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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Pop Star

By
Essay | 17 minute read
Terence Trent D’Arby, Chris Difford and Miki Berenyi talk to the journalist Nick Duerden about music, fame, and fame's aftermath

On the most recent album by the recording artist Sananda Maitreya, 2017’s Prometheus and Pandora, there are no fewer than fifty-three songs. One of them stands out for its title alone: ‘Limp Dick Blues’. ‘I’m a fellow who likes to drink and smoke,’ Maitreya sings with all the mournful intonations of a lovelorn balladeer. ‘It used to once hang down to the tops of my shoes/But now all I’ve got is these limp dick blues.’

It hardly needs saying that this is unusual territory for singers, even the most confessional. You can hardly imagine Mick Jagger admitting to similar in song, and nor could you 80s pop adonis Terence Trent D’Arby, which is who Sananda Maitreya used to be before Maitreya killed D’Arby off in the mid-1990s in pursuit of both reinvention and peace of mind.

But then Maitreya is no longer a globe-straddling superstar singing songs to make the masses swoon, and so if he now wants to write paeans to erectile problems, then no one is going to stop him. Today, the fifty-seven-year-old former pop icon is living in apparent contentedness with his Italian wife and young family, and is singing his songs, his way.

The question of whether anyone is listening any more is a pertinent one. Maitreya has just 2,700 monthly Spotify listeners, while D’Arby has almost three quarters of a million. This is unimportant, he will tell you. Doesn’t matter. Maitreya has reached the stage in his career – The Obscure Years, you might call them – where he can do whatever the hell he likes.

This is of course true of every erstwhile pop star. They can do whatever the hell they like, even if in a vacuum. They are like the trees that fall silently in the forest, but fall all the same.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

It isn’t easy being a career pop star. You sell millions of records, yes, but you live your life within the unflinching glare of the spotlight, and forever on the receiving end of that most corrosive of twenty-first-century public compulsions: voiced opinion. There are so many demands made upon you, so many endless intrusions, all those casual cruelties lobbed like poisoned arrows. Being Madonna, Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams or Kylie Minogue comes at a cost. There is likely good reason why Keith Richards has numbed himself with narcotics for so much of his professional life. And who can blame Roger Daltrey for retreating to his trout farm, or Enya – the recipient of much stalker attention – to her Irish castle?

And not only do we all continue to be fascinated by them – the biggest pop headline this year is ‘Madonna at sixty’ – but every single emerging pop star is, too, and wants precisely what they have: perpetual popularity, irrespective of the side effects.

The thing is, very few of them get what Madonna has. For most everybody else, fame is a finite, fleeting thing. Blink, and it’s gone. The spotlight fades, the Radio 1 playlist begins to ignore you. Fans un-Blu-Tack posters from the wall and download songs by somebody else instead. Even the stalkers stop stalking eventually.

Some accept this and rest either in peace or in pieces, but most are left furious by their own passing. They don’t just miss the money, they miss the glory, the fawning, the elevated importance. When you have become used to being extraordinary, a sense of injustice comes with the relegation to mere ordinary. Job hunting – for ‘normal’ jobs – is a humbling experience, and a key factor, perhaps, in why the nostalgia circuit thrives, it being to pop stars what panto is to yesterday’s actors: a lifeline.

I have spent years interviewing pop stars. They mostly lived up to their billing, being reliably wonderful and reliably kooky, often humane, frequently obnoxious. Theirs were personalities not easily contained; you couldn’t imagine them ever commuting for a nine-to-five. And so when their careers were stalled by incoming Next Big Things, they took it badly. Things got dark, they festered.

Like Miss Havisham, they didn’t move on. Cobwebs formed.

I’ve interviewed them on their way up, then at the top of their career, and then again on the way down. It’s while they are negotiating the descent that they are at their most fascinating, their most flesh-and-blood.

We will all have to renegotiate the parameters of our ambition at some point in our lives, but singers of pop songs find it harder than most.

Why?

Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash

Before he became a chauffeur for Bryan Ferry and, later, a wet nurse to Marti Pellow, Chris Difford was a songwriter of some repute, the Paul McCartney to singer Glenn Tilbrook’s John Lennon in Squeeze – unless he was the John Lennon to Glenn Tilbrook’s Paul McCartney. Squeeze very much existed in that kind of dynamic: two creative leads, both trying to outdo the other. Sparks flew.

