Shooting the Vapids
Perry Meisel and Ben Gerson
09 Oct 1973
Rita, a sixteen-year-old from Watertown, flipped through the program, pausing at
the larger photographs. "What's this guy's name?" sneered her
boyfriend. "Gilbert Sullivan?"
"Gilbert O'Sullivan. He's Irish!" exclaimed the nymphet.
The boyfriend slid his hands down his pockets, apparently weary of trying to
keep her attention. The two couples lighting intermission cigarettes to his
right, though, were simply enjoying an evening on the town.
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"BuT-ley! E-nun-ci-ate!" she giggled.
"It's supposed to be quite good," said her own husband, swelling. But
somehow the trials of a gay Miltonist seemed remote from the scene.
"We're having lunch at the beef and ale place tomorrow, Kenney," said
the first husband, recovering from his awkward query. "Want to come
"I'll call you at the office in the morning."
Flashing lights cut the chatter short. Rita's boyfriend led her to the seats,
glad it was time again for the music. "I betcha he stays at the Howard
Johnson's Motor Lodge," she said as they walked down the aisle.
The odor of Juicy Fruit filled the darkness in the hall while the twenty-two
piece orchestra (complete with turtlenecks sporting varsity "G'"s)
tuned afresh for the star of the show. The crowd, which spread over two-thirds
of the Music Hall, had waited patiently through the first half of the evening.
Though girlish cries of "We want Gilbert!" had interrupted comic Marty
Barris during his best routine, Maureen McGovern managed to brake the
anticipation with a powerful display of technical skill, skimming through a
series of slush classics including her hit, "The Morning After."
Now that the lights were down again, the orchestra launched into a swinging
jump, urged on by Gilbert's arranger, Johnnie Spence; grey hair glowing, gold
sleeveless suit freeing his billowing cuffs to flash splendidly in the
At last the spot hit the wings and Gilbert came striding onstage, walking
perhaps a bit too fast for a star, waving and smiling to the applause with shy
constraint. Black crew-neck sweater blazoned with an immense "G",
black bells with thick red stripes, topped by that fashion photographer's dream
of a college boy's face; even better than the pictures, Rita must have been
thinking. With a hitch at his trousers, Gilbert plopped down at the piano as
soon as politeness would allow, muttering "Let's get on with it" in a
sulky British tenor. Once buried in the keyboard, he began to hammer out the
honky two-four beat that seems to be his favorite, the tempo of almost all his
tunes. Intoxicated with their radio dream come true, the crowd cheered and
cheered, still too excited to hear a thing.
The opener was a characteristic O'Sullivan original. "I Hope You'll
Stay", the lyrics rhyming in fractured couplets, the melody marshaled in
parallel phrases through each line of the verse - a gay, light balance, though
marred by an awkward bridge. It's hard to distinguish, really, among Gilbert's
songs. They seem to possess the same self-effacing quality that marks his
presence onstage; whether teasing in subtle implication or simply mediocre, it's
hard at first to tell. To be sure, he's miles from the manner of Tom Jones or
Engelbert Humperdinck (all are managed by Gordon Mills, which has spawned the
myth that all three are virtually the same performer). In fact, it would be
difficult to imagine Gilbert playing a club - he's much too clean, too boyish to
muster even Maureen McGovern's version of slick.
Unfortunately, it was clear from the start that Gilbert's voice projects nowhere
near as well in person as it does on records. Though he sings superficially like
Paul McCartney (perhaps one reason for his incipient stardom), he simply doesn't
have the power to keep from sounding thin and at times uncontrolled. The problem
is particularly apparent in concert, where horn or string lines alone fail to
provide the extra push neatly managed by overtracking in the studio.
And yet it was obvious that Gilbert cared little for what the crowd may have
thought. Not that he was testy - far from it. In fact, he took the greatest
pleasure in talking to the screamers in the house. "What's that,
love?" he asked repeatedly of a raucous girl in the balcony. "Can't
hear you, love, say't again." Though her piercing shrieks were impossibly
obnoxious, Gilbert clearly relished the pointless exchange, leaning against the
piano with arms crossed, head tilted toward the gloomy source of the squawking.
