Yes it was a shocker. For the first 10 seconds. Then the more I thought about it, the more I recalled that manic zipwire energy, that bipolar-like speed-of-light jump from happy to sad and back again. That grin on his face that always said I’m desperate more than it ever did I’m happy. None of which lessened the shock or dismay. Just that’s what came to mind when I read the terrible news.
My next thought was: how do I tell the children? My kids were all very young when they first got into Mrs Doubtfire and they still watch the DVD from time to time, still reference it in their talk, their fun and games. My boy was only about five when he had The Fisher King on repeat (boy did that drive me crazy but I had to admire his taste) and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. How do you explain to them what just happened? How do you explain to yourself?
I never met Robin Williams but I knew a couple of people that did and they both tell me they were shocked by the news but not surprised. They said he reeked of it when they met him, not death but madness, not that kind of madness, but sadness. The deep cut kind. The black dog that always follows you home.
I know a lot of us get that. He must have it had it bad though to take those steps, to think about it, probably for far too long a time. Yes, he had the money and the fame and the kids and the beautiful wife. So what? Being famous, a comedian, a high-wire act like Robin Williams was, you don’t start that journey whole. You start because you have a chasm inside that can only be temporarily filled, even a little bit, by the contact high of an audience’s ecstatic laughter and applause.
Only somebody that has never had real-deal depression would consider fame and fortune a significant factor in making someone think twice about taking their own life. Of course he thought twice. He almost certainly thought about nothing else for weeks, months, years.
Someone who knows told me just now: “At least he is now out of pain. Can you imagine the pain he was in to do something like that?” I’d like to think that was true. Only that would postulate a place beyond death where such concepts still matter. Maybe there is. Maybe they do. Cold comfort though right now for those he left behind. And the thought of what he must have been going through all these years we were laughing our asses off at him.
I thought I would write you a letter, let you know what went on when I wrote my book about you, after I heard of your death. Books are different. Not like newspapers, or TV programmes, or radio tributes, or online obituaries. All those things can come tumbling down the wire when a famous person dies. Put it in a book, though, and people look at you say you’re obscene.
Claim you only did it for the money. Well, you and me know all about that Lou. Of course we did it for the money. That’s how we survive. Like when you hooked-up with Bowie and made Transformer. Man, you were on your uppers but you pulled it out of the bag. Do what you gotta do, as you sang on ‘I Love You Suzanne’.
Writing books that people don’t buy won’t feed my children or give my wife that replacement CD player in the car for the one that’s broken. So of course I did it for the money. I do all my books for the money. There isn’t a word I’ve written for 35 years that wasn’t for the money.
In this case though, when I wrote my book about you, there was something else, as you well know. I was putting part of my entire record-buying, music-loving life on the line.
The day I was walking home from school in the pissing rain and Stokey made fun because I was carrying a copy of Transformer under my arm.
“What a load of rubbish,” he sneered, and Stokey was the authority on album music back then. I hid my face in shame and kept walking. What else could I do?
Or the time my mother walked in while I was listening to ‘The Kids’ on Berlin, alarmed at the sound of the kids all howling so pitifully. Wow. How do you explain that kind of pop music to your mum? I didn’t know. Just endured the face she pulled as I showed her the album sleeve.
“Just turn it down, will ya? Your father’s trying to sleep.”
Or those times a few years later when me and Mick and Sandy and Pete would sit and argue over the merits of Growing Up In Public or Rock And Roll Heart. Man, those were hard albums to love. I knew what the others were talking about as they dismissed them as second rate junkie dreams.
“He only does albums now for the money,” said Sandy and, well, he was probably right.
“You wait,” I said, not really believing it, “One day we’ll be looking back on these albums the same way we do now the Velvet Underground albums. Everybody thought they were shit too when they first came out.”
They all looked at me doubtfully. Very, very doubtfully. And I wonder if even now Lou you don’t agree a little bit too.
Or all those times, in Paranoid days, when ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ or ‘Beginning To See The Light’ or ‘Sister Ray’, or anything you crazy fucker did really, became the permanent midnight soundtracks for my own ‘psychic explorations’, let’s put it that way. You know what I mean, Lou. I learned it all from you, after all. You and William Burroughs and Keith Richards.
