Suzi Quatro built a legendary — and long-lasting — rock career by putting two fingers up to convention. A woman playing bass guitar, in stompy fashion, wearing leathers? Bring it on, she said (and is still saying) at the age of 70.
It was the same with her home life. For 27 years she has had a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll marriage. While she lives in an Elizabethan manor house in Essex — complete with moat, if you please — her husband, German rock promoter Rainer Haas, lives in Germany. Gloriously unconventional but ultimately harmonious, she has always insisted.
‘My life is about travel anyway, and he promotes my shows so we’d be together when we were on the road, then we would travel to see each other.
Suzi Quatro (pictured), who lives in an Elizabethan manor house in Essex, built a legendary — and long-lasting — rock career by putting two fingers up to convention
‘He lives 15 minutes from the airport in Hamburg. I live 15 minutes from Stansted,’ she says, explaining the rationale. What could possibly go wrong?
Answer: a global pandemic. Last month, having spent much of the year marooned behind her moat — and separated from her husband for longer than either of them was happy with, Suzi found herself battling Covid. Alone. Or more accurately, with only the ghosts in her house (yes, she has several, she says) for comfort.
She admits the illness floored her. Used to a champagne breakfast on occasion (another of her rock ‘n’ roll habits) she ended up bedridden, for five days with no appetite at all, and without her husband.
‘I slept for 18 out of 24 hours and didn’t really eat for six days, other than a couple of bites. I’d drag myself downstairs to heat up some soup,’ she says.
The miracle is that she is upright today and strong enough to be wielding one of her famous guitars, which is an achievement in itself. It sounds as if what got her through was sheer determination.
Her husband, German rock promoter Rainer Haas (pictured together), lives in Germany in a set up she has always described as gloriously unconventional but ultimately harmonious
‘As soon as I could get up, I was trying to keep moving, going up and down the stairs, changing the sheets, raising my arms up.
‘It felt vital to get that strength back,’ she says.
Of course when she married Rainer in 1993, living apart seemed a sensible compromise. At the time, Rainer didn’t want to leave his homeland, where he had an ailing mother, so Suzi made plans to move to Germany with Laura and Richard, her two children from her first marriage to fellow musician Len Tuckey. At the 11th hour, she confides, she got cold feet.
‘It was quite a situation. He actually bought a house with the thought of me moving there with the kids. I realised it wasn’t going to work and said “I just can’t do this.” ‘
She says she is by nature a ‘glass half full person’ and, pre-Covid, she could find the humour in their set-up. ‘He’s a strange guy. He lives like a bachelor in Hamburg — I don’t mean in a messing about way. We are very straight with each other and our marriage runs on trust. I mean more that he doesn’t use his kitchen.
‘I don’t think he’s ever switched on the oven. He lives in a bachelor museum.’
Suzi (pictured in the Netherlands in 1993) has made a career out of seeming indefatigable but admitted she was floored after catching coronavirus
Meanwhile, she loves a bustling house and a busy kitchen. Alas she thinks it was this that led to her contracting Covid.
Early in November, Suzi woke with a splitting headache at 3.30am. A few nights before, after weeks of ‘being really careful’ she had hosted a curry night at her house — a last hurrah before the second lockdown.
Her daughter Laura, ‘part of my bubble’, came with Suzi’s 12-year-old grandson, Taylor. Unbeknown to them all, the virus was in their midst. ‘We were following all the rules too, and I’d been so careful to do that. I’d been in Germany for one gig, and had flown with the mask on, taking all the precautions, using the sanitiser— then I got it at home, even though we did follow the rules, but we think that Taylor must have got it at school. Laura fell ill and tested positive, then he was positive, too. It was like a domino effect.’
She was due to have a routine Covid test a week later, before flying to Germany, but when she started to show symptoms, Suzi called her doctor.
‘I didn’t have a fever or a cough. There was a slight metallic taste in my mouth, but mostly it was just this headache and this exhaustion, like I’d never felt before. I was completely on my own, just getting out of bed to do what had to be done. My husband was on Skype all the time, so was my daughter. We joked about how awful we both looked. It wasn’t sexy! She said she looked like Kathy Bates in Misery.’
Suzi (pictured) has a recording studio in the grounds of her home and insisted that work became her salvation
There was something of the horror movie about it.
So when she was in her sick-bed on her own, did she not feel suddenly vulnerable?
She has made a career out of seeming indefatigable, but this was a very different situation. ‘I refuse to even think in those terms,’ she says. ‘I had every confidence everything would be fine. I wasn’t going to let it get me. And it hasn’t. I had another test earlier this week and it’s negative. Covid has left the building!’
Applause for Ms Quatro’s lungs, perhaps, because she credits them with her recovery. Her distinctively gravelly singing voice might sound like she has had a lifelong cigarettes and booze habit, but actually she hasn’t.
The only habit she has is a gym one. She is Mrs Superfit, as well as Mrs Fearless.
‘I’ve basically been training my lungs for 56 years. I go on the treadmill every morning. I do yoga. Keeping fit enough to be on stage — singing, dancing, screaming — takes work, you know! My doctor confirmed it helped me fight off Covid, thank goodness.’
Is she not necessarily like any other 70-year-old, then? ‘I am nothing like a 70-year-old.’
As for whether she will have to rethink her marriage arrangements now and become a little more Mr and Mrs Traditional, that’s still to be decided, but it’s clear today that Suzi is desperate to see her husband.
