Interview with Val Wilmer, conducted by Adam Blake, 4th August 2015
AB: Val, can you tell me please, when did you first meet Hoppy?
VW: Well, Hoppy was a photographer when I first knew him. I’ve said elsewhere that I first saw him taking photographs at the Duke Ellington concerts in that horrible winter of 1962/63, but this is not quite right. I now realise that I first met him in March 1962 when he came into the offices of Jazz News with a photograph of the Count Basie band singer, Irene Reid. But I’d seen him around before that, in fact. Jazz News was a funny little magazine which became a weekly newspaper for awhile, believe it or not. I wrote a lot of things for them and they used my photographs, too. They didn’t pay very much but it was an entree into the business – although the kind of half-tone blocks they made were so worn that you could hardly see the photographs sometimes (laughs). Anyway, Basie came here on tour in March of 1962, and both Hoppy and I took photographs at the concerts. I interviewed some of the musicians too, and Jazz News used my photograph of Annie Ross backstage on the front cover of the May 2nd issue. Hoppy’s action shot of Irene Reid was the cover for April 18th and, interestingly, I notice that I got a credit but he didn’t. Peter Clayton became the official editor soon after this, and despite what it says in the magazine, he was certainly the person in charge of things on the day Hoppy came into the office and we got talking. I remember the three of us together, with Peter in shirt-sleeves and Hoppy wearing a tweed sports jacket – his style in those days. Anyway, we got talking, and we left there together. He had his mini parked in Soho Square because that was where the office was, and he gave me a lift.
AB: A lot of people have mentioned this Mini!
VW: He gave me a lift, somewhere, I don’t know, we sort of went off into the night, well, not the night but it was that kind of thing, I’ve written about it, “He drove off into new ways of seeing, he drove off into the counter-culture and new ways of seeing”.
AB: So did he make an immediate impression then, he must have done?
VW: Oh yes, I mean I was very attracted to him. I don’t know in what way exactly; I know at one time I wanted us to, you know, to be lovers I suppose. But I don’t know, he was just…you’ve spoken to lots of people. For everybody who met him, he had this incredible magnetism, and whatever subject it was, he knew something about it – but not in a boring way, or a pushy way, he’d just tell you things. Going to his funeral I was with Margaret Busby, and we went down Harrow Road. We passed by Bishops Bridge Road, where there used to be a cafe, and I told her about going to this cafe with Hoppy when he lived in Westbourne Terrace. I said I’d never been to, well I had been to transport cafes but not this particular kind of place. And I was talking about it to Margaret and of course when we got to the funeral Joe Boyd talked about that same cafe and I said, blimey, well there you go…
AB: Hoppy used to mention that cafe because he said he was in love with the waitress there.
VW: Oh I see.
AB: He obviously didn’t share that with you at the time. But he told me that there was a waitress in there that he had a massive crush on, but nothing ever happened between them. He would go there and gaze lovingly at her and she was just going about her business.
VW: I can’t imagine there being a waitress in there.
AB: Hoppy always held a little torch for her. And considering that he had lots and lots of girlfriends, I think that was one that got away as far as he was concerned. Or at least one of the ones that got away.
VW: Well I did fancy him of course but I think he was living with Gala at the time and she was very, very beautiful and very nice to me.
AB: You don’t know what happened to her by any chance?
VW: Well she became a famous model apparently.
VW: Yes according to Chris May, when he wrote that piece about Hoppy in “Jocks and Nerds” (Vol.1 No.15. Summer 2015, pps 100-107). Apparently she became a model at Vogue, Gala Mitchell, and a favourite of Ossie Clark. Anyway she was very lovely, of course you’ve seen photographs of her in Hoppy’s book.
AB: Oh she was very beautiful.
VW: She was.
AB: But she can’t have lasted that long because Hoppy then, as far as I can tell, the history of Hoppy’s love life, my God, that would be a long book, but he then struck up with Kate Heliczer.
VW: Well, I don’t know you see, because I didn’t see him all the time. I used to see him off-and-on at different periods and I suppose I quite fancied Gala, too, but I didn’t really know it at the time, you see.
AB: I’m sure you were not alone in that respect.
VW: But I was probably more alone in going through my dilemmas as to which way I was going, but you don’t have to go into all that now, because we’re talking about Hoppy. So of course I had this sort of thing for him but he was very nice about it. We had a clinch in the car a couple of times but that was all, and more importantly he took me under his wing and was concerned about my photographic career, such as it was. He put me in all the right directions, at different times, and he said: “You’ve got to join the NUJ”, and he proposed me for the National Union of Journalists and funnily enough got David Redfern to second me, which I always find rather amusing because of my difficult relationship with Redfern! I joined the NUJ and then he said… Originally I had a Rollieflex. When I got a Pentax, that was in the late summer of ’63, I had the standard lens on the camera and a longer lens which was about a 105mm. Later on, I would have got a wide angle lens but not for quite a while. But Hoppy said to me: “Oh, you need a longer lens.” He said: “Oh I know, John Bulmer’s got one.” Now John Bulmer was a very well known photographer who worked for the Telegraph, did a lot of travel stuff, so Hoppy went over to John Bulmer’s and said: “Give us that lens you’ve got that you want to sell.” I can’t remember what it was; it was a very heavy lens, it was a German lens, very good, but very very heavy. That was a 180mm and I used that for quite a while until some years later when I had all my cameras liberated at the Notting Hill Carnival. As a result of that I switched to Nikons which was a far, far better thing than I’d ever done. And when I got a 200mm Nikon lens, it was beautiful and it was a lot lighter than John Bulmer’s lens.
AB: Are Nikons the best cameras then?
VW: Well yes, out of all the cameras in that field. A Pentax is alright, it’s okay, but a Nikon’s better, stronger, a bit heavier maybe.
AB: So would you say Hoppy helped you get started as a professional photographer? Or had you already started?
VW: No, I’d already started, I left school in 1959 and went to study Photography at Regent Street Polytechnic. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, because I wanted to be a journalist, but that’s why I’ve always done both and they’ve sort of come and gone as priorities in my life at different times. It was a two year course, a technical course to become an all-round photographer. But they changed it to three years the year I was there and I didn’t want to stay so I got another job and had various odd jobs for a year and a half or two years or something, and then, force of circumstance, I went to New York in 1962.
