Chris Rea

From in­dus­try sharks to can­cer and strokes, noth­ing can sink Chris Rea. Rock’s great sur­vivor looks on the bright side of life.

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Henry Yates

Rock’s great sur­vivor on in­dus­try sharks, strokes, can­cer and why he’s earned the right to sing the blues.

Few ex­pe­ri­ences in life are more hu­mil­i­at­ing than splut­ter­ing up the drive­way of Chris Rea’s coun­try pile in a de­crepit Seat Al­tea. The vet­eran blues­man’s home is a trove of au­to­mo­bile porn: a gleam­ing Fer­rari, a pris­tine Cater­ham 620, rac­ing over­alls, press clip­pings of Rea him­self burn­ing up the track. It’s be­com­ing ap­par­ent why he wrote Road Songs For Lovers, his new semi-con­cept al­bum, on which he ad­mits that he finds peace only be­hind the wheel.

“I love it,” he says with a twin­kle, that bur­nished face crin­kling into a wal­nut. “I al­ways have. I don’t know why. How do you ex­plain love?”

Rea looks good, all things con­sid­ered. Last week he had an MRI scan, the lat­est two-step in the 66-year-old’s long-stand­ing dance with ab­dom­i­nal can­cer. It turns out there are other ail­ments afoot.

“I had a stroke in the au­tumn,” he re­veals.

“Boy, that was a big shock. When I first got home I couldn’t play slide guitar. It was hor­rific. Very scary mo­ment. I couldn’t play F ma­jor 7th. I got it into my head that my per­cep­tion of pitch had gone with the stroke. And it took a lot of con­vinc­ing from peo­ple say­ing there’s noth­ing wrong with what you’re play­ing. I’m get­ting it back now, hope­fully, for the tour.”

You’d defy any­one to de­tect an is­sue on Road Songs. Rea’s sup­ple, dex­trous slide work is the fairy dust on these bluesy songs of open-road es­capism, his desert-dry vo­cal wrap­ping them in parch­ment. He recorded his parts here, in his home stu­dio.

“They have to drag al­bums off me,” he says.

“If you’re not care­ful, you just pol­ish. And that’s a weak­ness of mine. Be­cause I don’t have a big ego. I don’t think I’m any good, re­ally. I’d love to play some­thing and think: ‘Yep, that’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” but I never do.”

He’s proud of these songs, though. Apart from the sin­is­ter trudge of Last Train, it’s easy to cast this al­bum as a love let­ter to cars, the sec­ond great pas­sion of Rea’s when he was younger.

“You’re a lit­tle boy in Mid­dles­brough,” he re­flects. “There are no colours, noth­ing glam­orous. Ev­ery­thing is black and white. Then you’re stood with your dad and a Ger­man rac­ing car goes past you at 180 miles an hour. Even if it did that now it would be in­cred­i­ble. Imag­ine the rel­a­tive per­cep­tion in 1956.

“They’re not an in­dul­gence,” he stresses of his col­lec­tion of cars. “I’m a proper rac­ing driver. I’ve got an in­ter­na­tional C li­cence. I race a 1957 Mor­ris 1000 po­lice car. It’s not ex­actly a Lam­borgh­ini, is it? But I adore it. I’m an anorak. It’s about the en­gine, all that. It’s not about sta­tus. The Cater­ham will be my last car. It’s the heroin of car ad­dicts. Nick Ma­son [Pink Floyd drum­mer and fel­low petrol­head] once said to me: ‘You don’t have to take drugs to be an ad­dict,’ y’know?”

Aren’t cars stereo­typ­i­cal things for a rock star to write songs about?

“I’m not a rock star!” Rea puffs, in­dig­nant. “There have been mo­ments when I wish I was. When I see a Fer­rari 250 GTO and it’s go­ing for twenty-five mil­lion pounds, for about ten sec­onds I wish I was a rock star. It’s very dif­fi­cult to be a rock star. When I’ve met peo­ple who are rock stars, they’re fo­cused like you wouldn’t be­lieve. They’re both­ered about their hair. They’re con­stantly hav­ing some­thing done to their face. How you look and how you sound is ev­ery­thing. It’s nar­cis­sis­tic. I’m not.”

“I had a stroke in the au­tumn. When I got home I couldn’t play slide guitar.”

Fame has al­ways re­pelled him, Rea re­minds me. Dig­ging his heels in all the way, his re­luc­tant as­cent be­gan with his 1978 hit Fool (If You Think It’s Over), which he de­spised, and when the real cir­cus be­gan he was in too deep to walk away. “I signed a record con­tract that was the only one avail­able to me at the time. I signed with the wrong record com­pany for what I wanted to do, and I’ve been play­ing catch-up ever since.

