Paul Fitzgerald chats to Simon Mason, author of Too High, Too Far, Too Soon, ahead of his show at The Zanzibar as part of Hightown Pirates.
The final chapters of Simon Mason’s harrowing and visceral memoir picture him, existing not living, in a stolen motorhome on a Spanish hillside, addicted to crack, heroin and alcohol, covered in blood and with no hope of recovery or salvation from the ravages and the damage he’d done to himself and to others.
The book is a darkly graphic account of his life to that point, from childhood tragedy, through the brutality of a Catholic boarding school education to his chronic addiction. His was, up until that point, a life led through abuse. Abused by circumstance, by religion, and ultimately by himself, there were no routes forward, and there could be no way out. He’d come close to death on so many occasions previously that he’d become use to the fact that surely his eventual destiny would be the same of the countless friends he’d lost along the way. At some point he would doubtlessly succumb to the eternal sleep he’d so fortuitously managed to avoid all those times in the past. Hope eventually came via a flight back to the UK, funded twice and separately by Banksy and Mason’s sister. He used one payment for the flight, and one to score some more smack before a final attempt at rehab.
Those closing pages detailed what he didn’t know at the time would actually become the beginning of a new story. The tale of a former addict, mentor, father, author, playwright, songwriter and musician. A story of new beginnings, a new and previously unimaginable life. A story of the intrinsic, redemptive and restorative power of creativity, and its ability to heal. This is a story of recovery.
Over ten years since he left that Spanish hillside, Simon Mason is clean, sober, and healthy. Living a life of real worth, supporting and mentoring others, spending time with his daughter, and has built a life around the one thing that has remained a constant force in his life, music.
What began as a handful of songs knocked up by his old band, took on life, and grew organically, leading him on a new journey. His band, The Hightown Pirates have produced a new album, Dry and High, as well as having played recently with The Libertines (Pete Doherty designed the album’s sleeve), they’ve got festival shows lined up for 2018, and are in Liverpool, Mason’s home from home, this weekend for a Zanzibar show. Recovery, he knows, is not a destination but a journey, a process. And its a journey he never thought he’d see, much less get so much holistic benefit from.
“One of the most delusional thought processes I used to have when I was still drinking and taking drugs was that if I stopped my life would be boring…I’d be sitting there, fucking rattling my tits off, begging outside a kebab shop in Hackney thinking to myself, ‘yeah, if wasn’t on smack, life’d be shit’…. you might laugh at that idea, but that’s all you have to say about the power of addiction, in that it just makes your vision of life so myopic, so tunnelled that nothing else can exist.”
He wants those in recovery to understand that art and music can bring those new beginnings about, can inspire and strengthen, and lead to new destinations.
“The fact that we can put this together, that we’ve made an album, made this brilliant album actually, and started out playing gigs, and all this is truly an advert for the people who’ve kinda reached a point where they want to turn their lives around, and see that, you know what? You can do stuff. You can do this.
“Now, not everyone wants to be a musician, obviously, but I’ve seen so many people achieve such amazing things, you know, well above and beyond just cleaning themselves up, and I’d like to think, if I can be a tiny bit sanctimonious, that’s the underlying theme in all this. When Martin Smith and Simon James came to put the horns on the album, they listened to the songs and asked me what vibe I was after, and I said fuckin joy. Give me some joy! And they fuckin’ did, too. That’s really what we’re about”
Some of the songs on Dry and High began taking shape when he was still using, whereas others are more recent creations. Rich in characters, they take their notable lead from the great storytellers such as Ray Davies or Pete Townshend. The lyrics are honest, self-confronting and at times hewn from the darkest and most tragic recesses of his most difficult times. There is, though, an undeniable strength to the writing in these tales.
“Its a difficult argument sometimes, when you talk to people about their favourite artists, you know, ‘the greats’ who were clearly under the influence of something for large chunks of their careers and who produced work that can never be bettered by anyone and you had changing times in the world to give it that context, but I asked a few people who know me quite well to listen to the album and tell me which songs I wrote back when I was using and which are more recent. They can’t tell the difference. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a timeline where being in an altered state can be used as a well of creativity, but its a short timeline, a brief period. After that, its just about fuckin’ surviving or trying to not feel sick.”
