Suzi Quatro speaks to us about life in Essex and her first novel
PUBLISHED: 12:23 19 September 2017 | UPDATED: 14:44 21 September 2017
Rock star, actress and radio presenter Suzi Quatro has just written her first novel. She talks to Pat Parker about her life, loves and regrets, her home in Essex, and how she keeps her ego in check
Suzi Quatro sips a coffee as we chat on the patio of her impressive Elizabethan manor house hidden away in the Essex countryside, not far from Chelmsford. She’s wearing no make-up and is dressed in denim shorts and a top, but still looks good for her 67 years. She keeps fit by jogging, gym and yoga, but nothing keeps her fitter than wielding her iconic bass guitar in concert.
‘I’ve never done anything in the gym which gives me the work-out I get on stage,’ she says, her Detroit accent as strong as ever. ‘It’s a heavy instrument to hold up!’
Since Can The Can hit the top of the UK charts in 1973, Suzi has sold more than 55 million records worldwide. After her music career faltered in the late 70s, she moved into acting, appearing in Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero. She’s starred in musicals and now presents a successful Radio 2 show, Quatrophonic.
For the last 20 years or so, her work has become more personal, often reflecting on painful periods of her life, such as the break-up of her marriage to her guitarist, Len Tuckey. Her 2007 autobiography, Unzipped, revealed much of the regret and sense of Catholic guilt which seems to have dogged her life.
Last year, she published a deeply personal anthology of poetry, Suzi Quatro: Through My Eyes, which revealed her innermost feelings. And now, she’s written her first novel, The Hurricane, with a protagonist, rock star Alison Heart, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Suzi herself.
Like Suzi, Alison leaves America and her band to seek stardom in England. Like Suzi, she marries her guitarist and the relationship gradually falls apart. She even lives in a moated manor house in Essex! Suzi admits she’s put much of herself into Alison, following the guidance of her friend, the late novelist Jackie Collins.
‘She told me, “For your first novel, stick with what you know, and then create”. I started it four years ago, but then I had a stumbling block and I couldn’t touch it. I realised I’d stuck too much to what I knew and all I was doing was writing about my life. So I deleted loads, took Alison far away from me and let the story take on a life of its own.’
It’s a punchy, sometimes raunchy, dramatic novel. Alison has an affair with a high-profile TV personality, which Suzi stresses is definitely not autobiographical. ‘None of that happened to me. It’s where your fantasy can take you. Alison does everything I wanted to do, but never did.’
She’s already mentally planning the sequel, in which her heroine, having experienced tragedy, will hit rock bottom. ‘She has to find out who she is without the trappings. I’d like her to address her inner child.’
She’d also love The Hurricane to be made into a movie — with Anne Hathaway as Alison. As ever, Suzi’s nothing if not ambitious.
The novel also focuses on Alison’s sense of detachment from her American family — a feeling which Suzi shared. ‘When I was a child, I felt separated from my family,’ she tells me. ‘I’d always felt like the odd one out. I don’t really know why. Maybe I needed that little bit extra, which you can’t give when you’ve got five kids.’
Susan May Quatro was born in Detroit in 1950, the fourth of five children. Her Italian father worked at General Motors but played in a jazz band at night, while her Hungarian mother was a devout Catholic who instilled a strong sense of morality into her children.
Her father taught the children to read music and play instruments and Suzi joined two of her sisters in a 60s girl group, The Pleasure Seekers, teaching herself bass guitar. When she was just 14, the group was offered a recording contract and she left home to go on the road.
There is a sense of regret at leaving home so young. ‘You lose a big chunk of normalness,’ says Suzi. ‘I was out working at 14, while everyone else was dating and going to dances. Some of the innocence went.’
On the road, Suzi had an affair with an older, married A&R man, sleeping with him for the first time on her 18th birthday. The resulting abortion still haunts her. ‘It went against my religion. It’s not such an unusual story, but for me, it was devastating.’
By the late 60s, the girl group had renamed themselves Cradle, and Suzi’s brother, who was acting as their manager, arranged for British pop impresario Mickie Most to see them perform. He saw star potential in Suzi, and offered her a recording contract in London. She had no hesitation in abandoning her sisters to take up the offer — a decision which seems to have caused considerable bitterness.
