Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Insurance ‘suits’ have all the figures but we have most fun

Tom Petty performs with The Heartbreakers at Madison Square Garden in New York, 2008. Picture: JASON

Tom Petty performs with The Heartbreakers at Madison Square Garden in New York, 2008. Picture: JASON DECROW - Credit: AP

On October 2, Tom Petty, one of America’s most famous rock stars, died of a heart attack, writes Martin Newell.

David Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades. Picture:

David Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades. Picture: AP PHOTO/ PETER KRAMER - Credit: AP

That generation of musicians, born between 1940 and 1955, are rather unkindly leaving the stage.

We’ve already lost half of The Beatles and The Who, two-thirds of the Bee Gees, two Beach Boys, David Bowie and more. Rock’n’Roll’s churchyard grows full. Now, a story. In early 1999, aged 45, three decades after starting work, I finally secured a mortgage on a small house in my home town.

The lenders and other related authorities agreed that MW Newell, musician and writer of this parish, was at last fit to borrow money.

Since I’d never owned a car or been in debt before, they were especially thorough in scrutinising my credit-worthiness.

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I also came up with a 12.5% deposit to further allay their suspicions.

Next, I attempted to insure my mortgage payments in case I became ill or unemployed.

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PPI was a problem because the word “musician” was listed as most of my job. Musician, they assured me, was a high-risk occupation. Even if PPI could be done, the premiums would be unacceptably high.

I was angry. All the old rebel defiance came flooding back. Here were these property people, whose very conventions had helped force me into the home-buying game and then, the minute I stepped onto their turf, they tried to thwart me at every turn.

I solved the problem by saving up my own insurance, gradually amassing a relatively untouchable few thousand in Premium Bonds for that rainy day which never came. At least I can say that nobody mis-sold me a PPI. This, apparently, was because I was among the worst of mortgage lepers: a musical entertainer.

Now, however, I was curious. I wanted to know exactly why we were considered by insurers to be “high risk”. It’s simple. We really are high risk. Many of us, like Petty, and Bowie die relatively young.

This is not always, as you might suppose, because of a fondness for drink or drugs.

The chief cause is life on the road. Touring is fine when you are between 18 and 32 years old: roughly the age-group for military conscription. There are many parallels, for touring musicians, with life in the services. On a rock tour there are long periods of boredom interrupted suddenly by heart-jolting bouts of excitement, stress and sometimes fear. Sleep is frequently disrupted and scant. Meals are irregular. Relationships may disintegrate because of long absences from home. Money problems occur because of unconventional and irregular pay.

The travel itself is frequently fraught. One of my bands once found itself in two illegal taxis, being driven at white-knuckle speeds across German countryside.

This was so we could catch a train we shouldn’t really have needed, to replace a tour van which hadn’t been hired. No wonder a drinking culture sometimes results. Even membership of the musical elite won’t necessarily insulate you from tour-stress. Being a megastar only means you’ll be delayed in rather classier planes.

You can also be deprived of sleep in more luxurious hotels. There’s much more money available to be not paid to you.

The partners with whom you break up may be more glamorous. When this happens, there’ll be plenty of great-looking women waiting to hit on you while you’re vulnerable.

At the end of it all there are always cigarettes, limitless drinks and other remedies with which to numb yourself.

Oddly enough, most musicians don’t die in planes, cars or hotel bathrooms. Most die like civilians: at home, in our armchairs, on our bedroom floors, at the bottom of our stairs, or in hospital beds.

Many musicians of my generation became musicians because we couldn’t not do so. For children of the grainy monochrome mid 20th century to have experienced Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones and the Byrds was akin to hearing a pied piper.

If you were shy, geeky-looking, useless at sport and exams, or if you had some drag of a father bellowing at you to man-up, the possibility of pop stardom was the only route left.

In my own case I didn’t particularly care whether or not I died young. It was a small price to pay for a life less ordinary. But it’s still an insult, when you finally make some money, to find some attitude-in-a-suit standing between you and a home.

Tom Petty died after completing yet another tour. He was only 66. The insurance men were right and we were all wrong. Bet we had more fun though.

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