Mellow Pellow

From Clydebank to pop superstardom, through heroin addiction and recovery, it's been a long journey for Marti Pellow. John Walsh finds out what's next
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The Independent Culture

When did you last sing," I asked Marti Pellow, "in front of a live audience?"

"Last night," he said.

"And the venue was the Glasgow Empire?"

"No, I was visiting my father in Clydebank, and took him for a pint, and I did a bit of karaoke in a bar called The Cleddons."

"What did you sing?"

"I did a few Sinatra songs, because the bar was egging me on. I did 'My Way'. It was the first thing that came up on the screen and I thought, OK, gimme a shot at that."

You study Pellow's handsome, lined face for signs of pathos, but there are none. He genuinely sees nothing ironic in the thought of a man who shifted £15m-worth of records in the 1980s and 90s, who had 26 hit singles - as singer with the band Wet Wet Wet - and hogged the number one slot for months at a time, reduced to serenading pub drunks with the kind of song chosen by self-important retired MPs on Desert Island Discs. Pellow doesn't care. He has done plenty of singing this year, he says, "but in bars like the Half Moon in Putney, just bringing a few friends together, grabbing a couple of acoustic guitars and having some fun". There's something slightly disingenuous about Pellow's down-home ordinary-blokeishness. Because when he's not being the modest fellow in his dad's local, he's out to conquer the world. Again.

Marti is in a frustrating place right now. He's in a reverse-holding pattern, like a 767 taxiing around Heathrow, unable to take off. At several moments this year, he's been on the point of making his début on Broadway, stepping out in a tuxedo and a slimy smile as Billy Flynn, the crooked lawyer in Kander and Ebb's transatlantic smash-hit musical, Chicago. He's played the role in London for several months with marked success, but to knock Broadway on its ass is an ambition he's held (as we shall see) from the earliest days. Unfortunately, his New York début coincided with a strike by the Musicians' Union which closed the show for 18 performances and, having no cast to rehearse with, he flew home. At several moments this year, he's been scheduled to go on a nationwide tour with a new CD of cover versions of favourite songs, recorded over a year ago in between cutting his solo CD, Smile. But that never happened either. All this waiting is enough to turn a musician to drink and drugs but, as he revealed earlier this year, Pellow has been down those mean streets as far as anyone can go, and has no intention of doing so again.

The future is looking good. He is, barring accidents, going to hit Broadway in the spring. The CD, entitled Between the Covers, is out later this month, and his tour dates have rescheduled to February. But meeting Pellow now, as he teeters on the threshold of fame and glory for the second time, you can appreciate he may be a tad concerned. Detoxed, rehabilitated, re-energised, and cool as a breeze in a £1,000 electric-blue Ozwald Boateng suit, his frame is skinnier, his face smaller, his brow more lined and his accent more broadly Clydeside, than you'd expect. He is friendly and outgoing, but his discourse is larded with phrases from some 12-step programme: "my journey to sobriety", "going down that road", "a sense of connection", "it was very positive ...". All this hanging around, waiting for things to take off again - you can almost hear his nerves jangling and his fingers drumming. You can sense his determination not to screw up this second shot at the title - not to throw his life away as spectacularly as he did six years ago.

What he did was simple. He told his band that he was, in effect, leaving to spend more time with his heroin habit, and retreated to an isolated cottage in Florida. He tried to wean himself off heroin with methadone and Librium, but tried, ill-advisedly, to accelerate the process with litres of vodka and the Italian witches' brew, Strega. When he collapsed in the Conrad Hotel in February 1999, the whole story came out. Fans were shocked. Whaaat? Marti, the sweet, thoughtful-looking charmer with the million-dollar grin who sang "Ah feel it in mah fingers/ I feel it in mah to-hoes"? How could he possibly?

"Really, it's a very positive story because I did manage to stop," he says today. "It's the most important thing in my life, the thing I'm proudest of, that I got over it and did it myself." And did it His Way. He's prouder of kicking the smack habit than of selling millions of records, "because it was really bad. It got so bad, shaving became a big problem, because I had to look at myself in the mirror and I couldn't stand to. I was starting to know about the disease and understand what it was doing - little moments of clarity where you catch yourself and realise that you're not 12 stone any more, you're nine stone. And that you're pasty-grey, and you hope you don't have to walk out in the sun because you're so skeletal, you're afraid you might see your internal organs. Mostly you don't choose to see that, and when you do suddenly see it, it's like, 'What am I doing?'."

