In this edition we go on to talk about Simon’s early days in London which includes the worrying revelation that he may have once been put in charge of lethal weapons or even worse, he could’ve tread the boards, darling.
We discover ‘Kilburn Killer’, how to avoid writing and how writing a will is best done when not ‘off your cake’ on heroin.
The music references continue to flow through our conversation too – we just can’t help ourselves. Peter Tosh, Ben Folds and Billy Bragg all turn up here and we even get a ‘Glastonbury’ tease.
MJ: So at this point there’s no thoughts like ‘I absolutely must get a job’ or ‘my Mum wants me to go to University’?
SM: I did two college courses, I flunked them both. I did a retake of my O-Levels but I wasn’t interested, I went to the local college I tried to do Theatre Studies, but I just wasn’t that interested. I didn’t know what I wanted, I just knew that I had to get out of that small town and that London was where I wanted to go. My Mum had remarried and he was a really decent man but at the time I couldn’t see it, partly because he was a headmaster (laughs). I got some girl pregnant and her old man came round and tried to batter him. He said to me “You need some discipline, you need to join the army.”
And I was like “OK, if it gets me out of here”.
So I took the selection test and I was due to go to Sutton Coldfield for whatever it is the army does there and I stayed up all night doing speed and necking Stella. And my mate who was with me said “What the fuck are you doing?”
I said “I’m going to drive a tank!”
“They won’t let you drive a tank. You’ll be cannon fodder mate, you’ll be the guy getting shot in Belfast!”
MJ: So you were one step behind Billy Bragg? They let him drive a tank.
SM: Yeah well I had a moment of clarity thanks to some really strong amphetamines from the Hell’s Angels. When you’ve been awake for three days, there’s finally no bullshit left. Everything is what it is, it’s very fucking clear.
MJ: Do you know the Ben Folds song ‘Army’? The first line is ‘Well, I thought about the army. Dad said son you’re fucking high’. Great song.
SM: So I went to London. Where I move straight in with students who have spent three years growing weed. They come home one day with six bin liners full of ‘Kilburn Killer’. And between them they’ve got the best record collection you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s full of stuff I’d never heard before: The Only Ones, The Grateful Dead, Peter Tosh etc. So I spent the whole of that first summer in Kilburn with a mountain of weed, that record collection and all those books about rites of passage and the doors of perception, Kerouac and all that stuff, just thinking ‘this is great, this is me’.
MJ: So quite an amazing time, because the doors are open now. Yet most people in that situation will have gone on to make it without having had the struggles you’ve had. And again you’ve got the music underpinning everything.
SM: And then I go to Glastonbury…
MJ: …but if you put all that together, those are the building blocks of a really sound creative life. That’s one of things that I am fascinated by.
You’ve come round the long way. I don’t know if you feel like this but you have a lot of ammunition now – whether it’s in your soul or just simple things to write about. Is that how you see it?
SM: Absolutely. This is a huge ‘if’ but if there had been someone back then who had said ‘Simon, you can write’. I just needed a steadying hand. If there was any continuity in my life, who knows? But that wasn’t how it was meant to be.
I’m not a victim and please God nothing like that happens to my daughter. But it has created this thing within me. The hardest thing about writing now is not ironing the clothes for two days or doing the washing up. It’s the avoidance.
MJ: You’ve talked about writing songs throughout everything. Do you think that something was clawing at your brain saying ‘stop doing those crazy things because you’ve got something there’? And therefore is writing cathartic for you now?
SM: Yes that makes sense. Had I managed to have any success in my previous incarnation as a wannabe rock star, I’d be dead. Because I could have afforded more drugs and I would have been surrounded by sycophants. So thank God that didn’t happen.
As the fog cleared in recovery, I found I remembered things. Why Would I remember walking past your brother’s room in 1980? But I do. Why would I remember the cassette you gave me or watching (a mutual friend) rewinding a cassette with an HB pencil? I remember stuff like that, the devil is in the detail.
So writing the book was actually an exercise in learning how to write. I had this huge document, accumulated over years. I’d write, save it, relapse, sell the computer for drugs. But I kept hold of it. Through being homeless on the streets of London. Through countless stints in rehab, awful times in crack houses. Throughout all that I had this bag and I would have diaries and other scraps in there.
MJ: And was that because at the time that was intrinsically important to you just to do it or because you hoped there might come a time you could do something with it?
SM: Well, I’m self-obsessed, I write about myself all the time. (Laughs). A bit of both I suppose.
This is so sad and morbid but I remember in 1999 writing this long, awful will. I was out of my cake on heroin and I thought ‘I want people to know what it’s like being me’. One treatment centre I was in was very big on that. They told me ‘you’ve got something here and it’s important’. When I started being in bands in the late eighties people told me ‘you’re really good at writing lyrics. You can’t sing to save your life but your lyrics are good’. So I thought I had something.
MJ: So was it something you held on to? The scraps of paper stuffed in a rucksack became the book?
SM: Yeah because I’m not that well-read – far from it. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I started and finished a book. One of the consequences of spending so long out of your tree is that your levels of concentration get shot to pieces. If I get ten minutes into a film I’ve done well and it’s the same with books. Stick me on a desert island and I’ll tidy it up before I read a book.
I can only give anything three and a half minutes. It’s all about singles, for me.
MJ: Sadly you can’t read Ramones songs.
SM: You can in one way.