“When I did The Old Grey Whis­tle Test, the other band that was on with me was Dire Straits. I knew that day that that was what I should be do­ing. But it was too late. If Mark Knopfler had asked me to join them that night, I would have. And I would have gone to court with my record com­pany. But I don’t think my record com­pany would have let me go. They’d have let me starve rather than let me go. Be­cause some­body in Los An­ge­les had told the head of my record com­pany: ‘Never let that boy go.’ It was quite sin­is­ter when you look back. “When some­one said: ‘If you’re do­ing that TV gig, you’ve got to wear a leather jacket,’ I should have just said no to all that. But then I mightn’t have got this far. You’re con­stantly jug­gling what you want to do and what you have to do.

“We had all this when I went back to the blues. They all shit them­selves. What they didn’t re­alise is that Chris Rea fans like that. That’s the bit they like, bet­ter than the pop­pier side or try­ing to have a hit sin­gle. One Ger­man jour­nal­ist for a rock mag­a­zine said: ‘The best thing you can ever see is a Chris Rea sound-check, be­cause they’re just groov­ing and play­ing.’ They used to have to get us off stage: ‘For fuck’s sake, we’re open­ing the doors.’ We’re play­ing away, happy as pigs in shit – be­cause we love it.”

Last time we met, you said that the fallout from fame left you bad-tem­pered and ag­gres­sive.

“Ter­ri­bly ag­gres­sive. Y’know, I was four times a week at the gym and I was six­teen and a half stone. And fear­ful and para­noid that some twat was gonna take me back to the old pop record days. I be­came hor­ren­dously para­noid. There’s noth­ing to be para­noid about any more.”

Aren’t you wary of Road Songs be­com­ing a hit and the whole cy­cle start­ing again? “I don’t think we are. All through the spring

I was say­ing to my man­ager: ‘John, prom­ise me this. When it doesn’t hap­pen, just stay calm. I don’t want any fuck­ing get­ting drunk and hav­ing fights.’

“One of the things I’ve no­ticed is that I don’t think peo­ple care if you bring a new record out or not. When you go to Har­ley Street, all the doc­tors’ names are on brass plates, and un­der­neath it tells you what they do. Well, that’s what we are. You’ve got ‘Mark Knopfler: Money For Noth­ing, Sul­tans Of Swing’. Doesn’t mat­ter what else he does, that’s his brass plate. ‘Chris Rea: Road To Hell, On The Beach, Driv­ing Home For Christ­mas’. If I made a triple

al­bum of the world’s best-ever mu­sic, bet­ter than Beethoven, they’d still want On The Beach.” Does that re­al­i­sa­tion hurt fa­mous mu­si­cians? “It hurts ac­cord­ingly to the size of your ego. The big­ger the ego, the big­ger the hurt. We’re all brass plates. I mean, El­ton John brought a fab­u­lous al­bum out last year with the Amer­i­can pro­ducer [T Bone Bur­nett]. There won’t be one per­son at the next twenty thou­sand El­ton John con­certs that will wait for a song off that al­bum. You’ve also got peo­ple who get the brass plate and put it in neon and do ‘best of’ tours. In fact, in Ger­many, the venue they’ll put you in and the type of money they’ll put up is to­tally de­pen­dent on what songs you’re con­trac­tu­ally go­ing to play. If you’re go­ing to do all your hits, they’ll put you in the big arena in Dort­mund; if not, they’ll put you in a club down the road in Cologne.”

Given Rea’s trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with pay­dirt, per­haps the most fas­ci­nat­ing song on the new al­bum is Money, a rare de­vi­a­tion from the car theme, on which New Or­leans brass jousts with his griz­zled com­men­tary on mod­ern avarice.

“That was me lis­ten­ing to the money pro­gramme [Money Box] on Ra­dio Four,” he ex­plains. “Ev­ery­one sees their pol­i­tics from where they stand fi­nan­cially. That’s why ev­ery­one’s wor­ried about Jeremy Corbyn, be­cause he doesn’t have any fi­nan­cial de­sires, so he thinks you can live on thrup­pence. But when he wins… And he is go­ing to win. There’s no doubt about it. I’ve got a bet. I’ve got six­teen to one. Him and his chan­cel­lor will de­cide how much money they think you need, ev­ery­thing else will go to the gov­ern­ment.”

That’s bad news for mil­lion­aire mu­si­cians like you, isn’t it?

“No, be­cause I think he’s right. A lot of peo­ple are like: ‘Fuck­ing hell, Chris, don’t tell me you’re a Corbyn fan. For fuck’s sake, don’t tell any­one!’

