Disappointed Andy Kershaw had to cancel Sunday’s gig at The Apex? Read this interview instead
- Credit: Archant
Broadcaster and more Andy Kershaw talks jam and Bob Dylan, failed blind dates and almost dying (twice) with entertainment writer Wayne Savage
Journalists have many tricks up their sleeves to get exclusives, but jam? It worked for Kershaw, who secured the first British TV interview with Bob Dylan thanks to a jar of the stuff from his local shop.
“Oh, it was insignificant really,” says the broadcaster and journalist, who makes each subsequent story sound misleadingly matter of fact.
Flying back from Boston, he’d read Dylan was recording with Dave Stewart, whose studio happened to be at the end of Kershaw’s street in Crouch End. Still a bit jet-lagged after a bit of kip, he decided to have a word with his hero on the way to work the next morning. But he couldn’t go empty-handed.
“I passed this whole-foods shop and thought I’ll take Bob a present. I swung inside and the first thing I put me hand on was this jar of Hedgerow Jam it was called. I thought ‘that’ll do’.”
Kershaw, who’s won more Sony Radio awards than any other broadcaster, remembers knocking on an amused Stewart’s door, asking if Dylan was in.
“I handed Dylan this jar of jam and he’s squinting. I hear me-self saying ‘It’s jam, Bob, Hedgerow Jam; made with real hedgerows...”
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Then there was his 1987 encounter with boxer Mike Tyson, who turned up unannounced at a boys’ club while Kershaw – as a “minor Radio One DJ” at the time – handed out prizes.
“In walks the most famous man in the world, the heavyweight champion of the world, in London on some promotional caper.
“I’m immediately shoved to the side of the stage and Tyson is asked to take over. He’s being mobbed and I had to go to the edge of the stage, reach down, get hold of his hand and help him up onto the stage.”
Kershaw, imitating the boxer, lisp included, to a tee, recalls: “He just kept saying ‘what’s happening, man, what’s happening?’ I said ‘I have no idea’.”
The story I’m most interested in is a particular blind date of his, years ago. A laughing Kershaw blames fellow Radio One DJ Janice Long, the ringleader behind the gang’s trips to gigs and record company parties.
She told him he was coming out with them one Friday night to see Motorhead, recalls the One Show’s roving reporter, who actually started out promoting major rock gigs at Leeds University. What’s more, she’d set him up with a visiting American friend.
“There’s this blonde woman there, a bit scruffy actually, who’s supposed to be my blind date. At the after-show party she’s constantly looking over her shoulder to see if she could see anybody more famous than me. It was only when I told her I was a friend of Joe Strummer of the Clash that she found me deeply fascinating and I never thought any more about it; never saw her again.”
A few years later he was clearing out the Sunday newspapers and on the front cover of a magazine was a vaguely familiar looking woman.
“I’m thinking ‘how do I know her; who is she?’ and there was this piece about this woman called Courtney Love, who had been married to some dead rock star (Kurt Cobain) in the States... I’ve never taken any interest in Nirvana, I thought they were a dreadful band, and when I looked I thought ‘b****r me, it’s my
blind date from Motorhead of about five years ago’.”
There’s wonderfully no off switch with Kershaw. It’s even the title of his autobiography.
He’s spoken before how he was propositioned by Frankie Howerd and Little Richard. Working for the BBC at the same time as Jimmy Savile, I have to ask what’s his take on the disgraced ex-national treasure?
He describes him as “nasty piece of work”; a very cold, self-centred character who wouldn’t even reply if you said hello to him in the Radio One lift.
Kershaw had heard rumours before joining Radio One about Savile’s supposed prior activities as a “gangland enforcer” in Leeds. He kept his distance. Something he thinks the BBC should’ve done.
“Look, there was no proof... Until one of us poor kids came forward and made a complaint against him and those complaints taken seriously... The sensible approach would’ve been simply to have not hired him any longer while all those rumours and that hearsay persisted. There was such a wealth of it over the years they should’ve thought ‘we’d better be careful with this fella’ and perhaps it would be prudent not to hire him to present a programme involving children.”
