Alone Again (Naturally)
Source: The Daily Mail
Writer: David Wigg
Date: 13 April 2002
Although he is a happily married man, GILBERT O'SULLIVAN lives the life of a recluse, spending his days holed up in his music room, desperately trying to pen another number one hit. David Wigg catches up with the pop star who is obsessive about tidiness, shuns crowds and hasn't been in a pub for 25 years.
Gilbert O'Sullivan's hideaway is a magnificent, sprawling mansion on the island of Jersey, surrounded by immaculate gardens, a swimming pool, tennis court, and his own specially built, high-tech recording studio. It's an airy, luxurious home. On the main staircase is a huge painting of Gilbert, one of the most successful performers of the 1970's with hits such as "Alone Again (Naturally)", "Clair", and "No Matter How I Try", with his attractive blonde Norwegian wife Aase and their two daughters Helen-Marie and Tara. On other walls are framed paintings of Gilbert that fans have sent him. He never throws anything away.
But the normally shy, reclusive man is clearly angry. He believes British TV and Radio stations are giving the new songs he has composed the cold shoulder. Now 55, he puts it down to ageism in the music business. 'There's nothing wrong with been in your 50s. We've got a lot going for us - yet no matter how popular you have been, there are people who believe you really shouldn't be making music, because it's a young people's market. They think you should just die away. Well, we are not going to do it without putting up a fight. Irvin Berlin was still writing songs when he passed a hundredthat I can put two fingers up at the business that turns its nose up at me, ' he says. 'There is a market place for us. Dylan's done it. He wrote about getting older and death, because he'd come through a serious illness. You can't be relevant if you are writing about being 20. I've been writing songs for 30 or 40 years, so I ought to know by now what is good'.
One sitting room in his home is so large that it is called the ballroom. It is something of a contrast to his childhood days, when Gilbert was known as Ray and had to share a bed with his younger brother Kevin in a tiny Swindon council house. It was here that his mother Mae, a cinema usherette, single-handedly brought up a family of six. Gilbert used to keep his piano in the garden shed at Swindon and for sentimental reasons he has still got the shed in Jersey. His brother Kevin now works as his personal assistant and calls him Ray, as do all the family. Kevin lives with his wife in an annex adjoining the house. Although the house would be ideal for entertaining, Gilbert has never hosted a party there. 'I couldn't stand all the chaos and stuff being spoiled.' He is a tidiness freak. In the bathroom, the toothbrush has to be in the same position each morning. If he notices there are drips on the taps, he has to go over and wipe them. He likes to do the washing-up and even some dusting. 'I love it because I've always done it. I'm very domesticated. My wife is a very good cook. But I do Friday nights and the odd lunch'.
Even the hundreds of CDs and records in the music room are stacked away or neatly placed on the floor so he knows exactly where everything is. Only he is allowed to clean his music room. I mention I'd never known anyone with such an obsession for tidiness. But it doesn't end there. 'We have these four rugs in the hall. Whenever I come home, I have to see that they are straight - it's the first thing I do. It drives my wife nuts. But she's learned to handle it. As long as I'm in control I'm alright,' he says. 'There is a kind of security about it. When I had my own flat in London with one room, I never let many people visit because they would mess up everything'.
His shyness has made Gilbert hide away, rarely socialising or going out. He hasn't ventured into a pub in 25 years and he doesn't drive. 'I'm not very good in crowds and among strangers. Obviously, it would be nice for my wife if I went out more often,' he agrees. 'We do get invited to a number of social activities, but I don't want to be sidetracked from work. I don't have a lot of time for people who retire and then try to come back. I don't think they deserve a second chance. If you get off, then you aren't going to get back on'.
In the 1960s, it took Gilbert three years before anyone took him seriously. The music publishers and record companies liked his songs, but didn't like the image he wanted to project. With his pudding bowl haircut hidden under a large, 1930s cap, Chaplin-tailed jacket, hobnailed boots and trousers with one leg shorter than the other, he looked like no other performer at that time. Recalling those days of rejection, he says: 'The record companies that were interested in me said: "Don't wear a Chaplin jacket. Don't wear boots or a cap, and let your hair grow."' But Gilbert was defiant and stuck to the image he had created for himself. 'I've always like the idea of being different and going against the grain. Between 1967 and 1971 my idols were Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I achieved that looked based on them. I didn't have much money then and use to hire the Chaplin jacket from Bermans, the theatrical hire firm. The salesmen use to let me have it for next to nothing because they knew I wasn't in a play or anything. I believed if I had agreed to having long hair and round-collared shirts I'd probably have looked a prat. So I defend the image 100 per cent'.
Gilbert decided he needed someone powerful with his career - either Bee Gees manager and producer Robert Stigwood, or Gordon Mills, chairman of the MAM agency, who was enjoying huge success through his skillful management of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. When Mills received photographs of Gilbert dressed up like a Bisto Kid, he threw them in the bin. But later, he found he couldn't get the appealing catchiness of Gilbert's songs, sent to him on a tape, out of his head. He rescued the photographs from the wastepaper basket and summoned Gilbert for an important meeting.
Mills had a beautiful estate in Weybridge, Surrey with it's own private zoo. There was a bungalow in the grounds and he agreed that Gilbert should leave his small flat in Bayswater, west London, and live in the bungalow where he could compose his songs. It was free and he would be paid £10 a week. 'I'd previously only earned £10 a week as a postal clerk, so I was quite happy to have the same amount,' explains Gilbert. 'The money wasn't that important to me. Music isn't about money - it's about wanting to be successful. I wanted a hit record in Britain. I never set my sights further than that. So the opportunity to write songs all the time was a dream come through'.