What indeed? If ever a chap from the grainy backstreets of the Clyde seemed to have won all the glittering prizes, it was Mart. Apart from the success and material riches, he was blessed with a truly exceptional voice. Hearing it today, as he swoops and croaks through the pop standards and singer-songwriter classics on Between the Covers, you think: my God that's it. This is the voice that all the little male wannabes on Pop Idol - the Wills and Dariuses, and the new intake of Leons and Marcs - are trying to sound like. Listen how high up the scale he begins James Taylor's "Fire and Rain", as if showing off that he can go an octave higher. Listen to that whispery emoting on Joni Mitchell's "I Wish I had a River".

Then you realise there's a big fat thematic link between the songs. Neil Young's "It' s Gonna Take a Lot of Love", Paul Weller's "Brand New Start", then James Taylor's little hymn (which goes "Won't you look down upon me Jesus/ You gotta help me make a stand/ Just got to see me through another day"), the Genesis classic "Follow Me", with its endless inter-looping chorus of togetherness. The album ends with Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" (which is, among other things, about learning to trust your lover) and the Beatles' shouty "Don't let Me Down". It doesn't take a genius to work out that the whole album is saying, to family, fans and friends, "I'm OK now, you can stop worrying". So, was this his rehab chill-out CD?

"When I was just starting out on my journey to sobriety," says Pellow, "some songs were a real help, like 'Brand New Start'. I remembered the power of music. It's awe-inspiring. You hear something that's right on the money, that's f exactly how you're feeling - that line, 'I'm going to clean up my yard'. It was simple, direct, I got it."

Simple enjoyment is something Marti brings up a lot. He has an ideal in his head of the twinkly troubadour making music with friends, whether in Glasgow or Memphis, Tennessee - a city he's visited for many years ("I know a lot of musicians who live there and play on Beale Street, and people just come by and sing. I love going back, getting together with people and going to BB King's place"). But there's another picture in his head, a more complex encapsulation of enjoyment. He admits that the happiest moments of his childhood were spent curled up on the family sofa, watching old black-and-white Hollywood musicals on BBC2 with his mother. "It was the glamour, the singing, the quirkiness of it all, and the positive endings. I liked the way the star always got his girl at the end. It just left nice feelings." Did his mother encourage him to sing? "Always. Mum was a singer herself, she used to sing show tunes in the clubs," says Pellow fondly. "She liked Julie London and Vicky Carr, and she introduced me to Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But it wasn't just the musicals I liked. The Ealing comedies did it for me too. I associate them with grey skies, rain outside, and the warmth of my Ma, as we're watching these movies and laughing. It's just good times. It's powerful imagery for me."

Marti's mother bulks large in his family reminiscences, rather larger than his father. Perhaps significantly, he took his mother's maiden name as his stage name. His father was a slater in the building trade in Clydebank, and Marti grew up surrounded by the clang and surge of heavy industry. "There was John Brown Shipping, and Singer Sewing Machines, and it was the place where they made the big ocean-going liners before they went down to Southampton to be fitted out. What I remember most is the bunnets - the working-men's flat caps. You'd be looking at a sea of them, thousands of them, when the big siren sounded to start work." He got a job early, selling newspapers. "I'd stand in the bar, selling papers, and I'd see trays of whiskys and beers all stacked up; then at 12 noon, thousands of people would come out and have their pint and a half, and I'd sell them a paper. They only had an hour, so the drinks had to be pre-pulled and stacked up. There was a great sense of community, before the shipyards closed down. It made me find a form of escapism in music."

It was the idiotic days of glam rock that galvanised young Marti with ambition, when he stood transfixed by the sight of David Bowie, in full Ziggy Stardust rigout, playing "Queen Bitch" on Top of the Pops. "I was like, 'Wow - can I have some of that, one day?'" With the insouciance of Michael Heseltine sketching out his entire political career on the back of an envelope, he planned his pop-star strategy. "I thought, 'Right, I'll join a band, I'll get into a band, and then we'll get a record deal, and then we'll cut a record and then we'll appear on Top of the Pops' - and that's exactly how it was. There was a real naïveté about me which I still have, I think. But there was an awful lot of hard work as well."

