Interview: Chinchilla killer: John Walsh meets... PJ Proby

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The Independent Culture
Grizzled as Grendel's Mother and just as legendary, PJ Proby sits at the table of a Soho restaurant, the picture of docility. After "50 years of firing Jack Daniels" down his golden throat, he is drinking grapefruit juice; before him is the script of Pete Townshend's newly-disinterred Quadrophenia, which is shortly to go on the road with Proby playing the Godfather, filling in for Gary Glitter. From certain angles he is the dead spit of Dennis Hopper, his face lined and handsome and faintly menacing. And on two fingers of his left hand, two gold rings spell out a potent metaphor: one offers the letters "PJP", the other "ROBY. A split name, to go with the split personality, the split career... and, of course, the most famously, disastrously, split trousers in stage history.

Younger readers should know that, in the early Sixties, when our hearts were young and blithe, Proby was an authentic Wild One. A glossy American import with a voice full of gulps, hiccups and stifled sobs, he sang like a man torn between acute melancholy and chronic indigestion: "There's a place for us", the first line of "Somewhere", from the Sondheim-Bernstein musical West Side Story, emerged from Proby's emotion-drenched assault as "They-Rs uh perlace faw uff", even its title virtually unrecognisable: "Summ-ah-wayah upper-lace..." In those days, he wore his hair in a girly pigtail with a velvet bow, and ponced about in a way no English eyes had seen before. "I was all over that stage," he reminisces, reckless of modesty. "Right in those little girls' faces. Nobody had ever boogied like James Brown, and moved their body like that before..."

For most of his 58 years, Mr Proby has been in trouble - seeking it, courting it, revelling in it. But even he wasn't prepared for the reaction to the night of 29 January, 1965, at the Castle Hall, Croydon, when his blue velvet trousers split onstage from knee to crotch and plunged him towards Palookaville. An alderman's wife who attended the concert said the act "left me physically sick and should be banned". The trouble might have been invisibly mended, but two nights later, at the Ritz in Luton, Proby's unfeasibly tight strides abruptly bifurcated once again during a Fate-tempting leg-split, and the curtain came down on his career. He was taken off the tour (to be replaced by Tom Jones), banned from further theatrical performances and from both TV channels. He was, suddenly, nowhere - and by and large remained there.

Today, the fuss seems a bit extreme. What was behind it? Had he actually exposed himself, like Jim Morrison? "Hell no, it was only mah knees showing. But it was political. Everyone was still coming down off that thing with Profumo and Keeler, there was an atmosphere about, and I was handing them some more of that. It was a big sexual thing and they were like, 'Get him out, he's causin' trouble like Christine Keeler...' Mary Whitehouse said, 'Get him out of the country', even before the trousers split, and they were waiting for a pretext."

The conspiracy theory is a little whiskery now, but Proby trots it out with gusto. In fact he does everything with gusto: sings, drinks, boasts, courts underage girls, shoots people, falls over, tells tall stories, spits out redneck bigotry and has comebacks. His newest comeback is a record entitled, inevitably, Legend, and featuring a duet with Marc Almond to the operatically lush "Yesterday Has Gone", a big hit for Cupid's Inspiration in 1968. Almond resurrected Gene Pitney's career in 1989 with a duet of "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart", and Proby is hoping for a similar result. For the moment, though, things are a little sticky in the credit- sharing department. Proby is not happy that, in a film clip of the duet, Almond has somehow nailed the last note, as well as the first - and, unlike Proby, is not even under contract to the record company. Did they get on? Proby muses on his relationship with the famed English drama queen. "You ever see a picture called Red River? John Wayne and Montgomery Clift? That's us. Monty was a screaming fag, supposed to be in love with Elizabeth Taylor but couldn't bring himself to touch a woman... " I note that there is a new song on the album called "Devil in Red Velvet", on which Proby sings the line, "I'm the killer in chinchilla". Is the macho roustabout getting a bit camp himself? "Yeah, I know. I almost didn't do that. But even a hard-assed military man like me can't deny homosexuals exist. As long as I don't have to participate. I'm the gorilla in chinchilla..."

