❉ We’re asking, they’re answering: This week, writer, broadcaster and T-Rexpert, Mark Paytress.
Mark Paytress is the author of the critically acclaimed books Bolan: The Rise & Fall Of A 20th Century Superstar, BowieStyle and Break It Up: Patti Smith’s Horses & The Remaking of Rock’n’Roll.
A former writer and editor of ‘Record Collector’ and a long-standing contributor to MOJO magazine, Mark has also contributed to various television and radio programmes (‘Night Waves’, ‘Front Row’), and researched and presented two documentaries for BBC Radio 4, ‘Here’s Kenny’ about Kenny Everett, and ‘Stash: The Dandy Aesthete Of Swinging London’.
Mark has just written a new 10,000-word appraisal of Marc Bolan’s mid ’70s years for the forthcoming ‘Bolan’s Zip-Gun/Futuristic Dragon’ Deluxe Edition, which is released this Friday (3 March 2017) by Demon Records.
What were you like at school?
Lazy. Distracted. Top of the class for hair and platform boots.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Didn’t think that far ahead.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Education is not just for squares.
What are your best and worst qualities?
Best: I can while away entire days lost in idle thought.
Worst: I can waste entire days lost in idle thought.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Making sandwiches at a beach café. The head sandwich maker had a predilection for blowing his nose into fillings before wrapping the Cellophane.
Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?
Short trousers – Brian Jones, The Move’s Ace Kefford and Roy Wood. Steed and Mrs Peel. The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman.
Long trousers – Hendrix, Melanie, Helen Mirren, Hedy Lamarr, John Peel, Greta Garbo, Syd Barrett, Nico, Peter Wyngarde.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
Bob Hope’s face when feminists disrupted Miss World 1970. “Who are these bastards?”, he asks off-mike. With order restored, he re-emerges, anger barely concealed, and announces, “Those people must be on some kinda dope, ladies and gentlemen.” The audience erupt in wild agreement. Populism in action.
Monty Python: Is it funny?
Not a patch on Fawlty Towers.
What was the last film that you watched?
‘Sudden Fear’ (1952). Classic Hollywood suspense drama starring ‘Queen’ Joan Crawford, noir trouble Gloria Grahame and peculiar-faced Jack Palance.
What film could you watch every day?
‘Sunset Boulevard’. Everything about that film! I went to see Gloria Swanson at the NFT in 1980 for a televised Q&A, and came away with a signed autobiography and a sense of having been present at the final fade-out of first generation vintage Hollywood.
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
Komeda’s score for Polanski’s ‘Dance Of The Vampires’ (aka ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’) is both deliciously tender and terrifying.
Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?
Humphrey Bogart is blackmailing Greta Garbo. Gigolo Jack Lemmon gets in his way. Columbo sorts it out. Crime drama directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Which film, book or album last disappointed you the most?
I hated ‘Private Benjamin’ so much when it came out (1980) that it killed my interest in mainstream Hollywood forever.
Which album would you recommend and lend to a friend?
Let’s go with Scott Walker’s ‘Boy Child’ compilation. My most trusted companion since the ’90s.
Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’. Nothing else comes close.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
I’m still emotionally attached to Ian Gibson’s ‘A Shameful Life Of Salvador Dali’.
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
Given that everyone now owns at least one Velvet Underground album, I’ve absolutely no idea.
What are you reading at present?
John York’s ‘Into The Woods’, a book on storytelling. The Financial Times weekend edition. Private Eye. Collins’ Italian Grammar & Practice.
“Nick Kent was an early favourite. He wrote about musicians and bands I loved, and that was what mattered. Since then, I’ve seen so many broadsheet columnists turn to rot that I’ve been terrified of writing anything more personal for fear of being swallowed up by narcissism.”
When did you first decide that you wanted to be a rock writer as a career?
I never did. I simply saw a job going at Record Collector magazine late in 1985 and, goaded by a girlfriend’s mother, applied. It felt like a sell-out because I was pretty happy on the dole putting the world to rights and watching ‘The Price Is Right’ on Saturdays.
So how did your life in rock journalism begin and what inspired you to make a career out of it?
Career? I’ve always heeded Mark E Smith’s warning – “Don’t make a career out of it.” In many ways, I’m still a history undergraduate – only now it’s essays on rock rebels rather than the rise of Fascism or Soviet revolutionaries.
Which other writers have inspired you over the years?
Nick Kent was an early favourite. He wrote about musicians and bands I loved, and that was what mattered. Since then, I’ve seen so many broadsheet columnists turn to rot that I’ve been terrified of writing anything more personal for fear of being swallowed up by narcissism.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
The esteemed rock journalist Phil Sutcliffe once recommended a piece written by Gay Talese for Esquire in 1966, Frank Sinatra Has A Cold. It was a revelation, a masterclass in magazine journalism and celebrity profiling, that told me things about Sinatra that most biographers would miss.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your work/life?
Flaubert changed everything: “Wrote three sentences today. A successful day.” The joyful part of a writer’s life is to wrestle with the material – on walks, on the BlackBerry, at the dinner table, in the moments before sleeping. The agony begins when you sit at the desk and try to turn all those revelatory thoughts and good intentions into publishable prose.
Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?
The interview process grants you access on a roughly level playing-field. That feels like a safe space to me, both as a professional and as an adult, so I’ve had few problems meeting people whose faces once used to stare down at me from my bedroom walls. That said, I met both Beefheart and Nico during my star-struck teenage years, and I still cherish that feeling of having once communed with gods. Can (Holger Czukay excepted) weren’t so kindly disposed to eager schoolboys, though!
“Bolan’s work is still so life-affirming and contemporary sounding – unlike so much of the music of his sniffy contemporaries. No one looked or sounded like him. As Morrissey once told me, he was true.”
You wrote the first in-depth biography of Marc Bolan; what was that like to work on, was it challenging?
Absolutely. I was exhilarated and at the same time scared shitless by the sense of responsibility. Bolan’s life hadn’t been told in any great depth before, and his reputation was in danger of falling into disrepair. I researched and wrote the book while working at a rock magazine during the daytimes. As a consequence, it was hastily written. The 2005 rewrite (‘Bolan: The Rise & Fall Of A 20th Century Superstar’) was far more thorough – and readable.
This year will be 40 years since Marc’s death, and indeed 70 years since he was his born. What is the enduring appeal of Marc Bolan?
His work is still so life-affirming and contemporary sounding – unlike so much of the music of his sniffy contemporaries. Bolan was as obsessed with fame as everyone is today – with one big difference: he was self-made and unique. He didn’t come off any star-making factory line. No one looked or sounded like him. As Morrissey once told me, he was true.
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
Pressing ‘Send’. Age has brought with it two terrible curses – procrastination and perfectionism.
What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?
The next job. You can always do better.
You’re currently spending a lot of time abroad. Can you tell us a little about that?
Yes. Post-Brexit, my girlfriend woke up to discover that her job had been shifted overseas, so we’ve been spending time in more hospitable climes. Not that I’m complaining. The southern European lifestyle suits me.
Do you have any upcoming projects? How can our readers discover more about you and you work?
I do. But I’m learning to keep my mouth shut! Regarding the work, well, the books are still out there, while reviews, interviews and feature writing are best sourced in issues of MOJO stretching back to the late 90s.
Thanks for taking time out to chat with us, Mark!
❉ ‘Bolan’s Zip Gun / Futuristic Dragon deluxe edition’ will be released by Demon Music Group on 3 March 2017.
❉ You can follow Mark on Twitter: @paytress