Monday, October 11, 2010

Jah Wobble's "Memoirs of a Geezer" (book review)

Jah Wobble, one of the most amazing musicians to come out of the United Kingdom in the last thirty years, has recently had his autobiography released in the United States. I managed to get a copy, found it was “a cracking good read” as they said in a bygone era, and decided to post this review in an attempt to get more people to read it, not least because I think many of you would enjoy his music if you heard it.

To give you a brief synopsis of Jah Wobble’s life, John Wardle was born in the grim postwar environment of Stepney, East London in the year 1958. He grew up in a working-class family and was working irregularly as a laborer until music and luck changed his life. He was a friend of two members of the Sex Pistols when the punk rock fad broke in 1977, and in fact his “Jah Wobble” nickname was given him by John Simon Ritchie, generally known as Sid Vicious, as a drunken mangling of “John Wardle.”

In 1979, having played bass for maybe a month, his childhood friend, drinking buddy, and fellow troublemaker John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon recruited Wobble into his new post-Sex Pistols art-rock band, Public Image Ltd., the infamous “PiL.” From PiL’s first record, Metal Box, and Wobble’s subsequent departure, it was a short step to making a record with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebzeit of the German band Can, playing on reggae songs, and cranking out a series of increasingly jaw-dropping solo albums.

All told, Wobble went from being a non-player to a name-dropped pro in virtually no time at all, and by the mid-1980s, had produced twelve records in eight years. Then, burned out on the financial chicanery of the music business, with a wife and daughter to support, and increasingly befuddled by drug and alcohol problems, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got a day job. For most musicians, that’s where the music ends—they get “real jobs,” write off their chances of ever doing a world tour, and leave the stage and studio behind.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once pontificated that “There are no second acts in American lives. Wobble’s a Brit, so he’s allowed a second act if he wants one.

The first thing Wobble did after turning his back on the music industry was to sell his bass and put the money through his wife's mail-slot while he went off to get sober. The second thing he did was get a job. His ‘straight jobs’ lasted several years and included stints as a truck driver, warehouse manager (fired for punching out the owner’s obnoxious son), and a term on the London Underground which has attained near-legendary status. He worked day shifts and night shifts and played in bands with friends in his off-time.

In 1988, a sober and divorced Wobble fought his way back into the music business on a full-time basis with Without Judgment, a powerful live album mostly recorded on his vacation time from the London Underground. With a lot of work and a lot of luck, he embarked on what was almost an entirely new career at the head of the globe-trotting Invaders of the Heart, the ensemble he would captain for about eight years.

Following that, he started his own record label 30 Hertz Records, released two albums of poetry set to music (The Inspiration of William Blake and The Celtic Poets, both of which I consider essential listening), a requiem mass, a string quartet, collaborations with Laotian and Chinese musicians, remarried, released at least one album per year for fifteen years, had two sons. In 1999 sadly, the Wardle family was eventually forced to move out of his beloved East London, squeezed out between gentrification driven by New Labor and the ethnic ghettos. In 2010, now based in the north of England, Jah Wobble is still at the top of his game and hunting down new challenges with the intensity of Blake’s burning-eyed tiger of the night.

Where Memoirs Of A Geezer is a world-beater is that the geezer himself gives you a fearless moral inventory (to use his own phrase), well-laced with sarcasm and dry wit, of who he is, where he comes from, and all the wheres, whos, and whyfores of his life.

Some of the story is not what one would expect. Wobble is, if nothing else, a man who keeps himself in tune with his surroundings, and he writes extensively about the context in which he moves. The first third of the book includes a detailed discussion of Wobble’s family, the harsh life of postwar Britain (wartime food rationing only ended in the UK in 1954), how Blitz-ruins still littered the city blocks, his struggles in a Catholic school where corporal punishment was more common than pencils, the punks-vs.-teddy boys brawls, police corruption and abuse, and the generally miserable life of working-class youth. The later chapters include a scrutiny of the economic and cultural changes in his beloved East London borough, including the influx of Bangladeshis, violent Islam, the crack epidemic that began in 1992, and so on. This is the sort of detail that doesn’t make it into most books about musicians.

It’s just plain fun to read, in a way that doesn’t depend on the reader admiring the subject. You can easily imagine being parked next to Wobble in a pub somewhere, as he tosses out aphorisms, jokes, bits of pub-booth philosophy, musings about music, and stories from his past over a cup of tea (having been sober for a quarter century).

There are a few self-deprecating tales of the sort of chemically-induced excess that fuel the music industry, it is true, but Wobble puts it into a new light. As he tells it, he grew up in a working-class, East London environment where everyone drank from an early age (his Christmas encounter with a bottle of chartreuse at the age of thirteen is amusing, but rather ominous), and where people split their home lives between their flats and their pub.

Wobble is certainly a man of strongly-held opinions, and not above making a stand on principle. As with most Britons, race mattered less than class or economic standing. He didn’t like Thatcherism and its callous disdain for the working classes, or New Labor and it’s oily institutionalized greed, and he certainly doesn’t much like most “toffs” or “public-school boys,” whether politicians or Peter Gabriel, which is understandable since most of the grief in Wobble’s life, came directly or indirectly at the hands of the Old Etonian clique who dominate the UK’s leadership. He finds race and racism depressing. It must have come as quite a shock to the man who once berated white skinheads for their “Paki-bashing” to himself be assaulted and hospitalized by a mob of Bangladeshis in his own old neighborhood of Tower Hamlets twenty years later.

It is particularly refreshing to have a book written by the author as an honest and unpretentious autobiography, without heavy-handed ghost-writing or the elaborate reworking a PR machine. Wobble is perfectly capable of writing on his own—he has written book reviews for the UK’s Independent newspaper for many years, and has a BA in Humanities from Birckbeck College—and this book certainly reads like it was written by the geezer himself.

If the book has a central theme, it is “I am a geezer (a regular guy) and I come from somewhere.”

I would like to close with an observation. Wobble claims to have introduced a young Sting to reggae music in the late 70s, while working as a roadie for Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, with whom the Police were touring. Their paths then diverged; Sting earned millions of dollars and global name recognition, and has sold millions of records since. Wobble, admittedly, made a living but didn’t do as well. The difference is that Sting has to play “Roxanne” every night, else the promoters or the audience will shoot him, while Wobble hasn’t had to play a song off of Metal Box in three decades.

That is a kind of freedom that most musicians would deeply appreciate.

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