Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. Taliban-style militias are spreading rapidly out f

"You must understand," says Maulana Sami ul-Haq, "that Pakistan and Islam are synonymous." The principal of Darul Uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is a tall and jovial man. He grabs my hand as he takes me round the seminary. Maulana ul-Haq laughs when I ask his views on jihad. "It is the duty of all Muslims to support those groups fighting against oppression," he says.

The Haqqania is one of the largest madrasas in Pakistan. It produces about 3,000 graduates, most from exceptionally poor backgrounds, every year. The walls of the student dormitory are decorated with tanks and Kalashnikovs. A group of students, all with black beards, white turbans and grey dresses, surrounds me. They are curious and extremely polite. We chat under the watchful eye of two officers from Pakistan's intelligence services. What would they do after they graduate, I ask. "Serve Islam," they reply in unison. "We will dedicate our lives to jihad."

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. For more than two months, the capital, Islamabad, has been held hostage by a group of burqa-clad women, armed with sticks and shouting: "Al-jihad, al-jihad." These female students belong to two madrasas attached to the Lal Masjid, a large mosque near one of the city's main supermarkets. I found the atmosphere around the masjid tense, with heavily armed police surrounding the building. Though the students were allowed to go in and out freely, no one else could enter the mosque. The women are demanding the imposition of sharia law and the instant abolition of all "dens of vice". Away from the masjid, Islamabad looked like a city under siege.

A new generation of militants is emerging in Pakistan. Although they are generally referred to as "Taliban", they are a recent phenomenon. The original Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan briefly during the 1990s, were Afghan fighters, a product of the Soviet invasion of their country. They were created and moulded by the Pakistani army, with the active support of the United States and Saudi money, and the deliberate use of madrasas to prop up religious leaders. Many Taliban leaders were educated at Haqqania by Maulana Sami ul-Haq. The new generation of militants are all Pakistani; they emerged after the US invasion of Afghanistan and represent a revolt against the government's support for the US. Mostly unemployed, not all of them are madrasa-educated. They are led by young mullahs who, unlike the original Taliban, are technology- and media-savvy, and are also influenced by various indigenous tribal nationalisms, honouring the tribal codes that govern social life in Pakistan's rural areas. "They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghanistan," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peshawar-based columnist on the News. "But they are totally Pakistani, with a better understanding of how the world works." Their jihad is aimed not just at "infidels occupying Afghanistan", but also the "infidels" who are ruling and running Pakistan and maintaining the secular values of Pakistani society. "They aim at nothing less than to cleanse Pakistan and turn it into a pure Islamic state," says Rashed Rahman, executive editor of the Lahore-based Post newspaper.

The Pakistani Taliban now dominate the northern province of Waziristan, adjacent to Afghan istan. "They are de facto rulers of the province," says Yusufzai. Waziristan is a tribal area that has historically been ruled by the tribes themselves. Pakistan has followed the policy of British Raj in the region. The British allowed tribal leaders, known as maliks, semi-autonomous powers in exchange for loyalty to the crown. Pakistan gives them the same power but demands loyalty to the federal government. They have been sidelined by the Taliban, however. Pro-government maliks who resisted the onslaught of the Taliban have been brutally killed and had their bodies hung from poles as a lesson to others. The Taliban have declared Waziristan an "Islamic emirate" and are trying to establish a parallel administration, complete with sharia courts and tax system.

Taliban-type militias have also taken control of parts of the adjacent NWFP. In Peshawar, one of the most open and accessible areas of the province, one can feel the tension on the streets. There are hardly any women out in public. The city, which has suffered numerous suicide attacks, is crowded with intelligence officers. Within an hour of my arrival in Peshawar, I was approached by a secret service official who warned that I was being watched. It is practically impossible for outsiders to enter other NWFP towns such as Tank, Darra Adam Khel and Dera Ismail Khan. In Dera Ismail Khan, outsiders - that is, Pakistanis from other parts of the country - need police escorts to travel around. You are allowed in only if you can prove you have business or relatives there. Girls' schools have been closed, video and music shops bombed, and barbers forbidden from shaving beards. The religious parties have passed a public morality law that gives them powers to prosecute anyone who does not follow their strict moral code. Legislation to ban dance and music is being planned. Even administration of polio vaccination campaigns has been halted amid claims that it is a US plot to sterilise future generations.

Why is the ostensibly secular government of President Pervez Musharraf not taking any action against the Taliban militants and the parties that support them? Part of the answer lies in the militants and religious parties having served the military regime well. After coming to power in 1999, Musharraf used them to neutralise the mainstream political parties - Benazir Bhutto's People's Party and the Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif. "The military and mullahs have been traditional allies," says the Islamabad-based security analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa. "The alliance of religious parties that rules NWFP came into power through his support." Musharraf also used the religious militants to destabilise Indian-held Kashmir by proxy. He encouraged extremists preaching jihad to infiltrate India for acts of sabotage.

