The Death and Life Of Red Henley

And two years later it’s done.

What started out as a vague idea about the need to belong and why we feel the need to be a part of something (religion, love, even book groups, okay, maybe not book groups), and with a working title of Standing Behind God’s Back (Cross Country Murder Song was called Trauma for the longest time, until it wasn’t), has mutated/evolved into something quite different. Admittedly, the larger themes of the corrupting aspect of religion and love  – it’s clearly a lighthearted romp – are still there, but whereas CCMS was a multi-layered plot (which really pissed some people off; it’s as if I was asking them to think too much), Red’s twelve concise months set in 1980 in New York City. There’s an extraneous chapter called Solstice – guess where that comes in the book – and a few flashbacks to a commune/cult in the Tennessee countryside, but it’s all pretty linear. Well, it is for one of my books. Dead people speak, there’s a very real battle between good and evil, a note or two on the true nature of sin and there’s a passage about a polar bear as a metaphor for loneliness that has made everyone who has read it break down and cry, even me. There’s also a red number 3 pool ball that plays a big part in the plot, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

And how do I feel? Well, how kind of you to ask. Not as bleak and bloody-minded as I did after finishing CCMS – that felt like my first real break-up – but saddened still. I was talking to a proper Rock Star friend about it and he said that the post-production/album blues are a very real thing. Even though some of the characters in Red are hideous, I still miss them. I had a dream the other night where two of the protagonists, Red and Walker, were chatting to me quite amiably, and when I woke and realised they were just figments of my imagination, I actually felt quite sad. That said, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Walker exists; he’s a complete bastard. But the letting go is a difficult thing, I handed it off to the agent a few weeks ago and felt my stomach flip like a young girl who’s just caught her boyfriend making out with her mum, the agent made some encouraging sounds – ‘very strong’, ‘horrifically violent’ – and then passed it on to my editor at Random House. Which is both exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. I admire or like – let’s not pretend – very few people, but Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape is one of them and he has the manuscript now, as I sit here writing, I can imagine him at home with pursed, thoughtful lips and a pen hovering over the scenes of carnage  – a man strung up in a tree like a broken kite, someone falling out of the night sky like an exploding star – and jotting down carefully annotated notes in the margins, which he’ll talk me through over a coffee at some point soon while we’re seated at his desk, a desk where Hemingway once sat. The idea of that still thrills me.

So, next comes the edit, the artwork, publication and my inevitable Red Henley tattoo, but that’s some way off yet. That’s the best part of letting go, the beginning again.



September Song

The phone call explained everything. Emotional upheaval is nothing new in my life, I lurch from one relationship to the next, crushing feelings beneath my feet, it’s not something I’m proud of, when I finally look back, they’ll be the only source of my regrets, I hope. Was unloved, finds it hard to love now, not least myself, it’s an old story and it’s not just my story and it’s not the one I want to tell now.

The text message said one thing: ‘five years’. And, sitting at my desk, I started to cry. A lot’s happened in the last few months, not least my moving home and cities. The machinations of a half-finished book to deal with, going inside the darkest reaches of myself to make my latest leading man come to life. That’s my choice though, and one I’m glad to have. But in the sheer noise I’d surrounded myself with to combat the pain and loneliness I was feeling, I’d somehow overlooked the fact that this early autumn week always drains the the life out of me. If you look at the Vintage imprint of CCMS, there’s an inconsequential looking serial number and some letters at the top, embedded in the edge of the box: JSTB 18 – 09/07. Simply put, Justin Smith The Boy and the date on which he died, the 18 September 2007. Five years ago. CCMS was dedicated to him and Ted Millington (who I’ve written about before here) and for those who were unlucky enough not to have met either, I can tell you that you have a life less lived. Boy, he was always called The Boy or Boy, was Justin Smith to his mam (we’re Welsh, we have mams, not mums), and, for a brief, dazzling second he was Pepsi Tate of Tigertailz. Built like a second row forward but with a shock of blonde hair and more than adept at applying lipstick and eyeliner and a dusting of rouge. Women adored him, men didn’t know quite what to make of him. As two Welshmen away from home and living in London (though he travelled back and forth) we became fast friends, quick witted, too loud, too in thrall with ourselves, but if you can’t be buoyed up on your own magic at age 23 then when can you ever be? The band faltered, I got fired from my job, we stopped moving in the same circles, life had brought us down with a tangible bump. We both, strangely, became producers, but in different cities and spheres, and our collective disappointment in the thing we thought would save or make us meant that we avoided contact with each other as if that stink of failure might somehow rub off against us again. It’s hard when you first realise that life is a fragile house of cards and can give way at any point.