AB: Was that following the jazz?
VW: Well Ronnie Scott’s club organised a trip to New York, a holiday trip for club members, and I was having an affair with an American musician who I was thinking about marrying, so I went to stay with him, and of course that didn’t work out. Within two days I realised I’d done the wrong thing. Anyway I made other arrangements but…
AB: But at least you were in New York…
VW: Exactly. Well it was only for two weeks but when I came back…you know I’ve written my autobiography (Val Wilmer: Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This – 1989, The Women’s Press), I’ve written about all these things. When I came back I went to work for somebody that I knew, a Jamaican guy who had a beer and spirit import place near Mornington Crescent. I worked for him for about six weeks and then he found somebody Jamaican that he wanted to work there. Which was what we’d agreed: I said, you know, I’ll work for you till you find someone Jamaican. And after that, I never worked for anybody else ever again; except a few weeks off and on in the Time Out newsroom, I’ve never worked for anybody ever since.
AB: You’ve always been self-employed?
VW: Mmm, I was a professional photographer. I don’t know how good I was, and I could probably do more in the studio than I could in terms of reportage, but some of my early photographs have stood the test of time. I’m just about to sell some pictures of Coltrane from 1961 for a film.
AB: From ’61? So you were photographing jazz musicians really before Hoppy?
VW: Well the first photograph I took was some years before that. It was in 1956, Louis Armstrong at the airport, with my mother’s box Brownie!
AB: Hoppy started in 1960.
VW: Yes, well I started before him, but I can’t say that my photographs were all that wonderful, I mean I… well when I started I had a fixed-focus snapshot type camera. I left school in 1959 but by the end of that year I had a Rolleicord, a smaller version of the old Rolleiflex, an old camera, which I bought from one of my fellow students. I got a Rolleiflex soon after that.
AB: Can you remember what Hoppy’s camera was in those days?
AB: ‘Cause I’m just curious, I don’t know whether or not anybody would be interested in the technical details.
VW: No, I think it’s very important, but I couldn’t tell you. You see, I haven’t got a photograph of him. Well I’ve got a photograph of him with a camera that Graham took that’s in my book.
AB: I did have a copy of your book and I couldn’t find it.
VW: Well I’ll give you one, we can have a look at the picture in a minute and see. But that’s a bit later on, so I don’t know what he was using at first. You see the main thing is what you need – like in music and everything – you need people to encourage you, and they encourage you by…you know, they don’t spell it out, you know it’s that thing…
AB: No, they show you.
VW: And they show you things like: “You need to join NUJ”, or “You need to have this lens”, and then he also said to me: “You need an accountant.”
AB: Hoppy said that to me!
VW: And of course then I met the famous Michael Henshaw who was a perfectly normal human being when I first knew him… but who subsequently became a madman! But Michael Henshaw said to me: “You need to put your money in a building society”. So I said: “Do I?” He said: “Yes, because one day you’ll want to buy a house”. I’d never thought of anything like it.
AB: How terribly grown-up.
VW: So I got an account at the Halifax in Holles St which is by the side of John Lewis’s, their main branch, and that is how I started. And I saved money right from then, because I was a careful person.
VW: And like a lot of people who don’t earn much money, we save much more and more carefully than people who earn good salaries.
AB: Self-employed people have to be more careful, you have to be.
VW: Also, I learned that from musicians. I learned how musicians live, I mean some musicians live in a profligate way…
AB: Only if they’ve been given money, not if they have to go out and earn it…
VW: Exactly, if you do a gig for ten quid or thirty quid…
AB: You know where that ten quid goes, but if some record company gives you £300,000, then forget it, it’s all over.
VW: But that’s just silly money, isn’t it? But it’s very interesting you say that because the thing I always say to people, I would rather go and sell something, you know, pitching by the roadside. I’ll think I’ve bought it somewhere else and I’ll make a profit on it – rather than go and do a photographic job that I don’t like, and certainly not a writing job that I don’t like.
AB: I found it impossible. I mean even now. I sometimes, quite regularly in fact, do gigs in posh restaurants playing the blues for rich people, and while I don’t have any particular problem with that it does get depressing sometimes. And you have to grit your teeth and think of the money. But every time though, there’ll be one or two people will come up and go “That’s great, oh yeah.” And those actually, those are your wages.
VW: Well I couldn’t agree more, that’s exactly how I feel.
AB: Can you give me any anecdotes about Mr Hopkins. That’s really what I’m after.
VW: Well I told you those things about getting me going, well…
AB: Did you do any gigs together, like photojournalist gigs together?
VW: Well no, he gave me lots of work though. I was going to tell you about when he invited…well the thing about it was, I always say he was the first person who I saw cook a curry, and the first person I saw eat yoghourt with curry.
AB: In the Indian style?
VW: Yes. I didn’t know such a thing existed. He was the first person who told me about THC and LSD, and video, all those things. When video came out, he said: “Oh look, I’ve got this new thing”. So I said: “What’s that?” He said: “Oh it’s called video, you know, you can do it, Val, get yourself a camera, just do it.” So I said: “Oh yeah.” I passed on it and he went on to great things – as did video – but you know, it was unheard of then. He was always ahead of the game with everything.
AB: Joe Boyd said in his eulogy at the funeral that Hoppy’s real object was the democratisation of communication.
VW: I think that’s right, yes.
AB: And that video, he could see, was a further step down the line because obviously making films is very expensive and excludes the normal ordinary person on the street. Whereas anybody, in theory at least, could pick up a video camera and a bit of video tape and shoot something. And that’s what I think he liked about it, that it was completely…it levelled that playing field…he got his first video camera I think from John Lennon.
VW: Oh yes, I heard a story about that.
AB: And I said: “Wasn’t it Ringo Starr?” He said: “No, John Lennon.”
VW: Well the thing is about the food, was, well here’s a story, right. I went to New York in 1962, I just told you about. I went back again…and then in 1964, Victor Schonfield went to New York, do you know Victor?
AB: Not personally.
