Robert Charles Heaton
6th July 1961 – 4th November 2004
A true gentleman – sorely missed
It’s Monday 15th November and I’ve just returned from Yorkshire, exhausted and emotionally drained having seen Robert on to his final resting place. The day was cathartic, and has helped me come to terms with the loss of my best friend. The fact that so many people were present is testament to the level of feeling Robert inspired in others. There were a lot of faces from the past and many who I’d never met, all united by his passing. It’s sad that we only ever meet some old friends at occasions like this, but still good to see those I’d lost touch with over the years. There’s one, of course, who I won’t be seeing again.
I first met Robert back in the early part of 1985, as a punter (though not a paying punter) at a New Model Army gig. Within the space of a few short months I was no longer a punter, but a member of the band, and this is where Robert first took me under his wing. Over the next five years, he taught me more about life than an arrogant, ignorant teenager would normally ever be shown. Robert was a man of fine moral character, and always tried to instill me with some trace of his values.
Handshakes were important to him, both parties should always be standing as a mark of respect, and exert the correct amount of pressure as a show of character. A man with a weak handshake was a man without character, and therefore not to be trusted. Having shaken hands with Robert’s father and brother on a number of occasions, I can understand where this idea came from, although Robert’s dad described him as a bit of a bone crusher when I spoke to him today.
Handshakes were not everything though, and I think Robert showed me how to treat people correctly by his example. Certainly he was a true gentleman in both thought and deed, and I hope that some of this rubbed off on me.
During our five years together in New Model Army we became very close. I spent the first three years of my tenure sleeping on Robert’s old sofa when we were not on the road, and became a little like a bit of the furniture around his flat. He taught me how to drink beer, a feat at which I excelled for some time, eventually surpassing my tutor. After my first day of rehearsal with the band, we repaired to the Westleigh Hotel, where Robert introduced me to the crew, suggesting that I should perhaps buy each of them a pint and get to know them. As a seventeen-year-old who could normally string out two pints over a three hour drinking session, the rate of consumption, coupled with the low cost of beer in Bradford left me reeling and stumbling for a taxi within an hour. By the end of my six days of rehearsal before the first gig, Robert had me up to five pints and a curry before bedtime, so thanks for that one old mate, because I turned into a right fat bastard when my metabolism began to slow down. Unlike myself, Robert rarely touched spirits, but we spent some time exploring the culture of the grape together as we attempted but failed to become wine buffs. He could pick out a decent bottle though, and would love to show off his latest discoveries.
Obviously our relationship didn’t centre around drinking. Robert also taught me how to enjoy food and how to cook. When we met I had now idea how to scramble an egg. My limits were ready meals and fry-ups. Never one to balk from experimenting in the kitchen, Robert soon had me trying to prepare some of his favourite recipes. We managed to work on a budget, shopping for cheap cuts of meat and bulking it out with spuds or pasta. Our Saturday Night Special was to take the week’s empty cider bottles back to the Off-License, where they were traded for a tin of corned beef, an onion, some eggs and a bag of spuds. There was normally enough money left for a further bottle of cider apiece to enjoy with our garlic-infested corned beef hash, liberally garnished with a couple of fried eggs and a dollop of tomato sauce.
Such basic cuisine was the first step on the road to culinary excellence. As we toured, we dined in fine restaurants, sampling the delights of continental cooking. Once back home, we’d attempt to recreate the flavours of our travels, each of us trying to outdo the other. Who knows how many innocent snails perished to become our starters. Naturally there were cock-ups along the way. Robert decided to try vegetarian cuisine in France, a country wholly ignorant of the concept. After three days of boiled carrots and plain pasta, he was back on the meat. He and Justin shared a long running debate over who’s favourite local curry house was the best, which allowed me to get fully into the concept of the Bradford curry, a style that is not repeated anywhere else in the world. The Shimla or Shaheen debate soon became academic; they both closed down within a few weeks of each other. Whilst touring, we had an unofficial vote to see who ordered the best dinner of the evening, thereby broadening our gastronomic horizons by dint of experimentation, and it is here that the enormous Steak Tartare faux-pas came to be. Ordering from a menu entirely written in French, and with nobody present sufficiently fluent in the language to translate it accurately, eleven people managed to order something totalling in the region of five pounds of ground raw meat, with a raw egg cracked over the top of each portion. Personally, I love the stuff, but it’s an acquired taste and at the time it was an eye-opener. Only Robert stood up to complain, demanding in a loud and slow English voice tinged with the worst French accent imaginable, the better for the waiter to understand him, that he should take all of this stuff away, and bring it back when it had been properly cooked. Lighting Designer Mick Thornton watched bemused as he attempted to enjoy the section of beef femur he was expected to suck the bone marrow from. Thankfully I’d ordered the fish, but the general conclusion was that French Cordon-Bleu cookery was bollocks. Robert’s influence opened my eyes to the world of food and cookery, which I later went on to gain a formal qualification in, and contributed a little more to my levels of fat bastardry.
