This book needs an ad break. Barry Miles didn’t have adventures: he made ventures. And pretty dull ones. Which is disappointing, when you consider that Serpent’s Tail have previously published counter-cultural colossi like Stewart Home (Thighway to Mel: Six Years, Eleven Months and Eighteen Days as a Terrified, Traumatized and Tearful Toy-Boy Tonguing the Tepid and Toxic Tvotzke of Top Social Conservative Melanie Phillips), radical researchers like Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music(k) of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010) and visceral visionaries like David M. Mitchell (A Sustainable Future: Fourth Annual Report to the Welsh Parliament on Renewable Energy Resources). But Miles isn’t a key/core component of any of those communities, i.e., he’s not a counter-cultural colossus, a radical researcher or a visceral visionary. Serpent’s Tail have been a bit dishonest too. The Clash are prominent on the front cover and are named first as “Legends of the Decade” on the back cover. But they don’t get a lot of space inside and Barry Miles doesn’t make them look very good:
I saw them a lot, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, the Roxy in Covent Garden, in recording studios and rehearsal rooms. They never seemed to have any money. I was struck by the fact that after they played three sell-out nights at the Rainbow Theatre, I saw Bernie Rhodes pull away in a car with personalized number plates reading CLA5H, while Mick Jones was waiting for a bus outside. … Joe [Strummer] certainly went along with the posing and pouting – none of the other punk bands came anywhere near the Clash in terms of [where’s an Ex-term-in-ator! when you need one?] adopting classic rock ’n’ roll poses as soon as a photographer removed their lens cap, and the music rags were happy to print the pictures of the Clash looking moody in front of burnt-out buildings, in front of bare brick walls, the Clash in camouflage fatigues in Northern Ireland, the Clash posing in the same way that all of the pop groups of the sixties posed, in fact. Never a smile; they were masters of the moody profile, particularly Paul Simonon, who became a real pin-up in punk circles.
It paid off eventually, of course, and they went on to become one of the most successful bands of the era, a seventies equivalent of the Rolling Stones, until Joe took Bernie’s advice and sacked Mick Jones. With the only musically talented member of the band gone, the Clash degenerated into a parody of its old self and folded. (ch. 15, “1976: Punk”, pp. 229-30)
That The Clash ever degenerated is news to me. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Miles does say good things about The Damned and The Ramones – “I particularly liked the Damned because they injected humour into punk, something sadly lacking with bands like the Clash” (pg. 232) – but they get less space than The Clash, unfortunately. So do Paul McCartney and Patti Smith, also “Legends” on the back cover. Little space for Patti Smith is fine by me. None at all would have been even better. As for Ian Dury: he’s on the back cover but doesn’t seem to appear at all in the book. He’s not in the index and I didn’t come across him as I read. I could easily have missed him, because I skipped a lot, but it looks as though Serpent’s Tail promised something and didn’t deliver. In Ian Dury’s case, I’m not complaining.
However, I’m definitely dubious about this bit, where Miles describes a robbery he suffered while living in New York:
Inevitably, given where we lived, it was not long before we were robbed. One day we came back from the A&P supermarket at 8:30 in the evening, walked up the stairs to apartment 4C and, just as I was fiddling with the key, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked round to see the stubby barrel of a handgun held by a large black man. His partner was holding Ann [Buchanan, Miles’ girlfriend] against the wall at knifepoint. (ch. 4, “1970: Chelsea Days, pg. 61)
That was disturbing to read. I mean, is the so-called race of a so-called criminal ever relevant? And why does Miles have to say that he was “very scared” that “they might rape Ann”? That’s pandering to a vicious stereotype about blacks. Okay, it’s an accurate stereotype, but what does accuracy matter? Just because blacks commit a heck of a lot of violent crime doesn’t mean people should say that they do. If we stopped saying it long enough, perhaps they’d stop doing it for a bit. Or stop enjoying it so much. It seems unlikely, but it’s worth a try, surely. They’re driven to it by racism and injustice anyway. What else could it be?
But the black robber doesn’t get a lot of space either. No, Miles writes most about working as a kind of secretary-cum-archivist for Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. This is where the dullness really kicks in. Or nods off. I don’t like the writing of Ginsberg or Burroughs and their eccentric behaviour and lives – sorry, lifestyles – don’t do anything for me either. But if you’d like to hear about Allen’s long phone-calls to New York from the countryside and about how Bill’s flat in London got cold in the evenings because that’s when the storage-heaters stopped working, go ahead and make your own day.
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