Great soul searching interview with writer John Doran about his new book, Jolly Lad, a brilliant account of alcoholism and drug abuse
Jolly Lad is a stunning account about recovery from drink and drug abuse through the power of music and the good stuff. It’s funny and dark like all the best music and we reckon it could be one of the books of the year. Order from here. He is also on tour for the whole of May doing esoteric readings with Arabrot and various other great underground freak scene bands – check the gig dates from the link above.
John Doran is the creator of The Quietus webzine. He’s publishing a book entitled Jolly Lad this June that gathers together some of the ‘Menk’ articles that appeared on the Vice website. It will be available in hardback, paperback and electronic editions.
Copies of the hardback book which is limited to 500 copies can only be ordered from the Strange Attractor website are available from May and come with a CD featuring spoken word (from Doran) and music from Nicky Wire (Manic Street Preachers), Abi & Neil from British Sea Power, Grumbling Fur, Teeth Of The Sea, GNOD, English Heretic, Mark Dicker, Eccentronic Research Council and Bronze Teeth.
The book, a memoir about recovery from alcoholism, mental illness, and substance abuse, is also concerned with the healing power of music, how memory defines us, the redemption offered by fatherhood and what it means to be working class. It features cover art by Simon Fowler and illustrations by Krent Able.
Doran hasn’t had a drink in six years. J. Temperance (a pseudonym obviously-‘Impression of J. Temperance’ being a Fall song) hasn’t had a drink in three years. Both attend AA but Temperance attends a lot more often. Both are in their forties. The Fall are the favourite band of both individuals. They’ve only met in person once briefly many years ago.
Doran will also be releasing a spoken word album on tQPC entitled Hubris featuring collaborations with Arabrot, Perc, Nik Void of Factory Foor, Nicky Wire and members of British Sea Power. He will also be undertaking a 31-date reading tour of England as a temporary member of Arabrot for the full month of May, performing in numerous prisons, churches, libraries, record shops and cinemas and collaborating with musicians, writers and artists on the way.
Booze Related Questions.
Louder Than War: Extracting all discussion of withdrawal for the moment. When you’ve used drugs and alcohol for a long time sobriety is like a drug / trip in and of itself. Because being straight is so alien. Not being drunk on a Friday night just feels really weird. Discuss.
John Doran: I agree that it is for a temporary period and then not constantly. I do describe the effect of quitting as being psychedelic as it does help you to see the world with fresh eyes. In practical terms, on a day to day level, you can often be too anxious, or depressed or ill feeling to really appreciate any of this though.
In early sobriety you seemed to see drunks everywhere. I kind of experienced that but have a slightly different take on it. I used to wander around town and if I didn’t see someone falling about drunk I’d be disappointed. Or if I saw someone who had been in the rooms of AA but now appears to be drinking sensibly I really didn’t like it. Fortunately it rarely happened. If you’re friends with someone and they decide to give boozing another bash it’s difficult. When people leave AA you kind of have to cut them off. I suppose some people could criticise AA for being cult like in this regard but really its just personal self protection.
It’s pretty simple though isn’t it? If you can go back to sensible drinking then you weren’t a chronic alcoholic. I am a chronic alcoholic and I know I am because of the hundreds of failed attempts to control my drinking over the years. Good luck to people who can drink sensibly but I can’t. By the way, the only statistics there are concerning people who go back to drinking after an extended period of sobriety suggest that sensible drinking is highly unlikely.
Speaking of your father you said “He dealt with his depression and nihilism in a less healthy way though – taking to bed for days, or sometimes even weeks, at a time and staring at the wall in silence.” I like your take that depression is an inability to break free from destructive, wearying, ruminative loops. I think it’s a type of fatigue. I also think it’s a learned response. My dad – like yours – used to take to the bed with depression. It’s not something that I’ve ever resorted to. Oh I’ll lie on a couch and watch TV but the bed for days without even a book. I’m not that bad. Maybe you have to bore yourself with those ruminative thoughts. It’s difficult to fast track yourself out of that way of thinking. I’m no scholar but I think that’s the point of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’-or at least that’s what it means to me. The only up side is that if you’ve had a number of really shitty periods in your life you can recognise them and perhaps you can acknowledge the possibility that it might pass. What’s remarkable is the number of things that are easily encapsulated in the AA slogans…”These things too shall pass”. I suppose you see it similarly by comparing it to “a cheap and nasty funfair ride that was impossible to get off until it was over”.
I think it’s impossible to for me to not suffer from periods of depression – it’s just in my chemical make-up. However I can minimise them by being aware of my thinking and by avoiding certain triggers. I’ve found that diet and exercise are incredibly important when it comes to controlling mood.
I love these two lines… “What’s the difference between Shaun Ryder and Jason Pierce? Probably about three hours extra sleep a night and a banana, an avocado and some tangerines.” I look at you and go “Well I didn’t slip down as far as this dude” but if I examine my life right now I still eat way too much McDonalds and try to fill the nutritional gap with a multivitamin. Recovery is about learning to love yourself. I constantly listen to Kevin Rowland singing “The Greatest Love Of All” to remind me of that. However laziness, stupidity, poverty and thrift stand in my way. I live on my own so I’ll not beat myself up about it too much.” It surprised me to discover that you actually put quite a lot of effort into your recovery. I just sat in a chair in an AA room and held on tight.
