“You saw me at Wembley?” Andy Fraser asks in a Glasgow bar the week after his appearance with Glenn Hughes at the Marshall amps 50th anniversary concert. “I’m wearing exactly what I was there. Which tells you I’m integrated – I’m not one thing off stage then dress up to be something else on stage.”
Integration and family are two things the former Free bassist feels strongly about. It’s a focus that’s been hard won, from a 20-year battle with his reputation as a control freak, the memories of a band that split before achieving all they could, and a lifestyle change that nearly killed him.
He contracted the HIV virus during a year of wild, gay abandon in a motorhome. A far cry from the 15-year-old who’d been the man of the house since his early years and had gone on to be the youngest member but the leader of a group that, like few others, defined an era of early rock music: Free.
“I’m integrated,” he repeats. “Part of coming out gay was to integrate conflicting areas of my life. Now I’m all in a straight line: off stage, on stage, sexually, publicly. Everything is easy.”
There’s a good chance he still is a control freak. He’s just better at controlling the freakery.
All Right Now is the signature track of the powerhouse that was singer Paul Rodgers, guitarist Paul Kossoff, drummer Simon Kirke and bassist Fraser, who wasn’t old enough to drink legally when he co-wrote it. Nevertheless, he was the most responsible member of Free, thanks to a musical education from a stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and a close relationship with Alexis Korner.
“I was very much the hustler,” Fraser recalls. “Whereas the other guys couldn’t count past four, I could. I’d watched how John worked and how he organised things. I’d be the liaison between the band [Free] and label, management and promoters. I’d go with the big roadie to get the money. Someone should have been there with a camera: this little guy and this big roadie going: ‘You better keep this kid happy.’.”
Family meant a lot to him when Free formed, and more so as they broke up and deprived him of that relationship. The band had bought him the car of his dreams, the late-medieval cottage of his dreams, and his mum the home of her dreams. It had also seen him achieve acclaim and respect as a bassist and songwriter. By the time their three-year career began crumbling in 1971, they’d sold millions of albums, and played to half-a-million people at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Things came to a head on a flight to kick off tours of Japan and Australia. Months of infighting had resulted in Fraser and Rodgers planning to replace Kossoff and Kirke, but in the end it was the songwriting duo who decided to go their separate ways.
While the sense of family mattered to Fraser, it meant even more to Kossoff, who’d begun a steep and heartbreaking decline into drug use. In an attempt to save him, Free continued into 1973. But the guitarist’s condition made uncomfortable viewing. Fraser recalls a night in London’s Albert Hall: “Koss was five minutes behind all of us. The audience just cried with us, it was so painful.”
It was an especially difficult night for Rodgers, fronting a band that everyone could see was in no fit state to play. “I think that had quite an effect on Paul – he was thinking: ‘How do I survive?’.”
The singer’s solution was to form Bad Company, a move Fraser described as “cashing your chips way before you needed to”. He’s critical of Rodgers’ abandonment of what he feels were some of his greatest strengths – the folky, balladeer aspects of his work – in favour of simpler rock music. That, the bassist suggests, set him in a direction from which his career has never recovered.
Things were worse for Kossoff. “He was a fighter, but he lost his confidence. He was an equal. Like anyone in the band, he could hold his own. His best defence was comedy. He used to wear a long coat and go into an Ena Sharples character and just tear you apart. It was hilarious.”
When Free finished for good, Kossoff’s comedic side disappeared and he resorted to a lifestyle of almost permanent wastage. Fraser recalls an earlier incident where, fearing for their friend, he and roadie Jim McGuire kidnapped Kossoff from his own home.
They entered his two-floor apartment and climbed over what seemed like hundreds of junkies until they found the guitarist in the top room. “He was making no sense at all. He was just fucked. Hardly knew his own name. Who knows what he was on. Everything.”
At Fraser’s Surrey cottage they spent days trying to snap him out of it, but Kossoff didn’t want their help. Eventually they returned him to London. And that was the point at which Fraser said goodbye to him. His death in 1976, while a member of Back Street Crawler, wasn’t a surprise.
“Koss was more dependent on the camaraderie than any of us,” Fraser says of the guitarist. “Without that he was all alone. He didn’t feel worthy of the adulation that was poured on him.”