When fame first hit in 1978, Difford was still young, barely out of his teens. It was, he admits, discombobulating for a south London working-class lad. ‘Yes, but we were never like Duran Duran, could never afford to go around on yachts, and so we never fully managed to step out of the real world into the shiny pop star one,’ he says. ‘Probably for the best, really. I don’t think I would have handled it well.’

Nevertheless, Difford did go on to develop quite a taste for life’s finer things: fast cars, trips on Concorde. Their run of hits included ‘Cool For Cats’, ‘Up The Junction’, ‘Tempted’ and ‘Labelled with Love’, elevating them towards national treasure status, but Difford’s private life suffered accordingly: there were divorces, addictions, depression, fleeting suicidal ideation. He lived in big country piles, then in small one-bedroom flats. The band ended. He’d wake up wondering: ‘Didn’t I used to be someone?’

By the early 1990s, stricken at the prospect of what to do with the rest of his life, his manager put him in touch with Bryan Ferry, whom Difford had idolised as a child. He was ostensibly to work with the former Roxy Music frontman as ‘lyric doctor’. But Ferry never properly read the memo.

Bryan Ferry, a cheek-boned connoisseur of everything that is fine and expensive, loved art, and loved attending auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, chequebook in hand. Increasingly, he would ask Difford to drive him there. Difford, unaware of the etiquette when dealing with music icons clearly taking the piss, found himself agreeing.

‘He’d dive out to look at paintings while I would sit in the car at the curb with the radio on,’ Difford writes in his memoir, Some Fantastic Place. ‘All I needed was the chauffeur’s hat. I mentioned this in passing to Bryan, and he went to Jermyn Street and bought me one. The gesture,’ he concludes, ‘would have been funny if it weren’t so loaded.’

It would take Difford years to find his comfort zone in his post-pop star world. Subsequent lyric doctoring for Marti Pellow, formerly of Wet Wet Wet, reaped little fruit. He didn’t want to join another band, and could never muster sufficient steam to go solo, either.

Ultimately, his life contracted until, with age, a certain mellowing took place, and he grew nostalgic for what he once had. Turns out, Tilbrook was nostalgic too. They buried the hatchet, and got back together. All bands do, eventually.

‘These days,’ the sixty-four-year-old says, ‘neither Glenn nor I feel the need to do anything other than just to be who we are, the two guys who formed Squeeze.’

When we speak, Squeeze, now reformed for the umpteenth time, have just announced an autumn tour. Despite no accompanying new album, the dates – on both sides of the Atlantic, he points out – have mostly sold out.

‘That feels like a success,’ he says. ‘And such a relief. We’re grateful for it. Really, we are.’

Photo by John Matychuk on Unsplash

Terence Trent D’Arby never had a band in the first place to regroup. But then he never needed one. In 1987, the man was a heady brew of Michael Jackson, James Brown and Sam Cooke – voice, hips, looks. He carried it all off with such effortless perfection you might have imagined him concocted by scientists; the first test-tube pop star, perhaps. He sang songs like ‘If You Let Me Stay’, ‘Sign Your Name’ and ‘Wishing Well’, each lithe and virile – and light-years away from limp dicks. He was uncommonly beautiful, like Elvis in youth. His debut album, The Hardline According to… sold a million copies in three days, and would go on to sell eight million more.

But D’Arby’s talent was of the compulsive kind. Like Prince, he wanted to indulge his artistry, and wasn’t easily tamed or restrained. Two more albums followed, 1989’s Neither Fish nor Flesh and Symphony or Damn in 1993, both of which were experimental and not particularly radio-friendly. His astonishing fame astonishingly evaporated, and at the age of twenty-seven he found himself washed up, cruelly forgotten. Meantime, Lenny Kravitz had arrived on the scene; he’d do.

Much later, D’Arby would blame the recording industry for turning on him, suggesting that the presiding superstars of the day (the aforementioned Michael Jackson and Prince among them) weren’t keen on the amount of attention this young buck was getting. And so the industry, at least the way he saw it, conspired to silence him.

Realising there was no way back to his lofty peak, he sought instead a different path, one notionally draped in normality. He moved to Italy, and married an architect, settled down, and waited. At the turn of the new century, now going by the name Sananda Maitreya, he began releasing music again, material even more experimental and boundary-pushing than before. Expose yourself to it online – there’s a lot of it – and it’s fascinating, unwieldy stuff, all over the shop in the most provocative of fashions. He remains in thrilling voice throughout.