Here’s something I don’t think I ever told you about before, though, Lou. That summer back in 1977 between my first rejection letters from Sounds magazine and my first review getting published – that rotten 10 months when I could have gone any direction except the one I really wanted – one of the things that made me more determined than ever to somehow find my way into that place, was the three-part piece Giovanni Dadomo wrote in Sounds on the history of the Velvet Underground.
Lou, that was real street poetry, as good as yours, and you know it. It came as no surprise to learn later that Gio was one of the only rock journalists you could ever stand.
Well, guess what, about five years ago, I was browsing through this old-issues list, a grown man looking up old stories from his youth for whatever book I was writing for the money at the time, and I came across the Giovanni 1977 three-part feature. They only had parts 2 and 3 and they were going for about £20 each but fuck that I HAD to have them. So I mailed them, sent them my money, and when that package arrived in the post days later I spent hours on my grown up own devouring each and every word, unable to tell which was greater, Gio’s magic writing or your magic story.
Then sitting alone in front of the TV, watching you and Metallica go at it on the Jools Holland show, doing ‘Iced Honey’, from the FANTASTIC Lulu album, the album I reviewed in Classic Rock and gave 10/10 to then was told that was ridiculous and to rewrite the review, with an absolute maximum rating of 7/10 if I really, really had to. Which I did, giving it 7/10, but still meaning 10/10.
Until that Sunday, Lou, when my friend Harry, not a Lou Reed fan but knowing me well enough to understand what the news would mean to me, texted to let me know you had died. And how it hurt. How it felt. How much I desperately wanted to write something about it. Yes, for the money. Of course, for the money. Always for the money, like everything, right Lou?
Then reading those nothing little snips with their snotty reviews, people like that U2 groupie Neil McCormick in The Telegraph, still hung up because Bono won’t return his calls anymore. And by the way, did you know Neil once played in a band? That’s right, you can read about it in every fucking thing he writes. The kind of cunt we’re talking about. Woulda run a mile had he seen the real you, Lou, and me coming, waving our needles.
Or that other anal joke in the Sunday TImes, Waldemar Januszczak, all bent out of shape because he once had dinner with Lou and droning on about how well he knew Lou and what a nice fucking guy he was.
I bet you smiled indulgently when you read your dear friend telling people that, right Lou? That fat little starfucker, writing his boring reviews for the money, all for the money, kind of trip you woulda stepped on in the old days, look behind you fatty.
Then today, as the paperback version of my book, Lou Reed: The Life, is published, feeling justified and glad and deeply relieved that I got to write what it was I had to say. For the money. And the sheer fuck of it.
Because I loved you, Lou. I still do.
Even now, people still go on about Pyromania, as though that was the definitive Def Leppard album of the 1980s. While completing missing the obvious. That Hysteria was a million times better, more advanced, more successful, musically and commercially.
Let’s stay with the music. For me, Hysteria is the definitive rock album of the 80s. Not Appetite For Destruction or Master Of Puppets or whatever else the conventional wisdom currently is. That was niche music that somehow seeped into the mainstream like blood through the bandages.
Hysteria was designed and built for the widest possible audience, and it found it. Except it did more than that. It also delivered a new, far more elevated form of rock, one that the world had not seen before. Nor, arguably, has seen since.
And it was all down to the producer, Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange. Mutt was already a superstar, of course. Had guided AC/DC through their two best albums, in Highway To Hell and Back In Black, had lifted Foreigner and The Cars to heights they could never have dreamed of otherwise. Had even, way back, transformed the Boomtown Rats from a second division pop-punk band into an act of real substance with ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’. And had also, it’s true, produced the second and third multi-platinum Leppard albums.
Now, though, in 1987, both Lange and Leppard were poised to take a great leap together into the sonic unknown. They didn’t have to. Another Pyromania would have gone down just nicely thanks. But no, because of Lange, Leppard were about to go through the looking glass into a place neither they nor Mutt would ever be able to find again.
With the 12 tacks – all killer, no filler – on Hysteria.
It wasn’t immediately obvious. No ‘Photograph’ to instantly fall in love with. No ‘Rock Of Ages’ to charge around to. Instead there were the almost subliminal rock joys of tracks like ‘Animal’, which took 10 plays to really get but then never let go, and ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’, which seemed a more instant hit, until you’d also heard that 10 times and realised it was probably the greatest rock anthem of its age, in much the same way that ‘All Right Now’ had been in its time.
