Arts: The Week in Radio

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The Independent Culture
"DOES UNTIMELY death bestow on rock stars immortality their music little deserves?" asked Mark Radcliffe in Hope I Die Before I Get Old (BBC Radio 2, Thursdays, 10pm), the first of six artistic autopsies on dead rock 'n' roll icons. "Or, to put it another way," he continued, "will people in the future really argue that Michael Hutchence made good records?"

First on the slab was Jim Morrison of the Doors. The critic and broadcaster Stuart Maconie finally said publicly what I'd thought privately since university days when I think I was the only student in Leeds who didn't own, and didn't want, a copy of LA Woman. Morrison was, according to Maconie, "the biggest berk in rock music". This was one of his more complimentary submissions on the Morrison legacy.

Radcliffe, the presenter, invites evidence from a counsel for the prosecution - in this case Maconie - and from the defence. It was Morrison's misfortune not only to be dead but to have been represented in this debate by the editor of the New Musical Express, Steve Sutherland, who sounded as though he had given the matter his fullest attention somewhere between the foyer of Broadcasting House and the studio. Maconie, on the other hand, was in merciless command of his brief. And funny with it.

The self-styled Lizard King, who fancied himself as a bit of a poet was, said Maconie, the equivalent of "a fairly-bright A-level English student who could have got himself a job in a bank". His poetry was "hogwash of the first order". And he was smug with it: "He clearly thought he was an intellectual of Sartrian proportions. Sadly, he wasn't," said the prosecution. Morrison had no sense of humour (in my experience like most of his disciples) but did have "that lethal combination of a tiny bit of talent and a preposterously large ego".

I gave up on the NME in the early Eighties when the paper that had been the journal of record of the punk years began urging its readers to drink cocktails and listen to Blue Rondo A La Turk. For all I know Steve Sutherland may be a fine editor but he was lame and inarticulate in defence of his client's reputation. "The End was brilliant," was the best he could do. "It sums up its time. It's of its era." (By this argument so were Blue Rondo A La Turk). Morrison remains, said Sutherland, "the ultimate rock- star icon". Which, on a programme that questions whether icon status is justified, is no defence at all.

So what did Morrison have going for him? Well, he was handsome in a way which, when dealing with dead tousle-haired poets given to wearing baggy white shirts, is customarily described as Byronesque. And, as Leggy Mountbatten's mother famously put it, speaking of her son's fascination with the Rutles, "It was the trousers". Morrison wore leather jeans. Very tight leather jeans. Around a damson of a bottom. And ... er, that's it. "He may be the only man ever to look good in leather trousers," noted Radcliffe. "When the rest of us put on leather pants we become a burst sausage." Steve Sutherland countered, unconvincingly, with a prediction that leather trousers "will make a big comeback". Trousers aside, he claimed Morrison embodied "all the highs and lows of his generation" - but failed to tell us how.

Maconie came close to an explanation: "His chief legacy has been to allow over-serious young men to waffle on about themselves." And, he might have added, go on to amass a complete Echo & The Bunnymen collection.

No one could ever accuse Mark Radcliffe of such indulgence. His weekday afternoon show with gormless sidekick Lard (BBC Radio 1, Monday-Friday, 2-4pm) is as hilarious for the subversion of itself as it is of the form. Meanwhile, Radcliffe's peppery profiles of northern comics, How Tickled Am I? (BBC Radio 4, Wednesdays, 6.30pm) are getting a repeat run. The next two programmes, on Les Dawson and Sandy Powell, should be particularly good - for Radcliffe's script as much as the archive material.

Back at the Morrison hearing, Radcliffe delivered his summing-up. It was very Radcliffesque (sloppy jumper, grubby sneakers). "Jim Morrison - rock 'n' roll prophet snuffed out at the height of his powers or chubby space-cadet suffering from delusions of adequacy?" And he left the jury of listeners with this final thought on the Lizard King: "His middle name," he said, "was Douglas."

Next Thursday's subject is Janis Joplin. (Authentic blues singer or screeching drunk?) I can't wait for them to do Elvis.

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