“The mum’s story” - TWR chats to Steve Hackett's mum, Mrs June Leaney. Interview conducted at Steve's home on 2nd May 2008. Photographs by June Leaney, Steve Hackett and TWR Archive.
Originally this interview was conducted as part of my researches for Steve’s biography; Sketches of Hackett but we were only able to use a few extracts from it within the finished text and June had so much to tell us that we thought it might prove interesting to publish the full transcript. Our thanks once again to June for giving us so much of her time and for giving her permission for us to use the full transcript here in TWR.
TWR: I gather from what Steve has told me that he was not the only person with a musical background in the family and that there were a couple of people on your side of the family that had a musical background too…
JL: Yes, on both sides, on both my father’s and my mother’s sides. My mother’s father was a drummer and bugler in the regular army so that’s that side. My father’s side were minor show business people, in the Musical Hall…
TWR: Wasn’t one of them a comedienne…?
JL: Yes, “Saxon” Davis. Her name was Rose but she had blond hair so she was called “Saxon” Davis and we used to go and see her on the stage and I was about six and of course you could go backstage and it was wonderful seeing her in her makeup and all that. All my father’s family… Uncle Ron played the guitar and Cecil, who was always known as “Titch” and that was sad he died during the war, there were eight guys and they all died of typhoid so that was rather dreadful. He was a natural performer always telling jokes. They always used to put on their own pantomimes at Christmas in the house and my father was half Jewish and they all had that kind of joie de vie thing you know. So when we used to go at Christmas it was always bright.
My grandmother was a wonderful lady who was always in the kitchen cooking up scones and stuff. When I look back it was a very small house but it was always full of people. Always full of life. My dad loved music, he liked people like Richard Tauber and he played the harmonica which our Steve took up. He used to play the spoons too! (laughs) so we grew up appreciating music. I remember Steve saying to me once when he was a child that when he heard a beautiful piece of music he couldn’t look at people because it was like they were staring at his soul and I understood that, you know because I have something very similar. If I hear a wonderful piece of music on the radio, I have to go away and listen to it on my own. So those were our beginnings, always musical and my sister had a very pretty singing voice, she won a talent competition at Butlins with Eric Winstone’s band and Steve was about three years old.
Then I got married…
TWR: How did you come to meet Peter (Mr Hackett senior)…?
JL: Peter? At a dance. We used to go to the dances in Lower Regent Street and the Harriers dances were always the best and I was seventeen, and there was this young, very good looking paratrooper and the friends who he was with, one of the females “excused” the guy I was dancing with and Peter came and asked me! (laughs). Whether it was a pre-arranged thing I don’t know and he was so good looking, gorgeous and so gentle so I have been very lucky because I have got an ex husband who is a gentleman and a present husband who is a gentleman in the true sense of the word.
We had no money but we got married and then Steve came along and he was very bright, a very bright little baby from…in those days you stayed in hospital for two weeks after the birth and he was only a few days old and I had gone off to have a wash or something and when I came back they put him on my pillow ready for a feed and his eyes were everywhere. His eyes were taking in the scene. And after a couple of days he sucked his thumb very loudly and the sister said; ’this one wants attention!’ (laughs). He was a very difficult baby, he hardly slept, and here was me a young nineteen year old who didn’t know what to do with a baby. Steve might have told you this already but we bought him a little piano and it was an upright piano and I think it was blue and this was before he could walk and he used to sit there and go plink, plink, plink on it and he loved it.
We had a fireguard and when he was seven months old he put his fingers into it and moved it so even at that age he was a doer and he was always pushing the boundaries kind of thing. That piano was his first musical instrument and then, later on, I think my dad played harmonica and he bought Steve a tiny little harmonica and I suppose he would have been eighteen months old by then and he would stand in front of my dad watching him play harmonica and then he would play a tune himself. Now it was the same tune so it was a tune and I was always working and my mum used to look after him during the week and we would have him at the weekends and she used to tell us all these stories about his antics.
