FUCKING THE BOOKS
"Having spent a good few years attempting and failing to get novels published until it became something of an obsession -- do or die -- and ignoring all the advice given to me, I realised there was truth in a couple of things I'd been told. Namely, that you should always write what you know about. And secondly, all first novels are heavily autobiographical."
Andrew Stevens interviews cult author, music journalist, label boss and former undercover tabloid reporter Ben Myers for 3AM.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: You're not from London originally, are you?
BM: I was born and grew up in Durham city. Margaret Thatcher oversaw my formative years by raping and pillaging the local economy, but like everyone else I'm sure she'd now reply "Hey, it was the 80's!" Who needs coal anyway? Durham was a great place to grow up though. There was just enough to do to not die from boredom but not enough to keep me there without first seeing some of the world. Durham City is a strange mix of teenage mothers in shellsuits, wealthy students, battling beer boys in for the evening from the ex-pit villages and some of the Northeast's more upwardly mobile sorts; a collision of old historical buildings and urbane high street coffee shops, piss-stinking bus station and a beautiful cathedral. To most Geordies, Durham is 'posh' anyway. As with anyone in any place you gravitate towards those you feel most comfortable with to halve the chance of being the recipient of another random street-beating.
Sex-and-drugs-and-rock-n-roll ensured that my higher education options were limited and, having been turned down by every university and college in the land, I ended up moving to Luton, where they had just hung a 'University' sign on the former poly . Luton is a culture-free hell hole of subways, roundabouts, nasty nightclubs, nastier hookers, racial tension, drug problems... again, in such situations you find the people you can relate to. At college there was a lot of beer, music, amphetamine, discussion and endless Blitzkrieg trips to London where the true excitement lay. A friend of mine called Vinnie Jones sold speed for £2 a gramme -- and this was less than ten years ago -- so that took care of all dietary needs. Sometimes me and a couple of friends would glam-punk ourselves up and go down the local nightclub to see what happened. Sometimes we got beaten up, sometimes we stole their ladies. I studied English Literature on a course by feminists and Marxists all called 'Ruth' or 'Julian' and spent all my free time either drinking or sitting in the library discovering people like Henry Miller , Sylvia Plath and Hemingway -- the usual -- and reading books about politics, media and art. Reading, writing and listening to music was all that really mattered.
Halfway through my, ahem, studies I started writing 'properly' (i.e. it was being read by people) by first doing odd jobs in the offices of a scumbag tabloid paper in my late teens and then contributing reviews and interviews to Melody Maker. It gave me great pleasure to leave a note to one of my lecturers saying "Sorry I can't make it today but I'm going to London to interview Noel Gallagher". The interview fell through, but it made me look quite good in front of my peers. Personally I've always despised Oasis anyway. So conservative, so pedestrian.
Writing took over and I began to spend more and more time at the Melody Maker offices in London where I viewed the writers the same as others would view rock stars, either sleeping on my sister's floor or hanging round for the 5am milk train home from Kings Cross. I left college with a 'Desmond' -- a 2:2 (a bum's degree) and was offered a job as staff writer at the magazine the following week. I got to write about all the ROCK bands. I promptly moved to London into my own squatted flat where I stayed for four years working, writing novels and short stories and travelling abroad lots with bands until I was evicted by the courts. I spent quite a bit of time in places like LA, which was a bit different to Luton. It was during that time that I wrote The Book Of Fuck in one frantic espresso-fuelled burst.
So now I find myself in London, complete with black snots and a fuck-you stare on the street to keep would-be mentalists at arm's length. I currently live in Peckham, among the rich nu-bohemians, the students, the workers and the rude boys, which is great. You get the very best pirate radio sounds round these parts.
3AM: Have you always lived in Peckham while you've been in London?