Spiritualised The Twelve Steps
Junk food is your enemy. Not only is having a good diet essential to you feeling less bad it’s also a newly emerging, bona fide political arena for Europeans as it has been in America for some time. As the NHS collapses, a large portion of people with low incomes will get trapped in a vicious circle of making themselves ill with junk food and sweets and then making themselves ‘better’ with store bought analgesics. And I include myself in this as someone who struggles with eating healthily and has had a pain killer habit for decades. I’m starting to break out of the cycle myself by going to the gym. It’s boring but the buzz you get off it is OK and if you’ve got a good doctor, they’ll prescribe gym membership to you on the NHS. God bless the NHS.
Rehab was never an option?
No. I’m quite misanthropic at times when I’m face to face with big groups of people I don’t know. I wouldn’t have coped well with it. It was easier for me to go cold turkey, even if probably quite punishing on my heart and the fact I had a few epileptic fits etc. Plus – I live in Hackney. No one would ever have sent me to rehab. The waiting list was probably months long. You know what it’s like – when it’s time to give up you have to crack on, you can’t think, “Oh, I’ll give up in a month.”
Jolly Lad extract…
“But even by the end of my first week I had to begrudgingly admit that daily heavy aerobic exercise made me feel much better both physically and mentally, in no time at all.”
What’s your current exercise regime?
I went to the gym yesterday and did an hour on the cross trainer while reading over some writing on a tablet. I find the gym incredibly boring but if I’m reading over my writing on a tablet – if I’ve been facing a problem, I suddenly work out how to solve it. Also, it massively reduces my anxiety.
Jolly Lad extract…
“I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous three days after stopping drinking.”
Was that the first time you ever tried AA?
I won’t say where it was but it was a terrifying experience. It was in a pretty tough location. There were some pretty fucked people there. Some old guys who were incomprehensible. They looked at death’s door and there were some pretty frightening characters – one of whom had come out of prison for murder. I nearly didn’t go back and I had this real jolt of a realisation – that for some people, stopping had come too late to do them any good, that some of them should have arguably just carried on til they died. But then easily I found a few meetings elsewhere that I liked.
I believe that at the start of your recovery you tried to get to five meetings a week. How many do you go to now? What’s the most you went to in a day? Is it possible to be addicted to meetings?
I very rarely go now. I’ve been so busy with work – and I mean, from the second I get up to the second I can’t stay awake, every day of the week that I don’t have the time or the need. The irony is, writing this book has completely replaced AA for me. If I wasn’t busy with work it would be a different matter. I’m not the sort of person who can sit round and watch TV or relax and put a record on. If I had more time I’d need to go to AA more often probably.
Jolly Lad extract…
“I couldn’t understand why some people would torture themselves with nights out on the town drinking Becks Blue or Kaliber, teeth clamped into rictus grins while everyone round them dissolved into warm merriment.”
There’s a saying that non alcoholic beer is great for non alcoholics. (Nobody liked those Billy Connolly advertisements either). Recovery for me was about transporting me back to being fourteen again. My main highs at 14 were Cherry Coke and action movies. They are great highs. Very small comedowns. I had to get back to that place. I had to recognise that alcohol had stunted a lot of emotional growth. Or at least that’s what they told me at meetings.
Alcoholism does retard you in numerous different ways. It’s not as simple as saying it preserves you as a teenager in amber but there’s an element of truth to it. I got so into drinking Coca-Cola when I quit booze. I was almost as bad. I would drink gallons every day. I’d get Coca-Cola hangovers – which are fucking disgusting.
I loved your hatred of ‘Under the Volcano’ reading active alcoholics. Has your fandom of MES changed with sobriety?
It’s really weird but being a fan of The Fall was one of the heaviest aspects of giving up drink. I genuinely used to think things like, “I’ll never be able to meet Smithy again… he’ll think I’m a total cunt.” (I have interviewed him since, he offered me a mug of champagne, I said, no, it wasn’t mentioned.) And I would think things like, “I’ll never drink again, unless I’m offered an interview with The Fall and then I’ll just have the one pint and make it last…” Of course that’s utter madness. You don’t have to kill yourself to be into The Fall. My fandom of Smith hasn’t changed but my fandom of The Fall has changed… the gigs aren’t the utterly insane events they used to be and the group are too comfortable in their current line-up to be truly top class. I am glad he seems healthier and happier though.
‘Under the Volcano’ Trailer
When did Dostoyevsky define the condition of being properly drunk as the point at which the drinker starts yelling abusively at his companions and everyone in earshot?
I knew someone would pick up on this. This is something I “remember” reading when I was at university but then didn’t really have the time to check properly. It’s such a ridiculous thing to say that I really wanted to include it though. I guess one day I may have enough free time to re-read all the books I read on Dostoyevsky at university but I sincerely hope not.
How sober were you really if your sobriety has included the use of cocaine, MDMA, amphetamines, plant food, diazepam, chocolate, cough medicine and ketamine?
Well, I was 100% sober when it came to alcohol but not that sober at all when it came to drugs. There’s a massive difference for me as I am a terrible, chronic alcoholic and by comparison drugs were only a trifle. However, drugs gradually began to replace alcohol in seriousness.
You regard The Quietus as your saviour but was it ever a threat to your sobriety? Is that a risk in the future?
I used to really fret that I would be more at danger of slipping up if I didn’t have the Quietus. I now feel that I need to have an all-encompassing ‘project’ to throw myself into, like the book for example, I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the Quietus.
Do you do “Service” in AA?
No. I stack chairs and put my hand up to do the dishes but I haven’t done the 12 steps and never share, I just like to sit at the back and listen.
