Whilst I was doing some research for my interview with the lovely Nina Antonia's and browsing on Amazon book reviews I came across a piece written by a guy called Den Browne. He had wrote an excellent piece and I mailed him some feedback. What followed was a series of conversations which led to this interview. Den introduces himself:
"I was heavily into the smack scene - using and dealing - from '73 to '85. Addiction was a bad mistake and I don't recommend the junkie lifestyle to anyone - but I did manage to meet some great people like Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen and Alex Trocchi (author of "Young Adam" and Cain's Book"). I'm writing a memoir, I guess, of that time.Sid and Nancy never met Alex, but the stories combine to give different perspectives on the junk scene and an insight into a particular time and place in the punk era".
“The summer of ‘77 I was living in a place in Eton Ave, Chalk Farm, which had originally been divided up into flats, most of which had then been squatted by a variety of demi-monde types, but mostly dealers and users. I've got the scars, the missing teeth and the stories - but no pictures, alas (think my camera got nicked at an early stage, too). I really like the feeling of getting deep beyond the big names, because that's often where the best stories are. "You can't put yr arms round a memory," as Johnny Thunders once said, but I'm looking forward to giving it a go. Thanks again for some really stimulating exchanges.” - Denis Browne 22.7.08
Mel - And I couldn't agree more Den - hey ho lets go! What were those crazy 70’s like for you and how did you get into the drug scene? What are you most vivid memories, of music, fashion?
Den - Well, at the time most people thought the 70s were a bit of a downer after the 60's, but from here I think there was a real intensity to the 70's that I can still feel. I was very into the late 60's psychedelic scene at the time - I loved genuine Psychedelia but hated progressive rock. I was also always a huge Tamla Motown, Stax and reggae fan, which didn't sit too well with a lot of hippies ("They're just entertainers, man" as one head said to me!)
By '72/73 I was really disillusioned with the scene in general. Apart from the occasional Little Feat or Steely Dan album, the rock scene seemed stagnant and I was mainly listening to Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield etc by then. As for drugs, I'd had enough of LSD and the dope scene had got pretty dull and complacent. From about ‘72 there was quite a lot of coke around, but usually it was very poor quality. There was also quite a lot of smack, about £20 a gram then. It was generally a weekend thing to begin with and there was a honeymoon period for the first couple of years when it was all fun and I reckoned I was in control. Then I discovered fixing ... There's a lot more I could say about the nuances of addiction and two people in a relationship using, but it'd need another interview.
As I say, I'd been quite idealistic about the sixties scene, and Gianni (My girlfriend at the time) even more so. When the scene petered out, you could sum up our feelings with the Who's "Won't get fooled again". So a few years later, I don't think we ever consciously thought of ourselves as Punks - when you're younger, minute age differences matter a lot more. We were 25+ by then, and all the punks we met were a lot younger. Knowing how I'd felt earlier when older people tried to join in our freak scene, I was wary of trying too hard to be "down with the kidz".However, there was a very conscious decision to cut hair short, abandon flares etc.
Mel – How did you meet Tony Wilson or as he later became known Anthony H Wilson, the man responsible for The Hacienda’ and signing many Manchester bands and in '77 promoting Punk music in the North West in his TV programs. What’s the story?
Den - I knew him at Cambridge 1972 (got some great photos somewhere) when he was Crosby Stills and Nash fan number one fan. I think I'm mentioned but not named in his book the "24 hr party people" paperback with grey cover (“junkie friend who gives him tape of "Horses").
I was really sad at his death - and really annoyed with myself too: for year after year I'd been meaning to try contacting him again, didn't get round to it and now its too late. I lost touch with him in the late 70s, so I guess he didn't want to use my name without permission - or maybe it is someone else?! But there are several references in the book to an old Cambridge mate who'd got into heroin. That was one of the things I wanted to ask him. One of the reasons for delaying contact was that I wanted to have my finished work about Sid and Nancy to show him - also thought he'd be well placed for advice on getting published.
Mel – What a great story Den, I really enjoyed the movie. I also met Tony Wilson on a few occasion around the north West but found he could come across as a bit arrogant.
