Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)

2. Cocainus


My love of drugs started early, with smoking – I guess that is a drug. My friends all had older brothers or sisters who smoked. I had my first cigarette when I was 6, nicked from Julie, my best mate Simon Owen’s older sister, who was 13. She was smoking Player’s No. 6. What could she do? She was unlikely to tell on us, even if she did catch us. I suppose that, growing up in such a small village, I was looking for kicks from very early on because I was really bored. Obviously I didn’t smoke all the time at this age, it was just curiosity smoking. I began full time at about 11. At secondary school, by the incinerator, me and my friend David Mills would do a swap: half his sandwiches for half my cigarettes, which I had bought with my dinner money.

I then moved on to solvents: glue/petrol/Gen-Keen, Evo-Stik remover. Lots of my friends had motorbikes, and while they were riding and pulling wheelies, I was doing the less dangerous thing of lying on my face with a plastic bin-liner stuck to my hair. At least it was a cheap way of getting an out-of-body experience. Then, seasonally, there were the magic mushrooms, picked in our own neighbourhood. Growing up in the countryside did have its positives.

I suppose these drugs attracted me because they were free. Although not entirely scot-free: I passed out once in a bin-liner, and when I came round the glue had dried and I had it stuck in my hair; not just a few strands, but all of my hair.

My friends’ older brothers were all into acid, so naturally I got into it too – windowpanes and microdots, they were the favourites. Then speed, then hash, but all of this was little more than a passing interest, a buzz and an escape. I loved the fantasy, the thrill aspect of getting high, the way things looked. Everything had a sparkle, a halo and a beauty that would free me from the mundane.

The Haçienda years, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, did this too. They were all about ecstasy. I witnessed the future of music first hand and had some pretty wild sex too, and I’m damned sure that I reached a higher state of consciousness with the help of a pill the size of a mint (they were bigger back then than they are now).

At this point, in the late 1980s, my drug-taking stayed at a constant level of maybe 3.5 or 4 on a scale of 1 to 10 – a couple of pills every weekend and perhaps a couple of spliffs a day, and the odd hit of speed here and there to take the edge off a particularly boring day in Cheshire. Then in the mid ’90s I went 10/10, or 11/10. I did coke 24/7. But at that time it felt as though the whole world was at it, ‘sprinkling cocaine on their cereals for breakfast’, as Noel Gallagher so eloquently put it. It was the moment when coke came out of the bourgeois underground closet and into the hands of the working class. Out of the dark and into the limelight; or out of the wrap and onto the kitchen table.

I remember getting thrown out of the pub one night for ‘three in the toilet’: three of us in a stall snorting off the top of the toilet-paper holder. The door wasn’t even half shut – we were there for all to see. One of the bar staff came in and told us all to leave. The next morning he got the sack for throwing us out. I was considered ‘family’ by the owners, who incidentally were both as much into it as I was. We were a nice, cosy, cocaine-snorting family, and they didn’t give a fuck what I did.

I was doing a lot of drugs by anybody’s reckoning. In the Evening Standard I proudly announced I was the New Keith Richards. I was doing more than anyone around me. I did coke quietly and constantly every day pretty much for ten years, and – in my mind, at least – it only had a detrimental effect on my personality during the last two of those ten.

Our tour manager, Neil Mather, told me that I used to steal things all the time when I was on drugs, especially from hotel rooms. Not laptops and wallets or anything like that. I was motivated by swag with much less use or value. Anything shiny though … I was a bit of a magpie.

I can be the same with ideas for songs and even lyrics, but only if I need them and love them. I justify it by telling myself that I have paid for music both emotionally and financially all my life, though I appreciate this defence won’t stand up in a court of law.

Often as I clanked down some hotel steps with newly acquired trinkets in onyx and silver Mather would smile at me, while simultaneously shaking his head. He’d say, ‘All right, Timmo? What’s that you’ve got in your pocket? Anything to declare this morning?’

Sometimes if the clanking was especially loud there would be anger mixed with despair: ‘Don’t you know they’ll charge you for that!’

