The story of a man who starves his father to death.
PART ONE: WEST
Before there was Pinky O’Brien there was Sophie Vega. Before there was Sophie Vega there was my mother. Before there was my mother there was my father. Before there was my father there was Pinky O’Brien. These people represent the four points of the compass of my life: without one there would not be the other, without the other there would not be the one. Pinky O’Brien, with his rolling flesh and husky breath, sits on his perch due north, towards the icy polar winds, a fitting resting place for the man who destroyed my life. To the east lies my beautiful Sophie, her hair flying freely in the summer breeze, her mystical smile never far from my thoughts, her lips still on my own. To the south is the careworn body of my mother, taken from this world while still in her thirties, a paradigm of honour and humility, her fragile features bearing the scars of a lifetime of despair. And to the west lies the almost forgotten body of my father, standing in the shadows at the end, the middle and the beginning to this story. All roads, I was to learn much, much later, somehow lead to my father and, before we can even think about Sophie Vega, it is with him that I must begin.
Until a certain five-pound blob of pink and yellowish flesh, covered in gore and screaming black and blue murder, was dragged into this world in a west country hospital at the end of the long cold winter of 1960, they tell me that my father was known as the man most likely to. He was a singer: a handsome bequiffed young rogue with a velvety baritone voice that mesmerised the ladies. He was twenty-two years old and on the fast track to fame and fortune, all the clichés fitted: he was climbing the ladder to stardom and it seemed as if nothing could stand in his way – and then I came along and spoiled the party. My father was there that day to watch me emerge. Probably desperate for a cigarette he had stood on that cold stone floor, his eyes staring fearfully over a surgical mask as I made my final frantic efforts to cling to my mother’s womb. When they held me by my feet and gave me a sample of what was to come it is said that my father had never looked so happy. And when I chewed on my mothers breast for the very first time, my mind bubbling over with confusion, it was he who gave me my name.
William Marshall. Nothing much of a name but a name nonetheless. Of course, in later years people inevitably shortened it to Will – some even tried calling me Bill, but I have to concede that of all of my father’s various endeavours his choice of name for me was undoubtedly one of the most successful. His own was Frank: Frank Marshall, To me it always seemed the sort of name that Hollywood scriptwriters give to members of the James Gang; it was, however, a dignified name, one that deserved respect. He came from a poor background himself; dragged up from the Welsh valleys with nothing in his pockets and even less in his belly. His family were miners, so poor that they could not afford to stock their own hearths with the deadly black substance that they dedicated their lives to excavating. The youngest of five brothers, it was expected that Frank Marshall would grow up to continue the family’s subterranean working traditions. But he had other ideas. He had his voice, his proud Welsh voice, and he knew right from the word go that it was his ticket away from drudgery. By the age of 14 he was singing in local bands, by 18 he was a minor local celebrity, and by 20 he had flown the coop and was touring the country as singer with the Jeff Baxter Sextet, earning the unprecedented sum of £23 a week for his efforts. Then in February 1959 he met a pretty young nurse named Shirley Fossett at a dance hall in Bristol and fell in love; three months later they were married.
By all accounts, it seems that in the early days Frank Marshall was extremely pleased with the blob of pink and yellowish flesh that he had sired, some say he was overjoyed. Within weeks he was carting it through the streets, proudly displaying my blubbering features to interested as well as non-interested parties. “Come and meet my lad,” he would proudly proclaim in his clumsy Welsh accent, before serenading me with a sugary rendition of Al Jolson’s ‘Sonny Boy’. Apparently, he was even known to raise a finger to my stubby chin and make the kind of cooing, gurgling noises common to those who have recently propagated the species. To many, my father and mother seemed like the perfect couple: both in their early twenties, skin firm and unblemished, bodies streamlined and slim; he an up-and-coming singer, she the picture of a happily married young mother. They had everything in life to look forward to. But behind this cosy façade things were already beginning to go wrong.
Of course, there was nothing original about the cause of this disquiet. Show me a professional singer who has managed to stay faithful to his partner for any length of time and I’ll show you someone who is either gay or Paul McCartney. People who use their vocal chords to balance the books invariably have as much in common with fidelity as Mephistopheles had with Mother Teresa. You can hardly blame my father for succumbing to the chorus line of sweet temptation that hung around his dressing room door. In his heyday it seemed that all he had to do was open his mouth and a hundred screaming schoolgirls would fight to lay claim to his bed. Yet despite what his fans thought, my father was only human; he was flesh and blood with the same urges as you and I. And when his career demanded that he spend long periods away from the arms of his young wife and babe in arms, it was inevitable that he would seek out the comfort of others.
Even so, there is part of me which is convinced that my father held out for as long as he could. I know that my parents’ love was not so flimsy that he would risk it for a quick knee trembler, I dare say that he lost count of the number of times that he turned away some nubile floozy or other from his boudoir. I’m sure that some of the temptations that came his way were more than any man could be expected to bear. Inevitably, however, something had to give, which it did before I had even reached my first birthday. And that was when all the trouble began.
