Musician, singer, writer, and artist Vivian Stanshall is perhaps best known as the charismatic front man of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, whose albums and stage antics brought them to prominent attention in England during the late sixties. Beloved by the Beatles and the Kinks, Stanshall was unique. His popular spoken word surreal comedy, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, originally on BBC radio, has since been reimagined as a film and stage play.
His widow, Ki Longfellow, and her book “The Illustrated Vivian Stanshall,” brings vivid color and detail to the broad strokes of Stanshall’s life. Though he remains a beloved character 20 years after his death, the man known as England’s last eccentric has much in his life story that hasn’t been told.
Recently, we sat down with Longfellow to hear about her Bay Area history, her work in progress on Stanshall, and their life together.
Ki, you’ve been involved in the arts for a long time before you met and married Vivian. Can you begin with some stories about your early years?
I had the best of it, growing up in Marin in the sixties. I got out just in time, the summer of love in 1967. After that, Manson showed up, drug dealers followed the flower children. It was all winding down before the world heard of it. But before I went, I also knew Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Brautigan. I was a baby beatnik, only 15. I loved that era. It seems my life leads me to the right place at the right time.
Is it true that when you first met Vivian Stanshall you hadn’t heard of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band?
Hadn’t a clue. I learned about them from Vivian. The book is not a biography, [it is] more a memoir. Perhaps. There is no one truth. We each have truths. This book is some of mine. It’s Rashomon. I’ve organized it that way. The madman’s tale. The Red Indian’s tale. The plumber’s tale, the housewife’s tale, the madman’s tale.
There’s currently a lack of information on Vivian. The anecdotes about partying with Keith Moon — they’re funny but what else? I know Vivian was a great painter for example. What are some common misconceptions people have about him?
Perhaps the idea he was spiked with acid while on tour. That’s why he shaved his head and drank and so forth. That didn’t happen. This book has a lot to do with gnosis, or divine knowing, to “know” divinity, which was something very important to Vivian. We have to use the word “enlightenment” because our older traditions were destroyed by the church. But that’s what happened to Vivian on tour. He was performing in New York City and stepped out of his body on stage. It terrified him. He never got over it. A doctor handed him something brand new — Valium. And he became addicted.
That brings us to another point. You’ve written many books and this is your first nonfiction story. As his wife, what do you include and what do you keep private?
Oh brother, that’s hard. I’m having to write some unpleasant truths about a brilliant and flawed man. And about me. This is a real story about a real artist and our lives together as artists. He had a magical view of the cosmos and opened himself up to the muse; there’s no left-brained rationality to his genius.
Today we think of creative geniuses as people who can make money. CEOs are rock stars now! If Vivian Stanshall were still around do you think he’d be railing against that?
He’d howl. But in his own very funny, very silly way. The remembering can go on forever, but I’m aiming for a beautiful book, as big and beautiful as I can make it.
Read more about Ki Longfellow and her novels (the Sam Russo Mysteries, Walks Away a Woman, Houdini Heart, Flow Down Like Silver, China Blues, and The Secret Magdalene, the latter two of which have been made into films) at eiobooks.com and kilongfellow.com.