Rock And Roll's Sophisticate
"Oh, Mr. Palmer, Fame Is On The Line." Robert Palmer has done about everything to avoid rock stardom. It hasn't been enough.
Rock and roll has been blamed for putting enough people into comas, so it was nice that it finally pulled somebody out of one. "They had all but given up hope for him, a young man in England", Robert Palmer recalls. "Someone suggested music therapy, so they put a set of headphones on him and when one of my songs came on, it started to bring him around. Then they played him my records exclusively. Finally, he came out of it altogether. The mother sent me a thank-you letter, and, frankly, I didn't believe it at first. I went to visit the mother and the young man in the hospital. It was very gratifying."
Palmer would be able to appreciate this rare moment of rock-and-roll grace more than most musicians today. The 39-year-old Brit has been in one band or another since he was 15. In his early days, he'd open for Jimi Hendrix and the Who and whoever else was big and touring England at the time. Palmer, however, did not approve even then of the rock life-style.
He sits on the couch in the basement lounge of the St. James's Club in London, legs crossed at the correct angle, cigarette arm propped up properly on the couch back - he holds the butt cupped in his hand like a freshly plucked orchid - champagne flute held out so the glass sweat doesn't drop on the gray tweed trousers and dent the military crease. A scone's throw from Buckingham Palace, the St. James's Club is the kind of celebrity-stocked place where the man behind the reception desk will flatly tell you that Mr. Palmer seems not to be in at the moment, even if Mr. Palmer is standing at the reception desk leafing through his mail. It's the kind of place that makes you understand why the Who and Led Zeppelin, just crawling up out of the slums of London, wreaked vengeance on ritzy hotels in their early days. (Although the times, they have a-changed: Pete Townshend, Esq., is currently listed on the International Committee of the St. James's Clubs).
"When I first bumped into big-name groups, back in the Sixties", Palmer says, "I could not believe how these people behaved. Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting. It was outrageous. I still can't see any excuse for the behavior that went on - trashing hotel rooms et cetera. I couldn't see anything glamourous about it at all. Just a bunch of creeps."
He reshuffles the stack of Dunhill cigarette packs in front of him. Palmer can practically tell time from his cigarette consumption. For a man with one of the best and farthest ranging voices in popular music today he seems all but callous about his vocal cords. When younger, he intentionally drank and smoked heavily before performances to make his voice sound older, more like that of the chanteurs and - teuses he grew up admiring over the American armed forces radio on the British island of Malta - Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee. He's even planning to make a movie musical made up mostly of Forties ballads - and to star in it himself. ("I can't see Tom Cruise lip-synching to my songs.")
One naturally begins to wonder how this sophisticated public-school Englishman ever got involved in rock. It's not that he shouldn't be eligible to participate; it's just that after decades of people like Little Richard, Joe Cocker and Prince, it seems in incongruous. Palmer sounds and looks as if he should be playing cabaret piano in St. Moritz. Imagining him, especially in this setting, to be a rock star is like imagining Prince Charles on bass backing up Tina Turner.
"I loved the music, but the excesses of rock and roll never really appealed to me at all", he explains. "I couldn't see the point of getting up in front of a lot of people when you weren't in control of your wits...at least. I love the physical energy of out-and-out shouting rock and roll. For instance, at least half the tunes on my next album (Heavy Nova) are screaming rock stuff. I love the physicality of it."
But a more restrained sensibility is what Robert Palmer has to offer rock music. It's hard to picture someone like, say, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant leading off an album with a Forties torch song, as Palmer did on his previous record, Riptide. Palmer's closest associates told him that was commercial suicide, but the album went triple platinum (3 million copies sold). Of course, a couple of other songs of more recent vintage, like Addicted To Love (Palmer's first No. 1 hit in America) and I Didn't Mean To Turn You On, as well as their respective sexually charged videos, helped the sales along. Palmer says he likes to join incongruous styles - jam them together and see what happens. There's a quiet bossa nova instrumental on the new album too, along with some Latin-influenced hard rockers. Not your basic mainstream material.
