Some years ago, a friend's husband, aware that he was close to death, reached for his favourite Ian Hunter recording. The voice of the Oswestry-born singer was the last sound he ever heard. When I mention this, Hunter inclines his head slightly, in sympathy: assuming, I imagine, that the deceased picked a soothing ballad to ease his passing. Actually it wasn't like that.
"He sat at his desk, poured a drink, put on your live album Welcome to the Club, held a .38 to his temple and pulled the trigger."
"That kind of thing has happened a few times," says Hunter.
"I don't know. Perhaps because I wrote this song called 'Rest in Peace'. I played London not so long ago. A guy came in before the show, holding photographs of a gravestone inscribed with my lyrics. I remember thinking: hang on a minute. I have to go on stage. Couldn't you have given me these afterwards? And then I have a page called The Horse's Mouth on my website, where I answer questions personally. People are constantly writing about death, especially now I'm getting on a bit myself."
In "Rest in Peace", released in 1974, he wrote: "I ain't gonna be here all that long." Ian Hunter was 72 on Friday.
We sit at the table in the kitchen of his large but unostentatious property in a remote part of Connecticut, a couple of hours' drive from New York. His welcome is what you might call cautiously generous; for the first few minutes he talks to me a bit like a bar owner might address a visiting accountant who he suspects may have been sent by the Inland Revenue. I can't help remembering a line from his classic 1974 memoir, Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star.
"The real problem," he wrote, "is the press. Those fuckers can ruin a beautiful day."
With his trademark shades still in place, he talks in a modest, matter-of-fact way and – even though he has lived in the New York area for 35 years – betrays just a hint of homesickness in the way he discusses the details of his favourite team Shrewsbury Town's double-thrashing, last season, of poor, doomed Stockport County. He remembers the scorelines. As he appears to relax, the estuary accent familiar from his recordings gives way to his native Shropshire.
"I really wanted to be a footballer," he says. "I tried so hard. But I was crap at it."
"Are you mellowing? It's become traditional to describe you as intimidating."
"That's just the glasses. I'm pretty down-to-earth. Then again, I sometimes wonder how good an idea that is. I turn on the TV and see people like Bowie playing to 100,000 people and I think... Maybe I'm doing it wrong. But you are who you are. I can't be bothered with all that. I imagine it must be quite hard work, posing away, 24 hours a day."
Hunter stars in The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, an entertaining and wittily edited documentary history of the group, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival last October. The band, which broke up after just five years, in 1974, had huge success on both sides of the Atlantic with singles such as "All the Young Dudes", a song donated by David Bowie, and Hunter's own compositions, including "All the Way from Memphis", "Roll Away the Stone" and "The Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll". As an American-based solo artist, he has had worldwide hits with songs such as "Cleveland Rocks" and "Once Bitten Twice Shy". He still lives with Trudi, his wife of 39 years. The couple have one grown-up son. Hunter's more recent albums, such as his latest, Man Overboard, have some extraordinarily impressive songs on them, even if, these days, FM radio and television don't give many people the opportunity to notice.
There's one aspect of the tragic suicide we were discussing earlier that surprises me, I tell him. While I can easily imagine a desperate man wanting (to stay in the realm of Hunter's close contemporaries) to breathe his last while listening to Bob Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man" or "Pure and Easy" by Pete Townshend, or even some tune by Mick Jagger, I find it harder to imagine Mott the Hoople being somebody's absolute favourite group. I don't mean to be disrespectful by this: among those on record as being ardent admirers of Ian Hunter, besides David Bowie, are Dylan, Morrissey (who joined the Mott the Hoople fan club; fellow members included Benazir Bhutto), Mick Jones of the Clash and many others including REM, Noel Gallagher, and Ian Dury's friend and co-conspirator Wreckless Eric, whose autobiography is on a table in Hunter's living-room.
But if you judge him by the debatable criterion used by some academics to differentiate between "major" and "minor" poets – namely that "major" writers should have released stellar collections of original (ie new, not anthologised) material – you could argue that Hunter's albums have been just a little too uneven to retain a mass audience.