VW: Well Victor was going to New York and he got in touch with Max Jones at the Melody Maker (who I’d known since I was fourteen), and he said: “Can you give me some contacts in New York?” So Max said: “Speak to Valerie” – I was Valerie then – “Speak to Valerie, she’s just been to New York and come back, she knows lots of people there”. So Victor got in touch with me, thereby beginning our lifelong friendship that continues to this day. I put him in touch with some friends of mine in New York. And he ended up meeting – not through them – but he met Ornette, Ornette Coleman. And then Ornette turned up in London in 1965 and immediately went down to Ronnie Scott’s looking for Victor who he’d met the year before. And he hooked up with Victor and he asked if Victor would work for him. Victor ended up getting him his famous gig at Fairfield Hall, Croydon, and he took him over to Hoppy’s, who was then living in Queensway, for a place to stay. Charles Moffet, Ornette’s drummer, lived there as well, but I don’t know if he and David Izenzon came to England with Ornette or came along afterwards. David Izenzon was living up in West Hampstead, But Moffet lived at Hoppy’s pad. I went round there to interview Ornette, that’s how I met him. I subsequently became quite friendly with him and lived at his place in New York for five weeks some years later. And so there’s this continuous thread that goes on. But the other thing I was going to tell you was that in 1965, the same year that Hoppy went to the States and went to the Newport Jazz Festival where he met, I think, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor and one or two other avant garde musicians. He also knew Bernard Stollman, who had started ESP records. He knew Bernard Stollman’s brother too, who lived here, Stephen, who I never knew. I don’t know if Hoppy met Bernard through the brother or met the brother through Bernard, I’m not sure, but when I said I was going back to New York in ’66, he said to me: “Oh, you know, when you go back there”, he said, “don’t hang out with all those old guys, these are the new people, you’ve got to hang out with them, see them and hear all this new music.” So I did and I met all those people. I met Bernard Stollman, who introduced me to others, and I met Elizabeth Van der Mei who was a very helpful person, she worked for Atlantic Records who used to get gigs for the musicians. And of course they were all around the same age as me or a little bit older, whereas the other musicians had usually been a lot older. So there was a kind of a meeting on another level too. Also, of course, it was a very political time, and I became aware of many things, some things I already knew about – I’d been aware of racial things before of course – but being there was a terrific education.
AB: The Civil Rights movement was in full swing.
VW: Well it was beyond the Civil Rights movement, really, it was starting to become the black liberation movement, it was much more…
AB: Stokely Carmichael…
VW: And LeRoi Jones, who became Amiri Baraka. I didn’t meet Archie Shepp until 1967 when I went back again and, subsequently I became very friendly with him. But with Hoppy it was the beginning of all those things, and when he came back from the Newport Jazz Festival, he had some photographs. He wasn’t able to sit down and write an article but he went to Melody Maker and saw Bob Houston who was the assistant editor of the Melody Maker, he was a jazz person, and they wrote an article together. I think it’s under both their names, it’s a report on the Newport Jazz Festival by Bob Houston and John Hopkins. And it was in that period, talking about the curry and everything, that Hoppy invited Houston and his wife, Judy, a beautiful woman from Italy… He invited them round to his flat. Houston was a Scots guy, very big tough guy, and Hoppy had made this lentils and rice and stuff, and I can always remember Houston looking at these lentils in total disgust. He said: “Well I’ll take the broth but I’ll leave the lentils”. So these memories are always in my mind, this mixture, and pictures of cameras and food and music and politics, it’s all there together. I used to go round to Westbourne Terrace quite a lot and then again when Hoppy lived in Queensway. One of the people I met in ’66 was Albert Ayler. I met him in New York, with his brother Donald, and they came to London later that year, and they were both… and Beaver Harris the drummer, they were all hysterical because all sorts of things had happened to them, and they were behaving very hysterically. Alan Bates, who had a record label, he asked me to try and calm them down because they weren’t going to play. You’ll hear all sorts of stories about this but it was pretty awful, and Bates asked for my help because he knew I knew Albert. Because Albert was pretty calm really, compared to the others, but he was in a bit of a trance, really. Anyway they did finally play, it was this famous BBC “Jazz 625” thing at the LSE, but the BBC wiped the tape because, you know, they just thought it was a load of rubbish and they wouldn’t have anything to do with it.
AB: By the way I should say before we go any further that we should…
VW: Because it goes all over the place
AB: And if you say something that you don’t want to be in the public domain, you can always pull it out. I mean Hoppy told me that when he went to pick up Ornette, his first task was to go and score them some smack.
VW: Yes, I know this.
AB: And he said that was quite an education because he had never had to do anything like that before.
VW: At the television recording with the Aylers, I introduced them to Chris McGregor, the South African pianist with the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath. They went round there with Beaver Harris and stayed there for a couple of nights. They all played together and so on, and then they wanted to stay here in England but George Wein (producer of the Newport Jazz Festival touring package) said they couldn’t. It would be bad for their reputation and they’d have to go back to the States. Anyway, they wanted something to smoke, so Terri, my friend who’s a conga drummer and singer, we went round there and took them for a meal. A guy that I knew had a place in Westbourne Park Road, called The Safari Tent. It was a West Indian Restaurant, and he did a special meal for us. We had a nice time together, then we went off to go to Hoppy’s to score some dope, but got stopped by the police on the way because the car broke down! That’s my memory, Albert Ayler and me pushing Terri’s car. It was alright in the end and the police buggered off, but the last thing I saw of Albert was when I left them at Hoppy’s. So off they went into, you know, druggy heaven. That was the last of that. But I was telling you about Ron Atkins, well the thing is, the way I understand it was that Hoppy was actually out of the country when the police raided his place.
AB: What, you mean the fateful bust?
VW: Yeah, and he wasn’t there, and he got done for allowing the place to be used, but Ron got arrested as well, and Ron has never smoked a spliff in his life. He’ll tell you about it if you ask him, he’s a civil servant, very straight person. I can’t remember if he was arrested but, well he’ll tell you about it, it was very very dodgy for him because he had a very good job.
AB: And in those days, as Hoppy did, you went to jail, end of story.
VW: But Ron never had anything to do with drugs.
AB: I think they stitched Hoppy up.