Then suddenly I was forty and threw a party in a private club in Soho. I remember the crippling bar tab and the wraps of coke made up as party gifts for my guests, colourful, garish bundles of face-chewing joy. And I remember Boy being there, and it’s a cliche, but it’s a truism too, it was as if he’d never left London, as if we’d never quietly left each other’s side. We laughed and argued and laughed, speaking some sort of internal dialect that perhaps siblings share. I went home while he went on into the night taking one of our friends with him who he got so drunk that they threw up in a potted plant in the Groucho. I was on my own sofa by then and thoroughly exhausted. The Boy still raging into the night and against the dying of the light.

He got ill not long after that, after he’d come back into my life and made me realise how easily we can let love go in all its shapes and forms. His cancer whittled away at him, reduced him to this tired, sleepy figure made miniscule among the cushions of his own sofa. We went to Wales and sat with him on his birthday, the knot of friends wondering how many more birthdays there would be where we could embrace him and touch the curve of his shoulder. He had a long scar that ran as an angry red line down his chest. And as I sat and looked at him across the table I knew that he was moving quickly from this life and into the next and no matter how hard I embraced him or clung to him he was always going to resist me now. He travelled to New York not long before he died with his wonderful wife and his dearest friend, he actually got engaged there as I remember it, and while they sat in a dusky New York bar, the remains of the day as spokes of light filtering through the window, she stood up and silenced the bar with a full blooded and quite, quite beautiful rendition of Moon River. Shan can make a room rise and fall with her voice, theatres and arenas too, she is, as they say, the real deal. But in that small room, in the company of strangers, she passed on her final gift to the only man she ever wanted to marry, one final thing before he died.

Months later, after we’d buried him on a Welsh hillside, where the different shades of green rolled ever upwards to meet the blue of the sky, I was sitting in an apartment block over looking San Francisco Bay, somewhere behind me a TV was on when Moon River came out of the speaker, a gospel rendition full of longing and need, before me I could see the lights flickering on along the Bay, a tanker sitting unmoving in the channel and in my head the roar of loss intermingling with the last echoing note as Moon River drifted by. Another thing lost to the oncoming night.

Two years and a matter of days later, today in fact, Sylvain died. She was my cat and while that might mean nothing to you, she was my cat for most of my adult life. She sat impassively through my years and months, my growing, a lazy eye on my comings and going. She sat on my desk as I wrote my first novel and looked at me as if she too wondered why the hell I was putting myself through it with no real idea of whether I’d be published or even if I had a book in me and if I didn’t then what would I do with the rest of my life? I’ve only ever wanted to be three things; a clown (I suppose I might have qualified for that one), a vet and a novelist. A lot of people don’t get to live their dreams, I was fully prepared and expecting to be one of them.

Cancer, they think it was cancer, took her too. She lay in the garden one night, hidden deep in the undergrowth and mewled and mewled, the sound of heartbreak and pain. I remember bringing her inside and holding her, but it was like trying to hold onto the Boy, she was beyond me then and always would be. The vet called me while she was still on the operating table, she had a gentle voice, one that didn’t want to make that call, and told me it would be best not to wake her again, her insides were a mass of infection, small nodules of death littering her insides. Some of the people who worked there had stayed late to see if she might live, they thought there might be a chance, but she was a shadow now too. I sat on my front step and cried and cried and then I went inside and gathered up her toys and held them to me and gulped for air as grief made my body shake. Those toys and her bowl still sit in the top drawer of my desk, so that sometimes when I write I can imagine her sitting there regarding me, never knowing when death might come.

