A series of events have led to me unearthing my vinyl collection. In it, I found a copy of AC/DC Back In Black. It was accompanied by a tidal wave of memories so strong I am still reeling from it.
I wrote the below in January 2012, and it was published on my band blog. I offer it to you again, with a new postscript, and this thought: If you really think ghosts aren't real, try playing a song, or better yet, a record you haven't heard since you were a teenager, and see what happens.
On Friday, while I was at a gig, my sister phoned the house, and left a message with Mrs. Gonzo for me. Which I got on Saturday morning. The message was both a bolt from the blue and utterly unsurprising.
This is not the first time that someone has given me this news, actually. When I was 19, Scott's then-ex-drummer and my then-future-ex-psychotic-housemate Steve told me he’d died - apparently, he’d been hanging out with a group of travellers, ripped off all their money and spent it on heroin, and they’d beaten him to death. You’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that it says more about Scott and less about my gullibility that I believed this for a few months, until another good friend of the time, Luke, put me straight, having seen Scott over the summer (Scott's quote to Luke was very Scott - ‘If Steve doesn’t stop telling stories about me, big people are going to come and sit in his garden’).
At the time I was told that, I thought he was the first person of my age that I’d known personally that died, and it made me bloody miserable (not to mention engendering a feeling of foreboding about my own future, and the future in general - I could be quite histrionic in those days, believe it or not). In the event, that dubious honour actually went to a guy called Kye, who really deserves his own entry at some point, and who most assuredly didn’t die of a drug overdose or related shenanigans.
So who is - sorry, was - Scott?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last 48 hours, and I’ve discovered to my dismay that he was quite a bit more important to me than I’d appreciated when he was alive. An example is this: though I always think of myself as someone who is more comfortable with women than men, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a series of intense, platonic but very deep relationships with men over the years - normally though not always rooted in a shared passion for either music or politics, plus humor. In school there was James, college Chris (that didn’t end well) and later Rob (still going strong), through LARP I met Nate (no man can make me laugh as hard or as long), and later at work, Adrian , and still later, at my current place of employment, Brett (in between there was London, with Ian, Andy, and the whole tabletop RPG gang). For a while at school, I thought Scott was one of those. He wasn’t, as it turned out, and I learned a valuable life lesson about the dangers of trusting charismatic people, and for that matter of mistaking charisma for sincerity. Scott wasn’t the last time I got burned that way (see Chris as mentioned earlier) but I definitely got better at spotting such personality types as a result, as well as devising strategies for how to protect myself (basically, in my case, that means saying goodbye, and meaning it).
More on that later.
I first met Scott when I was 10 years old, and he was 11. I know this because of where I met him - at the Plough Arts centre youth drama club. I could, and perhaps should, do an entire blog entry on just this place, given that it gave me my first taste of the performance drug that is still such an integral part of my personality and drive. For now, just know it was an amazing service provided by unbelievably talented and dedicated people, and was a ray of sunshine for a shit-ton of kids in otherwise pretty unremarkable and often pretty crappy circumstances.
And it’s where I met Scott, and I fell pretty hard.
Scott had effortless charisma. You just wanted to look at him, and listen to him. He was also smart, and funny, and just So Damn Cool. He really was, even at 11. He seemed to know it too (and if he didn‘t then, he sure did later), but he wore it lightly, and seemed to genuinely enjoy other people. I remember getting an incredible buzz out of making him laugh - I figured it meant more coming from someone who could be so funny himself. Plus, he was one of those people that you wanted to have like you.
The thing is, Scott was never a Townie (the two main identifiable social groups during my childhood being Townies and Goths - even though almost none of the Goths actually listened to Goth music - that’s North Devon for you) but even the townies knew he was cool, so Goths who could count Scott as a friend could also count on a little less flack from Townies, at least while he was about. I remember being very excited at the prospect that Scott would be in the same year as me when I went to Secondary School, and bitterly disappointed when we were placed in different forms (though it’s as well for my grades that we were, I suspect).