Fraser attempts to describe how he thinks Kossoff’s mind processed the situation: “’If they see me drugged out my mind, that will be the excuse why I don’t sound good. As opposed to the real reason: I am no good.’.”
Free made one more album, Heartbreaker, without Fraser (he was replaced by Tetsu Yamauchi), before the band broke up for good. He suggests that perhaps Island Records, the band’s label, simply didn’t have the clout to put them into the league they should have been in – a league that Rodgers and Kirke’s next band, Bad Company, were soon to inhabit thanks to Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant.
Fraser drifted. One of the first projects was a trio called Toby, which he says was “a good experience for me to find out what is involved in being a singer”.
(Toby also included guitarist Adrian Fisher, who went on to work with Sparks. On his website, Fraser says: “I just Googled his name, to find out he died in 2000 – possibly drug related”.) He was invited to join the Faces, but didn’t feel at home with their lad-about-town image. He came close to working with a reunited Traffic, but felt the project didn’t have conviction. He worked with
Frankie Miller on material that has never seen the light of day. Sharks, a band he found himself in without ever really knowing why, is the project he regards as his “biggest mistake”. But it did lead to his meeting an Australian artist called Ri, whom he married and with whom he had two girls, Hannah and Jasmine.
Finally he got his teeth into a project he felt good about: the Andy Fraser Band, formed after meeting keyboard player Nick Judd.
It was a time of experimentation, both in art and in drugs. Fraser has no regrets about taking LSD. He’d left England after being hammered for tax and having to deal with the death of his mum. One of the few dates he can remember is May 7, 1976, the day he arrived in California to live.
As Ri found herself moving towards Eastern spiritualism, an increasingly solitary Fraser realised that, despite the hordes of groupies that had surrounded him in his Free days, he wasn’t interested in having sex with women.
His first gay experience was with a man who had recently ended a relationship with movie star Richard Chamberlain. Then his reaction was denial. “I’d had flashes of it when I was around five,” he says, “but you bury it.”
When Free saw an obviously gay person in the street, he recalls, “it was usually Simon who’d make some homophobic comment. I’d feel the hackles rise but I’d never say anything. I was probably guilty of it myself.” Ultimately, he didn’t want to risk his career in such a macho environment.
He’d had a record deal with his band The Stealers, but the label remixed it into something he refused to permit to be released – although Robert Palmer had a hit with a song from it, Every Kinda People. Another Andy Fraser Band failed because he wanted it be a band, but the label only wanted to sign him.
But dealing with being gay was his “big issue” now, and it included putting his career on the back burner, even though he never stopped writing music.
He ended his relationship with Ri, and at her suggestion went to a counsellor who wound up crying for him as he told his story.
“I got better counselling from the street,” he says. Finally, for the first time in his life, Andy Fraser set himself free. “My marriage had fallen apart. I was all screwed up sexually. Fuck fame, fuck career, fuck everything. I got a motorhome, put a studio in there, ran it off solar panels on the roof, put a bike on the back and really let go. It was great. There’s nothing like parking outside a club and there’s a hotel right there. Money wasn’t an issue. It was the first time since the age of 15 I’d let go.”
He’s not sure how long the road trip lasted (“at least a year”), but his liberty ended with the sudden, shocking news that he was seriously ill.
“They tested me and it came back: hepatitis B – and HIV. You’re frozen. I was frozen for five minutes. And that night was a sleepless night from crying. But I’m proud of how quickly I said: ‘Okay, you have less time than you thought. Prioritise. Cut out the crap.’.”
It took him a while to grasp the situation, though. “Even going to radiation treatment for cancer, I never took seriously until it started breaking out on my face – showing how vain I still am! Outside there would be a woman inhaling smoke through a hole in her throat. I mean, use a little discipline.”
His own sense of discipline, and his strong will, were to serve him well in the coming years as he found himself at death’s door. “I was that far away,” he says, holding his thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. “I was down to one T cell – the healthy person should be 400 up to 1,100. If your viral load is 10,000 they put you on medication. Mine got up to 4.3 million. The doctors were climbing the walls.”
In the 1990s, Aids was still a frequent and high-profile killer. The medication didn’t exist to offer any alternative. As he fought for his life, Fraser was faced with the possibility of being able to survive but without the ability to make music.