I still miss them both, sometimes, like now, with an acuteness of feeling that makes me want to howl with anger and pain. I know that life is fleeting and that love is, absurdly, all. But they were and are two marks on my skin, a part of my making, beautifully rendered moments of love that I’ll follow down forever, always calling them back, but knowing they’ll never come.

Great Western

On the advice of an old friend, an old, old friend, I’ve finally decided to start keeping a blog again. I was still in my early twenties when I first met him. He still had hair and I looked like a Motley Crue roadie. It was an undignified look at best. But, as is often the case when I use this platform, I digress. The last time I blogged I think I was still waiting on Cross Country Murder Song to be published, I was almost certainly still in London with my then girlfriend and my dog. None of those things are true of me now. The book was published, certainly, and very well received too, I even took a meeting with a real film star’s production partner who bought me coffee and eggs (which I was too nervous to eat, though I did neck the coffee the way men who come out of the desert go at water) and I even got to go to the theatre to see said film star perform on a minute stage. Even though they passed on my book, I have to say that the film star was tremendous. I went in determined not to like him or the production (petty professional jealousy, it’s what I do best) and left with my jaw properly dropped. He was immense and had the torso of a young Tarzan, no wonder the critics cooed.

Anyway, that moment’s passed, as has the relationship and, for the foreseeable, my life in London. That’s more of an occasional thing now where I appear to work and attend meetings and tell my agent (she’s something new in my life too) that the new book’s going very well, which is almost true. I still pull out of there on the train at night and feel something that might be the rub of regret as I leave, but I can’t be sure. It’s early still and a new city alone is a lot to take in. So, for the handful of you who are interested, I’ll be scratching my head in wonder here a lot more. The book’s over halfway done and the agent thinks it’s ‘brilliant’, but then she is my agent, plus she’s just had a baby and might just be feeling kind or woozy or struggling mentally as I understand a mewling child takes it right out of you.

On a happier note (not to detract from the joy of childhood and the beauty it brings, etc.), I’m busy, which stops me sitting at my desk and wondering how often I can fuck up my life before someone turns up at the door and hands me a revolver (that’s right, I’m living in Sweden. I am not). But as much as this is a release, I’ll try not to make it all about wounded introspection. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time talking to Kiss (all of them), Soundgarden (ditto, Chris Cornell resisted for a while, but he too soon gave in to my Welsh charms) and an admirable young man called Winston McCall who sings (I say sings, he admits that he can’t) with a band called Parkway Drive. Before their new album, Atlas, was sent to me, I didn’t feel one way or the other about them, but there’s something magical about that record and about their approach to life that had me totally entranced.

For those of you closer to my age who are now appalled that I like a band they’ve never heard of, the good news is that the new Kiss record, Monster, is vibrant and exciting and packed with songs. Paul Stanley will tell you that it’s the one of the best things they’ve ever done, as usual, but this time you might want to take that on board. Admittedly, there’s one song on there about cunnilingus that is as blunt as a ball peen hammer, but the rest of the record simply flies. I’m still taken aback by it. And on that happy note, I’ll get back to filing copy and wondering how the hero of my latest book will make it out of this alive. Though, as readers of CCMS will know, I’m always happy to leave my leading men dead in the wash, bloody corpses floating way out to sea. But then we all have days like that, I’m sure.

Summer, Highland Falls

It’s strange that a song written by a New Yorker about a place I’ve never been can cause such a reverie. The above title was written by Billy Joel, I think it was from Turnstiles, forgive me if I’m wrong, and whenever I hear it, as I just did, then I’m back in a classroom in Wales studying A level English with Mr. Millington. For those of you who’ve read my book – Cross Country Murder Song, Vintage imprint coming soon! – you might have noticed his name in the dedication. He and The Boy (more of whom another time), got both barrels of my love, I managed to catch up and reacquaint myself with The Boy before he died, but I never got to say goodbye to Millington and I’m sorry about that as he truly turned my life around.

