The Bizarre Life And Lonely Death Of Billy Mackenzie

TOP OF THE POPS, MARCH 3, 1982. A relatively unknown band from north of the border are about to do what David Bowie, Roxy Music and The Sex Pistols have done before them, and what The Smiths, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Happy Mondays will do after: assault the cameras with sheer charisma, burst through the nation’s cathode tubes and achieve television greatness. It is the debut mainstream TV appearance by Associates.

From the shrill electronics of the intro, you just know that this strange group, apparently from Dundee although they could be from anywhere, are going to be special. Less garish than Bowie crooning ‘Starman’, less full-on fierce than Rotten sneering ‘Pretty Vacant’, it is, nevertheless, as sensational a TOTP moment as any before or since.

First, you notice the casual arrogance of the players, particularly the matinee idol-handsome guitarist, who, rather than arch back and bend forward in a series of painful macho postures, is seated like a Flamenco Don Juan.

Soon, though, your attention is grabbed by the singer, wisps of fringe hanging over his cherubic face. And this in an era ripe with telegenic frontmen.

The singer – a bit like the young Presley, your mind blinks – seems to suck in all the space around him and spew it out in one great big gust, his voice powerful yet controlled, shifting between octaves with insolent ease as the music builds to a startling crescendo.

The title of this spectacular piece of alien bubblegum pop is ‘Partyfearstwo’, and it will shoot to Number Nine in the charts the following week.

The name of the singer with the natural charm and the unnatural voice is Billy Mackenzie and, within 15 years, he will be found dead, in circumstances as tragic as his music was full of magic and grace.

“THERE IS NO NAME YET FOR THE PLACES HE and his voice go,” the late rock critic, Lilian Roxon, once wrote about Tim Buckley, but it could so easily be said of Billy Mackenzie.

The facts of his life are almost remarkable enough to account for his exceptional music.

Born William MacArthur Mackenzie on March 27, 1957, at Dundee Royal Infirmary, the eldest of six children, Billy was brought up in Bonnybank Road by his shopkeeper father, James, and his mother, Lily, with whom he maintained a close relationship up to her death from cancer in 1996.

His early years are, if not shrouded in mystery, then at least clouded by an inclination towards romanticising an unglamorous past spent on Dundee’s council estates. Determined to mythologise his own history, Billy would talk up his wild Scottish, Irish and, in particular, Gypsy ancestry, encouraging friends and acquaintances to infer that his mercurial personality sprang directly from his Romany roots.

“My uncles were property barons,” Billy told me in his last major interview, in August, 1996, in which he talked with mixed feelings about his upbringing, one minute referring to Dundee as “a stagnant, black, cursed town” from which he felt compelled to escape as a teenager, the next eulogising its wide open spaces and rolling hills.

“There are businessmen on both sides of my family,” said Billy, proudly. “They always found it easy to make money. We may have had a poor background, but we had millions passing through.

“I’ve got three gypsy brothers who are incredible businessmen,” he went on, contradicting an earlier reference to his brothers as musicians. “They’re always done up in mohair, three-piece suits. Pretty glamorous.

“Both my parents had that edge of glamour. My dad would turn up in a Triumph Herald, and there would be colour TVs at our house – we were the talk of the estate.”

His grandmother was a jazz singer, and his uncles played in rock’n’roll bands. Meanwhile, Billy recast his mother and father as, respectively, “a frustrated singer and a frustrated actor”, although the extent to which they actively pursued their muses is unclear. Certainly, Lily Mackenzie liked to join Billy at local punk concerts.

As for James Mackenzie, he was a strong character who loomed large over his son’s life, the one person in whose presence Billy would clam up. Indeed, despite James’ interest in his son’s career, and the fact that he lent him a substantial sum of money in the early Associates days, there was a problem in their relationship that remained unresolved until the eve of Billy’s death.

Billy’s childhood was tough but happy. At the age of four, he would sing the chart hits of the day for his family, developing a fascination for Engelbert Humperdink, whom he thought was “a God”. As early as five, when he had “enough energy to jump mountains” – the sort of explosive energy that would characterise his adult years – Billy was allowed total freedom, to which he would soon grow addicted: musical freedom, personal freedom, whatever.

