Tim Rice

It’s all that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fault. If it hadn’t been for his soppy influence, Sir Tim Rice could have been a serious rock ‘n’ roller: helping Keith Moon throw television sets out of hotel windows; hanging out with John and Yoko as they lived off a diet of champagne, caviar and heroin; and generally having some phreaked-out phun with the children of the revolution. But, oh no. What was Tim Rice doing in 1968 instead? Touring provincial schools with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, that’s what. These aren’t Sir Tim’s exact words but, as we sit sipping coffee on a drizzly Sunday morning in his Thameside house in Barnes, you can tell that’s what he’s thinking. Suddenly feeling rather sorry for him, I suggest that Joseph was a little bit trippy, what with all that psychedelic dreamcoat stuff.

‘Not really,’ he says, in his mild, buttery soft voice. ‘The lyrics were more influenced by Fifties semi-cabaret numbers like “Mud, mud, glorious mud.” Then, regretting the admission, he adds: ‘Oh, I suppose we were vaguely influenced by all that Sixties stuff. I mean, I was really a rocker at heart.’

There. He’s said it. He may be 52, the thinning hair brushed over his ears and forward over his brow may have silvered, and he may be wearing a blue pully, comfortable shoes and pressed jeans that ride up to expose pale grey socks when he sits down. But in his daydreams, Timothy Miles Blindon Rice is still 22, his hair is shoulder length and he is wearing leathers.

In fact, he thinks that if he hadn’t met Lloyd Webber in 1965 he might have become a rock star. ‘I did sing with one or two bands,’ he says. It’s true. Whang and the Cheviots, for one. But they disbanded because none of the members could agree on who was supposed to be Whang. Not that one feels they’d have got too far in the Age of Aquarius – one musician at a Superstar recording session was chided by Rice with the words, ‘Oh, good heavens! You’re not stoned again?’

But the point is taken: Rice was in the right place at the right time. EMI records. As a management trainee. ‘In one sense,’ he recalls, ‘I was at the centre of what was going on. The whole of EMI revolved around the next Beatles single. Even a junior employee like me got to hear the acetate of Sgt Pepper a week before the common herd got it!’

Then again, if he hadn’t met Lloyd Webber, he wouldn’t be celebrating the 25th anniversary production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which opens soon at London’s newly restored Lyceum theatre. ‘Superstar holds up wonderfully,’ Rice says. ‘But almost every work of art is about one thing – getting old. Everyone over the age of 40 is aware of time rushing by. At least one has the consolation of knowing one made it.’

In material terms, Rice has certainly done that. The three musicals he wrote with Lloyd Webber – Joseph, Superstar and Evita, as hep cats everywhere shorten their titles –  have made him rich beyond the dreams of avarice. The Superstar album alone sold a staggering six million copies. ‘I get so many Americans come up to me now and say “Gee, when I was at school Superstar was the record we played all that year.” In its way, it was just as big as Sgt Pepper.’ And, as if all those royalties weren’t enough to retire on, Rice co-wrote Chess, co-founded Pavilion Books, wrote the Guinness Book of Hit Singles, carried off two Oscars for songs in the Disney movies Alladin and The Lion King, and – may the Lord have mercy on his soul – has now written the lyrics for Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff.

His genius for satisfying the demands of popular but middle-of-the-road culture have made him very comfortable indeed. In fact, as one looks around the conservatory in which we are sitting, the words ‘cosy’ and ‘comfortable’ keep popping back unbidden to mind. Hanging from the ceiling are cuddly toy parakeets. On one wall, there are pen and ink drawings of Victorian cricketers. On another is a glass cabinet containing nine international caps, signed by nine international cricket captains.

We are even on a comfortable sofa. And though Rice occasionally clasps his hands together on his lap, and though he rarely makes contact with his pale blue eyes, preferring instead to address his comments to a large, comfortably cuddly toy lion sitting on a chair opposite him, for the most part he looks pretty comfortable with himself, sinking languidly into the cushions, and stretching his arms out along the back of the sofa.

But making it in material terms is not the same as making it spiritually – ask any true child of the Sixties. Rice once, for instance, shrugged off the failure of Blondel, a medieval extravaganza for which he wrote the lyrics, with the comment: ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, after all’ – only then to blow it by unhiply adding, ‘And it doesn’t really matter a hoot.’ But it was the ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll’ line, from the Rolling Stones song, that was significant. Much as he wanted it to be, his work has never been ‘only rock ‘n’ roll’, as well he knows. It was ‘only a musical’. And, as he himself once confessed: ‘The trouble is, I’m not really the sort of bloke who likes musicals that much.’

