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POP MUSIC SPECIAL : From the Hardline to the Straight Line : Back with his second album after nearly two years, Terence Trent D'Arby works to change his image

October 29, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

LONDON — The phone message left with the hotel operator by Terence Trent D'Arby's assistant spelled trouble.

The enigmatic pop star wouldn't be able to go through with the interview the following day in Dublin as planned, the message read. Would the Los Angeles reporter please phone ASAP to set up a new time?

That may sound harmless enough, but D'Arby was notorious for being difficult with the press following the late-1987 release of his best-selling and widely acclaimed album, "The Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby."

It's not that he just flat refused to meet with writers, the way Bob Dylan did for years and Michael Jackson does now. He consented to a handful of interviews, but he often ducked out or delayed them--sometimes for days.

The Los Angeles reporter knew firsthand.

Last year, D'Arby showed up 30 minutes late for an interview in West Hollywood and then declared everything he said in the 2-hour session to be off the record. Then D'Arby--whose outspoken interviews earlier in England had earned him the nickname "The Mouth That Roared"--twice postponed and finally canceled a subsequent "on the record" meeting in New York.

When D'Arby also canceled a Rolling Stone photo session, the magazine responded by taking a jab at the New York-born, London-based singer who claimed that his debut album was better than the Beatles' legendary "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The headline next to his cover photo: "A Legend in His Own Mind?"

D'Arby dropped out of sight after his spring, 1988, U.S. concert tour, retreating to England and then to Ireland to work on the crucial second album. He knew it would have to be a striking work if he was to overcome all the suspicion that he was more hype than heart.

Finally, the word came from New York-based Columbia Records publicist Marilyn Laverty who had suffered through the earlier debacles--that the album was done and that D'Arby was willing to again do some interviews. And, she assured, D'Arby was a changed man--no more games.

Then, the hotel message canceling the Dublin interview.

Another round of hide and seek?

"No, no," D'Arby's assistant said on the phone. "Terence just had to return to London to do some work in the studio. He'll meet you at his house afterwards, say around 11."

Sure enough, D'Arby--a thin yet muscular man with sweet, disarming eyes and a somewhat shy, anxious manner--was waiting at the door of his new townhouse in the fashionable Knightsbridge section of London at precisely 11 p.m. He invited the reporter and a photographer into the living room, and later took them upstairs for a peek at his month-old daughter, Sarafina, asleep in her crib.

D'Arby, 28, then settled into a straight-back chair in his kitchen, a bottle of mineral water and a dish of nuts and dried fruit in front of him, and talked until after 4 a.m.

After spending most of his first year in the pop spotlight uttering outlandish quotes to get people to notice him, he now spoke softly and in detail--as if he wanted nothing more than to get people to understand him.

About his flamboyant behavior the first time around, D'Arby said, "That was a strange period for me. On one hand, I asked for all the (controversy). I was aware of all the artists who make good debut records over the years, but no one hears them--and I wanted to make sure that didn't happen in my case.

"So I was prepared to say whatever it took to get the songs heard. But I now see I came on so strong in the early interviews in England that it was impossible to straighten things out. That's why I decided to stop doing interviews in the States. I saw that some writers had a fixed image of me--and would write about that image even if what I was saying no longer fit it.

"But I've no regrets. I'm not trying to come off as poor, misunderstood Terence. If I had to do it all over again, I'd probably do the same thing because it worked. People heard the album. Who knows? If it weren't for all that, we might not be having this conversation now."

Few figures since the '60s have arrived on the pop scene with as much flash as D'Arby, whose bold, renegade stance and invigorating talent made him a superstar in England before his album was even released in his native country.

The British press loved it when he reportedly declared himself a genius and made the famous "Sgt. Pepper's" album comparison. They also thrived on his tales of a colorful past--how he grew up in a strict Pentecostal church family, boxed in the Golden Gloves, served in Germany in Elvis Presley's old Army regiment, went AWOL to sing with a local band and wound up getting booted out of the service.

The history was so inviting to journalists that some of them--especially in the United States--eventually began asking if it weren't too good to be true. Maybe, they thought, D'Arby, like Dylan and others, had embroidered his background to be more intriguing to the press and public.

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