In 1970, Gilbert had his first big hit with "Nothing Rhymed", which reached number eight. After four more hits in 1972 he had his first number one success with Clair in Britain and Alone Again (Naturally) - a song written about the death of his father - put him at number one in America. He was inspired to write his infectious song "Clair" about the Mills' pretty three year old daughter. 'I used to baby-sit for them. Although I had the occasional girlfriend I was pretty much a loner. I used to go up to their house like a member of the family. Jo, Gordon's wife, a lovely woman, used to feed me. They were often going out to big functions or dinners and they'd ask me to baby-sit for them. It was no problem because I used to write at night. I felt part of the family. I'd go on holiday with them. I ended up being like a son. Before I'd always been so wary of the types of people who worked in the music business, the sharks. Psychologically, this was the perfect setup. I never thought in a million years that anything would go wrong'.
r was an enchanting little girl. I wrote the song for Gordon Mills and his wife because they were so good to me. It was like a thank you for them. Gordon played harmonica on the record and produced it. It was very much a family record.' Unfortunately, after all the success they had shared, Gordon Mills and Gilberts relationship soured, when Gilbert suggested that instead of Mills producing all his records, they should try other record producers as well.
'He wouldn't have that - he took my suggestion more than personally - it was like a Judas touch. For him, it was that terrible ego thing which was part of Gordon's downfall. I still wanted him to continue as my manager, but to work with different producers, which I thought could only be good for us. We agreed to split. We shook hands and I thought it was amicable. I was very nervous - in fact I was terrified - but I was determined that it had to happen. I thought Gordon was concentrating more on his wild animals and zoo'.
Before leaving, Gilbert asked the accountant to show him the books. 'In one year I had earned £2million, but I was paying 90 per cent tax, and I was left with just enough to pay the mortgage on my house'.
Having always been promised an interest in the copyright of his songs, in June 1979, Gilbert sued Mills, for a fair share of the £14.5 million earned by his songs in the 1970s. He had received only £500,000 and, to pay his legal costs, he had to sell his £200,000 house in Weybridge. Not only did he win the action, which turned him into a multi-millionaire, but more important to him was the court's decision to give him the record masters and ownership of the copyright of all his hit songs as well as the back dated royalties. 'I was fighting for a half share in them, which I had been promised,' says Gilbert. 'I ended up getting complete possession and controlling their future, which is tremendously important to me. If I hadn't gotten my own copyright back I could have ended up the way a lot of artists end up - broke'.
He still looks upon the High Court case as the worst experience in his life. 'It had a terrible effect on me - it went on for years. I felt totally betrayed when they turned on me, because I was only asking for what I had been told I would eventually be given. I don't think they ever thought it would go to court. I ended up feeling sorry for people like Gordon's wife, Jo. She was on the phone to me saying: "How can you do this to him?" And I spoke to his mother. They must have hated me. I'd wished that it didn't have to come to that, but I had no choice. Now I am in touch with the family again. I was able to help Jo out 15 years ago when she ran into some trouble after Gordon died. In recent years, I've also touched base with Clair. It's good to know that she doesn't feel any resentment.
Another regret in his life was that his father, an Irish butcher, died when Gilbert was only 11. 'I would have liked him to have shared in my success. He liked to gamble and if he had been alive he would have had his own racehorse. All my memories of growing up are with my mother.' Mae, now 81, has moved from that Swindon council house, with Gilbert's help, to a detached property. 'My mother is lovely, the salt of the earth and I would do anything for her,' he says. 'She was the one who got me to go to London. She pushed me out of the house saying: "Go! Go!" She stood crying at the station when I left'.
Gilbert met his wife Aase in 1972, while she was working as a stewardess for Pan Am. He was flying off to make appearances in America. 'We met at the airport. She knew Gordon and he arranged for her to meet me. She came with flowers and a bottle to drink on the journey - I was really touched.' But in his usual cautious way, he didn't marry her until seven years later. 'It took a long time for the relationship to develop, because I'm very committed to what I do. But once I decided that she was the right person, that was it.' Previously, Gilbert's bashfulness hadn't helped him with dating women. 'I tried hard, but I wasn't the greatest at it,' he admits. I had a relationship with one girl which I ended as soon as it started getting serious, because I was nervous about it affecting my work'.
Once he became a pop star, he didn't have to worry about his shyness, because the girls would gather round. 'I was never a raver. I envied all the people who were.' The kind blue eyes and mild mannered voice are perhaps misleading, as he confesses to being a bit moody. 'Yes, I fly off the handle. I can be like Elton John when I'm having a tantrum,' he says.
Many of his songs are now used in films or television commercials. He is been asked to take part in 1970s tours with other artists, but refuses. He is, however, playing some solo concerts in the UK from this week. Of course, he's seen several artists' careers destroyed by drugs, but that never interested Gilbert. 'I didn't get involved in drugs because I was a tea, and fish and chips man. I've never felt that it would make me a better song writer.' He's never been a drinker and keeps his 5ft 10ins frame a sleek nine stone by taking long, solitary walks in the grounds of his home.
Of the future, he says: 'If I feel I have written a good song, a smile comes over my face. It makes it all worth while. While it would be nice to have success again, I'm not losing any sleep wondering if and when and how it's going to happen'.