Simon Mason was once described by Alan McGee, founder of seminal record label Creation, as “The Rocknroll Doctor” due to his habit of being found in the late-night company of some of the biggest bands of the Britpop era, usually being the reason some of those late nights became as late as they did!
What goes up, must come down and Mason became a casualty of his own making as his personal relationship with drugs spiralled out of control, leaving him a homeless heroin addict, stumbling in and out of police cells, detox centres and rehabs with the same regularity as he was once to be found in the backstage areas of pretty much every music festival of the 90’s. As cautionary tales go, his 2013 memoir, “Too High, Too Far, Too Soon“, is, in the opinion of Vice Magazine;
“A book that falls somewhere between Stephen Smith’s Addict and Danny Sugarman’s Wonderland Avenue and is perhaps the great British narco-memoir of modern times.”
In this piece, Do It Clean, Simon draws upon his unique experiences and delves into the realm of the sober rock legend, reflects on his recovery from the whirlwind addiction of his younger days and throws in some classic tunes to set the scene.
So, grab a coffee, put your earphones in and enjoy the ride – I did!
Simon – thanks for allowing us to publish this – we’re excited and honoured in equal measure!
Do It Clean
by Simon Mason
Written in August 2018.
I got a handful of this, what do I do with it?
I got a barrel of this, what do I do with it?
I do it clean, I do it clean .
(Echo and the Bunnymen)
There’s a reason I’m citing this song from 1980 and it’s not because its writer is a poster-boy for healthy living, either now, or then. Ian McCulloch, as far as I know, is yet to embrace sobriety/recovery, not that it’s any of my business what he does or doesn’t do while he and the latest incarnation of the ‘Bunnymen’ continue to tour the world to decent-sized audiences.
The reason I’ve kicked off the piece with that lyric is due to a moment of melancholic-clarity I experienced at a gig in London a while back. It was Echo and The Bunnymen, (but you possibly just guessed that?) If not, like much of the following, it possibly doesn’t really matter, there’s no business like show-business and your business is, quite frankly, none on my business eh?
I was sitting in the ‘I’ve not paid to get in’ section alongside other musical vagabonds of a certain vintage, (we don’t get asked for ID when buying e-cigs) when, for no apparent reason, my companion for the evening turned to me and said:
“There’s fuckin’ loads of us…who ain’t here tonight that should be right?”
“Yes mate, maybe they’re stuck in traffic or couldn’t get a babysitter eh?”
“Nah…Simon, I mean…”
And he proceeds to rattle off a list of friends of ours who will never sit in the ‘I’ve not paid to get in’ section, or indeed anywhere else, ever again.
There are four of us drinking bottled water as we watch McCulloch do his thing:
“I do it clean, I do it clean know what I mean?”
Yeah, these days ‘we’ do… Handfuls of this, bucketfuls of that, mouthfuls of pills, syringes of heroin, pipes, powders and bottles…. ‘we’ certainly didn’t do ‘it’ or anything else ‘clean’ until we seemed to have no choice to either start doing so, or be added to the ‘guest-list’ nobody really wants to be on? The AAA pass for whatever lies on the other side of this mortal coil that requires a messy, untimely death and leaves so much sadness in its wake?
“I hope I die before I get old”
So the ongoing truth/untruth that you need ‘something’ outside of yourself working its merry way through your bloodstream in order to be creative, has an audience too, and they want to be heard! Come on, make some noise eh?
Quite possibly the main reason for a collective, “Oh for fucks sake, we WANT you to be fucked up!”
It’s part of the job and clearly seems to have assisted you in the writing of so many fantastic albums/books. Whereas, being off my face on K ain’t gonna make this Chia-latte I’m serving you taste any better is it? So, be fucked–up for me while I’m working a minimum-wage job and dreaming of getting the record deal I’ve wanted all my life or stop fucking moaning about it!
Again, we know this already right?
The other common denominator as we stick our fingers in our ears and mumble ‘I’m not listening’ to you, is that it seems much easier to talk about/enjoy the brilliant creativity born of altered-states and staying up late(s) but ask most people to name ‘artists’ whose work they consider better in sobriety and you’re gonna struggle, or are you?
It’s a tough debate for the bottled water and self-help group for breakfast, lunch and dinner brigade to win.
Let’s do the obvious first and when I say obvious, I mean really obvious, a list of bands that burnt the candle at both ends, (or as a certain Keith Richards once said, “took a blowtorch to the middle”) but made some timeless classics, influenced later generations of musicians almost beyond measure and were, well you know, the best there was and most likely will ever be.
Here’s the list then:
1. Pretty much any major ‘artist’ from the 60’s onwards whose members had someone like ME on ‘speed-dial’ (see what I did there, funny huh?) during their most creative period.
Me? Oh yeah, me, you can read more about me, here.
Yep, we know, we know, we know… The Beatles/Stones/Who/Led Zep/Lou Reed/Bowie and so on…
Ad-bloody-nauseam (dictionary definition of which is ‘something that has been done or repeated so often as to become tiresome’) a bit like drugs after a while, no?