The same is true of the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban have been a useful ally against unfriendly governments in Kabul. Even though Musharraf has been forced to go against them under pressure from the Americans, his strategy has been to try to contain them, rather than defeat them. He tried to regulate the madrasas in NWFP and elsewhere in Pakistan that provide recruits for the Taliban, seized their funds and banned them from admitting foreign students. But that's about as far as he wanted to go. Constant US pressure has forced him to send in the army, with grave consequences. Every time the Pakistani army enters Waziristan, it takes heavy casualties. Since 2003, when Pakistani troops first entered the tribal regions, more than 700 soldiers have been killed. Not surprisingly, Musharraf signed a hasty peace agreement on 5 September 2006 allowing the Afghan Taliban to get on with their business. "The military regards the Taliban as an asset," says Siddiqa. "So why destroy an asset? Particularly when the asset could be useful in the future."

That future may not be too far off. Pakistan's foreign policy towards Afghanistan is based on the assumption that the Nato forces there will withdraw sooner rather than later, leaving Hamid Karzai's regime to fend for itself. The Karzai government is strongly anti-Pakistani. But the Pakistani army needs friendly rulers in Kabul who would be willing to run the oil and gas pipelines that will serve the newly established port at Gwadar through Afghanistan's provinces (see page 32). So Pakistan needs the Afghan Taliban to exist as a force strong enough to establish the next government in Afghanistan.

Moreover, a pro-Islamabad Taliban-type government in Afghanistan would help establish peace in the northern tribal regions of Pakistan. Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, most of the people in power in Kabul are Tajiks, a minority tribe. A sizeable majority of Afghans belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, which ruled Afghanistan for centuries. The position of Pakistan's military is that this imbalance "against the political history and tribal culture of Afghan istan", as one army officer told me, is not going to last. Most of the Pakistani Taliban - that is, the vast majority of people in Waziristan - are also Pashtun. And they will not rest until their brothers across the border hold the reins of power. As such, peace in this part of Pakistan depends on who rules Afghanistan.

Musharraf's strategy is to contain the Taliban of Afghan and Pakistani varieties alike, while weeding out al-Qaeda jihadis, or "foreign elements", as they are known in Pakistani military circles. The foreigners are a legacy of the Soviet-Afghan war. When the war ended, many of the central Asians who came to fight the Soviets were not welcomed back in their countries. For want of an alternative, they settled in Pakistan. Most of these foreign jihadis are Uzbek. Musharraf has simply bribed the local tribes to attack and eradicate the Uzbek jihadis. The battle between Pashtun tribesmen and al-Qaeda in Wana, southern Waziristan, in which more than 200 al-Qaeda fighters and some 50 tribal fighters were killed a fortnight ago was a product of this policy.

Musharraf's problem is that the Taliban cannot be contained. The Pakistani Taliban have now acquired enough confidence to break out of Wazi ristan and NWFP into other parts of the country. "What's happening at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad is a trial run for the rest of the country," says Rahman. "If the Taliban succeed in Islamabad, they will turn Pakistan into Talibistan."

Lawyers in uproar

While Musharraf continues to placate the Taliban, the rest of Pakistan is standing up against Talibanisation. Huge demonstrations have been held in Lahore, Karachi and other cities throughout Pakistan. To begin with, the protests were held to support Chief Justice Iftikhar Moham med Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf in March. Chaudhry, who has become a national hero, tried to prevent the army from selling the national steel mill for a song. The affair was the latest in a long list of scandals involving the military. The openly unconstitutional act caused uproar, leading to countrywide protests by lawyers. But the lawyers have now acquired a broader agenda. They have become a national resistance movement, supported by all sections of society, against military rule and the Taliban.

Musharraf's response to the demonstrations and the Taliban challenge is to try to entrench himself even more deeply. While the country buckles under the pressure of suicide bombings, kidnappings and acts of sabotage, his main concern is his own survival. Constitutionally, he must hold elections some time this year - something he has promised to do, but the whole exercise will be designed to ensure that he continues as president for another five years.

His plan to get "re-elected" has two strands. The simple option is to get the current hand-picked parliament to endorse him for a second term and try to manipulate this vote, which the present sham constitution dictates, to ensure a healthy two-thirds majority. The heads of intelligence, the security services and the police have already been primed to ensure "positive results".

Bhutto to the rescue?

The other option is a bit messy. It involves making a deal with the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People's Party. Bhutto, who has been ousted from power by the military twice, is desperate to get back into power. She has a great deal in common with the general. She runs the People's Party as her personal property, and her social and economic policies - rooted as they are in feudalism and opportunism - are not far removed from those of the army. Her foreign policy would be the same as that of Musharraf; indeed, she is even more pro-American than the general.