Added to which, Mott the Hoople's work was nothing if not defiantly eclectic. Their output varies from what some have seen as the first incarnation of British punk (Brain Capers, 1971) to wistful country ballads, to the glam-rock period with which they are most commonly associated. Hunter, it was suspected, wore dark glasses because they shielded him from the sight of his puce velvet loon pants and five-inch Cuban heels.
"They looked," says Hunter's friend Roger Taylor of Queen, "like hod carriers in drag."
"I'm always intrigued," I tell Hunter, "by the question of whether performers who permanently wear shades do so out of shyness, or a desire to be noticed. The two aren't mutually exclusive, are they? There's a fine line between timidity and egotism."
"Well, there's a lot of delusional people around," he replies. "That's one thing I have learnt. I started wearing dark glasses because I have extremely weak eyes. I can remember the moment. I was on a tram in Blackpool, on the seafront, squinting away. I thought: I have got to get a pair of shades – so I did. That was it. Because my eyes are weak and, as you can see, I am almost albino."
The singer removes his glasses: the skin around his eyes is unusually pale and, it has to be said, he looks much better with his shades back on.
Ian Hunter is an unusual figure, not least in the way that he seeks to appear less deep, intelligent and generally complex than he actually is – a tendency which, in his business, is something of a reverse of the norm. The son of a policeman, he says he'd had 44 different jobs before he became a full-time musician. Having played with various bands including a group named The VIPs, from (where else?) Carlisle, he found his niche in 1969 when he was called to audition for the band that would become Mott the Hoople. The group was managed by Guy Stevens, who went on to produce London Calling for the Clash, and who was one of the few figures who fully lived up to a title much over-used in the history of rock music: maniac.
"I was 29 when I joined Mott. I'd done so many jobs: apprentice engineer, local journalist. I'd go out and play in Hamburg, come back to England, persuade some personnel officer that I wanted to work in his factory for life, and stay for three weeks."
Colleagues say Hunter could be somewhat headstrong in his Hamburg days. It is not a reputation he wants to embellish. Suffice it to say that this is a man who, in the course of a disagreement with a German promoter, nailed a kitten to a door. He has become famous for the last words he addressed to US patrol officers in the aftermath of difficulties involving hotel furniture ("My father is a police sergeant. I will handle this") before being removed at speed to a police cell in Indianapolis.
Hunter – his middle name, which he adopted in preference to his original surname, Patterson – arrived at the audition in Soho, where Stevens began his mission of moulding the singer and other original Mott the Hoople members (drummer Dale Griffin, guitarist Mick Ralphs, bass player Pete Watts and organist Verden Allen) into what would be "a cross between Dylan and the Rolling Stones".
In the days when most popular vocalists were still trying to sound like Elvis Presley rather than Bob Dylan, Hunter, with his marvellously abrasive vocal sound, was ahead of the game.
"You must have known, even then, that you had that incredible voice."
"No. Nobody thought I could sing. The first time I tried it, in the gym at school, everybody ran away. I think Guy liked my voice because he was a Dylan fan. A week went by. Nothing. Then he rang up. His first words to me were: 'You looked terrible.' I thought: 'Great! He's interested.'"
Stevens had borrowed the name Mott the Hoople from a 1966 cult novel by the New York author Willard Manus. The main character, Norman Mott, travels with a freak circus and winds up sailing a hot-air balloon over Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"It's very offbeat," Hunter says. "Guy found the book in the library in Wormwood Scrubs [where he was serving nine months for a drug offence]. He lent it to a heroin addict, who died."
Hunter would go on to write a poem dedicated to Stevens, where he addresses him as "my father; my son". Amphetamines and drink, he recalls, were the manager's main problems. ("That, and the fact that his mother didn't like him.") In early recording sessions with Mott the Hoople, the level of criminal damage caused to studios owned by their then-label Island Records, often instigated by their drug-fuelled Svengali, has become legendary.
"When you were in the studio with Guy, he was just frantic. He knew nothing about music. But he did have a propensity to wind you up. He would take you on a flight of fancy; you could feel yourself mentally leaving the building. An hour later, he would go, 'OK: play.' And of course you really wanted to play, because you had been listening to his bullshit for an hour. When we were recording Brain Capers, he arrived in a highwayman's outfit. And there was a fire in the studio."
