Features » People and Places
Hollywood Star is Alive and Kicking
Alex Watkins / 2006-07-24 15:26:48
Al Matthews is a contradictory character, brash yet insightful, sentimental but hardened; but then he has lived a rich and varied life.
His experiences could be enough for several people to consider themselves fulfilled but they are all vital parts of what makes up this fascinating and certainly entertaining story of one local resident's life.
A chart topping musician, Hollywood, TV and West End theatre actor, Vietnam veteran, University lecturer in Franco's Spain, Capital Radio DJ; Al has rubbed shoulders with the elite of the entertainment industry and played a part in some of the key periods of late 20th Century history. Yet as much of a larger than life character as he can sometimes seem, he simply describes his love of performing as being "an applause junkie" and regards his own life as having been blessed with luck. Despite rumours of his death, Al Matthews is alive and well and living on the Orihuela Costa.
It would be impossible to give here a full picture of all of his experiences or even all of the stories he was kind enough to share with the 'Leader,' but hopefully this will give some insight into how one man's life can take an unconventional but remarkable journey.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942 some of his formative years were spent amongst New York's beatnik community going to Allen Ginsberg's loft parties, "The best parties in the world. You'd go up in the lift and, Boom! He'd hit you with laughing gas. Everybody's laughing their butts off and nothing funny's been said!" A friend of Jack Kerouac, Buffy Sainte Marie was an ex-girlfriend, he even gave Bob Dylan his first job in New York.
He sang in a band called The Concordes with Tony Orlando (real name Anthony Vespucci, he revealed), appeared on stage at Woodstock in Richie Havens band, the opening act, and was "dear friends" with Richard Pryor who was a piano player before his agent advised him to try comedy. As he put it himself, "I grew up in a wonderful time and I wouldn't swap it for anything;" and more self deprecatingly, "That's how long I've been around, makes you want to go home and go to bed." He says laughing to himself.
It was during this key period in modern culture that he swapped these newfound freedoms for a different experience, "I first came to Spain in 1965, a very bad time. I wound up as a lecturer at Madrid University on black music, very unusual for Franco. For every lecture I had to write down the lyrics of every song that I was going to sing, and they would translate them into Spanish to check there was nothing subversive."
Looking for somewhere to stay an American girl hooked him up with some friends who puzzled him with their nightly disappearances. When he took it upon himself to investigate this, he found they were sneaking up to the roof of the building from where they would hurl garbage cans down onto the Guardia Civil as they passed, "I was living with the Spanish underground and I didn't even know it. It was entertaining to say the least." He had a Spanish girlfriend but being typically understated describes the regime as, "slightly racist."
"You will never kiss a woman in Spain in the street," the Guardia told him one day, "and I said I can't stay here. As an American, I've never lived in a dictatorship, what's human about it?" When he left the country they relieved him of his copies of Pedro Lorca's Spain and a copy of Playboy issue 1, which he already knew would be a collector's item.
"Oh man, I was there when the cops rode up on horseback and beat the crap out of the students with those long sticks. It was good experience but I left and went straight to Vietnam when I got back to America."
He served two tours of duty during which time he became the first black marine to receive a meritorious promotion to sergeant and received two purple hearts.
"I was there 21 months, and what happened to me was I tried to get even; and you cant, you can't. I lost 79 friends in one day and you can't get even. I re-enlisted I didn't want to go home as a corporal either. In combat you never get close to people because their death has to be you can't cry, with tears in your eyes you're going to get shot, hey, I'm being practical."
"If I hadn't done that, I would not be a man. I was thinking when can I call myself a man? I would ask my mother and she said that comes from experience. I never had no self discipline until I joined the Marine Corp, now I can sit and play the guitar for 8 hours until my fingers bleed, read a script over and over until I know it backwards. That is self discipline being in control of yourself, which a lot of us are not."
The experience left its scars and there was no welcome home for the troops, "I was feeling misused." One day he saw a poster, advertising for donations to build a monument to fallen comrades and "went mental," at the government's cheek not paying for it. Next to that was another sign saying, "If you don't like America, leave," which he did the next day.
