Mark Wilkerson on Keith Moon and Keith’s friend and personal assistant, Peter ‘Dougal’ Butler
The first Who book I ever read as a young fan in the UK was ‘Moon the Loon’, (known as ‘Full Moon’ in the US), a hilarious portrait of Keith Moon written by his longtime personal assistant, Peter ‘Dougal’ Butler. I was twelve or thirteen at the time and was enthralled by the tales of rock’n’roll excess, the hotel smashing, car crashing, bird shagging and general disdain for rules of any kind. I found the conversational delivery, peppered with Cockney rhyming slang, equally hilarious and tantalizing. Thank God for the glossary. Otherwise how would I have ever known what ‘Bristols’ were, or what a ‘White-eared trouser elephant’ was?
A few weeks ago I tracked down the author for a chat about his life with Moon and the recent re-publication of his book.
Butler worked for Moon for ten years, and was right there during much of the legendary craziness. He was behind the wheel of Moon’s AC Frua 428 as it flipped end-over-end through a field off Chertsey Lane after Moon decided to grab the shifter and downshift at around 120 mph. The two somehow walked away from the scene, unscathed. Butler was the one who knocked out one of the Manson girls with an enormous flashlight one night at Moon’s Malibu beach house after he and the drummer had crept upstairs, terrified, to investigate a break-in. He was at the wheel of the Rolls-Royce Corniche as it pulled up to the front of the exclusive London night club Tramp with a stark naked Moon spread-eagled across the hood, feet wedged against the windshield, hands gripping the silver hood ornament. And he was the one who had to physically drag a drunken, incapacitated Moon out of a Canadian hotel room after doing his best to explain away the presence of the naked prostitutes, champagne-soaked carpet, broken glass and pillow feathers to a furious hotel manager.
The craziness and hilarity is what I remember from that first read, and there’s plenty of it – the hilarity is what the book’s often known for. But there’s much more to it than that. The book, particularly in its second half, provides several revealing and poignant examples of Moon’s insecurity and jealousy, lack of close relationships or friends, and utter despair at the end of his marriage.
Because Butler was also there during many of Moon’s near comically pathetic suicide attempts, such as the time he drove his Rolls into an ornamental pond on his property, injuring only his pride as the car became bogged down in a couple of feet of slimy muck. He was there when Moon broke down in tears, nursing an injured ego after a night when he realized he’d gone too far in playing the Rock Star / Life of the Party role, all in a jealous effort to try to impress his fellow revelers. And Butler was there behind the wheel, driving his charge around Chertsey one night while a desperate Moon called out for his wife, as if looking for a lost pet, in disbelief that she’d actually left him.
Butler was there for ten years of Moon’s adult life – age 21 to 31. And Moon died at age 32. “It’d be big-headed of me to say I was the only one who knew him, which I wasn’t,” Butler offers in his heavy Cockney accent, “but I think I was one of the closest people to him who did know him, other than the rest of the band, and maybe his girlfriends. But then his girlfriends half the time didn’t know what he was up to anyway. We knew each other inside out, you know: He knew how I ticked, and I knew how he ticked.”
I argue that none of Moon’s girlfriends knew him as long as Butler did, either. “Yeah,” he allowed, “I mean, I knew him when he had his little khazi two-bedroom flat in Highgate, above the dentist, when he had nothing, to having millions and spending it less than sort of two months. You know, driving up and down the M1 in a transit, and them nicking petrol out of the petrol station to put in their Rolls – their Bentley rather – him and John, to get home, and then three years later you’re in a private jet flying across America with a cocktail bar in it. You’re trying to get your head round that one: 23 years old going, hold on, 3 years ago I was driving up and down the M1 in a transit, and now I’m 30,000 feet up in a private jet flying across America with hostesses and a cocktail bar. And a fireplace and a piano in it! [laughs] Surreal really.”
Peter Butler first saw the Who at the Blue Moon Club in Hayes, Middlesex, probably in 1965, a full year after he’d weathered firsthand the fabled Mod-vs-Rocker rioting on the beaches in Brighton. Smitten by the band’s onstage energy and diverse set list, he subsequently saw them perform at venues such as the Ricky-Tick club in Windsor, the Aquarium in Brighton, and the Marquee Club in Soho. Little did he know that a couple of years later he’d be employed as a roadie for the blossoming quartet, hammering six-inch nails into the stage each night in an effort to keep the flailing Moon’s drums from sliding around.
“When I first started with them,” Butler recalls, “there was just me and Bobby Pridden, who’s still working with them as sound engineer. Keeping Keith’s kit nailed to the floor was my job in the early days.” Soon Butler and Moon struck up a friendship which eventually led to Butler working directly for the drummer. Not long after this occurred, Tommy would propel the band into the stratosphere, earning them “mega bucks”, as Butler puts it, “so you had to keep an eye on him… ‘cause now they’re playing, obviously, bigger venues, and although there were [already] lots of girls around, there were more girls around when they were more famous. So you had to keep an eye on who was coming in, and who had illegal substances on them, and what he might be taking, and… so you had to have eyes in the back of your head, you know?”