Steve had this little piece when he was about two I guess, and he would suddenly open the little case, take out the harmonica, play his little tune and then stick it back in the case. Later on, when he was five he played Scotland The Brave on by now a BIGGER harmonica at the school concert. We always knew that he would be musical and when John was born and you hear about jealousy among siblings but when John was born Steve was absolutely lovely. When he very first saw him because I had been in hospital for a while because I wasn’t very well after John was born and I said to him, ‘look, here’s your brother’ and Steve said, ‘oh mum, his little hands! Aren’t they lovely?’ And when John was first walking and Steve would be sitting with his friends and John would toddle up to the group and he would launch himself to Steve and Steve would always catch him. Steve always kind of looked out for him.
TWR: How did the brief stint in Canada come about?
JL: We had this very nice flat in Churchill Gardens and Peter was earning a bit more money and so we had quite a nice life. Peter had done his National Service in Palestine (prior to the creation of the state of Israel on 14th May 1948). He hated the idea that they had to go round with the Sten Gun and go into people’s homes in search of these terrorists and search for weapons and some of the troops would smash things unnecessarily and these poor people they had nothing. And he didn’t like that. Luckily he could type and he could do shorthand and he got himself a job in an office and the fact that his name was Hackett and there was a Brigadier General Hackett - no connection but it didn’t do any harm, did it? (laughs).
Canada? I suppose… We had two friends who got all caught up in this Canadian thing and the Suez Crisis (1956) worried me and also I wanted a bit of adventure and I had never even been abroad and suddenly life seemed… is that it? So we used to get together with these two friends Peter and Betty and we would say ‘we don’ care if we live in a wigwam!’ (laughs) all stupidly. And off we went to Canada never giving a thought to both sets of grandparents that we were taking their grandchildren away. When you are young, you are very selfish. Peter went over first and got a job and found us a place to live which was pretty basic and called a Duplex and remember I had left this really nice flat overlooking the Thames.
On the ship going over I never saw Steve, he was seven years old and what a terrible mother I was! (laughs). I was quite sea sick and Steve was off playing his harmonica to the crew and he would come back with all this money! (laughs). Seven years old and doing that and he was always wandering off and doing things. Unlike John who is a lot quieter. Steve always used to tell me about his love life but John never did! (laughs). I have been very lucky because they both get on so well …
Anyway, back to Canada… we had eight days on the ship before we reached the St Lawrence Seaway, and we docked at Quebec and we got the train which was another five days and again Steve was off exploring as they had this dome car and it was wonderful when you were going through the Rockies and he was thoroughly enjoying himself really. He was looking for adventure I suppose and then after thirteen days of travel we got off at Vancouver station and I looked around and went hmm… I’m not going to like it here and I thought you can’t think that, you’ve sold everything and you have nothing to come back to and as the days went on it became very obvious that I wasn’t going to settle there and I suppose Peter might have done but I used to call the shots in those days! (laughs).
And I didn’t realise being from London what a Londoner I was because I think Londoners make the worst emigrants and London is a wonderful city, we have got everything here but not so wonderful as it used to be but it still has everything, it is a beating heart city, isn’t it really, even now. And a lady we had met on the ship invited us to her home and she had taken cine film of London and when we saw the red buses, oh! (laughs). My sister came and everything and we were making plans but she had had a strange romance really and the guy was never going to make his mind up and the minute we got to Canada he started writing letters saying ‘come back and let’s get engaged’ and she was wanting to go back and so we made plans to come back which was very difficult and we didn’t have enough money to come back together. So I came back with the children and lived with Peter’s mother and father who were very nice and very kind to me and his two sisters, a lovely family but then Diane, the youngest sister had got married and went to Canada herself. So, the Hacketts were a lovely family.
We grew up in this family where if anybody argues with each other and there was a mixture of Polish and Irish so you can imagine! (laughs) So everybody argued and we thought that was the norm and then I went to Peter’s house and I thought aren’t these people so nice to each other and they aren’t shouting and banging doors and getting all angry and very gentle people they were.
So I came back and it was very kind of them to put us up and then Peter came back and that was how I came to go to Liverpool which was where I met him when he got off the ship and that was a couple of days before my sister got married; she got married on 25th December.