BM: I moved into a large Victorian building that had been squatted ever since it had been abandoned by the council (and as Duke Of Cornwall, Prince Charles, who owned all the land) overlooking the Oval cricket ground. It was relic of 70s era 'Lambeth loony left' , which suited me perfectly, because I missed all that first time round. Three day weeks, punk rock, angry young Portuguese men, cat shit in the hall way, beards -- excellent! Count me in.
The building was originally used to house young Victorian-era nurses and comprised about forty flats, which had then been sub-divided, portioned, modified and filled with all sorts of tat and vermin and weirdness. Sometimes at night I used to think I could hear these teenage nurses giggling in the walls.
My neighbours included everyone from aristocracy to drug dealers, teachers to musicians to junkies. Someone opened a critically acclaimed Art gallery next door. Someone else turned an empty space into a self-run bar. Ian Dury wrote most of his over-rated hits when he lived there in the 70s and (artist) Sarah Lucas was often to be seen rummaging through the dustbins. Again, that was before my time. Inhabitants came from Finland, Australia, Chile… everywhere. Punks, poshos, skag-heads. I paid a total of £5 rent in four years, which is about as perfect as it gets for a struggling writer, artist or indeed anyone. Not long after I moved in my upstairs neighbour took a swan dive off the roof. His friends erected one of those London heritage plaques that signify if a famous artist or politician has resided there. It's still there now -- just go down to Kennington Oval, SE11. That building should be turned into a museum.
I had a bath that stood on breezeblocks in the middle of the kitchen so my personal hygiene was never in question. I never cooked lentils or listened to Hawkwind neither. So while in many ways it was the archetypal squat -- and certainly one of London's most famous -- most of the residents never subscribed to the usual stereotypes. In fact, collectively we did a fuck of a lot more for the building and the surrounding area that the council ever did. Over two decades the place was made habitable, private contractors took away our rubbish, leaky roofs were fixed -- yet it was us who were painted as dolescum in the local London papers (I never signed on once as it happens). It was nice though to live the leftish dream in such a flagrant and obvious way for a while. It certainly fuelled any sub-Bukowski pretensions I might have been harbouring.
Eventually the council got wise and took us to court. Four years -- and in my case a few thousand pounds of legal fees -- later we were evicted in a high profile legal case. They boarded up the doors and windows and let the rats and the pigeons and the foxes move in (though not before I'd covered every wall of flat with quasi satanic scrawls and cryptic message to give the council men something to worry about). It gave my great pleasure to turn on the cricket the other day and in the background see people back on the roof of the old building with their beer and their madness. Meaning: the council are so fucking dumb they haven't noticed the more hardy squatters of the capital are moving back in again.
Anyways... I recommend that life to anyone who wants to write a book, record an album or buy drugs without even having to step outside in the street. Or feel like an outlaw for a while.
3AM: You were a tabloid journalist for a while -- why did that stop?
BM: There's no such thing as a tabloid 'journalist' as such -- not if journalism means digging out the truth in something. But yeah, a friend of a friend worked in the mailroom at News International , where he ran a little sideline with one of the writers selling drugs within the corporation -- it would make a great expose. But who would write it and where? Only tabloid readers care about these things in the first place...
Through my friend of a friend I got some work helping out at News Of The World -- answering phones, opening that disgusting fuck Michael Winner's mail, writing bits of copy -- TV previews or whatever. Then one of the reporters asked me if I was interested in doing something a bit more worthwhile -- namely going undercover for them in attempt to infiltrate a suspected paedophile ring based in or around the Mile End road. They'd seen an advert for a youth group for gay and lesbian kids aged 11-18, thought it sounded dodgy, and wanted to send a 'sixteen year old' in there with a wire. A sixteen year old who was unsure about his sexuality. I was nineteen, short and sporting badly bleached hair at the time, so they approached me. I was pretty sure about my sexuality but agreed to do it. I wanted to be Clark Kent.
