JO live at Theater 80, NYC, July 2014
ROCK AND ROLL'S TRIUMPHANT FAILURE CONQUERS NYC (ALMOST)
Story and live photos by Jason Gross
For his first American show in two decades, the wild man from Aylesbury, UK graced us with his presence at a small East Village haunt Theater 80, maybe half full with 60-70 rabid fans who remembered his antics and spirit from the late ‘70's and early ‘80's. Now a chrome dome with flaring Bozo-like side hair, he was unfailingly happy and good natured, glad to be there and connect with fans. Alongside him was his long suffering roadie who he constantly (and jokingly) blamed for any short-comings in his set. From there, he treated us to a Dylan tribute, doing "I Will Survive" in a Zimmy voice with the roadie joining in on harmonica and jammed on a custom, bendable double neck guitar with each neck facing opposite directions all the while keeping a plastic baby propped up against one of his amps. From there, he ripped open his shirt to reveal his skinny torso and rolled out his two UK hits ("Really Free," "Bunsen Burner") and his many beloved non-hits and spirited covers, including a carefully heckled "House of the Rising Sun" with shout-outs from the roadie (more on that later), a cover of Bachman Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" with acrobatics thrown in, an accomplished turn on the theremin (for a cover of the Osmonds' "Crazy Horses") and JO turning himself into a human drum machine on "Body Talk." Then there was the wire-hanger mike-holder bit (where he kept hitting himself in the head) and his hilarious fuzz-box imitations of his old partner, guitarist Wild Willy Barrett (if you want to see in hilarious detail part of what went down, check out videos below for more).
Since it wasn't financially feasible to bring over his band, Otway was solo otherwise but the real reason he showed up in Gotham was to promote his bio-pic, Otway the Movie: Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure. For this grand occasion, the NYC/U.S. premiere of the film, he managed to rent out a theater in a Flatiron-area Loews multiplex the following night with his mini-entourage in tow (including the roadie). At the screening, he met a group of few dozen fans, some of us there from the previous night, including Ira Robbins of Trouser Press, singer/songwriter Richard X. Heyman (who did a great opening set for Otway the previous night) and other oddball fans. At show time, Otway led us down from the lobby to the theater where, in typically wonderful shambolic JO fashion, the movie had already begun. Otway got the theater to stop it so he could give a little intro and start it from the beginning.
In the movie, we see our hero returning to his hometown to school a bunch of teenage girls about how to make it in the music biz, something that JO admits that he had to make up as he went along, as he'll soon show us.
We start with a triumphant outdoor hometown gig that he gives on the heels of his first hit, 1977's "Really Free," with a shaggy-haired JO doing spectacular stunts around the stage for a boisterous audience who were lapping up his antics. His mum and dad are in the crowd and in an interview later, mum marvels at her son's success, bewildered by the fact that he achieved it though he can't sing at all.
In the movie, JO's music career then plays out in chaotic fashion with all sorts of inspired but hair-brained ideas, many of which manage to come to fruition. He gets on national TV (on The Old Grey Whistle Test) and manages to crack his groin there, jumping off a speaker, leading to a six-figure record contract, which he spends on a car he can't drive and a fancy home. From there, he confuses and loses much of his fan base with an MOR ballad and alienates and angers his partner Mr. Barrett with a surprise solo record. The bright idea for a tour where the tickets to the show are the 45 RPM singles fans have bought means that the group has no money for hotels so they has to camp out in tents for all the concerts. Other publicity ploys included playing live as a few fans' home, which semi-backfired as a stunt thanks to a musician's union ban and playing a set on a kiddie show because of another legal snafus.
After a final falling out with Barrett, which included some violent stage antics aimed at JO (i.e. continually bashing JO with a mic for the song "Headbutts"), Otway goes on to capitalize on his failure by writing a book about it, 1990's Cor Baby, That's Really Me!, which is a fun read. In the early ‘90's, he puts together a new band and slowly mounts a comeback, booking and then managing to fill the Royal Albert Hall with fans.