VW: Yeah, they obviously did, but after that I don’t know, I’m just trying to think. I saw him…I don’t know when I saw him again…well the other thing is, what you said on the phone the other day slightly annoyed me, about that Bob Dylan thing. The fact is that Hoppy gave me a lot of work. He had so much work he couldn’t take care of it all and so I used to do lots of stuff for Peace News, and Sanity, I think, was another CND paper. He introduced me to a guy called Jacques Widmer – whose name is one letter different from mine, people used to think we were related – he was a Swiss journalist and he wasn’t allowed to work in England but he worked here as a stringer for L’Illustré and Noir et Blanc and all these papers in France and Switzerland. Some of them were sort of scandal rags, and we did loads of stories together, so that was very good for me. We didn’t sell all of them but I always got something out of it and some of them we sold to L’Illustré which was very good money. We also syndicated them. I don’t know about that Dylan thing because Michael Gray, when he did his Bob Dylan Dictionary, he says I was the only photographer who was present at this particular event which was a television programme, done not from TV Centre but the TV Theatre at Shepherds Bush Green. Well, I don’t remember any other photographers there, but Hoppy was there and at one stage, I can see…my photographs are famous and Dylan’s just bought some for something, he keeps on buying them for tour picture illustrations, thank God. I don’t remember any other musicians there, you see, but Dylan definitely played and sang. But if if Hoppy said to you it was a press conference I don’t know what he was talking about.
AB: Well it was the famous press conference, I’m only relating to you…
VW: No, there was no press conference. I’ve never been to a press conference with Bob Dylan.
AB: I’m only telling you what he told me, which was that it was the famous press conference with the light bulb, where Dylan said: “Always keep a clear head and carry a light bulb”. And Hoppy said he’d been asked to do that, to cover that, and he was doing something…
AB: But his memory would shrivel up.
VW: Exactly. Anyway, so I didn’t go to that press conference, but this other occasion was a show, you know. There’s no other musicians in the photographs so it’s a bit curious, but there were two things that happened. Dylan lit a cigarette, OK. Now in those days places like the BBC were staffed by uniformed commissionaires, they were all people left over from the war, it was called the Corps of Commissionaires, they had very smart uniforms and they were all “jobsworths”, as we used to call them.
AB: They’d say “I fought the war for the likes of you.”
VW: Yes, exactly, so anyway this man comes down, and he says “Put that out”. Dylan throws it on the floor and puts his foot on it and the guy gets really cross when Hoppy suddenly emerges from beside me somewhere and runs forward and picks up the cigarette-end. He says: “Man”, he says, “That’s Dylan’s cigarette.” And so he carried it off, so that cigarette-end existed somewhere for a while! The other thing that happened was, and I don’t know if it was that day because my friend Janet, my oldest friend I’ve known since I was six and she was seven, her memory is not very good, but anyway, working with Jacques Widmer, he wanted to do a story on how dangerous a place London was, and the story came out as, you know: “So you’re sending your children to London for the holidays, do you know the dreadful things they’ll face when they get here: vice, squalor, drugs, sex, everything”. He wanted pictures of people in slightly compromising situations so I got my brother to snog his girlfriend on the tube at Leicester Square. You got the typical English reaction, you know, people reading their newspapers very indifferent to it all, so then I said to Janet, I said come down to this Bob Dylan thing with me and I said, “Hoppy, would you do a couple of clinches with my friend Janet?” So we went out on to Shepherds Bush Green to take these photographs and they were sort of sitting on a bench and lying on the ground sort of thing, with a typical man looking very indifferent the other way and all this business. Janet said afterwards: “Blimey”, she said, “I didn’t think he’d go at it with such enthusiasm!” She wasn’t expecting that kind of thing, and Hoppy said to me: “Alright Val, let me know if you got any other gigs like that!” So that was quite nice all round!
AB: I can imagine he would have enjoyed that.
VW: I couldn’t lay my finger on them, otherwise I’d show them to you, I know vaguely where they are but..I’ll show you one day probably. Nice photographs.
AB: So when he went to jail, did you see him much after that, or…
VW: No, I don’t remember.
AB: So that was a parting of the ways?
VW: Well it wasn’t deliberate, my life changed because Terri and I got a flat together in the spring of 1969 in Balham, and she was working a lot and I used to go on the road with her to whatever she was doing. It was a different life really, we were always together, and then I started going to the States. In 1971 I went to the States twice, I was there for five months, and she came over for a while the second time, and then in ’72 I went back and was there for about seven months. I was there a lot for a long, long, time. I mean I never had any money, I just managed to do this and that and wrote a number of stories for Melody Maker and sold pictures, and went back nearly every year for a long time. But, Hoppy had told me about video, and I can’t remember when it was when he first mentioned it…
AB: He started video in ’69.
VW: Mmm, well that rings a bell then, and I knew he had this Fantasy Factory, I don’t know if it was called that then, but I knew he had a place in Theobalds Road. I went to see him there a few times about this, that and the other, just sort of hung out a bit and had a few meals there. Met you obviously. And then Dick Fontaine, ‘cause I knew Dick Fontaine, you see, through Hoppy, you know Dick do you?
AB: Not personally.
VW: No you know who he is, he’s a filmmaker, you should speak to him.
AB: I should speak to him.
VW: Well Dick Fontaine is one of the people I met in the early days, at Hoppy’s. In 1966 when I went to New York, I met Paul Jeffrey who was a tenor player who worked with Howard McGhee. I knew Howard McGhee and I was very friendly with him and his wife on those two visits in 1966, ’67, and Paul Jeffrey was a very helpful person at that time. I met Dick one day and he said he wanted to go to New York to make a film about Sonny Rollins – that was when Rollins was having his period of exile, you know, and he was playing on the bridge, on the Williamsburg Bridge – and so I said I’ll put you in touch with Paul Jeffrey, I think he knows Sonny Rollins. So I did and that was it, that was how Dick met Rollins and made a wonderful film about him. That was that connection between me and Dick, and he’s made lots of jazz films since. He’s very good, he makes very nice films, and he recently updated the Rollins film – I say recently, it’s about four or five years ago now – he interviewed Rollins and he saw Paul Jeffrey again…
AB: I should follow these leads up…
VW: I’ll give you these contacts.
AB: And when I’ve done the transcription you can edit it, or have a look through and see what you want, if you want to add anything or pull anything out or whatever.
