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NIKKI SUDDEN IN MEMORIUM 1956-2006

(c) Wolfgang Gürster

I got the phone call about 1.30 on Monday afternoon. Anastis Lazarides was on the line from Thessaloniki and he sounded upset. At first I thought it might be about the Greek dates he’s trying to organise for my band Southern Cross. But no, it wasn’t anything to do with this. Had I heard the terrible news? Nikki Sudden was no longer with us. He’d passed away the previous day, Sunday March 26th, in New York City at the end of his latest US tour. I sat there in a daze, trying to absorb this unwelcome information and blurting out the obvious questions – how, where, when etc. Anastis didn’t know, but he was sure the news was true. He’d call back later when he had learned more, and he sounded close to tears. As I put the phone down a host of pictures and memories came flooding into my brain.

The first time I met Nikki in the old "Rock On " record stall in Covent Garden, London, for example. It must have been early 1978 because Nikki was there with a box of "Read About Seymour", the first single by Swell Maps that would later top the UK independent charts and end up selling 25,000 copies. He was trying to strike a deal with Stan and Phil, the owners of the shop, by offering to let them have a few copies on spec. I’d heard of the Maps through the music press, of course, but I had no idea that the guy selling the records right now was their singer and guitarist. I was just aware of this intense young man standing beside me whose mental processes seemed to be moving at the speed of light. As I found out years later, this intuition proved to be correct: Sudden by stagename, Sudden by nature, the guy never slowed down for a minute. We swapped small talk for a few minutes, yakking about the groups we liked, then went our separate ways. I moved to New York in 1979, where I formed my post-punk band Khmer Rouge, and though Nikki also spent time in the Big Apple we were destined never to meet there.

Khmer Rouge came and went, and by the time I moved back to London in 1984 I was living in heroin hell. Much of that period is a blur to me now, there are a lot of black holes in my memory. But when I next ran into Nikki in 1993 I’d finally managed to kick the monkey off my back, and I remember the occasion well. It was at a party in west London, in the flat of Annie Nightingale, the Radio One DJ whom Nikki was dating at the time. I’d just released my second solo CD, God Is The Other Face Of The Devil, and the Jacobites’ Howlin’ Good Times was about to be released on the same label. Dave Kusworth was also there, and I recall that at one point Annie had a tantrum over something or other. Nikki tried to calm things down – not too successfully, as it happens – but with that expression of arch humour in his eyes that I came to know so well a few years later.

It’s 1996, and I’ve relocated to Prague. I’m standing in the audience at the now-defunct Bunkr Club, watching Nikki play a blinder with his Czech backing band the Golden Angels. With an ash-laden cigarette dangling from his mouth, bandanas and bangles everywhere, he looks like the ragamuffin younger brother of Keith, Johnny and Marc. A Rock & Roll Gypsy; the last bandido on the block; the living embodiment of the scatter-gun polemics of Lester Bangs and Nick Kent. I’m impressed, I’m jealous, I’m blown away, I wanna play in his band. His guitar solos are ripping through the air, raising the hairs on my arms and neck. If this ain’t nirvana, then nirvana ain’t worth having.

Later, I go backstage to get reaquainted and we end up hanging out. Plans are made to write some songs together, and a few weeks later Nikki shows up at my place in the Prague suburbs. My wife Jolana christens him The Little Prince, and while we get down to work she cooks some goulash then goes out to buy a bottle of Jack. Only it isn’t work, it’s a game. He writes one line, I write the next, and it’s a big competition to see who can come up with the most outlandish images. It’s a little like that game school children used to play before they discovered Playstation and MTV. Nikki throws out lyrics and chord progressions at an amazing rate – between thought and expression just a momentary flash – and after two days of this we have about twenty songs written down. Some of them are great, some not so great, but we’re having a lot of fun. On one of his subsequent visits Nikki plays as special guest of Southern Cross, and we try a few of them out in front of 20,000 people at the annual Trutnov festival.

Another memory hits me. Nikki has booked some recording time at a studio in the back room of a pub on top of a Moravian mountain. God knows how he found this place – probably through the Golden Angels – but we drive down there in my old green Škoda which overheats all the way up the mountain. Finally it breaks down a kilometer short of the pub, so we end up lugging the guitars the rest of the distance. We record a few songs and Nikki does a quick mix onto DAT, and all things considered the session sounds pretty good. One of the songs, Broken Glove, ends up on Egyptian Roads, a rare Sudden CD released by the Czech label Indies. I don’t know what happened to the other songs, and I guess I’ll never find out now.

