Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Riding the Hurricane with Andy Kershaw

Andy Kerhsaw (skateboarding on the Isle of Man)
Andy Kerhsaw (skateboarding on the Isle of Man) Andy Kershaw (Watching the TT races, Isle of Man) June 2011 - Photo Peter Greste Andy Kershaw

Confession: I always get a bit pensive when interviewing a fellow journalist or an experienced TV/radio interviewer. I know what I am doing and should do, after 34 years of doing it. But it can be unnerving when facing someone you know could probably eat you up and spit you out when it comes to use of the English language, and with an armoury to easily deflect probing for their inner-most thoughts.

Cue Mr Andrew Kershaw. Unlike your average radio DJ, AK is a cracking inquisitor. One of the country’s most decorated radio broadcasters, not only for his music shows, but also for his intrepid journalism which has seen him visit more than half of the world’s countries.

He has reported for all national BBC radio stations, and for newspapers from several war torn countries. Andy has been to the Axis of Evil: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. He was the first broadcaster to film inside secretive North Korea, for Channel Four. He has been there four times now.

His TV work saw him present The Old Grey Whistle Test and front the BBC coverage of Live Aid in 1985. I love the story where Andy told Nelson Mandela that after he had been imprisoned for all those years, he apologised that he would now have to endure a Simple Minds set. Priceless, and perhaps confirming what Pete Townshend says about Kershaw: "A gloriously cheeky bastard.”

The Who legend also urges us to “read this book. A handbook for these times." He is referring to Kershaw’s auto-biography, “No Off Switch,” which has deservedly attracted glowing reviews and heaps of praise from critics and the glitterati. Apparently, book publishers will tell you that one of the best endorsements you can get for a new book, is praise from Stephen Fry. He said of Andy’s book on Twitter, ““I make it a rule not to puff books, but Andy Kershaw's No Off Switch is sensational. An amazing read. An amazing man."

Andy lives on the Isle of Man, but is speaking to me today from his narrow boat in Cheshire after taking my call on his mobile. Clearly I want to speak about his book, and about his UK speaking tour - 33 dates across the whole country in theatres and arts centres. A longer tour than many top music acts can expect to fulfil. (An evening he tells me will be the same as an extended after dinner speech, but without the benefit of a meal! But he might throw bags of crisps out to the audience.)

Something I had not planned to delve too deeply into, is his much publicised “year of hell,” when his relationship with his long term partner fell apart and he went through a messy separation. He missed his two kids very badly, and having been deemed to have breached various orders preventing him from contact with his ex, he wound up being jailed three times for short periods. Many, including some law officers, feeling that a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” punishment.

The tabloids had a feeding frenzy, of course. Andy’s life fell apart; he had to take extended leave from his BBC Radio 3 show through ill health in July 2007. The BBC publicly pledging their support in keeping the door open for him to return. This was five years ago, and he is 100% fine now. He was back at Radio 3 in 2011, for an acclaimed series, “Music Planet” and in his usual fine form. But he’s been missing from the airwaves since.

Now in a solid relationship, resumed contact and closeness with his kids, physically fit and emotionally stable. In a good place. But Andy is quick to jump in when I briefly mention his “troubles,” in the context of asking if he lost interest in music during those past problems. That was going to be my sole question about that “troubled time.”
But he jumps in with: “No. Why should I have lost interest in music?” I tell him I am not saying he should, I am merely asking the question. Andy comes back: “No is the answer.” There’s then a silence on the other end of the line.

I want him to know I am not interested in going into his past personal problems, and my interest is the music side of his life, but he interrupts: “Well it was five years ago and I am fully recovered. The relationship between me and my children is closer and stronger than ever. I think that’s all that people need to know about it now, Simon.”
Before I can agree whole-heartedly with him, and move on to a different topic, he adds: “I am alright and it does baffle me why people still ask me that question…if you just take 2010 as an example. I travelled all over the world for Radio 3 ‘Music Planet’ series, to eight nations and to a lot of very difficult countries. Nipping back home in between, I managed to write this book. People who are basket cases don’t get that kind of stuff done.“

“From a journalistic point of view, its just old news now. You can tell from me (sic) voice what kind of person you are now speaking to.”
Yes I can. A decent guy who has been through the wringer, whose personal issues became a top voyeur sport for the red tops and its readers, messing with his head and his heart. But he is still alive and kicking, perfectly OK now, and has a hell of a lot to give as a fire-brand broadcaster, music obsessive (like me) and should be on our airwaves daily. An antidote to some of the mediocre, piss poor drivel churned out by national and local stations today, who consistently insult our intelligence. So why isn’t he?