"Who lit it?"
"I don't know," Hunter claims. "But I had to ring [Island boss] Chris Blackwell. 'Er, Chris, there has been a bit of a problem in the studio.' He said, 'Problem? What kind of problem?' I told him it had been set on fire. There was a pause. Then he said: 'Was it really necessary?' I said, 'Yes.' He said: 'Fair enough.'"
Stevens had discovered other new groups, notably Procol Harum. But none was so important to him as Mott the Hoople in their early, anarchic phase, when they were playing to large, passionate audiences.
"Rock bands," says the writer Kris Needs, who ran their fan club, "can be very stuck-up. Mott the Hoople were different. They would come out to the bar and talk to you."
Such generosity was not reflected in record sales. Band and manager had parted company by the time Mott achieved major success in 1972, with "All the Young Dudes". At the end of August 1981, Stevens was dead.
"Guy? He died of a death wish. [To be specific, a heart attack precipitated by an overdose.] He was a man who had woken up in death wards. And come out. I once saw him with his jaw wired shut. This was after we had stopped working with him; he'd broken his neck..." Hunter says, "or something."
"Did you try to save him?"
"Of course. We all did. I remember I fished him out of..." The singer stops himself. "He had places he wrecked. Once he locked himself in his flat in London. I went down there with Trudi. Right next to the door is a toilet. Otherwise there's nothing; everything's just burnt. There are holes in the floor. The bed has gone. He'd had a snooker table; the slate and baize have gone. Everywhere is knee-deep in porn."
"He was a great influence on you. Did you follow him into that alternative reality of alcohol and speed?"
The band had been on the verge of splitting up when David Bowie, a keen admirer, offered them "All the Young Dudes". The song propelled them into the mainstream, and into Bowie's powerful sphere of influence.
People argue about whether a "cover version" can ever be better than the original. "But there's no doubt," I suggest to Hunter, "that you made that song your own." (Even though David Bowie produced the single.)
"Everyone in Mott knew right away that it was a hit," he says.
"So why did Bowie allow..."
"I don't know. I would never have given that song away to anybody. I got the feeling he'd tried and tried, with his own version, and got bored with it. But once he was in the studio with us, he knew exactly what sound he wanted."
After that, as Hunter says, suddenly – with "Honaloochie Boogie", "All the Way From Memphis", "Roll Away the Stone" and "The Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll" – the hits just kept on coming.
If ian Hunter never allowed himself to lose control to the alarming degree that Stevens did, his close rapport with the deranged manager was not the first indication of a fondness for aberrance by proxy. No fan of responsibility, by his own admission, he had married Diane Coles at 18 and had two children by the time he was 20.
His father Walter, a Glasgow-born disciplinarian of the old school, was homophobic and wouldn't allow a guitar in the house. As a young man, Ian spent some time living in Northampton where he fell in with "what my dad considered the wrong type of people".
"Yes. People who got into... spats."
"Yes. But they did it more for the craic. The gain was depressingly small. It was more the hilarity of how they'd got in and what they did with the safe. Life was tedious and that was fun."
He was never in court himself, Hunter says, though he does admit that one man of his acquaintance did have sufficient fun to get 10 years.
For some time his young family lived with Hunter's parents in Blackpool.
"Diane went on to be lady mayoress of Shrewsbury. A great girl, but she married a teenage apprentice and I morphed into something different. She didn't like the music, she wanted a different kind of life and I don't blame her. But sometimes there's a point in your life where you just have to go for it."
Walter died in 1981, by which time Ian's younger brother, Bob, had established himself as a highly successful executive in industry.
"You'd been world-famous for almost a decade by then. Do you think your dad took any pride in your success?"
"I don't believe so, no. But now that I'm older, I can see things more from his point of view. He was a communist; he'd been thrown out of Sandhurst. He became an NCO; he fought in the war. So he must have come back, looked at me, this slob, and asked himself: 'What did I go through all of that for: this?'"
