Review by Ben Marshall.
There are many sound reasons to dread a celebrity’s memoirs, not the least of them being that celebs may be good singers, or actors or television presenters or footballers but they are rarely good writers. There are exceptions of course; the comedian Russell Brand being one and the actor Dirk Bogarde was another, but as those examples illustrate they are few and far between. To be fair most celebs know this and employ a ghost writer (normally a friendly professional journalist) but even this isn’t failsafe. The topless model and all round nuisance Katie (Jordan) Price was recently heard telling 5 Live’s Simon Mayo that she had yet to read either of her two autobiographies, thus apparently making her one of the few people on the planet to have written two more books than she has actually ever read.
All these problems are exacerbated ten fold when the celebrity in question is someone you know and admire. So let me confess an interest here – I have known Tim Burgess since 1990 and been a fan of The Charlatans, the band he fronts, for almost a quarter of a century. I have seen the band countless times, watched them rehearse, and sat on tour busses and aeroplanes with them. When Tim moved to LA we shared the same drug dealer and drank in the same pubs. I have snorted small mountains of cocaine with Tim, dropped ecstasy with him and on more than one occasion snogged him long and hard (tragically there is photographic evidence of most of this.) When Rob Collins, the band’s brilliant errant keyboardist was killed, I attended the funeral standing one row in front of Tim who, propped up by his then girlfriend Chloe, was near to collapsing with grief. It was even at one time mooted that I should write this book. So, when it comes to Tim and The Charlatans it would be hard for me to claim any sort of impartiality. Nonetheless I do care about good writing so when I heard that Tim had decided to write his own book my heart sank, because, like I say, footballers, actors, TV presenters and most especially pop stars are just no good at this writing stuff.
Well I was wrong. Telling Stories is a brilliantly written, compulsively readable, extremely funny, often horrifying account of what it is like to be the strung out focal point of a band who perpetually appear to be teetering on the edge of complete catastrophe. Written with the pace and sweeping dramatic arcs of a novel it tells the story of the thoroughly excessive 90’s as well as John Niven’s satire Kill Your Friends. A top twenty single is followed by the arrest of their keyboardist (essential to the Charlatans sound) on charges of armed robbery; Tony Rogers, the man who would eventually come to replace Rob, is diagnosed with cancer; a trusted accountant steals practically every penny the band has earned; Jon Brookes, the band’s drummer and a founding member, collapses on stage with a suspected brain haemorrhage ending a successful American tour. And all the while insane quantities of drugs are being consumed.
The book is named after The Charlatans’ fifth album, ‘Tellin’ Stories’. I guess Tim could have named it after quite a few of The Charlatans’ songs – ‘Weirdo’, ‘Blackened Blue Eyes’, ‘You’re Not Very Well’ – they would all have told you something about the book’s contents. ‘Tellin’ Stories’ though was The Charlatans’ make or break moment. Mostly recorded before Rob’s fatal accident and released afterwards it inevitably marks a break with the past and reveals a new stoic and steely resolve. Rob’s death is something Tim keeps coming back to in Telling Stories. He in part attributes his (literally) staggering intake of drugs, booze and fags to his failure to seriously come to terms with Rob’s death.
It is in these sections of the book that Tim reveals himself to be a writer of unexpected wisdom, humour, compassion and, lets be frank, memory because when you’re as blasted as Tim was it’s not the lost weekends you worry about it’s lost weeks and months. When I first wrote about The Charlatans I said that Tim reminded me a little of Holden Caulfield, the teenage narrator of JD Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye. It had something to do with that curious mixture of cynicism and wide-eyed innocence, with the innocence somehow always winning out. In the book Tim describes himself as a punk rocker but his taste and enthusiasm for music is so generous and catholic the label seems too narrow and restrictive. This knawing hunger for the new experience is what made him want to be a singer in the first place (he quite convincingly writes that without music he would have settled for a life of low level slightly pathetic delinquency – “shoplifting, misdemeanours with air rifles and unintentional arson”). It is also what lead him straight to booze and drugs and what made him stick with them long after they had ceased to be of any remote, always dubious benefit.
Until reading Tim’s book I had genuinely thought I had taken every drug going and exhausted every conceivable way of taking them. Never once did it occur to me to blow cocaine up a mates arse, or ask a mate to blow some up mine. But it did Tim, who describes the process in a way that is at once hilarious and horrifying – a sort of human centipede of coke addled bottom feeders. “You stick the cone pointy-end first into the participants anus, aim your straw into the cone and blow sharply, like firing a dart from a blowpipe. It had to be precise and well timed . . .”. I bet it did.
With large amounts of drugs comes the concomitant paranoia and this is where the book gets very dark indeed. Tim moves in and out of these sequences, which is a good thing as written as a single chapter or several sequential chapters they would simply be too much for most readers to handle. Tim describes the awful anxieties and the extraordinary hoops he was willing to jump through with great and welcome wit, but even at his funniest you can’t help but think that he spent the best part of twenty years dropping in and out of his own private hell. The way of transporting drugs around the world became increasingly and necessarily more convoluted. A holdall containing pills and coke would be filled with charity shop clothes and anonymously placed onto a National Express coach, heading for Rome or Paris or any city The Charlatans were likely to play the day the vehicle reached its final destination. Tim would then fly out and meet the coach and its illicit goods. The only thing that changed when Tim relocated to LA (a move touted as a fresh start) was that the drugs got stronger and the company more deranged and violent. I was living in LA when Tim arrived and so am well aware of how volatile the drugs scene is out there. If Tim had carried on he would, as he admits, very probably be dead by now. What he doesn’t say but couldn’t help occurring to me was that he could just as easily have ended up shot – John Holmes Wonderland style. By the way I am pretty sure that porn star John Holmes’ cocaine habit and the murders that ensued were very much on Tim’s mind when the band recorded the album ‘Wonderland’.
The amazing this about all this is that it is told with no malice, or the thoroughly annoying faux regret that often ruins the reminiscences of the former junkie. In fact Tim appears to have enjoyed most of what he has put himself through and found the rest horribly instructive. And wide-eyed Caulfield-like innocence is what makes his story infinitely more sublime than it ever is sordid. We always have the sense that Tim, even in the depths, is an innocent abroad. It is also what makes the book something more than just another rock n roll biography, because despite the fact that the pages describe tour busses and recording studios and are inhabited by a truly stellar cast (Mick Jagger, Noel & Liam Gallagher, Ronnie Wood, The Manic Street Preachers, Lisa Marie Presley, Pete Doherty, Primal Scream and Joaqin Pheonix are just a few) it is eventually a very funny, surprisingly moving story about getting in and out of a world of hurt and trouble. And anyone can relate to that. Tim gave up drugs and drink and even his beloved fags some years ago. He says he briefly considered replacing the lot with born again Christianity, but the dogma got in the way. Well it would wouldn’t it? So he took up transcendental meditation, a process by which (in theory at least) you can attain a state of consciousness that is egoless. That’s a long way from the state of consciousness afforded you by cocaine. The funny thing is that when I occasionally bump into him he doesn’t appear to have changed very much at all. He still seems to find the world as funny, confusing and exciting as he always has done. And it’s probably that love of life, along with more than a little luck that kept him from tipping over the edge.
Tim will be reading from his book and in conversation with Ben Marshall at the Caught by the River Variety Show, taking place on London’s Southbank on 25 May. More information on that event can be found here.
Tim also appears as a guest of ours at the Dinefwr and Port Eliot festivals.