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Some Kind of Noble Savage

Richard Cabut interviews Jah Wobble.

To be invited to meet an ‘English eccentric’ these days is to experience a sinking feeling as some lame-o weaves into view. Too many Shoreditch drunks think they are the shiznit. But for those unhappy that this particular model seems to be exhausted, Jah Wobble is the real deal — eccentric as in distant from the centre, strikingly brave in opinion and individualistically inspired in behaviour.

He’s a curious mixture of what you might call an old-school Herbert — a straight talker who’s a bit rough around the edges, a two-fisted Cockney Jack the Lad — and a new-age seeker of inner vision. In other words: a psychedelic Sid James who kicks arse.

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[Jah Wobble by Graham Jepson]

His recent autobiography, unsanitised by sanctity and unaffected by orthodoxy, careens along with a propulsive energy and an incendiary spirit. It covers Wobble’s East End urchinhood, punk rock and PiL, his stint on the London underground as an irregular working stiff, days of wine and neuroses as a bedraggled piss artist, recovery from the same, his immersion in world fusion music, and his move away from the East End to Cheshire after a nasty fight with a Bangladeshi gang.

Thankfully, the book does not end by coming full circle with Wobble’s return to ‘PiL’ for their Christmas 2009 tour.

‘John called me. He said: Do you fancy it?’ Wobble reveals. ‘It was very much a case of John having decided what drummer he wanted, what guitarist. It was definitely not a case of: Do you want to get together, and how do you think we should do it? So, at that point it was: I’ll get my people to talk to your people and find out the lay of the land. You’ve got to take care of business in life, but the business in this case was appalling, so I turned it down.’

The original PiL were, of course, beautiful — equal parts allure and menace, appearing from and disappearing into a luminous future. The latest PiL would be, for Wobble, like selling your soul to the devil and finding out the coin is counterfeit.

‘Going out before Xmas — it’s something that those 80s revival bands would do — it’s appalling,’ he says. ‘It’s like an office Christmas party. It’s like those oldies who used to dress up and listen to Vera Lynn, and I think Metal Box is way beyond Vera Lynn. PiL is worth more than that.

metalbox

‘I think artistically and spiritually this wouldn’t be the right adventure for me. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do. But what’s great about this thing reforming under the name PiL is that you can’t do it again. That’s it. I will never play with John again. The problems you had then, you have now and it’s absurd to be dealing with them again.’

Those problems included guitarist Keith Levene’s king-size drug habit and Lydon’s king-size personality disorder.

Lydon is portrayed in the book as someone in urgent need of therapy, or of a good kicking — a thought which crossed Wobble’s mind after one particularly petulant Lydon performance.

‘It’s a fair appraisal of Lydon,’ Wobble says. ‘People who know him say: You haven’t been heavy. Quite affectionate, really. You haven’t rose tinted it. A real balancing act.

‘I didn’t want to lie and say: What a guy, but he was little bit difficult — that wouldn’t be right. To say: He was the worst person; I wish I had never met him. That would be wrong, too. Lydon is like Withnail — can you watch Withnail and I and say: I fucking hate Withnail? No.

‘PiL was a heady brew of the negative and the very positive,’ Wobble continues apace. ‘It was a great feeling from that March [1978] for the first three or four months: if you look at the photos from that time everyone is really happy. Then toward the end of year, the mood had changed to something dark and decadent. At the end of the day PiL, for this avant-garde umbrella organisation with pretentious ideas of multimedia, was Spinal Tap. That is hilariously funny.’

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Wobble had his own issues to deal with, namely booze, with a normal daily quota of one large bottle of Jack Daniels, a few Guinnesses and a couple of bottles of wine. Soon, it came down to a choice between AA and cirrhosis. Wobble went for the former.

He says: ‘I came across a slogan in the Jimmy Cagney film Come Fill the Cup — and I realise now that it is used in the 12 steps — ‘one drink is too many and a thousand not enough.’ And that would still apply to me.’

Former alkie Billy Childish once mentioned to me that he didn’t want to read books about people drinking themselves stupid and getting in the shit, he wanted to read about how to get out of the shit. Wobble’s is one such book.

‘I was quite lucky,’ says Wobble. ‘Circa 1984 I thought: Fuck, I’ve got a problem. Seemingly, it had come on pretty quick. I had done a lot of drinking in 1983 when I was touring. I was taking speed and coke to keep it in line, but it only makes it worse.

‘I found a book on alcoholism and charted a graph of the various stages of descent. It was time to do the right thing…

‘Some horrible things happened when I was drinking, but I’ve got no regrets. I’m thankful for every fucking drink that I had because it leads you to a certain point, which leads you to another certain point, and does the job by default. Booze doesn’t really do the job anyway: it doesn’t get you there and keep you there. You always have a come down sooner or later.’

Like Tom Waits says, all the big questions come up when you get sober. For Wobble, those teasers involved the soul, the isness of being is, that sort of thing.

‘Spirituality? I think I would find it quite hard to describe,’ Wobble tells me. ‘But you know it’s there when people have an expansive, compassionate spirit. You can sense it.’

So true, so true — I give a modest shrug.

‘I’m not saying that I’ve got that: I’m not the fucking Buddha or anything,’ Wobble says in the self-deprecating manner that characterises the tone of his book; it’s not the sort of self-deprecation that quickly becomes self-praise, either.