He ended up in Morocco of which he says, "I missed out on the hippy thing so I was trying to catch up." Hooking up with a musically like-minded individual they travelled to England, where he plied his trade as a folk and blues singer. In 1975, a song written for him by Pierre Tubbs called, 'Fool' became a top ten hit across Europe.
Supporting acts including, Hawkwind, Slade, Procul Harem, Rory Gallagher, Roberta Flack (Who he recalls getting paid in refrigerators and washing machines for a gig in Yugoslavia!), Peter Clayton and Alexis Corner who got him into radio (His gospel show on Capital Radio won best show in the genre for 6 years.)
He played at Dingwalls in London with Kilburn and the High Roads who became Ian Dury and the Blockheads, "The whole band was disabled. They had a tenor sax player who was a midget. The sax is dragging on the ground! But they were a very, very good band and everyone respected that."
"A friend of mine was at the national film school in Beaconsfield. He was doing a film in which the majority of the dialogue was American and he couldn't handle it. He asked me for help. He asked would I like to be in the movie. I showed the script to my wife and she said I know you, you'll never be able to do that, you have to be in bed with a woman naked. I said I can do this, got up that morning and went in.
What I would like to say to budding actors is you have to be very thick skinned, be able to take pain, mental, and to take rejection because in the early days it can hurt. The first feature film I ever did was called Yanks, directed by John Schlesinger who did Midnight Cowboy, I was collecting directors. I wanted to work for as many people as possible. He was a friend of Don Siegel and when he came to London he told him he needed a black guy to play the part of Ferguson. The film came out under about 3 different names. That was the beginning of my career and it was pretty much downhill after that. Hah, hah. But I don't know how to do anything else."
His most famous role on the big screen though is undoubtedly as Sergeant Apone in Aliens, directed by James Cameron but, he says, "The movies that stand out, apart from Aliens, all died." This didn't stop him working with Jimmy Cagney and Mickey Rooney on Milos Forman's Ragtime, and appearing in Superman III, The Fifth Element and Tomorrow Never Dies amongst many others. While on TV, he has been in such British institutions as; The Saint, The Professionals (and The Comic Strip's unprintably titled lampoon), Desmond's, Grange Hill and Shelley. In the theatre he was in Tom Stoppard's Hapgood with Nigel Hawthorne and Felicity Kendall.
"A good theatre actor controls the rest of the cast, that's acting. Actors that are good in films are not necessarily good in theatre but a good theatre actor is usually excellent in film. That's why you don't see Bruce Willis in the theatre. Nicole Kidman died, Liz Taylor died a death in Little Women. Good makes good better. The worst thing about shooting (movies) is it's like the military; hurry up and wait. My car came at 6am, so I have to be up at 5, and I may not be used until 9 at night, that's a long time. But I'm in love with the business. My point is that theatre: there is nothing you can take from film to stage, they don't say cut you just have to get it on."
Now based in Spain, he divides his time between numerous projects and attends signings and conferences on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a keen cook and has a book of recipes coming out.
"I have a band here, we've been playing 11 or 12 years, they are good. M Clan (a very popular Spanish group), Murcia clan, they're all my mates. The lead guitarist, Santiago is also in my band, the Al Matthews Blues Experience."
He also takes advantage of the internet to enable him to work and stay in contact with friends and fans all over the world. This he wanted to stress only came about because of an unfortunate incident when an acquaintance spread rumours that he had died. They spread so far and fast that his daughter in America received flowers for the funeral.
"To have people think you're dead is horrible it really is, there's no coming back from that. That's why I have my website, I would never have thought of having a website. It's done me good I've got my music going, my things. You can download my music from the internet for free. I've been very, very lucky, I have been blessed. Wounded twice, I ain't dead, that's a blessing. Then I figured if these guys don't have the wherewithal to kill me, I got a future."
There is much more on the internet about Al including his own site, just search under his name, but after such a busy life he's not ready for bed yet.