The dapper Yorkshire crooner is back with his first album in five years. He may not be as slim as he was in his 80's prime, but he's still addicted to love, thanks to his current muse.
Robert Palmer saunters into the Milan restaurant looking - at least from 15 feet away - exactly as he did a decade ago when his visual style was as important as his musical substance. He is wearing the same sort of designer suit (Armani as it turns out) and blank-eyed and bored expression that he affected in his seminal 80's video Addicted To Love. But close-up, there's something about the way the Batley-born crooner keeps pulling down his waistcoat over his paunch which, combined with the lascivious manner in which he is eyeing the menu, suggests that Palmer - at 50 - might now be more addicted to Linguine than to love.
He is here to talk about his first new album in five years, Rhythm & Blues, but by the time he's started on the linguini he seems happier to talk about his muse than his music. It is, it would seem, his addiction to Mary Ambrose, with whom he has lived for the past seven, eight or nine years (he's not entirely sure about the arithmetic), that is the root cause of the physical, emotional and musical changes in Robert Palmer. It is 35 - year old Mary's cooking that has brought on the middle-age spread; it is Mary's devotion that has prompted his current happiness and good humour; and it was Mary's beauty and sensuality that inspired him to create the softer, more romantic tracks on his new album. "There is nothing more important to me than Mary. That's all there is. She's my reason for living", he says "I write about love. Well, what else is there?"
In his career as a singer - songwriter, which has spanned some 30 years, encompassing such hits as Simply Irresistible, Mercy, Mercy Me, She Makes My Day and Johnny & Mary (the theme for the Nicole and Papa ads), Robert Palmer has, until now, been circumspect about the women in his life. His 21-year marriage to his ex-wife Sue, whom he met on Slough station and who is the mother of his two chidlren, James 21, and Jane, 19, was regarded as one of the strongest in the fickle and faithless music industry.
At the height of his late - 80's fame and success he was the one British rock star who fervently believed in family values. He took his wife - a graphic designer - and children with him everywhere he went ("the kids had these Concorde books that were just full from all the times they flew with me"). He shunned the groupies and other glamorous women that were part of his working life - even those beautiful clones in his Addicted To Love video - and was the complete, faithful family man. He wont talk about what happened at the end of the relationship and makes a rather crass and flippant comment about divorce ("I never intended to change horses"), but you believe him when he says he was deeply upset by the 1991 break-up. So much so, he adds, that even after he met Mary he was reluctant to embark on a serious relationship.
"It's beyond my dreams, my relationship", he adds between mouthfuls of linguini. "And it's one of the first things in my life that has been. It's hard to express exactly what it is about her. We met in San Fransisco, where she was working as a waitress. And now I can see that it was a wonderful twist of fate. I fought it because it was the last thing in the world I wanted to happen. I resented her because I was obsessed with her and I wouldn't admit it".
When he did finally allow Mary into his life she changed hers and followed him around the world in rather the way that his former family had done (Mary probably has a Concorde book too) They live as tax exiles in a converted mill house near Lake Lugano in Switzerland, 40 minutes drive away from Milan, in Italy. The exterior of their home is, he says, "Hansel & Gretel"; the interior is stark, modern Milanese. The domestic nature of their relationship is best summed up by his attempt, last Christmas, to buy Mary a BMW sports car which she rejected in favour of a Gaggenau cooker ( a move that doubtless thrilled the canny Yorkshireman). She cooks, he eats; she nurtures, he creates. Is it any wonder, I dare to venture, that he is so happy? He is living most men's ideal of the male/female relationship - a "voluptuous" (his adjective), submissive younger woman who devotes all her time to satisfying his needs.
"Look, she doesn't hang on my coat-tails", Palmer says, "She's very independent. I am no Svengali. I mean, she gets bolshie, she wont put up with any nonsense, but she appreciates my point of view because she respects my experience". Doesn't he worry, I continue, rather impertinently, about Mary deciding she would like a baby? Or feeling she might rather like to have her own career?
"She's a hedonist like me", Palmer insists. "She's the youngest of six children, so there isn't any biological clock ticking or some fantasy about babies or anything. She knows what kids involve. Besides, I don't think a child should have a 51 year old father. I've been there, done that at the right age when I was young. It's great with my kids. We get along really well and I am very proud of them. And they love Mary to pieces. Would I end the relationship if she was to pressurise me about kids? This", he states, "is so theoretical as to be ludicrous. Actually, what she says is that I am enough of a kid to look after. I know it's a frivolous remark, but it's probably true. And if she did want a career and it did take off then I'd follow her. I'd press her clothes and all that stuff. But she doesn't like the limelight" Mary is, as we speak, back at home in Lugano, doing the washing.
Later, as he poses for pictures in the winter sunshine, he pauses to look at a shoe shop window display dominated by the kind of sexy, six-inch spiked stilletoes that the models wore in Addicted To Love. "That's why I love Italy", Palmer grins,. "Every street is the same - a bar, then a lingerie shop, then a shoe shop." he leans moddily against a marble pillar outside. Gucci for another photograph "They've got their priorities right"
Rhythm & Blues will be released on Eagle Rock on 12 April.
Jane Gordon (Sunday Mail Magazine - Avril 1999)