For a little while there, I imagined he was my best friend. I invited him to my birthday do when I was - shit, 11, 12, surely no older. One of my other friends, John (who would later also call himself Scott's best friend, and be similarly burned) had taken me out on his birthday to Westward Ho! arcades, where we fed I-don’t-know-how-much money into arcade machines, for hours. A video game junkie even then, it was one of my best days out ever, and I wanted to do the same thing with Scott (poor old John didn’t get a look in - it’s interesting that it’s only now, reflecting on this at 22 years distance, that I suddenly feel guilt and embarrassment about that).
Of course, we couldn’t go to Westward Ho!, and we didn’t have anything like the money that John’s parents had, so we went to Exeter and the arcade there and spent £10 each, and by the end of it I remember having that faint and sick feeling in my stomach that I’d wasted money. Knowing how little money we had at that time, this was a pretty horrible feeling. And Scott acted up terribly - he could drink milk through his nose, and he demonstrated this in the car to my horrified/fascinated sister and just plain horrified mum, I remember him making a paper airplane and trapping it in the window of our moving car so the wing would flap on the outside, and I’m sure if you asked my mum she could give you chapter and verse on Scott's bad behavior that day - I was certainly told in very clear terms that he would not be invited to any such future events. Not that this had much of a dampening effect on my hero worship of the guy.
We both started learning guitar at the same time, but he had an electric guitar that was an imitation Gibson, which given we were both rabid Guns N Roses fans at the time (the time being 1989, with Use Your Illusion still two years away, and Appetite For Destruction riding high as the best fucking album in existence) meant he was a million times cooler. Besides, I wanted to be a singer, and he was only one of a million people who thought that wasn’t a good idea, which to be fair to them, hearing a pre-pubescent voice trying to sing the Axl whine was probably at best a touch unsettling. I remember one long coach trip (thinking back on my school career, this will have been the only time I was cool enough to sit right at the back until my 5th year - such was the aura that Scott carried), sharing a walkman, one earbud each, me trying to sing along to Appetite and Skid Row, and him hitting me over the head with a rolled up magazine each time I messed up or made up a word - which was a lot. It should tell you something about how I felt about him that this still qualifies as a happy memory, despite it sounding a bit mean in black and white.
Such is the power of love, or hero worship.
I have other, disjointed memories of Scott from this time. He’d claimed to have seen the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, including the then-just-released 5th movie the Dream Child, and made up some truly outrageous and disturbing lies about it’s content.
He also told me he was going to take me to see Guns n’ Roses supporting The Rolling Stones,
and man, I told everyone about that, and was excited for months, before he told me I couldn’t go because one of his uncles six Harleys had broken down and the other five rides were already accounted for, He made some vague promise about Iron Maiden the following Feb, which I told people about as a face saver, but I never got over that disappointment (and if you were 11 and Guns N Roses were your gateway to a lifetimes obsession with all things rock, you wouldn’t have either, I imagine).
We saw each other less, and he hooked up with a new best friend. He also started getting into The Wonderstuff, Carter USM, The Levellers, and other music I dismissed as ‘crusty’ i.e. not rock enough - though Nirvana, I had to admit, were pretty good. I remember vividly - God, it’s so funny how this stuff comes back - on a school coach trip when we were all 15 or so, a Blur song came on the radio (is it called ‘There’s no other way’? - I’m too lazy to look it up) and all the Townies started singing along, and Scott turned to his best friend, and they both looked totally horrified, genuinely upset, and I remember Scott saying, really sadly, ‘don’t worry man - we heard it first!’. I also remember telling him about Use Your Illusion - by ‘91 he wouldn’t even admit to knowing who GnR were, let alone drop actual money on an album - and seeing him interested, but in a purely academic way, so removed from the shared passion of a few years before. I couldn’t understand what had changed for him, but something clearly had, and that old GnR magic was just dead to him.
I guess, in the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that he went out for a while with the girl I spent the entire of secondary school with a massive and unrequited crush on, and any of us can look back and laugh at that shit now, and we should, but at the time it was total fucking agony, and I was happy beyond words when it ended. Worst week of my life.