He was born James Marcus Smith in Houston, Texas, in 1948 and was singing when barely out of nappies. "You know them little recording booths? There's a record of me, at three, singin' "Roll out the Barrel" for mah parents." (He goes into excruciating baby-speak: " 'Woll out the bawwel / We'll have a bawwel o'fun - can ah have some chew-gum now, Uncle Dan?' ") Raised an Episcopalian, he sang with gospel choirs at the local black church, like Jerry Lee Lewis. "I was the only white person there. And in the house o'God there is no prejudice. You don't kick people out for being white or black. Mind you, they might kick you out o'the bar next door... " His mother took up with the local doctor ("a nice guy, but he couldn't handle alcohol. He was always falling overboard into the Gulf of Mexico") and his parents separated. They were so stridently dysfunctional that the court was unable to award custody of nine-year-old James to either. He was sent instead to military academy, by some way the strongest influence on his life, though he admits it made him virtually impossible. "I had a gang called the Great White Fathers, and I bought them motorcycle jackets with eagles flying over cops' heads, pulling their hats off and dripping blood on them. I went to St Louis, Missouri and bought switchblades for the gang. It was the 11th graders - that's us, maybe 14 or 15 - against seniors, and we used to cut them up..."

Then came five years in Vietnam, as a regular army private, interspersed with rest 'n' recuperation periods in Hollywood, where the showbiz demon in his psyche struggled for mastery over the grunt, and won. He hung out with Elvis (who dated his sister), with Eddie Cochrane (whose fiancee Sharon Sheedy gave him his stage name - PJ stands for "Papa James") and with Paul Newman, for whom he was chauffeur and bodyguard. "My job in the daytime was driving his two-seater Thunderbird. We went to the gym every day, we pumped iron and pulled birds all day."

Don't you love that "pulled birds"? Proby has of course lived in England, picking up such baroque, un-American formulations, since 1962, when he was brought over by Jack Good, the most powerful impresario in London, to take part in a Beatles spectacular. Proby raided the Warner Brothers costume department to kit himself out for the flight to Heathrow. "The shirt was from The Left-Handed Gun, the Paul Newman movie about Billy the Kid, the boots were from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, old leather ones with dancing soles... " Within weeks of touching down, he and Good recorded a version of the old Dick Haynes number, "Hold Me". In May, 1964, it went straight to No 3 in the charts, the first of a string of hits. For a couple of years, Proby was the It Boy. He had, he claims, umpteen Rolls-Royces, Lear jets, a yacht and an expensive clothes habit to maintain, a mews house in Knightsbridge, then a house in Chelsea, across the King's Road from the Duke of Wellington's barracks. Then came the split-velvets affair and soon he had nothing. By 1968 he was declared bankrupt with debts of pounds 84,309, against useable assets of 59d. He lost all his possessions and took to drink. It's said that he blew pounds 5m in two years, though you have to balance such claims with Proby's other Munchausen-ish boasts: that he invented the male ponytail, that he brought in the Sixties fashion for bell-bottoms (from the naval academy, you see), that he once shared a cell with four condemned murderers, that he possesses the greatest singing voice in the world...

His decline was spectacular. He disappeared into the wilds of northern England, doing crap jobs, eking out a living. He was a shepherd in Bolton, a muckspreader in Huddersfield ("that's about as close to Texas as you can git"), a janitor in Hammersmith, where once he'd filled the Palais. "I was sweeping the streets, the gutters, taking care of the occupants of a mansion block. I've slept in people's coal cellars because I had no place to live," he remembers without rancour. "I didn't care what I did. But I wouldn't go back on stage unless the money was right. To get me to do what I do best, it's got to be paid for. I wouldn't go on stage for less than pounds 3,000. But to get me to clean your yard would cost you almost nothing." His occasional returns to the stage have been fraught. He was kicked out of Elvis: the Musical in 1978 for messing with the script. In 1985, at the Rock 'n' Roll Legends concert in Epping Forest, he fell off the stage during his first number. More successful was his appearance in Only the Lonely, the Roy Orbison nostalgia show in which his 15-minute slot singing his old hits stopped the show night after night. But the last time he was in the papers, it was for claiming benefit earlier this year, while appearing on stage in Ritzy Portsmouth and glamorous Brentwood.