So Bhutto and Musharraf, who have been negotiating with each other for almost three years, are an ideal couple. "The problem," says Rahman, "is that Musharraf does not want to give up his military uniform. It is the source of his strength. And the idea of Musharraf remaining military chief is anathema to Bhutto."

But the state of the nation, on the verge of political and religious collapse, may force Musharraf's hand. A deal between the general and the self-proclaimed "Daughter of the East" in which Musharraf retains most of his power as civilian president and Bhutto serves as prime minister may be acceptable to both. Rumours abound in Islamabad that a deal is imminent.

Bhutto's return from the cold would do little to stop Pakistan's slide into anarchy, however. The Taliban sense victory and will not be easily satisfied with anything less than a Pakistan under sharia law, or wide-ranging bloodshed. As Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, makes clear, the country cannot survive its "deep-seated rot" unless the "unrepresentative organs of the state - the military, the mullahs and the all-consuming intelligence agencies - are brought under control". It is hard to disagree with her assessment. But it is even harder to see how these "unrepresen tative organs" can be stopped from dragging Pakistan further towards the abyss - with dire consequences for the rest of the world.

Pakistan: a short history

1947 Muslim state of Pakistan created by partition of India at the end of British rule

1948 First war with India over disputed territory of Kashmir

1965 Second war with India over Kashmir

1971 East Pakistan attempts to secede, triggering civil war. Third war between Pakistan and India. East Pakistan breaks away to become Bangladesh

1980 US pledges military assistance following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

1988 Benazir Bhutto elected prime minister

1996 Bhutto dismissed, for the second time, on charges of corruption

1998 Country conducts nuclear tests

1999 General Pervez Musharraf seizes power in military coup

2001 Musharraf backs US in war on terror and supports invasion of Afghanistan

2002 Musharraf given another five years in office in criticised referendum

2003 Pakistan declares latest Kashmir ceasefire. India does likewise

2004 Musharraf stays head of army, having promised in 2003 to relinquish role

2005 Earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir kills tens of thousands of people

2007 Musharraf suspends Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, triggering nationwide protests

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Ason Mceachern
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He gave a total stranger $50,000 in cash: the strange, multi-million dollar empire of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Kate Mossman meets the man behind one of the world’s wealthiest rock bands.

He calls it “whacking”. It began near his property on 12th Street, Manhattan. He’d get his driver to circle Union Square while he identified a suitable beggar; then he’d jump out, shove a hundred-dollar bill into their hand, jump back in and drive off. Soon, he realised that many of the people he was giving to were schizophrenic and he was scaring them out of their wits. So he started passing the money to his daughter because, he reasoned, they were more likely to accept it from a three-year-old girl. He gradually increased the amount he gave – from a hundred to ten, twenty, fifty thousand dollars in a roll of notes. Paul O’Neill and his daughter would drive around the square and she’d say: “Let’s whack ’em, Dad, let’s whack ’em hard.”

****

One of the biggest bands on the planet ­remains unknown to much of the world. Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) have spent much of the past decade on Billboard’s annual list of top music moneymakers; they now play to a million people a year and have grossed over $500m in concert revenues since they were founded 20 years ago. In 2014 they made almost $52m in 52 days. They tour for seven weeks only, from November to January. To maximise profits, they split into two halves – one band for the west coast of America and the other for the east – and play matinees as well as evening shows.

Their genre? Heavy metal Christmas music. TSO are a glittering chorus line of rock chicks and axe heroes in black tie and tails, suspended on wires or balancing high above the stage on hydraulic platforms playing rock’n’roll mash-ups of “Deck the Halls” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. There are 18 people on stage, 240 staff and 40 trucks to transport them. The show, which looks like Pink Floyd-meets-Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, employs 18 lasers and 750 pyrotechnics. The band travels with two trailers of generators: they once blew out the electricity grid in Jackson, Mississippi.

TSO’s creator, O’Neill, divides his time between New York City and Florida, where the band began. I speak to someone at a UK rock magazine who once had a phone call with him. “Just don’t get him on to Chur­chill,” he says.

The Morrisound Recording studio in north Tampa was once the nerve centre of Florida’s legendary metal scene, playing host to many of the genre’s nastiest acts, including Sepultura, Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. Like most luxury recording spaces, it hit hard times in the past decade; then, in 2015, TSO bought it and turned it into their headquarters, Night Castle. It lies behind high gates and is staffed by polite young engineers with russet beards. Visitors are met with a large food centre stocked with six different kinds of mineral water and a pine-fresh smell not typical of the recording studios of the past.

O’Neill has taken on a slightly mythical status within TSO. The official photographer tells me that you rarely see him because he is “so protected”. When in Tampa, he is accompanied by a 6ft 4in driver-cum-security guard with the physique of a wrestler, whose name is Tracey.

