Friday, 23 May 2014

Everyone's Favourite Loony

I was still at school when I discovered the now endlessly eulogised DIY tape culture through Flowmotion fanzine, itself discovered through a piece in Sounds music paper. My dad had recently bought a seemingly fancy Sharp stereo system incorporating an impressive double tape deck. I had discovered that it was possible to overdub by running one cassette in the playback deck whilst adding additional sounds through the microphone or line inputs. The machine had been manufactured with the assumption of use by someone who knew what they were doing, and who would thus require neither inflexible presets nor automated features, and it therefore seemed to me like the next best thing to a proper studio. I began to record tapes of my own noisy, abstract music inspired by Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and others; and then I made copies and sold them to people I had never met through mail order, photocopying my cover artwork either at the library in Stratford-upon-Avon or at the office of an accommodating estate agent at the end of Sheep Street in Shipston.

This was how it worked. My tapes would receive the occasional review - or at least a mention - in some fanzine or other; or persons producing fanzines or tapes would send out flyers advertising my atonal crap with their own material, and every once in a while, someone would send me a cheque, a postal order, or fifty pence pieces taped to a bit of cardboard, in return for tapes which I would mail along with a stack of flyers promoting other people's efforts. It was a vast international network, a means of hearing music one would otherwise have no chance of hearing, and some of it was very good. I sent my tapes out to people in England, Europe, America, and even occasionally to more exotic seeming places such as Yugoslavia and Sweden; and I in turn received tapes of peculiar home recordings from my correspondents, with every once in a while someone asking if I would make their peculiar home recordings available through my tape label, such as it was.

The first to do this were a duo called Opera For Industry who sent me sixty minutes of screaming electronic noise entitled Hopscotch with a handmade cover featuring photographs snipped from one of the more cheap and cheerful expressions of specialist amateur pornography. It wasn't the greatest music I'd ever heard, but it had a certain nihilist energy, and it was immensely flattering to be approached as though I were a record label, rather than simply the son of a man with a double tape deck. I drew up a tidier and less contentious cover for the cassette, and released it on my Do Easy label, the name of which I'd taken from a William Burroughs novel on the grounds of that being what everyone else was doing and I wasn't going to be left out. I became quite good friends with Opera For Industry, or at least with Trev Ward, one half of the duo. We wrote letters and sent each other noisy tapes, and at one point I supported them live at Amesbury Sports Centre with anarchist punk band, the Subhumans as headlining act. I say supported, although I mean produced thirty minutes of horrible noise before a punky crowd of cider enthusiasts, which was more fun than you might imagine.

Opera For Industry eventually became better known as the Grey Wolves, and I drifted away from cassette culture, having been disillusioned with the proliferation of noise music which I had quite possibly helped nurture to some small degree. I was eager to engage myself with something a little less depressing. All those grey photocopied images of skulls and serial murderers endlessly peddled by imaginary bands named Strategik Kancer Unit or Flagellated Rektum were bringing me down.

Ten years later, I was living in Derwent Grove, East Dulwich with my girlfriend of the time. I was working for Royal Mail, drawing cartoons and printing small runs of my own comic books, and I was playing guitar in a group named Academy 23 after something in a novel by William Burroughs, although I'm glad to say that on this occasion, that specific detail had nothing to do with me. Academy 23 had been formed by Dave Fanning and Andy Martin, both formerly of The Apostles. The Apostles had been a group I knew from the cassette days, and one distinguished by their unorthodox penchant for songs rather than noise, and deeply haunting songs of such enduring quality that I still listen to them to this day. In terms of emotive power, The Apostles made Joy Division sound like Status Quo, and it was quite exciting to find myself in a later incarnation of what was effectively the same band.

I guessed it was also exciting for John McDiarmid when he came to visit. He lived in a small town a little way south of London, and like myself, he'd been a fan of The Apostles. Furthermore, he'd begun to involve himself in cassette culture - which had somehow managed to survive without me - and was starting up a distribution service - or a distro, as he called it - selling other peoples' tapes and fanzines through the mail. We had written a few letters back and forth, partially fuelled by the novelty of our both having known Trev Ward, and then he told me he would be coming up to London and would probably drop in for a visit.