VW: But you see the annoying thing to me now is at that time, Hoppy had no interest whatsoever in his photography.
AB: He quit, didn’t he?
VW: Yeah, he wasn’t interested, and I…
AB: How did you feel about that, did it make any difference to you one way or the other?
VW: No, I knew – well he was this Underground person. I mean, I went to his wedding that never was when he married…
AB: Suzy Creamcheese.
VW: And they turned up at the Registry Office, and something was wrong about the papers…
AB: I’ve seen the photographs.
VW: Yes, have you seen the photographs? I should be in those photographs, they’re at the place that became UFO.
AB: The Blarney Club?
VW: Yes, that’s right, in Tottenham Court Road. And there’s all those people, Ron Atkins is in those photographs and the reason I’m not in them – they were half-a-page in the Daily Express – the reason I’m not in them is because I was downstairs talking to somebody else! This has happened to me three times in my life when I’ve missed being in massive group pictures where everybody else was there. So I knew him in that Underground world but I never went to any of those things because I wasn’t interested in rock music and stuff. I did go to Jim Haynes’s Arts Lab for something. Hoppy told me about the Free School, well I didn’t have anything to do with that, but he was always sending me things about it, and I used to buy IT. I even wrote a couple of articles for them: I see it’s now accessible online and my name has been erased! If you find the article you’d never know; I wrote about Charlie Haden and there’s something else, other things I wrote. I can’t remember what they are now.
AB: It was an enormous labour of love by Mike Lesser to put that entire back catalogue online.
VW: Yes of course it was. But anyway, listen Adam, I’m trying to hook all this up for you, make it a bit more interesting. I’m trying to remember what I was doing, but time goes on and one of the things I always wanted to do was to work with other photographers in an agency because we all suffer from isolation as freelances. I spent a long time with different people that I knew trying to get them interested in the idea, and the only people who were interested were not the people I wanted to work with. So to cut a long story short, Maggie Murray who I was at college with (but not friendly with at college because we were in two separate sorts of sets, although we knew each other, in the same year), we hooked up and became very good friends. I mean we had been before, but there’s a bit of a gap, because I had a row with her husband – this is the way it is – anyway the outcome of it all was that we started an agency together. She said: “Alright, we’ll do it now, the time is now, but if we do now, it’s got to be all women”. So I said: “Alright, that’s a good idea.” So we spent about a year and a half meeting other women photographers and we came up with the agency which was called Format. This lasted for twenty years. Originally there were eight of us but later on it changed, for financial reasons, and I had dropped out of it by then, anyway. Although some of my photographs were still being sold through Format, we’re not talking about music stuff particularly here, we’re talking about other stuff I did. And during that time we were closely aligned with Network, which was a male agency with about one woman member. Because of this, I became very aware of the way agencies operated. I used to see the name of Terry Cryer who was somebody whose work I knew very well. I didn’t know him well at the beginning. I mean, I knew his pictures and we became friends years later. I’d see his photographs being used all the time, and realised he was not getting paid for it. I tried to find out where he was, because I knew what had happened to him when he left London – he’s not a Londoner. Anyway to cut a long story short, I finally got in touch with him and helped him to recoup some of the money due to him and start selling pictures again. It was always in my mind; photographers are always getting their photographs ripped off. I’m with an agency, I’ve started an agency, so I’m going to occasionally be able to help other people. I’ve got a huge photographic collection here, anyway, of other stuff apart from my own photographs, and so I decided that when I sell photographs, I’ll seek out the people and split the money with them. There was one or two people I did that for but not on a steady basis. I thought, what a pity about Hoppy’s stuff, you know, so I went to see him. I said: “What about all your stuff?” And he just put me off. He said no, he wasn’t, you know… I thought – What happened to it?, and apparently he’d left a lot of it with Michael Henshaw when he went to jail. As I told you, Michael Henshaw was completely mad in the end. I mean, Terri, my girlfriend, he was her accountant and she got all these letters from the Inland Revenue, these threatening letters, and he swore blind that he’d done her accounts and sent them in! In the end her mother, who was about four foot tall and no nonsense, went around there to his place in Park Square East, opposite Great Portland Street, and she threatened to beat him up if he didn’t get his act together!
AB: So is that where a lot of Hoppy’s photographs…
VW: Well I don’t know exactly, but this is what he told me. He told me that they’d been under the bed in Michael Henshaw’s house and they’d all got messed up and so on. The thing is that he put me off, you see, and I was really taken aback because I wanted to help him. My feeling was that his photographs were much better than anyone else’s. Hoppy was an imaginative photographer, in the reportage style, and the thing about that is it’s like music, Adam, you know, it’s something where people have either got it or they haven’t. It’s like when you just touch an instrument, you know someone can play, whether they know the technique or not, and it’s the same with photography. I can tell you about a woman who’s like that – she smokes dope and she gave up photography but her pictures are great.
AB: You see Hoppy’s photographs as being on a different level.
VW: They are. There are other good photographers too, I mean he’s not the only one, but you see I know about photography. I have studied it, not just at college, I mean I’ve studied it over the years. I know everything in photography, it’s half my life – because half my life has been as a writer, don’t forget. So anyway, when he said he wasn’t interested in his old pictures and faffed me off, I don’t think that it was that he wasn’t interested. One thing I thought was that he slightly lied to me, or was evasive. I always thought he respected me and I was thinking at that point that he didn’t and so I got a bit annoyed about it. I did try him several times, and gradually these photographs emerged! I said to him: “Well, why didn’t you, you know, when I asked you why didn’t you tell me you had this stuff?” and he said: “Oh well I really didn’t take you seriously.” Or something. And I thought, well I know that. And then of course all of a sudden they’re all over the place. The funny thing is that in 1989, when I wrote ‘Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This’, my autobiography, he came to the launch and I gave him a copy and he wrote me two letters afterwards. There were two or three letters we exchanged, long long letters, and he told me how much he admired my work and also how much he admired me for getting… for doing the things I’d done, things he’d never done. He said he’d felt shy with people like Ornette, and never knew what to say. And of course I was very shy too, but he thought I’d been in there, great guns blazing and so on. Well, in actual fact, when I was writing the book I went round to see him. I went to interview, or chat, as it were, with a lot of people I’d known in my life, I found that’s a good thing to do for an autobiography, and he told me a lot of things, and that is when he first told me about how much he admired what I’d done. But he said it again in a letter, and it’s a wonderful letter, he talked about how much he had wasted his time chasing women and so on, you know.
