POP MUSIC SPECIAL : From the Hardline to the Straight Line : Back with his second album after nearly two years, Terence Trent D’Arby works to change his image
The phone message left with the hotel operator by Terence Trent D’Arby’s assistant spelled trouble.
The enigmatic pop star wouldn’t be able to go through with the interview the following day in Dublin as planned, the message read. Would the Los Angeles reporter please phone ASAP to set up a new time?
That may sound harmless enough, but D’Arby was notorious for being difficult with the press following the late-1987 release of his best-selling and widely acclaimed album, “The Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby.”
It’s not that he just flat refused to meet with writers, the way Bob Dylan did for years and Michael Jackson does now. He consented to a handful of interviews, but he often ducked out or delayed them--sometimes for days.
The Los Angeles reporter knew firsthand.
Last year, D’Arby showed up 30 minutes late for an interview in West Hollywood and then declared everything he said in the 2-hour session to be off the record. Then D’Arby--whose outspoken interviews earlier in England had earned him the nickname “The Mouth That Roared”--twice postponed and finally canceled a subsequent “on the record” meeting in New York.
When D’Arby also canceled a Rolling Stone photo session, the magazine responded by taking a jab at the New York-born, London-based singer who claimed that his debut album was better than the Beatles’ legendary “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The headline next to his cover photo: “A Legend in His Own Mind?”
D’Arby dropped out of sight after his spring, 1988, U.S. concert tour, retreating to England and then to Ireland to work on the crucial second album. He knew it would have to be a striking work if he was to overcome all the suspicion that he was more hype than heart.
Finally, the word came from New York-based Columbia Records publicist Marilyn Laverty who had suffered through the earlier debacles--that the album was done and that D’Arby was willing to again do some interviews. And, she assured, D’Arby was a changed man--no more games.
Then, the hotel message canceling the Dublin interview.
Another round of hide and seek?
“No, no,” D’Arby’s assistant said on the phone. “Terence just had to return to London to do some work in the studio. He’ll meet you at his house afterwards, say around 11.”
Sure enough, D’Arby--a thin yet muscular man with sweet, disarming eyes and a somewhat shy, anxious manner--was waiting at the door of his new townhouse in the fashionable Knightsbridge section of London at precisely 11 p.m. He invited the reporter and a photographer into the living room, and later took them upstairs for a peek at his month-old daughter, Sarafina, asleep in her crib.
D’Arby, 28, then settled into a straight-back chair in his kitchen, a bottle of mineral water and a dish of nuts and dried fruit in front of him, and talked until after 4 a.m.
After spending most of his first year in the pop spotlight uttering outlandish quotes to get people to notice him, he now spoke softly and in detail--as if he wanted nothing more than to get people to understand him.
About his flamboyant behavior the first time around, D’Arby said, “That was a strange period for me. On one hand, I asked for all the (controversy). I was aware of all the artists who make good debut records over the years, but no one hears them--and I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen in my case.
“So I was prepared to say whatever it took to get the songs heard. But I now see I came on so strong in the early interviews in England that it was impossible to straighten things out. That’s why I decided to stop doing interviews in the States. I saw that some writers had a fixed image of me--and would write about that image even if what I was saying no longer fit it.
“But I’ve no regrets. I’m not trying to come off as poor, misunderstood Terence. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do the same thing because it worked. People heard the album. Who knows? If it weren’t for all that, we might not be having this conversation now.”
Few figures since the ‘60s have arrived on the pop scene with as much flash as D’Arby, whose bold, renegade stance and invigorating talent made him a superstar in England before his album was even released in his native country.
The British press loved it when he reportedly declared himself a genius and made the famous “Sgt. Pepper’s” album comparison. They also thrived on his tales of a colorful past--how he grew up in a strict Pentecostal church family, boxed in the Golden Gloves, served in Germany in Elvis Presley’s old Army regiment, went AWOL to sing with a local band and wound up getting booted out of the service.