“I had disc surgery and the pain didn’t go away. It turned out I was on incorrect medication, creating peripheral neuropathy. All the muscles were going into spasm all down my arms. I’d be sweating on the bike, and my feet were like they were in a bucket of ice. I had like a coke-freeze across my face. I thought I’d never play again. That was three years of hell.”
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The solution was all too distressingly easy: “I changed doctor.” Paul Rodgers came back into his life as Fraser lay in a hospital bed in Lake Tahoe, having a blood transfusion. His former bandmate wanted to know if he would appear at the 1994 staging of Woodstock, alongside Brian May. The show was to take place on August 14. Fraser was called just two days earlier. In the end it featured guitarists Neal Schon and Slash, and drummer Jason Bonham, but not May.
“I’m guessing I was second choice,” Fraser says. “It was so last minute. Usually if he calls me – and it’s like half a dozen times in the last few years – he’ll just waffle on. But this time he was so to-the-point. But I’m always challenged. I wanted to find out where he was at. ‘Yeah, I can play Woodstock’.
“Brian had assumed – and Paul left him to assume – that we’d be doing some Queen songs,” the bassist says. “It was like, ‘I’ll just tell him in New York that it’s too late’. Brian flew home, called me up, bawling down the phone. Paul Rodgers [had called him, saying] ‘I’m not singing any fucking Queen songs’.” (What changed? “He needed the money.”)
The experience got worse. “Here’s what Paul’s like: ‘I’m sending you a cassette of songs to learn’. And I fucking wrote half of them. Unbelievable! I don’t know if he’s just unaware, or he’s just a complete asshole. Either way, it doesn’t work for me. He does that all the time.”
The story was similar earlier this year, when Rodgers, Kirke and Fraser came close to reuniting to perform at the London Olympics. It wasn’t to be a Free show, it was to be a Rodgers and sidemen show, the bassist feels.
“It was the first time we’d all agreed,” he reflects. “We had to get a guitarist, and we were asking various people. But Paul and his people decided they wanted to ask those who’d already turned down the Olympics: The Who, the Stones, Zeppelin. He asked Brian May, but unless it’s got Queen songs it’s not going to happen. Keith Richards isn’t going to do it if the Stones turned it down. Pete Townshend isn’t going to do it if The Who turned it down, although they ended up doing something. Likewise Jimmy Page.”
Fraser suggested getting in either Mark Knopfler or David Gilmour. Then he called the firm that had shocked crowds at the US Coachella festival by bringing dead rapper Tupac back to life as a hologram. “I spoke to them about doing a Kossoff one, and they said: ‘We’ve just got enough time’. But after I’d agreed to do it, Paul’s people weren’t interested in my thoughts at all. I tjust came unglued.”
Why can Kirke continue to operate with Rodgers while Fraser can’t?
“I love Simon,” he says of the drummer. “He’s the easiest guy to get on with. Everyone will say that. But he’s allowed Paul to treat him like a backing musician. He’s a part of the group [Bad Company] in name only.
“I say to Simon: ‘Paul never returns my emails’. And he goes: ‘He never returns any of mine’. Paul will show up at a Bad Company gig by himself, and the rest of the guys won’t even see him till they go on stage. Basically, if you throw Simon a Bad Company bone he’ll be there. And he’ll never say a bad word until they fall out – then it’ll all come out.”
Hardly surprising, then, that the idea of Free regrouping isn’t on Fraser’s agenda. “I didn’t want to get stuck in the 70s,” he insists. “What we expressed was true and honest at the time. But I think they’re stuck in the past.”
Andy Fraser is very much looking to the future. In 2005 he released what he calls his “coming out album”, Naked… And Finally Free. His new album carries the determined title On _Assignment _(released in 2014).
He’s written a biography with Mark Hughes, called, appropriately enough, All Right Now. His appearance at the Marshall show at Wembley led to a connection with Glenn Hughes that will, he says, lead to some new music. He has created his own label, McTrax International, and made his first signing, a teenager called Tobi – who may or may not remind him of his younger self. (He laughs about how some people assume they’re a gay couple: “I am, he’s not,” he jokes.)
Yet, due to his illness, Fraser must keep everything he does under very close control. And so far he has avoided any relapse of any kind. “I’m so privileged to have a second chance,” he says. “I gotta keep it together.”
This was published in Classic Rock issue 178.