Tarka Cordell: a life in the fast lane

He was born into a rock 'n' roll world of glamour, wealth and opportunity. But the dashing, charismatic Tarka Cordell never quite found his groove – and this week, he took his own life. Tim Walker reports

Though he never achieved the stardom to match, Tarka Cordell enjoyed a rock'n'roll lifestyle from almost the day he learnt to walk. Yet last Monday, the 40-year-old musician, artist, writer and itinerant bon viveur committed suicide in London, leaving his friends and family to wonder why a man blessed with such talent, wealth and good looks should wish to take his own life. His story is a cautionary tale of extraordinary privilege, romantic ideals, thwarted dreams, and unfulfilled promise.

Tarka's modest degree of fame came to him first courtesy of his connections. His father, Denny Cordell, produced records for the likes of The Cranberries and The Moody Blues. His stepmother was Marina Guinness of the Guinness dynasty. Tarka found a musical mentor in Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, and muses in the actress Liv Tyler and the models Sophie Dahl and Kate Moss. His relationship with Moss came hot on the heels of her split from Johnny Depp in 1997, and Tarka's reputation for fast living and superior seduction skills made him a plausible romantic successor to one of the world's most desired males.

In recent years he had kept a lower public profile, working on his music and art with moderate success. Tarka's life was lived in the traditional spirit of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, but his suicide had a more poignant motive. A celebrated womaniser who claimed that all he wanted was to fall in love, friends now suggest he died of a broken heart.

In 1967, Denny Cordell made his name producing Procol Harum's classic single "A Whiter Shade of Pale". Tarka was born to Denny's first wife, Mia, the following year. He was named after the self-reliant rodent of Henry Williamson's 1927 novel, Tarka the Otter. (A woman who was to become Denny's second wife, Theodora, had, remarkably, been giving birth to her son, Tarquin, in the same hospital – and on the same day – as Tarka was born. When they eventually became step-brothers, the two boys hit it off straight away and became the best of friends. "We never had an argument in our lives," Tarka once said.)

Denny and Mia split when he was just four, leaving Tarka and his elder brother, Barney, to enjoy a spell of co-existence with their father and his musician pals in a suite at Hollywood's fabled Chateau Marmont Hotel. Later, the brothers split their time between their mother's London home and their father's Malibu mansion – interspersed with periods on the road with their father. Denny's record label, Shelter, gave a home to Tom Petty, JJ Cale and Joe Cocker; he helped the latter to stardom with Cocker's celebrated cover of The Beatles' "With a Little Help From my Friends".

As teenagers, Tarka and Barney were shipped off to Harrow for a high-class education. Though Denny was a long-haired, leather-jacketed rocker, he'd been public-school educated himself and hoped his sons might take up rather more traditional professions. Those hopes were soon dashed; Tarka hated Harrow, and soon after he escaped from its halls he high-tailed it back to Hollywood. Aged just 18, he was signed up by United Artists to write three screenplays on the basis of his sole complete script. Its subject, a nomadic surfer who moves to London, was a prescient vision of his own life.

For three years, Tarka lived in a home in the Hollywood Hills courtesy of the studio, writing and rolling around LA in a BMW. Though the movie polymath Rob Reiner supposedly declared one of his scripts to be "the Easy Rider of its day", none of the young writer's screenplays ever made it out of development. The wife of a Hollywood producer provided him with a pay cheque, drugs and the rather ornate roof over his head, he later claimed, simply because of his striking good looks.

Tarka's stepmother, Marina Guinness, tells a story about those looks, which gave him yet another career, as a part-time male model. "When he was about 18, I took him to the Blarney Stone. We were just standing by the road when a coach full of schoolgirls pulled up. The driver told us the girls had insisted he stop the bus, just so they could get a better look at Tarka," she said. It took Tarka until his early twenties to understand the powerful effect he had on women, but when he discovered his capacity for charm, he used it mercilessly. At 25, he took up with the 16-year-old Liv Tyler. And then there was Moss, whom he pursued and seduced in 1997, while sharing a New York pad with an English heiress.

Tarka's apparently dissolute lifestyle appealed to the wild-child Moss; at the time, he was known for his record collection (if not for his own recordings), his fondness for drinking at Gaz's, a Wardour Street roots club, and his habit of driving a very fast, very loud blue Capri around London in the company of a succession of beautiful women.

