Simon Mason lived the true rock and roll lifestyle and there is a story unlike any you’ve heard before, Getintothis’ Ian Salmon has it all, the good, the bad and the questionable decisions.
“Shoulda, coulda, woulda, no way to live your life, don’t throw away the dreams you had when young.”
Let’s talk second acts.
I so wanted to open this piece with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote that, “There are no second acts in American lives”, famously deconstructed by Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, where Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s excellent script has the character point out that, “This isn’t America, here’s the second act.”
I wanted to be glib, self-referential and post-modern but it doesn’t work.
Even Fitzgerald used the line to show that second acts definitely do exist, that there are chances to change your life, your self. The second time he uses the quote is in his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon; the idea being that this novel would be his own second act. It didn’t work out that way, hence the ‘unfinished’ nature of the work.
So I’m abandoning that start. In the most smart-arse way possible. Two things to take from it though;
- There are second acts all over the place
- You never know how things are going to work out
Simon Mason is definitely in, at least, a second act. And things are, quite possibly, wide open.
The story you’re about to hear will, in places, be the life many would want to live.
In other places, it will be the life you would dread to fall into. There’ll be darkness, light, moments of near stardom, missed opportunities and, as in all the best tales, redemption in ways you won’t expect. There will be household names and homes you wouldn’t want to inhabit. There will be drugs. There will be a lot of drugs.
At the height of Britpop, Simon Mason was ‘the cat in the hat’, the man you’d see for ‘medication’, the man you’d see to get the party started, keep the party going, give the party that little lift it needed when it started to flag.
He’s the man who introduces Oasis on stage at Glasgow Green, he’s the handclaps on Whatever, the stand-alone single that fell between albums, he’s the guy who left Knebworth early because he’d left his heroin at home.
He’s the singer/songwriter/bandleader who is into his fifteenth year of sobriety, who is on his second album (plus standalone EP) under the name Hightown Pirates, not so much a band as an arrangement of like-minded and like living souls.
All Of The Above is an album that takes the nature, sound and spirit of its predecessor Dry And High, classic pop, anthemic rock, a bit of E Street Band, a bit of the influences of the people he used to hang with, a bit of The Hold Steady, a bit of The Waterboys, some Jam, and adds a crew of musicians who are all in recovery, all clean to show that truly great music can be made whilst absolutely sober.
If you were to read Simon’s book Too High, Too Far, Too Soon, and I urge you to in order to get the full depth, the full detail, from the man himself, then you’d find that it starts in May 2006, on the day he didn’t die.
A stairway in a Stoke Newington Estate, a gram of ‘heavily cut heroin’, half a gram of crack cocaine and no intention of needing another hit ever because there’s going to be no more ever.
That’s an end and a start of a return. And it’s a long way from buying three quid’s worth of Lebanese hash from a guy on the beach in Weston-super-Mare; the definitive seaside town that time forgot that Simon, getting his first high at the age of fifteen, hails from.
He’s the first to point out that addiction to any drug is filling a hole left by something else; the sickness is never the substance, the substance is what you use to try and cope with what’s really wrong.
And what’s really wrong is what’s really wrong for far too many: Simon Mason loses his father, an older man when he finds love with Simon’s mother, a pilot during the second world war, he loses his father while away at a Catholic boarding school. When he’s sent back to school, mourning, the people who are supposed to look after him… don’t.
He finds an escape in school through the discovery of Liverpool Football Club, something that will tie part of his psyche to the city forever, and through music; a cassette from a friend that introduced him to the full glory of the eighties indie scene and gave him some beauty to cling to.
That music forms part of the roots of the music he’ll make later in life, the music he makes now. At that time, it’s a spiritual escape, it’s a clue that there’s a better life out there somewhere. Later escape is more geographical: a move to London, 130 miles away, two hours train journey away, another universe away.
A city soundtracked by weed and speed, a student lifestyle which dictates later life when the idea of buying for yourself becomes buying a bit more than you can sell on. Suddenly you’re building a career, the kind of career that can only be stumbled into.
Glastonbury 86 is spent on acid, watching The Waterboys.
Which is obviously where the title of his book comes from. Later Glastonburys would involve him dealing with the business side of life: blind eyes turned by those who are supposed to keep those who are selling on the outside, caravans set up in the backstage area that serves as a pharmaceutical supermarket.
Before that, there’s America. There’s a spell in the late eighties in L.A. where weed and speed and a bit of acid becomes a major interest in coke. The major interest in coke becomes an interest in crack. And an interest in crack always becomes an addiction. Always.