It was the mid-80s or thereabouts, Ted was originally from Birmingham and how he ended up in our small, Welsh valley is still something of a mystery. Everyone has their Dead Poets Society moment I suppose and he was mine. All the girls were infatuated by this short man in a duffle coat with a bowl haircut, the boys in the class either loved or loathed him. I wavered between both. He was astute, sharp and funny and seemed to care, which was unnerving at best, my home life was a lesson in abandonment; three individuals trying to hold on the ever brittle strands of family. We were doomed from the minute my father walked out on us. Ted had issues of his own, a son he loved and doted on and what looked like a long dead marriage. A few years later, he and another teacher (she taught Home Economics and made the boys in the sixth form pant like tired bloodhounds) pretty much ran away together. He never did things lightly so it must have crushed him to give up on his family unit, no matter how badly they were listing.

But I’m getting away from how he taught us; with verve and style and, mostly, with heart. He taught us The Great Gatsby at a time when I was at war with the world. I didn’t want to hear about America’s Jazz Age or its most glittering participants, I wanted the land leveled, I wanted someone to pay for the pain I was feeling. Ted wouldn’t give up on us though, he drove Fitzgerald’s brilliant text into our consciousness, taught us the spare beauty of his dazzling prose, he taught us that knowledge is power, freeing too. Mostly he taught me that I didn’t have to stay in that place, both geographically and mentally, he set me free and I don’t think he did it unwittingly. He saw something in me that I must have missed. He saw past the anger and the hurt, reigniting my love of writing and reading, he kicked open a long closed door. It was no surprise that when I got my first tattoo some years later it was the last paragraph of The Great Gatsby around my thigh and it was as much about my love of the written word as it was a man who pulled me from my own infernal wreckage.

He became gravely ill in the same Welsh hospital as The Boy, both beginning their long descent into oblivion from beneath those same sheets. Old school friends tried to contact me for the funeral – an event literally filled with hundreds and hundreds of pupils, present and past – but I was in London then, travelling abroad for magazine work, moving homes, trying to gain some purchase on the world, trying to make my mark. By the time news reached me, he was set resting on a Welsh hillside at the end of his far too short journey. I’m working on my second novel now and had sat down today to write, but not about him or this, I’d almost forgotten a lot of it. But there wouldn’t have been a Cross Country Murder Song without him, hell, there wouldn’t have been magazine articles, memoirs, TV scripts, radio work, I’d have been rotting in my own personal hell, thinking about what might have been, still blaming the world, railing against the picturesque landscape outside, self-contained and always, always confined. Thank you, Ted Millington, my words of appreciation are long overdue.

Working Man

Somehow I let the summer go by without writing anything down. Actually, that’s not true, I spent a few months working absurdly long hours ghosting a memoir. It’s a strange if lucrative gig. You spend hours with your subject, pore over the very bones of their being, make their voice come to life on the page and then nothing. It’s like the longest one night stand ever. The book comes out, you hardly recognise huge swathes of it – but then you did think the editor was a tosser all along – and you’ve already made one enemy for life and realised how lucky you are to have a human being for an agent. The money was good though, I spent it on making my debts look less ugly and teaching the dog to love ice cream. Shortly afterwards the vet told me Ralph was overweight, I held up my hands in a display of horrified shock, but you could tell she wasn’t buying it especially as I was feeding the mutt a tub of Ben & Jerry’s at the time.