‘Spirituality is something you can research to a point,’ he continues. ‘You can get some intellectual knowledge, but it doesn’t count for much in that area. What we’re talking about goes beyond thoughts. All that stuff goes beyond the conditional. You can drive yourself mad trying to grasp the infinite.’

One universe at a time…

‘The thing about people who go into recovery is that you are exposed to the idea of being truly humble, where your separate sense of identity is dissolved. I would say humility is the cornerstone of spirituality. You are one person who is not that dissimilar to everyone else. But, you are on your own path and your responsibility is to find the signs on that path that are meaningful.’

Wobble’s newfound insight hasn’t stopped him from, when necessary, dishing out a slap — as comedian Sean Hughes discovered to his cost. Wobble’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks team captain, who had been winding Wobble up, made the mistake of equating Wobble’s interest in metaphysics with non-violence. ‘But you’re spiritual,’ said Hughes. ‘Yes, but in an Old Testament sort of way,’ replied Wobble before dealing out his own form of distinctly un-divine retribution.

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This incident isn’t the only spot of bother in the book by a long chalk: there are fights galore, with Teddy boys, a bloke in the pub, a recording engineer, etc, etc. And it occasionally makes for uncomfortable reading.

‘I think the environment where I come from was what you could call violent,’ Wobble explains. ‘Conflict between blokes in the East End was solved with violence and not words. There was a lot of that, but I wasn’t a guy who went out looking for punch-ups.

‘Violence is a product of fear,’ he adds.

I wonder about the nature of the fear involved in slapping Hughes.

‘The fear of being dominated, and the fear of being humiliated by somebody,’ Wobble says. ‘Fear is not being courageous — at the end of the day, it was a wrong thing to do.

‘I avoided blow-by-blow accounts of all the fights because it would read (and I started to write up one or two) like one of those football hooligan books. It would have been: I don’t like violence but get a load of this…’

Of course, these tales of bovver ‘n’ booze are manna to literary thrill-seekers for whom such dirt is a credential of reality. It is almost an axiom: the chattering classes are forever fascinated by the semiotics of the street — and we’re not talking Corrie (more like EastEnders in this case, of course).

All the aggro came to a head in the 90s when Wobble confronted a gang of machete-wielding Bangladeshis who had been terrorising his area.

‘Bangladeshi gangs had been targeting white people, and there had been homophobic attacks, too,’ Wobble explains. ‘You felt that these guys, who were throwing their weight around, were not much different to the Brownshirts. It was a kind of fascism, a reverse cultural imperialism.

‘You’ve had this in the East End before. It ebbs and flows, but this was particularly unpleasant and lots of people were affected. It was a hot issue in the borough.’

But pointing out such goings-on didn’t go down too well with some of Wobble’s media ‘mates’ — in the same way, say, that Michael Collins’s The Likes of Us, a book that describes the white, south east London working class as something of a beleaguered minority, didn’t go down too well.

‘I remember identifying a lot with that book,’ says Wobble.

Certainly, both he and Collins share a hatred of the bourgeoisie — how dare the middle class preach to the working class about racism?

‘They wanted to turn a blind eye, didn’t really want to look at unpleasant truths,’ says Wobble who, for the record, believes in a pluralistic, cosmopolitan society. ‘We’d be talking and I’d say: Well, actually I’m getting fed up with it around here. They’d ask: Why? I’d be thinking: because of people like you. I would explain about the Bangladeshi gangs, and they would want to talk over you: No, no, Jah, you see what it is in the East End is…and they’d be explaining the East End to me, talking to me like I’m a fucking idiot. They really want to explain things to you. Kind of like you’d farted and you had to be gently corrected. They do that.’

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[Wobble by Wah Chan]

According to Wobble, they — the middle classes — do a lot of things. For starters: ‘They slag you off, blank you…

‘…they are very detached and reserved. I know a lot of them are kind of struggling because it hasn’t been great in the culture industries for the past two or three years. But if you ask, you’ll always get: Things are going well — but you can see they’re not. Don’t get me wrong, the working class are my people and they can do your head in, but the one thing I like about my world is when you say: How are you? You get: Fucking hell! She’s driving me mad! Middle class people would never reveal themselves.’

If it sounds like Wobble has had his head down in a pile of old Class Wars — keeping the hatred sharp — he feels he has good reason for such passion. He’s sick of being patronised.

‘None of those fuckers thought I had a book in me because they write the books,’ he says. ‘When I tell them that I’ve written a book, the response is: Oh – and the conversation is abruptly changed.

‘They like to believe that you are some kind of noble savage with some intuitive grasp of something. They always deny the fact that you’ve worked very hard. They never realised I could go and write a book…’

But a book Wobble most assuredly has written. One that is eccentric, bolshie and in your face. One that will, if you’re not careful, give you a right slap.

[Related: 3:AM's interview with Keith Levene.]

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Cabut’s fiction and poetry has appeared in various magazines and books, including The Edgier Waters (Snowbooks, 2006). He has also written for several newspapers and media organisations, including the Daily Telegraph and the BBC. In the past, he played bass and wrote the propaganda for the punk group Brigandage, published the fanzine Kick and wrote for, amongst other music mags, the NME under the pen name Richard North. He lives in south east London, and works as a writer and ghostwriter.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009.