A unique covers album featuring Evan Dando and Lily Allen pays tribute to late singer-songwriter Tarka Cordell, writes Chris Price
On a wall at Room 609 Records, the London label releasing tribute album Tarka & Friends: Life, is a large black and white photograph entitled The First Supper. Moving left to right, label boss Barney Cordell lists the names of twelve smiling longhairs sitting stage-side around an expansive, champagne-stocked table for one of Elvis’s ‘71 Vegas shows: Leon Russell, Gram Parsons, the film director Joe Massot and – notably, for the purposes of my visit today – Barney’s dad, the super-producer and Shelter Records label impresario Denny Cordell.
This is the world that Tarka Cordell and his elder brother were born into. Not for them the two-week family holiday to an English seaside resort; instead Tarka and Barney joined the 30-strong entourage on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, aboard ‘a leased, painted-up twin-prop plane from a dodgy South American airline’. Barney points out another picture, of him and Tarka aged about five and six: ‘We were joined at the hip as kids, 11 months apart. Mum didn’t hang about’. Hunched over a game of snap, the two boys are kneeling onstage between a drum kit and the feet of a sound-checking Joe Cocker.
Later I hear stories of the boys’ idyllic LA childhood, first in residence at Chateau Marmont and later at their Malibu beach house, including a recollection of a day chasing jackrabbits with the family greyhounds and two of Denny’s friends named Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. (“We just knew that they were guys with dreads who played nice music.”)
Fast forward to 2008. Both brothers, perhaps unsurprisingly, have ended up in music – Barney on the business side as an A&R at Island Records, Tarka as a musician and some-time filmmaker. Tarka’s episodic career might best be described as a series of near misses – an acclaimed film script that never made it into production, an album of fragile songs that never quite saw the light of day – but in all other respects he is the golden boy: devastatingly good-looking, charismatic, adored by women and men alike. One spring evening that year, after a seemingly blissful, sunny day in the garden with Barney and his family – the nieces and nephews he adored – Tarka returned to his Notting Hill flat and hanged himself.
Listening to an album of unreleased and unknown songs by a man who took his own life, it’s almost impossible not to parse every note through the ugly, distorting prism of suicide; to look for vital clues in a throwaway lyric, seek out meaning in a passing minor third. Hearing those same songs in tandem with new versions recorded by the people who feel his absence most keenly, Lemonheads front man, Evan Dando and Lily Allen among them, adds a layer of melancholy that’s almost too much to bear – and which maybe wasn’t even there to begin with. Experienced in reverse, a life can be redefined by suicide.
Dando’s contribution to Life is a heart-stoppingly beautiful cover of Lovely New York, a doped-out paean to that giddy city written with him in mind and which perfectly captures his and Tarka’s early Manhattan bromance. Speaking from Keith Richards’ house in Jamaica, Evan recalls his first meeting with a bon viveur whose reputation preceded him: ‘I had just come off that movie Heavy with Liv Tyler. Tarka’s dad had just died and he was coming to New York. Marlon [Richards] was like, “You must meet Tarka.” We were just running around New York City having ridiculous, absurdist fun, and Tarka was a big part of it really quickly.’
What was the connection between you two? ‘Well, I could lie, but it had a lot to do with chasing models around and doing coke. And listening to records until eight in the morning. And Tarka had a magical childhood. He remembers Gram Parsons walking around Joshua Tree using his head as a cane – that’s one of my favourite Tarka stories. I guess I had a really great childhood too, and I was like, “Wow, I wanna figure some way of living my adult life on anywhere near this kind of level.” I think Tarka had a tougher time managing that.’
But New York wasn’t all lovely. In 2004 Tarka suffered a severe head injury in an altercation at a society bash. ‘Some horrible rich kid from New York,’ says Evan, not naming names (for the record it was the notoriously brattish gambling heir Luke Weil), ‘just came up behind him and smashed his skull with a bottle of really nice white wine. Maybe Tarka was talking to his girlfriend or something, I don’t know, but he was never really the same after that. They say that serious head trauma can make you more susceptible to suicide.’
Whether he invited the attack or not, the story behind another of the album’s highlights, Girls Keith, does point up both Tarka’s prodigious facility for attracting some of the world’s most beautiful women – Kate Moss, Liv Tyler, Sienna Miller, Sophie Dahl – and his probably-not-unconnected patchy work ethic.
‘After Dad died, Keith [Richards] and Tarka hung out a lot,’ says Barney. ‘Keith really tried to encourage him, to hone his craft. Then he found Tarka nobbing a supermodel in the hot tub at Redlands when he was meant to be there songwriting, and that was the end of their relationship. So Tarka wrote Girls Keith: ‘What’s wrong with girls, Keith? / They make me happy’!’