Then again, he was still the coolest motherfucker in school. Example: Chris (different Chris), a large and arrogant and deeply stupid bully and bad boy of some repute had said something Scott didn’t like - I want to say it was a slight on Scott's father who died, but actually I think it was less emotive than that, something more where Chris had called Scott a liar about something. Anyway, they had a fight, but it was a weird fight - they set a date, time (lunch break) and a venue (my form room, which was a treat). The fighters assembled, there was a big assed crowd, and the desks were cleared to form an arena in the middle of the floor. I mean, they took it pretty fucking seriously. And I learned a thing or two about bullies that day too, because Chris, the big hard man about school, was just about shitting himself before Scott even got into the room. He just kept saying ‘I’m going to lose, man’ over and over, with the scared smile I think I’d never seen to that point.
Needless to say, he was right, and Scott hurt him bad enough to make him cry and issue a very full public apology. Scott never got much shit from the bullies before that (he was a big, solid kid) but he got zero from that day forth, and even though we weren’t close anymore by then, I felt that old pull of hero worship - after all, he’d done what I never would, was not capable of - he’d stood up, hit back, and won respect in the only language those assholes ever understood. He beat them on their terms.
I mean, seriously,
how fucking cool could one guy even be?
He formed a band while still at secondary school (and we didn’t have a 6th form, so he was under 16 for sure at the time) - The Push, I think. They even had John of the aforementioned best birthday ever (and by then Scott's new new best friend) who played tambourine and danced - so I guess Scott had heard/seen the Happy Mondays by then. I don’t know how many shows they played, or what they sounded like - except that’s bullshit, because I knew they sounded good, and my own bitterness and inadequacies could absolutely not handle seeing them and confirming it. I don’t know if this makes any sense, but to me, having grown up with and been the same age as this kid, and loving Rock every bit as much, albeit in now divergent styles, to see him up there doing it would just confirm my own failures to do the same, and I honestly just couldn’t handle that, emotionally. Which looking back is a real regret, and clearly not to my credit. I remember talking to Scott about some of his songs – one memory is of him recounting his embarrassment about an anti-smoking song he’d written when he was ‘younger’ – he was maybe 14 when he told me this – and looking at it now, what’s the word for when irony becomes too painful to be funny? ‘Old man, why do you smoke?/Old man, why do you choke?’
Damn, wish I’d heard it.
He also performed an anti-drug song (with new best friend on guitar) in a school assembly once, though the lyrics were very mumbled in delivery, and I got the indistinct impression it was a bit more equivocal in content than it’d been sold as.
(Others did see The Push, and suggest I was right to be worried about how good they were. The aforementioned Luke, around the time he was helpfully debunking the first ’Scott is dead’ rumor, told me ‘Man, The Push were great man, they really were. But Scott was just mental, you know, he always had that craziness. I remember one gig, he’d gotten there late and was either drunk or high, and he hadn’t tuned his guitar, so he just got on stage and said “We’re The Push, and we don’t believe in tuning our instruments” and then just played the WHOLE FUCKNIG GIG out of tune. I mean, on the one hand, that’s so Rock n Roll right? But on the other hand, it sounded fucking horrible! That’s Scott, man.’)
Scott could also punch pretty hard, and he was hyper-sensitive about being called a liar (a trait I have since observed in other charming liars I have known). One evening, on the school bus home, I made some comment about him lying about the Guns N Roses gig that we never went to. We were both older by then, me 15, him 16, and I’d seen GnR by this point, thanks to my father (and seriously, thanks Dad. Nine Inch Nails first UK show, Skid Row slagging off Brent council, and GnR performing for 3 hours at Wembley Stadium? Yeah, you know how to pick a good Rock Show my man). Lord alone only knows how Scott and I got into it that day. He was on the backseat, I was next from the back (year 5, remember?) and I was sitting up and turned around talking to him, and somehow we got on the subject of the-gig-that-never-was, and I called him a liar, and he punched me in the eye, hard. He said words to the effect of ‘You deserved that’ and I said, ‘Why, because you’re a liar?’ and he hit me again, hard, same spot. In the gap before the pain kicked in and I started crying, I said ‘you can hit me as many times as you want, Scott it won’t stop me saying it’. I saw the fire go out of his eyes when I said that, and he spent the rest of the bus journey trying to justify what he’d done and explain why the show had never happened, and I tried (and, lets be honest failed) to not cry.
