A Short, Autobiographical Story (with multimedia) By Steve Swindells.
Willesden Junction has been at the centre of my London travelling universe for nearly four years – since I moved to central Harlesden in 2009. This is an excellent transport hub that gets you to just about anywhere you want to go in London with relative ease, using the Bakerloo Line and three overground rail routes: these go to Clapham Junction in the South, Stratford in the East (via the verdant acres of Hampstead Heath, which has a dedicated station), Richmond in the West, Watford in the North (not that you’d want to go there) and Euston in the centre of London.
I was in Hampstead earlier on this crispy, spring day, wandering around taking pictures (with my Canon EOS 30D and a 50mm lens) of its delicious hodgepodge of architectural styles. Then I ambled onto Parliament Hill, with its kite-flyers, cyclists, joggers, walkers, tourists, photographers and artists and, of course, its famous panoramic views of this great sprawling metropolis, now dominated by a silvery needle soaring into the sky – The Shard – along with St Paul’s Cathedral (that’s what I call basilican, monumental longevity), The ‘Gherkin’ and No.1 Canada Square, topped with its ever-flashing pyramid, in the cold heart of Canary Wharf.
Having wandered in the limpid, lemony sunshine on the Heath and in the beautiful grounds of Kenwood House, taking pictures of the people, flora and fauna, I headed into Hampstead village, passing Boy George’s house on Well Walk (sorry, I forgot to take a pic), where a gaggle of Japanese tourists were giggling and posing for pictures in front of the wooden gate – which is more like a door, and covered in scrawled messages from fans.
George hasn’t lived there for years – I believe he’s a denizen of trendy, arty Shoreditch these days , and apparently rents his house-out. People don’t generally realise that it’s not the massive, vaguely gothic mansion that it appears to be; it’s actually semi-detached; and his half, which is nearest to the Heath, boasts a mere three bedrooms. Maybe he’s sold the house, after all those brushes with the law (alleged, industrial levels of cocaine abuse, wasting police time, chained-up rent boys… the usual frock n’ roll excess) in New York and London. I don’t know, I haven’t bumped into him for years. I hardly go out at all these days – nothing to do with my age really, more about my financial situation. I’m totally broke (back mountain).
Walking by George’s house into Hampstead Village prompted me to muse that I hadn’t seen Jon Moss (famously George’s ex-lover and the drummer in Culture Club, one of the biggest-selling bands in the 80s) since my sixtieth birthday party in Camden last November, in 2012, which made me wonder whether he might be at home, providing he hadn’t sold his house on the other side of the village, which is a rather wonderful, Tardis-like, Art-Deco homage to Le Corbusier and Modernism. I decided to text him after I’d had brunch in that funky old cafe on the High Street that’s been there, unchanged, forever… what’s it called? Oh yes, The Coffee Cup (a cup of twee!). Jon occasionally goes there for brunch too – maybe he’ll be there today, reading The Jewish Chronicle. Okay, I made the last bit-up. He is a Spurs supporter though.
Me… sixty? How can this be? That means that I’m supposed to act like an old person and go on Saga holidays doesn’t it? I shudder at the thought, whilst junking gruesome emails offering me deals on Stannah Stairlifts, mobility bikes along with no-win-no-fee ‘accident claims’ and oldie insurance.
Everybody tells me that I don’t look my age at all, so that’s all good for the morale. But I am now the proud owner of a Freedom Pass; so that’s possibly the only advantage of being sixty in London.
Ageism is, unfortunately, already rearing its ugly head; usually perpetuated by ignorant, inarticulate little shits, who generally aspire to being models, or pop/reality/soap – delete-where-appplicable – stars and ‘famous’. Pathetic. And they evidently seem to expect all this to fall into their laps with no diligence, preparation or hard graft. Callow youth, forever presumptuous and lacking in respect for their still-struggling elders, who never had the supposed advantages of reality TV and kiss n’ tell. Sheer talent tended to do it back-in-the-day – providing you had good connections, or some fortuitous serendipity. I never, ever used my youthful, physical charms to advance my career, and this didn’t stop me landing two major record deals in my twenties. But it also didn’t help me much when I was down and out. I stuck to my guns. Never sold my body.