So I went to this youth club, complete with a whole false background that had been written for me by the reporter -- who I actually quite fancied, possibly the real reason I was doing it -- and ingratiated myself with the sexually-liberated yoof of East London. The place was run by a couple of very well-meaning lesbians and it quickly became apparent that it was all above board and so what if a kid was thirteen and gay? At least they had someone to go. The News Of The World didn't see it that way and wanted dirt, scrutinising the conversations I'd had with my new pals. They wanted it to be a paedophile ring. They wanted to hear tales of kids being fiddled -- that shit sells papers. So they sent me back the following week while the reporter and photographer sat over the road eating a curry, camera at the ready, while I did all the work. There probably exists somewhere a reel of photos of myself, two lesbians and an oddball mix of gay and lesbian kids, stepping out into the July sunshine of Mile End. It was pretty intense having a dictaphone taped to me and having to duck out to the toilets to turn the tape over halfway through the evening. I wonder what they would have thought if I had been caught. Probably extreme disappointment -- I got on well with these people.
The paper paid £120 an hour, which I'm ashamed to say was a major incentive for me, yet I decided there and then that I would tell them nothing anyway and that if is this was 'journalism' they could keep it. If there was a story there they could unearth it themselves. Many of these people were - and probably still are -- cokehead types, who would think nothing of writing really reactionary stories about drug dealers and what not. Salacious, pointless stuff. Knee-jerk gossips bowing to a dictatorial right-wing company ethos, whatever their own beliefs. Rupert Murdoch. I hate that guy. I knew that if I had to out a celebrity or stitch up a vicar or teacher who had been caught philandering then it was time for a re-think.
So I dyed my hair black and decided to become a writer instead. And I never did get anywhere with the reporter...
3AM: Did any of these experiences feed into The Book of Fuck?
BM: Yes, all of them did really. Having spent a good few years attempting and failing to get novels published until it became something of an obsession -- do or die -- and ignoring all the advice given to me, I realised there was truth in a couple of things I'd been told. Namely, that you should always write what you know about. And secondly, all first novels are heavily autobiographical.
I wanted to tackle the absurd world of music -- and within it music journalists -- but written for people who don't necessarily have an interest in the music I like. I wanted to make the trashy world of rock 'n' roll and the dumb corporate schematic within which a lot of it operates and place it in a literary context. I wanted to apply a sense of poetry to it all in order to make some sense of my life; to give a point to the inordinately pointless. The intention was to poke fun at everyone I know who takes their involvement in the London music business way too seriously -- I'm taking about journalists on magazines, publicists, the major label lackeys, the horrendous people I've met in Hollywood, some of the deluded artists, the people who work in TV… I've spent a lot of time around these people -- maybe I'm one of them myself -- and frankly, you couldn't make them up. Perfect fodder for a book, then.
I also decided that if I was going to complete this novel then it should take the narrator from A to B, so decided to apply a pulp detective pastiche approach where a journey or a search is undertaken. Previously I'd given no thought to structure in anything I'd done, which is where I was going wrong, although I didn't know how The Book Of Fuck was going to end until I got to the final page myself. In the year or two beforehand I'd spent quite a bit of time hanging around Marilyn Manson , who I always got on with and thought was hilarious, a chap with a great sense of humour and who -- incredibly -- was considered a threat to the children of America. How threatening can a heavy metal clown be? At that point I realised that the American psyche truly is bent out of shape. When I first interviewed him at his place in LA not long after the Columbine High School shooting he hadn't left his house for four months! Too many organisations were after him. I thought that that was absurd but it made me realise how powerful rock 'n' roll -- essentially the playground for drop-outs, misfits and ego maniacs -- really can be.
But I didn't want to write about Marilyn Manson, I wanted to write about me because I'm an egomaniac too and he gets enough coverage as it is. I should also point out that I gave up drinking in order to get this fucker written. Now that's dedication.