Jolly Lad extract…
“I was beginning to understand that this harebrained scheme to walk twice round the coast of Great Britain without break had been a sublimation of my desire to be free… not to be constantly beholden to cravings.”
The Camino in Spain are a big thing for people in A.A. or for anyone going through a life transition. They’re currently discussing trying to set one up in Ireland to boost the tourist trade.
I like that about the walking of Caminos. All my family are Irish and even though I don’t consider myself Irish – I’m clearly English – I’m steeped in stuff like this because of the religion. When my dad’s parents moved over from Ireland to near Mold in Clwyd in the first few months of the 20th Century, for a few years before moving to Scotland Road in Liverpool, my Daddygran lived miles away from a Roman Catholic church and would set off for church at about midnight in order to get there on time for 8am mass. As kids we would visit the site of pilgrimages like Walsingham. We were a deeply religious family. It was hard to shrug off and clearly, when I talk about stuff like this, I obviously haven’t completely.
At one point you laud yourself for never getting into heroin. Mark E Smith does something similar in his book Renegade. The point is you both kind of had a work ethic instilled in you so maybe heroin could never really be your drug.
I’m both extremely attracted to and repulsed by heroin. The work ethic thing is definitely right – for example I was only ever a massive pothead when I was a student or briefly on the dole, it wouldn’t fit in with my lifestyle and work during the other periods. However I know that temporarily, everything that marrs my interior life on a near daily basis – anxiety, constant pain etc would wiped out immediately by smack. It’s been a long time since I’d even know where to get it to be honest and it would never even cross my mind on a normal day. It’s not like I sit round reading books by heroin addicts any more like I did when I was a teenager and in my early twenties.
Why are you so sure that you haven’t done the 12 steps?
I see what you’re saying. I have done some of them I guess, just in an informal way, I’ve never sat down and thought about it but for example, I guess, with most people that I’m still in touch with, I’ve done the thing about apologising to them for my behaviour. I’m pretty sure I’ve made a fearless moral inventory as well. I’d have to think about the others.
Was it important to throw The God Delusion in the bin? Why are you encouraging people to read John Gray. John Gray’s work is kind of atheistic. Should you not have chucked Straw Dogs in the bin too? I’m not sure that reading atheist tracts helps maintain sobriety. Have you tried Anthony De Mello or Emmet Fox?
Well, God Delusion and Straw Dogs aren’t opposite to each other so I guess that I created a slight non-sequitur in that paragraph. It’s just coincidence that they happened to be two pop-culture books on philosophy that I was reading at the time. What I hate about The God Delusion is its whining, its attempts to delimit the divine with semantics and its dangerous idea of atheists becoming a recognisable group – almost a religion in itself. Atheism used to be something to aspire to, not any more. The reason I like Straw Dogs is the clarity of thought it gave me on the question of free will. Free will is an important concept to most addicts and it was to me. I suffered under the ludicrous apprehension that I was my own master. I’ve since come to see that I’m not in control of massive aspects of my life – that a lot of my life was already mapped out for me by genetics, class, family and friends. It helped me to see more clearly which areas of my life I was in control of.
Was Jeremy your AA sponsor?
No. I just went to AA with him. At one point he tried to get me to do the 12 steps but he couldn’t find me a sponsor. He said people were scared of me. Ha ha ha!
I’ve read two similar books in my life. John Healy’s “The Grass Arena”. Healy concentrates on his drinking history and mentions AA briefly. It’s a great book but boozing goes on for ever in it. Eventually he gives up booze and then he gives up chess and then it just stops … what did he do then? Did he go to AA? In the end we are left clueless as to whether John Healy continued to go to AA or whether he found it useful at all. The second book is Declan Lynch’s “The Rooms”. Ostensibly a work of fiction it’s set in Dublin and is about the relapse of an AA attendee. It contains a terrific argument that Shane McGowan isn’t an alcoholic and Roy Keane is.
Well John Healy is a powerhouse of a writer but I’m not like him and my book isn’t the same as his on a couple of very important levels. The Grass Arena is an astounding book but deals with a different kind of chronic alcoholism. I was extremely high functioning, only lost a couple of jobs, never became properly homeless – I just had a few periods ‘between flats’ – wasn’t a brawler, never got in trouble with the law, didn’t really break the law – apart from drug stuff etc. My thing was – as far as I’m told at least – I was very good company down the pub, probably much better company than I am these days to be brutally honest. I also had an extremely high tolerance for drink and my drugs of choice so by the time I lived in London, I was drinking all the time but until right near the end when my liver started failing, I wasn’t a helpless drunk who had to be carried home to bed or anything like that. I certainly had my wits about me that I wasn’t getting into fights all the time or having people in pubs dread me turning up. (Or maybe they did, who knows… ha ha ha!) Healy fits into a literary tradition of ‘heroic’ drinkers. I totally don’t, I’m more of an everyman figure. But mainly my book’s not about the drinking… I can’t remember most of my drinking career now. I always meant to write down all of the stuff down that happened to me but never did. It’s lost to the winds now. My book is ostensibly about recovery anyway.
Is the book misery lit? Or is it just a slightly more hardcore version of Stuart Maconie’s “Cider With Roadies”?