“I was always called Billy Whizz,” he recalled. “It’s hard coping with all the energy that charges around inside your whole being.”

WHEN HE WAS 11, BILLY DECIDED TO HITCHHIKE to Aberdeen. On his return, he turned to his mother and said, “Look, I’m telling you, I want to be a pop person and you’ll have to give me the clothes and that to be that person or else I’m gonna throw myself down the stairs.”

From here on in, Billy’s story is the stuff of legend, and how much of it is true partly depends on the extent to which you are willing to suspend disbelief. Aged 13, he “looked after” a house belonging to prostitutes. “I was their favourite little person,” he told a writer in 1984, although, mysteriously, he never mentioned the subject again.

At 15, he won £50 in a local talent contest by singing ‘Feelings’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. A year later, having left school, he used the prize money to travel to New Zealand, where he stayed with his Uncle Sandy and Aunt Nancy for four months, working part-time in a quarry just outside Auckland.

Back in Dundee, he tried his hand as an apprentice electrician for local firm Scott Brothers, followed by a stint selling whiskey in a London Scotch House.

Things took a turn for the dramatically soap operatic when, aged 17, Billy had a “wee summer romance” with a 20-year-old Angie Bowie lookalike, resulting in a pregnancy (the boy, now in his early twenties, lives in Fife). He hotfooted it to America, where he soon found himself not only married but somehow the beneficiary in the will of the eccentric, multi-millionaire recluse, Howard Hughes.

One version of this tale has it that Billy visited his Aunt Veronica in Long Beach, California, where he enjoyed it so much he decided to extend his visa by entering a marriage of convenience.

Billy’s own version of events, as recounted to me over numerous cups of tea in his west London flat, was rather less prosaic.

“I’d gone over there because I wanted to sing with the New Orleans Gospel Choir,” it all started to pour out like a vivid dream, “and I was leading this sort of travelling rock’n’roll lifestyle, when I met up with my cousin in Los Angeles. She was a model in the Sixties, and she had instilled the spirit of adventure in me back in Dundee, when I used to see her driving around town when she was just 14 in her father’s sports car.

“She was half-German, half-gypsy and really exotic, a real Amazonian, and she used to twist my arm up behind my back and say, ‘Do you think I’m attractive, Billy, am I beautiful, Billy, am I?’ She was a dark-haired Diana Dors, very Fellini,” the downpour continued, Billy’s sing-song brogue lending his revelations a surreal quality. “And I married her sister-in-law, this girl called Chloe, a sort of Dolly Parton clone, who was the sister of Melvin Dumas, the good Samaritan who picked up Howard Hughes in the desert – you know that film, Melvin And Howard? Well, Melvin’s my brother-in-law.

“So I married this girl in Las Vegas. It was purely a business deal, it only cost about 200 dollars, but it was a great adventure, really exciting,” he gabbled his explanation to me that afternoon in summer ’96, and all the while I was simultaneously mesmerised by Billy in full kaleidoscopic flight and rifling through my mental Rolodex for an old article on Captain Beefheart from Rolling Stone which described Don Van Vliet thus: “Since he decided that civilisation was a trap, he refused to use civilised English in a linear, logical way and learned the entire language as a vast, amusing game. As a result, virtually everything he says turns out to be poetry.”

The Beefheart-Mackenzie connection became stronger in my mind after speaking to NME editor Steve Sutherland, who interviewed Billy more than half a dozen times when he was with Melody Maker in the Eighties.

Sutherland recalled Billy’s idiosyncratic linguistic tics: “He had a wonderful way of saying things. Everything he said was more poetry than prose. But it wasn’t affectation. He’d use these ridiculous metaphors that encapsulated the whole way he saw life. The most extraordinary thing of all was that he had this immensely lush and melodramatic imagination, all Babylonian harems, peacocks and palaces, and yet he chose to live in Dundee.”

Billy eventually returned to Dundee from the States when he was 18, put off by the intense heat, and worried about his mother, who had become ill. It was then that he undertook a couple of ventures: becoming a talent scout for local models (“I was going to be like the Scottish A&R man for Vogue“), and running The Crypt, an art deco clothing emporium which used coffins for changing rooms.

“I wanted to dress the city,” he said, “and create something that was opposite to all the drabness that was infiltrating my vision.”

