I'm delighted to be allowed some time with Nina Antonia, who is one of my favourite writers. Nina really sinks her teeth into the subjects she is writing about, researching extensively, with emotion and passion with a real flare for empathy.
Nina was the original 'New York Dolls' Fan at 13 years old, much later she was writing their biography 'Too much too soon'. In addition to this piece of history she wrote the biography of Johnny Thunders 'In Cold Blood' and also became a good friend until his death. Nina is certainly an expert in the New York Dolls history, she was the first to write books about both the dolls and Johnny Thunders.
Nina wrote an interesting book called 'The prettiest Star' which parallels her life growing up in Liverpool as a teenager and feeling very much like an outsider - linked with a biography of Brett Smiley an American Glam Rock singer. Who's life spiralled out of control on drugs and alcohol, but was a survivor. She has also written the superb biography of Peter Perrett singer of The Only ones 'Homme Fatale'.The book catalogues his demise into heroin addiction and his lost years, includes many interviews with Peter and his wife and many archive photos.
Nina is also the manager of the band 'The Skuzzies' we will find out more later.
Mel - Hi Nina, I don't want to appear like a creepy fan *smiles* but I must confess I have read all your books. I am currently reading 'Too Much Too Soon' which in hindsight I should have read before I went to see the current line up last week. Since we are the same age and share the same Northern roots it seems fitting to take you back to those teenage angst years. I read in your book that you frequented the famous club 'Eric's' as I did also. I'm sure you must have some stories to tell from those days which you missed out on in 'The prettiest star' - did you know the arty crowd who used to hang out there, such as Peter Burns and Lynne, Holly Johnson and at the time our friend Paul Rutherford of The spitfire boys ? What are your most vivid memories of Eric's? As you know Jaki Florek who used to be in a band called The Shattered Dolls has written a large book about Eric's which I am fortunate to have assisted with photos etc. What stories might you have told? Which bands/people do you recall having an impact on you at Eric's?
Nina - I wouldn't have said that I knew Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford well, but I did indeed meet them and we were on nodding terms, in fact I even recall dancing with Paul, I remember he was very striking and he was wearing leather chaps. We were introduced through the illustrator Yvonne Robinson who did the 'Frankie Goes To Hollywood' artwork. We all modelled for her on different projects. Liverpool was very vibrant at that juncture of the early 80's. Thatcher hadn't yet managed to conquer through capitalism so alternative scenes really were alternative. I loved the way Holly and Paul had such attitude. They thumbed their noses at the constraints of circumstance. So did Pete Burns. Pete I knew really well, and his wife Lynn. They were great characters. We all loved The Cramps so we'd congregate at the front of the stage at Eric's when they played. Another time I remember Generation X played Eric's. I don't think Pete was impressed and got quite verbal. My most vivid memory of Eric's is more related to Roger Eagle. I remember that Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers were supposed to be playing Liverpool with the Anarchy Tour, I wasn't that bothered about The Sex Pistols but I was desperate to see The Heartbreakers. Anyway, I had my tickets but then the gig was pulled because of concerns by the town council or some bureaucratic silliness and I went to see Roger Eagle, I seem to remember him sitting in an office in Probe. As he was giving me the money back I burst into tears, he was really sweet. He gave me more money back and loads of 'Anarchy' posters. I bought a Shangri-la's album and wept all the way home but I always recall that Roger didn't treat me like a daft kid, he understood how much I believed in it all.
Mel - Co-incidentally I was at that Generation X gig, it's most likely I've seen you at some point. I read that you contributed to a fanzine which was this? what did you write?
Nina - The first thing I ever wrote that got published was a little article on the New York Dolls for 'Mersey Sound'. I think that was the name of the fanzine. I kept bumping into the guy that put it out at gigs.At the time I was going to the student union. Actually, I remember a night of great disappointment when I wanted to see The Ramones at the university and I got turned away because I wasn't studying there but I digress.
Mel - When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Nina - There was never a moment when I wanted to be a writer, it was more that I felt driven to write about the things I loved because not many people were covering those subjects at the time.
Mel - Are you writing anything currently, is this your full time occupation?
Nina - At the moment, unfortunately, I don't have any literary projects going on. Not because I've run of inspiration but simply that I go against the grain and I'm out of favour with the mainstream. Can't get an agent or a decent publisher. If someone was to offer me a good advance it would be like winning the lottery because I'd be creatively free again. I had to get a day job because the finances I received weren't covering life's little luxuries like food and rent.
Mel - Why do you think your out of favour with the mainstream? surely there is a niche for such a writer as yourself as we are obsessed with biographies about people, I know I am.
Nina - Many reasons. I don't fit the profile to write for women's magazines, I'm not popular enough for The Guardian, where my work's been plagiarised by their own coterie and as a female I'm in the minority for the rock press where veneer is preferable to authenticity. However, as Barney Hoskyns recently pointed out, it's hard for anyone in rock writing to get steady work. Also, let's face it, I've always preferred outsider subjects unless pure coincidence, as in the case of The Dolls they caught a wave of interest with their reformation.
Mel - What book are you currently reading ?
