An Antenna for the Lonely Planet Boys: Nina Antonia


February 2009: Article for Nude magazine by Jay Clifton

“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” – Frank Zappa.

“The popularity of the Beatles was quite beyond me. Why bother to unite the world with love when you could leave it reeling? Nothing was going to draw me back to the good and favoured, so I began to develop a taste for the outlawed and outcast, the ostracised and the subversive. It was like I’d suddenly got this antenna for society’s exiles.” – Nina Antonia, The Prettiest Star: whatever happened to Brett Smiley?

There is money to be made in writing books about pop singers and rock bands –  the right pop singers, the right rock bands – more money than most writers would get for any other kind of writing, except perhaps screenwriting– but often decent revenue is dependent on a quick production.

Pop stars can fall out of favour fast – that is one reason to get a book out quickly and profit from their fame while it lasts. Even when writing about those dinosaur rock bands of the Seventies – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Clash – that seem to have become fashion-proof, the writer of the standard rock biography is usually under pressure to get their book out ahead of the three other books on that band that have been commissioned by rival publishers.

The readership are not looking for elegant writing, an original viewpoint, or measured perspectives on their heroes – anymore than readers of the average erotic novel are looking for realistic physical descriptions, naturalistic dialogue or astute observations on the interrelations between Sex, Art and Culture. The key components for a successful rock biography are facts (or at least testimony), anecdotes, and quotes – and plenty of them. The rest is a luxury. The writer is important as far as they get the job done straightforwardly and on time—they’re just there to drain the pool, they’re not there to go swimming. Or at least this seems to be the prevailing guideline of the publishers, based on the kind of books about rock and pop subjects that are usually published.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course: labours of love such as Sylvie Simmons’ lauded biography of Serge Gainsbourg, A Fistful of Gitanes (2006), or culturally-oriented works like Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (1989) and Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991); but in general the more literate rock biographies or books concerned with the cultural significance of rock and pop music were only published with any regularity from the end of the 1980s onwards. Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train (1975) established a model of what a book about rock & roll could be, but it wasn’t a model that most publishers of rock or pop books were very interested in during the late Seventies and the Eighties. Or if they were, the book had to be by an established rock critic or biographer, and it had to be about a band or artist with a phenomenal following and an already established cultural significance – Elvis or Dylan or Marvin Gaye or The Stones.

Nina Antonia’s first book, Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood (1987) broke all these rules. At the time of her writing the book, between 1981 and 1987, the American guitarist and singer Johnny Thunders (.b. New York, July 1952- d. New Orleans, April 1991) was considered by most record companies to be an anachronism, a throwback from the rowdier and fuzzier music scene of the Seventies. Thunders had made his greatest impression on popular culture with two bands – firstly as guitarist in the proto-punk glam rock’n’roll band The New York Dolls (1971-1975) – a band that were charismatic and ahead of their time but too young, hedonistic and downright strange to achieve the kind of success that their record company had hoped for as ‘The new Rolling Stones’.

His follow-up after the dissolution of the Dolls was as the formative member, lead singer and guitarist of The Heartbreakers (1975-1979). The Heartbreakers played  good-time rock’n’roll with a punk sneer and employed lyrically a very New York street irony and Runyonesque (as in Damon Runyon) storytelling, as with their best-known song,  “Chinese Rocks”, interspersed with moments of romanticism and melancholy (tracks such as “It’s Not Enough” and “I Love You”). Heavily affected by personal drug problems – Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan had considered for a while naming their band The Junkies – they only released one album during their existence, L.A.M.F in 1977, which even the band admitted they had messed-up in the mixing process (so lamented a fact by fans of the band that Jungle Records released a better version of the album in 1994, using alternative takes and remastered recordings).

By the time Nina Antonia had begun to approach London publishers with her proposal for a book on Johnny Thunders sometime circa 1982, at the age of 22, he was considered an unattractive relic of a time most people were now trying to forget. “Punk is dead, its protagonists are of scant value. Who will remember Johnny Thunders in ten years time?” was how one narcissistic publisher rhetorically put it to her at a meeting that was more like an ambush.