While some aspects of his job proved thankless – keeping an often inebriated, always unpredictable Moon occupied and out of trouble during long and otherwise boring plane rides and airport layovers, for example (exhibit A: the legendary Prestwick Airport episode in the book) – Butler was in the enviable position of routinely having an up-close view of arguably the best live band of all time during their prime. “I was on the stage, yeah. It was brilliant. I used to be on the side of the stage, either John’s side or Pete’s side, or sometimes I’d sit behind the kit with [drum tech] Mick Double. It was fantastic. Every night the hairs used to stick up on the back of your neck. You’re playing in front of… whether it’s ten thousand or fifty thousand people, doesn’t matter, they just… were amazing.”
Butler, among whose favorite shows were Isle of Wight ’69 and Charlton ’74 (he didn’t attend the Woodstock performance because “they couldn’t afford to take me… unfortunately so… or maybe fortunately so”), puts this onstage prowess down to the band’s extensive live resume. “ ‘Cause they’d been on the road so much, I call the Who’s early years their apprenticeship years, ‘cause they never stopped working. …And what it did is it gelled them as a band, and the tightness of the musicianship between all of them was phenomenal. And they were so good live. They just blew everybody off the stage at the festivals. I mean – unbelievable.”
Despite the band’s road-seasoned state, Moon quite often experienced stage fright prior to performing. “Yeah, sometimes he did,” Butler remembers. “Probably five times out of ten he would get nerves and often he would just go in the lavatory and just stick his fingers down his throat to throw up. VIP treatment was big in the states backstage, and there was always all kinds of booze and I think sometimes [because of] nerves, he used to drink a little bit too much.”
When the nerves were under control, Butler paints a rather jarring, incongruous scene of pre-show tranquility where Moon and Butler would simply sit waiting in their hotel room before a show, sometimes engaging in such docile pursuits as reading. “He used to read a lot of science fiction books – Asimov comes to memory… and just sit and watch TV until we were called. And then we would go down to the foyer, straight in the limos, to the underground car park in the stadium or wherever we were playing, straight into the dressing rooms, and an hour or so before the show, Pete used to tune up with John, then they used to come out and maybe a few brandies were drunk to get the nerves down… and then it was showtime, basically. And then they used to come offstage on a high, and that was it. People think it’s all glamorous, all this five star luxury, but… I mean, we flew all round America, but never really saw it, ‘cause all we saw was: An aircraft, a limousine, hotel, limousine, gig, limousine, hotel, aircraft. And sometimes we didn’t even know where we were [laughs]. It was quite intense. I tell people I’ve been all round America, and I can’t tell you one thing about any city I’ve been in [laughs].”
Life with Moon off the stage was, as the book describes, “…a glorious bugger’s muddle of laughs and madness, highs and lows, jolly-ups and shout-ups – all interspersed with spells of boredom and depression.” Some of the lowest lows came as a result of Moon’s poor treatment of those he loved. His marriage to Kim lasted for seven tumultuous years before she finally left him. He soon began an equally turbulent relationship with Annette Walter-Lax, who remained his girlfriend until his death in 1978. “He was fun to be with, don’t get me wrong,” Butler recalls. “And sometimes he was a pain in the arse. But 90% of the time, he was fun to be with. I mean, I feel sorry for his wife, I feel sorry for Annette… he treated them like shit, to be honest with you. As a grown man now, you think to yourself, well, bloody hell Keith, you went out with two beautiful women – and two nice, lovely girls – but you did treat them like shit, mate. And you know, when the horses bolted, that’s when you start crying. And when Kim left him, he was devastated. But that’s through his own fault. And then he never learned. Even when he was with Annette, who was lovely, he batted away from home so many times it’s unreal.”
Butler was there in the midst of Moon’s decline in the mid-Seventies and which he attributes to several factors. “I think where drugs sort of came into the fore… more or less ’73 – the coke and everything, more and more. And then he was going through a divorce, which near enough split him in two. That got to him, and then late ’73,’74 the band weren’t working much, and he put on a lot of weight. And of course, he never, ever practiced, he never used to go to the gym, he wasn’t fit, and he used to like his food. And towards the end of his career he just ballooned up… I’d never seen him like that. It was awful. He didn’t look after himself at all. I think he thought he was, but the trouble is he was kidding himself, trying to kid other people that he was on the straight and narrow. My old saying was you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it, you know? And that was his downfall, unfortunately.”
Butler left Moon’s employ in late 1977, when an opportunity arose for him to work with filmmaker Jeff Stein, who was working on Who biopic The Kids Are Alright at the time. “When I left Keith, he was in his beach house, living next door to Steve McQueen in Trancas, just up the coast from Malibu, and it was just getting out of order. For some reason, Keith attracted all the wrong elements of the LA set, and the drug situation was getting beyond a joke, and that was the first time we had an almighty punch-up ever. And I just said Keith, I’m out of here mate. I said if you don’t get yourself together, you ain’t going to be here . And I just left. I rang Bill Curbishley up, the Who’s manager, I said Bill, get him home. I said if you don’t he’s gonna be dead within nine months guaranteed. I said I can’t take it any more… Get him home. And it took about a few months, but anyway we got him home. …The unfortunate part about it is we became best buddies. And sometimes that’s not necessarily a good omen to working together if you understand what I mean?”
