AN INTERVIEW WITH BERTIE MARSHALL, PUNK LEGEND
" I think Malcolm McLaren had the notion of creating a scene around the Sex Pistols like The Factory around Andy Warhol and The Velvets. I think some journalist for the NME named us the Bromley Contingent. I really can't remember. For me, having some kind of group identity at the time wasn't a problem: I was glad there were other freaks out there I could be friends with."
Andrew Gallix interviews Bertie Marshall
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
BERTIE MARSHALL & THE BROMLEY CONTINGENT
3AM: Could you tell us a little about your life in south London before Punk came along?
BM: Empty, isolating, terminal boredom. The only thing to do was go to jumble sales, charity shops looking for bargains in footwear and clothes. I moved to Bromley in 1969 from Catford, three doors away from Bowie's mum. I used to hear him practising sometimes, screech of electric guitar. I left school at 13 due to constant bullying, then drifted through life until I met Simone Thomas, Simon Barker and Steve Severin [who went on to form The Banshees with Siouxsie].
3AM: what were they like at the time?
BM: Unusual. Steve was shy and dreamy. Simon was sly and creepy. Both had great knowledge about music, films, and were very stylish.
3AM: When did you start calling yourself Berlin? Why the whole Cabaret fixation?
BM: 1976…I liked the movie Cabaret, especially Fosse's aesthetic mixed in with Isherwood's eye for detail and brilliant recording of that era in Germany, so evocative. There seemed to be some correlation to London in the 1970s. I particularly liked the Nazi look, so well tailored, and all black.
3AM: Tell us about your other early influences: Bowie, Roxy Music, Clockwork Orange, The Velvet Underground…
BM: Patti Smith, Nico, Yoko Ono, Bowie of course, even Alice Cooper for School's Out. I also liked Billy Holiday, Edith Piaf and Barbara.
3AM: I believe you already knew Sex, Malcolm McLaren's boutique, before discovering the Sex Pistols. Did you hang out there a lot?
BM: On Saturdays…We went to the shop before we saw The Pistols. Jordan (see picture) was incredible. Like Anita Pallenberg is supposed to be the sixth Rolling Stone, Jordan was the fifth Sex Pistol.
3AM: When did all the others come onto the scene: Siouxsie, Debbie, Billy Broad (future Billy Idol), Sharon, Tracey O'Keefe? Was Sue (Lucas) Catwoman (see picture) one of the gang?
BM: We all met at my party, except Sue Catwoman who was an impostor and a mangy cur. Nobody liked her. That one look and being at the right place at the right time. And she wasn't even from Bromley!
3AM: Legend has it that Simon Barker attended an early Pistols concert (December 1975) and was the only one clapping at the end. How long after that did you get to see the band? What were your impressions?
BM: At the 100 Club…Chaos…They were a real riot and dangerous, a big mess of noise and feedback. There was nothing like them at the time, except maybe The Stooges, Jayne [then called Wayne] County or The New York Dolls.
3AM: When did the press notice you at Pistols gigs and start calling you the Bromley Contingent? Did you mind being lumped together in this way? To what extent did McLaren use you to give the impression that there was a whole movement behind the band?
BM: I think Malcolm had the notion of creating a scene around the Pistols like The Factory around [Andy] Warhol and The Velvets. I think some journalist for the NME named us that. I really can't remember. For me, having some kind of group identity at the time wasn't a problem: I was glad there were other freaks out there I could be friends with.
3AM: The Anarchy in the UK fanzine with Ray Stevenson's photos of the Bromley Contingent played a great part in fostering the idea of a scene surrounding the Pistols. Where were all those legendary pictures taken?
BM: Linda Ashby's apartment in St James Hotel (see picture by Ray Stevenson). She loved it that they graffitied on the walls. Linda got into the scene quickly and loved it.
3AM: What was Billy Idol like in those days?
BM: Billy was a sweetie then before he dyed his hair blond and formed Generation X. He used to give me lifts home in his Ford transit van. I haven't seen him for twenty years. He was straight, but in a nice way.
3AM: In Jon Savage's book, England's Dreaming (p. 184), you state that you were Siouxsie and Steve Severin's "little plaything". Were you referring, for instance, to the time when Siouxsie took you on a lead into a suburban wine bar, that sort of thing?
BM: You'd have to read my book [BERLIN, Bromley] there!
3AM: Again in England's Dreaming (p.183), Debbie Wilson explains that "people think that the early days of Punk were all banging along at Sex Pistols gigs. . . . But for me it was camping it up down Park Lane with a gang of trannies. All my friends, John, Blanche, Tracey, Berlin, were on the game. . . . It was all in Park Lane: it was the most outrageous place in the world. . . . [I]t got to the stage where prostitution wasn't that bad a thing to do. It became part of the new London." What part did dominatrix Linda Ashby play in introducing prostitution to "the new London"? Could you describe the atmosphere in her flat at the St James Hotel (where Simon Barker rented a room), and tell us of your personal experience of prostitution? When was that picture of you and Jordan at the St James Hotel taken?
