Rita, a sixteen-year-old from Watertown, flipped through the program, pausing at the larger photographs. "What's this guy's name?" sneered her boyfriend. "Gilbert Sullivan?"
"Gilbert O'Sullivan. He's Irish!" exclaimed the nymphet.
The boyfriend slid his hands down his pockets, apparently weary of trying to keep her attention. The two couples lighting intermission cigarettes to his right, though, were simply enjoying an evening on the town.
"We went to see Paper Moon last night," said one of the young wives, blinking her eyes and chewing gum. "Tomorrow night we're goin' to see Butley."
"Buckley?" asked her girlfriend's husband.
"BuT-ley! E-nun-ci-ate!" she giggled.
"It's supposed to be quite good," said her own husband, swelling. But somehow the trials of a gay Miltonist seemed remote from the scene.
"We're having lunch at the beef and ale place tomorrow, Kenney," said the first husband, recovering from his awkward query. "Want to come along?"
"I'll call you at the office in the morning."
Flashing lights cut the chatter short. Rita's boyfriend led her to the seats, glad it was time again for the music. "I betcha he stays at the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge," she said as they walked down the aisle.
The odor of Juicy Fruit filled the darkness in the hall while the twenty-two piece orchestra (complete with turtlenecks sporting varsity "G'"s) tuned afresh for the star of the show. The crowd, which spread over two-thirds of the Music Hall, had waited patiently through the first half of the evening. Though girlish cries of "We want Gilbert!" had interrupted comic Marty Barris during his best routine, Maureen McGovern managed to brake the anticipation with a powerful display of technical skill, skimming through a series of slush classics including her hit, "The Morning After."
Now that the lights were down again, the orchestra launched into a swinging jump, urged on by Gilbert's arranger, Johnnie Spence; grey hair glowing, gold sleeveless suit freeing his billowing cuffs to flash splendidly in the half-light.
At last the spot hit the wings and Gilbert came striding onstage, walking perhaps a bit too fast for a star, waving and smiling to the applause with shy constraint. Black crew-neck sweater blazoned with an immense "G", black bells with thick red stripes, topped by that fashion photographer's dream of a college boy's face; even better than the pictures, Rita must have been thinking. With a hitch at his trousers, Gilbert plopped down at the piano as soon as politeness would allow, muttering "Let's get on with it" in a sulky British tenor. Once buried in the keyboard, he began to hammer out the honky two-four beat that seems to be his favorite, the tempo of almost all his tunes. Intoxicated with their radio dream come true, the crowd cheered and cheered, still too excited to hear a thing.
The opener was a characteristic O'Sullivan original. "I Hope You'll Stay", the lyrics rhyming in fractured couplets, the melody marshaled in parallel phrases through each line of the verse - a gay, light balance, though marred by an awkward bridge. It's hard to distinguish, really, among Gilbert's songs. They seem to possess the same self-effacing quality that marks his presence onstage; whether teasing in subtle implication or simply mediocre, it's hard at first to tell. To be sure, he's miles from the manner of Tom Jones or Englebert Humperdinck (all are managed by Gordon Mills, which has spawned the myth that all three are virtually the same performer). In fact, it would be difficult to imagine Gilbert playing a club - he's much too clean, too boyish to muster even Maureen McGovern's version of slick.
Unfortunately, it was clear from the start that Gilbert's voice projects nowhere near as well in person as it does on records. Though he sings superficially like Paul McCartney (perhaps one reason for his incipient stardom), he simply doesn't have the power to keep from sounding thin and at times uncontrolled. The problem is particularly apparent in concert, where horn or string lines alone fail to provide the extra push neatly managed by overtracking in the studio.
And yet it was obvious that Gilbert cared little for what the crowd may have thought. Not that he was testy - far from it. In fact, he took the greatest pleasure in talking to the screamers in the house. "What's that, love?" he asked repeatedly of a raucous girl in the balcony. "Can't hear you, love, say't again." Though her piercing shrieks were impossibly obnoxious, Gilbert clearly relished the pointless exchange, leaning against the piano with arms crossed, head tilted toward the gloomy source of the squawking.
Such trifling events soon became the high points of the evening. Each time Gilbert began a song it was the double of the last, while the remedy of looking for interest in the arrangements was a short-lived stratagem, too. Even the hits - "Clair," "Get Down," "Alone Again" (the last a notable tune when isolated from the others) - merged into the same featureless array of music-box twink. The screams that greeted the famous songs, especially "Clair" (ironically enough, the most insipid of the group), became progressively unenthusiastic, though still as loud as the crowd could manage, as if they too were performing as much to an arranged program as Gilbert himself.
Indeed, they were perfectly matched, the crowd and Gilbert. Neither had a thing to say, neither seemed to care for much besides the sure formula that meant for Gilbert coasting through the show, and, for the crowd, no need to guard against the unexpected.
The lie to all this came during a lengthy chat we had with Gilbert (in real life, Raymond) at the Parker House. Though flanked by plates of food in the hotel restaurant, the focus of our attention radiated a lean and hungry look. The hair, significantly, was swept back, not forward, nor permitted to hang loosely on either side; neat corduroys were in evidence, while a knit sportshirt completed the picture of a music hall entertainer at his leisure. Yet the skin was ruddy and glowing, and the eyes burned. As soon as it was clear to him what our mission was, he left his party and moved in businesslike fashion to a corner booth where we could speak undisturbed.
With an intensity which re-enforced the paradox he was attempting to explain away, Gilbert attested to his lack of interest in, and consequent aptitude for performing. "Most performers get better as they go along. I get worse." The nightly routine of concert appearances was no less tedious than the daily routine of being interviewed. If one doesn't think about it, it stops being painful. All of Gilbert's responses were previously thought out and to some extent planned, which isn't to say they lacked an element of surprise. A man whose rent is payed by housewives and junior high schoolers is not supposed to admit his small appetite for such rituals. Gilbert is an Anglo-Irishman who finally found refuge from the repression of a Catholic boyhood in art college. It was the freedom of the English art schools, Gilbert emphasized, the freedom to explore new ideas, as well as the more mundane but equally important freedom from schedules, examinations, deadlines which them the spawning ground for so much musical talent in the sixties. Gilbert became exposed to the music of Bill Black and Bill Doggett, acquired some proficiency on drums and piano, and joined a group. So far, his history parallels that of the "heavies" like John Lennon, Ray Davies, and Eric Clapton. Gilbert completed art college but was bent on a music career, so he moved to London where he purposefully avoided taking jobs in art, preferring to work at menial tasks so as to direct all his creative energy into music.
Where Gilbert and the Lennons and Claptons and other first generation art school rockers part ways is in Gilbert's unruffled contentment with the trite conventions of pop, and, secondly in his seemingly perverse insistence upon avoiding the once daring but now well worn path of pop autuerism and eccentric or tortured or poignant self-expression. "I could have sat at a piano and bared my soul, but I didn't want to do that." The difficult journey had become the predictable one, and hence to be discarded. Therefore one sunk to a lower level of predictability, the more common denominator of housewives and pre-teens.
All right, the man wants to be as big as possible, which should entail being as simple as possible. Yet we pointed out hat artists who "bared their souls" - we chose Cat Stevens at the outset of his career as an example - no longer were denied huge audiences as a price for that. With extraordinary pop insight O'Sullivan replied, "Why should I start with an acoustic guitar when I'm going to wind up with an orchestra? Why not begin with an orchestra?" Truth be told, that is the inevitable progression. You could describe Gilbert as hurrying to meet the inevitable, or it could be that same allergy to hipness that caused Gilbert to cling to his silly outfit in the face of ridicule because it was different, "confusing," because it was his.
Perhaps this calculating, lucid, ambitious man can only write simply shallow songs. Perhaps the only kind of success ever within the grasp was his current success. But it is at least equally plausible that the man was in a position to choose what form his success should take. For Gilbert O'Sullivan, Dada king, insipidity could be the new iconoclasm.
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, October 9, 1973