly bound out like some St. Bernard puppy. He wore blue velvet all over, loose jerkin to hide his paunch and skintight pants, and he had his hair tied back in a bow, and he wore buckled shoes, and he was camp as hell. Simply, he was outrageous.
“He’d mince across the stage like some impossible drag-queen and then he’d stop dead again, he’d grind his groin like a really filthy burlesque stripper, and then he’d flounce across to the wings like an overweight ballet dancer, and then he’d come back all coy and demure like a small ribboned girl, and then he’d snarl, and then he’d pout, and then he’d start the whole thing over again. Well, it could all have been horribly embarrassing, it very nearly was, but he had a great voice, he owned real presence and somehow he brazened it out…
“Whatever, he kept going for a full hour and he screamed himself voiceless, he sweated till he was slimy all over like a toad, till he was quite hideous and still he piled on intensity, agony, outrage. ‘Am I clean?’ he’d squeal. ‘Am I clean? Am I spotless? Am I pure?’ When he was done, when he’d quite destroyed himself, he’d stagger off blindly into the wings and collapse, semi-conscious, in his dressing room. He’d just lie there for maybe 20 minutes without moving. Then Proby would rise up refreshed and he’d bound out through the stagedoor and into his waiting limousine, surrounded and protected at all times by his entourage, and then the whole circus would roll back to London.”
Thirty years on, Proby laughs out loud when reminded of all this. “Boy,” he says, “I was the fucking greatest thing that ever walked on a stage. The most outrageous thing there’s ever been. I could provoke a riot any time I chose. And, when I performed on stage, I did it for the girls, the women, who came to see me. It was one long love affair with my female audience. I had a tremendous power over them. It was like an animal thing. They’d throw their knickers at me. I’d pick them up and wipe my face with them, thinking they were handkerchiefs. Then I’d realise I was bathing in piss. But that didn’t trouble me. That was quite normal to me. That’s the kind of thing I’d do in the bedroom anyway.”
By the end of 1964, he was already a legend. He’d already bought his ticket to the pop pantheon. He was hugely famous and lived like a Sun King. He had a vast entourage which included a hairdresser on 24-hour call. It was even said at one time that he employed a man to bite his nails for him. He owned three homes in London, including a four-storey property in Chelsea which housed collections of stuffed animals and exotic goldfish. It was here that girl visitors between the ages of 10 and 17 would sit at his feet as he held court. “I call this place my nymphette colony,” he told one startled interviewer. “These girls, they’re my nymphettes. Girls over 17 don’t interest me. I like ‘em young and fresh.”
When I ask him to clarify, he fixes me with a stare that chills to the marrow.
“I don’t owe it to anyone to clarify anything,” he says. “Fuck ‘em.All I will say is that my dealings with the nymphettes were not of a sexual nature. It was more to do with teaching them my standards by means of military training. They were juvenile delinquents who needed my help.”
At the start of 1965, he confidently announced to the press, “Some people say that PJ Proby is a five-minute wonder and that all these beat groups are going to steal his thunder. Well, that’s bullshit. PJ Proby is going to be around for a very long time. And he’s going to be bigger than Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – the whole goddam lot of them.” Few doubted him, at least not to his face. He looked untouchable, completely invincible. And then, in the space of a few days, his entire world fell around him.
It’s more than 30 years since the split of a trouser seam effectively snuffed out his career. Understandably, perhaps, mention of the incident still makes Proby’s blood boil. “I was crucified just like Christ,” he says, “but it wasn’t just about splitting my pants. That provided them with an excuse to get rid of me. But that’s all it was – a fucking excuse. There were many reasons why they didn’t like me. They were used to mummy’s boys like Cliff Richard and couldn’t handle someone like me. I was making a lot of money and I wasn’t English. That pissed off a lot of people. Then there were a lot of people who objected to the fact that I was taking their teenage daughters away from them. But the main reason they wanted me out was that I had dared to stand up and tell the truth about corruption in the music business. That’s what they couldn’t stand.
“The whole point of the exercise was to make people forget about PJ Proby. And they tried every way. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t allowed to perform in this country. People weren’t even allowed to impersonate me on stage or on television. They told people that they’d never work again if they impersonated me in their act. They’d made up their minds that they were going to get me whatever it took. And get me they did. If you’re asking me how I feel about that…all I can say is that they were a bunch of bastards. Scumbags. Vermin. The lowest of the low. They destroyed my career and made sure that I could never climb back to where I’d been. Well, they might have succeeded in that. But they could never take away the other thing – my spirit. That’s one thing that could never be destroyed.”