And nobody comes out of crack looking good for the experience.
A return home is made, real home, proper home, Weston; in a haze of hash and whisky, the effects of which he explains to his family as the result of time on anti-depressants. There’s an audition for a group, the desire to make music becoming more concrete. There will be more groups in the future.
In each of those, he’ll freely admit, the lifestyle becomes more important to him, the glamour of the lead singer role that he takes each time more urgent, than actually getting the work done.
Music will still change his life though. Not the way he thinks it will, not yet.
A night out in Bristol exposes him to The Stone Roses just before they present the world with their classic debut; the fact that he couldn’t convince any bandmates or friends from Weston to attend just convincing him that his tastes weren’t sitting alongside those of anyone else in his birthplace and that it was probably time to get out again.
It only took 18 months of self-confessed ‘drug-fuelled delusion’ to get round to leaving, to be ready to embrace another epiphany. He’s already dealing. We know this. And the dealing is getting bigger.
Glastonbury 89 sees him accidentally acquire an ‘access all areas’ pass and a job helping the headliners get stuff they couldn’t get elsewhere. An opium fuelled motorcycle ride across the camp with Bez on pillion to deliver some of the stuff the Mondays found necessary sees the group’s dancer introduce Mason to the little pill that they had allegedly introduced to Manchester in the first place.
By the time Simon has returned to the backstage area he’s embraced ecstasy and has a bagful of the stuff to sell. Drug dealer to the stars? Only for as long as it would take for him to join their ranks, he thought.
Have you worked out why the new album is called All Of The Above yet? It’s the bottom tick box of the form you’ll sign entering any rehab, which of these substances have you used? All Of The Above.
Everything above this? It’s all in the songs. The songs on the first album, the songs on the new album; all these experiences are in there, all these characters inform the work. But so does so much more.
Here’s the next step:
He’s at home in Camden when the phone goes. A mate has this group playing in a dingy pub in Kings Cross. Every A&R in town is coming to see them, the show will be nothing but business types checking out this band who are going to change the world. Yeah, another band who are going to change the world.
These lads are special though, these lads aren’t just another one of those groups that people talk about that can’t actually come up with the goods. Well, not yet, they’re not. In time, some might say that’s how they end up.
And these lads, these Manc lads, need some stuff. The kind that Si sorts.
Which is how, from the period that covers from just before Definitely Maybe through to the world-conquering concerts at Knebworth, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, The Cat In The Hat is Oasis’s dealer of choice.
Everybody knows him now, everybody on the scene at the heart of what the papers were calling Cool Britannia.
He doesn’t get to go to Downing Street, of course, but he knows people who do. He has a AAA pass to Glastonbury for the 1994 festival. And that festival is the absolute centre of the universe for that weekend; there is nowhere on earth that you would want to be.
Simon Mason is there, running a ‘hospitality’ area. He has no idea how much money he’s making. It’s substantial but so is the amount of freebies he’s passing out. Everything is good, he’s in the coolest place on earth and everybody in music wants to be his mate; mostly so they can get stuff on credit until they get back to London.
There are offers; Noel Gallagher asks Simon if he fancies joining Oasis on guitar. But he asks him at a party; because everything is a party in that slice of the nineties when you rule the world. Then everybody goes off and does more of whatever they were doing when the question was asked and when Mason wakes up in the toilets, the party is over and the offer’s just something that happened and then didn’t happen.
An old flatmate, a flatmate whose name isn’t revealed for reasons that will become obvious in a second, asks if Si fancies managing him. It’s a ridiculous idea, there’s no money in graffiti art. And that’s how Simon doesn’t end up with a percentage of Banksy’s career. But that’s okay, everything is possibilities, open and golden.
Until it isn’t.
There’s only one way to go from here. The way all Britpop went toward the end of the century. Everything gets a bit darker. The good life gets so good that it’s worrying. Britpop started in the latter days of Ecstasy, moved through a lot of coke and then settled where all rock’n’roll has a tendency to settle; with a nasty heroin habit.
“My telephone don’t stop ringing, all my friends are really sick, you get no peace from the wicked ‘cause they know every fucking trick.”
One of the problems with dealing, and let’s be honest, dealing comes with lots of problems, being held up at gunpoint in Venice Beach while tripping on acid being only one of them, is that you’ve always got access to a supply. Until you haven’t anymore. Until you’re so concentrated on using that you’ve stopped being a dealer and moved over to being a junkie.
