Dolly Parton and Harry Dean Stanton are both in this month’s Uncut, a bit of a dream come true. I was scheduled to interview Dolly once myself, at a rodeo in Spokane, which seemed too good to be true.
This was September 1978 and there was only one catch. As part of a junket put together by RCA, I’d have to go to Los Angeles first to also interview Al Stewart, the British songwriter who’d moved to California a few years earlier and has since had worldwide success with a number of hits including “Year Of The Cat”.
What I don’t mention to RCA is that I’ve played a small part in Al’s exile. A few years earlier during a very stoned interview with Roy Harper we end up making a list of all the wimpy singer-songwriters we mutually abhor, the kinds who write really wet songs, that a passing BP Fallon then christens ‘Drip Rock’. I then pen an article for Melody Maker taking the piss out of these strumming confessional troubadours, with Al coming in for some fierce treatment. He apparently reads the article and is so upset he packs his bags and heads for California, possibly without leaving a note for his mum.
Anyway, we’re no sooner booked into the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel – the Hotel California of Eagles legend – when I begin to feel very ill, spending the night before we’re due to drive up to Al’s place in Laurel Canyon wracked by heavy-duty coughing, sweats and chills. The next morning I’m coughing blood to boot. Suave RCA press officer Robin Eggar wonders if I’m actually well enough to interview Al. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him I’m fine, but off we go, the UK press posse soon agog at the vertiginous beauty of Laurel Canyon, where Al lives in some splendour.
I’m the first one to Al’s front door, a big oak thing with wrought-iron inlays. It’s the kind of door you want to rap robustly, but all I can muster is a feeble tap. The door opens, however, and there’s Al, looking tanned and wealthy. “Hi, I’m Al,” he beams, holding out a hand. I reach out to take it and am vaguely aware of the look of surprise on Al’s face when I pitch forward, falling with a crash through his front door. I’m aware of footsteps running up the wooden stairs behind me, people leaning over me and then a terrible hush, a graveyard quiet, the keen anticipation of people somewhat regrettably preparing to deal with an unexpected tragedy, a colleague snatched from them by whim or feckless fate. I then pass out. The next thing I hear is birdsong and lapping water. Am I in some benevolent ante-room of heaven, surrounded by fountains, seraphim and much cooing in the afterlife’s verdant foliage? No, actually I’m in Al’s garden, stretched out on a recliner by the side of his pool, sunlight coming through overhanging trees.
Al arranges for me to see his own doctor, who tells me I have viral pneumonia. This means I’m pretty seriously fucked, can’t travel, will miss the interview with Dolly and must take to my bed at the hotel.
After four or five days, I’m going out of my fucking mind and stroll down Sunset Strip to the Rainbow Bar & Grill, where I have my first drink in what seems a lifetime, following it with several more. By the time I leave I’m a little drunk. Out in the parking lot, there’s dust in the air, headlights sweeping through the night and someone I immediately recognise standing there looking baffled and possibly tipsy.
Before I know it, I’m walking towards him, hand outstretched.
“Harry Dean Stanton!” I shout in a bizarre hail-fellow-well-met bellow, startling myself.
“Harry Dean Stanton?” he says, giving me a squinty little look. “Hell of a coincidence, kid,” he says. “That’s my name, too.”
And with that, a car pulls up beside him, he fall backwards into the passenger seat and roars off into the night, one arm waving out the window as the car disappears around a corner and he’s gone, baby, gone.