I sat down SPECIFICALLY NOT to write misery lit. I hate that shit – no worse than the magazines you get in supermarkets showing pictures of women looking a bit curvy or a bit underweight in bikinis – it just panders to the worst in people. I’m not inviting vampiric cunts to revel in how bleak and awful and yadda yadda yadda my life became, it’s more supposed to be inspirational to people who feel they may have the same problems as me. I know that makes me sound pompous but there you have it. I like Stuart, he’s a cool guy – I’m a regular guest on the Freakier Zone and he’s genuinely hilarious as well as having good taste in music. However my book’s not about me being a music journalist. And as such only two chapters in my book out of 17 are specifically about me and the music business even though I’ve been in it for 12 years now.
Jolly Lad extract…
“It’s not my job to speak for Albert and I won’t but I think it’s fair to say that both of us owe AA a great deal, despite the fact that both of us would be critical of some aspects of the fellowship.”
Everything has room for improvement. We both acknowledge that if Primal Scream lyrics used the word syphilis slightly less they’d be better. You criticize AA but we’ve yet to hear your specific criticisms. Please let us know where the fellowship is going wrong.
I’m not going to attack the fellowship in public half-cocked. It helped save my life. It’s something I’d have to dedicate at least six months research to and I don’t have either the time or inclination.
Have you read the Orange Papers? Y’know, the really anti AA website.
No. The only things I read are to do with music. I’m that sad and pathetic that I only read to research stories I’m writing.
At one point in the book you recall buying a round in the pub consisting of 27 pints of Stella, nine bottles of Bud, four whiskeys and five Jack and cokes? Did they pay you back? How did that work?
Yeah. I just got the money out of the bank. You’ve got to realise that if you’re on staff of a big warehouse working long night shifts you get paid relatively well. I earned more then than I do now that I’m an editor of a big music magazine and also write for VICE and the Guardian. They all paid up. A lot of people really fucking despised me in Welwyn, but not that night.
There’s a section in your book that closely resembles the list of attempts to control drinking in the Big Book aka Alcoholics Anonymous. However your list is even more encyclopaedic. It’s unencumbered by strange notions of adding milk to booze and most importantly contains the following line….
“I will not have a drink to get me back to sleep if I wake up in the middle of the night, no matter how bad I feel.”
Yeah. Pretty grim really and I didn’t do it all the time but if you get up at 3am, have a glass of wine and a cigarette and then go back to sleep, it’s almost like it’s not happened by the time you get up.
You talk about AA in the third person but you’re AA … AA is you … there are no leaders.
I guess so but I’ll never really feel that way unless I do the steps I guess.
Are there meetings that you prefer? The posh ones? The poor ones? The ones with good biscuits? The ones with good looking women? The ones full of celebs? Which one comes out on top?
All of that stuff has faded away now. The only meeting I like is my regular one because it’s comfortable.
Jolly Lad extract…
“Could I endure coming crashing off the wagon up to 16 times first before I got the hang of it?”
Did you get sobriety the first time round?
Difficult question. I’d tried to stop drinking for good numerous times before but they were half-hearted and none of them lasted more than, say, half a day. I think with serious attempts, I got it on my second go. But with drugs it was much more insidious. I’ve tried to give up drugs for good on numerous occasions and would often last several months at a time.
Jolly lad extract…
“I started taking instruction in Dhyna meditation care of London’s Theosophical Society; and while I found some of the spiritual and philosophical concepts I was being presented with slightly outlandish, I benefitted almost immediately from the practice of attempting to still and clear my mind of all thought.”
Do you still meditate? Has your taste in music changed since giving up the sauce?
I don’t currently meditate. I don’t find the time. My taste in music changing has more to do with the damage I’ve done to my hearing.
At the start of the book you talk about having a hole in your soul. Is that not a terrible cliché?
You’d have to tell me. I’m not well enough read. I have a feeling that there might be a passage in Trainspotting where Sick Boy talks about having a gaping hole at the core of himself that he can’t fill. It is genuinely how I felt though.
Jolly Lad extract…
“What would I give to have that can of Compass lager right now? And what would I give to have the roaring sun in my throat and in my belly once more?”
I once read an interview with Graham Coxon on the topic of booze where he said…
“A pickle can never go back to being a cucumber”.
At the time this struck me as being very profound. Only later did I realize that it came from the Big Book of AA. But if you could build a time machine out of a De Lorean you could drink that Compass lager couldn’t you?
Ah, but I’d be going back in time as an adult me so no I couldn’t. People who are craving after a drink in this respect are really craving after their vanished youth. If I had a can of Compass now it would taste disgusting and it would probably lead to really unpleasant consequences for me and my family. It simply wouldn’t be the same can of lager I had in 1984.
AA. Do you have a problem with the God bit?
No. Not at all. It’s just words.
Does your partner go to Al Anon?
No, and she has none of the problems I have. She’s not like me in those respects.
Jolly Lad extract…
“I’m legally obliged to refer to the effects of quitting as ‘cessation’ rather than withdrawal but it was much harder for me to stop taking these SSRI drugs than it was to quit any illegal drug I’ve ever taken; and that includes crack cocaine.”
SSRIs and in particular citalopram are great though. Aren’t they?
They’re good in the short term but if you end up on them for over a few years there’s a good chance you can end up on them for good. They’re so hard to come off… escitalopram was for me anyway.
I had brain zaps going on citalopram. I have them if I reduce my dose but overall I think I’m happier. And what price happiness? The main difference between prescription antidepressants and drugs of abuse is onset of action and the half life. Really addictive drugs like cigarettes or crack cocaine have an incredibly quick onset of action. That’s what makes them addictive. My drug of choice for many years was Cava or Prosecco and that actually had a fairly quick onset of action. It’s like Danny the Dealer in ‘Withnail and I’ said “Why trust one drug and not another?” I hope I’m making an informed choice. Citalopram seems to work for me. The positives are that it sedates me and it stops me crying all the time. The negatives are the dry mouth and the delayed ejaculation.