Anyway, I can now go swimming for free at Willesden Recreation Centre; somewhat motivated, perhaps, by the lifeguards, several of whom are well fit!
The fact that I actually have a Freedom Pass is a bit of miracle, as I was under the impression that our wonderful, caring, Con-dem government had raised the proverbial glass ceiling to the clear blue skies of sixty-two. I was genuinely in the thick of of it; well, ignorant of the fact that us lucky, wrinkly old Londoners qualify for an FP, at a mere sixty-years old. Good old, bumbling Boris eh? He’s London’s Conservative-Party Mayor, in case you didn’t know (you may remember him basking in the golden televisual glow of our rather triumphant Olympics in 2012). The Freedom Pass information is, however, buried beneath Byzantine clouds in cyberspace – on Transport For London’s appallingly-difficult-to-navigate (how ironic) website. It’s not like they actually publicise the fact that us doddery old Londoners can swan around the metrop with our cooly-customised Zimmer frames, for free, once we’ve passed the dreaded big Six-O milestone. I’ll bet that quite a few of my fellow 60-year olds weren’t even aware that they were eligible? They are now.
Transport For London: why? What was wrong with London Transport? Didn’t that ludicrous rebranding cost gazillions of pounds? How very New Labour. Why New Labour? Anyway… I digress.
I only stumbled (arthritically, natch) across this info because I was researching online to see when I might actually be eligible for a FP, and whether there would be restrictions or limitations attached. I’m pleased to report that there are none – the Freedom Pass really lives up to its name (woo-hoo daddio – I used to play in beat groups don’t ya know!). You can travel anywhere within the M25, Greater London’s orbital motorway, as far as I can gather, well, certainly to the outer reaches of Zone Six. Does that rule out Watford? I sincerely hope so. Obviously, I’m not going to post a scan of my FP on here – identity theft alert! Someone might make a fake and try to pretend to be me at Willesden Sports Centre, thereby blagging a free swim – and also possibly sneaking into the gloriously mis-titled Health Suite – a very basic sauna and steam room accessed from a swampy-floored changing area with broken showers and a wobbley cold tap – hoping that ‘security” weren’t going to do one of their random checks for the obligatory wrist bands; as even us oldies have to pay for the privilege of visiting this alleged, higher-level amenity.
I didn’t actually get my FP until late January, because of some truly Kafka-esque, bureaucratic bungling in some back-office of TFL’s headquarters, which appears to be manned by just two people. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, or like a grumpy old man (tee hee); but actually getting to speak to one of the said people on the phone about why it hadn’t arrived within the supposed time-frame of two weeks, mooted to be before Christmas last year, proved to be something of a London Marathon.
I eventually discovered, after numerous phone calls, that they’d sent it to the wrong address, and it was several weeks before I finally hobbled over the metaphorical finishing line, triumphantly waving my ‘Free Oyster Over-60s Photo Pass’ (hows THAT for a great bit of branding eh?) before undertaking a celebratory ‘journey’ (the most over-used word of the 21st century?) involving deliciously random tube/train/tram and Docklands Light Railway-hopping, wrapped in one of those silver-foil sheets that they dole-out after marathons… the latter being entirely in my imagination. Why don’t they make them available as onesies (2013’s answer to the shell suit)? That would be fun and practical – especially if they donated them to the millions of people who are sleeping rough in the world, after the race was over, when the participants no longer had any need for them?
I can’t help wondering when I’ll be able to ride back-and-forth all day on that new cable car over the Thames for free as well, taking pictures. Perhaps when the Emirates sponsorship expires, dare I say, when I’m 64? This makes me pause to wonder how Paul McCartney actually celebrated his 64th? Did he perhaps hire the Bootleg Beatles to play at the party? Was Lady Heather still in the house? Did she get legless with Vera, Chuck and Dave?