Billy described this as “the happiest time, a really courtesan period,” despite the fact that, due to his increasingly flamboyant, Bowie/Ferry-inspired appearance, he was relentlessly picked on by Neanderthal Dundonians, who would batter him with poles, push him under buses, break his hands and split open his head.

“It was all very dandy and glam,” said Billy, generously ignoring the savagery of his peers. “It reeked of extravagance. There was a real spirit of Sixties Italian Eurocentricity. We were extreme, like rock royalty.”

AND THEN, IN 1976, THE “INTERNATIONAL Loner” met Alan Rankine – the swarthy Valentino from that Top Of The Pops appearance – and the Lennon and McCartney of superbaroque Eighties pop were set to explode across the post-punk firmament.

Billy had spent ’75 singing in a band with two girls from Dundee, performing covers of Motown classics such as ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’ and ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ to a muted response from club audiences raised on The Bay City Rollers.

Going nowhere very slowly, Billy attended an audition for a cabaret troupe in Edinburgh, where he met the 17-year-old Rankine. The pair soon discovered they had a mutual love of film themes, Philly soul, glam, the “krautrock” of Can, Kraftwerk and Neu!, New York’s emergent disco scene and the easy listening sound of Mantovani.

“I hate using references like Portishead, but Associates were into John Barry back in the early Eighties,” said Billy, who would hold Perry Como and Henry Mancini parties at his flat at 39 Lyon Street (the latter the pseudonym he used for a version of Simon Dupree And The Big Sound’s ‘Kites’ in 1981). “We used to rub Burt Bacharach albums on our crotches.”

Over the next two years, Alan and Billy – a cross between Harold Melvin and The Average White Band – worked as a blue-eyed soul duo on Scotland’s chicken-in-a-basket circuit, earning £100 a week performing bossa nova renditions of ‘The Fool On The Hill’ and perverting “standards” like ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile’, charmingly rechristened ‘The Shadow On Your Lung’.

The fortysomething females loved them, and their attempts to seduce the boys were regular yet unreciprocated. Apart from the fact that the women were probably gruesomely unappetising, Billy was, as Alan Rankine recently opined, “on a sliding scale, about 90 per cent gay” (he even suggested Billy’s wet-look on the cover of Associates’ Fourth Drawer Down compilation was a subtle attempt to appeal to the gay crowd). At the same time, there were, said Rankine, occasions which emphasised Billy’s refusal to be categorised, sexually or otherwise.

“His sexual orientation seemed to change after Sulk,” says Steve Sutherland. “When I first met him, he had a girlfriend. After that, there was no question that he was homosexual.”

“Och, I can swing with the best of them,” Billy told me in 1996. “I’m the type of person who sees beyond genders. I don’t have many emotional boundaries or hang-ups about who I like, where I like, when I like. I’m pretty affectionate.”

Just prior to adopting the name Associates, the duo fluctuated between The Absorbic Ones and The Ascorbic Ones, offering increasingly cabaret-hostile noises with titles like – and this is pre-punk, remember – ‘20,000 Years Of Mental Torture’.

By now, Billy had moved into Alan’s orange-drenched flat (“The kitchen was orange, the kettle was orange, even the spoons were orange”) and they were writing together, composing hundreds of songs, many of which would later appear on Associates records. (‘Transport To Central’, for example, from The Affectionate Punch, received Bowie-circa-Station To Station comparisons, although it actually dates back to early ’76. And ‘Partyfearstwo’ was written in ’77).

But it wasn’t until 1979 that the first Associates product hit the shelves, when a cheeky version of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ (its chorus sounding unmistakably like “Bowies keep swinging”) was released on their own Double Hip label.

A year later, Associates found themselves alongside The Cure on Fiction, and, by August, 1980, their debut LP, produced by Mike Hedges, was in the shops. The Affectionate Punch was musically ambitious, lyrically cryptic, vocally outrageous and instrumentally diverse – Chris Carr, Associates’ publicist of the period, describes Alan Rankine as “probably the most gifted musician of his generation, he could play virtually anything he set his mind to”.

