Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
Obnoxious, Self Righteous Sadists
Bit of a challenge, this. The ghost is right up in my face. Tell the story of how I became a teenage smoker while skipping over the guy who gave me my first cigarette, as well as intoning the sounds-good-but-is-actually-total-bullshit advice of ‘if you feel like you’re getting addicted, cut down, and if it starts to affect your breathing, really stop’?
Superficial challenge, though, when you think on it for a while. In fiction, we have the luxury of identifying root causes - that one powerful, transformative event or situation or choice about which our whole life pivots - but this is the really real world, and it’s more like terminally matted and unkempt hair - a snarl of strands that feed in and create the unpickable mess that is our psyches.
So the guy who gave me my first smoke can go sit in the corner and rattle his chains in disgust at the bourbon I’m drinking instead of scotch as I pour this one out. Fuck him. I suspect we’ll get there, before this column has run its course, but I’m in no hurry at all.
Especially as there was a girl.
I’ve spoken of her before - we’ll call her Bev. King fans will grock to what that means immediately. And I guess it’s worth reiterating for the recent joiners that the context is North Devon, and a village with a population just over the 500 mark. So there’s Bev, my age, and Freddie, a year younger, and that’s it. The older kids hate me - hate us - the way you hate the dogshit you didn’t realise you’d trodden in. It’s not personal, in other words, but it is heartfelt.
So the three of us band together. Bev is asthmatic, but that didn’t stop her starting smoking when she was eleven or so, quitting again after a while. And as for Freddie, well… You know how your parents always said ‘And if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?’ Freddie would. Hell, he’d jump off first, hoping to set a trend.
So that’s one strand. Closely tangled with that is, of course, Guns N Roses.
As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s basically impossible to understate the importance of this band to my development during those crucial years. Music is what I have instead of religion or sport - it fills the same hole, and a good live show is absolutely my church. And GnR was the first time I heard The Word. And while I may now be able to situate them, with greater perspective, in a place and time, and recognise the huge debt of influences they owed to, by any sane measure, far more talented bands, you never quite get over that first moment, do you? I mean, I can say all that and mean it, but I can also hear ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ playing on the stereo behind me as I type, and it still sounds like a work of impossible magic.
And back then, they were everything. Alpha and Omega and all points in between.
And they smoked. Marlboro reds.
Slash, of course. The human cartoon rock guitarist - Black leather boots, JD bottle propped to one side, black leather trousers, black leather jacket over bare chest, Gibson slung over the neck, mirror cop shades under outrageously curly fringe rammed into place with a top hat… and that smoldering cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, sending up a thin ribbon of smoke. And again, I know intellectually this kind of thing is subjective, but for my money, when you combine that look with his sheer talent as a guitar player, you’re simply dealing with the coolest motherfucker on God’s Green Earth, and it’s lightyears to second place.
So there was that. And, of course, I was smart enough to know wanting to be Slash was sheer folly - to attempt to imitate would be to immediately bankrupt yourself, and to no purpose - the position was well and truly filled.
But I was more than stupid enough to want to be Axl.
Because as Slash was to guitar, Axl was to vocals - for me, at least. Sure, he didn’t have that Mount-Rushmore-of-Rock look that Slash had, but holy shit, that boy could sing. The range, sure, but also the tone, that shredded, raw sound. I still think his voice on those first two records is a rock instrument of unsurpassed majesty, and I also think most people have no conception of just what an amazing feat they represent (especially, to play the old man card for a second, in the era before autotune) - there’s maybe half a dozen other people on the planet who could sing those vocals, that way, with anything like that tone. And to be honest, none of them would sound any better than he did back then, in his prime.
And he smoked.
I mean, the rumors were, outrageously so. The story I remember hearing on the playground was that he actually smoked for money - that he’d been payed by researchers to sit in a room and smoke, so they could observe the effects, back when the band we living the glamorous destitute lifestyle so lovingly eulogised on Appetite For Destruction.