Nina had arrived in London from Liverpool shortly beforehand as a single parent with a three-year-old daughter, a few loyal friends – including one who put Nina and her daughter up at her flat whilst Nina applied for council-assisted accommodation – and none of the connections necessary to get a book published, especially this book. The idea for a book on her hero Johnny Thunders had taken shape during the long quiet evenings Nina spent in a rundown council house in Manchester after her baby daughter had been safely insulated under quilts and blankets (the house had neither hot water nor heating) and had fallen asleep. Given prescriptions for both amphetamines (to combat her weight-gain from the recent pregnancy) and the sedative Librium (for her post-natal depression) by her friendly chain-smoking GP, Nina began writing the first chapters of the book in a delicately-measured midnight haze as a way of staving off despair and terminal boredom, escaping to an imaginative refuge of colour and possibilities:

“At first it was more like a séance than a biography, phoning up journalists who had once interviewed him, gleaning only the most basic and fleeting fragments of information. I felt as though I was tailing a phantom, but it gave me a purpose that brightened each day. After three months, I had written three chapters largely comprised of artful guesswork and salacious speculation which seemed quite appropriate for the shady nature of Johnny Thunders, who would rather have been anything than perceived as a nice boy.” (The Prettiest Star)

After a roundelay of humiliating rejections for her early manuscript, Nina found a sympathetic voice on the other end of the telephone in Alan Hauser, one of the managing directors of Jungle Records, the record company that at that time had Thunders signed as one of their recording artists. Alan asked to see everything she had so far written, and after some getting-acquainted time, Alan set up a meeting between Nina and Johnny at a busy pub in London’s West End, with Alan and Thunders’ manager Christopher Gierche present and fulfilling a role somewhere between chaperones and attorneys.

“He was cinematic”, says Nina over coffee and cigarettes at her cosy and suitably bohemian flat in North London (purple walls, wooden floors, and a large and perfectly-still cat called Merlin draped over the top of the sofa). During an unhurried Saturday afternoon interview, in which we discuss both her own life and career and some of her other biographical subjects – the ‘baroque’ lead singer of The Only Ones’ Peter Perrett, the ill-fated ‘prettiest star’ Brett Smiley – we keep returning to the particular charisma and character of Johnny Thunders, who appears either as a central or supporting character in all four of the books by Nina published so far.

Thunders was the quintessential self-transformed rock hero – although they had some mutual acquaintances, the New York Dolls had got to know one another (as they recounted in Nina’s Dolls biography The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon) out of a mutual admiration for each other’s personal style. Unlike the story of most bands who first get together through musicianship or youthful friendships, and then find a more outrageous image for themselves a few years later (often with a little help from their manager or record company), the individual members of the Dolls had already created their own images for themselves individually – coming together and forming a rock band was just the next step. Defining oneself through self-transformation is a recurrent theme in all of Nina’s books – the architect for this self-definition is the individual’s imagination, and the means through which this self-transformation is achieved – or at least the way in which Nina is interested in how it is achieved – is through the development of a personal style.

‘Style’ is a word that can denote both the expression of a desire to conform to the prevailing culture’s image of success and desirability  (the kind of socially conformist devotion to designer labels or designed lifestyles satirised, for instance, by Bret Easton Ellis in his millennial novel Glamorama, or indeed the reversed equivalents of sub-cultural conformity as satirised in Ellis’s first novel about a group of over-privileged LA New-Wavers, Less Than Zero) and a nonconformist defining of oneself against the prevailing culture by a development of a truly personal style. What makes a truly personal style is a matter that can only be decided by oneself alone, it would seem – otherwise it wouldn’t be personal – but if it is achieved, it is visible to those who have the eyes and intelligence to see it as a glorious and admirable form of unapologetic pride and self-definition. Though Nina finds it nearly impossible to sum up in conversation the particular quality of Thunders’ personality she found so mesmerising, she mentions New York and film a number of times, and indeed her description in The Prettiest Star of Thunders as she first met him in that London pub conveys in a beautifully precise and literary way this undoubtedly studied and yet quite natural ‘cinematic’ quality:

“Across the table, Johnny lit a Lucky Strike. He was slender and petite, a study in monochrome, black suit, white skin, dark nocturnal eyes. Johnny possessed a street chic that was completely his own, innately hip if a little frayed, much like his life.”