BM: Linda didn't introduce me to prostitution. It happened almost accidentally. Linda never worked the streets like 'we' all did, she had a sex dungeon in Earl's Court. Yes, we were streetwalkers in Westwood and McLaren's bondage gear, I topped it off with a face full of make up, of course. God, I was a pretty boy back then -- sort of Bambi meets Wiona Ryder! Whoring wasn't fun. It was sordid, I needed so many drugs to get through it, opiates after all the speed I'd done. It really made me shut down on an emotional level. I did have a lover at the time who was an ex-boxer, navy, thief, so I was having a bit of Jean Genet there. He was lovely and, of course, a bastard. I felt like a skinny bone that old men and Arabs could nibble at for £20. Linda's flat was decorated in Heals sofas and velvet curtains, it was my first touch with a certain glamour. She was very generous with her pills and vodka that she'd send out for at 4am. It wasn't Punk aesthetic at all, it was very 70s. Linda was very schizo though, moody, a drama queen, you were in favour then out. Simon did eventually rent a room there, but that's his story, not mine. That photo of Jordan and me was taken in Linda's hallway in 1977 by Simon Barker. We were supposed to be interviewed and photographed for some fanzine that never happend. What you can't see in the pic is I'm wearing, six-inch stiletto heels. What a little slut I was!
3AM: In Vacant: A Diary of the Punk Years 1976-79, Simon Barker recalls how "the hardcore of the London punk scene met by night" (p.63) in Louise's, a lesbian club. Debbie, in England's Dreaming (p. 183), explains that "it was the Bromley Contingent who introduced the Pistols to the gay scene" (p. 183). Steve Severin even claims that "Everything sprang from that gay scene" (Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs p. 202). How important was the gay scene in the early days of Punk? Did the Pistols' entourage dance to soul and disco at clubs like Louise's?
BM: Siouxsie and I danced to Diana Ross and various soul music. The gay scene wasn't a scene then, it was still undercover, which I preferred, it was more exciting. No one bothered you in gay bars/clubs, they might resent you a bit for being different, but there was no violence.
3AM: On 8 June 1977, Nils Stevenson wrote in his diary that "The psychos are taking over and the camp element are abandoning ship" (Vacant p. 102). Alan Jones, another famous figure on the early Punk scene, explained (twenty years later) that "Once Punk became less of a fun fashion thing and more violent -- the Jubilee boat party was the turning point for me -- I gave up, started wearing Village People leather outfits and moved on to roller disco!" (Vacant p. 103). Did you have a similar experience?
3AM: Besides The Sex Pistols, were you into any other Punk bands?
BM: Patti Smith, the Slits, X-Ray Spex, Jayne County, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop. I hated nearly everything else.
3AM: Do you know what has happened to Debbie, Simon Barker, Linda Ashby and Sue Catwoman? Do you still see some of the people from those days?
BM: I see Siouxsie and Steve. We've been friends now for 25 years! Sue Catwoman: who cares? Linda disappeared. Debbie: don't know. Simon lives in North london and, apparently, is a miserable old queen!
3AM: Many New Romantics (Steve Strange, for instance) came from Punk. Were you interested in that scene which, at first, shared many similarities with the Bromley Contingent?
BM: Steve Strange tried to get me involved in that scene, but I was too burnt out. I had a meeting with him and Rusty Egan and they begged and begged me! I just didn't have the energy and, besides, I didn't want to hop from one scene to the next, and quite rightly because the New Romantics were hideous.
3AM: In 1980 you formed a new wave band called Behaviour Red. The band released a single single, in 1982, with a very gothic-looking Bertie Marshall ("Hands in an attitude of prayer" as you write in your fiction) on the cover. Could you talk to us a little about the band and its influences?
BM: Someone said I was like a combination of Siouxsie and Sid Vicious! Hump! I wanted to put poetry to music somehow. It was a four piece bass, drums, guitar and me on vocals and bits of percussion. I wrote all the words, of course. It was great for a while. The guitarist and I were good collaborators. He was blond with green eyes and sexy, we became blood brothers to the horror of his girlfriend. We played all over London in 81-82 in little clubs. That single ''kekekekyaya'' was nuts, a lot of screeching and tribal drumming and psychedelic guitar feedback. If I was copying dear Siouxsie, it wasn't conscious: I had a real and specfic interest in magic, voodoo... also heroin and make up. We were a pretty bunch of boys. It's essential to have pretty boys in pop/rock music. I yelled very loudly. Someone wanted to put out a single so we did it. It sold 300 copies and got played on John Peel's show and then that was that.
I, AUTHOR, FAGGOT, GUTTERSNIPE
"I still love him, I, author, faggot, guttersnipe, still adore my Berlin Boy. I've dug him up from the wood pile, from the debris of old stories no one will ever read."