Many of Ian Hunter's best compositions touch on that uneasy relationship; perhaps the most intensely moving is his 1979 song "Ships". (Later recorded, to the surprise of some, by Barry Manilow.)
"I had an intense dislike of my father," Ian Hunter says in All the Young Dudes, Campbell Devine's definitive 2007 biography of Mott the Hoople, "and he had an intense dislike for me. But I am very glad that he heard 'Ships'. Extremely happy."
It's the contrast between his strict and somewhat closeted upbringing, and the exhilarating global excursions he was required to undertake, after "All the Young Dudes", that makes Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star such a touching memoir: that, and the fact that Hunter manages to transfer his voice on to the page exactly as it sounds; a trick which, as many aspirant diarists have discovered, is far harder than it sounds. The book could have been written for his drinking companions in the Cross Keys in Northampton, many of whom had probably never been close to an aeroplane.
This is Hunter describing a transatlantic flight. "You get meals and drinks... the seats recline... if you pay, you can get earphones... the windows," he adds, "have pull-down shades."
Life on the road proved something of a test of his commitment to moderation and temperance. At one venue, Hunter recalls his manager questioning a man who was assisting the singer at a urinal.
"'Listen,' the stranger explains, 'the guy needs a piss.'
[Manager] 'Then why are you with him?'
[Stranger] 'Because he can't fucking stand up.'"
Describing the fatiguing process of touring, Hunter writes: "My guts have that empty feeling. Wind is caught k inside of me. I wish it would come out. Either end will do. I take a Mandy [Mandrax – methaqualone tablets, known as Quaaludes in the United States – the sedative of choice at the time] sip a beer and fade away to a Tom Courtenay film."
Drugs, Hunter remarks, "take away the guilt. Guilt is a very big thing. Guilt," he adds, in an original and horribly indelible image, "is like an outboard motor up your arse, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for your entire life."
I don't ask him exactly what he's referring to, but one of his best early songs, "Waterlow", an almost unbearably intense meditation on the experience of leaving his first wife and two young children, is an answer in itself.
"And you do need a break now and again," Hunter continues. "You just do. We were touring constantly. I gravitated towards downs because I didn't like speed. Speed made no sense to me. You have a certain lifespan: if you speed it up you're going to live less. I'd rather live longer. And so," he adds, "I was doing Mandys. But I never had a problem. I would do it once a week. You'd get a day off and you couldn't sleep so you went to see [fabled Harley Street physician to the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix] 'Dr Robert'. The faces you'd see at Dr Robert's on a Monday morning; it was like Sunday night at the Palladium."
The stresses within the group are comprehensively explored in The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, some of whose scenes recall This is Spinal Tap.
Matters came to a head after Mott went through a succession of personnel changes and were joined by the Hull-born guitarist Mick Ronson. Ronson, Bowie's former accompanist, was "like a brother" to Hunter, and would go on to produce, among other things, Morrissey's outstanding 1992 album Your Arsenal.
Exhausted by the demands of songwriting and bickering within the group, Hunter collapsed at a friend's house in New Jersey, in November 1974, and spent five days in hospital. His illness signalled the end of the group, to the great disappointment of colleagues such as Dale Griffin. (So gentle, articulate and thoughtful a man that he disgraces the very title of "rock drummer", Griffin went on to produce memorable BBC sessions for, among others, John Peel and Andy Kershaw.)
Frustratingly, Mott were about to embark on a US tour which would have taken them to huge venues such as Madison Square Garden. Hunter says he felt under constant pressure to write the next hit. He described the stress in a song called "Marionette", which contains a line George Formby might have written, had he lived in a later, more introspective age of songwriting: "Where's my sanity gone – mother?"
In hospital, "they did a battery of tests. Everything was fine. The doctor said, 'If you don't want to do this, then you really shouldn't do it.' I said, 'I don't want to, but I have to. Otherwise I'll get sued.' He told me that wouldn't happen, and he wrote me a medical note."
"If you were fine, why were you admitted?"
"I was just a mess. I have had three – not nervous breakdowns, but close. I had it recently... two people close to us died. It begins... it's a stomach thing. It builds and builds and the only way you can get rid of it is burping or," Hunter says, with a sudden twinge of modesty, "the other. But it is never-ending."
