They’re mad, bad and dangerous to know, and the apple of their mothers eyes. Caroline Sullivan examines the closest of all relationships…
ROCK WIVES, rock mistresses and rock kids have all had their say. But what about those most long-suffering of relatives, rock mothers? Their lot is not easy; when not being ignored by their little Jarvis’s new glitterati friends, they’re being defamed as pesky old biddies. If their child dies young, as can happen in pop, they endure hearing his or her name besmirched, with no comeback. Their image couldn’t be less glamorous.
No wonder two of them have just written books giving their side of things. Cedella Booker’s Bob Marley: An Intimate Portrait and Philomena Lynott’s My Boy depict pugnacious women trying to protect the memory of their late sons, Bob Marley and Phil Lynott, from, as “Madda” Booker puts it, “predators of Babylon”.
Neither man was without his faults — in Marley’s case, adultery that resulted in eight illegitimate children; in Lynott’s, adultery and drug abuse — but both mothers believe their boys were more sinned against than sinning. Obviously, the feeling is common to every mother, even Deborah Spungen, mother of Sid Vicious’s doomed junkie girlfriend. Her sad, stark 1984 biography, And I Don’t Want To Live This Life, ascribes Nancy’s heroin addiction to a difficult birth that made her uncontrollably wild. “I knew Nancy was going to die young. She had wanted to die since she’d been 11 years old. She repeatedly tried to end her pain herself, first with a razor blade, then with a needle,” she wrote.
Philomena Lynott’s story is equally poignant. Her son was born out of wedlock in 1940s Manchester — not the most felicitous time or place for an 18-year-old Irish girl to raise a half-black baby single-handed. Philomena was regularly evicted from her lodgings when landlords discovered Phil was not only black but illegitimate. Her troubles started even before he was born, while she was working at a car factory. As one heart-rending passage reads: “Every evening as I clocked out, exhausted, weak and grimy, I would stare at the beautiful, pastoral countryside and wonder despondently what was to become of me and my unborn child.” Now a witty 66 and comfortably off, thanks to Lynott’s generosity and the success of a show-business hotel she ran for several decades, she’s on the phone from her home in Dublin. She not only confirms all the stories of ill-treatment, she comes up with another. “I was at a bus stop one day with Philip in a pushchair and we were freezing and starving hungry. The bus came and the conductor saw Philip and rang the bell and the bus pulled off. I cried so much, I almost fainted.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, the hardships, Lynott became one of Ireland’s biggest rock stars as leader of Thin Lizzy. For the rest of his life, he showered gifts on his mother, with whom he had an extraordinarily close relationship.
It’s worth noting that many pop mothers enjoy unusually close ties to their famous children, especially if they are sons. The King of Rock might never have been discovered if he hadn’t gone into a recording studio to make a record for Gladys Presley’s birthday. Elvis was anguished by her early death several years later, from which he never entirely recovered. When he died — at the same age as Gladys — he was buried next to her in the garden at Graceland.
Peggy Gallagher, who gave us Noel and Liam, is a similar force in her sons’ lives. She can silence the pugilistic siblings with one look, and both profess to be little gentlemen in her presence. She was the first person they rang recently when the band’s future was jeopardised by their aborted American tour.
Then there was Bob Marley and his tough-talking Madda, and Sid Vicious, known as Simon to his mother, Ann Beverley. Cedella Booker nursed Marley while he was dying of cancer in 1981, while Ma Vicious went beyond the call of duty, you might say, by procuring the heroin for what turned out to be her charming kid’s last shot in 1979. (Unable to come to terms with his death, she committed suicide in September, aged 64.)
These women are also united in their aversion to their daughters-in-law. Philomena recounts her rage at finding Phil’s wife in bed with another man, while Cedella tartly describes visiting her son’s home to find “a new child born while Nesta (Bob) was away in England… one look told me she wasn’t his”. Ann Beverley, too, was known to have loathed Nancy Spungen. Gladys Presley expired before Elvis met his child-bride, Priscilla, but chances are she wouldn’t have taken kindly to another woman dominating sonny’s life. Not that it would have mattered in the long run, for, in the end, not one of the wives managed to usurp his mother’s place in her son’s heart.
DESPITE THE exceptional closeness, however, none was able to save her child from himself. The last third of Philomena’s book is devoted to Lynott’s drug problem, which killed him in 1986. Her voice is pained and bewildered still. “I used to always say to Philip: ‘Stay off the heavy drugs’ and he’d give me a look and say: ‘Oh, Ma, you don’t think I’m stupid, do you?’ But they lie to you. Any mother who’s lost a child to drugs will tell you they lie. They surround themselves with other people on drugs and say: ‘Don’t let my Ma know’.”
She suspected he at least smoked cannabis, but believed it would be pointless to warn him off soft drugs. “Any attempt on my part would not have prevented a very determined young man doing exactly what he pleased when he was out of my sight,” she writes in My Boy.
She has great sympathy for the mother of Kurt Cobain, whose heroin abuse precipitated his suicide. “I read that his mammy said: ‘He’s gone to join the other lunatics’ and I remember thinking she must be in a dreadful state, because I know for three years I was demented with grief. I still don’t sleep now. My Philip’s roadie, Charlie, died a few weeks ago and I’m comforted to think he has a mate in Heaven now.”
She also takes consolation from reports from friends that Lynott has appeared to them since his death, though this has never happened to her. Coincidentally, Cedella Booker has also experienced visitations. She recalls an eerie incident that happened one night while she was in bed. “I glanced at a big, glossy poster of Nesta on the wall. It was like our eyes met… Suddenly the eye on the poster burst open, revealing Nesta’s natural eye, staring at me. It was Nesta telling me that he was here, still with me. He is with me still.”
The grief of Philomena, Cedella and the rest is no more painful than that of any parent who has buried a child, but it has been compounded by the intrusions of press and fans. As Phil Lynott lay dying in a Bath hospital, his mother received constant phone calls and even a visit from a tabloid reporter disguised as a nurse. Deborah Spungen was also aggressively hounded. After Nancy’s murder (Vicious was charged but died before the trial), her Philadelphia home was besieged. “The press was clustered in front of our house. ‘Wait, folks! When’s the funeral? We need to know!’ I tried to close the door. A reporter’s foot was in it.”
These experiences are extreme, but even the mothers of well-adjusted pop gods must have mixed feelings about an industry that colludes in aggrandising their offspring, then dropping them when record sales diminish. Cobain’s mother has accused his management and record company of not treating his well-publicised addiction, while Philomena “was angry at the music industry for 10 years. I’d like for all managers, all people in the industry, when they become aware of one of their bands having a drug problem, to get them help.” She has offloaded her rage by establishing a drug charity that holds an annual concert on Lynott’s birthday (the next is January 3 at London’s Kilburn National).
The real answer, though, is simple. Don’t let your child go on the stage, Mrs Worthington.
© Caroline Sullivan, The Guardian, 16 December 1996