She arrived in London in 1971 and spent a miserable year in a cramped London hotel, while Most contemplated how to market his new protegee. ‘I was on my own, with no money, no family, no success and it was hard — but I never once considered going home. I’m a strong girl. So even though I cried myself to sleep every night, in the daytime, I knew where I was going.’
She says she stood up to Most, insisting on having her say. She auditioned her backing group, including Romford-born Len Tuckey, whom she later married. But although she wrote her own songs, Most recruited Chinn and Chapman to pen the three big hits, Can The Can, Devilgate Drive and 48 Crash, which made her famous.
When Can The Can was about to be released, the question arose of what Suzi should wear for the promotional photo session. ‘My idea was to wear leather, because I was an Elvis fan, but Mickie said it was old-fashioned. Finally he suggested a leather jumpsuit. I had no idea it would be sexy. It didn’t enter my head. How naive is that?’
She soon fell in love with Len and they married in 1976. In 1980, Suzi saw her future Essex home on the cover of Country Life magazine and instantly fell in love with it. ‘It felt like my house. And as soon as we drove down the drive, I knew it was perfect. We walked in the door and I knew every room.’
After her children left home a few years ago, Suzi contemplated downsizing, suffering from ‘empty nest syndrome’, but soon realised she couldn’t leave. ‘I’m supposed to be here,’ she says. She wants her ashes to be scattered in the grounds.
Suzi shares the house with a collection of ghosts. She describes herself as ‘sensitive’, and has claimed to hear voices of the dead. ‘My channels are open.’ The ghosts don’t frighten her and she believes they protect her. ‘They were waiting for me. They have every right to be here.’
As Suzi’s music career started to wane in the late 70s, she embarked on other projects, such as acting and even writing a musical. But this put a strain on her marriage to Len. ‘You either grow together or you grow apart. I couldn’t hold myself back and not do all these things and he couldn’t push himself forward and enjoy them with me.’
After six years of agonising whether to end their marriage, she finally divorced Len in 1992. Their children, Laura and Richard, were aged nine and seven, and the break-up caused considerable pain. After an unhappy year alone, she married German music promoter, Rainer Haas in 1993, and the pair have a strong marriage, despite both retaining their separate homes in Essex and Hamburg. ‘We go back and forth,’ says Suzi. ‘It gives us space. It’s no big deal. The airport is just down the road.’
She’s remained on good terms with Len, who lives half an hour away. ‘We have two kids and a grandchild together,’ she says. ‘You don’t lose your love for your ex, ever. You’re not in love, but you always love.’
In a case of history repeating itself, Suzi’s daughter Laura left home and school early, becoming a single mother, although she and her daughter, Amy, later moved back home. Both she and Richard are involved in the music business and Suzi has bought them properties nearby. Laura has her own local radio show.
Suzi’s music career is on a high at the moment. October sees her embark on a Legends Live UK arena tour with fellow 70s stars such as David Essex and The Osmonds, and she’s formed a ‘supergroup’ with Sweet guitarist Andy Scott and Slade drummer Don Powell. Their album, QSP, is released this month. She’s also writing with KT Tunstall.
There are, she says, two Suzi Quatros — the ballsy, attention-seeking pop star who paved the way for other female musicians to be taken seriously, and the vulnerable, emotional, private Suzi.
‘You can have Suzi Quatro the professional side or you can have little Suzi from Detroit, who’s sitting out here having a cup of coffee,’ she says. ‘They’re both me, but they’re two different things, and you need both to survive.’
Suzi the public persona, I discover, is shut way at the top of the house in what she calls her Ego Room. ‘I’ll take you up to see,’ she says. ‘It’s an analogy in a way, because it’s not easy to access, it’s up two flights of crooked stairs and there’s a big wooden door with a sign saying, “mind your head”. It’s how I keep the two halves of me in balance.’
So up we go. Inside, the first thing you see is a big red book entitled ‘This is Your Life’ — a souvenir from the TV show which featured her in 1999. The walls are emblazoned with photos and a variety of leather jumpsuits hang on a rail.
Prominently displayed is a photo of her receiving a doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University last year. She’s immensely proud of it. ‘I don’t even have a high school diploma, and I’m Dr Quatro now,’ she grins. ‘It’s like thumbing my nose to the world!’
Suzi can’t envisage a time when the jumpsuit will be confined to the Ego Room for good. ‘When I zip it on, I feel like me,’ she says. ‘Performing is part of me and I don’t think I can completely stop. After all, the Stones are still going and they’re ten years older than me.’