Truth and Lies at Christmas – a Seasonal Encounter With Mr Luke Haines 2
By Tim Mitchell.
The firelight danced on Mr Haines’s ruddy cheeks. He sighed contentedly.
‘I like the thought of people investing time and belief in séances,’ he said.
I looked at him quizzically.
‘I like them to have some kind of hope in things,’ he said. ‘I don’t necessarily believe in it myself, but there’s nothing better than seeing a happy room full of spiritualists enjoying themselves.’
I felt a warm glow at the pleasure Mr Haines took in these people’s happiness.
‘But there must be a certain amount of suspension of disbelief going on?’ I asked.
‘It’s the thought that counts,’ he said.
‘And the appearance of the Comte de Saint Germain in your work — what prompted that?’
He chuckled as he recalled what had inspired his song ‘The Spook Manifesto’. ‘I was listening to a mad guy in a pub,’ he said. ‘He was sitting on his own, talking into a mobile phone. He suddenly started saying that he was the Comte de Saint Germain — and my ears pricked up. It was a fantastic conversation. He said, “I need to speak to the Angel of Death” and all this stuff. “Can you get me on the phone to Lucy, I need to speak to the Angel of Death, tell her it’s the Comte de Saint Germain here.” He looked great. Like some old occultist who’d just gone too far, gone overboard. He looked like he could do you some proper violence. I just went back and wrote it all down from memory and filled in any of the gaps. And as the Comte de Saint Germain claimed to be, whatever it was, two hundred years old, well — it could have been him.’
‘Have you traced your own family history at all?’
‘No. I’m not remotely interested in it… There could be some terrible skeleton, but I think there probably isn’t. Some of my songs sometimes embrace that “evil in the everyday” kind of thing. I don’t necessarily think it’s always there. Sometimes there can be a white picket fence and behind it there’s just a nice white house with a nice family in it and there’s no real darkness there at all.’
At this time of year, when we are all glued to the screens of our televisions, feasting our eyes on those entertainers who would draw down the light from the very stars in their passionate desire to amuse us over the festive season, what memories did Mr Haines have of those other members of the cultural nobility, the Camden Britpop celebrities?
‘I knew Pulp quite well,’ he replied. ‘I am still on reasonably good terms with Jarvis. They’ve got this kind of impenetrable Yorkshire thing, you can never really be that involved with them unless you’re from there, that’s almost written in stone. Russell I still see occasionally. He now has a novelty pen empire. When I say novelty pen empire he sells those pens of nude ladies around the country. I think he just goes around in his car and takes them to some sort of market. He’s quite funny. So they were OK…’ Mr Haines recrossed his legs. ‘I moved to Camden, I think, the end of ’93. And then all of that stuff, I suppose it kicked off about ’94 or something. ’95 — that was when it really was swarming, but I never used to go and drink in the Good Mixer and places like that. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the Good Mixer in my life. I once stalked Stephen Duffy, TinTin Duffy, when he had that awful group with Alex James from Blur. I kept on seeing him in Camden and I never acknowledged him, so I got to the point of just following him and seeing how long it would take him to notice. He got quite perturbed by me, but it was just something to do on a dull Monday afternoon.’
‘And what of Messrs Jimmy Page and Robert Plant,’ I enquired, ‘what enticed them to celebrate your thirtieth birthday with you?’
‘Steve Albini was producing an album that they were doing. He was coming along to my party and, as a kind of joke, I think, he brought Page and Plant along. Robert Plant was kind of wheeled in to say “Happy Birthday” to me and we had a cursory chat. He was talking about football — football and Paul McCartney. That McCartney only speaks to him about football. That he doesn’t want to speak to McCartney about football, he wants to know how he recorded this and that. But Robert Plant is a nice man, I occasionally see him and he’s very funny, he just does this sort of gag, “How’s the old gang?” or “It’s the old gang back together!”, which is obviously always impressive if I’m with people, although, I’m sad to say, entirely untrue. We are not “the old gang” by any stretch of the imagination.’
At this a cackle escaped from Mr Haines’s lips. It seemed to create an urgent need in him for further liquid refreshment, and resulted in a bellow from his chair in the general direction of the bar, to the effect that a delivery of ale was required and that it should be made with considerable haste.
The barman, very smart in his waistcoat, tie and creased white shirt, arrived promptly, bearing a silver salver containing two tankards of a dark, foaming beer, which he proceeded to pass, first to Mr Haines, and then to me. There ensued a brief sotto voce conversation between the barman — whose name, I gathered, was Robertson — and Mr Haines. One thing I did hear most clearly, however, was an exchange concerning the girl in the red hood. She had been looking, the barman said, for a writer — Did anyone know where “the writer” was? The hint that a person of this ilk might perhaps be here or hereabouts had caused unrest among the drinkers. Robertson had been forced to remove her from the premises pronto.
And now Mr Haines proceeded to relate a further incident concerning another of the rock and roll glitterati.
‘A good Lou Reed story,’ he said. ‘A friend of mine, a guy called Aaron, is out walking in Greenwich Village and sees Lou Reed, his big hero. He starts following Lou, and this goes on for a while, and somehow Aaron misses his footing and ends up — bang! — on the floor. He’s slightly dazed by this and turns round, gathers himself, and looks up to see Lou Reed’s face looming over him, saying: “You fucking asshole!”
Mr Haines and I laughed most wholesomely at this charming anecdote.
‘One could imagine,’ I said, ‘such a reaction if he had encountered a journalist in such a way, but this was the man in the street — or perhaps should I say on the street…’
‘It’s always encouraging to hear those kinds of things,’ Mr Haines responded. ‘Lou Reed really is like he is. The world is as it should be. I don’t want to hear that Lou Reed has committed some awful act of generosity.’
‘And Mr David Bowie,’ I enquired, ‘how did he come to invite you to perform during his Meltdown festival?
‘I’d prefer Bowie cryogenically frozen,’ replied Mr Haines. ‘He wasn’t even in the country until he did that one show. I think the whole thing was delegated. I don’t know how much he had to do with any of it, really.’
‘And you were sharing a bill, as I recall, with Television?’
‘Tom Verlaine came into our dressing room,’ he recalled. ‘They were trying to cobble together some sort of art-rock Bowie trip and he knocked on our door. He didn’t even introduce himself, he just said:
“Bowie hit, two words.”
‘And that was him — out. Which is a perfect kind of Tom Verlaine thing. I liked that.’
And did Mr Haines plan any more trips to the homeland of Messrs Reed and Verlaine? Did he intend at any point to venture back across the pond, in order to bring enlightenment and entertainment to our culturally impoverished cousins? How were things between Mr Haines and the colonies these days?
‘I think I’m back to being utterly unknown in the States,’ he said. ‘That’s just the way it goes, unless you’re there all the time and you want to really give yourself a hard life. I can’t be bothered with all that shit. I’d rather be poor than conquer America.’
Let us hope that poverty is something Mr Haines need never worry about. And that he will continue to be sufficiently rewarded by that discerning section of the British public which buys his records as to be able to carry on enriching our cultural heritage until the day he decides to retire comfortably to a suitably luxurious part of this green and pleasant land! But, while we are dealing with the world outside these shores, what were the circumstances of his adoption of a Palestinian flag for a performance by the Auteurs back in the closing weeks of the last millennium?
‘That was really because it was the LSE,’ he said, ‘which was once obviously the hotbed of insurrection. I thought I’d do my own slight insurrection there. My friend Stewart Home, who’s not averse to the odd wind-up, thought it would be a jolly good wheeze. It was my idea, but he encouraged me to go and do it. I was doing stuff like that that year. We played another gig where there was a guillotine on stage — and that was merely because it was Bastille day. People seemed quite mystified by this. It’s just Bastille day, it’s a guillotine.’
‘Where did you get a guillotine from?’
‘It was some theatrical prop. I think on close inspection it wasn’t that good.’
‘Speaking of theatrical props and suchlike, what memories do you have of the Auteurs’ videos?’
‘The early ones look a bit like some early Suede videos,’ he replied. ‘It was the same girl who made theirs. I think we were probably getting their hand-me-downs. Whatever props were used in the last Suede video ended up in the next Auteurs one. The ‘Back with the Killer’ video, which Chris Cunningham did, I wasn’t that involved in. I left him to his own devices and tried to push him further and further on it. He got quite upset eventually… The record company hated that video because it was kind of unshowable and deeply inappropriate to the whole song anyway. He sort of blamed me for that — even though I had nothing to do with it — for egging him on… He ended up doing a version of it for everybody. It became his stock-in-trade with the Aphex Twin video. We had a kind of falling out about that. I think we’re OK now, because I don’t think either one of us can remember whose idea it was.’ He brightened. ‘I thought the ‘Rubettes’ video was good. The better videos are the ones that used to upset Virgin Records, and that was one. When they got the rough cut, the director made us both copies. It was the days of fax machines.’ He sighed. ‘I miss those days — it’s great when you get someone really angry about something, you get all these pages…’
His voice tailed off. He was dreaming of inky rice-paper dragons escaping from the nether regions of one of these machines, breathing invisible fire.
And then suddenly he was back with me.
‘Virgin had the rough cut of this video,’ he said. ‘It was literally 0.01 seconds, car bomb!’ He beamed delightedly at the memory. ‘And they made a list of changes they wanted made. They started it with this warning, the wording was something like: “Virgin Records would like to make it clear that Luke Haines has been signed to this label as an entertainer, not to make a political comment” — which it wasn’t — “and the list of following changes needs to be implemented.” There was reams of this stuff! I had the list stuck on my fridge for ages, it was hilarious. We still got away with loads of things, there’s the Black Maria taking the Yorkshire Ripper off… Obviously it never got shown anywhere… Well, actually, it must have been shown somewhere because it’s up on YouTube. It’s from MTV or somewhere. These things usually get shown there in the dead of night.’
Mr Haines’s song ‘The Rubettes’ is from the Auteurs album How I Learned to Love the Bootboys. Death and violence punctuate and permeate this work. I asked Mr Haines about the reference to a threat to murder him in the song ‘Some Changes’.
‘That was a friend of mine,’ he replied, ‘who, from hearsay, I think was a paranoid schizophrenic. I think what happened was that he got hold of the first Auteurs album, having not seen me for a long time, and assumed that a lot of the lyrics were about him — and they weren’t. And that’s very typical of paranoid schizophrenics.’
An unlikely thought occurred to me.
‘There is no mental illness in your own family, is there, sir?’
My concern was met by a slight raising of Mr Haines’s hand, which then tilted from side to side a couple of times, like an aircraft signalling with its wings. As it did so, he watched it carefully, with brows briefly knotted. It was as if he suspected it of having taken on the kind of autonomous existence developed by “Pyewhacket” — as Peter, the narrator of Mr Robert Irwin’s novel Satan Wants Me, names his own right hand when it begins to write autonomously and against his own will. Mr Haines has, of course, written most adroitly of this novel in his own song of the same name.
‘Not in any kind of stunning way, no,’ Mr Haines said. ‘There’s no one going out for cigarettes and getting on a train dressed as Napoleon. Nothing like that.’
Pyewhacket had done its worst. Mr Haines was without doubt now fully in control of his hands. He snapped his fingers again and then levelled one of them at the fire. Almost immediately, a young lad appeared from the gloom, laden with logs, and began to throw them on to the flames — shielding his face as best he could from the infernal heat.
Read Part 1
Read Part 3
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Mitchell is the author of the novel Truth and Lies in Murder Park: a Book About Mr Luke Haines, published by benben press. He has also written books on Jonathan Richman, John Cale and Television. As a musician he has performed and recorded with the poet Jeremy Reed. He is currently completing a novel about spying, and working on another about art and terrorism.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 18th, 2009.