REMEMBERING THE REAL GARY HOLTON
(New Haven Publishing Ltd. (204 pp.)
Calling Gary Holton “starcrossed” is like saying, “Romeo and Juliet were a hot item in their day.” Like many fellow travelers in the “who-cares-about-tomorrow” sweepstakes that characterized so much '70s and '80s rock culture, Holton didn't get to draw an old age pension. As ex-Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock notes, we're talking about a guy who casually remarks, as he gets off the bus: “Anyway, that was a great night out.”
Thirty years after his death (October 24, 1985), Holton remains a cult hero – who's either best known as the preening, yet menacing frontman of the Heavy Metal Kids, or unlikely star of the British TV comedy, “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet!”(take your pick). I became acquainted with the Kids via Flat, Black & Circular's famed dollar "blue dot" bin, from which I picked their first album on a hot rainy spring afternoon. For me, it holds up quite well – shifting effortlessly from reggae (“Run Around Eyes”), to fist-waving ballads (“Nature Of My Game”), and leering, good-time boogie (“Always Plenty Of Women,” “We Gotta Go”), all of which Holton navigated without any real difficulty.
In some ways – as Teddie Dahlin suggests in her book, FAST LIVING – it's a story of fate looming large, since Holton initially made his mark in acting. By his teenage years, he'd shared stages with Sir Laurence Olivier, sung with the Sadler's Wells Opera Company, and landed parts with the Royal Shakespeare Company, among other credits. Small wonder, then, that one of his first dates, June, remarks: “He was born to entertain.”
Fate soon intervenes yet again, when Holton –- fresh from his latest band's demise -– signs on with the Heavy Metal Kids, and wastes no time making his outsized presence felt, as bassist Ronnie Thomas recalls: “We were almost building the act around him because he was such a personality onstage.” At first, the sky seems limitless, especially after the Kids start opening for the likes of Alice Cooper, and Kiss -– a feat they manage in 1975, on their only American tour.
Sadly, the group's cheeky espirit de corps starts coming undone -– whether it's the labored recording of the third album, KITSCH (1976), which drummer Keith Boyce recalls less than affectionately (“it was all very sweet and poppy, which we didn't want”) –- or on the road, where Holton's drinking bouts are now yielding to a high grade heroin habit. Eventually, his exasperated colleagues –- having him taken him back once already –- sack him for good after he nearly dies in late 1978, during a tour of Germany.
All these maneuvers play out against a Spinal Tap-ish carousel of excess that includes numerous lineup changes (“Right, did you get that? Keith lost me after 'four guitarists and three keyboard players'”), and on the road excesses (“If it wasn't hospital, it was likely to be a police station”). Self-sabotage abounds, too, as evidenced by a friend's bloody-minded refusal to admit the band's producer, Mickie Most, and some fellow executives to a gig...because...it's Pete the Murderer's first time as a doorman...and as far as he's concerned, if you're not on the guest list, then you ain't gettin' in. Most, in turn, responds by tearing up the boys' contract, and cutting them loose.
Not surprisingly, then, the spring of 1980 finds Holton working on a good thousand yard stare when he meets Dahlin at a disco in Trondheim, Norway. Against all odds, however, Holton manages to notch a couple more late career triumphs –- including his “Auf Wiedersehn” role, and a country/punk partnership with ex-Boys keyboardist, Casino Steel, that lasts for four albums. However, this isn't your standard issue rock tragedy, as Dahlin makes plain; it's easy to forget that the cheeky Cockney carpenter of Holton's TV persona, Wayne Norris, wasn't too far removed from the man himself.
In fact, some of the most affecting recollections come from the non-msuical side – particularly actor Gary Shail, of “Quadrophenia” (“As far as he was concerned, he was a superstar. The only problem was, he was the only one who knew it”), girlfriend Anne Goddet (“I was taller than him, but we were soulmates. I always have a picture of him in my living room”), and Dahlin herself (“He was the centre of attention, and that's the way he liked it”). All of these snapshots remind the reader of Holton's ability to move in different circles, without missing a beat; the Heavy Metal Kids' two-fisted defiance made them one of the few established bands that found a welcome space to enter within the UK punk scene.
There's no question that Holton was struggling at the time of his death. He was facing down two bankruptcy orders for £60,000, and hadn't paid his taxes since 1979, which would certainly have brought down a ton of grief on that score. Yet, it's also fair to say that only a fool would ever have bet against him, as Dahln suggests: “His personality was so charismatic, I don't think there was anyone around him who ever doubted he would become something big at some point.”
If nothing else, FAST LIVING serves as a reminder that every performer is really just one break or two away from making a comeback. It's a story that's sensitively and affectionately told, and one that adds new insights into the life of a cult hero who burned brightly, only to implode...but left one hell of a vapor trail along the way. Crank up, read up, and proceed accordingly. --CHAIRMAN RALPH
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