A Saturday in early June 2012; we are an assembled wedding throng in lounge suits and Boden dresses outside the Catholic church in Abingdon awaiting our cues to take to the pews. There is a frisson of movement and a mumbling of wonderment as a new guest joins our ranks. I check out his sharp suit, his sharp shoes, his sharp haircut and suddenly a cloud of drabness cloaks our own apparel. We can’t compete with this; it is Michael Warren AKA Ziggy Hero, touchstone centrepiece of Harland Miller’s cult 2000 novel “Slow Down Arthur Stick To Thirty”
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading the novel let me tell you that you’ve missed out. It is a slice of “Yorkshire Noir” before Peace, Clavane, Wes Brown, John Lake et al began that neu northern assemblage. Set, ostensibly, in York in 1980, it charts the adventures of one Kid Glover and his set of dysfunctional friends who roam the streets like tooth-less Clockwork Orangemen seeking out their Ziggy Hero who is well and truly plugged into the Bowie mains and a travelling pre “stars in their eyes” contestant.
In fact, to my recollection, Michael never really was an impersonator in the true sense of the word. Like the aforementioned John Lake, I was an English Lit undergraduate at Ripon and York St John college in the early ‘80’s and Mr Hero was an ever present on that music scene at the time; quality promotional posters everywhere, his charismatic presence flitting from stage to stage, from bar to bar, from station to station.
A while later, in the mid ‘80’s I caught up with him in the darkly blacke magicke infested atmosphere of the Hark To Rover pub in Kirkstall, Leeds, where, as legend would have it, there were pentagrams drawn onto the floors of the upstairs rooms. I’m sure my memory, or urban myth, deceives me but I seem to recall someone telling me that Michael was quite a Crowley aficionado himself at the time. Whatever may be the case; that particular night I was struck by his choice of songs which were less of an impersonation as an interpretation. Quite frankly he was not such much a Ziggy Bowie but more of an Anthony Newley Bowie. Pure, unadulterated, cabaret. Cabaret or music-hall? English music hall or German music hall? My memory lets me down but he was…..bloody amazing.
In Miller’s book Ziggy drifts in and out like a lonely ghost; enigmatic and beguiling. In real life Warren is certainly enigmatic, garrulous, interesting, somewhat slightly fixated on Marvel Comics and, to this day, David Bowie. He divides his time between US based cruise ships in his capacity of casino manager and an apartment in Scarborough. Two cultures clash. Wishing to dig beneath the surface I asked if I could interview him and found no hint of guardedness or reluctance to uncover and reveal the real Michael Warren.
Back in your Ziggy Hero days I thought you were more of a Bowie interpreter than impersonator. I also thought you've had a continuous leaning towards the Anthony Newley-esque/cabaret persona. Your thoughts please?
Yes, on both counts. At the time I started performing I’d built a stock of themes and ideas for songs, beginning in early childhood, but it was all very fragmented, and certainly far from ready to display. The idea of fronting a covers band, taking material from a variety of artists, seemed so random, and purely exhibitionistic, and held no interest or possibility of advancement for me at all. My training, which is what the Ziggy Hero show was, gave me the theme, and challenge, of performing this wonderful body of work by the world’s greatest performer. The very idea of anyone, including me, as brash as I was at seventeen, impersonating David Bowie was incomprehensible.
Bowie’s delightful eponymous album, along with other of his songs of that period, is his most engaging to me as a performer. Love You Till Tuesday would be an essential entry in any compilation of his greatest vocal works. Most of the music I listen to will be found outside the rock, or pop music section of a record shop. I think the rub-off from this, coupled with that of the rock / pop element, on my own material, shaped an eclectic mix, something akin to a cabaret style, in the live sets, and particularly so with the Zed Warren Six shows.
Which is your all time favourite Bowie album and why?
At the moment it is “Station To Station”, and has been so since the release of the special edition. I was at the first night of the Thin White Duke shows at Wembley in 1976. For me, Bowie has never bettered the presentation of that tour. My personal reminiscences of the concert, coupled with Steve Shapiro’s superbly atmospheric concert photographs, often run in tandem with the album when I hear it, forming a powerful audio-visual package.
Other albums never far away from my top-spot are “David Bowie” and “Ziggy Stardust”.
My creation was called “Apart Man”, who, I’m afraid, was really just a crude imitation of Dr. Strange’s Astral Form.
Where did the character "Norman Way" come from? What was your inspiration to create the character?
My first exposure to Marvel Comics was in the mid-sixties, with “Fantastic” and “Terriffic”, the British B & W reprints of the original American publications. I adored these weekly releases, and leapt at the chance to participate when the editor of one of them invited readers to submit their own hero concept to them. My creation was called “Apart Man”, who, I’m afraid, was really just a crude imitation of Dr. Strange’s Astral Form. His “costume”, though, was a plain two-piece suit, as worn by the heroes of certain of the TV shows produced by the ITC stable at the time, which, along with the comics, dominated my every waking thought. Here were really the origins of Norman Way, although I didn’t name him until 1980. Way’s circumstances and abilities were left nebulous, and tweaked to suit my own wants, until I felt the need to properly define the character a few years later, when he emerged as the vigilante with a twist, as he is today.
