It’s beautiful spring day and a huge, silver Lincoln is sweeping – in that hushed wide way that only old American cars can – into the Plaza car park. It contains Vince Power who was literally a powerhouse in Harlesden for many years. Well, 23 years to be exact. He used to own the Mean Fiddler – seminal music venue on the High Street now closed down – which became the Mean Fiddler Group (Jazz Café, the Forum, Reading Festival, the Grand and many more), which he sold in 2005 for £60 million. Not that he’s retired, now he runs VPMG that owns the Bloomsbury Ballroom, the Pigalle club and runs Hop Farm Festival (Ray Davies and Dylan this year, July 3rd) and Benicassim Festival in Spain.
As he gets out of his stylishly unfashionable car, I remember the reputation that goes before him. That he’s some sort of Svengali Irish gangster. But the stocky, stubbly-chinned man who pats me on the arm in an affable gesture of friendliness seems much softer than that.
“You’re the reason I first came to Harlesden,” I say, “because I used to review people like Billy Bragg up here for Sounds.” He laughs the sort of unassuming chortle that is pleased that he should have that kind of influence.
Before I know it, Vince is opening a very green metal door to a new-to-me alleyway in the High Street. “We used to own the whole block,” he says, “but this was the box-office and entrance down here.” There is a tangible poignancy about this alleyway for Vince. It’s neglected and rundown. And it was here that his music venue empire began in 1982. On his website, he’s justifiably called The Godfather of Gigs. But here he is looking watery-eyed about the past.
“I recognise those doors,” he says pointing to the old entrance now locked and scruffy, ”we bought them from a chocolate factory in Scrubs Lane, you could still smell the chocolate on them. I know this place so well because I built it. It does make me sad looking at this building now, it had such soul and such spirit, but like the old Marquee is no more, you just have to move on. Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, John Martyn, Dr John, Christy Moore and many more all graced this stage. I had to wage a one-man war in order to get people to come to Harlesden. But I was so determined, I did manage to get them. It was the beginning of my business. The money from here paid for Subterania, the Jazz Café and all the rest to start.”
We walk a little further to the old stage door at the back. “I remember standing out here with musicians,” he says, “on summer’s evenings. One night, country musician, Dwight Yoakam was having a fit of nerves before going on, so I was out her trying to persuade him to perform. He did go on in the end.”
Vince is standing next to an old street lamp also painted green which is quite odd in the middle of this alleyway. “We restored it,” smiles Vince revealing his inner DIY spirit aglow, “it was originally from the nineteenth century.”
Apparently, it used to be a dodgy drinking club owned by boxer, Terry Downes, before Vince bought it. “It was hard for them to get a license,” he explains, “so it was illegal. There were a lot of heavy gangsters who used to come here then. A couple of bodies were found in this alleyway at one point. I bought it in 1981 because I wanted to turn it into a honky tonk bar. I used to go to Nashville so that inspired me. I loved country music.”
Back in the 8os, John Martyn was supposed to play at 10 pm one night. “He came on at 12pm and was promptly sick over the front row of people. I had to give a lot of people their fivers back,” he says.
My own strongest memory of the Mean Fiddler was going to a Sun Ra – crazy, inspired jazz singer, musician and controversial cosmic philosopher – gig. I’d never see so many people, his Arkestra – I think there were 13 – on the tiny stage. Sun Ra was wearing something on his head that resembled an extra-terrestrial hair net and I kept thinking he looked like Ena Sharples on Coronation Street. It was 1990. They played music which startled and amazed in equal measure. It was one on those extraordinary gigs, which takes you out of the present and into the improvised space of the joyful imagination. He was to die at 79 three years later. But he was truly dancing to the beat of his own drum. I even got to interview him.
Back on the High Street, Vince surprises me by saying that he actually came over from Waterford in Ireland to Harlesden when he was 16 in 1964. On his own. He was one of 11 children. He has a much longer relationship with Harlesden than I thought. “I lived in a back room of the house of a Jamaican woman who treated me like her son,” he says, “it was very unusual for someone Irish to board with someone Jamaican in those days. But I loved it.”
It turns out that he met his first wife who was also Irish when he was 18. Also in Harlesden. “At the 32 Club,” he says, “which used to be opposite the Royal Oak pub. We got married in the big Catholic Church, Our Lady of Willesden, up Acton Lane. We were very young, both 18, my mother came over from Waterford. It was just what you did. We had three children before I was 21.”
As we verbally go back and forth between the present and the past, we’re also observing the High Street. “In the 60s, it was upmarket here,” says Vince rather shockingly, “There used to be a Marks and Spencer’s here in those days. Employment was easy in the 60s, so everyone had money from working in the factories round here. But I must say it is very lively here, much more so than Kilburn High Road which is my shopping area now.”
