Heartbreak of the man they called the new McCartney
How multiple sclerosis wrecked the career of Seventies pop star Clifford T. Ward, and left him a broken man struggling to come to terms with his tragic illness.
by MARY GREENE.
The poster hangs on the wall right opposite the chair where Clifford T. Ward sits for most of the day and most of the night, legs stretched on a stool in front of him. Perhaps it's been there so long he doesn't even see it. Or perhaps it's a taunting reminder of the way things used to be.
In the Seventies pin-up, he is monochromatically moody, long blond hair way past his shoulders -- the schoolteacher who wrote an introspective love story called Gaye and retired from the classroom when it sold a million. He was hailed as the most exciting song-writing talent since McCartney... all through the summer of 1973 Gaye was playing every time you switched on the radio. Today Clifford, 51, sits looking at that poster, his voice and body racked by multiple sclerosis. The 14 bedroom mansion bought in the wake of his success is long gone and he lives in a bungalow. He still has long blond hair, but now it falls over a puffed and swollen face, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
MS attacks the nervous system but some sufferers experience long remissions. In nine years Cliff hasn't gone into remission. 'Maybe that's better. At least you know where you are' says his wife Pat. They are opposites these two. Cliff was the romantic who sat up at night writing love songs when he'd finished his marking; Pat, now 50, kept his feet on the ground when the council house boy moved into that mansion. She is still the mainstay of his life, bullying him gently out of depression when he despairs of treatments that never seem to work and the remission that never happens.
During the day his voice is slurred, his fingers uncertain, and he negotiates the house crawling on his hands and knees. But at night he can sing and play the piano again. Last year he released a CD - Julia And Other New Stories, the first since his illness. The voice sounds almost the same. But it has deteriorated since that recording, he admits, and he can't play as well as he did even a year ago. 'Oh Pat.' he says turning to his wife. 'It's so stupid. . . ' He says it again and again and you can feel the outrage and frustration. 'I haven't come to terms with it at all.' he says. 'I constantly think, "What is happening? And why is it happening to me?"'
MS struck without warning. 'My wife complained the grass needed cutting and I started with the tractor. Then I got down to cut under the trees -- and I started falling over.' They put it down to tiredness but the next morning his hands were shaking. It was the start of a round of doctors and specialists and tests. 'One day Cliff said: "I hope it's not that dreadful MS",' says Pat, 'and I told him: don't be silly. It can't possibly be..."' At first they didn't even tell their children. 'But we'd walk into a room and Cliff would be leaning on me, slurring his words' says Pat. 'We were promoting an album. And people would look at him as if to say: "He's in the music business: he's either drunk or he's on something."'
They tried every treatment they heard of: drugs, diets, hours in a decompression chamber -- which many MS sufferers claim brings relief. Cliff says none of it worked: Pat says he didn't give it a fair chance. I know he takes nothing, though he is in constant pain. 'He's a tough cookie ' says Pat, fond and exasperated in equal parts.
Clifford (the T is for Thomas) and Pat were teenage sweethearts at the same secondary school in Stourport-on-Severn in Hereford and Worcester, and have never moved more than a few miles away from their roots. Pat was head girl, an only child of proud parents, who had her destined for university ... 'And, you see, she fell in love with me,' he says simply. You can see how easily he must have fallen for her. She is tiny and slim, doesn't look anything like 50 in her long black dress and shiny patent boots -- and must have been heart wrenchingly pretty when she 'had to' get married at 17. 'That was what you did in 1962. You didn't even stop to think about it. But it was what we wanted, anyway, I've never regretted it,' she says.
They moved in with Pat's mum and dad until they could afford a house. And Cliff, who was playing in a band called The Cruisers, got a pen pushing job with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Even so, they were little more than children themselves when their baby, Debbie was born prematurely. A year later she was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy. Pat was the softie, the protective one. It was Cliff who gritted himself to be toughest on Debbie, forcing her to be independent, holding up the school bus every morning until she learned to tie her own shoes. And it paid off. Debbie is 32 now and has been wheelchair bound her whole life; but she is married with a four year old daughter, and works full time as a social worker.
When she was a child, Clifford wrote a song - To Debbie And Her Friends: 'There was a line, "Tell me what it's like in your wheelchair..." Now I bloody well know,' he says. 'And now Debbie is the one who is most likely to loose patience if Clifford gives in. Her attitude is, "if I've done it, so can you,"' says Pat.
During the good times it was very different. The early years were a struggle while he toured American army bases in France with his band, mailing money home to Pat and their expanding family. Soon after Debbie came Martin, now 31 and a drummer, and Sam, 28, studying film animation in Denmark. Their youngest, Polly, is just 15 and still at school.
When Cliff decided he needed a proper job and started teacher training, Pat worked twilight shifts in a carpet factory to supplement his grant. He loved his job as an English teacher at a comprehensive in Kidderminster, and some of his old pupils still come to visit: 'Mostly the girls,' he says.
The day he gave up teaching three years later, his head of department warned him the pop business would be the ruin of him. It wasn't. Cliff missed teaching -- but not all that much. And he had Pat to come home to. Nothing rattled Pat. Even when, the day after they'd moved into their derelict Victorian mansion, Clifford took off on tour, leaving her to get on with it. But Pat restored the house, and its four acres of garden to their former glory. 'People used to motor up the gravel drive in Rolls Royces, looking for the "Lord",' she says. 'And there would be Cliff, doing the gardening... '
They were not as wealthy as people thought, however. 'We were never millionaires,' she says. 'We never lived in a flash sort of way.'Clifford preferred song-writing to touring, so he didn't really capitalise on the success of Gaye.
The balance of their marriage has changed since Cliff's illness. In a way, it's been good for her, she admits: forced the stay-at-home girl to speak up for herself. He depends on her, utterly. But this is down to earth Pat and she won't let him get maudlin. 'She's a wonderful girl, my wife,' he tells you. 'I knew she would cope with this because she's that kind of person.'That's a heck of a responsibility,' complains Pat. 'It's meant as a compliment,' he says. 'A cop-out, I'd say,' she replies.
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