I always wanted to be a singer in a rock band - ‘always’, in this case, being ‘from the moment I heard Axl singing ‘Reckless Life’ on ‘Lies’’, now I think about it - and the fact that my own personal Promethius of the art smoked practically sealed the deal. After all, back then, I could sing along perfectly in key with my idol (maybe we’ll get a future entry on the moment my voice broke, and I lost basically my entire accumulated knowledge of how to sing at a stroke, because, you know, fun times), but I was, as you may imagine, somewhat lacking in the tone department. I figured smoking might help with that. And hell, maybe it did - I did not, alas, retain the Axl range post-break, but my singing voice does have a pleasing gravel to it when I go for it (more Bruce than Axl, but better than Bieber, am I right?), and that’s as likely to have been caused by the fact that I smoked when it was breaking as anything else.
Anyway, it’s a moot point. By then, smoking was just a part of who I was.
And, I mean, I found my post-facto justifications. Fitz from Cracker had a good line on it (“When you quit smoking, you don’t live longer, it just…. feels longer.”) I can’t deny having a bit of a yen for Denis Leary’s ‘No Cure For Cancer’ routine either - especially before I got properly familiar with the superior source material of Hicks.
Ah, Bill fucking Hicks. What a comedian. What a fucking force of nature. One of the things I love most about him now is his commitment to a given position - he had a huge love/hate relationship with smoking and not smoking, but wherever he was at a given moment in his life, he was fucking committed to it. So when he’d given up he was all like “People keep asking me why I quit. Isn’t that a fucking odd question? ‘Hey, man, why d’you take your mouth off the tailpipe? You almost had it!’ And when he was smoking, he’d be all like ‘you non-smokers are all self righteous, obnoxious sadists. Shit, I’d quit smoking if I wasn’t scared I’d become one of you’. If you’re anywhere near the kind of obsessive fan I was (and it seems like most Hicks fans are dosed with at least a mild obsession, for a while) you know what I am talking about. If not, YouTube is your friend, and I envy you the ride.
But like I said, post facto, all of it. I can’t blame Hicks, and I can’t blame Bev, and I can’t even blame Slash. Fuck, even the ghost is only, at best, a proximate cause. He didn’t put the smoke in my mouth, or light it. That was a conscious choice, made by a reasonably bright 14 year old, in a full understanding of the stupidity of that choice.
And so it is, 1500 words in that we get to REALLY why. And I’m afraid it’s going to be as crushingly predictable as you might expect.
Because what all of the above kind of circles hopelessly, like dirty water around a plug hole, is identity.
I had my two friends. Mostly. And my rock/metal love garnered me maybe half a dozen more kids who’d give the nod of respect in the corridors. Not much, but a little. Just enough to keep your head above water, make you look slightly less weak and a mark than the poor fucker who didn’t have that threadbare tribalism. And for the first couple of years it served. Not as anything so grand as protection - I still took the odd lump when the fancy took the wrong kids and I was about - but it moved me up the totem poll just a couple of precious notches. It made a difference, if for no other reason than it gave me something to talk about with a couple of the really scary/cool kids. It doesn't make you ‘cool’ or ‘in’ - but it does make it just a little bit harder to use you as a convenient punchbag.
There’s a reason we don’t name our farm animals, after all.
And that holds until fairly precisely the autumn of 1991, at which point, out of fucking nowhere, dance music and rave culture, grunge, and hip-hop all hit the school, apparently simultaneously, and I know I am a horseman short but that doesn’t stop the apocalypse in the slightest. Suddenly, my acceptable edgy fringe taste has become utterly and irredeemably Uncool, now and forever. The GnR back patch is replaced with Nirvana, Damage Inc. with Public Enemy, and I am up cultural shit creek without a single paddle of cachet.
You know what’s funny? It’s only now, as I write at more than twenty years distance, that I realise that I had options. I never really hated Nirvana, even back then. There was no reason on earth I couldn’t have gone with the flow, cut my long hair into a Cobian bob, and kept right on trucking.
But it never even occurred to me. What I’d found, in the music I’d embraced (and to my credit, by ‘91 it also included Rage Against The Machine, The Black Crowes, and Queen, with The Sex Pistols coming any day) spoke directly to me on a level I’d previously not known existed. It was who I was. And I can’t help but feel a little pride in that dipshit kid that he - that I - never for a second even considered faking it.