“I haven’t been offered any yet. I hope I am.” I tell him I don’t understand why he has not got a show on BBC6 or his old show on BBC Radio 3? “I don’t know either? That’s a question best directed to Radio 3, I think Simon.” Yeah, maybe it is, Andy……

So, dear Blues & Soul readers. Time for a campaign methinks. To bring AK back from the wilderness and back on to national radio – which will be a much better place with him annoying the suits, being irreverent and introducing us to new music we’d not get to hear otherwise. As Joe Strummer once said: “Andy Kershaw - without you we wouldn't know nothin'!"

I recall the time Andy was asked by a Radio One boss to play a particular track, which Andy dismissed as “a dismal third-rate derivative rock band.” He stuck on an Apache Indian CD & replied: "THIS is fucking Britpop!” Andy was the first and only broadcaster to use the “F” word on BBC Radio 4’s “From Our Own Correspondent.” As Townshend said, cheeky bastard!

While he was on Radio One, where he stayed for 15 years – 12 of which he shared a cramped office with John Peel and his producer John Walters - he became radio critic for the Independent newspaper. He did himself no favours as a big critic of then BBC chairman John Birt.

Francis Wheen called it, the most suicidal column in the history of journalism. He was sacked by Radio One in 2,000 and replaced by yet another dance music show. His sacking prompted an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons.

Memo to Director of BBC Audio & Music, Jenny Abramsky; it is worth noting that Andy Kershaw has won more Sony Radio Awards than any other broadcaster. He is not your average gob on a stick, cloned from the Smashy and Nicey school of verbal diarrhoea and self-importance. He needs no posse spouting “factoids,” inane nonsense about last night’s reality TV or some Z lister’s eating disorder. With Kershaw, it really is all about the music. Perhaps reflected in the fact his personal record collection weighs a whopping seven tons.

I say that with his book and tour, surely that proves to the BBC bosses he is over all the mayhem from five years ago, and worthy of a new regular show? He is quick to respond to my use of the word “prove.” “I have already proved I am OK now to Radio 3, when I did that huge series for them, ‘Music Planet,’ all over the world. I don’t have to prove anything else; it is self evident that I am fully recovered from that trauma of five years ago. I am sick of having to prove things to people. How much proof do they need?”

Andy, clearly mightily aggravated at constantly having to “prove” he’s not barking at the moon or likely to lose the plot any time soon, shows his sensitive side when he adds: “That’s not a grumble at you Simon, you’ve been very kind.”

So what was supposed to be one simple question about his passion for music, and if it had been diminished while he was going through his “annus horribilis,” turned into something I had not prepared for. When I came to write this, I did contemplate deleting that whole section of the tape transcript, and just focusing on his book and tour. But that would not have been right or honest.

I deliberately chose to include most of what he said on that topic, because I personally think he was unfairly treated, it naturally took its toll on his life and career, as it would with anyone. But he was in the public eye during melt down. He wanted to say what he said, and as an experienced media man, he would not have said it otherwise. But I sincerely believe he now deserves to be left alone to do what he does best. He sure does deserve a break, and I hope the BBC read this and give it to him. He has earned it over the years, surely?

And if you read his book, you’ll see he has almost paid with his life a few times, when his natural “nosiness” has put him in dangerous places and close to meeting his maker, all in the line of duty.
Talking of near death experiences……..back in March 1990, a Sunday night about 10.30pm on a dark country road between Northampton and Leicester. I had a blow out in tyre and my car went out of control. Flipped upside down and rolled seven times down the road. I was trapped, with the roof flat on the passenger seat. Injured, I managed to kick the window out and climb into the pitch black road, just as another car came round the bend and smashed in to mine.

The reason I speak of this now; the last thing I heard when that car smashed over onto the metal roof with an almighty bang, was this Northern accent saying “That was the Four Brothers from Zimbabwe, “ and crash, bang, wallop……….the lights went out and the radio was dead. As almost, was I. So had I have snuffed it that night, 22 years ago, the very last mortal voice I would have heard would have been Andy Kershaw!

Fast forward a few years to the ‘90s, a Saturday afternoon and I am backstage at the Radio One American Music Festival at Crystal Palace in London, taking photographs for various magazines, setting up a shot of a few big US stars. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, John Hammond and others I forget now. But there is one guy missing who I need. Blues great Albert Collins.