Alcoholism is progressive. I can’t use alcohol for a lifetime. As Mark E Smith once sang “I’m living too late I’m living too long”.
The problem as I see it is that people are given antidepressants and they don’t take on board how strong they are. They get the leaflet that says “Don’t drink at the same time as you take these drugs” and they discard the advice. I mean, perfectly intelligent and rational people are confused that an antidepressant and a depressant (alcohol) don’t go well with each other. I think that the BBC shouldn’t have been allowed to have a programme called ‘Food and Drink’ it should have been called ‘Food and socially accepted drug’. AA tells you to try and return to the religion of your childhood … the religion you were brought up in. The problem is that the bible doesn’t have too many negative things to say about booze does it? Maybe I should become a Muslim.
This isn’t really a question but I roughly agree with all of this. I’m not sure if I’ll stay off anti-depressants forever or even for the rest of the year. It’s certainly tougher, but then the omnipresent threat of depression makes me take pro-active action like going to the gym and eating healthily. If I’m on SSRIs there’s less need for me to look after those things.
Have you ever been to a AA group conscience? Have you ever been to a AA convention?
Did your beard really fall out?
Yes. Twice. Once in 2003 and once again in about 2013.
Jolly Lad extract…
“Manipulative behaviour is a hallmark of the chronic but high functioning alcoholic. It is the main thing that stops them from ending up friendless, jobless and homeless.”
It sounds like you’re ready for the 12 steps.
Ha ha ha. Get me a PA to look after my work and I’ll happily do the steps.
Does AA kill people who spurn medication?
I can’t comment on this. I don’t really think AA, in itself, kills anyone. Controlled drinking programmes on the other hand are great for people with drink problems but appallingly unsuitable for chronic alcoholics however.
It’s bad form to talk about the meetings or AA at all. Tradition 11 of AA says: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” In your book Jolly Lad you state …
“I’d like to apologise for speaking about AA here, even if it is just in very general terms. I would never repeat what anyone else said there; I never talk there myself, I just sit and listen. I wait for the reassurance of identification and nothing else.”
The mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke, recently broke his personal anonymity but caused further controversy by stating who he was with. “I don’t mind breaking my anonymity” he said “I’m an open book anyhow, so I do attend meetings.” He added “I have sat with David Bowie and Marlon Brando”, noting that the stars had previously broken their own anonymity.
The main argument against breaking personal anonymity would seem to be that if you were to subsequently drink or break the law then people would point the finger and say “Well it’s like I told you it doesn’t work”. John there’s actually more pressure on you now to stay sober.
JDetractors of AA say that anyway. And if I fall off the wagon I’ll have bigger things to deal with than what other people think.
Have you ever gone to Narcotics Anonymous?
No. I came very close when I stopped doing drugs but I just stepped up going to AA more as I was more comfortable there.
Some people say there’s not much recovery in NA. The age demographic in AA is older and there are probably more people who have got long time sober in the room. That’s got to help. There are more examples of the benefits that sobriety brings. NA can be a place for people to make drug connections. It might be a little scarier. I haven’t been. Those are probably simply my prejudices. What do you think? What put you off?)
I don’t know because I haven’t been. I heard there was a lot of hugging and hand holding in NA and I’m not down with that.
I remember someone in New Order discussing Ian Curtis once – I think it was Bernard Sumner. He started by discussing how incredibly unpalatable room temperature or warm Special Brew was / is. Then he went on to say Ian Curtis liked to drink it warm and finished by saying “If you want to know who Ian Curtis was. That’s who Ian Curtis was”. In my opinion alcohol is so huge in a lot of people’s lives that we can’t confront it. It’s so omnipresent it’s invisible. If Stephen Fry details a suicide attempt that includes a bottle of vodka as part of the story no one really wants to discuss it. We just move on to the fact that he says he’s bipolar. It’s not the elephant in the room. It’s the elephant in everybody’s room. Frank Skinner says if alcohol was made illegal the rule of law would collapse within a week. A.A. was set in the immediate aftermath of prohibition. The organisation knew there was no hunger within the USA for a return to prohibition. But perhaps the drinks industry has got off a little light ever since. They’ve got perhaps the most powerful lobby group of all. They used Marty Mann to create and popularize the notion of the alcoholic. And yet perhaps America is way ahead in these regards. Membership of a 12 step group apparently carries much less stigma in the states.
LifeRing’s Martin Nicolaus on the Medical Model of Addiction (pertinent bit runs from 4 minutes to 10 minutes)
You’ve said it all more succinctly than I can really. If alcohol were to be banned overnight I think it would be exciting. There would probably be a revolution in this country. But also, after time … murders would fall away to nothing. Unwanted pregnancies, rape and domestic abuse would fall dramatically. Street violence would all but disappear. The roads would become safer. The suicide rate would drop. But no one wants to talk about this because everyone likes a drink. I’m not saying I think alcohol should be banned, but I find it interesting that no one – no matter how liberal – will talk about it.
What was it like working for Loaded? You seem to be a little embarrassed by it all. You don’t have fond memories of being chased around by Jo Guest and Kathy Lloyd? I imagined the office was just like the ‘Blur – Country House’ video. Lots of important writers wrote for Playboy. Was it really that morally reprehensible? There’s talk of a Loaded movie. Who will play you in the film?