Featuring Billy and Alan as athletes on the cover, a visual reference to their obsession with physical supremacy (which they shared with Dexys Midnight Runners), The Affectionate Punch had clearly fallen out of the same post-PiL void as Magazine’s The Correct Use Of Soap. Yet, like Howard Devoto’s pinnacle, it also hinted at the entryist pop of ABC and Scritti Politti to come.

Over the next 12 months, Associates – “the most modern band of the decade,” according to The Guardian‘s Jim Shelley – determined to avoid the single-album-tour syndrome, released seven 12-inch singles on Beggars Banquet (later collected on Fourth Drawer Down).

From ‘Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’ to ‘White Car In Germany’, these recordings suggested Associates’ oblique strategies and divine classicism might coexist. Even the awesome, anarchic ‘Kitchen Person’, which Billy sang through a hoover tube via a comb wrapped in greaseproof paper, and whose monstrous pulse was, using a prehistoric form of “sampling”, the result of a typewriter carriage on repeat-sequenced “return”, managed to eschew self-conscious abstraction. Associates were orbiting the outer limits of pop.

BY MAY, 1982, THEY HAD ENTERED PLANET Pop’s atmosphere. ‘Partyfearstwo’ had charted and the next single, ‘Club Country’, was poised to do the same. Then came Sulk.

Recorded down at London’s Playground Studios the winter before, produced by Mike Hedges and dressed to thrill in a lavish sleeve, Sulk, released by Associates’ new record company, Warner Brothers, was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling upwards of a quarter of a million copies and reaching the Top 10, surely one of the most out-there longplayers to do so.

In hindsight, considering the liberties taken with structure and dynamics, and Billy’s unhinged barrage of whoops, cries, shouts, croons, melismas, shrieks and moans, Sulk merits contention alongside Tim Buckley’s Starsailor as one of the most extreme demonstrations of emotional bloodletting ever recorded.

“Hedges’ personality went into that,” Billy told me, modestly reallocating the glory. “His hugeness as a person translated his musical Spector-isms.”

“That record wasn’t like anything else,” says Mike Hedges, responsible for the record’s astonishing “underwater” sound. “It was no-holds-barred. We used everything that was available to us to make it sound as unusual as possible. If you knew Billy, it was OK. Because he would say things like, ‘It’s got to sound like Abba meets Bet Lynch on acid,’ or ‘It must sound like after it’s been raining and the sun comes out,’ and I would instantly know exactly what he meant.

“It was a really enjoyable time. You had Billy, the best singer of the last 20 years, on the one hand, and his and Alan’s songs on the other, which were both avant-garde and pop, radical without remotely trying to sound radical…It was just them.”

“He was very meticulous,” says Peter Henderson, who worked with Billy in the mid-Eighties on the single, ‘Take Me To The Girl’. “He loved film music and he wanted everything to sound like some European soundtrack from the Sixties. And it had to sound expensive. That’s what he kept saying: ‘Can you make it sound expensive?'”

Alan Rankine has equally fond memories of Sulk.

“We knew it was good. We could feel it. The tracks were dripping. That’s what we wanted: for them to be thick. A shag that never stops with the most gorgeous person you’ve ever met.

“A typical rock song goes intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-middle-eight-chorus-outro,” Rankine expands. “We started with the climax. It was everything plus the kitchen sink from the off. Then we added more. It was mad music. I mean, we bugged the shit out of Hedges until we got the sound in our heads, but it worked.”

YOU CAN ALMOST LOCATE THE CAUSE OF Associates’ rapid demise in the very brilliance of Sulk. For Billy – who, Rankine is keen to stress, was “a great musician”, as involved in the actual nuts-and-bolts recording process as were Hedges and himself – perfectionism in his work arguably represented attempts to achieve control where, in life, this was not possible.

“He was obsessional in the studio,” says Steve Sutherland, “but he was never satisfied with the results. He was eternally disappointed. It’s the same as Brian Wilson – what these people carry round in their heads is unachievable. To them, everything sounds like a failure.”

True enough. As far as Billy was concerned, The Affectionate Punch was “just rubbish, a glorified demo”. As for Sulk, that was “a big moaning album, moaning about this, moaning about that”, his singing dismissed as “screeching hysterics, real hairdryer in the bathtub stuff”.

