Can’t Get There From Here

Alistair Fitchett on ‘The Tastemaker’ by Tony King. Published by Faber and Faber.

Do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? Tony King does this in ‘The Tastemaker’, wondering at the end of the book how his young self in Eastbourne, hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for the first time, could possibly believe the way in which the/his future was about to unfurl. A life spent living the rock’n’roll dream, yet doing so essentially under the radar. A life lived with the likes of Elton John, The Rolling Stones and John Lennon. Fairy tales are more believable.

To say that ‘The Tastemaker’ is a memoir is something of a red herring, for really it is a scattershot mix of moments clipped from the dipping wings of memory; anecdotes stitched together into some semblance of chronological narrative form. To say that it barely hangs together as a book is a criticism only in so much as one gets the distinct feeling that the written word is by far the least effective medium for Tony King to be sharing these escapades and observations. They read like short bursts of excited, barely connected slippages of time. You can almost hear the gaps between the paragraphs being filled with King taking a moment before saying “and then there was the time when…” or “did I ever tell you about…” and off again in a breathless charge into the sequinned spangle of the past. There is a definite sense that ‘The Tastemaker’ would be best experienced as a series of meetings in an exclusive club where the clientele are the holograms or 22nd Century avatars of the “legends and geniuses of rock music” whose life King has shared. A club where you might be thrilled beyond belief to have been invited to but in which, after a little while, you are not entirely certain you would like to stay for the long haul.

I have long had a problem with the notion of ‘genius’. It seems to me that not only is it often so easily bandied about as to be meaningless, but it also diminishes the very qualities that make individuals successful. Leaving aside the complexities of defining ‘success’, it strikes me that the term ‘genius’ infers some ineffable natural quality that in turn effectively masks the requirement for hard work to turn that quality into something worthwhile. The mediation of ‘geniuses’ perpetuates this mythology, but that is part of the role of the Entertainment Industry after all. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The man who, in many instances throughout the 1960s and certainly the 1970s, was Tony King. Working as hard as the artists he was promoting and having almost as much of a ball whilst doing so. Perhaps more so, since he would be all but invisible outside of the rarified circles he mixed in. ‘Celebrity’ must be a curse in many respects, but such is the price.

‘The Tastemaker’, however, is hardly a book to fully lift the curtain of Oz and reveal the grubby inner workings. Such an action would surely be entirely alien to Tony King, a man whose loyalty and common courtesy emanate graciously from the pages just as effectively as does his devotion to the music he felt driven to worship and serve. There are far too many extraordinary anecdotes in the book to single out any for particular note but all of them reverberate gloriously with a warmth and presence that encapsulates the era in which they take place. Historical details contextualise everything in a marvellous flickery haze, like watching home movies in a living room clouded by smoke rather than the blockbusters of the time in cavernous cinemas. Or, to put it in musical terms, like having Elton John perform ‘Your Song’ in your front room rather than in Madison Square Garden. There is an illusory intimacy that is surely not altogether accidental. It might be a glimpse behind a curtain, but there is too an implicit understanding that there is more hidden somewhere else. Curtains cloaking curtains. Rooms within rooms. As I said, fairy tales seem more real than this. We love to suspend belief, or at least to edit our gaze.

Reading ’The Tastemaker’ it is tempting to wonder whether the times for the likes of John Lennon, Elton John, The Rolling Stones or Tony King might ever truly come again. Do these ‘legends’ belong to a distinct moment in time when Popular Culture was globally homogenised to the balancing point where shared experience was at its peak? A point from where it teetered precariously for the merest blink of an eye before plunging into the maelstrom of a torrent where distinct streams became ever more fractured and where ‘global’ recognition became lessened and shorn of value? Or is that just me projecting my own experience? Out of touch, clueless and blissfully so. Perhaps someone will write a similar book in time where names like Ed Sheeran will reverberate with the same qualities as Lennon and Jagger. And fair play if they do. Whatever…

So do you ever stand in your younger self’s shoes, glance into the future and wonder how on earth you got there from here? My own younger self would surely, like Tony King, gaze on my own unfurling future and think “what the hell…?” In turn I think the same when glancing in the rearview mirror. Head shakes. Discomfort and disbelief. No regrets, but still. Fuck sake.

There is none of this in ‘The Tastemaker’ but you have to think there is at least the possibility such moments might have passed. Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s just another one of those traits of ‘successful’ people. One of the elements that make up ‘genius’. Don’t look back. And if you do, ignore the leering unpleasantness you might see there. At most, add a faint wash of sorrow and a hint of gracious regret that is always qualified with “but what could I do?” Mostly though, celebrate the magic, the beauty and the value of the friendships. That and the love of the cats that you meet on the way…





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