I wasn’t so much a thief, more someone who just did all of his shopping in hotel rooms. Think less Ronnie Biggs, more Michael Jackson.

Sometimes the guilt would get the better of me, and Neil would have to return the booty. Or I’d realize I had no use for that pedal bin … It looks odd written down, but it all seemed to make sense at the time. Maybe I needed mementos to remind myself about what the fuck I was doing, physical things to tether me to earth. I might not know anything that’s going on, but I do have a 6-inch × 4-inch solid-silver platter, a magnifying glass and various backscratchers and shoehorns. I can’t recall the last time I bought a towel. The more opulent the hotel, the stronger the feeling of loneliness.

The degrees of oddness and dislocation on a tour can range from simply forgetting your room number to not being able to recall the name of the hotel to being confused about which city you’re in. Imagine our bus driver parking up outside the venue, eagerly opening the local Yellow Pages and calling the finest, sexiest local prostitute within his price range of weekly per diems (per diem is the Latin phrase for ‘daily subsistence money while on tour’, roughly, possibly the only Latin regularly spoken by bands and crew). There is a kind of deal about this sort of thing – you don’t point out anyone else’s weirdness and they’ll not point out yours. That leaves a lot of room to let things in. I remember a phase when the band got into a novel way of taking coke. To be precise, we discovered the process of blowing cocaine up each other’s arses.

There, I have said it. It’s not like we invented the practice, but I realize now it’s not an everyday thing for most people.

Drug-use builds in a series of steps that get ever more ridiculous, but they are small, regular steps so it’s hard to notice what’s happening. They can take you to some bizarre places. If your environment changes slowly and subtly you tend not to notice how nuts everything has got.

We’d heard the tales – possibly apocryphal – of Stevie Nicks engaging in this methodology, and our limited research had pointed out that the rectal nerve endings were much more receptive than their nasal equivalents. My knowledge of this is more hearsay than medical, so if you need any more background information I suggest you look it up.

And let’s not talk about this if we ever meet.

Not every member of The Charlatans took part in this highly charged ritual, which has been variously described as having ‘a Manhattan powdered doughnut’, ‘a talcing of Johnson’s adult powder’ or simply ‘a Friday night’, for some Hollywood rich kids and stockbroker types.

I was a giver and a receiver. They say giving is better than receiving, but believe me, in this case the giving is not that great but the receiving made it all worthwhile. It was significantly more effective than I had been used to, but then again it would have to be, as the intimacy and proximity needed was much more of a carry on than the more traditional nostril method.

I enjoyed it. As far as I was concerned, it was just another way of getting the drug into my system. When Sunday newspapers expose someone’s drug-use, they often headline it as ‘My Drug Hell’, but as far as I was concerned I was in my drug heaven.

And I was mixing with people who felt the same way. I have never been a snitch, so for purposes of anonymity and dramatization I am going to borrow from Reservoir Dogs to describe some partakers.

Mr Pink could no longer take it through his nose after, in his own words, he ‘blew it up’ in LA on the very first tour he did with us. I was there, I witnessed his massive allergic reaction. He couldn’t open his eyes, let alone breathe.

So now he could only eat coke: place finger on the line, rub in middle finger, then rub enthusiastically into the gums, if I remember rightly. But then he was the one who devised the technique for our newly discovered practice. It required:

1 paper cone – made out of a magazine page or hotel notepaper

1 thick straw – ordered on arrival in a round of drinks. Failing that, a $20 bill or a £5 note rolled tightly

1 Rizla paper

While you’re taking your steady steps to the realms of hedonism, you also become an accidental expert in certain areas. Some of these, like how to minimize the pain of airports and air travel, are necessary for your sanity. Others are just learned through experience and constant use – the cocaine was better if heated, fewer lumps – ground was even better. Did I say I’m not hugely proud of any of this?

