Growing old disgracefully

Rather than slip quietly into middle age, Eighties pop star Marc Almond chose for his new book to revisit the seedy locales of his hell-raising heyday. Sholto Byrnes finds the singer almost shocked by what he saw

Of all the candidates for a midlife crisis, few are more unlikely than Marc Almond. The prince of the torch song, the painted troubadour of the 1980s, forever associated with "Tainted Love", the number one hit that brought him fame and perpetual irritation (because he receives no songwriting royalties for it), Almond seemed destined never to grow up. That long face, dominated by the nose and pouting lips, is fixed in the collective imagination as belonging to a Peter Pan figure, albeit one characterised by a priapic desire for both sexes and indulgence in drugs of which JM Barrie would not have dreamt.

Of all the candidates for a midlife crisis, few are more unlikely than Marc Almond. The prince of the torch song, the painted troubadour of the 1980s, forever associated with "Tainted Love", the number one hit that brought him fame and perpetual irritation (because he receives no songwriting royalties for it), Almond seemed destined never to grow up. That long face, dominated by the nose and pouting lips, is fixed in the collective imagination as belonging to a Peter Pan figure, albeit one characterised by a priapic desire for both sexes and indulgence in drugs of which JM Barrie would not have dreamt.

And yet here Almond is, sitting opposite me at the Charlotte Street Hotel, confessing that when he started writing his new book, In Search of the Pleasure Palace, he was worried he was in danger of becoming a "Ken Barlow figure who wants to go around in a cardigan and slippers". Shifting his heavily tattooed frame, he explains in his faintly hysterical manner, "I was doing all these things that people do in midlife crises: writing lists, getting angry about things, buying compilation CDs, eyeing up younger people."

The realisation that he had reached a breaking point came when he appeared on a daytime TV show. After taking his seat on the sofa of the set, which was arranged to look like a suburban home, he ended up performing a song "in the kitchen, just stage left of the tumble dryer". In his book, Almond, 47, describes the feeling as finding "the door to a sunny, bright day locked, the only one open leading to old age. I reluctantly push the door slightly and peer in - posters advertising Saga magazine, walk-in baths and the merits of denture adhesive. Suddenly Dora Bryan waves, and Thora Hird beckons from a Stannah stairlift. I pull the door closed and panic sets in."

Some of his contemporaries have found solace in an Eighties revival tour or a new lease of life onreality TV shows (he turned down Hell's Kitchen). Almond decided, however, that if he was going to revisit the past, his would have to be a journey that promised something more than recycling old hits and old stories. So, after undergoing a nose job, he embarked on the "disreputable travels" around Europe and America that make up his book.

In returning to places that once inspired him, Almond hoped to find some new inspiration. By the end, it's not clear that he did. On the way, however, he was unfailing in his quest to explore the nethermost regions of the locations he visited. Dutifully he records experiences of eye-popping extremity - I'm afraid you'll have to turn to the book for the full story of the Amsterdam woman, the eel and the frying pan - and delightfully observed mundanity. The heart attack that killed Elvis Presley, he tells us, was brought on by the king straining on his throne, his habitual diet of fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches having tested his digestive system to the limit. "I know this is likely to be true," writes Almond sympathetically, "because after visiting Graceland and sampling one of these gourmet delectations I, too, was severely constipated for several days."

In Los Angeles he visits the public loo where George Michael was arrested for attempting to pick up an undercover police officer. Finding it small and rather homely, he ponders Michael's "calamitous crash" and sagely quotes an American proverb: "Little strokes fell mighty oaks." Earlier, the drag queen Chi Chi La Rue invites him to help out on his new porn movie. Almond declares himself "appalled" that Chi Chi should have thought he would like to spend his time keeping up the interest of the film's male stars. No sooner does he put the phone down, though, than another porn director calls him up.

He does seem to have a knack for uncovering the seedier side of life, I say. What draws him to scenes of which the ordinary visitor may not even be aware? "I was very much a loner as a kid and a teenager," he replies. "I was the outsider at school. So I gravitated to other people who were outcasts. I've always been magnetically drawn to the peripheries of life."

Almond grew up in a middle-class part of Southport, where he lived with his grandparents and mother. His father was an abusive alcoholic whom his mother later divorced; Almond has had no contact with him since his teens. While studying art at Leeds polytechnic he met the keyboardist Dave Ball, with whom he formed Soft Cell. In 1981 their cover of an old soul song, "Tainted Love", hit number one, and the strange creature with heavy eyeliner and studded collar emerged onto the nation's television screens, a freeze-frame that he acknowledges will always define his image.