Something about this bothered me, and so I mentioned it to Andy, who appeared suddenly worried. He too had corresponded with John McDiarmid.

'You do realise that he's mad?'

I sensed that Andy intended to forewarn me of something other than a person who would appear on my doorstep wearing a revolving bow tie, perhaps pulling a few funny faces and quoting popular lines from Monty Python as he came in for a cup of tea. Our boy, it turned out, had serious mental health issues, and my exact words had been sure, I'm here most afternoons so just come by. I reminded myself that those letters thus far received had suggested relative sanity beyond their being written by a man who listened to the Grey Wolves for pleasure.

John turned out to be a few years younger than myself, tall, skinny, and a little ungainly. He had the face of an old man, a wrinkled John Shuttleworth forehead, staring eyes and the stark grin of an animate skull. Infrequent bouts of insanity had weatherbeaten his face, but medication allowed him to function without too much difficulty. He was polite, almost obsessively so, and very, very funny, at least in terms of humour as dark as the indignities he had doubtless experienced under psychiatric care. To my surprise, it was difficult to dislike him, and I was reminded of claims that persons such as Charles Manson are often said to have a sort of magnetic personality. Whilst John would probably have had a tough time acquiring followers, he had a sharp, lively quality, like a west country Peter Cook after a decade in a really tough prison. Additionally he had the sort of casual interest in serial killers, high ranking members of the Third Reich, and bad guys in general that tends to come as part of the deal with Grey Wolves fandom, and I suppose a certain kind of mental illness. Similarly he was almost obsessively drawn to the music of Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and their grimacing ilk. I suspect, more than anything, this music was simply how he saw the world based on his own experience of it up to that point. Being an outsider, he was drawn to outsider art.

The story was that he hadn't always been mad. One weekend during his teenage years, rummaging through the family home in the absence of parents, he happened upon a pornographic magazine of the kind from which Opera For Industry made their tape covers. Therein he found candid photographs of his own aforementioned absent parents printed in the apparent hope of encouraging third parties to come and join in with the adult fun, as such invitations tend to be phrased. John, presumably already of a sensitive disposition, was so traumatised by this as to be driven to destructive frenzy. Police arrived, and he was carted off and almost immediately diagnosed as suffering with mental health issues. Whatever medication he was given was apparently not so rigorously tested as it should have been, and within six months was withdrawn from prescription by the psychiatric profession, by which time John was already bouncing around the inside of a secure ward with problems much worse than any the drug had been intended to treat, requiring further medication by some different drug with another set of side effects, which in turn required treatment by means of yet another drug, and so on and so forth in a seemingly endless cycle. I still don't know how much of this story was true, but on the other hand I never had any really good reason to doubt that it was.

So although John was arguably mad in the traditional sense, he had it under control most of the time, and was generally good if slightly unpredictable company. We initially got on well because even if we didn't exactly enjoy the same music, or at least not for the same reasons, we had a similar sense of humour and knew a lot of the same people, namely a loose group associated with former members of The Apostles and various others who later became instrumental in the Mad Pride movement. He was loud, wilfully abrasive, and had about him a refreshing honesty, provided you could spot the point at which he'd started telling massive lies for the sake of entertainment.

Within a few months of our first meeting, John had moved to London, possibly because that's where most of his friends lived by then. He continued with his distro, which seemed at least to give him some sense of purpose, although I was never really sure how well it did. Getting by on a disability living allowance - or something of that sort - he spent the days writing letters or poetry or whatever, buying records, occasionally trying to get something musical together at a local arts centre which had its own recording studio, just making it from one day to the next. It turned out that some arts centre employee lived quite near me, and so John was able to get a lift over to my place on Friday evenings following an afternoon spent pissing around in the studio. It was 1995 and for the first time in my life I lived in a proper flat of which I was sole occupant, so it was fun to be able to invite friends to stay, even if the couch of my front room was hardly luxurious. John became a sort of surrogate grandson, coming over on alternate weekends. I say surrogate grandson mainly because the visits reminded me of how my parents would leave me with my own grandparents every fortnight, but also because it struck me that John needed looking after.