None of this shit matters now - I want you to understand that. But fuck me, it mattered at the time. Do we ever feel things with the same intensity that we do at that age? Well, sometimes, but not as often, I think.
That week, I got my first and only award from school end of year prize giving, and I did it sporting a magnificent black eye, which had there been photos, might have been more embarrassing/cool. As it is, it’s a story my mum loves to tell, so I thought I’d save you some time.
Scott apologized, as only Scott could - a few weeks later, someone (it may have been John) presented me with a copy of AC/DC Back In Black on vinyl. Inside the sleeve (so I’d have to find it before playing the record) was a scrap of paper with the words ‘an apology. Scott’ written on it. At some point even later, I talked to Scott, and I remember saying ‘You didn’t give Chris a record after you punched him, did you?’ He grinned and replied ‘Nah - Chris deserved it’.
As bad as I suspected things were getting with him by that point, I felt a flash of that old love just then. I still have the record. The note, alas, is gone. Another regret. If I close my eyes, I can picture it still. His handwriting.
Scott got into drugs in a big way, as you’ve probably gathered. At his new new best friends 16th, which I was also invited to, I saw Scott under the influence of acid, something I’d never witnessed first hand before. I watched him play with an invisible bouncy rubber ball, which he declared repeatedly to be the best in the world. He later told me that he’d lost two hours out of the day when he caught his reflection in the mirror, and watched his face change into, amongst other things, a wolf man, and something he called ‘chessboard Tron man’. Also, a group of us were watching the film Critters late that evening, and there’s a scene where an alien bounty hunter takes human form by creating a human body – skeleton, then blood, muscle, etc, in a stop-motion gore fest of a sequence. Scott walked in as it started and stood transfixed, jaw fully unhinged through the whole 45 second sequence, before very slowly turning to us and saying in a hushed voice ‘did that just happen?!?’
That’s the last time I can remember seeing Scott, actually, prior to the actual last time, years later. I don’t know if he went to college and dropped out or just didn’t go, but he wasn’t on the same bus as me anymore. John was, his new (new) best friend, and I remember he told me at one point that Scott had asked him for £120, and if he didn’t get it, someone was going to break his legs. I remember John felt so horrible about it, because it was his best friend, but also a near impossible sum of money at age 16. I guess it’s also testament to the lasting power of Scott's charm that it took me years to even suspect the threat to Scott might not have been real, and he may have just been trying to extort cash from John. Of course, it also could have been true. But I don’t remember ever hearing he got his legs broken.
Actually that reminds me of another Scott story (fucking hell, this things gonna be a million pages long) - one day, at school, he’d either lost or not gotten his lunch money (and I’m pretty sure this was genuine). I saw him around 1pm (lunch was 12:30 - 1:30) and he told me the story and asked for 10p - I’m pretty sure I gave it to him - I know I would have done if I had it, and I probably did. Anyway, I remember leaving around 1:10, and seeing him sitting there, with a plate of chips, meat pie, dessert with pink custard and a 500ml bottle of chocolate milk, cheering his good fortune - he’d gotten £1.40 from people and ended up eating better than any of us.
It’s the purest of bullshit speculation and armchair psychology, but I did wonder, in hindsight, if Scott hadn’t learned a very dangerous lesson that day, about the good will of others, and the degree to which he personally could exploit it. I do know by the time I dropped out of the college scene myself, some of the tales of money owed by Scott to friends were pretty scary.
And then there’s the last time I saw him.
11 Years ago. I was working and living in London by then, in University Admin (I know, crazy right? What kind of career is THAT?). The campus was pretty well spread out and we’d been at some briefing or something and I was walking back to the office with a couple of colleagues. It was summer and bright, and I had on mirrored John Lennon shades, because… Because Scott used to wear them, he was the first kid in school that did, and all those years later, I still thought they were the coolest.
Jesus, things you don’t’ realise until you start writing. I can see why people don’t.