Things went fairly seriously awry when Billy, hopping between London and Scotland around the release of ’18 Carat Love Affair’ (a reworked version, plus vocals, of the instrumental, ‘nothingin-somethingparticular’, from Sulk), started blowing money he had been advanced by Warners – such as the clothing allowance for TV appearances – on his family, on suites at Claridges for his friends, or on his beloved whippets, from whom he was inseparable. In one typically extravagant gesture, he bought a convertible Mercedes, even though he couldn’t drive.

But then, both he and Alan had a tendency to overindulge. There were reports of Billy drinking three bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream for the hell of it, then puking up. One story, involving several grammes of cocaine and amphetamine sulphate, led to ambulancemen threatening to call the police, and resulted in the pair being put on heart machines for four days. And then, in August, ’82, on the eve of a major British tour and with Warners’ US boss, Seymour Stein, offering millions for an American deal, Billy decided he didn’t want to go on the road, effectively scuppering the chance to step up the campaign for world domination.

“Billy would do anything to torpedo his career,” says Peter Henderson, an opinion shared by Max Hole, then head of A&R at Warners. “He didn’t want to be part of what Joni Mitchell called the star-making machinery behind the pop success. Plus, he delighted in chaos. So he would disappear all the way up to Dundee, which, of course, really pissed Alan off.”

“Back in 1980, we were a rock band,” explains Alan Rankine, recalling the hard-gigging Affectionate Punch days when Associates were augmented by bassist Michael Dempsey and drummer John Murphy, before their contraction back to a duo. “We were four guys, dead basic, playing all the usual places. But Billy wanted a different route. He wanted to play in gay discos! Because rock’n’roll is a very macho thing, and that whole iconography turned him off. If you said, ‘Let’s go on a 48-date tour,’ he’d say, ‘Nah!'”

ASSOCIATES OFFICIALLY PARTED COMPANY IN 1983. Over the next few years, Alan Rankine travelled around Japan and San Francisco, finally ending up in Belgium, where he recorded two albums for Les Disques Du Crepuscule, The Day The World Became Her Age (1986) and The Big Picture Sucks (’89). Today, he lectures part-time in Music Business Studies at Glasgow’s Stow College, and composes teen-pop hits for, among others, boy band 911.

As for Billy Mackenzie, well, “Billy’s back” became almost as ubiquitous a music business catchphrase in the Eighties as “Brian’s back” had been for the former Beach Boy in the Seventies. When people – industry types, critics, fans, hell, even Andrew Lloyd Webber (who was rumoured to have offered Billy a multi-million pound deal) – uttered their annual cries of “Billy’s back”, it was almost as if, by sheer force of collective will, they would somehow drive Billy to summon up all that untapped potential and eclipse all those bigger stars with lesser talents.

And so Billy came back with a reformed Associates, minus Alan Rankine, in 1984 with ‘Those First Impressions’, for which he was rewarded with an invitation to Top Of The Pops even though it only charted at Number 43, an appearance which he sabotaged by singing a different melody to the rest of the band.

This comeback spilled over into ’85 with the release of the Perhaps LP, a fabulous though far more composed affair than Sulk, the recording of which was both difficult and protracted (there were several producers, including Martin Dare Rushent and Martyn Ware, with whom Billy had, in ’81, recorded a version of Bowie’s ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ for BEF’s Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume 1), rumours of tantrums and budgets being exceeded doing little to improve Billy’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with WEA.

There were also the parallel problems in his personal life, what he referred to as “the carnage of the Trainspotting heroin trip” he was on in London, where, apparently, he was living a hand-to-mouth existence in a squat, having seemingly squandered all his money (he was declared bankrupt in 1995).

“There was so much heroin going about,” he told me, and the contrast with the exotic young god on the sleeve of Sulk couldn’t be more stark. “So many friends and musicians had taken over Georgiana Street, in Camden, really heavy heroin stuff. There were a lot of deaths.”

BILLY CAME BACK AGAIN IN 1988 WITH A HI NRG version of Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’, which was designed to promote Associates’ fourth LP, The Glamour Chase, although the album was never released, either because Warners weren’t happy with it, or because it was never actually completed. Tapes of The Glamour Chase, apparently a critique of the fame game, surfaced over the next few years, and those who have heard it describe it as a lost classic.

