Somewhere out there in a lovingly mischievous, poly-morphously sexual world – where Ziggy Stardust meets The Wicker Man, Kate Bush sends flowers and Derek Jarman catches it all on film, while Marcel Marceau, Lou Reed, Ken Russell and Fellini are all waiting for the man – is where you might expect to come across legendary mime artist, dancer and self-proclaimed “poofter in pink tights”, Lindsay Kemp.
Instead, here he is in ‘relaxed’ garb recounting his hilarious, often lascivious, tales involving one – or several – of the above to an audience of two – me and his Italian assistant/dance motivator Daniella – in a hotel lobby just across from Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. Later, that’s where he’ll be reprising a few of the more repeatable tales (Kemp is very professional about that sort of thing) for a somewhat larger audience after a climactic performance of musician and activist Tim Arnold’s ‘modern-day hymn’ What Love Would Want, a song celebrating the diversity and inclusivity of love which has miraculously transformed into an ever-growing, increasingly international multimedia creative project.
The day-long event at the Bridgewater last month also involved several Manchester couples who volunteered to take part in its latest evolution, encompassing a music video directed by Arnold and a series of photographic portraits by Manchester-born photographer, Andy Fallon.
The project was inspired by a song that Arnold, a straight, mixed-race son of lesbian parentage, wrote after hearing Stephen Fry’s seminal speech on the Catholic Church’s condemnation of gay people. The final live event featured not only Arnold but the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus, classical pianist Emmanuel Vass and Kemp who, according to Arnold, “personifies love itself in a way that transcends gender, the spirit of love as both sexless and sexy, and the governing force that’s inspired so many people. Of course, Lindsay’s the perfect person for that.”
Arnold is pretty sure that the first time he heard of Kemp was as a teenager, perusing a book about Kate Bush who had dedicated her song Moving on The Kick Inside to her former mentor. Then he remembered hearing the name in connection with another one of his heroes, David Bowie, who had called on his (alleged) former lover’s services to bring his Ziggy Stardust vision to theatrical life for two nights at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1972.
“Ziggy Stardust put glam rock, gay rock, theatre rock on the map,” says Kemp. “It was the first time we saw this marriage between theatre and rock ’n’ roll, particularly my kind of avant-garde theatre. I was Starman coming down a 50ft ladder, I was Queen Bitch and, of course, we know Ziggy Stardust was an immense influence on rock music. Groups like Genesis and Pink Floyd were very influenced by the theatricality.”
“Lindsay? I didn’t even know if that was a boy’s or a girl’s name as a teenager,” Arnold laughs. “Then I found out what an amazing artist he is, how incredibly influential he has been, so I’ve wanted to work with Lindsay since I was 18 and I was with my first band, Jocasta, on Sony. But the record company really didn’t want me doing anything that was too alternative and avant-garde in the 90s, which was all football and Britpop. For me, it’s been a real lifelong dream to collaborate.”
Arnold observes: “I’d known that he was living in Italy now, but I’d read somewhere that he was coming to London and I managed to get his email address because I wanted to make sure I could say ‘hello’.”
Kemp adds:”I think it rather surprised Tim that I was already a fan of his when he got in touch, as I’d adored his Soho Hobo stuff.”
Kemp thus found himself back in Manchester for the first time in 50 years and recalls that “the last time I was here, I was surprised to find myself doing my kitsch cabaret act in between the strippers and the wrestling at Belle Vue. But I wasn’t going to get off that stage without letting them hear some songs from the shows, whether they liked it or not.” He laughs, making it clear that he’s had many more equally hair-raising moments in his life.
But 80-year-old-something Kemp has lived quite happily, and relatively quietly, in Italy for many years now after his roistering 70s and 80s took their toll – not least financially.
“It’s that English artist fascination with the place. I always felt foreign in England, because they didn’t really like arty types, certainly not when I was growing up in the 50s. There was just something about my persona that people thought was rather alien.”
He continues: “I still do get asked to do projects here and there fairly often, but I’d not been asked to do a project like this before. This is something quite extraordinary and I’m still learning what it’s all about. The song appealed to me a lot, as does universal love. It’s what I am and it’s what I do,” he half-sings, half-declaims. “And it’s what I do with every performance – encourage love. Love is the state when one experiences the most joy and lightness and agelessness so, yes, I encourage everyone to enter that state. I believe very much in its power.
“I believe that the theatre artist has to bring light to the stage and light to the world. So, I was more than delighted to participate and to work with Tim again after we’d done a little video about a year ago. We first met about two years ago when he called me and asked if I’d be interested in doing something, or maybe it was just to say hello. We didn’t have a plan although we did after a couple of minutes, of course. I was going to return to London after years and we were going to do a different show using Tim’s songs, which we haven’t done yet, although I hope we will do.
“But, for the time being, this is so me. I represent all that we’ve been talking about, love and light. I wear vast angel’s wings as this angel that brings light, joy, love and freedom – all those things we used to talk about in the 60s.”
“It’s astonishing the way the years drop away from Lindsay when he dances on stage,” Arnold vouches before heading over to the Bridgewater Hall with Andy Fallon to do technical things, and so it proved. When Kemp appeared on stage, complete with the promised angel wings he self-deprecatingly described as his “couple of fishing rods”, you could really appreciate what Kate Bush meant on a long-ago Woman’s Hour when she said: ‘” couldn’t believe how strongly Lindsay communicates with people without even opening his mouth. It was incredible, he had the whole audience in his control, just with his little finger. And it was amazing. I’d never seen anything like it, I really hadn’t. And I felt if it was possible to combine that strength of movement with the voice, then maybe it would work, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Bush sent lavish flowers to the theatre at the end of the What Love Would Want performance. “Kate Bush? I know a Shepherd’s Bush,” Kemp waspishly observed, although he was genuinely moved by the gesture and has real affection in his voice as he remembers that “she was a sweet girl but so shy that I had absolutely no idea she could sing until she delivered her record to my door.
“We can talk about all those people if you like. I really don’t mind but the stories are all out there to read. I suppose I’ve lived quite a life, haven’t I? You say you saw me in Flowers [his adaptation of the novel Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, the writer who inspired Bowie’s Jean Genie] in London all those years ago? Yes, I suppose you would still remember that,” he chortles. “That was quite a season, but perhaps not as exciting as the version of Salome I did at school where I was only wearing toilet paper – well, you could hardly get a costume in a boy’s school, could you?”
He continues: “We used torches for lighting and some of the younger boys were covered in cocoa to carry me in. It went very well until the housemaster came in. But nothing was going to stop me. I was destined for stardom. I never walked anywhere, I always danced. For me, dancing is so much more pleasurable than walking and the quickest way to happiness. That’s why I’ve danced every day of my life and I always will.”
The latest incarnation of What Love Would Want will appear “before the end of the year”.
In the meantime, you can find the London and Toronto incarnations, as well as a version captured at the Russian Embassy, at: www.timarnold.co.uk