We start talking about The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, a film made in 1968 but not released until now. Rice has just seen it – ‘So many people at the height of their fame, success and beauty,’ he sighs. Not, alas, including Rice. Nor was he present when, soon afterwards, guests at Mick Jagger’s birthday party drank from huge silver bowls of Methodine-spiked punch and nibbled at hash brownies. Such Sixties hedonism passed Rice by. ‘I was fairly straight, I guess. I don’t remember anything wildly outrageous. I had my odd little moments, I suppose, but nothing much. I would have a few drinks and would live a wild existence in some ways. But the Sixties were four guys somewhere having a great time and everyone else running around trying to find them.’Everyone else, presumably, including him and Lloyd Webber, who at the time favoured tunics buttoned up to the collar, trousers tucked into knee-length leather boots and a Louise Brooks bob.

Part of the reason Rice makes such an unconvincing rocker is, of course, that he is simply too nice, too decent, too gentlemanly. With his lanky, ambling walk, his boyish looks and his amiable, diffident air, he will always be the well-mannered but over-enthusiastic public school boy playing air guitar at the disco. He will say, ‘That twerp [the photographer] turned up 15 minutes early this morning – before I’d had a chance to go for some milk.’ Then, feeling guilty, he will spoil his stab at prima donna-ishness by saying: ‘Actually, he was a rather nice bloke.’ It is this trait, too, that ruins Sir Tim’s efforts to be cynical; because he is always afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, he qualifies every comment he makes. When he talks about his inability to say no, for instance, he says: ‘It’s definitely a problem. I find I’ve agreed to have lunch in the West End knowing it will wreck the entire day, that it’ll be a waste of time and that I won’t really enjoy it. Having said that, I do like, you know, there’s nothing I like more than a, sort of, good meal. Some wine and a good time out with good pals, but, um, um, there’s always a danger of agreeing to everything.’ Again, when talking about relationships: ‘I quite like being on my own. But there are times when I don’t like being on my own.’ Everyone happy?

The same confused wholesomeness applies to his weird and wonderfully complicated love life. On the glass coffee table in front of us, nestled between copies of Variety and Mojo, is this morning’s Sunday Times Magazine. On its cover, looking like a drag queen, is a photo of Elaine Paige, Rice’s lover for 11 years. His wife Jane, ‘sort of’ divorced him in 1990 after 16 years because the marriage was ‘full of question marks and very strange’. Yet Rice still goes on holiday with Jane and their two children. And, though he split up with Paige shortly after he divorced his wife, he still sees her. ‘Had dinner with her last week, funnily enough’, he says blithely. He adds that he is now in a ‘very relaxed sort of situation’ with another woman.

Also on the table is another colour magazine, containing a lurid – if disputed – account of another public figure’s love life. ‘I wish someone would make up some interesting stories like that about me,’ chuckles Rice. ‘It would give me some street cred.’

Along with the status of a true rock ‘n’ roller, street cred is something that has always eluded Rice, in part because he still uses such expressions as street cred. His is a nerd’s vocabulary. He uses the sort of expressions fathers use to embarrass their children. ‘I’m a chart freak,’ he says at one point. ‘I quite like this Kula Shaker lot.’ He describes something else as being ‘all over the shop’, and, elsewhere, talks of ‘numero uno’ and ‘all that jazz’.

For all his obvious warmth and charm, it is possible to see why Rice rubs some people up the wrong way. Craig Brown, for instance, has dubbed him Tim Rice-But-Dim. ‘He’s the luckiest man alive, after Ringo,’ Brown says. ‘I mean, for a man with such modest talents to be given an Oscar… I suppose he hasn’t actually killed anyone. It’s just his professional niceness that gets me.’

When I ask Rice if such criticism annoys him, he says: ‘Yeah, suppose so. Well, yes and no. I mean Craig Brown has had a go at me from day one. Not quite sure why. He obviously thinks I’m crap. Which is fair enough. I think he’s one of the greatest writers this country has ever produced.’

Oo. Controversial. ‘Whenever anyone says anything bad about you you always say, “I’ll get him,”’ Rice adds with promising menace. ‘But then you forget. You see someone like Craig Brown and think, “Was he the one who was rude about me or was he the one who thought I was great?” It’s a bit difficult because you don’t know whether to go up to him and be friendly or hit him.’

But his niceness is not, as he implies, simply a matter of being absent-minded. An hour or so after the subject of Craig Brown has come up, Rice is still smarting from it. ‘Superstar will be around for a few years to come. The  only one-up I have on the brilliant Craig Brown is that I’ve written a few pieces that will be around for a long while.’