But for reasons that’ll be clear a bit later in this somewhat rambling missive, here’s my favourite slice of narco-influenced rock’n’roll from the good old bad old days…
“There’s an epidemic, if ya don’t believe me you should take a look at the eyes of your friends.”
2. Then we have the counter-argument often from the straight-edge community that they don’t need drugs/booze to make their art.
My personal preference here, (again not from a musician currently on a ‘popular’ Spotify play-list but entirely due to the fact that I don’t get asked my age when buying E-cigs either) is this from former Minor Threat /Fugazi, front-man Ian MacKaye:
Both songs as menacing, tense, poetic, explosive and downright magnificent as the other. The main difference being MacKaye can probably remember recording his track whereas Peter Perrett perhaps cannot?
Which finds me asking myself, does that even matter?
It doesn’t matter to me, nor I imagine does it really keep anyone else awake at night because it’s not really important, is it? It’s none of our business right?
If you google ‘Famous Sober Musicians’ you’ll get a non-surprising who’s-who of musical ‘legends’ most of whom, I should imagine, are as relevant to your readers as ‘er, I am actually.
Yep, they are all without doubt hugely successful or certainly have been, but much of that success was garnered a very long time ago. We know Eric Clapton, Elton John and Eminem are sober, we know they sell-out whatever ‘enormo-dome’ they choose to perform in, but it’s probably true to say their respective sobriety was due to the choice becoming,
‘Get clean or die’, as is sadly often the case and even more wretchedly, a signpost that is often missed entirely as careers and drug habits barrel out of control in tandem.
This whole question of creativity in ‘recovery’ is at first glance somewhat lopsided, the argument is elastic and seems to be incapable of not somehow measuring creative successes against human cost.
For every ‘elegantly wasted’ rock-star/rapper/writer burning £50 notes to cook up their gear on a spoon, there are countless dead junkies who thought their own consumption of substances would buy them a guitar-shaped swimming pool too.
How many livers/brain-cells were harmed in the writing of this piece?
None, I’ve been clean/sober for over 12 years, I did enough damage already and before any of you lot say it, Hunter-S Thompson I ain’t either, but I think my 10-year old daughter prefers a very much alive daddy, (albeit not so much literary genius) than a dead one.
I spoke to a few creative friends of mine, who are of the ‘recovering’ variety recently.
“The success of addicted writers like Hemingway, Bukowski, Burroughs et al give us creative types the false belief that their addiction is a method, not a problem.
When I was using, I thought everything I wrote was genius and it was far from it. What was great about being creative while loaded was being uninhibited and shutting up that inner critic. But you can do that in sobriety as well. It’s just a choice of self-acceptance and allowing your first draft to be, well, shitty. Dropping the ego and perfectionism and polishing the piece later. If sobriety has given me anything it’s patience, persistence and a work ethic.
I think that in my addiction I was looking for a high, for transcendence, to connect to something bigger, and I can still do that in sobriety by being creative. There is no drug that beats the high of being in that “flow” state where you feel like you’re channelling something greater, creating something you yourself could never come up with. Despite being sober for 4 and half years, I still have the addict’s brain which demands stimulation, instant gratification, risk-taking and highs. Now I just channel all that demonic tyrannical energy into my writing. And I’m a helluva lot more productive and prolific than I was when I was using because half my time isn’t looking for coke or trying to find a vein or recovering from a bender. But you absolutely do have to be more creative in finding material. There isn’t that constant barrage of drama and metaphorical car wrecks to mine that comes with active addiction.”
You can read all about her ‘research’ here.
Another interesting conversation was with Rusty Egan, a man possibly not afforded the recognition he surely deserves for almost single-handedly bringing electronic music to British clubs when he set-up the Blitz club with Steve Strange in 1979.
If you’ve ever enjoyed getting spangled to electro, synth-pop, house, trance or whatever, you kinda owe him a nod of your head, but don’t offer him any booze or drugs he’s been sober for over 21 years now.
When interviewing him for this piece, it became apparent that, as if often the case, the story I’d gone looking for, was not as relevant as the story I got.
Rusty explained to me as we sheltered from a typical English summers day cloudburst under a tree in Brompton cemetery, that, everything he helped create back in ‘the day’, whether it be drumming with the Rich Kids, (with ex-Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock,) opening the legendary Camden Palace nightclub or providing the soundtrack to the New Romantic ‘movement’ by spinning previously almost unknown tunes by The Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk etc. he did completely sober. He was also, one audition, away from actually being the drummer in The Clash, which is most certainly a ‘sliding-door’ moment few could compete with.
I have tried to stay away from the ‘old rocker done too many drugs but clean now’ theme while writing this but over the past few months, my ears have been treated to perhaps one of the greatest comeback stories you might care to hear and it perhaps shapes the final furlongs of this piece in a way, my prose could never compete with.
Let’s be clear and let’s again be obvious, the “My band’s better than your band” and the “That band are shite” arguments will roll for eternity.
