Throughout most of the ’80s I was drowning in pictures of Adam & The Ants, Wham, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Aha, Wet Wet Wet, Bros – a bottomless pit of tosh that I could magically spin into dosh.
I’d been tainted by punk. The hard, cold noise of ’77 was still ringing in my ears and these new pretty boys with their dodgy haircuts, odd guitars and strange organs meant nothing to me. Nor did Vienna for that matter. I was all grown up with responsibilities and this was music for a different generation.
But the boy bands sold magazines and that was enough. It was business.
And then there were the girls. It was different for them, remember? Before Madonna and Kylie Minogue came along, girl pop stars didn’t sell as many poster mags as their male counterparts even though they were just as commercially successful – albeit having to work a lot harder to make their dreams come true. It was mainly those pretty boys with their dodgy haircuts, odd guitars and strange organs that teenage girls wanted to wake up to in the morning, well hung on walls around their bedrooms.
Teenage boys weren’t so fussed. Any good looking topless bird would do, as long as she was next to a team picture of their favourite football club. They just weren’t into buying pop poster-mags.
That’s why I never published one of Siouxsie, Kate Bush, Toyah or Hazel O’Connor, the gang of four that burned so brightly in those eccentric post punk years. Debbie Harry didn’t really count much by then.
Of the four, Hazel O’Connor’s career was the most fragile and enigmatic. In fact, her life could be described in three simple Toyah words – it’s a mystery.
It’s a mystery how, from total obscurity, she found herself starring in a major feature film, Breaking Glass. It’s a mystery why her obvious talent didn’t burn through that smog of litigation that’s engulfed many a shining talent and left it rockin’ and a reelin’ in the darkness. It’s a mystery that she’s bounced back from cancer, a miscarriage, a broken marriage and the death of her beloved mother to carve out a new musical career.
In fact, it’s a mythtery (apologies, Toyah, I’ve tried to resist the temptation but the force is strong with this one) how Hazel survived at all.
‘I had a nervous breakdown when I was 14. It was down to my parents splitting up and my first love ending. I was sent to a psychologist once a week. They were working with these wonder drugs for depression back then but they didn’t realize you shouldn’t give them to kids. The little green and white pills I took were Librium and the yellow ones, Valium. Despite that I managed to get five O Levels and stayed on to do A Levels.
‘Then something happened that completely changed my life. I went to Morocco with my friend and her older sister. We stayed in Casablanca but my friend got bored there and we heard that Marrakesh was a really happening place. So we went there after telling everyone we’ll go for two days and stay in a pension and do everything properly. But my friend got ill while we were there and one of the neighbours turned out to be a complete tosser and he raped me, badly. I can talk about it now because it’s a long time ago.
‘Maybe I was an accident waiting to happen. I was only 16 and hated myself after, which is what happens to people who get raped. They think they should’ve done something more to prevent it from happening and that’s what I felt for a long time.’
See what I mean?
Hazel looks good for her 58 years. Very good. In fact, so good that, as she slides along the bench and sits opposite me across a table in the bar of Soho’s Sanctum Hotel, I start seriously considering publishing poster-mags again. But the more she talks, the more I think she’s really got no right to look this, well, hot.
She’s busy promoting a new UK tour and album entitled Here She Comes, where she’s accompanied for a third outing by saxophonist Clare Hirst and Sarah Fisher on keyboards. The Hazel O’Connor on the record is not the Hazel O’Connor Mark 1 with that starchy, often abrasive voice who became the pop star she played on celluloid. The voice has been smoothed by the blows of time. This is the real deal; a bunch of sexy, smoochy, soulful torch songs all wrapped up in blue. Woman power with knobs on. Hazel feels every word these days and as a result, so do I. I’m listening (with apologies to Frasier Crane).
She was once a Princess of Post Punk. Now she’s a Queen of Soul.
‘I like the sparseness of the new material,’ she says. ‘Throughout my entire early bombastic career with loud bands and crashing sounds, I never made a penny. I was so poor due to protracted litigation regarding stuff like royalties.
‘So I decided to strip everything down to the basics. It was like having an epiphany. I realised I didn’t need all that noise. Some years back I teamed up with harpist Cormac De Barra and did the autobiographical touring show Beyond Breaking Glass. We played the Edinburgh fringe festival and received rave reviews. We went back to the Festival last year with the show and it went down a storm.
‘The same thing happened with Clare,’ (who’s played with Bowie). ‘and Sarah, (who’s played with the Eurythmics). ‘We kept it simple and we’re now on to our third album. I’ve always liked jazz classics and I fit my own songs into the repertoire. It’s all about three people who’ve developed as women and musicians.’
Hazel can tick both boxes. The turmoil of her early years has been replaced by an inveterate equanimity. She now knows what life has to offer and accepts it graciously.
‘I used to regard Breaking Glass as an albatross, but now I think how disgusting of me to ever have believed that because it was a once in lifetime opportunity. I remember talking to the director Brian Gibson at the time about the reasons why the character, Kate, did what she did and often I’d talk about the things that were actually happening to me.
