Well, here we are, and it’s not easy to halloo a ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR’ under these circumstances. When blogging I generally find it hard to avoid unique turns of phrase and offering my own obnoxious undermining of linguistic clichés, but that seems unwise when paying tribute to one of music and comedy’s great thinkers, wordplayers and enemies of normality. So I will try to keep this text as factual and plain as possible.
The last I heard from Neil Innes was December 12th – I had completed the first full draft of Fab Fools, and needed to hoover up the last crumbs of reflection and badinage, with a phonecall from Phil Pope, and finally, from the book’s central star, the life-long hero who had given me the confidence to finally stop yakking about my Beatles Comedy book idea, and make it happen, safe in the knowledge that he would be there to back me up, and lend the book maximum authority. He first enters the story halfway through as part of the Bonzo Dog Band, and remains its surprise protagonist right through to the end. Not having Sir Paul or Sir Ringo on board meant nothing, as long as Neil supported me. And he did:
Like dear Terry Jones, Neil was one of the nicest people in the whole of showbiz, to the extent that it was almost impossible to ask either for any favour, because you knew they’d say YES, no matter how stressed they may be in their own lives – and so the wrangling continued. On 12th December, the great man sent me a Twitter DM suggesting we have our Fab Fools chat before ‘the festivities’… but the madness of the season meant this never came to pass. And so, on the first ‘working’ day post-Xmas, this Monday, the first thing I did at about 11am was to send a reply to The Real Ron Nasty apologising for bothering him again in the festive period, but asking whether we could reschedule perhaps for this weekend. I then settled down to make the final changes to the Fab Fools manuscript, ready to send it to Candy Jar Books for 1 January. Getting it all done, plus Neil’s extra reflections, was tricky, but possible.
It was less than an hour later when mentions of Innes’ name began to percolate on Twitter and the now familiar feelings set in – panic, denial, desperate triple and quadruple-checking from the most reliable sources… And of course, soon it was undeniable. On Sunday night, en route to his home in France, the world’s greatest musical and philosophical joker simply stopped working suddenly, and apparently without any pain.
I cannot begin to imagine the horror and pain experienced by his wife Yvonne and his three boys at this senseless tragedy. The youngest of three boys myself, I lost my Dad this July with very little warning but a harrowing period of rapid depletion – indeed, Neil Innes had been ever so kind about my loss when we spoke – and it’s hard to say whether the idea of such a loss being instant and entirely unexpected is better or worse, at least for those left behind.
The sudden loss of Neil has been the most horrendously painful death of an artist since the instant collapse of his particular fan, The Rik Mayall, all those years ago. I lost my Dad, and now I’ve lost a hero. But at the same time, it’s a terrible trap when a beloved figure dies to make it ALL ABOUT YOU, what the death means to YOU, how it affects YOU, when it’s their loved ones whose pain really matters. The tragedy is universal, and individual woes should wait for a more respectable juncture…
But perhaps an exception could be made when the news breaks literally minutes after you have sent an innocent little message to the person in question, and when you have just spent a whole year writing a book celebrating their incredible achievements. Be in no doubt, certainly after John, Paul, George and Ringo, FAB FOOLS is the story of Neil Innes, and always was. From the moment the Bonzos stroll into Abbey Road to… well, last Sunday, he is the star of the show, through the Magical Mystery Tour to The Rutles to the 2019 tour. It’s a celebration of the wonderful things he did with the world’s greatest music, and of course, in his own right.
Since accepting the news, I have been all over the place, really – the book now needs a thorough overhaul, of course. But when I let slip online that I didn’t know what to do, the response of Cunky comedy writer Jason Hazeley hit the nail squarely – make the book a tribute to Neil. Actually, that was one thing I had already done before the suggestion was made, the only change I could bring myself to make to the manuscript all day and ever since – it was already dedicated to my dear Dad, but now it’s also, essentially, in loving memory of my hero – the book wouldn’t exist without his kindness and encouragement. We had discussed the possibility of him writing an Afterword for the book, maybe just a fun little postcard – just as Humphrey Lyttelton told me he was chuffed at the idea of penning the foreword to The Clue Bible for me 11 or 12 years ago, just before he too left us all too soon.
An Innes afterword won’t now happen, but it will be clear to everyone when the book comes out that the project goes back many years, with Neil’s blessing and participation central, so is anything but ‘opportunistic’.
Rather, I very much hope the book will stand as a lasting tribute to one of the greatest artists of the last century – which is why this blog is not a tribute to him, when I have a whole book to do that this spring, by which time hopefully the pain will have somewhat subsided.
But honestly, as if 2019 couldn’t already have got far enough to fuck. Neil used to get so wound up by the increased injustice in 21st century Britain, I wonder whether it just ultimately proved too much, and he went off in search of a better realm of reality. Definitely, we are all endlessly worse off without him.
It’s early days, but in addition to the book launch for Fab Fools this spring, we will now be staging a great big tribute to Neil Innes here as part of the Bath Comedy Festival in early April. We’ll raise as much money as we can to assist Yvonne and the family, given the hell of the PledgeMusic debacle and the Bonzo Dog trademark trials. If you want to do something to help the Innes family at this terrible time, do check out @UntidyCrowd on Twitter.
And so, dear friends, we’ll just have to carry on. It won’t be long now, before we turn this corner, and when we do, we’ll keep on, down that road…