A new decade saw Billy on a new label, Circa, for whom he recorded Wild And Lonely (1990) and Outernational (1992), the latter credited to Billy Mackenzie, but the records, though fine by anyone else’s standards, were largely ignored and sold poorly. There was even an attempted reunion with Alan Rankine, resulting in a series of recordings that, as ever, showed great promise. One track, ‘Stephen’, was reputed to be a reply to The Smiths’ ‘William It Was Really Nothing’, which itself was rumoured to have been written about Billy (mid-Eighties gossip suggested Morrissey and Mackenzie were having an affair).

The cries of “Billy’s back” were, by now, barely a whisper, although he did do several interviews. In one, he declared: “I’m not a tortured artist like Nick Cave, but sometimes the weight of suffering obliterates anything that’s uplifting.” In another, he was ebullient yet, he said, “I carry the hallmarks of a total manic depressive.” And in his last interview for half a decade, he declared: “At times, my life is like a beautiful painting, and then something will come along and tear a huge, great rip through the canvas.”

And then, silence. Until May, 1996, when a voice came on the phone at work. It was Billy, gushing forth details of his umpteen musical plans for the year. There were the collaborations with Apollo 440, Barry Adamson, Siobhan Fahey, Paul Haig, Michael Dempsey, with his flatmate, Steve Aungle (“Real Blood On The Tracks stuff”), with his younger brothers, possibly even with Yello, with whom Billy had recorded ‘The Rhythm Divine’ and ‘Moon On Ice’ in ’87. Then there were the pseudonymous outfits like Loom, Case, Eclectatronic, Winter Academy…

“I might just give them all the one name – The Atrociates!” he laughed, amused as always. “It’s all about musical freedom, and if anyone wants to pick up on any of it, fine. I’m not bothered if it misses or hits.”

Billy invited me to his flat to hear some demos, a visit that was to be postponed until August because of the shattering death, in July, of Lily Mackenzie. Ironically, the weekend before his mother died, Billy was seen flying about at the T In The Park festival, by all accounts the happiest he’d been for ages.

“It was the most enthusiastic I’d seen him for 10 years,” recalls Chris Carr, while Steve Sutherland couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Billy so high. “He was trying to get some acid,” he says. “The next time I saw him he was tripped out of his bonce. He said he’d spent the night with three Cuban boys, a really weird sexual night, although, of course, you never knew with Billy if he was telling the truth.”

When I finally went round to Billy’s basement flat along the Holland Road on August 13, he was still in good spirits, contemplating moving between Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Berlin, and telling me about a group of non-musicians – “inner-terrestrials,” he called them – he intended to teach from scratch.

He played me unfinished recordings of some new torch ballads and neo-techno tracks with appetite-whetting titles like ’14th Century Night-life’, ‘Consenting Holograms Have More Fun’, ‘Pornophobic’ and ‘Falling Out With The Future’. He and pianist Steve Aungle even put on a show in the living room, “Billy Unplugged”, memories of that ravishing BBC-televised Ronnie Scott’s performance flooding back. “I’ve got musical rabies,” he enthused. “There’s no energy sap at all.”

Within weeks, I received a call saying Billy had signed to Nude, the home of Suede, on the strength of those demos.

This time, Billy really was coming back.

OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS, THOUGH, BILLY somehow lost his lust for life.

Still devastated by his mother’s death, and suffering from a bout of flu, he headed for the hills of Scotland last Christmas.

Billy arrived at his father’s cottage in Auchterhouse, a mile outside Dundee, with a self-esteem book under his arm. John Dingwall believes he had gone home to make his peace with his father, after a period of turbulence.

“Billy told me he was feeling ‘washed up’ and ‘burnt out’,” James Mackenzie, 59, explained to Dingwall. “So I told him, ‘Come home, son, and have a rest.’ He didn’t like London.

“The night he arrived, I noticed he couldn’t settle or sleep. Instead, he spoke to me for hours, saying that he loved his family and his brothers and sisters. He said that he was tired and had no motivation left. He couldn’t even watch TV, and that just wasn’t Billy. He was rock bottom. But I didn’t realise quite what he meant at that point. I just gave him a wee hug and told him to take in the country air.”