Nina - I'm currently re-reading Patrick Hamilton's 'Hangover Square' which is about an alcoholic loner, George Harvey Bone, adrift in seedy Earl's Court in 1939. It's a very sad and bitter book with wonderful period details. There is a line in it 'To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas-fire in Earl's Court', which I think is particularly evocative. George Harvey Bone is in love with a cynical actress, Netta, who treats him dreadfully. The book is suffused with melancholy much like it's author who frequented the same kind of pubs before he dwindled away like many of the characters he wrote about but Hamilton leaves a fine literary trail behind him.
Mel - Out of all your books which gave you the most pleasure writing and the most heartache and why ?
Nina - That's a difficult one, because writing each book was a different experience, like visiting a new country. The original 'In Cold Blood' was probably the most difficult because it was my first book and during the course of it I had to move several times, lived on someone's sofa for a couple of months and then finally relocated to London which isn't exactly the ideal background. Sections of the manuscript where all over the place. However, it was an incredible time of learning and growing up. Being able to work with Johnny Thunders, his involvement in it was inspiring, it gave me the impetus to continue no matter how difficult things got. 'The Prettiest Star' was an emotive book to do because I had to revisit my Liverpool childhood.
Mel - What or whom would you write about if you had a free rein?
Mel - Johnny had been named as one of the greatest guitarists and influences on a generation of bands...since the early 70's was he aware he generated such an influence of musicians ?
Nina - Johnny was aware that he was influential. However it's one of those processes that only truly blossom once the artist is dead. It has that aura of mystery and tragedy. Johnny was too busy trying to survive and get gigs to sit there and ponder the likes of Steve Jones, Izzy Stradlin, Andy McCoy, Nikki Sixx etc etc ad infinitum.
Nina - I'd write about England at the moment and the story of The Skuzzies, which is one and the same thing.
Mel - It sounds like you found yourself at home when you finally moved to London but do you often come up to Liverpool and reminisce?
Nina - I suppose I did. I was able to lose myself in the anonymity of a big city which was what I wanted or needed at the time. It was also necessary for me to move because when I first started writing 'In Cold Blood' I was travelling up and down from Liverpool to London on a regular basis and it got tiring and expensive. I feel melancholy when I return to Liverpool as if my roots there have been severed because of time and bereavements but there's a part of me that belongs to Liverpool - probably my sense of humour - and the people there are much friendlier. Nobody chats at bus stops here, it's just stony silence. May I add that Hammersmith bus station where I catch the majority of buses from is the most regimented glacial place in the universe. Every ten minutes a voice comes through a loud speaker to remind you to cross at designated points, not to smoke, not to skate board, not to smile. Probably an exaggeration but you get my drift.
Mel - It all sounds very Big Brother Nina.Tell me about your input into the Dolls' late bass player, Arthur "Killer" Kane documentary movie 'New York Doll' and your appearance in this.
Nina - 'New York Doll' ........it seems such a long time ago now I can hardly unravel the chain of events. Okay...........I'm remembering, I got a nice email from one of the guys involved asking permission to draw information from 'Too Much Too Soon'. They were unusually polite and articulate, and had integrity. This seemed unusual as many documentary makers who've previously approached me have been a tad dodgy. However I digress. I liked the angle that they were coming from, how the director had met Arthur through the Mormon church and learned of his story. As they got to know Arthur, the New York Dolls reunion for the Royal Festival Hall got underway. For the film makers this was an unusual opportunity. They came to London for the show and shot plenty of scenes, including the interview with myself. I really liked how they made the film. it breaks all the rules of 'Rockumentaries' and they came from a completely different perspective. I find the film hard to watch, it makes me cry but it's a lovely testament to Arthur.
Mel - I went to see The New York Dolls recently for the first time. I wondered what you think of the current line up of the dolls as I know in your book you said Jerry and Johnny were irreplaceable.
Nina - I don't really think about the current line up of The Dolls. Johnny and Jerry were irreplaceable. To me it's like The Stones without Keith and Charlie. On the other hand, I'm glad for Sylvain.
Mel - Tell me about the band you manage The Skuzzies...the line up, type of music..they have been hailed by Strokes producer Gordon Raphael as 'The best new band in London in the last 5 years'
Nina - I sort of began managing The Skuzzies by default. I say 'sort of managing' because I'm not a business person but my passion for the kind of music that I like, gritty and authentic, drives me on. I'd love for The Skuzzies to have a full time big noise manager but there ain't too many of them in the rock n' roll trenches these days.
The Skuzzies consist of lead guitarist/singer Jerome Alexandre, sticksman supremo Nick Le West, bassist Al Whiteside and MC Scholar.
I love them because they are contemporary but what they sing about is eternal, the struggle for survival, alienation. They've been described as 'Dirty Indie Punk' and that fits pretty well. They are influenced by the past, The Clash, The Heartbreakers and the present, Dizzee Rascal, Mickey Avalon which is what keeps it exciting. We'd love to play the North so if any kindly promoters fancies taking a chance and booking them it could be fun.
For more on the Skuzzies go to www.myspace.com/skuzziesCheck out Nina Antonia on www.myspace.com/ninaantonia
It's been a pleasure thanks Nina
Interview by Melanie Smith
Photo of Nina & Johnny Thunders