Harland Miller's "Slow Down Arthur Stick To Thirty" is something of a cult success; what were your thoughts when first hearing about "Ziggy" featuring in the book?
I was nonplussed, and a little suspicious, thinking it might be some kind of hoax. I was in California and received an email from a friend, telling me about the book, and suggesting that I return to England to attend the launch in London. Not having read the book, or even receiving any concrete proof that it actually existed, this was not going to happen. Later, Harland Miller sent a copy to me, along with a very nice letter. I had dinner with Harland a few months later in London and very much enjoyed our meeting. He is an accomplished raconteur and very interesting individual. “Slow Down Arthur…” is a terrific work and I felt proud to be associated with it.
Who should play you in the film?
Unfortunately I don’t have an adequate knowledge of the current crop of young acting talent, as my appreciation of these things seems stuck in monochrome, or in the tones of a “Dr No” era Technicolor. If you will indulge me in offering a purely fantasy choice, I’ll suggest Tom Courtenay.
I understand you currently split your time between USA based cruise ships and your UK home base in Scarborough. That is quite a social/cultural difference. Which environment do you prefer and why?
The social atmosphere of the U.S. is so much easier to get along with, while the attitude and posture of many on Britain’s streets seem to become more aggressive by the year. Of course, America has its own problems of anti-social behaviour, although not so prevalent, and there is a better class of drunk on the streets of the U.S. than in the U.K.
I long since gave up any hope of being served a decent cup of tea in America, so I abstain until I’m back in the U.K. An English tea room offers sanctuary from facial tattoos and macho-bred dogs, while enjoying a classic cream tea.
Were you from a musical family background? I read somewhere that your grandfather was a singer?
Yes, my paternal grandfather was Will Warren, “York’s Popular Baritone”; a music-hall performer. He was somewhat eccentric by certain accounts, but it is not always easy to get people who knew him to open up about him. I have a sense of real loss that I was not able to know him, as he died not long after my birth.
The Zed Warren Six once played at a working man’s club in York, which opened to the general public on Thursdays for rock concerts. My grandfather was a regular performer at this club, back in the day. The dressing room was adjoining a games room, where those members of the club hardy enough to show up on the rock nights would escape from the noise. Prior to the show, I spoke to an octogenarian gentleman there, asking if he remembered Will Warren, without informing him of my relationship. The gentleman’s memories were vivid and glowingly complimentary, as he gave me my only first-hand account of my grandfather’s show. It was a precious experience.
My mother had a wonderful operatic type voice, for which she received training as a young girl. Hers is easily the most powerful voice I have ever heard without amplification, and it is a source of wonder as to how her delicate frame could produce such a sound. She eschewed commercial opportunities to sing, maintaining that the church was to be her only venue.
Whereabouts in Leeds are you from? What are your impressions of the city before it's renaissance as the "London of the North" in the 1990's?
I’m actually originally from York, but I have special connections with Leeds, having gone to grammar school there, and later living in the city for around fifteen years. I lived in the Headingley / West Park areas for most of that time. The cloth cap, old guard was happily still very much in evidence when I first moved to Leeds, but even then the city was nicely cosmopolitan. The legacy of the industrial revolution, in both people and architecture, balanced quirkily with the burgeoning high-tech sector. I have very fond memories of my favourite haunts; The Warehouse, The Phono, and later, Riffs, and I understand that The Faversham remains popular.
Taking a panoramic view today, I think that Leeds architecture, post 1990, has had a negative effect on the city, at least aesthetically. Unfortunately I rarely get to Leeds for social reasons these days, but when I do, I find the Victoria pub is as grand as ever, and is still, for me, the embodiment of old Leeds.
Getting back to Bowie; do you hanker after any new material from a man well into his sixties or do you think his "silence" since the early 2000's is for the best?
I very much look forward to Bowie’s next release, and I’m certain it will come. I saw him perform in London on the “Reality” tour, and his voice was as strong and as versatile as ever. I think the period of apparent inactivity since “Reality” is probably due to Bowie’s stringent quality control, and, as such, is undoubtedly for the best. When the next package is ready I am sure he will amaze us yet again.
Finally; do you have any plans to write, record, perform in the future or have you "hung up your boots"??
My plans to record are not on hold, but in suspended animation until the opportunity arises. “My Life as a Costumed Adventurer” was intended as part one of a two part project, and the track listing for the second CD is already in place. I am very pleased with my own songs for it, and have selected, as always, a few cover versions that I hope will pique the interest. This release will prompt a few concerts, as well as another performance project I am discussing now.
I am currently writing a Norman Way graphic novel.
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