John had been born on 13th March 1955 in University Hospital and as I went in they were playing Family Favourites on the radio and the song that was playing was “With A Song In My Heart” as I went into the ward. And they were offering me all this gas and air and I was saying ’no, I want to wait until it gets worse’ and they said ’well you haven’t got long to go!’ (laughs) and he was such a tiny baby. Not pretty, he had heavy-lidded eyes. I digress…
So, we had come back from Canada and had great difficulty finding anywhere to live because we had given up a council flat and the council didn’t want to know about re-housing us so we lived in a basement in Winchester Street which was very difficult and then I suddenly thought, why are we struggling? We have all these people coming from abroad and getting housed, and I’m a Londoner and I’ve lived here all my life. So, I dressed myself up and thought if you want something never look as though you want something, always look good, you know? If you’re going to moan at your bank manager look good and luckily it was man who interviewed me and I was very good looking in those days (laughs) and so I did a little number…well, it’s all true, and laid it on with a trowel about living in a basement with two children and had a bed in a passageway and I said I would like you to come and see where I am trying to bring up my two children and he came and looked and this was Bridge House which was nowhere as luxurious as the place we had had before but nevertheless, we made it a home and Peter was starting to make a career.
That was where our rubbish bins.. Here’s a little story that you might not know. The rubbish bins were downstairs in the courtyard so anybody that came to the house was given a bag of rubbish you know… on your way out. So, if I tell you that Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins took my rubbish out (laughs) and a friend of mine who I worked with said, ’oh I wouldn’t call them dustbins if I were you, I’d call them poubelles…’ So we had a laugh about that and so whenever the lads used to come and rehearse I used to cook pans of chips and things cooked up and then when they had finished or if they were going over to the pub, they would call me in and say ’listen to this, what do you think?’ so I like to think I put my little two bits in! (laughs). They often invited me to sit in but I never did because I don’t think a mother should be too intrusive.
TWR: What were your first impressions of the guys in Genesis? Not just the guys from Genesis, did you meet any of the guys from Quiet World…?
JL: Oh yeah. Quiet World, very good looking, the two Heather brothers were very good looking. I remember the brothers but I don’t remember the others. Before all of that Steve had tried to put bands together and hadn’t had much luck and we were always trying to think of a title for a band and I came up with Renaissance but they said you can’t have that, there’s already a band with that name and then I think one of them was called Steel Pier and certainly Canterbury Glass and there was one guy… Dave Thompson I think his name was and he was very good and always turned up for rehearsals and Steve was a perfectionist and he had to let him go but I always thought he was such a nice guy and always very keen and I always thought that was sad and we were talking about the Hanover Grand gig in 1993 (A gig which your editor remembers VERY well as it was the first time I ever met June - AH) before and at that gig he came over to me and I remember feeling sorry for Dave because he was in it for the music but he wasn’t quite good enough. Another little story about one of the teachers from Steve’s school. Peter Bolland he taught Steve and said that Steve didn’t work hard enough and would fail in life and me being his mother said; ‘whatever he does in life he will NOT fail’.
Another little story from Canada which you might like. Steve was seven and went to school and the teacher said to me one day, ‘he’s not very good with his hands is he?’ and wouldn’t I like to meet that man now! (laughs). He wasn’t particularly good at that kind of stuff but he was very good at gymnastics funnily enough. My sister always said whenever we see our nephew he is either lying prone on a couch or he is doing handstands or whatever (laughs) in the garden there was no in between!
Steve was also friends with a boy called Maurice Gray and heaven knows what he is doing now, he is probably running something in Las Vegas because he was a sharp guy and when he broke his leg, Steve helped him out and do he was always doing stuff like that. He was a very interesting child, but when he was a baby I didn’t understand children and so I was very hard on him and I just did what my mother did to me you know, behave yourself and if you didn’t, you got a slap and that was it and I have realised now that when children do that they aren’t being naughty they are finding out about life as their little world is growing so fast and it is very difficult when you are young and I was only nineteen at the time and you don’t know yourself really . As a baby he wouldn’t sleep and my mum said ‘I don’t believe that’ and then when she came to stay with me she said; ‘you were right, he doesn’t sleep!’ (laughs).