O’Neill emerges grinning from a darkened doorway. He has the little, anthropoid legs of Jeff Beck or Mick Jagger (finished off with heavy biker boots) and the sprung stoop of one who has great nervous energy – a coiled way of moving along, like someone who is ready to help but equally ready to flee.

He sits down, throws one knee over the other and gestures at a large analogue mixing desk, saying, “You don’t see too many of these any more,” in the quick voice of a native New Yorker.

He was born in Flushing, Queens in 1956, one of ten children of second-generation Irish immigrants. His father, who had fought in France, worked for a telecoms company; he put himself through night school and qualified as a history teacher. O’Neill’s siblings are high achievers. He was “always the dumb one”. At seven, he still couldn’t read, so his mother kept him in the house for the summer and “forced phonics down my throat” until he could.

As an adolescent in the early 1970s, he performed at Manhattan folk clubs, though he is not nostalgic about it. He played guitar in productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair – “Well, illegal touring versions,” he qualifies. “Everyone was doing it at the time.” He entered Jimi Hendrix’s ­Electric Lady Studios at 52 West Eighth Street to produce a progressive rock band called Slowburn but failed to translate the baroque melodies in his head into playable music, so he gave up and went to work for the infamous management duo Leber and Krebs, who broke Aerosmith and AC/DC. These were tough times – Sharon Osbourne’s father, the manager Don Arden, would assert his power over rivals and clients by hanging them out of windows. O’Neill worked for Aerosmith as a tour manager and “settler” – meaning, he explains, that he would carry a fee of up to $50,000 in cash in a briefcase that, for security reasons, was handcuffed to his arm.

He has the disconnected synapses suggestive of years of hard living and his soft voice flits between business, American sentimentality and early-20th-century warlords at alarming speed.

“I’ll tell you why Aerosmith don’t play the UK,” he says. “They can’t stand the plumbing. They can’t believe you don’t have the mixer taps. You know Churchill was a fan of American plumbing, too?”

His long chin gives his face a perpetual expression of mischief. When he is not wearing his sunglasses, he keeps his pale, grey eyes shut. He says things like, “The one rule of work is: don’t do anyone any favours, because then they’ve got nothing on you.”

In the mid-1980s he was booked to produce a band called Heaven but was ejected halfway through a project that could have been huge – a heavy metal version of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, five years before Guns N’ Roses did theirs. He’d also wanted to try out something else with the band – a mash-up of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells”, played on electric guitars.

Joan Jett to Jefferson: O’Neill with his treasure collection (large “Mr Livy” on the left). Photo: Bob Carey

It wasn’t your average business proposal: “six rock operas, a trilogy about Christmas and one or two regular albums”. O’Neill put it to the Atlantic Records mogul ­Ahmet Ertegun in the mid-1990s and claims to have been written a blank cheque. “Christmas is the holy grail,” he tells me. “Dickens wrote five books about Christmas. So I said, ‘Then it’s too big for one album, too.’”

On TSO’s first Christmas album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, a young man wanders into a bar and learns the magic of Christmas from a mysterious old man; it has sold 3.4 million copies. Then there’s The Christmas Attic, in which a child explores an attic on Christmas Eve; The Lost Christmas Eve; and the DVD The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. Sleeve notes include short stories written by O’Neill. A few years ago, he even produced a 50-page novella called Merry Christmas Rabbi, which featured Nazis. Atlantic wouldn’t let him turn it into an album “because they were too freaked by it. Now it’s on Amazon for, like, a buck 99.”

His plan was to create a modern-day Nutcracker, something whole families would come to see, year after year. 
“I think we were in the right place at the right time,” he says. “Even Grandma has been to Woodstock. It made it a lot easier for us to jump the generational wall. That’s what I wanted to do with the Beethoven and Mozart, too. People treat the symphonies like they’re museum pieces but I think they scream out for electric guitars. The record industry acts as if people only like one kind of music. In truth, they like variation. Which is why we have hamburgers and chicken nuggets.”

Symphonic rock was not a new idea. Emerson, Lake and Palmer threw Bach, Mussorgsky and Grieg into their prog concoctions forty years ago. “I worship Greg Lake,” O’Neill says. “Greg is the Obi-Wan Kenobi – he is the Socrates of prog rock.” Both Lake and Jon Anderson of Yes have joined TSO on stage, as have the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

I call Lake at his home in Guildford to find out what it was like. His version of the band’s inception is different from O’Neill’s. “They are the most peculiar operation,” he says. He is 68 and sounds a bit like Ray Winstone. “I heard they came up with the idea of doing a prog-rock Christmas show and took it to the promoters, who told them it was a dumb idea. They have a friend in Cleveland, a small-time promoter, and they basically bullied him into doing it. And they got away with it. The more I talk to them, the more I realise that they don’t really understand what the phenomenon is. On paper, it looks like a bad idea. A prog-rock Christmas show? Stop it. But it’s like a cult.”

