Louder Than War Interview: We talk to Nina Antonia who transcribed and edited Peter Doherty’s journals and tour diaries 2008 – 2013
“There are layers and nuances and complexities to people that the media doesn’t always catch”.
I recently reviewed From Albion to Shangri-La, the second published volume of Peter Doherty’s journals. Describing the book as “compelling reading”, I concluded that ‘From Albion to Shangri-La’ turns the spotlight on the reader, challenging us as to how we will react and respond to the, at turns, bewildering, harrowing and other-worldly landscape that unfolds within its pages.
From Albion to Shangri-La was transcribed, compiled and edited by the quintessential underground rock ‘n’ roll writer, Nina Antonia, who commands great respect due to her tenacious commitment to documenting and celebrating the lives and work of our most Icarian musicians, those who challenge society’s prevailing norms with scant regard to their personal well-being and prosperity.
In a lengthy and wide-ranging interview, Nina not only discusses Peter Doherty and ‘From Albion to Shangri-La’, but also talks in depth about her cult classic ‘ Johnny Thunders- In Cold Blood’ and her much sought after but currently out-of-print biography of Peter Perrett from The Only Ones, as well as discussing the judgemental nature of mainstream media.
GI: I asked three of my friends if they have questions for you, do you mind if we start with those? They’ll kill me if I forget to ask.
The first question is from (Dunbar-based musician) Roy Moller: “I’d like to ask Nina if she’s drawn inspiration from crime fiction and Film Noir, because the sharp descriptiveness of her writing seems to bring out the inherent tenderness and toughness of her subjects in a way that’s all the more affecting for its eschewing of extraneous language or cliché”.
NA – When I was growing up in Liverpool in the early ‘70’s, for whatever reason a lot of wonderful, cynical Noir movies were shown on television. I preferred watching Cagney, Bogart and Bacall to playing in the sun. The idea of the ‘desperate city’ and its hard-bitten denizens is an appealing one. I love the moodiness of those films, so yes, to some degree I absorbed those influences. The original ‘Cape Fear’ & ‘Night of The Hunter’ (with Robert Mitchum) take tension as far as it can go and then some.
There is a Noir-ish aspect to ‘Johnny Thunders- In Cold Blood’ certainly, that’s why the cover is in black and white. But my first love has always been literature and the two key books that inspired it are Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ and Albert Goldman and Laurence Schiller’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen – Lenny Bruce.’ They are very detailed cinematic books that had a huge impact on me as a teenager.
How old were you when you wrote In Cold Blood?
NA – Well, it came out in ‘87 when I was 27, so early 20s.
Was it your first major piece of writing?
NA – Well, I did a couple of things for fanzines; I failed English A level for what it’s worth, education is important but I used books to create another universe than the one I found myself in. I was reading Genet and Burroughs at 13. I had this sort of antennae (for interesting writers); I guess I wanted to find another way of living which wasn’t like my parents’ and I felt very ostracised from the community in which I grew up; my parents were very strict, but reading was something I could do without drawing criticism but little did they know!! I was planning my escape through paperbacks. Those books chronicled rebel lives, dissident expression.
I also have a question from (ex-singer of The Doojimen) Enrico Brienza, who’s a big Johnny Thunders fan and one-man garage riot…
NA – I’d love to hear him, where is he based?
Leicester, which is a hard place to be trying to start a garage rock revolution…he’s a big fan of Nikki Sudden and he’s got a question about a signing session for your biography of Peter Perrett, The One and Only- apparently Nikki Sudden and Dave Kusworth (from the revered cult rock ‘n’ roll band The Jacobites) attended the book signing and Dave got horribly drunk and had to be carried out- do you have any memories of that event?
NA – There are some great photos of Nikki with Peter that I have posted, but Dave got trashed and missed a great night. All The Only Ones showed up, it was really lovely. Mainstream media may suppose they are the arbiters of what people are interested in but that night of the book launch, there were queues down the street of Only Ones’ fans waiting to get their books signed by Peter Perrett.
Peter Perrett’s gone on to produce some fantastic work in his later years, his songwriting’s still there, isn’t it?