I wasn’t part of the team and didn’t fit in there. Literally no one who has ever worked on that magazine apart from my section editor Chris Pilbeam – a really nice guy – would remember who I am. I only went to about three Loaded parties and I was extremely anxious and unhappy at them. I stood and drank on my own in a corner and completely failed to meet or bond with anyone. However I’m not embarrassed about the fact I used to write for them. I was a barely functioning alcoholic – the fact that I had work at all was remarkable in itself. While not spotless, I think Loaded – when it started at least – wasn’t misogynistic. The butt of the joke was usually us … i.e. young drunk men – and the humour was surreal and playful. Loaded was like The Female Eunuch compared to FHM magazine that used to dole out really snide sex advice and run columns belittling women. They used to have a column called something like ‘Stupid Things My Girlfriend Says’. Fucking reprehensible. I wouldn’t work for a lads mag now but I don’t have any lasting regrets about it either.
Extract from Jolly Lad…
“And, when all is said and done, is there really such a thing as closure? I’m unconvinced.”
It’s progress not perfection isn’t it?
Yeah, this is why ‘recovery’ is such a fraught word. They chose that one badly.
That’s like the old chestnut of when people in AA describe themselves as either recovering or recovered.
Yeah, I don’t see life in episodic, demarcated terms.
12 Step Nazis. Could it be that the people that bang on about the 12 steps the most have the sobriety that you don’t really desire? Alan McGee (Creation Records) is on Facebook all the time criticizing the twelve steps and consequently AA. And in some ways he’s right. The advice in the Big Book is to wear the AA program like a loose cloak i.e. don’t take it too seriously. It’s an avocation or hobby. We are meant to KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Well, I haven’t done the steps so it’s hard for me to say. AA simply provided me with a framework to help me recover. I only went to listen to people talking, to seek identification and I don’t think many would begrudge me that.
Non Booze Related Questions.
Who is your favourite music journalist of all time? Is it facile to make a Lester Bangs comparison?
I get more out of reading Simon Reynolds than anyone else – he sparks more ideas in me than other writers and that for me is the most exciting thing. I used to read classic literature when I was younger… I even went to Prague to visit Franz Kafka’s grave ten years ago. So if I read some music hack channeling Kafka – I don’t think it’s impressive, it just makes me want to re-read Metamorphosis. Neil Strauss is an amazing interviewer but his interests are so American and macho they completely alienate me. Why can’t there be a Neil Strauss who is into the same music as me?
I’ve had a few people say this about Lester Bangs and I know they mean well but I absolutely detest him. When you read a lot of his work – and I’ve read tons of it – you realise that a lot of what he wrote was garbage. Plus I just don’t want to look backwards – music journalism isn’t that strong a thing to support all of this backward, golden age gazing. It’s too ephemeral. Like all journalism, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips wrappers. At the Quietus we had no interest in being part of a continuum of music writing or following what anyone else was doing. Sure, The Quietus was inspired in certain respects to a certain degree by the Melody Maker, Sounds and NME of the late 80s and early 90s and both Luke Turner and I read a lot of old music writing but we found it was simply unhelpful to talk about a golden age in music journalism. We just weren’t interested in looking backwards.
There was certainly an age when music writing was a hell of a lot more racist, sexist and homophobic than it went on to be but I don’t know if there was ever a golden age. And there have certainly been some outstanding outlier talents in the past such as Paul Morley and, yes, Lester Bangs was also one of them on a good day, but if you want to disabuse yourself of any quaint notions of what music writing was like 40 years ago, simply buy a bunch of old magazines off ebay and try ploughing through the whole lot.
People only remember Lester Bangs writing about Kraftwerk or Lou Reed, they never remember him writing about having a food fight with Slade or his never ending essays about why he used the N-word or 10,000 words on how he would take all his unopened vinyl to the record shop without listening to it and how terrible all music was or how it was much more satisfying to have a wank than have a girlfriend, or the really grim transphobia, or the stuff about smashing Debbie Harry’s face in – a lot of his quotidian writing was either quite boring or embarrassing by today’s standards. This is not a value judgement on his style – on a good day he was clearly a genius – it’s just that a lot of it wasn’t written on a good day. In fact proportionally, barely any of it was.
And more importantly, times have changed beyond all recognition. Outside of people hankering for a time that has passed and the relatively niche market for aggressive white middle class kids being offensive in current American black slang, his writing no longer has that much resonance. Thank fuck.
There are plenty of brilliant writers out there whose names I don’t hear being shouted from the rooftops. Give me Laura Snapes, Geeta Dayal, Frances Morgan, Jude Rogers, Emily Bick, Lauren Martin, Petra Davis, Helen King or Sophie Coletta any day. I’d sooner read them than read some forty year old essay by some bloke going on about The Kinks. Now whether these current writers have the modern equivalent of Alice Coltrane or Black Sabbath or James Brown or Johnny Cash or Can or Kraftwerk or Funkadelic or John Cage to write about or whether they have the same size audience of people hanging off their every word or whether they have the massively read specialist publications which support and nurture them as writers or not is another matter entirely and very much open to debate. Music writing isn’t a parasitic form. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of bits of music writing I would read with literally no intention of listening to the music that it was referring to and I know that I’m not alone in this. But overall there is obviously more than a little bit of a connection between the interest in music and the interest in music writing, and let’s face it, rock and pop aren’t the all consuming passion of a generation any more, simply one of many leisure options we have open to us.