It wasn’t until a couple of years after Moon’s death that Butler began taking concrete steps to publish a book on his life with the drummer. “I was toying with the idea, and I didn’t want to bring it straight out after Keith’s death or anything, it seems like sort of earning money over someone’s ill fortune for want of a better word, so I left it for a little while,” Butler recalls. In an effort to avoid rock journalists (“I just wanted to separate that totally away from the book”), Butler searched elsewhere for a co-writer. He didn’t have to look far. “As it happens, my mother’s best friend from years and years ago knew these two guys who worked at an advertising agency. They obviously knew about Keith through the press, and one of them was a Who fan anyway, and they were working in Chelsea. So I met them, and I said, I don’t want it, you know, warts and all, a tell-tale, I just want it told from when I just joined the band, how I got to know Keith socially, through roadying, and then we became close and how I worked with him, and this, that and the other. And I said I’d just like to bring in all the Cockney rhyming slang and sort of written in the third person. So I put a few things on a cassette tape, we met one evening after they finished work, used their offices after everyone had left, and then we just sort of bounced off of each other and it worked.” The finished product was published in 1981.
Butler recalls that the film rights were picked up by Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca production company in late 1995, after the book had gone out of print. However, thanks to what Butler describes as an “absolutely awful” script, and complications resulting from Roger Daltrey’s own efforts to put a Moon film together, “it all sort of fell out of bed, everything sort of died…”
In 2012, after both book and film rights had reverted to Butler, he received an offer from a new company, Talking Music, to record an audio book version of his work. He subsequently pursued re-publication of the printed book and landed in very short order at Faber & Faber, the esteemed London publishing house which for a time boasted one Pete Townshend as a commissioning editor. Regarding any possibility of renewed efforts toward a Moon film, Butler comments, “…maybe we’ll try and do something with Roger or by myself, whatever. It’s early days on that yet and that takes time, so… you never know. You might see a film yet.”
Butler, who still keeps in touch with the band, plans to see them perform in London this summer. It’s quite surreal for him to see the current occupant of the drum stool, given that he and Moon used to see a young Zak Starkey back in the ‘70s. “When we were living in Tara house in Chertsey, Ringo had just bought John Lennon’s house, Tittenhurst Park, which was about a twenty minute drive away. So we used to pop along there quite a few times, to have breakfast there, or pop to the local pub to have a drink there, and Zak was only a young boy then. I think it was Christmas of ’73 I believe, if my memory serves me right, when Keith gave him his set of drums. Keith thought the world of him, quite frankly. To see Zak playing in the Who now, I’m sure Keith would be very proud of that fact. Which is incredible. I can remember… two or three years after Keith died, I’m going back to ’80, ’81 when I used to still go to Tittenhurst Park ‘cos I was still friends with Ringo and Zak, and they used to have a gate house. I used to walk in there and Zak used to have Quadrophenia on full blast, and he was practicing all of Keith’s drum breaks, and he had it off to a tee. And he was about sixteen then, seventeen, if that. And he was absolutely awesome then. So… it’s amazing how things come around. Incredible.”
We ended our conversation on the subject of Moon’s legacy. It seemed for a time that if Moon’s antics and ‘Moon the Loon’ reputation hadn’t eclipsed his brilliant drumming, they at least threatened to do so. “What pisses me off is, as you probably know, in England the book was called Moon The Loon, which I hated,” says Butler. “In the States it was called Full Moon, which I preferred. Yeah, he was a loon, don’t get me wrong. He was great to be with. I always say, in England on a Friday night all the lads meet in a pub, and if there’s a group of you, there’s always one who you’re hoping’s gonna be there who makes you laugh, you know – the comic of the gang. And Keith was very much that. He was a great laugh to be with. And I think that’s… you know, he created a lot of his own PR to be totally honest with you, and in the old days, bad PR was good PR, if you understand what I’m saying, which got him on the front pages of whatever newspaper in the UK. And that stuck with him, instead of his musicianship – his drumming. Because he was one of the only drummers in a band that came out the front like a lead musician, you know – he was out there with John’s bass and Pete’s guitar. He was up front – he wasn’t a time drummer, he wasn’t sitting back and just doing a time beat, he was there – I mean, I’m not a musician, but I always say he was there, playing it like… it was like playing an orchestra. He was unbelievable. And I think that is now coming more to the fore than his sort of loony times.”
Peter ‘Dougal’ Butler’s book, a must-read piece of Who history, is available now in both print and audio formats. Even if you read it back during its original print run thirty years ago, it’s worth a re-read.
The audio book, too, is a treat. Full Moon’s conversational format lends itself well to audio book format and is read by British actor Karl Howman, a friend of both Moon and Butler, who features in some of the book’s stories and is thus well familiar with the subject matter.
Mark Wilkerson is a well-known Who fan and biographer of Pete Townshend.