‘Invest in your hair,’ advises David Coverdale, a man with a shag of the stuff glossier than a supermodel’s and as big as a guardsman’s bearskin, even at the age of 67. (He won’t say that number. He insists his age is ‘three score and seven’.)
‘People say to me: “Do you color your hair?” And I say: “Absolutely not.” ’ He pauses for half a beat. ‘“I have a super hairdresser who does it for me.” Some guy came on Instagram, telling me: “Come on, David, it’s time to get rid of the wig.” It’s not something I bought from Frederick’s of Hollywood, you silly bastard! It’s a crowning glory!’
David Coverdale’s hair matters because of who and what he is. Who he is, well, that would the lead singer of Whitesnake, the hard-rock band who were all over MTV in the mid-1980s with a series of videos featuring Coverdale’s then girlfriend — who rejoiced in the name of Tawny Kitaen — sometimes cavorting on the bonnet of a Jaguar, and who played the Download Festival in the middle of England to tens of thousands of people two weekends ago. As for what he is, think of him as the nearest thing hard rock has to its own Barry White, albeit an awful lot thinner: a seducer, a lover, a man with a come-to-bed voice, sometimes guilty of the notion that a double entendre contains one entendre too many.
He’s pretty much the platonic ideal of what a rock star should be: self-created (though he speaks like an approximation of a minor aristocrat, he was a shop assistant at a boutique called Gentry’s in Redcar when he was unexpectedly recruited to join Deep Purple in 1973); a little vain, but aware of his own vanity (‘Certainly, singing songs like “Slide It In” while wandering around with love handles from hell wouldn’t be appropriate’); and uproariously immodest: ‘The last thing I’m gonna do is blow my own trumpet… But we sell out everywhere we go, we sell a very significant amount of records, and I never ask if I can make a record, I am always approached.’ He also tells me repeatedly how beautiful his wife is, how great his band is, how productive he is. But, you know, who wants a modest rock star?
In the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, Coverdale insists that’s not what he is. ‘I don’t look on myself as a rock star. I’m a singer-songwriter, a manager, a producer. When I walk on stage I amplify myself, and the audience helps me amplify myself, into this larger-than-life scenario, but if Saltburn-by-the-Sea gave me a bench with “Birthplace of David Coverdale”, I wouldn’t want it to describe me as “rock star”, I’d want “singer-songwriter”.’
Well, yes, one accepts that the people who insist on being rock stars 24 hours a day seem not to be among the best-adjusted people in society — and often don’t live terribly long lives — but come on, how can the singer of Whitesnake not be a rock star? He’s insistent. ‘I would never describe myself as a rock star. If I was sitting on a plane and somebody said, “What do you do?”, I would say “gynecologist”. The last thing I would say would be rock star.’
The reference to gynecology is telling. Because there’s a certain thread in the world of Whitesnake — starting with the name of the band, which perhaps doesn’t refer entirely to reptiles — that dwells upon matters genital, albeit with just enough deniability. There are the song and album titles, such as ‘Slide It In’, ‘Slip of the Tongue’, ‘Slow Poke Music’ and ‘Spit It Out’ (‘You gotta give me a certain satisfaction/ The kind of love you seal with a kiss/ And spit it out, spit it out, spit it out/ If you don’t like it.’ Doubtless Coverdale would insist that’s really not referring to what I think it is).
The second Whitesnake album, 1979’s Lovehunter, featured a cover painting of a naked woman apparently writhing in ecstasy astride a giant snake. In an email exchange before we spoke, I suggested to Coverdale that was inexcusable. ‘Oh, knock it off,’ he replied.
‘So were some of the ridiculous criticisms leveled at us. The cover was in response to all the “sexist” rubbish’ — the suggestion that Whitesnake might be, in some way, sexist — ‘I thought, fuck it and asked Chris Achilleos, who designed for men’s scantily clad magazines, to design something naughty to stick it to the critics. You’d be surprised how successful that image still is — with the ladies, too. Don’t be so puritan, Michael.’ Shame, it would be fair to say, is not something Coverdale countenances. But then he’s the one with the house in Lake Tahoe with the black bears wandering through the garden, and I’m the one in the terraced house in London with the occasional mouse skittering through the kitchen.
But alongside the bawdiness — and it’s more Donald McGill than YouPorn — are the songs that betray Coverdale’s real love: he’s not really a heavy rocker (he didn’t know who Deep Purple were when he auditioned for them); he’s a soul boy, in love with black music.
Whitesnake’s breakthrough hit in 1980, the fabulous ‘Fool For Your Loving’, was written for B.B. King before Coverdale realized quite how foolhardy he would be to give it away. ‘Here I Go Again’, the song that broke the group in America, came about from Coverdale being deep in the blues himself. His first marriage was breaking down, he was in the Algarve, ‘and I was desolate, drinking white port and 7-Up — not fattening at all. I was coming up to 30, and I thought that was it. I thought it was over, like a tennis player. But now look at Federer and Nadal! The cream rises to the surface, through commitment and passion. But really it’s support. If people weren’t making money with me, I wouldn’t be doing the new album.’
Breaking America was what led to the Coverdale hair. The length and the shape were the same. The shade wasn’t. The Coverdale who was famous in England had mousey–brown hair; the one who became famous in America was blonde (his current color is somewhere in between). ‘I’d see myself on MTV, and the first thing I thought was: “Well, at least I still have a legitimate head of hair. It just looks dull.” And the night before shooting the “Still of the Night” video [in 1986], I went into the director’s wife’s hair salon, and she made me fucking blonde. Which freaked the fuck out of me. I went back to the Mondrian in LA, where I was living, and I was dying of embarrassment — I’m British, for Christ’s sake. I walked in and everyone said, “Oh my God, you look amazing, you look fantastic.” By the time I got to the bar to drown my sorrows there were no sorrows to drown.’
Long may he keep shaking his mane.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.