Some reviews have compared The Book Of Fuck to Hunter S. Thompson, which is a compliment, but he was never in mind when writing it. I think some people have a limited frame of reference and thought, oh yeah, music journalism + fiction = 'gonzo'. The biggest influence was actually a writer called Richard Brautigan. I knew I wanted to write something serious/credible but it came out comical because well, rock 'n' roll does change lives but it is also a highly absurd place in which to live your life. Also if some of the secondary characters appear to be stereotypes then that's because I meet a lot of walking talking clichés in these here shark-infested waters.
Most of all I wanted to apply my experiences to something that was truthful and raw and real, I wanted it to reflect the music I liked and the sense of urgency with which it is created. I guess ultimately The Book Of Fuck is a combination of poetry and punk rock (but not 'punk poetry', which is a horrible image) set in a world that is one step removed from reality. The book itself was written in a couple of cafes in Kennington, wired on black coffee and sat against a radiator to warm up before heading back to my deep freeze abode. I don't know. I think sometime in the next few months I'm going to embark on a bigger project, one that might take more than seven days to complete. I think I have it within me; I still feel like it's a matter of do or die or shut the fuck up…
3AM: Was it important to set the book in South London?
BM: Not especially, though I am fascinated with the place. I've gone through lots of different feelings about London -- from paranoia and repulsion to awe and joy. At first it's exciting, but then the cynicism and everyday rigours of it all kicks in - the crime, the filth, the people. Then, after a while, you realise that that's half the appeal anyway. I think most people who move to London are secretly attracted to the dark side, or otherwise certainly revel in the anonymity the place affords its dwellers. You can move around molested only by strangers rather than the familiar faces of a small town. I don't know which is better/worse, but London definitely has the best book shops.
What's interesting is in South London -- specifically Camberwell and Peckham, where I live -- you can see one street full of rich city workers living in plush town houses worth half a million and their 2.4 children, then two streets over there'll be a rough estate full of families with shell-suited spawn. The class division is more apparent than ever but the fact that the two co-exist is admirable I think, something we as a species should be proud of. I personally think Peckham is much maligned and often misunderstood -- William Blake saw visions of angels in the trees around these parts you know. Sometimes I think I know how he must have felt. But I'm only interested because I live here, otherwise I wouldn't give two shits. If William Blake had seen devils in a bus stop in Corby it wouldn't really matter to me. I hope that doesn't make me parochial, we just all tended to be influenced by our immediate surroundings, particularly in a place as all-enveloping and complicated as South London. We are after all nothing other than animals. But to answer your question... South London seemed the perfect backdrop to a rock n' roll yarn about Satanism and bad journalism -- Dickens used London as his lead character in every book, and so have countless others, for good reason. Plus, more prosaically, London is the centre of the music business in Britain, which is half the reason I ended up here, half the reason the book got written. My next couple of books are going to be quite different though. Everyone knows the music business is a shark-infested cesspit anyway. Move on.
3AM: What else are you working on at the moment then?
BM: I'm selling my ass. On the one hand I write books on music and bands because I love it and means avoiding a job, but mainly I do it to by me time to write more fiction. But then in 2003 I decided to start up a record label too. It's called Captains of Industry and things have rolled quickly. We've put out six releases in as many months, booked a couple of tours, thrown a couple of punk rock parties, all with little forethought -- all done on instinct and a shoestring budget.
As a group of people running a label that spreads into other things, we're influenced by obscure artistic/political movements from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century -- people like Marinetti and the Italian futurists - and bad glam rock bands like Tigertailz, who we liked as pubescents the first time, before it was cool and ironic to wear a bullet belt and like metal. We're based in Durham, London and the many wires and satellites in between. Spiritually speaking anyway - we don't have an office. I have a pile of CD's and tatty books on the Situationists that I read for rhetorical inspiration for our press releases and missives, which are slowly infiltrating the national music press. Sometimes big record labels take me out for lunch, talk nonsense for a while, then I never hear from them again. It's very funny - who are these people and what do they want? I always meet them in the same restaurant, always order a fiorentina and dough balls.