Yes, there are a few bands we can say without question, that are ridiculously wonderful, at least to the ears of many people and conversely plenty who only a hearing-impaired mother could love. As I mentioned previously, much of the ammunition lobbed in the direction of the “But I’m clean now and I’m working on new material” brigade, is that, well you know, when you tour can you not do much of the ‘new stuff please” right?
The reason I included The Only One’s video, for The Beast, is twofold, actually maybe threefold, maybe more let’s see:
- It’s a fucking brilliant song…about drugs, written while on lots of them.
- It’s a brilliant song regardless of anything.
- Its writer, now 8 years clean and sober has recently released his first new material in a VERY long time and guess what?
- It’s also brilliant
If there’s a ‘better’ more menacing, claustrophobic, dirty rock’n’roll song released this year, I’d like to hear it.
Ok, there is one but I’ll come to that in a bit.
Whatever my own thoughts are on this topic, I defy anyone who digs guitars and lyrics gleaned from hard-won ‘street-wisdom’, (Probably not the kind of street you’d wanna live on) to not at the very least, appreciate this tune and indeed the poetic beauty of the entire album.
When as a teenager I first heard ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t increase my already reckless enthusiasm for getting off my tits.
No, of course, The Only Ones were not responsible for my slide in heroin addiction any more than were The Velvet Underground or Keith Richards. I cannot pretend though, that as I type, while listening to How The West Was Won by Peter Perrett, I don’t have a wry smile on my face, ‘cos he knows and so do I, that if and often it’s a big if, we survive the entrenched, blackened debris of the battlefield of drug addiction, it’s possible to come out the other side without becoming a creatively impotent (ex) druggie-bore.
Another recent recruit to sobriety and creativity is the man, once lauded by the NME (when it actually meant something) as “Our greatest songwriter” Former Pale Fountains/Shack frontman, Mick Head, now recording and gigging as The Red Elastic Band.
Heads’ own ‘relationship’ with alcohol and drugs is no secret, it’s obvious that anyone who’s reply was, “Can’t remember it mate” when asked about supporting The Who on a tour, was obviously needing more than the formal backstage rider had on offer to get through the day. Long-standing fans are now reporting that the former enfant terrible of Merseyside is currently “Off the ale and off the scale” and he, like Perrett, has also just released his first album of new material in a very long time.
Being in an altered state, may well be a constituent part of rock’n’roll drug/alcohol mythology, but let’s not forget that musicians in the upper echelon of that world, often have various ‘people’ on hand to clear up their mess, pay their bills, book their hotels/studios/rehabs for them.
The rest of us mere mortals at the coalface of addiction are left without any such luxury!
Oh, by the way, did I mention that at 12 years clean I’ve also managed to fulfil a dream my younger self robbed himself of in the pursuit of the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (un)holy-trinity?
I finally got to do the rock’n’roll bit!
My band, Hightown Pirates released an album, my (our) debut album, something I am ridiculously proud of to the extent it’s entered my personal chart of achievement at number 3 with a bullet, ok maybe not a bullet, perhaps a chai-latte. Top of my pops is obviously my beautiful 10yr old daughter Tabitha.
Nestled at number 2, 12 years of unbroken recovery, so number 3 it is for my band.
Here’s the thing though…
The album is a mixture of songs I wrote while absolutely ripped to the gills by all sorts of drugs back in the day/night, plus newer material written in long-term recovery. There was no way I would have been able to get the band together and write/rehearse/record the album if I was using drugs, for me, if I’m using drugs, that’s all I’m doing, simple as that.
So while much of the raw material, lyrically and musically stems from dark and dirty periods of my life, there is an equal amount on the album that comes directly from the life I have now, I wonder if when you listen to it, you’ll be able to figure out which is which? I somehow doubt it, but either way, it matters not.
The most exciting aspect of all this, for me at least and in true ‘addict’ mode of never having ‘enough’, is the desire to then go and do it all over again, which I’m delighted to say is what I’ve been busy with over the past few months.
Hightown Pirates went back into the recording studio a few weeks ago with new songs, all of which I’d written over the past year, none of which assisted in their gestation by anything stronger than coffee and the unbridled ambition to create the kind of music that excites us as a band. We have been fortunate to work on this EP with an absolutely legendary producer who heard about our disparate band of misfit, ex-junkie(s) and drinkers.
He, (Youth) ‘gets’ it, by which I mean he ‘gets’ us, understands the energy, the belief, the ambition, the reclaiming of previously lost dreams.
The EP is called Hope Street Eternal….of course, it is, and will be released in the Autumn, so keep an eye on our social media pages and come along to join our ride!
Take care of yourselves out there boys and girls.
About our author, Simon Mason:
Autumn 2018 sees the imminent release of Simon’s band’s new EP, produced by legendary musician/producer Youth, as his journey of recovery and creativity seems to be gathering momentum the longer he stays clean. At over 12 years and counting, this promises to be quite a ride.
Simon Mason’s Too High, Too Far, Too Soon, published by Mainstream, is out now.
You can, of course, follow Simon on Twitter