At this point, we’re just passing plantains and Scotch Bonnets piled up high at a nearby grocers, when a guy with his long grey locks in a ponytail, shouts out to me because he sees I have a notebook. “Are you from ‘Elth and Safety?” he calls out. “No,” I reply horrified to have been mistaken for someone from the council. For goodness sake, I have a bejewelled feather in my hair. What is the country coming to? Traditionally, a notebook in hand translated as a journalist, now it’s Health and Safety? Oh, the poverty of reference points.
We go back to talk to him and his friend. It turns out that both he and Vince have bad backs! What on earth is going on with these men? Alexei also had a painful back. They exchange supportive back care tips whilst I chat to Ronald, who says he volunteers with young people in the area and lives in Rucklidge Avenue, the same road as Sabrina Washington’s parents.
By the time we reach the newly re-opened Library, Vince has to sit down because of sciatica in his leg. Later, he tells me he has a gym in his house and a visiting yoga teacher. Evidently, he’s not using their services on a regular basis.
“First of all, my wife and I lived in a room in Bramshill Road, then we moved to a beautiful house in Stonebridge Park. In the 60s, there were some wonderful houses there but they were demolished to make way for the tower blocks. I know because I demolished some of them. At that time that’s what I was doing,” he explains. “There was nothing wrong with the original houses, but I do remember how excited people were at the idea of getting new bathrooms and kitchens, they couldn’t wait for those blocks. But those tower blocks destroyed the community. But I have been up there and had a look at the new developments and they’ve done a good job.”
Vince points in the direction of Stonebridge and explains that there was an Odeon cinema just up the road, ‘a fleapit’ which became the Roxy Club in the 70s. That the Sex Pistols rehearsed in. Oh la la. I was under the impression that the Roxy had been at the Coliseum cinema, which is now the Misty Moon pub. I was wrong.
In fact, back in the 60s and 70s, it was people moving out of their houses, sometimes to the Stonebridge tower blocks, that created work for Vince’s new business. “For 15 years, I ran a second hand furniture business,” he says giving insights into how he became so successful in the music venue business, “the main shop was in Kilburn High Road. I was good at making money. I just liked picking my wits against another human being and getting twice as much as I paid for whatever it was.”
That’s quite a contrast with today. Hasn’t he gone posh these days with his Berkley Square Ball, his Bloomsbury Ballroom and his Pigalle Club? “You can’t make me posh,” he exclaims in a jokingly serious way as we walk back, “you can’t pimp me.”
But what about his gangster image, he’s definitely got a reputation? “I think it came about because I used to do lots of support gigs for the Guildford Four and the Maguire Sisters. All of them were innocent. Because I did those gigs, people assumed I was an IRA member. I’ve always been political and left wing but I’ve always been against any kind of violence. I did a lot of the Red Wedge gigs in the early 90s, and everyone like Hank Wangford came and celebrated at the Mean Fiddler after the 1997 Labour election victory.”
It’s 5pm and we’re at the bar at the Misty Moon ordering a tea and a coffee. Very rock n’roll. At 62, Vince has eight children and seven grandchildren, he’s been married three times. “I think when I split up from Alison, my third wife, I did reassess my life and wonder what I was doing with it? It was five years ago and that’s when I sold the business. I wanted to do something new. But I’m no good at doing nothing, so I ended up finding some new venues and festivals. I’ve just announced Bob Dylan is playing at the Hop Farm, a one day festival in Kent. It’s in its third year and it’s back to basics, there are no VIP passes. Everything became too inflated. I was guilty of it too. Now I’m interested in everyone being treated in the same way.”
Briefly, he had a mid-life bachelor crisis and acquired a penthouse in Paddington, but now his feet are back on the ground and he’s back in a family house in Willesden. His youngest children – 13, 15 and 18 – visit for a couple of days a week. He’s single and he admits somewhat mistily that he definitely prefers the family unit as a way of living.
And what does he make of Harlesden these days? “Well, there was a time in the 90s when young people were shooting each other here and everyone assumed it was a terrible place. But I never thought that. For me, it was always a family place, and I think it still is.”
Fittingly for the gentleman he shows himself to be, he gives me a lift home in the Lincoln. Not since, multimillionaire publisher, Felix Dennis sent me home in his chauffer-driven silver Rolls Royce, have I arrived home in such style. But that’s another story.
At home, a friend of my son’s, on hearing who I’ve been out with, says “Oh, isn’t he that heavy gangster guy?” So the old image is till working. I get the impression he quite likes it.