It’s not been all fun for Kershaw, who was also Billy Bragg’s driver and roadie and worked for the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.
He’s covered civil wars and conflicts in some of the world’s most dangerous and secretive countries, including Iraq, Sierra Leone, North Korea, Angola and Haiti. He was also one of very few journalists to be an eyewitness to the Rwanda genocide.
“It’s not over yet either,” he laughs. “Less of this past tense please.”
He has almost been killed twice, I remind him. The first time during an ambush in Rwanda, where the vehicle in front of his hit an anti-tank mine and exploded. He had to walk 11 miles down a road full of landmines to escape.
“I was pinned down and shot at by a sniper during the Red Shirt Revolution in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2010. I got into a doorway until this sniper got bored and started shooting at someone else,” he laughs.
Kershaw, supported by an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons when he was dropped by Radio One in 2000, has been obsessively curiou about the world since he was a youngster. Journalism was always his first love rather than music. His dad was a history teacher and the subject was one of his strongest at school.
“It’s not a great jump from being fascinated by history to being fascinated by history in the making, what’s happening now and writing I’ve always loved. I started writing for the local newspaper and various motorcycle magazines when I was only 15-16. Always a journalist, all this stuff with music radio, TV, DJing has really been a sideline, a distraction.”
His success with the latter was accidental, the lucky result he adds of meeting the right people who spotted some sort of enthusiasm for it. He fell into presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test first, then Radio One rang.
“They said ‘has he ever done any radio, take him in a studio and try him out’. There was no plan at all.”
His dad was thoroughly bewildered how he managed to produce not one but two Radio One DJs. He’d banned Kershaw and his sister, Liz, from watching Top of the Pops or listening to pop music growing up. Born in 1928, when rock ’n’ roll arrived in the UK, dad didn’t really get it.
“At that stage he wasn’t old by any means; he was only in his late 20s, I suppose. I think there was a division caused by the Second World War; teenagers grasped it and those who were a little older didn’t. They were just smaller versions of their parents; that’s what me dad was.”
We all turn into our parents eventually, I suggest.
“I don’t think it comes to us all... My lad Sonny, who’s now 18... One of the most frequently heard cries in my house is ‘dad, turn that down’. Whereas it used to be my dad shouting at me. Now the kids are complaining about the parent’s rock and roll. I suppose he mellowed a bit and was very proud we both reached the pinnacle of broadcasting, that we were both working for national BBC radio.”
Kershaw says there was no rivalry between him and Liz in terms of who had the most listeners.
“No, it was just good fun. She was interested in a different type of music to mine. It was a really great atmosphere at the time to have her knocking around the building as well, people like Janice. It was like a gang.”
The most fun he had was during the 12 years he was lucky enough to share a “chaotic” office with broadcasting giant John Peel – never mind the true genius of room 318, as it was called, John Walters.
The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops had been formative figures in his musical education. Listening to Peel was a revelation, opening Kershaw’s ears to all kinds of stuff from punk rock and British folk to American country, old r’n’b, blues...
“To find me-self suddenly a Radio One DJ... How lucky was I. I was actually sharing an office with the guy who had done so much to put me on that musical road. We were like the two naughty school boys of Radio One at the back of the class,” says Kershaw, who used to go on holiday to the Isle of Man with Peel to watch the TT races.
“John, our shared producer, always used to say Peel was the most important figure in British rock music full stop, never mind John Lennon; Peel’s influence and his power endured for so long.”
Talking of motorbikes, the last time we spoke Kershaw was training to be a wall of death rider. It didn’t go to plan.
“I didn’t get on very well with the bloke who was supposed to be teaching me... I did eventually have a go and I got up on the wall but crashed quite heavily coming down,” he laughs.
“I’ve been meaning to contact one of the other operators and say ‘can I come and try it with you?’ It’s that well-worn career path from radio presenter to wall of death rider. They have something in common, working for the BBC and being a wall of death rider. At the end of each performance you get pelted with small change.”
The Adventures of Andy Kershaw was due to visit The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on September 4 but has unfortunately been cancelled due to circumstance beyond both parties. The box office is contacting all ticket holders.