Frank Marshall was three weeks into a two-month engagement at the Bournemouth Olympia when Cynthia Andrews fluttered into his life. She was working in the cloakroom at the time; a seventeen-year-old airhead with the body of a beauty queen and the mind of a viper. He noticed her straight away – who wouldn’t have noticed her? With the face of a young Elizabeth Taylor and breasts that you could murder for, she had much to offer a young man far from home. My mother began to suspect that something was amiss when her husband’s daily calls to the telephone he had insisted she install in the home suddenly began to lose their frequency. At first it was every other day and then it was twice a week, then it was once in a blue moon. Finally, it was she who began making the calls that were rarely answered. He had his excuses, of course. The pressure of his work schedule… the strain on his voice… the crazy existence that he was leading. But when he told his untruths, I think they both understood what was really happening. Although nothing was ever said, it was clear that they both knew the lie of the land.
While my mother stayed at our rented flat in the centre of Bristol, attending to the every whim of her husband’s blob of shitting and squealing pink and yellowish flesh, my father was holed up in a Dorset hotel room with the crimson lips of Cynthia Andrews wrapped around his dick. While my mother tossed and turned with worry in her bed at night, he was lying awake in that same hotel room for a very different reason. As my father’s fame grew, so did the affair. After Bournemouth he travelled to another engagement, this time in Manchester, this time with Cynthia openly at his side. When pictures of the couple began appearing in the music papers, he told my mother that his beautiful companion was his personal assistant. And he wasn’t really lying when he said this.
Although this situation was far from a happy one for my mother; it probably would have continued for some time were it not for the unfortunate sequence of events that turned my father from budding superstar into yesterday’s news. My mother was a realist: she knew what my father was really up to in those long and lonely months away from home. But she loved him, she desired him, she understood that if she was going to keep her man she would have to cut him some slack. She didn’t like doing it but she had little option, for he was a star in the ascendant and she wanted him more than anything else in the world.
On 5 November 1962 my father made his first appearance at the London Palladium, as the opening act for Tommy Steele. Over the past few years his reputation had been steadily growing but this was to be the night that would cap it all. That he went down well that evening is something of an understatement; indeed, even today Frank Marshall’s London debut is still talked about in awe by those with long memories. Backed by Steele’s own thirty-piece orchestra, he sung four songs in a 15-minute set. Opening with Jule Styne’s upbeat ‘Just In Time’, my father had the girls in the audience howling before he had even reached the second verse. By this time he had been on the road almost constantly for four years and he knew how to milk an audience. He had all the moves: a gesture with the open hand here, a quiver of the lip there; he recognised the power he held in his skinny frame and he knew how to get the best out of it.
His second number, the dreamy ‘Midnight Sun’ by Lionel Hampton and June Christy, which features a complex descending chromatic verse, was intended more as a virtuoso piece; a song that is notoriously difficult to sing and avoided by all but the most accomplished performers, his interpretation that night served notice to those present that they were witnessing the birth of a major star. Next it was a romantic number, the haunting ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’ by Lerner and Loewe, a real tear-jerker that had the audience reaching for their handkerchiefs and even caused, as some of the newspapers gleefully reported next morning, a number of teenage girls to faint.
His choice of song for the finale was unusual but it was intended to prove to anyone who remained unconverted that his was no ordinary talent. Anxious to show that he was no piece of schoolgirl fluff, my father launched into an epic version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Impossible Dream’ from Man of La Mancha. Even today this is a song not to be taken lightly: opening in the low C register and spanning three full octaves before the final dramatic top F#, the composition is one of the most technically demanding in all popular music and attempted by none but the brave.
Despite what was to happen later, I say this with the pride of a loving son: having listened on many occasions to recordings made that night I can confirm that my father’s performance was staggeringly flawless; his voice had never been better, his intonation never more thrilling; his phrasing never more immediate and personal. It was the performance of a lifetime, the defining moment in his musical career. A triumph of the utmost order that earned a standing ovation from the musicians in the band as well as rave reviews in the trade press. As he stepped off the stage to thunderous applause, Frank Marshall knew that his life would never be the same again.
Although I was a toddler scarcely three years old, I still have vivid recollections of the aftermath of that night of triumph. I can remember the constant ringing of the telephone at home the next morning as my mother fended off calls from reporters, booking agents and well-wishers. I can also recall that I had never seen her so happy, so invigorated, so overflowing with joy. Of course, I was too young to comprehend what was really happening but nevertheless I could not resist her mood, her delight was contagious, her excitement unremitting.
