Caught by the River

John Niven remembers Andrew Weatherall

24th February 2020

A week on and we’re still struggling to process that one of the true pillars of CBTR (up there with the likes of Yates, Watson and Liptrot) is no longer with us; a sentiment echoed in the following words from John Niven. With illustration by Pete Fowler.

‘What’s wrong daddy?’ 

The words of my 11-year-daughter on Monday morning, around 9am New York time. Because I’ve sat down, slumped down, on a bench in Central Park and started crying. I hadn’t been on social media at all that morning, so it was a full sledgehammer to the chest when a friend texted to say ‘have you heard about Andy Weatherall?’ 

I first met Andy in the summer of 1994, that hot summer of drinking on the pavement in front of the Ship on Wardour Street, of afternoon beers in the Heavenly office, of the Social at the Albany. Jeff Barrett introduced us. Listening to the mix Heavenly recorded (and Mat Flint kept) of Andy’s set at the Albany that September took me back to the very night. When he had the giant, hairy brass balls to go out of ‘Radio Clash’ and straight into ‘Groovy Times’ me and Vanessa Rand took a heroic draft of amyl and tried to smash our heads off the very ceiling, dancing on top of those mad beer barrels in the corner like our lives depended upon it, like – in the words of another popular tune that summer – we were going to live forever.  

As the dismal events of this week have proved, we’re not. (And has anything been more appropriately named than a blood clot? You fucking clot. How dare you.) 

And the pain of Andy’s passing this week has only been eased by reading the tens of thousands of words of tribute people have been writing. What do you want? Like Garp said in John Irving’s novel, you want the loved person to still be alive. As that’s not possible you want to be surrounded by as many people who feel exactly the same way you do. And that’s what it’s felt like for me on social media the last few days. 

I sometimes think that this life we lead – those of us who understood that the men in the factory were indeed old and cunning, those of us who chose a career in the arts, in literature, music, film or what have you – is often like being being a war correspondent. (An analogy that would have appealed to Andrew, although, Christ, he would have been mighty fast to point out its pomposity.) You travel the world in pursuit of excitement and danger (usually self-created danger, obviously) and you get thrown together with like-minded people in far-flung locations for a few intense days. Nightclubs, hotel bars, minivans, festivals, airliners. It was in situations like these that I usually bumped into Andrew over the last 25 years. 

When you’re stuck in that hotel bar while the shelling continues outside (ok, when you’re hungover and there are six hours to kill until you do your bit) the thing you pray for above all else is decent company. Andrew was one of those people whose face brought a flood of relief whenever they walked into a situation like the one above. ‘Thank God,’ you’d think. ‘Whatever happens now, it won’t be boring.’

We did just this about exactly a year ago in Morocco, at the Faber event at the Beat Hotel: two days of beers and spliffs and wine and music and conversation. I wish I could remember half of what we talked about now. If I’d known that the dinner we had on the final night was going to be the last time I’d see the man, then, at the very least, I’d certainly have made more notes.

As we usually did on nights like that he and I talked about what we’d been reading, watching and listening to. He raved evangelically, as only Andy could, about a BBC documentary called ‘Hell’s Angels, England 1974.’  A couple of days later he emailed me the link to it. A few minutes in one of the Hell’s Angels’ mates rocks up and we get the plummy BBC narrator’s voice saying the immortal words ‘at noon, his friend Nick arrives, on day release from the mental institution.’ Laugh? I nearly bought a round. The whole programme was, needless to say, solid gold, combining all the things that interested Andrew: youth culture, tribes, a now-vanished England and unreserved stupidity. I emailed him back saying…

‘Mate — if anything you undersold this. Every line is a gem. I never fully understood what ‘an embarrassment of riches’ meant until now. Niv x’ 

Andrew replied the next day. 

‘John. Sometimes you just know when somebody will fully appreciate the magnificence of a piece of work. It’s why we’re friends and not mere acquaintances…’

For a fifty-two-year old man with three children who has been (relatively) successful in his chosen field, the heady rush I felt upon seeing – in print, officially – that Andrew Weatherall considered me a friend was, to say the least, unseemly. 

But we never really grow out of wanting the coolest kid in the class to like us, do we? In addition to being the coolest kid, Andrew was also one of the kindest, warmest, most generous and the humblest. It’s only when you get older that you realize that this combination of personality traits is almost unheard of.  

Robin Turner messaged me the other day with a story Mathew Clayton had told him about Andy, about how he’d recently been DJing in a bar in Germany. Andy said he’d kept playing until ‘the last soldier left the battlefield.’ I laughed until I cried. To compare a dancefloor packed with pilled-up, amyl-nitrate-drenched German rave lunatics to soldiers on a battlefield…it was such a perfect Andrew metaphor. 

Well, now an actual General has left the battlefield. And it’s a hole that doesn’t feel like it’s going to be filled anytime soon. But the battle goes on. And we’ll keep fighting. Wherever there’s boredom and blandness and bad taste and beige bastard Britain in all its forms, we’ll keep on fighting. Because that’s what he did. And what he would have continued to do. 

And it’s what he’d want you to do. 


You can access 900 hours’ worth of downloadable Weatherall mixes here.