Den - I can see how he'd come across as arrogant, but I think it was a front most of the time. I found that if you stood up to him, he'd take it ok and usually back down. At Cambridge he always made out that he was from the meanest streets of Moss Side, but I don't think that was quite the case! I thought Steve Coogan was excellent playing him in the film.
Mel - So lets move onto the ‘Situationist’ movement and how it transferred to the early days of punk. I'd love to know more about Alex Trocchi!
Den - They had a very distinctive line in graphics and slogans ("Beneath the pavement, the beach" etc) - which came to the fore in the Paris 68 scenes and later in Pistols' artwork (but Sid and Nancy and I certainly never sat round discussing Situationist theory!).
Alex was one of the "Beat Generation" young writers in the 50s, along with people like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, L Ferlinghetti etc. He'd been addicted to heroin since the late 40's and his first book; "Cain's Book" is a mixture of his account of living as a junkie on the river in NewYork, and reflections on his childhood in Glasgow.
Like Johnny Thunders, Alex came from an Italian family and was immensely proud of this heritage/identity. Personally I think
"Cain" is the one of the best books I've read on the subject, and far better than "Naked Lunch" for an honest and unsentimental take on drugs and living outside the mainstream.He also did "Young Adam", which was done pretty well as a film a few yrs back and has helped revive interest in him a bit. However - his reputation really rests on these 2 books. H also wrote a load of porn potboilers to pay the bills, e.g. "Thongs," "Helen and Desire". He spent time in Paris during the 50's, edited a magazine called Merlin and smoked opium with Jean Cocteau. He was also involved with Guy Debord, founder (I think) of the situationist movement. From there he went to the US until narcotics/legal problems caused a rapid return to the UK in the early 60s. He was involved in all kinds of stuff then, most notably the famous psychedelic poetry readings at the Albert Hall (65 or 66). But no more books...
Mel - So Alex was one of the forefront guys in the movement and you and he ‘hung out’ together?
Den - I'd known Alex for a few years before I started working with him. He'd just had an operation for cancer and decided he needed someone to help run his 2nd hand book business and be a kind of literary assistant to him. This seemed really exciting, and I thought maybe it could even help in getting my writing out there. I knew him from '78 till his death in '84 - which was a massive contributory factor to me finally getting away from heroin. He was the best friend I could have had in those days, but if I could talk to him now, I'd be saying that there are better causes to fight for in life than the Right to be a Junkie.
Mel - What involvement did you have with him and his life?
Den - It soon became pretty clear that he had a terminal case of writer's block, and it wasn't long till I realised that as far as any writing was concerned, it just wasn't going to happen. He did manage a few lines of an autobiography and we’d occasionally give me an old notebook to transcribe, but that was it. So we'd go round looking at old books, checking the stall at Antiquarius, maybe buy some books at Christie's, stop at the pub for lunch. Another day gone and of course a fair amount of heroin was taken.
Mel - I believe you took part in an evening talk about Alex which was arranged and sponsored by 3am. Could you tell us a bit more about this occasion?
Den - 3am magazine asked me to do something for their Trocchi night in October 2006. So I wrote about how we first met - introduced by a very straight aunt, who had no idea what he was about, but ran a bar where he used to drink. Almost as unlikely a meeting as Sid and Nancy ringing my doorbell by mistake.I really enjoyed doing the reading and it was the first time I'd taken my writing off the page and into a live setting."
Check out Den’s reading that night with 3am (click the image below)
Mel - Tell me about your involvement with Jon Savage’s book ‘England’s dreaming and Greil Marcus ‘Lipstick traces’ A secret history of the 20th Century. What did you contribute and which do you recommend as being the greatest read.
Den - Alex used to get a lot of unsolicited mail from US graduate types, usually doing some kind of thesis on The Beats. There'd be a long list of questions regarding William Burroughs and co. and would have practically required another book to answer. At first I used to reply, saying Alex wasn't interested in having his brains picked for free. Then one day a letter came in from Greil Marcus, with a couple of perceptive questions aboutt Alex's involvement in the early days of the Situationist movement (Paris, '50's). I was a big fan of the "Mystery Train" book (I still am) and told Alex that this guy wasn't a timewaster and we should help him.
