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Andy Kershaw, Time Out

“If you are spiralling out of the sky above Angola, to avoid surface to air missiles…It’s Alton Towers South.”

Andy Kershaw’s rich, Rochdale voice has enlivened music for 30 years: Entertainment Secretary at Leeds University in punk’s heyday; tour manager for Billy Bragg; groundbreaking BBC Radio DJ, documentary maker and roving foreign correspondent. He has championed World Music (mostly famously The Bhundu Boys), reported from North Korea and genocidal Rwanda and won nine Sony Awards. In 2006-08, tabloids feasted on Kershaw’s break up with his longterm partner, and breakdown.

A lean, sober Kershaw bounced back to secure access to his children, present Radio Three’s Music Planet and write his autobiography, No Off Switch. Buoyant and passionate, he talked over iced coffee and Dandelion and Burdock in a humid Exmouth Market.

What was Leeds like?

Absolutely extraordinary. Dealing with people you knew to be giants, like Elvis Costello. I caught the last flurry of creativity before rock music exhausted all possibilities of four blokes with guitars, bass and drums.

Was there really rock and roll but no sex and drugs as Billy Bragg’s tour manager?

There was dope smoking for me but Billy was suspicious of that. And precious little leg over. I pay tribute to one Dutch girl I should have stuck with, but it’s a long Kershaw tradition of having beautiful girls, treating them appallingly and losing them.

Why?

Well, being thrown into that way of life, having an easy come, easy go attitude and being 23, and randy.

Your book honours John Peel but won’t the criticisms of him surprise people?

Why shouldn’t I be critical? There has been a deification of John without any analysis of the complex figure he was. Here is an analysis by someone who did know him well. He was as flawed as the rest of us. He was very, very ambitious and had a fantastic flair for sensing which way the wind was about to blow.

Why couldn’t you do that?

Why didn’t I pretend to like dance music? Why didn’t I change my accent twice in my broadcasting career? Come on. It’s as authentic as Tim Westwood, and that’s as authentic as me presenting my programmes in a Congolese accent.

The Bhundu Boys broke up, with your friend Biggie Tembo later committing suicide. Are you now wary of discovering Developing World bands?

No. Biggie wouldn’t have wished it to go sour like it did. But to have achieved all he did against all expectations, I don’t think he’d have missed that for the world. When I was getting hints of things going awry for Biggie in Harare, I should have flown down. I never got in that state myself, four years ago, but I know how important it was somebody took the trouble to pick up the phone and say, ‘Are you doing alright?’ I didn’t do enough of that for Biggie. And I still miss him, I really do.

What keeps you scouring the world?

Sheer bloody nosiness. Not just for music but everything. It’s all too interesting.

Does all great music share something, wherever it’s from?

Soul. Without question. Obviously not with a capital s. But it’s all soul music.

What has radio got over other media?

Intimacy. It has an intimacy television can never have. The great broadcasters, like Peel, have that.

You are very optimistic.

Oh aye.

Didn’t the Rwandan genocide crush that out of you?

Funnily enough, no. It was horrific and does make you ask how one human can do this to another. But I also saw something equally uplifting: a bunch of Rwandans swept across the country and put a stop to it. Some of those heroes were children. Not only did child soldiers save my life, they saved thousands and thousands of Rwandans.

How did you cope with fear in Rwanda, or Haiti or Angola?

The nosiness and that desire to see it for yourself overcomes a lot. And your chances are better than your fears tell you. You have more chance of being mugged here than in Port au Prince. But we all like scary fairground rides. If you are spiralling out of the sky above Angola, to avoid surface to air missiles, into a war zone…

It’s Alton Towers South?

It’s Alton Towers South. And it’s a high when you get out of it, you have a much intensified sense of ‘I’ve got the job done’.

After your relationship broke down, you said shouldn’t have had so many affairs. Why did you? You weren’t 23 anymore.

Good point. Boredom, restlessness, nosiness again. It’s about new and different experiences. I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d got. And now I’ve got nothing. Ha! Nothing in a romantic sense. I can’t upset anyone because there is no one to betray.

If you have no off switch, do you at least have a dimmer switch now?

No, give over! I’ve found the overdrive button.

14 July 2011

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