But there's something even more ambitious that JO wanted- another hit to coincide with his fiftieth birthday in 2002. Inspired by his fan club's successful grassroots campaign to get one of his songs ("Beware Of The Flowers ('Cause I'm Sure They're Going To Get You, Yeh)") into a 1999 BBC poll of greatest lyrics ever, he drew upon the fans again, letting them pick what would be the presumptive hit single from his then-latest album The Year of the Hit, which included a disco version of "Flowers" which his bassist threatened to quit over if it became the ‘hit.' Luckily, with voting supervised by the Electoral Reform Society, a special concert was held where the contending songs were played, "Bunsen Burner" (a song inspired by JO's daughter's homework and ‘70's hit "Disco Inferno") was revealed as the winner. Amazingly enough, thanks to a country-wide campaign by his rabid fan base and despite a thumbs-down from the important retailer Woolworth's (who though that JO was too old for its teen audience and pre-selected ‘charts'), Otway scored a number 9 hit, effectively making him a two-hit wonder though it was soon knocked off the charts as a huge fire in Britain made DJ's squeamish about playing a single with a ‘burn baby burn' refrain.
Even the hit's B-side had an outrageous story attached to it. For his stupendous version of "House of the Rising Sun," as noted above, he relies on crowd participation where they shout out questions that are answered by each line of the lyrics ("There is a house," "WHERE IS IT?" "…In New Orleans…" "WHAT'S IT CALLED?" "...They call the rising sun…"). To recreate this mad event, Otway managed to get hundreds of fans to accompany him to an Abbey Road session over the objections of the studio owners for the incredible catcall-and-response recording.
But then Mr. Otway got a little too ambitious. In 2006, he wanted to buy his own private jet and plan a world tour that would take him to the famed Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and other illustrious locales with other acts like Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook. Not having close to the money to do that himself, he started a campaign to raise 900,000 pounds (roughly $2 million dollars in today's money) by getting 300 fans to chip in 3000 pounds each. This time, his great grand scheme came crashing down as he couldn't come up with the funds to do it (not to mention trying to sell out Carnegie Hall in a country where he was barely a cult figure). As he recalls it in the film, he chokes back tears talking about he came up short with this lovely, mad idea.
To bounce back, he had another idea to celebrate his 60th birthday in 2012- a movie about himself, which was a much more realistic prospect. Turning to fans again, he made it happen this time, with all of them becoming the movie's producers and getting credited at the end of the film. In another zany touch, the movie ends with a post-modern turn- the world premiere of the movie itself in London along with a madcap trip to Cannes where fans attended the screening wearing Otway masks (which would be followed up by a cinema tour that would take him to the Glastonbury Festival in 2013).
The March of 100 Otways on the red carpet in Cannes; Photo credit: Judy Totten
In all, despite some lapses and missing pieces (nothing about JO's younger years or Pete Townshend's help in recording his first album) the Otway flick is the story of a freak and outcast with grand schemes, which exasperate even his biggest boosters sometimes, and a never-say-die attitude, hoisted up by a small rabid fan club. Though it's sort of real-life Spinal Tap story, it's also a touching, triumphant tale in many ways too.
After the movie ended, Otway bounded up front to applause for a brief Q&A session which was marred by the theater's muzak system playing over him- he unsuccessfully pleaded with the projectionist to turn it down but it wouldn't be an Otway event without some cock-ups. When someone asked about Willy Barrett, Otway explained that he and Barrett (who's also interviewed in the movie) had patched things up and done some shows together. I was curious about the most dangerous stunt he'd done on stage and he said that he once took a leap off of a very tall ladder and landed the wrong way, badly hurting himself and not feeling his legs at first. Other than his health concern, what he was really worried about was that no one might have caught the whole thing on film, which shows you what a real showman he is. Luckily, his legs got working again too.
When the Q&A was over, Otway said that he'd be selling flipbooks of the best part of the film (where he cracked his groin on TV) and answer any more questions in a pub down the street, which was an appropriate way to end the evening.
JO in the theater lobby with fans after U.S. premiere
This same weekend, back in England, another bunch of loonies called Monty Python were doing their final show, which was beamed across to theaters across the States. Appropriately enough, in the Otway film, Python's de-facto music director (and leader of the Rutles and Bonzo Dog Band) Neil Innes made a cameo to say what a fan he was of Otway too. JO's own brand of humor and lunacy never hit the States and made an impact the way that Python did but he was definitely in the same spirit as they were, ready to entertain and rib tickle any fan who came across his antics. He'll never get the world tour that he dreamed of but that probably won't stop him from trying to do it regardless. Otway remains a survivor, not just of his life but also his career and his prat falls and crazy schemes. How many other senior citizen rockers are as insanely inspired and never-say-die?
Videos of Otway live at Theater 80 doing "Body Talk," "House of the Rising Sun," "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," "Cheryl's Going Home" and "Crazy Horses"
See the John Otway website and the website for Otway the Movie: Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure
and also see our 1999 article on Mr. Otway
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