Lockdown was a test too far for the marriage, she admits. ‘I missed my husband. I didn’t see him for three months in the first lockdown, and we are never apart for that length of time. It was pretty hard. We Skyped every morning and I did the tears and the “I-miss-you, I-love-you”. It was upsetting.’ Also boring, she admits. ‘It’s basically the same conversation every day.’
She has a recording studio in the grounds, though, so work became her salvation. Her son Richard, 36, who is also a musician, came to help and ‘I just started writing, sitting on the patio, missing my husband’. An album came out of it. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been as creative in my life. Creation keeps me alive.’
She is particularly proud of one song, called My Heart And Soul (I Need You Home For Christmas), which is about wanting her husband back home (her home) for the festive period.
Will it be possible? ‘I hope so. That’s the plan, but it was complicated because he had to have an operation on his eyes. Cataracts. But he is booking the flight tomorrow!’
She’s not a schmaltzy person, but the song is slower and smoochier than some of her more famous numbers. The video is unashamedly wistful too. It features home footage from a Christmas morning when her children were young and the house was full of presents and laughter. ‘My son’s idea. The video was from 1990. It was actually the first year Rainer spent Christmas with us and we watched hours of footage to pick bits we thought would work. It was hugely emotional. The piano I’m playing is the one I’ve had here since I moved in, in 1980.’
She was about to turn off the home video footage, thinking they had enough for their needs, but for some reason kept watching to the end. ‘And there was this footage of Rainer just smiling at the camera. I had never even seen that footage before.’
During the video it seems as if Rainer is on the sidelines. ‘He was. It was the first year. He barely knew the children then. It was quite uncomfortable really.’
It became more comfortable. Every year since, Rainer has made it home to her for Christmas. By the end of the 90s, their family set-up worked so well that for one year she had two husbands on the day itself.
‘By then my first husband, Len, had split up from his girlfriend and he had lost his parents and brother in quick succession and I didn’t want him to be alone. Rainer said yes he could come, but on one condition — he cooked Christmas dinner. So he did!’
This year, with numbers limited it will be just Rainer (hopefully) and her children for a reunited Christmas.
And afterwards? Will there have to be a rethinking about how their marriage works. She insists not. ‘I can’t see us ever living in one place permanently, but maybe we look at spending longer with each other — two or three weeks at a time, rather than just a few days. Hopefully, if the gigs start again next year, we can just go back to normal.’ Their normal, that is, which isn’t really normal at all.
We are talking over Zoom today, with Suzi safely cocooned in her office. Beside her is a display of, is that sunglasses? ‘Yes, I have 800 pairs. I collect them. My husband arranged them for me on one of his visits.’
What’s immediately clear is that this is not a woman who embraces wild living.
First, she is meticulous about order, ‘lost’ without a tour schedule in her hand. She’s also the sort of lady-of-the-house who makes her guests remove their shoes in case they mess up her pristine carpet.
On the third floor of her house, there is a room she has turned into something of a living museum. Some of her favourite leather jumpsuits are in here. Others have disintegrated over the years, because heaving them on and off is a tricky operation. So too are myriad guitars, awards, posters, her big This Is Your Life red book. ‘I call it the Ego Room,’ she says. ‘I had a brass sign made up. It says Ego Room, Mind Your Head.’
In her time, Suzi Quatro has sold 50 million records and had the sort of life they make biopics about. Indeed, there is one pending that she is helping to write. Miley Cyrus has been tipped to play her, but she doesn’t reckon Miley is pint-sized enough.
‘I don’t think she is the right one. She is quite a big girl and the character that plays me has to be compact.’ Her first choice would be Scarlett Johansson. ‘She has something about her that I recognise as the vibe of me, something to do with being sexy without trying to be sexy.’
Suzi was performing in her native Detroit at the age of 14, then left her family band to pursue her own ambitions (incurring the wrath of her father). She idolised Elvis, but, to her eternal regret, turned down the chance to meet him.
Prince Charles complimented her on her legs (‘the best legs since Tina Turner,’ was his verdict), she hung out with Debbie Harry, and was best pals with hellraiser Alice Cooper.
She even shot him in the face once — although to clarify, they were playing with dart guns at the time. Cooper now plays golf, a fact Suzi takes in her stride (‘I’m a squash person myself’). Her own hell-raising anecdotes are non-existent, which perhaps explains her longevity in both the business and in life.
‘I’m Catholic. I’m quite square, and always was. I’m not a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll girl. I’m really a married girl. I’ve been married twice and I had a year of dating in the middle, and it wasn’t for me at all.’
No sudden discovery that you loved one-night stands? ‘No way. I have to be in love.’
Suzi Q was always off-the-scale sexy, though, which is where the confusion lies. She absolutely insists the leather catsuits — her trademark, really — were not a cunning marketing ploy. Yes, they were the idea of her (male) manager, but at the time she regarded them as practical.
‘To me they were tomboyish. I didn’t see them as sexy. Even now, what I see is a cute sexuality, not a threatening one. I was never big busted.’
She still wears her leathers for work, she adds. They fit?! ‘Most of them. I still wear the same size jeans.’ Is there a cut-off age for wearing leather catsuits?
She glares at me: ‘I don’t have a cut-off age for anything!’
My Heart And Soul (I Need You Home For Christmas) is out now.