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The Relentlessly Depressing Squares Have Taken Over

Richard Marshall interviews Graham Bendel.

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GB: My Billy Childish documentary, Billy Childish Is Dead — Billy Childish, I’ve been following for a long time. I saw Thee Milkshakes back in the early eighties. I was very young, I must have been one of the youngest people at the gigs. I was about 12. I used to pull my quiff down over my face so the bouncers couldn’t see how young I was.

Thee Milkshakes, The Stingrays, The Vibes — the whole kind of trash garage scene. I used to go to the Clarendon Hotel every Friday to hear these bands. I went along with a mate and saw this stuff loads. But it was only late eighties early nineties that I got back into Billy and Thee Headcoats and it was a bit later that I found out he was doing a whole lot of other stuff like writing, painting, poetry. The whole Renaissance man thing. I wrote an article about him for the New Statesman about his influence on Tracey Emin and, basically, the documentary is born out of that article.

3:AM: So how long did it take?

GB: It took about 4 years and it wasn’t an easy thing to do. Billy believed in the ‘glorious amateur’ and I thought, yep, that sounds like me… so I wanted to do this thing but at the same time other people were wanting to make it and I think we got on badly at some points, fell out a bit and didn’t speak for about 6 months. There were all sorts of terrible things that happened. It was difficult, but it goes with the territory because he’s so talented and renowned.

Everything was against the doc being finished. I was borrowing my brother’s camera to make the thing and editing on his computer and we had a fist fight and he took all the equipment away and I couldn’t use it for 6 months, so that didn’t help. Then a proper producer had all the footage at one point — it was a nightmare. In the end I started shooting stuff regardless of commercial interest and eventually Cherry Red said they were interested in me doing it for them, so I ended up doing that. So Cherry Red put it out. They were helpful but it was still extremely independent. It was just me going out with a camera, asking the questions, shooting and editing the thing — doing the whole lot really. Without any experience.

3:AM: You like being independent?

GB: It’s not because I’m not really talented or anything… but more the case that no one can bear working with me. Perhaps I’m a control freak. Actually, Billy said I had worse control issues than Tracey Emin! He said I was more eccentric than him and thought someone should really make a documentary about me. There are also some disturbing parallels between him and me, and we used to talk about these.

We used to argue for hours at a time on the phone during the making of the doc. And I often had to pretend I was suicidal to allow myself to carry on with it when things went pear-shaped. I think at times Billy felt a bit concerned about me.

3:AM: When was all this?

GB: This was in 2000-4. In the end, the thing that made him really warm to my project was that I managed to get Shane McGowan to be part of the project, which at the time was quite a coup as he didn’t give interviews then. I know he’s done stuff since then, but at the time he didn’t at all. No one could get to speak to him. So I had to track him down, and once I’d got that interview in the bag, Billy realised how serious I was and obsessive about the thing. Mike Leigh too said I was obsessive — but what does he know? I almost gave up on the project so many times but I’m glad I didn’t as it eventually got nominated for a British Independent Film Award and has since been screened all over the globe. It was funny how the Evening Standard even made it their ‘DVD of the week’. Not bad for a low-budget flick.

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3:AM: So then you did a novel?

GB: The novel has been around for a while. Maybe five years of constantly changing it. I only really started working on it seriously in the last 2 years. I did an interview with Dazed and Confused and said I was going to finish my novel and put it out on my own press. In the end I had to do it because I said I was going to do it. But I had to make sure it was really, really good before I let it out. Not that I use focus groups, but I made sure the drafts were read by many people — purely because I didn’t want to put out anything into the public domain that wasn’t any good. It’s important that people appreciate what I do. Too often now in this dull publishing era things just get trotted out on the old corporate conveyor belt. There’s not a lot of quality control on many occasions. And I just wanted to do something with heartfelt belief. Something that would mean something. With depth, different levels, a proper satire. And from what people have said about the novel I think I did the right thing. I did more drafts than Saul Bellow ever did! I made the photocopy shop round the corner rich, I did so many drafts.

I wanted to capture the enjoyment of seeing something like Repo Man or some kind of cult film and you just watch it and it does your head in. In a nice way. There was a little bit of After Hours, the Scorsese in it, G K Chesterton, Patrick Hamiton, and, oddly, none of the references you made in the review. Interestingly, I’d been meaning to catch some of the Pete Walker films – I’ve been meaning to see House of Whipcord for twenty years – I keep meaning to see it. I’d never read any Stewart Home at the time of writing the book. I have now. I was aware of his reputation and what he’d written but hadn’t actually read his novels. Never read Steve Aylett. Never read American Psycho.

3:AM: So I was completely wrong then!

GB: I’d seen the film of American Psycho and read Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. Clive Barker – I’d never read any of his books – but don’t tell him that!