"Robert is a musicologist above all", says Eric "E.T." Thorngren, Palmer's mixing engineer on both Riptide and Heavy Nova. "He's introduced me to all kinds of music from all over - from Japan, South America. Robert was into South African music before Paul Simon was."
Palmer hates London. On top of that, he's here solely to promote his last commitment to his old record label, Island. He is, in fact, deserting Island, the British label that has nurtured, indulged him, for the past eighteen years. It's more like a divorce than a business decision, and Palmer is visibly tortured over it, talking about the way the company has been ignoring him recently, how Chris Blackwell, the founder - and one of Palmer's closest friends - has moved on to another love, movies. There's also a touch of guilt on Palmer's part, going to the giant EMI, because the fame will no doubt be greater, the profits larger, the public relations more aggressive.
The spat going on between Palmer and Island is actually pretty amusing. Palmer: "I drive around town here and have to see posters of me that are completely unflattering, a photo of me that looks like a death mask." Ironic, because the more you get to know Palmer, the more you see that it is the cool, sardonic, sophisticated version of him that is the real mask, and the somber tortured soul captured in this Island photo that is closer to the truth.
The name of the single Palmer is in town to promote is Sweet Lies, written for the soundtrack of the Island movie (more irony!) of the same name to be released this summer. Palmer lip-synched the song the night before on a British knockoff of The Tonight Show called The Terry Wogan Show. Asked why he didn't sing the song live, he offers an incredulous look and says, "That would be going beyond the call of duty."
Perhaps no man is an island, but Palmer does his best to try, with years of defenses built up, beginning with a lonely childhood on a British military base in Malta. "I hung out mostly with adults," he remembers. "I didn't see a movie or television until was 12." Then, when he returned to England as a teenager, he became an outcast, his clipped Oxonian accent out of place in Leeds. At 15, he started roaming around the country with various bands just to get away, though he says he "didn't want to become professional musician until I was 24." Even then he didn't get along with the groups he sang for: "By the time the rest of whatever group I was with got through with one of my songs, it didn't have anything to do with what I intended. I had reels and reels of my own demos I'd made at home which I didn't even bother to show them." So it was O Solo Mio for the Maltese lone falcon. He took Blackwell up on his offer to go it alone, coming up with 1974's Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley.
This is a man who never felt at home in his homeland, who exiled himself from it as soon as he could afford to. It is interesting that his father, from whom Palmer says he gets his "romantic outlook on life", was in the spy business, listening in on the Russians in the Fifties, during the heat of the Cold War. "He couldn't tell us what he did," Palmer explains. "He'd often come home distraught - probably over some doomsday crisis - and we'd never know what it could be." Now the younger Palmer is into emotional espionage. He talks constantly about communicating his deepest feelings to people, through the universal language of music and the love song. But he can't actually say what he feels. "I have to put a little twist on everything", he explains.
At the outset of his solo career, Palmer spent an unproductive year on Perry Street in New York's Greenwich Village, blaming too much partying for his lack of inspiration. He did, however, stumble upon a then-unknown group called Talking Heads at CBGB's in the East Village. Palmer practically adopted them, taking them home to party and jam with him. He even tried to get Blackwell to sign them at Island. Bassist Tina Weymouth remembers her first meeting with Palmer: "An incredibly handsome guy who had to be on drugs. But, really, Robert is just constantly writing music in his head and singing songs to himself, everywhere. That's why he seems so out of it. We've been friends for years, and most of my conversations with him are still enigmatic. He's always exploring for new sounds. If you think his records are experimental now, he's holding himself back. He doesn't dare put the stuff he's really interested in on his records. He's been fooling around lately with singing two melodies simultaneously. Although , typically humble, he says he knows a guy in India who can sing three. What I've heard so far of Heavy Nova, it sounds like he's opening up something else again, taking off from that funk-rock meld."