Through the relentless downward spiral of the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were precious few reminders of the supernatural force he had once been. In 1970, he won rave notices for his stage role in Catch My Soul, a rock opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1978, he starred alongside Shakin’ Stevens in a West End tribute to Elvis and looked set to stay the course until he was sacked for deviating from the script. When it was suggested that a polite apology and full repentance might see him reinstated, Proby instead publicly challenged his successor to a duel at dawn.
There were rumours that he was favourite to succeed Jim Morrison in The Doors. He talked about breaking into films and, at one stage, was lined up to play Errol Flynn in a Hollywood blockbuster. Later, it was rumoured that he was lined up to play the part of Ronnie Biggs in The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. All of this sounded a bit too good to be true. And so it proved.
There would be occasional comeback tours on the Northern supper club circuit where he found himself on the same bill as exotic balloon dancers and animal impressionists. And there were nights when he performed with the white-hot intensity of old. But, inevitably, the shows that won him column inches in the press were the ones when he turned up too drunk to sing, or the ones that saw him trading punches with members of the audience who had dared to stand up and call him a has-been. On one occasion he left the stage after thirty minutes, telling the audience, “I’m sorry, I can’t go on, I am suffering from the clap.”
And then there were the records that intermittently trickled out to little fanfare. Three Week Hero, his 1970 collaboration with members of Led Zeppelin, had its merits. As did the 1978 concept album recorded with Dutch prog-rockers Focus. But his releases over those two decades were, at best, curiosities that recommended themselves only to the most avid collectors. Most curious of all, perhaps, were the singles he cut in the ‘80s for the Savoy label. Recently collected together on one CD, they find Proby wreaking drunken havoc on the likes of ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Once asked to justify these musical oddities, Savoy’s Dave Britton replied that they were, “attempts to create the aural equivalent of the Dennis Hopper character in Blue Velvet.” Proby is rather more explicit. “A bunch of fucking shit,” he snaps. “Filthy and disgusting. An insult to my talent. Next question?”
Through the years of steepest decline, he was never far from the tabloid headlines, his stormy relationships with the opposite sex providing most of the stories. He admits to four legal marriages and six common-law wives. Back in the early ‘70s, he was briefly engaged to Dean Martin’s daughter, an arrangement that ended abruptly when, suspecting that she was being less than faithful, he broke into her home and attempted to shoot her. “Three months in an LA glasshole I got for that,” he recalls. “Sharing a cell with four killers waiting to be shipped out to Death Row. They were good company though. My kind of people in fact.” In 1978, he was acquitted of shooting his third wife with an air rifle. Then, barely a month later, he was fined for attacking his secretary with an axe and a piece of wood. “We were arguing over a grocery bill,” he explained at the time. “I guess I got a bit carried away.” Even more controversial was the announcement, in the early ‘80s, of his engagement to a 14-year old schoolgirl who Proby claimed to have “dated” since she was 10.
Ask him to sum up his feelings about the women in his life and he says, “I would basically describe myself as a male chauvinist pig. That’s the honest goddam truth. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love the women that came into my life. I treated them like gods. I put them on a pedestal and worshipped them. I lived only for women. But it was the women who were responsible for me almost going over the edge. They never stopped me from falling. They were the ones that gave me the push.” And then there was his legendary thirst for alcohol – which grew to almost heroic proportions through the ‘70s and damn near finished him off in the ‘80s.
“Five bottles of bourbon a day. That’s no exaggeration. I’d polish two off before noon. The rest would be down before the afternoon was out. Then I’d hit the bars in search of more. If I couldn’t get my hands on bourbon, then I’d settle for anything. Meths, after-shave…there were even times when I’d melt shoe polish and strain it through bread to get a hit off it. What’s it taste like? Well, it tastes like shit. That’s what it tastes like. But it sure makes you feel good for a while.
“See, I never drank for the taste. I didn’t even drink to get drunk. I just drank because that’s what I did. I was never on a quest for oblivion or anything. It was more like a quest for daylight. If anything, my self-belief was heightened by the drink. If I’d never touched alcohol, I couldn’t have been the kind of performer I was. Drink afforded me the flamboyance I needed to do the things I did. It also helped me find the kind of emotion I needed to bring to a particular song. I might not even have known what feeling I was looking for. But I’d keep on drinking until I found it. There was a different kind of emotion in every glass. Now, they say that drink was the ruin of me. They say that I spent 20 years pissing my talent up against a wall. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. Maybe that wall needed watering, y’know.”
