Sunday 30 July 2017

Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll...... and Stephen King.

Now that I am older and ever-so-slightly wiser, I can now admit that I did not read Stephen King until I hit 40 because he looked like a nerd. Yep, Clive Barker looked a bit nerdy too in the 80s, but he was young, he directed Hellraiser, and the Books of Blood were magnificent. Similarly, Philip.K. Dick and William Burroughs’ drug use was legendary so they backed up the “coolness” of their work with an extreme lifestyle that I thought would be worth reading about. For you see, despite the tens of millions of books sold, the dozens of TV and film adaptations and the thousands of rave reviews, I always thought Stephen King looked like the sort of person I would be hesitant to give 10 minutes to at a party, let alone several hours of intensively digging through his psyche.

Then again I was always a bit like that. My first favourite band was KISS, less because of their albums (although they did make at least a few classics) but more because of their look. Yet I didn’t get into Leonard Cohen and the like until my mid twenties. Still, it’s unsurprising that, as a debauched degenerate myself, I should be drawn to and interested in the works of those writers and musicians whose lives seemed that bit more extreme than others. Indeed, on closer examination it can be seen that there are many similarities in the lifestyles of excess pursued by both writers and rock stars; priapic, drug-crazed poets were working their way through groupies and mounds of drugs hundreds of years before their guitar-wielding counterparts........and they were doing it so much better.

However, there is a common feeling that poetry doesn't have the same visceral appeal as Rock 'n' Roll, but when one bears in mind that Dylan Thomas, when asked by an inquisitive reader what his poem "The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait" meant, answered, "It's a description of a gigantic fuck" and Byron once wrote in a letter to a friend, that as a poet he was "more interested in cunt than cant," you can see that dusty libraries, and tweed jackets with leather elbow patches were the last things on their minds. In his poem Don Juan, Byron perhaps described a typical seduction scenario - "Not that remorse did not oppose temptation; / A little still she strove, and much repented, / And whispering "I will ne'er consent" - consented."

The "free-love" exploits of sixties bands like the Rolling Stones are legendary, one Stones girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, started with Brian Jones and then moved on to Keith Richards (via a brief rendezvous with Mick Jagger). However, some 140 years before, Shelley was touring Europe with his wife and sixteen year old mistress Claire Clairmont. On meeting Byron, Byron had a child with Clairmont and then in true "any hole's a goal" fashion had Shelley too. Of course after such a lifestyle, both Brian Jones and Shelley came to sticky ends - Jones being found face down in his swimming pool, Shelley acting as fishfood after falling off his boat in the Bay of Spezia.

But for some, it's easier to look closer to home for sexual satisfaction. Jerry Lee Lewis' first UK tour was surrounded by scandal when the English press found out that he had married his thirteen year old cousin. Strangely, when Edgar Allen Poe married his thirteen year old cousin a century before, nary an eyebrow was raised. However, Byron may have been pushing his luck slightly when he had a child with his half-sister, his excuses of being "snowed in" at his country estate doing little to dull the ensuing outrage. Still, most Rock 'n' Roll debauchery has to pale into insignificance when talking about Byron, a man whose very name has become an adjective to describe excess, all current Rock stars trying in vain to be as "Byronic" as their hero. Descended from Captain "Mad Jack" Byron, he had numerous affairs, drank heavily, took laudanum, and amassed impressive gambling debts. He used the great hall of his home as a shooting gallery, and no serving wench or Lady was free from his well-known appetites. He married but this only lasted a year, and as a result of various scandals such as sleeping with his half-sister, he left for Geneva. There he slept with Shelley's step-sister (and fathered a child) before in true "any-hole's-a-goal" fashion he also slept with Shelley. Moving to Venice he cut a swathe through the local women, including a long affair with the Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, an affair of which her husband was fully aware. Finally, she separated from her husband, but getting bored of this Byron decided to go to Greece to fight the invading Turks, and it was there that Byron, founder of what Southey termed the "Satanic School" of poetry, died. Jim Morrison of The Doors openly held Byron as a hero - but Byron did it all 150 years before and he did it with a lot more style.