But Tarka was just as frustrated by his own lack of application as everybody else. Says Evan: ‘In ’98, when I was probably at my worst, drinking way too much, with a big beard doing the whole Jim Morrison thing, he was like, “At least you went out and did some shit.” He really did wish he had some accomplishments under his belt. He just didn’t seem to have the natural desire to actually go out and do stuff.’
‘I think he battled depression and didn’t really realise it,’ says Barney. Of the never-quite-finished album Wide Awake In A Dream, to be released off the back of the forthcoming tribute record, Tarka’s elder brother puts the inertia down to a simple fear of commitment: ‘I don’t think he could make the make the final step. He was terrified of finishing, putting it out and it sinking without a trace. I don’t think he could have handled it.’
Which is an almost perfect analogue for his soap opera love life, too. Contrary to the lyrics of Girls Keith, the string of supermodel girlfriends never did bring any real joy, at least not the enduring happiness that, incurable romantic and eternal idealist that he was, Tarka really craved. ‘He was brilliant with those fast lane girls. He was very protective, gentlemanly and cool around them and they liked this and always felt completely safe and so at ease in his company’ says Barney. ‘But when it came to settling down he was absolutely hopeless – he never found peace with a girl. I think that was a massive part of his disappointment.’
I ask Evan how he found out about Tarka’s death. ‘I was in LA at an NME awards. We found out the next day – my friend Alex Friedman called me – and my wife just threw up. We couldn’t believe it. I felt extra dumb because I was like “I’m not fucking going to this thing,” and then I went and then that happened. So yeah, it was stupid.’
Barney recounts the harrowing logistics of the immediate aftermath: ‘Me and my best friend went to a bar down by the river and methodically started making the phone calls – my mother, my other brothers, my wife. And then you’re on the Cresta Run, you just deal with it. Other survivors have been through a lot worse than I have. It was Tarka’s best friend Jessie who found him – he worshipped Tarka. A couple of years later he had a nervous breakdown and killed himself.’
Asked if he ever feels angry about Tarka’s death, the thought occurs to Barney almost as if for the first time: ‘The anger is far more about what he’s left behind than what he’s missed out on personally. He chose to do what he did, so what he missed out on is his problem. But the carnage that he left behind, that’s the worst part of it.’
‘My oldest kids were eleven and twelve. They worshipped him – he was so loved, by everybody. The power of whatever it is that made him do that – to override those thoughts – I will never understand. No problem is permanent, but in his state of mind he couldn’t see that. What he did is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’
Back on the phone with Evan, I ask if Tarka’s death is the only time he has been affected by suicide. ‘God, no. Tons of my friends have committed suicide. Maybe a little less than twenty. And not all boys, either – girls do it too. If I think about it, you know, lots of cocaine does lead to suicide pretty quickly. A lot of my old cokehead friends, or people involved in serious drug use, have killed themselves. It’s a real fucking problem.’
I want, but can’t quite bring myself, to ask if he has ever considered it himself. He saves me the trouble: ‘How many times did you wanna do it as a kid, even in a dumb way, you know? It seems so attractive when you’re in a lot of pain, but how do you know you’re going somewhere better? I can’t even remember how many of my friends have killed themselves. I sometimes think they did it to stop me from doing it – that’s how selfish I am! [laughs] – you know, there’s a little of that. You see it happen and you go, “that’s just stupid”.'
So it wasn’t a difficult decision then, getting involved with this record? ‘It was a no-brainer. I always loved that song [Lovely New York]. So I went out to California, and I knew I could do it OK, and we just did it in a night. It was easy and it was fun. I still much prefer Tarka’s version, but ours has got some cool bass on it. And I love Lily Allen’s track, it’s so beautiful. It’s one of the prettiest Tarka songs, and I never heard her sing like that before, like really singing, you know?
Evan’s right. There’s a line on Shelter You – I don’t want to drag you down / I’m just gonna shelter you – which, sung back at him in an uncharacteristically faltering voice by Allen, Tarka’s sister-in-law, adds an extra patina of heartbreak that Tarka himself might have rather liked. But behind all the fragility and melancholy is a kind of grim-faced defiance, a determination in that album title – Tarka & Friends: Life – to prove him wrong. To put his life, his friends and his music centre stage again.
A few days later I speak to Evan once more. I want to know whether, five years on, the overriding feeling is of sadness or anger, guilt or peace. For the first time in all our conversations about Tarka, the line goes momentarily quiet: ‘Well, you don’t want to think about it too much because it can really pull you down. One thing I like to say is that he won’t do it again. Tarka won’t commit suicide again. And there’s some comfort in that.’
You can download Tarka & Friends: Life at on iTunes or at tarkamusic.com
You can read this interview as well as enter our competition to win a copy of the album signed by Lily Allen amongst a host of other goodies in the latest issue of CALMzine. Read it HERE