By Jacqueline Howell
As a mostly music site, Zoë Howe’s work and voice in music journalism has been an inspiration and served as a guide since before the magazine’s founding in early 2015. The Jesus and Mary Chain: Barbed Wire Kisses was our entry point to this writer’s work and it was, for us, revelatory. Howe never does the same thing twice even if her recent work can be loosely defined as rock music biographies. From bios of up and coming artists (Florence + the Machine), to the cultural analysis of How’s Your Dad? Living in the Shadow of a Rock Star Parent, to fearlessly treading into the subject of Stevie Nicks’ image, art & life (here, Howe does no less than say something new and relevant about a larger-than-life rock star who has been, yet, underestimated and prone to being misunderstood). Howe’s cracking book about Nicks gives insights to music and songwriting and, for the hungry, for the curious, writes a primer of something equally mysterious: how to be a music journalist in the wild west of today.
Howe’s books have been celebrated by the literary and music worlds, and have decidedly opened up a new type of channel for music writing and biography in the wake of the changing definitions of media through a gifted, unique viewpoint, wit and a way with people. The Jesus and Mary Chain have forever been reclusive and misunderstood artists, very important musicians emerging out of an impossible little place in Scotland who’d been cast in amber by some early zealous showmanship of their manager and a few repeated quotes and interviews surfacing online, a place that tends to favour the churn of disconnected images and illegal Youtube videos over nuance at the moment. Online trends, clickbait and imagery/style over substance threatens the already fraught truth of great musicians, their meaning and their music. Bands are no longer allowed to be quiet, mysterious, or ask us to focus on just their music. Either they must tweet and tolerate the social media coliseum or a silly meme will be made of them around one beautifully messy interview from decades ago.
Cutting through all of this, Howe’s 2013 book Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story changed the narrative and cut through the noise of social media like a perfectly discordant, piercing note the Reids might make just to see if you are paying attention and are tough enough to stand by the speakers. This biography and history of the band is not only as cool as the most impossibly cool band of the modern age it discusses, it also serves very well to tell a lot about Creation Records’ early history, including first hand interviews with Alan McGee, Joe Foster and all the early JAMC band members (with one Reid brother declining direct participation in new interviews). Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream an early JAMC member, is so entertaining in his quotes that it becomes a very funny biography of him, too. The book unfolds like the best movie, as the notorious, the legendary, the disastrous and the noteworthy, and all those beautiful noises, are given new perspectives and new polish. This writer approached this book with music and journalistic cred firmly in hand, and all involved seem to know it and welcome a chance to revisit their shared, fascinating history. Not long after, The Jesus and Mary Chain returned to the road for a successful 30th reunion tour. Zoë Howe’s books are must reading for musicians, journalists needing a bit of inspiration and music lovers.
With Howe’s most recent biography, the writer went even deeper, to much deserved acclaim on both the literary circuit and the music world, having created a new form of “psychogeographic” rock biography writing that is positively cinematic. Lee Brilleaux: Rock n’ Roll Gentleman is a deeply insightful and vivid portrait of the Dr. Feelgood frontman, a collage of personal and family memories & ephemera, journalistic research, and interviews with key collaborators who knew Brilleaux best. It’s a riveting, lively read that is the the sort of dedication so many artists deserve but too few get. And it represents the holy grail of biography, an area of literature that contains potential for discovery. It’s just a tremendous book that can be read and highly enjoyed by casual fans or even newcomers to a subject who might happen to come across it and be drawn to its cover.
Howe has now written her first work of fiction, stepping away from being the well-versed observer of the dynamics of rock stars and industry players and applying that lens inward in a move that seems well-timed at this stage of her writing career. With Shine On, Marquee Moon, (shortlisted for the Virgina Prize for Fiction 2016), Howe opens her own box of treasures rather than digging through archives, and takes the musicality and wit of her biographical histories to a new but equally alive plane, beginning with the touchstone 1977 Television record, Marquee Moon. Memory, humour, love, art, and talent (and what we do with all of this) converge to create characters that live as vividly as the shimmering talents that Howe has written about in music. Outside of the manufactured glow of the stage lights (and, to be sure, the real magic that rock stars possess) are the stories of those who make them possible, hold them together, those seamstresses for the band like Sylvie who are every bit as interesting as the men who are typically center stage. As Shine On, Marquee Moon foregrounds this point of view, and reveals the layers of complications of the world offstage, of the truth of the all access badge. Here are the artists that inspire the artists we think we know. This is a world in which the author has both intimate and broad knowledge, one in which she’s written and observed and lived and traveled and, equally as important, has imagined and spun from years of reading reams of clippings, seeing gigs and experiencing music as a fan, too. It seems an utterly perfect fit and a timely evolution for one of music writing’s brightest sparks who misses nothing, is trusted, and deals in truths and love of rock and roll; never toxic or dull gossip.
