The reluctant rocker

Interview: John Walsh meets... Chris Rea

For a period, at the start of his career, Chris Rea was known as "Elton Joel". This humorous construction was invented by Rea's friends to reflect the fact that his record company, Magnet, couldn't decide, in 1979, whether to launch him upon the waiting world as "the British Billy Joel" or "the Northern Elton John". In fact, neither description fitted him - few people could have confused him with either the "Uptown Girl" keyboard-drubber or the effete podge from Pinner, and his instrument was the slide guitar rather than the piano. But that's record companies for you. They listened to his gruff North Yorkshire blues growl and decided, absurdly, to market him as a crooner. And they told him they didn't like his name much. "Chris Rea" just didn't sound... croony enough for the easy listenin' audience. Rea sarcastically suggested they call him something which would appeal to Jewish and Italian audiences, thus nailing the American market. "How about Benjamin Santini?" he asked. One of the executives walked to the window and mused, "Benny Santini - I like that".

The problem with nomenclature, with image and identity, has dogged Rea all through his eventful, prolific, 18-year career in the rock mainstream. He has made 15 albums, had a handful of hit singles, sold millions of CDs across Europe, and is widely accepted in the world's premier league of guitar virtuosi. But it's all been at the cost of constant struggles with record companies, overproduced arrangements, wildly fluctuating sales and bad health: two years ago he got peritonitis and nearly died. Facing the prospect of never singing, touring or performing in public again, he characteristically embarked on a radical career shift and went into movies. Through all this, an image constantly recurs - of Rea having to cling on to his sense of himself, his music, his visions, while surrounded by people desperate to change his mind. Names occupy a significant place in his life. In conversation, he refers to himself as "Chris Rea" in the third person, as image-conscious boxers and footballers sometimes do, as though insisting on his objective reality. Should you walk the streets humming the chorus of his hit songs "Josephine" and "Julia", you'll be singing the names of his beloved daughters. When he talks about his home town of Middlesbrough, its main shortcoming was its lack of nicknames: "It was never lucky enough to have a city identity. You know - Newcastle has Geordies, Manchester has Mancunians, Liverpool has Scousers. But Middlesbrough? A lot of people in those days would just look at you and say `Where's Middlesbrough?'".

Rea left his embarrassingly anonymous northern home in 1968, and headed for London. He had no career, few prospects and an aborted career in his father's ice-cream manufactory behind him. But he had spent his twenties listening to the delta blues of Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters, and the more contemporary guitar heroics of Joe Walsh. He bought a guitar at 22, tuned it to E major, learned to play bottleneck and slide, and began to write songs. "Rock 'n' roll was my art school," he says. "For many people from working-class backgrounds, rock wasn't a chosen thing, it was the only thing, the only avenue of creativity available for them. When I was young I wanted most of all to be a writer of films and film music. But Middlesbrough in 1968 wasn't the place to be if you wanted to do movie scores... But it wasn't hard to leave in the Seventies depression. Lots of me friends left to be offshore welders..."

There's a fair amount of the welder about Mr Rea. I met him at a gorgeous recording studio in Cookham, Berkshire, once owned by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. We sat on a plush kelim-upholstered sofa overlooking a tranquil stream. Swallows flitted pointlessly about in the warm sunshine. Rea was in the middle of re-recording his storming hit "Let's Dance" for Bob Mortimer, of Reeves and Mortimer fame, who is releasing it as the official Middlesbrough Cup Final tie-in record. Rea shambles in from his labours, short but bearlike, lumberjack shirt, black tracksuit pants, huge trainers. He has a spectacularly simian lope, and a big broad face with a mane of chestnut curls. Someone described him well as "conquistadorial", spotting the romantic adventurer that co-exists with the workmanlike grafter. Rea's appeal has always combined the two. His gravelly singing shares the battered integrity of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen but without their lyrical gift; in its place Rea injects a fair amount of schmaltz. It's quite something, at a Chris Rea concert, to watch this barrel-chested truckdriver of a musician squeezing out guitar solos of piercing sweetness and, on a Chris Rea CD, listen to him singing, in a voice Ratso Rizzo would have envied, lines like "A kiss for every star in the sky way above/ You'll always be my one and only/ Summer love". You would, however, be well advised not to refer to this tendency (as I did) as "slush". Rea tends to bridle at such words, as if you were scorning his whole Italian-Irish background and the musical tradition he grew up in. "Only the English would call it slush. The Italians wouldn't call it slush. Nor would the Irish. It's a racist thing, like saying African music's all bongos." But surely he liked a bit of moon-over-Capri lushness? "What you call slush," he said crossly, "I call emotive melody."

Sitting in a studio wallpapered with gold and platinum discs, Rea discusses without undue modesty the place he holds in the rock pantheon. "I am in that unique little club," he told me, "where I went into music because I love music, not because I wanted to be rich and famous. I've always knocked on the door of the musicians' room, not the rock stars' room. The British press refuses to see the difference between them, mainly because of the capers of people like Phil Collins, a musician who behaves like a rock star. But there are people who love music and have no interest in being a rock star at all."