The idea was that you sucked the drugs into the straw or banknote, but to ensure you didn’t suck them into your own mouth you had a Rizla on the end. It had to be a delicate suck, since you didn’t want to get the Rizla wet. You stick the cone pointy-end first into the participant’s anus, aim your straw into the cone and blow sharply, like firing a dart from a blowpipe. It has to be precise and well timed. Then wait for it … yes! The participant jumps around the room as if someone has rubbed a fiery chilli on the spot.

Richard Pryor famously said, ‘Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you have too much money.’ We were literally and metaphorically shoving our own money up our arses, via other rolled-up money. What was God trying to tell us? Whatever it was, I didn’t listen for quite a few years.

The paranoia of a drug habit mixed with the claustrophobia and utopian ambience of a tour bus create unconventional situations that are the ideal breeding grounds for eccentric behaviour. If you took five people you worked with and transplanted them to the confines of the back of a tour bus, charging across a continent, from one brightly lit city to another, living like it was New Year’s Eve every day and every night, and repeating (to fade) every day for a month, with little more than a pack of cards and a handful of worn DVDs, the whole thing punctuated by irregular stop-offs at the dimly lit mescal-and-grits-laden metropolis of a truck-stop, Little Feat playing in the background, aggressive bikers and prostitutes in the foreground … now I am not complaining and I am possibly being defensive, but things would likely get a bit sketchy, wouldn’t they?

And this was our life, my life, for sustained lengths of time. On top of this, music does seem to attract the OCD, ADD, bipolar, suicidal, anorexic, bulimic, power-hungry, self-obsessed, self-hating, self-harming and the completely un-self-aware. We were in a travelling cage, a mobile circus. We were a human zoo.

We were always keen to experiment with whatever we could get our hands on, and careful to hold on to whatever we had procured, to keep the monotony at bay: potions, lotions, unguents, powders, pills, poultices, resins and plants. Various acquaintances popping up along the way and wanting to party added to the chaos. They would bring the medicine cabinet, leaving us a little something to help us on our way. One of us was even referred to as the Doctor.

Bearing in mind the sheer amounts we would have in our possession and the fact that border crossings were inevitable, deliveries and intake had to be timed carefully, leading to a rather over-complex stock-control system. We were like a team of monkeys running an Argos shop. Anyone or anything not strapped in could whizz past you at any given time.

Obviously, none of these wares could be put on display. Since bands took to using buses and crossing countries there has been an unofficial game of cat and mouse with those paid to uphold the law. If you get caught, not only do you lose the stash, but tour managers become disgruntled, US visas can become impossible to secure and schedules go into meltdown.

The cops love to humiliate a band. After some bad behaviour on a plane, we were once removed in handcuffs to downtown New York’s drunk tank. They took our details slowly and methodically and put us into their clunky conveyor-belt penal system, locking us up, confiscating our belts and shoelaces, and making us listen to their rock ’n’ roll stories: ‘We had that Axl Rose in here last week.’ All so that we would miss our connecting flight to Springfield, of all places. I suppose this was some rite of passage which it would have been more embarrassing to have missed. Stories like this certainly made the time pass quicker in the pubs back in Camden and Manchester.

This happened at the start of our 1995 tour, Hello America. Our opening act were Menswear, and I asked them recently for their memories of the tour:

Doing a lot of drugs on your tour bus. Speeding from Detroit to Chicago. Going to a David Bowie afterparty in Detroit in some weird industrial club. Playing a great show at that lovely American Legion Hall. But not a lot of specifics – we were wasted for a lot of the tour.

Says it all.

We always seemed to be accepting delivery of a large amount of grass on our arrival in Seattle, next stop Vancouver, involving the most notorious border crossing in the music world. Learning where to stash stuff was key. A tour bus has many a nook and cranny where illicit small packages can be hidden, though with the excitement and forgetfulness that all this brings it can take hours to find them again.

On approaching one border we were eager to make sure we crossed it with our essentials intact. After hours of staring at the TV screen, Mr White had noticed that the entire entertainment system was held in place by a frame secured by a dozen screws. He thought there would be enough room behind the frame to accommodate our valuables temporarily, not only the narcotics themselves but also the paraphernalia: the scales, papers, tablespoons, baggies, scarred CD cases and Blockbuster cards.