So there are chinks in the armour of Sir Tim’s niceness. He hates people poking fun at his lyrics. And his relationship with Lloyd Webber has not been entirely smooth, either. Indeed, there has been much speculation about their respective professional and emotional jealousies. When I ask Rice if his dealings with Lloyd Webber are more harmonious now, he chuckles and says that they had dinner together in New York only the other day. (Elaine one night, Andrew the next. The napkins of peace were being puffed pretty hard in the Big Apple.) But he adds: ‘The only thing that pisses me off is when people keep saying Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. In the musicals he did after we broke up, no one knows who did the words. They all get billed as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset  Boulevard, or whatever. And that’s what’s happened with Evita. The guys who wrote it should have equal credit. Even Madonna seems to think Andrew wrote the plot to Evita. Actually it was my idea and it took me a year to persuade him to do it.’ (Incidentally, Rice says he would have given the film role to Elaine Page. But then, in a rush of niceness, he adds: ‘But I can see equally good reasons why Madonna should have been given the part. And I’m delighted for her’.)

He gives me another example of how the craving for equal billing haunts him. He was once on a Concorde which juddered for 15 seconds and then let out a big bang. ‘Bryan Adams, the rock star, was on the plane and I remember thinking seriously for about 20 seconds that this was it: if this plane goes down, it will be BRYAN ADAMA DIES IN CONCORDE CRASH and I’ll just get mentioned in Wisden Cricket Monthly. I would have been the Richie Valens of the Buddy Holly plane crash’

This is Rice at his most self-deprecating, humourous best. But it also displays an insecurity that probably explains why he never misses a chance to point out that lyric writing is an art form on a par with writing music. ‘Writing music is a talent,’ he says, ‘but it’s not a time-consuming talent. That’s why Mozart produced so much stuff. He could just do it. Writing with words is a much slower job. And it takes a long time.’

Like the other virtuoso of non time-consuming talent, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rice was given his knighthood for services to the arts. At the time, this prompted the Guardian journalist Francis Wheen to ask if a peerage for Pam Ayres could be far behind. But most people suspect he was knighted because he is pally with John Major. After all, referring to his campaigning work in the 1992 election, Rice did call himself the Jeremy Irons of the Conservative Party. ‘I didn’t really get the knighthood for my lyric writing,’ he now says. ‘It was more for my involvement in sport.’ Neverthelesss, Wheen’s slight has stuck. In the public imagination, Tim Rice earned millions, and was given a knighthood, simply for rhyming district with biscuit in Joseph. Rice believes that people who say this do so because they are jealous (and he’s right, of course, in my case anyway). If it’s so easy, he has been known to ask, why don’t you try?

On the way over to his house, I had done just that. ‘Tell me what you think,’ I say, and offer this: Tim Rice / quintessential Englishman / Is John Major your biggest fan?

‘Well, it rhymes,’ he says with a smile. ‘But it would depend on the music. A lot of my stuff has been written to music, you know. So you have to be concise, saying a thought in 12 syllables. No more, no less. And the danger of writing lyrics on their own, and I do enjoy that, and it’s very nice to do it that way round, with Elton [John] in particular, the danger is that you do become too long-winded. Because you’ve got nothing to stop you and you think, “Well, I want to get this point over and I can’t say it in eight words so I’ll say it in 18.” And then it might become long-winded. So that’s the danger you have to watch. I usually set myself, if I’m writing words without a tune, I usually set myself a little, um, pattern for the first four lines and of course then you have to repeat it.’

Quite. I try again.  Tim Rice / Superstar / Do you think you’re what they say you are?
‘What do they say I am?’
Mr Nice Guy.
‘Incredibly accurate, that is.’
But is there a dark side?
‘Well, obviously, everybody, obviously, there are many things I do that I’m not too, that I wouldn’t advertise. I mean, I don’t go round molesting goats or anything. But yes, I mean, er, I think I’m quite laid back in my approach to most things.’
Is that because he is six foot four? You know, the gentle giant never having to worry about being beaten up in the playground as a child?
‘Yes, I’m sure that’s right,’ he smiles, his face wrinkling up like a labrador puppy’s. ‘But I was never into fights anyway. Doesn’t apply to everyone who’s tall, of course. I mean Robert Maxwell was very tall and he wasn’t very laid back. And my brothers. I probably don’t need to go around thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m tall.’ Ha ha ha. It allows one to assert oneself.’