Jon Moss (who went out with Paul’s daughter Mary for a while, in the 80s, I believe) wasn’t brunching in The Coffee Cup, and when I texted him, he didn’t reply until much later. It transpired that this is because he’s skiing in The French Alps with his three beautiful kids – by his ex-wife – with his relatively new girlfriend. At my 60th birthday party in Zensai, in Camden, he’d told me that someone had made an amazingly generous offer on his house, but that, of course, he hated the idea of leaving his much-cherished home of many years, but really had no choice. Divorce settlement etc etc. He’d have to slum it somewhere on the other side of Finchley Road, he moaned, with mock-horror, making a hopeless gesture with his hands. Then he reiterated how much he loved the mulifarious DanMingo tracks – there are twenty-one – which we recorded in 2003, mostly in Christchurch Studios in Bristol, which made me think: grrr – why was there no success with these classy, soulful tunes? My original name for DanMingo had been Emoticon – clever, but perhaps a little dry. When we’d made a brief appearance, playing live in a rehearsal studio, on a documentary about Culture Club in 2003, when we were still going under that name. Jon undertook an in-depth interview about Culture Cliub and Boy George, which was refreshingly frank and honest, and he was very complimentary about me in it, towards the end, when he was asked about ‘what he was doing now’.
‘Leap Of Faith – The Prequel’ was the aptly ironic name for this excellent double-album-that-never-was. Now, I’ve just made a resolution to get so-called ‘crowd-funding’ to enable me to put out a limited-edition, exclusive, classy double-CD, digipac package (with a twelve-page booklet of lyrics and loads of pics) of just 1,000 copies of this most excellent opus (I’m inordinately proud of it); followed by a limited-edition double vinyl edition of, say, 500.
Vinyl has been having a huge resurge in popularity these days. Why is this? Well, I reckon it’s because when you play a vinyl record, it has a tangible audio ‘vibe’ – a woomph and a certain chunky resonance – which transcends the crisply bland, digital encoding of CDs and downloads. Also, you don’t need a magnifying glass to read the sleeve notes and the lyrics.
The main bass player with DanMingo was the very gifted and charmingly avuncular Winston Blissett, who’s played with everyone from Massive Attack (whose studio was upstairs in Christchurch Studios in Bristol) to Phil Collins, and Dizzy Rascal and Jimmy Cliff, to name just a few. The guitarist was Jerry Richards of Hawkwind (who’s now playing with the Hawklords, as did I, briefly. The touring, however, was too much for me, due to my ongoing health issues: I was diagnosed with pancreatitis and emphysema in 2006). I played keyboards and sang all the songs with DanMingo, all of which I wrote, or co-wrote. My good mate Dale Davis, who was the great Amy Winehouse’s musical director right up until her tragic demise, also played bass on three of the tracks – when Winston couldn’t record with us as he was doing sessions in New York, or wherever – as did the excellent American session player Otto Williams.
When I visit Jon Moss’s house, I love to play the Yamaha baby-grand piano in his capacious, beautifully proportioned, L-shaped living room, which still has its original, herring-bone-patterned parquet floor and a thirty-foot wall of sliding glass doors onto the garden. There’s furniture by Philippe Starck, B & B Italia (bed and breakfast in Italy?) and Ligne Roset, along with retro-modern, signature pieces and interesting (and valuable) artworks. Unless, that is, he’s already, reluctantly, sold the house .
I’d first met Jon in the mid-80s, when he regularly used to come to my club night Jungle, which was one of a portfolio of club nights run by The Pure Organisation, of which I was a co-founder and director. Good bit of branding eh? Yep, I dreamt it up. We also organised parties for record companies and magazines such as The Face and Time Out and created the Love Sexy after-parties for Prince in ’88 and Madonna’s birthday party at the Groucho Club… was that also in ’88? The Alzheimer’s must be kicking-in. Senior moments, as I like to jest. My good friend Thom Topham – who has a parallel career to mine as a writer and singer-songwriter – was also involved, when he wasn’t too busy being a secret agent.