But that was the obvious stuff. The best though was in tracks like ‘Love And Affection’, ‘Love Bites’ and the sublime title track. They all worked as great songs but that wasn’t what made them genius. It was the production, the subtlety, the fact that Phil Collen was recording one string of his guitar at a time and Joe Elliot was singing one line, sometimes one word, at a time, again and again and again – and again – until a year had gone by along with a lifetime of production techniques until they were left with the thrice distilled magic of a million golden moments all somehow fused – into one.
The drums were all electronic too. But not because Rick Allen had lost his arm between albums. The drums on Pyromania were all done by machine too. The reason things were done the way they were on Hysteria was because Mutt was looking to take this one to the other side of the rainbow, just to see how far the rocket could really fly, when injected with the right fuel. The special gear he’d been developing in secret all these years in his night lab, alone and crazy and far too far gone.
And in Leppard, unlike those moody bastards in AC/DC or those egomaniacs in Foreigner, Mutt finally had the right band to make it happen. To do what they were told. Because they were young and still on the upswing too, and looking for adventure. Not just another hit album – they’d already seen all that could be seen in terms of giant hits by the time they were 24 – but something beyond the beyond.
They found it in Hysteria.
Because you get to the end of the day often, most days, in fact, and you feel like you’ve done NOTHING. That is, no writing worth a damn. Oh, you’ve maybe transcribed an interview or two, which goes a long way towards writing something, you might even have done an interview or two, which also goes a long way towards writing.
But mostly you’ve been checking email, fending off creditors, trying to sound positive in meetings – mainly on Skype or phone these days – while at the same time feeling your wet T-shirt sticking to your back. Making phone calls to people who aren’t there then suddenly are when you’re trying to do something else. Trying to make coffee then realising it’s gone cold. Trying to sound blasé when inside your guts are churning because you have no safety net and everyone else has a proper job or is already wealthy, leaving only you in the entire world as the one who might fall down dead at any moment. Then realising you’re talking rubbish to yourself. Then realising actually you’re not.
Then hearing from a dear friend from the unforgiven yesterdays, now old and ill and wondering where it all went, the good times and bad, the sky rocket and the underground blues, the idea that there was always tomorrow. Now proven wrong.
Sitting here daydreaming of ringing a rich friend and asking for their help, in exchange for anything they might want. Your soul? Hey, £10k and it’s yours, same price as the last time you peered over the cliff’s edge. Then having nightmares about what would happen if you ever did make those calls. No way back from that sort of mental collapse. May as well tell them you have the plague. Unclean! For whom the bell tolls…
Only one thing you know, if you can just keep writing, just keep on keeping on, without pausing to grab the knife and rest it against your throat, making those desperate calls that will only make things more desperate, then you might might might just have chance.
Then sitting back and surveying the scene and realising, for fuck’s sake, but you haven’t written anything at all again today. That the clock keeps beating you like bat, a nail driven in, until finally, finally, yes, really, you say: fuck it. I need a drink…
So amongst all the usual stuff that has been occupying the start to my week – trying to finish something that should have been finished weeks ago, trying to touch base with my publisher who isn’t returning emails, trying to explain to my accountant why I won’t have any of the VAT money due, er, this week, actually let’s not go there, and trying to keep my young family happy who assume because it is the summer holidays for them it must be for me too, at least for some of the time, deep sigh – I have also been making arrangements for what will be my first two personal appearances as an author.
The first will be at the Voewood Festival in Norfolk, on August 15 and 16. On the 15th I will be there at 2.00pm talking with fellow-author Chris Salewicz about his frankly awesome biographies of Bob Marley and Joe Strummer. The following day, a Saturday, please gods don’t let it rain, I shall be there from 2.00pm in my own right talking about whatever the hell it is I pretend to do all day – apart from fretting over my publisher, who I love, admire and look up to, by the way, and who sometimes reads this blog, and the taxman who I won’t insult by pretending I feel the same way about, but who, oddly, also reads this blog sometimes.
There will also be a Q&A session with the audience – assuming there is an audience, he said not at all modestly but more in a spirit of terror. After which there will also be a book signing. More trembling hands.
Meanwhile, my second appearance in the rotting flesh has just been pencilled in for Thursday November 13, at Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, where I will be giving a ‘talk’ on my new forthcoming biography of The Doors, Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre, which will have been published a fortnight before. After my talk there will also be a Q&A, followed by a book signing. Followed, I dare say, by a dash to the nearest pub.