3:AM: I’m amazed you had him do the illustration for the front cover.

GB: The drawing on the front. I was a Hellraiser fan, and a great admirer of his painting. I wrote to him, but it wasn’t easy, as you might imagine. There was a hell of a process with his agent — but being a decent person he respected the whole independent thing and liked the novel. The cover is great. It looks a bit like Billy Childish, strangely. I love Barker’s painting. It’s hard to find a piece of his work without an erect dick in it though!

3:AM: My daughter loves the book — she’s seventeen.

GB: Yeah, well it was originally written for people 16-30, but I know 70-year olds who like it. It’s not designed for people of highbrow literary sensibilities, but it is for those who don’t have the slightest interest in being bored by a text. That’s the thing that blows people away. I’ve been told that this novel is remarkable as it doesn’t actually have any boring bits in it. Nothing to skim.

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3:AM: And you started your own press?

GB: The press started when I was doing the Billy Childish documentary. Nothing positive was happening. And I had to be doing something. I remember seeing The Punk on my girlfriend’s shelf and she’d nicked it from her local library back in the 80s. I read it and thought: wow, this is amazing — 14- year old kid who wrote about this new thing happening called Punk, for a school project! So I couldn’t believe that nothing was happening with it, it was just sitting on the shelf gathering dust and it’s so charming and someone from the fucking Guardian reviewed it when our edition came out, tore it to pieces and just didn’t get it. I mean it was a fourteen- year old kid for god’s sake! At school, writing about punk. Not Tolstoy or Julian Barnes! It’s hilarious, really, and gives you a good insight into the times. It’s a valuable sociological text.

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Will Hodgkinson said once that if an alien came to earth and wanted to know about punk you wouldn’t introduce it to Malcolm McLaren but you would get them to read Gideon Sams’ The Punk, a 14- year old writing at the time. It came out originally in 1977 with a picture of Johnny Rotten on the cover with a safety pin through his nose. An edition of 500. It was Jay Landersman who put it out. He was an influential Beat publisher. Corgi did 30,000 copies. Yellow covers. I have the orange edition. The author died in the 80’s. He went to America and he died of influenza sadly. I met the lead singer of Killing Joke recently and he said that he wants to write an opera about Gideon. He was freaked out that I’d republished the book and after blaming the “hand of God for being behind this meeting,” proceeded to make me and a friend pray to the hovering ghosts of both Gideon and Joe Strummer. We were in a pub in Battersea and it all got rather weird.

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3:AM: So Fortune Teller is a kind of retrieval process.

GB: Yeah, well then I put out a poetry anthology — Poems For The Retired Nihilist. A logistical nightmare with all kinds of difficult requests for licensing. A big project for such a short run but I like doing that. I just like putting together people I like with unusual combinations. A quirky mix. So, in this second one, I have Sir Walter Raleigh and Charles Manson. In the first one I had Barbara Cartland and Richard Hell together which you don’t often find! And then there’s lyrics by The Mekons, poetry from Philip Ridley, Mark Hartenbach and Jeremy Reed etc.

3:AM: And then there was the Nico book.

GB: The biggest thing I’ve put out is the Nico book, for sure — Songs They Never Play On The Radio by James Young. It’s recognised by some as the best ever book on rock and roll. Tony Wilson, Greil Marcus, director John Waters, Tony Parsons, James Brown: they all love it. It’s phenomenal. Up there with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I reckon. You don’t often associate Nico with comedy, but to me it’s a comedic masterpiece.

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3:AM: Actually, there are some good funny stories featuring Nico and Vic Godard.

GB: I really like Vic Godard. I wanted him to play at the book launch and was ecstatic when he agreed. He loves the book as well — and he was really excited to finally meet James Young, the author. James Young, by the way, was the keyboardist in Nico’s band and is an amazing man. But he wanted to start changing the text and, in the end, I couldn’t agree because I didn’t want to risk messing up something so perfect. Young wanted to protect Nico and Alain Delon’s son who’s in the book and he thought he’d given the kid a bit of a hard time originally…and so he wanted to change quite a few things generally and we argued about the whole revising aspect. I didn’t budge. Neither did he. So in the end this is rather a limited edition, which is a shame. I know I like limited editions but I’d wanted to put out thousands. To me this Fortune Teller Edition is like a promo record that was never properly released. Which I like because I have a collector’s mentality. I think James Young is going to bring out his revised edition and I’m sure it will be brilliant, but I’ll personally favour the original scathing text. James Young is a genius the way he writes. The book is an absolute classic. It blew me away. It’s strange though that some Nico and Velvet Underground fans don’t even know about it. But that is Bloomsbury’s fault, as they originally put it out and ultimately did little with it — until they found out that the little old Fortune Teller Press had got on the case… and then how they showed such interest! But it really is good. If anyone has ever wanted to be in a band or got into drugs or likes superlative literature ….you’re depriving yourself if you haven’t read this book!