Maitreya rarely gives interviews, seemingly mistrustful of The Machine that once conspired to destruct him. When he does accept my request, I’m told that he prefers to talk via email. This never works well in either principle or practice, but the man who releases fifty-three-song albums turns out to be as verbose on paper as he is in the studio. The maverick spirit that lit up Terence Trent D’Arby like a firework clearly hasn’t been dampened in the intervening years. There remains no one quite like him.

He tells me that the moment he first heard the Beatles, aged two, he knew he was destined to be musical. ‘Music is my true mother. I was born to sing.’

The night John Lennon was killed, D’Arby, then eighteen, had a dream that Lennon walked into his body. After that, it was only a matter of time. ‘I wanted adulation and got it,’ he says, adding: ‘but I had to die to survive it.’

He is more phlegmatic about the end of his career now than he was then. ‘All nightmares begin as a dream,’ he reasons, ‘so in order to lure you deeper into the forest, the dream has to offer sweet enticements.’ In other words: success, glory. ‘[But] once lost inside the forest, the real fireworks begin, and the nightmare portion sets up shop [to] run the business.’

He suggests that most superstars don’t survive that nightmare, and he’s right: Michael Jackson, Prince and George Michael are no longer here. Maitreya is. I ask him whether life remains difficult for him. ‘Yes, but were our lives not difficult, we wouldn’t be able to reach as many people. So “difficult” comes in handy.’

Since his reinvention, Maitreya has written over 250 songs. He still tours regularly, mostly in Europe, and his creativity continues to run rampant. But, I say, the fact that his fame is a sliver of what it once was must hurt?

His response is impeccably measured, and freighted with reason. ‘I do not proceed through life as I perceive others would have me be. I proceed as I am. That time worked well for its age [but] I was grateful to move on from a period of such excess and artifice. I am still driven by the work, but just as much by the need to stay sane.’

Many might well feel inspired to follow his lead.

Photo by Blaz Photo on Unsplash

If Squeeze didn’t have the kind of success that Duran Duran did, then Lush didn’t manage a glimmer of Squeeze’s. They were not chart regulars, never soundtracked TV ads for the new Citroen Picasso. Steve Wright doesn’t routinely reach for their few hits during his Radio 2 afternoon slot. But back in the early 1990s, these proponents of the shoe-gazing scene – pale and befringed guitar bands crippled by shyness and turned on by discordant guitar noise – were making waves in the weekly music magazines, and being fawned over accordingly. If this particular short-lived scene was hamstrung by its paucity of breakout front-women and -men (ten points if you can name the lead singer of Ride; 150 points if you can do likewise with the fellow who fronted Chapterhouse), then Lush’s Miki Berenyi stood out a mile, and not just because of her dyed, flame-red hair.

‘I was always told off for being too opinionated, for swearing too much,’ Berenyi says now, sucking on an e-cigarette and, you sense, missing the fact that she can no longer blow smoke rings. ‘I very early on realised that, when the press came to interview me, they wanted to meet “Miki from Lush”, not the real-life Miki, who might just have been a bit sleepy and boring that day…’

The passing of years has not dented her personality, and when we meet on an overcast June morning in central London, she gives me a masterclass on what being ‘Miki from Lush’ was all about. Half-Hungarian and half-Japanese, the unruly product of a private school education (‘which I fucking hated’), Berenyi only ever wanted to be famous because she thought it might make her more popular, less lonely, with fewer spots.

Lush sounded not unlike Cocteau Twins with a migraine (in a good way), and released albums between 1992 and 1996. They were occasional visitors to Top of the Pops, and became increasingly feted in America, where it seemed music fans thrilled to being slightly discomfited by female-fronted bands. Berenyi enjoyed the attention at first, and then grew to loathe it.

‘At first it’s nice,’ she says, ‘it’s fun. It’s fun seeing a fourteen-year-old girl’s jaw drop when you walk into your local off-licence and she recognises you, just as it’s nice when you go off on your first ever UK tour, your first ever US tour. But pretty soon it’s: “Oh no, we’re in fucking Leeds again!” And you realise you’re bored, and you hate each other, and you turn into an arsehole.

