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|MEMORIES OF NIKKI SUDDEN
written by Phil Shoenfelt, for Miguel Ferraras, June 2014
It’s spring 1997 and Nikki and I are driving up a Moravian mountainside in my old Škoda 120. Somewhere near the top is a pub with a recording studio in the back room, where Nikki’s Czech backing band (The Golden Angels) have arranged for us to do some recording. The problem is the engine keeps over-heating – a notorious design defect of the Skoda 120 – necessitating frequent stops at gas stations and mountain streams to top up the radiator with cold water.
Nikki, of course, is oblivious to these mechanical concerns. He’d rather talk about musical luminaries such as Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart – all of whom he’s on first name terms with. Especially Ron (Wood), who he’s been trying to get an interview with for the book he’s writing on Rod. I’ve just recently reconnected with Nikki – the last time we met was at a west London party in 1994 – and he’s been staying with me and my girlfriend Jolana at her flat in Prague. We’ve written a bunch of songs together, and now we’re gonna record one of them, “Broken Glove”, with The Golden Angels.
What the hell, you might ask, is a broken glove? Normally you’d say a “torn glove” or a glove with a missing button, or a glove with a hole in the finger. But “broken”? I’d say my Skoda 120 was broken, but I wouldn’t say it about a glove. Anyway, I wrote the music and Nikki wrote the words, so it’s his business, not mine. And he’s such a smart and mentally agile individual that I hesitate to ask such a dumb question.
Finally we get to the top of the mountain and locate the pub. It’s a typically greasy Czech village pub, full of cigarette smoke, goulash, onions and beer. The patrons are mostly sclerotic old guys who spend their days gossiping and playing cards. A few surly looking younger characters with boots and shaved heads are lounging about, and Nikki, with his green velvet jacket, bangles, rings and scarves, draws a fair bit of attention. But he’s so excited at the prospect of recording that he’s totally oblivious to the effect he’s having – or he simply doesn’t care.
We meet The Golden Angels – named by Nikki – who’ve lugged their equipment up the mountainside from Brno. They’ve already set up in the studio out back and are ready to go . They don’t look much like golden angels to me. No scarves or bandanas, jewellery or bangles – just stolid Slavs with long hippy hair, tee shirts, sneakers and beer bellies. But they relish the chance of playing with Nikki, who is a legendary rock and roll figure to them.
Nikki’s got a real talent for finding people like this. Germany, in particular, seems full of bedroom troubadors who will set up – and pay for – recording sessions with their hero. The deal is that they get him to play on their demos, while he gets free recording time to record the latest batch of songs he’s written. And he’s nothing if not prolific. In the three days he’s been staying with me and Jolana, we’ve written about ten songs together. He’s very competitive too. Each time he goes to the loo he takes his guitar along for company, emerging five minutes later with a beaming grin to announce the creation of yet another indie gem.
I love Nikki’s songs. They’ve got the harmonic simplicity of traditional English folk melodies, with the grinding, hip-thrusting punch of classic rock and roll. Broken Glove is a ballad, though, and the lyrics have been cut down from the original 30 or so verses that Nikki wrote. Like I say, the guy is prolific.
We run through the number a couple of times with the Angels, and they quickly learn the chords and arrangement. Nikki tells the engineer to start recording, and we immediately go for a take. I’m a little surprised to find out that he doesn’t intend to do any mixing. The track is to be recorded live, and after we’ve listened back to the first take he shifts the microphones around a bit to get a better balance.
A couple more attempts and he’s satisfied. The song is transferred directly onto DAT, less than half an hour after the first run through. A few months later it will turn up on an album of rarities called “Egyptian Roads”.
I walk through to the pub and order a beer, while Nikki and the band record several more of his songs. By the end of the session, he’s got half an album’s worth of new material recorded, for not much more than the price of a plate of goulash. And what’s more it all sounds great. Very rough and grungy, but great. With the session over and the DAT in his pocket, Nikki says goodbye to The Golden Angels, gets into the car, and we head off down the mountainside in the direction of Prague.
The road certainly does go on forever when you’re driving between gigs in Germany. Especially when your booking agent has seen fit to ensure that the average distance between them is about 600 kms.
I’m playing guitar in Nikki’s band on the 1997 “Rock And Roll Tour”. It’s early November and we’re on a featureless stretch of autobahn in the middle of Germany. Last night we played Bielefeld and tonight we play Ulm – two fixed points in a shifting sea of uncertainty, two straws to grasp at as psychological disintegration sets in.
Before the tour began, we’d spent a couple of days rehearsing in Berlin. Carl Eugene Picot, the Jacobites’ bass player, flew over from Birmingham, and Nikki recruited Robbie Schmidt, one of his Berlin drug-buddies, to play drums.
Robbie has been way too generous with a concoction he calls “Red Devil” – methadone mixed with red wine. Generous with himself and with me and Nikki too (Carl prefers his red wine neat and drug-free). Now Robbie’s run out of the ‘done and is getting withdrawal symptoms, a fact which necessitates daily visits to the Hauptbahnof of whichever city we happen to be in. Unless he makes a connection and manages to score, his performance that night will suffer accordingly.
