Chris Rea, please take it easy. You’ve got nothing to prove

In 1996 rock star Chris Rea was at a windswept Shingle Street making a fantasy film featuring Suffol

In 1996 rock star Chris Rea was at a windswept Shingle Street making a fantasy film featuring Suffolk Punch horses. Since then the star, now 66, has suffered numerous health setbacks, including a stoike and a recent collapse on stage. - Credit: Archant

Why do music stars insist on still going out on the road, long after their bank balance and common sense says ‘don’t do it’, wonders Martin Newell.

I open a newspaper and learn that good old Chris Rea has collapsed on stage. The first two paragraphs tell me all I need to know. At 66, he’s exactly two years older than I am. He suffered a stroke a year ago. He’s been dogged by ill-health, having endured peritonitis, pancreatic cancer and diabetes. At the time of his collapse he was close to finishing a 37-venue tour.

I do find myself asking exactly why he was doing a 37-date tour. Because I wouldn’t do one. Not now. I last did a proper tour 20 years ago (25 dates in 31 days). I needed the money. Then 44 years old with my record sales in a bit of a slump, the tour returns got me through the winter and bought my toddler her food and clothing. I got on a train in late September until another train spat me back out in early November. I had a persistent cough, a permanent low-level headache and a feeling that I didn’t really live anywhere. But I was now solvent and there was better work on the horizon.

Chris Rea has sold millions of albums, had many hit singles and has written one major Christmas hit; a rock and roll pension if ever I heard one. He does not need to be touring. Hardly anyone in fact, except perhaps for Ken Dodd or Bob Dylan needs to be on the road after turning 60. Sure, we all like to think that we’re Superman.

I may have actually been Superman for a couple of years. Aged 24 I went into hospital for a small op on my shoulder. The nurse who took my blood pressure, noting the reading, took it again. She returned with a doctor. “Mr. Newell, are you a professional athlete?” she asked. My blood pressure seemed abnormally low. I explained that I worked part-time as kitchen porter and part-time as singer. She asked if I did much exercise. I told her I cycled a bit. Upon further questioning it was revealed that, I did three gigs a week during which time I spent 90 minutes running, pogo-ing, climbing anything climbable and generally acting like a wazzock to keep the audience’s attention. I did the same thing on rehearsal nights. I was as fit as a flea. At 24 I could hack it. At 34 too.

By 44, however, I was beginning to feel it. I was assured at my recent human MOT test that my liver and kidneys are fine, my cholesterol’s great and even my blood pressure is passable. Amazingly, I’m in reasonable nick again. But I wouldn’t be if I was tackling Chris Rea’s gig list.

As a matter of fact, I don’t much like doing gigs at all now, apart from a few spoken-word engagements and then, only if it’s in Essex or Suffolk. I turn down about three foreign tour offers a year and I refuse to do anything involving an airport or London. I don’t want the money, I don’t want to meet any famous people. I don’t care if I’m never on TV again. I want to enjoy my life. I want to go to the newsagent’s, buy my East Anglian and Viz Comic, mooch around on a bike and write features or poems. I want to continue making eccentric little albums which sell just enough copies and no more. I’m not fussed. I am NOT going to ruin my health like Chris Rea (and one or two other musicians whom I’ve been rather closer to).

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There aren’t many trades spring to mind where people of my age are cajoled, more usually flattered, into getting back onto the by-now inappropriate promotional hamster-wheel. Ragmen’s draught horses en route to the knacker’s yard are treated with more dignity and care than some of my fellow entertainers. From an audience point of view I can’t see that the punters are getting a brilliant deal either. Especially not when a badly-dressed arthritic team of old oxen come lumbering out onto stage to croak and groan their way through a list of their decades-old former ‘anthems’.

So you want to relive your youth do you? Tough. I’m not going to be the soundtrack for it. If you weren’t there to watch me showing-off first time around, I’m not mucking up my blood pressure just because you didn’t make it. In fact I am sick of the whole leather-trousered, sticky-floored, bandanaed, dues-paying, self-mythologising ratsy rock’n’ roll falseness of it all. It’s nonsense. And anyone over 40 who still thinks it’s big and clever ought to be sent to a special camp where they make you wear thorn-proof tweed jackets and read Kingsley Amis novels until you come to what remains of your senses.

Meanwhile, I wish poor Chris Rea, who, in his time has made some stunning records, all my very best, along with this message: Nobody will mind, Chris, after you’ve recovered, if you only make the occasional great record. You’ve done enough, mate.

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