Otherwise, I’ve been to New York, The Green Man festival (which was terribly wet even by soggy Welsh standards), I got stuck in Philadelphia and Columbus (sadly, they aren’t the names of two strippers I met) and went to LA on the hottest day on record. It was the kind of weather that killed Tarantino’s editor, it caused me to lay on the floor of my hotel room with the AC on full doing my best not to move too much. I’ve been to court too for all the good that did. I saw men beating up another man, then I went to court and told the judge that and they let them off because of lack of evidence. It made me feel rather ineffectual, like so much smoke being shooed out of an open window. Much more happily, I did a live Q&A with Rush’s Geddy Lee last night at a cinema in London. He was good value, he’s always good value, as were the incredibly keen audience. Though they did swarm all over Geddy like a scene from The Walking Dead once we were done. I could hardly push past them to get to the bar. One short man with a red face asked my name and then told me I was annoying, I was tempted to push him down the stairs and stand on his neck until he turned puce, but I let him have his moment and let his little legs carry him home to his undoubtedly ugly and frumpy wife and his two kids who hate him, I imagine. I hope he’s been hit by a car today. More good news; I interviewed Gail Zappa on Friday and we got along famously, so much so that she invited me up to the family house to see where Frank worked the ‘next time I was in LA’. I’m currently checking my air miles… Oh, and I fell out with Nicky Wire and then made it up again. Sorry, I’m dropping names and condensing timelines with a flagrant disregard for convention, but fuck it, no, fuck you. Which is what I said to Wire. I didn’t.

We have a live Perfect 10 in Manchester on Saturday, as usual Phill and I have done next to nothing in terms of preparation yet, there’ll be a flurry of activity and panic on Thursday when we’ll actually pick up the phone to each other and debate what we’re going to do. The last one in London went over pretty well so I suspect that one of us will fall off the stage at the very least this time. If it’s Phill and you’re in the front row then I apologise in advance, but it’s your own fault for being so keen. At least you’ll make the papers, even if it is just the Manchester Evening News.

Ralph the Bastard

To his eternal credit the dog really does look like an Ewok, but as I’ve got a life and very little time on my hands (and George Lucas brandishes lawyers like Darth swings a lightsabre) I’ve resisted dressing him up in a cowl and taking pictures of him. There are enough of those images on the web as it is. Anyway, he’s called Ralph and he’s hit our house the way a tornado fucked up Kansas in a Wizard Of Oz. I have a cage pretty much next to my side of the bed now, an actual cage, Katie Price’s latest husband could fight for a title belt in there and I think there’d be enough room. Ralph sits in its corner and snores. At first we assumed he was having an asthma attack as he sleeps sitting upright and with his eyes open. It’s like we’ve adopted Damon from The Omen. He’s snoring as I write, but with his face pressed hard against his favourite towel. Oh yes, he has a favourite towel, he has lots of things, the entire run of the house and our hearts being just two of them. I still feel guilt and shame when I look at a photo of my cat and finding out that Ralph was born around the time Sylvain died did nothing but reduce me to quiet tears (not because I imagined a transfer of souls, I have about as much faith in the idea of a god as I do my agent), but because it seemed to compound the idea that I was cheating on her bones and had abandoned her somehow. I sound like a Catholic.

Not that I’m going to get mawkish about her or him. It’s hard to fall hard for a hound whose pee you’ve stepped in at 3am and realised that given the right combination of low lighting and no socks you can actually scream like a little girl. I woke the dog too. And Nuala. She gave me the skunk eye and rolled over muttering about having to get up early for work so I pulled the quilt off her and dumped her on the bedroom floor. She made a noise like air leaving a deflating balloon. Ralph was her idea. I walked him in the rain the next morning and felt hopelessly romantic though, I imagined a black and white shot of me and him leaning into the hail and wind and passers-by taking that image with them to the tube and saying how heroic we both looked and then going out at lunchtime to buy my book and praise me in whispering tones. Novelist, humanist, vegetarian, dog-walker… That sort of thing. As it was we both looked defeated by the drizzle and I took two plastic bags in case Ralph felt the urge to answer the call of nature in Kentish Town. He didn’t. He waited until we got home, which meant I probably didn’t need to go out in the rain after all. Best not dwell on that last point.