Are you now a member of Arabrot?
No. I’m lucky enough to be an auxiliary member of the group for the month of May only.
Some fairly big parts of your life are given little regard in Jolly Lad. The fact that you bought a house with your girlfriend Helen is kind of a minor detail.
There are massive amounts left out of this. Like any peripatetic 40-something high-functioning alcoholic and substance abuser I’ve had a very varied life. The stuff about my relationship with Helen going wrong I wanted to deal with respectfully and succinctly as possible as to not cause her any grief. We’re still friendly and I’ve known her since 1987 but I’m not sure if she’ll even read the book but if she does I don’t want it to be too upsetting for her. With her, as with most of the other major figures in the book, I let people read ‘their’ chapters first. A few didn’t reply to the emails and a few asked for their names to be changed but no one asked to be taken out. There was one story in there which I was politely informed was an urban myth which I took out, so I”m glad I went to the trouble of asking everyone I could track down.
Is this book like any other book? What are its precedents? Who is the target audience of this book?
I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not well enough read. I didn’t write it with a target audience in mind but I did have a few conversations with my editor Natasha Soobramanien about how my style should be widened out to include general readers. There’s a little bit more exposition than I would use normally. You know the kind of thing: “Throbbing Gristle, the controversial late 1970s industrial music pioneers…” or whatever. I don’t care who reads it. I just want them to think I’m a good writer.
One of the first bands you interviewed were Warhol haired indie band Birdland. What were they like?
Not the sharpest knives in the drawer but then, neither was I.
During your time at Metal Hammer you fell out with a band called Marie Antoinette. This in turn threatened your personal safety. If someone wanted to listen to Marie Antoinette & Sauron Five could they? Are they on YouTube?
Because of the serious shit that went down, the names have been changed.
Is it genuinely possible to like both Iron Maiden and The Fall?
Yes! Of course. Dom Lawson and Alex Burrows at Metal Hammer magazine love both. I’ve got plenty of mates more from the post punk end of things who like both as well. When Maiden started punk and elements of post punk infected what Maiden were doing. I’m glad the tribalism in music fandom has gone. I’ve always loved stuff straight across the board. I remember in the 80s, in St Helens, the punks wouldn’t talk to me because I’d talk freely about my love for ABBA and Queen, all the dead self-regarding Big Black fans wouldn’t talk to me because I liked dance music, all the Fall fans mistrusted me because I liked the Sisters Of Mercy and so on and so forth. I hated all that stuff. I love music and want to listen to as much as possible – not just one genre. My boy doesn’t like The Fall but he does like Iron Maiden. However I don’t think The Fall are designed for four year olds.
If you didn’t share office space with Factory Floor and Tim Burgess would you all still be mates? Which came first the office space or the friendship?
The friendship with Nik Void came before Factory Floor were even a group. I try and keep a big gulf between the little non-work time I have and my job. I go out of my way not to socialise with musicians – not because I’m rude just because I take my job really seriously. HOWEVER, sometimes organically you just become friends with people because you see them a lot and then it’s a totally different matter. I ran into Tim Burgess a lot through work and you can’t help but be mates with him, he’s such a nice guy. So over the years, unavoidably, I guess I have ended up friends with quite a lot of musicians but it’s by accident rather than design.
Are you a failed rock star?
No. I’m a successful rock writer. You can answer that question yourself by asking if I’m in a band or not. No I”m not and I don’t make or release music – so how can I be? I’m only a failed rock star in the same sense that I’m a failed movie star, astronaut or superhero… i.e. it’s just stuff purely of the imagination.
10. Can you drive a car?
Your advertising spiel states “The column proved relatively popular – or at least no one asked him to stop writing it. By Spring of 2014, after three years, he had filed 66 chapters of MENK so decided to take a hiatus while he worked on this book. Instead of releasing an anthology of columns however, he decided to completely rewrite the material into a narrative, which would concern his recovery from alcoholism, the attempt to cope with mental illness and becoming a father.” What Menk columns are not in Jolly lad?
Christ. Loads. My editor made me cut so much out. The combined length of all the columns was probably over twice the length of the book. A lot of my favourite stories ended up on the cutting room floor – including the massive mistake in an obituary of George Harrison for the Daily Star, where I said he lost his wife to Eric Clapton in a guitar duel adjudicated by John Hurt dressed as the Elephant Man. My friend, the writer Colm McAuliffe from Cork paid me the ultimate compliment by saying that I write like an Irishman – you know, lots of digressions… taking the scenic route to the point. So when Natasha said, “There’s more digression than actual narrative in your first draft” I tried invoking the names of Behan, Joyce and Donleavy but she wasn’t having any of it. She said, “Nothing that doesn’t serve the narrative is staying.” So it was cut in half essentially. And I think it’s much better for it. It’s not supposed to be filed under humour, so what does it matter if some funny stories have been left out of it?
Will you be having any more kids?
I’d like to but money and accommodation remain big problems.
Jolly Lad extract…
“There was so much violence when I was young. Literally everywhere I went. Healthy sexual energy corrupted into bloodshed between lads who were all utterly identical bar from which town they came from or which football team they supported or which band they followed or what haircut they had.”
The advent of ecstasy did seem to reduce all this a bit didn’t it?