3:AM: Music’s been a big part of you?

GB: Music is so important to me. That’s why I hate books that go on. I can’t stand waffling. I’m wanting a book to be like the three-minute single. I don’t want the concept album. It’s a kind of punk ethos. I was a little too late for punk, but it influenced me — in many ways. You know, when I was thirteen I was trying to catch up with bands like Chelsea and The Damned. I caught the post-punk thing and saw bands like Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Echo and The Bunnymen, the Fall.

Someone (The Stool Pigeon) described my Poems For The Retired Nihilist series as a “mix-tape made of words”. I think that shows how my fascination with records/music has helped shape my literary interests. Like with music, I’m always searching for the neglected or the unobvious.

3:AM: Are you in a band yourself?

GB: I was in a band for about three months. We never played any gigs. We were called Bona and we didn’t realise that it had gay slang connotations — not that we had any problems with the gay thing but we just didn’t realise. There was a bit of a crisis meeting when driving through Camden we saw this poster for the gay magazine Bona “for men who like men”. It just wasn’t the intended image for us. We had a drummer who played with a band called The Stupids who were very well known: he was a manic depressive Rastafarian who kept going missing for long periods of time. Ironically, he was the person holding the band together because none of us could play our instruments. Everyone wanted us to play their clubs though. And record companies wanted to put out our first record but unfortunately we didn’t have one! That was my experience of being in a band.

3:AM: I’m impressed you’ve got so much done. It must be hard work running your own publishing company.

GB: You’ve got to hustle. I’m kind of surprised that bigger publishers haven’t come in to bankroll this. Hee hee. There are some surprisingly dull people in the business. Literary agents are really a pet hate of mine. You’ll have noticed that the central character in the novel is a literary agent. I’m quite sympathetic to the character but there’s one story that epitomises how dull these people are. There’s one major agent in London and he used to be an A&R person in the music biz and he singlehandedly turned down Queen and David Bowie. And he talks about it with such pride as if this doesn’t tell us something about him and his judgement. He thinks it’s funny. But he’s not doing it as if he’s really a punk rocker or something, you know, saying that he doesn’t like Bowie and Queen because they’re the antithesis of his ethos or something — now that would be quite funny. But he doesn’t do that, he just comes across as absolutely lacking in vision. Dull as ditchwater. He wouldn’t know talent if it came along and hit him on the head. And he is one of many. He’s probably a consultant for New Labour now.

3:AM: So you’re not happy with the state of publishing at the moment?

GB: There’s a lot to complain about. Just browse Waterstones and Borders, and weep. They put out turgid stuff that’s true, but there is good stuff if you look. There’s Luke Haines for instance. It’s out now, Bad Vibes. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s great that it’s out there. I thank god for things like Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm (which was found in an agent’s slushpile) and the publisher who finally acknowledged Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Plus I like Peter Owen who publishes lesser-known gems, including material by the legendary Jeremy Reed. Things like that keep me interested. Rupert Thomson, David Peace as well of course. There is good stuff.

3:AM: The Red Riding stuff and The Damned United are great…

GB: David Peace is a Stewart Home fan, apparently. Talent will out however short-sighted and myopic the industry players are. But it just amazes me the stuff that so often gets put out — on the premise that it is edgy. But often enough, that is not the case. I’ve spoken to publishers and they don’t even know who The Doors are. Unreal. Everyone I know starts off by listening to records, music. So there’s this background, shared points of reference. Listening to The Doors, Velvets, Punk, then reading Burroughs, Camus, Sartre and Hunter S. Thompson etcetera and there’s a whole load of people who have missed out on that whole journey and I find it hard to relate to them. These are these supposedly in touch people who are making a lot of decisions about what our culture is. So the kind of person making decisions about what our literary culture is is often that typical white middle-class heterosexual blonde female – although that might sound a bit misogynist and sexist so maybe I’ll take that back –whereas back in the sixties you had a much more idealistic kind of person. I think the person you get now is just weaned on Jane Austen and Ian McEwan, and listens to Duffy, The View and James Blunt. A generalisation perhaps, but that’s how it feels.

And the eighties as well, had a better breed of cultural decision-maker… but now it’s like your uncle and aunty are running the show. The relentlessly depressing squares have taken over. It’s harrowing. But I think anger and frustration motivates a lot of what I do. Anger is behind my novel. Anger against the status quo. I’m not a ticking-boxes person, but the novel doesn’t half tick a lot of boxes. Hits a lot of targets: gatekeepers, mediocrity, corporate brutality and greed. In particular, the novel is trying to define the insidious, creeping malaise of the modern day workplace.