Anyhow, so this lovely summer day, I’m walking down the sunny London street, and after I cross the road and head towards my office, chatting with my co-worker, we walk past a homeless guy begging for change.
And it’s Scott.
I freeze and just stare for a second. I mean, it’s kind of a shock. He’s put on weight and he looks dirty and down, but it’s definitely him. And I say
His eyes narrow a bit, he looks shifty and uncomfortable and sort of says
“Yee…ummm, who are you?”
Or something like that. And I flick my glasses down to the end of my nose so he can see my eyes, and say
“It’s Kit, man.”
And the weariness, the shiftiness, just drops straight from his face, which is kind of lovely to see, and then he smiles a big, real smile, which is even lovelier, and he says
“Kit! Hey man! I didn’t recognize you, until you did the…”
And he mimes flicking sunglasses down his nose. And I think, yeah, Scott, that was your move, you used to do it all the time with your Lennon shades, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, so I copied you, and now you’re smiling at me doing it because I guess you forgot all about how you used to do it or whatever. And fucking hell that felt strange, and sad.
We chatted a bit, mostly him rambling about his music (“we got the album done… and no one’s bought it! We couldn’t sell two copies if we pressed a double” – first time I ever heard that joke too, actually), his girl troubles (“…she just doesn’t understand…”) I bunged him a couple of quid and we made a lunch date (him: “What do we want? Pub lunch! When do we want it? Umm [mimes looking at watch] about… 1 – 1:30 ish?”)
I went back to the office, and went back out at 1 to buy him lunch, but he didn’t show.
And that was the last time I saw him.
It fucked me up, too, I remember that. I went on about it to my dad, my co-workers – hell, my wife knows the story, knew it before my sister phoned with the news – OD of course, heroin, of course, funeral back in Devon, no fucking thank you. I remember that evening, in the pub that was the then-future-site of my magnificent Karaoke triumph (see ‘Shy Bladder’ blog for more), telling a co-worker about what had happened that day, telling Scott stories and how sad I was about where he’d ended up. And I remember her saying to me “ But you know you were right to worship him, right? You know he’s going to rise above.”
Scott, man, I wish she’d been right. I wish that so damn much.
RIP man. You were the coolest motherfucker in school. I’ll miss you.
POSTSCRIPT: Or, What Have We Learned?
WARNING: What follows is political. Not party political, but political all the same. If the notion of talking about politics in the face of what you've just read offends you, I understand, and please stop reading now.
For the rest of you, I have some shit to talk about.
Because, sure, one of the things the above clearly demonstrates is just how much life can be like a shitty, badly-written novel, all coincidence and happenstance and patterns that only occur after it's too late for anything to be done. To tease out only the most obvious example from the above, the 'DC record he gave me is the first one after Bon Scott died. I mean to say, it's a record written in the shadow of the death of a singer killed by his addictions. That's an obscenity no decent novelist would dare invent. It's fucking pathetic. And none of that is invalid, but that's also not why I'm sitting here, listening to AC/DC's Back In Black album on vinyl with angry tears running down my face, thinking about my smart, charismatic, lying, sweet, violent, unreliable, talented dead friend.
I'm sat here feeling shitty because he died. Because, complicated and frustrating and messed up as Scott was, the world was a better and more interesting place with him in it. Unquestionably. Not to belabor the point, but any kid who can be embarrassed at 14 about the songs he wrote when he was 'younger' is a kid who has – had – something to offer to world. Something a tad more meaningful and important than a heroin overdose.
And, you know, a few people have tried to tell me it's a tragedy. Well, I've given it a lot of thought, and I've come to the considered opinion that it's nothing of the fucking kind. It's a travesty, not a tragedy.
Scott shouldn't have died. And he needn't have. His death, self inflicted as it undoubtedly was, was also pathetically preventable.
Scott was a causality in a war. The hands down dumbest war the western powers have ever engaged in. A war that is unwinnable, costs billions each year, and creates nothing but full prisons, suffering, and death.
Scott was yet another casualty in the war on drugs. And I am fucking livid about it.