Jungle was held every Monday (yes, Monday!) in what was then called Busby’s, on Charing Cross Road. Busby’s later became Mean Fiddler 2, before recently being demolished as part of the redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road Station, as a result of the construction of Crossrail (you see, I’m warming to my Freedom Pass theme). The Jungle DJs were Kiss FM’s Colin Faver and the notorious Fat Tony (it was the latter’s first, regular DJing gig, I believe, and he did the occasional brilliantly tacky ‘turn’, lip-synching as Dusty Springfield). There were over one thousand people there every week. One thousand people on a MONDAY?
*Victor Meldrew voice* I simply don’t believe it!
The 80s really was the seminal clubbing decade. Other nights that The Pure Organisation ran included Bad (in The Sound Shaft behind Heaven, underneath Charing Cross Station) every Friday, and Babylon, on Thursdays at Heaven, along with Discotek (who could forget The Rowing Dance – pictures anyone?) and Casablanca – an oasis of cool on a Saturday night. At one point we had eight club nights running every week. Bad was gay-mixed, and the DJs were my good friend the beautiful and talented Vicki Edwards, and the late, lamented Breeze, playing soulful, vocal house music and New York garage – and it was packed every Friday. The crowd was generally about seventy-percent black – mostly gay males. Regulars included The Pet Shop Boys and Jean-Paul Gaultier, along with many ‘down-low’ black singers and rappers who were mostly in the closet – at least publicly. Then again, is it possible to be publicly in the closet without somehow pointing the proverbial finger at yourself… so to speak?
Props to Frank Ocean after that courageous public outing of himself in 2012. Why courageous? Because it’s way more difficult to do that if you’re a brother. He’s pretty much the first, apart from Ne-Yo (ish), who recently simpered that he might be ‘vaguely bisexual’ (perhaps on Tuesdays?). He is an accomplished songwriter though. But then, so am I. And I’ve been ‘out’ for fucking years.
Babylon also featured DJ Vicki Edwards wowing the crowd on the main floor, and, for the second room in The Star Bar, I had come up with a first: a rare-groove, acid-jazz and breakbeat dance floor with DJs Gilles Peterson (who now has a great show on BBC Radio 6) and Marco – from the excellent Young Disciples – which attracted bevies of brilliant break dancers. The crowd at Babylon – my deliberately ironic name for the night – was largely black and mostly straight-ish.
Now, before you illiberal white folks allow your innate prejudice to tempt you to think – ‘But wasn’t there lots of trouble at Bad and Babylon?’ – allow me to politely-but-firmly inform you that… no: there wasn’t.
Bad lasted for nearly five wonderful years until, one night in 1992, there was minor skirmish involving two young, black, gay men, which resulted in one of them getting a bloody ear. It was evidently a jealousy issue regarding a third party – they were ‘an item’ – and they were subsequently swiftly ejected. I thought that would be the end of that, but the next day I had the manager of Heaven on the phone saying that he was very concerned ‘now that the gangs were evidently moving in’ and that we’d have to close: the final night was to be the next Friday. End of. I was devastated and upset. On a commercial level, Bad had been extremely successful for Heaven – and the atmosphere had always been brilliant: relaxed, upbeat and friendly. The following Friday was to be a totally unexpected wake.
Towards the end of the closing night (that was back when clubs had to close at 3am in central London) I got on the mic and wholeheartedly thanked the heaving, emotional crowd for their loyalty, support and greatness *cheers* over the years *whoops and fists-in-the-air*… then paused, somewhat theatrically, and calmly stated that: I wouldn’t, however… dream of suggesting…’ A hush fell over the crowd…’I wouldn’t dream… of suggesting that Heaven was…racist.’ Then… slowly repeated my statement. The place erupted with cheers. Suddenly, several security guards burst in and the head of security ran up to the DJ box and hissed at me: ‘What the hell are doing Steve – trying to start a riot?’. As the cheers and whooping continued all around us, I quietly replied that I’d clearly stated that ‘I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Heaven was racist’ – shrugging my shoulders, tilting my head and looking suitably innocent. The security team eventually left and we partied on without incident.