Which explains his rise with Wet Wet Wet, but not his drug-raddled fall. For that, people have looked at the strange solitary little boy he was when in short trousers. He admits he didn't have many friends, by choice. "Aye, I was a bit of a loner. I remember spending a lot of time by myself. I had an older brother but he had his own friends. I loved that sense of awe about discovering things by yourself, when nobody else is there with you." His idea of a fun time might not have been everyone's: "In railway tunnels, there are trains going by in opposite directions, and in the arches between, there's a space about three feet wide where you can sit between them as the trains are coming both ways. You'd hear the rush of the train coming, the roaring and then all you'd see would be lights. It was a blast. Dangerous? It was dangerous as hell, man. My mother would have had a heart attack."

Here's an odd thing. On the new record, it's noticeable that many of the songs are from the early heyday of the singer-songwriters who flourished in the years 1968 to 1972: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Neil Young. Those were precisely the years when young Marti was a solitary, mooching, impressionable eight-year-old, playing perilous games with trains and basking in the soft cocoon of maternal love and Hollywood musicals. Success, it seems, took him away from this intimacy, surrounded his naturally solitary nature with strangers who waited on him hand and foot. His response was a drug. "Heroin is so insular. It puts you into this little cocoon of warmth and nothingness and peace. It was dark and easy to romanticise about." So, what was he escaping from? "It wasn't what I was going from. It was what I was heading for. That became the addiction. When I took heroin, it anaesthetised me beyond belief, into a sense of nothingness. It was a warmth like your mother's arms. But it gave me a completely false sense of connection."

Here he is now, the suave stage crooner, the perfect Billy Flynn (a lot more convincing, and a much better singer, than Richard Gere, who plays the role in the movie) hoping to make it, Sinatra-like, in New York, and find a new audience back home for his post-Wets charisma. At 37, he'd just love to have a life in musical theatre, just like the heroes of the Hollywood movies he used to devour in his mother's sofa-bound embrace. He's currently being considered for the lead in a musical version of It's A Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra movie about a man saved from suicide by an angel showing him how badly his town would fare in the future without him around. ("I get really excited about the prospect, it would be really awesome. I'm up against Ewan McGregor, and he can carry a tune. I've not a bad word to say about Ewan.") He mentions, wistfully, there's talk of a new movie of Guys and Dolls. So tell me, Marti, after being a pop star all those years, have you always secretly yearned, were you always cut out to be, a tuxedo'd smoothie like Sacha Distel, born to croon surrounded by foxy chicks in ostrich feathers? "You know, that might be true."

These days he's a non-drinking vegetarian, though he still smokes a lot, and drinks lots of coffee. After 15 years, he is still with his long-term fiancée, Eileen Catterson, who is beginning to sound like Miss Adelaide, the well-known fiancée in Guys and Dolls (in which, by the way, he yearns to play the lead part of Sky Masterson). He has a big mansion in Kent, another in Memphis, and has just bought a house in Brighton overlooking the sea ("I like to think that, if England is invaded, the first house they come to will be a Scotsman's"). He dresses expensively in Ozwald Boateng and Comme des Garçons suits, and Oliver Sweeney shoes. He is doing very nicely, thank you. "I'm rich in many things," he says with that mildly irritating trace of sanctimony, "I made some money from Chicago, but there's a different richness I got from it. It wasn't just financial gain." Did he think his addictive personality has an up-side that could be turned to good account? In making him a perfectionist, say? "Yeah, I think there was an element of that, you keep on doing something until you get it just right. You push yourself to write a perfect version, and then you think, Christ, let's go and get something to eat. Suddenly the penny drops, and you realise there's more going on in life than whether you've got the ultimate chorus for a song. Perfection? No thanks. I like things to be a little bit funky and a little bit tattered round the edges. It just feels better." E 'Between the Covers' is out now on Umtv

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