If the first meeting was where Nina got her initial experience of Thunders’ charisma in the flesh, the second meeting, in a genteel café in Maida Vale, was where a bond of trust and friendship was established. Nina had had no option but to bring her three-year old daughter to the meeting. Though Nina was aware that this might not be perceived as a very professional move, she was pleased to discover that the presence of her small and effervescent daughter greatly appealed to Thunders, who revealed he had two young sons of his own, though he had lost all contact with them since his wife had left him. Thunders approved Nina as his authorised biographer, and, “…gave a few pointers as to how I should handle the book. As he didn’t like giving long interviews I was just going to have to remember everything and write it down, like a scribe at the scene of some great campaign, although what it would entail, Johnny gave no hint. I recalled a line from one of his songs, ‘Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.’”  (The Prettiest Star)

Nina refers to the book at one point during the interview as a ‘collaboration’ with Thunders. Although I can imagine Thunders doing a number of astounding things, spending long days or evenings co-writing a book about himself, consulting a thesaurus at regular intervals and changing typewriter ribbons aren’t amongst them. Rather I sense Nina means that during the writing of the book she fused her imagination with Thunders’ lexicon and style, with a commitment to accurate reporting and a literary style that correlates to the subject. She tells me she was mainly inspired by Albert Goldman’s 1974 biography of Lenny Bruce, but the style of the book also brings to my mind other resident writers of Thunders’ New York City who combined a fine reportorial sense for the surface details of struggling blue-collar and underworld life (Thunders life was lived somewhere between the two) with an ability to go beyond that surface though literary style and make it resonate – writers such as Budd Schulberg (On The Waterfront) and Richard Price (The Wanderers). And there is of course the significance of the subtitle, In Cold Blood – a reference to a Thunders’ song title but also, of course, to Truman Capote’s groundbreaking book of literary non-fiction, published in 1966, in which Capote immersed himself in an up-close-and-personal way with the particular subject matter of the book – the murder of an innocent family in a quiet Kansas town by a couple of drifters, and the subsequent capture, trial and execution of the two killers – becoming acquainted both with the friends and neighbours of the people murdered, and their murderers.

So as a rock biography, Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood broke new ground: it wasn’t written by an established rock journalist or biographer, but by a young fan of the subject without a prior track record; it had been produced and released by a record company instead of an orthodox book publisher; the writer was female (it may be the first rock biography of lasting credibility written by a woman that was ever published );  and it was a credible and well-written biography not on one of rock’n’roll’s central figures – Elvis or Dylan or such – but on one of its marginal or cult figures. Even its arresting monochromatic cover, unusual A3 size and dramatic, almost magazine-style page layout seemed to have an influence on the presentation of later rock’n’roll books (the first editions are consequently now something of a collectors’ item).

Nina’s antenna through her writing career to date had been tuned to the ‘lonely planet boys’ (to take a phrase from an early Thunders song): Johnny Thunders, Peter Perrett and Brett Smiley. I ask her if she thinks the maleness of her subjects is significant or merely coincidental. Nina tells me that her interest lies in the figure of the outcast and outsider, not necessarily a male figure: “I would have loved to have written a biography on the singer Nico, but by the time I could have, there were already a couple of great ones out there.” I tender the observation that Nico was portrayed in both the biographies she makes reference to (Nico: The Life and Lies of An Icon by Richard Witts and Nico: Songs They Never Play On The Radio by James Young) as a woman more comfortable in the company of men than women, and that Nico adopted an austere and masculine personal style – almost like a female version of Keith Richards or Johnny Thunders – from the beginning of the Seventies onwards. “Androgynous”, Nina suggests as an alternative.

Nina is a completely affable and friendly host, and I come away from the interview with a warm and satisfied buzz, slowly superseded over the following days by a vague feeling that most of the time I hadn’t come anywhere near what I wanted to find out about. A playback of the tape the following weekend confirms that feeling. Perhaps it was the presence of Merlin on the top of the sofa, or perhaps it was my knowledge of Nina’s affection for fairy tales, but I couldn’t help but remember the meeting later in terms of the imagery of Lewis Carroll: Alice asking questions of the Cheshire Cat. The answers to my questions – not the ones I asked but the ones I wanted answered – clearly existed if anywhere not on the tape but somewhere in the subtext of our conversation…

