Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Last Updated: 22 May 13:46 PM IST
20 October 2012
Well, Chris de Burgh would say that, wouldn’t he? Whether he’s selling millions of
records or saving money on toothpaste, no one is quite a match for the blouson-clad
balladeer, says deborah ross
I meet Chris de Burgh – the singer/ songwriter and a man for whom, surely, the blouson-style leather jacket was invented – at a hotel just outside Enniskerry, a small village in County Wicklow, Ireland, nearby to where he lives and where, somewhat gratifyingly, he arrives wearing not only a blouson-style leather jacket, but a shiny black one that is new on today. It’s Hugo Boss, he says. He’s only just bought it, he adds. “First time on, just for you!” he concludes.
“Great!” I say, largely because I’m stuck for anything else to say. “Terrific! Well done!”
We settle at a table. Tea for him, coffee for me. He is otherwise wearing brown cords and a royal-blue cable-knit sweater. “Cashmere,” he says, “from Monaghans.” He helpfully spells it out: “M-o-n-a-g-h-a-n-s.” He is small (5ft 6ins) with tiny hands and the sort of hair that doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions; doesn’t quite have the oomph to make it to full mullet. He is certainly über-friendly, at least initially. He even squeezes my knee a couple of times, which is interesting. He also says: “Shall I call you Debbie?” I say: I’d rather you didn’t. He says: “Does no one call you Debbie?” No, I tell him. He then asks, rather inexplicably. “Not even your husband, when he is trying to fix the dishwasher?” I say, if you knew my husband, you’d know he’s not the sort of man who can fix dishwashers. He says: “I can fix dishwashers. I was brought up in a castle with no money and lots of imagination. I learnt a lot about plumbing at an early age. It’s interesting, and actually very logical.” Right, I say.
He does, in fact, know a lot about a lot. I learn about plumbing. I learn how ideas for songs come about. “They drop like seeds in the wind and then just grow.” I learn I should call my taxi in good time to take me back to the airport. “You’ll be taking the M50, and it’s going to be busy.” I learn about vintage wine, which he collects. (His best bottle is, he thinks, his Châteaux Pavie 1918. “That’s P-a-v-i-e.”) I learn he’s sold 45 million records, because he is fond of beginning sentences with: “As someone who has sold 45 million records…” It may even be – as eventually becomes apparent – that Chris is one of those personalities who knows a lot about some things and almost nothing about his true self.
That said he will, I think, go to his grave protesting otherwise. He would say he knows himself, and all is tickety-boo. “I am happy in my own skin,” he says. “I love myself,” he says, adding: “I’m not saying this in a narcissistic way. I just like me.” I say, but what are your flaws, Christopher? Everyone has flaws. “You’d have to ask other people about that!” he says. OK (and aside from the, ahem, nanny-shagging), what does your wife, Diane, most scold you for? Once you have fixed the dishwasher do you, for example, mis-stack it? Cups on the bottom rack when we all know they should be up top? That always sends me mental. “No,” he says, “of course not!”
I say: I know one thing you are bad at. Twitter. You’re crap at Twitter. You’re only following six people, and two of those are Heathrow Airport. “Terminal Four and Terminal Five, right? I can’t be bothered with Twitter. Life’s too short. I do Facebook. I’ve got 200,000 followers.”
We are meeting to, ostensibly, discuss his latest album, Home, a selection of his favourite songs from previous albums and recorded acoustically. I know Chris has devoted fans, as does Chris – “I am much loved” – but, on listening to it the once, I did rather feel as if I’d been beaten round the head with a Hallmark card, and I did require a recuperative lie-down afterwards. Still, he felt this particular album was necessary. The problem with “Lady in Red”, he says, which he chose to leave off this CD, is that it has obscured so much of his other work. “One of the problems of having such a huge worldwide hit, like ‘Lady in Red’, which is still a hit, worldwide, is that you get pigeon-holed and so the other 250 songs you’ve written and recorded become irrelevant.” This is a shame, he continues, because “I write songs about such a wide variety of topics. I don’t think there are too many covering what I’m covering.” Would you bury “Lady in Red”, if you could? “Of course not!” Although, he continues, “I do diminish it slightly when performing live. I take the microphone and leave the band and walk through the audience, hugging people.”