It's all very well, I said, playing this Reluctant Debutant when you're successful and rich... "But I'm not a reluctant rock star," he said emphatically. "I am not one at all. I haven't an ounce of rock star in me." But you've got 15 albums with your name on them, I pointed out. If you disliked stardom, why didn't you settle for being an anonymous musician in a band? "Because of the Voice, I'm afraid," said Rea sadly. "The voice has been my joker card that sometimes has played like an ace and sometimes a joker. When you sing the way I sing, it's impossible to get people to talk about anything else". Poor chap. So who else would he put in this band of un-starry music lovers like himself? "I reckon there's Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, meself, David Gilmour, the most underrated blues guitarist in the country, Ry Cooder, I adore him, and I suspect the chap out of Oasis might be pretty good." He narrowed his eyes. "What I despise about the rock star lifestyle is the lack of music in it. The average day is spent travelling to hotels, giving interviews, being nice to people you're told to be nice to, and maybe if you're lucky you might squeeze a bit of music in. The musician's day is music."

Or, more recently anyway, movie-making. Rea's film, La Passione, written, produced and soundtracked by himself, will be released in five UK cities from 16 May. It's a slowly unfolded, operatically sentimental tale of a 10-year-old northern boy, the son of a noisy Italian immigrant ice-cream- making family, who develops a lifelong obsession with motor racing - and especially with the real-life uber-racer Wolfgang Von Trips, who was killed in his Sharknose Ferrari at the Monza Grand Prix in 1961. It's a densely textured film: at one point the Catholic boy sits in a church, and watches while Enzo Ferrari appears, God-like, from behind the altar beckoning him to heaven, and the helmeted Von Trips is equally blasphemously cast as Jesus Christ. The prancing horse of the Ferrari logo crosses the screen and blends with boy, God, car and Christ in an eerie Peter-Greenaway-ish conflation of images. There's a touch of Derek Jarman too, in the intrusions of kitsch, as when the boy invokes the figure of Shirley Bassey with the words "Shirley, Do You Own a Ferrari?" and the Tiger Bay chanteuse actually appears, to answer in song, "Yes I Own a Ferrari", to the tune of "Yes, We Have No Bananas".

Given that the details of family background and personal obsession blend seamlessly with Rea's own childhood, you might be forgiven for thinking the whole thing is yelpingly autobiographical. "People keep asking me that," Rea guardedly concedes, "and I say, well, it's autobiographical inasmuch as it happened to me and everybody else. Everyone's got a Von Trips in their life, I think. And people who've seen the film all say, `I remember a day like that'. For some people it happened through football or movies - a day when a boy's empty, innocent mind suddenly has all kinds of new stuff blown into it."

He talks about Von Trips with positively boyish enthusiasm. "He was one of the first racing drivers to wear the space helmet rather than the peaked one. He was into all the new fads, the first to wear the proper overalls. And just saying his name - Graffenburger Count Alexander Wolfgang Von Trips. I mean..." He smiles broadly and extends his hands. There's that fetish about names again...

The filming of La Passione was not an unrelieved joy. Rea had initially wanted to direct his own screenplay but Warner Vision, the film's distributors, wouldn't let him. Instead they came up with John B Hobbs, a retired television director. Had their collaboration not worked? "Put it this way, I had a whole portfolio of Fellini movies in me head: Fellini, Sergio Leone. Once Upon a Time in America is my Bible. Whereas John Hobbs's last project had been 'Allo 'Allo..." More frustratingly, the studio executives kept trying to turn his simple tale of childhood fantasy into something else. "There was a lot of hard work in making La Passione, and a lot of grief, because I had very set ideas about how I wanted it to be, and everyone else had a different idea. Some executives wanted it to be like Local Hero, another lot wanted it to be the story of a boy and his father, another lot wanted a zappy story about becoming rich and buying a Ferrari. People were saying, `Can't we make this driver Nigel Mansell? Or James Hunt?' and talkin' about `cross-pollinating the market'. I wanted none of it. My thing was about how fantasies occur, about passions, enjoying them..."

His passion for cars has reached positively manic proportions. Most of his song-titles have something to do with four wheels and asphalt: "The Road to Hell", "Two Roads", "Freeway", "Johnny Needs a Fast Car", "Soft Top Hard Shoulder". The new single, inevitably, is called "Girl in a Sports Car", from the La Passione soundtrack CD. With characteristic Stakhanovite energy, Rea has a whole new album of jazz-blues tracks, entitled The Blue Cafe, out in October. And on Cup Final day, as the Middlesbrough crowd sing along to "Let's Dance", he is flying to Dresden, to give his first concert in five years. Hadn't he vowed to give up touring, what with the crippling abdominal pains, the stitches, the fear it might return?

"Yeah I did," growled Rea. "But I missed bein' in a band." And he stamped off into the recording studio to get his bashed-up pink Fender Stratocaster, to show me the chords of "Julia".

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