P A U L C H A R L E S
Interviewed by John Connolly
he legendary folk-blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee spent the best part of half a century touring and performing together, the two men sharing a mystical musical connection that made mere words redundant. That they didn't need words to communicate on stage was particularly fortunate for them, since the two men refused to speak to each other for the last twenty years of their lives.
"I couldn't believe it," says Paul Charles, the man responsible for organising their British tours. "At the end of their careers, these guys hadn't said a word to each other for 23 years, yet they performed on stage together maybe 200 nights each year. They wouldn't even acknowledge each other's presence. I went for a meeting with them when they arrived for the first tour I did, the two of them in a room together, and Sonny, a warm, big man, asks me what they're being paid for Hamburg and Copenhagen. I tell him, and two seconds later Brownie says "So, Paul, what are we being paid for Copenhagen and Hamburg?"
Charles is the quiet man of the British and Irish music scene. Since 1974, he has been a partner in London-based Asgard, probably the leading tour agency for musical acts in these islands. He is also the author of five well-received crime novels which bulge, like his own contacts book, with names like Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison. After all, this is a man who has driven around Ireland in a transit van with The Stranglers, watched Ry Cooder starve for three days in Europe because his wife's home-cooked meals had not arrived from the US, and tangled with the legendarily difficult Chuck Berry.
"All the stories about Chuck Berry are true but they're true because he feels he was taken advantage of at one point in his career and now he finds himself in a position where he can make sure nobody takes advantage of him again. He gets to the end of a set, the crowd is going berserk, but he's done his contracted fifty minutes to the second. You can actually see him look at his watch. The crowd wants more, he comes off stage and says, well, my contract stipulates fifty minutes. I'll do another quarter of an hour, but it's going to cost you two and a half grand. So you pay. It's literally as black and white as that: no pay, no play. But he does that because he had such grief in the early part of his life."
Charles began his management career in his hometown of Magherafelt at the age of 13, picking up bookings for a group of his friends who went by the name of The Blues by Five. "The first business card we had, the telephone number was a phone box in Magherafelt. People would ring up and whoever was passing would answer then ramble down and knock on our window to say that there was a phone call for Paul. There were no agents, accountants, publicists or pluggers then. There were just people who played music and people who didn't but who hung out with them, and you did whatever you needed to do to keep your band on the road."
At the age of 17 he left Magherafelt for London, ostensibly to study civil engineering but in reality to immerse himself in the London music scene. "In Northern Ireland I couldn't hear the Beatles, who were the first group to make me passionate about music, I couldn't hear the Kinks, I couldn't hear the Small Faces. I didn't really know what I wanted to do so much as what I didn't want to do, which was to hang around Magherafelt." Gradually, he built up a network of contacts in the music business, primarily through his work with ill-fated Northern Ireland prog-rockers Fruupp. He joined the small Asgard agency just in time to surf the wave of punk. Asgard's first big act was the Buzzcocks, quickly followed by the Undertones, Human League, Gang of Four, Penetration, the Stranglers and the Clash, but it was the signing of Van Morrisson that marked Asgard's true arrival on the international music scene.
Despite a roster which includes its fair share of egos, Charles has had few real difficulties with his clients. "We work with artists that we're fans of, like The Blue Nile, and people that make music that great are usually great people," he says. "The Buzzcocks were the only act I had a hard time dealing with in terms of just being able to talk to them. For me, it was because they weren't what they seemed. The Buzzcocks were in the middle of the punk explosion, Pete Shelley wrote great songs, but you would go in to the dressing room and instead of being a bunch of punks they'd be sitting guzzling champagne. It didn't really equate to me."
Away from the music business, he is enjoying the experience of finding true love comparatively late in life (he met his wife Catherine just three years ago, when he was 48, and still wears the slightly shellshocked smile of a man who can't quite believe his luck) and the publication of his latest novel, The Hissing of the Silent Lonely Room
is his fifth book to feature the amiable, music-loving London-Irish detective Christy Kennedy (the name is an amalgam of Christy Moore and John F. Kennedy) and revolves around the death of a cult singer, Esther Bluewood. Bluewood's career is based upon that of the extraordinarily reclusive Mary Margaret O'Hara, whose Miss America album remains her only full-length work to date. The book is a gently uplifting read, due in large part to the fact that Kennedy, unlike the majority of fictional detectives, is remarkably well-adjusted. The only real complications in his life, apart from odd murder, are his relationship with the journalist ann rea (always lower case, a nod to the singer k.d. lang) and the occasional lapses of musical taste he must endure from his peers.
"I started out as a book collector," Charles explains. "When you're on the road with a band, you can either sit down at the end of the night and have a drink, or you can read a book. There are only so many nights that you can keep drinking before it takes its toll, so I used to read instead: on the tour bus, or after gigs, and I also began collecting crime novels. From there, it just seemed like a natural progression to try to write a book of my own."
Charles's next book, The First of the True Believers
, will be his first foray into non-crime fiction. The tale of a man who almost becomes a Beatle, it will bring its author back to the Fab Four, his first musical love. In the meantime, he has his hands full over the coming year making sure passports and tour dates are in order for acts as diverse as the brilliant Ryan Adams, mournful country rockers The Cowboy Junkies, and the forthcoming album and tour from the painstakingly perfectionist Blue Nile.
The passport checking, incidentally, is not a joke. "A mate of mine used to manage Bryan Ferry, for his sins. One time he was going to America, the car was outside his house waiting to take him to the airport, and he wouldn't come out. The manager gets on to Bryan and he says, "I can't go, I don't have a passport." The manager tells him that the documentation had been collected from him and the passport had been delivered around to his house. Ferry says, "Well I don't have the passport. It's been torn up and thrown in the dustbin."
"What do you mean it's been torn up?" asks the manager.
"Well", says Ferry, "I didn't like the photo that you used..."
The Hissing of the Silent Lonely Room is published by New Island Books.