As a solo artist, Hunter flourished with a succession of splendid collaborations with Mick Ronson, firstly on his debut album Ian Hunter.
"The first time I went round to Mick's place after Mott split up," he says, "I wrote 'Once Bitten Twice Shy'" – a composition that bears comparison with any rock song from the period, and demonstrates Hunter's unusual ability to produce a recording that will instantly silence any room.
He had, by his own admission, a difficult time in the 1980s, when he made "one or two bad albums" and wound up writing soundtracks for money.
Emotionally, his most challenging period was the aftermath of Mick Ronson's death from cancer, in 1993. The guitarist was 46.
"I had it – those symptoms I was telling you about – then. Very badly. When it happens, I just can't help it. The only way I can get out of it is heavy downs. After Mick died I was taking 15 or 20 [milligrams]..."
"Are you talking about painkillers like [the commonly prescribed American oral opiate] Percodan?"
"Whatever that stuff's called. It works, but it takes months. I often wonder about Kurt Cobain; I know he had stomach problems. I think pressure can manifest itself in different ways."
"Did you go to Ronson's funeral?"
"I think that was a big part of the problem, because there were certain tensions between people there. And so, all through that period, when I was supposed to be mourning, I was having to be a diplomat. I gave the memorial speech. I'd expected that his coffin would be in another room while I was doing it. It wasn't. It was right there, right next to me. I managed to get through it, but about a week later, it hit me."
Fame, Ian Hunter once remarked, is great for a couple of weeks. "I always wanted to be famous and then when I became famous it became a pain in the arse. Money doesn't mean anything. Nor does being known. I've slipped a lot but I like it."
"Slipped" or not, he seems more contented now than he has been for years. The resentment nurtured by some members of Mott the Hoople was largely exorcised by reunion concerts in 2009. His last two releases, Shrunken Heads (2007) and Man Overboard (2009), represent his best albums in years, and he's halfway through another.
When the conversation turns to more general subjects, Hunter proves to be a well-informed and passionate observer of American politics. Speaking of commentators from the extreme right, such as the broadcaster Glenn Beck, he says: "Their technique is to try to dazzle you with minute detail. I have a more simple view: I am not interested in your facts and figures; you are a twat. Beck makes a complete tool of himself, then dismisses his critics as elitists. I am no elitist. I scored 125 on the IQ test. I consider myself about average. But I know Glenn Beck is an idiot. Obama," he adds, sounding like a man who is channelling the spirit of his left-wing father, "is a decent man and that's why he is such a threat to them: because he is a decent man."
Hunter lived in New York City for several years when he first arrived here, in the mid-1970s; has he ever been tempted to return?"
"No. We left because... one day I was with my little boy, he was four at the time, and we were on a bus and we saw a guy shot in the face. I turned the kid's head away, but he still saw it. Living here is wonderful. This is horse country. Why would I want to go back to a city?"
"I was in Hull a few years ago," I tell the singer, "working on a story which involved regular visits to the main police station. If I was early, I'd sit in the park. There was this run-down shack there, always locked and bolted. At first I thought it was a public toilet, but it appeared to be a store for fertiliser and gardening equipment. It had a plaque screwed to the wall that read: 'Mick Ronson Memorial'. [An adjacent stage is the city's official tribute to the musician.] I can remember looking at this battered shed and thinking: you can work all your life, applying all that talent, and that's what you get for it..."
"I heard about that. The way I see it is: Mick's gone. Why should he care? He's not here any more. I mean... don't get me wrong. I've heard it's pretty bad up there."
"In Hull," Hunter replies.
"I think you'll get your statue one day – not too soon, I hope – in Oswestry."
"I don't. Me and Mick, you know, we would never listen back to old records. Not unless we had to, to rehearse. Once it's gone, it's gone. I couldn't care less about epitaphs. They count for nothing."
I hope he's mistaken about the statue. Even though I know he's right that finding a meaningful epitaph will, as ever, be a problem. They could do worse than: "Ian Hunter. Major Artist."