From New York, Palmer moved to a then-deserted part of New Providence, an island in the Bahamas. This was, he says, his first chance in life for introspection, for relaxation even. "We were out in the bush, on the side of the island away from the Holiday Inn. Then Island built Compass Point Studios there. Groups would come in to record, and some of them couldn't stand the isolation. These were guys who'd never had to stop and think about their lives in their life. Some of them flipped out. There's a lot of suicides down there. But I kind of dug it."
Seeking more and more control over his work, he taught himself to play different instruments and built an electronically sophisticated home studio. Palmer was into synthesizers almost before anyone else in the pop field.
Palmer's favorite album to date is 1983's Pride, his only all-solo (no studio musicians) effort, done all-digital at the outset of CD recording. Palmer, like some kind of modern-day troubadour, had the whole album on floppy disks (made at home) and traipsed around the globe finding bits of recording studio time. He'd plug in the floppies and cut a song. Sure enough, Pride came before a fall: It was a flop. Even Palmer now admits it was too inhuman - lacked the vitality of live performances, of different drummers. "I picked the title because it's the first deadly sin. The next one is greed." The sardonic smile. "I've yet to make that record." The failure woke him up, and for the next record he vowed to temper the personal with some outside personnel. Three years later, he came out with Riptide which is still making waves.
"Caught in a riptide," the old torch song begins. It's about a man feeling the pull of another woman. But with Palmer, you know that his deepest fears and emotions are somewhere on the page - disguised in the lyrics. "She's so fine there's no telling where the money went", goes one line on the new album. He has a way with a clever lyric, especially about the upheavals and heavings of love. This from a man who's been married since he was 21 - to Sue Palmer, whom Robert keeps under wraps, along with their two children, James, 10, and Jane, 8, in Switzerland, as if they were a numbered bank account. Palmer claims to be as romantically turbulent now as he was in his teens. "I think it's a myth that people grow out of that. That's why love songs still mean much to everyone, why you can communicate so much through them."
By the end of our talk at the St. James's Club, Palmer has loosened up; he has become comparatively companionable. When we part, he chummily suggests I drop by and see him in New York the following week. I say I will.
In New York, it takes me three days to slip through his blockers to see him. The shell is clamped shut again, the sardonic smile back in place. In fact, he looks at me as if I were The Man Who Knew Too Much. What has he revealed to me with his guard down? In what way will I make him pay with this sordid information? At one point, he tries to review what he's told me that he regrets. All he can come up with is "There are still a few musicians today who don't follow the crowd. I don't think Prince follow the dictates of anyone. Except maybe his own prick."
Palmer has recently bought another isolated house, this one in Switzerland, in a forest and on a lake. The house came with a bomb shelter that he plans to turn into a recording studio. The Palmers were indirectly forced to move from the Bahamas. That particular idyll had not only become too "rock and roll" with the building of Compass Point Studios and other structures but was getting too drug-trafficky. "Oh yeah, it got very dangerous," Palmer says. "But I still own property there, so I don't want to play that up." How are a few Colombian-backed private armies and secret airfields for drug transfers to the States going to affect the neighborhood? Seriously, while Palmer was on tour in 1986, his dog was shot during a burglary at the house next door, with Palmer's wife and children at home. Palmer is now, understandably, ferociously keeping them out of the spotlight. Safe at home, Palmer is the perfect family man. He takes the kids skiing, builds radio-controlled model cars.
When he was in the Bahamas, he's spend much of the day contemplating the ocean. "Robert has said, if he weren't a singer, he's be an oceanographer of some kind. He's also very interested in dolphins, and for years always wore a silver one on his lapel", says Kathy Kenyon, now vice-president of artist relations at Island Records in New York, who has been helping Palmer at Island with his promotion in one capacity or another since 1976. ("I'm still going to run his fan club for him", she says.)
In Switzerland, Palmer spends whole days by his pool. But when he's on the road working, he isolates himself in a different way: "Robert can't stand nights off", Kenyon explains. "On a Japan tour a few years ago, we booked the bar at the Tokyo Hilton one night, about a hundred people. Then on the layover in Guam on the way back, he booked a university gym." In the States, he once played a rodeo rather than face a night off.