As the bus roared ever closer to the border our team sprang into action. Mini-screwdrivers were sourced, micro-engineering was undertaken. Now that Mr Pink was in charge of the logistics – anything to do with maps and a tool kit – we knew we were in safe hands. Mr White was almost like an understudy to Mr Pink, as he had not been around as long.

Mr Blonde was the muscle, the director of movement of anything heavy and breakable. He tried to approach the whole mission from a scientific point of view. On a tramadol-high through a broken bone, and mixed with speed, and with a Jack and Coke in hand, he would be lifting almost twice his bodyweight.

Mr Purple waited quietly for events to unfold, giggling to himself, occasionally mopping a brow, picking up his dropped tools, locating screws lost because of sudden braking or bumps in the road, and chopping out the last couple of lines before the goods were hidden.

Everything was removed, then meticulously replaced. The whole thing was cleaned down by Mr White. Brows were mopped and innocent demeanours faked. I was dispatched to check how far it was to the border.

‘Seventeen miles.’

So we were going to be there in twenty minutes?

‘No, you idiot, we crossed it seventeen miles ago – they never stopped us.’

Add in the fact that the trip was through the Channel Tunnel. It was dark for much of our operation, but we hadn’t noticed. The level of concentration brought about by the very thing we were trying to conceal, mixed with the unique atmosphere of a party bus, made something like this just an everyday occurrence.

Studios can be disconcerting places, with lots of arrivals and departures – especially when drugs are being ordered and delivered. Odd hours are kept according to the vagaries of creativity. On one occasion I was at the studio in Rockfield, up at the top sleeping quarter in the Coach House. Rob was organizing a coke deal, and there were a lot of frantic phone calls, making arrangements.

It was a Friday night and he was already out of it while trying to resolve the finer details. I can remember how impatient Rob became when the dealer failed to turn up. In his wisdom he decided to go running after another guy in Bristol (the other stuff was supposed to be coming from Newport) and got his roadie, John Clarke, to give him a lift. Cocaine decisions.

Off they went in Rob’s orange MG Midget, which he’d restored over a couple of years as a labour of love. I woke at two in the morning in need of some water. I was having a night off everything because I was doing the vocals and had to be as with it as possible. As I opened the door to go out of the bedroom and into the kitchen I noticed a gang of strangers. One of them approached me and asked if I was in The Charlatans. I was still coming round and thought the intruders were perhaps friends with one of the others, but something just didn’t seem right. The kid that had walked up to me suddenly pulled a knife and put it to my throat. I was dazed and unsure if it was a dream, but as the adrenalin kicked in, I realized it was definitely real. ‘What the fuck is this all about?’ I wanted to say, but I was aware that moving my mouth was putting me in closer contact with the blade of his knife. I was talking like a bad ventriloquist, but he must have understood.

He said ‘I’ve got your drugs! And it seems you don’t want them now!’ I quickly guessed this was the dealer from Newport who’d driven all the way out to Monmouth. Only, Rob and John were in Bristol where Rob was buying someone else’s gear. I could understand the dealer’s anger. A dealer never wants anyone to back out of a deal, but to leave him with 28 grammes he thought he’d shifted is definitely not advisable. Drug-related misunderstandings always have big repercussions. And against the usual code of the dealer, I’m not sure my adversary hadn’t got high on his own supply.

So it was quite a big problem. I was there with a knife at my throat – a knife held by a shaky-handed coke-dealer. His mates were all whooping and shouting, and I was thinking he was quite a big-time dealer who wasn’t fucking around. But I got brave and somehow talked him down so the knife was only pointing at my gut. Another bedroom door opened. Martin must have heard the commotion. As everyone turned towards him I made my way to the kitchen!

Eventually we persuaded them to leave, Martin made a cup of tea and Rob returned from his trip to Bristol. Not exactly a regular night, but certainly something we had come to expect in our dysfunctional existence while making a record.