Yeah. You can’t underestimate the impact of ecstasy but there are other factors as well. People of my age – as far as I’m aware – were the last generation to regularly get corporal punishment in school, adults battering their kids was in the process of becoming verboten, the stresses of world war 2 were fading into the background… kids had previously been programmed to be violent to one another from birth. Then there was the deregulation of licensing hours and the proliferation of leisure options in the early 90s. Plus violence itself became less socially acceptable and less woven into the strands of popular culture.
Was the carbuncle on your face a sebaceous cyst? I used to get those.
Just a mole really I think but I have quite bad body dysmorphia. I mean, I know I’m no oil painting but when I look in the mirror I just see something out of Fangoria looking back at me. Like some ugly thing that’s been assembled by a mad scientist.
Who are Strange Attractor?
A very cool independent publishers who specialise in underground culture. I’m probably the most mainstream author on there.
Are you still a militant vegetarian?
No. I’ve had really serious problems with my diet over the last few years with food intolerances and allergies so I eat meat when I’m out of the house. I’m not overjoyed about the fact but it is what it is.
You’re not much into sport are you? What football team do you support?
I don’t. I fucking hate football. The thing is, when I was very young – yeah, everyone was blue or red but then my Dad, who was probably the most working class person on our entire estate, bar the coal miner who lived over the road, didn’t like football, he was into snooker and darts which are two bona fide working class sports. Then I went to school in St Helens where no one gives a fuck about football and St Helens is about as working class as it gets. Then I moved to Hull where it was rugby first, football second, so you didn’t have to commit. By the time I moved south it was at the height of Britpop and you just had to be into football. For me it was a political thing – football suddenly became really bourgeoise. I wasn’t going to suddenly get into going to Arsenal because of Fever Pitch so I’d go to my local stadium – I lived over the road from Orient in Leyton. And I’d go and support Hull or Tranmere if they were playing in London but the matches were always dogshit. It was a dark period for me the mid 90s… I lost a grip of who I was. I allowed myself to become corrupted for a while… watching football, writing for Loaded, trying my hand as a tabloid journalist… none of it necessarily intrinsically bad but it just wasn’t me at all.
The worst thing about football is how linear it is. I like music because, at best, it’s psychedelic and free. Football can never be like that – it doesn’t expand your consciousness or unfold in unexpected ways, it can only ever follow certain permutations – no matter how skilful one or two individual players might be.
I know there’s a big link between working class football support and music fandom but that’s at the facts and figures and stats end of music fandom that I’m not into.
Plus being a music fan is a life of constant disappointment; why would I throw having to go and watch Wimbledon AFC get beaten every other week into the mix as well?
Will you be selling your book on the thirty one date reading tour of England with Arabrot? Are you really going to perform in prison?
Yeah, I get the books back on Tuesday, so plenty of time to take them with me. I hope to perform in prison. It’s tough to get sorted out. I’ve had three prison readings fall through so far.
“Churches – and by extension the church – are supposed to put the fear of God into you. Making them inviting, homely and comfortable is missing the point by a country mile.” – surely that’s the point of the Fall song Hip Priest …we need the smoke and mirrors … we need the snake oil … we don’t need modernisation … we don’t need logic … we want gothic organ music … we don’t want folk music … we don’t want constant reinvention.
If you don’t buy one of the 500 hard backs how do you get the CD?
By coming to see me on tour.
The book gets published in May, you’re going to look like a right idiot if your missus leaves you in July. (Context: my missus left me when I was 6 months sober).
What I look like will be the least of my worries if my girlfriend leaves me.
You are a masochist. You didn’t need to stay in those dead end jobs for so long. You seem to have spent an awful lot of your life rebelling against unseen forces. Sometimes it seems a little like George Orwell’s ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’. You’re like Gordon Comstock in your ambition to defy worship of the money-god and status. The drinking years sound a bit like this…
“He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being under ground. He liked to think of the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes… He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal … It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself forever.”
Your life has been transformed by fatherhood like Comstock. But one still wonders have you finally settled down, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra or will you ever do it?
Good question. Yes I am a masochist. I have straight up punished myself for big periods of my life. I didn’t feel like I was worthy of anything better than factory work. I was the first person in my family to go to university and I came from a school where literally the only careers advice was concerning how to get jobs in factories or in garages. I didn’t know anyone who had been to university and I didn’t know what to expect or how to behave. I came off the rails almost instantaneously. I really couldn’t wait to get thrown off the course so I could get stuck straight into what I thought I deserved, which was working hard in a factory and drinking hard at all other times. I wish I could afford a villa and an aspidistra but we live in different times now. I’m financially worse off than I was in my factory days. This is the discrete poverty of the bourgeoisie, as John Gray calls it. Late / Post Fordist Capitalism can no longer afford the class I’ve ended up in – the lower strata of the middle orders. If things don’t look up for me soon financially, I’ll have to quit and go and do something else… data entry, trade journals… whatever. All I want to do is write – and I don’t mind doing it 80 hours a week – and to earn enough to get by with a very modest lifestyle but even that is too much to ask in this day and age.
Jolly Lad extract…
“I finally got to see a dietician at Homerton Hospital in Hackney and she placed me on a super conservative food regime in a last ditch attempt to find out why problems with my digestive system were spiralling out of control. The Spartan food programme was very boring and made eating outside of my own flat next to impossible but the improvement in how I felt – especially as regards headaches – was remarkable.”
What did they have you eating?
JD: Fucking gruel. It’s like being in prison in Slovenia in the 1970s. Look up the FODMAP diet if you’re interested.
John Doran’s book Jolly Lad is not on sale. Buy yourself a copy from here.