Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: I Did It Otway, by John Otway

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

I Did it Otway: Regrets, I’ve Had a Few!
By John Otway
KLG Press (London?, UK), 2010
205 pages, can be bought directly from him:

John Otway really pisses me off sometimes. He bills himself as “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure!” but just as the Rolling Stones calling themselves (started by their stage manager) the “Greatest Rock’n’roll Band in the World,” both are ridiculous because there is no one of either extreme as they are both too subjective descriptors.

Otway’s career has had its peaks and valleys so far, that is certain, and some have been spectacular in both directions, but many of them are been positive. I know too many struggling independent musicians who have not even come close to achieving what Otway has in his 30+ year career. Also, John has recorded some incredible music over this period, achieved an impressive and fanatical fan base that supports him playing in the UK at theaters (as well as pubs and living rooms), and right out of the gate in the ‘70s, he had a top 30 hit with the deserving “Cor Baby That’s Really Free” (and he is correct in that his probable second hit was mistakenly put out as the b-side, “Beware of the Flowers [Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You, Yeah], rather than its own single).

Yes, Otway is sometimes a lunkhead in his decisions, but a failure? To quote his own song, “Headbutts,” “not likely.” In my opinion, there are way too many artists who are under the radar who deserve more, and have not achieved what Otway has – again, sometimes in a extravagant fashion, as this book proves.

That being said, I also have to confess that I am one of those fans, though I’ve never joined one of his many fan databases (e.g., www.otnews.net), and I don’t own his complete catalog, but what I do have I enjoy immensely. From the first time I saw him play in New York in the ‘80s, heard his (then) vinyl from right around the time of his unfortunate split (there’s one of those lunkhead moments I mentioned earlier) with collaborator and guitarist Wild Willy Barrett, and getting to actually interview the man when he was on Stiff Records, I’ve had a warm spot in my heart (and ear) for the crazed, manic ex-garbage collector from Aylesbury, UK.

John was riding high in the very early ‘80s with, as he describes at length in his book simply as “The Hit,” when his career hit a speedbump, due in part to his own bad choices. He describes this period in his first cleverly titled book (which I have not read – yet, but it is apparently in the failure of its fourth printing), Cor Baby, That’s Really Me, initially released in 1996. If that one is as fun as this one, I definitely need to check it out.

Though autobiographical, John writes this (and the previous one) in extreme third person, including quoting himself rather than just saying “I” or “he.” Often he is smilingly self-depreciating, such as his discussion of his song, “Three Kinds of Magic.” On page 155, he writes:

[Bandmember] Murray [Torkidsen] wasn’t alone in thinking this particular song was not one of John’s better pieces of writing, the rest of the band thought it as well. But they had two problems. One, since [the popularity of the song] “Bunsen Burner” John “would not listen”…

On page 152, he admits that “Otway was ‘T-shirt led’ meaning that if something looked good on the T-shirt and tour jacket, then that’s what you should try and do.”

The essence of the book is to detail four or five events that took place from the time of the previous book into the mid ‘00s, including (but not only) the attempt to sell out Albert Hall, get a Top-10 hit (so he could say “the Hits” rather than the lonesome “the Hit”) for his 50th birthday, get voted as one of the best lyricists in the last 2000 years on a BBC poll, and complete a world tour and film documentary about the event. Both success and failure are included in the book, which keeps the reader riveted, especially for those of us in North America who could not follow the proceedings, which were often covered by the British media (I have to ask, would this happen to a failure, whether an attempt succeeded or failed?).

The book sounds like he talks, using British colloquialisms (e.g., “whilst”), and a devilishly sharp sense of humor, again, especially at his own expense. For example in describing his moving houses with his partner Karen and their daughter Amy, he states, on page 80:

: …Their new home had a loft conversion which John could have as an office: it was two floors up from the living room and kitchen and if all doors were closed you would never know he was there.
“Heaven,” agree the two girls in his life.

I so respect that John appreciates his fans, as is quite evident. Throughout the book he is happy to name the individual people on-line who have given him help or an idea, and when he recorded an audience 1,000 people (over three sessions) at Abby Road Studios to heckle him during “House of the Rising Sun,” he actually names each one of them in both the record booklet and in an Appendix in the back of the book (though it’s not completely altruistic, as he admits, with a smile, that listing the names probably means that each one of them will buy a copy). Oh, and his story about the recording session at the infamous studio and what he asked the person showing them around, is priceless.

Okay, this is neither here nor there and totally my opinion, and I’m happy for John with the eventual outcome, but c’mon, a disco “Bunsen Burner” (which would also have made a great pop song: “Let me be your Bunsen burner / Let me be your naked flame”)? Not that I even want to hear the disco “Beware of the Flowers,” but John has so many other great songs from that period, some of which were contenders in his “pick one” contest, such as the excellent “Poetry and Jazz,” “God’s Camera,” and the joyous slideback to his earlier style, “Too Much Air Not Enough Oxygen.” All of them are way better than “Bunsen Burner.” And yet, if I was knowledgeable at the time, and my vote would have counted, I would have bought the damn single. That being said, I truly recommend anyone getting one of his Greatest Hits CDs to see what I mean.

There are glossy photos in two sections, and in the back are informational appendixes, and sections that were cut out of the main storyline that are just as interesting (though I understand why they were excised). This fun and fascinating book about trying to make “it” is almost a sit-com script, with a bit of mystery thrown in (will he or won’t he?), making it all the more enjoyable and intriguing. It truly is a fun read, and yes, I say read the lunkhead, but if you call him a failure in front of me, prepare to debate the point.

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