He would turn up around six on Friday, usually enthusing about finding some rare and expensive Joy Division bootleg at the Record and Tape Exchange, and I would immediately know that he'd been living on coffee and cigarettes since the middle of the week. I would cook up a huge pot of chilli con carne or spaghetti bolognese or chicken curry - hoping to God that this wasn't going to be his only source of nutrition for the next fourteen days - and we would eat, talk crap, watch videos - Denis Leary's No Cure For Cancer being a big favourite with John - or we would nip out to the pub and continue to talk crap over a pint. We were both in our late twenties and hence at that age when everyone we knew was accessed by means of one pub or another, when phone calls were made principally for the purpose of arranging where you were drinking. At first I just invited John to tag along if I'd already arranged to meet anyone, but if they didn't already know him, this came to be a problem. It wasn't, contrary to the testimony of any number of playground jokes, that he would have a turn and start flinging his own poo around the bar, so much as that no-one seemed to know how to react, or even to realise that they didn't actually need to react in any specific way. People I thought I knew fairly well would change completely, addressing this admittedly odd-looking stranger as though he were about twelve years old, bending over backwards to empathise with his struggle at the hands of the mental health authorities, to laugh at his jokes and show how enlightened they were. John would find himself bored and start playing the mad bloke just for the sake of livening things up, turning boggle-eyed and explaining that he'd been sexually abused by members of his own family but had enjoyed the experience. He would tell people Hitler had the right idea, then laugh in their faces and ask whose round it was. It was even worse when one former girlfriend introduced him with this is John, he's mad, like a promise of almost anything being likely to happen in the next half hour; and John didn't disappoint, throwing back the lagers and delivering one outrageous proposition after another. This is John, she may as well have said, he'll be our performing chimpanzee for the evening.

My guess is that John enjoyed the attention, and particularly enjoyed the discomfort of well-meaning liberals not knowing whether to laugh with him, or to squirm at his use of the word nigger, or whichever taboo he was working that week. I understood why he did it, but still found it annoying, and felt it sometimes placed me in the position of carnival barker. More annoying was when he began to try the act on me, apparently forgetting that I had known him for a couple of years by that point. At the same time I knew that I had no way of saying for sure how much was the act, and how much was the madness showing through.

He was on several different courses of medication, including temazepam - which is generally used to treat insomnia and anxiety - and some small orange pills of which I'd always find a few fallen down the side of the front room couch after he'd been to visit for the weekend. He disliked the regime of tablets with their accompanying side effects, and often spoke of cutting down, or even stopping completely. On one occasion he actually went through with it, and was sectioned under the mental health act whilst apparently attempting unaided flight from the roof of a tower block in east London. The conclusion seemed to be that whilst the medication wasn't ideal, it was better than the alternative.

I went to see him at the hospital, the loony bin as he called it. He seemed well, in fact no different than usual. We all sat around smoking in a common room overlooking a courtyard, surrounded by patients all doing their time, watching television, mumbling to themselves. It could have been a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but it felt oddly prosaic. These were just people who weren't very well.

A girl, another patient, sat herself down next to John, ignoring us. He began talking to her, asking what she'd been doing, how she'd been keeping. She told him she had just eaten some lunch.

'It's good to eat,' John agreed amiably, as though this were something which might be subject to debate. I found myself reminded of Bob Hoskins telling us it's good to talk in a television commercial for British Telecom, and had to stifle my laughter.

John did his time, and was out a few weeks later, all sane again. He sent me a postcard:

Well thanks again for taking the trouble to visit on Tuesday last. It's at times like this when you suss out who your real friends are.