Greil Marcus turned up in London a few months later, a lovely guy. He spent a lot of time talking to Alex and going through old magazines and writings. The results are in Marcus' "Lipstick Traces". Greil and I used to talk a lot about the scene in general, and some of this ended up in the book too, mainly my feeling of punk as a kind of cultural Year Zero. Personally I find "Lipstick Traces" a bit too academic and abstruse and much prefer "England's Dreaming". I never met Jon Savage but he was kind enough to follow on from some of the things in Lipstick Traces.
Mel – So now we are moving onto the punk era. How did you meet Sid and Nancy?
Den - One day I answered a ring at the door and was amazed to find Sid and Nancy there. They'd come to score off someone else in the house and rung the wrong bell. I told them I could get them a much better deal, anyway they ended up crashing at my place that night (they were staying with his mum in Dalston then). That night turned into about 3 months (until Virgin got them the place at Pindock Mews). So we're talking roughly of a period from just before "Holidays in the sun" till just after "Never mind" came out. I knew Sid and Nancy pretty well, but never met any of the other Pistols or Malcolm McLaren. Later on, after my girlfriend and I split up, I briefly stayed with them at Pindock Mews. Later of course after I'd met Sid and Nancy I realised that it was Johnny and Jerry she'd come over with from NY. Nancy saw Johnny T as a kind of lovable bastard, very macho Italian guy, wants his pasta on the table and kids put to bed on time thinks women shouldn’t take heroin, but is very loyal to him. Of course, there's a view that the arrival of heroin on the UK punk scene can be put down entirely to the presence of the Heartbreakers on the Anarchy tour - though this seems too simplistic to me.
Mel – Did you mix with any other bands at this time when Sid & Nancy lived with you?
Den - No - the Pistols' set up was pretty insular. I've realised since then that Sid had known most of the people on the London punk scene well before the Pistols, through Flowers of Romance and so on - but he never said much about that period. Sid was pretty dismissive of most of the other UK groups: Gen X - "mail order punk," Stranglers - "football fans' music", ‘The Damned’ - "comedy act from Croydon". Although he used to take the piss out of the first Clash album, there was a bit of grudging respect - partly because their salary was twice the Pistols' (£50 a week rather than £25).
Sid's thing was really US punk and especially the first two Ramones albums. His ultimate hero was Dee Dee Ramone. I can still see Sid, sitting on the edge of our bed, right by the stereo, hunched over his white Fender, frantically trying to keep up with "51st and 3rd" etc. That tended to be mostly what we listened to - plus Iggy, some Lou Reed, Stooges, Dolls, Richard Hell, some of my reggae/dub stuff and some Bowie. Gianni and I were really into Patti Smith and Television but Sid and Nancy found them a bit too arty-farty I think.
Mel - I read that Nancy was quite promiscuous whilst with Sid and that he didn’t seem to mind that she slept with other guys?
Den - I think she's had a really shit deal from the media over the years - whether it’s the "Nauseating Nancy" tabloid morons or various music journalists who should know better. I'd be interested to know if Nina Antonia has a view on this - I really agreed with what she said re: music media sexism
Nancy was like lots of single, attractive, sexually active women in their early 20s. She was very aware of her sexuality and enjoyed sex. A lot of the time with Nancy, the problem was that people here find that type of New York in-yah-face no-bullshit type of woman hard to deal with. She and I talked a lot about her experiences as a sex worker in New York, and I think its pretty true to say most of her views on sex derived from abusive experiences - i.e. take charge before someone else does.She was certainly the dominant partner with Sid. She claimed that Sid had been "practically a virgin" and "never had a proper fuck" before meeting her, and he didn't disagree.
Clearly when you've got two couples living in the same room for 3 months or so, there aren't going to be any secrets after a while... during the time I knew them their sex-life was virtually non-existent, due to him being so out of it all the time. Basically at that time he preferred getting stoned to having sex - easier and more reliable. Also, when you're first into heroin, sex is pretty difficult for guys - though this changed as you got used to it. Sometimes Nancy would get extremely pissed off by the situation and this would be where most of their rows/fights started. Other times she'd do a whole fetish gear number trying to "arouse" his interest, but Sid was rarely able to see it through. Now you ask me, though', I don't have any real factual knowledge of her having sex elsewhere then.Mel - Any good stories of Sid and Nancy you wish to share with us or are you saving them for the book?
