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.”
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.”
British art school in the ’60s was little more than Pop Star U. “It was like going to bohemian camp for four years,” Farren says of his stint at St. Martin’s in London. “The girls told you what to wear, and thus were born the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things and The Who and the Deviants. Without art schools, there would be no British Invasion.” Fueled by Bob Dylan, the first Fugs album, early Velvet Underground demos, and fistfuls of amphetamines, the Deviants were born in 1966. But no one particularly cared. Their rough garage snarl scared off British record labels. “‘Piss off and die’ was as constructive as it got,” Farren says. “‘You’re fucking terrible.’” So the Deviants put out their first record, 1967’s Ptooff!, themselves, and soon became regulars at London’s swingin’ UFO club and on the English ballroom and festival circuit. The counterculture was becoming commodified, and the attention got pretty heavy for the shy, insecure country boy. “It’s like surfing for the first time,” Farren says. “You can’t look around and enjoy it, because you’re too busy staying on the board. It was complete overload, moving into dementia. We decided to top off this already fairly complex ice cream sundae with a cherry of marijuana, and then LSD — Jesus Christ, nobody had a prayer.”
After three Deviants albums, Farren was tossed from the band while on tour in Vancouver. “I was completely insane,” he remembers. “I was totally drugged for almost three years. I actually collapsed and went to hospital the moment I got home. I was a basket case.” Though he made a solo record, Mona — the Carnivorous Circus, in 1970 and spent a minute with the Pink Fairies, Farren was burnt to a crisp with music. Instead, he turned to the relatively sedate world of underground journalism. He landed at the International Times while moonlighting as a doorman at the UFO and dabbling with the White Panthers. Operating the I.T. — whose sister publication, Oz, was run by Felix Dennis — was a struggle, and he often relied on the kindness of rich freaks like Pete Townshend and John and Yoko to make payroll.
Life underground also meant you were never above suspicion from Scotland Yard. When a militant group called the Angry Brigade began setting off explosives in London in 1970, Farren’s home was raided by the bomb squad, who found nothing more than a quarter-ounce of hash, which Farren was ordered to flush down the toilet. Then Farren — as the editor of a comic book called Nasty Tales, a compilation of racy British and U.S. strips — was slapped with an obscenity charge. “It was serious obscenity, two years in jail,” he says. “We spent 18 months preparing for trial, went to trial, got acquitted, and I decided I didn’t want to play that game any longer.”
Instead, he decided to make use of all those Flash Gordon adventures stored away in his head. He wrote his second sci-fi novel, The Quest of the DNA Cowboys. “I wanted to do a form of science fiction that used a kind of surrealist imagery that was in the advanced rock & roll song,” he says of his early work. “In rock & roll songs, you get little vignettes. You had to imagine it for yourself.” The book was published in 1976, and to support his writing, Farren began working for the New Musical Express just as punk was breaking in the U.K. But the corporate publication took a toll on Farren’s soul. “I didn’t like being at the NME. It was a hard wrench to be working for the Man and made me quite alcoholic.” His 1978 album Vampires Stole My Lunch Money provides a horrifying time capsule of the artist’s psyche at the time. The record, with titles that include “Half Price Drinks,” “I Want a Drink,” “Drunk in the Morning” and “(I Know From) Self Destruction,” is a sonic car crash of self-degradation.
In 1979, Farren ventured to New York City, where he looked up Ira Robbins, a young editor at the Trouser Press, a nascent zine covering the punk and new-wave scene. Farren pitched a new column and Robbins jumped at it, breaking the editorial piggy bank for Farren’s column, “Surface Noise” — $50. “We were little kids, and it was fantastic that someone of his caliber wanted to be friends with us,” Robbins says. But ultimately, New York proved as destructive as London had been: Farren was soon divorced and drinking heavily. Despite his conspicuous consumption, Farren continued to pump out books, and in 1980, at the behest of an editor, he took a stab at a broader audience. “I was sternly told that I really ought to pull back and take some of the ideas I’ve got and ‘Star Wars–ize them’ and I might have a successful book, which kind of proved true,” he says. The result was 1981’s The Song of Phaid the Gambler, which he’s described as Maverick in the far distant future. Still, New York was like Disneyland for booze hounds. “If he had stayed in New York, Mick would’ve ended up in Bellevue,” says a friend, writer Henry Beck. “Any city where he could walk to his choice of taverns was the wrong choice. He was often waking up some distance from where he wanted to be.”
Partially at the behest of his girlfriend, partially to take a crack at Hollywood, Farren moved to Los Angeles in 1990, thinking there might be a place for a crazy English anarchist after the success of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. As he had in New York, Farren needed a venue in which he could hang his hat and rant. And, like Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins, I was stoked when Farren expressed an interest in writing for the Los Angeles Reader, where I was managing editor in 1993. When I was a suburban wannabe punk growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Trouser Press had been my travelogue to the outside world. I was a serious disciple of “Surface Noise,” with its hard-boiled, melodramatically apocalyptic style. I too gave Farren a column, “Panic in the Year Zero,” but paid him a princely sum of $100 on publication — a big deal for a paper known to wait up to two months to dole out editorial checks.
The Reader indulged Farren’s soapbox: TV, conspiracies, Howard Stern, TV, UFOs, TV, smokers’ rights, TV. And like countless others before me, I got to know Farren while seated next to him on a barstool, at L.A.’s finer taverns — the Formosa, the Three Clubs, the Cat & Fiddle. He held court in his high-pitched middle-class queen’s English, the wizened old coot giving the kid advice. I drove him home when he was too pissed to stand up, pretended not to notice when he spat up on the bar, and held him steady when he wobbled. I treasured his history with the underground press and his curmudgeonly, almost quaint stance against authority.
As a non-driver in a city with dreadful taxi service, Farren may have planted himself in the one place on Earth that’s safest for him. Los Angeles has certainly given him a chance to glean some adult perspective. Now, at last, Farren may be learning to manage himself. He’s even planning on joining the Horror Writers Association, if only for the pragmatic purpose of getting health insurance. It seems Farren’s ready to grow old gracefully. Which amazes even his best friends. “The astonishing thing about Mick Farren,” says Dennis, “is that he’s still alive.”
Mick Farren & the Deviants play Saturday, November 24, 8 p.m., at the Garage, 4519 Santa Monica Blvd., Silver Lake.