NA – Oh, very much so, he’s totally intact as an artist.
Enrico also asks “How did Johnny Thunders feel about all the bad imitators in the ‘80s who were ripping him off”?
NA – We never discussed that, Johnny was just Johnny, Johnny got on with being Johnny. He was very self-contained. I learned a lot from him; how an artist has to create their own universe. Of course he was aware of the imitators but he knew he was the best, he was Johnny Thunders and there could be no other.
Did you get the impression he was bitter about being ripped-off?
NA – He knew that he was the originator. Business is different than style, though. Johnny saw it in two halves; he knew he was the originator but the music industry was a different matter altogether and he knew he’d been burned along the way but bitter? No. Philosophical, yes……
You also wrote another celebrated biography, ‘The One and Only: Peter Perrett, Homme Fatale’…
NA – Somebody stole my last copy! And they are hard to come by these days and are often sold for exorbitant amounts. However, good news, Thin Man Press, who published ‘From Albion to Shangri-La’ are reissuing it. The hold up has been getting an electronic version but a friend (Hi Den!) lent me a copy and it’s going through a ‘character recognition’ process so I don’t have to retype the entire text.
There’s so much talk about the death of print media- have you noticed a massive change, is it much harder to get a book published now?
NA – Apart from the Dolls book, every single book I’ve done has been a fight in its own way, because the Dolls book was commissioned, in fact I was the third in line for the New York Dolls book (Too Much, Too Soon), did you know that?
No, I didn’t, who did they have lined up?
NA – First of all the request went out to Marty Thau who was going to write it with Richard Hell, it could have been very interesting but I’m not sure what happened with negotiations. Music journalism still being a man’s world the request then went out to Victor Bockris (GI:oh, gawd…) but he was busy with Keith Richards. Then John Perry (Only Ones’ guitarist) mentioned that Omnibus books were looking for someone and I jumped at the chance.
In one of your books you took Iggy Pop to task for a rather misogynistic song lyric. Do you see yourself as a Feminist?
NA – I get offended when people ask me what its like being a female writer. I’m a writer, full stop, gender doesn’t enter into the craft only the reality, hence the pecking order of call-outs for The Dolls book. Although Marty Thau was of course best qualified of all because of his experience of having managed The Dolls, but I got to interview Marty and he was very generous with his recollections.
There were very strong women in the Max’s and CBGB’s scenes that were very much an integral part of those scenes…
NA – The Dolls were associated with some great women, like Cyrinda Foxe and Sabel Starr, they were part of the mythology and stars in their own right. The Dolls may have played dirty rock ‘n’ roll but they were the children of the Warhol era and street sophisticated. Whereas if you look at say Motley Crue; they espoused such a corny, crude attitude about sex.
Do you think the women of that scene have had enough recognition?
NA – Not really. Only recently it was either Uncut or Mojo printed a famous picture of Iggy Pop backstage in L.A. with Sabel Starr and it just said ‘Iggy with Fan.’ Know your rock ‘n’ roll history if you are going to write about it. Then again, there was some years ago a late night music show on with Lauren Laverne and Patsy Kensit and they showed some footage of Cyrinda Foxe with David Bowie and both them of looked at the footage and gushed about how great an influence Angie Bowie was! These women may not have got on stage with guitars but Sabel, Cyrinda and their kind still helped shape the era and were very significant. Only the other day I was looking through a book about Sid Vicious and there was this great picture of Sid and Dee Dee Ramone, with Vera Ramone and the picture simply referenced Sid and Dee Dee as if the other figure wasn’t there. She just didn’t matter. It’s like collective cultural amnesia.
In his autobiography(I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, 2013), Richard Hell is fulsome in his praise of the women of that scene.
NA – That’s good to hear. I don’t want to say too much about misogyny in rock ‘n’ roll…the irony here is that of course Johnny may have sometimes said misogynistic things on stage, but he was very respectful of my writing and he introduced me to people as “the smartest chick he’d ever met” although of course, that was because I was writing about him!!
I have a question from Tom Rafferty of The Primevals which is: “Do you have any keepsakes from Johnny?”
