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Give the Anarchist a Cigarette 

Mick Farren on the Deviants, fantasy fiction and blowing shit up

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
Photo by Anne Fishbein

About a year ago, publishing mogul Felix Dennis was staring at the Caribbean Sea, sucking down cocktails with fellow gazillionaires at Basil’s Bar on the beach in Mustique. He mentioned his old friend Mick Farren, and a voice among them perked up. “That mad old cunt?” asked Mick Jagger. “He’s still around?”

Despite his own best self-destructive efforts, Farren is still wheezing (can’t shake that damn asthma), still mad. The man Dennis became acquainted with three decades ago “while standing in the docks together waiting to be sent to prison,” for the crime of being a card-carrying member of the underground press, is virtually unchanged. Except that he coddles his long-suffering liver now and again. But even Farren realizes it’s tough to be a full-time anarchist when you’re pushing 60. These days, the author/musician/conspiracy theorist/raconteur spends much of his time in a cluttered apartment off Melrose Avenue, staring at the television or into a blank computer screen, trying for the umpteenth time to write the Great British Psychedelic Fantasy Novel.

On a lonely Thursday earlier this year, Farren sits at the back bar of Silver Lake’s Spaceland, waiting to take the stage with his band, the Deviants. He’s the guy with the long velvet coat, barrelhouse gut, rock-star hair the shape of a blow-dried barrister’s wig, and round Lennonesque glasses. Budweiser in hand, he bemusedly describes a successful gig the week before in San Diego, where the promoters did the band right, treating them to a bit of post-show cocaine. There are no such celebrations at Spaceland. When the Deviants appear, shortly before midnight, only 20 people remain in the club. Still, the band grinds out noisy, agitproppy rock. Farren holds on to the mike stand for dear life with one hand, waving a cigarette like a wand with the other. When guitarist Andy Colquhoun periodically lets rip, Farren rests his body against a back wall and wearily takes long drags, followed by hits off his asthma inhaler. He looks like he might explode. “I’m a lousy singer,” he says later, “but an excellent rock star.”

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Undeterred by the gig’s sparse attendance, Farren retreats to his apartment cluttered with alien masks and other UFO detritus, a Che Guevara flag draping the curtains, Bart Simpson dolls, and evidence of his life’s work — books, CDs, photos, club handbills. Here, in this veritable pop-culture cocoon, Farren works from dusk till dawn, puffing on reefer and Merit Ultralights (purchased in bulk from an Indian reservation). He’s authored 22 books of fiction (composer/sci-fi freak Glenn Branca hailed his 1978 novel, The Feelies, as the true birthing of cyberpunk), 11 of nonfiction, recorded more than a dozen albums and written countless magazine articles. He’s currently toiling away on the fourth of his quartet of modern vampire novels for Tor Books — the third one, More Than Mortal, was recently released — and his rock & roll memoir, Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, is out in England, but hasn’t a U.S. publisher yet.

Though the mainstream has knocked gingerly on his door at times — screenplays that got sucked into turnaround purgatory, books that’ve been optioned, sometimes more than once — Farren is firmly ensconced on the fringe. His world has always been a slight distance from the main stage, the sort of place where hell wrestles free from order, in the low-end parallel universe of cultdom. Which is fine, he says; reality never suited him much anyway. Even as a child, growing up in the minuscule village of Clapham — “300 people and a goat” — he was already retreating from the monotony of life, concocting elaborate fantasy worlds in his head. “I have entertained the ideas of alternative universes for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I would go away for days on end and become Flash Gordon, interrupted only for meals. And I’ve been much the same way ever since.”

For almost 40 years, Farren has stormed through the counterculture like Zelig’s Furry Freak Brother: He played, along with the Stones, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Jefferson Airplane, at Hyde Park in ’69, had an affair with feminist author Germaine Greer, co-wrote (with ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer) an off-Broadway musical based on the last words of Dutch Schultz. “He’s the real thing, across the board — as a political artist, as a thinker, as a writer, as a lifelong participant in the avant-garde,” says journalist Mim Udovitch. “He has always produced original, progressive work. He’s like the last bohemian standing.”

“The great secret of me is I’m a country boy,” says Farren, whose mother bred boxers. “I always gravitated to the largest cities, because I wanted to get out. The country sucks, man. It’s full of bad-tempered, stupid people and hostile farmers and religion and god knows what.” Farren was an unhappy only child; his father was killed during World War II, and he was raised by a “horrendous stepfather,” he says. He quickly blossomed into an angry young man, manifested in his proclivity for blowing shit up, such as the local bus shelter. “I was a very good bomb maker by the age of 10,” he says. After he showed an aptitude for drawing, art school eventually replaced explosives as Farren’s primary creative outlet, which was just as well. “They don’t call it performance art in small towns, you know,” he says. “They call it a felony.”

  • Mick Farren on the Deviants, fantasy fiction and blowing shit up

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