Backstage at Long Island, before the TSO show, Lake’s new iPhone disappeared from his dressing room. He told a security guard, and ten minutes later the device turned up next to the urinals. O’Neill had gathered the entire crew and told them no one would receive their Christmas bonus if the phone was not surrendered. “That’s Paul for you,” Lake says. “He is like the Mafia.”

Back at the studio, O’Neill plays me a YouTube clip of one of his west coast singers, John Brink, doing a TSO showstopper called “Back to Reason”, a ballad about a father searching for his son. By the end of the song, Brink is crying.

I ask where he sourced the tenor.

“Les Mis!” he says brightly. “I always go to Broadway shows to steal!”

Though TSO might sound like a racket, they could be making even more money. Tickets are capped at about $75. “There is enough money for everybody,” O’Neill says. “You don’t have to gouge every last penny out of people.” With a $20m production, they have to sell out every night. When he started out, he could see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden for $7.50, he says. “And here’s the sad thing – nowadays, the first 20 rows are empty because the only people who can afford them are corporations, and they’re in the bar the whole time, making business deals.”

He says that Florida was destined to be the birthplace of his group because it is the home of both heavy metal and Disney World. “I worship Walt Disney,” he says. “He decided he was going to build an amusement park so clean that if you lost your three-year-old, you wouldn’t worry. And you would just pay one price and all the rides were free. TSO is an ideal, too – charge the fans the lowest price and make them feel emotions they have never felt before.

“Aaaaanyway,” he says, spinning on his chair, “time for more swag. It’s all about the swag.”

He heaves the four-disc vinyl version of TSO’s 2009 concept album, Night Castle, on to his lap. While Yes had their in-house artist, Roger Dean, TSO have Greg Hildebrandt. “He did the most iconic painting of the 20th century,” O’Neill explains – “the original Star Wars poster.”

He opens a glossy tour programme. “I said to Greg, ‘I want multiple pictures of Beethoven.’ And then I said, ‘I need you to Churchill him up a bit.’” He shows me a sorrowful, white-haired Beethoven, thickset like a Disney character and bulldog-ish around the jaws, crouching over the body of a fallen woman. His index finger flies over the images. “Here’s the condemned banker who cooked the books. Here’s the carousel from Coney Island, all broken. And here’s my daughter, Ireland, on her unicorn. And here’s the castle – I’m gonna to build that, one of these days.” I ask him whether the fans know what all these symbols mean.

“That is one of the things we need to do,” he says. “I need to explain this to the fans!”

****

Cut to a café in Tufnell Park, north London, on a cold February day. Anna Phoebe lives nearby with her children and husband, the BBC presenter Gavin Esler. She studied social policy and government at the London School of Economics. She was also a member of TSO for six years, from 2004 to 2010, eventually becoming the lead violinist.

Phoebe had played violin at university. On graduating, she went to New York for an audition where a woman in dark glasses said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.” She was 22 years old when she joined TSO and suddenly found herself performing to 20,000 people a day, executing knee slides while cranking out rock versions of “Ode to Joy”. “You’re playing the same size stages as Springsteen or Bon Jovi and you’re paid as a rock star, too,” she says.

The fee for the three-month TSO ­season covered her living costs for the rest of the year; it bought her a flat in Berlin and ­financed two solo albums. “We’d be given $5,000-worth of Bloomingdale’s vouchers at the start of every tour. Paul would say, ‘If you’re gonna be a rock star, kitten, you’ve gotta look like a rock star.’”

She explains that part of the business model was signing merchandise and meeting fans: between 700 and 1,000 people each night, after every show, and double that on matinee days. She mentioned in a blog that she liked banana bread; at a gig soon after, a fan turned up with several slices of the cake strapped to his torso (“I’ve been trying to get this into the venue for, like, three days,” he said). She received other gifts from followers: an ice sculpture carved in her image and CDs of TSO fans reading the Bible.

Middle America is the band’s heartland; they don’t often play college towns. In 2004 an electrical engineer from Mason, Ohio, programmed 16,000 Christmas lights on his house and had them flashing to TSO’s song “Wizards in Winter”; when a video of this was put online, it became an internet sensation. Two years ago, 16 households in Yucaipa, California, synchronised an entire neighbourhood to the song, filming it from above with a flying drone.

“I learned more about America in that signing line than anywhere else,” Phoebe says. “The people we were playing to, they were Sarah Palin voters at the time. The poorer the state, the bigger the audience and the more men in military uniforms. This was the height of the Iraq War. They’re saying, ‘Can you draw a star for my son? He’s 17 years old and he’s passed away in Iraq.’”