Zoë made time in the final weeks of final book launch preparation (including recording the work for an audio book version) to answer some questions for Step On Magazine.
Step On: What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Shine On, Marquee Moon?
Zoë Howe: It’s a rock ’n’ roll love story with a satirical twist. It’s not a book about Television, although the album Marquee Moon provides a kind of backdrop – originally I wanted to pepper the book with lyrics which pertained to different moments in the book, so the album would be a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the various goings-on, but the clearance was tooooo expensive, so that was that! But basically the album is very special, almost talismanic, to two of the main characters in the story, as it is to me.
We’ve got this slightly bohemian female protagonist called Sylvie who works with an ageing New Romantic band who are having a renaissance, so it’s sort of all based around being on the road, and the hot-house nature of that life, and the ridiculousness of it, the extremes, the weirdness, the dark corners, the trousers etc.
Incidentally, our Sylvie is absolutely NOT star-struck. They’re kind of equals in the sense in that they’re all creatives in different ways and they’re all just part of this machine that’s rolling along. There’s no fan-worship, ‘I’m not worthy’ bollocks from Sylvie, so through her eyes you get to see the characters for who they are – not gods, but a collection of rather eccentric, slightly silly, rather egotistical and in some cases very damaged human beings. But they’re all very lovable too, or at least I think so! My threshold for maniacs may be a little lower than most, mind.
SO: We’ve followed your work as a music writer/biographer and now as you prepare to publish your first novel (congratulations!) What were the first records you remember loving or buying for yourself?
ZH: Thanks! Too many to mention. When I was very young – like five – I practically buried myself in my dad’s prodigious record collection so I was very fortunate to be surrounded by some seriously good stuff (lots of blues, rock ’n’ roll, odd Latin American stuff – a real mix – I picked and chose what worked for me and what didn’t and it set me up for life.) The first record I bought for myself was Falco – ‘Rock Me Amadeus’. I still have it. I’m not ashamed.
SO: Who or what inspired you to take up writing?
ZH: I was always quite good at it at school, and I loved writing silly stories and poems at home, weird pantomimes and parodies of Mills and Boon books and that kind of thing, When I was a kid I also made a series of surreal magazines called ’The Wally Magazine’, while my first ‘book’ was about bottoms, written and illustrated in red biro, stapled together and placed surreptitiously in the local bookshop. But it wasn’t until my mid-20s that it occurred to me to try and make a go of it properly. I found when I started writing I enjoyed the fact I could come up with my own ideas and have more control over what I was doing and, essentially, be a bit more creative and autonomous. It was kind of a revelation. Got there in the end! I wouldn’t change a thing though. Well, not many things. Wish I still had the Bottom Book though.
SO: What are your current preoccupations?
ZH: I went vegan a few months ago, so a decent amount of time is spent on the drinking of lemon tea and the finding of and eating of Quorn. Also, reading, writing, listening to records, usual stuff. I make lots of collages. I’m properly into herbalism as well, and am, as you know, Jacquie, a bit witchy.
SO: How do you spoil yourself?
ZH: I go to the beach near our flat as often as I can, generally in the evenings when all the other bastards have gone home, and am filled with love for all of mankind.
What is your favourite era of music?
ZH: That’s impossible to answer! I listen to music from the 1920s up until now-ish, but I guess my first love would have been 1970s rock, like Led Zep and The Who, so I’ll always have a fondness for that era.
SO: What is your favourite journey?
ZH: I heart LA. I went for the first time a few years ago on our last holiday. I never realised I’d fall in love with it so hard. Dylan (my husband) and I would go back there in a heartbeat. Stay up in the hills for a bit, and then scoot down to the Malibu Colony or Paradise Cove.
SO: What was the last great movie or TV show you saw?
ZH: My husband and I have just finished gorging ourselves on the classic 1980s Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett. I loved it at the time and it is just ageless and so classy. There are about nine million episodes and only one or two slightly dud ones. Not a bad strike rate, my dear Watson.
SO: What is your most treasured tool or instrument?
ZH: I’d love to say ‘my Mother of Pearl quill’ or ‘my Peruvian drinking hat’, but sadly no, just my dear old MacBook Air.
SO: What is your favourite curse word or the phrase you overuse the most?
ZH: Swear-wise, there’s a craze for some really inventive swearing at the moment, but personally you can keep your fuckspanglers, cockjumblers, wankbobbidees and arsebufferters – I’m an old-fashioned girl and the classics suit me fine.
SO: Will Pop eat itself?
ZH: It’s been doing so for years, but that’s ok.
SO: Who is the most underrated band or what is the most underrated album?