On Tuesday, January 21, Billy walked his father’s dogs – a Pekinese, a cross terrier and a whippet – across some nearby fields. He left a note saying he had gone to Dundee with friends.

When he didn’t turn up at his uncle’s furniture store the following day, James began to worry. A neighbouring farmer had spotted Billy in the fields, a duvet pulled across his back for warmth. But, before he was within shouting distance, Billy turned back towards his father’s garden shed, where he kept his dogs.

It was the last time anybody saw Billy alive.

On Wednesday, January 22, James Mackenzie returned home wondering if his son was all right.

“I suspected there was something wrong,” said James, who immediately called friends and family in Edinburgh and London. “As the night wore on, something told me to look in the hut.

“I felt eerie as I went towards the shed. I found Billy lying there in a makeshift bed in the dogs’ house. He was wrapped in a duvet clutching a photo album. He had smoked half a cigarette yet he didn’t smoke. I felt his hands and went into a panic when I realised how cold he was. It was dark because there was no light in the shed.

“When I felt his brow, I panicked and started screaming.”

A neighbour heard James Mackenzie’s screams and telephoned the local Montrose police station. An ambulance crew arrived shortly before 11pm.

Beside Billy lay an empty bottle of Paracetemol, the contents of which had been mixed with a prescribed anti-depressant, Amitriptyline. There was a also a note, which simply said: ‘Sorry’.”

FOUR DAYS AFTER SIGNING A LUCRATIVE publishing deal with Sony, in an act of supreme remote control for a man of barely containable emotions, Billy Mackenzie took his life. Consumed with grief, James Mackenzie burned down the shed.

Chillingly, on the night of Billy’s suicide, Alan Rankine, who hadn’t seen Billy for three years, devoted several hours with friends to playing Associates records. The next day, he got the phone call.

“It was John Dingwall. He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I already knew what it was about. But I thought it would be a car crash. Never suicide. Billy was a highly strung guy, but he was resilient.”

Not just resilient, but charged with prodigious energy. Dingwall believes the anti-depressants that Billy had been taking served merely to “take away his personality. He became zombified”.

In the wake of Billy’s death, after the funeral in Dundee, at which the chosen hymn was ‘Amazing Grace’, just as it had been at Lily Mackenzie’s, and where there were people wailing in the streets, fans and friends could only speculate on what had happened.

Steve Sutherland spoke of Billy’s “God-given talent – but he virtually took the decision not to be a pop star, which is why he was in the wastelands of pop for nearly 15 years. He was frightened of success”. John Dingwall concurred: “He was all over the place, an enormous talent who wanted to do everything at once. He craved the fame, yet avoided it at all costs.”

Martin Fry of ABC, who had also “been in the wilderness”, recognised that “people are never as happy-go-lucky as they seem”. Martyn Ware of Heaven 17 zeroed in on “Billy’s demand for, not mass acceptance, but unconditional love for what he did”. Michael Dempsey said: “I wonder whether he didn’t feel as excited about the new music as he made out. He hated having to conform to the music business, but that’s what he had to do every time he signed a new record deal. He felt like a seal who had to go out on the rocks and clap for fish.” Nick Heyward, who suffered from paralysing depression for three years, could only empathise: “I know what depression is like. It’s like walking in on your girlfriend and seeing her being gang-raped. You feel like you’re never going to wake up not depressed ever again.”

AS FOR BILLY MACKENZIE, ALL THAT REMAINS is the promise of a worthy anthology of his work, to be co-ordinated by Nude, WEA, Circa and Alan Rankine, and with the mooted participation, in terms of sleevenotes, of one Bono Vox, who met Billy for the first time last year and was reported to have been blown away by him, confessing that he stole many of his ideas for the early U2 albums from Associates.

Finally, there is the hope that Billy’s extraordinary music will be discovered and reinvestigated well into the next century.

Sulk was a real liberation,” said Billy, as I left his flat on that bright August afternoon, proud of his masterpiece at last.

“It had the essence of what I’m about. I realised I could create my own sunshine. I think I was born happy and became very disillusioned. I couldn’t believe happiness could be taken away from me. Because sometimes I don’t want to be on this planet. And other times I want to be one of those smiley, happy people.”

© Paul LesterUncut, June 1997

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