AB: I know, for what it’s worth, he always had utmost respect for you.
VW: So I’m told, which is very nice. Do you know Jenny Kane?
AB: Yes, very well.
VW: Yes well I hadn’t seen her for years but she did ring me up when Hoppy was ill.
AB: Jenny was very important in Hoppy’s last years. She was very helpful.
VW: Well, one of the reasons I didn’t go to see him towards the end of his life was that I wasn’t well myself. I got diagnosed with breast cancer so I had all that to deal with. I went to see him a couple of times over at Caledonian Road, and I kept meaning to go and see him again. I spoke to him on the phone quite a few times and I did see him a couple of times in other places, but I didn’t go and see him in the end because someone told me he got very aggressive and violent with people, and was being unpleasant..
AB: No that’s untrue…
VW: Well he may have done, he’s supposed to have hit somebody who went round to help him.
AB: He got frustrated at times.
VW: I’m sure, I’m just saying that I didn’t want to see him like that, and it’s not as if I was leaving him in the lurch because he had plenty of people around him.
AB: You know Parkinson’s is a cruel motherfucking disease and it took seven years to kill him. He went down very much, it was a textbook diagnosis. And the dopamine, the l-dopa, this miracle drug, it gave him three or four years of remission but then it was…it was very sad. He knew, and he put his affairs in order as best he could.
VW: Well I think it’s amazing he was able to do that because he was so frail…
AB: He was very frail
VW: But he was a very purposeful person.
AB: And very smart.
VW: Oh yes, and that’s another thing you see. I must tell you this story because things that upset me really…a guy turned up one day, I’ve forgotten his name now but anyway he’d got some money from Ronnie Scott and Pete King to do their “45 years of Ronnie Scott’s” book. And David Redfern was involved and another guy called David Sinclair who used to take pictures at Ronnies. And I think Alan Titmuss who at one stage was a sort of quite well known photographer in the jazz world, there was him, and me. The man said: “Haven’t you got any pictures of blah-blah and blah”, and I said: “No I haven’t, but I know a man who has”. I said: “Have you got in touch with John Hopkins?” But he didn’t know of him. And of course it turned out that Redfern had never said anything to him about Hoppy. I immediately put him in touch with Hoppy because I knew he had these pictures of Lucky Thompson playing at the club, which showed all the club and they’re beautiful. He also had a picture of Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the doorstep, talking to Ronnie. Hoppy gave me a print: we exchanged his shot of Lucky outside Ronnie’s and I gave him one of my pictures of Dexter Gordon having his shoes shined. No-one else has photographs like these.
AB: He’s got a great photo of Dexter Gordon, the saxophone shimmering…very famous photograph.
VW: One of the things he did was, he was one of the people who did a certain kind of trick photography. This is where you open the lens, so you’ve got the lens opened, in a darkened room…(I don’t think you can do this nowadays because modern photography picks up everything) and as the person moves, the highlights register, and then you let off the flash manually while the shutter’s still open. In this way you get two images. He was one of the people who did that, him and another guy called Fred Warren. Then Redfern said: “We’re going to put on an exhibition at the gallery” – he had a gallery at his studio – and I said: “Are you going to have Hoppy’s photographs?” And he was really negative and unpleasant about Hoppy because he just thought Hoppy was a dopehead. And I said: “No man, Hoppy’s a great photographer”. And I insisted. Anyway Hoppy came to the launch, but even before that, I had an exhibition over at the Special Photographers Company in Westbourne Park Road. That was in 1996, and Hoppy came to that with Sue. Yeah, I used to see him off and on, here and there, you know, but anyway this “Ronnie Scott’s 45″, well the guy who put it together kept on saying: “Would you sign the book?” so he kept going on at me at the launch, Maggie and I, we’d had a terrible time getting there, I told her I knew the way and she said fuck off, I know the way better or something, and we ended up in some terrible road trap, so I was looking at the photographs the other day, my face is bright red, it looks like I’ve got makeup on, rouge or something.
AB: So this is fury?
VW: Well no, it’s because it was so cold and we’d been in the car and it was freezing cold and we’d gone in there and had one drink, and boom, that’s what happens to me. So this guy kept on, sorry I can’t remember his name, he kept on hassling me: “Can you sign them?”, you see, so I said: “Just a minute,” trying to cool down a bit, anyway I went into a back room or something and there was a pile like this of books and he wanted everybody to sign them. And then, apparently, after that, he promptly vanished. And was never seen again! I’d say to people: “Have you got the book, do you want to review it?” – can’t find him, can’t find the book. Ronnie Scott’s, they didn’t know where he’d gone to, but eventually they brought it out again as “Ronnie Scott’s 50th” and that was another problem. I wanted to be paid for the use of my photographs and so did Hoppy because this was a different edition, an entirely new book. I said to Hoppy: “We’ve got to stand out for this, if Redfern and David Sinclair and Alan Titmus say it’s ok, we’ll stop them publishing it by refusing permission”. We had a lot of to-doing on that, and one of us gave way in the end – but only slightly I believe. I can’t remember which of us it was (laughs). But anyway I did manage to get all the money. And Hoppy did as well. I don’t know if Dave Redfern or the others ever did. But Hoppy was adamant and I made sure that he got the money for it anyway. But his photographs make the book, you see. And it’s only because I insisted on him being included. To David Redfern, he was a dopehead and nothing more.
AB: Well done.
VW: Well it’s only right. Because if not many photographs exist and if you know where they are, then you just have to find them.
AB: Just off the top of my head, I think Hoppy had a funny attitude towards his photographs for a long time.
VW: I think so, yeah.