Part of his Mr Nice Guy image, of course, comes from his obsession with cricket: the fancy blazers, the committee membership of the MCC, the Heartaches XI, the team he founded in 1973 and which he is still captain of today. I ask him how he would convince an alien that the game of cricket wasn’t boring. His answer is too long-winded and, yes, all over the shop to repeat in full, but the overall thrust of it was that cricket is like an art  gallery rather than a movie, I think. For this is what Sir Tim’s discourse is like. You find yourself adrift in it, floating on a seat of cotton wool, deprived of all sense of time and space. I try to steer it back on course by asking Rice if he would rather have been Keith Richards or David Gower. ‘Well, both those characters are fascinating. It would’ve been great to have been either. They’re both marvellous.’

From which life would he have got more satisfaction, then?
‘Very interesting question. Very interesting question, indeed. But I think possibly David Gower, because I can’t contemplate being good enough to do what he did. Of course, I can barely play guitar but I can contemplate a situation where if things had gone differently, I might have become a figure in the rock world. The thought of being Keith Richards is not quite so ludicrous as being David Gower.’

He’s on to something. Indeed, Keith Richards, who was once described as the world’s most elegantly wasted human being, has, in a curious way, become more like Tim Rice over the years. It is as if their lives have been lived in parallel. Jekyll and Hyde. Rice and Richards. Both men, after all, are fantastically wealthy. Both men have had rich and varied love lives. Both have songwriting partners who’ve attracted all the glory. Both have had complete blood changes – or perhaps not.

But both, certainly, are appallingly lucky. Rice once nipped off an express at Newcastle for a sandwhich, and the train left without him. He then picked up £200 at a betting shop on 18-1 winner Gay Traveller and used the cash to hire a car for the rest of his trip to Edinburgh. During the war, Keith Richards was evacuated from his home in London, two hours before it was hit by a Doodlebug. Could it be that some alien force is guiding their lives? After all, Rice is a passionate stargazer. He has even built an observatory at his secluded Edwardian house in Cornwall. ‘I would think’, he says, ‘almost certainly there is life somewhere else in the universe. Almost certainly. Equally, the odds on them arriving here are tiny. That said, aliens could well have landed on the earth millions of years ago, not found any life forms and sodded off back to Betelgeuse.’

See that? Notice how specific he was? Betelgeuse. It all makes sense now. Don’t be taken in by his ‘brought up in Hertfordshire, father worked for Hawker Siddeley company’ line. Tim Rice came from Betelgeuse. Consider the evidence. When someone once called him ‘Rock Brain of the Universe’ he said, ‘I’m not sure I deserve this title – there was nobody from another planet in the final.’ And what about that song, ‘A Whole New World’? What else can explain Sir Tim’s supernatural powers?

You think I exaggerate? Well, just before I left his house, he played me a song he wrote which he thinks ‘is rather nice’ but which, he says, no one will ever hear because it never made it into a show. It’s called ‘Ziggy’ and it’s about a girl who is in love with a boy who is gay. It goes like this: ‘Ziggy / I call him Ziggy / I’m so hot for him / He’s not like all the rest but there’s no doubt he’s the best/ Ziggy / I call him Ziggy / I’m so hot for him/ When I saw him that day I gave myself away  Ziggy / My crazy Ziggy  He lives a life that I don’t share / I don’t know why but I’m not there…’ You get the picture.

As he was playing it, I didn’t know where to look. At the end, there was a silence. What could I say? ‘I’ve never heard anything quite like it’, maybe. Yet, in the car on the way home, there I was singing along to this inane lyric: ‘Ziggy / My crazy Ziggy.’ And now I can’t get it out of my head.

This is a dangerous man. Like a cult leader, he plays with people’s minds – he sucks out their brains, steals their souls and leaves them with a goofy, joyful smile on their faces. So don’t be taken in by his onslaught of bonomie, by his pose of the amateur who never has to try too hard. Don’t be seduced by his breezy English charm and innocence. Those mawkish, drippy lyrics he writes are a travesty of nature. This is a man who abetted the celibate Cliff Richard in his absurd fantasy that if he put on some designer stubble and a long black wig, he could transform himself into that smouldering Gothic sexual inferno, Heathcliff. Only Rice could have made Heathcliff sing: ‘Oh Cathy – the game you played / Oh Cathy – you’ve paid / I’ve been betrayed.’

You need only look at the queues of middle-aged women trying to get hold of Heathcliff tickets to see that I am right. Look at their vacant eyes. Observe their slow, zombie-like movements. All has become clear. Rice didn’t need to experiment with LSD in the Sixties because he knew what he was taking, and peddling, was far more potent: he was on musicals, the opiate of the masses.

Today, he has given us a sanitised Heathcliff. But do you think he’ll stop there? Of course not. Next year, he is doing a musical about King David and, in another collaboration with Elton John, Aida. And after that? Can Keith Richards – the Musical be far behind?
Oh, the horror! The horror! Pass the Methedrine-spiked punch.