He’s in a Portacabin dressing room, being interviewed live on Radio One, says his manager, John Boncimino (who now manages Keb Mo and we are still in touch.) I wait and out wanders Albert, who I have met before over the years and he recognises me. Next to him, swigging from a beer bottle is Radio One DJ, Andy Kershaw in black leather jacket. I had not met him before, but I was a big admirer of his programmes and his knowledge of music. Still am. He watches me do this shot of the stars, and then I single out Albert for some portrait shots, asking him to stick his cowboy-booted foot up on to the white plastic chair, and look mean!

Andy, me and Albert have a bit of banter between us about this shot being somewhat spoiled by the plastic white chair. When we are done, I suggest I get a shot of Andy and Albert together, which I do. We sit down for a chat and a beer, and I tell Andy my car crash story and how he was very nearly the last human voice I heard, a few years ago.

His reaction: to apologise to me! “I am so sorry Simon,” he says. I say that it wasn’t a suicide attempt because I thought his show was bad, and so he had no reason to say sorry to me. But it struck me as a very nice, genuine thing to do from a guy whose face and voice was as well known as Scooby Doo back then.

Here we are in 2012, and I mention this story to Andy again, and this time he says dryly: “I don’t wish to sound insensitive Simon, but what a way to go out.” I laugh, and say I suppose I could have just switched him off, “couldn’t I?” Deadpan, he replies: “No, not really, no.”

His humour marinates the pages of his book. If you love music, if you like sharp and witty writing – refreshingly written by its subject and not by a ghost writer - and want to own a life story that is not just another book full of self-praise and half told celeb' anecdotes, then this is for you. I think it is the first time I have read a book and heard the voice of the writer rising from the text while I was reading it. I could hear that Northern accent, acerbic wit and his “could not give a shit what I say or if it offends you attitude”, which may grate on some, but is welcomed by me, within this often false business we call music.
I ask Andy to sum up what the book offers. “What it is really, is an account of life part one, the first 50 years. It’s been like riding a hurricane really, hasn’t it?”

“It’s been huge fun and I feel very, very lucky. Absolutely…as someone said on the cover blurb, he’s lived ten lives to everyone else’s one. And hey Simon, it’s not over yet you know.”

He says he is “humbled” to have Stephen Fry big up his book. “His endorsement is fantastic and I am hugely grateful. Very flattered and very humbled by it too. A real sense of ‘Gosh, does Stephen Fry really think that of it.” Michael Palin loves the book too, saying Andy has an ability to do things first and ask questions afterwards. “Not a recipe for a safe, secure life, maybe, but it makes things a lot more interesting for the rest of us!" says the Python star.

Andy was born in Rochdale in 1959, and taught by German nuns at Rochdale Convent. His sister, who he calls “our Elizabeth,” is Liz Kershaw the radio broadcaster.

He has visited 97 of the world’s 193 countries. “Yes, just because I am nosey really. That’s one thing for which I count myself very lucky. I think I inherited it from me (sic) Dad. Curiosity. Allied to energy and enthusiasm, they are pretty good allies in life. Certainly allies for an eventful life.“

“I have been in situations, if you have read the book, where I have nearly been killed but I wasn’t, and I have had a rich and colourful life for those experiences, I suppose. Again, I count myself lucky that I am still here.”

Andy first got the music bug when he was about nine, with the various pop stars of the day, but his tastes refined as he got older and he got into such greats as Rory Gallagher and then the light bulb moment for him….he discovered Mr Zimmerman. “What really blew things wide open and what lead on to the blues component, was Bob Dylan. Once I got obsessed with Bob I wanted to know about all the components which made up this character called Bob Dylan. That lead me into all the various strands of what they now call Americana. American folk music, blues, gospel, country, all those things that made up Dylan.”
Andy is always said to be the man who opened the door in the UK for world music. He discovered Ali Farka Toure, the great Saharan bluesman, among others. He is quick to challenge the term “world music,” though. “I would never recognise a category of world music. I know why people use it to simplify things in record shops. It is just a name put on a browser in a record shop. To me all music is world music.”

“My fascination with music from the non Anglo-American parts of the world was really just an expansion of my interests I described to you earlier, when I got interested in Dylan. I had to investigate folk music and country music, blues, gospel and stuff like that. Towards the middle of the ‘80s I was kind of getting bored with the limitations of American rock music, and I had these other interests already. The reggae had always been there, a parochial music from another part of the world, and I had just started to look elsewhere; because again it was that nosiness.”