Of course, Byron’s friend Shelley was also very much a rock star of his time. Nicknamed "Mad Shelley" at Eton, he got expelled from University College, Oxford, and married 16 year old Harriet Westbrook. Being a believer in free-love he tried to get his wife to sleep with his best friend, had numerous female "friends" in his "household" then in 1814 fell in love with his friend's 16 year old daughter Mary (writer of Frankenstein) and eloped (although in typical Shelleyan fashion he took 15 year old Claire Clairmont with them (yes, the one Byron later had a child with - please do keep up), thus completing his little menage a trois). His first wife then drowned herself (Shelley still slept with her when she was around), and the Shelleys went to Naples where he registered himself as the father of an illegitimate child (no-one knows who the mother was). He had a few more affairs but died in 1822, when as noted above, he drowned in the Bay of Spezia.

Of course, sex is only part of the story. Many a poet and rock star has liked to dabble with the odd chemical; on a flight back from New York, The Who’s Pete Townsend lunged at stewardesses, stole other passengers food (before spitting it back out at them), shouted gibberish ("We are sitting here travelling faster than a bullet in this supersonic rocket!"), and then got a bag of coke and started throwing it up his nose covering everyone near him (much to their delight, I am sure). On another occasion in an exclusive Parisian hotel, Townsend downed a bottle of champagne, and then promptly threw it back up again into the nearby ice-bucket.......while the upmarket guests looked on. Interestingly, he justified his drinking not by trying to be a Rock star, but by referring to literary figures, trying to rationalise his need to drink by linking it to the boozy tradition of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Still, it's probably best to not even consider what the John Bonhams and Keith Moons of the world were up to at the same time….

But such chemical excesses were not restricted to their leisure time. Jimi Hendrix once sat on the front of the stage simply laughing at the audience after taking too much LSD, and Coleridge, a notorious opium-fiend, wrote much of his poetry when completely cabbaged. His classic poem Kubla Khan was written under the influence, although it remained unfinished after his "reverie" (a typically poetic euphemism if ever there was one) was disturbed by a travelling salesman. And who can forget Dylan Thomas, who once said, "I'd rather be a poet any day and live on guile and beer"? Once, at a poetry reading in New York, he was helped to the lectern, where he tried to fill an empty glass with a pitcher of water that someone had neglected to fill. For several moments he stood swaying at the lectern before, puzzled, he held the pitcher up to the light and closely examined it, while some of the audience laughed at him. Despite this, the reading went well and Thomas was a success.....until the reception party held later that night where he downed several pints and loudly compared the attributes of the female guests. A guest, Marian Brock later said, "We were getting a little worried because he had a guest room in one of the student halls, and we wondered if it was wise to send him off in case he got loose among the students." She needn't have worried, however, because at the end of the night he fell flat over a coffee table and passed out till morning.

But then, such debauchery is surely just a perk of the job? Why else would one want to be a rock star or, dare I say it, a writer? After all, one isn't overly surprised when the likes of Gene Simmons, the bassist with the aforementioned Kiss, and a man who claims to have slept with over 3000 women says that he joined a band because of "Girls. Anyone who says they start to contribute to human culture is full of it. It's girls!", but surely writers and poets are more artistically inclined? Well, no. Byron claimed that as a poet he was "more interested in cunt than cant", which is as good a reason as any for picking up a pen or guitar.

But for some, sex and drugs just aren't enough. Sid Vicious' career in The Sex Pistols came to an end when, after years of heroin abuse he finally stabbed his girlfriend to death in a New York hotel room. He told the arriving police that he couldn't be arrested because he was "a rock star". They were apparently distinctly unimpressed. Not to be outdone by such Johnny-Come-Lately poseurs, Edgar Allen Poe, is suspected of murdering a young girl called Mary Rogers. In true who-gives-a-shit fashion he then wrote a story about the unsolved case virtually pointing the finger at himself. He later died of alcohol poisoning and exposure, having been too arseholed to find shelter in a rainstorm.

So yes. While I am, as this post probably suggests, far too influenced by the lifestyle an artist has (after all, why would I want to crawl into the head of a complete nerd?), I am happy to say that as the years have gone by I have learned my lesson. My musical tastes now include the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Melanie, Bat For Lashes and other people who look like they’ve just stepped up on stage directly from the street (although I contend that Ed Sheeran is still nothing more than a ginger busker. I have only heard a couple of his songs yet such is his image I have no interest in hearing any more – damn, maybe I’m not as mature as I was hoping I was?). That said, as I noted at the beginning of this post, at the age of 40, after hearing the same recommendations again and again from various friends, I finally sat down and read some Stephen King…… and finally realized why he is regarded as the King of Horror by so many.

So who knows? Maybe in another 40 years I’ll sit down and listen to Ed Sheeran?  Although I doubt I'll be as pleasantly surprised.

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