Because here's what happened to Scott.
Scott had gotten clean. Gotten himself a girl. Was settled back home in Devon. Working? Hell if I know. But he'd got himself back on track.
And then, seemingly out of the blue, he decided to go to London and go on a bender.
So far, so predictable-shitty-melodrama-plot-twist.
He's the problem, though. This is the point where our nations stupid drug policy stepped in and stepped on Scott. Because he hadn't used in a good while, his levels of tolerance were far lower than he reasonably might have thought. Additionally, because he bought his heroin on the street – as opposed to, oh, I dunno, getting it from a pharmacist or doctor who could give him an appropriate dosage and purity and advise him of the risks of OD when returning to the substance after a period of absence – he had precisely zero clue how strong it was, or what else it was cut with.
And so he OD'd. And so he's dead.
And I can hear some of you piping up in indignant reply, giving it personal responsibility, giving it he knew the risks, maybe with a ragged chorus of you can't save everyone, and that most bathetic of middle 8's about how his death will serve as a lesson. And to all of that, I say, with the greatest possible respect – fuck you. You don't know what you are taking about, and you need to fuck off and educate yourself.
Because as much as we still don't understand about addiction, there is one thing that the medical professionals are all agreed on, and if you found yourself mentally rehearsing any of the above arguments, this is a message you urgently need to hear, and the message is this: Addiction is an illness. Period.
Not a weakness of character. Not a corruption of moral values. Not laziness, or hedonism, not the devil, nor any of the other bullshit reasons you give yourself to harden your heart and dismiss those afflicted with this disease as unworthy of your compassion, or of societies help. Nope, all the medical professionals agree, overwhelmingly. Addiction is a disease.
And if you give it more than a seconds thought, you'll realize the truth of it for yourself. Because why the fuck else would people do it? Why would people go back and back and back again, to the bottle or the card table or the needle, with the sure and certain knowledge that they were risking their own destruction? Most of the people reading this like a drink now and then. Most of them also recognize that getting drunk every night (or every lunchtime) is a bad idea, and don't do it. Actually, scratch that – EVERYONE reading this understands that's a bad idea. It's just that, statistically speaking, some of you know that and do it anyway, because you can't stop. Because you have an illness, called addiction, and it overrides rationality.
It's a fucking illness. Only unlike every other illness, we don't treat this one with medicine and health professionals. We treat it with prison. With punishment. What we do, what we actually do, is take people suffering from a disease, and command them to be well, under pain of incarceration.
Oh, and also, we kill them. By denying them safe, measured and monitored access to the substances that they are going to find and use anyway, come Hell or high water, we kill them. By taking Scott, and instead of saying to him 'here's treatment for your addiction, but if you do fall off, come here and we'll make sure you get a dose that will scratch the itch without killing you' we say 'fuck you junkie scum, get your ass out on the street, and good luck'.
And I don't want to live in this fucking world. I don't.
Because here's the bottom line – if we treated cancer patients like this – blamed them for their condition, sent them out on the street to try back alley radiotherapy or chemo... ah, fuck it, I can't even be bothered to finish the metaphor, not because it's not valid, but because you've already grasped the utter absurdity, bordering on obscenity, that such an approach would represent.
Well, hold that thought. Because that's actually the world you live in, right now. Unless you're lucky enough to live in Portugal, you live in a society where every day, sick members of your population are criminalized for the fact of their disease. Are denied treatment for their addictions. And who are killed, by ignorance and fear.
There's a whole tangent here about mental health, and our pathetic inability to identify mental heath issues as 'real' – or at least, as real as physical health issues – but it's late, and I'm tired, drunk and depressed enough. For now, just hold the image of the cancer patients in your mind, and understand that it's no fucking different for the addict.
No. Fucking. Different.
My friend wasn't really my friend. I know that. I also know I loved him, and I was right to love him. And I know he's dead, and he shouldn't be.
I may not be able to do anything practical about that fact. But I will, forever and always, be angry, furious, at the idiotic laws and processes and people that allowed my friend to die, when he could – and should – have lived.
Because what Scott has taught me is this: NEVER blame the victim.