Down the years, he supported himself on Social Security payments, the occasional royalty cheque, and what he touchingly describes as, “the kindness of strangers”. Occasionally, he would manage to hold down a job. He drove cabs and operated lifts. He worked as a shepherd on a farm outside Huddersfield, emptied dustbins at a block of flats in Hammersmith; and swept up in a Bolton branch of Tescos.
“I did those things because I had to do them,” he says. “But I never thought for a moment that they were beneath my dignity. Even when I was mucking out stables or emptying dustbins, I wanted to be the best. If I’d been reduced to cleaning up other people’s shit from toilet bowls, I would have wanted to be the best. Besides, I knew that these things were not for ever. I knew that I wouldn’t be sweeping up floors for the rest of my life. It’s like a hawk hovering over its prey. Before he strikes, nobody is calling that hawk a failure because he hasn’t struck yet. And that’s what I was doing – just waiting for my chance.”
"I never lost sight of the fact that I’m a living legend. A fucking God amongst men."
Often though, it seemed that he had left it too late to haul himself back from the brink. In 1986, he declared that he was moving back to Texas to die. Even that simple wish, it seemed, was beyond him. Three hours after landing in Houston, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on the next plane back to Britain. Months later, he was promising to kill himself onstage…
“I can’t imagine where my head was at in those days. But I was completely serious. I had more or less made up my mind to blow my head off onstage. It would be my last gesture of authority. It seemed like the only way I could demonstrate that I was in control, that I had the last say in my destiny. And I was planning to make a real show of it. Doing it onstage was the only way. People had paid to see my live. They’d paid to see me fuck up. Now they would have their chance to see me die. To take a gun and pull the trigger so that my head exploded like a fucking watermelon. What a performance that would have been…
“It wasn’t fear of death that stopped me doing it. I was never afraid of dying. I’ve had too much of a life to fear anything. I’ve done everything and I’ve had everything. Most of it I lost, y’know? But, if I had any fear, it was always the fear of the pain that women could cause me. That was all. So what stopped me killing myself was that something woke up inside me – some kind of realisation that life was actually worth living. Because my life had come under the influence of Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam to such an extent that they controlled my every move. They took me into another world. When I moved into that world, I couldn’t see the sky on either side. That went on for many years. I found myself in a permanent state of depression. And it reached a point where something had to give.”
In 1991, one newspaper reported that it would require a miracle for Proby to stop drinking himself to death. In the event, it simply required four near-fatal heart attacks in the space of a fortnight when he was holidaying in Miami in the summer of 1992. He could neither walk nor speak for a couple of months and, when he did finally recover, the decision to straighten out had already been made for him.
“It was only then that I began to take stock of the last 30 years,” he says. “It was only then, when I had run out of choices, that I had to face up to the bare facts of my existence. See, when you stop drinking, your focus shifts and you start seeing things that you never saw before. These things have always been there but, to you, they’re completely new. That’s what I’m going through now. Every day brings something new. Every day is a friggin’ surprise to me. For me, the strangest thing is that most of the surprises are good ones.”
At the age of 57, the chances of Proby staging the kind of comeback that would restore him to his former glory must be pretty slim. “All it would take,” he says, “is one hit single. But that’s not going to be easy. Because PJ Proby is still a figure to be feared and despised. That’s never gone away. And there’s fucking plenty of people who’ll go out of their way to stop me taking the prize that is rightly mine.”
Nik Cohn once described PJ Proby as, “the great doomed romantic showman of our time.” And it’s a description that Proby reluctantly goes along with. “But that’s not the whole truth. The real truth is that I was never part of these times. I was never a ‘50s person or a ’60s person. I belonged to another time altogether. Another century. I was always more like a 17th century buccaneer than a rock’n’roll star. And that’s why you won’t find me listed in the rock reference books alongside people like Gene Pitney. If I’m not considered a major part of rock’n’roll history, that’s ‘cos most of my activities weren’t specifically concerned with music. My thing was life. Music just happened to be one of the vehicles.
“But that doesn’t mean that my music is going to be forgotten. I know that people will listen to my music 200 years from now. And they’ll listen to that music for the same reason that people have always listened to my music, because it lifts them out of the shit. It takes their pain and suffering away. The music made me a legend. And that’s not going to be forgotton. But that’s not the main reason why people will still be talking about me in 200 years. They’ll remember me because I came out of nowhere and I made a difference to people’s lives. I came along and I showed people things they had never seen before, things they hadn’t even imagined. I was a man who made things happen. And I’m still making things happen. And I’ll go on making things happen until it’s time for them to shovel that dirt over me in some goddam fucking ditch.”
A legend, pure and simple.
“A fucking legend. Damn right. A legend to the end.”
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Tonight I’m going to kill a man and I want you to witness the event, for posterity.”