Outraged again, naturally

Source: The Irish Times Culture Magazine

Writer: Michael Ross

Date: 11th April 2004

Had he written the score it would have been different.  As it was, Gilbert O'Sullivan had just one song on the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola's 1999 film The Virgin Suicides.  Hence his discomfiture when, watching television in bed at home in Jersey, he saw Jonathan Ross review it.  "Gilbert O'Sullivan notwithstanding", concluded Ross "this is a good film.

"I nearly puked," says O'Sullivan.  "I don't have a problem with Jonathan Ross having a go at me on his radio programme or on a music programme.  But on a film programme, for Christ's sake?  What have I done to deserve this?."

He wrote to the programme's producer, who replied in emollient terms.  O'Sullivan was not assuaged, and even now he bristles at the episode.  "It got to me," he says.  "And things do get to me if I think they're unjustified."

O'Sullivan has a lengthy history of being "got to" by the media.  Q, the music magazine, got to him when it reviewed, in breezily dismissive terms, one of the albums he continues to crank out every 18 months or so.  These days, Q gets to him by ignoring him.

The Daily Mail got to him when it interviewed him in 1995, characterising O'Sullivan as a dour and deeply eccentric figure, reclusive, neurotic and controlling.  "They said things that really got to my wife," he says.  "She didn't speak to me for six months.  It was that heavy.  They made me out to be a lunatic, apparently."

In a Dublin hotel suite at 9am on a rainy morning, however, O'Sullivan cuts an eminently sane figure.  His appearance is initially disconcerting: his once cherubic features are drawn and deeply lined, more than one might expect even in a person of 57, and his long, wild hair is of a deep shade of aubergine that genes alone could scarcely yield.

Despite his reputation for extreme shyness, he maintains eye contact confidently, speaking evenly and showing little sign of the twitchy figure described by others.

O'Sullivan's adult life has been dominated by the brief but spectacular success he had in the 1970s, and by it's bitter aftermath.  the string of hit singles that began in 1970 with "Nothing Rhymed" and ended in 1973 with "Get Down" - which form the backbone of a new collection - were the fruit of the relationship between O'Sullivan and manager Gordon Mills.

Though in his early twenties when he first encountered Mills, O'Sullivan was still naive, vulnerable and ill-equipped for the adult world, let alone the music business.  His father had died when O'Sullivan was just 13, two years after his family moved to England from Waterford.  Though close to his brother, who still acts as his personal assistant, O'Sullivan disliked his mother and sister because he felt they undermined his confidence.

Just as Mills was a father figure for O'Sullivan, the singer was the son whom the manager had never had.  "I encouraged that" says O'Sullivan.  They had complete trust in each other.  Mills even assented to O'Sullivan's naff Bisto Kid image, albeit reluctantly.

O'Sullivan moved into the gate lodge on Mill's Surrey estate.  As he finished each new song, Mills recorded it, and as each record was released it became a hit.  "Clair" which spent two weeks at the top of the British singles chart in 1972, was famously about a member of Mill's family, the manager's two-year-old daughter.

Having subsisted on 10 a week as a postal clerk, O'Sullivan was happy with the modest stipend provided by Mills.  he signed a deal that paid him a recording royalty of just 3% (the industry norm, even in those days, was more than double that) and agreed on a handshake with Mills a deal that would have given him, in due course, a 50% share of his song publishing.

"It was never about money," says O'Sullivan.  "My thoughts and hopes were all to do with my music.  I was in seventh heaven.  I was young.  I was successful, I was doing what I wanted to do.

"I enjoyed the success only moderately because I never embraced it fully.  I obviously had more success with girls than I previously did.  Looking the way I did, with a pudding-basin haircut, I didn't exactly get the belle of the ball when it came to picking up girls.  So having hits opened the door in that respect, and I enjoyed that."

By 1975 the hits had dried up, and O'Sullivan began to look around for a producer to revive his career.  he fixed on Tom Dowd, the then fashionable American who had made Atlantic Crossing with Rod Stewart.  When O'Sullivan told Mills he wanted to work with Dowd, it was the beginning of the end of their relationship.

"When I suggested with Tom Dowd, Gordon felt stabbed in the back," he says.  "Everybody around him felt that I had committed a crime even to suggest it.  That was the kind of environment that Gordon's organisation was.

"Before I walked out of his house for the last time I asked him if I'd still get the 50% share of the publishing that he had promised me.  he said yes, just go down to the office on Monday and they'll sort it out.  so I went to the office on Monday and they told me to get out, that I was history.  That's when it dawned on me that they were out to get me.  So I sued."

Whatever chance O'Sullivan had had of reviving his career was scuppered by the legal action.  CBS signed him but only got one hit, the 1980 single "What's In A Kiss?"  they parted company, with O'Sullivan blaming a bad choice of producers, and CBS claiming O'Sullivan's legal fight with Mills had taken a toll on his creativity.

Before the case came to court, O'Sullivan and his wife moved to Bunclody, Co. Wexford, partly because of the tax exemption on artists' earnings here, but also to put some distance between him and the British legal system.

"You can't go into court without taking into account the reality that you might lose.  Had I lost and been in England, the pressure to pay up immediately would have been stronger.  Moving to Ireland gave me a cushion.

"We had a really nice time in Bunclody.  Our first daughter, Helen Marie had her first few years there, and our second daughter, Tara, was born there, so I had happy memories of it.  My wife wasn't too happy.  She felt isolated."

The case made legal history when heard in 1983.  O'Sullivan was not only awarded all of his song publishing money but also an additional 5m, in view of the fact he had only received 500,000 off Mills from earnings of 18m.

"The judge gave me the shirt off Gordon's back.  He gave me more than he should have done.  Naturally Gordon appealed immediately and finally we settled.  I was very happy with the settlement," says O'Sullivan.  "The case meant that I risked losing everything, but when I won it, the two million quid that I got meant less to me than getting the master tapes.

"I'm not being dismissive of the money.  I expected the worst to happen and prepared myself for that.  Had that happened, I'd still have been able to write songs and record them, so there was always going to be life after the case."

O'Sullivan had no further  contact with his former mentor who died in 1986.  "I didn't go to the funeral, of course.  I would have been out of place there," he says.

He continues to write songs nine to five, five days a week, nine months of the year, in a room in his Jersey mansion.  Although for the majority O'Sullivan is almost entirely identified with half a dozen hits 30 years ago, he says he would see no point going on were he not writing new material.

"I had always been strong in my belief in my songwriting and that remained total," he says.  "I always believed I was the equal of any songwriter.  Put me on a stage with Bruce Springsteen and I'd hold my own."