Such trifling events soon became the high points of the evening. Each time
Gilbert began a song it was the double of the last, while the remedy of looking
for interest in the arrangements was a short-lived stratagem, too. Even the hits
- "Clair," "Get Down," "Alone Again" (the last a
notable tune when isolated from the others) - merged into the same featureless
array of music-box twink. The screams that greeted the famous songs, especially
"Clair" (ironically enough, the most insipid of the group), became
progressively unenthusiastic, though still as loud as the crowd could manage, as
if they too were performing as much to an arranged program as Gilbert himself.
, they were perfectly matched, the crowd and Gilbert. Neither had a thing to
say, neither seemed to care for much besides the sure formula that meant for
Gilbert coasting through the show, and, for the crowd, no need to guard against
The lie to all this came during a lengthy chat we had with Gilbert (in real
life, Raymond) at the Parker House. Though flanked by plates of food in the
hotel restaurant, the focus of our attention radiated a lean and hungry look.
The hair, significantly, was swept back, not forward, nor permitted to hang
loosely on either side; neat corduroys were in evidence, while a knit sportshirt
completed the picture of a music hall entertainer at his leisure. Yet the skin
was ruddy and glowing, and the eyes burned. As soon as it was clear to him what
our mission was, he left his party and moved in businesslike fashion to a corner
booth where we could speak undisturbed.
With an intensity which re-enforced the paradox he was attempting to explain
away, Gilbert attested to his lack of interest in, and consequent aptitude for
performing. "Most performers get better as they go along. I get
worse." The nightly routine of concert appearances was no less tedious than
the daily routine of being interviewed. If one doesn't think about it, it stops
being painful. All of Gilbert's responses were previously thought out and to
some extent planned, which isn't to say they lacked an element of surprise. A
man whose rent is payed by housewives and junior high schoolers is not supposed
to admit his small appetite for such rituals. Gilbert is an Anglo-Irishman who
finally found refuge from the repression of a Catholic boyhood in art college.
It was the freedom of the English art schools, Gilbert emphasized, the freedom
to explore new ideas, as well as the more mundane but equally important freedom
from schedules, examinations, deadlines which them the spawning ground for so
much musical talent in the sixties. Gilbert became exposed to the music of Bill
Black and Bill Doggett, acquired some proficiency on drums and piano, and joined
a group. So far, his history parallels that of the "heavies" like John
Lennon, Ray Davies, and Eric Clapton. Gilbert completed art college but was bent
on a music career, so he moved to London where he purposefully avoided taking
jobs in art, preferring to work at menial tasks so as to direct all his creative
energy into music.
Where Gilbert and the Lennons and Claptons and other first generation art school
rockers part ways is in Gilbert's unruffled contentment with the trite
conventions of pop, and, secondly in his seemingly perverse insistence upon
avoiding the once daring but now well worn path of pop autuerism and eccentric
or tortured or poignant self-expression. "I could have sat at a piano and
bared my soul, but I didn't want to do that." The difficult journey had
become the predictable one, and hence to be discarded. Therefore one sunk to a
lower level of predictability, the more common denominator of housewives and
All right, the man wants to be as big as possible, which should entail being as
simple as possible. Yet we pointed out hat artists who "bared their
souls" - we chose Cat Stevens at the outset of his career as an example -
no longer were denied huge audiences as a price for that. With extraordinary pop
insight O'Sullivan replied, "Why should I start with an acoustic guitar
when I'm going to wind up with an orchestra? Why not begin with an
orchestra?" Truth be told, that is the inevitable progression. You could
describe Gilbert as hurrying to meet the inevitable, or it could be that same
allergy to hipness that caused Gilbert to cling to his silly outfit in the face
of ridicule because it was different, "confusing," because it was his.
Perhaps this calculating, lucid, ambitious man can only write simply shallow
songs. Perhaps the only kind of success ever within the grasp was his current
success. But it is at least equally plausible that the man was in a position to
choose what form his success should take. For Gilbert O'Sullivan, Dada king,
insipidity could be the new iconoclasm.