She says that O’Neill is “kind of insane, smart, extremely kind – and in a very privileged position to be like that and be able to follow it through”. There are musical directors, Al Pitrelli and Bob Kinkel, to make his unplayable melodies a reality, and a business manager, Adam Lind, “to take his 20 ideas and home in on the one that is going to make money – or not lose money”.

Once, in the studio garden, she saw what she thought was a crumpled bag of rubbish and realised it was a bundle of hundred-dollar bills that O’Neill had dropped by accident. At Christmas, the whole band would be given money in an envelope and were told to give it away within 24 hours to  a member of the public. “It’s quite an addictive feeling. It makes you feel like Mother Teresa,” Phoebe says.
“He has created a world, and whether he sees an idealised version of himself, or what the world should be, or what the people around him should be, I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what is going on in his head.”

****

When O’Neill and I finish going through Hildebrandt’s artwork, it is dinner time. We move out to the car park, surrounded by staff, and he heads over to a BMW i8, which can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds and retails for $150,000. It resembles the Batmobile. Its doors peel upwards and O’Neill, as bendy and black as the machine itself, deposits himself in it, then changes his mind and joins me and Tracey in an armoured SUV.

“Have you got the baby?”
he says.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got the baby,” Tracey says. The baby is a large, black briefcase. It is too full to close and weighs at least 45lb. He tells me it contains the only copy of a forthcoming TSO project, Running in the Passions of the Fairy Tale Moon – the music and the full libretto.

“I still handwrite everything,” he says. “I can barely master email. I learned to text two months ago.”

Our car is overtaken by the Batmobile, driven by one of the young engineers. O’Neill will follow us back in it. “I know how to get home from the studio but not from the restaurant,” he explains. “I’m sorry. You’re thinking, ‘I’ve come to America to interview a retard.’”

We arrive at our destination and he takes the baby from the car. Its huge weight makes him lean to one side, like a thin tree in the wind. We enter a dark, nondescript restaurant in the basement of a hotel. He whispers something to the hostess that ends with: “It’s non-negotiable.” He ­orders a large steak that remains pretty much untouched and asks for an extra salt cellar, which he lines up next to the other one. He does not remove his sunglasses. He listens to everyone else talk and asks me how my bacon cheeseburger is, adding shyly, “I have bacon flavour toothpaste and bacon floss.”

He is less than comfortable. I cannot believe that he fears being recognised when few know what he looks like. I wonder whether the baby causes his anxiety – whether carrying the next multimillion-pound project in his hand at all times sends him back four decades to the briefcase handcuffed to his arm. He hesitates, grinning, then leans over and takes my wrist, plunging it into the left-hand side of his leather jacket and pressing my fingers around the thick, bobbly grip of a Glock semi-automatic pistol.

****

It was summer 1986 in Los Angeles. O’Neill’s friend Ray Gillen was standing in for Glenn Hughes as the lead singer of Black Sabbath, after Hughes had injured his throat in a fistfight. It was early morning and the Rainbow Bar had chucked out, so O’Neill got his Ferrari and the two of them went to the 24-hour Tower Records store on Sunset Strip. They bought a tape of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which had just opened in London, and drove around until 6am listening to “The Music of the Night”, saying: “He’s God, we suck, he’s God, we suck.”

The idea of a rock band as a stage musical may be a desperately unromantic proposition but it has taken root among a generation of rock stars trying to ensure that people play their music way beyond its creators’ natural lifespan. O’Neill whispers that Queen came to see TSO shortly before they launched their West End musical We Will Rock You in 2002. Then came Rock of Ages, in which young musicians acted out the glory days of the Sunset Strip in a plot based on the narrative of the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’”, which in turn has enjoyed a second life through the TV show Glee.

Journey now tour not with their original singer, who had hip problems, but with a Filipino fan they found on YouTube. Yes recruited a younger Canadian vocalist, Benoît David, to take the place of Anderson, another singer known for reaching notes that others cannot reach. Singers are always the first to go, says O’Neill, who has little attachment to individual rock stars. “The human voice is just these thin Kleenex tissue muscles; they’re not designed to scream on top of amps five nights a week. It’s not a matter of if you are going to destroy these guys’ instrument but when. That’s why we have multiple lead singers – to allow the vocalists to rest. TSO can go into their eighties.”

There’s an old-school heavy metal band scattered among the TSO chorus line, whose story is a litany of all that can go wrong in rock’n’roll.

Two brothers, Jon and Criss Oliva, had grown up playing Kiss and Alice Cooper covers in the car parks around Clearwater, north of Tampa. Jon had a voice that could do Robert Plant one minute and Freddie Mercury the next: “I call it the Mel Blanc gift,” says O’Neill. “You know, the guy who does all the sounds in Looney Tunes?”