The racism didn’t stop there – we weren’t able to find a new home in the West End for Bad. This was a club night that was guaranteed to be rammed every week, as well as having a proven track record of being 99.99% trouble-free. Suddenly, sadly, badly; Bad was no more.
A similar incident had closed the hugely successful Babylon, after just one year, in 1988 – except that this time ‘the fight’ wasn’t even in the club, it had taken place outside another club night in what was Bad’s home, The Sound Shaft, around the back of Heaven, which was promoted by different people on Thursdays. It wasn’t the first time that that the tired, inherently racist and ignorant mantra: ‘the gangs are moving in’, had been evoked.
There was never any trouble at Jungle either – it lasted for well over four years in London as well, before decamping (be quiet at the back!) to Friday nights at The Rex Club in Strasbourg-St-Denis in Paris for a year or so.
We had great great fun flying to Paris and back every week and eating in a different, fabulous restaurant every week before enjoying the uplifting street-meets-celeb vibes of our very successful club night Jungle Paris, in the Art-Deco splendour of Au Rex, which was in the basement of The Rex Cinema. The security we put in place at the entrance was achingly cool too – two handsome, hunky guys – one black, one white – dressed in biker’s leathers, sitting astride Harley Davidsons, on each side of the entrance. Chic!
When I was starting to develop the Jungle Paris concept, I’d come up with the idea of hiring an American-in-Paris to handle PR for it. The guy I soon found was a painter (how enlightened; I doubt that you’d find someone employed as a PR on that basis in London or New York these days) and the PR for a group of restaurants similar to Richard Caring’s current Caprice Holdings in London (The Ivy, J Sheekey, Le Caprice etc), which included La Coupole – with its priceless pillars which had been painted by all the great impressionists when they were struggling, starving artists – ah, the absinthe-soaked romance – in return for food and drink; and the stunning, art-nouveau gem Chez Julien, just around the corner from the Rex, on Rue St-Denis, where we were to hold a very glamorous, pre-opening, exclusive, complimentary, three-course dinner, with Champagne and fine wine, for forty people – including Rupert Everett and Bertice Dalle, prior to the opening of Jungle Paris.
After this extravagant pre-opening dinner, everyone walked to Jungle Paris’s opening party around the corner; which was a huge success. There was full-page coverage in all the best French newspapers and magazines with lots of pictures of everyone – DJs Vicki Edwards and Colin Faver, myself and my business partner Kevin Millins, my friend Thom Topham, Bertice Dalle, Rupert Everett and the creme of the Parisien demi-monde – all looking very glamorous and branche´ (French slang for ‘cool’).
I’d negotiated a great deal with the club, which included us getting one hundred free drinks tickets every week – five tickets got you a bottle of house champagne. There was no V.I.P room – we didn’t approve of such elitism – and the club scene in Paris was quite different to London, in as much as older, rich men and women (albeit a little ‘Euro-trash’) partied with young people who were very ‘street’. It was, however, very similar to our club nights in London in as much that it was pleasingly multiracial.
My heady reminiscences were eventually interrupted by a phone call. It was my mother Audrey: she was calling to thank me for finishing editing and proof-reading ‘Mitty’s Letter’, which is the first volume (volume!) of ‘Mitty’, her excellent historical trilogy. Forget Mary Wesley, who’s first novel was published when she was, I believe, 71. My mum Audrey is 85 this year! She wrote the original on an Amstrad (shudder!) word processor in the mid-80s, and recently, somehow managed to find some geek-in-a-computer-shop who could transpose the ancient floppy discs into a digital format. No wonder she’s known by the family as Cyber-Gran. I told her that I reckon ‘Mitty’ is far more likely to be a success than my ongoing, growing collection of short stories, and my brother-in-law Kae’s epic book BOYGIRL (which I also edited and proof-read); simply because of ‘Mitty’s’ innate commerciality. It could become the next Downton Abbey, I assured her – she was chuffed to bits – then I added, with mock incredulity: ‘I can’t believe that its very talented, late-blooming author has been the proud owner of a Freedom Pass for nearly 24 years!’.
Words, paintings and Photographs © Steve Swindells. All Rights Reserved.