Suzi Quatro with one of her bass guitars at her 16th-century, partially moated Essex manor house
Hanging upstairs in Suzi Quatro’s tropically heated, 16th-century, partially moated Essex manor house is a collection of zippered, leather jumpsuits in an array of colours, styles and sizes dating back nearly half a century.
Most still fit the original Wild Woman Of Rock, and many are still worn regularly. Which, given that she’s now 69, is wonderfully encouraging for the rest of us.
But leather jumpsuits are not without their challenges and, according to Suzi’s extremely twinkly husband, Rainer Haas, the main problem is getting them off. ‘They get so sweaty, I have to peel her out at the end of each concert,’ he says in his husky German accent. ‘And this is sometimes not always so easy.’
Or terribly dignified. Because, as Suzi points out: ‘Of course you can’t wear anything underneath. So afterwards, you just turn them inside out and hang them out to dry and well . . .’
It is 46 years and 55 million records since Suzi stormed onto Top Of The Pops with her song Can The Can and changed the face of rock music, Suzi is still touring
‘Disinfectant!’ cries Rainer. ‘You need disinfectant and to give them a Polish shower! [the term for spraying them with perfume]. Ha, ha, ha! And then let them dry.’
He should know. While his contemporaries are playing golf, birdwatching or just sipping gin and tonics in their conservatories, Rainer, a former concert promoter, is still involved in this leathery tussle on a regular basis.
Suited and booted: Suzi with a stuffed leopard in 1973
Because amazingly, 46 years and 55 million records after she stormed onto Top Of The Pops with her song Can The Can and changed the face of rock music, Suzi is still touring. Night after night, in cities all round the world, she stomps about on stage — singing, yelling, swearing, thumping away on an electric bass almost as big as her and driving men (and quite a few women) of a certain age wild. ‘She’s jumping about for two hours in the leather, in the hot lights with her heavy bass,’ says Rainer, proudly. ‘But most of the audience can’t even stand up properly any more!’
We meet part-way through what surely must be her millionth tour — she has squeezed me in between the German and Australian legs — just as a documentary about her rock ’n’ roll life, Suzi Q, is released.
At first it’s a bit disappointing to find she doesn’t look anything like an ageing hellcat — teeny-weeny with size-three feet, artfully shaggy hair, plump skin, perfect teeth and far more concerned about her cream carpets — ‘Shoes off, shoes off, no exceptions!’ — than anything else. ‘I am very particular about my carpets,’ she says. ‘They’re really nice carpets.’
Turns out there are two Suzis. One is this obsessively tidy granny (yes, really!) who likes nothing more than a game of Scrabble, a glass of fine wine, the sound of the vacuum and the smell of polish being rubbed liberally into her centuries-old wood-panelling by her housekeeper Alison.
The other is her rock chick alter ego. ‘As soon as I zip up the suit, I’m gone and the other Suzi’s there!’ she cries.
‘And the minute I come off stage, I can feel her leaving me. Once, when I was being filmed, I could actually see her go.’
So, presumably, it was the stage Suzi who once shot pal Alice Cooper in the face with a dart gun. And deliberately smashed her bass into the face of a fan doing unsavoury things with his tongue at her during a concert.
Poster for Suzi Q with the title: ‘The Queen has come to claim her crown’ (left). Suzi with her guitar dressed head to toe in leather (right)
While one Suzi is an obsessively tidy Granny the other is her rock chick alter ego. ‘As soon as I zip up the suit, I’m gone and the other Suzi’s there!’ she cries (pictured in her younger years)
And who played on despite a broken arm at a concert in Australia, is best friends with Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry and fought back at all the men who couldn’t resist reaching out to her Rear of the Year (she won the competition in 1982). ‘I’ve kneed men in the balls,’ she grins. ‘I’ve punched and I’ve also slapped a few men, very hard.’
One of the few times she was rendered speechless was at a Prince’s Trust event in the mid-Eighties when Prince Charles told her she had ‘the best legs since Tina Turner’.