That’s how he comes to leave Knebworth, the absolute culmination of the whole mid-nineties guitar pop renaissance, before the headliners have taken to the stage. It doesn’t matter the access you may have when your body is screaming about the fact that you left your smack back in London. Celebration of achievement has nothing on needing your fix.
“We sleep with villains and we run with fools.”
Life becomes a blur of entering Thailand with the idea of getting clean but a supply of what you really want secreted in the only obvious orifice, dirty rooms in dirty flats in a dirty London, people you used to supply now being the people you need to score from.
It becomes injecting wherever it’s still possible to inject, creating scars that you’ll carry through life. It becomes a life on the street, begging on a corner in Stoke Newington opposite a church to get the money you need to get you through the next couple of hours while you hope the lad who’s going to sort you out will turn up while looking down on the ‘normal’ people because their lives are so ordinary and being convinced that your life would be awful if it wasn’t for the brown stuff.
That’s a quick paragraph, a fast drop.
That’s how quickly things can go wrong.
“Drifting through some history, I argue with hope and fear. Hope swings blindly, lands a sucker punch, says we don’t belong here.”
You do the things you said you’d never do just to get the stuff that’s killing you bit by bit. End up living in a caravan on a hillside in Spain in utter degradation. Your sister tries to sort you out. Because that’s what family does. They try to make sure everything is okay. Your family is respectable. This is what you’re doing to your family. You are happening to your family and you know it.
Rehab is arranged. Are you ready to give up? Heroin? Yeah, I’m ready to give up heroin. No, ALL drugs. What? Everything? Yes, everything. Good job you’re not asking me to give up drinking, then I’d be really fucked. Simon, you ARE really fucked. Hadn’t you noticed?
Ready to give up all drugs? Turns out that’s not the case yet. Rehab doesn’t stick. Then rehab doesn’t stick. Then rehab doesn’t stick. Again and again and again. It’s not like he’s not GOING to rehab, it’s just that he’s not staying more than five minutes. And when he does, when he finally gets clean, he celebrates the new cleanliness by going out and scoring.
People die along the way, and after. People are lost to the same thing he’s living through. This is the lifestyle, you bury your friends and you have to carry who they were with you because you know there was every possibility it could have been you.
The end of 1999 sees Simon ten months clean of drugs and alcohol but how are you supposed to see the new millennium in without at least a drink? And we’re off again. Married now but the marriage won’t last. For all the obvious reasons. Another band, more songs that go nowhere because there are also more drugs. Marrakech with a huge pile of the stuff, living Keef Richards’ life.
And this is all out of order because life is out of order. Things hardly ever happen in the way you think they do, order isn’t always obvious. And if you’re on enough opium then nothing happens in the order you think it does.
Simon’s life-long love of Liverpool Football Club isn’t enough to get him clean in 2005.
He misses the glory of Istanbul by being busy overdosing. It’s the stairwell that finally does it. The stairwell we spoke about at the beginning, the one that starts his book — and you really do need the book, honest to god this is all just a sketch — the day that he didn’t die. He’d decided to die, decided it was all there was left to do. And couldn’t even do that properly. So he decides it might finally be time to take the harder option and live.
Cold turkey, Narcotics Anonymous, the fact that his wife (now ex-wife) is willing to support him, give him another chance, if he stays clean; this is what does it. Which sounds easy and isn’t.
So here comes the second act.
Everything above is the history, it’s the making of who the person is today. It’s that way for all of us. Anybody who’s ever written anything, sung anything, painted anything, expressed anything, is built on every second of who they were up until the minute they wrote/sung/painted the thing they needed to get out of themselves.
Simon Mason is no different. Everything he went through, everything he did to himself, everything he did to others, is with him, within him, forms who he is. As it does with all of us. Every one of us has a story that we’re permanently telling.
This is where the story Simon’s telling goes.
“The end’s in the beginning, the sadness just gets hidden for a smile.”
He’s clean. Fourteen years this April. Life is good and April is a big month; he has his fourteen years mark, his daughter Tabitha will be twelve, he remarried last year, his new single arrives on 7 April, the album to follow on May Day.
The idea was that Liverpool would be winning the league during the month but we all know what’s happened there. We’re pretty much on lockdown. So we need new music. The music has always been there, the music is the constant. No matter what else went on in this story, in all stories, the music stayed with us.
Sobriety involves a need, a desire, to put something back. Si starts to work with other people who have had addiction issues. The circles he moves in puts him back in touch with people in music.