From my infant’s eye view, I also have powerful recollections of the day that my father returned home from his success. The house filled with friends and relatives, giant-sized cakes sliced up and gleefully distributed, balloons and trimmings hanging from the walls. Him smothered in kisses and drinking too much. The cheers, the laughter. Of course, these memories are hazy, but they linger nevertheless and constitute some of the happiest moments of my entire childhood. In fact, they probably constitute my only happy childhood memories.
After London my father took a well-deserved break. For the first time in his life money was not a problem and he decided to spend a little of it. Leaving his manager to handle the queues of record executives and media men vying for his signature, Frank Marshall took his wallet for a ride. He bought a new car – a shiny new Jaguar – and he put a down payment on a large house. As well as this he purchased a whole new wardrobe for my mother. These were exciting times for the young couple; and when my father was finally handed a £40,000 advance for adding his name to the roster of artists at Decca, it seemed that he was about to achieve everything he had ever dreamed of.
It was during this break from touring that Cynthia Andrews decided to pay a visit. With my father back playing happy families, Cynthia was suddenly persona non grata; she had not seen or spoken to him in over three weeks and she was far from pleased. My father’s secret lover turned up one Saturday night, just as my parents were getting ready to go out and eat. Needless to say all hell ensued. Naturally, I was too young to know what was going on but even so the vibes were fairly easy to pick up on. According to what my mother would tell me later, Cynthia demanded that my father pack his bags right there and then and return to London with her. As far as she was concerned, he belonged to her; they had been together almost two years and she wasn’t ready to let him go without a cat fight. It goes without saying that an argument ensued and Cynthia began to fight dirty, calling her rival a whore and going into explicit detail about what went on with my father between the sheets. Apparently, it was quite a scene. My mother screaming, Cynthia screaming, my own high pitched squeals added to this cacophony, the baby sitter looking on open mouthed, and my father staring sheepishly at his feet wishing the floor would swallow him up. Next hair was pulled and fingernails applied, and with my father trying to separate these two hissing bundles of perfume and teeth, he finally turned to Cynthia Andrews and told her it was all over.
After the lovely Cynthia had finally departed, shaking with rage and aiming a couple of well-timed slaps at my father’s face as she headed for the door, came the tears and the long, lingering conversations that lasted well into the early hours. For several weeks an icy atmosphere hung over the home as my mother allowed the knowledge of my father’s misdemeanours to sink in. She had known all along, of that there is no doubt. She had known that he was up to something. What she didn’t want to know, however was what the face of the woman who had been happily servicing her husband for the last 20 or so months looked like in the flesh. She would rather the issue had never been allowed to surface so that they could just get on with their new, exciting life. For a time, however, the incident seemed to make the marriage stronger. When the shouting and the sobbing finally subsided my parents seemed to rediscover their love.
This all changed forever on the morning of 12 January 1963 when my father entered Studio C in London’s Abbey Road Studios and prepared to cut his very first record. Tony Hatch was the producer that day and he had selected a tune written by a little-know songwriting duo named Foster and Clegg. The song was entitled ‘My Love Will Grow’, a racy number backed by a 12-piece orchestra that comprised some of the top session musicians in the business. Decca had pulled out all the stops to ensure that their new investment would pay for itself. Their publicity machine was already going into overdrive with posters of my father looking like a young James Dean appearing on billboards all over the country and television and radio appearances booked to promote his vinyl debut. The ‘t’s had been crossed and the ‘i’s had been dotted. Stardom beckoned.
If I’ve heard this story once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. On a good day it was told to me with the pride of someone only too aware of what he could have achieved; at other times my father could scarcely get the words out of his mouth, such was his bitterness and regret. And on the really, really bad days the tale would be accompanied by agonising cries of despair that had to be heard to be believed.
As he listened to a run through of the song’s arrangement, Frank Marshall tapped his foot and silently mouthed the words on the lyric sheet that he held in his hand, He knew that Decca had got it right: the song was a good one, its verses the perfect vehicle for the drama that his voice contained, its chorus memorable and catchy without being too clichéd. He had no doubt that the public would fall in love with it. Then, when my father felt confident that he knew the tune thoroughly, that he knew exactly what he was going to do with it, the lines that needed emphasis, the phrases that called for restraint, he pulled on a pair of headphones and stepped into a sound booth and waited for the red light to come on.
Even though it was the first time he had ever been in a recording studio, my father felt at home. This was, as he would later tell me on many occasions, the moment that his whole life had been building towards. In little under three minutes he was about to become a star and he couldn’t help smiling as the sound of the six-beat drum introduction to ‘My Love Will Grow’ filled his head. Then, at the allotted moment, he moved his mouth close to the booth’s solitary microphone and took a deep breath. Finally, he opened his lips and prepared to launch into the song’s opening lines:
I’ve waited for you for so long…
I’ve waited to sing you this song…
My father closed his eyes and let the music wash over him and he began to sing.
The trouble was, not a sound came out of his mouth.