I ask him which song he is most proud of, lyrically, and regret it almost instantly. Mr de Burgh is very generous with his answers, shall we say, and here it is, in full, because as I had to sit through it, so too will you. He says: “I would pick ‘Snow is Falling’ from my album The Road To Freedom. It’s like a movie. If you can imagine a camera very slowly moving into a snowscape. It’s like Doctor Zhivago. You are moving along, everything is white, covered in snow, and you go into a forest, and there are these big fir trees. It is obviously Eastern Europe or somewhere, and the fir trees are covered in snow, and the boughs are heavy with snow, and occasionally bits will fall off. It’s all in one go, like a Hitchcock shot, and you go right into the forest and there is a clearing and in the clearing is very disturbed ground, covered in snow, and the camera goes in and below the ground are the bodies of three or four hundred young men and boys who have been executed, and this is them calling to be found.” He breaks to sing the lyric: “Snow is falling and we are calling to be found.” He pauses to reflect on, I suppose, how profoundly deep we have suddenly become.
He then continues with: “Their families have no idea what has happened to them. I remember performing this in Russia a few times. I had an interpreter to explain what the song was about, and afterwards you should have seen the handkerchiefs in the audience. There were people sniffling and crying. They got it because it’s part of their background and history so that’s the song I would pick out.” I am desperate to ask: how can you tell disturbed ground is disturbed ground, if it is covered in fresh snow? But Debbie, being a coward by nature, keeps her gob shut. Instead, I find myself saying weakly: You seem like an incredibly visual person. He says: “I am.” He then taps the side of his head. “It’s like a Cineplex going on in here.”
He did, indeed, grow up in a castle. His father was a diplomat who received a variety of postings including Malta, Nigeria and Zaire and who, on his retirement, when Chris was 12, took the family back to 12th-century Bargy castle, near Wexford. Although his parents would eventually restore it and run it as a hotel, it was a wreck initially. “No light, no furniture, no water, no heat, bitterly cold,” he remembers. He then says, because of this castle business, and because he attended a prep boarding school and then Marlborough, it’s assumed the family was rich, but they weren’t.
“The castle was bought by my grandfather, Sir Eric de Burgh, because we didn’t have any money. The only reason I went to a very good school is that an aged aunt left money for myself and my brother’s education. Even when I went into the music business it was 12 years before I actually made any money because I was supporting band members and lots of money was spent on tour support and record costs, so it’s been a long haul.”
He says his poor upbringing as a diplomat’s son whof lived in a castle and attended Marlborough has never quite left him. He does not, for example, like wasting money. “You know you get a tube of toothpaste… such a bloody con. You squeeze and squeeze and nothing more comes out? Well, take a pair of scissors and cut it about an inch and a half from the bottom and it’s absolutely packed with stuff! I do that, then cut off the top bit, so I can stick that back on and it doesn’t dry out!” Marvellous, I say, largely because I can’t think of anything else to say. “It can last you another week!” he says, ecstatically.
He married Diane, who inspired “Lady in Red”, in 1977. God, she must be sick of that song, I say. “No, she likes it,” he says. They have three children: Hubie, who is studying musical composition at Goldsmiths in London; Michael, who is in the fourth year of a business degree; and Rosanna, a model who, somewhat surreally, became Miss World in 2003 and also recently posed for Playboy. Dad didn’t mind. “God, to look like that!” he says. “I wish I looked as good as that, in a male sort of way!” No offence, Christopher, I say, but you don’t look like the sort of man who could sire a Miss World. Yes, he says, “but look at her mother. She’s gorgeous.”