He gets to know Michael Head, spends time with him in both Liverpool and London, organises an invitation-only gig for Mick to play sober for the first time in decades. The one proviso on this being that Simon gets out that guitar that he’s not been using properly for years and supports Mick.
He plays a handful of his old songs in a church in Stoke Newington and realises this is what he needs. So he forms a group, Hightown Pirates, named for a walk that he and Mick took along that lovely stretch of beach that we’re blessed with at this north end of the city.
It’s a group of people that he’s worked with previously, most having had addiction issues of their own over the years, some from the covers band he’d been playing with for a while – the marvellously ironically named Should Be Deads.
They make an album, some old songs, some new. They play a few gigs; I catch them at Water Rats in London and at a thinly attended Zanzibar show, both are nights where you find yourself thinking, “Are these really this good or am I biased because he’s a mate?” He is, as you might have already guessed, a mate. Of seven years standing now. And yes, they’re really that good.
The album gains a well deserved four-star review in Q, in which it’s compared to Primal Scream and Blood Sweat & Tears, two bands you seldom see linked. There’s another four-star review in the Daily Mirror.
And nobody buys it.
You don’t get to choose your immediate happy ending. Not in life, not in the pieces you write. You’d think that this was where the big pay-off comes as that’s how you’d tell the story. It doesn’t, we’re not writing it like that.
Gigs are hard to come by. Ever tried applying to festivals when what you’re offering them is a ten-piece band with horns, flutes, loads of guitars, whose members are mostly into their forties? How many likes have you got on Facebook? What’s your Instagram game?
You need the followers to get on their stages, despite the fact that you’d quite possibly be perfect for them, but you can’t get the followers without the gigs and you can’t get the gigs without the followers. I hate to use the term Catch-22 as most things genuinely aren’t but sometimes you have to go with what you’ve got.
There’s an EP produced by Youth, he of ‘producing practically everybody bloody ever’ fame but there are managerial issues, legal issues, and the four splendid songs aren’t heard by… well basically anyone.
Youth is a fan, Jimmy Page is a fan. That’s a genuine thing. Pete Doherty does the cover art for the first album. But none of that translates. You give up, don’t you? Well… it’s a thought. There’s obviously doubts but giving up is never the option. The option is to keep on going, and get as much out there as you can, on your own terms, under your own steam.
“He who lies flat won’t get knocked down, I swear I heard someone once say.”
All Of The Above then. It’s an album that might not have been made, an album that, like so, so, many, has needed the help of others; the funding that comes from like-minded souls who just want to hear the songs.
It’s an album that contains only musicians who have been, are still, in recovery. Because the truth is you’re always in recovery.
The point here is that it’s showing the lie to the idea that many have, that the former version of Simon Mason had, that you can only do interesting work if you’re well and truly fucked up.
The idea is to show that you don’t need to be Keef, that you can be the cleanest version of yourself and still get the work out there. I’m one of those that already has a copy and again I asked the question, “Is this really this good or am I biased because it’s a mate?”
I’m not. It is.
The album is massive. It’s for all of us that grew up with the same music as Simon.
It has tastes of every sound he ever heard and loved; it’s acoustic and electric guitar, piano, hammond, harmonica, trumpet, sax; it’s a rock and soul revue sound with songs that are packed with images of those that lived on the streets, those that still live there, those that have survived their issues, those that haven’t.
It’s about the state of the country as we see it now. It’s The Who, The E Street Band, The Hold Steady, The Jam, those Mancunian lads he used to know if they’d kept their edge.
It’s got hope, anger, despair, delight and it’s full of love; for your family, your friends, your fellow man.
It’s about standing up, making a stand, “Not here man, this is holy ground” in an echo of a Waterboys moment”, believing in things, believing in yourself, and in your ‘self’.
It’s also got a quick pop at Manchester United and a celebration of Liverpool’s European glory.
All with the energy that those of us of a certain age know that we’ve retained despite the years that have gone on the clock. And all recorded in a crypt below the church opposite the corner that Simon once begged on.
A reminder of everything in every way.
And, in Ballad of Hightown Pirates, it has a huge slice of that self-mythologising that rock’n’roll has always had; it’s an album closer that tells the story of the start of the group.
If we’re lucky, it’s the start of the next act. It’s the start of what comes after, and you’ve never any idea what ‘after’ is going to be like.
Next acts all over the place, then. And the music. The music survives everything.
Hightown Pirates – ‘Girl From The Library’ is released 7 April, ‘All Of The Above’ 1 May. Both on your usual favourite streaming services.