The weird thing is I am actually looking forward to all of this. In the 28 years I have been a published author I’ve never done anything like it. (Unlike my friend Harry Paterson, who published his first book this year and was immediately taken on a nationwide book tour full of people lining up to buy him pints of beer and offering him speaking engagements and signings and all that sort of stuff, not that I was in any way jealous. Obviously.)
I feel almost virginal on the subject. All giggly and coy and googoo-eyed. Ooh, please go gently on me, kind sirs and madams…
Also, if there is anything in particular anybody out there would like to suggest might make a good topic to natter about at Voewood, please let me know. Especially if it’s got anything to do with music and/or books, thank yew kindly.
And with news of the second wave of Zep reissues comes all the media guff about whether or not Led Zeppelin will reform. Robert Plant has been quoted this week as complaining about being goaded in the press by Jimmy Page into doing the deed. Jimmy Page has… well, whatever.
This of course has been going on ever since Live Aid, 29 years ago, when Robert and Jimmy and Jonesy did get together with drummer Tony Thompson, down in Bath, to see what would happen. Then again when Robert semi-agreed to it, in the guise of Page-Plant, in the 90s, and again when they did the O2 in 2007, which was supposed to have been the launchpad for a series of huge shows around the world the following year, but again which Robert stepped away from in fright the nearer it got.
And, well, dear or dear, it’s still going on. In a nutshell, Jimmy wants it, needs it, hates it that Robert won’t play ball. Robert says he doesn’t want it, clearly doesn’t need it, and says he hates it when Jimmy starts the whole thing up again, even a little bit.
Before I began working on my Zeppelin biography, When Giants Walked The Earth, I had a very slanted view on this. Like, come on Robert, what’s the problem? Stop playing footsy and just do it, for fuck’s sake.
Then when I’d finished the book I swung the other way. Especially after seeing the 02 show, which was pretty dull, truth be told, too much baited breath being expelled and too much dancing around – Robert insisting he would only sing ‘Stairway’ if they did it in the middle of the set just like Any Other Old Song, no big deal etc.
Jimmy insisting on Anything That Makes Robert Happy, so desperate was he to make the show happen and be good and enjoyable enough for Robert not to bail on all those other shows they had secretly planned.
Wow, it makes me weary just sitting here having to go through this again. Like, if the boys don’t want to play nice together take their ball away and let them find something else to do.
Now, though… it’s seven years later. Jimmy is going to be 71 in January. Robert is going to be 66 later this month. John Paul Jones is going to be 69 in January. Even Jason Bonham isn’t getting any younger, though his playing just keeps getting better. And… well, hey.
Instead of acting like two old queens hissing at each other from opposite sides of the dressing room, why can’t they – that is, Robert and Jimmy, Jonesy has never been the problem – just breathe deep and talk to each other like the wise old men they both obviously feel they have grown up to be. Instead of a couple of snippy little schoolgirls.
These reissues… that’s poor old Jimmy’s way of staying active. Flowers he brings to the grave of his dead love every Sunday regular as clockwork. Robert and his let’s be honest tedious ‘world music’ versions of Zep-songs, is so last century it’s embarrassing. And all it really is, is Robert’s obsession with staying cool. Not facing up to the fact that at this point the coolest band in the world – finally – is Led Zeppelin.
Come on fellas, get talking before it’s too late and make a little music together. If Jimmy insists on calling it Led Zeppelin, that’s okay, let him. Believe it or not, Robert, we your audience have no more desire to see you open your shirt or fiddle with your cock than you have. We’d just like to see you guys making a little music together again. For your sake more than ours. The same way it would have been better for Lennon and McCartney to have brushed the bullshit aside for five minutes and just relaxed a little in company with each other.
Before it’s too late. Because, trust me, gentlemen, it really nearly is. For all of us.
By now the Zep diehards will know much more about this than I would ever care to, but in case it escaped your notice, it was announced yesterday that Phase 2 of the Zeppelin reissues will continue on October 28 with the newly buffed-up releases of their untitled fourth album – aka Led Zeppelin IV, or The One With Stairway On It – and Houses Of The Holy.
