Easy rider

McQueen: the biography

Christopher Sandford<em> HarperCollins, 497pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 000257195

When Steve McQueen was dying of mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos poisoning as well as smoking, he sought treatment from William D Kelley, a former dentist who "was being investigated by more than a dozen federal agencies", and who was "fighting a guerrilla war against what he calls 'the vast cancer industry' in America". The day before his death, McQueen had a tumour removed from his liver in a Mexican clinic. At this point, intimates Christopher Sandford, the author of this biography, something strange and horrifying might have happened. "One story that never surfaced even in the tabloids," Sandford tells us, "was that Steve McQueen, as Kelley now insists, was murdered."

This certainly makes you sit up. Steve McQueen murdered? By the time you get to this passage, you have read more than 440 pages of serious, well-written stuff; Sandford is not a boggle-eyed gossip merchant. "One of McQueen's doctors was asked to take the excised tumour to a pathology lab in Mexico City for analysis," he tells us. But the doctor didn't turn up, so Kelley himself caught the flight to Mexico City, "clutching the jar containing the five-pound mass". Upon examining the contents of this jar, the pathologist said: "I've never seen anything like this. It's completely dead." But McQueen was already dead - he had died of a heart attack in the night. Had he been taken out by sinister establishment forces? Was he injected with a coagulant?

It's a shocking story. But it's also an appropriate way to end a book about a man who was known, for slightly more than two decades, as the ultimate rebel. Frank Sinatra called McQueen "absolutely the greatest Zeitgeist guy. Ever." He slouched and shrugged through his films as if he'd been born with a grudge against the world. Almost all his characters were outsiders, and most of them dreamed of one thing - running away. Think of the films - The Getaway, The Great Escape, Papillon, The Thomas Crown Affair. The characters he played, Sandford believes, were in fact versions of the real McQueen. "When he played a loner or a hustler, an emotional basket case, you could be sure it was coming from deep source material and not just a script."

He was born in a suburb of Indianapolis in 1930, and had a nightmarish upbringing, the sort of childhood you read about in biographies of serial killers. "Long before his 15th birthday," Sandford tells us, "Steve knew what it was like to be dyslexic, deaf, illegitimate, backward, beaten, abused, deserted and raised Catholic in a Protestant heartland." He scavenged in dustbins, stole from shops, and committed "a little arson". His mother was an occasional prostitute who told him: "Don't talk to me about love. I feel the same way before, when and after I fuck somebody - like shit." When McQueen was 14, his mother and stepfather "signed a court order" committing him to reform school, where he might well have been "homosexually raped".

This, it seems, was McQueen's material, the substance on which he drew when he acted. As he became older, and more successful, he never quite felt settled. Even while he was married to his first wife, Neile Adams, a "small, stunningly svelte" Broadway dance star, he regularly had sex with other women. President Kennedy once said to him: "Don't you find you have a headache if you don't have at least a poke a day?" In 1960, Sandford tells us, McQueen "was nearing Kennedy's ideal. The tally was 'two or three hundred' a year." He apparently liked being "breastfed", and staring at his women's bodies for long periods of time, taking in every detail. One of his girlfriends, Emily Hurt, pointed out that, although it was McQueen's women who "took the precautions", McQueen himself "wore a condom over his heart".

In the end, you get the impression that McQueen was a good, even great, film actor because of the depth of his urgency to escape the real world. With no emotional safety valve, all he had was pretence and make-believe. According to Sandford, "McQueen never fully understood acting, or he chose not to". And this makes a kind of sense - it chimes in with the rest of McQueen's impulsive world - the sex, the drinking, the womanising, the mad, suicidal motorbike rides through the desert in the middle of the night. ("A good set of wheels gets me hard, he'd say.") It even chimes in with the decision he made, very late in his life, to have his terminal cancer treated by Kelley. But was he "executed"? We shall never know.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis