The Wildest Cat

Re-printed from Maggie’s Blue Suede News

Here in Moscow we rock’n’rollers revere our legends. And there are fewer more iconic than one of the wildest r’n’r cats of them all – Gene Vincent. And so on 30th March we held a tribute concert to celebrate the great man.

To complement the genius that was Vincent, we arranged for one of Russia’s greatest bands, the Coral Reefs, to perform at the concert. Regular readers of this column will remember them from my articles. They’re a truly brilliant band, playing great dance music with a heavy dose of rock’n’roll. The evening included video clips of Vincent at his best, plus the DJ for the evening (Dan) played many of his greatest songs. It was a wonderful night, a fitting tribute to Gene.

The story of Gene Vincent is one of the most epic in rock’n’roll history. It rises to the level of a Greek Tragedy. A performer so blessed with talent who shone like a unique bright star, who refused to look after himself (or those around him) and ended up at the end as a sad parody of his former greatness. But there were 2 years in particular, from 1956 to 1958, when he had arguably a greater period than any other rock’n’roller. Both the film clips of that time plus the music confirm this.

He was one of the artists who defined the rock’n’roll era. Along with his legendary group, the Blue Caps, he recorded some of the greatest records of the Fifties. No words written here can convey the loyalty and passion which this imperfect man stirred up in people who became lifelong devotees of his music.

In terms of his rock’n’roll career, the first pivotal moment occurred while he was still in the US Navy. He was a despatch rider and in July 1955 was involved in a collision, when another vehicle jumped a red light. He was thrown from his motor bike and sustained a severe injury to his left leg. His leg was almost severed, from just above his shin. Subsequently he didn’t look after the leg properly and it developed into an even more serious disability, which was to affect the rest of his life.

The doctors treating him after the accident recommended amputation, but Vincent refused this solution. It turned out to be a bad decision and he was to live with severe pain for the rest of his life. Twice more during his life he was on the verge of agreeing to amputation of the leg, but again walked out of the hospital just prior to the planned operations. Maybe the major reason for bottling out of these subsequent operations was his belief that it would mean the end of his rock’n’roll career.

One consequence of this physical pain was his resort to alcohol and pills for relief. This only exacerbated his problems and led to rapidly declining health which killed him prematurely in 1971, at the age of 36.

Gene really hit the big time in 1956. Aided by the huge success of hit singles like “Be Bop a Lula” and “Blue Jean Bop”, the legend was born. Crucial to this success during the 2 years from 1956 to 1958 was his backing group, the Blue Caps. They superbly complemented Gene’s manic style on stage, with their own wild performances. Alongside the brilliant music and concerts, came the wild life style off-stage, mainly alcohol-fuelled, with wrecked hotel rooms, scandalous parties involving desirable young women, wrecked automobiles, being par for the course for Vincent and his band. During this 2 year spell, there was a big turnover of personnel in the band: Partly this was due to some of the musicians deciding they’d had enough of this physically exhausting decadent life-style. Although personally I wouldn’t have minded 2 years of it !

All this high (or should I say low) life took its toll. The record company Gene was signed to (Capitol) decided to give more of its time to the likes of Sinatra, Peggy Lee, etc., as being much safer bets. The Blue Caps disbanded after Gene refused to pay them and the American Federation of Musicians revoked his license to perform. At the end of all this, it seemed his career was kinda washed up in terms of any more stardom.

But in 1959 he was invited to perform in the UK. The instigator of this was the legendary Jack Good, and he was mainly responsible for the resurrection of Gene’s career. And what a resurrection. Carefully coached by Good, Gene adopted the all-black leather look and the bad guy image on stage, to great effect. He appeared regularly on TV and headlined rock’n’roll package tours in the UK. He was once again a mega-star.

But perhaps inevitably, again things started to sour for him fairly quickly. Another pivotal event occurred in 1960, which was the car crash he was involved in. He was travelling in a cab with Eddie Cochran from a gig in Bristol to London. Tragically the great Eddie, a real rock’n’roll hero, was killed and Gene’s leg was damaged still further. The loss of Cochran also personally affected him very badly. Although a bit of a wild liver himself, Eddie had been somewhat of a stable influence on Gene and had deterred him from some (not all !) of the wilder excesses from earlier days. Witnesses at the time say Cochran was more or less the only person Vincent would really listen to and take advice from.

To try and alleviate the additional searing pain he now suffered from the leg, he increased his intake of alcohol and pills. The shows he had put on in the UK up to this point had been truly memorable, but from now on they would be disappointing and a shadow of his former greatness. He also became much more cynical generally, took to carrying a gun around with him. He was involved in a number of female relationships, all of which ended in failure.

In 1968 in a hotel in Germany, Gene Vincent tried to shoot Gary Glitter. All his shots missed and the petrified Glitter fled Germany the following day. I guess in view of what we learned later about Glitter and his appalling moral behaviour, very few people will have any sympathy for Gene’s target that day.

From the mid-60s until his death in 1971, Gene continued to perform but he was no longer great and these performances were testimony to the level of his decline. The cause of his death – sudden liver failure – was a further indication of how heavily he had been drinking for so long. In the period leading up to his death, he was over-weight and in very poor health, looking much older than his age. All his marriages and female relationships had failed and he died alone with little money to his name.

Those that got to know him personally during his life give mixed opinions about him as a person. Some describe him as a kind, polite individual, others give an opposite analysis of him. The consensus is that it all depended on the mood he was in and how much he’d been drinking at the time.

Interestingly, after his death he became a sort of rock’n’roll “martyr” to many rockers and is still revered by devoted fans. I can remember personally being caught up in this Gene Vincent “martyr” syndrome in the 1970s and revering him as the one and only. One can understand why – in his heyday he was truly magnificent. If ever the term “flawed genius” could be applied to a performer, it would be Gene Vincent.

So here’s to the man who truly was and is still to so many a legend. As the title to one of his most famous songs bears witness, he was the ultimate “Wild Cat”.

Richard Hume