Musically we clicked from the outset, and thought almost as one within the rhythm section, on occasion we would find ourselves following each others’ dynamics and fills without speaking or even nodding to each other. Robert was an incredible talent, equally at home with his drums, a guitar or a bass. He made good noises with a harmonica, strangled the cheap violin he bought and could just about bash out a tune on a keyboard. As a band we were an efficient and effective unit, somewhat unburdened by the complexities that would come into Robert’s later musical career.
As a drummer he was a powerhouse, pounding his kit with remarkable strength, but always with dexterity. Robert never subscribed to what he referred to as the ‘idiot school of drumming’, which explained his innovative style and incredible feel for mood and dynamics. He was metronomically precise, astonishing seasoned producer Glyn Johns with this ability. Glyn asked Robert to double track a small section of ride cymbal on All of This, during the recording of Ghost of Cain. Glyn was looking to produce a slight flam effect, but Robert struck the bell of the ride with such precision every time that the double track was undetectable. Glyn was convinced that either Robert wasn’t playing it, or the machine wasn’t recording it, because the two tracks were so perfectly synchronised. Having checked the tape, Glyn concluded that Robert was the most perfect drummer he’d ever worked with.
Another example of this was during the protracted gestation of Thunder and Consolation. Robert’s complex rhythm pattern for the bridge sections of I Love the World was proving to be a nightmare to record in such a way as to do it justice. Eventually we decided to sample the individual drums to get enough separation, as the rapid bass drum flicks were becoming lost in the thunder of the toms. John Cornfield and I transferred these samples to Robert’s nemesis, the drum machine. Robert then explained the pattern to me in beats and measures and I programmed the hated box, a task he couldn’t bring himself to do. The finished programming sounded like Robert would if he’d had his soul ripped out of him. It was rubbish, lacking feel and ambience. Robert suggested using just the ambient mics above the kit to record him playing along with this soul-less machine. John and I were sceptical, but once again he was perfectly in time. There was not so much as a flam of the bass drum pedal through the whole song. I think Andy Wallace just used those ambient tracks in the final mix.
His guitar playing speaks for itself, just listen to anything he did. His bass playing was excellent too. During Thunder we went the full way with a system of working that had begun on Ghost and developed a little during the White Coats sessions, where we became less precious about who played what. Because Thunder was far more of a studio created project than Ghost or White Coats, whoever played something the best got the final shout in the studio. Robert played a lot of guitar on his own compositions during the final recording, and played bass on Ballad of Bodmin Pill. He also did Archway Towers and Green and Grey during the Manor sessions, although I re-recorded these two myself at the Sawmill and those takes are the ones we used in the end. I never got the feel Robert was looking for with Bodmin Pill, it wasn’t my style and he did a great job of it there was no need to replace it with my frankly inferior attempts.
His own musical tastes were varied, reflecting his early roots in heavy rock, his graduation to soul, a passion for reggae, a love of classical and an interest in modern styles. Robert enjoyed music that evoked emotion in the listener. A good song will out, and so he was very dismissive of manufactured or contrived rubbish, but liked a good pop tune from time to time. My limited listening was a source of amusement and amazement. Whilst discussing Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album with Justin on the tour bus one day, he was appalled to learn that I had never heard it (I still haven’t). I tried to point out that I was only four years old when it was released, but was told by both of them that this was no excuse. My band mates proceeded to deliver a good natured ribbing about how I knew nothing because I was but a callow youth and had no soul. They repeatedly attempted to educate me in the traditions of northern soul, whilst Robert made a point of taking me through his album collection at the next opportunity. This education would last for several weeks at a time, as album followed album. For every donkey like Robin Trower – Live there was a classic like ZZ Top’s Tejas. George Clinton, Al Green, Bruce Springsteen (mainly thanks to Justin forcing ‘The Boss’ onto Robert until it stuck), Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, Jackie Wilson, Jimmy Clifft, a rather long season of Vivaldi, all four of them I recall, and a host of others were all pushed my way. It took years to break me down, but I finally saw the point he was making. Passion, heart and soul, coupled with a decent and memorable tune will win the day. I’ve got a load of soul now, thanks to him.
