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Interview with arts and culture magazine GARAGELAND (UK),
issue # 9 "Migration"

Garageland - issue no. 9 - MIGRATION

From Alphabet City to Prague

Musician and novelist Phil Shoenfelt talks to Jay Clifton about hedonism, travelling and making music in Europe. Opposite and overleaf, he gives us an exclusive extract from his new novel Stripped.

Phil Shoenfelt is an English musician, singer, songwriter and novelist who lives in Prague. He has played guitar on recordings by Kid Congo Powers, Simon Bonney, Brix Smith and Nikki Sudden, and has played and recorded with his own group, Southern Cross, since 1997. He also plays with the Berlin based band, Fatal Shore. He is the author of one published novel, Junkie Love; a collection of poetry and song lyrics; and an as yet unpublished novel, Stripped - a semi-fictionalised account of his time living in New York's notorious Alphabet City.

Your latest as yet unpublished novel, 'Stripped', is based on your own experience of living in New York City in the early 1980s, as a rock musician addicted to heroin - how did an English chap like you come to be there?

I'm still not sure myself. Basically I went over on one of Freddie Laker's Sky Trains for a couple of weeks holiday in May 1979, fell in love with an insane striptease dancer and overstayed my tourist visa (which meant I was an illegal alien and at the mercy of the insane striptease dancer each time we had a fight). Later I joined a cult punk band called The Nothing and picked up a nice little heroin habit. I ended up staying in New York for five years, during which time I got married to a different striptease dancer, formed the post-punk band Khmer Rouge, and got ever more enmired in heroin and coke - speedballs, they're called, where you shoot a mixture of smack and cocaine. New York drugs are street drugs, so you never really know what you're getting. It could be smack mixed with barbiturates, it could be crushed up codeine pills, it could be rat poison. I was taking that chance 10, 12 times a day, as often as money would allow. So, of course, I didn't exactly plan things out this way, events just kind of happened. I guess I was guided by a mixture of hedonism and nihilism, the sense that nothing mattered. Which might translate as a kind of despair. I ended up being a junkie for eleven years, and in the end the choice was very clear. I decided I wanted to live, weaned myself off the smack and methadone, and proceeded to build a completely new life. So yes, New York took me off in a completely new direction - whether that was for better or worse is hard to say, though I'd certainly be a very different person now if all that had never happened.

Can you say a bit more about the novel? I understand it's the first in a trilogy of novels you have already completed?

Stripped is intended to be a trilogy, and I've just finished the second book after the best part of 10 years work. Sometimes I think it's the labour of lunacy. It is, like Junkie Love, a fictionalised autobiography and basically concerns my life with these two different women, my heroin and cocaine addiction, the downtown music scene in the late 1970s and 80s and the nature of New York itself seen through the eyes of an outsider. But whereas Junkie Love has quite a simple structure, Stripped is more convoluted. In Junkie Love, I wanted to capture the essence of the heroin experience, the psychology and economics behind it, what makes the whole thing sick. And in the most concise, simple way possible. So while the structure is elliptical, the narrative is basically linear. You can read it as a simple (a)morality tale, or read between the lines and pick up other allusions. Stripped is more episodic, stories inside stories inside stories, till the book becomes a labyrinth, a prison from which you can't escape. The structure is something like Einstein's universe, it folds back upon itself (I'm joking, but only just). Some of the dream/nightmare sequences date back to the mid 1980s, and were written when I was high or dopesick. I have no recollection of writing them.

You relocated permanently to Prague in the mid-1990s, could you tell me why you did this and why you have remained there?

I moved to Prague in August 1995, having done a ten-concert tour of the Czech Republic the previous year. On the last date of this tour I met the woman who I'm now married to. So I suppose the main reason I moved here is good, old fashioned love. But I also like the atmosphere, the vibe of the place.
I first came here in 1990 as a tourist with a different Czech girl I'd met in London. I immediately liked the funky, run-down feeling of the place, all those beautiful old buildings going to ruin. It had a sense of tragedy about it, of having lived through innumerable heartaches and disasters, of managing to survive against everything history could throw at it. I was sick of living in London at this point - it had got to be so bland and soulless. I'd lived there in the 1970s before moving to New York, and I'd lived there again after returning to the UK in 1984. I no longer felt a part of anything that was happening in England. If I'd stayed in London, my musical career, such as it is, would have withered away to nothing. There were more and more venues to play, but somehow less and less opportunity to get anywhere while doing it. The English media are always looking for the next big thing, whatever the artistic field. If your work doesn't fall into the right category, if your face doesn't fit, then you might as well forget it.
I find the European music scene a lot more broadminded than what passes for a scene in the UK. It's more about music, less about fashion and hype, so you can actually play the music you love and not have some Mr/Ms Know-It-All tell you that your musical reference points don't conform with what he/she read about in last week's culture section. On a purely pragmatic level, the geographical location of Prague makes it perfect for getting to concerts in all parts of Europe. Berlin is four hours up the road, Vienna three hours the other way, and it's pretty easy (and cheap) to get to France, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, etc.
Of course, Prague today is very different to the way it was when I first came here. It's a bit like Disneyland, now, what with the castle, bridge, old town square, astronomical clock and masses of tourists. In fact, I hardly ever go to the town centre these days, it's a total rip-off. But Zizkov, the neighbourhood I live in, is still pretty funky, if not exactly chic. It's a mixture of workers, gypsies, homeless people and artists - something like Notting Hill used to be in the 1970's before the yuppies moved in. I guess what I like most about the place is the feeling of freedom it gives me. I feel much freer here than I ever did in England, and not just in a musical sense. The absence of an entrenched class system, such as the UK still has, does a lot to remove the poison from social relationships. Though having said that, I'm sure the Czechs have their own system of poisoned relationships, deriving more from the secret police apparatus of the recent past than from an inherited class system.