So, my first impressions of the guys in Genesis… I remember saying to Steve ‘who’s that funny figure in the fur coat?’ because they used to wear these fur coats that they got from Portobello Road and Steve said; ‘that’s the drummer’ and I said; ‘yeah, that figures’ (laughs) and they were very nice and they were obviously musicians to their fingertips and of course, I only heard them practising but you know when something is good. The first knowledge I had of them was when Steve brought Trespass home with him and he said ‘listen to this mum and tell me what you think’ and I remember saying about one of the tracks; ‘I like that because it is almost classical’ and he said ‘I’ve auditioned for them’ and I think he told me because as you know he put this advert in Melody Maker and I said to him; ‘oh Steve, that’s so pretentious!’ (laughs) and then Peter Gabriel rang up.
So when they first came to the flat I could see that Steve was very up and I was happy you know and then the first time we ever went to see them was at the Lyceum and I don’t know how I got through that evening, I felt so nervous because the music was very very difficult and he sat on a stool and he had the hair and being his mum…. I was like that when my sister used to sing, I used to feel really sick. Then we started going to their gigs and the Fairfield Hall in Croydon and I particularly remember that because the headliners were Van Der Graaf Generator and then Lindisfarne and Genesis were at the bar and that was nice for us and that was a gig I remember. I remember meeting Sonia Kristina from Curved Air at that gig and talking with the Lindisfarne guys, we never talked with the Van Der Graaf guys but the Lindsfarne lads were nice and there was a guy called Jacka with them and they were very nice. I loved the music and then the fans became Genesis fans and when I knew they would make it and I remember being in the bar and hearing Watcher Of The Skies and the stage was something else because in my mind it was like white silk curtains and there was Pete in the batwings and then I thought; ‘this is a SHOW , this is showbiz’ and then they went on from there and wonderful, wonderful times really.
I was very lucky and the boys have introduced me to Satie and I had never heard of him and we had this album called The Velvet Gentleman and so they have been responsible for introducing me to a lot of the music that I love now. And then there is John, we never thought that he would be musical in the same way. He used to have recorder lessons at school and he didn’t want the lessons and he wouldn’t want to go to school because he had a recorder lesson and then I guess he picked up the flute and that seemed to interest him more and there is the story about him practising. Have you hear that one? We were lucky in the flat that the rest of the people in the block enjoyed it and we must have been really noisy and a friend of ours heard something of John’s and said ‘oh I really love James Galway’ and we said ‘it isn’t James Galway, it’s John Hackett!’
Going on from the story that you know about John and King Crimson, the ‘phone rang one day while we were in Bridge House and someone asked for Mr Hackett and I said, ‘which Mr Hackett?’ and this voice said ‘ guitarist and gentleman of the world’ and it was Robert Fripp and so when I sent Steve a birthday card a couple of years later I put on it ‘guitarist and gentleman of the world’ and then when Steve was playing in Southampton with his own band and arranged for a limo to pick me up and after the gig Steve said ‘I want you to meet someone mum’ and there was a guy with by now short hair and a West Country accent and introduced himself as Robert Fripp and I reminded him of that. I was delighted to meet him and that he should ring up and say that about Steve and he was one of Steve’s idols and I was really proud of that.
I always thought that Peter was so wonderful, he was stunning because he was beautiful and I remember him wearing black velvet shoes and this heavy Aztec sort of torc and he was so graceful on stage and I thought what a lovely band really. I felt that they were all brilliant and really it brought such colour to my life and I met some lovely people including Alan Freeman who is sadly no longer with us and I met him on a few occasions and he was always very charming and we went to see the film with Genesis on tour and White Rock and Rick Wakeman and I met him after that as well. And we also met Brian May from Queen and whenever it was Steve’s birthday and if he was going anywhere we would always take a bottle of champagne and a cake and apparently Queen were rehearsing in the next studio and I thought I know that face and of course, it was Brian May! And again, Steve introduced me and he had a glass of whatever we were drinking and we also met Ralph Bates, a lovely man, great actor and I always said I would have liked to see him in a film of A Tale of Two Cities because he would have been a wonderful Sidney Carlton.
And on that fascinating thought and with the popping of champagne corks in the background we bring this wonderful chat with June to a close. My thanks once again to June for giving up so much of her time and for the champagne! And to Steve and Jo for their hospitality.