NA – I have a purple brooch that Johnny gave me, which I keep very safely, that he used to wear on his jacket; I think he wore it in Japan.
Turning now to ‘From Albion to Shangri-La’, what was your initial connection with Peter Doherty?
NA – If you look at all my books, they follow a pattern and they’ve all been about people who have done things in their own way and have their own style and are mad, bad and dangerous to know. I admire Peter’s music and the fact that, despite it being a corporate world, he sticks to being who he is.
It’s been a long and circuitous route that began even before The Libertines were formed, when I went to see Peter and Carl Barat perform a poetry evening at the Riverside and Carl had asked me to bring a copy of the New York Dolls book along. They got thrown off the stage; they were chatting about Chas and Dave; I mean, this was a very long time ago… it’s the strangest journey ever. The first time I ever really spoke to Peter, I mentioned in passing that I’d had an email correspondence with Morrissey and he was intrigued by that, being a Smiths’ fan. Peter’s a fascinating, talented creature.
Has the judgemental nature of the media got worse?
NA – The tabloids have always been judgemental, it just seems to have got worse over the years. I recently did a radio interview with Simone Marie, the bass player from Primal Scream, who’s absolutely wonderful, and she was saying “You know, everybody loves Johnny now”. But at the time I was writing ‘In Cold Blood’, apart from his dedicated fan base, he was pretty much a media pariah. Certainly he had his supporters but back in the early 80’s when I was writing ‘In Cold Blood’ it was not a good point for him. He couldn’t get a major record deal and was very much an underground artist. Plus people saw the drugs first and they don’t always understand the complexities of addiction. If there are parallels between Johnny and Peter, then both face the same critical attitude from certain quarters.
The horror of it all is this; that Johnny knew (that) 30 years after he died that he’d be considered a legend, and probably, with great sadness, if anything should happen to Peter, it would be much the same.
I often see people writing stuff about Johnny in retrospect, when it’s safe to romanticise him and wax lyrical, but what matters most is when the person is still alive. It’s so easy to fantasize when all that is left is dust, glitter and mythology but no real danger. But if you were there back in the day and you turned away…..what can I say? Thirty years later, it’s all too easy to say all is forgiven although I’m happy that Johnny’s legacy is appreciated and is burning brightly. He deserves that recognition, I just wish he and Jerry Nolan were here to enjoy it.
NA – I worked for 10 years part time in the substance misuse field; I think it’s a case of sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is.
Any further news on The Dangerous Life of Johnny Thunders (film adaptation of Johnny Thunders- In Cold Blood, which has been optioned by Los Angeles-based LAMF Films) and how that’s going…
NA – Gus, through the powers of the internet, I’m reading through this whilst sitting in a café in LA when I should be working on the last draft of the script!!
What about the premiere of Danny Garcia’s Johnny Thunders’ documentary, Looking for Johnny, did you get to that?
NA – I did indeed get to that, it was a very emotional evening…it was lovely to see the English contingent who were in the film and Danny Garcia did a great job; it was good to catch up with him…I mean, I felt quite overwhelmed, I didn’t stay for the drinks party afterwards, I did a bit of a Garbo and wandered home through the streets of Soho, walked past the site of the old Marquee club and tipped my hat to Johnny and Jerry in memory.
If money were no object, what would be your dream project?
NA – What I’m doing now but with an advance!! Thin Man Press have great aesthetics and are prepared to take a chance, which is unusual in these times. They’re non-corporate; but what we have done is a deal with Music Sales, who distribute Omnibus Books, because by themselves a small publisher can’t get into Waterstones or Foyles, so it’s a bit like an indie label being distributed by a major. That to me is the best way of going about things, but it is a corporate world and like it or not, that’s the framework one has to operate in.
People say, “Oh, it’s an open playing field now with the internet” and yeah, sure you can get your work on there and you can upload your books onto Kindle, but then you need more of a push that that. You really have to work it these days. The thing that’s happened in the world, and it’s gone into music as well, is that you will get a massive folly, say like Lady Gaga’s Artpop album (2013), where millions are spent, and imagine how that could have been put across the board for a few more independent bands. And you’ll get Dannii Minogue being offered a book deal, being paid millions! You can imagine how much even a five grand advance would mean to a new or struggling writer. It’s a corporate mentality that’s infected everything.