This was appreciated. The reason I'd been happy for John to come over every other weekend to eat my food and smoke my fags was that I enjoyed his company, and in turn I hoped it might do him some good to eat properly and be treated like a human being rather than a sideshow act, everyone's favourite loony. I've never really enjoyed hanging around with those for whom life is a huge and outrageous performance as they tend to be quite dull.

As time went on, John's musical ambitions came to the forefront as he had apparently given up on the distro as having been a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Between us we worked out a live set as he'd somehow managed to wangle a half hour support slot at some music venue in Hackney. I programmed a load of drum machines, and sorted out backing tapes of speech and noise, accompanying this on the Roland SH101 synthesiser I had borrowed from Andrew Cox; and John would vocalise, ranting and shouting a stream of lurid consciousness, channelling his madness for all he was worth. If nothing else, we knew our debut performance would be memorable.

The day before the gig, John phoned. I'd begun to find his calls irritating and unnecessary as they seemed to originate from someone I had never met and who didn't know me either, much less the guy who polished off an entire loaf of bread by himself every time he came to visit. The calls were infrequent but usually came late at night. He would ask me about obscure Psychic TV bootlegs, apparently having forgotten that I regarded Psychic TV as unlistenable rubbish if not actually the worst band in the world; or there was the time he called me to boast about having found an album by Skrewdriver, the racist skinhead band. I hadn't been able to tell if he was serious or not, but it was annoying either way.

This call was different, concerned mainly with the upcoming gig. We would be on stage in a little over twenty-four hours. I asked had he yet found a decent microphone, this being the one thing he would be required to supply. He said it wouldn't be a problem and then began to talk about shoes. He needed shoes for the gig, and had seen a really nice pair in some shop. He wanted to know what I thought. We somehow discussed shoes for forty-five minutes, and the next day I discovered that he'd been sectioned once again, which wasn't too surprising. He'd stopped taking his medication and had smashed up his sheltered accommodation with such force that the police had been called, or at least that's how I remember it.

The gig didn't happen, and that was that.

He knew how it worked every time he cut down on his medication, but he'd done it anyway, and there was no point my pretending I understood what was going on in his head, or that I could help. The effort of being his friend was becoming too much, not least because he seemed to want an audience above anything else. He wanted to be the mad bloke at whom other mad people would point and say woah, that fucker is too mad even for me! He'd taken the piss too many times, assuming the I'm mad and I don't know what I'm doing card to be valid in perpetuity.

We met about six months later in a pub opposite the British Museum. By this time he'd had a few CDs pressed, apparently having been given funding to do so by some sort of arts grant for the mentally unorthodox. The one I heard seemed to comprise friends and session musicians half-heartedly mucking about in the studio with John talking over the top, more or less regardless of the music, crooning Joy Division with some of the words missing, narration along the lines of well, I'm sat here in the studio and we've still got ten minutes left.... Steve's just gone outside for a crafty fag... Even as outsider art - if you'll forgive my use of the term - it didn't have much going for it. Since the gig that never happened, he'd grown his hair and bought a sheepskin coat, apparently eschewing Buchenwald chic for a sort of post-apocalypse Mick Jagger. We bought drinks and sat down and didn't talk about the gig that hadn't happened.

'I've got cancer,' he said. 'I'm going to be dead in six months.'

'Oh well.'

I didn't know what he wanted me to say, but apparently it hadn't been that, so he began to tell me how he was going to have gender reassignment to become a woman, this being something he had always wanted. I suppose he was hoping to fit it in before the cancer got too bad.

'Can you get some sort of grant for that, then? A sex change?'

He nodded and smoked his cigarette.

Later, as he became more animated he shouted out that we should have found a different pub, one without quite so many Jews in it, although it could have been niggers - I forget which. I cursed how long it had taken me to get there on a 176 bus from East Dulwich, and how long I would have to wait for one going back, and with work in the morning. It was dark and raining heavily. I cursed myself for the fact that I had bothered, and had been played for an idiot.

'This is me you're talking to, John,' I seem to remember trying. 'Do you think you could maybe tone it down a bit? Do you know what I mean?'

He laughed, and that was the end of that.

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