Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
Show Hide image

The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Ason Mceachern
Show Hide image

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