Organic intellectuals

The airwaves are filled with nostalgic recollections of dead visionary musicians

As part of April’s cross-network Handel explosion, Professor Ellen T Harris examined the activities of the composer in London, where he lived from the age of 38 until his death in 1759, on Brook Street in Mayfair, next door to Jimi Hendrix (The Essay – The Great and the Good Mr Handel, 15 April, 11pm, Radio 3).

“Very little survives about his personal life,” sighed Harris, regretfully. All we know for sure is that he liked to hang out with his friends Henry and Goupy and took spa breaks in July to Tunbridge Wells, where he would phantasmiga the local ladies for hours with his organ (“Mr Handel was in the best temper in the world! He accompanied all the sopranos from seven until eleven!”).

There was some talk of a crush on an Italian cardinal while in his twenties, but it seems for the most part that Handel liked English women. Always nice to hear of a guy actively fond of knickers soaking in the bidet. As Jonathan Keates pointed out in last week’s NS, the composer was mind-bogglingly prolific, and wrote things in a flash. Messiah, for example, took only three weeks, and most of that was colouring-in. Really, I couldn’t rate this programme more highly.

Moments later, over on 6 Music, Midge Ure presented a brilliant documentary about Thin Lizzy (The Thin Lizzy Story, 16 April, midnight). Featuring Phil Lynott’s mother and various colleagues, it got to the bottom of how the two founding members of the band initially came together (they were literally the only two people on drugs in Ireland in 1969), and featured lovely rambly interviews with musos recalling the Day.

“So, for financial reasons,” said one, firmly in first-name mode, “Brian was pulling out and Ted was looking for a new partner, and Ted came into the office and said can you suggest some dates because I want to bring Billy in on this and possibly even Rod’s manager, and I said I wasn’t terribly happy about that, so I said well I’d like to get involved actually, and he sort of said oh yeah OK, and then I saw Michael and realised I owed him 40p for the drinks, and he was like . . .”

There was also some discussion of Lynott’s supposed landscape-of-Irish-storytelling thing, subtly implying he was a Blake-like mystic of the type never to have a haircut during an eclipse, et cetera, which I kind of took sensitive objection to. As far as I’m concerned Lynott’s lyrics are perfectly, 100 per cent comprehensible and all the better for it. “I’m a rocker. I’m a roller, too. I get my records in a rock and roll store.” I mean, case closed. I like to know where I am with songwriters.

Plus, I hate getting the lyrics wrong. I’m not the fastest girl in the universe and all, but you know that Kurt Cobain line: “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”? Well, I thought he was saying “Dorito”. For ten years I thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a song about a packet of crisps.

Whereas every single thing that Phil Lynott says rings simple and true. “He told her that he loved her/And he took all of her silver.” That totally happened to me, Phil, and pretty recently too. “He was a vagabond.” Definitely. And a cocksucker. But you’re really helping me through it, Phil. Phil?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?