On writing Rush-Chemistry, and Egg Nog Gate

“What’s next?” said Sean. “You can’t just leave it there.” Sean was the self-styled big cheese at Helter Skelter, the publishing firm that took a risk on the first edition of ‘Separated Out’, a book that became the authorised biography of Marillion. Sean was also a true gent, a person who cared deeply about music and the cast of thousands who made it all possible. His shop was on Denmark Street in London, an eclectic treasure trove of musical literature, itself surrounded by guitar emporia and just a stone’s throw from the proudly independent book store, Foyles.

Sean was right, but I had not given any thought to the subject. “I don’t know,” I replied. We’d met in Foyles’ jazz cafe, its uncomfortable, squashed together benches an apparently deliberate statement: this is art, you’re supposed to get a sore arse. Sean sat cross-legged, the only way he could squeeze his lanky form into the only, cramped space available.

“What about Rush?” I suggested.The band seemed to fulfil the necessary criteria: despite having a strong following (and therefore, readership), they were not mainstream and therefore not particularly written about. After a period of hiatus due to some deeply tragic circumstances, the band were back together, recording and touring. On top of that, the power trio had delivered the soundtrack to my school and college years.

“Let’s do it,” he said. I paraphrase — the conversation filled a good hour — but the gist is there. Rush seemed a logical choice, I was hankering to do more writing, and above all, I believed I had the process nailed. Start writing (thanks Karin), get a draft done, send it to the band’s management, sort some interviews and, well, job done. How hard could it be?

A year or so later, we were back in Foyles. “This is your difficult second book, isn’t it,” laughed Sean, his eyes sparkling. I nodded, shrugging. Things hadn’t quite panned out as planned. The process worked, after a fashion; in addition I had benefitted from my day job to travel to the US, and therefore Canada, which was a boon — I had been able to meet a number of wonderful people en route, producers and engineers, and pick up what I thought were great insights.

At the same time, given the distance I was less able to rely on serendipity for meetings. A fortunate coincidence led me to speak directly to a personal friend of a band member; an unfortunate misinterpretation meant a message went back that some bloke was writing an authorised biography of the band. I never said it, but that is what was heard.

Two things all budding biographers should know about the nature of music writing: first that it is, in many cases, parasitic. It is possible to have a situation in which the subject gains as much from the relationship as the writer, but equally frequently, this will not be the case. And second (as I have learned through anecdote and example) a known technique for obsessive fans to gain close proximity to their heroes, is to claim to be writing a biography.

So the mis-hearing of the term ‘authorised’ (I had used it, to describe the Marillion book) was more than a setback; it captured the worst fears of a band who had become rightly, and fiercely, protective of their own privacy. I’m sure it didn’t help that, having written some 80,000 words on the band by this point, I had become a little obsessive myself.

But the biggest challenge was neither of those things; it was, in fact, timescales. The people at Rush’s management company SRO-Anthem had been nothing but helpful, putting me in touch with close collaborators and giving me good references. Despite the setback, I had been told that I could still be able to talk to the band at some point, but it might take time (lesson 3, biographers: you are dealing with human beings, not facades). If only I had such time, but back in the UK Sean was gently cajoling me to get the thing finished, otherwise I would miss a publishing cycle.

There was some excellent news. I had spoken to Hugh Syme, Rush’s talented and long-standing partner for album covers and indeed, musical contributions. Hugh had suggested he did the cover for the book, an idea that I put to SRO, who asked Neil Peart, Rush drummer, who also had most to do with artwork within the band. Neil said yes, and Hugh immediately created a fantastic cover based around a Chemistry theme.

As the now-immovable deadline loomed, I had one chance left to engage in person, on a December trip to San Jose with the return journey via a cold, wet Toronto. A tentative morning appointment with SRO-Anthem was quashed at the last minute due to last-minute needs of the office Christmas party that afternoon. “I’m sorry, but I’ll be making egg nog,” I was told, a remark which will for evermore be referred to as “Egg Nog Gate” in our household. Lost for what to do, I booked the next flight out.

The book was finished shortly after, and we went to print with a truly spiffing cover. Happy indeed is the person whose book is stocked by Foyles itself. As for the content I was, and remain disappointed for a number of reasons — not just the lack of direct band insight, nor the fact that a decade later, I know I could do a much better job. But in addition Sean’s interest seemed to have waned, taking with it his attention to detail. At the time I accepted this situation gladly (he usually wielded the red pen like a stiletto) but the prose is weaker for his reduced editorial input.

Little did anyone know that Sean was displaying the first signs of leukaemia, a bitterly nasty condition that would take him from us — but not before he had recommended me to Mike Oldfield, a gesture for which I remain profoundly grateful. The logistical downside was that Sean left a music book publishing company which never really managed to get back on its feet; several years later I chose to take back the rights, as the only financial purpose the book was serving was to pay accountants.

Sometimes things don’t work out how you hope, but there is a positive twist. The year after publication, I received an email from a good friend of Neil’s, who wanted a copy of the book to give to the drummer for Christmas. I sent one off with much delight, from one budding writer to another, more established author. As Neil announces his retirement from the band with which he has played for past 40 years, and which has brought so much pleasure to so many, I would like to add my own gratitude to the man who gave me his support when all else seemed dark. Thank you Rush, and thank you, Neil.

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