Ten minutes after we had turned off Brick Lane, I began to notice that something very peculiar was happening. My guide, an agitated young man called Neil with an uncanny resemblance to Kafka, continued to insist that it was “just around the corner”. At Aldgate East, Neil had been on the platform to greet me- with a placard displaying my name. Something about him wasn’t quite right, I reflected, as we drifted further and further into the narrow backstreets of E1. I was surprised to notice a Routemaster bus glide past. After a while, the Bengali street signs had disappeared. I was sure I could hear an air raid signal in the distance. The cobbled streets got darker and dirtier, and I wondered how efficient Tower Hamlets were at collecting their council tax.
“Bit of a gloomy place to live, isn’t it?”, I remarked to Neil. He shot an incredulous stare, and drew closer. “No! You can’t judge Mr Haines as you would an ordinary man. You don’t know how such a life tries a man like Mr Haines. He made me see things- things!” He was breathing heavily, his eyes quivering with intensity. I was about to reply when, lost in his stare, I bumped into a group of barefoot children playing a game of Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses. I looked up to see a man on a stepladder, illuminating the gaslit street lamps.
“They adore him here,” stressed Neil. “He came to them with thunder and lightning, and they had never seen anything like it- very terrible. He can be very terrible, but you don’t judge him. He wanted to shoot me one day. He had a fancy for it.” Neil tried to catch my arm, but by now we had found ourselves in the middle of a thick fog, and could barely see more than a foot ahead of ourselves. I scarcely heard Neil announce that we had arrived at our destination.
Neil pulled out a long black key and prised open the front door of a shop. Its glass panes were strewn with thick cobwebs. We shuffled through the one available pathway across floorboards carpeted by stacks of musty books and empty bottles, into the back room. I felt a lump in my throat.
Luke Haines turned to greet us with a genial smile under his bushy, gingerish whiskers. He wore a white shirt, black tie and waistcoat. The room was full of four-foot coffins, one of which he had just been sealing up. “Hello there. I know what you’re thinking. I can see everyone thinking it when they see me. ‘You look like shit’. Everyone gets bored of their old face, you know. I felt like having a Celtic warrior madman phase. So, why not grow a beard.”
“Mr. Haines, is this your first beard?”
“What a fantastic question! I’m not going to answer that.”
We exchanged pleasantries. I learned that Haines planned to lay low for a few months because of several writs issued against him over the script of Property, his box office record-smashing West End musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. “Property is an epic journey through England, from ’62 to ’97,” he grinned with pride whilst standing three thimbles of gin. “Archer is in there. Aitken, Lucan, Goldsmith, Al-Fayedâ€¦ a rock ‘n roll musical viewing the right wing in that period. It sounds terrible, like BNP the musical, but that’s what it is. It seemed to be where I was heading. Songs like ‘The Mitford Sisters’ are trying to be bigger than an actual song, so take it the whole hog. Things get rewritten, one song morphs into another. It’s like building a huge monument- it’s compulsive, you can’t stop it.”
I confirmed that I hadn’t been surprised to see Haines break out into different media. As evidenced by excellent j’accuses like his Pop Strike manifesto and the St. Luke’s programme notes, his gift for polemic is one which extends well beyond the boundaries of songwriting. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before he infected the literary world.
“I have tried to write a book, but a novel is different from a 3 minute song. The shelves are clogged up with rubbish modern literature, we don’t need any more. I’m not really a renaissance man and I’d never get taken seriously anyway, a guy from some band. Nick Cave, Louise Wener? Christ! So, no.”
However, I counter, the neon lights of theatreland must bring ample consolation; the fall of the curtain, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd and all that? Haines begged to differ. “The theatreworld is full of gays. Trying to get this musical off the ground, I discovered that the best way to facilitate it would be to grow a moustache and then I realised how fucking gay it had all got. It was so depressing being in bands, because most musicians are fucking stupid. And then you go into the world of theatre, and they’re all fucking stupid too. Unbelievable.”