3AM: You started writing at the age of 16 which means that the beginning of your writing career coincided with Punk. Was there a connection between the two?
BM: Not really. I started writing in a school exercise books, caffeine-induced rants, just outpourings of my adolescent mind, but I suppose it was punky. Do hate that term! What does it mean? Nothing at the time.
3AM: You describe yourself as an "avid reader": which writers inspired you to put pen to paper? Which ones do you read today?
BM: Marguerite Duras, Jean Rhys, Denton Welch, Burroughs, Anna Kavan: mostly French or American writers from 20th century. I just can't read classical lit. I don't have any feeling for it. I don't read for pleasure I read for intent, to see what the writer is saying beneath the words, what he's disguising, what's going on in his life that's turned into fiction.
3AM: How did you meet Kathy Acker in 1994? Why did she have such a "pivotal influence" on your work?
BM: Kathy was the last of the 'punks' in her attitude…a pirate. I knew her the last three years of her life. She came to read at a spoken word club in Brighton, where I worked as a PA. We instantly hit it off, she loved my 'history' and as I had just started thinking about publishing work , she told me to DIY, send out copies of the work, known as chap books in the U.S. and that way people get to know the work. So I typed up stuff and my boyfriend typeset and printed it and we sent them out. It wasn't vanity publishing it was more lo- fi than that, but it got me the attention of Dennis Cooper and Ira Silverberg of Grove Press in New York City. Kathy just encouraged me to take some action really, not to wait around for the publishing industry to take notice, they're only concerned with commerce and not quality of work. And I like her work for its intelligence and experimental quality. She was constantly, with every new book pushing and destroying expectations. You see, she was very 'punky'.
3AM: You told Spike Magazine that your first novel was "a heavily fictionalised account of [your] Punk days." Why couldn't you get it published?
BM: Not commerical, wrong time, first book. It went through six drafts and one agent and then I thought fuck it, so I went straight into Psychoboys without one iota of compromise.
3AM: After the publication of Psychoboys, you tried to distance yourself from the gay literary scene. Why?
BM: Because I don't want to be known as a gay writer. The writing's for everyone not just the rainbow flag lot. I hate to be pigeonholed at any level, I hate assumptions. The gay lit scene have no idea who I am really...Gay lit scene, there'll be gay furniture next!
3AM: Before relocating to New York in 1997, you lived in Brighton. Why had you moved out of London? Did Brighton have an impact on your writing? In the same way, did New York influence your second (still unpublished) novel, Torn?
BM: I hated London at the time, my partner was from Brighton and I wanted to be by the sea, so we moved. I wrote a lot in Brighton, because it was strangely remote. We smoked hash all day and I wrote several books there, I got some money from the local Arts Council which we spent on a not very dirty weekend in Amsterdam. I moved to NYC in 97 after Psychoboys came out to push it a bit over there and fell in love with the city and its people. I really was "la belle abandonnée" there, it was so great, I wrote Torn and started a new one and wrote freelance stuff. I just had wonderful times and drugs and love affairs. It did influence the work, how could it not? It was a love affair in so many ways. I hope it's still there so I can go back.
3AM: There is a definite element of nostalgie de la boue in your work (rent boy Rez fucking his old transexual sugar mummy Ms Thing) but also a great deal of humour at the same time (Berlin Boy being sodomized with a Haagen Dazs peanut butter chocolate bar springs to mind). Could you comment upon this?
BM: My version of Marianne Faithfull's mars bar story...also I found it funny, I do have a sick sense of humour. Even in tragedy there's something humourous, I saw Peter Brook's Hamlet recently in London and it was very funny.
3AM: Reading your fiction I was reminded of Rabelais, Joe Orton, Ronald Firbank and Alasdair Gray. Have any of these authors been a direct influence?
BM: Yuk no!
3AM: What are you currently working on?
BM: I'm working on BERLIN, bromley, an autobiographical account of my life in 1976-77. It'll probably be my only stab at something vaguely commercial. There's also a certain amount of putting the record straight, actually just telling my story as simply as possible about those two incredible years. And I'm still working on another novel, Dead England, which has been dragged around several continents with me for the past two years and is still only 58 pages long! Stylistically, it's like Torn, which I hope gets published. I find it hard to talk about the work when I'm still in it. I always need a distance of a year or two to see it clearly. I'll end with a quote from Marguerite Young who wrote the 1,200 page-long novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling: '' If you can't be obsessive, don't love, don't live and certainly don't write.''
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
was born in 1960, grew up in Catford, South London, dropped out of school to follow the Sex Pistols in 1976, and became part of the legendary Bromley Contingent. His first novel, Psychoboys
was published in 1997. Bertie is currently writing his autobiography (look out for an extract in 3am
soon). Further reading: see Spike magazine