Paul Morocco can be quite difficult to get hold of.
We almost talked when he was in Dubai. This morning, I got hold of him on Skype when he had just arrived in Fremantle, Australia. Soon he is off to Thailand.
‘Thailand would just be a holiday,” he told me, “but, in the last few weeks, we have a new US agent who is more of a Variety agent and he has a friend in Thailand who has a TV station and radio station. Then there’s another friend who’s a magician who has been telling me about Thailand. They are starting a community there and want to attract other performers. They’re farming, fishing, getting water from under the ground and have a bigger plan of mixing scientists, artists. So I’m going to see that. Then I go to Moscow – I’ve got a gig on the 20th. Then we do a run in Berlin.”
How do I know Paul? I booked him on the Last Resort With Jonathan Ross TV show on Channel 4 in 1987. At least, I think I did. I’m fairly sure I booked him for two different series on different channels, but I can’t quite remember – Look, I have always had a notoriously eccentric memory and it was last century sometime.
‘If you did get me the Jonathan Ross,’ Paul told me, “that was like a career-changing gig for me. I remember I had an octopad where I spit the ping-pong balls onto it and I had a guy with a keyboard and… Yeah… Those are the days I really relish, because I was solo. I do some solo gigs still, but I can’t imagine how I did it – going out there alone.”
Paul started as a solo juggler, then formed a musical variety trio called Olé with which he still tours.
There are clips of Olé videos on YouTube.
“How did you transform from being a solo act?” I asked.
“I went from solo to duo to Olé. We started after the first London Mime Festival in 1990.”
He appeared at the London Mime Festival in a show he had created called Paul Morocco and the EC Big Band – with Bill Bailey and Alessandro Bernardi, the latter known to comedy cognoscenti as the opera singer who used to sing Nessun Dorma, nude except for his Davy Crocket hat, at the late comedian Malcolm Hardee’s birthday parties.
“Showbiz is in your family background?” I asked Paul.
“No. I’m from Virginia. My mum was from Morocco – Moroccan Jewish – and my dad’s from New Orleans – a country Southerner. Divorced. I thought it was a normal middle class family but, as I got older, I realised we were a bit quirky. My mother was definitely really ‘out there’, like a gypsy lady.
“My dad was a US Navy boy. He looked a bit like Harry Connick Jr.
“They fell in love. And, back then, my mum was Miss Casablanca and, as she used to tell us, she was going with the richest Jewish man in Casablanca and then I met your son-of-a-bitch father.”
“An interesting family background,” I said. “And now you are eternally touring and eternally on jet-lag and making lots of money…”
“It should be like that,” Paul told me. “It should be comfortable. But, to be honest… Do you want the full story or soundbites?”
“I like fulls,” I said.
“My brothers were in business,” Paul started, “and didn’t speak for five or six years. They’re both dead now. I have one other brother still alive.”
“What business were your two other brothers in?” I asked.
“One brother,” explained Paul, “had a security company and a limousine company. He bought real estate and he eventually even set up a gay club called Offshore Drilling in Myrtle Beach. I went to Myrtle Beach for two years, trying street performing, going to university and the performing thing was a big step for someone coming from my background because there was nobody in the arts in my family.
“When I became a street performer, I got really really happy. I’d got in touch with my bohemian roots and it’s insecure but I felt I was alive. Every day there were little pockets of people you would meet. I travelled. I lived out of a van.
“In New Orleans, I met José, a street performer and painter who had become a bit of a prolific writer – he’s gone the more university way since. He told me about Europe and we went straight to Covent Garden in London. Three months. Then we travelled Europe. Did Copenhagen, Munich, Paris, Lucerne. That was my exciting new life, my new frontier. And then I went back to America, got depressed, ran out of money. So I went back to Europe.
“Everything was moving along quite nicely, then my brother got colon cancer in 1993. We had done the Edinburgh Fringe twice – this is Olé. The first time, everyone expected it to be good, but the show wasn’t quite ready, though it got better near the end.
“The second year, the show was better but they’d already seen us.
“Then the third year, for some reason, everything was going brilliantly. The press was more interested; the show was better; the Perrier Award Panel were having a look at the show as a potential for the Award. I never thought I was in that kind of league – they tend not to like ‘skill’ stuff – but it was about 8 or 9 days in, going very well.
“And then I got the call that my brother was going to pass away at any time. I felt like this was a pinnacle moment and it wasn’t a difficult decision but it was a dramatic one. I had to go back. So I did this crazy dash from Edinburgh to Glasgow to New York to Virginia and I was writing a diary and I remember my handwriting getting scribblier and scribblier as I got closer and I was getting more panicky because there was this edge that, at any minute, he could die.
“He was like my dad in a way because, when our parents had divorced, he had taken over the role of the father, which was difficult for him because I think he was repressing a lot of stuff – he liked men but, in those days especially, he had to keep it right under cover and here he was playing a macho father role. He looked a bit like Tom Selleck in Magnum PI.
“When I got there, at the airport, someone was waiting for me and they drove me at 100 mph to the hospital and, when I got there, there were about 50 people just sitting outside it – he was a dynamic, positive-thinking person who connected lots of people.
“It took eight days for him to pass away and he left me as heir to all his assets.
“I inherited a global security company and all these properties, but his soulmate – a girlfriend, an angel who looked after him in his last year – turned into a Cruella de Vil and I didn’t fight it, I didn’t get a lawyer. She got a lawyer. I was back in Europe performing. I was being this clown in Europe, making 25 Deutschmarks and I had like $1½ million in America. but I saw it like blood diamond money. There was something negative about the whole thing.
“I did get a chunk of the money eventually, but it was mostly spent going back and forth and, actually, I spent it on art. I tried some new ideas and bought bigger props and did some tours and stuff. I got established, encouraged my daughter: she went to private school. I did all those things and, funnily enough, she’s just arriving now. My daughter. She’s filming the festival here. At university, she got an award for her documentary about street performing and about the right for public access to self-expression and how they’re clamping down on performers.”
“So, are you going to just circle the world forever?” I asked.
“Basically,” Paul told me, “I’m not sitting on a wealthy situation. I’ve come back to my true spirit. I’m a natural bohemian. It was never about the money because I had the money and it didn’t make me happier.
“At one time, I had these two lives… living an earthed life in Chertsey, near London, and this other crazy life where you put the mask on, you’re flying, you have the ego… then you come back and you’re earthed. That has kinda gone away and I am essentially homeless now. I got divorced – well, we got separated five years ago – and I don’t have a base any more – I have some bases – mainly Barcelona and London.
“But I’ve got used to this motion – always travelling. It becomes its own culture. Literally like physics, metaphysics. Things are flashing past you all the time. That crazy part I used to have has become the normal part. it’s become a way of life. But I’m not really satisfied with what I’ve done yet.”
Paul’s daughter Rosie Baker-Williams’ video, Beggars With a Gimmick is on Vimeo.