It’s fair to say my dad has led an unconventional life. It started out with pretty standard fare for a young Jewish man from the East End of London. An accountancy qualification, followed by a stint in the family firm (they made football souvenirs) before taking it over when my granddad died. The unconventional bit started in 1984 when he started to look after the affairs of a Northampton based band called Love & Rockets, whose bass guitarist was married to his secretary.
Aficionados of 80s indie rock will know L&R were born out of the embers of seminal Goth band Bauhaus. And so began a career managing some of the most influential indie bands of the 80s. The Cocteau Twins, the Smashing Pumpkins and The Sundays to name but a few.
Often dressed in a full-length purple velvet coat with leopard-skin lapels, he looked like Daddy Warbucks who had just wandered on to the set of Spinal Tap. But this could not mask an amazing ear for music, an unrivaled eye for talent and a unique understanding of the mind of the artist.
It certainly made for an interesting and eclectic life for me. I toured America with his bands, hung out with artists who were often heroes of mine too, spent my time at gigs – and was even allowed to pretend to be a guitarist on stage at a gig in front of twenty thousand people at the UCLA amphitheatre in Los Angeles.
The music industry changed in the late 90s and the focus moved away from developing artists so he hung up the velvet coat and retired.
Except, of course, he couldn’t really retire. He was 59 and needed a new challenge. Always passionate about art and design, he became fascinated by the life of a turn-of-the-century Viennese artist called Richard Gerstl. Gerstl was a contemporary of the big names of the time – Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Alban Berg and Arnold Schonberg. And yet no-one had ever properly told his story. But what a story it was! A tragic character, he killed himself at the age of 25, following an affair with Schonberg’s wife Mathilde (and yes, part of the reason we chose Matilda’s name was as a little indirect tribute to my dad). His paintings remained locked in a chest of drawers for decades before being rediscovered and rescued.
His obsession with Gerstl took him on a journey, a true labour of love. Trips to and from Austria, trips to America. He unearthed documents that experienced scholars had never come across. He found letters. Diaries. He completely re-wrote the chronology of Gerstl’s life. It was a remarkable work, not least because he had no motivation other than a desire for learning – and to tell Gerstl’s amazing story. Using his experience of understanding artists, it was almost like he was managing Gerstl, 100 years after his death.
With an incredible body of research, he took his work to the University of London. He had no previous university experience but they invited him to do a Master of the Arts, based on what he had uncovered and to stay on and do a PhD. The young students and established academics at the university of London had probably never seen anything like him. I will always remember a paper he gave to a packed room of distinguished professors. It was entitled “Suicide and Genius”. He walked into the room and, in a very good impersonation of David Byrne in Stop Making Sense, put a ghetto blaster on the table, pressed play, and out blasted the iconic opening chords of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (he had know Kurt Kobain well). The younger students lapped it up. The professors looked, well, concerned!
Eight years later (it would have been quicker no doubt, had he not had his feet swept away by his two grandchildren who obviously had no real understanding of the urgency of his work), and after an astonishing amount of research, work, heartbreak and effort, he was granted his PhD in September.
My non-academic, non-university going, ex indie band manager dad had become a doctor (ironically of course, any Jewish mum’s dream for her son!).
He graduates this afternoon in London. We will all be there to cheer him on, including Archie and Matilda. He is an inspiration to me because he has shown that you are never too old to learn, never too old to completely change tact. He will leave a remarkable legacy now, a doctorate which, by all accounts, blew the examiners away and will be used by students, scholars and art historians for years to come.
He has also taught me that the true value of things does not lie in money but in the simple aesthetics and pleasures of day to day life. His “materialism” is not financial. His treasures and possessions are all in his mind and in his heart.
And that makes him a very special man indeed.