There was, in the period of his life just after the millennium, a band called Monkeyman, and some of this collection of songs come from those days. The band crumbled, with its members tired of spending hours on end in rehearsal studios while their frontman was holed up in the toilet trying to get a vein. The band’s ending was, Mason agrees, completely understandable. Years later, he found himself unearthing those recordings, rediscovering the songs, and energised by the need to revisit them in some way, he felt the urge to reconnect. And here was an opportunity to make up for lost time, and the disappointment caused by the inglorious way the band ended.
“I found these songs, these old songs a few years ago, some old rehearsal recordings, and sat listening to them for the first time in over a decade. Some of the songs that we ended up putting on Dry and High were there, in a really primitive form and a bit all over the place, and I thought they needed to be heard, they deserved to be heard, and just because they were written so long ago, why should I consign them to oblivion? So, when I got the offer to make this album, I called the guitarist and the drummer from that old band. I told them I had some new songs, but that I wanted to record some of the old ones, and they were like ‘where do we sign?’”
“One of the hardest things about sobriety is dealing with these regrets, that just drop out of the sky onto you, you know? You can be bowling along the street, and some memory will hit you. And while I’ve learned that you have to accept what you can’t change, there are some things you can put right. I could put this right. Or, I could at least have a go, for myself as well as them. Those songs gave me half an album to work with.”
From here, the seeds of The Hightown Pirates were beginning to take root. An approach after a Pete Doherty show where Mason had played an acoustic set, led to an offer to help him get the songs recorded. Fuelled by fate and serendipity, an offer of eight days in a studio coincided with the people he approached being not only available but keen to get involved.
“Basically, I went from getting what amounted to a record deal, to booking a studio and getting a band together in the space of an hour, and I was walking round the garden, saying ‘fuckin’ hell’, I couldn’t believe it. It was seamless, and that energy, you know?
We had four rehearsals and found a producer with some incredible provenance, he’d worked with Van Morrison and Noel Gallagher amongst others. I pulled in a few old friends who I’d known for years, we had those four rehearsals, drove down to the studio and recorded the album in five days. It was that serendipity again. And the other thing is that a few of the band, like me, in whatever fashion are in recovery from something or other. We sat together on the first night, looked at each other and said ‘how the fuck did this happen?’”
They were joined at the studio, on the lawns at the side of the Thames, by friends and family, a collective and collaborative vibe feeding into the communal feel of the album, and a real tangible sense that the good will out, that with energy and belief, creativity and the simple human emotion of joy shines through. Its about the common goal. Its a big, broad sound onstage as it is on record. In their four star review, Q magazine likened the album to ‘the finer moments of Screamadelica, Arcade Fire and Blood, Sweat and Tears.’ With so many people willing this project forward, so much positive energy, and such high praise as this, the journey continues to the next steps.
“The next stage is to get people to come out, to come and join in. We’re doing longer sets, working on new songs. We want to work them up onstage, I want it to be more inclusive, more collaborative, and we want to get out there playing as much as possible.”
Simon Mason is proud of his association with Liverpool and its people. From music to football, from his links to The Brink to the sell out nights at the Lantern Theatre where he staged the one man play version of his book, its a firm and unswerving bond the city holds for him. That one man show ends with a depiction of a phone call from The Sun, on the release of his book, keen to buy his story and for him to tell them about the rock stars he’d supplied when he was what Alan McGee described as ‘the rock and roll doctor’. As a friend of this city, who holds the place close to his heart, he gave the rag the predictable and wholly justified briefest reply. They didn’t get their interview.
“I’ve been coming up here since the late 80s…..people ask me about this place, because I’m not from here. What I am is a survivor, and this is a city that’s survived a lot. There’s a defiance, and a sense of ‘d’ya know what, we’re just gonna fuckin’ do it ourselves’…its also the place where I hear more laughter than anywhere else…we’ve got a new song called Hope Street Eternal, and I’ve nicked a line from Paul Du Noyer’s book A Wondrous Place, where he talks about Liverpool musicians having a knack of turning rage into beauty…well as a result of my early life, all the shit that happened and the years of addiction, I was really fucking angry. I had a rage. In addiction, I turned that rage inwards on myself and unfortunately the collateral damage extended to those around me but essentially it was 20 years of self harm…injecting heroin into your neck is not an act of love, right? So I had that rage, yeah. We finish our set with a song called Just For Today, its a kinda triumphant thing, you know, its you an me, its just for today. That’s what its about. That’s my rage into beauty.”
Hightown Pirates play the Zanzibar on Saturday 2nd December.
Photos courtesy of Simon Mason and Hightown Pirates.