November 1997, and I’m on tour in Germany, playing guitar in Nikki’s band. Carl Eugene Picot of the Jacobites is on bass, and Berliner Robbie Schmidt is behind the drums. By now Nikki has moved to Berlin on a permanent basis and is touring constantly. It’s madness, it’s mayhem, it’s Rock & Roll excess – sex-mad women everywhere, all of them trying to get a piece of the action. Mad Frau Disease, as Carl charmingly calls it. Robbie has a bit of a drug problem, though. This means we have to stop at the train station before each gig, so he can jump out of the van and cop something to get himself straight for the concert. One night there are 20 people in the audience, the next night there are 300. Nikki doesn’t seem to give a damn as long as there is some kind of crowd, a gathering of people who know his songs and are willing to join in the party. And they do. Everywhere we play there is a great outpouring of love, even when we’re totally destroyed and ramshackle. Nikki remembers every face he’s ever met, and strikes up conversations with obsessed fans he encountered on some previous occasion. If they want to buy a totally obscure demo tape he recorded in his bedroom ten years ago, no problem. He jots down names and addresses, takes orders, and promises to post the stuff on when the tour is finished.

Each night we return to the hotel totally smashed. That is, when we can find it. Sometimes Nikki disappears into the night with the map still in his pocket, having neglected to hand it over before being kidnapped by some exquisite young beauty. Up in the morning at 8am for another 700 km drive, all of us half dead and nursing devilish hangovers. All of us except Nikki, of course, who claims he never gets them. While the band tries to grab a bit of sleep, he’s working away on his laptop, writing up his tour journals for the day before or working on his novel-in-progress, Albion Sunrise. This is a huge sprawling tract set in eighteen century London, and somehow Johnny Thunders and Jerry Lee Lewis keep turning up in the narrative – by time-travel, I guess – swapping gory tales in some low East End dive with the notorious hangman Jack Ketch. I can’t follow the plot, it keeps mutating all the time, each day there’s another 10,000 words that Nikki insisits I read and pass comment on. He wakes me up out of a troubled dream and encourages me to record my impressions of the previous night’s gig while he gets to work on some chord charts. Yet more songs from his extensive back catalogue to be learned in soundcheck and performed at tonight’s gig. And so it goes, and so it goes, you get the general picture. As an artist Nikki was totally driven, never allowing the pace to falter or slow down, and he pushed himself to the limit in order to communicate his vision to others.

Right at the end of this tour Nikki gets news that his brother Epic Soundtracks has died in London. The exact circumstances surrounding his death are unknown, and remain so to this day, but as the body wasn’t discovered for over a week it all sounds pretty horrific. Nikki jets out of Berlin to comfort his distraught parents and to organise the removal of Epic’s possessions from the flat in which he died. I can only imagine what that must have been like. Sitting there in the room of death, sorting through the thousands of LPs, CDs, demos, books and diaries that his beloved sibling had accumulated over the years. He takes it upon himself to organise Epic’s estate, compiling and sifting, cataloguing and enumerating, choosing songs for future release on labels he’s already begun to contact. There’s legal shit to sort out, copyrights and publishing deals, agreements and record contracts to negotiate. But he’s determined that his brother’s name will live on, that one day the whole world will be made aware of the wonderful music he left behind.

Then it’s January 1998 and we’re back on the road for another three week European tour. No one knows how many tears Nikki has shed in private, but he’s not the type of guy who expects tea and sympathy. Apart from Johnny and Keith, Marc and Jerry Lee, his other main role model is Captain W.E. John’s "Biggles", the World War II flying ace familiar to schoolboys of my generation. Biggles would never have allowed personal loss to stand in the way of what had to be done, and Nikki is of a similar turn of mind. Very British somehow, in an old-fashioned kind of way, very stoical and self-contained. Nevertheless, it’s hard going this time. Nikki is tired, worn out in fact, which means he’s a little less insistent about us filling in the infernal tour diary. He still keeps himself busy, though. There’s an achingly beautiful new song, Elizabethan Balladeer, that I assume is about Epic, and gradually it becomes the centre piece of the set.