The history was so inviting to journalists that some of them--especially in the United States--eventually began asking if it weren’t too good to be true. Maybe, they thought, D’Arby, like Dylan and others, had embroidered his background to be more intriguing to the press and public.
It was hard in the midst of all these colorful, enigmatic antics to tell where sincerity ended and gamesmanship began. What made it an issue worth pursuing was D’Arby’s talent. His vocals have the passion of such soul greats as Sam Cooke and Al Green, and his seductive stage presence combines the ambition and spark of Mick Jagger and James Brown.
The new album--”Neither Fish Nor Flesh” and due Nov. 6 from Columbia Records--confirms that he is a major artist. The ambitious collection isn’t a concept album in the sense of telling a narrative story, but the songs do join together to explore a man’s social, spiritual and personal relationships.
That’s a loftly combination of themes--just the kind of bold step that can lead to charges of pretentiousness. But there’s a sweet openness and innocence in the album that is reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s most affecting and personal work. It shifts from moments of exquisite pop (the frisky “I’ll Be Alright”) to troubled idealism (“I Have Faith in These Desolate Times”).
In his London townhouse, D’Arby seemed proud of the album, but he was careful not to make any boasts or claims for it. After the teasing hard line of 1987, D’Arby now appeared to be trying to deliver the straight line. He even spoke of having gone through a spiritual awakening and realizing he wanted to spread a positive social gospel in his music.
Some publications were having trouble buying it. The old image was still stalking D’Arby. The singer had already done an interview about the new album in the English magazine Sky, and the cover headline was a teasing jab at the old image: “The Ego Has Landed!”
He shrugged when the headline was mentioned.
Are you finding the old Terence image is so strong that people are still suspicious of you?
What has happened is I sort of naively expected that I would be allowed to move on, and it has been very frustrating. No one I know is exactly the same as they were two years ago and neither am I. There have
been a couple of instances so far where that has been ignored, and the editor has apparently just decided, “This is what I want the headline to be” or whatever, regardless of what I say.
What about the “Hardline” campaign? How do you look back on the fuss you stirred?
The thing that always amazed me was that more people couldn’t see the touch of irony and humor beneath it. Everyone, especially in America, took it so seriously. It should have been so obvious that I was out to grab headlines. Take the whole “Sgt. Pepper’s” thing. People who lived in England and were following what I was saying realized what was going on . . . that one week I told one (pop paper) that mine was the best debut album in this decade, then the next week I upped it to this was the best debut album ever, and in the third week I was saying it was better than “Sgt. Pepper’s.”
It was obvious that I was just having fun, but there wasn’t the same reaction in the States, where the Beatles are like a religion. I went to this radio station in Boston and these two women who worked in the place wouldn’t speak to me.
Do you think all the controversy last time around will make it more difficult for you now? Do you think there is an attitude of “Let’s see if he can do it again”?
Of course, but that would have been there whether or not the “ego” issue was projected . . . simply because the first album was so successful (more than 3 million copies sold in England and the U.S.) that everyone wonders about whether I’m a flash in the pan.
At the same time, I don’t think everyone reacted against that strong image. I think some people enjoy that I say things that upset or shake up people.
Do you think “attitude” is an important part of a rock star’s impact?
Yes. I hate to say this because it will be misunderstood by people who are very passionate about music and say it’s just the music that matters. I don’t think there is anyone I’ve ever met who has been more passionate about music than me, but rock ‘n’ roll has never been about just music. It is music, attitude, personality, persona, myth, legend.
Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you had people saying outrageous stuff all the time. It was all part of the bargain, what was expected. Rock ‘n’ roll people were supposed to be outrageous. I mean, I remember on the last tour overhearing someone say, “He acts like he’s got a chip on his shoulder.” And I thought, “Wait a second, rock ‘n’ roll was founded by people who had chips on their shoulders.” We just forget.
But the attitude has to be consistent with the ideas in the music, doesn’t it?
Of course. It has to be an extension of the band or the person or people will see through it. As I meet more people who were my heroes, I see there is something about them that rings true with all I’ve ever read and heard about them, and that’s all that really matters.
The same with Bob Dylan. Ultimately, who cares whether everything he says is true or not? It’s not really important, but it is instructive to look at what he said. Why did he want those characteristics? Why did he want people to think he ran away from home? Perhaps it is more interesting and it tells us more about his thoughts than the real story.
What about your background? Did you make up things to be more intriguing, like Dylan?
I may have exaggerated a couple of things, but I assure you it was all basically true. I did fight in the Golden Gloves, did join the Army and it was Elvis’ old regiment. I wasn’t court martialed, but I was awaiting court martial when I was given a general discharge.
What about the title of the album, “Neither Fish Nor Flesh”? Is there a spiritual message in that?
I like the title because it has so many connotations. . . . Spiritual, ecological, astrological. I am mates with Chrissie Hynde and she’s a deeply militant vegetarian, so she’ll probably think it’s a statement along those lines.
But basically, I get dreadfully bored with all the different radio formats in the States . . . black radio, contemporary radio, easy listening, alternative radio. I understand if you are an advertising executive who wants to reach a certain market. But I hate to see music packaged like this.
You’ve suggested your childhood in Florida was troubled, that you didn’t feel like you fit in with the other kids.
I remember kindergarten and first grade, being in an all-black school. But in the second grade, everything was integrated and it was a drastic change. There was this culture shock because the same things I was praised for in the first grade by a black teacher (resulted in my being) harshly condemned in the second grade by a white teacher.
If I was outspoken or took charge in class in the first grade, it was a sign of leadership potential, a take-charge kind of guy. But in second grade the same thing was considered disruptive in class. It was most definitely a racial thing with a lot of teachers. But looking back, I can see now there were some teachers who had never taught black students before, and they just had no idea of how to relate. But the only thing I could see then was that there was a double standard at work.
Was music an important part of your life then?
I was singing in church, which I also enjoyed because it meant I got a lot of attention. But my first pop heroes were the Jackson 5. As soon as I heard “The Love You Save” I knew what I wanted to do in life. It was a clarion call for me, most definitely. I must have been 7 or 8 at the time. I remember the night they were on the Ed Sullivan show, and I had to sneak over to a friend’s house to see them because we weren’t allowed to watch anything but gospel in our house.
What led to the trouble in the Army?
For the first year and a half, I was a model soldier, but I woke up one day and realized that the whole reason I had gone into the Army was that I was tired of fighting society. I had never fit in and I thought going into the Army would help me adjust . . . would help me become a functioning member of society.
But I finally saw it wouldn’t work and I started rebelling. One day I just cracked and I left. About a month before that, I had rediscovered music and started to hang out with this band. We did some shows and people applauded, and it made me realize what I really wanted to do.
Did you have immediate success with the band?
It didn’t stay together that long. I tried to sign with CBS Records in Germany, but it didn’t work out. I kept hearing things like, “The world already has one Michael Jackson” or “We don’t need another Prince. We don’t need a cheap copy of something we already have.”
I was very discouraged. But, to be honest, I wasn’t ready, and for a year I virtually starved. I couldn’t get anything going, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to think about what I really wanted to do in music and with my music . . . how I wanted to express myself.
That’s when I wrote “Seven More Days” and “If You All Get to Heaven,” which were on the first album. I made a demo tape of them and someone circulated them to the record companies in England.
How did you feel when someone finally responded?
I remember it was somewhere right before Christmas when I got the word. At the time, my girlfriend and I were living in a flat that was about half the size of this kitchen. I got this call saying CBS was interested and I felt, “There is a God and he’s been listening--or she’s been listening,” or whatever.
Let’s talk about the new album. The tricky thing about the follow-up to such a successful debut is that the people who buy it may have like certain things about it and want more, while the artist wants to move in another direction.
That’s part of the thrill of the wait. One of the things I liked about the first album was that I felt it was very so diverse musically, very much like an introduction card. It was like saying, “Here are a few thoughts and sounds that I’ll explore even more in the future.” So, I think that’s something in my favor now. The first album wasn’t just a single direction. A lot of people are curious about what the new album is going to be like.”
How about the songs? Are you a prolific writer?
I am given the songs. If that sounds strange to people, I can’t help it. I have talked to other artists and they feel the same way. It just suddenly appears in your mind as a finished song. The trick is to then get it onto the record the way it sounds in your head. Sometimes I’ll start thinking about a subject or a theme and then the song will just come to me a few days later. It’s worked so many times. I had enough songs for a double album, but I eventually decided against it--much to the relief of my record company because they say people just don’t like double albums.
Did the fact that you know you were about to become a father have an influence on its tone?
I think the biggest impact was when she was born, which was after the songs had been written. I thought, “This is such a wondrous, beautiful creature. . . . I now believe that someone, somewhere likes me. . . . Someone is looking after me for whatever reason. It also focused my attention on my own behavior--in the sense that it made me consciously aware of things I was going to try to teach her and I thought that I’d better start practicing now what you know you are going to be preaching to her later.
There’s a song at the beginning of the album called “I Have Faith in These Desolate Times.” Do you feel mostly optimistic or pessimistic?
(Smiling) I think the best way to answer that is to say that I have faith in these desolate times. The one thing that is encouraging is that people are looking at issues again, not just ignoring them the way they seemed to for years. I remember a couple of years ago when Prince Charles was considered a lunatic because of his views on the ecology. Now there’s widespread concern about the consequences of our gross arrogance in pursuing the belief that we are above and beyond nature.
Look, too what’s happening the last couple of years in Hungry and in Poland. I don’t care what a lot of people think. I firmly believe in my heart that (Soviet leader) Gorbachev is a person who is sincere in his efforts to reform. The reason he is having so much trouble there is that the establishment hates reform, always has and always will. Look what has happened in China this summer. We have not seen the last of that at all. Once you wake up a sleeping lion within a young person, it hardly ever goes back to sleep.
What about the spiritual component in your music?
I remember being at the Fillmore (in San Francisco) on the last American tour and (there was) this powerful aura in the building. I remember going back to the drum riser in the middle of a song and picking up the squirt bottle and lifting my head to take a drink. And I remember saying--it was like something possessed me--I said, “I only want to do your will.”
I hate to even mention it now because it sounds like one of those horrible, born-again Christian things, and I want to make it patently clear that I am not interested in that whatsoever. But it was like at that particular point in time that I suddenly felt I had a purpose in life, a mission. I felt even more strongly about that after spending time in Ireland.
Do you feel you are still on that mission?
This is very easily misunderstood, but I believe the ‘90s will be the most exciting musical decade since the ‘60s. Music thrived in the ‘60s when (there was) social turmoil and social healing. Society was changing and I obviously believe in forces higher than ourselves and that they have a hand in the healing of our nations . . . that people are put into place.
I don’t think Bob Dylan was a person who got lucky and was just in the right place at the right time. I believe he was just as destined to be in his time and place as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and so many others have been.
I couldn’t possibly listen to a Beatles catalogue, the first album to the last, and possibly think it was an accident. In that same spirit, I believe in this next decade, there will be others . . . a lot more people chosen and I think I am one of those people--not the only one by any means, but one.
Aren’t you worried that some people are going to read that and think, “Oh, no, now D’Arby thinks he’s God.”
There’s a danger in anything you say, but I am trying to stress the point that I don’t feel I am the only one chosen. Rock ‘n’ roll is a big pie with a lot of slices. Some of the greatest pop of all time was bubble-gum pop. But too much emphasis has been placed on that side.
There aren’t enough people who aren’t afraid to walk on stage with just a guitar or just a piano or just a microphone and say exactly what they feel and say what was put in their hearts to sing. That’s why one is touched by Springsteen. That’s why someone is touched by U2. That’s why one was touched by Aretha or Al Green or Ray Charles or whoever . . . the Beatles, the Who. They embodied passion and energy. They surrendered themselves to an energy, which will speak through them.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.