I’m not a big one for these sorts of things for the simple reason that there’s usually a very good reason why all those ‘previously unreleased’ tracks were, well, not released. That being: they weren’t as good as the tracks or versions that were released. This is as true of Zeppelin as any other act. Anyone who wants to explain to me how the reissued mix or whatever they called it this summer of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is remotely as exciting as the original may go ahead and try. But please, this is me, ok? I’m not intrigued by diehard sales-pitch bullshit.
On the other hand… when I actually got to see – to fondle and ogle at – some of the reissues of the first three Zep albums a few weeks ago I have to admit, it was mighty impressive. Kind of like beautiful antique furniture, you don’t necessarily buy them to sit on or stick on a table. You buy them for the sheer pleasure of owning something special. No longer rare, but certainly special.
It will be the same for the countless different editions of Zep IV and Houses coming our way in October. Especially for me as Houses is the first Zeppelin album I ever bought with my own (stolen from my mum’s purse) pocket money. Oh, I’d been deep into Zep IV before that. Of course I was. I was a teenager in the early 70s. Like, duh! But I had borrowed that from my heavy rock friend at school and taped it.
And no, just like everybody else, then and now, I didn’t think Houses was a patch on IV when I first heard it. No ‘Stairway’, man. Come to think of it, no ‘Rock And Roll’ or ‘Black Dog’ or ‘When The Levee Breaks’ or any of the others either. No, in terms of like for like, Houses didn’t even come close. Yet I loved it.
Just looking at the creepy, strangely sexy cover had my teenage brain reeling with I knew not what. Though I would soon come to find out.
So, well, this is exciting, once-in-a-lifetime stuff. Am I looking forward to hearing the ‘new’ version of ‘Stairway’, though? Naw. There’s only one ‘Stairway’. But it will be fun to fool with the rest of the baloney for five minutes and that’s a pretty high score in today’s time-impoverished world. The extra this and ‘new’ that. Hell, the packaging, that being after all what we’re all really buying if we are daft enough to ever buy these things anymore.
Spare me the commentary, though. Having lived through more horseshit interviews and god knows how many ‘best album we’ve done so far’ raps, I can cheerfully live without that.
But the fun and the fizz. That we can all do with a little more of, no?
And this is when you know you are in hell…
Spent all day – ALL DAY – working on my Doors manuscript, all 150,000+ words of it, fixing the last of the changes that need – NEED – to be made, as recommended by the lawyer and as fought over by me, over the past several weeks.
Finally then – FINALLY – we get to the last knockings. One more day, one more go at the manuscript, and maybe – MAYBE – we will be all right. By now, I have somewhat mellowed, dealing with lawyers and what they have to say about my books being akin for me to dealing with a boa-constrictor snake wrapped round my fucking neck.
After the first 29 pages of the ‘report’ it’s hard to keep your cool, no matter how many trips to the toilet you make, or off-map journeys to your other emails. The head goes, then the heart. Finally the balls. Then somehow the balls come back, then go again. Then…
THEN! You finish. You FINISH. Get me? Write the email your publishers and lawyer have been waiting for, attach your responses to their latest report, answers in BLUE. The go to attach the document of the finished manuscript you have been working on ALL DAY.
It’s vanished. Gone. Vamoosed. Where NOBODY FUCKING KNOWS! Not even your computer guy Adam, who is the Dr Who of computers and knows everything. EVERYTHING.
You open the drawer and reach for the gun only there’s no gun there. NO GUN!!!
And hope. Hope that Adam, who you now owe your life to, can help, can do something, can make it all all right on the night. ALL RIGHT!
But he sounds puzzled. Worried. Perplexed.
This is when you know you have arrived at the innermost circle of hell and the devil has sharpened his fork and is openly laughing – LAUGHING – in your face.
But wait. For there is a tiny pinpoint of light at the end of the insanity tunnel. Adam does something. You don’t know what but it is something. And suddenly there in a far corner of the big iMac screen is a tiny little document that looks – LOOKS – like it might just be… the … one…
AND IT IS! IT IS!! I LOVE ADAM!!! ADAM IS LOVE!!!! ADAM IS GOD!!! I WORSHIP HIM!!!
I am not a country boy. I was born and raised in the big bad city. Trouble was my middle name. And although I travelled across the country for years with various bands of variable fame and success, I never dug anyplace like I did my own London hole. Never got how anybody could live elsewhere. Unless it was another big bad city like L.A. or Paris, New York or Sydney.