He chronicled the years of sexual and chemical excess that followed in his autobiography, Tainted Life, published five years ago. His singing career has waned, but he has continued to record and perform, taking an interest in French chanson and Russian music; but it is the fact that he was the first that will always mark him out. Before Boy George or Marilyn there was Marc Almond, the New Romantic whose homosexuality (he came out to a Melody Maker reporter with the words "have it your way then, I am a raving faggot") seemed a public affront to the harsh moral certainties of the newly conservative Britain of the 1980s.

But having attacked Boy George in Tainted Life for proclaiming he'd rather have a cup of tea than sex, it seems that Almond's libido is not what it was. In his travels, I notice, he visits brothels, sex clubs and cruising haunts, and several times seems on the verge of striking up a meaningful, if temporary, acquaintance, but never actually does so. "Yes, I make my excuses and leave, of course!" he says. But why, I ask. "Whether the me of 20 years ago would have made my excuses and left I don't know," he continues. "But I'm different now, I'm not as sexually orientated as I was. It doesn't really interest me that much, to be honest." For someone not very interested in sex, I say, it must have been rather tiresome entering so many establishments where one might say the clients were at it like rabbits. "I did find myself getting very jaded writing this book, very tired," he says. "My publisher said to me, 'I want you to go to all the seedy places, the underworld places, the places that Marc Almond would go to.' So I said I'll give that a go, but I didn't really want to do that, and I found that quite boring. After you've gone to the same old brothels or underwear parties it becomes really tedious. Maybe I have changed."

So what does he want from his life now? "I just want something beautiful in my life, I don't want ugliness and decay. What I want from sex is something different now; it's not my whole raison d'être to be a sexual being. Then, basically, I was a sex addict." In 1994 he checked into the Promis Treatment Centre in Kent. Was that for sex addiction as well as his other habits? "I was cross-addicted to all sorts of things," he says. "I was dragged kicking and screaming in there, but when I looked at my life I knew it was what I had to do. I had reached rock bottom. I went through most of the time I was supposed to be there, but I was eventually driven out by the Sun, which was camped outside with a telephoto lens."

Far from being upset by this intrusion, he says he was flattered. "I felt like going outside and posing for photographs! But instead I thought I'd make a drama out of it all, and I was whisked away on the floor of a limousine." How did the experience change him? "It did give me a completely new outlook on life. I can't say I was totally clean and serene afterwards, but I was on the long road towards repairing all the damage that I'd done over 15 years."

The downside to not taking drugs and binge-drinking is that Almond isn't sure what's left. "This book was about 'have I become a boring person?'" Boring he's not, but he doesn't seem to have found a way out of his midlife crisis. He claims to have had an "epiphany" at the top of a pyramid in Mexico. In the book, this comes only a couple of pages after Almond has once again made his excuses and left, this time turning down the chance to experience "shock and awe" with a muscular Mexican in a gay sauna. "Yes, I felt like there was going to be another day," he writes. "That was it, my midlife crisis and those middle-aged blues drifted out across the desert."

He admits that the moment was not quite as dramatic as he describes it in the book, but I'm not convinced that it really happened at all. His take on life is ambiguous, to say the least. "I just realised that nothing's important, that you've got to learn to take yourself less seriously," he says. "I'm not going to worry so much if people think badly of me. If things get on top of me, I'm going to surrender to it. Not in a passive way, just giving yourself over to it." He then follows this Zen-like comment with a darker one. "If I can trawl it out, I've got another 10 years of my career left. Ten years of slow death. So what does it matter? I've begun the long winter of my death. I've got to accept it and surrender to it."

He seems trapped by his younger self, disdaining to take part in the memory-fests that litter the airwaves, but knowing he has to play the part of the old Marc Almond to earn a living. Even so, there are limits. "I try to avoid anything that's got '80s', 'celebrity' or 'gay' in the title or theme," he says. "I was asked to take part in a programme where gays would go off to a farm. They'd have to clean out pigs and we'd all have a laugh at their chiffon outfits. I could have sorted out every credit card, every tax bill, but that would have been going along with the idea that gays are the new clowns. These are programmes devised by straight people for straight people to laugh at gays. I don't think that's got anything to do with my life."

Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be very clear what is of relevance to his life. He talks of recording new albums, but asks: "Is there a lot of point? You sort of wonder, who cares, really?" Perhaps he should make a travel series based on the new book, I suggest. "The publishers would love that," he shrieks. Although it's unlikely, such a series would be very funny, as Almond's observations are richly comical, even when perhaps he doesn't intend them to be. In the prologue he writes, Forrest Gump-like, of his book: "I like to think of it as a box of chocolates left on the coffee table - occasionally you may delight in finding a strawberry fondue, a caramel cream or a cherry liqueur... but you might want to leave the praline or nougat." Self-obsessed and slightly ridiculous Almond may seem, but one can't help feeling a little sorry for him. His problem is that he's not sure if there's anything in the box that he wants at all.

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