Nina tells me during the interview her two favourite films of all time are Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963) and Nic Roeg & Donald Cammell’s Performance (1970). The films are thematically similar: both are framed around a power-struggle between two male characters in which their identities and social positions become – depending on how one interprets the stories –blurred, reversed, and/or fused. Apart from the focus on male identity in both films, they have many aspects which seem reflective on Nina’s work. For one thing – and unusual for the medium of commercial filmmaking – there isn’t a clearly defined hero-versus-villain dynamic at work in either film – one is never sure during the watching of these films which of the two leading actors is the protagonist and which is the antagonist – or rather, the roles change from scene to scene. The viewer is left to make up his or her own mind, and despite Nina’s personal affection for her subjects, her books scrupulously do the same thing. Secondly, personal appearance or style is pivotal to character and the characters’ self-pride and social status in both stories.

In The Servant the power-struggle shifts in favour of the servant (Dirk Bogarde) over the young master of the house (James Fox) at the point that the aristocratic master loses interest in keeping up his personal image. Moreover in the casting of the handsome and innately suave Bogarde as the servant, the director underlines how easily the roles could be reversed – Fox is the master of the house only for as long as he keeps up the image of being so. In Performance, a young and cocky London gangster (James Fox again, here playing at the other extreme of the social strata) gets status and respect from his associates and the people he intimidates as much for the sharpness of his tailored suits and his superficial but imposing self-confidence, as for his ease with dishing out violence. Later in the film he is betrayed by his associates and has to go on the run, and takes refuge in the house of an androgynous and déclassé retired rock singer played by Mick Jagger. Dressed in more ordinary and discreet clothes to avoid attention, his hair coloured with cheap red paint as a makeshift disguise and with a band-aid over one eyebrow, Fox’s character spends much of the second half of the film looking embarrassed for himself. Armed and dangerous – we have already seen Fox’s character kill a rival gangster with a sadistic relish – in theory he could easily intimidate the effete rock star and his two perennially stoned-and-disrobed female companions; but defrocked of his own gangster style – his ‘performance’ – and faced with the undeniable power of the rock star’s style in contrast to his own absence of it, the gangster is for the most part humble, and later allows the psychedelically-inspired trio to make over his image in the style of Jagger (though the final result is more Keith Richards) whilst Jagger’s character – who appears to feel trapped within his own image – adopts the style of the young gangster’s boss in a hallucinatory dream sequence. Personal style or ‘image’ in both films is not simply an expression of personal tastes, but a battlefield for self-identity: a way of social mobility, a method of escape, a means to power, a matter of life or death.

In her most recent and finest book to date, the rock-biography-meets-personal-memoir The Prettiest Star (2006), Nina describes her fascination with the difference between image and reality – and the power of image to determine perceptions of reality – as  beginning in childhood, as the daughter of an outwardly proud and loving mother who in reality was on most occasions angry and disappointed with her daughter for failing to meet her impossible standards of grace and beauty. Confused, unhappy and lacking the sense of unconditional love that young children should rightfully feel from their parents, Nina was struck by the power of image at an early age by the many family photographs and home movies that were taken by her father at her mother’s behest, which presented an image of a happy and close family unit, and in particular a photo taken of the family by a news photographer of them at Christmas, looking through a shop window, that made the front page of the Liverpool Evening News:

“Who could fail to be moved by a heart-warming portrait of a joyful mother and her cute daughter? The image had become the truth: to look lovely was to be lovely. The idea of detached glamour became crucial to my identity, but I couldn’t understand why I always felt so bad, as I hovered between my reality and the projected Kodak fantasy.”

The special value of Nina’s oeuvre lies not so much in her subjects, but in her personal commitment to both the documentation of them and a search for the truth about both their character and their cultural significance. Like the best writers, she begins from personal fascinations but by an artistic balance of personal feeling and objective contemplation, combined with a fluid literary style that matches some of the best literary non-fiction of the last fifty years of writing, she completes work that will stand the test of time long after those fast-buck rock biographies and the products of the kind of rock journalism Frank Zappa pithily summarised have been turned into recycled notebooks. I don’t know where she goes from here – I’m not sure the kind of fragile and self-directed people she’s interested in exist any longer in the highly goal-oriented and regulated world of contemporary rock music – but I look forward to finding out. An antenna like that is always going to pick up some kind of great new song.