‘I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. I just didn’t expect Prince Charles to say that’, she says. ‘I didn’t even say thank you! He caught me completely off guard.’
Suzi Quatro wearing a neckerchief and leather jacket at the Festival Hall Melbourne in 1974
Elvis had also left her speechless when, in 1974, he called to compliment her on her version of All Shook Up and invited her to his home, Graceland.
She replied tartly: ‘No, thank you. I’m very busy.’
British guitarist Len Tuckey, Suzi’s first husband, on their wedding day in December 1976
‘How dumb could you be?’ she says today, slapping her forehead. ‘But he was my hero and I wasn’t quite ready to meet him. I wanted to be on a more equal plane. I didn’t know there wouldn’t be another chance!’
No wonder her life has just been made into a documentary. It’s a huge story of grit, determination and relentless focus.
How a teeny girl from a musical family in Detroit pursued her dream to be a rock star with a single-mindedness that left her four ambitious sisters, parents, first husband (British guitarist Len Tuckey) — and, occasionally, their two children — trailing in her wake.
‘I realised from a very young age that I didn’t fit with the rest of my family. I was different. The loner. The odd one out — maybe I’m not even their kid!’ she jokes. ‘So I concentrated on finding my voice. On being the one-off person that I am. And I am a one-off!’
She found her path when she saw Elvis on TV when she was six. ‘I just wanted to be him and it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t be. From then on, that was my purpose. My point.’
Suzi at her Essex manor houe with her bass and collection of guitars. When Elvis invited her to his home in Graceland in 1974 she replied tartly: ‘No, thank you. I’m very busy’
So when her elder sister suggested they form an all-girl band, she jumped at it and taught herself the bass guitar.
The Pleasure Seekers took off immediately. They were soon touring and 14-year-old Suzi was the star of the show.
As such, when their success waned, she was the one plucked out for a recording deal in London while, at home, resentment festered.
When Suiz’s older sister suggested they form an all-girl band, she jumped at it and taught herself the bass guitar
‘Nothing could hold me back,’ she says. ‘I am the least selfish person you could imagine. But I had a purpose and I had a path and nothing could stop me from following it.’ The first two years were hard and lonely — she knew no one and lived alone in a bedsit writing songs her new producer Mickie Most hated.
Success finally came in 1973, after her first snarling appearance on Top Of The Pops in platform boots and what were to become her signature leathers.
She allowed herself just 24 hours to go bonkers before coming back down to earth and getting back to work.
American sitcom Happy Days with Suzi Quatro as bass player Leather Tuscadero pictured with Henry Winkler as Fonzie
For while onstage she was ballsy, outspoken in interviews, an angry, sneering wild woman of rock and very, very sexy, off-stage she was almost shockingly calm. ‘I call her the “mild woman of rock”,’ says husband Rainer.
Even back in the day, there were hardly any drugs — ‘I smoked marijuana as a teenager but it sped me up — I couldn’t stop talking!’ — no orgies with groupies, despite plenty of propositions ‘from both sexes’ and the odd sweaty jockstrap hurled on stage.
‘Some people want [me] to be the rock legend off stage as well and that’s dangerous. Dangerous and unhealthy,’ she says.
‘I am my mother’s daughter and she was very religious. I never allowed any of that crazy behaviour to come into my sphere.’
What, not even the occasional drug-fuelled bender, or a TV or two hurled out of the window?
‘I am quite square. I have Catholic guilt. I believe in fidelity and I had a partner in the band,’ she says firmly. ‘I met Len in the band and he and I were in love in two weeks. I was aware of temptation, I never got into a situation where anything might be out of hand.
‘I was very strict about that. So if a party looked crazy, we were gone off home to bed.’
Nothing has changed. Housekeeper Alison — who clearly adores her — has been working for her for decades. ‘I was expecting excitement. I said to my husband: “Oh God, it’s going to be crazy parties!” But nothing. Just endless juicing. I was so disappointed. She has never been wild at home, ever.’