Over 6ft tall, skinny jeans-slim, with a halo of long, dyed grey hair and cheekbones that could slice butter, Tarka cut a dashing figure even as he approached 40. In a piece for Vogue describing his adventures during London Fashion Week in 2003, the journalist Toby Young described a tall, handsome and mysterious figure breezing through book launches, fashion show after-parties and music industry bashes, always with a supermodel on his lap, or one on each arm. The "toxic bachelor" that so fascinated Young was, of course, Tarka Cordell.

Yet soon after his fling with Moss, Tarka was in a long-term relationship that lasted five years, and ended painfully with the girl in question hooking up instead with one of his close friends. In a rare interview in 2004, Tarka described his wish to settle down with a wife and children and some money made from his musical endeavours. He craved not the wild existence he had, dating "crazy" girls such as Tyler and Moss, but a quiet life.

His professional life, meanwhile, remained as episodic and unsettled as his personal life. After his adventures in the screen trade came to nought, he took off to India for a year. "Not to be spiritual and meditate," he later recalled. "No, I rode a motorbike and took loads of drugs!"

When he returned to California, however, he found the favours had dried up. Reluctant to return to his abortive writing career, he shared a house with a musician and taught himself to play the guitar. Then he moved to New York and sought out the man whose 1992 album, It's a Shame About Ray, had inspired him to write songs. Evan Dando, the frontman for The Lemonheads, took Tarka under his wing and helped him develop his songwriting. Next, he headed for Louisiana. On his MySpace profile, he describes moving to America's Deep South, "to the swamps ... with nothing but [my] guitar and a couple of chords". There, in 1995, he helped to record an obscure, but critically lauded, album for the bluesman Charles Clinton Adcock. He spent time in the studio with the celebrated producer Jimmy Miller, and even took guitar tips from Keith Richards.

Tarka's solo musical career never took off. His debut, Bimbo in a Limo, was self-released with the help of his brother, Barney, but failed to make an impression. The tracks he left behind online come from the same school of melodic post-grunge familiar to fans of Dando's work. But Tarka, by his own admission, hadn't knuckled down fast enough to break into the business as a young blade. "I've always been a bit flaky," he confessed soon after the album's release. "When you get into having a lot of fun, you don't really work that much!"

When he married his third wife, Marina Guinness, Denny moved to Ireland, where he enjoyed a successful second career as a small-time horse trainer and breeder. And he enjoyed similar luck when he returned to the music business in 1993, discovering The Cranberries in Cork and turning them into a multi-platinum, global act. Tarka made frequent visits to Ireland to visit his father and young stepbrother, Finbar.

But early in 1995, Denny was diagnosed with cancer. Two weeks later, aged just 51, he was dead. For Tarka, who had been especially close to his father, it was a devastating blow. The young man's other role model, Denny's partner, Tony Secunda, had recently passed away, too. His relationships with men such as Dando and Richards were seen by many as a search for a mentor and father-figure to replace Denny. "[Denny and Secunda] were the two people that I had based my character on," said Tarka, "so for two or three years after they died, I didn't know who the fuck I was."

Tarka may still have been trying to decide who he was at the time of his own death. It's rumoured that he'd been going through another painful break-up, and was found hanged in his Notting Hill home just before the planned release of a new album, Wide Awake in a Dream ("a compelling story of his heady days in New York City", according to his MySpace page).

Only a few months ago, Barney's Chelsea gallery displayed an exhibition of Tarka's artwork. He'd recently returned from another trip to his beloved India. Always a wanderer, his social circle was international, from the New York musicians posting personal tributes on MySpace, to the London set he still called friends, including Meg Mathews, Sadie Frost and Mary McCartney.

The fact that Tarka was well-loved is evident from his biography. Indeed, a fight with the notoriously brattish online gambling heir Luke Weil in New York in 2004 appears to be the only documented confrontation in his adult life. Weil attacked Tarka – supposedly without provocation – with a champagne bottle at a society bash, resulting in stitches for Tarka, and assault charges for Weil. Yet no one else had a bad word to say about Tarka, including the many conquests he'd left behind along the way. "He can love them and leave them," a close friend of his once said, "but the girls don't seem to mind. They always remain friends."

A comment left on his MySpace board yesterday by one of his musical soulmates says it all: "This is the most beautiful music I was ever a part of. I love you and will miss you forever brother."

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