They called themselves Savatage and, with O’Neill as producer, they conquered MTV in 1987 with a video filmed in an underground cavern featuring a dwarf (“Hall of the Mountain King”). But demons crushed the band. Jon wrote most of their second album in rehab. In October 1993, Criss was killed by a drunk driver on the way to a Livestock Festival in Zephyrhills, Florida, and Savatage went into a state of suspended animation.

“I knew we needed something to justify a band with no original members left,” says O’Neill, with no sense at all of how strange that sounds. “I didn’t want to see all those albums disappear. It’s not about getting caught up in the person or the individual.”

In 1996 Savatage’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” – O’Neill’s longed-for mashup of Christmas carols – was picked up by a New York radio station and metal band morphed into TSO. Their name comes from an unfinished rock opera about the Romanovs – just one of fifty Broadway musicals O’Neill claims to have conceived.

“Look, this band doesn’t make sense on paper,” he concludes. “When I started out with Savatage, I thought it would be like the Eagles. I thought I’d be living off the royalties by now. I did not foresee the collapse of the record industry. I had to find a way to make it work. I worry about the next Steven Tyler or Janis Joplin – where are they going to go? What a thousand generations took to build, a single generation can lose. I’m sure Washington and Alexander Hamilton worried about the future, too.”

Last July, TSO played the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany – a heartland for them, because of all the Beethoven. After dark, the site was hit by a storm, knocking down the sound system. While the stage was being repaired, O’Neill wandered around the camp, talking to punters, possibly in a cloak, like Henry V before Agincourt. He found two young men of 19 who turned out to be Sunni Muslims from Iraq. About 90 feet away, he talked to two men from Iran who were Shia Muslims.

“During those three days of that festival,” he says, “I can’t imagine those four young men didn’t bump into each other. And God forbid, two years from now, they end up in two different militias and they recognise each other, I’d bet everything I have that not only would they not pull the trigger; they would un-chamber their weapons and say, ‘Hey, weren’t we together at a TSO ­concert?’ It’s hard to hate – let alone kill – somebody that you went to a concert with.”

****

The next day, O’Neill is jumpy. We’re travelling to one of his properties to look at his treasure collection. He shows me CCTV footage filmed from the main entrance of the band’s former studio in Tampa. On the noiseless laptop screen, in broad daylight, the stockinged head of a robber slides into the frame; he gets to work on the studio doors with a pair of bolt-cutters. “Three pairs of lady’s pantyhose,” says O’Neill in horror, pointing at the robber’s disguise. “We were inside the whole time – I had my Glock and I didn’t want to use it but I would have.” When the burglar realises that the band is home, he beats a speedy retreat.

O’Neill has had problems with aggressive fans, too, which he passes over with a shudder. “I hate evil,” he says, more than once. TSO’s product manager Thomas Ayad, of Universal Music Group, was killed in the Bataclan terror attack last year. Today, as if to mirror O’Neill’s increased anxiety, there is not one overstuffed briefcase but three.

Sitting next to me in the back of the car, he tosses a small box from hand to hand. He opens it to reveal a Fabergé egg containing a microfilm edition of 50 pages of the original King James Bible that was sent up in the Apollo 14 space mission. He says that he lets kids hold it, so they can feel history in their hands. It’s not clear which kids he means.

We enter his property. I hear sighing and turn to find O’Neill splayed against a wall, throwing the five-point handle of a vault’s combination lock from left to right as if wrestling with the wheel of a mighty ship. In the close confines of a walk-in safe, he pulls items from the shelves: first editions of proceedings from the trial of Thomas Paine from 1793, and Churchill’s two-volume biography of his father, signed. He shows me signed first editions of Dickens’s Christmas Books and two original anonymous prints of The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, after whom O’Neill’s daughter, Ireland Wilde, is named. (Wilde means as much to him as Churchill.) Then he gets out a picture book that Joan Jett gave him. A note says: “Dear Paul. I hope you enjoy this reflection into the past and thanks for being a big part of mine.”

“Here’s Louis XV borrowing a tonne of money in 1732,” he says, presenting me with a piece of parchment, “and Benjamin Franklin building some forts.” There’s a letter from Nelson from before the Battle of Trafalgar (“I wrote a rock opera about him”) and a handwritten fragment of a speech by Reagan (“I love Ronald Reagan”). There are dozens of letters from Thomas Edison to his engineer, detailing every stage of the invention of the phonograph. He has the whole set, apart from one he gave to Steven Tyler.

He shifts a painting out of the way – a colourful scene of some rabbits, painted by Jon Anderson for his daughter – and pulls out the pièce de résistance: a gorgeous first edition of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, signed “To Lord Kitchener of Khartoum” by Queen Victoria. “Can you get any more historic?” he asks. “Kitchener went to Khartoum two days too late and saw Chinese Gordon’s head on a spear.”