Anyway, the label takes up half of each day, the other half is spent writing and scratching my balls and listening to Cat Stevens records. Then the third half is spent getting up to mischief as a fringe character in the rock hinterlands and upstairs back rooms and piss-drenched corridors of London, or else just smoking drugs and writing some more books. I'm doing one at the moment, this very afternoon. It's class. So far I've written a scene about the repercussions of a chap who has melted wax poured on his nipples, and a scene about his lost friendships in a Northern town. I've just got to work out what happens next. Or in between.
I've also just written a book on the band Muse , who play the most ludicrous guitar solos ever. I've given them plenty of time and interviewed them, so sat down and wrote it in about six weeks, with a few days in the middle on tour with them. I listened to them all day every day, sixteen hours a day, throughout last winter. I call it method writing. If you put yourself in the right zone, immerse yourself in one subject deeply, after that it's just typing. My first book was American Heretics , a collection of interviews and theories with outspoken American rock stars, largely informed by what happened on September 11th. In fact, it was originally called 'Blame America', but that got me in trouble. Actually, The Book of Fuck got in trouble abroad too. Some catholic country had a problem with the title or something.
At the moment I'm writing a book about John Lydon's life after the Pistols. I research the facts, do some interviews, then lavish it all with my opinion. I'll write about anyone, anything, if it means avoiding a job. This is never a job. If I don't do it, someone else will and probably better, and that thought keeps me awake at night. So I get in there first.
3AM: The Book of Fuck has a very US, DIY publishing feel to it. How important is that to you?
BM: It's pretty important, purely because the DIY ethic you speak of has got me this far. I've never been to a job interview, never signed on, make no pensions contributions. It's only the past couple of years that I've committed my name to mundane things like bills - previously they were all registered under pseudonyms. The point being, if you can retain control of your life, you're doing pretty good. The natural extension of that is doing things like writing books that you suspect will never be read finding a home at places which follow similar principles. I've been through the rejection route of agents and major publishing house and it can be totally destructive. Why bother? So many of my favourite writers, artists and musicians come from some call the underground, what once was called the counter-culture. Punk rock. Dogme films, Kerouac, Hunke and the Beats -- and before them, writers like John Fante and Knut Hamsun, people who existed on the periphery in their lifetimes, but were ultimately proved to be visionaries of sorts. But it's not all backward-looking -- today's counter-culture exists in the anti-capitalists, the scheming webheads and the true underground sounds that are out there.
All this good stuff is created with no thought to commercial value, a way of thinking that seems to dominate so much of the output of today's culture and entertainment. We all know this, but it's a case of doing something about it -- there's no time to lament "I could have been a contender." The Book Of Fuck was published by Wrecking Ball Press who are a one-and-a-half man operation funded with Arts Council money, based out of a house in East Yorkshire, run by a beer drinking poet, father and funny fucker called Shane Rhodes. Automatically he seems more amenable and interesting and truthful than any of the young publishing hotshot agents and publishers whose motivation is making money for their companies, right? Shane makes great books - books that are just as beautiful as objects, that are genuine poetic works in the same way that Billy Childish lovingly create his woodcuts and publishes his own dyslexic verbal madness. He's published Charles Bukowski out of his aforementioned Yorkshire home! That's all I needed to know.
He also puts out works by some of the few poets I enjoy reading - people like Gerald Locklin, Fred Voss and Dan Fante, which is inspiring… In fact to someone like me its way cooler sharing air space with these people than any Martin Amis or Zadie Smith. And not only that but I've been nominated for the 3AM Good Sex writing prize. That's the only literary validation I need.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
(from amazon.com) Ben Myers is a highly respected music journalist and currently features editor at Kerrang! magazine. Since he was a teenager, he has travelled the world from California to Croatia writing about music, surviving death threats, mosh-pits and nearly shooting Ozzy Osbourne along the way. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Q, Uncut and Careless Talk Costs Lives.