AB: Because after he got out of jail and so many of them had gone missing, I think he kind of just put them to one side and said, well, I’m not doing that any more, and then he gave me the job of sorting out his negatives as an act of kindness. It wasn’t really like – Oh, I’ve got to do this, it was because I was broke and I needed a job, and he said: “I know, you can sort out my negatives.” And I went: “Oh, okay.” And that was the story about how I was sorting them out and I’m saying: “Hoppy, do you realise what you’ve got here?” and he’s chuckling, saying: “You tell me.” And it took me about four or five years of hassling him, off and on. Because he’d be complaining about how Fantasy Factory needed money for this or they hadn’t got this Arts Council grant come through or whatever, it was always kind of logistical stuff, and I’d say: “Why don’t you do something with your photographs?”, and he wouldn’t listen. And Sue, it was hard to get her on board, but Sue would agree with me, and say: “Yeah man, you should do something with your photographs”. And in the end, I said, “Give me a couple of contact sheets and I’ll hustle them for you.” And he did. And I did. And it was like falling off a log, immediately everyone wanted them. And even then it took a while for him to get interested in it, you know. Everyone else was interested, but he wasn’t. I don’t think he thought that they were that great. He wasn’t that proud of them. He liked a few, and I would always say: “Hoppy, it’s not just whether or not it’s a good photograph, it’s because of what it is, what it’s a photograph of”. He was never particularly interested in that.
VW: Well you see that’s the thing, because when I did my book ‘The Face of Black Music’, some of the people in there are included because of who they are, and others are in there because they are good photographs. And then there was something else where somebody wanted an exhibition and I said: “I want to do blah, blah and blah.” And they said: “Well, haven’t you got any photographs of Joe Bloggs?” For people like that it’s got to be ‘names’. I didn’t want that, I never wanted to do that, because I was interested in photography and I think Hoppy was the same.
AB: Of course. As far as he was concerned, it didn’t matter who, it could have been a photograph of Jesus Christ, if it wasn’t a good photograph…
VW: Exactly. Well that’s right, although sometimes it can be adequate if you can make money out of it…
AB: He eventually compromised a bit..
VW: You have to compromise.
AB: The photographs that he liked were not the commercial ones.
VW: Well, I remember going into the offices of Crescendo magazine, which was quite a good musician’s magazine, but not known for its ‘artwork’. The owner came up to me and he shook this picture of someone like Monk under my nose, the kind of photograph where there’s every pore showing and every hair, and he said, “Look at that!” He said: “That’s what our readers want! You can see the bloke!” He said, “Not like what you and that Hopkins bring in here, those black photographs.”
AB: That’s beautiful. “You can see the bloke!”
VW: “Those black photographs you and that Hopkins bring in here!” Oh boy. You know about us going to see Monk, don’t you?
AB: Tell me, if you don’t mind. Spin the yarn.
VW: Well he said to me, Hoppy, he said, look…see again I’ve got the sequence of events wrong, I now realise. But he said: “Monk’s coming over again, let’s do a story on him and we can sell it to one of the glossy magazines”. Playboy was doing things like that then, and he said we could do an in-depth interview, because Monk never spoke to anybody. And my friend Kitty Grime said to me: “What a good idea, but talk to Nellie, Monk’s wife.” She said, she’ll be the one who’s got the stories to tell. Anyway we went down to the Marquee – and you’ve seen the pictures of Monk at the recording of the BBC’s “Jazz 625” – and I spoke to Nellie and she said: “Speak to Thelonious”. I said “Oh, alright, can we come and see you?” – “Yes, come tomorrow” and up we went to the Hilton Hotel. God it was a terrible day. It was pouring with rain and I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder to carry.
AB: Heavy. A Grundig.
VW: A Grundig, yeah. Hoppy had all his photographic equipment, and we got stopped by the hotel detective. You know: “Who are you, what are you doing here?” and so on, and we explained ourselves away as we stood there dripping. We got up to the room and did this interview with Monk, and it’s a classic interview, it’s been used in many places. But the thing about it was that it was all very monosyllabic, as was Monk’s manner – until we both succeeded in annoying him.
AB: And then he got quite garrulous.
VW: He did. By asking ‘political’ questions, which both of us did, he got up and strode around, and was angry and everything. It was a wonderful interview but it was also quite painful, of course, to annoy somebody, although when you’re older you take that more in your stride, I think. Both of us were a bit upset about it at the time, however.
AB: Especially with somebody that you admired?
VW: Yeah, and the photograph that’s in Hoppy’s book was taken that day, where Monk is sitting there in that chair. So then we decided… I said “We still haven’t got enough, really.” So we decided to go up to Birmingham a couple of days later – he was playing in Birmingham – and Hoppy took a lot of colour photographs of Monk. I don’t know what happened to those, they were very nice, very nice pictures and when Robin Kelley was writing his book about Monk, I gave him a copy of the tape. He said: “But you know, there’s a couple of things that aren’t on this tape,” so there must have been things that I asked Monk in Birmingham that day about recording a “Freedom” suite…we’d say ‘black power’ in those days, but you know, something about black liberation, I was asking about that. And then I talked to Nellie and she said some very beautiful and perceptive things, and I’m very glad they’ve been used in Robin’s book. I sold the story to Downbeat initially; we did want to sell it to Playboy but I don’t know what happened to that idea. And then Alan Vale, who used to work as a circulation manager for Jazz News – and was also a manager, sort of temporary manager at times at the Marquee, and also worked for John Dankworth’s club – he was now working for a magazine distribution company, and he helped us sell it to King magazine, which was like the British equivalent of Playboy. Then Hoppy said: “Let’s syndicate it”, we did and it was published in Uruguay and Holland I think. Then years later, an old-time pianist called Gerry Moore, English guy, he said: “Oh I’ve got something of yours”. He said: “I found it in New York years ago, I found it the other day in the bottom of a drawer.” And it was a magazine called ‘Swank’ – if you don’t mind – and there’s this bloody article again. So that must have been one of the things that was syndicated in America.
AB: It’s interesting that you mention that he took colour photographs because you know when I went through Hoppy’s archives, I went through every negative he had and there was not a single colour negative. Not one.
VW: Well if they weren’t kept well, they would have gone off anyway, the colour would have gone off.
AB: But did he take many colour photographs? Do you think? Did you?