ZH: Too many underrated artists, but the one who springs to mind is Mickey Jupp, and his band Legend’s classic Red Boot album. Juppy, originally from Southend, has the most soulful voice and he has written some absolute stunners. His guitarist Mo Witham is a class act too. ‘Lorraine’ is a beauty from Red Boot, a gorgeous love song, but slightly cracked. It’s romantic and heartfelt but underscored with these slightly mean, urgent guitar stabs. It’s got it all, has ‘Lorraine’. It’s a love song but kind of tough and real. Very Essex, natch.
SO: Can you describe for our readers some of your favourite foot furniture (or recent acquisitions?) Would you ever open your closet for a tour of your bohemian wardrobe?
ZH: Ha! Foot furniture – phrase courtesy of the wonderful Dr Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux, I believe! As for my own favourites, I think I probably take shoes slightly less seriously than Brilleaux did. I can’t really think of any of my favourite shoes off the top of my head.
Of course, I’d be happy to allow a tour of my wardrobe if you thought anyone was interested! As for recent acquisitions, I recently bought the most enchanting little 1980s black mini-dress with a black net ra-ra skirt for ONE POUND from a vintage shop near where I live in Southend On Sea. ONE POUND. There’s nothing wrong with it. There are lots of costumey bits in there. Tutus feature.
SO: It seems that the Lee Brilleaux book, and your ongoing friendship/collaborations with Wilko Johnson, has been a special one for you. How has this experience influenced your other writing (if it has)?
ZH: I’m not sure, but it was a particularly special book, the Brilleaux book, for lots of reasons, and it was fun putting my own stamp on it and mingling it with what I thought he might do, as with the dropped in sections (The Rock ’n’ Roll Gentleman’s Guide To Adventuring etc) – that was my kind of attempt at getting inside his head a bit, in a humorous way. It’s all a bit Jerome K Jerome / PG Wodehouse, I guess, it was fun to have the freedom to do that, and I am so grateful to my editor Alison Rae at Birlinn Books for allowing me such free reign.
SO: We know that the Lee Brilleaux book offered an unprecedented look into personal family archives from Lee’s family (mom & wife) and that of Wilko Johnson, founding member of Dr. Feelgood. It also put Canvey on the map in a way we feel sure Brilleaux would have been pleased with. Where should visitors to Canvey Island begin their tour?
ZH: Well, thank you, but I think Canvey was already on the map thanks to the Feelgoods! That and the mythical Canvey Island Monster too, of course. We don’t want to leave him out. (Worth a Google, although not while eating.) If you want to visit Canvey Island, ignore all the people who say, ‘Why?’ or snort ‘Good luck!’ and get off the train at Benfleet. Then you can walk over Benfleet Creek to the Island and either wander the sea wall and walk the perimeter, or, if you’re driving, head to the Labworth Cafe, designed by Ove Arup (the fella behind the Sydney Opera House, no less. I don’t mean he’s standing behind the Sydney Opera House right now, I mean … you know what I mean.) Have a slap-up brekkie and then, in true old-school Feelgood style, go down the the Monico or the historic Lobster Smack pub, better still the Admiral Jellicoe (the Feelgoods’ favourite pub during their early years) and… well, start drinking, my friend.
SO: Is our dream of being asked to write band liner notes someday (as you have done before) a futile dream for emerging writers? Or do you think the resurgence in vinyl and even tapes means we can still hold out a faint hope?
ZH: I think there are so many reissues now and, as you say, the vinyl resurgence, there’s certainly good reason for feeling that liner notes are a fine way to go. Writers for such projects tend to be commissioned for their particular connection to the band or the music, so once you’ve found your niche and have established yourself a bit, it’s certainly something that can present itself.
SO: What’s next for Platypus?
ZH: Ah, Platypus – the band I may or may not be in – (masks are worn to protect the guilty) – lots of gigs, a vinyl release in the near future, general terrorising of unsuspecting or suspecting audiences.
With special thanks to Zoë Howe.
Zoë Howe’s website.
To buy the book / audiobook visit HERE.
Confirmed upcoming author events in the UK.
29 September, 6.30pm-8.30pm – Blackwell’s, High Holborn, London WC1
13 October – 6.30pm – Canvey Island Library, Essex
22 October – Rock ‘n’ Roll Book Club, Waterstones, Walthamstow, London E17
12 November – Louder Than Words Festival, Palace Hotel, Manchester
26 November, 12-1pm – Waterstones, Southend, Essex
Zoë Howe is an English music writer whose bona fides include a number of original rock biographies, music journalism, on-air radio appearances (as well as host of her own 2010 FM radio series “City by City”) who wrote the definitive Jesus and Mary Chain biography Barbed Wire Kisses. Howe has an established presence and a talent for work that crosses between writing and the world of music, with a foot in each and a joie de vivre that is both refreshing and critically needed in media today.