Part of the game with being into drugs is scoring them. My day revolved around it, and I could think of nothing else.

Some of my best friends over the years were drug dealers. Two of my favourites were someone we knew as Harry the Dog and another fellah affectionately known as ‘Drug Dealer’ Dave. With the level of anonymity required for successful narcotics trading, the Drug Dealer bit of his name was a surprise. But then again he was also known in some circles as Daft Dave …

Once, I organized a meet-up with Dave at the Coach and Horses, an LA English pub on Sunset Boulevard. As I was walking across the car park, I spotted him. He was always nervous about appearing too conspicuous but this was a man with the words ‘drug’ and ‘dealer’ in his name. It was the middle of the summer and he was dressed head to toe as Father Christmas. I think this is what is known as hiding in plain sight. We never got to the bottom of why he was dressed like that but a lot of what Dave did never really came with an explanation.

You won’t be surprised to learn that we preferred to use Harry the Dog. Harry got his name because his best friends were dogs. He always owned more than one, even when he had nowhere to live. For a while Harry became our lodger. The lack of common sense involved in offering your drug dealer your couch says a lot about what kind of frame of mind I was in. But also something of the warmth I felt for Harry.

The thing with dealing is that it’s a profession that you fall into. A bit like the way you just fall into being a rock ’n’ roll star. Neither vocation is recommended by advisors at the job centre, but both lifestyle choices offer interesting, exciting, lucrative though potentially dangerous career paths. An accountant usually sets out to be an accountant, studying hard, passing a series of exams, his heart set on a corner office somewhere in Slough. The drug dealer or rock star is often more defined by a series of failings or setbacks rather than certificates or expense accounts, and this has always made them more attractive in every way to me. Ironically the biggest crook in this story was neither a drug dealer nor a rock star. He was an accountant.

I recently met Howard Marks at a festival I was helping to curate. Although he’s no longer a dealer, through his training at Drugs Inc. he has become a legend – a word that gets overused, but Hollywood did turn his story into a film. Using his charm and wit, his personality can light up any room. I’d happily booked him to play at the festival.

Mick Jagger has a different vocation, but he’s of a similar age and has been on an equally unique journey. He’s also used his personality to get out of scrapes, hang out with royalty and from time to time dance with the devil. He remains someone who can light up a stadium with a shake of his ass and one clap of his hands. If you’re born with it and you treat it right it will always be with you. There’s just one problem: I don’t know what it is, precisely. But whatever it is, accountants can definitely tax it, merchandise it and take a percentage. So whether you served your apprenticeship at the Crawdaddy Club, the dreaming spires of Oxford or Terre Haute federal penitentiary, it’s your character that determines your path.

The Rolling Stones have been a benchmark since the dawn of British rock ’n’ roll in everything: gigs, record sales, excess, pain. And always brilliance – from the primitive blues beginnings of ‘Hitch Hike’ and ‘She Said Yeah’ through to their dalliance with the Studio 54 New York disco glare of ‘Undercover of the Night’ and ‘Emotional Rescue’. In between there’s the late ’60s, post-Brian Jones output – the Gram Parsons-influenced, cosmic country-inspired Beggars BanquetLet It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Then the Mick Taylor blues, gang-on-the-run, tax-escapees period, with the double whammy of Exile on Main Street and Goats Head Soup. They were made in France and Jamaica respectively, shaped in the shadow of dark, foreboding and uncertain times. The band never buckled under, whatever was thrown at them.

In 2003, after the release of my solo album I Believe, I was asked to open for the Stones at the MEN Arena in Manchester and at London’s Wembley Arena. I remember Mick limbering up while I was soundchecking. Given that there was a whole suite of dedicated limbering-up rooms that the lead singer of the main band could have commandeered, I told myself that he just wanted to hear the songs – and I still think that now!