Then, nearly 20 years ago, I found myself out here in the Oxfordshire countryside. Knowing no one and nothing. I had no clue how long I might stay, or how I’d make it if I ever could. Then, as always makes the difference, I met a woman. One who was young and foolish enough to marry a broken down old rocker. And… well…
So here I am. And how times change. Last night, for instance, I spent the evening with some agreeable friends from a nearby village enjoying what was cheerfully billed as a Beer & Cricket Festival – in the green back fields of a local pub called The Bear.
And it dawned on me yet again, how lucky I am. At least, in some things. For there can be very few more enjoyable ways for someone of my particular vintage to spend a summer’s evening than lolling around in a deckchair, drinking white wine from a bucket of ice, as I and my venerable old chums swap chat about a) the cricket match taking place in front of us, b) the cricket match taking place the next day (i.e. today) and, most of all, the several different varieties of garden gnome you will find at such events. I mean, the creme-de-la-creme of several nearby villages, young and old, men and women, rather a lot of women, as it happens, children and dogs.
Behind us a reggae band chundered along now and again, beside them a barbecue that went on all day and night, and beyond that, when the darkness finally fell, the pub itself, stuffed with armchairs and sofas and, eventually, me and Steve and my wife and one or two others, all enjoying the peace of putting our feet up, while attending to yet another bottle of that rather expensive and wonderfully chilled white wine.
Never having been one, I don’t know what millionaires do for their Saturday evening pleasantries, but I felt like the richest man on earth last night. And please don’t spoil it by coming back at me with fire and brimstone about all the ills in the world. Right then, there was only this, and it, and now, and the summer English sun thrumming its way down past the trees. Heaven.
We had only just gotten into Jailbreak yet here they were again with a new album. Yes, it was the era of two albums a year but even this seemed excessive when Jailbreak was still breaking through into most people’s consciousness. When ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ was still on the radio and word was still spreading. It had better be good.
And it was. Not so ’rounded’ as its breakthrough predecessor – not as many lightweight looks back over the shoulder like ‘Running Back’ or ‘Angel From The Coast’. Instead it had deeper, richer, more painful cuts like ‘Borderline’ – Lynott actually admitting he was a ‘borderline case’. We thought he was being romantic, we didn’t know till it was too late he was simply being truthful.
And it was heavier. For sure, for sure, Jailbreak had ’Warriors’ and ‘Emerald’ and you’d never get heavier or rockier or more tantalisingly groovy Lizzy tracks than those pair of bastards. But Johnny The Fox had its face-slapping opener, ‘Johnny’, and it’s bad twin follower, ‘Rocky’. Most of all it had the mighty ‘Massacre’…
‘Through the devil’s canyon
Across the battlefield
Death has no companion
The spirit is forced to yield…’
Shitting god! Where was the Big Fella leading us now?!? Then that Robbo solo! And Downey’s running-gun drums! Lead and we will follow…
Johnny The Fox also had ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’, lowrider funk and hard-stuff rock tangled up in blood and whiskey and the love of a bad woman.
‘In the back of a black cadillac
The voodoo music travels
Down Skid Row only black men can go
The shady deal unravels…’
And of course there were the love poems, the inside-out hurt of ‘Old Flame’, the last thing at night pillow talk of ‘Sweet Marie’. And the journey songs like the sublime ‘Fools Gold’, which in truth Phil would write better versions of later like ‘The Sun Goes Down’ and ‘Dear Lord’. But for now left us gawping, wondering, wanting to join in.
It even had a new version of ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ to get down to on Top Of The Pops, this one called, again more truthfully than we knew at the time, ‘Don’t Believe A Word’, a mournful Phillo ballad Robbo had booted into shape as a class-ass rocker of the first-and-last order.
Weirdly, it ended with ‘Boogie Woogie Dance’, which in no way resembled its feel-good title, but came on like the bad end of a worse night, bottled in some alley. So the album wasn’t perfect but it was hard. As fuck. And totally unexpected after the more joyful face-first fun of Jailbreak. But that was the 70s for you, before things went all self-conscious and post-modern and tits up. You could always be knowing. The Stones and The Beatles had invented being knowing. But if you dug Thin Lizzy – classic Lynott-Robbo-Gorham-Downey Thin Lizzy – you had to be brave too. Or at least feel brave.
Listening to it now, I still do.
This is the final extract from Paranoid: Black Days With Sabbath & Other Stories – The Unexpurgated Version, available exclusively on Kindle, priced £2.49.