Finally, with embarrassment, he shows me a letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, dated 1779. It has been badly crumpled in storage. “Maybe one of these big heavy books will help?” He reaches for a giant edition of Livy and flattens the letter under it. “Mister Livy, can you please help out poor George?”

He drifts out of the room. “There’s other stuff I want but I’ve got to stop because I’m losing track of it,” he says. “My daughter says, ‘Dad, don’t die and leave me with all this stuff. It’s like King Tut’s tomb.’”

He wanders out on to the patio, where the sun beats down so strongly that he must be melting in his leathers. He pulls himself up to perch on a little stucco balcony, legs swinging, and for a moment he epitomises the contradiction at the heart of rock’n’roll wealth: the baby boomers who bought the lifestyles of the landed aristocracy but insist on looking like pickled versions of the boys they were when they first picked up a guitar.

I ask him whether he’s glad that his days with Aerosmith are over. His liver shut down in the 1970s; he broke one of his vertebrae wrestling with bouncers. On the one hand, these stories are badges of honour; on the other, there is relief in his voice.

“Cocaine is Russian roulette,” he says. “One person can walk away from it and another can’t. I never thought I would live this long. My mother told me I wouldn’t live past 30. I was always falling through roofs. I still feel like I’m 19. I’m 60. How did this happen?”

I ask him if he is happy. He says, “Solon said to Croesus, ‘Don’t judge your life a success or a failure until the very end.’”


****

Despite O’Neill’s obsession with the British empire (“Churchill understood India better than Gandhi did”), his band is cagey about plans to play in the UK. TSO first performed in London at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2011, to an audience of about 2,000, with just six trucks of gear. The boiler was broken, the auditorium was freezing and everyone kept their coat on. Ask O’Neill if he is coming back any time soon and he gives a small sigh.

“I think he’d settle for nothing smaller than the O2 Arena,” says Anna Phoebe, “but, for a start, they’d have to get rid of all the narration in the show because British people do not like being told what to think.”

O’Neill’s characters are simplified figures – Tiny Tims or Little Match Girls, or the ­brazier-hugging idiots savants of 1980s Christmas movies. At the age of 16, working as a busboy in Hell’s Kitchen, he received a hundred-dollar bill as a tip from a stranger and never looked back.

“They’re selling the American dream and yet ‘the American dream’ no longer exists,” says Phoebe. “Even Barack Obama said it – what your father earns is more of an indicator of your future wealth than anything else. TSO sell the romanticised version – you can be poor, you can work hard, you can get yourself out of where you came from – and we don’t relate to that. But he enjoys a challenge. His brain will probably work overtime to overcome this problem.”

“I don’t necessarily think it will work over here,” Greg Lake says. “I don’t necessarily think they’d be doing themselves any favours. What is it, the money? They’re not going to sell 100,000 tickets!”

I ask Lake whether he can see a future in which young stage-school kids play the hits of long-dead bands, giving them eternal life.

“I’ve seen a Japanese ‘version’ of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, believe it or not,” he says. “I felt quite ill. Fact is, who is going to interpret the classical music of today – which is rock music – when the original players are gone?

“It’s hard to imagine what sort of currency rock music will have in a hundred years’ time. I’ve played some biblical shows – 600,000 people in one go – and that era won’t be easily forgotten. I’ve never seen that many people in one place. You wouldn’t. Other than in a war.”

Two days after we spoke, Lake’s bandmate Keith Emerson committed suicide after a period of depression connected with a degenerative disease that was affecting his playing. Before he hung up, Lake had told me about the last time he saw O’Neill: he presented Lake with a gift, one volume of the multi-volume memoirs of Winston Churchill, and told him he had put a bookmark in it.

“I opened it up and it’s a thousand-dollar bill,” Lake said. “Tell him he can ‘whack’ me whenever he wants.”

****

The sun goes down on Tampa as we barrel along Interstate 4. O’Neill takes his shades off in the evening light. He says he wears them because he is afraid of going blind. His father has lost his sight and blindness has affected nine members of his family. He is tired, and when he is tired, he speaks in military history.

Is the age of the rock’n’roll hero over?

“It’s all about the idea and real heroes grasp that. Washington didn’t want to be king. He had an idea, which was America.”

Who will he hand his project on to?

“Some kid who hasn’t been born yet. Abraham Lincoln came out of nowhere. He had ten days of schooling in his whole life. I had the ultimate gift in life, which was low expectations. I just feel lucky that it’s happened and I just hope that no one catches on that I’m getting away with murder.”

He is fed up with talking about the band but is too polite to say so. “Thank God for Britain,” he says instead. Congress is a mess. Obamacare? Please. Trump is a moron.

He sings a couple of bars of “Rule, Britannia!” soft and high.

“Seriously, it’s like the last days of Rome here,” he says. “But I think it will pull together. I believe in happy endings.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue