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Ni Gudix interviewte Phil Shoenfelt 06/2006
Das gesamte Interview erscheint in der "Haerter"-Ausgabe zum 10jährigen Jubiläum des Magazins.
Diese Kurzversion erschien im August 2006 bei www.satt.org 

Hi Phil. How come that a Bradford-born ex-punk-musician who has lived and played both in New York and London now lives in Prague? What is it that drove you to "Old Europe"? How do you like it? Do you speak Czech?

I did a tour of the Czech Republic in the summer of 1994 with a Czech band called Tichá Dohoda, who learned my songs and backed me on the tour. On a previous visit to Prague, while visiting a Czech girlfriend, I happened to drop off a CD at the local independent radio station, Radio 1. My songs became quite popular, and this in turn led to the opportunity to tour here. On the last date of this particular tour, I met the woman who is now my wife, the artist and costume designer Jolana Izbická. I was sick of living in London at this point, and after Jolana and I had visited each other a few times to "test the water", I made the decision to move to Prague, which I did in August 1995. I find it a lot less stressful living here than in London – I like the atmosphere and the people, and I find I have a lot more time to write, play music and enjoy my life. In London, you either have a job with good money but no free time, or no job with lots of free time but no money to afford the extortionate prices! The drawback is that it’s harder to find things here in Prague – books, CDs etc etc. But with the internet it doesn’t really matter, you can find everything you need there. I speak a little bit of Czech, but very badly. It’s a really difficult language with seven case endings and four genders (?!), and anyway I’m a complete moron when it comes to learning foreign languages. I have no talent in this area at all.

You were born in England in 1952, and in the mid-70s you "collided with the London punk scene". What happened between those two dates? Were you good at school? What did you do right after having finished school? How did this "collision" actually look like – did you bump into the Sex Pistols and get drunk with Sid Vicious, or what? Ha, ha!

I spent most of my formative years growing up in Worcester, in the English Midlands, the town where the porcelain and the sauce comes from. From age eleven to eighteen, I attended the Worcester Royal Grammar School, where we were supposed to study Latin, Ancient History, Classical Literature, and play rugby and cricket. It was very strict when I started there – the teachers and prefects were allowed to cane you, there were no girl students, we had to wear a stupid uniform, and everything was about patriotism and the glory days of the long-gone British Empire. We also had to join the cadets, which I absolutely hated. It was probably a little like attending a 19th century Prussian military academy! By the late 1960’s we’d pretty much destroyed all this. Everyone was smoking pot and taking LSD, everyone had long hair, and we were reading counter-cultural publications such as Oz and International Times. Plus, of course, Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac etc etc. Revolution was in the air, and by the time we left school the headmaster and most of the staff were beaten, nervous wrecks.

After leaving school I bummed and stole my way around Europe and North Africa for almost a year. Jean Genet was my hero, The Thief’s Journal my bible, and when I had no money for food I’d help myself at the local supermarket or raid an orchard for apples and oranges. Sleeping in ditches and abandoned buildings, going wherever I felt like going, meeting lots of hippy girls along the way – it was a wonderful time after that stuffy old school. Finally I decided to come back to England and enrolled on a liberal arts degree course at Manchester University. After finishing this, I went back to Morocco for a few months then moved to London where I worked in a Soho sex shop selling stupid porno magazines. Anything but get a proper job! This was in 1976 when I was 23 years old, just in time to catch the Punk explosion. A lot of the punk clubs, like the Roxy and the Vortex, were in Soho, so each day after work I’d spend my ill-gotten gains pogoing to bands like The Clash, Siouxie And The Banshees, The Buzzcocks, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, etc etc. Never did see the Sex Pistols, though, but I’d often see Sid and Nancy at the Café Centrale near Cambridge Circus, nodding out over a plate of spaghetti Bolognese.

Were you influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and those early British Rock 'n' Roll bands in the 60s? What were your earliest musical role models?

Of course I was! I started playing guitar when I was ten years old, and in primary school I formed a band called The Feendz. My favourites were The Stones, but I also liked The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Searchers, Gerry And The Pacemakers and all those bands. I also liked more exotic stuff like Bo Diddley and James Brown. The teacher used to let us play to the class on Friday afternoons, and I quickly learned that being a musician made you popular with the little girls, even if you weren’t exactly handsome. The sporty guys hated us, especially when we graduated to playing matinee shows on Saturday mornings at the local cinema. The little girls all screamed for us, just like they’d seen their older sisters do for The Beatles and The Stones. We got paid in sweets and ice cream instead of money, and it was paradise!

What were your parents like – did they push you right into rebellion, or were they rather tolerable and liberal listeners who understood what you were doing and had to do? Are they still alive?

My parents were pretty cool, though I was always getting into fights with my dad. My mum was sensitive and poetic, while my dad was a bit more of a northern "hard-ass" who thought I should leave school as soon as possible and get a secure job. He’d left school at fourteen and worked on the railways before studying to become a draughtsman, and was from a more working class background than my mum. She was always sticking up for me and encouraging me to read literature and listen to classical music, and wanted me to go to university. In the end I guess her views prevailed over those of my dad. She died in 1997, and I miss her terribly. But looking back I value my dad’s harder attitude too, I think his views gave me a bit of backbone and strength of character. This was important later when I finally decided to kick heroin after eleven years of addiction. But at the time we had some wonderful fights, especially when I was fifteen or sixteen and started smoking pot and sneaking girls up into my bedroom.

You wrote a novel called JUNKIE LOVE where you described your experiences as a heroin addict in London and New York in a semi-fictional way – Phil, the protagonist, returns from New York, his wife leaves him because she can't stand life with a junkie any longer; Phil withdraws from the drug, works in a t-shirt factory, then bumps into an old love, Cissy, with whom he moves together in a London squat and gets into serious addiction once more, until he is finally able to pull the brake. How much of you is in this story? Have there really been this girl, Cissy, and the squat, and all those crazy folk, like Dodgy Dave and Bela? If yes, do you know what has happened to Cissy, what she is doing now, whether she managed to come off heroin too?

Yeah, things were pretty much as I describe them in JUNKIE LOVE. Cissy, whose real name was Claudia, was my girlfriend for two years, and I think the picture I paint of her is pretty accurate. Where she is now, I have no idea. After we split up, which happened in the way I describe it in the book, I moved out of the house and spent the next two months gradually reducing the amount of methadone I was taking. I got right down to one drop, literally one drop a day, and I thought "Wow, that was easy!" Then I stopped altogether and two days later I started getting sick. Not as sick as if I’d come straight off from taking a gramme of smack a day, but sick enough. The thing is, methadone hangs around in your system far longer, it takes weeks to de-tox, and though the withdrawal pains aren’t too severe if you reduce gradually, they just seem to go on forever. I was sick for about three weeks, not violently sick, more like having the worst case of influenza you ever had in your life. Plus horrible dreams, self-disgust, cold sweats and an inabilty to get comfortable in any one position for more than thirty seconds at a time. This went on and on for what seemed like an eternity, each minute like an hour, each hour like a day. In some ways it’s easier to come directly off smack, go cold turkey – that way you’re over the worst of it in eight or ten days.

While I was having fun doing all this, Claudia/Cissy stayed in the squat, got ripped off by her new boyfriend, lost everything and somehow managed to get herself back to New York. I saw her one last time, when I visited NYC about a year later in 1989. She’d lost her looks, but at least she was clean. Well, sort of. She said she only used occasionally now, which in my opinion isn’t being clean at all. The only way to beat heroin addiction is never ever do it again, even one time, in your whole entire life. Not if you want a life, that is. Where Claudia is now, I have no idea, we completely lost touch. I hope she’s alive and well and doing fine, but somehow I have my doubts. As for all those other characters in the book – some of them, like Dodgy Dave and Bela, actually existed and acted the way they did; others, like Whisper, are composite characters, while a few are completely fictional, kind of junkie archetypes. I changed everyone’s names to protect the guilty, and I changed time sequences around to give the book a narrative thrust. Plus, there was a lot of editing involved, because there were just too many stories – it would have ended up as long as War And Peace if I’d allowed myself to get too carried away. I wanted to capture the essence of the junkie experience in the most compact and intense way possible. But, as I say, everything I write about in the book happened pretty much the way I tell it.