Then The Charlatans opened for The Rolling Stones in 2006 and 2007. I don’t know exactly how we came to be the support band of choice, but we knew Ronnie Wood pretty well and Mick had been impressed enough to give me a shout-out at the Manchester gig in front of a very proud Ma and Pa Burgess. Ronnie had played with The Charlatans at Hammersmith Apollo. His daughter Leah and son Jesse were in our support band for the tour, and after a mild case of hustling from me and Mark, we managed not only to get their dad to come along to the gig but we also talked him into strapping on his guitar and joining in for the encores – the classic Faces song ‘Stay With Me’ and our long-standing closer ‘Sproston Green’.

The next time Ronnie came on stage to join us was at the Fleadh Festival in north London, a celebration of Celtic roots music … Yeah, me neither! Bob Dylan was headlining that night. Ronnie had played with Dylan in the past, including at the Philadelphia leg of Live Aid. Bob saw him on stage with us at the Fleadh and was keen for them to play together in his headline slot. Ronnie accepted, though he knew there was no chance of a rehearsal.

The set-list arrived with song titles and keys only. Ronnie, a bundle of excitement and nerves, came scuttling into our dressing room with the news. Knowing that I was a huge Dylan fan, he asked me to go through the songs, all fifteen of them, with him. Bob is notorious for keeping people on their toes, famous for not letting anyone know what he is up to from one minute to the next. And Ronnie is quite well known for not being hugely concerned with what is happening from one minute to the next.

He needed gently guiding through the songs he was about to play. Some he had never heard before in his life. I would sing the opening line and he would stare at me, eyes wide, processing the information, as attentive as any person could possibly be. Then as the information shot from brain to fingers, he would respond immediately, launching into a number like he’d been practising it for weeks. I understood what was going on here: all three of us – Bob, Ron and I – are Geminis. Is that relevant? Well, it’s my book and I’ve just said it. It was the Cat chasing the Mouse for the Cheese.

‘Nobody wants a fat pop star,’ is one of Mani from The Stone Roses’ favourite lines. I always knew that anyway, but now it was having an impact on my life. At first, doing coke gives you a lithe frame, as the hyperactivity takes hold and minor miracles are seemingly achieved with ease. But with sustained use and deeper financial investment the payback arrives: you become bloated and sluggish, and take on the physique of a barrel. A cocky, chatty barrel at that.

My life at this point had reached new levels of madness. I was in my Fat Elvis phase, purely down to immoderate ingestion and greedy on-tour intake. I was wearing bigger sunglasses and eating even bigger sandwiches. I started hating having my picture taken. I was doing way too many drugs and I just didn’t feel good. Ever. But being the frontman I felt extra pressure in how I looked and came across.

In every other area of my life I had generally pushed things as far as I could, to see what would happen, and maybe now I wanted to find out what people thought of me with my added pounds. I am happy to admit that previously when I’d seen a great photograph of myself it had made me feel good. But of late I was less enthusiastic, knowing I wasn’t at my best. I was way beyond blaming photographers and cameras.

I knew that if I carried on in the direction I was going I would be ushered towards the exit of the rock ’n’ roll theme park which I enjoyed so much. Theme parks have signs indicating that you must be over a certain height to go on the rides. The rock ’n’ roll theme park has signs saying you must be under a certain size. It’s true that a few fatties get through once in a while to comply with EU quotas. But it just didn’t suit me. It didn’t fit with my vision of myself, or how I imagined people perceived me. Again, I just didn’t feel good.

Ironically the world that has a reputation for being the most undisciplined – rock ’n’ roll – has areas where in fact it is the most disciplined. I heard that The Rolling Stones eat only once every two days in order to keep the looks that got them to where they are. Even Bill Wyman, who left the band years ago, apparently sticks to this regime.

I was pleased when Ronnie said I reminded him of Jim Morrison. It was flattering, although the lizard king was a long time gone at my age, which was then 37 – so were Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and Ian Curtis. They looked great on every single picture, but of course they were dead before the years took their toll.

The truth was, I didn’t have a template by which to live my life any more. General wear and tear was having its way with me. Even Ronnie Wood noticed.