What Else Is There? A Tribute to Sebastian Horsley
By Tony O’Neill.
My friend, Sebastian Horsley, died yesterday of a heroin overdose. Sebastian and I kept up a steady correspondence over the last few years, after his memoir and my second novel both came out on Harper Perennial in the US.
Many moons ago I attended an AA meeting in Soho, and encountered Sebastian for the first time. I had arrived there straight off the plane from Los Angeles with a raging heroin habit, and no drug connections in the city. The first stop for any junkie who needs to know were to score is an AA meeting. Sit there, drink the free coffee, and listen to people speak. You’ll either meet someone with that look in their eyes — the “I’m about to relapse, and I’m gonna do it right after this stupid meeting” look. Otherwise, if you listen closely enough to the war stories, you will discover clues about where the drug markets are. It’s like sifting through the dirt of a river looking for gold.
So on this particular occasion I met Sebastian. As you know, Sebastian was an utterly striking figure. He was dressed in a powder pink suit, and wearing matching top hat. He held court at the meeting for a while, explaining how he would like to smoke a rock of crack the size of the Ritz, and talking about how much he detested AA. He said these things with such panache and wit that he had the room in stitches. I remember the drummer from Visage rebuking him for what he was saying, but even he had a smile on his face when he did it. For that moment alone, Sebastian had my sympathy. I was sick, and shaky, and intimidated by him. We never spoke, and I found my way back to the needle.
Years later, Carrie Kania (who runs the Perennial imprint) passed on Sebastian’s book to me. I recognized him immediately, staring out from the cover at me. In my heroin haze, I had missed all of the stuff in between – the crucifixion, the art, and the scandal. Upon reading it, I thought his book was a work of a bonda fide genius: sick, funny, sad and sexy. One day I truly believe that it will be regarded as a classic. I wrote to Sebastian, and we struck up a long email friendship that constantly threatened to spill over into real life, something that was thwarted by US customs, money problems, drugs, and all of the usual bullshit that the writing life involves.
I was due to meet with Sebastian in New York for the launch of his memoir. As you probably know, he was blocked from entering the country on the grounds of “moral turpitude”. Imagine, a man too immoral to enter the country that gave us the Bush years, Lindsey Lohan, and crack cocaine! Sebastian had promised to bring his infamous bespoke suit, the one he had tailored especially to accommodate four loaded syringes inside the jacket. Instead he didn’t make it past Newark airport. If you’ve ever been to Newark, you’ll realize just how depressing that is. He walked through customs dressed like Sebastian, of course, although he did confess that he made one small concession to the square sensibilities of Fortress America: he removed his nail polish. It didn’t make a difference. As he said to Carrie when he called her from the airport, prior to being sent back:
“There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that they’ve read the book. The bad news is… they’ve read the book.”
Sebastian’s not making it to America was a particularly bitter pill for him to swallow, although he did try to laugh it off at the time. But underneath the wit and the one-liners there was an undertow of regret about his being barred. After all, Sebastian was a man born to know — and enjoy — the excesses and contradictions of America. I find it very, very sad that to think that he will never get to see this beautiful, fucked-up country first hand.
Similarly my plans to visit him in London were thwarted, although not on the grounds of immorality. You always assume that there’ll be another time, another opportunity. Until something like this happens.
Sebastian’s emails to me were usually the highlight of my day,
Sebastian on the hardships of relying on writer’s income:
“No one pays me for anything either. I became a writer in the same way that I became a prostitute. First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends and finally I did it for money. It’s much harder to be a writer than a hooker because men are pickier about what they read than what they fuck, since they’d sooner fuck trash than read it.”
We bonded over a shared love of hard narcotics, literature and rock and roll. And also a hatred of social order, the nannying, cloying state of the modern world, the war on drugs, and Bono.
Sebastian on the Haitian earthquake:
“Isn’t this Haitian earthquake disaster awful? It means the Boomtown Rats are going to get back together. And more fucking dreadful songs from Bozo and his begging bowl.”
After I wrote to Sebastian congratulating him on his appearance on This Morning, defending his love of prostitution (next to an ex-prostitute, Phillip Schofield and that silly old bat who does the agony aunt bit whose name escapes me):
“I don’t know who is the biggest loser. Me for appearing on it or you for watching it. Photo finish I’d say.”
Goodbye, Sebastian. We never will go on that “syringe binge” together that we kept promising ourselves. I wonder if they have skag in whatever underworld you are headed for next? I should hope so… otherwise what would be the point? At least you won’t get refused entry for immorality this time around.
The world is definitely a poorer place today. When I heard the news, the last thing I wanted to do today was write anything. My first instinct was to just stay in bed listening to T Rex — Sebastian’s favorite band — and drink rum all day. I wrote this because I didn’t want the news of Sebastian’s death to be dominated by all of those piss-poor journalists who didn’t know much about him other than his press kit, and who routinely demolished him for being style over substance (which was particularly funny given the fact that this was Sebastian’s express intent). He was something of a failure at being superficial, though. After all, he accidentally wrote a book of substance that will live on in infamy for years to come. Sebastian was a true original, a character, and someone who truly didn’t give a fuck. I hope that some of his spirit lives on through his work, and through the people whose lives he touched. We need people like Sebastian now more than ever.
My Dear Tony,
Thank you my dear. It’s funny isn’t it that people like us who are considered so bad actually care so much about life? In spite of the shocking nature of how we are seen we are actually moralists. Our work has a terrible morality in fact.
You know something? When I wrote my book all I ever wanted was to write the best dandy book that had ever been written. Well, I succeeded there because there aren’t any. Then all I wanted was that the people I loved and respected would appreciate what I was doing. That the line I came from, and the line into which I was going was secure. And it is. I love that Carrie has introduced you and me and Dennis [Cooper] and that we are trying to keep the fire burning, the heart yearning and the mind learning.
What else is there? Existence is so meaningless we might as well make a kind of grandeur out of it rather than be nursed into oblivion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tony O’Neill is one of the leading lights of the Offbeat resistance and one of our best writers full stop. He is the author of Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. Read our 2006, 2007 and 2008 interviews with Tony.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 17th, 2010.