How old were you when you tried heroin for the first time in your life? You weren't one of those very early beginners, like Christiane F for example who got famous in Germany in 1977 by her book WIR KINDER VOM BAHNHOF ZOO (CHILDREN OF THE ZOO STATION) – she has started using heroin at the age of 14 – but I suppose you, although you were older and knew more about drug misuse, you were plastered with illusions and false hopes, too?

Luckily, I didn’t try heroin for the first time until I was twenty four years old. By that time I’d finished my formal education. If I’d started as a teenager I’m sure I wouldn’t even have finished high school, never mind university. I feel sorry for kids now who start taking hard drugs when they’ve barely reached puberty. At least I had some sort of grounding before I began, I came from a stable family background and had some idea of who I was, and what I wanted to do in my life. I actually took it the first time as a cure for a hangover! I was working in the Soho sex shop at the time, and had a terrible hangover from being out on the piss the night before. I went round to see a friend in one of the neighbouring sex shops to ask if he had any aspirin, and he told me no, but if I sniffed a tiny line of this stuff he had with him it would cure my headache in two seconds flat. Well, it certainly did that! I sniffed an amount you could fit on the head of a matchstick (it was good quality stuff), and though I puked for the next few hours I felt great, as if I were God sitting upon his heavenly throne. I was filled with this amazing confidence and arrogance, the world fell away, and I didn’t give a shit about all those boring ugly people running to and from their boring, mundane jobs. Total narcissism, a wilful contempt for the rest of the world, the obliteration of any self-doubt – this is the illusion that smack has to offer, which is why it’s such a fatally attractive drug for people with fractured personalities and inferiority complexes. Half of the Nazi high command were hooked on morphine during World War 2. I’m sure the detachment and arrogance that opiates bestow allowed them to feel immune to the horrors of the Holocaust they created. When you’re high on smack you don’t care about anyone else, you become a monster of egotism. You can easily kill with no pity or remorse, your heart turns to ice and you lose your soul. Of course most junkies are too lazy and disorganised, they have no ambition to commit atrocities and acts of mass murder. The extent of their ambition is only to get enough money for the next shot. They have no "Grand Plan" and aren’t interested in concepts of social engineering, thank God!

Would you agree with one of Christiane F's statements in the book: "If one wants to come off H one should know why. I don't. So there's no use trying."

Each to his own. In my case, it became evident that if I didn’t stop shooting heroin I was going to die. If not physically from an overdose, then a living death of poverty, homelessness, begging and disease. I decided I wanted to live. I’ve never been the suicidal type, and anyway I’ve got too much pride to allow myself to become a victim. Everyone had given up on me, written me off, and so I thought "Fuck you, you’re not gonna categorise me as a lost cause, somebody who was too weak to make it. I’ll confuse your expectations by never doing this fucking drug again!" So in a way I stopped taking it out of perversity, in much the same way as I started taking it. That statement of Christiane F seems like bullshit to me. I just got bored with the whole deal, it became even more mundane than working in an office nine-to-five. That was reason enough to stop, I didn’t have to ask myself "Why?"

In 2004, while translating JUNKIE LOVE into German, I first met you – I got to know you via the book. When I was walking to the venue where you played with Fatal Shore, I expected kind of a militant non-smoking, anti-alcoholic anti-drug preacher – it was relaxing to find out that one can have the odd pint and a few cigarettes with you. In fact you describe that in your book: that most ex-junkies get excessively obsessed with NOT using drugs after their successful withdrawal, as they were before excessively obsessed with using. Have you also been one of those extremers directly after your withdrawal?

For about a year after coming off I was extreme like this. I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, refused to even take an aspirin. I went to NA meetings, started the 12 step programme, did all of that stuff. Then I began to realise that all these people at the meetings were getting their fix by talking about drugs, by telling the others how they almost succumbed and got stoned that particular day. People would get really emotional, and it seemed to me that this emotional charge had become a substitute for the rush you get from shooting gear. It’s called "sharing", and maybe it helps, but to me it seemed like an admission of weakness. It began to feel like a dead-end, like everyone was living in the past and couldn’t shake it off. It was a bit like war veterans sitting around at a reunion talking about their memories, who was still alive and who was dead. So I stopped going to meetings, and gradually started drinking and smoking again, just so I didn’t feel like some delicate hot-house flower that has to be protected from all the vagaries of life. So in NA terms, I’m not "clean" at all because I drink alcohol. But I’ve never had a problem with alcohol addiction, my addiction was only to opiates. For some people, this isn’t an option – they have problems with alcohol as well as smack, or cocaine or crack, or whatever. If that is the case, then it’s true they shouldn’t take anything if they want to stay functional. But I’ve been off heroin since 1988, now, and I think the occasional drink, or joint, or cigarette isn’t going to ruin me. I have to say, though, that going to those meetings hepled me a lot in the early days of coming off, and I’m glad the organisation exists. Some people need it, full-time, and if that is what it takes for them to stay clean then it has to be a good thing. It just wasn’t for me, that’s all.

I offered JUNKIE LOVE to various German publishers and heard things like "Oh no, heroin novels don't interest anyone anymore today; the era of heroin is over now, the kids rather use ecstasy and crack nowadays – and besides, we've got enough heroin literature: Christiane F; TRAINSPOTTING; and Burroughs. Everybody knows everything about heroin, all the heroin novels are quite the same, and we don't need another one." What would you reply here?

These people are idiots. They think only in terms of fashion trends and marketing strategies. You can imagine some thirty five year old publishing yuppie, living in a nice suburb of Stuttgart, or wherever, listening to 50 Cent and convincing himself he’s "in touch with the street". Pathetic! More young people in western Europe are using smack now than at any time in history, and since the Taliban got their asses whipped the poppy fields of Afghanistan are back to full production. Just because some stupid lifestyle magazine says that Ecstasy is the "new" (?!) drug, that doesn’t make the problem go away. Heroin use might not be in the media spotlight, but it’s still there, worse than ever, in fact.

Burroughs was a genius, but he was writing about heroin in a completely different milieu, when it was still an elitist sport for bohemian intellectuals, movie stars, jazz musicians and the children of the rich. Christiane F’s book is for adolescents, it’s sentimental, self-pitying and full of clichés. And TRAINSPOTTING is good fun to read, but really it’s a comic book version of the whole scene. It’s for people who like to get their kicks vicariously, such as middle class university students with too much time and money on their hands. They read it like voyeurs, then think they’re hip to the whole drug scene – another "life experience" to be absorbed and filed away in case they need to impress someone with their knowledge of the "drug sub-culture". So it all becomes a fashion thing, which brings us back to our mythical yuppie publisher from the suburbs of Stuttgart.

I get the impression that the mainstream German publishing scene is quite conservative, unwilling to take any chances, really just following what sells in the UK and US markets. JUNKIE LOVE has already been published in English, Czech and Italian, and will be published in Greek this coming September. Random House/Bertelsmann have just bought the licensing rights for the UK and Commonwealth, so maybe if it does well in the UK some German publisher will throw caution to the winds and agree to print up a thousand copies!

I write about addiction in a completely different way to any of the aforementioned writers. I’m interested in the psychology of addiction and I use that as a metaphor for the social sickness that is infecting us all. In other words, there is a lot of implicit analysis, though it’s hidden between the lines of what seems like a conventional story. I suppose the readers at these German publishing houses just look at the title and think "Oh, this subject has already been covered." It’s a bit like Flaubert failing to get MADAME BOVARY published because a few other writers had written about love before him.

It was on my 29th birthday that Frank Bröker asked me to have a look at JUNKIE LOVE to translate it into German. I know Frank by his literary underground magazine HAERTER he edits since 1996, before he moved to Leipzig; he has always been one of the more intelligent and important heads of German literary underground to me, and a dear friend and colleague too. How and when did you come across Frank?

I met Frank the first time I read from JUNKIE LOVE in Leipzig, a few years ago. I had managed to get a few pages of the book translated into German, and the organiser of the event asked Frank to read the German version. I liked him immediately, some kind of empathy I suppose. And he had this amazing reading voice and delivery, really deep, sonorous and expressive. It sounded great the way he read the extracts in German, so good that I wished I’d written the book in German!

How did your team-work with Frank and Makarios and all that Pratajev stuff develop? Frankly, I was surprised to hear in 2004 that you also took part in one of the Pratajev films, looking for Pratajev's traces in Prague!

Makarios was at the same reading, along with his wife and about five other people. Again, I felt an immediate empathy with him. I already knew about Die Art – they used to be on Rough Trade Records – and my friend Mirko Sennewald from Dresden had told me something about the man behind the band. I didn’t realise until later that he is a great visual artist as well. His paintings are beautiful and erotically charged, he’s an extremely gifted guy. Anyway, he told me about a project he had with Frank called The Russian Doctors, and later he gave me their CD. Their music was very different to either Die Art or Wissmut, and what intrigued me, besides the music itself, was this crazy concept of Pratejev they had invented.

I learned that the Russian Doctors’ lyrics were supposedly written by this mythical poet Pratejev, who was something like a drunken Dr. Zhivago. A popular writer in his mis-spent youth, he was later censored and hounded by Stalin’s secret police. His work had been lost for years, but with de-Stalinization it again came to light and somehow it fell into the hands of Makarios and Frank. Recognising the man as a genius, they then set about putting his words to music. Of course, the whole thing is ficticious (at least I think it is!), but I really liked the concept. I also learned that there was a whole series of short stories that detailed the adventures of this alcoholic Russian bard. I suggested to Makarios that he write a story about Pratejev coming to Prague with the Red Army in 1945, and his reply to me was ”Why don’t you write it?” So that’s what I did, I wrote a four page story about Pratejev through the eyes of the renowned Czech professor of philosophy Luboš Blbeček. Then Makarios said, "What about making a film of the story? We can include it on one of our DVDs." Of course there was no budget, and I thought to myself "These guys are taking the piss!" But never having made a film before, I got intrigued by the idea and asked a friend of mine with a digital camera to help me. I became the effete BBC documentary film-maker ”Charles Cockburn” and improvised my way around various Žižkov pubs and bars, pointing out the places where Pratejev had drunk, fucked and written his wonderful poetry. I think it came out quite well in the end, considering I had no script and no idea of what the hell I was doing.

Do you see yourself rather as a musician or as a writer – or as an "artist", all in all?

I see myself as a latter-day saint, and if people would only listen to my words I’d save the world from destruction.

You come to Germany here and then, you have got a Berlin-based band called The Fatal Shore consisting of you, Bruno Adams, Chris Hughes and YoYo Röhm. First question: what in God's name does the name "Fatal Shore" refer to? Second question: Bruno Adams seems to be a good friend and colleague of yours for ages – you work together perfectly on stage, that's my opinion. Am I right here?

"The Fatal Shore" was originally a folk song. The convicts used to sing it on the prison ships as they were deported from England to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It meant that when they saw the shoreline of Australia they knew they would never return home, that they’d spend the rest of their lives in the penal colonies and would die there. Later, an Australian historian called Robert Hughes wrote a fantastic book called "The Fatal Shore", all about these deportations and the brutality the prisoners suffered at the hands of their jailers. It’s a great piece of writing, you should read it sometime. Seeing as Chris and Bruno come from Melbourne – they’re friends with Nick Cave and Mick Harvey, and are part of that whole Melbourne-Berlin scene that developed in the mid 1980’s – we decided to name the band after that song and that book. I’m like the English jailer – I have to keep those Australian reprobates under control! I knew Bruno’s sister Bronwyn from London – she used to play violin in Crime & The City Solution, an off-shoot band of The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten. When Bruno’s old band Once Upon A Time played in Prague in 1996, I introduced myself and that’s how Fatal Shore came about. We have a great time together, he’s a wonderful, big-hearted charismatic guy. Chris Hughes is an amazing drummer, a real star, and YoYo is a record producer as well as a bass player. He’s producing our next CD, and is also working with Ben Becker, Martin Dean, Richard Ruin and Alex and Joachim from Neubauten.

Nikki Sudden, a colleague and dear friend of yours, died recently, on March 26th. I was quite shocked about this since I also knew Nikki. You were very closely working together at a time, weren't you? You were shocked, too, when you heard about Nikki's death, weren't you?

