Ballad of a Thin Man

Source: RTE Guide

Writer: Paddy Kehoe

Date: 3rd April 2004



He walks tall and swift into the room, shakes hands and seats himself at a ashy, business-like distance from me.  Swaddled up in layers of winter clothing, and looking more like 47 than 57, he's wearing well under that navy blue baseball cap that suggests both defence and mask.  There's no mucking about, he completely ignores the glass of water I indicate, and launches straight into talk.  I tell him how much I loved "Nothing Rhymed", that wistful enthralling ballad that finally turned him into a superstar both sides of the Atlantic.  That was back in 1970, the song is indubitably one of the greatest pop songs ever written.  "Why did you like it?" he perks up.  "It always interests me what people like about my songs, 'cos it's just not something that I can do.  I can't get anything from that song, although obviously I have favourite songs."  I tell him why I liked it.  I was an adolescent, there was something wistful, even troubled about it, just as there was about Elton John's contemporaneous "Your Song"  These two were real songs, I tell him, they weren't "Sugar Sugar" and it was before I got into Led Zeppelin.  He finds that Zep reference funny and laughs.

From 1967 until 1971, he was a Chapliesque oddball, attired in a strange dun and grey outfit, dressing against fashion, so to speak.  Gilbert - who we learned had been christened Raymond - sported a Pudding bowl haircut that just couldn't be explained.  He offered a real challenge to the average teenager's preconceptions about pop stars.  "If you were a college student, you wouldn't want to be seen with one of my albums because of how I looked", he recalls.  "If I'd looked like James Taylor, then more of your generation would have followed me."  Don't worry about the dates or the locations, O'Sullivan is a walking encyclopedia of himself, utterly obsessive about his work.  I mention the fact that the great English folk singer Martin Carthy covered "Nothing Rhymed."  He has that version on CD, and years ago managed to tape it off the radio onto cassette.  No mean feat that, and, yes, he likes Carthy's version.  More recently the Farrelly brothers put "Alone Again (Naturally)" on the soundtrack to "Stuck On You"  When he assented to the use of his song, he hadn't realised that their movie dealt with two brothers who are congenitally joined.  "I went into a tail-spin, I rang them up and I said: "we can't have this, I've protected this song all these years from humorous abuse."  On being told that the song was used in a particularly poignant sequence, the singer-songwriter was able to relax again.

His latest studio album "Piano Foreplay" continues the familiar O'Sullivan line of effusive lyrics wedded to his playful, almost music hall schtick.  (So many lyrics in fact that he even supplied extra, unsung verses to various tracks for the listener's delectation.)  The fun stops momentarily for the occasional sardonic piece as in the impressive "You Me And The Garden Post."  he is mostly a serious bloke and even the playful stuff can be talked about in other that playful terms.  "Will I Do" is a self-deprecating ditty about a guy trying to romance a gal. 'Forget that big hunk who's pumping need someone whose ribs stick out' sings Gilbert.  Funny that, but he confirms that the guy is in fact one Raymond O'Sullivan.  I nudge him into some affirmation that he is, and never has been, comfortable with his body image, hence the pudding bowl haircut and the most unsexy short trousers.  I discover that he carries his own mirror with him, with which he can be in control, placing it where he chooses.  "I don't go in make up rooms, I hate mirrors because you see the real you.  Very often in mirrors you don't see yourself properly.  If you have light coming down it can make you look baggy under your eyes."  At least he can laugh about this.  "I think there is an element of you that is not impressed by the way you are.  I think you feel inadequate, although my wife will tell me I'm fine."  Ase is his wife, a Norwegian woman two years his senior, whom he married in 1980.  They have two daughters.

The second eldest of six children, young Raymond spent the first seven years of his life living on Waterford's Cork Road.  His father was a butcher with Clover Meats, who moved the family to Swindon, where he worked in an abattoir.  He died in 1960.   The last time Gilbert played in Waterford, the venue was half-full, and he vowed never to return: "It soured me, I wasn't trying to fill 10,000 seats, it wasn't that big a theatre, 1,000 people maybe."  He insists he is not one of our own: "I am an English writer, I am Irish by birth and very proud of it."

Creatively speaking, it's quite simple - he has looked for an Irish root in his music and not found one.  "I was the first one to attack the world, the Boomtown Rats came later, then U2.  But now historically, it all starts with U2, because they're Irish boys.   The problem with me is that all the success I had came from England, and then the Irish embraced me as one of theirs.  But as soon as I wasn't successful in England, the Irish dropped me like a stone.  I sell less records here than I do in Mozambique, and I don't sell many there, I've seen the figures.  I don't lose any sleep over it, but it's a battle that I have."  Still a desperately focused writer, he lives a reclusive life in Jersey, prepared to spend nine months of the year, sitting in a room, at a piano nine-to-five, on a cold Monday morning.  I desperately want what the Westlifes of this world want" he says.  "I want that success."

He famously fell out with his manager and producer Gordon Mills, the man who had pulled him up by those funny boot straps.  O'Sullivan took him to court over a publishing agreement which he believed had been dishonoured.  After protracted litigation, he eventually received four million pounds in compensation plus the master tapes of his original songs.  Interestingly, Gilbert was living well in a period house near Bunclody, County Wexford during these years, and was not in dire financial straits.  after the landmark settlement, Mills continued to manage Tom Jones, until he died in the mid-80s.  Gilbert didn't go to his funeral, but now he believes that if he had lived, some kind of reconciliation might have been effected with the man whom he insists was 'a very good producer'.  "It's very sad, but I have had contact with his wife Jo and Clair is getting back into contact, so I'll probably meet her."  Gilbert wrote that fantastic song about Clair who was Mill's daughter, in an era when you could write a song about your boss's child and no one would raise an eyebrow.  He felt like he was a member of the family, and Clair was a family affair.  Gordon played that whimsical harmonica solo, and that is his daughter's girlish cackle you hear at the end.  The song was written in gratitude to Gordon and to his wife Jo who had occasionally fed Gilbert.  Ballad of a thin man indeed.

Clair is now in her thirties, and married with a daughter herself.  Some years back, Gilbert heard her talking on the radio about what the song meant to her.  "I was kind of touched by it, I thought her acrimony still existed, I thought they'd never forgive me for what they may have thought I did to them."  Matters, of course may have been influenced by the fact that Mills subsequently divorced Jo.  So Gilbert made contact, and now he sends her a gift each Christmas.  There is a happy ending of sorts.

The Berry Vest of Gilbert O'Sullivan and Piano Foreplay Are Released on EMI