‘And if you have any kind of addiction tendencies – alcohol, sex, drugs – then they really come to the fore when you’re far from home, far from friends. I drank a lot, and I was such a fucking slut.’

By the mid-1990s, the British music scene was about to be swallowed whole by a ravenous Britpop, rendering acts like Lush irrelevant. Berenyi panicked: what to do next? The only member in her band she was still talking to was drummer Chris Acland, a deadpan and charming man with an easy manner. The others, she couldn’t stand. Logic would have seen them breaking up because they’d had their day. But when has logic had any say in such matters?

In the end, their fate was decided for them in the most dreadful way. In 1996, Acland blindsided everybody by killing himself. ‘The single worst thing that has ever happened to me,’ Berenyi says.

There was no coming back from this. Berenyi comprehensively withdrew, cutting all ties with everyone, and closing the door on the world.

‘I couldn’t even go to gigs any more, because that would just remind me of Chris, and I’d end up weeping in the toilets.’ Her absence from the scene soon lost her friendships. ‘That’s because I was no longer “Miki from Lush”; I’d lost currency.’ She flashes teeth. ‘Fuck ‘em.’

A year later, she was teaching English to the children of immigrant families in her local library. ‘I never had a problem with it; I liked it,’ she says, shrugging. ‘I’d have quite happily worked as a cleaner, to be honest. I’ve never been afraid of proper work, and I could never understand why other former musicians are. Who do they think they are?’

She mentions several now, off the record, and how so many, even in their own reduced circumstances, still refuse to seek work, to join the horde. Musical geniuses, it seems, are not compatible with employment agencies. ‘I just want to say to all of them: get off your fucking high horse,’ she says witheringly.

Berenyi became a sub-editor, working for any magazine and website that didn’t focus on music. ‘No desire to sub articles on anything music-related, absolutely none.’ She says she enjoys the work, is friendly with her colleagues, even those that can’t quite believe they are sitting next to someone whose autograph once had currency.

‘I don’t really understand that mentality,’ she says. ‘It’s not like we’re a different species.’

And yet in some small way, she is, because they – performers – are. Like vampires, they never really die. In 2007, her former band members tentatively sounded her out for a possible reunion. Money was to be made, particularly in America, they said, where history had looked favourably upon shoegazers. Berenyi was tempted, but not tempted enough. She had young children at home, and a busy day job. She said no. But the invitation came again two years ago. Now that her children are older, and Berenyi herself is fifty-two, she found herself thinking: why not?

She laughs. ‘But I asked around first, of course I did!’ One friend, a singer of similar vintage, told her to go for it, that getting the band back together can be a wonderful thing. Another warned her not to do it for the money. ‘Do it for the money, he told me, and it’ll be a disaster.’

Ultimately, she did it for her kids, and for those new friends who never knew the old her. ‘And I have to tell you, I fucking loved it! When we played the Roundhouse in London, it was full of people from my primary school governing body – and I got to give a big shout out to my son’s form teacher! That was really nice.’

But the thrill was to prove fleeting. The band soon fell out again, the reasons sufficiently complicated to now concertina her face into a frown. ‘They don’t talk to me anymore,’ she says, sneering.

But a fire had been relit, and so the inevitable happened: she formed another band. Piroshka comprises members from other Nineties acts (including Elastica and Moose), and they exist strictly part-time, releasing the occasional EP, playing live whenever the mood takes. She says she loves it.

‘I’m doing it for the right reasons, by which I mean not for fame, because at my age fame is never going to come knocking again. I’ve no delusions.’

Running a band remains a complicated business. ‘It can be a pain in the arse sometimes, and requires a lot of effort, and I have to take time off from work occasionally, which is difficult. But when we’re up there on stage, in front of a crowd, we’re just grinning away at one another, realising how much we always loved this. We love it the way we always did, and I suppose we always will.’

When I’d asked Sananda Maitreya the same question, why he continues to make music today, he answered in much the same fashion, albeit with more purple prose. When you’ve had the thrill of being cheered, adored and applauded, nothing else in life comes close. If you walk away from it, it calls you back.

‘I miss the unbridled bold naked stupidity of youth’s vibrant electric hubris,’ Maitreya said.

A yearning shared by anyone who ever straddled a microphone, and opened their mouths to sing.

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