Not that Haines regrets burning his bridges with the world of pop, one which The Auteurs quit as abruptly as they entered in 1993, baffling the bookmakers by swiping the Mercury Music Prize from under the noses of U2. Two multi-platinum, Brit Award-winning albums (New Wave and Now I’m A Cowboy) followed, before Haines turned on his fairweather followers with the double whammy of a concept album about child murder (After Murder Park) coupled with an affectionate homage to international terrorism (Baader Meinhof). Five years pre-9/11, such a preoccupation was enough for the mainstream to write Luke Haines off as a crank. Who’s laughing now?
“I copped out of saying this at the time, but I was trivialising it. All these 70s terrorists, it was a great movie in my head. Completely voyeuristic. My moral stance was questionable. But then, I met Astrid from Baader Meinhof at some Hoxton thing and she was a hideous old cunt, just an awful harridan.”
With the mention of Hoxton, I fear that we might be about to encroach on a sensitive area. After a lengthy, well-publicised trial, in 2002 Luke Haines was acquitted of the murder of several Young British Artists; most notably Sarah Lucas and Tracy Emin. The world was stunned by the discovery of their charred corpses in a Soho warehouse after a night at the Colony Room club, and Haines’ acquittal is still regarded with suspicion in certain circles.
Whilst in the dock, Haines did himself no favours by releasing ‘The Death Of Sarah Lucas’ as a single to coincide with the verdict of the trial. He remains unapologetic. “The song summed up my attitude. The trouble is that these people think they’re comedians, when it’s just bad art. Apparently they’ve heard it,” groaned Haines, despair writ large upon his furrowed brow, “and of course they’re going to say that they think it’s funny.”
The roots of such antipathy for modern art were perhaps laid down when, pre-Auteurs, the teenage Luke Haines enrolled in art school. “I thought it would be full of people rolling ball bearings, spray-painting everything green, thinking they were Marcel Duchamp. I probably thought I was. Instead, it was full of hairdressers and people doing technical drawing. So I spent most of the 80s cruising on the dole, things like ReStart. I enjoyed those days. I met Leo Sayer’s drummer on one course. ‘What’s Leo Sayer like? “Cunt”‘, which is exactly what you expect and what you want. People who get their thousand pounds from the government and start a business making spoons, great stuff. I’d rather perish in a ditch than get a job.”
With that, Haines set aside the bottle of gin, and rose from his seat. “Let’s leave all this talk for a bit. I get tired of words sometimes. Don’t you? Follow me, Jamie. I’d like to show you my grotto.” Neil knelt to slide across a couple of bolts in the floor, opening a trapdoor which led to a small tunnel. Unquestioningly, I descended. The tunnel was earthen and narrow, about thirty feet long with a door at the end. As we walked along, from behind either wall we could faintly hear the clunks and whirrs of machinery and an occasional petrifying human scream, mixed in with the sound of old Haines records- Back With The Killer, How I Learned To Love The Bootboys, Child Psychology. Neil held open the door for us, and the scene before our eyes left me paralysed with horror.
Iron racks, prepared racks and sinster frames filled the chamber. They were laden with cutting blades, steel points and fixed chokers. Rivulets of blood filled the hollows in the tiled floor and long tears of congealed blood hung from the grotesque mechanisms. Squatting in a row were a dozen figures, their necks gripped in tight iron collars attached to a long plank. Their limbs in chains, they could neither sit nor rest, and the slightest movement from one displaced the twelve huge collars, causing shooting pains in each of their necks and throats. They shrieked violent insults against us, mingled with supplications to the Gods. Transfixed, I slowly began to recognise the faces from my early teens- these were members of the Boo Radleys, Menswear, Sleeper, Strangelove. Haines confirmed this. “There were a lot of crap bands at the time. This is where crap bands end up, either here or working in Camden MVC. But there were also a lot of crap deals- salubrious characters would do iffy deals, and most of the people who have fallen by the wayside were involved.”