Den - “Out there in the night a story of a photo” - One night Sid and Nancy, me and my girlfriend Gianni ("Jannie" in my book) decided to go and see X-Ray Spex at the Marquee. We'd all done loads of gear and after watching some of their set, we went to the bar at the back of club. There were the four of us we ended up on a dirty old sofa. I came round to find a couple of flashbulbs popping and various punks and tourists debating whether it was "really them" or not and saying how out of it we looked (this was before Sid's habit was common knowledge). Now I'd like to think that somewhere on the planet there might be a middle-aged Swede or whatever, who still has that long forgotten picture.
Mel – For the record what do you think happened that fateful day in ‘The Chelsea Hotel’ in room 100?
Den - For what its worth, here goes...I can still remember the cold horror of waking up that morning and hearing about Nancy's death. My thought then and ever since has been that Sid did it. He might not have meant to, probably didn't even know what he'd done, given his tuinal intake - but I'm sure he did it. The reason is that I saw so much casual violence between them during our time together, that it’s easy to see how they only needed to be a bit more out of it than usual - downers have nasty psych side effects too - and use a knife rather than a padlock chain, and that's it.
I felt Sid had changed quite a bit since they'd been at our place - he'd generally been funny, positive, original and "up". Now he seemed morose and grouchy most of the time - partly due to his huge methadone intake at the time (which made the sexual tension with Nancy even worse). On the other hand, she was pretty up then, as she'd decided she was now his manager and was trying to take care of business (while he lay in front of the TV all day). But generally I felt for all their bravado, the scene was going bad.
This is a purely personal view, but I think his depression was also down to the fact that for all his belief in himself as a big star (something he'd learnt from Johnny T), the future looked very uncertain. There were no record companies in bidding wars to sign him. There weren't queues of musicians wanting to play with him, not even Jerry and Johnny. He wasn't bursting with new songs to record. Although the financial situation was better than when the Pistols had been active, there were court cases to come. And all the time his habit was getting bigger. Virgin had supplied a helpful doctor - but what would happen in NY, one of the toughest places on the planet to be a junkie.
Mel – Did you witness any of the violence between Sid and Nancy, when you lived with them?
Den – Yes sometimes the arguing and violence between them would be more of a game/ritual type thing. Nancy would sometimes really taunt him to get a reaction. bringing each other down as much as possible then reaching total despair and making up again. Other times it could be totally random and sudden. One afternoon at Pindock Mews the 3 of us were sitting on their bed, stoned. It was a really hot afternoon and Nancy was in bra'n'pants. She starts saying she wants a drink, and as Sid is on the edge of the bed, can he get it for her? He ignores her and it all goes quiet. Suddenly he picks up an ashtray and hits her across the head with it. No-one says anything, Sid carries on watching TV. Nancy cried quietly for a second, and then just sat there as the blood ran down, eventually collecting and congealing in her bra. Horrible scene and one I have quite a bit of trouble with now.
Mel – What was the scene at Pindock Mews really like?
Den - After Sid and Nancy moved out, the scene at my place went downhill rapidly. Gianni decided life was dull after Sid and Nancy and tended to stay in bed all day watching TV in a methadone haze. I got badly ripped off on a deal and this caused a lot of difficulties. Sid and Nancy would still come round, but after a while I preferred to go over to their place to get out of the Eton Ave gloom. That was where I met Johnny Thunders.
We split up that summer ('78). I needed a place to go and given what had gone down before, I thought I couldd crash at their place until I got sorted. I also had a vague hope of getting some of the money that Sid owed me.