As time progressed we lived pretty much in each other’s pockets. Robert met Robin, his wife to be, in America towards the end of 1986 and renewed their acquaintance when we returned in 1987. Pretty soon Robert was bound for California for the long haul, spending as much time as he could there between sessions on Thunder. It was with great pride that I accepted his offer to be his Best Man in 1988. Robert was already in Orange County when I flew out to join him and Robin for their nuptials. We spent two weeks in the States together around the wedding, enjoying the Californian sun and lifestyle before I was forced to drag him away from his new bride back to a wet English spring and the next recording session.
Robin eventually sold her home and moved to England to enjoy the weather with her new husband. By now I’d left Robert’s sofa and was living in London with my then girlfriend Jackie. Robert and Robin would spent almost all their time with us in London if we weren’t away touring or up in Bradford with them. Unfortunately things were getting tense within the band and I could only see one way out, which was to quit once Thunder was finally done and dusted. The tour lasted a full nine months during 1989 and although I was happy to walk away after the UK and European legs, Robert persuaded me to stay for the US section and beyond. Finally I’d reached the end of persuasion, and left the band after the final gig of the year, although Robert and I remained close despite this.
With me outside of the New Model Army environment, we strayed from each other’s constant company as our separate paths now decreed, but we always stayed in touch and met up whenever we could. We’d discuss our individual projects and occasionally venture to see each other’s respective bands. If I was up north with The Damned, I’d stay with Robert and Robin, and if New Model Army were in London, then they’d visit me. Around 1995 Robert began to suffer from stress and depression. When he visited, he looked gaunt and ill. Subsequent glandular biopsies revealed a rare illness causing his symptoms, and by late 1997 he’d been diagnosed with a brain tumour. Following an operation to remove the tumour in January of 1998, he quit the band and concentrated on his recovery, battling back to health against the odds. He became a gardener, whilst keeping an oar in with his love of music through projects like The Gardeners of Eden and developing his talents as a producer. I struggle to think of anything he couldn’t successfully turn his hand to. When the Heatons decided to buy a house, Robert renovated the property from the cellar up.
He and Robin had a son called Marlon and whenever I spoke to him he seemed happy with life, certainly happier than he’d been for the two years previously. We played a couple of gigs together with some of Robert’s friends from the west country and saw each other on occasion, but less frequently than before. With Robert unable to drive following his surgery, and with a young son to look after, the family were less able to travel. Beck and I went up to Bradford for his fortieth birthday party where we dined and drank at his home, and played a few songs together in MacRory’s bar. When Beck and I found out we were expecting a baby he rang with congratulations and we promised to meet up soon. Although there were more phone calls, we never did meet up. After Josie was born I called to pass on the news. We spoke for a long time about everything and nothing and he seemed well, but it was to be the last time we would speak to each other.
On November 4th I got a phone call that made my blood run cold. Robert had died suddenly following a fall that day. It was such a shock that I felt physically ill at the news. The post mortem revealed that he had been suffering with pancreatic cancer which had reached an advanced stage, metastasising into his lungs. I was devastated. In the time that has passed since his death, I’ve found it difficult to accept, but have consoled myself with the fact that it was a quick end, sparing him and his family the protracted decline so often associated with cancer.
In the near twenty years I have known Robert, there’s barely a day that has passed that I haven’t thought about him. Discovering a new wine, trying out a new recipe, recording a new piece of music, in fact, in any number of situations, I always thought about what Robert’s opinion would be. In the week before his death I was beginning to put together a small package for him, baby pictures and a copy of some recordings I’d made earlier in the year, just so he could have a listen and pass on his judgement. Now I’ll never be able to send it, a fact that saddens me enormously.
The funeral was a difficult affair but allowed me the chance to say goodbye to him and offer condolences to his family. It was also a time to reflect with old friends. Justin very bravely got up and played Green and Grey, one of Robert’s finest compositions, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
Robert left a huge hole in many lives, and it’s a void that nothing can fill. I’ll miss him more than I can express and I thank him for all that we shared in our years together – Robert Charles Heaton, my friend forever.