Good for you, kid.
Not so good; smoking became the cure for my social ill.
Because, check it; there’s no environment on earth more tribal than a secondary school - expect maybe prison, and I trust you can taste my bitterness from here. But in a school there’s tribes within tribes, and tribes across tribes. Music has tribes, and tribal overlaps as well as oppositions. Sports fandom, I imagine. Teams, sure, but also types. It’s a complicated as fuck Venn diagram of loyalties and antagonisms, in other words, that would make George RR Martin look like a dull and facile plotter.
And it may not have been 100% conscious on my part, but looking back, one of the tribes with the widest coverage across other groups, and with a particularly high population of misfits and troublemakers was, of course, the smokers.
And as soon as I started, it became my tribe. And pretty much overnight, the amount of static I got on a day to day basis dropped by 80%.
I wasn’t buying favours, to be clear - I was not generous with my smokes, and I’d light yours for you, holding on to the lighter itself the whole time. I didn’t become that kid. It was just that I became more acceptable. It was the mutual respect of the outlaw, I think now - which sounds pompous and ridiculous, and it is, but also, it isn’t, it’s real and it’s what was. We - the smokers - had a shared pursuit that put us apart from the other kids. Most of us would have been in some kind of trouble if our parents knew. All of us would catch some moderately serious shit if a teacher caught us. Under those circumstances, your fellow smokers do become a gang, with a shared loyalty, albeit one born of common purpose rather than friendship - but, fuck, when you’re a lonely 14 year old kid, you’ll take what you can get and be grateful for it.
And I was.
That’s tough to look back on, now, but it’s the truth. I voluntarily got myself addicted to inhaling poison, at substantial risk to my own long term health and a non-trivial chance of giving myself something actually fatal, not out of pleasure principle, or bravado, or even to sing like Axl fucking Rose - not really - but simply out a desire to feel just a little less alone.
And, I mean, things are different now, in several important ways. I’m happier in my own skin. My long hair has gone through badge of honour and defiance to something even more useful - a filter. It keeps away people who don’t like men with long haIr, and that’s just as fine as paint with me. In fact, between us, I don't know what the fuck I am gonna do when it finally falls out, as it will soon. Tattoos, I guess.
More fundamentally, that gnawing hunger for company, to be unalone, has been sated by the many, many wonderful friends I now have in my life - first and most important being my wife, and my kids, but I’m blessed with a wonderful chosen extended family too - and chances are, if you’re reading this, you know who you are.
But I mean, also, if any of this reads like a shot for sympathy, I’m Doing It Wrong. I’m well aware of the utter banality and relatively tame nature of this story (no change there then, haha). I have people closer to me who went way deeper and darker on this stuff. Some of them didn’t come back. And again, if you’re reading this, I’m sure you have too.
I do, however, think there remains some value in reflecting on the very banality of that horror - the notion that we are so collectively fucked up that we absorb the reality of stories like this without shock or disgust, without comment, barely without any notice whatsoever. It becomes background noise, static on the radio, unheard against the grander horrors we inflict,as a species, on the world stage, and on each other.
And in terms of priorities, it should. There’s a shitload more wrong with the world that the self-inflicted wounds of teenager a little too keen to fit in. And it’s not like, in my case at least, anyone died.
Still, it is kind of fucked up, I think.
PS - Why did I quit? Well, that’s where my ‘God-is-a-shitty-novelist’ theory kicks in. I finally started singing in a band, and learned I’d gian half an octave in range and about 15 seconds more note per lungful if I quit. So I did.
I know, I know. But it’s true. And while I miss it, and still dream of it periodically, especially when I’m in my cups (one of the things I wanted to get into but didn’t was the cigarette as fetish object, because God fucking damn, there’s something demonically perfect about just about every aspect of them apart from then,you know, killing you part) I still love singing more. And I think - I hope - I always will. So, yeah. Rock and Roll saved my life. :)