I’ve writ­ten a song about him. It’s called What’s So Wrong With A Man Who Tells The Truth? Be­cause he’s stand­ing there, even his own party are laugh­ing at him, and I thought: ‘You’re all laugh­ing at your own peril.’ And yes, in the old way, Corbyn is use­less. Be­cause he says the wrong things. But the young peo­ple have had enough.

“Be­cause of my health I’m con­stantly in some of these hos­pi­tals. And we need more money. Of course, News­night will say: ‘Yeah, but where’s he gonna get it from?’ Tax. It’s as sim­ple as that. One of my mu­si­cian friends said: ‘Well, we’re all go­ing to leave the coun­try.’ And I think the peo­ple who are left be­hind will say: ‘Good rid­dance.’”

Rea reck­ons Road Songs, re­leased on his Jazzee Blue la­bel, will cover his ex­penses but per­haps not much more. “Well, touch wood, it’s not cost­ing me money. But ten years with Jazzee Blue, you find out some of the things you just can’t get if you’re not with a big record com­pany. There’d just be this mys­tery of why you couldn’t get in that mag­a­zine. It’s even hap­pen­ing now with gigs. Try­ing to get on a gig that Live Na­tion don’t own is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. You find your­self not be­ing able to get a venue. You don’t know why. The men at the top are still the men at the top. Most bands have be­come ca­su­al­ties of the busi­ness, but at the top of the busi­ness they’re on the same money as they al­ways were. That bit hasn’t changed.”

How do you feel about other de­vel­op­ments in show busi­ness?

“This is prob­a­bly the only in­ter­view in the world this week where it’s you and me sat talk­ing to each other,” says Rea. “Nowa­days they’ll send emails and just say: ‘An­swer the fol­low­ing ques­tions.’ It saves money.

“One of my big shocks lately is how peo­ple – even in the busi­ness – lis­ten to mu­sic. It’s fright­en­ing. When I first started, there was a man who went round Warn­ers’ of­fices all day long, ev­ery day, re­set­ting peo­ple’s hi-fis and play­back sys­tems. Now they’re all lis­ten­ing to it on a PC. And mod­ern mu­sic has changed be­cause of that. Young kids make mu­sic for a PC. So they won’t have a big, fat bass, be­cause you can’t hear it on a PC. They’ll make a more pointed, rhyth­mic bass, and it’ll be quan­tised. And that’s mod­ern mu­sic. One of the fi­nal mile­stones for me was Ed Sheeran at Glas­ton­bury this year,” he con­tin­ues. “Be­cause peo­ple were say­ing that he was us­ing a lit­tle black box, and he didn’t have a band. But the main point of that was no­body cared.

“We have ter­ri­ble trou­ble when we tour. The last four peo­ple who’ve played the venue you’ve ar­rived into are say­ing: ‘Well, we didn’t have any trou­ble [with the sound].’ And you know that’s be­cause it was all on hard disc. Of course you don’t have trou­ble, be­cause you don’t have a buzzing 1962 Stra­to­caster!”

And yet, for all the dodgy live sound and brass­plate au­di­ences, Rea says he’s rar­ing to take Road Songs into its nat­u­ral habi­tat when he goes out on his Euro­pean tour in Novem­ber.

“Tour­ing is like a hol­i­day,” he says. “And when we do Ger­many and Eng­land on the tour there’ll be an al­bum that comes out of that. I’m al­ready onto my next one now. My prob­lem is it’s al­most like hav­ing a form of autism. I se­ri­ously think it’s quite close, cre­ativ­ity. I get up this morn­ing, quar­ter to seven. I’ve got to write some­thing.

I’m use­less at do­ing noth­ing.”

Some­how, you sus­pect Chris Rea is the kind of mu­si­cian who will never be done – un­less his hand is forced by fac­tors be­yond his con­trol. Again, where a ‘proper’ rock star would shut down any such en­quiries, Rea is an open book on the sub­ject of his gath­er­ing health is­sues.

“The med­i­cal is the lev­eller when you’ve been as ill as me, with per­ma­nent dam­age,” he says. “And it has a lot of ef­fects that I wish it didn’t. But it does. Y’know, there are rea­sons why I can’t go to the Hi­malayas. And I’d love to. But the way my body is now, di­ges­tion-wise, I couldn’t go up there.”

He bright­ens. “I’m happy to be here,” he says. “I re­ally am. And y’know, if you lose your pan­creas and you’re on mor­phine for six­teen weeks in hos­pi­tal, then you can say: ‘What’s wrong with me singing the blues?’”

“If I made the world’s best-ever mu­sic, they’d still want On The Beach.”

Con­sid­er­ing what Rea has been through, he’s earned the right to sing the blues.

Speed freaks: Rea with fel­low petrol­head Nick Ma­son of Pink Floyd.

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