It must make it very difficult just getting by and keeping going as a writer these days…
NA – You have to be strong willed and have a vision. I’ve believed ardently in every book I’ve been involved with. ‘Johnny Thunders -In Cold Blood’ has been in print for something like 27 years. That is a record for a rock book. If you mention that to upper echelon journalists they won’t have heard of it. Virgin books told me at the time that it was a pointless project. Que sera. I hope I don’t sound bitter because I’ve lived the life I wanted and I’ve written about what I’ve wanted and I haven’t compromised. Once, when I was really desperate, a publisher offered me a book on Natalie Imbruglia. I passed on it, what could I say? I didn’t believe in it. I was utterly stumped by that (laughs), no disrespect to Natalie Imbruglia, but come on!
What are your favourite albums, the ones that have stayed with you down the years?
NA – Oh boy, I’m so predictable, I listen to the same things day in, day out…you know the answers to this! I listen to Johnny, Link Wray…I love Nico, Nancy Sinatra…
Any newer bands that you like?
NA – Peter Doherty’s music; whatever I’ve written about reflects what I listen to, but I do prefer books, I have more books than records and I read more than I listen to music. At the moment, I’m reading ‘The King’s Road’ by Mariella Novotny or as it says on the book cover ‘The Most Shocking Girl in the World.’ Published in 1971, Novotny was a pal of Christine Keeler’s and is said to be the link between the Profumo affair and JFK. As usual I’m not keeping it contemporary!!
Have you ever made any recordings of spoken word and music together?
NA – I’ve done a couple of things like that, but that’s something I’d like to explore a bit more. I do like doing readings and I really like Jim Carroll as well, he’s another influence. He’s a wonderful writer and I wrote in a much more flowery way when I was younger, but I’ve become a bit more minimalist as I’ve got older and Carroll writes in such a simple yet sophisticated way.
Are there any other projects that you have in development?
NA – At the moment, it’s about trying to get the flags aloft for ‘From Albion to Shangri-La’ and set that sailing on tranquil waters.
Shortly after this interview was conducted, ‘From Albion to Shangri-La’ hit some very stormy waters indeed and flags were aloft in all the wrong places as the UK tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail ran a lurid, sensationalist story about the book. The article questioned the inclusion of a highly poignant journal entry, apparently written by the late Peaches Geldolf, in which Peaches declares her intention “not to die” and Doherty appears to respond with a gentle warning alluding to Peaches’ then drug-use (the entry is from 2008).
As the book’s editor, Nina Antonia was asked to justify the inclusion of the page in the published book; Nina’s response was typically brave, resolute and humane, rejecting the “cultural vandalism” of censorship and drawing attention to Doherty’s poetic words of warning to Geldolf.
Happier news followed in the same week, as the audacious Thin Man Press broke the news that it would be re-publishing Nina’s classic, much sought-after Peter Perrett biography. ‘The One and Only: Peter Perrett, Homme Fatale’ is scheduled for a September release and will feature an entirely new chapter.
In light of these significant developments, Gus Ironside submitted two further questions which Nina answered by email (the original interview was conducted by telephone), as well as providing an updated response regarding the film adaptation of ‘In Cold Blood’.
From Albion to Shangri-La is published by Thin Man Press and is now available. Please support independent publishing and buy direct from the publisher where possible; you can buy the paperback direct from Thin Man Press with a 30% web discount here.
The Kindle version can be purchased here.
From Albion to Shangri-La Facebook page is here.
From Albion to Shangri-La Twitter is here.
Nina Antonia’s Facebook page is here.
Thin Man Press Facebook page is here.
Thin Man Press website is here.
Many thanks to Nina Antonia for her exceptional generosity with her time and her contributions to this article.
Thanks also to Roy Moller, Enrico Brienza and Tom Rafferty for their excellent questions.
Billy Rath is in our thoughts and prayers.
All words by Gus Ironside, whose Louder Than War archive is here.