And when he's recording and mixing his new record, he barely takes time off for sleep. "I tell Robert I have a twelve-hour rule", Thorngren says. "I require two hours after work to get home and wind down to get to sleep and then eight hours of sleep and then two hours to have breakfast and get back to the studio." Palmer doesn't like to work during the day, either recording or performing. In fact, he makes Count Dracula look like a morning person. Once, during the mixing of Heavy Nova, he didn't fall asleep - on Thorngren's couch - until 9 a.m. At 4 p.m. that same day, Thorngren was cajoling Palmer's management representative, Richard Coble, to let Palmer sleep, even with valuable studio time unreeling.
But the star machine is revving up. Robert Palmer's days of quietude may be numbered. He's had the taste of success in the past with the top-twenty singles Every Kinda People (1978) and Bad Case Of Loving You (1979). But he had a taste of superstardom only through his recent involvement with friends Andy and John Taylor of Duran Duran on the Power Station album. Duran Duran has the kind of teenybopper following that gives a musician like Palmer nightmares. "How do they live through all that nonsense It's just nonstop! The reaction I get now is very nice. I don't get pestered. I don't create hysteria. I usually get good service."
Perhaps a maturing music audience has finally caught up with Palmer, as rock and roll itself has grown out of its raucous adolescence and stars like David Bowie have evolved from glitter to glitterati. The man who wore suits all through the Peacock Revolution and Carnaby Street-Haight-Ashbury mania of the Sixties and the punk-bisexual-leisure-suit glop of the Seventies has at last seen the rock world come around to his way of thinking, and of dressing.
Which explains another reason Palmer moved to southern Switzerland: It's only an hour north of his beloved Milan. Palmer zips down both to work at Logic Studios on the Via Quintilliano and to buy his Italian suits by Barba's and Ferre. He has no idea where he picked up his love for good clothes, just that it was very early in life. "I always had it. I even liked my school blazer and tie, a naval school in Malta. Or maybe I was influenced by all those Italian sea captains down there."
Painfully camera-shy (especially for a future movie star), Palmer hedges at admitting that one of the things that turned the tide for him professionally was his impeccable style and good looks - current Island promotional campaigns not withstanding. Palmer wants to make it purely on his music, but in reality, he's been making it lately on his personal appearance, and personal appearances. The two MTV videos were what really did it. "I had very little to do with it", Palmer says. "I just showed up and mouthed the words for fifteen minutes." As they say at MTV, though, one video is worth a thousand press releases.
For both Addicted To Love and I Didn't Mean To Turn You On, director and former still photographer Terence Donovan used a high-gloss, fashion-photography style, achieved primarily by a video camera ringed by intense lights-so bright they created a shadow down the sleeves and legs of the performers. Palmer showed up in his usual crisp Italian suit, while Donovan had hired a group of gorgeous models made up like mannequins and wearing the latest in short sheer black party dresses.
According to Palmer, there's been only one drawback to the videos: "One thing I get now is a lot of females in my audience dressed up like the ones in the videos. And let me tell you, those girls just aren't my speed. I don't know what to say to them - little less makeup, please?"
The studios where Palmer is making Heavy Nova is a trade secret. A phantom location. In the present-day music world, geography is no longer decided by place but by local taxes. Thus, if you are physically in an L.A. studio, you are "officially" in a Milan studio. You can always have pasta at Spago to ease your conscience, if you like. "Recording is moving away from New York, L.A. and London because of the taxes", Palmer explains. "Europe is very popular now, France and Italy especially. Florence will be a big recording center soon." According to him, all the equipment is the same the world over. The country only matters for what kind of take-out food it offers.