At the moment, God, the government are really sinister. That feeds into what I wrote about in my novel. The modern workplace always has something unsavoury lurking round the corner. I worked for a while for Saatchi and Saatchi and I always thought there was something ominous there — probably Nigella Lawson hiding in a kitchen cupboard! I was glad that you mentioned Sam Taylor-Wood because she was always someone who I really couldn’t stand. She’s been ill so I’m not supposed to dislike her but really there’s so many people in the art world who are supposed to be on-the-edge and yet they’re really very conformist. Breakneck conformists. And unimpressive.

3:AM: You like the Stuckists?

GB: The Stuckists? Yeah, I like the Stuckists and what they’ve done. I like the way they critique the art world and they do it with a lot of fun and humour. Not everyone agrees with what they say all the time and may not like their art work, but Charles Thomson is a very articulate leader of the Stuckists, and I’m really glad that they’re around. A pin in the balloon of such arch pomposity in the art world. I’m sympathetic to people like that. Especially bothering po-faced tarts like Serota.

3:AM: So this anti-professionalism is linked with a counter-culture ethos right the way through?

GB: Yes, but I’m also against much of the counter-culture! I think TV’s Loose Women are more radical and fresh than some of the twits setting themselves up as counter-culture or underground. But yes, the mainstream always needs criticism.

But one of the things that really bugs me is to do with the way the industry treat some good people. With that kind of brutal indifference. And this can destroy creativity. The absolute ultimate example is John Kennedy Toole. His novel A Confederacy of Dunces is just incredible. In many a top five list. The people who turned his novel down are almost like murderers really. He took his own life after going unnoticed and that book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize years later and is a fantastic achievement. We need people who will pay attention and acknowledge excellence. There are too few critics who take their role seriously enough, who really consider their consequences. Too many critics are just writing about their friends or timidly heeding press releases from monolithic companies, and are not really thinking for themselves.

I saw an award-winning documentary about some man who was suffering from a devastating neurological illness ALS (Indestructible, directed by Ben Byers) and he was dying fast. And he made a documentary about his search for the cure. It made me think how important that project was. It was his lifeline. He had nothing else. Imagine if no one saw that film. His life could have been in vain. My book is ultimately about that lifeline. And really about how art is vitally important to people. The lead character is really shallow but by the end he begins to see how important it can be. Kind of gamekeeper turns poacher. There are worse things in the world going on obviously but shunning great artists is a disgraceful and horrendous pastime. Anyway, I tried hard to make the book disturbing.

3:AM: It was like a nightmare.

GB: When I was young I had terrible nightmares and so writing the book was a matter of trying to get that out to people. Let them share the burden. I wanted to affect people. I didn’t want it to be just a normal read. It sounds pretentious but it’s a kind of metaphysical murder mystery. There are mysteries, levels. Did he kill her? Did he rape her? Did anything even happen? And what are these repeating signs about? And many more questions. One of the quotes that influenced me was William Styron who said these bastards — publishers — “kill your babies, strangle them at birth”. He’s talking about how casually a writer or an artist can be destroyed by someone who is appointed with the power to decide what is good or not. I hate novels without passion. And this novel has my blood sweat and tears on it. I even ruined a long-term relationship over this novel because I put everything into this. So much sacrifice. Too much.

3:AM: You had no personal contacts to help you?

GB: None that are bloody alive, sadly! I could do with a little patronage. I’m related to Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press. He was my grandma’s cousin. But he’s long gone. It’s funny though when I was trying to persuade James Young to let me republish his book, part of the deal was that I had to give him a copy of Trocchi’s Young Adam from Olympia Press. When he heard about the Olympia Press connection, he thought I was the right publisher for him. He was so excited that I was related to the man who published Burroughs, Genet, Terry Southern, Nabokov, etc. I’ve got publishing in the blood, it would seem. But that just goes over the heads of some of the mainstream people I’ve talked to.

3:AM: You got some early help writing the book?

GB: Patti Palladin from the legendary 70s art-punk band Snatch. She’s worked with Johnny Thunders, Brian Eno, she’s a serious musician/producer, and she’s a good friend and she looked at the book really early on and said, ‘This is shit, I can’t read this. Sort it the fuck out’. And, man, you ignore someone like Patti at your own peril. It really kicked me up the arse. Made me work it out and make it compelling. And then she got really angry when I forgot to thank her in the book for her help, so I feel I should do so here. It was a big scandal between me and her…. but she’s been very helpful. I value her friendship and her influence on me and the Fortune Teller Press.

I like doing things without experience. I did the documentary without experience. I wrote the novel without experience. I publish without experience. So the new thing is to make some music without experience. Your ears might bleed initially, but you’ll thank me for ‘Chandler Bing Crosby Nash Stills & Young Frankenstein’ in the long run!

[Richard Marshall reviews Graham Bendel's A Nasty Piece of Work here.]

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 4th, 2009.