Yes, I was shocked, and deeply saddened too. I’d known him, on and off, since the punk days in London, and we renewed our aquaintance when he played in Prague in 1996. I played guitar in his band on two European tours, in 1997 and 1998, and at the end of the second tour we recorded a CD of songs we’d written together at Interzone studio in Berlin. Unfortunately, this CD, "Golden Vanity", was never released, as Nikki wasn’t happy with his vocals. I only have a cassette of this album, and I have no idea where the master tapes are, but to my ears it sounds fucking great. Really rough and grungy, loud, atmospheric and spontaneous. Maybe it will surface one day, who knows?

Nikki was from England, too, and has lived in Berlin in his last years; you, as I mentioned above, live in Prague and play concerts in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Greece, Hungary, and of course Czechia. This is quite a bit unusual – you know, German and other Eastern European musicians like to sing in English, prefer English band names, and London and New York are said to be the navels of the world as far as artistic careers, especially musical ones, are concerned – and Nikki and you go the opposite way and voluntarily move away from the English-speaking zone!

Yeah, perverse till the end! Personally I’m not interested in a musical "career" as such. I do it for the love and the fun of it, not to buy some big house in Hollywood and end up becoming a brain-dead cretin who believes he’s a genius because he sells six million records. I hate all that music biz hype, all that marketing crap and ego-massaging bullshit. I saw enough of it when some major record labels were interested in signing my old band Khmer Rouge in New York. It doesn’t appeal to me at all.

Nikki was an unusual musician in another way too – he didn't sell his soul to big music companies, he didn't let himself get "sucked into the machine" of music management and culture control, he always was his own boss, he organised his concerts as well as the publication and the sale of his CDs all alone, he led an independent and self-determined life. You write in JUNKIE LOVE: "In seeking to be neither sheep nor wolf – where do I go from here? There has to be some other way besides compliance or callous exploitation, some kind of working around and between things, of finding and making contact with people who have similar ideas but have found some way to exist creatively at the margins without succumbing to negativity and despair." Finding this way is very important to me, and I think Nikki has found it. What do you think? Would you say that you found it, too?

Yes, I believe I have. I feel happier now than at any point in my life. I’m writing books, playing music, and I feel pretty fulfilled in every direction. What more could an ex-junkie ask for?

You are 54 now. What do you expect for your future? Do you still like your job? Would you, as Keith Richards once said, "play onstage until they wheel me out in a wheel-chair"?

53, actually. I was born on the 18th of December, 1952, so I’m not 54 till the end of this year! Yes, I can easily imagine going onstage in a wheel-chair when I’m eighty years old. A bath-chair would be more elegant and comfortable, though. By the way, the eighteenth of December is also Keith Richard’s birthday. Nikki pointed this out to me, I think he was a little peeved that I managed to get born on the same day as his greatest idol!

Some personal questions at the end: what is your favourite drink? (Alcoholic or non-alcoholic, no matter!)

Without a doubt, Jack Daniels and coke.

What do you do in your leisure time – reading, watching TV, jogging?

I don’t have any lesiure time. Seriously, I don’t. I’m consumed by my writing and my music.

What are your favourite authors?

Henry Miller, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, William Burroughs, Lautréamont, Georges Bataille, Paul Leppin, Herman Ungar. Alexander Trocchi.

Do you have any relation to religion – Buddhism, the Pope, Hare Krishna, or whatever?

I hate all organised religions, they cause nothing but trouble in the world. God PLC is not for me. Buddhism is the most attractive, if I had to choose, it’s far more tolerant than, say, Christianity, Islam or Judaism. I used to read a lot about Zen Buddhism when I was younger, and I think that had a big impact on me. But Zen is more about psychology than religion, and it doesn’t require you to promote your belief at the expense of someone else’s. No Crusades or Jihads there, no suicide bombings or crucifixions…

Phil, thank you very much for this interview. It is great to be on stage with you and Frank, as happened in Berlin last November and December (at the Punk & Spunk night at Kaffee Burger), and at Leipzig Book Fair in March. I hope that JUNKIE LOVE will be out soon in Germany under its German title FIXERLIEBE, so that we can do more readings and concerts together!

 


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