The Nineties had arrived like a drunk stumbling down the road, but no-one in LA seemed to notice. People kept talking about a recession but the conveyor belt of bands hadn’t appeared to slow down yet and we didn’t know what else to do except keep on keeping on. What else was there?
Down on Melrose, retro-Seventies chic was already big in the stores. But that’s all it was: retro. Whatever happened next, the Eighties had left such a mark on the world, it was hard to imagine it ever going back to the way things were. You could wear flares and buy lava lamps again but you’d never turn the clock back on AIDS. Promiscuity may have been back on the agenda, along with cigarettes and heroin, but free love was gone for good. Now everybody had to pay.
The only place I saw anything happening at all, weirdly, was in the music. Groups like Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Metallica had demonstrated rock’s ability to regenerate itself into newer and fresher hybrids. But even there it was more a case of rummaging through the detritus of the Sixties and Seventies to try and say something new than it was actually having something new to say.
So bland and demographically-driven had the Eighties music industry become, the appearance of a band like Guns N’ Roses – cliché bad-boy rockers swigging Jack Daniel’s and singing about bitches and motherfuckers like they knew something about it – took on huge historical importance. We’d heard it all before, of course, but that had been back in the pre-MTV era, when rock fans still used to expect something from the lyrics. The fact that Guns N’ Roses had arrived just at that moment when Bon Jovi – corporate Reaganomic rock at its zenith – seemed to have taken over the world, was more than just coincidence, I felt. It was the natural order restoring itself. If ever we needed a bunch of arseholes to throw their weight around it was right then, and for me, the Nineties began in earnest, in late ’88, when Appetite For Destruction, the first Guns N’ Roses album, went to No.1 in America. It was almost exciting.
Meanwhile, the onset of rap and acid house had made it abundantly clear to anyone that still gave a shit that there were still some original artists working out there, despite the cynicism and the cost. I thought the signs were good and though I never bought vinyl records anymore, I began to amass a surprisingly large collection of CDs, going back and rediscovering old stuff I’d completely forgotten about like Little Feat, Steely Dan and Dr John, as well as dipping into new pools of wisdom from the likes of The Digital Underground, Ice T, Nine Inch Nails and Dr Dre.
CDs were where it was at, dude. More tracks, less hassle. And you got to programme the tracks to play in any order you liked, even skip the ones you didn’t like. Here, at last, was real democracy at work in music. It was funny how all the old farts had such a downer on them. Even DJs that liked to think of themselves as ‘new wave’, like John Peel, displayed a sickeningly old-wave attitude to vinyl, building up an utterly unwarranted mystique about it, as though even owning a CD required some form of mumbling apology.
Don’t get me wrong, Peely still does the best show on the radio, but this affectation for vinyl reminded me of those anal little strips of humanity who accused Dylan of being a Judas for picking up an electric guitar. It was all so much better in the old days, they seemed to be saying. Yeah, right. Steam-trains, white bread, flat-caps and shelves and shelves of carefully alphabetised vinyl … all the things I hated about musty, more-tea-vicar England.
The Nineties, I felt, could not help but be a better time for music. Maybe it would be a better time for everything. We would all be richer, saner, older, wiser. All we had to do was pray they didn’t drop the bomb, or that the aliens didn’t finally reveal themselves and spoil the game for everyone. As long as neither of those two things happened we would all live happily ever after … That’s how it seemed to me, anyway, sitting out there by the pool some mornings with my CD Walkman on, squinting into the smog and thinking about Pamela Anderson’s breast implants.
The Gulf War had been a pleasant enough diversion – with CNN as the new MTV – and now they were going to vote in the first sax-playing, dope-smoking, draft-dodging, ex-hippy president. The fun just never stopped. Of course, he had lied about not inhaling. But then what hadn’t he lied about whenever his personal life came under the media microscope?
No, Clinton was the genuine article. He knew it wasn’t his job to tell the truth. If he was to be any sort of president at all, he knew his job would be to placate and reassure the TV-watching audience; to reinforce the lie that at least someone somewhere knew what was going on, and to deceive as many people as possible into believing all the things they wanted to hear.