Extract from 'Stripped', a novel by Phil Shoenfelt:
Rebecca also helps support our habits with the money she makes from topless dancing. My sweet darling wife, you see, happens to be incredibly beautiful. People are willing to pay large sums of cash just to watch her take off her clothes. I don't exactly approve of her doing this, but it's her decision and I respect it. Whenever she dances at some down-town club, like the Babydoll or Pussycat Lounge, she always comes home with at least a hundred dollars in tips.
Yet despite the rapid turnover, the amount of dope I can get my hands on is never enough. The five or six bags I'm thrown at the end of each mission seems more like an insult than an honest reward. Lately, it's gotten to the point where I've begun to feel like I'm cheating myself. Between us, Becky and I need at least eighty dollars a day to stay straight, much more than that to feel high.
Then there are the usual things such as rent, utilities, transport, food and drink. As she only works three nights a week, the money she makes dancing doesn't even cover the cost of our habits.
That's why I've resorted to a practice known in the business as "tapping the bags". While not exactly kosher, it's one sure way of equalising risk factor and reward. The packets are made from wax paper and sealed with adhesive tape, so it's a fairly easy thing to cut through it with the blade, then peel it away without tearing the wrap. The amount I take from each opened bag is negligible, yet when multiplied twenty or thirsty times it adds up a considerable quantity of dope. With the tapped bags refolded, and with fresh tape around each one, no one is any the wiser. The punters are happy with the stuff they get, I'm happy with my XL bag  and Becky's happy too. Not only with the smack, but also with the knowledge  that by saving money I'm contributing to our overall household expenses. I don't feel bad about stealing these small amounts, either. The extra gear is like a supplement I charge for risking my neck on the street. The only problem is that with all of this dope around our habits keep getting bigger. Often it feels like a case of diminishing returns.
It's a little dark up here in the alcove, so I light a few matches to see what I'm doing. I make a wrap from a piece of folded paper, then tap out a small quantity of dope from each of the 25 bags. This is quite a lengthy process and it's important to get the amounts just right. Otherwise the punters will notice the discrepancy and my reputation will be blown. My hands are shaking as I tip the stuff out, so I sniff a line to take the edge off the sickness and calm my nerves. After a few minutes I'm starting to feel a little better. My nose and eyes are still streaming, though, and my underclothes are soaked with sweat from all that running around earlier. A puddle of water has formed around my feet where the snow on my boots has melted and run down.
Sometimes I wonder where all this shit is leading. Sitting here alone in the dirt and dark, it's hard to believe that my life has been reduced to such a primitive level. I think about all the people sleeping below, stacked up in their beds like maggots in a woodpile. For a moment I feel so pissed off with existence that I could kill. It would be so easy to go down to the basement, spread a little gasoline around and set the whole damn place on fire. Tenants included. Nobody would miss them, that's for sure. Most are families on welfare with no real reason for living, and not only that but they breed like rabbits too. Nothing to do all day except sit around eating junk food, watching TV and fucking. Soon there'll be a whole population living on hand-outs, and their ignorant feral children will rule the streets.
I get these violent urges now an again, but I never act on them. At other times I feel so sad and wounded that I just want to crawl away somewhere and die. This often happens when I think about Becky and me and all those plans we had in the beginning. The idea was that she's go back to school while I'd get off the gear and find a regular job to support her. Later we'd take a year out to travel the world, a kind of sabbatical during which I'd begin work on my long-projected novel. What a pipedream that turned out to be. All that happened was she got sucked into my trip, and the small habit she had when we first met is now out of control. I should have been protecting her from her own worst instincts, but all I do is stumble about with my head so far up my ass I can't see daylight. She's not even twenty one yet, and she's already had two abortions in the year and a half we've been together.
Ten minutes later, with the tapped bags resealed, I'm back downstairs unlocking the door to our flat. The air of the apartment is steam heat damp, thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of nervous sweat.
The moment I walk in half a dozen faces turn expectantly towards me, as if I were the bearer of some message of hope and deliverance. It's clear from their expressions that my friends are all happy to see me. If I weren't in such a hurry I'd pause for a moment to bask in the glow of being such a popular guy. The only person who seems less than pleased is Rebecca, who is perched on the edge of the sofa looking decidedly pissed off.

(c) Phil Shoenfelt 2009. All rights reserved

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