Captain Moonlight: Career with the extra leg

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The Independent Online
AND SOME girls had even been fainting, said the PR, talking about the way Rolf Harris was going down on his latest tour. Rock 'n' Rolf, it's called. Next week, Rolf and his band will be at the Forum in Kentish Town, very scruff 'n' modish. After that, it's the student circuit, universities - Newcastle, Sheffield, Glasgow, East Anglia, that sort of thing. They were flying to Sheffield, said Rolf, 64, at his riverside home near Maidenhead. Rolf is big.

It is an uplifting story. Rolf was poddling on, doing what he does, the old slap-it-on paint bit, the didgeridoo, the wobbleboard, 'Tie Me Kangeroo Down, Sport', 'Two Little Boys', when he was asked to make a recording of Led Zeppelin's tedious rock anthem 'Stairway to Heaven'. Rolf wobbled and didgeridooed it. 'Ooooh, and it makes me wonder,' sang Rolf, before asking his band, 'How does it affect you blokes?' Rolf's cover made the top ten here and in Australia.

'I'll tell you what 'Stairway to Heaven' did,' says Rolf, sitting by the slice of down-under tree with the toothpicks stuck in it which serves as a coffee table. 'It gave people in their early twenties permission to own up that they still liked me. It was very square to say that you liked Rolf Harris before that. Suddenly it was very cool to like Rolf Harris.'

Cool. Rolf does 'Honky Tonk Women' with didgeridoo and 'Satisfaction' with wobbleboard. Everyone sings along. Rolf was at Glastonbury last year. 'I'm doing a big send-up of myself.' And a big send-up of rock's legendarily self-regarding legends? 'I'm saying 'let's stand back and laugh at ourselves a bit. Let's not take ourselves so bloody seriously'.'

The fainting girls? Rolf is honest: it was the crush rather than his allure. But there had been this young chap at Birmingham University, '5ft, little stocky guy with big shoulders. He came up to me after the gig and said 'Can I hug you?' ' Rolf agreed, and was hugged. 'He came away with tears in his eyes and said 'I've loved you all my life'. He had to walk away he was so embarrassed, and I had tears in my eyes as well.' This is the thing: most people under 40 in this country have grown up with Rolf, on the television with cartoons, brush and other instruments. Rolf is part of their childhood and is loved for it.

Rolf may be Australian, but his mother and father were from Merthyr: Rolf cries quite a lot. His eyes grew moist when he was explaining to me what the words of 'Send in the Clowns' are all about; his eyes grew moist as he recalled the time on Irish television when he couldn't continue with 'Two Little Boys', so affected was he by the Irish tragedy of some other guests on the show. Some people knock 'Two Little Boys' for being just a little schmaltzy. Rolf will have none of it, defending a 'bloody good tune' which sold 967,000 in seven weeks. What's more, it had liberated Rolf, he said, from the belief that real Australians don't cry.

He may not take all of his art entirely seriously, but he is proud of his painting (his wife and daughter, too, are artists). Not long ago, a survey in London asked 1,000 people to name an artist; 38 per cent chose Rolf. Well, said Rolf, Rembrandt didn't have too many TV shows. But most people were terrified of art galleries, and the only time they had ever seen a painting done from scratch - 'Jesus, that's how it's done' - was on one of his shows. And he had just refused to do some gimmicky painting with Chromakey for a TV show. 'I paint for real. It was like asking a brilliant pianist to play Beethoven on a toy piano.'

We went into the garden, where Rolf has planted eucalyptus and a totem pole from Canada. People often waved at him from the river, he said; he liked that. Out front, by the road, at his workbench, he had been working on making a chair to an African design. In his car he had a piece of beech he was hollowing out into a drum. Rolf will agree that 'Sun Arise' - didgeridoo, wobbleboard, early Sixties - was the father of World Music. And that he once lectured southern Aborigines on the use of the didgeridoo, an instrument known only to northern Aborigines. His new album is called Didgereely-Doo All That - The Best of Rolf Harris. What was his proudest achievement? 'Spreading a bit of love and affection around the world.' This is a tough one to carry off, but Rolf can do it. Then he talks about singing 'We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside' with a male voice choir, and how the bastards had made him cry, again.

(Photograph omitted)