VW: People didn’t then because it was so expensive. I mean, I had somebody come round here once and he asked me: “Why didn’t you take more colour?” and I said: “Couldn’t afford it.” I mean a roll of film cost you a pound or something, but a roll of colour film’s going to cost you nearly five pounds with the processing…
AB: It’s a very different proposition isn’t it? I’ve never really thought about that because I just assumed it was all black and white, but Hoppy took some colour photographs later, he did some landscape photography…
VW: Did he?
AB: He really liked them and they disappeared, I don’t know what happened to those, he took those in the ‘90s I think.
VW: I’ve got some nice photographs that belonged to Graham Keen actually, that nobody’s seen I don’t think, and I must give them back to him but they exist anyway.
With Hoppy, I never knew whether things, ideas and people came to him, or whether he went out seeking these, and initiated instances. I’ve always had the feeling when I look back that things just came to him, which is interesting. I may have said this last time, but in a letter to me that he wrote after the party to launch my autobiography, he told me how he’d always admired me for getting close to the musicians in a way that he never could, and indeed he admitted in this letter that when Ornette stayed at his house, his flat, he was in awe of him and never knew what to say. I was really surprised at that in a way, I was amazed at this revelation, but as I get older, I realise how much of what happens in our lives is actually pure luck, the situations we’re in. So therefore, going back to it, did people come to him? Maybe they did, all the time, because he was so charismatic. There was a programme about charisma on the radio recently, and I thought, yes, how charismatic he was. There was something about him, that, you know, you just did go to him, and so I obviously don’t think he went out looking for much. He was a very intelligent person of course so he had the ability to spot it when it happened…
AB: Well he allowed me to befriend him. Which when I think back on it, all these years later, it was quite remarkable actually. I don’t know, it was very much hero worship style, but you know, I just wanted him in my life.
VW: Yes, well so did I, right from the beginning, from the first day I met him. But going back to practical things, we talked about, I told you about him getting me work, didn’t I? To be more exact, passing on his gigs that he couldn’t do. And I think I said something about working for Peace News, well I looked through my job-book and, just to correct it I see that I worked for Sanity, that was one of the CND papers, and also for Christian CND, and they had something else as well. But it was because of Hoppy that I spent the night on a boat on the Thames, waiting for Michaelangelo Antonioni to appear.
AB: What, the Italian film director?
VW: Yes, because he was in England making ‘Blow Up’, and this guy that I met at Hoppy’s, a rather seedy character who wanted to get into things, and he said “Oh Antonioni’s going to be there.” So off we went to the boat, and it was one of the first discos. It was when the disco craze was on, so all these people were dancing on the boat, and I thought, Antonioni’s going to show up in a minute, and Terence Stamp, and … no it wasn’t Terence Stamp was it, it was…
AB: David Hemmings.
VW: David Hemmings, well they were going to turn up.
AB: Were they shooting at the time?
VW: Yes, but of course they never turned up! Another thing was Hoppy’s connection with Centre 42 and Arnold Wesker – and then George Hoskiss, who ran the Roundhouse. Now I met Wesker, there was a party for the launch of the Roundhouse, in July ’64. I met Wesker, and I saw Harold Wilson, he was there, and a wonderful thing happened with Dame Edith Evans – you know what she was like? They were handing round food, you know, little waitresses with little trays of canapés and things, and she goes over to this waitress and she says, (Edith Evans voice) “What’s that little thing over there?” and the girl says to her, “It’s so-and-so” and she says “I think I’ll have one of those”. Talk about ‘in character’! Blimey. Anyway, so through meeting Hoskiss, George Hoskiss… in Hoppy’s book ‘From The Hip’ you’ll see his photographs that he took of the interiors of the Roundhouse, I’m not quite sure how he took those, he may have had multiple lights or he may have done one of the things we used to do in those days was you set up your camera then you go around with flash and you shoot it off manually, you keep the lens open, you shoot it off manually, many times, it may be taken like that.
AB: Is that how it used to be done?
VW: That’s one way of doing things, yeah. But anyway, because of that, George Hoskiss commissioned me to take photographs of the building at different stages. I really didn’t have the equipment for that, neither did Hoppy, we only had 35mm cameras at that time. Well, I suppose I still had a Rolleiflex, but I did a lot of photographs of the Roundhouse in various stages of construction, and I also photographed for him some kind of architectural model of the building, or part of the building, and this was from July ’64 through to ’69. I was still doing it in July 1969, so over five years I did quite a lot of photographs for Hoskiss, and that was a very good gig for me, well paid and nice to do. But the other thing I wanted to say…well I’ll just say what Centre 42 was, that was formed in 1961 under the direction of Arnold Wesker in response to a TUC conference directive that – a motion I guess it was carried – that the Trades Unions would become more involved in the arts. So that’s how that all happened and it all goes on into, you know, Centre 42 had a big band, and they put on concerts and theatrical productions, and then that all goes on into the Roundhouse in some way, but you’ll have to work all that out.
But now we go on to the other bit, that’s a bit difficult. As I say, not everything in every relationship is one hundred per cent okay, and not everything is sweetness and light, and it was while he was working on ‘From The Hip’ that I first realised or recognised the element of control in Hoppy’s make up. So no longer the hippy. And I’ve written this down because I’ll never say it the way I want to otherwise. He’d asked me to write a piece about him and his photography for the book, which of course you’ve seen. But before it was published he phoned me up and he said “I’ve cut your piece.” So I said “Why?” so he said “It’s too much about you”, he said. So I said “Oh”, and I let him get on with it because it was his book but secretly I was pretty annoyed, because he hadn’t asked my permission. But thinking it over, he was probably right, it probably was too much about me. But he should have asked me. And that was a very high-handed thing to do and very out of character you would think for someone like Hoppy. I’d spent quite a while weaving in an intricate tale of how safelights in darkrooms changed in the period we were working in and why, and this was something that would strike a chord of recognition with other photographers as we are constantly bemused by the number of films and television productions that show modern photographers working in a darkroom illuminated by red lights rather than yellow ones. It was a story of how he and I had moved on, and how as we grew as people, that was a sort of parallel line. And now he cut it out, in what seemed to be an arbitrary fashion without discussing with me. His action gave me pause for thought and I recognised there’d been other aspects of this in the past. Sweetness and light, yes, but Hoppy was pretty damn good at setting others to dance to his tune, but as John Howe put it, “What a cat Hoppy was!” That’s it really.