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Falstaff in a Fedora

August 05, 2007

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Falstaff in a Fedora

If Taki were a singer, he would be George Melly. Alas, if Taki were George Melly, he would be dead.

George Melly was a “€œfat and fairly famous”€ (his second wife’s words) British entertainer. He died in London on July 5, a month before his 81st birthday.

The Melly resume defied a one-line apophthegm—blues singer, jazz singer, journalist, screenwriter, historian of surrealist painting, all were equally accurate descriptions and all were incomplete”€”but if a single word could suffice to sum him up, that word would be the cobweb-laden “€œvaudevillian.”€ Seeing him in concert, a phrase he detested (“€œa transvestite flogging herself to death in 15-inch silver boots and a barbed-wire T-shirt is still described as ‘in concert,’”€ he complained in 1978), audiences were transported to the atmosphere of an Edwardian music-hall, albeit comprehensively enlivened by evocations of the tourist’s New Orleans and by Melly’s dutifully outrageous attire. Seldom without his fedora, two-toned shoes, and Zoot suit “€“the suit’s stripes guaranteed to induce migraine in any beholder at 50 paces”€”he aggravated, in old age, this ensemble’s grotesquerie by donning a piratical eyepatch. No doubt it all helped him avoid publicity.

Although he eventually crossed the Atlantic and even the Pacific, Melly left his heart in Liverpool. A depressing place to leave it, doubtless, but at least this upbringing enabled him afterwards to establish a degree of communication with John Lennon, at times when the latter’s bouts of obnoxiousness made all other human intercourse problematic. An autobiographical volume of Melly’s proclaims his Liverpool origins in its very title: Scouse Mouse. Of Lennon’s more feral behavior, Melly recollected in something like tranquillity:

This was no longer the loving hippy but the old aggressive scouser full of drink and God knows what else; the rocker who made it facing the trad-singer who�d tried to block his way. However, there was something we shared … We were both Liverpudlians and Liverpool is the most chauvinist place in the world.

Long before Melly achieved national and, to a certain extent, international fame, he managed a personal victory of the sort widely assumed these days to be a myth. At high school he had been incorrigibly homosexual, though he always denied the allegation that his conquests included future Tory newspaper editor Sir Peregrine Worsthorne (“€œHe [Worsthorne] was years older, so I wouldn’t have dared”€). Then, all of a sudden, in his 20s, he discovered heterosexuality and liked it so much that he never returned to his earlier practices. This change, of course”€”by no means an uncommon phenomenon even now, and widespread in Melly’s own generation”€”cuts straight across modern homosexualist palaver about “€œidentity politics”€ and “€œgay genes.”€ An acerbic sentence from Steve Sailer in The American Conservative (November 8, 2004 ) deserves quoting: “€œ[M]any of the famous personages that homosexuals like to call their own later matured into heterosexuality, which contemporary gays claim is impossible.”€ It would be hard to think of anyone less like the Rabelaisian Melly than is the typical Homintern apparatchik, always on the qui vive for evidence of “€œdiscrimination”€ or “€œhomophobia,”€ whether real or “€” more often “€” imagined. (As the late Hungarian satirist George Mikes observed, with a pleasing lexical precision, about such killjoys: “€œWhy call them gay, the one thing they are not?”€)

In 1986 Melly visited Australia, and I caught him at The Basement, a Sydney night club which housed almost every form of musical activity from ebullient Motown-cover artists to the most Dostoyevskyan practitioners of modernist “€œfree jazz”€ gloom. Twenty-one years later I can still remember the event much better than I can remember last week. His band called itself the Feetwarmers, its leader being Melly’s fellow-Brit John Chilton, who added to his attainments as historian a trumpet virtuosity of sizzling power. Only in Britain could Chilton have remained so obscure. In America he would have been given three Pulitzer Prizes and starred in five Ken Burns documentaries. At least one British newspaper covering Melly�s demise spelled Chilton’s name as “€œChiltern.”€

The obituarist for London’s Daily Telegraph loftily refers to Melly having “€œleched, drunk and blasphemed his way around the clubs and pubs of the British Isles … for five decades.”€ This Sydney occasion contained no blasphemy (at which even in my rather lily-livered 20s I would have drawn the line), no drunkenness, a strictly moderate alcohol intake, and rather less in the way of lecherous verbiage than can be heard in five minutes at your nearest junior-high playground. Perhaps Melly had toned down his act for the benefit of foreigners, whereas “€œoop North”€ he could let himself go. Perhaps.

At any rate, on this occasion Melly specialized in the double-entendre, to the perceptible bemusement of his younger hearers, who had grown up in a culture dominated (nay, saturated) by the single-entendre. “€œAh Cain’t Do Without Mah Kitchen Man,”€ the discreetly phrased tale of a servant whose appeal to his mistress by no means stops with his cooking, was typical of Melly’s repertoire. It could have been sung in 1906 instead of 1986, and possibly it was. Only on this occasion do I remember Melly essaying a Deep Southern Fried accent. For the rest of the evening, whether singing or speaking, he stuck to BBC English.

As for his boozing, it is true that he would drain several glasses between items or during instrumental interludes”€”after around 1981 he eschewed his nightly bottle of whiskey for a nightly bottle of wine”€”but he never seemed in the slightest degree incapacitated by grog. Many a singer one-third of his age would have envied his self-control.

His public incontinence was not alcoholic or sexual but verbal. Like too many showfolk in the epoch of Angelina Jolie, Melly fancied himself on occasion as an Important Thinker, in which role he routinely and spectacularly failed. He probably had less capacity for abstract thought than did his Zoot suit. The British Humanist Association (of which during the 1970s he served as president), the National Secular Society, Ban-The-Bomb protests, the mid-1980s’ Marxist-led coalminers: these and other such causes he enthusiastically supported. In none of these connections did he do anything more interesting than spout cliches that had already seemed stupid when Bertrand Russell was leading peaceniks at Aldermaston. They would not be worth noting but for Melly’s determination that profile-writers should note them. Thank goodness they never seem to have impinged on the content of his music-making, even if at the Sydney gig he let fly with a scatological allusion”€”which I have no intention of repeating”€”to Margaret Thatcher.

I met Melly briefly after that 1986 show (he kindly signed my copy of his touring diary, Mellymobile), but I never saw him again. During his last years he apparently suffered from dementia, a condition which left no discernible effect upon his artistic skill, though it did, as he himself acknowledged, sharpen his natural love of surrealism: a love already honed by his increasing deafness. No audience was too disgusting, no accommodation too dismal, to quench his mania for performance. His American despatches could be studied with profit by Bernard-Henri Levy and every other tiresome tourist who thinks that mere blatherskite about democracy can turn you into a latter-day Toqueville. Multitudes would happily swap the whole of Monsieur le Docteur Levy’s hyperventilating for one scrap of Melly reportage: such as the sign he discovered which says “€œKeep New York clean. Eat pigeons.”€ Or the cockroach bait, also in the Big Apple, which Melly saw advertised as The Roach Motel: “€œThey check in,”€ ran the slogan, “€œbut they never check out.”€

Kenneth Tynan, whom Melly somewhat resembled in verbal panache and philosophical confusion, once remarked of another North British comic, Sid Field: “€œI think a saint would have laughed at Sid Field without shame or condescension.”€ Tynan on sainthood is hardly an unimpeachable expert, but his phrase could be used about Melly with equal justice.

Melly has been in Arthur’s bosom for less than a month. Already I miss him. Mistress Quickly rather missed Falstaff too.

R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is a Contributing Editor at The American Conservative.

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