It was a highly specialised job and only the very best could pull it off. But looking at Clinton, seeing him turning on the naughty schoolboy smile, you knew he’d fit in with the rest of the bleary cast no problem at all. Bill had mendacity written all over him. You knew there wasn’t anything that pretty boy wouldn’t do when the time came. He was perfect. There hadn’t been such a smooth operator gunning for the gig since Reagan made the part his 10 years before. But even the Russians fell for Big Ron. Maggie, too. Everybody loves a cowboy. Well, now they had another one. Cowboy Bill and his feisty little woman, Hopalong Hilary…
So they come anyway, whatever I write, whatever messages I send out. How do I get started? How did you get started? The female who is slowly fucking her way to the bottom. The males who don’t have the pussy balls to go out and get it without having their hands squeezed. And the thing is, the only advice you get is never good enough anyway.
It was 1981 and after nearly five years of trying to Become A Writer (for Sounds magazine) I had finally found myself in a place where the magazine was starting to ask me for features, the holy grail of music mag writing back then. Got me a couple of cover stories, found myself sitting in editorial meetings making a suggestion and the editor – the great Alan Lewis – telling me, okay then, go ahead and do it.
Then – very weird – the magazine got a new features editor in Garry Bushell, who was just about their most famous writer by then, and blow me down big boy but Garry seemed to like my stuff and began giving me bigger and better things to do. I mean, I couldn’t believe my luck. Especially as I knew deep down – hell, not even that deep down, it was right on the surface – that I really wasn’t all that, to be honest.
But I wasn’t going to say no – actually that is one piece of good advice, never wait for something to come along you feel you can actually do or might be good at, just say YES to whatever they offer you. So I kept tip-tapping away on the typewriter and… long story short, I somehow slowly got to know the one and only Giovanni Dadomo, for me then one of the all-time greats of rock writing. Gio – as those of us who knew him called him, and suddenly, who’da thunk it, I actually knew him – was over my flat one day. The one I shared with another, older, much better Sounds writer. And I had just finished this feature for Sounds on some band so insignificant I can’t remember what they were called but that week, anyway, I was all over them. And anyway…
I was quite pleased with what I’d just done. Thought I was finally getting somewhere. And…
I showed it to Gio. Asked him for some ‘advice’. What did he think? You know, really?
He sat on the bed and read it. All of it. Then blew out his cheeks, handed me back the sheets of paper and delivered his verdict.
“Yeah. It’s all right. Just a bit… dull. You know?”
“How do you mean?”
“You know. It’s just lacking something. I mean, it’s okay, lots of quotes about their album and that. But… just… flat, you know?”
Horribly, I did. I had already known it before I showed it to him but just couldn’t resist. This was GIOVANNI DADOMO. And I was one of his biggest fans. And…
So all you cats who send me your safe as milk shit, copied from Wikipedia, droning on about track one, two, three, etc. Remember this. That stuff, it’s all right. You know? Just a bit flat. And dull. And just like I will never be Giovanni Dadomo you will never be Mick Wall.
So forget me. Forget it. Whatever it is you think it is. And go for it in entirely your own way. And if that idea doesn’t sit well or sound good, or offer help, then, hey, don’t bother. Jack it in. Find something better. Then I can write to you for some good advice…
The great thing about Johnny Winter was that he never lived up to his name. He was always, always hot. Red raw and steaming. I first saw him live in around ’75. I’d been briefly nuts about his younger brother, circa the ‘Frankenstein’ single, long version, natch. So when my friend Stokey who was a true blue albums guy – prided himself on never having bought a single, except by Roxy Music because they didn’t used to put their singles on the albums – offered to let me have his other rocket for Johnny at some college gig in London I said yeah, baby. Then wondered what I’d let myself into when the band – Johnny Whitehair and two other boxes – hit the stage.
And I mean hit the stage.
I – could – not – believe – my – eyes! In my memory Johnny was bouncing so much behind that bad red guitar he was literally levitating. I mean, it was loud, sur,e but it was deep. The deepest red red I’d ever heard, and the deepest blue blue I’d ever none, down in my bones, where you really know it.
The sweat came flying form the stage before the first number was through. The bitter sweetness ran all the way through. My first experience real live blues rock, mama, and now I was never going home.
The next two times I saw him was in America, his home, not mine, and oh how I envied him it. To see Johnny Winter burn your head offs in front of his own people, that was a trip. To me, he looked old even then. Like he was born old. Which meant he could never die. The man was way beyond death. With that voice, that sound, that hair. This was one man was not born to die. This fucker would live long after the rest of us were gone gone gone.
He still is.