The undisclosed studio where Palmer is recording Heavy Nova this night is filled with the smell of Chinese food. The studio musicians sit out in a waiting room next door to the studio as though waiting to see the doctor. They sit quietly, eating their noodles and watching a Spanish variety program on cable TV. Each will be called in turn into the studio to lay down his track or tracks, with Palmer and his engineers at the controls. And because all the music is electronic now, there's no need for quiet - even a soundproof studio. The drums are electronic, too. Palmer's "drummer," Jeff Bova, shows up not with a drum kit but with two five-foot-high stacks of electronic processors, all tied into an Apple personal computer. ("And will that be smoking or no smoking, aisle or window?" Palmer asks.) Bova requires an assistant, a bearded lineman-size man wearing a weight lifters hernia belt, to help him get his equipment form place to place.
Palmer has long ago made home demos of the eighteen songs he'll record for Heavy Nova, eleven of which will make it onto the album. But this is where he fleshes out those skeleton performances, this is where the real fun for him begins. He sits back in his chair and sings to himself, his four packs of Dunhills in front of him, a bottle of champagne at the ready. And overdressed as usual. Even here Palmer looks out of place, in his black wool turtleneck, pleated charcoal trousers and dark-brown ankle boots. Everyone else in the room is dressed in standard rock-musician attire - jeans, motorcycle boots, roadie T-shirt. One of the studio techies looks like every computer nerd you knew at college, heavy-framed glasses and all, except for the earring.
At least Palmer will never have to worry about having to sing for his supper. Even when he blurts out a line here in the studio, the voice is arresting. He found out about that voice, in fact, by singing into his father's tape recorder. "What I heard back obviously didn't discourage me", he says. A baritone who can also sing tenor and falsetto, he has incredible range, allowing him to sing in almost any style he chooses. More irony. This versatility makes it difficult to characterize his vocal style - from the bourbony balladeering of Riptide and Sweet Lies to the rock-hard growling on Addicted To Love. Palmer, because of his range, gets blamed for not being recognizable.
Eddie Martinez, Palmer's exceptional guitarist, is tuning up with his electronic tuner. "I need volume! I need level, man!" he tells the engineer, Tim Kramer. The sound from the overhead speakers is already thunderous. The assistant engineer pushes up a fader on the control board and Kramer leaps across to slap it back down. "No, man", he says. "That'll be really loud." Everyone in the room is silent for a second, comprehending the very real danger to his ears that's just been averted.
Later, after everyone has laid down his track of the song, Palmer rides upstairs to work on mixing other songs with Thorngren, who presides over his mixing board like some modern-day Phantom of the Opera, his fingers gliding over the hundreds of controls with raptured precision. "This board is E.T.'s ax", Palmer says respectfully. Here the tracks can be altered almost out of recognition. A studio musician these days has about as much to do with the final mix of a song as the paint manufacturers had with Cezanne's oils.
"Early in the morning!" Palmer sings, the title of the song he's just recorded downstairs for the new album, another hard rocker. "Gotta get up early in the morning, find me another lover!" Downstairs, he hemmed and hawed, hacked and coughed, breathed as if he were having an emphysema attack, all to coax the golden voice into molten fury for the microphone. At one point he bit the inside of his mouth, he got so rough with the lyric. Even here, he says, the emotion has to be channelled to get the right effect on record.
At two-thirty in the morning, E.T.'s girlfriend calls. "Just get in?" E.T. asks Ozzie-Nelson-like, save for the ungodly hour. At four, they finally give up wrangling over the mixes and pack it in. They'll be back as soon as Palmer's conscious the next day.
He will show up, though. Guaranteed. Perhaps the biggest professional decision of his life will have to be made in this room this week. He knows full well that his rock and roll does well in America. But then there's all this new stuff running around in his head that he really likes. He's no longer with good old indulgent Island but with giant, impersonal EMI. He knows he's on the brink of superstardom, with all the accompanying craziness, if he follows Riptide with another ripsnorter. Which eleven songs, which Robert Palmer, go on the vinyl? To be or not be - a superceleb? Does he sell out (at the record store) or stay true to his financially irresponsible muses? Does he come in from the Cool and join the rest of us slobs in the human race or stay out on one of his many stylish islands, reporting his findings back to a world he's not really sure is really there?
Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Greg Collins (GQ - Juillet 1988)