Tarka Cordell: a musical talent distracted by the party circuit

Tarka Cordell was mentored by Keith Richards and Evan Dando, before he tragically committed suicide in 2008. So why did he never make it as a musician?

Nobody can be sure what caused Tarka Cordell to take his own life on an April evening in 2008. On the face of it, he had much to live for: good looks, a loving family and a fantastic solo album, Wide Awake in a Dream, ready to be released at any moment.

"I'd been with him that day and it still baffles me," says his brother Barney when we meet at his record label's office in Fulham. "He'd just got back from India and he walked into the pub with no shoes on – nothing unusual for him! The only thing odd was that he didn't touch his Guinness because normally he liked a drink. In fact, he was completely sober when they found him so I still can't understand what kind of veil must have come over him for him to do that."

Last week Barney's label released Tarka and Friends – Life, an album of covers from Wide Awake in a Dream, released with support from male suicide charity Calm. Featuring contributions from Tarka's friends, including Lily Allen and his musical mentor Evan Dando, it was made with the aim of shining a spotlight on a gifted but overlooked songwriter. But it also reveals a fascinating rock'n'roll story – one that features a Rolling Stone, a supermodel, and a talent that was always competing for attention with the lure of the party circuit.

But let's start at the beginning. Tarka Cordell, born in 1966, was always destined for a musical life. His father, Denny, was a record producer whose credits include Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale, as well as hit songs for the Move and Joe Cocker. Barney, older by 11 months, says that growing up he and Tarka were constantly being ferried between their mother in England and father in LA, where their dad eventually relocated to set up Shelter Records with Leon Russell.

The two boys were, inevitably, surrounded by musicians. There's a photo of Barney and Tarka onstage with Joe Cocker during his famous 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishman tour, playing cards at his feet while he sings a ballad. "I found out much later that he wanted to turn around and kick us," laughs Barney. Because Shelter put out reggae records, including Bob Marley's early US single Duppy Conqueror, the boys got to play football on Malibu beach with the reggae legend. On one occasion they turned their attentions to a more unusual sport.

"My dad drove a black Ferrari Daytona and one day we all got in," recalls Barney. "It was me, Tarka and two greyhounds in the back, with Denny in the front and Bob Marley and Peter Tosh on his lap! We drove to some scrubland and went chasing rabbits, just us with these rastas and huge joints!"

Tarka was 11 when he first picked up a guitar, but as his musical interests blossomed those of his dad began to wane. Denny ran into difficulty with Tom Petty who was trying to extricate himself from what he considered to be a punitive deal with Shelter. In a story so good you can only hope it's true, Barney says it was when his father found his lawyer and Tom Petty's lawyer doing lines of coke together in the toilets of Madame Wong's that he thought "fuck it" and moved to Ireland to breed racehorses instead.

After Tarka left Harrow, which he hated, he moved to LA to write screenplays – although nothing quite came of them – whereas another period saw him travel to Louisiana to make a record with cajun blues musician CC Adcock. It seemed likely he would follow his father into production, but in 1995 Tarka and Barney were left devastated when Denny died of lymphoma. From here Tarka's career swiftly fell into a stuttering pattern of minor accomplishments and almost-hits without ever quite taking off.

The two boys handled it differently. Barney was due to become a father and, as someone already considered head of the family, had his plate full sorting out his father's incredibly complex estate ("Five children, two ex-wives, one mother he'd never married, in Ireland"). Tarka, meanwhile, was left feeling rudderless and alone in New York City. He appears to have put his grief into partying, hanging out with Keith Richards's son, Marlon, and Evan Dando, who convinced Tarka to write songs of his own.

"That was quite a dangerous gang to be in," says Barney. "They ran around together getting high, although I don't think it was ever heroin. They ran fast."

Evan covers Lovely New York on Life, lending his bruised baritone to an ode to the city that Tarka fell in love with. It was there, through Marlon, that Tarka found another musical mentor in Keith. The Rolling Stone taught him guitar tricks and – on finding out about Denny's death – took on an "almost fatherly role".