This may be but, in 1994, he was caught carrying on with the kids’ 19-year-old nanny. How much would you like to bury that story? I ask. He sighs disappointedly and says: “I’m surprised you asked that question, although I suppose I shouldn’t be. But I’ve never talked about it and never will.” I say: you must accept that story is going to follow you to your grave. He says it’s such a shame. “It’s not a comparison, but Profumo. People have forgotten he died doing charitable works. He is only remembered for the Profumo affair.” He sighs disappointedly again and adds: “These are the things you have to put up with.” And: “I’d like to have one person, who consistently refers to these kinds of incidents in anybody’s life, stand up and say: ‘I have been the perfect person’. So the hypocrisy is actually mind-blowing.” Indeed.
He says nothing can hurt him which, I suppose, is a good job, as even the most cursory trawl of the internet will reveal that everyone – or so it seems – likes to take a pop at Chris de Burgh, “the cheesy balladeer”. How would you explain this, I ask. “I would suggest,” he replies, “it’s because I’ve got a posh accent, have never been to rehab, haven’t tried to commit suicide, haven’t been on drugs, and am just a normal guy.” Whatever, none of it ever gets to him, he repeatedly insists. “Because I like me, it means nothing anyone says has any impact whatsoever. You get punched on the nose. That might hurt. But the things I read about myself are completely irrelevant.” I say, with uncharacteristic bravery, this is patently untrue. I say: what about your response to Peter Crawley?
In 2009, Peter Crawley, the theatre critic of the Irish Times, was dispatched to review one of Chris’s concerts. Actually, the review was not that ungenerous; it basically said if you love Chris, you would have loved this concert, and if you don’t, “your toes will never uncurl after this experience”, which is fair enough, I think, but Chris went nuclear and e-mailed Mr Crawley a lengthy, much-publicised response which is best read in full (Google it; you won’t be disappointed) but highlights include accusing Mr Crawley of getting lost on the way to the pub and straying into the concert by mistake, asserting he is known in the business as “a loathsome little turd” and it ended with this ‘PS’: “We were wondering by way of explanation and as you seem to portray yourself as a bitter and unfulfilled man, were you much teased by your school chums in the schoolyard and called ‘Creepy Crawley?’ I think we should be told…!”
That, I say, is not the response of someone happy in their own skin. That, I say, is the response of a deeply angry person, possibly preoccupied with personal adequacy issues. He bristles at this, does not squeeze my knee, and says, stiffly: “I disagree with you there. I’m a person who is extremely strong on empathy, and at that concert, having seen what happened, the standing ovation, the applause… I’ve done three and a half thousand concerts, so I know what’s what… and I just thought: this man is telling a complete lie so he can have a bit of a laugh.”
Still, he seems to have committed the review to memory. “There were two things that caught my eye. He commented on my trousers. How relevant is that? Secondly, he commented on the way I waved when I walked out. How relevant is that?” I don’t know, I say. I only know I’m never giving you my e-mail address. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I will find you.” (He’s not exactly Liam Neeson from Taken, but I feel a little chill all the same.) He then says the editor of the Irish Times chose to re-publish the review alongside his response which, to his turn of mind, means complete vindication, if not a triumph. “It was the editor’s way of saying [to Peter Crawley]: ‘Listen. Sharpen up. You didn’t have to do it just for a laugh’.”
The rest of our time passes together pleasantly enough. We talk more about wine. He has, he says, a bottle of Châteaux Mouton Rothschild – “a magnum, actually” – for every year from 1945. “It’s a remarkable collection.” For everyday drinking, he is liking Argentinian Malbec. “The key grape is syrah. S-y-r-a-h.” We talk about films, and his favourite film of all time, The Name of the Rose. “Wow. It’s fantastic. And Sean Connery, whom I’ve met, is astounding.”
We also talk about his philanthropy and how he saved his children’s prep school by buying it up when it was hit by financial difficulties. “But when news got out, I was slammed. People said I’d only done it to eventually sell it and make a profit. I said: ‘That’s what you would have done, but not me.’ Philanthropy is never understood by those who don’t have it in their own hearts.” I then get into my taxi, which I’d ordered to come early, although only because the M50 was bound to be busy. I suspect I shall hear again from Mr de Burgh, one way or another although, thankfully, I am quite hard to get hold of.