Nikki has already organised a memorial concert in London, and now there’s to be another one at Roter Salon in Berlin. Swell Maps reunite for the gig, with Robbie sitting in on drums, and the place is packed out with friends past and present who have flown in from all over Europe. Nikki is emotionally drained after the concert, but he insists on setting up a recording session in a Berlin studio to capture the vibe of the tour before it’s lost. Two days later we start laying down tracks with Dugald Jayes as engineer. The standout piece, for me, is a 26 minute version of Hanoi Jane that mutates into Can’s Mother Sky by way of Midget Submarines. It’s all recorded at deafening volume, and Dugald is in despair as Nikki pushes the faders to the max. But to my ears it all sounds great, huge howling maelstroms of guitar feedback interspersed with heavy riffing and solid basslines from Carl. The drums are a bit out, it’s true, and Nikki isn’t happy with his vocal performances, but what the hell, this is Rock & Roll! We record quite a few of the songs we’d written together a year or two before in Prague, and again Nikki isn’t happy with his vocals. We agree to wait until a later date and see what the great John Rivers makes of it all, then mix it at Woodbine studios in Leamington Spa. Of course this doesn’t happen, and Golden Vanity is put on indefinite hold. There’s no money to re-record the vocals, to do all the editing that needs to be done and to mix the monster into a coherent whole. And anyway, Nikki is already writing new songs for the next CD, maybe a Jacobites reunion album. As someone once said, Nikki Sudden has made more unreleased CDs than most other artists make in a lifetime.

The last installment of this odyssey for me is the gig in Athens on February 26th 1998. Southern Cross has been booked to play the AN club, and Nikki is to fly down with us and play a set of his songs with Southern Cross as his backing band. Both of us love playing in Greece. The audiences there are so passionate about the music, and they know all your songs backwards. The first time I played there, at the Rodon club in February 1996, I was totally taken aback. About 800 people showed up, huge posters were everywhere, and I wasn’t aware that my song "Only You" had become something of a hit on Greek radio. I hadn’t even bothered teaching the song to my band. We’d only just started playing together a couple of months before in Prague, and for some reason that song had got left off the list. Emilios from Hitch-Hyke Records was shocked. "For God’s sake, you have to play it," he announced, "otherwise the crowd will lynch you!" I ended up playing a solo acoustic version, which wasn’t ideal but at least served the purpose of saving my skin.

This time the AN club is packed to the rafters. Demetra from the booking agency has a private fantasy about seeing Nikki in full make-up, so she spends a couple of hours before the show applying pancake and nail varnish, mascarra and eye-shadow. All this, together with Nikki’s golden frock coat, makes him look like an eighteenth century rake, straight out of Peter Greenaway’s "The Draughtsman’s Contract". Either that, or some kind of Rock & Roll Mozart. Nikki plays a great set, then I take over the proceedings to do my own thing. At the end of our set a completely inebriated and ecstatic Nikki clambers back onstage, picks up my spare guitar, and proceeds to completely massacre "The Gambler". That song is a little depressing anyway, and his contribution certainly livened things up.

As I arrived back in Prague, completely exhausted, I said goodbye to Nikki and crawled into bed to recover for a few days. He, meanwhile, went back to Berlin to continue on his never-ending, multi-faceted, ever-evolving world tour. I never played in his band again, though I’d see him frequently in Berlin whenever I was up there playing with Fatal Shore. Quite often he’d get on stage and do a few songs as special guest, because that’s exactly what he was: a very, very special guest that the angels had allowed down to earth to visit us all for a while, to bring a little cheer into our humdrum lives. Nikki was probably the purest soul I’ve ever met in my life, he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was charming and urbane, with a wicked sense of humour, competetive in the best sense of the word, and immensely supportive of anything he thought worthwhile. He wrote a wonderful recommendation for my novel Junkie Love went it came out in English a few years back, and was also instrumental in getting it published in Italian. He also wrote some great sleeve notes for my double compilation CD Deep Horizon, referring to me as "The Parfidad of Prague", whatever that might be.

But I’m just one out of hundreds of people all over the globe that he spent a little time with, collaborating on some project or other before taking off again on his own preordained trajectory. I haven’t met his parents yet, only spoken to them on the phone a few times, and I can’t begin to imagine how they must be feeling right now. But they must be a remarkable couple indeed to have produced two such special people, two wonderful sons who generated so much love and affection in everyone they came into contact with. My heart goes out to them, and to Dave Kusworth too, Nikki’s long-time cohort and musical collaborator. And to all the far-flung friends across the world who feel, like me, that a light has gone out from their lives. Writing all this has somehow calmed me down, but now I’m feeling like I’ve been kicked in the guts again. I think I’ll finish now and go off to cry a few more tears, confident that Nikki is up there with Epic looking down on this sad earth and laughing his ass off.

Phil Shoenfelt, Prague, 31/03/2006

 


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