By then Nancy was meant to be Sid's manager, and was actually pretty together a lot of the time. Other times she'd go into diva mode. The flat was over a car re-spray workshop - one afternoon she starts nagging me to go down and get them to turn off their radio and all their equipment cos it’s giving her a headache. I found Sid wasn't as he'd been at our place. At times he could still be sharp, funny and perceptive, but a lot of the time the humour was sneering and aggressive. He was also drinking more. It seems amazing to me, even now, that someone who could shoot up a gram of Heroin in one go and barely bat an eyelid, would be totally transformed by a single bottle of beer. Luckily there were warning signs, but basically if he drank any alcohol, he'd get in a dangerous, leery mood, trying to pick an argument with whoever was around. That was the main reason I left after a week or so - and it seemed like the next thing I was reading was about someone od'ing and dying there. I didn't see them again after that, and knew they wouldn't be back after they left for New York.
Mel – You talk of Nancy and Sid with a real nostalgic affection. What is the most ‘special moment’ you all shared?
Den - Despite it all there was something very childlike about them, with real no-bullshit innocence, honesty, which had a lot to do with why Gianamaria and I liked them so much. Probably early on ... when we met, they were crashing at his mum's and had a full-on "everything's against us" attitude - pretty fair, based on their experiences then. They were really blown away at having a simpatico place to stay. The main thing at Sid then was his sense of humour: very quick, alert, clever word-play and nice sense of life's absurdity. Like I said before, I am out to rehabilitate Nancy a bit. Sure, she could be a real pain (e.g. specialised in staging dramas around losing her asthma inhaler), but she's not the punk Yoko Ono she's been made out to be. I just remember the first time she came to my place - she looked round, wide-eyed, and went "Wow, you got BOOKS! ..." Turned out she was massively into Sylvia Plath, and other US women poets like Anne Sexton and Elizabeth Bishop.
Mel - What’s the story with Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers?
Den - I met Johnny Thunders a few times in pretty hardcore drug contexts 1977-78. I have to say I didn't like the guy, but I think that was down to the situations were we met and a bit of bullshit junkie jealousy, which is why I was intrigued to read about his relationship with Peter Perett in "One and Only" by Nina Antonia.
He was a very full-on guy, and 24hr a day rock'n'roll outlaw. Both times I met him, everyone was just hanging out, but he looked like he was just about to go on stage, red bandana tied round his leg, the lot. I understand now that he (and Sid, in a slightly different way) was 100% committed to what they were doing - musically and chemically and that meant no compromise.
I've been playing "So alone" a lot lately, great album ... I think I read an early Dolls' interview where Johnny said his idea of the Dolls was like the Stones at their 60's peak (Satisfaction/Get off.../Paint it black etc), were as soon as one single started going down the charts, the next one was out and on the way up. I'm sure this would have been Sid's ideal for the Pistols too. Johnny didn't like talking to anyone who wasn't a musician/Italian/from NYC or anyone who actually expected him to pay for his drugs. However he did impart one bit of wisdom to me in that junkies had a great advantage over non-using songwriters, he reckoned, "Just write how ya feel when ya sick and then later when you get high, change it to a girl's name" Check the Heartbreakers "Its not enough" as an example of this theory. For a while there was a real vibe and momentum around the Heartbreakers, mainly from the "Chinese rocks/Born to lose" single. For once Track records got it together and did a good publicity campaign, loads of posters around town, very stark black and white, really suited the music. What junkie wouldn't want a Chinese rocks t-shirt? There was also a really cool lapel badge, metal, black, heart-shaped - no logo/lettering. So if you saw someone else wearing one of those.
Mel – How was your first meeting with The Heartbreakers?
Den - One day one of my drug buddies, let’s call him Del, turns up all excited. He's always on the fringe of different little scenes - this time the story's that he's met this American band, who are now based in London, mainly on account of the superior quality of heroin compared to NYC. What's more, they've got a record company advance, they're in Soho and they want to score! Everything's ok for a while, they get to a point where Del's fronting them gear on credit and then the money stops coming in. Eventually he says he'll take me round and I'll get paid. So we go round there, its Frith St/Gerrard St area, and finally we get in after a lot of hassle. I'm much more familiar with the Dolls than the Heartbreakers and its takes me a while to realise one of the guys there is Johnny Thunders, minus the copious Dolls' era hair. There are a couple more people there, but its gloomy, everyone's stoned plus its 30 yrs later. So I'd guess the others were Jerry and either Walter or Billy. They're trying to ignore us, and find it rather amusing that I'm trying to get paid for gear that's long gone now. Yes, if I've got more they'll buy, but well, as for the other gear - you should have got paid the first time. There was a real NYC street hustler vibe to the Heartbreakers and I realised I was out of my depth, someone trusting other people to pay for drugs on tick just didn't figure in their world. I do eventually get my cash back from Del, but it didn't exactly make a great impression on me.