His relations with women have been, shall we say, problematic over the years. His first wife Marianne was 14; they split up because he refused to take her out anywhere and "I caught her with a couple of guys". He was engaged to Dean Martin's daughter but, when they were temporarily estranged, he broke into her house and fired a Colt .45 at her and a gentleman friend and was imprisoned for three months. A similar fate awaited his third wife, a Manchester croupier called Dulcie, whom he shot with an air pistol, again for suspected infidelity. He was fined pounds 60 for attacking his live-in secretary, allegedly because she was spending too much on groceries. In the early Eighties, the police took an interest in his relationship with a 14-year-old Yorkshire farmer's daughter, whom he married when she was a grand dame of 17; she left to collect some hamburgers a year later and never returned. More recently, he shacked up in a north Finchley semi with the singer Billie Davies, who told The People that he had had only one erection in their time together and had spent three hours admiring it ("I didn't get a look in," she complained).

None of this unpromising record dents his romantic, if unreconstructed, view of women. He regrets the onset of feminist frankness because "there's no reason to take a girl out anymore. You know you're going to git fucked, so you don't think about flowers and being a gentleman. Males don't know how to show respect now, because females haven't demanded it in so many years. I don't think there has been a role model in moralistic fibre in this country since the Sixties when we started ripping it apart." He is a keen fan of virginity. "It's the highest thing a woman can give a man. She's nothing else to give. What else is there? Intelligence? We don't need her brain. We need her love, to make us get up and go out to work." Sticking my neck out, I'd say Proby is perhaps not an ideal mate for female readers of this newspaper, with his belief that "men are put here to raise girls. Teach them to be women. Teach them to be ladies. Anything their parents left out..." Couldn't women teach him a thing or two? He looked appalled. "What could a women teach a man?" How to be civilised? He looked more appalled. "Can they teach me about cleanliness? There are women around now, don't even know what a douche-bag is..."

Mr Proby, of course, grew up in one of the most chauvinistic parts of the world, and cannot help being a sexist, racist, homophobic, casually authoritarian bigot. His dilations on "coons" (his family had black servants) makes Enoch Powell, of whom PJ is a fan, sound like Alice Walker. His fascination for guns is more reasonably argued - "If those people in Tasmania, where that maniac walked into that cafe, had had guns, they'd be alive today and he wouldn't be facing a court, he'd be dead" - and he snorts with contempt about the British government's recent handgun ban. "Stupid," he says. "It's only going to put all that on the black market, running undercover, and make it even bigger."

Against the day when somebody does take a potshot at him, he has done several things. He's chosen a tombstone in Houston, and even chosen the pilot who will fly his remains home. He has completed his autobiography but, typically, fallen out with his ghost writer. "She wanted it to be too sensationalist. Every other word was 'Fuck this', 'Fuck that', the way I spoke on the tape. I wanted my life story to read like The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven... " And of course he's releasing his self-defining Legend album. Amazingly, the doomed, self-destructive, chronically abandoned, incorrigibly alcoholic, redneck wastrel that Mr Proby has been for most of his life is weirdly contented about it all. He is unafraid of death ("All it means is going to meet mah best friend God - and all mah other friends are up there, too") and smug about having "an upsurge in your career at 58 years old, when every single person I know is retired - Elton, Tom [Jones], all of 'em". Feeling ridiculous, I asked the unluckiest man in rock history: do you feel lucky? "As lucky as blessed will let you get," he said. And guess what? He meant it.