‘We all walk through life with our own damage. Does getting famous open up a fissure to that damage? Yes it does. You’re doing something that brings attention upon you which probably comes from wanting to be wanted. That’s the secret in all of us; we’re all human, we’re all fallible but as you’re growing up you don’t want to appear to be a twat so you do things that you think make you look cool.’
To ‘look cool’, Hazel started hitchhiking from her native Coventry when she was just 13. ‘I just wanted to see how far I could go, but I usually ended up in Evesham.’ She caught the travelling bug and went to Ibiza, Morocco, Amsterdam and France. ‘I was a bit loopy and should’ve been a bit more careful.’
Music was always a constant in her life. ‘When I was 14 my older brother, Neil who was an integral part of my growth, and his mates used to go off into the woods with an old wind-up record player and listen to Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell but they all did my head in a bit. When I started to make my own audio decisions I went for Cheap Thrills with Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen. I went to the first Isle of Wight festival in 1969 and slept on Devastation Hill where got my first bout of rheumatism and thought I won’t do that again. And I walked on the beach naked.
‘I was a hippy back then but I distinctly remember the moment when that all ended. I’d hitched home from France sporting orange hair and wearing an Indian cheesecloth dress and bandanna and when I got out of the lorry on the M6 at the end of our street, I had to climb over a fence. The lorry driver helped me but tried to fondle my arse. It was the last vestige of my hippy life. I just thought I don’t want this anymore.
‘So I came down to London at the age of 18 and ended up falling in love with a guy who didn’t love me back. To make him love me I got myself a job as a dancer in Tokyo,’ as you do. ‘After six months he realized he loved me and said come to Africa. So I did,’ as you do. ‘We were in Beirut on the day the Israelis bombed it, so we took off across the Sahara,’ as you do, ‘and I contracted malaria,’ as you do. I ended up in hospital and the relationship ended,’ as they do.
She returned to London and ended up signing a record deal for £1. ‘I was a laughing stock amongst my friends when they heard that. Then Breaking Glass came along and suddenly I was recording with Tony Visconti and going round to Mary Hopkin’s house with my Bontempi wind organ to do demos.’
Then the hits started coming – Eighth Day, D Days, Will You. Her performance as Kate won her the Variety Club of Great Britain Award for Best Film Actor and BAFTA nominations for Best Newcomer and Best Film Score. The Breaking Glass album went double platinum and when Hazel toured the UK she selected as her opening act a local group from Birmingham called Duran Duran.
But due to protracted legal problems, the hits soon dried up. ‘The royalties weren’t coming through and I had very little money,’ Hazel recalls. ‘And what I did have eventually ended up going in legal fees.’
After a couple of high profile relationships with Hugh Cornwell and Midge Ure, Hazel married artist Kurt Bippert in 1987. The ceremony took place on Venice Beach, California, and was covered by Hello! Magazine. The Beat’s Dave Wakeling gave Hazel away.
The couple lived in California but ill fortune continued to dog Hazel. In 1990 she was diagnosed with skin cancer. ‘I had these growths appear on a birthmark and the doctor said it wasn’t good news. The moment I found that out I went to live in Ireland. I thought if I’ve got a horrible disease and I might die, where do I want to leave my body? I definitely don’t want to leave it under a big brown cigar over the San Fernando Valley, that I used to see every day from where I lived, surrounded by people full of bullshit. I wanted to be where the people were wonderful and entertaining and the place is pretty and green.’
So she went to Ireland where an unknown Louis Walsh became her agent and helped her find a house. ‘I was penniless and he got me a mortgage and I ended up touring all over Ireland. I had to be constantly on the road because that’s what I lived on.
Hazel was pregnant at this time but suffered a miscarriage. ‘After we lost the baby, Kurt and I split up and eventually divorced. I did regret not having any kids but not now. I seem to have inherited generations of kids through my friends. I’m like the cool aunt.’
Hazel beat the cancer and has continued to tour and record regularly ever since, although she stopped for awhile a few years ago to help nurse her mother in Coventry who contracted cancer and sadly died. ‘I knew I wouldn’t move from her side, no matter what happened. My mum tried to parent me as best she could when I was growing up with all the life advice but I guess I was too much of a tearaway to heed that advice. But I was always totally honest with her.’
She now divides her time between Ireland and France where she has two small cottages. ‘I do all my own building work. It saves money and I’m not bad at DIY.
‘I’m making a living, but I wouldn’t call it decent. I worry at Christmas sometimes if there’s not much coming in and can’t afford to buy oil for the heating. I guess it’s always been like that. I’ve never experienced wealth, even though I was constantly told it was on its way.’
Maybe here it comes at last with Here She Comes. If not, why not team up with me, Haze, and we could make sweet poster mags together? Justin Bieber, One Direction, Miley Cyrus – now that’s serious shit. Read Hazel’s Testament Of Youth on Flexipop!’s website - http://www.flexipop.com/testofyouth10.htmlHere’s a link to Hazel’s new album, Here She Comes - http://www.cherryred.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=4544Hazel’s autobiography – Breaking Glass Barefoot is available on Amazonhttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Breaking-Glass-Barefoot-Hazel-OConnor/dp/1908724056