Haines turned, lifted a scrap of raw meat and tossed it into a cage housing a four-piece who had enjoyed several top ten singles, but whose name now escaped me. He looked on with contempt as bare torsos, jaws and contorted faces tore at the scrap of meat, and the blood-stained victor stood at last, panting and gazing at us with shreds of flesh hanging from his slobbering lips. “If your record label doesn’t like you anymore,” said Haines, “you don’t go off and write a book instead. You keep going. If one person, if no people at all are listening, you just carry on. I absolutely believe in that. That is what artists do- whatever they want. Otherwise, why not go and work for British Rail?”
“It’s like now- conceptually, there’s nothing. I quite liked the Libertines’ ideas of arcadia/albion, but then McGee gets involved and it becomes rock & roll because he doesn’t know anything else. Any bit of thought that’s different is going to get crushed by the McGees of this world. It’s not in his remit.” Haines had stopped before another cage in the corner, which he regarded with indifference. A face was pressed against the bars, gripping them with two bony hands, dry as the claws of a bird. The face was pale, emaciated, slashed with a skeletal grin, cheekbones splitting the gangrenous skin and jaw. I barely recognised it as Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records. “When I was 19, I met this man at one of our gigs,” said Haines, pointing his cane at the starved beast. “He had bad breath. After our set he came up, pointed at me, and said ‘Tom Verlaine.’ You’ve just anointed me, have you Alan. You fucking idiot.”
Luke Haines struck a memorable victory over the rock establishment in 2001, when his call for a week-long Pop Strike saw all musicians and DJs laying down their tools. All concerts were cancelled, there was radio silence for seven historic days. The public dared not set foot in HMV, for fear of crossing the ferocious picket lines marshalled by Musician’s Union stewards Whitney Houston and Neil Diamond.
“It was a good gag. Pop stars like Jarvis,” Haines remarked, his boot prodding a yellowed skeleton in a Harry Potter t-shirt, that dangled from a noose in the corner. “The laziest, stupidest, most inert people on the planet. They’re not producing anything at all- get them on strike! Brilliant. It was misconstrued as being against Steps.”
The irony being that Haines’ connection to the PWL generation is more substantial than surfaces would suggest. Billie Piper’s debut album was cited as a central influence on ‘The Facts Of Life’, and Luke’s wife Sian has ghostwritten the biographies of many a chart act. “She writes under the name Sian Solanas. Obviously, her management have no idea who Valerie Solanas is. So people go into the British Library, and the Gareth Gates Story is next to the SCUM manifesto. Which is funny.”
“Have you met Gareth?”
“He’s just some kid. I’ve been to horrible parties with my wife. Someone from Westlife comes up, slaps you on the back and says ‘Ow’re ya doin’ mate?’ I’m not your fucking mate, how dare you touch me! Leave them alone, it’s so far away from what I do that I don’t care. The charts should be full of things like Russ Abbott. The legacy of Britpop is that all bands are expected to chart. Before that we didn’t give a shit, getting to No. 62 was a sellout. After Oasis it was all about being the biggest band, nothing more, and that was the big con pulled on everyone.”
“Where does that leave you?”
“The simple answer is, just writing about what I know. You’ve indelibly stained by everything you grew up with, from the earliest records you heard, and you can’t do anything apart from keep churning that stuff out. I mean that in a positive way. At least I’m independent from everything now. I hated it, people saying you existed to complement Suede’s record… when I say I’m independent from everything, I don’t mean some guy shouting in the wilderness.”
In The Servant, Dirk Bogarde’s northern valet may end up with the whip hand over his young aristocrat, but the fact remains that he needs his master there and cannot do without him. In spite of what he says, I put it to Luke Haines that all his ‘grotto’ proves is that he is wholly dependent on all these worthless, vapid bands. Their mediocrity, and that of this country, is the sandpaper on the side of a matchbox, which he needs to ignite his indignation, and his genius.
“Well, exactly. I don’t actually want all these bands to have loads of substance or context, because then what would I do? Let them carry on doing their thing. Sonically, you can trace all of this back to Big Joe Turner in 1948. It’s just that now, there’s no sense of anything other than rock & roll. Let’s turn to page two in the textbook.”