That howling noise heard all over the London music scene at the moment is coming from readers of the new Keith Altham book "No More Mr. Nice Guy." The book is a collection of open letters in which Altham, a highly respected veteran of 35 years in the British music business, first as a journalist and then as a publicist, tells his ex-clients exactly what he thinks of them.
"Hell hath no fury like Rod Stewart asked to part with money," Altham writes. "Dear Rod, remember when your early manager Giorgio Gomelski turned up backstage in 1984 after your not having seen him for 17 years? 'Where's my eight pounds seven shilling and sixpence you owe me from the Steampacket gig at the Marquee in 1967?' you barked."
Altham recounts the story of Stewart and Jeff Beck's brief reunion for a 50-date tour in the mid-'80s. Altham bet Beck 100 pounds he'd never endure a week with Stewart, let alone 50 days. Joining the tour in Philadelphia on Day 7, Altham headed backstage, passing an opulent suite marked "Rod Stewart," a far plainer room labeled "Band" -- and a broom closet bearing the name "Jeff Beck." Opening the door, Altham found Beck curled up on the floor in a fetal position. The guitarist grinned weakly and said, "You're all I need. Where's me checkbook?"
There's a priceless letter to Mick Jagger: "Dear Mick, D'you remember when we first slept together? In fact d'you remember anything without the aid of Bill Wyman's diary?" Anyone who wants to know more about Jagger's steppingstones -- Ian Stewart, Andrew Loog Oldham, Brian Jones -- will find more meat in Altham's 18 pages than in most 600-page doorstops. As you'd expect, the hippest one-liner comes from Keith Richards, remarking on Jagger's recent 10 million-pound mishap with a Brazilian lingerie model: a succinct "Whoopsadaisy then Mick."
One musician apparently not changed a whit by fame is Van Morrison. "Dear Van, What can I say? What a talent. What a singer. What a pain in the arse." Altham tells him he's still the same monosyllabic Belfast lad who arrived off the boat possessing "the charm of a toad and the charisma of a dialling tone." Altham's pithy letter to Sting also finds something lacking in the personality department: "Dear Sting, it is an endless source of amazement that someone with your intelligence, compassion and humour can emerge as such a humourless prat."
Altham also has a go at such interesting cases as Terence Trent D'Arby, whom he tells, "You looked the biz, sang the biz, even wrote like the biz -- nothing could stop you but you, and you managed that too."
Beneath the layers of wry anecdote there's a serious intent -- separating rock's good guys from the "pompous shits" -- and few people are better placed than Altham to make the distinction. It was Pete Townshend, Altham says, who insisted that he publish the book: "Tell them the truth. It'll do you good and it may even do them good."
Reliable sources say the book's targets are sheepishly comparing notes among themselves, but so far none has complained publicly.
Even beyond the dish, the book is getting attention for the way in which Altham captures the tone of the mid-'60s London rock scene, which was a bit like an Edwardian gentleman's club: a rigid social hierarchy in which everyone knew his station and God was an Englishman -- named Eric Clapton. Cream sat at the top table, and nobody ever "sat in" with them.
Until, that is, American guitarist Jimi Hendrix arrived in London. For a week the grapevine buzzed with rumors about the newcomer; then Cream invited him to jam. On his eighth day in the country, a complete unknown, Hendrix sauntered out onto Cream's stage and plugged into Clapton's amp. About 30 seconds into "Killing Floor," Clapton's jaw dropped open, and the old order lay in ruins.
When Hendrix was sent out on his first British package tour with an assortment of aging crooners, it was Altham who suggested he liven things up by setting fire to his guitar. (Hendrix wondered if it might not be a better idea to torch the lugubrious Walker Brothers.) The aptly named Tito Burns, an archetypal old-school Tin Pan Alley agent, dealt with the enraged fire marshals by roaring at Hendrix, "You'll never work on this circuit again" and storming out of the theater, concealing the charred guitar beneath his raincoat.
The book will be available in the United States this spring.