POP MUSIC / The worst is yet to come: There he was singing out of tune and behaving like a prat and then he goes and ruins it all. John Otway, claims Robert Hanks, is not so bad

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The Independent Online
This is a nightmare,' said a man in the balcony at the Astoria: 'Otway's a star.' You can see his point. John Otway and stardom - the two go together like, say, liver and treacle. It isn't simply that stardom has eluded him over the years; but the failure to be a star seems to be the whole point of him. Plenty of people have been famous for being famous. Otway, more unusually, is famous for being not famous. And not talented. And clumsy. If you had to sum up his abilities, you could borrow the apocryphal comment on Fred Astaire's first screen test: 'Can't sing, can't act, falls over and hurts himself a little.'

In more than 20 years as a rock musician, he has had one hit, invariably referred to in his writings and on stage as THE HIT - 'Cor, Baby, That's Really Free', recorded with his former partner, Wild Willy Barrett, which towards the end of 1977 leapt to No 27 in the charts. It's not a lot to base a career on.

Yet here we are, at Gig 2,000 - the 2,000th occasion, by Otway's own reckoning, on which he has voluntarily made a prat of himself for other people's amusement - and, shock horror, the Astoria is packed out. It's true: for this one Friday night at least, Otway is a star.

UNLIKE almost everybody else, Otway refuses to see anything implausible about the situation. When you suggest that success might ruin his shtick, he gets quite tetchy: 'No no no no no. We'd be all right as a star, we'd be all right. This whole idea of 'Failure becomes you' ' - brief struggle for words - 'is probably true.'

It's odd to find him protesting about being seen as a failure. He makes much play of inadequacy in his show, where dry ice for the sentimental numbers is provided by a roadie with a couple of aerosols, and in his autobiography, Cor Baby, That's Really Me - indeed, the front cover announces him as 'Rock And Roll's Greatest Failure]'. The book is written in the third person, because, the author says, he found it easier to recount all the embarrassing facts that way. It describes in painful detail the battle for stardom that culminated in The Hit, and the slow, downward spiral from there.

Cor Baby is well written, if diabolically punctuated, and very funny. At a time when nobody wanted to buy Otway's records, they were buying the book in surprisingly large numbers - not far off 10,000 units shifted since publication in 1990. A popular explanation has been that people who went to Otway's gigs often wanted a souvenir, but one they wouldn't have to listen to.

Like his stage show, the book is one long, impressively sustained joke at his own expense. He makes himself out to be failure as a musician, as an actor, as a husband, a lover, a friend . . . On the other hand, he also has a few laughs at other people's expense - particularly Polydor, who signed him and Wild Willy Barrett for pounds 250,000 at the height of the punk explosion, apparently under the impression that since acts that couldn't play or sing were in vogue, Otway had to be a huge hit.

For all the self-contempt and self-pity, Otway has on his own account a monstrous ego: 'I suppose it had to do with being picked on as a kid. I mean, picked on severely. Gangs of people beating me up, calling me smelly. I've worked out why this is: it's because I must have been obnoxious; because the only people you ever see that happening to are basically obnoxious, aren't they?' At the time, he says he performed a 'warped calculation', 'Which is, it must be because you're a genius, you must be a chosen sort of person.' He was encouraged in his self-belief, briefly and unintentionally, by Bob Dylan, who proved that a crap voice and stardom were not necessarily incompatible. That was enough to start him off.

WHATEVER Otway lacks in ability, he more than makes up for in willingness to damage himself in the cause of entertainment. The one thing people remember him for, apart from The Hit, is doing somersaults on stage. He's still doing them at the Astoria - where, appropriately enough, you can buy your drinks at the Keith Moon Bar, a monument to rock 'n' roll self-destruction. Knowing how dangerous it can be to save the best till last, Otway puts 'Cor Baby' at No 3 in his playlist, so that nobody will get too impatient. During the guitar break that takes up most of the chorus, he backs off towards the side of the stage, then takes a little scuttling run-up, bows his head, dives and - he's up again. It's not especially spectacular; but you're flattered that he's working so hard to entertain you, especially when you consider his age.

He's 40 now, but still has all the coltish enthusiasm of a teenager making his fifth attempt on BAGA Grade 4. When he rips his shirt off, he turns out to have a Jaggeresque physique, although he says the gigs themselves are the only exercise he takes, and if he ever stopped he doesn't think he could get started again. While gigging keeps him fit, though, it has also done him some damage: he says his spine is knobbly where bits have been chipped off and have formed bony spurs; and when he's on tour, his forehead bears a permanent badge of small scabs, the souvenir of nightly performances of 'Headbutts'.

One of Otway's best-loved numbers, this was written by Wild Willy Barrett, at a time when their relationship was deteriorating. Barrett sang the words, and every time he arrived at the key word 'Headbutts', he would slam Otway's head against the microphone to create the right sound. Apparently, he found some satisfaction in this. Now, Otway slams his own head against the mike; the audience finds satisfaction in this.

Over the years, Otway and Barrett have been forced together by mutual need - Otway needed Barrett because he is a talented musician, Barrett needed Otway because he tended to attract attention - but it was always one of rock 'n' roll's shakier marriages. They have split and reunited more times than anybody can be bothered to count, often faking a reunion (or a split) purely to get a couple of column inches in the NME. The animosity appears to be perfectly genuine, and perfectly mutual. At the Astoria, Barrett consented to open Otway's set with 'Misty Mountain', but there was little warmth in the performance, and he disappeared off stage directly afterwards. Otway himself maintained that the reunion was insisted on by his management to help ticket sales; and he won't admit it was any help at all.

WHATEVER the reason, the show is a roaring success - the first Otway gig in many years that has had touts outside. But what's really astonishing isn't just that people want to come: it's that he's really very good. He doesn't have a great voice, he doesn't play the guitar too well - most of the time, its doubtful that his guitar is connected to anything at all. But the set is well paced and enlivened by neat little stunts - some elegantly semi-competent skateboarding for 'Racing Cars' - the John Otway Big Band plays well, the songs are not half bad, and he is clearly having a good time. The thing you fear is that he'll get silly, that encouraged by all the attention he'll just go over the top and be a prat. But he blossoms; he's relaxed, charming, in control. It's really true. He's a star.

Otway himself is convinced that this isn't just a one-off, that he's on the verge of some kind of breakthrough: 'I am one of those optimists that does actually feel that the best stuff is yet to come.' The automatic riposte to that is: well, how could it be worse? But to be fair, you should also ask: how could it be any better?

(Photographs omitted)