At the moment, though, I’m dying from a mega hangover that refuses to go away, even after a couple of swigs of Red Devil. And now Nikki is insisting we write up our impressions of the Bielefeld gig in his tour diary. He has volumes of these diaries at home in his attic, accrued from tours he has done over the years in Europe, Japan, the USA, wherever. And after he’s finished writing up his own impressions, the rest of the band has to do it too. Even Robbie, who is groaning and sweating in the back of the van, is called upon to write a few lines.
Nikki is incredible. The guy’s hyper-active, he never stops working, even when he’s asleep. Last night he was as drunk as a skunk, but this morning he was up with the larks, working on “Albion Sunrise”, his 18th century novel-in-progress. Part fey romance, part earthy Tom Jones, part rock and roll biography, part Tolkien on speed, this sprawling opus is seriously out of control. He’s been working away on his laptop for the last 250 kms, and now he’s decided it’s time for us to write in the tour diary.
“A rather shambolic concert last night” I write half-heartedly. “The alcohol seemed to hit us all at the same time, and I completely forgot the chord sequence to “When Angels Die”. Nobody in the audience noticed, they were all as drunk as us. Nikki was on form though, and the blond girl down the front certainly kept him focused and on task.”
I draw some cartoons of us lurching about onstage, call it quits and pass the diary to Carl. Carl, though, is pretending to be asleep, and has his French Resistance style beret pulled down over his eyes. Snoring ostentatiously, he makes it quite clear that he doesn’t want to participate in these literary activities. Nikki shakes his head at such unsporting behaviour – it’s not really cricket to cop out like this – and goes back to writing “Albion Sunrise”.
Being on the road with Nikki is a weird mixture of rock and roll excess, Escape From Colditz, heroin chic and tea with crumpets. At any one time he can be Brian at Joujouka, Raffles the Edwardian jewel thief, Keith in a daze, or Biggles shooting up the Luftwaffe (no pun intended). And even though he lives in Berlin and his biggest fan-base is in Germany, he refuses to learn German, considering it “bad form” for an Englishman to do so. In some ways he’s a fine example of the Great British Eccentric. But then again, and for all his fantasising, he’s got a pretty strong grip on the reality business.
You can see the private school education shining through in his determination to succeed. Not for materialistic reasons, mind you. It’s more about fame than fortune for him, more about the glory of achievement than financial reward. He’d much prefer to leave his mark on rock and roll history than be a flash in the pan for a few dollars more.
Like with “Albion Sunrise” for instance. Every day it grows by another thousand or so words that he’s written in the van, or in his hotel room after the gig. If he doesn’t meet his target of a thousand words a day, he feels like he’s let himself down, that he hasn’t lived up to his own great expectations. You can imagine him climbing Mount Everest in a different life.
“I wrote almost fifteen hundred words after the gig last night, while you and Carl were trying to get off with those tarts. Would you like to read the latest instalment?”
Yes, Nikki, by all means, even with my head throbbing and mushrooms growing on my tongue and my lungs on fire from all the cigarettes I smoked. I mean, you have to admire the guy. Such iron-willed determination, such a great sense of humour, such an overwhelming lust for life. Life and all it has to offer to those brave enough to grasp it with both hands and run.
And he’s such a charmer, such a dreamer, you just have to indulge him in his whims. Jolana calls him “The Little Prince”, and repairs his shirts and jackets whenever he comes to stay with us in Prague. She reckons he’s an eternal child, a Peter Pan figure who refuses to grow up and play his part in the adult world. I think she’s maybe a little bit in love with him.
But he can be a right bastard too. Like the other night, for example, when he left the club without telling the rest of us the address of the hotel.
Where the hell was that gig anyway? Bremen? Hannover? Nurnberg? We’d just played a blinder, the place was packed and the dance floor was heaving, and after the show Nikki tried to pick up this gorgeous brunette who was there with her boyfriend. The guy was a huge Jacobites fan, but Nikki just ignored him and honed right in on his girl. She was into it too, and you had to feel a bit sorry for the boyfriend – even though he was a train-spotting dork, who didn’t deserve to have such a beauty on his arm.
At some point Nikki and the girl disappeared for a drink and a private chat, leaving the guy behind like a spare part in the dressing room. Robbie tried to cheer him up by talking about garage bands, but you could tell he was worried by the way he kept looking at his watch.
Finally Nikki and the girl come back, and I’m wondering if he had his evil way with her out back. But that’s not really his style. Anyway, apparently not, because he’s pissed off and wants to leave the club right away. Carl is out on the dance floor somewhere, I’m pissed and Robbie is stoned, and before we know it Nikki ‘s out the back door and away down the street. Sudden by name, Sudden by nature, it’s too late to catch up with him now. Cursing him roundly, I stumble around the club, trying to find the manager so I can get the address of the hotel.
Nikki’s the last of a dying breed, the last of the Mohicans. They simply don’t make them like that anymore. He should have been born ten years earlier, if you ask me. He really belongs with those UK rock and rollers that were born around the end of World War 2 – people like Ron and Rod, Mick and Keith, Robert and Jimmy. The Chelsea set, the coffee bar droogs, the Carnaby Street ravers, the Granny Takes A Trip revellers. Even though he came up via punk and indie rock, he’s a traditionalist at heart – not really the avant garde experimentalist that his time in Swell Maps might have led you to believe. And certainly not a working class hero like Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten.