16 Aug 2010
He receives the Freedom of Glasgow this week, but what was the real effect of the city on Billy Connolly?
IN 1974, round about the same time Richard Nixon resigned as US president over the Watergate affair and Lord Lucan disappeared never to be seen again, Billy Connolly released a live record called Solo Concert. Recorded in the Tudor Hotel in Airdrie, it was a double album comprising a mixture of songs and repartee, including The Jobbie Weecha and The Crucifixion.
In the former, a riff on going to the toilet on an aeroplane, Connolly speculated on the destination of jobbies once released from their bodily prisons. Was there a tank in which they were held until the plane landed or were they “wheeched” into the atmosphere via an ingenious device Connolly insisted he’d seen on Tomorrow’s World?
In The Crucifixion, meanwhile, he sought to subvert 2,000 years of theological scholarship by insisting that a young girl working in a Glasgow printer’s had made a terrible misprint in the Bible. Thus, said Connolly, it was his sincere belief that the Last Supper had not taken place in Galilee as was generally accepted. Rather it had been held at the Saracen’s Head (“quite a popular place for cocktails of an evening”) in Glasgow’s Gallowgate where a copious amount of drink was taken and where apparently Jesus told the Apostles: “Wan o’ you is goin’ to shop me … and two big Roman polis is goin’ to wheech me right oo’ o’ here, and into the jail. And ah’m goin’ tae dae a wan-night lie-in, me with the good dress on tae. And I’m goin’ tae get up in the mornin’ and say, first offence ah’m on to probation nae bother. But a big Roman is goin’ to come into my cell and say, ‘Probationum my arsium’ …”
The album, recalls singer-songwriter Rab Noakes, suddenly propelled Connolly, who he has known since their days together on the folk music circuit, to a much wider audience than he’d been able previously to command. “It was so bonkers,” says Noakes, “it caught people’s imaginations and it just grew from there.” Fame in itself, adds Noakes, was not the spur. Or at least not the kind of fame associated with household names. “Your aspiration was to be like Hamish Imlach; it wasn’t to be like Frank Sinatra,” he says, putting together two names not often seen sharing the same sentence.
That Connolly’s name now sits more comfortably alongside Sinatra’s than that of Imlach, in his heyday one of the top acts on the folk scene, is one indication of his stratospheric rise to international stardom. Another is the receipt at the age of 67 of the Freedom of the City of Glasgow on Friday which was initially proposed by Lord Provost Bob Winter, who regards Connolly as “arguably the world’s best-known Glaswegian”.
Such civic recognition was not always forthcoming. Indeed, time was when many Glaswegians regarded Connolly as a nuisance, the kind of ambassador they’d rather was playing in Ulan Butor than in Uddingston or Ullapool, or an embarrassment. With his predilection for scatological humour, and inveterately irreverent if not blasphemous, he seemed to be on a one-man crusade to subvert those determined to airbrush Glasgow’s image as a city where, as the novelist William McIlvanney has said, you never know where the next assault on your privacy is coming from.
Connolly’s then image, as described by Iain Finlayson in his 1987 book, The Scots, “was that of the hard man, the Glasgow keelie, the Sauchiehall Street Saturday nighter throwing up jokes and throwing up a mixture of chips and Tennent’s Special Export beer. Connolly is big, bearded, doesn’t give a bugger for anything, and says so brutally. As an image-maker for the Scots, confirming Southern prejudices, he is as contemporary as Harry Lauder is dated.”
By then, of course, the umbilical cord which attached Connolly to the source of his comedy was coming undone. Where in the past, when he was known almost exclusively in his heartland, he was adored and could get away with murder, he was affectionately known to one and all as The Big Yin. Watching him perform was like seeing a larger – much larger – louder and hairier version of yourself on stage. He mocked the way Glaswegians walked and talked and behaved. Nor was the rest of the nation spared. Adopting a primly posh accent he sent up Edinburgh pretensions, calling Corstorphine in The Jobbie Weecha the capital’s “Spam belt”. At his best he flew by the seat of his pants, which seemed to have a Rolls-Royce engine in them.
But we Scots are weird and those we have loved we have a habit of disowning or damning when others smile upon them. As Finlayson observed, as soon as Connolly was successful in “the South” Scots became less enamoured of him. “Now he appears to the Scots to have become corrupted by easy living and seduced by his own success. He has cast aside some of his Scottishness, and he will not be easily forgiven. He still trades on, but is thought to have rejected, his roots. He has skidded on his own banana boots.”
Ironically, the beginning of the schism between Connolly and his native audience may be traced to the TV interview he gave in 1975 to Michael Parkinson. With little prompting from the doyen of chat show hosts, Connolly launched into a story about a man who’d murdered his wife and buried her bottom-up in order to have somewhere to park his bike. If there was a moment in his career that can be described as Damascene this was it. While the whole of Glasgow and environs had been talking the previous year about the Solo Concert album, now everyone in the UK knew Connolly’s name and was desperate to see more of him. Connolly himself has acknowledged that his appearance on Parkinson was “the programme that changed my entire life”. But it also spelled the beginning of the end of Scotland’s youthful fling with the man who was not only redrafting the comic code but was also bulldozing the walls through which subsequent generations of stand-ups would gratefully crash.
“I suppose that the very moment that the Scots contrive to insert a champion into the UK consciousness,” wrote Jack McLean in the Glasgow Herald in 1985, “they feel an immediate sense of loss. As soon as Billy Connolly, for instance, hit the big time and developed a taste for his own independence, the nation had the clubs out. Some of it, though, was justified. Connolly took to being pals with unctuous idjits like chat-show hosts: he took to Southern living, and Oxbridge-educated bints. Sure, it is a softer life down in the Home Counties and Connolly doubtless wanted to get out of the cold, damp, bitter, climes of our national affection: he had talent enough for exile.
“It is hard to take all the same: Billy Connolly at the horseriding, uttering demure wee words like ‘lovely’ and ‘super’, going vegetarian. You can’t help feeling let down a bit, and Billy would be daft to care about that.”
Such ambivalence towards him and his achievements might have prompted a lesser man to pull his bike out from his victim’s bum and pedal off into the sunset. But Connolly is Glasgow to the core and knows, not just through bitter personal experience, that its contradictions, contrariness and prejudices are parts of a complex jigsaw which, when seen in its finished state, is a wonder to behold.
Connolly’s Glasgow, the one in which he grew up from the 1940s to the 1960s, was one of the most colourful, garrulous, frantic and fractious cities in world. To hear yourself heard you had to have a loud voice and sensitive ears with which to reproduce the argot that is the preferred mode of communication among the populace. Those, however, who go in search of blue plaques in the hope of finding the places where he was born and spent his early years must expect to be disappointed.
The four-storey tenement in Dover Street, situated between Sauchiehall Street and St Vincent Street near the Mitchell Library, where all eleven pounds of him plopped out on to freezing linoleum, is no more. Later, after his mother left her husband for another man, Connolly, aged three, moved with his older sister Florence into a flat in Stewartville Street, off Dumbarton Road in Partick with his aunts Margaret and Mona. The building is probably extant but the atmosphere has gone, the road pedestrianised and the air smokeless.
In her biography of her husband, Pamela Stephenson, whom Connolly married in 1989, evoked an era that seems centuries rather than decades distant. “Most days,” wrote Stephenson, “he played with marbles and little tin cars in the gutter outside his close. It was the perfect vantage point from which to study the activities of the milkman, the coalman, the ragman and the chimney sweeps. If he played his cards right, he could be heaved high up on to the horse-drawn cart of one of those workers for a ‘wee hurl’ to the top of the street …
“There was an evangelical establishment at the top in the street at number 12, called Abingdon Hall. It’s still there, a red-painted gospel hall run by the Christian Brethren that boasts social events such as ‘Ladies Leisure Hour’ and ‘Missionary Meeting’. Back then, Protestant children could attend meetings of a youth club called Band of Hope … Billy decided the appeal of the Protestant faith was the absence of kneeling. Never one to shy away from a good sing-song, he joined in with the best of them.”
Connolly’s motherless childhood and his relationship later with his abusive father were tempered by his ability to seek amusement beyond the home. In Partick Library he read his way through the children’s section before he graduated to the section for adults, where he discovered Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years In Tibet, which given the chance he would have visited himself. He joined the Scouts, longed to be an altar boy at St Peter’s Church and had his first kiss in Plantation Park.
Music, however, was from an early age what entranced him most. On his website Connolly wrote: “I first realised I wanted to be an entertainer when I was about 10 or 12. At first I wanted to be Hank Williams, it was quite funny really, my father was a devout Catholic and we lived in the Barras … In the market they sold records, there was always Neil Sedaka booming out and the pop of the day. My father bought a record called Dear Mary by Slim Whitman, thinking it was a hymn. He thought it was about Mary, the mother of Jesus. When he got it home he was disappointed to find it was a love song – a song mourning lost love – but I loved it and I urged him to get more, so he asked the guy in the shop, who gave him Hank Williams, and so I learnt to yodel. I thought I would like to be a Hank Williams kind of guy. He had a character called Luke the Drifter and I saw myself as Luke the Drifter yodelling through life.”
And so, metaphorically if not actually, he has realised his wish. Leaving St Gerard’s secondary school he first worked as a van boy for Bilslands bread then, aged 16, he entered the shipyards, which he has talked about as if it were a Swiss finishing school: “I was so happy there. I fell right into it. Loved it.” Thereafter he had a spell in the Territorial Army in Cyprus and, on his return to Glasgow, found his metier in the folk clubs that were springing up all over the city in the 1960s, eventually forming The Humblebums with Tam Harvey.
When Harvey left, Connolly was joined by Gerry Rafferty, with whom he made two albums. Rafferty, who went on to found Stealers Wheel and whose hits include Stuck In The Middle With You and Baker Street, was, Connolly has acknowledged, the better musician of the two. Connolly, however, was the consummate performer. Rab Noakes, who was a member of Stealers Wheel, says, “I think they each got a lot out of each other. They had a lot of shared reference points in their backgrounds, that Catholic-Irish-Scottish thing.”
Noakes first encountered Connolly in the mid 1960s at the Glasgow Folk Centre in Montrose Street, now long gone. “You wouldn’t be allowed in a building like that now for health and safety reasons,” he says. “Billy was around a lot at that time. He played the banjo.” Noakes was subsequently asked by Connolly to join him in a concert at Glasgow’s City Halls in February 1969, which he says was the first time Connolly and Rafferty shared a stage.
In the afternoon before the concert, he recalls, everyone involved met for “a bit of rehearsal” at Connolly’s father’s house. For Noakes, Connolly’s transformation from someone playing “old timey country music” to the headliner who could sell out 11 days of solo gigs at the Apollo may not have been foreseeable but neither was he surprised by it. As Connolly himself has said, he badly wanted to be a musician but he wanted, above all else, to be an entertainer. The one was the servant of the other. If, as with the likes of The Jobbie Weecha, the story took 15 minutes to deliver and the song that followed lasted only 30 seconds, then that was the way things were. For Connolly making the audience laugh was what his act was all about.
That, surely, will be Billy Connolly’s legacy. In a city in which every cab driver, bar fly and football fan thinks he’s Chic Murray or Woody Allen, there is only one comedian to whom Glasgow truly belongs. And, lump or like it, that will soon be official.