“That curiosity, an appetite for something stimulating. Really it’s the same instinct that I drew on in the summer of 1987, when I found myself at a loose end, killing time between BBC radio recording commitments in the USA. I was in Memphis for 24 hours with nothing to do. I found a ‘phone book in my hotel room and started calling everyone called Carr, to find out if anyone knew where James Carr was, the greatest soul singer that ever opened his mouth.”

“It had been said he had vanished off the face of the earth, had a nervous breakdown in the early 70s, didn’t sing any more, and nobody knew where he was. That curiosity was the way I found James Carr, by going through the Memphis ‘phone book. The same process when I first heard some great band from Malawi or Zimbawbe on import records, I thought right I’ll take myself off to Malawi or Zimbabwe.”

In his book, Andy takes us through the horrific days when he was an eyewitness to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and reported it for the Today programme. His ban from Malawi under the dictatorship of Dr Hastings Banda. He has reported for the BBC from three civil wars, and from the midst of a volcanic eruption in Montserrat, where he had taken his partner for "a quiet Caribbean holiday," there a day before the island blew up. He covered the 2010 Red Shirt Revolution in Bangkok for The Independent.

He spent much of the 1990s hanging around in, and reporting from Haiti. He has made BBC radio documentaries in all three “Axis of Evil” countries. Fearless (or is that daft?) Andy followed the fire-fighting teams of Red Adair and Boots Hansen to the burning oil well-heads of Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War, in 1991.

The man who ran out of an Economics “A” Level exam, halfway through, to go to see his hero Bob Dylan, (and got a Grade A!) is the very same man who scooped the first ever British TV interview with Dylan, with the gift of a jar of homemade jam as a sweetener! He also ran away from Leeds Uni’ on his first day, to go see BB King. Andy studied Politics with the aim of becoming a journalist, but with a bigger aim of being the booker for the bands there, as the student union at Leeds put on the biggest college concerts in the country.

He got the gig in his second year and spent two and half years booking the biggest acts around. The Clash, Elvis Costello and Black Uhuru, Ian Dury, Dire Straits, and Iggy Pop, among many others. Famously paying Duran Duran £50 to support Hazel O'Connor. He masterminded The Who’s return to the University in 2006 for Live At Leeds Again! After Uni, he worked briefly for the Rolling Stones in 1982 and then Bruce Springsteen in 1985.

He was Billy Bragg's driver, roadie and tour manager from 1984, and when he took him to a recording of The Old Grey Whistle Test, the producer spotted something in Andy and he got the spot to present the show, out of the blue and most definitely not planned.

He was a breath of fresh air as a music presenter on TV and when presenting his shows on radio. His notoriety even saw him photographed for Vogue by David Bailey. He was immortalised by Nick Hornby in the novel High Fidelity. He was invited by Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, to advise him “on what young people want."

He is the only broadcaster to have had a programme transmitted simultaneously on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 1. He played The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” as his first record on Radio 3 when he joined in 2001, the BBC's classical music station. He has made trailblazing travel programmes for Channel 4. He tracked down and unmasked, 32 years after the event, the man who - infamously - shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in 1966.

Andy, an atheist, was asked by Songs of Praise, BBC TVs Sunday religious show, to be a presenter! He turned down an invitation, and an offer of £50,000, to appear on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

In March 2007, he appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. His chosen records were by: The Bhundu Boys, Dylan, The Clash, Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris, Warren Zevon, Joni Mitchell, Loudon Wainwright III and Tinariwen.

In the book, he tells of the interview he did with actor John Hurt at Live Aid, before a television audience of more than a billion, without knowing at the time, who Hurt was!

Andy only completed a handful of his 33 date speaking tour, “Adventures Of Andy Kershaw,” as the remaining dates have been postponed until later in the year. This was after he got the great news that Random House has bought the rights to the book, and are publishing a paperback version. So the live dates will be re-scheduled to coincide with the book release.

Scheduled appearances at literary festivals in the UK and Ireland, throughout the spring and summer, go ahead as planned.
If you agree with me, that Andy Kershaw should be back on national radio with a regular show, contact the BBC and tell them your views. After all, it is OUR BBC, as WE pay for it. Do it now…………..Dear Jenny………..

The hard back version of Andy’s book “No Off Switch” is available from Amazon. Signed copies from Andy’s website Paperback published in the Autumn.

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