Rick Wakeman's happy tales

Keiron Pim He’s one of the most gifted keyboard players of his generation and someone whose rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was full of hilarious episodes. This Wednesday Rick Wakeman will be sharing some of these stories in Norwich.

Keiron Pim

Rick Wakeman has been living in Norfolk for four years, which according to his new book means that about 12 ludicrous things must have happened to him since he's been here.

“People who know me well, know that nothing 'ordinary' ever happens to me and a 'Spinal Tap' tale of one sort or another will always seem to come about whether I am on the road touring, in the studio recording or just simply walking down the road,” he writes. A “very conservative estimate” is that “three ludicrous things” happen to him every year, apparently. So… tell us about one of them then, Rick.

“Well,” he laughs down the phone from his home near Diss, “how about this one?” What follows is a long and very funny anecdote about the time a couple of years ago when his son Adam, a fellow musician, cautiously agreed to let Rick organise their flights for a concert in Russia. They got home safely, and it all seemed to have gone off well - perhaps too well.

“Now, do you remember the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was in some small way radioactive? He had been on a plane to Russia and back shortly before he died. I got a phone call from Adam, and he said: 'Unbelievable. Have you had a phone call yet?' The Russian guy who was murdered - I have had a call saying I need to be tested for radiation…”

Mishaps and chaos seem to follow Rick Wakeman around, without him ever quite being to blame. There was the time he got caught smuggling KGB uniforms out of Soviet Russia; the evening meal he had with Keith Moon of The Who that ended in predictably riotous fashion; the time that unwittingly he pushed Salvador Dali off stage; and as for how he came to possess a box of earth from Che Guevara's grave, it's another long story. He'll be sharing tales such as these at an Evening with Rick Wakeman at Jarrold's in Norwich this Wednesday, tying in with the publication of his new book, Grumpy Old Rock Star and Other Wondrous Stories. It's not so much an autobiography as a collection of amusing anecdotes from his extraordinary life.

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Born in Middlesex in 1949, he was, according to the publishers, “a likeable little fellow who had a talent for the piano and for making trouble”. He went on to study piano, clarinet, modern music and orchestration at the Royal College of Music and later went on to join the prog rock band Yes, which is where things started to get a bit messy.

Rick doesn't drink any more, but when he did, like most things, he did it to excess. At the age of 25 he was hospitalised after suffering two heart attacks. When the doctor asked him to describe his alcohol intake, he thought it best to be honest: “[Into] double figures of pints a day, plus probably a couple of bottles of wine and at least a bottle of Scotch.” Oh, and he had a fondness for drinking port and brandy by the pint now and again.

He has owned around 200 cars, with his collection reaching 22 at its peak, he smoked like a chimney and his diet was spectacularly unhealthy. At one point in the 1970s he was given six months to live if he didn't change his ways - which he did, he hasn't smoked or drunk alcohol for decades - but all the same, his enduring success as a musician, broadcaster and raconteur seemed pretty unlikely at one stage.

As well as one-man shows such as the event at Jarrold, he hosts a radio show, is a regular on Countdown and Grumpy Old Men and maintains his music career: he performs live with Yes intermittently and has recently recorded an album at his home studio with guitarist Gordon Giltrap. In their 1970s pomp, Yes were known for their over-the-top live shows and next year he has a typically spectacular concert lined up, reprising one of his most famous concept albums.

“Next year is the 500th anniversary of the ascension of Henry VIII to the throne. I've been asked to perform The Six Wives of Henry VIII to mark the occasion, and it's going to be ridiculously OTT, there's no other way to do it. We're going to re-record it all. I'm 60 next year and you think this is really quite lovely because there are still lots of things to do.”

When he came to prominence in the 1970s with first The Strawbs and then Yes, he was hailed as one of the most gifted keyboard players of his generation. He has worked with an impressive list of musicians - David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John, Cat Stevens and Black Sabbath to name a few.

“The artist I learned most from was David Bowie,” he says. He played the mellotron on Space Oddity and piano on Life On Mars and Changes. “The way he worked was tremendous, he was so sure of what he was doing. I probably learned 50pc of how to be a rock and roll star from him.”

Rick came to Norfolk with his partner Rachel after getting to know the area through visits to friends.

“We started to come here a lot seeing friends like Ian Lavender, Roy Hudd and Neil Innes, who live in Suffolk. There were so many people we came to see and we thought, 'this is really nice'. We wanted to be in a village, around people, we didn't want to be in the middle of nowhere. One of the nice things about this county is that people respect each other's privacy - we like to get involved in the village but when you shut your gate, that's it.”

The idea for the book came from a friend in publishing, who sat Rick down for lunch and asked him to rack his memory for as many stories as possible.

“I have often told stories on stage or on chat shows.

“He said, 'you have got to get these stories written down'. Some of them are folklore, some are told by other people on stage and they're not getting them right so you should get them down.

“I said, 'I can't see it, there aren't enough stories to fill a book'. By the end of the lunch we had remembered about 140, and I said 'you're probably right!'.”

t An Evening with Rick Wakeman is at Jarrold in Norwich at 6pm this Wednesday, September 17. Tickets will still be available up to the day, priced £5 from customer services on floor two, or at www.jarrold.co.uk or call 01603 660661.

t Grumpy Old Rockstar and Other Wondrous Stories, by Rick Wakeman, is published by Preface in hardback at £17.99.