Despite his efforts, both Keith and Evan grew frustrated by their protege's inability to focus. Certainly Tarka had an eye for the ladies, and even dated Kate Moss for a year or so following her split from Johnny Depp. "I think they fell in love for a minute or two," says Barney, who remains fond of Kate. "It was quite intense as I recall. She was struggling a bit with her breakup and I think Tarka was actually a grounding force. They used to go to Jamaica and Morocco and you'd see pictures in the press of them coming out of clubs together – it was all fun."

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Tarka's dalliance with the opposite sex was both a blessing and a curse. The story goes that he was supposed to be working at Keith's house, Redlands, in Sussex, England, when the Stones guitarist visited unannounced to find Tarka ensconced in the hot tub with a lady friend.

"Keith threw his hands in the air and said 'fuck it'," says Barney. "And I think that actually was the end of their friendship."

The irony of having Keith Richards despairing at your party antics should not be lost on anyone, but the experience did at least inspire the song Girls Keith, from Wide Awake in a Dream, which contains the chorus: "So what's wrong with girls, Keith? They make me happy."

That song's obvious debt to the Stones is given a raucous makeover on Life by Scoundrels and Dirty Gentlemen, although the original is typical of Tarka's sensitive and romantic style. A song such as Gold, for instance, is almost childlike in its delivery and reminiscent of Daniel Johnston or the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. When I mention this to Barney he says that these were two of the artists who he found clocked up the most plays on his brother's iTunes account. "He also liked Badly Drawn Boy. It was interesting piecing it together – there was half a dozen of his tracks right up at the top of the most played."

If the original songs project a fragility, then what Life does is highlight just how sturdy Tarka's songwriting was. Satellites, covered by Alice Smith and Citizen Cope, is a dreamy song with a gospel refrain reminiscent of Spiritualized. A classicist who studied the greats, Tarka was often reminiscent of his hero, John Lennon (when Lennon was shot dead in 1980, Tarka wore a black armband over his Harrow blazer and was sent home for refusing to take it off).

Wide Awake in a Dream was conceived as an album about Tarka's time in New York, but like most things in his life, this joyful period wasn't to last. At a party in 2003, for reasons nobody is quite clear about, he was allegedly attacked from behind with a broken bottle by Luke Weil, son of the billionaire A Lorne Weil and infamous star of the 2003 HBO documentary Born Rich, who achieved notoriety with quotes such as: "My family can buy your family – piss off." The assault left Tarka traumatised and in hospital, and Barney says "he was never the same again ... he left New York in 04, came back to his pad in London and I noticed a marked change in his personality. He was just not the guy he was."

When someone from Calm sent Barney a study that showed a link between head trauma and suicide, it left him angry to think that this might have been the reason behind his brother's premature death: "Apparently, 30% of head trauma victims have their pituitary gland affected, which in turn leads to all sorts of goodies not coming out and a depressing effect."

It's taken six years since Tarka's death for Life to see the light of day, largely because they had to wait for various artist's schedules to become free: Lily Allen – who met Tarka in her late teens, and is now married to Barney's half-brother Sam – recorded the lovely Shelter You in her front room, apparently in a single take. "He had that special something, a cheeky twinkle in his eye, and made you feel cool if you happened to be rolling with his gang that night," she told the Times last month. "He was kind and gentle and perhaps there was a hint of sadness at times."

The fact that the covers album is now out – with plans to release Tarka's original album this autumn – at least puts a happy endnote of sorts on a life that never could quite stick to one thing, too often distracted, too tempted to wander down unusual corridors. Indeed, as I go to leave, I spot a picture on Barney's office walls of Tarka from the late 90s, posing with Bill Clinton.

"Oh, that's a great picture," says Barney. "He's with a friend from New York there whose dad is some sort of Martha's Vineyard, bigwig banker type. I think they'd been on some two-day acid trip in New York and they decided to drive home and chill for the weekend. They got out of the car – no shoes on, dressed casually, still a bit high – and Clinton was there as a friend of Tarka's friend's dad!"

Barney looks at the picture for a second and then smiles, as if to say: "Typical."


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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