In other news (and thank the good lord for that), the Laugharne Weekend is almost upon us, I travel down Saturday in hope of catching Julian Cope doing his irrepressible thing and then get to share a billet with Kevin Allan, uncle to Lily. The full bill’s quite tremendous and I make up a very small part of it on the Sunday at 2pm with Nicky Wire and then at 5.30pm with his brother, the poet Patrick Jones. If you happen to be in the town Dylan Thomas based Under Milk Wood on then come by and buy a copy of my book, I’ll almost certainly chat to you then. Before then we record a new Perfect Ten, we’ve already slid back on our promise to make them fortnightly, and I’ve been enjoying new music from the Stone Temple Pilots (yes, I was surprised too) and Taylor Hawkins (ditto) and former Kyuss man Brant Bjork. That made me want to smoke a doobie and I mean that in the good way even though I pretty much detest dope as it slows me down. I once snorted vodka and had to smoke dope to stop me throwing up or my head exploding, I forget which. I’ve also rediscovered the A Boy Named Goo record and the debut Chris Cornell album, Euphoria Morning, both gems and for very different, very valid reasons. Anyway, I need to pick some CCMS passages to read this weekend, wish me luck, I’ll almost certainly snort with derision at your good wishes. The window’s open and the dog’s barking at something unseen and unheard outside, best get used to that I suppose…


I can’t remember the last time I was interviewed, I think it must have been when Phill and I were at 6 Music, someone came in to ask us why we were both Apple devotees or when we did an outside broadcast at a student radio station somewhere. It’s fuzzy and I imagine we did our usual thing; made seventeen different in-jokes until the interviewer got glassy eyed and sort of gave up on us. Quite rightly too. We’ll never be half as funny as we think we are when we’re showing off and we used to show off a lot. Anyway, the Booktrust gave the novel a very nice review ( and then they asked if they could interview me. I said yes. Very nice it was too and they bought me a Marmite (I haven’t eaten Marmite since my cat died, long story) bagel and numerous coffees and asked me some pretty engaging questions, including what music I listened to when I wrote. I wasn’t even sure myself, but it’s Bill Evans in the main, some Herbie Hancock too, I can’t listen to lyrics when I write fiction, though I can when I’m working on my journalism, weirdly. I can’t read fiction when I’m writing fiction either (I’m inbred, what can I tell you?) so I’m currently reading The Journals Of John Cheever. His home life can best be described as complex. Like a Gordian Knot is complex. Its good though, what a brilliant voice he was.

Post-interview I had a date with Random House and booksellers from all over the country who were sizing up the autumn release schedules like a stag party appraising a stripper. I’m not on the schedule, the Vintage edition of CCMS will be with you in February 2011 – like you care. It was good to see everyone though, I scared Tom the editorial assistant by telling him that I’d had a dream about him, I think he actually took a step backwards at the news and all the authors present sized each other up with sideways glances and barely concealed contempt. I took solace in the fact that the wine was free and that if we all ended up in prison I would almost certainly be the Daddy in a roomful of men who looked like substitute teachers. Hell, some of them might even be substitute teachers. It’s such a solitary existence writing that you think we’d make more of a night out on Random House’s coin, but I left early and I certainly wasn’t the first out of the door. It was good to see Dan, Vicki and Clara though (Team Wilding as I call them in my head, if I said it out loud they’d lynch me), the last time we were in a room together was at my launch party and the less said about that the better.

Otherwise, it’s been the usual mix of interviews (me doing the interviews not the other way around), a birthday and a very boozy weekend in Brighton where we took on the whiskey list at the Great Eastern pub and lost quite convincingly. Musically, I’ve rediscovered Chris Cornell’s excellent Euphoria Morning album  – I’ve been writing about him – and tipping my hat to Big Star after the sad news of Alex Chilton’s untimely death. Hell, when is death ever timely? The new Jesse Malins album has a lot of heart (and some very good songs too) as does the Coheed album. And we’re thinking about buying a dog, I’ll need the company when Book 2 breaks my heart like a cheap vase. I want to call him Thursday, Nuala’s less keen… More on that sooner than I’d probably like.