Suzi did (just once) wreck a hotel room in Melbourne, at the end of an eight-month tour. But instead of it happening at some crazy party, she planned it — ‘It’s not very rock ’n’ roll, but I do like to plan things,’ she says.
She carefully selected feather pillows from her room to make the most mess when she sliced them open with a knife, then blew up the TV — ‘you just pour water in when it’s plugged in and that does it.’
And there was a Christmas party here at the manor a couple of years ago, but instead of vodka shots, guests were greeted with a stern notice from the hostess: ‘Shoes off, or f*** off.’
Suzi always has to be in charge. So she proposed to both husbands within weeks of meeting them — in 1973 and 1993 respectively. ‘If I want to marry you, I ask,’ she explains firmly. ‘I had 25 marriage proposals, but the answer was always no, because they asked. I wanna be in charge, so I ask.’
Equally when, after five years of trying, she and Len finally had their children, Laura and Richard, she insisted on taking them on the road until they were old enough for school. ‘I wouldn’t give up my life to join theirs, so we were all doing it together’, she said.
The Pleasure Seekers took off immediately. They were soon touring and 14-year-old Suzi was the star of the show
However hard she tried to separate the two Suzis, it can’t always have been easy being the offspring of someone so energetic, so driven and focused and so lusted after.
Particularly when her star began to fade after a string of hits in just seven years, instead of sitting back and enjoying the spoils, Suzi was obsessively adapting and changing tack — doing anything to keep her name in lights.
There were three years as bass player Leather Tuscadero, on TV’s Happy Days. She starred in Annie Get Your Gun in the West End, did panto, was on numerous TV panel shows and even Midsomer Murders (as a rock diva electrocuted on stage) — while all the time writing music, poetry and books. ‘My biggest priority in life is creation — always moving forward,’ she says. ‘And my biggest achievement is keeping my feet on the ground.’
Though of course, there’s ‘normal’ and ‘rock star normal’.
So, naturally, Suzi has a tendency to refer to herself in the third person and mention — quite a few times — what a ‘one-off’ she is and admits she adores being famous and recognised. But she is also warm, funny, sweary, has astonishingly muscly arms (and I feel them) from all that bass playing, and is very good company.
Not least when Rainer’s about. ‘He says he’s a lion-tamer and I’m the lion,’ she says, and explains that, soon after they married, he told her he had to be the man in the relationship or it wouldn’t work.
He interjects. ‘From first kiss to being married was three months. People gave us six months. She tries to be bossy, but I’m her husband, not her fan.’
At first it’s a bit disappointing to find she doesn’t look anything like an ageing hellcat — teeny-weeny with size-three feet, artfully shaggy hair, plump skin, perfect teeth (Suzi pictured at home with Jane Fryer)
Suzi and Rainer have been married for 26 years, but have never lived together. Perhaps that’s the secret. The manor house — which is full of gold discs, awards and photos of Suzi — is her home. His is in Hamburg while they have a house in Majorca that she calls their ‘mutual space’.
So he is just visiting today. They laugh and joke and are wonderfully glinty with each other — to the extent that, when I mention her age, he giggles: ‘That’s not an age, that’s a position . . .’ and she shrieks — ‘Rainer!’ — but clearly doesn’t give a fig.
She’s far too busy finishing off her next album with KT Tunstall, planning the one after that — she will write it with her son in the new studio she’s just had built in the garden — and working on the screenplay of her life story. ‘Miley Cyrus has been mentioned [to play her] but it’s hard because of course I’m a one-off,’ she says, again.
In the meantime, she’s back on stage next week playing to sell-out audiences in Australia.
‘I’m not ready to stop and why should I?’ she says.
Why indeed? Particularly if her handsome Rainer will be hovering in the wings, ready to strip her of her sweaty leathers and join her afterwards for a soothing game of Scrabble.
Suzi Q is in selected cinemas until December, or available on DVD. More information at suziqmovie.com