Later I was to meet Kit Lambert - trust the Heartbreakers to sign for a label run by someone even more out of it than they were! The original "LAMF" has to be the worst produced album I've ever heard.
Mel - What is happening in your life now?
Den - When I first got off heroin - 84-85 - there were loads of people around me coming out with the old "Once a junkie, always a junkie" line, or "Well, that's good, but he'll never get a job."
Pretty fair, given my past record. I knew I'd put my friends and family thru a load of pain and crap over the previous 10 yrs. Now it was time to stop talking, get practical and deliver. Stop thinking I was special and just go out for the 9 to 5. I got a job in the local library, held it down and gradually got into the musical side of things. Initially a big part of my impetus was just to prove to everyone who'd put me down and written me off that they were wrong. I had to take early retirement from the library after disastrous back op left me half-crippled. Since then I've kept myself occupied in various ways, but now writing's the main thing.
Mel - Well you’re a dab hand at the Amazon reviews and its how our paths crossed so tell me which do books come recommended?
Den - "Metal Box - stories from ... Public Image Ltd" by Phil Strongman. Just read it - lots of Sid and some really good stories.
Mel – What about Sid books, which have you read?
Den - Yeah, it’s a bit strange. I've got several but I haven't read them, the Mark Paytress one and two by Alan Parker.Maybe when I've finished my thing? Partly because I have a bad habit of soaking up styles etc from things I read - I often bin stuff of mine, because when I re-read it, it feels too much like a reflection of whatever I was reading at the time. The other thing is trying to keep memory uncontaminated. Its difficult when there's 30yrs of images, stories, t-shirts, whatever about Sid. I want to make sure the stories in my thing are all from my own experience, and not things I've absorbed from the media. If I tell you, say, that Sid didn't think much of Gen X, that's a direct memory - but if I write about him and Nancy in NY, it could only be second-hand or worse.
Mel – Did you ever keep a diary?
Den - No, although I love writing, it isn't something I've ever done. The first time I tried, I spent more time writing than doing anything, so gave up.
Mel - You appeared on ResonanceFM Radio, on a Friday nights episode of Mining for Gold with Mr Vic Goddard from Subway Sect, invited by Johnny Brown after he read your Mudkiss interview on the web site. I was listening avidly but for the readers who were not in attendance can you explain what they missed?
Den - The Resonance show was a total blast. We read a few chapters of my book and they did some mad cut-ups of some of my other stuff. I'd been pretty nervous beforehand, but Johnny Brown and the crew made it such a good atmosphere. I couldn't believe I was sitting in a studio with the legendary Vic Goddard. A few pre-Mudkiss months earlier I'd felt like I was just scratching around in a corner by myself with my writing. I always try out my writing reading it aloud and passing it round friends, and since that Trocchi nite, it’s become an essential part of what I do. I know Vic's going back on Resonance, in Feb and I'm hoping to do another "work in progress" session with them. I'm looking forward to carrying on from the show with Vic in an interview - some of his thoughts on his fascination with "cheap music" and the timing where punk was the first time in the century where someone like him could make a career in music were really cool. Look for the upcoming interview with me and Vic meeting at the crossroads of punk and dub.
Mel – One final question - why did you join MySpace ?
Den - Mainly for music, especially my mates ‘Redgrass Collective’ (punk bluegrass) and Johnny Deptford (no nonsense SE London punk). Would love it if you'd give these a plug!Johnny Deptford - http://www.myspace.com/johnnydeptford
Many thanks Den it’s been a roller coaster ride, you’ll certainly have a good book when it comes out. I hope I get a personalised copy! Good Luck with it and thank you for being a star! We are hoping Den will keep us up to date with his book reviews and assist the team at Mudkiss.
Interview by Mel 17.08.08 (updated 20.12.08)
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